Friday, August 19, 2005

The Great Diversion, or Why Even Arthouse Hounds Need a Dumb Summer Movie Now and Again

This is a repost of a review I originally wrote in the fray at . . . basically, I'm jumpstarting my content by gathering the recent writing/thinking that led to my starting a blog in the first place. Content will get more up-to-date and personal as momentum builds; in the meantime, I'll try to warn you (as I am now) when you're getting recycled content.

That said, please feel free to respond to the recycled posts, because I'd love to get some fresh and friendly eyes on them.

A month or two ago, I had an opportunity to see a free preview of "The Island", which I exptected to hate and ended up sort of enjoying. I wrote this before the reviews came out in the mainstream press, so I was fairly surprised to see that many of the critics agreed with me. Sadly, the movie has since bombed at the box office. While I'm always secretly happy to see blockbusters bomb, it's a little sad when they're among the few such movies that I find myself enjoying.

So without further ado, here's thelyamhound with a movie review:


First things first: I hate Michael Bay.

I know, EVERYONE hates Michael Bay. Maybe the average filmgoer doesn't care; after all, he's among the higher-grossing directors in the industry. And there's always some contrarian film geek--and God knows, I've often been a contrarian film geek--who'll sell you on the idea that he is, in his own slick, silly, sensationalistic way, an auteur. Which he is . . . a HACK auteur, to be precise. I'm not one to criticize MTV filmmaking reflexively: I always believed that the damage music videos would to to music would be offset by the schooling they would offer for novice filmmakers. And if I'm looking at films by, say, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and even early Guy Ritchie, the tools of advertising and music promotion have, on occasion, served the industry well.

But Michael Bay is exceptional in his lack of interest in the truly cinematic. It's not just his content (or lack thereof); nor is it specifically the latent misogyny and homophobia that seem to crowd his frames at the margins. It isn't even the popcorn frivolity. In fact, if we were to illustrate the difference between the best of his previous output ("The Rock") and the worst ("Armageddon"), it's that his worst work fails specifically on the the popcorn level. "The Rock" manages, despite comically overwrought and implausible action sequences, leaden dialogue and unlikely plotting, to speed through on the power of its stars. In "Armageddon", on the other hand, even Steve Buscemi and Billy Bob Thornton can't register throught the haze of epileptic camera work and ADD editing. The best thing I can say about that particular cinematic abortion is that it was so scattershot and mind-scrambling that I barely remember that Ben Affleck was in it at all. We can all be grateful for small favors.

So take my word for it when I tell you: This is the best pure summer movie of the summer.

Yeah, I loved "Batman Begins"; and I was impressed, if not particularly moved, by "War of the Worlds". But in their own ways, and on their own terms, these were FILMS, works of art which could actually endure thematic, formal and philosophical scrutiny. Neither was quite the tremendously enjoyable, emotionally manipulative, instantly forgettable joy that a proper summer movie could be. "The Island", on the other hand, spends over two hours spoon-feeding you that which should be laughable and actually moves you with it. And if Michael Bay is a hack, making you swallow that which you shouldn't put in your mouth in the first place and actually making you ENJOY it is a skill that earns him the title of World-Class Hack.

The plot is nothing you need worry about. Basically, it's "Logan's Run" meets "THX 1138" for the first half, "Spartacus" for the last third and an extended car crash in the middle. The car crash in question defies all laws of logic, gravity and spacial relevance; but I don't know that my hands ever stopped clenching the armrests, so my snobbery on the matter can rightfully be called misguided.

The story, such as it is, centers on Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson as residents of a monochromatic compound sealed off from the world ostensibly as the result of a "contamination", the nature of which is never particularly elucidated or specified. Periodically, these individuals are spoon-fed hope by a lottery which promises that the winner will be sent to "the island", the last uncontaminated ecosystem, for the purposes of repopulating the species. What ensues is a sequence of minor discoveries leading to a not unpredictable doozy: That these people are all clones grown for organ harvest, kept in a state of bliss to ensure purity of their tissues, and harvest when their "sponsors"--who know nothing about the sentient nature of the "products"--are in need of organs/skin/surrogate mothers. Escape, chases, moral quandaries and what-not follow. Steve Buscemi makes an appearance as a sympathetic human. Djimon Hounsou shows up as a bounty hunter. The plot loses the fight with momentum.

Where this movie succeeds better than any other Bay film is in how potently it allows star power to run the game. Ewan McGregor's rakish charm is in full force, mixing the sly savvy of his work in "Trainspotting" with the sort of innocence he cultivated effectively in "Moulin Rouge" and "Big Fish". Scarlett Johansson has never been so lovely: Her crepe-paper skin, platinum-blonde hair (wig or dye-job?), reflecting-pool eyes and absolutely chewable lips . . . God, those lips . . .


Anyway, McGregor fares well in terms of charisma--the scene where he meets his sponsor, played, again, by himself, is a knockout--but Johansson more effectively conveys a being who's decidedly incomplete, a blank slate newer to the world than she realizes. Buscemi is as funny as ever, and Hounsou is smoldering, sexy, dangerous and, as always, staunchly noble in his own way.

One complaint: The violence level of this film is way too high for its PG-13 rating. With all the shootings and maimings, they might as well have given it an R and given us some nude scenes. Then again, I can practically draw Ewan McGregor's penis from memory for all the films in which it's appeared; and I don't even know if Johansson does nude scenes. So call that a personal quibble.

In any case, Bay has delivered what no one else this summer has (and what I never imagined he was capable of): A nearly perfect piece of cinematic junk food. I may have to eat nothing but broccoli for a week to get rid of that dirty feeling, but boy-oh-boy, did it taste good.


Blogger amandak said...

I'm kindof bouncing around these entries, reading what's grabbing my eye, but I gotta tell ya, I'm diggin it.

Keep it up.

1:31 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Thanks, darling. I'm still getting my sea legs; but it's fun to flex my writing muscles in a place where I might actually get read on occasion.

2:05 PM  

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