14 May 2012

Ticket Stubs for the Term

The Lorax: A delightful film in a variety of ways.  Produced as a piece of transparent mass propaganda for young children, this adaptation of the grim Dr. Seuss book has been fitted with all the most fashionable developments of the past two decades.  It delights not only in its bitingly sarcastic musical numbers, but also in the writers' consistent appeal to the concept of nature as normative for human behavior.  Where does it fail?  It misses the fact that the vast majority of people — and not just the corporate bigwigs — are opposed (whatever their stated views might be) to environmentalism, that our society would rather burn instigators at the stake than yield its gadgets and gluttony up to an environmentalist vision of simplicity and labor.  The book was right to end on a bleak note: planting a seed in the middle of town isn't enough, and while we all chomp down on popcorn and chug our 2 liter cups of coke, the world isn't getting better.  (4)

The Hunger Games:  The concept of this story is disturbing.  I see it as a kind of kid's adaptation of Q.T.'s Inglorious Basterds (3).  Here we are encouraged to groan at the perversity of a wealthy audience that gathers before large screens to reap thrills, tears and even laughter out of the sufferings of the other 90 percent.  And of course, we are that audience, as much as we are those Nazi party leaders gathered in the French theater to cheer at a violent and vaguely fascist war film. Most fans of the Hunger Games series don't recognize our identification with the villains of the story, and seem to fight fiercely to defend an absurd distinction between the two modes of behavior.  But they still enjoy watching the gladiator matches and pretending they're real.  What remains unclear: how far does this really separate them from those Romans in coliseums watching slaves kill each other for their masters' sport? (3)

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 3D:  With the original Star Wars, George Lucas showed the world that film franchises could be used as bottomless wells of cash.  Consider this his latest trip to the ATM.  The movie itself is abominable: the acting of young Anakin Skywalker is so wooden that it induces cringing.  The 3D effects are wasted, since so few of the films shots can actually take advantage of the added depth.  The difference between this and the ordinary version of the movie is negligible.  So, on the whole, a tedious waste. (1)  But it goes to fund the George Lucas machine and makes one wonder if the man who once helped back Kurasawa and was friends with Coppola could bring out something actually decent in his later years. (The answer is yes: when Pixar was struggling, Lucas helped them out.  Good job, George.  They may be the best studio in America.) 

Titanic 3D:  Many of the same things could be said of this one.  It was for a good stretch the highest grossing movie of all time, until it was surpassed by Avatar (3), another work of James Cameron (maker of Terminator (2), Aliens... you get the idea) who seems to have almost beat George Lucas at his own game.  Lucas is, of course, unbeatable at merchandising and cultural impact, but Cameron does a much better job screenwriting and utilizing the acting talent available.  So, what is Titanic?  It's an excessively long story about how the upper classes are wicked snobs enslaved to their own greed, while the lower classes are free and exciting and happy and down-trodden all at once.  Somewhat like Avatar, Titanic is ultimately a very unimaginative and naive piece of work that draws on silly quasi-marxist narrative to sustain what is really an exhibition in state-of-the-art special effects.  The 3D version of the thing made so little difference that I watched most of the latter half without my glasses on and was still able to see most of it just fine.  (2)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen:  For the first half or so of this film we have a pleasant enough British comedy about two unlikely individuals brought together for the sake of a crazed Sheik's plan to fish British salmon in the middle of Yemen.  Ewan McGregor plays a straight-laced ichthyologist and other lady plays a very attractive, confident and intelligent investment manager in the employ of the Sheik.  Lots of good jokes happen, and then McGregor's character decides to leave his (unpleasant, unfeeling, emotionally distant, but nonetheless) wife based on the realization that life can be spontaneous and exciting.  This is in a way a less awful rendition of the situation from The Accidental Tourist (2), though it has the same ending.  He abandons his (devastated) wife for the young co-worker, etc.  Meanwhile there are lots of painful monologues from the Sheik that attempt to cast him as an eastern mystic.  The result is offensive and ridiculous.  You're best off leaving the movie as soon as he puts the string from her sofa in his pocket (you'll know the moment), though it's a real delight up to that moment. (3)

Five Easy Pieces:  A classic early film from the career of Jack Nicholson, made by Bob Rafelson.  The film begins in trashy community outside Los Angelos, where Nicholson's character works outfitting oil wells in the desert with a friend he's recently struck up with.  Nicholson is living with an attractive and brainless (though kind) woman whom he abuses verbally through the course of the whole picture.  We wonder why she sticks with him, until we find out that she's pregnant with his child.  After this news emerges, Nicholson panics and encounters his sister — in the middle of a recording session, playing the piano.  At this point two things become clear: first, that Nicholson is from a family of professional classical musicians, second, that the family is on the whole rather dysfunctional.  He promises to visit them in Washington state, using it at first as a pretext to abandon his woman, but ultimately brings her along.  The most entertaining part of the movie is the hitchhiker (headed to Alaska, where it's "clean") who spends a good fifteen minutes ranting about how filthy humans are.  Nicholson ends up at home, has various torturous encounters with family and guests, and demonstrates a total inability to deal with life.  Unsurprising given how awful everyone (except for his sister) seems to be.  The film captures the rootlessness, moral disease, and ultimate nihilism of two hugely diverse populations in 70s America.  It's not fun to watch, but there's plenty to think about.  (3)

Damsels in Distress:  Whit Stillman's latest essay in filmcraft.  The creator of Metropolitan (3) and The Last Days of Disco (4) sticks once again to his beloved young adult population, this time focusing on campus life in the Ivy League and picking out some of its absurdities.  What he's trying to do is difficult to say because the world he has created is simultaneously idealized and obviously ridiculous.  There is what most American students would call a kind of prudishness (certainly possessing an air of wholesome moral sensitivity), but really the girls that form the focus of the film are just as morally adrift as their real-life counterparts.  We suspect ultimately that Stillman has stripped college life of all the grittier aspects of concupiscence (even the frat boys are harmless buffoons) and showed its inane truth.  What does any of this have to do with reality?  What was, after all, the point of a liberal education?  The best the characters here can come up with is the prevention of death: a pathetic substitute for the meaning of life. (3)

The Avengers:  Having scored for itself the highest opening box office revenues of all time, The Avengers has become something of a legend overnight.  Does it deserve this?  No, it does not.  The film in actuality has much of the breathless inanity of The Matrix Revolutions (3), with most of the movie occupied by a few extremely long action sequences.  The characters are flat, aside from Tony Stark, who's at least witty, and the Hulk, who seems for most of the movie to have depth but then absolves himself of it at the end.  The CGI is very well-done, including some impressive contortionist work for Scarlett Johansson's character.  But in the meanwhile we seem to have a lot of grunting meatheads standing around making flashes and bangs and never being injured or threatened.  It's a bore.  And what's worse, the motivations behind the whole things are a bore too.  There's Loki who has an adoptive child complex, and Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) who wants his superhero team, and the directors of S.H.I.E.L.D. who just seem to want power.  And in the midst of all this there are some incredibly vague cliches thrown around about freedom and tyranny too clumsy and idiotic to elicit even a mere tingle out of the patriotic core of the "American heart".  Come, citizens, we have explosions and violence; come see Manhattan be torn apart by aliens.  We'll pretend it's meaningful somehow, but really we all just want to cultivate further our national taste for destruction and senseless violence. (2)

Dark Shadows: Not much to say about Dark Shadows.  If you know going in that it's a Tim Burton recreation of a 1970s camp soap opera, you'll pretty much have the whole picture.  What's worth noting is that the usual Burton combination of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp doesn't work very well this time.  The costumes and sets are all done in the normal Burton style (kiddie suburban Gothic, I'd like to call it).  The plot is stale, as befits a soap opera.  The displays of sexuality are offensive.  The acting is decently done.  Michelle Pfeifer's lips are disturbingly over-inflated.  That's about all. (1)


Amount spent on movie tickets this semester: $148

Number of 3D tickets purchased: 4
Number of 2D tickets purchased: 8
Total number of distinct movies seen: 9
Films seen more than once: The Lorax (3x), Salmon Fishing (2x)