31 May 2010

TEN FOR MONDAY: WAR PICTURES

It's Memorial Day in the States, which means it's time for war movies. But instead of just a routine list of the greatest war films of all time, boring for you to read and boring for me to think up (hey, have you heard of this All Quiet on the Western Front picture?), I decided to spice things up with a list of:

Ten Great Under-Seen War Movies
(Listed alphabetically)

Battleground (William A. Wellman, 1949)

Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but please don't let that stop you. In some ways a romanticised vision of war that makes all the civilians feel really swell, but the stress on the characters' everyday guy-ness rings intensely true, and the depiction of the easy camaraderie found between men who know they're going off to die is simply beautiful, and I hope like hell that it's true. Not one of those films that makes you think you understand what combat feels like, but something that's oddly even rarer: a film that makes you understand what tramping through the mud with the rest of your unit feels like. One of the fullest tributes to Our Boys put out in a less-cynical age.


The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)

One of the most widely-praised box-office hits of the 1920s, and rightly so; its perplexing absence from DVD has unfortunately condemned it to semi-obscurity in the present day. Taking the oft-told story of how combat can turn an optimistic patriot into a broken cynic, Vidor's awe-inspiring treatment of WWI veteran Laurence Stalling's screenplay is far more intimate and fresh than just about any later plot built along the same lines.


The Bridge [Die Brücke] (Bernhard Wicke, 1959)

Generally speaking, German filmmakers didn't exactly rush out to make movies about their country's wartime experience. Of the few examples that exist, my favorite is easily this hyper-realistic and sublimely unsettling description of how in the final days of the war, the only people left to face the Allies' guns were teenage boys, eager to prove their manhood through the idiotic sacrifice of their lives to save a tactically useless bridge. Sickening and powerful, and probably the most flat-out angry anti-war film on this list.


Ivan's Childhood [Ива́ново де́тство] (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962)

Part of me wonders if it's appropriate to put the debut film by one of the most important filmmakers of the last 60 years on an "under-seen" list. Then part of me recalls the unspeakable power of this story of an orphaned 12-year-old who turns spy for the Soviet Union, a crushing human story that's also one of the most immaculately-shot movies of the 1960s, and figures that as long as there's a single person who still hasn't seen it, then it's "under-seen".


The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934)

A fascinating, semi-nihilistic tale of existential panic made shortly before Ford entered the stage of his career known to anyone but Ford completists, this remake (I have not seen the original) tosses a good number of British soldiers into the heart of the World War I desert, surrounded by unseen snipers, and watches as they disintegrate before our eyes. Victor McLaglen is unusually tight and restrained as the unnamed sergeant, while Boris Karloff is surprising and brilliant as a man who goes crazy from heat and religion. Taut and slightly horrifying, it's one of the most impressionistic and uncanny depictions of the battlefield as an almost literal hellscape.


The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009)

Though not without it's fair share of problems (it is Oscarbait, after all), Moverman's directorial debut takes a look at a side of military service and warfare that most of us probably don't think about very often: the men responsible for informing the folks back home that their loved one has died. At its best, this is a shattering, gorgeously painful character study: though they are never in danger, it's hard to imagine a pair more wracked by the constant presence of death.


The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944)

While some filmmakers looked at the struggles and heroism on the battlefield, others told stories of the people back home, of which likely the best - and certainly the least-serious - is this hyperbolic farce by the finest satirist of the 1940s. While your Mrs. Miniver, for example, presents the families left behind as all starch and patriotism, Sturges's epic screwball about a woman who gets knocked up by a departing soldier takes all the piss out of the idealised version of what stateside life ought to be like in wartime, and it's nasty, funny as hell, and uncomfortably truthful all in one blast of comic energy.


Neighbours (Norman McLaren, 1952)
The great Canadian's hysterical and deadly serious satire of militarism and aggression is one of the great short films you'll ever see, eight minutes of boundless cinematic invention that culminates in one of the most amusingly disturbing anti-war messages ever. Probably best just to watch it, but be careful; the video quality isn't what it should be.


The Steel Helmet (Sam Fuller, 1951)

It would have been so easy to lard this film up with one Fuller film after another; but I have instead elected to stick with just the one which I tend to think is the best (just nudging out the same year's Fixed Bayonets!). The first Korean War film, released just months after American troops entered that conflict, it's chockablock full of the typical Fullerisms: a rushed production that plays onscreen as desperate narrative urgency rather than cheapness, and a profoundly detailed depiction of on-the-ground soldiering that could only be told by a WWII veteran who was also a trained journalist.


Wooden Crosses [Les croix de bois] (Raymond Bernard, 1932)

Vies only with All Quiet itself as both the finest of all World War I pictures, and the best war movie of the 1930s. Utilising documentary film techniques in the most casual way, it thrusts the viewer into the very stuff of warfare like nothing until the opening of Saving Private Ryan would ever attempt again, yet its fidelity to the hell of combat doesn't stop it from telling a human story rich enough and full enough to make the movie a masterpiece even if it contained not a single combat scene. This isn't just one of the great under-seen war films; it is one of the great under-seen films, full stop.

30 May 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: VIDEO GAME ADAPTATIONS

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time hasn't managed to light to world on fire, and in this it's only repeating the performance of every other movie adapted from a video game - meaning that I don't actually have a historical "blockbuster" to look back to, just a lot of historical bombs. Therefore I decided to review one of the most infamous of that uniformly grim cohort. Incidentally, if I'd gone with the Sex and the City 2 comparison, I'd now be looking at George Cukor's sterling '30s comedy The Women, so you all have double the reason to hate me right now.

I had already selected this week's subject prior to the death on 30 May of Dennis Hopper, who here appears in one of his most universally-reviled roles. It is a peculiar tribute, but hopefully one that Hopper, ever the iconoclast, would have appreciated.


There was a beautiful time long ago, before Silent Hill and House of the Dead, before Resident Evil and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, before Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, when there was no such thing as a theatrical motion picture based upon a video game; and indeed a time when the very idea of a theatrical motion picture based upon a video game would have seemed like the ravings of a crazy person. In the 1980s, do not forget, there was no such thing as a game so larded up with cut-scenes that it was the next thing to a movie already; nor did the debate about whether games could be "art" exist then. Certainly, there was not one thing about video games that was respectable, not enough to catch Hollywood's eye - not that Hollywood ever cared much for respectability.

This halcyon world came to a rough end in the summer of 1993, when for no apparent goddamn reason, Hollywood Pictures (the mostly-defunct "keep this shit away from Disney" arm of the Walt Disney Company) paid for a motion picture based upon the plump Italian plumber who was already in 1993 the most iconic video game character in history, and remains so nearly two decades later: and so did the Video Game Movie come into being with the 28 May release of Super Mario Bros. which as the ad campaign helpfully pointed out, "[wasn't] no game, it was a live-action thrill ride." Half-true: it is surely not a game, for it is typically held that games are pleasurable.

Even by the standards of 8-bit video games, the Mario franchise wasn't exactly the most story-heavy property out there. A little man in overalls with a big mustache has to save the princess of the Mushroom Kingdom from a surly fire-breathing turtle with spikes. He does so by jumping on top of things and running. That is the description for virtually every single main-line Mario game made since 1985, up to and including his latest adventure, Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is by the way so awesome that it makes me want to cry tears of liquid diamonds every time I play it.

Amazingly, the mountain of rewrites that ended up as the shooting script for the Mario Bros. movie (the credited writers, who I'm sure wish they could take it back, were Parker Bennett, Terry Runte, and Ed Solomon) couldn't even get that much dense, sophisticated plotting right. Overalls? Check. Mustache? Check. Princess? Check, but she's one of those "unaware princesses in exile" sort of princesses. Mushroom Kingdom? The phrase is used, but maybe ironically, and there's not a damn thing mushroomy about it. Fire-breathing turtle with spikes? Ooh, sorry, but thanks for playing.

In general, the scenario for Super Mario Bros. feels rather like the writers had at one point or another heard several unrelated facts about the series, and put them together in a way that made some degree of sense: there's a princess, there's a woman named Daisy, you can go down pipes into a subterranean world, there's a little dinosaur with a long tongue named Yoshi, the villain is called King Koopa (though in the English versions of the games, the character had already been re-named Bowser). The slurry that came about has effectively no connection to the games beyond character names, therefore; but this isn't necessarily a problem, since a film that hewed tightly to the Mario ethos would be incomprehensible and repetitive. Still, you'd assume that anybody likely to seek out a movie called Super Mario Bros. would rightfully expect that it would have some meager connection to the game franchise, if only the colorful setting with its angry walking mushrooms and stupid turtles, and overall feeling of buoyancy.

The film we get is not at all that film, nor is it a film that does much of anything good on its own merits. Indeed, it is exactly as incomprehensible as a truer adaptation would have been, though it's not really repetitive. Like the weather, if you're unhappy, then you need wait only a few minutes for it too change, and then you will be angry that you waited, because the new situation is even worse. Here's what happens: 65 million years ago, a meteor hit the Earth and created a pocket universe which all the dinosaurs were forced into, permitting the rise of mammals. Eventually, those dinosaurs became evolved to the point where they looked exactly like human beings and could discern the existence of our reality, although this does not keep them from living in the center of a planet-wide desert in a city the size of Manhattan.

If you have any respect for your own brain, it was at the "dinosaurs evolved into humans" point that you started weeping. But it gets better, because the wicked President Koopa (Dennis Hopper, in his least-favorite performance of his own career) has in his possession a de-evolving ray that can turn koopa-humans back into stupid lizards, and once he breaks into our world, he'll use it to turn all the human-humans into monkeys, so he and his people can finally populate a whole planet and not a ghastly urban wasteland in the middle of a hellish desert. To do this, he needs to kidnap Daisy (Samantha Mathis), the daughter of the missing king, who was spirited to our Earth 20 years ago (that is, 1973) and raised in secrecy. Only the plucky Brooklyn plumber Mario Mario (Bob Hoskins, in his least-favorite performance of his career) and his slick younger brother Luigi Mario (John Leguizamo - note that neither he nor Hoskins are Italian, or are remotely credible as brothers for more than the time it takes to glance at the poster) can save her.

For those who haven't seen it, trust me: I've made it seem a lot more straightforward than is actually the case, by first skipping over the draggy opening sequence in Brooklyn which establishes precious damn little other than that these people exist, and ignoring completely the cavalcade of complicating incidents that befall the Mario brothers in the dinosaur city, and which all occur because one person first steals, and then returns without explanation, Daisy's MacGuffin necklace. Sometimes a terrible, overly-complex story seems to be the result of a writer with more ambition than talent; sometimes it just speaks of contempt for the audience; Super Mario Bros. belongs to perhaps the largest subset, the screenplay born from sheer exhaustion and indifference. Faced with a joyless task, those three men and whatever uncredited help they had simply slapped some arbitrary shit on the page, tossed in a healthy chunk of in-jokes, and shuffled off to die alone. Small wonder that the script was re-written almost constantly on set, with all the misery that situation promises.

Meanwhile, this hurtfully mediocre and un-motivated story eventually wound up in the hands of directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton and producers Jake Eberts and Roland Joffé. Yes, the Roland Joffé whose The Mission won the Palme d'Or. He's also rumoured to have substantially directed this movie without credit, not that he's gone to any great lengths to correct the historical record on that point.

The production team decided, somehow, that the right decision for a movie based on one of the most famously cartoony and bright video games of all time needed to be a dark, noirish movie set in a grim nightmare world heavily influenced by, naturally, Blade Runner, that movie that has so long served as the favorite reference point for designers that couldn't come up with any good ideas on their own. Though to be fair, the ugly weirdness of the dark city in Super Mario Bros. is one of the film's few distinctive qualities; all the more because of how well-served the production design is by the effectively moody cinematography from the always-reliable Dean Semler (who also, allegedly, directed parts of the movie). I do say "distinctive", and not "good", because when all is said and done, the design of Super Mario Bros. only adds to the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make a film much, much darker than the broad characterisations and loose slapstick of the movie seems to be driving at. It is, in effect, a kids' movie that the directors were trying to turn into a grown-up sci-fi adventure, and the results are impossibly atrocious. At best, Super Mario Bros. could only have been unendurably forgettable; but thanks to the out-of-place darkness of so much of the design, and the weird feints to realism - relative to the games, anyway - it has the epic feeling of Truly Wrong Filmmaking, where seemingly every new cut introduces some element that we deeply regret having watched.

Put it another way: this is a movie that had to be fun and is instead joyless to an almost calculated degree. You can see it plastered across Hopper's face, for instance, that the set was a living hell (Hoskins, who might very well have been the best possible choice to play Mario in 1993 - Danny DeVito is the other option - at least tries to put some zest into the proceedings, but with every other element of the movie working against him, his Mario ends up seeming less like a can-do hero and more like a deluded drunk). And of course, no movie whose title conjours up, to name just one example, the boppy tones of the most famous video game theme music in history, has the right to pull a bait-and-switch on us with the strangely miserable faux-science present from the first moments of the movie (a 16-bit cartoon about roughly-animated dinosaurs living large) and the dark fantasy noir of the bulk of the plot. It's not the worst video game movie, for it has a sort of baseline competency absent from the hypnotically campy Street Fighter (and that's leaving aside the films of Uwe Boll!). But in terms of how eagerly it befouls the source material in favor of a messy conglomeration of incompatible tones that has no natural audience whatsoever, and a plot full of lazy shortcuts and rookie mistakes, it is probably the most hurtful of all the movies in its notorious subgenre. Somehow, to my great confusion and shame, I've seen it four times now, and it never gets any easier.

29 May 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: A FILLER THRILLER ABOUT A DILLER OF A BLOOD-SPILLER

As you remember, the Video Nasty craze in Great Britain was nominally due to the lurid covers of two particular movies, prominently advertised in publications where too many Nice People could catch an accidental glimpse of them (the actual reason for the Nasties list was of course a complex chain of interrelated cultural, artistic, and political impetuses, but that gets in the way of a nice clean narrative n'est-ce pas?). These films were the American psycho killer drama The Driller Killer, from 1979, and a 1976 German Nazi exploitation picture variously known as S.S. Experiment, Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur, and on the Nasties list, S.S. Experiment Camp. The correct and scholarly thing to do would be to take a long, cold look at both of these films in turn, to chip away at what (if anything!) made them so heinous as to justify the British government's epic censorship program. The problem with this approach, as explained elsewhere, is that I've seen S.S. Experiment Camp before, and it's one of the most god-damned boring movies I've ever sat through all the way, and I'd frankly rather set this blog on fire than rewatch S.S. Experiment Camp just for "scholarly" reasons.

So there you have it, The Driller Killer is going to have to do all the work by itself as the stand-in for the rise of the Video Nasties list. Let's start at the same place that the Director of Public Prosecutions did, and take a look at that cover art up there at the top. Any way you slice it, that's a pretty darn violent image to put on a video box, and the least we can say is that Vipco - the film's UK distributor - should really have had more sense, not to mention good taste.

The next thing to do is sit down and watch the thing, and determine exactly how obscene it is, right? No, not actually, not if you're the DPP in 1982. Here we come to the second way that The Driller Killer makes for an excellent start to this summer's exploration of the Video Nasties: it's not remotely violent enough, nor at all offensive to people of what I at least would consider reasonable morality, to justify its angry consignment to a list of notorious & condemned works of filth, and this fact is true of a great many Nasties. By and large, they were banned not because they were as bad as the DPP feared, but because the DPP didn't bother to watch the damn things, nor did anybody in the media, and so goes the way of a witch-hunt.

In actuality, The Driller Killer not only fails to be an unconscionably violent horror movie, it really isn't any kind of horror movie at all, but a character study of a man driven to the breaking point by the pressures of New York and that city's thriving, but anti-social and dirty punk scene at the end of the 1970s. The second feature directed by Abel Ferrara (the first is the amazingly-named pornographic film 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy) is the story of Reno Miller (played by Ferrara, working under the pseudonym Jimmy Laine, which he used as well in the aforementioned porno), a frustrated artist living with two women, Carol (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day, a made-up name for a most mysterious one-time actress), in some kind of odd threesome that is never explained perfectly clearly, but my impression is that both Reno and Pamela are fucking Carol, but they're not into each other.

Comes a day when the next-door apartment is rented to a punk band named The Roosters, fronted by a gent named Tony Coca-Cola (D.A. Metrov, acting under the name Rhodney Montreal). The Roosters, being punks, don't much care whether or not they piss anybody off, and they practice their fairly repetitive, plonking music all day and all night, driving Reno into a state of madness, and preventing him from finishing the painting he's been working on, of a bison covered in slash marks and staring hollowly out from the canvas. "Driving him into a state of madness", did I say? "Finishing off the job", let's put it that way. Reno's dealer, Dalton Briggs (Harry Schultz) is putting pressure on the artist from the other side, Carol is growing increasingly detached, and Reno can't take it any more, which is why one night, after pulverising a skinned rabbit meant for dinner, he takes to the streets of New York with a portable power source and an electric drill, and takes his frustrations out on a harmless vagrant.

It takes 38 minutes to get to that point; the rest of the 96 minute film is going to be very little other than a variation on a theme. Reno tries to keep it together, he fails, he lets off some steam by plowing through a few vagrants with his drill. But despite what you may have heard, The Driller Killer isn't terribly violent or disturbing in its depictions of these deaths. There are only two killings out of an unexpectedly robust body count that have much blood at all to them: the first one, which involves the victim twitching in a huge pool of pink liquid, and the image featured so lovingly on the cover. Although that poor dead bunny gets its ass handed to it, I can tell you.

As the breakthrough and first non-pornographic film made by one of his generations most notorious shit-stirrers, it would be delightful to say that The Driller Killer reveals Ferrara to be a singular talent right out of the box, but I cannot say that. In a lot of very important ways, the film is stiff and clumsy; in other ways, it is so desperately sure of its artistic integrity that it's pretty much hilarious. Yet there is one way in which the film is kind of brilliant, and almost worthy of its cult following: its depiction of the New York punk scene in 1978 and '79, and the kind of squalid existence that punk rose out of. From the evidence in the film, I would not say that Ferrara or screenwriter Nicolas St. John have much affection for punk - it drives a man to murder, and I don't think anyone can disagree too fervently if I claim that The Roosters pretty much suck - but like the best exploitation films of the '70s (and I don't think I'd go so far as to call The Driller Killer an exploitation film), this movie captures something important and unfiltered about the streets of the city. In most cases - and this is no exception - this is the result of forced cheapness, that requires the filmmakers to use real settings with real squalor, and their use of 16mm film offers no glossy respite from the gritty, icky world they depict. Ferrara even goes that extra mile by having his two cinematographers, Ken Kelsch and James Lemmo AKA "Jimmy Spears" (why the Christ did so many people on this film work under a pseudonym?) shoot the movie using pools of inky blackness that give most of the film's omnipresent night scenes the suffocating feeling of a nightmare.

The look, then, is great. That's about the only nice thing I have to say about a film that starts out with pretension to burn: the DNA of Polanksi's Repulsion and The Tenant is buried deep in The Driller Killer's genetic code, and that apparently gave Ferrara all the justification he wanted to go whole-hog with symbolism that's by turns obvious, under-expressed, and pointless. Sometimes he even gets to do all three: as with the film's over-the-top opening shots, lingering close-ups of the Catholic iconography inside a church that promise a Scorsesean bloodbath of spiritual and moral confusion that the rest of the film doesn't even attempt to pay off. That's the first in a long, long line of directorial fillips that are so garish as to be kind of quaint, in the way that sometimes happens when a talented first-timer uses every idea that he can come up with for fear of never getting another chance to make a movie. So we get splashes of hellish red light, cryptic (but readily-parsed) dream sequences, intensely Meaningful close-ups on Reno's paintings; and so on. Worse still, neither Ferrara nor either of his cinematographers have any intuitive sense of how to frame an image for any kind of impact: their best attempt at it is to use uncomfortably tight close-ups that mean "importance! and tension!" but say "what am I looking at!?"

I should also not allow the movie to pass by without mentioning a lesbian shower scene shoved into the film with a pragmatic inelegance that was almost inspiring - that Ferrara just wanted to see naked women on set lathered in soap could not have been more apparent. It's clumsy, crude, and shot with those same alarmingly close close-ups of nipples and necks that plays as not remotely erotic, which leads me to believe that Ferrara's porno must be an exercise in futility.

As far as the character study goes, it's simply not that interesting just because we're kept so far away from Reno that he doesn't make much sense, and his descent into madness has no context. We can pick up that he despises the homeless men all around his apartment, not unlike Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, perhaps because his father might be a vagrant, and this at least partially explains his killing spree. But everything else about him is a closed book. He's just a nut who kills people. That's vaguely "thrilling" at moments, but it's not really much to hang a movie on.

Not helping matters one little bit, Ferrara is a pretty dodgy actor; and yet he's just about the best member of the cast. Everyone recites their lines without feeling, and most of them seem to consider that the extent of their job: Baybi Day is a colossal trainwreck, so mumbly and slack that I am compelled to believe that it absolutely had to be on purpose, though what that purpose might have been, I cannot say. This is the flipside of the "cheap is good" argument about the cinematography: cheap is bad, when it results in actors who can't fucking act. As if the characters weren't already ill-motivated and paper-thin, they're almost all played so as to make the least-realistic elements of their characterisations the most prominent. The only exception, oddly, is Metrov as Tony Coca-Cola: an oblivious shit with weird charm, played by a man who was probably pretty much exactly that in real life, but at least it translates to the screen better than it usually does when someone is cast for being like the character they're playing.

Points for trying, anyway. Ferrara and his collaborators were trying to say something about a moment and a place, and even if they couldn't quite connect all the dots, it's obvious where they were headed. The Driller Killer is sloppy and overwrought, and it constantly loses track of its own motivation, but... I'm not entirely certain I have a thought to follow that "but". I was going to talk about the filmmakers' eagerness, but it borders on desperation too often for me to concede that. Still, it doesn't set its sights as low as the death-for-death's-sake entertainment of the slasher films of the following decade (someone coming to the film for a nice dose of gore or genre terrors would be grossly disappointed), and the mere fact that it wanted to be about something - even if it mostly fails - means it deserves better than its breathless tarring as "obscene": although its presence on the Nasties list surely has afforded it a longer life than anything else about it could possibly have mustered.

Body Count: 14, I think. A lot of deaths happen very quickly, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to keep them straight. Between 11 and 14, of that I am certain. Plus a rabbit that was already dead when they brought its skinned carcass to set (this counts as a prop rather than an animal death, I ween).

Nastiness Rating: 2/5, not very Nasty. Oh, I wouldn't want to show it to a ten-year-old, but I wouldn't be very worried if one procured a copy. It's all very insular and psycherlogical, and what violence comes is fast enough and fake enough that it leaves very little impact (that video box scene is just plain goofy in its execution). The most intense scene, in fact, depicts nothing but a black screen; a genuinely good moment, which I will therefore not further spoil.

28 May 2010

THE DEARTH OF PRINCES

If you absolutely must see a new-release movie this weekend, your choice is between Sex and the City 2, a reductive and insulting view of femininity-as-commodity laced with a stunning undercurrent of reflexive American cultural superiority that creaks along for 146 unending minutes; or you can see something bad. Okay, fair is fair, I'd be hard-pressed to say in honesty that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (title begging for a sequel, much?) is the "worse" of the two movies, but I'll say this much: SatC2 left me frustrated, bored, and angry, but there was barely enough to Prince of Persia to keep me from falling asleep amidst all the slow-motion sword fighting and things going up in flame and about ten dozen other things that you can see pretty much every other weekend during any given summer.

Even so, it's probably the best movie ever based on a video game, although its competition for this title are such legendary works as Street Fighter, Wing Commander, the Resident Evil series, and the work of director Uwe Boll. None of those films had the fortune to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, best known in summer tentpole circles for shepherding the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise from plotless theme park ride to pop culture behemoth. Doubtlessly, that's why Walt Disney Pictures felt so willing to hand over a rumoured $200 million to Bruckheimer to make Ubisoft's delectable action game (which was, by no means, as plotless as a Disneyland boat ride) into a feature; and it's also doubtlessly why the end result feels so much like a distaff Pirates movie, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Orlando Bloom, Gemma Arterton as Keira Knightley, and Alfred Molina as Johnny Depp, but in an infinitely smaller role. Yessir, it's like watching Pirates of the Caribbean with all the Jack Sparrow parts taken out. Are you salivating yet?

Jordan Mechner's original video game story was taken apart and rebuilt with very little left intact other than the Persian setting and the game mechanic - I'm sorry, the "narrative hook" - by Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro (whose previous two collaborations were the sleepy war movie The Great Raid and the hellaciously bad horror film The Uninvited) and Boaz Yakin (who happily has more than two writing credits, although the most prominent one by far is for the 20-year-old The Rookie), and here's what ends up on screen: in the mystical and unendurably exotic land of Persia (modern-day Iran), a noble king (Ronald Pickup) with two sons adopts an athletic street urchin named Dastan (played, as a grown-up, by Gyllenhaal). Many years later, the eldest prince, Tus (Richard Coyle) leads an army against Persia's enemies, stopping briefly on the advice of his uncle Nimez (Ben Kingsley) to sack a city that may be supplying weapons to those enemies. After the sack, Dastan finds a magic dagger that allows the wielder to re-wind time using a supply of magic sand, but then he's framed for killing his father and must escape with the city's angry princess/priestess Taminia (Arterton) across miles of desert, and by a commodius vicus of recirculation everybody ends up in the same place, the secret villain is exactly who you knew it had to be from the first second he opened his mouth, and Dastan has to save the world from the angry power of the gods, which is held in check only by the dagger. Somewhere in there is, I think, an argument for why it would be bad to go to war in the Middle East over non-existent weapons, but the film is not at all eager to pursue that line of thought, nor does it do much with Molina's ostrich-racing gangster who spits out Tea Party one-liners about dodging taxes. But at least it would seem that one of the writers once picked up a newspaper, probably by accident, and hasn't been able to completely shake the experience.

Mainly, the film is just an excuse to watch as Gyllenhaal's stunt double does all sorts of acrobatic shit to knock out enemies. Which happens over and over again over 116 minutes, and it's stupefyingly repetitive, and then it ends. Happily, without the threat of a sequel, although the mere existence of a subtitle is all the more threat we need on that count. At any rate, watching a little man surrounded by CGI flipping around and clambering up walls is a hell of a lot less fun than making the little man do those things yourself, which makes the cinematic Prince of Persia unsurprisingly a greatly shallow experience next to the game from which it was derived, although since the game Sands of Time came out a whole console generation ago, you might possibly have a hard enough time finding it that watching the movie is a better deal.

As far as adventure movies go, though, Prince of Persia is more or less a washout - uninspired even when it's baldly ripping-off better movies. A great many years ago, Mike Newell was if not a great director, at least a credible one, overseeing the pleasing romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral among others. In the last ten years, the only thing he's done of any real merit was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which looks in retrospect like the work of a man who knew how not to fuck up all the good things Alfonso Cuarón had done in the franchise's previous entry, and had a better script to not fuck it up with. Certainly, he brings absolutely nothing of value to Prince of Persia, other than making it clear just how valuable Gore Verbinski and Jon Turteltaub really are for bringing Jerry Bruckheimer's high-concept cash machines to life. The performances are, to the last, only as functional as they need to be, and the camera is set up in front of whatever is happening with little or no thought for how to make things interesting, suspenseful, or just plain spectacular (he manages to make a hilltop city ridiculously out of proportionate size look flat and bland) - not when he can bathe everything in a uniform shade of bronze and call it a day. Worst of all, he indulges constantly in a computer-aided speed ramping trick, so that just about every single action performed in the movie is punctuated by a sudden slow-down like the movie just hit bullet time. Perhaps this is meant to recall a similar function in the game; it certainly increases the degree to which it looks like a game. It also increases the degree to which the film is complete bullshit, and it gives us lots of nice, long looks at how much of the CGI isn't remotely as convincing as we might prefer it to be.

Seriously, it's inconceivable that this film cost $200 million - there aren't any prominent actors besides Gyllenhaal, Kingsley and Molina (Gyllenhaal, by the way, is so terrible it hurts, and not only because his British accent is dreadful and he looks about as Persian as he does Inuit), and maybe Arterton who is at least vaguely recognisable from having played the exact same character in this spring's equally vapid Clash of the Titans remake. The sets and costumes aren't any bigger or more elaborate than in any given "set in the mystical Near East" adventure, none of which are exactly this expensive. The effects are par, no more. Even the text used for the opening exposition crawl looks cheap: it's in Papyrus, one of the most overused typefaces in the modern world, and putting it at the beginning of your big old summer movie makes it look exactly like you had the nice lady who does the church fliers making your big old summer movie instead of professional movie makers.

It looks cheap, it's put together in a slipshod way that makes the adventure seem unexciting, makes the characters seem even more stiff and uncharismatic than the script does, it's not pretty, it's not fun - really, Prince of Persia doesn't do a single damn thing right, except fail to be as unspeakably miserable as you'd have guessed from the concept. Not flashy enough to offer a simulation of entertainment, and not sturdy enough to offer genuine entertainment, it's just an exercise in watching events happen in a certain order, although that order doesn't even make a great deal of sense: there's hardly enough plot to support as much running time as the movie has, and to make up the difference there's a lot of shuffling characters around in arbitrary ways to make sure that everyone with a name can be present for the big shoot-out at the end, which is unsurprisingly put together with no kind of joy or energy at all (though it is unexpectedly violent - comfortably PG-13, but bloodier than the Pirates films). Usually, the excuse for these mindless CGI-propelled wastes of time is that they're "fun", but that excuse doesn't have much to offer when a movie is as effectively mechanical and anti-fun as Prince of Persia.

4/10

27 May 2010

2 SEX 2 CITY

The full disclosure bit: I haven't seen but a few episodes at most of the six beloved seasons of HBO's Sex and the City, nor did I manage to catch the 2008 feature film continuation thereof. I thus have somewhere in the vicinity of no business whatsoever trying to review Sex and the City 2 - but review it I shall. And I shall beg, in advance, your forgiveness for any howling factual errors that arise from my ignorance. For example, prior to this movie I used to think it was called Sexin' the City, and was about a madam played Sarah Jessica Parker, and her three favorite whores.*

Actually, the movie makes things fairly easy for a newbie in a quick intro in which the main character, relationship essayist Carrie Preston née Bradshaw (Parker), recounts the history of New York B.C. - "Before Carrie", who arrived in 1986. This history segues into a punchy series of flashbacks that show how Carrie met her three BFFs, the shy conservative Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), nervous lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), and devouring sexual id Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall, playing the only one of the foursome who's even a little bit likable, largely because she doesn't care at all if we like her). This sequence is terrifically useful to introduce someone to the SatC universe, for it efficiently and definitively establishes the two primary truths that are going to govern the rest of the film:

1) None of these women have any business whatsoever being friends with each other; and

2) Carrie Bradshaw is an insufferable narcissist.

Thus does writer-director Michael Patrick King (one of the series' producers) usher us into a sparkling satire of the idle classes of New York City, a leering and savage indictment of privilege and crass consumerism. Central to this is the barbarically oblivious Carrie, who sputters off with the occasional quip about the fallen economy while demonstrating with her every breath that she has remained utterly untouched by anything remotely approaching economic distress. She's as perfect an indictment of capitalism as any monocled businessman in a Soviet propaganda film from the silent era ever was, for her limitless self-obsession which forbids her from even tangentially sparing a thought for the suffering of another human being, has made her equally obsessed with image and fashion, leading her to amass a seemingly incalculable number of costly dresses and shoes. We can never find it in ourselves to be angry with her, though, for we're too busy laughing at her; she proves that no amount of money, however idly spent, can buy good taste, and so the result of of her frenzied buying is a collection of some of the most unbelievably gaudy costumes ever perpetrated on the human form, as designed by the brilliant comic mind of Patricia Field. Carrie might have more money than God and God's Mom put together, but she will never have brains enough to know that she looks like a mutated plastic flower wandering about and trailing illogical silk bits all over. By reducing this figure of wanton acquisition to the most debased kind of absurdity, King scores a great satirical coup, even if he's ultimately unable to effect any systemic change greater than pointing out that the emperor has stupid clothes.

Hang on, I've just received a note...

Oh, my. Oh, my.

Obviously, the criticism that SatC is nothing but consumerism porn is as old as the series itself, so it's not surprising to me that it turns out to be the case; but dear Christ, is this second feature for the gals ever a horrid slog through 146 of the most stretched-out minutes of the year so far. It's embarrassing; almost as embarrassing as King's blithe statements to the effect of, "My consumerism porn is fine, even though there's a terrible economic blight out there, because they did the same thing during the Depression", which is itself almost as embarrassing as the way that King has the giant swinging balls to show clips from It Happened One Night, and later to quote the film's legendary hitchhiking scene, as though Sex and the City 2 deserves to be thought of even as a pimple on the ass of It Happened One Night, which is, for the record, one of the comedies made during the Depression that's actually aware that there was a Depression on.

So anyway, we watch these women being staggeringly entitled and whining about the shallowest crises known to man ("My rich husband doesn't want to spend every moment of every day socialising!") and it's gross, and then we watch them go to Abu Dhabi and do the same thing, and there's been some chatter about whether the film is racist against Arabs and/or anti-Muslim. Yes, though not as much as e.g. True Lies, and whatever racism can be found in the movie is more a byproduct of Carrie and the girls' rampaging egotism, rather than some concerted effort by Americans to prove that their way of life is better than those awful foreigners'. Even when our plucky New Yorkers stumble into some semblance of awareness that a woman's life in a Muslim country has some noted downsides - and this awareness is connected almost wholly to how much the protagonists are inconvenienced by this sexism - their response is very much in keeping with the air-headed socialite who gives to "a cause" without much caring if the cause changes anything. "Okay, we've liberated all the women of Abu Dhabi - check! Now who wants to ride in a car that costs more than most people's houses?" I had been led to believe that this was all meant to be about "female empowerment", but if that's the case then we're fucked as a culture more than I would ever have thought.

But enough of that: nothing I can say will outperform the definitive takedown of the film, written by Lindy West of The Stranger. It is not the custom to link to another reviewer in one's own review - theoretically, we're not supposed to read other reviews first - but West's essay is one of the most perfect sarcasm bombs I have ever encountered, and I would be doing all of you a disservice if I didn't link to it.

Anyway, Sex and the City 2 is an insulting piece of escapism; not my flavor of escapism to be sure. But even if it were, King cobbles the whole thing together with a distressing lack of energy, letting scenes shuffle along to a groaner punchline without any urgency or momentum. Both New York and whatever Moroccan city stands in for Abu Dhabi are shot with such care that the whole thing might as well have been done in somebody's backyard; the only thing that ever seems to energise him is paying loving attention to the indescribably foul dresses wrapped around Parker for most of the film. Each of the other characters gets at least one chance to wear something equally hideous - a weird sign of the women's solidarity, maybe, that if one looks like a tornado hit a fabric factory, so will they all - but none of them get the same lingering treatment by the camera. Meanwhile, none of those poor jokes, orphaned by their director, seem to have been given the memo that it's not 1998, and it's no longer edgy for women to talk about their sex drive.

It's an exhausting, dreary movie, starting from the opening sequence at a gay wedding that is described as "a gay wedding" about ten thousand times and is full of every "haha teh gayz" joke in the history of the world, and if you can square how crudely reductive - hell, how flat-out homophobic - it all is with the fact that King is himself gay, then you are a brighter thinker than I. All I know is it was a hell of a stilted way to get a far-too-long movie kicked off, and it bottoms out with a truly mortifying cameo by the great Liza Minnelli exactly recreating the music video to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies", a moment that would have been positively transcendent if it were being played for absurdity; but instead, it is played perfectly straight. Somewhere in this world, there is somebody whose lifelong dream has been to see Liza Minnelli covering "Single Ladies" and for that person, you have my pity, but not as much as you have my scorn.

3/10

26 May 2010

IT JUST DON'T WORK OUT THAT WAY

Recalling the enthusiastic buzz that has dogged Mother and Child, and especially its three central performances, ever since the film's 2009 Toronto Film Festival debut, I would be tempted to indulge in a cliché: "those people all saw a different movie than I did". Except that it's not true, for I know exactly what movie they saw that leads them to praise Annette Bening and Naomi Watts for giving the best performances of their respective careers, and to praise writer-director Rodrigo García for his sensitive, pitch-perfect study of regret and the ties of family and blood (which are not always the same thing). Indeed, those people saw the same movie I did; but I have a strong suspicion that they slept through the first two-thirds of it.

The film opens with a scene of two fourteen-year-olds about to have sex; jumps to a scene of the girl (Alexandria Salling) crying in agony as her newborn child is taken away, and then jumps 37 years further to show that girl, Karen, all grown up and played by Bening as a singularly miserable woman who lives with her sickly mother (Eileen Ryan); she is particularly angry at the easy, loving relationship her mother has with their maid (Elpidia Carillo) and the maid's daughter (Simone Lopez). The fourth scene then shows 37-year-old Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) taking a job at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm run by the genial widower Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). Not for a very, very long time does García come right out and tell us that Elizabeth is Karen's long-lost daughter, rather trusting that we can infer from the shape of the editing that this is the case, and it's the last moment of understatement to come for damn near all of the film.

Mother and Child suffers from a screenplay that simply does not understand, in any way, shape, or form, the idea of "subtlety". I have not seen in quite some time a motion picture of any real pedigree in which the writer altogether lacks the grace to suggest a situation without banging us over the head so heavily that the subtext becomes supertext, and the text comes across like neon lettering that shrieks "THIS IS WHAT'S HAPPENING DO YOU GET IT" over and over again until you get a migraine. So we have scenes like Elizabeth's interview with Paul, including the fantastic moment when he asks her to describe herself, and it goes something like this:

Elizabeth: "I am a bitchy careerist who was so emotionally damaged by being abandoned by my birth mother at the moment I came into this world that I have never since been able to relate to another human being on any level - except, possibly, for my dead adoptive father - and I have rather devoted my life to the perfection of my career as a dead-eyed legal genius than trying to behave with any shred of social nicety."

Paul: "Splendid! When shall we start fucking?"

I wish to God I was joking, but I'm really not. I'm hardly even exaggerating.

So it is that two-thirds of Mother and Child is taken up by the most baldly-expressed melodrama about two broken women: Elizabeth is icy and perfect and professional, Karen is terrified of love and spits like a cobra at anyone who even daydreams about being nice to her. It's not clear how much we can blame the actresses for this, because a lot of that is deeply buried in the characters; but certainly, neither of them helps much: Watts in particular is such a Betty One-Note throughout that by the end of her second scene I was desperately anxious to be watching just about any other person in the whole world (Bening at least has the decency to underplay her character's hard edges except when forced to do otherwise).

García compounds this by structuring the film with a leaden, metronomic device that switches from one woman to the next with clockwork regularity. This has at least one benefit: it means that we always know that in a matter of minutes, we'll be back to the story of Lucy (Kerry Washington), a desperately flustered young woman trying to adopt with her stick-up-the-ass husband Joseph (David Ramsey), because of her inability to conceive. Recognisably human, suffused with a lightness that nicely sets off the situation's tragedy, the Lucy plot is everything the Karen and Elizabeth plots refuse to be, with their overdetermined, arch writing. It's so ferociously trite, with every musty, campy cliché in the book trotted out for a bow, that in no time at all I had a terrible case of the giggles watching the ostensibly sad, lacerating drama; this was at its worst during a ghastly sex scene between Elizabeth and Paul, in which she basically comes out and says "I must deprive the sex act of all spontaneity or joy, for I am an emotionally stunted control freak", and the person I was sitting with leaned over and said, "Do you think it will cut to [Character X] dying," and it did exactly that all of ten seconds later, and I had to bite my hand, hard, to keep from breaking up laughing.

And then, a bit more than half-way through, Mother and Child suddenly becomes a completely different movie, heralded by an unexpected jump forward one year (that leaves some important character moments in the ether), and all of a sudden Elizabeth and Karen are rich, textured characters - gone is Bening's autopilot bile-spitting and Watts's dagger stare, replaced by a sensitive, nuanced depiction of two women torn apart by loss and uncertainty. In this new movie, Lucy turns into a chorus of sorts, commenting upon and slowly starting to leach into the other women's stories. All of a sudden, the film is emotionally complex and true, and indeed, Bening and Watts are suddenly as brilliant as you could hope for, although I still think Washington has the best-in-show honors. Even the camera, which García had previously directed with studied indifference and blandness, becomes an active participant in the film, as our spatial relationships with the characters begin to have serious ramifications for how we relate to them.

Even this second half has some issues: that García understands adoption solely as a vehicle for making people feel a withering sense of loss is problematic at least, as is the suggestion that motherhood is the single rewarding aspect of being a woman. Plus, the ending is so contrived it makes your teeth ache. But most of this neo-Mother and Child earns every turn and emotional gut-punch; it is an honest, and noble look at human sorrow that is as moving as anything likely to come out this summer.

Here's the question, then: does the excellence of the second part make up for the rancid, unintentionally campy opening? Does the fact that I now know that Karen and Elizabeth become rich, troubling figures forgive how much time they spent as cartoon banshees? Not for me, though perhaps others would be more forgiving (it seems in fact that plenty of others are so forgiving, they don't even note the film-wrecking problems I have with the first hour and change). Goodwill is earned, not given, and if a film is going to spend that much time sucking, a great ending just isn't as impressive. There's a lot to love in Mother and Child, but it's buried beneath too much ludicrous crap to make it worth the effort to ferret it out.

6/10

STUDIO GHIBLI: POM POKO (TAKAHATA, 1994)

Through the end of 1993, it would be possible to make a certain generalisation about the films produced by Studio Ghibli, that would go something like this: Miyazaki Hayao directs fantasies, everybody else directs realistic stories. That neat dichotomy came screeching to a halt in 1994, when Ghibli's second-most prolific director, Takahata Isao, gave the world Pom Poko, although its non-realism takes a very distinctive form. Nor, admittedly, is the film altogether out of keeping with Takahata's previous output: another way of describing the non-Miyazaki Ghibli features is "serious stories taking place in the real world", and incredibly enough, this describes Pom Poko to a T, talking animals be damned.

The English title of the film is wildly undescriptive; a bit better is the customary alternate title The Raccoon War, though this introduces its own problems. At any rate, neither of them has a patch on the Japanese original, which Wikipedia helpfully translates as "Heisei-Era Tanuki War Ponpoko", which tells us plenty: for a start, the "X-Era" suggests a story taking place in the land of legends and myth, recalling so many of the splendidly overwrought Japanese movie titles of the '30s and '40s, stories about samurai and geisha and the like in the days before Western powers forcibly took some of the tradition out of Japanese life. And, too, the title reveals the first joke, if a joke it is: for the legendary Heisei Era happens to be our era, and it began in 1989.

As for the confusion between "raccoon" and "tanuki", that's sadly more a matter of playing to the audience's ignorance; a tanuki is a canid found on the islands of Japan, and the most sensible translation of its name (since using the Japanese word for a Japanese animal is plainly an unreasonable demand on native speakers of English) would be "raccoon dog". The people responsible for translating Heisei tanuki gassen ponpoko into English - those delightful folk at Disney - concluded that it was best to assume that children wouldn't care if the animals were simply called "raccoons", to make things easier and more familiar. This despite the fact that the tanuki prominently appears as the second-best power-up in the iconic Super Mario Bros. 3, the second-highest selling video game of its generation.

But we were talking about Pom Poko, allegedly ("pom poko", by the way, is the sound a tanuki makes when it uses its large belly as a drum). The film, which Takahata allegedly wrote when Miyazaki informed him that Ghibli needed to make a film about tanuki, concerns a population of those animals living in the Tama Hills just outside of Tokyo, whose common way of live is interrupted, violently, by the arrival in the 1960s of suburban development. By the dawn of the 1990s, the Tama tanuki have fallen into internal warfare, scrabbling over the few remaining resources; but then the wisest and oldest among them suggest that their energies would be better spent fighting the human menace, and retaking Tama for nature. So begins a years-long guerrilla war against the land developers, with the tanuki using every single trick they know.

And they know a considerable number of tricks. Tanuki, it seems, are omnipresent in Japanese folklore, and the short version of the many things said about them is that they are held to be shape-shifting tricksters, able to take any form, and who can use their large scrotums in all sorts of applications; yet they are too good-natured and easily-distracted to use this ability to do harm. It would thus seem that the general arc of Pom Poko is that a pocket of untouched ancient Japan, threatened by the encroaching crush of Westernised culture, is forced to alter its primary characteristics (traditionally, tanuki would never attempt to war with humans) in order to remain alive in the face of modernism. This comes close to being spelled out on multiple occasions; a wise old tanuki visiting from the island of Shikoku is aghast at the fact that near Tokyo, people no longer venerate the animals or the local gods.

The tendency of "progress" to wreak havoc with tradition and nature was already old hat for Ghibli: nearly all of Miyazaki's films have a similar pro-conservation theme. But Miyazaki could never have directed Pom Poko: it is harsher and grimmer than his films tend towards. When Miyazaki depicts the grandeur and unexplored vistas of folklore, it's generally to express wonder, amazement, and delight (as in My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away), while as Takahata depicts the same kind of grandeur, it's to impress upon us the weight of centuries, and the gravity of the story. No film about shape-shifting canids with huge gonads can manage to be humorless, of course, and Pom Poko is all-round a much more fun movie than either Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday, Takahata's earlier films with Ghibli. But there is a stark undertone to what happens that sets the film apart from Miyazaki's generally more playful approach to animation.

Ah yes, the animation. Following upon Only Yesterday, with its conflicting color palettes referring to different time periods, Takahata continued to experiment with form and representation in animation in Pom Poko, primarily but not only in the depiction of the tanuki themselves. There are three ways the animals are depicted, depending upon the context of the moment, and Takahata simply throws them at us without explanation (though it is explained early on that tanuki are bipedal when humans aren't around), and this unexplained crush of competing represenation serves to make the beginning of the film a fairly ecstatic experience of borderline-surrealism.

First, there is the realistic depiction of the tanuki in their animal form.

Then, there is the depiction - far and away the most common in the movie - of anthropomorphic tanuki; this is the predominate version of them because it is the most appealing and relatable, a cartoon spiked with realistic movement and shape, the version of the tanuki we humans are likeliest to respond to.

Finally, there is the soft, supremely cartoonish version of the animals whenever they are in a state of absent-mindedness or befuddlement; caused either by their reveries of eating, or by moments of bliss, or by getting a good thwack. This design was specifically inspired by the work of manga artist Sugiura Shigeru, whose work Takahata admired.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this mish-mash of styles could be terribly confused and wandering, but Takahata uses it to guide our emotions through what turns out to be a rigorous, demanding narrative, deeply rooted in folkloric traditions that most Westerners probably know little about - certainly, I had to do no small amount of research to make heads or tails of the movie. Pom Poko does not stop to explain itself, and in this it's not unlike Miyazaki's later Shinto-heavy films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away; but the sheer wealth of allusion in Takahata's film makes it that much more daunting, although it's intensely rewarding if you do the homework - or, presumably, if you were raised with Japanese folkloric traditions.

Again, this it most heavily the case in the opening sequence of the film, where Takahata seems almost gleefully eager to make sure that we can't keep up. It's exhilarating to make the attempt, though, for some of the best parts of Pom Poko are those in which the real world and folklore collide in messy, dizzying ways. There's an extended scene in the second half that exemplifies this: the tanuki have all combined their energies to create a goblin parade in the streets of the city pressing hard upon their forest, and for several minutes the plot essentially shuts down to present the spectacle of traditional monsters walking the streets of a blandly contemporary city.

It's the moment that best encapsulates what seems to me the central message of Pom Poko: the conflict between the values of the past and the present, and the resultant destruction of things that matter in the name of human expansion. But it is certainly not the only moment, and it's arguably not the most memorable, visually, if only because some of the other shots are so intensely unusual. This shot from early in the film, of a leaf being devoured by tiny aphid-like earth movers, isn't even the most surreal image in the sequence it comes from, but it gets at what I'm talking about: Takahata's visual dramatisation of his pro-environment, pro-tradition themes with bold, unexpected imagery.

In the end, if Pom Poko is a tremendously moving film - and it is, though perhaps not as moving as Takahata's earlier Ghibli features (what could be as moving as Grave of the Fireflies, after all?) - it's not ultimately because of the intelligence of the message, but its sincerity, and the characters used to present the story. Humanism was then, as ever, the watchword of the studio, and this depiction of rampant progress destroying beautiful things wouldn't mean half as much if we weren't made to feel the love the tanuki have for their land and each other; but I'll leave the specifics as a discovery for the viewer. Save to say that, even if the heroes are magic raccoon dogs, they are still wonderfully-etched people, whose tribulations form the backbone of an excellent contribution to Ghibli's legacy of pro-environment fables about the magic of the natural world and the emptiness of crowded cities. Pom Poko is not quite a masterpiece, but it's grand and rich and epic, a heady movie whose talking animal trappings do not even begin to suggest its potency.

25 May 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: POST-MODERN FANTASY

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: a whip-smart fractured fairy tale that did the ironic fantasy thing long before Shrek Forever After was even a glint in an executive's eye.

There are certain works of art which become, through time, the sacred texts of a generation: most beloved sitcoms, for example, or Pet Sounds, the Harry Potter books, the '50s films of Marlon Brando, and so forth. For my particular cohort, born in the United States alongside the VCR and cable television, one of the most important cinematic objects we possess is the 1987 romantic comedy-adventure The Princess Bride - a movie generally well-received by everybody who's ever seen it, but given the august profile of a universal cultural touchstone by those of a certain age. Which makes this a little more daunting for me than just writing another movie review. It's more like a Biblical exegesis.

Like most things encountered in childhood that survive adult re-evaluation, The Princess Bride is a great deal subtler and richer than I'd have known to give it credit for when I was six - the difference perhaps between finding the fast-talking bald guy amusing, and being helplessly delighted by a movie that made a whole generation fall unwittingly in love with Wallace Shawn. Or Mandy Patinkin, or Peter Falk. My point being, there's a difference between watching a movie and being dazzled by its surface elements (this is the obvious goal of all mainstream entertainment, and it is sometimes cheap and tawdry and sometimes extraordinary and revelatory), and being aware that e.g. that's "My" in My Dinner with Andre, and he gets a Vietnam joke on top of it. One of the most gratifying things about The Princess Bride is returning every couple of years to find that, in fact, director Rob Reiner and writer William Goldman (adapting his own novel) were making an inordinately smart and sly motion picture, one that has enough simple pleasures to succeed as one of the better popcorn movies of its decade, with enough subversion hiding in its veins that it can hold up to far more intellectual puffery than most of its stablemates.

Not that the film couldn't just be a great popcorn movie, mind. The 1980s were a bit of a wasteland for cinema generally, but the one thing that nobody can take away from the decade is that it was a truly excellent era for high-concept comedies. It's incredibly difficult to imagine a movie like The Princess Bride getting made today; the kinds of filmmakers who specialise in romantic comedy aren't the kind who specialise in family-friendly adventure, and neither kind tends to specialise in films that are remotely good in any way. It has never been clear to me why, since the end of the 1970s, film comedy has suffered from such a widespread deflation of technical quality: virtually no comedies, however funny they are, are made with the same level of skill and competence of even a very unendurable drama. But that change hadn't completely happened yet in '87, and Reiner was at any rate not a comedy director, nor an adventure director, nor a family director, but simply a very good filmmaker, who elected to make this particular movie, and to make it as well as he might.

And yet, I can't go very far down that path before running into a brick wall, because in a certain sense, The Princess Bride isn't a "well-made" movie at all - in a certain sense, it is in fact a very clumsy, weird movie, and I'm sure that Reiner and Goldman were very deliberate in their choices that it should be that way. If you have not had the pleasure (God forbid!), or simply haven't seen it in a while, the film's plot goes a bit like this: in the medieval Ruritanian kingdom of Florin, a peasant girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn, without the Penn in those days) falls in love with a farm worker named Westley (Cary Elwes), who travels to find his fortune. He is lost at sea to the Dread Pirate Roberts, and Buttercup, as the loveliest girl in Florin, is taken in betrothal by Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). Shortly after their engagement is announced, she is kidnapped by the nasty Sicilian mercenary Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and his henchmen Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (André René Roussimoff, better known by his professional wrestling name André the Giant), who is planning to frame Florin's traditional enemy Guilder and begin a war between the two nations. In this he is thwarted by a man dressed all in black who starts to follow the kidnappers' boat, and later tracks them across land.

That gets us pretty damn close to 30 minutes into a 98-minute movie, and it's a chaotic and unformed a first act as you could hope to find - at the very least, there is no standard guide to screenwriting in all the world that would have let Goldman get by with any of what he did here. In this sequence, we have no protagonist to speak of: hindsight tells us that the man in black, who is revealed to be Westley, back to save his true love from the slimy prince, is our hero throughout, but nothing - nothing - about the presentation of a single moment prior to his revelation of his identity to Buttercup indicates that we're supposed to be rooting for him. Partially, this is for intensely pragmatic reasons: later on, Inigo and Fezzik are going to be made heroes themselves, and it's a much easier thing to do if we get to know them and like them in the beginning, which leads to something of a trifurcated protagonist. But then again, Vezzini gets as much screentime as any of the others, and he's dead by the film's one-third mark. No protagonist, then; which somewhat naturally means there aren't any stakes, since we don't know that we dislike Buttercup's abductors more or less than the prince (who is obviously bad news from the word "go"), or if we like them more or less than the man in black, and Buttercup herself is a profound cipher, who we've barely learned to identify by sight by the time that the plot kicks in (The Princess Bride, in case you've forgotten, is one hell of a fast-moving film).

It's sloppy, and it's absolutely brilliant - so let's all be grateful that Goldman was a genius who didn't need to bother with rules (by this point, an incomplete list of his great work would include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Stepford Wives, and All the President's Men). The other thing that we've been introduced to by the end of the first act is the story of a sick young boy (Fred Savage) and his grandfather (Peter Falk), who's come to read him the classic S. Morgenstern story The Princess Bride (Goldman here reiterating his game that he was the redactor of a much longer, better fantasy novel). All told, there's not very much of this frame narrative - certainly less than ten minutes by the end of the film, and it can't be much more than five - but it's tremendously important, more than I think it usually gets credit for. This fact is easily overlooked: we are not watching the story of Buttercup and Westley. We are watching a filtered version of the story being told (with occasional, snotty interruptions) to an obviously sarcastic old man to a young boy, and the old man takes no small delight in twitting the boy, though most of his asides seem to fly over the kid's head. Parts of the story are abridged or skipped, and the narrator twice kills the momentum of the internal story's emotional drive solely to irritate the boy, who has expressed a certain smug superiority over the material. In both cases, the boy is forced to confess that he's so into the story that his grandfather was right, and he was wrong. And it's for this reason, I think, that the story begins so fitfully: Goldman, adopting the grandfather's position, is placing us in the boy's place, daring us to call him out on the frankly artless presentation of some of the material, when we find ourselves too caught up in the individual beats to care if it "works" (in that way, my question, "Who is the protagonist?" relates to the boy's interjections that such-and-such a plot point doesn't make sense: shut up and pay attention, says the grandfather/Goldman, it'll all come together). The Princess Bride is as much a commentary on the lack of real-world grounding of traditional fairy tales as it is a traditional fairy tale itself, and thus becomes something of a brilliant post-modern text about generic convention.

In keeping with this idea, Reiner presents the material in a mixture of the hyper-real and the patently false, such that the film keeps bouncing back and forth between locations in the English and Irish countryside and obvious sets, without our being able to comfortably settle into the film's "reality". This is most readily seen in the duel between Inigo and Westley on the cliff-top: you can't put your finger on what's "off" about the setting, but there's something wrong about it. The lighting has a lot to do with it; so does the convenient placement of rock formations to maximize the possibilities of the fight choreography.

But as I said, all of this brilliant, difficult matter of the film stressing its own fiction, and pointing out the ridiculousness of its genre (with lots of obviously-capitalised idiotic place-names like the "Cliffs of Insanity", "Fire Swamp", "Pit of Despair", and a great many traditional characters like the evil albino and the local magician played as modernist parodies), is merely the film's way of forcing us to concede that yeah, it's still all very exciting and romantic and fun. The Princess Bride is still a great fantasy, even as it is a great deconstruction of fantasy, anchored by some excellent performances of characters who are just about aware that they're archetypes but can't quite come out and say it. All the distancing effects in the world can't keep the fairytale from working, and in this respect, the filmmakers seem almost to be patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves for having made a story so entirely watchable that the audience cannot help but fall in love with it. I'll let them have their victory: for The Princess Bride is surely a masterpiece of adventure-comedy-romance filmmaking even in the age when that weird subgenre was at its peak. "It's as real as the feelings I feel" croons Willy DeVille in the movie's annoyingly memorable theme song, and that's the experience in a nutshell: so damn fake, but it grabs you anyway, and you can't do a thing to stop it.

24 May 2010

THE SUMMER OF BLOOD GETS NASTY

In years past, this blog has been the home to an annual summer-long festival of American slasher films: whether it's film-by-film analyses of the biggest franchises or a historically wide-ranging grab-bag, the Summer of Blood has become one of the most beloved signature items in this blog's repertoire.

Hopefully, then, it won't be too much of a shock to everyone's system if I do something different this year. One can only watch so many slashers before they start to lose their charm, y'see, and if I didn't shake things up a bit, I'd probably grab a knife and start hacking horny teenagers apart.

Ironically enough, though, the slasher film still had quite a lot to do with the subject for this year's fest. See, if it wasn't for the explosion of slasher movies in the early 1980s, then violent horror films wouldn't have had such a prominent face, and they wouldn't have been blamed for every damn act of violence perpetrated in the anglophone world for a decade.

But that's not the only explanation for why, beginning in 1982, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland engaged in the most famous, comprehensive act of government censorship of a movie genre in history. It was in those days that the British Board of Film Classification and the Director of Public Prosecutions pursued with dogged intensity the removal of "obscenely" violent movies from the nation's video stores, under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, using as their Most Wanted an ever-changing list of movie that either had been banned in some jurisdiction or another, or which the DPP wanted very much to get banned. This list, initially made as a guideline for video store owners to ascertain whether they owned contraband movies, became known as the Video Nasties.

21 May 2010

SHREK AND FORTH

A series of rattletrap Disney parodies put out by DreamWorks Animation whenever they need quick access an amount of ready cash greater than the gross domestic product of any given African nation, the Shrek films have never exactly been my cup of tea: they're snitty rather than clever, they shoulder most of the responsibility for the wholly unforgivable trend of using pop songs in place of narrative signifiers in children's cinema, they persist in aiming two very different (and equally insipid) sets of jokes at kids and parents even after the rest of the same studio's output has grown out of that habit, and despite some very handsome design, they suffer from behind-the-curve animation that never looks nearly as polished as the other release from the same studio in the same year, and is never half as good as Pixar's film from two years prior.

But even coming from that perspective, I can appreciate that 2007's Shrek the Third was a fairly massive step down in quality from the first two films: a bald cash-grab of the highest order, with little in the way of an actual story that served as anything other than an opportunity to run through established characters like items on a checklist. So this much, at least, is undeniably true: Shrek Forever After is is certainly not as bad as it could have been. The ostensibly final film in the Shrek franchise (which I'll believe the moment that everybody involved is dead, and not a second before) may not be especially funny; it may not have any tremendously compelling reason to exist; the story may be put together like a scarecrow, crudely patched together pieces that keep threatening to fall apart; everybody involved in the cast may sound like they could barely keep their eyes open for the recording session; but by God, it's not as dispiriting as Shrek the Third. At least I can tell you what the story consisted of, and I surely could not do the same for the last one.

The story, just so you know, is the latest in a tremendously long list of It's a Wonderful Life knock-offs, although it has enough distracting decoration on the edges (and a marvelously CBS sitcom-worthy inciting incident) to keep that fact from being incredibly obvious. Following the events of all those other movies, the ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) has settled into a comfortable life of domesticity in his swamp in the land of Far Far Away, living with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), raising triplets, and enjoying the company of his friends Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas). It's all too comfortable, in fact, and Shrek longs for the days when he was a feared monster, coming to a head at his children's first birthday, where he essentially walks out on his family, and meets the scheming dwarf Rumpelstiltskin (Shrek the Third co-writer Walt Dohrn). Unluckily for the ogre, the dwarf has a longstanding grievance against him; he'd have taken over the kingdom years ago if not for Shrek's heroism, which is why he couches a plot to wink Shrek out of history inside an offer to live like a real ogre for just one more day. Cue a universe where Shrek never existed, and everything has gone to hell, and in the process of fixing everything, our hero learns that he already had everything he needed to make his life happy, in the form of his beautiful wife (who in this universe is the leader of an ogre resistance group against Rumpelstiltskin's witch army) and babies.

One can have, at best, only a very conditional love for a movie that all but opens with a scene that gleefully suggests that anyone living in a trailer park is, by definition, literally evil; and Shrek Forever After doesn't even shoot for conditional love. It's more of the exact same from the other movies, which mostly means a lot of anachronistic songs that nestle in comfortably alongside the anachronistic jokes about Los Angeles celebrity culture, plus some humor to the effect of, "hoho, ogres like to do gross things like fart and eat eyeballs!" Plus, the grown-ups in the audience are not merely invited, but practically forced, to confront the idea that Shrek and Fiona are having sex with each other. All of this is played to rather more degraded effect than anywhere in Shrek or Shrek 2, while not going out of its way to make you feel like an idiot for having paid to see it (and probably paid a premium, at that: the film is being heavily pushed, like every other computer-animated feature nowadays, in that fancy 3-D that everybody's so hot about; there's no reason whatsoever to bother, as it's neither gaudy nor immersive. I mostly forgot I was even watching it in 3-D). This is the nature and presumed appeal of sequels, of course: you liked it before, you'll like it again.

Maybe yes, maybe no. As Shreks go, Forever After has a borderline-sturdy story that doesn't hang together tremendously well - it's your pretty basic "we need the plot to move, so all these convenient things must happen" job - but then only the first one really had that. More damningly, Rumpelstiltskin is a remarkably non-credible villain, bouncing about and preening and having nowhere in the vicinity of enough personality to carry a lunchpail, let alone a feature film (that he was played by a non-actor, while the other films had to make do with John Lithgow and Rupert Everett, obviously doesn't help) and the scenes where we have to just sit and watch him are easily the most painful in the movie. It's also painfully ill-acted: Diaz is a trainwreck (but then, she always has been), but she's joined by just about every returning regular, who all sound tired. Myers in particular delivers every line in the exact same tone of voice, which is not exactly "flat" but certainly not at all lively. There aren't many newcomers, but it's kind of swell that the producers cast the magnificent Jane Lynch and then gave her... four lines? Maybe more. At least she gets a paycheck.

On the other side, the film is genuinely beautiful: the best-looking Shrek film without a doubt. There are scenes set in a forest at sunset that look about as good as anything in any animated film of the last couple of years, and the character animation is fluid and relaxed, far beyond the other movies in the series, which were rather distractingly notable for the stiff, mannequin like figures they tried to pass off as characters (it helps that Forever After has virtually no realistic human characters, except for crowd shots and cameos). So at least it has plenty of eye candy, if that's your bag. It makes it easy to get through the roughest patches of shrieking "jokes" and boilerplate mock-fantasy.

The thing about these Shrek movies, though, is that even though I don't like them at all, they're just not offensive enough to really dislike them (though this film's incredibly pushy "YOU HAVE KIDS THAT IS THE ONLY THING YOU NEED TO BE FULFILLED IN LIFE" rants, one of them phrased in nearly those words, are a little bit offensive). They're so commercial, is the thing, so eager to make money that you just have to shrug and say, "yeah, mercantilism, what can you do?" and move on with your life. Pretty much the most genuinely unpleasant aspect of the movie is that it undoes all the goodwill DreamWorks earned earlier this year for the elegant, delightful How to Train Your Dragon, a film that reveals just how shallow Shrek Forever After and its fast food approach to family entertainment truly is.

5/10