Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Screening Log: Vacation Catch-Up: Late June and (Very) Early July 2009

Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009) (v) * - It loses points for having a hero who lost faith in a higher power after losing a spouse (exactly the same set up as in The Reaping), but gains some back for its look (lots of black, like a heavily inked comics page), an(other) Nicolas Cage-as-enjoyably-weird-version-of-himself performance, and for not trying to dumb things down too much for us. Proyas makes good use of his sense for creepy moments around the edges, but this still isn't going to satisfy those of us waiting for a new Dark City or Crow from him.

Hung "Pilot" (Alexander Payne, 2009) (v) *** - I don't usually list my TV viewing here, but the first episode of Hung shows off some genuine filmmaking from Alexander Payne. Though the premise is as gimmicky as that of Weeds, the details are spot on. This may be my favorite HBO "first episode" since David Chase's Sopranos pilot.

The Reaping (Stephen Hopkins, 2007) (v) - Not as terrible as the review lead me to believe. Still, after this and The Unborn, I'm tempted to write about how contempo horror filmmakers completely don't get what makes something like The Exorcist a great scary movie.

The Uninvited (Charles and Thomas Guard, 2009) (v) ** - A real surprise to me: I watched it mainly because I'm a fan of Elizabeth Banks' work in comedies and wanted to see what she'd do in a thriller, but the movie won me over. Despite being conventionally made, it's clever and well-acted and much more solidly put together than most scary movies of its type.

Bottle Shock (Randall Miller, 2008) (v) - I like loose, ambling movies, but this one was just a tad too sloppy. It needed Altmanesque diffusion, but instead it feels more like laid-back John Sayles. That said, I nearly gave it one star because the subject was interesting and Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman are both very good, but I can't recommend it in good faith.

The Heartbreak Kid (The Farrelly Bros., 2008) (v) *** - In the universe I live in, the Farrelly Bros. are major filmmakers, but even I stayed away from this one when it was in theaters because (a) I have a lot of admiration/affection for Elaine May's Heartbreak Kid, (b) I have a developed a real aversion to Ben Stiller (There's Something About Mary isn't my favorite Farrelly Bros. movie, either), and (c) the reviews were bad across the board. I'll give myself a pass on (a) and (b), but I think I might need to stop reading anything about movies until after I see them. More and more, I'm coming to see film critics as herd animals, as if their takes on movies are mostly formed even before they see it. On the one hand, I can appreciate how this might be a more efficient way to work, but it makes for lousy film criticism. In this case, I think that the "storyline" for this movie was going to be about how it didn't live up to the original. What that particular storyline misses, though, is that while the Farrelly Bros. take the general premise from the Friedman story/Simon script, this is really a very different movie that needs to be seen on its own terms. The original was a dark comedy about ethnic identity, but this is a slapstick nightmare, playing off the fear that you'll find out your mate is a monster only after you're married to them. In some ways, this is the anti-Mary, and part of what makes the movie so good is that the Farrelly Bros. don't shy away from the Ben Stiller character's creepier side. One of my pet peeves about contempo comedies is that guy filmmakers tend to present pretty unpleasant behavior from their guy heroes as being cute and funny (see Wedding Crashers, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, etc.), but the Farrellys keep Stiller dangling on their hook. Also, as one of the only people I know who thought that Malin Akerman was good in Watchmen, I was glad to see her give a very funny and unself-conscious performance here. She's no Anna Faris, but she pulls off the gags here and is, as the say, a real sport. (Michelle Monaghan does nothing, as usual, but that doesn't stop the movie from working).


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon