Movie Roundup: This is the final roundup for a while: The goal is to do full reviews, like in the old days, back before there were big huge books to be finished, from now on. For now, a roundup of the movies I sneaked out to see since our last update.
Antichrist. The first three-quarters of this film are hypnotic, quietly terrifying glimpses into a relationship shattered by unimaginable tragedy. We don’t learn anything about the couple before The Incident, and we don’t need to: All that matters is their grief and pain, and the way they deal with each other, the way they keep ramming into and testing each other, feels real and angry and raw. Then they go to the woods, and there is a talking fox, and there is that small matter of repeated genital mutilation. Director Lars Van Trier can never get out of his own way; the clash of his soulful, incisive medication side and his cynical You Can’t HANDLE This showman side is as frustrating as it is impossible to quell. It’s a shame, because before this movie goes careening desperately, hysterically, insanely off the rails, this is an ambitious, scary peek into pulsating, evil human hurt. But you can’t ignore just how batshit and wrong-headed a turn it takes. Lord knows, I’ve tried. Grade: B-.
Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans. Wait, the world was waiting for Nicolas Cage to get his groove back? Really? I wasn’t aware of this widespread movement. I don’t mean to be glib, but we were really so dispirited by his sleepwalking of the last decade, so desperate to see him unhinged again, that we’re willing to swallow this listless, smug drunk walk of a movie? (When was this supposed Golden Age Of Cage, anyway? He was doing rom-coms with Sarah Jessica Parker when I was in high school.) I’m not sure what the joke everyone’s supposedly in on is, precisely. Yes, it’s entertaining to watch Nicolas Cage smoke crack, I suppose: He’s a movie star, and movie stars don’t usually do that on camera. Huzzah. That doesn’t change the fact that this movie has no focus, no point of view and absolutely nothing to say. Is this a sendup? Is this an actual thriller? Is this just a look into the soul of a drug addict? I have no idea, and I don’t think Werner Herzog knows either, and I’m fairly certain he doesn’t care. And spare me the “it’s a look into the dark heart of New Orleans” business too. If it weren’t than some crane shots with the Superdome in the background, this film could take place in the anonymous unnamed American city (that’s meant to stand in for ANY city! See? It’s America!) of a pretentious student film. Everyone seems to be having a good time making this movie, and hey, bully for them. But I call bullshit. There is no actual movie here. Grade: D+.
Bronson. A wanna-be anarchic Fight Club "chaos is the only real answer" overstylized mess, with a brave but pointless performance from Tom Hardy as a lifelong prisoner who just wants to destroy everything around him, most of all himself. One nude fight scene is enough; two just makes me wonder how cold the actor was. Grade: C.
Collapse. First off, I should probably let you know that I kind of suspect Michael Ruppert is full of it. (In my uneducated opinion, he’s got a point about peak oil and corporate greed, but methinks his handle on the situation, his “connecting the dots,” as he puts it, leaves galaxies to be desired.) You might think otherwise. It won’t change how either of us react to this staggering film about a man convinced he’s the only poor sumbitch on earth who gets it … and how, as he grows to realize he might have actually been right all those years, it destroys him. (As a brief primer of his views, Ruppert forecast the financial meltdown and now thinks humanity’s addiction to oil is resulting in a protracted mass suicide. Nice, isn’t it?) Perhaps the greatest triumph of this film is that I have no idea what director Chris Smith (American Movie) thinks about Ruppert’s end-of-humanity theories. He does his best to dramatize what it must be like to be in Ruppert’s brain, and I wonder if that’s why people are leaving the theater so disturbed, rather than the apocalyptic scenarios Ruppert concocts. It’s a bloodcurdling place, that brain. As troubled as he is hyperintelligent, Ruppert is a lonely, deeply sad man who has given up his entire life to his work, work that might be insane but also, much worse, might not be. Either you’re delusional and insane … or mankind is heading for extinction. Is it better to be right there, or wrong? Ruppert clearly has chosen the former, and it has torn him apart. He may be crazy. He may be unstable. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. That inner turmoil, that inability to know, is what Collapse is about. At least I hope so. Otherwise, uh, we’re all fucked. Grade: A.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Almost by accident, Wes Anderson has made the most entertaining film of his career, though, as this Slate piece points out, you can’t help but have the sense that Roald Dahl would have hated it. The problem with Anderson’s recent movies is that they have all felt like chamber pieces: The actors stand here, often receding into the background of the sets, reciting their dialogue like they’re in a Wes Anderson movie and this is how they figure they’re expected to act. Nothing ever feels particularly life-like in Anderson’s movies — they’re more like product shoots for Anderson’s meticulous, fussy and cool adolescent mind. Thus, a stop-animation adaptation of a children’s novel is the logical conclusion of Anderson’s career, where he was going all along. We accept the artifice this time around by the very nature of the project; in the absence of flesh-and-blood, we provide our own, filling in the gaps for Anderson. It’s entertaining and tolerable in a way that I fear isn’t ultimately good for Anderson, but works here. If every movie Anderson makes from now on involves him physically picking up the actors and changing their facial expressions to convey exactly what exists in his brain, he’ll fulfill the promise we had for him. He can’t, though. Real people are too messy. Fortunately, foxes aren’t. Grade: B+.
Paranormal Activity. The comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are invited, and instructive. The film avoids several missteps of that now-ignored cult hit. The protagonists are given logical motivations, they behave in somewhat rational ways and, thank God, the camera isn’t fucking moving all the time. (You’ll be able to hold onto your lunch this time.) On the other hand, Paranormal Activity doesn’t have the zeitgeist zeal of Blair Witch; these are two people unfairly targeted, rather than the pampered “we’re in American, we don’t get LOST!” camping Americans who ultimate receive what they were asking for the whole time. This also doesn’t have the cathartic, thunder-clap of an ending that Blair Witch did; it just sort of peters out, having exhausted its ingenuity with its premise. All that said: For extended sections, this movie is very scary. My frequent self-preserving glimpses away from the screen, just to catch my breath, can confirm that. Grade: B.
2012. You want the world to blow up? The world blows up. All auteurs have their private obsessions that frame their careers. Hitchcock was about the observation and objectification of beautiful women. Bergman dug into the depths of despair. Woody Allen’s films are all about figuring out how to find joy when you know you are death is waiting for you. Spielberg wants to be eight years old again. Roland Emmerich has devoted his life’s work, his art, to discovering the most fantastical way to dramatize the destruction of the planet. Whatever else you might say about this movie — that its characters are as wooden as ever, that Emmerich has zero interest in how human beings speak and interact with each other — you cannot say, in the terms of the life and career that Emmerich has built for himself, this is not the apex of his work. The world blows up. The world blows up a lot. The world blows up fantastically. There are worst quests in life. Grade: B.
Where The Wild Things Are. People seem to find The Fantastic Mr. Fox more entertaining, and on the surface I suppose that’s true, but for my Slightly Grown Up Wunderkind Tries To Recapture His Childhood, I’ll take this messy primal scream anytime. Though the movie never quite re-captures the heights of its first 10 minutes — young Max screaming through the house, a quietly heartbreaking destruction of an igloo fort — this is a film that legitimately attempts to approximate what a film made by a petulant eight-year-old would look like. That’s ambition, friends, and even though it doesn’t always work, it’s a thoroughly and somewhat mad construction of an entirely invented and inventive world. It’s messy and loud and annoying and out of control, like any kid rampaging around and causing trouble. Yet the film is just gorgeous. What Spike Jonze is doing is trying something completely new, messing with the idea of what exactly a movie is, what a narrator is, what a filmmaker is, really, and doing it with a beloved franchise and a $80 million budget. That’s a tightrope. That he’s made a film that will be remembered and debated for years after we’ve moved on from Mr. Fox's arrested development whimsy feels almost heroic. Grade: A-.