High (and Low) Times: Pineapple Express, My Winnipeg, Baghead
By Fernando F. Croce

Every comedian secretly dreams of performing Shakespeare, the old saying goes. Similarly, it looks like every arty, independent auteur longs to do a gross-out, pothead comedy. You have Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, Gregg Araki's Smiley Face, and now David Gordon Green's Pineapple Express. The opening, a b&w send-up of vintage ganja-scare propaganda, isn't bad despite the ever-unwelcome Bill Hader; the movie itself, about a pair of bumbling reefer-heads (Seth Rogen, James Franco) on the run from a murderous drug lord (Gary Cole) and his crooked-cop henchwoman (Rosie Perez), is pretty bad despite a sweetly zonked-out performance by Franco. Gags in this stoner's delight include a rare brand of weed that smells like "God's vagina," Rogen falling face first into a box of kitty litter, Franco getting stabbed in the shoulder with a fork, and body parts being blown off. Maybe I didn't go in the proper state? I know, I know, pot makes everything funny, but if that's really the case one might as well save the gas and laugh at the spots in the bathroom sink, no? Anyway, about Green. The acclaimed maker of George Washington and All the Real Girls has often struck me as an annoyingly touchy naf with a weakness for thrift-store lyricism, but I was interested in seeing what a doobie saga directed by him would look like. Alas, no Terence Malick's Cheech and Chong here, just the standard ingredients of the Apatow & Co. pie (no-girls-allowed adolescence, cinematic dead-air, suppressed man-love) given by a filmmaker who's obediently wiped his fingerprints off the product. There's got to be a tolerable middle ground between the rampant Greenisms of Snow Angels and this processed, damp joint, man.

*

My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin's, who else's? "Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg," the Manitoba-born cult illusionist says in incantatory voiceover, "always winter, always sleepy." The image cultivated amid the Eisensteinian stutters and silent-film exclamation points is that of a filmmaker ("Guy Maddin," played by Darcy Fehr) trying to stay awake during a train ride through his consciousness. Much as he tries, he can't escape the pull of his hometown's grave weirdness, with its single-tree parks, bison-saints and somnambulists. "What if I filmed my way out?" His private therapy (and exorcism) requires Guy to recreate the textures of his childhood for the camera, with actors playing his siblings while his elderly mother (redoubtable noir siren Ann Savage) slips between present and past tenses and the patriarch's exhumed corpse is casually placed in the living room. All of Maddin's works (Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand Upon the Brain!) are elaborate home movies, full of pet themes (memory, identity, hockey) ignited by fervent technique (out of Gance and Vertov) and outsize Freudian traumas. Studded with title cards ("Cold enchantments!" "Eyes open!" "Sabotage!"), the story can blithely take a turn into shadow-animation to depict the rise of Winnipeg's 1919 Bolshevik revolt, which somehow informs the "Dance of the Hairless Boners" that leaves a footprint on the protagonist's psyche. Maddin's world can be as secluded as Wes Anderson's, but his tenderness and his sense of shock rescue it from preciosity. My Winnipeg leaves one alternately giddy and groggy, which is perfect for a cine-poem that scrambles to evoke memories and northern lights glimpsed through a trembling window.

*

It was a matter of time before that so-called mumblecore sub-movement admitted that The Blair Witch Project was its bedrock. In Jay and Mark Duplass' Baghead, there's the exact same declaration of artistic intent: "Hey Marge! I just have to point the camera at things and they stick to the film! Woo-hoo!" The self-reflexively do-it-yourself concept has a quartet of Hollywood fringe players (Steve Zissis, Greta Gerwig, Ross Partridge, and Elise Muller) who, barred from a friend's micro-indie premiere party, decide to take to the woods and come up with their own movie. "There's four people, four characters... What happens?" The Duplass brothers waste a perfectly good porno premise by getting meta on our asses: The idea the characters come up with involves a blade-wielding stalker wearing a paper bag over his head, but then, gadzooks, they find themselves terrorized by a stalker wearing a paper bag over his head. The tepid genre and narrative games, a step up in ambition from the half-audible sitting around of The Puffy Chair or Hannah Takes the Stairs, are possibly meant as a critique of mainstream expectations, but only succeed in making the movie come off like Diary of the Dead after a lobotomy. Wearing its shoddy anti-style and charmless improvisation (when an actress has to be complemented onscreen on her "glow," it's safe to say she doesn't have any) like a sheriff's badge, mumblecore is still little more than Dogma '08. Let it be watched by aspiring filmmakers to help them get over their depression: "If these folks can make it..."

*

The Dark Knight, take 2. I still think the most interesting aspect of Christopher Nolan's monster hit is the way it's been embraced by critic and cultist alike, but the nagging feeling persists that my original write-up was missing something -- like, say, anything about the film itself, rather than about its audience. So, second impressions following an IMAX screening, with no dig at the fanboys. The opening bank robbery is still my favorite sequence: Nolan is no Michael Mann, but there's a solid sense of space that's missing from just about every scene that follows. Gotham City is disappointingly blah, which I guess attests to Nolan's goal of blending graphic-novel fantasy and realism, but the ensuing blur is neither fish nor fowl. Christian Bale's Batman is commendable for not cracking up at his distorted voice and Doberman ears, Maggie Gyllenhaal is photographed like the ugly gal at the prom so that she doesn't get between the fanboy stiffies and their true love. (All right, one dig.) Michael Caine as Alfred sneaks in one or two recognizably human moments, Harvey Dent's change into Two-Face is about as morally complex as Anakin Skywalker turning into Darth Vader. Heath Ledger's Joker is monotonously manic, but I'll take that shot of him skipping in his nurse outfit as the hospital blows up in the background. The groupies can have the rest.


Reviewed August 11, 2008.

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