So it was Depressing Double Feature Night at my place recently, where we have been temporarily inundated with a surplus of movies, first because I took advantage of a promotion for one free month of an extra Netflix disc over the holidays, and again because I had trouble with two copies of The Wolverine, so they sent me even more movies from my queue, which only seems to have grown from its usual 350 or so titles, despite my best efforts to view films and knock it down to a more manageable number.
We've been churning through them as one tends to do in times of record-setting frigid temperatures at the tail end of this random Polar Vortex, Down South.
'Tis the season for hot chocolate, flannel sheets and extra movies, depressing movies like Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects and Terrence Malick's To The Wonder, but fun movies too, like Edgar Wright's The World's End. I've also been rationing my final installments of the audio version of Joe Hill's great horror novel, NOS4A2, which I've been listening to on my ear-buds in the kitchen while cooking dinner of late.
I read and enjoyed his last novel, Horns, but this one is unputdownable, or unnotlistenable, or something along those lines, and it feels like a seasonal thing, too. I mean, it's the right time of year for a story about a monster from an icy world full of murderous child-monsters called Christmasland, isn't it?
I'm also nearing the end of J.W. Rinzler's exhaustive making-of tome, The Making of Star Wars: The Definitive Story Behind The Original Film, because I'm still a Star Wars dork and cannot resist this coffee-table monster of a book despite its faint, microscopic eight-point font that gives me a neck ache every time I read it. Book tangent over.
Steven Soderbergh has always been a versatile filmmaker, able to shift between big-budget commercial fare and micro-financed art films with an easy confidence. My favorites of his include The Limey, Traffic, Haywire, Che and Solaris, and more recently, Contagion and Behind the Candelabra. His Oceans trilogy is good, popcorn fun, but I was somewhat disappointed by The Good German and The Informant!, and at least one more of his films was bloody awful to the core (Full Frontal).
He's also exec-produced a lot of good stuff that other folks directed, often for George Clooney, like Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, not to mention Insomnia and Far From Heaven. Speaking to the Associated Press, he said that
"American movie audiences now just don't seem to be very interested in any kind of ambiguity or any kind of real complexity of character or narrative--I'm talking in large numbers, there are always some, but enough to make hits out of movies that have those qualities. I think those qualities are now being seen on television and that people who want to see stories that have those kinds of qualities are watching television."
I agree that post-Sopranos TV is better than ever, but I hope the rumors of his retirement from the big screen are just passing thoughts between projects.
I'm always interested in what Soderbergh is up to because it's usually a safe bet that it's going to be something smart, interesting and creatively shot, with excellent actors. And I for one enjoy complex characters, narratives and ambiguity, whenever I can find them, and I know I'm not alone. Whether all those things come together in the right way every time or not, Soderbergh has earned his spot on my watch list.
In his recent film Side Effects, Rooney Mara, solid in David Fincher's Hollywood version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and more recently in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, again plays a troubled young woman, this time addicted to various medications for reasons that remain unclear for most of the film. She seeks help from an ambitious psychiatrist played by Jude Law, who may have extended his finances a bit too far and gets in over his head.
Soderbergh's tendency to helm the camera in lieu of a director of photography (he sometimes makes up an alias in the credits for the DOP) serves him well here, as the movie feels claustrophobic, a reflective melange of glass, concrete and steel that constricts its characters, each facing a steadily building pressure within the confines of prisons, mental hospitals, high rise condos or executive offices. Avoiding spoilers, I will say only that Side Effects reminded me, in a good way, of one of Edward Norton's early and memorable roles in Primal Fear (1996).
Next up that same night, we watched Terrence Malick's To The Wonder, yet another of Malick's beautiful tone poems, virtually bereft of plot or character development but chock full of gorgeous nature-based cinematography, loving gazes shot at the magic hour, sunbeams pulsing through the tops of green trees and plenty of wispy, translucent curtains. What is it with Malick and the drapes? This guy loves window dressing like Scorsese loves a hot, wet New York street.
Spoiler alert: To The Wonder records the downfall of two doomed relationships for no apparent reason. What is up with Ben Affleck's character? Who knows? Does he even have a name? We only get to see the back of his neck and his shoulder most of the time, and he never says anything anyway. Why is he so unhappy? Is it so bad having two beautiful women fall in love with you? He has a nice home, a decent job, and just can't seem to make it work. Poor guy.
Full disclosure: though I enjoyed his first two movies from the 70s, my favorite of his films by far is Malick's 1998 adaptation of James Jones' 1962 novel about his experiences at Guadalcanal during WWII, The Thin Red Line, a triumphant return to filmmaking after a 20-year hiatus. I've been dutifully watching his every film since then, all three of them, but neither The New World nor The Tree of Life nor To The Wonder moved me quite like The Thin Red Line. It's not that they aren't interesting films with Malick's typically transcendent visuals. It's not that they didn't feature excellent actors at the tops of their games.
I suspect that perhaps he has moved steadily away from an interest in character and instead pursues a feeling created by much more broad brush strokes. The script, if there even is one, is discarded as a mere general idea, and images lead the way. An American director is making foreign art films via the Hollywood system, and he is Terrence Malick. There can be only one. Of course I will watch everything he does, plot or no plot.
On a lighter note, for quite some time, I had looked forward to the third installment of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's unofficial comic genre trilogy, which began with Shaun of the Dead (zombies), continued with Hot Fuzz (buddy cops), and concluded with The World's End (pints and killer robot aliens). I knew from the trailer that five old friends and their epic 20-year anniversary pub crawl would be interrupted by an alien robopocalypse.
I knew from the history of this filmmaking team that there would be plenty of great bit players, droll humor and one-liners. What I didn't expect was...well...Rosamund Pike. She was a nice addition, along with all the other familiar faces from The Hobbit, Harry Brown, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sherlock Holmes, etc. Despite a lack of surprises, The World's End was a lot of fun. I'd like the dream team of Pegg, Wright (and of course the great Nick Frost) to continue to make comedic action genre films of every kind. How about a western?