Won-Ton Movie Over-Load

Awards season is almost here.

In some ways, the inanity of it all gets you.

A whole year full of movies and indie producers and pushers expect you to pay attention for just about a span of one month.

Is the Academy to blame? Sometimes. They certainly do pick shitty movies to win their awards from time to time (Read: Crash, Slumdog Millionaire) but in honest and in earnest, it would seem, they’ve attempted a feat of getting people to see-slash-consider more movies throughout the year by expanding their roster of “Best Picture” nominees to 10. This means that good movies from the summer that might be partially forgotten by the time academy season rolls around (Read: The Hurt Locker) might actually not only be in contention for an Oscar, but with a potential split between Oscar-hogging movies, might actually sneak in and win an award.

It’s exciting, in a way. But still, the fact remains: unless you are unemployed, down on friends and are hell-bent on depleting whatever savings you might have left on going to a theater to sit in seats where you’re lucky if what you just stepped on was gum, you haven’t seen most of the movies worthy of consideration in this small time.

Who could possibly have such an insane bent, such an aversion to daylight, anti-social behavior and participation in murky, unsavory activities?

If you guessed one of the vampires from that new-fucking Vampire-hyphen-Werewolf movie that made a lot of money while maintaining Mormon value overtones, you probably guessed incorrectly: I’m a jew.

Anyway, here are the films.

***

I’ve been a fan of Andersonian melodrama ever since Rushmore, which appealed to the stifled low-performing nerd in me, and The Royal Tenenbaums, which still stands for me as Anderson’s masterpiece. I discovered Bottle Rocket afterwards and deemed it a worthy debut, if not overly affected by the Reservoir Dogs fever of the day. I panned the last two films he’s made, justly as it would seem the community has vindicated those choices (though mob-rule doesn’t always speak right). The Life Aquatic seemed to airy to me, too focused on style, too obsessive about Anderson’s own love of his wacky compositions: too concentrated on the quirkyness of his story as opposed to the story itself. The Darjeeling Limited suffered from the same sort of flaw, an attempted homage to Indian cinema that was all about Whitey, as brashly colonial and ignorant of its surroundings, as the Brit-influenced train of the film’s title. In short, Anderson had drank his own Kool-Aid, embraced his own narcissistic qualities, sometimes abetted by fellow hep-cats Noah Baumbach and Jason Schwartzman. The Fantastic Mr. Fox offered him a way out of that narcissism, a chance to create a movie of pure imagination without branding it as a “Wes Anderson” movie in a way that drew attention to itself. Like Tim Burton, he could lose himself in animation every so often to rejuvenate his sense of the possible. I admit worry when I saw Meryl Streep and George Clooney heading up the cast for Fox, but they were fine in the film and I shouldn’t have worried about Streep particularly, an actress capable of disappearing when the part calls for it, like she did in Mamma Mia!. The movie itself felt fun and mostly sly and glib and occasionally triumphant as a movie about a fox (or a Roald Dahl book) should. But what it wasn’t was great. Like Where The Wild Things Are (the superior of the two, by a bit), Fox suffers from some poor music choices, rock and brit-invasion stuff, that Anderson peps in. There’s also some stuff about karate that feels tacked in, a weird character called Kristofferson and a bumbling subservient (like Pagoda or the kid whose mom Max wants to bang in Rushmore). In short, Anderson has made Fantastic Mr. Fox into a Wes Anderson movie, to its detriment. Every element is composed and planned: wacky, but only ever in the exact way Anderson intended it to be. There is no joy of discovery to be had as we had meeting the Things in Wild Things, nor are their ways to think about the way that memory evolves, like the best animated film of they year, Up!. Instead, we get what we planned for, what we paid for, nothing more. Anderson would be a better filmmaker if he took more risks and let a wacky world evolve from his characters organically, even a little bit. Instead he’s only a good-kind of children’s storyteller:

The one who tells the children what he wants to tell them and not what they want to hear.

***

The Messenger feels like the exact sort of movie I wouldn’t see in an off-year. An “American indie” with its street-cred from Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son), it tackles “difficult” “contemporary” “issues” with some hottie Shia LeBoeuf wannabe and a fat Samantha Morton. And what I described is essentially just accurate. But those missing The Messenger will miss the best performance of the year so far and one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a man left behind by history I’ve ever seen. Sgt. Stone, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson, is a veteran of Desert Storm, “the first Gulf War” who speaks admiring of Kuwaiti prostitutes as he tilts back in forth between nights of pretty bartenders and messy alcoholic binges. He is required by his duty, as he’s assumed, to inform the relatives of men killed in action that their child is gone, a task he is both perfect for and which destroys him utterly. A soldier, a “POG” as Ben Foster accuses him of being in the film, who is a victim not of gun-fire or PTSD, but of the Army’s machismo: that he joined to be a hero, but never got the chance. Instead he crawls with envy, hatred, sympathy and distance as he coldly approaches the designated Next-of-Kin. He is the most complciated non-warrior I’ve seen in cinema and it’s Mr. Harrelson’s performance (and to a lesser degree, Mr. Moverman’s writing) that has created him. If the only the movie was aboout Mr. Harrelson’s Sgt. Stone as opposed to the over-acting Mr. Foster’s wounded private and his relationship with a terribly miscast Samantha Morton. Still, to see Harrelson act in such a movie and such a way, is something retro in a good way, a call back to when good actors worked in hack jobs for money in the sort of films that got made because they were on schedule to be made and for little other reason.

***

I almost feel like side-stepping the controversy around Precious. In all honestly, I don’t feel qualified to speak about it. Perhaps I’ll just put it my two cents and then just bow out. As I might have noted before, Lee Daniels, the director of the film, had what amounted to a monstrous portrait of himself and his movie in The New York Times (“The Audactiy of Precious”) which seemed to be entirely justified in its villainy of him. It depicted him as an opportunistic joker, accosting Helen Mirren when she broke her shoe in the sidewalk and looking at his watch hand to see how long/hard a European audience would clap for an “authentic” portrayal of “American black folks”. In short, it seemed like exploitation and those often guilty of such things (Oprah, Tyler Perry) joined in with endorsements, making it seem all the more true.

All of this seemed to be at odds with the film I saw, which while melodramatic and over-the-top, seemed to strenuously avoid exploitation and condescension to its obvious target protagonist. Terrible thing are heaped upon Precious–two unasked-for children, thrown TVs, sexual-abuse from all sides and AIDS just for starters–but in a seemingly non-forced way, she just never gives up. As a protagonist, her strongest resemblance is to Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull, whose only real obstacle was his own lack of character and intelligence, but is the only other leading character I can remember with such believable tenacity. Precious doesn’t give up because she realizes her own strength, because she is able to accept and experience everything that happens to her. Because she sees and is articulate. Obviously, she is a symbol that transcends race and position, a metaphor for the need of self-expression and transcending obstacles and boundaries.

How it does it without feeling exploitative? I couldn’t tell you. Except there seems to be humor and reality in Precious’s classroom and none of her desires seem absurd. The actress Gabourney Sidibe portraying her plays it easy and never assumes an “acting” stance.

Honestly, I’m befuddled. I don’t know how to reconcile the Daniels I read about with his film. But as it is is going now, he could be the first gay or black person to win best director or best picture. Hollywood does love that sort of story.

***

What can I say? Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?

Well.

It was fun.

As my friend Rob-Mostly-Gotten-Back-His-Beardo pointed out, like its predecessor (in whatever way), it was a well-done B-movie with an ace leading performance. Is Harvey Keitel a better actor than Nicholas Cage? I would say yes, or at leas the’s more to my tastes, though Cage is often excellent and here especially.

Cage has a devotion in BL:POCNO that verges on the insane, something that Werner Herzog is, well, perfectly poised to understand. All I can really say is good job Edward R. Pressman. I’m sure a million fucking people told you were absolutely bonkers to make a sequel to an indie NC-17 B-movie wihere a nun gets raped and devirginized by a crucifix, also with none of the same cast. But somehow–SOMEHOW–you got a pretty perfect combination here of wacky actors and wacky directors, all using their style in good harmony with the script. In short, you made a good movie.

Bravo.

Are their problems? Of course there are problems! It’s a B-movie! I assume as in Entourage, Werner Herzog didn’t give Eva Mendes any direction because he thinks she sucks (and thus she does, a self-fulfilling prophecy). Also, the script is often questionable, verging on the fact that this “bad lieutenant” is particularly sanitized from Abel Ferrara’s mad-cap Catholic fuck-a-thon. He’s not actually that bad. He saves peoples’ lives at great risk to himself, he gets his criminals, he even gets his hooker girlfriend on the straight-and-low. He doesn’t murder anyone and there aren’t even the crazy-long shooting-up scenes from the first film. “Unorthodox and Probably Insane but Pretty Damn Effective Lieutenant” could have been the title of this movie, if not for space constraints.

In the end though, a simple question, one often asked to movie critics: Should you see this?

Answer: Of course! Where are else are you going to get crazy Nic Cage antics, Werner Herzog-induced fish-eye iguana-shots and a cackling performance by mid-level rapper Xzibit?

I bet my friend Jason Lee just creamed in his pants.

***

One last note.

I recently saw The Brother-Sister Plays over at the Public Theater with curly-gurl Christa (for the first one) and my sister (for all three). I was glad I found people to see them with, which was difficult even after Brantley compared the playwright to Eugene O’Neil and Sam Shepard in the same paragraph. As I expected, the comparison is not really true, or at the least, overstated. Both of those artists have an emotional connection in their dialogue that push pin-pricks and stabs into the audience’s mind. They are unafraid to grab at your thoughts and hold them against the wourld they are trying to show you, a twisted tableau out of their minds that you know, when translated, might echo back to you. Another obvious comparison to the playwright of these plays, Alvin McCraney, might be the non-naturalist Suzan Lori-Parks, who is also black and whose plays tackle with ebullient style “the issues” as they might be.

Mr. McCraney doesn’t have that skill yet. He’s only 29. But what he does have is storytelling ability, the ability to connect myth to reality and sprinkle in history and family too, in a way that might be attributed to his old master August Wilson, or probably more accurately, to another gay minority artist, Tony Kushner. Mr. Kushner is above all else an alchemist, spinning the many worries of Jews and men into concoctions that are often funny and outrageous and always broadly ambitious. If Mr.McCraney doesn’t dream on this scale yet, he’s on his way with The Brother/Sister Plays. The first play, The Red and Brown Water is the weakest, but still memorable, a tale of a young runner and the things she can’t escape. The second and third plays, The Brothers Size and Marcus involve family and the search for identity. All of them involve the issues of the world, the details of everyday life and the inter-connectedness of community.

To my peers, the plays are only 20 dollars a piece (40 for all three). They can be seen all on a Saturday, a Sunday or both as I did.

Theater is a throwback which stirs thoughts inside you. It may not always be as crafted as film. But unlike film it is immediate and cannot be denied.

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3 Responses to Won-Ton Movie Over-Load

  1. too many poets, not enough poetry says:

    judging from interviews i’ve read i’ve extrapolated that jason lee is extremely selective with his orgasms, at least to the extent that he does not allow himself to have them when he’s wearing pants (re: jason lee probably creamed his pants)
    in fact he’d probably consider such a statement mildly libelous at its most benign, and at its worst, a hateful and pornographic misunderstanding of his capital-C-Character.

  2. Lisa says:

    So glad you’re finally writing again that it almost makes me want to go out and see Precious (even though I know it will be very difficult to watch). I am delighted by the plethora of “children’s” films out this fall by directors well-known for other genres. I really liked FMF except for the ending. It is/was a delicious treat and a bit naughty, which is exactly what I love about Roald Dahl. Thanks for your not-so-capsule-more-like-liquigel reviews. Looking forward to more.

  3. too many poets, not enough poetry says:

    taken from toomanypoets:

    i know that somewhere inside that script is a film armond white loves: my shot-for-shot remake with kathy bates in blackface playing both sidibe and m’o’n’ique’ roles who’s on board?

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