Cinema Psycho

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

Summer Catch-Up ’08 #2: Are You Ready For the Summer (to be Over)?

Posted by CinemaPsycho on September 18, 2008

Well, as I approach my almost-40th birthday, I actually feel pretty good for the most part about the cinema landscape as I see it. I’m happy to say that I’ve seen a lot of really good films this year so far, and a few genuinely great ones. With the fall and Oscar season approaching, that list will only increase, and that pleases me. Even in the middle of nowhere, I generally get to see most of the films I really want to see badly, and for the rest, there’s always Netflix. I really can’t complain too much on that front. I don’t have unrealistic expectations about it, and I don’t expect the latest 3-hour Iranian goat-herder film to show at the local multiplexes alongside the likes of Death Race and Disaster Movie. That’s what DVD is for, kids. I know people who live in major cities who don’t go to see indie or foreign films as often as they’d like, so I’m not exactly shocked when they don’t play in an area where there really isn’t a market for it.

However, I’m starting to see a strange trend at my local cineplex that disturbs me a little. This weekend, something called Proud American is opening at the local Regal, which is the closest theater to me and the one I visit most often. I’ve never heard of this film (and I’ve heard of just about everything that gets a decent release) and as far as I know, no one in my area has heard of it or is anticipating seeing it. I believe it’s a documentary of some kind, apparently a response to what the filmmakers (mistakenly) believe are “anti-American” films. I know that the Regal chain is owned by conservative billionaire Phillip Anschutz, and I imagine that had something to do with the booking. Politics aside though, I don’t really get why a film that no one has heard of is opening at a theater near me. I don’t see anti-war docs like Taxi to the Dark Side showing here, so why does this film get special treatment? Does anyone expect this to make money? Why not use that screen to show something that local film fans might actually be interested in seeing, such as Vicky Christina Barcelona (which has yet to play here, but is opening at another theater further away this weekend)? If you’re a documentary person, wouldn’t you be more interested in a screening of American Teen (for which this theater showed the trailer for months, then never booked) or, for the hell of it, how about Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World? If you want to bring in the cult-film audiences, how about showing Hell Ride, Stuck, Transsiberian, Sukiyaki Western Django or Mother of Tears? For people who like the classy stuff, how about Brideshead Revisited? Do you see where I’m going with this? There are plenty of options out there, so there’s no reason to book a no-name film just because the guy who owns the place happens to be a Bush supporter. I’ll be surprised if they sell 5 tickets to this thing. As for me, I’ll be at that other theater this weekend, not because I’m boycotting anything but simply because they booked a film I really want to see. That’s why they’re getting my business.

And I have to say it – nothing depressed me more recently than being forced to sit through the trailer to David Zucker’s An American Carol at that same Regal theater. Good Christ does that thing look awful! I’m not going to get into the political stuff here – god knows this isn’t the place for it. But man does this look like a piece of shit. My rule of thumb with comedy is, I can forgive just about anything if it’s genuinely funny. This looks about as dated as an average episode of Laugh-In, and some of its washed-up cast actually go back to that era! Watching pieces of this sad, backwards, anti-intellectual spectacle just made me ill. Literally. If I have to explain why, you’ll never understand, and if you understand, I don’t have to explain it. But I have to wonder how the co-creator of Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Top Secret justifies attacking and slandering a filmmaker for practicing his First Amendment right to free speech. And I wonder if Zucker would’ve made a movie defending Nixon after Watergate. Artistically speaking, there is simply nothing “brave” or “outrageous” about supporting the powerful and corrupt. Satire as an art form is at its best when it defends the underdog, when it asks questions and provokes thought and discussion. American Carol does nothing but take easy, stupid shots at people who are smart enough to make real films that ask real questions about the real world we live in. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Bill O’Reilly (who’s actually in the film, god help us) – loud, blustery and bullying, with absolutely nothing of value to say. I don’t even want to go near any theater showing this thing. That’s my right and my choice as an American. Do Zucker and company have the right to make this stuff? Of course they do. Do we have the right to call it garbage and ignore it? Absolutely.

Besides, we all know that Beverly Hills Chihuahua is going to crush it anyway. And I never thought I’d say this, but… thank God for Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Anyway… getting back to the summer movies, which is what I initially intended to write about. I actually think it’s been a really great summer for movies (Death Race notwithstanding), quite possibly the best we’ve had in years. Looking back on it, I think I genuinely enjoyed more films this summer than the past few all put together. We’ve had great action-adventure movies, superhero movies, comedies, animation, even horror this year. Usually we get maybe two of those at the most. This is what summer movies are supposed to be, in my book – a veritable cornucopia of coolness. And where the second half of the season is usually pretty lame, this year wasn’t totally front-loaded, with some of the best stuff appearing in July and August. What more do you want? Anyone who’s complaining about this year’s selections either saw the wrong movies, or just likes to complain for the sake of it. Screw ‘em. The rest of us were having too much fun to care.

So without further ado, here’s some brief thoughts on the second half of the summer:

WALL*E – you know, I love Pixar like any good film geek, but I honestly can’t say that any of their films have really blown me away the way a great live-action film does. Until now. Andrew Stanton’s masterpiece is a terrific old-school sci-fi flick, a wonderful love story and a thought-provoking satire of a possible future based on our present. I was expecting nothing more than a decent kiddie movie, and I can’t even tell you how much this knocked me flat on my ass. A truly awesome piece of work, absolutely brilliant filmmaking and easily my favorite film of the year so far. Is that enough hyperbole for you? This movie deserves it. Fucking beautiful! ****

Hellboy II: The Golden Army – OK, from now on, can we just let Guillermo del Toro do whatever he wants? Audiences everywhere would appreciate it. Possibly this summer’s most unfairly overlooked comic-book movie (having opened a week before The Dark Knight – great scheduling move, Universal), del Toro’s superior sequel to his really good original finally gives us what his fans have all been waiting for – the emergence of the guy who made Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth into the mainstream. Not that his previous Hollywood movies were bad or anything (certainly not) but for once this really feels like the same guy. It’s a del Toro film through and through, and what a wondrous, crazy, nasty, joyful experience it is. I could watch Ron Perlman and Selma Blair in a dozen Hellboy movies. They’re such an odd but compelling pair, and that’s exactly why it works so well. The one thing that didn’t work for me was the opening flashback sequence, with a young Hellboy in the 50’s. Didn’t really come off that well, and seemed like mostly an excuse to bring John Hurt back. After that, it’s all terrific, weird, wild entertainment, del Toro style. ***1/2

The Dark Knight – well, what can be said that hasn’t been already? Christopher Nolan’s work of mad genius dropped a megaton bomb (in a good way) on audiences and cast a spell that’s still working on millions of fans. The late Heath Ledger played the Joker exactly the way he should be played – as an insane anarchist who lives to fuck with the system and the people in it. He is chaos personified, and his very existence in the universe is a major problem for the rest of humanity. Ledger gave the performance of his career, and it’s just sad that we can’t see him build on it in years to come. However, Aaron Eckhart kicked just as much ass as Harvey Dent, the would-be savior of Gotham whose tragic fall is the true beating heart of the film. Much has been said about the parallels between Batman’s use of privacy-invading technology to catch the Joker and the similar usage of such technologies in the real-life War on Terror. But, as I think the movie makes perfectly clear, Batman knows that what he’s doing is a moral compromise and treats it as such, whereas Bush and his cronies seem to have no such issues with the abuse of power. Another main difference being that Batman actually caught the Joker. Anyway, it’s a pretty amazing film, one that positively quakes with the echoes of 9/11 and justifiably plays for keeps, building on Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins to create one earth-shaking shocker of a comic-book film. And they weren’t kidding about the Dark part. Fantastic. ****

The X-Files: I Want to Believe – OK, so it wasn’t the masterpiece that everyone was hoping for. As a fan of the show, I still enjoyed it for what it was – an old-school sci-fi/horror mishmash that, at least for me, was creepy and unsettling. In terms of content, it seems to be Chris Carter’s homage to early Cronenberg, while visually it seemed like his homage to early 80’s Canadian slasher films. But I like that stuff, so it was cool with me. I guess I just liked seeing Mulder and Scully together again, doing what they do best, even if it took some convoluted plot contrivances to get them there. That’s what the show was always about at its core – these two people searching the darkness for the truth. The movie delivered that, at least for this audience member. I don’t really know what anyone else was expecting from it. All I expected was another X-Files mystery/adventure, and I definitely got that. If this turns out to be the last go-round, well, I’m OK with that. If it continues, I’m cool with that too. ***

Step Brothers – I really expected to like this one a lot more than I did. The McKay/Ferrell Anchorman is one of my favorite comedies of the last decade, and I thought Talladega Nights was a blast. This, however, is a case of diminishing returns, and maybe it’s time for these guys to actually write a script next time rather than rely solely on improv. Ferrell and John C. Reilly are essentially playing slight variations on the same character here, and that’s the least of the movie’s problems. They’re literally 8-year-olds in the bodies of 40-year-old men, and it’s difficult to buy that anyone of such an advanced age would be so utterly immature and uninterested in the outside world, even if they lived at home all of their lives (although the thought that they might be Republicans did cross my mind). And then the movie’s sudden third-act turn, in which they become responsible adults very easily, is equally ridiculous and unbelievable. Were they literally making this story up as they went along? It sure felt like it. Don’t get me wrong, there are some genuine laughs here, but most of them seem to come from the supporting cast, especially Kathryn Hahn as Ferrell’s sister-in-law who inexplicably becomes hot for Reilly. Plus there’s the best use of “Ice Ice Baby” ever in a movie, and I really despise that song. But much of it is just kind of grotesque and icky rather than genuinely amusing. It’s the kind of movie that just goes, “hey, we’re all funny people here, so we’ll just show up and the movie will be funny, right? Right?” That’s the same mentality that brought us the Cannonball Run movies. And I’d rather watch Dom DeLuise than Will Ferrell’s nutsack, thank you very much. But it’s nowhere near as bad as The Love Guru, and I have to give them credit for that, at least. **

Midnight Meat Train – Lionsgate released the first American film by Ryuhei Kitamura (Versus) into theaters nationwide. Dollar theaters. I believe they actually made history by pulling that dickhead move, and while it saved me a few bucks, it also pretty much screwed the movie over big time. That’s a shame, because this horror flick based on a Clive Barker story is actually pretty good, an effective, old-school shocker that could have cleaned up around Halloween. It’s the studio’s loss financially, but it’s the filmmakers who get the reaming career-wise, even though they have nothing to be ashamed of here. Vinnie Jones is genuinely menacing as the silent villain, and Kitamura gives the film an eerie atmosphere that’s sadly lacking from many horror films lately. I wouldn’t call it a lost masterpiece or anything, but it’s a decent film that deserved a lot better than it got. And while most boxoffice analysts considered it a flop during its second-run theater run, they stupidly forgot to multiply the movie’s take to see what it would’ve taken in had it showed in first-run theaters. Because most audience members only paid $1-2 to get in, retards. Do the math, literally. So thanks to new prez Joe Drake, Lionsgate is no longer a horror-friendly studio (unless it’s the latest Sawsequel, apparently). Enjoy that Disaster Movie money, douchebag. Oh wait, there isn’t any! Let’s hope the genuinely talented Kitamura has better luck next time. ***

Pineapple Express – easily the best stoner comedy-slash-action movie ever made. Also the only one. Co-writer/star Seth Rogen continues his run of playing marijuana enthusiasts with issues in this rollicking piece directed by, of all people, indie maverick David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Undertow, Snow Angels). That David Gordon Green. Weird. But the movie works, with genuinely funny turns by James Franco (a real revelation here) as the world’s nicest, most sensitive pot dealer, and the strangely hysterical Danny McBride (also good in Tropic Thunder). Another one goes in the Apatow pantheon (that he didn’t direct). Keep ‘em coming, I say. Not quite as good as Rogen’s Superbad (which he also co-wrote with Evan Goldberg), but still very funny. As the movie’s characters might say, this is good shit. ***1/2

Mirrors – Keifer Sutherland goes Jack Bauer-style ballistic against evil mirrors in this atmospheric horror flick from Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes). Remember the old days, when horror films were genuinely creepy and unsettling despite potentially ridiculous premises? Aja does too. Not great, but weird fun, with the nuttiest go-for-it ending I’ve seen all year. Priceless! ***

Tropic Thunder – I honestly can’t say I’ve ever been a huge fan of Ben Stiller. As an actor, his “male humiliation” shtick has worn incredibly thin for me over the years (how many times can one guy get kicked in the balls in the movies?). As a director, he generally seems to take one-joke premises and stretch them far beyond the point where they might have been funny (Cable Guy, anyone?). And he’s married to Christine Taylor, the bastard. But I have to say, this is the one where he really pulled it all together and made a genuinely funny movie. It’s kind of bizarre that this is such a big hit, because it’s about as “inside” Hollywood as a mainstream movie can possibly get. But audiences seem to really “get it” without needing the jokes explained to them (hey, maybe people are smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for?). In a terrific cast, the standouts are easily Robert Downey Jr. as Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe type), who actually dyed his skin black to play the role of a black man (has this been Downey’s year or what?) and, it has to be said, Tom Cruise as the nutty, foul-mouthed studio head (perhaps based on Sumner Redstone?) who is willing to kill to protect his profit margin. I also really liked Nick Nolte as the burnt-out Vietnam vet with a secret, and even Matthew McConaughey scored some points as Stiller’s anything-for-his-client agent (finally, the Dazed and Confused guy with balls comes back! Enough with the shitty romantic comedies already). Even if the movie’s Hollywood satire goes a little askew at times (since when are Vietnam movies back in vogue? And since when is Jon Voight still being offered Oscar-worthy roles?), the general idea of spoiled big-shot actors who are finally confronted with the real world and don’t know how to handle it is sound and solid. There’s a lot of comic potential here, and Stiller really pulls it off. Even if the movie seems a little too busy at times, there’s enough room for each of the main cast to score, and they score big. Don’t get me started with the “retard jokes” – they’re clearly making fun of actors playing mentally challenged roles to get Oscar cred, not actual mentally challenged people. Audiences seem to get it, why can’t anyone else? Damn funny stuff, and quite possibly the best comedy of the year. Nice going, Stiller. ***1/2

Traitor – well, after suffering through the lowest-common-denominator horseshit that was Death Race, I desperately needed something “serious” and “adult”, and this absolutely hit the spot for me. The hugely undervalued Don Cheadle and Guy Pearce in a smart, tight terrorism thriller that probably won’t appeal to the “too soon” people, but will absolutely do nicely for anyone seeking entertainment that reflects the real world that we actually live in. Based on a story idea by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), it’s one of those rare movies where the plot twists and turns actually feel earned and natural. Not to give anything away, but it’s the kind of film where things go one way, but had they gone the other way it would have also felt totally right. That’s the kind of balancing act that Cheadle and first-time director Jeffrey Nachmanoff pull off here, and it’s incredibly satisfying stuff. No idea what such an accomplished work is doing being released at the tail-end of summer, but I’ll split the difference and consider it an early fall film! Destined to be overlooked, and absolutely undeserving of that fate. ***1/2

So, that about covers it from here. I’ll be spending my birthday at the movies (where else?) and I’m genuinely looking forward to the fall and winter movie slate and all the potential gems it has to offer. Talk to you soon!

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