This week started off exclusively independent and foreign, but ended with a couple of big new releases, just to keep things even. Five movies in seven days and the score is in my favor: three good ones, two bad ones. Not a bad ratio.
Kaboom is Gregg Araki’s latest confused picture. There’s so much going on that when I left the theater I wasn’t entirely sure what I had seen or what I was supposed to take away – if there was anything to take away. Young Smith (Thomas Dekker) is negotiating his freshman year at a San Diego area college, but so much goes down he doesn’t have much time to study: his pan-sexual dating causes one drama after another, but if that isn’t enough for a movie there is also a missing person mystery, a tale of lesbian obsession, Smith’s attraction to his straight roommate Thor (Chris Zylka ), ESP and witchcraft, nude beach cruising, absent parents, missed meetings in the internet age, a mysterious cult – creepy animal masks and all – and the impending end of the world. In fairness, most of it comes together at the end (except for the psychotic lesbian witch whose presence can only be explained by Araki desire to get some girl on girl action in his celebration of all possible sexual combinations), but the journey to the end isn’t all that enjoyable.
Araki could have crafted a good movie out of any number of these parts, but he overshoots and messes everything up. It should have been campier but everything is played so straight that even the lighter moments come off as serious and neurotic, such as when Smith walks in on Thor trying to – um – fellate himself. The rest of the scene is played with Thor in that awkward though provocative position, but instead of enjoying it, instead of engaging with the inherent sexual playfulness of it, we are treated to a desultory series of lines between the actors about something inconsequential and, like everything else in the picture, too serious. In the end, there are things to admire (Araki’s liberating celebration of bisexuality) but there is too much to make us groan (the confused plot, the obvious, tired gags, and the overworked script). While we should have been smirking and giggling, we were too often, rolling our eyes and checking our watches. (Rating **1/2)
Ricardo Darín plays Sosa in Pablo Trapero’s taut thriller from Argentina Carancho. Sosa is an ambulance chasing personal injury attorney looking to make a quick buck off the national scourge of auto accidents. (We are told that the number one cause of death in Argentina is car accidents.) He is basically an honest man but, as an unlicensed attorney, he can only find work at a shady firm that cheats its clients and steals most of their settlement money. When Sosa falls in love with Luján (Martina Gusman), a drug addicted young doctor, their destructive paths converge leading to even more chaos that gets worse the more they try to fix it. Carancho is a spellbinding film held together by the magnetic presence of Darín who reminds me of a modern day Humphrey Bogart or Jean Gabin. He, like Bogart and Gabin, is a man of unmistakable strength, but is worn out by life. Darín has the same tired eyes, the same slow, distinct movements, the same weariness, but counteracted by a dynamic screen presence. Carancho stumbles when Trapero tries to get too cute, especially the ending which so obvious that Trapero should have thought out another way. He is clearly trying to pull the rug out from under us and give us a wink-wink moment (like Tom Ford shamefully and insultingly did in the would-be great, but ultimately infuriating A Single Man), but he can’t get the response from the audience he wants because we see it coming miles away. I chose, however, to ignore the last minute or so and focus on the engaging and tense couple of hours before. (Rating ****)
Continuing with my independent theme of the first half of the week, I made it out to Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather. If you can get through the first 30 minutes of seemingly aimless modern youth angst, the movie settles into a disarmingly clever and amusing mystery. When Doug (Cris Lankenau), a forensic crime school dropout, returns to his hometown of Portland he firmly embraces the slacker motif for his life. He moves in with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and gets a job in an ice factory with vague notions of returning to school to finish his degree. Doug loves Sherlock Holmes and envisions a blurry future where he solves crimes, kind of like Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote, traveling the country and stumbling into murder cases. The idea of working at an actual job does not appeal to Doug. But when his ex-girlfriend disappears he, his sister, and his friend Carlos (Raúl Castillo) put his skills to the test and set out to solve the mystery of the missing ex-girlfriend. Katz demonstrates a level of respect for disconnected and disenfranchised twenty-somethings that many of the so-called “mumblecore” films don’t. Just showing us that they can sit around, kvetch, and do nothing does not enlighten us. But Doug illustrates real skill and intelligence while a lesser script would have made him the apathetic, know-it-all buffoon he appears to be at first glance. By making Doug smart and resourceful Katz is arguing that there is a great untapped resource in these young people. Their intelligence is being wasted, both by their own snarky indifference and an economy that has less and less need for them. (Rating ****1/2)
I shuddered at the thought of Gnomeo and Juliet. An animated retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy set amongst, of all things, garden gnomes. Really? It sounded suspiciously like a Toy Story knock off, only this has the added burden of doing justice to the classic play when we know full well a children’s movie can never kill off its protagonists. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it is an utterly charming movie. Not only did the legion of screenwriter (and there are a lot of them) really think through the lives of these little gnomes, creating a credible world (though I’m still not sure how they have babies) in which the rivalry between neighboring gardeners spills over to their decorative gnomes. They also had some fun with the Shakespeare legacy by acknowledging his ending, but use it as a way of getting out of a double suicide (with a clever appearance by Patrick Stewart). Gnomeo and Juliet are voiced by James McAvoy and Emily Blunt and they are supported by an impressive cast including Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Matt Lucas, Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton and, most unexpectedly, Hulk Hogan. (Rating ****)
I started the week with a dud (Kaboom) and, despite the three very good movies I saw in between, it seems I was destined to end with a dud as well with the Roman empire adventure The Eagle. Set in the untamed island of Britain in the second century, Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman officer eager to reclaim his family’s honor. His father led a legion of 5000 men north of Hadrian’s Wall twenty years before, but disappeared. To add to the shame, they lost the golden eagle standard. (For some reason losing a golden eagle is considered more shameful than losing 5000 men.) Marcus ventures north of the wall — where it is believed no Roman can survive — with only his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to find the eagle. The movie suffers from the same problems those British colonial movies of the 1930s did like Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and Gunga Din: they celebrate the “civilizing” effects of empire over savage natives. Sure, Esca voices objections to what Rome has done to his people, but he comes around by the end, fully embracing Rome and rejecting his savage way of life. When they finally make it to the blue-face painted Seal people of the north where they find the eagle, it’s hard to cheer on Marcus when we in this post-colonial world empathize with the Seal people’s stand against Rome. Writer Jeremy Brock and director Kevin Macdonald (who also collaborated on the equally colonial minded Last King of Scotland) have to resort to distasteful gimmicks to make the fight morally unequivocal and Esca’s cultural transformation complete. Tatum (who isn’t, despite popular belief, a terrible actor – he was, after all the best thing in The Dilemma) and Bell do their best, but their efforts aren’t rewarded with a good movie. Even though he is unrecognizable in the blue makeup, it’s nice to see Tahar Rahim after his fantastic role in A Prophet and continues to impress here by performing in ancient Gaelic. But it’s a sloppy script directed with little flair, though there are a few sublime shots of running water. They are, however, the only evidence of thoughtful direction. (Rating: **)