The 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser & Review Auction is over! Thanks to everyone who donated!

25 August 2015

TO BECOME IMMORTAL AND THEN DIE

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

Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 debut feature and declaration of war Breathless* is a curious case. In hindsight, everything that is most daring about it would be repeated to stronger effect in more interesting movies overall by the same director - most directly in Band of Outsiders and Pierrot le fou, though almost everything he made throughout the 1960s reworks some element of his debut - which makes it frankly a wee bit harder to regard it with the same esteem that besotted critics and cinephiles did when it was brand new.And yet, this is The One. The single movie that you need to see and grapple with if you're going to have a reckoning with Godard's first phase, and arguably with the entirety of French cinema in that decade (arguably with any of the European New Waves of the 1960s and 1970s, of which the French New Wave that Breathless co-created with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows was the wellspring). It's indisputably on the shortlist (the top ten, let's say) of Movies You Need To See if you're going to have a proper conception of cinema history and the potential of cinematic form. So even while my heart says that we should care more about Band of Outsiders or Contempt or Masculin féminin, my head says not to be fucking daft.

The place: Paris in the '60s. The time: America during Prohibition. Here we meet self-identified bastard Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a young man who has certainly built most of his personality from a steady diet of B-grade Hollywood crime pictures, not unlike the writer-director who created him. He's apparently some kind of a real criminal, though you could be forgiven for supposing it's all an overbaked fantasy in his noir-soaked head, and he's also a loudmouth given to braggadocio and toxic sexism. Who's to say if we're supposed to admire him or find him absurdly hateful: the camera insinuates us right along side him, Belmondo's prickly acting and the relentlessly, self-consciously disagreeable things he keeps saying repel us, and the editing by Cécile Decugis, famously, doesn't much intend that we regard him as a real character at all: he's a dude in a movie with the misfortune to somewhat suspect that's the case, which leads him to act far too much like a movie character. And this is partially to blame for why he shoots a cop during a drive in the country.

I hope it says more about the film than my inattentiveness when I declare that, having seen Breathless God knows how many times now (I went to film school, and I'm a self-professed Godard fan - that's good for at least six viewings right there), and remembering with great fondness that it's the first of Godard's gangster movie riffs, I am infallibly surprised to remember that the entire plot hinges on Michel's murder of a cop. It's just not that kind of movie, except that of course it very much is - the rest of the film down to the last scene all revolves around the detectives hunting Michel down and ultimately getting their hooks into visiting American student Patricia (Jean Seberg), possibly the most important of his current paramours; she's the co-lead of the film, but at the same time they don't really seem to like each other very much, the evidence of the signature bedroom scene notwithstanding. But I'm going all out of order.

It is so deeply tempting and dangerously easy to lock in and adore Breathless for all its little flair: the popular introduction of the soon-to-be-ubiquitous technique of the jump cut, which I think we typically remember as showing up during a car ride that gets propelled ahead in an attempt to make it seem artificially exciting and tense, with the full aid and comfort of Martial Solal's pounding jazz-influenced score. But that's at least the third major scene involving jump cutting, and the other two are both conversations, one between Michel and another one of his girlfriends (it just so happens to be right after Michel mentions his recent work at famed movie studio Cinécitta), one between Patricia and the editor nudging her journalism career forward, both relatively banal. I wouldn't suggest anything so trite as to say that the jump cutting is the film's attempt to hurry us through the dully quotidian scenes that shouldn't even be in a nervy gangster thriller in the first place, but I wouldn't tell you not to make that claim for them.

Or there's the brilliant way that the killing of the cop is shot, with close-ups of the gun and the unsynchronised sound of an gunshot, immediately followed by a scene moments later - the jarring image editing and discontinuous sound standing in as surrogates for the act of violence instead of that act being depicted (both times a human being is murdered with a gun in Breathless, the sound of the gunshot does not match the onscreen imagery. Just a fun thing to be aware of). Which would easily lead us to the film's bravura use of sound editing, which for my money is the far bolder aspect of Breathless's aesthetic developments, though the film editing was more quickly, more widely copied. And then I would talk about the floating, ghostly voices in the scene with a great, famous author (played by New Wave progenitor Jean-Pierre Melville) being peppered with high-minded but insipid philosophical questions leading to purposefully shitty answers ("Rilke was a great poet, so undoubtedly right" is his considered response to some journalist's "look how I did my research!" moment), and maybe the way that the score keeps jolting its way into the movie, mostly but not always motivated by the onscreen action.

The mistake I have personally had in the past with doing that is to lose the forest for the trees: Breathless is not just the sum of Godard's aesthetic. And it is here, I think, that something on the order of Masculin féminin argues for itself as an improvement over Godard's debut, since that film more clearly demonstrates the reason for its aesthetic rather than simply wandering, as Breathless occasionally does, into "look at me, I can be formally outrageous for the sake of it!" territory.

So let's not indulge that limited reading, huh? Step back from the jump cutting and the sound, from Seberg's stiff French and Belmondo's posing for the camera, from the litany of Hollywood genre film references and in-jokes, and Breathless does in fact take on quite a distinctive shape. It's not just Godard's riff on gangster movies of both the American and French tradition, and not even just his riff on the kind of young people so infatuated with pop culture that they'd fall into the trap of defining their identity in terms of the movies they enjoy most. Though that's getting us closer.

It's really nothing else but the first in a chain of films where Godard is interested in youth itself, the issue of how young, or at least young-ish individuals manage to find their way around a quickly globalising world whose values are evolving at a startling rate. For Michel, this means retrenching to an archly conservative, performance-based notion of masculinity, and the whole movie bends itself around him - though by no means does it do so uncritically - and eschewing the real world in favor of the fantastic one he thinks of in movies.

Reality, in the form of aesthetic realism, insists on pushing its way through; I return us to that bedroom scene, in which a film constructed out of three- and four-minute blasts of narrative propulsion jams on the brakes for 23 minutes as Michel surprises Patricia in her hotel, they have sex, they discuss art insofar as his dickish, petulant refusal to take her questions seriously permits. The editing slows down, the lighting (from cinematographer Raoul Coutard) turns ragged and rough, the setting becomes almost sublimely unexceptional and devoid of storytelling momentum. It's like the "other" New Wave, the one by Truffaut (who co-wrote this film) and Rohmer, based in languid humanistic moments of unadorned conversation pushes its way into Godard's more manic, formalist New Wave for the duration of a whole act. But for the most part, the film permits Michel his fantasy, even though it requires him to be betrayed by a woman who seems a little perplexed herself why she's been obliged to be a femme fatale in the film's glorious final shot, a deeply ambivalent close-up on Seberg's face that ends with her turning her back on us.

The jarring and groundbreaking post-modernism of the filmmaking - Breathless is not the first movie that is aware that it's a movie and which acts to make sure we're aware that it's a movie (that's not even an invention of the sound era), but it's the film that kickstarted that as a tradition that has never since gone fully into hibernation - isn't, then, simply a radical response to the hidebound aesthetics of the bulk of post-war French cinema. Of course it's partly that. To assert otherwise would be to deny the volumes of Godard's own writing at this time, when he was still a critic at the legendary Cahiers du cinéma. But the aesthetic violence of the film is also an attempt to encapsulate the rage of its characters, whose youthful energy is given no functional outlet, and so must explode somehow. Within the world of the film, that means destroying the traditional structures of cinema. In the real world, that meant the increasing unrest of the '60s that resulted in the May 1968 protests across Europe - and while I'll not be such a Godardian as to claim that he could predict those protests were coming, any quick glance at his films in '67 - Week End, La chinoise - and their continued development of the self-destruction begun with Breathless suggests that the nascent youthful resentment of this film had continued festering and growing ever bolder, more radical, and more intense. As much as they're any one thing, Godard's films are deliberate diagnoses of the era in which he made them, and Breathless is as precise an identification of the culture of the '60s-to-come as I have seen in the movies.

23 August 2015

THE FROZEN NORTH

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

We live in an age when anime - an imprecise term that I try not to use very often, since it doesn't inherently mean anything besides "animation made in Japan", which strikes me as condescending at least, but let's not get bogged down in that kind of aside just yet - I say again, an age in which anime is pretty well understood to be somehow more serious, artistic, and worthy of consideration than other forms of animation. This was not always the case. At its origin, Japanese animation was stuck in the same ghetto as its American and Soviet counterparts: fantasies of one sort of another, generally made for children and generally at a level of quality that wasn't much better than "good enough for children".

No one film or one studio was responsible for changing that state of affairs in Japan any more than in the Soviet Union (where the shift happened somewhat earlier), but you could do a lot worst in trying to pick the one movie that birthed the modern, artistic animated film for a more discerning audience in that country than a 1968 release that has gone by at least a couple of different English-language titles over the years: I gather that the original Japanese is closest to The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, but it's much likelier you'll encounter it these days in the anglosphere as Hols, Prince of the Sun, and when it was first shown in the United States, it was thanks to AIP's television division, which provided a rather undemanding dub under the name The Little Norse Prince (and it is this title, and this dub, that you'll encounter if you look for it on any of the major streaming sites - and while I'd want that to be nobody's only exposure to the film, it's absolutely worth it.). Regardless of what the hell we are to call it, it's the movie that is to Japanese animation as that church picnic in Liverpool where John Lennon and Paul McCartney met was to rock and roll: the movie's director was first-timer Takahata Isao, and one of the key animators was Miyazaki Hayao. This was their first collaboration together, and it kicked off an artistic partnership that led to some of the greatest achievements in Japanese animation in the 1970s before resulting in the foundation of Studio Ghibli in the mid-'80s.

It's so easy to over-read that magnificent future into Horus, Prince of the Sun, which isn't just their show - in fact, not even primarily their show, really, since the director of animation, and therefore the man most singularly responsible for the film's visuals, was Otsuka Yasuo (though Miyazaki, along with a few other lead animators, helped Otsuka with the character designs). But this isn't merely an important footnote in Ghibli history: Horus is a splendid film in its own right, one of the most accomplished animated features up to that point in history, from anywhere in the world. It's visually rich like virtually nothing else Japan had produced yet: a clear attempt to meet the standard-bearers at the Disney studios on their own battleground and even surpass them (for it started production in 1965, by which point Disney's aesthetic decline from the lavishness of its 1950s Silver Age had already clearly manifested itself), with a great deal of time and care spent in getting everything perfectly right.

The results speak for themselves. In terms of technique, the film is best-known probably for a tremendous battle between the title character and a giant, murderous pike, which is simply one of the great animated movie monsters ever accomplished, lightning fast, and thick with muscle that twists and jerks with extraordinary fury. It is as great a setpiece as a fantastic adventure could possibly hope for. And every bit as impressive is the character animation - even more impressive, perhaps, because the pike battle demands that you notice it. Whereas the characters, for the most part, are the round little cartoon blobs of any random sample of children's animation in the 1950s or 1960s, but the animators poured so much time and intention into the details of how those soft, ovoid faces would move that the characters are as sophisticated in their range of expression as the more detailed, vividly realistic characters of Disney at its height. It's an extraordinary achievement, maybe even an unprecedented one in its native industry: the soulfulness of the main characters all the way down to the striking reactions of non-characters in comic cutaways are perfectly drafted and animated at a level of fluidity rare in Japanese animation of any generation.

Every bit as impressive, and every bit as foretelling of Ghibli's great achievements to come, is the storytelling. Taken as its basic ingredients, Horus looks like pure fairy tale boilerplate, and in fact the story is ultimately descended from a piece of Ainu folklore. Horus (Okata Hisako) lives out in the wild with his aging father (Yokomori Hisashi), where he one day encounters a rock giant (Yokouchi Tadashi) while escaping from a pack of particularly monstrous wolves. From the giant's shoulder, he plucks an ancient magical sword, thus proving his great fate: he, with his talking bear cub friend Koro (Asai Yukari), shall return to the land of his father's birth to fight a wicked ice demon named Grunwald (Hira Mikijiro). In so doing, he becomes the hero of a small fishing village, and meets a haunted young woman with an ethereal singing voice, Hilda (Ichihara). She is, as it transpires, Grunwald's sister, and initially just a pawn in his attempt to control Horus and destroy the village. But she longs to do good just as much as Horus, only it comes harder to her.

There's nothing about this that's not a kid's movie. But oh, how much more sophisticated and nuanced it is than "kid's movie" implies. The title and first act notwithstanding, this is not just a flouncy adventure about a Chosen One boy with a magic sword. What it turns out to be, first, is a story of how that boy finds himself part of a community, which is depicted mostly by centering on a few key characters, but emphasising the needs of the village as a whole, with the villains those who prefer advancement and power over the greater communal good. Second, it's the story of Hilda, a far more dynamic character than Horus ever comes close to being. Her moral struggle, which dominates the second half of the movie, makes her the first in a grand tradition of young female characters that the future Ghibli artists would take to such great heights in films like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. I have not, of course, seen every animated feature made prior to 1968, so I can only go so far as to say that Hilda is the most psychologically complex animated protagonist up to that point that I know of, not that exists, period. But I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised to learn that such was exactly the case.

In Hilda, Takahata and the story development team (which mostly consisted of Otsuka and the key animators) created a truly groundbreaking animated figure: delicated and conflicted in her visual expressions, deeply intriguing and challenging in her relationship to her sense of morality. It is she, more than anything else, that makes Horus, Prince of the Sun a truly great landmark in grown-up animation, and even as the film feels rather juvenile compared to just about anything that we'd stack it up against nearly a half-century later, Hilda is still as strong as animated protagonists get. Naturally, for this complexity and depth, the film underperformed at the box office; but it was immediately recognised for its greatness and ambition by those who needed to recognise it, and it has managed to acquire the legacy it deserved even if it took some doing to get it there.

20 August 2015

DO YOU WANNA KNOW A SECRET?

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

In his two-volume collection of lyrics and personal recollections, Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, Stephen Sondheim acknowledges that among his impressive corpus of skills, the ability to construct a dramatic narrative has eluded him. He has been blessed with strong collaborators to write the books for "his" shows, but a playwright he has never been.

There has been only one original story co-written by Sondheim produced, in fact, and it's not a theatrical piece. In the early 1970s, he and Anthony Perkins - it's his only writing credit as well - collaborated on a on a screenplay for a film that was ultimately directed by Herbert Ross and released by Warner Bros. in 1973, The Last of Sheila. It's an old-school murder mystery written by obvious genre enthusiasts, and it's a solid piece of work, neat and clean in all its particulars. But it also doesn't really dispel Sondheim's belief that writing great scripts isn't a strong suit. There's a certain mechanical soullessness to the way the story unfurls and how the characters are built into it that, at any rate, doesn't show off the natural skill of its co-writers. Sondheim and Perkins wrote two later screenplays that were never filmed, which is a pity: it seems fully possible that they grew more comfortable as they went along, for The Last of Sheila has all the earmarks of a promising first attempt by a pair of first-timers mostly concerned with proving they could get ideas down on paper, and with the jitters worked out of their systems, they could build on its foundation.

The scenario is deliberately contrived: a year after the death of his columnist wife Sheila (Hammer vet Yvonne Romain, cameoing in the swell opening scene), movie producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) reunites the six friends who were his guests the night of the hit-and-run accident that widowed him. These include director Philip Dexter (James Mason), screenwriter Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin) and his wife Lee (Joan Hackett), the only person at the party who's not a film professional (and this will later prove to be, if not "important", then at least a nice grace note), movie star Alice Wood (Raquel Welch) and her manager husband Anthony (Ian McShane), and agent Christine (Dyan Cannon). On Clinton's gigantic yacht off the coast of the French Riviera, he announces the rules for the Sheila Greene Memorial Gossip Game: each of the guests are assigned a secret - a piece of fake gossip - and on each of the trip's six nights, they'll go on a scavenger hunt in a different port town to uncover one of those secrets. The night's game ends when the individual whose secret is the subject of the hunt finds the proof, hopefully before any of the other five have already done so.

It's tough to describe, because it's frankly pretty damn convoluted, and that's the mechanical soullessness I had in mind. For much of his life, Sondheim had delighted in constructing absurdly elaborate mystery games for his friend, and these games only grew more ambitious once Perkins started helping him construct them in the 1960s. The Last of Sheila is in great part an attempt to memorialise these games on celluloid, and the momentum-deadening scene where Clinton explains the fussy rules to the partygoers comes straight out of that impulse. It is not a sequence that grows elegantly and organically out of characters; we haven't even really met the characters yet. This is nothing but showing off on the part of authors who are really proud of the ingenuity of their mechanism and want to make sure that we notice how conspicuously Written it is, right down to the sound of typewriter keys clacking at the beginning and ending.

This is, for good and ill, a major component of the screenplay. Not that it's a two-hour exercise in Stephen and Tony showing off, exactly; but it is very tangibly the result of people who love making and solving murder mysteries. It's very rare to find a mystery film - by the way, what ends up happening is that Clinton ends up dead on the second night, and everyone quickly concludes that it must have been the one who mowed down Sheila that night last year who killed him, and it then turns into a tense yachtbound stand-off as everyone starts to suspect everyone else - that's so conscientious in its construction to make sure that all the clues you need to figure the movie out are right there in plain sight, without foregrounding any of them with a neon sign reading "THIS IS A !!CLUE!!" Not even with a scene that finds Clinton grandly announcing, in almost so many words, "you can figure out everything just from the details presented in this scene". And I confess that I didn't figure out the movie and wasn't really interested in trying to. But that is, kind of, the point: it's an immaculately made puzzle that is damned proud to dot every i and cross every t, not like all of those other mysteries that hinge on an unpredictable twist (viz. The Sting, which came out later the same year).

That leads to a movie that's undeniably a bit chilly: the writers were so busy making sure the mystery was structurally airtight that they missed out on crafting rich, deep characters, or giving them anything but the most ordinary relationships to each other. This doesn't end up ruining the movie almost entirely because of the efforts of a number of people to make sure that interesting human wrinkles are saved from the gears of the plot: obviously one of these is Ross, whose direction has never been peppier in any of his films that I've seen (which isn't even half of them, and "peppier than Funny Lady" is one of the easiest bars to clear ever), and so are most of the cast, but it would be bad form to overlook production designer Ken Adam (miles away from the florid fantasy of his Bond fortresses), art director Tony Roman, and set decorator John Jarvis, for building a well-stocked box of little details and red herrings, and for the staging of Clinton's two successfully-executed and highly baroque puzzle rooms, and for augmenting the inherent loveliness of north Mediterranean architecture without feeling like they're gilding the lily. Hell, I'd even have to tip my hat to costume designer Joel Schumacher - that Joel Schumacher) - for the niceties of showing who has money and prestige, versus who had money and prestige through fashion. (I do not know who out of all the possibilities deserves credit for the strangulation via clown puppets climax, but they are a hero to me).

But back to Ross, whose aggressive show-off touches are few and far between, but are all the better for it. The opening sequence, the night Sheila died, is maybe the most elegant, impressive part of the movie: the camera follows Romain as she's obscured by people, plants, sheets of distorted class. It's easy to presume that this must be Sheila, but the film puts so much energy into hiding anything about her that it starts building up tension and mystery right away. There are other sharp visual moments: Clinton descending out of frame on a lifeboat as he finishes a florid monologue, or a hunt for clues inside an old monastery, setting up a stuffy, dark space that helps the artful misdirection that ends up taking place there, and which we see elucidated late on in flashbacks.

As for the cast, it's a collection of people who aren't, like great great - only Mason and Coburn had a truly impressive body of work in '73, and only McShane has come anywhere close to forming one since - but who have spirit and energy and dive into the one-note characterisations with a good eye to fleshing them out. Cannon especially; and when there is a film with Dyan Cannon and James Mason in it, and Cannon gives the better performance, we've entered some kind of mirror universe. But she gives maybe the most blunt and uninteresting of the characters a loopy, electric sense of presence; that's a hell of a lot. The only person whose performance falls short is Welch: she was angry and combative on set, by all accounts (including her own), and that seeps into the performance, which is all sharp angles and spikes in places that keep the other actors at bay, rather than the other characters, if you feel me.

Outside of her, the cast is having enough fun cruising the Riviera and play-acting detectives that their energy turns contagious: while the emphasis on problem-solving is enough to make The Last of Sheila fun for fans of mystery paperbacks, it takes a bit more of the human sparkle that the cast provides to make it fun for the rest of us. It's never more than a lark, but it's at least two different kinds of larks designed for two different audiences, and it's pretty damn good at both of them.

19 August 2015

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: THE LIVES OF RAPPERS

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Straight Outta Compton is a full-on biopic of N.W.A., the world's most dangerous group. Rather than visit one of history's other rap biopics - because they're pretty much all dreadful - let's take a peek at something of a freer, more impressionistic pseudobiopic of its subject and lead actor.

History is littered with movies in which popular music stars attempt to show off their acting chops, often playing a variation on themselves, and the results are disastrous. The list of films that are A) impressive as cinema, and B) demonstrate that their stars have anything resembling screen presence or acting talent is a brief one: 1964's A Hard Day's Night, with Richard Lester directing the Beatles to heights that defy the project's obvious "let's cash in on the teenybopper!" impulses.

That said, A Hard Day's Night is so fucking good that it has encouraged generations of filmmakers and pop stars to try again, almost always to no damn good effect at all. So this much credit must absolutely go to 2002's 8 Mile, starring Marshall "Eminem" Mathers as an impressionistic gloss on himself in the mid-'90s: it's a pretty strong movie. Director Curtis Hanson leads a terrific below-the-line team including the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, editors Craig Kitson and Jay Rabinowitz, and costume designer Mark Bridges, in the creation of a striking vision of urban decrepitude embracing and nurturing its inhabitants. Meanwhile, the director fills out the margins with wonderful performances by Mekhi Phifer, Brittany Murphy, Michael Shannon, and Anthony Mackie in a virtually nonexistent role that still benefits enormously from his extraordinary ability to control the camera with his scowling face.

So that handles A), though this is not a Lester-esque explosion of inventive style (on the contrary, the film subscribes to a stock-issue "let's film urban poverty" aesthetic, it just happens to execute that aesthetic tremendously well). It does not, however, do well by B). Eminem doesn't embarrass himself in the way that Britney Spears did in the repellent Crossroads earlier in 2002, or Mariah Carey did in the insipid Glitter the year prior. He's perfectly unexceptional, with a fairly limited palette of facial expressions that leave the impression that his character doesn't feel feelings; he looks uncannily like Elijah Wood much of the time, and that's all it took me to long helplessly a re-casting in which Eminem could be taken out of the movie that only exists because he is in it (also, "how much better this would be with Elijah Wood in the lead role!" is a pretty awful place to be in).

Eminem's alter ego in the script written by Scott Silver is Jimmy Smith Jr, an automobile factory worker in Detroit whose life is in that singular state of perpetual collapse that only true poverty can create. As the film begins, he has just moved back in with his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger), whom he resentfully tolerates, his kid sister Lily (Chloe Greenfield) who is unique among living human beings in having the ability to make him feel joy and love, and his mom's abusive wretch of a boyfriend, Greg (Shannon). When he's not slacking off at his job or skulking around his house with undisguised disgust, he pursues his great calling, freestyle rap; he has immense talent but no confidence at all, and at a rap battle emceed by his best friend Future (Phifer), performing as "B-Rabbit", he chokes completely, humiliating himself in front of virtually everyone whose opinion he cares about, and earning the disdain of Papa Doc (Mackie), who lambastes Jimmy as nothing but white trash trying ineffectually to muscle into the African-American territory of rap.

The film is not, in truth, very plot-heavy; there's a bit of back and forth involving Jimmy and Papa Doc's rap gang, the Leaders of the Free World (I'm looking for some kind of irony with Papa Doc's name, and I can't figure out if it's actually there), and the danger in which it puts Jimmy and his friends; there's a B-plot in which Jimmy's relationship to a young woman he meets accidentally one day, Alex (Murphy), helps to drive him to stop being such a resentful lump and take some ownership of his actions. But this is mostly a hang-out movie, of a particularly bleak stripe: the bulk of the film is scenes of Jimmy simply inhabiting his world and bumping against the people in it, with his character arc slowly coalescing as we observe the minute shifts in his behavior from moment to moment, rather than big dramatic shifts that come as the result of melodramatic incidents. The film doesn't even end melodramatically: the film eschews the rags-to-riches arc of Eminem's own life in favor of ending with the triumph of Jimmy being ready to seriously grapple with his life and nascent music career, rather than having actually become a success anywhere but in the tiny world he has always inhabited.

It's a refreshing way to build a story that is ghoulishly overfamiliar in nearly all its particulars, and it leaves 8 Mile feeling like it has earned its emotional claims on the audience, rather than just blindly insisting that we should be moved because of the poor. Parts of it are undernourished, beyond a doubt: the most troubling is the film's decision to steadfastly not think about race beyond Papa Doc's mockery of Jimmy for his whiteness (though it's not the most absurd "let's pretend that nobody is having conversations about Eminem's place in politics and culture" moment: that would be when he stops the film cold to explain why it's not okay to make fun of people for being gay), and while Murphy is utterly incandescent in the role of Alex, bringing a fire to the cold grey movie that emphasises better than anything else just what the absolute, burning desire to get the hell out of there looks like, there's no denying that the romantic subplot is the one that the film has by far the least desire to do anything with.

The biggest case of undernourishment, though, is Jimmy himself, owing mostly to Eminem's fine but basic performance, and the central relationship with his loved, hated mother, owing to Basinger's. The common complaint against her when the film was brand new was that she was too beautiful for the role of a broke drunk, and that's true; but it's also true of Murphy, and she didn't have a problem overcoming it. Basinger, though, simply retrenches to shticky performances of grinding poverty, with director Hanson failing to draw out the same once-in-a-lifetime brilliance that made her so shockingly potent in their previous collaboration, L.A. Confidential. "Shit. We're be-ing evicted. God damn it" she intones at one moment of crisis, and the effect is not "woman who is too far gone into the bottle to have human responses", which might have saved it; it's "didn't think through the right emotional tone for this most important scene". Her onscreen son, meanwhile, has a confrontation with his possibly-pregnant ex-girlfriend (Taryn Manning), and he stares and speaks at her like a Scandinavian tourist dropped into the heart of Detroit with only a tourist's dictionary to get by, so perhaps wildly unacceptable line readings are genetic within the film or something.

There's an absolute upper limit to how good the film can be when its two most important roles are filled by its two most disappointing actors, but 8 Mile comes remarkably close to that ceiling. Its depiction of urban squalor is right on-point without being so realistically hellish that it no longer makes sense to locate an unresolved Horatio Alger fable there; Prieto shoots it with moody, almost horror movie shafts of light and shadow that make it all look interesting without glamorising it, and the frequently impressionistic editing - which starts right from the bravura opening sequence, which muddies the distinction between diegetic and nondiegetic music as Jimmy practices his rapping, while the editors keep flashing from point to point around him - keeps our attention on the physical environment as an object and a force, not just the backdrop for the characters.

The film's depiction of urban Michigan is stellar, visually; it could, of course, be a bit more rigorous sociologically, but given what the film easily could have been, I am inclined to be excited for any little victories. Ultimately, the takeaway is that all this is a touch too easy and a touch shallow, which is far, far better than I'd have ever expected from it: a narcissistic autobiography of a non-actor is one of the most surefire no-win situations in cinema, and that Hanson, his crew, and most of his cast were able to haul this into something that's at least somwhat admirable is a huge triumph.

BEST SHOT: ANGELS IN AMERICA

For the final-but-not-actually episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot in 2015, Nathaniel has picked an old subject, one that I didn't follow along with at the time: 2003's Angels in America, the HBO production of Tony Kushner's monumental 1993 play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and a late masterwork in the increasingly spotty career of director Mike Nichols.

The original play was presented in two parts, "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika", and the HBO version follows suit. Each half is around three-ish hours long, so Nathaniel presented a couple of options: choose the best shot from the overall 6-hour monolith, choose the best shot from each episode, or just pick one half and then pick the best shot from that. And while I have prided myself on always trying to pick whatever option is most onerous, this was simply not the week for it. So I confess to taking the easy way out: I only watched "Millennium Approaches", which I've always preferred, on the page, the stage,* and the screen (though the two halves are closer in quality in Nichols's hands than in Kushner's original).

Part of the point of Angels in America is that it is a massive, uncontainable beast of a thing, serving as a summary referendum on the history of the United States from prior to its founding to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s (the story is set in 1985), with special attention paid to how identity intersects with history; mostly, but not solely, homosexual identity. It's trying to be about Everything, and the scary thing is how close it comes to succeeding.

This of course means that it's not possible to pick one image and say "yep, that's emblematic of everything I want to say about the piece" (and I also didn't want to pick any of the big obvious showy images: skipping the Jean Cocteau sequence hurt real bad, though). Not even if we're just limiting ourselves to "Millennium Approaches", though I suspect that I'd end up picking the same shot if I were considering the film as a whole (sadly, I did not have anything resembling the free time to watch "Perestroika", and so I rely on memories that are at least eight years old).

In addition to being about the giant courses of history and society, Angels in America is also about just four characters, with some more important figures on the periphery: two are a Mormon couple whom we needn't concern ourselves with (though they're played by Patrick Wilson and Mary Louise Parker in their star-making turns, and they're both fucking wonderful - in particular, given the amount of top-tier talent showing up onscreen, I never cease to be baffled how Wilson could give my favorite performance out of everybody. But anyway, this is totally irrelevant). Two are a gay couple in New York, Prior (Justin Kirk) and Louis (Ben Shenkman). If there's a single thing that drives the engine of "Millennium Approaches" - which there isn't - it's that Prior has AIDS and near the start of the story, finally tells Louis about it.

But that hasn't happened yet at the time of my choice for Best Shot - this is less than ten minutes in, and all we've seen so far is Louis's grandmother's funeral. Prior leaves first, lights a cigarette, and waits for Louis to break away from his extended family. They touch so little that it's almost an accident, then round the corner, and then, out of sight of the judgmental eyes of relatives, they finally move in close.

Two things are going on: first, the obvious one from the blocking that precedes this image, is the need to hide one's true self for fear of the cruel opinions of society. The pain felt by the gay characters in Angels in America isn't simply the mortal terror of AIDS; it's also being found unworthy by majoritarian culture. It's about being unable to live an authentic life because of the Way Things Work. The delay of this moment of physical contact draws all of our attention to that fact, and when Prior finally touches Louis's shoulder, it is a profound statement of identity just as much as it's simple gesture of affection.

The other thing is, I confess, a hoary bit of obvious symbolism. AIDS suffocates every part of the play and movie, and the nearness of death is a major theme. So here we have two emotional impulses simultaneously marching along: love, in the form of the two men comforting each other, and doing so in a way that unambiguously announces to anyone watching that they are a couple and will not, for now, hide that. And death, in the form of the memorial chapel sign, a thick black bar looming over them as they walk towards it. It is a literal memento mori. This tension - love in the presence of reminders of death, love in the presence of memory bearing down - is one of the major propulsive forces in Angels in America, and this moment foreshadows how important that will eventually be in these two men's lives.

17 August 2015

2010-2014: THE TOP 50

Though I have left you for a few days, I would never do it without leaving some presents. And what's more fun than to play with, critique, respond to, and disagree with, than a best-of list? They are, are they not, the very lifeblood of the contemporary internet.

Anyway, this list was supposed to happen back in January, when its subject would have made sense, but scheduling was a beast. And I knew this day was coming, so why not hold if off as a little divertissement for my self-imposed week of exile? So anyway, a propos of nothing, and whittled down from a list of features and shorts 1003 titles long, here's my list of:

The 50 Best Films of 2010-2014
(in alphabetical order, with links to my original reviews)

-12 Years a Slave (McQueen, USA/UK, 2013)
-The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer et al, Denmark/Norway/UK, 2012)
-All Is Lost (Chandor, USA, 2013)
-At Berkeley (Wiseman, USA, 2013)
-The Babadook (Kent, Australia, 2014)
-Before Midnight (Linklater, USA/Greece, 2013)
-Black Coal, Thin Ice [aka 白日焰火] (Diao, China, 2014)
-Blue Valentine (Cianfrance, USA, 2010)
-Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014)
-Certified Copy [aka Copie conforme] (Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium, 2010)
-Cloud Atlas (Tykwer & The Wachwoskis, Germany/USA/Hong Kong/ Singapore, 2012)
-Day & Night (Newton, USA, 2010)
-The Deep Blue Sea (Davies, UK/USA, 2011)
-The Eagleman Stag (Please, UK, 2011)
-Edge of Tomorrow (Liman, USA/Canada, 2014)
-Elena [aka Елена] (Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2011)
-Goodbye to Language [aka Adieu au langage] (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014)
-The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, USA/Germany/UK, 2014)
-Gravity (Cuarón, USA/UK, 2013)
-Haywire (Soderbergh, USA/Ireland, 2011)
-Holy Motors (Carax, France/Germany, 2012)
-Hugo (Scorsese, USA, 2011)
-The Illusionist [aka L'illusionniste] (Chomet, France/UK, 2010)
-It's Such a Beautiful Day (Hertzfeldt, 2012, USA)
-The Last of the Unjust [aka Le dernier des injustes] (Lanzmann, France/ Austria, 2013)
-Lincoln (Spielberg, 2012, USA)
-The Loneliest Planet (Loktev, 2011, USA/Germany)
-The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK, 2014)
-The Lords of Salem (Zombie, USA/UK/Canada, 2012)
-The Missing Picture [aka L'image manquante] (Panh, Cambodia/France, 2013)
-Mr. Turner (Leigh, UK/France/Germany, 2014)
-National Gallery (Wiseman, France/USA/UK, 2014)
-Nostalgia for the Light [aka Nostalgia de la luz] (Guzmán, France/Germany/ Chile/Spain/USA, 2010)
-Once Upon a Time in Anatolia [aka Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da] (Ceylan, Turkey/Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2011)
-Oslo, 31 August (Trier, Norway, 2011)
-Pina (Wenders, Germany/France/UK, 2011)
-The Raid [aka Serbuan maut] (Evans, Indonesia/USA/France, 2011)
-Rango (Verbinski, USA, 2011)
-Rhino Season [aka فصل کرگدن] (Ghobadi, Iran/Iraq/Turkey, 2012)
-A Separation [aka جدایی نادر از سیمین] (Farhadi, Iran, 2011)
-Snowpiercer (Bong, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France, 2013)
-Southwest [aka Sudoeste] (Nunes, Brazil, 2011)
-Tabu (Gomes, Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France/Spain, 2012)
-The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [aka かぐや姫の物語] (Takahata, Japan, 2013)
-This Is Not a Film [akaاین فیلم نیست‎] (Panahi & Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)
-Timbuktu (Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014)
-The Tree of Life (Malick, USA, 2011)
-Tuesday, After Christmas [aka Marţi, după Crăciun] (Muntean, Romania, 2010)
-The Turin Horse [aka A Torinói ló] (Tarr & Hrantizky, Hungary/France/ Germany/Switzerland/USA, 2011)
-Under the Skin (Glazer, UK/USA/Switzerland, 2013)


And - why not? - its opposite number:

The 10 Worst Films of 2010-2014
-Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (Mitchell, USA, 2010)
-The Atlas Shrugged trilogy (Johansson and Putch and Manera, USA, 2011-'14)
-Birdemic: Shock and Terror (Nguyen, USA, 2010)
-The Devil Inside (Bell, USA, 2012)
-Foodfight! (Kasanoff, USA, 2012)
-Hop (Hill, USA, 2011)
-Insidious: Chapter 2 (Wan, USA/Canada, 2013)
-The Last Airbender (Shyamalan, USA, 2010)
-Marmaduke (Dey, USA, 2010)
-Movie 43 (Omnibus, USA, 2013)

15 August 2015

BACK TO SCHOOL

Today I move to Madison, Wisconsin, having convinced a bunch of people to pay me to spend the next several years watching and writing about movies, and then getting to call myself "doctor" as a result. Nice work if you can get it.

Moving is, of course, absolutely no fun, and I'm hidebound and lazy to begin with. So this is, like, a rough and irritating day, preceding a rough and irritating week, and that means one thing in the short term: I'm taking a vacation. Partially, an enforced one: if I told you how long it's going to be until I get the internet set up at my new apartment, you'd wonder if we had regressed to some repellent Dark Age, like the fucking early 2000s or some beastly pre-civilised state. But mostly, I think that with emotional stress coming upon me like I haven't known in years, I need to spend a week where I don't try to write words, especially words good enough for other people to read them.

I have taken the initiative of setting up a few odds and ends to post over the week; enough to keep you all from abandoning me entirely, I hope (one of those odds and ends is not tomorrow's Blockbuster History review, which I hope to rectify with the help of my friendly neighborhood free Starbucks wi-fi). I'll be back to business on Sunday, August 23, but with some pretty steep changes in place, the most obvious of which is that this place is going to slow down, a lot.

I do not like doing this with the enormous stack of ACS fundraiser reviews I've still got to work on - just look at all those names that don't have a review yet! - but I will throw myself on the mercy of those who donated and promise that I will get to your essay. But it's going to take a while, and if you're one of the kind folks to whom I send an e-mail including some variation of the phrase "I don't know when I'll get to it, but it's definitely going to be before the end of the year!", I think I should apologise especially hard, because as it turns out, I was lying to you. Not maliciously. Just with much too much ambition as to how many of these I'd be able to turn over while putting fair effort into all of them. Starting at the end of this month, I'll be constantly re-upping that list of donors every Monday with a countdown of how many reviews I have left, so you can all keep me honest.

There's going to be another shift: I have to be a realist, and know that with a full classload breathing down my neck, I can't keep up with these 1200-word reviews for every movie that crosses my transom. Some 1200-word reviews, sure. Every last damn one of those fundraiser reviews for starters, as well as the series and retrospectives that are ill-advisedly going to show up along the way.

But I'm going to experiment with something new: once a week, probably on Saturday, I'm going to post a round-up of shorter little reviews of the films I watched that week but didn't have a full essay's worth of thoughts to share. Maybe this will be an awesome time-saver. Maybe it will break me in half. Maybe it will turn me into a boring, thoughtless writer. Let's get through September and see where we stand.

And lastly, I want to astop talking about tedious administrative stuff, and turn back around to the elephant in the room. So, yeah. Grad school. I do not have any damn clue what kind of person I'm going to become as a result of the next six years or so of my life. I hope it will be an interesting, rounded person with a whole new arsenal of ideas to share with enthusiasm. I hope it will not be a person who dives up his own ass in the thickets of academia. My goal with this blog is to be as casual as if you bought be a couple of stiff drinks and then encouraged me to go on a rant about the last movie I saw, and I hope to continue that no matter what.

The point being, if I ever use the word "hermeneutics" on the pages of this blog, you have my permission - nay, my earnest request - to tell me to fuck right off. Let us pray it never comes to that.

HOPELESS, BUT NOT SERIOUS

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

Who knows how these things happen? To an average viewer, Billy Wilder is one of the most well-known directors in pre-1967 American cinema, and James Cagney is one of the most recognisable (or at least memorably-parodied) actors of his generation. The satiric farce One, Two, Three from 1961 is the solitary collaboration between these two icons, and it showcases some of the absolute best work either man ever put onscreen. And yet it's the next best thing to invisible, barring the odd Turner Classic Movies screening, and a short-lived, out-of-print DVD. You'll forgive me if I have a hard time keeping my Sagelike Critic hat on, when my Passionate Advocate hat is sitting right there, but I'll do my best.

The setting is Berlin, right before the Wall was built, a fact which severely inconvenienced the filmmakers, since the film came out right after the Wall was built. This necessitated the addition of an opening monologue spoken over a montage of life in the divided city by Cagney:
"On Sunday, August 13th, 1961, the eyes of America were on the nation's capital, where Roger Maris was hitting home runs number 44 and 45 against the Senators. On that same day, without any warning, the East German Communists sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. I only mention this to show the kind of people we're dealing with: real shifty!"
Sure, it's a little flop-sweaty, but it ends up benefiting the film anyway: it neatly sets up all the things we're going to be indundated with for the next hour and fifty minutes or so. There's the political angle, of course, contrasting the film's views of Americans and Communists: the former as self-obsessed and convinced of the absolute value of their popular culture, the latter as treacherous but not exactly wicked: more like they're annoying jerks that you can't get away from, so you have to be sure never to show them your backside and count the silver after they've left. There's also the matter of Cagney's delivery of the speech, a spectacularly quick bit of patter laced with put-upon annoyance, and between these two things - a sarcastic, cynical gloss on Cold War political one-upmanship and a take-no-prisoners pace - we've got pretty much everything that One, Two, Three has on its mind in capsule form. And oh, how glorious it is.

It's a fine successor to the genial sharpness of the great 1939 Ernst Lubitsch film Ninotchka, co-written by Wilder - with Charles Brackett, whereas One, Two, Three was co-written by I.A.L. Diamond, and the differences between the movies show a clear difference between the collaborative teams. But the core is the same, approaching the gulf between the central ideologies of the 20th Century with a bitter cynicism about both sides, though not therefore suggesting that they're morally equivalent; thus the conviction that the only way to properly address the cruelty and violence of Soviet totalitarianism is through plummy humor. If it sounds like this means that the film is dated and loses a lot of its punch without the viewer of more than 50 years later putting in the work to contextualise it: well, that's exactly the case. In fact, I can not say anything against the complaint that One, Two, Three is too much a time capsule of long-expired attitudes towards long-dead political concerns, for many of the best jokes are predicated on exactly those things. But damn, what a time capsule! Sarcastic, flippant satire and the Cold War went well together: though they're up to completely different things and have virtually no tonal overlap, I'm still compelled to put One, Two, Three alongside Dr. Strangelove as being not just a great attempt at caustic social commentary through the broadest of comedy, but also one the funniest comedies of the '60s, a decade when American films had a notable and pervasive difficulty with being funny.

Herein, Cagney plays "Mac" MacNamara, a Coca-Cola executive living in West Berlin with his justifiably resentful wife Phyllis (Arlene Francis) and their two children, attempting to break into the Eastern Bloc market; this would be an unprecedented victory for a Western corporation. His days are a constant trial of verbally fencing with a team of obstinate Soviet functionaries while prodding his assistant Schlemmer (Hans Lothar), a former SS officer desperately trying to forward the fiction that he was one of the good Germans, and flirting with his overly receptive secretary Fräulein Ingeborg (Lilo Pulver). Then one day, things explode: he's assigned the joyless job of chaperoning his boss's daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), during her short German vacation. This balloons to two months (glossed over in a ballsy cut), by which point the 17-year-old has gone missing and then returned with a horrible secret in the form of a new husband, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz). Mac is able to use his connections and a good amount of chicanery to get their marriage dropped into the memory hole, but then the second bomb drops: Scarlett is pregnant. And this Mac's mission abruptly changes: now he's got to mold Otto into an idealised old money capitalist, at the risk of being fired with extreme prejudice.

The opening two-thirds of One, Two, Three (as far as I took that little précis) are terrific farce, paced like lightning and embroidered with some of the best dialogue in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's collaboration, but it's all a warm-up for the last push. Here, the film turns into the most maniacal, unyielding high-speed comedy since The Lady Eve in 1941, anchored by Cagney's literally indefatigable performance. For all that the film is a triumph of tremendously well-paced directing and editing (by Daniel Mandell, whose abrupt clipping and diving between shots is a perfect example of how much tight cutting can do for comic timing), this is an actor's movie: nothing that goes well could be enough to save the film without a sterling performance in the central role, and nothing could go poorly enough to torpedo it with that performance in place. We can see, in fact, exactly the proof of my second point: the film does suffer from one intolerable misstep in the form of Buchholz, whom Cagney openly detested. Whether it was Buchholz's one-note portrayal of a boorish young ideologue that earned Cagney's ire, or if he retrenched to that portrayal in retaliation against his co-star, I cannot say, but the result is the same: Otto is flattened with the film's most tedious, shrill characterisation.

And it just doesn't matter. Cagney's work is so boisterous that he raises the energy in every scene he's in, which is all but two of them, or maybe three. His rat-a-tat-tat deliveries, escalating in frenzy along with the confusion and thorniness of the plot, are virtuosity and nothing less; his gesticulations are beautifully frantic but perfectly focused within that ("Cagney's finger snapping is tight as hell", I find in my notes, and that's no less than true). The work was intense enough to drive one of Hollywood's all-time greatest troupers into retirement; Cagney wouldn't appear onscreen again until he took a small role in Ragtime, in 1981. It's exactly the performance you'd like to assume would lead to such an action: there's nothing left behind, only furious activity, operatically loud line deliveries, and constant movement. This is not a cast of slouches - Francis and Lothar give particularly excellent performances, I think - but love the film or find it meanspirited and/or tiring in its relentless pace (I could never defend it against either complaint), Cagney is the focal point of everything, and his work is astonishingly committed.

Comedy being the most subjective of all things, I can do no more than posit that One, Two, Three is one of the funniest movies of its generation, and hope that's enough - it's less perfect than Wilder and Diamond's script for Some Like It Hot, but with a much greater pool of quotable lines (one of the reasons I haven't mentioned any is because I couldn't whittle my list of favorites down to less than a top 10); and not so emotionally probing as The Apartment, but it does a better job earning its sourness. And let us not compare it to the films in the director's career following it, for there was an immediate drop-off in quality from which he never fully recovered.

Unquestionably, the film is dated, and some of its finest touches no longer land: one particularly great scene is a delicate parody of the way that the word "pregnant" was once a cinematic taboo, without which it's just a protracted "the German fella can't speak English" bit that's barely even a gag. And for anything made up so completely of white-hot political references, the further we go from those topics, the less it's going to work. I suspect that much of One, Two, Three was already showing its age by the time Lyndon Johnson was inaugurated President. But what works is magnificent: the speed, the ingenious twists in the last act, the great line readings, the total lack of restraint on Cagney's part. This is as precious to me as any other midcentury comedy, and its lack of widespread prominence is a grievous lack.

14 August 2015

FOUR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS

A version of this review was published at the Film Experience

The best and maybe the only compliment I can pay to Fantastic Four, the third unsuccessful attempt at bringing the oldest of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's creations at Marvel Comics to the big screen, is that it's not obviously the worst of a sorry lot. Its big budget and generally solid (though not at all state-of-the-art) visual effects don't nearly compensate for the gung-ho charm of the unreleased 1994 film, famously made for $1 million to secure the production rights to the material, which improbably remains the best version of the story despite resembling a fan video made by some sugar-jacked kids in the basement. But its insipidities, and it is very insipid, aren't inherently worse than those of the ghastly 2005 big-budget version, just different. That film heralded the end of the "brightly colored larks that are wholly insubstantial but also not much fun" era of comic book movies; time alone will tell if its 2015 sibling will similarly ring down the curtains on the "ludicrously dark and serious-minded exercises in bitterness and misery" era, though I think we should be hopeful. Because Fantastic Four '15 is, if it is anything, alarmingly dark and serious-minded, to the point of parody.

How much of this is due to the awkwardly visible fencing match between director Josh Trank and the executives at 20th Century Fox is beyond our ability to say for certain. It does feel like a movie that wants to be anything than what it is: I am especially thinking of the rumors that Trank was hoping to make PG-13, summer-friendly body horror. There are vestigial traces of that conception: most notably, the giant rock-man Ben "The Thing" Grimm (Jamie Bell) darkly responding "I'm used to it" when asked if his body hurts. I guess it would have been better for the film to have gone all the way; at least then the incongruous bleakness of tone would have felt like it had some actual purpose. As it is, the movie doesn't have any clear intentions or personality, flattening everything into a single mood of aimless, sullen detachment, not caring about anything but just grinding through its leaden 100 minutes and getting it the hell over with. If it is possible for cinema to suffer from clinical depression, this is exactly what I'd expect it to look like.

The film laboriously reworks one of the most well-known origin stories in superhero comics, taking its cues from the Ultimate Marvel line rather than the more familiar story initially set out by Lee in 1961 (that is, the Fantastic Four are unlikable teenagers): in 2007, genius 5th grader Reed Richards (Owen Judge) set himself to the task of building a matter transporter, along the way picking up the support and friendship of classmate Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), a tough kid from a love-starved family, whose cruel older brother (Chet Hanks) would gleefully announce "it's clobberin' time!" before beating the 11-year-old into paste. Even if I had no goal but to write the bleakest possible grimdark parody of Silver Age comics, I don't think I could have come up with such a punishing origin for the Thing's corny-ass catchphrase. Anyway, Reed's early experiments are inconclusive, but by the time the two arrive in their senior year of college, with Reed now played by Miles Teller while Bell takes over Ben, he's almost got it down. And that brings him to the attention of Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), the director of the Baxter Institute, a research facility that has been working on very similar technology to open a portal to another dimension. Reed finds himself working alongside Franklin's son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), as well as the former prodigy and current joyless slacker Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and they succeed in cracking the technology necessary to travel to Planet Zero, a physical space made out of pure energy, or something like that.

Sadly, an unauthorised drunken trip to that dimension goes wildly wrong, leaving Victor stranded on Planet Zero and the other three boys warped by the transportation back, while Sue also gets fucked up even though she wasn't part of the trip for some reason. This leaves them with the usual suite of powers: Reed can extend his limbs far beyond their normal range, Sue can phase out of the visible spectrum and create force fields, Johnny can set his entire body on fire, and Ben is an invulnerable rock monster. They are immediately taken by the U.S. government in the form of Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), who hopes to weaponise them; Reed escapes and tries to hunt for a cure while the other three sullenly learn to harness their new powers. A year later, the dimensional gate has been rebuilt, and a path re-opened to Planet Zero, which has now become Doom's hellish personal playground, from which he plans destroy all life on Earth.

Origin stories are all well and good, but this one is exceptionally methodical; it's not enough to show us how the Fantastic Four (not so named until the line immediately following the last line spoken in the film) came into being, we also need to understand in exact detail what their lives were like prior to the accident. That's literally all this film is, a distended first act that fleshes out backstory in three times the fulness it probably requires, minutely spelling out points that could be implied, and generally using expository dialogue on the principal that you can never be too specific and it's better to have characters say everything germane to the moment all at once than to make them sound like human beings. I do not think we should blame the writers - Trank, with Simon Kinberg & Jeremy Slater are credited - who were dealing with one of the most extensive reshoots of any major tentpole film in recent years, and could hardly be expected to make a shapely creation out of this gross hybrid.

Besides, there's probably something in this: a more psychologically-oriented, character-driven superhero movie is exactly what pop culture needs. It's a shame that Fantastic Four ends up with such compromised, indifferently-performed characters: to look at the highs and lows of their respective careers, one might not think that Teller, Jordan, Mara, and Bell would all end up underplaying their roles in more or less exactly the same way (for which we can almost certainly blame Trank), each of them walling themselves off from the other three and completely failing to make the connections that the "modern families can look weird but still be loving" conceit of the script absolutely demands: Mara and Jordan have a prickly dislike between them that's especially damaging given what a big deal the film makes about their polyglot family, while Teller responds to Mara with hostile chilliness in all the places that the script indicates that they should be flirting. And Bell (who is visibly far too old for the role) is completely checked-out, swallowed up by an American accent that sounds acutely painful.

Even setting aside its failure to execute the one thing that might have made it distinctive, Fantastic Four turns on itself the second that it puts its characters through their mutation. I can't recall if there's ever been a major big-budget superhero movie that breaks down so quickly and so completely as this one does after that "One Year Later" card. We know that whole sequences were ripped from the film, we know that much of it was re-conceived and re-shot, but it doesn't take following the gossip rags to sense that something went deeply wrong in putting the film together: Reed's escape ends up serving as nothing but a parenthetical, the return to Planet Zero is rushed and Doom's return and the battle to stop him abrupt and confusing, and the whole last 40 minutes generally ape the shape of a superhero movie without having any kind of meaningful content. It is as dysfunctional as anything in the genre has been since... I don't even know, Blade: Trinity? It's a damned ghastly wreck, anyway.

There is absolutely nothing in the aesthetics to prop this up: Matthew Jensen's cinematography uses the full palette of slate greys to be as unattractive as possible, and George L. Little's costume design fully commits to the trend of superhero garb looking functional in the bluntest way, all drab blacks and technologicalish lines. The score by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass is a heartbreaking disappointment outside of its main collaborative motif, which mixes midcentury scientific optimism and contemporary soaring action music well, but otherwise sounds like a slightly less generic version of the banalities that show up in all the Marvel Studios films. The CGI is serviceable to very good, and is especially fin in the case of the Thing, captured in terrifically realistic shifts of rock against rock, aided by some great sound design. But the same veil of grimness that coats the rest of the visuals infringes on the CGI as well, and instead of being bowled over by how real and imaginative things are, it's easier to be depressed by how morbid Planet Zero looks, and how irritatingly off-putting they've made Doom's design.

It is, all told, a greatly joyless film, without any purpose to that joylessness; and it's dragged down further by its perfunctory, formless narrative. The homogeneity of recent superhero movies has very little to recommend it, but it means a certain level of basic competence: films this bad in that genre have been driven almost to the point of extinction. Hopefully, the failure of Fantastic Four on all fronts will be enough to finish the job.

3/10

13 August 2015

A FILM THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY

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

Recommended musical accompaniment to this review.

Obviously, if we're talk about pure, rancid anti-cinematic imbecility, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is Michael Bay's worst movie and will almost certainly remain that way, for it's difficult to imagine a worse film that doesn't reach out and murder the post-production team before they have a chance to complete it. But if you asked me which one I hated the most, which one I would least want to have to see twice - as I now have, thanks to this damn fundraiser and the cruelty of those who would claim to be my friends - I wouldn't take a moment to answer: Pearl Harbor. Revenge of the Fallen is at least about giant robots from space. Pearl Harbor is a reprehensible mangling of history, which isn't inherently a bad thing - many a good film has looked at the annals of historical fact and decided "meh, fuckit", from the earliest days of narrative cinema - though instead of mangling history in the service of some insightful work of dramatic art and character study, it slathers its ahistorical twaddle onto a tepid, wannabe-Titanic love story, under the stewardship of a man whose career has ranged from the emotional depth of an 11-year-old boy all the way up to a 13-year-old boy.

The film is about two best friends from a version of Tennessee that couldn't be any more shamelessly, heart-tuggingly Rockwellian. Maybe if they threw a jumping, slobbery puppy in there, or something. Even before we meet a single human being, we've already heard Hans Zimmer's deeply earnest score, dripping with melancholic evocations of Classic Americana and warm, easy patriotism; we've already seen John Schwartzman's lusciously Malickian sunset photography in all the shades of nostalgia. And no insult meant to either Zimmer or Schwartzman, whose work throughout the film is of the highest caliber; it is hard to imagine anyone improving upon their work, which is plainly no less than what they had asked of them. The problem is not with the cinematography or the music per se, but with the underlying conception driving not just those elements but the whole ethos of the movie.

Simply put, this is what happens when Michael Bay does patriotism, and like everything else in his career, it's awful. Even more awful than when he tries to do smart sci-fi or satire, because Pearl Harbor requires a particularly delicate touch: it's a period film, which is already a minefield that requires either a keen awareness of how people moved and talked 60 years before the film's release, or a particular stylistic intention that justifies modern attitudes and deliberate anachronism, and neither of those apply here. It hardly requires mentioning that the guiding hand of the bombastic crapshow Armageddon wouldn't even be able to daydream about handling World War II with anything but the most stupidly gung-ho adoration for military doodads. And this isn't by any means a scenario that could benefit from Bay's characteristic enthusiasm giant metal cocks with the U.S. flag painted on them: Randall Wallace's screenplay is far more interested on the romantic triangle between good Tennessee boys in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the Army Air Forces, a change that occurs in the time frame of the movie, though it's not mentioned), Capt. Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Capt. Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett), who both fall in love with nurse Lt. Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale), Rafe when he meets her in New York in January 1941, Danny at the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, after Rafe has left for Europe to fly with the RAF, and has been incorrectly reported dead. He re-enters their lives on 6 December, 1941, just so that the blow-up between them all can mirror in the most shockingly inappropriate way that whole attack thingy that shows up the next morning late afternoon. And things do not repair themselves for months, until Rafe and Danny both sign on for Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's (Alec Baldwin) famed attack on the Japanese archipelago in April, 1942, when one of the men must make the ultimate sacrificcccccccccccccccccccc sorry, fell asleep on my keyboard.

The miracle of Pearl Harbor lies in the number of different ways that it's totally unacceptable as a work of cinema and a dramatic story. There's the obvious shortcomings the film as an enormous misrepresentation of living history (an apparent specialty of Wallace's - he also wrote Braveheart), ranging from the innocuous (Bay had the colors of the Mitsubishi Zeroes flown by the Japanese changed so they'd look cooler) to the reprehensible (the re-ordering of chronology to change what the military brass knew and when) to the fucking nuts. Fucking nuts isn't enough. This is a film in which President Roosevelt (Jon Voight), in order to make a point about America's determination, stands up out of his goddamn wheelchair.

It's also simply a wreck of storytelling, with its grotesque structural lurches from the love story to a historical wide view, without any rhyme or reason to how it attempts to combine those elements. Hell, the fact that FDR is in the movie at all is as deeply questionable of a choice as then having him turn into some kind of polio-defying superman: Pearl Harbor is a story about a lot of things, and it's muddled about all of them, but the machinations of Washington politics are absolutely not on the list of things that fit comfortably into the rest. It's frankly only just barely a film in which the attack on Pearl Harbor fits: the story climaxes with Rafe and Danny flying in the Doolittle Raid, while in the scheme of things, the attack is more of an inconvenience that redirects the characters' attention without actually changing the stakes at all. And the poor writing isn't limited to form: the film's dialogue is justly infamous for its mixture of tortured verbiage in a weak attempt to ape '40s speech, and its ludicrous, artless bluntness: "I think World War II just started", delivered with forced determination by Hartnett, is right up there with "Come on, Hitler, I'll buy you a glass of lemonade" from 2002's Max in the annals of lines from historical fiction that make the entire medium of cinema a little bit shabbier.

The characters and acting are atrocious: Affleck, Hartnett, and Beckinsale are an unholy trinity of blandness and low-charisma, and while there are a few flashes in the supporting cast of anything resembling humanity - Baldwin makes a good Doolittle, and Mako has the requisite solemnity as Admiral Yamamoto - the great majority of the supporting cast is distinctive more for being curiously terrible than fading into vanilla obscurity like the leads. The way William Fichtner lurches into the movie like a drunk asshole in the 1923 prologue sets a poor standard that the rest of the movie keeps folllowing: when even as magnetic a presence as Michael Shannon comes off like a flailing moron, you know that things are going deeply wrong.

And of course, Bay conducts all of this with maximum bombast and no worries about how much, if any, sense it all makes. His customary beer commercial aesthetic not being suited for a story of people living and dreaming in 1941, he instead goes for the romantic drama version of the same, which is why we get so many eye-searing sunsets and shots of trees and water - cut by the four-man editing team, amusingly enough, with the same whiz-bang madness of the average car chase or gun battle in a Bay picture. It's even more why we get Evelyn and Danny making love in the most overwrought, aggressive scene of impressionistic gentleness ever put to film, with soft focus and gentle lighting and sheets blowing in the wind that are exactly the Bay version of soap opera sex scenes, trite imagery blown up to 11 and screaming at us. There are flourishes that are the worst thing in the whole world: a newsreel photographer gets shot, so the camera falls to the ground and records him dying and we see it in cocked black-and-white, a scene that recalls Saving Private Ryan as filtered through unapologetic assholery.

It is impossible to catalogue all the ways in which Pearl Harbor is tasteless, overblown, or boring; it's not even good as mindless war action, with the 7 December attack itself a messy collage of disconnected scenes that finds Bay's mayhem skills at a low ebb. If there's a single positive element to this movie, I am certain that I cannot name it; it is overstuffed bullshit that enthusiastically mocks real history and the real sacrifices of human beings who lived long enough to respond to the film with acidic dismissal. There's more incompetent filmmaking out there - but not by a terribly huge margin - but there aren't many films that I find more genuinely vile.

12 August 2015

BEST SHOT: CHICKEN RUN

With Shaun the Sheep Movie having dismally collapse in the U.S. but still being one of the most likable and rich children's movies in years, so let's keep talking about it - hey everybody, go see Shaun the Sheep Movie - Hit Me with Your Best Shot this week turns towards Aardman Animation's first feature film, Chicken Run from 2000. I find myself enormously anxious to talk about the whole movie, which I haven't ever come up with a good reason to review, and shame on me. But that's not the spirit of this series, and so with enormous reluctance, I will forbid myself from talking about the crafty puns, the impeccable voice casting, the bravery of not only including WWII and Holocaust imagery in a children's movie about talking chickens but even following through to make those references feel totally earned. And maybe some day I'll figure out a reason that isn't transparently arbitrary to write it up in full.

Anyway, the imagery: it is an exemplary feature-length visual reference to an entire genre, the World War II prison camp films (and Stalag 17 & The Great Escape in particular, along with scattered nods to other films; Raiders of the Lost Ark puts in an especially notable appearance. The joke being that all these familiar settings and images are now filled with latex and clay chickens.

The effect this has on the film is twofold. It means that it's ingeniously funny, and it really never lets up: the absurdity of a genial little English farm with goofy animals, incongruously boasting Aardman's characteristic teeth in their plasticine beaks, all inhabiting the exact world of tough-minded adult action films is a bit more snarky than Aardman's usual sense of humor, the influence perhaps of distributor and co-financier DreamWorks Animation SKG (though this was before DWA had gone all-in on sarcasm; Shrek was still a year away). At the same time, the whole joke is a very generic movie given a loopy facelift through clay poultry, so on a shot-by-shot basis, almost nothing in Chicken Run is creative and beautiful as-such; all of the shots look trite and common because they're supposed to be trite and common.

It makes it tricky to pick a best shot, but I think I've managed:

So you can see, I assume, what I'm talking about in terms of the content and framing of this shot being rather conventional, save for the chickenification of it. Which is no sin, of course; it's a shot type that shows up often because it works very well at communicating a certain emotion.

And this certainly does that beautifully well. The three-tiered composition is elegant as it is straightforward: the two main characters in the foreground, Ginger (Julia Sawalha) and Rocky (Mel Gibson) are noticeably elevated above the field of chicken coops, connected more with the distant horizon and the soothing calmness of the blue sky and the lighter blue clouds. It's a yearning moment, with the ugly closeness of the coops - a clear-cut reference to POW camps - ceding space to clear open air as our eyes move upward to the top of the frame, for that is very much the way our vision has been directed by the composition (all those lines on the roofs!). It's not clever, but it doesn't have to be: it's a direct and elemental depiction of the theme of the movie: the desire to escape imprisonment and punishment, the idealisation of of the world one wants to escape to, and the comfortable familiarity of spending a quiet moment with the ones who you want to escape with.

Plus, it's silly, you see. It's got chickens in. But chickens who feel greatly human, bubbly silliness and all.

11 August 2015

MICROCOSMOS

A Bug's Life is the most readily-overlooked of Pixar films, and I'd be lying if I pretended that I couldn't figure out why. After a decade and a half of riches, the 1998 film (the studio's second feature) can't help but seem unduly modest in every aspect of its writing. The story is perfectly ordinary - it's yet another riff on the basic Seven Samurai model - the jokes are largely ordinary and a bit shticky, the characters go through the most expected possible journeys. But it is a greatly important film: it's where Pixar proved that it had something to it besides novelty, and that the enormous success of Toy Story in 1995 augured for a real lifespan for this whole fully-rendered computer animation thing. Indeed, A Bug's Life was only the third CGI animated feature made in America, and would have been second if Jeffery Katzenberg wasn't hellbent on beating it to theaters with the transparent knock-off Antz, the first of many "fuck you" Valentines he'd deliver to the Walt Disney Company with his new DreamWorks Animation.

It's not true, of course, that A Bug's Life was the gatekeeper that needed to succeed for any and all further Pixar films to exist; Toy Story 2 was already in production, after all. But A Bug's Life did prove that Pixar's creative trust had the chops to be more than just a Toy Story factory, and demonstrated the studio's commitment to constantly challenging itself. Technologically and stylistically, the transition from Toy Story to A Bug's Life is probably the single biggest leap in aesthetic quality made by any individual Pixar film: while the 1995 picture shows its age in every implausibly smooth wood surface and rigid piece of cloth (to say nothing of its hideous human characters), A Bug's Life still looks pretty great out of a few aberrations here and there, most notably the surface texture of some of its insect characters, and generally feels like the baseline from which all of Pixar's subsequent triumphs have developed, much more so than Toy Story does.

That said, the studio's films are at least as beloved for the high quality of their storytelling as for the beauty and complexity of their images, and this is where A Bug's Life simply can't hold pace with most of its successors, though this speaks more highly of Pixar's run of masterpieces from 2001-2010 than it diminishes A Bug's Life in any particular way. Born out of the legendary lunch meeting with Pixar's top heads pitching the ideas that would make up most of their output through 2008's WALL·E, A Bug's Life's story, credited to John Lasseter (who directs), Andrew Stanton (who co-directs), and Joe Ranft, centers on an ant colony on a small island in a dry riverbed, where we meet the standard-issue ambitious outcast with ideas too big for his hidebound community, Flik (Dave Foley), whose attempts to make life better for all have been hell on Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), currently in the last stages of taking control of the colony over from her aged mother (Phyllis Diller). When Flik's latest invention manages to destroy the entire food offering the ants have left for the tyrannical grasshopper leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey), Atta and the other ant leaders are more than happy to ship Flik off on a mission to find warrior bugs to defend the colony, hoping to keep him out ofthe way while they work double-time to accede to the grasshoppers' demands.

In the big city - a collection of boxes outside of a trailer - Flik finds no warriors, though he thinks he has: instead, the band of lost souls he stumbles across are the refugees from a crappy circus run by hapless P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger, Pixar's good luck charm). These include angry male ladybug Francis (Denis Leary), sad sack walking stick Slim (David Hyde Pierce), upbeat black widow spider Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), hammy magician Manny the praying mantis (Jonathan Harris) and his assistant/wife Gypsy the moth (Madeline Kahn), hungry caterpillar Heimlich (Ranft), sweet rhinoceros beetle Dim (Brad Garrett), and incomprehensible pill bug twins Tuck and Roll (both voiced by Michael McShane). Under Flik's leadership, they concoct a plan to fight the grasshoppers, and all the beats you would expect turn up: Atta and the rest learn of the deception, Flik becomes a greater outcast than ever, Hopper doubles down on his demands, and eventually Flik is able to redeem himself by saving the day.

In the most abstract strokes, this is just about the commonest set of personal stakes a children's movie can adopt for itself. And make no mistake, A Bug's Life is a children's movie. Years of Pixar movies blurring the line between movies mostly for kids and families, versus movies that are kind of for adults but kids can enjoy them (and in the case of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, traipsing right over that line) have made it hard to remember that initially, they made no real claims to that kind of sophistication. And while I regret the implications of the word "unsophisticated" is exactly the adjective to describe A Bug's Life, from its paint-by-numbers character motivations to its easy and surprisingly lowbrow humor: there are more potty jokes here than in any other Pixar movie, though given how many of them contain no potty jokes at all, that's not a huge bar to clear.

All of that being the case, the film has the basic decency to be an extraordinarily good version of an undistinguished children's movie. The finished script, by Stanton and Don McEnery & Bob Shaw, is characterised by crisp dialogue and strong jokes, and the layers of callbacks and internal echoes give it a nice overall shape that strengthens Flik and Atta's arcs; the random asides that play on the reality that we're watching insects living like humans are generally cute rather than actively smart, but I cannot lie: I chuckled at things like a fly grousing "I've only got 24 hours to live and I'm not wasting them here" in '98 and I continue to do it in 2015. And the light humor is aided enormously by the cast, made up disproportionately of sitcom veterans (Richard Kind and Edie McClurg also show up), who thus have exactly the right skill set to make lines and scenarios that you can see coming from quite a distance still play with honesty and energy and feel like they're coming from the characters, not from the writing room.

And again, film looks pretty great, too. The filmmakers' fascination with a scaled-down world, what that means to lighting and texture, is the first great experiment in finding the realism in fantastic setting that makes Pixar's films the most physically authentic animated features in the world. Just the way that clover and blades of grass filter light is enough to make the film look truly marvelous and rich, and that's not even the most conspicuously beautiful lighting effect that the film has to offer. It's a bit baffling that this carefully researched and highly thoughtful attempt at making a realistic miniature world would be in service to such a weird misrepresentation of ant society. Even Antz, which is literally a movie about what would happen if Woody Allen was an ant, comes at least slightly closer to correctly representing how ants function, which for starters involves having six limbs and not coming in shades of blue and lavender. Not till Bee Movie nine years later would a film get insect society so palpably wrong as a basic condition of having a narrative.

But it is, in fairness, a cartoon riffing on the old "Grasshopper and the Ants" fable in a thoroughly unexpected way, so realism is probably the wrong complaint. And by creating a race of fantasy creatures that it calls ants for no reason, A Bug's Life (last nitpick: ants aren't bugs) succeeds in portraying simple situations with warm characters whose relationships, though they mostly come right off the shelf (the simple commoner charms the princess with his bravery? YOU DON'T SAY.), are treated with utter sincerity and a glancing touch. There's no question that this is near the bottom of Pixar's output, but it didn't know that it would be competing with those other films, and on its own terms, it's an entirely beguiling little adventure that advancing technology and a vastly different marketplace haven't robbed of its merits.