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01 July 2015

HAVANA GOOD TIME

A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

No film shamelessly advertised with the tagline "Part Heaven... Part Hell... Pure Havana" can possibly be all good. To be fair to 1979's Cuba, though, it's nobody's fault but the marketing department's that they heard "Sean Connery plays a British government agent..." and immediately tired to figure out how to sell this cool and slow-moving anti-romantic anti-thriller as a distaff James Bond picture. But it's unlikely that it would have been possible to sell it as the thing it actually was. Not because Cuba is uninteresting - exactly the opposite. But its interest is in part because of how thoroughly unusual it is, to the point that it sometimes breaks the movie. It is none of the things that it seems like it should be, and while that's great for its personality, it's a bit thorny for it as a movie for people to watch.

The setting is Cuba, in the weeks and days immediately preceding the revolution on 1 January, 1959 (the film has the misfortune to commit its most profound error as its first narrative gesture after the opening credit sequence: onscreen text sets the action in 1959, when virtually all of it happens in December, 1958. It's a shockingly obvious mistake that makes it hard to take anything that follows entirely seriously). Connery's distinctly non-Bondian character is Robert Dapes, a miltary officer turned mercenary, who arrives in the politically tense Havana on the invitation of Batista's government in the form of General Bello (Martin Balsam), to offer advice and support in suppressing the Communist rebellion of Fidel Castro. While there, he encounters Alexandra Lopez de Pulido (Brooke Adams), an ex-lover who has returned home to marry a wealthy plantation owner, Juan (Chris Sarandon). While in the country, Robert finds that the exploitative business classes picking at Cuba's bones are cruel enough that it's not worth using his time to help prop the old regime up, while the Communist guerrillas are too indiscriminate in their radical violence to support them. Which leaves only "stay alive long enough to get the hell out and take Alexandra with" as far as plans go.

That is, mind you, the summary version of the script by Charles Wood. The actual film has far less direction, spending a good half of its running time looking around pre-revolutionary Cuba, frequently not even using the fig leaf of Robert's presence. At times, it's barely a narrative at all, and when it is, it's a deliberately unsatisfying one, subverting the expectations of both of its main plotlines: the politically shiftless mercenary who discovers the human element of the system he's cynically inhabiting, and the open Casablanca riffing (like, really, really open) inherent to ex-lovers reuniting against a politically-charged backdrop. It's an unconventional approach to what could easily be yet another in the endless line of movies about doomed love during historical flashpoints - the approach taken in this very same setting by 1990's Havana - and the film deserves plenty of credit for its bravery.

The question, then, is whether it deserves points for its execution, and on this point I am quite undecided. It's not exactly right to say that the film's "problem" is that it was directed by Richard Lester - in fact, Lester originated the project, so the alternative to a Lester Cuba is no Cuba at all. There's no way around it, though: he's a weird fit for the material. All of the director's best-known and most significant projects - the Beatles vehicle A Hard Day's Night, Palme d'Or winner The Knack... and How to Get It, the Salkind-produced megaproduction of The Three Musketeers - are united by a goofy, kinetic sensibility, one that oozes an unspoken "holy crap you guys we're making a mooooooveeeeeee" glee, entirely about having a whole lot of broad fun even when the films in question aren't comedies (though he tends to blur "comedy" and "not-comedy" - this is the man who was assigned the scraps of Richard Donner's Superman II and figured out how to turn them into the first superhero farce). The only one of his films besides Cuba that I've seen without any meaningfully protracted comic energy is Robin and Marian from 1976, his other collaboration with Connery, and that is, when all is said and done, a Robin Hood movie.

The skill set that Lester had developed over his years as a filmmaker were, then, not by any means a natural fit for a serious drama about a real-life political event whose ramifications were still piping hot twenty years after the fact. I do not say this to beat up on Cuba, merely to point out what a peculiar beast it is, combining gorgeous Spanish locations, impressively sober and dirty cinematography by David Watkin, and meandering incidents that are more interested in the day-to-day lifestyle of the characters than the historical moment about to overwhelm them, all under the stewardship of a director who has to constantly fight his instincts. Eventually, he loses: one of the most unpredictable elements of this surprisingly unpredictable movie is that the final act turns, rather abruptly, into an action-heavy tank battle. It's staggeringly unacceptable at the level of both plot and tone; imagine Casablanca tossing in Saving Private Ryan's finale before it returned to the airport finale, and you have approximately the cinematic aneurysm that Cuba transforms into. But it's still not played for laughs.

Conceding all of that, the lumpy, internally confused Cuba that we have is rather more aggressively magnetic and compelling than a more streamlined Cuba by a more superficially appropriate director. I mean, we have Havana right there, and Havana is dullness on toast. Before its diversion to the tank finale, Wood's script is strong at the level of thoughtful observation, laterally comparing several elements of Cuban government and culture to try and paint a full picture of everything good and bad about both the pro-Batista and pro-Castro elements of life on that island in 1958. That it fails to plug these ingredients into a clean narrative structure isn't beside the point: it is the point, much as the repeated failure of Connery to ignite as the daring, competent man of action we expect him to be (until, again, that damn tank) is the point. It is a film about how the smart outside observer, virile and capable, is sometimes exactly the wrong solution to a problem, whether that problem is with the fate of nations or the life of a woman trapped in a hurtful marriage of economic convenience. With a stronger actress in Adams's place (ideally one who was actually of Latin American descent), the film could have presented quite a strong anti-romantic thread to go along with its anti-Bondian portrait of the British warrior as hapless victim of historical undercurrents.

As it is, it's more theoretically interesting than actually interesting, but it's still bracing to see something puncture its genre so fearlessly, especially one whose aesthetic is, generally speaking, so in line with conventional crowd-pleasing instincts. It's about worthy of the re-evaluation called for by Steven Soderbergh (a longtime devotee of Lester and director of his very own picture about the Cuban revolution): as a deeply flawed movie whose historical inquiry and willingness to complicate the genre it appears to inhabit make it much more valuable than its original reception was willing to admit.

30 June 2015

JULY 2015 MOVIE PREVIEW

Two months into summer, two great films, and one awe-inspiring record-setting mediocrity. The season's second, generally small half begins now, and on paper at least, it looks promising. At least, for myself, there are more films I'm looking forward to in July than there were at the start of either May or June. There's always room for a surprise - or a disappointment, of course - but I confess myself feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.


1.7.2015

And here come two sequels to crap all over that optimism, though Magic Mike XXL certainly would seem to have more on its side: it's a phantom Steven Soderbergh movie directed by his longtime first AD Gregory Jacobs, but shot and edited by Soderbergh himself. And also a sequel to a movie with no obvious reason to possess a sequel, and I suspect less of the surprising depths of character and sociology. And, most critically, no Matthew McConaughey. Its competition is Terminator Genisys, the third sequel to a pair of films with even less obvious reason to possess any, and the consensus of critical opinion seems to be that it's every bit as bad as it has any cause to be. I must say, I'm looking forward to getting drunk over the holiday weekend and heckling it, if nothing else.


10.7.2015

The question we're clearly being expected to ask: why not a film centered on the gibberish-spouting sidekicks from the Despicable Me franchise? Hence Minions, which is surely going to end up outgrossing Inside Out, because there is nothing good.

In the runner-up columns, we find the latest first-person horror picture to crap its way into the world, The Gallows (apparently about a theatrical play that kills), and Self/Less, a thoroughly generic-looking sci-fi thriller with Ryan Reynolds. But it's also directed by Tarsem Singh, and there will never come a day when I'm not excited for a new film by Tarsem Singh.


17.7.2015

So, The Look of Silence is the best film of 2015. See it when and if you can, even if you haven't gotten to its companion piece The Act of Killing yet.

Otherwise, we find Marvel's latest, the thoroughly Marvel-looking Ant-Man, and the comedy Trainwreck, which finds the wonderful Amy Schumer writing and starring under director Judd Apatow, and that holds my attention right up until the 125-minute running time, because dammit Apatow. But I still think it's probably going to be as good as any other comedy this summer.


24.7.2015

Make Pixels with the same hook - aliens send giant versions of '80s arcade game characters to destroy Earth - and absolutely any other cast than Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and Josh Gad, and you capture my interest. But that's not the one they made.

Also, you can tell summer is running out of juice when a barbarically narcissistic-seeming teen movie, Paper Towns, and the Jake Gyllenhaal boxing drama Southpaw both get wide releases at the same time.


29.7.2015

So they're reviving the Vacation franchise, because of course it would get to this point. Still, if '80s nostalgia properties have to be exhumed, they're doing it with ones that had a solid foundation in the first place.


31.7.2015

Hopefully, now that the Mission: Impossible series has finally figured itself out - back in 2011, with Ghost Protocol - they can keep making them, even without Brad Bird involved. So I am conditionally and tentatively looking forward to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, though there are plenty of reasons for the fifth film in an action franchise to go spectacularly wrong. But the plane stunt looks cool, anyway.

SUMMER OF BLOOD: HORROR GETS MEAN - THEY'RE DEAD, THEY'RE ALL MESSED UP

As an inveterate lover of making grand historical movements out of molehills, it pleases me to know end that it's possible to pinpoint the exact year that American genre films switched from the classical to the modern age: 1968. In that year, both science fiction and horror made an immense, revolutionary leap forward, with a pair each of movies that made it simply impossible to take seriously the genre as it had developed to that point. Science fiction witnessed the radical visual effects and thematic density of 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the philosophically serious treatment of seemingly frivolous subject matter in Planet of the Apes (which for good measure also boasts one of cinema's all-time most audacious original musical scores). Horror, which we're here to discuss now, had the very grown up, emotionally and psychologically grounded urban realism of Rosemary's Baby, which we'll be looking at elsewhere. Right now, we're just here to talk about neophyte director George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, co-written with John A. Russo, the movie that pioneered the most stomach-churning decency-violating taboo-busting violence that English-speaking filmgoers had ever seen. And if there exists, prior to 1968, any film in all the world with anything like the pure visceral grotesqueness of NotLD, I have absolutely not seen nor heard of it.

The film did not, to be clear, invent the notion of harder-than-usual violence as a selling point. As long as Britain's Hammer Film had been in existence, one of its biggest calling cards was a level of gruesome content beyond anything the quivering Yanks were likely to produce, and five years before Romero and company hit the scene, Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast was sold on the promise of literally nothing but the bloodiness of its death scenes, and is usually cited as the first movie to so centrally fixate on depicting gore. But Night of the Living Dead is in a different league from those: indeed, the new wave of violent horror that it kicked off served in no small part to kill of Hammer, which went from looking like the nastiest, savviest stuff you could ever scrounge up to being utterly square and safe almost in the blink of an eye. NotLD had the good fortune to come out in the exact year that the old Production Code was scrapped in favor of the vastly more permissive MPAA ratings system, which explains most of it, honestly. Some film was going to fill this spot in the movie ecosystem.

But NotLD isn't just "some" film. Romero didn't merely use his new freedom to shock with unimagined levels of blood and call that a good day's work, as Lewis undoubtedly would have in the same position. As would quickly become his wont, the director was hellbent on using his movie to carve open the guts of American culture, using violence and even the horror genre itself as a tool rather than an end. That's by far the most upsetting, vicious element of the film, even if its initial reception was hung up (fairly) on its explicitness. Decades later, the most violent moment in the whole movie, an orgy of cannibalism in which the innards of two victims burning to death in a truck are paraded around by a small army of zombies, looks modest and quaint, the kind of thing that would pass uncut on a basic cable network. It might actually be the least effective part of the movie to modern eyes, for while we've lapped the effects work several times over, virtually everything else about it remains not just fresh and mostly untouched by copycats, but in some ways acutely dangerous. This is a movie that knows what the rules are, and it breaks every one it can; it has an astonishing capacity, otherwise unknown to me in horror of this age, to seriously fuck with your head.

Should it be the case that you do not know the plot of this most iconic and necessary of horror milestones, let me give you the rundown: siblings Barbra (Judith O'Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) have driven hours into the Pennsylvania countryside to leave a cross of flowers on their father's grave at their bedridden mother's request. Enjoying the chance to taunt his easily-spooked sister, Johnny points to an oddly shuffling man (Bill Hinzmen) and jokingly suggests that he's coming to kill them. The joke's on Johnny: that's exactly what the man is up to, and Johnny ends up with a broken neck while Barbra flees to a farmhouse some ways distant. Her explorations lead her to a gruesomely stripped corpse, and she effectively blacks out from that point forward, but the movie is taken over by several other survivors. First comes Ben (Duane Jones), hoping to find gasoline for his truck, who secures the building from the suddenly numerous armies of unspeaking violent humans; and then it turns out that five others have already taken refuge in the cellar: young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judity Ridley), and the Cooper family, blowhard Harry (Karl Hardman), his plainly resentful wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman), and their badly sick daughter Karen (Kyra Schon). The seven prepare to dig in and try to survive the night, but a power struggle almost immediately begins between Ben, who wants to stay upstairs and defend the home, and Harry, who wants to bar everyone in the cellar and hope that the authorities come along soon. Of course, the authorities are a bit busy right now: as the characters learn when they turn on the TV and radio, the eastern third of the United States has been overrun by a plague of recently-deceased bodies reviving as man-eating ghouls, and other than some vague notion about space radiation, nobody has a clue why.

The key element of Romero's ...of the Dead films (there have been six) is already fully-formed in this first outing: when presented with a stressful and deadly situation that can be fairly easily survived through clear thinking and cooperation, human beings will much prefer to fall into in-fighting and mutual distrust, and thereby fall prey to an enemy that, rationally, doesn't have much going for it. The reanimated corpses are slow, clumsy, and despite some rudimentary ability to use tools and solve basic problems, not apparently very bright. The reason for the deaths that occur in that farmhouse are, each and every one, because Ben and Harry can't compromise.

As is the most spectacularly unoriginal observation I could possibly make, Night of the Living Dead serves as a parable of 1960s America, on at least two fronts. The one that smacks you alongside the head and then asks why your face has a handprint on it is the perilous state of race relations in the winding down days of the civil rights movement: Duane Jones was the first African-American protagonist of a horror movie in the States. Romero has consistently, to my knowledge, denied that he did this on purpose, and he only cast Jones because he was the best actor to audition for the part. Which is plausible on the grounds that Jones is far and away the best actor in the completed movie. But it is beyond plausibility that a filmmaker casting a role in 1967 in the United States would put an African-American actor in a leading role - especially this leading role - and have not a single thought cross his mind that there might potentially be some kind of socio-political reading applied to it. The film never blinks on it, mind you: while the driving force of the whole deal is the increasingly enraged hatred Harry feels towards Ben, there's not one line of dialogue nor even the slightest gesture in Hardman's performance that suggests racism is behind any of it. Still, symbolism will elbow its way in no matter what, and the sight of a schlubby, slumped-over, sweaty white guy spitting invective and bristling as a black guy tells him what to do absolutely suggests certain things in a 1968 context (and, I am very sorry to say, in a 2015 context) that are impossible to overlook. Much as the film's punishingly bleak final moments don't inherently rely on race for the narrative to make perfect sense, but SPOILERS IF YOU ACTUALLY DON'T KNOW HOW THIS ENDS roving gangs of white cops shooting at barely-seen minorities without stopping to wonder if they deserve to be murdered or not can't avoid connoting things that are angry and ugly about the way society works (and, I am outrageously sorry to say, possibly more so in 2015 than in 1968).

But the bigger thing that's going on, undoubtedly, is that this story about people ending up in an unsolvable situation and dying for no good reason, but doing an awesome job of blaming each other for their predicament is a curdled, cynical parable for the Vietnam era. As a billion people have already pointed out before me, NotLD paints a profoundly hopeless picture of smart people getting out of quagmires for one particular reason, and it not only gives the film more thematic heft, it works tremendously well to its benefit as a horror movie. Simply put, everything we know about storytelling, and everything we know about unpacking visuals in narrative cinema, tells us that Ben is the hero and he knows what to do, and Harry is a selfish, cowardly asshole whose bullying attitude puts him securely in the wrong. Jones's performance is steady and full of varied, vibrant emotions (the determined way he recites his backstory is beautiful, making it clear that he's trying to put an upbeat vibe into the room or at least distract himself), while Hardman spouts lines in a petulant whine; Hardman is lit and framed to look like a bipedal tower of flop sweat. And yet Ben's plan kills everybody. Follow the rules, be sensible, and use calm logic, the film indicates, and you're just going to make everything worse. As a viewer watching a genre film, that callous violation of the basic contract we make with every movie is acutely upsetting, a daring perversity that almost a half century later has only rarely been matched; as a commentary on the nature of humanity, it is pessimistic unto nihilism, but don't look to me for the argument that it doesn't fit the facts of the world of '67 and'68 pretty neatly.

Strictly as a movie, and not as a cutting political statement, NotLD makes quite a nasty habit of breaking trust with our expectations, and if that leads to some moments which are hard to take here in the 2010s, I can't even guess what it must have been like to experience them in '68. The film lets us know right away that it plans to insult conventional decency: the very first thing we encounter is Johnny bitching about having to decorate a grave, a pointless act of empty symbolism. It's a moment that echoes on the far side of a film with a TV talking head mercilessly declaring that the time for romanticising death is over: if a loved one dies, you had damned well better desecrate their corpse on the spot and make absolutely certain they don't come back to eat you, and bullshit funerary customs are now an unavailable luxury. And there's the other echo, in a moment that has lost not an ounce of its power to devastate, when the most essential family tie of mother and child is corrupted and perverted in a scene that should be ridiculously over-emphasised, with sound editing that goes so far overboard in exaggerating the horror of the moment that it's dissociative with anything happening onscreen. And yet no matter what mood I'm in or how many times I see the movie, that's the scene where it feels like Romero and Russo are playing with actual fire, and I'm seeing something so cruelly transgressive that it flattens me every single time.

Even in its more conventional aspects - and there are not many of those - the film is a superlative piece of construction. The hook is simplicity itself: pare away the new conception of the mindless undead as a biological plague (a notion Romero confesses to having lifted intact from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend) and cannibal holocaust, and this is a straightforward "stressed out cast trapped in small location tries to survive through the night" chamber piece. Though fairness requires me to admit that it's a story model that didn't really exist before this, not in such a purified state. But withing that limited framework, Romero and crew do a fantastic job of manipulating tension in the simplest ways. The more that we're meant to be frazzled and unnerved, the more acute the angle of the camera, either on its side or tilting up and down; and while this is going on, the compositions become tighter and more cluttered. It's inelegant, but it's not really trying to be anything else. And while the use of stock music is to be bemoaned as the necessary evil of a bargain-basement production (the only sign of it, in fact; this is a master class in making a hell of a lot from good implication, repressive camera angles, and a whole lot of game extras working for a couple of nights), the use of music, if not always the specific notes melodies at every moment, is nicely timed to throw us back and forth like a rag doll.

The film is a superlative machine for making you feel ragged, terrified, and bewildered by the essential hopelessness of the universe, but it does ultimately have a distinct mechanical feel in a lot of ways, I admit this. A huge reason for this is that out of seven characters, only Ben and Harry are in any way interesting (Romero's screenplay for the 1990 remake attempted to make Barbra a stronger character than the shell-shocked babbler she is here, which is at least one thing to appreciate about that film), and Jones gives the only performance of any real meat - which isn't a flaw necessarily, Hardman being one-night and inorganic contributes to our inability to connect with Harry and the film gets a lot of mileage from that. Still, an engaging story of humans it ain't, even though it's quite the fable of humankind.

There are also inevitable shortcomings that come with the minute scale of the shoot: small but distinct continuity errors (the newscast, for example, shows an interview in broad daylight that, by the film's internal continuity, had to have taken place after dark), takes that feel like the actor lost focus for a second and found it again, some obvious Foley work. But whatever Night of the Living Dead gets somewhat wrong is negligible in the face of how much it gets right: inventing a new kind of horror movie and a new kind of monster - though Romero never uses the word "zombie" and probably wasn't even in those terms, the film's success buried the old White Zombie-style zombie picture beyond recovery, and even a transitional effort like the 1966 Hammer production The Plague of the Zombies looks woefully old-fashioned in comparison. It is a bleak movie to usher in a bleak decade, cinema's all-time most embittered period in horror and mainstream cinema alike; it is one of the handful of truly transformational individual films in the medium's history, and a gripping, intense viewing experience on top of it. This is as vital of a viewing experience as horror offers.

Body Count: 8, defined solely as those characters that we see alive in the traditional sense who are later killed and/or turned.

29 June 2015

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST

A review requested by Julian D, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The career of director Michelangelo Antonioni is not the kind that can be neatly summed up in blunt descriptions like "culmination", so I can't use that word to describe his 1975 triumph The Passenger. It does, however, clearly punctuate the director's career: the seventh feature in a chain of hyper-modern masterpieces stretching back to 1960, and his last film before an unintended six-year break that left him an old master whose new films we should dutifully consider even though we probably don't like them very much. A far cry from being one of world cinema's handful of true visionaries, using his movies to anatomise the character of modern society in the same breath and in fact by the same means that he pushed the boundaries of representational, narrative cinema.

In fairness, The Passenger doesn't push boundaries as hard as some of the director's other films. But I think it might very well be his best social document: it dissects and lays bare the paranoias and neuroses of the 1970s even more strikingly than Blowup does the same for the 1960s, and without feeling nearly as dated. The subject is Western Europe and the United States in the aftermath of Vietnam and the social revolutions of the 1960s, blindly hunting for a sense of purpose in a world where Western dominance has been dealt its most serious setbacks of the 20th Century. In the screenplay by the director with Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen), the embodiment of this collapse of identity and purpose is David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a presumably American-born BBC journalist making a documentary on the civil war in Chad. After failing to scrounge up any war or warriors, he loses himself in the Sahara Desert, and walks back to his hotel, where he finds that David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), the only other white person around, whom Locke has befriended in a vague and noncommittal way, has died. On the spot, Lock decides to swap identities with the dead man, following Robertson's date book to complete whatever task the other man was in the middle of. This turns out to be gun-running. In the meantime, Locke's wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre), has asked her husband's colleague Martin Knight (Ian Hendry) to look for "Robertson", to learn what he knows about "Locke's" death, meaning that Locke finds himself dodging his friend in addition to faking his way around a group of impressively dangerous men who think he has a cache of weapons for him, aided only by an architecture student (Maria Schneider) he meets in Barcelona.

Purely at the level of narrative, there's a lot to unpack, from Locke's indeterminate Anglo/American status, to the complexity and slitheriness of gender roles in the movie (Schneider's character is literally only ever identified as "The Girl", but Locke is in some ways "The Not Even a Man"), to the relationship between Europe and its former colonial holdings bubbling in the background. All of that's not even mentioning the film's most prominent characteristic as a story, which is its merciless portrayal of Locke as a hollow thing, worn down by the speed with which the world is changing and by all available evidence for the worse, to the point that he's a human-shaped signifier of an identity without actually possessing a concrete self. The one word that describes Antonioni's filmmaking is "ennui", and The Passenger is his ennui-est movie; L'avventura and La notte might showcase characters with a complete detachment from the shallow culture containing them, but The Passenger goes one step further, taking away the culture itself.

It's not merely psychological and social vagueness that the film depicts; its indefinite sensibility goes clear to the structure. Antonioni's own stated interpretation of the movie is that it took place over the course of one day, and he and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli filmed it to match (the lighting, mostly natural, grows more and more afternoon-like as it goes along, and it's only in the very last shot that dusk arrives), even if at a practical level it's hard to see how a narrative that moves from Africa to Germany to Barcelona to rural Spain can possibly all take place in ten or twelve hours. Literalism or plausibility aren't the point, though: what is clearly the case, both in the writing and in the visuals, is that The Passenger doesn't seem to have chronology: time moves wrong in the film, in those moments that it moves at all. It is immodestly slow-moving, which has been used a criticism as far back as 1975 (Roger Ebert was an earlier detractor, though he later changed his mind), but of course the fact that the movie is stretched out and not apparently going anywhere in a hurry, or at all, is hardly incidental. Life itself, in The Passenger, isn't really going anywhere; anyplace you go is equally likely to be dead zone of anomie.

The visual scheme Antonioni and Tovoli use to explore this sensibility is broadly familiar from the director's earlier movies: there's a great deal of empty space, whether it's the open sky or featureless walls, against which the characters are set from a far enough distance and low enough in the frame to feel crushed by the size of the composition. The film uses a fairly straightforward and simple color scheme, influenced by the natural earthtones of its locations, the lend a feeling of blanched-out energy, with everything stronger tending to feel oppressive, such as the blue skies or, in the film's most visually and narratively aberrant scene, the toxic-looking neon lights in a metal and concrete hell of an airport. What primarily marks the film as its own thing is the magnificent use of location photography: The Passenger is set mostly in corners of the world and Europe that have a heavy sense of history on them, finally ending in a Spanish town that has tacked elements of modern technology onto streets and buildings that look ancient, hewn from the ground itself in some ways. These are locations bigger than human stories, and Locke seems small and forgotten by the end, finally getting his wish to lose his self figuratively.

Also literally, in the film's incredibly famous penultimate shot, one of the two big showy long takes Antonioni uses (the first is a shocking attempt to bring us into a flashback without cutting, and it's beautifully organic, suggesting the displacement of Locke's thoughts even before the plot starts to make the scope of that displacement clear). It's a long slow track past Locke and through the narrow window of his hotel room, focusing our attention on the geography of the town and the architecture of buildings while its characters die and come to other crises points largely offscreen, the perfect summary of the film's exhausted humanity. Ultimately, it's not even worth showing what happens to the character we've spent two hours getting to not know. Stuff just happens. This is all deeply pessimistic and inhumane, but The Passenger so persuasively argues that pessimism and inhumanity are two of the key traits of Western culture in the 1970s that it doesn't even feel depressing: just "yeah, I guess that's about it". Not a film for a happy, transporting mood, then, but as a diagnosis of purposelessness the film is the most intelligent, engaging kind of misery.

27 June 2015

SUMMER OF BLOOD: B-HORROR IN THE 1960s - THE BOLT-IN-THE-NECK GANG

On 10 April, 1966, Embassy Pictures released one of the most amazingly ludicrous double features in the history of crappy movies: not one but two horror/Western hybrids directed by William Beaudine, among the most prolific directors in the history of the medium. Alphabetically (I don't know which was the A-picture and which the B-picture - but spiritually they are both, of course, B-pictures of the first water), the first of these was Billy the Kid Versus Dracula, which was so bad that it was the one film out of his legendarily slipshod career that John Carradine declared to be his most embarrassing. We are not, sadly, here to talk about that movie; "sadly", because its sibling is pretty much a dog too, and lacks the reliable hammy charm of Carradine in a movie he knew was going to hell all around him. I give you - and Lord knows you don't need to give it back - Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. And as much as that makes it sound like the kind of movie that you could already have three-quarters written in your head, they didn't even get that right: Dr. Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx) is in point of fact the famous mad scientist's granddaughter.

Maria and her simpering assistant/brother Rudolph (Stephen Geray) have left Europe altogether when we meet them: American Southwest, it seems, have much better weather conditions to follow granddad's experiments in re-animating corpses through lightning storms. Or whatever exactly Maria is up to in an old mission; it's never exactly specified and it's also not really consistent. But it involves murdering locals and placing the artificial brains the siblings retrieved from the family collection, in the hopes of making a superman, or a slave, or God knows what. Terrified of his sister's insane schemes, Rudolph has been surreptitiously poisoning the creations before they have a chance to revive, as he does with the latest victim; and it so happens that following this victim's disappearance, his family, including the beautiful Juanita (Estelita Rodriguez), are preparing to get the hell away from the town and whatever secret nastiness the Frankensteins are perpetrating under the guise of trying to heal the sick young men of the town. Consulting her grandfather's journals, Maria decides that the issue has been with her test subjects: she needs a strong, muscular hunk of man meat to experiment with.

Sensibly realising that this was all going nowhere, JJMFD now restarts. Legendary outlaw Jesse James (John Lupton), thought to be dead, has actually escaped his stomping grounds in the Midwest to try his hand as a gunslinger and thief here in the Southwestern desert. Along with his friend Hank Tracy (Cal Bolder), Jesse has been hustling and conning his way through small towns, or so it would seem from the pair's introduction, with Jesse taking bets on whether the strong, muscular Hank can win fights. That's enough to bring them to the attention of Butch Curry (Roger Creed), the leader of a local gang who recruits Jesse and Hank to help hold up a stagecoach. Butch's hotheaded brother, Lonny (Rayford Barnes) bristles at the thought, and goes to Marshal MacPhee (Jim Davis) to turn Jesse in. A shootout ensues, in which Hank is badly wounded, and the two men barely escape; as it is, Hank is practically dead when Jesse finally crosses paths with the other movie: Juanita and her family, who take the outlaws in. It's Juanita's grand idea to take Hank to the Frankensteins for the only treatment that can possibly save his life, and Maria only needs to take one look at him to know that she's found her perfect subject.

That gets us a decent chunk into the movie: the remainder is a power struggle between Maria and Jesse over Hank, and a slow-burning romance between Jesse and Juanita, and it is paced like the slow bloating of a dead rat on the highway. For a movie that's rather busy with story details, JJMFD is appallingly light on anything that resembles narrative momentum: whole scenes go by without the characters doing much of anything but milling around and batting a single plot point around limply. It is the kind of movie where after about an hour, one checks the time to find that it's 28 minutes in; an hour later, it's only gotten up to 44 minutes. The thing is, most of the storytelling is already long done by that point; even having watched the movie, I can't actually tell you what's going on in the back half, only that there's precious fucking little of it and it's doled out jealously by Carl K. Hittleman's incrementalist screenplay.

Something called Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter should, at the very least, be batshit crazy and outlandishly stupid and therefore enjoyable campy, but it's too boring for any of that to hold. This is the worst kind of bad movie, slackly directed from a shambling and aimless script, with actors who stiffly plow through their scenes, leaving nothing that's silly enough to be funny. There is one solitary exception: Narda Onyx, about whose name I was prepared to say something snarky, but why pick on her? She's the closest thing this movie has to a saving grace, and she deserved better than to have this turn out to be her final credit in a decade-long, TV-dominated career. It's not good acting she's up to, Lord knows: she's channeling a bit of that John Carradine energy herself, attempting to inoculate herself against the problems of the script by going as big as she can, and there's not a fragment of reflection or inner life to her Maria Frankenstein, the kind of mustache-twirling villain who can literally get away with talking about how proud she is to be evil. It's a stupid part that gets to the film's best solely because the bad guy is always the best part of awful low-grade horror; but Onyx goes all-in and makes it her own. The way she massacres "R"s is pure camp divinity; her big, hungry expressions of power and lust give her more personality than any other human onscreen, which takes barely any effort, understand. But Onyx is the only one putting in even that much effort: not a single one of her castmates who isn't playing a big loud Mexican stereotype makes any sort of impression, with Lupton's Jesse James the flattest of them all, a bland smile and shitty mustache where there needs to be a charismatic firebrand who could win the hearts and minds of half a nation.

The complete blank riding in the slot marked for the protagonist merely serves to compound the rest of JJMFD's crippling flaws: this is a movie where nothing goes right, and it comes to saying things like, "given the non-existent budget and schedule, Beaudine sure did a great job of preventing any sets from falling over or actors from staring into the camera". Which is to say, the film isn't inept, and that's not a little thing to say about these desperately impoverished B-movies. At the same time, ineptitude would possibly give the film some pizzazz, some trashy energy, anything besides Onyx's shameless, sensational hamming that doesn't result in your eyes gliding right off the screen. There is probably no greater sin a movie can commit than to be boring, and this is, with all due restraint, as boring as any other 88 consecutive minutes of cinema I have ever encountered.

Body Count: 6 or 7? My attention wandered.

A TALE OF TWO SISTERS

A review requested by Rachel P, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The broadly-defined genre of Prestige Picture Adaptations of Unassailable Literary Classics is terrifically old and terrifically durable, though it has had specific high and low points over the years. The most recent high, in the English-speaking world, covered most of the 1990s, when the successes of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in 1989 and Merchant-Ivory's Howards End in 1992 (itself a delayed capitalisation on the same team's A Room with a View, released in 1986) proved enough to trigger a mania for well-heeled adaptations and variations of the things you read in high school, or a least in a freshman year college English class. As with any movie fad, some of the individual efforts were strong and some were clinkers (the hit-to-miss ratio of major Shakespeare adaptations over the decade is fairly dire), but all in all, I'd be inclined to say that it remains my own favorite period of Literary Classics movies ever. And the best film of the bunch is probably the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee from a script by Emma Thompson.

By all means, putting a talent like Lee in place already gave the film a huge leg up: the director's fist wholly English-language film was superficially an enormous shift from his contemporary-set studies of Taiwanese family life, but his brilliance was in figuring out how the story was basically just an extension in different clothing of the same kind of interpersonal dynamics he'd already made his specialty (and would continue to do going forward, ultimately resulting in the scandal of making a pensive family drama out of Hulk). What separates the great costume drama literary adaptations from the drearily mediocre ones is, in most cases, their emotional accessibility: the films that clearly demonstrate how people alive decades or centuries ago were feeling, fleshy people like ourselves are brilliant, whereas the ones that are arch fashion shows set in authentic but sterile re-creations of old locations tend to be the most boring, stultifying movies on God's green earth. Lee was uniquely well-suited to make a film on the right side of that gap.

But while Lee's contribution to the film's success is impossible to diminish, it's hard not to think of this as Emma Thompson's achievement overall. As an actress, she's the best part, or the only genuinely good part, or surely one of the highlights, of virtually every film she was involved in throughout the half-decade preceding this movie, but that's not the real tell. The real tell is that the four movies she acted in under Branagh's direction during their marriage are generally terrific or at least fascinating in their miscalculations, and they are best in some of the same ways that Sense and Sensibility is at its best. He hasn't made anything nearly as good since their divorce, which just so happens to have been finalised about two months before Sense and Sensibility came out. Am I saying that Emma Thompson was the secret genius behind Branagh's best work? No, that's scurrilous gossip-mongering. I am heavily implying it. The really sad thing is that after doing whatever wonderful magical voodoo she did to make this such a great work - in the process, becoming the only person to win both a writing and acting Oscar (she had the latter from Howards End) - Thompson's career basically swan-dived into oblivion.* For this, I feel sad on Thompson's behalf, but even sadder on behalf of myself and everyone else who'd like to know what she might have had up her sleeve next.

The plot of Austen's 1811 isn't as ubiquitous as her 1813 follow-up, Pride and Prejudice, but I pray it's not that unfamiliar (especially since I prefer the earlier book). The ingredients, anyway, are pretty basic: the second wife (Gemma Jones) of the late Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), and her three daughters Miss Elinor Dashwood (Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet), and Margaret (Emilie François) are horrified to learn that Dashwood's son by a first marriage, John (James Fleet), has been persuaded by his harpyish wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) to ignore the dying man's request and leave the second family penniless. They are able find temporary housing with one of Mrs. Dashwood's cousins, and set themselves to the task of surviving, which for a family of women in the late 18th Century can only mean making suitable marriages. For Elinor, who is stiffly pragmatic ("Sense"), this does not mean the handsomely awkward Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), Fanny Dashwood's brother, for though they strike up a warm relationship, the threat of his disinheritance hangs over his every action. For Marianne, who is ready to burst with passionate, intense emotions ("Sensibility"), this does not mean the boring Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), no matter how smart a match he'd make; she's much more interested in the charming, obviously roguish John Willoughby (Greg Wise). Things play out with Sense and Sensibility becoming more like each other, to the hard-won benefit of virtually all.

As a work of adaptation, Sense and Sensibility is mostly a matter of streamlining Austen's original, giving Ferrars and Brandon a bit more to do, and finding a way to indicate to moderns what the hell all of this is about without it feeling pandering. That goes beyond the simple matter of contextualising a vastly different set of cultural norms about gender roles: Sense and Sensibility is a very financially-obsessed story, even more interested in the economic role of women in Georgian England than with their social roles. And the first triumph of the film is in the way it lays all of this out in neat little moments that feel organically woven into the story, occurring naturally rather than feeling like the movie has to come to a stop to lecture us. For one thing Sense and Sensibility never feels like, is a lecture. In fact, given its basic seriousness, a not-insignificant 131-minute running time, and overwhelming costume and production design (the former by Jenny Beavan and John Bright, the latter by Luciana Arrighi), one of the more impressive things about the movie is that it's quite a lot of fun to watch.

Credit due there to Thompson, to Lee, to damn near everybody. This is as lively as costume dramas get, thanks in large part to an exceptional cast: only Grant feels like a let-down of the major characters, and that's more because his "I'm so hapless and awkward, but unbearably cute" shtick was already wearing thin by the time this movie came out, rather than because it's a bad fit for the character. In fact, he's perfectly fine in the role. But "perfectly fine" doesn't help one to stand-out in this crowd. The best of the lot are unmistakably and necessarily Thompson and Winslet (though I am also much partial to Imelda Staunton in a modestly-sized role), whose huge age gap helps to fuel the gulf of understanding between two sisters who love each other very much and still can't fathom how the other lives. Winslet impresses me more, mostly because of context unavailable at the time (this was only her third movie role): she's a great actress but not an infallible one, and her future career tends to show that her biggest liability is when she's playing period roles. She tends to choke off her natural prickly energy and tendency to dart in unexpected directions in favor of playing dully literal notions of old-fashioned attitudes. That's exactly what she's not doing her: her Marianne is a tricky, mercurial person, not a prop for dresses, not a desperate attempt to hide a modern way of building character underneath a one-note stiffness (two shortcomings obviously present in her Titanic performance). Not that Thompson is a slouch; she's just not a revelation. Still, her emotional striptease in allowing us to see with exquisite slowness and deliberation what Sense has cost her character is impressive and important, and if the film's narrative works largely because of her smart excisions and clarifications, its emotional arc depends to a great degree on her gradations of feeling.

The aesthetic framework for these characters is crisp and unshowy: in terms of visuals, Lee and cinematographer Michael Coulter are mostly interested in drawing us into the film's reality by treating it with invisible naturalism, and for a film of such plush design, it's surprisingly casual in its style. The most dramatic thing that happens is the subtle way that the two sisters are framed: Elinor appears within boxes and against straight lines, while Marianne is likely to show up in open frames with more lighting and messiness in the set decoration. That's lovely as a grace note, but it's not something the film actively insists we notice; part of Lee's mechanism of bringing the material to life in a highly accessible way is to avoid putting any kind of spin on it - the contrast between this and his later period film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its painterly images and self-conscious grandeur, to match its bold-strokes emotions and stylised narrative, is immediately obvious. Sense and Sensibility is much more about fine details, and the quiet style Lee brings to it is exactly what's needed for those details to catch our attention in their own time and not because the film wants to assault us. Though it is ultimately a tribute to Sensibility, it's a movie made with much good Sense, and that's exactly why it's so much more effective than almost all of the other films of its type and of its time.

26 June 2015

SUMMER OF BLOOD: B-HORROR IN THE 1960s - PARTY MONSTER

There was always going to be a mash-up of the nuclear monster movie and the beach movie sometime in the mid-'60s. B-movie producers, as a breed, are too good at mimicry and chasing the latest fad with Terminator-like focus for the two biggest subgenres of cheap drive-in programmer to go unwed for too very long. It just happened to be Del Tenney, a moderately successful stage actor who reinvented himself as a filmmaker in the 1960s, who was the first of those producers off the post, releasing The Horror of Party Beach (which he also directed) in June of 1964, about ten months after American International's smash hit Beach Party first made the film a possibility. And how grateful we all are that Tenney shouldered his way up to the bar before anybody else could. It's easy to imagine a beach party horror movie made with bland competence, generic junk food that's a bit dopey and mostly forgettable, like dozens upon dozens if not hundreds of other horror movies in the '50s and '60s that aren't bad, certainly aren't good, basically aren't anything at all.

Thankfully, The Horror of Party Beach isn't any kind of forgettable generic anything: it's one of the great fun-bad movies of the 1960s B-movie circuit, high octane camp that's so ridiculous in so many ways that it's impossible to suppose that Tenney and screenwriter Richard L. Hilliard weren't at least slightly doing it on purpose. You don't cram that many unbelievably awful gags into a movie's opening 15 minutes if you don't want your first impression to be one of unrelenting corniness and fearless stupidity. For that matter, you probably don't lead off with the film's opening credits either, with all their stilted, hip flashes of car racing edited together with uncommon messiness and incoherence, while the soundtrack bellows out with singularly inauthentic surf rock.

It could also just be unbridled incompetence, mind you, an impression much sealed by the material that comes in after those credits are done. The driver of that racing car is teen-ish adult Hank Green (John Scott), who has in tow his girlfriend Tina (Marilyn Clarke), and the second the film properly starts up, they launch into a conversation that's a concentrated blast of badly-written exposition ("I know about your experiments in that laboratory!" is a line, and it ends up meaning absolutely nothing like you suppose it might) and deeply uncomfortable close-ups that appear to be trying to zoom all the way into Clarke's pores. Anyway, the film's inanities start hard and fast, and they don't let up. Not even five minutes from the start - that's five minutes including the credits, mind you - we've already seen the local radioactive waste dumping crew tipping big metal barrels into the ocean, and we've seen that toxic goo start to congeal over a skeleton in a shipwreck, forming into the film's monster with what I confess to be impressive effects work for a low-budget joint, though the comically severe "you should be terrified right now" music makes it rather more funny than even a little bit creepy. Nor do the superimposed fish help.

The first sequence is something like a codex of beach movie tropes as they had already congealed into existence, intercut with Tina's murder by the newly-created sea monster. So we get lots of alarmingly bad surf rock played with anxious determination by local band the Del-Aires, lots of alarmingly bad dancing as the extras Tenney tossed together gyrate randomly and with no obvious organic connection to each other or the music, and lots of ancient, wheezy jokes, presented as insert shots of people we'll never see again. At one point, the camera stares, hungrily, at a girl's bikini'd ass for several seconds before crash zooming out to a pair of filthy boys doing the staring. One turns to the other and says, with unfounded alarm, "That reminds me, did I bring my hot dog buns? That kind of wheezy joke. Hank and the local biker gang get into a fight over Tina, who retaliates by going swimming alone, where she gets assaulted by a suit that plainly didn't come cheap, but looks regrettably goofy, with giant Muppet eyes and a mouth that's all full of... like... feelers, I guess? It looks like a bunch of cigars stuffed into a novelty Gill Man dispenser. And despite the profound inadequacy of the monster and the appalling effects - the stuntman rubs chocolate syrup on Clarke's abdomen, and that's enough for the "violent attack" - Tenney stages this with extreme gravity and menace, all long-ish shots of Clarke flailing and screaming while the music goes hard. The tonal shift between the wacky beach shenanigans and the grisly killing could almost be brilliant, if it was handled with even the smallest measure of artistry.

The most amazing thing about this extended beach party opening is how much it has almost nothing to do with the remainder of the film. Hank comes back, and the monster comes back of course, but the great majority of the remaining movie essentially starts from scratch, with Hank's mentor Dr. Gavin (Allen Laurel) trying to figure out what the creature is so it can be stopped, while his daughter Elaine (Alice Lyon) balances her desire to make out with Hank and her sense of abashment that he's only on the market because his girlfiend was just horribly murdered. That's making it sound rather more clean and streamlined than is the case: in fact, the screenplay of The Horror of Party Beach is a deeply inelegant affair, a series of disconnected anecdotes roughly shaped into a plot-like substance. Some moments, like an extended sequence of three women lazily trying to escape this murderous hellhole for the safety of New York City, don't even have the decency to involve the characters or settings established anywhere else in the film.

Tenney charges through this aimless material, with its nonsensical technobabble (Gavin declares that they can use carbon-14 dating to determine the genetic makeup of the monster at one point, in one of the most overtly wrong things I have ever encountered in a movie that wasn't making a joke of it), casual racism (Gavin's made Eulabelle, played by Eulabelle Moore, is a cringing black maid of a sort already years behind the curve in '64, going on and on about voodoo), logic gaps, and colossal tonal shifts, and makes a movie that is, if never remotely satisfying as drama, at least frantic enough in its pacing to only rarely be boring. He's terrible at the nuts and bolts of directing: the performances are variable down to the level of individual line readings that end someplace different than they started, while there are obvious flubbed takes left in the finished film. And where any clever B-movie director would work hard to keep monsters that looked this stupid as a background threat, hanging around in shadows and fragmentary quick cuts, Tenney puts it - them, in fact, a detail the script doesn't explain - front and center, with even the most moody, atmospheric shots lit such that no matter how dark and threatening the backgrounds get, the monsters themselves are bright and wholly visible.

This is in keeping with the overall feeling of The Horror of Party Beach, which is that's some kind of ersatz object, barely a movie at all. It was shot on the beaches of Connecticut, but everything about it borrows from the vocabulary of Los Angeles-based beach movies, the original sin from which it never recovers: it explains the overcompensation of the opening sequence, the shrillness of the music, and the general uncertainty that crowds out every actor and plot beat. Movies of this sort were cranked out in the L.A. metropolitan area on a weekly basis, and the people there knew how to do them; Connecticut had no native presence of cheap-ass indie productions, and a constant feeling of "are we doing this right? Is this how we do this?" coats everything: the production, certainly its approximation of surfing culture.

I say all of that like it's a bad thing, but of course it is the film's chief strength. Lousy B-movies are thick on the ground, and rarely were they thicker than the 1960s; The Horror of Party Beach is weird enough and vividly incompetent enough to feel genuinely special and - I will not say "unpredictable", since every last thing about it has been taken from the nuclear monster handbook. It has an unconventional feeling, though, one that's not to its credit as a beach comedy or a horror movie, but is manna to the lover of weird, colorfully dysfunctional bad movies.

Body Count: 7, along with the entirety of a slumber party numbering "over 20", plus apparently dozens or hundreds of bodies during the monsters' reign of terror - the film is alarmingly bad at chronology among its other sins, and we have only the alarmist newspaper headlines to go on here.

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: IT'S ALL IN YOUR HEAD

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: Pixar's grand return to artistic greatness, Inside Out, goes inside the human brain to take one look at how our minds interact with our memories. Here is another such look.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has been one of the most highly-regarded films of the 2000s virtually since the moment it first appeared on the scene in March, 2004, and I'm damned if I can come up with a reason to challenge that perception. It is an, honestly, an example of exactly the kind of film that everybody wants every film to be. For it is genuinely conceptually audacious, one of the vanishingly minute number of movies made in the past 15 years to be actually, legitimately Like Nothing You've Ever Seen Before. And at the same time, it's so flawlessly executed that it feels less like a brand new idea being worked out for the first time, than a refinement of concepts and techniques that have been kicking around forever, waiting for their definitive treatment.

With any movie that is so generally flawless, it's hard to know quite where to start with it, so let's just start with the two incompatible personalities that met to produce the idea of the film. The story was by Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, & Pierre Bismuth, the last of whom has no other contributions to film worth talking about, so for ease we'll think of this as primarily the collision of Kaufman and Gondry. The former was already the screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., two immaculately over-conceptual metamovies that spoke to an immense well of pensiveness and the terror of being alone; four years after Eternal Sunshine, Kaufman would write and direct Synecdoche, New York, which pretty much confirmed that his major fascination as an artist was the combination of perceptual mindfucking in service to a bleak, almost depressive concept of how the world works. Gondry, meanwhile, had only made one film - the Kaufman-scripted misfire Human Nature - but he had an extensive catalogue of music videos to his name that showed him to be a great visual fantasist with an impressive sense of using camera trickery as a form of playing with the medium, childishly having fun with visual representation almost aggressively disconnected from any sense of emotional rigor.

The combination of abject depression and flighty joyfulness should be baffling as all hell, but Eternal Sunshine profits immeasurably from having those two irreconcilable impulses driving it. Kaufman's morbidity concerning the basic hopeless of romantic relationships provides the emotional spine of one of the most insightfully sad explorations of the human drive for love since Annie Hall concluded that we need the eggs. Gondry's love of showy practical effects and dazzling post-production meant that this exploration could be achieved inside a movie whose insane structure, both narratively and visually, allows it to replicate the fluid, discontinuous process of thinking and remembering like literally no other coherent narrative film I can name

Such a complex topic gets the unabashedly complex treatment it deserves, beginning with a narrative structure that's almost impossible to parse until it's almost over; I clearly remember seeing it for the second time and having one of the biggest "ooooh, that's what that means" moments of my moviegoing life when I realised what the hell the first 17 minutes were all about. They are, for the record, the short story of how Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) decided one day, quite out of nowhere, that he needed to go to Montauk on this wintery day. On the train, he meets a woman with a bright orange coat and bright blue hair, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), and they're both positive they've seen each other before. The best they can come up with is that Joel has probably shopped in the bookstore where Clementine works, which clearly isn't a satisfying answer. They enjoy each other's company so much that the return together to Clementine's apartment, and the film segues, invisibly enough for it to be confusing, to another point in time entirely, in the immediate aftermath of their breakup. As we'll eventually figure out, this is in fact a flashback. And we'll never figure out which if any of the film's 17th through 32nd minutes take place in reality, versus the ones that obviously take place inside Joel's memories.

For that is, of course, the film's hook: after two years of dating, Joel and Clementine had a terrible fight and broke up, after which she went to a company called Lacuna, Inc.* which specialises in erasing unwelcome memories. Joel only finds out about this after confronting the couple's friends, Carrie (Jane Adams) and Rob (David Cross), who reluctantly show him a card explaining to everybody who knows Clementine that she has absolutely no memories of Joel's existence, and no-one should ever speak to her about him. Aghast and distraught, Joel signs up to receive the very same treatment, and the rest of the movie, takes place on the night that Lacuna's top man, Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and its clearly not-top man, Patrick (Elijah Wood) come to Joel's apartment to erase Clementine, which he experiences in the form of out-of-order memories coming to the fore and then dissolving, either in clean fades to nothingness, or through perplexing, discontinuous destruction and collapse, as Joel finds that he treasures even his painful memories too much to part with them, and begins fighting the Lacuna techs.

Thus begins quite a hefty meditation on the value of relationships, even toxic and dysfunctional ones, and the importance of strong memories, even painful and humiliating ones. On one level, this is just a puzzle: we see Joel and Clementine's love grow, solidify, and die, all out of order, and the film insists on our actively paying attention to piece it all together and figure out the whys of it. But there are puzzles and there are puzzles, and Eternal Sunshine is absolutely not the sort of movie where the rewards stop the second we crack its mysteries. On the contrary, the very fact that this is all presented obscurely is one of the key ways that the film draws us in. It is a way that we are more tightly aligned with Joel's own feelings about the relationship, since we experience the jumble of memories in the order he does; we are thus placed in the position of trying to figure out what the hell is up with Clementine as well as he does. And yet, because we are an audience in a movie, and we get to be clear-eyed and not so hung up on stupid little nonsense as he is, we can pick up on all the thing she's saying and thinking and feeling that Joel didn't appreciate the first time around. It helps that both Carrey and Winslet give two of the best performances of the 2000s and maybe the best performance of their respective careers, and that Winslet in particular is energised by a vastly more complicated character. She is, after all, playing a woman who deliberately obscures her personality to avoid being hurt, as filtered through the self-centered memories of a man who was already too much of a sad romantic to see her clearly, and she's also providing enough in her body language and tone of voice to let us in the movie see the things that Joel can't. That's the other thing the fragmentary structure does: it demands we think very hard about what we're watching, so we can connect it to other fragments later, which invites us to have a much more sophisticated understanding of Clementine's own insides than Joel possesses.

Still, this is ultimately a film about Joel's experience of the relationship, and his experience of remembering the relationship even more. The cinematography (by Ellen Kuras), editing (by Valdís Óskarsdóttir), sound design (by Eugene Gearty), and directing are inseparably intertwined in creating a highly subjective experience, with the film itself breaking down and violating the basic rules of cinematic language in concert with Joel's loss of his memory; long before we know what's happening there are moments where the lighting blanks out and shots are cut together messily, foreshadowing the elimination of those moments, and as the film starts explaining what it's up to, those tricks and far more sophisticated ones pile up. Eternal Sunshine is a hard film to parse, and unlike most films that invents its own language, it doesn't ever have a moment where it explains its rules to us: it simply collapses in on itself, blurring moments visually and aurally, causing us a sense of dislocation as viewers of a movie that approximates Joel's dislocation as one of the core elements of his personality is removed while he witnesses it. It is one of the great marriages of content and style of the 21st Century.

It's so exhilarating to follow along as the film plays with these ideas that it's easy to forget that Eternal Sunshine ever moves outside Joel's head, though it spends quite a lot of time there. Some of this is quite brilliant, like the tiny moment nodding to people using Lacuna to forget children (I think) and lost pets, different traumas that the film acknowledges as equally hurtful to Joel's. Some of it is not; the subplots in which Stan is dating Lacuna's receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst), who has an obvious crush on company founder Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson), while Patrick is using his insider knowledge to date Clementine have always felt oddly lumpy to me, an attempt to do parallelism that the film doesn't require and can't do anything particularly useful with (I concede that this is not the consensus opinion). All of it is casual and roughly naturalistic, the better to counterpoint the abstract, imaginative, stylistically dizzy scenes inside of Joel's memories. That contrast between fantastic staging and realistic cinematography is the thing I always think of most about Eternal Sunshine; it is a movie that romanticises love and then views it with blunt clarity, and that mixture is exactly what helps the film to its ambiguously hopeful concluding thoughts.

24 June 2015

BEST SHOT: THE RED SHOES

Well, Nathaniel went and did it: he finally picked the most beautiful movie ever made for Hit Me with Your Best Shot. We turn, this week, to The Red Shoes, the 1948 ballet drama written and directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, designed by Hein Heckroth, shot by Jack Cardiff, and generally speaking the movie in which Technicolor reached its peak, as well as possibly cinema itself, though I'd probably need to be a bit cagey about the latter of those claims.

Now, sometimes when I approach these HMWYBS candidates that I've seen before, I have no idea what I want to pick until I rewatch the whole movie. Sometimes I have a good sense of where I want to end up, and I rewatch it all just to be sure. And sometimes I stare myself straight in the face and say, "Tim, don't be a fucking idiot. You're picking something from the ballet. You're probably picking the shot where she looks at herself dancing in the store window. Because this isn't a competition, and you don't get points for being the most obscure."

So here is a shot from the ballet - she's looking at herself dancing in the store window.

If you haven't seen The Red Shoes, rest assured that it's the biggest gap in your film education, and you should make it a short-term priority. If you have seen it, I don't imagine this shot needs too much contextualising, but for the sake of form, here's a reminder: Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is the brightest new thing in the world of ballet, having been taken in by the tyrannical impresario and genius Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) and made a star. She falls in love with the composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), and thereon hangs a triangle: not so much between two men over one woman, but between artistic passion and quiet humanity. The stakes are expressed, right around the film's midpoint, by a glorious ballet adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes", in which a young girl receives a pair of magical ballet slippers that allow her to dance more beautifully than anyone, but at the grave price that she can never stop until her death. In 15 of the finest minutes in all of film, we see this ballet play out, though it could never be shown on any stage in the world the way we see it, with its whirlwind of dissolves and special effects creating a hellish fantasy that's a metaphorical extension of Vicky's internal dilemma, with Lermontov and Julian flashing into the spaces occupied by the demonic shoemaker in the ballet.

There's not a single moment of the ballet that isn't precious to me, so this is as much a stand-in for the whole as it is the single irreducible shot I wanted to talk about, but let's stick with it. This is the moment that the young woman in the ballet first spies the shoes, and realises how desperately she wants them, more than anything. Right before her eyes, her reflection begins dancing a completely different set of steps than she is, more fluid and energetic, while the shoemaker urges the ghostly dancer on with a most upsetting series of gesticulations and leers. It's as blunt as foreshadowing gets: the reflection is manic, and it acts of its own volition, not behaving according to the woman's desires at all. And while it's not really as noticeable in motion, I'm happy that the specific still frame I got makes it seem like the dancer is warding off her vision, understanding at some intuitive level that it's only there to destroy her.

Anyway, subtlety is nice but obvious can be a lot of fun, and this is as direct and unambiguous a one-image summary of the whole movie as there is. Stay behind with the normal, boring boyfriend in the bright light, or move into the darkness, become a brilliant dancer, and have the devil always at your side. It's ballet, after all, the best marriage of ballet and cinema ever achieved; the whole point of ballet is that you know exactly what's going on the second you lay eyes on the position of bodies. It's that level of rich, overpowering emotion that makes the film a masterpiece, with its rich, overpowering visuals and rich, overpowering melodrama. It's maybe the best of all movie spectacles, and its images are broad and expressive enough to match. Every shot of The Red Shoes is the best shot.

KENYA BELIEVE IT?

A review requested by a compassionate fellow, brimming with love for his fellow man, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Revisiting a political advocacy documentary whose stated intent was to influence a presidential election years after it failed to do so probably isn't sporting, regardless of one's opinion about the politics involved. On the other hand, the 2012 essay film 2016: Obama's America does have a still-contemporary hook: it offers specific predictions about what the United States of America will resemble by the end of President Barack Obama's second term, though for a movie with "2016" in the title, that's a shockingly small part of the overall running time. I write these words with just slightly more than a year and a half in that time period remaining, so strictly speaking, it's unfair to the film's mastermind Dinesh D'Souza to point out that none of the things he has predicted has come to pass, and the one that has come closest has been for totally different reasons. But any of them could happen, even though it seems like Obama is leaving himself with precious little time to scrap 97% of the nation's nuclear arsenal, if he's actually that interested in doing it.

For most of its running time, Obama's America is actually more of a biographical and psychological sketch than it is in any significant way about policy. This is both its weirdest characteristic and its greatest liability, as a movie and as propaganda. Instead of making bold factual claims, the film structures most of its argument along the skeleton of "this seems one way, but what if we assume it's this other way instead?", a series of queries that openly confess to being baldly speculative. Late in the film, D'Souza appears on one or another of the talking heads shows and all but openly admits that the idea of the book that primarily forms the film's basis - The Roots of Obama's Rage, from 2010 - exists primarily to fill a hole in the conservative ecosystem, providing a replacement for the "Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim" narrative to people who want all the fun of seeing the president as leader of a shadowy cabal without the embarrassment of having to believe demonstrable untruths. It's a moment that confirms that we've basically been watching a History Channel show about ancient aliens, ginning up nonsense based on evidence that, at best, doesn't not exist, all in the interest of throwing out a conspiracy theory just for the hell of it.

And so the film itself cleaves into three units: the first is D'Souza's own life story, which he sees as being enormously parallel to Obama's own (same birth year, same marriage year, both came from a multicultural international background), and which he offers for reasons that are honestly a bit obscure. At first I assumed it was a "see, if a brown-skinned immigrant like me can become a well-known political commentator and college president, America must be a great country!" riff, and the early going of D'Souza's rhetoric would appear to bear that out. But nothing in the remainder of the film follows through on that.

Meanwhile, D'Souza's way of telling his own life story is baffling in the extreme, relying on some of the hokiest re-enactments imaginable. At one point, our host recalls the time he got into an argument, as a student, with Jesse Jackson, insisting that there's no real evidence for such a thing as systemic racism (it's darkly hilarious, in 2015, to think that there was a time less than three years ago when anybody could think that they might get away with arguing for the non-existence of systemic racism), and the images drift into a peculiar fantasy sequence, in which a young black man sits down at a bar, only to have two young white men make a big show of looking disdainful and leaving. And then he looks sad, and biased-against. But look! It turns out they were just going to get his birthday cake, and they acted mean to make it a bigger surprise! Yay for post-racist America! I have no fucking clue what this is about, but it's deliriously campy.

Having thus established himself as a beneficiary of America's incontrovertible goodness, D'Souza launches into a fascinatingly off-base psychoanalysis of the president, minutely investigated his family history even when it makes no sense to do so (we're not just informed that his father had eight children by three women, we're presented the chronology of how that happened in lengthy detail), and building up the idea that Obama was so affected by the absence of his father for virtually his entire life, that he decided to take as his own worldview his father's Muslim radical anti-colonialism. Anti-colonialism! That's the sexy concept around which Obama's America relentlessly circles, with D'Souza deciding at the outset that the only possible way to interpret all the weird imbalances in Obama's behavior (which, for the most part, D'Souza does not specify) is to assume that he's a sleeper agent waiting for the perfect moment to gut the United States' standing in the world, economically and militarily. The idea that the apparent inconsistencies in the president's actions and rhetoric might be because he's a corporate centrist who says liberal-sounding lies to keep the Democratic base from acting up being much too simple and obvious, apparently; but one of the other fascinating things about Obama's America is that nearly every single specific mystery D'Souza tries to solve from the right is rather more directly solvable from the left.

The film's whole argument is unbelievably tormented, not representing the mainstream of conservative punditry at all (the best takedown of The Roots of Obama's Rage was, in fact, written by a conservative), and in the absence of facts, relying on innuendo, and in the absence of innuendo, relying on, "don't you see, the fact that no piece of evidence in existence confirms my theories about how anti-colonial Kenyan Muslim radicalism is the defining aspect of Obama's personality just shows how insidious he really is!" One badly wishes to compare D'Souza to the left's own movie essayist Michael Moore, who similarly allows implication to stand in for proof and isn't above misleading with editing when the facts aren't right where he wants them. But at least Moore makes testable claims. And more importantly, Moore is a bravura showman, plucking at our emotions, both to make us very sad and to make us very angry; and Moore is a broad entertainer, throwing comedy and music and a razzle-dazzle pacing to make his movies peppy. D'Souza has none of that - Obama's America is, in fact, deathly boring, as our host uses his warm, soft voice to run through ream after ream of dense narration, like a college professor who you find personally appealing, but completely incapable of making his lectures feel like anything but listening to an audiobook of an appliance manual.

Even setting aside its intellectual barrenness, Obama's America just isn't well-made, the chief difference between this and the equally polemical and rhetorically dubious but vastly more stylish Bowling for Columbine, for example. It's the difference between a filmmaker getting involved in politics, and a politico deciding to make a film, perhaps, and while presumably D'Souza's co-director, John Sullivan, was responsible for more of the actual nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, even he was a producer, not a director. And Obama's America is mostly a dumbshow: it's polished and sleek, and it looks more expensive than it is, but it also doesn't look like that money went to people who knew how to mix sound, for example. Or lock down a tripod. There are artistic choices that verge on incompetence, like the obviously-staged cell phone sequences in which D'Souza looks intense and troubled while his conversations are intercut with people on the other line rattling off their evidence for Obama's wickedness ("excitedly rattling off", I was going to say, but nobody in this movie is ever all that excited about anything). One of them is clearly holding his phone the wrong way.

At one point, the filmmakers commit one of the worst unforced errors I've ever seen in a political documentary: D'Souza takes the time to fly to Africa to talk to Obama's half-brother George, and attempts to goad him into admitting how furious he is at having been abandoned by his wicked anti-colonial monster of a relative. And George just won't do it; he doesn't appear to care in the slightest about American politics, or find the interview interesting at all. It undoubtedly sucked for the filmmakers to spend the resources on getting an unusable interview like that, but it was exactly that: unusable. And yet D'Souza soldiers on and sticks it in the movie anyway, like it somehow proves his point, rather than making him look like a boob. That's Obama's America in a nutshell: when the facts go square against your argument, simply point and them and declare "look, do you see how that proves me right? Yes it certainly does, and if you disagree, you just need to listen to my quiet, sleepy voice some more". This is neither printing the facts nor printing the legend: it's printing the flops sweat.

23 June 2015

NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS

The first thing to point out, because it's really amazing the more you think about it, it's a miracle that Pixar Animation Studios' 15th feature, Inside Out, functions at all. It's a feature-length metaphor, in which everything we're watching as the story isn't "actually" be happening, possibly not even within the world of the film. Most of the characters are literally concepts rather than psychological actors in their own right. The driving conflict is "there's a ticking clock and we have to get back before it runs out", or basically the third act that's always the most uninteresting part of Pixar movies stretched out to the full length of the 94-minute film

Regardless, it's Pixar's most effective and most moving feature since the six-year-old Up, and while I think the "Pixar's best!" chatter that you can find here and there is premature, it's very easy to see why somebody would want to promote that opinion. Surely, it's the most ambitious film in the studio's history: it's a feature-length metaphor, after all, which isn't something for the squeamish. Specifically, it's a metaphor about the processes of human memory and emotions in a time of extreme stress both environmental (moving to a new city) and biological (doing so at the very earliest years of adolescence), setting up shop in the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) and literalising the concepts of cognitive theory as physical spaces for the adventures had by her five core emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader). Who are also literalised, as color-coded humanoids made out of quantum particles that you can just barely see in close-ups as a mottled, almost fuzzy surface of tiny floating spheres.

The actual "what really happened" plot is that Riley has just moved from Minnesota, where she loves her friends and adores playing hockey, to an old rundown building in San Francisco. Picking up on the extreme frustration and stress felt by her father (Kyle MacLachlan), whose business - the reason they moved in the first place - is hitting a potentially fatal snag, and her mother (Diane Lane), helplessly trying to track down their missing moving truck and clearly none too happy about being uprooted herself, Riley tries to force herself to be the same happy-go-lucky child her parents have always praised her for being, but this quickly curdles into a perpetual state of peevishness marked by bursts of terror, and eventually she decides to run away back to Minnesota. And as she does so, she slides into a depressive state where she can barely feel anything at all.

But ah! the way that Inside Out chooses to tell that story is gorgeous and complicated and crazily imaginative: inside the control room of Riley's mind, which has been the domain of the upbeat, bullying Joy for all of recorded history, an accident has sent her and Sadness spiraling into the recesses of Riley's memories, leaving the ill-equipped Anger, Fear, and Disgust to run the show. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness journey through Riley's headspace, finding her subconscious, her imagination, and the chasm where all of her lost memories are dumped, never to be retrieved again, escorted by the cotton candy-cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley's mostly-forgotten imaginary friend. The film presents all of the mercurial and abrupt shifts of personality that accompany being 11 and thrust into a new life as the results of the emotions' desperate attempts to find a solution to their predicament, with everybody (and especially Joy) anxious to get back to the unmixed state when Joy wouldn't let anybody else call the shots. Though with Sadness's shocking, newfound ability to alter the nature of Riley's memories just by touching them, it's clear to us long before the emotions are willing to admit it that Riley's days of unmixed joy are behind her.

The idea that our thoughts and feelings are sentient creatures bumbling around in our heads isn't new, of course: the earliest cinematic version I can name is the 1943 Disney WWII propaganda cartoon Reason and Emotion, and the image of the mind as a person sitting in the body directing it is an ancient one. But Inside Out is as perfect a filmed depiction of that hook as has ever been made, coming up with an expansive, highly creative world of intricately worked-out rules to explore the concepts of cognitive psychology in a simplified, even fabulistic way. It does an extraordinarily good job of establishing its world one piece at a time, so we grasp the basic vocabulary intuitively enough that when the movie starts to use that vocabulary in complicated ways later on, we don't need to have it explained what's going on. Knowing that colors map onto emotions, we can grasp the enormous difference between a day that has produced mostly yellow (Joy) memories and a day that has produced a slurry of green, red, and purple (Disgust, Anger, Fear) memories at a visceral level, both because the colors themselves are unpleasant and toxic all mixed together, but because the film trained us why that's upsetting without having openly told us it was doing so.

Cognitive modeling and inventive visual storytelling aside, Inside Out is simply a great amount of fun to watch. The actors are exemplary: the five core emotions are all obvious but phenomenally on-point casting decisions, especially in the subtle details, like how Poehler isn't just perfect for Joy, but perfect for a specifically bossy, arrogant Joy. And with that handled, the film has already done a huge part of its work, making the emotions appropriately broad, bold personalities to go with the film's searing bright colors and Seussian designs of the spaces inside Riley's head. With those personalities in place, the film can go about the business of mixing them around and working not just as a fun story of two mismatched characters on a journey, but, increasingly, as a deeply effective study of emotions jockeying for prominence, and learning the hard truth that feeling sad isn't always inappropriate and should be embraced when it's the right time for it. Which is a lesson that's not just bold for a nominal children's movie (though not since Ratatouille has Pixar made a movie that strikes me as more geared towards adults), but bold for anything made in American cinema. It's one of the ways that Inside Out feels like Pixar's very own Studio Ghibli film, more emotionally sophisticated and trusting of its audience than even the very best of what we'd normally expect from corporate family filmmaking.

It's also one of the ways that Inside Out is clearly the third film to be directed by Pete Docter, whose two previous films - Monsters, Inc. and Up - already marked him out as the feelingest of Pixar's director stable. His balance of goofy comedy and dumbfounding heartbreak is excellent here, as it would almost have to be; I'll confess that I was promised more robust, devastating tears than I got (the opening montage and scrapbook scenes in Up are both harder-hitting to my mind, as is the incomparable finale of Toy Story 3), but none of Inside Out's feints toward tear-jerking, nor its dumbest, most stereotyped jokes feel at all unearned or unconsidered. It tries to cover the whole range of feelings and it largely gets there.

It has a few rough patches, undoubtedly. Docter and his co-writers never came up with a really interesting idea for Disgust, who feels by far the least consequential of the core emotions, and outside of it main themes, Michael Giacchino's score is disappointingly rote, given that some of his career-best work has happened in Pixar films. And there are other nitpicks and niggles her and there. But the grandness of the film's ambitions and its ingenuity in realising those amibitions, its sheer cleverness and sophistication as a most unique kind of character study, these things eradicate any nitpicks and render niggles the nastiest kind of pettiness. This is at most only a hair shy of top-tier Pixar, and not just the kind of aesthetically adventurous storytelling that all animation should aspire to, it's what all of mainstream American cinema should want to be - funny and meaningfully sad, deeply thoughtful about its world and story.

9/10

(A hedge; I'm not quite willing to commit to 10 yet, though "yet" is the key word there. I can easily imagine liking this more with subsequent viewings, and I cannot conceive of liking it any less)