30 September 2010

OCTOBER 2010 MOVIE PREVIEW

The big news 'round these parts is, of course, the Chicago International Film Festival; which I, frustratingly, will not be able to do up as vigorously as has been my wont. Though as of this writing, I'm guaranteed to hit at least three films, so it won't be a total wipeout.

Anyway, with Oscar Season starting up in earnest, there are at least some other likely looking films in *shudder* the multplexes...

1.10.2010

And surely none of them is likelier than The Social Network, which has received basically the most glowing reviews of anything ever released in history. I was a late convert to this one - David Fincher has a lot to make up for after that foul Benjamin Button thing, and the idea of Aaron Sorkin penning a diatribe about the damn kids and their damn internet isn't altogether the most appealing thought. But buzz like that, you can't fake that. Obviously, there has to be a "there" there, and I'm pretty pumped about it.

Otherwise, it's mostly the kind of horror-heavy weekend we expect from October: Case 39, a long-delayed (four years!) thriller with Renée Zellweger, of all random stars; Let Me In, a remarkably unwarranted remake of the perfectly perfect Swedish vampire movie Let the Right One In; and Hatchet II, which requires, I think, no explication.


8.10.2010

Speaking of horror, Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl do the romantic dramedy bit in Life As We Know It.

A profoundly full weekend here: the actual horror releases include Wes Craven's 3-D My Soul to Take and a remake of the infamous I Spit on Your Grave; and let's go ahead and assume that the financial meltdown documentary Inside Job will be just as scary as either of them. For Oscarbait, Disney has Secretariat, a years-too-late rip-off of Seabiscuit, and there's also a "Young Mr. Lennon" biopic, Nowhere Boy. Plus, a Robert De Niro/Ed Norton mash-up, Stone. Plus a sleepy-looking indie comedy, It's Kind of a Funny Story. And, yes, it's the first proper day of CIFF.


15.10.2010

Giving us all time to catch up on that huge explosion, there are just three wide releases. I am indecently excited for Red, a generic thriller with a terrifyingly solid cast (Willis! Malkovich! Freeman! Mirren! MIRREN WITH A BIG-ASS GUN!), which is just as well given that Conviction looks like a positively sterile prestige movie with Hilary Swank in full-on "I need awards" mode, and Jackass 3-D is, theoretically, a Jackass movie, but in 3-D.


22.10.2010

Even fewer wide releases! Just two, and they're both forms of ghost stories. Paranormal Activity 2 makes no fucking sense conceptually, but I for one found the original blissfully frightening, so I will at least maintain an open mind. Then there's Hereafter, which finds Clint Eastwood operating way the hell out of his comfort zone, less in a "this could be revelatory" way than in a "has he lost his mind?" way. And that coming from a full-throated Eastwood fanboy.


29.10.2010

They say that Saw 3D (bloody hell) will be the last in its franchise. What a shame.

Elsewhere, Monsters sounds pretty straightforward, but it's actually a message movie about Mexican immigrants. And if you're into spending your Halloween weekend in the art-house, then The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest - the conclusion of the cinematically inert Millennium Trilogy - will do you up just right.

29 September 2010

WHAT, NEVER? NO, NEVER.

I have not read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a widely-praised 2005 novel about life of a certain sort in a dystopian Britain in an alternate 20th Century. But I sort of feel as though I have read it, thanks to the new film adaptation written by Alex Garland (a sometime-collaborator of Danny Boyle), and directed by Mark Romanek (a tremendously brilliant music video director whose only other feature film is 2002's One Hour Photo). Not to put too fine a point on it, this is the kind of adaptation that is absolutely terrified to be a movie, preferring instead to lay out stretches of narrative, lovingly consider them, and then pound them full of nails so that there can be no accidental movement or any sort of vitality mucking up the precious, airless delicacy of it all.

This was not, by the way, my reaction while I was actually sitting in the theater, watching Never Let Me Go. For all of the film's relatively brisk 103 minutes, it struck me as a perfectly fine, not unusually urgent, prestige picture: capably acted, absolutely gorgeous, moody in all the right ways. It was only afterward - seconds afterward, in fact - that the profound emptiness of the movie really sank in, when I discovered that I had, effectively, nothing to keep thinking about. This is the devilish sin of a story that presents a real deep, twisty concept, and then scrupulously refuses to ask nearly any of the questions that follow naturally from the premise, or really to try and connect the incidents of the plot to any kind of greater reality whatsoever. It is a film deeply pockmarked by tiny notions that indicate a compelling depth is there for the delving, but nobody involved wants to deal with more than an airbrushed psychodrama.

We are informed by a title card: "The medical breakthrough came in 1952. By 1967, life expectancy had passed 100", or words to that effect. Tantalising, no? And by far the best parts of Never Let Me Go are the ones that tell the story while allowing the explanation to sit mostly untouched, except for an opening scene in which 29-year-old Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan) watches a young man getting prepped for surgery, to donate an indeterminate number of vital organs. She narrates this, and proceeds to narrate for all the rest of the movie, which immediately resets to 1978, when she (played as a girl by Isobel Meikle-Small) was a student at the Hailsham School in the English countryside. Here, she gravely indicates in voiceover, she began a lifelong relationship with Ruth (Ella Purnell), a prickly, precocious thing, and Tommy (Charlie Rowe), an affable dunce.

It's not a twist, and barely a surprise, when we learn that Hailsham is a pen, basically, for children who were cloned and bred for the single purpose of organ farming, and by the time the kids grow up (Ruth is now Keira Knightley, and Tommy is Andrew Garfield: not a new face, exactly, but very shortly he's going to be completely unavoidable), they have grown idly used to the idea of being very well-educated cattle; Kathy is somewhat more discomfited by this fact than the other two, who are now romantically involved, and it's certainly the case that Kathy's mopey jealousy about this fact is a more pressing issue to her than the fact that she's going to be carved up and disposed off by the time she's 30.

There are so many issues that instantly crop up when you hear that scenario! And yet, they're largely sidelined or ignored in favor of a romantic drama that only occasionally remembers that it's a dystopian, borderline science-fiction narrative. It's difficult to conceive of a way to tell this exact story that doesn't hinge upon the character's awareness of their abbreviated lifespans as a driving force in their curious little emotional three-way; yet Romanek and Garland have endeavored to do so, with the scenes (mostly in the last third of the film) that explicitly address this issue feeling tacked-on to the greater drama: OMG, is Kathy going to end up with Tommy?!

Worse still, the other big question the film doesn't really care about - the social context of this world, and the ethical ramifications outside the limited sphere of Hailsham, and later the even more limited sphere of the Cottages - isn't ignored outright, but brought up more than once, and lamely discarded, as though nobody could think of anything interesting to say about it, but knew that it was an elephant in the room that had to be talked up. This is a particularly egregious failure: by design (both the filmmakers', and presumably the unseen breeders'), Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are fairly empty-headed individuals, making them difficult audience surrogates; I for one found it much easier to identify with the teacher Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), the first person to bring up this ethical question, and even with the stern Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling), who does the same in a late scene that makes very little objective sense, but partially because of Rampling's refusal to let such things bother her, comes across as one of the most fascinating, probing moments in the film. My greater point being, it's downright cruel of the filmmakers to dangle these characters with a more "adult" perspective in front of us, and then snatch them away - "oh, no, that's not what the film is about".

In place of a genuine treatment of its own themes, all that Never Let Me Go has to offer is tastefulness: lots and lots of extremely classy tastefulness that leaves the film not just restrained, but practically mummified. This is mostly thanks to Adam Kimmel's cinematography, which bathes everything in the exact same frosty haze which, in a version of this story with a clear sense of its own identity, might have even provided some kind of thematic resonance; but here, coupled with the immaculate lighting, makes the whole film look like a series of romantic snapshots - an impression not helped by Romanek's weird insistence on stripping away movement from the frame whenever possible. Also contributing to the film's eminently respectable & boring tone is Rachel Portman's dramatic, string-heavy score, which is a little cloying and a little urgent when you first hear it, but so quickly recedes to the background that it ends up as little more than white noise.

In the face of all this, the talented cast does their best: Rampling is easily the stand-out, in a tiny role, while Hawkins loses herself in an exposition-heavy character who is a terrible fit for the gifted actress's natural strengths. The trio at the center has to contend with characters that, for the most part, don't really do much: Kathy's wordy narration is both redundant to whatever the onscreen people do or feel, and much more specific, which virtually gives Mulligan two roles to play, and she does a fine job with both of them, though she does just as much with far less in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Garfield is good as a blank slate - a compliment, though it doesn't sound that way - while poor Knightley does what she can to combat the most apocalyptically ill-chosen wig that has disgraced cinema screens in years, and ultimately loses.

In the end, they do manage to bring a bit of spark to what is otherwise a perniciously sedate "motion" picture, and in faith, I am probably speaking too harshly of Never Let Me Go: it is not at all painful to watch, though it's awfully unengaging. At least it's stupidly pretty. Can't ever complain about a movie being pretty.

5/10

28 September 2010

THAT CLINKING, CLANKING SOUND

Save for Michael Douglas's deservedly iconic barnburner of a performance as the oily arch-capitalist Gordon Gekko, the 1987 film Wall Street is not particularly good, nor is it particularly bad. Its new sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is not particularly good.

Conceived before the 2008 economic meltdown, and massively retooled to adjust for The World In Which We Now Live, Money Never Sleeps is a whole lot of things all at once: a roman à clef vaguely recalling the basic scope of how we ended up here; a character drama centered on the question of whether a leopard can change its spots; the latest attempt by whatever cruel god rules American filmmaking to establish Shia LaBeouf as a viable actor; a critique of the increase in reckless consumerism in America over the last 30 or so years; and most presently and most obnoxiously, a lecture on how, in fact, you idiot people all misread the first movie, we weren't trying to actually say that "greed is good". SEE, HE'S STANDING RIGHT THERE GIVING ANOTHER SPEECH JUST LIKE IN THE FIRST MOVIE ONLY NOW HE'S SUGGESTING THAT GREED IS BAD, DO YOU GET IT NOW?

The mere thought of trying to actually recap the plot is daunting in the extreme, but basically: Gekko (still, obviously, Douglas) gets out of jail in 2001, and is conspicuously not met by his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who in 2008 is running a minor left-wing news website and having schmoopy cuddletimes with fresh-faced Wall Street player Jacob Moore (LaBeouf), who works at the investment bank Keller Zabel (the stand-in for Lehman Brothers), where he is mentored by that company's aged co-founder, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), who throws himself under a subway car the day after his company is driven into the ground over the revelation that its profits were made up largely out of wishes and unicorns, which fact was forced into the open thanks to the scheming of his former partner and current nemesis, Bretton James (Josh Brolin) of Churchill Schwartz (a veiled Goldman Sachs), who also happens to be a former partner and current nemesis of none other than Gordon Gekko. Also, Gekko wants to reconnect with Winnie, and Jake wants to be Gekko's protégé, and Winnie blames her dad for her brother's suicide.

First things first: the drama of watching a fundamentally decent idealist like Jake Moore trying to juggle a lot of balls while the economy falls apart just plain isn't as much fun as the operatic grandeur of the first film, where Charlie Sheen played a tabula rasa torn between the forces of good and evil. Secondly: there is a rich drama to be found in the story of a young woman who hated her father for being a Wall Street whiz kid, now finding herself attracted to a scrubbed-up younger version of the same man, and Money Never Sleeps waves in its direction as it speeds past. But that's as may be.

The great problem with Money Never Sleeps is not that it fails, for in many isolated moments and even stretches, it is quite a thing to see. The problem is that the film can never make up its mind how it wants to be, and so the inexcusably long 133-minute running time finds the movie shuttling from one tonal register to another, wildly aimless, never quite deciding which element of the plot to privilege, never knowing whether it blames the government, the banks, or just the faceless fact of unregulated capitalism for the global financial crisis.

Aw, but how silly of me to say "the film" doesn't know what it wants, when I quite clearly mean that Oliver Stone doesn't know what he wants. This should surprise no-one who has been paying attention.

The case of Oliver Stone is a fascinating and troublesome one, which is just as it should be, given how fascinating and troublesome most of the movies he's directed are. This must be said at the outset: of his recent output, a trio of movies based upon recent American history with titles beginning with the letter "W", Money Never Sleeps is - though no return to the form of his glory days - a damn sight more energetic and compelling than the self-destructively insular, thickly melodramatic World Trade Center, or the stiff, dismayingly conventional George Bush biopic W. It's obviously the case that the Stone directing Money Never Sleeps remembers being the Stone who directed JFK and Natural Born Killers and even the original Wall Street; but now, he's not terribly good at it.

Stylistically, the film is hodgepodge - not a zesty, enlivening, bracing hodgepodge, like JFK, but a confused, nasty, "throw everything against the wall and pray that some of it sticks" hodgepodge, in which soaring, computer-aided tracking shots up the side of buildings compete for dominance with inserts of metaphorical dominoes falling, melodramaticshots of Langella's ghostly presence with the antsy edge of David Byrne and Brian Eno's clutch of new songs, and - because why the hell not? - an old-timey iris effect. Boardroom scenes are shot with the hushed solemnity of a funeral, while Jake's loopy real-estate speculator mom is presented as a comic broadside against Long Island's middle class, both in the garish details of her dress and in Susan Sarandon's all-out performance. Although, I don't mean to harsh on Sarandon, one of the few performers that Stone actually knows how to use well (Eli Wallach, as a massively peculiar Wall Street elder, is another; Douglas, of course, goes without saying). In a film where Langella's intensely focused work is given less attention than LaBeouf's washed-out reactions (seriously - why are people still casting him?), and Mulligan gives a performance that is truly great around the edges but mostly requires her to cry all the damn time, and Brolin is just sort of... onscreen... it doesn't do to belittle the moments of acting that actually click 100%.

As I was saying: it's all over the place, and it reads as scattered, more than anything else, an impression not helped at all by the entirely unfocused political argument at its heart, which is clearly anti- "destroying the economy", but isn't terrible coherent otherwise (and anyone who can square the rest of it, I dare you to explain Charlie Sheen's cameo, which at a minimum makes not the slightest trace of sense in regard to his character's arc in the first Wall Street).

What the heck. It's an Oliver Stone movie, which means that strict coherence, thematically or stylistically, was never a serious option, and at least parts of it work pretty well: some of the acting, like I said; the opening scene which reveals the devil-may-care Gekko of the first movie is now a worn-out, lonely old man - in fact, just about everything with Gekko is pretty good, unsurprisingly (though there's not enough of it), until the profoundly unconvincing climax, which requires not one, but two characters to act entirely against everything we know about them. And some of the cinematography, courtesy of the routinely extraordinary Rodrigo Prieto, is all that you could hope for, rendering New York as variously, a treasure box, a gritty slagpile, a place of joy, or a place of danger. Though the quality of the cinematography is generally held back by some of the most conspicuous and ill-considered digital intermediate I've seen in some months.

And, insofar as this story that is so explicitly and ham-fistedly about the dangers of being greedy and letting others encourage you in your greed, the lifestyle-porn depiction of the rich people's world of 2008 is gorgeous. If that doesn't say all there is to say about Money Never Sleeps, then I just don't know what.

5/10

27 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, CONCLUDING THOUGHTS & EPISODE 13: "THE FINAL EPISODE"

Links to individual episode reviews:

Episode 1, "Enter Lil' Slugger"
Episode 2, "The Golden Shoes"
Episode 3, "Double Lips"
Episode 4, "A Man's Path"
Episode 5, "The Holy Warrior"
Episode 6, "Fear of a Direct Hit"
Episode 7, "MHz"
Episode 8, "Happy Family Planning"
Episode 9, "ETC"
Episode 10, "Mellow Maromi"
Episode 11, "No Entry"
Episode 12, "Radar Man"


Consider the opening of Paranoia Agent:



That is, I think I can say without serious fear of contradiction, one of the most aggressive, transporting opening theme sequences in all of television. To begin with, we have the song, "Dream Island Obsessional Park", composed (as all of the show's music was composed) by the groundbreaking Hirasawa Susumu. Its lyrics - now that's a tricky matter, because just about everywhere you look for the English translation, you get a different version. Here is the one provided by AnimeLyrics.com:
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra - a magnificent mushroom cloud in the sky
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra - on an afternoon of small birds eating feed on a path

Touching our hands to a lawn dappled with light, let's you and I talk
Look, over a lunch bench, my dream will bloom
Take the roar of the sea into your heart; submerge your depression
Stretch a bridge to tomorrow; never worry about any tsunamis

Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra - a magnificent mushroom cloud in the sky
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra - an afternoon of small birds eating feed on a path
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra - a dream reared on a lunch bench
Raaiiyaa ra ra i yo ra - oh, an afternoon born on a day dappled with light
Such lyrics! On the one hand, so many images of peace and sunlight; and yet the hint of darkness peers over it. "Magnificent mushroom cloud" - only one connection you can make there, especially for a socially-conscious Japanese artist.

And as this menacingly happy song plays out, sweeping and grand and just not quite "right", what do we see. People laughing. People who we come to know very well over the thirteen episodes of Paranoia Agent, and who, in the main, are not the sort to laugh like that. Of the many possible explanations for what the hell is going on, the one I favor is that we're watching people who are completely demented, madly cheerful in the face of all sorts of chaos and brokenness, some of which echo the imagery of that character's episode, some of which are just a little bit disconcerting and peculiar for the hell of it. And yet they laugh, laugh, laugh. "Never worry about any tsunamis", indeed. Oh, wouldn't that little shit Maromi just absolutely agree with that sentiment?

It's the only opening sequence that Paranoia Agent could possibly have; for the show is itself dedicated to exploring the ways that fragile human beings insulate themselves from the world, finding ways to make everything bad go away by, in essence, ignoring it. What is the single constant in every one of the narratives, even those which totally ignore the main plot of the series? Lil' Slugger, who comes when you are in an emotional crisis, and hits you with his baseball bat, and as a result, your problem goes away. Possibly because you are dead.

What an obvious metaphor this is: taking the easiest way out will hurt you. Yet in the hands of Kon Satoshi and his exemplary crew, that obvious metaphor is played in so many keys throughout the various episodes that it never feels repetitive or insultingly easy. "Easy" is very much one of the last words that appropriately describes Paranoia Agent, in fact; a more layered, complex, lustfully philosophical television show is hard to find, even in an era when television regularly trounces all but the best novels and movies for thematic complexity and richness.

The world is broken - it is broken because we all break it, every time we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves - this is the heart and soul of Paranoia Agent. And so we come to "The Final Episode".

Following hard upon "Radar Man", the final episode begins with Ikari Keiichi, dishonorably retired detective, and Sagi Tsukiko, painfully withdrawn character designer, trapped in a fantasy world in which Ikari is able to live his beloved fantasy of being a simple cop faced with simple problems, where an ineradicable problem like phantom teens on rollerblades never comes up. In the real world, Maniwa Mitsuhiro, former detective and current crazy visionary, faces down the present face of Lil' Slugger: a formless black mass that devours the people it comes into contact with, and leaves total destruction in its wake. Only Tsukiko can stop it, but she is also rather enjoying Ikari's fantasy world.

"The Final Episode" is rife with heartbreaking revelations and moments, and the first is what e learn of Ikari and Tsukiko: he has always wanted a daughter, to prove that he could be a better father than the one who raised him; she has always wanted a father who would love her and treat her kindly, instead of the strict, cold man who brought her up after her mother died. They find this in one another, with Tsukiko eventually regressing to a child, toting along a pet dog - the real Maromi.

Setting aside the external narrative concern of the episode, the drama is primarily focused on how these two characters are made to confront what is true, rather than what they wish to be true. Ikari does this through the ghostly presence of his beloved wife Misae, and much as she was able to triumph in "No Entry" because of her awareness that their shared love meant that her life was no longer hers alone, he is only able to escape his self-designed cage her by the constant reminder of all the things she has meant to him, which would be invalidated in this painless, meaningless existence.

Tsukiko's self-realisation is not merely the climax of "The Final Episode" but of Paranoia Agent itself: for by now we have long since realised that Lil' Slugger was entirely her creation, but she herself has not known that. It's only now that we learn why she invented the strange youth whose acts of violence makes problems go away; yet the answer to this longstanding question ends up being far less important than the story that immediately follows, what Tsukiko chooses to do with that knowledge. The scene in which she makes her choice is at once the most harrowing, tender, and breathtaking (as in, I literally stopped breathing) moment in all of Paranoia Agent.

The more, shall we say, "paranormal" aspects of Paranoia Agent are grand and vexing, of course, and best dealt with, I suppose, by conceding that what appears to happen is exactly what happens. This might be immediately unsatisfying - the human animal naturally craves "realism", and of course there's not a damn thing realistic about any of this - but as the literalisation of a theme, it's quite cunning, and a corker of a narrative device. In essence, Paranoia Agent tells us that what you believe, is what you will experience - and if it seems odd that one girl's self-deluding invention of a bat-wielding thug could take over an entire country as we see over the course of Paranoia Agent, it should never be forgotten that Tsukiko had already done the exact same thing with the disarmingly cute Maromi. Unbeknown to her and her beleaguered boss, she has, in fact, created the next huge character to supplement Maromi in Lil' Slugger - both of whom are, in essence, the same, just like Maniwa insists. They both are manifestations of the desire to have all your problems go away without any active effort.

Thus: the populace that embraced Maromi embraces Lil' Slugger, and in believing in him, gives him life. Again, this isn't "real", but it has a truth of its own. For it is basically true that the reality we live is the one we construct: this is true both in terms of perception and neuroscience, and in psychological terms. Believe that you are going to be miserable, and its ten-to-one that you will be. Paranoia Agent simply externalises this to make a point, and it makes the point with exquisite beauty and grace.

The episode ends with a passage that re-creates the opening of the first episode, in sometimes shot-for-shot detail. Here we find the dark, pessimistic side of the show's theme: for if some of us, like Misae, can learn to rise above the indignities of everyday life and triumph, most of us always want the easy way out. People still have almost exactly the same conversations, trying in every way to put the blame for their state on everyone else; people still want a friendly face to say,"just go to sleep and it's all fine". Not even a massive, city-devastating crisis can do more than briefly interrupt this grand pattern of behavior. It is not a miserable ending, but a cautionary one: if we don't change, then everything that we do to ourselves will just happen again. I don't know what Maniwa sees at the very end, leading to the final iteration of the end credits; but I suspect it would be rather familiar to anyone who'd just watched the series.

With that, may I do as Shounen Bat himself, and bid you all sayonara.

25 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 12: "RADAR MAN"

I knew that damn dog was up to no good.

The 11th and 12th episodes of Paranoia Agent, "No Entry" and "Radar Man", form a stunning pair of opposites, and a pair which we are rather specifically invited to compare as such; for while the first ten episodes each function more or less as a stand-alone story that fits into a greater continuum, here at the end, the narrative starts to bleed across. For unlike the others, these two episodes are related by a driving cliffhanger (and in fact, "Radar Man" also ends on a cliffhanger, making this a trilogy, not a dyad).

Where "No Entry" was stately and precise, "Radar Man" is crazed and visionary and insane - so full of incident and details crowding every scene that it's impossible to take it all in one on viewing (and I am certain that I've missed a great many important incidental grace notes even with two viewings). Where "No Entry" explains and lays things out, "Radar Man" answers questions in such a scattered rush that it asks as much as it tells. It is thrilling, a genius way to send us into the final episode of a wonderful series, which has slowly progressed from psychological crime thriller to paranormal fantasy, so invisibly that it's only now, when the paranormal elements have swallowed up the rest of the material, that I even really stopped to notice it.

The episode is largely concerned with Maniwa Mitsuhiro, briefly glimpsed in the last episode wearing what I then described as "a crazy homeless man's cape and goggles". So close to true, and yet so wildly far off the mark! To understand what the hell has been going on in the ex-cop's mind, we must backtrack even further, to "The Holy Warrior" and "MHz", for Maniwa's present activities draw heavily upon what we saw in those two episodes: he is apparently still monitoring all the media of the city for any trace of Lil' Slugger, whom he now fights in the unlikely guise of Radar Man, a superhero armed with a magic sword - paying off the odd sensation that he was much more into the video game fantasy of "The Holy Warrior" than the stoic Ikari was, for now we see that he fancies himself a sort of video game hero.

But let me not judge Maniwa too harshly: for it would seem that reality itself has broken down enough in the intervening episodes that the delusion that one is a great warrior is the only way to deal with a creature whose very existence, we now know, is dependent on belief, or as Maniwa himself describes Lil' Slugger in the opening monologue, imagination nurtures him. In this particular moment, imagination has specifically given Lil' Slugger the ability to morph into a demon, in a good old-fashioned shot of nightmare fuel, unexpected and terrifying even by the standards of a show as good at making your flesh crawl as Paranoia Agent.

It's not the last moment in "Radar Man" that can get your hackles up, though I confess that not everyone perhaps shares my pathological hatred of Maromi, and thus not everyone necessarily finds the image of the little dog toy making a cross face and wielding scissors absolutely bone-chilling. Some people might even find it cute.

Right.

Cute.

Uncanny - or, might I be less diplomatic and say, "fucking creepy as hell" - imagery is littered throughout "Radar Man", which is in essence a drama of the mind's concept of reality breaking down; coupled with "No Entry", these two penultimate episodes of Paranoia Agent describe in rather complete terms the idea that reality is ultimately only a matter of how we perceive things (a statement borne out, to a degree, by modern neuroscience - I am reminded of all damn things of Richard Dawkin's essay on perception in the 1998 book Unweaving the Rainbow, where he points out, among other doozies, that all matter is largely made up of empty space; we only see it as solid because we've evolved in an environment where perceiving matter as "solid" is a fairly important survival strategy). In "No Entry", Misae came to the understanding that Lil' Slugger is given power only because people believe that he must have power; here in "Radar Man", Maniwa is able to achieve the things he does - including his discovery of Lil' Slugger's origin, and the rather unexpected truth of Misae's metaphorical statement that the phantom attacker and the ditsy Maromi are one and the same - only in the "unreal" world created as a result of his delusions - though I question if that's the right word. If, in fact, "delusion" has meaning in a drama as psychological symbolic as "Radar Man", where reality is perception, which means that "delusion" is nothing but another way of saying "alternate reality".

Kon Satoshi would return to many of these ideas in the last completed film of his life, 2006's Paprika; I wonder if he needed to, for Paranoia Agent in this single 24-minute blast expresses all that could need to be said about the mind's relationship to the outside world (though, by all means, this is far from the only thing explored in Paprika, a gorgeous and thought-provoking film that plays very much like the version of Inception that the latter film's critics wanted it to be. But I digress). I would refrain from going on too much further; there's an episode yet to come, and it seems fair to assume that whatever Paranoia Agent has so far said about the tortured relationship between the mind and the world, it's not done yet. "Radar Man" is so explosive, it seems ultimately to be more about what it does to the viewer than what it tries to say; I might go so far as to argue that its purpose, leading us into the final episode, is to subject us to the same overwhelming chaos of information that has led so many of the series' characters into their self-serving despair; a tie made explicitly, though subtly, by a TV montage in the middle of the episode that rather directly reminds one of the babble of overlapping conversations which opened the series. This has been, arguably, the central conflict of the whole show thus far: between individual, fragile people, and a crazy world that has too much stimulus for us to make sense of it all. "Radar Man" is special for not merely telling us that this is the theme, but to bury us in it.

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 11: "NO ENTRY"

If the first ten episodes of Paranoia Agent have all felt, in their way, like expansions on a single theme, exploring every corner of the world which Kon Satoshi created for his critique of 21st Century life and culture; well, it must be the case that at some point every story begins to contract back down. The resolution is in sight, and the time has come for reigning the series in, and "No Entry" achieves that goal nobly and beautifully, with perhaps a bit too much explicit description of things that had better been left implied and understated; yet for all that, the drama in this, the third episode from the end of the show, is rich and human, and better still, humane: having gone on and on for so long about how miserably broken human society is nowadays, the show suddenly and dramatically takes a swoop into the hopeful: "yes, but..." It is everything that follows that "but..." which makes up the plot of this episode, in which for the first time we find Kon and his animators paying tribute to human endurance rather than sadly shaking their heads at human frailty.

Yet frailty there is: it is only a few shots into the episode before we see the face of our newest protagonist, a woman "lit" in such a way to exaggerate the hollows and lines indicating a lifetime of physical battles.

She is, to start with, one of the most elegantly-designed figures in Paranoia Agent; in a series that has played at great length with the line dividing realism from caricature (usually caricatures in the vein of the animal associated with each character, there is something upsettingly realistic about this woman's design - it is exaggerated just enough to seem all the more true-to-life, and I, for one, find it absolutely impossible not to lose myself in sympathetic weariness.

This is Ikari Misae (Komiya Kazue), the wife of detective Ikari Keiichi, who we last saw in episode 7, "MHz". There, it was quietly stated that several jobs had been lost on account of the mishandling of the Lil' Slugger case; Ikari's was one of them, as he now has to shuffle from one construction site to another, working as a security guard. Detective Maniwa was also apparently let go; he's now lurking around dressed in what I can only call a crazy homeless man's cape and goggles.

But back to Misae. She has just been told that she needs surgery to live; surgery that she cannot afford on Keiichi's newly abbreviated salary. This is not the first time that she's been confronted with the present spectre of death in a lifetime of terrible physical ailments, and yet she is scared nonetheless, wondering not for the first time if it might be simply easier to die than keep on fighting. And this is her mood when she arrives home to find Lil' Slugger.

By this point in the series, the viewers and the characters have all come around to the idea that, whatever his precise nature may be, Lil' Slugger is an embodiment of the human desire to escape troubles: he comes to those in crisis and relieves them of whatever worries they possess, which increasingly has come to mean that he takes their life entirely. Misae has a simpler, more brutal read of his mission - he lets people run away like cowards. And Misae is not one to run away. It is an almost obnoxiously obvious metaphor that the physically weakest character in the series is the one with the most mental fortitude, but there you have it. Fully half of the episode consists of just these two talking; or rather, Misae talking in measured tones of her life of pain and suffering, and Lil' Slugger responding to her, in gleeful anticipation as she seems ready to give in to her miseries, and then in pained confusion as she gathers her wits back around her, saying, "No. I have survived all this, and I will continue to survive".

The obvious symbolism of putting these words into the mouth of a woman as frail as Misae is, as I've said, a touch obnoxious; but only superficially. Paranoia Agent has consistently enjoyed what we might call "open symbolism", in that everything which occurs within the series has a double meaning, but the show is absolutely free with that meaning. The equation of characters to animals is one such form of symbolism; the use of weather, particularly in "Fear of a Direct Hit" and "Mellow Maromi" is another. And note how, from the evidence within "No Entry", episode 11 actually takes place right around the same time as episode 10, yet the raging storm that marks episode 10 is nowhere to be found here. A continuity gaffe, I thought to myself, but no: for in "Mellow Maromi", the storm represented Saruta's anguish, just as clearly as Misae's words and actions in "No Entry" are very much the opposite: she is clearing the clouds away, and finding a new clarity.

This could be witheringly anti-dramatic: a two-hander episode in which one character sits the whole time, and the other keeps raising a bat in the air. Yet it's desperately compelling, enough to make the "plottier" half of the episode, in which Ikari Keiichi plods around at his newest posting, meeting a man he once sent to prison, and generally wondering if life has anything left to offer him, almost forgettable. It's not, of course, and it shouldn't be: if only because of the telling contrast it makes with the Misae plot. For while the wife finds new strength inside of her to continue braving the world, the husband slowly gives in to self-pity and fantasy. As this happens, he and his plot become less and less detailed in animation, until he enters a fantasy world altogether, in which "animation" hardly seems descriptive of the stiff, cardboard-ey movements of all the people.

It's a cartoon world befitting the cheerful dog Maromi, whom Misae conflates with Lil' Slugger in a moment I've been waiting for all along: they're both the tools of easy, shallow comfort, promising that none of your problems are real, that anything will go away if you ignore it for long enough. Paranoia Agent has for most of its run shown the deleterious effects of a world in which everyone lives according to that principle; "No Entry" is the bracing counterpoint. Though it is by no means the most exciting, or dramatic, or visionary episode of the series - indeed, it is arguably the most simplistic - "No Entry" nevertheless finds Paranoia Agent at its richest, most emotionally piercing.

24 September 2010

RECONQUISTADOR

The party line on Machete is that it's a romping, stomping throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s, and this line exists, I have no doubt, because the film was born as one of the four fake trailers created for 2007's Grindhouse, itself probably the most entirely self-aware throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s in a period that has been rather surprisingly full of such things. After thinking about it for a while, I wonder if this conventional wisdom isn't just a shade off: it's not a throwback to the '70s as much as it's an exploitation film that innocently seems to pretend that the '70s grind house circuit never actually shut down, that there has been an uninterrupted 30-year span of this sort of violence plus T&A in mainstream cinemas (and, if you twist things around and look at it from the right angle, there has been). The heart of the thing is that unlike most of the '70s throwbacks - such as Machete co-director Robert Rodriguez's own Planet Terror, the first half of Grindhouse - Machete makes not the slightest feint in the direction of pretending that it's a found object from that decade. It is in every way a movie of 2010, albeit one done in an idiom that has only recently come back into vogue, and then only out of the same nostalgia that seeks to claim Machete; but no. Both in its aesthetic and its narrative, this is an altogether contemporary film.

Opening with the de rigeur scene of a tough-as-nails cop being sold out by his corrupt boss, under the control of the local druglord, Machete certainly makes no claims for originality, here or anywhere. Three years later, that cop - an ex-Federale named, naturally, Machete (Danny Trejo) is living illegally in Texas, and from here he finds himself at the center of a massive whirlwind of conspiracies: hired by a shady man in a suit (Jeff Fahey) to assassinate a snarling right-wing state senator (Robert De Niro), and romancing both the leader of the local pro-immigrant resistance (Michelle Rodriguez) and a guilt-ridden ICE agent (Jessica Alba). There's a local militia leader (Don Johnson) to contend with, as well as that same druglord (Steven Seagal), against whom Machete still craves revenge, for the murder of his wife and daughter. I'm not entirely sure how to describe the plot outwards from that scenario, without tripping across spoilers all the way: but to the surprise of absolutely nobody, all the bad guys turn out to be working on the same team, and Machete ends up leading an army of pissed-off Chicanos against a compound full of various unlikable whites.

More than anything else that leaves me with the feeling that this is the descendant of the '70s exploitation circuit rather than a loving homage is that hyper-current political edge - there is absolutely no way to separate out the part of the film that is a gritty, trashy potboiler from the part that is a fervent argument in favor of Mexican immigration into the United States. In this, Machete is not at all unlike the ethno-sploitation films of the '70s, which often (as a matter of commercial exigency or true political belief, it's not always easy to say) presented a similar message of, "the only way to secure your own rights is to beat the crap out of white people". Not that I'm accusing Rodriguez of deliberately fomenting race warfare; and I think anyone who tried to read race warfare into Machete rather seriously lacks a sense of humor. But there's no way around this: Machete is a film Of The Moment (I imagine that the filmmakers must have been kicking themselves earlier this year for lacking the foresight to set the project in Arizona), and none of the other grind house throwbacks have been, primarily choosing instead to recreate the formal elements of vintage cinema.

If this emphasis on the here-and-now aspects of its narrative separates Machete from its neo-exploitation peers, it's languid comedy marks it out from just about everything, really. It wouldn't take a particularly brave person to call the film an outright comedy, though that word might not be the most apt choice: rather that its absurdities are simply too big and too gaudy for us to take them seriously. Whatever else is true of the film, it is amazingly silly throughout, its silliness always wearing a stern, straight face. Trejo's face, more often than not, an implacable mask of irritated pissed-off-ness even when the actor is called upon to intone, with all stony seriousness, "Machete don't text". If you can get through that moment without giggling, my hat's off to you; though I also think you are robbing yourself of something important.

Machete threads a narrow line, at once a terribly vulgar exploitation film and a breezy, heavily ironic deconstruction of itself. There are a lot of tiny things that keep tugging us out of the movie: De Niro's presence is a big one (is he slumming? does he consider it slumming? what the hell is Robert De Niro doing in this kind of movie? the mind spins around this question until it explodes), as is Lindsay Lohan's tiny role as a woman who turns from drugs and sex to find solace in religion (a rather meanspirited but nonetheless funny joke that is just about as on-the-nose post-modern as anything in a movie theater this year); and plenty of little incidentals that have nothing to do with actors at all, but keep interrupting the flow the movie. It's next to impossible to take Machete seriously, as a revenge movie or an action picture or anything but a grand old time made on the cheap by a bunch of people who mostly wanted to hang out.

And yet: it's also a film that gets joy from showing Alba's naked body in a quick shot, from lingering over Michelle Rodriguez in tight leather, from vividly exploring what happens to various parts of the human body when you subject them to sharp objects or exploding rounds. It's as crass as anything else Robert Rodriguez has ever put his name to (and I cannot speak to this first-timer Ethan Maniquis who co-directs, though he has worked as some kind of editor or another on most of Rodriguez's films), though a great deal more self-conscious about its own crassness and even apologetic for it, than most of the director's work.

In the end, it is a movie that desperately wants to be a lot of trashy fun, and it primarily succeeds at this; though it is the work of filmmakers who cannot quite make up their mind where the line between "trash" and "fun" is meant to lie. It leaves Machete with the slightest of split personalities, neither as trashy nor as fun, nor indeed as creative, as Planet Terror; but it gets the job done. For a good old-fashioned wallow in the late summer of 2010, it's hard not to prefer Piranha 3D; but it could then be pointed out that Machete is less for wallowing than it is for glittering, low-impact tawdriness. It is disreputable without being outright sleazy: that is the exact phrase I have been hunting for, and when the mood for such a thing strikes, it's good to know that such things are still being produced.

7/10

23 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 10: "MELLOW MAROMI"

The tenth episode of Paranoia Agent does all that it possibly can to knock the viewer off-balance from the first frame. Without a single word of warning (unless the "dream confessions" preview from the end of "ETC" counts, it picks us up and throws us right into the middle of something that, whatever it is, isn't Paranoia Agent. Unless Paranoia Agent has suddenly taken to looking like this:

Obviously, it hasn't, and it becomes fairly clear fairly quickly that we're looking at the unfinished animation for the first episode of Maromi Madoromi - literally "Drowsy Maromi", but translated as "Mellow Maromi", to maintain at least some of the flow of the Japanese phrase - an anime based on the effervescently popular pink dog toy who has been poking up all throughout l'affaire Lil' Slugger, though for what reason, it is still difficult to say. This episode, itself titled "Mellow Maromi", has a two-pronged narrative exploring the tortured creation of that in-show pilot: the bulk of the episode is a flashback, told more or less in reverse chronological order, of the plague of troubles striking the Maromi production team, while the present follows production coordinator Naoyuki Saruta (Yoshino Hiroyuki) in his breakneck race to deliver the Betamax tape holding the pilot to the network within 30 minutes, in the pouring rain. This is Saruta's very last chance to do good, for as we learn from his flashbacks, he's been fucking-up constantly at every stage of the game, delaying a production already frazzled by the inexplicable disappearance of most of the top-level staff, beginning with the director.

First things first: since this is the production of the Maromi TV show we're dealing with, it comes as no surprise that there is a whole lot of Maromi on display throughout the episode. For those of us who've already been driven to find the floppy pink bastard somewhat unnerving, it's like being pitched headlong into a 24 minute waking nightmare. For while Maromi is never as terrifying as when he's idly chatting with Tsukiko, urgently demanding that she repress whatever memories are just below the surface (Tsukiko does not appear in this episode, though she is mentioned as the character's creator), "Mellow Maromi" more than makes up for this in the sheer quantity of scenes of Maromi being hell-ass creepy.

The most skin-crawling moment of all, for my tastes, is first scene in pencil tests, when Maromi tries to comfort the young boy who has decided to give up a career in baseball, by crawling all over his head and cheerfully repeating, "Just take a break" - a sequence repeated as the very last moment of the episode leading into the credits, this time with full animation. I still have no idea what Maromi is all about, but I know that this gives me the screaming willies, and it seems to be absolutely deliberate. If it weren't absolutely clear that Maromi and Lil' Slugger had some kind of strange connection with one another, this episode would drive that point home with the force of a baseball bat to the head. Something experienced by a lot of people over the course of the episode, for Lil' Slugger appears to have a particular vendetta against the crew of Mellow Maromi - if it is Lil' Slugger. A late revelation strongly suggests that it was somebody else all along, who convinced himself that Lil' Slugger was actually responsible: the second time it's happened since Tsukiko clubbed herself and then hallucinated that it was Lil' Slugger that the phantom skater has been used as that kind of psychological crutch. And that horrid little Maromi was present both times!

The only "true" Lil' Slugger attack, then, is the one stretched out across the scenes of Saruta driving. First appearing in the far distance out the back window (so distant that I can easily imagine someone missing him), the boy with the bat draws ever nearer to Saruta's car as Saruta's deadline closes in, reminding us that the nature of a Lil' Slugger attack is to strike only when the victim is in a moment of great crisis, and striking only in such a way that it gives the victim what he or she wants and needs to escape that crisis. And Saruta does in fact get out of his crisis by the narrowest of margins, though I can't imagine it's in the exact way he anticipated.

Beyond its contributions to the Paranoia Agent mytharc - which are many, and the bulk of them clearly haven't paid off yet - "Mellow Maromi" does double-duty as Kon Satoshi's tribute to the small army of artists it takes to put together a TV anime program. It's easy to use the lazy shorthand of the director's name, particularly when (as here) the director is also the writer, and when (as here), the themes of the series dovetail so beautifully into the feature films made by the same director.

But Kon will have none of that, and so he introduces us to the Mellow Maromi staff using that backwards chronology so that the series director - the first man to go missing - is the last person we meet, and so that we've had a good chance to observe how effectively the process can still go on in the absence of any director at all. As each new member of the production team is introduced, the action screams to a halt, as Maromi himself explains what that person's duties include (that Maromi interrupts in the middle of dialogue sometimes, I take to be a further demonstration of how much of a terrible little asshole he is). Each and every one, from the director down to the production coordinator, with stops at the producer, the sound designer, and the chief colorist, among others, is identified as being such an important element of the whole production that without them, the whole edifice would collapse.

If it sounds like a running gag, the truth is the farthest thing from that: it's the writer-director's way of indicating that, in fact, every person involved in making anime is an essential part of the process, and if you take away any individual, however un-glamorous their job might be, the result is a nightmarish clusterfuck like we see in the episode. It's easy to forget that cinema is inherently collaborative, animated cinema doubly so: and whatever else it does, "Mellow Maromi" deserves a special measure of respect for calling attention to just how many people working all in tandem it takes for even thirty minutes of something as relatively shallow as Mellow Maromi - clearly no Paranoia Agent, in ambition or in execution - to come into existence.

As to why Kon then sees fit to pay tribute to his staff by telling the story of how they got killed off one-by-one; well, that is probably a matter for his sly dark sense of humor. Indeed, "Mellow Maromi" is among the most sarcastic episodes of Paranoia Agent of them all, though calling it "funny" would be pushing things. Still, there's something that diffuses the darkness of an episode like "MHz" or "Fear of a Direct Hit", though strictly in terms of plot developments, "Mellow Maromi" is one of the grimmest episodes in the series run. Part of it, I think, is the constant presence of Maromi and his merchandise: turning both the show and Saruta (the only member of the production team who apparently likes Maromi) into the punchlines of some unspoken sick joke. Then again, there's also the presence of Lil' Slugger, grinning like a maniac demon, to remind us of how nastily serious Paranoia Agent can be. In the end, "Mellow Maromi" is as inexplicable and twisted as the series has been yet, and it sends us into the final run of episodes in the perfect emotional register.

21 September 2010

IT'S A HELLUVA...

Three years ago, middleweight actor and celebrity Ben Affleck stunned us all by proving he was a crackerjack director with Gone Baby Gone, a pretty darn fine and more than a little bit harrowing crime drama set in the rundown quarters of Affleck's beloved Boston. It took a while for him to brave the helmsman's seat again, but at least he's proved that his bright debut was no fluke, with The Town, which isn't quite as good as the director's breakthrough, though it's a hell of a lot more fun to watch, and boasts what is, almost beyond debate, Affleck's finest career performance (and this after a few key performances in films like Hollywoodland and Extract have demonstrated that he's a pretty great character actor when he's not trying to be a leading man).

The story (adapted by Affleck, Aaron Stockard, and Peter Craig from a Chuck Hogan novel), you're familiar with. I promise. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, a "townie" - used rather specifically here to refer to a resident of the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, which the film posits as being the breeding ground of more hold-up artists per capita than an other place on earth - and a real top-notch bank robber. The film opens seconds before his latest and greatest heist, during which his best friend Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) jumps the gun a bit and kidnaps one of the bank's assistant managers, Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall). For reasons that he would be doubtlessly unable to explain, Doug becomes instantly infatuated with the terrified young woman, and "accidentally" bumps into her a couple of days later, striking up a romance and helping her through her post-traumatic stress, obviously hiding the fact that he was the proximate cause of said stress. In the meantime, FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) and Boston detective Dino Ciampa (Titus Welliver) are trying their damnedest to shut down Doug's crew. While he protests that he's really for real out of the life, he gets pulled in for a couple One Last Jobs that go spectacularly off the rails, seriously threatening what he views as his one chance at escaping the hellhole of Charlestown with Claire.

Convenient as it is to say that there are few stories hoarier than the reliable "soul-wracked criminal just wants to get out of the life and find love, but the One Last Job comes along and fucks him", and yet it feels like a really long time since we've had one with the unabashed purity of The Town, which is a grand old-timey bank robber picture that isn't a caper film, isn't a social document, isn't anything but a story about a single criminal. It's kind of thrilling to see a genre restored to its essentials in this way; and all the better in that The Town is pretty great at it. It's not without its flaws: Affleck's direction often reveals a certain confusion about what to do with the camera, which ace cinematographer Robert Elswit is only sometimes able to compensate for; and it's awfully hard to argue with a straight face that the film earns its generous 123 minute running time. There's a dithering score by David Buckley and Harry Gregson-Williams that indulges in sentimentality at moments where sentimentality makes no sense whatsoever, and there are more than a couple moments in which Doug acts in a stupid way more to push the plot along than because it fits his character to act that way. These are all valid problems.

But in the face of what the move does right! it's hard for an old genre movie sentimentalist like myself to watch Affleck and company marshaling so many musty old tropes with so little shame, and not feel a twinge or three of absolutely gratitude for what The Town is and does. It's a character study crossed with a doomed romance propped against a critique of machismo set inside a penetrating study of an exact physical place, and it does all of these things extremely well. One can thrash about forever looking for the place to start, and I'm going to settle on the actors: one of the best casts from the biggest roles to the tiniest walk-on parts assembled all year, with Renner and Hall possibly standing out a wee bit more than everybody else (Chris Cooper's one-scene performance as Doug's angry jailbird dad is also particularly magnificent, marred only by the actor's Boston accident, easily the least convincing in the whole movie). If nobody is quite as blow-the-doors-off amazing as Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan were in Gone Baby Gone, that's not really a slight on director Ben's affinity with his cast, particularly with actor Ben, rarely given a chance to look this hollowed-out and bedraggled onscreen. It's hard to imagine The Town working at all as a narrative or emotional experience without Affleck's performance, really: since the whole thing hinges on Doug's all-encompassing fatigue, and his clearly misguided but charmingly optimistic belief that Claire is his key to a better way of life, we need to feel the whole essence of that fatigue every time Doug moves or talks; and this Affleck does. It's a revelation, to me at least - if a more generous viewer has known that Affleck has had this kind of performance in him all along, then I must simply tip my hat to that person's clearer perception.

More important to the film than any of the characters, possibly including Doug himself, is the Town of the title, the roughed-up, economic wasteland of Charlestown. I have been playing with various phrases to describe the way that the filmmakers shot on location, and all I arrive at is the blatantly paradoxical "vividly desaturated"; there's a curious sense that the film is both more real than real and deliberately, artificial stripped of life. It's tempting to hand-wave this all away with "Well, that's why Elswit is a genius", and it is the case that he's a genius, and his use of digital color correction in this film (I can't fathom how it might have been done in-camera) is godly. That the camera angles aren't always the best - and worse, that the editing sometimes assumes that we know the layout of the streets as well as the characters do - hurts the film's depiction of Charlestown, but in the main, Affleck finds a way to capture something essential about this place, making it one of the most uncommonly "present" locations in a location shoot in some time.

Above and beyond everything else, the film is just a great watch: from just before the midpoint, Affleck raises the tension at a steady enough clip, but without calling attention to it, that I found myself with a pretty giant knot in my stomach for a good hour, wondering exactly when everything would go straight to hell for the characters. It's a cunning balance of the nasty-mindedness of knowing that doom is hovering over the story like a black cloud, and the emotional rush of hoping that somehow, these characters will pull everything out and everything will be okay, despite our awareness that Doug is a pretty worthless person in just about every respect. In the end, The Town manages to strike a balance that does honor to its cold-blooded depiction of human desperation while also giving us the semblance of benignity as we leave the theater; it feels neither forced nor contrived, but leaves us just jagged enough to know that we just got movie'd. It's not a masterpiece, but it's blisteringly memorable, and continues to demonstrate that in Ben Affleck beats the heart of a great American film director, if he only worked at it a little bit more.

8/10

COMFORT, FOOD

Whatever single adjective describes Short Sharp Shock, Head-On, and The Edge of Heaven, it is assuredly not "frothy" - and yet here we are, with director Fatih Akin making himself a breezy farce about restaurant management and the joy of food, Soul Kitchen, and it is simultaneously a great deal frothier than any of those dramas would have ever deigned to consider possible, while also feeling every single inch an Akin film (and it's not, as it happens, his first comedy: In July, made in 2000, already crossed that bridge, though it's not quite this breezy).

Taking place in the Wilhelmsburg quarter of Hamburg, Soul Kitchen is exactly what it says: the story of a restaurant called Soul Kitchen, which is also exactly what it says, a tiny haven serving American soul food to an American soul soundtrack deep in the run-down part of the second-largest city in Germany. The restaurant is the beloved baby of a German-born Greek named Zinos Kazantsakis (Adam Bousdoukos, who co-wrote the script with Akin), who is just at the moment we meet him going through a massive clusterfuck of personal issues: his girlfriend Nadine (Pheline Roggan) is leaving for a long-term reporting job in Shanghai, and she's pissed that he's not making the slightest effort to join her; his brother, Illias (Moritz Bleibtreu) is looking for a mindless job to exploit a rule that will let him out of prison on weekdays to work; the tax collectors are sniffing around; and he's fucked his back up real good, and has been obliged to hire the borderline psychotic chef Shayn Weiss (Birol Ünel) to take over the kitchen, and that man's refusal to keep preparing the ghastly, cheap food that has so far been Soul Kitchen's stock-in-trade has just cost Zinos all of his regular customers.

Great comedy is always but a step removed from great tragedy, a fact which Akin (a pretty damn fine tragedian, if that is quite the right word for his films) understands well. It would take only a few tweaks for Soul Kitchen to be a despairing tale of the economically washed-out trying to find some way to clamber above squalor, a story of the non-German's difficulty in making it in the melting pots of urban Germany to match the desperation hinting around the edges - and sometimes given the spotlight - of Head-On and The Edge of Heaven. Though Zinos, it must be said, is much more German than the Turkish-born protagonists of those movies (Akin is German-born of Turkish descent; Bousdoukos, like his character, is a German-born Greek), and the ethnic component of the film, while given far more attention than it would ever be in the same movie made in a more race-skittish country, is relatively subdued. That is one of the little tweaks that keeps Soul Kitchen as much fun as it is: though I guess there could be such a thing as a polemic about the struggles ethnic minorities that is also a scintillating comedy, I am much at a loss to imagine what such a thing would look like.

It's thus superficially possible to moan that Soul Kitchen is somehow more trivial than Akin's other films. This is entirely untrue, although its depths are in entirely different, more conventional places: the pleasure of a well-drawn cast of characters, and a tightly observed place that is depicted with so much precision and specificity that it can't help but become utterly universal in the process. At the same time, Soul Kitchen is awfully silly, and broad - and God help us all if silliness is an inherent sin in art. Akin's brilliant direction of his silly material puts puts all but the very best modern Hollywood comedies to shame, and make no mistake: he's squaring off against Hollywood on its own turf. There's never a moment, no matter how badly things go (Soul Kitchen is under constant threat from Zinos's old friend, a sharp real-estate developer played by the excellently-named Wotan Wilke Möhring), in which we don't expect that things will turn out alright, and in many cases we have the exact tools to make a guess how they turn out alright, thanks to a script that doesn't exactly go easy on the foreshadowing - "Gee, he needs a cook? Good thing that he just meant that cantankerous chef on the very night he was fired. His relationship with Nadine is falling apart? Hm, well then it's lucky that he's been making goo-goo faces with that pretty physical therapist (Dorka Gryllus)." A more genial, crowd-pleasing "art" film hasn't been and almost certainly won't be found in American theaters this year; take away the subtitles and you've got a perfect film to show your grandma.

There is, of course, an undercurrent of seriousness to the whole thing: it is a work deeply concerned with a particular place and culture, in which poverty is a near-constant handmaiden. Without emphasising the run-down nature of the whole thing, the filmmakers manage to leave us with an unmistakable sense of wear and tear: Akin's current go-to cinematographer, Rainer Klausmann, is heavy on the drab colors and a genuinely startling flatness - there's a phenomenal contrast between camera movements emphasising three-dimensional space and Klausmann's insistence on reducing everything to one smudgy plane that serves the material extremely well, while giving added strength to the handful of moment in which something really unusual is done (there is a moment in which, of all things, a fish-eye lens is trotted out to give a climactic scene some profoundly exhilarating emotional heft). Tamo Kunz's production design is also worthy of special attention: wonderfully detailed and full of rich life, it's beautiful in a very definite, if off-kilter way, but it is also unmistakably seedy and threadbare, a glorious visual consummation of the idea that these characters live in a world they deeply love, but can barely hold together.

Comedy that skirts the edge of tragedy, like I said. At times, Soul Kitchen tries to force itself into jollity just a wee bit too much: a couple of important plot-moving scenes are definitely more contrived and, in one jarring bit, outright cartoonish, than the film can necessarily withstand. Happily, these moments are rare, and for the most part the film hums along in an incredibly pleasant mode, unfathomably sincere but never arch about it. There's all sorts of love in the movie: the characters' love of Soul Kitchen, Akin and company's love of the characters. The result is a tremendously satisfying movie that is not too challenging but awfully good anyway, and, if I might reach for the hideously obvious pun, absolutely good for the soul.

8/10

20 September 2010

PARANOIA AGENT, EPISODE 9: "ETC"

Perhaps the oddest episode of Paranoia Agent thus far - and coming hard on the heels of both "MHz" and "Happy Family Planning", we're talking seriously odd - "ETC" is another one of those slow down, take a breath, let the plot idle sort of episodes, with even less to do in terms of the grand plot than "The Holy Warrior" - save for a tossed-off reference (maybe) to Lil' Slugger's appearance in a hotel in "Happy Family Planning", there is absolutely no narrative thread connecting this episode to the eight preceding it, not even a cameo by the ubiquitous Maromi. In fact, the content of "ETC" mostly seems to be false even in relationship to itself: not only doesn't it "matter" to the show, it doesn't "matter" in the very moment it is communicated to us. Yet, much as the last episode did, it treats on the greater society in which the series unfolds, telling us much about the kind of world in which Lil' Slugger thrives, and the impact of this wandering, unfocused 24 minutes is infinitely greater than its "meaning".

Internet chatrooms; video games; kawaii branding; so far, everything that has fallen under Kon Satoshi's satiric eye in Paranoia Agent is hyper-modern, but in "ETC" he turns to something much, much older: the uninformed prattle of gossiping housewives. The framework narrative of the episode follows four women, three old friends and Kamohara, a relative new resident in their apartment complex. This collection of individuals is so conspicuously anonymous that they don't even get real names or personalities, and save for some details of Kamohara's home life (she's married to a screenwriter), no backstories. We caught a glimpse of them all the way back in the first episode, but other than that, they might as well not even exist. This sounds like a complaint, I realise, but in foregrounding such uninteresting characters after what amount to eight densely-packed character studies, it's both a nice change of pace, and a clear indication that we're meant to take the content of the episode as archetypal: conversations like the one we witness in "ETC" are going on all over the city, presumably.

The four women are talking about Lil' Slugger: each of them has at least one story that happened to a friend's brother's co-worker, that sort of thing, and the whole episode consists of nothing but vignettes:

-A teenage boy, having studied for an important math test, finds himself sneezing and vomiting out his knowledge in the form of little black words, and as he panics, Lil' Slugger assaults him in the bathroom. Some time later, he commits suicide.

-A henpecked daughter-in-law is prepared to beat her mother-in-law, but Lil' Slugger appears at the front door, and mistakenly kills the old woman himself.

-A young man tries to keep his lover alive by painting a leaf on the tree opposite her window - when the last leaf falls, she expects to die - but just as he finishes, he sees Lil' Slugger standing over her dead body, and he slips and falls to his death.

-A mob boss wants to hire Lil' Slugger as an enforcer, and terrorises his underling in an attempt to make the phantom show up.

And several other things along in that vein. The three older women are content to swap stories with abandon, but every time poor Kamohara tries to add her two cents, the others mock her for the patently absurd lies she's peddling. This despite the fact that her stories are neither more nor less impossible than the ones they're telling (the very first story we hear is of the young man spitting up his knowledge - from that point on, we can hardly take any of this seriously at all). More to the point, the old women likely know that their gossip is so much hot wind, and don't care, and it's Kamohara's desperate attempts to fit in that repel them, not the quality of her stories per se. Which adds even more of a pathetic tinge to the Twilght Zone-esque final moments of the episode, in which Kamohara finally gets her chance to impress the others.

Above and beyond whatever it has to say about these four women, "ETC" is a cockeyed, cynical look at the way that people tend to bask in the reflected light of the news. "Oh, I know about that!" - it's the cry of anyone who wants to look smarter and cooler and better than everyone else, trying madly to win in the constant game of one-upping everyone else. The precise nature of the episode makes it all about the tired gossip of bored people, but it's easy enough to apply it outwards to anyone who would rather make the news about what they know than about what's happening in the world. It's an entirely sour worldview, but do we expect anything other than sourness out of Paranoia Agent by this point?

Visually, the episode is a mixed bag, which I mean in the nicest possible way: as each of the women tells each story, the style of animation changes dramatically: some of it extremely detailed, to the point of grotesqueness, and some of it done in the glossy, round-eyed style typical of "pop" anime; from lots of motion-lines in the style of "action" cartoons, to desaturated, dirty images that look uncannily like '70s film stock done as animation.

If one thing connects all of these styles, it is a commitment to leaving the viewer feeling off-kilter and uneasy: as Paranoia Agent shifts ever more fully into the world of psychological horror, it's more and more the case that even the simplest image can be fraught with tension, and the images that aren't as simple, such as the constant, repeated sight of Lil' Slugger leering right into the camera with a killer's smile, are bone-chilling.

"ETC" does virtually nothing other than set a mood, but it does this so damn well that I, for one, never noticed that it's nothing more than wheel-spinning. As a quick snapshot of where Paranoia Agent finds itself running into the last third of episodes, it's a perfect embodiment of all the feeling of universal wrongness that has made all the series to this point such a sick kick, and a promise that the things to come will not let up in one tiny degree on the bleached-out weariness of the series. Quite the contrary.

18 September 2010

SKY OF BLUE, AND SEA OF GREEN

After Magical Mystery Tour imploded with critics and fans, the Beatles were mightily disinclined to make another feature film; for had not the shooting of Help! been a massive nightmare for all involved? and now their labor of love had been widely, even universally derided as an indulgent, impossible mess. But there was a single problem: they had signed a three-picture deal with United Artists. So a third film was a rather disagreeable necessity (the self-produced Magical Mystery Tour didn't count, remember).

The possibility cropped up that their third feature could be an animated film, which was pleasing to the band; then the possibility further cropped up that they didn't even have to provide the voices, but just poke their heads in for a one-shot cameo at the very end. This ended up being entirely unsatisfactory to UA (which is altogether fair), and the third film in the deal finally came out in 1970; but meanwhile, we are still in 1968, when the fourth feature to star the Beatles as characters, if not as actors, was released to great acclaim both artistic and financial, a watershed moment in the aesthetics of psychedelia done up cinematically; a film that even the Beatles themselves, battle-scarred and doubtlessly quite sick of movies altogether, thought was pretty much great. This is as it should be: for Yellow Submarine is a marvel altogether.

Inspired - damn loosely - by the song from 1966's Revolver album, the film is the first of the three jukebox musicals based upon the Beatles' work, and the only one of those to use the Beatles' original recordings (a note on terminology, for those unfamiliar with the phrase: a "jukebox musical" yokes pre-existing pop songs to an original plot. The other such films taken from the Beatles are the villainous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band from 1978, and Julie Taymor's 2007 Across the Universe, which may or may not be a brilliant, beautiful experiment, depending on your perspective. This blog is a firmly pro-Taymor zone).* Seven songs from the 1965-'67 period showed up on the soundtrack, along with four "new" numbers, though it is a clear sign of how little investment the actual Beatles had in the project that these four tracks were basically cast-offs, songs the band had recorded and decided weren't good enough for commercial release during the sessions that (if I am not mistaken) led to the Magical Mystery Tour EP and the singles such as "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Lady Madonna" released in the aftermath of that EP, but before the daunting, monolithic sessions for The Beatles, which history has come to know as The White Album.

Really, though, there's not a blessed thing wrong with "All Together Now", "Only a Northern Song", "Hey Bulldog", or "It's All Too Much"; they fit in perfectly comfortable with their mates on the soundtrack (that is, the film's soundtrack - the official soundtrack album contains those four along with only "Yellow Submarine" and "All You Need Is Love", with seven poky instrumentals composed by music producer extraordinaire George Martin). They are every bit as remarkable as everything else this most incredible of rock groups was churning out in the immensely revolutionary period begun with Rubber Soul and concluded by the "Hey Jude" single. And since Yellow Submarine, like the movie version of Magical Mystery Tour before it, consists of very little beside psychedelic interstitials connecting what amount to early music videos all in row, it is really a good thing that its songs are so fine: arguably the finest collection of songs ever used as the backbone for a motion picture - that is to say, I would make the argument. Forgive me for being redundant, but how can anyone say a word against this playlist?

-"Yellow Submarine", a goofy, sweet bit of warmhearted juvenilia, with one of Ringo's warmest vocals;
-"Eleanor Rigby", one of the most concise & haunting descriptions of misery ever put to music;
-"All Together Now", a cheerful march, one of the easiest songs to sing-along to in their career;
-"When I'm Sixty-Four", often dismissed as a block of McCartney cheese, but bouncy and melodious and unashamedly nostalgic;
-"Only a Northern Song", a thrillingly un-melodious attempt to consider the value of pop music;
-"Nowhere Man", one of the few times the nasal, atonal Lennon indulged himself with soaring vocals;
-"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", which of course speaks for itself;
-"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", the boldest opening track in rock album history;
-"All You Need Is Love", a musically bittersweet but deeply sincere anthem to all the things Lennon held most dear;
-"Hey Bulldog", one of the sassiest & most sarcastic tracks the Beatles ever laid down;
-"It's All Too Much", Harrison's counterpoint to "All You Need Is Love", a musical landscape of sweeping grandeur.

Like I said, the plot behind all of those songs is pretty much just a pretext, though it is complex enough that you can tell it is a plot. Somewhere under the sea ("Once upon a time... or maybe twice" as the drowsy-voiced narrator puts it) is a place called Pepperland, where all is music and love and bright colors. In come the Blue Meanies an army of indiscriminately nasty folk, whose armies consist of tall men throwing deadly apples, Turks with snapping turtle bellies, and a huge, malevolent Glove. Only one Pepperland citizen, Old Fred (Lance Percival) is able to escape, in the yellow submarine that his ancestors used to arrive in the land in the first place.

Fred's journey to the world above takes him to Liverpool, where he accidentally falls upon Ringo (Paul Angelis), moping about in true A Hard Day's Night fashion because nobody in the whole world loves him. For a reason that makes exactly no sense, Ringo and Fred go back to the Beatles' palatial estate, a veritable museum of psychedelia, where John (John Clive) putters about engaged in mad science, George (Peter Batten, an army deserter, who was arrested before production ended; his part was completed by Angelis) spends his time deep in transcendental thought, and Paul (Geoff Hughes) apparently performs concerts for the massive sell-out crowds he keeps in a spare room. The four Beatles readily agree that Fred deserves whatever help they can give, and so they journey through a number of impossible landscapes, the Sea of Monsters, the Sea of Holes, the Sea of Science, and so forth, eventually arriving in Pepperland, where they revive the frozen bodies of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and teach the Blue Meanies that love is all you need.

With eleven full songs (and a number of snatches) piled into 90 minutes, though, we could more accurately call the plot "animated representations of the Beatles travel through awe-inspiring landscapes in the graphic styles of the late 1960s, stopping to perform some of their songs in stunning mixed-media experimental short films". Which is all the film needs to be - it is really better not to think of it as a "movie", so much as a marriage of visual art and music, in service to the beatific ideals of the hippie movement. Not, frankly, a movement that I have real particular respect for, nowadays (the hippies would be a hell of a lot easier to take seriously if so many of them hadn't grown up to become Reaganites), but you'd have to pretty much be an asshole to find fault with the message that it is better to treat everybody with love and respect, to wage peace, to find the value even in a nowhere sort of man who would just as soon spend time locked away in his own mind. Naïve, oh yes. But it is nevertheless an appealing idea.

Coming at this point in the Beatles' career, the film no longer smacks of such overt image control as A Hard Day's Night had only four years earlier - and by the way, how insane is it that only four years separates songs like "I Should Have Known Better" from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Helter Skelter"? - though Yellow Submarine still finds the idea of the Beatles trumping the reality of the Beatles. Hell, the Beatles per se are only barely in Yellow Submarine!

By this point, at any rate "The Beatles" was a signifier far outstripping the four young men from Liverpool who made rock music. "The Beatles" described a way of looking at the world, a mentality of harmony through music and harmony through spirit and harmony through pharmaceuticals. It's almost a sick joke that this film depicts the four boys living in one giant house all warm and friendly, right at the same time that they were busy fragmenting into predominately self-contained units for the White Album recording sessions. Even the fairy tale world of Yellow Submarine can't ignore that - as friendly as their life together seems to be, each of the four is introduced separately, and apparently pursuing their own interests far apart from one another.

But the message and the messenger should never be confused, and if the Beatles were starting to collapse under the weight of being "The Beatles", none of that has anything to do with Yellow Submarine, a gorgeous, funny, moving time capsule from an era when people really did think that love and harmony could change the world. And heck, if everyone who saw the movie had really taken it to heart, maybe that is the world we'd be living in today. Whatever the case, the film is a wonderful gesture of boundless optimism and creativity, a grand pop culture relic of a bygone era; truly one of the finest animated films and one of the finest cinematic musicals of all time.

* * * * *

Words cannot do justice to the surreal, otherworldly visuals of designer Heinz Edelmann, director George Dunning, sequence director Charles Jenkins, and their team of animators - therefore,in lieu of words, may I present a Yellow Submarine gallery:

Our friends are all aboard, many more of them live next door

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Pink, brown, yellow, orange and blue, I love you

Yours sincerely, wasting away

You may think the band are not quite right, but they are, they just play it like that

Doesn't have a point of view, knows not where he's going to

Suddenly someone appears at the turnstiles, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes

They're guaranteed to raise a smile

There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be

Some kind of innocence is measured out in years

A love that's shining all around here