30 July 2010

TO CHEER ONE ON THE TEDIOUS WAY, TO FETCH ONE IF ONE GOES ASTRAY, TO LIFT ONE IF ONE TOTTERS DOWN, TO STRENGTHEN WHILST ONE STANDS

A question that I didn't even think about asking until recently: how long has it been since the last live-action G-rated movie to get a wide release? I get April, 2009, with Hannah Montana: The Movie. Which leads to the more pointed question, how long has it been since the last live-action G-rated movie that actually treats its audience with something like respect, and is generally speaking a film good enough that you'd want to take a child to see, rather than could take a child to see in the absence of anything actually worthwhile? Long enough that I'm not even terribly willing to hazard a guess.

This thought did not, of course, come upon me from nowhere, falling from the sky as an insight from the gods; it was triggered by the new movie Ramona and Beezus, adapted from an iconic series of children's novels written by Beverly Cleary over a stretch of 45 years, from 1954's Beezus and Ramona to 1999's Ramona's World. The film is both live-action and G-rated, and there seems to be no better way to describe it than this: it's a nice family film. That phrase has an unavoidable tang of condescension, almost begging to be read in a supercilious tone, as in, "oh, yes, it's nice, for a family film". Yet I mean no condescension at all. If a family film is what you're looking for, it's a nice one - far better than looking for a family film and spotting only soulless product, like the self-same Hannah Montana: The Movie, or something eager to prove how much smarter it is than the children whose parents are paying to see it.

Cobbling together bits and pieces from every one of the Ramona novels except for Beezus and Ramona (the one with the most similar title!), the film looks a bit like this: Ramona Quimby (Joey King) is something like ten years old, and a constant source of irritation to her teenage sister Beatrice (Selena Gomez) - "Beezus" is a nickname bestowed by Ramona when she was just learning to talk, and trisyllabic words were a bit of a challenge - as well as a sometimes unwelcome distraction to her parents (John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan). Though by no means a malevolent child, Ramona rather enjoys letting her imagination run away, you see, which leads to problems at school, and too much energy at home, where things are beginning to strain in the face of The Current Economy, especially when Mr. Quimby is let go from his job following a merger. Meanwhile, the one adult who seems to "get" Ramona, her beloved aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin), has the temerity to fall in love with her old flame Hobart (Josh Duhamel), the uncle of Ramona's best friend Howie (Jason Spevack); and this hits the girl in the gut, as the worst in a series of apparent betrayals that just prove that nobody in her life really values her.

Though not as resolutely episodic as the novels, Ramona and Beezus (that title needs to go; Beezus is hardly a co-lead, and barely the second-most important character) is very much a series of vignettes, a collection of incidents from Ramona's life plucked up to be glanced at and thought about and then put away in favor of the next. It is thus, like the books, more a depiction of childhood remembered than childhood experienced, though we are only very rarely given a viewpoint outside of Ramona's (primarily in the depiction of Bea and Hobart's courtship, which is treated with sensitivity and tenderness and is very sweet and nevertheless feels kind of out of place, like it was meant to give something emotional for adults to hang on to in the face of so much childish behavior, like adults were never children, or something). Even if it is plainly written by adults (Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, to be precise), the constant presence of Ramona between us and the action ensures that the film itself never adopts a grown-up awareness on events; the grown-ups in the audience are certainly invited to understand things about the narrative that the protagonist does not, but it is not a requirement of the drama and Ramona and Beezus ends up as something even rarer than a nice family film: it is a film about children that completely honors the perspective of childhood.

Truthfully, it's not a very exceptional piece of filmmaking: director Elizabeth Allen hedges her bets and more often than not works against the material to keep things "poppy" and all that, whether it's in the slightly-too-frantic daydreams that Ramona keeps having (presented as mixed-media animated sequences, though "animated" carries all the wrong implications; the closest analogue are the dreams in The Science of Sleep), which add an unwanted touch of zaniness, or the frequent pop song montages, which are presented with all the criminal banality common to the form. This on top of the baseline simplicity of Allen's aesthetic: Ramona and Beezus is entirely functional, visually, with exactly the combination of wide and medium shots that you learn in film school, and a perfectly ordinary editing scheme, and nothing really flashy at all - which is good, since the flashiest parts are the ones that come off the worst. And that's pretty telling: after all, the film is for and about very young people whose understanding of the world is still forming, and while an avant-garde feast of aesthetic experiments might make some of the young girls in the target audience want to grow up to be the next Maya Deren, it would run hard against the film's success at being nice. And the niceness is all.

Functionality is all that Ramona and Beezus wants or needs, and it's certainly that. The foursome of King, Gomez, Corbett and Moynahan are not remotely convincing as a set of relatives by any concept of genetics I'm familiar with, but they still manage to play the part of a family well enough that you stop wondering how a couple as balls-out WASPy as Corbett and Moynahan could have a Hispanic daughter by the third or fourth scene. And in the crucial role of Ramona, King gives a much better performance than we'd have any right to expect from a ten-year-old actress: though she can't do much to assuage the preciousness of some lines and moments (especially those which Cleary originally wrote for a much younger child), she's charming and charismatic as all hell. and even if you, as I did, find her a bit cloying at first, she grows on you (alas, this is not true of any of the other preteen actors, but let us not dwell on that). Frankly, with King turning in an appealing, convincing performance, nothing else in Ramona and Beezus could have redeemed it; but as an avatar of guileless youth, the actress and the character are entirely convincing. The result isn't a film that depicts the deepest truths of childhood in the way of the masterpieces of the form (The Fallen Idol, for example), but it gets the job done: in an age where "kids' movies" have become the lowest and most contemptible of all subgenres, it is a movie that actually makes me wish I could acquire a kid that I could show it to, not for any life lesson it imparts or profound moment of aesthetic sublimity, but simply because it is a pleasant way to pass some time and be made happy and sad by little things that are well-observed.

7/10

29 July 2010

GETTING BURNED

The second of three films adapted from Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (which was meant to be a decalogy, before the author's terribly premature death), The Girl Who Played with Fire is in almost all ways not as good a film as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, made with much of the same cast and virtually none of the same crew. Nor was Dragon Tattoo such an air-tight picture in the first place: an agreeably entertaining Internet Age detective story for sure, and a glossy piece of filmmaking that proves with admirable efficiency that the U.S. doesn't have a stranglehold on slick, facile filmmaking. Alack, that Played with Fire misses even that bar: "facile" it absolutely is; but "slick", not very, and "agreeably entertaining", even less.

About one year after the events of the first story, the crusading lefty journalists at Millennium, led by intrepid publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), are still as crusading as ever; they've just picked up a new researcher (Hans-Christian Thulin), whose girlfriend is just completing a doctoral thesis on prostitution. The two young folk have put together a massively important indictment of human trafficking that implicates several extremely prominent Swedish political figures and businessmen, and Blomkvist is thrilled to be dotting the last i's and crossing the last t's before publishing. Meanwhile, the extroardinary hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), who has a dragon tattoo and once played with fire - and, I have it one good faith, is given to kicking hornets' nests - has just returned to Sweden after a lengthy trip away, and is preparing to go into hiding immediately. Which turns out to be more useful than she could have possibly expected when she becomes the prime suspect in the murders of the new Millennium researcher, his girlfriend, and the scumbag racist (Peter Andersson) against whom she exact such sweet revenge the year before.

Blomkvist is shocked that Salander has thus re-entered his life, albeit tangentially, and he immediately launches himself into figuring out who actually committed the crimes. She, meanwhile, is looking to figure out the same thing, though her goals are not, shall we say, quite so legally pure as the reporter's. Thus begins a twisty two-pronged investigation into the criminal depths of the trafficking ring, that reveals along the way a good deal of Salander's own shrouded, hugely traumatic past.

Did you note that I used the word "meanwhile" twice in recapping all of that? No accident at all: for The Girl Who Played with Fire suffers rather mightily from keeping its two protagonists separate for virtually the whole running time, in striking contrast to Dragon Tattoo, which paired them up by the half-way point. This difference - arguably the primary distinction between the two films - is fatal; the best part of the first movie was, almost beyond a doubt, the interplay between Salander and Blomkvist, and moreso between Nyqvist and Rapace, who enjoyed an excellent prickly chemistry. Obviously, it's a flaw forced onto the film (adapted by Jonas Frykberg) by the novel, which I haven't read; that doesn't excuse it, nor does it excuse the incredibly frustrating non-ending, in which most of the loose ends remain stubbornly untied. As the credits roll, we know hardly any of the "whys" for what has happened: most of this mystery's explanations are in some way or another related to Salander's backstory, and not at all to the confusing, largely un-explicated prostitution industry that forms the backbone of its narrative. I have it on good authority that this is also the case in the novel, and that it works perfectly well there; the second and third books were designed to flow into one another with virtually no stop, which likely means that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is going to be a damn sight more dramatically pleasing when us Americans get to see it in October (all three films premiered in their native Sweden throughout 2009).

Were this the movie's singular great problem, I'd probably overlook it: you deal with the source material you're given, especially when the source material is as massively successful as the Millennium Trilogy. But the profoundly unsatisfying narrative of Played with Fire is but the most obvious problem in a film ribboned with inadequacy and limpness. Setting aside the fact that it's not as good a story as Dragon Tattoo, it's also not as good a work of cinema: the departure of director Niels Arden Oplev, and his replacement by Daniel Alfredson leads to an unexpected and indensible drop in the mere competence of the filmmaking. Not that Oplev was a genius: far from it, he just had a good eye for how to put the actors in the frame for maximum effect, and a reasonable sense of pace. Alfredson can make neither claim: though nearly 25 minutes shorter than Dragon Tattoo, Played with Fire feels every bit as long, and it stretches out the most near the end, as it becomes increasingly clear that absolutely none of this will make any sense until the third one comes out. Almost without exception, he directs the actors to give flatter, more obvious performances - Nyqvist in particular is absolutely the Lord Mayer of Dull Town, without Rapace to play off of - and worst of all, to my mind, his use of the camera is criminally inept (or perhaps it is cinematographer Peter Mokrosinski who is to blame; the effect is the same either way). Nothing in this film indicates that it was assembled by a director who understands what the relationship between the image and narrative is or can be; and his clownish use of camera movements (in one particularly egregious case, an emphatic tilt that does absolutely nothing besides bring a table into frame in the most distracting way possible) is positively unforgivable.

The one exception amongst the wobbly actors, and the only really good element of Played with Fire at all, is Rapace: the actress has grown immensely in comfort with the character, and her physicality, and coupled with the generally more interesting material she is given to work with here, she gives the film its sole flash of any real human emotion or fire. She deserves a better movie and a better story; perhaps she'll get it with the third entry (though I doubt it, given that most of the crew of the second movie worked on the next one as well). For right now, though she is the only spot of warmth in a thin-blooded mystery that goes nowhere, and goes there in the most clumsy, ungracious manner that it possibly could.

5/10

26 July 2010

WHERE WE'RE GOING, WE DON'T NEED ROADS

Reader Rachael Horcher found a way to get more bang for her buck when she donated to the Carry On Campaign - by using that weasel word "trilogy", she got three movie reviews for the price of one!

Here is the story, the way I heard it: Steven Spielberg, having proven himself one of the most financially successful directors in history with undue speed, decided to get himself a protégé, and found one in the form of Robert Zemeckis, who had wowed the student film community at USC with his 1973 senior project A Field of Honor (which is, incidentally, a terrific satiric short - see it here, in pieces at least). Spielberg saw something pretty darn special in the man five years his junior, and in 1978, he executive produced Zemeckis's feature debut, a Beatlemania comedy called I Wanna Hold Your Hand. It bombed. Undaunted, Spielberg threw his weight behind Zemeckis again two years later, with the dark comedy Used Cars. It bombed too.

At this point, Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale had a time-travel comedy about a teen boy who went back thirty years to become mixed-up with his parents, teenagers themselves. Supposedly, Spielberg liked what he saw, but Zemeckis was petrified that if he made one more Spielberg-produced flop, then his career would be over; he'd be "Steven's pet" for the rest of his life. He hooked up with Michael Douglas - a somewhat noteworthy producer in those days - to direct a project the latter man had been shopping around, a romantic comedy-adventure titled Romancing the Stone. When that film turned out to be a smash hit, against all expectations, Zemeckis returned to Spielberg, and together they made an even bigger hit out of that time-travel movie; the highest-grossing film of 1985, in fact. I am speaking, of course, about Back to the Future.

If you are of a certain age, you've probably been recalling quotes from the movie ever since you saw the poster at the top of the review. It's that kind of thing: custom has made it one of the very icons of 1980s pop culture, less a film than a rite of passage. Which makes it kind of daunting for me (five years old when I first saw it on video, or was it six? - either way, I am suddenly made to feel ghastly old) to try and get around it in any kind of responsible, scholarly way. This was the "full disclosure" part of the review, if you were wondering.

But there is more to the '80s nostalgia vibe than just, well, nostalgia. Part of what keeps Back to the Future fresh and fascinating is the layering effect of period-specific signifiers: a movie about time travel that's also a time capsule. And frankly, given how whip-smart Zemeckis and Gale were in this period, I wouldn't doubt for a moment that it was actually being deliberately future-proofed... but I'm running ahead of the story a little bit.

And that story, of course, is about the chronically tardy high-schooler Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring rock star - God help me, but in at least 20 lifetime viewings of the film, I've never been certain whether or not we're supposed to regard Marty as a great guitarist, or a jangling, awful one - whose best friend is the much older eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc's latest invention is a time machine built into a DeLorean, which he demonstrates for Marty one night; a nasty run-in with Libyan terrorists results in Doc's death and Marty getting stranded in November, 1955, just a week and change less than thirty years into the past. Here, while working with Doc's younger self to fix the machine and get back to the future, Marty meets his mom (Lea Thompson) and dad (Crispin Glover), and manages to endanger his own existence by ruining the moment where they first met and fell in love.

As with most of the director's films, Back to the Future is mostly about the successful execution of a narrative - while his mentor, Spielberg, has never been above the pursuit of an image or a technique or an emotional moment for its own sake, Zemeckis's best films have all been story-driven, even as they are at times perched right on the cutting edge of effects technology; though it is easy to lose sight of this in the degraded age of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Even as much as Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Death Becomes Her, for example, rely extensively on the best and brightest tech-nerd toys, Zemeckis's tendency was ever to use his directorial skills to keep the story moving, and to hit the right emotional notes at exactly the best moment. And with all that said, I think that Back to the Future boasts probably the tightest screenplay of any film in the filmmaker's body of work. It is a structural marvel: not one scene is wasted, not one line fails to have an exact, precise function (even if that function is solely to be funny). If something is described early on, and seems to make no sense otherwise, you can rest assured that it will be paid off in some specific way. The ballsiest example is the lightning storm that serves as the film's climax: it's introduced right at the start in an otherwise pointless scene, only to be made the thrust of the entire drama, giving the whole movie a ticking-clock format in addition to the other ticking clock, the photograph of Marty and his siblings that starts to fade away slowly as a result of his mucking about with his parents. My favorite example is the matter of Doc Brown's flux capacitor: he describes its creation in a reverie that initially just seems like the musings of an old man, and this leads him to set the exact date that Marty accidentally travels to, while also providing Marty with the necessary evidence to prove his identity to young Doc Brown and thus get the primary narrative started in earnest.

Frankly, I don't think anyone would tell me I was flat-out wrong if I argued that Back to the Future is probably the most coherent time travel movie ever made; partially, it is true, because it does very little in the way of twisting, but mostly because Zemeckis and Gale pay exceedingly close attention to every detail, answering every niggling question that I, at least have ever thought up. On top of this remarkably solid framework, the other niceties of the screenplay are just candy, though very wonderful candy: the simple, but clearly-defined characters, the perfect comic dialogue (under-appreciated line: "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?" is Doc's justification for the DeLorean, and Zemeckis's justification for his career-wide aesthetic).

Back to my earlier point, though: Back to the Future is, explicitly and obviously, a study of the 1950s, both as tribute (its precise and particular re-creation of the colors and shapes of the architecture, the clothes, the design mentality; the privileged treatment of "Johnny B. Goode") and as satire (the self-serving hypocrisy with which the elder McFlys deliberately misremember their youths; the oblique indictment of Eisenhower-era racism). Zemeckis and Gale were both four years old at the time that their movie takes place, so for them it could only be an act of cultural anthropology to have made it; nor am I at all the first person to point out that Marty's journey within the film - back to the '50s, where he spends a good amount of time feeling hopelessly confused by how alien the culture of a scant 30 years ago is - mirrors the audience's journey - to a representation of the '50s presented with just enough stylisation that it feels entirely otherworldly.

Less-observed (though nothing about a film as widely-loved as this can be properly described as "unobserved"), Back to the Future is, almost 30 years after the time of its creation, a representation of the '80s just as precise and particular, and as stylised and alien, as the representation of the '50s. The first thing we hear, almost, is Huey Lewis and the News, singing "The Power of Love", written just for the film. Now, if you can think of any relic of pop culture more quintessentially of the '80s than Huey Lewis and the News, you have a better memory than I; and this, plus those crazy '80s fashions, plus the intense high-concept '80s-ness of the whole edifice, makes Back to the Future a document of not one, but two bygone eras. I do not know if Zemeckis had this in mind; but as I said, he was a damn good filmmaker in his day, smarter than most other blockbuster auteurs and tremendously confident in the placement of every cut and camera angle. Is it too much to wonder if he found a clever way to over-emphasise the then-contemporary cultural artifacts, so that future generations would get even more out of the film than people did in 1985? Impossible to say, of course. But I am glad that the possibility exists, for it gives Back to the Future an extra shot of fun above and beyond it's great story, cast, and humor; indeed, though I hate to resort to a pun, it makes the film altogether timeless.


* * * * *

Back to the Future ends with a giant smiley face of Hollywood froth; a playful, open-ended but nonetheless satisfying conclusion that promises our characters will still be around, having their adventures. The endless possibilities inherent in the story of a time-traveling car - which can fly now, thanks so much - created an infinity of unexplored vistas, of which Doc Brown's very off-handed reference to "your kids" was merely the tip of the iceberg. In a modern age of sequels green-lit before the first movie is even out of post-production, the ending would be an obvious, slightly charming, slightly groan-worthy sequel hook, but when they first wrote the screenplay, neither Zemeckis nor Gale had any such notion in mind. That is the most important fact to keep in mind about the Back to the Future trilogy: it was conceived as a simple, standalone comedy.

Of course, the movie industry was the same bastard beast in 1985 as it is now, and after Back to the Future became a gigantic smash, Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment couldn't make up the contracts for a sequel quickly enough. It had to wait; Zemeckis was already throwing himself into another Amblin project, Touchstone Pictures' Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It was only after that technically ambitious masterpiece of family filmmaking wrapped principal photography that the director was able to take a peek at Gale's initial scripts for what was still meant to be a single vasty follow-up stretching from the marvels of 2015 to the rugged frontier of 1885. It quickly made sense to divide the story into two parts, which for convenience would be shot in one fell swoop; and thus was franchise history made.

Sequels as such stretch into the silent era; the idea of a trilogy being the ideal franchise model is considerably newer. It was the unprecedented success of Star Wars in 1977 that birthed what has become an excessively common formula: a standalone original would be followed by a middle film that ended on a cliffhanger, so that the "trilogy" could rather be thought of as Film 1 and Films 2+3 (in a "true" trilogy, such as Satyajit Ray's Apu films, or more recently the Spider-Man franchise, the three parts form a unified whole, but each stand unique and independent). Back to the Future was one of the earliest examples of this format to follow in Star Wars's wake; what made it a trendsetter was the idea that the sequels should be produced right on top of the other, with hardly any break in production or in release dates. The only precedent I can find to this - and my knowledge is hardly definitive - is, arguably, Superman and Superman II, initially meant to be filmed together, until backstage issues put a temporary brake on the second installment. It has become altogether more common: The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean both followed the BttF model almost to the letter, and it takes little imagination to see the same impulse in the megalithic production schedule of the three Lord of the Rings films, or in the mad dash to crank out five Twilight pictures before everybody stops caring about the property.

None of this has very much to do with the film released in November, 1989, as Back to the Future, Part II. Picking up slightly before the original left off, with a re-filmed version of that movie's closing scene providing a new actress in the role of Marty's girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue, replacing Claudia Wells), and Doc Brown getting noticeably re-framed dialogue to set up a slightly different scenario than the first film ended on, the new film skips ahead thirty years, to find Marty's son, Marty Jr. (played by Michael J. Fox, just like his old man), getting in some trouble with Griff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the grandson of Marty's 1955 nemesis Biff (ditto). This situation resolves itself fairly quickly, but not before old Biff steals the time machine to go back to 1955 and present his teenage self with a copy of a sports almanac that the young man uses to make himself a billionaire, turning 1985 into a hellish nightmare fantasy. Marty and Doc, protected somehow from the effects of the change - though for how long, it's hard to say - head to 1955 themselves to stop Biff from changing the timeline. Naturally enough, this leads to both of them interacting, in potentially dangerous ways, with the plot of the first movie, and it all ends with Doc being zapped to God knows when during the same lightning storm that sent Marty back to 1985 in the first place.

It says quite a lot about Zemeckis and Gale's continuing strengths as writers that what I just wrote makes absolutely perfect sense while you're watching it. And that all the jerry-rigged elements meant to turn the thin promise of further adventures made at the end of the first movie harmonise rather effortlessly with the original, turning casual gags into clever foreshadowing and building recurring motifs out of one-liners, while also providing a fine story that hangs together and is perfectly effective on its own. Mostly. The filmmakers have been open in later years that if they knew that the final scene of Back to the Future was in fact setting up a sequel, they'd never have put Jennifer in the DeLorean with Marty and Doc, knowing that they had nothing interesting to do with her. Lo and behold, it is very much the Jennifer elements of the plot that feel the most awkwardly kludged in, adding nothing but a handful of minutes of running time.

In the main, though, Part II does exactly what a sequel should do, yet remains a rarity as thrilling as seeing a Siberian tiger in the wild: it faithfully continues the story of the first film without in any significant way repeating it, and it expands upon the rules set up by the first film without violating the spirit of those rules. Or to put it another way: Part II is the film that actually plays around with the ramifications of time travel as established in Back to the Future. The first film is mostly just a fish-out-of-water comedy with some pronounced overtones of Oedipal dread; it's in the second film that we actually start to deal with cause-and-effect, paradox, and a genuinely twisty plot that you really need to focus on. It's also in Part II that we see the franchise's only feints towards one of the classic topics of time-travel fiction: what will the future look like?

Though the 2015 sequence occupies only a portion of the movie, it has usurped nearly all of the popular awareness of it; and not without reason. Knowing that they could never predict a "real" version of the future, Zemeckis and Gale instead created a vision of thirty years hence (or 21, depending on how you're counting) that is unmistakably meant to be the future if the '80s just keep going on for three straight decades. Surely by accident, this '80s-centric vision of the 2010s has proven to be one of their most spot-on predictions (not the fashion, maybe, but have you looked at pop culture lately?) - the only keener observation is the movie theater with the abnormally intrusive advertisement for Jaws 19, a tawdry 3-D epic. It's depressingly likely that 2015 might see a gaudy 3-D version of Jaws, though it would be a remake, not a sequel; probably directed by Marcus Nispel, with Bradley Cooper as Brody, a playfully slumming Ewan MacGregor as Quint, and Amanda Seyfried as "Mattie" Hooper. Um... oh, yes, Back to the Future, Part II.

It's in 2015 that most of the whiz-bang awesomeness of the movie is found, not just in the staggeringly over-detailed production design by Rick Carter - hardly a single frame of this sequence doesn't have some coy detail about life In The Future snuggled away where you simply won't see it without a pause button handy - but in Zemeckis's embrace of technological gewgaws. It's no big deal nowadays to have one actor onscreen in two different roles, but in 1989, when Fox appeared as Marty Sr, Mary Jr, and Marlene, it represented quite a coup du cinéma, and it shows its age not at all. CGI was just in its cradle then, and the very minor use of computer animation throughout the film is every bit as effective as its practical effects. The film's visuals haven't aged quite as well as its predecessors; but much better than some films half as old.

Still, though, the 2015 sequence - with all its details and its pop-culture meta-commentary and the like - is just a portion of the film - and not the only good portion, though it's probably the best. Though the film sags a bit in the middle (the alt-1985, basically), it picks up considerably once it hits the territory covered by Back to the Future. Zemeckis obviously poured himself into this movie, for the verve with which shots reflect images from the earlier movie, with which footage from the earlier movie is re-purposed and re-staged; just generally the ballsy degree to which events that seemed complete before are suddenly revealed to have new purpose and meaning; Back to the Future, Part II is one of the few sequels in history to force us to seriously re-consider the original film, without ever depriving the original of its basic integrity.

Most sequels aren't time-travel flicks; therefore most sequels don't get to recontextualise the original in such narratively fascinating ways. Taken as a pair, the first two Back to the Futures ask a number of unresolved and unresolvable questions about causality, order, and intention; and taken as a pair, they're also a hell of a lot of fun. That's what separates a top-drawer talent like Zemeckis from a routine hack: he can make an entertaining trifle meant to sell popcorn, and still infuse it with all kinds of structural inquiry that you can either pay attention to or not: and staggeringly, the film is equally enjoyable either way. Back to the Future, Part II is unique in the director's career in this respect - he is not given to structuralist or formalist experimentation - but that very loneliness is what makes the film such a loopy success. Not as exceptional and driven as the first movie, of course, but still a doozy of brain-bending comedy, dressed up in bright enough colors and broad enough silliness that even a child can have a real blast watching it. I should know, I was that child, three-quarters of a lifetime ago.


* * * * *

For the morbidly inattentive, a recap: never expecting to put together a sequel to Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis found himself making two, right in a row, each of them telling a discrete standalone story linked by a cliffhanger ending that takes place seconds after the climax of the first movie. In such ways do time-travel narratives offer up all kinds of structural awesomeness. See also "Lost, third- and fourth-season finales of".

You would be within your rights to assume that, being filmed essentially as one four-hour movie, Back to the Future, Part II and 1990's Back to the Future, Part III would be of functionally uniform quality. To a certain degree, they are, too: with pretty much the exact same set of creative minds as the second film, from designer Rick Carter to cinematographer Dean Cundey (who in fact shot all three entries), Part III is every bit as confident and slick as its two predecessors; but it is hard to ignore a distinct feeling of deflation. I cannot state with authority that Zemeckis used all his Back to the Future energy in juggling the multiple time frames and overlapping action of the second film in the trilogy, but compared to that film's weird energy, Part III feels a touch sedate. Thus it is always with threequels that are not cartoons about toy mortality.

The story you likely know: after receiving a letter from 1985-edition Doc Brown dated to 1885, Marty finds Doc Brown '55 and requisitions his help to first find the DeLorean that has been hidden in a cave outside Hill Valley for 70 years, then to fix it, and lastly to completely ignore the older Doc's express injunction against returning to 1885 for a rescue mission. Soon enough, Marty is in 1885, but the rugged terrain he finds there cripples the car, and Marty and Doc have to find a way to get back to the future; not so easy to get that much iron up to 88 miles per hour in an age before refined gasoline was available on every corner. And there's still the open question as to whether Doc is going back to 1985 or not; between Marty's historical documentation of Doc's death in just a couple of days, and Doc's infatuation with the town's new schoolteacher, Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), it remains a point of contention between the two for most of the film.

Over the years, many people have come up with many explanations for what doesn't work about Part III (and many of them still think it's better than Part II, or at lest no worse): the Wild West setting, the Doc/Clara love story, a whole slurry of plot holes - none of which are necessarily holes, though they require a great more thought than the series has thus far demanded. For me, it really comes down to one thing: sequelitis. The joy of Part II is that it pushes against the universe described in the first movie as hard as it can, testing the rules, and generally playing with time travel as a story element in all sorts of ways. Part III is the first movie redux. With some incidental changes, of course, but the spirit is essentially identical: Marty travels backwards in time and can't return with the state of technology he finds there; the only possible plan involves a shot in the dark that can only work once, and if it fails, there's no hope for a second try. Along the way, the bulk of the comedy involves a teenager from 1985 being absolutely befuddled by what he finds in the past. Of course, the specific nature of the drama is different, though this difference much favors the first movie: there he faced an life-threatening crisis brought about by timeline issues, here he faces the life-threatening crisis of an angry man with a gun.

Following the immaculate genre play of the second film, it's disheartening to say the least that Part III treats time-travel as nothing but an excuse for a steampunk Western comedy; I suspect that, though he's never and would never admit it, Zemeckis feels the same way. Or perhaps it was just the stress of eleven straight months of directing Back to the Future movies that led to the uncommon slackness of his directorial hand. Not that Part III is ineptly-directed, Lord no: you would never watch this and muse to yourself, "Wait, did Robert Zemeckis direct this, or Chris Columbus?" But compared to the intense perfection of every last element of a Roger Rabbit or a Romancing the Stone, Part III feels a bit loose and imprecise.

Yet it still works. In fact, it arguably could not work better for what it is and what it aims for, though I maintain that the conclusion to the Back to the Future saga ought to have aimed for something better. The story, at least, remains perfectly tight, right up until the last ten minutes or thereabouts, which I do not "like"; but I cannot argue against them for any reasons other than those of taste. In fact, the end of Part III brings the trilogy to an entirely effective close: Marty's arc from lackadaisical slacker to bright young man is brought to a perfect close, and one of the final lines sums up the series' philosophy of destiny vs. choice in an entirely coherent and emotionally true way. Everything else is just grousing: the penultimate scene builds off of what was already the lousiest subplot of Part II, the "Jennifer stumbles around 2015, hopelessly confused" bit, and more than anything else in any of the movies, it underlines the division between the first film on the one hand, and the two sequels as a unit on the other hand, which is made to seem contrived and inauthentic. Man, I just do not like the movie once Marty gets back to 1985. But that's probably my problem more than it is the movie's.

Still and all, it's perfectly fun and successful for the bulk of its run: the interplay between Marty and Doc remains fresh and energetic, perhaps surprisingly in light of Michael J. Fox's personal tragedy during this half of the double-length shoot (his father died shortly after filming began on the Part III material). Neither actor reveals any hint of weariness, and indeed they both find new things to do and ways with characters who had long since become iconic. The humor tends at times to the juvenile and silly; but so did much of the humor in the original Back to the Future, and at any rate it is good to have a return to straight-up wacky fun after Part II, which is never aught but a comedy, though at times it becomes so invested in its contorted plot that it forgets to be funny.

For as much as Zemeckis the director seems to be worn out a bit, presenting imagery without much in the way of affect or insight, Zemeckis the writer, along with Gale, remains fully committed, and as I said all the way at the start, the script is always the true mark of a Robert Zemeckis film. Part III is appealing and funny, it trades on our familiarity with the characters and the tropes of the series without seeming stale, and it resolves a complex story without a single dropped stitch. It's just that it does all of these things without any "spark", that extra blast of imagination and energy that separates the truly great popcorn movies from the good enough popcorn movies. Still, "good enough" is a lot more than most second sequels to cinematic candy like Back to the Future usually manage; and thus did Zemeckis and Gale's final collaboration proved one last time that even when they weren't terribly good, they were still among the most gifted mainstream Hollywood filmmakers of their era.

25 July 2010

SUMMER OF BLOOD: THE FINE ART OF EXPLOITATION

I hold it a truth that bad movies are good for the soul; but a whole lot of bad movies can kind of get to you after a little while. And while I never expected this all-Video Nasties edition of the summer of blood to reveal much in the way of hidden gems of horror cinema, my run the last few weeks was enough of a strain on my will to live that I decided it was high time to shake things up with one of the most bizarre entries on the infamous list: bizarre both in terms of how it ended up there, and in terms of how goddamn weird it is as a movie qua movies.

Now, the great bulk of the 72 films featured on some iteration of the Director of Public Prosecutions hit list are dreadful - a little dreadful, a lot dreadful, dreadful enough to make you hit yourself in the face with a frying pan to escape the pain of it - and most of them would deservedly be lost in the dust of history if not for that very same hit list making them eternally iconic martyrs for the cause of freedom of expression (a very corroded, unlovely kind of expression), and magnets for lovers of sleaze and movie violence. Some of them, though, had actual merit, whether just as a good horror movie or as a legitimately good bit of cinema. Famously, Sam Raimi's wonderful The Evil Dead was a target, though despite an heroic number of attempts, the DPP never managed to get it banned; the top-notch zombie films Zombi 2 and Let Sleeping Corpses Lie were both on the list (the former banned, the latter not); the much-better-than-average slasher flick The Burning was zapped by the censors; the visual poet Dario Argento had two entries on the list, Inferno and Tenebre - neither of which could plausibly be called his most violent, disturbing film to that point (that would be Deep Red). These and a few others were all redeemed by history as genre classics, and most of them are anyway not hardly violent enough for the DPP's attention, but that kind of goes without saying.

For my money, though, the two most inexplicable entries on the list were the two films that, even more than the Argento movies, more or less qualify as art house fare - hamstrung by their horror trappings, it is true, but art films nevertheless. One of these is Andrzej Żuławski's surrealist nightmare of a disintegrating marriage, Possession; the other is our current subject, Paul Morrissey's extraordinarily gaudy camp object produced by no less important an art cinema icon than Andy Warhol, Flesh for Frankenstein.

Morrissey and Warhol had been collaborating for quite a while prior to the 1973 release of their first horror movie, on such important pieces of avant garde pop as Chelsea Girls, Trash, and Lonesome Cowboys. Flesh for Frankenstein is certainly a different thing than those; to start with, the Warhol connection has been largely over-emphasised over the years, largely for marketing reasons, as this one was mostly Morrissey's baby from start to finish (the rumours that Antonio Margheriti directed some or most of the movie have been largely discredited). Even so, there's a definite flavoring of outsider art that connects this effort to the more explicitly "artsy" films from earlier in the director's career. It's trashy and exploitative, but in an intellectually dense, "let's explore the representational effects of trash" way, not a D'Amato-esque, "I sure do love looking at Laura Gemser's tits" way.

Like most cinematic Frankensteins, Morrissey's picture hasn't much of a damn thing to do with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel (she's not even credited); unless I missed something, the word "Frankenstein" is never even spoken out loud. Here we have a mad Baron (Udo Kier), living in a rambling old Serbian castle in what we can assume, for want of other evidence, to be the 19th Century; he shares his home with his wife Katrin (Monique van Vooren), who we can also figure out pretty quickly is his sister, though Morrissey refrains from harping on this point until the very end. Their relationship has devolved to the point where they apparently only see each other at mealtimes, and this is fine for both of them: it leaves Katrin plenty of time to rule the children (Marco Liofredi and Nicoletta Elmi) with an iron, puritanical fist, and the Baron plenty of time to create his perfect woman (Dalila Di Lazzaro), an embodiment of the Serbian ideal.

But this monster needs a mate, and the Baron and his wild-eyed assistant Otto (Arno Juerging) have had a problem finding the perfect head (with a perfect Serbian "nasum", as the Baron keeps saying) to go on the exquisite male body they've made. Meanwhile, the Baroness spends most of her time screaming about the sexual perfidy of the local peasants, primarily a stableboy named Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro, a regular at Warhol's Factory and pioneering nude model). Nicholas has a friend, Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic), who has quite the opposite view of sex as his licentious mate: indeed, his disinterest in the carnal arts is so profound that he's preparing to enter a monastery (from the numerous close-ups of Zelenovic gazing intently at Dallesandro, I instantly assumed a more basic explanation for Sacha's anti-lust for the female body, in the form of good old-fashioned sublimated homoeroticism; but as nothing whatsoever is done with this possibility, I must chalk it up to a misreading based on Morrissey's other works). Nicholas convinces Sacha to visit a brothel, just to make sure; a mix-up there results in the Baron and Otto mistaking Sacha for an insatiable sexual dynamo, whose perfect Serbian nose is the proof that he's exactly the missing ingredient their creation needs. Off comes his head, with a pair of ludicrously oversized iron shears, and Nicholas passes out - only to be picked up by Katrin, who demonstrates that her hatred of his womanising ways is less a moral position than sheer jealousy: before the day is out, she's taken him back to the castle as her newest fuckbuddy.

Having completed his pair of perfect monsters, the Baron is ready to at last embark on his grand scheme: they must mate and give him a race of perfect Serbian superchildren, with whom he will build his empire. Naturally, Sacha's utter lack of interest in the female creature's charms scuttles that idea, as does the fact that the one person most likely to recognise the dead man's head is running around the castle at that very minute. And just to sweeten the deal, the Baron's two darling children have been skulking around spying on just about every obscene act their parents are up to, and as we saw in the opening film (a solemn and detailed execution of a doll), they're every bit as screwed-up as their sires.

I shouldn't, maybe, have gone on at such length: but there's really no other way to express how gleefully tasteless Flesh for Frankenstein is than to just put it out there. It really says something about Morrissey's preoccupations that the incestuous marriage at the heart of the drama isn't remotely the most offensive thing we see here: why, I haven't even mentioned the Baron's preoccupation for humping the female creature's body, wiggling his hand (and God knows what else) inside her abdomen while cooing orgasmically. Nor the climactic scene, in which viscera is thrown around like tickertape at a 1930s parade.

Disgusting? Yes. Obscene? Oh, certainly. Likely to deprave and corrupt? Paul Morrissey absolutely hopes so. And above all else, wildly fucking funny. The genius of the film lies not in the director's willingness to "go there" with every depraved idea that crops into his head, but to go there with a song in his heart and a big smile on his face. If I had to come up with one adjective to describe Flesh for Frankenstein, it would probably be "silly". Or maybe, "goofy". But surely not sick, violent, over-the-top, any of those other things - for if it is indeed a wicked, wicked film, it is all in the service of its gloriously self-indulgent camp attitude. This is the film whose most iconic line - spoken just after the Baron is done humping his creation - is "To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life. In the gall bladder." Now imagine that spoken by Udo Kier, with his cartoon German accent turned up as far as it will go, and tell me it doesn't give you the giggles. (They tell me it's a Last Tango in Paris parody - I have not seen that film - which just makes it that much more brilliant).

Not to say that Morrissey is just trying for a demented cheap laugh, in the manner of Russ Meyer or John Waters (not, mind you, that there is a single thing wrong with the particular flavors of camp exploitation practiced by Meyer or Waters): the film is much too artistically refined for that. Flesh for Frankenstein is actually a pretty great movie: filmed by Luigi Kuveiller with a solid eye for atmospheric lighting and framing that make even the obvious cheapness of the film's sets look good. It's also more intelligent than it looks: there's a nasty-minded satire of European aristocracy buried in there, with the Baron and Baroness both evincing the crudest sort of elitist hypocrisy, in all their operatically indulgent perversity; and the Baron's obsession with genetic purity couldn't be a more obvious joke on Nazism (especially thanks to Kier's grand Germanic self). Even the exploitation has a certain breed of intelligence: at times, such as in the overtly presentational shots of objects being presented to the camera (a relic of the film's original 3-D presentation, which I would desperately love to see some day), or in the stylised emphasis on some of the most stupid moments in the narrative, Flesh for Frankenstein plays very much like a parody of itself, with Morrissey ironically commenting on the desperate tawdriness of most gore- and nudity-based trash cinema even as he joyfully indulges in it.

Let us set all this aside though, so that I may close by praising Flesh for Frankenstein on the simplest level: it's just a damn huge pile of fun. From the casting of Kier (in what I daresay is his best performance, so self-delighted in its goofiness that you can't help but love him), van Vooren (whose - I am being charitable - skeletal features and thundering imperiousness make her the very embodiment of degraded aristocracy) and Dallesandro (his stuffy Brooklyn accent is a wonderfully weird counterpoint to the arch-Europeanness of everything else in the whole movie), to every risible plot turn, the movie is simple the best kind of garish delight. I don't know if it's avant garde, but it's way too aggressively self-aware not to be art, the kind that thumbs its nasum at convention and "nice people", and give the rest of us an entertaining ride that's worth every second.

NB: Morrissey immediately followed this film's production by making a follow-up, with much of the same cast and most of the same crew: Blood for Dracula. I have not seen it, but have been told that it is slightly less gory, slightly less campy, and considerably more on-the-nose with its satire, though still a delight, all-in-all. It did not make the Nasties list.

Body Count: Wow, how do you tally up a body count for a film in which a man gets decapitated with a huge amount of blood, and then has his head attached to a new body, played by the same actor? I am cautiously going to go with 10 dead bodies, plus a doll.

Nastiness Rating: 3/5, a little Nasty. It's mostly a taste issue: I can't find it in me to say that a film that has such a broad-minded sense of humor is "nasty", though by all means I can understand how the blood, nudity, and sex - and the foleyed-in slurping noises during a particular sex scene - managed to raise the ire of the DPP. I could easily see my way to a 4/5 for this one.

24 July 2010

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

One must at a bare minimum credit Salt for being unconventional: what happens in the second half of the movie, while not exactly "unpredictable", is certainly unexpected, if only because it's just not at all the sort of thing that is done in American studio filmmaking. Part of me almost wants to find a way to therefore praise the film as an avant-garde explosion of the expected tropes of a Hollywood "wrong man" thriller - part of me indeed feels like a bit of a square that I'm having such a hard time embracing it as such. Most of me can't get around the idea that the film just suffers from a massively broken screenplay by Kurt Wimmer (who has written a number of broken screenplays; he also directed Ultraviolet).

It is very nearly saved, and hell, maybe it is saved, but only barely, by two things: craftsmanship and star power. The latter of these is readily observed by anyone with eyes to see, for the title role of Evelyn Salt is played by Angelina Jolie, who remains one of the most arresting and magnetic film actors presently working, even as she has slowed her career down to a crawl these last few years, something about "family" or some such (what Jolie fails to realise is that genuine movie icons of the classical model are a rare and dying breed, and that it is her duty to make films all the damn time so that we can all continuously bask in her reflected glory; but OH NO, she has to be a loving mother as well as a fucking brilliant movie star). It is kind of incredible that the film was originally designed with a male lead in mind (theoretically not named Evelyn), with Tom Cruise often cited as the producers' first pick; by all accounts it took very little tweaking to make Mr. Salt into Ms. Salt, but it's impossible to imagine anyone but Jolie in the role. It does not play to her strengths as an actress - nor to anyone else's strengths as an actress, one must assume, given the general lack of subtlety of the characterisation, and the crude way that the script denies us access to Salt's inner life - but it assuredly plays to her strengths as a bad-ass. Given how very flimsy most of the movie is, it takes a strong anchor to keep it from blowing away, and Jolie's face and presence are very much that anchor. Besides, she has a great gift for throwing herself into action sequences and making it look real and easy.

And it would be disingenuous not to admit that there really is something exciting about seeing a beautiful woman proving she can be just as rough and tumble an action star as any man; there's not much in the film that specifically plays with the idea of a female lead (the opening sequence, in which she is tortured by North Koreans, is probably the most forthright in that regard), but the over-arching notion of "female action hero kicking ass" in a role that doesn't tie her ass-kicking to her femininity in any programmatic way is in its own way the freshest thing to happen to action cinema in ages.

The other side of the camera finds Phillip Noyce directing his first unabashed action movie in over a decade, and his best since helming the excellent middle two Jack Ryan films, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Noyce's name is not as readily familiar as some of the more recent action masters, but his skill is undeniable, no matter what mode he finds himself working in (earlier this decade he was responsible for the fine Graham Greene adaptation The Quiet American, and even if there's not much to like about his last film, 2006's Catch a Fire, it's not the direction at fault). Without Noyce, it's hard to imagine that there would be a Paul Greengrass; which is sort of fair, because without Greengrass's two Jason Bourne movies, it's hard to imagine that there would be a Salt.

But I shall not generalise: if Salt is conceptually a Bourne clone, it is not stylistically. Noyce, in his infinite wisdom, has found a third way between the aggressive hyper-kineticism of Greengrass and his kin, and the relatively stately action aesthetic that has been dying out by degrees over the last half-decade. As he leads Salt - which boasts fine, if unexceptional cinematography by the extraordinary Robert Elswit (who at the very least knows how to light Jolie to perfection), and a power team of action editors including John Gilroy (of Michael Clayton) and Stuart Baird (of Lethal Weapon, and more recently Casino Royale) - it is a film that combines high-speed cutting and crazy movement with an unusually refined eye for continuity; it is the neo-action film for all those people who considered The Bourne Ultimatum to be upsettingly disorienting. There is no moment that is not well-treated by Noyce's steady hand and careful eye; from an incredible "escape from the CIA" sequence that leads from a locked room to a crazy and physically dubious highway chase, all the way to a thrilling "bunker with a glass wall" showdown at the end.

If I have privileged Jolie for being iconic and a great action star, and the filmmakers for their deft handling of the action, and not said anything about the script; well in this I'm just following Salt's own lead, for it doesn't especially give a damn about the story either. What you've seen from the trailer is about all the further we can go until Spoiler City: Salt is a CIA agent under the direct command of Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber), there's a Russian defector named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) who claims that "Evelyn Salt" is the name of a Soviet spy from way back, and an outside agent named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) decides that this is serious enough to look into the matter. Salt is too worried about her arachnologist husband (August Diehl) to stay around for questioning, which makes her look that much guiltier, and though Winter defends her against Peabody, her decision to travel to New York - where she's allegedly about to kill the Russian president - to presumably clear her name makes her look guiltiest of all.

So far, so good. It's trite, it's clichéd, and it requires dragging out some Cold War nostalgia that makes exactly no fucking sense in the year 2010, but since it's all just the pretext for some fun action, it's really no harm, no foul. But I can't go any further - can't explain why I don't like the movie that I've done so much to praise - without flat-out spoiling the rest of the movie. Even though we're only half-way through, but it's a half that the ads have done a fine job of hiding.

MEGA FIVE-ALARM SPOILER ALERT it is, then: Salt is a Soviet plant, and she does kill the Russian president (if there was meant to be any ambiguity on this point right up until the moment of the murder, as suggested by the tagline "Who Is Salt?", I completely failed to observe it). But her subsequent actions all make it very hard to say whether she's a bad guy or not, and of course the most predictable thing happens ever since Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor both appeared: Winter turns out to be the really bad guy (and another Soviet plant!) and Peabody agrees to help set-up the sequel. And the Russian president isn't really dead. So here's my thing: after setting itself up as an entirely satisfying "wrong man" film, Salt goes nuts in the middle, and suddenly we don't know, until the very end, whether our heroine is a bloodless Soviet killer or not. Man, I still can't get over that - Soviets? Are we really still doing that?

Certain movies can get away with denying the audience key information that the protagonist possesses; Salt isn't one of them. It just plain doesn't work to have the main character of an action movie called into question like that: do we root for her, or don't we? The answer is pretty easily figured out to be "yes", because no summer tentpole is going to have that kind of anti-hero, but all Jolie's charisma and Noyce's directorial mastery - both of which are firmly in evidence through the back half of the 100-minute film, even at its most narratively confused - aren't enough to save the movie from that kind of unnecessary obfuscation of its central conflict. For every bit of 30 minutes, we're along for the ride because we're "meant" to be, not because we have a good reason to be, and that is no way for an action movie to work. As I said, part of me wants to praise Salt for that kind of convention-busting innovation, and part of me recognises that the conventions exist for a reason. It's crazy, given how much of the film works like gangbusters - shallow, summer movie gangbusters, but a rocking good action scene is always welcome - that one script malfunction could ruin the whole thing; but it is a truly dramatic malfunction.

6/10

22 July 2010

THAT OLD SLACK MAGIC

There is exactly one element of The Sorcerer's Apprentice that's of any use whatsoever to any viewer old enough to drive themselves to the theater, and it's not something that I, at least, would have anticipated: Nicolas Cage is absolutely on fire, bringing 1000% to a role that does not require, justify, or reward such effort. But it's still always nice for Cage's trademark loopiness to be entertaining and arresting, rather than annoying and tic-ey, especially so soon after his Werner Herzog collaboration The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans managed to restore a goodly measure of luster to the actor's tarnished persona.

Yeah, though, that's it. There's nothing else to drag The Sorcerer's Apprentice from the deepest depths of slick, instantly forgettable mediocrity, without even the mesmerising badness of The Last Airbender to give it some heft, any kind of heft at all. A smart person would not of course go into a Jerry Bruckheimer production looking for anything other than facile commercialism, but even then, we've been habituated to expect a certain level of storytelling exuberance entirely absent here. He made his name on films that were dumb and fun, after all, not dumb and sleepy. But sleepiness is all we get with The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which puts up a good fight for the title of Most Inconsequential Movie of Summer 2010, alongside dandies like The A-Team and Bruckheimer's other misconceived flop, Prince of Persia: Something Something Time.

Bearing about as much relationship to Goethe's 1797 poem, Paul Dukas's 1897 composition, or the segment from Disney's 1940 Fantasia as it does to the films of Chantal Akerman, The Sorcerer's Apprentice opens in Britain in 740, informing us of how the great sorcerer Merlin (James A. Stephens) was betrayed in his age-old battle with Morgana le Fay (Alice Krige) by one of this three apprentices, Maxim Horvath (Alfred Molina). Though Merlin died, Morgana was stopped by the sacrifice of one of the other apprentices, Veronica (Monica Bellucci), who took the sorceress's spirit into her own body, so that they could both be captured by the third apprentice, and Veronica's lover, Balthazar Blake (Cage). There's a prophecy of sorts involving the Prime Merlinian, which feels for all the world like a phrase out of one of Dan Brown's novels but is actually the sorcerer to beat all sorcerers, and before you can say "This has fuck-all to do with actual Welsh legend", we flash to New York in 2000, where a kid named Dave (Jake Cherry) is found by Balthazar to be the fulfillment of the prophecy, but Dave is an absolute idiot who manages to free Horvath from the Grimhold, an enchanted nesting doll in which Balthazar has captured all of Morgana's followers that he could find in the last 1260 years. Fortunately, Balthazar and Horvath get sucked into a magical Chinese urn for ten years, to the day. Christ, we're not even through the exposition and I'm already sad to be typing all of this out.

In 2010, a college-age Dave (Jay Baruchel) is now a physics nerd, and pretty darn quickly he ends up apprenticed to Balthazar to fight Horvath, who wants the magic nesting doll. But ho, Dave would rather canoodle with Becky (Theresa Palmer), the girl that he had a crush on in fourth grade and just re-met. Though being a sorcerer would be pretty cool. Which path will he choose?

More importantly, do we care? An unlovely flimsiness pervades every inch of the movie; it's hard not to see the appeal of even something as over-used as thr Chosen Youth trope, but even the hoariest cliché needs to be given a bit of life, and for a movie ostensibly about how fantastic and awesome it is to use magic, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is noticeably shy on imagination. Dave's numerous training sessions with Balthazar merge into an uninflected lump of CGI shit getting tossed around, and the bigger battle sequences reveal a faintly distressing - and quintessentially Bruckheimer-esque - tendency to give up and throw a couple of big fireballs at us. It's disappointing if not tremendously surprising that Jon Turteltaub, who previous worked with Cage and Bruckheimer on the National Treasure movies, exactly the kind of "dumb but fun" that The Sorcerer's Apprentice so desperately fails to be, should oversee something so altogether listless; you would hope that a scene of a CGI dragon tearing its way through New York's Chinatown, for example, would be a bit peppier than it turns out to be, with the distinctly uncinematic emphasis on close-ups and insert shots, and the patently CGI-ness of the effects. It doesn't seem that it should be this easy for filmmakers who aren't obviously incompetent to screw up popcorn movie action scenes, but there you have it.

It's tempting to throw some blame at the actors, but then again it's hard to say how much fault they bear in relationship to the perfunctory characters given to them by the screenplay (the story was put together by three men, and the script by three men also, with only Matt Lopez overlapping the two groups). Certainly, Baruchel isn't the right fit for this material; his limitations as an actor run towards the ironic and self-distancing mood that Bruckheimer doubtlessly assumed would have all the audience in stitches, but it's a deadly match to the sense of wonder that the scenario requires. Molina does a bit better - in fact, a lot better - but he's not as good as you'd have every right to expect from "Alfred Molina playing an embittered evil sorcerer with a bowler and goatee". About Palmer's performance as the immensely thankless love interest in an action film for 10-year-old boys, I would be happiest saying nothing.

The odd snatch of good humor or wit here and there - a visual gag during the otherwise ludicrous and desperately unmotivated "mop" scene, the single reference to the original story in all its incarnations; the first appearance of Horvath's Criss Angel-parodying assistant (Toby Kebbell); the one truly brilliant effects scene, which involves a roomful of Tesla coils and no magic at all - are not enough to drag The Sorcerer's Apprentice screaming up to the level of watchability. Cage almost is; he's obviously having a lot of fun playing a magic-user with a dry sense of humor, and some of his line deliveries reach the level of pure genius. Meaning that Cage completists - and you know they're out there - are probably going to make it all the way through without feeling too bad about the experience. For the rest of us, the film's best use is an excuse to take a nap of a summer's afternoon, preferably not while exposing an innocent child to the wanton imagination vacuum that Bruckheimer and his team have puked up.

4/10

21 July 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: MINDF*CKING

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: though Christopher Nolan proves again with Inception that he's one of the most honorable directors in the field of creating alternative realities so bizarre that you can hardly even describe them in an ad, he's not alone.

"WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" In the first quarter of 1999, it was impossible to avoid that question, plastered all over the television, and on every billboard and bus, and mixed in with the trailers for just about every movie you saw in a theater. "WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" Brilliant hucksterism, raising enthusiasm for the movie based on very little other than the promise of a hellzapoppin' narrative hook married to the cool visuals that dribbled out a little at a time (in 1999, there was not such an advanced film culture on the internet outside of the realm of the truly geeky, and it was a great deal harder to learn every aspect of a film's production before it premiered. "WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" A self-assured pick-up line that got everyone I knew at the time curious, even if they were the sort of person who wouldn't give half a damn about the Matrix if they actually knew ahead of time what the Matrix was.

"WHAT IS THE MATRIX?" was a particularly canny way to advertise The Matrix, for answer that question was, in a sense, the only point driving the movie's narrative. Of course, you don't need me to tell you what the Matrix is, anymore: the film has become one of the holy icons of contemporary cinema, having been stolen from by more movies than I or any other one person could hope to count in the little more than a decade since it made its debut in March of '99, thereby ever-so-casually creating the idea of the Pre-Summer Movie, a high-concept, effects-heavy tentpole film that for whatever reason opens right around the first day of spring.

But for form's sake, I shall remind you: the Matrix is everything; it is a machine-created reality in the late 22nd Century that replicates Earth in the late 20th Century. The Matrix is a simulation designed to keep humans' minds docile while the machines use their bodies as organic batteries. The Matrix is a cage, in other words, but a few lucky souls have been able to escape, and are doing their best to free the rest of the slaves. There is a certain man named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who goes under the hacker pseudonym "Neo" online, who is just coming to be aware that his world isn't right, in some vague and unhelpful sense of "not right" - and this makes him tremendously useful to a freed human known as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), the captain of a hovercraft in the real world, who has made it his goal to free all people from the Matrix, with the help of "The One", a prophesied individual with the ability to manipulate the very code of the Matrix with just his mind. Since this is that kind of movie, Morpheus is pretty damn sure that Neo is the One, and the movie largely consists of all the free humans on Morpheus's ship teaching Neo all the ins and outs of the Matrix, which they are able to plug into and leave freely, though they are pursued by sentient programs called Agents, the most dogged of whom is codenamed Smith (Hugo Weaving).

Prior to this review, I hadn't watched The Matrix in a great many years - I never had the love affair with it that a lot of people did and do, and the atrociousness of its sequels did a lot to strangle what love I had - and it was rather amazing to me that after such a long span full of so many knock-offs, my biggest problem with the hellzapoppin' narrative hook remains fundamentally unaltered: the Matrix makes no fucking sense. In the first, it seems unreasonable that sentient machines wouldn't be able to come up with a better power source in two hundred years than the grossly inefficient human body; in the second, it makes even less sense that they'd need to devote so much energy to the creation of a gigantic virtual reality system housing presumably billions of avatars, when the human body produces the same amount of energy if you lobotomize it (and it must be observed that both of these objections are answered in the blink of an eye if the film uses the original concept, that the humans the nodes of a giant neural network - the machines' central computer, in essence - and I have never understood why the filmmakers elected not to employ that no-less-arcane and infinitely more coherent notion).

Everybody notices this; virtually nobody cares; the reason being that The Matrix exemplifies the idea that a sufficiently cool outcome justifies all of the tortured narrative it takes to get there. It's certainly a cool movie, though I have always harbored the idea that it's just a bit too proud of its own coolness for it to really work. But the coolness of the film's mise en scène, with all the leather dusters and custom sunglasses and physically audacious action sequences augmented with what was then bleeding-edge special effects technology is obvious enough that it's almost boring to talk about it, even beyond the fact that it has been copied outright so very many times. What I find rather more compelling is the storytelling mechanism by which all of this coolness is presented to us: indeed, just as much as bullet-time and slow-motion shots of people dressed in black striding away from explosions have become such an entrenched part of The Matrix's legacy, its narrative structure is just as influential, and frankly a great deal more revolutionary.

It's all in the way that the writer-directors, Andy and Larry (now Lana) Wachowski explain the universe, and there's a lot of explanation. Really, The Matrix contains absolutely nothing but exposition: it's something that never struck me before, but there really isn't any dramatic conflict underpinning the whole film. Pretend for the moment that there was never The Matrix Reloaded or The Matrix Revolutions (which you should always pretend, anyway), and then describe the plot of The Matrix in terms of one player opposing another. There are a few possibilities, but none of them fit: "Morpheus and crew want to destroy the Matrix" doesn't work, since that plot never comes remotely close to a resolution, "Agent Smith wants to capture Morpheus" requires ignoring the self-evident fact that Neo is the film's protagonist, "Agent Smith wants to kill Neo" only incidentally describes Smith's motivations. The true plot is best summed up as "Morpheus teaches Neo about the Matrix and his role as the One", and virtually every moment up to the subway battle between Neo and Smith is in some way about Neo learning a new facet of how the Matrix works.

Nothing but exposition, I repeat: Neo is our surrogate, and Neo spends the whole movie learning about the Matrix, as we spend the whole movie learning about the Matrix. That sounds like a phenomenally boring way to spend a 136-minute action movie, and it easily could be: Reloaded certainly falls into the ugly pattern of a gigantic action scene followed by a deadly exposition dump that makes it feel a solid hour longer than its predecessor, even though it's only 138 minutes (and with longer end credits, it's functionally shorter than the first one).

What makes The Matrix special - what makes it functional at all, in fact - is the way the exposition is rolled into incident. The rule of cinema is typically said to be "show, don't tell", but a little bit of telling is plainly necessary in a scenario as esoteric as this. The Wachowski's genius lies in showing and telling simultaneously: as Neo learns by doing, we learn by watching. Every one of the showy setpieces (except for the famous lobby shoot-out, which despite its fame has never been my favorite part of the movie - it feels like it was cut using a Cuisinart) is both a kinetic feast of cool and a demonstration of some concept. It is this clever way of explaining on the run that makes learning about the Matrix so much fun, and it was in losing sight of this that Wachowskis guaranteed that the sequels would be nowhere near as watchable - that, and buying way too much into the bullshit cod-Buddhist philosophy that keeps poking its snoot into The Matrix but never overwhelms it.

By making the needed exposition so painless and easy to comprehend, the Wachowskis free the audience to enjoy the fantasy world they've created: and despite my unabashed respect for the world-building in The Matrix, I must confess to being a little bit unmoved by the alleged coolness involved. The world-building is honestly what fascinates me; I'd love to know more about how life in the Matrix works (we can assume that it's always the late '90s, and people's memories of time before that are fabrications, but I have always wanted to see that in action, for example), more of the technology in general. Then again, having seen how dreadfully wrong it went when the filmmakers indeed tried to explain more about the world, we're probably better off.

Still, there's something a bit chilly about the movie that we're given. Stunningly achieved fight choreography, beyond a shadow of a doubt; and Bill Pope's ugly green cinematography within the Matrix and sickly blue cinematography in the real world give the film a defining look that serves it well. The effects hold up better than movies made years later; and as much as anyone might want to mock, the leather dusters and sunglasses are cool. There's just nothing human about it whatsoever: all spectacle, no substance. Plenty of delightful movies have borne the same weight, so it's not fair to single out The Matrix, except that it seems to be convinced that it is substantial: that Neo (courtesy of Reeves's determinedly un-inflected performance) is a sort of Everyman, whose journey from bored drone to hero of all humanity is a potent bit of wish-fulfillment, and that Morpheus's cryptic spirituality speaks to something profound. Honestly, the film would have been better off jettisoning those ineffective feints towards seriousness: the sight of people spinning in midair, coupled with the unoriginal but richly detailed "fake reality" concept, would have been more than enough to make the movie a real barnburner of a popcorn masterpiece. Basically, I wish it appeared to be as much fun to be in The Matrix as it is to watch The Matrix; there are some places where solemnity has no merit, and this is definitely one of them.

20 July 2010

GRASS PAINS

There's not supposed to be anything easy or straightforward about a new film from octogenarian director Alain Resnais, and Wild Grass does not disappoint. Premiering at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival just a couple of weeks before the filmmaker's 87th birthday, the film shows no sign of his age: it's maddening and challenging and frequently brilliant, a movie that engages with cinematic vocabulary in offbeat, casually thrilling ways, at a time when even "art" movies are typically happy to toe the line of convention. Parts of it are befuddling, but it's a damn privilege to be befuddled by a film that has been put together with this much insight and precision.

The simplest place is to begin with the plot, though it's not the best place. But disregarding that: a dentist named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) has her purse snatched, and a little while later a man named Georges Palet (André Dussollier) finds it in a shopping center parking garage. He tries to contact her, and failing that, turn the wallet in at the police department; when she calls to thank him, he is impossibly rude, and his attempts to apologise turn into a frightful, stalkerish series of letters and calls and tire-slashings. Marguerite eventually calls the same police department to make him stop, but then has a change of heart, and thereupon tries to re-enter his life.

Not the best angle to approach the film, like I said, but at least it gives us something to hang on to. Like other Resnais films, Wild Grass uses its narrative as a tool to explore what I would hesitantly call "models of knowing" - there are only vague ways of describing what I'm thinking of, but several of his best-known works investigate the ways that we perceive and compartmentalise knowledge, which in a Resnais film is always incomplete and faulty. The perversity and genius of this particular movie (perversity is genius here) is that every time we think we have a handle on a character or a situation, the director and writers Alex Reval & Laurent Herbiet (adapting Christian Gailly's novel L'incident) change the rules of the game on us. Not capriciously: other than the odd changes in Marguerite's feelings from fear and loathing to guilt and the desire for reconciliation, we're never really aware when the ground shifts beneath our feet.

Deprived of a baseline reality - it wouldn't be unreasonable to accuse the film of incoherence, if only it weren't so deliberate - Wild Grass has a fragmentary, almost schizophrenic quality that mirrors the erratic minds of its two protagonists. The title is very nearly the right translation of the French Les herbes folles, though a more literal rendering would be "Crazy Grass", and the distinction is important: there is a singular lack of sanity in the world of the film, obviously in the case of Georges (who fantasises about killing young women in certain scenes, and tries to rehearse his first conversation with Marguerite in a ballsy double-exposure), only slightly less obviously for Marguerite (frequently costumed in a squirrelly, button-heavy suit that, combined with her explosive nest of red hair, makes her look like a drum majorette with her head on fire), and even in the case of the film's designated "normal" people, Georges's wife Suzanne (Anne Consigny) and Marguerite's colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos), though in a subtle way.

Wild Grass isn't exploring insanity, though, not in such bald terms: it's an effort to drag coherence out of incoherence, that keeps failing because the movie always insists on darting away - it's the cinematic equivalent of trying to catch a live fish with your bare hands. Especially in its final handful of scenes - especially in its final shot - Wild Grass is a study in mutability and the potential non-existence of solid identity that puts the blockbuster dream-thriller Inception to shame. It's slippery in every way possible: from the very insistent way that Resnais keeps us from seeing Marguerite or Georges in their first scenes, accompanied by a warm-voiced narrator (Edouard Baer) whose grasp of the story is no greater than ours, though he seems entirely amused by his own inability to keep track of details, "um"-ing and backtracking to correct himself with the hint of laughter in his tone.

While all of this narrative fragmentation is going on, Resnais plays a two-handed game with the film's visuals, giving us certain cues to anchor ourselves - repeated slow-motion shots of Marguerite's purse in the hands of the thief or a field of the titular wild grass, for example - while using unconventional framing and other idiosyncratic visual tricks to leave the film mired in its own anti-reality. Sometimes, he combines these things: there is a magnificently sophisticated use of color in the film, especially red, yellow, and blue, that I'm not in the least prepared to analyse after just one viewing, though it provides a structure to the film while also giving a cryptic, dream-like aura to much of the mise en scène: the weird lighting in Marguerite's apartment, for example, which is a clear visual cue of her disconnect from normalcy long before the script has given us any real reason to suspect such a thing.

Wild Grass is unconventional to the point of dysfunction, yet Resnais finds a way to make the film's apparent incoherence the very reason that the film is a triumph. The film is about incoherent people, after all, though "irrational" might be a better word for it. The theme, if I can try to pin down such a wildly divergent movie, which cuts from goofy comedy to thriller to romantic drama in the space of a few shots, sometimes, relates to the fragility of "the normal", and it's rather messy, violent and confusing in the process, though also enthralling. It's hard to say whether the film is an example form following content, or content being dictated by form, though I suppose it's likeliest that such a distinction doesn't matter. What is certainly the case is that Wild Grass is a lingering film, and trying to capture its essence in a review is the height of folly - I look forward to revisiting and rethinking this film often in the future, which is rare praise indeed for any movie from any country in a period as bound by strictly coded filmmaking rules as our own. This is why Resnais continues to matter some six decades into his career: he still finds new ways to push the artform in the pursuit of exploring the corners of human perception.

9/10

19 July 2010

TEN FOR MONDAY: THE BAD WITH THE GOOD

For no reason other than I've been noodling around with it for a while, it's my pleasure to present a chronologically-ordered list of:

Ten Staggering Flaws in Otherwise Brilliant Movies
(my apologies for the lack of stills/videos - I was shocked how hard it was to scrape up even a jpeg for some of these)

A Night at the Opera (1935), the romantic B-plot

It's not the only great Marx Bros. film tarnished by a wedged-in love story at MGM's insistence: see also A Day at the Races. But never before nor after was such exquisite comic material - the stateroom scene and the contract scene are among the best moments in the Marxes' film canon - strangled by such a milquetoast romantic lead as Allan Jones's Ricardo, who frequently stops the movie dead in its tracks for three or four or five minutes to moon over Kitty Carlisle (which, okay, who wouldn't?). It's enough to make you beg for Zeppo.

* * * * *

A Star Is Born (1954), CinemaScope

When I complain about the anamorphic widescreen cinematography of George Cukor's greatest feature, I'm not arguing that he and DP Sam Leavitt don't know how to frame a composition with the then-newfangled technology - they clearly do, unlike generations of filmmakers who grew up with ultra-wide aspect ratios. What they didn't know was how, functionally, the CinemaScope process worked: which led to more shots than you'd like to think with wonky focus, or terrifying, stretched-out faces (Judy Garland looks pinchy and froglike as often as not). It's not, in the grand scheme of things, a disastrous problem; but once you've noticed it, you can't un-notice it.

* * * * *

Touch of Evil (1958), Charlton Heston

Forget what you learned in Ed Wood: far from being forced upon an unwilling Orson Welles by Universal, Heston was actually attached to the project first, and it was at his suggestion that Welles was brought on board. But that doesn't make his performance any better: and the fact that he's the least convincing Mexican in the history of brownface is almost incidental to the crushing mediocrity he brings to the table. From his ghastly reading of the line "Do you realise I haven't kissed you in over an hour?" at the end of the movie's beloved opening shot, it's all halting, stilted moments of mechanically campy expressions and inflections, a terrible contrast with all the noir grotesques that otherwise populate Welles's great thriller.

* * * * *

Psycho (1960), Dr. Richman explains it all

Alfred Hitchcock's most famous, influential, and iconic film batters the audience up, down and sideways for most of its running time, so it's probably just as well that we get a little cool-down before that immaculately creepy final monologue. But why oh why did that cool-down have to come in the form of a police psychologist (Simon Oakland) expressing in the most blandly clinical terms just how fucked-up Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was? We got it already, thanks, and the hours-long five-minute denouement serves only to suck nearly every scrap of energy from one of cinema's greatest shabby little shockers, right at the bottom of the ninth.

* * * * *

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Mr. Yunioshi

"MISS-A GORIGHTREE!" It's one thing to have a troublesomely chauvinistic characterisation of an old Japanese man in an American movie from the '60s - regrettable, but not inconceivable, even at that late date. But to cast Mickey Rooney as that Japanese man? And to have him deliver every. Single. One. of his lines in the same shrieking Engrish tones? It turns a delicate romantic confection into a racist nightmare the likes of which Nazi-era Germany could hardly match; small wonder that director Blake Edwards has felt compelled in later years to publicly apologise.

* * * * *

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the music

Atmospherically shot by the great Conrad Hall, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford falling easily into some of the most playful chemistry between two men in cinema history, this quirky neo-Western comedy purrs along with enviable perfection - until Burt Bacharach's hideously anachronistic score crops up. The song "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head", with lyrics by Hal David, is the absolute worst moment in the film: the song matches the narrative not at all, and the scene it accompanies doesn't serve any purpose other than getting the song into the movie. Almost as bad is the montage following Butch and Sundance from New York to Bolivia: a gaudy, bouncy jingle that's too slapsticky by half makes it seem more like a clown family's home movies than a wistful adventure-comedy about the death of the 19th Century.

* * * * *

The Godfather, Part II (1974), Kay's abortion metaphor

An almost unbearably subtle character study and investigation into how American capitalism devours men's souls, Francis Ford Coppola's even-better sequel to an already great film purrs along like a finely-oiled machine, until it hits the incredible pothole of a sequence that has rightfully entered the Bad Movie Dialogue pantheon:
Michael, you are blind. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. An abortion, Michael. Just like our marriage is an abortion. I didn't want your son, Michael! I wouldn't bring another one of you sons into this world! It was an abortion, Michael! It was a son Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end!
Diane Keaton, at the very height of her powers, almost manages to sell this apocalyptically ham-fisted speech. Almost.

* * * * *

Beauty and the Beast (1991), Plotholegate

Go ahead, take some paper and a pencil, and try to work it out: how long is Belle in the Beast's castle? The evidence of the A-plot suggests at least two or three months (from the beginning to the end of winter), while the equally-long B-plot of Belle's father trying to rally the town against the Beast - who lives either several days or an hour away, depending on how you interpret various scenes - cannot possible take place over more than about four days. If you can get around all of that, here's the graduate-level problem: according to all the evidence we can discover, the Beast was about 11 years old when the fairy first cursed him. Discuss.

* * * * *

Minority Report (2002), putting a bow on the ending

In the last ten years, it's become something of a running joke that Steven Spielberg can't end his movies, but the problem has been a bit overstated. A.I. has a much cannier ending than detractors give it credit for; the terrible, way-too-happy conclusion of War of the Worlds is over in just a second, like getting a shot or pulling off a band-aid; and Munich suffers from a misjudged idea (the sex scene) that's sweetly idiotic but doesn't harm the rest of the film much. But I will offer no defense of the last few moments of Minority Report, which not only goes to fairly absurd lengths to tie up every last loose end, it also indulges in some of the worst hackneyed sentimentality of the director's career, culminating in an unforgivable final shot implying SPOILER that it doesn't matter if your son died, you and your ex-wife can just get back together and try again. It all comes perilously close to undermining all the thematic resonance of the entire film that precedes it.

* * * * *

Million Dollar Baby (2004), fun with white trash

One of Clint Eastwood's finest works as a director combines religious iconography, character study, film noir attitude, and a brutally stripped-down aesthetic sensibility in the creation of a harrowing vision of the triumphs and sacrifices that must be made in the name of familial love, even an ad hoc family like the one the film depicts. Then the circus comes to town:

The worst part is that the excellent character actress Margo Martindale is always going to have to live with this being the most widely-seen role of her career.