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25 May 2015


A review requested by Nathan Morrow, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

As titles go, Mind Game is perfect: it describes exactly what the movie is and plans to do to its audience (it's also in English and Latin characters, despite the film being overwhelmingly in Japanese). The 2004 animated feature is a psychological portrait that uses metaphysics, memory, and delirious shifts in perception to keep things from ever making perfect sense, and then having allowed itself to start to level off in its second half, it jumps into a finale that intuitively works but God help you if you decide to apply linear logic to it. I've seen the film three times now, and I'm still not completely sure I know how to parse everything that happens, other than being comfortable in declaring that all of it feels right, relative to where the characters are at any given moment. And that is all that the film requires, given that it is far more interesting in portraying a state of mind than telling s story. It can be best compared to another film that also, coincidentally, first appeared in 2004, an ocean away: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also places us inside of a character's memories for lengthy stretches of screen time. The most important difference being that Eternal Sunshine, no matter how much inventive camerawork and editing were thrown its way, is still ultimately bound by what actors are physically capable of doing. Mind Game, being animated, is under no such limitation; and it takes the absolute fullest possible advantage of its medium.

The movie was the feature directorial debut of Yuasa Masaaki, with the animation direction specifically overseen by Morimoto Koji, and it is absolutely the movie that happens when somebody who has been kicking around the industry for a while finally pukes out everything he's absorbed into one frenzied blast of inspiration. If nothing else, Mind Game might well be the most-animated Japanese film of the 2000s, utilising at least three absolutely different aesthetic vocabularies as it goes along, none of which are the big-eyed clear line drawings with bold colors that most of us first think of as anime (though there are a couple of dream sequences where old-school anime is broadly parodied). Even within its individual flavors, which range from photorealistic drawings to sketches that feel like a bored teenager's doodles, the animation in Mind Game to any one sort of thing - its most distinctive trait, visually, is the way that the protagonist's whole body can be warped into extreme shapes and exaggerated facial expressions. It resembles, if it resembles any one thing, the similarly intense caricatures of emotions in Takahata Isao's My Neighbors the Yamadas, on which Yuasa was one of the primary animators.

The film's internal breakage is always linked to the strength and nature of the emotional state entered by its lead character, and I guess we should meet him right about now, huh? Mind Game centers on Nishi (Imada Koji), a young man who could charitably be described as a pathetic loser; his career as an aspiring manga artist hasn't quite exploded yet, and his personal life is a shambles, as we find out in the exact moment of meeting him, as he encounters his childhood crush Myon (Maeda Sayaka) in the subway, as she's on the run from gangsters, if in fact she is. By this point, the film has already begun relaxing the normal rules of continuity and chronology, and the opening scenes don't obviously slot into any gap in the onscreen plot. What really matters, anyway, isn't the presence of gangsters, but Nishi's unbridled response to seeing Myon again: he freaks out and remembers how much he never remotely got over her, and keeps staring at her large chest. He is as perfect an embodiment of a sexually underdeveloped manchild as you could ever hope to come across, and everything that happens, happens because he trails after Myon like a lost dog. That's how he ends up at the restaurant run by her sister, Yan (Takuma Seiko), when the gangsters show up looking for the sisters' father (Sakata Toshio); that's how he ends up being shot dead; that's how he ends up impressing God It/Him/Herself with the furor of his desire to live; that's how ends up leading Myon and Yan into the belly of an unfathomably enormous whale, where they spend the longest individual portion of the film's running time cooling their heels and visiting with a peculiar but mostly friendly old man (Fujii Takashi). It's not a normal movie. Don't need it to be a normal movie.

The thing I love best about Mind Game and thing that annoys me the most about it are inextricably yoked: this is a film entirely about Nishi's perception of the world and of himself. On the downside, this means that the whole thing is a bit tawdrily obsessed with sex and female bodies (this is a distractingly boob-obsessed film), though sometimes the tawdriness goes all the way back 'round to genius, like the technicolor orgy fantasy in which Nishi uses his phallus as a jump rope, as Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2" plays, like some kind of oversexed remake of Fantasia on acid. So even the downside is only kind of a downside, and the upsides are constant, extreme, and enormously gratifying. Mind Game is, directly as a result of its subjectivity, one of the most radical animated projects made in this century in any ultimately representational style. That radicalism does not mean that the film isn't messy as hell, for it certainly can be. Though it's surprising clear throughout why the fluid style is being employed on a moment-by-moment basis (it is, almost without fail, because of Nishi's mood at that moment, moving between lust, fear, anger, or triumph with visual cues to match). And the digressive parentheticals which make up essentially all of the narrative, no matter how surreal they get in terms of what we're seeing and how much loopy comedy it generates, kind of make perfect sense as the literalisation of Nishi's daydreams.

And radicalism is only so much of a justification for itself; Mind Game is a dazzling feat, a cornucopia of new ideas and arresting, shocking visuals, but it can be a little fatiguing, honestly. After a while, and for me it's during the slowest part of the whale interlude, one begins to wish that the movie didn't feel quite so free to race headlong into every rabbit hole that caught Yuasa's eye. The point of the movie, illustrating a hectic mind in a state of near-constant panic, either romantic or existential, explains and earns the barrage of disconnected moments - I used the word "daydream" earlier, and that's exactly the way the film feels and connects its ideas - but it would be possible to accuse it, accurately, of being bound together by no stronger tie than "cool shit goes down in the most unpredictable ways". Frequently, that's enough: the scene between Nishi and God, who transforms in appearance with every movement and cut, is a marvel of animation and sarcastic theology alike, and it would never have showed up in a film that was exercising any kind of discipline or restraint. The same for the closing montage, which wraps up the fates of just about every character of note in quick bursts of visual storytelling that legitimately can't be unpacked without a pause button.

At any rate, you can't separate out the weaknesses from the commanding, singular strength of how well this movie uses the specific capabilities of animation to plow through its protagonist's head. Subjectivity divorced from physical plausibility is a miraculous combination, and it's enough to make Mind Game one of the essential animated features in the last 15 years. In fairness, it might well be the case that this is an animated film mostly for other animators and animation buffs; but as an animation buff in good standing, I don't personally have any problem with that. It just makes it slightly - slightly - hard to be quite as active in recommending it to the world at large as I'd like to.

24 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 8

About the project

ULYSSES' GAZE (Theo Angelopoulos, Greece/France/Italy)
Screened in the main competition

God bless anybody who can make it through all three hours without their attention faltering at least once. Angelopoulos's immodestly slow-moving cinema of languid shots and low-key performances isn't for everybody, and Ulysses' Gaze is a particularly extreme version of that. It sends Harvey Keitel as Greek-American film director "A" on a mission to find the oldest piece of cinema made in the Balkans, and straight into a heavily symbolic meditation on the oppressive weight of history and violence in that region, in which enormous dismantled statues of Lenin gaze out coldly at the world, and oppressive fog demonstrates the confusion and obscurantism of human perception. Individually, it's made up of almost nothing bu striking images and meaningfully slow moments, but long before the movie was even thinking about ending, I was cowed into submission more than transfixed by the gravity of every moment. Angelopoulos was aghast at receiving "merely" the second place Grand Prix, but even that seems more a nod to the film's important politics than its artistic effectiveness. 6/10

SHANGHAI TRIAD (Zhang Yimour, France/China)
Screened in the main competition

The recipient of a special "Technical Grand Prize", which basically equates to a Best Cinematography award, given to DP Lu Yue, production supervisor Bruno Patin, and color timer Olivier Chiavassa. It's absolutely a film that deserves a cinematography award, too, though it's also the kind of film for which your first thought upon exiting it is, "that definitely deserves something for its cinematography!", if you understand my meaning. Filtering its tale of gangland warfare through the perspective of petulant nightclub singer and gangster's moll (she's played, terrifically, by Gong Li), and then filtering her through the eyes of a teenage boy from the country (Wang Xiaoxiao) who can barely articulate his impressions through all of it, the film has a point-of-view problem, staying at arm's length from its story (which is a bit overly routine) and characters. It's far livelier in its last thirty minutes, when it moves to a rural island and starts to complicate Gong's character, and the beauty carries it through a lot. But this is not one of Zhang's deeper works. 7/10

THE ARSONIST (U-Wei Bin Haji Saari, Malaysia)
Screened in Un Certain Regard

The first-ever Malay film to play in competition at Cannes, and the first I have seen; I wonder if the UCR jury was as blindsided by it as I was. Fluidly moving the very particular milieu of William Faulkner (it's based on his story "Barn Burning") into the very particular milieu of the Javanese immigrant minority in Malaysia, the film is at once a symbolic microcosm of class and ethnic resentment and a transporting family drama. It depicts the thorny relationship between a boy and his sometimes admirable, sometimes beastly father, with actors Khaled Salleh (the father) and Ngasrizal Ngasri (the son) offering up devastating performances based almost entirely in silent reactions and body language - a late moment that finds Ngasri clapping his hands over his ears and scrunching up his face to block out his father's actions ranks among the great images from Cannes '95. The aesthetic is casually naturalistic but with a poetic attention to darkness and color; the social insights are smart as they are quiet. And all in just 67 minutes! 9/10


To begin with, define "horror" in a way that makes everybody happy; then solve the intractable mysteries of cinema history prior to 1920. And once you have done these two things, you can authoritatively state, "this is the first American horror film". But until we reach that point of pure intellectual fulfillment, the best we can do is to make our best approximation. So it's more a matter of convenience than rock-solid history that leads me to anoint as that first American horror film a certain adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's frequently strip-mined Frankenstein, produced in 1910 by the Edison Company. And here's what we do know: we do know that this was the very first American Frankenstein. So close enough for government work, is what I'm saying.

It holds another distinction, too: it was the first screen Frankenstein that adapted Shelley to the screen primarily by means of ignoring her completely. Part of that is the inevitability of condensing even a novel as moderate in its size as Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus to the duration of a one-reel motion picture - that duration being a bit difficult to pin down. Online sources all land on 16 minutes, but the version I have seen (which does not seem to be projected at too high a framerate) is less than 13. Either way, that leaves time for only a very harried version of Shelley's story, or a rebuild of the whole thing using only the basic ingredient common to all movie Frankensteins: a medical student named Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) decides to take it on himself to create live, and the thing he gives life to (Charles Ogle) proves to be a ghastly perversion. Though even in the most reduced form, writer-director J. Searle Dawley's adaptation plays loose with the material: while Shelley famously kept the details fuzzy, the basic notion of all versions of the story is that Frankenstein desired to bring dead flesh to life; this Frankenstein of 1910 is actually creating life out of nothing, more explicitly in the fashion of God even than usual.

In fact, this film's embrace of the "Frankenstein wants to be God" metaphor is so extreme that the monster turns out to be, literally, an extension of the creator's thought. The basic description of events - which you can easily follow for yourself, the public domain film is easily found on the internet (though on YouTube, at least, you can have either good resolution or properly tinted colors, but not both) - finds Frankenstein leaving for school, becoming consumed with thoughts of life and death, forming his creature, realising too late that his evil, unholy impulses had imprinted upon the being, turning it into a wrathful monster. It follows him as he returns home and to the arms of his fiancée (Mary Fuller), harassing them both, and causing Frankenstein to admit to the wickedness of his deeds. And this is where things get openly metaphysical, as the monster apparently ceases to exist except as an incorporeal projection of Frankenstein's mind, which even then dissolves into nothingness as he redeems himself from his impure ways.

It sure as hell ain't Shelley, though most of the film is derived from the book (Frankenstein in school, Frankenstein making the monster, and the monster assaulting Frankenstein's wife on her wedding night, all the significant plot points in the movie, are all Shelley's). But even if it deviates from the source material, it's still an enormously gratifying adaptation, intelligently grappling with its basic themes in a form that better suits the scale and palette available to a filmmaker of 1910, when scenes were still all but universally communicated in theatrical wide shots with limited cutting, and what we'd now call feature-length films only barely existed. Dawley, who liked to (overweeningly) call himself the first motion picture director, was more concerned than anyone else working at that time with dramatic cohesion, character reality, and the function of acting in films, so it fits that his Frankenstein would be a primarily psychological one; and his treatment of the monster as closer to an Edward Hyde-esque manifestation of Frankenstein's broken soul than a rampaging corpse is impressively achieved, all the more for being in such an unfamiliar idiom, both in terms of the stagey framing and the extravagantly broad acting.

But I brought us all together for a very specific reason, and I haven't even touched on it: how is Frankenstein '10 as horror, anyway? Astonishingly great, in fact, especially since horror as a codified genre in American cinema was still 20 years away from finally coalescing (thanks, in part, to that other and better-known Frankenstein). Like most adaptations of the novel, its most striking scene is the creation of the monster, and I will frankly declare that, adjusting for the steep technological curve of the years following, this particular movie has one of the very best versions of that scene ever. It's more of an alchemical process than the biological one favored by most later movies: Frankenstein tosses some stuff into a vat locked into a metal chamber, and the monster forms, almost of its own will. The technique is obvious and simple: Dawley set a model on fire, and burned it into ashes, while waggling one of its arms, and then he ran the footage backwards. It's as primitive as any trick in the cinematic toolkit, but it works enormously well here: watching a humanoid form extrude from the very air is uncanny as hell even without the distressing floppiness of that dead arm, no matter how much the smoke moving downward gives away the game. It's a terrific scene in every detail: the cuts back to an increasingly nervous Frankenstein, the refusal to show the fully-realised monster at first, even the skeleton hanging out in the corner of one frame, implying a chamber of horrrors just off camera that we can only imagine.

As for the monster itself, it's a freaky bit of make-up, designed by Ogle himself, and looking more like a wild man-ape than a grotesque animated corpse. Ogle certainly gives the most interesting performance, too, slinking around erratically and using his big grand gestures as ways of stressing his alien nature, while Phillips and Fuller make those same gestures simply because that's how you do, in 1910. Watching him lope and shuffle around the sets is horror of the most genuine sort: an intrusion of something incomprehensible and wrong into a sedate, even boringly normal space. It's too much to ask that a 105-year-old movie should still be even marginally "scary", but with this monster creeping around these places, Frankenstein is still impressively able to be unsettling and creepy. The film is a relic of an almost unrecognisably earlier period in the medium's development, but it's as broadly accessible as anything from the same filmmaking style that I can name. It's kind of the perfect "my first early narrative cinema" experience, with the comforting familiarity of genre helping to bridge the archaic presentation with the far more immediate emotions it evokes. American horror couldn't ask for a sturdier, more confident opening act than this.

Body Count: 0 or 1, depending on exactly how metaphysical you want the monster to end up being.

23 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 7

About the project

THE NEON BIBLE (Terence Davies, UK)
Screened in the main competition

Years later, Davies would confess that he found this, his third feature, a failure whose value was chiefly that without it, he wouldn't have been able to make The House of Mirth. And I am not one to disagree with a gifted filmmaker: it's hard not to regard this as the reigning low point of Davies's otherwise unblemished career. Which isn't the same as dismissing it as totally without its own merits: it's dazzling to look at, recasting the U.S. South of '30s and '40s as a dreamy, theatrical space, full of impenetrable black backdrops against which the characters move as haunting abstractions of human behavior. The proportion of gorgeous, heavily thought-out shots that burn into the brain is high with this one. But that cuts both ways: the stagey stylisation robs all the humanity out of an already whispery scenario, leaving even as reliable an actor as Gena Rowland unable to make any real impression. It's not unmemorable, but it's chilly as hell, to its extreme detriment as a memoir. 6/10

NASTY LOVE (Mario Martone, Italy)
Screened in the main competition

The film has the misfortune to peak in its first ten minutes, a freewheeling introduction to the characters and the film's overriding theme of weird sexuality that's so vigorous in its lack of clear connective tissue between thoughts that it borders on surrealism. But even if it grows somewhat less evocatively deranged as it moves along, and its climactic reveals have a certain "ho-hum, people are depraved the world over" feeling, it's always a pretty unique, even oddball trek through the realms of bleak family drama and increasingly unresolved murder mystery. Anna Bonaiuto does fine work as the daughter soldiering her way through half-formed clues and a host of insistently unhelpful rogues to find out what chain of events led to her mother ending up dead on a beach; it's thanks almost solely to her flintiness that the film is able to land its final declarations about the ways that hurt begets hurt and ancient sins can keep battering us in the present. A giddy blast of offbeat bleakness through and through. 8/10

RUDE (Clement Virgo, Canada)
Screened in Un Certain Regard

A watershed moment in the Canadian film industry: the first feature made by an entirely black crew and with a mostly black cast. It's the kind of film that makes one feel tremendously bad to dislike it, especially since a defense of many of its seeming deficiencies can be sketched directly from its outsider perspective: the film is literally finding different ways of looking at its subjects from the norm. But that only excuses the awkward shots and shabby mise en scène up to a point, and it doesn't include the stilted performances of underwritten characters at all. There are highlights, chief among them the lacerating, sexually aggressive performance of Sharon Lewis as the pirate radio operator of the title, and one of the film's three plotlines - a newly-released convict trying to find a way back to his son's life - is as piercing and well-observed as the other two are generic and underfelt. Mostly, though, this is a well-meant amateur misfire, the kind larded up with irritatingly fussy shots and dopey symbolic lions. 6/10

KISS OF DEATH (Barbet Schroeder, USA)
Screened out of competition

The obvious question is "what on God's earth led to a David Caruso crime thriller getting a Cannes slot?", it seeming from all the ingredients that this had to be nothing whatsoever other than a generic mid-'90s gangster movie. Which it kind of is, and it's no wonder based on all the evidence here that Caruso's leading man career was snuffed out almost before it started (I still have not seen Jade, the movie that delivered the killing blow). He's simply too generic an actor to support the largely run-of-the-mill moral and psychological questions posed by the script, though Schroeder makes good use of his off-kilter looks. What actually saves the film - almost - are the fascinatingly bizarre supporting characters played by Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Stanley Tucci, Kathryn Erbe, and especially a blustering, mad Nicholas Cage. It feels like dropping a vanilla everyman into a cage of cartoon zoo animals, and damned if it doesn't give the film a tension that manages to justify its existence in an overpopulated genre. 6/10

SAFE (Todd Haynes, UK/USA)
Screened in Directors' Fortnight

Nothing less than one of the key English-language films of the 1990s. Its dissection of material society, spirituality, self-definition, and the dis-empowerment of women at first looks barbarically simple in its "allergic to the environment" metaphor, only becoming more fluid, nuanced, and unnervingly applicable to seemingly every aspect of modern life as you try to reduce it to its essentials. Every frame of Alex Nepomniaschy's cinematography could be cut out and hung on the wall, as he and Haynes present David Bomba's ingenious, deceptively naturalistic production design in ominously squared-off images that present the script's suggestion of contemporary life as a house of untraceable horrors with an intuitive precision far beyond words. In the center of this miraculously cryptic and blunt story, Julianne Moore gives the best performance of a legendary career as vivid blank slate, a collection of impressions and responses seeking a center around which to coalesce. So brilliant that it must be difficult and dense, yet so keenly cinematic in its singular aesthetic that watching it is a totally intuitive experience. 10/10


Being "disappointed" in Pitch Perfect 2 would require having meaningfully elevated expectations for it, and hopefully not too many people would make that mistake. Cinema history is littered with comedy sequels that fail in exactly the way this one does: re-create the same plot beats and thematic arc, only do everything bigger, more expensive, and less funny. There are few enough exceptions that the course of wisdom is to just assume that you're heading for a piece of absolute crap, or a mildly amusing but horrifically lazy retread at best, and when you are graced by the sudden arrival of an Addams Family Values or A Shot in the Dark, clutch it to your breast like an innocent child. What I am disappointed in, then, is not the movie itself.

But I am definitely willing to concede that I'm very disappointed in Elizabeth Banks's directorial debut, which Pitch Perfect 2 happens to be: after years of counting on Banks to be a reliable stabilising presence in wonderful comedies, mediocre comedies, and downright shitty comedies, I was more than a little eager to see her apply the knowledge she picked up over the years into working on the backside of the camera. And that didn't happen; there are lots of reasons that Pitch Perfect 2 isn't very great, but the directing is absolutely one of them, with the tone going far more sour far more often than in the first Pitch Perfect and the visuals flatlining in exactly the place you'd want them to thrive, the musical numbers. Which are inventively staged by choreographer Aakomon "A.J." Jones, but shot hectically and cut to ribbons by Banks and editor Craig Alpert, and that's just no fun at all.

In her defense, Banks didn't have all that much to work with. The script, written like the original by Kay Cannon, is a pristine example of sequelitis, going to extreme (and frankly, unnecessary) lengths to set the characters back to the start in a lot of ways, while raising the stakes enormously but unconvincingly, and ramping up everything that worked last time from modest and thus charming all the way to screaming and tedious. Three years after winning the national college a capella championships, the Barden Bellas are America's premiere a capella group, having completed a three-peat of their victory, and thus must be punished back down to freakish misfits. This is accomplished in the first of the film's weirdly regressive jokes, for a movie that is so fucking anxious to show off its liberal message bonafides: at a concert for no less than President Stockfootage Obama, the self-named Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), sardonic Australian and beloved breakout character from the last movie, suffers a wardrobe mishap that leaves her genitalia on lingering display for all of America to gawk at with intense furor and ragehorror, because the vaginas of fat people are the holes to Lovecraftian hell dimensions.

The Bellas are kicked out of the a capella ssociation with only one chance to redeem themselves: if - if! - they can become the first American team to win the world championship of a capella. And they throw themselves into the task of doing so, though de facto leader Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) is far more interested in her new internship under a great music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) than making new and radically challenging arrangements for the group to prove itself. It's no more and no less predictable in its assemble of stock items than Pitch Perfect was, and the difference comes down entirely to performance and tone. Pitch Perfect ignored its wanton overfamiliarity in favor of focusing on the warm, specific characters played by Kendrick, Wilson, and others like Brittany Snow (who comes back as a graduation-averse four-time senior), Anna Camp (who cameos), and Ester Dean (who returns in a role that isn't as mired in lazy stereotypes as before, though it feels like she's also in the movie less). Pitch Perfect 2 lets its characters be far too snappish, and the basic pleasure of watching characters be friends with each other is forced and inauthentic in most of its occurrences. There are just enough flashes of the congenial spirit of the first movie for the sequel to be, generally, speaking, satisfactory; for example, a long scene around a campfire where the movie digs in with a "wow, we're all going to graduate soon and this will all end" vibe that the movie keeps glancing at without committing to.

But these likable grace notes are only intermittent in a film that loses the originals two best weapons, with much-degraded performances from a palpably checked-out Kendrick and Wilson shading perpetually into mean brutality instead of fleet-footed sarcasm. And then there's the usual "do it again but bigger and stupider" problem, which finds the last movie's riff-off turned into a huge underground a capella death match overseen by a rich eccentric played by David Cross as a collection of mincing effeminate stereotypes that were stale by the end of the 1980s (this scene does have, by far, the film's best joke in the form of the most unexpected celebrity cameos in an age), and the dirty-minded humor cranked into outright foulness that's so wearying as to lose any ability to trigger even a slight giggle. The morally reprehensible color commentators played by John Michael Higgins and Banks herself (she proves, like many actors before her, incapable of directing herself; she keeps stumbling into a reprise of her Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games and its sequels) are even more of a film-stopping liability than before, jamming the breaks to grimly push through riffs with rather too much cruelty to be even ironically funny.

Even when the film plumbs new territory, it's of limited value. The movie's new villains, an archly Germanic a capella group led by the statuesque Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and Pieter Krämer (Flula Borg), are amusingly severe at first (all of Kendrick's best work comes in her scenes with them), though it eventually becomes clear that the movie's sole idea for them is "boy, Germans are assholes!", the first volley in what will eventually become a whole litany of national parodies in the last act that makes Epcot Center look like a painfully realist docudrama (one previously unseen Bella, played by Chrissie Fit, is nothing but a delivery system for obnoxious and tired "boy, what about illegal immigrants? And those Central American death squads!" jokes). The new hero, Emily Junk, is a generic striver played by Hailee Steinfeld without any color or charm, and the film's open insistence in its writing and framing that she's set to be the franchise anchor going forward is nothing but a threat. Particularly if her character continues to write such joylessly anonymous pop songs as the one that turns into a major film-long plot point, and we're meant to find enthralling in some way or another.

It would be overstating to call Pitch Perfect 2 "bad". Mostly, it is profoundly lazy, slackly plotted - after three years of national prominence at a school where a capella culture is a Big Fucking Deal, there's only one Bella who isn't a senior, and the script calls repeated attention to this fact - and tonally off; not contrary to being funny so much as it doesn't have the flair and timing to be more than thinly amusing. There's never more than ten minutes that go by without a scene that works well on a character level, and Key proves to be an infectious scene-stealer, wandering in from a spikier, much smarter movie and bringing all its stinging wit and laser-focused pacing with him. The filmmakers didn't not care. But they didn''t care enough, and their movie is the most boring kind of retread, one with all the jokes muted and the performances robbed of vitality and the characters put through glaringly simplistic paces.


22 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 6

About the project

LAND AND FREEDOM (Ken Loach, UK/Spain/Germany/Italy/France)
Screened in the main competition

Solid historical agitprop, examining with a fair degree of evenhandedness the political aspects of the left-wing resistance to Franco's regime in the '30s, as experienced by a young man from Liverpool driven by the idea of international solidarity to fight with the Republicans. It's clearly a subject close to Loach and screenwriter Jim Allen's hearts, presented with clarity and sophistication, though the attempts to mix political history and personal drama are inconclusive: the character-driven elements have a tendency to feel sticky and artificial. Loach's later The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which finally netted him a Palme d'Or after several at-bats (Land and Silence was his fourth film in the main competition) is much sturdier as a history lesson and a work of narrative cinema. That said, Land and Freedom is hard to fault on its own terms, with the director's customary arch-realism serving to keep the story hard and focused, give or take a syrupy rendition of "The Internationale". A pity, too. about the totally unnecessary modern-day frame narrative, but we can't have everything. 8/10

GOOD MEN, GOOD WOMEN (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Japan/Taiwan)
Screened in the main competition

A hair shy of Hou's top tier, in my opinion; it has a rough time drawing links between its biopic of Chiang Bi-Yu, a Taiwanese resistance fighter against the Japanese in the 1940s, and the story of Liang Ching, an actress trying to muddle through life and deal with an odd stalker while she prepares to play Chiang in a movie. But each half is equally brilliant on its own terms, with the director's typical long takes and slow development reaching some particularly strong crescendos including a scene at a karaoke bar that's one of the director's most striking moments. As both female leads, Annie Shizuka Inoh is tremendous, juggling two entirely different and equally challenging sets of emotional demands so effectively that it almost doesn't register that we're ultimately watching the same woman. The director's heavily formal minimalism is somewhat impenetrable for a non-fan, and stonily refuses to tell you what to think about it; but for what it's worth, this was one of the movies that made me a Hou fan to begin with. 9/10

KIDS (Larry Clark, USA)
Screened in the main competition

Empty-headed provocation that lingers pruriently over the naughty behavior of its teenage cast while acting shocked at their sordidness and mourning the broken-down world that encourages their excess. Clark and 19-year-old screenwriter Harmony Korine present this in the clucking tones of a Reefer Madness-style cautionary tale, as though the audience they claimed to be targeting would have any use for a virtually plotless slice-of-life drama destined for the art house circuit. But its lapses of taste and, arguably, morality aren't nearly as aggravating as its demented, off-putting artlessness; this is a preposterously ugly film, attempting to paper over its repellent cinematography under the banner of vérité-inflected rawness and urban grit. The effect doesn't have the ring of physically present truth, though, just the aimless, grainy camerawork of amateur-hour theatrics. The overworked, unnatural performances complete the package; first-timer Rosario Dawson is the solitary bright spot on either side of the camera. Whatever interest this might have once possessed evaporated along with its controversial moment in the sun. 3/10

HELLO CINEMA (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran)
Screened in Un Certain Regard

Elsewhere in this grand Cannes event, host Nick Davis praised "Iranian art cinema minus the fussy meta-levels". I understand why somebody would frame an argument that way, but my long-term readers know that fussy meta-levels are my favorite kind. Which is why this defiantly unclassifiable movie about making movies about movies in pre-production hits me right in the gut. Makhmalbaf, as himself, is casting for a movie celebrating the centennial of motion picture exhibition; something like a riot breaks out when he can't handle the number of applicants who show up. It's cinema stripped down to its barest elements: actors in a single featureless room feeling emotions and playing characters, and for that alone I'd greatly admire it as an experiment. It declares itself a work of genius because of who and what those characters and emotions are, becoming a tribute to individuals deprived a loud voice in the broad artistic and cultural discourse seeing (or not seeing) stories like their own onscreen, and absorbing (or not absorbing) more dominant strains of pop culture. 9/10


A review requested by Kari Johnson, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

You have to hold it just right, but Curious George is sort of the exact moment that traditional animation died in the American studio system. There have been only four theatrically-released studio features animated in a traditional aesthetic style since Universal dropped the movie indifferently into the world in February, 2006, and every one of them comes with an asterisk: 2009's The Princess and the Frog and 2011's Winnie the Pooh were both essentially boutique products made by Disney, a company that openly tries to dictate rather than follow market realities;The Simpsons Movie in 2007 was, well, The Simpsons Movie, and beholden to an entirely unique audience; 2015's The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, though primarily traditional animation, was heavily marketed to seem like a mostly CGI/live-action production. None of these four films entered the marketplace in anything like the same way Curious George did, in the wholly guileless belief that there was still an audience for traditional animation, albeit an audience of the extremely young and their parents. For its optimism, the film managed to not humiliate itself at the box office, and not a whole lot more.

Now, the danger in putting a movie like this in front of a classic American animation junkie like me is that Curious George much too easily invites "they used to it so much better! why do we live in such ghastly & depraved times! &c." rhetoric that does nobody any good. But there's little point in pretending that it's not exactly what it is: a movie that exists completely at odds to everything in the mainstream of family entertainment as it was practiced in the mid-'00s, which is much the same as it's practiced now, only with slightly less pop culture riffing. A mere two years after Shrek 2 landed on the animation marketplace like a bomb, this wasn't merely a throwback, it was something like an act of war, if a movie with such a profoundly gentle attitude can reasonably described as "warlike". The steady, pleasant story by Ken Kaufman and Mike Werb, adapting the iconic children's books by husband-and-wife illustrator-authors H.A. and Margret Rey nods its head to the greater world of animation storytelling as it existed at that point in time only in that it involves a kind of stupidly convoluted backstory to drive the action, involving concepts that feel a bit more elevated than the film's apparent target audience is likely to cotton to (will the old natural history museum turn into a parking garage, or can the heroes come up with a new exhibit to draw in big crowds in time?). But it has an almost Miyazakian calmness in keeping its stakes down to a nice slow boil, even going so far as to turn its antagonist into a sad, pitiable figure before the halfway mark.

It's an origin story, in which museum employee Ted (Will Ferrell) enthusiastically pitches himself into the mission of finding the lost shrine of Zagawa, home to an enormous ruby statue of an ape, in order to keep the Bloomsberry Museum solvent. For otherwise, the kind science nut Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke, in the first and far sweeter of his 2006 museum-related roles - Night at the Museum hulks in the future like a nascent canker sore) will be helpless to prevent his resentful son (David Cross, whose character has been designed to look unnervingly like him) from tearing the place down. Bloomsberry fils is able to sabotage Ted's trip enough that the explorer only finds a three-inch statue that guides the way to the actual shrine, but he also stumbles across a deeply inquisitive monkey (vocalised by the inimitable Frank Welker), who sneaks along back to the boat behind this strange lanky man all in yellow (Ted was tricked into buying surplus yellow khaki hiking clothes, to bring him in line as the Man with the Yellow Hat, the nameless character's designation in the books). Ted is at first anguished by how badly the monkey, eventually named George by the enthusiastic children under the care of the kind schoolteacher Maggie (Drew Barrymore), messes up his life, but the instant that he finally packs the simian off with animal control, he realises how much more enjoyable things were with that tiny bit of chaos. As one will. Also, the museum is razed and Mr. Bloomsberry is sent to a nursing home, babbling and senescent. Of course not! Unpredictable plotting is so low on Curious George's list of priorities that there's not even a number for it.

It takes a lot to sand the edges off of profoundly harmless source material, but Curious George does manage to be even less threatening than the books ever were; George has been changed from a playfully naughty little scamp to en embodiment of pure, untroubled innocence, so guileless that his rule-breaking only ever manages to charm his victims. Ted has dropped from being a stable adult presence to just a big kid, hideously shy around an very cute, obviously interested girl, and easily bruised by setbacks. It is a very soft movie, Curious George is, which turns out to be greatly appealing in the execution; there is not a trace of mania even when it takes its Pixarian turn into a chase, of sorts, around a city. The jokes are a bit dry and ironic, but never very difficult, and never too funny, in the sense that it expects a boisterous reaction. Director Matthew O'Callaghan is certain looking to amuse his audience, but not to whip us up; Curious George is as soothing as a fleece blanket and cup of tea on a rainy day.

I say that entirely from an adult's perspective: for all I know, actual children out in the world would find this maddeningly slow and low-impact, and that's part of why it has almost completely disappeared from any kind of cultural dialogue in less than a decade - hell, less than a couple of years. But it can be nice to watching something that pursues quiet and simplicity as a distinctive choice and not just a fallback from laziness - this is an immensely well-crafted movie, especially as a piece of animation, including use of color and and light that absolutely shame Disney's traditional animation death rattle from the handful of years preceding. Not, I hasten to point out, the actual character animation; the humans in the film are so simple that they start to lose definition. Nor in the effects, which are satisfactory without being terribly far-reaching or complicated (there are aerial shots of the crowded city that look several years behind the technological curve). But it's a beautiful movie in pastel and primary tones, with everything feeling covered by an almost indecipherable layer of fuzz. This, for example, is the ending position of the film's opening shot, and our first good look at the protagonist:

As opening mission statements go, that's a pretty clear one: you are about to embark on a movie that goes just a lightly diffuse as it hits your eyes, where nothing is indistinct, but even less so is anything particularly sharp. Also, the main character is boundlessly happy, like, always.

The results aren't perfect; owing mainly to a George-less first act (after an opening scene that functions as a prologue) that takes too much time being goofy and shrill about setting up the plot and human characters, all of whom are some kind of stereotype, but only sometimes obvious or reductive ones. The fate of a museum is a fine plot hook, but it didn't need to be set up in such detail, or with so much concern over Ted's whole deal. And the voices don't, in general, fit the faces - Ferrell disappears into his part, but Van Dyke, Barrymore, and Eugene Levy all significantly do not, and the presence of their characters tends to upset the movie's low key energy.

And really, the storytelling throughout is kind of strained: the movie constantly pulls itself between the states of "this is sweet and gentle and just about being in the moment" and "look at the gimcracks and silliness!", and the more it forgets about that damn parking garage, and the more it just watches Ted and George interacting, the more rewarding it is. So overall it's a touch lumpy, unsure of how patient it can honestly expect its audience to be; but it absolutely never panders, and it's lovely to look at for literally every frame of its running time, even with the "eh" level of the CG elements. I'm not sure if it deserves to be the childhood classic that it surely never shall become, but it's nice to have something this sincere and comforting out in the world, to be enjoyed by whatever small and self-selecting audience has the good fortune to stumble across it.

21 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 5

About the project

CARRINGTON (Christopher Hampton, UK/France)
Screened in the main competition

Hampton's directorial debut, a passion project he created with the leverage provided in part from the massive success of Dangerous Liaisons in 1988, definitely doesn't hide the fact that it's you know, a debut. Denis Lenoir's camera rarely does anything surprising, and while Hampton's bright pace and dashed-off tone are utterly beguiling (all the better to bite us on the ass in the endgame), the direction generally seems besotted with the screenplay and eager to foreground it at every opportunity. Where he lucked out but good was in securing Emma Thompson as the titular painter and Jonathan Pryce as her older homosexual boyfriend, both of them providing effortless performances that flit between classic theatricality and naturalism, giving the whole film a boost of spirited energy and plumbing the mysterious ways of romance and sexual desire with a delicate insight that even Hampton's literate, crisply-constructed screenplay hasn't come up with. Its unprecedented "official fourth place" prize is maybe a bit overstated, but this is rich and human without being showy, infinitely fresher and freer and truer than a pre-WWII 20th Century biopic has any reason to be. 8/10

Screened in the main competition

A drama about a sad sailor and a wise-beyond-her-years little girl who gives him a sardonic window in the life of the Hong Kong poor. To its credit, its austerity makes it less hokey and twinkly than it sounds from that description, but this is pretty far from sophisticated filmmaking. Hänsel makes no points delicately when they can be hammered home, whether it's the literalisation of metaphors, or close-ups to clarify that the characters feel feelings, or the shameless use of kittens and babies as ironic counterpoints. Now, it helps a lot that the kittens and babies are adorable; and as the girl, amateur Ling Chu has a knowing world-weariness which helps situate the film's tone in a more secure place than the writing or directing. But casting Stephen Rea as a Greek-Irish man with Chinese ancestors, and then requiring him to play every scene like he just found out his whole family died in a plane crash undoes all of that. When people talk shit about Very Serious Art Films, this is exactly why. 5/10

The main competition film STORIES FROM THE KRONEN, directed by Montxo Armendáriz, is not currently available in an English-friendly form


A review requested by John Taylor, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Reducing any film to the sum of its Oscar trivia is a filthy habit, but it's also fun and I'm good at it, and Grand Hotel has a real whopper of a piece of trivia associated with it. It's the second of three films to win the Best Picture Oscar and no other awards, which it did at the fifth Academy Awards, given for the awkwardly-shaped year of 1 August, 1931 through 31 July, 1932 (The Broadway Melody, Best Picture #2, and Mutiny on the Bounty, #8, are the other two). But the real point of distinction is that it's the one and only Best Picture winner to have been nominated for absolutely no other Oscars. There's no wholly positive way to spin that, but it does feel kind of fitting in a way - this was the time when the award was still called "Outstanding Production", with more of a connotation of "this is the most impressive act of studio willpower" than "this is the most aesthetically complete and admirable movie". And Grand Hotel is nothing if not an outstanding production, something in which every facet of it is less important than the massiveness of its existence. Grand Hotel is not about anything but the fact that MGM wanted to show off the full range of its resources, and in that regard, it absolutely can be the year's most Outstanding Production even without having the best direction, writing, or acting.

Though even that's missing the point a little; frankly, Grand Hotel does have the best of some of those things, or at least good enough to muscle into the not very mindblowing competition for the 1931-'32 Oscars. I won't way that director Edmund Goulding deserved a slot above King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg, but surely William Absalom Drake's adaptation of his play of Vicki Baum's novel would have been as worthy a writing nominee as the stuffy Arrowsmith. Cedric Gibbons's luscious Art Deco art direction, an extravagant showpiece for MGM's storied set builders, was outright robbed. And in a notably weak Best Actress year, Joan Crawford's failure to land a nomination instead of a pair of slumming theater goddesses doing nothing in particular (though Lynn Fontanne is leagues better than winner Helen Hayes) and an out-to-sea Marie Dressler is fucking baffling as all hell. Except that it's not, because nominating any one member of the Grand Hotel would have been almost impossible to get away with. That, you see, is exactly the point of the production's one-of-a-kind outstandingness.

Grand Hotel is a genre-starter, you see. This was the very first All-Star Cast Extravaganza, with several of MGM's most luminous names given more-or-less equal focus in a series of intertwining subplots filling up the bustling anthill of the classiest hotel in Berlin (inevitably, the shadow of that upstart politician Adolf Hitler, who came to international attention several months after the film's premiere, adds a sense of morbid gloom to the film's depiction of corruption and depravity in Germany for any viewer coming to the film later than 1933). The movie's very own opening credits stress the divine glamor of those stars more than the characters they play, or the story they play them in. Greta Garbo! Joan Crawford! John Barrymore! Lionel Barrymore! Wallace Beery! Lewis Stone! Jean Hersholt! Only about half of those names have any currency with a modern audience, but for a film lover in '32, seeing those names in one place would be their version of The Avengers (Hersholt is Hawkeye). It's hella easy to live in the 21st Century and airily proclaim that Crawford picks up the movie and runs away with it - which I take to be very much the contemporary conventional wisdom about it - but picking favorites is at a certain level entirely contrary to the spirit of the thing, which doesn't make you need to pick favorites. You just get all of them all at once. This is, never forget, an Outstanding Production.

The really impressive thing about Grand Hotel is that even if its goals are transparently those of unabashed gimmickry, it holds up superlatively well. There's only one of these "superstar ensemble" pictures that even arguably betters it, to my eyes, the following year's glorious Dinner at Eight (also by MGM, and with four of the same superstars), which has the benefit of George Cukor, a sturdier director than Goulding, and a more concrete reason for all the actors to appear in one place, beyond "hey, lotsa folks show up at a hotel". Still, while the first may not be exactly the best, it has pleasures galore in its cross-cutting of dignified melodrama anchored by a whole host of people doing sterling work - beyond Crawford's early career highlight, Lionel Barrymore is at his most sensitive and internally-directed here, with only a minimal amount of cartoonish hamming (I am not tremendously fond of the great bulk of his work prior to the full-on old man stage of his career), and John Barrymore is stone-cold serious. Garbo is... not great. Insofar as everybody who loves '30s Hollywood has that one diva to whom they give all their most serious affection and loyalty, Garbo is mine. I don't feel any need to make excuse for loving her career above Crawford's, 98% of the time. But she's on autopilot in Grand Hotel, more than in any other role I can think of. Within just a couple of years, her line "I want to be alone" had hit a critical mass of parodies to prove that this was seen as an iconic work almost immediately, and far be it from me to deny the pop culture of the 1930s its rightful obsessions. But this is the same hurt, tragic Garbo of at least a half-dozen other performances, all of which involve her being more invested and nuanced in her depiction of that hurt, and none of which so dubiously miscast her (here, she plays a ballet dancer, a profession that requires a totally different body shape and way of movement than anything within a mile of Garbo's physical performance). And certainly, none of which require her to make love to a telephone.

Outside of its misuse of a disinterested top-billed star, though, Grand Hotel is a perfect demonstration of why the Hollywood star system persisted so long, and why it still gives such vast pleasure to those of us in its cheering section. This is really and truly a film that bets the farm on the absolute charm of its actors - the script can barely be bothered, listlessly plugging in sturdy but ancient narrative shapes including the destitute baron (John Barrymore) who falls in love with his rich, suicidal mark (Garbo), the innocent stenographer (Crawford) who starts to receive the nastiest kind of attention from a thuggish captain of industry (Beery), the dying man (Lionel Barrymore) spending his last pennies on one chance to experience luxury he's never known. These were musty old chestnuts by 1932, and the film doesn't waste any time on pretending that we're there to be dazzled by the complexity of the plots and the way they interleave. We're showing up to see famous people perfectly inhabit those roles in enormous, loving close-ups and gorgeous lifestyle-porn gowns by MGM's legendary costume designer Adrian. And this is something Grand Hotel overs up by the shovelful, with that top-shelf cast breathing richness and vitality into their well-worn roles. Crawford, with her strikingly modernist and knowing expressions, is, again, the clear best in show, always marginally more wary and withholding than her scene partners in ways that make us desperately crave more information about her. But there's not a wrong foot in the movie, from the clipped brutishness of John Barrymore in his unguarded moments to Stone's weary sternness. Even Garbo's not in any way an active detriment, all my moaning about her performance notwithstanding.

Marshaling this parade of egos presented as demigods on the big screen, all Goulding really has to do is keep the spigot of close-ups and two-shots wide open, and in that respect he triumphs. But it's not fair to pretend that Grand Hotel was a director-proof movie just because it actually totally was a director-proof movie. There are some fascinating shots he carries off, such as the way the hotel's switchboards, used as a narrative framing device, are turned into geometric traps that sneakily imply a more rigid set of structures (aesthetic and social) than the script is quite willing to explore, or the occasional sudden cuts where the characters are dropped into tiny relief against the sprawling reality of the hotel that simply doesn't care about their individually pitiable tales. Cinematographer William H. Daniels gets to play around with Expressionist lighting, or at least the closest MGM's glossy house style would permit him to get to Expressionist lighting, guiding the mood more than is immediately obvious through canny manipulations of the focus and shadow in the back of shots.

It is, all told, a tremendously sturdy, thoroughly unimaginative, and massively entrancing sample of the early-'30s Hollywood machine doing everything exactly right in the creation of gratifying entertainment. It's too sober-minded to qualify as escapism, and infinitely too proud of its foregrounded desire to seduce the audience to be mistaken for high art. I cannot call it a perfect studio film; a perfect studio film would have a mechanically flawless screenplay, not a tossed-off basketful of scenarios that it cares about even less than we do. But it is the perfect Grand Hotel, one of classic Hollywood's most elegant truffles. Sure, it's still empty calories, but every gram of it reveals great, methodical craftsmanship.

20 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 4

About the project

JEFFERSON IN PARIS (James Ivory, France/USA)
Screened in the main competition

The first James Ivory/Ismail Merchant/Ruth Prawer Jhabvala joint after the pinnacle achievements Howards End and The Remains of the Day is nowhere near their equal. Jhabvala's screenplay suffers from some jarring attempts at slave vernacular, particularly in the massively unnecessary framework narrative. And it's obnoxious for a movie whose primary theme is that the Great White Men of history could be led by their maleness and their whiteness into morally dubious dead ends to show such little interest in the inner lives of anyone who isn't Thomas Jefferson himself. But it's not half-bad, even so: this was Merchant Ivory near its peak ability to recreate long-gone European culture as a living thing without needlessly modernising it, and the period trappings are totally absorbing. Better yet, the seemingly miscast Nick Nolte is a fine Jefferson, articulate and dignified even as he's increasingly wracked by the gap between his place in history and his limitations as a human being. It is, however, at its worst when it's at its most socially conscious, which feels exactly wrong. 5/10

LISBON STORY (Wim Wenders, Germany/Portugal)
Screened in Un Certain Regard

Pridefully straddling the line between “way too damn pretentious” and “just the exact right amount of pretentious”, Wenders’s opaquely self-referential film follows a film sound recordist to Lisbon, where he finds a director has gone missing, leaving behind a series of fragments that begin to coalesce into a project as he finds more of them. Though a project describing what, exactly, is hard to say. Lisbon Story is something of a misnomer; a giddy valentine to Lisbon’s architecture, street layout, and music scene it certainly is, but a “story”, not quite as much. Rather, it’s a formal self-examination of how sound and image communicate in cinema, particularly as it pertains to music being used as a free way to score some emotional points; and also of the way that all movies are made out of disconnected pieces collected without the participants being able to tell what’s going on. It’s not always successful, but it’s boundlessly ambitious. If that sounds too heavy, it’s also a gorgeous travelogue that makes Lisbon as visually enticing as any European city in modern cinema. 9/10

TO DIE FOR (Gus Van Sant, USA/UK)
Screened out of competition

Two decades later, the revelatory central performance - ohmigod, the model-gorgeous Nicole Kidman, trophy wife of Tom Cruise, can act???!!! - isn't remotely as revelatory, which does harm the project's overall sense of cutting insight. Even in 1995, the idea that people would do anything to be famous on TV, up to and including inventing their entire personality and arranging the murders of those close to them, wasn't exactly fresh, and while Kidman's brightly acidic comic turn makes that message feel a bit sprier and nastier than it might, we've seen her do many better things since. That all being said, it's still nice to see a black comedy that pulls so few punches, and the saucy, heavily ironic structure, with its reiteration of the primacy of television news as a sacred totem even for the people most actively damaged by it, adds a layer of smart cruelty. It is, at any rate, still the most satisfying of Van Sant's studio pictures, sacrificing neither a sense of genre experimentation nor intelligently applied style. 7/10

3 STEPS TO HEAVEN (Constantine Giannaris, UK)
Screened in Directors' Fortnight

"The made-for-TV erotic thriller that played Cannes" is one of those phrases that you don't expect to have to whip out, but here we are, with one of the 1995-est movies ever. Suzanne (Katrin Cartlidge) is convinced that her boyfriend Sean has been murdered, and she dons a series of disguises to track down the individuals who were with him the night he died. Often enough that it would feel disingenuous not to mention it, we see large portions of her nude body. There's certainly all the tackiness you'd expect from this mix of ingredients, though the filmmakers put some discernible effort into blasting the scenario apart through an application of erratic, curiously effective style: time-lapse and speed-ramping, startling camera angles, and the representation of the protagonist's mind as a découpage-like spread of photographs. None of this overcompensating makes the film less tawdry (or bizarrely gay-baiting), and Cartlidge is a black hole where the film needs a heart, or at least a brain. But the snappy energy keeps it from being an absolute bore. 5/10

The main competition film THE SNAILS' SENATOR, directed by Mircea Daneliuc, is not currently available in an English-friendly form


A review requested by Branden, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Writer-director Wim Wenders's The American Friend is, arguably, not a very good adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game at all: it backs off on the thriller elements considerably, alters the tone, jettisons important plot details and changes the ending in tremendously significant ways, and makes the American friend of the title, Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) more of a selfish but charismatic scalawag than the manipulative urbane psychopath of the novels. It backs down enough on the traditional characterisation of English-language fiction's best charming monster that "Ripley's Game" wouldn't be a remotely satisfactory title for the movie. It is far more interested in the relationships between people and the manipulations that happen on a smaller scale, between all of us, psychopaths or otherwise. Which is why it's actually a really great adaptation of Highsmith, whose books' crime trappings are the sugary coating that hides how much they're all basically about interactions between people who want to get something out of one another. Absent Alfred Hitchcock's sublime Strangers on a Train, it's maybe the best Highsmith adaptation, in fact, or anyway the best film sourced from her work.

The title might be in reference to the talented Mr. Ripley, and Hopper might be the top-billed, but the film is actually more interested in Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz), a picture framer in Hamburg. Zimmermann and Ripley come into contact when the former insults the latter, knowing the American to be deeply involved in an art forgery ring; in retaliation, Ripley passes Zimmermann's name on to Raoul Minot (Gérard Blain), a French mobster looking for a hitman. Zimmermann is no hitman, of course, but he has a wife, Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer), and child whom he dearly loves. It takes surprisingly little effort for Minot and Ripley to use faked medical tests and innuendo to convince Zimmermann that he's dying of a blood disease, and with the promise of having a nest egg to leave his family after he dies, Zimmermann falls for Minot's plan with hardly a second thought about the grisliness of the job. Meanwhile, Ripley has started to befriend Zimmermann, who knows nothing of the American's various manipulations; and cold-blooded bastard that Tom Ripley surely is, he's not necessarily keen on turning any poor innocent fella into another one of himself.

Giving more away would spoil all of the fun and give the very wrong impression that The American Friend is a conventional thriller that pushes the viewer hard through a series of twists and turns, of crimes and psychological breaks. It does not do this, to a conspicuous degree. Sure, it's generically a thriller, and Wenders isn't above putting the characters through sequences of admirably high intensity - there's a longish sequence in the film's middle, set on a train, that's a terrific daisy chain of laugh-out-loud dark comic beats and dreadful tension, that's the most memorable element of the whole movie and, in fact, one of the most baldly delightful, entertaining genre moments in the New German Cinema. But that's not at all where the film lives. This is a buddy film, in its damned peculiar way; Ripley is a nasty piece of work and Zimmermann is a personality fracturing before our eyes, but they serve as the foundation for a greatly touching depiction of friendship and mutual support - contrary to my expectation headed into the film, there's nothing ironic about the title The American Friend. Ganz and Hopper, even as they're creating edgy, bleak characters, strike up rich, meaningful camaraderie, and the movie ends up working much less as a story of crime than of how crime impacts the private lives of criminals.

With its focus on the insides of its characters heads, the film serves as a kind of updated version of noir, and it's frequently described as such. I'm not wholly inclined to that reading, though at least two truths are undeniable: one is that the film has the heavy urban atmosphere that typifies noir as one of its most characteristic elements. The other is that Wenders is eager to remind us of of American genre film, casting as mobsters the directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, two of the most beloved American outsiders to the various European New Waves, and it's impossible to suppose that a working knowledge of noir doesn't inform the way the film's plot works and how it relates to its characters. At the same time, the film's look is as far from noir as it gets: the great cinematographer Robby Müller shot the film with potent colors, brightly shouting out from the limitations of '70s film stock and lending a vibrant liveliness to the movie that cuts through the grottiness of the setting and scenario. This a movie that practically glows, it's so bold and pretty. That's a stark contrast between visual style and content, and it does a great deal to shift the film's energy away from anything that a plain recitation of its plot would suggest. Keeping in line with the reality that this is Zinnemann's film above all, the very particular look of The American Friend, with its pop-up colors, works in a way to evoke the very keen awareness of what things look and feel like that might occur to a man convinced he's in the last stages of his life, and being thrust into experiences far beyond anything within his sphere. It's an intense-looking film to suit the intensified perception of its protagonist, I'd argue, and a tremendously lovely one at that.

It's crafty and beguiling and unexpectedly smart about people, and the only shortcomings I can spot within it are those of context. This is not, to be horribly blunt about it, a particularly special film within the greater world of New German Cinema, nor Wenders's own career: very good, but also kind of ultimately normal. It's the first utterly "Americanised" film of that generation's self-described most Americanised filmmaker, which isn't a necessary problem. Though the director who had just completed his Road Trilogy - Alice in the Cities, Wrong Move, and Kings of the Road - moving right into a genre riff couldn't help but feel like a step down. The American Friend is a very good movie that a lot of people could have made in a lot of places - Wenders, in West Germany, in 1977, doesn't leave the kind of stamp on the film that would have made it truly great (it is, however, quintessentially and irreducibly European in a way that no other Ripley film I've seen has been - but I have not seen Purple Noon). Still, not every auteur has to be turned on 100% of the time, and The American Friend is absolutely worth treasuring: a gorgeous, taut movie with vivid characters on impressively complex journeys, one of the most humane and cinematically articulate thrillers I've seen from that era.

19 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 3

About the project

Screened in the main competition

Hypnotically clumsy editing and a lead performance that finds Patricia Arquette looking as glazed as a porcelain cat are the most overt problems with this message movie about the 1988 democratic uprisings in Burma. Its particularly galling embrace of the "this story about third-world suffering matters because it affected a white American" trope is another. The most troubling, though, might be the way that Boorman and his cinematographer John Seale, giving unchecked rein to his love of picturesque landscapes, are so busy making the war torn cities and jungles of Burma look like full-page spreads in a travel magazine that they forget to pay sufficient tribute to their dramatic scenario or the real-life torments that inspired it. It's hard to completely dismiss any film that had the real-world political impact of this one (it forced the Myanmar government to release a high-profile political prisoner), but it would be dishonest to let that be a reason to ignore the pile-up of things going severely wrong in the directing, the scoring, the writing, and the acting. 3/10

Screened in the main competition

The central organising metaphor does, admittedly, start to get a bit overly precious as it moves along: the upstairs and downstairs of a 19th Century English country household contrasted (usually unfavorably) with various insects and other small invertebrate creatures that skitter and crawl. But everything outside of its unfortunate tendency towards overplaying its symbolism is absolutely terrific, from the way that the screenplay by Haas and his wife Belinda, adapting an A.S. Byatt novella, uses the characters' fascination with the newly in-vogue science of taxonomy as a cue to treat them with similarly divorced intellectualism, to the exquisite use of color in Bernard Zitzermann's cinematography and Paul Brown's deservedly Oscar-nominated costumes. And yet for all its icy formalism, a ragged, sometimes ugly humanity forces its way up to the fore, as the film depicts the various stages of sexual desire in a repressive culture with sympathy and unblinking fleshiness. Kristin Scott Thomas triumphs in a role that saves all of its depth and shading for a powerhouse final 30 minutes. 8/10

SHADOWS OF THE RAINBOW (Sushant Misra, India)
Screened in Un Certain Regard

A mirage-like study of gender roles and social order in a town deep into urbanisation, presented with long stretches of almost total silence in which we do nothing but watch as the characters move through their actions quietly and purposefully. Misra and cinematographer Jugal Debata never run out of new ways to present their locations with an overdose of physical texture, evocative camera movement in three-dimensional space, and a hard contrast between the two main settings: an old family villa that resembles an ancient ruin, and the streets of a burgeoning suburb. Everything down to the movement of clothes across the actors' bodies adds to the sense of presence and reality, communicated through poetic images that lend it the diffusion of an impressionistic painting. It's haunting and gorgeously crafted; the one real problem, if you'll forgive this laziest of all critical cop-outs, is that it's kind of boring. There's a point at which elusiveness and ellipses threaten to slide off the screen entirely, and I wouldn't blame any viewer for thinking this film passes that point. 8/10

Screened in Un Certain Regard

A story of the fluidity of mid-century Jewish-American identity that finds Diane Keaton directing Andie MacDowell in the top-billed role: but I promise, it's not nearly as terrible as it has every reason to be. For one thing, John Turturro's presence makes everything better, and this film finds him in especially good form as the panicked husband to MacDowell's cancer-struck mother. For another, Keaton shows a superlative gift for directing children, bringing 11-year-old Nathan Watt to a place of surprising tetchiness and frantic internal turmoil. For a third, Thomas Newman's score is fanciful and off-kilter in some vivid and unpredictable ways giving a sense of sharp weirdness to a script that keeps fighting a losing battle with just plain kookiness. Taken as a whole, it's a little bit too cloyingly Rockwellian in its overdetermined emotions, it suffers from stiff directorial choices throughout, and it fights hard for a sense of childlike naïveté that's mostly just embarrassing. But there's enough going right that it's not possible to discard it outright. 6/10

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Bryan Singer, USA/Germany)
Screened out of competition

The film that made game-changing twist endings the flashiest trick of movies from every genre in the mid-'90s and for years beyond, and... and that's just the thing. And what? Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie's chronological hopscotching showcases an admirable degree of difficulty executed with flair, but even in the moment of watching it, I've never managed to convince myself that structural card tricks are enough to cover for how much the meat of the film is a generic post-Tarantino crime picture that thinks it knows more about film noir than is the case. Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel know how to put an interesting angle in to keep the thing from ever getting visually stale, and there's some terrific lighting in the night scenes, but the style openly serves as a calling card, and there's no real substance to anything outside of Bencio Del Toro and Kevin Spacey's top-notch performances. Frankly, the best thing about it is that it won Singer a chance to make X-Men. 6/10

18 May 2015

CANNES 1995: DAY 2

About the project

SHARAKU (Shinoda Masahiro, Japan)
Screened in the main competition

The first hour is the best part of this unconventional "what if" biopic about an artist whose identity has never been uncovered. For during that time, the film's slippery approach to its subject leaves it less a straightforward story of Tonbo (Sanada Hiroyuki, marvelously precise in his creation of an elusive, retiring personalty), the crippled actor who'd become the great caricaturist Sharaku, and more of a fantasia on the way society appreciates or fails to appreciate art as it changes, stagnates, challenges, and titillates. The flow of scenes at times feels like a dream set in Tokugawa-era Japan with Jazz-age orchestrations providing the ragged spine for a series of impressions that only vaguely imply a plot. It's heady, clever stuff, which does somewhat disappointingly turn towards conventional artist biopic beats - the triumphant creation of the biggest hits, the angry admiration of the rival. It's a good, surprisingly funny version of the genre, mind you, and its heights are so uniquely special that the film as a whole benefits from their aura. 8/10

GEORGIA (Ulu Grosbard, USA/France)
Screened in Un Certain Regard

A tale of two sisters, the mercurial wannabe rocker Sadie Flood, and the talented folk singer Georgia, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham as the best matched set of female performances in American cinema of the 1990s. The film doesn't slot into easy codes of sibling rivalry or reconciliation; it's a prickly and at times unforgiving depiction of how families are supportive, antagonistic, and undermining. Written by Leigh's mother Barbara Turner, it's a deep plunge into the kind of specificity that comes from people who are totally comfortable together helping each other into ever richer states of emotional expression, typified by the shockingly intimate, utterly present song performances leveraged by Grosbard into the film's most powerful moments. This is neither generically nor aesthetically my type of movie, so my great affection for it it is all the more testament to its strength and truth. Dismayingly unknown among anybody but the self-selecting audience that seeks out Best Supporting Actress nominees, and Leigh's inability to swing a Lead nod alongside Winningham is a black mark on the Academy. 8/10

The main competition film WAATI, directed by Souleymane Cissé, is not currently available in an English-friendly form


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: Pitch Perfect 2 is the sequel to one of the most beautiful and rare creatures in this heavily market-researched days, an honest-to-God word of mouth hit. Which makes it the perfect excuse for me to finally catch up with said hit.

The question of how Pitch Perfect managed to become a generational touchstone is one I really shouldn't try to answer, not being a member of the generation in question, but let's spitball anyway. Personally, I think it's the film's universality, at least among the audience sector it has largely succeed in seducing. Not the romantic comedy elements, which are frankly unpersuasive, and not the evergreen girl-power overtones and the celebration of female friendships, which are absolutely persuasive and even elegant. I am referring strictly to the film's subject matter: I'd be willing to believe that there's not a single human being who attended a four-year university in the United States at any point in the 21st Century who didn't attend an a capella concert, or know somebody involved in the a capella scene, or at least know how to avoid the a capella culture on campus like a deadly plague.

And this is the world that Pitch Perfect leaps into, feet first, and with a perfect balance of praise and mockery that is certainly its most distinctive strength and its calling card. This is a movie for everybody who admires the showmanship and dedication of a capella performers, and who considers it one of the highlights of their own life that they are or were part of that same tradition. It's also a movie for everybody who finds a capella tacky and ridiculous, and looks down upon the singers as social misfits clinging to their in-group because nobody else will have them. Impressively, it's not merely both of these things at the same time; it's sometimes both of these things in the span of an individual gag that can be interpreted as either lovingly self-aware or wickedly sarcastic, depending on how generous the viewer is, or how generous they want to credit the filmmakers with being.

It's a pretty remarkable piece of alchemy that gives Pitch Perfect a vivid personality even when it's flopping about at its most miserable and derivative. Honestly, even the teen target audience of the film must be experienced enough to recognise a largely uninterrupted parade of stock tropes when it struts and frets its way across the stage. And particularly when the film curiously inserts an entire scene that finds the main character, Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), curtly dismissing the entire medium of motion pictures as being derivative and maddeningly predictable, either as a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging its own scene-for-scene predictability, or hypocritically trying to forestall the audience's criticism of the same.

Still, familiarity is appealing in its way, and as I've already suggested, Pitch Perfect is a movie that's insistent on being as familiar as possible. So it doesn't really matter that only the most innocent will fail to get way out in front of the story of freshman Beca, arriving at Barden University four months after a disastrous case of projectile vomiting ended the championship run of the all-female Barden Bellas a capella group. Trying to avoid her overly-present father (John Benjamin Hickey), a professor at the university, Beca - who seriously needs to think about changing the spelling of her fucking name, because I've gotten it wrong every time I've typed it out so far - ends up crossing paths with Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the current leaders of the Bellas, trying to whip up enthusiasm among the incoming class. This doesn't appeal much to Beca, even with her naturally clean and tuneful alto voice, but her father manages to push into agreeing to join any club, and the Bellas are as good as any. And thus does Beca, with her passion for producing mash-ups and tweaking sound, run smack into Aubrey's fascistic devotion to the corny traditions of a capella past. Surely there will be no chance for the radical Beca to prove the superiority of her forward-looking attitude, especially not one that involves a competitive championship berth against their archrivals.

Meanwhile, the cute boy Beca works with at the school radio station, Jesse (Skylar Astin), joins those same archrivals, the Treblemakers, the only population of boys at Barden that the Bella members are specific forbidden by club rules from dating. And Beca's rather tetchy disinterest in Jesse would seem to mean that's not a problem at all, and given how acutely the film deflates when it shifts its focus from the dynamics running in all directions between the Bellas, over to its lukewarm romantic plot with its generically meaty looking male lead, it would be better not just for her singing career but for Pitch Perfect itself if she'd just stop speaking to him. But then we'd be out a B-plot.

The film imagines, and I think that a substantial portion of its fanbase agrees, that the star of the show is the music, presented in a copious quantity of performance numbers, choreographed by Aakomon Jones and framed by director Jason Moore with a slick efficiency that undoubtedly resembles a high-end a capella stage performance of the sort that really would win all the a capella awards, but doesn't really stand out in the annals of musical cinema. The singing performances are generally strong-to-great; this was the film where Kendrick redefined herself as a specialist in musicals, and while the demands of this role and these songs don't meaningfully compare to those she essayed in The Last Five Years or Into the Woods, it's very difficult to imagine her landing those movies without the unimpeachable work she showcased her as a singing actress clearing the path. Still, it's hard not to wish for some more energetic staging to go along with the impressive singing; I can't vouch that watching the numbers provides much that simply listening to the soundtrack wouldn't.

No indeed, the real strength of Pitch Perfect lies in its characters, an outlandishly appealing lot even when they're a collection of awkward stereotypes - Aubrey the shrill neurotic control freak; when we alight on Cynthia-Rose the butch African-American lesbian (Ester Dean) and Lilly the inaudible shy and quiet Asian-American (Hana Mae Lee), we've arrived at a place that filmmakers as self-conscious about their progressive representations as Moore and screenwriter Kay Cannon probably should have noticed long before it got to post-production. The actors make it work, though, and so does the film's unflagging generosity, loving its protagonists even when it gets why they're ridiculous. All this culminates in the immediate break-out character Fat Amy, a breezily self-confident Tasmanian immigrant played with unflappable authority by Rebel Wilson in her break-out role. It's the kind of comic performance that you can tell even without having to be told involved a lot of improvisation and spontaneity, providing just enough sharpness at acute angles to the rest of the film that Wilson provides exactly the counterbalance to the overdetermined plotting that the film needs. But this is an ensemble affair; it takes the combined efforts of every Bella, no matter how small the role, to create the film's winning sense of acceptance and community.

It's winning enough that I can even overlook the degree to which, in truth, huge swatches of Pitch Perfect are pretty lousy comedy. It's certainly never fresh: the jokes are almost as easy to predict as the plot beats. John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, a pair of cast-iron comic troupers who can't help but be fun to watch, are stranded as a pair of despicable color commentators hurling passive-aggressive insults at the Bellas, a steal from Best in Show that would be obvious even without Higgins right there reminding us that the earlier film exists; they get laughs out of many of their lines (how could they not, those two?), but the film would certainly be stronger without them. There's a whole elaborate vomiting sequence late in the movie that includes several jokes which would feel indecently crass in a genuine gross-out movie, let alone a sweet-natured character comedy. And so on, and so forth.

Still, there's a lanky, casual attitude going on that makes certain the film is good-humored even when it doesn't have particularly good humor, if you'll forgive an awful turn of phrase. Pitch Perfect manages to be both acerbic and friendly in a way that gives it bite without giving it too much edge - it's a very pleasurable movie, even if those pleasures are on the simple side. And even if they're frequently secondhand. I'm not quite convinced that it comes by its admiring cult fairly, but it's hard to complain when a feel-good movie actually ends up feeling genuinely good, or is so unfussy about celebrating the kinds of friendships that don't show up in movies nearly as often as they should.

17 May 2015


There are two announcements in the post, so read it all even if you you think you don't care. And while not caring about the Summer of Blood and being enough of an Antagony & Ecstasy regular to bother with these non-review posts seems unlikely, I know a lot of people who, for good reasons of their own, generally skip over the annual tradition that has been, since 2007, this blog's signature event.

Yes! It is Summer of Blood time, what with Memorial Day coming next weekend. The ninth edition of Summer of Blood, no less, which strikes me as a most auspicious number. Nine is the total number of Nightmare on Elm Street movies, if we count Freddy vs. Jason. There have been nine Halloween films featuring Michael Myers, instead of Gaelic black magic turning children into piles of snakes. Dario Argento directed nine good horror films before he went crazy and started making godawful crap. Nine was that Daniel Day-Lewis musical directed by Rob Marshall, and if you saw it, you know why it belongs in a conversation about horror movies. But the most holy association of all: it was the ninth entry in the enduring and genre-typifying Friday the 13th series that preceded the longest gap between movies in that franchise, making its definitive subtitle seem almost true. And it is in honor of Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday that I announce this year's theme for the Summer of Blood.

Brayton Goes to Hell: The Final Summer

And so yeah, you read that right. "The final summer" means what you think it means: barring the unforeseen, this is going to be the last Summer of Blood. For a while. I mean, there's always the hope of a cryogenically-frozen Summer of Blood being accidentally cracked open by idiots visiting Earth on a research trip in 2455 and thereupon turning into a cyborg zombie in outer space. But Brayton Goes to Hell was a lot easier to Photoshop in 15 minutes than Brayton X.

So this, anyway, brings me to the other announcement.

On 24 August of this year, I, lifelong resident of the Chicago metropolitan area and longtime under-employed writer, video editor, and office drone, will be entering the Ph.D. program in Communication Arts - Film at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This development has been specifically brewing since October 2013, and probably stretches back much earlier than that, to judge from the overwhelming number of my close friends who greeted my news of "I'm applying to grad school!" with some variation on "Of course you are. Finally."

There are pragmatic aspects to this decision, the big one of which is that next May, right about this week in fact, I'll be wrapping up my very first year as a full-fledged grad student. And the thing that I think I'm going to want to do for a little while following that is to not write articles running into 2000 and 3000 words about the history of slasher movies. I adore the Summer of Blood. It is the thing above all things that has made this blog important to me on a level other than "fuck, if I see all these movies, I might as well vomit up some thoughts on them". But it takes such an enormous amount out of me, and wisdom dictates that I should probably not launch immediately into that particular series right after I complete nine straight months of what I expect to be grueling, time-consuming work. And so here we are: Brayton Goes to Hell: The Final Summer. With apologies to Madison, which does not have the reputation of being Hell at all, but the second I realised that my surname and the word "Jason" sound sort of alike, I couldn't resist.

The other pragmatic aspect of all this is that, come August, things are going to change but good around this place. I'm not giving up the blog. It has been too big a part of my life, and especially too big a part of why I've made this utterly daft decision to enter a 6-7 year graduate program at the innocent age of 33, for me to say "fuck this noise, I'm on to better things". I don't know how much blogging I'll still be able to do, though. It won't be daily - it's not always exactly daily now, but it will become much less so. No matter what, I'm going to keep up with the ol' "Every film that goes to #1 at the North American box office gets a review" rule I've been mostly following since 2009. And thanks to your extreme generosity, beloved readers, I have a stack of cancer fundraiser reviews that's going to keep me busy well past my 15 August moving day. And I've made way too many very visible promises for a Star Wars retrospective this autumn. And, and, and.  Let's say that on the very worst weeks, I'm still going to try to post at least twice. The very best weeks, who the hell knows? I don't even know what "the best week" entails in a grad school environment. We'll talk about this again in August.

For now, let's talk about the Summer of Blood itself. Going to Hell could, of course, mean spending time with movies involving the afterlife in the pits of sulfur and flame that await all sinners. But that's boring and repetitive, and anyway, this is the finale. We need something bigger and more idiotic than that. What would Antagony & Ecstasy be without going to ludicrous extremes?

So my goal for the next ten weeks - so this can all be wrapped up before I start packing - is no less than a history of American horror cinema from beginning to end. Starting next weekend, every week will be devoted to a particular epoch in the history of the genre, and because I've gone and promised that I'm going to Hell, it can't just be a little article on Saturdays. I need to suffer. And I'm going to do it with no fewer than three reviews every week; Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays are the goal, but that's subject to a little wiggling

The full schedule follows below the jump; if anybody wants to be surprised, I don't want to ruin things for them. I hope you all follow me during this last descent into madness!