30 October 2014

THERE IS NO DOG BUT DOG

Bias time: I was barely prepared to like John Wick at all, and the possibility of loving it seemed so laughably remote that it hadn't even occurred to me. And yet here we are, and I kind of loved John Wick. It's a silly world.

On paper, the film is generic as generic gets: John Wick's (Keanu Reeves) wife dies of an unnamed disease (Bridget Moynahan plays the role, such as it is), and her final act on this world is to arrange for a beagle puppy to be sent to him. This is a beautiful, lifesaving act, and it lasts for two days, until a vile, bro-ish Russian named Iosef (Alfie Allen) wants to buy Wick's beautiful muscle car, and Wick isn't selling. So Iosef and his thug buddies break into Wick's home, steal his car, beat him bloody, and in a moment of pique, kill the dog. And it is this, which he later describes as the theft of the last hope he had in the whole world, that pushes him into a blood rage. John Wick, you see, is a retired assassin. And Iosef is the son of Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), the Russian mobster who used to be Wick's employer. And that is all the ingredients we need for a film long revenge quest & war against the Russian mafia.

The beauty of John Wick - and I don't use "beauty" in some rhetorical sense, but in the sense that John Wick is, in fact, an absolutely breathtakingly beautiful movies in places - is that it is, in every possible way, essentialist. What do we need to know? That John's wife died and he he loved her, and his beagle died, and he loved her too. We need nothing else, and the filmmakers (writer Derek Kolstad; directing team Chad Stahelski & David Leitch, the latter uncredited for contractual reasons) do not provide it. The Wick marriage is depicted in a montage whose clarity and efficiency rival the one in Up for communicating the whole span of a relationship in wordless, tragic imagery, and the visual shorthand and elliptical editing throughout the opening 10 minutes usher us all the way into the film's second act so quickly and with such limited energy spent on anything that isn't directly related to the most stripped-down version of the scenario that the film resembles an impressionistic ballet more than an action movie.

An action movie it is, though; the best American action movie in a few years, I almost want to say, except that there are certain expectations about both "action movie" and "American" that the multinational production doesn't entirely satisfy. That it is a well-choreographed series of fight scenes with crackling editing (by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir) is not all that surprising: Stahelski and Leitch are both veteran stuntmen, and they presumably know a thing or two about the ways that human bodies can be battered and thrown around onscreen, and the ways to move a camera to capture that from its most interesting angles. But John Wick isn't really an action film that works as a combination of "wow, that was amazing!" moments in the fashion of The Raid 2, the only 2014 action movie that belongs in the same conversation.* Which is especially odd, given that it consists of very little outside of "that was amazing!" moments.

What's marvelous about John Wick is that it filters it amazingness through chilly storytelling and aesthetics, working something as a psychological portrait of its title character that is rather knocked off track in the first moments by discovering that, well, he actually doesn't have any psychological depth, and instead of regrouping, digs in deeper to become the cinematic expression of a man who has replaced every element of his personality with a brutal desire for revenge. Hence the film's breathtaking efficiency, and its refusal to indulge in any sort of detail or world-building that isn't directly related to the story at hand. There are many, many places where John Wick could go off on that kind of tangent: the world in which it takes place has a robust subculture of assassins, using their own currency and operating according to a code of behavior that suggests great depths and complexities, and the film is populated by a host of terrific character actors who, one would expect, are all going to get their big showcase moment: Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane. And they're not. The film isn't just withholding, it's being conspicuous about it, presenting a full, living, colorful world and yoking itself to a man barreling through it with single-minded fury.

It doesn't sound like it, but I take this to be an absolutely great thing. The coldness and cleanness of John Wick is its most unique and easily its best feature, even above the drop-dead gorgeous way all of this is shot by cinematographer Jonathan Sela, with frequent recourse to florid, artificial coloring, and a film-long fascination with the way that physical texture, shadow, and color interact with each other and with moving objects (people, mostly, but not exclusively). Between the film's tone, its narrative sparsity, and its visual style, it feels something like Only God Forgives as directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, or Michael Mann's Point Blank. Lord knows where any of this comes from: Sela has never shot anything like this at all, and it's become increasingly rare for first-time American directors to go this far overboard on style and elusive narrative structure.

But I'm glad it did: John Wick is pretty terrific, with an action scene in a bathhouse that I would stack against anything else from English-language cinema in the last decade for its visual elegance, the skillful and appropriate employment of brutal violence, and the energy and complexity of the fighting itself. The other setpieces aren't quite so good (and the first, the second time that Wick's home is invaded, left me feeling rather dubious about the whole film, I will confess, though this turned around quickly), but it is, after all, not a film about setpieces: it is a film about hopelessness expressing itself through violence (and being redeemed, in a final scene that really ought to have pissed me off, but which just barely manages to work by employing just about the only specific chain of details I can imagine working in that moment), a film about implacable anger beautifully channeled through Reeves in the role that best employs his non-presence since The Matrix 15 years ago. It has poetry in its soul: formally elegant and cold poetry, but poetry nonetheless. And it left me feeling more exhilarated and pleased than a bare-bones revenge movie has in a whole hell of a lot of years.

8/10

29 October 2014

NONNEIN

Feature-length toy commercials may not get much more crass than Ouija: "You can buy one of these at your local toy store", one character literally snorts at one point, and that's after the infomercial-like exchange during which two other characters speculate about how nice it would be if there were some sort of... anything... that let you communicate with the dead people you've known... some sort of easily obtainable board, perhaps. But points for burying that advertisement underneath a hilariously self-negating film whose overriding surface-level message is much closer to "If you don't use our product exactly the way we tell you to, you will die. And even if you do use it exactly the way we tell you to, you'll kill a solid 60% of your friends in the process". Truth in advertising!

That kind of giddy idiot writing is very much the thing that keeps Ouija surprisingly entertaining for a very long stretch of its 89 minutes, though the entertainment is never intentional. Or hell, maybe it is. If you are special effects artist-turned-first-time-director Stiles White (co-writing with Juliet Snowden; they last teamed up to script the absurd Jewish exorcism movie The Possession), and you are stuck making a motion pictured based on a Hasbro board game so non-specific in its application that a non-branded variant of it shows up in three or four haunted house movies every year, maybe you do just throw your hands up and start making fun of yourself. At least that would go some way towards explaining why Ouija is maybe the funniest bad horror movie of this year, and the last couple of years as well; maybe it's just the accumulated rank incompetence. I vigorously approve of it either way.

It's barbarically clichéd in every regard: there's this girl, see, Debbie (Shelley Hennig), who has been acting all weird, and nobody can tell why, not even her best friend Laine (Olivia Cooke). Still, it's a shock when she kills herself by hanging herself from the chandelier in her parents' foyer with a string of bright white Christmas lights. A shock to everybody but us, that is: we saw her playing with a Ouija™ game - the characters are fucking fanatical about calling it a "game", which makes sense from a corporate standpoint, but reflects the casual usage of no human being in existence - and we saw her playing it alone, in strict defiance of the rules. And that is how she called up the angry spirit that made her go all hollow inside and then kill herself as the punchline to a shot set-up that holds so long on the "her body is totally about to drop from the top of the frame" tension that you could wander out of the theater to have a nice dinner and come back before it finally plays out.

Laine is horribly distressed, more than anybody else, and after a couple of days of moping - days during which her father leaves on business, while Debbie's parents leave her the keys to their house while they decompress for a few weeks, leaving the film conveniently devoid of authority figures besides Laine's mystic old Hispanic grandma (Vivis Colombetti), which I am extrapolating from the way she's always referred to as "nona", and not because Laine or her dad (Matthew Settle) appear to have an ounce of Latino blood between them. But by Christ, we could not have a movie like this without a mystical ethnic.

So anyway, Laine strong-arms her boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), hers and Debbie's other best friend Isabelle (Bianca Santos), Debbie's boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith), and most reluctantly of all, her own little sister Sarah (Ana Coto), into having a séance in Debbie's house, using the very same Ouija™ board. Naturally enough, they kick up an evil spirit; naturally enough, it takes them an inordinately long time to figure this out, despite the spirit's overtly menacing behavior and refusal to actually identify itself as Debbie. Many deaths happen, while nobody figures out what the hell is going on, and Laine, who had earlier blamed herself for Debbie's "suicide", because she went to a party without her friend, seems totally unruffled by the actual deaths that she actually is at fault for.

It's as thunderously predictable in every moment and as an overarching plot as any PG-13 horror movie could ever daydream about being; anyone who has even heard of, let alone seen Insidious: Chapter 2 ought to be able to get pretty far ahead of the movie without hardly any issue, and that's even without the cameo by that film's Lin Shaye, as the Lin Shaye Character (kind of - there's actually a bit of misdirection around her, but the reason for the casting is obvious enough). And White telegraphs each and every scare with enough chance to brace yourself and cover your eyes and have a scream cued up that only the most generous and giving viewer could actually manage to be frightened by it.

But Ouija is not meant to be a good movie: it is meant to lever money away from bored teenagers, and if along the way it manages to be so idiotic and half-formed as to be laugh-out-loud hilarious, so much the better. Much of this is because of the dialogue, which includes some delectably impossible words that nobody would ever speak - like when reference is made to ordering pancakes "with the works", which may be some regionalism, but only served to conjure up for me the appealing image of pancakes topped with onions, relish, and tomatoes. Or when Douglas Smith enunciates the word "article" with what sounds for all the world like an additional "c". Or when the characters stop their conversations dead to have lengthy readings from the Ouija™ rulebook, which everyone in this universe appears to have committed to memory.

Much more is simply from how laughably ill-made Ouija is: the tense setpiece staged in a tunnel so dark that we can actually see quite clearly down its entire length, even though the characters cannot; the ripped-from-J-horror ghost designs. Even the fucking production design is laughable: Debbie and Laine's rooms are both covered in magazine ads and posters that suggest less that the art crew was aware of what these "hu-man teen-agers" did with their private spaces, and more that the art crew was sozzled on wine and grabbed a bunch of fliers from community theater Shakespeare productions.

It is, basically, a wonderfully bad movie, filled with lapses in story logic and erratic characters written like ciphers and played like aliens. I do not recommend seeing it in theaters: I almost popped from trying to hold in all the obnoxious remarks I wanted to make to the friend I saw it with. But oh, Lord, when the DVD comes out, the beer-and-pizza parties this outrageous piece of shit is going to fuel...

2/10

28 October 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1989: In which I wanted a Ron Howard picture in the series, dammit, and this is the one I picked

The post title says it all, really. Ron Howard is an important Hollywood director, and I felt that I had to include him; but there was no reason I could come up with for any individual title in his filmography. 1989 had no other compelling contenders, plus I had never seen the director's film Parenthood from that year, which was a plus.

Forgive the ungainly backstage ruminations on how I assembled the Hollywood Century schedule, but I share it now, of all times for a reason. That reason being that Ron Howard's films, and the branch of studio filmmaking they represent, are characterised above all things by how little there is to say or think about them. They are purposefully and aggressively non-cinema: mass consumables which have already done the work of digesting themselves, so that you the viewer are able to sit comfortably and have all the hard work of watching a movie done for you. Sometimes, the individual components are all working perfectly, alone and in tandem, and you get Apollo 13. The rest of the time...

This is not to say that Parenthood is a "bad" movie. It is the kind of movie specifically designed so that it can never possibly be "bad". It is, on the contrary, entirely "proficient" in a way that is above all things safe, friendly, and appealing to a mass audience entirely by virtue of presenting it with concepts that it expects us to happily nod in agreement with - oh, that's so true. And to dress this up in a kind of deliberate un-aesthetic with everything lit to be bright and flat, framed in a combination of two-shots and close-ups that communicate only that this character is now looking in this direction. Films like this have always been a major part of the Hollywood landscape, though they are almost never remembered well in later years: films that are easy, ostensibly likable cinema, made by talented craftspeople whose job involves making movies cleanly and efficiently, with a deliberate renunciation of any creativity or challenging engagement with its own ideas that might spook the audience. It worked in this case, at least: Parenthood ended up on the list of the ten highest-grossing films of the U.S. domestic box office in 1989, a fate that could not possibly befall an adult-targeting ensemble comedy in the cinematic landscape of 25 years later.

Now, you perhaps caught that "ostensibly likable" up there, because to be honest about it, Parenthood feels to me so non-confrontational, so sand-blasted of difficulties, so goddamn square, that it's a bit dreary and upsetting to watch it. Part of that is the grim spectacle of watching talented actors that one prefers to enjoy blasting past the narrow challenges of a script that requires virtually no effort to play well. Part of it is the relentless middle-class morality: the title gives the game away, but this is a film that understands only domestic family life, and that from an emphatically white, straight, male perspective. And of course, white straight males have perspectives on things, and that is fair and appropriate. But it's not the sort of thing that's going to give you something new and unexpected to gnaw on.

Anyway, Parenthood is a sprawling cross-section of one family's life over a period of months, the Buckmans: first in line are Frank (Jason Robards) and his wife Marilyn (Eileen Ryan), whom he plainly does not regard as anything but his sidekick and accessory. This has long bothered his eldest son Gil (Steve Martin), who has striven to do everything the opposite in his own marriage to Karen (Mary Steenburgen), and to raise their children, Kevin (Jasen Fisher), Taylor (Alisan Porter), and Justin (Zachary Lavoy) in the ways least resembling how his father raised him, though he in fact has managed to endow Kevin with all his own crippling neuroses, wrecking the boy's ability to function in school and with peers. Gil's sister, and presumably the oldest of the Buckman children, is Helen (Dianne Wiest), divorced and struggling to raise her sexually active teen daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) and silent pubescent son Garry (Joaquin Phoenix, in his final performance credited as "Leaf"). Their other sister, Susan (Harley Jane Kozak) is a schoolteacher married to a brilliant but inhumane neuroscientist, Nathan (Rick Moranis), who insists on raising their daughter, Patty (Ivyann Schwann) to be more literate and mathematically inclinced and intelligent than other children, at the cost of her social skills. Last is youngest brother Larry (Tom Hulce), a shiftless gambling addict and schemer who has just come back into the family's life with an unexpected son of his own, Cool (Alex Burrall), and a need for lodging that sends the family's nonagenarian grandmother (Helen Shaw) to live with Gil and Karen, while Frank and Marilyn take care of Cool and Frank over-indulges his favorite son.

That's a whole lot of people just at the level of laying out the scenario, so it's no surprise at all when Parenthood drops the ball: the subplot revolving around Susan, Nathan, and Patty is clearly the one that engages Howard and his co-writers Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel the least, and every time the focus shifts back over to them, the film almost visibly sags with boredom. Nor does it help that this is the only subplot that cares more about the Buckman spouse than the Buckman - it's clearly just something wedged in because Rick Moranis was available, and it gave Rick Moranis something active to do, even if it is not of the smallest interest to watch it in the context of the rest of the film's stories.

And for something to be disinteresting in the overall context of Parenthood is a damning insult, since the movie as a whole is pretty damn disinteresting. The situations are all so calculated in their broadness, so predictable not just in terms of the actual events that will happen but also the film's opinion on them, it's not surprising in the least that the film was adapted into a television show - not once, but twice (the former replacing Joaquin Phoenix with Leonardo DiCaprio, a crossing of future A-list Gen-X actors that is, in retrospect, the most amazing thing about the entirety of the Parenthood franchise). It's already as comforting as a sitcom in film form, it would seem a shame not to try and retrofit it for the small screen, where it's low-key story beats and generically tidy visuals already long to reside.

Nor is it simply predictable at the macro level of story and character arcs, but in the way it sells and foreshadows its gags: the scene where we meet Nathan and Susan has them talking to their offscreen daughter about her grades, in language that suggests a sullen pre-teen. But Howard and cinematographer Donald McAlpine and editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill are so conspciuously keeping Patty offscreen, calling our attention to how awkwardly inorganic the camera angles are individually and together, so that we just know that we're being set up for a comic twist, and having figured that out, it's pretty fucking easy to suppose what the twist might be. Same thing with one of the movie's signature moments, when there's a black-out that takes just long enough to resolve that it's pretty clear that something embarrassing and/or incriminating is going to be waiting for us when the lights come back (sidebar: the film's weirded-out fascination with the thought that "WHOA a middle-aged divorcee would have something like a vibrator?" is hands-down the part that pissed me off the most, though this may be as much a factor of its age as its masculine worldview).

These are not flaws. I mean, they are flaws, terrible flaws that make the film a chore to watch, but they're not mistakes. This is exactly the way Howard & Co. want Parenthood to function: it rewards us for being so smart that we can see where it's going, and then we feel better about agreeing with its observations. This is the notion, anyway; privately, there's not much I hate more than a comedy that announces its punchlines in advance, but in this I understand that I'm at odds with a huge portion of the American comedy-consuming populace.

With its humor and its conflicts so exactingly and suffocatingly plotted out, all that Parenthood has to fall back on its ensemble, with far more talented people that can possibly be boring to watch, even when they are saddled with such utterly meaningless roles as Moranis. And this is, I concede, a genuine pleasure the film offers. The only person who is consistently operating a higher level than the film requires is Wiest, which is of course no surprise. She takes plenty of easy, obvious moments and manages to do both the expected, sitcommy thing and find the character truth underneath it; the showpiece scene is certainly when she's going through a bundle of dirty photographs her daughter took, and responding to them with tearful sarcasm that burns a lot more than the big tragicomic notes of the writing demand. A career highlight? No. Worthy of the Oscar nomination she got? Not really. But it's more rewarding than it ought to be, and that counts for something.

Nobody else in the cast is pushing quite that hard, and all of them allow themselves to do the lazy thing at least once or twice, but for most of the ensemble, it's possible to pull out at least one or two scenes where they're really soaring, and it's not always in the obvious gimme scenes (every important character in the film has at least one of those). I would never, ever claim that the film is worth watching on the strength of talented people passing easy tests, but it's the thing that makes the film pleasurable on any level whatsoever while you're watching it. It's the whole competence thing again: just like watching a man with McAlpine's skills light a generic "big suburban house" set, or listening to Randy Newman's perfectly ordinary score and his bouncy light pop number "I Love to See You Smile", perhaps the exact point at which he began to sacrifice his identity as an angry quipster and social observer (it feels, in all ways, like a weaker dry run for "You've Got a Friend in Me", six years later). Parenthood is a feature-length exercise in watching people doing things that do not tax them, in the service of lessons that do not tax us. It is a profoundly, exaggeratedly relaxing film, even as it claims to be investigating the rough, befuddling issues of modern families. Reducing messy reality to the stuff of frivolous, audience-pleasing foam: this is Hollywood filmmaking, and Parenthood is an unusually pure example from the very heart of the period when it was at its most refined.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1989
-The Biggest Fucking Summer Ever features such major movies as Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
-Lightyears away from all that popcorn escapism, but sharing space in the same multiplexes, Spike Lee releases the radical exploration of American race relations, Do the Right Thing
-The Wizard makes a long-form narrative out of a video game ad

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1989
-John Woo, already a major name in Hong Kong's action industry since 1986's A Better Tomorrow, has his first critical hit in the West with The Killer
-British shit-stirrer Peter Greenaway comes as close as he ever will to popular success with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
-Hou Hsiao-Hsien's A City of Sadness wins the top prize at the Venice film festival, pushing Taiwanese cinema to mainstream attention

27 October 2014

A BOY AND HIS MONSTERS

36 years after Daiei Film wrapped up its loose trilogy of yokai-themed spooky-but-not-quite-horror films for children, Kadokawa Pictures elected to resurrected the franchise - Kadokawa being the place where the disintegrating remains of Daiei ended up around the beginning of the 2000s. And naturally enough, given the desire to whip up a new children's movie, the studio turned to director Miike Takashi, well-known for his hyper-violent, imaginatively grotesque thrillers and horror films, like that family favorite Audition. And bless him, but Miike (with co-writers Sawamura Mitsuhiko & Itakura Takehiko) found the best possible way to split the difference in making a movie for a children without sacrificing any of his personality as a director - the results are bizarre as hell and frequently grotesque in totally unpredictable ways, but it's captivating even when it's at its most incoherent, and there's definitely not much else like it.

The film was 2005's The Great Yokai War, taking the title of the most popular and well-known of the '60s trilogy - Spook Warfare is its common name in English markets, but the 2005 translation is far more accurate - but almost none of of its narrative. My understanding is that it actually functions as a kind of spin-off of Aramata Hiroshi's enormously beloved and influential multivolume fantasy novel from 1985-'87, Teito Monogatari, about which I know very little. There are echoes of the 1968 film in Miike's story, but so vague that you could just as easily trace the same echoes in the Studio Ghibli cartoon Pom Poko, from 1994: a population of traditional figures from Japanese folklore, untouched by the progression of time, are forced to contend with an outsider. Indeed, The Great Yokai War ends up even closer to Pom Poko than to its namesake, since in both of the later films, the interloper is explicitly tied up with industrialisation and the destruction of the old ways of life. But the monsters involved are a varied bunch that largely overlap with the cast of Spook Warfare, and The Great Yokai War also looks back to the old Daiei production Along with Ghosts in having a child protagonist to go along with the yokai madness.

Mostly, though, it's exactly the one thing that should not even possibly be able to exist: a kid-friendly Miike film. And "kid-friendly" in this case, needs to be taken under considerable advisement: there's a lot of warped imagery (one of the first yokai we see is something like a stillborn fetus crawling around a barn; and within the first couple of scenes, we've been introduced to a fleshy, bloody organic machine that devours charming little rodent yokai with its enormous, vagina dentata teeth), and death, and cruelty, and all the other things that kids really adore and almost never get because of boring adults trying to suck all the vivacity out of children's entertainment. Less-extreme Miike is still pretty damn extreme, as it turns out, and while I would be proud the freak the ever-loving shit out of my 9-year-old by showing them this film,* I also wouldn't necessarily go around to church groups with a copy of the DVD, saying "boy, have I ever got a great kids' movie for you..."

All that being said, The Great Yokai War is still, at heart, a really satisfying Chosen One adventure on a model that was hardly any fresher in 2005 than it is today, but can still be appealing when it's done right. The basic idea - the complicated idea is much too chaotic to bother synopsising - is that a young, friendless boy named Tadashi (Kamiki Ryunosuke) is unexpectedly selected to be the "Kirin Rider" at a local folk festival in the town he's stuck in following his parents' divorce. The timing is awful: a spirit of vengeance, born out of the discarded objects of humankind, Yomotsumono, has just manifested itself, and it is taken in hand by the angry human-looking demon Kato Yasunori (Toyokawa Etsushi). The duties of being the Kirin Rider involve hiking up to the local mountain of spirits to get a magical sword and help the local yokai fight against Kato and his lackey, the turncoat yokai Agi (Kuriyama Chiaki), a woman all in pale colors who uses a whip to catch other yokai. Tadashi's own sidekicks are mostly of a bumbling comic sort, especially the little guinea pig-looking sunekosuri, a cute little bugger who comes in for a whole lot of abuse throughout, because that's very much where Miike's head lives.

The film consists of a lot of set-up followed by a lot of action, and I will freely confess that in the second half of the longish movie (just over two hours, which is stiff for a kid-driven action-adventure), a lot of what happened ceased making any real kind of linear narrative sense to me; it quickly tips into the level of kinetic action for its own sake, executed with a level of rampant cartoon energy that keeps it from lagging even when the links between moments don't inherently make a lot of sense.

Storytelling is clearly not a first-order priority, though. The film's chief aim, initially, is to create a chain of effectively creepy and disorienting moments, with the horror-specialist director using his considerable skill set to craft a great series of nifty scary moments, particularly in the early passages, with Tadashi in the woods at night and having no clue what's with all the creatures around him; then, having successfully done this, it shifts over to staging a mix of slapstick fight scenes and impressively high-impact action given the need to keep things scaled back for the children. Miike proves happily adept at this tone-handling, creating a movie that's always thrillingly indulgent in its sensory impact and creatively gross in its monster design, even when the story struggles to keep itself present above the din, or when it's mired in the kind of clichés that would make you wish it was losing sight of it own narrative.

The whole thing is, overall, undoubtedly bloated, and it's too shallow and under-performed (Kuriyama's Agi is probably the best bit of acting, but almost every character, human or yokai, seems to have been given a slip with their one character trait and told not to ever deviate from it) to work as a drama. But as a spectacle, a fanciful dramatisation of children's scary fantasies in impressive puppetry and adequate CGI, it's captivating. It lacks the warmth of the 1960s trilogy in the their best moments, perhaps, but Miike provides a dizzying, weird and funny personality all his own, and his The Great Yokai War has as wholly unique and unrelenting a vision of friendly madness as any children's movie of the 21st Century.

26 October 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1988: In which the mindless destruction and brutality that have defined the 1980s in cinema attain artistic perfection

Speaking entirely personally, you understand, I'd be quick to identify the 1980s as the worst decade in the history of American filmmaking (though I recognise the strong argument in favor of giving that title to the 1960s, and frankly, the 2010s aren't heading in a very promising direction). It was a formulaic, money-driven, recklessly safe period in Hollywood, even conceding that Hollywood is always all of those things; and it certainly produced a smaller proportion of for-real masterpieces than any other time frame. But even here, in the pimpled ass-end of American cinema, there was one great shining beacon of light: the 1980s were maybe the single best period ever for English-language action film (and the "English-language" qualifier is possibly unnecessary, if the handful of '80s Hong Kong action films I've seen are representative). It was a perfect storm of things: the rejection by mainstream filmmakers of the philosophical and moral self-consciousness of the 1970s made it possible to tell simple stories of good guys fighting bad guys, the cultural conservatism that accompanied the Reagan Revolution provided fertile ground for telling stories of rugged all-American heroes triumphantly maintaining the status quo, the explosion of interest in special effects and visual effects in the wake of Star Wars allowed for more convincing and expansive explosions. Some of the action films of the day were great, and some of them were great while also being kind of lousy, and some were just unpleasant and terrible. But they had a sparkle that no action cinema before had possessed, and which action cinema since then has sought to replicate, to usually degraded effect. It was an age of exorbitant brutality and the finest hokey one-liners in the genre history; it was the greatest period of the Big, Dumb, Fun action movie.

And it produced its finest work near the end, in 1988, with one of the handful of movies that can be fairly said to have completely overshadowed the entirety of their genre: Die Hard, a tony production released by 20th Century Fox, directed by John McTiernan of the great Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Predator from the year prior, with a script by first-timer Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, one of the key figures in the development of this particular strain of action cinema. Its influence can't be noted any more simply than by recalling that for a solid decade after, damn near every major action film released, whether it justified the comparison or not, was described as "Die Hard on a ____". Thus was not merely the impact of the film's terrifically effective, spare set-up, but also the degree to which it was already recognised as the exemplar of its form.

To begin with, Die Hard is a magnificent example of screenwriting discipline - I'm not exaggerating even a hair when I call it one of the most technically perfect screenplays of the whole decade. Everything that's in the film serves an extremely specific purpose, nothing is wasted, nothing is duplicated. If something is established in the first act, it will pay off later, even when it doesn't seem like it has to. There is, for example, the matter of a watch, introduced as symbol of the broken marriage at the heart of the film, and for a long time, it doesn't need to fill another purpose. And then, at the very end, it's called back for double duty: first to serve as a physical prop that fulfills a particular story need, second to round off the film's metaphorical reconstruction of that marriage. That's an obvious example, because it is foregrounded; but you cannot pick up any moment, even some of the most apparently tossed-off comic lines, that aren't there for a structural purpose. It's a miracle, like a building in which all of the ornate decoration is actually, upon closer inspection, revealed to be the raw girders, and what looks like garish Baroque messiness is in fact stripped-down Bauhaus severity. Which is a tremendously impressive feat for a film that was being re-written on the fly and frequently reliant on improvisation (see also: the equally flawless, equally jerry-rigged Casablanca)

Which is lovely for all the screenwriting students in the house, but mechanical perfection is only important if it's in service to anything else. And as a story, Die Hard is the most humane work of '80s action. Briefly (and befitting its high concept time, briefly is enough), the film tells of John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York cop who arrives in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve, in the hopes of reconciling with his estranged wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia). This requires him to show up at her company party celebrating a major Japanese-American business collaboration - this was near the end of the era when American business actually thought that Japan would be taking over the economy at any moment - in the sleek glass monster of a skyscraper known as Nakatomi Plaza (played by Fox Plaza, the studio's corporate headquarters). And he's not the only guest who probably shouldn't be there: this party is about to be crashed by a group of international terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), whose radical political scheming is really just a blind for their actual goal, which is to still a gratuitous quantity of money. McClane is the only person who's not immediately caught by the terrorists' first strike, making him the only person who can do anything to stop them.

And we have here the ingredients for a typical action fantasy (and, in fact, the film was first pitched as a sequel to Schwarzenegger's Commando), with two key shifts, both made because McTiernan decided to make some tweaks to the script. One of these is the introduction of the terrorists' actual, wholly mercenary motives. The other - which suits extremely well the casting of Willis, after a great deal of effort to find a more established action star - was to make McClane a bit of a clod and fairly overtly a dick (there is not one line in the script to suggest that Holly shares anything like the same responsibility for fucking up their marriage as he does, with his passive-aggressive alpha male posturing), and entirely fragile and human. He's capable of action movie stunts, of course, more than even a well-trained NYC cop could plausibly handle, but it takes a lot out of him: he gets pummeled, worn down, and scarred, and over the course of the film's one night (another McTiernan suggestion, apparently), we see all of that activity dragging him down. Not for nothing is one of the film's most iconic scenes his painful trek in bare feet across broken glass - it's a painful, permanent moment like you'd never see Schwarzenegger or Stallone or Norris experience.

The entirely physical, destructible hero, and the reduction of the conflict to, quite literally a cops & robbers scenario make Die Hard one of the most narrow, relatable action films of its generation. The stakes are not the free world; they're a disintegrating marriage. The hero isn't a mumble-mouthed tank; he's the slovenly quipster from the TV comedy Moonlighting. Everything about the film is calculated to bring it down to a level where it's not fantasy about larger-than-life supermen on the Bond model; it's a fantasy about Guys Like Us (and it is, one should admit at some point, a film entirely committed to a male audience; the best American action film it may be, but still bound by the rules of the American action film marketplace).

All this is what gives the film its surprisingly effective heart and emotional weight; it falls to the skills of McTiernan and his outstanding crew to express that heart in the context of one of the most exciting action thrillers ever made. Just as much as Die Hard has a perfectly constructed script, so is it perfectly made in all other ways; crisply edited by Frank J. Urioste and John F. Link with shots that communicate exactly what they have to in exactly the time it takes to communicate that (particularly in the marvelous, unshowy four-way crosscutting finale), punctuated by relentless, noisy, rousing sound design, buoyed by Michael Kamen's score, mixing generic action clichés with witty, playful insertions of snatches from traditional Christmas music, and nods to Beethoven's 9th symphony (yet another point insisted upon by McTiernan, who wanted to evoke Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange). The film has kineticism to spare, and a driving, building sense of space constricting and tension between characters escalating, enough so that its 132-minute running time, which by all rights should be offensively out-of-bounds for escapist genre fare like this, is over before it even begins to register (reliably, every time I watch the film, I'm dumbfounded that it's already 24 minutes in before the terrorists start to enact their plot, and the first hour especially seems over before the film is even done lacing its running shoes).

It's fluid, entirely momentum-based audio-visual storytelling at its very finest; there's not an ounce of fat on the movie, and the character-based material and the strictly action-oriented stunt and effects work are balanced so perfectly that it's hard to say whether this is a light drama about a man trying to be a better husband, incidentally punctuated by enormously loud gunshots; or if it's an action thriller that gets an unusual amount of mileage from the broad but insightful character sketches living inside of it. Either way, it's a masterpiece of populist filmmaking: every foot set right in order to make the most entertaining, immediately accessible film that the genius of McTiernan and company could manage to scrounge up. It's shallow in its goals, sure, but if every shallow film were this confident in the execution of all details from the smallest grace notes in lighting to the broadest scope of design and setting, and this rich in the iconic, almost mythic simplicity of its characters, I don't suppose that "shallow" would have much bite as a complaint.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1988
-Producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis, and the Walt Disney Company join forces to make the technically magnificent live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit
-Penny Marshall's fantasy Big is the first film directed by a woman to break $100 million at the U.S. box office
-Once upon a time, Mike Nichols's Working Girl is what mainstream feminism looked like

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1988
-Japan's Studio Ghibli releases a double feature to make your heart rise, with My Neighbor Totoro, and then crash into a thousand tear-stained fragments, with Grave of the Fireflies
-Pedro Almodóvar hits the international mainstream with the zany black comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
-George Sluizer's Dutch-French thriller The Vanishing pushes the psycho-thriller to new heights at the art house

25 October 2014

BAT MAN BEGINS

There was not ever going to be a good reason to tell the secret tragic backstory of how Count Dracula, one of English culture's all-time best unrelentingly wicked bad guys, was actually motivated by love of his family and country. Let's be totally clear about that part. Secret tragic backstories for the Wicked Witch of the West and Darth Vader had already tried to ruin two of cinema's finest villains; the same treatment for Bram Stoker's merciless, charismatic vampire would be too much to bear, even if Dracula Untold was a phenomenally great piece of filmmaking in every respect. And it's not: it's piercingly mediocre and clichéd in every possible respect. Let's be totally clear about that part, too.

The film, which has been retrofitted into the first volley of the hoped-for (though I am not clear by whom) Universal Monster Universe thanks to the addition of a clumsy final scene, mostly takes place in 15th Century Wallachia, which is always and unyielding referred to as "Transylvania". Here, Prince Vlad (Luke Evans), ruler of a people that are variously depicted as agrarian or townsfolk, based on the needs of the scene, maintains as much independence as he can against the always-present threat of the Turkish Empire, where he served in the army as a boy and adolescent, earning the war name "Vlad the Impaler" for his particularly gory way of displaying his dead victims, in a form of terrifically effective psychological warfare. His childhood friend, current Turkish Sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper in the year's most unfortunate brownface to date, while we eagerly await Exodus: Joel Edgerton's Tanning Disaster) has decided to flex his muscles a bit demanding an unacceptable tribute of Wallachian Transylvanian boys to serve in his military, especially including Vlad's own son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). This Vlad will not accept, and so he makes a deal with, if not the Devil, than the best Devil analogue around those parts, a vile man-like creature (Charles Dance) living in a cave since ages unknown, after he made his own deal for eternal life and power. Vlad gains super-strength, the ability to transform into a colony of bats, a sensitivity to light, and a desperate thirst for human blood. If he can make it three days without ingesting blood, he'll be freed of his hunger and his powers, and so the film turns into a 71-hour countdown till he caves in and eats somebody, a development which is not remotely surprising, nor is the identity of the person he consumes surprising when it happens.

Between them, director Gary Shore and writers Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless have made a total of no features before this, which probably explains why Dracula Untold feels so calculating in its assembly from the spare parts of other movies (which, if we were talking a Frankenstein reboot, we might have something). Something like a Mitteleuropean 300 in its overall impact, only with blues instead of browns and hardly any slow-motion, it's a vampire film where vampires seem to be reluctantly added in after the fact, and horror doesn't exist other than in a couple individual flashes. Certainly, as a story that wants to play on the audience's affection for Dracula in all his guises throughout the century and change of his existence, it has absolutely none of the things that are usually associated with him: not the animalistic hunger and danger of the F.W. Murnau version in Nosferatu, not the suave European superiority of Bela Lugosi in Universal's first Dracula, not Christopher Lee's hateful cruelty in the Hammer series of Dracula pictures, not the erotic pull of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. He's just a generic super-powered badass, whose specific paranormal traits aren't even explored until the film is most of the way over. Evans gamely tries to inject some passion and fervor into all this ahistorical claptrap, but his dominant mode is brooding and quiet, and the film demands more rage, more Gerard Butler-style barking. That's just if it's going to survive on the dubious level of being a plastic, paint-by-numbers swordfighting action film. For it to work as a Dracula film... no, that was never going to happen. I cannot imagine the performance Evans would have had to give if he was going to actually sell this lukewarm Angry Dad as one of history's greatest monsters - certainly, the script doesn't sacrifice one detail that actually suggests that Bram Stoker's iteration of the character could possibly emerge from the noble, moral man who we see sadly allowing himself to be turned into a demon for the greater good.

Surrounding this vague, uninteresting hero is an entire vague, uninteresting movie, full of powerfully dark, metallic, ugly images (somehow, this was shot by John Schwartzman, a cinematographer whose tendency towards sun-kissed Rockwellian imagery is arguably problematic in its own right, but far more attractive than anything this film has going on), and action sequences which are so ridiculously infatuated with weightless CGI that they're never exciting in even a small way. Having put all that energy into making Vlad such a well-etched generic hero, the writers have nothing left over the rest of the cast, leaving only Dance with the film's hugest gimme role to make anything like an impact. Meanwhile, people who are at least capable of being interesting, like Dominic Cooper and Sarah Gadon, drift around filling parts that require only a warm body, not any kind of acting complexity, and contributing to the overall sense that everyone involved in making the film was as bored by it as we are in the audience.

It's just so pointless: the action's not exciting, the lead character's journey is cobbled together from third-generation copies of Joseph Campbell that we've all seen dozens of times, and the frisson when he inevitably transitions into the iconic literary figure we were promised never comes, sine the script so painfully avoids making this Dracula a bad guy, or even a conflicted antihero. He's just a tragic woobie. Not as tragic as the paying customer who sits through all of this hoping for even one frame that doesn't feel recycled, or one story beat that goes for even the second-most-obvious narrative trope, but tragic.

4/10

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1987: In which one of the most legendary flops of all time ruins a career for no good reason

The gap between American cinema in the 1970s and in the 1980s, as much as anything, is the gap between little and big movies. The '80s did not invent "big" cinema, of course, but the post-Star Wars ecosystem loved high concepts and sprawling productions a whole hell of a lot, and this love began infecting everything, even things it clearly shouldn't have.

And here we are, at one of the biggest "shouldn't haves" in the history of Hollywood filmmaking: Ishtar, a 1987 comedy that for a quarter of a century was known almost entirely for being an enormous, out-of-control bomb, with only rabid Elaine May fans coming to its defense until as recently as 2013, when it was released on Blu-Ray to reviews that gingerly probed the idea that maybe it was actually okay; maybe parts of it were even great.

Parts of it certainly are, and the film's venomous initial reception is clearly the result of too much backstage drama finding its way into the entertainment media, and reviewers preemptively deciding that the film was an undisciplined wreck. It's not one of those lost masterpieces that had to be reclaimed, or anything like that: it's easily the least effective of May's four films as a director, in large part because it cost far more than its concept justified, and that concept was already far broader and more expansive than May's established strengths made room for. Her first three films - all of them essential works of '70s cinema - are essentially chamber dramas (or chamber comedies, anyway). Certainly, they're character-driven and highly urbane; specifically highly New York-centric, and if that phrase has been commonly used as a euphemism for "super Jewish", that's true as well. None of them serve as appropriate training to make a hybrid of the Bob Hope & Bing Crosby Road to... movies of the 1940s with a Romancing the Stone-style action/adventure comedy. And the whole thing is pitched as an abrasive satire of American foreign policy in the '80s with jokes that enthusiastically hearken to the corny, wheezy gags of Borscht Belt comedians of the '50s.

The center does not always hold, though May cheats a little bit by making the central figure in the action/satire thread of the movie a smug CIA agent played by Charles Grodin, the greatest of all her muses in depicting the brittleness of American masculinity, and his presence grounds that line of the film in a way that her directing and writing can't quite manage on their own. Otherwise, the best parts are all those which center on her pair of doofus protagonists, New York wannabe songwriters Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman). They're quintessential May heroes: it's a well-worn point that her filmography divides crisply into two pairs: first, films in which a man decides that he wants the hell out of his marriage and will pursue it in the ugliest way possible (A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid), then two films about two friends finding their relationship at a crisis point (Mikey and Nicky and this). What unites all of them is their depiction of male behavior in free fall, using heavily sarcastic black comedy in three of them (Mikey and Nicky is a laugh-free crime drama) to put herself and the audience in a position of judgmental authority over the characters; though having thus claimed that authority, she allows herself to feel sorry for the characters and look kindly on their disastrously poor decisions.

Accordingly, Ishtar is at its very best when it's focused entirely on Lyle and Chuck's bumbling, particularly in the opening 25 minutes or so, when it's still in New York, watching their pathetic attempts to write and pitch a hilariously dumb song called "Dangerous Business" (the film's original songs - there are many - were written by May and Paul Williams). The opening five minutes of the film, in particular, represent some of the most pitch-perfect comedy writing, directing, and acting of the 1980s, with heavily naturalistic dialogue running around in circles as the actors play fearlessly schlubby travesties of their personae - Beatty in particular has a field day throughout the film playing Lyle as awkward and self-conscious and convinced that he's too gangly and unconfident to possibly appeal to any woman. There's an easy rhythm that the film finds within its first seconds as we quickly get a sense of the songwriters in all their sad middle-aged glory, and it continues on through an extended flashback and through scene after scene where the actors talk over each other, responding to lines a few seconds late, and generally are magnificent at playing May's wonderful, effortless cringe-inducing comedy of humiliation. The first act of Ishtar isn't just better than the film's low reputation, it's an outright masterpiece - the best sustained piece of American film comedy in the entire decade outside of the opening of the Coen brothers' Raising Arizona, which was also in theaters in 1987.

Once the boys take a job playing a dodgy club in Morocco, the film clunks down a notch, in part because watching them flail around aimlessly is more funny than seeing them stuffed into a plot ever good be (and when the film comes close to its highest peaks hereafter, it's always when the stakes are lowest and the narrative momentum dries up), in part because May knows New York well enough to perfectly skewer its mores and personality, while North Africa is a little outside her ken. The short version is that, on their flight in, they stop briefly in the powder keg nation of Ishtar, where Chuck does an ill-advised favor for a beautiful mystery woman, Shirra Assel (Isabelle Adjani, looking so little like a North African native, the first time I watched the film I just assumed it would be revealed that she was French), working for a left-wing radical group. This gets him in trouble with the CIA in the form of the unctuous Jim Harrison (Grodin), what with America's support of the Ishtari amir, while Shirra follows Lyle to Casablanca, where she tries to rope him into helping her. And so it appears to all outsiders that Rogers & Clarke are working both sides, when they are in fact too dumb and oblivious - the perfect Ugly Americans - to realise until deep into the movie that there are politics happening around them at all.

Marrying a satire of American imperialism to the feather-light sitcom adventures of Road to Morocco might have been beyond the skills of any filmmaker in history, and May makes a damn good attempt at keeping it all stitched together; the dubious casting of Adjani works against the film, but everything else is generally solid, even the notorious perfectionism that led May to spend so much time and money on doing things exactly right that nobody would ever notice (brushing large portions of the desert to make it look virgin, most infamously). The film needs a healthy foundation of physical realism if the hybrid is going to work - otherwise it would feel like adding cartoon satire to a cartoon farce, and that could be devastatingly bad - and between them, May, world-class cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and production designer Paul Sylbert establish their setting with enough weight and fullness of detail that you can kind of imagine where that $50 million went, even if it must be allowed that spending $50 million on this script was a criminally bad business decision.

Hoffman and Beatty are inspired in their performances and show off wonderful chemistry, and that keeps the film afloat even when the conflict between character humor, action-adventure, and biting geopolitics cannot be resolved. To stack against its wonderful opening act and its frequent spikes of terrific comedy, Ishtar only has one completely bad scene, an auction where Hoffman jabbers in fake Arabic for minutes on end (it's a musty, obvious note of sitcom humor that's beneath the wit, psychological honesty, and intelligence of the rest of the film), and its bogged-down stretches where Adjani and her character leech some of the energy out of the movie - May was always best with men, using women mostly as extensions of the male's worldview, and this particular woman is simply too far beyond what she knew and did well.

The point being, it's hard to imagine a truly honest, unbiased assessment of Ishtar resulting in a complete write-off; no Heaven's Gate this, where its out-of-control production was all in service to frequently cryptic artistry. Like all of May's comedies as a director, it's got a unique bitterness to it that was never going to be super-popular with mass audiences, but its position on "worst-ever" lists is profoundly impossible to square with the onscreen evidence. And yet, having tanked and earned a reputation as a toxic waste of the talents of everyone involved (which, financially, it was; but it's one of Beatty's all-time finest performances, and maybe Hoffman hasn't been better in a straight comedy ever since. Hardly a "waste"), it went ahead and took May down with it. And this is a tragedy indeed, for even as Ishtar is my least favorite May film, it's still pretty delightful, and her best work should have won her a lifetime pass. But this was the new order of the commercial superproductions of the '80s: if you made money, you were a hero, and if you lost money, you were a low, vile villain. The conspiracist in me wonders if May's inability to pick up the pieces, as other directors in similar states have done, was a result of her gender; the fanboy rather proudly decides, instead, that she was too prickly and too aware of her talents to indulge in the ass-kissing and make-up work in commercial junk that might have put her in the director's chair again.

That being said, an ugly statistic: with this film, we arrive at the 75th entry in the Hollywood Century project, covering 74 years of filmmaking. And Elaine May is just the second woman director we've hit in all of that time. I could have gamed the schedule to avoid that, but without going into the avant-garde or independent spheres, it would have been awfully hard. Sometimes, it's just a bleak world.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1987
-The buddy cop comedy reaches its perfect form in Lethal Weapon
-Wacky comic Robin Williams emcees a cleaned-up version of war in Good Morning, Vietnam
-Oliver Stone attempts to prove greed is bad in Wall Street; this is not the takeaway for most audiences

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1987
-Souleymane Cissé directs the goreous, mythic Malian fable Yeelen
-Italian horror master Dario Argento ends his career with Opera. I said, he ENDS HIS CAREER. He has not directed a film since
-Hara Kazuo completes the Japanese WWII film The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, frequently named as one of the great documentaries ever made

24 October 2014

ALL RAPT UP

The moment when you start to voice the old "I can't believe they left that part of of the book out of the movie! That was the best part!" complaint, and the movie about which you are complaining is Left Behind, that's when you discover that you need to take a nice long break from watching movies, and perhaps should go for more walks out in the woods. But they did leave the best part out, and I can't believe it. They also left out a huge amount of bad parts, mind you: surprisingly, the film is, in its entirety, about only a tiny segment of Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins's miserable 1996 novel about LaHaye's very particular, small-minded, punishing brand of Christianity. The movie dramatises literally only about the first 50 pages of the 450 novel, meaning that if it had somehow managed to become a success and kick of a new franchise adapting the entire 16-book series, the film producers were all set to commit to 48 motion pictures to make that happen. Talk about living in a Godless universe...

The point being, by the end of the first 50 pages, the novel Left Behind hasn't even introduced us to the villain yet, the vampiric Antichrist from Romania Nicolae Carpathia. And I mean, seriously, are you going to tell me that a movie in which Nicolas Cage fights a dime-store Dracula named Nicolae Carpathia isn't obviously preferable to literally any other movie where Nicolas Cage does anything? Of course you're not, it's not possible to hold such dimwitted belief. Unless, apparently, you are screenwriters/producers Paul Lalonde & John Patus, returning to help create this new film after having their fingers all over the original trilogy of direct-to-video adaptations starring Kirk Cameron. And let us not forget that LaHaye & Jenkins actually sued to stop that series of adaptations to continue ruining their carefully worked-out franchise of novels in which one half of a plot point occurred every 300 pages. For them to then turn around and let the same producers take another whack at the material seems a bit iffy. And maybe that explains why this new Left Behind resembles the book to hardly any degree, and resembles evangelical Christian propaganda even less. Which surprised me even more than the absence of Carpathia, given that evangelism is basically the only thing that the Left Behind books, movies, video games, and whatever other forms it has taken have ever been. Evangelism, mixed with smug reminders to the True Christians that they're better and purer than all the rest of us sinful schmucks.

None of that is to be found in this Left Behind, except around the very edges. Heck, the word "Rapture" is never even spoken to describe the event that occurs around the one-third mark, leaving every child and young teenager vanished off the face of the planet, along with all the adults who have come to believe the proper things about Jesus. Instead, it's a thriller - a very circumscribed, boring thriller that director Vic Armstrong hobbles with a very quiet, non-urgent tone throughout, about landing a plane under moderately adverse conditions. Recognising, to their credit, that "the passengers are freaked out, but mostly calmly remaining quiet, like the one remaining pilot asked them to do" isn't nearly enough to support an entire film, Lalonde & Patus eventually decide to bump up the stakes by throwing a second, pilotless plane at the first one, rupturing its fuel tanks in a mid-air collision and offering up something like a dramatic scenario for at least the final third of the 110-minute film. Mostly, though, the movie seems to believe that it can coast by on the mystery of what happened to all those people, which is obvious bullshit: we didn't pay money to see a movie called Left Behind because we don't know what it's about. Or what it's supposed to be about, anyway.

So the ingredients are these: Cage plays Rayford Steele, a pilot with a boring, preachy wife named Irene (Lea Thompson, looking thoroughly roughed-up by what amounts to little more than a cameo), is flying to London on his birthday, just to avoid being with his family, and also to flirt with the sexy flight attendant Hattie (Nicky Whelan). This breaks the heart of his daughter Chloe (Cassi Thomson, who looks like the person you get after asking the casting agent for Kristen Bell, and she laughs in your face), who was flying in from college to surprise him, and spotted him flirting with his Christ-denying whore. This sent her straight into the metaphorical-but-not-literal-because-sex-is-dirty arms of Cameron "Buck" Williams (Chad Michael Murray), heartthrob and internationally renowned investigative TV reporter. He happens to be flying on Rayford's flight, and proves to be an able right-hand man when the crisis hits. Meanwhile, Chloe returns home, dismissing her mother's loving nagging about religion just long enough to be at the mall with her little brother, who evaporates right as they're hugging, in a moment that would be touchingly shocking if it wasn't so damn goofy in execution: Thomson's expression is pricelessly fake, and the score by Jack Lenz (which is always a liability, though sometimes only a small one) is at its very worst during the Rapture, not sure if the tone is supposed to be "oh no, where is everyone, this is scary!" or "how wonderful all those people are in Heaven now", and so it decides to split the difference.

Of all the problems I expected to have with the movie, not one of them came true, and all of them were replaced by more boring alternatives: instead of bombastic, condescending preaching, it's a Christian audiences movies that's downright simpering in how shyly it mentions Christianity; instead of trying, feebly, to suggest a worldwide crisis that results in a charismatic businessman installing a one-world government, done on a budget too small to evoke even a tenth of the scale it needs, it sets up shop on a single airplane full of weirdly idiosyncratic characters and proceeds to march through an unironic version of Airplane!. Saddest of all, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Nic Cage: instead of seeing him uncork and go apeshit in his anti-Antichrist histrionics, he's playing one of his boring and sedate check-cashing roles, all sober authority as an airline pilot who occasionally gets teary-eyed when he thinks about his family. That's what I can't forgive about this Left Behind: it's too limited in ambition or thematic overreach to be campy. Cage is half-asleep, Murray is devoured by his sexyindie beard, and only Thomson, chirpy and flirty in ways that feel wildly out of place in a movie of this stripe (she even says "shit"!), brings any kind of bad movie dementia to the proceedings. That Left Behind would be more infuriating than schlocky inept fun I was prepared for. That it would be infuriating mostly because of how drowsy and boring it is, I was not prepared for that at all, and thus I find myself in the curious place of being actually disappointed by a low-budget movie about the Rapture. Being a bad movie fan can really be horrible, sometimes.

2/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: FORCE MAJEURE (RUBEN ÖSTLUND, SWEDEN / DENMARK / FRANCE / NORWAY)

Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/12
World premiere: 18 May, 2014, Cannes International Film Festival

There's an entirely great film living solely within the footage that makes up the complete Force Majeure, and plenty of people would apparently argue that the great film is the final cut. Hence the film's victory in the Un Certain Regard program at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, its selection as Sweden's official submission to the Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, and a general wave of goodwill that has never slowed down in the months since the film's premiere. And I suppose I'm glad: it's never the case that I particularly want people to be unhappy in watching movies, and if there are folks for whom this has risen to the top of the heap as one of 2014's most important and accomplished and emotionally resonant film, that pleases me. Myself, I walked out of the film, having gone into expecting the best thing I'd see at the Chicago Film Festival this year, and my response was a resolute "Okay, so that was fine. I don't regret having seen that movie".

23 October 2014

TANKS FOR NOTHING

War is violent. Did you know? Was this something that you might have guessed at, even in your most wild fantasies? Because the new World War II movie Fury seems to have run out of ideas above and beyond "war is violent", though it makes up for that by suggesting that war was really really fucking violent, and showing that violence in all the wide-eyed amazement that can possibly be scrounged up. And then filtering it through cinematography by Roman Vasyanov that runs the gamut of colors from steel blue to slate grey.

In other words: Fury is a grim, dark, extravagantly depressing piece of cinema, in which the world is divided only into that which is violent, and that which is dead. The perfect WWII movie for writer-director David Ayer, whose work to date has shown an implacable fascination with all the ways that men can damage other men. And men it very much is: Ayer's other career-spanning fascination is with the way that violent jobs - LAPD officer, DEA agent, and now soldier - offer studies in masculine behavior under pressure. And I think, from the way the movies talk and structure themselves, that the point the filmmaker thinks he's making is that all men are capable of being pushed into violent extremes by circumstances that make them compromise their moral codes, but the effect has always been, to my mind, "Ooh, look at that animalistic thug of a man who has sacrificed all the things that make him a stable human! He's so cool!"

Fury compounds that issue by making the bad guys Nazis; and what movie is possibly going amble along and be all, like, "don't kill Nazis. Killing Nazis is bad"? They're the all-time ultimate Acceptable Movie Cannon Fodder. And Fury knows this in its heart of hearts, which is why it so unpersuasively moves from a scene in the middle, where the Innocent New Kid begs and weeps and screams to be permitted not to execute a German prisoner (a moment that anyway feels less like "killing is always wrong, in wartime or otherwise", nor "killing a prisoner of war is wrong", and more like "killing would make me feel icky", but I think that's an issue of acting more than anything), and which the film positions as though it wants to make us understand the enormous cost of being a human to knowingly take the life of another human, regardless of the circumstances, over to a climax in which the entire population of Germany is seemingly killed by our rag-tag group of heroes in a thunderous action sequence that unambiguously, joyfully looks forward to the next wave of dead Nazi scum. Simply put, the film is too excited about its gruesome, frequent stop-overs with brutal violence (which begin in the very first scene, with an evocatively squelchy-sounding knife to the throat) to actually believe in the "violence does terrible things to men's souls" message it mouths throughout.

But philosophical shortcomings are at best a second-order problem with the film, which suffers from a far greater sin, cinematically-speaking: it's long, boring, and has unconvincing stock characters in place of people. It's about the crew of an M4 Sherman tank, named "Fury" and so-identified on the gun barrel, under the leadership of Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt). The zesty caricatures inhabiting the tank are Bible-Thumping Southerner Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Unbalanced Hothead Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal), Lazy (Possibly Stoned?) Latino Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), and the aforementioned guileless newbie untouched by the horrors of war, and the only one of these people to have a single personality trait that doesn't directly follow from their one-line description, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). To judge from the amount of time Ayer spends watching these five men doing absolutely nothing but interacting in the close confines of the tank, he apparently regards them as rich, vibrant personalities and not a collection of ancient stereotypes. And oh, my, the amount of time we spend sitting watching them is just endless. But not as endless as a scene with a couple of local German women (Annamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg), where the threat of rape hangs over the proceedings like a haze of cigarette smoke and at least two of the five characters are turned into such petty-minded savages that nothing could possibly redeem them enough to make them likable again by the time the film needs us to be rooting for this precious band of brothers. It goes on for fucking ages. Halfway through the scene, I began to openly wonder if I was watching a film about a tank that had a luncheon scene with German women, or a film about German women hosting a luncheon that had, at one point, included a tank.

When Fury finally decides that it's done dicking around with moral questions it doesn't want to answer and just turns into a full-on tank-based action film (this happens well beyond the midway point of the 134-minute picture), it actually manages to turn into something worth watching. For tank movies are, when you think about it, vanishingly rare; perhaps because they are hard to shoot in and too lumbering to choreograph. But Fury's too big tank-based setpieces are far and away its most accomplished moments, where Ayer the poor director of actors steps aside to let Ayer the really great director of high-energy action take over (Ayer, the director of lingering, pornographic violence shows up every now and then, but not enough to ruin things). The action is hectic and terrifying, the sound mix roars and shakes you down to your bones, the bullets fire like laser beams from a sci-fi movie. Which never stops being distracting, but it's the weakest link in they otherwise splendid action.

It's not clear to me at all that "there's some really great action in the last hour, and in tanks! How novel!" is enough to compensate for the disastrously stereotypical and underplayed characters (the parts don't have the complexity for anything better, though only Lerman seems to be actively making things worse; LaBeouf, surprisingly, seems to putting the most effort into it and turning out the most distinctly-etched character as a result) and the wildly unpleasant love of violence disguised as as a saddened hatred of violence. Certainly, nothing at all could compensate for the fact that the movie is every second of 45 minutes too long. But if you get stuck watching it for whatever reason, at least it has the decency to back-load all of its best material, so it just gets better as it goes along.

5/10

22 October 2014

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: IT FOLLOWS (DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL, USA)

Screens at CIFF: 10/18 & 10/22
World premiere: 17 May, 2014, Cannes International Film Festival

The business of being a fan of horror movies is a frustrating and thankless one, since they are so especially prone to being bad, but ever so often one comes along that you can stand up and cheer and point at and say "that one. That is what I have been waiting for". And oh my God, there were two of them this year at the Chicago Film Festival. I’ve already done my cooing and slavering over The Babadook, so let me now turn to a film that is almost as good, and arguably more creative: writer-director David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows.

The creativity starts right with away, with the film’s very theme: It Follows is, get this, a horror film about sexual morality. Wait, I think I got that backwards. My point being, it’s a small miracle that It Follows is able to make so much that feels so fresh and damn near unprecedented out some pretty musty ingredients: a bunch of young people right on the gradient between teenagers and adults, in the All-American Suburbs, trying to fight against an implacable enemy that kills you for having sex. But this is no knife-wielding psychopath; whatever it is, there’s not an ounce of evidence that we get to see.

After an elaborate, 360° and back somewhat pan that shows some anonymous girl running from her anonymous house, trying to escape from something we never see, we get our sense of what it can do when we see her dead, her legs gruesomely broken, on the beach. And after this opening gambit (which, honestly, I didn’t care for much at all, thinking it too glamorously cryptic and generic: I indeed spent the first several minutes of the film supposing that its wave of hype, unabated ever since its Cannes premiere, would turn out to be so much overinflated bullshit), we move onto the actual characters. First among these is Jay (Maika Monroe), who is reaching the point with her current boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary) that the time has come to think about having sex; her other friends include Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who nurses a poorly-hidden crush on her, as well as Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Kelly (Lili Sepe), who have some distinguishing characteristics but mostly just function as “we needed a couple more girls in the cast”, and represent the film’s most obvious shortcoming.

After what doesn’t seem to have been terribly exciting car-sex, Hugh attacks Jay with a rag soaked in ether; she wakes up to find herself tied to a chair, with Hugh taking a weirdly protective stance towards her, considering the circumstances. This is, you see, a demonstration: he wants her to see the thing that will be stalking her now, until it kills her, and then it will resume stalking him, until it kills him, and on back to the beginning of whatever. The only way to make it go away is to have sex and thus pass it forward like some hideous paranormal chlamydia. And try as hard as possible to have sex with somebody you’ll never see again, perhaps by adopting a fake name and address and ginning up a relationship with a girl from some other town. Exit Hugh the impossible asshole.

Having been convinced of its existence (it first shows up as a nude woman - it often shows up as a nude or partially clothed woman, which would maybe be a violation of the idea that it tries to be inconspicuous in its stalking, but is not at all a violation of the fact that this movie which otherwise does a great job of treating its female lead with support and respect, for a horror picture about metaphorical STDs, was after all made by a man), Jay has to work a bit to convince her friends, shortly to include across-the-street neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), that she’s not going crazy, and that there really is a stalker that always changes its appearance, but nobody else besides her can see it. Once she’s successfully done that, the film becomes a glorious exercise in watching people in a horror movie apply logic and planning to their situation.

It’s blessedly intelligent, human-acting characters are one of the film’s biggest strengths, and it’s the foundation for everything else that works. For as is usually the case, it’s easier to be invested in the fates of horror movie characters when we have a reason to like them, instead of rooting for them to die violently because they are irritating generic placeholders. It’s also easier to laugh with them and feel a part of their well-worn group dynamic; and this is perhaps the most shocking thing of all about It Follows, how laugh-out-loud funny it frequently is. And not in the sense where you have a solid joke to release some of the pressure of a tense moment, but actually robust character-based humor, as though the film was secretly a comedy all along and just wasn’t telling anybody.

Above and beyond its crackerjack script, It Follows is just really damn cunningly made. It’s not scary according to the normal rules - other than the first scene where it appears as a crazy naked lady, there are no decrepit buildings, very few underlit, shadowy spaces, and nothing that looks acutely terrifying. Only one scene absolutely leans on our old friend the jump scare - though it is an exquisite jump scare, the most visceral “oh my CHRIST” scary moment in the film. Most of the film’s scariest, or at least tensest moments come from a far subtler place. The marvelous thing about It Follows is that it completely trusts us in the audience: we know the rules, that Jay is being stalked by a shape-changing human figure walking towards her at a steady gait, and it expects us to be just as keyed up about that as she is, and just as attentive to all the human figures in the background of every shot. It doesn’t need to smash cut to a figure as the score rages out on the strings. Just a nice, static wide shot, with someone walking towards Jay that she doesn’t notice. That’s all it takes for It Follows to kick off scene upon scene of the screaming heebie-jeebies.

Speaking of the score, it’s a fascinating one. Composed by Disasterpiece, it’s wildly erratic: sometimes staying low in the rumbling base, sometimes jangling along tunefully in a fairly obvious attempt to copy John Carpenter’s scores (Halloween especially, though not exclusively). And sometimes it’s outright lousy, though this is rare: but in the moments where the music decides “okay, this bit it meant to be scary”, rather than contributing to a sustained background, it goes generic and trite fast.

This isn’t the only flaw: the relative poverty of all the characters besides Jay I’ve mentioned, and there’s also a certain thinness to the films intellectual content: despite its welcome treatment of teenage female sexuality as a normal, sane, healthy thing, it’s still ultimately telling a story about how sex’ll kill ya. Worst of all, to my mind, is the ratty sound recording: in all its minimalist staging of its low-key horror, It Follows wears its low-budget production values like a medal of honor, but there’s no getting around cheap sound, and there’s shaggy, fuzzy, peaking audio all throughout the movie. It’s a dismaying and distracting limitation from a film that otherwise works as a showcase for using less to do more.

But whatever, horror movies this smart, this fun, and this actually horrifying come along far too rarely, and I have no desire to nitpick this one to death. The insights into young adulthood, coupled with the terrific thriller craftsmanship combine to make of the very best American horror films in years, and it’s as close to essential viewing for even the most horror-averse viewer as horror gets.

8/10

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: EL CORDERO (JUAN FRANCISCO OLEA, CHILE)

Screens at CIFF: 10/10 & 10/12 & 10/22
Work-in-progress premiere: 2012, Viña del Mar International Film Festival

Oh, Catholic guilt! What would cinema be without you? The Italian and Latin American film industries would hardly be able to exist, Martin Scorsese wouldn’t have a career, and there’d be no The Godfather, Part II. And here, from Chile, we find a film that has the meat to be a particularly cutting and funny treatment of that evergreen topic, El Cordero - “the Lamb”, in English, and golly Moses, is it ever unlikely that you could forget that fact while watching.

Nicolás Wellmann’s screenplay lays out the scenario with pleasing simplicity and efficiency: Domingo (Daniel Muñoz) is passionately religious, filling his life with missionary work when he’s not at a thoroughly meaningless job running a warehouse with his father-in-law Patricio (Julio Jung), or spending empty time with his wife Lorena (Trinidad González) and teenage son, Roque (Alfonso David). One night he thinks he hears burglars in the warehouse, and in a panic fires a gun at them; unfortunately, it was merely his secretary and her boyfriend having sex. After a few months, Domingo is ready to re-enter society, but something deeply bothers him: he has no feelings of guilt. Not in a sociopathic way; he regards the death as a sad tragedy and does not deny his part in making it happen at first. He simply doesn’t feel the anguish that his upbringing tells him he should, the horror at the thought of hellfire creeping up behind him for his mortal sin.

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '14: NABAT (ELCIN MUSAOGLU, AZERBAIJAN)

Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/12 & 10/22
World premiere: 5 September, 2014, Venice International Film Festival

If you like your stories of life in Islamic ex-Soviet states to be full of long takes with very little dialogue, a very literal concept of the link between the landscape and the people inhabiting it, and proud women whose weathered faces betray no emotion other than grand, world-defying taciturnity, then Nabat sure has a treat for you. If you don’t, you probably don’t watch all that many stories of life in Islamic ex-Soviet states to begin with.

That’s certainly more flippant than Nabat deserves: it is a lovely, minor-key fable about life during wartime with a solid if in some ways generic central performance by Fatemeh Motamed Arya as Nabat herself. The only real issue with it that I can see is that it feels profoundly overfamiliar, and I think even a viewer who has never seen a single film from the broadly-defined Eurasian region that tends to produce movies with similar themes and similar aesthetics to this one probably has picked up enough by osmosis that the things Nabat is up to and does undeniably well have the definite feel of art film clichés. For that’s exactly what they are; and while the film is strong despite them, and director Elchin Musaoglu does his level best to hunt for emotional reality beneath the stock images and concepts, ultimately Nabat is only willing to engage with its concepts down to a certain depth, and it is not a very deep depth. It leaves itself feeling vague and concept-driven, a little too openly eager about making its titular character an emblem of The Women of Azerbaijan In Their Nobility, and these things certainly do leave it feeling a bit puffed-up on artistry without necessarily having much to back it up.

2014 CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: DAY-BY-DAY GUIDE

The 50th Chicago International Film Festival is over. Here, the record of all the things I saw at CIFF this year, with links to reviews.


Thursday, 9 October, 2014 - OPENING NIGHT

7:00PM-
Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann, Norway / UK)
Not only does Ullmann fail to bring cinematic language into the foundational stage classic by August Strindberg, she seems actively anxious to avoid any such effort to expand and reconceive the material. This is hard on the text (arbitrarily but not ruinously transferred to Ireland), but even harder on the actors, who have no way out of the stultifying long close-ups and weird edits: Colin Farrell zooms from brittle nastiness to passionate anger to cool reflection without connecting any of the dots between those states, while Jessica Chastain plows right in with a stage-scaled performance that calls to mind Pamela Voorhees more than a 19th Century woman of the upper classes. 4/10 (reviewed here)


Friday, 10 October, 2014

3:30 PM-
Shorts 2: Animation - Squash and Stretch! (various)
Having served on the jury for this year's animated short film competition, I'm not at liberty to discuss the titles in depth, but it's an especially solid collection of work this year, without a single bad film out of the bunch. If you're in Chicago, I hope you'll check them out!

5:00 PM-
The Owners (Adilkhan Yerzhanov, Kazakhstan)
I freely confess that my admiration for the film's attitudes is possibly out of proportion to its actual merits; that, and the look of it when I saw it was so gauzy that I couldn't tell if it was a somewhat overdone stylistic choice, or a really bad DCP projection. Regardless, the aggression with which this fable of three orphaned siblings - one a young adult, one a teen, one a child - fighting to preserve their late mother's collapsing rural home from government stooges and grabby land developers alike indulges in its weird extremes delighted me to no end. Particularly in the parts where one of the siblings apparently keeps hallucinating cheap but enthusiastic musical numbers. Or maybe they're real. It's that kind of movie. Anyway, the combination of surrealism and miserabilism is strange but magnetic, to me; it's a film that occupies such a specific, narrow wavelength that I'm certain it probably would seem pretty dodgy and bad to far more people than would ever join me in kind of loving it. 8/10 (Reviewed here)

6:15 PM-
Free Fall (Pálfi György, Hungary)
A collection of darkly comic surrealist vignettes taking place in a single apartment complex, the film uses a mixture of genres and styles to explore human alienation in all sorts of different guises. Some elements work better than others - and at least one sequence, modeled on TV sitcoms, explodes on the launchpad - but the whole thing feels pleasingly complete and of a piece with itself, settling into a cozy, weird groove that makes the whole thing greater than the sum of its parts. It's not as groundbreaking or subversive as it seems to believe itself, but the most memorably off-putting parts are really memorable and really off-putting in a tremendously satisfying way. More a fun bit of trivia than essential cinema, but it's definitely a pretty unique, warped vision. 7/10 (Reviewed here)

7:15 PM-
El cordero (Juan Francisco Olea, Chile)
This black comedy about a devout Catholic who accidentally murders his office assistant and then is horrified to realise that he doesn't feel guilty about it has all the ingredients to be a sharp if perhaps overly nasty satire on that longstanding hobbyhorse of South American and Italian filmmakers, Catholic Guilt. And for well over half of the movie, it feels like that's exactly where it's headed, with the killer's priest putting him in touch with an amoral prisoner who encourages him to commit ever greater crimes in the hope of awakening his dormant sense of self-loathing. It starts to sag as it goes on, though, and the inconsistency of all the characters beyond our protagonist starts to assert itself as more and more of a problem. It also suffers a bit from some unmistakable first-time director hiccups: transitions on the soundtrack that are much too proud of how clever they are, oddly-chosen camera angles conflicting uncomfortably with generic two-shots; that kind of thing. But when it works, it's real damn funny, and Daniel Muñoz is perfectly cast as a pathetic, boring-looking sad sack. 6/10 (Reviewed here)

8:15 PM-
Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden / Denmark / France / Norway)
Surprisingly comic in its depiction of how one accident and one bad choice can lead to the fragmentation of an apparently well-built nuclear family. The individual elements are all quite solid, but the feature as a whole makes its essential points at least once more than feels entirely necessary. Much the same is true of its visuals: the contrast between exaggerated, rigid geometry of the film's interiors and the uncontainable sprawl of the mountains is striking, but the interiors rely on a very narrow range of angles that start to feel boringly samey. It's an all-around solid and generally quite entertaining movie - I will confess to finding its Un Certain Regard win at Cannes to be a bit over-the-top, but it's a well-arranged and frequently attractive drama that's easy to recommend to people whose tastes run in just about every direction, even if that recommendation would perhaps lack an enormous amount of enthusiasm. 7/10

11:00 PM-
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
Yep, it's as scary as you've heard. And the scariest parts aren't the ones you'd be inclined to predict, either (there's a pop-up book so terrifying in its DIY simplicity that just shots of its spine started to freak me out). It's not a film that invents much of anything, instead doing really fantastic with a lot of horror tropes and elements that have already been done to death; it also uses sparing comedy in the perfect amount and at the perfect moments to ease tension without breaking it, and survives a potential fatal shift in narrative and character emphases so effortlessly that it's not until long after that you notice the shift even happened. It bungles some key developments in the last act in a most regrettable way, and its theft of themes from one particularly iconic horror film (to name it would be to spoil things) is brazen enough to seem a little shameless; but all in all, this is everything you could ever want in a horror film, from the mechanical build of its scares, to the dense psychology that's implied through all the screaming. 8/10 (Reviewed here)