Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Summer Catch-Up #3: Auteurs Gone Wild

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 30, 2006

Well, we’ve got a lot to catch up on, so we might as well get right to it (in the order in which I saw them):

Lady in the Water – see, I like M. Night Shyamalan’s films. I even think The Village is a misunderstood masterpiece (no, I’m not kidding). But I don’t konw what the hell he’s doing this time. It’s almost as if he was actually trying to piss people off.

It’s not that Lady is a horribly bad film; it’s more of an “interesting failure”. Stylistically, it’s of a piece with Night’s previous four features. But narratively, it’s a huge mess, and that’s a crushing disappointment from a writer whose best work is disciplined, focused and “old-fashioned” in the best sense of the term.

It seems that Night decided to call this a “fairy tale” so that he could simply make shit up as he went along, without having to explain anything using logic, reason or simple common sense. Fine, but even a fairy tale has to operate under a set of rules, regardless of how fanciful the story might be. Throwing out the rulebook only works if doing so has a particular purpose or point that serves the story well. Here, the lack of a cohesive structure only serves to confound the viewer and prevent anything meaningful from sinking in.

It’s not just the ridiculous new language he’s come up with, including words like “narf” (did he steal that from Pinky and the Brain?) and “scrunt”, which sounds vaguely dirty in any form (“I’d narf that scrunt!”). Nor is it the fact that the heroine, a literal fish out of water named Story (rrrright) played by the alluring Bryce Dallas Howard, comes from a “blue world” (huh?) and somehow knows that the residents of this specific apartment building are the only group of individuals who can help her get back there (but didn’t she go there to help them in the first place?). I guess I can buy all that, as bizarre and random as it may seem.

It’s the way the story is told that keeps anything from gelling. Lady lacks the combination of genuine surprise and inevitability that are the main ingredients to Shyamalan’s other, better films – instead of walking out going, “Oh, that’s why all that happened”, we are left wondering “what’s the point to everything that happened?” The switch from one set of answers to another (prompted by the critic’s misdirection to the main character) only leaves us feeling duped and cheated by our all-knowing storyteller. Each possible resolution is just as much random bullshit as the other (the kid reads messages off cereal boxes that no one else can see? Does that make any sense to anyone?), and we’re just left with the sense that Shyamalan is jerking us around. I know, I know – Shyamalan was making a comment on the nature of storytelling and how it can be easily misinterpreted by the cynical, blah blah blah. I think it only reminds us how necessary good storytelling is for a movie like this to work.

And let’s talk about that critic, played as a mild-mannered, buttoned-down nebbish by Bob Balaban – how arrogant and foolish was that? Not even Kevin Smith would have the balls to include a plot element like that. Let’s piss off every movie critic in America! Hey, since that worked so well, I should write a review stating that “anyone who reads Internet movie reviews is a slack-jawed idiot”. Yeah, that would endear me to the multitudes, wouldn’t it? Seriously, casting a movie critic as the ostensible (if unintentional) villain of your piece just smacks of sour grapes. It’s certainly not a flattering portrait (or accurate, except maybe people like Leonard Maltin), but beyond that, the idea that movie critics are “bad” because they don’t understand what Shyamalan is trying to do is defensive to an irrational extreme. I assume that his next film will feature a mean Disney executive as the target of his ire. Or perhaps he’ll just attack the audience verbally for not supporting his last film. Dude, you get to make movies and do it your way – what the fuck do you care what people think? Spielberg didn’t bitch and moan about the critics after he made 1941, OK? He sucked it up and made Raiders of the Lost Ark. And even that has its detractors, misguided as they are.

I can’t help but feel like there was potentially a good Shyamalan movie in this idea – if only he hadn’t mucked it up with all this pseudo-intellectual (or is it anti-intellectual?) nonsense. If only he had focused on just telling a good story and executing it the best he could, which is the main reason I liked his films in the first place. Despite strong performances from Paul Giamatti and the genuinely otherworldly Howard (I kept wondering why he didn’t try to bang her though – I mean, come on, you’re a lonely middle-aged man and this young hottie shows up? Give me a break), there’s not much here that really works. It’s all too coincidental, too convenient, too out-of-thin-air. But it’s not like Lady is an unwatchably bad film. It’s certainly not generic hackwork. But it’s not the film it could have been either. Night could have another great one in him – and I genuinely hope he makes it. **

Clerks II – how far has Kevin Smith come in 12 years? Well, I remember seeing Clerks at a tiny art-house with maybe 3 other people in the entire audience. Now the sequel gets to play on 2,000 screens nationwide – if that’s not progress, I don’t know what is. Here’s another cult director coming off a widely derided flop, but unlike Night, Smith actually delivers a decent film that reminds us why the cult started in the first place. Let’s face it, at this point you either like the guy’s movies or you don’t, and if you don’t, I’m not here to convert you. But if his particular brand of humor appeals to you, Clerks II is a ton of old-school fun. Despite what Joel Siegel might think, few people find his raunchy humor that shocking anymore – back in 1994, hearing movie characters frankly discuss “deviant” sex practices was a novelty. Now, in the age of the Internet, not so much. But regardless, there’s still a lot of funny stuff here (you have to love a movie where people discuss doing ass-to-mouth with underage girls – um, don’t you?). And I found it genuinely moving to see Dante and Randal go full circle professionally (even if the business side of it is a bit naïve – hey, somebody give me 50 grand and I’ll open a video store too!) and finally discover their calling in life. Plus there’s Jay and Silent Bob, and you can’t have too much Jay and Silent Bob, can you? Of course not. Even if it speaks only to the Cult of Kevin, Clerks II has a lot to say to that fanbase, and it’s the one movie I’ve seen this summer that still sticks with me a month later. ***1/2

Miami Vice – you have to admire Michael Mann, in a perverse way, for taking the one brand-name potential franchise he’s connected to and basically destroying it by turning it into the kind of movie that no one expected, or really wanted. The whole ad campaign seemed based around the concept that “this isn’t the old Miami Vice”, ignoring the fact that, you know what, people liked the old Miami Vice. Unlike most TV shows turned movies, it was actually a good show! Mann’s new Vice is way darker (both literally and figuratively), combining the hard-R violence and cops-and-criminals theatrics of Heat with the murky HD photography and “you are there” verite feel of Collateral. The result is a movie that’s good for what it is, but never feels fully formed or developed. It’s almost like watching a movie in progress, a rough cut that needs some trims and adds before it’s really done. We never really get to know any of these people in anything but an offhand way – it’s the kind of movie where ass shots substitute for character development. Yet there’s an undeniable badass power to the action scenes, which is what Mann seems primarily concerned with anyway, and on a purely visceral level it ranks with his best work. I just kinda wish it had made me care about anything that was going on. Still, I have a feeling this Vice will develop a cult following on DVD, primarily among fans of action films and gangster movies whose tastes have not been served that much lately. ***

The Descent – easily the best horror film of the summer (which isn’t saying much, mind you, since it’s pretty slim pickings out there). British director Neil Marshall follows up on the promise of Dog Soldiers (the best werewolf movie of recent years) with what’s far and away the best movie about female cave explorers attacked by freaky Gollum creatures ever. Tense, claustrophobic and brutal, not to mention well-written and acted superbly by a mostly unknown cast. My only problem was that I thought they were a bit stupid for going down there in the first place – but there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t, would there? I’m probably the only person in the world whose favorite character was the cute little brunette, the one who was studying nursing. Too bad she won’t be around for the sequel. ***1/2

Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby – more fun than a barrel of rednecks! Seriously, what’s not to like? While I didn’t find it quite as riotous as Anchorman, the second Will Ferrell-Adam McKay production yielded plenty of laughs, as well as memorable lines and characters. Yes, the setting is basically just a backdrop for the actors to improv against, and the movie doesn’t have anything in particular to say about its subject, but when the movie’s this funny, who cares? Strangely enough, my favorite characters were those evil, rotten little kids – they were just so wrong that I found them absolutely hysterical. As recent SNL graduates go, I’ll take Ferrell’s particular brand of lunacy over Sandler’s any day. And you have to like a movie where a recent Oscar nominee goes all Tawny Kitaen. You just have to! It’s all ridiculous, but it’s still better than Driven. That counts for something in my book. ***

Snakes on a Plane – ah yes, the motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane. It’s pretty funny how the media has blamed the “Internet hype” for the movie’s lack of boxoffice power, when all the interest originated from people commenting on how ridiculous the concept was in the first place. They thought it was funny that Hollywood was making a movie about snakes on a plane – that doesn’t necessarily mean they wanted to see that movie. It was all bound to backfire, and frankly basing the ad campaign around the ‘Net hype was a strategy doomed to fail. If you say, “they’re talking about it on the Internet”, that just drives people away, man. Nobody takes the Internet seriously, including everyone who’s on it. As for the movie itself, I thought it was a decent little B-movie that lived up to its title. You want snakes? You want planes? You want Sam Jackson swearing? You got it, buddy! No one really thought it was going to be anything more than it was. To their credit, I thought the filmmakers pretty much did everything they could possibly do with that concept. It’s an entertaining enough movie, with one really great, inspired moment (throwing the dog to the snake – now that was fucking funny) and the rest is pretty disposable. I would’ve liked to see the hypochondriac rapper get bit though – can you imagine his reaction to having poison coursing through his veins? Talk about a missed opportunity. And while I hate to nitpick a movie as intentionally silly as this one, I did wonder exactly how they got the snakes from LA to Hawaii. Anyway, I thought it was fun for what it was, and I look forward to the inevitable sequel, Lizards on a Luxury Liner. Fun with alliteration! ***

Little Miss Sunshine – how ironic that my last summer movie also turns out to be the best. This is just a pitch-perfect little character comedy-drama, with no less than six truly great performances (Kinnear, Collette, Carell, Arkin, Paul Dano and especially Abigail Breslin). This kind of material has been covered before (beauty pageants, dysfunctional families, etc.) but it’s all done so well here that the movie transcends any expectations. By the end, these characters seem like real people that you know and root for, despite (or maybe because of) their obvious flaws. It’s funny, sad, heartbreaking and triumphant without ever being cloying or sappy – it’s like a real movie. Remember those? Talk about a breath of fresh air – this was just what we needed to remind us what a movie can be. Kudos to video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for making a film that’s nothing like what their resumes would suggest. This is the best film of its kind since Sideways, and one that’s well worth getting your ass to a theater for. It’s the kind of movie that sneaks up on you, and in a summer full of overhyped, gargantuan productions, it’s worth seeing to remember what that’s like. Great stuff. ****

That about covers it for now. That’s summer! I’ll get back to writing reviews (and regular columns) soon. Later.

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