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03 March 2015

BITTERSWEET SYMPHONY

A review requested by Andrew Milne, with thanks for his contribution to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Throughout his career, director Kim Jee-woon has been an unapologetic generic magpie, unified only in that whether he's making a psycho-thriller like A Tale of Two Sisters, an absurdist Western like The Good, the Bad, the Weird, or even an American-made action film that fumblingly tries to serve as a comeback vehicle for a retired star, like The Last Stand, he's always primarily making character dramas. The generic elements inform the way that psychological arcs develop, but they are never more important than the basic, driving question: who are these characters, and why do they make the decisions they do?

And on those grounds, it might even be the case that A Bittersweet Life, Kim's 2005 follow-up to his big breakthrough A Tale of Two Sisters, is the director's masterpiece. It's mostly a standard-issue revenge thriller set in the world of Korean gangsters, which is hardly a slight: for something so tawdry on paper, the Korean revenge thriller genre has produced a remarkable number of genuinely great films. But that also means it's easy to think you know what's going on with it, and that's not the case. Sure, the basic story about mob enforcer Sun-woo (Lee Byung-hun) ending up on the wrong side of both opposing factions in a gangster war when he decides to commit an act of mercy in the name of love, proceeds much as it ought to, and even its plot twists seem "right" for it, without any dumbfounding shocks. But it is also far more about what's happening inside Sun-woo's head as this brutally efficient criminal finds himself nudged away from his own life long enough to see it from outside, and finds that it is not making him a terribly happy person. It is, you might even say, making him bittersweet, though you probably shouldn't and neither should I, since the actual Korean title translates more simply as "The Sweet Life". And is thus ironic instead of moody.

There'll be time enough to dig into that, so let me first clarify that A Bittersweet Life is still, chiefly, an action thriller in its design, and for entire scenes that's the mode that dominates. So it's a good thing that it's also an extremely good action thriller, with some absolutely tremendous sequences littered here and there, and the best saved for last. The director and his cinematographer, Kim Ji-yong, employ a very fluid, loose, lithe style of camera movement that tends to glide along with the action and accentuate the movement and impact of it, without turning into John Woo-esque ballets of violence. In fact, the film maintains one steady foothold in a realistic aesthetic that's grounded far beyond the ordinary standards of most action films - or most Korean genre cinema that I know of, frankly. It is, somehow, both shiny and grainy at the same time, full of strong lighting and fully saturated colors that have unnerving presence and authenticity. The texture of the film's innards is profoundly real and tangible, which gives its burly attention to its violent outbursts an added weight. It's not necessarily the case that the action itself is more exciting as a result; but it certainly ends up feeling more tightly knitted to the film's psychological intentions. Sun-woo, living in a more realistic world, is affected more realistically by the brutal actions he witnesses and perpetrates.

Which really is what it always comes down to. It would be giving the film too much credit to compare it to the best of Jean-Pierre Melville, but that's very much the territory that Kim is mining: a man is sick of himself and his world, and the film has a kind of hyper-present presentation of that world. For Melville, this tended towards glossy ennui; for A Bittersweet Life, it's more like a series of increasingly enervating adrenaline rushes, leaving the movie feeling a bit more worn and tattered every time. And, of course, leaving Sun-woo feeling worn. There's much that's great about the movie, but it's hard to imagine it having quite the same impact without Lee in the lead role; there are layers and layers that keep shifting their orders in his performance, sometimes an angry, hard killer; sometimes a sad romantic, sometimes a noble soul trying his best to be brave and moral and even, in the most unexpected places, optimistic. It's immaculately rounded and not at all stuck in the basic track of honor and tension that animates even the best gangster movie performances, though those things are present. Given the film's hoary inciting incident, the old "a beautiful woman melt's the thug's heart" sequence that absolutely wins no points for imagination or subtlety, I might even go so far as to say that the film's ability to feel human and not dimwitted and corny relies solely on Lee's ability to sell Sun-woo as a closet romantic, and make it clear just what an impact, down to his very core, this one woman has on him, and do those things without making a play for us to sympathise with him as a romantic lead. Basically, he has to underplay everything while expressing some very subtle, non-verbal cues as to how his character is re-evaluating himself because he fell in love - I'm honestly not even sure how that works, and yet Lee does it like it's no big deal at all.

Compared to the best of its genre from around the same time - these were the years of Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy, and Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, which between them set the bar inordinately high for Korean crime thrillers in the mid-'00s - it would be difficult to argue that A Bittersweet Life is necessarily one of the best out there, either stylistically (it is handsome, but in a somewhat conventional way), nor narratively (it focuses on unusual and enlightening aspects of broadly generic story elements). But it might very well be the case that Sun-woo is the most interesting character, and Lee's the most complex performance, to be found in any even superficially similar film of that generation. It's enough to give the film a clear personality and totally unique perspective that help it to stand out even in an crowded field of largely impressive thrillers. The worst things about it are still awfully solid, and the best things are deep and probing far beyond what you'd ever naturally expect from a film of this model, and it's quite a special treat because of it.

01 March 2015

A VERY SPECIAL THANKS TO THE CONTRIBUTORS TO THE SECOND QUINQUENNIAL ANTAGONY & ECSTASY ACS FUNDRAISER

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THE BACK OF BEYOND

This review is dedicated to Father Chris J., whose dogged persistence in wanting me to review this movie has been incredible - and entirely justified, as I have finally learned.

Beyond the Black Rainbow is the sort of film that makes one badly want to start listing out all its apparent influences and the other movies it's copying from. Not as a way of proving that writer-director Panos Cosmatos's solitary feature to date is derivative, but the exact opposite - as a way of finding some way to get one's hands fully around the unrelentingly strange and inexplicable thing, making some first effort to crack open the Oh my God, what was this?-ness of it. You know, be able to happily declare that this bit here is reminiscent of Michael Mann's The Keep (a conscious influence Cosmatos acknowledges), that bit there of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (which he does not). Unluckily, one of the most clear-cut influences, or at least one of the best comparisons, is the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is less a clarification of what, exactly, the film is going on about, and more a good way to generally indicate the specific flavor of dazzling inscrutability it favors.

Duly recapping the plot isn't much good either, since it suggests a level of concrete stability that's not really at play, but let's go for it anyway: as we see in an opening film reel, Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands) founded an institute in the 1960s which he named after himself, dedicated to bridging the caps between psychology and spirituality. By 1983, Arboria is now run by Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), a tetchy and dark figure in all the ways that Dr. Arboria was idealistic and warm. Nyle's chief interest is a young woman named Elena (Eva Allan), whom he keeps in a foggy state in near-isolation in a softly-lit white room. Here, he interrogates her on a routine basis, not for an apparent interest in learning anything beyond how to push her buttons, and possibly how to trigger and exploit her psychic capabilities.

That being said, the appeal of Beyond the Black Rainbow lives entirely within the ways that its scenario is reflected and explored through its visuals and Jeremy Schmidt's droning music, and not really how that scenario develops as a narrative (which is for the record, largely trite when it's not befuddling). Like Jodorowsky, or Andrei Tarkovsky in his explicit genre films, Cosmatos is playing a game here of making emotional states and philosophical concepts concrete by means of visuals. Insofar as it is a film about the mental condition of being drugged into a state of confusion and inability to express oneself - and having slept on it, I think that's the best I've got - it depicts that through a series of heavily stylised and impenetrable shots that use color and focus to convey abstract feeling. And thus, like Jodorowsky, the film sits on a line between the categories of "narrative" and "experimental" film that's hard to parse. It's not always totally successful in splitting the difference - its late lunge towards psycho killer horror is odd, to say the least - but invariably fascinating and stunningly visual. I do not say "beautiful", since part of the film's conceit is to lather everything in a grainy, broken-down look that suggests a piece of '70s psychedelia that unnervingly accurately predicted the fashion of the 1980s, and hasn't been seen since the solitary, ratty print was passed around in underground film circles.

But oh, how very striking it is in every way. The film uses enormous solid swatches of colored lighting, reds and blues mostly, which create intense and discomfiting feelings of artifice and wrongness, especially when combined with the massively interesting faces of Rogers and Allan - the former, in particular, has a wan appearance that suggests Christian Bale playing a dessicated tortoise, and it's a very appropriate fit for his inhuman excitement about turning his dull-eyed prisoner into a lab experiment. At other times, the film blasts out white and the palest of blues, which in combination with cinematographer Norm Li's fearlessly soft, shallow focus, offers the sense that the film is attempting to dissolve itself. The bold colors tend to center on Nyle, the whites on Elena, giving the whole film something of a codebook for reading itself: the one figure is otherworldly, Expressionistic terror, the other is diffuse and barely able to cling to a sense of distinct self. The contrast between these visual modes drives what I think to be the film's theme, though I concede that I'm guessing a little bit: attempting to define and explore the limitless potential and indestructibility of the human psyche by means of confining and destroying it leads only to cruelty and madness for all involved.

Not everything that Beyond the Black Rainbow does well is limited to camerawork and lighting: it has some wonderfully peculiar mise en scène, on top of it, a clear nod to the geometry of '70s sci-fi in things like the triangular prism Nyle uses to control Elena's mind. And there's a little bit of body horror in things like the reveal of certain characters' true appearances - one scene of a body disassembling itself predicting the three-years-younger Under the Skin so closely that I'm convinced that there has to be some degree of influence there (in fact, Under the Skin echoes Beyond the Black Rainbow more than a couple of times, and it's difficult for me to imagine a fan of the more popular 2013 film not responding to this one in somewhat similar terms) - or just plain normal horror in some of the dreamiest slasher-style killings I've seen in a 21st Century movie. And then there are things I can't even define, like the flashback to 1966 and a psychic breakdown - in all senses of "psychic" - that takes the form of an explosive short film of pure horror imagery cut together with balletic editing and camera, something like a tour of Hell's art gallery.

I'm tremendously excited by everything happening in this film, which is, as such things go, a success; though it's honestly hard for me to imagine how something so deliberately abstruse and driven by making short-term emotional impact over and over again for almost two hours could be a "failure" on its own terms, short of being boring. And that is certainly not the case. Still, it could not be any less idiosyncratic and willfully off-putting, and nothing this visually conceptual would ever manage to be generally well-liked outside of a tiny population of self-selecting viewers. It's anchored too deeply in genre to feel like a pure art film, but absolutely not enough of a conventional narrative to work as a genre film; it is a film for people who might call Stalker their favorite movie of all time if only it were more opaque. So, you know, a little audience, but a passionate one.

And of course, it's from Canada. Goddammit, Canada, always making the most fascinating and complicated horror and thriller movies all the time.

27 February 2015

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE

On paper, everything about The DUFF seems calculated to make it seem like the most dire of slogs, beginning with its capitalisationally overdetermined, visually ugly title. And it only gets worse upon learning that said title is a slang term (which feels like it probably doesn’t actually exist in the wild) meaning Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and that it is in reference to a character played by Mae Whitman, who could only conceivably be accused of being ugly or fat accordingly to the dysfunctionally narrow range of acceptable female body types allowed by Hollywood.

Surprisingly, if not out-and-out miraculously, The DUFF is not at all the ungainly miscarriage it seems like it not merely could have been, but that, in fact, it absolutely had to be. It is, in fact, a rather intelligent high school comedy, not entirely flawless, and clearly the work of grown-up filmmakers trying to fake it like they know more than they actually do about how The Kids These Days use the Twitter and the Snapchat and the iPad (and then, to cheat even more, they build a totally helpless and out-of-touch school principal into the plot, played by the always-excellent but under-used Romany Malco). But it’s got strong bones and snappy dialogue, and it feels more aware of how people behave (if not specifically teenagers, necessarily) than most of its genre. It’s the best such film I’ve personally seen since Easy A, a film it copies in several particulars: it’s neither squeamish nor prurient in its acknowledgement that teenagers have sex, it relies on well-positioned adult character actors - Malco, Allison Janney, even the usually insufferable Ken Jeong in an unexpectedly grounded career peak - to help build a frame around its game but green young cast, and it’s ultimately built on the bedrock of a magnificent, perfectly-timed comic performance by a woman who almost entirely by herself makes the entire film more sophisticated than it xis, if you follow me. And if The DUFF can do for Whitman’s career what Easy A did for Emma Stone’s then it is a valuable motion picture, indeed.

The basic concept at the heart of the film is that Bianca Piper (Whitman) is disgusted by the thought, presented by her asshole jock neighbor Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell) that she is the “DUFF” of her trio - not, herself, ugly nor fat, but far less attractive than her BFFs Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), and thus the one who acts as gatekeeper to all the boys who really want to ask one of them out. And this disgust turns into a passionate desire to reinvent herself, and in so doing gin up the confidence to finally approach her crush, Toby (Nick Eversman). Thus she makes a deal with Wes: if he helps her to be less of a doormat, she’ll help him to not flunk out of chemistry. And so they become constant companions and friends, earning Bianca the wrath of Wes’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne), the most popular but also the cruelest girl in school.

It doesn’t take too long to figure out the overall shape of the thing if not every specific detail it takes to get there, but originality is not generally the goal of romcoms. And whatever lack of suspense enters the proceedings the instant we realise that Wes is transparently crushing on Bianca, the film survives it without too much strain, partially because the actors have the right kind of chemistry in the right directions, and because screenwriter Josh A. Cagan, adapting Kody Keplinger’s novel, wisely takes the more Hitchcockian tack of making the tension within the plot about the characters figuring out what we already know, instead of trying to pretend that we haven’t already heard this one and have no idea what’s going on.

The result is a likable, unchallenging, but largely satisfying number about people who work well together figuring that fact out, while also making the important (if resoundingly clichéd) discovery that being yourself matter more than wedding yourself into a role that society has decreed. The path by which this is navigated has perils, and film struggles through some of them: the whole third act keeps tripping over gooey, film-killing pauses to re-word the final speech from The Breakfast Club around the basic idea that everyone is somebody else’s DUFF. And we know that the film is aware of The Breakfast Club, which was referenced and re-worked to much better effect in the opening sequence, which attempts to ironically grapple with the way that 2010s teenagers filter their identity through the pithy, sound-bitey culture of social media (which, again, feels like adults are responsible for it, not anyone who actually knows a teen; though there’s an extended riff on the word “amassable” that’s pretty delightful). So the film begins and middles far better than it ends: the comedy is spritelier, the visuals and use of graphic elements far more inventive, and the pace breezier. Director Ari Sandel is good at comedy and snark, and not so good at heart. But if we were to throw out every movie that had a rocky ending, we’d hardly have any left.

And for the most part, The DUFF is a top-notch midwinter treat: visually creative in the way it literalises social network technology, given a comfortable assortment of good lines, just twisty enough in its predetermined romcom march that it doesn't feel lazy. And Whitman is a treasure: able to make wretched self-pity seem funny, and self-confident enough in her carriage and expressions - not a trace of Ann Veal to be seen - that she manages to put an ironic spin on being thought ugly or fat, and thus saves the movie from any feeling of toxicity on that front. She's absolutely terrific, giving a wry, knowing attitude to her character and the film, and turning The DUFF from a modestly amusing comedy to a genuine success. It's not perfect, but it's goddamn close for February.

7/10

DANES OF DEATH

If the 2014 taught us all just one lesson, I'd like it to be that Eva Green is an international treasure. It's one thing to be, allegedly, the one spot of pure bright light in the TV show Penny Dreadful (of which I have not seen a single episode), but quite another to survive two different Frank Miller-related comic adaptations with her dignity as a human and woman intact, particularly when both of those films demanded extensive, inconsequential nudity. Survive and, indeed, provide such vitality to the barren rocks of the script and the filmmaking and the whole rest of the cast that she manages to make 300: Rise of an Empire into a movie that I actually feel okay about recommending to people.

By no means is it as impressive to save a Danish art Western as to make 302 into something with any merits whatsoever; but here in The Salvation, what do you know, Green is once again the best thing about a movie that, frankly, doesn't have any right to be as much of a boondoggle as has turned out to be the case. And this while playing a character whose tongue was cut out, and so she is only able to use her flaming eyes and tensed-up shoulders to do all her work.

Certainly, the rest of the film isn't as dire as all that - if nothing else, Mads Mikkelsen is strong, though not unusually so, as the grim-faced hero - but if anything, the individually strong elements of the movie all feel like they should add up to something much more than the whole. The film is your basic tragic revenge job: one day in the 1870s Century, a Danish immigrant who has settled in the American West, Jon (Mikkelsen), along with his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) eagerly await the arrival, after seven years, of Jon's wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and young son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke), left behind when the brothers fled Denmark after serving on the losing side of the Second Schleswig War. And all seems like it should be happy struggle to carve out a home in the New World, except that the family's stagecoach also boasts a pair of obviously bad ruffians, who spend a little time insinuating and making veiled threats, and finally pushing Jon out of the coach. He follows for miles, eventually stumbling upon his son's body, and thence to the camp where the goons have raped Marie to death. And so he kills them, mercilessly and angrily.

The wacky, almost farce-like twist, is that one of the men was the beloved brother of infamous gang leader Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and he's out for revenge himself. The deal he makes with the only nearby town, in the person of its craven mayor/undertaker, Keane (Jonathan Pryce) is that the townsfolk will find the killer, or Delarue's men will leave a wave of blood and despair behind where the town once stood. And you can pretty much put things together from there. Oh, and Green plays Delarue's mute lover, Madelaine, though it's clear from the dissembling looks and barely sublimated anger that flashes across her face that the only thing she really loves is her own sense of security.

Adherence to broadly familiar plots is no sin for a Western, one of the genres historically best suited to stories of conscious self-mythology; and while I think that The Salvation in its gutturally violent way, would like to think of itself as a contrast to the moral simplicity of the classic Hollywood Western, it's really only substituting one kind of myth for another. And not, let's be honest, a terribly new myth: the film's tone suggests that it thinks of itself as being in some way shocking or subversive, but the hyper-violent nihilistic Western has been with us long enough to serve as a cliché in its own right. The Salvation, which is clearly taking its marching orders from Sergio Leone's filmography in everything from the way the violence is staged to the slightly yellowed color timing, comes to us a full fifty years after A Fistful of Dollars exploded itself over the world, and it doesn't really see fit to add much of anything to that model.

Within this entirely classical framework, parts of The Salvation work amazingly well: director Kristian Levring (one of the Dogme 95 filmmakers from back in the day, though nothing about this resembles the Dogme aesthetic even superficially) and cinematographer Jens Schlosser build some awfully fine gloriously iconic images for us to gawk at, not romanticising the landscape (which is played here by South Africa, incidentally), but treating it as both grand and dauntingly empty and cruel. And there are, throughout, moments of incredible potency: Jon cradling his son's dead body by the hard silver light of the moon, the use of accusatory close-ups and dusty lighting during the town's first encounter with Delarue. The film's colors are harshly digital and almost metallic, and his gives every single frame of The Salvation a kind of vividness that's not realistic, and not exactly "beautiful", though it's surely very piercing and memorable, giving a sharp, unforgiving tinge to the images that feels exactly right.

And yet the thing doesn't cohere. Partially because it is, at the end of the day, just one more damn film where a husband turns into a zoned-out killing machine because his family dies, and partially because Levring and his co-writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, are really eager to keep ladling on the depravities, the wide range of characters who are no damn good, the overall sense of hopelessness and agony and violence as a way of life. You need to temper that somewhat if it's not going to feel just egregious, and that hasn't been done here at all. But even that's not as distressing as the lack of insight or discovery: the film is dolorously pleased to inform us that some people are just awful, awful, and they can turn good people awful in their wake, and let's run through the 2500th variation of Walking Tall and Death Wish to demonstrate that fact. It's a nice, fleet 89 minutes, so at least its overfamiliarity doesn't leave it boring, but if I'm going to watch this much suffering for this long, I still want to have some sense that I learned something after all that. All I learned from The Salvation is that the Danes are about 40 years behind the revisionist Western curve.

6/10

25 February 2015

EVE OF DESTRUCTION

Joseph L. Mankiewicz is not a bad director. But he's not a truly great one, either; he's not worthy, anyway, of being the second of only two men to have won a pair of back-to-back Best Director Oscars (John Ford was the first). He didn't, in general, do anything unexpected with his camera; he rarely pushed actors to do work beyond their comfort zone, preferring instead to facilitate them being the very best version of their usual selves. His best directorial instinct, in fact, was to provide the cleanest and most unobtrusive possible frame for Joseph L. Mankiewicz, screenwriter; and that Mankiewicz is the absolute best of the best.

Moreover, that Mankiewicz was never, ever better than when he adapted Mary Orr's 1946 story "The Wisdom of Eve" into 1950's All About Eve, a film in which the art of screen invective finds its absolute all-time pinnacle. Is it a disreputable pleasure, to bask in the bitchy vitriol as talented actors hurl elaborate, poetic insults at each other? Maybe, but the important point is that it's pleasure, and the caustic dialogue in All About Eve is some of the best ever committed to celluloid in Hollywood:
"Bill's thirty-two. He looks thirty-two. He looked it five years ago, he'll look it twenty years from now. I hate men."

"Don't cry. Just score it as an incomplete forward pass."

"To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce myself."

"The cynicism you refer to, I acquired the day I discovered I was different from little boys!"

"Does Miss Channing know she ordered domestic gin by mistake?"
"The only thing I ordered by mistake is the guests. They're domestic too, and they don't care what they drink, as long as it burns."

"Everybody has a heart. Except some people."
There's a great deal more to All About Eve than zingers, but I don't think it's unfair to suggest that the dialogue is what makes it truly, deeply special. Lots of movies have great acting. Lots movies have pulpy melodramatic hearts beating vigorously under a veneer of studio shine. Very, very few movies have the facility with language of All About Eve. And it's not just simple pleasure that makes me single out the dialogue, either; for all its florid excess, the dialogue is always insistently functional. This movie is about a cluster of people jockeying for dominance amongst each other; it is a drama of how people assert power, and ultimately - crucially - how they elect not to assert power. The way they speak is intimately linked with all that power struggle, so even if it's utterly beguiling to hear a top-shelf cast spit acidic aphorisms, it's also a sneaky way of constantly pounding on the story's themes.

Having entered the cultural lexicon as a kind of shorthand for greedy protégés targeting aging mentors, I do hope that the basic shape of the thing is familiar: Margo Channing (Bette Davis), 40-year-old goddess of the Broadway stage, has attracted a passionate admirer in the form of 24-year-old Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Everybody takes to Eve, from the moment Margo's best friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) ushers her into the star's dressing room: Margo's favorite director and boyfriend, Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), Margo's favorite writer and Karen's husband, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), Margo's blustery producer Max Fabian (Gregory Ratoff). Only Margo's longtime maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) takes an instinctive dislike of Eve and her perfectly-formed tale of woe ("What a story. Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end", she grouses in that immaculately grumpy Ritter way); only after taking Eve on as a personal assistant does Margo start to spot the clues that the guileless young woman is, in fact, rather craftier than she seemed, her eagerness to please slowly adopting a sharklike quality.

The film traces two character arcs more or less in tandem: Margo's confrontation with her feelings of self-loathing over getting older, and her eventual realisation that she needs to re-adjust her priorities and be nicer to the people who put up with her; and Eve's insinuation into the world of prestigious theater, aided and guided by the murderously sarcastic newspaper columnist Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). It's reasonably straightforward, as backstage melodramas go; from the moment the film elects to open near its end, with a ceremony giving Eve a tremendously important award while Margo, Karen, Bill, and Lloyd all conspicuously fail to clap for her in a collection of medium shots that perfectly frame the disgust each of those characters feel for her, it's less a matter of wondering what will happen, more wondering how it will happen, and all in the tightly-compressed nine-month frame the film establishes for itself (the only significant misstep in the whole of the writing - it's simply not plausible that Eve could reach the level of national acclaim we're told she enjoys on the strength of only one solitary play that, if we follow the rest of the in film logic, premiered only two or three months earlier).

And here is where I have perhaps been too mean to Mankiewicz the director, who executes the development of that story with a crispness and sophistication that leaves what amounts to a sudsy story of catfighting feeling like the most brainy of psychological dramas. I'm not quite as fond of his directing here as in the previous year's A Letter to Three Wives (for which he won the first of his two consecutive Oscars; Eve, of course, netted him the other - and both resulted in writing Oscars, for good measure), but the casualness and elegance with which he stages scenes and the energy he draws from his unbelievably good cast certainly help the film to be its very best self. Aided with a terrifically airy Alfred Newman Score and some smart, cunningly character-defining costumes by Edith Head and Charles LeMaire, among other talented contributors (there's not anybody involved in the film's creation who isn't doing top-level work), the film is as glamorous as its characters like to think that they are, making the ugliness and snitty sniping and pathos of those characters feel all the more sharp and tense. That mixture between the surface gloss and the psychological brutishness drives the film like a wild horse, and even though, at 138 minutes, it's maddeningly indulgent for a melodrama with so few clearly-defined plot points, my reaction to All About Eve is always surprise when I realise that it's getting ready to wrap up, even though I just started watching it.

The point I was making, anyway, is that there's beautiful clarity to the filmmaking, even if it's not as complex or surgically precise as Sunset Blvd., the film with which it competed for most of its Oscars (and how marvelous and odd is it to think upon one of the most insoluble Oscar battles ever waged - from Best Actress to Art Direction to Picture itself, most of their head-to-head competitions are incredibly difficult to pick a winner - would center on two melodramatic stories about women?). Mankiewicz's style is to first attend to the characters, and let the rest follow, which leads to some phenomenal pieces of subtle filmmaking. There's an early sequence, for example, that finds Eve meeting the rest of the cast; by staging Davis, Holm, and Marlowe in a three-shot that intercuts with Baxter alone in the frame, and shortly thereafter stages the four of them so that Baxter alone is facing the camera, offering a quiet bit of foreshadowing that Eve is somehow, importantly, different than the others; mere minutes later, she expresses her whole sob story in a curiously flat shot as Newman's score cranks itself up into a relentlessly swoony bit of romanticism that feels gaudy compared to everything else in the score, completing the first impression of this young woman as being distinctly, if indefinably, "off".

The focus on characters also means that the film gives a lot of room to its actors, who pay it back fully. That Davis gives one of the great performances of a generation is simply one of those facts everybody knows, and it's hardly worth going into all the little things she does that make it so (but I am especially fond of how matter-of-fact and unapologetic she plays her big "I've realised I was wrong" speech in the back of a car; even at her humblest, Margo is still proud and tough, and Davis isn't about to deny that reality). The quality of her work has tended to overshadow her co-stars, especially Baxter (a co-nominee in Best Actress, but clearly not in the same race to win as Daivs, Gloria Swanson, and eventual victor Judy Holliday). Which is spectacularly unfair; given a more nuanced role, Baxter is very nearly at the same level as her more famous colleague, especially in the opening scenes when the first-time viewer still hasn't quite discovered what's to dislike in the innocent enthusiast. It's nothing short of a miracle that Baxter can play the role to be totally spotless and pure the first time, while also leaving just enough brittle theatricality that you can pick up on it while re-watching; it's such potent stuff that I'm always a little sorry when the film starts to tip its hand that Eve is a nasty little beast, and Baxter starts to retreat into a much simpler - though no less persuasive, portrayal of a deeply self-satisfied cobra, staring with her hard eyes and setting her face like a marble mask. She's a great villain; one of the best of the 1950s.

But really, the best thing about All About Eve is that it doesn't rely on the kind of straightforward morality where "a great villain" even applies. It presents a ruthless, horrible world, where everybody who survives needs to be at least partially a predator (the small, early performance by Marilyn Monroe nails this perfectly; almost nowhere else in her career do we see the calculating menace behind adopting "I'm a busty dumb blonde!" as a strategic weapon. It is some of the best work she ever did, even if it's entirely limited to two scenes). Eve is a symptom, not a cause; and while Margo and friends clearly hate her at the end, they don't actually seem to blame her for being better at playing the game. That's a hell of a lot of cynicism, especially for a 1950s film; thank God, then, for the endless wit that helps the nastiness to go down, and the robust performances that ground it in something human. Because take them all together, and they mean that All About Eve is one of the greatest films of post-WWII Hollywood.

24 February 2015

SEAL OF APPROVAL, or: TAKING A SELKIE, or: IRISH I COULD HAVE COME UP WITH MORE BAD PUNS

To begin by asking the least burning question of them all: is Song of the Sea better than The Secret of Kells? I'm inclined to say no. There's the ol' "form follows content" argument, which would have it that Kells uses a visual aesthetic that is intimately derived from its primary subject, the illuminated Book of Kells; Song of the Sea doesn't look quite exactly the same, but it's extremely close, and it lacks the same tight connection between style subject. Besides, when The Secret of Kells came out, it was like nothing else I'd ever seen. Song of the Sea is like one thing I've ever seen. Which makes it, like, half as original.

But small-minded pedantry aside, Song of the Sea is still absolutely astounding, a more than worthy follow-up for director Tomm Moore and studio Cartoon Saloon, the creators of Kells. Once again, the action takes place under the shadow of Irish folklore, though Song of the Sea departs from its predecessor by taking place in something close but maybe not quite equal to the modern day (the closest thing to a giveaway is the presence of a handheld cassette player in two scenes). It's the story of two siblings: Ben (David Rawle), bitterly resentful that his now six-year-old sister came into the world the same night that his beloved mother (Lisa Hannigan) left it; and Saoirse, who does not speak, and is the sole focal point of anything resembling emotional engagement from the kids' father Conor (Brendan Gleeson), though it only resembles it a little bit. The lot of them live alone on an island a short boat trip from the Irish coast, tending a lighthouse, and in Saoirse's case, staring with rapt attention at the population of seals that has arrived in those waters for the first time in many years.

The reason for this is not merely that the seals are unbearably goddamn cute - they are, though cuter still is Ben's big sloppy sheepdog Cú - but that Saoirse, it turns out, is half-selkie, and her and Ben's mother was a full selkie, which has something to do with why she disappeared (this theoretically means that Ben, too, is half-selkie, but as the design makes clear, he takes after his father). And what, pray tell, is a selkie? those of you unversed in North Sea folklore are perhaps asking. The short answer is a kind of were-seal. The long answer, in this film's telling, is that the selkie is the link between water and land, and she must sing her songs while wearing her selkie coat in order to keep the fierce Owl Witch at bay. Since Saoirse doesn't speak, and since Conor has taken great lengths to keep her coat hidden, this proves to be a bit a of a problem. Even moreso when an apparent accident on the night that Saoirse first manifests as a selkie leads her bossy grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) decides that the children need to be taken to her home in Dublin for their own safety.

It is, in truth, basic children's fantasy boilerplate, buoyed up at the narrative level more because Will Collins script, from Moore's story, is full of flippant humor than because it is very surprising, and deepened more from the richness of the voice acting than the probing writing. And I think the filmmakers know this - that, in fact, they were deliberately writing something simple and uncomplicated so that its mythic elements would be more richly accessible. For it's a love letter to Irish folklore through and through; that, and a series of impressions and variations on a theme by Miyazaki Hayao (there's unexpectedly rich veins of Spirited Away in the film's bones), played on Gaelic instruments. Its relative spareness as a work of screenwriting is clearly tied into that desire to make something with the simple clarity of a fairy tale - a characteristic it shares with The Secret of Kells - though with a more complex moral code based on the fervent belief that everybody is ultimately trying to good, it's simply that not everybody necessarily understands how to do that (the film's most overtly Miyazakian element).

I run the risk of selling the film short: it achieves its storytelling goals beautifully, sketching out characters with a few key personality traits that get developed as they move through the disconnected sketches of adventure. I do not mind saying that as it drew to its conclusion, I spontaneously began to well up with some manner of proto-tears. The important thing to keep in mind, is whatever its appeal or lack to adults, Song of the Sea is a children's movie: an extraordinarily good one. Almost certainly the best of 2014. And it has the elemental storytelling of a bedtime story, something that it flags for us from literally the first minutes, which are about the telling of a bedtime story.

Meanwhile, it is breathtakingly beautiful - if I am being honest, probably more beautiful on the level of pure color and shape than Kells. The opening sequence is fuzzy and almost chalky-looking, suggesting the mural painted by mother and son to share the story of the selkie with the unborn baby; the remainder is crisp, brightly-saturated colors with flat shapes and spaces: this movie is unabashedly proud to be two-dimensional. It copies the salient aspect of Kells, mixing side views with overhead views that make a hash of perspective lines and three-dimensional geography; a trick Moore and company picked up from medieval art. And again, it's not entirely clear where the relationship between the style and the story here lies. other than a few moments that hearken back to that opening mural, the aesthetic feels not quite perfect: a little too primitive to actually feel like picturebook illustration, which sometimes appears to be the intent. Or perhaps I'm simply too ignorant of Irish folk art to know what I'm looking at, which I frankly prefer to believe.

For regardless of how well it "fits", Song of the Sea is simply too gorgeous for words. The characters have just a trace of anime influence in their eyes and faces, the backgrounds are wildly abstracted using the distinctive lines and stylised representations of Celtic illuminations. There's not a single frame that isn't lovely, regardless of what else is going on: whether it's funny, adorable, spooky (which happens surprisingly, and gratifyingly, often), or even if it's in one of the film's handful of patchy, slowed-down moments where the folktale structure works against its best interests. It's very special film; in love with its characters, its story, the traditions underpinning that story; and allowing the characters to be full of love and warmth themselves. I'd be a damn liar to call it perfect or particularly innovative, but it's the kind of comfortingly challenging work that represents cinema animation at its most ambitious, and a simply lovely, tender drama on top of it.

9/10

22 February 2015

PREDICTIONS FOR THOUGHTS ON THE 87th ACADEMY AWARDS

My prediction record: 20/24 - a very pleasing number for a very hard year.

The Oscars are here! I'll be updating this post throughout the ceremony with the winners and my brief thoughts as they come along.

Is it really already that time of year? Golly Moses. Well then, let's dive into the fray and make some predictions for what's going to walk away with shiny statues at the show this weekend. And if I have it right, just about everything this year is going to actually involve deserving winners in virtually all categories, and grouse though we might about turning film into a horse race, who can complain about that?

Best Picture
American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

WON: Birdman
Will Win: Birdman
Spoiler: Boyhood
My Pick: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Lazily accusing this of being an easy Oscarbait choice because it's about actors, or whatever, misses the reality that when this project was first announced, it sounded nothing at all like the kind of thing that comes within miles of an Oscar. It is a weird, brave little piece of craziness, and it's exactly the kind of thing that the Academy should be paying more attention to, not less. Is Boyhood better? Yes. And Grand Budapest is, in my unhumble opinion, better than either. But this is a choice that will reflect well on the Oscars in years to come, and screw the backlash.

As a fun thought experiment, you can come up with a realistic excuse for everyone of these except for The Theory of Everything and, increasingly, Selma to end up winning. But as a matter of pragmatics, Birdman has swept the three guild awards for which it is eligible, and that's a lot to look past just because Boyhood "feels" right. And the fact that the race is between two such monumentally non-Oscarbait movies as those (and three, if we throw on The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a beautiful thing. It's not a lock, but I think it's considerably stronger than some pundits have been trying to argue.


Best Director
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

WON: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Will Win: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Spoiler: Richard Linklater
My Pick: Wes Anderson

The "gimmick", if we want to diminish it that way, took a huge amount of planning and creativity to carry off. And the fact that was recognised is not something we should feel bad about. So as I said earlier in the night about a different category that shows up later in this article, fuck the haters.

The romantic logic of saying that Linklater can sneak in even if Boyhood loses Best Picture isn't lost on me. But predicting a split in normal circumstances - as these, ultimately, are - seems foolish. Besides if Linklater couldn't manage to win the DGA, I can't really see the argument whereby he wins here.


YOU MAGNIFICENT BASTARD

With what I can only call the most admirable clarity, the monumental biopic Patton, Best Picture Oscar winner of 1970, opens with a kind of thesis statement that lays out everything the rest of the film is to contain. I don’t refer to the main body of its legendary opening scene, in which famed World War II hero Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. (George C. Scott) stands in front of an enormous U.S. flag to deliver a rousing message to the unseen troops about the inherent nobility and bravery of the American fighting forces. It’s less a patriotic harangue than a revival meeting centered around the religion of blood and killing. That is a great scene, and it does perfectly set the stage for all that comes after, but it’s not what I’m referring to.

I refer to the short beat that precedes his speech. We see Patton emerge in a long shot, a tiny black blip against the field of red and white, followed by a series of cuts that swiftly bring the camera in closer, after which several seconds are spent cutting metronomically from one visual element of this man’s heavily polished exterior to the next: his ivory-handled pistol, his medals, the insignia on his helmet, his rigid salute, his pristine boots. In this moment, director Franklin J. Schaffner and editor Hugh S. Fowler (both Oscar winners for this film) aren’t merely communicating that these are the elements that go into making this man; they’re arguing that these elements are this man, that he is defined entirely as individual components of perfect military bearing. That matters more, to him and to the viewer, than anything to do with his internal humanity. And only once we’ve quickly absorbed all of that does the film move into its legendary opening monologue, where he clarifies that first impression with his impassioned hymn to being the biggest, toughest sonofabitch you can be. Not, in any sense, to being the finest human being.

Scott, according to at least one story, was nervous about this opening, concerned that it was so potent that it would overwhelm the rest of his performance. That at, least, doesn’t happen, but he was almost right; the opening does tend to overwhelm Patton the movie, which has the somewhat unfortunate characteristic of having told us, in its opening and strongest scene, exactly what it’s going to be about for the rest of the film. And at 172 minutes total, the rest of the film is quite long to feel like it’s only ever providing variations on a single theme that’s never clearer than when we start off. There’s a kind of weirdly academic texture to the screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (who would have much better success directing a three-hour Best Picture winner just two years down the road) and Edmund H. North, which plainly yearns to be a complete and thorough study of an all-time fascinating real-life human, using war less as its plot than as the prism through which its central character is refracted. And it even manages to be that, but Coppola and North are so successful at quickly sketching an outline, and then filling it in with smartly implied and gracefully stated exposition, that we have learned virtually all we will ever learn about Patton before the film is even a third of the way through.

I find much about the film - its expansive length, its focus on psychology during wartime, the central position of a title character who wants above all else to be thought of as a warrior, not a man - to evoke Lawrence of Arabia, then eight years old. That film carefully danced around its protagonist, peeling him like an onion, so that we kept learning new things about him all the way till the end; Patton ends up having to repeat itself, constantly, to hoist itself up to a running time that seems preposterously out-of-place. There is no fact about Patton that we only learn one time. There’s even an entire subthread of scenes taking place in the offices of the Nazi army command dedicated solely to demonstrating that the Germans realise the same things about Patton that the viewers already know. If there had been no other change to Patton but to surgically excise all the scenes involving Germans, it would be infinitely more focused and tight. For not only do the Nazi command scenes serve no meaningful function, they also don’t fit a movie that’s intently concerned on the way that American military men perceive the world.

That all being said, and no matter how reliably Patton leaves me feeling exhausted and, if I must be honest, quite a bit bored, the fact remains that the character it studies is a genuinely fascinating, remarkable figure, one of the most interesting subjects in the history of the biopic. Partially, this is because Patton himself was such a profoundly strange man, colorful and brazen and full of messy self-contradictions. A devout Christian who believed in reincarnation and worshiped the great military minds of the pre-Christian world, a martinet and bully who almost scuttled his entire career for abusing a shell-shocked soldier, an orator who carefully laced blunt profanity into his speeches as a way of making himself seem more erratic and giving his words more memorable tang, and a demented war-hungry genius whose refusal to slow down or play by the rules proved decisive in helping the Allies win the war in Europe. The writers, in pinning this man down on paper, prove to have an immensely ambivalent and confused attitude towards him, which ends up being one of the film’s best strengths - uncertain whether to condemn his bloodlust and my-way-or-the-highway braggadocio, or to cheer for his rebellious instincts, mystified by his adoration of classicism, anxious to praise him as a hero, but alarmed at supporting unchecked American militarism while Vietnam was still burning, Coppola and North never decide on a single approach to the character, which frees Patton from having the simple “you should think this” moralising that tends to make so many biopics so bland and harmless. No doubt, the fact that they were working mostly with the accounts of Gen. Omar Bradley, a bitter rival of Patton’s and eventually his commanding officer, led to this split between hero worship and anti-hero condemnation (it also likely explains why Bradley - played with level warmth by Karl Malden - comes off as so damn humane and reasonable throughout the film, in a way that strikes me as a bit intellectually and ethically questionable).

Its overall ambivalence crops up in many ways: Schaffner’s direction, which keeps the war itself at enough of a remove, and always privileges people talking about strategy rather than executing it, and thus silently reminding us that Patton, great warrior man, was still a general and thus still kept himself back from the heart of fighting; Jerry Goldsmith’s score - one of the few Oscar nominations the film lost, and one of the few it unambiguously deserved to win - which presents rousing military marches that feel like more fully-orchestrated fife and drum tunes from the Revolutionary War, punctuating them with a repeated motif of echoing horn triplets that feel entirely out-of-place and mournful. Though the film was seen as the moderate, middlebrow champion in the year that MASH was a more robustly anti-war Oscar nominee, and Richard Nixon adored it, Patton feels more of a piece with the New Hollywood than its bloat and aesthetic conservatism imply - it has the same lack of clear moral authority and obsession with the ways that men express themselves within a culture where they don’t fit that are typical of more showily radical American films of the same time.

And, like many of those films, it demands a lot of its main actor and relies on him to provide complexity and richness that an only be indicated by the script. So it works out well that George C. Scott came along and gave such an absurdly strong performance. Really, take out the actor, and Patton is much less insightful, and its bloat becomes unforgivable; but put him in, and suddenly even the most logy moments hum with dramatic tension. Scott is a marvel, vanishing completely into the role, and building a rock-solid foundation for Patton’s endless self-confidence and violent certitude that leaves his every action feeling like the inevitable extension of that mind into the wrong time and place, where he is nevertheless able to thrive. Never a small man, Scott towers over everyone and everything in the film, physically and emotionally; he has no little moments, but finds a way to make even quiet reflection the burly explosion of a volatile personality (the famed "2000 years ago... I was here" scene, in particular, is at once spiritual, self-consciously mythic, and presented with an aggressive "fuck you, I dare you to tell me I'm being weird" bullishness). And in his big moments, he exudes crushing, giant emotions with terrifying splendor, as in his wrathful verbal assault against that shell-shocked soldier that Scott turns into Lear-like scream of defiance against a world where things exist that Patton does not approve of.

Scott makes for such an unstoppably watchable Patton that, even though the script offers him little chance in the middle hour to do anything he didn't already do in the first, and only lets him start to project introspection towards the end, he makes every single onscreen moment feels like the most vital thing you have ever seen in a movie. Patton, on the whole is handsome prestige cinema that's executed well enough, looks swell - Fred J. Koenekamp's cinematography, the second and last film shot in the Dimension 150 format, lends a faded beauty that speaks to the subject's mythic stature and his behind-the-times attitudes alike - and has plenty of smart writing (just too damn much of it), but when Scott is added to the equation, it suddenly turns into a genuinely great character study. Not "Best Picture of 1970 or any other year" great, but far better and more involving than it easily might have been.

21 February 2015

GOING HOME IS MURDER

I am very happy to kick off the reviews for the 2nd Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser with this special dedication - Tim H. would like to wish Marty and Melanie a very happy wedding today, with this review of Marty's favorite movie. And so would I.

I have in the past waxed some nostalgic over the miracle that was indie filmmaking in the 1990s, I think in part because I didn't have the good sense to notice it at the time (I was a teenager, and thus deep into my "only foreign films are worth a damn" phase. Ah, kids). But just as miraculous was the way that bled over into the mainstream. For example, if I say "romantic comedy about a hitman resentfully attending his 10-year high school reunion", it feels about right for the whole Miramax indiewood movement of the late '90s. But 1997's Grosse Pointe Blank isn't, technically, an indie film. It's a Hollywood Pictures production. There's Disney money in this thing. And for a Disney movie to dive so lustfully into the offbeat realms of '90s quirky indie comedy... it was a healthier time for mainstream cinema, that's all.

The hitman is one Martin Blank (John Cusack), and his reunion is in Gross Pointe, Michigan, which means that we have no less than a three-way pun going on in the title. That's not the sort of humor that defines the film at all, but it does speak deeply self-amused level of tossed-off snark that does fill every page of the screenplay, adapted by D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink & Cusack himself from a draft by Tom Jankiewicz. Since I've already gone all nostalgic, and since the film itself in large part about the unexpected potency of nostalgia, here's another one: Gen-X. Remember when everything in the world for a little was Gen-X thinks/does/is this, or that, or the third thing? Well, Grosse Pointe Blank is a firmly Gen-X-ish movie: it has the deeply self-aware sarcasm born out of an intense desire not to be seen taking anything too seriously. There's an outlandish, fantasyland goofiness built into the scenario that the film sidesteps entirely being treating it with such deadpan remove.

The primary source and primary beneficiary of this bone-dry approach to absurdism and black comedy turns out to be Cusack himself. He's a wildly inconsistent actor, too easily straitjacketed by his characters, but he's always at his best when he's allowed to have a sharp, or nasty, or bleak edge, and he kind of gets all three of them here. When we first see Martin, calmly pausing a conversation with his assistant, Marcella (Joan Cusack) to shoot his latest target, he's already a bit frustrated and annoyed, and over the first third or half of the movie, that frustration blossoms into one of the most interesting, and probably the funniest, Cusack performance I have seen. As he gets wrangled into visiting his hometown during the reunion while taking a job; as he fences with the ebullient older hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who tries to sell him on the idea of an assassins' union with the loud confidence that older, fatter white men use on younger white men; as he grouses to his disinterested therapist (Alan Arkin); Cusack fills Martin with a savage, angry "why me?" attitude that's half pathetic, half just plain mean. It's appealingly free from any begging for our sympathy, an impressive achievement both for this actor (who's so boyish and innocent-looking that refusing our sympathy can really only come as an act of will), and for the general genre of "likable killers", which usually feels the need to make the lead assassin sensitive in some way, so we can feel good about spending time in his company. Grosse Pointe Blank has no interest in softening Martin's edges. He's scattered and demanding, impatient and petulant. The only thing that ends up keeping him from turning into an antihero - which he certainly doesn't, he's likable throughout and we always root for him - is that the movie as a whole is so sarcastic that it never feels like murder is a high-stakes game.

Making the central character so tetchy also gives the film a unique sensibility as a romantic comedy, particularly a John Cusack romcom. When he reconnects with his old girlfriend, radio DJ Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), we immediately understand what mixture of standoffishness and neediness combine to make him such a dubious prospect for her. The conflict thus emerges not so much as "will he get the girl?", but rather "will he sufficiently fix himself as a human being to deserve the girl?" Which is, as far as the genre goes, a surprisingly mature attitude, though it doesn't help that it ultimately feels as pre-ordained as in any other romcom.

Still, the movie isn't taking its romantic A-plot any more seriously than it takes anything else. Director George Armitage and his cast glide through everything with a sardonic coolness that's privileges wry humor, deadpan quips, and smirking reaction shots, and while it only works by virtue of being funny, well, it is funny. Not always laugh-out-loud funny. Funny in that peculiarly '90s Gen-X way, where you see ridiculous things going on and shake your head with knowing superiority; but then, the characters here are in on the joke, so it doesn't feel like they or their movie are beneath us.

The side effect of resting so heavily on attitude, humor and a sense of well-honed ironic detachment means that Grosse Pointe Blank is ill-equipped to move in any other direction. It handles the love material well enough, simply because Cusack and Driver are operating on exactly the same level, and the ending hustles along as quick as it can without lingering on anything too potentially sentimental. But I'm not terribly keen on any of the film's shifts into action cinema, which start to pile up in the second half; Armitage (or, at least, his second unit) doesn't have the natural flair to make it actually exciting, and even if he did, I can't find my way to the argument that Grosse Pointe Blank actually benefits from having action setpieces in the first place. A Coenesque outburst of shocking violence, sure. But this isn't that - this is gun battles in exploding mini-marts. The film always quickly reverts to its set position, but these shifts all feel random and disruptive.

That leaves a healthy amount of movie that works pretty consistently on the levels that matter. The ironic humor is funny; the lovingly curated and omnipresent soundtrack of '80s indie rock gives the film an energetic spine and also a warm nostalgic glow; Cusack could not possibly have more perfect timing, and Driver could not be a better foil. The film's strengths are necessarily limited - it's immensely saturated in the kind of hip knowingness that died with the '90s and wasn't even liked by everybody at the time - and the last act suffers from too much drift from its strengths, but on the whole, it's terrifically likable, sly in the most inveigling ways, and puts enough of a spin on the basic romantic comedy tropes it subscribes to feel a bit fresher and intelligent than it probably objectively is. It's a fun little bastard of a movie, and an exceptionally lively time capsule.

THE 7th ANNUAL ANTAGONIST AWARDS FOR EXCELLENCE IN FILMMAKING

As the Oscars ring close the movie year that was, I shall also present my more private awards honoring the best of the 2014 movie crop.

And quite an exceptional best it is, too! Though one film dominates the list to follow like nothing has ever dominated the Antagonists in their brief history, the breadth of movies that were absolutely terrific in this way or that continues to amaze me, the more I think about it. 2015 has a lot to live up to.


BEST FEATURE
Goodbye to Language
An unfair advantage: what other film this year (or last year, or the year prior...) actually tried to literally challenge the ways our eyes work while we watch a film? And did that on top of a narrative that twists in on itself while conversations pile up and some of the most academic fart jokes out there proudly march across the screen? In a year with plenty of films that actively questioned what films are and can do, none was so assertive in demanding everything its viewers could offer, and reward them with such a totally unprecedented experience.

1st Runner-Up: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Meanwhile, pure conservatism: Wes Anderson making the most Wes Anderson movie yet. But the impeccable fussiness of the film's design is only half the equation; the way that his precise clockwork filmmaking matches with the story's surprisingly rich vein of mournfulness and self-conscious nostalgia makes it truly special.

Also Cited:
Mr. Turner
-For beautifully marrying style and subject, and telling a story of artistic achievement that mixes the ugly and the beautiful without apology
Snowpiercer
-For the creation of an absolutely perfect world in service to a roaring satiric broadside against everything shitty in The World Today
Under the Skin
-For creating a work of alienation that's truly alienating, terrifyingly beautiful, and full of mysteries that have more to do with psychology than sci-fi


BEST DIRECTOR
Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
There is a level of tonal control present in every frame of this movie that would be impressive even if we didn't know how much of it was shot, essentially, without a clear sense of what was going to happen moment-by-moment. It is a brave act of letting the material find its own shape, while also constructing an incredibly precise frame of visuals and concepts around that material. Finding a way to make pure ideas into pure cinema is the greatest challenge a filmmaker can face, and Glazer met it head on here.

1st Runner-Up: Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language
How fearless do you have to be to conceive of the "split eye" effects, let alone to go ahead and execute them? A lot of it is the same ol' late-period Godardisms - grumpiness and mild xenophobia when contemplating the state of modern Europe - but the expansiveness of the experiment, trying to rip cinema into constituent atoms and see how it all works, puts it on par with the most adventurous work of a career that has never shied away from blowing things up.

Also Cited:
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
-For bringing everyone and everything to the same level of theatricality, but making room for undercurrents of emotion
Jennifer Kent, The Babadook
-For a debut feature that shows more skill for building terror and marrying it to character arcs than directors who have been doing this for years
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
-For the superhuman act of bringing a cast and crew to the exact same artistic and emotional place every year for twelve years, and never letting a seam show


18 February 2015

OF INHUMAN BONDAGE

Fifty Shades of Grey is a monumentally boring motion picture. Whatever value there is to a smash hit movie written, directed, and produced by women, and pitched to an audience of women as a way for them to enjoy an expression of sexuality; whatever damage the film threatens to do by seriously misrepresenting the (healthy) act of BDSM-laced consensual sex as a (tremendously unhealthy) game played by broken molestation victims as a way of bullying other people into becoming sexual punching bags; these are conversations worth having. But they're conversations that seem a little bit feeble when stacked next to the far more concrete facts of what Fifty Shades of Grey actually is on a tangible cinematic level, and not a theoretical one. Which is a monumentally boring motion picture.

In more objective terms, FSOG is about Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a senior-year English major at a college located in either Washington state, Oregon, or British Columbia, depending on which piece of evidence located in which scene you prefer to believe. Her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism major and the editor, or something, of the school paper, has come down terribly sick, which is why the film opens with Anastasia (Anastasia Steele! That sounds more like the name of a morally questionable Bond girl than the protagonist of an erotic drama. A heterosexual erotic drama, anyway) doing Kate a solid by heading to Grey House, the Seattle-based hub of Grey Enterprises, the massive business operated by 27-year-old Wunderkind Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who has consented to give Kate an interview. Anastasia's utter inability to function as a journalist - it becomes clear almost immediately that she didn't even read Kate's prepared questions prior to setting in Christian's office - does not in any way offend the incredibly important businessman, who throws himself into stalking the young woman. Only it's not stalking if one is a gorgeous, indescribably wealthy businessman, apparently. She starts to fall in love, but he's more interested in making her the newest in a line of women servicing his very rigid fetishes: he wants to introduce the easily confused virgin into the world of his bondage and punishment-based sex fantasies, with a contract spelling out every last thing Anastasia must do, everything Christian can't do, and how their lives will be structured to facilitate it all. While endlessly discussing this contract, they occasionally have vanilla sex.

So that's the plot. The whole plot, covering 125 minutes worth of movie. It's easy to complain about films in which nothing happens, but that's the kind of criticism I'll be more leery of in the future, now that I've seen Fifty Shades of Grey. For this is a film in which actually nothing happens, all the way up to its enraging non-ending, which not only finds nothing resolved on the way to the film's two sequels, but calls attention to the lack of any story arc or even much of a character arc up to that point. She loses her virginity. That is the totality of the character development that happens to either lead.

That the film is military-grade boring and thuddingly mediocre is, after a sense, an enormous achievement. I haven't read the Twilight fanfic turned copyright-dodging erotic novel by E.L. James that serves as its base, but not for want of trying; only a few pages of the book version of FSOG was enough to scare me out of the rest. And I understand from those who know more that it never really gets better, and that the overall subliteracy of the piece only intensifies after that opening. So the fact that director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Kelly Marcel were able to wrest it into something merely banal is worthy of real admiration, even though I'd have personally preferred a reprehensibly awful Fifty Shades of Grey to the one that exists in all its generic flatness. Particularly in light of the extremely well-publicised feuding between Taylor-Johnson and James (who served as one of the producers) over every last damn little thing, and the vivid lack of chemistry between the leads.

Those leads really are something - in a film that stakes everything on the crackling tension between two sexy young people being enough to keep us invested in the scenes of them talking about the nothing that they're doing (the estimate I've seen is that 20 minutes of the film is sex scenes; this seems too generous by at least 25%), having such absolutely unacceptable actors is a film killer if nothing else was. Johnson, at least, has some personality; perhaps dimly aware that everything around her was going terribly wrong, she tries to put an ironic, self-aware spin on things, playing up the almost non-existent comedy of the script and being generally sharper, more acerbic, and wittier than I think Marcel set her up to be.

Dornan, man, he's just the fucking cat's pajamas. You can tell, as clearly as it has ever been possible to psychoanalyse an actor from his performance, that he decided on the second day of shooting that he'd made the wrong decision and wanted out, but knew there was nothing he could do about it. The Belfast native locks himself into a cast-iron American accent so stiff and mechanical that he literally can't inflect any lines, so everything he says comes out in the same angry bark, as Dornan spits out individual words like watermelon seeds. He looks with sullen resentment at Johnson in every one of their scenes together - and it's surely no accident that Taylor-Johnson and the team of editors work hard to keep the lead actors in separate shots as often as possible, and his visibly disinterest in their sex scenes is the absolute antithesis of erotica. One feels that Christian Grey would rather stick his cock in a garbage disposal than Anastasia. And while Johnson at least manages to spin some of her worst dialogue (and there is some vile dialogue here, most of it, I understand, directly taken from the book) in a way that makes it clear that the character doesn't take it very seriously and we shouldn't either, Dornan digs in an makes it all sound so grave and soporific; perhaps it was the only way he could manage to survive such bons mots as "I don't make love. I fuck. Hard." and "I'm fifty shades of fucked-up" without collapsing into giggles. But it doesn't make for good cinema.

While the actors are drowning and Taylor-Johnson fights to keep the movie from turning into an Ed Woodian clusterfuck, the only sparkle is provided by Seamus McGarvey and David Wasco, the cinematographer and production designer, respectively, who collude in making the film live up to its title in the most fascinating way that such an austere palette could provide. There's a sleek coldness to the look of Grey House and Christian's tony abode, with its beautiful, painterly vistas of Seattle, in which the sharp lines of the set and color-starved decorating and the coolly hard lighting all combine to make something beautiful but sterile and dehumanised; if the story seems indecently fixated on selling Christian's cruelty as romantic or erotic, the look of the film quietly but forcibly demands that we really regard him as the icy bastard that, in real life, would be the only appropriate way to respond to him. On top of the whole movie just looking stylish as a motherfucker.

It's the only way in which the film really distinguishes itself. The hope that a woman director would stage sex scenes in any way other than the same old close-ups on nipples and arched backs and all that happen in every erotic thriller made by a man proves to be totally unfounded, leaving us with a smattering of tastefully R-rated setpieces indistinguishable from hundreds of others - even just this year, we had The Boy Next Door using almost all of the same angles in its one big sex scene, and if anything, more emphasis on the nude male backside involved. So it's not sexy. And the filmmakers are so focused on keeping the campiness out of the final product that they succeed only in stripping it of its vitality. So it's not very fun or funny. It's not very anything; it exists, barely, and it occupies time, too much of it, and then it simple falls apart into the credits. Fifty shades of grey, it turns out, look very indistinguishable from an uninterrupted field of beige.

4/10

BDSM WEEK: ROSIE CHEEKS

If, for whatever reason, you wanted to make the most ice-cold, vagina-drying, boner-killing movie about sex in all of cinema history, you would first have to confront the fact that Exit to Eden already exists, and it has set that bar inordinately high. It's no surprise, really, that nothing good could should come of a film taking place mostly on a Pacific island commune dedicated to the pursuit of BDSM, in the hands of director Garry Marshall, a man with an inerrant ability to turn everything into a stiflingly obvious sitcom. There's no tinned laugh track that follows the litany of terrible, coming-from-a-mile-away gags presented in Exit to Eden, but it sure as hell feels like there should be. And to the surprise of absolutely nobody, that garrulous, eager-to-please Borscht Belt mentality is just about the worst conceivable fit for an erotic drama about a man too proud to admit that he likes to be dominated and a dominatrix too terrified of being hurt to allow herself to drop her defenses. Which, let's be blunt, is already a pretty groan-worthy set-up for a BDSM story, but when you put that in the hands of a man constitutionally hellbent on making cookie-cutter mass entertainment, you have the ingredients for a truly punishing exercise in the worst kind of dopey humor mingled with the worst kind of prurient fascination with kinky sex.

And that's without even mentioning the way that Exit to Eden pairs its damp love story with a comedy about two sharp LAPD officers trying to stop a diamond smuggler, which I understand to be the entire invention of screenwriters Deborah Amelon and Bob Brunner, a massively misguided add-on to the novel vampire maven Anne Rice wrote under a pen name. I think one could spend quite a long time trying to figure out what, on balance, is the worst thing about the film: its deeply unerotic eroticism, or its more deeply unfunny comedy. The sex scenes are more boring, anyway.

So let's meet our two threads, anyway. The first starts in Australia, in 1974, where a young boy named Elliot Slater (Brian Davila) purposefully gets himself in trouble so the family's busty French maid (Rajia Baroudi) will angrily spank him. 20 years later, the grown-up Elliot (Paul Mercurio) still loves to be punished, but he's had a difficult time articulating that to his potential lovers, which is why he has applied for a most singular program. His friend, Dr. Martin Helifax (Hector Elizondo) is the proprietor of a private island of the coast of Mexico, Eden, which is a combination retreat/therapy center for the personal exploration of sexuality as it relates to domination and submission. Elliot has passed the apparently rigorous psychological profiling necessary to travel to become a "Citizen", or submissive partner, there to be able to live out all his fantasies of being smacked, yelled out, and ordered around.

Meanwhile, Sheila Kingston (Rosie O'Donnell) and Fred Lavery (Dan Aykroyd), partners on the Los Angeles police force, are hot in pursuit of Omar (Stuart Wilson), a mysterious jewel thief who has never been photographed or described, and his right-hand henchwoman, Nina Blackstone (Iman). The first we meet Sheila and Fred, they're disguised as, respectively, a dancer and a DJ at a strip club, which is what we call "foreshadowing" in the screenwriting business. Clomping around in her boa, waving a gun, Sheila cuts in with the first wave of a nightmarishly persistent pattern of voice-over to snottily joke, "I'm a cop. Thought I was a supermodel? Don't feel bad, everyone makes that mistake". Because, you see, Rosie O'Donnell is a disgusting fatty who nobody would ever find sexy. That's the least fair kind of joke ever - and circa-1994 O'Donnell is pretty damn good-looking by every human standard outside of the mainstream American film industry - and Jesus Horatio Christ, is Exit to Eden ever ecstatic to exploit her purported hideousness, standing back with arms wide open to let in all the guffaws as this ungainly, graceless, tart-tongued woman talks like somebody who could possibly be found sexual desirable, en route to putting her in a snug leather bustier from which she pokes out in all the wrong places. It would be infinitely more dispiriting if O'Donnell's performance wasn't so brittle and arch and thus felt like it was feeding the meanspirited humor even more than the script already would have it.

The stories cross paths when Elliot quite inadvertently snaps a photo of Omar in the act of pulling out a packet of black market diamonds, on his way to Eden. The criminals are thus after him, and the cops chase both the criminals and Elliot's film cans, and so everybody ends up on Eden: Elliot to find himself quite besotted by headmistress Lisa (Dana Delany), Nina to enjoy life as a sexually predatory gorgeous woman, Omar to stand around grousing, Sheila to shoot off zingers followed by zingy observations about how everybody is a people, even the ones who like BDSM, and Fred is miserable and uncomfortable and obliged to pretend that he's a janitor to avoid having to partake of the sexuality in any way.

Picking out the worst thing about Exit to Eden is prohibitively hard, but a strong candidate would have to be that awful fucking voiceover, which O'Donnell delivers in a speedy staccato that obviously wants to evoke terse narration of film noir - which it doesn't - only in way that's sassy and robustly comic - which it isn't. Another strong contender would be the absolutely impossible performances given by Delany and Mercurio (the latter having only ever appeared in one film, the sweet-minded "wacky Aussies" comedy Strictly Ballroom, where his callowness and artificial mien were used to more stable effect), stilted and inhuman, so devoid of human warmth that when they doff their clothes to make out and have simulated sex that Marshall and company shoot with a kind of delighted "naughty child peeking between interlaced fingers" remove, it's a little surprising that you can't hear the plastic parts squeaking as they rub together. Seriously, nobody gives a good, or even halfway functional performance in the film (except for Iman, maybe, who also has the broadest major role), but even by the lowered standards here, Delany is shockingly inauthentic and forced. There is no pleasure here, nor self-reflection, nor even a particularly strong command of the English language, based on some of her line readings.

To be fair, Delany is particularly ill-served by the genial comic tone that Marshall spackles onto everything, since hers is the most serious of all roles. Aye, the comedy, that's another thing going spectacularly wrong: at its best, it's desperately obvious and corny, and sometimes it gets worse and adds tone-deaf tastelessness on top of it (e.g. O'Donnell's cringing parody of Iman's speaking voice; the running gag wherein Sheila mocks Fred by loudly describing her period). But the really awful thing is how the broad, surface-level humor collides with the frequent nudity and frank sex talk, reducing everything the braying world of particularly filthy burlesque. It's a leering, dirty movie, though I think entirely by accident; Marshall is not a leering filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination (think of how successfully he denuded the R-rated prostitute comedy Pretty Woman of any genuine sexual edge), just one who wants to make things as safe and accessible to the most basic mainstream audience. In applying that mentality to the defiantly un-mainstream world of BDSM, the perhaps inevitable effect is to titter at it with embarrassment, to linger on it and make it seem outright smutty. I have no stake in the behaviors being depicted onscreen; I do however, prefer not to have to deal with the confusing mental anguish of such featherweight jokes being steamrolled by such crass depictions of clearly artificial fucking.

All of this coalesces into a completely unacceptable, unwatchable cinematic object: only a handful of times does a joke manage to spark enough to generate any kind of energy, and it sputters out again the second that either plot clicks through another generic event, or any of the actors cough up another line through palpable self-loathing (Aykroyd), dogged determination to make anything out of this hellacious mess (O'Donnell), or just plain ineptitude (everyone else). It's a movie whose insipidity keeps being sharpened with every new wrinkle, every new line, and every new banal bit of staging; it feels like the flatness of it all should end up turning into anesthetic mush, but no, Exit to Eden keeps finding new ways to inflict pain. Just like its characters, only there is nothing all pleasurable involved in this act of sadism.

17 February 2015

BDSM WEEK: HELL FOR LEATHER

Like a great many films that were birthed in controversy, time has somewhat mellowed opinions towards Cruising since its notorious first release in 1980. Once a film universally condemned by gay rights groups for its apparent series of transitive arguments that male homosexuality = the leather/S&M scene = self-hating gays murdering everybody, the film has even to some degree been reclaimed as a precious time capsule offering a view into the New York leather subculture right before AIDS came along to largely eradicate it and its freewheeling casual sex. And it is beautiful that different people can see one object and interpret it different ways and take wildly different meanings from it, but I just don't see it. There are readings of the film that make it possible to take it as a deliberately cryptic mind-trip and not a foggily-expressed thriller with half-assed characteristations and a third act that collapse under the weight of its own ambiguity. But there are not, that I can imagine, any readings of the film that make it actually empowering towards gay people.

Reducing the film to its hook does absolutely nobody any favors, but let's anyway to get things rolling: somebody is murdering and dismembering homosexual men in New York, linked only by their general appearance and their frequenting of a handful of leather bars in Greenwich Village. Capt. Edelson (Paul Sorvino) of the NYPD homicide division has his job on the line if he can't crack the case, so he goes for broke: from the rank and file, he plucks up one Officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino), who physically resembles the victims, to go deep undercover. Specifically, Burns is to infiltrate the Village leather scene and offer himself as bait, in the hopes of flushing the killer out. But when this straight cop - who glides through Edelson's crass questioning of his sexual history, and has a female girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen), and everything - enters the bizarre realm of gay BDSM, handkerchief codes, and easy anonymous sex, things become far more troubling and distressing than just the ordinary stress of being undercover.

What, exactly, starts to happen in Burns's mind is exactly what Cruising remains steadily ambiguous on, but it seems in any case to begin with the sheer rampant Otherness of the leather fetishists. Writer-director William Friedkin took enormous pains to make sure that everybody understood that he wasn't making claims about gay men in particular, or even about the very narrow substrata of gay male life that serves as Cruising's backdrop, but it's hardly besmirching the film's aims or its effectiveness to suggest that it adopts a boggle-eyed confusion bordering on terror bordering on dreams in depicting the bars and clubs where Burns - hiding under the name of "John Forbes" - goes cruising for the killer. The way the camera peers around with prurient revulsion is half Alice in Wonderland, half David Lynch (or would have been, if there was a good base of David Lynch films to speak of by 1980), and while nothing in the film suggests that it, or Friedkin, or anybody else involved has any actual negative feelings about gay people per se, it's obviously the case that we are meant to feel spectacularly confused and disturbed by our plunge into that environment, which is presented with deliberately confusing editing and unearthly lighting and a very tense, darting camera. It is a waking nightmare, pure and simple.

This is not all that surprising a direction for Friedkin to take, given his career-long commitment to the idea that everything is awful, and people are corrupt and prone to wickedness, especially the ones who should most especially be held to a higher morality. The weirdness of the leather bars isn't a referendum on gayness so much as a referendum on humanity, and it's the rawness, visual distinctiveness, open sexual activity, and above all things the mainstream unfamiliarity of the setting that recommends as the backdrop for what is, ultimately, not the story of how a mysterious killer is (or isn't?) found out, but how a cop can have his identity broken and reassembled incorrectly. Undoubtedly, there's a healthy impulse to shock the squares present in the hard-R depiction of what goes on in Those Places, but it's not ultimately what Cruising is about.

What it is about can be a little difficult to parse. The most generous possible reading of the film would be to think of it as something of a riff on the more florid of the Italian gialli made in the idiom of the New Hollywood subgenre of filthy, gritty stories about street life in New York. Glance at a still frame, and you'd guess from James Contner's grainy, color-parched cinematography that it's one of the handful of attempts around the turn of the decade to desperately pretend that it was still 1975 and artfully artless urban docurealist filmmaking was still all the range. But put it in motion, pair it with the tinny, pasted-on sound design (a happy accident: the film had to work around protesters trying to ruin the shoot with noise), and Jack Nitzsche's industrial droning that passes for music, and you start to get a sense of sickly, creeping terror. It is a film whose visual and audible textures feel entirely ill, doom-ridden and death-soaked even without reference to the specifics of the plot, portraying a world of men doggedly, madly pursuing sex in the face of a well-publicised threat right in their midst, mysteriously selecting victims and killing them for their sexual behavior (one could say it predicts the AIDS crisis, but it's best, I think, not to risk adopting Cruising's corrosive cynicism as a frame to ever think about the spread of AIDS).

So the generous reading, again, is that the film is anxious to work first on the level of mood and impression reached more by Italian genre films (primarily; other examples can be found throughout Europe), to impart a sense of inexplicable awfulness, to work as a stylistic exaggeration of a cop story. Even the murder scenes, each of them a wildly different collage of violence with jarring visual discontinuity, have a certain European flair. And the blank slate Burns, an empty vessel into which we can pour all the psychoanalysis in the world only to find it all draining out immediately, would be perfect in a giallo.

That generosity stumbles a bit in facing what Cruising actually is, though. Whatever Friedkin's aims might have been - his career isn't marked by the kind of disconcerting non-realism I'm trying to make a case for, but it's not a complete out-of-nowhere curveball - the film itself is a bit more muddled than it is deliberately obscure. The biggest problem is Burns himself, or at least Pacino's performance; while there is value in giving the cop no backstory and only whispers of an interior life before it starts to be torn down by his disorienting experiences, and it's clear what Friedkin hoped to achieve by casting that actor of all actors (quintessentially masculine, but in a very delicate, breakable way, and he's weirdly "pretty" despite looking in no way effeminate), I don't see in Pacino's face the impression that he was making those connections. Instead, he seems to be largely walking, uninfected, through scenes that deny him any kind of Method hook to get into the character. And it's plainly uncomfortable - not in a way that reinforces the film's attempt to build discord, but in a way that reminds us that we're watching Al Pacino standing in front of a camera trying to decide what his character things about watching men screwing. It's alienating in the worst way for what the film wants to achieve.

There's also the whole matter of the script, which simply doesn't gel. Not in the sense that things don't make sense all the time - they don't, and a legendary cut 40 minutes is perhaps to blame - but that the film simply plops things together and expects story and meaning to emerge from the fact that they are now adjacent. It's most ineffective when it starts to flesh out the maybe-probably killer near the end, and the attempt to balance Burns's increasing fragmentation with the flat, generic crime movie staging of all the scenes finds the film tripping over rake after rake for some 30 straight minutes. But there's a nagging disconnect between how the film "feels" and what it does much earlier, such as when Burns is given a chipper gay sidekick in the form of Ted Bailey (Don Scardino), or every time Burns retrenches to the arms of the horribly underwritten Nancy, a series of gestures that don't suggest normalcy, self-delusion, or anything other than a calculated attempt to remind a skittish audience, at intervals, that the protagonist for real really likes pussy.

I want to admire the stylish madness of Cruising; but the film makes it incredibly hard to do so. It's certainly not the grotesque failure of art and morality described in 1980: as failures go, it's a tremendously interesting one. But a failure nonetheless: a failure at digging into a subculture with any kind of class or insight, of marrying a pointedly inscrutable psychodrama with Friedkin's muscly directorial style, a failure of building a basic meat-and-potatoes cop picture that fits together comfortably.