13 February 2016

A VERY SPECIAL THANKS TO THE CONTRIBUTORS TO THE SECOND QUINQUENNIAL ANTAGONY & ECSTASY ACS FUNDRAISER

Update 2/13/16: I have learned not to be optimistic in public, but I've gotten enough off of my plate that I think I can start doing this again in a kind of regular pattern. "Regular pattern" might very well mean "just one per week at most until June", but I wish to remain opti- DAMMIT.

Previously: Drumroll - the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy Cancer Fundraiser has ended, with a total of 172 donations reaching the AMAZING total reached of $5335 raised for the American Cancer Society and other cancer research foundations. That's almost four and a half times the total we raised in 2010! So a huge round of applause to everybody who gave. Now comes the fun part - I have 82 reviews still to write out of that 172. So I'll beg the patience of everybody waiting to see my thoughts; it's coming. (But in the meantime, if you donated and haven't received an e-mail back from me, or don't see your name on this list, please let me know at antagonycancerfundraiser at gmail dot com).

It's especially gratifying for me to announce this at this point in time: quite by coincidence, on 18 June, shortly before the fundraiser ended, I was given the all-clear by my oncologist. After 10 years without a trace of cancer in my body, I'm completely out of the woods and don't ever have to go back for a check-up. So this day isn't just exciting to me for the sheer fact of the fundraiser; it's personal celebration too.

Thank you again to everyone who donated, for making this such a roaring success.


List of Donors

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

A trio of reviews requested by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The 2012 film titled [deep breath] Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Beginnings is not, to begin with, a "movie based on a TV show" in the sense it's generally meant. My readers who are more knowledgeable about anime can tell me if this sort of thing is common, but Beginnings is in fact the feature-length condensation of the first eight episodes of the Urobuchi Gen-written 12-part 2011 series Puella Magi Madoka Magica, with some of the animation touched up and lines re-recorded. The changes its makes to its source material, as I understand it, are largely that of curation and judicious trimming: it presents the story in a steadier flow with some of the sloppiest plot threads removed.

To these wholly virgin eyes, it's a perfect editing job. The narrative flow of Beginnings is perfectly smooth, with its episodic structure disguised through a steady character arc. And while it ends on a cliffhanger, it's otherwise completely self-contained, telling one story and building up to one crescendo that kicks us over to the next movie on a terrific dramatic bottleneck that gathers all of the film's threads into a pair of deeply unsettling climaxes. It's a splendid opening to a trilogy that's also a snappy piece of world-building in its own right

Puella Magi Madoka Etcetera is, in all forms, is a subversion of and philosophical inquiry into the "magic girl" school of Japanese animation, and we should go no further into it before I confess that I don't entirely know what that means; it's a genre I haven't been exposed to in its "pure" form, so I can't entirely appreciate the satire here. But anyway, there are three schoolgirls who are best friends in the town of Mitakihara: Kaname Madoka (Yuki Aoi), Miki Sayaka (Kitamura Eri), and Suzuki Hitomi (Shintani Ryoko), about whom we don't really need to worry too much. Madoka and Sayaka are the truly close ones, and the ones with some unclear potential, that brings them to the attention of a little white rabbit-like animal with pink eyes, Kyubey (Kato Emiri). He - it? - makes an offer to both of the girls: he can grant any wish, no matter how outlandish, to the young women he deems worthy. In exchange, they must form a contract with him to fight the witches that constantly threaten to overtake the human world.

This chance to become a magic girl and have one dream come true would seem to be a slam-dunk - Kyubey is mystified, and increasingly annoyed, at the girls' reluctance to jump at his offer - but there are dark shadings. For one, the new girl at school, Akemi Homura (Saito Chiwa), seems to know all about Kyubey, and she's hellbent on keeping Madoka from taking the creatures offer, going so far as to attempt to kill the little critter. For another, the world of witch-hunting is a terrifying and dangerous one: Madoka and Sayaka are teamed up with chipper magic girl Tomoe Mami (Mizuhashi Kaori), who takes them into the inchoate labyrinths where witches dwell, and what they see there is the stuff of nightmares.

Those nightmare realms are also the stuff of top-level animation. This is a lovely piece of animation in general, but the witch realms, designed by animation team Gekidan INU Curry are as gorgeous and imaginative as animation in the 2010s gets. They're collages, to start with: apparent multi-media universes of scraps taken from dozens of sources, built around rough themes (the animators have identified Czech and Russian animation traditions as their influence - makes perfect sense when you think of where the best witch legends come from). Each of them exists in a different style, from thick swatches of roughly torn paper forming an explosion of textures, to the bright, smudgy poster-paint look of the giant clown-worm that comes along to kick the film's sense of menace and unpredictability into overdrive. The contrast between the backgrounds and the cel-animated characters is a vivid way of showcasing how those characters are terrible visible and out of place; later on, as they character animation starts fade into the backgrounds, it's even more nerve-wracking, since the rules we thought we'd worked out about how the film's aesthetic works have been pulled away from us.

Even in the everyday scenes, PMMM has a lovely, distinctive look, with characters dominated by solitary colors in a way that never feels unnatural, and with textures and shading applied to the characters using pencils over the final coloring, or at least the digital equivalent thereof. Anime, as a rule, owes its style and existence to comics, but this one goes a step farther, by pulling in the specific textural elements of a black-and-white comic book to a digitally-colored 2-D animated film. It probably doesn't actually look like nothing else out there - Japanese animation is a huge world and no one person can see most of it, let alone all of it - but it sure as hell doesn't look conventional, to its immense benefit. The conflict between bright glossiness and rough sketchwork drives the film's mood as much as anything to do with the story or characters.

Nothing against those stories or characters. The film's steadily darkening arc is gripping, as it slowly expands the film's world outwards, making each character seem a little more troubled bit by bit (and letting Kyubey seem more threatening every time his motionless face and staring eyes get a close-up; the only comparable exercise). Each of its main characters finds themselves openly addressing rough questions about how We Are To Behave in a different way: Madoka by questioning how doing good is something that needs a bribe, Sayaka by trying to use sacrifice for another as a way of making people think better of her, Mami by squinting her eyes and refusing to see anything, Homura by attempting to save others from making her own mistakes, and Sakura Kyoko (Nonaka Ai), the last magic girl to enter the picture in the wake of the big mid-film tragedy, by embracing selfish nihilism after trying to do good deeds fails her. It's exactly the opposite of the untroubled wish-fulfillment fantasy promised by its basic scenario, and even without benefit of a completed narrative, it presents a suitably complex moral puzzle to gnaw over alongside Madoka, a most satisfyingly ambivalent protagonist.

8/10

* * * * *

Released one week after the first film, Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Eternal is a much looser concoction. Beginnings reduces eight episodes to 130 minutes; Eternal reduces four to 109 minutes. I cannot be certain without checking into the original show, but I suspect this means that Eternal is closer to being four uncut episodes stitched together without the re-imagining that made Beginnings hold together so well as a feature film (though it too had touched-up animation and, I believe, re-recorded lines).

The result is a distinctly less elegant construct qua movies, though there comes a part where you stop paying attention to elegance because things have become too enthralling. That's the other thing - Eternal is the climax to a story, so it has a leg up on being far more sweeping and exciting and consequential. And it's a right freaking good climax, too. If I may now swerve fully into baseless speculation, I find myself wondering if the movie works better in that regard than the series would have - the last "episode" (and it's extremely obvious, in this half of the dyad, where individual episode breaks occur) is virtually all wind-down and spiritual abstraction done up in over-saturated sparkly colors. As the wind-down to a movie, it's paced exactly right; watching it as its own 30-minute chunk of narrative media, I have to wonder if it might feel a bit stretched thin and anticlimactic.

Well, anyway, let's stay away from that rabbit hole. On its own merits, excepting the very distinctively episodic flow of the story, Eternal is a bold sequel and conclusion that takes advantage of the cliffhanger at the end of Beginnings to completely re-direct the intentions and meaning of the plot. You will, please, forgive me for being cagey in describing that plot; it's all but impossible to talk about Eternal's story without delving into the twists and turns that happen in the latter hour of Beginnings, and I'd rather not do that. There are two things in the first hour of Eternal that are very much worthy of consideration for how much they shift the emotional axis of the story. To begin with, we learn (or a least, we are enthusiastically invited to infer) more about the witch-realms than had previously been apparent: as we find in exploring a newly-created one (still depicted in the scrappy collage style that has made all of the witch-realm sequences so interesting to look at), they are assembled from the shards of ill-feeling of the witch who inhabits them - they are the embodiment of her anger and hopelessness. That's enough to make this first sequence rather more tragic than anything, but it also retroactively recasts all the previous witch fights as their own tragic odysseys. In essence, this is the passage through which Puella &c. reworks itself completely as a sorrowful human story instead of a magical girl adventure, not that there was still any real thought of that being the case. But it's here that even the witches themselves are absolved of their villainy.

The other switch happens in the second episode, and involves a most convoluted flashback that turns out to be dozens of flashbacks, or at least one flashback to dozens of time streams. And here's where the series makes its even bolder turn: suddenly, we have a new protagonist, only the way she's revealed as such indicates that she has, in fact, been the protagonist all along, and Madoka's confusion about making her wish has been merely the last small chapter of a very long struggle. It makes perfect sense when you're watching it. It is, at any rate, a remarkably successful change that digs down to make the series an even stronger character drama than it had been; instead of the somewhat schematic way that each of the magic girls (or magic girls in potentia) occupy a different slot on the "how selfless are we to be?" spectrum, the overall story now reveals itself to be about the deep, unconditional love felt by a friend, and the obsessive promise she makes to prove that love.

It's all deeply satisfying, even if I can barely talk about it. So let's switch gears to talk some more about the animation of all this. The design strategy largely remains the same (as it would have to, really), but I didn't talk nearly enough before about how that design translates into practice. At a glance, all the characters, and especially Madoka, are pastel cartoons, with the usual enormous anime eyes and faces coupled with generic and stylistically unlikely uniformity in their hair, eye, and clothing colors. Watching those figures express big, joyful glee is unexceptional; watching throughout Beginnings and into Eternal as those same figures start to feel fear, misgivings, and sadness is much different, and the slowed-down movement and increasingly heavy, downcast expressions of the characters - again, especially Madoka - is reliably jarring, in the best way possible. Directors Miyamoto Yukihiro and Shinbo Akiyuki, and their team of animators, find no limit to the number of ways they're able to make their simplistic cartoon girls feel ground down and desperate, which makes the last-act shift into a sequence so light it literally floats feel wonderfully earned.

I might also put in a word for the lighting: in its final stages, Eternal showcases some highly dramatic mixtures of gloom and piercing beams of light, rather like pre-Raphaelite paintings of storms. Someone with a better knowledge of Japanese graphic art history can tell me if that's as stunningly inept a comparison as I expect it is. But the point being, strong sunlight broken down and filtered becomes greatly important to building the mood of the film as it approaches its final conflict, with an encroaching sense of night that infects even a bouncy pop song montage that glosses over some redundant story bits.

Taken altogether, the two "original" parts of Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie tell a sneakily unsettling psychodrama using unexpectedly lush visuals, continuing to up-end the narrative with unanticipated shifts even after we "get" that's what it's doing. I must again retrench to my ignorance: I don't know what Japanese animated series are like in the 2010s, and perhaps this is all boringly routine stuff. But if that's the case, Japanese animation must be in a tremendously strong place, because even with some lumps and strain - four hours is plenty for this story, let alone even more - this series is damned impressive, visually and emotionally, with an increasingly sprawling narrative universe that always stays grounded in its own rules even as it goes bonkers towards the end.

8/10

* * * * *

In October, 2013, just a smidgen more than one year after the two-part recap movie hit Japanese theaters, along came the first new material in the movie trilogy: Puella Magi Madoka Magica: The Movie - Rebellion, which apparently began when Urobuchi wanted to write a second season but found he couldn't think up enough material to make it that long and retain its internal credibility. Would that more writers would allow their material to find its natural length!

It's reflected in the final project, which for all its shortcomings, some of which are extravagant, doesn't feel at all like a cash-in sequel. Ironically, it is just that, at least a little bit: Urobuchi has indicated that he had a different ending in mind, but the money men wanted a sequel hook. And that's exactly what they got, though to my thinking it's a sequel hook that so thoroughly de-centers the entire narrative of the series in such a profoundly unappealing way, it's almost solely responsible for making the idea of a second sequel (which has no apparent intentions of materialising) kind of an undesirable notion.

The whole film is immensely baffling, though, not just the ending. Rebellion is hard to pin down as a sequel: it is, beyond question, a continuation of the narrative of the original series/the two movies, but it doesn't feel at all like they combine to form a single, smooth arc. This is more like a parenthesis, or an asterisk. It's intimately dependent on the original storyline to give it context and explain every aspect of its world and characters, but it strikes me as something that would be much more satisfying to take it as a self-contained standalone narrative, ideally without any knowledge of Puella Magi Madoka Magica at all.

It's audacious, you have to give it that. As a story, Rebellion starts off as a mystery, essentially, with its entire first quarter dedicated exclusively to the question, "what the hell is going on"? The audacious part is that nobody in the movie is asking that question: it's generated entirely in the mind of the viewer. Anyway, what the hell is going on is that our four magic girls from Mitakihara are happily defending the town from nightmares: that being Madoka, of course, along with Sayaka, Mami, and Kyoko, who didn't appear all together at any point in the original, didn't get along very well in most of the combinations where they did get along, and weren't having such blandly innocuous adventures. They are stopping nightmares, I repeat: as in, they are literally the guardians of good dreams. So much for saving the world from all-powerful witches. Eventually, Homura transfers to school and joins them, and helps them complete some kind of nightmare-binding ritual that involves a giant cake. The viewer who has sat through the increasingly grim, anti-heroic series is bound to watch all of this with the sense that eventually, the other shoe has to drop, and of course it does; but the first time that the movie even acknowledges the concept of a shoe is almost exactly at the half-hour mark (in a 116-minute film), and it's still not until some while later that anybody really tries to do something about it.

There's no real way that the film can reasonably expect us to spend that whole time innocently thinking everything is as bright and squeaky-clean as it seems; even if we didn't watch the series and know exactly what should be going on (and if we didn't watch the series, Rebellion plans to just laugh and laugh at our ignorance), the opening credits and accompanying musical montage have obligingly oriented themselves exclusively around images that show Homura contrasted with the other girls spatially, in color design, in movement (that is, her lack thereof). "This girl has secrets that are mysterious and also threaten to pull out the rug from this playful, garish magic girl adventure" says the credits in unmistakable language to anybody who has the first clue about reading images.

So here's one of the film's two big problems: it has no idea how to start. There's no subterfuge, since any possible viewer is simply waiting for the reveal that this fun genre exercise is a sham; and yet the film waits and draws things out and slowly develops as though we need to have a sense of creeping dread placed upon us, as though we don't have creeping dread from within the first few seconds, or at least the first time we see that bastardly Kyubey, who in this reality is a harmless cat-bunny who cutely says "kyu" every time the camera shifts to him. The first thirty minutes do not find us asking, "what's going on?"; the first five minutes raise that question, and the next 25 are instead dedicated to the most more urgent, "is this movie going to ever actually start?"

And the second big problem is the ending. I won't spoil it. There's a point where the characters have worked out all their problems, and this part, at least, is perfectly in line with the series: it becomes a tragedy about loving too much, too hard, and too selfishly, about trying to make life perfect for the people you want to protect the most, and in so doing rob them of the ability to have agency. From the 40-minute mark, and for almost another hour, Rebellion is exactly the Puella Magi Madoka Magica sequel that PMMM didn't know it wanted; I will not say "needed", since it does take some kind of arbitrary bullshit to get the backstory set up in the first place. Particularly the decision that Homura's perfectly-shaped character resolution from Eternal was no such thing, and about fifteen seconds after we stopped watching her, she unlearned everything that the whole movie taught her. But setting that aside, Rebellion is character-driven and emotionally difficult in utterly splendid ways, and having muscled through the beginning, I was all set to love it.

But the ending is really just dire - needless, unearned cynicism, operating under the principle that love invariably turns to possessiveness and obsession, and that good people can be snookered by bad people 100% of the time. It's tiresome adolescent nihilism and quite beneath the dignity of the characters and the writing that crafted that marvelous three-episode ending arc in the first place. Perhaps a sequel would fix it - probably we'll never find out.

All that being summed up, we have here a movie that is truly wonderful for half of its running time, a little tedious for about its first quarter, and a lot tendentious for its last. That's not a terrific batting average (though many and many a film has a worse one), so here's why, after all that, I was still blown away by Rebellion: it is drop-dead gorgeous. This is quite easily among the best-looking animated films of the 2010, and however much more it cost than its predecessors, it was a bargain. From the first time the magic girls fight a nightmare, it's clear that Rebellion has some heightened visual ideas up its sleeve: Gekidan INU Curry's design for the nightmare realm is based on cloth patches and soft textures, which is striking at first and then damned ingenious when you realise that they're evoking quilts and bedding - that is, the fabric of the nightmare space suggests where nightmares are found, just as the ripped paper of the witch labyrinths evoke scrapbooks, since as we eventually learn, they're constructed out of memories.

That's just the launching point for a film that does all of its storytelling through the design of its physical spaces and the way its characters move through them, as much as through the words they say. Cataloguing every last ingenious visual idea in Rebellion would be unwieldy, tedious, and much too long, but I'll run through some highlights. One is the way the film borrows abstract geometric spaces to silently imply the deterioration on the far edges of what turns out to be an imagined landscape, long before the characters figure out that it's so. There is also the increasing tendency of the townspeople to shift into flat paper-like figures with simplified sketches for faces, which not only repeats the notion that this unreal space can only produce so much detail, but also foreshadows what's going on for viewers who can recall what paper animation connoted earlier in the series. At one point, the aggressive simplicity of this figures has become so pronounced that one shivering character, animated on twos, is being gripped by an enemy that switches from a blank smiling face to a snarling, be-fanged grim without any intermediate frames at all, using the mechanical structure of the animation medium itself to provide horror.

Yes, that's the word. "Horror". It's not clear at first, but by the time Homura and Kyoko end up in the non-Euclidean hellscape of the Mitakihara suburbs, Rebellion has clearly committed to that mode. And everything that proceeds from that is great, through the big final battle sequence that's a grab-bag of horror images (one particularly striking moment: a shell of a face, with eyes straggling to keep up with the rest of the head, moves into frame, and is abruptly replaced by a skull), and even into the last scene, a bucolic sequence in which little dreadful things keep moving in on the edges.

I admire the effort, at least. Rebellion strikes me as an essentially unfulfilling concept that has been executed in the most exciting and artistically accomplished way. I don't know what to do with that - if it were just boring or clichéd, I'd be all about this, but it's so actively distasteful near the end. It's captivating, anyway, and it's as thrilling in its aesthetic as any Japanese animation I have myself seen. Which has to count for more than something like a dispiriting, tacked-on ending, right?

8/10

12 February 2016

LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER

If the vote keeps heading the way it's obviously heading, you'll all have a chance to read my full review of the Oscar-winning cannibal horror film The Silence of the Lambs in about two weeks. But in the meantime, to celebrate that film's 25th anniversary this week, myself and four other members of Team Film Experience just completed a tag-team review of the film. Come over and check it out! I wrote today's concluding chapter, but of course you'll want to start with part 1, written by Kieran Scarlett on Monday.

REVIEWING THE BEST PICTURE WINNERS, 2016 BALLOT

Bumped while voting is ongoing

I had such a fun time coming up with these comparisons last year, I couldn't help myself but to do it again. Once again, I'm going to review a classic Best Picture Oscar winner or two, and I'm going to let all of you help me pick which one I go with. For each of the current nominees for that award, I've selected a previous winner that shares some key element with it.

The Nominees:

The Big Short:
Our apparent political heroes turn out to be just one more part of the whole circle of corruption in a ripped-from-the-headlines tale = All the King's Men (1949)

Bridge of Spies:
Tom Hanks is the spirit of America = Forrest Gump (1994)

Brooklyn:
The lives of immigrants in 1950s New York, particularly one earnest, lovelorn shopgirl = West Side Story (1961)

Mad Max: Fury Road:
An un-Oscarly swerve into the action genre, with cutting-edge car stunts = The French Connection (1971)

The Martian:
A breezy adventure executed with state of the art technique, in which human cunning triumphs over the odds. It's also too damn long and gives a huge number of famous actors virtually nothing to do = Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

The Revenant:
Lots of blood, and the thing most people know about it involves a liver being eaten = The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Room:
A single parent turns her (his) entire life over to the needs of her (his) darling moppet of son = Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Spotlight:
Plucky reporters go to whatever ends necessary to track down a story = It Happened One Night (1934)

My current aim is to review each day of Oscar weekend, February 27 and 28, so the top two vote-getters will both get reviewed. That means two votes per participant, too. The poll will close at 11:59 PM CST on February 20.


10 February 2016

RENDER UNTO CAESAR WHAT IS CAESAR'S

My instinct to say of Hail, Caesar! that you will love it if you fall into the enormously specific niche of people who adore Studio Era Hollywood but are still totally okay with making fun of it, and also consider themselves somewhere firmly entrenched in the Leftist-Socialist-Marxist end of the spectrum but are still totally okay with pointing out how totally feckless those philosophies tend to be in practice, and also have a deep fascination with religious doctrine and religious iconography but are generally atheist/agnostic in outlook. But then, every conversation I've had with somebody who isn't exactly the same as me about the movie has ended with them enjoying it every bit as much as I did. So perhaps the real truth here is simply that Joel & Ethan Coen, making their 17th feature film, are extremely good at making extremely interesting movies.

Hail, Caesar! very clearly positions itself as a cinephile's acid-inked Valentine to Hollywood in the 1950s, with a large proportion of its running time given over to note-perfect parodies and re-creations of the movies and surrounding culture prevalent at that time. It's an impressionistic copy more than a documentary one: the most conspicuous historical error is the appearance of widescreen cinematography in 1951, two years ahead of schedule. The most telling is that our protagonist is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), head of physical production at the fictional Capital Pictures (the same studio that figure into the Coens' Barton Fink, set a decade earlier), and an extremely clear analogue for MGM's legendary "fixer" of the same name; but as much as the two men have in common the film's Mannix is a variation on the theme of the real-life Mannix, for there are simply too many small things they don't have in common.

Anyway, I interrupted myself: Hail, Caesar! very clearly positions itself as a collection of Hollywood in-jokes designed for an audience who loves (sometimes ironically) all the same movies that the Coens do, but it is actually a morality play about faith and good works: it is the Coens' Christian movie - specifically Catholic - in much the same way that their damnably under-appreciated A Serious Man was their Jewish movie. With the admitted caveat that the Coens have a fair degree more insight into the lives of Minnesota Jews in the '60s (the exact environment they came from) than they do into Catholics from any time or place, and while A Serious Man comes from some unnervingly exact and precise and accurate place deep in the filmmakers' soul, Hail, Caesar! draws down more from depictions of Catholic practice, doubt, and piety as picked up from the movies.

Which is a pretty fair strategy to adopt in the making of a movie that is, itself, all about what gets shown to us in movies, and how, and why, and to what potentially ideological ends. Mild spoilers for the rest of this paragraph. Herein is a film in which a self-aware pantomime of gay behavior is acted onscreen by a man we'll later learn is homosexual, and in which Communist screenwriters proudly describe the way they smuggle leftist messages into movies by hiding them under so much obfuscation that they don't really count as messages any more. A certain enthusiastic ambivalence about the way that "movie meaning" and "reality" speak past each other is present throughout all of the otherwise quite disconnected, even arbitrary anecdotes speckled throughout the film. Why should its depiction of how Mannix grapples with his faith be any different? And so it is, from the unmistakably leading and clichéd opening scene (in a confessional, that most unsubtle of locations), to its remarkable last shot, in which The Movie Industry is blessed with the light of Heaven; whether ironically or not, I cannot say. Irony and the Coens are like peanut butter and jelly, but the final act of Hail, Caesar! is remarkably, almost creepily sincere, doling out happy endings to characters whether they've earned them or not, and not apparently having any sardonic misgivings about doing so. To wrap up the Serious Man comparison, perhaps the two films' endings are themselves reflective of religious themes: the Jewish film ends with the cruel director-gods dumping one last mean-spirited punishment on their characters, the Christian film ends with senseless love. And, maybe, a false messiah in the form of Mannix, who sacrifices himself to not redeem the sins of a system that will barely survive the decade.

700 words and change in, it's worth mentioning that Hail, Caesar! is a comedy. A tremendously smart and on-point one, if you're up with all of the specific references in the script and the images (I'm sure I missed a few), though I have to imagine that it's still adorably silly even if you're not. It's gratuitously shaggy, with the same basic structure of shuffled-up anecdotes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the same willful joy in wandering away from its own apparent plot as The Big Lebowski. In principle, the film is about Mannix's difficulties with the production of Capital's biggest production for the upcoming season, Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ (a dual reference to 20th Century-Fox's 1953 The Robe and MGM's 1959 Ben-Hur), starting first with a meeting of four religious leaders to debate whether the film captures the fine points of theology enough to serve as an appropriate panacea to the audience's souls (it's also the snappiest Coen scene since the "Goy's Teeth" sequence from A Serious Man, and hilarious on the level of the masterful opening sequence in Raising Arizona), and then going on to his woes with the production's meaty leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). For one thing, the viper-like twin gossip columnists, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) both have different, equally damaging stories about Whitlock ready to go; for another, the star has just been kidnapped by a Marxist group calling itself The Future.

Like many another Coen film, though, Hail, Caesar! takes its title largely in reference to the thing it's going to keep driving around and forgetting and looking past. Mannix has far more to deal with than just one missing A-list star; there are out-of-wedlock pregnancies to handle, capricious requests from the New York office to shift stars around, and on top of it all, he's weighing a job offer from Lockheed. The result is a shambolic tour of a Hollywood studio in the full swing of production, right in that little window when the Golden Age had died but the corpse had so much built-up momentum that you can't tell from looking at it how nigh the end really is (I'd set the boundaries as the 1948 Paramount case, which ended the star system, and the assault-in-earnest on the Production Code that started ramping up in 1953 with The Moon Is Blue. But if you wanted to say that 1951 itself was the turning point, thanks to the modernist jolt of A Streetcar Named Desire, I wouldn't fight you).

The result is a little tragic, in addition to be so damn fluffy: all that goofiness we see, and Mannix's spiritually restorative appreciation for the little good he's able to do in his job, are coming right at the end; we're watching a star slowly cooling down to white dwarfhood. Not that it keeps the individual moments from being utterly delicious, as the Coens immaculately re-create the aesthetics of '50s Hollywood with their terrific band of regular collaborators: production designer Jess Gonchor, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Carter Burwell, and of course cinematographer Roger Deakins, shooting on film for probably the last time in his career, and turning out a dewy film in the colors of saltwater taffy, sunny and bleary at the same time. Three musical numbers, an aborted attempt at a drawing room melodrama, and quite an array of stilted Bible epic scenes are both ingenious presents to cinephiles and also exciting, colorful, elaborate pieces of cinematic craftssmanship in their own right, a reminder of how damn good Old Hollywood could be that is also an admission of how damn corny it almost always was.

Credit, too, to an excellent cast, mostly made up of people much too big to have such tiny cameos: Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Alison Pill, Frances McDormand, and Ralph Fiennes all show up for one or two scenes, among others. The far-and-away standout, besides Brolin himself (who plays as similar sharp screwball brittleness mixed with a deep inward-looking moral crisis as the one that Jennifer Jason Leigh gave to the directors in The Hudsucker Proxy), is relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, whose drawling singing cowboy Hobie Doyle is this film's analogue to Marge Gunderson: the obvious rube with a thick accent, who turns out to be the most perceptive and capable member of the whole cast. And if Ehrenrich can't match McDormand's authority in that role (who could?), it's as perfect a star-is-born performance as a movie about Hollywood myth could hope for.

As fuzzy and meandering as this can all obviously get, it would be exceeding unfair to accuse Hail, Caesar! of lacking a very deliberate strategy and structure. It's a study in human brokenness, given the illusion of smooth perfection by the Hollywood machine, which turns chaos into formula, and a slow-boil comedy in which the very shapelessness of jokes is what makes them funny. There's a lot of depth here that I think will take the usual 3-4 viewings that most Coen comedies need before they start yielding up everything, but it's still an intoxicating classical movie lover's pleasure even without that.

9/10

08 February 2016

THE GAME OF POLITICS IS PRETENDING

The list of great documentaries about the political process is not a long one, but its highlights are some true all-time masterpieces: Robert Drew's Primary, from 1960; D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus's The War Room, from 1993. To this rarefied company we must now certainly add Camilla Nielsson's Democrats, an absolute miracle of a film that stares into the dark heart of the sausage-making world of partisan bickering and intra-party power struggles in no less open a country than the Republic of Zimbabwe. The mere fact that Nielsson and her crew were able to snag the kind of access they did with the full faith and support of the Robert Mugabe regime is perhaps the most surprising thing about the film, but it is not the only surprise, nor does Democrats rest on its laurels, having concluded that deep access = high art. This is equal parts thriller, procedural, and unlikely character study, and it's one of the most gripping, accomplished piece of nonfiction cinema of this or many recent years.

It takes a little bit of history to get where we need to be, history that Democrats provides in the form of a regrettable number of opening title cards. But then again, if there's a way of presenting the convoluted nightmare of Zimbabwe politics elegantly, I can't begin to imagine what that might look like. So title cards it must be. The very summary version is that the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union - Popular Front (ZANU-PF), after 28 years of effortlessly crushing any opposition to President Mugabe, bungled the 2008 elections, with Mugabe winning re-election by a wholly improbable margin, while the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was able to wrest control of the Parliament away from ZANU-PF for the first time since 1980. After a great deal of political wrangling, ZANU-PF and MDC agreed to a tentative power-sharing deal, while United Nations pressure in the wake of the obviously rigged presidential election led to international pressure on the government to write a brand new constitution. And here's we we come in.

Democrats focuses mainly on the actions of two men: Paul Mangwana, a member of Mugabe's cabinet, who served as the main ZANU-PF representative in the constitutional negotiations; and Douglas Mwonzora, a human rights lawyer and top man in the MDC, serving as Mangwana's opposite number. As chairs of COPAC, the committee assigned to draft the new constitutions, they were the primary movers in trying to scrounge together a document that would be at least satisfactory to all parties, which given the almost diametrically opposed goals involved was a bit of an impossible nightmare. The title cuts two ways: watching how a nation with little real democracy in its history struggles to perform the mechanics of democratic nation-building; and more sardonically, how Mangwana in particular attempts to produce a document that appears democratic without actually having to be democratic, since certainly his job and probably his life hinge on keeping any provision out of the constitution that might threaten Mugabe's power in any meaningful way.

Nielsson and her team were right in the middle of all this, capturing a remarkably candid array of moments that suggest that Mangwana especially must have really been that worked up about the constitutional process that he would say and do the things he did in front of a presumably hostile European's cameras. But again, the splendid quality of the fly-on-the-wall footage is by no means the best thing about Democrats, even though it is truly impressive cinéma vérité. At least as impressive and valuable is the way that Nielsson and editor Jeppe Maagaard Bødskov shape all of that material into a crackling, fast-paced procedural. In its running time just shy of 100 minutes, Democrats covers years of negotiating, panicking, annoyance, and the smallest sliver of personal growth, moving with an unabashed narrative strive through thorny real-time events. The filmmakers, aided by the big personalities involved, have done a marvelous job of making grueling politics exciting to watch, while leaving enough of the context in the material that we walk away from a film with a tremendously clear sense of the stakes, a real appreciation for the successes that were eked out, and a deep frustration at how very much more didn't get done.

More than anything, it's Mangwana and Mwonzora themselves that make Democrats so engaging. The film built around them is a character sketch as much as it's a political document, and figures from the disarmingly witty Mugabe on down emerge with great vividness from just a few moments that offer windows into their character. And this falls most of all upon the two co-chairs. We spend a good deal of time watching their moods ebb and flow over the months, with Mwonzora's optimism curdling into outrage and settling at a kind of triumphal resignation that he could win any concessions at all. Mangwana, with Mugabe breathing down his neck, has a far more colorful life over the same period, at one point darting around rabidly to assure the press and his fellow party members that he absolutely did not approve of an overtly anti-Mugabe clause getting into a draft of the constitution, and certainly will see that it's removed. That's a particularly dramatic slice of life in a film that makes equal room for such grandiosity as the moment when Mangwana realises that he might actually be shot before he has a chance to fix things, all the way to the most utterly mundane details of human life (Mwonzora has the "Numa Numa" song as his ringtone).

Above all, Democrats is a tribute the the galling hard work of living in a democracy; perhaps all the harder because it's so young and vulnerable as Zimbabwe, but perhaps not. Nielsson certainly never seems to give credence to the idea that this is some kind of primitive political system, even when the men involved try to invoke that as an excuse for behavior. The suggestion is rather that this is how all modern democracies work, and Zimbabwe is getting its first taste of the unsatisfying deal-brokering and watery compromises that drive so many more mature governments. It's a sober lesson, but the film delivers it with such gusto, through such a fascinating specific case, that Democrats is always a wildly engaging movie, even when it's the most like a civics lesson.

9/10

07 February 2016

REVIEWS IN BRIEF, FEBRUARY 2016: DOCUMENTARIES

Being a collection of capsule reviews of some of the non-fiction films watched by the blogger in recent weeks

* * * * *

The Pearl Button (Guzmán, 2015)

Septuagenarian documentary god Patricio Guzmán scored an enormous triumph with 2010's Nostalgia for the Light, one of the most important and under-seen films of the decade. Two things are thus unsurprising: that Nostalgia's 2015 companion piece, The Pearl Button, would fail to match the same heights; and that The Pearl Button would still be a hell of a fine achievement in its own right, re-directing Nostalgia's impulses into new, if familiar channels that result in a wholly new set of observations about the idea of nationhood and the relationship of humans with their cultural past.

Whereas Nostalgia was a film about the desert, The Pearl Button is ultimately a film about water, and it would be worth every minute even if the movie offered only the pleasure of seeing how Guzmán and cinematographer Katell Djian framed and shaped images of water flowing, crashing, dripping, and gently ebbing. The film is as much a meditation on its themes as a discussion of them, and the accumulation of water images is one of the most successfully meditative things about it.

Water is not just a visual motif but a philosophical one, as well; even spiritual, maybe, in Guzmán's conception. In focusing on the human inhabitants of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, including the last vestiges of the pre-Columbian language users in that part of South America, The Pearl Button naturally focuses on how life on an island is shaped by the sea, from which resources and invaders alike both come. The title itself is a dual reference to Jemmy Button of the Yaghan people, who was trotted around England in the 1830s (and who returned to Tierra del Fuego on the same voyage of the HMS Beagle that brought young naturalist Charles Darwin to prominence), as well as to a button found wedged in the rails used to weight down the bodies sent to drown during Augusto Pinochet's reign, a pair of historical grace notes that both suggest the worst in human behavior, but The Pearl Button takes a more pacific than nihilistic view of the flow of history, even if Guzmán's ultimate theme is to warn us of the history and identity that risk being lost as time marches on.

Starting with Guzmán's own narration, warm and quasi-mystical, The Pearl Button is generally more of a series of reflections than anything analytically focused, and it lacks Nostalgia for the Light's keen sense of specific outrage; even when the film tries its damnedest to address specific question of Chile's tendency to swallow up its own past, The Pearl Button keeps drifting into Big Questions about human civilisations more generally. Speaking privately, I wouldn't have it any other way; one of the privileges of old age is the ability to take the long view, and Guzmán's generous diagnosis of human failing makes for a truly moving and ingenious film even if it lacks the sharp focus or political edge of his best work.

8/10

* * * * *

3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (Silver, 2015)

I think, as a general principal, that it's hard for a documentary focused on discussing living political problems to be aesthetically interesting at a very high level, which is one of the reasons I don't tend to care for agitprop documentaries, and why I institute my "is this more interesting than a magazine story on the same topic?" test. But sometimes you can have your cake and eat it, and to prove the point, here comes 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets. It is, on the one hand, a sickeningly potent case study of one particular murder of a young African-American male by a freaked-out white dude with a gun, and the broken judicial system that permits crimes like that to go unpunished. But it's also a tense, engaging piece of narrative that performs the ultimate trick of a great documentary, by teasing its arguments out through the viewer's own thought processes rather than hauling out talking heads and authority figures to tell us what to think.

The film's subject is the 2012 shooting of Jordan Davis, 17 years old when he was killed by 45-year-old Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, Florida, the end point of an altercation that started over loud music Davis and his friends were playing as they were filling up their car at the same gas station as Dunn. Nobody involved disputed that Dunn fired the bullets; the case hinged on whether or not Dunn's actions were justified under the state's stand-your-ground law (more notoriously invoked in another 2012 killing, the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin).

Director Marc Silver takes it as a given that Davis represented no actual threat to Dunn, and invites us to be suitably outraged, but that's not really what 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is about. It is a kind of weird courtroom drama, one that unfurls very slowly and without explaining what's going on - we have to piece together what the crime was to begin with, let alone who the principles were and what specific events took place. It's asking the audience to be a combination of detective and jurist, encountering information and sifting through it and figuring out what it means (Silver took notes from The Thin Blue Line, clearly), never taking as its subject the question of whether Dunn is morally culpable for Davis's death, which it assumes, but whether the wriggliness of the stand-your-ground laws means that Dunn is legally culpable.

Different viewers will undoubtedly piece together those data points in different ways, but the effect is near enough to the same thing: 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets is not confronting the problem of middle-aged white men being made nervous and uncomfortable by the mere existence of black teenagers, but the problem of how that discomfort has been codified into law. And it gets there not by haranguing us, nor by lecturing, but by presenting reality in the form of a narrative thriller that lets the arbitrary injustice of these most toxic of laws cast real doubt onto the question of whether Dunn can be found guilty of a crime.

It's one of the best films about the current wave of racially-motivated crimes I've seen, only slightly undercut by its dreadfully leading, saccharine score, and its mission drift as it goes on; the final scenes unpersuasively suggest that (SPOILER ALERT FOR REALITY) we should feel uplift from the fact that Dunn was imprisoned for his crimes, even though the problem it so piercingly identified wasn't "this one white guy flipped out and killed a kid" but "this is merely a symptom of a society-wide problem with laws effectively making it okay to murder African-American men because you never know", and that is a thread that Silver almost forgets about by the end. But whatever. The missteps are little, and the brilliance with which the film combines righteous outrage and smart film construction are enough to make this a thoroughly essential piece of the documentarian's art.

9/10

* * * * *

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Garbus, 2015)

There is a tradition in documentary filmmaking, I do not know what we should call it: the work of archivist-interviewers, perhaps. Even if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you've seen it: there are talking heads who explain stuff, and there is vintage footage of the stuff they're explaining, and sometimes they're talking over it, but sometimes not. It is the format of all those PBS American Masters episodes, and of basically every historically-oriented TV show ever; it is essentially boring and mostly inartistic, but it's still very good at doing one thing: explaining a topic and then demonstrating it. It is the way we learn things from documentaries. And What Happened, Miss Simone? just so happens to be about as close as I can imagine to the perfect version of that form; a biographical sketch so scintillating and authoritative that I barely registered how stylistically generic it was.

The film is Liz Garbus's supremely confident portrait of Nina Simone, a woman who mixed groundbreaking musical genius with fiery radical politics, and is generally one of the most fascinating, difficult icons of the American Civil Rights Movement that you could hope to find. Garbus presents her story in exactly the way you'd expect: footage progressing in chronological fashion from Simone's earliest days as a burgeoning star, to her roaring invocations of Black nationalism in the '60s and '70s, to her years of restful decline in France. The footage is immaculately well-chosen, presenting a full range of Simone's career and character in her own voice; purely as a collection of archival materials, this is everything that 2015's other major musician bio-doc, Amy, was too narrowly-focused to be.

But What Happened, Miss Simone? isn't just about old footage, and it's possibly in the newer interview footage that the film shifts from being a deeply satisfying record of Simone's career to a borderline-essential reckoning with her artistic legacy. It becomes very clear, the more interviewees we meet, what a complex, grandiose figure Simone was to those who knew her, beyond any one person's ability to grapple with all the facets of her personality. The most poignant interview subject is undoubtedly her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, who executive-produced the film and uses it neither to lionise her mother nor condemn her in so much tawdry gossip, but instead struggles towards comprehend how to reconcile Nina's musical gift, her passionate and possibly dangerously overwrought politics, and the at times ice-cold cruelty she levied upon her daughter, the one person upon whom she could transfer all the abuse she received herself.

Gossiping about an abusive mom is no more the film's goal than canonising Simone as a plaster saint; this is as earnest an attempt as can be attempted in 100 minutes to fully grasp the twists and turns inside the mind of a mercurial genius, for good and great and ill. If it never quite finds space to fully demonstrate Simone's musical career beyond a tour of her greatest hits, and rushes through her retirement years with unenlightening speed, the very least that What Happened, Miss Simone? does is to make an ironclad case that as a human being, Simone was as fascinatingly jam-packed with ideas and furies as anyone in the 20th Century, and is well worth getting to know better.

8/10

* * * * *

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom (Afineevsky, 2015)

Maidan exists. This is the reality that Winter on Fire, Netflix's Oscar-nominated documentary about the February, 2014 revolution in Ukraine, has to contend with and never manages to overcome. It's an unfair thing to demand of any film that it has to live up to the standard of some other specific film, I concede, and perhaps to the viewer who'd never seen or heard of Maidan, Sergei Loznitsa's 2014 vérité-style snapshot of the situation on the ground in Ukraine would be more inclined to find Evgeny Afineevsky's take on the material to be more satisfying and intellectually stimulating than I'm able to.

Also, maybe not. Just in reference solely to itself and the material it explores, Winter on Fire is a tangibly lightweight compendium of interviews with a wide range of protesters set up in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the famed Independence Square of Kyiv. It captures something that does make it unmistakably valuable as a snapshot of a historical moment: the righteous anger of the protesters, who felt with considerable justification that they were being sold out by their elected government, which was at that time about to reject a potential path into the Eurozone. As journalism, the act of gathering these narratives into one place is of obviously clear value.

But that's the starting point of journalism, not the end, and this is where Winter on Fire comes up miserably short. All of this is plainly meant to serve as an explanation not just of the specific feelings of a dozen or so Ukrainians, all of them indelibly captured by Afineevsky's camera (the clear standout: a little urchin boy who initially joined the protesters because of the possibility of getting medical attention. But several of the onscreen interviewees emerge with rich, interesting lives that we see around the edges); this is also a film with an eye to explaining the politics of the protests, and here the film is a complete flop. It presents a hopelessly crimped, worm's-eye-view of a very difficult international situation, one that has been treated with appallingly trivial analysis in the U.S newsmedia, at any rate, and having a glossy magazine sidebar approach to that material - let alone setting it on the path to one of cinema's most prestigious awards - is hardly good for anybody. The film's up-with-people feel-goodism is charming and pleasant and all, but it's simply not engaged with its subject in a rewarding way.

So back to Maidan. That film didn't really go into any depths that this one doesn't, but it signally lacked the pretense of doing so: it was an attempt to capture reality for a stretch of time. Winter on Fire, with its carefully assembled cast of figures, is an attempt to simplify reality, and it turns out far more superficial than its subject, along with the footage captured and assembled here, deserve.

6/10

* * * * *

Cartel Land (Heineman, 2015)

Apparently, all it takes to get a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Oscars is to stop at "we've got the footage!" without advancing to the necessary step of "we've formulated an argument with our footage!", because now we come along to Cartel Land, a film that had every excuse to be one of the year's non-fiction masterpieces, and simply refuses to make the hard choices that would seal the deal. The access that director Matthew Heineman had to his subjects is astonishing and eye-opening, and even in an utterly hobbled form, Cartel Land is essential viewing for anybody with any concerns about the violence of the Mexican drug industry. But that access seems to have cowed Heineman into packaging this material in an alarmingly banal form, with little to no interest in actually interrogating the people he was filming, either in person or in the editing room.

The film focuses on two very different groups with similar goals: in Michoacán, Mexico, Dr. José Mireles, a leader of one of the region's Autodefensas, grassroots vigilante groups fighting against the cartels in the face of governmental inability to anything worth a damn; while in the United States, Tim "Nailer" Foley leads the Arizona Border Recon, also a vigilante group, working hard to make sure that nobody crosses the U.S./Mexico border illegally. Including cartel members and their shipments of narcotics, but there's no real indication that "Nailer" would care about his job any less if he was only stopping routine illegal immigrants. This is one of those points that Heineman is fine with letting slide by without any meaningful intellectual engagement.

The footage gathered in Cartel Land by Heineman and his co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll is never less than astonishing, and one can only imagine the personal danger faced by Heineman and Porwoll in pursuing it. Actually, one doesn't need to imagine anything - Cartel Land is more than willing to share with us footage of the wanton violence meted out by the cartels on the vigilantes and the vigilantes on the cartels. It's certainly hard to fault the filmmakers for their bravery, or the unblinking, visceral intensity with which they set us right inside life as constant combat and tension between the bad guys and the guys who are not bad primarily because they're at least failing to materially profit from the sales of drugs. It's all enough to make Sicario look like a mildly unpleasant afternoon stroll.

And yet, as that viscera piles up, there's much less meaning to all of us this than meets the eye. The film obviously wants us to take it as a variation on the question, "can barbaric violence be fought with barbarism?", and I suppose its not not that. But Heineman gets awfully carried away by the vigilantes he's embedded with, and the end result is a film that makes this constant mortal dread seem at least as much stimulating as it is draining. I won't go so far as to call Cartel Land drug war porn, but it's awkwardly besotted with the material it's depicting, and a little bit of critical distance could surely only have helped make this is a real discussion of the issues, not just a vivid depiction of them.

7/10

* * * * *

In Jackson Heights (Wiseman, 2015)

Another year, another multi-hour Frederick Wiseman epic: and I actually quite liked In Jackson Heights, so forgive me for sounding a bit dismissive. But it comes in a hair short of his last two films, lacking the precision of National Gallery's deceptively dense argument, or the sheer society-encompassing grandeur of At Berkeley, still the best of his films that I've seen. In fact, In Jackson Heights has something I've never seen in a Wiseman film before: scenes that go on longer than they need to.

But who am I to tell one of the all-time geniuses in the field how to go about his business? Slightly imperfect or not, In Jackson Heights is still one of the great American documentaries of 2015, with a timely awareness of society's ills that proves that the 85-year-old director hasn't lost any of his insight into what makes his country tick. The film's setting is Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, one of the nation's most diverse neighborhoods, and Wiseman appears to have set himself to the task of capturing as many of the individual cultures and languages to be found there as his highly depersonalised observational style could manage.

It's a rich cross-section of humanity that emerges, from skin color to sexuality to philosophy. Nor is it an entirely rosy, optimistic portrait: in one of the film's few openly editorial beats, Wiseman cuts from a middle-aged white woman talking about how grateful she is to have the police always there protecting her beloved neighborhood, to a group of transgender Latino women sharing stories about being targeted and abused by those same police.

Still, if there's one overriding feeling that emerges from the material, it's pleasure at the thought this many wholly unique and individual ways of existing in the world can all commingle in one physical place. Wiseman's films, famously, tend to focus on institutions: high schools, mental hospitals, police departments, universities, zoos, always with specific instances standing in for national (at times international) concerns. In Jackson Heights follows the latter half of this tendency: the neighborhood is both itself and the embodiment of something greater. In this case, Wiseman shifts focus to explore, not a human institution, but a concept: what it means to have a community. "The most diverse neighborhood in New York", in this case, is a means of getting us to "a place where many different kinds of people care for each other", and the best moments of In Jackson Heights center on the ways that different individuals and groups act protectively to the weaker and those in need: a traveling prayer group stopping in the middle of a sidewalk to comfort a woman on her way to meet with a dying relative, a support group in which trans women share stories and strategies for coping with the petty meanness of the world, and countless other little moments of one human extending their hand to another. If, in pursuing this theme, In Jackson Heights errs on the side of fuzziness and indulgent editing, those are suggestive more of warmth and affection rather than sloppy filmmaking, for that warmth is the very heart and soul of this movie.

9/10

05 February 2016

TIDINGS OF JOY

Joy is weird as all hell. The film makes many false steps, both in its screenplay and its direction (both by David O. Russell, though it is fairly well-attested that the back half - the much better half, as it happens - has been changed far less from Annie Mumolo's original draft), with a terrifically impressive-on-paper cast marching fearlessly into some very indefensible decisions. Decisions motivated by the utter screwiness of the script, I should point out, which for its first 40 minutes or so paints a portrait of human domesticity that's somewhere between a Chuck Lorre sitcom and a Luis Buñuel explosion of the moral behavior within families. It is as close to completely dysfunctional and at times acutely unpleasant as any 2015 film that still turns out to be kind of essential viewing. This is a really weird film; weird in the ways that make something captivating no matter whether it is "good" or not.

Fighting to redeem the film, frequently as the only salvageable component of the filmmaking process, onscreen or off, is Jennifer Lawrence, making her third film with her new artistic life partner Russell, but only the first of those where she's the clear-cut solo lead. Two things immediately suggest themselves: one is that, yet again, Russell has stranded the actor in a role that she's visibly much too young to possibly carry off, though it's far less obviously the case here than it was in American Hustle, so let's not dwell on it. Because the other thing is that this is the first time since Winter's Bone way over at the beginning of her meteoric career that Lawrence has been really and truly great in a movie. This is a star vehicle of the most ancient stripe: not so much a film which Lawrence, by dint of her acting skills, performs an act of lifesaving triage upon (though that does happen), as a film which primarily exists so that Lawrence can demonstrate that she has those skills

The weird part is that for all it's absolutely clear that Joy is only first and ever a parade of scenes that let Lawrence showcase her range, from weepy existential suffering, to batty, frazzled comedy, to Terminator-style severity and mercilessness, it's equally absolutely clear that this is an ensemble piece, the heir to Russell's early neo-screwballs Flirting with Disaster (still, to my tastes, his best movie) and I ♥ Huckabees in that, like those films, it assembles a whirlwind of weird grotesques and smashes them together to see what happens when equally exaggerated but tonally opposite caricatures are forced to interact. Frankly, I don't have a goddamned clue what to make of it all, but transforming an ensemble farce into a star-led dramedy (or, more likely, heightening the ensemble elements of a primarily solitary vehicle) makes Joy at least unlike most other films out there. For long patches in the first half, Lawrence is the only thing about the film that works, but at least it has the benefit of being utterly abnormal in its failures.

The film is, in a very noncommittal way, the story of Joy Mangano, a single mother using herculean force of will to keep her family orbiting around some kind of gravitational center, en route to inventing the Miracle Mop and becoming a millionaire entrepreneur and inventor of sensible household goods. Stand all the way back, and it looks like a thoroughly conventional biopic, which is, to be fair, what it largely becomes right around the time that Joy (never given a surname in the film) appears in the flesh on QVC, the television station where she hawked all of her early successes. And it is weird that the exact moment that it falls in line with one of the most tedious of all genres that Joy starts to become worthy of its leading performance. The QVC scene is, in isolation, one of the great pieces of thriller filmmaking in 2015: Lawrence stands on the empty TV kitchen set with a completely empty expression, while offstage QVC exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, giving the only performance other than Lawrence's that can be confidently described as "very good", albeit with only a few scenes to take care of) hisses and frets and panics. Russell and his editors let the moment stretch and stretch and grow increasingly awful, until Lawrence starts to boot up like an ancient computer, and then snap into place quite suddenly, with the burly confidence she's embodied all through the movie. And from here on out, the movie is mostly smooth sailing, mostly: it moves at a crisper clip, and Joy becomes more than a series of variations of "I'm poor and you're stupid", which means that Lawrence doesn't have to fight as hard to drag meaning out of the movie.

Until that point, whatever are we to do with Joy? It is a carnival of terrible, stillborn characters. There's Joy's snappy grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd), tasked with the unenviable job of reciting the gloppy aphorisms that make up the film's narration; Robert De Niro is up to his usual late-career trick of being snoozy and monotonous as Joy's hapless dad, forced to rely upon his daughter's largesse after his latest marriage collapses; Isabella Rossellini dives unapologetically into camp as his new girlfriend. Virginia Madsen is trapped in the shrill cartoon of Joy's agoraphobic mother, communicating with the world only through references to her beloved soap opera. Joy's ex-husband and father of her two children, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), living in her basement, is the surprising source of relative sanity and stability in her life; best friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) is another. Having other recognisable grown-ups besides Joy in the film helps, but only a little; this is still a fluctuating system of cartoons, some more cartoonish than others, but few objectively human (there's never a point where Rossellini's Trudy feels like anything but an addle-minded gorgon, even when the rest of the movie has generally picked itself up).

Watching Lawrence's iron-willed Joy cut against that is galvanising, enough to make one wonder if that was Russell's strategy all along. If so, it was a tremendous miscalculation, for the opening of the film isn't so much watching the Last Sane Woman hold her own in a warped world, but rather more like drowning until Lawrence comes along to take pity on us. She's great, well and truly; probably not "top five of the year" great, certainly not in a year with as many sterling female leads as 2015 has boasted. But Joy presents her to the best effect that anything ever has in her short career as a superstar: this is all of Lawrence's strengths magnified and all of her weaknesses (brittle irony that stands in for humor; a rather persistent interpersonal chilliness, which is weird given how goofy and beguiling the actor is in her public appearances) turned into character details and thus made merits. It's a fascinatingly dysfunctional star vehicle, but given its apparent goals, a successful one.

6/10

02 February 2016

FEBRUARY 2016 MOVIE PREVIEW

Well, here we are, already in the second month of 2016, and I'm not even done with 2015 yet. But we'll get there. In the meanwhile, the year is hopefully going to get revved up here pretty quick: obviously anything could turn out to be bad, but two of my most-anticipated titles for the whole calendar year are soon to be upon us. It's still the winter, and that means plenty of dodgy crap, but even some of that looks maybe possibly okay. Fingers crossed.


5.2.2016

First and above all: new Coen film. Hail, Caesar! finds them returning to the world of classical Hollywood, where they set my most beloved of their films, Barton Fink; it contains one of the most interesting ensembles they've ever assembled, with Josh Brolin leading off a list including Coen vets (George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton), and exciting newbies (Channing Tatum, Ralph Fiennes). And as one of those weirdos who adored Burn After Reading and happily ranks it as top-tier Coen brothers, I'm extremely happy to see them moving back into pure comedy. Again, things can go wrong, and the lack of reviews this close to the release date is not great. But the Coen brothers have one of the best track records in modern cinema, and that is that.

As a warm-up to Valentine's Day, there's the requisite new Nicholas Sparks adaptation, The Choice, which lost the lead actors lottery in a big way: Teresa Palmer and Benjamin Walker are the latest people attempting to wrestle human feeling from Sparks's torrid prose. Also, our culture finally has its date with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a joke that got out of hand and never should have come to this point, but there's no use crying over it now.


12.2.2016

Actual Valentine's Day comes along with one of those ensemble romantic comedies that nobody ever seems to publicly cop to enjoying, How to Be Single. Step 1 is live in New York, so to hell with that.

More acerbically, Deadpool is positioning itself as the ironic anti-Valentine's choice, among many other things. The R-rated gag-driven superhero film starring Ryan Reynolds is surely going to be one of the year's most idiosyncratic major studio films, and probably not any damn good at all; but as one of the two 2016 releases that's apparently trying to something actually different with the superhero genre, I'll admit to being excited. "Excited" in scare quotes, maybe. At least it will be different, and sometimes that's enough.

Also: Zoolander 2. Comedy sequels ten years past their sell-by date are always the best idea!


19.2.2016

There's a movie about racing that's also a movie about racism, you guys, and you know what it's called? It's called Race. Oh my God, it's so clever! Almost as clever as positioning ultra-white Jason Sudeikis as the lead in a film that at least conceivably wants to be a Jesse Owens biopic. I eagerly anticipate a massive shitstorm that brings a hopelessly inept film to much greater prominence than it can possibly deserve.

More promisingly - only in this context - is Risen, the story of the resurrection of Christ done up as a costume drama police procedural, with Joseph Fiennes as the Roman hunting for Jesus's body. Sure, why not. Maybe it will be enjoyable gaudy. Incidentally, if you combine Race and Risen, you get Rasen, the first sequel to the original Japanese Ring, a movie that I'd much rather watch then any of these.

Meanwhile, that other wide release film I'm looking forward to? It's The Witch, the latest wildly-hyped horror indie. Probably over-hyped, but the trailer, anyway, looks intensely gorgeous. I'm trying not to learn any more about it than is seemly


26.2.2016

Man, Gods of Egypt is just going to be so unbelievably fucking terrible, and that makes me sad. Director Alex Proyas has a real spotty track record, but all of his films at least look interesting and carefully worked-out - even the dismal I, Robot - but Gods of Egypt? It looks like chintzy made-for-Syfy trash. And then factor in the controversy about its decision that, for the most part, the gods of Egypt are a bunch of white guys, and it's just going to be a trainwreck, top to bottom.

The weekend also bears witness to Eddie the Eagle, an Inspirational Sports Biopic cross-bred with a Wacky English Rural Types comedy, starring Hugh Jackman as his character from Real Steel, only it's for a skier played by Taron Egerton instead of robots. And just like that, Alex Proyas whitewashing ancient Egypt looks like a much safer bet. There's also something called Triple 9, about which I have heard nothing whatsoever, but it's directed by John Hillcoat and features Kate Winslet and Casey Affleck, and I like all of those people. It also provides a weird bookend to the month, as the other Teresa Palmer starring vehicle of the month.

31 January 2016

THE REVENANT

There's something undeniably medicinal about the notion of yet another film in which the psychic scars of the Holocaust play out in a post-war European domestic drama. Even when they are very, very good, the questions loom: what's actually left to say about this topic? And dear God, is it being said in anything like a flexible, interesting way?

To the first, I have no present answer, but Phoenix, director Christian Petzold's fearless attempt to coax some life out of that well-tilled soil, provides a hell of an answer to the second. Adapted (with an enormously significant change of national setting) by Petzold and Harun Farocki from Hubert Montelheit's 1961 novel The Return from the Ashes, the movie picks up not terribly long after the end of the Second World War, to find woman named Lene Winter (Nina Kunzendorf) forcing her way into occupied Germany with a disconcerting passenger: a woman whose face is almost completely obscured by blood-soaked bandages. This is Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss), and she is our phoenix for the evening: a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz, she has been shot in the face, and with Lene's help, she's able to receive reconstructive surgery in Germany that makes her look only somewhat like she did before the war. Nelly, the sole survivor of her family, has just come into a huge inheritance, and Lene wants the pair of them to use it to flee to Palestine and take place in the establishment of a hoped-for Jewish state there; Nelly, however, would rather try to reconnect with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zerhfeld), a piano player at a cabaret called Phoenix. I am extraordinarily happy to say that this detail is permitted to rise up in the background, without ever becoming A Thing.

From the moment that Lene tetchily reveals the bandaged Nelly to an inquisitive American border guard, Phoenix has been happy to operate as a thriller more than a prestige drama, but it's only when Nelly meets up with Johnny that the full range of its intentions in that direction become clear. Johnny can't quite see through Nelly's new face to see his presumed-dead wife, but he's struck by the vague sense of resemblance. She plays along, feeding him a false name, and agreeing to his plan to get the "late" Nelly's inheritance by having her pose as herself. The subterfuge comes from cautiousness: Lene is convinced that Johnny was involved in selling Nelly out to the Gestapo, and Nelly is anxious to confirm her husband's attitudes before she reveals himself.

So what we have, quite unexpectedly, is a two-pronged Hitchcock riff bent towards asking merciless questions about German identity and German morality in the immediate wake of Germany's perpetration of the greatest crime against humanity in recorded history. There is on the hand the tension of Nelly's uncertainty: is Johnny in love with Nelly, or with "Esther", or is he just a murderous creep so anxious for money that he'd betray his wife to the Nazis - if it's the latter, we're all the most anxious about the way he keeps marching right up to figuring out that this new woman is his dead wife. There is, on a different hand, the sickness of the film's Vertigo homage, as Johnny teaches Nelly how to impersonate Nelly, and she goes along with it for reasons of her own erotic obsession.

That gives the viewer a lot to gnaw on even without factoring in the setting of a rubble-strewn, ghostly Germany, and in particular the off-kilter dreamworld of Phoenix itself, which resembles a bird rising from the ashes less than it does a reanimated corpse twitching and singing hallucinatory versions of American pop songs in pasty white makeup. Phoenix's depiction of post-war Germany is absolutely terrific, right on par with any of the films actually shot in that place at that time, with a little bit less terrible moral grandeur and more willingness to use the setting for mood as much as to provide a visual op-ed on the state of European culture in 1945. Maybe this is an exploitative thing; maybe it's part of what makes Phoenix such a cracking good thriller.

Which it very much is. Petzold wastes nothing in putting across the essentials of his stories and characters - the film clocks in at a curt, efficient 98 minutes, and it feels about half that long - and the result is a movie that places us right alongside Nelly in a dizzying approximation of freefall, punctuated by a final scene that's hair-raising in how simply it drops bombshells, and ends briskly and brutally in exactly the way the film has always needed. It's not at all fussy, or embellished - the bombed-out mise en scène is inherently terrific, but the visual style is all business (more than one critic has compared it to film noir, which makes absolutely no sense to me), relying on the content of the shots to generate a sense of nervousness, uncertainty, and dread, rather than the particular way those shots are framed and lit, or stitched together. Which is hardly the same as claiming that Phoenix is indifferently made: the very brusqueness of its aesthetics feed back into its unstinting pace and the headlong pitch it makes into the very fucked-up matter of Nelly's dance with her husband.

And that brings us to Hoss, whose performance is one of the shining highlights of the movie year. There are a lot of things that could be pulled out of Nelly, a gorgeously multi-faced role in the midst of a screenplay that's full of ideas and agreeably coy about spelling them out. Hoss explores many of them, mixing and matching oppostional impulses in sometimes startling combinations. The character's love for, and fear of her husband are always the driving engine of the film, and Hoss always has both of those on hand, however the balance towards one side or the other works out; but she layers in other things as well, with multiple different kinds of nervousness at different stimuli, and a remarkable mixture of joy and disgust at having the opportunity to re-imagine her own identity, first as Esther, then as Nelly Mk. 2. In her two-handers with Kunzendorf, a miraculous scene partner of tartness and passion, she lays out ambivalence about her character's Jewish heritage that adds a completely different area of self-doubt.

Hoss, more than anything else, provides Phoenix with its emotional core: I'm not sure if credit should go to Petzold & co. for making such a subtle movie that does its best work through extra-textual means, or if credit should go to Hoss for so splendidly redeeming a script that hasn't quite finished forming itself. Either way, she's great, the character's great, and the film is damn good. Perhaps it rests too heavily in basic "shabby little shocker" territory, with Zerhfeld and the script's necessarily surface-level characterisation of Johnny cutting off some chance for the film to be a really full character study, instead of a thriller with one particularly great character in it. And yet, is that even a criticism. Good thrillers aren't any less valuable than good character studies or good diagnoses of social rot, and Phoenix manages in its best moments to be all three.

9/10

28 January 2016

A STORY WITH A GHOST IN IT

Fair is fair: Crimson Peak has a screenplay that feels like it was written by a 12-year-old, for 8-year-olds. It is a screenplay (credited to director Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins) in which the main character is writing a Gothic novel that apparently has a similar story to the one she's living through - perhaps she is even writing her own life, -style - which is cool and all, right to the point where she patiently explains in a line approximately this subtle, "The ghosts aren't ghosts, the ghosts are metaphors for the past". There are indeed ghosts in Crimson Peak, and with dialogue like that to light your way, you will be just stunned to find out the function the ghosts fill in this narrative.

The thing about Crimson Peak, much like the thing about director Guillermo del Toro's last film, Pacific Rim, is that you hit the point where there's absolutely no reason to expect it to be good or bad at that level almost immediately. For the second time in a row, del Toro has made a film where it's pretty much completely obvious that it has a target audience of one man, and he is ecstatic that big movie studios are, for some dumbfuck reason, giving him large amounts of money to make obviously uncommercial boondoggles that would have been 12-year-old Guillermo's favorite movie of all time. Any one individual viewer's ability to like either of them is at least partially dependent on how much they were the same kind of 12-year-old. For myself, Crimson Peak is a blessed treat, but I would be doing my readers a disservice if I pretended that I expected that to expand outwards.

The film is a Gothic thriller, which does not mean the things it typically means when the word Gothic is trotted out in describing a movie - it means that Crimson Peak makes much more sense as a sudsy 1860s melodramatic suspense novel, of the sort that became very popular in the wake of the Gothic throwback The Woman in White, than it does as any kind of movie at all. There are multiple ghosts - they are metaphors for the past, a past that can be guessed so readily that I'm pretty confident that del Toro and Robbins didn't care about hiding it, and only really wanted to use the twist as a peg for character beats, costumes, and ridiculously ornate sets - and they are presented in a way that's certainly intended to be spooky and chilling and yes, even scary. But you'd have to be out of your mind to suppose that Crimson Peak is any kind of horror film, and I suspect that most of the film's woes spring directly from that fact; everybody who likes movies about big dark houses lousy with phantoms wants such movies to be horror, and everybody who likes rampantly plummy melodramas set in ramshackle old mansions wants them to be free of decaying corpse-ghosts. And neither of those populations are statistically significant portions of the film-going audience of the 2010s, anyway.

Anyway, the film: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) lost her mother to illness as a child, and was visited by the late Mrs.Cushing's ghost shortly after the funeral, bearing the maternal warning "Stay away from Crimson Peak". That her motherly affections were filtered through flowing nightmare rags of flesh and bone, and a gurgle like a demon's own death rattle was sufficient to give Edith a somewhat bent outlook that many years later, in 1901 (a very incongruous year for this movie to be set in, by the way), results in her having written a tragic ghost story that she's fruitlessly trying to shop around.

Meanwhile, some torridness happens: Edith's father Carter (Jim Beaver), a wealthy investor, is busily swatting away the entreaties of a disreputable English baronet, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), on the hunt for investors. Thomas, and even more so his statuesque gargoyle of a sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain), recognise that the way to the father might well be through the heated Romantic imagination of the daughter, and so Thomas sets himself to seducing Edith, over the quietly-voiced objections of Carter's preferred suitor for Edith's hand, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam). Chastain's dreadful English accent and Hunnam's forlorn American accent make a great matched set, by the way. They even kind of work to the film's benefit, amping up the overclocked theatricality of the whole Megillah.

Of course Carter dies of horribly violent mysterious circumstances; of course Edith is swept away by Thomas's apparently self-sacrificing declarations; of course Allerdale Hall, the Sharpes' ancestral home, is crawling with apparitions, reviving Edith's memories of her late mother, and generally cluing her in to the knowledge that something massively fucked up happened her, and the unquiet spirits of the place want to warn her off. Even when that's not happening, of course Allerdale Hall still boasts the desiccated carpets, rotten walls, archaic bric-a-brac, and menacingly confusing architecture (replete with a horrifiying combination basement/abandoned mine) of a proper old English manor years after it should have been put out of its misery. And of course, Allerdale Hall is also known as Crimson Peak, thanks to the tendency of the red clay in the area to seep up through the snow and form blood-red footprints, in one of those images that make you just want to coo with joy for how fucking marvelous the movies can be.

Most of all, of course the whole lot of it is baffling, contrived nonsense, with some overbaked tawdriness underneath it all. I'm pretty sure del Toro planned it be just that - Crimson Peak is a movie for people who love the old Hammer Gothics precisely for their stately goofiness (Edith didn't get the surname "Cushing" out of the clear blue sky), '30s "old dark house" movies for the way that their simultaneously ludicrous and formulaic plots never got in the way of some florid Expressionist atmosphere, and probably all the way back to the silent murder mysteries that begat English-language horror cinema in the first place, for their well-placed conviction that a sufficiently luminous actress with a look of shock on her face is all you need to make a properly grubby thriller. No film that includes not one, but two closing irises to punctuate a funeral can pretend that it's not well aware of '20s movies.

This is the heart of what makes Crimson Peak a beguiling delight, if you're of the right persuasion: it's a throwback done in a contemporary aesthetic, and with contemporary technology. Much as with Pacific Rim, there's no chance of mistaking it for anything vintage, but it's still grandly old-fashioned in a rickety way that ends up adding to the sense of towering instability at the heart of the setting and narrative. As an exercise in pure aesthetics, it's gorgeous, one of 2015's best-looking films: especially Kate Hawley's costumes, putting the Sharpes in worn-out, old-fashioned outfits that leave them feeling a bit like ghosts themselves, and leaning hard into Wasikowska's guileless, round, pale face with fluffy dresses that exude heightened virginity. And, too, Dan Laustsen's thickly-colored cinematography, leaping into big monochromatic frames of bleeding red and ice-cold blue. And also, obviously, Thomas E. Sanders's production design, which is almost unfair; "make giant, haunted mansion on the verge of collapsing, and spend all the money you like on it" is a gimme assignment. But damned if he didn't nail it.

It's all a candy dish of a movie, ultimately: rich, largely devoid of nutrition, and impossible to stop nibbling at, if you're in the mood. I was in the mood; for a multi-million dollar Hammer homage done as a '20s throwback, I could only ever be in the mood. As far as creepy tales of sad ghosts, it's not a patch on del Toro's reigning masterpiece, The Devil's Backbone, and for all this film's lusciousness, I'm not seeing in it any counterargument to the idea that the director only does truly great work in his Spanish-language films; but it doesn't need to be in order to be the best haunted Gothic romance since... well, you get my point.

8/10