2009 Capsule Reviews, Part 2: The Girlfriend Experience, Where the Wild Things Are, Bad Lieutenant, In the Loop, Extract
The Girlfriend Experience
"I know I should probably call a shrink, but I'd rather talk to you." This paraphrase of a line from Steven Soderbergh's latest experiment (read: another attempt at being the American Goddard) gets at the heart of what is so interesting about this snapshot of Capitalistic America during the recession. Soderbergh casts porn star Sasha Grey as Chelsea, an escort who works more in the "let-me-lend-you-my-ear" trade than the flesh trade. This isn't the kind of escort you may think, and the paraphrased quote above perfectly encapsulates what Chelsea does for a living: listen to rich men who have no personal life and must be "on" all the time, bear their souls. The film is told through the fractured narrative that Soderbergh made so enjoyable in The Limey, as we hear Chelsea reading her thoughts from what is presumably an online journal. She tries to heighten her profile online by getting involved with some not-so great individuals, and to our surprise we come to sympathize with Chelsea's dilemma as she tries to further her career and keep a relationship afloat (that's the experiment). Soderbergh does his usual auteur stuff as he not only directs but shoots and cuts the film (under his usual pseudonyms). It's a fascinating film about a fascinating profession (I saw a special on high-end escorts on CNBC one night and it was fascinating to me how many of them are paid to essentially be shrinks) where sex isn't the most valued commodity; that would be the ability to converse. The film opens with Chelsea discussing the documentary Man on Wire with a client…this discussion, and the ability to engage in an intelligent discussion about the arts, is more important than sex for these men. On the CNBC documentary I watched interviewed escorts talked about how for these powerful men, they aren't just looking for sex, that they can get anytime they want with their money, but they're looking for is something that is far more valuable. Soderbergh brilliantly broaches this topic and examines it with the eye of an auteur. It's a highly interesting snapshot of what life is like right now for a select few as Soderbergh gives us a sketch (the film is only 77 minutes) of the "have's" trying to make sense of the Capitalistic nightmare they've created, and a woman who has her finger on the pulse of such men.
Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak's sparse (in terms of words) children's book (alive with its imagery) gets the big budget treatment from auteur Spike Jonze in what has to be one of the most un-condescending children's movies ever made. I was blown away by the filmmakers ability to show us the pain a kid must feel being at an age where a broken home is a confusing thing that gives way to a varying degree of emotions. The aptly named actor Max Records plays Max, a wild child who we're introduced to as he wrestles a dog to the kitchen floor. One night he bites his mom in a frenzy of confusion, child-like audacity and unrestrained revelry. He doesn't quite understand why his mom (the always wonderful to see Catherine Keener) is so angry with him. Max runs away to a world he creates, a world where big creatures called The Wild Things live. Each "Thing" is given a distinct trait that parallels Max's, and this is what makes the film such a joy and treasure: it doesn't placate to children. Sometimes kids endure dark times…hell sometimes kids worry more about the unknown than adults, and the "Things" whether they are know-it-alls, out of control, shy, or nosy represent a specific emotion that Max has. This isn't just a film where Max runs with the "Things" and plays with them and builds forts and pretends to be their king; this is a film that tries to better understand the violent tendencies of Max (who shares the most with the wild Carol voiced by James Gandolfini), or why he thinks he's entitled to so much when his mom is struggling just as much as he is. The CGI is hardly noticeable as the "Things" look like half computer generated images and half muppetry, giving a weight to the "Things" that makes them more than just creatures. I loved this movie. I loved the way Jonze understands that not every kids movie has to be condescending, I love how Carter Burwell's score meshes so perfectly with the beautiful soundtrack by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's, I love how Jonze and writer Dave Eggers create a filmable story out of Sendak's six sentences that doesn't overstay its welcome, and I love that ending…boy do I love that ending. I love everything about this movie. This is one of my favorite movies of the year.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
How does one explain Werner Herzog's "remake" of Abel Ferrara's indie hit Bad Lieutenant? That film -- starring Harvey Keitel as drug-taking, sex-crazed, and out-of-control cop -- is one of the best films of the 90's. I only mention this because these are the only things these two films share in common. Herzog's vision is essentially just a manic cop story acting as a vessel for Nicolas Cage to do his thing. Love him or loathe him, Cage is always interesting and can make even the most mundane film at least watchable. This is not a mundane film, however, and the energy that both Cage and Herzog inject into this post-Katrina setting is something that is befitting of them both. The film has one of the most hilarious drug busts I've ever seen, it has a scene where Cage hallucinates that iguanas are staring at him (and only Herzog would provide us with a POV of the iguana), it has bad drug trips, it has Val Kilmer actually toning it down so that the screen won't explode with both he and Cage emoting…ths blowing up the camera in the process, and the film – above all these other crazy elements – is an interesting cop story that is resolute in how crazy it wants to be, but unafraid to slow things down just enough to have a somewhat contemplative ending. I don't know that I totally buy that ending, but it's understandable why Herzog would throw it in there. Really, though, from the onset (a great scene where Kilmer and Cage debate the merits of getting their expensive clothes dirty to save a prisoner drowning in his cell from the flooding, hurricane waters) the film makes it clear that its main interest is being off-kilter; and what better person to have as a representation of that mood than Nicolas Cage. Here Cage gives what may be his best performance (at least of the manic ilk…which is just about 90% of his performances) in a role where it's clear that he and Herzog – a crazy man himself – were born to work together. It's a performance of maniacal glee, and I was thrilled that I never quite knew where Cage was taking it. That unknowingness, the inability to predict the beats of the performance (which flows quite nicely with how unpredictable Cage's character, Terrence McDonagh, is), is the primary reason to see this movie.
In the Loop
It's Ricky Gervais' "The Office" meets Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" in this hilarious political satire about the days leading up to Gulf War II. What's so great about the film, based on the popular British TV series "The Thick of It", is that it never once mentions the war, Blair, or Bush; and that restraint to go for the easy jokes is what made this far and away the best comedy of the year. I was blindsided by the film as I knew nothing about it going into it (except for the numerous rave reviews it was receiving), but I'm glad I watched the film as this kind of comedy – a preferred taste no doubt – is right up my alley. Peter Capaldi steals every scene he's in as the foul-mouthed assistant to the PM. It's a fast paced, manically hilarious satire that doesn't disappoint.
Mike Judge's (Office Space) office comedy from the point of view of the boss (Jason Bateman) this time is pretty funny and endearing experience if ultimately forgettable. Judge's reliance on his typical motifs makes the film seem safe rather than biting. It's a completely forgettable film once you're done watching it, but it definitely wasn't an experience that left me disappointed. Ben Affleck steals every scene he's in as the stoner bar tender friend of Bateman. J.K. Simmons has a nice role as Bateman's co-owner who refuses to learn the workers names because they're hoping to sell their business to a larger corporation. Judge makes some interesting comic commentary on the state of factory work, immigration, and the dilemma of running a small business; however, all of this is meshed with a sort-of con story that doesn't always work. The stuff that's most interesting is between Bateman and Affleck, and Bateman and his wife Kristin Wiig; the latter situation being one of the funnier things about the film as Judge displays good timing for some sexual mishaps and adulterous goings-on. Not a bad little comedy.