Tuesday, March 3, 2015
What I Watched: 2015, Week 3
What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):
Black Rain (Ridley Scott, 1989)
Mommy (Xavier Dolan, 2014)
The Interview (Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, 2014)
The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
Kingsman: The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2015)
Agent Carter: Season 1 (ABC/Marvel, 2015)
1. Black Rain is the archetypal bad '80s action movie. Like Beverly Hills Cop, it's a fish-out-of-water flick about a certain kind of cop trying to catch someone in a city that doesn't like or want that kind of cop. Had Black Rain possessed one iota of humor, it probably could have been called Tokyo Hills Cop. Here's the gist: Michael Douglas is a tough, semi-dirty NYC cop who plays by his own rules. After he catches a Japanese murderer, he has to escort him to Japan to stand trial. He escapes, forcing Douglas to stay in Tokyo to finish what he started.
So much wrong here. First off, this movie feels pretty racist now that it's 25 years old, with all of the Japanese cops reacting to Douglas as though the idea of gritty police work had never occurred to them. In that sense, it's a thinly veiled White Savior movie. Though the movie is by Ridley Scott, it feels far more like a Tony Scott movie. After Ridley had been on a losing streak for all of the '80s (remember, even Blade Runner bombed at the box office), and Tony's movies had mostly become mega-popular, Black Rain feels like Ridley admitting defeat, and just succumbing to well I guess that's the kind of movie I have to make. So it's just like the kind of hyper-stylish, excessively violent (as though all gunshot wounds came via shotgun), edited-through-copious-lines-of-blow movie that Tony would have made at the same time. The script is total formula. Would you believe that the opening scene of Douglas on an illegal motorcycle race under the NYC bridges actually foreshadows a climactic motorcycle showdown against the villain? Of course it does! And Douglas is playing the same character here that he did three years later in Basic Instinct. They even have near-identical names: here he's Nick Conklin, hot head controversial detective that plays by his own rules, and in Basic Instinct he's Nick Curran, hot head controversial detective that plays by his own rules. The creativity is overwhelming.
Anyway, unless you're doing a dissertation on '80s action tropes, the only reason to watch this movie is for the cinematography by Jan de Bont, who also shot Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October around the same period, and Basic Instinct, which was clearly a sequel to this. He makes a bad movie feel slightly less bad.
2. I didn't like The Elephant Man nearly as much as I thought I would. It certainly wasn't bad, but wasn't particularly engaging for most of its run time, and that seems like the worst thing you could ever say about a David Lynch film. This is definitely the safest he's ever been. Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt are quite good as the leads, though considering John Hurt has the greatest voice of any actor ever, it's immensely frustrating to put him in a role where he doesn't get to use it. The photography here is also quite good, capturing Victorian London as though it's a Jack the Ripper film where dear Jack never bothers to show up. Creatively, the best things are the first 8 minutes and the last 8 minutes, which are the only parts that actually feel like David Lynch. Everything in between can be vaguely watched while checking emails.
3. The Interview and Agent Carter were pretty much just what I expected them to be. If anything they were marginally better than I was expecting, because my expectations were very, very low. I laughed a handful of times in The Interview, which was nice. But like This is the End, it was really a one-joke movie stretched to nearly two hours. I can't decide if this means that Rogen and Goldberg have gotten much worse since Superbad, or if I saw Superbad for the first time in 2015, I just wouldn't think it was very funny. Agent Carter was a lot better than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been, because at least Carter knows exactly what it is and focuses on being that, while S.H.I.E.L.D. can't seem to decide whether it wants to be The X-Files or not. While Carter isn't that exciting, Haley Atwell is very good in the lead, and she should have a nice career ahed of her. I also think the McGuffin that Agent Carter used was, as far as these things go, actually a really good one.
4. Kingsman: the Secret Service was a fun movie for what it was, but I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called Wanted. Seriously, they're identical movies. One has Angelina Jolie teaching an American loser how to be a super-assassin badass, while giving us Morgan Freeman saying "motherfucker," and the other has Colin Firth teaching a British loser how to be a super-agent gentleman, while giving us Samuel L. Jackson with a lisp. Everything else is the same, and the original stories were not-so-shockingly by the same graphic novel writer. But that major quibble aside, Kingsman was pretty entertaining, even if you can never quite tell whether all the gentlemanly stuff is meant to show how great the British are, or if it's all taking the piss.
5. Saving the best for last, we get Mommy, which was without a doubt the best movie I've seen since Birdman opened in early October. Mommy is perfectly representative of why films are my life's passion.
I saw a movie at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival called Laurence Anyways. Made by a 22-year old Quebecois filmmaker named Xavier Dolan, Laurence was a three hour film about a male high school teacher in 1980s Montreal deciding to start living as a woman. It was an absolute mess, way too long and with several scenes that just didn't work. But there were also three or four sequences that were completely brilliant, and all the more so for the fact that they were made by a 22-year old. I made sure to keep an eye out for Dolan's future work, and last year at Cannes, he won the Grand Jury Prize for his fifth film, Mommy, which proves every ounce of genius within him.
At the center of Mommy is a parent child relationship that simply doesn't function--a poor mother who can't handle her teenage son who's been kicked out of juvenile detention and is incapable of going a full hour without causing major trouble. But Mommy isn't the downer drama that it sounds like. Much of the film is played like black comedy, and the comedic drama is offset by several sequences that play like music videos, featuring long, wordless passages set to songs by Oasis, Counting Crows, and several others, where we see the status quos of the emotional journeys the characters are on. The film is daringly framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio (something I don't think I've ever seen a modern film do), which Dolan used to enhance the claustrophobia of emotions in the characters, to convey how trapped they are with each other. There's one bit where the frame expands to full 16:9, as the mother dreams about what life with a normal child might be like, and it's my single favorite film scene of 2014. When the movie finally concludes, it does so in a way that's quite sad, but the strength of the filmmaking plays it for pure triumph, and it works. Dolan is just 25 now, currently shooting his first Hollywood film with Jessica Chastain, Susan Sarandon, and Jon Snow. Watch out for him. He's brilliant.