22 December 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: THIS CAMBODIAN LIFE

If I may risk being pithy about the gravest subject in the wide world, we’re living through a golden age of documentaries about mass killings in southeast Asia. Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary, extraordinarily crushing dyad of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, with their historiographical study of the murder of accused Communists in Indonesia in 1965, are already legendary among the sorts of people who would be inclined to seek such things out; coming right in between the two them, having made the festival rounds in the second half of 2013, we turn to Cambodia from 1975-’79, the period of the notorious and cruel Khmer Rouge, a regime under the leadership of dictator Pol Pot that attempted to turn the country Communist by the expedient of massacring Cambodian citizens by the tens of thousands and leaving tens of thousands more to die from the miserable conditions that took root in the country as a result of the Khmer Rouge’s mismanagement of everything that could possibly be mismanaged.

Among those who managed to endure this four-year hell was teenaged Rithy Panh, the sole survivor of his family. Many decades later, Panh devoted himself to constructing a documentary mixing political history with personal memoir, and thus we arrive at The Missing Picture, winner of the 2013 Un Certain Regard award at Cannes, nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the Oscars, and all around, one of the most daunting and important works of non-fiction cinema of the 2010s. The film’s title refers to the blank patch left in the historical record by the regime: all of the images of suffering, death, and casual evil that Panh recalls from his experience living through it, but which were either destroyed by the Khmer Rouge or never physically captured on film, either as motion pictures or stills. The Missing Image sets itself to the goal of rebuilding those images and recording them, giving visual testimony to the terrible events perpetrated against Cambodia from within, reclaiming Panh’s memories and giving them a tangible form that the totalitarian Communist regime worked to prevent during its brief, brutal time in power.

It is, in fact, something of a reversal of The Act of Killing, which explored the nature of mass killings by providing the aging perpetrators of those killings with a forum to express their memories through cinema, and thereby condemn themselves through their own words. The Missing Image instead gives voice to a victim, and is much more straightforward in the way it recounts history and then indicts its villains, though this is the only way in which it is more straightforward than anything. In order to stage his memories, Panh didn’t film re-enactments; he instead opted to stage his personal history as a series of elaborate three-dimensional tableaux, populated by small clay figures sculpted by Sarith Mang, while the history of the Khmer Rouge and Panh’s experience of it is recounted by a narrator (Randal Douc in the original French version, Jean-Baptiste Phou in the English dub, which is how I saw it). As movies go, this one is full of a great many still life subjects, but Panh and cinematographer Prum Mésa use the camera to probe through the richly colored, oddly playful sets, bringing the staged events to life with surprising vigor, considering how we’re basically watching a bunch of posed dolls.

It’s not just pregnant, kinetic camerawork that blasts life into the sculptures, though; Mang’s deliberately crude designs have individual personalities and shifting emotions that should hardly be conceivable for modeling clay figurines produced in the quantities this film requires. The childish nature of the technique and aesthetic constantly and uncomfortably reinforce the reality that Panh was himself barely out of childhood when he lived through the events he relates. Between the primitivist style and outstandingly expressive poses and faces, the figures in the film load it up with emotional resonance that ends up walloping us hard, and repeatedly, giving added wait to what are already dreadfully powerful stories put across in blunt, declarative statements that neither sensationalise the events nor beg for our pity and sympathy.

When, as happens somewhat often, Panh incorporates actual footage sanctioned by the Khmer Rouge, the contrast between the badly-aged black and white film and the colorful, hand-made figures appearing to watch or even interact with the film footage pushes and already bold and unique film into some kind of new place altogether, with the director uniting his decades-old memories with the scraps of extant documentary material to produce impressive conflations of past and present, personal and institutional. Throughout its running time, The Missing Image is as much a study of the persistence of memories as it is a history of the Khmer Rouge, and it is in these moments that those two threads draw closest together, combining with exceptional emotional force and intellectual thorniness in a film that has plenty of both of those things to start with.

Like most films about mass death, The Missing Picture is relentlessly, even oppressively unpleasant. As it should be and has to be, really. But even more than such essential works of pure human misery like The Act of Killing, this argues strongly for its essential nature by basing itself around the idea that we must never forget events such as these and human capacity for doing ill. It is, explicitly, an attempt to catalogue and present memories before they have been forgotten, something like a one-man Cambodian version of Shoah. If we do not grapple with films like this, we risk losing the memories and record of the events they depict, and thus make it easier as a specifies to repeat such events: you don’t walk out of The Missing Picture having “liked” it, but even so, I can’t name a single film released in 2014 in the United States that I’d be more eager to encourage people so seek out and sit through and process it in all of its difficult, disturbing complexity. It is both great cinema and important journalism, a rare and privileged combination.

10/10

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: EXIT, PURSUED BY A CROWE

Here's the critic's paradox about Winter's Tale: in order to make people excited about watching it, one has to explain in detail what it's doing, but knowing in detail what it's doing takes away some of the fun of watching it. It is, anyway, not a film for all audiences, by any stretch of the imagination: to begin with, it's an absolutely terrible motion picture. But it's also an absolutely passionate motion picture, leaking sincerity at every seam. And the sincerity both makes it more terrible than otherwise (since it commits hard to every idea that comes through, even the ones that were clearly never going to work), and also more worth watching in its own right (since that kind of total investment, without fear of being lambasted by cynical critics and audiences, is surpassingly rare in modern cinema, which mostly oscillates between legitimate irony and fake, forced sentimentality).

It was, as we know, a longstanding passion project for Akiva Goldsman, Oscar-wrinnign writer of many outlandishly bad screenplays and also, weirdly, one of the best staff writers on the TV series Fringe, just to show that even a script as toxic as the one produced for Batman & Robin can't poison a career forever. Winter's Tale is Goldsman's directorial debut, and it required him to cash in a whole career's worth of favors in order to push through a project based on Mark Helprin's 1983 novel, which had been troubling filmmakers for years; allegedly, no less than a directorial whiz than Martin Scorsese chipped away at the story before concluding it was unfilmable. We might say the joke was on Marty, except that with the evidence of the film in hand, it's still not clear that he was wrong.

The film opens in New York in the closing years of the 19th Century, with two Irish immigrants, rebuffed at Ellis Island thanks to illness, floating their infant son towards the new world on a toy sailboat named City of Justice. Many years later, the boy is all grown up to be Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), whose rise into adulthood left him tangled up with the gangster Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Peter is trying to leave the criminal life behind, especially after he meets and falls in love with beautiful tuberculosis victim Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), but Pearly isn't having it. To a degree that surpasses mere thuggish mobster petulance, and here's way the film twists into outright madness, and also starts to shade into spoiler territory; though if you are like me, it is only in hearing the spoilers that you would start to care about the film in the first place. See, Pearly is no ordinary gangster. He's not even an ordinary gangster outside of his tendency to speak like a psychopathic reincarnation of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. He is, in fact, a demon: a minion of Satan (awesome cameoing actor and don't dare look at any cast lists if you don't know and are even slightly interested in ever seeing the film - I knew it beforehand, and I wish I didn't), put on Earth to thwart the forces of light in doing miracles. See, every human being has one miracle, and once the achieve it, they can die and turn into a star. Pearly is certain that Peter's miracle is going to be saving Beverly from the consumption, and he's hellbent (as it were) on stopping the human from notching another victory for the Godly. Against Pearly, Peter's only ally is an angel in the form of a pure white horse.

So that's all, like, completely deranged and completely amazing, right? The only way to even potentially sell any of this was to play it so straight that it hurts a little, and Goldsman and crew did that, even when it broke the film. As it routinely does, given the inscrutable, half-explained weirdness of what I shall call the film's "theology" only in the absence of a word that actually describes the fairy tale spirituality underpinning the scenario. Or also the film's most visible example of someone locking into a choice that started out wrong and just went worse: Crowe and his extraordinarily baffling accent, an attempt to out-brogue Irish native Farrell that goes so far beyond caricature and cartooning that those words are insultingly small for it. In the absence of even one single other reason to praise Winter's Tale to the heavens as a particularly high-impact bad movie, Crowe's voice would be enough to do it all by itself.

But instead, Winter's Tale is an almost unlimited cornucopia of wonderful elements. We have, for one, the endlessly obvious fact that Farrell, 37 at the time of the film's release, has far too many years under his belt to convincingly play the fresh-faced rakehell that the script constantly implies Peter to be, and the giddily bad hairdo provided to the actor to try and compensate. We have, for another, the clattering impossibility of much of Goldsman's dialogue, eager to draw us through the film's themes in the most convoluted yet still over-expository ways, when it's not just being purely dysfunctional: "Daddy told me a story about a princess who died, and a kiss that made her not dead anymore" is spoken, with no measure of shame by anyone involved, by an aggressively darling moppet in one scene.

One can only get to that place when one is totally fearless: Winter's Tale stomps out with its daft story - which I have barely even scratched, since I am not anxious to ruin the last third - and its phenomenally poor casting and unhinged character building, and it puts everything out there. Everything. It's one of the most direct, emotionally instantaneous movies I have seen in ages, which is why I'm even a little tempted, despite it's obvious, comprehensive failure as a piece of filmmaking, to praise it as a wonderfully real work of art. I have only ever felt this tension in regard to Xanadu before this, and while Winter's Tale can't stand up to that comparison (what on God's earth could?), it says a lot that I felt okay with making it anyway. This is a colossal mess across the board, from Caleb Deschanel's tastelessly aura-filled cinematography to Rupert Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer's twinkling, garish score, to every single beat in the screenplay; but it is a mess that doesn't apologise for itself or pretend to be anything other than a loopy romantic fantasy with all the stops out. I love it, and I hate it - but mostly I am thrilled to have seen it, and I pray that I can talk all of y'all into doing likewise.

2/10? Sure, 2/10

21 December 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 2010: In which Adam Sandler ruins everything

There’s no dignity in spending all of one’s time complaining about how contemporary art isn’t as good as old art, which is why I do it a lot less than I’d like to. And while we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, living through a golden age of cinema right now (those of us living in South America perhaps coming closer than anybody else), there’s undeniably great works of the seventh art being produced in every country every year, with a full assortment of future classics waiting for future generations to linger on them and love them. Grumpy old classicists like myself might grouse over the paucity of masterpiece-level filmmaking of the sort that was thicker on the ground in the late ‘20s, the ‘40s, the ‘70s, or feel free to pick your own favorite filmmaking epoch; but masterpieces are still being made.

Except in one regard. Comedy in American cinema is terrible. Fucking abysmally awful. De gustibus non est disputandum - there’s no arguing taste - but film comedy is dead, and for a full generation there hasn’t been anything to compare to the glorious age of Chaplin and Keaton, or the masterworks of pre-WWII screwball, and the demented anarchy of the Marx Brothers, the cunning of Ernst Lubitsch and his caustic acolyte Billy Wilder, the snappy presence of the last generation of female comedic actors who had full authority and equal power to the men that Hollywood has always been much more comfortable placing in leading roles. There were bad comedies in those eras just as there are good comedies today; but in the present age, good comedy is a rare treasure, while in the ’30s and ‘40s, even a middleweight program-filler was constructed with a love for the craftsmanship of jokes, a sensitivity on the part of the actors, genuinely invested cinematic technique, and a willingness to assume that the audience is intelligent. 80 years ago, a couple of films like that were cranked out every month; we’re lucky to get one movie like that a year nowadays. It is, I concede, entirely possible for someone to love film comedy of the 21st Century and care for older styles not at all. We all know teenagers. But people holding this belief deserve more to be pitied than argued against, though they deserve most of all to be avoided.

This morbidity, never more than a few dark thoughts from the forefront of my mind, has been dragged up in honor of Grown Ups, the 15th highest-grossing film at the U.S. domestic box office in 2010, which makes it the year’s biggest live-action English-language comedy. It is a goddamn piece of shit. Cranked out by Adam Sandler’s Jiggling Boobies, Farts, & Fatties Falling Down Factory, AKA the Happy Madison production company, it is the apex of that man’s art, in so many ways, combining a motherfucking supergroup of Sandler and his buddies Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Chris Rock, along with the inconceivably over-qualified Maria Bello and Maya Rudolph as James and Rock’s wives (Salma Hayek, playing Sandler’s wife I do not think can be called “inconceivably” overqualified, though she’s certainly capable of more than this). It is a story of tacky men being under-matured, to the implausible amusement of the women in their lives, and the nominal amusement of the people in the audience, though finding Grown Ups funny necessitates that one finds it inherently marvelous when fat men talk about eating, old women describe having sexual desires, and old fat women break wind.

The five guys, once the starring lineup of a middle-school basketball team, have all been reunited on the occasion of their former coach’s death. Their walks of life have gone very differently: Sandler’s Lenny is a super-agent with hot designer wife and two disastrously over-privileged children, and the other four just kind of sink into a vague differentiation of not-in-the-real-world problems, like Kurt’s (Rock) feeling that his wife doesn’t respect him, just because he’s a homemaker while she works, or Eric’s (James) mild embarrassment that his wife still breast-feeds their four-year-old son. Bello’s handling of this sub-plot is almost beyond description: faced with the dialogue and infantile female psychology of a script by Sandler & Fred Wolf, she marches right into the thick of things and anchors all of this in a consistent, thoughtfully-built character with feelings and personal history and everything. I don’t know whether this is more or less admirable than Rudolph’s approach to her own microscopically-conceived role, which is to speed-walk through it and make bland faces so the camera stays away from her.

I would slag the film a bit harder for how it presents its women, especially Hayek’s Roxanne, who shifts from prickly career-oriented nag into loving mom and wife with no in-story justification nor even the slightest authentic human emotion underpinning it. But that would be missing the forest for the trees, since that’s how basically everybody is written. Sure, Sandler has given himself the most obnoxiously overblown fantasy life, aware enough that this could read as unpleasant that he and Wolf put in some boilerplate about getting away from Hollywood living and back to nature, but it doesn’t feel like they actually believe it. But Grown Ups is an equal-opportunity misanthrope, scornful of all its characters. The rich ones such because they’re out of touch; the poor ones suck because they’re unsophisticated. The women suck because they’re dumb shrews; the men suck because they’re clueless boys in need of a kindly feminine touch. The old suck because they haven’t died yet. From all this, comedy ostensibly springs, though virtually nothing actually does, especially since the film prefers to divert to unimaginative slapstick whenever the work of writing modestly clever sarcastic asides proves too taxing.

It is a cruel film that mouths platitudes about family and coming together that makes it infinitely more offensive than the cruelty would be if it were left alone. And it is a film that stitches together anecdotes into a plot rather than creates a mechanism that picks up steam of its own accord and produces humor as the inevitable byproduct of its storytelling. This is perhaps the most frustrating and galling thing about the film, and the thing about it most symptomatic of contemporary film comedy. The whole affair turns on the notion that “Wouldn’t it be funny if X and Y did Z?” When “Z” is complex enough, you end up with the likes of Judd Apatow’s movies, shaggy improv that tries to remember that it’s about characters. In Grown Ups, “Z” isn’t complex. “Z” is Kevin James pissing in a pool, Rob Schneider getting his foot shot with an arrow, Kevin James swinging into a tree. Is there some specific trait that makes it funnier for Schneider’s character to be shot in the foot, or for James’s character to piss in a pool? There isn’t at all, though the film leaves open the possibility that “because Kevin James is overweight” is the reason. This is, anyway, the difference between tight, disciplined comedy and shallow gagging. There should be irreducible comedy of this one man being shot with an arrow, because of who he is and where that arrow came from. Instead, it’s most like primitive grunting - arrowfoot is violencelaugh.

This merry horror show of aimless shouting and slapstick and sleepy gross-out humor (15 years after the Farrelly brothers’ heyday, the Happy Madison folks should be ashamed that they couldn’t come up with more outlandishly tasteless breast milk jokes, even in a PG-13 environment) is all shepherded by Sandler’s good lackey Dennis Dugan, who keeps things light and harmless and makes certain to always keep Sandler seeming like the one sane man in a world of insufficiently weird goofballs, and presents jokes rather than sculpting and building them. More importantly, he keeps his eyes and ears focused on the film’s inordinately large product placement library, silently drawing our eyes to KFC buckets and Dunkin’ Donuts cups, and serving with religious fealty the idea that Grown Ups is a consumable product of no greater nutritional value than either of those things, with its only purpose to provide an audience with exactly the experience the audience was promised, right down to the easily predictable heartburn. This is the antithesis of great comedy: great comedy should be impossibly surprising right before it strikes and completely inevitable after it strikes. “Watch the famous people be silly idiots” is not that. It is a stone-faced ritual of the notional form of comedy divorced from the energy or content that would actually make it comic.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2010
-With Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios blurs the line between feature film and two-hour advertisement for other feature films
-3-D reaches its artistic pinnacle in Step Up 3D, wherein bright green frozen drinks fly right the fuck into your face
-A culture's doom is sealed when some nameless Warner executive asks the question, "what if we called it Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1?"

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2010
-Abbas Kiarostami, leading light of the Iranian New Wave, travels to France to make Certified Copy
-The found-footage horror game travels as far as Norway, and André Øvredal's Trollhunter
-Chilean experimental director Raúl Ruiz goes to Portugal to make the last major film of his life, the 4.5-hour Mysteries of Lisbon

UNHOLY MOSES

The story of Moses and the exodus of the Hebrews from Pharaonic Egypt is, when you get right down to it, one of the key works of literary narrative in the entire history of the world, so there's no reason a filmmaker shouldn't poke at it. That's what shared foundational texts are there for. So if e.g. Ridley Scott wants to make a movie based on Exodus that puts a rational materialist spin on a story that is, down to its bones, about faith, spirituality, and the immaterial, I can't immediately come up with a reason he oughtn't, outside of a distinct sense that it's probably a very bad idea.

Then again, I might just think it's a very bad idea because I have seen the result of Scott's experiment in applied agnosticism, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and it's terrible in ways that really don't seem possible. Scott is not an untalented man, and this is not his first dramatic action epic set in the ancient world - it's transparently a stab at doing Gladiator with a Biblical tang, though it ends up feeling more like the compromised, ineptly truncated theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven (and if Exodus is to have a similarly redemptive director's cut someday, it is well-hidden in the current footage). One can, from time to time, spot Scott the stylist waking up long enough to set the camera someplace for a the kind of immense epic wide shot that does all the things movies do best, particularly later on: the sequence of the Egyptians giving the Hebrews chase to and then into the Red Sea hogs all the best shots, whether it's the ethereal sight of an evacuated seabed, or a mountain collapsing and taking the Egyptians' chariots with it, a string of gaudily gilded ants helplessly tumbling to their death. The film is on much weaker ground the closer it gets to its characters, in all senses: the intensely sharp digital cinematography, courtesy of Dariusz Wolski, is so pristine that it gives everything an unpleasantly crisp sheen that makes the close-ups feel slightly nauseating. Though I shall concede that the punched-up realism provided by this does absolutely splendid things for Janty Yates's costumes and Arthur Max's production design, making the ancient trappings feel very physical present and new, without the distant costume drama feel of so many earlier Bible epics.

But even more than the visuals, it's the story that starts to make one's eyes bleed a bit when it attends to much to the characters. For a story that has been told so many times throughout the centuries and given such definitive cinematic form in Cecil B. DeMille's elaborately campy monument to mid-century kitsch, The Ten Commandments, the assortment of four credited writers charged with getting Exodus whipped into shape did an alarmingly terrible job of it. This is a two and a half hour brick of a movie that spends its sullen time plodding through virtually every plot point and still feels like it has to madly rush to include everything. It's one thing to compare it to the bloated DeMille picture, but this isn't even as smart or comprehensive in its storytelling choices as DreamWorks Animation's 99-minute cartoon musical The Prince of Egypt (which remains, against all odds, the most satisfying cinematic treatment of the story to date). Squatting down to watch Egyptian politicking? Oh, yes, plenty of that. The ten plagues, certainly the most dynamic part of the story outside of the Red Sea passage? The movie burns through those suckers with a haste suggesting that even with a half-committed attempt at giving physically plausible explanations for it (an spike in crocodile activity resulted in clay and blood in the water, which drove out the frogs, which rotted and bred flies...) is a bit embarrassing for the filmmakers to sully themselves with. It's so hectic that it's basically played for morbid comedy, not to the film's benefit, and it gives short shrift to the outstanding, richly cinematic treatment of the death of the firstborn, a moodily-lit dose of paranormal horror that gives Exodus a badly-needed dose of movie-like energy.

Now, taking all that as given, we could still find ourselves with an Exodus telling the durable human story at the heart of the religious parable, which I suspect was Scott & company's goal. And it is here, in fact, that Exodus is at its very worst, since even the shamed depiction of the plagues involves some terrific effects work and the director doing an outstanding job of framing things with a suitable grand, historically weighted scale. But the writing and acting is just dismal, when it comes to the humans. In the lead role, Christian Bale has observed some previously unimagined kinship between Moses and Bruce Wayne, and he plays the part with the quietly self-amused smirk that he honed in his Batman trilogy; the result brings in the wrong kind of modernism, especially when Bale is contesting with the film's oddly-chosen embodiment of God and/or Moses's post-concussion hallucination, a petulant boy played by 11-year-old Isaac Andrews. The sight of Bale looming over a snotty little deity, the both of them swapping arguments about morality in fussy British tones, is curious enough to almost work as parody, which is not apparently what the film was going for. Playing Ramses, the self-indulging pharaoh whose rage against the Israelites drives the story, Joel Edgerton's problems only begin with the well-publicised fact that he's a white dude wearing enough self-tanner that it qualifies brownface. Which is a problem, though Bible movies have been putting white dudes in non-white-dude roles for a century or more. Edgerton is just really damn bad in the part, affecting a haughty demeanor that he can't maintain or turn into plausible line readings, though with some of the lines he has to say - a particular howler is his level response to Moses's demand to free the slaves, "From an economic standpoint alone, what you're asking is problematic" - there's not enough acting talent in the world to salvage things. Still, what Edgerton is up to is a kind of terrible, wonderful experiment in playing camp straight, and leaving us with an impossibly unappealing performance in his wake.

Nobody else in an overstuffed cast gets to make an impression, meaning that among those stuck with a five or ten-minute extended cameo are John Turturro, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Hiam Abbass, and Ben Kingsley, who exudes more gravity his tiny handful of scenes than everything else happening anywhere in Exodus can manage cumulatively. The parade of wasted talent, and worse yet, talent that visibly knows it's being wasted, is the most galling part of a movie in which damn near everything is galling: the harsh digital imagery, the incomprehensible pacing, the ungainly attempt to give the ancient story a contemporary emotional feel, the noisy Alberto Iglesias score, the jagged editing by Billy Rich, lurching through scenes with no clear sense of rhythm or pacing. Somewhere at the conceptual stage, all of this had a shot at being interesting, but the execution is so wanting in so many ways that outside of some well-chosen stills of people striking poses against CGI cloudscapes, Exodus offers damn little in the way of entertainment or human interest, and lacks any interest whatsoever as a freshened-up version of one of the best-known stories ever told.

3/10

20 December 2014

GO EAST, OLD MAN

The Homesman is a film with an unimaginably specific and small ideal audience. It is, to begin with, a Western; a Western lover's Western, drunk on the iconography of the genre and steeped in an awareness of the kind of myths told in Western cinema and more than that, the particular language and tenor of those myths. It expects its viewer to know Westerns very well. Not a winning strategy in the 2010s. Meanwhile, it is also a film that holds the morality and conventions of the very same genre in open contempt: it regards the mythologising and wiry masculinity of the traditional Western with extreme distrust. That leaves basically nobody left to be fan of the thing, which is maybe why this terribly excellent film hit the ground stumbling at Cannes and has been greeted with muted positive reviews ever since. That, and the fact that it is unrelentingly bold in its experiments, and some of them don't land, and some of them only land if you're willing to buy into the film's ultimate thematic conclusion that basically sums up as: "fuck it, everything is hopeless". Which cuts into its target audience even more.

The second theatrical feature directed by Tommy Lee Jones (adapting the screenplay from Glendon Swarthout's novel alongside Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver), and cementing him as an enormously interesting complicator of Western imagery, after his marvelous and horribly underrated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Homesman is a film about madness. A specifically female variant of madness: once upon a time in the West, three women were broken down by the sheer oppressive agony of life in the Nebraska Territory, and the male-dominated culture that has managed to take root there. Arabella Sours (Grace Gummer) lost her children to diphtheria, Gro Svendson (Sonja Richter) was badly raped, and Theoline Belknap (Miranda Otto) just up and snapped from the sheer desolation of it all, and killed her child. All three of them have been left incapable of functioning in the merciless, survivalist world of the untamed West, and the community where they live has collectively decided to send them back East to Iowa, where a religious charity will tend to them. Only none of the men in the community can be bothered, and it falls to spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) to escort them all back to civilisation. Crossing paths with a pathetic claim jumper, George Briggs (Jones), Cuddy saves him from a lynching if and only if he'll act as guide and bodyguard.

That takes us around halfway through, which is before things get really peculiar, including a two-thirds twist that completely redirects the film's focus and energies, and is another reason why it's easy to hate the film; if you've been reading it as feminist up till that point (and there's no clear reason why you shouldn't), the twist comes as even more disruptive as a shock, since the film that happens afterwards can't be meaningfully defended as feminist on any level I'm familiar with. Except insofar as it goes to extreme lengths to look with dismay on the performance of masculinity in the context of the American West. Briggs, when we meet him, is a loathsome sad-sack, wheedling and messy and begging; over the course of his exposure to Cuddy, he tries very hard to become a better and more noble soul, and this ends up going nowhere at all. In its last scenes, the film adopts the perspective of late John Ford, the notion that the kind of unapologetic maledom that makes space for European civilisation to enter untamed wild spaces is itself totally unsuited for civilised people, and had better be regarded with cautious, pitying disgust than admiration. There is certainly nothing admirable about Briggs, except for little patches in the back half, and Jones's enthusiastic portrayal of all the character's faults is impressively free of any pride whatsoever.

But where Briggs is the prism through which the film refracts its ideas about morality and behavior in the West and thus, implicitly, in America itself (for what does the West function as in Westerns, if not a symbolic version of the country that rolled in after it?), The Homesman is not his movie. It's maybe not even Cuddy's movie, though you'd be forgiven for thinking that given the excellent precision of the writing and Swank's performance, which combine to make her one of the most singularly well-etched figures in English-language cinema in 2014. The film is really about those three madwomen, barely given lines of dialogue or individualising characteristics outside of the flashbacks that clarify what, exactly, drove them mad. Through all five of its central characters, the film is a pessimistic study of personally identity: how easily it can be broken, in the case of the three ill women; how conditional it is and subject to torment by the offhand cruelty of others, in the case of Cuddy; how powerless we can be to change it despite our best intentions, in the case of Briggs.

In short, it is a study of human, and especially feminine strength in the face of the bleakest hell of life imaginable. The West, as depicted in The Homesman, is a nasty and cruel place: Rodrigo Prieto's gorgeously severe cinematography, framing the horizon as prison that keeps the images pinned down, makes the New Mexican landscapes of the film shoot look beautiful and merciless; Marco Beltrami's score taps into traditional Western-style musical cues while bleaching them of all sentiment. It's a dry, bony film, always grappling in new and ever more eccentric ways with the limits and possibilities of human fortitude in the face of both physical and social cruelty.

Absolutely none of which successfully implies how captivating the whole of it is: impeccably acted, sharply written, and directed with a keen sense of both the power of visuals and the nuances of human behavior. It's not always free from being derivative - Ford's The Searchers and 7 Women are never far from mind, and its desire to probe its characters ends up leading it to some, odd, lumpy places (the last 15 minutes, in particular, are just damned confusing in the way they're assembled). But while it is a flawed film, they are glorious flaws; the flaws that come of trying to be as complicated and challenging as possible, to bend genre rules to one's own will, and to make an experience that genuinely interrogates itself and its audience. It's not always a totally satisfying experience, but it's one of the most engaging and rewarding films of the year even so.

9/10

19 December 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: PUNK ROCK GIRLS

“Scandinavian social realism” and “fluffy character-driven comedy” are what you might call non-overlapping magisterial. But that’s not the sort of thing to stop Lukas Moodysson, whose seventh feature We Are the Best! marries exactly those two genres and does it with surprising ease and charm. As one of European cinema’s foremost humanists, Moodysson has always been prone to treating his characters with particular generosity and forgiveness, and the jump from something like Together, and its deft lightness of touch, to a full-on comic exploration of human behavior at the edges, is not such a very long one, perhaps. At any rate, We Are the Best! works like gangbusters; it’s perhaps a little bit too similar to the writer-director’s big breakthrough, Show Me Love from 1998, to feel as fresh and insouciant as it wants to, and it has the inevitable roughness that comes when a movie builds itself completely around young actors, but it’s so likable in its storytelling and so earthbound in its observations about the travails of early adolescence that it could overcome much stiffer problems than it has facing it.

Set in the early 1980s, the film is about the dream of punk, then on its last legs as a meaningful cultural force. The heroes are a pair of tween girls, androgynous Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and mohawked, politically riled-up Klara (Mira Grosin), the latter of whom provides all the angry passion that drives the two friends to turn listening to music into an act of defiance against the system, the cultural rise of disco and new wave, and the old punks like Klara’s brother who gave up on punk when it started to fade out of fashion. On a whim, and to screw with some asshole teen boys playing clamorous rock in the local community center’s rehearsal space, the girls form a band to give vent to their disgust with the state of things. When it turns out that they can’t, between them, play a single note on any instrument, they finagle a talented religious schoolmate, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) into serving as their lead guitarist and teaching them about music on the way.

That’s about it as far as heated drama goes. There is, eventually, some small conflict between the three when boys enter the picture and Bobo and Klara set their eyes on the same one, but this is all in the grand tradition of European art house drama. That means low stakes, limited plot, and a focus instead on watching people’s behavior in an unforced, naturalistic state. The success of We Are the Best! comes, then, from its terrific depiction of three contrasting (but not conflicting) personalities, and their outsider status: as young people trying to force adults to treat them with any kind of dignity, as young women in a cultural context that favors men, as political activists surrounded by comfortable conformity and apathy. It’s clear enough from the way Moodysson, adapting a comic book by his wife Coco Moodysson, treats them that he’s pro-punk, pro-political engagement, and pro-feminism, though We Are the Best! never remotely turns into a tract. In fact, one of the best successes of the film is that it looks on the girls and their enthusiastic naïveté from a clearly adult perspective. There is a point at which their passion shades into silliness, and the film knows it; while it admires the fervor of youthful ideology, it also recognises the limited scope of that ideology. The tone doesn’t eulogise punk rock, but merely acknowledge that its passing left a void in which those who had a driven certitude that society wasn’t working needed to find their own voice, since that voice wasn’t being provided by the culture at large.

Ultimately, it’s a film about children becoming young people and finding their identity, rather than about the particular meaning or merits of those identities, and it adopts a most forgiving and loving position to the mistakes and dead-ends that process can consist of. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s honest and moving without being nostalgic in even the smallest degree, an enormously difficult pitfall for the genre to avoid, though one that the roughness of the film’s realistic aesthetic and its caustic punk soundtrack help to keep at bay even if Moodysson’s writing wasn’t so clear-eyed.

An altogether delightful, intimate character study that’s consistently funny without being flippant or insincere (the tone is overwhelmingly “we can laugh at these kids now because we did the same goofy things once upon a time”), and limited only in smallish ways. The acting could be better, is part of it: some of that is inherent to the writing, since the most overwrought character, Klara, results in the most frequently mis-aimed performance. There’s a lot of grounding that needs to be done to keep her political rants sounding like passionate beliefs instead of just repeated gobbledygook, and Grosin has some problems making that happen consistently. And then on the flipside, we have Hedvig, the most quiet and reflective of the girls, the one who is most based in watching and thinking and responding, and LeMoyne’s performance is the best, or at least the most stable. To be fair, the acting is, across the board, very good more often than not. But when the young performers are missing the mark, it’s pretty distracting and debilitating.

The other problem, and oh, how “problem” is a leading word, is the style: in the middle of the 2010s, we’ve hit a point where the low-fi handheld docu-realist aesthetic of European stories about the life of people of limited economic means has entirely run out of anything new to do or say. The script, the tone, and the acting are the important things here, and they are all solid and doing what they must. But We Are the Best! simply isn’t very interesting or enlightening to look at, feeling like the camerawork and editing are on autopilot for most of the time, and serving only to give a good foundation for the script to do its job. There’s of course nothing wrong with any of that, but for all its real pleasures and its touching, accessible humanity, if anybody responded to the first five minutes of the film by sighing “not this again?”, I would have to reply that, yes, that’s pretty much exactly right. It’s a film for seeing familiar things being done well, not for being surprised or challenged.

8/10

EVER READ CRYPTONOMICON? YOU SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT INSTEAD.

There are two ways, I think, that one could go about making a story of Alan Turing and his key role in inventing the computer as a means of cracking a Nazi code during the Second World War. One way would be to go all-in on the psychological aspect, and take it for granted that Turing's closeted homosexuality was haunting him and driving him in his quest to uncover the secrets of his nation’s enemies, thus making his eventual punishment by the British government for his "gross indecency" even more ironically cruel. The other would be to discard personal matters altogether, and make a purely process-driven story, in which Turing and his colleagues are nothing but the human vessels for acts of research and insight, and the act of breaking the code is itself the protagonist, with all the people reduced to the status of window dressing.

The actual Turing biopic that exists in the world, The Imitation Game, tries to combine these methods in a hybrid that does not work much at all. It comes alive only when it most fully commits to being a war-era thriller about cryptography, dying another in a long line of tiny deaths when it alights on Turing's personality and especially his sexuality, which is handled in the most bone-headed, tasteless way. From the winking innuendos that keep elbowing those of us in the know (winking innuendos are a problem for the film: an even worse one is when Turing makes an offhand comment about the trickiness of using cyanide, and the part of me that knows how he died vomited a little bit in my mouth), to the outlandishly tin-eared way homosexuality finally pulled into the story proper, and finally to a cascade of "and then this happened" title cards near the end where, long after I assumed the movie couldn't do anything to make me more irritable, it commits its final act of trivialising the personal and political facts of its story that some registers as the worst moment of a film that only has two or three actively good ones.

So anyway, Alan Turing. Played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, straitjacketed into playing a much worse character than I think he should have been able to by a screenplay that pre-populates the character with a suffocating array of tics and ill-considered traits and bad focal choices - Graham Moore's script, adapted from Andrew Hodges's book Alan Turing: The Enimga, portrays him as possessed by a kind of sketch comedy reduction of Asperger syndrome down to the most barbaric "he's a dick! and he talks in clipped, dickish sentences about things nobody else cares about!" cluster of cheap clichés.The best thing I can say about the characterisation is that it neatly captures the peremptory, unlikable hardness of a brilliant mind more concerned with committing acts of genius than engaging with the world of humans. Which isn’t an uninteresting concept, though the film’s treatment of fumbles pretty badly.

Plainly, The Imitation Game fancies itself a descent into the closed-off interior world of a man who has gone to great lengths to disguise his actual personality. I expect it supposes that it has done a fine job of making Turing a sympathetic, tragic figure who just wanted to be known and understood. That’s certainly the implication of the demented line “Sometimes it’s the people no-one imagines anything of who do the things that no-one can imagine”, a tactical nuclear strike at the heart of English grammar that Moore loves so much, he includes it three motherfucking times. Well, sometimes it’s not that nobody imagines things of people, sometimes it’s just that people are tetchy and off-putting, and that’s far closer to the film’s depiction of Turing, with all his alienating tics that would feel better suited to a broad comedy than such a teary-eyed Serious Drama with all the hushed production design and costuming and stately lighting. Or the obnoxious way that Turing’s sexuality is pulled in as an “aha!” moment. I would like very much to be able to get over the film’s repellent use of Turing’s sexuality. But damn it, I guess I’m just not going to. Maybe it would be easier if the film’s very last beats didn’t leave such an ugly taste of “then he killed himself, but it’s okay, because the Queen pardoned him a half century later”.

So, while very little works in the film’s decision to make itself a biopic of Alan Turing rather than, say, a caper film about the team that broke the German Enigma machine, there are bits and pieces of The Imitation Game that are okay, or better. Alexandre Desplat has broken whatever curse he’s been laboring under, where for every good score he composes in a year, he has to pair it with a lousy one - this makes three times in 2014 (after The Grand Budapest Hotel and Godzilla) that Desplat’s music has augmented and deepened the film in crafty, enjoyable, even somewhat complex ways. It’s a mixture of mechanistic and romantic elements that do a much better job of exploring Turing’s headspace than the script or acting do.

In the face of a full roster of very talented people doing rather disposable things - Matthew Goode is all irritable reaction shots, Mark Strong is barely permitted more than a cameo (though it’s an amusing one), Charles Dance is stranded in a stock “priggish bureaucrat” role - Keira Knightley emerges as a deeply necessary and rewarding shot of human energy into the biopic-by-numbers feel of it all. Uniquely among the cast, she seems to have concluded that The Imitation Game would be better off as a comedy of manners than a bone-dry docudrama, and plays Joan Clarke, female genius in a world of condescending patriarchal men, with a distinctly spirited tang, almost more like an American’s parody of Brits and their stiff upper lips than an actual English actor playing an English character. There’s an ironic, play full twist to her line readings that gooses the film and makes it both meaningfully entertaining and aware of human emotions when she crops up onscreen.

And every so often, the techno-thriller this isn’t pokes its head up, and director Morten Tyldum suddenly shocks us by inserting a moment of well-paced, involving cinema into his creaky museum piece. The moment where Turing has an insight into the character string that will allow him to reliable break Enigma codes and rushes to implement it is absolutely tight and enthralling, not just an improvement over the dozing aesthetic of the rest of the film, but one of the best pieces of process-oriented filmmaking in 2014; it’s immediately followed by a discussion of war strategy and morality that’s equally strong and equally out-of-place in the film’s overall scheme.

Because, on the whole The Imitation Game isn’t just bland mediocrity, it’s actually lousy. Its agonisingly shallow, de-historical depiction of Turing as psychological agent never stops being annoying; its embalmed visuals make WWII England look like a diorama rather than a living place; its editing is actively shoddy, mashing frames together without caring in the slightest if they flow or if the performances within them feel continuous. It’s not just awards-bait filmmaking at its most trivially prestigious, but at its most stylistically flat as well. It’s not entirely without value, but not remotely enough to bother with it as a whole.

5/10

18 December 2014

LIFE OF A PRINCESS

If you want to check out my thoughts on what I suspect will end up being my favorite animated feature release in 2014, my review of Takahata Isao's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is up at the Film Experience. It's real pretty.

THIS IS A BITTER ADVENTURE, IF IT MUST END SO; AND NOT A MOUNTAIN OF GOLD CAN AMEND IT.

And thus does one of the most ill-considered experiments in franchise extension end precisely the way it was bound to end. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the grand finale of director Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 children's novel, feels like a weirdly-shaped movie fragment and not a movie at all. Though it's still perhaps the best individual film of the trilogy, if only by default. It starts out terribly, finds itself by the end of its first hour, starts to lose the thread during the wandering titular battle sequence that can only boast about its mass, and not its narrative momentum nor its visual excitement, and finds itself again in the last 15 minutes or so, when it refocuses itself on the hobbit whose status of protagonist has been more nominal than actual in two of three films now. So that's a lot of losing and finding and losing, but in the aggregate, the film ends up with more satisfying material, percentage-wise, than the achingly slow-paced The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which kicked things off (barely) in 2012, or the meth-addled flitting between ill-constructed subplots in 2013's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The film's biggest problem is the obvious one: not, precisely, the decision to break the meager little book into three long tentpole films, but the way that decision came up so late in the game. Initially, the idea was to make The Hobbit into a two-part adaptation, and the revised concept came after the script was written and principal photography was completed, and the material had been shaped into two individually contained features. Jackson and fellow writer-producers Fran Walsh and Philppa Boyens did a solid enough job of fashioning An Unexpected Journey into a fairly cohesive thing even after chopping its end off and bloating it up with extraneous material in the middle, but The Desolation of Smaug felt at once too rushed and too aimless in all its padding, and the cliffhanger ending tacked on after its somewhat functional third-act climax made it feel needlessly unfulfilled in a way that none of the team's earlier Tolkien films had. But the worst of it is only now coming to fruition: for if The Desolation of Smaug is kind of a self-contained object with the illusion of a final act, The Battle of the Five Armies is that film's actual final act, bafflingly inflated to 144 minutes and given no first and second acts of its own. It's literally about virtually nothing but the run-up to its battle and the battle itself, trying desperately to buttress that with enough character scenes to feel like it has some kind of self-contained arc.

The movie is never worse than in its hectic opening, which abruptly picks up with the massive dragon Smaug (voiced and motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) flying to destroy the lake town of Esgaroth, outside of the lonely mountain Erebor where he lived for many years in evil isolation, until some dwarves riled him up by dousing him in gold from giant molten statue. Fuck alive, the end of The Desolation of Smaug was asinine. So Smaug burns the hell out of Erebor, until he is eventually taken down with an enormous black arrow fired by the brave pessimist Bard (Luke Evans), who has been prepared for just such an occasion. I admire any film with the instinct to hit the ground running like this, but Smaug's attack is not at all suited to the function the film requires it to serve, and we're never really invited back into Jackson's Middle Earth so much as we are plopped there. As the film clumsily juggles characters and plot developments that follow as the Esgaroth populace re-orients itself and marches off to Erebor to demand their share of Smaug's treasure from newly-reinstated dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), the blunt-force style of storytelling only really serves to call attention to how little reason we've been given to care about any of this even slightly. Near the end of the overall sequence, a dog wandering through the bottom of the frame looks straight into the camera in a manner that suggests it's trying to get out of the movie, please, and boy, did I ever feel for that dog.

The opening sequence is the most aimless, trivial, aggravating part of a film that swoops from grandeur and the best filmmaking of Jackson's career since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King all the way back to tin-eared dialogue and embarrassingly amateur shot set-ups and editing at a fairly regular clip. The Battle of the Five Armies is at one and the same time far too indulgent in stretching barely any narrative content out to some two and a quarter hours of movie, pre-credits, while hectically rushed in its depiction of what little bit is there. The subplot from the last movie that found the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan, never less interesting in the role) trapped in a ruined haunted fortress is bluntly disposed of in about five minutes featuring weird cameos from Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Hugo Weaving; Stephen Fry's nefarious master of Esgaroth evaporates from this movie so quickly that I kept assuming he'd show up again.

Meanwhile, plenty of lengthy, soporific time is dedicated to politicking between elves and men, between dwarves and elves, and to maneuvering armies into place before they actually start to fighting. And a great deal too much time is turned over to the allegedly comic scallywag Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who gets himself into the most hellishly unentertaining scrapes and represents the single most ill-advised choice in this series, even worse than the dismal introduction of a romantic plot between dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the latter of whom makes it almost two-thirds into The Battle of the Five Armies before devolving into a generic action grrl damsel in distress. Some of this works better than other parts, and generally speaking, the tension the filmmakers creak out of the build-up is better than the actual fighting itself, which gets to be a bit numbing. And in the case of the protracted (so protracted) battle between Thorin and his CGI orc nemesis Azog (Manu Bennett), it's both numbing and boring, since the film's obvious hope that we'll regard this as a great clash between lifelong enemies is undercut by the crappy development of Thorin over the trilogy, and Armitage's limp performance thereof, and the complete absence of any development of Azog.

Regardless of the rest, nothing is better than when Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is the focus. After being rudely sidelined in The Desolation of Smaug, the ostensible lead character is back to getting enough screentime to feel like he matters again, and he's used as well here as in any other point of the trilogy. The point of hobbits, really, is to domesticate high fantasy; this was their function in both of Tolkien's novels featuring them, and it's something that Jackson & company have never grasped better than they do here, using Freeman's comic fluster as a way of lightening and humanising (hobbitising?) the clashes of battles, the ponderously portentous dialogue, and Howard Shore's emphatically epic score. Freeman, I am more convinced than ever, is the most interesting performer in the entirety of the Jackson Middle Earth franchise, playing a character whose arc and emotions he has thought about far more than the writers ever did, and making his interpretation all about Bilbo, not about the enormity of the films themselves. It is a little performance, a silly and friendly performance, and a very true performance, and because of all this, it is the absolute, clear highlight of a sloppy movie.

Sloppy, but not without its compensations. Limited to basically just three locations - the ruined city outside the dwarf keep, the dwarf keep itself, and an enormous iron hellgate - the director's tendency towards gawking at his sets is tamped down a bit, and instead of feeling like a travelogue for a CGI-aided New Zealand, The Battle of the Five Armies actually starts to use the camera to shape the action and provide a sense of scale; it is the only one of the Hobbit movies to come even close to attaining the visual sweep of all three Lord of the Rings pictures. Even some of the least interesting moments, like the Thorin/Azog fight, are pepped up by the introduction of winter, adding a harsh edge of white to Andrew Lesnie's characteristically postcard-like cinematography. And for the first time in three films, there's no obviously weak CGI: some of the close-ups of Azog and other computer-made creatures probably could have done with a bit less bright, direct lighting, but there's not a single shot that matches the tacky video game aesthetic of An Unexpected Journey, especially.

In essence, it mostly works as a popcorn movie: a fatiguing popcorn movie whose action scenes are repetitive and occasionally too ridiculous to care about (once again, Orlando Bloom's forgettable Legolas shows up to turn things into Mario game), but which are presented with a passion and gravity that feels so, so much better than the meandering idiocy of the last two movies, and punctured by Freeman's wonderful low-key comedy when it all threatens to become top-heavy with pretension. It proves that the whole idea of a three-part Hobbit was a ruinous idea for more than it ever comes close to redeeming the first two, and it still feels like a paltry return to Middle Earth that would have been better left undone. But it has its moments. And next year, when the single-movie fan edits of the trilogy are complete, I don't mind supposing that some of the loveliest stuff will be in the 20 or so minutes that come out of this last movie.

6/10

17 December 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 2009: In which children's entertainment can only be regarded as a vile act of contempt for both children and childhood

There is blackness, to begin with. Impenetrable black, with unfocused electric guitar chords slicing through the nothing. And then comes the giggling, shrill and mad, the voice of some otherworldly hellspawn that has seen things that any living thing would pray to never see, to never imagine. And then the voice speaks, and its words come in a taunting sing-song: "We're baaaaack..."

And that is the first thing to happen in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

It's a more auspicious opening for a horror film than a children's movie, which turns out to be just about right. As one of the most thoroughly unjustified sequels in the history of the moving image, the 2009 follow-up to 2007's miserable Alvin and the Chipmunks manages, somehow, to do everything worse. It manages, somehow to both function as a dull-minded retread while self-consciously "upping" the whole shebang, even introducing a whole new slate of second-tier protagonists, leading to a story that's far more enervating than it's possible to imagine or describe. The design and animation of the titular creatures is still an enormous liability, with their grotesque cartoon-realist faces squatting nastily on the well-rendered fur of their bodies, and the marriage between them and the live-action footage making up the rest of the film feeling positively awful, as actors gamely attempt to interact with characters they clearly don't believe in, in some cases. Appallingly, the only really committed performance comes from David Cross as the recycled bad guy, former record company executive Ian Hawk; he actually digs into the nasty depths of the role and the comic strip logic driving a very peculiar and uninteresting revenge plot. Everybody else is pretty much just staring at the chipmunks with expressions that plainly telegraph the thought process "there? Is that what they're sitting on? And if I put my hand right... here, I should be touching one of them". Especially Kathryn Joosten, an admirable seventy-year-old character actress whose befuddlement at everything required of her in a story-inciting one-scene performance reads with heartbreaking clarity through every over-articulate line reading.

In The Squeakquel - my fingers are going to go numb from typing that word, I can just tell - we find that talking chipmunk brothers Alvin (voiced by Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), and Theodore (Jesse McCartney) are full-on international rock superstars, giving a benefit concert in Paris as the film opens. With stately inevitability, their human guardian Dave (Jason Lee) is injured and laid up in traction in a French hospital (with the Eiffel Tower looming outside the window, because of course it would be), and the boys' care falls to his kind Aunt Jackie (Joosten). But when she's almost immediately flung backwards down an escalator, in one of the very small number of scenes of slapstick violence I have ever seen in a children's movie that actually made me feel like something immoral was being done in the name of (extremely poor) comedy and (negligible) entertainment, they end up relying on her slacker gamer grandson Toby (Zachary Levi) for all their survival needs.

As if this wasn't bad enough, Dave's one great wish is for the chipmunks to go to high school. That this is fucking insane is not considered for a minute, even for the sake of a crappy joke; not even the bullies and such that show up with inexorable timeliness seem to find it weird that there are five-inch-tall animals wearing clothes wandering the halls. Especially not animals who are presumably worth millions and millions of dollars at this juncture. Also not finding it weird: the school's many girls who coo with sexual delight at seeing their favorite pop stars sharing classes with them. Because that's not creepy, confusing, and totally unnecessary in a movie for six-year-olds.

There are soon enough going to be more species-appropriate objects for the chipmunks' burgeoning sexuality, though: Ian has recently managed to find and swindle three talking chipmunk girls, and hearing that the boys' new school is putting them up as its competitors in a regional music competition, he enrolls his new victims in the same school, hoping to convince the principal (Wendie Malick) to put them in competition instead. With her own fangirlish enthusiasm for Alvin and his brothers, she is reluctant to agree, but the school body demands otherwise, and so the chipmunks are thrust into competition with the objects of their first-ever crushes, all of them conveniently color-coded and designed so that we know instantly who goes with who: sporty girl-Alvin is Brittany (Christina Applegate), brainy, glasses-wearing girl-Simon is Jeanette (Anna Faris), and plump, kind girl-Theodore is Eleanor (Amy Poehler). Point 1: playing the romantic determinism card quite this forcefully is no good for anybody. Point 2: you have to be a staggeringly enormous asshole to cast Faris and Poehler in your voice cast only to run them through all those layers of processing to make them anonymously chirpy and shrieking, devoid of anything that even accidentally resembles personality. It's like buying wagyu beef filets and drenching them beneath a sea of ketchup.

Overprocessed, deeply unpleasant covers of pop songs spin out at routine intervals, while the shockingly thin plot sneaks its way through all of the extraneous nonsense, much of it involving the completely superfluous Toby, designed for no better reason than the give the film enough padding to stretch out to the epic length of 88 minutes. The Squeakquel owes its existence solely to financial considerations, due to its predecessor's unwarranted box office success, and this does not by any means make it special in the annals of cinema; nor does the fact that its creators make no effort to justify its existence even so. Storytelling at even a basic functional level is of no interest to writers Jon Vitti and Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger, nor to director Betty Thomas, and not, I assume, out of ineptitude. Why bother? The first movie was a vicious and vile wreck of terrible characters doing terrible things, and it left little reason to improve either the characters or the incident. Put the characters in, turn their nasty little voices up all the way, and include the same bullshit comedy (though The Squeakquel at least dials back on scatology - there's not one single gag about coprophagy in the whole damn thing), and the money rolls in. Which it did, in abundance. Faced with that kind of can't-lose scenario, and such inauspicious ingredients, who wouldn't just coast on terrible, lazy ideas that don't make sense, like putting talking superstar chipmunks in a public high school, and then cranking through routine plot developments that have no interest in what being a chipmunk among humans might entail, either at the character level or even just as a source for comedy.

It's infuriating enough when this kind of "fuck you, we know you're seeing it anyway" sequel comes out, as happens multiple times every year (we're in a particularly ripe time for such things, but they've been part of Hollywood's arsenal since at least the 1930s); but when it's married to the equally insufferable "fuck your kids, we know you just want to shut them up for a little while" tang of far too much children's entertainment, it becomes positively evil. The Squeakquel is not, on its merits as a work of cinema, any good at all: flatly shot, with obviously confused actors spitting out terrible lines of dialogue and stomping through unmotivated scenes. But what it is and what it represents is far, far worse than just a witless and uninspired children's comedy. This is the living embodiment of the intellectual contempt of a system that views its audience solely as passive consumers, and movies solely as product designed to meet the needs of a checklist. There are objectively worse films than The Squeakquel made every single year, but this is about as close as it comes to a motion picture totally stripped of any value as art or entertainment in any respect.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2009
-Tired of nobody having made the most immersive 3-D spectacle of all time yet, James Cameron provides Avatar
-Disney briefly attempts to roll back American animation's total embrace of CGI with The Princess and the Frog
-Drunk with power, Peter Jackson uses CGI and cloying sentiment to smother The Lovely Bones

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2009
-The late Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy is adapted into three rather drab Swedish films starring the magnetic Noomi Rapace
-Proving that Hollywood isn't unique in pitting virtually indistinguishable movie against the next, France produces two entirely unrelated Coco Chanel biographies, Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky
-Yorgos Lanthimos's Dogtooth raises the bar for familial dysfunction in the movies

16 December 2014

MOVIES I VERY NEARLY MISSED IN 2014: I'VE GOT NEWS FOR YOU

There is praise that sounds like an insult, even when it's not, and in that vein may I offer: Nightcrawler has outstanding eye lighting. Like, it's all I could think about, in scene after scene after scene, how commanding and how unconventional the lights being trained on the main character's eyes were. This shouldn't be surprising, for it was after all shot by Robert Elswit, who can be one of our most insightful and capable cinematographers when he's sufficiently inspired. Which isn't something that's happened in quite a long time, or at least not to the degree that we see here.

Eye lights aren't just some nitpicky technical shit, either. That is to say, they're absolutely that. But in the case of Nightcrawler, it not just technique for the sake of technique, but a key part of how the movie creates its wonderfully tetchy feeling of moral turpitude. You see, this is the story of a man, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has no soul. There are details around all of that, and some hardcore, rage-filled commentary on the news media, but that's basically the heart of it. He has no soul, no inner sense of decency whatsoever, and this is chiefly expressed through two things (three, if you count the immoral and illegal things he does during the narrative): Gyllenhaal's performance, surely the best work of his career, which mechanistically strips away all his humanity and replaces it with uncomfortably hungry, unyielding stares, and a precise, clipped way of speaking that makes his every utterance sound like he's playing it off of a tape recorder, and his knack for standing too close and then silently filling the gap anytime the person he's talking to tries to make space. All of this contributes to the sense that this isn't a human being we're watching, as much as something like a robot lizard in person shape. The other thing, the wholly visual thing, is the eye lighting. Sometimes, it's not apparently there at all, and the shocking flatness of his face rips all the life right out of him. Sometimes, it takes the forms of diamond-sharp flecks of bright white reflected in his eyes that leaves him looking like a demonic thing who has just had an "aha!" moment. At any rate, he never looks relatable, we can never look him in the eye and feel good about what we see there. For an artistic medium whose most powerful tool is a well-placed close-up, that's as powerful as it gets.

"Nightcrawlers", in what may very well be an accurate nod to industry lingo, are here presented as the freelance videographers trawling the nighttime streets of Los Angeles in the hopes of finding a splashy disaster to film and sell to the morning news stations: car crashes, murders, anything as long as it's ghastly and full of death. Louis learns of these magical people one night after completing his work, which consists for the moment of sneaking into construction sites and stealing material to sell on the secondary market. Watching with rapt awe at the no-nonsense Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) capturing several angles on a freeway car fire, Louis commits the very next night to chasing down these grisly stories on his very own, using his insistent, mechanical fixation on the rules of some How to Win Friends and Influence People-ish websites to forge a partnership with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at one of L.A.'s crappier, poorer stations, and fashion a puffed-up little business model for himself that requires taking on the helplessly innocent Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant and protégé. By virtue of lacking even the smallest regard for the dignity of the suffering, Louis quickly gains a reputation for capturing the bloodiest, bleakest footage of any of the city's nightcrawlers. And this starts to turn into something even more curdled when he starts deliberately obstructing the police in order to goose his footage.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (brother of writer-director Tony, and twin to editor John, who cuts Nightcrawler) doesn't try to hide his emphatic disgust with the "if it bleeds it leads" attitude of news producers or the audience consuming that news, and the film keeps dancing around being so sour and cynical as to be unwatchable. The ace quality of most of the acting (Ahmed strikes me as being a little too wide-eyed and easily dazzled for what the role requires) helps with this, as does Gilroy's positioning of the film in firmly generic territory: this eventually turns into a pretty straightforward thriller, though of a very clever construction where the tension is not generated by wondering what will happen to the protagonist, but what the protagonist is going to do. In committing to this, Nightcrawler is maybe a little bit guilty of playing the same game it accuses all of its characters of playing, turning brutality into entertainment, though the film's generally limited interest in lingering over Louis's footage helps with this.

All in all, it's a pretty nervy, grimy blast of soul-darkening nastiness, from the crystalline night photography to the rage-flecked theme to the way it manages to make every single character unlikable, if only because so many of them are willing to like right past Louis's obvious inhumanity as long as he's providing for them. And Gyllenhaal's fiercely off-putting but ingenious performance is a perfect nucleus for the rest of it to orbit. There's enough kineticism in the visuals and blocking, and snappy enough plotting, to keep the film from being quiet as much of a nihilistic drag as everything I've described so far, but still enough of that nihilism that the film never loses (nor tries to) the stagnant reek of the gutter. A bit vicious, a bit gleefully blackhearted, but a film that's overall quite impossible to look away from or shake afterwards.

8/10

13 December 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: THIS TURBULENT PRIEST

Titling one's movie Calvary, as writer-director John Michael McDonagh has done in his second feature (and also the second entry in his project to give amazing lead roles to Brendan Gleeson), boxes things in pretty well. It has to be a film with a walking, talking Christ surrogate, pretty much, and Calvary's is a doozy: Father James (Gleeson), one of two priests in a rural Irish parish, who spends the film's opening scene taking confession from one of his flock who bluntly announces an intention to kill the priest the following Sunday. And this is specifically because Father James is so totally, undeniably innocent of any wrongdoing of any kind, that the killer has chosen him to be the pure sacrificial lamb to atone for the sins of a Church that hasn't sufficiently acknowledged its sin of allowing pedophiles the protection of the cloth.

In another universe, this could serve as the opening to a crackling thriller about a targeted innocent hunting down his unknown assailant, a kind of religious-themed D.O.A.; but my oh my, that's not even slightly the film McDonagh had in mind to make. Fairly early on, Father James speaks to his bishop (David McSavage), and acknowledges that he recognised the man's voice in the confessional; so much for being a mystery. And despite having this knowledge, and being informed by the bishop that this situation doesn't fall under the sanctity protecting those in the confessional (the would-be killer not showing any desire to atone), Father James shows no interest in stopping his assailant. Instead, he spends what may very well be the last week of his life trying to do the best he can to better the lives of those in his small community, and to feel his way around the broken relationship between himself and his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), born prior to his entry into the priesthood upon the occasion of his wife's death.

Calvary is, if this doesn't seem like an artificial construction, an extremely lapsed-Catholic movie. It could only possibly have been made in a country dominated by Catholicism and by a native of that country; as much as it is concerned with any other topic under the sun, the film is obsessively interested in the waning authority of the Church in a place where it once was simply assumed to be the primary force guiding the lives of everyone living there. It's a film whose characters and story are so nakedly symbolic that it doesn't care even a little bit if that symbolism gets overbearing or trumps the realistic logic of the scenario, which I will confess to finding immensely rewarding. Grappling with national religious identity in the form of a character study is not a task for the squeamish or the subtle, and for all its political cartoon filing of characters into types like The Atheist, Dr. Frank Harte (Aiden Gillen), The Rich Man, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), The Foreigner, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), and so on, there's an organic texture to the way that Calvary assembles and cycles through its characters that keeps it from feeling forced or overly messagey.

As the center of this swirl of metaphorical approaches to the Church's role in modern times, Gleeson has to play three layers all at once, two of them wholly symbolic, and still make Father James feel like an actual, plausible human being. The film cheats its way into it: McDonagh's script unabashedly conforms itself to the actor and makes use of all his best skills, without having to necessarily tax Gleeson to do much more than stand with his mournful beardy expression in some of the quieter moments. Then again, McDonagh and Gleeson developed the character and the script together, so the work of creating a character goes deeper than just standing in front of a camera and reciting lines, in this case. However it came to be, Gleeson is absolutely devastating in the role, one of the great triumphs of commanding screen presence of the year. Evoking Father James's inner fear and resignation and willingness to assume guilt through long wordless stretches and the heavy way he carries his body, Gleeson provides the movie with all the shape and focus it needs to carry off its broad ambitions.

Not that he's the whole movie, or anything; frequently, he's put in an entirely reactive role to the splashy characters surrounding him. The film loves its supporting characters: it gives all of them big showcase moments and all the best lines of tart dialogue, adding a pitch-black hilarity that keeps the film from feeling too damn serious too often. A film about religion, religious institutions, and pessimistic faith though it is, Calvary is grounded in the messy stuff of day-to-day humanity, and its stately movement from one character to the next as each scene glides by gives all of its humans a chance to shine.

Larry Smith's grey-washed cinematography lends a sense of terrible Romantic grandeur to the Irish landscapes (an easy thing to do, in fairness) and aging interiors alike reinforcing and deepening the shifting emotions of the story, while Chris Gill's editing provides a crisp momentum that draws us unto scenes, and carefully shapes our relationship to James. So for for all that it's driven by ideas and screenwriterly conceits, it doesn't drop the ball on being a well-built piece of cinema. The ideas are what count most, though: they're a bit bleak at times and willing to let theme triumph over characters every so often (including, probably, the ending shots), but presented with impressive thoughtfulness and intellectual grounding, and just enough humor that it doesn't burn on the way down. It is, in more than a few ways, an Irish Catholic variant on the scorched-earth Swedish Lutheranism of Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light; not a recipe for a breezy fun time at the movies, but when you're in the mood to really grapple, I mean, just grapple with religion and sociology and dense character acting, you could hardly find anything better in the contemporary cinema landscape.

8/10

11 December 2014

BILL PLYMPTON'S CHEATIN' HEART, AND OTHER MATTERS

Firstly, those who share my animation fandom will want to hustle over to The Film Experience, where I have reviewed the new Bill Plympton feature Cheatin' and gone totally gaga for it.

Secondly, my stack of IRL obligations is thiiiiiis big right now, and so I'm unlikely to write anything else this night. Or, God forbid, the next night also. But I have seen some other movies the past couple of days, and while I'm going to write about them at some length eventually, that's not going to happen just quite yet. In the meanwhile, I would like to offer you these review-surrogate capsules:

Calvary: What should be, by all rights, a belabored dual metaphor (priest as Christ; priest as the Catholic Church as its influence and respectability wane in formerly rock-solid Catholic communities) lands with a wallop thanks to Brendan Gleeson's powerhouse performance and the mournful beauty of its images. Crackerjack editing and script structure.

The Homesman: A small miracle of a Western steeped in the genre's codes and conventions while challenging those conventions every chance it gets. Director Tommy Lee Jones throws in a few too many shots that reveal his strong working knowledge of John Ford's filmography, but he's in great form as an actor, and Hilary Swank is even better. The cinematography, score, and sound design are all top-notch as well. Why, exactly, did this get a chilly reception at Cannes?

Nightcrawler: Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Elswit are easily the best in show. Writer-director Dan Gilroy's lambasting of the local news feels like it's repeating stuff everybody already knows, but does so with enough passion, and in enough of a twisty genre framework, that it still plays like gangbusters.

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 2008: In which cinema inters a recently-finished television staple

The question has been nagging at me for some weeks: six years later, is there any sort of value to be had in another white male critic lambasting the first Sex and the City movie? The good news, then, is that I'm not entirely inclined to do that. Not all of it, anyway. The trick, I find, is to muscle through the utterly foul first hour to get at all the stuff that's actually kind of smart, sensitive to its characters, and at least slightly willing to interrogate the franchise's status to non-fans as the thing that sold a grim late-capitalist hallucination of rampant consumerism in a bluntly fictive version of New York. The other trick is to have one's first real engagement with that franchise having been the rather vile 2010 feature Sex and the City 2, compared to which just about anything would seem measured and intelligent.

Set three years after the conclusion of the 6-season HBO Zeitgeist hit of the same name, Sex and the City tells of the travails that happen to four beloved archetypes of all women who live privileged lives in a white urban enclave, after they think they've all found their happily ever after. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), the narcissist with abysmal taste in expensive clothes (first thing in the movie: Carrie walking by a gaggle of teens who are all in awe of her dress, dominated by a hideous fucking crepe flower the size of a dinner plate that's perched on her right shoulder like a badly conjoined head), is just about to move in her hunky millionaire boyfriend John James Preston AKA "Mr. Big" (Chris Noth); brittle, feelingless lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is barely tolerating life in Brooklyn with her husband Steve (David Eigenberg) and son Brady (Joseph Pupo); mousy doormat Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is so happily married to Harry (Evan Handler) and so happy to have just adopted a daughter, that the film can't even come up with a decent plotline for her. Samantha Jones (Kim Catrall), the voracious sex addict and generally awesome deliverer of filthy quips and the only one of the four who doesn't threaten to plunge me into a rage of woman-hating Marxism, is living in Los Angeles with Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), and starting to feel sad about all the sex she's not having. They're all four about to be pressed back together as close as close can be, thanks to Carrie's out-of-character impending nuptials to Big; so out-of-character, in fact, that he starts to panic, and she freaks out, and they split up, and this triggers a range of difficulties in all their lives.

Eventually, that happens, anyways. First, we have the wedding planning, and it is horrible, rancid, consumer porn bullshit. I tried to prepare myself: I tried to figure out what, besides gender, makes something like James Bond "okay" and Sex in the City "not okay", and was all prepared to grapple with that question, but really, fuck it. Sex and the City's depiction of attaining things is unholy, particularly with the film coming out right at the tipping point of the world economy into disarray, and the lifestyle of Carrie & company turned into something not just distasteful, but actively repellent. For very long stretches, it doesn't seem as though the film is able to communicate any other thought than "buying things makes you happier and better"; no matter how many anonymous brown people James Bond guns down, it doesn't offend my sense of basic decency nearly as much.

But after an hour of this, something magical happens: it all just sort of melts away, and in its second hour, Sex and the City turns into a comfortable, lived-in depiction of four female friends who know each other well trying to help everybody else keep it together during a series of emotional crises. This is not without its swerves into idiotic comedy: it is based on a sitcom, and there's a consistent regression towards that mean in the way the script by director Michael Patrick King (a regular contributor to the series as both writer and director) builds its jokes and steps through all of its character arcs according to nice, neat principles of episodic dramaturgy. It is not possible, that is to say, to mistake Sex and the City for elegant cinematic storytelling: even setting aside that the first two-fifths of its running time is given over to godawful non-drama (and setting aside, also, the fact that it's two and a half fucking hours long, with enough content to stretch itself out to 90 minutes). It has lumps, and it has painfully obvious punchlines, and it has an almost comically misjudged sense of pacing, with a moment at the 110 minute mark that clearly seems to be cuing up the last spate of reconciliations until- nope! let's grind another half-hour out of this sucker.

What it also has, though, are four actors who are not all equally gifted, to be nice about it, but whose comfort level in the skin of their characters is enough that even with my unfamiliarity towards the series (and hostility to the little bit I knew of it), the warmth of the relationships between the four women feels alive and real and quite inveigling. It's downright pleasant to watch them interact with and support each other, even though, by all logical rights, it doesn't really make sense that Charlotte would want to hang around these people, and it makes even less sense that anybody in the whole world would want to hang around Miranda.

The film's human-level coziness clearly marks it out as a simple bit of fan-pandering, but done with enough affection towards those fans that it's not impenetrably insular. Mind you, this coziness doesn't gel at all well with the film's need to be cinematic: it has an acute awareness that justifying the leap from the little screen to the big screen requires a kind of Event! sized storytelling to match (in which respect it certainly bests the stubbornly low stakes of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, from later in the same summer), and that Event! focus is the source of many of the film's problems. It keeps interrupting the characters for enormous drama, life-changing stakes, and so on, all of it feeling bloated and unnecessary, and all of it should with stiff ineffectivness by King and cinematographer John Thomas, another veteran of the show, who between them have very little sense of how to do anything with the visuals but make them look large and flat.

In short: the film's strengths are those of television, not of film; it doesn't look like a film; and yet here it is, a film. The odd impulse to make things into movies that are perfectly well-suited to television neither started nor ended here, of course (did we not just find ourselves examining The Simpsons Movie?), and at least Sex and the City tries to go big. It simply doesn't succeed. Intimacy is the right fit for this material, and when it allows itself to be intimate, it's charming in its way; it would, undoubtedly, have been better for this never to have pretended it was a movie at all. But that is not the thinking of Hollywood accounting, which prefers above all and especially in the 21st Century, to use established brands to make money off of established fanbases. And if there's one thing that Sex and the City can teach us, it's the almighty importance of brand names.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2008
-Pixar's WALL·E makes the fate of a dirty robot the stuff of the greatest soul-stirring drama
-Iron Man and The Dark Knight create the only two flavors that future superhero movies will ever come in for the rest of time
-Sensitive indie poet of natural spaces David Gordon Green reinvents himself as a bro-com auteur with the pot epic Pineapple Express

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2008
-The unbelievably bleak and distressing British/Irish political drama Hunger makes director Steve McQueen and star Michael Fassbender into major artists overnight
-Pascal Laugier's Martyrs instantly becomes one of the most talked-about examples of the French extreme horror scene
-Israeli director Ari Folman produces the unclassifiable animated docu-biography Waltz with Bashir

09 December 2014

WHEN IDIOTS WERE IN EGYPT'S LAND

If there's anything that could imaginably help The Pyramid to stand out in the cramped world of low-budget horror (spoiler alert: there is not), it would be the surprising way that the film confounds the expectations of first-person camera filmmaking. The film equips itself with a grand total of three POV machines - one documentary cameraman, one badass archaeology chick with a little head camera, and one Mars rover on loan from NASA - which already sets us up with plenty of reasonably decent excuses to cut around locations like a proper movie, but that's apparently not sufficient for director Grégory Levasseur (Alexandre Aja's longtime screenwriter making his directorial debut; Aja is on-hand to produce). Frequently, the film abandons those perspectives entirely, for a new position not merely where the characters aren't, but where they can't be: on at least two occasions, the camera sets up shop on the inside of a room that the characters are about to enter, a room that is specifically defined as being a place that humans have not set foot in a bajillionty-hundred years.

On the one hand, I admire Levasseur's decision; it allows him access to the one dubious strength of the first-person style (we more closely identify with the characters in the moment of a jump scare) without having to shackle himself to its many, many limitations of cheap-looking footage and tortured justifications for including any kind of camera in every single scene. But then, having given itself room to actually do something with the form, The Pyramid doubles-down, hard, on the found-footage conceit that has increasingly been silently abandoned by first-person movies: the very first thing that we see are title card explaining with documentary crispness that what we're about to watch is the record of what happened outside of Cairo on such and such a date in 2013. Those with a keen sense of recent history will thus be able to guess what the second thing that we see turns out to be: smoke billowing out of Cairo and masses of political protesters, whose actions sit way deep in the background of the movie's plot, crassly setting up a ticking clock that feebly drives the action as the first act shades into the second. Is it the most tasteless insertion of tremendously significant real-life events into a junk drawer horror picture in all of history? No, certainly not. But might very well be the most tasteless of such gestures in 2014, particularly when we take the time to note that of the six primary characters, the two specifically defined as being ethnically Egyptian are also the first two to die.

Anyway, this conceptually unsound depiction of what happened on that fateful day initially takes the form of footage being shot by "Fitzie" (James Buckley), of bold, adventurous Sunni (Christa Nicola), who is by all accounts a documentary filmmaker, though we absolutely never see her perform any action that suggests that she's not a second-string news reporter. They're there to capture the exciting new discovery made by father-daughter archaeologist team Holden (Denis O'Hare) and Nora (Ashley Hinshaw), he a fusty old traditionalist, she a tech-savvy progressive, whose work with satellites (we see one such satellite, from a perspective somewhere in outer space; so much for found footage) has uncovered an unknown pyramid beneath the Egyptian desert. And not just any pyramid; a three-sided pyramid! Or as we call them in the real world, a tetrahedron, but superstar high-tech archeologists don't have time for no ten-cent words.

Just after determining that the pyramid has some kind of horrible toxic dust polluting its air, but before sending their Mars rover "Shorty", operated by hunky engineer Michael (Amir K), into its dark depths, the team is interrupted by word that the government has pulled all archeological permits until the protests have died down. Under the shouty eye of Corporal Shadid (Faycal Attougui), the team packs up, but Nora manages to convince everybody to just send Shorty in for a few minutes. And having done so, it gets attacked by some barely seen rat-cat hybrid hellbeast. That should be that, but Michael starts to panic about the shit that will be rained down upon him if he doesn't retrieve the rover, and so do all five of our heroes end up trucking on into the pyramid, where they discover many spooky engravings, some more of the hellbeast, and an even bigger, nastier hellbeast to boot, all while piecing together enough evidence to prove Egyptian cosmology, a development that doesn't seem to seriously concern anybody, including writers Daniel Meersand & Nick Simon.

The best thing that could have happened to The Pyramid was opening just a handful of months after the largely similar (first person, underground, end up stumbling into the actual physical place where the afterlife is located) As Above, So Below, which remains one of the most infuriatingly shitty horror films I've seen in the 2010s. The Pyramid is merely bad: not doing anything acutely wrong, just sort of lying there limp,clumsily mixing its visual metaphors while relying on some hilariously bad dialogue to keep the movie on its rickety rails. Most of this falls to poor Holden, whose nearly every line functions less as "I'm saying something that I, as a person, think" than, "I'm saying something that I, as a cog in this barely-functioning machine, need to express in order to make things unnecessarily clear to the audience". Not just mythology things. Backstory between him and his daughter things, of a sort that does not matter. Like the bit where he nastily talks down her interest in extra-terrestrial life. Would you suppose that means that aliens will end up having anything to do with the rest of the movie, or at least that Nora's susceptibility to paranormal musings will come into play? You would, in that case, suppose wrong.

The one thing that The Pyramid does manage to do is set up a reliable drip of jump scares, insofar as that makes the world a better place. It also has modestly effective monster design: the more we see of the big bad boss monster, the more it looks like low-budget CGI gone amok, but the catbeasts are effectively creepy, looking just enough like real animals (kind of like if you threw some Sphynx cats into glowing green sludge) that they seem like actual perversions and not the work of an overindulged effects designer. One particular shot, with their little eyes glowing red as they chase the characters, is legitimately atmospheric and spooky in all the best ways.

So that's one 10-second shot out of 89 minutes; not the worst batting average for a horror film of this ilk. There's plenty about The Pyramid that's tedious, from its characters who are far too stupid in far too many ways to remotely convince us that they actually practice their established professions, to its jerry-rigged and clichéd escalation of tension (that is to say, it's "escalation" of "tension"), but... no, actually, it's just tedious.

3/10