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Monthly Archives: July 2008

Slasher (2004) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

encounters.jpgTwo minor documentaries from two master directors, with two very different approaches. John Landis’ Slasher is very much in the cinéma verite style — in fact, it’s really not much of a step from the classic 1969 film Salesman. Like that doc, this is concerned with the life of a travelling salesman, in this case, a master used-car salesman, “The Slasher”, who travels around the US trying to sell cars the regular dealers can’t clear off the lot. It’s not quite verité — there are some talking-head interviews and a little hamming for the camera — but for the most part, Landis takes a fly-on-the-wall approach and shows us the ins and outs of a three-day lot-clearing sale in economically depressed Memphis. I actually really dig these kinds of documentaries — the details of people who have jobs I never knew existed — and The Slasher is truly a character. Fast-talking, hard-drinking, charming and vaguely sleazy: once you see him, you can instantly see that the only possibly job in the world for him is elite used-car-sale hitman.

Werner Herzog, on the other hand, has no time for cinéma verite — in his Minnesota Declaration he states that “cinema verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones.” And he’s quite happy to put his money where his mouth is, in one brilliant documentary after another. In Encounters at the End of the World, after stating to his funding agency that he “would not be making another penguin movie” and getting the okay, Herzog goes to Antarctica to talk to the scientists, adventurers, and other weirdos who have found themselves at the end of the world. What follows are interviews with colourful characters who run the gamut from a cheerful Aztec plumber to a solitary, taciturn penguin researcher, and some stunning footage of Antarctica — from the beauty of the waters under the Ross ice shelf, to the mining-town ugliness of McMurdo Station, to the long shot of a lone disoriented penguin marching determinedly to certain death, which probably sums up in 30 seconds everything you need to know about how Herzog feels about “the penguin movie”.

I really enjoyed both of these docs, but there is something of a “minor project” feeling to both of them. Slasher has clear focus, but the whole fly-on-the-wall approach lacks drama, even when the slasher is flailing around, trying to talk up sales in a deserted car lot. Encounters is probably the more successful film, but it lacks the clear point of view of my favourite Herzog films, like Grizzly Man, and the episodic structure instead comes across a bit like “travels with Werner”. Which is not a bad thing — you couldn’t ask for a more interesting travel companion than Werner Herzog.

Top Secret! (1984)

Val Kilmer has a reputation for being difficult to work with, but it’s clear from this, his very first movie, that he has always been a major talent — I really don’t think many actors could anchor a comedy this zany, and still come across as anything other than a cartoon. Kilmer is basically Elvis as he appeared in his movies, though maybe that would be Elvis if he were one of the Beach Boys and lived in the 1980s. He visits an East Germany that looks more like Nazi Germany and is, inexplicably, under attack by the French resistance. Oh, and there’s backward-talking Peter Cushing and cows with boots and a long parody of The Blue Lagoon that has, shall we say, “dated poorly”. But for each misfire, there are a couple of brilliant, hilarious gags — in fact, this is probably my favourite of all the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movies. It’s smarter than the Naked Gun movies, more anarchic than Airplane, and smarter and more anarchic than anything else they’ve done.

The Jerk (1979)

Janelle is visiting from Australia, so I haven’t had much time to update this here blog, and this will have to be a quick post, because she’s making tacos and they’re almost done. (I still have a few more movie reviews to get to, too, which hopefully I can take care of over the weekend.)

I rented The Jerk because it plays a role in the brilliant Judd Apatow-crafted Freaks & Geeks, which I finally got around to watching on DVD. In one of the series’ many bitterly funny threads, likeable high-school geek Sam finally starts dating his cheerleader dream girl. Wanting to share with her one of the great joys of his life, she takes him to see The Jerk, only to be dismayed to find she’s annoyed by the clownish antics of Steven Martin, and just wants to make out with him in the movie theatre.

Watching this movie, then, lead to some soul-searching on my own part since my reaction to the film was kind of like the cheerleader’s, minus the making out with high-school-boys. Aside from a few clever bits, like the opening — “I was born a poor black child…” — Steve Martin here is a clown. He makes faces. He runs around excitedly. He talks dumb and misunderstands people. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this life, it’s that clowns aren’t funny. Even when they’re Steve Martin. On the positive side, Steve Martin actually is pretty funny in this movie when he’s not yelling at the top of his lungs and falling down. So there’s that. Just not enough of it.

WALL·E (2008)

walle.jpgPixar has a famously impressive track record for making animated films that are smart, entertaining and profitable, but aside from The Incredibles, I never really felt that they were trying to push the envelope on what could be done, thematically, in an animated film — instead, they seemed to be trying to produce smart, meticulously-crafted films that were the best of their genre. A few of these are genre-defining, even, but not experimental.

WALL·E, though, is where they really start to take some risks — I really think this is a bold, chancy film. The first half is essentially dialogue-free and set in an apocalyptic wasteland populated by a single lonely robot. The second half is a satire on mindless consumerism — kind of a funnier, less smug Idiocracy. And damn if they don’t manage to somehow pull the whole thing off, and somehow create a completely winning, totally accessible post-apocalyptic robot-based indie romantic comedy. About 20 minutes into WALL·E, Janelle whispered to me that she had no idea what was going on. But by the end, she was as in love with WALL·E and EVE, the two robot protagonists, as I was. That kind of sums up a lot of the appeal of the film for me — despite being a G-rated animated comedy, there is no hand-holding and no explanations. WALL·E starts you in the middle of a strange world, refuses to talk down or patronize, and trusts in its story and characters to pull you along.

This is a brilliant, funny, melancholy film. Even if it doesn’t, on first viewing, displace The Incredibles as my favourite Pixar movie (in particular, a few scenes toward the end are a little saccharine for my taste), it’s still the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. And by a fair margin, to be honest.