Monday, January 5, 2015

Movies, Movies, Movies

In The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat, producer Steve Krantz and director Robert Taylor do a reasonably good job trying to ape the design and animation style of Ralph Bakshi, but that’s where the goodness ends. The X-rated original had a dark heart and something on its mind: this sequel is just one prolonged dirty joke, and not even a dirty joke worth telling. If Robert Crumb hadn’t already killed off his notorious quat in the comics, this movie would have made him do it, and this time he’d be justified.

Young Detective Dee is another sequel that failed to capture my attention. The original, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, had as the title suggests a compelling mystery and real magic at its heart: this one, in the way of many sequels, is bigger and louder but loses its focus early on, and gives us nothing to emotionally invest in.

I can’t tell you the number of big-budget martial arts fantasy epics that I’ve sampled over the last couple of weeks that fall into the same trap. The Sorcerer and the White Snake is one; Painted Skin: The Resurrection is another. They’re gorgeous, all of them. Really stunning to look at. But the characters are so far removed from anything that’s recognizably human that I’ve found myself walking away from them. Give me something to care about, damn it, along with your pretty pictures. Beyond that, the martial arts action is actually undermined by all of the computer-generated eye candy surrounding it. How can we believe, even in movie terms, that the action is real when everything else happening on the screen is pure CGI artifice?

The one exception in this category was Stephen Chow’s comedy adventure Journey to the West. This I loved. I mean loved. The bad things that happen have real impact, the funny things that happen are really funny, the strange and magical things that happen are really strange and magical. I shut it off halfway through so that I could go online and buy it. Chow has the knack of populating a fantasy universe with characters that have real-life concerns. I loved the hero, who is so good-hearted that he conquers demons by reading them Nursery Rhymes. You can bet I’ll be checking out Chow’s other films when I get the chance.

In other genres, other disappointments I’ve met with in the last week include:

• Night Tide, starring a young and kind of spacey Dennis Hopper. I’ve wanted to see this for years because it has a Great and Beautiful and Evocative poster, shown above. Despite an atmosphere enriched by its wonderful seaside location, the movie itself is None of Those Things.

Dredd — really grotty and nasty; not so much an adaptation from the comic as a mean-spirited, blood-soaked contemporary thriller with minimalist traces of the comic splashed onto it randomly. You know you’ve got a bad movie here when the infamous Sylvester Stallone version is better and more faithful to the source material.

• and Shadow of the Vampire: this latter was a particular let-down. Once you get the joke (which was part of the marketing, so you know it already going in), this picture has absolutely nothing to offer, not even good performances from some notable actors. The message that it tries way too hard to hammer home is “Who’s the Real Vampire Here?” — but the presentation is so lame that it has all the impact of a bad joke told by the kind of person who follows up with “Get it? Get it?” Yes, I got it an hour and a half ago. Leave me alone. If you want a real mindfuck of a movie about movies and movie-making, do yourself a favor and go for Richard Rush’s insanely brilliant The Stunt Man instead.

Now before you say “Doesn’t this guy like anything?” please read on.

Critics all over the English-speaking world have largely trashed A Long Way Down, the light-hearted dramady based on Nick Hornby’s book of the same name. They have called it tasteless and shallow, among other things. I disagree in a big way.

Perhaps these critics have never had a reason to want out. Perhaps they have been happy with themselves their whole lives (the reviews are certainly smug enough to suggest this). Perhaps none of them have ever had to face that moment: that five minutes standing at the edge, ready to throw yourself off. Perhaps they have never stood, as I have, on the inch of stairway on the other side of the bannister with a rope around their neck. 

What saved me was the certain knowledge that I would bungle it — and that’s funny to me now. I don’t expect anyone else to understand. I can’t tell you what causes other folks to climb down from similar situations — nor does this movie try to tell you what that is, and good on the people who made it for that.

The story concerns four people of wildly different backgrounds who, for their own reasons, find themselves on the same rooftop on the same New Year’s Eve, preparing to throw themselves to the street below. The accident of their meeting is not what saves them: but because they are all basically decent people, they can’t just walk away when someone else wants to top themselves. Although they don’t necessarily like each other, the group forms a pact whereby each promises not to kill themselves in the next month, and thereby hangs a tale of how four strangers can grow together when they have only one thing in common.

It’s a light dark comedy with the emphasis on light. It’s not terribly profound, and it doesn’t try to be. It doesn’t try to raise Big Questions or suggest answers for them. What it does do is tell one little story, a real story about real people. And all I can think of is that the critics are knocking it for not being more ambitious than it is.

They’re full of shit. This is a good little movie, and one of the best things that’s crossed my eyeballs during my current Movie Glut. 

More to come…

— Freder.

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