Monday, March 30, 2009

Sometimes I Feel Like an Idiot: Mike Judge's Idiocracy

Satire is difficult, and Mike Judge certainly doesn't pull punches. Unlike in King of the Hill, subtlety isn't his style in Idiocracy. Instead, he goes all out for every gag in the book. Every nuance is there to portray society as simply stupid.

What works in the film is the premise. That's even what carries it through until the end. You probably already know what it's about: society has gotten dumber and dumber (sic) until by the year 2500, the world (or at least America) is on the brink of collapse because they can't solve any of their problems, ones that they caused in the first place. In comes an average guy from the year 2000, and he's hailed as a genius. He must now solve all of humanity's problems, from the death of crops to the overflow of garbage.

It's a good premise.

What doesn't work, though, is the way the movie becomes a series of gags: sight, sound, etc. I guess a world of really stupid people would actually be full of gags, but it really just seems like a bunch of stupid people from the year 2000, not from the year 2500. Nothing has really changed in those 500 years except that people still can't solve their own problems.

So all in all, Idiocracy is a decent film with a great premise. The genius of it is also its problem: it is couched in a faraway land (like allegory or a lot of satire) that is really available right here at home. But the truth is generally easier to take when it seems faraway.

The other thing I like about this post is how people like to think they're above the critique. Just look at some reviews for the movie. Really, though, we're all kind of that stupid, either like Luke Wilson or like the stupid people there for laughs.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Robert (Sean) Penn Warren's All the King's Men

Reading Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel All the King's Men is like riding an academic roller coaster through early twentieth century politics. The narrator, Jack Burden, is a student of history, and his journey through life illustrates the character of Willie Stark, the Boss, the Governor of whichever southern state it actually takes place in. Burden's narration is lush, vivid, and sometimes bogs down in its own detailed prose as it describes the landscapes and peoplescapes, even delving into philosophical ramblings about the meaning of a specifically placed finger or a supposed wink.

The book, frankly, borders on genius. It's a difficult read, sure, but it's a great story. It's the narration and description that makes it so good, though, not necessary the story itself. We come to know the characters only through that narration, but they are fully realized by the end.

The 2006 movie doesn't have those strengths. It tries to make a standard story out of the difficult prose and narrative. Not that it makes the novel strictly linear, but it leaves out all of the interesting philosophical meanderings. Jude Law (Jack Burden) tries to insert some of the stuff about the Friend of your Youth (one of the philosophical inserts) into the movie, but it falls flat because we don't get enough of it to fully appreciate it. All of the characters are that way, too: they're all one-sided, even bordering on stock characters.

We do see some brilliance in Sean Penn's Wille Stark, however, at least when he is giving speeches. When he comes out of his shell and attempts to connect with the world, his speeches are good. Watching this movie in 2009 is a strange experience, however, for we have seen the inauguration of Barack Obama, whose speeches sometimes mirrored those of Willie Stark, although his aren't nearly as mean-spirited. Stark represents the new kind of politician that cares for the people and wants to get rid of money-riddled politics. Instead, he wants to do good, even though he will still use corruption, for it is only through bad that good can ever come (at least according to Stark).

We have some good themes here, but most of them are minor. The primary theme is about the purpose of political life and whether politics can remain above the fray. The movie hints that politics is about service, but it cannot be above anything. Instead, it is as debased as any other human endeavor. Therefore, the very nature of political service is debased.

I'm not sure if the movie can be appreciated without having read the novel, for the plot gets a bit confusing, but the theme about politics and service is still evident. Watch it for that alone, but only if you generally vote Democrat. I guess a Republican can enjoy it, too, for it points out that even "idealists" are flawed and are really just as corrupt as any politicians.

Grade for All the King's Men: 6

Friday, May 23, 2008

I Pine for Camelot!

Let's forget the historical arguments, for I'm really just looking for a good movie. Antoine Fuqua has delivered it before, and I really do think his Training Day is one of the best gritty cop movies out there. He got some good performances out of good actors in what was potentially a confusing plot.

Too bad Fuqua hasn't made anything else of that caliber. I would even suggest King Arthur is his worst. At least The Replacement Killers was fun, and Tears of the Sun (Special Edition) was overwrought but intriguing.

King Arthur has nothing going for it except some extended battle scenes that are quite well done. I admit that the overall idea is really cool. I like the reimagining of King Arthur that we see here, and I don't mind that Guinevere is a warrior maiden. But the acting here--from Clive Owen, of all people!--is simply atrocious. I have loved Clive Owen since Croupier, and most of his movies are decent, or at least he is decent in them. But King Arthur has some of the worst dialogue that even Owen couldn't save it.

There are lots of other problems here, too (such as the fact that I didn't mind when Lancelot died), but I will leave the review with the simple statement that this is a bad movie with some good action. Therefore, I guess it's a decent action film.
Grade: 4 of 10

Thursday, April 17, 2008

To be superbad

Apatow's films are funny (see The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Rated Widescreen Edition) and Knocked Up (Widescreen Edition)) and this one is no different. It's directed by Greg Mottola who did The Daytrippers, another decent film. These movies take the standard sex comedy fare and add an ultimately conservative twist. For The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the movie says it's a good thing to wait until marriage to have sex. For Knocked Up, casual sex gets one into trouble and babies are better with two dependable parents.

Superbad has another conservative message. But don't go looking for a wholesome family affair, for this is not it. If I had to watch this movie with my parents, I fear that I would perhaps pass out. It's raunchy. Even though there may not be nudity per se, these guys talk like real guys, and they don't talk nicely about our, umm, private parts.

It's the story of Seth and Evan, based on the writers of the script, and one evening during their last weeks of high school before they split up to go to college. They have always been misfits, but finally, they may be able to become cool without changing. That's one of the good things. It isn't about these guys "fitting in" with the in-crowd. It's more about the in-crowd realizing that they're actually cool guys.

The movie is flawed, though. So much of the script is ad-libbed that some things don't make sense. Characters say things that contradict earlier ideas, and the editors just kept it becuase it happens to be funny. I guess I can forgive that.

The DVD has some hilarious extras, too, especially the one with Jonah Hill going through different versions of his lines. I don't know how they decided on only keeping one of them. I liked them all. I have trouble recommending Superbad because of its raunchiness, but if you're okay with that kind of thing, enjoy and get something more than mere comedy out of what is ultimately a conservative, enjoyable film.

Grade for Superbad: 7

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Noir Excellence

L.A. Confidential is Curtis Hanson's masterpiece. Overlook the flaws--especially the stereotypical characters--and see that it's all a part of the genre. The film noir does use stereotypes, and this movie takes that genre and makes it into a wonderful story of the gray between good and bad. There's the police thug who hates women beaters. There's the political good guy who won't compromise for anything. There's the gorgeous prostitute. There's the smarmy celebrity cop. There's even the loathsome smut-mag publisher. And none of them are quite what they seem. Each one changes over the course of the film, or we at least see a different side to every one of them.

It's watching these stereotypes develop (albeit in their generic ways) that makes this movie fun. That and the amazing shoot 'em up scene at the end. When the two protagonists make their final stand, you know it's coming, and it still keeps you on the edge of your seat. That's the sign of a good movie, and L.A. Confidential continues to deliver, even at a second and third viewing.

Grade for L.A. Confidential: 9