if you're going through hell, keep going - winston churchill
that's the thought that sustains me here on day six as i RSVP to joel zwick's my big fat greek wedding (2002).
now, before you start your internal monologue - cole just doesn't like romance, cole just doesn't like fun, et cetera - i want to establish a couple of things. in cinema, the list of truly romantic things i enjoy is long and varied. i love the look of bemused devotion that lived in irene dunne's beautiful face, i appreciate the enormity of the things unspoken when butch and etta place are walking through that pasture and i am always heartbroken that mrs. miller couldn't save mccabe. most importantly, in my life i have been lucky enough to know that "me and her against the world" feeling with my best friend. and i love to have fun, i just happen to not have bought into the myth that thinking and fun are mutually exclusive. if you think i don't like this movie because i don't like those things, you're wrong. i love those things. those things, with their infinite complexities and satisfactions, just happen to not have anything at all to do with this movie. it has all the complexity and depth of a mr. turtle pool. out of curiosity, i dug around a little bit to see what zwick had directed before and it all became clear. here are some highlights from his CV:
yes, one man was behind the camera for all of those - joel zwick. he is a purveyor of vapid, intellectually insulting dreck that people apparently can't get enough of from way back. in short, he was a perfect fit. it's just a shame he couldn't bring his laugh track. the source material didn't help, either. there is no phrase that fills theatre-goers with more trepidation, that has more potential for the longest night of your life, than "one man/woman show". nia vardolas put this on stage before she put it on the screen in what must have been a real hoot for los angelenos in search of probing and insightful theatre. i wonder how many times the phrase "broad strokes here, people" was uttered on the set. maybe it was just understood. together they have invented a new subgenre - the remedial romantic comedy. as if it wasn't insulting enough in general, at least i am not greek. only one other wedding scene i can recall is such a subtle, nuanced and affectionate tribute to a culture as a whole...
i can't believe someone tried to pass this off as a valentine to their greek heritage. greeks are loud, like to eat and have greek babies? that's it? greece gave us cartography, the thermometer, central heat and is the birthplace of democracy, just to name a few things, and this is how they get to be remembered by the american moviegoing public? congratulations, greeks, you're a cartoon. it is supposed to be affectionate but i know what's really going on here. no one that loves their culture could do this to it. i know a textbook self-loather when i see one. the subtext here (that everyone who made the film is completely unaware of) is the only mildly interesting thing about it. who else but someone filled with self-loathing would make something so rife with caricature that ends with her marrying outside of her culture thereby setting in motion an endless treadmill of internal and external conflict? the only greek word that papa portokalos should be lecturing anyone about in this movie is hamartia. and it's a good thing the uptight WASP mom character comes complete with a string of june cleaver pearls or i might have thought she was just an unpaid extra. there is a word you hear people use to describe movies like this - cute. it's sold as a set with mom jeans. you used to hear it all the time in video stores (when those still roamed the earth) on sunday afternoons. when you find yourself using it to describe things you enjoy on a regular basis or, even worse, as the shorthand you use to communicate your recommendation of something, just lie down where you are. you're finished.
oh, and i had a go at the commentary track on this one, on the chance that maybe i was missing something. on it, nia vardalos explains that the part of greek wedding ceremonies where the bride and groom walk around the table three times, taking their first steps together as man and wife is symbolic of...taking their first steps together as man and wife. it is uniformly this insightful. in fact, that may have been the high point.
don't you get sick of being handed this stuff? do you want your world stalled at a sixth grade comprehension level? and somehow i'm the asshole because i don't know how to "lighten up and have fun"? why aren't these people the assholes for taking your money and giving you this in return? this has been a supremely frustrating day. i'm sure i will revisit this theme before we reach the end of this entry.
next was paris barclay's don't be a menace to south central while drinking your juice in the hood (1996).
it's an occasionally-funny parody of the spate of "growing up in the hood" films that flooded the market from the mid-eighties to mid-nineties. taking broad, and i do mean broad, aim at a genre that seemed to spring into existence already thoroughly codified, it picks apart all the conventions that those films are built out of. the main problem is that it rarely sustains its cleverness. for example, the opening camera move is brilliant. a crane shot that starts above tree level, slowly moving down onto the average south central neighborhood street. right away, that's funny. it's a camera move that is in nearly every one of the movies it is making fun of and it demonstrates an eye for detail that had me thinking that i might actually be in for satire rather than just parody. alas, it was not to be. the screen soon becomes overpopulated with characters saying and doing a lot of things that aren't particularly funny and it only hits that sort of stride again in a handful of moments that the filmmakers probably considered the throwaway bits. bernie mac is funny as the self-hating cop on loan from boyz in the hood (1991), talking about how he hates the back of forest whitaker's neck, but that's just on the strength of the man being naturally funny. he's almost always better than the material he's given and i would be willing to bet he came up with that oddball bit on his own. on the other hand, that whole "message!" running gag quickly became the unwelcome comedic equivalent of its dramatic counterpart scenes. those movies were definitely ripe for deflating but i have seen a number of other films do this sort of thing better. just more run of the mill, middle of the road. it is interesting to re-examine it at this point in the wayans' careers, though. back then, with just one or two things like this or i'm gonna git you sucka (1988) under their belts, you could look at each work individually and feel like they were poking gentle but critical fun at stereotypes of a cultural phenomenon they were really familiar with, be it coming of age hood films or blaxploitation. when you look at the entire body of work, though, you see that it doesn't take long before cultural parody gives way to self-parody and we end up with projects that are full-on embarrassing like little man (2006), with the sort of mugging and buffoonery that leaves only martin lawrence as a buffer between them and stepin fetchit. in the end, they have become worse than the things they started out making fun of. it's kind of sad because there's obvious talent there. all that said, i'd still rather watch this than anything by john singleton any day of the week.
next we get saved! (2004).
it's a better than average teen comedy from brian dannelly that tries to examine the thorny intersection of the religious and the secular at that impressionable age. jena malone is our central character, mary. she is a student at the fundamentalist american eagle christian high school, sort of a bob jones university farm team. she is a member of the christian jewels, the campus' favorite girl band, and she is the right hand of the most popular girl in school™. on the cusp of her senior year, her boyfriend tells her that he's gay and she sets about to save him from damnation, interpreting various signs as meaning jesus gives her the ok to have sex with him if it will bring him back from the brink of homosexuality. they do and she conceives a child but his "cure" doesn't take and his parents pack him off to a place called mercy house for "degayification". as the rest of the year unfolds, mary's life sort of unravels. she tires of her friends' sanctimony and throws in with the outcasts who help to keep her pregnancy a secret for the majority of the year. things come to a head on prom night, of course, and in the fallout everyone lands where they need to be, happy but unsteady, moving forward together but unsure of what comes next. as teen comedies go, i will at least give this one credit for being unique. the first third of the film is pretty acerbic at times in its indictment of the church and the type of people you frequently encounter at the heart of fundamentalist organizations - the blue eye shadowed future hausfrau, the painfully unhip "hip" pastor, et cetera. its message ultimately mellows, though, into a much more christlike one of tolerance, ironically enough. the most interesting thing i noticed was that while they were hitting those easy targets they skipped over the notion that the problem at the heart of religion is how people so often use it toward their own ends. i don't mean in the obvious and cruel ways found here. i mean in the little everyday ways, in ways that cause great distress when you try to apply them to a scope beyond the individual. i guess, though, that the fact that when you ask six million people of faith to tell you what they think god's will is you get six million different answers, most all of them related exclusively to the person speaking at the time, is a bit much for a teen comedy to take on. i just wish they would have addressed it a bit more, as it is what every single one of the characters was doing. i do have to dock it a few points for the "outcasts get revenge" ending and for the swinging at the easiest pitches. it could have used a whole lot more gray instead of so much black and white. still, it's not every teen comedy that takes on homosexuality, teen pregnancy and disabilities all at once, not to mention the christian church. at least it was thought provoking, compared to most teen comedies, and it was interesting to see crises of faith supplant crises of the cafeteria once in a while, even if it was somewhat ineffective. .
and now, ladies and gentlemen, one movie i thought i would never see, james cameron's avatar (2009).
by far, my favorite scene in the film.
i am waaaaay late to this party, i know. i just assumed i would never see it and be spared having to talk or think about it. that was a year before i hatched this brilliant idea, though. since i am the only one so far behind the conversation, i am sure you guys are well aware of what it's all about, all of it being cribbed from ferngully (1992) and dances with wolves (1990). two years removed from theaters, james cameron's paean to living in harmony with nature now comes packaged in a sleeve in a book in a slipcase inside another slipcase and looks better than ever on blu-ray. this is good, as it's the only thing it has going for it. i was aware from reviews about how the story was stolen outright from previous films. what i was surprised to see was how much cameron was cannibalizing himself:
i thought that looked familiar.
this guy is this guy.
this guy is this guy.
this woman is LITERALLY this woman.
and i don't even know where to start with james cameron's whole "mannish latinas in government issue undershirts with great big guns" thing.
look, avatar was bad. we all know it so i am not going to spend a whole lot of time on it. stock characters. poor storytelling. you want to see some of the worst exposition ever? just watch the scene where sigourney weaver's character meets sam worthington's for the first time. paint by numbers script that had been done to death way before 2009. i can't even say it was visually arresting. if you like video games a whole lot, maybe. i found myself thinking during the battle scenes that if i was watching actual actors i might have at least been a little bit interested. i certainly wasn't thinking about the scene, never a good sign. the best thing i can say about it is that its form followed its function in that cameron's recycling of other movies, including his own, on such an epic scale was in line with the eco agenda of the film. waving goodbye to pandora, i leave you with this thought: the budget of avatar could have paid for 116 million school lunches.
well, we're in the home stretch now. one day left. it looks like i am coasting in with a couple of really interesting documentaries and...wait, what's that? look, up in the sky! it's a bird. it's a plane. no, it's...
i think you know what it is.