Sunday, September 28, 2014

Some boring movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2006)

It must be amazing to be Bryan Singer and, from the looks of it, be allowed to make any movie you want to make. Orson Welles said something about a film set being the biggest train set a boy ever had, and something of that delight comes across in Singer’s films. His new one, Superman Returns, even features a train set, part of a vast model landscape in the lair of arch-villain Lex Luthor. And the film itself, resurrecting the Superman franchise after almost twenty years, and with many widely reported false starts in the years since then, is a dream opportunity for a Superman fan. Singer’s approach is highly conscientious, with a plot that picks up where the films left off in the 80’s (he retains John Williams’ original theme), touching base with all the core elements of the mythology and adding a carefully plotted new threat, courtesy of Luthor and some leftover crystals from Superman’s home planet.

Superman Returns

You can hear a “but” coming, and here it is: the movie is as boring as hell. I don’t completely know why – maybe it’s true that Superman doesn’t have the right resonance for current times. He’s basically a square, and his powers are so vast that it’s hard to feel much emotional investment in whether or not he pulls off his various feats. The special effects are mostly great, which may count for a lot on an Oscar judging panel, but doesn’t hit you where it hurts. And then Singer mostly squanders the cast. After The Usual Suspects, the prospect of him directing Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey would have been thrilling…well, don’t ask how it turns out here. And don’t ask either about Superman Returns’ only point of thematic interest – the horrendously pretentious allusions to Jesus Christ (including a beating that sure seemed reminiscent of Passion Of The Christ). What’s the point of meddling with such stuff unless you have a point to make about Jesus, or the nature of faith, or the power of religion, or something.

Anyway, I wanted to like it, and I had a hunch that maybe I would, but instead I just ended up feeling old. But regardless of whether that’s true, Bryan Singer should put away the train set for a while. And make something like A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book, and a film that’s been anticipated for decades by a small but fervent group. Now the versatile Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, The School of Rock) has delivered it. It’s a twisted tale of drug-induced hallucinations, surveillance and manipulation in the near-future, and Linklater heightens its surreal underbelly through the same technique he used in Waking Life, where real actors (including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder) are filmed in real settings and then the images are “rotoscoped” to produce an intensely vivid, fluid animation.

The dialogue has an unusual density and the film has an anguished underbelly that serves as a sober contrast to breathier views of the future; overall, Linklater’s versatility and control are astonishing. Ultimately though I didn’t find it a very different viewing experience from many of the recent films that mess with our sense of reality and relationship to the narrative; it’s a hermetic creation that barely even seems to need a viewer. This isn’t inappropriate to the film’s traumatized fabric and the main character’s fractured grasp on reality, but still makes for a movie that will likely be more admired than loved. What I’m saying is, it’s kind of boring too.

Who Killed The Electric Car?

I shot my environmental wad a few weeks ago in writing about Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, so I’ll spare you an extended response to Chris Paine’s Who Killed The Electric Car?, which would read much the same way. In the mid-nineties there seemed to be good momentum behind a wholly electric car, in particular GM’s EV-1 model – ten years later, the US car companies have all but quit that line of growth, surrendering the market to Toyota’s Prius. Meanwhile of course, the case for the technology (oil prices, Middle East turmoil, global warming, faltering hydrogen technology) just gets stronger and stronger. The movie tells the story effectively enough, mostly from a sun-baked Californian perspective with the obligatory sprinkling of celebrities, finding enough blame to go around, but also finding enough of the de rigeur room for optimism that America will come together to do the right thing as it always has. Overall, watching the entire film doesn’t add much to what you can glean from the trailer and the reviews. It’s much closer to being boring than I would have guessed.

Two Comedies

Strangers with Candy is based on a Comedy Central series I’ve never seen0, with Amy Sedaris as a long-time jailbird with a depraved history who goes back to high school. Liam Lacey said in the Globe: “Audiences should find the film brilliant or repellent. At the most interesting moments, it’s a bit of both.” Well, I certainly wish that were right. I have no idea what the case for its brilliance might be. It’s negligible as social satire, and barely any more effective as a satire of the high school genre (as if, in any event, that would count for much). It occasionally makes more of a stab in the direction of repellence, faintly evoking John Waters, but stops way short of anything truly biting or transgressive. As a fan of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up film, I kept wishing some of her lines could have been worked into the script. The film does have plenty of striking one-liners, some pleasant cameos, some strikingly surreal set-ups (I liked the gym teacher who subjects the students to a recreation of the Pamplona running of the bulls, with real bulls), and it avoids the flagrant stupidity and carelessness that makes many contemporary comedies painful to watch, but…well…when you come right down to it, I guess you can guess the adjective…

It must be amazing to be Kevin Smith, and to be a famous filmmaker with some degree of freedom…and then gradually realize you just don’t have any ideas. Clerks II might as well be called Cry for Help, particularly if you remember Smith stating at the time of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that he was done with that entire territory. But Jersey Girl was a flop, so here he is, back where he started in 1994. It’s actually rather endearing how the situation of the dead-end protagonists mirrors Smith’s own lack of momentum, and no film of his comes without laughs, even if they all come from rearranging the same ten or twelve words in a different order. Who is he kidding though…this is lame lame stuff. And by casting his own wife as a self-absorbed shrew who’s comprehensively overshadowed by Rosario Dawson (the film’s only engaging presence, just as she was in Rent), he also loses points for lack of gallantry. I bet even he was mostly bored through this one.

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