Thursday, July 24, 2008

New(ish) movies watched lately.

Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings, 2007

This somewhat whimsical and warmly nostalgic portrait of England in the 1980s centers around Will, a timid little wisp of a kid whose family belongs to some kind of strict and oddly cultish religion that doesn’t allow television—not even educational films, as we see when Will has to sit in the hall while his class watches a video—or any form of entertainment, for that matter.

While banished to the television-free hallway, Will meets Lee Carter, the school fuck-up whom everyone seems to hate, and despite the odds, they hit it off in their own weird way. Lee makes bootleg videos for his older brother whom he idolizes, but who treats Lee like shit (but since their mom is more or less nonexistent, “he’s all I’ve got!”, as Lee mawkishly cries). Lee shows a bootleg copy of First Blood to Will—I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through 14 or 15 years of life without ever seeing a minute of celluloid, and then to plunge right into a Sylvester Stallone action film. Will already possesses an intense creative impulse, stealing away to a shed in his backyard to make crazy, feverishly charged cartoonish drawings in his Bible (the only materials he has to work with), which he often imagines coming to life, moving around via wiggling, animated lines. But Rambo pushes him over the edge—the movie sets Will free, empowering him with a newfound strength, releasing his own barbaric yawp. With tinges of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, Will and Lee start working on a movie, which requires some significant rule breaking and parental defiance on Will’s part in order to get away, as he’s not supposed to be cavorting with sinners. Their movie was initially supposed to be a remake of First Blood, but then Will has an idea for his own movie—called, as one might guess, Son of Rambo.

Meanwhile, a group of French foreign exchange students have arrived. On the whole much hipper than the bland and mild English, one of them, named Didier, is kind of a new wave Michael Jackson worshipper. Possessing a bit more world-weariness than the rest of them—he even has a pencil-thin mustache—Didier develops a following of schlubby English kids who mimic his hairstyle and look, while the girls swoon over him and line up to kiss him. As always seems to be the case with anything that’s somewhat clandestine and cool, they eventually discover the Son of Rambo project and try to glom onto it. While Will is excited about collaborating with others, thinking the more the merrier, not to mention relishing his sudden popularity, Lee does not react well to the additional participants. He knows they’ll only ruin it, steal it out from under them and turn it into something else, changing its dynamic irrevocably.

The film has a tone of hyperbolic slapstick, with a touch of the maudlin (for instance, when Lee proclaims to Will, “this has been my best day ever!”—heartwarmingly nauseating). Overall it was cute, fun, and entertaining, but nothing momentous, certainly nothing I’ll ever really feel the need to see again.

Mister Lonely, Harmony Korine, 2007

Harmony Korine’s third feature film entails a Michael Jackson impersonator living in Paris, who meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator while he's entertaining a group of senior citizens. (“Live forever! Don’t die!” he chants, inviting each half of the room to join in chorus.) “Marilyn” invites “Michael” back to her commune in Scotland, a refuge for a motley group of celebrity impersonators that includes Charlie Chaplin (Marilyn’s husband), Shirley Temple (their daughter), the Pope, Queen Elizabeth, a surly Abraham Lincoln (“I’m Abe fuckin’ Lincoln!”), and Sammy Davis Jr., among others. They’re currently at work building a theater in hopes of attracting new visitors and showcasing their talents for the world (somewhat unexpected, considering their self-imposed isolation).

There’s also a second plotline involving a priest, played by Werner Herzog,* who is training a group of nuns to fly by jumping from an airplane. As much as we might somehow expect them to, the storylines never come together, remaining wholly unrelated to one another. Despite these scenes’ perceived irrelevance to the main narrative, the image of a woman falling through the sky, her habit billowing around her, is arresting and bizarrely poignant. And did I mention that Werner Herzog is involved?

Mister Lonely is much more accessible and less disturbing than Korine’s previous films—one could chalk it up to maturation, or perhaps just his cleaning up and getting into a healthier state of mind—yet it still retains the strangeness of his earlier work. Moreover, it is not without elements of tragedy and melancholic overtones—a dark tale disguised as sweet and sentimental.

The film’s highlights are its striking, weirdly beautiful images—for instance, the falling nun, or the memorable opening scene in which our Michael Jackson look-alike rides a tiny bike around a track, a stuffed monkey with angel wings hanging off to the side by a wire, almost appearing to fly. This moment is inexplicably funny, moving in an intangible way. As Korine explains in an April 2008 New York Times article, “The story always comes from pictures I want to see,” which seems to account for the slight disjointedness, almost a random succession of stunningly oddball moments—the art lies in the unexpected manner in which such moments are placed into the film.

Despite its striking imagery and relatively straightforward plot—for this director, at least—the film seems flawed, almost a little bit boring, and I think I prefer the grotesquerie of his earlier works. Gummo has its own moments of beauty, though in a much darker and more perverted sense. Perhaps a happy medium of the two would be ideal—in the aforementioned interview, Korine states that “I think the next one will be more provocative,” so perhaps I’ll get my wish.

*Herzog was cast in Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, and as then, he still can’t act. But I’m such a fan of Herzog’s own films that this doesn’t really bother me. I can forgive him this one shortcoming—which might be the case with Korine as well.

No comments: