Thursday, June 30, 2011

Drowned in the Lake Erie of Somebody Else's Dreams

Super 8 (2011)
directed by J. J. Abrams
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at AMC Waterfront 22

J. J. Abrams grew up in Los Angeles. His parents are producers. I'm sure that, like anyone, Abrams enjoys the idea of a childhood different from his own, and the rolling hills of Ohio - green with winter grass - might be the physical retreat that a kid from the desert imagines. I remember visiting Ohio from Texas, to see the towns my mother's family moved away from, and the late, low light of summer made me think all at once of my youth. I was only a teenager, but I imagined a younger version of me, on a bike like a member of the neighborhood gang in E. T. - a movie, of course, that takes place in Southern California.

Spielberg himself has been making good money off of the misguided nostalgia of sentimental moviegoers ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There's a moment (there's always a moment) in Super 8 when Joe, Charles, Cary, and Alice sprint through a neighborhood in the middle of a military firefight. It's a dynamic shot that follows the specific shape of that unique West Virginia topography - a shot to fuel the imagination of a pre-adolescent dreamer watching the movie someplace else and far away.

But the laughable/insulting CGI alien - always leading with their roaring mouths, ever since the cave troll in Fellowship of the Ring - needs some sort of resolution, and Abrams is simply one more director who needs a better project to work on. Still, if I can say it for Terrence Malick, I'll say it for Abrams: at least he brought along some kids. Somewhere, the buck-toothed wonder with a backpack full of firecrackers in Super 8 stole away with Young Jack to make something disposable and impermanent together.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bad Fish

The Tree of Life (2011)
directed by Terrence Malick
rating: 1 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Manor Theatre

The Tree of Life is a humorless mess, and I want to write about it without repeating Malick's mistakes. It's easy to mock the beachfront scene, or the dinosaurs as they prepare to tube down their favorite Texas river, but what about that moment in the Houston high rise, when one of Jack's colleagues confesses to the collapse of his marriage? What if he'd said something funny there, instead of the expected miserable nonsense? A dirty joke, barely audible above the hum of soulless modernity, is all that's needed, but the wink never comes.

The kids appear like an oasis, running through grass and digging up bones - dinosaur bones! - for their dog. But Young Jack, R. L., and Steve spend most of their time in unlikely contemplation. They see a group of mentally unstable men on the town square, act on baser impulses in the company of their peers, and watch the adults and the world around them. The boys laugh, of course. They pray, and love their mother, but the prayers are flat and the questions mundane.

Like Mr. O'Brien's monologues about fairness and work, Young Jack's voice-overs sound like they were written by a man with nothing to say - a man who wished he could rely on images completely, or drown out words in liturgies and choruses. But what are the images, really? A beautiful woman in a sun dress? The green shade of Texas live oaks? I'm sure I'll watch Jaws again soon; summer is upon us. This time I'll pay more attention to Michael and Sean Brody, inhabitants of childhoods equally fantastic but more telling, in a minor and unpretentious way, of the fears and joys I recognize.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Honeybaked for the Holidays

Dreamscape (1984)
directed by Joseph Ruben
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Internal government conspiracies are great fictional fodder because we have so little control over real government decisions that affect our lives. The reasons for that are mundane and disappointing - Republicans want more money and most high-ranking Democrats are political moderates, at best - so the happier thing to do is imagine a top-secret compound where telepaths are trained to learn state secrets and kill world leaders in their sleep. Same day-to-day results but three times (at least) the fun.

Dreamscape belongs on the shelf of anyone who wants to make a movie about the subconscious, along with late season Sopranos, The Night of the Hunter, and everything directed by David Lynch. Dreamscape isn't nearly as good, but it's a brother-in-arms from a visual effects perspective. Rear projection is a must, I think (I'm brainstorming out loud here), and so is the idea that the dreamer recognizes at least 90% of the players and scenes in the dream. The uncanny creeps in bit by bit (maybe the color of someone's eyes) - and again, Dreamscape forgoes subtlety in favor of David Patrick Kelly screaming maniacally in a nuclear wasteland - but nightmares ought to look a lot like a nap gone wrong.

To pass the time in his waking hours, numero uno telepath Dennis Quaid walks around Los Angeles and races his dirt bike on the Los Alamitos Race Track. Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow - top-level conspiracy insiders - pass out hams on every doorstep, reminding the audience with each precisely articulated outrage that they know that we know that summer homes don't pay for themselves. And who can blame them? Movies are summer homes for the rest of us - oceanfront estates with a view of the mountains; the desert; the city; the future and the past.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Midnight in Paris (2011)
directed by Woody Allen
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at Manor Theatre

Although there is unarguably something half-assed about his screenplay (it's as if Rachel McAdams and her family exist solely to get in a few jabs at the Tea Party), I almost admire Woody Allen's disregard for the shelf life of these late-career films. Gil finds Adriana's diary at a book stall near the Seine and uses it to try an unsuccessful come-on back in the 1920s, but the entry never happened - at least, it never does - and so the diary and its memories should never exist. But small stakes make for small losses, and the joke that Gil gets caught pilfering his fiancee's earrings in an effort to seduce a ghost more than compensates for that unworkable paradox of time.

I, for one, was delighted that a Woody Allen film allowed a woman to endure as the moral and emotional compass, without subjecting her first to any number of condescending remarks on behalf of the male protagonist. Gil is smitten from the moment he sees Adriana, and Owen Wilson - kinder than most Woody Allen stand-ins, even effortlessly so - is sincere in his surprise, gentle with his impositions (on Gertrude Stein, on the company of the shopkeeper he meets in the city), and truly touching when he delivers his soliloquy about the beauty of a world full of people in a cold and inhospitable universe.

The impressions are broad but captivating, in a funny, nonsensical way; even Hemingway, a cornball from the first, is permitted to say something lovely about death and nearness. Allen treats it all with a touch so light it's careless, but my heart hasn't swelled quite that way at the movies since I don't know when. And yes, I'm a little embarrassed by that. I know privilege when I see it, but how many men in their mid-seventies still say that heaven is the modern world?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Race Fan and the Pit Crew

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
directed by Adam McKay
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Two thoughts struck me as I laughed my way congenially through Talladega Nights. Sacha Baren Cohen plays Jean Girard, who arrives in Alabama from the international Formula One circuit to steal a "taste of America" from the lips of his competitor - dear, disgraced Ricky Bobby. Jean jokes about Crêpes Suzette, existentialism, and William Blake, but laughs like that aren't aimed at casual detractors of Francophilia. Instead, they seem targeted towards an altogether more specific subset: lovers of "cinema," perhaps. Lovers of cinema... like me!

I can't wrap my head around Will Ferrell. Would he scare me if I met him face to face? Shouldn't I be sick of his routine by now? And if not, why was Talladega Nights at least a half hour too long? There's a slapstick scene I loved involving Ricky and his truck, post-professional meltdown. But it doesn't last; John C. Reilly is back before you blink. Why is good slapstick so rare, or so difficult? When I was a Jim Carrey fan, hearing critics compare him to Jerry Lewis made me never want to see a Jerry Lewis film. Eventually I did, and I laughed like a Frenchman, but surely someone can take all these stray threads and make something new.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

All the Way Down, Sir

X-Men: First Class (2011)
directed by Matthew Vaughn
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at AMC Waterfront 22

I have a hard time explaining why superhero franchises are popular, beyond the fact that they're reliable with regards to audience expectations. I haven’t overhead anyone quoting Thor this summer, just like no one quoted Iron Man 2 a year ago. Except for the decaying tie-in stock at comic book shops, little evidence even exists that anyone cares that Thor is still in theaters (or X-Men: First Class, for that matter).

As a rule, I don’t think comic books make good movies, any more than TV shows make good comic books. I can’t recall the last time I read a Marvel title, but it was probably Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, way back in 2004. Both of Bryan Singer’s X-Men adaptations were out on video when I borrowed those trades, and for better or worse, X-Men and X2 remain the superhero movies I like best. People talk about Richard Donner’s Superman too much anyway, but Ian McKellen’s insidious apology to Patrick Stewart (“I’m sorry Charles. I couldn’t help it.”) approximates the possibility, tone, and absurdity of a single comic book panel better than... well, better than any other comic book movie I've seen.

First Class is appropriately silly, but it works because James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender play it like a buddy comedy. Fassbender, as Magneto, gets the best lines (I remember none of them), but every supervillain needs a stick in the mud to try and stop him. Neither reminds me of the heroes of the first two X-Men films at all, but that couldn't save you from this blind alley of nostalgia. Nor me; I've got the ticket stub to prove it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Time Out of Body, Time Out of Mind

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
seen on the screen at the Harris Theater

If summer nights are the drone of summer bugs - a steady background murmur that you used as a reference point when someone told you about summers by the sea - then this is a movie you'll recognize. Or you might remember your teenage years, when summer nights began so late because they always began after dark. You learned the landscape of old neighborhoods by moonlight and streetlights, and recognized homes and yards for the shaded spaces and quiet corners that dissolved into ordinary lawns by day. The world was not prettiest at sunrise or dusk, but at full dark, without the sun, except of course in the residual heat off the pavement that the sun left behind.

Uncle Boonmee begins at that familiar hour, and does not wind away so much as disperse. It is playful but gentle, with a sense of humor and great warmth. There are cave paintings and ghosts, mysteries and moments of perfect clarity. Apichatpong Weerasethakul traffics in spirits, and I tell myself that the appearance of something from beyond the veil will not convince me the way an effect in a movie should. But I am always convinced, in Tropical Malady or here. The ghost that sits down to dinner at the table of Uncle Boonmee reminds me of Cocteau's bête in the electric lamplight of rural Thailand. When he returns, in a future narrative that also steps back from the fictional nature of the film, the spirit is a man in a monkey suit - no more - surrounded by teenage boys dressed like soldiers, laughing at hijinks on the set.

The present contains the past, in structures and memory; the man in the t-shirt was once a monk, the ghost at the table - a second ghost, in human form - was a wife. Ghosts wander, but inevitably miss the living. They do not miss the physical world, but they belong to it as much as the wind, the river, the honeycombs, or the stray dog. Weerasethakul wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve, but like visiting relatives or congregating shades, they do not announce themselves so much as move along well-worn paths. Thus, a patch of sun or a plate of food hot from the front burner recalls the appearance of Paris reflected in a door in a movie by Jacques Tati. The woman at the table with a bug zapper reminds me of my grandmother, the lamp on her back porch, and June. There is nothing like the movies for bringing it home.