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28 March 2015


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

Spoilers are going to be crawling up and down this post like ants. If you haven't seen Mulholland Dr., know that I'd give it a perfect 10/10, and if I were making a list of the films of the 21st Century that are essential viewing for anyone even moderately interested in the art form, this would be jockeying for very top spot.

There was a time when any discussion about David Lynch's magnificent Mulholland Dr. would automatically turn into an attempt to piece out exactly what the fuck is happening within it. Having been right in the thick of the film's original release in 2001, I took part in more than my fair share of such conversations, and I am pleased that, in the interevening 13 years and change, cinephile culture has arrived at two basic groups of theories that represent the consensus "solutions" of the movie's mysteries ("it's all a dream" and "it's two versions of the same story in alternate universes" - I much prefer the former, but the film mostly works the same either way), thus freeing us all to talk about anything else. For I cannot think of a film that more clearly demonstrates the truth of Roger Ebert's dictum that what a movie is about is less important than how it is about that thing. In fact, the how of Mulholland Dr. is almost totally inseparable from the what - it is a film that burns its artistic themes and believes about life deep into the bones of its story structure, its acting technique, its sound design, its editing. Unpack the gnarled narrative, and you find a potboiler about desperation among wannabe actresses. Unpack the aesthetic, and you find one of the best - no, fuck it, the best autocritique of cinema as a medium that has yet been made.

But just in the interest of having something to talk about, let's start with the plot. And I mean "plot" in its strictest sense: what events are depicted onscreen and in what order we see them. "Story" is a different matter. "Story", in Mulholland Dr., is puking its guts up behind the dumpster around back of a little coffee shop. What happens is that a woman (Laura Elena Herring, about as far as you can go on the Prestige-O-Meter from her 1990 feature debut, The Forbidden Dance - though not, actually, giving much better of a performance) survives a murder attempt that's interrupted by a car crash on Mulholland Dr., the cliff road overlooking Los Angeles from the north. She staggers away from the crash without her memory, and finds solace in an abandoned apartment; the next day, she's found by Betty (Naomi Watts, in her never-bettered starmaking role), who was coming to stay there at the invitation of her actress aunt, currently shooting a project in Canada. Betty herself wants to be an actress, but she finds herself dividing her time between job hunting and trying to help this mystery woman - who calls herself "Rita", after spotting the name on a Gilda poster - determine her own identity and figure out whether she's in any danger, as she clearly feels without being to articulate it. Meanwhile, a film director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), is being leaned on hard by a mysterious cabal to cast an unknown named Camilla Rhodes as the lead in his picture, The Sylvia North Story. There are scattered scenes throughout in which characters who seem momentarily important simply evaporate away, sometimes after interacting with one of the two main threads of the story and sometimes not. Eventually, Betty and Rita track Rita's past back to a place called Club Silencio, where notional reality is shown to be a fake, and the film restarts itself as the story of Diane Selwyn (Watts), who is having a very rough time dealing with the fact that her girlfriend, Camilla Rhodes (Herring) has gotten the lead role that Diane wanted herself, apparently by fucking the director, Adam Kesher (Theroux).

There are a lot of things that the movie can be about, depending on how hard you want to run it through an analytical wringer, but the one thing it's always about is that motions pictures and the industry that produces them are toxic shit-holes of lies. And nowhere is that more evident than in the famously insoluble mystery. It would be trivially easy to re-edit the film using all the footage it contains and only the footage it contains in its present form, basically just swapping the concluding fifth of the movie (where Watts plays Diane) to the beginning, and in the blink of an eye you've made thoroughly comprehensible story: a woman is thrown over by her lover, so she hires a hitman to murder her; the night after the job is done she has a fantastic dream dripping with symbolism, in which she and her now-dead girlfriend lived the exact happy life she wanted, and she is herself a promising, desirable young star, though hints and details of her guilt keep nudging in. Awakening, she is so horrified that she kills herself, and her last thoughts are flashes of that pleasant dream. Now, that does require ignoring the fact that Mulholland Dr. was born a TV pilot for ABC that the network passed on (aghast that they hired David Lynch to make a David Lynch show for them, upon which he did so), which included none of the Watts-as-Diane material. But the film has been re-worked from the material originally worked into that pilot enough to make them distinctly unique properties even in the places where they overlap, so writing off the story's past life seems fair. Even necessary, given the amount of its plot that's all about writing off personal history that gets in the way of a pleasing reality.

The point of Mulholland Dr., of course, is that it does not make this one simple shift, and that proves to be all the difference. Instead of an almost boringly straightforward Freudian psychodrama, the film turns into a morass of almost unnavigable narrative mysteries, breaking down the idea that films represent some kind of Thing That Actually Happened by inviting the viewer to bring together all sorts of details that seem like the must be Important Clews - I mean, if they weren't important, then why would Lynch have included them? - only to find that most of what happens in Mulholland Dr. is baffling nonsense. You can do what I just did, and mentally re-edit the movie, to make it relatively easy piece of dream analysis where we know that we're picking apart the details of a symbolic dream. Or you can catalogue all the places where Rita seems to take over or recede from reality, and use those as evidence for how it's a film she's dreaming into existence in real time. Or you can leave the movie entirely and discard all of the random effluvia as detritus that would have been explored in the full TV series, and Lynch left it in just because it was fun and stylish, in which case you will forgive me for accusing you of being kind of boringly literal.

But no matter how you try to square Mulholland Dr., you're ultimately trying to compensate for the fact that David Lynch has handed you a broken movie. And since we are accustomed to movies being things that aren't broken, but only appear to be in the interests of shocking us, we busily set ourselves to the task of fixing it. This is our habit as viewers trained by Hollywood to watch Hollywood film. But really, isn't Lynch only actually saying, "this thing is broken - I broke it on purpose". Five years later, he'd be more explicit in doing the same thing with Inland Empire, which not only breaks cinematic structure, but cinematic form,* recklessly chopping up hideous digital video footage into a frenzied slurry of anti-cinema. That film took place in Hollywood, too, which is one of the closest things Mulholland Dr. has to a tell. The other is its lynchpin scene at Club Silencio, in which sound and editing march right up and announce themselves: do you hear how a record soundtrack can lie to you, the film asks, and do you see how dissolves can be used to make you think that discontinuous motion is continuous? It is the equivalent of a magician who confidently states "I'm going to trick you now", and then does so.

The two most important developments in the plot - Betty and Rita's sexual encounter, and the unlocking of the blue box that collapses the Betty/Rita plot, by eliminating Betty completely and consuming Rita - are both preceded by moments where the film openly breaks itself, in fact. Club Silencio leads directly into the latter; the former is shortly preceded by a moment in which Rita's panic causes the film image to double and overlap itself, a rupture of reality as intense as any in the 35 years separating Mulholland Dr. from Ingmar Bergman's Persona. And then, in the cheekiest movie reference in a film saturated with them, their lovemaking is followed by a variation of the classic "Persona shot". So it's not like all this is an accident.

Like Persona, Mulholland Dr. isn't just a breakdown of the sacred rule of narrative filmmaking, that the viewer should never realise that they're watching constructed reality. It's a breakdown of form that mirrors the breakdown of personality that its plot - in whatever interpretation or lack of interpretation we want to describe that plot - depicts. The film itself is having a psychotic split from reality, in effect. Whatever that reality might be: there are at least three "realities" in Mulholland Dr., leading off with the banal, cheery reality of Betty's plotline, with the corny dialogue and campy acting that dominate it, the shiny, sparkly clothes she wears, the sexualised parody of the stock "some nobody gives a dynamo reading, is discovered and made famous" scenario, and the fact that her fucking name is "Betty". We know Lynch; we've seen Blue Velvet; we get that he likes travestying '50s tropes by exaggerating them and filling them full of rot and perversity. So the "Betty" third of Mulholland Dr. is easy to read as a joke. But it's maybe not so easy to read the "Adam" plot the same way, with its menacing lighting and quavering Angelo Badalamenti score, its terrifying dwarf puppetmaster played by Michael J. Anderson, whom Lynch employed in Twin Peaks to let us know in the most disturbing way possible that the gum we like was going to come back in style. Since we know that we're watching a Lynch film, we're ready for the darkness, the screeching horror injected into banal spaces, the migraine-inducing flickering light. And Mulholland Dr. comes along and wipes it away just like it does the corny scenes with Betty. And what does that leave us with? The plain style and grit (I gather that the new footage used to complete the pilot was on a different stock for practical reasons, but the texture of the newer material is certainly less polished than the rest, whatever the cause) of the "Diane" sequence, the "real" sequence, the "explanation". Which Mulholland Dr. also includes in its collapse of signifiers and narrative clarity near the end.

The idea behind Mulholland Dr. isn't that some movies are realer than others; it's that movies are constructs designed by liars. Ever since he smashed in a TV to kick off Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lynch's movies have all been some kind of commentary on the unreliability of classic cinematic forms - yes, even the sedate The Straight Story, which depicts all the moments that most movies cover in a dissolve or montage, and barely cares about its nominal dramatic stakes - it's just that Mulholland Dr. is the one where he actually did it in the context of movie stars and movie-making. The film's slantwise namesake, Sunset Blvd., made waves in 1950 by reveling in the fact that the people who made movies were selfish, greedy, arrogant pricks; a half-century later, that baton had been picked up by many people in many places, but virtually nobody had ever done a better job than Lynch and his note-perfect crew of extending that bilious observation to the movies themselves, which are here supposed to be nothing but the natural extension of the broken minds involved in making them. It's there in the soundtrack, full of misleading and confused audio cues; it's there in Peter Deming's intense cinematography that's all shadows and sugary sunlight, pushing our mood in directions not determined by the script; it's there in Mary Sweeney's elusive editing, stitching together moments with the illusion of connectivity; it's there in Jack Fisk's romanticised and patently artificial production design.

In Mulholland Dr., a movie can be a comforting and optimistic lie; it can be a horrifying and upsetting lie; it can be a sad lie; it can be a confrontational lie designed to make us furious at the pretentious dick who made it just to mess with our heads. But it cannot not be a lie. That is its essential nature. And the film's beauty, it's intellectually gripping complexity, it's slippery and unpredictable performances, all make it a pleasure to have it lie to us, to calmly assert how much more intelligent it knows itself to be than we are.

27 March 2015


The original sin of the anthology film is that no matter how tightly controlled it is, no matter how thematically tight, and no matter how aesthetically consistent, there's always going to be a segment that isn't as good as the others, and it's going to feel like it showed up in the worst possible place to fuck up the flow of the whole thing. In the case of Wild Tales, recent Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee from Argentina, which finds Damián Szifrón writing and directing six otherwise unconnected short stories about the highs and owes of seeking revenge, the structure is almost perfectly designed to make the whole experience seem less than it deserves. I do not gather that this is the consensus opinion, but for my money, the film begins with its absolute best (and shortest) segment, gently and almost steadily declines in quality until it goes off the cliff it its last, worst (and longest) segment, the only one of the six where it's obvious within the first few minutes how it intends to end, and the only one to build virtually its entire narrative on hoary old clichés - in particular, "women are like this, but men are like this" gags involving infidelity and the wildly over-the-top reaction to same. It's shrill finale to a generally whip-smart collection of social satires, and it leaves a sour aftertaste that disproportionately affects the whole movie's effectiveness.

Still, five out of six is an exemplary batting average for a movie of this sort, and Szifrón's fearless embrace of the blackest comedy gives the whole film a striking personality, even in its weakest patches (and there's a nasty tendency for the individual segments to either begin blandly or fizzle out - only the relatively brief first two are at a steady level from start to finish). Good or bad, Wild Tales comes from a sparklingly nasty and savagely witty place that isn't like much else; the presence of everyone's favorite florid melodramatist Pedro Almodóvar as one of the five producers (along with his brother Agustin) is enough to prime us for the ebullient bad taste Szifrón exercises, but there's cutting criticism and anger behind Wild Tales that goes beyond anything found in Almodóvar. It is, whatever else is true, it's own thing, and that's spectacularly valuable.

The punchy opening segment, which finds passengers on a plane discovering their unexpected connections to a failed musician named Pasternak, sets the tone of things perfectly. The humor is a bubbling pot of farcical absurdity - before the shape of the thing begins to clarify itself, the continual pile-up of random jokes is some of the best sustained comedy I've seen in years - that builds to a terrific bleak punchline, and it follows the best rules of sketch comedy, in that it makes its point, sells its gag, and gets the hell out. Nothing else that happens for the remainder of the movie is so focused or deliberate, and this, too, is a sin of the anthology format: starting off strong means that the rest of the feature will feel like pulled punches. That said, "Pasternak" couldn't ever be moved; its brevity functions perfectly as a prologue.

Still and all, it casts a shadow that the rest of the film can't escape. "Las ratas", the second segment, which also feels more like a sketch than a short film, does the best job of darting in, stabbing, and vanishing back into the shadows, and its much tighter dramatic scope - a waitress (Rita Cortese) and cook (Julieta Zylberberg) debate the morality of poisoning a vile mobbed-up businessman (César Bordón), and the cook's increasing impatience with the waitress's refusal to take her just revenge eventually takes an abrupt, extravagant turn - allows it to examine the social and personal impact of revenge more clearly than "Pasternak". It's not as funny, or as effortless, but it still makes for a combined opening gambit that starts Wild Tales at full speed with impressive braininess for something so prone to sophomoric jokes.

But after that, Wild Tales never quite finds its sweet spot again. The third segment, "El más fuerte", has a strong beginning and stronger close, as it examines two men (Leonardo Sbaraglia and Walter Donado) getting into an increasingly disturbed and violent pissing match over road etiquette. But it's also somewhat belabored in its pursuit of a fairly straightforward idea - it's by far the most obvious and predictable of the shorts prior to the last one - and there's simply not that much modulation of its one gag. Segment four, "Bombita" makes some killer social critiques by the end of its tale of a normal working man (Ricardo Darín, the castmember with the biggest international exposure) buffeted by random chance and bad luck until he decides to turn himself into a anti-bureaucracy terrorist, but it takes a long time to find its footing, during which point it's just an exercise in cringe humor. Segment five, "La propuesta", has the opposite problem: it's satiric points about the way the very rich exploit everybody else to avoid having to deal with their own problems are all scored in the early going, and it becomes eminently clear that Szifrón couldn't figure out how to end it.

And then we get to that ending, "Hasta que la muerte nos separe", with a bride (Erica Rivas) exploding with rage when she find out that her new husband (Diego Gentile) had an affair with one of their guests a while back. There are no insights here, only musty observations about A Woman Scorned, turned up to 11, and it's stretched out far beyond the breaking point for something that follows such an obvious predetermined line (the only thing that's not totally predictable about it is its concluding joke, and that's more because the joke is such a random piece of provocation dropped in for no obvious reason other than shock value. It sucks the last air out of a film that developed a slow leak around the 20 minute mark, and more than anything else, it leaves Wild Tales feeling like a series of naughty anecdotes instead of an insightful commentary on human misbehavior. Which is deeply unfortunate, given how well it occupies that more daunting, complex territory here and there throughout its running time.

Narrative lapses notwithstanding, Szifrón's sense of timing and his immaculate control of tone cannot be doubted: this kind of lacerating black comedy is terrifyingly difficult to pull off without lapsing into either banal niceness or unpleasant sourness, and he keeps the tone right on target throughout, even when his plots are starting to fail him. It's an energetic beast, mixing style, pacing, emotional mood, and acting style to great effect - whatever else is true, it's never boring - and while it ultimately collapses under the weight of its own personality, how wonderful to have that kind of dynamic, challenging, and at times insightful personality in the first place!



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

The story goes that J.J. Abrams, along with other chief creative minds involved in the making of the 2009 Star Trek reboot that one of their collective favorite films in the series up to that point was Galaxy Quest. This affection doesn't seem to have impeded Abrams & Co. any in their desire to make Star Trek resembles Star Wars as much as possible, but cheekiness and all, they make a trenchant point. Out of the ten pre-Abrams features adapting TV's Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, one of the easiest knocks against them is that they're not really at all faithful to the spirits of the shows they're presumably adapting. Whereas Galaxy Quest, a parody of those same shows and sometimes not a very nice one, does a vastly better job of capturing the awestruck matinee movie tone and sense of familiar camaraderie that "is" Star Trek. It is mockery, but it is mockery that comes from a place of knowledge and affection. The 12 official Star Trek pictures are all sincere attempts to distance themselves from the property their cashing in on, in their own ways.

Now, 1999, the year that Galaxy Quest came out, was at the waning end of Peak Star Trek, which is perhaps why DreamWorks SKG thought that a mainstream family-oriented sci-fi comedy founded on an in-depth love/hate relationship with Star Trek, its stars, and its fandom might be a good box office play. That, and 1999 was also the waning end of a period when big-budget effects-driven comedies were at least somewhat commonplace (I allow myself to hope that the extravagant success of Guardians of the Galaxy will help bring this long-dead subgenre back). DreamWorks's faith was misplaced; Galaxy Quest didn't tank, but it didn't end up making anything like a decent profit. We can all come up with reasons why that would have happened - an overestimation of the general audience's affection for Trekkies, the late decision in post-production and marketing to gun for a family audience and so rip out everything even slightly dark or edgy - but the last place I'd lay the blame is at the foot of the movie itself. It's a little fuzzy around the edges, and filmed with proficiency but little imagination by director Dean Parisot (a TV veteran making only his second feature, which cuts both ways for the movie: it's a touch bland but that also makes it feel more authentically like fake Trek), but the script by David Howard and Robert Gordon is a peach, full of well-placed lines and smart details about the lives of burned-out semi-talented actors with the questionable fortune to have an unquestionably loyal and ravenous fanbase. It also has a virtually faultless collection of performances - I will not say "a perfect cast", because they are not, on paper, all people that you'd want to see in a movie you intended to enjoy. But Galaxy Quest pulls top-shelf work out of performers as apparently incompatible as Alan Rickman and Justin Long, while also serving as the film that more or less introduced the world to Sam Rockwell. For which it would deserve our thanks even in the absence of anything else praiseworthy.

The film opens in the eighteenth year after the campy sci-fi adventure Galaxy Quest went off the air, leaving behind a small but embarrassingly passionate fanbase that holds annual conventions at which the C-list actors who brought that show to life are brought out to be worshiped and bothered by the faithful. By this point, most of the cast has grown sick of this - Shakespearean-trained Alexander Dane (Rickman), a hybrid of Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart), is much the angriest about it, but former child star Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), perpetually stoned fake Asian Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), and token women/sex interest Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) aren't any more fulfilled with the shape of their current careers. But what they really hate is the prima donna attitude adopted by Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the show's lead, and enough of a raging narcissist that even the cheapjack stardom he now enjoys is enough to feed his ego. It's bad enough that he doesn't even register the highly unusual behavior of a bunch of pasty people with improbable haircuts and a distinctly non-standard grasp of English, who he just writes off as a bunch of particularly invested fans. But indeed, they are emissaries of an alien race, looking to the great hero Commander Taggart, captain of the NSEA spaceship Protector to save them from an invading force. Once he and, eventually, his castmates have been convinced that the aliens are telling the truth, it takes surprisingly little goading for them to agree to pitch in and help, and finally do something that feels good after years of trading off their one goofy little TV show.

"Actor is mistaken for character, enters an adventure" isn't the most original concept - in most of its general details, Galaxy Quest was beaten to the punch by the 1995 telefilm The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space, and if we take "cheesy sci-fi television" out of the mix, it's a much older gimmick still - but it's done particularly well in this particular case. Maybe even as well as it could be done. The particulars of Star Trek lend themselves especially well the the basic scenario, especially the particulars of William Shatner, whom Allen isn't copying in any particular way, though the egotism, vague dislike by his co-stars, and peremptory treatment of his fans are all ultimately taken from that sort. What we have, in essence, is screenwriters drawing upon a very specific real situation to flesh out their work of fiction with a plethora of real, lived-in details, but keeping themselves free to do whatever they want with those details. The result is an entirely plausible cast of characters, all of whom feel just sufficiently more deep and specific than the stock version of themselves that when the generic sci-fi action-adventure hits, we're more concerned about what these people we like will do about it than the sci-fi itself. Which is the reason Star Trek itself works, so it's satisfying to see it employed so well here.

The details extend beyond the writing to the acting: for a frothy comedy with lots of CGI, these are some unbelievably wonderful performances. A lot of the acting is simply about building and committing to a reality: Enrico Colantoni, as the leader of the helpless aliens, brought some kind of insane wizardry to his part in which he delivered lines in a pained sing-song that sounds perfectly like somebody who knows nothing of English pronunciation trying to fake it, while wearing an enormous smile in a way that clearly indicates that he has no idea what a smile is supposed to be for. Mechanically, it's astonishing acting, and the impressive thing is how quickly it recedes into the background as something true about the character, and not something Colantoni is doing because of sci-fi. Comparatively, all of the humans have it easy, though all of them are still awfully good: it's the best Allen has ever been in a live-action film, playing up his standard "idiot alpha male" persona with an unusual background of slow-arriving self-awareness; Weaver's frequent outbursts of confused impatience are consistently the funniest things in the movie ("This episode was badly written!", screamed at a totally useless death trap that exists solely because it was randomly tossed into the show once, is a great laugh line and all the greater because she delivers it with the exquisite frustration of someone who has decided to cling to one thing that makes sense as a shield against everything that doesn't).

Thanks to its emphasis on its characters - which extends to the obsessive fans it charitably treats as the real heroes at the end, after having engaged in the usual light mockery about introverted teen boys with nonexistent social skills - and its dogged pursuit of a PG rating. the film is probably a bit more genial than it is funny, though many individual lines are hilarious (in one case, Weaver has obviously re-dubbed herself saying "screw that!" instead of "fuck that!", which her mouth visibly says; it's obviously the case in context that the latter would have been funnier. And that is the kind of trade off that, in less specific forms, lets a bit of air out of the whole movie). And it's certainly more of a comedy than a sci-fi action film, though in its defense, the film at no point pretends otherwise. But it does leave it feeling a bit weirdly dated, in these days when genre-based comedies are so eager to have full-on action movie third acts. In a good way, I think; the film never really bloats or sags, and remains utterly pleasurable throughout its entire running time. "Pleasurable", of course, isn't the most full-throated defense of a movie that could be made, because a sharper, funnier, more merciless Galaxy Quest that ended with the same warm affection for its characters isn't hard to imagine. But the Galaxy Quest we got is still an awfully good thing, mixing warmth and cleverness to unexpectedly durable effect.


I don't make a habit of pimping out what I write over at the Film Experience, but I am inordinately proud of my articles for the last two weeks: a potted history of DreamWorks Animation from 1998 to today. It's in two parts: last week, I covered 1998-2009, and today, I go the rest of the way to the present. To the future, even, since I end with the impending release of the disgusting-looking Home.

Please, go over! Enjoy! Join in the conversation!

26 March 2015


The best thing that I could possibly will myself to say about Divergent is that it was by whatever thin margin the more watchable of 2014's two virtually indistinguishable post-apocalyptic YA adaptations about the Enormously Special Snowflake whose pluck and to-heck-with-your-rules-man attitude helps to knock the legs out from underneath an inscrutable and preposterously contrived writerly conceit masquerading as a functional fantasy world, just besting The Maze Runner. And now all that stored-up goodwill I had gets quite spoilt by The Divergent Series: Insurgent, whose repellent death march of a title is one of the best things about it. This is the quintessence of what I mean when I call a film joylessly mediocre: everything about Insurgent is functional in the most detached, unimaginative ways, precisely in the places where an allegory built on a loopy sci-fi premise particularly needs to be imaginative. It is not merely a film that has no fun with itself, it is a film that constantly calls your attention to all the fun that really absolutely should be going on, and makes the whole thing that much more teeth-grinding and enervating than is remotely fair.

The film drops us, via a clunky but straightforward bit of "I am your fascist dictator for the evening, and let me tell you things on giant monitors re-expositioning, back into the world of Post-Apocalypse Future Chicago, the last outpost of humankind, where all people are separated into factions based on their solitary personality trait. Candor is home to reliable truth-tellers, Amity does good work for the betterment of all, and Erudite is home to cold evil logicians who worship knowledge and try to kill Christians. I mean, Abnegation, the ones who put the needs of the rest above themselves and get all the shitty work done, and who were effectively wiped out at the end of the last movie by that selfsame dictator Jeanine (Kate Winslet). For some reason, Jeanine's lack of a surname really started to crack me up this time around.

So in addition to the loss of nearly all Abnegationeers, the miltaristic police sect Dauntless has been scattered to the winds, leaving Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), with a surprisingly fresh and salon-tousled new hairdo, considering that she gave it to herself with a pair of garden shears, hiding in Amity along with her hunky boyfriend Four (Theo James), her confused Erudite brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), and her sullen, irritable rival from Dauntless, Peter (Miles Teller, completing the "Boys Who Have Played Shailene Woodley's Lovers" hat trick). But Tris, of course, is no Dauntless member at all; she is a Divergent, one of the magic special ones who combine all five extant personality traits. And for this reason, Jeanine wants to find her; for Jeanine, we now find, found a Box buried by the Founders 200 years ago and protected by Tris's now-dead parents, but the Founders made it so that only a Divergent could open the Box and thus receive their Message about what to do in this moment of Crisis, because having determined that just copying The Hunger Games was too limiting, the series at this point goes for the classics and starts stealing plot points from Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

In practice, this means a lot of trekking through parts of Georgia that make for a passable simulacrum of Illinois, encountering Four's estranged mother (Naomi Watts), and band of radical Factionless, which aren't the same thing as Divergents, but it's not totally clear why. And then Tris has to decide if she'll be the Mockingjay join with Mama Four's team to replace Jeanine's dictatorship with a different dictatorship or... not do that. The stakes are all a bit fuzzy. But eventually, she is taken by Jeanine and put through a series of video game levels to prove her righteousness to open the Box and discover the sequel hook. Except it's not a sequel hook at all: it feels precisely like the final beat of about a hundred other post-apocalypse films that that end with a slightly ambiguous "...and did they restore the world then? Perhaps, children. Perhaps" note as the limitless horizon stretches out. But there are in fact two more The Divergent Serieses to come, unless Insurgent's apparent inability to expand Divergent's audience even a tiny bit spooks Summit Entertainment into committing the unthinkable heresy of adapting a YA novel series with exactly as many movies as there are books.

The central problem of Divergent turns out to also be the central problem of Insurgent: this world doesn't work, and the screenwriters writing the adaptation - Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman (!), and Mark Bomback - don't have the creativity, or more likely the motivation, to find a way of fixing it. Inherently, this society can't work and doesn't make sense, though it's revealed in a mysterious film-ending transmission, by a mysterious woman whose identity the end credits totally give away (she's played, anyway, by Janet McTeer, completing the hat trick of stupidly over-qualified actresses who are reduced to this now? Fuck Hollywood), that it might have all been engineered to be this transparently artificial and synthetic. Which doesn't speak well of the Founders. Last time around, director Neil Burger directed with a deft enough touch and a good sense for how to work action sequences around characters that the draggy plot and nonsensical world-building at least felt like they had some momentum underpinning them, but his replacement, Robert Schwentke, suffers from a pronounced tendency towards flat visuals and too much time spent lingering on the barely present reactions of his actors, and his decidedly anti-epic staging leaves the feeling that the entire last kernel of humanity, spread throughout the city limits of a still semi-functioning Chicago, numbers around 1200 people.

Whereas Divergent at least felt like it took place somewhere, I mean to say, Insurgent feels like a cheap, jerry-rigged post-apocalypse on a budget. It's small and boring, and that just calls attention to how much the story is made up of jerky half-measures - go here, go here, stop, look sad, go here, get involved in some nonsensical battle with Shadow Link - and how utterly daft the whole allegorical conceit is.

It's so bland: it looks bland, and the actors play it excessively bland, either because, like James and Elgort, that's what they do; or like Woodley, they're aware that this is not going to be their $400 million ticket to Jennifer Lawrenceville, but they have to muscle through anyway; or like Watts, they've been weirdly made up to look like Elizabeth Olsen, despite being a 46-year-old woman. Winslet stands out: her absolute defeated dismay in ever single frame, like a starving person who just realised that the only food in the whole house is cream of wheat, is horrible sad to have to watch. Teller is the other; with a small part that has absolutely no shading, he goes for broke on playing up the most nauseating entitled personality of a lazy, self-satisfied asshole that he can muster - which is a lot, for Teller - and as a result emerges as the only onscreen human who feels like he has thoughts and feelings which aren't directly communicated by the lines of dialogue he says.

Anyway, there's not a single frame wrong with the movie, though some of the CGI is regrettable; but there also isn't anything in the whole of that's even fleetingly entertaining. It's as devoid of any energy as is possible, and it's every bit the soulless commercial calculation that has the word "Series" in its official goddamn title had ought to be.


24 March 2015


Fun times! For Hit Me with Your Best Shot this week, Nathaniel has assigned Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, one of the finest examples of that marvelously oddball genre, the 1960s Italian Anthology Film. And, on top of it, perhaps the most uncharacteristic work ever directed by Neorealist master Vittorio De Sica.

The film is made up of three individual segments, each named for the woman played in it by Sophia Loren; cumulatively, they explore the sexual mores of three different slices of Italian life, as Loren and Marcello Mastroianni play three enormously different kinds of couples. Naturally, Nathaniel left the optional rule that we could select one shot from each segment; naturally, I'm exercising that option.

First up is "Adelina", the brightest and best of the segments, showcasing De Sica's almost entirely untapped gift for comedy. Adelina has run up a stupefying list of bills, and the police have come knocking; but she and her husband Carmine discover that Italian law provides for any pregnant woman, or woman who has given birth within the last six months, can't be sent to prison. And thus do the couple forestall the inevitable for years, as an increasingly fatigued Carmine keeps knocking Adelina up, while she brings her ever-expanding brood to help her sell black market cigarettes and keep the family afloat.

It's breezy, but there's still a satiric bite, and it offers a surprisingly rich array of images to pick from: the way that Adelina is situated in the midst of a supporting community, through a series of repeated set-ups, ensures that much of the comedy and storytelling are achieved visually. That being said, I went someplace entirely differently. Herewith, my pick for Best Shot, in which Adelina demonstrates to the newly-arrived cops that she's pregnant once again, and safe from their clutches:

What I love about it its bluntness. Loren's face is just so utterly devoid of affect or even the slightest interest in her unwanted visitors. She knows, even if they don't, that she's too damn busy to deal with their nonsense - can you see that already-born kid standing right there? And look how cluttered that kitchen is! It's a fussy, jam-packed mise en scène that wonderfully suggests why Adelina, in this moment, doesn't even have the stamina to open her mouth and speak words to the cops, just to blandly indicate why they need to get the hell out and leave her be. In a funny short, it's the moment that made me laugh the loudest, and that's sometimes all you really need.

Next up: "Anna". The shortest of the segments, and also the film's obvious clinker (but then, what anthology film bats 1.000?), it's a banal drama about a shallow rich woman and her increasingly disillusioned lover, who realises over the course of a drive out from Milan that she cares more about things than people. Particularly when he damages her precious Rolls-Royce in order to avoid hitting a child. The points made by the wan script - credited the three writers, the most of any segment in the film - are obvious and there's limited visual interest; De Sica and cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (who shot all three segments) are hemmed in by how much of the action takes place in the front seat of the car, and long passages of the film go by with only three or four different ideas for how to set up the camera.

Towards the end, though, intriguing images start to pile up, and among them we find this:

In the foreground: a furious Anna and a flustered Renzo trying to deal with the smoke pouring out of the broken Rolls. In the background: the boy whose non-death triggered this most severe tragedy in Anna's life, silently watching the clownish flapping about of these two sophisticated, wealthy Milanites. Generally, "Anna" grows more successful as it buries its judgment of the title character in silent, weighty moments, instead of handing off dully horrified pronouncements to Mastroianni. And this is the first and best of a handful of shots which position an out-of-focus in the back behind a two-shot in the foreground, allowing the depth of the staging and the static silence of the background character to serve as an implicit commentary. These people are putting on a little show of human behavior, and their audience is at best unimpressed with their noisy self-regard.

The film ends with "Mara", a return to genial comedy, though of a more grounded sort than was shown in "Adelina". Mara is a prostitute, whose cranky old neighbors have taken in their grandson Umberto (Giovanni Ridolfi), a seminary student. As the sheltered young man sees her untroubled ownership of her life and her sexual drive, he of course falls in love with her, which forces her to rely on her most amorous regular client, Augusto, to help her shake the boy out of his puppy love and get back on the right track.

It's the sweetest of the three stories, and the sexiest, and those mostly come in the same form: the smoldering hot Loren (who spends the film's final moments doing a striptease) dealing as nicely as she can with the boys who fall head-over-heels for her without stopping to think what her opinion on the matter might be. In practice, this means multiple scenes of her and Mastroianni (who is at his clear best in this segment, out of the three) playing scenes that weirdly blur the sexual charge of a john visiting his beloved whore, and two adults in a comfortable long-term relationship jousting with each other. That's when this happens:

Augusto wants to have sex; Mara, pissed off at her judgmental neighbor, just wants to fume and vent and do some cleaning till she calms down. He flirts, canoodles, talks dirty, and eventually gives up, as she passes him the dishes to dry. Of course, he's still an immature horndog, and this moment will pass, but for for the moment, "Mara" speaks a wonderful truth about the way grown-up lovers work together. Sometimes you have rich, passionate, filthy sex, and sometimes the damn dishes need to be washed.

And if you were to accuse me of also picking this shot for the bright, joyful '60s color scheme in the green-yellow cabinets and Loren's pink apron, day-glo domesticity that makes this plain little moment hum with visual energy: dear reader, I would not deny that accusation.


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

It's entirely possible that Tokyo Story isn't the best movie ever made. But I suspect that it might be the most perfect. Its construction is unthinkably good - not one single shot is wasted, and every cut serves a very clear and deliberate purpose. It is the film out of all films that I would want to show anybody who was curious how cinema works - how duration, framing, editing, and acting all combine to create a particular mood, and to communicate specific meaning about the characters. Meanwhile, the story it tells and the emotions it explores mark it as one of the wisest human dramas filmed: immensely specific in its characters and setting, but able to depict dynamics and tensions that are as universal as it. So it has wonderful form, extraordinarily rich narrative content, and those two things inform each other in the most satisfying, invisible way. So, perfect. It is not, in fairness, the only perfect film made by director Ozu Yasujiro: there are no quantitative ways to measure the difference between it and Late Spring, and I wouldn't bat an eye at the suggestion that his final two films (both in color), The End of Summer and An Autumn Afternoon, are more accomplished than either. But I nonetheless plant my flag in this soil: Tokyo Story is the crowning achievement of the most consistently great director in cinema history. It is as perfect in its craft as any of his other masterworks, and more robust in its emotional landscape. I'm glad we've gotten that sorted.

Though the film never lags, it's not on account of its thin wisp of a plot, as devised by Ozu and Noda Kogo: sometime long enough after World War II that the scars of battle are almost completely invisible in Japan, the elderly Hirayamas - husband Shukichi (Ryu Chishu) and wife Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) - travel from the town of Onomichi, where they live with their youngest daughter, Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko), to the big city of Tokyo, to visit their eldest children, son Koichi (Yamamura So) and daughter Shige (Sugimura Haruko), and Noriko (Hara Setsuko), the young widow of their third child, who died in the war. Upon their arrival, Koichi and his wife Fumiko (Miyake Kuniko), and Shige and her husband Kurazo (Nakamura Nobuo) receive them with a chilly formality that makes it clear that they - to say nothing of Koichi's utterly disinterested, impolite children - don't really know what to do with the old folks and would prefer it very much if they didn't have to think about it. After a few stilted days, Shukichi and Tomi return home; she grows sick on the trip, and their children all rush to Onomichi to be with her as she passes away; fourth child Keizo (Osaka Shiro) arrives just too late. And then they all return home, leaving their father and Kyoko alone.

That's the entirety of what happens within the 136 minutes of Tokyo Story, as far as dramatic incident. No, that's not true. I elided the night in Tokyo where Shukichi gets drunk with his old friends and they all complain about their children. Even so, if it sounds like that's not very much content to fill the time, that's because it isn't. And it's what makes Tokyo Story so powerful. The film is not fueled by incident or melodrama - the clearest break it makes from its avowed inspiration, Leo McCarey's heart-rending Make Way for Tomorrow of 1937 - but by character interactions: the film simply places us in the middle of a family situation and allows us to be thrilled and enthralled by the greatest cinematic spectacle of them all, the feelings of human beings.

And by "in the middle", I do mean "in the actual, literal middle": Tokyo Story is the most successful expression of one of Ozu's most characteristic stylistic tricks (and while it's easy to use the director as a shorthand, one should fairly point out that the Ozu style was developed by the director alongside editor Hamamura Yoshiyasu and cinematographer Atsuta Yuharu, who were both as important recurring members of the director's troupe as his regular actors), in which the camera is perched in the exact middle of two characters in the middle of a dialogue, cutting from one center-framed shot of an actor staring right down the lens to another, a rhythmic back-and-forth that offers the dizzying sense that they're talking right to us. This single gesture, which shows up everywhere in mature Ozu (that is, at least everything he made from 1949's Late Spring to his 1962 retirement; I profess total ignorance of anything he made between the end of Japan's silent era and '49), is the most basic no-no in the Hollywood continuity rulebook, which by the '50s had become the dominant mode of narrative filmmaking in most of the world - Ozu's legendary countryman Kurosawa Akira used a version of it, though Mizoguchi Kenji didn't, and that uses up my knowledge of 1950s Japanese filmmaking. It is a way of staging and cutting that totally ignores the all-holy 180° line, which is meant to ease confusion on the viewer's part when the action cuts between largely opposite perspectives.

Nobody ever put the lie to that rule better than Ozu, and he never did it better than here: the smooth transition between perfectly-matched images in shot-reverse shot conversations isn't confusing in the least, and it provides even the most banal conversations in Tokyo Story with a thrilling charge of intimacy. Indeed, that charge comes about because the conversations are so banal; one of the things we learn very quickly is that the gulf between the parents and their adult children is unspeakably vast, and can only be roughly bridged with simple, dull statements of fact, and the limpest kind of small talk. Presenting these conversations in a movie at all is utterly presumptuous, and staging them in such a direct, forceful aesthetic of direct address doubly so; but we are thus involved in the conversations in a way that enthusiastically welcomes us to study the speakers, their body language, their tone of voice, and begin to dig at what they're holding back in talking. Tokyo Story is a drama about not saying things - not telling your parents that they're making it impossible for you to go on with your business, not telling your children that they're rude boors - and in plunging us directly into those forced, shallow conversations, the filmmakers invite us to feel the full weight and impact of how it feels to be part of them.

This goes at least part of the way towards explaining why Tokyo Story is so uniquely able, out of all the films ever made about interpersonal dynamics, to depict with such probing depth and uncomfortable accuracy what those dynamics look like in real time. Even out of Ozu's many films so successfully working on that topic, for if there is one measurable difference between Tokyo Story and his other works in the same vein, it might be that here, the director anchors his images on characters relatively more often, and a bit less on the rooms containing them - though there are, undoubtedly, many shots and even full scenes that play out with the camera crouched at the famous height of an individual sitting on a tatami mat, backed into a corner like an unobtrusive object of furniture as characters go about their miniature plays in a series of fully lived-in shadowboxes. The settings in the film are unquestionably important, and our sense of how the characters fit into space matter. Befitting its place in history, and its story of an old generation that can't understand and can't be understood by the next generation, Tokyo Story is made up primarily of traditional rooms in which individual props and some costumes creep in suggesting the shiny new Westernised Japan that was just starting to coalesce outside. And the quiet imposition of, say, an electric fan in an otherwise totally classical, austere space is monstrously important in dramatising that generational shift without stating it outright.

The rest of the film's limitless humanity comes in large part from its gifted cast. Ryu and Hara, the indispensable Ozu regulars and stars of Late Spring, can't help but stand out to any viewer familiar with that movie, but they're only the leaders of a stellar ensemble; as good as both of them unquestionably are, Sugimura actually gives my personal favorite performance, prickly impatience that keeps spilling out when she forgets to keep it in check, that then triggers silent but palpable waves of guilt. Right up to a brutal final sequence in which she's peremptory and bullying without being aware of it. But let's not go singling anyone out. The very concept of Tokyo Story demands that each and every performance has the necessary subtlety and conviction that we believe in the tiny gestures, facial expressions, and cut-off words as though they were being thought and felt in the moment by actual humans. One raw performance, and the film stalls out. And this never happens.

To give all of the delicate staging and acting room to make an impact, the film is silent and slow-moving, composed entirely of still images, with only one camera movement in the whole feature: and it is a powerful, jarring moment, perfectly timed and devastating (there's also a bit of a cheat: one scene involves a still camera looking out the windows of a moving bus, but the visible window frame helps to keep the shot feeling static). There are some tremendously dramatic wide shots, establishing exterior space as a series of open skies and graphic, angular lines, and these somewhat temper the potential monotony of all the largely similar interiors, but for the most part, Tokyo Story allows itself to breathe steadily and smoothly through its repetitive interior set-ups, preferring not to excite us through style but through the accumulated effect of its character drama. It does this magnificently - no film has ever been so flawlessly attuned to the way family works and sometimes doesn't work, no film has ever made domestic space so enthralling cinematic. And no film has ever been more natural and honest in its depiction of what normal human behavior looks like and feels like.

22 March 2015


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

Almost Famous of the year 2000 is surely the Cameron Crowest of Cameron Crowe films. Not just because it’s also the most baldly autobiographical of Cameron Crowe films, though I suspect that fact informs everything else that is true of the film. There’s a strong current of observed reality suffusing it; there’s a wealth of detail in the way people talk and think within the movie, the attitudes they hold and the society in which they move that has a rich, thick feeling of authenticity. Crowe’s screenplay and his direction mix finely-honed reporting skills (it is, after all, about a time in his life when he was a journalist) with an unapologetic lacquer of happy nostalgia, looking back to a time that was neither more innocent nor more promising but keenly remembering what it felt like to think that everything was innocent and promising. And because of all this, it is a film that treats all of its characters as wonderful old friends, people to be forgiven all their mistakes and celebrated for even their smallest triumphs. It is, as much as anything else I can name, a movie that loves its characters with the most ebullient love, each and every single one of them, even when they’re acting at their worst: it is the most generous kind of storytelling, and that is Crowe’s strongest and most characteristic mode.

Whether this is an entirely good thing isn’t clear. Without Almost Famous, it’s quite impossible to imagine Elizabethtown, a film of almost radioactive sweetness and guileless affection for its characters and scenario - I film whose absolute refusal to judge or show even the tiniest measure of cynicism I find awfully endearing, though in the most artless and barbarically clumsy way. Almost Famous isn’t that: it’s a far steadier and more thoughtful piece of filmmaking (I would suggest that it is, in fact, the clear high water mark of Crowe’s CV), if only for the nuance of the way it uses its wall-to-wall classic rock soundtrack as a signpost for character development, rather than the crude nostalgia-baiting of most films that rely on music to do the heavy lifting of authenticating a time period and insisting on the audience’s feelings (Forrest Gump, you shameless hussy).

Is it, though, a gloppy wad of sentimentality? Maybe. Kind of. There is a fine needle to thread here, and not at all moments does Almost Famous thread it - for every scene that's a sturdy piece of observed wisdom about coming of age as a human male, a critical thinker, and a lover of the transporting power of music, there's another that's pure cheese. There are moments that are both of these things at once, including what I'm inclined to think of as the movie's signature scene and probably my favorite moment in all of Crowe: a bus full of tired rockstars, groupies, and teenage journalists joining in, one by one, to sing along to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer". It's hokey and sweet and honest, aggressive and demanding in its appeal to the naïve belief that a song has that kind of unifying, uplifting power. Which of course it does: there are probably not many things that every single adult in the developed world has experienced, but I'm willing to bet that a pleasant sing-along with friends is one of them.

Whatever universal feeling come out of the film are generated from one of the most thoroughly specific scenarios ever to support a coming-of-age film: riffing on Crowe's own life experience, Almost Famous centers on the weeks in 1973 that 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) spent touring with the fictional band Stillwater after having lucked (and lied) his way into an assignment to write a 3000-word story about the band for Rolling Stone. The minimal plot that follows finds him swooning with fannish delight at the band's soulful leader guiatarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), with only his good sense for journalism leading him to discover that even very good-natured people can be selfish users and egocentrists. But mostly, it's a hangout movie, in which a slice of early-'70s rock culture parades by a guileless kid and reveal some measure of themselves to him. And this is where the writer-director's peaceable humanism explodes, showing a deep forgiveness and affection for his characters, who even at their shittiest are never really judged by the movie (Jason Lee as generally irritated singer Jeff Bebe is the closest the film has to a spoilsport, and even he never seems particularly unreasonable). There's also the quiet-unto-laconic performances he teases out of a cast that seems even more impressive 15 years on than it did in 2000, when people like Zooey Deschanel, Jay Baruchel, Rainn Wilson have turned into, if not household names, at least That Guys of the first order. These are reasonable, soft people, with even the angriest ones - Lee, Frances McDormand as William's overprotective mother who constantly caves into him to avoid driving him off - tending towards smallish, level-head demonstrations of rage and impatience.

The film tries to do two things at once: present these people as 15-year-old William/Crowe would have seen them (thus the firebreathing but always comforting mother, or the spectral presentation of Kate Hudson's breakthrough role of Penny Lane, teenage earth mother and philosophical groupie who represents exactly the kind of world-altering Feminine Life Force that Crowe would later turn into a hollow nightmare with Elizabethtown, the film for which critic Nathan Rabin coined the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl", only in this case always distinctly too aware of how the boy hero sees her to get within her grasp), and also as fortysomething Crowe, far smarter than his teenage alter-ego, understands them to actually be. Generally speaking, Almost Famous is best when it keeps this perfectly balanced, or errs on the side of adult wisdom; too much youthful innocence is bad for the teeth. It's probably why all of the film's best moments after the "Tiny Dancer" scene are the handful of appearances of Philip Seymour Hoffman as rock writing god Lester Bangs, giving what I think can be uncontroversially counted as the film's clear standout performance, not least because he's the only character who plainly knows more than William in every one of his appearances. When he drops his prickly, sometimes antagonist nuggets of wisdom, Hoffman represents the exact kind of clear-eyed, brutally unromantic perspective that the whole arc of Almost Famous generally moves towards, but he does it without sacrificing Crowe's basic decency. The iconic "we're uncool" scene gets to be iconic in no small part because of Hoffman's rich friendliness in delivering blunt truths, sugarcoating nothing from a position of complete respect and love: the closest the film comes to openly having Adult Crowe sit Boy Crowe down and explain what the next 27 years are going to bring.

This register of clarity saves the film from its indulgences (which include a 162-minute director's cut that transparently wants nothing more than to add time for Crowe to linger with the characters and music he loves; an even more generous, humanist statement than the 122-minute theatrical version, but it's here that we really take the exit ramp to Elizabethtown), which certainly include the generalised Baby Boomer conviction that this particular music really mattered; every generation believes that of their music, of course, and every generation is equally wrong, but 1973 is right at the end of the era that the media at large has generally been willing to play along with (full disclosure: I'm actually a huge fan of all the music on this film's soundtrack - I can only imagine how enervating it must be to anyone who can't claim the same thing - but I was born late enough for the Boomers to have already revealed themselves to be full of shit). And the uncritical attention given to the beatific, hushed expressions of late-hippie thought (but what isn't given uncritical attention in Almost Famous?) does leave the film a little stranded in its writer's reveries.

There's always something to pull it back (and that's actually the shape of William's development throughout the movie: be captivated by indulgence, then pull back; so perhaps it's meant ironically): the steady drumbeat editing by Joe Hutshing and Saar Klein, the crisp and uncharacteristically domesticated (which is not to imply that it's bad) cinematography by John Toll, or simply the uncommon humanness of the characters. It's a screenplay-driven film, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but Crowe-the-director knows when to have his collaborators stop babying Crowe-the-writer. And the movie that emerges as a result is, despite its lumps, awfully lovable: beyond question my favorite of the filmmaker's career, albeit one that I like less now (almost inevitably) than when I first saw it at the dangerously impressionable age of 19. If Almost Famous teaches us anything, though, it's that we're all capable of surviving what we do as idiot teens, and then to look backwards at our shapeless young selves with affection and forgiveness. And in a movie full of nice thoughts, I wonder if that might be the nicest.

21 March 2015


One cannot hear pans of a movie like those which greeted The Cobbler at its Toronto International Film Festival premiere in 2014 without becoming morbidly curious. Not pans. That's not a strong enough word. These were the hushed, strangled whispers of people who had seen something too traumatising to ignore, but also too traumatising to discuss openly. People did not walk out of The Cobbler like pissed-off movie critics; they walked out like combat veterans.

It's easy to assume that's just the usual effect of too much film festival intensifying everything; and even if it wasn't, there's a point where a film simply cannot live up to its reputation, either good or bad. And the opening 40 minutes or so of The Cobbler don't - they're mediocre in the most unentertainingly proficient way. Which is already an enormous disappointment, understand: this is the fourth film directed and (co-)written by Tom McCarthy, whose work has swung from the exquisite this-is-what-quirky-indies-going-right-looks-like The Station Agent, to the beautifully humane political fable The Visitor, to the relative disappointment of the still smartly observed and confidently executed Win Win. For The Cobbler to have been merely "fine", let alone outright mediocre, is already distressing to those of us who patiently wait for the distinctly non-prolific McCarthy (The Station Agent premiered all the way back at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival) to uncork another one of his quiet tales of life in New York anchored on a great character actor. And while I'd like to say that's the problem - The Cobbler eschews the likes of Peter Dinklage and Richard Jenkins for Adam Sandler - it's really not. One could not accuse Sandler of actively helping the film, but he's plainly giving the role and the movie just what they're asking of him.

The film opens with its best scene (though you wouldn't believe that at the time), exactly letting us know that we're in for a magical bedtime story that leans real hard on the kind of twinkly New York Judaism that would make Tevye the milkman groan at the corny stereotypes. It's more innuendo than actual exposition, and its meaning won't be fully explained until the last scene, but it does have the merit of introducing us to the generally dismal, "fuck you" quality to the proceedings from here on out, ending as it does with a dissolve that any first-year film student would tell you means that the little boy in one shot grows up to be the grizzled adult in the next, though it's also immediately apparent that since Adam Sandler isn't 110 years old, that's not what's going on. What is going on is that Max Simkin (Sandler) is a cobbler in a rundown ethnic neighborhood that's in that horrible trough where gentrification gave up, but it sucked away enough of the heart of the place that the locals don't have pride anymore. And Max is no more happy to be alive than any of the quiet souls who shuffle in and out of his... cobblery? I'm sure it has a real name. The point being, the film is jam-packed with mumbling lost souls who murmur lines in a dark haze, and Sandler's expression is never than a notch or two away from "gun in the mouth". At which point I will mention that the film believes itself to be a comedy.

Max discovers quite by accident that he has an enchanted sole-stitching machine: when he wears the shoes he fixes, he takes on the appearance of their owner (and smell, as we learn when he puts on a dead man's shoes). This opens the door to a lengthy chain of moments in which Max, literally walking a mile in other peoples' shoes, learns to appreciate their lives more, and tries to use his new insight to fix their souls, with a tedious awareness of the pun on soles. Having opened that door, The Cobbler races on by to find an even worse one, in which Max almost has sex with a woman while disguised as her British boyfriend, is delighted to find himself a Chinese man with a full-on Engrish accent, and is appalled to learn first-hand that some trans women can still have penises; all of these colorful roles played by game bit actors trying their best to play Sandler playing a sad-sack. It's generally a typical doofusy Sandler comedy, with the stereotyping and the everything-phobia and the unspeakably broken attitude about women. And through all of it, McCarthy directs and Sandler acts in that same funereal register. It's like Click as helmed by Robert Bresson.

All of this sucks, but in a mostly harmless, sleepy way. It's a film to ignore, not a film to hate. And then, a little before halfway through, the film rips off its mask to reveal the pustular zombified supervillain it has been all along. Max, you see, has noted that his mother (Lynn Cohen) has been sad. As well she might be, being a character in The Cobbler. But he has just the thing to perk her up: his dad's shoes have been lying around ever since he left ages ago. And before you can say "ohmygodno, ohmygodno, ohmygodno", zap! Max has taken the former of his dad, portrayed by Dustin motherfucking Hoffman, and he takes his mom out on a sweet, romantic date. Thankfully, she immediately dies before expecting her long-lost husband to return to the marital bed, but the damage has been done. And from the smoldering ruins of decent humanity that this scene has left behind, begins the bleak spectacle of The Cobbler: The Second Half.

Deciding that what his dead mom would really want is for somebody to stop the mad developers from destroying what's left of the fabric of the neighborhood, Max turns himself into a gifted con artist and superhero through the power of his magic shoes, first by scuttling the plans of local thug Leon Ludlow (Method Man, who does the best job of playing Sad Sandler of all the actors called upon to do so), and then, after he kills Leon by driving a six-inch plastic stiletto heel through his jugular - the film still thinks it's a comedy - going after the platinum-blonde psycho pulling Leon's strings, Elaine Greenawalt (Ellen Barkin). And for this he calls upon the help of peppy liberal activist Carmen Herrara (Melonie Diaz, giving the film's solitary performance that even flirts with words like "nuance" or "depth), and his buddy and neighbor, barber Jimmy (Steve Buscemi, a Sandler movie regular, so his presence isn't quite as mind-shattering as Hoffman's). And when he ends her nefarious deeds, which takes immensely little effort and time, there are still over 15 minutes of movie left, which leaves McCarthy and co-writer Paul Sado just enough time left to pull out a left-field ending that I won't spoil, because I can't. For one thing, I don't know how to describe it without descending into an impenetrable word salad. For another, I doubt that you'd believe me. For a third, there's no describing its impact: it only makes "sense" if you have the full weight of the preceding film to call attention to how immensely psychotic it all is.

But oh, that impact is something magnificent. The first 40 minutes of The Cobbler are obnoxious, bigoted, and unfunny; and then it gets worse, as the second 40 minutes are an inscrutable heist movie with an overweening desire to Say Something despite being completely deranged, and absurdly amoral for something nominally about doing the right thing, all while hinging its plot on the idea that every man in New York has the same shoe size. And then it gets worse. The movie plunges down and down, until it ends at its very worst moment. If there was anything in the whole 99 minute farrago to suggest that Tom McCarthy knew what humor was, I would insistently grab onto it as a parody of contemporary popcorn movies, but everything about the staging wants it to be sweet and tender and true.

The Cobbler is a film that is terrible primarily because of its screenplay and its director's astounding mismanagement of tone; it's not incompetent filmmaking. Mott Hupfel's location photography is perfectly serviceable, always in focus with the tripod staying level and everything. Nobody in the cast is bad, though they are often good at bad things. John Debney's and Nick Urata's score is a hilariously contrived nightmare of fake klezmer music, insisting on the merry Jewishness of a film that has gone out of its way to insult every other identity group depicted onscreen, so why not the protagonist's, too? So it's not incompetent filmmaking, but it's pretty goddamn uninspiring and irritating. It's still better than the film deserves.

Here, then, is my concern: it's really hard to talk about The Cobbler without making it sound like a mesmerising, must-see trainwreck. And oh, it is mesmerising. But it is not must-see. I have been taking my bad movie inoculations for years, and that last 15 minutes still left me a gelatinous mass. Of course, I fully expect that some people reading this will immediately hunt the film down, and I wish to publicly and earnestly disavow any responsibility for their choices. To lead people to The Cobbler would be nothing short of a crime. Not as big a crime as having made the film in the first place, but a crime nonetheless.


19 March 2015


I would like to tip my hat to all of the generous souls who have so far contributed to our fundraiser for cancer research. So far, we've raised $1925 for the ACS and other cancer organisations! A round of applause to everyone below!

Jordyn Auvil, United States
Jenny B, United Kingdom
Vianney B, California, United States
Arlo Banta, New York, NY, United States
Matthew Blackwell, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Branden, Tri-Cities
Bryan C, Columbus, OH, United States
Teo Bugbee, United States
Zev Burrows, Owings Mills, MD, United States
Cammy, Melbourne, Australia
Coco, New York, NY, United States
James Cronan, Glasgow, United Kingdom
-Requested Tokyo Story
Alex D, Sydney, Australia
Chris D, Victoria, Australia
Julian D, St. Louis, MO, United States
Scott D, Florida, United States
-Requested The Wild Bunch
Mike Gibson, Fall Church, VA
-Requested Se7en
David Greenwood, Alice Springs, Australia
John Grimes, Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Kent H, San Francisco, CA, United States
Shoumik H, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Tim H, Washington, DC, United States
-Requested Grosse Pointe Blank
Jackie Theballcat
John, Lake Orion, MI, United States
-Requested Almost Famous
Andrew Johnson, San Diego, CA, United States
Kari Johnson, Utah, United States
Robert K, California, United States
Bryan L, Chicago, IL, United States
-Requested Amadeus
Sara L, Tennessee, United States
Liz, Virginia, United States
Robert Lovejoy, Florida, United States
Marc Lummis, New York, NY, United States
Brian Malbon, Alberta, Canada
Eric "Sssonic" Mason, Massachusetts, United States
Max, New York, United States
McAlister, Florida, United States
-Requested Ball of Fire
Andrew Milne, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
-Requested A Bittersweet Life
Nathan Morrow, Nashville, TN, United States
Travis Neeley, Austin, TX, United States
-Requested Phantom of the Paradise
Gabe P, San Francisco, CA, United States
James P, Minneapolis, MN, United States
Rachel P, Cleveland, OH, United States
Pip, United States
-Requested Galaxy Quest
Nathaniel R, New York, NY, United States
K. Rice, South Carolina, United States
Michael R, Massachusetts, United States
-Requested Candyman
André Robichaud, Canada
Frankie Shoup, Chicago, IL, United States
John Smith, Ontario, Canada
John Taylor, Toronto, ON, Canada
Ben Verschoor, New York, United States
Chris W, Georgia, United States
K. Wild, California, United States
Bryce Wilson, Austin, TX, United States
Caleb Wimble, Philadelpha, PA, United States
Andrew Yankes, Pennsylvania, United States
-Requested Glengarry Glen Ross


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

Let's not dick around here: Candyman is the finest American horror film of the 1990s. Now, admittedly, those who've been hanging around this blog for all that long are aware that for me to make this claim of superiority is about on par with declaring something "the finest swift kick to the nutsack". But I promise that my enthusiasm has much more do with the quantity of things that Candyman gets right than with the general poverty of its competition.

Adapted by writer-director Bernard Rose from Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden", Candyman centers upon a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), researching urban legends for her thesis. One of these legends involves a ghostly killer with a hook for a hand, who appears when you say his name, "Candyman", in front of a mirror five times. A cleaning woman happens to overhear Helen transcribing her notes, and talks about the story in a much more matter-of-fact way than the giggling undergrads swapping campfire tales, mentioning among other particularly concrete details that the Candyman is known to haunt the Cabrini-Green housing project on the city's north side. And so Helen and her research partner Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons) head up to the dangerous gang hub to poke around and find what they can find.

That's barely even the set-up for the movie, but it's already enough to clue us in to exactly what makes Candyman such an unusual achievement. In changing the setting from Barker's native England to Chicago and Cabrini-Green, Rose fundamentally re-shapes the territory that the story can occupy. The no-longer-extant Cabrini-Green, my younger readers may not know and my non-American readers would have no reason to be aware, was arguably the most notoriously dangerous and mismanaged housing project in the United States, a shorthand for urban blight, the inability of civic governments to do right by their communities, and the abysmal failure of white America to care about the fate of black America, and to generally assume that African-Americans were, when left to their own devices, prone towards violent thuggery. Setting a story in Cabrini-Green, in 1992 (three years before the beginning of the 16 year demolition project that has sought to reclaim the area for upper-middle class yuppies*), could not help but force that story to refocus itself as a statement on race in America. I would go so far as to say that's the primary reason why somebody would choose that location.

And lo! quite a parable about the U.S. race problem Candyman proves to be, though it has the luxury, being a horror film, of never having to come right out and say what's going on. But subtle it ain't. There is, for one thing, the backstory of the Candyman himself (played by Tony Todd when we eventually see him, around halfway through the movie): the son of a slave, tortured and burned to death for the crime of having a consensual sexual relation with a white woman in the 1890s. He is the angry patron spirit of every African-American male who was unjustly punished for the crime, essentially, of not being white. And what happens over the course of the plot? A white chick bumbles around in a place where she doesn't fit in, does what seems to be the right thing (she ends up uncovering the identity of a local gangleader who has been using the Candyman legend as a fear tactic, all Scooby-Doo like), but her actions - born in the pretty explicit conception of Cabrini-Green as a whole breeding ground of Others that she can use as intellectual fodder without having to deal too much with the actual material of their lives - serve only to make things worse, since her actions are what end up rousing the Candyman. As he tells her, point blank, if she wasn't so hellbent on taking away the power of his legend by running it through academia, he wouldn't have to put in such extreme measures to keep that legend fresh and ever more terrifying.

It is, in microcosm, the great American tale of over-educated white people with no fucking clue messing around with the lives of minorities like a kid with a lab kit, to disastrous results. It is, in fact, pretty obvious once you start looking for it. But the film takes the privilege of genre and never bothers to state its themes in the way of an actual message movie (which is perhaps why it gets to have such a cynical message that so signally refuses to lets its white characters off the hook. Although, the film is rather notable for how few important white characters there are: just Madsen herself, and Xander Berkeley as her husband. Her shady husband, but of course we already knew that from "Xander Berkeley"). And if the only thing you wanted Candyman to be was a horror movie, there's still plenty of fantastic work being done purely at the level of genre. The roots in Barker are clear even without the film's portrayal of the Candyman, with its distinct debt to Pinhead from Hellraiser: it's a film about the terrifying power of ideas, as much as the terrifying power of being split in two by a ghost with a hook for a hand. As one of the first films to pivot around the phrase "urban legend", then at its very trendiest, it's little surprise that Candyman should turn out to be about the dangerous power of storytelling, and the woe that befalls those who don't sufficiently respect that power. We can broaden that a bit: it's a film about failing to appreciate the role of culture, history, and knowledge: Helen ends up on the Candyman's bad side because she treats him as a lark, as opposed to the Cabrini-Green locals, who have a grave respect mingled with their hatred for him.

It's also, to be fair, a horror film that works at a gut level as much as an intellectual one, which is after all where horror needs to succeed. Much of that can be credited to Todd, a great character actor with an outstanding ability to seem menacing while being still and richly erudite. Much of it can be credited to the sound mix, which puts Todd's booming voice on a different level than the rest of the sound in the film, feeling like it's entering your head through something other than your ears. A whole shitload of it can be credited to Philip Glass, whose score is one of the best a horror film has enjoyed since the dawn of the 1980s: the droning repetition for which he's famous works perfectly in context, coming off as a dolorous chant as it throbs and throbs its way down into your bones. Glass is such a natural for horror that I have no clue why there are so few horror movies in his career; it worked magnificently in this case.

Arguably, the single element of Candyman that works best, though, is its sense of place. The location photography here is abnormally good: in the 23 years since, I can't name a half-dozen films to have taken advantage of Chicago anywhere near as well, and perhaps only one - The Dark Knight - to have topped it. The film opens with a series of aerial shots, with Glass's music brooding beneath, that start off by rendering Chicago as a flat, indecipherable map of lines and squares that only resemble buildings if you deeply want them to, putting us at into a disconcerting mood right from the beginning (is this an American city? An alien planet? Why not both!). The footage shot in Cabrini-Green, meanwhile, takes superb advantage of the run-down bleakness of that place, portraying it as a victim of human mismanagement that has been turned into something totally inhumane, an unnervingly authentic hellhole where it feels entirely plausible that such forgotten, hidden legends as the one the film builds itself on could survive and thrive.

Given such an extraordinarily suggestive central location, the film gets to do a lot with mood and implication, letting story elements bubble up without having to spell them out. I am particularly fond of the production design in the Candyman shrine - which I presume to have been shot on a studio set back in California - where the full range of Candyman lore is indicated through the paintings on the wall and the plates of chocolates with razor blades in them, but never explained. It suggests a deep background to this story, one that we and Helen never begin to tap or understand, and that lack of understanding is the driving force of everything bad that happens. Candyman is, essentially, a horror film about the danger of confident ignorance, whether that comes in the form of blithely accepting your husband's obvious lies about the undergrad he's fucking, or in the form of trying to reason with a vengeful ghost, or in the form of thinking you can know more about a lifestyle than the people who live it every day. It's brainy, it's atmospheric, and it's spooky as hell, and for all these reasons and more, Candyman is one of the essential works of modern English-language horror.

17 March 2015


To its credit, Chappie very quickly announces itself - not just how bad it is going to be, but also the ways in which it is going to be bad. The beginning is some talking heads describing an artificial intelligence with hushed, earnest tones. Then the film cuts back to "18 months earlier". And 18 months earlier finds us in the middle of a montage of news programs - Anderson Cooper, why do you gotta be such a fucking whore, anyway? - that covers a span of at least several months, maybe a year or two, as South Africa replaces its human police force with autonomous humanoid police robots manufactured by the Johannesburg-based weapons contractor Tetravaal. And, I mean, you can't do that. You can't "18 months earlier" us into a montage. What was 18 months earlier? The beginning of the montage? The end? The night of the Cooper broadcast?

And in this single ass-brained cut, we get all we're ever going to get from Chappie: which is that writer-director Neill Blomkamp (his co-writer being Terri Tatchell, who served the same role on District 9, the director's six-year-old debut feature, made when he was still promising) has so, so many ideas, and no idea whatsoever how to put them together. The current conventional wisdom around Blomkamp is that he's a great stylist who just doesn't have a good grasp on how to tell a story, but I frankly think that's much too generous. A great stylist wouldn't have perpetrated that opening.

He does, however, have a distinctly poor grasp on storytelling, that's definitely true. Chappie is an astonishing, overstuffed mess, with at least two wholly different plotlines for two completely different movies about a sentient robot mo-capped by Blomkamp's lucky charm Sharlto Copley, and voiced by him in an endlessly irritating breathy pidgin, which coalesce into the third act of yet another movie entirely. The ad campaign seemed badly confused as to whether Chappie was a jolly sci-fi adventure for families baldly copying Short Circuit, or a visceral satiric action movie knocking off RoboCop, and this proves to be a sign that the marketing department had closely watched the film before they started to cut trailers.

The plot, such as it is, finds Tetravaal golden boy Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), the inventor of the computer program that makes the "scouts" (the name for the robot police) possible, angry that Tetravaal CEO Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, demonstrating the platonic ideal of what "Sigourney Weaver idling in neutral" can look like) won't let him experiment with his newly perfected A.I. program. So one day, in full view of everybody, he steals a scout that's set to be scrapped, and for this he doesn't even get questioned by security for over 24 hours. The bad news is, before Deon can install his software, he's kidnapped by a gang of thieves, Yolandi Visser (Yolandi Visser) and Ninja (Ninja) and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo). Ninja wants to force Deon to deactivate the scouts; barring that, he wants this scrap scout as his own private thug. But when Deon turns on the robot that has not yet been named Chappie in accordance with Yolandi's flutey, elf-like slang, he picks up an accidental God complex, while Yolandi finds herself ecstatically playing mommy.

Meanwhile, in a subplot that keeps banging on the door, wanting to be let in the movie, Deon's in-office rival, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) is trying to sabotage the highly successful scout program in order to force the Joburg PD to adopt his gigantic warfare-bot Moose, rather than try to maybe sell the machine to, like, the Americans, or China, or Israel. For reasons that beggar the understanding of mere mortals, the terribly gifted Jackman elects to play this computer programmer as a big game hunter.

For the third time running, Blomkamp has made a film that's saturated with Ideas about Political Situations; but in a reverse of the problem with his last picture, Elysium, the issue here is not one of too much satiric subtext getting blasted in the audience's face like a fire house, it's satire that doesn't seem to remain consistent for more than the length of a single scene. The tone is all over the place, character's aren't stable - Ninja goes from being an outright villain to an outright hero without a scene explaining why - the logic behind story developments is so inscrutable (particularly the deeper into its techno-wizard enthusiasm about uploading human consciousness the film gets), that it can't even function as a clear, steady narrative, let alone draw a message up through that narrative.

The most embelematic single element of the film that I can think of is this: within Chappie, a pair of novelty rappers (Ninja and Yolandi are the members of Die Antwoord in their other career) are playing variants of their stage personae while wearing clothes advertising themselves, without the film seeing fit to put even a ghost of meta-narrative spin on this fact. That total failure of premeditation or even basic coherence is found in every nook and cranny of Chappie: its relentless inability to follow-through on any of its many storylines, its indifferent character continuity. The only time the film really clicks is in the handful of moments that it fully commits to be an action film, where Blomkamp and editors Julian Clarke and Mark Goldblatt get to indulge in some clever cross-cutting, particularly in one of the film's three climaxes, where offscreen space is used in some particularly exciting ways to intensify the scope of the fighting. And the design is generally solid; there aren't too many locations, but Die Antwoord's lair, at least, is a fairly remarkable space, with graffiti that looks like childish scrawling adding a sweetness that ends up feeling menacing the more violence we see take place their, and the more deranged that Ninja's acting goes.

But little bits and pieces of pleasure are nothing compared to how bafflingly mis-conceived the whole fabric is. Bloated with ideas that aren't developed in any meaningful way, and tied inexplicably to its immensely grating title character, Chappie is a thoroughly draining, joyless experience; it's the kind of free-for-all disaster when a lot of talent meets a void of discipline and a complete lack of hard choice-making.