Friday, June 5, 2009

Screening Log: May 2009

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008) *** - A melancholy equation? Memories + Stuff = Culture.

Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983) (v) (r) * - My approach to the Star Wars movies is to treat them like I would other movies - that is, through an auteurist lens as "George Lucas movies": not like sacred texts, as if George Lucas was merely an intercessor or high priest of a New Age-y Great Geek God. So, while I don't mind arguments that the prequels are bad movies, I don't have much patience for arguments that they're heretical or a betrayal of "our" collective childhood in some way. Star Wars is George Lucas's creation: he can do with it what he wants. If you don't like it - fine, but only George gets to decide what Star Wars is or is not. (It's a different case with something like the new Star Trek movie, where the original creator(s) have been replaced by a brand management team). All that said, the prequels are different beasts than the original trilogy and the six movies do not fit together seamlessly. Watching them this time around, what I noticed is how apolitical the original movies are compared to the new ones. I think a lot of fans see this as a downside and I know that some people (i.e. my wife) think that the senatorial maneuverings and double-crossing is needlessly convoluted. For me, though, it gives the movies a symbolic/allegorical power that the earlier ones lacked. And it gives them a bit of a backbone: watched in a row like this, the New Agey-ness of the originals sticks out a lot more.

Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) (v) (r) ****

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) (v) (r) **** (v) (r)

Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005) (v) (r) *** (v) (r)

Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002) (v) (r) *** (v) (r)

The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) (v) (r) * (v) (r)

Angels and Demons (Ron Howard, 2009) * - Ron Howard handles the grisly hokum just about as well as he handles the majestic hokum. Ultimately, not as good as his Da Vinci Code movie, where the equally nutty storyline but larger historical and geographic scope gave him more to work with: this one ends up feeling a little bit cramped.

Role Models (David Wain, 2008) (v) ** - Reminds me of The House Bunny in that it's mainly notable for a great lead performance, but the surrounding stuff is done with just the right touch so that the whole experience comes off as being much more enjoyable than equally funny but more ambitious movies (e.g. Knocked Up). The LARP stuff is perfectly handled.

JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008) (v) **

The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan, 2008) (v) (r) *** - I'm not sure I have anything more to say about this, except that I think it really does hold together well and that my ideas about what Shyamalan is doing here seem to hold up, too.

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) * - Really about as enjoyable as National Treasure, which, because you don't expect National Treasure to be anything special, means that Star Trek actually felt a lot less enjoyable than it. I have a problem, too, in the way that Abrams et al. got rid of all of the things that really make Star Trek Star Trek - the ethical dilemmas, the sci-fi puzzles, the utopian vision of the future - and replaced it with standard, contemporary action movie shenanigans. This is part of a trend that includes the Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies where every element of the source material that can't be fit into the action/adventure-movie-for-14-year-old-boys template gets chucked out. So, for instance, we have young adult heroes instead of actual adult heroes (Frodo was 55 when he started his journey) and everyone is still working through their daddy issues. In other words, this is Star Wars dressed up in Star Fleet uniforms, with none of Gene Roddenberry's original vision remaining intact.

Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard, 2008) (v) ** - Too many sports metaphors, but otherwise quite engaging. Neither of the leads is doing an impersonation: they're both giving real performances, which is nice.

Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008) (v) - More effective and more thoroughly conceived than, say, Cloverfield, but not nearly as original. Some good performances, though and the Blair Witch riff/rip-off at the end freaked me out righteously.

Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004) (v) *** - OK, so I believe the hype!


(v) = Seen on home video (dvd, dvr, etc.).
(r) = Not my first viewing.
(s) = Short film.

Star system ("borrowed" from the Chicago Reader)

No stars = Not recommended
* = Redeeming feature(s)
** = Recommended
*** = Highly recommended
**** = "Masterpiece"
***** = A place in my personal pantheon


James said...

Man, I can't believe I missed commenting on this post! I know I meant to.

So: I heard a rumor once that Lucas had wanted David Lynch to direct "Return of the Jedi." I guess it would have been a lot like Dune: a kinda pedestrian story badly joined to insanely freaky bits of production design. And instead of feeling bored by parts of ROTJ I'd feel carsick.

Having seen Star Trek I agree with you almost entirely, except that Abrams's version is still more fun to watch than at least 70% of the existing Trek films. The movie fails in comparison to some mystical Ur-Trek that exists mostly in my nostalgic imagination.

Also, Primetime Adventures: Star Trek would be a hoot.

Jon Hastings said...

Hi James -

I'm not trying to compare the movie to something that doesn't exist and I admit that it was enjoyable enough to sit through (hence the one star). But I do think it's less enjoyable, less interesting, and less good than Wrath of Khan and any number of episodes from Star Trek or The Next Generation.

And I don't think it compares all that well to other movies of its type: the Spider-Man and X-Men movies may not be great cinema, but they do a pretty good job of capturing what's appealing about the original comics. I definitely have issues with the way that Watchmen, Punisher: War Zone, and The Lord of the Rings movies were adapted, but the people who made them wrestled with that difficult adaptation process and ended up with movies that are more interesting and ambitious than Abrams' Trek.

Remember, though, that I'm not speaking as a Trekkie here, but as a neo-auteurist. My problem with Abrams' Trek is not that it lacks Roddenberry's vision, but that it gets rid of Roddenberry's vision and replaces it - unreflectively - with contemporary action/adventure cliches: bits and pieces taken from Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and (as Eppy pointed out on the thread on the nerd boards) 24. (For instance, I really like the Speed Racer movie, because the Wachowski Bros. use it as an excuse to pursue their own personal take on contemporary big budget Hollywood cinema.)

That's the piece that depresses me: not that we could have gotten a more Star Trek-y Star Trek movie than we did, but that the people making it got rid of the Star Trek-y stuff and had nothing to replace it with.