Monthly Archives: May 2009

Fanciful Reports of Films Unseen

A friend of mine has just started a blog devoted to reviewing films he hasn’t seen at The Agoraphobic Reviewer.

Instead of researching them or repeating hearsay, the Agoraphobe relies more on free association and stream-of-whimsy to concoct surreal alternative-universe fantasias that are in every case more captivating than the actual films he purports to describe.

Who knows if he’ll one day grow weary of this diversion, but in the first week he has already posted a dozen reviews (in both prose and verse) covering The Big Sleep, Vertigo, American Graffiti, Videodrome, Baron Munchausen, Before Sunset, The Other Boleyn Girl, Mamma Mia, and Terminator Salvation (SPOILERS INCLUDED).

No pressure on him, but I’m hoping he keeps this up until his death, because even a Bradburian/Truffautesque future dystopia in which moviegoing is outlawed still couldn’t stop him because he doesn’t need to see a film in order to describe it more awesomely.

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NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN

After a too-affectionate titles sequence reminding the audience of the charms of the first movie, and a very slow start to induct newcomers into the premise of the franchise without actually explaining it very well, the movie wisely trades Central Park for the Washington Mall so the canvas can expand to the multi-museum institution of the Smithsonian. Unfortunately this excess of riches multiplies the missed opportunities. I felt the Air and Space Museum was underexploited but there’s only so much you can pack into 105 minutes.

It’s made up for by other well seized opportunities, however, such as the National Gallery of Art where Ben Stiller discovers that paintings and photographs can not only come to life, but also be jumped into. The film’s most creative shot, all too fleeting, is a glimpse from inside a photograph looking back through the frame into the real world. I would have been more than content if the film had spent the rest of its time jumping in and out of famous paintings, but I can’t blame anyone for not making a completely different movie.

Written by Reno 911! partners Thomas Lennon (recently getting more mainstream screen time in I Love You, Man and 17 Again) and Robert Ben Garant, both of whom cameo as the Wright brothers, the Night at the Museum films are successful versions of the mash-up genre to which the Scary/Date/Disaster Movies have given such a bad rep. To their credit, NATM2 succumbs only once to the easy bait of mocking recent films, with a miniature parody of a 300-style fight scene, but it is funny because Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are so earnest yet ineffectual. In other words, it works because there are characters behind the superficial film reference.

Part of the first movie’s success was that Ben Stiller is always best as a straight man for others to play off of (There’s Something About Mary, Meet the Parents) instead of as a zany cartoon (Dodgeball, Tropic Thunder). The lone exception to this, Zoolander, works so well because he is the epitome of the straight man at whose expense the joke always is (to paraphrase Winston Churchill).

Likewise here, what keeps NATM2 fun are the characters brought to life (har har) by three excellent newcomers: Hank Azaria as a megalomaniacal Pharaoh who sounds suspiciously like Stewie Griffin (I suppose it’s logical that the only voices the Simpsons regular hasn’t done before must be those on The Family Guy); Bill Hader (Seth Rogan’s patrol partner in Superbad) as the strategically incompetent General Custer with a chance for personal if not public redemption; and Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart, enthusiastically channelling Katherine Hepburn undiluted and direct from Bringing Up Baby. To say she is radiant or luminescent would be redundant since Adams seems incapable of playing a role any other way, but this one is unique for her insofar as her jodhpurs deserve a co-starring credit.

Robert Downey Jr.’s nomination this year for a comedy like Tropic Thunder makes me hopeful that Adams could be nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2010. I can understand why some have tired of her alleged shtick, but she makes it seem so genuine that I can’t help but buy it hook, line, and sinker. As Sally Hawkins demonstrated last year in Happy-Go-Lucky, if making a perky, irrepressibly optimistic character likeable isn’t an acting achievement, I don’t know what is.

STAR TREK

J.J. Abrams’ second attempt to revive a film franchise based on a television series did give me a perma-grin from the first shot to last, but I’m afraid it is not the classic of film that Batman Begins and Casino Royale both are. As soon as the Jiggle-Cam (that can’t stay still even on close-ups!) goes out of style, people will wake up and realise that a clever script was let down by the visual fads of television which have no business on the cinema screen. I suppose that’s what Paramount deserves for sending a TV man to do a filmmakers job, but it might be excused in this case because the franchise is itself of televisual origin.

That, and also because the last couple Trek movies are so visually static, itself the result of an inability to escape TV grammar, that the fad of the opposite extreme is an improvement by virtue of its difference. Ultimately, however, the seemingly opposite stylistic faults of the ninth and tenth Trek films are both the result of TV styles inappropriately transferred to the big screen without accommodation to the medium’s different demands.

Apart from the camera issues, Star Trek can be called the first post-Sunshine sci-fi picture, as so many of the outer space shots are influenced by Boyle’s vision of space. Abrams has also taken studious notes from previous reboots, following Casino Royale in withholding the theme song until the beginning of the end credits!

But I think Star Trek’s most clever innovation is its ability — out of reach for both Batman and Bond — to exploit conventional sci-fi tropes to fold a new-continuity reboot right into the continuity of previous instalments! It is such a clever metafictional device that it threatens to overshadow all else in the film, but in a movie whose primary pleasures are found in seeing how closely the actors playing Kirk, Spock, and Bones hew to the templates of Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley (answer: quite), such self-consciousness is a guilty virtue.

In terms of acting, it surprises me to say that Chris Pine deserves the biggest recognition for his subtle evocation of Shatner’s unique persona in more than one scene without impersonating him outright, as Karl Urban does of Kelley with the unlikely result that as an anglophone Australasian doing an American accent he sounds more often like Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine. Zachary Quinto does the complete opposite, relying exclusively on his physical similarity to Nimoy to portray Spock without making the slightest effort to lower his high, soft voice, nor even stiffen his neck!

In terms of character (SPOILER), making Spock a member of an endangered species is a credible catalyst for his desire to favor his Vulcan side over his Human, although as we know the trajectory of his character need not now meet up with its counterpart in the original series.

In all honesty, despite its faults I’m sure I’ll see it again. And if it came on TV I would easily watch it instead of turn it off like I did to Nemesis this weekend.