Movie Roundup: I’ve been spending my summer finishing this damned book, so the movie reviews have fallen by the wayside. Here’s a capsule attempt to catch up. When the bastard book is turned in next month, we’ll be back to your regularly scheduled movie reviewing schedule. And yes: I’m pretty certain I’m talking to myself right now.
Big Fan. If you’re unfortunate enough to have caught any New York City sports talk radio, you’ve heard plenty of guys like Paul Aufiero, a socially stunted, possibly mentally disabled rabid Giants fan whose call-in appearances serve as his lone connection to a world he doesn’t understand. Paul treats talk radio, and sports really, as a sort of fantasy military operation, an ongoing World Of Warcraft with Eagles fans as orcs. His world implodes when he’s savagely beaten by his favorite player — the scene is well shot but sloppily written; it’s more like writer-director Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) came up with that notion first and then tried to write a movie around it — but as portrayed here, Paul’s world was pretty much a disaster in the first place. Siegel’s too busy making Paul the most pathetic person on earth (he lives with his mom! he has no friends! he masturbates!) to figure out what makes him tick, and he pauses from humiliating Paul only to portray Staten Island as some sort of cartoonish wasteland. (You would think Darren Aronofsky would have given him some tips on what life’s like in the outer boroughs.) The movie’s a mess, and considering the eye for detail Siegel showed in his Wrestler script, it’s pretty shocking how little he seems to understand about sports fans. In this movie, if you care obsessively about sports, it’s because you are severe mental problems. (I can attest to that being only 34 percent true.) The only saving grace is Patton Oswalt, who does his best to dig into a character that has no center. Oswalt throws himself into a role that, all told, probably isn’t worth it. Grade: C.
District 9. You know what? They probably should have kept it a short film. The concept is terrific: Aliens land on earth, and rather than embrace their wonder and technology, humans spend most of their time figuring out how to get rid of them. (I think the movie has more to say concerning attitudes about immigration than it does about apartheid.) The film looks fantastic: The stranded spaceship floating above Johannesburg has a grand beauty that conjures, oddly, the monolith in 2001. The aliens themselves are well-conceived too; I like that they’re dirty and scroungy and ugly. In other words: Everything that works well in the short film works in the feature. Unfortunately, that’s all the ideas the movie has, and the last 45 minutes are a tiresome, hackneyed checklist of action movie tropes, gasping toward a conclusion that, all told, is rather silly. (Do we really need a “cute” alien boy who saves the day? And for all the limitations of the single-camera documentary structure of Cloverfield, that movie at least didn’t cheat. This film is a documentary when it wants to be, then chucks the concept when it’s inconvenient.) This is an excellent idea searching for a film worthy of it. This ain’t it. Grade: C+.
Funny People. Speaking of movies with third acts that derail the whole enterprise. Adam Sandler will never be better than he is here, a self-hating comedian with nothing to live for and still stubbornly staying alive anyway. (Sandler, for whatever reason, is incredibly skilled at smug, yet sad, self-loathing.) Counterintuitively, Judd Apatow seems to understand comedians better than he does families: He spends an hour-and-a-half setting up two compelling characters — I like Seth Rogan’s struggling comic the more I think about him; he’s a little sneakier, and a little bit more of an asshole, than he seems at first, than how Rogan plays him. It’s like he doesn’t realize he was a Hollywood prick long before George Simmons came around — and then plops them in the middle of a family drama. It doesn’t work: The last hour is more about Apatow’s curiosity about being a family man and a comic than it is about the characters he created. (And honestly, Judd: Please stop insisting that your children are the cutest of all possible children. Just because you cry while watching your daughter sing in Cats doesn’t mean we have to.) The unique hatred of yourself, and your audience, required of being a comedian is something that Apatow (and Sandler) understand profoundly: That’s what this movie is about. It’s not about dogs licking peanut butter off kids’ faces. Grade: B.
Public Enemies. Nobody makes better films about Men Doing Work than Michael Mann. Sometimes he has a tendency to overromanticize The Duty Of Men to the point of caricature, but here, he’s made an ornery, typically obsessive look into the raw pleasure men derive from putting together a plan and executing it. Johnny Depp is much better as Dillinger than Christian Bale is as his pursuer, but both men are almost beside the point, figureheads on opposite side of a battle they’ll each lose. The real stars are the quieter men on each side, the Dillinger friend who knows his days, and the days of romantic bank heists, are over, and the mustachioed lawman who notes Dillinger’s last wishes, and carries them out with honor and moderation. And finally Mann has a great role for a woman: Marion Cotilliard’s Billie is so desperate to feel something that she drops everything and runs away with Dillinger even though she’s smart enough to understand how this is going to end. I’m think people were expecting this to be a Depp-Bale version of DeNiro-Pacino in Heat, and were thus disappointed to find out it’s a quiet, thoughful, almost dreamy meditation on violence, on work, on love and on death. It’s more like The Insider with tommy guns. Grade: A-.