20 August 2014

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: KELSEY GRAMMER, MAN OF ACTION

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: keeping alive the traditions of a franchise best known for assembling all of the best and most manly action stars of the '80s, The Expendables 3 brings Dr. Frasier Crane himself into the fold. It apparently made sense to somebody.


There's no mediocre comedy quite like a 1990s mediocre comedy, when the genre reached its height. There's a combination of heightened budget and concept, and peculiarly witless screenwriting that seemed wildly inescapable, with almost every new month in the middle of the decade boasting its own, remarkably pointless, factory-pressed farce with the same set of oddball characters, the same TV-with-a-potty-mouth slant to the dialogue, the same bitterly thankless role for its token female star, the same polished style that was at once pricey and tasteless, with the kind of flat overlighting that can make even the nicest set look plastic and artificial.

Or in the case of Down Periscope, it manages to do that to an actual decommissioned World War II submarine, the USS Pampanito, which plays the part of the USS Stingray in the film. Director David S. Ward (who managed to write The Sting at the outset of a career that has oscillated from mildly amusing to mildly bad comedies ever since) and cinematographer Victor Hammer are perversely good at opening up the location to be bright and roomy and clear, the exact opposite of what most submarines in most submarine movies have ended up. And perhaps that's because Down Periscope is a submarine comedy, an extraordinary rare mixture (offhand, the only other one I can think of is 1959's Operation Petticoat). And there has always been a problem with film comedies, though it was perhaps at a higher pitch in the '90s that at other times, that they are frequently not very interesting as cinema, aiming only to be baldly functional in letting the actors maneuver through the script. Where a submarine thriller is obliged to use its setting as a pressure cooker, closing in on the characters and viewers, a submarine comedy has no real motivation for doing such a thing. A brilliant comic filmmaker might have a field day using the setting to amp up the characters' tics and foibles, but that's clearly not on Ward's radar, nor in the script by Hugh Wilson and Andrew Kurtzman & Eliot Wald that's a great deal more interesting in being genial and harmless fun than in going anyplace remotely psychologically harsh.

It's a sitcom, basically, in which stock characters react in precisely the ways we expect them to, and thus it's probably inevitable that ended up as the first movie lead role for a sitcom star: Kelsey Grammer, late of Cheers and three seasons into that show's spin-off Frasier. He's a perfectly satisfactory fit for Down Periscope's sleepy energy, and it thankfully doesn't ask him to simply play Dr. Frasier Crane in another setting, as virtually all of his other major film appearances have to some degree or another. But he's still clearly a TV-trained actor, keeping things safe and friendly and generally feeling at all points like he's about the slip right of the screen, while off there in the cutaway scenes, William H. Macy and Bruce Dern are remaining fresh and alive in small, thankless roles.

Grammers plays Lt. Cmdr. Tom Dodge, newly appointed to captain the ancient Stingray during some war games, at the urging of Adm. Winslow (Rip Torn) and over the spittle-flecked objections of Adm. Graham (Dern), who finds Dodge's frivolous behavior to be an embarrassment to the U.S. Navy. It's largely due to his machinations that Dodge's new ship is crewed with the rag-taggiest misfits that can be scraped up, as well as a lady, Lt. Emily Lake (Lauren Holly), hoping to thereby imbalance the situation even worse than having a team of wacky fuck-ups, but the joke's on him - Down Periscope is far too nerveless to actually plunge into anything resembling sexual politics, and so Lake's presence is good only for a few tittering jokes and a lot of plot boilerplate that could be exactly replicated if she were a man.

The most conspicuous fact of the movie is its virtually complete lack of personalising elements: every joke, every character, every performance, and every narrative beat is mostly notable for how much it feels like a dozen other films. When it is slightly off-model, it is usually for the worse: Rob Schneider's performance as the Stingray XO, Marty Pascal, is characteristically loud and angry without any real jokes to it, and the film gets far, far too much mileage from a tattoo Dodge got on his genitalia in his past. But these are minute deviations from a stock scenario that muddles forward doggedly: the colorful fuck-ups have to prove to the short-tempered by-the-book assholes that they can make good, by coming together as a team and appreciating the kookiness that makes them such a one-of-a-kind ad hoc family.

It's a story of long history, and one that has produced more weak-kneed films than good ones. But as with most things, it's the quality of the execution that does the trick. In Down Periscope's case, the filmmakers were painfully disinterested in doing anything special with the submarine setting outside of one halfway decent "running silent" scene, which means that it's down to the quality of the jokes to set the movie out from the crowd. And there's simply nothing there to do that. Most of the side characters have strictly one characteristic apiece (which implies that the leads have more than one, and that is entirely unfair to say), and every scene plays out as an excuse to trot each of those characteristics, and the one gag that the filmmakers came up with to play on them, in largely identical configurations. There's no sense of exploration or surprise, just a colorful ensemble moving through the exact gags that we could predict they'd move through after their first or second scene. It's a sitcom in every possible respect, acting like the point is more to have a good time hanging out with the characters than being jolted into laughter or being dazzled by cunning. Which might have worked if the characters were interesting enough to hang out with, instead of being just so many blobs of half-formed ideas and limp stereotypes. It's not exactly a bad movie, but it's so forgettable that it's almost exhausting.

19 August 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 14 POLL: THE 21st CENTURY SLASHER

Bumped to keep the poll near the top while voting is ongoing

We are almost to the end of this audience choice edition of the Summer of Blood, and our tour of the many corners of the slasher film throughout history. For this final slate of three blogger-chosen titles, we arrive near the modern day, as changing filmmaking techniques and audience tastes have forced the trite clichés of the classic slasher to remold itself in more self-aware, unconventional forms. Each of the following films attempts to address those changes in an entirely different way and with varying degrees of success, but all demonstrate that even the most rigidly formulaic styles can be flexible when the need arises.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
From IMDb: "The next great psycho horror slasher has given a documentary crew exclusive access to his life as he plans his reign of terror."

Cry_Wolf (2005)
From IMDb: "When a young woman is found murdered, a group of local high school students decide to further scare their classmates by spreading online rumors that a serial killer called 'The Wolf' is on the loose."

Trick 'r Treat (2007)
From IMDb: "Four interwoven stories that occur on Halloween: An everyday high school principal has a secret life as a serial killer; a college virgin might have just met the one guy for her; a group of teenagers pull a mean prank; a woman who loathes the night has to contend with her holiday-obsessed husband."

Or write something in!

This poll closes on Thursday, 21 August, at 11:00 PM CDT (GMT -5:00)!


EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITIES

What If they made another movie about extravagantly quirky urban white twentysomethings? What if it took place in a loving version of Toronto that somehow still felt exactly like Brooklyn in every other movie in living memory about the same subpopulation? What if it starred Harry Potter, all growed up and able to drink beer, opposite a grimly chipper, moon-faced hipster mannequin? What if they had virtually no chemistry to speak of? What if Daniel Radcliffe (who isn't picking the most interesting projects - that'd be Emma Watson - but is certainly showing himself to be the rangiest of the Potter series' former child stars) is okay, though he's blandly likable and forgettable at best, while Zoe Kazan is actively irritating, a beaming embodiment of idealised girlishness who compounds the screenplay's frivolous characterisation by projecting such a shallow, uncomplicated range of emotions?

What if these two characters who are difficult to like separately end up colliding in the most absurdly precious way? What if they banter in the most forcibly self-aware tones about things like novelty food and the fecal matter found in corpses? What if it feels somewhat what two young people trying desperately to seem clever and witty in front of each other might actually talk like? But what if doing a good job of copying the way that horrible, irritating people behave in real life only leaves you with horrible, irritating characters?

What if this unpersuasive non-chemistry distracts in no way from a generic romcom that owes its themes, though neither its wit nor its insight, to When Harry Met Sally... and its study of how a platonic guyfriend secretly really wants to date his platonic galfriend? What if it all but comes out and brags about that debt by centering an important early scene around The Princess Bride, by WHMS director Rob Reiner? What if it's at least satisfying, in a comfort food way, to reacquaint oneself with all the tropes of the romantic comedy genre, horrifyingly ubiquitous as recently as ten years ago, but virtually non-existent these days? What if a film's outrageous predictability in all elements of its plot, with the secretly faithless boyfriend and the caustic best friends offering terrible advice and the horrible misunderstanding that happens four-fifths of the way through, actually ends up feeling a little bit rewarding in a kabuki-esque fashion?

What if, on top of its other problems, a film's characters have made-up bullshit lives and work at made-up bullshit jobs and feel like no human beings who have ever lived and breathed as a result? What if a movie presents its female lead as a successful animator who just can't quite decide if she wants to take up that awesome promotion that's being flung at her repeatedly, entirely ignoring the grim reality that women in animation face some of the stiffest institutional sexism in the arts? What if the male lead writes electronics instruction manuals and it literally doesn't matter in the least, but somebody - screenwriter Elan Mastai, maybe, or the authors of the source play - decided that sounded like a fun, wacky job, so in it went? What if the male character is, in fact, defined solely in terms of his relationship to the opposite sex, both at the level of individuals and at the level of the entire gender, like some sort of desperate anti-Bechdel bid at equality through making everybody shallow and awful?

What if the female lead - whose name is Chantry, which I've been putting off typing, because it's the most made-up bullshitty thing in the movie - constantly fantasies about her art, some sort of angel representation of herself, flying across the buildings and walls around her? What if it suggests, while you're watching it, that she might be schizophrenic? What if having a schizophrenic female lead would actually make the film a hell of a lot better? What if just the simple expedient of scrapping the dire "magical" animated interludes would make the film a hell of a lot better?

What if a film made clear through its saucy, raunchy dialogue that its characters are super self-possessed about sex and in command of their bodies, but then demonstrates through its scenes and its visuals - a kind of important element of a visual medium - a shy, grade schooler's ambivalence towards and terror of sexuality? What if it needs to bury its libido in stupidly contrived "truth or dare" scenarios involving changing rooms and picturesque, moonlit skinny dipping?

What if, right next to the stupid cutesy-poo A-plot centered around stupid cutesy-poo characters, there was a really fantastic pair of supporting characters? What if these characters, played by Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis, had all the casual, comfortable chemistry that Radcliffe and Kazan so patently lack? What if they evinced the sweaty, sticky lust and doe-eyed love that makes theirs seem like an actual, functioning, vital relationship, making the performative dance between the leads seem even most incredibly chaste? What if the whole time, you just sit there thinking, "I could be watching that film. That film would be terrific"?

What if, despite all of this, the film was still moderately charming, owing in some part to Michael Dowse's feather-light touch? What if it never rounded the corner to "funny", but still somewhat often managed to nail "wry"? What if the whole thing is clearly trying much too hard, but in its earnest, sloppy way is impossible to hate, the way it's impossible to hate an ugly dog? What if it's stupid but harmless? What if its virtually complete detachment from lived human experience means it's not remotely memorable, but its sweetness of spirit at least keeps it from being a slog?

Then I would give that film a rating of 6/10.

BEST SHOT: GONE WITH THE WIND, FIRST HALF

For the first time in the history of the Film Experience's wonderful interactive series Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has planned a two-parter for us. It's as simple as it is daunting: this week, pick one single shot from the first two hours 1939 period love story Gone with the Wind. Next week, we'll do the same for the last two hours. It's really the only way to be fair to one of the great behemoths in Hollywood cinema, a film so lustily broad and full that it barely feels right to think of it as one movie (and the way it builds to its intermission, it frankly feels like two separate films, as it would undoubtedly be released if it were made today).

What can one say about Gone with the Wind? I've already tried to review it, but it's one of those movies that's so much bigger than anything you can measure it against that even calling it a "movie" seems inadequate. It is one of the most iconic things that has ever been made in the medium, bold and upfront and entirely proud of how thoroughly it overpowers you with the sheer scale of its creation. This is so much a capital-E Experience that trying to come to grips with it in terms of its politics, its mortifying racial problem, its narrative hiccups, or its florid melodrama is like trying to analyse Victoria Falls. Better to just let it pummel you into awed submission.

When faced with such a monolith, it seems idiotic to aim for cunning; better by fair to just own that it's a damn icon and go with something damn well iconic. It just so happens that I have mentioned, many times, online and in life, that my favorite single shot from Gone with the Wind is also one of my favorite shots in all of American film, so even though it is stupid famous, I feel no compunction about picking it:



Allegedly suggested to producer David O. Selznick by Val Lewton, it's a grand achievement in technical cinematography for one thing, a crane shot gliding from a full shot of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) to a massively wide shot from a great height that keeps the whole field of bodies in crisp, clear focus, while also keeping the ragged Confederate flag in focus at the end. Divorced from its content in every way, it's still among the most impressive achievements in 1930 cinematography, all the more so when you recall that the Technicolor cameras being used on this film were larger and more cumbersome than the standard black-and-white cameras used on most other shoots (on, in fact, all other shoots: at one point during its production, Gone with the Wind was using every single 3-strip Technicolor camera in existence).

But of course, it has content, and that content is powerful and devastating. As Scarlett, an addle-headed Southern belle whose growing awareness that war is a sort of horrible thing that doesn't care about her spoiled princess attitude has defined the first hour of the film, discovers the full scale of the murderous power of war, so does the film. It's the sheer endlessness of the 55-second shot that makes the impact: as the camera keeps moving, and moving, and moving, it makes its point over and over, and it's easy to keep wondering, is that it? is that it? But it isn't. It's just row after row of the dead and dying in writhing agony, more people than you can almost imagine seeing in one moment. And after Scarlett has laboriously picked her way across bodies, she vanishes behind that ratty flag, a figure symbolically representing the antebellum South at its most willfully unreflective forced into terrifying awareness of a real life she hasn't ever had to think about, swallowed up by another symbol of an old order being torn about and ready to collapse. In a film that's too willing at times to romanticise the Old South, it's a moment that bluntly observes the human cost of a war to preserve that way of life; the brutal irony of a flag waving with tattered pride over agony and death suffered in that flag's name.

UNNECESSARY EXPENDITURE

Whatever natural goodwill one has towards the central gimmick of the central gimmick of the Expendables franchise - lookit all the '80s action stars in one place! and these other guys like Terry Crews and Randy Couture, for no immediately apparent reason! - it has long since been expend worn out by the time arrive at The Expendables 3, a movie that commits the mortal sin of having that many "E"s in its title, and replacing none of them with the Arabic numeral "3". I mean, shit. The 3xp3ndabl3s. It's a natural. It would, at any rate, be sufficiently brazen about being stupid in such a case that it might be possible to regard the movie as moderately charming in its self-aware crappiness. But that is not to be the case: this is an inordinately humorless film, in fact, especially for one which boasts such a considerable percentage of its running time in the form of lead-footed quips choked out by its ensemble cast in a vague approximation of the japes that action stars toss out when they off a bad guy in a specially elaborate way.

But I do not wish to lose the thread. 2010's The Expendables managed to scrape by on the strength of its conceit, and 2012's The Expendables 2 at least had Jean-Claude Van Damme camping up a storm as a bad guy named Vilain. Neither one of them is really any good at all, but they at least live up to their billing. E3, sadly, comes after the franchise has already called in Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, & Chuck Norris, and the best it can add to the table are Wesley Snipes, a fine addition who gets precisely fuck-all to do; Mel Gibson, a currently disgraced loony whose action heyday was in a kind of light entertainment miles away from anything that Stallone or Schwarzenegger ever dreamed of doing; Harrison Ford, barely even feigning an attempt to hide his disinterest in the film (he gets the solitary F-bomb in a movie that successfully, but pointlessly, targeted a PG-13 rating, and I do think he enjoyed that); Antonio Banderas, who, okay, I'll let them have Antonio Banderas. And Kelsey fucking Grammer, who spent the '80s playing an incongruously pretentious know-it-all at a cozy bar on a TV sitcom. To add some young blood, the film adds several non-actors and Kellan Lutz, who does not really stand out as better than any of them though he's definitely up to more here than he was in the excessively vapid The Legend of Hercules earlier this year.

The the film offers up little to none of the 1987 recess playground fantasy that its predecessors managed to is one of its primary flaws. That it's as godforsakenly boring as watching glaciers recede is another, and probably the worse. After all, plenty of action films have been great despite not having airtight conceptual hooks based on the personae of their stars. Very few action films - perhaps even none - have been great despite having shitty action sequences. And golly gee willickers, but the action sequences in The Expendables 3 are dull, flat affairs, shot with busy handheld cameras and lazily cross-cut. The big, sprawling finale at least has some interesting choreography and fun use of its set, though the need to give every member of an increasingly bloated ensemble of heroes does compromise the clarity and sense of individual stakes, turning into a kind of madcap "everybody everywhere" maelstrom.

So no, the action isn't terribly exciting; when it's there are all. The Expendables 3 is a complex, chatty bastard of a movie, with a rather busy narrative that involves Barney Ross (Stallone) facing down demons in the form of arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), with whom he has A Past. Such a traumatic Past, in fact, that he refuses to endanger the lives of his mercenary buddies, the Expendables, leaving behind a very pissed off Lee Christmas (Statham) and all their colleagues that we're meant to have feelings about, three films in. And I suppose somewhere, someone does, though between the blunt force acting and the clumsy dialogue in the screenplay by Stallone and Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt, I will confess to a certain difficulty in even recognising these macho slabs of coolly flippant attitude and cartoon homoeroticism as representing humans.

But oh me, oh my, is the film ever in the bag for its "character" "plot", hoping we'll be so captivated by the playing out of honor and duty and rag-tag family units that we will overlook, gratefully, the fact that not a goddamn thing happens for the first half of a punishingly long 126-minute film. That does not happen: the characters feel fake, the places they enact their tragedy feels fake (the climax takes place in a Fake Asian country whose name sounds like "Assmanistan", and it consists in its entirety of a ruined hotel complex, apparently), the stakes are so unclear that it would be paying them much too much respect to say that they seem fake. The film comes alive only when Banderas or Gibson appear onscreen, both of them playing up the ridiculousness to levels that Stallone and Statham (among many others) seem incapable of even recognising, let alone reaching; it's a campy, trivial sort of life energy, but by the time Banderas has his first and best scene, deep into the movie, anything that implies life exists within this universe is as precious as water in a desert. The Expendables 3 is unfathomably ill-executed, tedious for nearly its entire running time and inexplicably for the rest. Every last line of dialogue is a eye-rolling anti-masterpiece, virtually the entire cast looks openly miserable and/or bored out of their fucking minds, and the action is too messy to be even a tiny bit exciting. There's a certain basic level of competency that the film never drops below - it was made by professionals, after all - but I could hardly imagine any way to make the experience any worse.

1/10

18 August 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1968: In which we greet the new age of sinewy action movies with sinewy action stars

1968 is a symbolically freighted year in the history of American filmmaking, for it was in 1968 that the Motion Picture Association of America, two years into the nearly four-decade tenure of president Jack Valenti, abolished the Production Code that had been zealously enforced (though increasingly less so) ever since 1934. In place of the mandatory rules of the Code, the MPAA now introduced a four-tier rating system (later increased to five-tier), which officially took effect on 1 November.

It was an open admission by the establishment that American cinema had, over the course of 34 years of de facto censorship, been steadily losing ground in its ability to depict stories that reflected the content of real life and to express the full range of human experiences and thoughts. It triggered a sudden expansion of possibilities that lead to a flurry of studio-backed and independent filmmaking between 1969 and 1975 or so that bore witness to widespread creativity and experimentation that has only existed a few times in the history of American cinema.

This leaves '68 as something of a transitional year, when old-style Hollywood was still puttering to a close while what was not yet called the New Hollywood Cinema hadn't started to coalesce as any kind of clear movement. It's kind of an irresistible metaphor, if an appallingly shallow one, for a year that ranks among the most chaotic in modern history: the increasing fervor of the anti-war protests, along with high-profile political assassinations, the high water mark of the visibility of hippie culture, and the last screaming gasps of organised racism in the form of George Wallace's last presidential run, all served to put the United States in a state of near-madness that it hasn't experienced in any other single calendar year since the end of World War II. And the U.S. wasn't even particularly noteworthy for its social upheavals compared to the revolutionary activity sweeping through Europe at the same time.

It's all enough to make movies seem very silly and irrelevant, especially since the long lead time on film production means that nothing released in '68 could engage with that social chaos in its complet scope, or fully explore the new freedoms of post-Code Hollywood. But discussing movies is precisely what we're here to do, so however narrow and unhelpful a window it provides into the world at that time, let us turn now to Coogan's Bluff, a film that combines unabashed conservatism with ebullient liberalism and thus does the best job I could come up with of embodying all the tensions, both social and aesthetic, of that definitive year. It is, along with the same year's better-known Bullitt, a cop action movie that feels astonishingly ahead of its time: based on the urban grittiness of the mise en scène, the blanched feeling to the cinematography, and especially the Lalo Schifrin score (another trait the film shares with Bullitt), in the third year of that composer's prominence as a creator of funk-touched jazz, it would be easy to assume that the film was from the early '70s.

In fact, there's very little aesthetically to clearly differentiate it from 1971's Dirty Harry, the ur-action film of the 1970s. Particularly since it shares with Dirty Harry director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood (as well as co-writer Dean Riesner, whose work I gather to have largely consisted of following Eastwood's orders), making it something of a dry run for that later, better, and better-known celebration of fascism. They share a thematic wheelhouse: hardass cop who gets the job done runs afoul of bureaucracy and the weirdos of the counterculture. They look virtually identical: Coogan's Bluff was shot by Bud Thackeray, and Dirty Harry by Bruce Surtees, but both have that flat browned-over look that stamps so many movies as coming out in that era. Coogan's Bluff is a bit less tough than its successor: it's not nearly as violent, has less action overall (really, just a climactic chase sequence), and a considerably sunnier sense of humor, though the list of films that are funnier than Dirty Harry is awfully long.

It's altogether a wiry, tense little bundle of energy, a perfect example of Sigel's talent for creating lean, merciless action films and thrillers. It was the first film he and Eastwood made together, in a tremendously important professional relationship that resulted in five absolutely quintessential titles in both men's filmographies (or at least four plus the comic Western Two Mules for Sister Sara, the obvious "one of these things is not like the others" title among their collaborations), and cast a shadow over Eastwood's own directorial efforts from which he didn't fully emerge until at least the mid-'80s, if indeed he ever has.

The film finds Eastwood playing Coogan, an Arizona deputy sheriff tasked with heading to New York to bring back escaped killer James Ringerman (Don Stroud, when we eventually see him), currently in NYPD custody. Upon arriving on the East Coast, Coogan devotes all of his energy to leaving again as soon as possible, with his irritated attitude getting him nowhere with the stubborn Lt. McElroy (Lee J. Cobb), who acts with deliberate slowness in helping Coogan through the paper-pushing necessary to extradite Ringerman, currently recovering from a bad LSD trip in hospital under police watch. Eventually, Coogan's impatience causes him to cheat the system to get to Ringerman faster, but this has the unfortunate side effect of putting the fugitive in a perfect position to escape from Coogan, meaning that the Arizona lawman now has to dive right into the messiness of New York life in order to get his quarry back.

There's no better place to start with the film's every-which-way morality than with Coogan himself, a character who clearly fucks up in a way that the film never exonerates him for, and yet we're so clearly meant to identify with him and his befuddled anger at the wall of bureaucracy driving the New York police that it's also never the case that he's pointed out to be in the wrong at any moment. Part of that, undoubtedly, is the basic fact that Coogan was being played by Eastwood, right in the thick of his "hot new movie star" days - two years after The Good, the Bad and the Ugly sealed the deal on turning him into an icon, a performer who automatically reads as 'the good guy" regardless of whether or not the scrip surrounding him concurs. Even as the film treats his Southwestern badassery with a certain detached amusement at the corny incongruity of a taciturn cowboy-hero parading around in the 1960s, it also sides with him against the haughty New Yorkers so attached to their fast-paced city living that they call out that same corniness.

Similarly, the film's depiction of New York in the countercultural age splits a weird difference between trying its best to depict the energy and openness of that era, with the alarmed confusion of someone who will never be part of that world and doesn't want to. There's a sequence set in a club - I am not certain at all if it's the club, the house band, or both that are named Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel, but that name appears in giant neon with a theme song playing underneath scenes of stoners and drop-outs and radicals dancing around in brightly colored insanity. It is one of the great overwrought "what the fuck, New York?" scenes of the decade, depicting the nightmare that straitlaced Midwesterners have about Those People, far more than I suspect it depicts anything that ever actually existed. But even if the depiction is crazy paranoia, the tone is far more muted and sedate: Coogan seems entirely unruffled by what's going on around him, and the film that actively clings to his perspective has no choice but to follow suit. Instead of gawking at the freaks, the film simply depicts them, indulging in its ability to show drug use and nudity much as it indulges in the cruel efficiency of Coogan the law enforcer, edgy in a way that no American film released prior to 1967 would have been permitted.

The film's attempt to have its cake and eat it too could easily look like rank cynicism, except that I'm reasonable confident that it's a side effect of the film's actual function and purpose, which have nothing do with themes about The Way The World Is, as much fun as it is to read those themes into it (it is, anyway, far more rewarding and revealing to piece together society's self-analysis through films that aren't doing it on purpose, and thus can't be willfully picking and choosing what they represent). There's never a moment of Coogan's Bluff where it ever ceases to resemble a Don Siegel film, and Siegel as a director was driven by a desire to ruthlessly and efficiently tell thrilling stories with every possible piece of extraneous material carved away. He is as close as American cinema has produced to Ernest Hemingway: a superlatively masculine artist for whom blunt, unpoetic directness is privileged above all other things. The focus here is on Coogan and his process: everything that contributes to that is kept in and everything that gets in the way is jettisoned, leaving a freakishly slender, direct cop picture. There's an immediate clarity to the shots, composed and blocked and cut together not to imply secret depths or emotional currents, but to present the physical places of the movie with unblinking presence, and to watch the characters doing exactly what they have to do. It is not a film of inner lives: even Coogan's weirdly persistent womanising, maybe the most dated element of the film (I am totally unable to parse its sexual politics, I must confess), speaks less to his sexual appetites or his virility, than his pragmatism in manipulating people to help to his ends. This might be the sleekest Siegel film I have seen, which isn't all the same as calling it the best: frankly, its mechanical precision gets to be a little alienating, and even Dirty Harry feels like it has real people in a way that this film frequently doesn't. It's wry, persistent sense of humor is a godsend: without frequent touches of light irony, Coogan's Bluff could easily pivot into being genuinely unpleasant.

Instead, it's a satisfying police yarn with some really great, physically hefty location photography, and a fine star turn by Eastwood before he'd begun to really massage his persona into something more than a sardonic badass. I imagine it might have seemed more impressive in '68 than it does now: it's no-bullshit city thriller attitude was far rarer then, and many of the films in more or less the same mode in over the next few years are certainly more impressive on the level of characterisation and world-building. But Coogan's Bluff is a taut entertainment in its own right. And while it has neither the depth nor complexity that many of its descendants do, it came out early enough that the world it depicts feels totally different than any of them. It looks and acts like a '70s movie, but it is a '60s movie, and the tension that feeds, especially filtered through Siegel and Eastwood's merciless sensibility, gives the film its own unique quality.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1968
-Science fiction abruptly becomes respectable with Fox's Planet of the Apes and MGM's half-British 2001: A Space Odyssey
-Even the most cheerily fake corners of pop culture want in on the new world of edgy art cinemas, as The Monkees star in Bob Rafelson's psychedelic indie Head
-But plenty of people would rather pretend that nothing is changing, as Fox grimly craps out the bloated musical epic Star!

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1968
-Georgian-Soviet director Sergei Parajanov makes his best-known film, The Color of Pomegranates
-Sergio Leone directs the grandest of all Italian-made Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West
-Amidst Europe-wide political protests, the Cannes Film Festival is canceled

17 August 2014

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - THE GREAT STONE FACE

Nobody with a brain would blindly trust the internet, or at least that part of the internet that speaks English, on the subject of release dates of Asian-produced movies from a half-century ago. But what the internet tells me is that Daiei Film released both Gamera vs. Barugon and Daimajin on 17 April, 1966. This seems a least a touch unlikely to me (where's the motive for a studio to release competition for itself?), but whether we allow it or not, the two films are obviously contemporaries in the greater scheme of things, and a broader gulf in quality between two films made simultaneously by a single company in even moderately overlapping genres is almost impossible for me to imagine. Gamera vs. Barugon is a genial piece of crap monster movie that's fun to watch mostly because it's so don't-give-a-shit bad. Daimajin, meanwhile, assuming we can confidently describe it as a daikaiju eiga (and that's surely a debatable point), is one of the very best daikaiju eiga I have seen, only a slight bit less impressive than the almighty Godzilla itself.

The film comes about as a hybrid of two of the major genres in Japanese filmmaking at the era: the daikaiju eiga, of course, or giant monster movie, and the jidaigeki, which essentially describes the style that in English we'd call a period piece of costume drama, though without the implication of classy literacy that those phrases tend to dredge up in connection with American and British filmmaking. There's absolutely no two ways about it, Daimajin belongs more to the latter form than the prior: there's no explicit monster action until the last 20 minutes or so of an 84-minute film, and in the sense that some of the more boring Godzilla pictures make us wait and wait for more than a flash or two of the monsters, but in the sense that literally not one single frame of the titular creature is shown in the first hour, and depending on how you interpret the opening scene, that creature is a completely inert non-entity for that whole time.

The first scene, anyway, finds the villagers cowering in fear during a noisy earthquake-like event. The peasantry instantly blames the local majin, a word that was left untranslated in the subtitled version I watched, but appears to be something larger than a mere demon and smaller than an outright god. Whether the incident is supernatural or geological, the chaos permits Samanosuke (Gomi Ryutaro), the treacherous second-in-command to the local feudal lord Hanabasa, to execute his long-gestating coup. In short order, Hanabasa and his wife are dead, and his loyal soldier Kogenta (Fujimaki Jun) is just able to rescue the Hanabasa children, bringing them to the local priestess Shinobu (Tsukimiya Otome), who knows a cave in the mountains above a waterfall where the three fugitives can hide. This cave overlooks a large stone statue of a warrior that, legend holds, stands guard sealing the majin inside the mountain.

Ten years pass, and Hanabasa's son Tadafumi (Aoyama Yoshihiko) and daughter Kozasa (Takada Miwa) are just about the right age to serve as the focal points for a rebellion. And is much overdue: Samanosuke has been driving the countryside into ruin with his tyrannical rule. Unfortunately, in attempting to learn more about this situation, Kogenta gets himself captured, and Tadafumi manages to join him during a rescue attempt. This leaves Shinobu and Kozasa with only one solution: to pray for the mountain god to release the majin into the body of the warrior statue, to avenge the people against Samanosuke's wretchedness. As with most deals that involve conjuring up the devil, though, the release of the stone warrior as Daimajin, its blank face replaced with a snarling mask of rage, leaves plenty of room for things to go horribly wrong.

Okay, so at the level of plot, it's super generic. But as far as I'm concerned, even a generic jidaigeki starts off with some considerable advantages. Among those is the weird but persistent superiority of the genre in servicing up one dynamic and involving composition after another: I don't have any idea why, but I've never yet found a genre that seems so reliably able to use the anamorphic widescreen frame (spillover, perhaps, from those films' aesthetic indebtedness to the linear artwork of the period). Director Yasuda Kimiyoshi and cinematographer Morita Fujio - both of them already veterans of Daiei's long-running series of samurai movies about the blind warrior Zatoichi - certainly were making a quick, relatively cheap film, but within that limitation, Daimajin still looks gorgeous, with a great many individually excellent shots, be they rigid, presentational interiors, or beautifully-composed landscapes. An early sequence includes one lengthy shot of tiny humans in the foreground, vast waterfalls in the center, and the distant statue of the guardian warrior statue near the very top of the frame; the simple but unmistakable correctness of this image is absolutely breathtaking.

What's most impressive of all is that the film doesn't give up any of its artistry when it finally gets to its major action setpiece near the end, with effects directed by Kuroda Yoshiyuki. Who, it's worth pointing out, worked on exactly zero Gamera films. Too bad, because they would certainly have benefited from the ambition and skill Kuroda brought to Daimajin: it has images compositing multiple layers and requiring humans to react to Daimajin and then Daimajin reacting to the humans, all with really showy dramatic lighting (Daimajin's entire attack takes place against a burning red sky). And it's done so skillfully that it only registers as a special effect in a small handful of shots at most. It's no hyperbole, only accuracy, for me to claim that the climax of Daimajin might very well be the most technically accomplished effects sequence from a 1960s Japanese film I've ever seen, every bit as persuasive as the far more well-heeled efforts being made by the American studios at the same time. And with much greater visual drama and a sense of artistry.

In fact, both the images and the narrative in Daimajin have a sense of what I'd happily call operatic excess if this were a culturally European film. Its primary interest is in the way that human lives are at the mercy of greater forces: nature, fate, the spirit world; at the level of the script, this plays out in a story that's almost comically stacked against the heroes, who are effortlessly outflanked by the usurping warlord's forces almost by accident. It also comes out in the shots emphasising the smallness and fragility of humans against the backdrop the film provides; even when the camera moves in close and tight, it's usually so suggest how the characters are in some way trapped or confined. Meanwhile, the filmmakers present the uncanny elements of the plot with striking flair: the disorienting sight of blood dripping from the guardian statue as Samanosuke's men attack it, the freakish lighting in the "supernatural" scenes, the way that Daimajin is always shot from below, even in close-ups, to stress its imposing mass.

The biggest problem with it, really, is that compared to a Godzilla, it's shallow. That is, there's no real social engagement here, no clever metaphor like in many genre films: it's about big, grand gestures and overtly dramatic emotional states. Which is, I hasten to point out, entirely fair game for any movie to explore: not everything has to be about nuclear war or out-of-control technology (and, if you wanted to, you could even read the way that the film depicts Daimajin turning against the people who called it out as a warning against the use of last-resort weapons of mass destruction). Daimajin works splendidly enough as a straightforward drama about desperate people struggling for safety and security that it doesn't need anything else to justify it. Heck, it doesn't even need to throw a giant monster at its plot in order to be completely engaging, beautiful, and emotionally resonant, that's just a nice bonus - how many daikaiju eiga come even close to the same achievement?

16 August 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD: PRE-CODE MURDER MYSTERIES

Edgar Allan Poe's seminal 1841 detective story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a locked room mystery in which hobbyist detective C. August Dupin realises that an enraged orangutan jumped into an open window and, in a frenzy, slaughtered the women it found there. The first sound feature to adapt a Poe work, 1932's Murders in the Rue Morgue, is a horror film in which a mad doctor hiding in a carnival sideshow tries to mate a gorilla with a human woman in order to prove his theories about human evolution from a simian ancestor. But that gorilla does stuff a dead woman into a chimney, and there's a scene where men of several nations argue about the language they though they heard from the scene of the crime, so it's probably not fair to accuse this of being the single least faithful literary adaptation in cinema history, as badly as I want to go there. And it's probably not the most outlandishly weird, either, though by the standards of what was just starting to assert itself as "the horror film" in '32, Murders in the Rue Morgue is so far beyond the realm of propriety that they don't have numbers big enough to describe it. One gets accustomed to the sick-minded flair of pre-Code Hollywood, but even then, this film's cheery nods to bestiality are pretty stunning.

Anyway, I've skipped ahead. To begin with, the film shows us around a traveling carnival that's presently set up in Paris, in the 1840s. The attendees with whom we're gawking at all the extravagance and exoticism are Camille L'Espanaye (Sidney Fox), her medical student fiancé Pierre Dupin (Leon Ames, during the "Leon Waycoff" phase of his career), Pierre's roommate Paul (Bert Roach), and the entirely disposable Mignette (Edna Marion, who didn't even swing an onscreen credit). After leering at this sex show and that, the end up in the tent of Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi) - that's mi-RAHK-el, though most of the low-budget Yanks in the cast end up rhyming it with "crackle" - the aforementioned evolution fancier, before Darwin even published his groundbreaking works. Mirakle's pride and joy is Erik (Charles Gemora, a veteran gorilla suit expert just breaking into the world of makeup design), an intelligent ape, or so he claims, whose speech he has allegedly learned. And he proves this by translating Erik's generic ape grunting into florid tone poems about life in Africa, delivered with a haunting gusto that only Lugosi could possibly muster. To end his demonstration, he invites Camille and company to study Erik closer, at which point the gorilla starts reacting in an obviously excited fashion, grabbing her hat and freaking everybody out.

Some utterly inscrutable transitions bring us to a knife fight between two men, who apparently stab each other to death for the right to court a woman (Arlene Francis) who is probably a prostitute, though it's also possible she's just a sweetie pie who got mixed up trying to be nice to two jealous boys. Regardless, Mirakle comes along and uses his beaming Lugosi face to bring her back to his lab, where we discover exactly what he's up to: injecting women with blood from his gorilla. Apparently, only a certain kind of woman can withstand his treatment properly - virgins? blondes? the wealthy? - because the crypto-prostitute dies, with Mirakle sorrowfully asking his lackey Janos (Noble Johnson) to dispose of her body in the river. And that's what brings Dupin back into the loop: he's an amateur detective in his off hours - or, in fact, in the hours when he's meant to be studying medicine - and he's eager to take a look at the latest in a line of slayings of women. Using both his deductive and his biological knowledge, he determines that all of the women have ape blood in their bodies; this immediately puts him on Mirakle's trail, but he's not fast enough to stop the doctor from advancing on Camille, trapping her and her mother (Betty Ross Clarke) in their apartment from Erik. And for almost, like, six solid minutes, Murders in the Rue Morgue resembles its source material in any meaningful way, though it quickly returns to the comforting surrealism of a finale that cribs in equal measure from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the chase scene The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

It's not a good movie, at all, but it is mesmerising in its not-goodness. To be fair, a big part of the problem has to do with its rough production history. The film came about in part because Robert Florey, a French expat who'd been floating around Universal for a while without being given anything interesting to do, had been suddenly and unfairly plucked from Frankenstein, a project he'd been developing quite happily before Carl Laemmle, Jr. booted him in favor of James Whale. Around the same time, Lugosi, fresh from his star-making turn in Dracula, demanded to be let go from Frankenstein upon learning he was to play the mute monster, not the scientist. Murders in the Rue Morgue was extended as an olive branch to the two bruised egos, but Laemmle didn't care much for the movie that Florey was making, and he sliced it down from 80 to 61 minutes to speed up the action and also possibly to cushion the blow from the censors towards a movie whose third act focuses on a gorilla that wants to fuck a human woman. This was done with little artistry, and the result is a chaotic, unclear first act, with that patently awful "whose the woman? A hooker? Also, Knife Fight Madness!" sequence. And while he was slicing, Laemmly demanded the addition of more and better ape footage, leading to the mystifying collision of the patently fake gorilla suit inhabited by Gemora without the smallest attempt to copy a gorilla's body language, with footage of a chimpanzee in close-up.

But let us not lay all the blame at the producer's feet. Murders in the Rue Morgue suffers from outlandishly bad dialogue describing hilariously weird scenarios, and a magnificently unpersuasive cast to carry it all off. Lugosi, at his very best, was more a figure of great uncanny presence than any kind of halfway decent actor, at least in English, and the hair & make-up department seemed hellbent on doing everything possible to undercut that presence, fitting him with an enormous, puffy hairdo and a unibrow that moves - or rather, doesn't move - completely independently of the rest of his face. And yet, despite looking completely ridiculous, he still acts rings around the other leads, with Fox so strident and fruity that I honestly couldn't stand to think of her as the actual lead, and assumed when the far more nuanced, elegant, thoughtful Arlene Francis showed up that we had just encountered our real star. Ames, for his part, offers a totally generic romantic hero performance, while looking disorientingly similar to John Barrymore.

It's silly and frivolous and absolutely deserves to be laughed right off the screen, but for one tremendous achievement: it is one of the best-looking horror films of the '30s, full stop. It was shot by Karl Freund, who I'm increasingly sure could save anything: if the rumors are true, he's the only reason Dracula exists as a functional object, and between The Mummy and Mad Love, he directed two of the most excitingly atmospheric films in the first wave of Universal horror. And good God, but does he ever bring the most flamboyant Expressionist zeal to Murders in the Rue Morgue, using sharp delineations of light to hammer home moments of terror and the uncanny, and he and Florey combined for some really amazing camera placements that present a sense of depth and shape to the rather generic Parisian settings that blazes miles past anything in the stagey Dracula. The film's greatest scene, indeed, is as good as anything else in '30s horror: the sequence in which Mirakle torments that poor unidentified woman in his lab, a fever-dream collage of religious imagery of crucifixion, supplication, and praying, and some of the most overt BDSM-tinged imagery that you get to have in a '30s movie, and an epic tracking camera movement that sweeps us through the chamber of horrors with a level of physicality and depth that damn near manages to mimic 3-D. And Freund lights it with the hardest delineations of light and dark in the entire film, emphasising our sense of this place as something deeply unreal, nightmarish, impossible.

The scene is so good that it very nearly manages, entirely on its own, to justify the film's latter day recovery as a Universal classic. I frankly don't think that the whole thing earns that; even if it's cinematically more accomplished than Dracula (whose classic status I also find rather urgently debatable), it's the fucking dumbest thing, often hilariously so. Whether as camp or as legitimately great horror, though, the film is awfully fun to watch, with Lugosi especially giving a performance almost as committed and unhinged as his turn in White Zombie in the same year. That plus the way that the film's bestial overtones still have the frankness and violence to trigger a certain revolted sense of, "wait, no, that's not okay", and the film manages to be compulsively watchable for all the reasons, right and wrong.

Body Count: 5, unless it's 7, because I have absolutely no effing idea what happens in that knife fight. Also a fake gorilla.

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1967: In which the New Hollywood Cinema announces itself

It's probably possible to overstate the importance of Bonnie and Clyde to the subsequent development of American cinema, but you'd have to indulge in some pretty outrageous hyperbole to do it. It almost single-handedly dragged Hollywood into the aggressive stylistic modernism that Europe had been enjoying for most of the 1960s; there had been scattered earlier efforts to incorporate the attitude of the French New Wave into an American movie (among them, in fact, was 1965's Mickey One, which shared Bonnie and Clyde's director, Arthur Penn, and lead actor, Warren Beatty), but none that had clicked in a big way with audiences and critics. It dragged Hollywood into a new, previously inconceivable place of frank sex and violence onscreen, putting the final nail in the coffin of the old Production Code. It dragged Hollywood into dealing with the fact that the best way to engage young people was to let other young people communicate to them on their level, telling a ruthlessly sardonic anti-establishment story whose period trappings don't even try to obscure the fact that it's really about the wholesale rejection of the "adult" regime that was responsible for getting the United States mired in a war in Vietnam. Hell, it even drew a clear line between two generations of film critics: Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael first made their names championing the film, while Bosley Crowther's heated hatred of the film was at least partially responsible for his firing from the New York Times.

None of which is obvious watching the film now, but that's largely because of its success: in 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, along with The Graduate, was arguably at the vanguard of what we now call "modern cinema", depending on you want to draw that line ("anything made since I was born" seems to be the most popular definition on the internet). The cultural impact of those two movies defined and continues to define everything that got made after them. And what hit like a ten-megaton bomb at the time the film was new has been so thoroughly absorbed by filmmakers in the generations to follow that Bonnie and Clyde merely looks normal now; Dede Allen's Godard-influenced editing that was perceived as visual savagery in '67 looks a bit genteel stacked up with just about any Cuisinart-cut summer action tentpole, and you can see worse things on network television than the violence that led moralists to speak against the film with a fervor you or I might reserve for a feature-length apologia for pedophilic cannibalism (even Jack Warner, whose namesake studio financed the movie, despised it so much that he attempted to bury it on the B-circuit, where it was discovered and passed around by dazzled young audiences, making it one of the truly legendary grassroots box office hits of all time). There's a little bit of Bonnie and Clyde in a great many American movies, whether in aesthetic, attitude, or just the freedom to show some blood.

The project was conceived by writers David Newman & Robert Benton in the hopes that they could put it in front of François Truffaut, who did end up giving some advice on how to shape the material (and yet, it bears a more obvious debt to Jean-Luc Godard's technique and narrative interests, at least as far as I can tell). So any resemblance to European filmmaking, and any tendency to say a loud "fuck you" to the Hollywood establishment is strictly intentional. The film's story is told in a highly elliptical way, collapsing the time frame of the events depicted (late in 1931, through 23 May, 1934) into a rush of disconnected events that could just as easily take place over a month as over a few years. Clyde Barrow (Beatty), an ex-convict who wants to be a bank robber, meets Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) while trying to steal her mother's car; they flirt shamelessly and when he shares his dreams of criminality, she agrees on the spot. As they break the law across Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas, they pick up Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), as well as a socially awkward mechanic named C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), to create a little ad hoc family for themselves. All while being celebrated by the dirt-poor farmers of the Depression-era and hunted by the cops of several states, embodied by humiliated Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle). It's one of the most directly romantic pro-criminal films since the early sound years, when the classic gangster picture was at its height; and that mentality was every bit as profoundly important as the film's stylistic radicalism in endearing it to a generation of young folk for whom the movies were out-of-touch and unable to say real things about actual life.

In putting the story across, the writers and Penn went all-out in experimenting: with a fluid, more impressionistic than precisely descriptive scene structure, as mentioned; and with a wildly fluctuating range of tones, from genial comedy (this was the film debut of Gene Wilder, one of the greatest genial comedians the movies ever knew) to sarcastic cynicism; from sweat-soaked eroticism to sweet post-coital shyness; from picturesque nostalgia to fashion magazine cool; from thrilling action to brutal, distressing violence, punctuated and emphasised by the unpleasantly harsh bullet sound effects that Beatty insisted on cranking up louder than the rest of the soundtrack. It's certainly fair to say that this patchwork tonality was as deliberate as anything else in the film, a calculation to keep the movie unpredictable and energetic.

For energy is the most important element of Bonnie and Clyde: it has many things to say about society in 1967 and a handful of things to say about society in 1931, but mostly it has to say things about how cinema can be, when it's not pinioned by the stuffy solemnity of the big studio pictures, like the pious Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or the suffocating Doctor Dolittle, both of which were incongruously nominated for the Best Picture Oscar alongside Bonnie and Clyde (this is the point where I finally get to mention Mark Harris's glorious 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, a study of the production of the five '67 Best Picture nominees and the culture that produced them; it's among the best general-readership film histories that I've ever read, and I recommend it to each and every one of you). It sounds like an insult, but it absolute isn't, that Bonnie and Clyde is a really surface-level film; not because it has no depth, but because what's happening on the surface is tremendously important. Dunaway and Beatty's performances, which irritated me the first couple of times I saw the film, are as much a series of poses as they are "acting", but that's entirely the point, of course: Bonnie and Clyde are seen here as a form of pop art rather than as human beings, with some shots of Dunaway especially that frame her with exactly the same dramatic intensity as a comic book panel or Lichtenstein painting. It's a movie about visual iconicism: on the narrative level, we see this in the repetition of the Barrow gang sending their own photographs and poems to the newspapers, to craft their own image (this includes recreating a famous picture of the real-life Parker with her leg on a running board and a cigar chomped between her teeth); it crops up in Theodora Van Runkle's costuming, which is far more self-consciously stylish than makes even a little bit of sense for a Depression-set crime drama; it's at the heart of the cinematography, a point of contention between Penn and DP Burnett Guffey, who didn't understand what the director was getting at. But the flatness and overly-yellowed color balance gives the film the feeling of a series of moving pictures from a photo album, deliberately artificial in its attempt to mimic natural weathering, hyper-modern in its aping of and old-fashioned look.

Radical, challenging movies have always existed; Bonnie and Clyde was lucky to have the exact right mix of onscreen talent and offscreen social upheaval to explode in the Zeitgeist in a way that the weirder, harder Mickey One had no chance to (it's also mostly an artistic leap forward in an American context; Godard's Week End came out the same year, in comparison to which Bonnie and Clyde looks boringly conventional). And if this film hadn't filled the niche it did, something else would have come along, surely. But the point is that Bonnie and Clyde did end up filling that niche: it got to be the movie to aggressively, showily re-define the kind of stories that Hollywood movies could tell and the way that they could be told through daring cinematic language. I don't know if the film's inherent quality is quite as impressive as its seismic effect on the medium's possibilities - I frankly like a lot of the movies that picked up its baton and ran with it in the years to come quite a lot more, and The Graduate strikes me as the more consistent and effective movie qua movies - but after nearly a half century, the film's influence is still overwhelming and obvious, and that kind of legacy is impossible to deny or diminish in any way.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1967
-Paul Newman and Strother Martin have failure t' communicate in Cool Hand Luke
-Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman in the classy horror-thriller Wait Until Dark, directed by James Bond specialist Terence Young
-D.A. Pennebaker's radical Dont Look Back, a Bob Dylan documentary, opens

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1967
-In Sweden, a country that had long been known for its saucy films, Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious (Yellow) still manages to incite controversy for its sexual content and aggressive style
-Sergei Bondarchuck completes his massive four-part adaptation of War and Peace in the Soviet Union
-Suzuki Seijun's defiantly bizarre crime thriller Branded to Kill gets him fired from Japan's Nikkatsu

15 August 2014

COWABUNGLE

There's no sane reason for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to be as bad as it is. Other than that producer Michael Bay, bless him, is a stylist with a good eye, if nothing else; and director Jonathan Liebseman is not. And when a man with neither style nor talent attempts to slavishly copy from the Michael Bay Playbook, as we're seeing here, the results are so dire that we need new vocabulary words to describe them. "Revulsive" is the one I like best, after a quick trip to the thesaurus. Though my old friend "execrable" put up a good fight.

TMNT '14, which I gather is roughly to the 2003-'09 animated TV series as the 1990 movie was to the 1987-'96 animated TV series, provides a brand new origin story for the famous chelonian supeheroes, living in the sewers beneath New York City and training in the art of ninjutsu under the guidance of their adopted father, the mutant rate Splinter (acted for motion capture by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub). Though in this particular case, presumably to cut down on effects costs, the turtles aren't themselves the collective protagonist of the film. Insofar as it has a main character, that main character is April O'Neil (Megan Fox), a news reporter yearning to break into something better than idiotic puff pieces that require her to demonstrate some faddish exercise regimen by bouncing up and down on a trampoline, a task that Fox is considerably better suited for than she is at playing a passionate crusading journalist. It is a ruinous miscasting of the female lead on par with Denise Richards's nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough or Tara Reid's archaeologist in Alone in the Dark.

The film's first act (which plays like an echo of the 1990 film) finds O'Neil trying her damnedest to get a scoop on the reigning Important Story, the terror perpetrated by the crime syndicate called the Foot Clan; as she investigates, she begins to discover that a vigilante - no, make that a group of vigilantes - are interfering with Foot activity, though she can't get her boss, the snappish Bernadette Thompson (Whoopi Goldberg, bizarrely placed into a non-comic role that's barely larger than a cameo) to listen to her for more than thirty seconds, and the closest thing she has to an ally is cameraman Vernon Fenwick (Will Arnett), who'd rather try the most pathetic schemes to get in her pants than actually pay attention to what she has to say. This potentially cutting indictment of endemic sexism in newsmedia is hobbled by how little any of the filmmakers seem to regard it as actually wrong, more like harmlessly cute. But then, this is also a film that pointedly interrupts its big protracted action sequence to swing the camera over to look at Fox's ass for a few seconds, a propos of nothing.

Eventually, of course, O'Neil runs across four six-foot-tall bipedal turtles: Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), respectively the leader, rageaholic, geek, and bro of a team that hasn't quite been okayed by their rat guardian to fight crime, but have jumped the gun a little bit. In a horribly contrived revision to series mythology designed to make the film even more about O'Neil and even less about the ninja turtles, it turns out that they were created by her late father in a lab 15 years ago, as he was working under the guidance of scientific entrepreneur & genius Eric Sacks (William Fichtner). Sacks is ecstatic that O'Neil has found the turtles, the last carries of his precious regenerative mutagen, but it's not because he's such a big ol' philanthropist, as he implies to her. Rather, it's because he's serving the leader of the Foot Clan, a hulking Japanese martial arts expert named Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). And that is possibly a spoiler, if you have very little sense of narrative inevitability. Or William Fichtner.

There is, anyway, barely any plot to speak of, and what little there is gets disposed of quickly, as though the film was humiliated by it; the Foot Clan functionally ceases to exist once O'Neil makes contact with the Turtles, with Shredder serving as a generic standalone supervillain with a plot that horribly resembles The Amazing fucking Spider-Man. Plainly, this just exists as a delivery system for a cycle of miserable, surprisingly unambitious action sequences, one of which is underlit and one of which is separated from the camera by a veil of digital snow, and neither of which end up making any kind of sense beyond the fact of sheer movement. I will admit that the climax is pretty well-done, though the physics don't make a lot of sense. Everything else is just a melange of flailing objects that mostly only exist on computers, so busy with so little cohesive visual logic between shots and even within shots that it even makes the Transformers pictures look relatively clear and disciplined.

Nominally, I think this is meant to be a children's film - the franchise has always lived in that place, at any rate - but the tone is so feverishly nasty and dark that I deeply hope that's not the case, or else Liebesman, Bay, and screenwriters Josh Appelbaum & André Nemec and Evan Daugherty have a sense of children's entertainment that skews much too nihilistic, woman-hating, bureaucratic, and technocratic for my comfort levels. And yet then there are jokes about novelty rap albums and farts, which seems to shut down any other real possibility. It could just be that the filmmakers collective assume that their audience consists of noise junkies, and sadly, they're probably right.

The one thing I will allow in the film's favor: the effects are pretty fantastic. Not the design: the turtles look like hellspawn, with their terrifying human-like lips and impossible muscles, and the Shredder suit is a confusing mass of chrome edges and inexplicable moving parts. But the compositing and lighting work is some of the best I've seen all year: the turtles seem to actually inhabit the same space as the human cast, which surely isn't always the case, and they look to have physical mass and weight more than most animated characters. That's the best I can do to be nice. At the level of story, this is a piece of shit, at the level of action, this is a piece of shit, and at the level of filmmaking, it's the shittiest of all, with its drunken, wobbly handheld camera veering around to to U-turns at ever moderately impressive sight, clichéd slow-motion that would be hilarious if it was in the context of a movie that was at all fun, and enough unnecessarily canted angles that one starts to imagine that Liebesman must have had some terrible childhood trauma involving a spirit level and now refuses to use them. It's the most chaotic, wall-to-wall unpleasant film of the summer, and close to the worst film I've seen all year.

2/10

14 August 2014

SUMMER OF BLOOD, WEEK 13 POLL: PRE-CODE MURDER MYSTERIES

VOTING CLOSED - WINNER: MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE
Thanks to everyone who voted!

The roots of horror run deep. As the 2014 Summer of Blood begins to wind down, I felt it only right to pay homage to those roots, going back to some of the very first movies to use the now-common tropes of body-count pictures (though not always in common ways) in a style that was deliberately conceived as "horror", as opposed to more incidentally horror-like mysteries or crime dramas. This the period after Dracula and before the strong enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, when imaginative filmmakers of the early sound era could go crazy with all kinds of weird and warped ideas to freak the hell out of Depression-era audiences. And while they've largely lost that power today, there's still a lot of charm and low-key terror to be mined from them.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
From IMDb: "A mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments."

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
From IMDb: "The disappearance of people and corpses leads a reporter to a wax museum and a sinister sculptor."

The Vampire Bat (1933)
From IMDb: "When the villagers of Klineschloss start dying of blood loss, the town fathers suspect a resurgence of vampirism."


REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - THE RAINBOW CONNECTION

1966's Gamera vs. Barugon is particularly noteworthy in the Gamera series for three reasons. Firstly is that this first sequel to the previous year's Gamera was in color, where its predecessor was not; it's frankly not clear to me why the original was in black-and-white, at that point in time, but it left that film with the definite sense of being a bit of a cost-conscious cheapie (an impression furthered by the sets, costumes, effects, and acting), which Gamera vs. Barugon therefore doesn't quite suffer from. To the same degree. For the same reasons. I mean, it's still cheap as all heck. But we'll get back there.

Secondly, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only film in the series prior to the 1990s that wasn't directed by Yuasa Noriaki; instead, it was handled by the far more seasoned Tanaka Shigeo, whose career stretched back to the early '30s (Yuasa, in contrast, had only directed one feature prior to Gamera). And this, too, was perhaps critical, for I suspect it has a great deal to do with why Gamera vs. Barugon, generally speaking, looks quite a bit more interesting than Gamera: Tanaka and his cinematographer, Takahashi Michio, might not have had a lot to work with in the script - written by Takahashi Nisan, the author of all of the classic era Gamera pictures - but goddamn if they didn't do absolutely everything in their power to make it look halfway decent. But we'll get back there, too.

Thirdly, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only film out of twelve without a single child in the cast. And this is most critical of all, since it very nearly ends up feeling like a half-way serious movie, as a result. I am not sure if it immediately follows that this makes it better; the rather frivolous, silly attitude that Gamera adopted, in no small part because its junior protagonist forcibly injected a degree of frolicsome nonsense into the proceedings, made it its own very distinctive, delightfully off-kilter thing. Whereas Gamera vs. Barugon has just enough grown-up sensibility and a barely complex enough plot that it ends up feeling like an abnormally shitty Godzilla movie.

After some blue-tinted footage from the previous movie with a quick bit of catch-up narration (Wakayama Genzo narrates in the original Japanese, and oh, how weirdly present he will be throughout), we're off to the races. Having been shot into space in the nose cone of a giant rocket, Gamera was thought gone for good, but a meteor slams into his vessel, freeing him and sending him zooming towards Earth as only a zoom bipedal tusked turtle with jet engines can zoom. There, he destroys a dam to devour its energy, and makes his escape - not merely from the human authorities, but nearly from the movie itself.

For we now change gears so abruptly that viewers not wearing their seat belts are like to be thrown out of the movie altogether. Four men are gathered in dimly lit room, discussing a great plot to find a magnificent jewel and sell it on the black market (this is one of the scenes that's especially easy on the eyes, where Tanaka and Takahashi seem particularly hellbent on making the movie look better than ti deserves). One of the men, Hirata Ichiro (Natsuki Akira), discovered a giant opal on New Guinea when he was there during the Second World War; it's he who has arranged for his brother Keisuke (Hongo Kojiro) and two mercenaries, Kawajiri (Hayakawa Yuzo) and Onodera (Fujiyama Koji) to travel back to the island to find it in the cave he hid it. And this they do, against the strenuous objections of the locals, including the Japanese transplant Dr. Matsushita (Sugai Ichiro), an anthropologist with an adopted daughter Karen (Enami Kyoko). It's she who tells the travelers the story of Rainbow Valley, from which no-one can return, but being good civilised folk, they disregard her warnings as superstitious rot and head into the jungle. Onodera starts to get a little opal-crazy through all this, and makes ready to steal it for himself, first by allowing Kawajiri to die from the bite of an enormous scorpion, then by triggering a cave-in to deal with Keisuke. Except that Keisuke lives, nursed back to health by Matsushita and Karen, the latter of whom demands that he take her back to Japan so she can retrieve that opal.

Which, we're about to learn, is actually an egg; as Onodera sits in a room receiving an infrared treatment to cure some annoying jungle disease, he leaves the light trained on the exact pocket where he had stashed the rock, and in short order it hatches out a blue lizard about the size of a guinea pig. But it's not that size for long: it grows at an enormous rate, large enough to sink the ship containing it, and then attacking the harbor buildings in Kobe. And it is now that we first get to see the beast, and the enormity of what a crazy bad movie Gamera vs. Barugon shall be reveals itself in all its splendor. Because Barugon - as Karen identifies it - looks like this:

You know how sometimes, you just have that feeling? I don't even know what feeling I'm talking about. But Barugon makes me feel it. The eyes are definitely part of it. They're like Muppet eyes. And when the suit is in motion, they never seem to be staring at anything all, just kind of gazing out arbitrarily. The skin is also part of it: it suggest leathery plastic. It's like a toy, a really nice toy. Or a prop made by the most uncommonly gifted high school film club members you ever met. All I know is that the first time I ever saw Barugon in all his glory, I bolted upright and thought to myself, "I am watching one of my new favorite bad movies". And that was without the benefit of seeing his two signature attacks: his tongue shoots about half the length of his body, completely rigid, and sprays icy mist from the tip, like a fire extinguisher; also, he can shoot a rainbow from the back of his spikes, and it's a kind of death ray. This is, I want to hasten to remind you, the film that's typically regarded as the "adult" entry in the classic Gamera series.

So anyway, Gamera is attracted by the energy of Barugon's rainbow beam, and the two monsters fight, with Barugon freezing the turtle into a statue. The fight is, in all honesty, pretty terrific: it has raw animal power that recalls the earlier Godzilla fights that had already, by 1966, been replaced by more theatrical, sumo-influenced choreography. And there's a particular shot of Barugon in the foreground, watching Gamera slow to a crawl in the background, that's one of the loveliest individual images in any 1960s daikaiju eiga with which I am familiar. It never ceases to be an uncommonly handsome film, truly.

At about this time, anyway, the film which has been bogged down by its fascination with the intricacies of Onodera's betrayal of his colleagues, to drop into a marvelously repetitive second half, which consists of several cycles of somebody coming up with a plan to stop Barugon, after which that plan fails, after which another plan is concocted. This plays out until at long last, Gamera thaws out (the rather bored-sounding narrator even phrases it as such), and finally, with less than ten minutes remaining Gamera vs. Barugon depicts Gamera vs. Barugon. Not that even the most action-packed Godzilla films have a lot of monster action in them, but the disappearance of Gamera from his own movie is extremely noticeable.

I won't call it boring, precisely: the first half, with the human plot that feels like it takes place in another universe than a giant monster thriller, that's boring (the Godzilla films from around the same time that add in a gangster subplot generally did it with much more wit). The second half is too crammed full of random strangeness to qualify: the beautifully cheap, reliably bizarre Barugon alone is enough to guarantee that the film continues to be captivating, if only in a negative sense: what the hell magical nonsense are they going to come up with now? And while the film ends up with a punishingly generous 100-minute running time, the longest of any Gamera film until the 1990s, it doesn't really feel too bloated.

It's probably fair to say that, objectively, Gamera vs. Barugon is the "best" of the early Gamera films; to a certain degree that works against it, since it's still not actually good, and it's probably a bit easier to actually enjoy a real howler of a terrible monster movie than one that's kind of almost functional in some ways. But Barugon himself is absolutely enough to keep this one firmly in the bad movie lover's wheelhouse: he looks like hell, and his powers are ridiculous, and hearing straitlaced Japanese men talk about those powers and how to counteract them never ceases to be hilarious. Not the funniest of the Gamera films, nor the most fun, but a fine continuation of a franchise that would drive off a cliff soon enough.

13 August 2014

ABOUT A BOY

It's fun, kind of, to finally catch up with a major talking point movie after it's been out awhile, and to have seen its reception shift around a bit. With Boyhood, we've seen the initial near-religious rapture of its Sundance reviews give way, bit by bit, to a backlash, and now we're far enough along that anti-backlash has already started. Though it's telling that the "backlash", such as it was, has been more along the lines "you do understand that this isn't actually the best movie in the history of cinema, right?" than "this movie is bad". Or even "this movie is less than pretty terrific in a lot of ways".

I don't know where that puts this review along the spectrum, though I will say that not only is not actually the best movie in the history of cinema, I don't think that it's actually the best movie in the career of director Richard Linklater - for all its sublimity in recreating the pace and texture of a human life over a span of 12 years, I can't say that I feel liked I learned quite as much about human beings or the limits of cinema as I have from the Before... series.* Then again, "not as good as Before Sunset" leaves plenty of wiggle-room for plenty of all-time masterpieces, and Boyhood certainly puts in a strong argument for itself on that front. If nothing else, it's entirely fair to consider it one of the most ambitious productions in the history of narrative cinema, so much so that it becomes difficult to separate the production from the film's actual content. Though given that the content and the production are very nearly the same thing in this case, it's no real sin to conflate the two.

What that thing is, of course, is a boy growing up in Texas over twelve years. Linklater assembled a cast in the summer of 2002, with seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane taking the role of Mason Evans, Jr, and ever year until 2013, they'd get together to film a few scenes taking place over a handful of days or less in Mason's life, ending with his first day at college. The result is a 165-minute collection of moments in time that track Mason's growth, Coltrane's, Linklater's, and even to a certain extent, America's: not the least of the film's pleasures is in watching how politics and pop culture developed over those 12 years, either for the kick of nostalgia it provides, or simply for the sociology of it.

And, moreover, it's just about the fastest 165 minutes I can recall, with its fragmentary construction (as much like 12 short films that flow into each other without pause as it is a single unified whole) meaning that it never spends too much time in any one place, and with the performances so exquisitely minimal and natural that just watching the characters do nothing at all is totally absorbing. Coltrane may or may not be a natural actor - his work includes a lot of shuffling and looking down and mumbling, in ways that are absolutely to the benefit of his character but don't suggest whether he needs to be hunting for a chance to play Macbeth anytime soon - but he inhabits the role in a most relaxing, wonderfully unfussy way, and he's still only giving the film it's third-greatest performance at best: as his parents, divorced before the film starts, Before... veteran Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are absurdly excellent. It is a film that is resolutely fixated on Mason's life and the events that Mason perceives, as he perceives them, so even though we spend the same 12 years watching Arquette and Hawke develop their characters (mostly: Hawke certainly doesn't show up for every year, and I'm not absolutely certain that Arquette does), we aren't explicitly allowed inside them, like we are with him. That leaves it entirely up to the performers to give depth and inner life to the characters, and one of the biggest joys of Boyhood is how fully they do so: it's never exactly clear what goes in on Mom & Dad's lives when they're not tending to the immediate, Mason-related matters that we see onscreen, but it's clear that something does; the sense of unspoken history that percolates through their work is miraculous. Arquette especially: her performance here is absolutely one of the best I've seen in the current decade, playing a harried single mother prone to making terrible life choices about men, and letting us see the flaws and strengths in her character without begging for sympathy or making easy choices. She has two separate scenes in the 2013 material where I just about broke watching her: the "my younger child is going to college" breakdown, obviously, but just because something is obvious doesn't mean that it can't be complex and unexpected in how it plays out; and her response to Hawke's clumsy appreciation for how good of a job she did raising their kids, which is at once surprised, grateful, and mostly irritated that the parent who got to play Fun Dad You See Every Other Weekend would condescend to her - the way she holds her body back from him, almost shocked, is peerless whole-body acting.

But for all that his parents are miraculous creations of acting and storytelling, Boyhood is Mason's film, and it is a beautiful one. The flowing chronology of the movie (at times the only way that the film flags a new year's arrival is through Mason's hair) and the mixture of Major Scenes and the most banal kind of everyday experiences don't add up to a "story" in any classical sense. It moves something like a memory, recalling events but not necessarily their context, recalling the beginning and endpoints of an event but not the middle. But as the characters and actors live it, and we watch it, it's happening in real time, giving it a very different feeling than that of a memoir. It's a very present-tense movie, always most interested in what's happening right now, rather than what's going to come, or what's already been; it is the perfect analogue for the mind of a child and teenager, in that regard.

All in all a truly great experience: what holds it back from instant canonisation for me are mostly an accumulation of bothersome details or flat points, like some of the rockier performances: Linklater's own daughter Lorelei, in addition to looking nothing like the biological offspring of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, grew disinterested in the project for a bit in the middle, and her performance (already one of the film's weakest) bottoms out at the same time; and there are performers not as good as the main trio at keeping track of their characters year by year (there's been plenty of chatter about how the brief intrusion of a traditional dramatic situation in the mother's brief, horrible marriage to an alcoholic interferes with the rest of the movie; I don't think it does that at all, and in fact I believe that structurally, it's worked into the film with a lot of intelligence for how life is punctuated by That Big Event that seems to color memory for years before and afterward. But Marco Perella's performance as the new husband is wildly inconsistent and veers near to camp towards his final scenes, and I think that damages the subplot more than anything).

I was also horribly let down by the ending: 2013 goes on rather a great deal longer than any other year, giving the impression that Linklater and editor Sandra Adair had a hard time saying goodbye to their material, and it eventually takes us through the entirety of Mason's first day at college. And that's simply not the story that Boyhood has been telling, at any point. It's about the present of childhood and adolescence, not the future possibility of young adulthood, and the final scenes try to force it into an entirely different shape (though at least it allows the film's last two shots to echo its first two shots). It's not film-breaking, by any means; but it's also the only part of the movie that I found myself wondering why I was supposed to care about what I was watching.

Still and all, the thing as a whole is an incredible, almost unparalleled achievement: by virtue of being self-contained, it's arguably more impressive than the Before... films - and it's kind of astounding to think of the scope of Linklater's ambition when noticing that Boyhood started shooting prior to Before Sunset - and as a work of fiction, it demanded a level of advance planning that the Up documentary series, which can simply allow life to happen as it will, doesn't. It's possible to watch the shifts in the filmmaker's technique over the years, as he moved from School of Rock to Fast Food Nation to Me and Orson Welles to Bernie, and yet Boyhood feels entirely of a piece within itself: there's no sense of the highs and lows he was hitting at the same time (and boy, is Me and Orson Welles ever a low). If the film feels incomplete, it's only in that 165 minutes ends up feeling not nearly enough time spent with these people: the fake human lives depicted in the film are so nuanced, and one becomes so invested in watching those lives grow and evolve that watching the film is less a matter of observing characters than spending time with friends.

Fingers crossed for Manhood in 2026.

9/10