25 July 2014

DISNEY SEQUELS: FLAMES. FLAMES. FLAMES, ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE.

There's no intellectual merit in expecting a sequel to Planes to be anything other than a sequel to Planes. So can any of us be "disappointed" by Planes: Fire & Rescue? On the contrary, it's a bit of a pleasant surprise: it's probably a little bit better than Planes, with a far more engaging third act and prettier scenery throughout. It also jettisons the first film's ensemble full of ethnic stereotypes for just one cringe-inducing parody of sexually active women, which may or may not be "progress" as such, but at least it cuts down on the number of individual characters I wanted to watch plunge into a vat of acid.

Intuiting, undoubtedly correctly, that its audience consists only of children who enjoyed the first film and very little children who didn't see the first one but only really care about color, movement, and peppy voice acting, Fire & Rescue spends very little time mucking around with a recap, only throwing in a brief montage at the very start to remind us how Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook), a sentient plane, went from crop dusting in middle America to winning all kinds of races and becoming quite the celebrity. As Fire & Rescue opens, though, we see that his new lifestyle has taken quite a toll on Dusty's insides: his gearbox has begun grinding itself into a pulp due to all the stress he's putting on it, and he's told by Dottie (Teri Hatcher), the forklift doctor in Dusty's hometown of Propwash Junction (that is, she is a doctor who is a forklift, not a doctor who specialises in forklifts), that if he doesn't slow down, he'll die. The word "die" is never stated, it's a kid's movie. It's just unambiguously and heavily implied multiple times across the film's 83 minutes.

It's tangential to the actual film, at best, but I'll never live with myself if I don't go on a little rant about the internal reality of the Cars/Planes universe. Ever since the very first Cars, the rules haven't made much sense: it's a world exactly like our own, only without any life from the animal kingdom. But buildings and agriculture and, well, cars and planes still exist, even though cars and planes have no immediately obvious need for many of the things we see them with in these films. But after enough exposure, that recedes into the background. But now along comes Fire & Rescue, and it's just taunting us with the sheer unacceptability of the films' world, pushing the camera right inside Dusty's mechancal core and defying us to pretend that these are living beings, even living beings who need gasoline and oil to function. These are planes, and by hinging its entire narrative on that one fact, Fire & Rescue insists that we deal with how much the world of the film could not possibly function given all we have ever seen of it. These are planes - these are actual, constructed vehicles for passengers who never were or will be. They have nor brains nor souls, just engines, internal combustion engines like the ones on the street outside, right now, as you're reading. Anyway, maybe "kids don't care!" as irritating parents who feel bent on defending these things will occasionally say, and setting aside whether the fact that kids don't care is germane to a goddamn thing - kids also don't care if they only ever eat chocolate bars, morning, noon, and night, but we don't tend to act like it's their privilege to do so - I have to wonder if kids don't care. Maybe the kids of the 2010s really don't. Maybe they devour this kind of blunt commercial nonsense. All I know is that when I was six years old, if I saw this movie, when the camera suddenly plunges right into Dusty, I would have flipped my fucking shit.

Anyway, for reasons that aren't worth belaboring, Dusty needs to pitch in to serve as adjunct firefighter in Propwash Junction, now that he's retired from racing, and this requires him to head off to receive on-the-job training at a National Park that mostly resembles Yellowstone with a healthy dose of Yosemite thrown in (the hotel that figures prominently in the story is, at any rate, a dead ringer for Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn, inside and out). This doesn't make sense, but it does permit the filmmakers to create some genuinely gorgeous pine forests for their plane characters to zoom around, and that alone is enough to make Fire & Rescue the superior Planes film. Certainly the plot, in which Dusty learns the ropes from cranky helicopter Blade Ranger (Ed Harris), who has a mysterious past, doesn't do that; it's trading one pack of clichés for another, and overtly ripping off Cars instead of overtly ripping off Cars 2. Which I suppose is also a trade-off, though not a very honorable one.

So the plot focuses on a punch of planes putting out fires, along with some weirdly out-of-place material about facilities restoration in the National Park Service, and Dusty keeps having to dodge the horribly pushy advances of Dipper (Julie Bowen), the film's most prominent female character, who exists solely to be everything wrong with gender representation in contemporary North American pop culture. Oh, and there's a helicopter named Windlifter voiced by Wes Studi, an archaic stereotype of the wise old Native American mystic, so I miscounted when I said there was only one character who made me want to eat all my own skin off. I might be vaguely willing to forgive the filmmakers if I though there was some torturous riff on Apache helicopters going on, but I think that's far more clever than anybody was trying to be.

Between all the bad characters and the hopelessly generic "do the right thing" lesson-mongering (it is, at least, not another "be yourself" piece like virtually every other animated movie of the last generation, so I have to thank it for that), the story of Fire & Rescue is nothing of the remotest interest for anybody old enough to make the decision to see it, but it does come alive in the last third, when a massive forest fire breaks out and Dusty has to prove himself by etc. and etc. and etc. It's kind of fun to watch individual piece of foreshadowing click into place, and predict the exact shape of the finale one beat at a time, but in all honesty, it does work at the level of G-rated action spectacle. Though I see that in the United States, the film got a PG rating, so scratch that. The point being, the fire lighting is beautiful, the sweep and scale of the action are impressive, and the sense of drama is higher than anything else in the film has even implied might be a possibility. That getting there requires the film to jettison everything about its characters and render them as small figures in the face of a widescreen hellstorm of flame and smoke pretty much says everything about Fire & Rescue's liabilities as a piece of storytelling, but I'm willing to concede that it does, in the end, manage to push itself over the hump as raw entertainment.

5/10

24 July 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 10 POLL: READERS' CHOICE #2

VOTING CLOSED - WINNER: THE THING
Thanks to everyone who voted!

It's time for the Summer of Blood's second grand experiment in democracy. The following 31 titles have been nominated by the readers of Antagony & Ecstasy for next week's review, and now it's up to everybody else to pick the final winner! Because of the high number of candidates, I'm going to let everyone vote for up to three titles. Or fewer if you'd like, of course.

28 Days Later (2002)
From IMDb: "Four weeks after a mysterious, incurable virus spreads throughout the UK, a handful of survivors try to find sanctuary."

Atomic Dog (1998)
From IMDb: "When a pooch is irradiated by a nuclear plant and threatens the town, only a teenage boy can redeem him."

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
From IMDb: "Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind."

The Company of Wolves (1984)
From IMDb: "A bag full of symbolic folklore about werewolves, or, rather, their sexual connotation. Granny tells her granddaughter Rosaleen strange, disturbing tales about innocent maidens falling in love with handsome, heavily eyebrowed strangers with a smoldering look in their eyes."

Dead Ringers (1988)
From IMDb: "Twin gynecologists take full advantage of the fact that nobody can tell them apart, until their relationship begins to deteriorate over a woman."

Enemy (2013)
From IMDb: "A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie."

The Fly (1986)
From IMDb: "A brilliant but eccentric scientist begins to transform into a giant man/fly hybrid after one of his experiments goes horribly wrong."

The House by the Cemetery (1981)
From IMDb: "In New York, Dr. Norman Boyle assumes the research about Dr. Freudstein of his colleague Dr. Petersen, who committed suicide after killing his mistress."

The Innocents (1961)
From IMDb: "A young governess for two children becomes convinced that the house and grounds are haunted."

Kill List (2011)
From IMDb: "Nearly a year after a botched job, a hitman takes a new assignment with the promise of a big payoff for three killings. What starts off as an easy task soon unravels, sending the killer into the heart of darkness."

The Last House on Dead End Street (1977)
From IMDb: "After being released from prison, a young gangster with a chip on his shoulder decides to punish society by making snuff films."

Lisa and the Devil (1973)
From IMDb: "Surreal goings-on at a Spanish villa in this poetic horror fairytale, which was crassly re-edited into The House of Exorcism (1975) for US release."

The Mummy (1999)
From IMDb: "An American serving in the French Foreign Legion on an archaeological dig at the ancient city of Hamunaptra accidentally awakens a Mummy."

Maximum Overdrive (1986)
From IMDb: "A group of people try to survive when machines start to come alive and become homicidal."

Nightbreed (1990)
From IMDb: "A troubled young man is drawn to a mythical place called Midian where a variety of monsters are hiding from humanity."

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
From IMDb: "Jack Skellington, king of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas Town, but doesn't quite understand the concept."

Peeping Tom (1960)
From IMDb: "A young man murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions of terror."

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)
From IMDb: "A darker version of the classic Gaston Leroux novel. A young soprano becomes the obsession of a horribly disfigured composer who has plans for those oppose himself or the young singer."

Phenomena (1985)
From IMDb: "A young girl, with an amazing ability to communicate with insects, is transferred to an exclusive Swiss boarding school, where her unusual capability might help solve a string of murders."

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
From IMDb: "During a rural picnic, a few students and a teacher from an Australian girls' school vanish without a trace. Their absence frustrates and haunts the people left behind."

Pin (1988)
From IMDb: "In this low-budget descendant of Psycho, Ursula and Leon are sister and brother, living alone, save for a large wooden puppet they call 'Pin' (for Pinocchio). When Ursula starts hanging around with new boyfriend Stan, Leon and Pin take action."

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
From IMDb: "Aliens resurrect dead humans as zombies and vampires to stop humanity from creating the Solaranite (a sort of sun-driven bomb)."

[REC] (2007)
From IMDb: "A television reporter and cameraman follow emergency workers into a dark apartment building and are quickly locked inside with something terrifying."

The Ring (2002)
From IMDb: "A young journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape which seems to cause the death of anyone in a week of viewing it."

Rosemary's Baby (1968)
From IMDb: "A young couple move into a new apartment, only to be surrounded by peculiar neighbors and occurrences. When the wife becomes mysteriously pregnant, paranoia over the safety of her unborn child begins controlling her life."

Theatre of Blood (1973)
From IMDb: "A Shakespearean actor takes poetic revenge on the critics who denied him recognition."

The Thing (1982)
From IMDb: "Scientists in the Antarctic are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the appearance of the people that it kills."

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
From IMDb: "A young FBI agent disappears while investigating a murder miles from Twin Peaks that may be related to the future murder of Laura Palmer; the last week of the life of Laura Palmer is chronicled."

- To those for whom this effects their vote, I have seen the entirety of the TV series Twin Peaks, including this movie, twice through

Unrest (2006)
From IMDb: "A young pathology med student suspects that the spirit of a dead cadaver in the hospital morgue where she works is killing off all those who handle or desecrate the body."

Wolf Creek (2005)
From IMDb: "Stranded backpackers in remote Australia fall prey to a murderous bushman who offers to fix their car, then takes them captive."

The Woman (2011)
From IMDb: "When a successful country lawyer captures and attempts to 'civilize' the last remaining member of a violent clan that has roamed the Northeast coast for decades, he puts the lives of his family in jeopardy."

Nominee removed from the poll owing to its future presence elsewhere on the Summer of Blood schedule:
-Student Bodies (1981)


23 July 2014

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

To get the grubby part out of the way first: Life Itself is a somewhat banal piece of documentary craftsmanship. A lot of talking heads, e-mails represented by onscreen text, old clips. It's something we've all see a billion times, and it is frankly disappointing that Steve James, the man who made the expansive epic of African-American teenage life Hoop Dreams and the exemplary social commentary boots-on-the-ground vérité piece The Interrupters would make something so gosh-darned safe, aesthetically speaking.

Now that's the nitpicky part, whereas the important part is that Life Itself doesn't really have any cause to be aesthetically complex or outrageously creative. It is a tribute to an individual man, as fully fleshed-out as any one depiction of any one human being might need to be. That man being Roger Ebert, the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of a succession of "dueling critics" TV shows with Gene Siskel over the course of more than two decades, and the inspiration for more current professional and amateur movie critics than anyone else who has ever lived. And of course, because movie reviews are written by movie reviewers, that makes it kind of hard for any of us - the present author happily discloses himself as having been intoxicated by Ebert's writing ability and obvious, overriding love of the art-form, long before I ever even dreamed of doing it myself - to take a genuinely objective view on what James has given us. It is a love letter that's incredibly difficult for most cinephiles to disagree with, and a deeply sweet, affecting balm on what remains, for a lot of people, a still-raw wound all this time after Ebert's death in April, 2013.

But a lack of objectivity is kind of the point of the thing. This is not about Steve James studying a famous man, but eulogising a person to whom he owed much (Siskel & Ebert basically created his career with their effusive love for Hoop Dreams), a friend he came to know well during the last few months of the critic's life, as he worked with James on creating the film that he eventually realised he wouldn't be alive to see completed. James's Ebert is personally warm, quick-witted even when his quips have to be translated through the electronic voice program Ebert relied in his last years, and a clear enthusiast for movies and for living. It's a view largely reflected by the wide range of interview subjects from his closest friends to other critics, not all of whom have had terribly kind things to say about Ebert's contributions to cinema studies. And even his friends are disinterested in whitewashing Ebert's crazed past, his peccadilloes, his occasional selfishness, and his irritable relationship with best frenemy Siskel, a professional rivalry that had some real nasty flickers on the edges, to judge from what we see (James includes footage of the two men bitching each other out while filming promos for their show; if Life Itself served absolutely no other function besides putting that footage out in the world, it would be worth every penny).

The small genius of Life Itself is that it is a film about a generous and open soul that is itself generous and open; eager to embrace Ebert for his fullness and messiness as a critic and a person, and thus reflecting the version of the man it depicts. It's structured to largely take place in the last months of Ebert's life, looking backwards to tell his story but always returning to the hospital where Ebert went through one health crisis after another with the support of his wife Chaz. The contrast between Ebert's late physical impairment and the ebullience of his younger days is striking, but James doesn't use it to beg for sympathy on his subject's behalf; instead, it's a way of throwing into sharp relief how Ebert had only deepened in his appreciation for living even as life became a chain of disgusting, obviously uncomfortable medical procedures and an increasingly circumscribed ability to move. There is never a moment when he complains, or bemoans his fate; the overall impression is of a man greatly at peace with his impending death, and anxious to find the pleasure and beauty in every day he had left.

It sounds trite in its uplifting, inspiring sentiment, but so fully based in the very specific details of who Ebert was and how he thought that it never even once comes over as a bit of pandering "let the cripple show us the way!" exploitation. Mostly, it's getting to learn a great deal about one person, and finding out that he was sensitive, prickly, loving, egocentric, and above all things an infectious communicator of ideas. Inasmuch as it's a hagiography - and I suppose it's awfully hard to claim otherwise - it's a hagiography of Ebert the person that James studied and observed, not a hagiography of Ebert the movie critic.

Of course it has its decent share of flaws, including some fuzzy generalisations about the non-Ebert state of criticism (Pauline Kael, by no means a favorite of mine, deserves better than she gets), and while I understand James's decision to have voice actor Stephen Stanton read excerpts from Ebert's blog and memoirs in an almost-but-not-quite perfect impression of the critic, it never quite managed to stop feeling ghoulish, for my tastes. And it is a pretty straightforward biopic-documentary; immensely likable but always more impressive on the level of content than craft - though that content, including surprisingly personable chats with directors legendary (Martin Scorsese) and obscure (Ava DuVernay), and the always delightful archival footage of Ebert getting into hissing matches with Siskel, is absolutely terrific stuff.

Anyway, James isn't trying to be clever or cunning, but simply to be honest; and he is wonderfully honest indeed. It is a warm film but too intimate not to include some uncomfortable moments, gross truths about the human body, and the occasional moment of bleak sorrow. And it fully lives up to the demand that the subject made in an e-mail to his last chronicler, in explaining why he wanted James to push on through the nastiness even though Chaz would object:
It would be a major lapse to have a documentary that doesn't contain the full reality.

I wouldn't want to be associated. This is not only your film.

Cheers,
R
8/10

22 July 2014

BEST SHOT: UNDER THE SKIN

For this week's edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has chosen (as he does about once a year) a brand new movie: Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's extraordinary mood piece starring Scarlett Johansson. It's fresh enough (just out on DVD last week!) and surprising enough that I want very badly not to spoil it for anyone; also, my pick for Best Shot is within the wheelhouse of Not Safe For Work. So I'm putting the rest of this below the jump.

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: FIGHTING FIRES

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: we've hit the point where something as dire as Planes: Fire & Rescue legitimately qualifies as one of the week's biggest releases. So anyway, fire and rescue. Pretty much one place you can take that. Anyway, I let the Christian firefighters have their go-round, time for the godless Hollywood heathens to have some fun.

A family drama about firefighter brothers crosscut with a technically audacious action-mystery about firefighter brothers might sound like a weird candidate to become a Zeitgeist hit, but the 1990s produced some really weird big popcorn movies, in retrospect. So here we are with Backdraft, anyway, one of the big "showing off our effects work" movies from the summer of 1991, as directed by Ron Howard channeling Robert Zemeckis copying Steven Spielberg.

The film tells of two brothers, Stephen (Kurt Russell) and Brian (William Baldwin) McCaffrey, sons of a Chicago firefighter whose death was witnessed by Brian in childhood, an event depicted with slow motion and hollowed-out sound effects and aching, mournful music, because at least Backdraft tells no lies about what it is. 20 years later, Stephen is one of the toughest sonsabitches in the Chicago Fire Department, a reckless genius who plays by his own rulebook and gets results even if he takes risks that make his colleague and father figure John Adcox (Scott Glenn) freak out. Because it's only a soul-sapping cliché if it takes place in a police station, y'see. Brian, meanwhile - having made the cover of Life magazine back in '71 for the picture of himself standing dazed while holding his dead father's helmet outside the burned-out building where the elder McCaffrey met his fate - has drifted aimlessly through young adulthood and now has come to realise that his goal has always been to follow in Dad and Stephen's footsteps and prove himself a man in the fires of... well, fires. Stephen greatly fears his little brother doesn't have what it takes to hack it, and so he treats the "probie" (firefighter slang for new recruits learning the ropes) with a particular barking roughness that masks his tender concern under dictatorial cruelty, and the relationship between the McCaffreys begins to deteriorate. Will the brothers come to a new understanding of each other and find a respect for the relationship they share, to be tested in the heart of a burning building? Will they ever!

Snarking is easy, but honestly, Backdraft would be a hell of a lot stronger if that's at far as its ambitions had gone, but writer Gregory Widen instead buttressed the tired old tale of dueling brothers with a subplot in which Stephen tries to win back his estranged wife Helen (Rebecca De Mornay) and be a more present father to his son Sean (Beep Iams). Meanwhile, Brian has just reconnected with an old flame, Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now working in the office of Alderman Marty Swayzak (J.T. Walsh). She convinces Brian to use her connections to get himself a safer job than the madness of rushing into burning buildings, getting himself involved in the investigatory wing of the CFD, where old vet Donald Rimgale (Robert De Niro) teaches him the fine art of investigating possible arson cases. Will the brothers make hard decisions about the men they want to be, and weigh the merits of being safe and secure family men with the terrifying rush of serving the greater good at risk of life and limb? Will they ever!

Having already pressed two movies into one, Widen apparently figured "what the hell", and added a third: Brian and Rimgale's investigation reveals that a series of recent fires are indeed arson, but arson perpetrated by a real genius with fire. Consulting the unmistakably Hannibal Lectery convicted arsonist Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland), the investigators start to piece together a puzzle in which they find out how some genius firebug has been staging incredibly complex traps to trigger a very unusual type of explosion called a backdraft, in which the act of introducing oxygen into a room very quickly - by opening a door, for example - causes it to burst into flame quickly and decisively, yet the same cycle of air that creates the explosion also puts it out almost instantly, leaving just enough fire to kill whatever bastard triggered it. So this isn't mere pyromania, but specific, targeted assassinations, designed to leave no damage other than to a single victim. Will the investigators find out how this mystery is tied to the shady, hopelessly corrupt world of Chicago politics and land development? Will they ever!

In Backdraft, we see a flawless representation of a problem that had plagued summer movies before it was made and continues to plague them over two decades later: it has absolutely fantastic setpieces strung along an absolutely dimwitted script. Not just because it's cliché-ridden, though that doesn't help in the slightest: Backdraft is structurally broken at a truly remarkable degree even by the standards of Ron Howard films, given that director's insistent problem with keeping stories moving along steadily, tending to instead treat things with plodding episodic ebbs and flows; his best films (e.g. Apollo 13, Rush) don't get that way because they avoid that tendency, but because it works well in the context of the narrative. Backdraft compounds the problem: not only does it lack flow, it doesn't ever actually decide what its plot is - what the one-sentence "who is chasing what stakes and what's stopping him" logline is that describes the movie. And Christ knows, I don't want all movies to utilise the barbaric structure of Hollywood storytelling, but Backdraft is every inch a Hollywood movie and Howard a quintessentially Hollywood director; it is the very kind of project that the limiting rules were designed for. And having watched it more than once, I still can't tell you if it's "about" the brothers' patching things up, or if it's "about" Brian investigating the arson case. Because, the thing is, it's about both: basically, it takes place in two chunks, before and after Brian joins up with Rimgale, and there is no communication between those chunks. And even if there was, neither story that the film is telling in its clodhopping way justifies the film's solemn closing title card, "There are over 1,200,700 active firefighters in the U.S. today", which suggests a story about the travails of a firefighter which Backdraft has at no point since the opening scene come close to becoming.

At times, the movie on the edges is interesting: the film captures the way that ethnic stratification works in Chicago better than a lot of other movies, even if it still leans a little hard on the "Chicago Irish" stereotypes. The casual way that life in the firehouse is depicted suggests a far more nuanced and lived-in film about characters who aren't the ones we've been granted as our main subjects. These little strengths serve more to sharpen how devoid of insight most of the movie is, rather than provide a welcome respite from it.

But, the thing is, the fire scenes are great - not just, like, "this is is perfect serviceable disaster porn", but quite probably the best depiction of fiery destruction ever filmed, or that ever might be filmed for all the king's horses and all the king's CGI. Howard - or at least his second unit - film the action scenes with remarkable visual poetry: flame, as more than one character notes, is a beautiful thing like an animal, something to be loved as much as feared. And Backdraft captures that sensation beautifully, while also depicting a kind of creeping tension about what happens from moment to moment that is unlike anything else in Howard's career, and suggests that the man has a decent pseudo-Hitchcock thriller living inside him somewhere. It's mesmerising, brilliant thriller craftsmanship, and it makes for an incomprehensible viewing experience that it swaps places with the tedious human drama at such irregular intervals.

And boy, are Backdraft's humans tedious. Given nothing remotely like interesting character arcs to play, none of the actors leave a huge impression: De Niro and Leigh, usually reliable to provide a certain live-wire energy, are both sleepwalking through nothing roles, and Russell only gets one moment where he does anything besides play a gruff-talking man's man (it's when he screams, frenzied, at Brian for not staying put, and the actor allows us to understand that it's fear and love, not authoritarian bullying, doing the talking). That Baldwin is flat and uninteresting is hardly surprising, and the film elects to make him the de facto protagonist as Stephen sits out most of the last hour. Only De Mornay and Sutherland feel like they did any homework at all in building their characters, and they're both in, like, three scenes apiece.

Aesthetically, it's all over the place. Howard favors some unfortunately over-emphatic slow-motion throughout the film, and tries for an iconic feel that his skill hadn't worked up to yet by that point in his career - Russell is introduced coming out of the smokey building backlit like an alien in a Spielberg film, and it's almost comically over-serious. Hans Zimmer's score, one of the most wildly over-used in the history of film music (you couldn't watch a random sampling of 10 film trailers from the 1990s without encountering it at least a couple of times), gets points for the sheer fist-pumping flag-waving grandeur it evokes, though its a little blunt in its emotional manipulation (but hell, something needs to engender emotions, somewhere in the movie.

The highs are so, so high, and the lows so suffocating in their mediocrity, it's really impossible to make any kind of qualitative judgment about the movie as a whole: in some ways, it's essential '90s action cinema because of how great it is, and in some ways, it's essential because of how perfectly it typifies all of the boilerplate idiocy of that decade's popcorn formulas. Either way it's essential, I guess, but I can't think of another so-called essential movie that, having now watched it twice, I have so little desire to ever revisit.

21 July 2014

LITTLE SCREEN, BIG SCREEN

A couple of days late, but I had limited computer time over the weekend. Team Experience has lately published our cumulative list of the Top 10 movies adapted from television series; as is my wont, I shall here include my own ballot, though I'd especially urge you all to check out the post at Film Experience, there's some really great writing going on.

Anyway, my list, which has so many caveats attached that I won't even bother listing them: eligibility was a bitch for this one, both officially and in my own head, and some of the more conspicuous missing titles (two of which made the group list) aren't here simply because I didn't think they passed the smell test for "based on a TV series". And there was also a question I never quite resolved in my own mind, of how much the question was "is a great movie" versus "correctly adapts the spirit of the show to a cinematic setting". I tried to split the difference as much as possible, but the results are, I concede, lumpy, and the rankings beyond #1 a little arbitrary.

1. In the Loop (2009) [#1 on the TFE list]
2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
3. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) [on the TFE list]
4. Pennies from Heaven (1981) [on the TFE list]
5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) [on the TFE list]
6. Traffic (2000) [on the TFE list]
7. Serenity (2005) [on the TFE list]
8. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
9. The Fugitive (1993) [on the TFE list]
10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

My five runners-up, alphabetically:
21 Jump Street (2012)
Maverick (1994)
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) [on the TFE list]

20 July 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1960: In which contemporary history gets the epic treatment

The signal characteristic of Otto Preminger's Exodus from 1960, a story of the founding of the modern state of Israel, has nothing to do with the film's sensitive political content; nothing to do with the iconic, stirring Romantic main theme of Eric Gold's deservedly Oscar-winning score; nothing to with the fact that this is the only movie to pair Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, two of the most beautiful people in midcentury American cinema. The signal characteristic of Exodus is its length - at 208 minutes, it is not the longest movie ever made, or even close to it, but those 208 minutes take their goddamn sweet time in expressing themselves. After Gold's music, probably the best-known thing about the movie is a story too perfect too be true and too good not to repeat, that comedian Mort Sahl stood up a few hours into the film's premiere to loudly proclaim "Otto, let my people go!", and while perhaps impolite, it's hard not to sympathise with the sentiment. I find myself irresistibly drawn to compare the film to Lawrence of Arabia, made two years later, in broadly the same part of the world and running to a slightly longer length; while that film is beautiful, and full of driving incident, it has that bit in towards where it starts to grind down and get bogged down in talking and politics and even the main character seems impatient for the thing to end. Exodus is like that draggy 20 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia stretched over the entirety of three and a half hours, instead of just coming at the wrong time near the end of three and a half hours.

In this regard, Exodus is a fine representative of what had just about started to become a trend at the beginning of the '60s and would turn into a full-fledged addiction by the decade's end: exhausting, pointless bloat. For all that it's fun to bitch and moan about how, in the 2010s, we can't have a movie about superheroes or giant robots that can find its way to a genre-appropriate running time, contemporary cinema doesn't have anything on the heaving immensity of a real good Indulgent Monstrosity from the 1960s. Some of these movies were good, or even great: Lawrence of Arabia, for one. Many more of them are just enervating, endurance tests which make the cardinal sin of assuming that a broad sense of capital-H History and enough widescreen panoramas justifies plodding through a narrative with far too much attention to detail in every last tiny way: Doctor Zhivago jumps to mind, David Lean's very next film post-Lawrence.

Exodus is damn near the patron saint of this latter group. Carved out of Leon Uris's 1958 Zeitgeist-dominating novel by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo - allegedly leaving a great deal of plot and depth of backstory behind, which makes one gawk to think how jam-packed the book must have been - it follows a handful of key people during a specific chain of events in 1947 and '48, all of which contribute to the partition of Palestine and the formation of a new country to serve as save haven for the world's Jewish population, reeling from the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust. And it follows this people with extremely close attention, though not necessarily historical precision (the event it portrays as being the key event in the events of those years plays out in literally the exact opposite of how it did historically). And this focus is more invested in minutiae than dramatic momentum: even if you read a scene-by-scene description of the film's plot, I don't think you could rightly fathom how it could cross the two-hour mark, let alone three.

But I'll stop bitching about that before this review becomes as long as Exodus itself. The film opens in Cyprus, in 1947, with American widow Kitty Fremont (Saint), a nurse whose photojournalist husband died recently covering a story about the Jewish agitation to be permitted entry into the British-controlled Palestine. She is given a tour by General Sutherland (Ralph Richardson), commander of the British forces on Cyprus and a sympathetic figure for the Jews; he convinces her to volunteer as nurse for the internment camp where displaced Jewish refugees are kept while the British government flails around trying to figure out what to do with them. This puts her in a perfect position to see firsthand the act of rebellion by which Ari Ben Canaan (Newman), formerly of the British Army and now of the revolutionary group Hagannah captures a ship which is renamed the SS Exodus, and peopled with over 600 refugees. Ari plans to take these people to Palestine, and stages a hunger strike and also threatens to blow up the ship if the British try to interfere; eventually, the Brits cave in and allow the Exodus to go on its way. In Palestine, the plot blossoms into a kaleidoscopic view of the radical attempt to form an independent Jewish state: Ari's father Barak (Lee J. Cobb) is the leader of a diplomatic group working for that goal, while his brother, Ari's uncle Akiva (David Opatoshu) is a high-ranking member of Irgun, a group preferring more violent means. This makes it greatly appealing to Dov Landau (Sal Mineo), a refugee from the Exodus and survivor of Auschwitz, who has meanwhile struck up a close relationship with Karen (Jill Haworth), a Danish-Jewish refugee who has been unofficially adopted by Kitty, hoping to take the girl back to America and a better life. And Kitty, in the meantime, has begun to fall in love with Ari.

Confusing and convoluted, but not enough for three and a half hours which are not, anyway, mostly taken up with character material, but with scene after scene after scene of talking. Talking about the hunger strike, talking about the negotiating with the British government, talking about dealing with the UN, talking about performing acts of terrorism, talking about the encroaching hostility of the Arab populations surrounding and inhabiting Palestine. There is, probably, no other way to dramatise the events of this scenario than to show people talking, but there's not a whole lot that's less interesting in cinema, unless the filmmakers are keen, aggressive stylists, and this is not something that is typically true of Preminger. He was a talented director, and a phenomenal journeyman when making something like Laura; as he began to grow in stature as a producer-director, he demonstrated fine instincts for picking controversial projects that would allow him to grip Modern Society by the balls and twist and tug and force it under his unforgiving microscope. Sometimes this worked out brilliantly, and we get Anatomy of a Murder or Advise & Consent (the films he made on either side of Exodus). Sometimes, this resulted in the idiotic frippery of The Moon Is Blue. While Exodus is undoubtedly better than that film, it's on the same side of the Preminger Scale, where the desire to do important, edgy, groundbreaking things in his storytelling (which included hiring Trumbo, whose script for Spartacus in '60 was the first time a blacklisted artist had received onscreen credit) outweighs such trivial things as entertainment or human interest.

Exodus is appallingly boring. That's a subjective word, but I can't think of a better one. And the main reason why is its central pair of Newman and Saint, neither of whom works in the film's interests whatsoever, and whose portrayal of Ari and Kitty, protagonists and the source of all the alleged emotional involvement in the human-sized drama playing out amidst all the Important History, is completely without warmth or interest. Newman, the WASPiest half-Jew on the books in all the history of Hollywood filmmaking, played every moment of his performance as a cold, angry rageaholic, admitting nothing but glowering contempt for anyone and everything, even the people who agree with his goals and his methods, and it's both tedious and unenlightening to have him as our primary guide to the human story of Israel. But at least his simmering anger is an emotion - Saint's performance is so devoid of affect or inflection that it would be hilarious, if it were in the context of a movie that wasn't so goddamn long that every little thing that makes it feel more stilted adds hours to the subjective experience of watching it. If it's not her mechanical depiction of physical attraction to Newman, its her false smiles of warmth towards Karen, or worse things still - the film opens with a scene in which, among other things, she discusses her past miscarriage without altering her tone of voice or facial expression even slightly. It's all so contrary to anything that the movie or the character needs at any moment that I'd almost guesss that Saint was a rabid anti-Zionist hoping to single-handedly ruin the film by torpedoing its emotional throughline with her wooden non-acting.

There are, thankfully, some stronger performances around the edges, with Richardson standing out heads and shoulders above everybody, though Mineo's gaunt expressions of pain and resentment, which are likely what earned him his Oscar nomination for the role, are moving and vulnerable like nothing else in the movie is. But it's always pretty clear that Preminger wasn't chiefly interested in telling the story of Ari and Kitty and Barak and Dov and Karen and whoever the hell else, he was making an advertisement for Israel's moral right to exist. I'm not getting into the argument over whether or not that was a worthy goal in and of itself; for one thing, I have absolutely no idea what kind of opinion most of the world had about the state of Israel in the late '50s, a full decade before the Six-Day War changed everything about Israel's place in global politics. My only claim is that it makes for rough cinema, especially in the bluntly detached, observational style that Preminger always favored. A spoonful of sugar helps the propaganda go down, if you will, but Exodus lacks any visual flair or clever structure to sweeten its reeling off of scene upon scene of social studies lessons and recapping what was then recent enough history that the film allows itself to skimp on some details that would be awfully nice to have available nearly 70 years after the events the film depicts.

It's not exactly ill-made, though sometimes it's awfully sloppy - the lighting is sloppy, the sound is often tinny, and the refugees on hunger strike look awfully hale and well-kept. But even if Preminger and his collaborators - cinematographer Sam Leavitt, editor Louis R. Loeffler - weren't in a particularly inventive mood when it came to making and combining their images, this was still a movie made with obvious talent and resources, with handsome location photography of Israel giving the film a sense of place that suits it well. When it allows itself to loosen up, as happens somewhat regularly in the last 90 minutes, after the intermission, there's even some genuinely great filmmaking. The chaos in the aftermath of Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel (which is pushed back by a year to fit into the dramatic chronology) is captured with tense momentum, and later on, there's a prison break sequence that's a triumph across the board: well-choreographed, scored with bellicose impact, sharply cut.

More moments like that, and the living history of Exodus could have been genuinely involving, its retelling of Israel's dramatic, contentious founding turned into something rich and moving and exciting. But it's such a lecture in its current form, and a particularly dry and inhumane one to boot. I understand having motivations that have nothing to do with entertainment, and the urgency of Exodus is apparent throughout - oh my, is it ever an urgent, urging movie - but there has to be something compelling to watch or all that impassioned political argument adds up to nothing but a bunch of noise, playing out for what feels like an eternity and never adding up to anything.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1960

-Director-star John Wayne makes the tiresome, bullying epic The Alamo, which he then humiliates the Academy into nominating for a Best Picture Oscar
-MGM's The Last Voyage births the modern disaster picture
-Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho changes everything

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1960
-Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura also changes everything
-Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless changes everything that hadn't been changed yet
-Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid changes nothing, but it is one of the essential masterworks of South Korean cinema nonetheless

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HORROR IN THE LATE '90s, or: SNOWMAN'S LAND

Those of you who've been around for a while have undoubtedly picked up on my certain disdain for movies that play the "we know we're making a bad movie, so it's actually funny that our movie is bad" card. And oh my Lord, does the 1997 direct-to-video Jack Frost lean on that conceit as unrelentingly as it possibly can. I'd say that it's just the usual post-Scream meta-horror nonsense, except that based on the dates involved, I'm pretty certain that there was no time for Jack Frost to have been influenced by that slasher satire. So nope, the filmmakers managed to come up with this one all on their own, bless their hearts.

I am not, of course, claiming that Jack Frost should have been made with a great deal of sincerity and seriousess. It's a film about a serial killer cannibal whose body merges with snow and leaves him a murderous, psychopathic snowman. I am among those who subscribes to the philosophy that there are no poor ideas for movies, only poor execution, but "psycho snowman slasher" is an idea that's close enough to objectively poor that a deliberate self-parody is probably the only approach that might have been acceptable even a little bit. The film is comedy as much as it is horror; I think it's important to acknowledge that, because the last thing one ever wants to do is to arrive in the position that others might accuse him of not "getting" Jack Frost, of all damn movies. For I understand it has quite the appreciative cult following these days.

But it's one thing to get the movie, and another to enjoy the experience on any level whatsoever, and this is where Jack Frost loses me. Indeed, it's largely because it's so open about its own conceptual badness, and the poverty of its execution, and the general stupidity of all the things onscreen that I found it rather enervating to watch. When you're confronted with something so obviously unacceptable as Jack Frost, the best thing to do is to mock it; this is the crux of bad movie fandom. But there's simply no fun at all in mocking a movie that comes as pre-digested as this, making all of its own jokes at its own expense, insisting on its own insincerity, flaunting the shabbiness of its effects work. Jack Frost is a movie that doesn't require a viewer, in essence. And there's something intensely alienating about dealing with such a prospect.

But deal with it we shall. Things open promisingly enough, with some genuinely creative opening credits that showcase all the actors and crew heads' names on ornaments on a Christmas tree, as an unseen and uncredited Uncle Henry tells a holiday story to his niece, who has asked for something both happy and scary. And things cease to be promising, because the (obviously adult) actor voicing the niece elected to pitch her voice at such a squeaky whine that it takes all of five or six syllables before listening to her has become completely, absolutely intolerable. Thankfully, this narrative framework never reappears, and nobody in the actual cast is half as obnoxious, but it's a quick, easy way for the movie to earn itself some enemies even before it has shown the first human being.

The story Uncle Henry tells is, he claims, set in more or less real time, as a famous killer named Jack Frost (Scott MacDonald) - his actual birth name, we are led to believe, which speaks ill of his parents - is being trucked from prison to the execution site, which isn't how executions work. But movies need beginnings, and there are plenty of other reasons to be mad at the plot later on. What happens, in a nutshell, is that Frost manages to kill one of his guards, and in the confusion the execution truck plows into a tanker from a genetic research company, allowing Jack to escape just long enough to get doused in a jet of some kind of outrageously caustic acid that melts his flesh and bone down to nothing, and the liquid that used to be the killer merges with snow. And then starts throbbing.

The action then cuts to Snowmonton, the snowman capital of the world, as it pretty much would have to be. Here, it is time for the annual snowman contest, which is apparently such a big deal that every molecule of frozen water has been swept from the city streets to form the snowmen being carved in the town square, because Snowmonton is, in virtually every shot we see throughout the film, totally devoid of snow. In fairness, that was just a freak accident - among the man one-liners peppering the end credits, we see references to freak weather that left Big Bear Lake, California totally devoid of winter during the period that Jack Frost's producers had arranged to shoot there. Such are the vicissitudes of no-budget filmmaking.

Anyway, in this sleepy little town, we find the local sheriff Sam Tiler (Christopher Allport), who happens to have been the exact law enforcement agent to take down Frost in the first place. He has these many months been plagued by doubts concerning a threat the killer left that he would take his revenge, and apparently has been worried all along that Frost would find a way to escape. He probably didn't assume that way would involve becoming a sentient matrix of H2O who can melt or freeze at will, and spends most of his time in the form of a snowman completed by Sam's son Ryan (Zack Eginton), with his coal eyes and carrot nose following along as he morphs, despite neither coal nor carrots being subject to the same freezing point as water.

Sam's laconic presence and his friendly relationship with the Snowmontonians having put us squarely in Twin Peaks territory (an impression solidified by the scenes set in the cutesily ineffectual sheriff's office), it only makes sense when the film starts copying from The X-Files as well, in the form of a secret government conspiracy to retrieve Frost. And so we have FBI Agent Manners (Stephen Mendel) and a scientist named Stone (Rob LaBelle) onhand to be mysterious and get in Sam's way, and not tell him any of the things he might need to ensure that his community doesn't end up entirely dead. Though they have no way of guessing at the scope of Frost's abilities to manipulate his form, which includes being able to shoot dagger-sharp icicles on top of everything else.

There's no point in harping on how stupid this is, since the film already knows that - since the film, in fact, prides itself on being stupid. But it's still not very entertaining to watch. "Bad on purpose" goes only as far as the filmmakers' sense of humor and irony, and the creators of Jack Frost - who are largely just Michael Cooney (director and writer) and Jeremy Paige (producer and co-scenarist) - have some pretty lead-footed jokes up their sleeve. Frost is a quipster killer: he has to be, since the budget permitted only a really dodgy snowman puppet whose mouth barely moves, and which is otherwise not articulated. So we get a lot of one-liners, most of which aren't funny at all, and some of which don't even make sense. At one point, for example, Frost has taken over a victim's body, but gives up and allows himself to be vomited out. Having thus reformed, he snarks "Don't eat yellow snow!", à propos of nothing happening in that moment. I suppose there are only so many thematically tight puns a snowman killer can make, but some semblance of a relationship between ideas would have been appreciated.

That relationship holds true for essentially everything in the movie. The plot, at its most basic, is a "killer comes back for revenge" situation, but most of Frost's actions have no motivation at all. He kills an old man with absolutely no connection to anything in the rest of the movie; he then merciless hunts down all the members of a family who happen to live in Snowmonton, but are otherwise quite uninvolved in Sam's life. Although the last surviving member of that family, Jill (Shannon Elizabeth), is preparing to have sex with her boyfriend (Darren Campbell) in Sam's house when Frost catches up with her and kills her, so that's kind of a thing that is in any way part of the story. This is after Frost goes all the way out of town to kill a deputy (Brian Leckner) and still his police cruiser.

It feels like one thing only: an attempt to inflate a running time by adding in a bunch of spurious deaths, pure slasher movie boilerplate. It's funny only in that it's insincere, and because Frost can't help but say zany things; I feel like it's a movie for people who absolutely adored the later Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the ones where Freddy Krueger had largely turned into a murdering stand-up comedian; it shares their disregard for cohesion and absolutely ghastly wordplay. So it's much too jokey to work for even a single scene as horror (though I can imagine the more squeamish being thrown for a loop by Frost's initial disintegration, or by his ultimate demise), with its crap one-liners and its straitlaced absurdity, and its electronic keyboard score borrowing heavily and ironically from traditional Christmas carols. And it's much too shouty, snotty, and mean to be effect as comedy. Perhaps with more tastelessness, as in the early work of Peter Jackson, this could have been something; but the filmmakers couldn't afford to be tasteless. The scene where Frost rapes Jill to death is tasteless, I suppose, but not in the right way, not at all. I was mostly glad that the filmmakers refrained from having that rape come in the form of him penetrating her with his carrot nose, as the blocking seemed eager to foreshadow at one point; but the point where we arrive at "it was such a relief when it didn't include the most objectionable possible rape scene", we have scraped through the bottom of the barrel and dug a rather comfortably-sized hole in the ground beneath it.

I will concede that there are things about I liked. Allport's plain, taciturn performance actually works pretty well - it's the only thing in the entire movie that feels like it actually falls in the "played straight for laughs" register that the film's fanbase sees in every detail. And I greatly admired the hammy sassiness of Marsha Clark as the sheriff's office secretary. Cooney also did a surprisingly good job placing the camera, considering the scale of the production: both in his cleverness in hiding the snow-free locations, and in stagins some genuinely inventive visual jokes, something for which I was deeply grateful amidst all the arch irony.

Anyway, it is the most perfect late-'90s horror film imaginable: gimmicky to the point of idiocy, and post-modern in the most irritating conceivable way, an equal failure of both horror and comedy. If it at least came by its badness honestly, its ineptitude and styrofoam-covered-in-felt snowman suit might have at least been charming; but as it is, the film's self-awareness just makes it tediously smug.

Body Count: 12, though one is more implied than shown, and also the 38 murders Frost committed prior to the film's opening, which is a massively cheap way to make your killer seem more dangerous than we ever see him onscreen.


* * * * *

But wait! What about that OTHER terrifying movie from the late '90s called Jack Frost?

It says everything that the titular character character from the 1997 Jack Frost is the soul of a serial killer, who turned his victims into meat pies, inhabiting a snowman who murders people, including one whose face he bites off with his icicle teeth, and he can't be compared even a little bit to the visceral, Lovecraftian horror of the titular character from the 1998 Jack Frost, which is a fantasy movie for children.

Basically, it's a horrible Christmas-themed version of the musical Carousel (or, if you want to be snooty, the play Liliom, upon which Carousel was based), in which a middle-aged man on the cusp of his big break as a rock star ignores his son, dies, is reincarnated as a snowman, and learns how to be a better father. It's entirely possible that this would work, somewhat, if the snowman wasn't voiced by Michael Keaton, an actor who is frequently capable of greatness, but whose line deliveries tend towards an edgy, tightly-coiled energy that suggest somebody ready to blow just underneath the words; and given Jack Frost's tendency to speak largely in snow-related quips (seriously, the two Jack Frost pictures are fucking indistinguishable, except that in one of them the bully loses a snowball fight, and in the other the bully is decapitated with a sled), this makes him seem like a bent rage addict funneling all his anger into caustic humor (it's way too reminiscent of the performance he gave in Beetlejuice, actually, and that's just not okay). There's one particularly grim moment of soul-sucking wordplay where the snowman and his son are celebrating a shared triumph, and Jack says, "You da man!", because remember, this was made in the late '90s, and his son Charlie (Joseph Cross) replies, "No, you da man!", and Jack quips back, "Nope! I'm the snowman! HAH HAH HAH". And as lamentable as that pun is, and emblematic of how dire and insulting the bulk of Mark Steven Johnson's screenplay is, the part that really goes from, "oh, what a routinely lousy children's movie", to "GOD GET IT OFF ME IT'S BURNING" is that fake, forced laugh, Keaton coughing out the sounds of mirth so unnaturally that if he had immediately turned around and ripped the boy's head off with his eerie branch arms with their floppy, flat little mitten hands, it would have been infinitely more understandable than the filmmakers' desire that we find this cute.

So Keaton's a problem. But even he is only the second-biggest liability in the film, for he is but the voice and briefly-human precursor of Jack the Snowman, an eldritch abomination if I ever did see one. It's a singularly persuasive piece of machinery built by the Jim Henson Creature Shop (there are a few shots in which it is played by a glossy CGI effect, as well), but "persuasive" means here only that it is convincing in its movements as something living, not that it actually convinces as an animated snowman. And it fails even more at seeming even slightly appealing or friendly - it looks like a perversity of nature, moving its horrible, rubbery mouth and flexing its horrible, overly expressive facial features, and staring with its unpleasantly small eyes that look pitch black (black as coal, you might say) in all but bright, direct light, in which case you can see the glue-grey irises around the edges of those eyes. And begad, if the deep black eyes with nothing behind them but the infinity of death are freaky, the eyes with just enough detail to look vaguely human are much, much worse.

Other than the fact that its protagonist was issued from a rank pit of Hell to torment the godly, Jack Frost is actually pretty blandly generic kiddie filmmaking, with no story really deserving of the name: Jack was so busy with his career that he almost missed Christmas, but decided just in the nick of time to head to be with his son and wife Gabby (Kelly Preston). But a freak snowstorm hit, and he crashed his car and died. He died on Christmas Day. If nothing else, I admire it for having the balls to go there. The snowballs, I would say, except that the movie already makes, like, five puns about snow balls, and I don't want to relive them.

So anyway, Jack comes back and life lessons, though the stakes of the film are so ungodly low that I couldn't really tell you why the universe would bother bending its rules to make this miracle happen. And Charlie himself seems largely unmoved; the emotional beats, at least as they are played by the actors and director Troy Miller, would be entirely unchanged if Jack had simply disappeared for months after a boring, run-of-the-mill divorce (an impression strengthened by how very little Preston gets to do, mostly just looking alarmed in reaction shots and never interacting with the snowman until the film's penultimate scene). There's absolutely no overarching plot, simply scenes during which the snowman thaws Charlie's resentment, and eventually teaches him some hockey tips, and then when enough scenes have transpired to make a feature, there's a brief race against time leading arbitrarily into a desultory wrap-up, suggesting that Johnson understood that copying E.T. was a safe bet, but didn't care why.

It is, unsurprisingly, not very good cinema. Miller and the hilariously overqualified cinematographer László Kovács (the things that happened to that man's career after the 1980s started up are indescribably depressing) are hellbent on close-ups that use the anamorphic frame in the most artless way: a lot of heads just kind of bobbing around in oppressive widescreen space. There are some clumsy attempts at kinetic editing, and the most aesthetically distinctive thing about the film is its unusually brutish soundtrack, beginning with a hard-rock cover of "Frosty the Snowman" played by Jack's band, moving on past a dumbfounding use of Fleetwood Mac's melancholic and not at all child-appropriate "Landslide", apparently because it has the words "snow-covered" in the lyrics, and arriving at a singularly unforgivable cover of "Gimme Some Lovin'" by Hanson, because remember, this was made in the late '90s.

Basically, it is everything I have ever hated about children's entertainment combined in one place: canned emotions and deadening plot points of the utmost predictability crammed together with shrill, sardonic anti-humor and a lazy reliance on musical montages to paper over the sucking holes in the conflict. Add the viscerally unappealing central character, and the whole thing is just the absolute pits. It took a lot to be the worst reincarnation fantasy titled Jack Frost from the second half of the 1990s, but by golly, they found a way.

Body Count: Just the one.

18 July 2014

ONCE AND AGAIN

Can a Song Save Your Life?, as a question, is dimwitted hipster drivel to which the only sane answer is "no, fuck off". Whereas Can a Song Save Your Life?, as as movie title, is at any rate way the hell better than the viciously routine Begin Again, as it was renamed following its 2013 festival run.

Certainly, Begin Again deserves a better title (and, now that I'm staring at it, a better poster) than one that suggests it's the most generic conceivable redemption story. I mean, it is a redemption story, but one whose particulars are sufficiently prickly, and sufficiently idiosyncratic, that "generic" is one of the last words it deserves to be smacked with. Far and away, the film's biggest flaw is that it resembles writer-director John Carney's earlier Once in almost every important way: it's a story about two people bonding over their interest in making music outside the mainstream of the music industry, it has been shot in a scruffy, handheld docu-realism style (boy, talk about an aesthetic that felt fresher seven years ago than it does now), it's conspicuously not a love story no matter how the structure feels like it's saying otherwise, and the best scene is, by a landslide, a moment about the spontaneous, insight-driven creation of a fleshed-out orchestration of a tender indie-folk song. Real actors play the protagonists of Begin Again, and they have given names, and that's probably the most pronounced difference.

Then again, Once was terrific, and Ozu made the same film, like, ten times in the '40s and '50s. So if Carney wants to revisit themes with a bit more maturity under his belt, why not? The results are charming as hell and not without a solid knowledge of how people think, interact with technology, form personal connections, and express feelings. It doesn't quite get up to Once level, in part because it is not as novel, in part because its setting isn't so original (struggling musicians in New York are one of the most over-described subgroups in modern independent filmmaking), and in part because for all the oohing and aahing the characters do over the album they're putting together, as far as my tastes go, there's nothing in the film that can hold a candle to Once's beguiling "Falling Slowly". But that's a taste issue.

In the new film, we have a young lady from England named Gretta (Keira Knightley), introduced playing a half-formed song to an indifferent audience in a New York bar; and we have Dan (Mark Ruffalo), introduced listening to her with a goofy, pleased smile that seems wildly out of proportion to her nonexistent enthusiasm for performing it or the sloppy noisiness of the venue. And then we flash back to find out that Dan has had a really shitty day, having been fired from his job at an indie record label he co-founded, and being generally despised by his teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and impatiently tolerated by his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener). In what is either a happy accident or a particularly cunning example of form following function, Begin Again is kind of the most boring version of itself for the entirety of this unduly long day-in-review, and then suddenly blossoms into legitimately interesting cinema at exactly the moment that Dan's awful day suddenly becomes very, very promising. In that aforementioned "best scene by a landslide", we see Gretta's film-opening musical performance from Dan's perspective, and instead of the brusque, acutely embarrassing sound mix of the first go-round, with Knightley's voice flattening out and the mumbles and clinks of the background brought up loud enough that it's hard to miss it, the version Dan hears is a fully orchestrated, rich pop song, with one instrument after the next making itself felt in his auditory imagination.

Storytelling can happen in a lot of ways, but storytelling - like literal, actual "the entire focus of this scene and all the meaning derived from it" storytelling - through sound design is rare enough that Begin Again as a whole suddenly explodes from being just a drowsy routine indie New Yorkisms spiced up by Ruffalo, Steinfeld, and Keener (who gets an exquisite moment early in the film, physically responding to Ruffalo with a clear sense of "I remember we used to have sex and I used to like it, and now I'm mad at myself" movement while he's in another room). And even if it never reaches quite that level again, it becomes far more engaging, not least because it also shifts, at this moment, from a docu-realism story of broken people to a process story about broken people forgetting about how broken they are thanks to the thrill of the chase (not coincidentally, the only time the film lags again is during another lengthy flashback, detailing Gretta's recent breakup from her boyfriend, played by Adam Levine, in America to become a rock star on the back of a song in a hit movie soundtrack). Ruffalo and Knightley are both terrific in the dance that ensues as Dan tries to convince Gretta to record a song, or a demo, or a whole damn album done up in the kind of oddball concept that will make their shared crushing poverty a strength and not a liability. The neuroticism and passion that comes with being a creative type feel entirely earned and natural, especially on Knightley's side of things (I don't know if I'd come out swinging with a "best performance of her career", but it's almost certainly the most comfortable). Begin Again, in its best moments - which are not infrequent - is appealing mostly on the backs of watching interesting, capable people going on with their business in an engaged, focused manner, and dealing with their personal problems not because they have a big heaving Movie Moment of catharsis, but because doing their work allows them enough distance and clarity to gain a new perspective on their lives.

It's all a bit predictable, I suppose, but the important thing is that it works, and that Dan and Gretta (and all the well-etched side characters) are fascinating enough as both people and professionals that it's a real delight to spend an hour and a half watching them. None of the songs blew my head open, and the "extended" ending underneath the credits sucks some of the impact out of the "real" ending, both of which are the exact opposites of Once's two biggest strengths; but no matter how much Begin Again follows obediently in its big sibling's footsteps, it's always entirely satsifying as a thing unto itself.

8/10

17 July 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 9 POLL: HORROR IN THE LATE '90S

VOTING CLOSED - WINNER: JACK FROST
Thanks to everyone who voted!

In all of film history, there was never a worst time to be a horror fan than the late 1990s. Even the times when they basically weren't making horror films were better; nothing at all is preferable to such filth-sucking mediocrity as the genre was able to produce in the era when the last choking death of straight slashers played itself out on video, while movie theaters bore witness to a parade of desperately over-hip Scream wannabes that favored insufferable, '90s-style irony over even the minutest attempt to do something real.

Naturally, we must spend a moment genuflecting in the direction of these terrible, terrible movies.

Jack Frost (1997)
From IMDb: "A serial killer dies, comes back as a snowman, and wreacks [sic] havoc."

Lake Placid (1999)
From IMDb: "Horror-Comedy about a man-eating crocodile loose in the lake."

Urban Legend (1998)
From IMDb: "A college student suspects a series of bizarre deaths are connected to certain urban legends."


DRIVING THAT TRAIN

Snowpiercer is the absolute best thing.

Okay, so Snowpiercer isn't literally the absolute best, obviously, but it's the kind of film which exists on a plain of such energy and madness that it inspires such an all-in response even if it's stupid. Incidentally, the last movie I saw that made me feel the same "that's the absolute best thing" impulse, for mostly the same reasons, even though I knew that it of course wasn't the best, or even close to the best, was Cloud Atlas. So my take on the film should probably be taken with a hefty ol' grain of salt.

Basically, Snowpiercer is a great, giddy mess of a film, one that picks up as many ideas as it can manage to hold and runs with them as far and fast as it can until it completely blows out. It's the most blunt, anti-nuanced allegory that cinema has produced in years (allegories not being terribly much in fashion at the moment), and its commitment that allegory is so complete that for whatever failures of logic and storytelling structure the movie evinces - and there are failures on both fronts - it's really hard to argue that it ever wanted to succeed as a conventional piece of storytelling anyway. Which has nothing to do with anything, but when one bumps around on the internet and encounters the people raising issues about how the tracks were built, or whatever, one starts to get intensely crabby, in the "were you even slightly interested in actually watching the movie?" sense.

So anyway, Snowpiercer, which I don't think is actually the given name of the train which features so prominently in the plot, but we can still pretty clearly refer to the train as being the titular character, even so. The film sets out its backstory with such intense economy of language and image that I think it would be hard to blame somebody for not catching it: in 2014, an experiment to counteract global warming goes terribly wrong, and the entire surface of Earth is plunged into unlivable, demonic cold. All the remains of humanity is gathered on that train, going around the entire world in an endless loop, and the history of why this is so is doled out piecemeal throughout the film. The passengers are segmented in a rigid caste system: the closer to the back, the more of a nobody you are, and of course the train's engineer Wilford, in the very first car with the engine itself, is the biggest somebody of all, more a god than a human from the way people talking about it. In 2031, there comes a point at which 34-year-old Curtis Everette (Chris Evans) has gotten too sick of the miserable life of people in the far back, and so, encouraged by the cryptic messages received by the wily old Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and several of the other strongest members of their car begin a full-scale rebellion, pushing their way along the train, car by car, hunting for Wilford and the children that he stole away from them for God knows what reason.

I doubt very much that it's even possible to have such a lack of imagination that you can't see what this is all about: it's a parable of the 99% against the 1%, with several characters filling in as symbols for particular aspects of that conflict. More overtly and consistently Marxist movies have existed, but you have to go all the way back to Europe in the 1970s to find them. The huge difference between Snowpiercer and e.g. The Working Class Goes to Heaven is that Snowpiercer eschews anything that resembles even the most distorted version of realism. It is first and always a heightened genre film - and more specifically, a South Korean genre film, albeit one which is at least 90% in English and stars Captain America in the lead role. But Korean it is, and you don't need to have seen too many Korean films to understand what that implies in terms of the movie's kinetic energy, whiplash tonal shifts, and commitment to its own weird internal logic no matter how much that logic might start to feel like a liability in the immensely peculiar last act (which, after much reflection, I have decided to like).

So basically, we have here yet another Bong Joon-ho picture; the director's fifth feature and first project since 2009's Mother (which I think is still his best movie, which might really just mean that it's his most consistent), his first in English, and his first with American and British movie stars: Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Allison Pill (in a fucking magnificent one-scene performance) and Tilda Swinton are also in the cast. Though Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung are on-hand to play father and daughter (as they did in the director's 2006 Western breakthrough, The Host), a drugged-out lock-picker and drugged-out psychic, respectively, and it would be a lie to say that the film doesn't seem at least a little bit more comfortable when it's focused on them than when it's focused on anybody else.

But anyway, as I was saying: Bong Joon-ho. There's a certain "let's fucking go for it" energy to every one of his projects that I have seen, and none have ever been so ludicrous ebullient as this. Though it's the director's first adapted project - based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette - it fits smoothly into the rest of his career, or at least as smoothly as anything could fit into a stream of films defined mostly by their oblique angles and refusal to fit into clear, pre-ordained shapes. The film is equal parts left-wing agitprop, live-action cartoon (Swinton's high-wire performance as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and Margaret Dumont, done up as a secular religious extremist, is one of the most transfixing things I have ever seen that most transfixing of actresses do; not necessarily because it is as-such "good acting", but because it holds absolutely nothing back, and serves to foreshadow the tonal developments of the second half in a way I fully approve of), balletic action film, and grand tour of Ondřej Nekvasil's outstanding production design, which feels like a Felliniesque romp through individually magical shadowboxes that all come from a completely different place, mixed the smooth lines of futurism, and always so linear and cramped that we never, ever forget that this all takes place on a train.

Not all of these things work all the time, and not all of them are as good as others: for all the obvious love and care that went into the film's big night-vision goggles fight showcase, there's no denying that the film suffers for coming out (in the States, anyway), the same year as the exhaustively inventive martial arts epic The Raid 2: Berendal. And while I do not agree with the criticism, I can't really argue against the complaint that the film goes from not making sense with brio and momentum, to not making sense in a kind of jerry-rigged, emotionally unsatisfying fashion (though I do think that Evans - a revelation here, even after the increasing soulfulness and complexity of his big-ass Marvel movie performances - helps to keep things hanging together through his responses to what happens, and as long as we stick with his perspective instead of trying to adopt some kind of third-person objectivity, I think the climactic revelations all flow reasonably well).

But the thing is, even if its failure were far more manifest and undeniable, Snowpiercer has a level of ambition that is simple not present in the vast majority of films, certainly not the vast majority of films that occupy the same generic territory. It has a level of visual creativity and thematic ambition and performative eccentricity that are much, much too rare, and even when it's not working in the worst way, it still felt more alive and vital than the bulk of movies are even in their best moments. Every moment of genius and every half-formed lump alike make this one of the completely essential films of the year.

9/10

16 July 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1959: In which youth culture has always been disposable

Melodramas, neo-Westerns, proto-indies, social commentary and all are fun, but I couldn't leave the 1950s behind without touching on that decade's single most lasting contribution, not just to movies but to Western civilisation generally. The '50s, you see, were the decade when Teen Culture truly came into existence, not just in the sense of teenagers existing and having interests and social codes unlike their parents, but of teenagers being a major force in the pop culture landscape, maybe even the major force, especially as far as music was concerned. We could have picked any movie from any number of years in the wake of WWII (when the perfect storm of economic expansion that permitted widespread adolescent leisure time first took place) for our case study, but where we currently sit in 1959, we'll be going with Gidget, the film that made an icon of Sandra Dee and put surfing and California beach life on the pop culture map.

The fact that Sandra Dee is a name more associated with a concept than a flesh-and-blood human, and California beach life now tends to register as the province of aging hippies more than young bucks points us to one of the main characteristics of Gidget and most other teen movies besides it: they don't last. When actual artistry happens to them, it is almost on accident, either because a great filmmaker somehow managed to wander into to the genre's path (and then you get Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause) , or because the culture of that exact moment is itself so vibrant and image-driven that even functioning as a simple document of that time offers considerable stylistic appeal (and then you get many films from the middle and late 1960s). Otherwise, they tend to be dumped in the laps of journeyman filmmakers who'd rather make a living than an artistic statement, and mostly act as shepherds for the material than shapers of it (and then you get goddamn near everything else, from I Was a Teenage Werewolf right on down to Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars).

What they lack as cinema, though, teen audience films tend to make up for in being some of the most astonishing time capsules that have ever been produced in the medium. Precisely for the reason that they're quick attempts to make stories for Young People Today, who pointedly and willfully reject the past and have an underdeveloped ability to conceptualise the future, they capture moments and Zeitgeists and the very texture of what everyday life looks like better than almost anything else out there. And so it is with Gidget, which has its very meager charms as a story and all, but is mostly compelling, and I might even say "vital" in a particularly generous mood, as a small container of the mores of the late '50s as pertained to teenage sexual development and peer pressure. Which is probably only interesting in a very limited way for a self-selecting audience, but sociology is sociology, and I am pleased to think that the garbage of one generation is the fascination of another, and that some day, a half a century from now, some future film geek who won't be born for another 20 years or so might find the same value in Twilight.

So the point of this is, anyway, that Gidget is shockingly smutty, for a film from '59, and definitely for a film that the biggish studio of Columbia was pitching at a youth audience, and especially for a a film that was those things and whose star and reputation are both yoked for the rest of time to a concept of freakishly over-scrubbed purity. The basic scenario of Gabrielle Upton's script, adapted from novel that Frederick Kohner based on his own daughter, is about a 16-going-on-17 girl named Frances Lawrence (Sandra Dee née Alexandra Zuck) who is so lousy with virginity that her girlfriends decide to get her laid. And not, like, in a Code-era way where subtlety and innuendo are employed to give audiences in the know a hint about what's going on. The word "sex" comes right out and brandishes itself, something that always throws me a little bit in films from before about '64 or so. But Francie has now interest in anything so unpleasant as being pawed at and slobbered on by teen boys; as she discovers upon going to the beach on a man-hunt - she in a sleek one-piece that de-emphasises her chest, naturally - she'd much rather learn to surf than learn to give furtive, sweaty blow-jobs in the back of some high schooler's dad's T-Bird, or whatever sexually active teenagers did in '59. But of course, as she studies under the all-grown-up surf bum Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), a sort of Zen master to a bunch of younger boys, she finds her falling for the one member of Kahuna's clique who seems most irritated by her presence, Moondoggie (James Darren). And in the process, she is given the nickname "Gidget", meaning "girl midget", despite it not being at all apparent from the way director Paul Wendkos and cinematographer Burnett Guffey that Dee is meaningfully short compared to the rest of the female cast.

The open, frank acknowledgement that teenagers have needs, and those needs involving humping each other, is easily the most interesting thing about Gidget, which thus manages in a very plain, unexploitative way (compared to the randy AIP beach movies of the '60s, this is largely denuded of actual libido) to up-end the expectations one has in looking at the Eisenhower Era, popularly assumed to be a time when teens were being prodded to have good clean fun at the sock hop before sharing a milkshake at a brightly-lit soda fountain, regardless of what they were actually up to. In Gidget, teens are worldly enough that even the ultra-chaste Francie isn't caught off guard in the slightest when she ends up at Kahuna's rape cave (and indeed, she rather leans on him to invite her there). And it's good that something in Gidget is interesting, because as a movie in and of itself, it's frankly not very good. The best thing about it is opening credits, designed in a kind of deco, Saul Bass-ish manner, with large, irregular blocks of bright color gliding and popping around, and the whole thing is only slightly spoiled by a theme song whose message appears to be that you can't look too much like an innocent little girl for the singer not to still harbor fantasies of boning you.

The movie itself is, kind of... well, "frivolous" is hardly a criticism of a beach movie and teen sex comedy, more of a description. But is awfully frivolous, and Robertson is alone in the entire cast in seeming to have given enough thought to his character to avoid floating off the screen entirely. The legendary Ms. Dee is, herself, a bit tiresome, with her shrill shriek of joy at everyfuckingthing that happens over the course of the movie's incident-light 95 minutes, and her way of making late-'50s teen slang sound even more garish and dippy than it already is on its own. If I ever hear someone describe something as "just, the ultimate!" again - and thankfully, since it is the 2010s and '50s nostalgia happened back in the early '80s, I probably won't - I'll put my fist through a wall.

And needless to say, Gidget is no kind of masterpiece of craft; it's the definition of something pushed out with as little fuss and effort as possible. The stock footage of surfing is fun to look at, though not typically as impressive as the beach movies of five years later; the quantity of location shooting is appealing, as well, giving the film a bright, open, clean look. But it's pretty uninspired and workmanlike, with absolutely no attempt to fill up the anamorphic widescreen frame. At it's worst, it's not even that: there's some seriously "don't give a fuck" sound editing in a lot of scenes, with lines clipping off abruptly and ambient noise failing to match up from shot to shot, like the thing only had about ten hours in post-production.

That would be the other thing about time capsules: they often have nothing to offer beyond the window the give into another period in history. Honestly, very little about Gidget "works": it's interesting in how very dated it has become, but all of that interest is extra-textual. Still, this is basically living history, and rewarding solely for the reason that it showcases the way that living has evolved: the teens in Gidget are recognisable in their essentials from any subsequent point in American history, even if the way they express themselves is so wildly different that it feels at times like watching an artifact from an alien planet.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1959
-Envelope pusher Otto Preminger makes his sauciest movie yet - with filthy words like "rape" and "panties" - the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder
-Disney releases the costly but exquisitely beautiful Super Technirama animated feature Sleeping Beauty
-B-movie impresario William Castle creates the legendary marketing gimmicks "Emergo" and "Percepto" for House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, respectively

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1959
-The French New Wave is more or less officially inaugurated by François Truffaut's The 400 Blows
-Carry On Nurse is released, the second of the 31 films in the British Carry On series; I mention it now only out of frustration that I missed when it started in '58
-Political shit-stirrer Gillo Pontecorvo has his first major success with the Italian-French co-production Kapó, shot in the surprisingly burgeoning film haven of Yugoslavia