Part 1: My Life At The Movies
It figures that the year I finally sit down and begin writing fairly regularly and fairly seriously about movies is also the year in which I will see (at least so far) the fewest new releases, in theaters or on video. Usually, by the start of the summer season I will have taken in anywhere from 20-40 new films, but this year I’ve managed to see precisely 12. Of course, a first half loaded with treats like Sahara, Monster-In-Law, Guess Who, The Interpreter, The Pacifier, Hitch, Beauty Shop, the umpteenth retread of The Amityville Horror and A Lot Like Love (did American moviegoers really demand two Ashton Kutcher movies in the space of as many months?) didn’t exactly inspire me to run out and brave the teeming throng on a Saturday night at the AMC Burbank 16. (Though I did put a minor dent in my Netflix queue and get a lot of writing done!)
Just to give you an idea of my somewhat skewed cinematic priorities these days, the first theatrical release of 2005 that I saw in the theater was the surprisingly watchable Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. That was quickly followed by the dreary clutter, rattle and hum of Robots, and most recently, Madagascar, which turned out to be a lot less shrill and peppered with already tired pop culture references than I expected—truth be told, it was pretty damned clever and enjoyable, though quite run-of-the-mill when measured by the Pixar yardstick. These are the Emma and Nonie Movies, wonderful times I get to spend with my daughters, hopefully introducing them to the joys of going to the movies, even when the movies themselves turn out not to be so wonderful. If I were to make guesses strictly on the basis of the trailers I’ve seen, I’d say that some of the Emma and Nonie Movies to come might just be worth the wait—the advance looks at Valiant, Chicken Little (directed by Mark Dindal, who helmed Warner Animation’s little seen and underrated 1997 feature Cats Don’t Dance and, most tantalizingly, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the WereRabbit make me exceedingly glad that I have such convincing and delightful curly-headed excuses to attend these movies.
However, the word from another father I know who got an advance look at Herbie Fully Loaded is that it could be—let’s see, how did he put it? Oh, yes… the worst movie so far this year. This news came just a little too late for me—right after I’d sold Emma and her best friend on attending a screening on opening weekend, two weeks from now, and also after I’d heard that Disney, not wanting to tread too clumsily on the thin cultural ice encrusting George W.’s America, decided it was in their potential audience’s best interests that pulchritudinous teen star Lindsay Lohan’s breasts be digitally reduced in postproduction from a D-cup to a B-cup. Never mind that the Lindsay Lohan in Herbie Fully Loaded barely even resembles the jarringly thin paparazzi bait that has graced all the top tier tabloids of late (and you Maxim readers know that the breasts are the first to go when a well-endowed woman goes on a savage weight-loss campaign). No, Disney’s Victorian response to those test screening scores that registered such dismay over shots of Lohan in a tight, low-cut blouse bending over Herbie’s steaming manifold (Just where did they test this movie anyway? Bob Jones University? Amish Pennsylvania?) has virtually snatched away all tangential interest the movie might hold for devoted fathers who selflessly give up their Saturday afternoons to take their daughters to the movies. But, given the slim gap of years between some of those daughters and Lohan herself, perhaps it’s better that those dads keep their minds out of the gutter anyway.
A look at the other titles that I’ve seen so far in 2005 might, if you were one to hurl about wounding epithets like “nerd,” “geek” or “fanboy,” lead you to conclude that I was some nerdy, geekish fanboy or something when, I swear—I swear nothing could be further from the truth. Okay, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a geek. But if anything, I think the movies on my 2005 list are indicative more of what I’d term my ideal cinema of relaxation than any inherent nerdosity or geekophilia. And if “relaxation” isn’t a word that comes to mind when you hear titles like Sin City, Assault on Precinct 13 or the grueling South Korean revenge drama Oldboy, then maybe you’d prefer I added the word “circus” to my own character description and would care to drop off a couple of live chickens for me to take to the movies next time I go out. I had less affinity for Sin City (I don’t know Frank Miller’s graphic novels) than did several smart people I know, but it never felt like a waste of time, and it was a marked improvement over the execrable one-two DV punch of Spy Kids 3D and Once Upon a Time in Mexico—that said, I think I am about ready to hang up my hat on Robert Rodriguez’s homegrown pulp cool and the violence he revels in that resonates so shallowly for me. Assault on Precinct 13 seemed to me an honorable, well-crafted and drawn-out updating of John Carpenter’s potent “original” (it was actually Rio Bravo crossed with Night of the Living Dead), and the little I asked of it—that it make me care enough about the people inside the precinct house to make me overlook the niggling questions raised by the plot and allow me to get caught up in its genre-specific narrative familiarities— it easily fulfilled. Oldboy, however, is a movie on an entirely different level, an ostensible genre piece that isn’t beholden to oft-played rhythms of American thrillers, a harsh, aching and surprisingly emotional pop fantasia on the inescapable price of revenge, both physical and psychological. Yet it sweeps you up and dashes you about like a good movie should, and never asks you to disregard the nuances of its intellectual elements in order to have a “good time” watching it. I came out of Oldboy feeling splendidly disoriented, like I’d been privy to a world which looked familiar, yet was completely alien; by the end of the movie’s two hours that world had become familiar, and being spat back out onto Fairfax and La Brea at 12:30a.m. after the screening felt like having to reconnect in minutes to a world that seemed suddenly askew, suspicious, terrifying. Now, that’s entertainment!
The missus has been my go-to movie pal for big-budget science fiction so far this year. However, she tends to give a whole lot less quarter when it comes to comic book adaptations or violent alien invasions starring Tom Cruise, so it looks like I’ll be on my own for Batman Begins, War of the Worlds and, if I haven’t been completely polluted by negative advance word by release day, The Fantastic Four. She did accompany me (or, more appropriately, I accompanied her) to the Arclight for Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, and I feel pretty good about being able to tell you that, yes, we’re still happily married, and it’s not just for the sake of the children. (She has since seen it again, and by the beard of Obi-wan Kenobi Version 2.0, I’d bet there’s at least one more theatrical screening in it for her before the leaves start to turn.) A much less contentious time was had by both of us when we were able to ditch the girls one afternoon a few weeks ago and head to Westwood (yes, Westwood), where we stopped by Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comic book store (I scored a really keen old-school Fantastic Four logo T-shirt!) and took in a near last-chance screening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’d read the first book some 20 years ago and loved it, but never made my way into the rest of Douglas Adams’ whimsically absurd universe in any form—book, radio play, or TV special. The missus, however, is a big fan of all of the books. So together we both looked forward to seeing what might come of the big, splashy Disney-financed movie, she with a mite more trepidation than I based entirely on what she felt she had at stake in seeing them pull the unlikely enterprise off properly. We were both pleased, I, predictably, a bit more than she. She termed it as having a 65% success rate at translating the bizarre humor, the seemingly random rhythms and connections of the books, whereas I, if held to a similar rating system, would have upped the percentage to 75. There are stretches when the gulf between the filmmaker’s intent and the flatness of the resulting scenes is indisputable. But I felt the “science” was engaging enough, and Adams’ curly-cue “fictions” were navigated with sufficiently streamlined and enthusiastic accuracy, and augmented by the wittiest, most perversely pleasurable special effects I may have ever seen in a big-budget extravaganza, that I felt the movie stood well on its own as an honorable addition to the Adams legacy.
The remaining four films on my “seen ‘em” list for 2005 fall into two disparate categories, both of which have held enduring fascination for me ever since my formative days as a filmgoer, and both of which now seem to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, in quality and even sometimes in relative popularity: the martial arts movie and the documentary. One from each column combine to make up the two best movies of the year that I’ve seen so far—Stephen Chow’s extraordinary Kung Fu Hustle and Thom Andersen’s captivating and challenging Los Angeles Plays Itself.
But each also has a companion piece at spots three and four on my in-progress Best Of 2005 list that has drawn less attention than its ostensible counterpart. Mike Vranovics’ eccentric and darkly humorous account of the frenzy to claim ownership of Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run ball, Up for Grabs, is a terrific examination of the culture of greed surrounding baseball, and by extension all elements of American culture in the 21st century, and I’ll have a lot more to say about it in the coming weeks as part of a long-delayed multi-part article on the Best Baseball Movies Ever (and yes, I think Up for Grabs is good and smart enough to make that list).
And the new Jet Li martial arts thriller Unleashed may just be the best thing on which Luc Besson has ever stamped his name (the French auteur, who co-wrote Li’s mediocre vehicle Kiss of the Dragon, is credited as Unleashed’s screenwriter). The movie is a stunning piece of work, as action cinema, as acting showcase, and as an emotional ambush—I was unprepared for how deep these filmmakers-- director Louis Letterier (co-director, with Cory Yuen, of the Besson-scripted The Transformer), Besson and Li—were willing to go, and in fact would go into the heart of this grim, yet openly sentimental tale of a man trained by a Scottish thug to become a deadly attack dog who discovers a normal life, and the secrets of his past, through his friendship with a blind piano tuner (Morgan Freeman) and his daughter (Kerry Condon). Li has never been better as an actor, and perhaps never better as a pure martial artist, than in this movie. Morgan Freeman is reliably good, in a way understated even for him. But Hoskins is terrific in what could be seen as a quintessential Hoskins role—a roughneck baddie who struts about like a erect penis on two feet, and who manages to deliver dimension to what most actors might have made a simple stock character of unrelentingly evil motivation. Hoskins’ methodlogy of character revelation mirrors the movie’s own surprising depth. And I was totally mesmerized by the work of Kerry Condon, whom I’d never seen on screen before, but with whom I fully intend to familiarize myself now. Condon seems, in Unleashed, a total original, and I could not take my eyes off of her—she does things, again within a character which, in different hands, could have come across as quite the stock concept—that made me grin with happy surprise, laugh out loud and, once or twice, conjure tears. It’s a performance, like Shawnee Smith’s in Saw, that seems so out of the ordinary of its surroundings, so refreshingly imagined and vital to watch, that I hope somehow she bucks the odds and gets remembered at year’s end by critics groups. Of course, the movie was largely ignored, dismissed or attacked by a lot of those same critics as too soft and cuddly—I guess they prefer their action films to be as robotic and unfeeling as Li’s Danny in attack mode, and would rather not confront any messy realities or emotions that might naturally come tied to that action. That this lean, effective, yet expansive movie could be knocked as having a soft underbelly that undermines that effectiveness seems more an indicator of a reviewer’s own desensitization than evidence of Unleashed’s failure to deliver the goods cleanly, with no recognizable aftertaste. If I see a better all-out entertainment aimed for thinking adults than Unleashed, or Kung Fu Hustle, for that matter, this summer, then I’ll know I’ve truly gone to glorious movie heaven instead of the strip-mall chapel of mediocrity to which it appears we moviegoers might be headed this season.
Part 2 of "Behind the Summer 2005 Movie Curve," Coming Attractions, can be found in the post immediately following this one.