Friday, May 11, 2012

Final summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)

As summer winds down, here’s as mixed a bag of movies as I’ve ever covered in a single article.

Moliere, directed by Laurent Tirard, is a Shakespeare in Love – type creation, positing that an episode in the famous French dramatist’s younger years might have dropped him in the middle of an intricate real-life farce (a lecherous merchant, a misconceived arranged marriage, etc.) thus laying the groundwork for the development of his later artistic personality. Writers much more knowledgeable about Moliere than I am pretty unanimously pronounced the film a dud, and it certainly often feels laboured and superficial. It probably works better if you forget the pretensions to real life, and just take it as an undemanding trifle, in which case the enjoyable performances and easy contrivances might be enough to put it across. Although I do think I already saw this film last year, when it was called Casanova.

Director’s Downfall Oliver Hirschbiegel, the talented director of Downfall, is the latest European artist to be beaten to a pulpy hack at the hands of Hollywood. It’s not all his fault - other directors supposedly perpetrated much of the damage on The Invasion, which bears his name, after he left the project. It certainly evidences a confused guiding spirit. Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers remains intriguing material, and this version – centering around Nicole Kidman (who’s indifferently deployed) as a Washington psychiatrist watching everyone around her turn into a pod person – has some serviceable paranoid moments. But it’s hard to think of a recent movie where the writing and editing are so consistently wrongheaded.

Would you believe I’ve never seen a single episode of The Simpsons? But here I am, a big screen snob to the last, shelling out money to see (as Homer points out) something I could be watching at home for free. So I’m not able to comment on how the movie enhances, or doesn’t, the TV show, but I can report that I enjoyed it – it’s fast moving and inventive and you’re never waiting more than thirty seconds for a pretty good gag. It didn’t seem that ambitious to me though, and if the litmus test was whether I’m inspired to watch any episodes of the show from this point on, it probably failed. But maybe my snobbery is such that it never had a chance of going any other way.

Rocket Science, directed by Jeffery Blitz (who previously made the overrated Spelling Bee documentary Spellbound), is a quirky little movie about Hal, a compulsively stuttering teenager who gets pulled into the high school debating team by a hyper articulate girl (on whom he unsurprisingly develops a crush). For a while, as we watch his sincere but wretched efforts, the film feels rather unpleasantly cruel, then there’s a twist and it evolves into something much more intriguing. There are lots of quirky little movies out there, and this one has more than its fair share of strained Rushmore-seeking wackiness, but there’s some seriously impressive overall thinking woven in there too.

Summer Of Apatow

The summer of Judd Apatow continued with Superbad, on which he’s officially only the producer, but for which he’s nevertheless scooping up all the credit. Jumping back a few years from Knocked Up in Apatow’s exploration of arrested male development, this one follows a couple of high school buddies on a wild odyssey in search of booze for a big party, at the end of which they expect to break their lifelong sexual losing streaks. Actually the movie’s a rather lumpy hybrid – half the above, and the other half the adventures of two grossly unprofessional cops, which plays merely like an over (and over) extended Saturday Night Live skit. The stuff about the kids, although hardly revelatory, is consistently well played and even quite sensitive in spots, and the non-stop raunchy talk inevitably produces a good stream of laughs. Best of all, the movie doesn’t have a central flaw as egregious as Knocked Up’s implausible conception of the central female – indeed the young women here are surprisingly well-observed.

Better so than the heroine of The Nanny Diaries, directed by the makers of American Splendour. I don’t actually share the common disdain for Scarlett Johansson’s talents – she doesn’t do much here, but that’s just fine for her aimless character, who spends a summer as a nanny in a fabulously wealthy, fabulously screwed-up Upper East Side household when she can’t decide what else to do. The movie occasionally casts itself as an anthropological study, but is drastically short of revelations, and the occasional potential for something more painful and cutting (mostly embodied in Laura Linney’s performance as her employer) isn’t taken up. It’s nice enough to watch, but you wish it mattered more.

The Real End

Lady Chatterley is a French version of the D. H. Lawrence novel, directed by Pascale Ferran. It won best film at the French equivalent of the Oscars, which tells you a lot (if you didn’t know it already) about the difference in cultural sensibilities. Running almost three hours, it’s an extremely detailed observation of the frustrated Connie’s sexual and emotional awakening, via an increasingly passionate affair with the gamekeeper on her disabled husband’s vast estate. This is very much a woman’s story, and has been criticized in some quarters for what might be seen as wishy-washy romanticism (and in others for overlooking Lawrence’s social consciousness). But if you submit to Ferran’s sometimes-quirky perspective, and to the mesmerizingly detailed performance by lead actress Marina Hands (who also won the top French award), it’s the most satisfying film covered in this article. It’s certainly a cousin to The Piano, but (high praise coming) it also put me in mind at times of the composed mystery of someone like Jacques Rivette.

It hardly seems appropriate to include The 11th Hour, this year’s documentary on our wretched post-industrialization prospects, in this company. At one point it (correctly of course) points to crazed consumerism as one of the many contributors to our malaise, and I couldn’t help musing at that moment about how the movie itself is merely being offered as an alternative to Rush Hour 3 and Becoming Jane, catering (based on what I saw) merely to a tiny audience of the predisposed. Doesn’t it somehow demand more than a movie, some more all-encompassing forceful platform? Actually, The 11th Hour itself probably doesn’t – the basic message is incontrovertible and incredibly depressing, but this is a superficial, overly polite, rushed treatment of it. And as with so many others, it insists on closing on a note of optimism and faith in human possibility, presented so tritely that it undercuts the impact of what comes before. But the real ending of course will be presented soon enough, playing in your local piece of the planet.

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