Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: The Movies...They Play Better in My Head Than They Do Onscreen

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Movies...They Play Better in My Head Than They Do Onscreen

by Tony Dayoub

So last night I had quite a vivid dream, which is strange since I rarely recall my dreams at all. As they usually do this one took the form of a movie, one in which my point of view is in the middle of all the action but with a sort of detached omniscience allowing me to see multiple angles... think of an action movie if it were not just in 3D but as immersive as Star Trek's holodeck, yet none of the participants can see you. Get it?

Okay, so this dream involved a trio of escaped convicts, dressed in white T-shirts and pants, leading cops on a merry chase down an interstate somewhere in Texas, sort of like in The Sugarland Express. Except the cons are shooting out the shattered back window at the patrolmen giving chase, and the criminals looked like Kevin Costner (circa A Perfect World), John Leguizamo (!?), and inexplicably, this guy (pictured on the left) who played Karl Rove in Fair Game. This all culminates in Costner getting clipped in the throat by a cop, giving way to a downbeat finale of the sort I'd associate with The Friends of Eddie Coyle or some Seventies movie like that... and then I woke up. Which means that for me, the dream was way more exciting than Spielberg's film. In fact, this was probably the most stirring "movie" I've seen since Carlos in early October, which may explain to you why my postings have been so sparse of late. As I tweeted earlier, lately I feel like I'm writing more as a response to the self-imposed pressure of documenting most of what I see than because I am actually moved to write about any films I've watched.

Consider the case of Megamind, which I caught this past weekend with my son. This animated film is inoffensive enough to pass for a good film at the multiplex. But 48 hours later, poof! It's gone; as disposable as the McDonald's Happy Meal bearing one of its licensed trinkets. How could one go wrong with this? Will Ferrell is probably the funniest SNL alum to carry films in quite some time; this summer's The Other Guys—where he plays a strait-laced, deskbound cop descending into the madness of the excitement-deprived—proved that. Tina Fey makes for a good straight "man." And Brad Pitt's superfluous extended cameo as the heroic Metro Man isn't significant enough to have any bearing on this discussion at all. The premise is great; what does a super-villain do with himself after he finally succeeds at obliterating his arch-enemy?

Megamind's problem is the warmed-over feeling that settles in quite early in a film that by its very nature aims to be derivative. The film villain's flight from his planet of origin is a play on a superhero trope which obviously pays homage to Superman. Why belabor the point by having Ferrell do a Brando impression later in the film when he decides to spawn his own super-powered do-gooder? And why extend the Brando gag when it's neither funny nor as on target as one should think it is? To make matters worse, the superhero apprentice he takes on (voiced obnoxiously by the increasingly annoying Jonah Hill) turns out to be a stalker who mistakes the boost in confidence he gets when he attains his powers for justification that it's alright to terrorize Megamind's Metrocity (rhymes with atrocity... oh no, wait, it's pronounced Metro City; now Ferrell's mispronunciations were a nice running joke). Didn't we see this joke already in The Incredibles? A sure sign that this film never reaches the dizzying transportive heights of How to Train Your Dragon or the sublime visual stylings of Kung Fu Panda—two vastly superior animated outings by the same outfit over at Dreamworks—was my son's decision to doff his 3D glasses midway through the film because he preferred concentrating on eating his movie snacks. Not that you would miss much watching Megamind in 2D. There were far more eye-bursting effects in the Yogi Bear trailer preceding the feature presentation than in the entirety of Megamind.

I had a much better time when I caught Stone on Friday afternoon. I haven't quite figured out whether it was a byproduct of going in with diminished expectations or not, but I'm still enjoyng this film's afterglow. I mean, the film's trailer led me to believe this was going to be a rather simplistic noir set-up where our hero, prison employee Robert De Niro, finds himself manipulated by Edward Norton, a baaaaad (you can tell he's bad by his "street"-inflected accent) convict up for parole who sends his wife, Milla Jovovich, to bed De Niro in order to get something on the guy. De Niro is going to play out his desperation while Norton does his best reenactment of the Primal Fear mindfuck with Jovovich sexing the joint up.

Boy was I wrong. Stone turns out to be an ambitious attempt to get at the philosophical underpinnings of guilt, betrayal, redemption, and rebirth. It is immediately clear neither De Niro is the pious jailer nor is Norton the conniving jailee as both are portrayed in the trailer. My first thought was who is this directed by? My second was, John Curran... who the hell is that? Not only does Curran elicit some excellent performances with a minimum of the over-the-top histrionics which can mar both De Niro and Norton's work when they are mishandled. Curran also manages to give us some fascinatingly complex turns by Jovovich and Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) as women whose opacity confounds their husbands as much as it does the viewer. If there is a misstep, it is in Curran's reliance on overstylization to inform his audience of the central themes. With a soundtrack overflowing with evangelical radio excerpts, and visual quotes from Don't Look Now and Badlands out in front (as if to declare his influences), Curran gets a little ham-fisted in making his point. Then again, God knows there are worse films than those two to be proud of cribbing from.

So at this point you are probably asking how my dream plays into this? And why I have pictures of the Rat Pack and assorted hangers-on above and at top? Well, lately, having to write about what's playing theatrically is about as fun for me as getting shot in the throat like Costner was in my dream. I feel pressured to do it to stay current, and feel obligated to post about as quickly as the trio is hightailing it out of Texas. But my true pleasure has been in being reintroduced to some of my favorite classic films on Blu-ray. And that's simply something I don't feel like I get to write about here too often. And therein lies the tale behind the Ocean's 11 stills.

Out today from Warner, this paean to the Rat Pack and their lifestyle has never looked this good. Look at the red behind Sammy Davis, Jr. in the still at top. Better yet, check out these two promotional clips Warner Home Video provided highlighting the beautiful transfer:

(As you can see, director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) here takes a "sit back, and let them do their thing" tack with the directing of his large cast. Performances are uneven then, with some actors like Akim Tamiroff and Clem Harvey hamming up their accents a bit, and others, like Sinatra, Dean, Davis, and Lawford, playing it pretty straight.)

In both clips, the color red is rather prominent, and those familiar with video will recognize the instability which usually accompanies red whenever it appears onscreen. But the transfer of Ocean's 11—a movie set some time between Christmas and New Year's I would surmise—avoids this particular pitfall. While the transfer is new, be forewarned. There are no new extras included here which didn't appear in its previous DVD iteration. Which isn't to sell the Blu-ray short. I am forever indebted to this minor classic for bringing me back from the mild sense of despair I was having trouble shaking off. And at least in the case of Ocean's 11, sometimes the movies... they play better onscreen than they do in my head.


Dean Treadway said...

Really terrific post. I'm never going to be a "real" film writer, because I just cannot subject myself to every movie out there as a matter of rote, and I sure as hell can't make myself write about 'em. Writing is painful. The only thing that alleviates that pain is the heartening sensation that what you're writing about is worth the sacrifice. I dunno if I was getting 100 thou a year, I could do this. My temptation with a movie like MEGAMIND might be a "Shit Sandwich" review like "Megamulch" ir something dismissive like that. I admire those who can expound endlessly on what makes a movie stink, or boring, or pretentious. Sometimes I can even do it. But I don't like it, and really, what;s the point. My feeling is, as a reader, "Oh this guy I like says it sucks...why read the review. Onwards and upwards." Even with, say, OCEANS ELEVEN (which I'm bored tearless by), I merely wanna say "Save some time: play poker instead while listening to Sinatra's WATERTOWN. Follow this up with the best of Trudi Pitts. Wild Turkey on the rocks all night long." I love it, by the way, when film writers talk about their dreams. My guess is they have some killer ones. I know mine are: the one last night had an all-star-cast and was set in a remote yet oft-attacked munitions outpost in Egypt circa 1943; I was there I think with at least Dana Andrews and Red Buttons, and I was considered even weaker than Red! Lots more happened, but you get the idea. We have great imaginations, even if we've opted not to use them all the time.

Joel Bocko said...

Loved the hook. My dreams tend to slip and slide between me watching a movie, me experiencing reality, and me having a dream-within-a-dream. Characters and settings are fluid and there's a bizarre ontological discrepancy between names and actualities (ex: I'll be at a place that bears no resemblance to my home, and be conscious of it as my "house" the whole time, as if I'm seeing things as they really are on a subconscious level or something). There's also a profound, metaphysical sense of mood which I don't get in daily life and only get in movies from the likes of Lynch or the Quay brothers. So I sympathize with your notion that sometimes the best movies play out in one's head.

I also sympathize with the fatigue from forcing oneself to write. I tried to do the "reviewing-new-releases" thing for a few weeks in the spring and while it had its charms, like Dean I don't think I could do that sort of thing for anything but money in the long run. Heck, I don't even like writing about a lot of the films I enjoy, let alone the ones I don't!

Anyway, long before blogging, I started to give up my attachment to regular theater-going. A combination of increasing ticket prices and diminished returns. My favorite passage was your mention of "my son's decision to doff his 3D glasses midway through the film because he preferred concentrating on eating his movie snacks" - I laughed aloud at that.

Part of me wonders (hopes?) if the current model of cinemagoing/moviewatching/moviewriting with its focus on the latest Hollywood product isn't on its way to being somewhat obsolete. For this to be the case, a new vital cinema would have to emerge and thrive on the margins, and I think it will happen when everyone realizes that with cheaper technology and the delivery system of the internet, the power is in their own hands more than ever before. I know I'm still trying to get my head around that fact (and figure out what to do with it).