Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Muriels Sprint 2010- Part the First

For four years now, the lead-up to the Muriel Awards has caused me to look back at the films I watched in the past year. And with this looking back has come the invariable assessment of the movies I haven’t yet seen. Because of this, it has become an annual tradition for me to view as many eligible releases as possible throughout the month of January so as to leave as few stones unturned as possible before filling out my ballot. I’ve taken to calling it “The Muriels Sprint”- a full-on, month-long cinematic cram session.

And since I’m all about keeping you folks in the loop (the title of a movie I’ve already seen that probably won’t be watched again during the Muriels Sprint), I’ll be posting some thoughts on every Muriel-eligible movie I see over the next month. Nothing fancy, mind you- just a few sentences worth of review, along with a list of categories in which the movie could potentially contend. And since I’m going to be fairly busy with everything else in my life on top of the movies themselves, I reserve the right not to finish any movie that isn’t doing it for me. Generally, I’ll give it an hour before shutting it off, but this isn’t by any means a hard and fast rule, as you’ll see below.

Now, without further Apu…

Title: Up in the Air
Director: Jason Reitman
Potential nominations: Male Lead (George Clooney), Female Supporting (Anna Kendrick).
Notes: Since his debut four years ago with Thank You For Smoking, Jason Reitman has become Hollywood’s reigning king of “pretty good” movies, which are sturdily made and boast some fine acting, but don’t really make a very deep dent in my memory. Up in the Air is par for the course for him, although of the three he’s done it’s probably the best. Clooney gives a fine star turn as a guy who treasures his solitary, forever-on-the-go lifestyle, while Kendrick is predictably awesome as the young tyro he takes under his wing. Some timely plot points about our current economic conundrum have given some reviewers the impression that this is a Movie of Our Time, but it’s best enjoyed as a classy, star-driven character study. Demerits for a script that’s often distractingly on-the-nose, as well as a somewhat misguided revelation involving a fellow traveler played by Vera Farmiga (who’s also good here). Still, hard to hate a movie that contains a scene as good as the one between Clooney and J.K. Simmons. If this dominates the Oscars, you won’t hear me complain.
Rating (out of 10): 6.

Title: Humpday
Director: Lynn Shelton
Potential nominations: Best Film, Director (Shelton), Male Supporting (Joshua Leonard), Screenplay.
Notes: If nothing else, Humpday is fascinating in the way it affords audience members a glimpse at male bonding rituals as seen through the eyes of a woman. Had this been made by a male filmmaker, Ben and Andrew’s antics would no doubt have been portrayed as charmingly dunderheaded, a la Step Brothers. But because Shelton is under no obligation to defend the male gender, she portrays her quasi-heroes as the machismo-driven idiots they clearly are, unwilling to back down from the asinine challenge they’ve set for themselves. But in coming up with their particular challenge- namely, to film themselves having gay sex with each other (they’re both straight, by the way) for a local art-porn festival- Shelton is also to be commended for tackling some fruitful thematic territory. Not only does she hold up to scorn the male-infantilization culture that has become more prevalent in the last decade or so, but she also tackles the balls-before-brains “No Fear” undercurrent of this culture, while sending it careening smack-dab into the barely-buried homophobia that still afflicts many men (and women) today. Plus it’s really funny. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on how much of Ben and Andrew you can tolerate. But what can I say- I laughed.
Rating: 8.

Title: Adventureland
Director: Greg Mottola
Potential nominations: Male Supporting (Martin Starr), Ensemble Performance.
Notes: Comparisons with Dazed and Confused are a little excessive, but Adventureland is a little charmer all the same. Perhaps the best thing about the film is how lived-in its eighties-era setting is. Mottola never calls too much attention to the period in the that kitschy “I Love the 80s” way of most Hollywood movies set during the Members Only decade, but allows them to become a natural element of the story, as when the midway employees depair of having to listen to the Musik Express play “Rock Me Amadeus” for the 20th time that day. Likewise, I dug how the movie didn’t demonize its potentially villainous characters- even the married handyman (played by Ryan Reynolds) who’s having an affair with Kristen Stewart isn’t a flat-out bad guy (plus I love how his bit about jamming with Lou Reed pays off). Unfortunately, Mottola can’t resist throwing in some forced slapstick, such as the guy who repeatedly socks our hero (Jesse Eisenberg) in the balls, or the barn-door-broad characterizations of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Still, when the movie concentrates on the realities of working a soul-sucking summer job, and the fun one can have with it when the boss isn’t looking, it’s pretty great. And Martin Starr is awesome, obviously.
Rating: 7.

Title: Thirst
Director: Chan-wook Park
Potential nominations: none.
Notes: With each passing movie, it becomes harder for me to push past Park’s ugly worldview. In Oldboy, the filmmaking was so kinetic that one barely had time to think about the subtext, but one of the biggest problems I had with Thirst was that the direction was so slack that I could hardly think of anything else. It’s not enough that the female lead be engaged to a man she can’t stand, but Park shows her as being groomed for the part from childhood, and dominated by her goonish fiancĂ© and abusive mother-in-law-to-be. In addition, the dichotomy between protagonist Song Kang-ho’s good and evil sides (he’s a priest and healer, but he’s also a vampire who’s carrying on an affair with the betrothed heroine) is interesting up to a point, but Park really doesn’t do anything interesting with these opposing forces in his life. I wasn’t really digging it from the get-go, and I finally gave up about an hour or so in, during a hallucination in which the vampire priest humps away at his lover and the smiling body of one of his victims appears sandwiched between them. Man, classy AND subtle- Thirst has it all!
Rating: Not applicable.

Title: Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Potential nominations: none.
Notes: I have no doubt that first-time director Gervasi (longtime Anvil fan, one-time Anvil follower) was completely sincere in his desire to give the band he loves a documentary tribute. However, it’s sort of amazing how comfortably Anvil! fits the template that was laid down by This Is Spinal Tap a quarter-century ago. Of course, many of Anvil’s woes are similar to those faced by any number of bands who’ve gone on the road. But in scenes such as the one in which Anvil gets lost in the way to a gig (one band member’s girlfriend is the band’s manager, no less!), it undeniably feels like life imitating hilarious, hilarious art. Heck, it’s entirely possible that Gervasi’s goal was to invite the comparison (e.g. the scene in which Lips and Robb Reiner- the guy’s real name!- discuss their first song a la David and Nigel talking up “All the Way Home”), in order to show how sad the Spinal Tap arc is when applied to real life. But at the same time, it feels like Spinal Tap did all the groundwork for this, and all Gervasi had to do was to fill in the template with documentary footage. By the time the group performs at a heavy metal festival attended by literally hundreds of fans, I was half-awaiting the scene in which Anvil performs as the bottom half of a double with a puppet show. Not saying it’s fair, but I just couldn’t let go of the comparison. Maybe if I liked heavy metal more, or if the movie didn’t look like total ass, it might have been easier for me. Alas, it never quite happened. Still, diverting enough.
Rating: 5 out of 10.

Title: Avatar
Director: James Cameron
Potential nominations: Director, Screenplay (ha ha, just kidding).
Notes: In this blockbuster-driven age, movies that cost hundreds of millions of dollars have become fairly commonplace. However, it’s rare to see one that so unmistakably displays its creator’s fingerprints. This is most obvious in the film’s somewhat conflicted portrayal of the military-industrial complex, a hallmark of the majority of Cameron’s films. On the one hand, Cameron has always been drawn to state of the art technology and weaponry- the bigger, the better. Yet this enthusiasm has always been tempered by a mistrust of gung-ho militarism run amok, most apparent here in Stephen Lang’s Marine officer, who’s just aching for a reason to mow down the forest-dwelling Na’vi in the name of deep-space Manifest Destiny.

Part of this comes from an undeniable love for the idea of Pure Science, here embodied by Sigourney Weaver and her team of scientists, whose quest to understand the Na’vi has led them to a devil’s bargain with both the Marines and a sniveling corporate scientist played by Giovanni Ribisi. Yet despite Cameron’s disdain for both of these mindsets (Marine and corporate), he can’t keep his impulses toward largesse in check, which leads to lingering shots of futuristic aircraft and cyborg-esque suits, both of which are used almost exclusively by the film’s baddies. But this seeming contradiction, troubling though it might be, only makes the film as a whole more fascinating, as Cameron is working through these conflicting urges with this story in a messy, compelling way, as compared to the rah-rah patriotic fetishism of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

As for the Na’vi themselves, they’re somewhat more simplistic, a group of forest-dwelling hunter/warriors inspired by Native Americans except, y’know, 12 feet tall and blue. And Cameron’s narrative debts to Dances With Wolves are already well-documented. Still, what the film lacks in narrative inspiration, it makes up for in pop spectacle. While it’s certainly true that the effects in Avatar aren’t as jaw-dropping as they might have been to an audience from a decade or so ago, they’re nonetheless leaps ahead of anything the big screen has seen. Much of the film is stunning on the pure eye-candy level, especially the shots of the Na’vi’s forest at night time (parts of which seem to be inspired by Jim Henson’s underappreciated TV special Song of the Cloud Forest). Whatever Avatar’s faults may be, visual wonderment is not one of them.
Rating: 7 out of 10.


Steve C. said...

For what it's worth, THIRST does get better from there. But it's still not very good.

Also, I think J. Reitman needs to go out and make a SCHIZOPOLIS or something. Anything to teach himself that everything doesn't need to be so goddamn tidy and squared away.

Paul C. said...

Well, I'm sure I would've stuck with THIRST more any other time of year, but when you're trying to digest as much cinema as possible in the space of a month, there's just not enough time.

And you're reit about Rightman- the guy starts with a concept that's intriguing, then turns around and makes everything so cut-and-dried. The thing is that I can imagine this premise being done in multiple interesting ways, provided the filmmaker is willing to put forth the effort. One especially intriguing possibility is a purely hypothetical take (of course) take on Ryan Bingham by the late, great Jean-Pierre Melville. Seriously, think about it.

Jason_alley2 said...

I didn't see it as so neat and tidy, actually. Ryan's fate is pretty ambiguous at the end, he's both literally and spiritually adrift.

I also like how they included the example of his sister as a representative of the idea that marriages don't solve everything - sometimes they don't work out.

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