Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Quick reviews of a plethora of summer movies.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Even more than most mass-release films, this comes packaged as a major-league pop culture event, by virtue of the purported Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie romance. If true (and admittedly, this may be pure subjectivity on my part), the film sure makes it look as if it’s her that has him around her little finger. She just smoulders here, although compared to the classic female smoulderers of the Golden Age it’s a lightweight, disembodied kind of attribute. The film itself, about a stagnating married couple who find they’ve both been leading secret lives as assassins and then have to carry out contracts on each other’s lives, sporadically has the potential to be a warped commentary on the oddities of modern marriage, but the two key words in what I just said are “sporadically’ and “potential.” It gradually heads into incoherence and gleeful excess, crushing whatever “touches” the director Doug Liman (a long way from the highly engaging Swingers) was trying to bring to it. Still, it seems unfair to me to lump this in with something like Charlie’s Angels, as a few writers did; there’s a human core in there, albeit buried under innumerable bodies.

Cote d’Azur

It’s easy to take a film like Cote d’Azur for granted – it’s utterly light and fluffy, involving various couplings and uncouplings among a French family on their summer break. These couplings are both gay and straight – one sometimes suspects that the makers meticulously plotted a 50/50 ratio in both directions. In this sense (and in the use of nudity, for another), the film feels calculated at times, but it’s purely giddy at others – it contains a couple of utterly nutty musical numbers. And its main recurring motif consists of guys getting caught masturbating in the shower. But we know there are many places, not so far from here, where this happy film might be denounced as sick and perverted. How can you not be in its corner?

Howl’s Moving Castle

Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki is one of film’s most unique talents. His animated films are completely bizarre – when I watch them I hover between awe and bemusement, constantly asking myself how anyone ever came up with this stuff. The visual style is simultaneously naive (in the familiar style of anime conventions) and dazzling (you’ve never seen sights like this before). The films convey considerable humanity and liberalism – they’re bursting with transformations and realignments in which Miyazaki rejects physical and temporal limitations and conventions about how heroes and villains work. At the same time, Howl seems like the most sweepingly romantic of his films that I’ve seen (I’m not going to attempt even a cursory plot summary). It’s completely fascinating, and yet I wonder if the films’ immense idiosyncratic assurance doesn’t confine them to a second tier of interest – one marvels at Miyazaki’s facility, but then at what else?

Mysterious Skin

Gregg Araki returns after a long hiatus with a film about two teenage boys – both molested years earlier by their Little League coach, one of them now a hustler, the other haunted by repressed memory. The film has some highly disturbing scenes, setting out the range of emotions (from contempt to desperation) implicit in child abuse; it’s frank about showing how the victims’ immaturity might subsequently allow the memory of the encounters some twisted allure, which only continues the pattern. The film is glossy and sumptuous, often carrying the impact of a classic melodrama, but at the same time seems utterly disillusioned, ultimately offering no better answer to the human mess other than to hope at some supernatural means of transcendence (while acknowledging this as a mere illusion). It’s not as kinetic and viscerally thrilling as I recall Araki’s earlier movies as being, but its mastery of seduction and repulsion is perfect for the material.

Layer Cake

The latest in a long line of modern British crime thrillers, this one is a bit more restrained (on all of gruesome violence, flashy camera tricks, and colourful profanity) than many of its predecessors, which unfortunately just makes it duller. Daniel Craig plays a drug dealer caught up in a complex web of intrigue – he’s a useless, amoral, self-satisfied character who in this movie’s context passes as the symbol of refinement; the film dutifully ticks off all the stock elements around him. The genre’s abundance seems to me to indicate something very neurotic about concepts of masculinity in Tony Blair’s Britain, but there’s no awareness of that here (for a far more intriguing counterpoint, see Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead from last year).

Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan’s supposedly mature and intimately considered version of the Batman myth is only slightly more satisfying than the norm – in fact the studious attention given to justifying the various elements of Bat iconography often only serves to show it up more effectively for the crock that it is. Nolan certainly isn’t ultimately able to resist big silly action scenes, and he handles them more murkily than they demand; his notion of intelligent motivation relies on an endless amount of windy mumbo-jumbo. And Christian Bale is merely dour as Bruce Wayne. This version may be relatively dark, but the depiction of festering Gotham City is vague and the movie has almost no sexuality (fine in say a Spiderman movie, but surely an evasion in seeking to illuminate this particular super-psyche). Still, the prevailing standard for this kind of thing is so mundane that Nolan’s effort does leave you relatively impressed – little about it is actively silly or pandering, it’s just limited.

Land of the Dead

George Romero’s fourth film in his zombie series has a more mainstream cast and seemingly greater resources than the previous movies, and for much of the way this seems to generate a blander result – the zombies are getting more intelligent now, making for a more conventional set-up and structure. This version presents a city so secure and complacent that the zombies are almost forgotten (its fate is of course inevitable) in which capitalist exploitation has reimposed itself after the fragile allegiances of the previous films; in the end Romero posits that the bond between the normal working stiffs and the zombies may end up stronger than that between the ever-perpetuating hierarchies of mankind. At such times his old radicalism seems as strong as ever. The film is highly pacey and entertaining – it’s one of the few films you wish had been longer, to allow a more thorough examination of the city’s undercurrents. But even so, the film is a much more satisfactorily “adult” use of genre filmmaking than Batman Begins.

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