In a year of highly-hyped movies that were supposed to be great – that by all accounts should have been great – Looper is an anomaly, a comparatively small-budget (at $30 million) high-concept sci-fi that was almost under-marketed and that landed with a soft bang last weekend to universal praise and decent box office. It’s been drawing frequent comparisons to Inception, and with good reason: differences in scale aside, we’re not used to our action movies being intellectually challenging, and both films tackle mind-bending subject matter with similarly mind-bending directorial deftness. Just as notably, they’re both original creations in a world where the familiar is king.
Much hullabaloo has been made about the relation of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to the Alien franchise that he began back in 1979. None of that, it turns out, was justified: this is a straightforward prequel to Scott’s original film, bearing scenes and sequences that seem directly copied from its predecessor while gluing on a ponderous philosophical exoskeleton that is largely mumbo-jumbo and that seems to run parallel, not integral, to what is happening on screen.
Despite the gulfs of place and plot structure, much of the DNA of newest Wes Anderson offering Moonrise Kingdom is shared with Hugo, last year’s awards heavyweight from Martin Scorsese. Both are about boys without families trying to find their way forward, both set their stories in deliberately nostalgic period settings (1930s Paris for Hugo, an 1965 New England for Moonrise), and both are at least as remarkable for their highly detailed, textured production design as for any narrative innovations.
Comedy, in any age, is too often based on fart jokes and the incongruities of sex, enough so that we have an entire genre (the romantic comedy, of course) that’s based on the two. That being so, it’s a refreshing and unusual change to see the standard gags turned to timely and mordant commentary on real issues in the life of the world. And, in the character of a buffoonish dictator, that is precisely what one of our great comedians has done: use laughter to point out the absurdities of a system while also offering a deep humanist plea to his audience. I am referring, of course, to Charles Chaplin, whose 1940 film The Great Dictator lampooned the fascist dictatorships of Germany in Italy before the United States was at war with them and which, despite veering into some unfortunate socialist territory at times, is marked most of all in its optimism about the potential of man’s generosity to man.
This week, James Cameron’s box-office colussus Titanic was re-released in theaters, fully converted to 3-D. Cameron, the maven of the movie event, has been a subject of fascination for me for a long time, since I’m not sure what it is about his work touches people so deeply. For the re-release of Titanic, I present “Comprehending Cameron,” a little-seen article on what makes Cameron’s films tick that appeared almost a full year ago in the early days of Jentleman Film Journal.
15 April 2011
The other day, I watched Titanic for what was, incredibly, only the first time – I was a little too young for it when it came out in theaters, and I guess I’ve avoided it since then because I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly be all that good. However, following my negative feelings about Avatar, and being sick and tired of being constantly told that I justhad to see Titanic, I thought it was time to give it a shot.
Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it, though I have a feeling that I could pretty easily talk myself into hating it if I spent a couple solid hours thinking about it. More interesting than any review of the film, though (because, really, what is there to say about it that hasn’t already been said?) is how it reflects, and is reflected by, Avatar, which shares fundamentally the same preoccupations. That in turn reflects the interests and efforts of writer / director Cameron, and – maybe – can tell us something about what about these fundamentally mediocre efforts so connected with audiences.
Sports movies are their own subgenre in American filmmaking, but the relative popularity of a sport doesn’t seem to have much correlation with how much it resonates on the big screen. Probably no sport has produced as many genuinely good movies as baseball, which would seem unsurprising given that game’s history and enduring appeal to the general public, yet football, the most popular sport in the country by a healthy margin, has given us only Rudy, Brian’s Song, and… what? The Blind Side? As a nation, we ignore boxing but we love boxing movies; Hoosiers is about the only feature film about basketball worth watching; and Match Point remains perhaps the only good tennis movie ever, and it is emphatically not about tennis.
Hockey, with its violence, its speed, its subcultures of drinking and militant nationalism (the latter two being frequently combined), seems to offer fertile thematic ground for filmmakers, but, outside of 2004’s Miracle and of course the Holy Trilogy of the Mighty Ducks, has been largely ignored by Hollywood. (One wonders if that’s to some degree because the American film industry is held hostage by the warm, endless pavement of Los Angeles.) That makes Goon, not just a hockey movie but a surprisingly good and heartfelt one as well, a welcome presence at our multiplexes.
I knew that I was going to see The Hunger Games this weekend, because there was nothing else coming out and perhaps also because I wanted to see what the world was suddenly so excited about, but I had no thought of going to a midnight showing. Why would I? To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never so much as touched a copy of one of the books; if you’d asked me about the movie a month ago, I probably would’ve guessed that ‘hunger game’ was the proper anthropological term for those offers at restaurants where your meal is free if you can eat an entire three-pound hamburger.
Then a friend from work suggested that a group of us go to see it at midnight at the Arclight Hollywood, and, well, why the hell not? So it was that five of us found ourselves rushing to our seats at 12:20 in the morning, fully aware that we had to get up to be at work at 9 the next day, surrounded by teenage girls and middle-aged fantasy fans, not sure what to expect.
If, walking out of a screening of Superbad after its release in 2007, you had told me that two of its leads would five years later be two of the biggest stars in Hollywood, I would have been skeptical. If you had pressed the point and added that the two who would become those stars were Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, I would literally have laughed in your face. And yet, almost five full years later, Stone is our newest It girl, Hill just got nominated for an Oscar, and 21 Jump Street is both the #1 movie in America and the first comedy hit of the year – meaning that the combined star power of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum somehow adds up to more than that of Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, and Reese Witherspoon. All of which goes to prove, even above the shocking discovery that the Jentleman isn’t always right, that movie stars are not made so much as they become.
Admittedly, the movie’s not bad either, though it probably won’t be worth seeing if you don’t see it in the theater: over-the-top comedies, like the stand-up comedians that often populate them, are always amplified when they play to a large audience that laughs together, and 21 Jump Street is as over-the-top as they come.
Some movies qualify as specialty releases because their subject material is controversial; others, because they’re stylistically far outside the mainstream. Occasionally, though, it’s because their subject material is so minor or quirky that it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly draw any sort of significant audience. That is the group that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the new film from umlauted Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, belongs to.
Really, the title tells you everything that you need to know about the movie: a wealthy-beyond-wealth Yemeni sheik wants to ‘introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen,’ and he enlists the help of one of his money managers (Emily Blunt) and a Scottish official in the UK government’s fish and game department (Ewan McGregor) to make it happen. Powering the project forward is Britain’s Press Minister (Kirsten Scott Thomas), whose knack for smelling out stories beneficial to her government is matched only by her disdain for her coworkers. Naturally, there’s a personality clash between McGregor’s Freddie, who initially views the whole thing as an insult to the great salmon population of the British Isles, and Blunt’s Harriet, a London yuppie who just wants the sheik to get what he wants, and also naturally, their feelings deepen beyond what they’d expected.
There’s some heavy stuff mixed in – apparently the sheik’s love for salmon fishing isn’t appreciated by some in his homeland, who view him as becoming too Western – and all that comes off as the effort to make the subject material more broad and relevant. Frankly, though, Salmon Fishing is at its strongest when it acknowledges how thoroughly silly it is, and when it remembers that the only thing that makes an audience care, really, is how it feels about the characters, and by extension how the characters feel about their situation.
I don’t mean to suggest that the movie would be better if it stayed more permanently and comfortably within Scott Thomas’s wisecracking wheelhouse. Rather, it’s far more interesting to watch McGregor’s Freddie discovering that he cares about a project that he initially dismissed than to watch nameless beturbaned villains plotting against the sheik for being too Western. Similarly, the simple progression of the love story between Freddie and Blunt’s Harriet is far more engaging, and far more human, than the hackneyed dilemma that Harriet is presented with at the end of the film.
All of which is to say: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charming, thoroughly minor, piece of work. There’s nothing wrong with that: just such a film just won the biggest prize in cinema at the Oscars, after all. It does mean, however, that it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about it.
But then, surely not every movie needs to be a conversation starter, so long as manages to entertain; and, through its clever jokes, its attractive characters, and, yes, even through its occasional absurdities, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does at least manage that.
Just when and how did Robert De Niro go from being a great actor and bastion of the Method to big-name older star who could be relied on to bring attention to C movies like Meet the Parents, Righteous Kill, and New Year’s Eve? It’s a question that’s been asked over and over since at least 2000, and in the last decade De Niro has become something of a poster child for the once-great actor gone to seed.
Being Flynn seems like it should hold some answers to that question, because – as the movie itself points out – Jonathan Flynn is a character that’s ‘full of personality,’ and watching him descend into a sort of ambiguous madness (is he genuinely crazy, or does he just have an ego that’s too big for his body?) seems like just the sort of meaty role that a younger De Niro would have turned into an epic character study. And De Niro, the actor, is fine – it’s not that we don’t believe him as Flynn. It’s just that it doesn’t feel like he matters.
The movie is about a young man named Nick Flynn (Paul Dano), whose tortured relationships both with his long-absent father Jonathan and with his dead mother (Julianne Moore) have left him a shell-shocked, aimless young man searching for answers. At the urging of his friend-cum-girlfriend Denise (Olivia Thirlby), he takes a job at a local homeless shelter, which becomes the scene of a slow burn of self-destruction when Jonathan moves in as one of those in need of a place to sleep.
I’ve left a lot out of that summary, notably Jonathan’s literary aspirations (his opening monologue declares him to be one of America’s ‘three classic writers’), the overall weakness of the movie’s structure, and the small technical experiments that the film makes, but only because they don’t change the pieces of the story: this is a movie about a son encountering the father that he never knew. We don’t need to know that Jonathan fancies himself a writer to know that he’s delusional.
Or, perhaps, we do, and that’s what’s missing from the long-disinterested De Niro. It isn’t that he’s any less of an actor than he was thirty years ago, it’s that the fire – the need – that made Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, and Neil McCauley such indelible characters is nowhere to be found anymore. The young De Niro was a great actor, yes, but also filled with passionate intensity. If Jonathan Flynn had any of that passionate intensity about his belief in his stature as an artist, it would be far easier to give him credit for being something more meaningful than a drunk with an alienated son.