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Life and How to Live It.

Since my cable connection has been spotty over the past day and a half, and as I needed a break from orals reading, I threw another catch-up movie marathon here at Casa Berkeley. Not sure what the underlying subtext of this quadruple billing is…biopics, perhaps (Schmidt, Kahlo, Crane, Wilson)? Or, rather, fanboy villains in the arthouse (Nicholson, Molina, DeFoe, Serkis)? At any rate, here’s what I thought, in the order I watched them:

About Schmidt: I dunno…I’m normally a big fan of Alexander Payne’s movies, and particularly Election, but think I saw this film on the wrong end of the hype machine. Schmidt was mildly enjoyable, but it also dragged in parts and spent too much of its time deriving humor from goofy Midwestern antics (most notably the couple in the Winnebago park and Dermot Mulroney as the son-in-law to be…pyramid schemes and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People? Come on.) While aiming to be a rumination on retirement, time wasted, and the myths surrounding a life lived well, I suppose, I thought the entire film basically revolved around stunt casting – watching Jack play the anti-Jack. Speaking of which, Nicholson was quite good as the befuddled, world-weary Schmidt, but without him playing against type, there doesn’t seem to be much here. Something of a disappointment.

Frida: Perhaps this biopic focuses too much on the Diego Rivera-Frida Kahlo romance, but I enjoyed it, and particularly the narrative lapses into Kahlo’s artistic world (for example, the Day of the Dead hospital sequence by the Brothers Quay). There’s some grotesque miscasting in here – Ashley Judd trips all over her Spanish accent, Geoffrey Rush is oddly hammy as Leon Trotsky, and Nelson Rockefeller is entirely too Nortonesque – but Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina are quite good as the emotional center of the film, and all in all this picture works. After traveling around in the winnebago with Warren Schmidt for two hours, it was nice to spend some time with people who embrace life along with their pain.

Auto Focus: Greg Kinnear is very good as Bob Crane in this Paul Schrader flick, but unfortunately Auto Focus, while very watchable, comes off as a by-the-numbers addiction movie. Between the Angelo Badalamenti score and all the retro-dressed beauties stalking Col. Hogan in various dens of iniquity, this pic seems set in Mulholland Drive Hollywood from the get-go, which ends up being one of the main problems. Other than a shrewish Rita Wilson on his back, it’s hard to understand from this picture what drives Crane into this sordid life. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare these movies to each other, but oh well – When Frida Kahlo has an affair with Josephine Baker or Diego Rivera sleeps with basically everybody in Frida, at least they look like they’re having a good time. The sex scenes in Auto Focus are all filmed like something out of a Bosch triptych – dark, muddled, and hellish. Ok, I know the film is about sex addiction, but still – better movies on addiction (such as The Basketball Diaries) at least give a sense of what the draw was in the first place. As such, Auto Focus, while easy to watch, ends up feeling cold and puritanical. Too bad, really, because the performances are all generally good.

24-Hour Party People: I get the sense this movie would be inscrutable to anyone who didn’t already know the contours of the story, and insufferable to anyone who doesn’t care about Joy Division and such, but I found 24-Hour Party People the most fun of the foursome. Shot in a cinema verite style with real concert footage thrown in [along with postmodern narrative asides by Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan)], 24HPP is an informative and irreverent trip into the history of the Manchester rave, and one that seems to capture the spirit of the post-punk era without wallowing in Studio 24-type nostalgia. If I had my druthers, I would have spent more time on the rise of New Order (or for that matter, the Smiths and Stone Roses) and much less on the Happy Mondays, but oh well. As I said, I’d think this film might be immensely confusing – or just plain boring – if you don’t already know who Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and the Buzzcocks are, but if you do, Party People is rollicking good fun, a movie that manages to take its subject seriously by not taking it seriously, if you know what I mean.

So that’s that, then. I still have Human Nature and The Grey Zone to watch, which should make for one bizarre double feature.

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