Do these five movies have anything in common?
5. Jersey Girl (2004)
The most damning praise that can be heaped upon Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl is to call it "sweet" and nothing else.
All his movies have a core of sickly sweetness, but his other movies -- including his upcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno -- masquerade the sentimentality beneath a blisteringly outrageous stream of obscenities and sex talk. If he were born 70 years earlier, he could have become a perfectly competent scriptwriter, perhaps following in the wake of Preston Sturges and becoming a writer/director of tart-tongued witfests that pushed the boundaries of the time. But he was fortunate enough to be born in 1970, coming of age in the early 90s when technology had advanced sufficiently to allow him to make a movie that showcased a sense of humor itching to push the boundaries of his time.
Despite the occasional salty/sexy dialogue, Jersey Girl could have been made in the 1940s. It would have worked better if it had been set in that era, substituting straightforward sudsy melodrama for the profanities and diaper jokes. George Carlin still would have given the best performance.
After the jump: Spoilers for Atonement, plus: what the movies have in common.
4. Atonement (2007)
What a gorgeous, meticulously created, lovely piece of absolute nothingness. I nearly checked out at the "c-word" letter mix-up, which struck me as incredibly stupid and unbelievable and manipulative, but I foolishly stuck it out to see the fabled "long shot," which was very impressive from a technical standpoint, even though its significance in the narrative was completely lost on me. All it did was call attention to itself, for no purpose that I could see. (Perhaps "In retreat, there is truth"?) And then the completely risible and insufferable and exquitely performed ending sequence, which led me to throw things. I suppose all these things were taken from the highly-praised novel by Ian McEwan, so what do I know.
3. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
Speaking of serious ignorance on my part, has the work of Tennessee Williams aged well? Taking place in an overheated Mexico boiled straight from the imagination of John Huston, Richard Burton chews all the scenery and spits it out just in time for Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, Skip Ward, and Grayson Hall (as a memorably repressed single lady of a certain age) to chew up their individual pieces, spitting out lines that define different aspects of the same unhappy character. Huston does some amazing things in a few scenes to really make the stage play cinematic, with my favorite being an early short sequence on a tour bus when a group of church ladies begin singing. The camera moves steadily from the back of the bus to the front, simultaneously quickly panning from one woman to another as the lyrics are sung and then slowing way down for the final pan to the panicked, trapped Burton as the Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon. Too may other scenes simply feel stage-bound, opportunities for the actors to shine and recite dialogue, resulting in a fascinating, frustrating motion picture.
2. Day Night Day Night (2006)
The first half of Julia Loktev's film is absolutely, flat-out brilliant. We're slowly brought into the world of a young woman who arrives in an anonymous motel room and begins preparing for a deadly mission. Without the comfort of a musical score -- and, oh, yes, without any concrete idea as to her motivations or that of those who are guiding her preparations -- it's the crisp framing, editing, pacing, and Luisa Williams' resolutely even-tempered performance that become hypnotic. Unfortunately, she then arrives at her destination and then the film becomes a heavy-handed treatise. The form, which had served the picture so well up to that point, becomes too restrictive and schematic; you can feel the yearning for a flashback to fill in just a couple of details.
1. Ghost Town (2008)
The title is trite and the trailers were horribly misleading, making me think I'd have to endure a crowd of ghosts chasing after the terminally unhappy dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) for the entire picture, trying to get him to help them so they could escape their limbo in Manhattan. Instead, I got to enjoy Ricky Gervais being the miserably, unfriendly, full-of-himself Ricky Gervais for much of the running time as he tries to romance Téa Leoni, so he can get rid of the annoying ghost Greg Kinnear. True, there are too many dead spots, and I wish that the movie was tighter and leaner, but overall this was a lovely surprise, though most people will have to discover it on DVD.
What the Movies Have in Common
They all wrestle with feelings of guilt and redemption after death -- sometimes anticipating death, sometimes dealing with the consequences.