Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dodging the Clusterflick

This is clusterflick season -- when studios jam the multiplexes mining for Oscar gold. Theoretically I could be going to a new movie nearly every night. Yet in the past two weeks I found myself preferring to go to revival houses -- three times.

I am not delivering a screed about how they stopped making good movies in 1980; in fact, two of the three movies were 2011 releases I had missed on the big screen. But I am weary of Oscar season, our meager reward for enduring another summer of ever-worse remakes and sequels. (Eight of 2011's top eleven grossing titles so far were  sequels -- the other two were Thor and Captain America -- and   Mission Impossible 4 is still climbing into that list.)

Last night I had a lively debate with an erudite couple who had the polar opposite reaction to me on two Oscar contenders: Young Adult (they liked, I hated) and The Help (I liked, they hated). That's what makes this a ballgame, I guess, but I wonder if in a year or two we will even remember which movies were nominated.

2011's most romantic scene?
I have enjoyed some of this year's crop -- most thoroughly The Artist [left] -- but I can't argue with people who didn't like it, and also have been wildly disappointed by several
(Young Adult, J. Edgar, Extremely Loud, Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, The DescendantsTinker Tailor).  Even though I think Dragon Tattoo is probably good, I just saw the Swedish one and don't feel up for a second round of brutal rape scenes; I am sure Hugo is fine and will get there eventually. I have been too let down by previous biopics to get psyched about Marilyn Monroe or Margaret Thatcher being co-opted into "bravura performances." My fear is that I won't be emotionally involved in the story, I'll just be marveling at craft.

And when I hear news like the National Film Critics naming Melancholia best film of the year, it only reconfirms my suspicion that these days award-givers are making decisions either out of compromise or to be "different" -- and that by next year even they won't remember their choices.

Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice...
The old movie I saw in a theater was Hitchcock's Vertigo [right] which I wanted my daughters to rewatch on a big screen. Yes, yes, we can have a debate about whether that makes me a good dad or a bad one; it certainly teaches them something about men and relationships they may not be ready for, but it also makes San Francisco look nice. [Footnote: Kim Novak is taking out ads complaining of The Artist's use of a theme from Bernard Herrmann's score from Vertigo. Crazy?]

The others were the Oscar-contending documentary Project Nim [up top] at the New Beverly, a pleasantly scruffy double-feature screen salvaged from closure in 2010 by Quentin Tarantino; and Super 8, J.J. Abrams' ode to his childhood and his hero Steven Spielberg, which was showing at the American Cinematheque's Santa Monica outpost, the Aero [left].

My response to both helped me bettter understand why I had opted not to see, say, Mission Impossible 4. 

Had I watched Project Nim on HBO or DVD, I might have turned it off when it got too disturbing. And in fact someone in the sparse audience walked out of the New Beverly. Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), Nim moved me through a wider range of emotions than any fiction film in a long while.

It tells the troubling story of a chimpanzee who in the early 70s subjected to a misguided and muddled "scientific study" by a shady Columbia University professor, in which Nim was taken from his mother as an infant and "raised" by humans variously in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, a 28-acre estate in Riverdale, and then gets cast off to much less cushy and more life-threatening habitats.

There's tons of vintage footage as well as recent interviews with several participants in this process, which involves professor/student sex, a mother who breastfed Nim and dressed him in sweaters, and others who shared joints with him, all summed up by the mother's daughter who finally just blurts, "It was the seventies." Meaning, the post-sixties, anything-goes hedonism and narcissism on display in The Ice Storm is much worse here, and you can't take your eyes off it. Everyone projects their own needs onto the poor chimp

But then Nim -- and the film, and the audience -- made it through, thanks to the only truly sympathetic -- and empathettic -- character: Bob Ingersoll, a "teacher" who kept track of Nim for years and took responsibility for what happened to him. If you make it to that part of the movie I challenge you not to tear up. Here's a brief taste:

Coincidentally, the 1970's were also the setting for the other half of my 2011 playback.

I think I initially dodged Abrams' Super 8 -- as of this writing, the 20th-highest grossing movie of the year -- because the first teaser-trailer made it look like a high-tech, supernatural thriller. That appeals to many audiences, but not me.

The best part of the movie is autobiographical and owes more to Stand By Me than Close Encounters or Alien. A bunch of engaging, well-characterized Ohio pre-teens with a camera are trying making a zombie movie.  Then Things Go Haywire, Spielberg-style -- a train crash, a government cover-up, a scary alien visitor, etc etc. This trailer does more justice to the human side of things -- the recently widowed Dad (Kyle Chandler) and his son (Joel Courtney) trying to connect, the hot girl (Elle Fanning) everyone pines for, the bossy chubby director (Riley Griffiths), the kid who's always blowing things up, the kid who's always throwing up.

At the screening I attended, there was a Q&A with Abrams afterwards, and the interviewer quoted Spielberg (who produced Super 8) saying this was really the "first J.J. Abrams movie" -- because his previous directorial efforts were reboots of Star Trek and Mission:Impossible.
Dennis Muren, Michael Giacchino, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso,
Elle Fanning, J.J. Abrams, (Burtt obscured) and Geoff Boucher 
Also on the panel were Dennis Muren and Ben Burtt, the ILM visual and sound pioneers who worked on George Lucas and Spielberg's landmark movies, who tried to keep the CGI more reality based for the 70's style of the movie than is now being employed for, say, Mission Impossible 4 (which Abrams' company, Bad Robot, produced).

Abrams told the audience his favorite movie is actually The Philadelphia Story and candidly admitted that he hadn't quite melded the two genres he was trying to wed.

Afterwards I was trying to figure out why the movie wasn't as engaging as its role model, E.T.  Yes, Abrams grew up in the business and sold his first movie idea before he graduated college ( I wrote an early item for Esquire about his screenplay for Regarding Henry when he was known as Jeffrey Abrams). Yes, he is aping Spielberg (he employs the "Spielberg close-up" as many times in this one movie as Spielberg did his whole career) -- but Spielberg is mimicking people when he makes his movies too.
(Side note: Abrams also ripped off himself -- the contentious dynamic between the dark-haired good-guy character played by Chandler and the shaggy blond-haired ne''er-do-well father of Elle Fanning played by Ron Eldard [above] is eerily reminiscent of the Jack/Sawyer dynamic in Lost [below]). 
I'd like to believe that not all things are going downhill. Maybe the audience shares responsibility. Are we less open a culture than we were 30 years ago, more jaded by movie effects and conventions?

I certainly give props to Abrams for trying to bring some humanity to the genre and the movie theater (even as he produces MI4). But it's the chimpanzee's story that sticks with me.

[UPDATE: Project Nim won the DGA best documentary award on January 29, after failing to get an Oscar nomination -- partly due to the controversial Oscar doc process. ]

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