20 April 2014

In which the blogger is in a state of repose

Let me tell you what the all-time biggest pile of bullshit is ever: food poisoning.

My current hope is for posting to resume tomorrow. In the meanwhile, you know you're sick when watching a Godzilla movie sounds like too much physical work.

18 April 2014

WHO'S THE DEADLIEST ONE OF ALL?

Nearly until the end, and I literally mean, like, up until the last four minutes, Oculus makes a great argument for itself as being the best mainstream horror film since... I guess "since The Conjuring" isn't really at all impressive. But the spirit of my point is clear, yes? It has all the stuff to be a great horror film and it ends up being a very good horror film with some intensely dubious ideas about how to wrap up all of its clever themes and narrative conceits. Given the batting average for the genre, this is more than enough to qualify Oculus as a modern masterpiece the likes of which you'll tell your grandchildren about.

Also, "oculus" is one of those words that barely looks real in the first place, and when you keep typing it just looks more and more fake and ludicrous. Oculus, oculus, oculus.

Anyway, the film is built on a fascinating gambit: it's attempting to develop one core theme, which it does in two somewhat distinct halves that each approach that them from a different perspective. Basically, Oculus is about human perception and memory, and how easy it is to screw with both of those things, and for the first bit of the movie, it explores this in a very talky, script-driven way. The story centers on the Russell siblings, 23-year old Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and 21-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who have a shared trauma buried eleven years in their past: the facts of the matter are that their father killed their mother, and Tim then shot their father. For Tim, newly released from a psychiatric care facility upon attaining his majority, this event caused such a profound break in his mind, needing to absolve himself of guilt, that he crafted an absurd fantasy to create to protect himself from his own actions, and only years of treatment in a safe space have permitted him to come to grips with the truth. For Kaylie, their dad was possessed by the malevolent spirit living inside a haunted mirror.

Horror cinema being what it is, it's obvious long before Oculus lays its cards on the table which of the siblings will be proven correct, but for a surprisingly lengthy stretch in the first half, the film isn't so much a psychological thriller about the unreliability of memory, as an expository series of dialogues in which the two Russells clearly speak their interpretation of events and go out of their way to poke holes in the other's certitude. The reason this isn't death onscreen has a lot to do with the fussiness of the plot happening underneath the speeches: Kaylie has recently tracked down the mirror, and has laid out a phenomenally complex system of safeguards to make sure that she's able to destroy it, with full video evidence to prove that it is haunted, and their dad wasn't a murdering psycho, and the same scenes where the masses of chatter about the unreliability of perception play out are intertwined with her Rube Goldberg theatrics. And, too, it helps that the actors have a certain easy ability to make their jargony conversation feel naturalistic, particularly Gillan, who speak with a clipped patter that verges on robotic, and by all means shouldn't work; yet it's so heightened and discordant with the rest of the film, like a screwball heroine who landed in a ghost story by mistake, that it's madly captivating.

So that's the first part: open and blunt conversations about how easy it is to convince yourself that something that isn't true actually happened, and how much that framework can inform the way that you interpret what's happening right now. Once the mystery resolves itself, surprisingly early, that yes, the mirror is a demon, the film ceases to explore this theme narratively and begins exploring it structurally: at this point, the film dissolves into a full-on editing freak-out in which the grown-up Russells start to lose track of when they're themselves and when they're the eleven-years-younger versions of themselves. For all throughout, being in the house where all that bad stuff happened so long ago has been triggering flashbacks, as both siblings recall the physical details of what happened to them (Annalise Basso plays young Kaylie, Garrett Ryan plays young Tim), and how they separately perceived the slow descent of their father (Rory Cochrane) into a kind of madness brought on, apparently, by too much exposure to his mirror - or maybe just the shiny-eyed ghosts that hover around it - and the equally inexplicable turn towards cruelty in their mother (Katee Sackhoff). Throughout, these flashbacks have been spliced in through all the normal cues; at a certain point, they start to bleed into the movie proper, with child and adult versions of the characters rushing past each other in the same hallways, and both siblings losing track of what they're looking at, when they're looking at it, and where they are, with the audience increasingly encouraged to lose track as well, thanks to the magic of cross-cutting.

In essence, if the first half of the movie states "your perception is a half-assed jerry-rigged series of shortcuts that you can't trust", the second half demonstrates it by openly flaunting continuity in a way that's terrifically disconcerting and, in a few well-timed moments, even really creepy, as those mirror wraiths pop up and vanish in the best fashion of J-horror knock-offs. And I must congratulate director Mike Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard for so thoroughly balancing psychological concepts with the grubby mechanics of a ghost movie. If anything sucks the wind out of the film, it's that the brunt of this doesn't feel like it adds up to anything; Oculus doesn't end up having any "point" bigger than its sage observation that the demon living in the mirror wants to kill and eat souls, and the grand fandango of themes and psychothriller is just a spectacularly obtuse way of getting at that profoundly limited conceit. It's astonishingly shallow, really, for how many complex ideas it explores with relatively deep thought and success.

But that's not really a problem at all: I went into Oculus expecting a ratty fast-food hamburger of a film and I got a ratty fast-food hamburger of a film, but with a warm home-baked bun and sublime artisan cheese, and those were sufficiently pleasing surprises that I choose to be delighted by their presence, rather than disappointed that the burger itself was still gristly and burnt. The greater problem, the one that I cannot forgive, is that Oculus ends badly - intensely, boringly badly. I have no idea what ending might have worked, but the one that the film went with is as bad an idea as I can imagine, diving with childlike zeal into clichés of the dodgiest sort, resorting a nihilistic "fuck it all!" gesture instead of following up on the real complexities of the script or paying off the moments when it's a generally spooky ghost story. Horror films that work at all well are so rare that I'm not about to write Oculus off because the last few moments are utter trash, but I have to say, the film leaves a spectacularly bitter feeling on the way out.

7/10

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1925: In which the most generous and humane filmmaker of an era finds tenderness and wit in the wilderness

At the time it was still new, Charles Chaplin called The Gold Rush, from 1925, the film he wanted to be remembered for. He's gotten his wish, and then some - we still remember The Gold Rush along with City Lights, Modern Times, The Kid, The Circus, and so on, and will undoubtedly do so as long as there is cinema.

And yet The Gold Rush is still something special. I do not believe that it's anything like the consensus pick for his best film - on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, the best we have for the temperature of current CW, City Lights is more than 100 spots above it, with Modern Times and The Great Dictator also coming in higher - but I wonder if it might be his most beloved, or most famous. It is iconic; beyond a shadow of a doubt it's iconic. The scenes where Chaplin's Little Tramp, here in the guise of a lone prospector in the Yukon, fussily eats a boiled shoe with all the care of a diner in the finest Parisian restaurant, the sublime physical performance of the dinner roll dance, and the mad slapstick of the prospector and his partner, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), attempting to survive a cabin teetering right on the edge of an icy crevasse; these are among the most famous, instantly-recognisable moments in the career of a character and star who's still, a century after his creation, the most perfect embodiment in one person of the whole sprawling concept of "The Movies".

If there's a reason for this, I wonder if it has to do with the film's accessibility and emotional resonance. Nothing in The Gold Rush is as holy and transcendent as the final scene of City Lights - not much in the annals of American film is, of course - but then, not much in City Lights is as breezily watchable as The Gold Rush. The earlier film is perhaps the single best marriage of the two threads that warred with each other for most of Chaplin's career as a self-directed auteur: the desire to make earnest, heavily sentimental pronouncements about humanity and society, and the desire to be a grand, playful clown to make the whole world laugh. The later one goes in his career, the more the balance shifts towards sentiment, particularly in his part-sound and sound films; it was in '25 that he was exactly in the middle, and the result is a film that shifts between registers effortlessly and beautifully, so that we might be in one moment heartbroken to realise, as the little prospector does not quite yet, that he's been taken for a fool by the band of pretty dance hall girls in the nearby town, and just seconds later be transported with the delight of his dancing rolls, performed by Chaplin with an intensely controlled precision of his arms and body, while on his face is the most ethereal of expressions, gazing nowhere in particular as he acts out, for my tastes, one of the funniest bits in silent comedy.

Whatever the case, we have the film, and it's an acknowledged masterpiece of the medium according to almost any source you want to consult. This despite being, in the main, fairly straightforward as cinema (certainly compared to what he made later): like Buster Keaton and unlike Harold Lloyd, among the era's great solo comedians, Chaplin made do with a lot of long wide takes, to showcase his interactions with the the environment around him, whether in an intimate setting like the boot eating, or a spiraling mess like his pratfalls in a dance hall (in this he is unlike Keaton, whose long takes were more like Fred Astaire's, meant to show off the incredible versatility of his body and the choreography he could put it through), and the result, for most of The Gold Rush, is a film with plenty of the stage-like framing typical of much older films - there is one great joke, involving snow shoveling, that's communicated entirely through editing, but this is untypical. It is not, however, an unsophisticated piece of filmmaking, it's just that the sophistication is hiding: in the voluminous use of dissolves to create, for example, the hallucinatory chicken that a starving, cannibalistic Big Jim sees in place of his colleague. Or in the genuinely amazing combination of models, a pivoting set, and double exposure to create the final setpiece on the cliff edge. But the purpose of The Gold Rush was to hide its technique and foreground its comedy, though it took a great depth of talent and ambition behind the camera to make that comedy look so simple.

Besides, there are still moments of outright cinematic greatness: the opening shots, all done on location, showing ragged lines of desperate men crawling through the snow and mountains, a great wide-view consideration of history and the individuals who got caught up in it. Chaplin's desire to make the Tramp an everyman rarely worked as effectively as it does here, in the cut between all of those nameless, faceless figures and Chaplin himself in rags scrambling along an icy ridge. Funny, yes, but there's enough genuine cold and isolation in the film that we never quite forget those opening images, and their intimation of loss and hopelessness. The tramp succeeds, against the odds; he is an aspiring figure, not a downtrodden one. Never before or after The Gold Rush did that success play so richly, as never before or after The Gold Rush did Chaplin make the chance of failure so clear and sobering. And, weirdly, precisely because the stakes are higher here than anywhere else in the Tramp's career, so is his flailing struggle to overcome them funnier than in any other Chaplin film. This is as true of his success in the Yukon as in love; the flirtation between the prospector and the dancer Georgia (Georgia Hale) makes no sense on the level of human psychology, but the Tramp in love is such a sweet, endearing, goofily enthusiastic figure that it feels right emotionally that he'd win in the end. We love him, so why wouldn't everyone else?

17 years after its first release, Chaplin re-cut The Gold Rush, added narration (which he delivered) instead of title cards, and included music throughout. This version was, for years, the only one available, until a reconstruction of sorts was attempted by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (who acknowledge that the results were a version of the 1925 film, not the actual exact film seen in 1925), and even now the Chaplin estate prefers the 1942 release as reflecting the filmmaker's ultimate wishes. That may be, but it only suggests that even Chaplin could be straight-up wrong: the '25 film is better in every way. The removal of title cards, the sped-up framerate, and the tighter editing ruins the pacing of many jokes, making the wonderfully precise physical movements in so many scenes feeling rather too hectic. Worse still, a few shots are removed, taking with them an entire subplot that makes Georgia less complex of a character, and the film's ending is totally wrecked, with the removal of a final kiss and a wonderfully irritated gesture by the Tramp, shooing away a cameraman, in favor of an abrupt close with an insubstantial wrap-up in the narration. I can think of literally no reason to bother with it besides curiosity and completism; the '25 version is warmer and funnier. Of course, in any incarnation, The Gold Rush is a masterpiece, undeniably one of the funniest and sweetest movies ever made.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1925
-King Vidor makes the World War I masterpiece The Big Parade
-Lon Chaney makes his iconic appearance as The Phantom of the Opera in Universal's first true horror film
-The groundbreaking visual effects vehicle The Lost World, with Willis O'Brien stop-motion dinosaurs, premieres

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1925
-Sergei Eisenstein debuts with the unbeatable one-two punch of Strike and Battleship Potemkin
-The first feature-length (and still the longest) adaptation of Les misérables released in France
-The Italian-German co-production Quo Vadis flops, ending the career of producer Arturo Ambrosio, father of the Italian historical epic

17 April 2014

FLIPPING THE BIRD

What I love about animation is its capacity for creating things that you did not realise could exist. Even in the days of just about every "live" action movie with any kind of budget behind it half existing in computers full of invented locations, something about the medium animation purchases the right to go deeper into unreality and totally new worlds to evoke brand new experiences for the viewer. For example, here's something that just happened to me: even with my fervently dim view of Blue Sky Studios, the animation company for those days when you want all the demerits of DreamWorks without the accomplishment, I wouldn't have assumed that they'd have it in them to bother making Rio, the 2011 kiddie film about bird sex, any worse than it already was. Boy, I sure had my horizons expanded: Rio 2 is a marked decline in every way from an original that really couldn't afford it, painfully dredging up every scrap of the first film to diminished returns and slapping them into something with the shape of a narrative rather than the function of a narrative. In so doing, the result is a film with the awful feeling of being at once overstuffed and totally empty.

There are three almost entirely distinct conflicts going on. The main one is that Blu (Jessie Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), the pair of rare macaws whose breeding formed the entirety of the last film's dramatic stakes, learn from the television that they and their three children are not the last of their species, but that out in the depths of the Amazon, an entire population of their kind has been discovered, by Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro), the now-married humans responsible for hooking Blu and Jewel up in the first place. For reasons that even now fade from memory but surely made sense at the time, the bird family leaves their sanctuary in Rio de Janeiro to explore this lost colony, finding that it is in fact Jewel's childhood home, with her dad Eduardo (Andy Garcia) lording over a population of macaws far braver and more capable than the hopelessly urbanised Blue. Particularly the handsome - and god damn, but do birds ever look stupid when you put 2010s human signifiers for "handsome" on their bodies - Roberto (Bruno Mars), a childhood friend of Jewel's..

Yeah, so it's a kids' movie about how a marriage is threatened by the sexual insecurity of the husband. Big deal. The last one was about bird fucking, and that makes it awfully hard not to linger over the thought, in the first 20 minutes, that if they hadn't found the new population of macaws, Blu and Jewel's children would have to interbreed to keep the species alive. I fucking hate this fucking franchise.

The other two plots go a little something like this: Linda and Tulio run afoul of an illegal logging operation run by a nameless thug (Miguel Ferrer), whose facial animation represents some kind of inconceivable low for American big-budget character animation: his lips have no meaningful relationship to the sounds coming out of them, nor to the muscles presumably supporting them. Elsewhere, the angry, insane cockatoo Nigel (Jemaine Clement) left for dead at the end of Rio turns out to be alive and anxious for vengeance against Blue, toting along a lovestruck poison frog, Gabi (Kristin Chenoweth), and a silent comedian anteater. All of these stories ultimately converge, but the marital drama is the only one that actually matters whatsoever, and coupled with the film's general aura of "goddammit, we will fit every character from the last movie into this one", it's clear that Nigel's presence is almost solely a function of Clement's willingness to cash the check the producers offered him (that said, Chenoweth's rendition of the woozy romantic anthem "Poisonous Love" is not merely the film's high point, it might very well be its only good moment).

Much as was true of Rio, the only real justification for any of this is the bright colors used to depict the Amazon fauna: the searing pinks on Gabi's skin, the seemingly limitless variety of blues used in the macaw tribe, a few key splashes of red and yellow to keep things lively. There are a few indifferent, stylistically generic musical numbers that try to showcase this element using sprawling Busby Berkeley-like choreography, though in this respect the film's nowhere near as successful as its predecessor; it doesn't help that the big showstopper is mostly limited to green and blue, and only a couple of remotely interesting ideas for what to do with movement.

Everything else is achingly mediocre, at best: the need to invent a whole bunch of new character designs for largely similar birds starts to get ridiculous before very long, and only the anteater, out of the whole cast, is animated with any kind of playfulness or freedom. The entire vocal cast sounds hugely bored, other than Chenoweth (and really, what might a bored Chenoweth sound like anyway?), though with the route situations and dialogue they're asked to play, it's hard to say that we can blame them.

And it can't be overstated: the story really just isn't. Conflict upon conflict upon ginned-up conflict that anyone older than the most undemanding and innocent of children can predict from hours in advance, and too many nominal threats that take place in some entirely different arena than anything involving the protagonists, all stuffed together in a lazy action sequence near the end that plays the old "if we can survive violence together, all of the problems that have not been meaningfully addressed will up and vanish card". It's bad enough to throw this sort of trite nonsense at kids and pretend like it's harmless normally, but when the primary story is about the tensions of a couple of parents and the ageless threat of hostile in-laws, one really has to wonder who on Earth is supposed to get any remote measure of enjoyment out of any of this. Warmed over fake rap and shiny plastic colors notwithstanding, this is a profoundly dreary domestic drama disguised as a kids' adventure film, and as complete a waste of time as I can imagine a cartoon being.

4/10

16 April 2014

REVIEW ALL MONSTERS! - GODZILLA BUGS OUT

We now arrive at an exciting moment, for me personally: starting with 2000's Godzilla vs. Megaguirus, the series wraps up with a run of five movies which I've never seen and about which I know basically nothing. In the most extreme cases (Megaguirus is one of these), my knowledge extends literally only to having seen still images of the Godzilla suit. Comparatively, I'd seen more than half of the 24 preceding films, and I had some sense of the content of all the rest. So it's time to start flying blind.

Happily, this final phase of out Godzilla marathon starts out on a strong foot: while Megaguirus is, on balance, an awfully darn silly movie, it also has some terrific bits of popcorn cinema histrionics strung out along its entire running time. Most notably, it's a film where one plucky hero, the obsessed anti-Godzilla fighter Tsujimori Kiriko (Tanaka Misato) hitches a ride on Godzilla as it plunges through the waves, for a few seconds of one of the most gosh-darn cool images that have ever happened in this franchise.

That's a bit of the way in, though. First up, Megaguirus leads off with a fake newsreel that quickly recaps an entirely new history for Godzilla, in which every film but the first is swiftly discarded. Godzilla, we are told, reappeared 12 years after its initial attack in 1954, to decimate Japan's first attempt at building a nuclear power plant; later, in 1996, it attacked again, forcing the government to abandon an attempt at making a completely new power source. It was during the last of these attacks that Kiriko gained her passionate hatred of the beast, as it killed her commander during their attempt to contain its attack; this has caused her to join G-Graspers, the rather daft name of this movie's anti-Godzilla strike team (I get that G-Force was tied up in a different continuity, but it just sounds so much better). The main plot takes place in 2001, during which Godzilla persists as a threat even as Japan has given up all energy research; to combat this, Dr. Yoshizawa (Hoshi Yuriko, who we last saw fighting Godzilla all the way back in Mothra vs. Godzilla in 1964) has been developing a new weapon, dragging along irreverent independent scientist Kudo Hajime (Tanihara Shosuke) to help finish it up. This superweapon, inscrutably named "Dimension Tide", amounts to a black hole gun fired from an orbiting satellite; and so we begin to see how little Megaguirus scribes Kashiwabara Hiroshi and Mimura Wataru understand or care about astrophysics and geopolitics, for starters. As the film progresses, they will also demonstrate a singular lack of comprehension about paleontology, insect biology, radioactivity, and basically everything that has anything to do with science. Upon deliberation and reflection, I have elected to find this charming.

There's no real option but to find the film charming, really, or to find it shrill and dumb and dull. Basically, Megaguirus has the feeling of an attempt to make a film with the frothy sensibilities of the 1970s Godzilla films (and director Tezuka Masaaki, an outspoken fan of the character making his first of three movies in the franchise, has more or less confirmed that was the intent), minus the single biggest liability of those films: their desperately impoverished budgets. Now, the visual effects in this film aren't the best in the world, not even as good as the previous year's Godzilla 2000: Millennium, with some particularly rough CGI: a horde of prehistoric dragonflies that look like a screensaver has occupied space between the action and the camera; a super-advanced flying weapon that looks like it came from a mid-'90s flight combat video game. And the compositing ranges from the excellent (Kiriko astride Godzilla) to the abysmal (missiles exploding on Godzilla's hide, as though someone hand-animated them on the frame). So it does not look like a spectacularly expensive movie, necessarily; but it has ambition. Grand, out-of-control ambition to do things that had never been done in a Godzilla film. When the film underperformed, effects director Suzuki Kenji took the blame and was dumped from the series after just two movies; it's a damn shame, because for all the problems he ran into here, I'd have loved to see him get more opportunities to keep going bigger and bolder, developing his ideas along the way.

So back to the story: the Dimension Tide accidentally rips open a hole in time that allows a prehistoric egg to slip into the present, from whence spring a host of ancient insects, Meganula (a creature exhumed from the 44-year-old Rodan, of all the random damn things). There are enough of them to cause problems for the humans and Godzilla alike, but the worst is yet to come: having siphoned nuclear energy out of Godzilla's body (dragonflies in the past were actually mosquitoes, apparently), the Meganula take them back to a giant member of their race - a Meganula queen, functionally, inject it with energy, and cause it to turn into Megaguirus, a giant insect monster that looks powerfully like Battra from 1992's Godzilla vs. Mothra. Godzilla and Megaguirus have their fight, of course; this gives the humans barely enough time to figure out how to get ride of the giant lizard once and for all, though their final attempt proves inconclusive.

Despite the somewhat bland design of both competitors, the climactic monster fight is an absolute stunner. There's nothing wrong with Megaguirus, other than how redundant and derivative it feels; meanwhile, the Godzilla suit is unchanged from the last film, this time shown almost exclusively in full sunlight that make its head, and especially its deep eye sockets, look atrociously fake, while calling maximum attention to the still-stupid pink tint of its still grotesquely oversize dorsal spines. But these things are of little matter once the action starts, intense and creative, violent and high-impact. It is right up with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah as the best final fight scene since Godzilla vs. Biollante, in my opinion, with an absolutely fantastic finishing move, and some really exciting music by Ohshima Michiru, channeling Ifukube Akira, to push it over the edge (this has, in general, one of the better non-Ifukube scores the series has coughed up).

All that has to contend with the usual limitations of a mid-level Godzilla film: a human story that relies on bland, functional characters, in this case bogged down with two of the more irritating lead performances in the series; Tanaka because she is unyielding stern and joyless; Tanihara because he's so laid-back and goofy and clownish. But compared to a lot of the modern (post-'84) Godzilla films, the tone of the whole thing is so light and fanciful, starting right at beginning with the bouncy urgency of that newsreel, that the one-note human characters don't rankle as badly as they do in some of the '90s movies. It's not so frivolous as to fall into the trap of being a kids' movie, like the worst of the '70s films; but this is a distinctly deliberately breezy and light Godzilla adventure with no pretensions towards any kind of thematic meat or tonal complexity. This puts a very clear cap on how good the thing can end up being, but it also takes a lot of the sting out of its worst faults, and leaves a perfectly fun, and somewhat empty popcorn movie behind.

15 April 2014

BEST SHOT: THE LETTER

To bring back Hit Me with Your Best Shot after a one-week hiatus, Nathaniel at The Film Experience hit a home run in picking out a title, and I don't care if it was largely by accident. The Letter, from 1940, is a damn-ass goddamn masterpiece: the best movie ever made by William Wyler - love ya, Dodsworth, but not quite enough - boasting the best performance by Bette Davis in her ingenue phase (and, for my money, she only ever topped herself with her godlike turn in All About Eve), and stunning chiaroscuro photography by Tony Gaudio.

It's a tremendously great film and a tremendously visual one; the story is built around the repeated use of moonlight to symbolically reveal the main character's inner self: this is, you see, the story of how Leslie Crosbie (Davis) killed a man and then concocted a story about how he tried to rape her; her husband and all the rest of the British colonists in Malaya believe her on the spot, but the natives, especially the victim's wife (Gale Sondergaard), have their doubts. And to prove just how cold-blooded Leslie really is, there's a letter written by her to the victim, clearly contradicting her defensive story. More generally, the film is about Leslie's constant attempts to hide and cover up, with the truth constantly threatening to bubble up and call her out.

Too many possibilities for a best shot in all that: Davis, one of the most visual performers of the sound era, offers up an entire film's worth of great expressions, and the language of shadow and light throughout is flawlessly exact and purposeful. And just the symbolic use of straight lines, be they shadows or be they part of the sets, to "imprison" Leslie, could support a few thousand words and half a dozen shots in and of itself. But I knew what scene I wanted to focus on: the confrontation between Leslie and Mrs. Hammond, the mixed-race widow of her victim. In which Leslie attempts to pantomime her innocence in a ridiculous lace veil as she goes to retrieve the letter from her rival, whose sub-zero expression makes clear how much she has no use for Leslie's increasingly sweaty lies. In which the accumulation of half-lit bric-a-brac suggesting some overblown art director's notion of "Asian" in 1940 creates a space of profound discomfort and disorientation for Leslie, whose self-serving whiteness has never seemed so feeble and shallow as it does in this room. Here, anyway, was my shot:

That's Sondergaard on the right, having just demanded that Leslie doff her veil and step forward. In another moment, Davis will be standing beneath a light that harshly and bluntly flattens her and takes away all the protecting shadows, but I picked this shot because of the perfection of Davis's expression: no other major star of that period was so willing - so eager, really - to make herself look awful as often as possible, and while nobody in their right mind would call the woman in that frame "ugly", something between the stressed-out lines around her eyes and the utterly despondent cast of her mouth and eyebrows makes it really darn hard to call her "pretty".

This is Leslie in a moment of utter, pathetic subjugation: hopelessly overpowered by the giantess staring down at her (Sondergaard was taller than Davis anyway, but the framing and eyeline here make the former actress look like she's got a solid three feet on the latter). She's outmatched and outwitted and she knows it, and in her animalistic desire to save her hide, she's got absolutely shame about telegraphing it visually. In a fatalistic movie (with a censor-madated ending that pushes fatalism to an absurd, but not ineffective degree), this is among the most helpless, disempowered moments. For a film that prefigured the moral toxicity of the nascent film noir movement so well, I could not bring myself to go with anything less punishing.

STANLEY KUBRICK: DO YOU LIKE MOVIES ABOUT GLADIATORS?

1960's Spartacus was the third and last feature film of Stanley Kubrick's career that he would later disown, for the best reasons of any of them. Unlike Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss, it wasn't humiliation at a half-formed talent of youth that led him to later (and "later", in this case, means "almost instantaneously") discount the film's importance in his development, but a very real and very justified belief that it wasn't in any meaningful way "his" film. He was, to start with, the second choice to direct, chosen by executive producer Kirk Douglas as a result of their collaboration on Paths of Glory. Anthony Mann filmed the opening scene of the movie before the nebulous "somebody" (Mann himself? Executive producer Kirk Douglas? Universal?) decided that Mann wasn't up to the task of making a big sprawling massive period epic. Instead, his 1960 film was Cimarron, a big sprawling massive period epic Western. And Mann did have plenty of experience with Westerns in the preceding decade, including some of the very best examples of the genre ever made. But we are not here to to talk about Mann, other than to observe that the sequence he completed, which is quite excellent, truth be told, set the tone of Spartacus, and Kubrick felt compelled to copy that tone for everything he personally oversaw.

The greater issue is that Spartacus was never going to be its director's film; it was, forever and always, a producer's picture. The story goes that Douglas was angry to have been passed over for the title role in Ben-Hur, and wanted to stick it to MGM by headlining his own Roman-era epic about a plucky outsider fighting the system in big, glorious setpieces on big, glorious sets. His attention landed on the 1952 novel Spartacus, by blacklisted novelist Howard Fast, and he hired blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay; the result of all this was that Trumbo became the first blacklist victim of the McCarthy era to receive credit under his own name after having been tarnished by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist sympathies. But that was much later.

Streamlining the chronologically discontinuous plotline significantly, Trumbo's Spartacus follows how the title figure is brought from the hellish Roman mines in Libya to a gladiator school in Capua, where the slimy impresario Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) grooms him to be a great talent, until the fateful day when the chilly wannabe dictator Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier) brings three empty-headed young people to the school on vacation, indulging their desire to see a pointless fight to the death; this event, and Crassus's subsequent purchase of the beautiful, kindly Varinia (Jean Simmons) stokes the fires of rage in Spartacus, and he begins a gladiator revolt that soon turns into an army full of slaves from across Italy, threatening to seriously destablise if not destroy the burgeoning Roman Republic. While this happens, Crassus butts heads in Rome with the relatively liberal senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton), whose positive merits generally begin and end with his desire that his city should remain at least vaguely driven by republican ideals and not tyrannical ones.

The stories from the Spartacus shoot do not imply a happy process. Douglas and Trumbo disagreed over the ideal political metaphor for the story (Douglas wanted it to be about Israel, Trumbo about McCarthyism, and the final product ends up having quite a bit less political bite than either of them probably wanted). Douglas and Kubrick disagreed over damn near everything, with the director not much caring for what he saw as undue moral simplicity in the main character. Kubrick and credited cinematographer Russell Metty clashed a great deal, owing to the director's micro-managing of the camera; supposedly, Kubrick himself executed the vast majority of the material for which Metty won an Oscar. Anecdotes abound about Ustinov and Laughton griping about the spotty plotting and re-writing chunks of the movie for their own ends. The whole thing took ages and ages to complete, at which point it was immediately set upon by the Decent People who would brook no hint of Communist-friendly art coming out of Hollywood, though that PR battle was lost quickly and decisively, with President John Kennedy himself crossing picket lines to see the movie.

All of that only intermittently interferes with the movie itself, which managed to achieve at least the first of its stated goals, anyway: it's a better movie than Ben-Hur, by a lot. Which, given how achingly pokey and stilted Ben-Hur is, shouldn't be much of an achievement, but none of those Roman Epics from the '50s and '60s amount to much, and even with someone like Kubrick calling at least some of the shots, there's no obvious reason to expect better. If Spartacus ends up feeling several solar systems away in quality from the likes of the soporific Quo Vadis (with which it shares Ustinov in an Oscar-nominated turn - he won for Spartacus), that can be ascribed to a few reasons, the most obvious of which is that, uniquely among Hollywood Roman epics with which I'm familiar, this is a film almost totally without religious overtones, save for an historically nonsensical observation in the opening narration that has all the feeling of a line inserted by a Communist-elating screenwriter in the hopes that people will think he's not quite so Communist. The urgent need to pull double duty as plush, costly spectacles and devotional aids was, almost without exception, absolutely deadly in the case of all those films, slowing the drama down to a crawl so that hammy actors could pull their most utterly sincere expressions in endless, dubiously "inspirational" parentheticals. Spartacus gets to commit itself exclusively to story and action; it doesn't even really stop for the humanist devotionals of Fast's novel, which is far more emphatically about class struggles than anything in the movie. Really, the only part of the entire film where outright leftism makes itself known is in the solidarity of the famous, often-parodied "I'm Spartacus!" scene.

In place of the arch solemnity of so many other Roman epics, Spartacus offers up plenty of intoxicants: lavish sets, a well-stocked widescreen frame (the film was shot in Super Technirama 70, one of the most gratifying formats for large-scale epics ever invented), crackling dialogue, whoever wrote it, for the scenes of snarling Roman politicking, magnificent action scenes shot with a level of pageantry not equaled in American cinema until Braveheart - the opening moments of the final big fight between the slave army and the Roman legions seems to go on for hours and hours as the Romans march and march and march until they get just into place, on the far side of a vibrantly green valley, the one and only place in the whole movie where Kubrick the photographic stylist seems to have really woken up and employed the implacable sense of objectivity and geometry that marks all his best work. It is easily my favorite part of the whole film, even more than the exquisite battle scene that immediately follows it.

Stretching all the way back to its Mann footage, Spartacus boasts a singularly vivid use of color (at this point, Kubrick was not yet willingly using color stock), using the natural colors of blue and green in strong counterpoint to the predominant browns found in every single frame. This is a worn, tired ancient world, a dirty, sandy, sweaty one with little spark to it. The occasional shot of blue sky here and there is a fantastic gesture that underlines the intensity of the slaves' desire for freedom and openness by doling it out even to the film's viewers so sparingly and reluctantly, only seen in slices and slivers for the bulk of the film.

All of which - on top of Ustinov, Laughton, and Olivier giving three fantastically rich performances of the sort that only unapologetic British stage-trained actors can give; Ustinov's quivering, mildly smug and easily flustered emblem of power-hungry docility is maybe the single most lively performance in any English-language Roman epic, and his interplay with Laughton the best acting of the film - gives Spartacus energy and passion that's simply not to be found anywhere else in the genre; this does not mean that it's free of that genre's built-in limitations. For one thing, Douglas is downright eager to play Spartacus as exactly the strong-chinned noble figure that Kubrick didn't want him to become; it's fine when the actor's natural tendency towards desperate, bulging-eyed earnestness meets the screenwriter's roiling passages of revolutionary prose, but eye-rollingly trite and ludicrous and instantly-dated when brought to bear on the tender scenes where he makes love to Simmons, without the ability or desire to dial things down. As for Simmons herself, I understand that the actress has her defenders, but I am not remotely one of them, and her open-mouthed brittleness throughout Spartacus feels exactly like the kind of prim, lifeless Good Woman performance given in so many of these movies; above and beyond which, she drowns in the arch, old-timey dialogue that defeats, at some point or another, everybody but Laughton.

More than anything, though, what Spartacus suffers from, when it is suffering, is an absolutely palpable fatigue behind the camera. That Kubrick was unhappy is blatantly obvious: damn near ever single interior that involves anything other than Roman politicking is shot in bland, arbitrary compositions with far too many close-ups; a quick look at the director's next (and only other) film in the same ratio, 2001: A Space Odyssey, reveals such infinitely more thoughtful, complex frames that we can't write it off as simply greater comfort making movies. That Kubrick was excited and invested in his project; this Kubrick is plainly just going through the motions, and maybe deliberately trying to make his star, producer, and chief nemesis look a little bit worse (there are surprisingly plentiful close-ups that emphasise the phoniest elements of Douglas's performance; the best we can say about Kubrick is that he made no effort to compensate for the actor's shortcomings). That Spartacus is the best of all Roman epics of its generation I take as a matter of faith; but that leaves plenty of space for it to come up short in this way or that, and while the general experience is rather more enthralling and pleasurable than otherwise, there's still a lot of stiffness that the filmmaking team couldn't, or wouldn't, entirely overcome.

14 April 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1924: In which we are thoroughly impressed by the scale and ruggedly dependable production quality of the grand costume epic

By the mid-1920s, the American feature had more or less gotten through all of its learning curve to become the thing it is today. there were still some kinks to work out - camera movement wouldn't be perfected until '26 or '27 in the States, and then after the coming of sound, it had to be re-learned starting about '31 - but the Golden Age of the Hollywood Silent Film, as I perceive it, stretches from 1923 until 1928. The first version of classical continuity editing (the ability to cut on lines of dialogue added some wrinkles in the next decade, but the grammar was all basically the same; and, with the reduction of average shot lengths but the geometrical relationships between shots remaining functionally identical, it is the grammar still used by the vast majority of narrative films made not just in Hollywood, but anywhere in the world) was firmly entrenched in American production, meaning that during this period, the basic building blocks of all movies were the same, and unlike movies from as recent as 1919 or 1920, they can all be quickly "read" by anybody even now. This is, indeed, the reason why continuity editing has specific, well-defined rules: any viewer can drop in front of any movie, and immediately understand what is being communicated visually, so they can proceed to ignoring it and engaging with the story. It being the first and foremost principle of Hollywood film production that story and character are privileged above images and the momentum between them.

Since we have now arrived at a point where the Hollywood film was and is a clear-cut, distinct product, I would like to introduce you to somebody: Frank Lloyd. It is unlikely that you know his name, unless you are a fixed devotee of non-canonical movies from the late silent and early sound era (his silents are, generally, better than his talkies - 1933's Cavalcade is particularly dire); but he was quite a fixture. The director of two Best Picture Oscar winners before 1935, and recipient of the Best Director Oscar in the second and sixth years of its existence, he was, I think it's fair to say, exactly what the Hollywood film industry liked to think of as its finest sort of film director at the time: he was, that is to say, an extraordinary hack. And I mean "hack" in its literal definition. Not, as angry message board denizens use it, to suggest that he's willfully talentless and incapable of making artistic decisions; the exact opposite, in fact. A hack, in the Frank Lloyd sense, was a craftsman who could be counted on to make a movie that checked all the boxes, followed all the rules, and would come out a really handsome, well-built piece of cinema, all without the need to busily insert himself and his ideas into the process. Hacks of this kind are the classical Hollywood style; they make perfect, and perfectly impersonal movies one after the other. Their talent is real and it is deep: it is the talent for doing the right thing always, even though it is usually not the inspired thing. One is rarely moved or transported by hackwork; but one is also virtually always entertained by the best hackwork, and this was the grease that ran the Hollywood system right up to the United States' entry into World War II.

So back to that anonymous hack Lloyd and his thoroughly run-of-the-mill adventure movie from 1924, The Sea Hawk. Run-of-the-mill, that is, for something that's still a hugely entertaining epic nine decades later (assuming you can get over the whole "silent film with intertitles" thing, and if you can't, you'd likely have figured it out long before you ever get as far as The Sea Hawk), with setpieces made on a level that is mind-boggling to even daydream about now, all of it shot in a perfectly bland, perfectly functional style designed to put as much of those setpieces onscreen at one time as could be managed. This is not a movie like the fantasies of Germany at the same time, that remains fresh and exciting to watch because of the ingenuity of its visuals, for as I have just finished laying out, the the key element of Lloyd's style is that he's not ingenious. It's not even fresh and exciting because, like fellow class of 1924 adventure epic The Thief of Bagdad, it coasts on the effortless charisma of its star: no Douglas Fairbanks was Milton Sills, a B-lister who was 42 at the time the film came out and looked like he had another 10 years on that.

No, The Sea Hawk gets by the old fashioned way, literally. It is the kind of film that decides the best way to present spectacle is to stage spectacle. In the '30s, a film of this sort would involve models and backdrops; in the '50s, it would involve a boat set in the backlot tank and rear projection; in the modern era, it would have half a boat built in front of a green screen. Back in the '20s, though, they didn't fuck around, and it was the order of the day that if the script called for two 16th Century sailing ships to nearly smack into each other during a sea battle, the film crew would fucking well build replicas of 16th Century sailing ships and drive them at each other, with a camera pointing over the edge. It says everything that needs to be said that, 16 years later, when Warner Bros. made another film titled The Sea Hawk (not based on the same novel and sharing virtually no plot similarities whatsoever), they could use action footage from the '24 film and have it look absolutely great and in no way dated or deficient. I dare you to imagine that happening now - here's a terrifically straightforward example, imagine the new Legendary Pictures Godzilla padded itself out with CGI from the 16-year-old Tri-Star Godzilla. When you are done puking, please continue with the rest of the review.

The Sea Hawk didn't just hold up for 16 years; it has held up, quite effortlessly, for 90, and barring the disappearance of cinema as an artform, I can't think of any reason it won't still hold up for 90 years yet to come. There's no reason for it not to: the sea battles are eye-popping, magnificently over-the-top indulgences of real ships and real men being rocked about by real waves. There are no special effects to have aged poorly, because there are no special effects. And there in the middle of it is Frank Lloyd and his crew: ship designer Fred Gabourie, cinematographer Norbert Brodine, art director Stephen Goosson, editor Edward M. Roskam. All of them working with single-minded intensity to make sure that you don't notice what they're doing; all of them focused on creating the illusion of being on those boats with those men in the moment so invisibly that you're not thinking of anything but the boat and the battle and the torrid human drama. That's hackwork, and it takes a genius to be as bland at it as Frank Lloyd.

If I have gotten so deep into reviewing The Sea Hawk without really talking about The Sea Hawk, that's because it's frankly all so much high-spirited hokum. The movie opens at an indefinite point when Spain and England were still constantly fighting each other on the seas: privateer Sir Oliver Tressilian (Sills) has lately received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth for his contributions to making life awful for the Spanish, and currently enjoys the quiet life of a country gentleman with his engagement to the beautiful Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett) occupying all of his mind that isn't otherwise taken up with running off to fight duels against Rosamund's protector, Sir John Killigrew (Marc McDermott), for provoking his dignity and honor. Another provocation has just come from Peter Godolphin (Wallace MacDonald), Rosamund's brother; recalling her admonishments that he needs to stop poking people with his sword, Sir Oliver manages to calm himself down, but he cannot control his shiftless brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes), who bumps into the drunken Peter in the woods, and finding himself equally provoked, and with no knowledge of his brother's quarrel with the man, kills Peter in a very quick duel. Lionel immediately throws himself on Sir Oliver's mercy, but the evidence all points to one of the residents of the Tressilian household, and the only way for Sir Oliver to get out with his relationship to Rosamund intact is to sell Lionel out. So Lionel quickly arranges for the dissolute sea captain Jasper Leigh (Wallace Beery) to kidnap his brother, hoping that it will look as though Sir Oliver has fled to escape justice. Which is how, more than half an hour into a movie titled The Sea Hawk, we finally see the goddamned sea.

Leigh's ship is quickly overtaken by the Spanish, and Sir Oliver is captured and made a galley slave; he shares a bench with an Algerian named Yusuf-Ben-Moktar (Albert Prisco), who happens to be the nephew of Asad-ed-Din (Frank Currier), Basha of Algiers. And luckily for everyone, Asad-ed-Din is on the hunt for his nephew, and conquers the Spanish ship. Yusuf dies in the ensuing battle, but a grateful Sir Oliver pledges himself to Asad-ed-Din, renouncing the hypocritical Christianity that was so cheery to see him locked in chains, and builds a reputation for himself over the next three years as Sakr-el-Bahr, "Hawk of the Sea", a fearsome Barbary corsair. But even as he makes a fortune in plunder and slaving, he never forgets the ill done to him by Lionel, and when he chances to meet up with Leigh again - still a Spanish prisoner - he begins the process of making plans to avenge himself.

How closely this hews to Rafael Sabatini's 1915 novel, I cannot say. But it surely makes for a ripping yarn, the sort that I sketched out briefly to two different people, and found their glassy, dubious expression made me immediately follow up with, "but, like, in a good way". It's a bit pokey during the initial intrigue in England, helped not at all by the male cast's tendency to look so similar that it's hard to follow the details of who's doing what to who (when the lumpy, be-stubbled Beery finally showed up, I cheered to see a man's face without a Van Dyke beard and little upturned moustache). And the final 20 minutes are such a frenzy of quick changes and schemes that it feels wildly contrived just from speed, the exact same plot stretch out a bit might have landed better. But on the whole, it's grandly committed melodrama, with a game if hardly legendary cast: Sills hams it up without having the charisma to sell it, in addition to looking somewhat old, as mentioned; Currier leans much too hard on sickening leers, in addition to having a peculiarly unconvincing coat of brownface makeup; Hughes bugs out his eyes a lot. The only standouts are Beery, whose casual, relaxed, satisfied meanness of soul clearly indicates why he'd have a strong career over the next decade and change, and Bennett, whose simple, charming performance undoubtedly benefits from the amount of time she spends next to the straining Sills.

And anyway, the not-so-secret appeal of the thing isn't the human element: it's the extravagant set pieces and the gorgeous, palpably costly sets, creating the best kind of historically romantic atmosphere. The film's goals are not psychological or thematic. It wants to overwhelm you with the sheer quantity of its spectacle, covering two continents and multiple seagoing vessels over a period of years, with costumes and backdrops that are plainly meant to be impressive rather than historically authentic, and are there solely to put us in the mood for heightened adventure, intrigue, and romance. There is, again, no particular artistry to the way this is put together, outside of one single dolly shoot backwards along a boat to emphasise Sir Oliver's authority, skill, and the respect with which he is viewed. Lloyd cared only to make sure that we saw the action with clear sightlines and a functional, direct mix of medium shots and close-ups to make sure we see what the characters feel, so we can feel it to. But when the onscreen action is this involving, putting the camera in front of it is all you really need to do to make a vigorous piece of entertaining nonsense, and by God, The Sea Hawk is every bit as entertaining as it is nonsensical.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1924
-Erich von Stroheim's massive epic Greed is cut to barely more than two hours. The complete version is believed irretrievably lost
-Buster Keaton stars in the ingenious meta-movie Sherlock Jr.
-Victor Sjöström makes his first American films, including the excellent Lon Chaney melodrama He Who Gets Slapped

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1924
-René Clair arrives on the scene in France with the audacious Dadaist short Entr'acte
-Greta Garbo makes her starring debut in the Swedish Saga of Gösta Berling
-F.W. Murnau's exquisite The Last Laugh codifies a new language of camera movement and storytelling with virtually no intertitles

12 April 2014

TARR BÉLA IS THE MAN

Tarr Béla's penultimate film (barring an un-retirement), 2007's The Man from London, is among those movies for which more time is needed: at this writing, nearly seven full years have passed since it prickly, divisive premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival, but that event still hovers over the movie, working in tandem with some of the particular eccentricities of its production to over up, if only as a ghost, the suspicion that it's not a "real" Tarr film. Certainly, if we look at the evolution of movies from Almanac of Fall in 1985 to The Turin Horse in 2011, there is a visceral development across them, from the brink of apocalypse through to apocalypse to the post-apocalypse, and The Man from London does not really belong in this same sweep; it especially does not feel like the next film in a row after Sátántangó and Werckmeister Harmonies, which do very much feel like one another in some key ways. (I am driven to wonder if Tarr's retirement announcement, made prior to The Turin Horse, was in response to The Man from London's conflicted reception: if he resented, on some level, the sense that he'd only be respected as long as he kept making Tarr Béla films, unable to ever evolve or explore. And well he might resent that).

Everything else, though, is parochialism - Tarr and his producers even vocally wondered if the brittle Cannes reception might have been the fault of an audio dub that wasn't quite ready yet. Even in the final version, there's something distracting about seeing French and English words coming out of mouths not speaking French or English; of seeing and hearing art film darling Tilda Swinton using her own voice in French while her lips move in English. But every Tarr film had been dubbed, and several of them had employed actors just as famous in Hungary as Swinton is in the anglosphere. So to use those as reasons to make The Man from London some kind of deficient "other" in the director's career (and I have seen people do this, though thankfully not many) is no kind of intellectual position at all.

And to the last substantive criticism of the film that I've encountered, that it's too much of a "genre story" for Tarr's style - well, that's the fun of it, really. We have here an adaptation of a1934 Belgian crime novel by Georges Simenon, done in an aesthetic that suggests equal parts American film noir from the '50s and German Expressionism from the '20s, both of them filtered through the marathon-length takes and portentous camera movements of Tarr's mature career. He, co-director Hranitzky Ágnes, and cinematographer Fred Kelemen assembled here some potent and emphatically weird visuals that call attention to just how much lingering realism was still hanging onto something like Werckmeister Harmonies: the intensely harsh black-and-white compositions that dominate The Man from London leave its setting, a railyard next to the docks in an unspecified French-speaking city, with the texture of a nightmare or hallucination of a real place where all the proportions and lines are out of order.

The plot, which is baiting the audience as much as doing anything else, is not unlike fellow Cannes '07 competitor No Country for Old Men: one inky black night, a workaday nobody named Maloin (Miroslav Krobot) spots a pair of men having a fight at the edge of the dock beneath his observation room overlooking the railway. One man and his briefcase end up in the dark water as a result of this fight; Maloin wanders down after the survivor has fled, retrieving the briefcase, and finding it stuffed to the brim with British pounds. Telling no-one what he found, he goes about the daily routine of his life, only with a new patina of insanity that confuses and to some degree terrifies his wife, Camélia (Swinton), and their daughter, Henriette (Bók Erika). In the meantime, a man from London, Inspector Morrison (Lénárt István) shows up in town to inquire about the theft of £55,000 from a theater owner named Mitchell, a crime that the victim is content to blame on a former associate named Brown (Derzsi János), who has been slinking around in places that lead us to believe he's probably guilty; only he can't take up Mitchell's surprisingly generous offer to forgive all if the money is returned, what with Maloin having taken the money and all.

All of which sounds like a thing, and it's not the thing that The Man from London is, at all. What it is, really, is a film about observing things from the outside: the film is absolutely rotten with drastically canted angles and scenes that emphasise Maloin watching or listening to things that he has no connection to, and a certain point, the film gets in on the act, making us spectators to a story that hasn't been sufficiently contextualised. The thrilling climax of whatever crime story is going on here takes place as we stare at a closed door for at least a couple of minutes, hearing nothing but the drone of the wind; the biggest emotional impact of anything in the movie is a shot of Brown's wife (Szirtes Ági) looking distressed, an image we see twice, without learning anything else about her; in fact, unless my memory is completely off, these two long takes are literally the only times we get to spend any time with her. We see and process her emotions, but they are taking place entirely within her, unable to reach us.

It is a film, then, about disconnection: about being aware that there are people living lives and having feelings and committing crimes and dying, and being even more aware that all this has nothing to do with you at all. Perhaps the suffocating noir visuals of the docks and railyard are meant to express precisely that: not just other people, but the entire world acting in a hostile, alien, unknowable way. The film's opening shot is an exhaustively long (12 minutes!), glacially slow tracking shot up and across the prow of a ship, focused so intently on the surface of the thing that it's actual meaning and shape get lost, and this is the most stable, unexotic object imaginable in this film's world. The idea, as I take it, is that the longer and closer you focus on something, the more unreal and unrecognisable it becomes, like saying a word over and over until it becomes gibberish.

All this results in a film more icy and alien than anything else Tarr and his collaborators (the usual suspects: Vig Mihály compsed the score, Krasznahorkai László co-wrote the script with Tarr, Hranitzky edited and contributed to the production design), a deliberate anti-narrative about deliberate anti-characters, with only poor Camélia coming across as someone with any inner life at all, and then only because Maloin is so profoundly unable to comprehend it. Combined with the generally static energy of the protagonist, the film is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing to watch in the director's largely unfriendly career; and this, also, maybe contributed to its mixed reception out of the gate. It presents a horrifyingly arbitrary world where every choice by every character is apparently a disastrous one, but they're all so modulated, all so clearly happening to someone else, that it's hard to feel much moved by them. This, then, is the film's horror: it reflects a world of alienation so complete that even we in the audience can't see past it. It's a hard and cruel film, the moral universe of classic noir taken to its absolute extreme, and a gripping experience for anybody already onboard Tarr's wavelength, though I think it would be an especially grueling first exposure.

11 April 2014

OH CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN

For a solid 20, even 30 minutes, I was quite convinced that Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn't just the best movie in the now nine-film mega-franchise called, for want of something more attractive, the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I was quite convinced it was the best comics-related work of cinema since The Dark Knight in 2008, irrespective of genre. That this turned out not to be the case has a lot to do with the problem faced by pretty much every Marvel film to date: having built up the story, the characters, and the tone for two-thirds of the thing, there comes a point where the filmmakers conclude that the best way to solve things is by throwing a whole bunch of CGI fight sequences at it and turning the sound mix up to eleven (The Winter Soldier has three major action setpieces; the one that climaxes the movie is the longest and by a considerable margin the worst).

Still there's a lot of good in it, and at it's best, it's still a real highlight of a massively over-stuffed series that I, for one, have been increasingly bored with. No doubt that it's belongs in the very top tier of these things, boasting what amounts to a fairly humane and recognisable level of dramatic stakes (an increasingly controlling surveillance state vs. the magical evil wormhole in the gaseous Thor: The Dark World), and character moments that feel blissfully normal. So much credit for that goes to the surprisingly low-key and engaging everyman persona taken on by Chris Evans, whose blossoming as Steve Rogers, titular captain and 1940s super-soldier out of time, has been quite a lovely thing to watch between Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, and this. So obviously he'd be the most vocal in discussing how hemmed in he feels by the movies and how much he wants to give up acting when it's all don. Thus does the Hollywood machine treat its best and brightest.

Anyway, the film opens strong - intensely strong, really, with the best scene in any Marvel film since the "Star-Spangled Man" montage in The First Avenger, which obviously doesn't count. It's a military sting operation set on a boat, with agents Rogers and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. looking to rescue several of their own from a terrorist/pirate team led by one Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre, a UFC personality obviously cast for his physical skills rather than his charisma of an actor). It's maddeningly taut, and an immediate demonstration that directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo learned quite a lot more about making a thriller from their work in television comedy than seems like should be remotely possible. The pacing is quick, expressed in a series of gratifyingly long shots that let the visuals do most of the work instead of the chop-socky editing that so much of modern action cinema has come to rely on in lieu of remotely interesting choreography or physical prowess - there's a wide shot from outside the plane, watching Rogers run through little vignettes broken up by the windows and open causeways of the ship, a whole series of mini-movies in one take, that is as creative and well-conceived an image as any mainstream American action film has boasted in ages. The writing is nearly as crisp as the directing, with tossed-off bantering dialogue given to Evans and Johansson that both of them ace, none of it so fussy as the arch Joss Whedon writing that sometimes announces itself too openly in The Avengers, and much of it doing a sterling job of setting the scene for anybody who somehow managed to stumble into this film without having seen any of its predecessors, without getting in the way of the many, many people who have.

It also, admittedly, sets a bar that The Winter Soldier never hits or even comes close to, though plenty of the first hour is delightful and much of the second hour is at least satisfactory on the level of "big shiny go boom". Once the opening sequence wraps up (in the best tradition, it has a kind of vague MacGuffin-driven relationship to the rest of the plot, but could pretty easily be snipped out without doing a hint of damage to the overall structure. From here it turns into a convoluted mixture of secret societies and overreaching government-sponsored surveillance program, with good ol' Captain America, brought up in the very different moral universe of the '30s and the war years, horrified to discover what sort of shenanigans S.H.I.E.L.D., even in the apparently benign guise of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is up to in the name of "protection".

To listen to just about everyone involved in the production talk about it, this is a tribute to the grand old paranoia thrillers of the '70s, though this only really suggests that none of them watched any of those movies; even the presence of Robert Redford, the Condor himself, as one of several people with shadowy motives and behaviors, isn't really enough to put over the same feeling of overwhelming dread and confusion that those movies breathed like oxygen. Certainly, the film's muddled politics have nothing like the screaming urgency of any top-tier political thriller (the message boils down to "total authoritarian power is bad, unless good people are using it, then it's good", and the filmmakers seem uniformly unaware of this), though it's surprising and, frankly, hugely appealing to have any major Hollywood film with an eye on international markets being as open in its mistrust of the U.S. surveillance state, no matter how hard it works to shift the moral culpability for that state onto fantasy antagonists.

Anyway, the plot is a bit holey and increasingly contrived, with enough plates spinning that even the titular Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan, callow and not remotely up to the part, but that casting choice was already made for the movie) is relegated to something like a C-plot until the very end. But it's enjoyably energetic even so, giving its central protagonists, Rogers and Romanoff, plenty of time to play detective more than punch and kick, and to engage in the best kind of platonic flirting. Evans is in top form throughout - it's easily the best performance I've ever seen him give in any context - while Johansson starts to flatline in a monontone sarcasm that's too obviously straining to be badass for it to take, but they still have playful chemistry to spare, and it makes the middle of the film an exquisite mix of thriller and character dramedy. There's a stellar car chase along the way (to all appearances, one done with largely practical effects), with enough twists and cutaway scenes that despite being the longest Marvel movie outside of The Avengers, it moves faster than just about any of them; the Russos keep the actors jogging along while cinematographer Trent Opaloch shoots everything in a glossy palette based in greys that gives the film a sleek look that isn't quite the blandly uniform Marvel house style on everything they've done since forever.

And then at a certain point the ending does have to happen, and well. There's a difference between a fleet, nervy thriller, and a big old heaving CGI action movie, and The Winter Soldier has a rough time navigating the difference between the two; there's a certain very specific scene (a fight in an elevator) where the editing goes to hell and never recovers, at least never in the action sequences, and the nimble action of the main body of the film is overwhelmed in an overlong finale that cross-cuts between multiple stages of action in a manner that at least leaves the geography of each of those places reasonably coherent, but renders the action within each of them so much generic tentpole action boilerplate, down to the exact beats of how Rogers climbs up the metal thing, then falls down, then the bad guy is there, then so on and so forth. For a movie content to explore generic territory totally new to superhero cinema, the ending surely does feel painfully overfamiliar, and it goes on forever. Or 15 minutes, maybe, but they are the film's lumpiest 15 minutes.

A rocky, bland, noisome ending isn't enough to scuttle a movie, though it does leave The Winter Soldier feeling a bit samey and factory-produced, a fate that most of it is too good to deserve. And as slick, soulless action goes, it's better than average, not that it's a terribly good average. Still, the whole thing feels, in the aggregate, like an unwanted victory for the forces of corporatism: there is, or there seems to be, a great film that could have been made by the same people and much of the same raw material as The Winter Soldier, but commercial forces obliged it to instead be just pretty good. Which is still pretty good, but it's a little frustrating to have such a vivid proof of the film culture we have to live with nowadays.

7/10

09 April 2014

IT NEVER RAIDS, BUT IT POURS

The production backstory of The Raid 2: Berandal (the subtitle, which translates as "tough guy", "thug", or something like that, is present only in ad material and not onscreen, at least not in the U.S. release) is surprisingly useful in hacking through what the thing is, and why it feels a little... but we'll get there.

See, Gareth Evans, Indonesia's favorite Welsh-born filmmaker, had an idea for a mighty crime epic, Berandal, that he was shopping around some years ago. It was such a sprawling film, with such complicated and daunting action scenes built around the skills of martial artist Iko Uwais, that he couldn't get anyone to bite on financing it, and in order to prove his ability to make an action movie that could draw a crowd and showcase the monumentally busy fights that he and Uwais had dreamed up, he made a much simpler, more contained movie that he could get financed. This was The Raid, released in Indonesia in 2011, and boy, did it ever prove Evans's talent: it is a masterpiece of genre cinema, the best action movie in years - probably the 21st Century, maybe since John Woo first left Hong Kong.

And that cleared the path for Berandal, with a twist: now the thing was to be retrofitted into serving as a sequel to The Raid, which itself raises certain expectations, and so two films that were not meant to be related are, and that makes it awfully tempting to compare the two of them, which isn't much good for anybody. The Raid and The Raid 2 are different movies that intend to do different things; both of them do the things they intend to do extraordinarily well. I will flatly state that the things The Raid does appeal to more than its ad hoc sequel. There is a profound simplicity to The Raid; it is a film of virtually no plot nor characters that exists solely to watch human bodies in motion, under astonishing control by their owners, enacting movements that are virtually impossible to imagine, let alone perform. It's ballet, basically; violent, blood-splattered ballet, but the appeal is mostly the same in either case.

The Raid 2 is surely not ballet, and were we going to spend the whole time poking at the things it does which The Raid does not do, and which the sequel suffers for, the first thing we'd arrive at is the sheer volume of plot: The Raid 2 does spend an awful lot of time exploring things that are not Uwais flying around and punching, stabbing, and shooting bad guys. And either in comparison with its predecessor or solely in reference to itself, this material is not terribly compelling cinema, given that Uwais, though he is fabulous when it comes to punching, stabbing, and shooting, really isn't the best at reciting dialogue, having facial expressions, or implying his character's range of emotions. And given, too, that the big sprawling epic crime drama that underlies the whole film feels pretty paint-by-numbers: there are two gangs that have been in static peace for years! But the son of one of the head gangsters is itchy to prove himself by beating the other gang! And our favorite supercop Rama (Uwais) is undercover to witness it all! Truly, some of the story beats are communicated with a certain heightened energy, and the performances by Tio Pakusodewo and Arfin Putra as the father and son leading the native Indonesian gang (the other gang is Japanese) give a kind of tragic dimension to the family drama hiding just inside the material. But for the most part, there are the scenes in The Raid 2 that are telling the story through words and characters, and scenes that tell the story through fighting and death, and the latter scenes seem to get just about everyone involved excited far more.

For oh! how very impressive the fight scenes are. The breakdown goes like this: martial arts choreography by Uwais, Yayan Ruhian (who played Mad Dog in the last film, and the totally unrelated retired killer Prakoso in this film), and Larnell Stovall; car chase choreography by Bruce Law; action choreography by Evans (who also edited the whole shebang). That's a lot of choreographers, but The Raid 2 earns that kind of specialisation: there is complexity in every action setpiece that boggles the mind, with the interplay between cinematography, editing, and human movement readily equaling all the but the very best moments in The Raid, moments where the camera movement alone is so fluid and swift that it barely seems possible that the thing exists (there is one shot in the car chase - the best car chase in ages, by the way - that I could not even come close to solving, until reading online that a camera operator was dressed as the passenger-side seat).

And not just the way the action is designed and framed, but the style surrounding it: there's a scene involving red reflective glass where the action consists of an assassin armed with a bat (Very Try Yulisman) running down the hall, with silver flashes running up and down the wall as his bat is reflected in which the abstract combination of color and line is so beautiful that it would nearly be worth framing. It's not the only scene where Evans and his crew use red in the most inspired ways; the film has a limited color palette but it uses those colors to churn up emotion and energy, keeping even the more sedate and pokey talking scenes clipping along just because of the brightness of the mise en scène.

All of this excellent craftsmanship, beauty, and ingenious choreography is in service, as you may have heard, to one hell of a brutal film. Like all the best martial arts films, The Raid 2 knows better than to be hypocritical and launch into some kind of hand-wringing about how violence this or that, but I will say this for it: the film doesn't go for the "cool" deaths. It is a movie where each and ever blown-apart head, wrenched limb, or splash of blood is there to make you feel it. One does not go through the movie whooping and applauding (or at least, I didn't; the fellows two rows back and a bit to the left would disagree), but gasping and cringing. If Evans and company are best at showing us what the well-trained human body is capable of, they're almost as good at showcasing the fragility of even these apparent supermen - the strongest fighters take a lot of damage, and the choreography shifts throughout the film to reflect that. That, and not the overheated city-spanning drama, is the real emotional core of these movies: a tribute to human strength and mortality alike. The Raid 2 is exciting and rationally nonsensical, but it also has a fleshiness to it in common with the very best action cinema, and that's enough to make it more than just so much well-mounted flash and dazzle.

8/10

08 April 2014

STANLEY KUBRICK: POUR ENCOURAGER LES AUTRES

Typically, Paths of Glory is described as an anti-war movie, but this is accurate only to a degree. It is, certainly, a movie that has fairly intense negative feelings about the act of warfare and what it does to the people fighting in them, with American cinema's first really horrifying depiction of what was once called shell-shock, and a single combat scene that depicts with severest objectivity both the violence and the speed with which lives could be lost in the hideous trench warfare of the First World War. But it is not really a film about those things. It is instead about the bureacratic mechanism of war; the system of hierarchical rankings and designated responsibilities that always make every human death somebody else's fault, no matter where you look. And it is very deeply, intensely, and angrily against this bureaucracy, far more than it has any kind of more generally anti-war perspective. This specific hatred of the buck-passing nature of the war machine leaves the film feeling astonishingly forward-looking; the attitudes it expressed in 1957 feel more akin to the anti-Vietnam protests that were still a decade in the future at that point. Of course, these themes were an inheritance from Humphrey Cobb's 1935 novel, which was thus even more impressively forward-thinking than Stanley Kubrick's film (the script was adapted by Kubrick, Calder Willingham, and Jim Thompson), especially since it adopted yet more of a savage anti-bureaucracy tone, lacking the film's overarching protagonist and thus presenting itself more specifically as a story about a faceless system.

But we are here to talk about one of the early triumphs of Kubrick's directorial career, not a modernest war novel by a veteran that hasn't ever been especially popular. And Paths of Glory, the movie, is heady and punishing stuff of a sort that movies in '57 had never really attempted, and movies since '57 have been awfully scared of attempting. It is a work of harshest cinematic realism when that style was still in its infancy, particularly outside of Europe, and the tangible conflict between the almost documentary-style camera movement, the distinct late-'50s tang to the film stock, the wide gamut of acting styles, and the increasingly ill fit of the scant "Hollywood" scenes within the merciless framework Cobb invented - the conflict between the very modern and the very safely studio-bound, I say, is not merely a matter of a filmmaker pushing against the aesthetic confines of "The System"; in this context, it is an exact match for the content of the story, which tells (as a WWI story almost has to) of the struggle between the rotten old way and a new way that hasn't figured itself out yet.

The plot is brutally straightforward: the 88-minute movie has the kind of urgently bullshit-free approach to storytelling that presents the story as taking place not merely inevitably with with terrifying, thoughtless speed, and in this regard is even more viciously spare than the lean novel. In 1916, the French government badly wants to take a strategic hotspot nicknamed "The Anthill" from Germany. When Gen. Mireau (George Macready) is presented with this strategy by Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), his first response is to bluntly observe that not even a miracle would be enough to break the German stranglehold on this impregnable mass of guns. All smiles and insinuations, Broulard points out that Mireau's exceptional career momentum would come to an ice-cold stop if he doesn't take the fort, dangles the promise of a medal in front of the other man, and in no time at all the order comes down that the 701st Regiment, under the command of Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas, whose production company paid for the movie), is to take the Anthill the very next day. Dax feebly points out that this is ridiculous, but gets shouted down; when his men suffer agonising casualties along the way to advancing the front literally not one yard closer to the Anthill, Mireau goes into a tizzy and, with Broulard, whips up a scheme of having three soldiers executed for cowardice, the assumption being that dying for no reason would at least look better on paper than retreating when it became clear that the attack was hopeless.

As a narrative, it's a bleak, cynical depiction of men in power playing games with the lives of those beneath them, constantly attempting to make sure that they'll get all the credit for winning and none of the blame for losing. This is the obvious, straightforward bit. Where Paths of Glory shades into genius, and continues to demonstrate Kubrick's supreme command of the art form the year after The Killing showcased his talents, is in the ways that the very straightforward story (which is, anyway, a bit better in its expression in Cobb's novel, which lacks even the minute traces of sentiment in Kubrick's film) is shaded by the use of camera and even more by the use of performance. Already, there were enough truly brilliant turns in The Killing to demonstrate the young director's facility with actors, and I think that even now that he's an acknowledge, unmovable member of the pantheon, Kubrick's brilliance as a director of actors is not sufficiently acknowledged. But Paths of Glory is something different than just having good performers deliver lines well. One of the things that the director would get awfully good at in his mature period was the deliberate employment of "anti-acting"; by which I mean, he'd often encourage deliberately poor performances from his cast to get at very specific effects in the movie.

That's something we see the first flickers of in Paths of Glory: not that Macready or Menjou are giving particularly "bad" performances - Menjou, in particular, has some awe-inspiring layers of duplicity in his final scene. But there's an Old Hollywood tang to both of their performances (Menjou was about as definitively Old Hollywood as you were going to get in 1957), a certain stagey declamatory style of presenting themselves and speaking their words. The three men picked for the firing squad - Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker), Pvt. Arnaud (Joseph Turkel), and Pvt. Ferol (Timothy Carey) - are united in having a shuffling, hyper-realist way of bearing themselves (Carey being a hell of a lot less realist than the others), and a certain flat New Yorker's way of talking that marks them out as occupying, in feeling if not in reality, the same space as the experiments with Method acting and the everyday dramatic situations taking hold of serious theater in the '50s (indeed, almost all of the grunts have a distinct touch of New York about them, a simpler and subtler version of the accents game Kubrick played so obviously in his next film). In between them is Kirk Douglas, an old-school actor with a passion for the new, trying to modulate the mumbly naturalism of the soldiers and the bombastic acting of the generals.

Macready, in particular, needs a little more attention paid to him, because his acting choices shift very dramatically after his first scene, the only one where Mireau evidences any kind of spine for any length of time. There, he simply recites his lines crisply and warmly. Later on, he's rolling vowels around and waving the timber of his voice like an out-of-control melodrama actor, and this is not merely to mark him out as the Bad Guy. Not even primarily. It's a rather clever way to insinuate the hollow, performative element within the character, the fake exterior of jovial authority surrounding the complete blank of personality that the story identifies as being the the driving force of warfare: decisions being made not by people, but by the whole mashed-up edifice of the military, with the notion of "this is how generals act" dictating what generals do rather than whatever it is that the individual generals themselves are capable of thinking and expressing.

But, we should never forget, Kubrick was always the photojournalist who became a movie director, and if Paths of Glory doesn't have any visual gestures quite as striking as the cinematography in Killer's Kiss or The Killing, he and George Krause still did some excellent work in capturing the action in the field of battle and the desperate courtroom scenes that take up a considerably larger portion of screentime. That said, the best visuals are the war scenes: the eerily fluid tracking shots through the trenches, soaking in the weary, beaten-down men on all sides, turning the setting of the most brutal and horribly static of all wars into a prison of geometry: straight lines, at crisp angles, leaving the men within their bounds looking helpless and messy. Or the depiction of the Anthill as a teeming mass of humanity shooting and dying, literalising the name of the place a bit too much on the nose, maybe (it's worth pointing out, the movie's script changed the name of the hill from the Pimple in the book), but such an excellent series of busy, chaos-filled images set at the intense God's-eye remove of later Kubrick that they work, anyway.

It is a chilly movie: everything looks just the slightest bit washed-out foggy without being actually soft, and even before death happens on the battlefield or in the firing squad, it's a movie that reeks of death. To combat this, the film does indulge in a bit of sentiment, near the end; an unusual gesture in Kubrick's filmography (it is, I believe, the only one of his films that is more humanistic than its source). The film adds two key scenes, one a confrontation between Dax and Mireau that turns into a confrontation between Dax and Broulard that at least implies that some of the people who made bad decisions might be held accountable for them; it's a bit tidy and conventional, but Menjou's smug performance turns any sense of righteousness to ash. The more important addition, and the better scene, is the famous finale that witnesses several French soldiers bellowing abuse at the film's lone woman, a nameless German prisoner (Susanne Christian, the stage name of Christiane Harlan, who would marry Kubrick the following year) forced to sing the folk song "The Faithful Hussar", in the process turning the animalistic horde of soldiers into a silent, tearful mass of abashed people, suddenly realising that people are people regardless of language and nation.

Write it down, and it looks hokey as hell. But the way Kubrick and Krause and editor Eva Kroll framed it in virtually nothing but shots of faces does something magical with that trite, overly-moralistic concept. The shots of the French soldiers in a masse of shouting activity are dark and dirty; the shots of the woman are clean and bright in contrast, and as the soldiers quiet down, they're increasingly shown in individual close-ups, people emerging from the savage crowd. It is an astoundingly hopeful moment, presented so vividly through the contrast between images that it works on a level that bypasses narrative entirely. There's still a final beat that slams the door on this moment - war will continue - but there is a genuine optimism here that stands out from every other mordant, bleak beat in the director's career, and is genuinely earned despite its position in a film that otherwise argues so persuasively and directly that people, deep down, are kind of awful. That's not the feeling we're left with, though, and Paths of Glory is all the better for it.