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.