Tuesday, May 5, 2015

That's entertainment!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)

D J Caruso’s Disturbia is an entertaining thriller about a teenager who’s sentenced to three months’ house arrest for punching a teacher; when his exasperated mother takes away his X-Box and itunes, he’s reduced to spying on the neighbours for kicks. This all goes fine as long as he’s checking out the sexy new neighbour to the left, but what about the creepy guy who lives alone on the right? The premise is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but the film’s nowhere near as rigorous – Hitchcock’s exacting creation of dramatic and thematic space is replaced here by something far more haphazard (for one thing, I could never figure out how the kid could possibly see so clearly into so many adjacent houses). It’s not a bad movie though. Shia Laboeuf is quirkily persuasive in the lead role, voyeurism remains a nearly unbeatable subject for cinema, and events are pretty nicely plotted until the end, when the climax seems under motivated and over the top. It still stays within the bounds of the PG-rating though.

Fracture/Hot Fuzz

Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture is an entertaining suspense thriller, although lacking even as much distinctiveness as Disturbia. Anthony Hopkins (in some scenes displaying a lighter touch than usual; in others succumbing shamelessly to Lecteritis) shoots his wife, confesses to it, and looks like a slam dunk conviction for prosecutor Ryan Gosling (as inherently interesting to watch as always), who’s so confident he barely bothers to prepare. The trial generates shocking revelations and the case falls apart, taking much of Gosling’s life with it. There’s more to come of course. Fracture is a modest creation, just centering really on one neat idea involving the murder weapon; everything else is just padding, but of a very plush, easy on your rear end quality.

The British Hot Fuzz is an entertaining comedy about a tough London cop who’s transplanted to a sleepy rural village. Initially the lackadaisical attitude of his colleagues and the inconsequentiality of the local transgressions drives him nuts, but then people start to die, and it turns out he’s headed for the biggest shoot-em-up of his life. Explicitly inspired by the likes of Point Break and Bad Boys 2 (and I figure I caught only around 5% of whatever other references are packed in there), the movie is remarkably effective in integrating action movie tropes with a rather touching respect for traditional English values – I can’t think of a similar project so free of cheap shots, and even the dastardly plot has a kind of deranged misplaced sweetness to it. Winking at the audience is also kept to an absolute minimum. It’s as good as, but not massively different from, director Edgar Wright’s earlier movie Shaun of the Dead, but you feel he’s working in his comfort zone, so why complain.

Dog Movie!

Year Of The Dog is an entertaining oddity, and a bit of a surprise – generally advertised as a comedy, it’s surprisingly raw and depressing at times, and then morphs into a (apparently) sincere portrait of how an unfulfilled woman finds her calling in pro-animal activism. Molly Shannon plays Peggy, an office assistant who channels her affection into her little dog Pencil; when he dies of toxic poisoning, she’s devastated, but the chain of events presents the possibility of a more rounded life, accompanied by growing social awareness, all of which gradually strains her equilibrium, if not her sanity.

I was thinking of devoting a whole article to this one, but I would just have ended up rambling about dogs, and I’ve gone that way several times before. Suffice to say that at the moment I can’t think of a movie that devotes as much time to dog ownership without getting overly cute about it (not that Pencil isn’t a very sweet-looking dog). That aside, the film is rather strange, with a deadpan, sometimes even creepy tone, and a rather depressed view of people (among other things, you’ve never seen such a badly dressed bunch in an American movie): its intention is rather hard to gauge at times, but it’s always, well, entertaining. Shannon is a bit of a weak link unfortunately, relying on limited technique and often seeming outclassed by the (real) actors around her, but you forget about it as the film’s wacky suspense takes hold. The director is Mike White, who’s previously written and acted in several films: Year of the Dog is most reminiscent perhaps of the even more peculiar Chuck & Buck (although dog obsession is way healthier than Buck’s fixation on reconnecting with his old friend was).

The French Avenue Montaigne is an entertaining confection set in the Paris theatre district, juggling eight or so primary characters, all at different points in the complex graph of personal/professional satisfaction. The main point, I think, is the potentially stifling underside of high culture: in the thematic climax, an esteemed but dissatisfied concert pianist suddenly stops mid-performance, rips off his white tie and penguin suit, and keeps on going in his undershirt.  But with that mild critique, of course, comes a huge amount of good nature, affection, and scenic views of Paris. The film, directed by Daniele Thompson, is ultimately limited; Agnes Jaoui’s work, for instance, feels superficially similar while ultimately yielding true philosophical and psychological surprises, even near-revelations, which just doesn’t happen here. But if you like French cinema of the kind people mean when they talk about “French cinema,” this is absolutely failsafe.

Back to Disturbia

The Canadian Radiant City is an entertaining treatment of the subject we started with, the dismal underbelly of suburbia. Specifically, we’re in the environs of Calgary, where people live in surroundings that would once have been considered palatial, but at the cost of spending half their lives in the car, barely knowing their neighbours, and evidencing all kinds of neuroses and dissatisfactions. The film focuses on one apparently typical family, while weaving in an assortment of talking heads to make Jane Jacobs-type points (although Jacobs herself isn’t mentioned). For most of its length the film is an interesting but not particularly surprising or original documentary (particularly to us downtown types), and then suddenly there’s a twist that puts a slightly different spin on everything; it could be seen as backpedaling a little, or else as a final kicker that even more establishes the superficiality of what we’ve been studying. Or as something in between.

The film makes some interesting points on the future of the suburbs, given their inherent unsuitability for evolving and remaking themselves in the way that downtowns, with their mix of building types and functions, can do. And while they promise space and cleanliness and tranquility, they’re also evil masterpieces of psychological and economic engineering, rendering their inhabitants infrastructure-heavy, obligation-laden and existentially bewildered. In the long run it’s likely neither environmentally or psychologically sustainable. Disturbia indeed!

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