Sunday, July 29, 2012

Summer of '87: Jaws: The Revenge: This Time, It's (Im)Personal

"This time, it's personal." So reads the tagline for the ill-fated Jaws: The Revenge. Never mind that in each of the three previous films the sharks died. Jaws 2 and Jaws 3-D may have foisted hopelessly contrived plots on viewers, but neither went as far as to imply that their respective sharks were exacting revenge on Chief Brody and his family for past crimes. We weren't led to think that the sharks were in the same family or part of a hive-mind network. But here is a premise that—while no more implausible than the other films in the series—actually seems to acknowledge the folly of a franchise chronicling one family's long saga of encounters with great whites. That's why I give the writers (or the marketing team?) of Jaws: The Revenge credit for understanding at least one thing: If you're going to serve up the absurd, don’t hold back. In fact, pour it on. Both the title and tagline of Joseph Sargent's film more than meet this standard. The movie itself is another story.
In this final entry in the gray people-eater series, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) carries on at Amity Island without her husband, Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who has died of a heart attack. Ellen lives with her youngest son Sean (Mitchell Anderson), who undertakes his father's legacy as an Amity Police Deputy. But a shark still lurks in the waters of Amity and makes Sean its first meal. Already scarred by a deep family history of shark attacks, Ellen follows the advice of her eldest son Michael (Lance Guest) and travels to the Bahamas to gain reprieve from heartbreak. "There are no great whites in the Bahamas, Mom. They don’t like warm water," Michael assures her. Once there, Ellen finds a budding new romance with an eccentric pilot and family friend named Hoagie (Michael Caine), but she remains haunted by visions of a shark. Meanwhile, as Michael studies shells on the sea floor with his friend Jake (Mario Van Peebles), he learns that a great white is prowling the waters but decides not to tell his mother. (The shark's introduction in the Bahamas portion of the film is priceless. The beast just kind of shows up, bumping up against Jake’s underwater vehicle. No tension. No excitement.) Once she discovers that a great white is terrorizing the community (Banana boat!), Ellen becomes convinced that it wants to devour her family and complete the cycle.

Click here to read the full article at Slant Magazine's blog The House Next Door.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Friends with Kids

In the celebrity-populated opening of Friends with Kids, two couples and one non-couple attend a Manhattan restaurant and bemoan the presence of a family with small children. This triggers a discussion about the perceived burden of responsibility of children, which is then followed by the obligatory revelation that one of the couples is expecting a baby. The scene economically portends concerns about the struggles to define happiness in adulthood and also establishes a pleasant rapport between the actors (including John Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Chris O’Dowd, and Maya Rudolph, among others). The problem is that it plays like a schematic, with each line and delivery serving a very specific function in service of the film’s agenda. Given the promising elements at play, however, I hoped after a sluggish start that Friends with Kids would eventually ease up on the tendency to package its every thematic concern into its dialogue. Alas, the forced nature of the early goings is an unfortunate sign of things to come.
Written, directed, and starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Friends with Kids plays its heady concept for laughs and drama. But rather than peering into the lives of the couples with children, Westfeldt instead opts to follow two non-committed (and considerably less interesting) members of the group, played by Adam Scott and Westfeldt herself. The two are best friends who decide to have a child together and skip past the marriage/relationship thing to maintain their respective independence. Both actors are up to the challenge and are given each a handful of well-scripted vulgarity-tinged one liners, but they tread a path that many a romantic comedy has gone down before and the film quickly finds itself drowning in a sea of tired rom-com conventions and situations. It comes to life whenever the remainder of the ensemble cast re-enters, but it’s not enough to elevate the material above the typical shallow comedy that Westfeldt ostensibly wants to avoid.
I confess that part of my disappointment stems from the fact that Westfeldt was behind the much fresher Kissing Jessica Stein from 2001. Both films end with Westfeldt striking up a typical hetero-normative romance, but Kissing Jessica Stein takes a unique journey to arrive there, whereas with Friends with Kids there is never a doubt how any of it will end up, nor does it fashion much more than a few errant laughs along the way. (Jennifer Westfeldt, 2012) **

Friday, July 13, 2012

Nostalgia for summer movies

Something about the summer heat makes me crave the bigness of movies. A good blockbuster may be hard to come by these days, nevertheless I often become nostalgic for "summer movies" this time of year. It probably has something to do with all those memories of staggering out of the theater into warm, bright atmosphere of summer after a movie experience. For instance, I'll never forget those first few steps into the sun after seeing Jurassic Park in 1993. In the cocoon of darkness and air conditioning, I was so enraptured by the storytelling for two hours that I had quite nearly forgotten the outside world. As the credits rolled and we left the theater, I remember stepping out into the parking lot and being blasted by heat and light while struggling to regain a sense of time and space. Even as I adapted to the conditions on our trek back to the car, visions of severed human arms and goat legs danced around in my head. In the years following, I would have similar experiences (though admittedly not as memorable) with Independence Day, Twister, Star Wars: Episode I, and other escapist entertainments. As I got older, I broadened my tastes considerably. But I will always have an affinity for the fanciful gluttony of blockbuster films and the communal experience of moviegoing with which they have become synonymous. So even though I seemingly find less to enjoy about summer blockbusters with each year, I hope I never lose that desire to retreat from the summer heat and get lost in a movie.
In coming days and weeks, I will be celebrating summer movies in a number of capacities both here at The Cinematic Art and elsewhere. Here at this site, I will soon unveil a weekly review series chronicling the Indiana Jones films in similar fashion as I did the Star Wars films earlier this year. When it comes to summer movie fare, I can think of no bigger staple than Harrison Ford in his fedora and cracking his whip. That's why I am looking forward to taking retrospective look at each individual film and considering how they stack up against each other (stylistically, aesthetically, thematically, etc.).
Another retrospective series that I will be contributing to is The House Next Door's Summer of '87 series. For the last several years, the "Summer of..." series has been a staple in my summer reading. It has given writers such as Odie Henderson, Matt Zoller Seitz, Eric Henderson, and many others a chance to dive back into movies a quarter of a century after their release and offer fresh insights and delightful prose, to boot. I'm honored to be contributing several articles to this year's series and have enjoyed taking a look back at 1987's unique cinematic offerings.
Finally, my last significant summer project concerns a more current phenomenon of the summer movie cycle: The Dark Knight Rises. The final act in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy will be the subject of my next Critical Distance entry for The House Next Door. (Previous entries in the series covered The AvengersMission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, and The Artist.) Per the underlying idea of "Critical Distance" my take will not be a traditional review like the kind we will see trickle out starting next week. This will instead be published a week or two after the film's release in the aftermath of what is bound to be a spirited discussion amongst critics, fans, and other filmgoers. My aim is to take a look at both the film and the dialogue it has inspired and situate it within the larger thematic and aesthetic arc of all three of Nolan's films. I recently re-watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, both of which I have complicated feelings towards. So once the arguments are aired and the dust settles from The Dark Knight Rises, be on the lookout for what I can only hope will be an epic consideration of Nolan's Bat-films and their significance in the critical dialogue and in the annals of summer movie fare.
When I have completed these projects (and whenever I have time between them), I will be primed to switch gears and review older auteur films that have slipped through my fingers in the time I have devoted to Hollywood cinema. Because when the air cools down and the leaves begin to fall, a very different cinematic nostalgia kicks in. You'll see the results of that in the Fall as I begin turning my focus toward Kurosawa, Dreyer, Renoir, Truffaut, Bergman, and others. The summer is nice while it lasts, after all, but in the seasons of my mind, nothing trumps the Fall.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A brief (belated) reflection on Andrew Sarris

Film has lost too many legends of late. In the last several weeks, we have seen the deaths of Nora Ephron, Andy Griffith, and Ernest Borgnine, all of whose work had a lasting effect on the Movies (or TV, in Griffith's case). But for film writers and critics, a more personal loss was felt with the death of Andrew Sarris, champion of auteur theory and all-around titan of American film criticism for the last 50 years. At the time the news broke, I was so moved by the bevy of remembrances and beautifully-written tributes that I could hardly find the words myself. Having digested it all, I still feel at a loss for words, suffice to say that although he will best be remembered for his involvement in Cahiers du Cinema and his brief riff with Pauline Kael (which was barely that, as Jim Emerson documents), Sarris's work will remain important to me for a very different reason.
Sarris eschewed the journalistic/academic binary that began to emerge in the 1960's and 1970's, when film studies became more accepted at colleges and universities and journalistic criticism more resembled a buyer's guide. Overly simplistic, perhaps, but this schism was and continues to affect how criticism is approached and practiced. Sarris, though, was never quite comfortable in either mold. That is to say, he was very comfortable in both venues but rejected the ideological simplicity of their respective purposes. This was a staple of his compact writing about films and directors. He recognized the different ways to see movies—as art, as commercial property, etc.—and came at them with insights that blended various sensibilities. Many writers have also noted that Sarris also famously changed his mind about movies and was willing to re-evaluate them. That he fluidly and cogently addressed this in his writing gave it an evenly personal and knowledgeable aura. He made me want to know about movies, but he also made me want to experience them and feel them.
No matter the circuit, the best criticism should be penetrating, informed, and personal. To engage in a bit of playful wordplay, criticism should rest somewhere be analysis and poetry. It's not an easy balance to strike, but Sarris straddled this line so convincingly and, consequently, inspired so much great criticism. His death is a matter of great sadness for those who love and practice criticism. And it is a reminder that in an age of ubiquitous digital exchange—in which opinion seems to trump knowledge, and in which serious media reporters interrogate film critics as if the occupation is without meaning or merit—perceptive criticism is needed now more than ever. And all those who (thankfully) practice it have Sarris to thank.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

21 Jump Street

“High school’s never over.” So Emily Blunt’s character achingly blurts out in the charmer from a few years ago, The Jane Austen Book Club. I recalled this line over and over again as I watched 21 Jump Street, a different kind of charmer. In it, Jonah Hill and Canning Tatum play inexperienced cops—one smart, the other dumb. One fit, the other…yeah, yeah, yeah. Per the show that inspired it, the two go undercover as students at a local high school where a new drug is sweeping the hallways. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and so do the film’s writers (who in the opening moments make this very clear): Here is yet another Hollywood ploy to snatch up an old property and spin some more dollars from it. And by all accounts, 21 Jump Street is just that. But for a self-consciously outlandish action-comedy it also has a lot of heart. In fact, its airy brashness coupled with that heart makes 21 Jump Street intriguing, even fresh.
In school, both the Hill and the Tatum characters try to slip back into the roles they filled with such ease the first time: Tatum, the dumb jock; Hill, the brainy nerd. But they soon learn that kids nowadays don’t fit as snugly into the simpler framework of social identities that dictated their adolescent years. The nerds are not outcasts and it’s cool to be informed. This is a wired generation that has reflexively internalized the values and commercial fads of the 80s and 90s. (Maybe Juno wasn’t so far off, after all?) If I’m making this all sound like an overt generational commentary, the film itself is more subtle. It knowingly navigates the trappings of high school life via its proxies of the two protagonists, each of whom essentially has a do-over at a most defining point in anyone’s development. Yes, the movie offers extravagant set pieces of action and comedy, some more effective than others. (Rob Riggle’s desperate attempts at comedy are ever more desperate, if you’re wondering.) And the frenetic action towards the end threatens to compromise the film’s smooth balance up until. But the quieter moments between are when 21 Jump Street really digs in and rather touchingly addresses how easy it is to shun even those who we care most about on our quests to gain acceptance. More pointedly, the movie captures how much it hurts to be on the other side. And isn’t that what we really learn in High School, anyway? (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) ***