Monday, July 28, 2008

Catching up with movies

I haven't written about "The Last Mistress" because I don't have much to say about it. It's one of that genre that generally bores me, but I go to see anyway, convinced I'm supposed to like it: the period drama. In this case, it's early 1800's France, and the story revolves around a young man about to marry who spends a long drunken night confessing to his soon-to-be-grandmother-in-law the tale of a twisted love affair, one he claims to have just ended. In flashbacks and later scenes, we meet Vellini, the woman he love/hates, and can't seem to shake. It's not a story you haven't seen before, although the sex is more graphic and the acting fairly intense (especially on the part of Asia Argento, an Italian actress who seethes with an ugly-sexy beauty that eats up the screen.)

"The Wackness" takes you back to another lost era, this time all the way back to New York City, 1994. (Nostalgia is getting so close it's about to merge with futuristic science fiction.) It's the summer between high school graduation and freshman year for the main character, a pot dealer who rides that line between the popular and unpopular. (In one scene he metaphorically sits on the edge of a roof while behind him the cool kids party.) One of his customers, a psychiatrist played by Ben Kingsley, pays Luke in therapy sessions, but it's soon obvious that the doctor is more screwed up than the patient. Throw in the doctor's stepdaughter as Luke's crush, a short bit by Mary Kate Olsen as a retro-hippie pothead, and voila: instant indie film. I'm not really knocking it; it's a decent movie, but I could have done with better lighting. Maybe it was the theater I was in but every scene seemed unnecessarily dark.

And finally this weekend:

"American Teen" is entertaining, both funny and touching. It's a documentary - reality film? - about a handful of high school students in their senior year. Billed as the "real Breakfast Club," it ids its central characters as the jock, the princess, the geek, the hunk. And it doesn't disappoint - each has a story arc that has you rooting for them by the time their graduation caps fly into the air. The oddest part for me was the need to remind myself that it was real - there are too many moments when things are happening that you can't believe actually unfolded in front of the cameras. At least a dozen times I was sure that someone would say, "Get that camera away from me, I'm not doing this any more." For instance, when a character's cell phone rings and it's a break-up text message from the boy we've just watched her fall for. Or when another character vandalizes a rival's home and then sits in the principal's office accepting her punishment. Or when another tells her boyfriend she's not cheating on him, even though she made out with another guy in front of the cameras in a previous scene.

At no point, though, do any of the kids seem uncomfortable with the cameras, or as if they are behaving any differently because they are there. Is that possible? Is it true (as others have suggested) that our 24/7 reality culture has made young people expect that their lives will be lived out in public? I can't get my mind around it - and yet, here I am, writing about it in a virtual "diary" that anyone with an internet connection can read. Who am I to judge?

Which brings us, finally, to "The Dark Knight." Let's get it out of the way: Heath Ledger is very good. Disturbing, scary, unrecognizable, not just because of the makeup, but the voice and the gestures (including a repeated flick of the tongue that was almost reptilian.) I'm somewhat confused that he would be nominated in a supporting role - what exactly are the rules for that? Because I don't think Christian Bale had more screentime. It seemed pretty evenly split between the two of them, Aaron Eckhart, and Gary Oldman.

Now, I may be biased, as I really like Christian Bale, but it was disappointing that he seemed to be doing a warmed-over Patrick Bateman (without the exuberant killing) or a Batman "voice" so tortured it was impossible to listen to for more than a couple of lines. I didn't see the first Bale Batman so likely missed the evolution of his character, but I couldn't get a handle on him for much of the film.

I also felt like there was too much in the movie - too many big climactic action sequences, each of which felt like it could end the film, but which only served as a set-up for the next. One of those could easily have been cut and the plot refocused. I also am not a regular watcher of action movies, but I hate fight scenes that are made up of quick cuts in the dark so that it's nearly impossible to see what is going on. (At home, on video, while others probably turn to slo-mo to enjoy these scenes, I would fast-forward to get them over with. All that matters is who's standing at the end, after all.)

And yet, I really did like the story itself. There was a lot packed into the 2 1/2 hours, but it worked for me, although I'd still argue that Oldman's police officer Gordon or Eckhart's DA had more defined story arcs than Bat(e)man.


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