August has been a very busy month for me with very little blogging, and on the late August night that I'm composing this to publish a day or two later I've ended up making a choice to stay at home and watch some tennis and do some blogging instead of going to see a movie or two (Frozen River, Traitor) that I do want to see and hope I'll see sometime but at the same time am not thinking I'll have mental issues if I don't get around to it.
So a quick round-up of the other movies I did go to see during the month of August, along with the heroin double-bill that I saw on the 23rd. And when I say August was a busy month... I went three weeks between seeing a movie, from Tell No One on July 27 to the three movies I talk about below on August 17. That is a very very long time for me to go without seeing a movie, and I can promise you it's not at all by happy choice.
Man on Wire, Seen Sunday August 17, 2008 at Clearview's First & 62nd St. Cinema, auditorium #5. 1 Slithy Toad.
Swing Vote, Seen Sunday August 17, 2008 at AMC Loews 84th St., auditorium #1. 3 Slithy Toads.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Seen Sunday August 17, 2008 at AMC Empire, auditorium #7. 2.5 Slithy Toads
Death Race, Seen Sunday August 24, 2008 at AMC Empire, auditorim # 9. 2.5 Slithy Toads.
Pineapple Express, Seen Sunday August 24, 2008 at AMC Empire, auditorium #4, 2.5 Slithy Toads.
Man on Wire was definitely the most disappointing of the films. It's a documentary about Philippe Petit, the highwire artist who in 1974 took a walk from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other. The very idea of it has such an immense charm, even without the memory we now have of 9-11. The movie was very favorably reviewed. But I found it boring, and in fact dozed off for chunks of it without feeling at all guilty like I was missing something. And I thought it had the least to say about the event that should have been at its center. For one, there's a lot of wonderful actual footage of Petit's earlier walk between the towers of Notre Dame cathedral in France, but the footage of the World Trade walk is just not as good. We rarely get the same sense of the majesty, of the daring, of the time he spent up there, of the back-and-forth (we're told 8 times going across) of the WTC walk. I guess you can say "but, well, it was much higher up, and you couldn't have the cameras on the ground, and it was much easier to film the walk at Notre Dame so there's more footage and they used what they could and you can't blame them for that." But then I would respond: film is a visual medium, and if they didn't have good footage of the WTC walk then maybe they should have opted against making a film about it, and if they did have better footage then they should have used a lot more of it. I at least would have enjoyed more watching a non-stop take of the walk across the towers with voice-over and maybe an occasional cutaway of how it came to pass than the film that was made. And on account of 9-11 and the sheer audacity of the idea there's an argument to be made that it's still better to have this flawed film to recount than no film at all, but then part of me likes the vague recollection of this taking place that I've always had in the back of my mind from my long-distant youth, to the recollection of dozing through this movie. The movie also falls apart in providing too little explanation of the technical aspects of the walk. The main wire needs to be supported with two cross-wires, and I still don't know how that was accomplished 1000+ feet up in the air, and if you're going to make this movie but can't really get that to come across clearly and completely then I just don't think you should bother.
The next four movies I started out giving a uniform rating of 2.5 toads and then decided I had to be a little kinder to Swing Vote. It's not entirely successful, but it's heart is in the right place and it's really trying to say something in the form of a genuinely popular entertainment, which we just don't see much these days. Movies that say something are supposed to be ghettoized in the art house, and this movie that tried to be mainstream ended up doing less business than some art house movies and was rather too dumped on by the critics and deserves a little better than it got. Like a lot of the actors in a lot of the movies I saw this August, Kevin Costner has had his ups and downs, but there's no denying he can be an actor of considerable charm as he's shown in Bull Durham and Tin Cup, and here he manages to charm me even while playing the lovable drunk character that I usually find repulsive. How does he do that? I mean, people who are druggies and drunks and make lives harder for the rest of us including their friends and their loved ones and their co-workers are not nice people but yet we don't go around jailing them or killing them or ostracizing them as much as I sometimes wish we should, and there must be a reason for that. Costner somehow manages to embody that part of some of these people that works, a kind of charm or likeability that makes you put up with it, while at the same time making it clear that he's really not such a nice guy; we see in his daughter that there's real harm done to real people, though in the real world I'm not sure the daughter would come out as well for wear as she does here. There's also a surprisingly audacious supporting turn for a mainstream movie by Mare Winningham as the mother who is even worse off than daddy is. The two fake ads in the movie, of a pro-choice Democratic presidential candidate (Dennis Hopper) on a playground full of disapperaing children to show his new-found belief in the sanctity of life, and of the Republican President (Kelsey Grammer) doing a similar turn to pander on behalf of gay rights, are as good in their way as the fake trailers at the start of Tropic Thunder. They're certainly on point. One critic I'd read on this movie says its a bit smarter than you'd expect without being quite as smart as you'd want, and I think that's an on point comment. And I wouldn't disagree with the capsule from The New Yorker that references Capra and John Ford. On its third weekend, the film was down to just a handful of shows at 2 theatres in Manhattan. The show I attended at the old sloped floor 84th St. mutliiplex had maybe two dozen people. The movie deserves better, and I hope it will do better on its video afterlife. And the sound and projector light cut out just as the end credits began, and I think I was the only person in the audience who complained to management instead of just bitching amongst themselves how awful this was.
So I took my pass for a free movie, walked down Broadway grabbing a quick bite at the Fairway buffet to nosh on the run, and made my way to the AMC Empire where I exchanged my freebie for...
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which is the best film Woody Allen has done in many many many many years, perhaps since Crimes and Misdemeanors which I saw at the Loews Tower East (now the AMC Loews 72nd St. East) in 1989. The writing is very very smart in this one. I think I might have been won over by an early scene when the two young US ladies visiting Spain for the summer are having a first night dinner with their hosts, an older couple of US expats. The scene is sparklingly spot-on with the dialogue brisk and quick and exactly like what you might expect to hear or speak if you were living these lines for yourself. These two young ladies are quickly romanced by a suave Javier Bardem (much nicer watching him here than in the highly overrated No Country for Old Men), quickly bedding him in opposite order of likelihood, soon joined by a surprisingly good Penelope Cruz, and moving quickly along to a bittersweet end to their summer. A lot of critics have compared this to Truffaut's Jules and Jim, which I wouldn't do because I know saw Jules and Jim but I don't think liked it very much. A lot of the movie is advanced through narration which some people say is a good thing and some a bad thing, and I will say it's a good thing. As one of the pro critics pointed it, the narration allows the movie to move along since it can spend less time explaining things, and if I don't like voice over as a general rule this is one of those exceptions where it works. A lot of critics have compared the invigorating effect of filming in Barcelona with that of Woody's move to London for Match Point, but I liked this more than Match Point. Part of it is maybe that I go to London every year for London Book Fair so I didn't get a lot of voyeuristic pleasure out of that movie while I've never been to Barcelona or anywhere else in Spain for that matter and could totally enjoy the art candy. I'll just come back to that early on foursome at dinner that's so smartly written. We see movies and get used to accepting a kind of movie-speak that works for the medium, and here there's something real on the screen that works both as a movie and as an actual reproduction of the real. The movie is too small and modest for me to give it more than a modest recommendation, and there's been so much bad Woody Allen over the years that saying a movie is his best in a long time can be seen as damning with faint praise. But I don't mean it that way; this is a smart and pleasant way to spend 90 minutes, and I do recommend it. One of my brothers saw this as an anniversary movie and liked it rather less, but that's why you shouldn't pay any attention to him if he starts blogging about movies.
A week later I returned to the AMC Empire for Death Race and then Pineapple Express, and I'll deal a little bit more briefly on the subject of both since my time budget for this blog post is about to expire.
Death Race looked like its coming attraction like a perfectly pleasant piece of muscular action filmmaking with a little bit of a gloss on it, and that's about what it is. Big on cars, big on crashes, big on cliches, big on pleasure if you think you might like this sort of thing. And if you think you might like it, you probably will, and if you don't think it's your cup of tea I won't be dragging you into the theatre after me. A lot of movies from the Judd Apatow repertory company have turned me off totally, and I even walked out on 40 Year Old Virgin. I was prepared to give this 20 minutes and then go down the hall to Hamlet 2 if I wasn't liking it. That didn't happen. I had a pleasant time at this and again modestly recommend. On the strong plus side, James Franco does give a surprisingly strong performance as a marijuana dealer who lives life perpetually stoned, and pairs well with Seth Rogen. The humor isn't forcing itself the way these films sometimes do; 40 Year Old Virgin had this awful insistence that it was funny just to repeat curse words louder and longer, and that not so much the case here. The ending of this movie is pretty bad, loud and long and unpleasant in a way that Tropic Thunder maybe should have been but I didn't thing was. And the production values of the movie are cheap enough to be distracting, reminding me of a bad low-budget John Candy movie from long ago whose name I've put out of my mind.
As a final note, I saw Superman: The Movie in August as well at the Bryant Park Film Festival. It had the largest crowd for any movie I've ever seen at Bryant Park. I barely found a few square feet for my friend and I just a half hour after the lawn opened, and then more people kept asking if the square yard that we hadn't put a bag on was room enough for one which I'm sorry to say honestly it really wasn't. This was, is, always will be for me, the 4 Toad exemplar of what a superhero movie should be. I love this movie on so many levels, and it was wonderful to love it again for a night with a few thousand people al fresco in the heart of New York City.
Will I see Frozen River, having blown it off? Or Traitor? If I don't, I can only hope that reading these comments gives many hours of pleasure to Lisa and Armand and whomever else actually reads this blog.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.