Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dispatch From A Last Minute Staycation

The problem with working at a university is that the fiscal year ends in June, so any of my vacation days not used by the end of this month are lost. I tried to see if I could have my days carry over for the honeymoon in September, but alas they could not (no worries: I'll have plenty of next year's vacation days to use for that). Since Shenan just started at a new contractor and hasn't accrued any vacation, I find myself yet again taking an impromptu stay at home vacation just for the sake of not losing the whopping 14 days I didn't use this past year.

Which is cool with me. I'm not big on traveling in general, and we're going to Germany for the honeymoon in just 3 months anyway. So I plan to spend the next few weeks watching a ton of movies, playing a ton of video games, and probably imbibing a lot of alcohol.

I don't think I'm gonna blog about all the movies (that's what the Twitter is for), but I did want to put down a few words on some of them.

I watched Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Winter and Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia less than a day apart, and couldn't help notice they shared a crucial plot point (which I won't name), and both have a similar sort of climax set on a public bus. Yet the two films, both delightful in their own ways, couldn't be more different.

Winter is archetypical Rohmer; a witty, dialogue heavy story about verbose Parisians waxing philosophical about love and life, with a few whimsical twists of fate. The story is about a young woman who has a brief but passionate affair with a man she doesn't know, and ends up having his child. Unfortunately, when the two lovers parted ways, she accidentally wrote down the wrong street name on her address and has since never heard from the man, and has no way of contacting him. This causes complications with her future boyfriends, as she holds on to the hope that the man will one day return, and hence she can never quite seem to fully commit to her other relationships.

This leads to a lot of soul searching, etc, and lots scenes where lovers argue in over-analytic, over-intellectualized in that indelible Rohmer fashion. I've never seen a bad Rohmer film, and this is no exception, even if it's not his best. There's a kind of comforting uniformity to the majority of his films, they are warm and familiar without quite being repetitive or trite. If I have a problem with A Tale of Winter, it's just that it doesn't always cohere the way Rohmer's best films do; I confess that I'm not sure what this film's earnest philosophical discussions about the nature/existence of the soul has to do with the basic story.

Sylvia, in stark contrast, is a film where long chunks of time go by without any dialogue at all. Guerin's film revels in pure cinema and visual storytelling in a way Rohmer never would have attempted. David Bordwell did a great breakdown, here, of one of the film's best sequences, in which a seemingly mundane scene of various people sitting outside at a cafe turns into a virtuoso cinematic performance. Guerin creates tiny narrative threads within the various tables, and then teases them out by creating a clear but complex series of shots, framing and reframing the patrons over and over again in various combinations that keeps the viewer actively engaged, even as "nothing" seems to be happening. (Bordwell notes a great moment where a customer in the background kisses her boyfriend, but is framed in a way that makes it look kinda like she's kissing a man in the foreground). Nothing more dramatic happens than a waitress getting an order wrong, and yet the sequence is funny, compelling and creates a weird kinda subterranean human drama going on between all the patrons. Sort of an illustration that "everyone has a story," no matter how banal.

Sylvia begins by showing us a young man but explaining almost nothing about him. He goes to the cafe to do some people watching, sketching pictures of the women he sees, until he spies a beautiful woman leaving the cafe... and begins to follow her. Lest you think the film takes a turn into thriller territory, with the man being a serial killer or something, let me be clear that nothing that overtly dramatic ever happens in this film. Although we eventually learn more about the man and what he's doing, and the scant "plot" does have a few unexpected developments, this is more a film about the process of watching, and the behavior of people being we watched. The man idly people watches, unaware of his presence, and we watch him, unaware of us. I don't know if I'm doing a good job of selling this, but I was completely enamored with In the City of Sylvia and could not recommend it more to others who enjoy a little bit of pure cinema from time to time.

On a final note, I had promised myself that I wouldn't bother with The Hangover Part 2. I'm not exactly a big fan of the original to begin with (although I do think it's funny), and the trailers for this made it look like such a cynical, pointless cash grab that I almost felt insulted just watching them. Does Hollywood really think my standards are this low? I really didn't want to support it. But I was itching to do a double feature while on vacation, and it worked perfectly with Kung Fu Panda 2, so I figured what the fuck.

(BTW I'm delighted to report that KFP2 turned out to be every bit as good as the original, which snuck past my low expectations back in 2008 and really kicked my ass. The sequel maybe isn't quite as laugh out loud funny, but the animation is even more elaborate and beautiful, and the at times nonstop action sequences are eye-poppingly spectacular and genuinely exciting. Loved it.)

Well, holy shit, I was expecting bad, but not this bad. I knew the film was going to be an obnoxious rehash, but I at least figured there would be a few solid laughs along the way. No such luck. Hangover 2 is not only the most creatively bankrupt film I've seen in ages, it's a comedic dead zone on top of everything else. It carbon copies the original to such painstaking degree it's almost like a second draft of the same screenplay; nearly every scene, nay, nearly every moment is a blatant corollary to a moment from the original film. It's not just the exact same plot told with the exact same story structure, they even repeat most of the original film's jokes with only slight alteration. Even the surprise "celebrity unexpectedly shows up in cameo role as themself" is the same: it's Mike Tyson. Again. That is the opposite of a surprise.

The best thing about the original was Zach Galifianakis's performance as oddball brother-in-law Alan, which was obviously something of a starmaking role for the comedian. There was a sense in the original that Galifianakis really took the character and ran with it; it was so in line with the sense of humor he displays in his standup that it's not hard to imagine that he did a lot of improvising. I don't know how they fucked it up, but somehow they managed to make Galifianakis unfunny. The key to Alan's character is as much of an offputting weirdo he is, he's still somehow strangely lovable due to his puppy dog earnestness. Part 2 turns him into a pissy, unpleasant jerk who spends most of the movie whining about how no one else appreciates him. After this and the not abysmal but not good Due Date, I'm convinced that director Todd Phillips doesn't actually understand Galifianakis's appeal, despite being the one to give him his big break.