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25 April 2015

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

I would like to tip my hat to all of the generous souls who have so far contributed to our fundraiser for cancer research. So far, we've raised $2830 for the ACS and other cancer organisations! A round of applause to everyone below! As of 11 April, we've more than doubled the amount raised in 2010! A HUGE round of applause to everyone!

Anonymous
Anonymous
Anonymous
Anonymous
Alex, Greece
Jordyn Auvil, United States
Jenny B, United Kingdom
-Requested To Be or Not to Be
Rich B, United States
Vianney B, California, United States
Arlo Banta, New York, NY, United States
Matthew Blackwell, Edmonton, AB, Canada
-Requested Vertigo
Branden, Tri-Cities
Bryan C, Columbus, OH, United States
-Requested Happy Together
Teo Bugbee, United States
Zev Burrows, Owings Mills, MD, United States
-Requested The Natural
Cammy, Melbourne, Australia
-Requested High Fidelity
Coco, New York, NY, United States
James Cronan, Glasgow, United Kingdom
-Requested Tokyo Story
Alex D, Sydney, Australia
Chris D, Victoria, Australia
Julian D, St. Louis, MO, United States
Scott D, Florida, United States
-Requested The Wild Bunch
Mike Gibson, Fall Church, VA
-Requested Se7en
David Greenwood, Alice Springs, Australia
-Requested L'âge d'or
-Also requested Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
John Grimes, Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom
-Requested Foodfight!
Kent H, San Francisco, CA, United States
Shoumik H, Dhaka, Bangladesh
-Requested Romancing in Thin Air
Tim H, Washington, DC, United States
-Requested Grosse Pointe Blank
Robert Hamer, Norfolk, VA, United States
Fedor Ilitchev
Ryan J, United States
Jackie Theballcat
-Requested Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure
John, Lake Orion, MI, United States
-Requested Almost Famous
Andrew Johnson, San Diego, CA, United States
-Requested Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny
Kari Johnson, Utah, United States
Josep
Robert K, California, United States
Pat King, United States
Bryan L, Chicago, IL, United States
-Requested Amadeus
Sara L, Tennessee, United States
-Requested Memories
David Lewellyng, Dyersburg, TN, United States
Liz, Virginia, United States
Robert Lovejoy, Florida, United States
Marc Lummis, New York, NY, United States
John M, Denver, CO, United States
Brian Malbon, Alberta, Canada
-Requested Meet the Feebles
Eric "Sssonic" Mason, Massachusetts, United States
Max, New York, United States
McAlister, Florida, United States
-Requested Ball of Fire
Andrew Milne, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
-Requested A Bittersweet Life
Nathan Morrow, Nashville, TN, United States
Travis Neeley, Austin, TX, United States
-Requested Phantom of the Paradise
David Nemes, Louisville, KY, United States
Gabe P, San Francisco, CA, United States
James P, Minneapolis, MN, United States
Rachel P, Cleveland, OH, United States
Pip, United States
-Requested Galaxy Quest
Nathaniel R, New York, NY, United States
K. Rice, South Carolina, United States
-Requested Paheli
Michael R, Massachusetts, United States
-Requested Candyman
Ryan R, Washington, United States
André Robichaud, Canada
Thor Rudebeck, Iowa City, IA, United States
Scott, New Jersey, United States
Frankie Shoup, Chicago, IL, United States
John Smith, Ontario, Canada
Jonathan Storey, London, United Kingdom
John Taylor, Toronto, ON, Canada
Andrew Testerman, Bozeman, MT, United States
theizz, United States
Tim Van Autreve, Gent, Belgium
Ben Verschoor, New York, United States
-Requested Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Chris W, Georgia, United States
-Requested Out of the Past
K. Wild, California, United States
-Requested Evita
-Also requested The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Bryce Wilson, Austin, TX, United States
Caleb Wimble, Philadelpha, PA, United States
Kin Wing Yan, Hong Kong
Andrew Yankes, Pennsylvania, United States
-Requested Glengarry Glen Ross

JUST REMEMBER THE UNCANNY VALLEY

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

The 2001 video game adaptation Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a bad movie. I apologise for the redundancy. But it's not just bad, the way that other entries in its peculiarly benighted subgenre are, like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or BloodRayne. Or Street Fighter or Wing Commander. Or Super Mario Bros. It is a bad film that swings between the inordinately awful, the merely crummy, and even the genuinely good in a wild confusion. We cannot, for example, bluntly declare "it's an ugly movie", even though its ugliness is pervasive and surely the individually most important reason that it's also bad. Parts of it are as beautifully-designed and executed as anything in an animated feature from the 2000s. And the only reason it's so damn ugly is because it's so damn ambitious.

The thing about The Spirits Within - which has absolutely no connection to the nine games in the main Final Fantasy series (Final Fantasy X released just over a week after the film opened), nor any of that series' spin-offs, except for a character called Sid (though its spelled "Cid" in the English localisations of the games) - is that it was as much a proof of concept and technical exercise as it was an attempt to make a narrative film. The idea behind it was to make the first photo-realistic CGI humans in feature-length cinema, six years after Toy Story birthed the fully-rendered CG feature by including hideous deformities where its human characters should have gone. Actually, that's much too small a way of putting the film's ambitions: The Spirits Within was meant to create a whole new paradigm in movie acting, creating in its main character a CG "actress" who would show up in film after film, both live-action and animated, who would come to feel like a real movie star in her own right.

This did not come even close to happening, and most of the aesthetic technique that The Spirits Within pioneered turned out to be an immediate dead end. The film was a big flop, one that shuttered the new film division of video game publisher Square almost in the same breath that it opened it, and very nearly wrecked the company's planned merger with fellow software company Enix, now wary of linking its fortunes to company with such a high-profile failure. Worse still, the much-ballyhooed new style was a complete wash: The Spirits Within is a handsome movie in almost every way except for its photorealistic characters, who remain 14 years later the leading citizens of the Uncanny Valley, that place where the visually accurate representation of humans runs into the barely-not-right animation of their bodies and features, and gives everybody watching a screaming case of the heebie-jeebies. Far from triggering a new generation of computer-generated movie stars, The Spirits Within decisively proved that all-CG characters had better stay in the realm of pure fantasy, like the frog-man Jar-Jar Binks of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, or better still, the skeletal subhuman Gollum of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, released a year and a half after The Spirits Within, and a triumph in exactly the ways that The Spirits Within failed.

Ironically, for a film whose cast is so uniformly soulless, The Spirits Within is all about souls. The somewhat baffling story, freely mixing spiritualism and hard science in a way that feels quintessentially JPRG-ish (though the script, which was in English for maximum profit potential, was by Al Reinert & Jeff Vintar, the story was by Final Fantasy creator and series guardian Sakaguchi Horonobu, who also directed), is about the race of alien beings that have taken over most of Earth's surface by 2065, and assault and kill humans by eating our spirits. Which you can see as they're pulled out of our bodies, with your naked eye and all. Dr. Aki Ross (Ming-Na Wen) and her mentor Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are busily working on a plan to fight these Phantoms by collecting eight elemental crystals alien spirits which will both cure Aki of her Phantom infection - the reason she's uniquely able to track down the target spirits - and help awaken Gaia, the spirit of Earth itself, to neutralise the Phantoms. Reluctantly helping them are Aki's former lover Captain Gray Edwards (Alec Baldwin), and his team of colorful soldiers, Ryan Whittaker (Ving Rhames), Neil Fleming (Steve Buscemi), and Jane Proudfoot (Peri Gilpin). And they have to work fast: they're being constantly stymied by the vicious General Hein (James Woods), who regards Aki's Phantom connection as proof that she can't be trusted, and just wants to blow the Phantoms apart with his giant space laser.

It would be charitable to describe the film's storyline as mildly confusing: the mixture of random spirituality and space marine clichés results in an irreconcilable collage of ideas and tones that lurches from heady discussions of New Age arcana bolted to technobabble, right into noisy action sequences, and then into moody expressions of creeping horrifying dread. The way to get through it, I have found on two occasions now, is to stop wanting the story to click along normally, and just go with whatever seems to be happening onscreen in the moment; ultimately, it always comes back to Hein being wicked and Gray shouting out exposition and looking sidelong at Aki, and it's easy enough to parse that as a thoroughly generic sci-fi action adventure. "Get through it", I say, not "find it marvelously enjoyable". In faith, The Spirits Within always feels a bit musty and overfamiliar, it's just that its individually musty elements jar with each other in inscrutable ways.

Which leaves us not with a particularly edifying story to sit through, but a series of visual spaces to watch unfold - it is a video game adaptation, after all. And fair's fair, the design of those spaces is absolutely exquisite. The film's evocation of a ruined Earth, turned into a literal alien graveyard, includes almost nothing but gorgeous backgrounds, full of hectically cobbled-together tech, flinty militarism, and an apocalyptic sweep in places. The Phantoms themselves are amazing-looking creations, translucent orange forms that flow and glide through the action with abstract beauty that offsets the inhuman horror of their design, which is usually spotted in brief snatches so that it never grows too comfortable.

And yet, what is this marvelous world populated with? Plastic zombies. In an early use of motion capture, the human cast of The Spirits Within tends towards stiffness in their actions that clashes oddly with their elaborately detailed and free-flowing hair, but that's not really the thing that leaps out of the screen to devour your brain from the inside. For that, we needs must look instead to their faces, which are subtle horrors, but abiding ones. You'd not be able to pick it out in a still shot; other than the matte flatness of their eyes, these are photo-realistic creations. In motion, they are living nightmares. It's the skin, above all else: there isn't a millimeter of squash and stretch in the characters' exposed flesh, which doesn't stretch, or wiggle, or move at all - it's at its most obvious in something like the vein on Dr. Sid's scalp, which sits there, flat and cold and motionless, like an iron cord stapled to his head. But it's at its worst whenever a character moves their jaw, and their face gives way while their cheeks stay rigid and flat. It's so hideous that it almost doesn't even register that the mouth movements don't meaningfully line up with the spoken dialogue most of the time, so in addition to watching faces move the way faces can't, we're also watching mouths flap around like dead puppets being waggled by a monstrous and perverse unseen puppetmaster.

I don't care how beautiful the design and compelling the world; and it wouldn't matter in the least if the story were a captivating masterpiece of curlicuing plot and piercing insight into the human condition. As long as the protagonists looked like that (Aki gets a bit more work put into her, but mostly at the level of texture and eye movement), The Spirits Within could never work as a motion picture. It is viscerally off-putting. The fascinating thing about it, is that for all that it horrifies me to watch more than a couple of minutes of it in a row, I am terribly glad the movie exists; it's like absolutely no other feature that I've ever encountered or even heard of, and its ambition is off the charts. This is the kind of severely disturbing dysfunction that only comes from pushing the envelope much too far, much too fast - all these years later, and we're still not caught up to the place where The Spirits Within wanted to get to in one step. It's absolutely one-of-a-kind, the perfect cinematic embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson's "Too weird to live, too rare to die", and in all its beautiful spectacle and skin-crawling ugliness, it is very much something that should be at least sampled, just for a taste of it. Because this film exists, we get to know what that kind of thing would look like; and better yet, because it exists, we know that we want to stay the hell away from that kind of thing, and why.

24 April 2015

DON'T PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD

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

Scout's honor, I'll get to the review part of the review in a minute, but I can't go into without getting something off my chest, which is that Foodfight! is monstrously unattractive. I would swear at The Hague that this is the absolute ugliest bastard of an animated that has ever been released by something resembling an actual animation studio, though in the case of Threshold Entertainment, that resemblance is fucking meager. The whole production history, which would make a movie that's vastly more entertaining than this one, starts with Lawrence Kasanoff, chief executive officer at Threshold (a company specializing in producing short projects for theme parks and such exploiting existing intellectual property), who came up with the kind of must-miss idea that only a studio executive with no connection left to humanity could have whipped up: what about, like, Toy Story with food corporation mascots instead of beloved childhood toys?

That was in 1999. The next couple of years found Kasanoff greasing the necessary palms to get the ultimate experience in grueling product placement off the ground, and beginning production on the thing, with Kasanoff himself as director. It all purred along nicely, until the drives containing all the completed animation were reported stolen in 2002. It would be delightful to assume that this was part of some plan to defraud the investors and corporations who'd paid to have their characters come to life in this film, but that seems hard to square with the rest of the story, which gets vastly more bizarre. Kasanoff, you see, was undaunted by this loss, and attempt to throw himself back into completing his marketing opus, though as recounted in a 2013 New York Times article that reads more like the eyewitness reports of a plane crash than a making-of piece, he didn't know much about direction animation, and his animators didn't know much about the specific tasks they were suddenly forced to do. At this point, the film - now to be carried out using motion capture, which in 2004 was about to score its first major success with the zombie horror film The Polar Express - managed to secure a distribution deal and a release date in 2005 that zipped by without notice; another went by in 2007. Then came the legal action, and in 2011 the film was auctioned off by the insurance company for immediate completion and distribution: the honors went to Viva Pictures, who silently dropped the thing into UK theaters in 2012 for hardly any time, and released it directly to DVD in the United States in 2013, after securing a favorable deal with Wal-Mart.

And under those circumstances, it's no surprise that Foodfight! - see, it's fun because it has an exclamation point! - looks like pulsating ass. It was made quickly by animators who didn't quite know what they were doing with software that wasn't right for the job and given instructions by a man with no clue about anything to do with technology and craft. Still, knowing why something isn't exactly anybody's fault is by no conceivable stretch of the imagination the same thing as making it not an outrageous crime against art and humanity.

And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.

In addition to images that look like what would happen if John Lasseter had the DTs, Foodfight! has a plot. And that plot is this: in the small, traditional grocery store Marketopolis Market, when the shop closes up for the night, the aisles turn into a thriving city populated by all the corporate mascots for all the products sold there - "Ikes", they're called, in recognition of their innate love for the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower* - who spend their days enacting '40s movie tropes and concocting shitty puns. The most level-headed and admired of all the Ikes is Dex Dogtective (Charlie Sheen), a cereal mascot who works as a private eye disrupting the surprisingly robust criminal underground of Marketopolis. He's just cracked his 500th consecutive case, and he plans to celebrate by finally proposing to his girlfriend Sunshine Goodness (Hilary Duff), who with a name like that is amazingly not the logo for a line of racy leather underwear. She's a catgirl who sells raisins. And Dex gives her a four-carrot ring, do you get it, because the three credited writers had a drinking habit to get back to.

Before he can pop the question, though, Sunshine goes missing. And that's not all that's about to shatter the beatific world of the Marketopolitans: the owner of the supermarket has just been strong-armed into stocking the new Brand X by a corporate salesman named Mr. Clipboard, who is voiced by Christopher Lloyd and designed like a level boss from one of the first House of the Dead games. As soon as Brand X shows up on the shelves, its own related Ike, Lady X (Eva Longoria) enters the community, and it's around now that one starts to wonder if the writers actually know what "generic" actually means, This happens, by the way, on the same day that a grim-faced Dex is opening his new club, Copabanana, to drown the sorrows of his lost love and the career that he sent down the shitter when she vanished. It takes absolutely no time before Lady X and her fellow off-brand Ikes begin to take over the city, murdering Ikes left and right, which apparently makes their product taste bad, or not work, or whatever. The film does not clarify its rules. It brags about how much non-clarity its rules have. It straddles the viewer and teabags us with its zeal for not having clear rules.

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

Anyway, the whole thing is a clumsy attempt to do bright CGI noir with Dex Doggevtive - I mean, what the fuck. "Dogtective" is not a word that a native speaker of English can pronounce. Longoria, who has to say it the most times, doesn't even try. She just calls him "Dex Dog Tective". But as I was saying, Dex Doveffiv is Humphrey Bogart, trenchcoat and hat and all, and the movie keeps lifting huge chunks of Casablanca in the apparent assumption that it would have violated the dignity of Warner Bros. to try and stop it. This does, incidentally, mean that Foodfight! needs Nazis. And Nazis it gets: the Brand Xers are about as unambiguously Nazi-esque as you can get in a kids' film, right down to the part where they torture an elephant to death with a dentist drill in a kids' film.

Not that Foodfight! has a very clear sense of what it means to be a kids' film. The filmmakers apparently had heard that some family movies have jokes that are mostly for the kids but also some subtle innuendo that's meant for their parents, and they tried their hand at it. This means that Dex's sidekick buddy, Daredevil Dan (Wayne Brady), an incompetent flying squirrel who sells chocolate and is a mind-bogglingly racist caricature, gets to sneak in such subtle winks and nods to the adults like: "How about some chocolate frosting? I'd like to butter your muffin!" and "I never even got a chance to play 'lick the icing' with Sweet Cakes". or there's this chestnut of seductive dialogue between Dex Doggive and Lady X:
"There are some stains you can never wash out."
"Let's try. I want to scrub your bubbles, Dex."
Later, Dex calls her a "cold-farted itch", which isn't just horribly dirty, it doesn't make any sense. But you, know, for kids! They love the farts. Which is probably why the second thing that in any way resembles a gag in the whole movie is a a frog farting, a propos of nothing.

Though to be fair, the context for a frog farting would probably never make more than an incidental kind of sense.

And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus: and when I saw her, I wondered with great admiration.

But I was just starting to talk about the Nazis! There are Nazis. There are Nazis trying to take over the city of corporate mascots, using food-based tanks and all. One of the main Nazis, voiced by ace voice actor Jeff Bennett, who I suppose was just glad for the work, discovers in the moment of his death that he's sexually aroused by urinating himself, and that is not a lie. It's not even an exaggeration.

The screenplay for this film is unforgivable, pure and simple, between the leering sex, the awful puns on corporate names and slogans (which is, for the most part, as close as it comes to its mission statement of combining corporate mascots in a fun shared universe; any character who has anything to do of real importance in the plot is either original or a terrible knock-off), the goddamn Nazis murdering people and taking over their city, the shameless Casablanca thievery. Even so, the screenplay deserved better animation.

There aren't words for how off-putting Foodfight! looks. The characters look like hell, with weird, stiff faces and body movement that has as many points of articulation as a cheap action figure. Most of them have just the one expression, which is how we have a (wildly, wildly sexist) climax in which Sunshine Goodness beams her ecstatic "I love all the world and especially RAISINS!" smile as she wallops the tar out of Lady X, who grimaces with the exact same "I want you inside of me right now, humanoid dog" smolder she's worn all through the film.

And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

It is insulting to primitivism to describe this as primitive. There has never been a period in the history of commercially-released computer animation where the technique was as clumsy as it is in the very best moments of Foodfight! Hair moves with heads like a thick plastic helmet; liquids slump across surfaces like tar on a frozen day; the backgrounds are fuzzy and indistinct and the foregrounds tend to be slabs of smooth colors with indifferently-applied lighting techniques. If this was a video game and you were playing it in 1996, you might think it looked okay, though not the best thing you'd ever seen. For a theatrical release in the 21st Century, it's an outright insult to the time of the hoped-for audience to think they'd tolerate this for even a minute. Which is a lot longer than I was able to tolerate the unchanging expressions, the unbelievably crude effects work (in the early going, a character cries, and it looks like he's shooting Tylenols out of his eyes - fuck, maybe that's another piece of product placement) and the way that no two objects seemed to be interacting with each other properly.

I'd say that I'm happy that something born from such a vile, mercenary place turned out so poorly and tanked so badly, but compared to the abject misery that is watching Foodfight!, even that happiness is fleeting. This is, in all sincerity, one of the very worst movies I have ever seen, not worthy of even the most morbid ironic fascination. It is dreadful, ugly, stupid, filthy-minded, and morally bereft on multiple levels. Also, you can totally see it for free on Amazon Prime.

22 April 2015

GREAT WORKS OF CLASSIC SCI-FI

In the very small hours of the morning - so small that I failed to notice it -a new group Top 10 went up at The Film Experience: the eleven-including-a-tie best science-fiction films prior to 1977.

As always, lists are a fun and contentious thing to talk about, so head over there and do so. But for the curious, my abnormally on-consensus ballot went like this:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - #1 on the TFE list
2. Solaris (1972) - on the TFE list
3. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) - on the TFE list
4. Fantastic Planet (1973)
5. Metropolis (1927) - on the TFE list
6. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) - on the TFE list
7. Forbidden Planet (1956) - on the TFE list
8. Godzilla (1954) - on the TFE list
9. Planet of the Apes (1968) - on the TFE list
10. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - on the TFE list

And the runners-up, chronologically:

When Worlds Collide (1951)
The War of the Worlds (1953)
Them! (1954)
La jetée (1962) - on the TFE list
Alphaville (1965)

This was as terrifying to whittle down as any list we've done: between this and its impending sister list, the sheer glut of worthy candidates and the constant terror that I'd forgotten something obvious and brilliant made it almost impossible for me to commit to a final list. Not to mention that "best science-fiction" is not a term that means any one particular thing 100% of the time. So please, tell me what I overlooked!

BEST SHOT: NINE TO FIVE

Forgive me, dear readers, but I have to make my contribution to this week's edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot a short one. It's One Of Those Days.

Our subject, selected as always by the kind and good Nathaniel R, is the classic anarcho-feminist comedy Nine to Five (or 9 to 5, I'm never clear which is the more "official" title), in which three hard working women played by the once-in-a-lifetime trio of Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton (who contributed the title number, one of the best songs to ever lose the Best Song Oscar) decide they've had enough of their bullying, condescending sexist prick of a boss (played, quite inevitably for 1980, by Dabney Coleman), and so they tie him up in his house and run the office in his absence. There's more to it than that, but even though this development occurs rather more than halfway through the movie, it's the thing everybody knows about it, so it seems fair enough for a précis.

All the attention usually goes - and fairly - to the film's role in the burgeoning Power to the Working Woman genre, and the three widely varied characterisations and performances of the protagonists. It's clearly slanted to encourage our viewing it through that lens: this was the era that "anything a man can do, a woman can do better" feminism was at its peak, and Nine to Five is one of the most iconic triumphs of that belief in pop culture.

But not wishing to be enormously obvious, I found myself gravitating towards the film's other inversion of traditional gender roles, the one that never gets talked about, because Coleman's Franklin Hart is such an un-nuanced gargoyle. Still, it's worth pointing out that as the three women in the movie take over the customary male role of decision making and office managing, the male villain is thrust into the role of a stay-at-home woman, literally tied down to his house. And that leads, at a certain point, to this delightful visual gag.

By this point, the film has already exploded traditional girly fantasies from the inside in the form of a marvelous series of sardonic dream sequences; it doesn't espouse a particular attitude about soap operas, but it's not hard to assume that it would be balled up with all the other things used to keep women docile and bored, and happily discarded. Or, in this case, left to rot a man's brains for a little while, as he learns firsthand how shabbily he and people like him have been treating 51% of the population for his entire life. And Coleman's resigned slumped posture just sells it that much more: he's not even miserable and angry anymore, he's just stuck in the house, watching his stories because there's nothing else for him to do. This obvious lesson is wasted on the character, but the punchy, perfectly-timed visual joke makes it impossible for us in the audience to fail to see and appreciate the irony.

BULLY PULPIT

All due respect to the recent spate of high-profile horror movies to be critically fêted on account of being actually good, but one of the things that The Babadook and It Follows have in common is that they're both immensely well-made versions of something that's already been done. Now, quite unexpectedly, we have the opposite, in the form of Unfriended (which premiered under the name Cybernatural, which simply doesn't do for something made later than 1997, and not a soft-core cable porno). Legitimately, it's as formally radical as any American film in years, and that despite being a genre picture; despite sounding like a slightly tarted-up first-person camera movie, and especially like 2013's The Den, it's only superficially the same thing. It is the rarest of the rare: it has created a totally new set of storytelling tools, laying out the rules for a new kind movie that, a year or two from now, I am hopeful might be used in a really aggressive, challenging way, the first great work of quintessentially Millennial art.

The problem is that Unfriended, aside from inventing a new language, is shit.

But I would like to accentuate the positive for starters, since the things that are bad about Unfriended are common to a great many poor horror films, and the things that are good are almost totally unique. The notion is that high school student Blaire Lily (Shelley Hennig) and her boyfriend Mitch Roussel (Moses Jacob Storm) are all ready to have a fun night of sexually taunting each other on Skype, when their friends Jess Felton (Renee Olstead), Adam Sewell (Will Peltz), and Ken "Kennington" Smith (Jacob Wysocki) jump into the fray, somehow, using computer trickery best described as "the screenwriter wanted it". The five of them banter a bit, getting increasingly annoyed at the sixth individual apparently listening in on their call, trying to figure it out, accusing snotty frenemy Val Rommel (Courtney Halverson) of being the hacker and dragging her into their chat, and only eventually figuring out that what might be going, and since this is a horror film, "might be" = "surely is", is that the dead Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide one year ago tonight, could be haunting everybody she thinks is responsible for bullying her into killing herself following a humiliating YouTube video that showed her drunk and covered in her own filth. Which does in fact mean that she wants revenge on, basically, the whole school, and I imagine that's to be the sequel hook.

Now, there's nothing special about any of that, except that the whole film is shown as a shot of of Blaire's MacBook desktop. And here's where we must be very specific about what we mean: it's not the footage being shown on Skype, a gimmick that dates at least back to the segment "The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger" from 2012's V/H/S, and it's not the Skype window with instant messages popping up in front of it, as in The Den. It is, literally, the whole of the desktop, with .jpgs and folders visible around the edges of windows that include Chrome, Skype, Apple iMessage, and Spotify, at least. Which is one important thing already: Unfriended uses name brand programs, and that adds immeasurably to its sense of realism compared to movies that have people using InstaChat and searching on Snoople, or whatever drippy pseudonyms the copyright-dodging screenwriter came up with that week.

That's lovely, but the really exciting thing, what makes Unfriended totally new in my experience, is that it's showing us the unfiltered version of what happens on Blaire's computer: we see the entire record of her life online, with all the various traces of abandoned thoughts on the titles of browser tabs and in her Facebook history, the programs she had open when she started to flirt with Mitch. And other than the appearance of the mouse arrow as she selects what she's focusing on, there's nothing in the movie to guide our eye; we simply get to decide whether it's the actual video of Laura's death we want to stare at, or the sidebar of "also suggested" videos, we can spy on her song playlist. What Unfriended has done is lay out the rules for how a movie can depict and move through that digital space; it has given the foundation to a filmmaker who wants to go for broke and really experiment by making all of that unfocused side detail where the actual storytelling happens, using scraps and errata that we can look at but don't have to, leaving swaths of important character detail spread out across a screen such that we can't see everything and have to prioritise what to look at. Unfriended even starts to be aware of that possibility, as it leaves sometimes up to six different video chat screens playing at once, and not always having the most prominent ones include the most interesting information.

That being said, while I have no doubt that a truly radical experimental narrative shall be made using this aesthetic, Unfriended is absolutely not it - all that wonderful space it leaves itself for squirreling away important bits of information in little side details is wasted on in-jokes and generic filler, the functional equivalent of "lorem ipsum" paragraphs. And it can't even be bothered to keep continuity straight: the action is clarified to take place in April, and we see certain Facebook well-wishes that are time-stamped to "January" and "X hours ago" at different points, all in story that takes place in real time over 80 minutes. There's also a countdown that skips from 10 to 5. So much for hiding interesting details in plain sight.

The plot, meanwhile, is generic "revenge against the obnoxious teenagers" boilerplate, interesting solely in that the exposition is given out of order and throughout the entire movie, so it all seems a bit more mysterious than in your average slasher, where we understand the point of the revenge more or less from the beginning. But a slasher is exactly what it boils down to, including both the regressive sexual morality (we discover that one character isn't a virgin at exactly the point that the movie begins to turn against that character) and the one-word personality types: the Druggie, the Horndog, the Bitch, the Geek, the Bitch (2), and the Hypocrite. Screenwriter Nelson Greaves's desire to structure this as a mystery and give the film a sucker punch twist ending turn into a tawdry trick, thereby trivialising the only thing about the story that had any prayer of being interesting: the film thinks that it's telling a complex tale of how bullying works in the age of social media, pointing out that bullies can be bullied themselves, and that dogpiling is a horrible fucking thing to do to people, no matter how distasteful they are. But its reliance on cheap horror tropes and shabby shocks devalues that theme significantly.

It's painfully unscary - I suspect that watching it on a television or, preferably, a computer might give it more oomph than seeing it in a movie theater possibly could - and includes one of the most contrived death scenes in recent horror cinema (assuming one would, for whatever reason, keep a blender in their bedroom, would it even so be possible to commit suicide with it?). And the filmmakers' enthusiasm for the Kids and their Ways leads ultimately to a deeply misguided climax built around a high-stakes game of "Never Have I Ever" that is bafflingly silly. So, let's be clear, I emphatically do not recommend this film. It's like someone invented the English language by writing The Da Vinci Code. But I do look forward to recommending its most successful knock-offs a few years down the road.

5/10

21 April 2015

DOWN ONCE MORE TO THE DUNGEON OF MY BLACK DESPAIR

A second review requested by K. Wild, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Like just about anyone born after 1970 who loves musical theater, I had my Phantom of the Opera phase. I'm not sure when or how it ended, exactly, but it was well before December, 2004, when at long last The Phantom of the Opera The Movie bombasted its way into theaters, 18 years after the musical had premiered. And yet I still found myself sitting there opening weekend, duty-bound to see if there was anything in the sprawling concoction heaved up by Joel Schumacher, a filmmaker uniquely devoid of a sense of proportion or fear of being thought tacky, that could make me believe again in the transporting power of the music of the night.

There was not then. There still isn't.

Yet it's not enough to say "The Phantom of the Opera ('04) sucks because The Phantom of the Opera ('86) sucks, and Andrew Lloyd Webber is a farty toot-head". Love or hate the source material, the fact remains that The Phantom of the Opera is nowhere near the movie it could have been, committing one unforced error after another on its way to becoming one of the damned sloppiest major musicals of contemporary times. The cynic might say that the filmmakers knew they had an enormous pre-sold fanbase, and simply didn't need to care about doing a good job; but I legitimately don't want to be that cynical. Schumacher had been invested in this project for years before it was completed - I can't imagine that he just didn't give a shit about the material.

That material, of course, is one of the most popular stage musicals in the history of the medium, adapted from Gaston Leroux's 1910 romantic horror novel, which had been translated into Lord knows how many movies by the time Schumacher's version came along. The basic story is as familiar as it gets: young opera singer-in-training Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) is able to pinch hit on the night of a grand gala at the Paris Opera (the fictional Opéra Populaire in the musical), when the stormy prima donna Carlotta (Minnie Driver) decides to pitch a hissy fit, and wins an enormous success. What nobody knows is that she has been receiving lessons from an unseen tutor, her "Angel of Music". What even Christine doesn't know is that this is actually a disfigured man living in the catacombs and sewers beneath the opera house, whose inhabitans refer to him in nervous whispers as the Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler). When she connects with childhood friend and current patron of the Opéra, Raoul, Victomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), she pushes the shadowy Phantom into a jealous rage, and while he plots to have her firmly entrenched as the company's new leading soprano, he also works to fully possess the young woman whom he already has in an enraptured haze.

Every version of Phantom is basically a melodrama; in the case of the legendary 1925 Universal production, it's melodramatic horror, while the musical, with score by Webber, lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, and book by Webber and Stilgoe, is a melodramatic romantic triangle that juts out into horror here and there. The movie goes a little bit more in for thrills and chills than the stage version did, owing largely to some new orchestrations that live threateningly in the baseline, but the core is still swoony romance, and that's probably why the film committed one of the two absolutely crushing sins that would have turned it into a failure no matter how great everything else was - and in this Phantom of the Opera, there is nothing whatsoever that deserves to be called "great", except for maybe the costumes designed by Alexandra Byrne. We'll get to the other one in a moment, but let's pause for a moment to contemplate good ol' Gerard Butler, the pretty boy Phantom cast with an eye towards making the disfigured murderer a sex symbol who could compete with the handsome young Wilson (whose subsequent career of shifty, pathetic emblems of self-loathing masculinity makes it incredibly hard to take him seriously here, but that's not the fault of the movie or his performance) and Wilson's ludicrous shoulder-length wig.

Permit me to be blunt, dear reader, in stating directly that Butler's casting doesn't work on any level whatsoever. Madonna's lead performance in Evita, the last film made from a Webber show, wasn't necessarily any better, but at least she makes sense from a metanarrative and marketing perspective. Butler is just wrong. He's too attractive to be remotely plausible as the scarred, angry outcast - and the make-up design is quite ashamed to cover him up with more than a bad rash and a bit of modest scar tissue around the lips, compounding the problem.

"So distorted, deformed, it was hardly a face"

Nor was he nearly enough of a noteworthy heartthrob in 2004 to make up for it by re-making the role into a star vehicle. He's also not tremendously good as an actor, find one emotion per scene and clinging to it like a life raft, resulting in a far plainer Phantom than the material deserves; instead of a tragic Byronic antihero, the character is just a mopey creep.

But the worst of it, and it's not even a close race, is in his singing. It is mind-blowingly bad - it competes only with Pierce Brosnan's cow-giving-birth performance of "S.O.S." in Mamma Mia! for the title of worst vocal performance in a musical in the 2000s. Butler has to bark and bray his way through the musical's signature ballad, "The Music of the Night", leaping for notes that he can only hit through momentum, not through good pitch, and turning the song into an uncomfortable straining ruin. There are certain points - the first time he sings the line "The Phantom of the Opera is there, inside your mind" in "The Phantom of the Opera" is the clearest example - where he drops his AmerBritish accent and lets the Scots flow through him. He sounds, throughout, to be in dreadful pain. And that, infinitely more than his incongruous appearance, is what causes him to jam the brakes on the film and throw the audience out through the windshield.

That is one of the film's primary sins. The other one - the worse one, I'd say, given that I've thought about it constantly in the decade since I saw the film last - is that the sound mixing is the fucking worst. I have seen movies from 1929, where the microphones were hidden in potted plants, that didn't have such brutal shifts in the texture of the soundtrack. Of course, any musical where the songs are prerecorded and the actors lip-sync on set (generally not all that well, in this film) is going to show the seams between the two, but in Phantom of the Opera, it feels like they're singing on a different continent from the action depicted onscreen. Thankfully, it's mostly sung-through, so there's not that much spoken dialogue - though quite a lot more than in the show - but when it arrives it is dramatic and horrible, particularly during the lovers' secret banter in "Masquerade", where a sweet moment is turned into an earache. Or there's the grisly experience of "Stranger Than You Dreamt It", in which Butler sounds like he was delivering all his lines on the back of a truck speeding through a windstorm.

Mind you, just because Butler and the sound mixing are so utterly, unrelievedly vile that I have to separate them out, that doesn't mean that Phantom of the Opera has much of anything to recommend it. It's easier to praise the performances on a moment-by-moment level than any of them across the board: only Wilson is generally solid throughout, along with Miranda Richardson as the curt ballet mistress with A Dark Secret, but her role is too tiny to make a film-saving impact (she's also the only character in this Parisian-set story to speak with a French accent, because Miranda Richardson says "fuck you, I'm doing it"). Rossum's best moments are sublime, playing Christine as the guileless child that most films and stage productions tend to age up into her mid-20s, radiating an innocence that shades deeper into sorrow and fear as the film proceeds; but there are enough rocky patches in her performance that it's not flawless, and while it's a pity her career evaporated until TV saved it in 2011, this is hardly the kind of grand coming out as a leading lady the 18-year-old probably hoped for. She looks sleepy and distracted during the soaring love duet "All I Ask of You"; her singing is never better than satisfactory, and she has an enormous problem with the semi-parodic opera aria "Think of Me". Incidentally, nothing about The Phantom of the Opera indicates that Webber or Hart had even a micron of knowledge about actual opera. Driver goes way broad, and her Italian comic villain is the next best thing to a hate crime; it's also impossible to take her seriously as an actually talented, popular, and world-class diva, a reality that the entire rest of the plot springs from.

The staging is generally indifferent, save for a few scattered shots that prove Schumacher had seen Moulin Rouge! sometime in the three years since its release, and the utterly tacky lift at the start of the garish, over-lit "The Phantom of the Opera" sequence that proves he'd also seen Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, and inaccurately assumed that he had earned the right to lick that film's taint, let alone pilfer one of its most famous images. Some moments - a series of high-angle tracking shots during "Prima Donna" the dreamy incoherence that precedes that ghastly Cocteau homage - are clever and lovely; and the way he stages the framing scenes from years in the future as a flickering silent film (albeit with sound) is well-done if not effective. Some parts - the baffling destruction of the fourth wall in "Masquerade" and the anachronistic choreography that pops up in the same number - are irritating and lousy. The vast majority of it, though, is just there, doing nothing in particular but plopping the action onscreen in a way that's a bit brighter, more glittery, and tackier than the stage version.

I don't know if it's the worst Phantom of the Opera that I can imagine - it has no space aliens or dubstep remixes of the songs - but it's surely the worst that could have been made under Webber's personal supervision. What isn't sleepy and tediously literal is messy and inept, shots slamming together rather than cutting neatly, the sets looking garish and flat, the performances drifting aimlessly and in no real relationship to each other. It feels like even an enthusiastically mediocre and hackish adaptation should have been better than this; this is an actively terrible motion picture that every reason to be bland and perfunctory. That's takes some kind of skill, I suppose, but it's not really something you'd want to brag about.

20 April 2015

SHE DIDN'T SAY MUCH, BUT SHE SAID IT LOUD

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

The 1996 feature film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Evita is, generally speaking, just fine. It's biggest limitation, frankly, is that it's an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Evita, but that show and preceding concept album was neither man's worst hour, at least. There are alternate universes where they got a much better film Evita, though: one directed by stylistic madman Ken Russell in the late '70s, or even the same exact one we got in our universe, directed by Alan Parker, only it stars Michelle Pfeiffer. And I must confess that I am jealous of the musical lovers in those universes. Because our Evita is just fine... it's just fine.

That being said, adapting Evita into a movie was always going to be a hideous amount of work, and it was perhaps never going to turn out right. The source material isn't a dramatic play with passages of dialogue set to music to demonstrate intensified emotion or particularly important scenes; it's really more of a staged song cycle, much like Webber and Rice's earlier collaboration Jesus Christ Superstar. Compared to the utter dog of a film which that show was turned into in 1973, Evita looks like an uncompromising triumph. But it still leaves the movie with a structure that won't construct, and while Russell made a song cycle into the crazyfucker masterpiece Tommy, as Parker himself did with Pink Floyd: The Wall, both of those movies got to cheat. They both had concepts that not only permitted, but outright demanded a psychedelic treatment, and so both of those films get to turn into florid visual trips hung along the spine provided by an arty rock group's concept album. Now, I'm not saying that there could not be a psychedelic Evita, and if there was, nothing in this world would have kept me from it. But it's no surprise at all that Evita isn't psychedelic in the least.

The thing that it has as a story surrogate relates, broadly and with dubious accuracy, the life of Eva Perón née Duarte (Madonna), born illegitimately in 1919 in rural Argentina. It tracks her laser-like focus on sleeping her way into modest radio stardom, which put her in position to meet Colonel Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce, who looks about as much like a "Juan" as I do like an "Ichiro") at a charity gala in 1944. They married, and she threw herself into a fiery populist campaign to get him elected president in 1946. Together they (mostly she) were extravagantly beloved by the people of Argentina, until her stunningly premature death from cancer in 1952 rocketed her to the position that she still occupies of secular saint.

Fleshing that sketch out is where things get a bit rocky because, well, the film really doesn't (I'll plead ignorance as to whether the show does: I've never seen Evita staged, and I'm familiar only with the 1976 concept album that would be considerably re-worked for its 1978 theatrical debut). Parker does what he can with that favorite trick of silent filmmakers, the Zooming Newspaper Headline, but the almost totally sung-through story offers very little room for context or historical depth, and while that might play in the concert-like surroundings of live theater, the trappings of prestige cinema are too concrete, and Parker's directing too drably normal to survive such an abstract storytelling register. Evita doesn't end up feeling like a movie, but a series of music videos stitched together by montages. And, frequently interrupted by montages: one of the small number of brash stylistic tricks that Parker trots out, and probably shouldn't have, is to use impressionistic flashbacks and flashforwards to pep up what would otherwise be static moments of characters just standing there singing for a few minutes, and while I admire the effort, it doesn't land. We came for "Don't Cry for Me Argentina". We did not come to see "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" turned into a repository of footage we just watched, like, 40 minutes ago.

The music videos have the merit of being inordinately handsome, at least; with production design by Brian Morris and cinematography by Darius Khondji (who received his solitary Oscar nomination to date for this film), Evita looks lush and costly, but not at the cost of being stuffy and lifeless. It's a film of much grandeur, with no subtlety about it whatsoever, but it feels Big and Epic and Important in a way that very little Oscarbait actually manages to do. And within that framework, Parker's staging of individual moments - when he and editor Gerry Hambling can be bothered to let the action play out in chronological order, at least - certainly manages to be sure-footed and impeccably dramatic: the quick flow of the story through the flippant "Good Night and Thank You", or the jagged visual rhythm in "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)" even manage to make a virtue of the ragged holes in the story's chronology.

Inasmuch as Evita was going to be primarily naturalistic, then, Parker's treatment of it is as good as it was likely to be. That's still limited by the story structure, and by the songs: though the rock music he relies on is a weird and sometimes unpleasant fit for a story of '1940s Argentina, Webber hadn't yet hit the wall of insipid mediocrity by the time of Evita, but Rice in the '70s was outright deranged, and the lyrics in Evita are baffling as often as not. Nothing matches the swirling vortex of madness found in the loopiest passages in Jesus Christ Superstar - the man who perpetrated "Like a jaded, jaded, faded, jaded, jaded mandarin" set that bar far too high to jump over it again - but there's plenty of choice "what the fuck were you thinking" moments, in places like "I came from the people, they need to adore me / So Christian Dior me..." in the aptly named "Rainbow High" or "Although she's dressed up to the nines / At sixes and sevens with you" from the iconic "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" itself. The film's solitary new song, "You Must Love Me" - specially designed for the purposes of being a hit Madonna single - doesn't quite come out unscathed (the word "must" connotes "are commanded to" too strongly for the line's primary meaning of "I guess you love me, huh" to naturally flow out), but the Rice of '96 is sufficiently calmed down that Evita manages the rare - maybe unprecedented - feat among stage-to-film musical adaptations of having its original, awards-courting composition be the standout number.

All that was baked in, though, and would have been a problem with any adaptation. But this particular Evita could still have done better with a better cast, and with no other changes been a considerably stronger film. Pryce's crisp British aura was a poor fit for Juan Perón, and he's not believable as a dictator, but the role isn't all that big. The male lead is actually Antonio Banderas as Ché "Not Guevara, Alan Parker Didn't Like That", the mysterious figure who drifts in and out of Evita's life as a host of different characters, always probing her conscience and snottily passing asides to the camera that clarify that for all her goodwill and charm, Eva had some massive limitations as a human being. What with the benevolent dictatorship and all. Though Evita is petrified to death of actually engaging with specific politics, so any attempts to actually analyse the Peróns' effect on Argentina is doomed to die in infancy. But anyway, Banderas is excellent in a role that lacks any interiority and specifically forbids an actor from faking it. It's all attitude and rolling the lines around as he sings them, and he's got that down cold.

But then there is the matter of the superstar albatross around the film's neck. It's easy to see why Madonna identified with the role and wanted it; it's easy to see why the studio wanted her. But she's just not good. The demands of the role tax her range considerably, and the dramatic flourishes all tend to flatten out (her "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is a particular flat spot, in exactly the place that movie needs to put all its chips on a big showstopping rouser); she hits the notes, but frequently it audibly costs her to do that. That's bad enough, but she is a terrible actress, analysing the words in her songs like a pop singer and not the lead in a work of musical theater, and so her emphases are close but rarely exactly right. Her body language, meanwhile, is utterly helpless; she uses her arms to vaguely indicated and stress thoughts, like a malfunctioning audio-animatronic version of Mussolini. The only time she seems to understand what emotions should be foregrounded on her face is during Eva's sickness, when she adopts a saggy, weary look that almost manages to sell the pathos of the sequence, but without a strong foundation preceding it, it's hard to care.

Evita is so single-mindedly focused on Eva herself that no production, no matter how great all the constituent elements were, could survive the kind of stiff, wholly artificial and forced performance that Madonna gives. And of course, many of the constituent elements here are not great. There are enough individually good parts that I really wish I could fake it and give it a pass - Khondji was in excellent form when he shot this, which counts for an awful lot - but nope. Evita minus Evita is a washed-out slog, and all the lovely settings and handsome staging in the world can't compensate for that.

19 April 2015

ABUSES OF POWER

A second review requested by David Greenwood, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Knowing, as one can't help but know, that Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is the most god-damned notorious art film of them all for its grotesque displays of violence, warped sexuality, and bottomless imagination for depicting human cruelty, the film's opening is even more disorienting than it should be. And it's nothing but black titles on a white background! But underneath plays a jaunty, jazzy tune, Franco Ansaldo and Alfredo Bracchi's "Son tanto triste", promising a breezy tossed-off insincere experience to follow. In its own tiny way, it's as perverse and excruciating as anything that follows.

Truth be told, Salò's reputation for toxic, vile unwatchability is a bit overblown. It is, beyond question, a harrowing experience, and one that is very difficult to recommend - having at last seen it, I'm comfortable calling it an absolutely vital work of cinema that I'll never recommend to anybody for any reason - but it's nothing like a non-stop chamber of horrors that, once it stops, never lets up in punishing the audience. It's extremely formalised, in fact, and takes repeated stops to shift away from its depictions or even descriptions of depravity to indulge in circular conversation amongst its villains about European philosophy. True, these narrative pauses have a tendency to feel like the film is mustering its strength and drawing its breath for the next onslaught, so it's not like we're given a chance to relax in front of it. No, it keeps us pretty tense and wired throughout. Really, the parts of it that are most explicit are in some way the easiest to take, since at least in those cases we get to have a reaction and thus catharsis.

The film was the last to be directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose horrible murder came earlier in the same month as the film's November, 1975 premiere in France, giving its depiction of sexualised violence an extra charge of sickening potency - moreso when it was new than now, I am sure, and the papers aren't busily running photos of Pasolini's bloody corpse. He and Sergio Citti adapted it from the novel by the Marquis de Sade, added some of Dante's Inferno for the framework - though Salò describes only a one-way descent into Hell - and transposed the action to the Mussolini government during its final days as a puppet for the waning Nazi regime. How closely it hews to de Sade, I cannot begin to say, but taken on its own terms, the story adopts an almost poetic structure, built around four "stanzas", each moving through roughly the same sequence of events, while escalating the specific cruelty and intensity of those events. Simply put, the plot centers on a Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), a Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), a Magistrate (Umberto P. Quintavalle), and the President (Aldo Valletti), who assemble a host of gorgeous young men and women, some kidnapped and some hired, to populate their castle on the outskirts of Salò, the capitol of the short-lived Italian Social Republic. There, they conduct an endless (or 120 days, anyway) experiment in causing humiliation and torture to their victims as a way of indulging their own pleasure. And that's basically it.

Pasolini's essays and interviews conducted in the last few years of his life leave virtually no ambiguity as to what he wanted to accomplish with this film, particularly in relationship to the three immediately preceding it in his career, the "Trilogy of Life" - The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights. Those films, the sunniest of his career, cumulatively present an idealised vision of pre-capitalist society, using primitive film technique and ancient storytelling style to depict sexual and social freedom, something not entirely unlike Rousseau's swoony Enlightenment-era adoration of noble savagery. In that way, it makes perfect sense that Pasolini would turn to de Sade, whose work was an explicit and purposeful contrast to Rousseau's optimism, showcasing the darker side of human possibility. For Pasolini, who had abandoned Marxism but not anti-capitalism at this point, the kind of joyful sexuality he had explored in the trilogy was fundamentally implausible in the corrupt capitalist world around him, based on relationship of power and the exploitation and ownership of the lower classes by the upper classes. It's not unusual to see Salò described as an anti-Fascist parable, using humiliation, torture, and rape as metaphors for the exploitation of a whole country by right-wing authoritarians during the war, but it's more the case that Fascism itself is also a metaphor, and the whole thing is a more general parable about the inherent abuses meted out by the self-indulgent leadership classes against the rest of society, baked into The System The Way It Is Now. This approach itself led to the film being attacked by the Italian intelligentsia, notably Italo Calvino, who viewed Pasolini's appropriation of Mussolini's real-life abuses to serve as an extreme parody in a provocative movie to be dangerously amoral.

That might very well be the case - the last thing I'm qualified to do is tell the intellectuals who lived through Fascism that they don't understand Fascism. Morally, I am genuinely uncertain what we should do with Salò, other than to firmly declare that it's grotesque excesses have very little in common with the like of torture porn or the Nazi sexploitation films of the same era. As cinema, though, the film is ingenious - one can debate the merits of Pasolini's intentions, but not the skill with which he carried them off, and even if we allow for Death of the Author and Intentional Fallacy and the like (and we should), there's no denying that the movie and themes the director described in the last year of his life is precisely the movie that we can watch today, those of us who don't live in countries where it's still illegal.

It's a marvelously crafty picture, Salò is, an enormous shift away from the artful crudeness of the Trilogy of Life and mostly unlike anything Pasolini ever did. It's a mercilessly aesthetic piece: the all-star team of production designer Dante Ferretti, set decorator Osvaldo Desideri, and costume designer Danilo Donati, in concert with Pasolini and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli's proscenium-like framing along strict gridlines, gives Salò the polish, richness, and geometric precision of classical art; for a film so jam-packed with ugliness, it's gorgeous, like, constantly. But also chilly and mechanical: what none of the visuals do is give any life to the movie, and the customary hollowed-out sound design of Italian film production does nothing to combat that, nor do the dispassionate performances which (much like the sound), only really have much vibrancy to speak of during the cruelest acts depicted. The film is so sharp and precise that it feels totally artificial, and the whole time one watches it, one is first and always aware of the artifice on display: the fussy staging, the inorganic cutting, the way that depravity turns on and off like a light switch.

It becomes uncomfortably clear, in other words, that the film anticipates an audience - ourselves, and probably Pasolini too, whose sexual proclivities weren't entirely unlike some of the ones being depicted in the film as so ugly. Particularly viewed in the context of Tree of Life, Salò is obviously a scream of primal rage, directed at a world where everything is cruel and even something as beautiful as sex has been curdled and turned into a device for the powerful to assert their control over the powerless (I'm not sure that I've ever seen a movie that so bluntly insists on rape as a totally de-eroticised act). But it is not righteous. It indicts itself, its maker, and its viewers for existing in the same system of abuse and exploitation as its subjects; even as the victimised characters start to become increasingly complicit in sustaining the sordid world they're suffering through, it grows harder to deny that Salò isn't letting us off the hook. Isn't it a beautiful movie to just look at? Aren't the many young men and women seen naked throughout the film attractive? Yes and yes - that's the movie's trap for us, for even though it's as thoroughly unpleasant as any film that does not depict actual dead humans or animals could possibly be, Salò anticipates its status as an unspeakable provocation, one of those movies that we all go see precisely because they're so shocking and upsetting and horrible. The film tricks us, though: first by including so much material that's upsetting without being shocking, its long passage of depressingly violent stories and shitty jokes and its slow-paced development of the visual and narrative rules, and sitting listening to its characters talk about how utterly vile they are without punishing them for it. And then when the shocks start to come, they're staged in a way that makes us feel like voyeurs - explicitly so, in one of the final moments. It's a film that indicts everything, up to and including itself for existing in the world it depicts.

It's a one-of-a-kind mixture of rarefied intellectualism and disgusting visceral spectacle, and its themes are so severe as to feel like a howl of despair more than an articulate statement of radical politics. But it is pure cinema. I was not glad to see it while I was watching it, but I'm glad to have seen it; it is quite a thing to grapple with. Movies like this simply don't exist: that's arguably a good thing, but it certainly makes Salò stand out as a singular artistic accomplishment.

UNSPEAKABLE FILTH

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

L'âge d'or, an hour-long 1930 feature, is the second of the two collaborations between France-based Spanish surrealists Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, and it is certainly less jam-packed with iconic "every film buff alive knows this shot" shots than their 1929 short Un chien andalou. But it also better - oh, fuck me. "Better" is a word that has no place in this conversation at all. Buñuel and Dalí were, quite specifically, not looking to do things that would get them praise for being "good". Using "better" is exactly missing the point. L'âge d'or is, let us say, the more complex of the two, and the more thematically probing, which is probably inevitable given that it's four times as long. It is absolutely the more naked political film - Dalí was an iconoclast who just wanted to up-end people's expectations, Buñuel a committed radical who wanted to tear down the Catholic Church and and the right-wing European governments of that period with all the force and rage he could muster. In its combination of rabid left-wing politics and vigorous surrealism, L'âge d'or is the first truly "Buñuelian" film, then, and it is not surprising to learn that the relationship between the two artists had deteriorated to the point that Dalí had virtually nothing to do with the film's production once the screenplay was completed - according to a deliciously tawdry but hard-to-verify legend, Buñuel chased Dalí off the set on the first day with a hammer.

The film has a scenario that starts to reveal itself more and more explicitly as it moves along, but for a healthy span of the beginning, it doesn't seem that way. Instead, L'âge d'or picks up right where Un chien andalou left off, as a series of seemingly disconnected visual gags, though "gag" is in the eye of the beholder. Violent shocks of aggressive absurdity is probably closer to the mark. The first of these is a series of images of scorpions, taken from a nature documentary, stitched together with large blocks of intertitles - the movie is a sound/silent hybrid, but more on that later - which pretty neatly sets up the mood of the film as a series of lashing, defensive attacks by venomous arthropods. Which is about as nice a sentiment as anything Buñuel and Dalí have to spare for the twin targets of their ensuing satiric broadside, the bourgeoisie and the Catholic Church.

The nature of that attack is two-fold: first in the accumulation of random startling and blasphemous imagery, second in the details of its story - perhaps surprisingly, given how cozily L'âge d'or fits into even the most proscriptive definition of Surrealism. But for as madcap and what-the-almighty-fuck-is-going-on the film's barrage of visual non sequiturs no doubt is, L'âge d'or actually tells a rather clear, straightforward story: they want to have sex (they are played by Gaston Modot and Lya Lys), and circumstances keep preventing. At first they can't because the city of Rome is founded on the exact muddy patch where they were trysting. Afterwards, they can't because of the censoriousness of Rome's most noteworthy export, Catholic morality. Finally, they can't because of psychological symbolism. Meanwhile, Jesus Christ (Lionel Salem) is raping young girls in a monastery. Only it's possible he's just a man who look as and acts uncannily like Christ. It's also probably not the case that Rome was founded in 1930. But that is when it was foundered, anyway.

So, fair is fair, it gets less clear the closer you look at it, but at the broadest possible respect, the film is first and above all about the importance of openly and honestly engaging with one's libido, and the way that all of Polite Western Upper-Middle Class society is structured to make that engagement specifically impossible. It's a randy film, with seductive blow-jobs delivered to the toes of statues, and the man feverishly imagining that advertisements are depicting abstract, disembodied vaginas, and all that good stuff; and while it presents sex as the stuff of loopy comedy, it also presents it with good-natured humor. The rest of the film, though, is pure, rage-filled mockery of the stifling rules of society, opening with a bleak joke against a quartet of bishops, ending with a nasty attack on Christ as a hero-villain out of de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, and middling with a stuffy bourgeois party that's pelted by absurdities and anti-social provocations like something from a more sexually-charged Marx brothers movie. For anti-social behavior is presented in L'âge d'or as an aphrodisiac; both in a nod to the erotic nature of the taboo, and a clear implication that everything about this society is worth being anti.

The film is confusing and densely packed, but one thing it's surely not is subtle: there's no way to watch it without being repeatedly hit in the face by the filmmakers' disgust with the puritanical conformist urges that are linked through bizarre staging, crafty editing, and ironic sound cues with cruel exploitation of a working class that the wealthy ignore completely, with sublimated violence, with feces - much like the then eight-year-old Ulysses, another work of art to fearlessly confound social satire with pornographic depictions, L'âge d'or wants us to see and hear and think about shit, the great unifying element of all humanity and animals, that Nice People Never Talk About, and can be made to look ridiculous simply by placing them in its metaphorical proximity.

Is it all a bit puerile? Aye, undoubtedly - the 26-year-old Dalí and 30-year-old Buñuel weren't kids but they were close enough anyway to have the enraged snottiness of youth, and that's the clear animating force underneath L'âge d'or: the young person's snarl of contempt to an older generation that has massively ruined everything, "fuck you for this, and fuck you for that, and just fuck you". By drifting from boldly authoritative documentary footage and narration to cheap visual and audio gags to startling, often upsetting weirdness that seems to come from no place but a chaotic dream, the film connects the real, tangible world (the documentary) to a frolicking hell of random nonsense (the rest), and it does this with the unchecked, self-confident gusto of untried, undisciplined youth. I freely admit that it's largely for this reason that, as easily as I find myself whipped along in the film's frenzies, I can't find it in me to regard it as top-level Buñuel; most of his career later, the director would revisit much of the same ideas (the need for sexual openness, the totalitarian hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, parodic religious iconography) in Viridiana, a film as controlled and clear as L'âge d'or is freewheeling, and directly because of its greater maturity and more precise presentation, it's a far nastier and more piercing satiric assault.

But by no conceivable means does the existence of that later film mean that L'âge d'or is redundant: it has a vitality and insane level of visual creativity that are all the justification it could possibly require. As a document of capricious madness turning the world into a pile of steaming shit and then declaring things a Golden Age, the films' unpredictable shifts in tone and content, and the inexplicable content of its various jokes, could not have been bettered. It was the film that 1930 needed, and decades upon decades later, it still has potency to shock the squares like almost nothing else out of entire generations of the avant-garde.

17 April 2015

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR

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

Two things at least can be confidently stated about Meet the Feebles: it's a movie that goes to great lengths to be the most fully-expressed version of itself possible; and Peter Jackson's career would have been indefinably more fascinating if he'd stayed in this vein instead of finding his way into enormously costly tentpole epics. The director's first feature was titled Bad Taste, and that's the quality that his third, Braindead/Dead Alive, exemplifies. But this 1989 sophomore effort is in a wholly different league from those. It's not enough to call it "bad taste" - Meet the Feebles goes so enthusiastically deep into offensive crudeness that it achieves a kind of freestanding surrealism above and beyond a scenario that's pretty damn surreal all on its own.

What we have here is basically a parody of The Muppet Show: a live TV variety show is being put on by a team of exaggerated animals, all carried off through puppetry and giant suits, and the personality quirks of the characters make it almost impossible to keep the show going on the way it's meant to. The parody is extremely specific in some ways: the gluttonous prima donna Heidi the Hippo (physically performed by Danny Mulheron - one of the Jackson's three co-writers - and voiced by Mark Hadlow) with a hopeless love for the show's producer is an obvious gloss on Miss Piggy. Mostly, though, the parody is more conceptual, taking the setting and goals of the Muppets and transforming them into an excitedly savage parody of celebrities, show business, and the awful things people do for fame and fortune. It's not devoid of humanism; unexpectedly, it ends up having a lot of patience and affection for its solitary mostly decent character, Robert the Hedgehog (Hadlow as well), an innocent lost in a sea of depravity who just wants to put on a show and make people happy. It's a bit odd that the film's most expressly Jim Henson-style character should end up treated so kindly by it, especially given the unhesitating violence that it's eager to mete out on the cast in particularly evocative effects work. That Peter Jackson, he's a big old Kiwi softie.

To be honest, the relative - relative - generosity with which Meet the Feebles handles Robert proves to be close to its saving grace. Without some kind of sympathetic anchor, it would be easy for the rest of the film to turn into a sour freak show (a lesson Jackson & co-writer/wife Fran Walsh would run with on Braindead, which is a full-on romcom once you scrape off the stage blood), nothing but a montage of pointlessly gross cheap shots at a much too easy target. Which is still a charge one could levy against the movie, and make it stick fairly easy. Frankly, "take this thing beloved by kids and make it obscene and nihilistic" is one of my least-favorite kinds of humor, since it comes almost exclusively from a place of smug faux-sophistication, though Meet the Feebles is exactly the kind of project to justify that "almost". Its bones might be a parody, but the film fully commits to its internal reality in a way that forestalls it being nothing but a piss-take of the Muppets. It is a story about pornographer rats and junkie frogs and sex-addict rabbits putting on a show that we're honestly meant to believe in, and everything about the way it has been shot and lit and scored, to say nothing of the impressive design and construction of the puppets and suits on what could not have been a very generous budget, is dedicated to that end. If there's a way to link the snot-nosed Peter Jackson of Meet the Feebles with the Oscar-winning Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (and there are two - they both directed giant spider attacks using some virtually identical camera angles), it's that in both cases the director was able to keep a whole flotilla of craftspeople in line to make something unified and seamless set in a world that is completely made-up in every respect.

Purely in that respect, Meet the Feebles is miraculous accomplishment, all the more so since the film starts piling up baffling developments so quickly that keeping it tethered to its own reality seems like something of a paradox (it's also why I'm not bothering with a plot recap - it's an assemblage of several subplots stitched together with one-off gags, all barreling towards a deus ex machina ending). That's even without bringing up the film's enthusiastic embrace of gross-out humor of all stripes, some of which is purely disgusting (a gossip columnist fly - itself a fairly sophisticated multilingual gag, when we recall that "paparazzi" is ultimately derived from an Italian word for a buzzing insect - who graphically eats feces in one scene; and even that's a metaphor, if an appalling one), some of which is so startling random that it leaps beyond disgust into some Buñuelian register of incomprehensibility. For example, a seedy walrus promoter screwing a starlet cat is offensive on one level, but that's not the level the film presents it at; the sheer impossibility of the act comes first, then its relation to character, and only then the fact that the filmmakers are performing a travesty of children's entertainment. And that's a relatively sane moment; there are regurgitated talking fish already half-digested, lengthy Vietnam flashbacks, and inexplicable basement monsters ready to eat the corpses of animals accidental killed in making bondage porn to be had, and none of those are even half as explicable on a plot level as the film's frequent, anatomically implausible cross-species sex.

All of the shocking humor and the free-for-all plotting, combined with the inventive and frankly realistic filmmaking (no actual Muppet film ever used such a variety of close-ups, deep focus, and low angles in insisting on the physical reality of its characters), certainly leave Meet the Feebles as a unique experiment, and one whose insights into human behavior - people do awful things to be successful in show business and then hate themselves for it - aren't as important to it as its sense of curdled black humor. And yet it has insights nonetheless, so we can't write it off as just a gonzo provocation. It presents a pageant of terrible human activities with enough wit and creativity that I'm absolutely pleased it exists and that I've seen it; it also presents that pageant with an unsparing enough level of morbidity and cruelty that I'm pleased that I probably won't be seeing it again for a long time. But it sure is a special little gob of bile.

15 April 2015

BEST SHOT: TAXI DRIVER

Unpopular opinion time! To me, Taxi Driver is Martin Scorsese's most overrated movie and almost his least-interesting feature of the '70s, beaten only by the insufferable Boxcar Bertha. I find it takes all of the director's control and Robert De Niro's savage animal power to redeem - barely - Paul Schrader's obnoxious screenplay, and even then it's neither as insightful about codes of violent masculinity or the gritty awfulness of '70s New York City, nor as interesting to look at, as Scorsese and De Niro's masterful first collaboration, Mean Streets.

So now that I've gone and ruined all my credibility forever, we can turn to the business of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, which this week journeys to Scorsese's career for the very first time with the aforementioned story of an unhinged cabbie and his antisocial attitudes and cruel behavior. It's also, at its best, a superb document of New York at its filthiest, when Time Square was a hellpit of dead-eyed whores, sex shows, and trash littering every flat surface, and it honestly hadn't occurred to me that I could possibly make it all the way through the movie without picking an image of all that squalor, preferably one that juxtaposed the ratty ugliness of the city with the even rattier soul of its broken, misanthropic title character. And yet I went somewhere completely different.

Travis Bickle (De Niro), having received his taxi and begun making his pronouncements against the deviants and minorities and all things and people he regards as scum, has begun to drive through the city in a fashion I can only describe as "prowling", his taxi viewed in isolated pieces that slice through the night air like a shark's dorsal fin.

And that image having occurred to me, it was with giddy delight that I ran across a shot that perfectly summed up that aspect of the protagonist as silent predator, gliding into the shot smoothly and silently, casually sucking on his drink like he doesn't care about anything in the world, and then catching sight of the resolutely decent and normal political campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and just... stopping.... staring her down with that that one bright eye of his, shining in the center of the frame, perfectly spotted by the great cinematographer Michael Chapman as the piercing focal point of the whole shot. That's a cold, predatory eye, one that sizes Betsy up less as a woman than as a target, and the first half of the movie largely plays out as an exercise in seeing what happens when that kind of devouring attitude is let loose in a world that wants really badly to believe that people are basically nice.

My biggest concern with the screenplay has always been that Schrader seems entirely too interested in siding with Bickle; my greatest appreciation for Scorsese's direction is that he never gives into that impulse - even in the scenes that allow us to understand Bickle as a sad dope who has been broken by society as much as anybody, the director and the lead actor both understand that there's something red and raw and deadly dangerous about him. And that, to me, is the heart and soul of this shot: a stalker, a shark, a silent killer moving in for the attack with a loose physical carriage that borders on disinterest. It's a great moment of menace, flawlessly choreographed down to the way that De Niro's right eye is blocked out by the door frame, and immaculately acted without any words to support it, without any action at all other than the conscious lack of action.

Look, I said it was overrated. I never said it wasn't extraordinarily well-made.

14 April 2015

I CAN'T SEE ME LOVING NOBODY BUT YOU

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

If there's one big, unanswerable complaint to be made against Wong Kar-wai's 1997 romantic tragedy Happy Together, it's that three years later, Wong made In the Mood for Love, and in the process made the earlier film feel like a bit of a test run. That's a manifestly unfair standard to hold against anything; In the Mood for Love isn't merely the best film of the director's career, it's one of the very best romantic dramas in all of cinema, and you can't start using absolute perfection as the gatekeeper to what movies you deem acceptable or not. It's just that even by the standards of Wong's deliberately redundant career, full of movies that feel like they're in conversation with each other, Happy Together has a lot of overlap with the latter movie. But it also got there first, and deserves tribute for its primacy, above and beyond the simple fact that everything Happy Together does, it does superlatively well.

Structured more as a series of impressionistic memories than a narrative, Happy Together is, generally speaking, about a relationship that's not working and the enormously "big" attempt the participants make to keep things together, more out of habit and a belief in romanticism than anything that could possibly be defended as good sense. We mostly get the story from Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), recalling how he and his boyfriend Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) threw caution to the winds and skipped out on Hong Kong to visit Argentina with nothing more than hope and a desire to see the Iguazu Falls, which they know only from a tacky little animated lamp. Very nearly the first thing they do upon arriving is to break up, at which point the film flings itself into severe, high-contrast black and white, and for some time thereafter, the penniless exes cross paths, reunite, and relive the same pattern of manipulation, strangled intimacy, emotional abuse, break-up, and then regret for having broken up. At a certain point, Lai finally makes an honest accounting of himself and his needs, and decides to return to Asia, at last snapping the cycle, to both men's private sorrow.

In other words, not much "happens" in Happy Together, but it not-happens in the most delectable way. Wong's filmography leaves him more open that almost any other great contemporary filmmaker to charges that he favors style over substance, but nothing else in his career, not even In the Mood for Love itself, so clearly depicts how his movies use style as a means of charting his character's emotions. And not just in the incredibly obvious ways, like how the film uses black and white cinematography to mark out the characters' first break-up, jumping back into color when they're back together, but also for a few insert shots of objects and moments that represent a sort of idealised romantic potential for them in their loneliness. That's fine and clever, if a bit blunt. Far subtler is its range of colors when it's actually in color, as Wong and his indispensable cinematographer Christopher Doyle (for proof, look what happened in both men's careers after they dispensed with each other) click from the sallow yellows of urban night into a much harsher, metallic array of muted colors, and then into a softer, more saturated palette, a series of shifts that don't map onto the narrative in any clear one-to-one fashion, but still describe a fluctuation of emotions that may represent what the characters feel in the moment but surely represent what they feel about it later on, when they're in our position of revisiting a story that's all taking place in the past tense.

What makes Happy Together truly great, though, isn't even its visual panache, which it after all largely inherits from Wong and Doyle's earlier work (where, in faith, it is perhaps better - ask me whether this film or 1994's Chungking Express is the more compellingly shot, and I'll eventually, if reluctantly, side with the earlier film), but in its powerful formlessness, its most distinctive legacy for In the Mood for Love, and the one that matters most, above things like a lingering sense of moody romance and the way that the latter film revises the southernmost lighthouse in South America into ruined wall in Angkor Wat. The most distinctive thing about both films, within Wong's career and generally, is their almost dreamlike texture, and that emerged fully formed and virtually perfect in Happy Together, a movie veritably constructed from ellipses and implications. When the director and editors William Chang and Wong Ming Lam suddenly throw in an unexpected insert shot or two, when the action stutters into a random piece of slow-motion, when scenes glide together along the spine of the voice-over narration despite the images not linking up in any normal way, we're seeing a film work towards building its characters' psychologies into its structure, not by depicting what they think and feel in terms of story and performance. Indeed, it takes two absolute powerhouse performances by Leung and Chung to sketch out who Yiu-fai and Po-wing are beyond the most superficial elements of "the one is kind of mean and likes sex, the other is moody and insular". And they are both magnificent - Leung's work in Wong's films represents the strongest collection of performances in Hong Kong cinema that I've yet encountered, and this is probably the best of it all - playing the characters with more depth than the series of essentialised poses that the script requires them to be, without bringing so much realism to bear that it threatens the dreamlike structure of the whole movie.

Still, what is best and most moving about Happy Together is not the way it works as a pair of character sketches about two particular people, but the way it reduces two particular people into states of being and feeling. It's all tremendously abstract and conceptual, but to a certain degree, that's the way the characters exist in the world anyway; the film's repeated invocation of Iguazu Falls makes it very clear that it exists as the ultimate expression of non-specific exoticised, hopeful romanticism for them (when it finally appears, Wong and Doyle let the water drench the lens and distort the picture into a literally impressionistic collection of colors and amorphous lines, and in so doing permit it to remain romantic), while the presentation of Argentina as a cacophony of unfamiliar spaces and noisy Spanish strips it of the concrete physicality that lends weight and gravity to the similarly fluid Chunking Express or Days of Being Wild. It is, ultimately, a film about two lovers invested in the textures and feeling of love, instead of the specific realities of it, and it indulges them by transferring their impressions into its own form. That is what leads them repeatedly and inexorably to tragedy, but it's also what makes the film an outstanding artistic triumph.