21 November 2014

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY

Hype is a brutal fucker. Coming to Whiplash cold, it might be entirely possible to find it a fun, nervy little sudser about Type-A personalities clashing with lacerating verbal violence, done up in an appropriately hyper if not terribly innovative style. Coming to it, instead, with the knowledge that it’s pretty much a done deal for an Oscar nomination or five, my response is instead a baffled, almost hostile, Really? That? It’s satisfyingly ragey soap opera for boys (and there’s another whole conversation to be had about the critical reception of certain genres, backstage melodramas, say, when they are focused on males instead of females; especially in the the case of a film where there’s a grand total of one major character who is a woman, a totally generic girlfriend who could be cut out of the film entirely with only minor changes made to the whole. But that is not this conversation), and it has a real barnburner of a performance bringing the antagonist to life, and the setting in the high-stakes world of top-tier New York jazz conservatories is novel, if not inherently grabby. But there’s not much about it that’s terribly special: back in the ‘90s, when style-driven indies were easier to find than they are now, there were a dozen films like this every single year. Though I suppose the fact that it hearkens back to a more robust period in the indie marketplace is something.

Something of a dark parody of the stock inspirational teacher film, Whiplash is the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), New York native, son of a happily unexceptional high school writing teacher (Paul Reiser), and hellbent on becoming the greatest jazz drummer of his generation. To that end, he has managed to enroll in the highly competitive and prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, where his relentless after-hours practicing catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is the most celebrated instructor in the school, and the band he leads the most sought-after ensemble, but he’s also a verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive taskmaster, who has no mercy, forgives no mistakes, and has a seemingly bottomless well of imaginative cruelty to harass and push his students. Andrew has the terrible misfortune, or the great luck, if you look at it from a certain angle, to show the kind of promise that Fletcher has been hunting for his entire career, and thus the 19-year-old is subjected to the largest quantity of the bandleader’s dictatorial attentions. A bond forms between the two, but it is not an affectionate one; it is savage and relentless.

Points for bluntness of theme: without moralising one way or the other, Whiplash unapologetically claims that most of us are not special snowflakes, and that becoming exceptional takes a terrifying commitment that leaves little room for maintaining your humanity. And that’s a lot more honest and interesting than more of the usual “you can do it! whee!” boilerplate. It’s guilty of over-enunciating this idea, to be sure - it is spelled out explicitly in dialogue twice, once in a scene that works because of Simmons’s offhand delivery, once in a ghastly scene set around a dinner table that’s one of the most archly over-written things on offer in 2014 - and its commitment to not expressing an opinion whether the sacrifice of one’s soul is worth becoming a great artist does, at times, leave it feeling like it lacks a point of view or an overall purpose.

But then, the purpose is to be a corker of a two-hander, with Simmons spitting out the words of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s dialogue like a WWII bomber leveling a European city, and Teller managing just to hold on, which is pretty much all the script permits to the character for the first two-thirds or better. It’s a thriller at heart, which models itself after its protagonist’s frenzied drumming, building up in speed and collapsing and then starting off right where it left off. If the results are somewhat monotonous in tone, it’s not really fair to call that either a shortcoming of the movie, or a mistake: it is about single-minded people pushing themselves harder and harder and harder, so a certain single-mindedness and linear momentum is appropriate. The acting certainly falls in line with that - it is by far the most effective performance I have ever seen Teller give, in large part because it requires only a narrow range of expression - touching on the essential qualities of the characters without muddying them down with too much technique that would only tend to distract from the film’s overall momentum (it’s for this reason not at all Simmons’s best performance - perfect for the role, but a bit mechanical and too much on the surface - though I ‘m not going to begrudge him the Oscar nomination he has locked down for delivering it).

It is a sinewy film, all tensed-up and propulsive and alert, and while Chazelle relies a bit too heavily on close-ups of bloody hands and sweaty faces to put over the psychological cost of all that tension, the film's best moments (virtually all of them related to musical performance) are genuinely impressive filmmaking that suggest the first-time director's potential to do something great, though they're too conspicuous and isolated for me to credit that this is that great thing. The best scene, by far, is the last, which I hesitate to even describe (the entire edifice of the plot would disintegrate without the things it reveals about Andrew's mind, but it also feels anything but inevitable), but it's the one place where the editing, the camera angles, and the sound design - which is wonderful throughout, making the instruments and music active, physical characters alongside the people - are all working to create an excellent piece of physical cinema, hot and frenzied. The slower, more openly character-based scenes are a bit rockier; outside of his core duo, Chazelle has not deigned to give any of his side characters inner life, and this results in some strained, tedious places where Andrew is being fed lines by joylessly functional stick figures, and Teller screws himself up a little too hard to provide two characters' worth of emotion. But the good parts are very good, and the bad parts are unexceptionally mediocre, and even if it's nowhere remotely near the year's ten best films, Whiplash is an enjoyable potboiler with just enough insight into alpha male desire to feel like something slightly deeper.

7/10

20 November 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: DUNE AND DUSTED

The facts of the history related by Jodorowsky's Dune are thus: in 1975, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, having made in quick succession the films El topo and The Holy Mountain, had become a massive celebrity among the art film set, virtually inventing the concept of the midnight movie. He was in a position that few directors reach, and virtually none with such radical artistic amibitions, which is that he had a blank check to do whatever he wanted. And, largely on the spur of the moment, he wanted to make a film of Frank Herbert's massive, indescribably important science fiction novel Dune.

Over the next couple of years, Jodorowsky assembled a dream team of designers, including French graphic artist Moebius, American effects designer and filmmaker-of-all-trades Dan O'Bannon, and British illustrator Chris Foss, and proceeded to build his universe. And what a universe it was! Jodorowsky's Dune was ambitious beyond the scope that filmmaking in the mid-'70s was even slightly capable of, an hours-long epic experience full of effects work that's frankly impossible to imagine carrying off without recourse to animation and computers. No studio was even a little tempted to take on such an expensive proposition whose full-throated commitment to avante-garde spirituality made it a guaranteed money loser, and so the film died, while Star Wars came along and re-shaped science fiction filmmaking its own image. But even in death, Dune begat marvels: its massive book of concept art has influenced decades of subsequent films, either implicitly or directly. For one thing, O'Bannon would not have written Alien without Jodorowsky's Dune, nor would H.R. Giger (who had never worked in film before Jodorowsky lassoed him) have designed its titular beast. And that alone would change the fantasy and sci-fi landscape in a great many ways.

So that, anyway, is what happened. Jodorowsky's Dune is about two things: one, it tells that story, at length and with an easy, stretched-out attitude. Two, it tries to communicate, in some small way, what that film might possibly have looked like, throwing concept art at the camera every so often and animating it to suggest, in the broadest sense, the scale and visual splendor of the film that wasn't. All of which is interesting enough, but only really to sci-fi buffs and film historians, and director Frank Pavich isn't a very flexible or imaginative documentary maker. Jodorowsky's Dune has the aesthetic of a TV episode, intercutting wave after wave of talking heads with not nearly as much visualisation of Jodorowsky's dream project as one could easily hope for, since what we see of the film looks absolutely jaw-dropping.

In short, Jodorowsky's Dune could easily be written off as slack, workaday filmmaking, more of a DVD special feature than a standalone motion picture, except for one thing: it has, in Alejandro Jodorowsky himself, an amazing, one-of-a-kind storyteller, whose enthusiasm for the film he didn't get to make is electrifying and magnetic, even after almost 40 years. The 84-year-old director (who came out of retirement as a result of his involvement with this documentary, making The Dance of Reality in 2013) positively glows with enthusiasm and passion as he describes the philosophy and spirituality behind his filmmaking career, and the consciousness-changing experience he wanted his Dune to be; as he talks about his experience finding Moebius and Giger, he feels like a genuine art enthusiast proudly sharing his interests and insights. He even feels smugly, relatably human when he talks about his shameful joy at finding out that David Lynch's film of Dune from 1984, produced by Dino De Laurentiis, was a dismal, incoherent misfire. Hearing Jodorowsky relate his life and tell the story and themes of his Dune is an absolute privilege; it's like finding yourself seated at a long dinner next to the most animated raconteur you will ever meet, and as much pleasure as Jodorowsky's Dune offers in showcasing the images of the failed film, the pleasure in getting to listen to Jodorowsky and watch his amiable, excited face is far, far greater.

The net experience, then, is a good one, though there are some pretty rough spots throughout - in addition to his lack of formal imagination, Pavich has some questionable instincts. The most dubious misstep is the choice of interview subjects: director Nicolas Winding Refn makes at least a kind of sense, as he was given a tour of the Dune concept art book by Jodorowsky himself, and has solid insights as a result, even when he starts to wax rhapsodic about the transformative possibilities of this movie and the fear in Hollywood that shut it down (the fear of losing a shitpile of money, yes; the fear of transgressive art, probably less so), suggesting a bit more fannish enthusiasm than critical awareness. Showing even less critical awareness: film critics Devin Faraci and Drew McWeeny, a rather odd pair of experts to rely on, whose ability to form links where they don't belong (e.g. "this somewhat unexceptional shot set-up could only mean that this director saw the Dune material and copied it!") doesn't always come close to passing the smell test. Pavich waves through their theories without hesitation; he's clearly smitten with his material as well, and doesn't appear to suppose that anybody on any side of the camera could do with a little bit of cold objectivity.

This doesn't make Jodorowsky's Dune any less enjoyable, but it does make it less informative, or at least makes it feel less trustworthy, which amounts to the same thing. It's a boosterish film, a documentary only because it reveals a history (and a worthwhile history at that), but certainly not because it has a strong journalistic spine. It's a skillful sales pitch for a film that cannot exist, and which gives considerable joy to those involved to remember as the best work they almost did; their enthusiasm is contagious, but there's still a kind of shallowness built into the project. While Jodorowsky's Dune does a fine job of suggesting that Jodorowsky's Dune would have been marvelous, and possibly even the great work of spiritual philosophy the director wanted, but it never quite admits that maybe the thinking about it was the best part of all, and the execution might not have been up to the inspiration. Still, the inspiration is pretty damn inspiring for all that, and Jodorowsky is such a blast that it's easy to want to be on his side. Sometimes, hearing a yarn spun with energy and commitment is more important than all the big budgets and enormous scope in the world.

7/10

19 November 2014

DUMB IS AS DUMB DOES

There is one thing that I can say in praise of Dumb and Dumber To, so I might as well lead off with it. It has a certain casual, easy comfort to its style. That is to say, it's a film that picks up the baton of mid-to-late-'90s comedy filmmaking quite effortless and without strain: this is true of the acting as well. Yes, the script is forced to acknowledge that 20 years have gone by since the original Dumb and Dumber, and those years have worn hard enough on co-stars Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels that it's kind of uncomfortable to look at them goofing around like big kids. But in general, it has the texture, pacing, and energy of a film that might have come out around 1996 or '97. Y'know, right around the time that a Dumb and Dumber sequel would have felt appropriate and natural, and not like a desperate bid for relevance by a whole bunch of people whose careers have been out of gas for years and years - I mean, hell, when was the last film made by brothers Bobby & Peter Farrelly that actually made any kind of real impact?

So yes, as a piece of '90s nostalgia, Dumb and Dumber To - which is the best possible title for it, if I'm going to keep hunting for nice things to say - at least understands and appreciates the '90s, and recycles them effectively. Which is something, I guess, but it would be much, much more if the film's archaeological precision was in service to something with more meat on its bones than this pathetic re-tread, which somehow took six credited writers to cobble together, despite fully half of the content being re-dressed or outright re-used jokes from the original film. The plot, once again, is a travelogue: best friends and dysfunctional idiots Lloyd Christmas (Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Daniels) are back in action after 20 years, during which time Lloyd has been faking a catatonic state as a prank against his buddy. Harry's kidneys are about to fail him, and he's discovered that a fling 22 years ago with the legendarily promiscuous Fraida Felcher (played in the present by Kathleen Turner, whose admirable openness about taking this role for pragmatic reasons does not make it any more pleasant to watch such an iconic star make her big comeback as the butt of such mean-spirited jokes as the film blandly lobs her way) led to a daughter. Hoping that she'll donate an organ, the man-boys truck out to find where she ended up after Fraida put her up for adoption, only to end up on the wrong side of a conniving stepmother (Laurie Holden) and handyman (Rob Riggle), hoping to kill the girl's adoptive father (Steve Tom) for his millions and his world-changing new invention. It then takes another road trip out to El Paso, to crash a weak-kneed parody of a TED conference where the daughter, Penny (Rachel Melvin) is accepting an award on her father's behalf. And along the way, Harry and Lloyd are virtually always dumb, when they are not dumber.

It's impressive, after so many years since his heyday, to find that Carrey (51 at the time of shooting) still has the ability to wheel his head around like a whirligig, and flex seemingly every single one of his facial muscles in a different direction all at once (though I must confess to never having found that shtick funny when it was new, and I'm surely no more inclined to it now). And he and Daniels fall instantly into the most relaxed, natural rhythm of feeding off of each other, reacting and leading, stretching moments until they're about to break, and playing the duo's bits and routines with the timing of ballroom dancing and table tennis combined. But mechanically impressive comic acting is all for naught if there's no comedy to back it up, and Dumb and Dumber To is a skeletal wasteland of uninspired, witless non-humor. The Farrelly's humor hasn't felt boldly trashy or dangerous in many, many years, and the calculated packaging of outrageous behavior is the exact antithesis of the sneering, anarchic obnoxious that made them the most successfully edgy mainstream comic filmmakers of the '90s. Dumb and Dumber To is everything and anything but outrageous. It tries, but the same old gross-out sex jokes and low-key bodily fluid humor feels ossified and underwhelming now. Even as someone who never found Dumb and Dumber worth much of anything, I can recognise that film's brazenness; its sequel is a calculated marketing effort, and that shows through every belabored gag set-up and lazy one-note joke bloated out beyond its appropriate limitations.

I don't know that it's surprising that this is where '90s nostalgia leads us: the flailing, overly self-aware pop culture of that period was hardly interesting the first time, with its desire to make everything extreme and loud clashing with the era's unusual facility with recycling. Trying to revisit Dumb and Dumber is self-defeating: one generation's brash newcomer is the next generation's quaint old-fashioned piffle. And this is precisely the pit into which Dumb and Dumber To falls: it combines boringly obvious jokes and plot developments with a misguided hope that bratty attitude and yelling will somehow give it all a sharp comic edge, and this bond doesn't hold even a little bit. It's easy to imagine far worse belated sequels than this, but in terms of being pointless and pathetic and obvious in its elevation of mercenary over artistic concerns, it's hard to name a recent sequel that has been more thoroughly unwanted, unneeded, and disposable.

3/10

18 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1997: In which there's no rule that says a dog can't play basketball

Not that one expects much out of a movie like Air Bud, but I still wasn't expecting it to reveal itself to be quite so vile quite so quickly. Very nearly the first thing that happens in the entire movie is a series of comic close-up shots of a little yellow bird, sitting on a tree, watching in amazed confusion as a truck with a giant clown head on its roof barrels down the road of a little town in Washington state. This bird never matters; it is not a character in the film, its opinions on the clown truck do not serve a purpose. It is simple an opportunity for actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith to show off that he knows a thing or two about how editing works, and that the Kuleshov Effect can be used for evil as well as for good.

But anyway, Air Bud, a film whose considerable formal elements are not what I've gathered us here to discuss. You are perhaps wondering exactly what I have gathered us to discuss, given that Air Bud is not, I will boldly suggest, an especially important or interesting film. You know what is, though, is durable. Durable as a motherfucker. Not only did the film kick off four sequels, it also triggered a spin-off series and a spin-off of the spin-off, and we're now at the point where, sometime in 2015, the Buddiverse will welcome its 15th feature-length title. This feels kind of insane for a franchise whose target audience tops out around seven or eight years of age, but the Walt Disney Company doesn't play around when it comes to mining brands for extra revenue.

Like so many live-action Disney productions, Air Bud feels sort of like it was lab-created out of bits and pieces of already hidebound, and given a wardrobe and vocabulary that the middle-aged creators thought would be enough to freshen the whole thing up for The Kids These Days. In this particular case, we've got the classic "boy and his dog" scenario applied to a sports drama, with some very wobbly results. The situation goes thus: a golden retriever (Buddy, also of the execrable sitcom Full House, who died of cancer the year after Air Bud was released. If I just ruined your childhood, I am pleased, because these are some terrible things to have nostalgia for) runs away from his abusive clown owner, Norm Snively (Michael Jeter, weirdly receiving first billing for a teeny role), and hides out in the underbrush near an abandoned church. It is here that he's found by junior high student Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers), whose widowed mother (Wendy Makkena) has just moved the family into town while finding her footing. Thanks to the clown's training, Buddy - as Josh names the dog, whom he smuggles home before very long - is a whiz at handling a basketball, and this turns out be a boon when the school basketball team, for which Josh is manager, and later a player, needs itself a mascot. Of course, having a mascot dog that can shoot hoops is one thing (and it's a thing that drags Norm Snively out to reclaim his property, in a subplot that eventually involves a clichéd '30s-style "who are these kooks in my courtroom!?" finale), but having a dog that can actually play basketball in a competitive environment is another, and at no point has any human being ever started watching Air Bud in the ignorance of what was going to happen in the third act. Okay, not the courtroom scene. That came as quite a surprise, actually. But the scene of Buddy being a sports hero and saving the big game, that's pretty much the sole reason this film exists.

While we're idly waiting for Air Bud to get to the good part, Paul Tamasy & Aaron Mendelsohn's script flops around, flying through some plot developments and delaying others and stretching out moments randomly. I honestly don't know if it's the writing or directing that's responsible (though Smith's direction is so boringly competent, with the cleanliness and visual uniformity of a TV production, that I can't see how he could have gotten things off the rails just by himself), but Air Bud has legitimately awful pacing. It gets to the reveal that Buddy can play basketball almost immediately, and then makes absolutely no attempt to utilise that development for several reels; the return of Norm Snively happens at the worst time for the development of the "Josh learns self-reliance, teamwork, and discipline from playing sports, and from the wise black janitor/coach played by an obviously bored Bill Cobbs". For the last third of the movie, it's quite impossible to tell whether the film is a tween sports drama with a lengthy, distracting feint towards becoming a thriller about dog kidnapping, or if it's a family drama about protecting Buddy that rather oddly includes a lot of boilerplate sports movie nonsense while the plot is busy spinning its wheels.

The writing is so messy and aimless that when the film retrenches to generic kid flick mediocrity - like the slapstick dog bath scene, set without shame to "Splish Splash", or a slapstick car chase that ends with a truck plunging into water in a sequence that Smith's skills as director cannot manage to sell as funny in any way - it actually counts as a relief. For in those moments, at least Air Bud seems to have some awareness of what it is, and pursues its one goal with stronger focus than the inept balancing act between scenes and plotlines that leaves the film feeling directionless and overlong.

It's really astonishing just how terrible an innocuous kid's movie can actually be. Air Bud really is dreadful. It moves too arrhytmically to settle to a groove where it can be boring, and so it just keeps on being freshly irritating. The actors do the best they can with reedy material, and Zegers makes for a perfectly sturdy, it a little bit too sad-sacky protagonist, and the dog tricks are amusing enough once they start up (the "dog playing basketball" scene, with its dumbfounded reaction shots and befuddled dialogue, is legitimately enjoyable, though it comes about 70 minutes to late to do much good for the movie as a whole). But Air Bud is a toxic combination of blandly cheery aesthetic and stupid, sub-functional writing, and it ends up being a massively irritating pile of junk that isn't merely generic, disposable children's entertainment, it actually seems hellbent on making children less intelligent.

Meanwhile, I suppose you are wondering what in the hell this has to do with the development of American cinema between the years 1914 and 2014. Here's my pitch: the 1990s, that is to say the period from 1993-2001, seems to me a period in transition. The formulas that had fed the first Blockbuster Age in the 1980s had gone stale, the institutional memory of the 1970s kept prodding at the studios, which still at this point would fund midlevel dramas with some social import and character nuance for reasons other than hunting down Oscars, and there's a sense of trying to figure out a new vocabulary of big-budget popcorn cinema that could be sustainable over the long run. It is, in essence, a stretch of years where every Hollywood production, from top to bottom, seems to be looking back over its shoulder, and asking "what about this? can we make money doing this?".

And if there's anything that evokes the spirit of throwing shit against the wall just to see what happens and hope like hell it turns a profit better than the first entry in a low-budget 15-film Disney franchise of low-budget films about real-life dogs playing sports and having adventures, directed with sitcom-level artistry by a former member of the American Graffiti ensemble, I cannot imagine what it might possibly be.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1997
-James Cameron resinks the Titanic, makes enough money to have himself crowned King of the World
-Face/Off is the only film American-made John Woo film that anyone even pretends is any good
-Warner Bros. releases the terrible superhero movie Steel, starring basketball player and horrible actor Shaq, a relic of the days when feature films based on DC Comics properties were embarrassingly mismanaged clusterfucks

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1997
-Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, and its daunting ending, pisses off almost as many cinephiles as it delights
-Pedro Costa begins what will prove to be a trilogy of docu-narrative films set in the poverty-blighted Fontainhas district of Lisbon, with Ossos
-Bowing to complaints that the final episodes of the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion were inscrutable, studio Gainax and director Anno Hideaki replace them with The End of Evangelion

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: JAMES FRANCO'S HOME MOVIES

To hear directors James Franco and Travis Matthews tell it - and oh, how much you get to hear Franco tell it, over and over, across the movie's achingly long 60 minutes - the purpose of Interior. Leather Bar. is to interrogate the comfort level of the viewer and performer alike surrounding explicit gay sex in cinema, in art, and in real life. But around the five minute mark, the film shares its actual purpose, in the foggy phrasing of actor Val Lauren, the anchor of Franco's experiment:
"I don't personally like this project, personally. It doesn't, I don't, nothing artistic in it, right now. Maybe it's 'cause of my lack of understanding of what it is, doesn't respond to it. What I do respond to, and always have is his mission [points to Franco]. I like James's mission, I don't always understand it, but I like it. I like it. I like what he's doing, even when I don't understand it, and I'm into supporting it and being a part of it."
Let's summarise, to clean up the talky, inarticulate stumbling over language, which is itself a key part of Interior. Leather Bar.'s aesthetic: "this idea is dumb, confusing, and underthought, but if James Franco wants to do it, then let's go ahead and do it".

Interior. Leather Bar. is a categorically difficult little beastie, taking the form of a documentary but obviously scripted, and yet the thing it purports to document is actually being documented, though not depicted. Let me start over again. Interior. Leather Bar. finds Franco and Matthews deciding to re-imagine 40 minutes of gay sex supposedly cut from William Friedkin's 1980 thriller Cruising (about five seconds of practical thought makes it pretty obvious that no such footage could imaginably have been shot, if for no other reason than the implausibility of Cruising having been conceived as a film that was two-fifths gay sex; it's not clear if Franco and Matthews, at any level of fictional or nonfictional remove, indulged in that five seconds). In the role of the character originally played by Al Pacino, they cast one of Franco's current favorite meat puppets in his weird art projects, Val Lauren. The film consists of Franco enthusiastically talking about how boldly his project is confronting reflexive heternormative values and representations, while Lauren wonders if it's a violation of ethics, taste, or his personal sexual comfort levels for him to watch as other people have sex in front of a camera.

The film doesn't try very hard to keep up the pretense that it has anything to do with Cruising, a dull potboiler whose latter-day recovery by a certain strain of queer theorists hasn't managed to address the fact that even if it has some interesting representations, it's still pretty crummy at basic thriller mechanics. From the evidence of how they frame (and frame, and frame) their arguments, their images, and their performances, it's entirely possible that neither Franco nor Matthews hasn't even seen Cruising. Instead, it is a platform to allow Franco, playing a modulated, scripted version of himself (Matthews is the film's credited writer), to launch into a series of painful exploratory discussions about what this whole experiment means in the grander scheme of society, and how daring he is for asking these intensely bold questions about what we are and are not comfortable with, and why. Questions that are mind-numbingly juvenile, and cannot possibly come across as new or probing to any of the very self-selecting audience for an experimental psuedo-documentary full of explicit man-on-man blowjobs.

Mostly, Interior. Leather Bar. is massively fascinated with and impressed by James Franco, self-challenging heterosexual visionary whose desire to break down the limitations of labeling and normalising things results in this film about filming the making of a film based on another film. It is possible, and indeed pleasurable, to imagine a version of this film as filtered through the mind of Christopher Guest, where the mingling of documentary and mockumentary would serve to poke fun at the rambling pretension of the actor/scholar/director/author who surrounds himself with people too cowed by his power over all of them (just several weeks after this film's debut at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Franco appeared as the lead in Disney's ungainly Oz the Great and Powerful, a fact observed here multiple times) to call him on his aimless verbal splattering, too directionless to work even as provocation. Even Lauren's film-long reiterations of his feeling that the film is a bad idea that makes no sense and makes him feel uncomfortable as an actor is constantly framed in terms of his admiration for Franco, and his conviction that it must be in the service of some greater social purpose, or it wouldn't be happening.

At times, almost exclusively in the second half (when the action moves to the film set, and away from Franco's head), there are flashes of the film that Interior. Leather Bar. could have been in the hands of someone with a stronger head for filmmaking, queer theory, or both, than this film evinces (Matthews is an award-winning director of documentary films about the gay male experience, so I am compelled to assume and hope that he's capable of more thoughtful filmmaking than the mish-mash on display here). The best sequence, by far, starts with the recreated footage of two men engaged in oral sex, with pulsing lights and music, cutting suddenly and harshly to the filmmakers shooting their act from multiple cameras, a stark and dare I say it, witty depiction of the distinctly anti-sexy ways in which onscreen sex is filmed, a matter of angles and lighting and choreography. It's a moment that feels like it actually has something to say, and keen insights into its subject matter; other moments like this are peppered in the last half-hour, though it is a chore to find them.

Having something to say, though, is not typically high on the film's agenda. Having something to ask is, but the film so joylessly over-enunciates all of its questions in bluntly literal ways that it leaves the viewer with nothing to engage with, no work to do ourselves. The film could just as easily function as a series of tweets, and even then, it would tend to reveal more about the author's lack of experience with social issues that have been debated well into the past, and on more interesting, sophisticated battlegrounds than Interior. Leather Bar.. Franco, or "Franco", at several points confesses that he's making this project mostly to see whatever happens: that approach can yield surprising, unmediated insights, but as this film proves, it's far likelier for it to end in frivolous tedium.

4/10

16 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1996: In which little things like story and character aren't nothing next to some really, really cool CGI

1996 - The year that effects extravaganzas went supernova; the year that Hollywood finally figured out how to sell a movie on literally nothing else but the promise of spectacular explosions and other shiny nonsense, depicted with a level of technological prowess that had never before been seen. At least Star Wars had characters and a story and sentiments that people gravitated towards; such trivial niceties were at this point no longer required even as a fig leaf. In our tour of the 100-year history of the Hollywood motion picture, we have finally arrived at the present.

There was only ever one decision facing me when I arrived at '96: of that summer's enorma-hits, do I go with Independence Day or Twister? Favoring the former was its greater cultural impact and its key role in the forming of the Last Great Movie Star, Will Smith; favoring the latter was its greater reliance on CGI rather than practical effects, presaging the future far more clearly. The tiebreaker was that, ever since I first saw it as a teenager squarely in its target demo, I have found ID4 to be inexcusably awful bullshit, whereas I have developed some small level of deeply misguided nostalgia towards Twister these last five or six years, owing in no small part to it being a relic from the good ol' days when summer tentpoles thought that it was perfectly okay to have a running time under two hours. Which was the other tiebreaker.

So first things first, I have been cured of my nostalgia. While Twister holds up rather nicely against the noisy, busy, idiotically-scripted movies of today for all sorts of reasons - it's shorter, it uses visual effects when it must, not when it can, it has recognisable adult characters with adult problems, the supporting cast includes not just young Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also young Jeremy Davies - that does not excuse it from being a noisy, busy, idiotically-scripted movie in its own right. Worse still is how painfully derivative it is, and in what a weird way. This drama about storm chasers on the cusp of divorce tearing ass across Oklahoma in hopes of launching their new experimental tornado research probe is, of all seeming impossibilities, a knock-off of Jurassic Park, a film whose structure it copies in fairly explicit ways. This might well be because the novelist behind Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, is on hand for scripting and producing duties (in the former capacity, he was joined by his then-wife, Anne-Marie Martin; Joss Whedon and Steve Zaillian were among the known script doctors, but you can't tell), though given that Jurassic Park the movie does not, for the most part, resemble Jurassic Park the book in the ways that Twister is cribbing from, that can hardly be the reason.

Anyway, a tornado movie taking stealing ideas from a dinosaur movie, down to the sound design (the film's tornadoes roar and snarl just like the jungle cats that were one element of their creation, and it's actually pretty effective) and Mark Mancina's score, soaked in John Williams-esque cues that can be practically mapped one-by-one onto the JP score. This is honestly rather impressive. I don't know if I'd be able to do it on purpose if you held a gun to my head.

But Twister also has plenty of opportunity to also copy the whole grand history of natural disaster movies. You did notice that I mentioned a couple on the cusp of divorce? They're Drs. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) and Bill Harding (Bill Paxton), formerly a pair of the best damn tornado scientists in the business, until the split in their marriage sent Bill off to the Respectable World, where he managed to snag a job as a television weatherman, due to start in the very near future, and find the love of a smart, attractive professional woman, Dr. Melissa Reeves (Jami Gertz). He's finally been obliged to track Jo down on the very eve of his wedding to Melissa, to get the divorce papers signed that she's been sitting on for ages; it's unfortunately also the eve of a major storm system the likes of which haven't been seen in generations, and Jo and her team of colorful eccentrics are too busy prepping their new probe, based on Bill's designs - DOROTHY, which I'd call irritating movie-cute nonsense, but it's based on the NOAA's actual probe called TOTO - for her to waste time dissolving a marriage that died years ago. Luckily for Bill, Melissa is remarkably understanding in addition to being smart, attractive, and professional, and she's just as interested in following the storm chasers on their merry quest as he is.

So we've got the traditional "danger and disaster help to heal a broken marriage" trope - spoiler alert, I guess, but I can't imagine the viewer who actually expects Melissa to last all the way through the movie (on top of all her other lovely characteristics, she has the gracefulness to quietly slink away rather than raise any kind of interpersonal tension; thus endeth Dr. Melissa Reeves, one of the most obnoxiously prim and pure and idealised and wholly impersonal Modern Women ever perpetrated by clueless male filmmakers) - anybody want to bet there's a "personal trauma leads to an Ahab-like fixation" story to go along with it? Heck, we get the nugget of that one even before the broken marriage, in a prologue set in 1969, where we see little Jo's father sucked out of a storm cellar by a massive hell-tornado, in what is surely the most unintentionally hilarious Dead Parent scenes in the entire history of cinema.

As it putters along, Twister's story evolves without any fussy nuance or surprise or imagination to get in the way of the reason we're actually here: watching box office titans Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton rekindle their romance. Or, y'know, the storm thing. And we at last arrive at the most important element in the Twister stew, the one that separates it from all its obvious forebears: director Jan de Bont, formerly a cinematographer of some really great action films and thrillers over the years - he worked several times with Paul Verhoeven, in the Netherlands and United States both, and did a marvelous job shooting Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October for John McTiernan - and whose sole directorial credit at that time was 1994's Speed. Which is, surely, the best of the five films he ended up making in a roughly curtailed career, but it still showcases all of his worst weaknesses as a filmmaker: a tendency to double-down on rampaging sound effects, to cut with jagged severity between shots that weren't really built to be crosscut that way, and to encourage his actors into bright, emotive, one-note performances, when he bothers to care about the humans in his movies at all. All of these tendencies are even more strongly present in Twister (just as they would continue on, becoming stronger still in e.g. The Haunting remake of 1999 - the worst, but also the de Bontiest of Jan de Bont's films), which helps to explain how one cast could contain two actors of such enormously divergent talent as Hoffman and Paxton both giving basically the same kind of performance.

The filmmaking of Twister was apparently just as chaotic and stormy as the content: de Bont was by most accounts an enormous dick to the cast and crew, leading to the entire camera team walking out (Jack N. Green, Clint Eastwood's guy at that time, stepped in as D.P., and the very Unforgiven/Bridges of Madison County feel of misty landscape painting is much the film's single most effective element), and this can absolutely be felt in the shrill acting, with only Hunt emerging as a terribly fleshed-out, authentic-seeming person (undoubtedly helped by a script that doesn't bother giving anyone else clear motivations), and the choppy staging. But this much has to be said: the director knew what he wanted, and where it absolutely counts, Twister is aces. Simply put, the whole thing is a pretext for hyper-dramatic storm sequences, cunningly spaced in the film so that they're always just far apart that we're starting to get itchy for the next one, and with a nice little gesture in the script that each one is a step bigger on the tornado Fujita Scale (which ranges from F0 to F5 - "the finger of God" says one character direly regarding the latter extreme, in a perfect moment of disaster movie corniness), so we always have the promise of stronger, noisier winds and inkier skies and higher stakes. And de Bont's bullying perfectionism, while it does absolutely nothing for the limp character scenes, absolutely results in some great weather action. The digitally-replaced dark grey skies are beautiful and terrifying, the CGI tornadoes hold up, for the most part, without a single hitch almost two decades on; but then, it is not a new observation that the carefully-chosen CGI of the '90s generally looks better than the "fuck it, lather the whole thing in digital gimcracks" of the '00s, or even all but the very, very best of the '10s. Not all the effects are great: that infamous flying cow looks pretty damn crappy nowadays, compounding what was already a terrible gag. But for the most part, the stuff Twister promised and delivered in '96 still delivers: enormous, roaring superstorms whose visual impact is awesome in the most exacting sense of that word.

To get to that awe, sure, you have to slog through some tired writing, staticky performances, and arrhythmic filmmaking, but what do you want: great spectacle or decent filmmaking? You may, perhaps, want both, and point to dozens of classic popcorn movies to make your case why you should have it, but we are in Contemporary Filmmaking now, and such concerns do not bother us.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1996
-Brothers Joel & Ethan Coen make their (relative) mainstream breakthrough with Fargo
-Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in Eraser, his one huge hit film that people always forget about
-Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet ignites a trend in modern-dress literary adaptations

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1996
-Mike Leigh's ensemble dramas of everyday Britons suffering reach their popular zenith in Secrets & Lies
-Olivier Assayas makes the cutting, inventive satire of the French film industry and international movie culture, Irma Vep
-Zhou Xiaowen's historical epic The Emperor's Shadow is the most expensive film made to that point in China

15 November 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: A WOMAN OF A CERTAIN AGE

The pitch for Gloria from virtually every angle has always been some variant on "yada yada, but Paulina García is amazing". And boy, is she ever. Few actors are ever called upon to support an entire feature-length film with such totality - there is, I think, a grand total of one shot in which she doesn't appear (it features an obviously metaphorical skeleton marionette) - and García doesn't put a single foot wrong anywhere in the entire feature. It is a film that's almost impossible to disentangle from the performance, and insofar as García's is clearly one of the best performances to reveal itself in U.S. theaters in the last couple of years, that's enough to make Gloria essential viewing.

For essential viewing, though, the film has some rather severe shortcomings. Take the notion where García appears in virtually every frame, for example: on paper, it's a smart trick for director Sebastián Lelio to play, but the execution is necessarily strained as a result. The film chokes on its plethora of medium shots, since that's just about the only thing it can have; medium shots, spiced up with close-ups of García to provide any kind of visual variety whatsoever. Charges that the film is "boring" (which are oddly persistent, despite the film's obvious kineticism and acerbic take on romantic comedy tropes) spring, I think, from this deadening sameness to all of the images, as much as from anything. When a film bores the eyes, it takes out a great deal of necessary energy and liveliness.

Which is too bad, because it's awfully easy to want Gloria to be an unambiguously great movie. García is one reason. Another is the script by Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, which approaches one of the most verboten topics in world cinema, the sexual and romantic yearnings of a single woman on the receding edge of middle age, and fleshes it out with smart details about Gloria's life and personality. The film isn't funny, but it has a sort of wry attitude, shared by its protagonist, that leaves it feeling good-natured and disinterested in taking itself too seriously. No shrill drama about the suffering cause by the aging process, just a knowing, mildly regretful character whom the film allows room to be both righteous and thoroughly self-destructive both. Gloria is as fully-rounded as movie characters get, etched with such particular nuance by the script and the performer that it's impossible not to like her and to invest ourselves in the events of her life, and to find her tremendously frustrating when she makes some garden-variety mistakes, sometimes standing too firmly out of pointless obstinance, sometimes giving in too quickly to the pathetic pleadings of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), her on-again, off-again boyfriend throughout the movie, who clearly falls in the "the best I could do at short notice" category of lovers. And for all that she can be frustrating, Gloria can also be inspiring, the kind of self-aware, self-directed person that any of us would be lucky to be as we approach 60.

The sublimely little details with which García carves this character out of the screenplay is virtually impossible to describe, since the effect is cumulative as much as it has to do with any one gesture or line reading or facial expression. Having the camera's full attention gives her a great deal of space to indicate who Gloria is through individual moments stitched together, rather than having some fully completed idea of the character in all her particulars that have to be communicated through each and every scene. It's a lovely performance, full of surprising reactions, wonderful brittle humor, and explosions of vitality that come up so organically and naturally that they hardly feel contrived, but are so bold, decisive, and different from the expected way the character could be played that it's never, ever possible to predict her. This is Gena Rowlands and Liv Ullmann territory we enter here, the realm of live-wire actressing that surprises and challenges, that defines character through unusual and unconventional choices, that hews to neither realism or nor traditional grand theatrical gestures.

It's not fair to say that the film wouldn't be anywhere near as interesting with a performance like García's at the center of it, because without that performance, Gloria wouldn't likely exist at all. The dramatic content is entirely a subordinate function of the character building (in brief: a woman whose family and ex-husband all like her but have mostly moved on to other things tries to forge ahead, finds it difficult when the man she ends up falling for turns out be too hamstrung by his own past to function independently, even as a 60something adult), and the aesthetics are too flat to even call them "subordinate" - they really don't even exist. García is a theatrical icon in Chile as much as a movie actress, and while her performance is too perfectly scaled to the intimacy of a movie camera to suggest that a stage Gloria would be in any way like the screen Gloria, the reason for that has absolutely nothing to do with the way it has been filmed or cut, outside of its actively energetic and exciting dance party finale. This is not ever a good thing to say about a work of cinema, and as powerful an experience as it is exploring a psychological state, it's not always particularly worthwhile as a movie.

Gloria herself is such a commanding figure, whose life is so unlike the standard movie protagonist in every regard (age, gender, nationality, just for starters; and the more it delves into her goals and the way she pursues those goals, the more unique she becomes yet), that her movie still ends up being quite a rewarding thing to watch. But I confess, movies whose primary reason for being is to show off the life and inner workings of an individual are never my favorites. For what it is, Gloria could hardly be improved, but what it is is already a bit needlessly limiting. See it, absolutely see it right this minute, for Paulina García, who I honestly think might be one of the best living screen actresses with my sample size of two (later in the same year that Gloria premiered, she also excelled in Illiterates, a film that is otherwise actively deficient in many places where Gloria is merely ordinary). But I cannot in honest suggest that you see it for any other reason.

7/10

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1995: In which we drink our pee

I foreground pee-drinking not because it's fun to take cheap shots (which it is), but because the film genuinely cares that much. Pee-drinking is the first thing that happens. We get the scene-setting as a portentous but oddly tinny-sounding narrator invokes "The future. The polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water. Those who survived have adapted to a new world." And then this spectacularly expensive motion picture elects to introduce us to that new world by showing the main character running his freshly-pissed pee through a filter, and drinking it.

And thus does the Hollywood Century Trilogy of Spectacular Flops come to a close with the inevitable Waterworld the little $175 million film that couldn't. Though, whereas the legendary misfires Heaven's Gate and Ishtar both lost legitimately enormous sums of money, Waterworld actually came tolerably close to breaking even in 1995, which for a film of such a ridiculous price tag that is never seen onscreen, ain't half bad. What it certainly did not do was stain producer-star Kevin Costner with the stink of epic failure; two years later, Warner Bros. had the rather inexplicable lack of foresight to let him do the whole thing again, with the very similar The Postman (which came not even slightly close to breaking even). And in this it is much unlike the films that ended the careers of Michael Cimino and Elaine May.

I will confess to feeling extremely disappointed: I walked into Waterworld expecting something outrageously terrible, and I got something that's... hell, it's borderline halfway decent. For the first 25 minutes or so, it's even actually good, in its derivative way. The film baldly wants to be The Road Warrior on the open sea, copying the ur-film in the "post-apocalyptic badass vs. colorful weirdoes" genre in many specific beats, above and beyond the normal ripping-off that film had been subjected to in the 14 years since its creation. That being said, the open sea makes for an unusually novel setting for such an overworked scenario, which gives the film a surprisingly fun amount of personality that's entirely its own. The setting falls apart on even the slight push of logic: the world would not, in fact, be covered in water even if the polar caps and all the water bound up in glaciers atop mountains were to melt, nowhere close to it. As far as metaphors begging the audience to stop murdering the ozone layer go, it's not as scientifically inane as The Day After Tomorrow, but it's trending in that direction.

But if we can buy the film's backstory on its own terms, Waterworld makes surprisingly effective use of it for quite a good long while. Outside of that opening narration, the Pete Rader/David Twohy script mostly introduces the rules of the waterworld through showing, not telling, giving it an authentic, natural feeling without too much explaining getting in the way of what turns out to be surprisingly durable internal logic. We're first introduced to a nameless "mariner", apparently the figures in this world who explore the far reaches of known ocean scavenging for barter items, played by Costner in a performance that is by no means "good", in most senses of that word. And this is no real shock, given that Costner is by no means a reliably good actor. But his limitations are well-suited to the character: he plays a peremptory, self-centered man of cold efficiency and limited charms, and given what an enormous asshole he apparently was on the Waterworld shoot, this certainly fits him better than yet another attempt at playing a smooth charmer, something he had last successfully done seven years prior, in Bull Durham.

This mariner hears of a nearby "atoll", a collection of floating debris of the industrial world that was fashioned into a large platform functioning as a town. Here, he tries to find the best price for his most precious possession - a large pot of dirt - and is found out as a mutant, having developed gills behind his ears and webbing beneath his toes. The elders of the atoll consider him enough of a bad omen that they prepare to execute him by drowning him in their pit of compost sludge, but another group of strangers interrupt. Seems that among the many lost souls living on the atoll, there's a little girl named Enola (Tina Majorino), with a tattoo on her back that seemingly points the way to "Dryland", the mystical land which remains uncorrupted by the rising waters. Her guardian, Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), and a dotty old inventor, Gregor (Michael Jeter) have been concocting a scheme to leave the atoll on a flying machine once they've decoded the tattoo, but despite all Helen's precautions, Enola's secret has been found out by a local piece of obvious bad news named Nord (Gerard Murphy), who is a spy of the local gang of colorful punks. And their leader, a madman naming himself the Deacon (Dennis Hopper), has been on the hunt for any leads on Dryland himself. And the Deacon and his gang of "smokers" - those who travel the open water on what's left of the powerboats and jet skis using what's left of the gasoline - strike the atoll at exactly the convenient moment to distract the mariner's executioners. Helen frees him during the chaos on one condition: he needs to take her and Enola to safety, and thence to whatever promised land Enola's back leads to.

It's right about this point that Waterworld asserts itself as a movie that's not very good: firstly, because Deacon is a destablising villain, too out-of-place in the film's otherwise consistent, thoughtful world, and played with a fiery flare by Hopper that's wildly out of proportion to virtually everybody else in the sullen, angsty cast. Secondly, because for all its charms as a post-apocalyptic travelogue (and I maintain that it has several, all the way to its final scenes), Waterworld turns out to be absolutely horrible as an action film. I do not blame director Kevin Reynolds nor his second unit for this: filming on water is a bitch, and staging elaborate action choreography that involves boats and jet skis is a fool's errand to begin with. But simply because it's excusable doesn't make these scenes any more exciting to watch, nor any more competently shot.

It's also certainly the case that Waterworld is longer than it has any reasonable justification for being. Not that a film of its scope can't earn a running time in excess of two hours, but the film doesn't fill that time with much of anything. After the escape from the atoll (which happens rather early on, all things considered), the writers have only a few basic situations that they cycle between, either the mariner and Helen sniping at each other, or the Deacon setting some manner of trap. Once, there's an impressively-designed but biologically unlikely sea monster. And all this, coupled with the necessary emptiness of the setting, leads to a movie that's circular and slow and draggy right when it needs to be tight and tense.

Still, as an exercise in sloppy, excessive action-adventure cinema - something the 1990s excelled at, just in 1995 alone we have the likes of Judge Dredd and Jumanji and Congo - Waterworld acquits itself far better than its reputation suggests. Outside of a few lines of dialogue the screenwriters missed ("you're a turd that won't flush", snarks the Deacon at one point, in a world where flush toilets have presumably not existed for at least a century or two), the film's world is well-built and provides a suitable setting for its generic story. The sets range from convincing to embarrassingly cheap (this is, again, not a film that looks in any way like it cost half of $175 million), but the imagination and conceptual integrity of the sets (designed by Dennis Gassner), rickety skeletons of torn and ancient metal, and the hacked-together scraps making up the costumes (designed by John Bloomfield), are genuinely impressive, and the story the tell is at least as convincing as the one the characters act out. Dean Semler's cinematographer capturing these things is crisp and bright, nimbly capturing the harshness of light on the open water. It is not a good film - it is often dull, and always trite - but in a period when tentpoles were starting to get drunk on scale and noisy impact, it's far from the most stupid, the most ineptly written, or most generic - just in 1995 alone we have Judge Dredd and Jumanji and Congo. But it's certainly not bad enough to be a cultural punchline, and I admire it for its thoughtful attempt to punch some new life into the post-apocalypse world of deserts and ruined cities, even if its execution leaves a good amount of room for improvement.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1995
-For the actual shape of the future, look to Pixar's Toy Story, the first all-CGI animated feature
-The highest-grossing NC-17 release of all time, Paul Verhoeven's infamous Showgirls, is released
-Richard Linklater directs the quiet story of two kids who fall in love on a train, Before Sunrise, accidentally inaugurating one of cinema's all-time greatest franchises

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1995
-To celebrate the centennial of the Lumière brothers' first exhibition, 40 directors from around the globe contribute a micro-short to the anthology Lumière et compagnie
-Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg announce the rules of Denmark's new hyper-realist Dogme 95 movement
-Britain's favorite movie spy, James Bond, comes out of a six-year retirement in GoldenEye

14 November 2014

HOW MANY FOXES WOULD A FOXCATCHER CATCH?

First point: Foxcatcher is, I am certainly, exactly the film director Bennett Miller wanted it to be. It is too precise, too focused, and too consistent for anything else to be the case. Second point: that's not really much of an excuse.

A true story of psychological gamesmanship between one of the more peculiar members of the du Pont family and a pair of Olympic wrestling medalist brothers, Foxcatcher is a film that ends in tragedy, and Jesus Christ, is it ever eager to foreshadow that fact. The film is drenched in funereal sobriety; not one single frame of one single scene accidentally perks up enough to admit anything but an oppressive sense of fatalism. This is true of the performances, which are hushed and mournful. It is true of the screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, which never passes up an opportunity to sadly point at some signifier of out-of-control class-based privilege and remind us that, you guys, the rich think of poor people as disposable objects. It is true in almost hilariously over-the-top ways of cinematography, by Grieg Fraser, who I have taken to thinking of one of the great new talents in his field across a handful of top-notch projects in the last few years, and at a technical level, what he's up to in Foxcatcher is hard to fault. Everything might be lit like the inside of a centuries-old mausoleum, but it would be impossible to do a better job of it. Still, the whole thing is so weepingly earnest that it could almost be silly, if it wasn't so inert and suffocating.

The more important of the brothers, for the purposes of drama, is Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum), who has labored his whole wrestling career under the shadow of older sibling Dave (Mark Ruffalo), even after their twin Olympic triumphs. When we meet them, in the mid-'80s, they've both sunk into obscurity, living and training in Wisconsin. And it is here that Mark is found by the agents of John Eleuthère du Pont (Steve Carell), who has decided that the best way to leave his mark on the world and throw off the spectre of his dismissive mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in what amounts to a cameo), is to personally oversee the training of a new U.S. wrestling team that can compete and win in the 1988 Olympics, proving American can-do dominance to the whole world (the film does not clarify - among the many, many things it does not clarify - that in 1984, the Communist world sat out the American-hosted Olympics, and thus everybody who won left Los Angeles with something of an asterisk following their name). Mark is to be the centerpiece of that team. Eventually, after completely seducing Mark, du Pont succeeds in dragging along Dave and his family as well, all in the name of his warped quest to say "fuck you" to Mommy, hiding his intentions behind a patriotic veneer. And eventually, his patrician, patronising treatment of the Schulzes, and everyone else poorer than he is (which describes virtually every human being alive), leads to... murder. Not a spoiler. The spirit of pointless, brutal death lies over the whole goddamn movie, as suffocatingly as it lay over Miller's fiction debut, Capote. Only in that case, the murder is how things started, and so the pall it cast at least made some kind of tonal sense. Nine-tenths of Foxcatcher is chilly and grim just for the sake of chilliness and grimness.

The point of all this, as presented by the film, is "something something American exceptionalism, blahblah class war". Oh, it's easy to figure out what the film meant to say: there are too many American flags clogging up all the sets for it to be secret for more than a few scenes that the film is setting its eyes on showy, insubstantial patriotism. And from the distant, alien performance Carell gives beneath a grotesque cake of latex that makes him look like a lizard, and which he permits to do almost all of the acting on his behalf, it's clear that the film wants us to be thinking about the distance between the super-wealthy and the rest of humanity, who a literally impossible for those super-wealthy to understand as members of the same species. But it being obvious what the themes are meant to be does not, in any way, mean that the film is actually doing the work of exploring those themes. As handsomely, and fussily, as the film's assembly no doubt is, it's all very shallow. One does not experience the film's message on either an intellectual or emotional level; one puzzles it out. The monotonously bleak tone certainly doesn't help the film connect, either: it's as dry as dry can be, as engaging as tax instructions and just about as intellectually stimulating.

The performances by Tatum and Ruffalo do, in fairness, threaten to bring a living humanity to the proceedings. Tatum's alternately needy and resentful approach to his father-exploiter figure is striking enough, making flexible use of the actor's chiseled features (made meatier through some modest prosthetics), and offering a hint of genuinely wounded self-awareness beneath his glossy magazine looks, that he even draws something vivid and intense out of Carell, who is otherwise playing up all the stiffest, weirdest parts of du Pont in his odd neck angles and sniffy accent, and feeling more like a collection of notes than a character. Ruffalo, in by far the smallest of the three lead roles, makes up an entire performance out of grace notes; his delicate approaches to his brother, his twitchy discomfort at having to read out a few lines of hagiography about du Pont and his wrestling program, the way he talks gently but commandingly to his benefactor, like a dumb child. Between them, these two actors manage to make entire scenes of Foxcatcher feel like a human story worth the telling, even as every element of the directing, writing, cinematography, set design, and audio mix are insistently trying to embalm the scenario and lock it in a vacuum-sealed glass case.

There's a good version of this story: one with this exact cast and script, frankly, kitted out with more freedom to play up the pathetic absurdities, to let the characters live and breath rather than grimly march through their pre-ordained tragedy. There's a version withonly a handful of tweaks that's genuinely about the predation of the thoughtless rich, rather than one that blankly states "the rich are inhuman" and then proves it by encouraging Carell to play John du Pont as a taxidermied heron. There's a version where the tragedy feels like it grows out of the character relationships, rather than plonked down arbitrarily on a movie that has laid the groundwork for it only by being so damned mirthless. Foxcatcher is, in fact, just about the most tedious version of its story that I can imagine. It is a finely detailed as a dusty-covered oil painting, and every bit as static and lifeless

5/10

13 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1994: In which the attempt to make genre filmmaking more prestigious has mixed results

The first half of the 1990s were the worst time ever to be a fan of horror. Even the stretches of time where horror films weren't being made were better, since even the least the absence of horror is preferable to the virtually uninterrupted stream of shit that was North American genre filmmaking in the era between the death of the slashers and the birth of ironic, knowingly bad meta-horror. The Italian exploitation film industry was dying off around the same time, the Japanese horror renaissance was still waiting in the wings, and while there were occasional great horror films, they are vividly notable for their isolation.

Perhaps because of this vacuum, and perhaps owing solely to an accident of history, the same period bore witness to a compact but highly visible run of classy, literary horror films, more interested in dramatic integrity, filmmaking style, and costume film trappings. The first was Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, in 1992, whose success was the obvious inspiration for Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein two years later; I'm not certain if it's accurate to say that it specifically led to the release, also in 1994, of Wolf, or in 1996, of Mary Reilly (the latter a tony variant on Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), but it certainly smoothed the path for adult dramas with horror elements that are too damn-ass tasteful to really deserve the name "horror".

The outlier among these, and maybe the best (I admire many of the artistic impulses behind BS Dracula, but there's far too much going abysmally wrong for me to seriously consider calling it a good movie), is Wolf; the only one without a literary antecedent, the only one set in contemporary times, and, importantly, the only one that didn't actually belong in the 1990s at all. In fact, it had been stuck in development hell for over a decade by the time it saw the light of day, having originated in the aftermath of the two big werewolf hits of 1981, An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. It is my speculation and nothing else that, when Columbia saw how much Coppola had been able to make for them by doing a glamorous riff on Universal's old monster movies, they leaped at the first grown-up werewolf picture that came along, and that happened to be the Jim Harrison/Wesley Strick script that Jack Nicholson had been infatuated with for years.

Wolf is so goddamn aloof about genre that it never once in two hours even goes so far as to use the world "werewolf" (the writers go to some pains to avoid any lines of dialogue where the absence of that word would become obvious). But that's absolutely what it is: one night, Will Randall (Nicholson), the editor-in-chief of some mid-level New York publishing firm, hits a wolf with his care as he drives from the country back into the city. The animal opens its uncommonly intelligent eyes just as Will gets down to see if it's alive, and bites his hand. This has the immediate effect of giving the saggy old pushover a new lease on life: instead of silently taking it as he's pushed to a bullshit job by Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), the billionaire taking over the publishing company, he launches a crafty, brutal plan to not only keep his position but significantly expand his powers. His vision is improved, his hearing and smell have gone far beyond human norms, and his libido is insatiable, to the tremendous delight of his wife Charlotte (Kate Nelligan), though since she's already been having an affair with Will's protégé and replacement, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), this doesn't go terribly well for her, not when her husband can literally smell her lover on her skin. But with his new vitality and increasingly youthful pallor, Will switches right over to Alden's rebellious, caustic adult daughter Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

All that is the more immediate effect. The longer-term effect involves Will's tendency to grow hair on his face when he sleeps, and to wake up covered in blood and no memories. When he's lucky, it comes from a deer. When he's not lucky, he hears about it on the news the next day. His consultations with folklorist Dr. Vijay Alezais (Om Puri) confirm his suspicions, and give him a ticking time bomb: his condition will set in permanently at the next full moon, and he will be in wolf form forever, unless, he keeps an amulet next to his skin at all times. But during his jealous rage, Will happened to bite Swinton, and the other man is far too self-aggrandising and awful to be a morally-centered, guilt-ridden wolfman like Will, which will make the latter man's attempts at keeping himself human much, much harder.

The very noticeable thing about Wolf is that it cleaves into two almost equally-sized halves: The Wolf Is a Metaphor, and No, the Wolf Is an Actual Wolf. The former is infinitely preferable, for the simple reason that everybody involved in making the film is clearly happier to be making it. But especially, I think, director Mike Nichols, whose best work occupies exactly the sweet spot that drives the first half: sardonic comedy and satire of the lies and social politics between individual humans. Nothing else he ever made hints at even the most glancing interest in making a monster movie, and Wolf is a very dispirited one: everything that's interesting is interesting solely at the level of the writing (the film's idiosyncratic werewolf lore is interesting enough to cover many other sins) and the acting. But the staging of the big werewolf fight climax is lazy and disengaged, with no sense of drama no matter how urgently Ennio Morricone's appallingly bland score tries to promise that it's all very exciting and tense. And the most openly horror-oriented moments - Will's confrontation with a gang of thugs one night (which triggers a latter response scene involving one of the most tone-deaf examples of white filmmakers trying to aplogise for any possible racial misrepresentation in the whole of the 1990s), the run-up to the final fight - are among its most unconvincing and sloppy.

Far better when the film operates on a purely metaphorical level: what would it mean for a man to be a wolf in New York's professional world? The film's answer to that question is surprisingly slick and clever, aided by what may very well be Jack Nicholson's single best performance of the 1990s*: in a role seemingly tailor-made for Jack Doing a Jack, with the flourishes and elaborate nonsense that entails, he's astoundingly tamped-down. There's coolness and predatory calculation behind his eyes that he virtually never lets loose. It's not merely a strong performance of the part as such, it gains intensity from our awareness of how much energy Nicholson isn't emitting, which then seems to be all caught up inside. There are other strong performances, and as the other main characters, Pfeiffer and Spader are in excellent form playing their stock roles (the outspoken woman in charge of her sexuality, and the conniving yuppie monster), but that's simply not as impressive as Nicholson breaking his persona in such consistent, interesting ways.

The performances provide a suitable foundation for an enjoyably smart, cynical thriller on office power plays, and the emphatically '90s form in which that takes place. Will openly and explicitly feels out of his time, and is convinced that the world is going to hell all around him; the glossy tech-focused world is one that he feels helpless in, until he is suddenly able to master it by becoming a devouring carnivore. It's a fine little fable of business world mores that has the gross misfortune to turn into a horror film at a time when nobody quite knew what horror was, and the people making the satiric thriller clearly thought themselves above it, regardless. The actors survive the shift well (in fact, it's only once the film starts to delve into horror tropes that Pfeiffer's really able to make sense of her weirdly-motivated character), but nothing else does: not the tone, not the wit, not the elegance of the filmmaking. I don't know, exactly, whether to call it a film that almost works or a film that almost fails, because it's balanced perfectly on that razor's edge; it is, though, a film that definitely grows increasingly frustrating as it moves on, and nobody ever wants that.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1994
-Disney puts a bizarre spin on the holidays with the sitcommy The Santa Clause
-Robert Zemeckis's sprawling portrait of Americana Forrest Gump is rewarded is, to date, the last character drama to win the annual box office
-The old "violence in art" debate hits new heights of panic and outrage over Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1994
-Jackie Chan stars in Drunken Master II, the most beloved of his mid-period films
-The sweet and surprisingly delicate drag queen comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a watershed moment in the fortunes of Australian commercial cinema
-The future cult comedy Andaz Apna Apna is released in India

12 November 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: NUN THE WISER

Everything about Ida sounds like it was copied verbatim from the Big Book of European Art Film Clichés: full-frame black and white cinematography with emphasis on the whole range of greys, frequently silent people staring mirthlessly and hopelessly at nothing, the Holocaust looms imposingly in the background, and the whole thing is a metaphor for the silence, absence, or death of God. Small wonder that people have fallen over themselves comparing it to the work of Ingmar Bergman, though it's not always the most apt comparison (there's as much Bresson as Bergman, and arguably more Tarkovsky than either of them, and that's just considering the Big 3 "religious torment" art directors of the '60s and '70s).

And if there's nothing about the film that's necessarily fresh, it's indisputably the case that the things the film is up to haven't been done with so much care and artistry and sophistication are things that haven't been done like this in a lot of years. The fifth narrative feature directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, and also the first made in his native Poland, finds him working at a sublimely confident level that blows away even the quiet potency of his outstanding 2004 My Summer of Love, the closest thing he's had to a prominent film prior to now. Ida, to begin with, solves the thorniest of problems, ones that most films of this sort give up on before they even try to start solving it: how can we use this visual medium of ours to dramatise internal struggles? Even without getting into the question of what it's depicting, I'm steadily impressed by how the film depicts things, using heavily off-kilter framings and precise gradations of hue to guide our eyes and explain the emotional relationships between characters, or between characters and the space surrounding them. It's so clear and high-impact that in its 82 minutes, it has more clearly laid out a more complex psychological journey than films twice as long.

A simple story for a powerful but ultimately direct aesthetic: Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a novice in a Polish convent, sometime in the early 1960s. She is instructed by her Mother Superior (Halina Skoczyńska) that, before she may take her vows, she must meet with her long-lost aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a bitter judge, formerly a model Communist before alcohol and self-loathing took over. With disinterest so objective it can't even be considered cruel, Wanda reveals a truth that burns the girl's sense of self to the ground: Anna was born Ida Lebenstein, the child of Jews who were killed by the Nazis, but were first able to hide their daughter with a kindly Catholic family to save her. Thus begins a sobering, dismal road trip, as Anna/Ida and Wanda travel through Poland to find the last resting place of the Lebensteins, so that both women might be able to say their goodbyes. Do you suppose that painful truths about post-War Poland and the two traveling companions are revealed in this process? And how they are!

The biggest single problem I have with Ida is that it would surely have been more important and powerful if it had been made at the time it was set, or at least by the end of the '70s. As it is, with a half-century between the society it depicts and itself, it feels distinctly safe, one of those We Know Now What We Should Have Then period pieces that's just a smidgen too proud of its own hindsight.

Not much of a complaint, though, against a film as beautiful and rich in human feeling as it is ice cold in its depiction of human weakness. Ida takes place in a cold universe, visually and morally: the grey imagery of Ryszard Lenczewski and Łukasz Żal's cinematography presents a wintery feeling of desolation, while the script that Pawlikowski co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz tells the familiar story of a post-Holocaust society that wants to deal with the horror in its recent past by blocking out every trace of the past. In Anna's own journey and the doubt it stirs up in her, the film raises grim questions about the possibility of marrying material happiness with spiritual fulfillment; taking this cue, the film literalises this conflict by loading itself full of shots with extraordinary amounts of headspace. These images constantly emphasise the space above Anna, signifying maybe the presence of God, or more caustically (for these are very empty headspaces, most of the time), the vacuum left by the absence of God. Or perhaps it's just a way for the film to suggest the emotional desolation of life rebuilding itself after the War. It works either way, really.

To keep things from getting too airy and conceptual and divorced from human feeling, Ida is lucky to have a pair of absolutely superb performances at its center. Trzebuchowska, playing a young woman's confusion at finding her identity ripped away from her, manages to embody a rather difficult psychological concept perfectly; as a woman who has lived apart from the messy, fleshy part of life, only to find herself now confronted with the world outside the convent in all its enticing scariness, she does exemplary work with rather more conventional but also more humane material. As good as she is, though, Kulesza dominates the frame, both because Wanda is the stronger personality of the two, and because she captures the fatigue and constant low-grade anger and cynicism of her character in blunt, and physically outsized ways that are expressive and theatrical without seeming forced or unnatural (that the film is, itself, in no particular way naturalistic helps this performance to land). It is, absolutely, one of the most commanding, empathetic performances I've seen all year. Between them, the two stars force Ida to remain a film about its characters, not its ideas. But those ideas are still deep and sobering, just as those characters are complex and unpredictable in the best ways, and the film containing them is one of the clear highlights of the movie year.

9/10

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1993: In which sex sells

In most ways, "the 1990s in cinema" is a hard thing to define, aesthetically or otherwise. Mostly, it's the thing that transitioned between the 1980s (infatuated with narrative simplicity and violence) and the 2000s (CGI-driven franchises and a kind of pop-market humanism), with the constant, lecturing presence of the most artistically and commercially robust independent cinema scene in American history, to keep it guiltily aware of the traditions of the 1970s. It is a decade in which everything feels pulled and pushed and undecided about what it wants to be; a decade of one long identity crisis, marred by morbid levels of self-awareness unlike anything seen before or since.

And for all that, Indecent Proposal is a movie that absolutely could not have come out at any other period in all of human history than 1993. It feels exactly like the spirit of that age given form, which is probably how it managed to end up the sixth highest-grossing film in the U.S. that year; the last time, unless I have missed something, in which an R-rated film sold almost exclusively on the strength of its naughty, erotic sexytimes was able to end up in a yearly box office top 10. And that itself says a lot about both the film and the early-middle-'90s; this was the golden age of the chintzy erotic thriller, the glory days of Skinemax, mere months after Madonna's book of essays and photographs Sex forced a cultural conversation about sexuality, desire, pleasure, and prudishness that never really resolved into anything, but was quite headed and impassioned at the time.

But we don't have to get all high-falutin' about it: the film announces its essential '90s-ness early and aggressively, with opening credits in which the words of the title zoom away from the camera with ponderous intent, like a Star Destroyer cruising overhead. And the best part is that "Indecent" is out of focus and looks like the shadow of the word "Proposal", and a more perfect title treatment at evoking the graphic sensibility of the era or of the erotic thriller I cannot imagine. Even this, though, is not the moment that time-stamps Indecent Proposal first: by the time we can read the title, we have already seen the words "Demi Moore".

Now, I just called the film an "erotic thriller", which is misleading. To be a thriller, it would first have to be thrilling, and the most important and constant characteristic of Indecent Proposal is that it is disgustingly boring. Nay, that's not strong enough: it is the most lifeless, tedious film that could imaginably be made from its plot hook. And that plot hook, so ubiquitous in cocktail party conversations in 1993, is whoring out your wife. Oh, not in a tawdry way. The question, as many a married couple has asked themselves through the years (but more since 1993 than prior, I am sure), is whether it would be worth such and such a sum of money for the wife to have sex with a stranger. In this case, the sum being one million dollars, and the stranger being Robert Redford, who at 56 was still handsome enough that the answer would probably come closer to "wait, you'd pay me?" So it's high class prostitution, but as they say, now we're just haggling over the price.

There's never any doubt that the answer will be "yes", in this telling (it would be a 35-minute feature film, among other things), and so the interest here lies more in the fallout in the marriage being so exploited. You can almost hear the whirring noise as the film stars to consider itself: what if it's, like, the very best marriage ever, between the two most perfect, beautiful human beings that ever eloped as teenagers because of the wholesome, virginal purity of their love? And so, Amy Holden Jones's adaptation Jack Engelhard's novel (where, I am led to believe, this all is cast in terms of Israeli-Palestinian political intrigue) plonkingly sets out the story of David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana Murphy (Moore), the glorious innocents all set to be ripped apart by the great white shark of Redford's wealthy lust. By the end of the first ten minutes, the Murphys' marriage has been detailed in such angelic tones that I cannot imagine the viewer so forgiving that they aren't openly rooting for the most vile degradations to be heaped on the couple.

As the voice-over dialogue, handed off from one to the other, laboriously sketches out their life history - he's an unemployed architect, she's a laid-off real estate agent, and they're about to lose the house he's been building to prove the once-in-a-generation genius of his designs, which look angular and sickeningly modern in the best '90s tradition - director Adrian Lyne films them with all the soft focus, soft lighting, and windblown romanticism of a douche commercial. When they have sex, it is the most Adriane Lyne-ish sex that has ever been filmed: just saucy enough for an R-rating (here, the quick impression of Harrelson's butt; there, a cameo by Moore's nipples), with Sade's "No Ordinary Love" playing sexy-mournfully over their cozy, chaste fucking. It's the perfect blend of prurience and puritanism, the oh-so-American mix that birthed Lyne's entire career as a filmmaker.

When they're not having tender, Harlequin Romance sex, David and Diana call each other "D"; they fake terrible fights, with shoe-throwing and everything, just so they can collapse giggling into each other's arms; they stare with waxen emptiness through each other, since Moore was a pretty terrible actress at the best of times (one forgets, after enough years away, but holy shit, it's like human isn't her first language), and Harrelson's skill-set (which was not yet well-known in 1993, when he was still just the goofball from Cheers) is exactly ill-tuned to this part; he's good at sarcastic assholes, or menacing figures barely able to keep their rage hidden, or weary and disillusioned cowboy types. He's exactly not good at tortured romantic artists, which this film unimaginatively requires its bankrupt architect and passionate husband to be.

So anyway, they trundle off to Las Vegas, in the desperate hopes of putting together enough money to save David's precious house, and there Diana attracts the satanic attention of billionaire John Gage, who stares at her with blunt, sexualised looks, and craves the one thing that his money cannot have: the pure love of people like the Murphys. It would be maybe interesting if the film suggested that his goal wasn't simply to fuck Diana and make her his trophy, but specifically to destroy their goodness simply because he's wicked, but that would require more psychological sophistication than Indecent Proposal is aware exists. Instead, it turns into a labored series of dialogues where he says "I want to pay you money to ride my dick" in every way other than the direct one, and then a labored series of dialogues where the Murphys dither about accepting his offer, and that's when the film gets really tedious.

For anything and everything that's interesting here lies solely in that hook: the remaining hour and change, where Lyne and Holden indifferently explore the ramifications of the decision, are painfully disengaged from anything human. The writing and performances leave David and Diana as such hollow ciphers that it's simply not possible to give any trace of a goddamn about either of them; it's hard even to get a good head of seam up about the film's tacky sexual politics, which strip Diana of all her agency, since there's nothing in the script or Moore's performance to suggest in even the broadest sense that the character actually possesses an inner life. David is too bland for his torn-apart jealousy to feel genuine at all, and Redford, more charismatic and comfortable in his part than Moore and Harrelson combined, never indulges the script's absolute need for John to start coming across as menacing and stalker-ish (it doesn't help that he is given, almost verbatim, a speech about nostalgia and longing from Citizen Kane, the most humanising moment afforded to any of the leads at any point in the film).

The only human touches in the entire film come from the supporting cast: Oliver Platt as the Murphys' totally self-centered lawyer, smart with a turn of phrase and untroubled by ethics; and Seymour Cassel as John's elegant hatchet man, smiling and insinuating and snakelike (there's also a shocking, imbalancing injection of vitality from a pre-fame Billy Bob Thornton as gambler who does more with his strictly functional one-scene role than Harrelson does with his entire leading performance). It certainly does not come from the Lands End catalogue sensuality, carefully airbrushed by Lyne to titillate a mass audience without ever once troubling them with messy things like sexuality. The film has a child's idea of romantic relationships and sexual partnerships alike, and it has a perfect cast full of soulless, genderless mannequins with which to enact those ideas. It is, in short, the perfect embodiment of American cinema's brief but intense dalliance with tawdry sex, depicted in the most sexphobic aesthetic that could exist. Despite a shelf life that could be measured in months rather than years, it's perhaps the most definitive film from 1993 that I can name.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1993
-Steven Spielberg's very good year includes birthing the Age of CGI with the massive hit Jurassic Park and growing up with the surprisingly large hit Schindler's List
-An era in American horror ends New Line retires Jason Voorhees with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday; it takes for almost ten whole years
-Super Mario Bros. is the first film based on a video game, starting its genre off on a massive stumble from which it has yet to recover

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1993
-New Zealand cinema's leading light, Jane Campion, makes her greatest film, The Piano
-Krzysztof Kieślowski makes the first in his trilogy of European life and culture in the '90s, Three Colors: Blue
-Kaige Chen's Farewell My Concubine is the first (and only) Chinese film to win the Palme d'Or