Friday, October 14, 2011

Hush now…the grown-ups are talking

The Debt, directed by John Madden; The Tree of Life, directed by Terence Malick; Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen; Insidious, directed by James Wan; Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig; X-Men: First Class, directed by Michael Vaughn; Thor, directed by Kenneth Branaugh; The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom; Super 8, directed by J.J. Abrams; Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston; Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt; David Copperfield, illusionist; Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh; The Swarm, directed by Irwin Allen; Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman; A Serious Man, directed by Joel Coen; John Carpenter’s Halloween, directed by John Carpenter; Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller; The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney; Melancholia, directed by Lars von Triers; Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner; Flirting with Disaster, directed by David O. Russell; In Time, directed by Andrew Niccol  

The silly season ended, emphatically, with the arrival of The Debt in theaters: Captain America stepping aside, to let the Israelis have a crack at the Nazis.


You could make a really good movie that featured Helen Mirren sporting a dueling scar. The Debt is not that movie. That movie wouldn’t complete her look with an unflattering pantsuit, sensible shoes, and a babushka, and then ask her to compete with Jessica Chastain, playing the same character (riiight) in flashback – a Mossad agent used as bait to trap a Nazi concentration camp “doctor” (played by Jesper Christensen) and transport him to trial.

I wonder why the director or the producers, when they watched the dailies of the great scenes between Chastain and Christensen, didn’t ask for the rest of the movie to be re-written – or jettisoned. But they didn’t, and the result feels more like a trimmed-down television miniseries than a movie; and there the thing sits, serious and misshapen – in a word, adult; and summer is over.


I left the theater after The Debt reviewing my summer movie-going experience. How silly were the summer movies? Well, even the ringer, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, had CGI dinosaurs in it, so…pretty fucking silly.


Still, the season had its consolations: Paris looked fantastic in Midnight in Paris; Rose Byrne, likewise, in Insidious, Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class. Kenneth Branaugh’s Thor was more fun than anyone could have expected. The “dueling toasts” sequence in Bridesmaids and the “dueling Michael Caines” sequence in The Trip (another ringer) were both well-crafted showstoppers. Super 8 and Captain America: The First Avenger deftly recreated the vibe of late ‘70s/early ‘80s Steven Spielberg, a feat with which this moviegoer (at forty-seven years of age, gripped by nostalgia, eyes brimming with tears in the darkened cinema) could find no fault…and Rise of the Planet of the Apes finally sold me on the notion that Andy Serkis is a remarkable actor.


When all is said and done, though, here’s the problem with the summer movie season: one can remember Michael Fassbender’s performance in X-Men: First Class and think, Errol Flynn; but look at Michael Fassbender in a still from the movie and one’s first thought is, David Copperfield?


(I failed to mention 3-D because I just don’t care.)


Contagion had an intriguing ad campaign. Would American moviegoers buy a ticket to watch Gwyneth Paltrow die a horrible death? It turned out they would. (I think Contagion may currently be enjoying the longest first-run this year for a film not featuring Rose Byrne.)

I have no problem with Gwyneth Paltrow. I’ve usually enjoyed her acting, and I know little to nothing about her outside of her acting. I avoid celebrity news as much as possible. It’s easier than you may think.


Contagion splits the difference between the ‘50s creature-features I grew up watching on television (with scene after scene of scientists discussing the strange monster/alien menace that would not appear on camera until the final reel – in the form of a man in a rubber suit) and the ‘70s international-thrillers I grew up watching in theaters (with interstitial titles like “LISBON—May 14th,” and Omar Sharif/Nehemiah Persoff showing up in the second hour; here the role goes to Marion Cotillard, as sure a sign of movie-progress as I’ve ever seen.)

At times – and I can hardly express how happy this made me – I felt I was watching a really good update of Irwin Allen’s 1978 flop, The Swarm.


Here’s a typical exchange from The Swarm, lifted from the Internet Movie Database:

Jose Ferrer (Dr. Andrews): Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe. Fail-safe! The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, Doctor!

Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Hubbard): I appreciate that, Doctor. But let me ask you. In all your fail-safe techniques, is there a provision for an attack by killer bees?


In his recent book Shock Value, an entertaining brief history of ‘70s horror films, Jason Zinoman recounts how the low budget filmmakers of the era, like John Carpenter, addressed what they called “The Monster Problem.” Everyone who has seen a scary movie knows what they are referring to: The more the audience sees the monster, the less scary it is; but you have to show the audience the monster, or your movie is a rip-off.

Contagion is an adults-standing-around-talking movie, but it’s also a horror movie. (Any movie with this many actors, no matter how attractive, playing medical professionals is a horror movie.) I think it may be one of the best of its kind – the horror movie that can’t show the monster. (Another fine, recent example is the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man. It is a horror movie. The monster is God.)

Here is how Contagion solves the monster problem: Throughout the movie, as a scene ends, the camera lingers woozily behind, showing us handrails and doorknobs and bowls of peanuts for longer than we want to look at them. If this reminds you, as it did me, of the clutch of shots at the end of John Carpenter’s Halloween, showing the empty rooms and stairways and porches where Michael Myers had earlier materialized, I doubt it’s a coincidence. Contagion doesn’t have a boogeyman, but it shows us things to fear, and it keeps showing us the body bags.


Moneyball has a distinct advantage in the adults-standing-around-talking genre: A baseball game regularly intrudes on the talk.

The film hit theaters during the final days of the regular season for Major League Baseball, with the Wild Card spots in the playoffs still up for grabs. The TV ads framed the story as a father/daughter-relationship-drama starring Brad Pitt, presumably to fill seats with baseball-haters for the first month of release, and then (presumably, hopefully) get a second wind at the box office when the World Series ends. That’s a lot of baseball and a lot of Fridays, geniuses. The upshot is, Moneyball will be gone from the box office before a lot of baseball fans have a chance to see it, which is a shame, because it’s a very good movie, and baseball fans will appreciate it the most.

In a way, the monster problem surfaces in Moneyball too. The film begins with Pitt trying to cope with the fact that teams with more money have stolen away his star players, and ends with Pitt summoned to the lair of the very worst of said teams, to meet with its owner and have the price of his own soul gauged; as they converse in a luxury suite, a fabled left-field fence is visible in the background.

The monster in this film, in every sense, is green.


The Ides of March has an insurmountable problem. It’s not that the candidate played by George Clooney wouldn’t have made it to the Ohio Primary dodging the God question. It’s not that Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing opposing campaign managers, have but one scene together, and it’s a whiff.

No, the insurmountable problem is that a major character is played by a dead-eyed ingénue named Evan Rachel Wood, whose acting suggests she first met other humans on the day she reported to the set.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and, as with Juliette Lewis, I will slap my forehead seven years hence and say, “You know, she really is appealing.” But I just don’t see it happening.


I had thought that The Tree of Life would be the oddest perfume commercial I sat through this year. Then I watched Melancholia.


Judging by the trailers I’ve sat through lately, the serious season takes a hit in November. I’m excited that Tower Heist reunites Ben Stiller and Téa Leoni (who were both so funny in Flirting with Disaster, in 1996), but I’m not the least bit optimistic about it.

Still, I wonder if Tower Heist and In Time – a dystopian action  flick, set in a future where your time on earth is currency, and the peach-fuzzed underclass (represented by Justin Timberlake) surrender actual minutes of their lives to the smooth-skinned, increasingly-immortal corporate masters (represented by some smooth-skinned actor from the TV show “Mad Men”) for lattes and such – will be greeted by think-pieces on the rise of a new “Occupy Movement” film genre. Because that would be pretty fucking silly.

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