Thanks to my friend Bob Elisberg for directing me to Ebert’s farewell to the 33-year movie review television show he shared with Gene Siskel and then Richard Roeper. That show, “just two guys talking about the movies,” made them into national figures and changed the way people think about movies and movie critics. Be sure to check out the acerbic outtake clips of Ebert and Siskel making promotional spots and setting off the kind of sparks that made the show so much fun. (WARNING: Some very politically incorrect joking and some very strong language — this clip would be rated R)
I often say that when movies are good, critics are very, very good, but when movies are bad, they’re better. It is a challenge sometimes to write an interesting, meaningful review of a dumb comedy like Step Brothers. One of my favorite critics, Cynthia Fuchs, did just that with her review. She did not ask the film to be more than it aspired to be but respected what it was enough to engage with its aspirations and implications within its own terms.
Unable to intervene, ever-pert Nancy (Mary Steenburgen) is, in fact, this spectacle’s ideal audience, the girl who can’t fathom the anti-nuances of masculine ritual. Watching her man-children clobber each other to sweaty, gasping pulps, she’s reduced to abject impropriety… Apparently the only possible punchline for this going-nowhere-slowly scene, Nancy’s exclamation also makes clear the fundamental logic of Step Brothers. Demonstrating (and occasionally exaggerating) the lewd, brutal routines that make up the lengthy, much celebrated transition from boy to man in U.S. consumer culture, the movie has plenty of ground to cover. The fact that it’s ground often traversed in Ferrell’s movies and more recently, in co-producer Judd Apatow’s movies, doesn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm or inanity. Rather, the repetition seems to up the ante: how much more can be said, showed, or countenanced? How low can it go?
I love the way she says that films like this “simultaneously to ridicule and celebrate masculinity” and her comment on the role that the female characters play helped me to understand my own reaction:
While they surely ensure that the boys, for all their homoerotic/homophobic rites, are emphatically heterosexual, the women also provide the film’s necessary internal audience. Appalled by manifestations of male insecurities and aggressions, they embody those social, domesticating judgments that make such manifestations seem so wild and crazy. That is, the boys are most plainly appalling when the girls are appalled.
Salt the popcorn and settle your gigantic soda in the cup-holder. Brendan Fraser is back and just as important, so are the mummies. Strictly speaking, these guys are not mummies, but they’re close enough.
It’s only been nine years since the first film, in which handsome, wisecracking, intrepid adventurer Rick (Fraser) met the brilliant, gorgeous, and equally intrepid librarian and Egyptologist Evie (Rachel Weisz). They found themselves battling mummies and falling in love. But this is movie world, so in the third installment Rick and Evie have a college-age son named Alex (the bland Luke Ford). Oh, and Weisz is not around any more, as we are informed with a brisk wink at the fans before the action gets underway. We first see Evie from behind, reading aloud from one of her books, and it is Weisz’s voice. But then she answers a question with “Honestly I can say she’s a completely different person,” and the camera swings around to show us that Evie is now played by Maria Bello.
And after that, it is just about all action, all the time. As is appropriate for movies in this category, there is just enough plot to give us an opportunity to have various kinds of conflict in various kinds of settings and otherwise stay out of the way of all of the chases, explosions, and battles. It’s sort of the same idea as Hellboy 2 — a sleeping army will awake and take over the world for evil if blah blah. This time, Rick and Evie end up in China mostly so that mummy honors can go to Jet Li as the evil emperor who was cursed by a witch who has the secret of eternal life.
Like the old movie serials that inspired it, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it takes the action scenes seriously and there are some great ones, especially a chase in a truck filled with fireworks. You can guess where that one is going. Yes, it is a little over the top by the time the Yeti show up. And Bello, as terrific an actress as she is, doesn’t match Weisz’s chemistry with Fraser and does not have his gift for finding the right mix of sincerity and spoof. The father-son-conflict and the romance are weak and predictable. But Fraser is spot on, Michelle Yeoh adds elegance and dignity as the witch, and Li is agreeably fast and fierce as the Emperor. When the silliness gets out of hand, just grab another handful of popcorn and before it’s gone the next fight or chase or near-plane-crash or fall or avalanche or mummy-esque attack will get things going again and remind you of the pleasures of the summer movie.
Anything Dennis Lim writes about movies reflects his exceptional knowledge and insight and is a pleasure to read. His latest piece is about the way fight scenes are staged in movies is terrific — and his insights are accompanied by the film clips that illustrate his points. From a stunning fight between Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck in 1958’s “The Big Country” to “Died Hard,” “Raging Bull,” and “The Matrix,” Lim points out the how the way the fight is shot and edited can convey as wide a range of emotion, character, and plot as the dialogue.
I really like his description of the way that styles in the editing fight scenes have changed over the decades, partly as a result of technology advances that made quicker cuts and shakier, more close-in cameras possible.
Walter Murch, the venerable film editor reflects on how effective cutting keeps audiences grounded as one shot, often imperceptibly, becomes another. The trick is to determine where the viewer’s attention is trained in a particular shot and to cut to a shot that contains a focal point in the same area of the frame. But there is at least one major exception to this rule: the fight scene. “You actually want an element of disorientation–that’s what makes it exciting,” Murch says of his approach to splicing together a fight. “So you put the focus of interest somewhere else, jarringly, and you cut at unexpected moments. You make a tossed salad of it, you abuse the audience’s attention.”
Attention abuse is certainly one way to describe the on-screen tumult that is by now a summer multiplex ritual and that increasingly suggests even more aggressive terms than Murch’s. (Try pureed instead of tossed.)
And what a great description of the influence of the Hong Kong films and of the period when two-men fights briefly were eclipsed by bigger bangs:
Yet ’90s action cinema is a wasteland when it comes to fight scenes. Most of these frat-metal spectaculars, obsessed with scale and volume, were too busy detonating asteroids and dropping fireballs on major metropolitan areas to bother with anything quite as puny as one-on-one combat.
Until “The Matrix” came along, that is.
Here were fights (choreographed by martial-arts veteran Yuen Wo-ping) that defied time and space. CGI was not new, but The Matrix introduced the sense that anything is possible and, what’s more, could be conjured from nothing. The way you feel about most contemporary movies–and their fight scenes–probably depends on whether you find that prospect thrilling or alarming.