It has been several months since I did movie reviews around here, but now that the book (which you should still buy) and the wedding are over, we’re gonna get back down to business. I need to start reviewing movies again. We’ll be doing full-length reviews from now on, but just to take some batting practice swings, here’s a capsule reviews of the last five movies I’ve seen.
Green Zone. It takes a special kind of talent, the kind of talent that Paul Greengrass has, to make a movie as annoying as Green Zone. The film takes what makes Greengrass such a compelling director — the shaky-cam chaos, the muted but pulsating politics, the relentless claustrophobic you-are-there detail — dials the treble up a couple notches too high and then purees it into slosh. I think the problem might have started with the casting of Matt Damon. We instantly expect Jason Bourne, and our shoulders collapse when we realize: Wait, this is about Jason Bourne persecuting our government during the Iraq War? Ugh. The timing on the movie is obviously off — by the time it came out, we were so aware of and exhausted by its “revelations” that it plays like a “Frontline” rerun with guns — but this was probably doomed from the outset, once Greengrass decided to make a “political” movie (a pothole the great United 93 deftly sidestepped) in his hyper-realistic fashion. The ending is wish-fulfillment pablum, Greengrass going all fantasyland, oh-if-only on us, for some reason. I’m going to be charitable and say Greengrass just lost his way here. Because I’m afraid to back and watch the Bourne films now. Grade: C-.
Human Centipede (The First Sequence). Ebert had it half right: On one level, sure, trying to “review” Human Centipede is entirely beside the point, because those who want to see it will no matter what, and those who don’t would consider seeing it a torture nearly on a par with what the victims go through. But on the other level: Who are those people who would want to see it in the first place? That is to say, that Human Centipede exists in the first place is a sort of manic triumph, and it is to the film’s credit that it never seems all that pleased with itself. (It’s also far better shot and conceived that it has any right to be.) This is not shock schlock: Director Tom Six never winks. He seems, at some point, to have said to himself, It might be theoretically possible to sew a mouth to an anus and sustain life. Someone should dramatize that, and then he did. Who am I to argue, you know? More to power to you, dude. Grade: C+.
Iron Man 2. The joy of the first Iron Man movie is that it was so shambling and shaggy that, at any point, it seemed like it might just say, “you know, forget this superhero business, let’s go get a burger.” (The end of that movie was a gleeful rebuke to the endless ennui superheroes always seem to be going through; fuck it, I’m Iron Man, I rule.”) It’s a little more by-the-numbers here, a little louder, a little more distant, a little less freewheeling. Mickey Rourke isn’t given nearly enough to do — though Sam Rockwell should play the slimy corporate villain in every movie for the rest of time; he’s an updated, improved James Spader mid-80s model, plugged in, insecure, self-serving, fidgety — and I’m having a hard time remembering Scarlett Johannson was in the movie at all. What works, amusingly enough, is the love story: Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow’s scenes are the only ones that reminded me of all the goofy fun everyone was having the first time around. It’s much more fun to create a franchise than to doggedly sustain it. Grade: C.
The Killer Inside Me. I know we’re all supposed to be proud of Michael Winterbottom’s manic productivity and versatility, but I mostly see a filmmaker who is awfully proud of himself for not having anyone who actually goes to see his movies. (He’s like Harmony Korine without the meth.) This adaptation of Jim Thompson’s novel is spare and smug, pretty movie stars “slumming” it to play cowboys and prostitutes and sheriffs, blank stares standing in for caricaturization. The heralded “violent” scene practically screams “We need domestic distribution!” I don’t think anyone in this movie actually likes this movie. Grade: D+.
Toy Story 3. This late in the game, it’s difficult to add much to the Toy Story 3 discussion, other than the odd observation that most of my friends talked about this movie with a similar pregame fascination that they did about Human Centipede: “Can you make it through without crying?” because a certain snuff film-like challenge, giving it a certain fun, accidental B-movie hype. Well, I didn’t cry, but I certainly loved the film, the one of the trilogy that finally makes the whole series’ true them — Death — most explicit. (The scene where they’re almost incinerated is so wrenching that, yeah, it almost got me.) On the ranking scale of the three films, I’ll put it second. The first film is more of a hellzapoppin’ thrill ride, Pixar in awe of what they were capable of, flabbergasted that they were allowed to have this much fun. The story was basic, simple and universal: An old timey toy (a cowboy, of course) fears he’s being replaced by a newer, shinier toy (an astronaut, natch). Woody was a metaphor, really, for America: Space taking over for the Old West in the cultural imagination, the sad, cold necessity of innovation and the death of nostalgia. That it was so much fun, and essentially perfect crosspromotion marketing (sales of Mr. Potato Head dolls skyrocketed afterward), made it even more perfect. (My favorite self-aware line is Rex the dinosaur, voiced by Wallace Shawn, pointing out, “I’m from Mattel. Well, I’m not really from Mattel, I’m actually from a smaller company that was purchased by Mattel in a leveraged buyout.”) The second movie, also great but clearly rushed into production, has the best five minutes of Sarah McLachlan’s life but is a little slack in plotting; at one point, the toys, which were always supposed to be invisible to actual humans, drive a car to the airport. This one wraps up the series perfectly and lets us all move on. Nirvana is approaching. The mystic portal awaits. Grade: A.