In an effort to catch up on all the good-to-great films I’ve missed over the last umpteen years due to watching way to much pro wrestling, I’ve been a frequent visitor to Blockbuster and Hollywood video in recent weeks. Being me, I feel the need to discuss some of what I’ve seen.
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I’ve read and heard much about Napoleon Dynamite, with opinions coming in at extreme ends. Either people think it’s hysterical, or people think it’s slow and stupid. There doesn’t appear to be much in the middle ground. Count me in the “slow and stupid” column. While I laughed at times, it wasn’t nearly often enough, and if it’s not gonna make me laugh, it damn sure better make me care. The problem here is, I’m not sure the movie *wants* you to care. The character of Napoleon Dynamite is a dork (not a nerd, as some might classify him). But he’s also an unpleasant dork. While most dork movies try to make the guy loveable, so that you’re rooting for him by the film’s end, this one goes the other way. He’s socially inept, and he’s not particularly nice either, so I had a real hard time caring whether or not he got the girl or earned his classmates’ respect.
On top of that, there seem to be a lot of things thrown into the film, that while funny for a moment, don’t really seem connected. Things are introduced, but not followed up on, leaving me aching for a punch line that never really comes. For instance, there’s a point where Napoleon’s friend Pedro decides to shave his head because he claims his hair is making him too hot. He then decides he looks too stupid with a shaved head, so they get him a wig. Enough time is spent on this plot point, that it’s clearly intended to be more than pure throwaway. Two problems then arise. First, we don’t see him with his head shaved, so we can’t really tell if he looks foolish, which is made all the more pointless by the fact that a lot of Latino boys his age go with a shaved head look, so it’s not like he’d be ridiculed for it. Second, the wig itself, while slightly goofy, isn’t *so* bizarre looking to warrant any follow up. He wears the wig to school, and that’s it. The point is never turned into anything. And the whole movie works like that. Most of what befalls the characters they totally bring on themselves, so you don’t feel sorry for them, and what has potential to be fodder for something more interesting, is never allowed to be.
I get the feeling the people who find this film extremely funny are those that either were bullies to begin with, so they just like laughing at really lame people, or those who with short attention spans who get a kick out of out-of-the-blue humor. Either way, I don’t fit.
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Having read the book for Friday Night Lights at around the same time the movie of it was being released, and having been a big fan of the book, I was worried about the transfer to film. Although it’s about a high school football team, the book is not about football. Except for the very end, it wasn’t concerned with the drama of the games themselves, but more about the culture of the game and the way it held a stranglehold on the town. I figured the movie would just be a movie about a team trying to win a title. I’m happy to say the film did a much better job capturing the feel of the book than I had feared. Was it perfect? No. But it managed to keep focused more on the themes than the sport, which is the heart of the story.
I also have to begrudgingly admit that I thought the direction was fantastic. The director, Peter Berg, in addition to being a pretty lame actor, also directed one of my all-time least favorite films, Very Bad Things, a movie I hated with extreme prejudice. His direction here was phenomenal, as the movie cranks along at full speed throughout. It had an almost documentary like feel to it, using quick moments rather than extended scenes to try and show as much as they could about all the major characters, without making it *about* any of them. The score was also fantastic, and drove the movie in a way most films don’t. Having this driving music playing underneath what might otherwise have been quieter scenes, really heightened things. This movie had a really unique and fascinating style that worked perfectly for the material. Color me impressed.
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In regards to Elizabethtown, let me say that while I like Orlando Bloom, I’m not sure he’s the kind of actor who can do “regular guys” effectively. I enjoyed the movie, but I ended up having a lot of problems with it, a lot of which had to do with his performance. Perhaps it was simply a choice on his and Cameron Crowe’s part to keep his character from falling into cliché emotions, but if so, I don’t think it was a good choice. Orlando’s character is supposed to be one step away from suicide through much of the film, but he seems like a guy who’s completely at ease the whole time. Now I don’t think that all depressed people need to be played as completely manic or tense, but I need to feel as least a degree of turmoil in order to fear for the guy, and I got none of that here. In the opening scenes, as his character is greeting people who are acutely aware of his impending doom, he constantly says “I’m fine”. I know the idea is that he’s trying to convince himself as well as the others, but to me, he actually seemed fine. The way he handles his suicide prep also left me wanting. Here’s a guy who comes up with a fairly elaborate way to kill himself, only to act like an excited McGuyver when he does. I didn’t buy for a second that he’d ever actually go through with it, even though the narration told me he was intending to.
Another major beef I have is the music overkill. I know Crowe grew up in music, writing for Rolling Stone and whatnot. And I know that he tends to have access to a lot of music that other films can never get, so he should by all means use that to his advantage. But the film played like one long montage. It got distracting after awhile. It was effective in Almost Famous because that film was, in some ways, about a love for music. But in this film, it just made everything muddy. I would have preferred more of the score, rather than ten second blips of barely recognizable songs.
On the plus side, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and Susan Sarandon’s scene in the second act where she talks to a large gathering about the loss of her husband, was really effective. It took what could have been a tired cliché and turned into something genuine. The way the scene was written and played, it gave not only her character depth, but also those of all the distant family members who until that time had been set up to be somewhat harsh, at least in regards to her. It worked without seeming forced.