04 October 2015


A third review requested by K. Rice, with thanks for contributing three times to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Of the many pop culture heavy-hitters in the 1980s, two of the heaviest were the Andrew Lloyd Webber & Charles Stilgoe stage musical The Phantom of the Opera, which premiered in the West End in 1986 and arrived on Broadway in 1988, and the venerable cinematic form of the slasher movie, which exploded into ubiquity on the back of 1980's Friday the 13th, tapered off until 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street gave it a brief shot in the arm, and had largely died off by 1989. But oh! in its heyday...

Now, you probably think of these two powerhouses, and see them as close to polar opposites: every mom's favorite show in the period between Cats and Wicked on the one hand, a violent exploitation subgenre pandering to horny teenage boys on the other. This is because you are sane. But history is not made by the sane, and soon after the musical Phantom started its still-ongoing march to remake the entire theatrical marketplace in its own image, swallowing up countless dollars in the process, one of the most colorfully insane figures in cinema history decided that he just needed to do something about that. I refer to the great and powerful Menahem Golan, one-half of the madcap genius behind Cannon Films, one of the other biggest forces in '80s pop culture. By the end of the decade, he and his cousin and business partner Yoram Globus had gone through an acrimonious split, with Globus retaining the Cannon name, but the company itself had truthfully ceased to exist. Globus without Golan, Golan without Globus, in either case the visionary fire just wasn't the same.

Still, Golan was always the battier of the two - for example, he was the one who directed The Apple and Over the Top, while Globus merely produced; for another example, when the cousins battled with a pair of lambada movies in 1990, Golan's champion was the gloriously nuts The Forbidden Dance to Globus's relatively sedate Lambada - and his post-Cannon career comes closer to the heights of lunacy. After all, the reason we're here (as I suspect you probably were able to guess) is because Golan stood astride the late 1980s, looking at the broad popularity of Phantom and the intense niche fanaticism of the remaining slasher partisans, and decided that obviously those two things should be combined.

This brings us to the 1989 release of The Phantom of the Opera, the umptillionth adaptation of Gaston Leroux's 1910 horror-romance novel, and I believe the first movie released by 21st Century Film Corporation after Golan took it over; the exact history of what happened around the end of the '80s gets a little muddy. It is certainly among the earliest of Golan's solo endeavors. It's every bit the work of a consummate mercenary, clearly telegraphing its intentions through the marketing campaign - which disingenuously refers to the film as The Phantom of the Opera: The Movie - and in the casting of no less a slasher icon than Robert Englund, Freddy Krueger himself, in the role of the iconic Phantom (it can surely be no coincidence, either, that the hideous deformities afflicting this iteration of the Phantom are particularly Krueger-esque patches of raw tendon and skinless meat).

I would dearly love to report that the whole film is a demented balancing act between the stage musical and the slasher film; gory deaths resting uneasily against a melodramatic love story about a tortured soul driven to madness. Sadly, that's not really what happens: the actual movie is pretty much a straight-up slasherfied take on Leroux's novel, peppered with the odd reference to the musical to keep fans happy: the Phantom's costume as the Red Death at the masquerade is a dead ringer for the equivalent getup in the stage version, and generally speaking, the scenes that Webber & Stilgoe cut out are also the ones that screenwriters Duke Sandefur and Gerry O'Hara cut, and the versions have surprisingly similar structure, given that the film was obliged for budgetary reasons to cut enormous chunks out of the middle of the book, and given that it invents a whole new backstory (a powerful stupid one, but we'll get there soon enough).

Whether this actually did make fans of the musical happy, I can't say, but it would astound me to learn that it did. More than any other film version I've seen, this Phantom is unabashedly a horror film, and Englund's take on the title character is in many respects not much else than a variation on his best-known theme, Freddy by gaslight. Which is not to say that he's a problem - he is, in fact, the best thing that The Phantom of the Opera has to offer, maybe even objectively so. In this telling, the Phantom - born Erik Destler - is driven above all things by his desire to create potent, transporting music, enough so to sell his soul to the devil for the certainty that he'd compose at least one piece that would live through the ages. For which Satan uses devil magic to badly scar and deform his face. Toldja it was dumb. But anyway, the point I was aiming for was that Englund's performance of this insane passion to become a musical legend works, and his murderous rage at anyone who threatens that goal feels like something that comes up out of the character, rather than being imposed upon him by the requirements of the genre. And that is, I think, the key to this Phantom: he feels neither love nor lust for virginal ingenue Christine Day (Jill Schoelen), only seeing her as the vessel for his genius. Coming on the heels of a reinterpretation that so famously transformed the character into a tragic romantic antihero, a version of the story that situates him firmly in the realm of sociopathy is pretty cool, in fact, and Englund does well by the iconic role.

I will not go so far as to call him the solitary aspect of the film that works, since there are bits and pieces throughout that land: a shot here, a jump scare there. Everywhere and always, there's a really marvelous score by Misha Segal, who accomplishes one of the hardest tasks for any composer of dramatic music: assigned a script that in large part hinges on a piece of music that's a clear-cut masterpiece, the Phantom's opera Don Juan Triumphant, Segal comes up with a set of themes good enough that, within the film's universe, it's not obviously ridiculous to think that the work could have that kind of reputation and appeal.

Much more doesn't work than does, however. The worst of it is undoubtedly the framing narrative, which starts in 1980s New York as Christine hunts for the perfect piece of music for her audition at the Met. Her good friend Meg (Molly Shannon), a musicologist, has just stumbled across the manuscripts for the obscure but admired opera composed almost a century earlier by Denstler, shortly before he went on a psychotic rage killing everybody. Christine sings a few bars, and for her troubles finds the book oozing blood; this foreboding sign gives her no warning for when she's actually auditioning, and an accident knocks her out, all the way back to the London of so many decades before, where Denstler's reign of terror took place. It's not entirely clear if Christine remembers her true past. It's even less clear why the film needs this framework at all, lest it be to set up the final scene that does exactly what you suppose it will, especially armed with the knowledge that this film's Phantom has been rendered immortal through Satanic machinations. The ending is pure slasher movie boilerplate, and easily the worst part of a movie with its share of dubious choices on that front: the half-puns that the Phantom delivers as he kills some of his victims ("You're suspended" he informs stagehand Joseph Buquet (Terence Beesley) before hanging him from the flies), the awful, awful way that all stylistic and jittery with the shutter angle to punctuate some of the action scenes.

There's also, in a more global sense, the common sin of the horror film that pits a charismatic killer against a couple of wooden planks: Schoelen is acceptable at best and hardly inspired in a part that has a tendency to devour young actresses - Christine is always a bit of an insipid doormat, and combining that with the slasher movie's love of reductive characterisations, we've got an awfully tedious heroine indeed. But oh, how much better she is than Alex Hyde-White's Richard Dutton, this movie's version of Raoul; he is as stilted and dispassionate as any bad romantic lead you could hope to name, and while this Phantom of the Opera very intelligently sidelines him, he still pops enough to suck the air out of the proceedings.

All that being said (and I haven't said all of it: director Dwight H. Little has a remarkable facility for making things look cheap and garish - the scene with the Phantom cooing to Christine from behind the mirror, with reflections of fire framing his face, is uniquely tacky - so there's a good amount of the movie that simply doesn't work), the parts that work best are also the parts that linger, and the film's raw commitment to the horror in Leroux's novel are to its credit. As Phantoms go, we're of course a very long way from the extraordinary Lon Chaney vehicle of 1925; but we are also a long way from the wretched Dario Argento adaptation from 1998. Most of what works in this Phantom are the most slasher-derived elements: the incredibly off-putting scenes of the Phantom methodically stitching a mask onto his ruined face, and the horrifyingly smooth doll-like face he ends up with after slathering makeup onto that base; a scene of a flayed-alive man in a closet that leaves only a small amount to the imagination, hits like a sockful of pennies, and serves as a bridge between the grotesque Italian horror of the late '70s and early '80s and the French extreme films of the 2000s.

What's good in the film is absolutely outweighed by what is bad: the film's successes as horror come along mostly only on a scene-by-scene basis, while the failures of narrative, of costume drama, and of character are pervasive (seriously, I'm not going to belabor the cast, but they're all kind of dreadful, even a wee tiny young Bill Nighy). The film looks like hell: doing a period piece on an '80s slasher budget - an '80s slasher Menahem Golan budget - was a doomed idea, and Little's not the director to hide the shortcomings of his production. Still, given everything stacked against an '80s slasher movie literary adaptation needlessly combining two time periods and trying to market itself to middlebrow theater fans on top of all of it... The Phantom of the Opera isn't good, but it's also not a complete, dumbfounding boondoggle, and that in and of itself is something of a victory.



Update: I've been meaning, and meaning, to re-publish this post, if only to make sure to keep myself honest about getting these done in something of a timely manner. The goal is to bring this back to the top of the blog every couple of weeks; the 1st and 15th of every month, say, give or take.

Drumroll - the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy Cancer Fundrasier 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 91 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 fundrasier 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

02 October 2015


There's a pronounced difference between the knowledge "I shall be very busy at grad school" and the lived experience of holy shit, I'm busy all the damn time, and I'll spare you the whole story, but that's how September managed to be the first month in Antagony & Ecstasy history (I believe) without a movie preview. Let us not permit that to ever happen again, and even though this post would have been last-minute if I'd gotten to it 24 hours ago, let alone now, I will beg you to let me pretend that it went off without any hitches at all. And then this weekend will be such fun, with the two ACS reviews I have lined up and a greatly dubious animated sequel and some capsules just coming out like candies from a Pez dispenser. At least until I'm busy all the damn time again, and I write, like, one-half of one review.

Anyway, October. Oscarbait season starts, and I've got to say, the 2015 Oscarbait looks especially choice, n'est-ce pas?


And here's some of that choice Oscarbait right off the bat! Speaking entirely for myself, the last Ridley Scott movie that looks as exciting on paper as The Martian was pretty much never. Maybe Alien. It's hard to imagine how exciting that would be on paper if I didn't know what it was.

The point being: look at that cast in The Martian! It's almost comically overstuffed with exciting names: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig in a dramatic context. And the hook of "Gravity, but it's on Mars now" is a hook for which I have no resistance at all. The film is hells long and I will never find time for it, but it's still one of my most-anticipated for all of the rest of the year.

But it's not even the movie I'm most looking forward to this weekend! For that, let us turn instead to Sicario, making its wide expansion at last, with a pretty luscious cast of its own - Emily Blunt, Bencio Del Toro, Josh Brolin - and what I am promised is some of the prettiest cinematography in all of Rogers Deakins-dom. On top of luminous reviews out of Cannes. It's pretty much perfect across the board. I will be heartbroken if it's not a neo-masterpiece.


Another expansion: The Walk, which finds tech-lover Robert Zemeckis recreating the World Trade Center from the ground up to tell a story already told perfectly well in the sterling documentary Man on Wire. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a pixieish Frenchman, for reasons that surpass understanding. But live-action Zemeckis has a pretty good hit-to-miss ratio overall, and this is the kind of thing that's so exactly perfect to see on the biggest screen available.

The other wide release: the latest "backstory to a classic fairy tale" thingy-job, Pan. Director Joe Wright has a way with glitzy style, and that's just about the only thing that I can scrounge up to feel any kind of hope for what has all the makings of an utter boondoggle.


October means horror, and we're finally getting some. On one hand, fans of Jack Black giving offbeat performances, as well as fans of zippy kiddie-friendly non-scary adventure apparently on the Hocus Pocus model, we find Goosebumps. I am at least a fan of Black giving offbeat performances, but there's no reason to pretend this will be good at all. The other, vastly more likely offering is Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro's attempt to do a Gothic ghost story. And as very much a fan of del Toro and Gothic fiction alike, I will happily put this in "can't wait" territory.

Back on the prestige front, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and the Coen brothers all team up for the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. That's a lot of awesome boxes checked, but this is weirdly turning into a kind of an afterthought in the fall landscape, right? Here's hoping that wonderful things are lying in wait even so.


More horror: Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, the final entry (yeah right) in the venerable franchise that expended all of its creative juices by the end of the first movie. And yeah, "Dimension" means 3-D. In a found footage movie. Gimmick squared!

The other wide releases are a big old grab bag. First (and surely bigget) The Last Witch Hunter, a movie that Vin Diesel has been joyfully upselling for months like an eager child with a handmade Christmas ornament. It's the only one of these that has actual decent odds of being good, too. I mean, Vin Diesel vehicles can be awful fun if he's having fun himself. There's a pair of films about music performance: the "clueless Americans in Afghanistan" Bill Murray picture Rock the Kasbah, which looks kind of terrible and aggressively pointless, and Jem and the Holograms, which goes beyond pointless into some kind of dark realm of insanity. Take a vintage cartoon about a pop group fronted by a music label owner who uses a holographic band to hide her identity, and make it about teenagers and no holograms? That's insulting to the high-concept hell that was the 1980s.

And there's also Burnt, a character comedy with Bradley Cooper as a chef. For some reason.


The month sneaks out on a pair of minor-key little films that feel more or less like they're hoping to be overlooked: Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, a comedy about surviving the, um, zombie apocalypse. Which is apparently an idea fluid enough to be used more than once every ten years. Also Our Brand Is Crisis, which sounded great when it was first announced: David Gordon Green making a movie about American political misadventures in South America? With a whole list of people we want to see David Gordon Green directing? Hell yeah. But then the reviews came out of Toronto, and they were not enthusiastic, at best.

29 September 2015


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

The American viewer who knows of Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau at all is likely to associate him exclusively or nearly so with action movies, though this is not at all a fair summarise his career, as I understand it. So as such an American, the first thing Ann Hui's 2011 domestic drama A Simple Life required the present reviewer to unlearn is that Lau has a certain persona and a certain range, and that is all he has. A Simple Life is the furthest thing possible from an action movie - its title is deadly serious and wholly descriptive of the content and stakes involved. Carve away the trappings of setting and the supporting characters who emerge as thoroughly well-established personalities, despite limited screentime, and we have here a good old-fashioned dramatic two-hander: a pair of very old acquaintances getting to know each other better under the creeping awareness that death is waiting around the corner.

The ingredients are Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), the very old housekeeper of an affluent Hong Kong family since time immemorial, and Roger (Lau), a film producer and the only member of that family still living in Hong Kong. In a lingering, unhurried way, the film shows the beats of their quotidian relationship, as she contentedly goes through the work of preparing meals and tidying up (the opening sequence, at a vegetable market is a perfect little gem of introducing character through action and the familiar tone of those she interacts with; in fact, I suppose that it's my favorite bit of the movie). He, meanwhile, treats her with the airy warmth and affection of someone who has managed to grow up all the way to middle age without ever getting around to internalising the reality that the woman who has been a fixture in his domestic life since always is actually a person with an actual inner life and any personality to speak of. It's not an abusive relationship in any way, and Ah Tao offers no evidence of desiring life to be any other way. All it is, is a bland void of impersonality. And this it would proceed to be for the rest of time, except that Ah Tao has a stroke, and decides that she'd rather go to a nursing home than take up Roger on his perhaps sincere offer to arrange for her to be taken care of in her own home.

What remains, for the great majority of the two-hour movie, is a new pattern of daily life, as she settles into her new surroundings and he visits her, more interested in keeping her company and making sure she knows that someone out there is concerned for her than in the rest of his busy life, though not in a mawkish way where he gives up everything to take care of her. This happens against the background hum of several other figures living in the same nursing home, visited (or not) by their own loved ones, and the occasional scene of Roger's family; it's one of those films where you get the impression that every character onscreen has enough of a rich, interesting life that they could have been made the protagonist of their own feature.

It is deeply invested in characters, then, and deeply humane; there's effectively no conflict or dramatic momentum, merely the psychological gradation of people set out with exquisite perception in Susan Chan and Lee Yan-lam's screenplay. Accordingly, it's a film that lives and dies on the central performances; for all of the skill Chan and Lee bring to bear, and even the graceful solemnity with which Hui shapes each intimate scene, there is no such thing as a good version of A Simple Life without a strong performance in both roles, though especially Ah Tao. I don't mean to diminish the filmmaking; Hui, a director with whom I have been completely unfamiliar up to this point, is up to some subtly miraculous work. She and cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai (a regular collaborator of Jia Zhangke) keep the camera surprisingly active, moving in close to the characters and feeling wound up with energy even in the still shots. There's a gliding, lilting quality to the visuals that invests the material with a certain poetry even in its most straightforward, realistic sequences, and draws the movie into a reflective, impressionistic state that accentuates and underlines the actual matter of the writing and acting.

Still, the grace of the filmmaking is never an end in itself: it's a handsome frame. No, the film is all about Yip and Lau, sensitively dancing around their characters and each other in a pair of beautiful performances. Lau is impressive as hell as he navigates the shift from emotional absence to thoughtfulness and care mostly in the space of a single close-up reaction shot (which of course means that he had to thread some of that thoughtfulness in the film beforehand in quiet character-building moments), so it's no slight to him to declare that this is utterly Yip's movie. That's not an accident: she has more scenes and more explicit inner turmoil. And one starts to notice that part of the way Lau works Roger's generosity into his performance is to concede scenes to his co-star without a fight.

But most of what works is Yip's very own, giving one of those authoritative performances that can only come at the end of a very long career and works to engender an impassioned "how have is it possible that I've never heard of you?" response from e.g. the besotted American critic without nearly enough familiarity of Hong Kong cinema. The most basic reading of her character - that Ah Tao is anxious not to have her former employer take care of her in some kind of undignified, patronising gesture of noblesse oblige, that she is genuinely fond of him even so, and that she is nervous, unhappy, and disgusted in the nursing home - already requires a certain balancing of apparent opposites and a lot of unsaid feelings, and this is not the most basic performance of that role, either. It's the richest kind of acting, and there's not a trace of showboating: at no point does Yip ask us to notice how good she is. In fact, quite the opposite; it is a quiet, receding performance, and if A Simple Life is ultimately mostly just a delivery vehicle for that performance and that character, that's still enough to make it a commanding and powerful entry in the genre of "slow, haunting stories of people doing nothing much but living". It's not to everyone, but it's an extremely impressive example of the form.


26 September 2015


If we were to start off by directly comparing Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials to 2014's The Maze Runner - and why shouldn't we? For here we are, with Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials just dropped there right in front of us with all its petulant awfulness, like something the dog did on the carpet, and we have to do fucking something with it - perhaps we might put in terms about like this: The Scorch Trials is a better-made, worse movie than its none-too-involving predecessor. By this I primarily mean that graphic designer/VFX artist Wes Ball must have learned quite a bit from making his feature directorial debut with the last movie, because he's a whole lot better at it now: scenes of tension are turned up more slowly and insidiously, and instead of being content to frame his cast of vanilla-pretty young people like sweaty models, he's willing here to push them to be more roughed-up and bedraggled and desperate.

With cinematographer Palos Gyula (who hasn't done anything in 12 years that recalls his career-making work in 2003's Kontroll nearly as much as this film's crushing black metallic interiors do), Ball crafts a deeply unpleasant and choked vision of the ruined places in a post-apocalyptic desert. It's impressive: not, like, GREAT, and definitely not anything the habitué of the post-apocalypse film hasn't seen before (there's a lot of Resident Evil: Extinction in here, visually, and that's not even an insult), but enough to put the movie over, aesthetically. Not narratively. Nothing could put this over narratively: T.S. Nowlin's screenplay adapting the second of James Dashner's YA trilogy-plus-prequels (somewhat loosely, I am made to understand) is a giant pack of stupid boring bullshit, undermined by a uniformly aimless collection of young actors breathing the opposite of life into their characters, who are anyway given nothing interesting to do. At least, in the great battle to be the next Hunger Games, the Maze Runner Sequel clearly and decisively wins the 2015 round against the awful, just awful The Divergent Series: Insurgent. Absolutely nobody should feel good about that achievement.

Beginning seconds after a version of The Maze Runner that ended in a slightly different way than last year's movie actually ended, The Scorch Trials concerns what happens when the extraordinary awesome chosen special one Maze Runner (Dylan O'Brien) escapes from a grim technological horror maze with his friends Girl (Kaya Scodelario), Asian (Ki Hong Lee), Black (Dexter Darden), British (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Hispanic (Alexander Flores). And some others, but they're all gone after the first act. In that first act, the teens arrive in a bunker run by Janson (Aiden Gillen), who oozes so much insincerity that it's less of a twist than a confirmation when he turns out to be taking the kids, one at a time, to his evil lab where he puts them in vats of blue liquid and drains all the juices out of them, leaving just hideous blobs of body and muscle behind. And worse still, he's working for the mysterious evil corporation WCKD, pronounced "Wicked", because obviously.

With this horrifying discovery in hand, Maze Runner and his friends manage to escape from Janson by fleeing from the bunker to go out into the Scorch, in the hope of finding the Right Arm, as long as they can stay away from the Cranks. But luckily, they are all Immunes. And even in dialogue, especially when that dialogue is delivered by Gillen, you can absolutely hear all of that capitalisation. This is the kind of film that tries to insist upon the epic grandeur of its internal mythology by using more capital nouns than the German language. The Scorch turns out to be nothing more or less than a desert where there used to be a major city: the film is conspicuously anxious not to imply which city, but individual buildings strongly resemble Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. So let's assume this is post-apocalyptic Toronto. The Cranks are stock-issue biozombies, the sort who remain absolutely quiet in a dark room by the dozens right up until one of the heroes flashes a light over one of them, and then they all start snarling and grabbing, even though they presumably could have done this already when it was still dark. But it wouldn't do to rob us of a jump scare

The developments in the plot are practically nil - WCKD is trying to use teenagers' bodies as breeding grounds for an anti-Crank vaccine, and Maze Runner is even more special of a special than we thought in the first movie - and nothing is particularly clarified about the world. The Right Arm is a resistance group, but how their resistance works when they're not safeguarding chosen ones is anyone's guess; the fragments of civilization that crop up in the back half are just kind of posited to be there because it would be hard to keep having a plot if it was only desert. Even so, the actual meat and potatoes of the plot is nothing more than the most generic kind of kinetic energy: the rag-tag band runs to one place, it turns out to be unsafe, so they run to another. And they talk, exhaustively, about the running that they do. If you were to take the words "Move", "Go", and "Come on" from Nowlin's vocabulary, you would cut the length of the screenplay by something like 60 percent.

Very little within the film makes any of this pleasurable: the cast of pretty young people have absolutely no personalities, while among the grown-ups, Lili Taylor gives a murmuring, airy performance that telegraphs with incredible clarity how much she regrets the choices that put her in that set, and Alan Tudyk plays an unexpectedly straightforward "devious queer" riff. The one saving grace, which I do not like to say because it implies that The Scorch Trials is saved, is that every so often Ball and Pados and production designer Daniel T. Dorrance give us a real treat: the shot of WCKD's horrifying lab, the splendid rot of the decaying city (and the film's solitary action setpiece that works, works largely on the basis of the set in which it takes place), a silhouette shot on a sand dune that's still breathtaking no matter how overtly it's a lift from The Seventh Seal. None of this is uniquely great, and none of it adds up to anything beyond "there are, like, a dozen moments that are actually really good", but it perhaps is enough to give one the cautious hope that when the inevitable third movie rolls around, they'll have figured out a way to make it actually worth looking at. Probably not worth watching, but maybe worth looking at.


22 September 2015


A collection of capsule reviews of some of the more interesting & noteworthy films watched or re-watched by the blogger in the first half of the month

Mortal Kombat (Anderson, 1995)

In any film genre, however disreputable and totally without merit, there's still going to be the "best" of its kind. And so, here we are, and I find myself committing in print to the notion that 1995's Mortal Kombat, the film that put Paul W.S. Anderson on the map (insofar as he ever actually was on the map), is the all-time best movie based on a video game. I still haven't worked out if that's a compliment or an insult.

Part of the film's genius - its relative genius, you understand, and relative to Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter, it doesn't take much - is to recognise the scrawny narrative of the source material for what it is: a pretty straightforward gloss on Enter the Dragon, dudded up with vaguely Lovecraftian conceits about alternate worlds and hellish Elder Gods, and a fascination for mysticism and magic tricks that's thinking really hard about committing to full-fledged Orientalism. Therefore, Anderson and screenwriter Kevin Droney simply turn back around and make a Enter the Dragon riff, with hilariously bad CGI pumping up the fantastic elements even more than the garishly fanciful sets dropped on the film by production designer Jonathan A. Carlson.

Bruce Lee being too much awesome for any one actor to compete with, Mortal Kombat replaces him with a trio of protagonists: Shaolin monk and obvious Lee analogue Liu Kang (Robin Shou), avenging his murdered brother; U.S. Special Forces officer Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), chasing an international criminal; and obvious Jean-Claude Van Damme analogue Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), an American movie star trying to prove that he can actually fight. They've been recruited by thunder god Rayden (Christopher Lambert), defender of Earth against the villainous Outworld; see, the mechanism by which Earth's safety has been secured is through Mortal Kombat, a multi-day fighting tournament hosted by evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). If the Outworld forces win Mortal Kombat ten times in a row, they will be able to invade Earth. And guess how many consecutive times they've won at the time that Rayden recruits his dream team?

Obviously it's all barely-coherent nonsense, but by virtue of being nonsense that Anderson & co. don't seem particularly embarrassed by, it goes down as pleasantly as possible. Really, the whole thing is just a transparent excuse for gratifyingly frequent fight sequences, and if the ones that are most readily called to mind are the ones larded up with bad visual effects, there are many more that are just good old-fashioned fistfights between two well-trained professionals, choreographed with some feisty energy and shot with surprising visual clarity. It is undoubtedly the case that the film's shyness about the gratuitous violence that gives the franchise its whole personality hurts it as both an action film and fanservice, but the relative purity of the fight scenes is enjoyable anyway, even if there are clearly better ways than this to make a Mortal Kombat picture. Christ knows there are worse ways, too.


* * * * *

A Chorus Line (Attenborough, 1985)

It would be disingenuous to call the film adaptation of A Chorus Line the worst possible version of the extraordinarily iconic stage musical. I mean, there's probably some director out there just waiting and waiting for the copyright to expire so they can stage a version about cannibal lizard-men on the moon. But it's really, really hard to think of how any Chorus Line can more perfectly manage the fun trick of being so rigid in its literalism that it chokes the air out of the movie by the end of its first number, while also missing the point of pretty much everything that makes the show the show. The result isn't as ghastly as some of the truly awful stage-to-screen hatchet jobs in history - paging Paint Your Wagon! - but it's arguably even worse for a film to be this airlessly boring.

The plot: Zach (Michael Douglas) is directing hisself a new musical, and he needs to cast a chorus line. After the breathy opening "I Hope I Get It" (weirdly mixed together as a combination of inner monologue and spoken words), he's left with 17 dancers from whom to make his final selection, and he puts them through the painful process of baring their guts before him and the world. While this happens, he angrily fences verbally with his ex-lover Cassie (Alyson Reed), among the oldest of the competitors, and the only one whose career would seemingly put her above the grueling anonymity of a chorus line.

Casting Douglas pretty much killed the film right there - central to the idea of the material is that there is no real star, and putting the only real star in the cast in the role of the director automatically shifts the film's attention over to his slice of the plot, and director Richard Attenborough - a titanically ill-suited choice of filmmaker for this material - does not resist that impulse in the slightest. But reworking A Chorus Line as A Peevish Director & His Self-Reliant Ex isn't the only, or even the biggest problem. Worse by far is the lead-footed visual treatment of the musical numbers, in a film where the musical numbers matter so much that it references dancing in the title. Ronnie Taylor's camera dutifully clomps and sucks the wind out of the choreography (original choreographer Michael Bennett wanted nothing to do with the film, leaving Jeffrey Hornaday to reimagine things), and the lighting dismally plays at aesthetic realism in the most banal way, rubbing grit over everything without any sense of hardscrabble soulfulness. If you just absolutely need a film version of this material, the 2008 documentary Every Little Step will serve you better in every possible way.


* * * * *

The River (Lorentz, 1938)

One of the acknowledged early masterpieces of the American documentary, 1938's The River isn't without its limitations on that front, among them being that it demonstrates that the heavy-handed advocacy essay quietly wandering by and pretending like it's for real totally an unbiased work of non-fiction was with us long before Michael Moore or his various flailing idiot right-wing analogues were even a daydream. Certainly, the part of the film that is absolutely the worst is also its most actively propagandistic: having spent most of its tightly-packed 31 minutes explaining that short-sighted land usage, mindless industrialism, and shoddy agricultural knowledge have turned the Mississippi flood plain into a deadly powder keg waiting for one really bad rain (a warning that subsequent history has amply proven to be right on the money), the film's final rhetorical gambit is to toss that aside with a hearty, "but you know what's cool? The Tennessee Valley Authority! Go FDR!"

Which I don't happen to disagree with, but it still leaves The River feeling like it changed its mind about itself in a dramatically incompetent way in the 11th hour. Still, what precedes that is, beyond doubt, one of the most thoughtful, poetic documentaries that you are ever likely to see - certainly, I can name no documentary that has anywhere near this amount of artful rhythm while also having such blunt, straightforward intentions. The repetition and echoes, both in narration and voiceover narration, and the contrast between gauzy, beautiful nature shots and horrifying images of the flooded Mississippi as a leveler of human civilization at a Biblical scale are astonishing still, many decades after the film's political moment in the sun has long since passed. Pare Lorentz, the writer and director, weaves the footage together with narrative clarity and aesthetic slipperiness that make it a truly engaging packet of information and historical imagery; everything about the film, especially Thomas Chalmer's forceful narration and Virgil Thomson's folksy score, contributes to the feeling that it something Important and Earnest, but also timeless in its effect.

The sweeping historical narrative Lorentz uses to hang his narrative is at least a touch reductive in its details (though would it not have to be, with this running time?), but the basic points of the story are surprisingly clear-sighted and modern. Technological progress can sometimes have terrible unintended consequences, Americans are, as a people, inclined to do the thing that sounds correct right now without figuring out what the ramifications will be, we're much better at fixing disasters than preventing them and their attendant human suffering in the first place. I would not call it cynical - the visual beauty, poetic editing, and ripe sense of '30s "c'mon, we can do it!" hopefulness all argue against that - but it's pragmatic and stern in a way that we don't typically think of from that time period (leastways, I don't). And that makes it interesting and informative, generations after it seems like it should be neither of those things.


18 September 2015


A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

Here's a fun game I discovered by accident: describe the plot of The Perfect Guy to somebody. Better yet, see how much of the plot they can guess just from the title. It's not hard to get most of it: the girl is dating this really swell guy, but he absolutely refuses to commit, so she dumps him. Mere seconds later, or so it seems, she's met-cute with an even sweller guy, one who's so handsome that the whole movie seems to melt whenever he flashes his smoldering eyes and quiet smile, and who impresses the ever-loving hell out of her friends and family without even the smallest effort. He is, you might go so far as to say, the Perfect Guy. Ah, but he has a violent streak, and when he takes it out on some hapless shmuck in front of our heroine, she decides to get out while the getting's good. And this turns the Perfect Guy into a Perfect Psychopath, and there will be much anguish and suffering, and much brow-furrowing from the wise but helpless cop who wishes that the system wasn't so rigged against women in trouble, but is personally powerless to do anything but suggest in elliptical terms how she can take the law into her own hands.

So far, so clichéd, but that's not the game. The game is that after the person has successfully teased out everything this brutally paint-by-numbers affair has in store for its audience, you lean in and mention that there is actually one thing that makes The Perfect Guy different from a thousand movies that had largely exhausted the possibilities of their genre by the middle of the 1990s: the leads are all African-American. Then lean back and enjoy the mixture of befuddlement and disappointment and despair jockeying for position on your listener's face.

It's a cockeyed form of equality, of course, that movies about and for and written by black people can occupy the same wide range of quality as white people movies. Still, it stings that on one of the rare occasions that actors like Sanaa Lathan (as Leah Vaughn, the woman at the center of this terrifying whirlwind) and Morris Chestnut (as Dave King, the first boyfriend who comes back just in time to make the Perfectly Awful Guy really jealous) get a chance to take headlining roles in financially successful movies - The Perfect Guy is the third movie in an uninterrupted five-week stretch of films with casts dominated by African-American actors to lead the U.S. box office - they're offered such dumb, reductive roles. Lathan, in particular, is an actor of unusually potent screen presence whose filmography consists almost solely of wives and girlfriends. Here, she does a good job of playing a simpering careerist with no clear ability to hold more than one thought in her head at a time (like that's any kind of achievement), and when the film makes its inexorable shift to transforming Leah into a somewhat unlikely action figure, she puts a frazzled, pissed-off spine into her performance that gives the last scenes more of a punch than they've really earned. Still, you can make the world's most artistic, complex, accomplished McDonald's cheeseburger, and still have a McDonald's cheeseburger to show for it.

That being said, who among us has not even once had the thought, "fuck yeah, McDonald's cheeseburger", perhaps while indecently drunk? And in that spirit, let us concede that The Perfect Guy is kind of delightful in its unrelenting tackiness - also perhaps while indecently drunk, which I unfortunately was not. But I bet it would have been terrific. It's a garbage movie, absolutely and unequivocally, and Michael Ealy's performance as the perfect guy and even more perfect killing machine Carter Duncan is hypnotically mis-aimed (an uncharacteristic whiff for a charismatic actor): he's like sexy robot capable of only one form of emotional expression who then has a Westworld-style breakdown, leaving that expression intact. Watching Lathan try to force an emotional connection with him is as silly as it is inert (the only actor she really sparks with, in fact, , is Holt McCallany as the gloomy cop) and the movie starts to pick up a gleeful momentum based largely around how hokey Ealy's portrayal of the seductive bad guy is.

Other things help with that: director David M. Rosenthal and editor Joan Sobel make some really baffling choices about how to assemble all of this, including but not limited to an incomprehensible, arbitrary system of fades to black every few scenes, and wobbly pacing that finds several scenes show up for a minute and then simply evaporate. Or better yet, the way those fragments of scenes contribute to a totally inscrutable internal chronology: more than once, Leah baldly declares "it's been a week!" or some such, in reference to an event that, by all appearances from the piecing-together of scenes, took place just the night before, or even that morning.

The result is a movie that's absolutely incompetent, but so very earnest in its incompetence that it's kind of sweet; endlessly tangled up in the most geriatric clichés of the erotic thriller (in this case, an erotic thriller that has been aggressively de-sexed; it's rated PG-13, and it's not a very hard PG-13 at that), but so enthusiastic in its deployment of those clichés, like it thinks it's inventing them or God knows what, that it picks up some feisty energy. In order to connect points A and B, screenwriter Tyger Williams uses the thickest, boldest-colored markers he can scrounge up, so every single emotional beat and narrative signpost brays out like all the horns in the orchestra playing the same note at once, and this contributes a feeling of uncorked melodrama that's so eager for us to play along that it's kind of hard not to.

Good? Lord, no. Successful? Eh, not really. It's pretty stupid and terrible. Damn me if it's not spunky and hectic, though. I can't say that it's really a fun time at the movies, let alone anything stronger or deeper, but it has the fearlessness of a middleweight talent show competitor who will get through this routine, by God, no matter how obviously things are falling apart. And that keeps things amusingly frantic, at least, so that's something. Something awful, but also zippy and zesty in its awfulness.


16 September 2015


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

There are many things to say about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, nearly all of them very nice - for example, I might go around calling it the best film directed by the great, perpetually under-appreciated Peter Weir outside of his native Australia, and the one that most perfectly embodies what I think to be the central theme of his career. And we will come back to those things in a little while, because what I want to lead off with especially is that for all the things it excels at, this is first and foremost one of the masterpieces of sound mixing and sound design of the 21st Century. It's hard for an outsider to say who we need to single out of the slurry of names that are listed in the sound section of of the end credits; the Oscar nominees were Richard King (who won, for Sound Editing), and Paul Massey, Doug Hemphill, & Art Rochester (for Sound Mixing, losing as part of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's 11-for-11 sweep in 2003), so that's a place to start.

But that's mostly irrelevant. All those crew heads and technicians on the film's sound team are, collectively, its strongest and maybe even its most important element. The peculiar effect of Master and Commander, one of the most realistically involving and simultaneously one of the most artistically abstracted of all movies of shipboard life, owes plenty to every last immaculate member of the production team, but we encounter the sound pretty much first thing, before the acting, costumes, cinematography, or really even the sets have had a chance to sink in. There are creaks from every side, gentle ocean noises just barely audible behind the groan of swollen wood, and tiny little noises of who knows what provenance creeping in from every corner, pushed hard by the astonishingly loud rear surround channels.* We are viscerally present inside the bowels of HMS Surprise from the very instant that the curt, efficient title cards have finished introducing her.

The setting is April, 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars, and the Surprise is far from the main fight - on the far side of the world, you might almost say, except that she'll end up going even farther, so it's best not to be premature. Her mission, as assigned to the eminently capable Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is to track down the French privateer Acheron, known to be haunting the coast of Brazil, way the hell out there in the Americas. Aubrey pursues this mission with a zeal that starts to go beyond mere duty to orders; his crew, in fact, are starting to regard him as an out-and-out Ahab, or they would if Moby Dick existed yet in 1805. The only person willing to call him out to his face is his dear friend, the ship's doctor and resident naturalist Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), but Aubrey's matter-of-fact conviction that the Acheron, unchecked, could devastate the British whaling fleet and otherwise wreak hell on the British maritime effort against Napoleon carries the day. When the time comes, every man on the Surprise is ready to give their all to the fight, even coming up with some of the cunning schemes Aubrey puts into play to beat the faster, more maneuverable, and better-armed Acheron.

That story, as synthesised from several books in a 20-volume, 30-year series authored by Patrick O'Brian, is perfectly, absolutely fine. It is undoubtedly best if you wander into the film already interested in British military history in the early 19th Century, and the legacy of the British Navy during that period especially. But one of the things Master and Commander is particularly good at is finding away to make you interested in all of that even if you weren't in the first place: a peculiar combination of poetic diffusion and blunt, hammy physicality get one all worked up in the material initially, and the importance that the characters ascribe to the events does the rest to make.

Let us not make too many claims for the wartime story, though: it's not a first-order priority of Weir as director, nor as co-writer alongside John Collee. The tensions and conflict of the Surprise's pursuit of the Acheron are humming noise in the background for the most part, while the film draws our primary attention in much closer. It's a character study far more than it's ever a war drama, though "character study" is at least partially misleading. "Study of relationships between characters" is closer. Aubrey and Maturin are both, in themselves, tremendously well-defined figures, with Crowe and Bettany's tremendously undervalued performances shining in the creation of living human beings with rich interior lives, but who also feel like they were alive and feeling and thinking in 1805, rather than 2003. That's a great achievement, but Master and Commander isn't, as such, about Aubrey and/or Maturin. The protagonist is, rather, a sort of composite "Aubrey and Maturin" unit; while Aubrey is always positioned as the main character, and the casting of Crowe near his all-time peak of popularity against the functionally unknown Bettany only helps with that, it less the captain as the isolated man of wisdom and action who emerges as the hero of the film, than the synthesis of knowledge, leadership, and caution that comes from Aubrey relying upon Maturin to be his conscience and devil's advocate.

Meanwhile, the crew itself emerges as a similar composite figure: while several members of the crew are given moments that set them apart, or entire plot arcs that are complete in and of themselves, and wholly unrelated to the Aubrey-Maturin spine of the film, it's idea of a conglomeration of individuals that drives the film as much as those individuals itself. The key idea in Weir's cinema, I think, present in some form in virtually all of his best films, is the functioning of an isolated social unit: the British boarding school in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the TV studio village of The Truman Show, the Amish community in Witness, to name three. There's no more automatically isolated place on Earth than on the crew of a ship at sea in the era before electronic communication, and Master and Commander presents and even more purified vision of that isolation than most tall ship movies: other than a few cursory shots, there are no attempts to look at the world outside of the Surprise, or to contextualise her within the world she inhabits. The vast majority of the images in the film are from onboard the ship and pointed inwards. We are bound up with the crew, and we are invited to watch it in great detail as the individual members engage with their individual tasks, and the moment-by-moment rhythm of life drowns out the nominal A-plot about chasing the Acheron.

This serves, of course, to position the film as something of a slice-of-life drama about people who lived 198 years before its premiere, though what I'm always surprised to remember about Master and Commander, beneath the precision of its you-are-there sound mix and the evocatively fleshed-out character lives is that it's not overly concerned with realism. Not that I have any doubt, based solely on the copious onscreen evidence, that Wendy Stites's costumes and William Sandell's production design are thoroughly researched, or at least anxious to give the illusion of an immaculately worked-out reality. Generally, however, the visuals are detached from reality in a certain way. It's clearest in the scattered effects shots of CGI ships upon a CGI ocean, which are not photorealistic and frankly don't give the impression that photorealism was a goal: they resemble period-specific paintings more than 21st Century cinema. And having noticed that, the same motif pops up all over Russell Boyd's cinematography, with its narrow range of thickly saturated colors, and the kinds of compositions that get trotted out.

So where we end up with all of this is a film that traffics, somewhat, in History Come To Life, full of characters whose behavior and depth suggest that they do not regard themselves as historical, but simply normal, everyday people; at the same time, the resolute allergy to even the slightest anachronism in word or deed, and the painterly visuals going at skewed angles to anything truly realist in effect, keep the film at a firm remove from we moderns watching it. It ends up being a meditation on history as much as anything: a reckoning between us and our awareness of how life used to be, along with the similarities and differences between then and now. Mind you, this historical exercise is in the middle of a thoroughly engaging action-adventure, with a couple absolutely marvelous sea battle setpieces focused on the decks of ships rather than the spaces between ships. And that's part of the tremendous success of Master and Commander: it's so much fun to watch that the fact it's also quite ingenious and crafty can be surprisingly difficult to notice.



A second review requested by Julian D, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There's nothing more personal and unique than what somebody finds funny - not even what they find scary, maybe not even what they find sexy. The things that make us laugh are as specific to us as a fingerprint. And with that niceness out of the way, may I be so bold as to claim that The Lady Eve, the third film written and directed by the uncommonly great Preston Sturges (a writer-director in an era when those two jobs were jealously segregated) is objectively one of the funniest movies ever made, and that is that.

Better yet, the 1941 film is a remarkable study in what makes a film objectively funny to begin with. It's not the only comedy with a nigh-perfect screenplay; the perfection of Sturges's writing, from an Oscar-nominated story by Monckton Hoffe, is however pure in a way that the perfection of, say, Some Like It Hot is not. For the latter is full of idiosyncracies and structural weirdness that should destroy it instead of force it up to greatness. The Lady Eve, however, is a model for the entire corpus of American film comedy, the kind of script that you want to hold up and say "this is what you do" to aspiring writers. It is structurally flawless, with a second half that mirrors the first half and a bridge between them that gives the audience a chance to relax and re-orient. The dialogue is precisely shaped and timed to build characters at the exact pace Sturges wants them to be built, telling us an enormous amount in what is said, how it is said, and most of all, why and when it is said. It helps things out that the movie boasts a murderer's row of on-screen talent, with a shamefully high number of people at or near their all-time best work, but this is as close at it gets to an actor-proof comedy; I can imagine a recast version of it that is worse of course, but not really one that's no good at all. The writing is simply too goddamn good for that.

It is one of the last great screwball comedies of the '30s tradition, with cunning fast-talking women and hapless idiot men. A ship traveling up the east coast of the Americas makes an unscheduled stop to pick up a single passenger; this could only be a luxury afforded to the very rich, and that is absolutely the right description for mild, dimwitted Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), heir apparent to the mighty Pike Ale ("the ale that won for Yale") fortune. He only cares about one thing: cataloguing rare snakes. And it is for the reason that he's been in the Amazon for the last year. Nothing about him makes him much for social graces, which is why he's so baffled by the besotted attention of every woman on the vessel. But it's one particular woman he needs to be wary of: Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), traveling with her father "Colonel" Harrington (Charles Coburn), the both of them trained in the fine art of hustling people at cards. Ideally mild, dimwitted, wealthy people. Unluckily, Jean falls in love with Charles while she's busy tricking him into falling in love with her, leading her to sabotage her father's dogged attempts to fleece the boy. Tragically, Charles's endless distrustful bodyguard "Muggsy" Murgatroyd (William Demarest) learns of the Harringtons' identity just when they've given up their shenanigans, and Charles brutally drops Jean. And this leads her to vow the most punishing kind of revenge she can concoct: in the guise of Lady Eve Sidwich, fake niece to fake nobleman Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith (Eric Blore), she plots to kick Charles square in the male ego.

The two halves of the film echo each other in many little ways, from basic scenario (Jean falling for Charles despite his money vs. Charles falling for "Eve" because of hers), to the placement of exact gags. Both of them are introduced with a terrifyingly perfect line of acidity given to Stanwyck on a silver platter, who pays back her writer-director by delivering those lines with with the exact energy that drives the next 40 minutes: "Gee, I hope he's rich. I hope he thinks he's a wizard at cards" she bursts out with the giddy anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve - it's Jean's very first line in the whole movie, and between those words and the fever pitch pace of Stanwyck's delivery, we know or can pretty much figure out everything we'll need to know about her. The knowing cynicism, the high-energy prattle. And high-energy prattle is one of the great weapons in The Lady Eve's quiver; all screwball films rely on a female lead who can speak a mile a minute, and the absolute best of them use that as a character and story device as much as a comic element (what is His Girl Friday without Rosalind Russell's rapid-fire newspaperman argot?), but I don't think there's another film out there where the high-speed delivery is so clearly a choice made by the character as a way of getting the upper hand on a mark.

This, of course, is what happens when Stanwyck gets involved: not just a great actor (not just, arguably, the greatest actor of her generation) with peerless comic chops, but one who had a gift like nobody ever did for showing us thoughtfulness and calculation and all the things her characters aren't saying in favor of the things she finally elects to vocalise. Jean Harrington is absolutely the twin sister of Phyllis Dietrichson from Double Indemnity, so many moves ahead of her opponent in her mind that she's already working on the next game. One is a comic hero, the other a noir villain, but that's not such an impossible gap to clear. And it's never narrower than in the other great one-liner Stanwyck gets to open the second half of the movie: "I need him like the axe needs the turkey", underplayed and reflective, delivered as much through the way she drops her eyebrow as by the self-amusement twisting her mouth.

One could go on and on praising Stanwyck, because it's maybe her best performance, maybe the best comic performance in Hollywood history, maybe the best performance in English cinema. It's easy to go overboard. But she's merely one element that goes into the absolutely all-over perfection of The Lady Eve, the standout in a tremendous ensemble: Fonda, gamely playing a vanilla idiot, is more a matter of perfect casting than inspired acting (the one real flaw I can spot in the movie is that Jean is much too smart and good a character to grow so fond of such a nebbish), but when he's the arguable weak link, we're clearly facing one of the greatest collection of actors ever assembled for a comedy. Coburn's mingling of impatience and fatherly pride; Demarest's pathetic sharpness; Eugene Pallette's thick bellowing and besotted creepiness as the elder Mr. Pike; these are not persona-shattering turns by great supporting actors, and yet none of the actors in question ever really topped this version of their usual role.

Besides all that, it's probably Sturges's most tightly-made film, the one where he used editing most dauntlessly to build and punctuate gags; it was his first collaboration with Stuart Gilmore, who edited all of the writer-director's comic masterworks to immediately follow - Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Any of those films could serve as a case study in how precise timing and cutting can augment film comedy, and yet none of them have a single moment as perfect as Eve's dining room sequence, a collection of reverse shots along shifting eyelines that perfectly express Charles's terror and bafflement, or its climactic train scene, in which storms and close-ups on pounding locomotion ironically provide melodramatic counterpoint and sexually suggestive visual gags. Amusingly enough, the film's most famous scene and possibly its best is the one with no editing at all: Jean plays with Charles's hair in a single shot lasting more than three minutes that is possibly the most sexually explicit sequence in American cinema of the 1940s, culminating in what I can only describe as a metaphorical orgasm. It's erotic and hilarious simultaneously; as much an act of craft as eros, with Stanwyck and Fonda sparking off some of the most electrifying screen chemistry imaginable.

It's the crowning moment of a movie that seems like it can do anything: run at full steam and then slow down for a scene of tenderness without letting us see the downshift; play with verbal dexterity, broad farce, and gaudy slapstick, and make all of them seem equally airy and effortless; and allow Stanwyck to create an enormously vivid and deep character of self-aware desire, professional acumen, and buried wounds out of the stock material of a daffy romantic lead in a comedy. It is one of the most triumphant delights of pre-WWII Hollywood, the comedy upon which Sturges's great and well-earned reputation most securely resides, and there is not a single frame of it I would change, move, or take away.


12 September 2015


The question that really deserves to be asked of Straight Outta Compton is whether the very real merit of presenting, in the backwards year of 2015, a story of downtrodden African-American men living under the constant threat of police brutality and suffocating poverty who use their intelligence and skill to rise to the very heights of their chosen field on a message pointedly and angrily condemning the systems of repression that have afflicted them and everyone they know, is enough to overcome the very real sin of presenting, in the backwards year of 2015, a story in which violent crimes against women have to be painstakingly disappeared in order to present the most untroubled self-mythologising autobiography possible. I am happy to dodge that question.

Instead, please permit me to retrench to a no less frustrating conundrum: how is it appropriate to tell the story of one of rap's most revolutionary & confrontational groups, N.W.A., in the form of a paint-by-numbers biopic? Why not put even a little aesthetic forcefulness into it? Not to play the "all politically engaged films by and about minorities should be alike" game, but I can't help but point out the existence of a certain Do the Right Thing, which came out during exactly the same period of cultural unrest that Straight Outta Compton travels back to, and includes an iconic appearance on the soundtrack by one of the other massively important politically active rap groups of the period, Public Enemy. That film's approach to engaging with the social tensions around it is to draw direct connective lines between aesthetic radicalism and social radicalism. SOC would much rather be another god damned musician biopic, thank you very much, frontloading all of its interesting style into a misleadingly interesting opening 30 minutes and thence turning into pure genre boilerplate. Politics aren't just nervously pushed aside; politics are avoided with open terror. Even when the material hands politics to the filmmakers on a silver platter. The composition of the roaring "Fuck tha Police" is turned into a full-on Biopic Moment, in which an uncharacteristically potent and terrifying scene of the group members being harassed by mixed-race pair of cops - the most fully-realised and powerful moment of the film by pretty much every measure - is turned into fodder for one of those neat, nice little cuts where you can just about see the lightbulb flicker on as the artist in question comes up with the fully-formed idea for one of their greatest hits.

Blame it on the powerfully average director F. Gary Gray, whose film career continues to consist of the scintillating Friday and then all the things that signally fail to match up to Friday's potential; or blame it on former N.W.A. members O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson and Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, as well as Tomica Woods-Wright, the widow of Eric "Eazy-E" Wright. For those three people - all producers on the film - have the most obvious vested interest in taking the potentially gripping story of personality clashes, little hypocrisies, and bleak confrontation with the hell of systemic injustice in low-income, non-white America, and turning it into a shapeless recitation of events that always circles back around to praising the hard-won wisdom of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E, while removing founding N.W.A. member Arabian Prince completely out of the movie, and reducing DJ Yella and MC Ren to the status of featured extras.

Meanwhile, the film's commitment to exploding the burned-in racism in the United States and righteously decrying the pervasiveness of police brutality is as tenuous and non-confrontational as the life story of these particular men and this particular place and time can get away with and not totally fall apart. There's an almost palpable sense of relief after the first hour or so, when it turns away from "this is what life in Compton was like for these men" and enter the fallow fields of "who doesn't like movies about contract disputes?!?" Who doesn't, indeed, though Straight Outta Compton's belief that they need to be presented with such unblinking fullness that the running time hauls itself up to a deeply unjustifiable 147 minutes - a full half-hour past the point that the movie enters the bored-as-hell watch-checking phase - is at best misplaced.

So with all that out of the way, at least the film starts well. It starts very well, in fact, and I was certain for a good 25 minutes that, having already beaten the odds with one genuinely good biopic of a musician in Love & Mercy, 2015 was going to manage to produce two fine pieces of cinema from the most reliably staid and mediocre subgenre in modern filmmaking. Gray's directorial style is too burnished for an afternoon matinee at a suburban multiplex to ever really hope that he'd end up overseeing a portrayal of 1980s Compton that taps into any real sense of blighted urban despair, and yet along comes cinematographer Matthew Libatique to fix that with a remarkable collection of images that are, in themselves, artistic and leading in the way they push us towards the characters in certain ways, but which also steadily avoid the ever-present trap of aestheticising poverty. It's dangerous and coiled in these earliest scenes, where the film's tendency to cut off the ends of scenes and skip ahead arrhythmically works in the favor of building a mood, and where the untested young actors are given the most concrete versions of their characters to play. O'Shea Jackson, Jr. is the clear stand-out, playing his father with a surprising and ingratiating understanding of Ice Cube's own absorbing screen energy, while Jason Mitchell's Eazy-E traces the most difficult and interesting arc, mixing a level of innocent idealism into his performance that contrasts with his rough behavior and sets up the closest thing the film has to emotional stakes in the second hour. Corey Hawkins's Dr. Dre is... fine. Sort of generic, but fine.

Anyway, the film's amped-up realist aesthetic as it follows these three young men around, doing nothing in particular, gives the opening act a level of insight and exciting energy that the rest of the movie, bogged down in plotting, comes nowhere near replicating. The first stumble comes when Paul Giamatti comes into the film and accidentally starts giving a performance much too self-assured and layered for him to not blow his relatively untrained co-stars right off the screen, and not even the dead albino mink the hair and makeup department decided to plop on the top of his head can take that away. He's also playing an ultra-trite music manager who is openly kind and achingly sensitive to his clients' needs, but is almost visibly sweating oil, which augurs poorly for where the film ends up heading.

Still, there are moments that work perfectly; there's recording session scene that depicts with a rich sense of humor and character honesty the confusing annoyance of creating art and not the movie-fied cliché of recording music as a steady flow of inspiration, and the early sequences of the group's financial success are shot with an energetic frenzy (it's where we are reminded most directly that Gray was once a music video director, and in fact that is how he and Ice Cube forged their professional relationship) that, at least initially, forms exactly the right sharp contrast with the visual grimness of the film to have preceded it. There's a lot of a good film inside Straight Outta Compton; it just can't survive the dithering lack of narrative intention and grating lack of depth or honesty that swiftly become the movie's dominant modes as it enters its bloated second half.


08 September 2015


The rules have changed for Hit Me with Your Best Shot! To encourage more participation, Nathaniel has switched up the calendar and made it more of an ongoing fun thing, less of a short-term "do this right now while you have the chance" event, and the film he has used to make that shift is Mad Max: Fury Road, the most beautiful film of 2015 and the most visually exciting action movie in a generation. And I almost missed it. It was actually Monday night that this month's edition went up, and I blanked. But our host is a gent, and he extended it by 24 hours for all those who wanted play.

The film's visual strengths are obvious and undeniable: the searing duochromatic tone - nuclear wasteland yellow and implacable azure sky blue - the consistently amazing frames of Charlize Theron's Furiosa as an anchor to some shots, as an invader in other shots, and as an organic ensemble member in yet other shots; the way that the film visually insists on this as a film about heroism coming as a result of collective action action marked by individual moments of bravery. All of these things would be equally wonderful to talk about; but alas, I did not have time to re-watch the whole movie to pick out my one favorite among many great equals. Also, ever since I first, second, and third saw the film in May, the individual shot that has most emphatically marked itself on my brain does none of those things. In fact, given the sprawling vistas and circus craziness that are the film's bread and butter, my pick for best shot is almost idiotically off-book:

We're almost exactly at the one-quarter mark of the film. The big heaving action sequence has just ended - the big heaving action sequence, I say, in a film which is almost nothing but. It's the car chase that first shows us what Fury Road's budget and ambitions are exactly going to consist of, culminating in all those cars so lovingly forced through ludicrously elaborate stunts plunging headlong into an immaculate CGI sandstorm, as the score and sound mix attempt to deafen us while the multitude of moving objects onscreen attempt to scorch our retinas. I have now seen Fury Road four times, and every time, I only realise after all of this is done that I have quite forgotten to breath for a good 80 seconds now.

I realise this, in fact, right about the time that my pick for best shot arrives. A flare, which almost but not quite prematurely ended the film by blowing up Max himself, has gone flying in all the chaos, and landed right in the middle of the storm. And the storm blows by, but for the first time in... well, it seems like it's the first time all movie that the camera stops to linger on a still object, rather than charging on to follow whatever action is happening. The lights drop, and it cannot be said if it is the overcast sky or night following hard upon the storm, or if it's simply a fade to black. But the lights drop. And where once there was so much action and movement that it's impossible to attend to a tenth of it, let alone the whole screen's worth, there's just a flickering red light, holding steady as the world around it closes down.

It is the moment that the film says, "you may now relax".

It is the moment as well where the film reminds us that even in the middle of chaos, noise, screaming metal death, and the most propulsive car chase choreography since God knows when: there are small moments. There are little, restive patches. We haven't seen one till now - half an hour in, and Fury Road has been all-out guns blazing since its third shot. But now it rests, and for as much pleasure as there is to be had in every inch of those thirty minutes, it is deeply satisfying that we get to rest too. The film has made us, as viewers, earn this pause, and it sets us up to notice and appreciate every pause that follows. Of which there are some, separated by long blasts of high-intensity action (though none as intense as this most daunting of car chases). And they are the moments where Fury Road turns from great action cinema to great cinema, genre notwithstanding: the human touches and moments of connection, the places where we and the characters can stop to think and be aware of themselves and their surroundings, and where we get to know them better. Fury Road is a fast movie, but it really "happens" in the slow patches, and it is here, as the blackness surrounds us and the film goes to sleep, as it were, that it first tells us that we need to be ready for those slow patches. For in the context of ceaseless momentum, it's the slowdowns that are truly astonishing.

05 September 2015


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. Two weeks ago: Hitman: Agent 47 is a reboot nobody wanted of a movie nobody recalls based on a video game. But whatever, assassins are all cool and whatever.

There are as many reasons to bitch about 1995's sputtering thriller Assassins as there are stars in the sky, and I was ready for all of them except one. As none of the reviewers of 20 years ago bothered to tell me, because 20 years ago this wasn't something anybody would have been compelled to think about, this is the film with what is easily Julianne Moore's all-time worst performance. She's been not-great in not-great roles more than once, but this is the only time I identify where she actually made things worse. A shitty, incomprehensible character with the tedious name "Electra", who has that most mid-'90s of professions, sexycool computer hacker, would bring out the best in nobody, but Moore's performance only extends and exaggerates the parts of the character that are most aggravating, while counterbalancing none of them with any choices that suggest elements of the character not found on the page. Even in the utterly thankless role of Not Jodie Foster in the misbegotten Hannibal, Moore scrounged up interesting reactions and twists to scenes that were beyond redemption, but could at least be successfully made thornier. In Electra, she takes the absolute garbage part of "the female in a Sylvester Stallone picture" and somehow endeavors to show that there's less to the character than meets the eye. This movie was released, I want to point, just months after Safe. Maybe she was worn out.

The film's origins lie in one of the two scripts Chicago-based siblings the Wachowskis wrote in an attempt to impress the industry, both landing on the desk of producer Joel Silver. The other one was The Matrix, and it had some manner of cultural impact when they were able to release it as their sophomore directorial effort in 1999. Assassins, meanwhile, is the one they fought and failed get their names taken off, following a full rewrite by virtual nobody Brian Helgeland. Who's to say how much Wachowski is actually left, and how much was just the siblings seeing the final results and getting the hell away from it. It's not like the appalling blobules of story strong together by dreadful characterisations and invisible motivations are any more typical of Helgeland, whose very next feature credit was for the magnificent adaptation of L.A. Confidential.

The concept, anyway, feels Wachowski-ish. In some empty hellscape, a carnival barker encourages the dispossessed and mad to take out their frustrations by sidling up to his shooting gallery to murder U.S. presidents. No, I'm sorry, I must have been thinking of something else. This version of Assassins is the one where Rath (Stallone), an assassin, is tired and self-loathing and wants to retire. Worse still, all of his attempts to get that One Last Payday out of the way are stymied by a different assassin, Bain (Antonio Banderas), who sweeps in to kill Rath's targets before the older man can manage it. Bain, we'll learn at some point or another, is a starry-eyed fanboy in addition to a psychopath, and his entire career goal is to impress Rath in the act of surpassing him as the new world's greatest assassin. So if you squint, possibly while on an LSD trip, this is a dressed-up version of the elegiac John Wayne Western The Shootist. For reasons that I won't go into because I frankly can't quite follow all of the plot gyrations, Rath has to kill the hacker Electra but has a change of heart and tries to protect her instead, which puts the pair of them on the run as whatever organisation sends out instructions to the world's assassins on a severely blue instant message system, completing the film's grand tour of computer technology in the movies of the '90s, assigns Bain to take them down.

Trying to figure out what's not working about Assassins is like trying to figure out why it hurts when you put your hand in an open flame - stop thinking and get the hell out of there, dumbass - but at any rate, one of the things that most emphatically guaranteed that it would be no good at all was Silver's assignment of the job to director Richard Donner, who is more than capable of making excellent movies. But nothing in his generically promiscuous career prior to 1995 suggested that he'd be capable of making an excellent Sylvester Stallone movie, or even get close to it. His preferred mode, demonstrated over and over again in virtually all of his movies following 1978's genre-defining Superman, was easygoing, charming, and goofy. His one great '80s-style action movie, 1987's Lethal Weapon, is the polar opposite of Stallone's vehicles in the same period: it's a screwball romantic comedy between two straight men, with guns and drug runners only reluctantly sucked up into the vortex of their acerbic banter. His film immediately preceding Assassins, 1994's Maverick, is a pleasingly shambling comic character sketch that's wearing Wild West clothes mostly for the hell of it. Faced with a leading man whose one constant, throughout his entire career, was an inability to smile or look like a playful thought had ever crossed his mind even as a child, Donner had simply no entrée into the material, especially since in a battle for the film's soul between himself and Stallone, Stallone would always, always come out the winner.

So we end up at a film with no clear hand on the rudder, which is undoubtedly part of the reason that the plot developments in Assassins feel like a sleepy five-year-old was just throwing ideas out there. And perhaps it's also the reason why the action is so sloppily stapled onto the rest of the movie, and why the action is so goddamn bad - there's a slow motion "escape from the exploding building sequence" that is, in all honesty, one of the most aggravating, unpleasant pieces of action cinema that I think I have ever seen. It's one thing for an action movie to have an arbitrary, confusing order of events: lots of them do, some of those standing out as very good examples of the form. What absolutely cannot happen is an action movie having such a plot and then also having messy, ugly, uninteresting action, and it's here that Assassins goes from "this is bad" to "this is one of the worst big-budget action movies of its decade".

There is one thing in the film worth saving: Banderas is crazy as hell and it's adorable. While Moore is busily smothering her character (except for a speech about a sparrow near the end, where she finally hits that "half-formed ideas sliding around each other defensively" speaking register that she does well with as a general fallback position), and Stallone simply glowers sadly through his, without even the unacceptable attempts at camp that makes his performance in the same year's Judge Dredd at least memorable, Banderas is... I don't even know what Banderas is. Stuck with some greatly regrettable hair by the make-up people - or perhaps the word is "emboldened" - and given the most overtly colorful character in the script, the actor starts huge and never scales back. His Bain twitches his head around like a drunk bird, he whimpers like a dog, he gazes at Stallone with deranged hunger that suggests a gender-reversed All About Eve as directed by Lucio Fulci. I would never call it a film-saving effort - to be honest, I'm not even sure if this is "good" or merely bad in ways that are more astonishing than boring. But at least he's committed and kinetic, something true of no other aspect of this greatly dreary, criminally overlong slog.