Sunday, September 7, 2008

“Oh, I love living vicariously through the pain and suffering of others…”

Two days into the free HBO/Cinemax on Demand weekend (being provided by my cable company, CharredHer) and I’d say I’m batting about .233 with regards to the movies I’ve chosen. I started out on Friday watching a trio of HBO documentaries; the best of the bunch being The Recruiter (2008), an interesting look at the occupation of Sgt. First Class Clay C. Usie, whose job is to maintain a quota of recruiting young men and women into the U.S. Army. Usie’s job is made especially difficult during the time period in which this doc was shot because of the U.S.’ recent clusterf**ks in both Iran and Afghanistan; still, he continues to be one of the military’s successful “salesmen” and the film examines the careers of four high-school graduates who make the decision to join up. I thought it was interesting that Usie is based out of Houma, LA—the site of the touchdown of recent Hurricane Gustav.

Resolved (2007) is devoted to high-school debaters, as the stories of four students from two separate high schools illustrate their determination to achieve debate immortality at the prestigious Tournament of Champions, held yearly in Lexington, KY. What put me off about this film is the very nature of debating itself; many of those who participate use a method called “The Spread,” in which debaters “speed read” as many facts as they can in the time allotted to their arguments. It might work for debates, but to a layman like myself the kids come across as tobacco auctioneers (“Sold American!”). The final documentary—Thank You, Mr. President: Helen Thomas at the White House (2008)—was the weakest of the bunch; based on the veteran UPI reporter’s memoirs, it attempts to illustrate her journey from dean of the White House press corps to journalistic gadfly (an occupation all-too-rare in these times where genuflecting by journalists has become the norm). Sadly, Thomas’ life isn't all that exciting and it’s a good thing this documentary only runs thirty-seven minutes, otherwise it would be a real chore to sit through. (There is a funny comment about this piece over at the IMDb in which the individual claims not to be "a right-wing wacko"—“I’m fairly middle of the road”—but then claims President is an advertisement for “the Democratic Party’s socialistic agenda.” I guess they must be building wider roads these days.)

On the subject of feature films, I tuned into Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) on the basis of the positive buzz it received from critics and moviegoers alike. I’m not sure why this film got the praise it did; it would appear that the aforementioned throng got hold of some really good weed and thus was able to talk themselves into thinking this was a comedy masterpiece. Rest assured it is not: it’s an hour-and-twenty-three minutes of the same shtick whereupon Khazakstani reporter Borat Sagdiyev (a character created by British actor-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on his successful series Da Ali G Show) sets out to make unsuspecting people uncomfortable by creating “comedy” out of his unfamiliarity with American customs and mores. The film’s comedy rarely rises above the frat boy/toilet humor prevalent in so many films today. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit I laughed out loud when Borat, introducing his Khazakstan family, becomes particularly amorous with a woman who he identifies as his sister and the “number-four prostitute in whole of Kazakhstan.” (She then whips out a small loving cup to back up his claim.)

I also made time for a viewing of Superman Returns (2006), a movie I had extremely high hopes for but in the end, the results were disappointing. It’s a beautifully crafted film, to be sure (the CGI effects provided some of my favorite moments, like when images on television screens show the sort of stuff you’d expect the Man of Steel to do, like rescuing folks 24-7-365) but the plot can’t quite measure up to its grandiose intentions (and besides—Superman couldn’t have a kid because he’s “faster than a speeding bullet”) and so it’s reduced to a two-and-a-half-hour spectacle of watching things “blow up real good.”

Brandon Routh is okay as Superman (actually, practically anyone can play Supe if they can look serious and fit into his red, yellow and blue jammies); but he falls woefully short as Clark Kent—he’s unable to copy the late Christopher Reeve’s deft comic touch in the part and release his inner nebbish. Kate Bosworth also experiences trouble in that in making Lois Lane a lot more mature she sacrifices the lovable offbeat quality that was Margo Kidder’s. Most of the better performances come from veteran performers: Eva Marie Saint (not in the film nearly long enough as Martha Kent) and two actors from the Superman TV series: Noel Neill (as an elderly dowager who foolishly signs over her fortune to Lex Luthor, thus setting the movie’s plot in motion) and Jack Larson (as a bartender). Frank Langella, who replaces Jackie Cooper from the 1978 original, manages to do a slap-up job as Daily Planet editor Perry White; his vocal reaction to Superman’s saving him from being flattened by the newspaper’s symbolic globe is one of the best things in the film.

The two individuals who manage to walk away with the film are Kevin Spacey (as Lex Luthor) and Parker Posey (as his female sidekick, Kitty); now, granted, I’m a bit biased when it comes to Posey since I’ve been a fan of hers for as long as I can remember but I really enjoy Spacey’s take on the role—particularly since he infests it with a bit more whimsy and playfulness than Gene Hackman. Spacey and Posey’s characters’ situation leaves one hanging at the film’s end…but I’m sure that has something to do with the fact that the inevitable sequel is in the works.

Of the movies I’ve seen so far this weekend, only two have impressed me as particularly outstanding filmmaking. The first is Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Clint Eastwood’s exquisite dramatization of how the famed planting of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima became shrouded in controversy once the government decided to recruit the surviving soldiers (and Navy corpsman) into selling war bonds to the American public in an effort to end the war. The blend of the horrors of combat and the distasteful (but necessary) shilling required by John “Doc” Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) to serve the greater good is handled superbly by Eastwood; the younger performers are all top-notch but it’s veterans like Judith Ivey, Harve Presnell and the late George Grizzard (in his final film) who are the real standouts in this first-rate gem.

But my favorite remains Waitress (2007), a breath-of-fresh-air comedy written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly (who also plays a small role as Dawn, an adorably ditzy hash-slinger). Shelly, who was a favorite of director Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust), demonstrates that she was definitely keeping her eyes open on his sets since Waitress is a delightful film in the mold of Hartley’s best work: a movie that looks at love through a jaundiced lens but nevertheless manages to work everything out in the end. Keri Russell plays Jenna Hunterson, a talented pie-baker whose plans to leave her dickhead husband (Jeremy Sisto) go awry when she discovers she’s pregnant with his baby. An appointment with her OB-GYN (who has retired from her practice) introduces her to Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion), a goofy, likable doctor who finds himself falling for Jenna—and she for him—despite the fact that both individuals are married to other partners.

One of the hallmarks of a Hal Hartley film are characters who, with just a few keystrokes, are fully formed and true-to-life despite their somewhat bewildering quirkiness. Russell, who probably remains better known as TV’s Felicity, is outstanding as a woman who determinedly presses on with her life despite the fact that she’s living in a stacked deck and the odds of her leaving her abusive hubby shrink with each passing day. Her affair with Pomatter remains the only thing she has to cling to…even though she’s wracked with guilt every minute they’re together (and especially after she meets his wife). Most of the performers in the film are recognizable for their TV work: Fillion, who has a cult following as a result of Firefly and the movie Serenity (even though he honed his comedic chops on the sadly forgotten Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place); Cheryl Hines from Curb Your Enthusiasm (she plays Russell’s best friend…also a waitress); Sisto from Six Feet Under and Law & Order.

But the big surprise in Waitress is a one-of-a-kind turn by sitcom icon Andy Griffith as Old Joe—the owner of the diner where Russell, Hines and Shelly work and its most cantankerous customer. Joe, a wealthy curmudgeon who insists on everything being just right on his daily visits, is also a homespun philosopher (in the mold of Sheriff Andy Taylor) with a refreshing take on love and the other mysteries of life. It is Joe who provides the method for Russell’s escape, and Griffith simply shines in every scene he’s in; at the time of the film’s release there was quite a bit of buzz about the role possibly garnering him an Oscar nomination…but, alas, it was not to be. (Of course, the fact that Griffith never got any recognition for his finest moment onscreen—“Lonesome” Rhodes in 1957’s A Face in the Crowd—should probably have been a harbinger of bad news.)

No comments: