28 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 2001: In which rank cynicism turns out to be the thing animation needed all along

As the Hollywood Century takes us into the 21st Century and thus near to the present day, I shall find myself increasingly hard-pressed to do much good situating the films I'm discussing in any kind of historical context: we're still in that historical context, for the most part, and it will take a few more years to authoritatively state what the cinema of the early to mid-2000s begot and transformed into. But in at least one regard, I can state something with unflinching certainty: we owe the animated features of the 2000s almost solely to DreamWorks Animation's Shrek.

The film began life simply enough, as yet another of Jeffrey Katzenberg's "fuck you so hard" gestures to his old boss and nemesis Michael Eisner; their rivalry fueled the creation of the animation studio that Katzenberg had tried to use to out-Disney Disney, beginning with 1998's dramatic musical The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks' second feature (their first, Antz from earlier in the same year was a more petulant but also lower-key "fuck you" to Disney's handmaidens at Pixar). But DreamWorks was unlucky: by 1998, the gas had just about run out on the Disney Renaissance, and it was starting to take with it people's enthusiasm for seeing animated movies. As far as trying to copy Disney's playbook, the game was up: The Prince of Egypt was a hit, but the next three traditionally-animated projects DreamWorks released, between 2000 and 2003, remain their lowest-grossing trio of films, even today.*

But it playing catch-up to Disney was proving to be a non-starter, the studio was soon to find vastly more success in simply insulting Katzenberg's old studios right to its face. And that brings us to the second DreamWorks animated film, and in some ways its all-time signature title: Shrek birthed three sequels that remain the peak of the studio's popular output. The four Shreks are, at the time of this writing, the four highest-grossing films DreamWorks has ever made (and given the studio's recent fortunes, they're likely to remain that way for years to come). Shrek itself was the highest-grossing animated film since Disney's own The Lion King in 1994, which must have delighted the shit out of Katzenberg: that smash hit was the last Disney release during his tenure as chairman. It also kept itself just ahead of Pixar's Monsters, Inc. from later in 2001, and managed to beat that same film for the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar.

Such success breeds imitators, so what, then, are we imitating? Shrek is a fairy tale, basically, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, and adapted by a consortium of writers (Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) from William Steig's children's book. But a fairy tale that self-consciously up-ends the normal morality: the handsome prince is an ugly little meanspirited shit named Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow), the monster is the grumpy ogre Shrek (Mike Myers), who turns out to be the hero, and the damsel in distress is Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who knows wire-fu, has a calculating sense of her own worth, and turns into a hideous ogre herself when the sun goes down. The irritating comic sidekick is still the irritating comic sidekick: a talking Donkey played by Eddie Murphy, far less disastrously then when he played the same type in Disney's Mulan three years earlier.

"It's a traditional fairy tale only everything is subverted" gets us pretty far along the road to seeing how this is a parody of Disney's stock in trade, but just to make sure we totally get it, the filmmakers place Farquaad's palace behind a thick layer of satirising Disneyland with the cheery, sanitised, ugly castle of Dulac (they also open the movie with Disney-style storybook pages that the title character uses to wipe his ass, but I'd prefer not to linger there). And the "it's a small world" parody that beats that dead horse one last time is, I confess, my favorite gag in all of Shrek, though I also confess that ranking all the Shrek gags that I like doesn't take all that long.

For the thing that Shrek truly gave unto the world was not a spate of savage takedowns of Disney tropes - Disney was doing quite fine doing that in its fumbling incompetence that marked most of its output at that time (ironically, Disney wouldn't regain its footing as a powerhouse until it firmly and enthusiastically embraced the tropes that Shrek was making fun of so hard, with 2010's enormously square Tangled). It was, rather, the tone of Shrek that suddenly exploded as fully-rendered CG animated films became omnipresent in the following years, owing to the huge successes of DreamWorks and Pixar at exactly the time Disney's traditional animation was imploding. And the tone of Shrek is pop culture references, lots of pop songs driving montages - and the introduction of the infamous "film-ending dance party" trope, soon to become the worst bane to storytelling ever known to the animated feature - cutesy cutaways from dirty language, jokes pitched at the target audience's parents that don't even pretend to be for kids (seriously, "Farquaad"? Especially since Myers's arbitrary Scottish accent gives him some trouble enunciating it, and you can always hear the "fuckwad" he's struggling so hard not to say). And farts. So, so many farts. Shrek's function as a character, especially in the first third of the movie, is almost solely to provide a full array of gross-out humor, but even with a gamut of everything from ear wax to shit to body odor, the writers always retrench to the easy comfort of farts.

It was, too, in Shrek that the gambit of casting famous people and selling the movie on their names first paid off in a big way. Pixar had attracted heavy hitters like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen at the peak of his sitcom fame and Bonnie Hunt, the young people's favorite, but there was always the sense that they were chosen as actors first, celebrities second. But in Shrek, besides the proven success of Eddie Murphy as a fast-talking con artist and Mike Myers doing funny voices, gave us Cameron Diaz as an animated princess - Cameron Diaz! Who the fuck can remember what her voice sounds like when they're not actually hearing her talk? How is she an appropriate choice for casting an animated film? The simple answer is that she's not, and Princess Fiona is boring as hell and has no personality to speak of. John Lithgow is the only person trying to do anything interesting, and he's still just playing the typical Lithgow arrogant fussbudget.

This is, all of it, pretty dire stuff; the sarcastic, nasty tone of smug hipness clashes mightily with the film's shrill attempts at sincerity and lesson-learning, forced scenes of "I just want to be understood" plugged in exactly where the formula expects it, clearly not because the filmmakers particularly believe in it. And far too much of the knowing, in-jokey humor is stale and unfunny, ghastly now where it was merely dumb in 2001. Compounding all of this is how barbarically ugly the whole thing is: the Shrek films have always been the most unpleasantly designed in DreamWorks' stable, with their wave after wave of human characters who look like corpses given movement with rod puppetry that exaggerates all their gestures. But beyond the dead-looking, stretched flesh and emotionless faces, there's so much technical flatness that has only magnified over time, not that Shrek looked as good as its competition in '01. The cloth moves stiffly and has no texture; Donkey's hair is rigid and plasticine, and this in the same year as Monsters, Inc. and its groundbreaking fluffy hair. That film still looks terrific after 13 years: the backgrounds are a bit flat, maybe, and the animation of the little human girl's face leaves plenty to be desired, but it's still appealing and visually deep. Shrek, in 2014, is embarrassing to look at: you could throw a dart in a video game store and find something with better character movement and photorealistic rendering.

This, in fact, might very well be why Shrek generated so many note-for-note imitators: it proved that crappy jokes, sugar-addled music (Smash Mouth, where art thou?), and famous people cashing a check to sound like they're dashing off their lines on the way to dinner, are somehow appealing enough that it doesn't take significantly technical finesse to turn a profit. The lesson of Pixar is that CG animation could be big business if you have unfathomable talent and state-of-the-art resources; the lesson of DreamWorks is that CG animation can be even bigger business if you have marketing know-how and shameless in appealing to the worst side of children's natures. Not all of Shrek's immediate effects are still being felt - generally, more effort is put into character design than this ugly sonofabitch ever shows, and the climactic dance parties are largely a thing of the past - but its calculating, intensely mediocre approach to animated storytelling is with us still, strong and durable as ever, and with every Ice Age 17 and Despicable Me 8, the shadow of DreamWorks' flatulent ogre grows just a tiny bit longer.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2001
-A pair of multinational fantasy adaptations light it up at the box office, with the Chris Columbus-helmed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring topping the charts
-Wes Anderson's fussy aesthetic blooms into full flower with the doll's house inhabited by The Royal Tenenbaums
- Steven Spielberg shepherds the final vision of the late Stanley Kubrick in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, to the admiration of the few and the hostile bafflement of many more

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2001
-The Hindi-language Lagaan is an enormous international sensation, rare for Indian cinema
-The international success of Danis Tanović's No Man's Land throws light on the youthful Bosnian film industry
-Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke explores the dark side of soul-destroying violent sex in The Piano Teacher

27 November 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: LARS AND THE REAL GIRLS

And so, Nymphomaniac; or is it Nymph()maniac? There are more than just cosmetic reasons for the latter to count as the actual title, since the dividing line between nymph and maniac is even more important to the film's project than the fact that an open parenthesis followed directly by a close parenthesis looks in the vaguest possible way like a vagina. But Nymp()maniac is cumbersome to type out and a bit pretentious so I will, not without regret, let it go.

At any rate, the film is the latest project by international cinema's most important and reliable provocateur, initially came to us in the form of two volumes of about two hours each that debuted, with all possible showiness, on Christmas Day in 2013 in Denmark, before the director's preferred cut surfaced piecemeal over 2014. And it is this longer cut, coming to a total just shy of five and a half hours, that we shall be considering now. For Antagony & Ecstasy believes in honoring artistic intent, even in the case of artists who we do not much care for.

I will say this much for Nymphomaniac, though: it wasn't nearly as diabolically unpleasant as I was prepared for it to be. It finds von Trier in a surprisingly overt comic mode; for those of us accustomed to viewing most of his films with a dispirited "he has got to be kidding, right?" reaction, this is the film where he pretty clearly admits that he is. The film takes the shape of a memoir in eight chapters, narrated by a middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, reigning von Trier muse) to the older Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård, reliable von Trier mainstay), the man who found her bloody and bedraggled in an alley by his home one snowy night. The story is about her life as a nymphomaniac, ever since the fateful day she began to perceive her own sexuality; "I discovered my cunt as a two-year-old" begins her narrative, delivered over a shot of a bare-chested toddler staring down out of the frame, because Lars von Trier does not believe in starting slowly. For the rest of the night, Joe tells Seligman of her lost virginity to the dashing Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who is in and out of her life forever after); her teenage adventures in casual sex (Stacy Martin takes over for the pre-30 version of Joe); the way that having sex constantly with a broad variety of men came to dominate her young adulthood; the crisis that happened when she lost all feeling in her clitoris and began to seek out more extreme ways of coming to orgasm; and eventually her career as a mob extortionist. And in all of this, we see so, so much genitalia.

But the real purpose of Joe's tale isn't to convince Seligman that she's insatiably addicted to sex, but to convince him that she is a morally unjust person, and therein lies the comedy. Throughout her long recitation (which increasingly seems to be made up, Usual Suspects-style, of the things that come into her head while she sits in Seligman's empty rooms - not a reading the film insists upon, but certainly one it welcomes), the action frequently reverts back to the two of them sitting across from each other, with Joe asking some variation on "didn't that bit completely offend, shock, titillate, or disgust your?" to which her audience responds with labored theoretical frameworks justifying her behavior. First, he eagerly compares her sexual hunting to his own beloved hobby of fly-fishing, and by the time dawn roles around, he'll also have dragged into polyphonic theory and the history of the Eastern Orthodox church, among many other random tangents. Eventually even Joe seems to find him fatuous and boring and over-written.

These cutaways with Seligman offering baroque readings of Joe's life are, for one thing, the funniest part of a movie that's often prone to going for weird comedy rather than the sober drama of most of von Trier's work, especially in the first three hours. For another thing, it doesn't take knowing that the director has basically admitted that he views the women in his films as his authorial stand-ins to realise that we're watching Joe-as-von-Trier trying to provoke Seligman-as-film-critics, with Joe's life including several obvious references to the director's past work, whether in images or plot points, and even to the details of his public life; there's even time to have a chat about the morality of the Nazis, recalling the most famous controversy of von Trier's career. Through the characters' dynamic, von Trier is both repeating his claims to telling something important and challenging that must be said, and also asking, somewhat aghast, "do you people actually buy this shit I'm selling?"

Which, for as impenetrably self-regarding as that it is, it definitely gives Nymphomaniac a peculiar goofiness that makes it far more watchable than the story of yet another woman mortifying herself to find transcendence ought to be, especially at such a monstrous running time. And, throughout, Nymphomaniac also reverts to more traditional von Trier territory: there is much that is visceral and angry, whether the melodrama of a spurned wife (Uma Thurman, in a disorienting, almost cartoonish depiction of rage that's perhaps the film's single best performance); or the frequent explicit sex scenes in which there is no hint of eroticism, only the compulsive movement of mechanical beings; or what has to be the most gut-wrenching abortion scene in cinema history. Or the atrocious final scene, a violation of all character and story logic that exists, as far as I can tell, solely for von Trier to laugh at us on the way out of the theater, having ruined anything resembling a character or thematic arc across the whole immense beast of a movie.

In all of its modes - self-regarding, absurdly comic, clinically unsexy, violently distressing - Nymphomaniac never quite gets around to justifying the why of all this. Any insights into human interaction, sexual behavior, or gender politics are filtered through so much visually staginess and tonal insincerity that they hardly feel authentic in any way; the film is so long, repetitive, and predictable in its arch-European sexual chilliness that it doesn't even work as a provocation. It makes outrageous sex look absolutely tedious, and while I am sure there are those who would be shocked and outraged by this, and whose prudishness would thus give the film some merit as a "gotcha!" exercise, they wouldn't ever end up watching it. Besides, the idle emotional punishments von Trier ladles out on his characters for the sexuality is prudish enough on its own.

Essentially, it's a hollow plaster cast of a movie, acerbically funny enough to give it some personality, but devoid of any real meaning; it is an artificial construct of suffering than hardly feels painful even when we're watching it, an exercise in watching the director demonstrate once again that he can push buttons, even as he announces right there in the dialogue that he's just pushing out buttons for the hell of it. There are plenty of impressive shots throughout, some comic, some moving, some astonishing; and the way sound is used (especially the way it gives the film a broad structure) is clever, though the songs that crop on the soundtrack frequently are virtually never anything but obvious and dopey. So it's not poor cinema. And it's certainly varied enough that even as slow as it moves and as long as it lasts, it never feels pokey. But it's self-referential and self-rewarding to the point that it has virtually no other content. Although, in a film with this many close-ups of human orifices, I suppose it makes sense that the film basically takes place up Lars von Trier's ass.

5/10

26 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 2000: In which we consider the matter of movie stars in the modern era

There are two ways to primarily think about Erin Brockovich, I believe: one is that it is among the most conventional films in the career of director Steven Soderbergh, which isn't to say that it's really so conventional as all that, but coming sandwiched in his career smack-dab in between The Limey and Traffic, it feels distinctly low in its ambitions, if not its execution. The other way is that this is a Julia Roberts vehicle, and maybe even THE Julia Roberts vehicle, the last big hit sold exclusively on her name after a solid decade of being one of America's hottest stars, and the film for which she won her Oscar (a win I fully support, so let's just get that out of the way now; for I am well aware that the internet in general is pretty down on this particular victory).

What we could not have known in March, 2000, when the film was young, and is perhaps not as obvious even now as it perhaps should be, is that the gap between Erin Brockovich the auteur exercise and Erin Brockovich the star vehicle isn't all that large. There have been few constants in Soderbergh's magpie-like career, but one of the things that crops up again and again is his interest in the concept of who gets to be an actor and celebrity, and what that means. There's the meta-textual games he played with Roberts in 2004's Ocean's Twelve; there's the way that Channing Tatum played a kind of alternate-universe version of himself in Magic Mike; there's the game of putting non-actors front and center in roles that take advantage of their non-acting abilities in The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire; and so it goes in several of his movies.

Erin Brockovich is thus, in a certain light, his attempt to experimentally answer the question, what does it mean to be Julia Roberts in a Julia Roberts vehicle? What we find there ties into one of the greater threads coursing through cinema in the '90s and especially the '00s, which is the changing expectation the audience has in its movie stars. We don't really have them anymore, you know. Movie stars. We certainly have famous people that show up in movies, and they still drive a bit of box office, but huge hits aren't driven by that any more. Visual effects and genres and source novels are the movie stars now. Actors are just frosting, box office-wise.

I have a thought experiment that will probably be rough for a lot of you, because it hinges on a woman who hasn't been a major star since before my parents were born. But anyway, imagine Erin Brockovich as a 1940s movie starring Greer Garson, and that's totally who it would have been - it's right in line with her saintly, save-the-world star persona (not that Garson's home studio of MGM would have been a good fit for the plot, Warner Bros. would be the obvious choice. But Bette Davis as Brockovich is just... no). Now how would Garson have played the role? The same way she played every role: Erin Brockovich would have been the same soft-voiced mothering figure with a steel spine that reveals itself in times of need. That's the woman Garson always played: she could be named Marie Curie, or Kay Miniver, or Edna Gladley, but she was always, first, the woman Greer Garson's fans wanted to see. That was the nature of movie stardom in the 1940s: watching people give variations on a core character, with the really great actors in the bunch (Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart before he said "fuck it" and started playing anti-heroes) standing out because of the gradations they could give to differentiate each one of their roles, rather than because they ever flouted their basic set persona.

Instead of being a '40s prestige picture, though, Erin Brockovich was a crowd-pleasing legal thriller made in the late 1990s. And what makes it a stand-out Julia Roberts performance, an Oscar-winning Julia Roberts performance, a capital-I Important Julia Roberts performance, is that it is an outright subversion of the kind of roles that Julia Roberts had made her career out of. Hewing to the true-life version of the character, Roberts's Erin Brockovich is a foul-mouthed woman perpetually on the verge of pouring out of her tacky clothes; she is fond of brittle sarcasm and screaming at people who dare to be less than 100% in line with her opinions. Hardly America's Sweetheart, but the central aspect of the film in its current incarnation, the characteristic driving all of it, is that it still looks and sounds like Julia Roberts: the same voice, the same big smile, the same perfectly-shaped face. So the appeal is two diametrically-opposed things at once: we get to watch the cute, funny, totally approachable Roberts going about the lightly comic-dramatic material that she has always been best at, while also being totally shocked by the lewdness and anger that completely destroy our sense of what she's "supposed" to be (see also: My Best Friend's Wedding, which does similar things to different ends). She's lovable, but she's also bossy, arrogant, and unthinkingly cruel to her loved ones, and these things do not make her less lovable, but instead make her feel more like a tangible human being.

The result is a perfect marriage of star and role, talent level and requirement of the movie, invisibility in the part and showy mimicry. There is much that is enjoyable and smart about Erin Brockovich, but surely, Roberts is what stands out most, even beyond Soderbergh's quietly perfect re-enactment of the beats and textures of a late-'70s social issues thriller. Which is not, of course, something to discount, for it's the foundation upon which Roberts is able to do her work.

Based on a true story, with moderate fidelity as such things go, Erin Brockovich tells us of a woman with three children by two ex-husbands who badly needs a job in the soft economy of the early 1990s. Erin Brockovich has no demonstrable skills, but she has drive, an uncommon quantity of common sense, and a defiant way of talking, which is how she finagles her way into a position as an assistant at a Southern California law firm under the bemused, cowed lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney). It is in this capacity that she uncovers, entirely by accident, a paper trail leading to the town of Hinkley, CA, where a great many people have come down with a great many terrible illnesses. This all tracks back to the chromium-poisoned groundwater, the result of misbehavior at a nearby power plant run by Pacific Gas & Electric. Her rage fired off, and with access to real power for the first time in her life as a member of the put-upon underclass, Brockovich strong-arms Masry into helping the Hinkley residents sue PG&E for damages, against all odds. Since this is a movie based on a true story, it is not terribly surprising that things go well.

It's all a perfectly-balanced concoction, blending angry anti-corporate populism with breezy audience-friendly quips and characterisations, filtered through Soderbergh's steady, controlled formalism. There are so many ways this could have gone terribly wrong, feeling overstuffed and tonally insane - and even in its current state, it returns a little too readily to scenes of Brockovich's thorny domestic life that sometimes go on a little too long - and not many at all that it could be as singularly enjoyable as it is, but that's what committed filmmakers will do for you. Soderbergh's slightly ascetic style, as shot by Edward Lachmann and edited by Anne V. Coates (I confess that I enjoy his movies more when he's doing all three jobs), keeps a certain sense of coolness towards Susannah Grant's rousing, poppy script; while the conventional story beats keep things warm and familiar and not too remote. Which maybe wouldn't be exactly what I'd want, as a Soderbergh junkie (not in 2000, but ever since...), and the parts of the film I am privately most satisfied by are the most auteur-friendly: the mixture of '70s-style realism in the settings, lighting, and camera movement with the director's beloved use of hardened color schemes (without going to any extremes, it's all pushed towards yellow, giving this incarnation of California a dusty, dried-up feel that marries well with the script's overtones of economic despair) especially marks it out as a Soderbergh film.

But it's not an auteurist statement; it's a popcorn movie filtered through a budding auteur's sensibility. Perhaps that's what gives it the very distinct kick it has as a bubbly entertainment. If most of his earlier films are, at some level, an experiment in bending narrative and genre, Erin Brockovich is their polar opposite: it's not a subversive crowd-pleaser but a genuine one, with its stated themes identical to its implications, and all of its subtleties designed to support the main feeling of watching it rather than push it in unexpected directions. But it is a genre experiment even so: a frothy entertainment grounded in real setting peopled by authentic humans whose reactions aren't always quite what we'd predict, and a political movie that actually seems to understand what makes people frustrated and angry at the way things are, rather than congratulating itself for having correct opinions that have been thoroughly validated by history. If Roberts's work here is emblematic of the new challenges facing movie stars in a culture with increasingly complicated expectations for its celebrities, Soderbergh's represents the ideal marriage of the best strengths of '90s indie cinema with Hollywood populism, and in both regards, Erin Brockovich is a shining example of everything promising about American moviemaking as it entered the 21st Century, even if much of that promise would ultimately go unfulfilled.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2000
-What Women Want is, to judge by the box office, Mel Gibson having the ability to peer into their minds
-Cinematographer Roger Deakins, working under directors Joel & Ethan Coen, sort of invents modern post-production digital coloring techniques in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
-Bryan Singer's effects-heavy X-Men film ushers in a wave of superhero epics that continues unabated for... well, at least 15 years, anyway

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2000
-Taiwan native Ang Lee makes the Taiwan/Hong Kong martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a predominately American audience
-The second golden age of Mexican cinema hits its popular zenith with Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros
-Jafar Panahi gets in trouble with the Iranian government for the first of many times with the dangerously feminist The Circle

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: 35 SHOTS OF RUMSFELD

It's stretching a point to call The Unknown Known a "sequel" to The Fog of War, but they make for a hell of a double feature. At a sufficient remove, the films are all but identical: Errol Morris, one of the great pop-journalist documentarians of the modern world, interviews a controversial U.S. Secretary of Defense, allowing him to narrate the story of his life and career, and especially giving him room to explore the ramifications of the notorious war that flowered under his care; all driven by a repetitive, propulsive score (Philip Glass then, Danny Elfman now, with a sort of Elfman/Glass hybrid that's by light-years the most interesting thing he's composed in at least a decade). And if that was that, it would still make for a remarkable and greatly useful project: honestly, if Morris wanted to flesh out his "Portraits of the Defense Secretaries" series with all the rest of them, even the ones who didn't help plunge the United States into military quagmires, I'd be there for each and every one of them.

But here's what matters most: The Unknown Known isn't simply The Fog of War with Donald Rumsfeld subbed in for Robert McNamara. Taken as a pair, the films represent two wildly divergent ways of thinking about the past: McNamara is reflective and anxious for absolution, while Rumsfeld is patiently icy, expressing nothing that betrays a hint of curiosity or introspection about his tenure as George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense during the plagued early years of the Iraq War. Like the earlier film, it's a character study and political history rolled into one, but it might honestly be even more fascinating as cinema: for Rumsfeld proves to be a complicated, slippery subject, and the film frequently turns into a form of verbal fencing between him and the unseen but often-heard Morris, with the director constantly trying to find some new angle with which to attack the ex-secretary's one-sided storytelling, only to have Rumsfeld easily turn Morris aside with a rhetorical flourish that turns their conversation into a meditation on what words actually mean, all without ever loosening his toothy, disarming smile even slightly.

The Unknown Known delights in exploring sophistry and fine distinctions of language that Rumsfeld frequently seems to be making up on the spot (in fact, the famed quote that gives the film its title comes under the scrutiny of the subject itself: he claims that "unknown knowns" refers to one thing, at which Morris gently points out that Rumsfeld's original memo claims the exact opposite, at which point Rumsfeld furrows his brow, re-reads his original wording, and airily concludes that the memo was wrong, as idly as one might choose between two barely distinguishably shades of white paint). In the one flashy stylistic gesture that Morris ever makes, he occasionally throws up the dictionary definition of some key word Rumsfeld says onscreen, as Rumsfeld continues to talk, a kinetic and purposefully distracting way of pointing out that a) words have set meanings; b) those set meanings don't matter if you can talk fast enough to outpace them.

All this dancing with language clearly frustrates Morris, who has never been so audible, nor audibly annoyed, in any of his movies; no Fog of War is this, where the subject allows himself to be analysed, nor Mr. Death, where the subject doesn't realise that he is spilling his guts. Rumsfeld is guarded and artificial, refusing to speak one syllable that he hasn't vetted in his head. He does one thing, in fact, that I can't remember ever having seen in a documentary: when Morris holds before moving on, leaving a long conspicuous silence, Rumsfeld doesn't fill it. That's a rudimentary interview trick: let the subject fill an uncomfortable pause with an expansion or clarification or contradiction of what they just said. Morris waits, and Rumsfeld just gazes pleasantly at him - at us, since the film has been shot in the way of all recent Morris documentaries, where the subject appears to be looking the viewer in the face - and refuses to even twitch a muscle in his mouth. And Rumsfeld, one of the great politicians of the modern age at using journalists' tricks against them, clearly knows that's what he's doing: even without his expression changing, you can see his eyes smile.

What we get, therefore, is not a film about the Iraq War and how it was sold, nor a film about what the ramifications of the war have been in the intervening decade. And this has irritated some viewers, expecting any kind of historical accounting - even Morris tries when he can to put an editorial spin on things, most prominently when Rumsfeld is speaking about how "they" - meaning the Iraqi government - refused to take any steps to avoid war, while the director holds on a fish-eye panorama of Washington, D.C., clearly hoping to ironically make us think of the other "they" who didn't try very hard to avoid conflict. But's that simply not what The Unknown Known is about, and Morris does clearly realise this, by the way he structures most of the movie around word choice and language usage. It's a film about how powerful men represent themselves to the world and to history, selecting which facts to acknowledge and defining concepts in whatever way best suits their purposes. Morris is clearly no fan of Rumsfeld or his politics - a fact that informs the film's surprisingly funny last beat - but The Unknown Known doesn't fashion itself as a liberal message movie, nor as specifically anti-Rumsfeld.

Instead, the perspective adopted here seems to be not one of judgment, but observation: this is the way the mind of this man works, and it is why he was able to perform the actions he did that had the enormous international repercussions that we still live with. But that's not the film's focus: it has a timelessness that goes far beyond its failures to trick Donald Rumsfeld into acknowledging remorse. Indeed, the fact that Morris's subject was so perfect at obfuscating and stonewalling is what makes The Unknown Known far more interesting than just a mere contemporary issues documentary. It is about the nature of politics and power and how they are secured by wit and control, and as such it has a sick fascination that's not quite like any other documentary I have ever seen.

8/10

25 November 2014

QUENCHING FIRE

If nothing else, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 demonstrates with bleak efficiency that the director can only do so much. Francis Lawrence, making his second Hunger Game, still has all the chops he demonstrated with 2013's THG: Catching Fire and back further still to the 2007 adaptation of I Am Legend, once again capturing with admirable rawness the desperation and raggedness of life after apocalypse. But consistency and strength of tone, as vital as they are in a film of this sort, are powerless in the face of such a useless script as the one adapted by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins from the worst half of the worst book of Collins's dystopian trilogy. Catching Fire and I Am Legend weren't the most perfectest screenplays ever crafted, mind you, but Mockingjay 1 doesn't just have an imperfect screenplay: it has an actively draggy, tepid screenplay that all but dares you to find anything pleasurable or meaningful in its wretched plonking arrangement and re-arrangement of characters on a chessboard that the folks up at marketing said we can't actually play with yet.

This comes as no surprise - did we not see the Part 1 in the title? The arbitrary division of one book into two halves hasn't been made for artistic reasons yet (even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the instigator of the trend and easily the most successful, is pokey and frequently aimless), and Mockingjay isn't about to be the one to start. It's crippled from the outset by the structure of Collins's novel, which is all wind-up until almost exactly the point that the film is obliged to end at (and "obliged" is exactly the word: with the decision to cut the story in two coming from the corporate overseers and not the writers, presumably, there was virtually no other point at which it made sense to do so, while leaving Mockingjay 2 with any chance of being functional in its own right), and if that means that I get to be yet another critic to wander out of the film with a wan expression and the words "...but nothing happened" dancing on my lips.

Well, fuck originality. Nothing does happen in Mockingjay, just a lot of discussions of how something might happen if, like, we just... nope, nevermind, there it went. The film starts at least several hours, maybe a few days after the close of Catching Fire (offering no opportunity to play catch-up: sorry newbies, you don't get to join in this time), with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) dealing very poorly with life in the underground bunker called District 13, home to the only military-trained rebels left to oppose the future dictatorship ruling North America from its glitzy, tawdry Capitol. The leader of District 13, the unsmiling commander President Coin (Julianne Moore), wants Katniss to serve as the face of the rebellion's propaganda, in the form of the "Mockingjay"; so do the far warmer faces of Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), a tech whiz who helped smuggle Katniss out of the Capitol's murderous Hunger Games, and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last completed role), a former Capitol bureaucrat, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss's friend from their now-destroyed home, who gets more screentime than in the previous two movies combined, and no longer seems to give a shit about becoming Katniss's boyfriend. For her part, Katniss just wants to find some quiet hole to abandon all the world, but when the Capitol starts releasing its own propaganda videos, starring Katniss's friend and fellow victim of the Games, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), she's finally jabbed into action. And so the filming begins, as Katniss and the other District 13 refugees get a firsthand look at just how wretched live in the 11 surviving colonies has become as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) of the Capitol begins mercilessly cracking down on the revolutions that have sprung up in the wake of Katniss's defiance during two successive Hunger Games.

So, so many words for such a simple concept! "An apolitical woman reluctantly agrees to help the propaganda wing of an unpleasantly militaristic rebellion" - that's it, that's the plot. Not the logline, not the plot of the first half: the plot of the whole goddamn movie. Francis Lawrence and the writers do manage to push that to a running time almost all the way up to two hours, without end credits, but it's not interesting in the slightest. Just about the only thing in the entirety of all this slow drip of incidents that's remotely intriguing is the film's depiction of radicalism in an era of mass media, and its limited suggestion (due to be fleshed out more in the sequel) that just because one side is obviously bad, that doesn't mean that the other side is obviously good. None of which is terribly insightful or politically savvy in any way, but it helps to recall that Mockingjay has a target audience of teenagers, for whom these concepts are more revelatory than they are, I hope and pray, to grown-ups who've spent more years consuming carefully massaged political media.

Dramatically, though, it's one long, low, wet fart, consisting of scene after scene of people talking glumly, interspersed with scenes where the walk outside among ruins and corpses, even more glumly. Within the film's first ten minutes, it has a sequence consisting of Hoffman, Moore, Wright, and Jennifer Lawrence all sitting at a table arguing: that's a shitload of acting talent to have on one set at the same time, and yet all they get to do is mushily voice wobbly concepts and aching exposition, and Francis Lawrence does nobody any favors by framing all of the actors mostly in one-shots, so we only barely even get to see them respond and react to each other. And with so little interesting to do, none of the film's many terrific actors has much to do, and so they largely end up relaxing: Jennifer Lawrence irritably meanders her way through all but the biggest scenes (and even those are inconsistent: she completely blows her delivery of the big "They can take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom" speech in the middle by biting off each word too harshly), and she's still far livelier and more emotionally present than Moore, playing a brittle military commander as a collection of war movie clichés, or Wright, playing the world's most visibly bored tech nerd ever (I think Hoffman is doing the best work in the film, but I can't trust that it's not just mourning talking there).

The only thing that brings any kind of meat to the film whatsoever comes in Francis Lawrence's gift for ushering us through a world: it's what was best in I Am Legend, and it's what's best here, with the caveat that the film's limited dramatic scope is matched by its limited physical range. We spend a lot of time in District 13, and it's a dim, grey place; pointedly so, and it's a good physical expression of the kind of unimaginative concrete hole that a rebellion like this would have to occupy, but there are only so many ways it can be shot before it starts to get needlessly monotonous. Meanwhile, the script has cut out all the details about how District 13 actually functions, so the impression we get is of a bunch of people in grey jumpsuits who spend all their days walking back and forth against grey walls. It's brutal.

Outside, though, Lawrence and his team are in terrific shape: there is a shot of charred skeletons that the filmmakers frame with hideous awe, and it's powerful enough to make up for quite a lot of bland talking. Other moments are similiarly high-impact, and even within the warren of District 13, there are some shots where the geometry and action combine to suggest a level of tension and activity that brings the movie, temporarily, to life (one shot of a stairwell, in particular, is absolutely terrific, energising cinema).

We can argue if this is the point: the film is using its form to dramatise the stilted, tunnel-vision world of District 13 by contrasting it with moments of dread and disgust, asking the viewer's own shift from boredom to horror to serve as the stand-in for the gulf between the peremptory efficiency of the rebellion's higher-ups and the actual human lives they're sacrificing. But Jesus, is that ever meeting the film more than halfway. No, Mockingjay 1 is, I think, exactly what it seems to be: a tedious exercise in place-setting that could have been easily handled in 30 minutes, enlivened solely because its director has a good eye for expressing the misery of a bombed-out world in a PG-13 context. The film's commitment to market concerns over storytelling ones is vividly obvious throughout all of its aimless, airless minutes, and the only pleasure to be extracted from watching it is the knowledge that the thing coming out a year from now almost certainly has to be better.

5/10

24 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1999: In which very old stories are given a very contemporary coat of paint, to the benefit of all

How does one try to summarise 1999 with one review of one movie? It was arguably (by which I mean "almost certainly, but let's not be smug know-it-all dicks about it") the single most transformative year of American filmmaking after the collapse of the New Hollywood Cinema. A stunning number of major filmmakers made some of their most important films that year: Stanley Kubrick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Mann, David Fincher leap to mind, while Spike Jonze, Sam Mendes, the Wachowskis, Kimberly Peirce, Alexander Payne and M. Night Shyamalan all made their debuts or had their big breakthrough. Technology advanced by leaps and bounds, starting with the Wachowskis' The Matrix and continuing through the year's highest-grossing film, Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, with its groundbreaking use of all-CGI characters and CGI-augmented sets. Animation had a banner year, as did horror. American Pie brought back sex comedy in a big way, and we've had a golden age of raunchy humor ever since.

It's simply not possible to grab all of those threads and collect them in one essay, so I didn't bother trying. Instead, I elect to focus on just one of the many cinematic trends that passed through the bottleneck of 1999, the fad that dominated the second half of the decade of adapting classic works of literature into the high-stakes world of American high school. I confess that my choice was aided by the years and years I've been told that I absolutely needed, just needed right the fuck now, to finally see 10 Things I Hate About You. This was serendipitous: while I can't swear to its timeless important in the development of cinema the way the way I might about Fight Club or The Sixth Sense or even something totally disreputable like The Mummy, I don't think I could have consciously come up with anything that more perfectly captured what the late '90s felt like if that had been my sole intention. Also, everyone who told me was right: I did, in fact, needed to see it right the fuck now, because on top of everything else, it's one of the absolute best teen-driven romantic comedies that I have ever seen.

So, about that perfect embodiment of 1999: herewith, a motion picture that stars Julia Stiles, whose name is featured drawn in bold, sketchy style in magic marker colors during the opening credits, while the Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" bounces its way across the soundtrack. The film at least has the forward-thinking wisdom to make this last detail a joke: the undying Ladies dominate the soundtrack until until we see Stiles herself pull up to a red light next to a bunch of giddy, pop-loving girls, blasting Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" loud enough to drown them out. I cannot say whether the filmmakers planned for this to be a sign that her character, Kat Stratford, is completely awesome or a bitch; but it made me like her a lot, anyway.

The awesome/bitch divide is, in many ways, the heart and soul of 10 Things I Hate About You. For the film is a dressed-up retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, a late entry in the great explosion of William Shakespeare adaptations that flourished in the 1990s, on top of the "put it in high school" trend that had been purring along steadily since Clueless in 1995 (the Venn diagram combining these two trends also contains William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet and O, and I believe nothing else; though it wouldn't do to not at least mention the modern dress Hamlet with Ethan Hawke). And The Taming of the Shrew brings with it an amount of baggage like no other Shakespeare play outside of The Merchant of Venice. To wit, the play's sexual politics, which may or may not be as straightforward as they seem (the amount of irony to be read into the last scene is not, that I am aware, a settled matter), but they seem pretty damn toxic. And this makes any modern treatment of the play a project that needs to be handled with delicacy, especially a modern treatment set among teenagers.

So while we are surely meant to recognise in Kat a certain stiffness and problematic standoffishness - there couldn't be a plot if she didn't have to be redeemed in some way - Karen McCullah & Kirsten Smith's screenplay also has to allow plenty of room for us to like her just the way she is, a blunt, tough-talking punk kid with an appealingly sharp tongue. To a certain degree, the writers game things by surrounding Kat with transparently unacceptable people: her sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is a shrill, bubble-headed twit (established early and firmly in a beautiful line of character-establishing dialogue: "I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack"), and her father Walter (Larry Miller) is a deranged anti-sex lunatic, owing to his work with pregnant teens. It's impossible not to like the "bad girl" when the people she's being contrasted with are so immensely vacuous. And so we end up not with Kate the Shrew, but with something more complicated and ambivalent: Kat the Riot Grrrl but also Kat with the Self-Negating Priorities. The character is a bit artless, and Stiles's clipped performance in the film's early going doesn't do much to flesh out the humanity in a distinctly artificial part, but it's perhaps the best that could be done.

Anyway, the film mostly follows the story play quite closely, doing a decent job of finding analogues for things that need updating: the newcomer to Padua High is one Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who falls hard for Bianca on day 1, only to find that her father has forbidden both of his daughters to date before college. Except that he's just changed the rule a little bit, in a bit of nasty-minded sophistry worthy of Cinderella's stepmother: Bianca can date only when older sister Kat has a boyfriend. And since Kat has decided that she's better than every other person attending Padua and would rather die than touch any of them, this is as good as a chastity belt. Except, that Cameron and his friend/co-conspiracist Michael (David Krumholtz) come up with a plan: hint that his his rival for Bianca's hand, Joey (Andrew Keegan), should pay to hire somebody to ask Kat out. And the target is the sullen, alienated bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), one of the only people at Padua who can go toe-to-toe with Kat on her snarling antisocial nastiness.

If 10 Things I Hate About You ends up falling into a lot of the narrative rhythms of any old romcom, this is at least partially because Shakespeare's plays did a lot to invent those rhythms: not the grimly de rigueur bit where the third act needs to be ushered in by the discovery of a terrible secret taken somewhat out of context, and the lovers have a fake fight (something that wasn't as ossified in 1999 as it is now; I think 2003's How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is what carved it into stone). I expect that nobody could be genuinely surprised by the direction the plot headed, even if they hadn't read the play, but formulas do not need to aplogise for themselves when they're executed well; this is a lesson that the works of Shakespeare teach us if they can teach us anything (after all, all but three of his plays were remakes). And in 10 Things I Hate About You, the formulas work splendidly, thanks largely to the energy with which McCullah & Smith draw their characters, and the way Gil Junger directs his awfully solid cast into a breezy, bantery register of dancing at each other with salty quips. It proves once again something that should have been obvious since the 1930s, but never seems to stick for very long these days: romantic comedies are best when they play as a series of verbal battles of bright, staccato dialogue, and then that dialogue is as filthy as the circumstances will allow. In the screwball era, that meant high-concept innuendo. In the case of the PG-13 10 Things I Hate About You, that means a lot of surprisingly bold chatter about sex that avoids feeling raunchy solely because the actors always speak their lines like they're trying to score points against a debate opponent, rather than because they actually seem to be thinking much about sex. Which I mean as a compliment.

There's too much naturalism in the film, particularly in the form of Ledger's bracingly caustic performance (it was the film that put him on the map, and while it's not at all one of his best performances, it's obvious throughout that he's got some real acting chops, far beyond the usual teenybopper pretty guy), for it to feel like a long-lost '30s film made about '90s teens, though honestly, the pacing of it is much closer to that than to the logy romcoms of the modern era. For all that the hook and the soundtrack make it sound like a generic teen-audience cash-in, the film is shockingly committed to functioning as a character-driven comedy, and when Stiles starts to loosen up as her character gets more flexible, it turns out to be a pretty delightful one.

Genre will be what it will be, and there's nothing surprising in 10 Things I Hate About You at the level of writing, and nothing remotely inspired or memorable at the level of film craftsmanship: it has the stolidity of the modern romcom, cleanly lit and squarely focused. But it's got good bones: a sturdy structure on which well-built jokes are arrayed, delivered with in-character nuance by a relaxed, enjoyable cast (also appearing: a delightfully curt Allison Janney and a frightfully fresh-faced Gabrielle Union). Nothing world-changing, and in 1999, films that were content to be the best piece of finely-tuned entertainment they could be seemed about as unambitious as at any other time in history. But for all its period trappings in slang, in style, and in tone, the film has aged well: good meat-and-potatoes filmmaking is never easy, and it's certainly never disposable. 10 Things I Hate About You is low-key and has small goals, but the way in which it meets those goals is in line with the best tradition of audience-pleasing Hollywood craftsmanship all through the years.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1999
-South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut becomes the highest-grossing adults-only animated film of all time
-Samuel L. Jackson makes a memorable exit from Deep Blue Sea
-Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is one of the largest hits ever greenlit on the basis of its predecessor's cult success on home video

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1999
-Filthy-minded Spanish melodramatist Pedro Almodóvar suddenly has an enormous critical smash with the sublime All About My Mother
-Kang Je-gyu's Shiri is the first homegrown megablockbuster made in the rejuvenating South Korean film industry
-French madman Leos Carax makes certainly his hardest, and maybe his best film, Pola X

23 November 2014

HOLLYWOOD CENTURY, 1998: In which Hollywood's king of populist entertainment critques wartime jingoism while also pandering to it

Knowing that I'd eventually get to write about Saving Private Ryan - to grapple with my own wildly inconsistent feelings about it over the years, as well as to challenge all of you, my readers, to do the same - has been one of the things that I've been most excited about since the very beginning of this blog's Hollywood Century project. So here we are, and here we grapple, and I have 16 years of accumulated thoughts, praise, complaints, and misgivings to get through in the next couple thousand. Apologies in advance if it gets a little messy.

The confusion I have long felt about the film is not least because there are two films we talk about when we talk about Saving Private Ryan: one is 21 minutes long, and it maybe the best-crafted & most powerful combat film ever produced. The other is much, much longer, and it is a largely trite, generic, and in some important ways philosophically dubious story of a squad in WWII trudging through France in June, 1944, while complaining in ways that perfectly map onto the pre-established clichés for each of the eight men in that squad. Actually, there's a third movie, too: it's the opening and closing bookends set in, presumably, 1998 itself, the year of the film's release, and it is among the clumsiest, most disastrously-conceived material in the entirety of Steven Spielberg's directorial corpus.

But let's stick with the actual meat of the movie first. As virtually everybody knows, I imagine, Saving Private Ryan opens (after that 1998 scene) at the onset of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy, follows along with one tiny cluster of American soldiers for quite a while, and then continues on as those soldiers are assigned a most peculiar mission three days after the Allied forces successfully land. To wit: they are to trek deep into the French countryside, where they must find one PFC James Ryan, whose three brothers have all died recently, and whom the Army brass has decided shall be saved from the hell of war, so that his mother doesn't have to suffer the agony of losing all her children in quick succession.

Admitting out front that the movie has other priorities on its mind, the first problem we run into is structural. The movie begins three times, and each new beginning seems to have virtually nothing to do with what we've already seen. The transition out of the opening scene makes absolutely no sense once you know where the film is going, implying that the old man (Harrison Young) we're watching in the American war cemetery at Normandy is recalling his experience on that beach, staring a thousand-yard stare as the soundtrack begins to filter in the pre-invasion sounds of waves, boats, and men shuffling. I think there's really no conceivable way to read the editing and sound even the way the man's face is held in close-up without making that assumption; but we'll find out at the end that he was miles and miles inland during the invasion. Strike one.

Then comes the invasion itself, a three-act mini-movie unto itself, that has no connection to the ultimate attempt to find Private Ryan. We're introduced to most of our main characters, but we don't know that we're being introduced to them: the sequence ties itself to Captain Jim Miller, who we know is important because he's played by Tom Hanks, but we don't know who he is by name yet, and we don't have any notion of who the people are around him. This isn't an introduction, but a totally unrelated narrative chunk that happens to concern the same characters. It's the backstory to the actual plot of Saving Private Ryan only to the same degree that watching Don Corleone having eggs and coffee while reading the morning paper would have been a useful opening scene to The Godfather.

Now, we are not dumb, and so we know that Spielberg and screenwriter Robert Rodat had other things on their mind in including the D-Day invasion than telling a clear, cohesive story. Saving Private Ryan is, explicitly, a film paying tribute to the men who fought and died in World War II, and that is far more important to it than telling a story or fleshing out characters. And in that regard, the Omaha Beach scene is far more important and comprehensible, since its function is to show the chaos and agony of war, so that we'll have a better sense for the rest of the movie of what kind of terrible suffering these men go through. Its value, that is to say, is entirely thematic - and I'll return to that, but now let's turn to the battle scene itself.

It is a work of genius, of course. I can't imagine how anyone but the most morbid Spielberg hater could deny that. What is remarkable to me above all things is how the invasion sequence in this film is absolutely and in every way the work of a populist filmmaker: the craftsmanship and ability to lead the audience to an emotional place he has preselected (the commonest knock against Spielberg, but also to my mind the least-convincing: all movies are emotionally manipulative, he's just unusually direct in showing he he does it) that he'd honed over years of making some of the biggest crowdpleasers in cinema history turns out to work just as well, and in exactly the same ways, when he's trying to flatten us into terrified submission. Saving Private Ryan's combat scenes are fucking brilliant filmmaking, innovative and groundbreaking in ways that so quickly became standard procedure for war movies, and especially WWII movies, that it's difficult to quite see what makes it special. But oh, how special it is: just the way that Janusz Kamiński shot it (to my mind, this is the film that cemented him as an essential part of the Spielberg team) would be worth a paper all by itself. The short version is that he relies on excessive grain and desaturation to create a bleak, almost nauseating feeling, which is then built on by his celebrated use of a decreased shutter angle, giving the images a sharp, metallic precision and render the movements with staccato bursts that keep feeling like they're going to launch into fast-motion. And on top of that, we also find extensive use of erratic hand-held camera work, Spielberg's open attempt to copy documentary style, which extends to allowing dirt and stage blood to slop all over the lens.

All that hyper-realistic cinematography creates an immersive reality more than virtually any other combat scene I can name, and that's even without mentioning the film's amazing sound mix - an astonishingly powerful experience in theaters, one that I remember 16 years later more clearly than things I saw last week. Every single bullet feels like it was placed specifically to suggest physical space and the sheer scale of the D-Day invasion, echoing on all sides, now horribly close and now terribly far. For that is the other thing that sets this scene above so many other great combat sequences: the feeling of littleness it creates. We follow a tiny number of people through a confusingly-defined space, and we never get a sense of what's going on all throughout the rest of the beach except in the flashes that Miller is able to spot out of the corner of his eye. But that roaring sound mix tells all: it describes with all its layers a battleground stretching out into infinity, bodies dying invisibly - and sometimes quite visibly, right before our eyes, in blunt scenes of carnage - in which the one man we're following barely registers as an individual.

There are no moments of Spielbergian sentiment, and yet the whole thing is finely tuned and orchestrated using his very particular skills: an awareness of how to use brief, iconic gestures to thrust us into a state of high emotion. Panic, in this case, something not found in such protracted form anywhere else in the director's career. The exact things that make this work are what make it the work of a mainstream entertainer: things are communicated simply, directly, and without a trace of subtlety, and our gaze is directed exactly where the filmmakers want it to be directed, so that we can be walloped by whatever they're going to show us next.

It's tremendously powerful and crushing, and then it ends, and Saving Private Ryan actually, finally starts. You can tell exactly where it happens, because the John Williams score that has been silent for 21 minutes asserts itself, and in the blink of an eye this harsh, sober experience turns gloppy and dumb. For this particular Williams score is offensively sentimental and pushy and omnipresent beyond even the caricature of his work; I wouldn't hesitate a moment to call it the worst score he composed for any Spielberg film. At any rate, it's the only one of his scores for the director that actively makes the film worse, cutting into Kamiński's sober, bleached-out images and the uncharacteristic hardness of Spielberg's camera and direction to his actors with weepy, patriotic horns and militaristic elegy.

That being said, the A-plot of Saving Private Ryan is so beset by trouble spots that singling out the music is a bit unfair. To begin with, Miller's squad reveals itself to be populated exclusively by clichés who are precisely described the first time we see them, and never break out of our immediate preconception as to what they're going to do. Besides our taciturn captain, we have the Hothead (Edward Burns), the Tough GI (Tom Sizemore) the Bible-Thumping Southerner (Barry Pepper), the Sarcastic Jew (Adam Goldberg), the Pleasant Medic (Giovanni Ribisi), the Warmhearted Rough Italian (Vin Diesel), and most importantly of all, the Untrained Newbie and Audience/Director Surrogate (Jeremy Davies), the one with a sturdy moral sense but also no survival instinct at all. I suspect, if pressed, Spielberg and Rodat would defend their pack of unimaginative stereotypes as a tribute to the WWII films of yore, all the way back to the '40s when those stereotypes started to congeal. Except that Saving Private Ryan absolutely, transparently wants to be more complex than that: to present battle as a horrible experience, not an ennobling one, and to present the trauma of warfare as serving more to flatten soldiers' humanity rather than to make them Manly American Men. Relying on musty old stock characters gets in the way of that.

And anyway, the direction of the plot over the next two hours is so all-over-the-map that no consistent theme emerges anyway; the only clear message that has emerged by the end is the conviction that, well, Our Boys sure did see some terrible things over there. Critically, the film never quite makes up its mind whether all the killing and seeing the enemy as a faceless Other is ultimately soul-damaging or not; the arc of Davies's character famously muddies all of this, since it's structured largely to show how he comes to realise that killing prisoners is okay - and yet, the way that Spielberg and Kamiński film his ultimate act of killing, with the camera trained on Davies's face and never showing the German body fall, doesn't permit the viewer a sense of celebration and suggests that we're watching him fall into the dark side. But that kind of moral ambiguity fits not at all with the many other scenes.

Running down everything that works beautifully (a scene where a little girl assaults her dad for putting her in harm's way in the act of trying to save her; Hanks's cold-blooded recitation of the big Norman Rockwell speech about his homelife) and everything that doesn't (the bafflingly over-written scene with General Marshall, played by Harve Presnell, concocting the plot to save Private Ryan; pretty much every single beat focused on Pepper's sniper, who prays for guidance from God before killing his enemies, a potentially rich irony that Spielberg is palpably frightened to grapple with) would take too long, so suffice it to say that the film suffers from aimlessness and bloat, perked up frequently by individually piercing moments of character truth. And the film always, always looks perfect, capturing both painterly beauty and a sense of devastated coldness simultaneously. To be honest, winning the Best Director Oscar but losing Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love seems almost exactly right to me: Saving Private Ryan succeeds at the creation of stable tone and texture, but is messy and wandering as a drama (of course, exactly exactly right would have been The Thin Red Line making a clean sweep of everything but Kamiński's win, but it does nobody any good to pretend that was ever an option).

The film does eventually find focus and purpose again - and drops the damn Williams music - in another long combat scene, this time after the squad has found Private Ryan (Matt Damon - and Jesus, but the number of future famous people in this movie is impressive; Bryan Cranston and Nathan Fillion also pop up). It's a terrific piece of filmmaking, if not quite as radical in its technique. But unlike Omaha Beach, this climax isn't quite so much about the punishing brutality of war; it's more of a conventional action movie, rousing and saddening in equal measure. François Truffaut legendarily observed that no war film can truly argue against war, since they always make combat look exciting; this is not true at all of the grotesque opening sequence, but it is at least partially true of the finale. And that's without dragging in the cloying final scene, which looks at all the ambiguity threaded throughout even the weaker moments of the main feature, and says "well, fuck that", with a stirring coda in which it is clarified that to die in combat serving one's country is a Glorious Sacrifice, and those who fought but did not die are always going to be haunted by the conviction that they're not as morally good as the fallen. It's jingoistic pap, made worse by the film's only truly uninteresting cinematography, and Williams slobbering aural war memorial.

Saving Private Ryan achieved something that, even after a decade and a half, I still can't quite believe: this very long, depressing, unsparingly violent movie was the highest-grossing film of 1998 (domestically - worldwide, it was easily bested by Michael Bay's shrill Armageddon, which makes much more sense even though it's much sadder). It was, in fact, the last Steven Spielberg film to top the year's box office, and the last R-rated film as well. Much as he had done when getting in right at the first stages of a major new revival in dinosaur fandom with Jurassic Park, the director somehow managed to predict the Zeitgeist in some unfathomable way: 1998 also saw the release of Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation, and between the two projects, they triggered a wave of nostalgia for and interest in the culture surrounding World War II that I honestly have never figured out.

Whatever the case, something about this unremittingly bleak film, whose sops towards uplift and finding something purposeful in war feel messily splashed onto its overriding sense of desolation, struck an enormous chord with audiences. I can't argue that's not deserved, even though it's weird: Spielberg-the-sentimentalist transforming into Spielberg-the-unsmiling-chronicler leaves us with quite a sturdy array of well-built, emotionally transfixing moments. Much of it is foggy, and a small amount of it is actively objectionable, but so much of Saving Private Ryan works so well, and so undeniably, that even if I think it can only be regarded as one of Spielberg's most difficult "problem" films, it's absolutely the work of a supremely talented film director with an irreproachable, top-notch crew.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1998
-Terry Gilliam's final film that gets made without the world burning down around it, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is released
-Peter Weir and Andrew Niccol predict, then indict reality TV with The Truman Show
-Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner just wave their dicks right out there for everyone to see, pitting DreamWorks Animation's Antz and Pixar's A Bug's Life against each other

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1998
-Still the best movie ever built on video game narrative logic, Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run bows in Germany
-Nakata Hideo's Ringu inaugurates the modern era of J-horror
-Show Me Love - known more bluntly as Fucking Åmål in its native Sweden - introduces the world to the social realism of Lukas Moodysson

22 November 2014

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2014: THE LAST DANCE

The biographical documentary Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq looks like a TV episode and has the generic structure of a TV episode, and what do you know? That's because it is an episode of the PBS documentary series American Masters, given some extra breathing room and a tiny theatrical release. So it feels a little bit unsporting to sink too much energy into talking shit about its aesthetic and structure, even though those elements are extraordinary problems with the film - crippling problems, even, as it goes deeper into its running time and further along in history.

Tanaquil Le Clercq (pronounced "luh clair"), for those who don't know - and that describes most of us, I am sure, which is exactly the blind spot the film is designed to redress - was one of the most important American ballet dancers of the 20th Century, a muse of the great choreographers George Ballanchine and Jerome Robbins, the former of whom she married, the latter of whom she held at arm's distance all her life. If we take the testimonials given by her various friends in the film at face value (and why not? PBS isn't noted for its sensationalised content), her elongated, rail-thin frame established a new paradigm in the body types and physical movements that dance would favor in the future, and this was the great legacy of her career, stopped short when she contracted polio at age 26.

Afternoon of a Faun, named for a re-conceived Nijinsky ballet set to Debussy that Balanchine built around Le Clercq, tells its subject's life story in an extremely dry fashion, with personal remembrances delivered by people who knew and worked with her, arranged by director Nancy Buirski in straightforward, chronological order. Interrupting these stories are excerpts from Le Clercq and Robbins's letters, read by Marianne Bower and Michael Stuhlbarg, and this gives the movie a bit of deeper personality and texture than just hearing people relate the life story of their friend as, well, a history. Afternoon of a Faun is long on information, but low on insight: it does not succeed much at all in letting us get inside Le Clercq's head, since virtually all of its knowledge is provided by people who did not always quite see all the way inside the Le Clercq/Ballanchine marriage, apparently as difficult as any domestic situation involving two artists, one of them a man with a long history of short marriages, could manage to be. And since, following her illness, Le Clercq pulled away from the society of other humans for a great many years, leaving nobody that Buirski had access to with any real ability to speak to the crises faced by the dancer at that point in her life.

The documentary that results is lopsided and a bit frustrating, telling a story of a woman who had polio kind of happen at her rather than dig into what that illness meant. Perhaps there was no way around this, but the film's commitment to its basic, off-the-shelf talking heads construction certainly wouldn't yield any possibilities. Probably by design, Buirski has assembled a lecture, with all the facts laid out in neat, indisputable order, but not much of an emotional appeal, no matter how much the people who knew and obviously loved Tanny (as she is universally referred to by her intimates) express their affection in sweetly unguarded moments. And the carefully-researched feeling ends up spending so much time on context that for long stretches it feels more like the story of George Balanchine and his amazing successes with the lanky genius dancer he married that one time.

What picks the film up, and gives it some real cinematic appeal beyond the inherent interest of learning the basic facts of an artist whose skill and impact outweigh her limited name recognition, is the vintage material Buirski has assembled, whether in the form of an audio interview Le Clercq gave late in her life, reflecting with the wise detachment of an elegant, guarded lady of the upper class, or - much better still - in the footage of Balanchine's dances and Le Clercq especially from across her whole career. The chronological structure of the film means that almost all of this is frontloaded, and dries up right around the same time that the film starts to go slack and shallow in its treatment of her experiences. But while it's there, it elevates Afternoon of a Faun into the stratosphere. For there is a great deal of it, and it is cunningly woven in with the verbal reminiscences, and it reveals a dancer who is every bit the magnetic alien described by her eulogists. Without needing one scrap of historical context, Afternoon of a Faun makes all the argument it needs to for Le Clercq's brilliance simply through showing us Le Clercq in motion, for long, minimally-edited vintage sequences that have been gathering dust for God knows how long. The film would be valuable for collecting this footage and presenting it in a clear, well-organised way even if its lapses as documentary cinema and storytelling device were far more serious than they are.

There's nothing at all going on in the film that makes it recommend itself to anyone who isn't already mostly in the bag for this kind of thing: it assumes you already care about ballet, for one thing, and have a vested interest in learning about the politics and personal dramas of midcentury dance professionals. It assumes a PBS audience, in other words, and the limitations forced upon it by its inception are never questioned, let alone stretched. But for such a rudimentary, paint-by-numbers technique, Le Clercq does make for a good subject, and while Afternoon of a Faun isn't very much fun on any level, its content is interesting, and the woman at its center clearly worthy of greater attention. Given that providing that attention with minimal possible editorial distraction is all this film ever apparently wanted to do, it has to count as a success.

6/10

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