Wednesday, July 14, 2010

End of a hiatus: films recently seen

In-between Despicable Me's trio of adorable orphans, Steve Carell's effective vocal performance as the quasi-dastardly super-villain Gru, and a gaggle of squat, interchangeable yellow minions familiar from the film's advertising, the movie almost fools you into thinking it is clever and charming. But it's not; it never creates a vibrant, autonomous filmic world for its animated beings to call home (like the best animated films do, including even the worst of Pixar and last year's fun Fantastic Mr. Fox). Gru and his minions are just sort of there, and the orphans (adopted by Gru in a half-baked attempt to steal the secret weapon of another super villain) are just sort of there, too, floating across the textures of a rather generic animated surface that invites spot-the-product-placement more than the personal treasuring of cinephilic details. (The yellow minions were probably the film's best chance to have some funny business going on in the background, but amazingly, this never really happens; perhaps the little fellas - who are undeniably, aggressively cute - were too exhausted by the marketing campaign to go out and make a better movie). The cleverest bit is over the end credits of the 3D version, in which we see the yellow minions (perhaps a prequel could explain where in blazes these little guys came from) use ladders and canons in an attempt to break the frame of the screen and become a part of the audience's world - presumably because they have no singular aesthetic context of their own to call home. (Or perhaps it's just to sell us crap at Best Buy; turns out the 3D credits were added just to sync up with a Best Buy marketing campaign. Despicable, that).

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A curious problem sometimes occurs when a cinephile encounters a movie made by a cinephile. Film lovers delight in finding details and thinking through images in movies, but when auteurs themselves are so enamored of detail and so cerebral in their construction, it is possible for a viewer to feel as if very little is left over for discovery. That's the case for me with Alain Resnais, a master whose films nevertheless sometimes strike me as self-sufficient and not needing of my presence; this thing is already drenched in movie love, so why am I here? That's the case with Wild Grass, an intermittently amusing ode to all things cinema. The film circles around a simple narrative scheme: Georges Palet (Andre Dussollier) finds the discarded stolen wallet of Marguerite Muir (Resnais's wife and frequent collaborator Sabine Azema), and begins obsessively stalking her. Partially driven by an event in his life the film intentionally eschews explaining, we do learn that he is attracted to Muir because of her experience as a pilot (he locates her pilot's license in the wallet), which has some vague connection to his father's dream of becoming an aviator. One does not expect, or want, a Resnais film to make either psychology or backstory clear. But one is free to wonder why Resnais bothers to use color and decor to express the characters' psychological states (as he explains he does in a recent Cineaste interview) when these components are only meant to be opaque in the first place.The sparse plot jumps from noir to romance to the family melodrama, and the cinephilic citations range from the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare to a play with end titles, but the cinematic pastiche cooked up, a few striking moments of mise en scene besides, does not spring forth any inspiring film-phenomenological bon mots. Mathieu Amalric (always a hoot) and Emmanuelle Devos (why is she not in every film?) are both in it, but not much, which made me want to turn on an Arnaud Desplechin instead.

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If you lack material for Film and Philosophy 101, you could probably do worse than Predators, a nicely crafted little sci-fi horror job that is yonks better than the B-movie Iron Man should have been but wasn't. Because Samuel Fuller is no longer around, the movie doesn't use its jolts and scares to give us pointed political lessons, and because Jacques Tourneur has passed, its creeping surfaces are not used to say something or other in a psychoanalytic vein. Predators limits itself to a rather general discourse on the predatory nature of human existence, using a few different stock types and a handful of tautly shot and cut setpieces - and, indeed, a bunch of those same creatures California's governor did battle with back in the 80s. None of this prevents the movie from being stupid - your class will have to buttressed by, you know, actual philosophy or social science in order to justify blowing a couple of hours on this perfectly entertaining detritus. Nimrod Antal is the director, and he has a nice eye for textures and detail - if he ever gets a script about something he might turn out to be a pretty good genre craftsman.

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I can't imagine how I might have missed seeing Robert Benton's Bad Company (1973) until now, since it seems so much of a piece with its period in American film history, which I really love. Among other things, its sharply chiseled 1.85:1 images recall the poetic Midwestern ennui of both Badlands and the Benton co-written Bonnie and Clyde, two favorites of the period that also happen to be sharp genre revisions and sensitively mounted New Hollywood films. In the movie, Jeff Bridges, in a weirdly endearing performance (aren't all Bridges performances / characters weirdly endearing?), plays a young scamp, Jake, who avoids Civil War conscription by riding the frontier, stealing wallets, and double-crossing friends. His eventual partner of sorts is Drew (Barry Brown, an actor I did not know before this film, and who died at a young age in the late 70s; he recalls a slightly more suave Jason Schwartzman), a young man from a well-to-do family who reveals hitherto untapped reservoirs of anger and aggression in the West. Jake starts out as a tough guy and is revealed as a sensitive soul struggling to make it through the West, while Drew's elliptical narration (again with the Malick link) suggests a gap between Western myths and lived experience in the landscape. The movie is vaguely counter-cultural, but reflects a late 60s counter-culture in tatters, disorganized and fighting within itself rather than directing its resistance toward some greater purpose or value.  Roger Ebert is right when he notes that the ending is unsatisfying and sudden. We know that Benton loves Truffaut, but it makes no sense to end this movie with a gesture borrowed from The 400 Blows, since its reflection on the nature of myth, the West, and masculinity builds itself up to be something deserving of a more complete and declarative ending, maybe in order to achieve the kind of allegory that it seems to gesture toward. So, Once Upon a Time in the West it's not, but still worth your time. Exquisitely shot by Gordon Willis.