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03 August 2015

PLEASE SHARE MY UMBRELLA

A review requested by Fedor Illitchev, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser. My thanks as well for the historical background he was able to provide for this film, about which virtually no information is readily available in English.

During the most censorious periods in the history of Soviet cinema - which is to say, everything from the start of the Second World War until the early 1980s, with the exception of the Krushchev Thaw between roughly 1956 and 1965 - there were, broadly speaking, two reasons that a film might trigger the official objection of the government. One, obviously, was because it contained subversive narrative elements that could be interpreted as critical of Soviet policy, or Communism generally. The other reason is a little stranger: basically, a movie could be stamped down on account of being too stylish. The charge was "formalism", meaning that the film was driven more by aesthetics and filmmaking technique than presenting a clear story with a plain message, and was perhaps so confusing and obscure in its challenging application of those aesthetics that the people in charge couldn't even tell if it was subversive or not.

It was wicked formalism, rather that touchy political content, that mostly explains the aborted career of Mikhäil Kobakhidzé a filmmaker from what's now Georgia. At the dawn of the '60s, in his early 20s, Kobakhidzé attended the state-run Gerasimov film school, until his graduation in '65. Between 1961 and 1969, he completed five short films, three at school and two subsequently; the last, Musicians, finally pushed the censors too hard, and his next completed project wouldn't come until years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he was invited to make En chemin in 2003 as part of a French series of short films.

If Musicians killed off his career, it was his fourth film, 1967's Umbrella, that first triggered the warning signs. To your eyes or mine the wordless 18-minute film - available in its entirety on YouTube - is naught but a poetic fable about human connections starting to blur and pull apart, carried on the back of an uninterpreted image of an umbrella floating along the Georgian countryside of its own accord. But we lack the finely-honed paranoia of a Soviet official. There's one way into which it's at least possible to read troubling politics into the film: the umbrella is associated with distinctively French-sounding music cues that I can't place 100% (though one motif is instantly recognisable from Gershwin's An American in Paris), while the clean-cut youths the umbrella entrances and confuses are linked, in the umbrella's absence, to a passage from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. The potential for a politicised meaning to this Western vs. Russian war on the soundtrack was dangerous enough to bring unwanted attention Kobakhidzé's way, if not, itself, enough to shut him down.

As for the film itself, it's probably easiest if we start out by just working through the plot. A young man (Gia Avalishvili) works in some not-entirely clear capacity by an isolated stretch of railroad tracks, and in his downtime entertains his girlfriend (Jana Petraitite) by putting on cute little shows, with a curtain and everything, in which he plays Tchaikovsky on a recorder. A white umbrella floats by, and they're compelled to give chase through the countryside and into town, and it taunts them, staying just out of reach. They give up for a bit and dance inside the man's house, while the umbrella lingers outside the window. It follows them and they're finally able to grab it, and all seems happy and free till another man (Ramaz Giorgobiani) comes by, and the umbrella flies over to him. The woman follows him and they start to walk off; she slows and changes her mind handing the umbrella over to the second man and walking back, though the framing of this final shot - nothing but her quiet, ambiguous smile - make it deliberately impossible to be sure what's on her mind in that moment.

If there's a political reading that seems to me to fit the evidence, it's one that would actually tend to support the Soviet Union: the allure of Western culture, embodied by the umbrella, drags the young couple away from their work and their lives, embarrasses them in front of their neighbors, and generally bothers and distracts them. In the end, they both abjure the umbrella, she by deliberate choice and he by learning that its charms are all just a big come-on, in the end - this true regardless of what the umbrella represents, or if it represents anything at all. So it is, if I have any idea what the hell I'm talking about, a fable about the triumph of Soviet youths (calling them good Georgian youths would be one of those subversive narrative elements I mentioned) over the siren call of Western art.

But then, what Umbrella is actually about is rather more abstract and emotive than breaking down its plot beats into editorial cartoon symbols. The bulk of the film is about pure experience, the young man and the young woman and the umbrella moving in stark black and white against the mottled grey dirt of the Georgian hills. They run and skip in a highly exaggerated series of angular movements of, transformed by the camera and the music (which dominates the minimalist, plastered-on sound design) into playful dancing. Just about the only thing it's possible to confidently declare about Kobakhidzé's critical reputation in the West is that people like to compare him to Jacques Tati, and that's absolutely fair: the fascination with how bodies and limbs can move in graceful sweeps and sharp jabbing gestures, and how the angle the filmmaker takes on those bodies changes our perception of what they're doing, readily evokes that French genius that Kobakhidzé had never seen. But the movie that Kobakhidzé had never seen that I kept thinking of was Richard Lester and Peter Seller's masterful exercise in manic slapstick, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film from 1959, which similarly finds itself deeply fascinated with the geometry of the human form.

What both of those comparisons miss - for both of them attend only to Umbrella's broadly comic aspects - is the gauziness of the movie, the sensibility that positions it within a widely-defined Eastern European artistic tradition instead of the widely-defined Western European/American tradition. As much as the film is charming, it's even more hushed and haunting, with the umbrella's fluid gliding through the landscape and the camera's graceful pursuit of it adding an ethereal feeling. Kobakhidzé and cinematographer Nikoloz Sukhishvili's images can have a very hazy and ghostly quality, owing in no small part to the stark whiteness of the umbrella serving to so thoroughly strip any and all naturalism from the film. But also owing to the way that the images all seem to be made of curves and irregular shapes, in everything from the rolling hills to the floppiness of laundry in the wind - the man's little square house is a striking bulwark against this, a concrete manifestation of stability that emphasises the weirdness around it (the shots of an out-of-focus umbrella through the house's windows are absolutely striking, as instantly unforgettable as anything I've seen).

The film's brevity and its frankly opaque "meaning" more or less require that it function more as a mood piece and an expression of emotions. It's not quite an experimental film in the way I like to use that term - it tells a definite story and that story has resonances - but it's fair to call it experimental in the way that it generates those moods and emotions purely through movement, editing, and gradations of greyscale. It's deeply mesmerising and yes, it's absolutely formalist - that the Soviets would get a little nervous watching it makes perfect sense even if the film itself has little that anyone could object to within it. It's joyful cinema, cut with just the right amount of bittersweet, and the way that it builds that joy within its craftsmanship is far more affecting than a blunter treatment could have been; it's a sorry accident of history that it's for exactly that reason that the film was shunted to the memory hole that makes it so deeply obscure now.

02 August 2015

SUMMER OF BLOOD: 21st CENTURY HORROR - THE DAMMED

If I were to tell you that a movie called Zombeavers is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable experiences I've had with a 2015 movie (it's been kicking around since the first half of 2014, but its commercial release was slow in coming), and you were to call me a piece of shit, no good fucking liar, could I be offended? Of course not. What sort of outright psychopath would expect a movie called Zombeavers - and for exactly the reason you suppose it is called Zombeavers, which is that it has beaver zombies in it - to be even slightly close to tolerable? Let alone the funniest horror-comedy since at the very least The Cabin in the Woods, and I'd be privately inclined to set the line farther back than that.

The friend with whom I first saw it - both of us falling head-over-heels in love after expecting not a damn thing from it* - came up with a perfectly pithy one-sentence review, and there's nothing he can do to keep my from stealing it: it's the version of ThanksKilling that's terrific instead of bone-scrapingly awful. It's mostly the same ingredients: uniformly reprehensible characters who speak entirely in filthy jokes that are forcefully dirty more than clever in any meaningful way, deaths presented in a fully comic register, and killer animals that do not pretend for even one instant to be anything but hand-crafted puppets. It simply works better this time, possibly because this film is ultimately sweeter-natured; it's more upbeat, the insults more bubbly and less caustic. And it's considerably less vile in its attitude towards women, who are still objectified to a fair degree (there's an entire scene whose narrative is "girl takes off her bikini top and makes other girls feel awkward by parading about showily"), but who are presented as the authors of their own sexuality beyond what cheap-as-hell horror movies typically traffic in.

Mostly, I am tempted to say, it has better puppets: I badly want the filmmakers to authorise the production of zombeaver plushies, because I would buy one right now. They are the cutest little ugly fuckers. But in fairness, I was already on the film's side before we saw them for the first time, at the 27 minute mark of a relentlessly paced 77-minute feature.

The film's set-up could not be more generic: three college students are driving to a cabin in the woods. These are sorority sisters Jenn (Lexi Atkins), who has just been cheated on; Mary (Rachel Melvin), who has decided that this means it's time for some supportive girl time; and Zoe (Cortney Palm), who isn't trying to contain her irritation that Mary has issued a blanket "no boys and no phones" rule for the weekend. They banter in a raucous, scatological way, etching out a strong, clear-cut dynamic, even if it's also frankly a little bit like what three male screenwriters - Al Kaplan, Jon Kaplan, and Jordan Rubin, the last of whom is also the film's director - would come up with if they knew that they wanted to subvert stereotypes but also had never been around women talking. Still, it takes only a few minutes to get a crisp, strong understanding of each of these characters, and respond to them as individual personalities, which is not at all something you just get every time a genre movie crosses your path. And while their line are crude, there's some actual humor to them as well, particularly because they're tied to character: Zoe makes jokes that Mary would not, and within five minutes of meeting the trio, we understand why that is.

And the other part of the set-up is, if anything, even more generic: a pair of truck drivers hit a deer, and in the process manage to lose a barrel of toxic sludge that ends up getting in the water supply. Cue the zombies. The twist being that the truckers (played by comedian Bill Burr and snoozy rocker John Mayer) are having a filthy conversation of their own, but one that occurs in a zen-like state of stoner's consideration, profoundly anti-funny in its abiding fascination with homoeroticism and the way that both men deliver every line to sound like a non-sequitur, even when it actually follows. And then they plow into a deer, killing it in an inordinately violent way. It's a bold first scene, at any rate, so deep into irony that one can see nothing else. I love it a little bit; it's aggressively absurdist and pointedly alien.

The film, obviously, concerns of holding the zombeavers back just long enough to shake the bottle with the young women in it until it gets good and fizzy - this includes Zoe sneakily arranging for her boyfriend, Buck (Peter Gilroy) to show up, along with Mary's boyfriend Tommy (Jake Weary), and Jenn's notorious ex, Sam (Hutch Dano), and our learning what everybody but Jenn already knew, which is that seemingly kind and pure Mary was the faceless brunette seen making out with Sam in the photo that broke Jenn's heart. And then it goes straight to the usual Night of the Living Dead territory: everybody reacts to the first zombeaver in ways that would be sensible if only they weren't in a horror movie, and then tries too late to secure the cabin their in, by which point it all comes down to waiting to see what errors they'll make to let the monsters get them. Along the way, the leering, puritanical local hunter Smyth (Rex Linn) arrives to provide some false hope, as do the nice old neighbors down the way, with some pretty crude mouths of their own, the Gregorsons (Phyllis Katz and Brent Briscoe).

We're miles away from a movie that's going to work based on the density of its plot, but then you knew that the moment I said Zombeavers. The movie goes all-in on one thing and one thing only, which is a vigorously warped sense of humor. A very precise kind of humor, too: it's not exactly a Sharknado-style exercise in "can you guys believe how willfully bad and stupid and silly this is? Isn't it fun?", a mode that I find enormously enervating. But I'd be hard-pressed to explain exactly what thing Zombeavers does that keeps it out of those particular weeds. Certainly, it is stupid; certainly, it is inordinately proud of the fact that it does all of the reprehensible and trite and illogical things that make lousy monster movies lousy. It just... feels different. The difference between a movie that is funny (or supposedly funny) because it is bad at being horror, and a movie that is funny because it's good at being comedy. It never winks at us, or tries to get away with doing stupid shit by saying "look at the stupid shit!", but treats the zombeavers, within the world of the film, with perfect gravity, even as outside of the world of the film they're pure farce. Comedy is best when the characters don't realise they're in a comedy, after all.

It's a one-note comedy, fair; maybe two, with note one being "zombeavers are too ridiculous to take seriously" and note two being "these characters are deeply committed to being profoundly awful and whipping up some zesty dialogue to prove it". 77 minutes is already a generous running time for something with so few tonal registers - smutty dialogue, manic running about and yelling in a way that Rubin doesn't even slightly care about making scary, random absurdity - and at an absolute minimum, the film could do without the outtakes that are not part of the ending credits. Those are instead set to a jazzy Sinatra-style number recapping the plot of the film we just saw, which is infinitely more fun in comparison. And better still is the post-credits stinger that's a terrible visual pun of the first order, and thus a work of art that needs to be appreciated by every person with a heart.

The repetitive nature of the humor is probably the single thing that most keeps Zombeavers from realising its full potential as a bawdy comedy masquerading as a repulsively gory horror film. Not that everybody would be in the market for the absolute best possible version of that movie, though I know that I am not alone in finding even the imperfect Zombeavers to be exactly the right thing for a specific kind of moment. It's a movie that holds nothing back and pushes itself with such energy that even someone as resistant to this brand of crude comedy as myself can't help but roll over for it.

Body Count: 9, plus a very messy deer, one dog (seen), one dog (implied), and one bear.

01 August 2015

A DECADE OF ANTAGONY

Today, beloved readers, is a very special day: Antagony & Ecstasy celebrates its 10th anniversary! And that, coupled with the rapidly-approaching fact of my entry in grad school, means that it's time for a celebration. I herewith declare that August shall be a month of jubilee at this blog, which means that all of the posts I've been kicking down the road for years now are going to finally start showing up. Those who have been asking me for two years when I shall finally get around to Wreck-It Ralph, for five years about A Bug's Life, and for the whole decade of this blog's existence about that Terry Pratchett tribute I teased during my second week writing will be happy with some of the festivities on the table.

It also means that starting on the 15th, there are going to be some enormous changes around these parts. But we're going to talk about that on the 15th. Until that grey day arrives, I want to thank all of my readers, those who comment and those who do not, for having supported me for the last decade and made it feel like all these words about the highest and lowest of film art have been worth it. Without you, this would have ended a long time ago, and I'd have never invested so much of myself into writing about movies to pursue it all the way to a terminal degree. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming here to share my often irritable, frequently overbaked, and hopefully, sometimes, enlightening and interesting observations. Here's to another ten years, no matter what other changes the future will bring.

31 July 2015

TRAIN OF THOUGHT

A fourth review requested by Andrew Johnson, with thanks for his many contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

One would think that an action picture from Cannon Films titled Runaway Train would be a certain thing, and and one would be wrong as hell. Even going into the film armed with certain knowledge, like the fact that it snagged two acting Oscar nominations and managed to secure a competition slot at Cannes in 1986 (the film played Stateside in '85), I refused to assume that a Cannon Films production, titled, I hasten to remind you, Runaway Train, and with Eric Roberts in the second-largest role, could possibly be an actual film with actual artistry. Its director, Andrei Konchalovsky, was only four years from his date with Tango & Cash, for God's sake. And then, during the opening credits - which appear overlaid on a blood red rotoscoped train against black, all like some beastly locomotive from out of Hell - comes the title card "Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa", separated by only one credit from the card reading "Produced by Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus". The human mind is not equipped to deal with such whiplash.

But it's easy to forget that, when they weren't finding new ways to put ninjas and Chuck Norris in the same movie, the Go-Go boys had some major art movie aspirations - these were the same gutter-scraping action & exploitation hucksters who gave Jean-Luc Godard the keys to make his inscrutable 1987 King Lear, after all, and made more trips to Cannes than just this one (and Runaway Train wasn't even their only film in competition that year). So on the face of it, there's no reason at all why it should be odd that they'd resurrect a script that Kurosawa had failed to get financed in the 1960s as a burly, brainy action-philosophy thriller (the new draft was by Djordje Milicevic & Paul Zinde & Edward Bunker. Maybe it's not even odd that it turns out to be tremendously good, certainly in the top range of Cannon releases. But I maintain it's odd as hell that Eric Roberts would turn out to be pretty fantastic, not just earning that Oscar nomination but even putting in a good claim to being the best candidate in his field.

Initially, the Kurosawa influence is much more obvious than the Cannon house style. Runaway Train is, at heart, a study of what happens to men who are treated like savage animals: they become the thing they are feared to be. So it is with Oscar "Manny" Manheim (Jon Voight), the star prisoner of Stonehaven Prison in the bleakest ass-end of Alaska. A particularly ill-tempered bank robber, Manny has been an iconic hero to his fellow prisoners and nothing but a bother to the equally beastly Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who has responded to Manny's repeated escape attempts in the most draconian way possible, by welding his cell door shut. Humanitarian organisations have finally succeeding in forcing Ranken to allow Manny back into the prison population at large, but Ranken does not think this is at all wise - "Manheim is an animal" he informs a reporter early on, in a calm, even gentle tone of voice, like explaining to a little child why you don't touch poison ivy. He immediately starts to goad Manny and his brother Jonah (co-writer Bunker) into trying an escape, solely to punish them again, and it takes only very little goading: an attack orchestrated by Ranken leaves Manny with a knife through his now uselessly mangled left hand, and Jonah in the infirmary ward, and it becomes clear that if there's going to be a breakout, it needs to happen now. Reluctantly leaving Jonah behind, Manny partners with a statutory rapist, Buck McGeehy (Roberts), who works in the laundry room, and the two men are soon tearing ass across the wintry landscape until they find a trainyard, hopping in the fourth of four locomotive engines chained into one massive supply vehicle to hide. All goes right according to plan, until the train engineer (Reid Cruickshanks), moments after starting the first engine, suffers a heart attack and manages to knock levers just so, to keep the train moving with its brakes sufficiently engaged that it won't be able to speak to the kill switch designed to prevent exactly this situation from happening. I have no clue if this is plausible in even the remotest degree. The point is, we now have a runaway train with two clueless convicts on it and no cars to weigh down the four speeding engines. Which means that it can run away very, very fast.

From this point on - 34 minutes into a movie that comes a bit short of two hours - it's a straightforward survival scenario: how will these two men, and the hostler Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) that they eventually discover was sleeping in the train when it entered its doom spiral, stop it in time to avoid killing themselves, while also managing to stay away from Ranken's unsurprisingly manic attempt to track them down? But even here, it's not the tough, burly action film that would be easy to expect from all the available evidence. Those opening 34 minutes see to that: it's a perfect length to let us get a full sense of the escapees' current relationship while also planting just enough seeds so that we can imagine where they're headed. Manny is brutally pragmatic, his experiences that left him looking like hell also having burned up his desire to be romantic; Buck is all romance, as excited to be on a train with his idol as a middle school basketball player would be to wind up alone on a road trip with LeBron James. He's also pretty dim, where Manny is fiercely intelligent, and this starts to imply the ugly turns their working relationship will take, as the older man uses his influence and cunning to make the younger man his tool. And this relationship goes from troubling to greatly intense once Sara shows up, immediately determines where the power imbalance between the men lies, and sides with Buck.

The film's entire identity is a function of two things: Konchalovsky lean directing, and the performances. The former is raw in ways that aren't totally unfamiliar from '80s action, though it is distinctly unpolished: the frequent use of handheld cameras to crane around inside the cramped compartments of the train are decidedly ugly in addition to being claustrophobic, ripping away whatever is left of the audience's hope to read this all as sentimental "criminals on the run" melodrama. Even the grand Alaskan-by-way-of-Montana snowscapes have a tendency to look dreary, dirty, and oppressive; it's impossible to film wide shots in those states and end up with zero beautiful landscapes, but Konchalovsky and cinematographer Alan Hume certainly don't give in without a fight. Only at the very end, as the film starts to drift from sinewy man-against-man psychological action cinema into a surprisingly well-earned elegiac register does the snow start to adopt a poetic feel; or rather, a Romantic poetic feel. The whole movie has its own kind of poetry, one more in line with the cropped prose of Hemingway or the vomitous directness of Bukowswki.

The actors, meanwhile, are in peak form: Roberts, as noted, gives the kind of performance I'd never have expected him to be capable of, drawling and casual in the line delivery, sleepy in the body language, and yet hard underneath all the signifiers of sloppiness. "That was a STATustory rape" he clarifies to Manny at one point, and between the way he's slumped into a wall, and the blurry and heavily emphasised pronunciation, and the fact that he's talking in a idle, bragging tone about raping a 15-year-old, it's a microcosm of everything relaxed and still dangerous about his work. As good as he is, though, Voight is better: it vies solely with Deliverance out of all the performances I've seen him give. It is roaring and violent, earning the film's regular verbal equations between himself and a beast - "No! - Worse! - Human!" he barks at Sara when she makes that point - but also plainly allowing us to understand that he was not inherently animalistic, and that not merely did he have to learn it, he still even now has to continuously play-act it and revise it. Animal behavior is a survival skill, not a personality trait, and it's the best thing about Runaway Train and Voight within it to explore how a man could come to commit himself to that behavior: what kind of already damaged person would think it was a good idea, what other damaged people would do to him to push him towards it.

The Voight/Roberts show is so good that it's quite deflating whenever Runaway Train turns its attention to anything else. De Mornay does what she can with Sara, but the role is inherently functional, the Woman in a movie whose men have no heterosexual instinct and which is so concerned with male codes of behavior that it has no idea what to do with her (this is grossly un-progressive of me to think, let alone say, but the film would be much stronger if her character was a third man). But at least her presence serves to divert the plot. The regular splits away from the main action to the train control center are a necessary evil that harms the film's momentum; the splits that involve Ranken's continued attempts to capture that wascally Manny aren't even necessary, they simply add a flourish of melodrama that the movie would be entirely better without, and motivate the corniest elements of an otherwise strong ending. That said, it's obviously something that would have been played up in a Kurosawa version of this story, that doubled-down on the sympathetic humanism. There's little of that in this film, which is at it best when it meditates on the broken and dangerous men at its center. In that mode, it's a terrific mix of tightly coiled action and psychoanalysis that has no place in a genre film from the '80s, but works splendidly regardless. It's just a pity that the film dilutes itself; an even more unsparing, lean version of this film could easily be one of the best mainstream American movies of the decade, instead of a way-better-than-you'd-expect thriller.

GAME OVER, MAN

A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

There's a good movie to be made out of Pixels, and it would be the easiest thing in the world to get there. First, keep all of the visual effects setpieces from the movie as it exists, for they are surprisingly beautiful and convincing considering how much lower the film's budget than the usual summer tentpole. Second, make exactly the opposite choices that the filmmakers actually did, because there's literally not one thing about the plot, characters, tone, morality, or basic comprehensibility about Pixels in this form that works.

The film began life in 2010 as a lovely little conceptual short by French filmmaker Patrick Jean (which you can watch here, and have a far more enjoyable 2.5 minutes than anything in the lugubrious 105 minutes of the feature), whence it was almost immediately nabbed by Adam Sandler, who wanted to transform it into a feature. And that's really sad, because of all the changes that would have clearly benefit Pixels at some stage in its development "don't make it an Adam Sandler vehicle" is unquestionably at the top of the list. Sandler tapped Tim Herlihy to write the first draft, which was supplanted by a rewrite by Timothy Dowling, making this the most Timmed-up Hollywood movie in recent memories, and makes me gravely unhappy at my name.

All those Tims whipped up a rather peculiar monstrosity, in which Sam Brenner (Sandler), a video game champion during his teen years in the early '80s, is called upon by his dumpy buddy Will Cooper (Kevin James), now President of the United States, to help save the world. It is first among the film's gaping flaws - not worst, not most inexplicable, just first - that the film makes the stock Kevin James character, the schlubby loser best friend, into the President without having any slight idea of how to make that funny. Or believable. I know that expecting rigorous realism from a Happy Madison joint is my problem, not the film's, but like anything else, comedy needs a baseline of logic to develop from. Given his background as a suburban nerd, given how viscerally everybody in the country hates him, and given that he clearly has no friends besides a sad sack tech nerd working at a Best Buy knockoff, it's impossible to imagine how Cooper got elected in the first place, and if we can't make that leap, there are huge swaths of the movie that never feel like anything other than the standard Happy Madison formula forcibly lacquered onto a framework that doesn't fit them. It's like a comedy sketch that everybody realises is going wrong, but has committed to in front of a live audience and can't back out of.

Earth's existential crisis, anyway, is an alien race that received our transmissions of video game footage in the early '80s and took it as a challenge to attack. So they use their highly advanced ability to form energy into cubes - voxels, technically, not pixels - and they form those cubes into three-dimensional versions of '80s arcade figures, who come to do battle with the ill-prepared human military. Lt. Col. Violet van Patten (Michelle Monaghan) quickly leads an R&D team to build an energy gun - a blaster, basically - that can disrupt the alien cubes, but it will take a genius arcade gamer to know how to use that technology to beat the aliens. And luckily, the president's buddy is just that genius. How this will work in tandem with the antagonistic sexual tension between Cooper and van Patten is anybody's guess, by which I mean that the second Monaghan appears onscreen and Sandler makes all sorts of leering, drooling faces at her, you're able to guess.

Now, that's one of the worst flaws: the insistence on welding the helpless Monaghan into the unenviable position of playing the woman who just can't help herself from being attracted to the life force that is Sandler at his most disengaged and inarticulate (you would never know he originated the project, based on how mopey he is onscreen). It is astonishing to me that in the year that the infamous The Cobbler was released, there'd be an even more off-putting, shambling Sandler performance than that film gave unto the world, but it's really not even all that close. The nominally comic actor pushes through the role with a single, unyielding sense of bitterness, as though trying to make any of the scripts theoretical jokes play as funny was a disgusting idea to him. But there he is, anyway, as Our Guy battling for the girl. It is all very dismal, at a level that goes beyond the usual "women in movies are objects to be won by vaguely unpleasant men" boilerplate. Brenner is viscerally repellent, both in his physical carriage and his defeated personality; trying to sell him as a romantic lead - even just the star of an enjoyable summer action-comedy, for that matter! - is a crime against decency.

Meanwhile, Brenner revives his 33-year-old rivalry against the loathsome video game superstar, Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage, correctly concluding that he could only make the role interesting by playing it as a Lynchian satire and giving the film's sole effective performance as a result), an arrogant weirdo who dresses and acts like time stopped during the first term of Reagan's presidency. This is slapped onto the film crudely, but Dinklage is a life raft while you're watching the film, and I wanted to praise his name.

It's next to impossible to tell who is supposed to find any of this interesting. Chris Columbus directs with all the slam-bang gee-whiz gusto that a filmmaker of his punishingly anonymous style can muster, and in concert with the film's broad-as-a-barn dialogue, this makes it impossible to assume that this is meant for anybody but kids. At the same time, the film is anchored to Brenner's perspective, and so indulgent towards the video game culture of the early '80s (you are expected to know such games as Frogger and Galaga by sight and without explanation) that it seems unlike that the filmmakers genuinely cared about bringing in any audience member under the age of 35. And anybody who cares enough about the mere fact of watching '80s video games rendered as live action giants for nostalgia alone to carry them through the galling screenwriting and insipid directing is unlikely to make it past the film's misunderstanding of what playing those games consists of (a cheat code to make the ghosts warp around in Pac-Man? What the fuck does that even mean?).

But against all of that, I present the film's visual effects: loving and creative renderings of iconic characters who glow with diffuse internal light before collapsing into piles of shiny cubes. Not even during the asinine finale, a battle against Donkey Kong, had I grown so immune to the texture and color that made up the video game characters, that I ceased to enjoy staring at them as they danced across the screen. That's not a whole lot, but- no, I don't have a "but". It's not a whole lot, and you can see enough of it in the film's trailer to get the best of the experience. Fuck Pixels.

2/10

SUMMER OF BLOOD: 21st CENTURY HORROR - YE OF LITTLE FAITH

There are many horror movies that are good until the last act, when they turn into such complete shit that it's frankly hard to remember what was good about everything up to that point. Many horror movies. The Last Exorcism, from 2010, is not necessarily distinct within that company; it does not start at the highest height, nor does it reach the lowest low. But it does stand out for how brief the bad ending actually is: only about 12 minutes before the credits is all it takes to undo the goodwill generated by a generally sturdy 74 minutes preceding.

We'll return to those 12 minutes in due course; for now, it does to accentuate the positive. To begin with, The Last Exorcism is one of those faux-documentary jobs, right before they really took off. I swear, that's one of the positive things, even though I know all the terrible things people say about the inaptly-named found footage style. I have, after all, said a great many of them. That's exactly the thing that's so nifty about the movie though (in fact, it's probably its most distinctive strength): there's a really smart, motivated reason for almost every frame of the movie that we see to have been recorded by the in-universe cameraman, Daniel Moskowitz (Adam Grimes), and his director, documentarian Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr). They are, after all, making a documentary about a charismatic exorcist, Rev. Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian). They don't know at the start that he'll be called on an exorcism, but they undoubtedly had their fingers crossed. The spooky, threatening incidents that usually trigger the wave of "put the camera down and run, dipshit" complaints are going to have the exact opposite effect on them: that is exactly what they want to film. Iris probably spends every night wishing herself to sleep that there will be some alarming, inexplicable terror to rattle her and Daniel around the room. And the way the footage is presented is exactly like an assembly cut that needs onscreen titles and some sweetening to the sound. Mind you, the film's ending commits the usual sins, and they are magnified by how solid everything up to that point has been: the way the story wraps up makes it clear that nobody would have cut the film together, and if they had, we'd never have seen it. But before then! In terms of sheer formal plausibility, it's as tight as any other found footage movie since the airtight The Blair Witch Project.

The content of Huck Botko & Andrew Gurland's script isn't too shabby itself, though it does tend to err on the side of self-congratulation. Cotton is the very definition of a good ol' boy blood & thunder preacher: anxious to give his parishioners a good show even while he's assuring them that if they make even the slightest misstep, they'll be devoured by the eternal flames of Hell. It's hardcore conservative Evangelical Protestantism with a healthy dose of Manichaeism, and it's all perfectly fraudulent. As Cotton concedes with a startling lack of shame for a man staring directly into a camera lens, he had a crippling crisis of faith when his sickly son was healed and his immediate response was to be grateful for the doctors, not God. Later on a news article about a boy his son's age died during a botched exorcism, and that shook the rest of his belief out; now he's going through the motions strictly for the benefit of his flock, on the assumption that as long as his words improve their lives, there's no harm done. "You've been a fraud", Iris accuses him, with an obvious "gotcha" tone; "That's your word, not mine", he tosses back with a big smile.

These Elmer Gantry-esque exploration of the pastor as con man and huckster are tremendously engaging, thanks almost completely to Fabian's sweeping, gregarious performance, all broad smiles and large gestures and a big way of dominating the room. He's slimy and slick, but in a way that invites us to join him in his fun trickery; his early demonstration that a recipe for banana bread can be slid into a fired-up sermon without anybody noticing is, to me, the film's most unique and enjoyable moment. The only problem with all this is that it's frankly a bit easy: taking potshots at charismatic preachers and then smirking like some kind of wounding hit has been taken is the pettiest, littlest kind of smug urbanity. We've seen this before; the charm of Fabian's performance augments that truth, but doesn't fix it.

Then again, we've seen just about everything The Last Exorcism has to offer, if we've seen more than one or two movies with "Exorcism" or "Exorcist" in the title, and the audience for a found-footage demonic possession movie is nothing if not self-selecting along those lines. Cotton gets a particularly intriguing request from a rural family, begging for help with a possession; its hand-written nature appeals to him, so off he and the filmmakers go to find out what's happening. 16-year-old Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) has been acting peculiar, if slaughtering her father's livestock can be summed up with such a simple word as "peculiar". Louis Sweetzer (Louis Herthum) subscribes to the most archly paranoiac type of faith; he pulled his daughter and son from school because she wasn't being exposed to sufficiently Godly music in art class, among more typical reasons. He even stopped going to church with local Pastor Manley (Tony Bentley), presumably for not enough old time religion. Cotton, for his part, puts on a good show, using some electric doodads to convince the Sweetzers, including elder child Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones) that he's chasing a demon out of the girl, and calls it a good deed. But when Nell shows up at his hotel, he grows concerned that something deeper than the usual psychosomatic Sturm und Drang is going on, so he forced Louis to have her hospitalised, over the man's terror of modern medicine. And it just so happens that Nell is pregnant. Cotton and Iris immediately jump to the assumption that she's been raped by her father, but this is a movie called The Last Exorcism, and we can be forgiven for assuming it's a little more sneaky than that.

But not sneaky in the way you'd think: the idea the film starts to play around with is that Nell is suffering from a bad case of being 16 years old and having a desire to express her sexuality while trapped in an environment of severest repressions (it becomes clear later in the movie that Louis would much rather assume that his daughter has been raped than that she had sex of her own choosing). And so she has sublimated her desire to have sex and break away from her insanely puritanical family life into the form of a made-up trickster demon named Abalam, because movie demons have the worst fucking names.* But at least it lacks the slurry Zs of "Pazuzu". Sorry The Exorcist, but you have a goofy-sounding bad guy.

None of this is, as such, particularly new or exciting or brave, and like many and many an exorcism film before it, The Last Exorcism doesn't work very hard to enter into the actual possession victim's head, if only because it needs very hard to keep us wondering if she's suffering from paranormal or strictly psychological torments (for a much better experiment in the same mode, we have the 2006 German film Requiem). In The Exorcist, they could get away with that; it is a film mostly about the responses people have to the possession. Here, they cannot. Cotton starts out with a very Father Karras-ish plot arc as the man of the cloth who's lost his faith and must regain it by fighting with actual spiritual evil, but the film maintains the possibility that there is no demon for so long that he's never forced to do anything but reiterate that, as always, he's right and it's just one big psychosomatic stress. Besides, he instantly ceases to be an interesting, colorful character when he arrives at the Sweetzer home. Louis is mostly there to be nervous and plaintive - Herthum works much too hard to make the character likable, which helps in complicating the script's self-superior attitude, but not for adding an edge to the suggestion that Nell has been driven crazy by a wretch of father - and Caleb is only ever on the sidelines, which means that we're basically watching activity being performed rather than characters having feelings.

And so, for all its stabs at complexity, The Last Exorcism proves to be pretty much a generic spook show, with the usual guttural speech and self-mutilation of all the other exorcism movies. It has one strikingly original and deeply disturbing gore scene, when Nell uses the camera to beat a cat to death - its blood remains streaked on the lens for quite some time - but director Daniel Stamm otherwise offers no personalising touches to a movie that has only the gritty cheapness of the first person aesthetic to differentiate itself from 37 years of Exorcist knock-offs. Still, it acquits itself well enough for all of that; the last big exorcism movie prior to 2010 was The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Last Exorcism movie beats that one senseless.

So the film heads into the final stretch with a steady gait and head held high, and then it trips and head-plants into the asphalt. I'm not sure when exactly the set the marker for the film's descent into total garbage; the extremely ill-timed interview with an awkward gay teen boy (Logan Craig Reid) whom Nell had named as the real father of her non-demonic baby is the first point that I said loud, in an empty room "Well, what the fuck". Certainly, by the point that Stamm crash-zooms into a pentagram painted on the Sweetzers' wall as the music gives us the most generic sting (so much for found-footage artlessness), it's all over but the tetchy wind-down, as the film erases its ambiguity in the most speedy, arbitrary series of twists, reveals, and ginned-up jump scares possible, complete with a sudden flurry of death because, dammit, this was a horror movie, and we had best leave nobody alive, right?

It's not the most sudden nosedive in quality a horror film could take; strictly limiting ourselves to movies that premiered in 2010, it's not as calling as the third act descent into putresence that mars the splendid opening hour of Insidious. But it's still enormously misconceived and stupidly blunt, and the moderate strengths of The Last Exorcism up to that point aren't able to survive it.

Body Count: 3, with a 4th who's clearly going to die pretty soon. Also that poor cat.

29 July 2015

SUMMER OF BLOOD: 21st CENTURY HORROR - THIS IS HALLOWEEN

All this happened years ago, and it's long since time to get over it, but it's really and truly baffling that Warner Bros. saw fit to handle Trick 'r Treat so shabbily. Having taken on the feature directorial debut of Bryan Singer's protégé Michael Dougherty (who co-wrote both X2 and Superman Returns), financed by Legendary Pictures and Singer's company Bad Hat Harry, Warner's announced a release date in time for Halloween 2007, only to cancel it at the last minute. That clearly spoke to a lack of faith in the project, though it's hard to say why: the film's December, 2007 premiere at the Butt-Numb-a-Thon festival in Austin was enormously well-received, as was its tour of the horror festival circuit over 2008. The film quickly took on the aspect of a legend, loved by all who knew it and lusted after by those who didn't. And still Warner sat on it. Finally, in October 2009 - two years and one day after its initially-scheduled release date - the company released it straight to DVD.

Not an impressive fate for one of the only obvious instant classics of horror in the first decade of the 21st Century. Trick 'r Treat is not entirely without lumps, but it's a film wherein even the most apparent flaws are so clearly a function of Dougherty's commitment to his muse, a refusal to compromise the personality of the material even slightly, that its flaws simply don't "count". And its strengths are as distinctive and impressive as anything else from its generation of American horror.

This despite having a seemingly insurmountable strike against it from the start: Trick 'r Treat is an anthology film. Anthologies, even horror anthologies, that are uniformly solid do exist, but anthologies with at least one obviously poor segment are much, much more common. Dougherty's script massages things by letting the stories bleed into each other, and he and cinematographer Glen MacPherson do splendid work unifying each of the four stories with an overall sense of thick autumnal night air, while giving each of them enough of a distinct visual style that we can usually tell where we are just at a glance. So it's not as bluntly divided against itself as it might have been, to its benefit.

Taken as a whole, the idea of each of the four segments (plus a prologue is basically the same: obey the traditions of Halloween, whatever "tradition" might mean in a given context, even the traditions that Dougherty appears mostly to have invented on the spot. The spirit of Halloween, present to witness and punish those who transgress against these traditions, is a little boy-shaped thing with tattered orange footie pajamas and a burlap mask that vaguely resembles a face; his name is Sam (Quinn Lord), which I take to be short for "Samhain", the Gaelic holiday retrofitted into Halloween. "Samhain" also appears in dialogue, and I am unduly impressed by the fact that it is pronounced correctly ("Sow-win").

The first thing we see is a snippet of a vintage safety video about trick or treating, that cuts to a glowing jack-o'-lantern smile against a pitch black field. It's as direct a reference to the opening credits of the seminal Halloween as I expect that Dougherty wanted to try to get away with, equal parts "I love you and I want to do what you did" and "okay, I can take over now". That jack-o'-lantern, when we see it, belongs to Emma (Leslie Bibb) and Henry (Tahmoh Penikett), a married couple on their way back from a costume party. Emma extinguishes the candle, over Henry's playful objections, and sets herself semi-indifferently to the task of taking down a few of the sheets from the many ghost decorations in the couple's yard, while he gets a porn video set up. Bloody limbs and creepy figures standing at a distance and staring abound, all turning out to be feints; the actual attack on Emma occurs without any set-up at all. It's mechanically perfect, a dance of false scares that distract us from the real scare until it cuts our throat with a jagged pumpkin lollipop.

Between the graceful staging of the scares, the concise, appealing character relationship established in just a few lines between Bibb and Penikett, and the wonderful visuals made by MacPherson's thick and gloomy lighting of the wonderfully evocative neighborhood location (the production design is by Mark Freeborn and the set decoration by Rose Marie McSherry), we've seen everything, in embryonic form, that Trick 'r Treat has in store, somewhere in this wonderfully self-contained anecdote. The rest is all expansion.

The four stories, in the order that they take prominence, center on Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker), the principal of the local middle school, whose enthusiasm for the nastiest traditions of Halloween leads him to spike the candy he gives out with cyanide, and even this isn't the bleakest thing that happens when bratty kid Charlie (Brett Kelly) shows up; Macy (Britt McKillip), Sara (Isabelle Deluce), Schrader (Jean-Luc Bilodeau), and Chip (Alberto Ghisi), a group of young friends who play a prank on Rhonda (Samm Todd), an autistic girl, by recalling the grisly local story of how a busload of special needs students were driven into a flooded quarry at their parents' behest, and using this as the basis for a mean joke about zombiefied children; Laurie (Anna Paquin), a college-aged virgin whose sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith) and friends Maria (Rochelle Aytes) and Janet (Moneca Delain) try to set her up with a guy for their slutty costume party; and Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), who hates children and Halloween, and chases away trick or treaters. For this most singular rejection of the spirit of the season, he is particularly targeted by Sam. The mode is very EC Comics: each of the stories ends with a karmic shocker of some kind, and in one case an out-and-out twist (one that is deliciously foreshadowed all over the place; enough to make my least-favorite plotline on first viewing my favorite on a second). And the point is emphatically not anything deeper than a quick jolt of the creeps, exactly as you'd hope to get if you and three buddies were swapping stories around a campfire some Halloween night.

That's easily the film's greatest strength: it is the most Halloweenish Halloween movie of all (something that even Halloween itself, with its charmingly dubious "California summer in Midwestern autumn drag" looks, could never claim). If there is an aspect of Halloween festivities that's not covered by the movie, I can't name it: children play-acting at spooky rituals, adults dressing in filthy costumes, news reporters dutifully spitting out inauthentically cheery boilerplate about some town's overly enthusiastic embrace of extreme kitsch in pursuit of tourism dollars. And the look of the thing! There's no better depiction of the inky blackness of a fall night punctuated by the warm lights of houses and candles on the books, from the opening scene all the way to a climactic jump scare consisting of nothing but Kreeg's terrified discovery that his whole yard has been filled with flickering jack-o'-lanterns, a shot that's as beautiful in its glistening blackness as it is unnerving.

With such a grand creation of a sustained mood, it's little surprise that Trick 'r Treat is top-shelf horror: if not scary, as such, then admirably suffused with the chilliness and mystery of a good ghost story, crossed with the inventive violence of the better slasher films. The reliance on stillness is a gratifying strength, particularly given the frenetic era of horror that the film was made during: the wide shots of Sam standing and observing, repeated throughout the film, are a terrific way of quietly reinforcing a baseline of ominous calm, and most of the tensest moments in the film are also the slowest (this is particularly true in the fog-coated abandoned quarry of the kids' subplot, from its choked-off sound design to the simple little "bye-bye" gesture at its end). But it's no weaker when it opens the throttle: the most shocking gore effects, which I cannot talk about because they qualify as the film's one absolute spoiler, are extremely impressive and particularly unsettling in both conception and execution, especially given how frequently such effects have gone wrong in other movies. Really, as far as the nuts and bolts of horror goes, the film only commits one enormous misstep: it should never let us see underneath Sam's burlap mask, because the blankness of his expression is worth far more than the frankly squirrelly idea for what we eventually see of him.

Is this the film's only actual flaw? Probably not. Not every performance is equally good, particularly in Laurie's segment, where Paquin significantly outclasses all of her scene partners. And it's not one of those horror movies that allow much room for talking up its fascinating character arcs and social commentary: this really is all about the joy and pleasure of sharing scary stories. That's hardly a little thing; in fact, it is much too easy to overlook just how important it is. And to claim that it's the only card Trick 'r Treat has to play is doing no more than accusing the film of being an exemplary addition to a tradition of hair-raising anecdotes older than cinema itself.

Body Count: 9 in the present, plus the 8 children in the flashback to the schoolbus massacre, plus a number devoured in a murderous orgy whose number I cannot satisfactorily arrive at. But I think "not fewer than 23" is a good estimate.

BEST SHOT: SAFE

Slightly more than two months ago, I watched Todd Haynes's Safe for only the second time, after several years. "Damn," I thought to myself, clear as clear can be, "this is a terrifyingly well-composed movie. I really hope Nathaniel picks it for Hit Me with Your Best Shot sometime. Because every shot is perfect. Even the most generic, functional establishing images are so clearly worked into the visual strategy of the whole movie by Haynes and cinematographer Alex Nepomniaschy. You could literally grab just any random shot and know that you'd have something to talk about."

Well, now Nathaniel has picked it, and I decided to put my money where my inner monologue is. I did, in fact, decide to pick a random shot. Truly random: first I flipped a coin to decide between the first and second halves of the movie, then I used a random number generator to determine the minute, and then again to determine the second. And it is with pleasure that I thus introduce to you the image that occurs 1:31:55 into Safe:

Random, I tells ya. And still perfect.

Safe, if you haven't seen it - AND YOU NEED TO SEE IT, it's unquestionably in the top tier of English-language films from the 1990s - is the mystifying, horrifying story of what happens to Carol White (Julianne Moore, in what's still probably the best performance of her career) when she becomes allergic to the 20th Century. When all of the usual sources for support - the confused medical industry, her pleasant but emotionally inaccessible husband - prove unable to help her, she turns to the apparently kind folks at Wrenwood, a New Age-style retreat in the desert whose founder and leader, Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), is closer to a cult leader than medical guardian.

So let's dig in and do some image analysis, huh? This shot comes relatively early in Carol's sojourn to Wrenwood, before the full impact of its relentless-unto-bullying positivity has played out on her body. It's one of Peter's many group pep talks, to a group of people suffering from the same environmental sensitivity, and that's Carol all the way over to the right. Let's talk about her position within the frame, and the lighting: there's a great trick in this shot of isolating Carol without actually isolating her. There are two people right there in her space, after all. But consider the use of white to separate her out from them, and consider even more that slice of light crossing her left side. It makes her the only human being in the frame who is given that kind of hard, distinguishing lighting, and it makes her stand out as somehow different from all the rest. Plus, the bulk of the people are all in one solid block of the composition, curving around and directing our eye, not to Carol, but to the gap between her and the lamp, setting her apart even more. And so we have the quiet implication of the cult: she is with people who understand her suffering and give her comfort, but this is unfulfilled and artificial - she's still on her own.

And now let's pull back to the whole composition: do you know what's amazing about this shot? You see something in this shot you almost never ever see in a basic conversational wide shot, though it happens quite a lot in Safe. You see the ceiling. And those giant white circles of light, in addition to suggesting that the space is kind of alien and and science-fictional (so to with all the white in this white-heavy image), are so obvious and eye-catching that they tend to make us extra-super aware that we can see the ceiling.

So what we have is a low, crouched angle pointing up, and at divergent lines to the room (you'll note, we're staring into the far corner, and there's nothing parallel to the plane of the camera lens in the whole space), with our protagonist set off to the side, watching the activity like a solitary audience member in a theater. It's slightly weird, slightly uncomfortable, slightly disorienting; it's a shot that is not right. I wouldn't call it threatening, though there are other shots that are, stressing the unstressed menace of Wrenwood. What it does, however, is perfectly express Carol's own sense of not-rightness, and of having the environment around being an inapt fit for her. It is a space that, without being in any way abnormal, is thoroughly uninhabitable. And that's Safe's subject, plot, and mood, all in a nutshell.

28 July 2015

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: WATCHING OTHER PEOPLE PLAY VIDEO GAMES

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the notorious insta-flop Pixels is an adventure about a group of competition-level video game players. It's also pandering to '80s nostalgia, so let's go ahead and travel back to that decade

The dominant criticism of The Wizard when it was new in 1989 was that it was transparently a commercial for Nintendo, crudely fashioned into a simulacrum of a feature film, and the idea was this was somehow a filthy trick to play on the children in its target audience. Having been exactly the right age with exactly the right interests to care, I would like to promise those worried adults: we knew. The fact that it was a commercial was in fact exactly the draw - this was the movie which would offer North America its first opportunity to see footage from Super Mario Bros. 3, and it was advertised on precisely that basis. If you were Nintendo-playing grade schooler in '89, this was about on par with Christ returning to play Himself in a movie before inaugurating the end times. That being said, despite being the exact sort of person who this movie was made for, I never bothered seeing it - I mean, hell, it was a feature-length commercial.

A quarter of a century later,* The Wizard looks no less like a commercial, and its single-minded commitment to the style and attitude that children of the late 1980s perceived as cool leaves it feeling very much like a communication from some alien species. The last half-hour of the movie, in particular, is an incomprehensible frenzy of sound and noise and color that feel like a bad acid trip. Or perhaps a really, really good acid trip.

Not that you would know this at first, for among the film's many peculiarities is its earnest desire for almost its entire first hour to function as a mordant domestic drama. The opening image, underneath the credits, is a telephoto shot of nine-year-old Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) walking along a featureless desert road, arriving nowhere and doing it slowly. It's a dead ringer for something out of a '70s movie, and it's frankly rather presumptuous for an '80s kids film of any sort, let alone one that has every intention of trying to sell us video games. And this will very much continue on as the film sketches its rather bitter family scenario: Jimmy is the autistic son of the divorced Sam Woods (Beau Bridges) and Christine Bateman (Wendy Phillips), the latter of whom has since remarried a snappish control freak (Sam McMurray), and retained custody of Jimmy. Having finally concluded that he's too difficult for his and everyone else's own good, the Batemans have made the hard choice to put him in an institution. This makes Sam unhappy, but it really pisses off his second son, Corey (Fred Savage), from his first marriage, who decides to spring Jimmy from the institution and run away from home with him. The Batemans hire a sleazy bounty hunter, Putnam (Will Seltzer), to track the boys down, while Sam, anxious to keep Corey from their punitive hands (we are assured that Christine, in her days as Corey's stepmother, didn't even feign affection for the boy), takes his eldest son, Corey's full brother Nick (Christian Slater), on a trip with him to track the boys down.

So far, so good: a little over-plotted, and you need to pay a bit of attention to catch all of the nuances of how these people are related and what they think about each other, but if the world actually required a serious '70s style domestic drama about the ugly fallout from a divorce done up as an adventurous road movie for children - and I really do not suppose that it did - this is good enough to get the job done. But this is merely the overture; the warm-up, even. From here, thing start to get enormously weird, and they do it fast. Trying to buy a bus ticket, Corey and Jimmy encounter Haley (Jenny Lewis), a girl Corey's age who seems to be some kind of '30s Depression-comedy vagabond in the body of a 1989 13-year-old. It's astonishing. She throws out punny, cutting quips, delivered at a rapid-fire clip in a snarky tone that the young actor is visibly confused by herself; it's like director Todd Holland took her aside on the first day of shooting to demand that she play her character as Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve and refused thereafter to listen to any of her questions as to what the hell that meant.

As the quick-witted dame with a con artist's soul, it's Haley who figures out how to monetise Jimmy's newly discovered skill at video games, by betting against businessmen and tough skaterboarders and the like. It's at this point that it's impossible to stop noticing that The Wizard is no less than Rain Man with children, and thus at this point The Wizard turns into a mostly surreal experience. Not totally surreal; we still have to get to the final act for that. Before that happens, our plucky trio has to cross paths with Lucas (Jackey Vinson), the ballingest video game hot shot in the Southwest, who introduces them to the holiness that is the Nintendo Power Glove, and after quietly slipping around in the background, with a little music from Super Mario Bros. 2 here, or a little flash of the NES controller there, the movie explodes into its truest self, as a shameless plug for buying things from Nintendo, playing Nintendo, idealising Nintendo as the pinnacle achievement of human technology and society. For the Power Glove. One of the most notoriously awful video game peripherals ever built. "I love the Power Glove. It's so bad" the boy says with the self-satisfaction of a dreadful yuppie from the era's sex comedies, and it at least half of that is the truest statement in this entire movie.

The shameless wallowing in Nintendo prowess and ownership as the keenest of all social dominance markers, plus Holland and screenwriter David Chisholm's constant inability to treat this kids' movie like a kids movie, forcing the poor child actors into positions of pantomiming adult behavior in their conversations about video games, or sometimes accusing innocent bystanders of being pedophiles ("He! Touched! My! Breast!"), plus the dazzlingly dated costumes and hairstyles, are all enough to make this an extravagantly weird viewing experience, now that we're a generation past its sell-by date. But we're still not to the part where the movie goes off a cliff. That happens at Universal Studios Hollywood, where Video Armageddon, the nation's premier Nintendo gaming competition, is held. For starters, the set of Video Armageddon looks like a combination of the boiler room on an aircraft carrier and an athletic shoe store. Second, the event's announcer (Steven Grives) declaims lines in a manner not compatible with any dialect of English, dancing about and grinning manically like he is the actual Satan and this is some particularly tacky corner of Hell. Third, there's not even a cursory relationship between the proclamations of gameplay and points scored announced over the loudspeaker, and what we can actually see with our own damn eyes.

In short, what is most mystifying about The Wizard isn't that it's a movie set up as a feature-length ad for video games despite being welded onto an emotionally lacerating domestic drama: it's that it's an ad for video games that makes video games look like a peyote hallucination, throwing fragments of game imagery up on screen in ways that make the games themselves seem like jagged, incomprehensible masses of arbitrary movement and the players all puppets in the grip of some helpless madness. It makes videogaming look like the most unpleasant, frenzied activity on Earth, better suited to punishment than entertainment

It's shockingly bad, and coupled with the enormous tonal shifts that happen throughout the movie, it feels basically like The Wizard has an aneurysm right as we're watching it. This is an appallingly jagged and messy film, ugly to look at and saddled with narrative developments that simply happen because the film knows that its end point has to be a video game competition. Everything within it is incongruous to everything else. For those who grew up in the video game culture it depicts, I think it probably serves as a fascinating enough snapshot to serve as a kind of hell-dimension nostalgia trip; but for everyone, its completely batshit insane concept of what human beings are like and what kind of physical spaces the inhabit makes it a thoroughly mesmerising So Bad It's Good spectacular.

27 July 2015

IT'S ABOUT TIME

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

Personal anecdotes aren't criticism, of course, but in this case the anecdote shall lead us to criticism, I promise. The thing is, when I was a wee cinephile, I was quite addicted to George Pal's 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. It was almost certainly the most violent and gory movie I had encountered at that point: one of the green-skinned subterranean humanoid monsters, the Morlocks, gushed blood out of its mouth when it died! Another one was shown onscreen decaying over the course of years rushed through in time-lapse, in extremely vivid detail! Its eye popped out! Basically, The Time Machine completely fucked me up, in the way that seven-year-olds crave being fucked up. I hadn't watched the film in fully two decades before seeing it for this review, but I could accurately remember some scenes right down to the editing. What I did not remember is that the sequence that so powerfully affected me is a mere blip in the overall movie; it's more than an hour into its 103 minutes before we even hear about the Morlocks, let alone see them, and they're not an active threat for more than 15 minutes or so.

Now the memoir turns back into a review, for what my experience teaches us is that you can't beat a great monster. Pal, an animator turned producer turned producer/director, knew from making a big impression with some good state of the art spectacle, and this time he went right off the edge of the map. Forget the staggering impact the film had on my 7-year-old self; as a fully-functioning thirtysomething, I'm still pretty well blown away by the film's violence. This is basically a silly matinee picture and it looks like it: one doesn't expect to run into gore effects that are as explicit as Hollywood in 1960 would have dared to try to sneak past the censors. Especially on MGM's dime, of all studios. It's legitimately shocking, even a half of a century after the specific effects that The Time Machine shows off have long since been surpassed. And it certainly tends to skew one's impression of what the film is and where its strengths lie, because the other thing I really really didn't remember is that the Morlock sequences are easily the worst part of the movie, despite all of Pal's bravura.

The movie starts on 5 January, 1900, which is dumb as hell, because it immediately flashes back to New Year's Eve just six days earlier, on the cusp of a new century. Here we find the greatly dissatisfied H. George Wells (Rod Taylor), a London inventor who thinks that humanity is the absolute goddamn worst. To get away from the miserable state of civilisation, George has perfected a time machine, or so he proclaims to his friends Philip Hillyer (Sebastian Cabot), Anthony Bridewell (Tom Helmore), Walter Kemp (Whit Bissell), and David Filby (Alan Young), the last of whom is the only one to even pretend that George hasn't gone completely around the bend. George doesn't care much about his friends' mockery, though; he's already built his machine, which allows him to travel any direction chronologically while staying in one place relative to the Earth's surface, and he hopes to use it to leave the ugly, amoral England of the Boer War to find a time when humanity has finally evolved beyond violence. His attempts dash all the optimism right out of him: he first lands in 1917, where he meets Filby's adult son James (still Young), and learns that his friend has dies in the Great War. George's second jump is even less successful: he stumbles right into an air raid during the Blitz of 1940. His luck takes an even worse turn when his third try lands him in 1966, just minutes before a nuclear strike that triggers a volcanic explosion. George has just enough time to enter his time bubble before he and his machine are covered with lava, and he has no choice but to move forward until the natural process of erosion reveals the outside world again.

That takes him all the way to 12 October, 802,701. Here, he finds a race of humans calling themselves the Eloi, according to Weena (Yvette Mimieux), a young woman who speaks pretty terrific English and looks pretty conventionally attractive for somebody with hundreds of thousands of cultural and physical evolution under her belt. George is eager to learn more about this apparently utopian future, but his inquiries reveal the Eloi to be massively incurious and almost dysfunctionally idiotic. It's the Morlocks, George starts to determine, who are the actual brains of this future society: they and the Eloi are two disparate branches of post-homo sapiens evolution, and the hideous underground dwellers are keeping the moronic surface dwellers as food stock. At any rate, they're smart enough to have stolen the time machine, and that means that George has to fight them off, all by himself, since the cow-like Eloi aren't going to put up any kind of resistance.

David Duncan's script leaves the plot of Wells's novel mostly in place, while denuding it of much of its detail and depth, but to be honest, I can't say that it's noticed. The movie is too busy being splendid to look at, frequently in ways that offer the illusion that it's brainier that it is, which was pretty much Pal's entire career as a producer of feature films. The biggest part of it is the setting: by virtue of setting its roots in Victorian London, The Time Machine attains an instantaneous level of seriousness, classiness, and literary prestige, and something about it just feels more weighty than if George was starting his forward journey from 1959 (if nothing else, the sequence in 1966, probably the most nuanced part of the movie - the way it makes a mere 6 years in the future seem dangerously alien is the sharpest piece of commentary Duncan and Pal line up - requires a Victorian time traveler to make any sense at all). And the movie does an absolutely extraordinary job setting up the reality of Victorian London right from the earliest moments, where a beautiful street set and some exquisite matte paintings establish the physical nature of the place as something that feels real but mediated, like it's a moving, living version of an aged photograph.

Then again, the effects work throughout the film is truly special (the film won an especially well-earned Oscar for them), starting with that matte and moving on to its groundbreaking use of time-lapse photography to visually depict time travel. It's too straightforward and unfaked for it not to have aged well, which makes this one of the only effects-driven films I can name that looks every inch as good after the passage of decades as it must have done when it was new (though the fact that its signature technique has become a mainstay of advertising and music videos means that it has lost absolutely all of its novelty), but eye candy isn't what matters. It's the way that the effects, as well as the design - particularly the design of the time machine itself, something like a sled with a giant spinning dish on the back of it that looks exactly like something a middle-class Victorian bachelor would assemble in his back yard as a hobby - casually establish the film's plausible reality in a way that isn't particular dazzling or spectacular: for the most part, the effects are just kind of there, hanging around over Taylor's shoulder, in the background. The showy parts are at least a little clever, not just dazzling: the film's justly celebrated use of a storefront mannequin and the change in fashions that occur over 40 years is a bravura moment, but also one that serves very specific story moments.

Generally, the steadiness and sensibility of the opening of the film - everything up to the lava explosion, itself a pretty marvelous effects sequence - is so confident and so very unlike the normal stylistic gyrations of sci-fi in that period that it's honestly disappointing to me when it stops, and the A-plot starts. The fable of the Eloi and the Morlocks simply isn't as successful visually: imagining a post-apocalyptic future was apparently harder than recreating Victorian England, or maybe the budget ran out, but really, everything in 802,701 looks a bit threadbare. I am powerfully reminded of the most ambitious episodes of Star Trek, to be specific, and it doesn't help that the story feels so much like something that could have showed up there - nor, for that matter, that Mimieux's performance is so shallow and blandly flirtatious, though in her defense, that's exactly what the role asks for.

Parts of it work, beyond a shadow of a doubt: the Eloi boneyard is good and spooky, and there are moments in which the Morlocks, standing in the shadows, can be made out only as a pair of glowing eyes that have a great tension and dreadfulness about them (and not just because the slightly shabby make-up can't be seen). It's just a bit shlocky in the execution, and given that The Time Machine is at best an example of really savvy, gifted execution of impressive sci-fi visuals, this is the worst possible sort of weakness to infect it at any point. Still, even in its weakest moments, the film benefits from being graded on a curve: in its production design, its historical orientation, and the scale of its production, this runs rings around nearly any other sci-fi film in its generational cohort. Eight years down the line, and this would look utterly primitive, but on its own merits, it's damned impressive stuff, and there's just enough esoteric concepts dancing through the screenplay to make it feel more intellectual than the usual sci-fi action-adventure. Between the handsome production and the nerdy writing, this offers an unusually smart, sophisticated aura for what amounts to an expensive B-movie. There's better sci-fi, undoubtedly, but not in 1960, particularly not with the sort of glossy studio polish that makes this such a treat to watch.

26 July 2015

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HORROR IN THE LATE 1990s - BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH, HE KINDLY STOPPED FOR ME

I have named this penultimate leg of the final Summer of Blood "Horror in the Late 1990s", but the quick-witted will notice that Final Destination was released in 2000. And no, this isn't some enormously pretentious "you see, decades begin in the year ending in -1 and end in the year ending in -0, so 'the '90s' were actually 1991-2000" type of deal, though I would absolutely not put it past myself to do that.

Rather, it's that Final Destination strikes me as a particularly clear-cut bridge between two eras of horror cinema. The Age of Scream, with almost no exceptions, largely functioned as the theatrical wing of The WB, both in the literal sense that the teen-focused network largely shared a pool of actors with the many films that tried to cut off a slice of that Scream pie for themselves, and in the more general sense that a lot of these films were basically teen soaps into which violent death wandered. Final Destination has both of those angles covered: the headliners include Dawson's Creek regular Kerr Smith and two-shot guest star Ali Larter (in fairness, Larter's fame - such as it was - largely started with Final Destination, and she could fairly be called an unknown), American Pie stand-out Seann William Scott, and in the lead role, Devon Sawa. I'm damned if I can remember now why anybody cared about Devon Sawa prior to 2000, but I vividly remember knowing that he existed when this film first came out, and thinking that it was pandering to try and force him into movie stardom, though pandering to whom, I am also at a loss to remember.

The shift in American horror that culminated in 2004's Saw, meanwhile, was directly away from the sanded edges and glib friendliness of the reedy Scream followers, and back towards a measure of nastiness and violence-for-violence's-sake. It wasn't always scary and was frequently nothing but a gonzo show of elaborate, tacky gore, but this new mode of horror was at least unsafe. It punched, where the horror of the '90s tapped or tickled. And here, too, Final Destination stakes its claim: while the blood is spilled with quite a bit of a sense of humor that functions to delegitimise its horror, there's no mistaking how nasty this film is. It takes quite a lot of pride in the viciousness of its preposterously elaborate death sequences, and it makes them land with a real punch. Any ol' slasher movie can present its character deaths with a certain flair that makes them more fun and cool than actually visceral; this is usually done with a kind of showmanship that isolates the deaths as nothing but a self-contained setpiece. Final Destination has the setpieces, but not the isolation; the whole film is build around rising momentum and dread that spans its entire running time, with every character's behavior hinging on their awareness of horrible it must be to die.

Splitting the difference between the poles means that Final Destination ends up being more of a ghoulish black comedy than it gets credit for, if less than it could be. That, in fact, is the most signal achievement of Final Destination 2, from three years later: it fully embraces the sick humor that Final Destination merely hints at, in the process becoming a bit more enthusiastic in its cruelty and a bit less hard-hitting. It's an open question in my mind which of these two approaches results in the better film, but the main point is that, rather unpredictably, Final Destination and at least its first sequel both end up being good enough that "better film" isn't a totally incongruous phrase to use. There are a lot of forces working against Final Destination, including its largely bland cast and a scenario that makes a big damn point of not clarifying its own rules or explaining itself, but it's honestly as good as a teen-focused body count picture released in 2000 was ever possibly going to be.

So about that scenario: it's a real snazzy, gimmicky bastard. Once upon a time, a few dozen seniors from Mt. Abraham High School in Vancouverton, USA were heading on their senior trip to Paris, when one of them, Alex Browning (Sawa) had an intensely real dream of the plane exploding less than a minute after take off. His subsequent hissy fit gets so frantic and noisy that he's thrown off the plane, dragging several other students and two teachers, Valerie Lewton (Kristen Cloke) and Larry Murnau (Forbes Angus), with him. Larry is able to argue his way back on the plane - the kids can't be without a chaperone, after all - but Valerie and the other escapees, including Alex's best friend Tod Waggner (Chad E. Donella), his best enemy Carter Horton (Smith), Carter's girlfriend Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer), the dimwitted Billy Hitchcock (Scott), who was just making his way onto the plane when Alex had his freakout, and Clear Rivers (Larter), who uniquely among everybody involved chose to get off the plane because she actually believed Alex when he started shouting about his premonition. As well she might; the seven stranded folks haven't even caught their bearings from being unceremoniously dumped in the terminal when the plane does, in fact, explode.

39 days later, Alex has turned into a pariah and source of terror and fascination: Carter resents him even more know that he owes Alex his own life, Valerie is sickened just to look at him, Billy eagerly peppers him with questions about the future. Only Clear still wants to be his friend, I presume because of her asinine name that makes her incapable of having normal human interactions. It's Clear who serves as his sole ally when Tod dies of an apparent suicide that Alex just knows must have been an accident of some kind. We also know this, because we saw him die: we saw water inexplicably ooze across the bathroom floor, causing him to trip just so and fall across a rope hanging off the showerhead just so, and strangle to death. So we're ahead of the game when Alex and Clear sneak into the morgue to investigate Tod's body. But we're nowhere near as far ahead as the mortician, Mr. Bludworth (Tony Todd), who gently but menacingly informs the teens that they are being stalked by Death Itself, who wants to earn back the lives Alex saved with his psychic outburst. And as he says in a line that benefits immeasurably from Todd's irreplaceable bass purr, "You don't even want to fuck with that mack daddy".

And thus we have a concept loose enough to support five movies through 2011's Final Destination 5: survive an unsurvivable accident, and Death will catch up with you, though in an apparent fit of peevishness that you were able to get away from its grasp, your death is going to come in the form of a supremely complicated series of accidents that all add up to a spectacularly messy splotch where your body used to be. I will not run through the film's deaths, which start at the 36 minute mark and regularly punctuate the remaining hour, since the whole fun of Final Destination and its sequels lies in watching how much of a Rube Goldberg contraption the filmmakers can concoct to kill each cast member, and/or how much stage blood they can justify from a single human death.

What sets Final Destination apart from a routine slasher, as well as from at least some of its own sequels, is in the spirited attitude with which it moves through this mechanistic slaughtering of the innocents. There is a perfect mixture of the deadly serious and the hopelessly absurd throughout the whole movie; it's no surprise at all to learn that writer Jeffrey Reddick's first draft was a spec script for The X-Files, which is how X-Files producers Glen Morgan & James Wong picked up and rewrote it into what would become Wong's feature directorial debut. For it shares with that show a deadpan sensibility, an awareness that yes, yes, all of this is terrible - but it's also kind of ridiculous, and we're not going to try and sell you on the idea that it's not. The closest the film comes to acknowledging outright that it's a comedy at heart is when it throws a speeding bus at one of its victims quite without warning, splattering blood like a water balloon. But the whole thing has a hard time hiding its impish grin, especially in Valerie's unbelievably complex death sequence, punctuated by fake-outs where you can almost hear Wong chuckling "Gotcha! You totally expected that she was going to blow up the kitchen when she turned on that burner. Don't lie" over your shoulder.

It is, essentially, a film that knows it doesn't have the ingredients to be scary, only repulsive and nihilistic, so at least it's worth having a good time with it. Wong approaches this with a perfectly straight face, but the comedy is always right there, ready to erupt: the tasteless gag of having John Denver music play during or near every death; Scott's excellent performance as a starry-eyed moron (it is in fact my favorite of his performances, by no small margin); overblown audio cues, like a montage of packing scored like a murder scene, or a small circular fan that roars like a tiger, or the stove burners that ignite like a star exploding. It's a very heightened film that never calls attention to itself, which means that it's every bit as ominous as it is absurd: the whole movie positively looms with death, turning even the most innocuous moments and household objects into such leering avatars of destruction and bloody murder that it's hard to know whether to laugh or shudder.

At any rate, it is an ebullient movie that leaves nothing on the table; it commits hard to what it's depicting and how badly it wants to amuse & disgust the audience. Not everything plays: the "character surnames are famous horror directors" gag is musty and smug, though "Billy Hitchcock" is a magnificent character name. And the cardboard-thin performances Sawa and Larter give prevent the film from having even a smidgen of resonance - there really is no draw here besides the most superficial generic appeal, and the cackling delight the film shows in murdering its ensemble. But really, that's enough. Final Destination is shameless razzle-dazzle done by people who genuinely can't imagine why a pissed-off Death getting its revenge on meddling teenagers shouldn't be entertaining. It's crassly inhumane and too blunt to be scary, but it understands the spectacle to be gleaned from its bloody material far more viscerally than its teen-slasher forebears, and with more zest and good cheer than its torture porn descendents. All of which is enough to make it one of the few contemporary splatter pictures that also can lay claim to being something of a modern classic in horror.

Body Count: 292 if we count the plane crash, 5 if we don't, but of course, isn't the film's argument that the true body count is every single one of us?

25 July 2015

THE IMPRESSION OF NORMALCY

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

There are many indisputably great films that it's clearly impossible for any normal audience member to complete unpack in all their nuances without the aid of some highly specialised arcane knowledge, but even then, writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist is a special case. It's the one and only quintessential all-time masterpiece I can name that trades, extensively, on its ideal viewer's knowledge of the history of 20th Century interior design. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro invariably gets all of the credit, as well he might, given the relatively easy argument that The Conformist is the most impeccably-shot color film yet made. But as gorgeously lit as the film is - and that is much too weak a claim for the stunning compositions of light, shadow, and diagonal lines that dominate the film's cinematography - the engine driving the film's visuals is far less often the film's camerawork and lighting than production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti and his team's recreation of the Modernist-derived architecture and furniture design of Fascist Italy. There is no film I know that so compellingly describes a link between the design of its world, the mentality that produced that design, and the mentality that is in turn encouraged by that design; that is to say, it is a film about the mindset of a man who wanted very badly to be a totally anonymous, perfect Fascist, and the most important way that it evokes that mindset is by containing it in distinctively Fascist spaces, distinctively Fascist compositions. And this is where I bring us back to arcane knowledge, because the simple fact of the matter is that I don't know a damn thing more about fine art under Fascism than I suppose you do (if you are some kind of design historian, I know infinitely less than you), and while the film allows us to intuit the nature of Fascist design theory, there's an enormous gap between being able to extrapolate a film's intentions versus understanding at a deep level the film's frame of reference.

So now that I've made this sound like the most absolutely staid piece of entertainment you could ever hope to stumble across, let me promise that The Conformist is, in fact, a gripping piece of cinema, far more watchable than any description of its content could suggest. It's kind of a gangster thriller, if you allow that the Fascist party in Italy was kind of a gang, structured around the fluttery thoughts of Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who is in this film one of the greatest empty vessels ever performed onscreen) as he rides in the back seat of a fine car one wintry day, being driven by fellow party member Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) on a mission whose exact details only reveal themselves slowly, but which plainly cause Marcello no end of unhappiness to ponder. Over the course of the next hour and a half, this car serves as the movie's home base, while we follow along with Marcello's stream-of-consciousness recollection of his life, which largely centers on his emotionally flat marriage to Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), a smart choice of spouse rather than a passionate one, as well as his relationship with anti-Facist mentor Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) and his obsession with Quadri's wife Anna (Dominique Sanda).

Viewed strictly as a psychological portrait, The Conformist is fairly blunt, overly Freudian, and not tremendously imaginative. As we see over the course of those chronologically erratic flashbacks, Marcello became aware as a preteen of his homosexual urges, and in particular had a rather ugly run-in with his family's pederastic chauffeur Lino (Pierre Clémenti) that ended with the older man dead by Marcello's hand. Absorbed by guilt and repulsed by his desires, Marcello has since spent his entire life attempting to disappear his own identity into the blank facade of a perfect conformist, behaving in the least aberrant way he possibly can, based on whatever is valued by the social order of the day. And that is, let us be honest, a bit overly schematic and just-so. Films about the sexual hypocrisy of the totalitarian parties in World War II were their own subgenre around this time, and there are those which have distinctly more sophisticated and less hoary ways of approaching that topic than The Conformist's frankly hoary appropriation of homosexuality as a metaphor (for the record, Luchino Visconti's The Damned from 1969 is my personal favorite example of the form).

But who needs crafty, unexpected screenwriting, when you have this kind of extraordinary psychoanalysis through style? This is, in places, massively obvious: the film's opening scene, as Marcello prepares to commit the worst sin he can imagine, finds the lighting from a neon sign outside his room gently washing him with red at intervals. A sequence synopsising the Allegory of the Cave, punctuated with the statement that those in the cave mistake a shadow of a thing for the thing itself, ends with Marcello's shadow against a wall being blotted out by another light source, the most straightforward "his self is dissolving" image that I could imagine. Frequently, the movie is craftier than that: an early scene where Marcello spills his guts and talks about how badly he wants to be normal and nondescript takes place in a dark room, with a window to a bright white radio studio casting into stark relief just how gloomy the world that Marcello wants to disappear into is. Naked, sexualised women are shown twice in the film, both times drenched in garish, colored lighting that renders them as something almost literally inhuman and unapproachable, the feverish dream version of normalised heterosexuality that Marcello reaches for and cannot attain. And the whole movie is dominated to the point of distraction with diagonal lines in the mise en scène and the lighting, imprisoning Marcello, slashing across his world and breaking it into fragments. It is among the most Expressionist films ever made in color, both in the descriptive sense (Expressionism, as a movement, was dedicated to expressing interior emotions through exterior form - hence the name), and in the more nitpicky sense that it uses the actual graphic techniques of German Expressionism: there's a shot of Sandrelli in a striped dress under striped lighting that is the most literally Expressionist shot that I have seen in any film made after the mid-'30s.

One could go through every single frame of the film and analyse how the composition, color, and lighting all reflect Marcello's mind, the dominance of the individuality-crushing cult of Fascism, or very often both. Certainly, it would go for tens of thousands of words beyond the meaningful scope of a "review" for me to fully work through every single image that I'd like to talk about - the one with the Eiffel Tower a hazy shape in the backdrop against a featureless grey sky, that's a profound emblem of isolation! The violet-selling woman singing "L'Internationale" is purposefully murky and blue to contrast against the ungainly brightness of he and his blonde mistress! Holy balls, the pullback to reveal Giulia patiently waiting as he fumbles his way through his first-ever confession to a priest, that's why they invented camera movement in the first place! - so I won't bother trying. There isn't, however, a single frame that feels accidental, anywhere in the movie: The Conformist is a dream movie for anyone who wants to play around with image analysis, just clicking around to random frames and unpack everything communicated by that shot, that pan, that marriage of visual desolation with the exquisite pain of Georges Delerue's great score, one of the best of the 1970s.

It is a greatly, audaciously cinematic movie, The Conformist is, imposingly precise in its arrangement of individual elements, and their collective shaping by Bertolucci into one grand statement about the the way that Fascism preyed upon humans and was created and bolstered by the same humans. Praising it feels a little obvious, like bothering to point out that there's some good stuff on the White Album; The Conformist is so direct and straightforward in so much of its symbolism that watching them feels like the movie has already done your work for you. But there are many layers to it, and they are not all so straightforward; I'll admit that I don't revisit this film as often as other of the great European art house classics of that generation, but every time I do, the film seems fresh and totally new, and that's the best thumbnail description of a masterpiece that I've got.