Sunday, May 15, 2005

Hitchhiker's Guide

After much anticipation, I finally got a chance to catch up with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy yesterday. While I can't say it lived it up to all my expectations, I certainly enjoyed it and consider it an afternoon and a few bucks well spent.

It's been an age since I've read the book, so my complaints are certainly not of the trainspotting variety. And "complaints" is even too strong a word, now that I see it sitting there in pixels. It just felt a little off to me, and I think that can be chalked up to a) a first-time director who's still working on a sense of how to pace a major, full-length motion picture and b) the way that this movie, almost inadvertently, is an object lesson in the competing strengths and weaknesses of American and British styles of acting for the camera.

The three main Americans actors in the film--Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell--are these glowingly beautiful, absurdly magnetic forces of nature. Your eyes are drawn, almost against your will, to the vision of these exquisite bodies in motion. They are three naturally gifted, ridiculously charismatic performers who command your attention with the sheer force of their presence. But then, when these bodies are in motion, which they are fairly relentlessly for the full 110 minutes, they're doing way too much. They don't seem to have much control over their spastic, rangy movements, and, when projected onto a full-size movie screen, they almost feel like they're lacerating your eyeballs. For the most part, they're unfortunately not using their substantial power for the good of the piece. The goofball, calculatedly "wacky" overacting just starts to feel exhausting. Of course, a lot of this could have been edited around or otherwise toned down by the director, so they're not entirely to blame for these faults.

The Brits, on the other hand, are much more subtle with their genius for language and in giving the camera tiny little fillips of unexpected emotion. I'm glad that I went into the movie as one of the last comedy-minded Anglophiles in the States who hasn't yet watched the original BBC version of The Office on DVD because I had absolutely no expectations of Martin Freeman and his performance as Arthur Dent. As such, I was able to appreciate the fact that he was pretty much, well, um, perfect. He held the movie together in absolutely all the ways that it needed to be held together. Bumbling, hapless Brit-schmuck demeanor? Check. Enough instant chemistry with Trillian that you actually hope they end up together at the end of the movie (and, more importantly, believe it when she chooses him over the dumb-but-dashing Zaphod Beeblebrox)? Check. An emotionally and dramatically satisfying mix of annoyance and wonder at his travels through the galaxy? Check. It was a thankless and huge responsibility for an actor to shoulder, to unite the many different, zany characters and scenarios, yet he manages it seemingly effortlessly. One particularly gorgeous example of his restrained underacting occurs when Slartibartfast shows him the factory floor where customized planets are built. That moment alone is worth the price of admission. Arthur kind of hunches over and covers his mouth with his hand in an expression of awe and wonderment, clearly overcome with a reverential sense of beauty and appreciation for what he's privileged to witness there. It's a stunning piece of acting. (Then, not five minutes later in the scene, after a brief conversation about how mice are actually the most intelligent beings on Earth, Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast says, "I don't quite know what you mean when you speak of this . . . 'cheese'." He slips the comedy in way under the radar yet delivers the line with such unshakable conviction that he actually makes you believe for a moment that you don't know what cheese is either.) It's these little jewel-like interactions that gave the movie an emotional depth that I honestly wasn't expecting.

Of course, nothing I've written above is in any way applicable to the acting style of John Malkovich, who, I think, must actually be from the same planet as his character.

Also, I'm happy to report that Neil Hannon is in exquisite vocal form on his heavy-swinging version of "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish" that plays over the closing credits. (However, I'm rather annoyed with iTunes for declaring it an "album only" track, in effect forcing me to pay $9.99 for the entirety of the instrumental soundtrack if I want to be all completist about having the song in my collection. Fleh. Isn't that the whole point of iTunes? To be able to cherry-pick a specific song or two without forking over the cash for a bunch of other stuff that you're honestly never going to listen to?)

In other music news, John Darnielle all but revivalized me at the Mountain Goats show at the Logan Square Auditorium on Friday night. It was a great night out, all springtime humidity, Jim Beam on the rocks, Darnielle's peculiar voice, and his phenomenal little songs like emotional bottle rockets. Also, opening band Shearwater turns out to be something of a side project for Okkervil River's keyboard player Jonathan Meiburg, whose voice I vastly prefer to Will Sheff's. (Plus, as I told Meiburg and violinist Travis Weller at the merch table at the end of the night, I'm instantly a fan of any band who can rock a melodica the way they did.) Their brand of rootsy emo (earnest stream-of-consciousness lyrics, guitar feedback, and overly dramatic dynamics) isn't something I tend to want to listen to on my own time, but it's enjoyable enough live. Plus, Meiburg used to be a graduate student in ornithology, which is just another instance of the weird bird-related synchronicity in my life this spring.

And, a hap-hap-happy birthday to BAK today (you sexy thang)!

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