There are some films that you know are going to be brainless popcorn trash, and you just don’t care. There’s that elemental something that particular trash has that’s irresistible. For many, this includes the Scary, Date, Superhero, etc. Movie series, or Eddie Murphy or the Wayans brothers. You know exactly what it’s gonna be, and you’re in. You know it’ll be unbelievably gimmicky (Jason Statham’s Transporter films), tawdry as hell (I Know Who Killed Me) or just plain assaultive (your torture porn title here). And, except for the Lohan film (which I’m sure is raking in the DVD rentals even as we speak, ala ‘Showgirls’), they all make tons of money relative to their production cost. Resident Evil : Extinction, and its predecessors, is a guilty pleasure of mine for two reasons. First, let me say that they are singularly unoriginal. But they so shamelessly rip off so many different movies, and combine these myriad ideas in such a Waring blender fashion, that you don’t have time to so much as sigh, tsk, or roll your eyes before the next stolen idea tugs at your shirtsleeve. James Cameron, George Romero, Ridley Scott, Wachowski Brothers, George Miller, Danny Boyle, Wes Craven, John McTiernan – the list of the plundered is seemingly endless. It’s a little like the Ewan MacGregor / Nicole Kidman parapet duet in ‘Moulin Rouge’ – so many bits and pieces of song, so many cultural signifiers, so many associations, are referenced so quickly and seamlessly that it transcends the source parts and becomes some other kind of whole (If only the rest of the movie had succeeded like that …). The other reason, of course, is Milla Jovovich, who, like Jason Statham, is a limited actor who you can’t take your eyes off of onscreen. They just have a singular mix of animal physicality with Vogue / GQ good looks, and the camera loves them. They are both avid martial artists, and they both do most of their own stunts, which is why Kate Beckinsale is overtrained eye-candy in boutique leather while these two deliver the real goods. Jovovich commits – there isn’t a whiff of camp or a knowing wink anywhere near her performance. Like I said, these movies are not good films by any stretch, but if you know what you want, and you want this, skip that Saw sequel or that seventies remake or that diluted Japanese knockoff and have some real fun instead.
Mervyn Peake’s three Gormenghast novels are rightly revered in the fantasy realm for the evocation of a mind-bogglingly rich world of the elegantly grotesque. No monsters, no space or time travel, no aberrant psychological horrors, no fairies or goblins – just uniquely odd people in uniquely odd circumstances. I try to stay away from the word Dickensian, but it sure fits here. The scale and detail of the world of Gormenghast, and the faintly identifiable tone of the dark political and familial intriques therein, are as addictive, I suspect, as anything Dorothy Dunnett, Patrick O’Brien, or J.P. Rowling has produced. It’s a damn shame Peake only created it in these three books, but they are, I submit, mandatory reading for anyone who likes reading anything. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the BBC had done a miniseries adaptation of the books, and subsequently disappointed to discover why it wasn’t more well known. The actors all triumph – Ian Richardson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Neve MacIntosh, Christopher Lee, John Sessions, Fiona Shaw, Celia Imrie, Richard Griffiths, Zoe Wanamaker, Lynsey Baxter – whew! – but it’s indifferently art-directed, which makes its less-than-epic budget conspicuous. They chose to back off of Peake’s relentlessly macabre tone and introduce silly concepts like sunlight and green – y’know, like nature. Too many easy choices, too few risks, too much abridgement. If you know the books, see it for the performances (and whatever happened to Neve MacIntosh, anyway? Casting directors – snap out of it!). I can’t recommend it otherwise.
I found Chuck and Buck to be surprisingly admirable considering it’s one of the most uncomfortable, squirm-inducing character studies I’ve ever sat through. And I dare say that feeling will be common to most of the heterosexual male adults who see this film. Buck is an eternal adolescent, blissfully happy to stay as close to twelve years old as reality will allow him to. When his mother dies, he reconnects with Chuck, his boyhood friend who has gone on to greener adult pastures – a loving fiancee, a swank home and a high-powered job. But Buck loves Chuck – longingly, passionately, obsessively, and when Chuck gives Buck an inch … creepiness ensues – or does it? Because throughout the film, you’re slowly and consistently convinced to really see Buck for who he is, and how his experiences have shaped him. You keep wanting him to grow up, but you gain more and more sympathy with the things he’s not interested in losing by doing that. But I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s maudlin, or darkly whimsical, like Tim Burton or Robin Williams. Mike White, who plays Buck, wrote this as well, and went on to write some ‘Freaks and Geeks’ TV episodes, ‘School Of Rock’, ‘The Good Girl’, and another cult favorite, ‘Year Of The Dog’, all indicative of White’s skilled balancing of the outward mechanics of growing up in America with the deeply emotional obsessions even the best of us always carry around, acknowledged or hidden. Recommended.
David Fincher’s Zodiac has many admirers, and they’re admiring things I appreciated as well. Where we differ is the believability of Jake Gyllenhall’s performance. I just didn’t believe him for a second. And when you spend this much time following one character’s obsessiveness, no matter how compelling the subject, you’d better be following a character who’s reasonably compelling himself.
Similar issues arose with The Illusionist. Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti do their always reliable best, (I love to watch pros work) in the service of a really good story artfully adapted and filmed by Neil Burger. But the usually solid Rufus Sewell wasn’t able to enrich the Snidely Whiplash-like Crown Prince, and I’m still waiting for Jessica Biel to exhibit any genuinely demonstrable acting chops whatsover. There are some engaging contradictions to Sophie’s character that are ripe for portrayal – Biel either couldn’t present them, or couldn’t find them in the first place.
Finally, the inevitable French film. But I dare you to go out and get some Priceless without having more fun than your last ten Hollywood comedies. Yes, I said ten, Apatow be damned. There are reasons for this. Audrey Tautou is one big reason. Her Moroccan co-star, Gad Elmaleh, is another. It’s a movie about Grown-Ups, thank God! Hollywood seems to think only teenagers, yuppies and old people are funny (unless you’re James L. Brooks, granted). And it draws from timeless genre conventions, not just popular culture over the last year. This story could be set present day, as a thirties screwball comedy, or a nineteenth-century farce. It’s human, it’s universal, it’s identifiable, it’s all the stuff Garry Marshall will never get anywhere near, regardless of how much box office he generates anyway. It’s no ‘Thin Man’, but God bless ’em for aspiring to that. Go, damnit, go!