We’re more than halfway through the year at this point, and, I think, roughly halfway through the year’s slate of compelling/event movies. Now seems as good a time as any for a little evaluation and reflection.
Most problematic “good” film (so far): Beasts of the Southern Wild
Beasts does an admirable job of creating vivid and well-realized characters. It just doesn’t seem to have much in the way of understanding or respect for its characters. The film operates on a Dances with Wolves or Winter’s Bone level of outsider observation, capturing ably the textures of a place and a time while completely missing the soul. In the case of Winter’s Bone, the resulting film was a dispiriting, joyless grind. Beasts fares better than that film because it is ostensibly a fantastical fairy tale or fable. When it’s purely operating on that mode, the film works quite well – it’s bold, affecting and mesmerizing. Where it falters is in its attempts to capture the soul of Cajun territory in an abstracted setting dubbed ‘The Bathtub.’ We don’t get anywhere close to figuring out how The Bathtub ticks; the ties that bind seem to be just ego and self-delusion. The film also bizarrely asserts that the resulting clusterfuck of Hurricane Katrina was purely down to the hubris of poor, black people. Strangely, FEMA is portrayed as a largely competent if soulless entity in the whole brouhaha. It’s patronizing and beyond insulting, a telltale sign of very, very white and very, very middle class filmmakers. Spike Lee would flip five shits if he saw this movie.
Most meta-movie (so far): 21 Jump Street
For a R-rated comedy based on a retro TV show, 21 Jump Street possesses an unusual amount of intelligence. It functions as a critique of the applicability of pervasive 80s John Hughes style high school stereotypes/notions in modern day high school settings, as well as being meta up the ass. The film makes fun of cop films for being stupid and contrived, other high school movies for being stupid and contrived and itself for being stupid and contrived, often all at the same time. The film’s stuck very much up its own ass, but it’s done so in a devilishly entertaining manner.
Greatest single moment in a movie (so far): The climax and ending of Killer Joe
Greatest really should be in quotes here because there’s a reasonable school of thought that would call the climax and ending of Killer Joe morally abhorrent and endemic of America’s cultural decline. To define precisely what happens here would be to ruin the revolting Kinder Surprise that is Killer Joe’s last act, so I’m not going to do it. Suffice to say director William Friedkin (of French Connection fame) makes the most of his NC-17 rating here. However, even if you find the content supremely distasteful, there’s almost no way you can find the the ending of the film not brilliant and not in keeping with the rest of the film’s gnarled, beyond fucked sensibilities.
This the one movie I’ve watched this year that elicited an intense reaction from the audience. Killer Joe’s final 10 minutes transformed a reasonably collected group of hipster cinephiles into a raving, laughing, crying, gagging, vomiting mess. Sure the film’s morally bankrupt empty provocation, but it’s such invigorating and stylish empty provocation that it can’t be dismissed. Just don’t plan on going to KFC afterwards.
Worst advertising (so far): Magic Mike
Okay, so worst should, again, be in quotes. By most measures, Magic Mike was a marketing triumph, generating over $100 million in returns on a $7 million dollar movie. Yet, it did so by appealing to the lowest common denominator with promises of uncensored and provocative male stripping. Magic Mike is not that kind of a movie. Yes, it’s a movie about male strippers, but it proceeds more like a tragedy than anything else, a screed against the notion of objectifying and selling your body. The so-called glorification of the stripping life proceeds with a heavy yellow filter that paints the world in a boozy, hungover and unflattering light. In between the stripping setpieces are moments where the strippers are shown to be massively seedy lifers with little to gain aside from the occasional petty victory. So basically, you should probably check out this movie, even if you are a heterosexual male without an interest in ass.
Most baffling cultural development (so far): The Avengers
I think, at this point, that we can all definitely agree that the last 40 or so minutes of The Avengers is great. Exciting, dazzling, funny, thrilling, expertly staged, etc. What I simply don’t get is the near universal praise the entire film has been getting. For me, the rest of the film is soulless, derivative, contrived and, at times, pedantic fluff that carries all the entertainment value and satisfaction of watching a grown man play with some action figurines in a bathtub. This film has the same problem as Mission Impossible 4 whereby grown adults are reduced to adolescent caricatures in order to inject some “conflict” and teamwork-is-great moralizing into the proceedings. Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo come out of it the best, mostly by sheer willpower and charisma, but the rest of the Avengers get lost in a sea of needlessly complicated plot. Most distressingly, writer/director Joss Whedon pushed both Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Chris Hemsworth’s previously fantastic Thor into the sidelines; they’re bystanders to the rest of the weird, juvenile character development of the film’s first two acts. Forgive me, comic fans, if I don’t find Captain America to be a compelling character at all, and forgive me, feminists, if I find Black Widow to be the most flimsily designed superhero in cinema since Ben Affleck tried out Daredevil.
Worst movie (so far): Jeff Who Lives At Home
Full disclaimer: I haven’t watched that many bad movies this year. I’ve mostly skipped out on covering the really shit movie assignments because rising Metro fares have robbed me of my enthusiasm for make-believe professional amateur duty. That’s not to say that I won’t check out LOL, The Paperboy, Battleship, The Raven, Rock of Ages, One for the Money and The Devil Inside once they become available readily on the internet. But, for now, Jeff Who Lives At Home remains the worst thing I’ve seen this year. It’s an insultingly pretentious independent dramedy with not a single ounce of respect or sympathy for its characters. Watching this movie is akin in being in a room with an intensely inarticulate and sweaty internet philosopher who stops every so often to jerk off into your face.
Best movie (so far): The Deep Blue Sea
I have immense respect and adoration of slow, dignified and elegant movies. To call The Deep Blue Sea a slow burn would be an understatement, yet the movie has an intoxicating magic all to its own. Every single scene is ravishing, filled to the brim with mood, detail and melancholy. The film’s highly subjective structure elevates the rather straightforward plot, complementing the hazy, grainy cinematography extremely well. Rachel Weisz is, as always, astonishing and Tom Hiddleston does much here to make up for his Loki performance. The film ends on an immensely graceful shot that replicates the opening one but with more acute melancholy and an enigmatic twist.