Wednesday, July 1, 2009

3 in D.C.

I just got back from my 5th annual visit with Jason Bellamy of the Cooler in Washington, D.C. – a weekend that included a tour of the Capitol building and visits to various museums. But a weekend with the Cooler always includes movie-going, and this year we took in three viewings.

We had hoped to see Moon or The Hurt Locker but, alas, they weren’t playing in D.C., so we started off with Year One, which I found pleasantly entertaining. (Actually, it made me laugh a lot more than The Hangover, which I had seen with my teenaged son – who loves Superbad-style raunch. Most audience members were laughing a lot; we hardly laughed at all. As I was watching, I acknowledged that certain situations were inherently funny but, due to bad timing and poor writing, they just didn’t make me laugh.) As for Harold Ramis’s Year One, I enjoyed the picaresque journey of cavemen Zed (Jack Black) and Oh (Michael Cera) as they move through episodes from Genesis. Jokes on Biblical elements such as Cain’s murder of Abel and the custom of circumcision as well as historical jokes on the invention of the wheel were quite amusing. Michael Cera provides comedy by employing his timid teenaged muttering during situations such as a public stoning, but his persistent routine eventual grows tedious. Meanwhile, Jack Black makes the most of every one-liner, emphasizing sexual innuendo with raised eyebrows, bulging eyes, and precisely pursed lips.

We saw two films at the Landmark E Street Cinema – one of my favorite little movie houses in the country. First we saw Food, Inc., Robert Kenner’s visually slick muckraker documentary about the horrid injustices to animals, consumers, and laborers perpetrated by America’s food industries. The film presents such horrors as hormone-enhanced chickens whose accelerated growth gets ahead of organ and bone growth to the extent that they can only take a few steps at a time before collapsing under their own plump weight. In contrast, the film examines the methods employed on an organic farm – methods as basic as allowing cattle to graze instead of feeding them hormone-laced corn. Yes, the film leaves you depressed about what you eat (I didn’t order a chicken dish that night), but it also provides a list of simple things you can do to help change food-processing hazardous methods like mixing an ammonia-treated additive in with fast-food burger. The film emphasizes how the consumer ultimately dictates the success of certain products. Next shopping trip, I’m definitely buying the organic chicken.

Our last theater viewing was The Stoning of Soraya M., the story of an Iranian woman who is stoned to death after being falsely accused of adultery. Although I found it a well-intentioned effort meant to expose a horrid injustice, the film is problematic. I am fascinated by any story that takes place in a Muslim country, and I totally empathized with the hopeless plight of Soraya, played effectively by Mozhan Marnò, but clearly this is a dangerous presentation for Americans already prejudiced against Muslims. The film presents a world of heartless, ignorant, narrow-minded people, and Soraya’s aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is the only one who tries to prevent the cruelly unjust execution. When the film arrives at the inevitable stoning, the act is unsparingly graphic, but the length and choppy pacing rob the scene of any intensity. Despite enjoying the alien atmosphere of this small, rocky village in the mountains of Iran, as well as some of the cultural details depicted, I worry about this film’s lopsided view.

The weekend’s most enjoyable viewing experience, however, was watching Michael Mann’s masterful film Heat, (the best crime drama ever filmed, as far as I'm concerned), enhanced by a Blu-ray player on a widescreen television. I had just read an analysis of the film published by the British Film Institute, and this viewing nicely anticipated the release of Public Enemies. It was a joy to watch a strong Robert De Niro performance on a par with his efforts in Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter rather than his stints in more recent films. Meanwhile, the film's superlative cinematography makes you exclaim aloud at its best-framed shots. As always, the bank robbery/shootout sequence is a masterpiece of pacing, editing, musical score, and sound mixing. It amazes me how a lengthy shootout like this one maintains its intensity throughout while action sequences of similar length, especially in more recent films, come off as mere noise. We’ll see if Mann can bring off the action sequences in Public Enemies with the same skill.

Thanks to the Cooler for an awesome weekend!


Richard Bellamy said...

The comment below was posted by FilmDr - but I goofed.

I'd like to see Food, Inc.. So hamburger is now washed in ammonia before being served in fast food restaurants? Your use of the word "muckraking" suggests that the filmmakers had an ax to grind. Do they ever seem to falsify information to make a stronger case? After reading Fast Food Nation, I would believe the food industry is easily capable of any abomination as long as they can add flavoring to disguise what they've done.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for commenting, FilmDr, even though I accidentally rejected your comment.

Yes, the food industry is capable of many abominations. However, I'm not expert enough on this issue to be able to determine whether or not the presentation is skewed. But there are always related problems that might be left out. For example, in one of my favorite parts, the organic farmer proudly points out that letting his cows feed on grass is such a elemental method - and yet letting all cows graze is also an environmental problem - because it takes up a lot of space and a lot of water. I suppose the alternatives are not foolproof - but the film presents a pretty clear argument for change.

PIPER said...

I will have to say that I have high hopes for Year One as a decent comedy. And the extended trailer made me laugh several times. Which is more than I laughed during The Hangover.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comment. Interesting - another person who didn't laugh at The Hangover - and I was told by a friend that I just had to see it and she just couldn't stop laughing. Humor's a tricky thing. It's all about timing - for me, the timing was off.

PIPER said...

I've been told there's something wrong with me. I saw Role Models a couple of days before The Hangover. Role Models is very funny. I think the writers of The Hangover got pretty taken with themselves over the premise of the movie and forgot to write in some jokes. The premise is fantastic. It's just not very funny.

Richard Bellamy said...

PIPER, thanks for the comment. Yeah, my son liked Role Models much better than The Hangover. And that's just it - as I was watching the latter, I sort of smiled because I thought, hey, this situation is funny, but the acting, writing, and timing just WERE NOT making the situations funny.