As I've explained before, living out in the back of nowhere means that my access to Hollywood's finest product is sometimes out of kilter with everyone else's. The best way to catch up is usually to pay a visit to my friendly neighbourhood dodgy DVD man, no questions asked, you didn't see me, right, and scoop up the best of the last few months. With Small Boo out of the country and thus unable to entertain me with her guitar heroics and Björk impressions, I hunker down in front of the widescreen with the remote control and half a bottle of Calvados. This is the result.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Dir: Shane Black)
Everything here pointed to a disappointment; Black made his name as a screenwriter with movies (The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight) that must have sounded great on paper but didn't quite come off. But, hey, call me a sucker for obvious postmodern japery, when Robert Downey Jr. is on his best terrified-but-still-sardonic form, you've got a winner. And, no, this is not just a case of the Keith Richards effect (dumbstruck admiration that the man is still alive and functioning). Incidentally, while we're on the subject, I really hope that I'll be climbing trees when I'm 62, or however old he is in Keef years.
Anyroad, the schtick here is that Harry (Downey) is a very petty NYC crook who finds himself caught up in some rather less petty dirty deeds in Hollywood. The stylistic tension comes because Harry is a real crook who finds himself to be both an innocent and a fake; Harry-as-narrator, by contrast, is an omniscient pomo smartass. Thanks to Downey's rumpled charm, however, we take a detached view of the self-referential nods to thrillerdom, and still care about what happens to the doofus - a double whammy that Tarantino's not yet managed to pull off. Add Val Kilmer as a gay PI, Michelle Monaghan being feisty in a Santa suit and Shannyn Sossamon (yum) in a pink wig and you can't really go wrong. Possibly the appearance of Lincoln and Elvis at Harry's hospital bedside is just a wee bit too Naked Gun, however.
A History Of Violence (Dir: David Cronenberg)
On the other hand, I came to this with major expectations, and felt a bit let down. It's as if someone put together a pretty ordinary family-in-peril narrative, then asked David Cronenberg to add a few, well, David Cronenberg bits (inscrutable male lead; clumsy sex; uncomfortable silences; mutilated body parts). Which he did, efficiently and (almost) anonymously. I did start questioning my own responses, though, which must indicate some sort of aesthetic value: the bit where the guy gets his nose smashed into his face left me unmoved; but when the little girl lays the table for her daddy, I felt pretty damn sick.
Jarhead (Dir: Sam Mendes)
For the last 35 years or so, American war films have rarely been about what they claim to be about. M*A*S*H was meant to be about Korea, but it was really about Vietnam. So were The Year Of Living Dangerously (Indonesia) and The Killing Fields (Cambodia). All the films that were supposedly about Vietnam were usually about something else, usually America; the exceptions were Platoon, which was about Oliver Stone; and Apocalypse Now, which was about masculinity, and the fact that Francis Coppola had read a Conrad book, albeit a short one.
By the time they did a new version of The Quiet American, which was purportedly about Vietnam (although not quite about "Vietnam" in the sense that it was set in a time before the country became a geopolitical concept, and Jimi Hendrix got involved), it was really about Iraq. That's Iraq II (the current fuckup), which is also the real subject matter of the excellent Three Kings, although that's nominally about Iraq I (the Kuwait thing). Jarhead is also apparently about Iraq I. You can tell this because not much happens, except for Jake Gyllenhaal guarding some oil fields. Geddit? See, that's what Iraq II was all about as well, only we thought it was about terrorism. Glad we got that one cleared up.
Just in case the whole guarding-oil-fields thing gets too dull (which it does, but that, it seems, is the whole point), Mendes throws in a few nods to Vietnam classics, notably the bootcamp brutality of Full Metal Jacket; and Apocalypse Now, which the grunts watch and don't quite understand (they sing along to 'The Ride Of The Valkyries'). They obviously didn't read Conrad. Gyllenhaal does read Camus on the toilet, which is terribly existential of him. But then grumpy old Staff Sergeant Jamie Foxx chucks it in the bin.
So, if nothing else, Jarhead carves out a new niche in the Hollywood war-is-hell genre: it's not actually about a war, not even a war that it's not literally about. It's a war movie about war movies. Which, in a way, makes it closer to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than anybody might have expected.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Dir: Andrew Adamson)
Apparently, Christian groups in the States have been arranging coach parties to this, thinking it was going to be Passion of the Christ II. Bad move, I reckon. It might be overstating the case to compare CS Lewis with Milton, but they were both damn good at writing villains. Face it, you'd far rather be eating Turkish Delight with a tyrannical, dreadlocked Tilda Swinton than getting a piggypack from dull old Liam Neeson in a pussycat costume, yeah?
Capote (Dir: Bennett Miller)
I'm a great admirer of Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor, but sadly I was unable to watch him or listen to him in this film without a mental image ofblotting out everything else. Sorry.
House, M.D. (First Season)
If I might be allowed to reiterate the critical consensus for a moment, yes, Hugh Laurie is as good as everyone says, finally stepping out of the capacious shadow of you-know-who. And I so want a muscular infarction so I can emulate his sexy-limp-and-popping-Vicodin-like-they're-Smarties routine. The show overall, though, is just an ungainly coagulation of CSI and Doogie Howser. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang they could have characters watching old clips of LA Law, and it was funny. Here, characters watch General Hospital and you're playing spot-the-difference. And losing.
Two thoughts: as a boss with ultimate self-knowledge and no desire to be loved, is Dr Gregory House a dramatic inversion of David Brent? And, as it has a compelling, funny performance at its centre, surrounded by dishwatery bores, is the show also a dramatic inversion of Ally McBeal, the supporting cast of which (that man Downey again!) could have made it one of the greatest TV shows ever, were it not for its profoundly slappable title character. And the shit music, of course.
Well, we can at least thank House for provoking this gem, from the IMDb discussion board: "Do Americans really have a recognizable/specific accent, like English, Australian, etc.? I'm American so I can't really notice that we have one."
You know, that gets better every time I read it.