To the guy sitting in the proverbial mansion on the hill, sure, he might think escapism is a four letter word. People should be paying attention to the shit storms all around us and not some fruit in tights slingin' webs. But what about the people that have their face in the shit all day long? What about the kid who has to go home to abusive or repressive living situation? The average man or woman struggling with depression or illness; parents who are struggling with debt or worry constantly every day about their kid getting shot here or in some other country -- they shouldn't be able to be entertained and taken away from their problems for two hours without being chided for it? For these people and many more, the summer movie is an escape that is looked forward to, has its rewards, and should be treated with respect when it is well made and not prejudiciously dismissed because it's a story that doesn't bother to reflect man's eternal suffering (though I'm tellin' ya, Spidey 3 was a bit of a downer). Sure, a good number of these movies are poorly made and worthy of some loathing, but the majority of indie movies about scruffy, brooding, sad sack 20 somethings are just as horrible if not more so due to their preciousness and utter myopic self-interest.
With that out of the way -- I'm happy to report this summer saved the best for last. (How's that for a segue?)
Superbad (this was originally written for dual action a month ago but I'm not going to bother re-writing it, sorry)
While everyone is through for the moment dousing Judd Apatow with buckets of praise (most of it deserved in my opinion) I'd like to take a paragraph or two to pat the backs of the other directors in this growing stable of talent. Maybe this is just a way of giving Apatow more praise for picking these directors and attaching them... At any rate, it's not something that's usually mentioned among the reasons how he is "saving comedy". I'm getting a little ahead of myself because on one the of the reason's I'm bringing this up is his having appointed Mr. David Gordon Green to helm the next Rogen/Goldberg scripted feature -- the finished-but-sadly-won't-be-out-'till-next-summer The Pineapple Express. I'm as guilty as anyone for getting hyperbolic and tossing the word genius around, but look at Greg Mottola's and Green's resume and tell me who else in Hollywood would have the balls to put these guys behind the camera for a high school comedy and a stoner action-adventure pic? That shit's exciting.
This is leading me back to my Die Hard schpeel. Except we're adding the excitement by putting in interesting directors rather than actors. The number one problem I have with most mainstream comedies is the direction. It's the main reason why Adam Sandler movies end up sucking so hard 90% of the time. Sure, the premise is usually pretty dumb and there isn't much in the way of original story/writing going on, but I'm telling you the worst offender in these pictures is the horrible directing. The story goes that Sandler works with hacks like Peter Segal and Steven Brill so he can do what he wants and basically direct himself. The one great movie he's made is Punch Drunk Love and the tales of Sandler and P.T. Anderson butting heads throughout are probably not all that exaggerated. So it seems Sandler is fine going about his business without stretching his abilities beyond what he's comfortable with. Well, ok, that's lame, but I'm willing to bet he can find someone out there that will let him do his own thing while at the same time know how to film something that doesn't look like it was shot by someone who didn't make the first cut of On the Lot. (I'll never get over the fact that after watching Anger Management that I could count the number of shots where Nicholson and Sandler appeared together on one hand. Anger Management doesn't have much going for it besides the fact that you have Sandler and Nicholson bouncing off each other. It's pretty damn frustrating that you can't have one scene where the two of them are framed together and yelling at each other for more than a couple seconds. Instead the whole movie is close-up or medium shot on Sandler yelling, waving arms to someone off screen -- cut to Nicholson close-up or med-shot of him yelling waving arms to other side of screen. Even when their in the fucking car together its cut back and forth between the two separate shots. Breathe... Sorry...) So here we have Greg Motolla who shoots the movie with some nice long takes here and there, some lingering moments sprinkled throughout, that allows the viewer to place themselves in these situations and become familiar with even the way certain characters walk. Very much from the same technique that Mr. Linklater used in Dazed & Confused. This isn't that crazy or innovative and yet it's downright exciting.
So yeah, this is a review of Superbad, right? Some high schools boys are in charge of getting some booze for a graduation party. Yes, it's an important party. We learn quickly that the other, more official party is not an option for our lonely, sex starved compadres. That's an apt description and yet by the end of the movie it's a ridiculously inferior description. One of the very important reasons this movie is great is that it transcends it's genre. Which is what all the great movies do. Kubirck, Coppola, Fuller, Peckinpah, a lot of the all-time great movies start off with someone looking at the conventions of a particular genre and coming out the other end having told a much bigger story about ourselves. Now don't go crazy, I'm not saying Superbad is on the same level as say, The Wild Bunch. But both these movies start off with a simple premise and by the end actually manage to reveal sincere reflections of our society. In Superbad's case it's fairly minor and in regards to the high school set, but it's revelatory nonetheless.
Also revelatory, all three of our main actors here. While they tend to be a little one-note here and there each one is given a couple scenes to knock socks off and these do tend to be in those lingering moments Mottola gives them. Where you're given a moment to see in their eyes that these characters do have life and that these actors do have something to offer. not so much with Christopher Mintz-Plasse, but it's his first movie and well, as superbad as Fogell is, his path is a different one. But let's not forget the women. Even though I believe this movie was finished before Knocked Up came out, this movie serves as a good rebuttal to the cries of misogyny that came with it. In possibly the most revolutionary tactic in its transcendence of its genre is making the young women in this movie are as real as the boys. While surely the boys are the focus and are the ones given the hero's journey, perhaps the most important lesson they learn is that these girls are not just classmates that provide lustful desires, but they are in fact more like themselves that they would imagine; just as confused and contradictory, and well, human.
One more note. I watched way too many youtube videos before seeing this movie. These videos completely succeeded in getting me really jazzed to see Superbad -- but at the same time took some of the awesomeness away. Only a little bit; but still... In no way am I saying that if you've searched and destroyed every clip from this movie before actually going out and seeing it that you're not going to come away happy -- trust me, you will. There are still many classic scenes in this film that took me by surprise. Cera doing a rendition of "These Eyes" to the residents of the coke room is probably my favorite moment this summer.
King of Kong
Rocky by way of Donkey Kong. Billy Mitchell may be the most memorable villain of the year in this documentary about one man's journey to challenge the undisputed owner of the top score in Donkey Kong. That contender is Steve Weibe, a man with a sympathetic story but one who isn't looking for any pity. A series of unfortunate events lead him to install a Donkey Kong machine in his garage and set himself a goal: top score. He soon finds that dethroning Billy Mitchell, a smug, arrogant man-child and hot sauce entrepreneur, who's held the score since the '80s, is not unlike toppling a small government. Sinister back-room dealings abound and devious henchmen stand in his way. And even after jumping over every barrel thrown his way, Steve finds that the odds stacked against him may be insurmountable. Will our champ give up in the face of all these adversities or will continue to fight 'till the final round?
To say that this movie is a huge crowd pleaser is, I hope, not giving away too much. Of all the movies I've seen this summer I think this is the one I've recommended the most. Mostly due to the fact that it's a movie that can't afford any big ad campaigns and might not play at your local Landmark theater for very long if people don't get out there and fill some seats. It is a wonderfully funny, touching and brilliantly edited movie. Highest honors. And I'll be damned if every time I think about this one I don't want to pick up the soundtrack and relive it.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [IMAX 3-D]
I had to make it through a couple of Jordan's Furniture showrooms and their insane Mardi Gras themed lobby, but overall my first IMAX experience was pretty cool. Hangover and vertigo be damned I made through this 5th installment of the boy wizard anthology. Now it is well known that movie-wise this series peaked with Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban and since then it's been heading back downhill. I don't think most people are arguing this. We're not reaching the nadir of the first movie -- it's still enjoyable to keep tabs on Harry and friends -- but we're seriously spinning wheels in this one.
God bless Imelda Staunton. Without her this one might have been a real slough to get through. We still have the bizarrely fun (possibly just to me) sight of seeing David Thewlis and Gary Oldman sharing the screen in a family movie. The supporting cast continues to be top notch. Alan Rickman is always a pleasure as the pained Prof. Snape and Michael Gambon (see the original BBC The Singing Detective) continues to makes it seem easy replacing ol' Richard Harris as Dumbledore.
"The IMAX Experience" took some getting used to, I must say. Even walking into the theater gave me a bit of unease. The horrible music and swirling out of focus circles certainly wasn't helping things as we waited for the movie to start. I had to keep my eyes elsewhere to keep from getting dizzy. Once the movie started we were treated to some pleasant overhead arial views and diving camera shots. And by pleasant I mean vertigo inducing, stomach turning, close-your-eyes-until-it's-over shots. There's no escaping the film when you're in the IMAX theater. No escape. But after the first hour or so, your senses adjust and you can start to relax. The last 30 minutes or so were presented in 3D and it had to of been the first time since 1984 or so that I strapped on a pair of 3D glasses in a theater. I couldn't picture watching a whole movie in this format but some of the shots were pretty cool. Some shots worsened from the treatment -- especially the flying over London stuff, but overall -- worth the money and the Jordan's ordeal.
Ahhh, nothing like a tall glass of David Cronenberg to wash down the summer and get the blood going for the fall movies. While I still long for the Cronenberg that dealt with "the new flesh", spinal cord orifices, killer gynecologists and mutant arm pits, I happy to report that his voice is ringing a lot clearer in Eastern Promises that in the fine yet oddly by the numbers History of Violence.
Continuing a partnership with Viggo Mortensen, who is here cast as a shady "driver" for a Russian family that's all mobbed up in London, Cronenberg crafts a kind of Shakespearean tale of a powerful family falling apart; the birth of a child that caused the downfall and the death that surrounds it. Filmed in these great earthy tones and filled with shadows, London has never looked eerier. While I'm certain there were a fair number of scene's filmed during daylight hours, looking back, you remember only darkness.
While Naomi Watts does a fine job starting us off as a nurse who takes on the role of looking out for this baby who's mother died while giving birth. She digs into the mothers past and eventually hands the reigns of lead actor over to Viggo. And I'll tell you it was an honor just to watch this guy. If he doesn't at least get a best actor nomination (and I have yet to see anyone outshine this performance) there's gonna be some heads rolling. Also shining is Vincent Cassell, who finally finds a decent English speaking role for his talents as Viggo's captain and problem child to Armin Mueller-Stahl's wonderfully creepy crime boss. He seems to have more of a problem with Naomi poking around than Viggo does and if you've seen La Haine you know Vincent can play unpredictable, violent guy better than anyone in town.
Since I know you're wondering -- yes, Viggo's naked fight scene is already the stuff of legend, and deservedly so. This scene is worth the price of admission alone because the visceral impact that is delivered by watching this scene play out in a well kept theater should not be denied. Unless you're the keeper of a multi-thousand dollar home theater, you will be missing out. This scene is also a good example of Cronenberg getting back to indulging in his fetishes which is the fun of watching one of his movies in the first place and why History of Violence wasn't as enjoyable as some of his better works.
So this one certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the movies heading our way as Oscar Bait '07 starts. We'll see how it plays out. In the meantime, enjoy some bonus features from King of Kong:
"Hi, I see your really good at Centipede."