Movies, Movies, Movies…and Dental Problems

I’m still in Dallas, having been forced to stay due to needing an emergency root canal that kept me confined to the house and hopped up on painkillers for most of my time back here. I did go to my 10 year high school reunion, and was pleasantly surprised at how fun it was. Nobody was trying to impress anybody with their life, and everybody was genuinely interested in catching up and happy to see old familiar faces. I’m going to make a point to reach out more to some of those old classmates when I’m back in town from now on.

Being confined to my parents’ place for most of the past week, I’ve been watching a lot of movies, both with my dad and on my own, as I stayed up until the wee hours so to insure I was getting the proper dosages of hydrocodone and antibiotics. My dad and I made two trips to the very nearby and very awesome Premiere Video (those readers in Austin, imagine a less crunchy I Luv Video run by a guy in his 60s and his family). The final rundown: The Green Zone, 22 Jump Street, The Counselor, Neighbors, 21 Jump Street, and Foxcatcher (the last of which I saw at the always pleasant Angelika Film Center with Jacob). I’m going to my reactions, with varying levels of detail, and out of order. Deal with it.

First of all, 21 and 22 Jump Street. Posters for both made me roll my eyes when they first hit the streets, but after viewing, I’d say that both are solid rentals. Just enough light-hearted laugh-out-loud moments and bald silliness to enjoy without having to pay too much attention. A solid B- for both, with the edge going to 22 Jump Street only because I thought all the meta-humor about useless sequels was great.

In a similar vein, The Green Zone is enjoyable as it zips through all the Paul Greengrass tropes, even if the details are hazy and there’s a tacked-on feels-good-but-never-happened scene at the end that ties everything together in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. After all, Iraq and America are still paying for the 2003 invasion that was launched on the basis of suspect intelligence, so it’s a little insulting to be told by a movie that everything will work out in the end, especially when there appears to be no end in sight all the way at the end of 2014. There is a little bit of an interesting experience in watching some predictions about a gutted Iraqi infrastructure come true, but it’s confined to the realm of morbid fascination. A C+ for Greengrass doing his best Greengrass imitation.

Neighbors is a similarly harmless and decent-in-its-own-right/wait-for-rental comedy, but when compared to the Jump Streets, there’s a bit more of an interesting story going on behind Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen’s reluctant grown-ups trying to find comfort in their newfound identities as responsible parents. Zac Efron hits all the right notes as a douchey but likeable fratbag, and his more pragmatic-thinking right-hand man features a great effort from the less-maligned Franco brother Dave. Rogen is doing what Rogen does, and he does it well, but Byrne is especially great as a new mother struggling with newfound stresses, boredoms, and shrinking identity in the face of gender norms. She’s given a lot more to do than just react to Rogen’s boorishness, and one of the film’s better argument scenes speaks to this directly, in which both leads argue that they can’t “both be Kevin James” (one of them has to be the competent person who cleans up the other’s messes). There are enough solid laughs and the premise is well-worn territory that’s explored in a fresh and interesting way, enough so that we can forget that the entire plot hinges on the wholly fantastic concept that any HOA in America would ever, in a million years, allow a frathouse into an upper middle class neighborhood. B+

The Counselor features an original script by the King of Southwestern Neo-Noir, Cormac McCarthy. This is an exciting proposition on its face, and turns out to be an incredibly obvious bad move in hindsight. McCarthy clearly didn’t bother to study the art of screenwriting, a pursuit wholly removed from penning novels, and dumps an impossibly self-indulgent, meandering, and pointlessly melancholic film on his audience completely, one lacking in any sort of gravitas to justify the hysterically self-serious mask worn by the production for its entire plodding length. The characters are poorly formed and given viewers little reason to care about any of the numerous twists and turns that are often relayed to us via long scenes of exposition between two characters. There are so few scenes of action and “thrills” in this supposed thriller it had me zoning out before the second act. Bardem is pretty great as an orange-tanned and affable Mexcan drug lord, I just wish he were in a movie that made sense and wasn’t so damned boring. Cruz and Fassbender more or less sleepwalk through their roles, but we can hardly fault them for not knowing how to play characters as shallow as these. We can perhaps place a little more tongue-clucking at the feet of Brad Pitt, who, it would appear, did maybe two and a half days on this flick before collecting his paycheck and getting his name on the poster. Cameron Diaz is downright horrible, as is this movie. D-

Foxcatcher is probably the most frustrating of all of these flicks. All of the ingredients of a good movie are there: a good director who, along with his DP, makes interesting and evocative choices with his camera, and a trio of good to great performances–Tatum is surprisingly good downplaying Mark, Ruffalo is his usual on-point self making smart choices with a paper-thin role as Dave, and Carrell leads the pack as the sad, slightly off, and undeniably creepy and delusional John DuPont. I have a feeling we’re going to hear about Carrell soon in Oscar talk, and I’m hesitant to weigh on whether or not he deserves it. A great performance in an altogether poorly executed concept and a not so well-drawn character is only so deserving of praise, much less awards. Getting back to the movie at hand, while the true story of John DuPont’s weird involvement with the world of professional wrestling offers plenty in way of fascinating, true crime drama, the screenwriters seem to be banking on the strangeness of the facts supporting the spine of the film, and they couldn’t be more mistaken. Foxcatcher alternates between having no point and making points with a sledgehammer, which is a shame, considering there’s a lot here worthy of mining. The script chooses to break the ore of the true story off of the walls in muddy, opaque chunks, and never processes or distills the minerals its extracting for the audience into anything that resonates. There’s a lot to be said about haves and have-nots, class resentment, the polluting influence of money, and living in the shadow of parents and siblings, but Foxcatcher never really knows quite what it’s trying to say, and hides behind a mask of detachment, presuming (wrongly, in my opinion) that audiences are better left to their own interpretations.

There’s a very wide gulf between the strictly observational and the didactic, and Foxcatcher feels as though its writer and director were deathly afraid of even trying to inform their audiences in any way beyond laying out snapshots of the true life story in chronological order, and tapping certain photographs more pointedly than others. Without the proper context, in a narrative film that purports to have a plot, these snapshots mean next to nothing. Watching the film is a bit like being handed a box of primary sources and being told its a nonfiction book.

The film is also heavily front-loaded, somehow, even though it supplies us with precious little information about DuPont or the Schulz brothers, preferring instead to treat us to exquisitely crafted shot after superfluous shot until we’re left sighing at the self-satisfied snail’s pace of it all. The frustration one feels watching Foxcatcher isn’t rooted in the film insisting a boring story is interesting, it’s the result of the film telling a very interesting story as tediously as possible, and leaving us no more informed about the story’s players, themes, and outcomes than we might be if we skimmed a wikipedia entry.

A C-/D+ for Foxcatcher. I may try to go see Last Tango in Paris tonight, but the jury’s still out.

Toodles, for now.