By Matt Smith
In my latest attempt to provide a more comprehensive guide to what I liked and didn’t like in everything I watch, here’s a batch of capsule reviews for movies new and old I’ve watched since the last month.
Bad Teacher (Jake Kasdan, 2011)
I’m generally pretty forgiving for comedies – if it makes me laugh, I tend to be okay with spending some time and money on it – they don’t all have to be classics. Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher is a solid addition to this category, featuring some pretty funny moments, crude insults and some solid character work by Jason Segel and British comedy vet Lucy Punch as the rival teacher, Amy Squirrel, to Cameron Diaz’s titular scion of bad behavior, Elizabeth Halsey. While the plot and even set-up (and even the title) are obvious rip-offs of 2003’s Bad Santa, seeing its despicable protagonist transform from a total misanthrope into a somewhat-caring-for-the-people-around-them misanthrope all while partaking in extremely naughty behavior that is unbecoming of even the worst of imagined human beings (and lots of swearing at children – always a comedy stalwart), Bad Teacher manages also to be a bit charming and even surprisingly hilarious in spite of its star’s inhibited performance. Yes, as is to be expected, Cameron Diaz just doesn’t go all-out for the role like Billy Bob Thornton did for his turn in the raunch machine, and it just doesn’t work because the character and the film feel like they should be much darker and more distasteful than they are. Alas, what we have is a pretty funny movie that is a good enough studio tent pole respite from the onslaught of Michael Bay and superhero cinema that is tearing up the box office this summer that is full of could have, should have, would haves when compared to the juggernaut that was Bridesmaids. Also of note is a charmingly weirdo performance by Justin Timberlake as the male substitute teacher millionaire Diaz wants to bed by saving her way to bigger boobs.
Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
As with all of Malick’s films, there are moments in Tree of Life that are profound and poetic, and others that are just flat and one-dimensional. Unlike his past three films (his first feature, Badlands, is as close to a flawless film as I’ve seen), he has found a way to successfully marry these two aspects of his abilities (flat isn’t necessarily bad, though it can be boring at times to watch) in a blink of the eye meditation on life, eternity, youth, fathers and sons, and yes, even dinosaurs. But to put these things into words diminishes their capacity as visions and enlightenments, and in no way conveys the overtly universal scope of the project with which we have been gifted. Ostensibly telling the story of a nuclear (in all senses of the word) family in 1950s suburbia, the film follows, mostly, Jack, a member of the O’Brien clan who imagines his existence outwardly as an adult, considering mostly the formative years of his youth which may or may not hold the secret to his brother’s death at 19. Told in grandiose terms and personal, quiet moments, the film is a truly breathtaking marvel to behold. Launching into an extended sequence depicting the formation of the universe and ending in a version of afterlife or subconsciousness where we join not only our loved ones, but also ourselves and our memories themselves, it’s an art film of striking beauty and genuine tenderness that I liked, but haven’t come to love just yet. The film is also in sharp contrast to the recent work of Lars Von Trier – who oddly enough seems to be Malick’s only contemporary corollary as a director of internationally divisive and important art films – who seems to be interested in similar territory thematically and emotionally, but whose work is more desperate, dark and cynical. I can’t wait to view Tree of Life again this fall up against Von Trier’s Melancholia. That will be a cinematic conversation really worth having.
Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011)
A master class in tone and striking camera work, this small little film shot in Oregon and following a small wagon train in the mid-1800s through the same territory is based loosely on actual events. The wagons are being led through a shortcut – a cutoff – by Stephen Meek, a tracker played by a nearly unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, hidden behind a great big, bushy beard. Three couples, primarily Solomon and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams), and accompanied by Thomas and Milly Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) and William and Glory White and their son, Jimmy, fear being lost after Meek leads them into unknown territory. The fear and distrust grows as they discover they’re crossing fairly dangerous Indian territory and discover what they believe is an Indian scout on their trail, who may lead them to water or to their deaths after they capture him. Reichardt’s previous collaboration with Michelle Williams, the absolutely wonderful Wendy and Lucy, was a distinctly feminine take on friendship and loyalty (and pain and loss) told via the relationship of dog and owner. Meek’s Cutoff is an American drama that moves at a glacier’s pace – which is fine by me – and which begs to be stared at. I relish the images, the muffled dialogue, the minimalist plotting and the terrific cast that just make this movie such a delightful experience. I’ll be the first to admit that this one probably isn’t for everyone. Audience members expecting a traditional Western will be sorely disappointed, as much of that genre’s conventions are severely undermined, including the striking use of landscape, which isn’t quite as iconic and classical in Reichardt’s film. This is a don’t miss. So, don’t miss it.
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1957)
Based – loosely – on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, which fit firmly in the tough tradition of crime fiction, Kiss Me Deadly is a tremendous Noir, with its roots firmly in the atomic age. Aldrich is not afraid of making Hammer into a despicable and unlikable character. Played by Ralph Meeker, he’s a total misogynist piece of garbage, wholly unredeemable and only on the case to further his own reputation as a P.I. He’s looking for something that a woman may or may not know the location of, and he blows through plenty of tough situations and plenty of broads to get to it. The “great whatsit”, the very thing he’s looking for, turns out to be the most deadly force on earth, and when “Mickey Spillane’s latest H-bomb” finally does go off, it’s an ending that is unforgettable, and utterly unlike anything seen before or since. I find it amazing the way in which the fears of the atomic age noodle their way into a traditional Noir, and how effective it is at conveying those fears in its final ear-splitting moments. As bleak and hopeless a portrait of America and its heroes as we are given throughout the film via Hammer and those he interacts with, the ending is even more devastating. Recently released by Criterion with some of the best art design in recent memory (the packaging replicates crime fiction magazines from the period), and a gorgeous transfer. Worth picking up as a rental, but recommended for the home collection.