Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Movie Roundup: Fire Bruce Arena Edition

Some quick comments while watching France attempt to out-lackluster the Americans in the World Cup.

Deadwood - The third season started on Sunday of this great HBO series. Nancy Franklin wrote a comically inept review of it for last week's New Yorker, something film critic Dave Kehr has a nice post about on his blog. Franklin's generally a fine critic, but with this and her inability to understand My Name Is Earl, I fear she may be succumbing to creeping Anthony Lane Syndrome, wherein a reasonably good critic comes to hate the very medium they work in, and thus becomes unable to ever see things for what they are and instead begins to write reviews as if they are competing in a cleverest zinger contest. Anyway, Deadwood's a terrific show, a linguistically obscene, yet poetic, examination of the core conflict at the heart of the whole Western genre: how order comes to be imposed upon chaos. You can phrase it any number of ways: civilization vs. barbarity, capitalism vs. pre-agrarian hunter-gatherers, genocidal white men vs. outgunned indians, and so on, depending on your personal political axe-grind. One of the posters on Kehr's blog points out that Deadwood's Al Swearingen, the murderous, vicious, outrageously profane, amoral saloon keeper who is paradoxically the only hope the community has to avoid being swallowed up by the rapacious laissez-faire capitalist George Hearst, is uncoincidentally quite similar to many of John Wayne's characters, especially Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (a killer who embarks on a decade long quest to rescue his niece only to find that the community he restored has no place for a man like him) and Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (which is what that film is all about: civilization needs these men to tame the wilderness (Indians, outlaws) but once tamed, it has no place for them and they are left, at best, to simply fade away).

Thank You For Smoking - I thought this movie was enjoyable enough while I was watching it, but the more I think about it, the more I don't like it. It supposedly is a satire, but I can't figure out what it's supposed to be satirizing, or even if surrounding one reasonably intelligent protagonist with a world full of blithering idiots actually counts as satire. The problem, I think, is that the film isn't willing to take a stand and either celebrate or indict the protagonist, Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. The thing is, Naylor never says anything all that outrageous, though the movie seems to think it is. The great revelation we get at the end of the film is that adults should have the right to choose whether they want to smoke or not. This is either mind-numbingly obvious or not the least bit funny, either way, it's a pretty lame ending. The film appears to want it both ways, writer-director Jason Reitman wants to make fun of the anti-smoking lobby (an unbelievably stupid Senator played by William H. Macy, shadowy "terrorists" who kidnap Naylor) and the tobacco industry (a pointless character played by Robert Duvall, perhaps meant to satirize old Southern men who like mint juleps? and an ultimately irrelevant subplot involving Rob Lowe, Adam Brody and a whole mess of cheap anti-Hollywood jokes). It's as though the film wants you to think that Naylor's right and personal responsibility is important, but Reitman isn't so sure and doesn't want anyone to think he actually agrees with that. Pointedly, there is no smoking of any kind in the film, in interviews, Reitman has said that he didn't want to glamorize it or make anyone think he might actually approve of the habit. What a mess. It does have its redeeming features though. Most of the funny lines are in the trailer, but the best part of the film is Aaron Eckhart's gleeful performance as Naylor. He perfectly captures the joy Naylor feels when he wins an argument and the childlike gleam in his eye when he gets some of the perks of being a successful lobbyist (a private jet, a trip to Hollywood, Katie Holmes). For a first film, it's really not that bad, and it was fun watching it in a surprisingly crowded theatre for a Monday night many weeks after the movie's release, but I really expected better. The #38 film of 2005.

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