Thursday, December 31, 2009

Serendipity (2001)

Directed by Peter Chelsom. A lot of today's movies feature main characters with clear personality disorders who are portrayed simply as very focused on something they want. Simply put, Hollywood is oblivious to narcissism. They think it's a virtue.

And actually there is some great older cinema that portrays narcissism with verisimilitude. One of my personal favorites is a 1946 Warner Bros. effort entitled "The Big Snooze." In this color film, a hunter named Elmer Fudd wants nothing more than to feed his family while a egotistical rabbit needs not only to protect himself physically but to gratify himself emotionally by inflicting pain on Fudd, with no sense of empathy or awareness of Fudd's physical limits.

"The Big Snooze" uses the personality disorder suffered by the rabbit (a cartoonish character named "Bugs Bunny") as its source of comedy, which distinguishes it from contemporary films such as 2001's "Serendipity." "Serendipity" stars John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale as two people ("Jonathan" and "Sara") so destined to be a couple they treat the people they are engaged to instead like crap. The movie suggests that Beckinsale's fiancee deserves it because he makes New Age music, kind of like Yanni. This is played for laughs as a matter of assumption, not because anybody says or does anything funny.

Jonathan and Sara are not happy with the people they plan to marry but stay in those engagements because nothing better seems around the bend. Still, as their respective wedding days approach, they research and scheme finding each other -- their preferred mates. Once clues are unearthed and fate or destiny or whatever seems sealed, they make like Bugs Bunny and dynamite the hell out of the unsuspecting fools wasting time with them.

See this movie with someone you love and then minutes afterward leave them for someone prettier.

Paper Heart (2009)

Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec. This is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time, heavily influenced by a bunch of movies I'm not all that wild about. I'm not sure this movie could have come together if it wasn't for those Charlie Kaufman movies that are designed to fuck with your head, like "Adaptation" and "Eternally No Oscar for Jim Carrey's Spotty Record." Actually, it has as much in common with Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

The key difference between "Paper Heart" and any of what may or may not be its influences is that it features sweet, kind characters ruminating on sweet, warm feelings and very real fears.

For a complicated flick, it's relatively easy to describe. Actor Charlene Yi presents a documentary about love and relationships that is interspersed with improvised scenes recreating her real-life courtship with fellow actor Michael Cera. The arc of the story is Yi getting over apprehensions toward giving of herself emotionally, accepting her own femininity, and commitment in general.

The whole thing is ridiculously entertaining despite an undeniable self-conscious artiness that is completely excusable because it works.

If it sounds like your bag, don't put off seeing it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Directed by Ang Lee. You gotta be fucking kidding me. What a complete disaster this thing is. What the hell was Ang Lee trying to achieve here? I hardly know where to begin here.

First of all, what some people may not be aware of is that this is based on a true story. The star of this film is Demetri Martin, who plays Elliot Tiber, the man who wrote the original book "Taking Woodstock." The book is Tiber's memoir of his role in making the festival happen: providing his parent's run-down local inn as a base of operations to organizers and as head of the local chamber of commerce, supplying them with their critical event permit. Sounds like dry stuff, but it's not -- Tiber was central to the event from soup to nuts.

But it wasn't interesting enough to Ang Lee to not turn the whole damn thing into a melodrama you'd never believe is based in reality. Lee opens the Sixties Hippie Cliche triptik and dumps so many props and costumes onto the highway it becomes hard to tell whether he truly believes that is what the country looked like back then or if he thinks the audience will simply forget when the movie takes place and needs to be reminded with road signs for peace and love every 50 yards.

As if that's not enough, there's the obligatory First Acid Experience scene, complete with the hippie couple who assures Tiber it's gonna be great and the camera tricks that recreate what he's seeing and feeling. What the...?

And then there's wooden-headed homage to the original Woodstock concert movie where the screen splits into individual windows and to show different views simultaneously. But it's done simply to wink to the audience members who'll recognize it, nothing more. There's no fresh take on it, no new twist, no irony, no multiple plot lines to follow. In contrast, have a look at 1979's "More American Graffiti" for a real homage and leveraging of this device.

I swear I am not making up that famous festival organizer Michael Lang is portrayed as riding a white stallion. This is just part of the parade of quirky characters intended to color the movie with, I don't know, either the free spiritedness that defined the time or to show that Woodstock was not solely marked by greed or youthful idealism or naivety as it seems alternately to be portrayed by the media.

This may be the fatal flaw of "Taking Woodstock" -- if it's point is that Woodstock was not any one thing and that people should not try to pigeonhole it as such, it succeeds mainly as seeming confused and wishy-washy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brüno (2009)

Directed by Larry Charles. Sacha Baron Cohen is an important comedian because his comedy doesn't play everywhere. It's just not for everybody. So-called taboos are a myth if everyone is on the joke; this is why the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler aren't taboos. So it's always bullshit when somebody sticks a guy in a Klan hood or a Hitler wig in a movie and a critic calls it unbridled, shocking or taboo.

But "Brüno" is just too goddamn smart to be for everybody. How on earth could an arena full of rednecks lured in to see a free mixed-martial arts exhibition called "Straight Dave's Man Slammin' Max Out," complete with free t-shirts and no evident corporate sponsorship, NOT be waiting for the bottom to drop out of the whole event? But they are oblivious to the fact that they are objects of Cohen's satire and critical to the definition of his taboo.

While Cohen's "Borat" took on issues of racism, war and anti-Semitism, "Brüno" splits its time between the cult of celebrity and homophobia. If "Borat" was a perfect 10, "Brüno" scores a strong 8.