Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Yeah, but where’s the fun?

On Feb. 2, 2008 the very first “Screening Room” saw light of day. Well, here we are at the beginning of February of 2011 and I’m starting a brand new year of more of the same—at least till somebody forcibly
restrains me. And as a treat to myself, I’m using this entry for the specific purpose of bitching about the movies coming out right now.

It’s the dead of winter, I know, and the movies have a tendency to be rather grim at this time of year. However, there’s usually some relief from this as the stragglers of the previous year’s limited release offerings make their way into the provinces. And, of course, that’s happening, but last year that included Pedro Almodovar’s colorful and playful neo-noir Broken Embraces and Terry Gilliam’s fantastic and fantasticated The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus. This year it seems to be largely grim, grimmer, and grimmest.

I’m not saying that the films we’re getting are bad—though at least one of them is. I’m just saying that the steady diet of them is wearing. I’m feeling like I’m constantly being dosed with “nasty medicine” that is somehow supposed to be good for me. At the risk of imperilling my status as an elitist bastard, I’m about ready for some movies where “shit blows up neat”—as long as they don’t take themselves seriously about it. Oh—and aren’t made by Michael Bay.

It started a couple weeks ago with the triple whammy of The Way Back, Blue Valentine, and Tiny Funiture. At least, it can be said that The Way Back—after reels and reels of hardship—was ultimately a film about the indomitability of the human spirit. But the trip to get there was grim indeed. On balance, it was worth it and I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I’d just seen two-plus hours of misery for no very good reason other than to prove to me that this was a serious film.

I’m considerably less certain that the marital miseries of Blue Valentine were of similar value. I cannot fault the film in terms of structual interest—though I’ve seen Nicolas Roeg, Richard Lester, and Mike Nichols movies that had far more complex structures—but I am unconvinced of the actual dramatic or thematic value of the film. Time will, I suppose, tell as to whether or not it is a film anyone even remembers a few years from now. I’m skeptical.

On the other hand, I have little doubt that Tiny Furniture will be forgotten by lunchtime next Thursday. This semi-mumblecore bout of navel-gazing ennui from Lena Dunham about how hard it is to be her—or rather her onscreen self—would be a shoo-in for my Ten Worst next year, but it’s technically a 2010 film. Regardless, this appallingly dreary film is perhaps less grim than Blue Valentine, but it’s even more depressing—even if it’s mostly depressing because it got any kind of release whatsoever. I’d rather sit through Furry Vengeance again.

Now, I really like Mike Leigh’s Another Year—especially, after seeing it a second time—and I consider it a serious work where the downbeat aspects of the film are not merely there to convince me of its weightiness. I also don’t find it depressing, but I’m not about to claim that it’s a lot of fun—apart from Jim Broadbent’s asides and expressions. In fact, I received an e-mail from a viewer who had so disliked the movie that he walked out on it. I understood exactly why he hadn’t liked it, and have no issue with his reaction, though I did feel he was reacting only to part of the film and to one character. Indeed, if he left at the three-quarter mark, he missed a key character.

All of this, however, pales in comparison to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful in terms of grimness. This is an extremely well-made movie—apart from being (typically for Inarritu) too long—and it’s built on a very powerful performance from Javier Bardem. It is also one of the biggest downers I’ve ever seen. Yes, Bardem is up for an Oscar, and, yes, the movie itself is up for Best Foreign Language Film. I understand both, though the Academy’s approach to Foreign Language films is so very peculiar as concerns how the nominees are decided that the award is all but meaningless.

And the onslaught of downbeat isn’t over, though nothing is likely to out bummer Biutiful. We’re still looking toward Barney’s Version, which is actually very good and does have some sardonic humor. And there’s Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. I haven’t seen Somewhere, but I confess I’m allergic to Ms. Coppola’s work. Where a lot of filmmakers confuse downbeat with serious, she always strikes me as confusing tedium with serious. Maybe this will be a pleasant surprise, but from what I’ve been hearing, I will be mightily surprised. Even the positive reviews make it sound like it’s more of her continuing love affair with the depressingly banal. The possible bright spot in here is Sylvain Chomet’s (The Triplets of Belleville) The Illusionist.

I’m sure I’d be a lot less inclined to be bothered by all these reels and reels of hard luck if they weren’t all coming at me one after another in this relentless manner. It’s like the flipside of that feeling induced by Mamma Mia!—the sense of being cudgelled into having a good time. Here, I feel like I’m being beaten over the head to admire the profundity of it all for the good of my artistic soul. Actually, I never had a good time with Mamma Mia! and I’m becoming numb to the concept that all this is profound.

Where has all this driven me? Why, to the point where the movie I’m most looking forward to at the moment is Drive Angry 3D—now being advertised as Drive Angry Shot in 3D in an understandable effort to make it clearly that this isn’t one of those pointless retrofit jobs, but a movie actually designed for and made in 3D. Considering the fact that director Patrick Lussier and cinematographer Brian Pearson made My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)—the most effectively crafted 3D movie I’ve seen (sorry, James Cameron)—that’s worth noting. Granted, the movie itself mostly functioned on the so-bad-it’s-good level, even though it looked swell. However, I’m not so concerned with the look of Drive Angry. No.

Just look at the trailer—and I don’t mean the silly 30 second red band trailer that promises, “This will f**k you up,” I mean the regular old trailer. What a premise! Nicolas Cage busts out of hell to return to earth for a last chance at redemption. Think of it as Liliom with mayhem, mammaries, and muscle cars added for good measure. (When Ferenc Molnar wrote Liliom he probably overlooked these things, lacking a background in exploitation.)  Cage and his latest hair-piece are out to stop the cult that killed his daughter from sacrificing his granddaughter. Meanwhile, Satan’s right-hand-man, The Accountant (William Fichtner, Date Night), is hot on his trail—with Cage keeping barely ahead with the help of Amber Heard and her ex-boyfriend’s muscle car. Now, really, this just screams quality entertainment, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not, but the trailer amuses me—and it doesn’t fill me with existential dread. Right now, that’s probably enough.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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34 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Yeah, but where’s the fun?

  1. luluthebeast

    “mayhem, mammaries, and muscle cars”

    What else do you need in an ad? Can’t wait!

  2. Mike

    Knowing what I do about your tastes, I don’t think you’ll be too thrilled with Somewhere, Ken. It’s vintage Sofia: dreamy, aimless, wryly funny, and definitely not for everyone. I happened to love it, and can’t wait to see it on the big screen.

    The Illusionist is based on a Tati script, right? Hard to miss with a pedigree like that.

    And as much of a bummer as Biutiful was I still didn’t think it was THAT bad. I was expecting something truly without redemption and was surprised that it kind of had a happy ending, for an Innaritu film anyway. Granted, watching this comes on the tail end of a month that’s included Dogtooth, Enter the Void, Come and See, and Torque so maybe I’m just a tad desensitized.

  3. luluthebeast

    You should have known me in the sixties. If I did the things now that my friends and I did back then, I’d have Homeland Security after me. Back then it was just “Well, boys will be boys!”

  4. Ken Hanke

    It’s vintage Sofia: dreamy, aimless, wryly funny, and definitely not for everyone.

    “Aimless” and “not for everyone” are the only words in that sentence that apply to her movies for me.

    Granted, watching this comes on the tail end of a month that’s included Dogtooth, Enter the Void, Come and See, and Torque so maybe I’m just a tad desensitized.

    I think I may be glad those haven’t fallen into my range of needed viewing!

  5. Ken Hanke

    If I did the things now that my friends and I did back then, I’d have Homeland Security after me

    If you did the things you did back then now, you’d also hurt yourself.

  6. DrSerizawa

    Does anyone believe that Sophia’s movies would get bankrolled if her last name wasn’t Coppola? Except maybe for made-for-TV Lifetime movies because that’s what her movies seem to be destined for. No I take that back even Lifetime movies often have more entertaining qualities than Marie Antoinette. But so does grass growing.

    I gotta admit that the trailer for Drive Angry did look intriguing in a low-rent Robert Rodriguez fashion. Cage may be racing Anthony Hopkins to the bottom this winter.

  7. I guess I appreciate Coppola as a filmmaker, but nothing she has done has appealed to me.

    I’m diggin’ ONG BAK 3 right now. It’s dumb.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Does anyone believe that Sophia’s movies would get bankrolled if her last name wasn’t Coppola? Except maybe for made-for-TV Lifetime movies because that’s what her movies seem to be destined for. No I take that back even Lifetime movies often have more entertaining qualities than Marie Antoinette. But so does grass growing.

    Actually, she may be considered more bankable than her father at this point, which is disturbing indeed. Marie Antoinette was a pretty huge disappointment, especially after she’d claimed it was — at least in part — influenced by Lisztomania. Well, Lisztomania has a 19th century rock concert, a Chaplin fantasy, Roger Daltrey with a 10 foot willy that chorus girls (including George Sand) ride around on, Ringo Starr as the Pope, a firebreathing lucite piano, and Richard Wagner rising from the dead as a combination Adolf Hitler and Frankenstein Monster playing a guitar machine gun with a barbed wire electrical cord. I saw no evidence of these things in her film.

  9. Ken Hanke

    THE ILLUSIONIST is a great film…but it, too, is a downer

    Great. I was hoping for melancholy or bittersweet, not outright downer.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I guess I appreciate Coppola as a filmmaker

    In what way? I was amused that the one scene in Marie Antoinette I actually liked was made by her btother.

  11. In what way? I was amused that the one scene in Marie Antoinette I actually liked was made by her brother.

    Roman’s film CQ is very enjoyable.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Roman’s film CQ is very enjoyable

    Till you mentioned it, I’d forgotten all about it, which is a pity because it’s actually quite good.

  13. luluthebeast

    If you did the things you did back then now, you’d also hurt yourself

    I’d also have to be able to run fast and right now about the best I can do is a medium shamble.

  14. Till you mentioned it, I’d forgotten all about it, which is a pity because it’s actually quite good.

    Perfect criteria for a screening. It was heavily influenced by DANGER DIABOLIK btw.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Perfect criteria for a screening. It was heavily influenced by DANGER DIABOLIK btw.

    We’ll see about the first — I don’t see it as a priority, but a possibility. As to the second, it appears that Danger Diabolik is in my future.

  16. DrSerizawa

    Well, so much for that option.

    As a wise man once said, “Age and Guile do not always beat Youth, Enthusiasm and Idealism, but that is the way to bet.”

  17. Ken Hanke

    As a wise man once said, “Age and Guile do not always beat Youth, Enthusiasm and Idealism, but that is the way to bet.”

    That may not apply in roller skating.

  18. Yes, it’s played by rockabilly star Sleepy Labeef. He geeks a live chicken.

    Get what you will be reviewing soon?

  19. Ken Hanke

    Yes, it’s played by rockabilly star Sleepy Labeef. He geeks a live chicken.

    Get what you will be reviewing soon?

    If the trailer is any indication, having a star called “Sleepy” seems most awfully apt. I honestly don’t think anybody comes to these screenings, you only have them to laugh at the idea of me sitting through this crap.

  20. If the trailer is any indication, having a star called “Sleepy” seems most awfully apt. I honestly don’t think anybody comes to these screenings, you only have them to laugh at the idea of me sitting through this crap.

    This movie, also called THE EXOTIC ONES, is Ron Ormond’s masterpiece. You’ll see, as well as 1 or 2 others that attend the screening.

    Also, if you’ve never seen Sleep LaBeef, he’s well worth your time. He knows over 4000 songs.

  21. Ken Hanke

    Ron Ormond’s masterpiece.

    There’s a phrase I never expected to see.

    He knows over 4000 songs.

    Have you actually counted them?

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