Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Seen in July 

There are very few things I love more than escaping the summer heat by retreating into an air conditioned theatre to watch a movie about people enjoying the summer. In theatre there is a term, synecdoche, appropriately Greek in origin which is when a singular word or phrase is a stand in for a longer term or larger idea (like saying "Ottawa" when you really mean the entire system of the Canadian federal bureaucracy). Or when the curtain rises on an interior in a Manhattan apartment which is really a set on a stage in Toronto but we all just accept that we the audience are there, in an apartment in another city in another country. The set on the stage is a stand in for another place which is itself inside a place in city within a country. Of course, this shared self-delusion and layering of experience happens all the time in film and theatre. Perhaps it's even a stranger phenomenon in film when we are watching a movie set in London, that was really filmed in a Hollywood studio that we are watching in a theatre in Toronto. For me, the somehow "meta" synecdoche of watching summer movies in the summer only adds to its dreamy otherworldliness and transports me much more easily than say a plane or ferry to a faraway vacation spot. Here's some of the transport I took in July.

Dakota Johnson in A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash
Tilda Swinton is a vacationing rock star recovering from vocal chord surgery and enjoying a holiday with her filmmaker boyfriend on a beautiful and remote Italian island when an old flame, played by Ralph Fiennes shows up with his beautiful daughter (Dakota Johnson). Their unexpected arrival causes ripples then waves and ultimately, a dangerous storm. Based on the 1969 film La Piscine the movie reminds me of a lot of other summer dramas involving sunbathing, swimming, meals, music, dance and, of course, tension (like Stealing Beauty, L'Avventura or La Collectionneuse). Ralph Fiennes is great as the enthusiastic old lover hoping to somehow tip a happy relationship into disarray. Tilda Swinton is unbelievably ageless while Dakota Johnson is sort of annoyingly perfect as the overly confident and coy ingenue looking to push whatever boundaries exist.

The Big Short
This dramatization of the 2008 housing collapse and economic crisis does a great job making bank fraud both memorable and entertaining. The marketing of this film almost made it seem like a financial whodunnit in the mould of Oceans 11 or something but it isn’t that at all. I have no idea if the characters were as larger than life as portrayed but would you care half as much if they weren’t? I felt Steve Carrell was a bit on the scenery-chewing side of things but the overwhelming madness of what happened (and for the most part what continues to happen) seems so incredible that no amount of extreme acting will ever capture our collective outrage. Worth watching with Margin Call, another excellent film about the same topic but told from within one of the banks going down.

Bryan Cranston as Trumbo

Speaking of scenery being chewed… this film is practically scenery salad. I’m not sure why films set in post war America tend to revert to near parody but this film flies pretty close. Set in the late 40s and 50s it is the story of Dalton Trumbo and his screenwriter cohort who were black listed from working in Hollywood for having an affiliation with capital “C” Communism and small “S” socialism. The absurdity of the time was the witch hunt of “Communists” failed to recognize that the most American thing about America is tolerance for other ideas and the freedom to talk about them. It seems odd in retrospect that the courts did nothing to counter the narrative that hounding someone for their beliefs seems a tad unconstitutional but I’ve only recently learned that the American court system explicitly avoided political matters to avoid an activist legal system (another quaint and arcane idea). Bryan Cranston is great as Trumbo but it did seem the cast were not all on the same memo. Particularly Louis CK who is very good in his part, but he isn’t hamming it up like everyone else so he kind of stands out as not “acting”. Personally I think the rest of the cast could have turned their performances down a bit but damn it all to hell if Hollywood doesn’t just love a story as self-important as this one. I think Hail, Caesar! as a comedy was better served by that style of big acting than Trumbo is. After all, one can’t help but sense the naiveté of some of these characters who thought being right was the same thing as justice.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The story of this sit-com is told in every opening. Rebecca was a hard working but depressed New York lawyer, who, after a chance meeting with Josh, of an old teen-age flame, decides to leave her promotion and NYC to head to West Covina, California. Josh just happens to live there but that’s not why she moved (it is). This is an odd sitcom that uses musical numbers set within internal fantasies to further the plot and the characters’ inner feelings. The songs are very funny and a mash-up of styles from the great American songbook to hip hop videos. This is also another show that has a female lead frankly dealing with mental illness and some very worrying character traits in a very funny way. I mean, let’s be honest, the idea of an intelligent and successful woman leaving her career behind to move to a rinky-dink law firm in a small town to be near the object of her infatuation is a funny set up in a way that would never be true if Rebecca was a man. Then that would be called the Zodiac Killer and scare the crap out of all of us. Although, it is revealed later that Rebecca also has her own stalker but he’s quickly emasculated and sent packing.

Jerome contemplating the titular knee in Claire's Knee

Claire’s Knee
One of Eric Rohmer’s “morality tales” (I think he made six films thematically connected) from 1970 which never once asks if it’s okay for a 35-year-old man to pursue a sixteen-year-old girl. Jerome is the man in question and he is on holiday alone for one last time before marrying his finance when he meets an old (platonic) friend Aurora. Aurora is a writer and is stuck without an ending for a story and she has no idea how it would end, unless of course Jerome finds out for her by attempting to woo (there’s no seduction intended here just the winning of the heart) either one of two teenage girls staying in the same summer home. The set-up is a kind of Dangerous Liaisons. I have to say the first thing that comes to mind when watching this film is how it has no emotional impact at all and the dialogue at time sounds, well, like people trying to fake intelligence by acting like “intelligensia”, but they are all terrible actors. No one who has ever written about this film ever seems to mention how terrible the acting is. It’s incredible that it never comes up. There are several scenes where an actor looks into the camera, unintentionally, but they just keep going. Also, they say the lines almost as if reading them from a cue card. I get the questions Rohmer is posing and reaching for and to see Jerome rejected by the beautiful Claire is occasionally funny and profound, and his final manipulation of her is really icky but it’s all delivered with a rush as though they had to wrap up filming in time for a wine and cheese break. This is certainly the kind of film international audiences would see and think, ugh, the French, they like melancholy because it looks cool to be sad with a cigarette. (See Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s “Sexy French Depression”)

I have no idea why everyone was freaking out about this all female cast remake of Ghostbusters. The entire cast is great and really funny… except Leslie Jones… I’m kidding, Jones is great (inside Twitter joke - oh wait, Twitter is full of homophobic misogynistic racist a-holes which Twitter will do nothing about - it’s not an inside joke, it’s a terrible problem with the platform). One problem is that somehow people forgot that the original Ghostbusters wasn’t that great - it’s no Back to the Future, people. It was good and funny but not epically so and neither is this film. The other problem is that the very likeable director Paul Feig isn’t as good at directing as he is at being likeable. Or maybe it’s just the editing. It’s like every joke was landed with room for an audience laugh track but there wasn’t one. The jokes were funny. The actors were funny but no laughter. I found the same thing with The Heat. It and Ghostbusters felt edited together like a bonus blooper reel with simply bad timing. Timing and pace are so crucial to a movie’s success. I look at something like Guardians of the Galaxy that was 2 hours long but felt like a tight 90 minutes. Similarly with a Bourne film, overly long yet they feel just right. Ghostbusters just hit the wrong beat in all but a few scenes. It’s no one’s fault. Oh wait, I think it’s Paul Feig’s fault. Sorry Mr. Feig. I don’t get it, Bridesmaids was great…

Scotty and Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond
Pew pew pew! Although this is actually the third film of the popular sci-fi series redux, it feels like the first original story line that deviates from versions of previous outings. The first film was the old J.J. Abrams set-up reversal using a worm hole to create an alternate timeline, which allowed the second to be a retelling of the “Khan” story. Yet this film, co-written by Simon Peg who plays Scotty, is full of nods and winks to fans and subtext for the critics. We find both Captain Kirk and Spock considering leaving Star Fleet for differing reasons just when a mysterious distress call from beyond a nearby nebula beckons the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Just when Kirk thought there was nothing left to explore and Spock thinks he is more useful elsewhere this new adventure pulls them back into the fray and off we go with phasers blasting and rockets blaring. It’s a thrill a second kind of thing with refreshingly expanded female roles because… well, because it’s 2016. Oh and for some reason they find a way to use the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage which is fun.

We are the male gaze in this scene from La Collectionneuse

La Collectionneuse
Boy, Haydée, the beautiful object of male gazes in this 1967 film gets called a lot of horrible things in this movie, like “slut” and “whore” but she only seems bothered by being called a “collector”? By which they mean a collector of men. This is another of Eric Rohmer’s moral tales, by which I think he means movies in which horny French dudes try to intellectualize their horniness. One fun aspect of this is that just when the protagonist decides to let down his guard and have the beautiful lass, he’s left alone (almost like he had given up smoking and now decided to have one – I’m joking of course, everyone, including dogs and babies smoke in French movies). A Bigger Splash (see above) really reminds me of these French summering films where people spend time thinking too much, lying in the sun, swimming in the ocean and driving from town to town in little Citroën Méhari SUVs.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 2
Didn’t I say I was going to avoid films with “:” in the title? This film is such a long set-up to finally having a climax we’ve all been waiting for that never happens. Katniss as a symbol of the revolution again defies expectations as the rebels have the upper hand against the “Capital” and evil leader Snow but she is still torn between her loves of Gale and Peetah and the names don’t get any better do they? I never did figure out the physics and technology of the world these characters inhabit. It seems like a pretty obvious retelling of the end of the Roman Empire when barbarians at the gates would no longer stand to pay tributes to Rome’s leaders. Yet there are even more obvious overtures to our current mass media, reality shows, network news and social media hysteria which I suppose gives important insights somehow. For me the anti-ending and long epilogue worked against this film and the entire series.

Archer Season 7
Archer is as Archer does. The once world’s greatest super-spy who would relocate from New York to Miami to become a drug smuggler has wound up as a private detective in Los Angeles somehow. It’s all just a ruse to get Archer and his gang of lunatic colleagues into various nefarious goings-ons. Again, not all cartoons are for kids, so, you know - no kids.

Monuments Men
Like Trumbo, this film set during WWII suffers from some actors deciding they would act like an actor from the 40s and others didn’t get the same note. It’s the story of a squad of academics who sought to protect great works of art from the thieving Nazis as Germany retreated across Europe. This is one of those narrative films based on real events that might have been more compelling as a documentary. It has a stellar “Oceans 11” like cast with George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Balaban and others. Its well run plot walks at an even pace towards a satisfying end but that means it never really gets going and the emotional high points feel manipulative and predictable which I guess is another way of saying dull.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Again, all films with a “:” in the title are probably crap. This 3 hour long movie finds us months after Superman has been revealed to the world in his epic battle against General Zod. One half of the world wants to crown Superman as a new saviour while the other half just want to crown him. Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, is in the crowning camp and sees Superman as the untrustworthy other that should be stopped - though no real reason is given for this line of reasoning other than a really confusing dream sequence, which, did I say was very confusing? Superman on the other hand wants to stop the Batman from his increasingly violent vigilantism. Into the fray enter Lex Luther who wishes very much to see the two destroy one another while he (from out of the blue it should be said) decides to resurrect General Zod for no other reason than to see it happen. It’s this new threat that not only draws the two heroes together but also draws out Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) who decides to battle alongside these hapless jocks based on a single e-mail from Bruce Wayne. After watching one man fly and another dress up like a bat, one of the least realistic things is that Wonder Woman travels in coach with a Louis Vuitton bag stowed in the overhead compartment. I mean, let’s get real here. Anyway, the mess of disjointed scenes and tangled plots and characters feels a whole lot more like a 3 hour long advert for four other films as we see glimpses of Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and the beginnings of the Justice League. I will say one positive thing about this movie: it had a really great score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. I’m not being pithy here, it had really great music and certainly stands out from the typical action, adventure and fantasy stuff.

There is no escaping that Matt Damon is Jason Bourne

Jason Bourne
No “:” - whew, and yet, maybe it should have. It wasn’t that this was a bad movie but simply it was exactly, to the beat, like the previous three films. Bourne has become a drifter escaping as an underground bare knuckle fighter to what, allow himself be beat senseless to fight his demons or something? His previous colleague, Nicky, has also gone underground acting like an Edward Snowden-like hacker of CIA secrets. She’s found something that she wants to get to Bourne - how could you miss a file labeled “Black Ops”? This is really just what Hitchcock called the “McGuffin” - that thing to get the story and characters moving. But if you’ve seen any Bourne film, you’ve seen it all before. One thing I did notice was the baddy is always a senior citizen aged white guy and Bourne’s inside help is always an attractive white female. Maybe it’s nothing but the fact that an aging Julia Stiles is replaced with the youthful Alicia Vikander seems like a typical Hollywood move. The climactic chase scene which begins with an active shooter in a public place and ends with a massive truck ploughing through cars seemed less like a fantasy action sequence and more like another terrible news event which kind of dampened its impact by making trifle out of violence that we’ve seen all too often.

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