Movie Review Tuesday: Misanthropy, My Nic Cage Problem, and Abusing the Audience

Guess who watched some movies last week?

Greenberg: I loved Noah Baumbach’s first flick, Kicking and Screaming (not the Will Ferrell one; the one with Olivia D’Abo wearing a retainer), but haven’t seen any of his subsequent movies. This one reminded me of K&S in parts, esp. in a climactic decision made by Ben Stiller’s titular character. And that character, an emotionally crippled neurotic, could easily have been a pal of one of K&S’ aimless college graduates, still trying to work things out at the age of 40.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about this movie was its sheer naturalness. It’s rare (for me) to see performances where the characters are making decisions, where their silences are as important as (maybe more important than) what they say. Even the pontificating dialogue didn’t feel as though it was written for them. As I mentioned last week, this movie is on my Mount Rushmore of Middle-Aged Misanthropy. Greenberg isn’t “likable,” and his rants aren’t exactly “what we all wish we could say,” but his anxiety, his desperation and his frustration are so familiar to me that I found myself invested in that character far more than I expected. I haven’t felt this close to a Stiller character since Zoolander.

I was also swept up by the soulful, downbeat performance of Rhys Ifans and thought Greta Gerwig did a tremendous job of playing off of Stiller. Her character’s “millennial” (or whatever that 20-something demo is called) uncertainty of who she is and what she wants serves as a corrective for Greenberg’s decades-long unrootedness and inability to connect. Of course, it’s a love story of sorts, but it features one of the most (humorously) uncomfortable sex scenes of all time.

On the negative side, Greenberg uses a sick dog as a way to build tension and sympathy, and that felt kinda cheap. Still, I thought this was a wonderful movie, but maybe that’s just the anxiety-ridden, socially inept loner in me. I like to think we’re all a little Greenberg.

Notting Hill: We only put this on because Rhys Ifans and Gina McKee are in it. I was glad to see that Ms. McKee’s teeth were far better in In The Loop. Also, I think Hugh Grant was better looking in his About A Boy phase, skinnier and without the floppy hair. But, boy, was this a non-movie.

Matchstick Men: I have a Nicolas Cage problem. As a result of him doing such crappy movies for so many years, it’s difficult to watch him in not-necessarily-crap movies, because he carries such crap-baggage. In this case, he looked like he was treading a line between acting and the bullshit parody of himself that he trots out to pay his mammoth tax bills. His character’s OCD issues come off as quirks that they added right before filming, to show him Acting.

I watched this for a few reasons:

  1. It’s another LA-as-a-character movies, and I’m interested in how that works (that was also the case for Greenberg),
  2. It’s directed by Ridley Scott, and I like to see what nausea-inducing camera trick or cinematographic wackiness or color scheme he employs from movie to movie,
  3. It’s got Sam Rockwell in it, and I’ll watch him in just about anything.

Neat movie to look at, but not a good flick. I guess LA was significant, but the landmarks were lost on me. The plot’s long con was pretty obvious midway through the flick, esp. when the long-lost daughter with whom Cage reunites bears a stronger resemblance to Rockwell than to him. On the plus side, Bruce McGill (D-Day from Animal House) was in this, which prompted me to check him out on IMDB. With his TV, movie and video game roles, it’s possible he’s done more work than anyone else from Animal House, with the exception of Donald Sutherland.

Rockwell, of course, is great. One of my pals once told me to note how often the camera lingers on his ass in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and I’ve noticed a fixation on Rockwell’s ass in other flicks since, like Moon (which makes sense). Funnily enough, the only actor to go bare-ass in this one is Nicolas Cage. Actually, there’s nothing funny about that.

District 9: More entertaining than I expected, although the political angle was kinda lost on me. I mean, I get the “it’s Joburg, so the aliens represent apartheid” hammer, but that doesn’t really correlate with, um, apartheid. If the humans moved somewhere and discovered a race of aliens and moved them into slums, that’d make a better parallel. It’s not like the blacks decided to move to South Africa, prompting the whites to enforce a status quo. Maybe it was supposed to be about how South African mentality is subtly oriented to keep Others in slums, but it’s not like there was some way that the aliens could have been assimilated into human society; they were submental, brutally strong, and had no concept of work. They sure had cool weapons, though. What I found most interesting was how the lead actor, Sharlto Copley, started out resembling a lost Monty Python actor, and transformed into Christian Bale’s homelier brother over the course of the flick.

And I had one gigantic problem with this flick: the storytelling model. District 9 spends its first 20 minutes carefully setting up a documentary model. Everything the audience sees is framed by a camera; we’re watching news footage, interviews, security cameras, etc. Then, it’s just dropped. We get a scene of two aliens scavenging through a trash pile, and the point of view is omniscient. The movie haphazardly flips back to documentary / reality TV style, then returns to omniscient mode when it needs to show scenes that couldn’t possibly have been “documented.” Once again: if your storytelling model can’t encompass the entire story, then you need to change either the story or the model. At the very least, the movie should have broken into chapters: this one is documentary style, this one is natural. They could have worked with the tension between the two modes that way, showing how the story changes from a “reality TV” mode to “what’s really happening,” but it’s clear that the documentary style was poorly thought out and just used to make some sort of point that I’m clearly missing. Probably about apartheid.