Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Prelude to a Top Ten

Yeah, I know. Such a momentous event deserves some kind of run-up. If I had any web design skills, you would be hearing a drum roll now. Before I get into my top ten for 2005, which I will post soon, I wanted to discuss some of the films that were well regarded by other critics, but failed for me. And maybe another couple or so observations on 2005.

You already know how I felt about Sin City, or if you don't, you can scroll down and read about it. A lot of critics liked it, and aside from it looking cool and perhaps having a patina of being transgressive (in the most sophomoric and reactionary way), I will never understand why. I can't understand its appeal to thinking people who take cinema seriously as an art form. I also contend that if you just think this movie is "a blast," there is something wrong with you. Kung Fu Hustle is "a blast," because it is wildly entertaining, but also has such a good heart and a strong sense of morality. Kamikaze Girls is a blast. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a blast. Even King Kong could conceivably be thought of as "a blast," if you could somehow get past its discomfiting racial subtext. Beyond the impressive look of the film, there was certainly nothing in Sin City that gave me the sense of vertiginous giddiness that I got from Kong's battle with those dinosaurs.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was when my critics group, the Online Film Critics Society, gave the film two of its year-end awards. Best Supporting Actor for Mickey Rourke and, even worse, Best Cinematography for Mr. Half-Assed Jack-of-All-Trades-Master-of-None Robert Rodriguez. The director of Shark-Boy and Lava-Girl. Remember a few years ago when Conan O'Brien made that joke about how Catherine Keener won the OFCS award for Best Supporting Actress, beating out Lieutenant Uhura? This is the type of thing that reinforces the public perception of our group as a bunch of geeks. I mean, I wouldn't mind if it was film geeks, but Sin City voters are, I suspect, more the type of geeks who hang out at the comic book store, and have never spoken to a girl. I know, I was one of them once. I just wish they would outgrow it, now that they are in a fancy OFCS awards-giving body. Womens heads mounted like trophies on a wall is not cool or even really demented and sick, it is just moronic.

I didn't really mean to write about Sin City, but it does piss me off, and I get carried away. Anyway, another film by a filmmaker who apparently hates women and has been lauded for it by the critical community this year is Match Point. Again, I don't get it. These "characters" he writes do not resemble any actual human beings we have ever met, and the "London" they live in bears little resemblance to any real place on this earth. (I should note that I am relying on the word of people who actually live in London, here, as I have not been there since I was a kid.) The acting is stiff and the dialogue stilted as the film plods along inexorably toward its unmistakably late Woodman unjustifiable "bitch killa" moment. We get it. You hate women. They are either simpering, oblivious dunderheads (though bless Emily Mortimer for trying to give this creation life) or coldhearted bitches who, at the drop of a hat, will turn into shrieking harridans who must be murdered. In the past ten years, I have seen one sympathetic female character in a Woody Allen film. She was a mute. Aside from being hateful (both sexist and classist), Match Point is not a well made film. It does not work as a thriller, because motivations are not clear, character behavior is not consistent, and the filmmaker spells out his banal themes with embarrassing bluntness. It's hard for me to fathom that there are people who appreciate Allen's "mastery of craft" here, while simultaneously belittling Steven Spielberg's seemingly effortless talent for audience manipulation.

Speaking of Spielberg, I don't know if either Munich or War of the Worlds makes my top ten list, but for the first time since the 1970s (when I was just a kid and didn't know better), I am actually eager to see what he does next. Of course, Abe Lincoln doesn't sound particularly promising, but then neither did the 1950s sci-fi remake starring Tom Cruise, and that turned out to be so terrifying, and so relentlessly grim, right up until Spielberg ruined everything with that Spielberg ending (dishearteningly similar to the "yeah, the world is fucked, but my family made it out ok, so cue the triumphant music" ending of The Day After Tomorrow and countless other schlocky disaster films). This film deserved better. It's no surprise that Munich is a skillfully made, effective thriller. But it's also smart and morally complex in its depiction of the horrific events of the 1972 Olympics and the purported Israeli response to that attack. Spielberg is even willing to let things end on an ambivalent note, for once. I would hope that people who are intrigued by this film would seek out Kevin MacDonald's excellent documentary, One Day in September, which also works as a thriller, but places the terrorist attack in context, and goes into fascinating, dreadful detail about exactly what went wrong when the Germans tried to rescue the Israeli athletes.

Two other films I saw this year, both at the New York Film Festival, addressed Palestinian terrorism and Israel's response to it. Paradise Now is also an effective thriller. Like Munich, it engages in its own internal debate, but the sense of rage underlying all the handwringing is palpable. It's worth seeing, because it offers a thoughtful examination of one of the salient issues of our age, from a perspective we rarely encounter in our mass media. That said, I find Avi Mograbi's documentary, Avenge But One of My Two Eyes more effective, because it condemns the right wing Israeli perspective with its own mythology and its own words and actions. I can't fault Hany Abu-Assad for making a confrontational and angry film because clearly, to me, his rage is justified. But Munich, while less immediate, will reach more people, and it makes more of an effort to be persuasive, and it cannily connects the events it depicts to the world in which we live today.

I was going to continue on and write something about how much I dislike Last Days, another of my "Overrated Films of 2005" list, but I went a-rambling, it got very late, and now that will have to wait for another day.


Vern said...

Hey Josh, I am checking out your "blog" which is short for weblog which is way too many letters for anybody to spell which is why this 2-letters shorter blog thing has caught on so big. Anyway I wanted to say I agree that Sin City is overrated but I don't think I agree with your take on it anyway. Let me explain.

What I did like about it was the way it takes place in an impossibly macho world of crime and horror, obviously inspired by pulp novels and film noir and what have you, with the hardboiled cops, the unreliable narrators, the framed men, the rampant corruption, etc. I didn't think it entirely worked though because the whole comic book thing took you out of the world and made you look at it as pretty pictures made on computers instead of an actual gritty city where these things take place. It was more Dick Tracy than Mickey Spillane.

Obviously it's about as macho as a movie can come but I don't think that's the same as woman-hating. To me, the scene with the cannibal who mounts prostitute's heads on the wall is almost a political statement because he comes from a senator's family and the clergy and the police let him do what he wants. (Unless I'm confusing him with the yellow guy.) The prostitutes are the good guys in the movie so I don't think it's supposed to be cool that a weirdo christian zealot is mutilating them.

I got a soft spot for Robert Rodriguez though because I still love his Mariachi movies. And in theory I like what he's doing out there with the one man movie studio. But you're right, he needs to delegate some of those things if he wants to make great movies instead of just proving something about independence.

Anyway, sorry you're disappointed by your group's awards. At least those fuckers let you in, though.

Josh said...

Hey, Vern, thank you for your comments. I went into a bit more detail about Sin City in an earlier post, and didn't want to belabor the point. I "get" the film's milieu, and I certainly have great respect and admiration for the tradition of noir and the femme fatale and other French terms, I dunno, mise-en-scene maybe?

I think you could make a case for Frank Miller respecting those traditions and trying to push them to their limits, but Rodriguez's film is too enthusiastic and jovial for me. There's a palpable sense of "sick fun" to the film, as though it were Dead Alive or something, and perhaps that's why I don't find its "darkness" convincing. Its villains, whether powerful politicians or corrupt clergymen, and their agenda, are not drawn convincingly enough, or with enough specificity to transcend a certain level of adolescent rebellion.

And the women... No one who wanted to present them as compelling, fully-fleshed characters, as opposed to disposable eye candy slapped around (and they like it) and paraded about for fanboy delectation, would have cast those actresses. Saying the prostitutes are good guys is like saying Tanya Roberts is the "good guy" in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, so those filmmakers couldn't have been sexist pigs.

Damn, I go on. As much as I respect your point-of-view and dig your writing, I don't think I will ever be convinced of the merits of Sin City.

Vern said...

Well I only half liked it anyway. I think other than it being such an unusual approach to a movie, I don't really see why certain people made such a big deal out of it. I actually prefer Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Which is no Desperado. Those two I really dig. Not sure I ever want to think about the spy kids again, though.