+ "Shopgirl": Compare and contrast: A. O. Scott‘s rave ("[I]t’s true that none of [the characters] are perfect. From where I sit, though, the film they inhabit comes pretty close.") and Andrew O’Hehir‘s scathing tear-down ("[I]t’s basically a dreadful film that should never have been made.") (O’Hehir is on fire with the snark this week â€” see him slap down the admittedly ridiculous-looking "Stay" here). We admit, we’re startled by both â€” Anand Tucker‘s adaptation of Steve Martin‘s novella (in which Martin also stars) looked more than a little "Garden State" slick-whimsical-self-important to us (we haven’t seen it), but we’d never guess it to be the kind of thing that would lead someone like O’Hehir to muse "There’s so little sexual chemistry between the actors in this film that it seems like a kind of accomplishment. I’ve seen shows on C-SPAN that were hotter than this." Part of the disagreement here falls to the film’s treatment of the uneasy "kept-woman" aspect of the Martin-Claire Danes romance at its center: Scott sees it as something refreshing that adds complexity; O’Hehir’s just grossed out. Jessica Winter at the Village Voice falls somewhere in between on the film: she acknowledges that it’s a bit of a mess, but likes the strangeness of Danes’ character: "’Shopgirl’ is a strangely hybrid creature: a hollow store mannequin with a broken, beating heart."
"All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun," as I so tirelessly
quote Jean-Luc Godard. Pauline Kael refined that insight after seeing a
movie poster in Italy which translated as "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." These
four words, she wrote "are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of
the basic appeal of the movies. The appeal is what attracts us and
ultimately makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom
movies are more than this."
("[T]hat whirring sound is the critic rotating in her grave," J. Hoberman asides.) Despite building much excited advance buzz from its various festival jaunts, Shane Black‘s meta-meta directorial debut (and return to screenwriting after years off) isn’t thrilling anyone, though no one’s particularly put off either. A. O. Scott:
I could say that its syncopated editing, its switchback chronology, its fourth-wall-breaking voice-over narration and its hectic mixture of humor and violence represent a fresh and exciting twist on sturdy noir conventions. In fact, I would say just that – if it were 1995 and I were the kind of person whose mind had just been blown by the cinematic possibilities revealed in "Pulp Fiction."
"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" seems to be most interesting as a cultural document: both Hoberman and the New York Press‘ Matt Zoller Seitz devote large chunks of their review to Black’s career to date: at age 22, he sold the screenplay to "Lethal Weapon," and went on to shape, for better or worse, the modern action movie. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is so meta that it seems to prompt Hoberman to barely touch on the film itself; he gets lost in what it means as a career reinvigorator, but does share that it’s "[e]ssentially a pumped-up screwball comedy with a big body count and a soupÃ§on of gross-out." Seitz spends a lot more time on the many mechanisms of the film (which include a voiceover-as-screenplay-pitch from star Robert Downey Jr.), and finds that:
The fourth-wall-breaking riffs (brilliantly executed by Downey, who has perfected a modern version of Bob Hope’s fast-talking coward/weasel character from the Road pictures) suggest that we’re going to see a mildly subversive commercial thriller that combines escapism with self-critique. But Black can’t or won’t deliver on that implied promise because his commercial instincts are too strong.
+ "North Country": Before we start: we found Niki Caro‘s "Whale Rider" to be a shamelessly manipulative bit of moviemaking that wasn’t content to tug on those heartstrings: it yanked. That said, it destroyed us; we wept like we were back in middle-school gym class. Caro seems to be making a career of wielding her filmmaking skills as a weapon, working in the confines of a certain type of formulaic and awards-friendly Hollywood film to make these unabashed feminist fables. Are we going to see "North Country"? Probably not. But we find it admirable.
On that note, compare and contrast: LA Weekly‘s Ella Taylor ("’North Country’ isn’t reductive either; it doesn’t divide neatly into beastly men and intrepid woman warriors, and [Charlize] Theron invests Josey’s growth from a downtrodden loser into a fighter with a delicate vulnerability; you understand there’s as much at stake in her fight with herself and her family as there is in her institutional battles.") and Slate‘s David Edelstein:
In interviews, Theron and her director, Niki Caro, have said that the original screenplay (by Michael Seitzman) was a little too black-and-white, and that they tried to introduce "shades of gray." I can only infer that said shades are moments when some of the menâ€”after hissing the c-word and pushing over a Port-A-Potty with one of Josey’s co-workers (Michelle Monaghan) in it, who emerges screaming and sobbing and covered in liquid shitâ€”are shown, for a second or two, with a look of shame. But those looks are fleeting. There is, after all, harassment to be done.
Roger Ebert (who, not to disrespect the man, seems to always and immediately cave for anything with a whiff of "prestige film" to it â€” his smaller reviews are far more interesting) hearts it; Manohla Dargis offers a measured review in which she acknowledges the film’s gritty heart as well as the problem of it’s quintessential movieness:
That the film works as well as it does, delivering a tough first hour only to disintegrate like a wet newspaper, testifies to the skill of the filmmakers as well as to the constraints brought on them by an industry that insists on slapping a pretty bow on even the foulest truth.
Jessica Winter is less impressed: the ending spoils it for her, and she, with plenty of advance warning, spoils it for anyone who cares to read, enraged by what leads up to a moment she’s not alone in comparing, not fondly, to "Spartacus."
And Armond (Arrrrr!) White goes for the full bile; this is this type of film he loves to hate (possibly even more than those irony-heavy productions beloved to his nemeses, the "hipster critics"). A sampling:
"Inspired" by a true story, Theron and director Niki Caro don’t have to follow rules of truth, fairness or art; they simply push post-feminist self-righteousness with crude storytelling techniques that only a fool would find persuasive. (Caro made the dreadful "Whale Rider," which dulled and infantilized the same feminist and ethnic issues that were powerfully realized in "Once Were Warriors.")…In all, this is the most infuriatingly unfair portrait of an American community since…"Monster."
Armond, we’ve missed you, you ol’ curmudgeon, you.