Thursday, December 24, 2009

Duplicity; Humpday

All the commercials made Tony Gilroy's Duplicity out to be a romantic comedy about zany spies trying to backstab each other and get in each other's pants at the same time, and it's really not that. It's the closest thing we've got to a modern day Stanley Donen caper picture, however, combining corporate espionage and intrigue with some PG-13 sexy romance. Clive Owen gets to pretend to be James Bond again, Julia Roberts gets to do the same thing she always does, Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson get to pick up their checks, and everybody goes home kinda satisfied but not overly so-- that waiter's not getting any extra gratuity, just the usual 15%. It sounds like I'm ragging on it here, but it's a decent movie.

Humpday, from "mumblecore" veterans Lynn Shelton (who writes, directs, and appears here) and Mark Duplass (co-director of The Puffy Chair, which I hated, and Baghead, which I loved, and star both here and on FX's the League, which is a great show), is also a decent movie, albeit the commercial opposite of Duplicity. Duplass plays Ben, a husband with a normal life (and wife), but his old buddy Andrew (Joshua Leonard, of Blair Witch and a bunch of other things), a Kerouacian free spirit, shows back up, and soon enough the duo, after much drinking, decide to enter an amateur porn festival together, in which they plan to film themselves going all slash fiction on each other. It turns into a ludicrous macho standoff, with neither one willing to back down from it, even at the cost of Ben's marriage. It is the most narratively monumental game of gay chicken ever.

In most hands, this movie would be an utter farce, a potentially Wildeian comedy of errors, but in the so-called "mumblecore" (I'm beginning to hate that word) movement, it's as grounded as possible, with the characters taking it pretty damn seriously. There's some issues with tone and storytelling here, but I don't really see how else the filmmakers could've pulled it off; they did the best job possible. Naturalism is the key with these mumblecore pictures, especially in the semi-improvised dialogue, and the acting. Leonard puts in a great performance as the wild card who isn't as wild as he tries to be, and who yearns to have the kind of life Ben does, though Ben is equally jealous of his friend. Alycia Delmore, however, as Ben's suffering wife and the only sane character in the entire film (though she has issues of her own), steals the whole thing, and should get some kind of award for this, though I sincerely doubt the Academy will be sending out screeners.

I didn't love it, but I'm glad to see these naturalistic films (way better than "mumblecore," right?) gaining more legitimacy and notoreity, and I'm interested to see what the participants do next. If they get too polished and Hollywood on us, however, they'll lose some of the magic.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

So I'm back (from outer space) and I'm attempting a new (to me) film/movie/talking picture (or two) a day. And the idea is to write about them.

For a semi-experimental film about an escort and starring an honest-to-todger porn star, Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience has precious little sex or nudity of any kind. What it seems to be is a disjointed film, chronologically, narratively, and thematically. Is it about a specialized escort trying to make it to a higher class? Is it about the decline of her relationship with her boyfriend, who's okay with her sex work-- to a point? Is it about the recession and the silly expenditures the rich people indulge in despite the financial crisis? Well, obviously it's all these things, but nothing every really gels, and no plot strand seems to reach fruition, or-- tee hee-- climax.

The titular girlfriend experience is a service protagonist Chelsea (Sasha Grey, whose career is mirroring her character's a bit-- a sex worker trying to make it up a few rungs higher on the ladder of legitimacy) provides, as well as her own relationship with the boyfriend, whose plot arc never goes anywhere despite all the screentime wasted on it. So much of the film seems a bit of a waste, and whether it's because Soderbergh is more content to meander than clearly move forward, or because Grey's acting is, while not terrible, incredibly flat, I'm not sure. Should the audience project on her character like her clients do, molding her into whatever they need, particularly the ladyfriend they wish for? That would be the pretentious film student's view, but I was hoping for something a bit more concrete.

If anything, a more conventional plot or tone would've helped this, and for an independent film, that's surely crazy talk. So many directions could have been taken, but the filmmakers appear more content to just let everything sit there onscreen instead. If the film were a call girl, I'd complain that her rates are too high. She's a pretty thing, sure, but I thought she'd have more substance, and the sex should be better.

Everything I've seen in the last four months in one sentence or less

...and on ZMF's "Optional/Not Optional" scale:

9 Songs: Not a movie, more like pornography spliced with concert footage. Optional.

30 Rock season 3: Just about as good as the first two seasons. Not optional.

Adventureland: It's about a socially inept writing major and the emotionally destructive girl who makes or breaks him-- yeah, this one hit really, really close to home, but it was damn good. Not optional.

Andy Richter Controls the Universe: As funny as I remember it being-- maybe funnier. Not optional.

Barton Fink:
Falls somewhere in the middle of the Great Coens Ratings List. Optional.

Black Sheep:
You'd think a movie about man-eating sheep that turn people into were-sheep would be, you know, better. Optional.

A cool high school film noir with dialogue and atmosphere that takes a bit of getting used to; worth it. Not optional.

Californication season 2:
The definition of guilty pleasure. Optional, for that reason, but I like it.

Kenneth Branagh tries his best Woody Allen impression in a Woody Allen movie, Woody Allen Woody Allen. Optional.

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie:
Like a really good episode of the show, but not as great as the show itself. Optional, I guess? Make up your own damn mind.

Crank 2: High Voltage:
The batshittest movie ever put to celluloid, and one of my favorite films of the year. Not optional.

Dexter season 3:
Not as good as the first two, by a lot. Optional.

Drag Me to Hell:
Middlin' Sam Raimi, not a patch on Evil Dead 2. Optional.

Good Night, and Good Luck:
A great portrayal of the social responsibility of journalism, which is just what we need right now. Not optional.

Gran Torino:
Clint Eastwood at his scowliest, in a movie that could be about my dad. Optional, though.

I Love You, Man: Way funnier than I thought it'd be, Bro Montana. Not optional if you like humorous things and/or Lou Ferrigno.

IT Crowd season 3:
Very nearly a funny sitcom. Optional.

The songs are great, but everything else is sort of there. Optional. Soundtrack? Not optional.

This must be how people who hate time travel stories feel all the time; this movie is smarter than me. Not optional.

The Royal Tenenbaums:
Wes Anderson makes films like Kurt Vonnegut writes books (don't ask me to explain that; I can't). Not optional.

Star Trek (2009):
All spectacle, no substance; too much Lucas, not enough Roddenberry. Optional.

Stupid Teenagers Must Die!:
Stupid, should die. Optional.

Galifianakis can do better, and has; dull to the point of annoyance and forgettable. Optional.

Sort of like Watchmen, only with more fight scenes, violence, sex, cursing, and slow motion; read the book, for Chrissakes. Optional.

(That's right, I went to a theater!) It's no Shaun of the Dead, but it's better than 98% of those other tired, dead-eyed zombie pictures. Not optional if your taste is remotely similar to mine.