Sunday, February 06, 2005

Drive-by reviews of 2004 Releases Part Deux (continually updated)

Birth (Glazer) B
In a nutshell: Til Death Do Us Together.
Amazon movie match: Ghost as directed by Stanley Kubrick
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: [More to come]

The Aviator (Scorsese) B+
In a nutshell: Madness and Civil Aviation (and boobs)
Amazon movie match: Citizen Kane meets The People v. Larry Flynt meets Chaplin
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: [More to come]

Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood) A-
In a nutshell: Tough ain't enough.
Amazon movie match: Fat City
To read a more eloquent take, what he said. Also him. And Godfrey, who came up with most insightful review of this movie I've read thus far. (Thanks to Zack for the tip.)
The skinny: [Warning: Spoilers ahead.] The cinematic equivalent of Billie Holiday's Verve recording of "Body and Soul," Million Dollar Baby breaks the heart not through emphasis or virtuosity, but from the disappointment that lingers on the edges of a veteran's brittle, cracked voice. Clint's oeuvre, it's been said, is about redemption. And Million Dollar Baby starts out exactly like a tale of redemption. Like many underdog boxing sagas, the movie initially luxuriates in an atmosphere of beautiful loserdom, but confident that with enough grit, ambition and determination (and the guidance of a sufficiently crotchety old-timer) you can achieve anything, even redeem those sad aging gym rats that time passed by. (The film's major weaknesses, the retard boxer and the trailer park family, are really there to establish thematic contrasts: the retard represents grit and ambition without self-possession and ability; the trailer park family a lack of determination and work ethic.)

Frankie Dunn's a terrific trainer who learned the hard way that he must protect his fighters. From experience, he's learned to err (perhaps overly so) on the side of caution. Maggie believes that she can make it if she trains hard enough and smart enough. The very American ethos embodied by these two characters gives the first 2/3rds of the film a very conventional kind of old movie satisfaction: as many have said, Million Dollar Baby resembles a 30s programmer -- a remarkably well-directed one (and an underrated script that's great on off-handed talk and thematic unity) -- that emphasizes the sports genre's celebration of will and preparation.

But then the movie takes its "dark turn" and it becomes at once manipulative yet utterly devastating in its pitiless grace. For an American boxing film directed by an icon of rugged individualism, what's most shocking about this movie isn't the surprise "sucker punch" the narrative springs on you, but that Eastwood has, in the end, made a film as fatalistic as anything by Bresson. As a perverse a genre-bender as they come, Eastwood and Haggis use a triumph of the underdog sports movie to limn on existential futility. In the end, no amount of wizened experience, midnight sweat, wise homilies, precautions, talent, grit, toughness or determination can prepare one for the cruel vagaries of life. No redemption can be had; what these characters are left with is only the quiet dignity with which they lived their lives. As Frankie sits beside Maggie, reading off community college courses for her to take, the sad glint in his eyes betrays the regret of having spent an entire career failing to prevent this very scene. In the last ten minutes of Million Dollar Baby, Clint has finally achieved the tragic grandeur of a Billie Holiday number.

(Caouette) C-
In a nutshell: Look at me.
Amazon movie match: The amazing home videos of Jonathan Caouette, boy genius. Or a bad version of Scorpio Rising.
To read a more eloquent take, what he said, exactly.
Also, what the fuck is wrong with most of these people?
The skinny: There was a boy NAMED JONATHAN. Jonathan liked the way he looked so much he spent much of his life filming himself in close-up. Jonathan decided to edit all this footage on an iMac with cool effects and songs, so everyone else can watch him preen. In some quarters Jonathan's footage would be dismissed as navel-gazing nonsense, but you see, Jonathan had a bad childhood that led to supposed psychological problems. So a movie all about Jonathan's face is okay according to critics because this is now a "raw" expression of deeper trauma instead of being merely the most narcissistic movie ever made. Oh, Jonathan's mom Renee led a bad life, too, but this movie is not really about how awful Renee's life is, but how Renee's messed-up ways impacted Jonathan. So when Jonathan gets a voicemail about her mom's deterioration, he listens to it while posing in front of the camera with a picture of a young Renee carefully positioned in the background. Jonathan also shows his mother going nuts for about six minutes, with the camera fixed ruthlessly on Renee. Others might find this kind of callous exploitation of family tragedy objectionable but that's okay here because Jonathan is psychologically damaged. Or so Jonathan tells us anyway. This movie is really Jonathan's therapy session, which Ryan can say with confidence does not require his presence. In the end, predictably, this movie is about the toll Jonathan's mother's psychosis takes on Jonathan -- "I worry that I will be like my mother." What a guy.

When Ryan watched this movie, it felt to him like the film of a friend's gall-bladder removal surgery mixed with an iPhoto slide show of his modeling career, punched up with some nifty Flash graphics. Except the prospect of watching such a horrifyingly tedious movie would be more interesting than Tarnaton to Ryan because at least that would be about someone Ryan knows. Ryan doesn't know Jonathan, and after watching this disgusting movie Ryan would die a happy man if he never sees Jonathan's fucking preening mug ever again.

Bright Leaves
(McElwee) B+/B
In a nutshell: Tar reels in Autumn.
Amazon movie match: Sans Soleil
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: Must see Sherman's March.

The Incredibles (Bird) B+/B
In a nutshell: Pixar and Brad Bird reinterpret The Watchmen starring the Fantastic Four.
Amazon movie match: Spy Kids
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: Talent and premise promise one for the ages, but in the end "just" another very good Pixar picture with eye-popping visuals and conventional messages, this one being particularly studied in its political centrism (combining the righty's contempt for institutional egalitarianism with the lefty's humanist attitudes and concern for children's self-esteem). More clever than anything around and the design detail completely remarkable -- the Eames-styled decor of the Parr's suburban home, the wet Incredisuit, the Island -- but the story's structure is off: the smartest, wittiest parts of the movie were relegated to first act (The Age of Superheroes, and the Parrs in suburbia) when it should've been expanded to two acts. Bird instead jumps too quickly into the pedestrian "Syndrome" plot, in too much of a hurry to stage awesome action sequences on the island that are indeed awesome, but in a PS2 kinda way. And later creativity in the action scenes with Elastigirl (especially the scene of her getting trapped by three separate doors), Frozone and the kids made me wish Bird expanded his scope to other heroes, instead of focusing largely on Mr. Incredible and his banal superpowers (all he does is hurtle around and smash things). Most clever when Bird and co. are geeking out, with the superhero cape disasters and Edna Mode particular delights. Too bad the movie ends up villifying geeks.

Raja (Doillon) B+
In a nutshell: The Lecherous Colonialist.
Amazon movie match: La Collectioneuse and Besieged.
To read a more eloquent take, what he said.
The skinny: Eschewing easy allegories (wealthy middle-aged Frenchman preys on poor young Moroccan girl), Doillon focuses intensely on his richly detailed characters, on the sexually obsessed Fred and savvy young Raja, without ever losing sight of issues of colonialism, money, gender, and age. The movie's never schematic -- the Moroccan girl, acutely aware of her power as objection of a rich European's lust from the opening minutes, isn't shy about manipulating Fred, and it's notably rich in light-hearted moments. Unlike those grim, sad-sack obsessives played by Charles Berling or Rohmer's self-serious narcissists, Pacal Gregory's Fred is gregarious and likeable. Those throwaway scenes where Fred teases and shares a chuckle with his dumpy, middle-aged housekeepers, along with aforesaid sophisticated view of power, is what really distinguishes this from similar French fare like Intimate Strangers or L'ennui.

Finding Neverland (Forster) C
In a nutshell: Oscar-bait by the numbers.
Amazon movie match: Shitbiscuit and countless middlebrow Miramax dreck.
To read a more eloquent take, what she said.
The skinny: "A handsome production" but seemingly designed to push all my negative buttons: Drawn out terminal illness. Check. Children as measure of truth and goodness. Check. Shrewish old woman. Check. Triumph of unambiguously good and charming protagonist over the odds. Check. Even with two of my favorite actors cast in the leads, this leaden "crowdpleaser," equal parts maudlin and uplifting, sometimes in the same scene, never stood a chance.

A Very Long Engagement (Jeunet) C+
In a nutshell: Amelie in All's Quiet on the Western Front
Amazon movie match: The anti-Cold Mountain
To read a more eloquent take, what she said.
The skinny: Contra Waz, the Great War backdrop only reinforces the emptiness of Jeunet's excessive dazzle-every-second style, which turns some of the most gruesome moments in history into ostentatious displays of engineered virtuosity. Visually astounding, fastidiously detailed and imaginative -- each individual shot a meticulously designed wonder -- but overbearing in its fussiness, eagerness to please and extravagance (I'm glad you've got a budget, JPJ, but do we need twenty helicopter shots?). Suffice it to say that the movie's unpalatable quantities of whimsy in service of a sickening love-conquers-even-war solipsism (and a celebration of one of my least favorite types, the idealistic naif) gave me a fucking tummy ache.