28 February 2011

OSCAR THOUGHTS, or: WHO DOES ROGER DEAKINS NEED TO BLOW TO WIN A MOTHERFUCKING ACADEMY AWARD?

The 83rd Academy Awards have been and gone. I went a subpar 15/24 on my predictions, largely because I tried to be too clever (I should absolutely have been able to pick up another 3 without trying). But that's in the past.

(Though I'm trying to figure out, now, how to reconfigure my rule for picking Animated Short. It seems that I should have been able to nail "The Lost Thing" through my "least-favorite always wins" rationale, even if it wasn't my least-favorite... "the most boring one wins", perhaps? That fits the data, too).

The awards themselves went, as usual, to people and films that only vaguely deserve them; it's simply not worth getting worked up over. Though I will say that, annoying as it is that Tom Hooper won, it's not like he's some hackwit yokel, the way the internet would seem to have it. He directed John Adams, for chrissakes, and if that doesn't win him at least some measure of respect, then I don't know.

Firth, Bale, Leo, all winning for less than their best work... it happens (Portman, I think, did win for her best work, which was still less than Bening at about 75%). Same for Randy Newman winning for one of the worst songs he's ever written - I say this as a massive fan of Randy Newman's 1970s output, and even of much of his Pixar work - but it was a particularly awful Best Song slate. I am heartbroken that Ugly Alice picked up two Oscars, but not massively surprised, though it's a little bit hard to explain how The King's Speech could pick up Best Director and none of its craft nominations.

And then there's Best Cinematography. In which Wally Pfister, a very good DP, who did a very good job shooting Inception, managed to turn Roger Deakins from 0-for-8 loser into a 0-for-9 loser. It's like 2007, only even worse: though both of Deakins's films that year were better-shot than True Grit, at least Robert Elswit was at his career peak that year, too. Whereas this was maybe my least favorite of Pfister's four nominations. When Emmanuel Lubezki loses next year for The Tree of Life (which he will), I'll officially give up on this category, but for now I've only given up on seeing Deakins ever win. Unless he does so next year, beating Lubezki, because that would be fucking perfect.

As for the ceremony itself: what a dismal sack of crap. Anne Hathaway wasn't a half-bad host, though you could see the effort to pretend that things were working at times; James Franco checked out by the time the pre-recorded (and I thought, tremendously unamusing) opening montage of a journey through the BP nominees was done. The highlight for me was undoubtedly Kirk Douglas being all sassy and coy and proving that a debilitating stroke doesn't have to ruin your comic timing. The low point is harder to pinpoint: the holographic Bob Hope and the subsequent less-than-convincing Bob Hope impersonator made me faintly ill, Steven Spielberg's little "sometimes the losers become even more classic than the winners!" bit was incredibly tacky, and the Magical Movie Kaleidoscope background never worked, though I think the concept is sound.

Speeches: Melissa Leo managed to combine my favorite moment in any acceptance speech - she said "fuck" at the Oscars! - with my least favorite - the rest of her wandering, aimless, yammering. I adored that Randy Newman's speech was basically just him being irritated at God knows what. Lee Unkrich's speech for Animated Feature was sweet and all, but I couldn't stop staring at his eyes, wondering when the last time he got any sleep was. I don't know what Pfister's speech was like, because I was too busy sputtering and sending outraged text messages. Colin Firth and Tom Hooper had, beyond question, the classiest speeches; maybe that's why the Academy gives so many awards to Brits.

At least it was short. Here's to next year! when the hosts will be better and the direction more fluid and the montages hopefully still gone, and the winners more deserving. Or, y'know, none of those things, but a fella can daydream.

27 February 2011

THE 2010 ANTAGONISTS: WINNERS

I meant to do these up yesterday, but then... life what happens to you while you're busy something something, as the fella said. At any rate, following upon my nominations last month for the best movie things of the year - the U.S. release year, anyway - here are my winners in all categories. Congrats to all, and some day when I'm actually important you'll all retroactively be given a small statue of an angry golden man.

BEST FEATURE
Winner: The Illusionist
1st Runner-Up: Fish Tank
Also nominated:
Un prophète
Toy Story 3
White Material

Not, I'm afraid, very much of a surprise to anybody who noted the relative rankings of my 2010 Top 10; but it's fun to jump in anyway with one last hurrah for the film that best combined visual beauty and piercing emotional poignancy in one funny, desperately sad bundle.


BEST DIRECTOR
Winner: Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank
1st Runner-Up: Jacques Audiard, Un prophète
Also nominated:
Sylvain Chomet, The Illusionist
Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine
Claire Denis, White Material

Notwithstanding some questionable use of symbolic imagery, Arnold's sophomore effort is a masterwork of precisely controlled frames and performances, all of it saying "social realism" even as the film slowly reveals itself as something far more nuanced and subtle and poetic, a fever dream in which naturalism and impressionism slowly converge into one awe-inspiring whole.


24 February 2011

2010 OSCAR PREDICTIONS - PRESENTED WITHOUT COMMENTARY

2010 OSCAR PREDICTIONS

It's that time of year again: Oscar weekend! If I were a brave man, I'd have gotten these published more than three days before the ceremony, but I wanted, among other things, to see as many nominated films as possible, and only just wrapped up the documentary films yesterday.

Thinking about using my predictions to win your party pool? I wouldn't - last year I had a fairly excellent 20/24 predictions right, but historically I'm much more in the 16 or 17/24 range. And last year was kind of goddamn easy to predict, though I nailed the Best Animated Short category that tripped up a lot of people.

Best Picture
127 Hours
Black Swan
Inception
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter’s Bone
Will Win: The King's Speech - WINNER
Spoiler: The Social Network
Should Win: Toy Story 3

It's clear enough to anybody paying attention where the big prize is going; I'd actually rather devote some thoughts to the first runner-up. Honestly, only habit and the secure knowledge it doesn't actually matter lead me to slot The Social Network in the spoiler position; given how chilly the industry seems to be towards the film (its icy SAG reception is, I think, telling), I'd imagine that True Grit and its 10 nominations, or the familiar inspirational arc of The Fighter, might leave those films in a better spot. Honestly, I'd probably be less surprised at this point if Toy Story 3 took the big prize than if The Social Network did.

Kudos to the Academy, by the way, for one of the strongest BP slates in recent memory: in the last 20 years, I'd say it only competes with 2007 for having nothing that seems tremendously out of place, and if 127 Hours had been dropped, it would in the blink of an eye become my favorite year in the category since the 1970s.


23 February 2011

THE 2010 OSCAR-NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: ANIMATED

Following up my first post: the rest of the 10 fiction shorts nominated for Oscars, because as much as I like seeing shorts on the big screen, I really like seeing animated shorts anywhere.

Day & Night (Teddy Newton, USA)
Screened fifth in the Shorts International program

I can't do better than snip some thoughts from my full-length review:

"The most impressive short-form piece that Pixar has put out...

"Newton's ability to finesse a remarkably difficult conceptual hook into a supremely easy cartoon is proof enough that he has storytelling skills much the equal of anybody working at Pixar. Yet this is also, possibly, the least of the film's achievements: it is technically, formally, and thematically a work of great accomplishment, and merely being able to tell a weird story coherently is just cake at that point...

"I'm more than happy to argue that Day & Night is the present masterpiece of 3-D cinema; Coraline uses 3-D in some amazing ways, no doubt, and for all their gimcrackery, Avatar and TRON: Legacy certainly understand the way to wring jaw-dropping spectacle out of the technology. But none of those have done such a fine job as Day & Night at using 3-D to deepen the meaning of the film, please forgive the inadvertent pun. Day & Night in 2-D is an excellent piece; Day & Night in 3-D is rapturous, building a world like nothing else I've ever seen...

"However trite the "Don't judge others" moral might sound, and however unoriginal it no doubt is, it's unfortunately also a moral that remains absolutely fresh after thousands of years, and projects like Day & Night will continue to matter as long as human beings are human beings."

And of course, it remains my favorite film of the year, short or long or otherwise.

10/10


The Gruffalo (Max Lang & Jakob Schuh, UK)
Screened third in the Shorts International program

A wonderfully genial, affable family movie with a sweet, lilting script of rhyming couplets delivered by a bunch of top-shelf British ringers: Helena Bonham Carter as the mama squirrel narrator, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, Rob Brydon, and Robbie Coltrane as the assorted villains, James Corden (who, okay, I've never heard of) as the plucky mouse hero. And a criminal 27-minute running time (the longest of all ten non-documentary shorts) that threatens to turn something genial and affable into something painful and grueling.

The story has whiskers on it, and not by accident: a mouse journeys through the woods, outsmarts predators with tales of something called the Gruffalo, and then bumps into the very same Gruffalo that he thought he'd invented. It's mostly harmless, awfully sweet, and I suppose it's possible to dislike it if you are a completely awful human being. At the same time, I can't imagine anybody actually falling in love with it, unless they are eight years old. But you know what? The world needs great movies for eight-year-olds just like it needs great movies for the rest of us. But Christ, I wish it were shorter.

The CGI animation is palpably meant to evoke stop-motion, and this is the second great problem with the film: for while it's probably fair to say that it "evokes" stop-motion, it doesn't really look like stop-motion, so much as it looks like CGI ineptly aping the texture of stop-motion. This is a particular shame since the animation is, in every other way, quite lovely: I was particularly entranced by the character animation of the mouse, whose expressions change in strikingly subtle ways to communicate his thoughts with the tiniest - yet clearest! - of visual cues. It's outstanding work, only somewhat obscured by the unlovely tension inherent in the film's earnest desire to hide its digital nature. But that's a conceptual choice, not a matter of inexpert execution, and I am most eager to see the next project this team works on - hopefully one that clocks in at, maybe 10 minutes or thereabouts.

7/10


Let's Pollute (Geefwee Boedoe, USA)
Screened second in the Shorts International program

The only film in the whole batch that I didn't like (an excellent improvement from last year's dodgy slate), Let's Pollute is an agonisingly facile satire of consumer culture and the environmental impact of manufacture. A theme for which I have a special fondness, and I am reminded once again of my favorite Daniel Dennett quote: "There's nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear". Let's Pollute is a tremendously bad argument, one whose grating snarkiness offers no answers or insight deeper than "boy oh boy, aren't you and I both outstandingly superior for the beliefs we hold?"

Fashioning itself tonally as one of those '50s rah-rah shorts where a jolly narrator (Jim Thornton) exhorts us to do this or that bit for the betterment of America, the film attacks pollution using the dread weapon of sarcasm: it piles on one example after another of how you, dear viewer, can do an even better job of tearing through natural resources and ruining the world, because that's the American way. That's all. That one joke, repeated and repeated for a blissfully short six minutes.

This much must be said for the film: the visual style absolutely pops. My instinct tells me it was animated in Flash, or something very similar; but the images are all modeled to look like pencil and chalk sketches, very much in the clean, minimalist style of UPA's work in that company's post-WWII heyday. It's bright and fun to look at, which is great, because it's otherwise about as far from fun as you can get without catching something dreadful and oozing.

4/10


The Lost Thing (Shaun Tan & Andrew Ruhemann, Australia)
Screened fourth in the Shorts International program

Far less hectoring than Let's Pollute, The Lost Thing ends up troweling on its theme with just as much of a heavy hand, though it's mostly all bunched up at the very end.

That theme, if you're curious, is approximately, "In an increasingly automated life, we lose sight of the odd and beautiful things, and THAT IS VERY BAD." We get there when a young man (Tim Minchin) finds a huge thing on the beach, somewhat like a big metal shell for whatever Lovecraftian assortment of tentacles keeps poking out. The boy and thing quickly become friends, but the boy just as quickly realises that he can't keep the thing safe, and begins looking for a place where it can be at peace.

The story, honestly, is well and truly beside the point: what lingers in the film is its extraordinary world-building, somewhere between Proyas's Dark City and Gilliam's Brazil in its evocation of peculiar future-shock landscapes and faceless bureacracy and a stunning lack of individuality. That lack is nowhere felt in the movie, one of the most visually unique animations of the last couple of years; the intricacy and complexity and lived-in perfection of this world that we get to understand quite intuitively in just 15 minutes is so overwhelming that I can even overlook the frankly unpleasant character design, where every human has skin that appears to be fashioned from butcher paper.

If, in the end, The Lost Thing has very little to offer besides its remarkable visionary take on the future of bureaucracy, that's more than a lot of animated shorts can claim. It's a world that I'd happily return to, for whatever story the filmmakers wanted to tell; any excuse to goggle at that design would be as good as the one we've already got here, and probably a lot better.

7/10


Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Bastien Dubois, France)
Screened first in the Shorts International program

The most frivolous story of all: for indeed, calling what Madagascar possesses as its plot a "story" is doing a disservice to hundreds of years of world literature. What we rather have here is a series of attempts to capture a trip through Madagascar - the title translates as something close to "Travel Journal", and that's exactly what it is.

But Good God Almighty, what a travel journal! Dubois and his team of animators use every style you can think of: pencil sketches, photos, watercolors, gouache paintings. That is to say, they use the computer-generated version of those things, to capture all the impressions of a European's trip through a few cities on that African island, with most of the film being given over to a funeral ceremony. Then, those drawings and paintings and so on are turned into 3-D CGI models, so that they can move like fully-dimensional objects. It's a mixed media collage of 3-D imagery that looks like moving paintings - I can barely describe it in any way that makes much sense at all, but is the boldest and most imaginative animation I have seen in a very long time.

It's also wearying, and while at first I found myself thinking that this is what we were promised & didn't get with Tangled, by the end of Madagascar's 11 minutes, I was grateful not to have to deal with a whole feature of that. Too much stimulation; it's almost too much at 11 minutes, in fact, and the only real criticism I have of the film is that it makes its point, thematically and aesthetically, by its midway point. And the funerary material could easily have been reduced. But those are small, petty points. This is a magnificent experiment that almost justifies the trip to see the whole set of shorts just by itself.

9/10


Two other films ("Highly Commended") are being screened, to pad the slate out to something long enough to justify charging feature prices:

Urs (Moritz Mayerhofer, Germany)
Screened sixth in the Shorts International program

In a village in the mountains, a burly man and his aged, crippled mother are just about the only people left. So he straps her to his back and tries to climb to the next valley, where there are people & life. That's the plot of this 10 minute fable, but it's only even a little bit clear what the hell is happening when it's all over; for most of the film, I was trying to figure out what the dead sheep had to do with any of this, and if a bear was ever going to show up.

When all is said and done, Urs is chiefly a demonstration piece for the student animators to show off their skills, and in that respect it largely works: like Madagascar, it's self-evidently an attempt to create a 3-D version of 2-D graphic art, and not necessarily any more. Unlike Madagascar, that attempt is not wholly successful: there is a fatal disconnect between the texture of the characters and the texture of the backgrounds that's only truly apparent in motion, but is nastily distracting, like an itchy tag at the neck of your shirt.

No doubt about it, the short is striking and the gorgeous mountain scenery is dramatic as all hell; but it doesn't add up to very much. As a tech demo, it's beautiful and shiny, but as a movie it's just sort of... there.

6/10


The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (Bill Plympton, USA)
Screened seventh in the Shorts International program

It's a Bill Plympton cartoon; that says most of what needs to be said. If you are unaware of the man's work, this means: a slightly sick, slightly witty narrative married to a primitivist drawing style that some of us love beyond all reason, and some of us don't. I'll say this: it's a tremendously awful introduction to the man's work. While most of his best-known and best-love cartoons, including the legendary Dog tetralogy, are sketched colored pencils, at a fairly low frame rate, The Cow... is drawn in thick, heavy lines with eye-searing primary colors ("Plympton discovered MS Paint", I wrote in my screening notes), at a practically non-existent framerate, with the illusion of movment created by jiggling the individual drawings like the camera operator was on a caffeine bender.

The result is far more visually tiring than most of Plympton's films, which is a horrible shame: the cheery, bright colors are a fascinating addition to his style, and the story is one of the best I can think of in his whole career. A calf sees a billboard for a hamburger company across from the field where he grows up, and convinced that this is the best life a cow could ever hope for, dedicates his life to become everything that the meat factory men look for, over his mother's terrified objections. When he finally enters the meat factory, he learns the tremendous error of his ways, in furiously agitated pantomime typical of the animator's work. It's a clever, pointed satire of advertising and its effect on children that never once comes out and says that's what it's doing; the polar opposite to a screamingly obvious tract like Let's Pollute. And while I pretty much enjoyed it and would imagine that anyone who has enjoyed Plympton in the past will continue to do so, there's just no downplaying the degree to which this is a hard movie to look at, pure and simple.

7/10

THE 2010 OSCAR-NOMINATED SHORT FILMS: LIVE-ACTION

For a couple of years now, the kindly folk at Shorts International have made it possible to see all ten of the Oscar-nominated short films in art houses around the country; they're not always the best the form has to offer, but it's generally a happy state of affairs when you get to see a short film on the big screen. Which is what drove me to check out this year's live-action offerings, having skipped out last year due to time, money, and general indifference.

The Confession (Tanel Toom, UK)
Screened first in the Shorts International program

Two little boys prepare for the first confession, when one of them, Sam (Lewis Howlett), realises to his absolute horror that he's never committed a sin in his short life. So he and his unpleasant friend Jacob (Joe Eales) concoct a plot so that Sam can do something really naughty just in time to be absolved. Sounds like a real charming picture, right?

Oh, fuck, no. In a surprisingly austere slate of nominees, The Confession (winner of an honorary award at this year's Student Oscars) still takes the cake for most stone-faced and self-serious of the lot, for Sam and Jacob's innocent prank quickly escalates out of control and in no time at all, three people are dead. That's already a hell of a lot to pile onto one simple little tale of innocence lost, but things get worse anyway.

Whether this adds up to something or not, I can't quite say; but Toom (who came up with the idea, though Caroline Bruckner wrote the script) seems at any rate to have some really pronounced grievances against Catholicism, which comes out of the film looking pretty battered. Catholic guilt is a topic that has been explored hundreds of times throughout cinema history, but I have to admit that the specific idea that a neurotic obsession with confession turns children into killers is a new one to me.

In accord with its shockingly dark theme, The Confession is glowering and gloomy, its musty woodland settings shot in sepulchral blues and clinging shadows; what isn't blue is watery and dessicated, like the repeated, oh-so-symbolic shot of a scarecrow standing in for a crucifix. It's atmospheric and crushingly joyless, though on the whole I think that the whole thing is handsome enough in its brooding that Toom probably could make a pretty damn good horror film if he ever decides that he's done with unwatchably cruel coming-of-age stories.

Howlett gives a remarkably natural performance for a first time child actor; it's due almost entirely to his presence that The Confession manages to be even a little bit meaningful; he alone gives some human-sized emotion to an otherwise pointlessly unhappy, if technically accomplished, act of cosmic pessimism, not so much chilly as it is encased in a foot-thick wall of ice.

6/10


The Crush (Michael Creagh, Ireland)
Screened fourth in the Shorts International program

A little boy, Ardal (Oran Creagh) is hopelessly in love with his schoolteacher (Olga Wehrly), and has just managed to secure what he thinks is a promise that she'll marry him when he's old enough, in five years. Then he discovers, quite by chance, that she's just gotten engaged to her actual boyfriend (Rory Keenan). With the fire of a true lover, he prepares to show her why he is the only man who can truly make her happy. Sounds like a real charming picture, right?

Oh, fuck, no. Though it starts off a lot cuter, The Crush ends up just as bitter and unpleasant as The Confession, and with much less justification. The first film at least has the benefit of consistency: it sets out to be serious and remains so. The Crush, however, slightly more than halfway through its 15 minutes, takes a turn for Insanity Land, right about the moment that sweet little Ardal pulls a gun on his rival and forces the older man to confess his venality. And once again, that darkness is largely pointless: it's far too nasty a film to tell us anything terribly valuable or meaningful about first love, suggesting only that Ardal is some kind of prepubescent sexual psychopath.

It's at least possible that all of this was meant to be an absurd comedy, but Oran Creagh's performance is too stiff and inflexible to allow that: he delivers every single line in the same monotone, which if anything only increases our sense that this little boy is some kind of soulless devil. And yes, yes, I know, you don't get to judge child actors by as harsh a yardstick... but when their presence is thiss deleterious to the whole, I don't see how you can avoid it.

At any rate, Creagh's direction is mostly fine, with a handful of well-chosen angles here and there; though he certainly doesn't try very hard to guide the film's tone. And he can do absolutely nothing with the final scene, which tries to restore the lighthearted whimsy of the opening, but just comes across as confused and arbitrary. The weakest, by a good margin, of the five nominees.

5/10


God of Love (Luke Matheny, USA)
Screened fifth in the Shorts International program

And now for something completely different: a movie that's actually pleasant to watch. The winner of this year's Student Academy Award for Best Narrative, God of Love finds Matheny doing triple duty, also writing and starring as Ray, the lead singer of a novelty band that performs '40s-style torch songs while he performs dart tricks. He's in love with bandmate Kelly (Marian Brock), she's in love with their other bandmate Fozzie (Christopher Hirsh), and Ray has spent the most of the last year praying for her to fall in love with him. His prayers are answered in the form of a box of magic darts that turn Ray into a modern-day Cupid, though he has to learn for himself that it is better to bring love to others than to hog it for yourself.

It's never not a student film, if you follow me, and its self-satisfied ironic tone (from Metheny's delight in playing up his own gangliness to the glossy black-and-white cinematography) is overtly, if not oppressively, hipsterish. But there's no denying the latent talent that Metheny and DP Bobby Webster bring to the proceedings, and the sense of humor is generally too self-effacing to feel as smug as it might. The whole thing is tremendously breezy - at 18 minutes, its not the shortest of the five, though it feels like it - a lark that knows what it is and doesn't strive to be anything else.

There are plenty of holes that could be poked in the film, if you were of a mind: the structure is wonky (it opens with a wholly unnecessary flash-forward), there's no real effort to engage with the inner lives of any of the secondary characters, and the concept as laid out for our benefit is inconsistently applied. But these are not things you notice while the film is going on; it's too light and fluffy to encourage that kind of criticism in the moment, instead preferring to be charming and just sarcastic enough to give it some snap.

7/10


Na Wewe (Ivan Goldschmidt, Belgium)
Screened third in the Shorts International program

It says a lot about how much joylessness the other filmmakers were able to squeeze out of darling children in the British Isles that the slate's most unabashedly serious movie, about the intersection of racism and violence in Rwanda, isn't even in the running for the title of "Most Depressing".

In Burundi, in 1994, a van carrying several African people and one white European is stopped by one of the hundreds of guard points littered throughout Rwanda. The men with guns force everybody but the white man out, and demand that the Hutus stand on one side of the road, the Tutsis on the other. As the group seems unwilling to self-divide -gee, I wonder why - the leader of the guerillas questions each person in the group individually, and he (and we) find that the issue of ethnic identity isn't a clear-cut binary. Why, you might even say that it's a terrible, arbitrary reason to kill a huge percentage of your country's population!

There's no doubt that Na Wewe - revealed in the film to mean something like "you too" - has its heart squarely in the right place, though there's something distinctly off-kilter about a film set during the Rwandan genocide in which not a single person ends up dead. The message about the meaninglessness of race and racism is impossible to fault, of course, though I wonder if in 16 years, we've really come to this point: where Rwanda can be used as a vehicle for a parable, without any real attention paid to the truth of the genocide itself (Rwanda really has become the new Holocaust, in that respect).

Still, for all its thematic flimsiness, the film is well made, and impeccably acted; though hobbled by its intense piety, it's actually quite an engaging thing to watch, purposefully striding from one character and metaphoric argument to the next with a clarity of vision and narrative efficiency that makes the film work perfectly well as a thriller, and it's hard to demand more of a message movie than that.

6/10


Wish 143 (Ian Barnes, UK)
Screened second in the Shorts International program

And so it is that the story of a teenage boy with cancer ends up being one of the more comparatively playful films in the slate, though that's not just because the nominees are an exercise in misery porn. In fact, this tale of how David (Samuel Peter Holland) wants the folks from some Make-A-Wish knockoff to arrange for him to lose his virginity before he dies, is surprisingly un-starchy in its treatment of a sick kid.

The film's greatest flaw (next to a 24-minute running time that it doesn't quite fill successfully) lies in Barnes's direction: he doesn't seem absolutely sure how to best split the difference between the sentiment and the wry snark in Tom Bidwell's screenplay, and too often plays for pathos what feels better-suited to sarcastic resignation. That's a big problem, particularly when the film is couched alongside so many other pathos delivery bombs.

The good news, then, is that everything else works well: particularly Holland's remarkable performance, which one hopes shall be the first of many times we hear from this young actor. It's a sensitive, touching, and painfully real blend of anger and desire and deeply sublimated fear that gets hidden in a crusty veneer of cocky self-confidence. It's not the only good performance in a rather well-stocked cast - television mainstay Jim Carter, as the priest looking to help David find some kind of inner peace, is particularly good in support - but it's a performance without which the film couldn't work half so well, perched as it is right on the brink of garish sentiment. The climactic scene in particular, in which David finally has his meeting with a prostitute, could have come across terrible, without a perfectly-conceived performance to ground it.

True, Wish 143 isn't exactly a triumph of form - it's slightly desaturated for no real reason and indifferently composed and edited - it's solid enough that the central character study still manages to shine forth. It's no masterpiece, but it's the best of the lot, simple and honest and moving.

7/10

22 February 2011

THE CITY I LIVE IN, THE CITY OF ANGELS

Reader Geoffrey Moses - better known as regular commenter GeoX - upon donating to the Carry On Campaign, directed me to review a movie he vaguely and ominously described as "interesting". It's at least that, a fascinatingly, willfully dysfunctional action thriller that I'd always avoided on the assumption that it was as boilerplate as it scenario. Oh my, no.

In many respects, William Friedkin's 1985 crime thriller To Live and Die in L.A. is a monumentally common '80s action picture; hell, the whole plot kicks into motion when a grizzled old veteran who announces with gravelly resignation that he's too old for this shit is murdered by a vicious crime lord just two days before retirement. If it had come out a few years later, it would be almost impossible to resist the temptation to label it a Michael Mann knock-off, with its dual-protagonist narrative and emphasis on the visual language of pop culture (I suspect Mann would agree - he unsuccessfully sued the filmmakers for stealing from Miami Vice); even without that as a touchstone, it's simply not possible to claim with a straight face that by 1985, the idea of a cop being driven into a moral and legal grey zone in his obsessive desire to catch a seemingly untouchable villain was by any stretch of the imagination a fresh story.

And yet, there's an ineffable quality about To Live and Die that isn't so easy to pin down as that. There's nothing about it that's specifically original or unconventional until the last 10 minutes, but from virtually the first scene, something is distinctly and unapologetically "off" about the movie, as though despite writing most of the screenplay (adapted from T-Man Gerald Petievich's novel, with Petievich's help) and shepherding the project from birth to completion, Friedkin wasn't actually interested in making a cop procedural at all. The narrative focus is all wrong for that, the performances are all slightly arch and stylised, and the visual style Friedkin uses, along with cinematographer Robby Müller - a frequent collaborator of Wim Wenders and later Jim Jarmusch, who shot Paris, Texas just one year before this, and what a telling fact that is - is largely more concerned with textures and the emotional feeling of a space, rather than capturing with any kind of fidelity the actual physical sense of a location. Let me put it this way: Friedkin's The French Connection is above all a story about New York, capturing that city with documentary fidelity, while To Live and Die in L.A., its title notwithstanding, only vaguely feels like it takes place anywhere in particular.

The difference, maybe, is that New York is a place of great specificity, one that even a fella who's never been can describe with some depth of feeling just based on the mythology of the city, while Los Angeles is almost by definition the city that has no inherent personality. It is famous, primarily, for being turned into other places, but by itself it is nothing but an assemblage of surfaces. In that respect, it is the exact perfect city for Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen), a man apparently without any inner self - certainly, by the time we meet him, there is nothing left of the man, only the professional. A professional, moreover, who is further denied self-definition on account once again of the city: a Treasury agent outside of Washington is in an inherently curious state (this was mainly what attracted Friedkin to the material), and whatever we might think of when we hear the words "Secret Service", those are not things true of Chance.

Chance has made a life's quest out of hunting down Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), a particularly notorious counterfeiter who kills Chance's partner, Jim Hart (Michael Greene), following the peculiar opening sequence in which Chance and Hart save President Reagan - actual Reagan audio is used! - from a Muslim terrorist who dies in spectacularly violent fashion. Neither Reagan nor Islam makes another appearance in the film, and the opening sequence remains stirringly opaque, a disjointed piece of scene-setting that doesn't actually set the scene for anything that happens (though it does show the contrast between the in-control Chance of the first scene and the increasingly psychotic Chance of the bulk of the movie).

So, yes: angry, revenge-driven Treasury agent teamed with a meek partner (John Pankow) doing whatever it takes to bring down the bad guy, whether it's coercing his "girlfriend" Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), whose contact with the L.A. underworld are plainly the only reason Chance spends any time with her at all, threatening Master's imprisoned lieutenant (John Turturro), or generally playing both sides of the law. You've seen this before, I've seen this before. The great appeal of To Live and Die is not the story it tells, nor even really how it is told (though Friedkin is a gifted enough filmmaker that the movie works far more often than it doesn't as a thriller), but the tone. This is a profoundly ambivalent motion picture, terrifically uncertain of its relationship to the protagonist. It's not that it grows away from Chance as he becomes more and more unethical; rather that as the film moves on it becomes increasingly disinterested in him as a character at all, culminating in a climax that oh-so-casually violates the normal rules about what an action hero does and doesn't do in the finale of his movie, completely upending every convention of its hidebound genre without even seeming to notice that it has done so.

It's the film's uncertainty about Chance, played by first-time leading man Petersen with a degree of inscrutability that might be the side-effect of poor acting (I won't deny that I have little use for the actor in general), though it undoubtedly fits the movie's program to a T. Essentially, Friedkin is doing much the same thing he attempted five years earlier in Cruising, to make a film that is specifically about how his main character fails to succeed in the narrative function he has been ascribed; if To Live and Die is massively more effective, that's largely because it abandons the toxic sociology and unfathomable obsession with and disgust towards male homosexuality that makes Cruising almost impossible to take seriously on any level. It's certainly easy to fall in love with a movie that does this much to break down its own meaning as a psychological action picture.

Would that the rest of the movie was so profoundly fascinating. Not that it's particularly bad, but To Live and Die is definitely not, on the whole, as stimulating as its treatment of its central character. The film is dominated by a concern with counterfeits: the obvious way in which the plot hinges on funny money, but more generally on the way that surfaces and realities don't match up (in that spirit, we could even say that the broken narrative and increasingly dysfunctional hero make To Live and Die a counterfeit action movie). There's quite a lot to this that is appealing and surprising, though Friedkin's treatment of this theme is maddeningly superficial, too entranced with "gotcha!" moments where he seems to be playing with the audience's perception not to make a point, but to be a dick (one particularly egregious moment: the first time we see Masters's lover, played by Debra Feuer, she's dressed as a man and it briefly seems that Masters is gay, as though Friedkin was deliberately poking fun at Cruising or something along those lines). And the not-quite equivalence of the names Masters and Chance (the one in control and the one flying about crazily) speaks to a programmatic view of the story that is not at all rewarding, and that Friedkin never quite shakes off.

It says a lot that despite being a great deal more nuanced and performed with much more technical acumen, Masters is simply not as compelling as Chance; the film is largely interesting only in its most unconventional aspects, and when it actually plays by the cop movie rules that, after all, largely drives its plot, it gets boring on us. A car chase scene that subscribes to virtually none of the editing rhythms common to the genre: fascinating and arresting. Scenes of Chance hunting down information: deadly. To Live and Die invests so much energy into breaking rules that when it follows the rules, it's not particularly successful at all, which is a paradox Friedkin probably would appreciate, though it's not much use when you're watching the thing.

There's enough left over that it doesn't entire matter, though. The film is both in its plot and its construction absolutely entranced by the appearance of things, and the result is a movie uncomfortably aware of its own position within the pop culture landscape. More than once, you get the feeling that To Live and Die was secretly made a decade or two later by people trying to make a movie that evoked The Eighties to almost comic respect; it's quite a lot like the same year's Back to the Future, in the way that it could hardly be more of a time capsule of the look and feel of a specific moment, and in the curious sense that the filmmakers were doing that on purpose. Could anything possibly communicate "1985", in color palette and content, more clearly and stereotypically than this frame from the opening credits?

It's too much to say that To Live and Die in L.A. is a great movie, but it holds up better than a lot of the movies working in the same idiom from the same time. And of course, it almost has to: it self-consciously breaks down the superficiality of that idiom by stressing its own shallowness. A brave and perhaps inherently self-defeating tack for any movie to take, but then William Friedkin was always a bit hellbent on doing what was different, and that's enough to keep this most remarkably dated motion picture fresh and provocative a quarter of a century on.

19 February 2011

THE BOURNE FACSIMILE

Unknown - not the first film by that title, not by any means, but the only one that's a Euro-thriller starring Liam Neeson - as I was saying, Unknown ends with a hokey, hackneyed twist that you can undoubtedly see in the abstract if not in the particulars from miles and miles away. I begin with this because, going into the film, I'd heard lots of chatter about its ghastly & godawful twist, and decided that I was going to make no effort whatsoever to guess what that twist was going to be, and then when it came along I thought, "Well, that was totally dumb", and returned to the business of enjoying the movie's shallow, slick pleasures. Thank God for lowered expectations.

So I say again: Unknown has a profoundly bad twist ending. Believe that. Hold on to it. It makes the whole affair a hell of a lot more fun.

Unknown is a bit of sub-sub-Hitchcockian nonsense in which an American biotech scientist, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), travels to Berlin with his wife Liz (January Jones), for a major international conference. When he realises that he left his briefcase at the airport, he hops in a taxi and heads back, when a freak chain of accidents sends the car careening into a river, putting Harris into a coma from which he emerges four days later with only disjointed memories. Worse still, he finds that his entire existence seems to have been taken over by another man (Aidan Quinn), and that Liz has no idea who he is. So begins a quest to find out what the hell is happening, with the aide of an ex-Stasi officer (Bruno Ganz) and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) who pulled him from the water, and has her own set of problems to deal with, what with being an illegal Bosnian immigrant and all.

It would be easy to consider Unknown a follow-up to Taken, the previous Continental thriller starring Neeson in the wholly unexpected but curiously satisfying "middle-aged bad-ass" reboot of his career. Lord knows the producers want you to make that connection. It's not quite as simple as that: Taken was chiefly an action picture driven by setpieces, while Unknown is chiefly a wrong man thriller with a few actiony bits thrown in to keep things exciting amidst all the talking. Less objectively, Taken is also a whole lot better: directed by Pierre Morel of the Luc Besson sphere of influence, it's stylishly nasty and exceedingly well-choreographed. Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a veteran of a couple underachieving horror pictures (most recently Orphan, which everybody seems to have liked more than I did), can't muster up terribly good choreography at all: the biggest action sequence is a car chase which is clumsily shot and edited to make everything seem a bit slower than it ought to be and generally muddy up the physical relationship of the cars in question, and the handful of fights throughout are largely unimaginative. Collet-Serra is largely better at creating a mood of unease than he is at action, which works out well given that Unknown is more of a thriller than anything else, though there's not much about the film that sticks in the brain other than the suitably gloomy evocation of Berlin in the midst of a grey, snowy November.

What Unknown does have in common with Taken is a growly, intense Liam Neeson, who is, if anything, better here than he was in that picture, given as he actually has something sort of like a character to play. It is, almost without question, a cheap & disreputable thrill to see a proper actor playing the lead in a low-rent B-picture like this; but around these parts, we enjoy our cheap thrills, and as long as Neeson seems happy to prostitute his considerable skills as a thespian in the service of slick popcorn movies, then who is it hurting, really? For with Neeson, Unknown is a jolly potboiler, a lot of stupid fun masquerading as not stupid fun anchored by his inimitable presence and the threatening purr of his voice, and above all the way he has of expressing shock at the various troubles his character faces as though he's just been shot in the gut: eyes widen, mouth drops, breathing halts for just a moment. Without Neeson, I have a hard time believing that Unknown would work at all, not least because the gaseous story desperately needs the kind of gravity that a soft-spoken 6'4" tower of masculinity provides, to keep from completely disintegrating.

There are other positive considerations: Kruger's performance is all bristles and nervous energy, a captivating portrayal of a stock figure that would be perfectly fun to watch even absent the great counterpoint she makes to Neeson. I'd go so far as to to say that, given less to work with, she does more here than in her big breakout performance in Inglourious Basterds. Frank Langella has a late cameo that feels a little too much like his performance in The Box, but proves if proof were needed that there is never a point where the presence of Frank Langella is not preferable to his absence. And even if Collet-Serra isn't the most fluid and luminous of filmmakers, he keeps the tone light and the pace fleet through most of the film's middle phase, the best part, when it consists largely of Neeson wandering around Berlin and being angry at people.

Truth be told, even that much-maligned twist ending functions, in a purely mechanical way. Unlike Salt, for example, it doesn't end up feeling like we've just been maliciously lied to, and by that point in the story the film is more about the thrust of the action than the mysteries of the plot, and the action continues to be fairly, but not outstandingly well-judged. It's a lot harder to care about the people performing the action, admittedly, and not just because of the twist (by that point, January Jones's performance has descended into something clumsy and virtually unwatchable, like she was reading the script for the first time during the take) but Neeson is still there, being all intimidating, and while Unknown has taken an irreversible turn for the stupid, it's not the aggressive kind of stupid. It's just dumb fun; maybe not good dumb fun, but certainly good enough dumb fun. And in February, that's awfully damn good.

6/10

17 February 2011

NOT SO DEEP AS A WELL, NOR SO WIDE AS A CHURCH-DOOR

It's not exactly the case that Gnomeo & Juliet is bad. That's not at all the right word. It's a lot more damn bizarre than it is bad. The part where it recasts Romeo and Juliet into the world of living garden gnomes from two neighboring yards, that's nothing. Anybody who has made it to 2011 and can still be weirded out by exercises in transposing Shakespearean plays to ludicrous new settings simply hasn't been paying attention. And it's not because the film boasts a soundtrack made up entirely of Elton John songs. I mean, that's strange, but not horribly strange. The whole thing where the soundtrack actually turns out not to be so much John's songs as it is instrumental orchestrations of his songs, that's where it starts to get kind of inexplicable. If you haven't heard "Rocket Man" played on triumphant strings as a "Hero's victory" motif, and I'm guessing you haven't, then you've missed out on one hell of an auditory hallucination. And even that's nothing compared to "I'm Still Standing" as the underscore to an action setpiece.

What's really strange is just, the thing itself. After rolling it around, I honestly have no clue who the target audience for Gnomeo & Juliet is meant to be. Children? Probably, given the G-rating and the overall sense of undemanding whimsy. The only problem with that theory is that virtually all of the particulars feel like they're being pitched at the adults in the audience, who'll get the smirky references and double entendres and, well, the Elton John-ness of the whole affair (the pop icon executive produced the movie; I think it's up for debate whether his apparent endorsement of this film or Rush Limbaugh's fourth marriage represents the greater debasement of his integrity as an artist and human being). It's sort of like a Shrek picture distilled so that only the adolescent snark remained, with all the swashbuckling and magic and other family-friendly bits removed; it would be an exaggeration to claim that not a single gag is left in the movie that doesn't require knowledge unlikely to be found in the average 7-year-old, but not much of an exaggeration.

That means: the usual barrage of sex jokes hidden in plain sight (and smutty ones, too: there's one about the size and firmness of a gnome's hat that does not seem at all correct for a "G", but these things are so grotesquely arbitrary anyway), and malapropisms, and cultural references 20 years out of date and a particularly galling bit where Patrick Stewart plays the voice of a statue of William Shakespeare, apparently so broken by his decades with the RSC that he's decided to turn on the most famous and influential writer in the history of the Western Hemisphere in service of a joke that essentially runs, "Boy, that Shakespeare fella used florid language! and he told depressing stories! What a dick, amiright?" It's tremendously hard to say who exactly is supposed to find that amusing, other than the militantly illiterate, but there you go. Gnomeo & Juliet, folks.

So anyway, what that leaves for the nominal young audience, I don't know: bright colors and a thin layer of slapstick, I guess. But I'm not going to hold it against Gnomeo & Juliet that it's a bad children's movie; not when I can more readily hold it against it that it's just all-around a bad comedy, one that has only a few different jokes which it shuffles out in increasingly desperate permutations. Did you find the crazy Latino plastic flamingo played by a shameless Jim Cummings hilarious last time? Well, maybe you'll find it funny this time!

What saves the film- no, scratch that, the film isn't saved. But what would have saved it, if it had been saved, is the design and animation, by Canada's Starz Animation, the company behind 9, among other things. You have perhaps never particularly wanted to know what a movie would look like if it featured CGI garden gnomes whose design constantly emphasised their craggy ceramic surfaces emoting with remarkably supple expressions, wandering around grassy landscapes just outlandish enough to stay in the world of fantasy, where greens are a bit greener and flowers are a bit more velvety and water is a bit thicker. I never particularly wanted that, at least. But now that I've got that, I can't help myself but think that I were getting a film that featured CGI garden gnomes &c, I am ecstatic that it should look as handsome as Gnomeo & Juliet looks; and if the characters were going to be given such drippy things to do, I am nevertheless glad that they could be animated with such sincerity of emotion while doing them.

So on the one hand, a flimsy retelling of a story that doesn't need it; on the other, it's kind of gorgeous, in a lovingly tactile cartoon way (I went to some effort to avoid seeing the thing in 3-D, looking to save a bit of cash; perhaps the right choice, perhaps not. Nothing seemed obviously wanting). In the middle, a lot of famous people get stranded with practically nothing to do but recite lines that occasionally reference Shakespeare, but more often are contented to serve as a delivery system for gnome-based puns: James McAvoy and Emily Blunt play the titular lovers, Michael Caine plays Juliet's dad while Maggie Smith plays Gnomeo's mom, Jason Statham plays Tybalt (who, in some indefinable way, sort of looks creepily like Statham), Matt Lucas of Little Britain plays a hybrid of Mercutio and Benedict, and Ashley Jensen of Extras plays the frog water fountain nurse in what is very much the only performance in the film that tries at all to find anything flexible in the material and turn it into something alive and fun.

And then there are two instantly-forgettable new Elton John songs (one of them a wildly ineffective duet with Lady Gaga) in amongst all the odd as hell instrumental versions of old Elton John songs, and some gags that are amusing in the sheer brassiness of their absurdity if nothing else, and the vaguely charming cartoon English nature of the whole affair is appealing in a trivial sort of way ("Ohoho those Brits with their obsession for gardening, and their love of tacky garden gnomes!" the film seems to chuckle, and if the bulk of the nine-person writing team wasn't in fact British by birth, I'd accuse it of being wantonly bigoted. Instead, it is merely self-loathing). The whole thing might ultimately be little but a take-off of Toy Story with sarcastic jokes that don't always make sense in place of a warm heart, and Lord knows it's clear why Disney decided late in the game to distribute this under the Touchstone brand name rather than Walt Disney Pictures, but, um, it's got stuff. 's pretty. Heck, it's not like there aren't worse animated pictures released every single year, y'know?

5/10

16 February 2011

FOR THE LOVE OF FILM NOIR

A quick PSA: just making sure that everybody reading this is aware that the Siren and Marilyn Ferdinand are hosting their second annual blogathon for film preservation, this time dedicated entirely to that loveliest and nastiest of all genres, the film noir, which has been going on a few days now. I was sadly unable to provide an entry, but it's a worthy cause, and the film blogosphere's best and brightest are all there to join in fight. Head over for some fantastic reading, and don't forget to donate!

JUST DON'T

I'm not sure that I've ever specifically liked Jennifer Aniston in anything: she has a pleasant enough demeanor, true, and she's quite attractive, and there's a prickly-soft thing she has going on that makes her a solid foil for just about every actor she's been stacked against in any movie, and she has machine-precise comic timing honed by her decade-long stint on a sitcom. But none of these things naturally lead to, "...and that's how you can tell she's a great actress!" for after all she isn't: just a really good sport that the camera absolutely loves. So I wasn't expecting to be quite as charmed as I was by Aniston's performance in Just Go with It, which isn't really any more technically proficient than any other thing she's ever done, but has a sort of warm magnetism that invariably left me longing for her to come back when she was offscreen.

This is probably not due to Aniston's thespianic talents, admittedly, but to the fact that Just Go with It is a wheezing, broken carcass of a romantic comedy that needs every last inch of help it can get, and Aniston simply happens to be the unlucky soul tasked with staring down an inordinately disengaged Adam Sandler for nearly two hours. By God, she does it, too: it's obvious enough that the actress knows she's better than the material, but rather than therefore looking down on it she instead just cuts loose and has as much fun as she can, at least in the first two-thirds of the film, before it goes all soulful and sweet and loses whatever strained thread of watchability had been holding it together.

The story, adapted from the play and movie Cactus Flower, ultimately derived from a French stage farce (I must confess myself completely unfamiliar with every previous iteration of the story, but I understand that it's fairly loose in its adaptation; at any rate, the much-diluted DNA of French farce is still just barely visible), finds Sandler playing Dr. Danny Maccabee, a Los Angeles plastic surgeon with a grudge against the entire female sex: after learning minutes before his wedding that his fiancée was cheating on him, he's spent 23 years wearing a wedding ring to trick women into thinking that he's married, finding that this makes him irresistible to sex goddesses who would otherwise find him a reprehensible slimeball. What would make them think that.

In short: Danny falls in love with a hot schoolteacher, Palmer (Brooklyn Decker), and wants to put his skeevy days behind him, but she finds his ring and he makes up a fake wife he's about to divorce, and this forces him to conscript his receptionist and longsuffering Girl Friday, Katherine (Aniston), to pose as his estranged wife "Devlin"; further complications result in him pretending to be the father of Katherine's children Maggie (Bailee Madison) and Michael (Griffin Bluck). Then the whole lot of them go to Hawai'i, along with Danny's hideous douchebag cousin Eddie (Nick Swardson), posing as "Devlin's" love "Dolph Lundgren". In Hawai'i, they stumble across Katherine's much-hated sorority sister, the real Devlin (Nicole Kidman), and her watery millionaire husband Ian Maxtone Jones (Dave Matthews. Yes, that one), and in a panic, Katherine tells her own lie, that Danny is her husband.

There is, objectively, the stuff of a good farce in here, though some of the connecting tissue is a bit strained, and the plot as it stands here can only work if Palmer is stupid to the point of dysfunction. And that's just the tip of why the film entirely fails to turn into anything remotely akin to a good farce. It's at once too lazy and too angry to be very much fun at all: Allan Loeb and Timothy Dowling's script is filled with obvious, tired jokes, a great many of which are scatological in a way that film comedy as a whole, even at its worst, seems to have largely gotten away from in the last few years. More than that, though, the film is mean-spirited in a jarringly unselfconscious way: it's one thing to make jokes to the effect that women are of value only when they are thin, white, and well-dressed (an argument that the film makes pretty much constantly), and quite another to make those jokes from such a savagely banal place, where it's clear that the filmmakers weren't even aware of how pointedly nasty they were being.

That's really, what's hardest to get over in the film: the nastiness. There's not a single likable person onscreen, which isn't a total dealbreaker, of course - think of the jolly misanthropy of Billy Wilder, whose late-career writing partner I.A.L. Diamond wrote the original Cactus Flower - but in Just Go with It, the flimsy gags are too feeble to counterbalance the cruelty of the characterisations: Danny is a coarse bully, the apotheosis of everything bad in Sandler's persona with nothing good to stand against it, while the actor's friend and frequent director Dennis Dugan is wholly unable (or uninterested, more likely) to reign in his performance from its screaming, mean excesses. Katherine and both of her children are shockingly mercenary, and indeed the film's emphasis on lifestyle porn and acquisition - on the thousands and thousands of dollars worth of clothes Danny buys to make Katherine look like a better trophy, or the criminally luxurious hotel where they all stay on Hawai'i - is as distasteful as any of the hugely amoral characters, so utterly divorced from any kind of reality that anyone in the audience is likely to have experienced (Danny's bank account seems limitless: he spends what must be around $100,000 over the course of the movie and barely views it as an inconvenience) that it almost becomes comic just from the absurdity of it all.

I would not want to forget to mention Swardson, a longstanding Sandler sidekick, whose performance in the early part of the film is grating and douchey (though it's supposed to be, I think); his performance in the latter part, when he's pretending to be German, is one of the most toxic comedy vacuums I have seen in years. Maybe ever.

Aniston, like I said, has a kind of sweetness that keeps her afloat; Kidman seems to be completely unaware of where she is or what she's doing, and throws herself into the role with the eagerness to be totally energetic and dazzling and comic that a sane actress would reserve for Rosalind in As You Like It or Viola in Twelfth Night, and as a result is fairly enjoyable to watch, if only as a reminder that she's much better at comedy than just about anyone is willing to give her credit for. And some of the lines, honestly, are amusing: about one in every fifteen or twenty, let's say, a poor ratio but not a barbaric one. But that's about the nicest I can say for the movie. It's long, and sour, and peopled by the most opaque, inscrutable, unendurable cast of a comedy imaginable. By the end I couldn't help but think that Katherine's ex, the kid's absent dad, the one that Danny ends up replacing in the inevitable "the two biggest stars pair up" ending that is not otherwise motivated by anything in either Sandler or Aniston's performances... that is to say, Katherine's ex is the only character who worked and made sense. If my family was as shockingly awful as his, I'd do whatever I could to run away, too.

3/10

14 February 2011

DISNEY SUNDRIES: IS THAT A RABBIT IN YOUR POCKET, OR ARE YOU JUST HAPPY TO SEE ME?

At long last, I am wrapping up my survey of the sneaky little corners of Walt Disney Feature Animation with a film that wasn't technically made by WDFA at all, but it would have killed me to exclude it. My thanks and apologies to everyone who has asked if I'd be reviewing this in the past few months.

When the Walt Disney Company fell under the control of Michael Eisner and company in the 1980s, one of the biggest changes they made to corporate culture - and this is, in hindsight, so utterly self-evident that it hardly bears me saying it - was a new emphasis on movies that would make lots of money. Well, duh, you might think, and yet in the era of The Black Cauldron and its discontents, it seems that whoever was minding the shop at Disney had no idea at all of how to make a wise business decision.

I bring this up because the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, eventually released in the summer of 1988, is an excellent case study of how the company under Ron W. Miller was different from the company under Michael Eisner. It was Miller who first purchased the rights to Gary K. Wolf's 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, a humorous mystery novel about a world where comic strip figures and human beings interact. Nothing came of the idea until 1985, when Eisner thought that the story would work well in the new wave of blockbuster effects-driven comedies that were coming into vogue around that time; and at that point, he approached Steven Spielberg about executive producing. That, in a nutshell, is the sea change that happened to company: from thinking an idea looked fun and offered good opportunities for the animators (noble impulses, that I would not like to denigrate, though a 1981 version of Roger Rabbit would undoubtedly have been much worse than the one released), and actually figuring out how to go about making a successful movie. Miller would never, ever have thought to co-produce a movie with Amblin Entertainment; nor would he likely have been okay with outsourcing the animation to the degree that was done. Eisner was, and it was a result of these and similar choices that allowed Roger Rabbit to be produced for an amount of money unheard-of in those days, and that caused it to be one of the great comic masterpiece of the 1980s. Only eleven years separate Roger Rabbit from the flaccid Pete's Dragon; they are divided much more by two different worldviews of what "Disney Entertainment" could mean.

And truth be told, the film really doesn't feel very "Disney", for all that Roger made the expected appearances at Disney theme parks and in Disney comics for several years after the film came out, before its popularity started waning around the turn of the '00s (it was, at any rate, released through Disney's "grown-up" label, Touchstone Pictures). It feels much more like the work of its director, '80s tech whiz Robert Zemeckis; Spielberg was undoubtedly more hands-on than any Disney executive; even the animation itself is less reminiscent of the genial vaudeville of a Mickey short than of the gleefully morbid work that Tex Avery did at MGM.

But a Disney movie it nonetheless is, and a fairly important one for the company's continued well-being: the highest-grossing of all the studio's films in the 1980s, the second-highest grossing film of 1988 (behind, unfathomably, Rain Man), the highest-grossing animated or semi-animated film upon its release. That last point is the most important one: it's a commonplace among animation scholars that Who Framed Roger Rabbit re-ignited the Western audience's interest in cartoons, demonstrating to Americans for the first time that there could be such a thing as - get this - animation that was made for adults. The huge success of this film primed the pump for The Little Mermaid the following year, and the subsequent Disney Renaissance, and the rest is history; you did perhaps notice that five of the ten highest-grossing features of 2010 were animated?

A lot of influence, a lot of success; it couldn't have happened to a more deserving picture. Personal bias being what it is, maybe it doesn't mean a lot for me to argue that Roger Rabbit is the best film directed by Zemeckis; the best of the many great high-concept '80s popcorn-comedies; the best American film of 1988. But I'd argue every one of those things anyway.

If you've forgotten - or if, God forbid, you haven't seen it - Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a neo-noir set in the hazy Los Angeles of 1947. Private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) has been living in a bottle these past few years, scrounging for any bit of dirty money he can find, when he's offered the latest in what we can assume is a long line of sleazy "cheating spouse" jobs. But in this case, it's not the husband paying him, but the husband's boss: R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern), head of Maroon Cartoons, is concerned that his toon star Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) has been driven to distraction by rumors that his wife, Jessica (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner, with singing courtesy of Amy Irving, in those days none other than Mrs. Spielberg), is cheating with novelty toy manufacturer Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Valiant's job is to prove it one way or the other, which he does in short order; but when Acme ends up dead and Roger takes the blame, Valiant quickly ends up in the heart of a mystery involving murderous anti-toon Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) and his weasel henchmen (each of them given a name and one personality trait - Stupid, Wheezy, Psycho - in parody of the Seven Dwarfs, though only five weasels made it to the final script), a company named "Cloverleaf", and the land rights to Toontown, the animated neighborhood where most of Hollywood's cartoon actors live.

In all the chatter about the film's technical excellence and its loving tribute to classic American cartoons, one thing is routinely ignored, and thus I will begin there: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a pretty damn good neo-noir; or rather, a pretty damn great post-WWII, California-bound detective story, for noir suggests a certain amount of curdled, world-weary cynicism, and the combination of Disney and Spielberg was certainly never going to count cynicism among its attributes. But aside from that, the film does an exemplary job of pushing through a complex story of, in Valiant's own words, "greed, sex, and murder." I'm not the first to point out that writers Jeffrey Price & Peter S. Seaman reworked the novel into, for all intents and purposes, a gloss of Chinatown: it starts with a private investigator taking a sleazy adultery case that proves to be a set-up; that same PI has a history with a particular Los Angeles neighborhood that he's forced to re-visit in the course of this investigation*; he becomes embroiled with the woman at the center of his earlier investigation; and the whole thing unfolds against a true story of shady dealings in developing the infrastructure of southern California. Frankly, even with its sunny ending and humorous tone, Roger Rabbit is closer to the spirit of Chinatown than the dismal sequel The Two Jakes (allegedly, the never-made third Jake Gittes movie was to center on the same topic of how the freeway came to Los Angeles, and was even to have the title Cloverleaf).

In other words, Roger Rabbit relies, maybe a bit too much, on familiar generic tropes, but I do not call it a great detective story because it apes Chinatown. It is a great detective story largely because it has a great detective marching from step to step through a plot that, thanks to the film's mainstream aspirations, has no choice but to be told with concision and clarity. And by "great detective", I of course don't mean that Valiant is a brilliant, Poirot-esque investigator, but that he's a great character, played by Hoskins in one of his better performances (though isn't Hoskins always giving one of his better performances?) as a hard-living, worn-out sack of humanity. The film never condescends to him, and that's actually another one of its unheralded triumphs: that it plays the mystery story so entirely straight. This is not, as I have seen claimed, a "parody" of Chinatown. A rip-off if we're being mean, an homage if we're being nice; but not one single element of the detective genre is played for laughs.

Indeed, the movie's not much of a conventional comedy. One might even be bold enough to claim that it's no comedy at all, for most of the humor in the film is built in to the concept. That is to say: Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a dramatic mystery that takes place in a world where a sizable portion of the population are driven, by their essential nature, to make jokes. Consider this: in most comedies, the humor takes place above the film, you might say; the characters don't think of themselves as making jokes or taking part in gags, but we laugh because we see what they're doing as absurd. In Roger Rabbit, the gags happen within the film: save for a few reaction shots here and there, every single joke in the movie centers on a character who knows that they are being funny. It's a straight narrative about funny people, in essence. And that's a major part of what makes it work so terrifically well: it is perfectly sincere about its story, and about the manner of the telling.

That said: the film has always been chiefly beloved for its tremendous craft, and that's perfectly fair. This is a miraculously well-made film in a great many respects: before CGI was used for everything from creating whole characters out of thin air to slightly adjusting the text on a sign in the background, Roger Rabbit was a major achievement of visual effects used to tell a story. Compared to the other works combining live-action and animation, this film is so vastly more sophisticated that it hardly seems possible: the camera moves all about with abandon, cartoon characters interact with a real environment in ways both major and almost invisibly small. Zemeckis was not the first choice to direct (Terry Gilliam turned the film down), but he was the best choice: few filmmakers have ever been so consistently alive to the dramatic possibilities of special effects, and I'm not sure there's anyone I would have trusted more in the mid-'80s to direct a a feature in which most of the cast did not exist on set. Even beyond being an effects-driven filmmaker, Zemeckis is certainly great at his work, something I don't think he gets credit for often enough; his work here is both typical and unusually accomplished, with the expected show-off touches (a remarkable tracking shot around Valiant's office, explaining all his backstory through props and photos, feels just like the shot of Doc Brown's place in Back to the Future) along with perfect little touches to add just that little oomph where we need it (e.g. the trick, which I hadn't notice before, where he always reflects light off of Judge Doom's glasses and makes them big circles of white, blocking our view of his eyes; it's both unnerving and a cunning bit of foreshadowing).

The effects work is not always seamless: often, the actors aren't quite looking at the right place, and the sheer complexity of compositing that many elements without computer help almost ensured that there would be times when that compositing was very obvious. If you're watching for it, Roger Rabbit is a treasure trove of what the IMDb calls "revealing mistakes": places where things simply didn't come together as well as the filmmakers hoped.

But that's the rub: you have to be watching for it. And in an act of sleight-of-hand that can hardly be over-praised, Zemeckis does everything he can to prevent you from doing so. What the film actually reminds me of, as so many things do, is ventriloquist Edger Bergen. If you've not seen Bergen, a major radio and film star in the '40s with his iconic dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, let me assure you: he was a terrible ventriloquist. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I can guarantee that you, personally, would be no less effective a ventriloquist than Edger Bergen. Sometimes, he didn't even try to hide the fact that he was moving his lips. Yet, as I said, he was a major star, and it wasn't because audiences in the '40s were idiots (though the fact that he broke big in radio couldn't have hurt). It's because Bergen kept things moving quickly, and created such arresting personalities for his dummies: watching his routine, you're naturally drawn to the dummies, who are at any rate more interesting by far than their creator.

So it is with Roger Rabbit: Zemeckis keeps things popping along so briskly, and throws so many hugely ambitious tricks, and favors the animated characters visually, so that you never look at the seams unless it's because you're looking for the seams. The filmmakers gamble that we'll be so amazed and delighted by e.g. a cartoon rabbit jumping out of a real sink and spitting real water, that we won't pause to notice that, in fact, the whole thing is rather shaky; it's the Big Lie, basically, the hope that we'll be so impressed by the broad stroke that we'll overlook the little brushwork. For my money, the gamble pays off handsomely. It's what separates this film from e.g. Mary Poppins: in that film, the static shots call all the attention they can to the effects work-

-but here everything is so busy that we're thinking more about what is happening than how it's happening. It's surely no accident that the film looks better in motion than it does in stills - a hell of a lot better.

The animation itself, though Disney has never done much to promote this fact, was sort of a hybrid job. The much-esteemed Richard Williams was given job as animation director, and he very quickly made it clear that he wasn't interested in working in the institutional guidelines of Walt Disney Feature Animation. Thus it was that the animation was itself produced in England, and largely with non-Disney animators; though the supervising animators, including Dale Baer, Andreas Deja, and Phil Nibbelink, came over from Disney, and this film turned out to be the first of many Disney projects for such important figures as James Baxter and Nik Ranieri.

Under Williams's care, the animation in the film proved to be thrilling removed from the Disney house style, befitting characters working at the fictitious "Maroon Cartoons". It's often said that Roger Rabbit boasts Looney Tunes characters with Disney-quality animation, but I don't find that to be a persuasive shorthand: the character design is closer to Warners than Disney, admittedly, but it's something new and original, something that looks of The 1940s in general without looking like any of the three big animation companies of the '40s specifically. Jessica Rabbit in particular is a magnificent collage of ideas: it's easy to read her as a rival company's attempt to copy Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood, with a few key redesigns (Veronica Lake's hair jumps to mind) to make her Maroon's own; at the same time, she's much sketchier than any other character in the film, barely having a face at all. "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way" is a good laugh line, but there are two meanings to the word "bad", and it's worth pointing out that a cartoon figure largely meant to be a pin-up isn't expected to be as expressive as a slapstick hero.

Really, the only point where I find Williams and crew to be working at a disappointing level is the opening sequence, where we visit the set of the newest Roger Rabbit short: as funny as "Somethin's Cookin'" is (better by far than the three Roger Rabbit shorts Disney put out in the four years after the feature), it does not remotely feel like a '40s cartoon, not even the most sprawling and ambitious. There's too much movement along the Z-axis; too many camera angles that would have taken too long in the cookie-cutter world of studio animation. It looks, in fact, like a bunch of '80s animators showing off. Showing off beautifully, but showing off nonetheless.

Perhaps the film's greatest claim to fame as far as animation goes, however, is its catch-all approach to animated characters; after much painful negotiation, Spielberg was able to secure the rights to depict characters from seven different studios (eight, if we count a Felix the Cat cameo so subtle it barely counts) in the film's universe, interacting with each other and the plot. Most of these come from Disney, for undoubtedly practical reasons (delightfully, significantly large cameos are given to the hummingbirds from Song of the South and the penguins from Mary Poppins, Disney's two most important live-action/animation hybrids before Roger Rabbit itself), but non-Disney characters are given some choice positioning: Yosemite Sam gets one of the film's most famous gags (and best-executed effects), while Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny get to have face time with, respectively, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, in a pair of scenes which were the result of long, tedious wrangling between Disney and Warner Bros. (Bugs gets in the last word, both times we see him); oddly, both Bugs and Daffy appear in their late-'40s character models, while Mickey and Donald are modernised.

Porky Pig has the privilege of the film's final line, Droopy Dog gets a fairly large scene to himself, and in a magnificent touch that couldn't possibly be motivated by anything other than a love of the form, Koko the Clown is scene wandering around the Maroon backlot. In a particularly subtle gesture of pan-studio solidarity the very Maroon Cartoons logos reference both the Looney Tunes circle logo thingy that I only just now realised has no actual name that I know of, and the Disney faces on a starburst cards, that opened those two companies' many shorts.

Personally, my most favorite nod to classic animation is none of these (the Micky/Bugs scene in particular has always struck me as forced just for the sake of combining two icons; it's not unlike the cartoon version of Righteous Kill) is when Betty Boop shows up, still voiced by a then-80-year-old Mae Questel, right before Jessica makes her first appearance; a subtle but, I think, wholly effective passing of the torch from animation's first caricatured sexpot to her newest descendant.

All of this can be, and has been, derided as so much fan service; and there's no denying that the animators of 1988 are a different breed than the animators of 1947. One of the film's harshest detractors was Chuck Jones, offended by the notion of a film in celebration of Golden Age American animation with a human protagonist; I'll spot him that objection without necessarily agreeing, and point out further that the gloss of high-budget animation serves in some degree to obfuscate what was always one of the most appealing traits of those post-war shorts, their primitivism. Looney Tunes in particular are in some ways brilliant because of their obvious cheapness, which married well to their anarchic spirit; Who Framed Roger Rabbit gets that spirit awfully well for a film made in the'80s, but it's all slightly too formal and regal. That is, beyond question, a nitpick; the film is an extraordinary achievement of the medium, and neither Chuck Jones nor I can take that away.

By all means, it's a populist film; I would love to make some claim for it as a profound work of historical inquiry into the changing nature of animated film, but it's simply not. It's only a top-notch piece of craftsmanship and entertainment made by one of Hollywood's most reliable directors of extravagantly-mounted popcorn movies (till mo-cap caught his eye and he want insane) at the very peak of his powers. Only that! Ah, how low I set the bar for Zemeckis and Williams and their teams. Would that every film of my childhood had aged half so well as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that impossibly rare sort of thing that I have come to appreciate far more with every passing year.