Movie Roundup: The book is turned in (mostly), and we’ll be back to our regular movie reviewing schedule soon. For now, a roundup of the movies I sneaked out to see when my editor and agent weren’t looking.
The House Of The Devil. In Chuck Klosterman’s new book Eating The Dinosaur, he has an essay about the admirable, terrifying insanity of the literal-minded. (The examples he gives are Ralph Nader, Werner Herzog and, perhaps inevitably, Rivers Cuomo.) He argues that we, irony-drenched mass culture consumers, cannot wrap our minds around such doggedly earnest characters; their inability to do anything with a wink makes it impossible for us to relate to them. I think I feel this way about Ti West, the director of not-really-a-horror-film The House Of The Devil. West has decided to make an early ’80s-era creeperfest that’s less an homage than a meticulous recreation. If you didn’t know this film came out this year, you would really think it is an early ’80s film: The film stock is grainy and washed, the hair is up and bouffanted, the full credits run and the pace is slow slow slow. He doesn’t want you to laugh at old grindhouse schlocks, though you’ll think you’re supposed to; he just wants to make one of his own. I’m not sure what the point of this is — I mean, congrats, you’ve successfully made a film outside the constructs of space and time. Yay? — but West is undeniably skilled, and when the mood finally breaks and the house finally becomes The Devil’s House, the gruesome (and bloody) payoff is worth the wait. West is going to do something outstanding someday, as soon as he figures out something to say. Grade: B.
The Informant! About four years ago, I ducked into a fake-Irish tourist trip pub in Times Square to avoid a sudden rainstorm. At 3 p.m., it was completely empty, except for a guy in the back of the bar, drinking water and playing darts by himself. It was Steven Soderbergh. I actually asked him what he was doing there. “Understanding the universe,” he said with a sigh, and turned back to his darts. If you’ve seen Schizopolis, you know how truly strange Soderbergh is, a man lost in his own brain and (mostly) paralyzingly self-critical. Steven Soderbergh is a man who wants to lose. His projects anymore are odd little thought puzzles he gives himself, puzzles he knows can’t be solved but can’t help trying, regardless. The Informant! is a film about a man who is disturbed, delusional and not all that smart … and Soderbergh makes him the increasingly unreliable narrator! We as an audience are as confused as Mark Whitacre, which is Soderbergh’s point, I think: The whole film seems to take place in Whitacre’s brain, putting ourselves inside, trying to figure out what the hell’s going on with this guy. We keep searching for hints from Whitacre’s narration, but they’re not there. This is a movie without an establishing shot. What a perverse, self-defeating way to make a film. This is all sounding negative, but it’s not meant to: You sense that Soderbergh is working his way through this while we watch; of all Soderbergh’s big-ticket movies, this is the one, I think, that’s the most spiritually akin to Schizopolis. This is a film about the impossibility of making sense out of why people do anything. It’s astounding that Soderbergh got Matt Damon to play around with him, and to commit to following this down the rabbit hole. I’m not sure The Informant! really works, but watching Soderbergh put strange Rube Goldberg contraptions in front of himself at every step never stops being fascinating. And then just when you’re ready to write this off as a large-budget academic exercise, Soderbergh and Damon punch you in the gut with a shockingly moving scene where the narrator and the person finally meet in the middle … and still can’t figure it out. Soderbergh clearly doesn’t care about his audience anymore, and this makes him fascinating, and a little dangerous. To himself, and others. Grade: B+.
A Serious Man. Even the best Coen brothers movies have a studied distance between the film and the filmmakers, which can be irritating but has a certain honesty to it. (These are, after all, movies.) That distance is obliterated in A Serious Man, which feels almost apocalyptically personal: This is about a man in a cold, dead universe that is out to destroy him. The movie is funny, sure, but never in the wink-wink way we’ve come to associate with the Coen brothers; it is bleak and unrelenting and pitch black in every possible way. The Coens throw themselves so deeply into this one — matters moral and philosophical and scatologic and mathematical, swirled and splattered all over the screen — that it’s difficult to nail down exactly what this movie is about other than Pain and Fear. Why do horrible things happen? How can everything go so wrong? Is there anybody out there watching out for us? The Coens don’t know the answers to these questions (obviously), but that they’re asking them, in such unsparing fashion, is the just about goddamned heroic. And the last shot is just devastating; I’m still shaken by it. This might be the Coen Brothers’ best film. I suspect they think so too. Even if you sense they can’t quite grasp what they’ve stumbled across here, and surely don’t want to. Grade: A.
Zombieland. A fun little romp, a mashup of “coming-of-age” and “zombie movie” that has enough of the latter to make up for the relative limpness of the former. (This film doesn’t really care about its characters, and I wish it didn’t try.) Everyone is clearly having a grand time, though, and it’s smarter and sharper than anyone could have reasonably expected. And if you can’t find a place in your heart for a movie that worships Bill Murray this intensely, and even gets him to wear the Ghostbusters outfit again, I’m not sure there’s much hope for you. Grade: B.