29 December 2007

List #4: Questionable Praise

What’s perhaps more indicative of a person’s best of or worst of any given year is where they feel the general public has been mistaken. Certainly, frat boys and soccer moms galore will scoff at my pick of 300 for the worst film of the year (if you need proof, I believe Maxim magazine named it the best film of the year… that says it all). There are a number of critical bandwagons that always end up puzzling me, even if it doesn’t outright offend my sensibilities. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild was easily the most over-bloated junk of the year (hence it’s placement on my worst of the year list), but it was hardly the sole offender of a clusterfuck of a year where the only real agreement seems to have been that Cannes had a pretty phenomenal crop of films this year (No Country for Old Men, Zodiac, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Persepolis, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly to name a few). Here’s nine films (consider Into the Wild your tenth) that perplexed this reviewer as to their wild critical praise.

I’m Not There – dir. Todd Haynes – USA
I’ve been a long-time fan of Haynes ever since I got my hands on an edited VHS copy of his Poison. Haynes never really seemed to adhere to what most people would expect of him; after all, what would you have really expected him to follow Poison with anyways? There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll never top the brilliance of Safe, but even with his haughty ambition in I’m Not There, I think I wanted something more than I got. Haynes has always been a visual director, though I wouldn’t say his films are necessarily from the same spectrum. Yet… I’m Not There feels like his best attempt to throw everything and the fucking kitchen sink into something that’s, well, a mess (purposeful or not, it’s still annoyingly untidy). You have Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, , Don’t Look Back (naturally), and even Haynes’ own Velvet Goldmine. And what do you do with all that? I’m afraid I’m going to have to toss it back. I don’t usually like to spit upon others’ interpretations of films (unless, of course, you thought Into the Wild was painted with the stroke of God), but I think most of the praise for I’m Not There comes from looking really hard and trying to find something that’s really not there (no pun intended). Certainly, though, if you rummaged through someone’s messy house you’d likely find a stray twenty-dollar bill or maybe a great vinyl somewhere within the wreckage. I just don’t see why you’d want to find out.
The Savages – dir. Tamara Jenkins – USA
I always find the need to defend myself when I refer to something as “boring.” My definition of “boring” probably doesn’t mirror the general consensus; to go back to Haynes, I don’t think Safe is boring in the least (though I’m sure many would beg to differ). The Savages bored me to sobbing tears. It was the sort of boredom that would make most equate to watching paint dry. I’m serious. Laura Linney’s character, when discussing her as-of-yet-unwritten play, constantly begrudges her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), making sure he doesn’t think it’s terribly bourgeouis, and I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t Jenkins voice coming out on the screen, shaken and uncertain as to whether anyone could muster up an ounce of caring for what might as well have been a pipe slowly rusting. Yeah, sure, the film was smart, unsentimental (thank God), and well-acted, but none of that added up to something I’d want to sit through again.
Margot at the Wedding – dir. Noah Baumbach – USA
What bothers me most about Margot at the Wedding was what preceded Baumbach on his way to another bitter tale of intellectual malaise. The Squid and the Whale was just wonderful. Absolutely fantastic, and yet it was one of those movies a friend of mine described as a film everyone raved about for the two weeks it was in theatres only to forget about it shortly afterward. And, yeah, that’s probably true. So with Margot, Baumbach needed something that would stick, not something that felt like a day-old coffee pot version of something he’d already made. I’ll watch Jennifer Jason Leigh in fucking anything, so when even her presence fails to hit me in the right spots, my alarm signal goes off. Margot is stale, familiar, and, worst of all, wholly forgettable. Like she does in To Die For and The Others, Nicole Kidman always makes for a great cunt, all tightly-wound with Botox, tin-lipped and viper-tongued. Most of Margot’s detractors complained that no one in the film was likeable, but it was precisely the opposite case for me. No one in Margot at the Wedding was nearly as dislikable as I would deem necessary to hold interest further than the first explosion of words between its snake-y characters.
I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone – dir. Tsai Ming-liang – Taiwan/Malaysia/China/France
I’ve never known anyone to casually like the work of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (or his compatriot Hou Hsiao-hsien, for that matter), as their films seem geared toward the most avid of international film aficionados. There’s nothing in the realms of accessible to their agonizing long-shots of, usually, nothing, and that was just splendid… for a time. With I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Tsai has continued this streak, painfully. What seemed like radiance and freshness in What Time Is It There? or Vive l’amour has grown tiresome. He doesn’t really break any new ground with his latest, and for once, I’ll stand by you, the MTV generation, and concur, “this shit is fucking tedious.”
Superbad – dir. Greg Motolla – USA
I’m one of those jerks that usually make for a bad person to ask about films. I’d decided, before seeing either, that I would hate Knocked Up and love Superbad for purely superficial reasons. Firstly, I laughed a grand total of once during Judd Apatow’s sketch comedy-cum-romantic yarn The 40-Year Old Virgin (and I saw that grueling two hour “unrated” version). I also don’t follow the notion that his beloved, cancelled TV series Freaks and Geeks was anything special. With Superbad, the crudeness seemed without Apatow’s signature schmaltz, without that thin message of acceptance that makes me run for the eject button on my DVD player. And it had that Michael Cera in it expanding his life past the criminally-axed Arrested Development where he proved to have the best comic timing of the whole bunch. Unfortunately, my expectations got the better of me, and I ended up sheepishly enjoying Knocked Up and just-about loathing Superbad. I don’t do zany, and I don’t do antics. And for every minute of awkward teenage dialogue about cocks and Orson Welles, there was another nine of zany antics. Superbad is a comedy of errors, and to throw a zing at ya, I made an “error” watching this crap. Yeah, see, that joke was about as funny as most of what I witnessed in Superbad.
This Is England – dir. Shane Meadows – UK
If I had one word of advice for filmmakers working today, I’d say, “lay off the cheap sentimental bullshit.” And I’d say it just like that. This Is England (what a stupid title) is director Meadows’ recounting of his youth during the early stages of the Thatcher regime, and, yet, hindsight for him is less 20/20, more a lousy sermon. I always want to go back to a quote from Bernardo Bertolucci where he criticized the youth of today for not rebelling against the forces that be like his generation did in the 60s (his own auto-fellatio can be seen in The Dreamers). Let’s face it, budding filmmakers, cinema hasn’t changed anything in this world in a long time. And it ain’t going to anytime soon. Therefore, you don’t need to be vomiting up lessons and messages to your potential audience (unless that lesson happens to be that lessons don’t do a damn thing… subversive, eh?). This Is England isn’t a complete waste and probably isn’t even one of the great offenders of 2007, but for garnering an impeccable 86/100 rating on Metacritic (a slightly better version of Rotten Tomatoes), I could have used my history lesson away from the pulpit.
Gone Baby Gone – dir. Ben Affleck – USA
I guess what confuses me most is whether critics actually liked this one or were just surprised that Ben Affleck happens to be a better director than he is an actor, because Gone Baby Gone isn’t phenomenal by any stretch. One of its main detractors, as I discussed in my review for it, was that Affleck chose to cast two primary cast members from the television show The Wire (Amy Ryan and Michael K. Williams), which may very well be the finest thing to grace television screens… ever. Affleck didn’t need the comparisons; in fact, I can hardly muster up any interest in any films crime-related any more after my eyes have officially been opened by the uncompromising brilliance of The Wire. Gone Baby Gone suffers from the Pumpkin syndrome: a film that ends with a bang, almost forgiving the missteps taken throughout the rest of its running time. Almost.
The Simpsons Movie – dir. David Silverman – USA
I haven’t watched anything from the latest seasons of The Simpsons, but general consensus is that, without most of their original writers, the show blows. Like Seinfeld though, when The Simpsons officially signs off the air, it will always be remembered for its high points instead of its low ones. Therefore, it won’t be remembered for The Simpsons Movie, an eighty-seven-minute expansion of what would have been a mediocre episode (despite the return of many of the series’ creators) in the first place. About a third of The Simpsons Movie is hysterical, but you’d really have to rack my brain to recall any of those moments (and I just saw it two weeks ago). Instead we’re left with a missed opportunity, the first (and supposedly last) foray of America’s favorite animated family onto the big screen.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – dir. Sidney Lumet – USA
In my review of Sidney Lumet’s latest, I said something along the lines of “if Lumet chose to retire now, he’d retire on the high note he’d failed to achieve in the past twenty years of his career.” What I said was true; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is probably better than all of the films he’s made since the 90s put together. However, you have to consider that adding Critical Care, Gloria and Find Me Guilty together would result in something slightly better than the last Jennifer Lopez movie. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of those films that’s just “fine.” It’s well-acted by PSH, Marisa Tomei, and even Ethan Hawke (I think Albert Finney is kinda hammy here), and I love the kaleidoscopic structure of Lumet’s modern tragedy. And, yet, I still can’t muster up any real excitement for the film. Maybe it’s my loss here, but its universal praise strikes me the same way Gone Baby Gone’s does. Here’s a film no one expected to be good, it ended up being pretty decent, and the praise flew in. See Match Point for another example of a once-great filmmaker who’d been stuck making mediocre films for years, only to come back with something comparatively better with accolades to follow.


Filmbo said...

I'll agree that Margot was a step-down from Squid, but the film is a comedy and unlike Squid, should be read as one.

The Lumet is just a film noir. No spin or update like a neo-noir, it's one change is its greater emphasis on the tragedy and less emphasis on the crime.

I can see how you may not have liked either of these since it may just be taste. They aren't amazing films that stand out, and I think sometimes when a simple film is praised, it begs for expectations of complexity. No Country and Eastern Promises were like that with me, and since I never bought the whole "tonal" or "control" arguments I never saw the merit of these films.

However, I will stand up for the Haynes. It's maybe his most Godardian film (the Godard of King Lear and Keep Your Right Up, that is) in terms of its playful use of text and form, but I know you and I don't often see eye to eye when it comes to Godard. And like other films of this year, this film is really simple. It's an essay on why Haynes thinks people change over time. It's told as a Bob Dylan-like song, maybe called "The Singer, Lady, Outlaw, and the Jack of Hearts" or something like that, and it uses Bob Dylan's career as an object to better express its themes. I'm not sure if it should be compared to Velvet G since both films are very different, so don't be fooled by Haynes's continuing obsession with singers from the 70s to link the two films thematically.

reassurance said...

I really don't think that VG and I'm Not There are really as different as you're saying. I'm not basing this on the fact that both deal with celebrity and musician, whether thinly-veiled or not, but I'm also not saying that they work hand-in-hand either. I mentioned Velvet Goldmine as just another example of the sort of all-over-the-map-ness of I'm Not There. The Christian Bale/Julianne Moore segment was almost a boiled-down nugget of VG, from its talking-head exposes to its central figure's descent to obscurity into a form of religion.

I can appreciate I'm Not There in terms of an essay-film, but as an essay, its sprawling nature and near inconclusiveness wouldn't warrant it much praise if it were simply written on paper.

I also don't much understand your distinction between Margot and Squid.

Anonymous said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é http://www.provedorcrescenet.com . Um abraço.

-Mike said...

He spoke foreign things.

I think you're a bit too harsh on "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." It's a really solid, brutal crime film, from an 82-year-old man, that you had the misfortune of seeing right after "No Country For Old Men." I'd advise you give it another shot. I did thigs in the exact order you did (purely accidental, mind you) and found plenty to enjoy in Lumet's swan song (he's gonna die soon, right?).

You know my experience with Haynes is limited ("Velvet Goldmine" withstanding), but in retrospect "I'm Not There" is a mess I enjoyed very little of. I doubt I'll give it another shot either, but it may have made me interested in seeing his earlier work. And we both know "Margot Kidder At the Wedding" and I didn't necessarily agree either. Noah can do better, and we've seen it.

I now return to Grace Jones swining a very big stick in "Conan the Destroyer." Happy New Year, indeed.