Was this the worst summer ever for movies? Depends on whom you ask. One acquaintance said 2000 was the low point, and stuck to it even when I threw out Gladiator, Chicken Run, and the first and best X-Men movie as mitigating cinema. I still think 2006, which in quick and terrible succession brought duds including The Da Vinci Code, Poseidon, The Omen, and the third and worst X-Men movie.
But 2010 was pretty awful, and not just by my official-member-of-the-Online-Film-Critics-Society-standards but by Joe Sixplex’s. Theaters stuck with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Killers, The A-Team, Jonah Hex, Knight & Day, etc., were as quiet as libraries, except when the empty silence was shattered by the howls of outrage and disappointment coming from Sex and the City 2, The Last Airbender, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, and Dinner for Schmucks down the hall. Hmm, maybe Poseidon wasn’t so bad.
That said, at least two films that opened in the alleged “hot” season, Toy Story 3 and The Kids Are All Right, are likely to find a place on my Top 10 list, with Inception and Splice in contention. Not all bad.
The highs and lows of summer were all rolled up in a single movie, Salt. Divided against itself, it did middling business, only half-appealing to two separate constituencies in the audience. One, those folks looking for a smart thriller, was represented by its director, Phillip Noyce, who before a decade-long stint on smaller films made taut, deliberately paced movies like Patriot Games, A Clear and Present Danger, and The Bone Collector, with Salt star Angelina Jolie. The other, for the glassy-eyed popcorn grazers, was repped by screenwriter Kurt Wimmer, he of ludicrous, saleable dum-dums like the gun nut fantasia Equilibrium, Ultraviolet, and Law Abiding Citizen. Some spy movies feel like very special episodes of 24, padded to feature length. Wimmer apparently didn’t have the time for that, as Salt is like 100 minutes of 24 “coming next week” highlights, one sensation after another (Assassinations! Betrayals! Spider venom!).
There’s a constant tension to the movie, not in the movie (where Jolie has to work triple hard to sell a concept as silly as the “loom of fate” or whatever it was in Wanted) but outside it, as the gentlemanly Noyce tries to tamp down Wimmer’s wild-ass excesses. I can’t say it worked—Salt may be the bloodiest, most mayhem-packed PG-13 movie I’ve ever seen, which is saying something. I did, however, appreciate Noyce and his talented cutters, Stuart Baird and John Gilroy, getting it down to its length, wrestling its over-the-topness to a near-draw. Would it have worked better if it had gotten its Michael Bay on, or if it were chilled to a John le Carré temperature? Hard to say. Then again, the headlines probably ruined the movie, and any prospect of a franchise: knowing that Russian moles aren’t really glamorous, fleet-footed huntresses but rather suburban coupon clippers tends to deflate things.
If Salt failed to thread the eye of the needle, then Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fell off the spool entirely. Didn’t see it? Well, I can’t blame you, as I resisted, too. It’s a graphic novel adaptation, three words that make any self-respecting filmgoer of a certain age tremble, and, worse, a graphic novel adaptation about videogames. I’ve never played a videogame in my life, which severs me completely from the twenty-somethings in the movie. It may have also separated the twenty-something audience from the movie, who, finding it too coy or too flaky or otherwise unrepresentative, spurned it.
Too bad. Scott Pilgrim is a fit companion for last summer’s sleeper (500) Days of Summer, structured and styled like a game. I’m not exactly keen on movies where words bubble up on the screen, overlying the obvious (I’d like Man on Fire more if those passages were stricken from the image), and I admit to a mild case of the Michael Cera problem, which is that four out of five moviegoers surveyed (to read the blogs) find Michael Cera soft, twee, and tedious after a few flops. Having seen him as the shallow Scott Pilgrim, a guy forced to deepen by romantic circumstances, I can’t imagine anyone else in the part. Right actor, wrong timing.
What got me through the door, though, was director Edgar Wright at the joystick. Shaun of the Dead is one of my favorite movies of the last decade, and Hot Fuzz has one of my favorite last acts of the decade (the 4/5ths of cop movie spoofing, not so much). His is the right sensibility for a movie about a would-be couple struggling with each other’s accumulated baggage, and a movie where that baggage is disposed of through delightfully choreographed fights straight out of the arcade. I take it Scott’s battles with wary girlfriend Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s seven “evil exes,” two of them the superheroic Chris Evans and Brandon Routh, and one of them an all-controlling music magnate played by an oily Jason Schwartzman, are derived from actual games. I wouldn’t know, except to say that they’re a lot more fun than what was served up in the live-action Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat flicks, and Beck’s songs for Scott and his bandmates are spot-on semi-serious. (One of Scott’s crew is Broadway veteran Alison Pill, who gets more mileage from a scowl that anyone since the late Richard Widmark.)
There’s a lot of clever stuff in this movie, including the manipulation of the Universal logo at the very beginning, and how the bad guys explode into showers of coins when dispatched, and more winning actors, like Kieran Culkin as Scott’s GBF and Ellen Wong as his barely legal GF, the one he’s obliged to reconsider. Maybe too much—in a desert for summer films, Scott Pilgrim is an oasis, and you might gorge yourself on it. Not necessarily wanting to go in (enthusiastic reaction from trusted online friends helped) I left exhausted, from all those ideas and fights and word balloons, but I felt I had seen something, with a brain and a heart to accompany its fists and feet of fury, and it, too, has a place on my year-end honors list. If it’s still playing near you as the season wanes, go. If not, there’s DVD and Blu-ray down the line. Scott Pilgrim, you will be avenged.
Labor Day weekend has brought a European movie that’s very American, and an American movie, called The American, that’s very European. Sitting pretty atop the subtitles heap with the two Girl With/Who movies still playing and a third on the way in October, Music Box Films has released the four-hour French gangland epic Mesrine in two parts, which are both in release. I saw both Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 in February 2009 at a Lincoln Center screening, and wondered when and if they’d be gunning for a U.S. audience. I had this to say about them at the time: “The bloody biopic stars the excitable Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) as a trigger-happy thief, kidnapper, and all-around wise apple who, in an outrageous sequence that caps the first chapter, busts out of a high-security Quebec prison, then returns with maximum firepower to free some comrades and avenge himself on the institution.”
I’ll add that that’s the highlight of the whole piece, which slows considerably in the second part to show his capture in what feels like agonizing real time and never comes to grips with the philosophical facets/outlaw bullshit that made him so unique in his day. The director, Jean-Francois Richet (of the redundant Assault on Precinct 13 remake), does a second-hand job with it, aping Scorsese and all the rest. A Prophet (Un Prophète) it’s not. Still, the supporting cast is strong (Gerard Depardieu and Matthieu Almaric are in it) and there is always the thrill of seeing a scrappier, disreputable foreign-language picture sneaking into the hallowed realms of the arthouse.
It’s a relief, too, to have a Hollywood thriller that gains volition as it goes along, rather than sprint out of the gate, not that The American doesn’t begin with a bang, or have numerous shots of George Clooney pointing a gun. Pointing, not often firing; Clooney plays an armorer who, while pitilessly expedient with a weapon when he needs to, more often crafts them for other assassins, which is detailed in long, loving scenes. Fleeing Sweden after a botched assignment that was complicated by over-involvement with a civilian, he’s sent by his handler to a small mountain town in Italy to complete one last assignment, where in long, loving scenes he has sex with a stunning prostitute (Violante Placido). Lovemaking, death-dealing, complete with chrysalis and butterfly imagery and asides from a comically meddlesome priest (Paolo Bonacelli, a familiar face from many an Italian job or co-production)—that’s how The American rolls, sotto voce.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense that this suspicious, priest-ridden village would also support a red-lit whorehouse, one with a gaggle of hookers who can be bumped off for the movie’s red herring, but Madonna/whore comparison/contrast supplies the movie’s undercurrent. From unpromising material—hit men, who are so played out as movie anti-heroes, and the use of the word “American” in the title, almost always used for cheap irony—comes a typically reflective George Clooney vehicle, the one he makes for him after a more mainstream assignment. And he’s damn good in a part more suited for a more enigmatic actor, say Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s great Le Samourai (1967), a model for this sort of hush-hush bang-bang picture. The scenes where he instructs his latest gun’s buyer (Thekla Reuten) in its use and idiosyncrasies mirror Clooney’s mentoring of Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air—is this the lifestyle choice Ryan Bingham made at the end of that movie?
Note that Reuten is a looker, too, with a tranquilized accent to go with her icy beauty, and so are the two other women in the story. The rule must be that if you’re going to make a movie that’s removed from the norm, cast it as attractively as possible to sustain interest. Coolness and hotness go hand in hand, and the director, Anton Corbijn, clearly boned up on his Melville, and maybe his Antonioni. (Besides album covers and videos he directed the Ian Curtis biopic Control, the sternest rock biopic that will ever be made.) It might have come from a time capsule, buried somewhere in the early 70s, when one-last-job movies like this, starring Delon or Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Outside Man) or George C. Scott (The Last Run), were more commonplace. The movie isn’t all that profound, though, which is another point in its favor. And when it tries too hard to be, concentrate on Clooney’s face as the anxieties of his profession come home to roost, not on the butterflies. That’s where the action is in The American.
Queue Tip: I’m not sure when I’ll make it to Italy again, but The American’s overhead shots of the mountainous landscapes and hillside villages made me travel-sick. (The cinematographer is Martin Ruhe, who also shot Control and Corbijn videos for U2 and Coldplay.) The beauty of the Italian Alps is somewhat incidental in The Girl by the Lake—it’s an Italian film, after all—but still present, even if the girl by the lake is dead, which ruins the view.
The slaying of this opinionated teenager brings a veteran detective (Toni Servillo) onto the cloistered scene, which is thick with family secrets and submerged intrigue, including his own personal demons. The mystery is in the socially observant mode of the outstanding Prime Suspect programs and is quite involving. Much of the credit goes to the 51-year-old Servillo, an unlikely bet for international semi-stardom but, thanks to this film and the arthouse hits Gomorrah and Il Divo, there it is. He’s a rapt listener, not an easy quality to convey in a movie, and the The Girl by the Lake excels when he’s simply taking in a confession or sorting out truth from lies. (Also in the cast is Valeria Golino, who gave Rain Man some sex appeal.)
Servillo won a David di Donatello Award for The Girl by the Lake, as did the director (first-timer Andrea Molaioli) and the film itself, among its other “Italian Oscars.” Plus it’s an adaptation of an acclaimed Norwegian novel, not the same thing as an acclaimed Swedish trilogy but, hey, they’re all thrillers with the word Girl in their titles. You’d think all that would be enough to interest a U.S. distributor yet the 2007 release has gone straight to DVD three years later, in a decent 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with a trailer as its only extra. My advice is to give this Girl a chance.