Pant, Blow, Push! Knocked Up Labors, Bug Creeps, Angel-A Swoons
By Fernando F. Croce

Wasn't "having a baby" elected the ultimate going-to-suck warning in that Jump the Shark website? The latest Shrek cemented that notion recently, though Judd Apatow has accepted the challenge and followed The 40-Year-Old Virgin with Knocked Up, another interesting blend of frat-house smarm and emotional incisiveness. It kicks off quite badly, laboring to get laughs out of a witless Ryan Seacrest cameo and tons of abysmal improv from a gang of pot-scented slackers; additionally, Seth Rogen, the furry ad-libber from the first film, has been unwisely placed front and center here, where his smartass-sidekick manner and feigned sincerity glare straight into the viewer's eyes. The joke is that Rogen, a shambling stoner with internet-porn dreams, gets to sleep with dream-woman Katherine Heigl in a night of flowing booze and uncooperative condoms. She later realizes she is pregnant and decides to keep the baby, and the inseminator, whose shining hour thus far consists of connecting his bong to a gas mask, decides to do the right thing and stick by her. From then on it's the standard guy-learning-to-grow-up road to redemption, even if Apatow gives it curves for both unblushing vulgarity (a Wildean sample: "Oh. That's not your vagina. That's your asshole!") and the bitterness that may await ahead the young couple (Paul Rudd on marriage: "An unfunny, tense version of Everybody Loves Raymond"). Knocked Up is visually dead and at least 40 minutes too long, and Apatow insists on dodging the messier aspects of his stories. And yet his sympathy for characters and fierce surges of feeling (Leslie Mann's rawness at the nightclub entrance is downright extraordinary) remind me of the ways Jacques Becker's human empathy enriched trifles like Edouard et Caroline. Easy to overrate in the age of Wild Hogs, but essential qualities still.

*

What insect has bitten William Friedkin? The director is now wide awake: Bug is his strongest work in twenty years, a thoroughly faithful theatrical adaptation nevertheless acutely attuned to the obsessive freakiness of The Exorcist, Cruising, Sorcerer and To Live and Die in L.A. Claustrophobic paranoia provides the squishy center of Tracy Letts's Off Broadway play, Friedkin swims in it -- the opening helicopter shot that finds Ashley Judd looking battered and pissed-off in the porch of her squalid Oklahoma hotel isn't trying to "open up" the borders of the stage, it's instead giving one last detached view of madness before pitiless immersion. (It also gives whirring blades, the first ominous hum in a superbly malevolent sound design: shrieking telephones, wheezing air-conditioners, a chirping smoke-alarm also figure in.) Waitress Judd carries within her the trauma of an abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) and a missing child, and spots a kindred spirit in Michael Shannon, the weird drifter staying at her flat. "You look at it hard enough, you see it," he says of a painting on the wall, but what he means are the crawling insects he obsesses over, pulling teeth and slashing at his torso to get to the aphid eggs he says were installed in his body during military experiments. Is he really an AWOL grunt or a self-mutilating ranter? His psyche clicks viscerally with Judd's, and, as the sores and scratches proliferate, the actress who in her most recent movies was turning into Sally Field unleashes an astounding fury. The same goes for the newly revitalized Friedkin, who pushes a impressionistic mise-en-scene to its inexorable extremes, hysteria wrapped in metallic foil and lit to Hades.

*

Angel-A is a lot of things: Predictably reviled Luc Besson bash, impudent cosmic vaudeville, reconsideration of angelic mythology (Capra and Wenders provide the satirical poles). It is also a better grubby guy/hot chick fable than Knocked Up, certainly much more honest about its male-fantasy status -- when the Aryan supermodel (Rie Rasmussen, memorably licked by Rebecca Romjin in De Palma's Femme Fatale) announces to swarthy, small-time loser Jamel Debbouze "I am your ATM today" and starts racking up the Euros with a procession of quickies at a Paris nightclub, it's a bit to make Bertrand Blier smile. Besson ups the ante by making the whore an angel, literally. Up to his eyeballs in debt, Debbouze is about to jump off the Point Neuf when he glances to the side and sees Rasmussen in miniskirt and runny mascara ("Find your own bridge"), who leaps into the Seine and knights herself his sidekick after he rescues her; surrounded by thugs, Debbouze sweats for his life while his gangster boss gets distracted by the Nordic giantess spreading her thighs by the window. Turns out she has been sent from Above to help him straighten out, and, even if Rasmussen doesn't get to unfold her grand wings until the finale, there's plenty of visual splendor in the two protagonists, who, melded by Thierry Arbogast's silvery, b&w cinematography, equally suggest an impish comedy of contrast and racial union turned spiritual. People who dug Nikita and Léon just for their violent cool are gagging at the idea of spirituality, but Besson's romanticism has always been founded on a kind of pop faith; Angel-A luminously brings it to the fore.

*

Mr. Brooks has Kevin Costner as a corporate CEO with itching homicidal urges and William Hurt as the lil' devil on his shoulder, telling him to ditch the AA meetings and go have fun with blood. Its sole mystery, however, lies in supporting player Dane Cook, who somehow cracks me up here playing it straight as a wannabe murderer and leaves me stone-faced during his stand-up routines. (I swear, the key to unlocking that riddle lurks somewhere in his someone-shit-on-the-coats bit, though I'm leaving that for the academics.) Magic Mirror is a more nourishing conundrum: Manoel de Oliveira, now aged 98, lives to make movies, and his technique has long pushed beyond modernism to find some ineffable new classicism. An oddly sun-dappled Danse Macabre, it has translucent filmmaking and impenetrable drollery; the plot's utterly immaterial, simply an excuse for such de Oliveira regulars as Leonor Silveira, Luís Miguel Cintra and Michel Piccoli to turn up and become reflections in the many mirrors arranged around the house, and in eye of the director's camera. It's a minor thing, really a gathering of family and friends, yet pulled off with an artist's unruffled yet palpable joy in being alive and able to film a smiling Virgin Mary.


Reviewed June 7, 2007.

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