Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rearview Mirror

It's late June and I'm bumping down interstates to Texas in a jam-packed Civic with my wife and our ever-faithful cat. We are changing our lives. For me it's like Chapter Three; I left my home town after high school, moved east, and stayed there 16 years. Now I'm coming back. My head has been spinning a lot lately, and movies have helped.
Back in Harrisburg we caught Horrible Bosses on the motel tube and I ended up enjoying it very much. This is the kind of movie I normally avoid. First of all, the logo of Horrible Bosses is in a particular font that I hate and that is always used to market comedies, is always all-capitals, and nine times out of ten is cherry red. This movie managed to forgo the red, but still, the font is all over the poster, and the title stinks. There must be a report somewhere concluding that this is the most effective way to sell a comedy, and it always puts me off. I expected Horrible Bosses to be about as funny as Crazy Stupid Love, which I thought was a real turkey, but which I'd imagined would be better because they'd selected a different font for the movie poster. I now have two counterexamples to suggest that I should not be paying so much attention to fonts, but I'm sure I won't stop.

Horrible Bosses actually has no surprises at all, except for the fact that it's funny. Watching it is like eating in a chain restaurant where the food and ambience are good enough that it's almost like you're eating in a real restaurant. Crazy Stupid Love is just a bad chain restaurant experience. Let's say Crazy Stupid Love is TGI Friday's, and Horrible Bosses is the Macaroni Grill. (The fact that I actually ate at the Macaroni Grill right before watching Horrible Bosses has absolutely nothing to do with my decision.)

While we're on this analogy, it occurs to me that another one of these "chain restaurant" comedies is Talladega Nights, and that movie actually contains a scene in an Applebee's. That scene really blew me away. The aspiration there may have been to lampoon corporate packaging, but the movie seems to fall completely within the parameters of that package, of what's already been tested and approved- and in the case of the Applebee's scene, the film actively praises the consistency that a corporate franchise is able to offer. It's an old problem that comedians sell out and are then fettered by their sponsors, but it's spooky in this case, because Will Ferrell used to make jokes specifically about the banality of suburban chain restaurants all the time.

Great movie experiences of late:

Our neighbors treated us to a showing at the Brattle Theater of one of our favorites, Vampire's Kiss. Most people seem to have an opinion about Nicolas Cage's wild man routine and whether it constitutes good acting. I think there's no need for the question, because the filmmakers who use Cage typically use his performance as a kind of prop, a static object that fills a space in a predetermined way, or a blunt instrument, if you like, for achieving a desired effect. They have moved beyond the question of whether the performance is convincing or not, so I am compelled as an audience member to do the same. Face Off and Honeymoon in Vegas were somewhat lame attempts to use Cage in this way. Wild At Heart and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans used him to stunning effect.

Yet his schtick, and the way it's objectified, belie his actual range. If Leaving Las Vegas doesn't convince you of his abilities, nothing will, but it's hardly the only evidence; he has plenty of convincing moments in Matchstick Men, and the fact that he played identical twins in Adaptation that I never had any trouble telling apart is also to his credit. These are actually true and good dramatic performances.

But then there's Vampire's Kiss, which is the most confounding and mind-bending of all his films. How can a movie be driven so completely by a stops-out, thrashing, bellowing Cage performance, and yet give one the feeling that something much more than that has occurred? Cage is so ridiculous here that he seems to caricature himself; how then does he manage to be tragic, and even a little scary, convincing us while at the same time appearing almost flip about the very process of acting? This is one over the top Cage performance that isn't simply a prop, or part of the machinery; it is the machinery. If we're convinced, Cage himself must be doing it. But seriously, how is he doing it? 

We also watched one of my very, very favorites, Joe vs the Volcano. I have no analysis to offer at this time. All I can say is that yet again, it left me with a strange melancholy that I've experienced every time its final credits appeared, and that I've never begun to understand. I was also reminded of who all filled the many small parts: Lloyd Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda, Nathan Lane, Amanda Plummer… seriously, what a cast!

And we had to say goodbye to Cape Cod. Man, we are really going to miss the Northeast. While there, we went to the Cape Cinema, a gorgeous movie house with murals on the ceiling. We saw Russian Ark there several years ago. This time we watched Moonrise Kingdom, which takes place in a dream-like New England in the same way that Wes Anderson's other movies take place in dream versions of India, New York, and Texas. It made me wistful about leaving, of course, but I was happy that movies like this- fantasies that seem to spring full blown from their author's minds- are still being made. I suppose Wes Anderson is just another tested-and-approved brand now- Moonrise Kingdom is lovely, but breaks little new ground in the Wes Anderson universe. But at least everything in it belongs entirely to its author (unlike most of the multiplex "fantasies" of today). Here again, Anderson gives us childhood abandonment, children dealing with emotional trouble by finding hiding places and building fortresses with obsessive hobbying, and a visual style that presents each frame as though the audience were touring a picture gallery, holding us far away from the characters so that we feel safe, yet uncomfortably cold. (Anderson's sense of humor achieves the exact same purpose.) Though his films are thematically repetitive, Anderson has at least found themes that mean something to him, and has managed to adapt them to moods that are indeed different among his different films. Moonrise Kingdom, in a way, feels the most like an escape from reality of any of his films- it comes the closest to achieving the live-action storybook I think he always wanted to make.

By the way- happily, with all the hustle of packing for the move, we still had time for one last delightful Porchlight Cinema event! The movie was a perfect selection: Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Again, no analysis. But, to everyone who came, thanks. It was part of a great send-off for me and Jamie to get everyone on the porch one more time.