A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: July, 2012

“Summer with Monika” (1953)


Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika gets the ups and downs of teen romance. It understands the intoxicating “us against the world” fantasy of running away with someone, just as it’s wise enough to acknowledge that the harsh reality isn’t avoided so easily. Bergman respects his characters too much to take a side (although he does ultimately favor getting one’s shit together), a choice that makes Summer with Monika the simultaneously lovely and heartbreaking drama it is.

Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) are two working-class youths living in the ’50s Swedish equivalent of a Mellencamp song. Stuck in jobs that respectively have them browbeaten and sexually harrassed on a daily basis, hopes of a better life arise the moment they cross paths. One swift courtship later, Harry and Monika are off to leave the world behind, eager to spend the rest of their days in an island getaway with no one to order them around. But summer is ending fast, and as their relationship grows more serious, the inevitable return home forces the kids to pick between accepting new responsibilities or remaining a child in an adult’s body.

It’s nice to see Summer with Monika give its subject matter a fair shake. So often do movies play up one extreme perspective over the other, either fetishizing romantic flings without a hint of emotional maturity and common sense to support them or condemning any and all affection in pious cautionary tales. Summer with Monika just lets its characters be who they are. Harry and Monika are young people from similar backgrounds with differing philosophies, and where they end up as they carve their own path through life is of their own doing, not through forced screenwriting dictations.

Even as it becomes clear that Monika isn’t ready to grow up and begins to drags Harry with her as she self-destructs, Bergman makes you aware of where her urges are coming from. We see her constantly groped by co-workers and nearly assaulted at one point, so it’s no wonder that she’s desperate to retreat into a dreamland and never come out. Andersson’s performance nails this aspect of the character, and while Monika does come off like a cartoonishly manipulative harpy near the end, you’re still convinced that she means the world to Harry. And speaking of Harry, Ekborg’s turn is equally balanced, starting off as a scatterbrained dreamer and ending as someone who’s accepted the onset of adulthood.

Subtitles or not, Summer with Monika should strike a chord with anyone about to take their first steps towards taking care of themselves. Its message was unfortunately cheapened back in the day when an American distributor cut it down to a little over an hour and highlighted its few nude scenes for the exploitation circuit. But restored to fine form by the intrepid lads of the Criterion Collection, Summer with Monika is back to be observed by and provoke thought in a new crop of cinema buffs.

“Detention” (2011)


Scream gets a lot of flack for wearing its satire on its sleeve. True, it had its share of references and observations awkwardly shoehorned into the dialogue, but it still felt like a consistent and complete film that tried to tie everything together into an actual plot. Broad or wry, parodies with a horror bent work better when you’re interested in what’s happening, as The Cabin in the Woods demonstrated pretty damn well a few months back. Otherwise, you’re left with something like Detention, an obnoxious, ADD-afflicted wreck with more concern for maintaining the apperance of being hip and unconventional than for possessing any actual thematic value.

Welcome to Grizzly Lake, home to every stock character horror cinema has ever urped up. Jocks, mean girls, hipsters, and many more roam the streets, although the population has recently begun to dwindle. Someone’s decided to don the get-up of the villainess from B-grade slasher flick Cinderhella and axe his way through the high schoolers, one stereotype at a time. With any one of their classmates due on the chopping block next, the job of rooting out the killer falls upon walking social disaster Riley (Shanley Caswell) and charismatic slacker Clapton (Josh Hutcherson). But if the Grizzly Lake kids weren’t occupied enough by a bloodthirsty madman, the UFOs, time-traveling bears, and impending apocalypse sure oughta do the trick.

I’m not even going to bother bringing up the idea of story in Detention. I gave up all hopes of it having one the minute its characters began addressing the camera about their tropes and traits while graphics flew across the screen. But seeing as how Detention is obviously in it for the goofs (leaning more towards the “comedy” aspect of “horror comedy”), humor is fairly important to its overall success…which is why the style it opts for makes the whole damn film collapse in on itself. Maybe it’s just personal preference speaking, but satire seems to work best the more focused it is; the closer the bullseyes are hit and less crowded together they are, the better. But Detention has a stream-of-consciousness approach that takes shots at everything even remotely connected to its subject matter all at once. Sure, some marks are made, but the shock value of latching onto one target for an ironic comment before moving onto the next in a matter of seconds is as fleeting as it is freaking irritating.

To begin with, Detention doesn’t even feel like it has any other goal in mind than doing what it does. Does it turn horror movies cliches on their ears in interesting ways? No. Does it have anything funny or smart to say about high school conventions? Nuh-uh. But it does have plenty of random, time-wasting diversions with no purpose except to be random and time-wasting. Do the body-swapping subplots, mutant jocks, pop culture name-dropping, and digs at internet reviewers have anything to do with one another? Aside from them all apparently being on director/co-writer Joseph Kahn’s mind, nope. The man who gave the world Torque (which is granted its own go-nowhere reference) is simply content to let his film come ass intensely smug and proud of itself for filling the screen with so much aimless minutae.

I didn’t go in wanting to hate Detention, but it makes it so hard not to. There’s real potential here, with some of the young actors playing their parts pretty well and a surprisingly amusing performance given by Dane “I’m Vomiting a Little as I Type This” Cook. But Detention is doomed when it makes itself the center of attention instead of its points, a sort of Scream by way of “Family Guy” with a Scott Pilgrim polish that isn’t worth a fraction of either three.

“Streamers” (1983)


When I started getting heavy into film as a kid and reading up on directors, I’d always heard that the 1980s were a nightmare for Robert Altman. It’s easy to make that assumption, as the man was sandwiched between his artistic/financial successes in the ’70s and his comeback greats in the early ’90s. It was a time of experimentation that yieled both underseen triumphs and ambitious failures, like 1983’s Streamers. This is a film that’s not exactly a pleasure to watch, but I’m sort of glad it exists, a mixture of fierce acting and interesting ideas that unfortunately comes off as ten pounds of stagey in a two-pound bag.

Adapted by David Rabe from his own Broadway play, Streamers takes place entirely in the barracks of three young troops awaiting deployment to Vietnam. Billy (Matthew Modine) is the good little soldier, Richie (Mitchell Lichtenstein) is the one-man snark parade, and Roger (David Alan Grier) is the mediator trying to make sure they don’t kill one another. Tensions are palpable enough, as Billy constantly prods Richie to open up about his sexuality, but the keg is officially lit by Carlyle (Michael Wright), a stray from another company. Scared and unable to face the prospect of dying in battle, Carlyle instead chooses to incite discord amongst his new pals, in a nihilistic effort to avoid the war and take everyone he can down with him.

I can appreciate Streamers for being unconventional in just about every aspect. It’s certainly a change of pace for Altman, from whom his audience grew to expect countless actors and lines rapidly delivered over other lines. But Streamers comes with an enclosed setting, a tiny cast (four main players and a few background guys), and audible, robust speeches given all around. Even as a “Vietnam movie,” the conflict is rarely mentioned explicitly, nor does it show you any battlefield carnage and leave you with an obvious “war is bad” message. Its means are more subtle than that, using racial, sexual, and social divides to convey the idea that none of it hardly matters when you’re being blown up by someone else.

But at the same time, Streamers is a theatrical adaptation that suffers for never shaking its theatrical attitude. Everyone’s always projecting and posturing for an audience that isn’t there, waiting to feed off of live energy where none is around. It goes to show you how different the worlds of screen and stage are, and while Rabe’s words may strike you as profound in a live arena, film renders them awkward and almost completely unnatural. The acting reflects this, the worst offender of which is Wright, whose Carlyle is performed with Kirk Lazarus levels of ham and not an ounce of realism. Modine and Grier do better, nicely steering their characters away from becoming total stereotypes, though Lichtenstein comes close to overdosing on the cattiness quite a few times.

I like that Altman chose a more intimate route than usual with Streamers, and he pulled off an even more pared-down production to great effect with Secret Honor the following year. But although the points it makes don’t go unnoticed or unappreciated, the film’s presentation inadvertently does just about everything it can to take you out of the moment and keep you out.

“I Really Hate My Job” (2007)


Whenever I see a movie character gripe about their unglamorous job, a little part of me wants to reply, “What makes you so special?” The mere notion of an actor who’s getting cut a check to say how much being a wage slave bites is a tough sell on its own. That’s why it pays to be smart like Clerks and nudge one’s directionless protagonist(s) down the road to enlightenment by way of funny, observant dialogue. Or you can be like I Really Hate My Job and boast 90 minutes of self-absorbed bellyachers who inspire nothing but the urge to avoid their place of business at any cost.

Performers. Artists. Philosphers. These are what the staff of a small London bistro wish they could be instead of waitressing their lives away. But here they are, frying up pans of charred chicken and serving lattes on a dinner shift where it seems like everyone’s frustration over their unfulfilled dreams is at a breaking point. Alice (Shirley Henderson) got her first novel rejected, Abi (Neve Campbell) can’t land a legit acting gig, and Madonna (Anna Maxwell Martin) is trying to keep both the restaurant and her love life afloat. But over the course of the evening, these ladies and their co-workers gradually wise up to the idea that no matter how badly things may suck right now, there’s always someone around who’s sick of hearing your bitching.

I Really Hate My Job is the workplace comedy at its most shallow. Monologues are delivered by the pageful, and voices are dramatically raised just as often, but with no intelligence and to no discernable end. What we do get is a day in the life of some fairly awful people who are terrible at their jobs to begin with without ducking away to air out their egos every five minutes anyway. All the characters offer is a laundry list of complaints that they should be doing what their hearts tell them, when it’s obvious from the start that they themselves are the only ones standing in their way. Director Oliver Parker (who made 2002’s quite good The Importance of Being Earnest) forgets to grant his players any sense of acknowledgement, that realization of being masters of their own destinies and that suffering a bit is a part of getting what you want.

Yeah, that’d be nice, but the flick is too busy with out-of-place actor cameos, gratuitous fantasy sequences, and subplots that bring us no closer to understanding what irks the characters other than that they’re irked. The closest I Really Hate My Job comes to having a heart is with Alexandra Maria Lara’s Suzie, a somewhat spacey but sweetheart of a server who sees the world as one snapshot after another. But the other actresses, talented as they’ve been before and will continue to be long after this career detour is forgotten, are swept away by the shared bitterness of their roles with no hope of rescue. Worse yet, the story ends on a note that brings no closure to precedings, only the queasy indication that these people are going to be miserable jerks until the end of days.

I Really Hate My Job is no witty character piece (a la Clerks) or broad revenge fantasy (a la Horrible Bosses). Like its characters, the film is more than eager to rant itself hoarse but unwilling to not only work through its issues but even tell us what those issues are exactly. The title is a real attention-grabber, but I Really Hate My Job imparts no vicarious therapy for the world’s working schmoes.

“Hell Is a City” (1960)


I’ve spent the better part of the last two years getting acquainted with the Hammer Films portfolio. Too long had I neglected the famous production house’s library, rectified by plunging myself deep not only into its legendary horror line-up but also the sci-fi pictures, the period adventures, and — ye gods — the cavegirl flicks. Hammer even got around to cranking out some old-fashioned but cracking good thrillers (Cash on Demand is a particular treat), although it bites that the ambitiously downbeat Hell Is a City isn’t among them.

Hammer’s answer to the increasingly hard-boiled film noir market, Hell Is a City centers around a crook on the loose and the depths a dedicated cop must resort to in order to nab him. Inspector Martineau (Stanley Baker) has enough on his hands already, what with a seedy criminal underworld to face every day on the job and a wife (Maxine Audley) who would rather he stay home. But word comes that his old nemesis Don Starling (John Crawford) is in town, and his ensuing heist/murder/reign of terror immediately sends our good inspector on the chase.

One of the pillars of film noir is its moral ambiguity, how its ostensibly “good” heroes are as capable of committing dirty deeds as the antagonists. Hell Is a City would have us believe that Inspector Martineau is as grizzled as they come, so numb from years of patrolling Her Majesty’s meanest streets that there’s little to separate him from the lowlifes he’s supposed to catch. In reality, Martineau is more bark than bite, and it isn’t even that great of a bark to start with. He may rough up the occasional suspect, but Martineau plays things by the books, collecting evidence and whatnot, methodically but haltingly putting together his case. Even his troubled home life is the stuff of weak melodrama, and his wife actually looks worse off for insisting that he spend all his time at home — instead of, y’know, catching that darn cold-blooded killer on the rampage.

Speaking of which, Hell Is a City‘s faults extend even to its barely-dimensional baddie. Crawford is plenty vicious and menacing at first, but once he goes on the run, he becomes a petulant whiner who pops up every so often to yell at someone. Eventually, the story shoehorns in a deaf-mute girl for the sake of making him look more evil, but this, like all of his appearances in the picture’s second half, is swatted away swiftly, like a Whac-A-Mole game that packs heat.

I hate to be so hard on Hell Is a City, since its no-nonsense approach to violence and dark photography show that it really was working hard to be bleak and as uncompromising as the most challenging film noirs. But stripped of its looks, director Val Guest (The Abominable Snowman) can only give us a movie with terribly little meat on its “good versus evil” bones.

“Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953)


No comedian has ever made themselves funnier by playing the space card. It didn’t work for the Three Stooges, it didn’t work for the Far Out Space Nuts, and it sure as shit didn’t work for Eddie Murphy.* Bud Abbott and Lou Costello had a spotty track record to begin with — let’s be honest, half of their comedies were hilarious and half were dead air buffets — so I wasn’t terribly riled up for a movie that thought a visit to the angry red planet was a smart move. Corny as the concept is, I’ve seen the boys in more lame jams than Abbott and Costello Go to Mars, but it falls apart often enough to confirm that in space, no one can hear you groan.

In a vehicle that came at the tail end of their Universal tenure, Bud and Lou play handymen who find themselves aboard a top-secret rocketship bound for Mars. After a series of mishaps that make your average ’80s sitcom seem novel and edgy, their craft careens around the country, raising a ruckus before landing in New Orleans during Mardi Gras — which the guys have no problem mistaking for Martian soil. But the wacky antics have only just begun, for soon into the chaos comes a pair of bank robbers on the lam who take A&C on a side trip to Venus…where a plethora of foil bikini-clad hotties awaits them.

So yeah, outer space only figures into a fraction of Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. The first half plays like the “Sandy’s Rocket” episode of SpongeBob, wherein Bud and Lou think all the bizarre, elaborate costumes are just another part of the Martian landscape. I actually got a few chuckles out of this section of the flick, what with the boys showing a good amount of energy and the aforementioned thugs amusing in a Rocky and Mugsy kind of way.

But once the characters set a direct course for the second rock from the sun, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars jettisons nearly all of its momentum and indulges in a boatload of barely-there gags til the ending credits come. Fun as it is to chuck Lou around a spaceship in zero gravity, the charm wears off once we touch down on Venus and have to spend the rest of the movie watching everyone else ogle the native cuties. Not that these scenes aren’t without their perks, but they still don’t instill the pacing with any more madcap energy or make the comedy we do get in the meantime any less tired and schticky.

All things considered, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars isn’t the worst outing I’ve seen Bud and Lou endure. Their meeting with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was even more humorless, and I can think of a zillion ways of how this particular premise could’ve been even more pandering. Abbott and Costello Go to Mars spares a smirk once in a while, but there comes a point where you’ll be begging for anything — the Frankenstein monster, the Invisible Man, any Andrews sister — to liven up all the dead space left over.

(* Before anyone mentions Galaxy Quest, think for a minute how much Tim Allen brought to the movie…yeah, I thought so.)

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011)

The thing you have to understand about me is that if you put me in front of a documentary, chances are I’ll love it. Among my favorite films of 2011 were true-life glimpses into the advertising biz, the National Film Registry, and nothing more than what people across the globe were doing on a particular day. In the right hands, documentaries can have all the drama and capacity to open one’s eyes to new worlds that fiction does, with the added bonus of knowing that it’s all for real, yo.

Enter Jiro Dreams of Sushi, centered around a form of cuisine I don’t eat, in a country I’ve never visited, and at prices I’m still attempting to fathom. But the film is no instruction manual on how to whip up a bitchin’ tuna roll; it’s about the grace and craft one chef displays in sharing his area of expertise with others. Jiro Ono is the 85-year-old proprietor of an unusual culinary landmark. His sushi restaurant seats a mere ten customers and is located in a nondescript Tokyo subway station, but he goes above and beyond in putting together what goes on the menu. Reservations must be made months in advance, and Jiro seeks out individual dealers to supply quality ingredients for the dishes for which he and his staff continue receiving one well-deserved accolade after another.

And…that’s really about it. Jiro Dreams of Sushi has no ulterior agenda to speak of, save for detailing Jiro’s dedication to his craft. Here is a man who’s spent the last 70 years in his trade, one in which it’s not uncommon to see apprentices quit the same day they start. At times, it seems as if Jiro has put too much of himself towards maintaining his profession’s purity. We see very little of his personal life, he shudders at the thought of taking a day off, and even his grown sons look a little forlorn as they discuss what they planned to do with their lives before their pop coaxed them into the family business.

But despite an intimidating legacy few strive to live up to and the looming threat of quickie sushi joints on the horizon, Jiro remains cheery and unfazed. I wish I could say that the film changed my mind about switching to a more adventurous diet, but the artistry behind every dish is damned impressive. Behind the scenes, Jiro tastes every dish to ensure it’s up to snuff, and so great is his attention to detail, he even takes into consideration what hand a customer favors as he serves them. Even if the food does nothing for your palate, the picture itself has a very calming effect, the result of a mostly classical soundtrack and the warmness Jiro radiates when he talks about a job well done.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an admittedly tough sell, what with it being a Japanese-language documentary about food, which a fair chunk of American viewers would rather eat than watch be assembled. But it’s still a very soothing piece of work about a cool old dude with a work ethic from which picking up tips is well worth it. And for those curious to know, the film ends on a note that reassures us that, should Jiro have to step down for one reason or another, his art will be with us for quite some time.

“Extraterrestrial” (2011)

Picture the layout of your average alien invasion flick. Death and destruction in Act 1, seeking shelter from said chaos in Act 2, triumphant victory in Act 3. Now imagine one where not only is there no real invasion in sight, there aren’t any little green hombres, either. So goes the premise behind Nacho Vigalondo’s Extraterrestrial, which aspires to be a comedy of errors more than it does to be Skyline: Part Deux, though it’s about as equally “successful” at what it sets out to do.

When scrappy layabout Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in the apartment of fetching Julia (Michelle Jenner), neither is sure of who one another is, how they hooked up, or if the preceding night was really spent in the sack together. All they do know is that massive flying saucers have popped up all over the country, and just about everyone in town has long since headed for the hills. But just when Julio thinks he’s got himself a hottie with whom to spend what may or may not be his last days on earth, in comes Julia’s boyfriend (Raul Cimas) and a lovestruck neighbor (Carlos Areces), both of whom Julio tries to nudge out of the picture with a web of lies that needs no help from their otherworldly guests.

It took a good fifteen minutes for me to realize that Extraterrestrial was being played mainly for goofs, not about to do for alien attack epics what Pontypool did for zombie movies. That was no biggie, since I’d previously seen Vigalondo’s groovy physics-bender Timecrimes and knew to anticipate the offbeat. I gotta say, Vigalondo does a pretty sly job at moving focus away from the alien aspect very quickly; all we need are a few occasional saucer shots, and the often hilariously self-serving characters take care of the rest. But fun as it is to see the players (particularly Julio) cling to their relationship dramas even with the possibility of imminent destruction literally looming above them (that the unseen visitors have zero motive at all only adds to the comedy), Extraterrestrial hasn’t a conceit strong enough to supply the necessary dramatic weight.

When I say that Julio gets the hots for Julia out of nowhere, I mean it. No prologue showing their first encounter, no deep one-on-one conversations, no nothing. Extraterrestrial seems like it would have us believe that Julio is in love with Julia just because, which undercuts both the comedic and dramatic tension from the snowballing fibs he tells in the name of being the only bee in her bonnet. It’s probably just part of the joke that this doofus’ lies become more and more elaborate over something as trivial as a girl he barely knows, but Vigalondo has the actors so poker-faced at times, who knows when to chuckle or when to actually care about this bunch. That’s not to say the cast members don’t have their moments in the sun, with the most memorable ones belonging to Areces, whose efforts to weasel his way into Julia’s heart involve no less than a tennis ball launcher.

Extraterrestrial is no true-blue science fiction fable, nor does it intend to be so, though the wicked romcom it does picture itself to be only partially surfaces. I’m tempted to recommend you seek it out just for its sheer oddness, but a more stable tone could’ve made the flick into something really out of this world.