30 June 2010

A WOMAN IS A WOMAN

I Am Love, a film birthed out of years and years of conversations between actress Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino, is a basket of contradictions: it is at once a heaving mess of hugely melodramatic situations and emotions and visual cues that are at times presented with inordinate subtlety, and it all hinges on a performance that feels at times over-thought and stiff, except that the character herself is constantly performing, and not always well, meaning that a stiff performance is actually the best possible way to evoke the woman's place in her world.

Of course, it's Swinton herself playing the lead, a Russian woman named Emma who years ago married into the fantastically wealthy Milanese Recchi family, a textile dynasty. We meet her after many years in the Recchi fold, right around the turn of the millennium, at about the moment that the paterfamilias Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti) is retiring, leaving his company in the hands of his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandsons Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti). From there on, things just get as complex as all hell, with Emma and Tancredi's daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) returning from a sojourn in England and France, having just discovered that she's a lesbian; while the younger Edoardo has a friend that he's busy showing off to the family, Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini), a great chef whose meat catches Emma's eye, if you know what I mean. If you don't, I am using a bawdy pun for his penis.

Even if I wanted to explain what happens in I Am Love, I'm not absolutely certain that I could; the film holds back a lot of plot information, instead privileging moments of outstanding emotion and feeling. No, that's not even quite right: it privileges moments of sensory perception. For those of us tired of movies shot the same old way, with lots of medium-width shot/reverse shots interspersed with some two-shots and close-ups, I Am Love has novelty squarely on its side, at the very least, and "novelty" almost doesn't go far enough to describe the crazy visionary madness that Guadagnino and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux bring to bear. I almost can't put into word how borderline insane their use of camera movements and offscreen space is, framing the movie's sets from a perspective that seems resolutely unyoked to any particular character; it as though the camera is some kind of alien force muscling its way onto set and peering around madly at everything interesting from wildly unexpected corners. For as much as it is about anything, I Am Love is about the way things look, capturing the exquisite sets (the production was designed by Francesca Balestra Di Mottola, the sets decorated by Monica Sironi) and costumes (by Antonella Cannarozzi) with infinite texture and tactility; to say nothing of how pornishly the filmmakers capture the fine details of the gourmet food prepared by Antonio (I Am Love gives Ratatouille serious competition, visually anyway, as the most foodie-friendly motion picture of the last ten years), or of Swinton and Gabbriellini's naked bodies, captured in devastatingly microscopic detail during their first ecstatic lovemaking session: it's not even erotic, really, but a heavily stylised representation that's at once both impressionistic and expressionistic (and, for good measure, intercut with minute close-ups of plants and insects - it sound corny as shit, and maybe it is, but for my tastes it worked wonderfully).

"The visual depiction of the ecstatic"; that might be the best and only way I can sum up the film's effect in one pithy phrase. We are carried into the picture on Emma's shoulders - though it is not the case that I Am Love is a character study as we usually mean it - and she is a woman who is perpetually outside the hermetic, old-money Ricchi's; however much she tries to love the family, she is never of them, which we find in the very first sequence, as she plans Edoardo senior's birthday party. She acts like hired help; moreover, the only person besides her children that she genuinely seems to connect with is the hired help, the housekeeper Ida (Maria Paiato). Swinton's performance threads a fine needle: mannered in a way that is somewhat frustrating and off-putting, yet it perfectly describes the emotional staleness that Emma feels in the face of her husband's world - for example, her shaky Italian is obvious and distracting, until we wonder how much of it is the actress and how much is the character. It is a bit alienating, compared to some of her great, fleshy performances in the likes of Michael Clayton and Julia; but demanding that Swinton performs at the level of her work in Julia every time is grotesquely unfair (it must be pointed out, that while Emma is the protagonist, the rest of the Recchi clan is depicted with a great deal of precision both in the screenplay, and in the hands of a great cast).

The main thrust of the story, then, is the birth of passion; this is what Emma and her children experience in their own ways, and what happens to them threatens to bring the Recchi family to ruin. But the decline of a wealthy family is not the purpose of I Am Love, rather it is to present in richly cinematic terms the burgeoning awareness of deep emotions, as stimulated by love, or by great food, or by whatever. Hence the odd, emphatic cinematography and the darting, jerky editing; hence the thundering soundtrack, plucking from here and there but mostly from the work of the excellent contemporary American composer John Adams (who is sometimes unfairly thought of as the lesser-known Philip Glass, though his work is in a much bolder, operatic register), who provides some original compositions as well. It is broad and obvious; yet it is tightly controlled most of the time, so tightly that it hardly seems fair to call it a melodrama.

The time that isn't most of the time finds Guadagnino overplaying his hand and pushing I Am Love from glorious, humanist bigness into sheer messiness; though even the messiness has a grandeur that is seductive in its own way. Still, its at these points that we start to notice that the emperor's clothes are a bit on the translucent side. It seems impossible to avoid comparing I Am Love to Lucino Visconti's The Leopard, even though the two films have very little in common besides a wealthy old family being destroyed by personal crises; yet while that film carefully frames its melodrama in a wide-ranging historical context, I Am Love makes no pretensions to context or society, despite its very deliberate chronological placement. Even the other 2009 Italian melodrama that casts its narratives in throbbing operatic terms, Vincere, manages to "mean" more than I Am Love - though really, what more does it need to mean than presenting the glorious moment when closed-off people learn how to feel? And so back to where we started: I Am Love heaves with emotion, yet it is mechanical and formally precise; it is warm and chilly in the same breath; it is crazy and over-the-top, and yet even its worst moments are hopelessly magnetic. It is grand opera, cinema style; and I have never yet had a bad word for opera.

9/10

29 June 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: WITH A LITTLE SEX IN IT

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the notion of trying to appeal to both the menfolk and the wimminfolk by combining romantic comedy and action-adventure goes back farther than Knight and Day. To prove it, let's take a look at one of the best high-concept hits from that glorious heyday of the high-concept, the 1980s.

There is an almost embarrassing wealth of anecdotes or conceptual frameworks that one could use to begin a review of Romancing the Stone. One could describe how it miraculously created Robert Zemeckis's career from a whole lot of nothing, even as all the Hollywood pundits were convinced that it would be the third strike that would send him packing back to the Midwestern backwater that he came from. One could relate the sad tale of writer Diane Thomas, a struggling screenwriter working as a waitress who pitched the idea to a mostly unknown producer and actor named Michael Douglas, and whose promising future career was cut brutally short when she died in a car accident the year after Romancing the Stone premiered. You could position it in the grand flowering of Raiders of the Lost Ark clones in the early-to-mid 1980s (though it was written before that film's premiere). Or point out that it's yet another in the tradition of movies whose shoots were generally unpleasant for most everyone involved, and yet all that misery paid of in a handsomely successful movie that hums as entertainment.

Instead, I'm just going to start by saying: Romancing the Stone, what a damn fun movie it is. Not especially smart, not especially innovative. But every inch of it is blazingly entertaining, and that, ultimately, is what we are allowed to ask of popcorn movies, non? Moreover, "smart" and "innovative" have their place, but so too does "immaculately well-crafted", and it's much too easy to forget that, for most of his career, Zemeckis has been a sterling cinematic craftsmen, whose movies rarely if ever startle with an unexpected moment of poetry or magic in the way of his mentor, Steven Spielberg, yet at the same time possess a confident perfection all their own, classical Hollywood filmmaking used at its brightest and surest.

In the beginning, in the Old West, there is a menacing gunslinger (Ted White) preparing to rob, rape, and probably shoot a beautiful woman named Angelina (Kym Herrin) in a remote cabin in the desert. She manages to throw a dagger into his chest and escape, but his relatives are just about to capture her, when a handsome cowboy named Jessie (Bill Burton) swoops in and saves her, gathering her in his arms and kissing her passionately. At this moment, we skip to New York, 1984, where Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is bawling over the perfection of the moment she has just created - for Joan is a novelist, and the story of Angelina and Jessie was all in her head. See what I mean, that the movie isn't startling? How many freaking films open with a fake-out scene that turns out to be the real protagonist's fantasy? Yet it's handled brilliantly, with over-the-top dialogue and melodrama in the Western scenes that contrasts well with Joan's outsized appreciation for her own artistry (which we instantly read, correctly, as her desperate romanticism).

Then follows a short collection of shots: the bawling Joan grabs for a tissue, but the box is empty; she runs to the bathroom, but she's out of toilet paper; she goes to the kitchen (still sobbing), and has no paper towels. She then spots a note on the refrigerator: "Buy tissue". At a loss, she grabs it and uses it to blow her nose. Again, nothing earth-shattering, but it could not be executed with more perfect comic timing: the exact length of shots and exact positioning of inserts is flawless, building the gag's momentum, using comedies Rule of Three and then quietly, wonderfully violating it, and doing so in a way that establishes character with a bang: it seems that Joan goes through this exact process (write something goopily romantic, fall into pieces from it) way too often.

And functionally, that's how Romancing the Stone is going to play it for the rest of its 106 minutes: each tiny moment is funny, nor could it be any funnier, and it makes us understand and like the characters a little bit more than we did just a moment ago. The deft hand that would lead to the subsequent Zemeckis projects Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit standing proud as two of the most impeccable Hollywood films of their era - impeccable by any standard, not just popcorn movie standards - is already on full display (and truth be told, was already present in his earlier features, I Want to Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, which are slight but at least good enough to deserve rediscovery some day), and even if Romancing the Stone isn't miraculous enough to win any plaudits as the best of the year or what have you, it's a pretty crackerjack bit of filmmaking anyway.

This wouldn't matter very much if the story and characters weren't up to the top-notch craft that the filmmakers expend on them, of course; that is the limitation of really excellent classical-style filmmaking. Luckily, then, Thomas's screenplay (massaged by script doctors) is pretty darn playful and fun all by itself: it drifts so slowly from outright comedy to outright adventure, with a feint back towards comedy (and always romantic, from the opening scene to the last shot), that it never feels contrived; it is indeed one of the most organic adventure-comedies of the last 30 years. What happens, if you're unfortunate enough to have missed this one, is that Joan's sister (Mary Ellen Trainor), in Colombia looking for her missing and probably dead husband, gets herself kidnapped by two idiot antiquities smugglers, the cousins Ralph (Danny DeVito) and Ira (Zack Norman). They get in touch with Joan, demanding that she come to Colombia with a treasure map which she just got in the mail from her late brother-in-law, and she flies over promptly, followed by a mysterious figure we'll later learn is Colonel Zolo (Manuel Ojeda), a government official with a private army who wants the treasure map himself.

In Colombia, Joan gets misdirected into the jungle, and all seems to be at its worst, until she is saved by a heroic figure whose profile reminds her, down to the crumpled hat, of her beloved fantasy boyfriend, Jessie: except that Jack Colton (Michael Douglas, who also produced) is not nearly as romantic as the fictional cowboy. In fact he's a jerk, who at first looks at Joan and sees only dollar signs, which is why he agrees to help her find her sister. And the treasure, though he keeps that detail to himself.

Jack doesn't appear until surprisingly late in the game: nearly a quarter of the way into the movie. But once he does, Romancing the Stone turns into one of the most sparkling romantic adventure-comedies of the decade, and the 1980s were weirdly saturated with the things. As much as Thomas's screenplay gives Joan and Jack lots of genuinely good banter, and Zemeckis keeps the film upbeat and rollicking, most of the credit for this success has to go to Turner and Douglas, and considering how easily we could have ended up with neither of them in the film, it seems right to assume that Destiny Itself wanted Romancing the Stone to turn out well. Turner, already a hot commodity thanks to Body Heat, hated Zemeckis's shooting style, but stuck it out because she was a damn professional. Douglas, hardly on the A-list at the time, only took the role because he couldn't get anyone else interested; he was repaid by becoming a proper movie star. Together, their chemistry is electrifying, hypnotic, scintillating, all those adjectives that people use to describe to people onscreen who really, really have to make out right at this very second because it would be hot.

And not for nothing, but each of them gives a pretty outstanding performance individually: Turner, one of the highest-profile performers of the '80s and one of the most dreadfully under-appreciated since then, was at her very best as Joan, capturing the very essence of the glib, naïve romantic who just wants a man to take her away and love her; and then, when she finds that the man of her dreams is a piece of work, she begins to slowly figure out how to be her own woman for the first time in forever (in effect, she has the precise opposite character arc of Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, reflecting maybe the difference between having a female screenwriter, and having Spielberg and Lucas). She even manages to convince us, in the early scenes, that she lives a drab and plain live, despite the fact demonstrated in this very same film that you can't put enough flannel and ugly hair on Kathleen Turner to make her look any less than smoking hot.

Douglas, meanwhile, plays the same character he would continue to play for two decades: the intensely charming jackass (here, at least, he learns better by the end; this did not always happen). And since Douglas still acts, and still plays the charming jackass regularly, it requires little explanation to say why it works. But in '84, that wasn't his shtick yet; in '84 it was fresh and exciting, and all these years later it's still fresher than most of his subsequent attempts at the same basic character.

Romancing the Stone is such a breezy treat for so much of its length that I feel bad calling it out: but there are the usual issues with films of this genre, starting with its incredibly flippant treatment of non-white, non-Americans: the Noo Yawk smugglers are comic villains subject to slapstick, while the Latino crimelord is a real threat who accordingly gets a gruesome end. (I am undecided about Alfonso Arau's Juan, a crackpot thief in the brush who adores Joan's novels and is perhaps the most gleefully absurd ingredient in the whole movie). It's also hard to stomach the film's refusal to follow through on make Joan an action hero: after all the expected boilerplate about the prim city girl with too many clothes learning how to function and even thrive in the jungle - boilerplate, mind you, partially because this film set the template - she has to prove unable to save herself in the end, so that Jack can come in to save the day. In the film's defense, it's this moment that puts the cap on Jack's own character arc, so maybe the trade-off seemed worth it to the filmmakers. Still, couldn't they have found a way to do both?

That aside, Romancing the Stone is a grand example of the rarest combination of adventure, humor, and sexual chemistry which all crackle along with abandon; for that reason alone I must declare it to be one of the most entertaining movies of its generation. Look no further than it's dreadful sequel from the following year, The Jewel of the Nile, to see how badly some of the same material could be played in the hands of a lesser writer and director (just about the only part of that movie that doesn't suck air is the continued chemistry between Douglas and Turner, though even this is but a pale shadow). Though I am as guilty as anyone of using "entertaining" as a synonym for "pleasant and not at all good", let Romancing the Stone's dominance over its many imitators prove otherwise: a truly entertaining movie that works in every way is as hard to come by as the most artistically probing thing out there, and should be treated with just as much love and respect.

27 June 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: LADY VENGEANCE

Thus far into the great Summer of Blood '10 Video Nasties Extravaganza, you could be forgiven for assuming that the Video Nasties list was pretty much a bunch of hot air, trumped-up charges of obscene violence levied against movies that were mostly innocuous and badly-made, guilty perhaps of extreme bad taste (in the case of the many Nazisploitation films on the list) but hardly the sort of truly odious, vile cinema that deserves to be loudly and publicly censured.

Which is, of course, exactly what the Video Nasties were. They were scapegoats and whipping boys, raised to the level of national crisis by a reactionary government and society for what reason I can't figure out, but it was surely not because the United Kingdom was being plagued by ultra-violent slasher-style killings in 1982. I take it to be self-evident that a democratic nation has no right to make up censorship lists, but reasonable people can perhaps think otherwise; still, I assume we can all agree that a democratic nation in the censorship business has to be goddamn careful to only pick truly deserving works to censor.

Still, in attempt to be fair to the Director of Public Prosecutions, I thought the time had come to dredge up one of the really nasty Nasties: a film that, by all rights, is as wicked and unholy and immoral as all that. A title so notorious that its mere existence on VHS was one of the flashpoints for the beginning of the Nasties craze, the 1978 rape revenge picture I Spit on Your Grave.

Originally released in the US under the title Day of the Woman - which writer-director Meir Zarchi has always preferred, correctly noting that it is a hell of a lot less sensationalising - the film tanked at first; two years and a rechristening later, it became a tremendous flashpoint for controversy, cited by a number of critics - Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert being the most prominent - as the very embodiment of everything wrong with cinema today, defended by a tiny minority as a very unconventional feminist narrative, and seen by everybody in-between as the ultimate in extreme exploitation. This is what happens when you make your entire movie hinge on a 28-minute gang rape sequence.

Nuance, you might guess, is not a strength of I Spit on Your Grave. Virtually nothing happens in fact: a woman named Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton - Buster Keaton's granddaughter!) travels into the country from New York City, looking for a quiet place to write. She first attracts the attention of a sleazy gas station attendant, Johnny (Eron Tabor), then of an apparently developmentally-disabled grocery store delivery boy, Matthew (Richard Pace). Johnny, along with the equally slimy Stanley (Anthony Nichols) and Andy (Gunter Kleemann), begins to harass Jennifer at the remote cottage where she's staying; almost immediately contrives to drag her from her boat into the woods, where they and Matthew rape her for an afternoon. Matthew is sent back to murder her, but he can't; and after a couple of weeks, Jennifer is physically recovered enough to isolate and then kill each of the rapists. Which she does with great zeal.

First things first: it's not feminist. I would argue for it a number of specific virtues (yes, yes, huge surprise: of course I have a fair measure of regard for the movie I called "wicked and unholy and immoral"), but not feminism. It is a movie that has clearly been made by a man for a male audience, with too many concessions to the needs of the exploitative revenge thriller for it to begin to qualify as "feminist" by any meaningful definition: even if we can square Jennifer's inexplicable decision not to go to the police after her rape, even if we can excuse her transformation into a cool-as-a-cucumber assassin after her trauma; there'd still be no getting around the fact that she seduces two of the men before she kills them. I emphatically do not consider this a problem with the movie - but it's not feminism, and and the people out there waving their arms and saying "no, don't you get it, it's about empowerment!" are almost as annoying as the people declaiming it as the lowest kind of trash.

It is, however, a precise and damning indictment of male sexuality, perhaps the most stridently anti-masculine film ever made by a male filmmaker. The first scene we see with the men all together is a night-time fishing trip taken up with the crudest chatter imaginable, starting with a lengthy disquisition about shitting that turns into a troglodytic appreciation of how great it is to fuck women. Anyone who can leave this scene without hating the living daylights out of each and every one of these men is either infinitely more forgiving than I, or is themselves a leering, misogynistic rape fancier. Note, however, that these are the sole significant representation of men onscreen (there are two other men in the credits, neither of whom has so much as a line of dialogue). In the universe that I Spit on Your Grave presents, this is the only way that males can be: either barbarically sexual, or an imbecile who wants to be barbarically sexual.

Zarchi has already primed us for this. Very early indeed, he presents one of the hoariest scenes in exploitation cinema: Jennifer goes skinny dipping. Keaton strips down to nothing, and the camera hovers over her chest and head, and then zooms back to reveal her whole body. It's hard to express in words how odd this feels when you're looking at it: there's something listlessly functional about it, like the camera knows that we're here for the nudity (the film's idealised audience, once again, is unmistakably heterosexual and male), but doesn't especially respect us for it. It's a bland sort of ogling that goes on, and then the film cuts to another angle of Jennifer naked; this time, it zooms back what must be a couple hundred yards, all the way across the water. And this shot, with trees suddenly appearing between us and the bathing woman, can only possibly be read in one way: the viewer is suddenly, and forcibly, placed into the position of a Peeping Tom. The presumed gratification that comes from watching a nude woman in a movie is disconcertingly replaced with a sense that one is a pervert.

By far, the most piercing attack on male sexuality comes well after the rape itself: Jennifer has made her plans to kill her attackers, and in two cases, does so by acting as though she wants to have sex with them. This is psychological garbage, of course, but it serves its purpose: it demonstrates how the male's infatuation with his own virility can make him into the stupidest of all God's creatures. Especially in the scene where Jennifer springs her trap on Johnny, the alpha male among the rapists, he has every reason to believe that she wishes him pain and suffering; Matthew has been missing for a day; and yet, as he makes clear when he's begging for his life - she has a gun trained on him, though it's evident to us that she never really means to use it - he honestly believes that she must have enjoyed the rape. Because he cannot conceive of a world in which a dominant male's sexual prowess might possibly be unwelcome, especially to a woman who was so obviously "asking for it", wearing clothes more attractive than a nun's wimple, and sunbathing in a bikini in the yard of her extremely isolated cabin in the woods. That Jennifer lets him think that she's acquiescing to his charms is a cat playing with a mouse, and nothing but; and the romantic in me likes to assume that it's this moment of unbridled asshole misogyny that wins Johnny the most devastatingly nasty fate in the film: she cuts his penis off and he bleeds to death in a locked bathroom (Zarchi frames his death agonies so that it looks like he's ejaculating blood, just to cast his demise in sexual terms that much more).

So, anyway, I Spit on Your Grave pretty much hates men altogether, up to and including you, Mr. Man, who is watching this movie. Yeah, fuck you. And here, as we pretty much had to, we come to That Scene.

The rape is not exploitation, and that's that. I have no doubt that in all the years since the film was made, plenty of people, men and women, have found it erotic, but it is unmistakably clear that Zarchi is not sexualising the rape, and anyone who tries to claim otherwise is arguing in bad faith, period.

This gets us into the matter of, "Why do we see movies, anyway?" A good number of the film's harshest critics have framed their problems with it as one of intensely bad taste, finding it impossible that anyone would try to pass this kind of thing off as "entertainment". No shit! But did Zarchi ever claim that I Spit on Your Grave was meant to be entertaining? He absolutely did not; the idea for the film came one night after he helped a rape victim to a police station, where the police were worse than useless, and he was driven to tell a story of a woman getting her own justice. That's right: I Spit on Your Grave is a big ol' Message Picture.

But fun? Christ, no. I have now seen the movie twice - and I rather wish that I had not - and my responses to the various beats of the rape scene have included cringing, turning away, covering my face with my hands, fiddling with the remote. And not ever, for one frame, thinking, "Boy, I'm happy right now that I'm watching this". It's this bit that trips people up, not just about I Spit on Your Grave, but on a lot of movies that are about the intense suffering of human beings. "Why do you want to watch that?" asks the aghast observer. "What possible value could it have for you?" First off, nobody who asks that question ever gets to praise a Holocaust movie again. Second, it's the same exact reason: for 28 horrifying minutes - more horrifying by far than anything in most legitimate horror pictures - I can at least understand in the broadest outlines a human experience that I will never feel. Now, a movie can't express the feeling of being raped, any more than a movie can express the feeling of losing all your family in a Nazi death camp. But it can, in a way, make those things more real, turn it from a noble but absent "how sad that must be for you" into a visceral, and deeply felt, "you must be in unfathomable pain right now".

In other words: unpleasant things are a part of life, so unpleasant art must be made, for if art doesn't reflect every element of life, then art is a damned lie.

At any rate, the rape sequence is a fair masterpiece of filmmaking, given what it's depicting: Keaton's performance could not be improved upon, and Zarchi's framing is carefully chosen to emphasise the violence of what we are seeing and remove as much sex from it as possible. I somehow do not want to spend much time picking at these 28 minutes, even though they are immaculately-made; but having to endure it is quite enough for me, and then to go back and say, "let's take a shot-by-shot look at why it's so hard to endure it" seems like it would just be masochism.

So, just past the halfway, the movie turns into an early torture porno, with Jennifer offing the boys in very drawn-out plots; yet it at least has the merit of killing people that we assuredly want to see dead. And that's the part of I Spit on Your Grave that I think doesn't really get talked about enough: the way it makes the audience complicit in the second-half killings. We never occupy the rapists' POV, not once in the whole 101 minutes of the film; there are a few times that we see exactly what Jennifer sees, and the framing predominately favors her perspective. More to the point, it's very, very hard not to be delighted when she gets her bloody revenge, because by God she deserves it; and yet there is no clear moral authority involved. Jennifer makes not the slightest effort to pursue justice through legal channels, and while we can magic that away by remembering that I Spit on Your Grave takes place in a metaphor for how patriarchal societies destroy women, it still looks a lot like the real world, where vigilantes are not necessarily to be praised.

Let's go back to the emasculation scene: after cutting of Johnny's member, Jennifer turns on a Puccini aria, and sits rocking desperately as his screams fade away (Keaton's expression is magnificent here). It doesn't seem, in this moment, that she's very triumphant, and that makes it hard for us to feel a sense of victory in the scene; it's more like she' s trying to wish all of this away. And maybe that's the point of the film, and the reason so many Nice People have screeched such invective against the movie: it doesn't allow for any good choices. Maybe some events are really so horrible that there is no recovering from them, not through violence or justice or any of that. Killing Johnny hasn't un-raped Jennifer, it's made her a killer - a tremendously justified killer, mind you, and a killer who still goes out and kills again, so she's obviously not too put off by what she's done. But there's no fixing an unfixable world, and I Spit on Your Grave presents a thoroughly fucked world if I've ever seen one.

So no, it's not entertaining. It's anti-entertaining. It is one of the most wretchedly nihilistic things I have sat through that didn't involve Swedes mourning God's death. Yet it says quite a lot, and it has been made at quite a consummate level of craftsmanship, for a movie that I can't in good faith ever recommend to anybody.

Take a trip in the Way-Back Machine! Three years ago, I live-blogged my first ever viewing of I Spit on Your Grave, on a group blog operated and since abandoned by several of my college friends. Check it out - confusing in-jokes abound!

Body Count: 4, each one grislier than the last. Actually, that's a lie, number 2 is by far the grisliest. But they're all pretty fucking cruel.

Unendurably Long, Borderline-Explicit Rape Scenes: 1

Nastiness Rating: 5/5, truly Nasty. The emasculation scene would handily deserve a 4 by itself, but here it's simply gilding the lily.

24 June 2010

LADY IN THE WATER

If Neil Jordan's Ondine were a regular sort of movie, it probably would have opened with a sequence establishing what sort of person its hero was, showing him interacting with his ex-wife and his sickly daughter, chatting with the locals in the small Irish town where he lives, giving us a good sense of the baseline normality of the film's world. But Neil Jordan's Ondine is a Neil Jordan movie, which means he's more concerned with the integrity of the story, and thus he drops is in right at the exact moment the action ramps up, with all the exposition shuttled off to be woven in at a later point. It's a fast start that fits the movie quite well, given that in a certain way, it's mostly just a fairy tale. "Once upon a time, there was a fisherman, and one day he pulled a woman out of the sea in his nets."

When the fisherman, Syracuse (Colin Farrell) and the woman, an amnesiac calling herself Ondine, after a legendary figure (Alicja Bachleda) meet, it's in a scene heavy on spirited banter that skirts heavily on the edge of fatalism, and that basic construction - "high spirits skirting the edge of fatalism" - describes the film as a whole, mostly for the better, occasionally for the worse - much worse, in the case of the alarming, rattletrap climax that runs exactly counter to the charms of the movie up to that point. But everything except those three or four scenes near the end has such a breezy, playful sense of despair about it that I don't suppose most people who have been enjoying themselves up to that point are going to consider it a fatal flaw.

So, Syracuse - universally known as "Circus", his metaphorically-laden name of a great waterfront power in the ancient world giving way to imagery of a lumbering, ineffectual clown - brings Ondine home, and introduces her to his wry daughter Annie (Alison Barry), suffering from kidney failure. Combining preternatural wisdom with unbridled innocence in the way of a person in that wobbly period between childhood and adolescence, Annie concludes instantly that Ondine must be a selkie - a creature that can take the form of human or seal - and though neither Syracuse nor Ondine exactly believes her theory, they also don't exactly disbelieve it, because what other explanation can there be for Syracuse's unusually good fortune after the woman comes to live with him?

I'm not going to poke at the story, which is fragile as a soap bubble - as well it should be. The appeal of Ondine is very much its delicacy, both as magical realism love story and bleak story of broken people in a run-down community. The presence of a possibly enchanted woman in Syracuse's life is very much necessary, for he has a whole bushel-full of problems: besides his sick daughter, he's constantly straining for money, he's a recovering alcoholic, his ex-wife (Dervla Kirwan) is a current alcoholic with custody, with a lover (Tony Curran) no better than she is, and Syracuse's only friend appears to be the local priest (Stephen Rea) that he sees on a regular basis, theoretically for confession, although their conversations are less about sin and redemption and more just bullshitting about life and everything.

This could easily lend itself to wave upon wave of grim nastiness and harsh realism, but Jordan keeps the tone upbeat (his films are very often about worn-out low-class poor bastards, but only rarely does he allow them to be pleasant when he can instead go for searing, viz. Mona Lisa), largely on the strength of Farrell's wonderfully subtle performance, all easygoing pragmatism that is effortlessly charming in the way of that actor's best work, with just enough of the bittersweet to give it some bite. The best reason for seeing Ondine, without a doubt, is Farrell's ready charisma and chemistry with his co-stars, especially Barry and Rea; nearly all of the film's most entrancing scenes are nothing but dialogues delivered through a thick wall of Cork brogue, with the actors playing off of each other with such ease, such simplicity! it is somehow realistic even as it announces itself as so plainly written.

The tone of the movie's story extends to the way it was shot: Ondine is a predominately murky, gloomy movie, with just about every exterior scene, it seems, taking place at dusk or in the rain. Yet even as it is just about the greyest damn thing you will see anytime soon, it has a certain off-kilter beauty, thanks to beloved cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose stock in trade is making grungy settings look somehow glamorous. Even as it captures the essence of the worn-out fishing community where the film takes place, Doyle's camera puts a sheen of fantasy over it all; it is not hard to believe, looking at the dramatic, otherworldly visuals, that the story of the selkie woman might be true, which makes it seem much less contrived and almost more inevitable when Syracuse finds himself accepting his daughter's tale as the best explanation for everything going on.

A slight film like this (slighter than anything Jordan has done in quite a long time, perhaps ever) can easily drift into dangerous territory, and Ondine does so semi-frequently: besides the out-of-place ending, the film suffers every time Jordan and Doyle try to do something "flashy", such as a brief hallucination, or anytime the mysterious man (Emil Hostina) following Ondine appears, or during that very same out-of-place ending. Not content to have the slightly grainy, slightly glossy grey and wet look hold, the filmmakers switch gears with narrative justification, admittedly, but without much aesthetic success: these certain moments clash with the rest of the film in a way that's more garish than illuminating.

And of course, the whole movie just sails away if the viewer wants something a bit more robust than magical realism, which has never been the easiest sell in movie history. Ondine certainly speaks, in its relaxed mood, to human truths, but the way that it gets there is certainly going to seem cloying and undercooked to some people. No way around it: it's exceedingly rare for a truly good movie to get that way by trying over-hard to make everyone content, and Jordan has ended up with a film that simply doesn't take as probing and serious a look at people in crisis as virtually all of his previous work; and yet, in those moments when it isn't stumbling about, trying too hard to impress us, it's hard to imagine Ondine doing what it does - playing at being a satisfying dark folktale with a quintessentially Irish sensibility - in a more wholly satisfying way.

7/10

22 June 2010

STUDIO GHIBLI: TALES FROM EARTHSEA (MIYAZAKI GORO, 2006)

The idea of a Studio Ghibli adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books predates the existence of Studio Ghibli itself, as well of three of the (so far) six novels in the series. In the early 1980s, long before he'd gained any fame whatsoever in the West, the relatively green anime director Miyazaki Hayao approached Le Guin about producing an animated version of her then-trilogy, which the author promptly refused. Still hoping to make a grand fantasy, Miyazaki ended up writing and directing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, so at least the story has a happy ending. For 22 years.

Following the unprecedented success of Spirited Away in America and England in 2002, Le Guin recanted, but by that time Miyazaki had already launched into pre-production of Howl's Moving Castle, and was unable to commit any time to the Earthsea project. What follows is not altogether clear - what Le Guin has reported is not the same as the official Ghibli line - but in the end, Suzuki Toshio, the most senior executive at the studio, tagged Miyazaki Goro, Hayao's son, who had to that point directed a grand total of absolutely nothing. He wasn't even an animator; his training was in forestry science, and he'd worked in urban landscaping before Suzuki hired him to curate the Ghibli Museum in 2001. It was in this capacity that he pitched in to help with preliminary storyboards for the Earthsea film, whereupon Suzuki promoted him - without first consulting Miyazaki père, who believed (with reason) that his son wasn't ready to helm a feature. This led to a rift between the Miyazakis that lasted until the film's premiere.

Meanwhile, Le Guin felt a real twinge of betrayal that Hayao, whose work she'd respected enough to entrust him with her baby, had apparently dumped the project of on Goro, who she didn't know from Adam.

All this drama! and all over something as frankly shabby as Tales from Earthsea, which finally saw the light of day in 2006, and made a decent enough splash at the Japanese box office, despite the fact that nobody in Japan really liked it very much - it ultimately won that country's equivalent of the Razzie for Worst Picture and Worst Director. Which is much too harsh a response to a film that really does quite a few excellent things, visually, though I have not the slightest hesitation in declaring Tales from Earthsea to be the worst project ever put out by Ghibli: one might charitably call the narrative a "mess", and a bit more honestly, a "fucking wreck".

Broadly, the plot of the film follows the general concept behind The Farthest Shore, the third Earthsea book, with hefty lifts from Tehanu, the fourth, and a few key points from A Wizard of Earthsea, the first (and best). By all means, it treats Le Guin's source material with a great deal more respect than the massively awful Sci-Fi Channel miniseries Earthsea, which aired right around the time that the animated film was in pre-production, and this is part of the problem: in their eagerness to keep adding plot elements from all across the novels, the filmmakers perhaps did not spend enough time making sure that all of those elements worked in harmony.

The result - especially in its first hour - is a movie that plays mostly as a spot-the-reference game for enthusiasts of the source material, without carving out a reason for itself to exist, nor really paying appropriate tribute to the themes of the source. It is a sometimes clumsy and hectic sword 'n sorcery adventure, not a bad one, but nor a particularly memorable one.

Anyway, the plot: in the land of Earthsea, magic is out of balance. This leads the magic-users of the world to forget their craft, and the dragons to fight and kill one another, and these omens in turn lead to bad crops, dead livestock, and a general waning of humanity. The King of Enlad (Kobayashi Kaoru) is troubled by these tidings, and troubled by the disappearance of his son, Prince Arren (Okada Junichi); both of these problems end for the old man at the same time, when his son reappears and murders the king, fleeing into the wild. There, Arren is found the Archmage of all Earthsea, Sparrowhawk (Sugawara Bunta), who recognises something important about the boy, and thus takes him on a journey the massive, sleazy metropolis Hort Town.

They quickly get separated, and Arren ends up on the wrong side of Hare (Kagawa Teruyuki), a slaver trying to capture a young girl named Therru (Teshima Aoi). Eventually, Sparrowhawk bails out Arren's ass, and they hide out at the isolated farm of the mage's old friend Tenar (Fubuki Jun), who as luck would have it, currently has Therru in her keeping. As Sparrowhawk continues his investigations into what is driving the world crazy, and Arren wonders what's going on with the terrifying visions he's having of his own shadow chasing him, the strange witch Kumo (Tanaka Yûko), who has some yet-unknown history with Sparrowhawk, prepares to capture both the prince and the mage in the service of whatever evil it is that she has planned for Earthsea.

We can say this much for the film: it doesn't want for incident. It does, however, want for exposition and a good reason to care about any of these people above and beyond the boilerplate "they alone can save the whole world" conflict of so much fantasy. The particular and constant strength of Studio Ghibli's output has been the creation of wonderfully rich characters, be they little human girls, innocent forest creatures, or warlike raccoon dogs, and in this respect above all others, Tales from Earthsea falls far below the level we've come to expect from that company: neither Arren nor Therru seems to have any real existence outside of an object to be buffeted about by the plot, while Sparrowhawk and Tenar, both of them given much more satisfying personalities, simply don't have enough screentime to make up for the protagonists' shortfall. The compensation for this could be a gloriously epic fantasy narrative, and the film does come a lot closer on that count; but the story is too much of a muddle. Details are thrown out that seem like they should be paid off later, but simply wither and die; while aspects of the story that deserve a great deal more context (Sparrowhawk's relationship with Tenar and Kumo, Therru's personal history) make very little sense without the aid of the books to explain the world's dense mythology, and the elaborate histories of all the characters.

On the other hand, the film at least presents the illusion of great fantasy, thanks to a number of individual moments that are tremendously effective as flights of visual imagination. In fact, I'd go so far as saying that Tales of Earthsea is made up of almost nothing but good moments, perfectly dramatic, horrifying, exciting scenes and images that all work phenomenally well taken just as themselves - it's just that the movie is much less than the sum of its parts.

Miyazaki Goro at least understands how to construct a truly awe-inspiring fantasy setpiece, though, which he proves very early with an exhilarating sequence of dragons fighting:

Or the gorgeous, uncanny nightmares that visit Arren, perhaps the most memorable and effective part of the whole movie.

The film works much in the same way that Howl's Moving Castle works: not so much as a story, but as a wonderful collection of powerful, beautiful concepts and images. Though in truth, Tales from Earthsea is certainly as lush as that movie was; more than anything else, it looks like Princess Mononoke made in a rush and on a budget (it certainly cannot be a coincidence that the film took eight and a half months to animate, half of what the much richer and more detailed Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, or Princess Mononoke took to complete). Which is not to say that the film does not have moments of sublime beauty and creativity.


Even so, beauty is not enough to carry a movie; not when the very same studio was producing films just as beautiful on a semi-regular basis. And while Tales from Earthsea has plenty of moments (a chase between a boy and his otherworldly clone here, a climactic battle on a crumbling tower there) that are quite great, enough so that the film works as high fantasy in the most basic sense, that it presents a good number of moments that all but take your breath away in their scale and magical content, it's much more gratifying when a film can do those things and tell a story that hangs together if you apply even the slightest amount of logic the story, or care to have any real investment in the characters.

So, by no means the worst Japanese movie of 2006 or any year; Tales from Earthsea is gorgeous but slight, plainly the result of a filmmaker who got in over his head and didn't know how to get on top of a much bigger story than he could work with. It is the most sobering reminder yet that Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao are, by themselves, responsible for most of what is truly exemplary from Studio Ghibli; the latest attempts to replicate their work simply don't reach the same levels of humanism, narrative depth, and spectacle. Let us hope for great things from the spanking new The Borrower Arrietty; and take comfort in the knowledge that even at its worst, Studio Ghibli still produces work more gorgeous and ambitious, however clumsily, than most animation studios could even begin to aim for.

LONG, COLD, LONELY WINTER

I have a bit of a push-pull feeling towards Winter's Bone, the most grandly-fêted movie to come out of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. On the one hand, it's the rare American indie that genuinely delivers on the musty old promise that there are other ways of doing things than the Hollywood playbook: a thriller that does not by any means follow the usual generic formulas, a narrative dominated by female characters, a drama driven by family relationships that never even considers dabbling in the warm, roly-poly emotionalism that so typically follows hard upon family stories. Yet at the same time, it never manages to shake the feeling that it's a very recognisable type of smug hicksploitation picture, that when it's not busy gawking at the low-rent characters that populate it's small, poverty-wracked world, is rather indulging in a particularly grim sort of misery porn.

In the end, the good much outweighs the bad; though the bad stubbornly hangs on almost up until the final shot. Still, kudos to Debra Granik for making a film that packs as many surprising punches as this one, and doing it in a refreshingly cinematic idiom: while so very many movies in the modern day seem to view the medium almost with distaste, preferring to play out their scripts in the safest visual language possible, Granik constructs Winter's Bone so that the film's visuals tell half the story. On paper, I suspect this looks rather banally realistic, a close study of the broken-down economy and people of the Ozark Mountains that presents that poverty with fetishistic zeal; but the incredible stylised look of the thing (and, to a certain degree, the performances) tell a very different tale.

Either way, Winter's Bone - adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini from Daniel Woodrell's novel - is largely about Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old taking care of her much younger siblings Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), in the face of a barely-functional, mute, pill-addicted mother and a long-absent father. It's her father, Jessup, that causes the crisis in Ree's love which drives the rest of the movie: he was arrested on drug trafficking charges, and put his house and land - the house and land where Ree and family currently live - up as bail. Then he promptly jumped bail, causing the nervous, semi-apologetic sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) to inform Ree that if her dad doesn't turn up, she's going to be kicked out in a week's time.

Thus begins an odyssey - a trite word, but the more I tried to come up with another, the more I had to face facts, that Winter's Bone really is an odyssey and nothing else. Ree knows that some of her more distant relatives probably know what happened to Jessup, and she visits them in turn, over the stringent objections of her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). It takes her a very long time to learn anything whatsoever, by which time both she and the audience have been able to guess at a lot of the truth of the matter: suffice it to say that it involves the fact that in any sufficiently economically-decrepit community, a lot of people will eventually turn to crime as a source of income, and the codes uniting criminals outweigh the bonds that connect thinly-related family members.

Shot on location - and how! - it would be more than possible for Winter's Bone to turn into nothing but a realistic slice-of-life piece about how miserably unpleasant life is in the poorest corners of the Ozarks; and it's not not that. And this is the part of the movie that, for me, works the least, though Granik certainly gets points for creating an immaculate sense of place. Still, on those terms alone, Winter's Bone could be a profoundly unexceptional, even aggravating movie.

Realism is merely a launching point, though: ground the film in a specific enough environment, filled with enough precise detail that we have an incredibly well-formed idea of Ree's world and the things she's out to defend. From that point, though, Winter's Bone turns quickly and wonderfully into a sort of dark fable, a voyage through a confusing Wonderland that makes up in hideousness what it lacks in otherworldliness. The film boasts absolutely extraordinary neo-noir cinematography, courtesy of Michael McDonough, a remarkable combination of the simple and familiar with the shockingly stylised. Routine camera angles and movements clash with a deep dark lighting scheme and the occasional shot that presents, with unexpected Expressionist verve, Ree's constant awareness of danger (for this is, without a doubt, a most dangerous world). In particular, a late scene set in a boat on a shallow river at night - to say any more would be to plunge into the worst kind of spoilers - is nothing shy of masterpiece-level filmmaking, a flurry of shadows and claustrophobic close-ups and the nastiest edge lighting I can remember seeing in ages.

The steely, unforgiving look of the film matches quite well with Lawrence's outright amazing performance, which by all rights ought to be her breakout (her widest-seen projects to date are The Burning Plain and The Bill Engvall Show). The 19-year-old actress is quite fearless in this role, categorically refusing to play by the rules that a hundred, a thousand other young women might have indulged in: she does not play for our sympathy by presenting a Ree who is full of doubts and self-pity that she must mask over with strength, knowing that she is the only person who can keep her world together; no, as Lawrence plays her, Ree has no doubts and self-pity, because if she had allowed herself that luxury, she'd be long since dead of starvation. With a strong, stern face that borders on the cruel at times, Lawrence presents a girl stripped of every remote vestige of innocence, at times confused and at times scared, but never, ever weak. It's this performance, more than anything else, that suggests how truly deadening and terrible the world of the film is. And because of this overwhelming strength of character, the few times that Lawrence allows Ree to be caught off guard - I am thinking of an excellent moment in an ROTC recruiting office, where the girl has come solely in search of the $40,000 signing bonus, her personal safety and comfort be damned - hit with withering impact. If there is one problem with the characterisation, it's that Lawrence is almost too pretty for the part, looking a bit like a Calvin Klein model. This isn't a little deal (think of how many '40s movies were fucked up for a similar reason), but on the whole if "the actress is too pretty" is the worst thing you can say about a performance...

There's little joy to be found in Winter's Bone - as its title suggests, it is a story of survival by the skin of your teeth in the harshness and the cold, not a happy story of virtue rewarded. Nor is it nearly functional enough as a thriller to work altogether as a genre film (the script makes too many arbitrary bends to be a satisfying mystery). But there is much to admire about the film's creation of an unforgiving world, where only the strong and stubborn survive. It is not pleasant, but as a depiction of a voyage into hell, it has a power unmatched in recent cinema.

8/10

20 June 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: PIXAR ANIMATION STUDIOS

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: one of the biggest hits of the ten features to have preceded Toy Story 3 in the extraordinary run of masterpieces and near-masterpieces made by Pixar.

It is not popular, and in many cases not in the least wise, to talk of "authorship" in mainstream American animation; though there are certain exceptions. Generally, for example, it's easy to tease out the differences in the films made by each of the five men who have so far directed a movie with Pixar, the shining star of family entertainment in this country in the last 15 years (and, to be fair: probably the shining star of mainstream cinema, period). You've got John Lasseter, whose films tend to feature inanimate objects given life, and who is of all the Pixar folks the one most given to making good old-fashioned "gee whiz, that's cool" entertainment; Pete Docter, the unabashed sentimentalist; Andrew Stanton, a creator of visual tone poems with a strong emotional throughline; and it's early to say what drives Lee Unkrich, though I hope it's more than "doing his level best John Lasseter impersonation".

But most prominently, you have Brad Bird: the only Pixar director (to date) to make a film outside of Pixar, and the mind behind the most uncharacteristic film in the studio's history - the only one to come from a story developed outside Pixar, by Bird himself - 2004's The Incredibles. It was indeed this film's pronounced dissimilarity from the five features the studio had produced before it that first made it clear that Pixar was very much the "directors first" company that it had sometimes claimed to be; especially given how very similar it is in some ways to Bird's feature debut, the disgustingly under-seen masterwork The Iron Giant.

At the same time, it's hard to say exactly what unifies Bird's three film projects (the third is, of course, 2007's Ratatouille, arguably the most flawless of all Pixar films). They're all family stories; two of them take place in a romanticised (but not too romanticised!) version of the pre-'68 Cold War America; they all have, to one degree or another, stylised faux-cinematography. I am tempted to take the lazy man's way out, and say that what unites them most of all is that they're all made with the highest level of craftsmanship - not in terms of animation alone, but as works of classical cinematic language, assembled with an intense amount of care and love so that every cut, every sound, every movement, builds to a euphonious whole.

Not bad for a superhero movie. Though to call The Incredibles a superhero movie, as though it was just another of the glut of men-in-tights adventures of the '00s, would be as crudely reductive as anything you can say. It's about family, and the way that husbands and wives can grow apart by inches without ever falling out of love; it's about being true to yourself; there's a line of thought that calls it Objectivist propaganda, which Bird has always denied was the intention, though when you've got a sympathetic character complaining that if everyone is special, then no-one is special, and the villain echoing and reversing that sentiment, declaring with wicked delight that he's found a way to give everyone a level playing field... it has, at least, the tang of Objectivism. Though if Ayn Rand were one-tenth the artist that Brad Bird is, I suppose that Objectivism would seem like a much better philosophy.

So! In what seems loosely like the 1960s, we have the Parr family: father Bob (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), mother Helen (Holly Hunter), teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), preteen son Dashiell (Spencer Fox), and baby Jack-Jack. They are like a great many American families of that fuzzy time when the Eisenhower years were mutating into the Space Age: Bob doesn't like his job, but bottles that up because he has to be a good provider; Helen loves her family and children but they're not as fulfilling as her life when she was young and single; and so on. Unlike most American families of that fuzzy time, they're also all superheroes: years ago, Bob was the charismatic, indestructible strongman Mr. Incredible, while Helen was the infinitely stretchable Elastigirl. They still have those powers, and have given a legacy to their kids: Violet has the ability to turn invisible and create force fields, while "Dash" can run faster than the eye can see. They are, in effect, the exact powers of the Fantastic Four of the Marvel universe, though if you stop at the reference, you've missed the way that this is just an extension of their personalities as members of the Parr household: Bob as the strong, infallible protector, Helen as the homemaker who has to be everywhere at once to keep things together , Violet as an easily-embarrassed teenager who just wants to disappear, Dash as a kid with way too much energy for his parents to keep up with.

It's part of the profound genius of the movie that just about every detail has two distinct meanings like that: its function as a superhero trope, and its metaphorical value the film's "real" conflict, about how a middle-class suburban family comes back together after having slowly drifted apart through boredom. At times, this isn't even the subtext, but the text: one of the chief driving elements of the whole plot is Helen's terror that Bob is having an affair (perhaps the most adult theme in all of Pixar; the only competition to my mind is Finding Nemo's theme of "over-protective father learns how to respect his son's independence, though Up's "octogenarian widower is able to find a reason to live without his wife" certainly gives them both a good run for their money). At any rate, to look at The Incredibles and say "what an excellent superhero adventure", while eminently reasonable - besides Nolan's Batman movies, it's readily the best film of the contemporary superhero cycle - deprives the film of much of its meaning and most of its emotional resonance. But I shall harp on this no longer; it's there to be seen by anyone who's looking for it.

Besides, I need some space left over to talk about how incredibly (erm...) well-made it is. From the cheeking opening gag, a vintage interview that introduces our main characters, to the outstandingly fleet, exposition-packed opening sequence, set in whatever period is meant to be 15 years before the rest of the film (it looks like the '30s, but it almost has to be 1949 or 1950 or thereabouts), and onward, Bird's command of pacing and structure is awe-inspiring, propelling us through the movie's generous 115-minute running time (the longest, by 15 minutes, that Pixar had yet essayed; even now it is their second-longest, barely nudged out by Cars) with abandon that stops at exactly the best moments to keep the dramatic elements of the film constantly in play, while devoting plenty of time and energy to making sure that the action sequences are realised with a level of achievement rare even in the best live-action movies. Then too, the constant switching from straight-up superhero pyrotechnics to '60s-style intrigue to goofy comedy is timed with the skill of a master; you'd never once expect that Bird had only a single directorial credit to his name, from the evidence onscreen here. Even if he'd never made his masterpiece, Ratatouille, The Incredibles would still make a good argument that he belongs in the conversation about the most excellent directors of mainstream entertainment now living.

But animation being a collaborative art form, we should probably stop and pay our respects to the many other people responsible for making The Incredibles such a marvel: the film's design, led by Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston, is an unholy perfect slurry of time-specific designs that at once evoke both the over-the-top spy movies of the period and the physically-impossible look of the period's great pulp comic books (the spirit of Jack Kirby hovers over every frame and every story beat of the whole picture); hell, even the design of the end credits is about as visually appealing as anything else in a mainstream film in 2004. Helping to nail down the sense that we're in an eternal Space Age is Michael Giacchino's ludicrously delightful score (his first collaboration with Pixar, and if I also call it his worst, that is only because his music for Ratatouille and Up is so damn brilliant), sounding for all the world like a lost James Bond score written by John Barry, without ever once directly quoting Barry's work.

The cast is uniformly excellent; long before 2004, it had become clear that Pixar films were noteworthy for their against-the-grain but tremendously effective celebrity voices, but even so, Craig T. Nelson was a left-field choice if ever the company made one: how many people besides rabid fans of CBS's The District even remembered he existed? And yet he embodies the very soul of the certain form of flawed male bravado on display here, just as surely as Tim Allen does in that other Pixar series. Holly Hunter needs no praise from one as lowly as me, but even so, she's an unintuitive pick for an cartoon character, and she carried it off magnificently - my pick for the best performance in the film, finding all the right parts of Helen's worries and frustrations and domestic pride. There are plenty of other wonderful grace notes: Jason Lee seems like a stupidly obvious choice to play a comics-inspired villain, but he did wonderfully nonetheless, and so on and so forth from Samuel L. Jackson's expectedly fine cool badass down to Wallace Shawn nailing the banal manager who makes Bob's life hell, in his only non-Toy Story performance with Pixar.

As saturated with nostalgia as any of Lasseter's films, and as grand in its world-building as any of Stanton's, Bird's first Pixar feature won him not only a legion of fans, but instant elevation to the company's highest echelon of artistic leadership, and for good reason: it's a nigh-perfect entertainment that never lets up and never treats its audience with any condescension, and never lets spectacle overwhelm its humanity. Though it's not, ultimately, anywhere near the most emotionally probing of the studios' work (anecdotally, this and A Bug's Life are the only two Pixar films that have never made once made me tear up even a little bit), and its emphasis on thrills over lower-key narrative delights leave it still the outlier among Pixar's output, it's pretty great altogether: a fantastically fun movie with brains and a heart. Heck, if that's not the very essence of Pixar, I don't know what is.

SUMMER OF BLOOD: SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE

"But at least it wasn't directed by Joe D'Amato."

With those words I ended my most recent Video Nasties review, of the heinous Nazisploitation picture SS Hell Camp AKA The Beast in Heat AKA La bestia in calore. I did not do this accidentally, for even then did I know that the late Aristide Massacessi, as Mr. D'Amato was called at his birth, was soon - too soon! - to make his first appearance in the annals of this weblog.

The occasion is his 1980 opus Antropophagus, better known to English speakers as Anthropophagus: The Beast (its UK video title in the Nasties era), Anthropophagus: The Grim Reaper, or just The Grim Reaper (the censored US version). By any name - the word is a fancy-ass way of saying "human-eating", by the way - it's not really very good.

Mind you, I only mean that it's not very good in an objective, universal sense. As a Joe D'Amato film, it's the next thing to a masterpiece; it is almost completely functional as a narrative, and very nearly effective as an atmospheric horror film.

Before I get into that, though, I guess I should spend a bit of time explaining exactly what's up with D'Amato, so you can understand why the most surprising thing, by far, about the movie is that I didn't want to kill myself after it was over. Like a great many European exploitation filmmakers in the 1970s, it is easiest to describe his career as "between 175 and 200 movies, roughly", and most of those, especially before the dawn of the 1980s, were sleazy to a degree that I rather lack the vocabulary to describe. Prior to Antropophagus, his most famous movies, I suppose, were his contributions to the "Black Emanuelle" series. These were erotic thrillers, knock-offs of the groundbreaking French art-porno Emmanuelle (note the face-saving - and lawsuit-dodging - change in the number of "M"s), starring Laura Gemser as an international undercover reporter whose adventures include way more explicit sexual encounters than you'd expect of, say, Christiane Amanpour.

The Black Emanuelle films started off tawdry; in D'Amato's hands they became flat-out repugnant, bottoming out with Emanuelle Around the World, which prominently features a snake-on-woman bestiality scene (faked, thank the Lord), and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, which marries the sordidness of Emanuelle to the moral viciousness of the cannibal subgenre. These films - like nearly every other D'Amato film I have seen - combine "so bad it's awe-inspiring" cheap filmmaking with such intensely scuzzy incidents, be they dispiriting violence, blithe racism, degrading sex, or a heady combination of the three, that after you've seen one, you feel like all the showers in the world aren't going to be enough to clean the filth off your soul.

The man directed, for fuck's sake, a movie titled Porno Holocaust.

So with all that baggage coming into it, Antropophagus didn't really have to do very much to impress me; if it could meet the criterion "have zero rape scenes", that alone would pretty much guarantee its position as the best D'Amato film I've ever encountered (and the film meets that criterion, and more besides: impossibly for this filmmaker, there is only one unclothed female breast in the whole movie, poking out of a gaping robe). The fact that it flirts, from time to time, with being genuinely decent is just the cherry on top. Especially since, whatever it flirts with, it's in a stable long-term relationship with profound suckitude.

Opening with a scene that feels a bit Jaws-ey without straight-up ripping-off Jaws, the first thing Antropophagus shows us is two Germans on a Mediterranean beach. The girl (Simone Baker) gets pulled down by a Something as she tries desperately to clamber onto a boat; the boy (Mark Logan) simply gets a good old-fashioned cleaver to the face. Then we jump forward in time: you'd assume that it's a few days later, from the editing, but the script later makes it seem like it has to be months if not years. We have five friends touring the Greek islands - and the names in the English dub I watched don't match up exactly to the names cited by the IMDb, but we're probably looking at Maggie (Serena Grandi) and her husband Arnie (Bob Larsen) - Maggie's pregnant - as well as Carol (Zora Kerova), a sort of amateur spiritualist, and Danny (Mark Bodin), who used to have a thing with her. There's also a man named either Andy or Alan, depending on who you trust, and he's played Saverio Vallone. None of these characters or actors are interesting in the slightest, but they luckily meet someone who is: Julie, played by Tisa Farrow in her last role, following a brief spate of cult-beloved movies at the end of the 1970s including Zombi 2 (and in case you noticed the last name and wondered: yes, her sister is Prudence Farrow, the subject of the Beatles song "Dear Prudence". They also had another sister who was an actress, but she made no exploitation films and is thus of little interest to us now).

Julie needs to hitch a ride to an obscure island to meet some British friends; the others want to find a cool non-touristy place to visit; and so they head off, with only Carol feeling "off" about the whole thing. Once they get to the island and find it uninhabited, Carol's hunch starts to seem a bit more accurate, but it takes a little bit before anyone finds anything more foreboding than just quiet, empty spaces: there's the mysterious blonde (Rubina Rey) who keeps staring at them from faraway spots, and there's the fact that the ship, where Maggie stayed after breaking her ankle, has apparently drifted far away (we already know that she and the remaining guy - whose name I cannot even pretend to spell, and who is not in the credits - have been attacked the by Something). As they look around for the missing Brits, they only find the Brits' blind daughter Rita (Margaret Mazzatini), who keeps blabbering about the creature that smells of evil. And it won't take very long until that creature, a towering man-beast with latex all over his face (D'Amato regular George Eastman), makes his presence known, by killing the tourists one by one.

Besides its lack of unendurable sleaze, and its shockingly non-terrible production standards, here's something else I didn't expect from Antropophagus: it's basically a slasher film. I don't think that phrase could possibly have made its presence felt in Italy by 1980, mind you, but the structure is there: a bunch of people isolate themselves, and for quite a long time they don't know what's going on, and during that time they get picked off. Replace "Greek island" with "New Jersey woods", and "towering man-beast" with "towering zombie in a hockey mask", and I don't suppose I need to tell you what franchise you've basically described.

Not that "it's like a slasher film" is praise...

But there is that niggling fact that Antropophagus really, actually gets something right: the setting is amazing, and D'Amato and cinematographer Enrico Biribicchi manage to complete avoid screwing it up. Shot on a cluster of Greek and Italian islands, the film takes place in a world of bright white masonry walls and dim, run-down interiors, and it just feels haunted. The film's slow development gives us plenty of time to absorb that setting, too; and the brief flashes of Eastman's man-beast are just enough to keep the tension up. It helps immensely that Eastman really is an imposing man, and that he has good crazy eyes; even through the immensely fake prosthetics, his character always seems truly threatening and unhinged, a perfectly wonderful bogeyman.

That is all I've got in me for praise. For even at his best, D'Amato wasn't any damn good as a film director, and that "slow development" that I just complimented in one way proves in another to be a damning flaw: the film is exceedingly dull, especially from about minute 5 to minute 40, when all we're doing is watching a bunch of virtually interchangeable characters walking around confused, and talking about how confused they are. Also, whenever he has to actually present a scare scene, rather than just showcase the uncanniness of the mise en scène, D'Amato falls flat on his face: the one exception is a character's completely unexpected death-by-hanging (readily the film's greatest moment). Otherwise, it's a lot of horribly misjudged zooms - an Italian genre trademark, and one that D'Amato abused with abandon throughout his career - and leading moments that imply a scare is about to happen so baldly that when it comes, we've already moved beyond. My favorite directorial fuck-up, though, has to be his use of the ol' spring-loaded cat trick: in this case, it's the cutest damn grey kitten EVER, and it jumps onto a piano and then runs across the keys like it's playing, SO CUTE. Cute, I think, is not one of the things we expect or want in a movie noted for its gratuitous violence.

Oh yes; did I forget to mention the violence? Antropophagus was quite notorious in its day, and it ended up on the Video Nasties list in Great Britain on the strength of one effect in particular; but for the life of me, I can't figure out what the big deal was. Besides some splattered stage blood for texture (a knife wound here, some scraped flesh there), there are only four big gore effects in the movie: the cleaver in the face in the opening, a ludicrously fake throat bite just before the one-hour mark, and then the two biggies, right near the end. I'd be loath to spoil them, but anyone who wants to see Antropophagus probably has heard of them and that's their only motivation: so at one point, the beast rips out Maggie's unborn child and bites it, and at the very end, having been fatally wounded, he pulls out his own intestines and gnaws on them. Conceptually, that's some harsh stuff, no two ways about it. But neither scene is particularly queasy-making, I'm sorry: the "fetus" could not possibly look any more fake (it was a skinned rabbit), and even in the uncut version - the hideous, wicked, brutal uncut version - the whole thing lasts about three seconds. As for the bit where he munches his own guts, that at least looks real - but despite Tisa Farrow's heartfelt whimpering, there's nothing convincing about the moment. The creature doesn't look at all like he's actually holding his own entrails; the scene is disgusting only in the way that watching a man eat leftovers from a butcher's shop would be in any case.

With virtually no gore, that leaves only the plot and the atmosphere; besides being infinitely slow-moving, as I said, the script also suffers from the general complaints of Italian horror, in that it is made up of nothing but coincidences and stupid character decisions and a mysterious backstory that's not actually mysterious, and even less is it compelling (as to how much sense it makes! well, it explains not a damn thing, other than that the island's cannibal monster once had cannibalistic tendencies. Good to know).

So on the whole Antropophagus offers little for anybody. Once again, a film made the Nasties list for only marginally good reasons, and thus earned a certain undeserved measure of notoriety; though certainly, Antropophagus had a wicked reputation even before the DPP got in the act. Why, I cannot say - plenty of Italian movies are far more disturbing and gross than this. Still, it finds a uniquely terrible director at his very best: like a dog walking on its hind legs, it is not done well, but etc.

And at least it wasn't directed by Jess Fra-

Body Count: 11, not counting the rabbit-fetus, nor the several already-dessicated corpses littering the beast's lair.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. There really is no denying that the two big gore setpieces come from an extremely sick place, and that wins some points. But still, the execution is extremely lame, and no impressionable child looking to be corrupted is still going to be watching 78 minutes into a 92 minute feature, having waited through dozens of talky scenes of people not having sex or doing any of the other usual horror movie filler.

CARRY ON CAMPAIGN

This post has been entirely superseded by the one found here.

19 June 2010

CRI DE COEUR

This is one of them "all about my personal life" posts. If you'd rather not read, that's fine (I usually don't read them either), but if you still do me a favor, and take a look at the bottom? There's something there I want everyone to see.

18 June 2010

INFINITY AND BEYOND

(There are non-specific spoilers about the last 20 minutes)

Ho-hum. Another summer, another Pixar feature, another masterpiece.

This time, though, the stakes were higher for the studio than they ever have been: for not only was there the pressure of continuing the run of magnificent CGI cartoons that have left Pixar arguably the most consistently excellent filmmaking body in history, there was also the pressure of paying due respect to what is probably the most beloved movie franchise of the last twenty years. And though the filmmakers couldn't have known it at the time, they also had to redeem what many of us have already taken to calling the worst summer movie season since it became reasonable to speak of "summer movie season".

Toy Story 3 is a success on all counts. It's no easy task to make a second sequel that works, nor to make a sequel eleven years later, and least of all a sequel to a story that had all the closure it could possibly want; and yet first-time solo director Lee Unkrich, and his co-writers - Pixar maven John Lasseter and Pixar newbie Michael Arndt - make it look as easy as breathing. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the new film is that it manages to retroactively leave the very definitive conclusion of Toy Story 2 looking for all the world like the middle of a trilogy; the new film builds upon its predecessors in such a natural way that you barely notice the artifice if you're looking for it.

The scenario: Andy Davis (John Morris) is 17 and heading to college in a week, leaving his much-diminshed collection of toys terrified of the future. Their de facto leader, the vintage cloth cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) is certain that everything is going to be fine, but a series of casual accidents leaves his cohorts on their way to Sunnyside Daycare, where they are taken under the wing of the kindly strawberry-scented plush Lots-o'-Huggin Bear, or more simply Lotso (Ned Beatty), who promises them a wonderful new life in which they'll never be away from young children again. Of course, Lotso fails to tell them that he's also the insane, autocratic dictator of Sunnyside's toys, with a '70s-era Ken doll (Michael Keaton) as his lieutenant. They manage to reprogram Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) to his factory-fresh - and thus, delusional - state, as Woody struggles to find a way to break back in to the daycare center to rescue everyone.

How simple it all looks when you just lay out the bare rudiments of its adventure narrative like that! yet the same could be said of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, so it does not surprise that Toy Story 3 is so infinitely richer than being just another film about toys being where they oughtn't, trying to get back to Andy safely. It continues hard upon the theme presented in the second film, about toy mortality; though I disagree with those who'd claim that it simply repeats that theme, at least once you stop to look at the specifics of the narrative. The one toy who was forced to make a conscious decision whether or not to "live forever" in Toy Story 2, Woody, is very conspicuously the one two who does not ever consider staying at Sunnyside; he has already undergone his crisis in that regard, and had, in a sense, prepared himself for death. In Toy Story 3, death has come: Andy is going to college, and everyone but Woody is going to be packed up in the attic, if they return to their owner's home.

The new film is not, therefore, a repetition of the story of the second, "will these toys do their duty to Andy, and face ultimate death": it's far more like a toy Divine Comedy, in which they are presented with images of Heaven - the "Butterfly Room" at Sunnyside, an eternal present in which nice children will always be there to play with them, and they will always be repaired to their best state - Purgatory - the "Caterpillar Room", a place of suffering that must be endured before the capricious god Lotso allows them to advance to a more peaceful state of being - and finally, Hell itself, the county dump, where a literal inferno awaits the toys. If Unkrich, Lasseter, and Arndt didn't consciously overlaid a particularly religious framework on their film, I'd be thunderstruck: Woody is constantly talking of what can only be called faith in his AndyGod, for he is the only one who has already faced down death and concluded that his duty to his master trumps all other concerns (this is the undercurrent of an otherwise strange moment where he briefly seems upset that Andy sold the Bo Peep lamp that Woody was in love with - but his religion matters more than his love, and so he must continue to preach the gospel of "we'll be there when Andy needs us"). Meanwhile, the other toys feel so heartbroken by Andy's seeming rejection of them (and even the reality of his "affection" for them means eternal life in an attic), that they in turn reject him, seeking out whatever fate they find, blindly. Thus, this is the story of walking towards death with the open question of what awaits there, for the faithful and the faithless alike - a toy Divine Comedy, I suggested, and I'll raise that by a toy Pilgrim's Progress. Setting aside all that it is about toys, Toy Story 3 is a surprisingly deep exploration of human concerns about the afterlife (including its potential non-existence), for a G-rated animated movie.

At the same time, most of the film lets that theme lie dormant, in favor of two other threads - which are, to be sure, entirely satisfying. The most obvious and fun is that Toy Story 3 is essential an animated prison break movie (including an explicit reference to Cool Hand Luke), and one of the best prison break movies since the genre's heyday in the 1960s, at that. Most of the long second act is taken up with the multi-pronged attempt to get "our" toys out of Sunnyside, with a fair degree of comic misadventure along the way, buoyed up not only by the fun that the filmmakers get to have with our established characters (Don Rickles's Mr. Potato Head gets one singularly extraordinary sequence that finds the animators at their most dementedly inspired - you'll know it when you see it), but at their delight in cranking out a huge number of new toys, voiced by a cluster of famous people including Timothy Dalton, Whoopi Goldberg, and Richard Kind, all of whom plainly took teeny-tiny roles just to say they'd been in a Toy Story picture. Meanwhile, there is some absolutely brilliant comedy surrounding Buzz and a mistakenly-triggered secondary audio program; it's probably the funniest business the character has been given in any of the three films. All of this is exactly the kind of straight-up, inventive kids' movie magic that Pixar made its bones with, before stumbling headlong into maturity with Finding Nemo in 2003.

Which brings me to the other thread: sheer, unadulterated nostalgia, and love for the Toy Story brand. Obviously, the Pixar folks understand what a hugely important part the films play in their legacy, and they do everything they can to do honor to that legacy; and yet Pixar in 2010 is not at all the same as Pixar in 1999, let alone 1995. Because they have stumbled across that maturity, while also advancing their craftsmanship leagues beyond what was possible 15 years ago.

Thus, a great deal of the film, especially in the first 30 minutes, is simply an exercise in revisiting this old world with new eyes. Make no mistake, Toy Story 3 gets off to an incredibly slow start (slow enough that for a while, I was terrified that all my worst fears were coming true): after a joyfully energetic opening scene that indulgently re-creates elements of the first two movies using the new scope and ambition that the studio has found in the last half-decade, the plot absolutely refuses to kick into high gear for a long time, instead just sort of hanging out and letting the audience re-acquaint itself with these characters, who look rather spiffy now that they've been polished up and and very subtly re-designed using artistic tools that weren't even a dream when Toy Story 2 was being rendered. To a certain degree, it's nostalgia just for nostalgia's sake; but Toy Story deserves it if anything does.

Then of course the adventure and comedy really ramp up, and though at times the film can't entirely be its own thing - the rule seems to have been, "when in doubt, ape Toy Story 2", especially in the mostly unsatisfying disposition of the villain at the end - for the most part it's a fun throwback to a more innocent age at Pixar, married to the incredibly sophisticated and beautiful animation of modern Pixar. And then the third act comes along, and all bets are off.

One of the sharpest criticisms about the studio is the complaint that too many of their films (especially Monsters, Inc., WALL·E, and Up) turn into shambling chase scenes at the end. Toy Story 3 turns this criticism right on its head: for it does, absolutely turn into a chase scene for most of the third act, and I defy anyone to tell me that it's not the most intense and amazing and wonderful part of the movie to that point - especially in a lengthy sequence that I am loathe to spoil, except that it is the moment at which all of the movie's disparate impulses coalesce: it is a tremendous chance to really take stock of what these characters mean over the course of three films, it is thrilling and terrifying entertainment, and it is the moment at which the characters finally and utterly accept the fact of their own death, in a scene that has a kind of indescribable power that is nothing like any other Pixar film, nothing like you'd ever expect to see in a children's movie of any stripe. This is followed, in due order, by rebirth - a Buddhist model rather than the Christian one of the earlier scenes, though Toy Story 3 is hardly a polemic for or against any spiritual system other than its own, which is that love and friendship will get you where you need to be, and nice people will end up someplace better than mean people. Yet it also allows the fact that there must be sacrifices made for friendship, and the final beat of the story, in which victory and loss sit next to each other comfortably and necessarily, is the perfect final note to a 15-year journey.

It goes through more than its share of rocky patches on the way, but that end redeems all in Toy Story 3: a divinely entertaining movie that ends by playing to just about every emotion a viewer could have. It is not, perhaps, as artistically ambitious as some of their films; but that would run counter to its spirit. This is, above all, about saying goodbye to wonderful characters; like Andy, we have one final chance to play with Woody and Buzz and the rest. As always with the Toy Story films, though it may speak to the depths of the human condition, the love of life, the fear of death, and the hope for the divine, it always comes back to the domestic, and the simple; once more, it's a paean to having good friends -, the friends we regain and the friends to whom we must bid farewell.

9/10