30 March 2011

THE ONLY SUCKER I SEE IS ME, AND EVERYONE ELSE WHO PAID TO SEE THIS EFFING THING

There is a movie about a girl in a hospital who frequently lapses into fantastic reverie, which turns the film around her into an explosion of pure spectacle, the kind usually tagged by joyless admen as "visionary". The movie itself isn't so much an exercise in style over substance, but style as substance, huge vistas of impossible imagery trotted out one after the other in place of successful drama. Of course, every word I said describes the already notorious Sucker Punch, but I actually had in mind The Fall, the years-in-production film by director Tarsem Singh that was completed in 2006 and slowly exhibited throughout the world over the next couple of years. It's not the only film one could compare Sucker Punch to - oh God no, the very opposite - but it's the one I kept thinking about, given that the films have basically the same goal - to stun you with visual invention, rather than to tell a moving, coherent story - and yet while The Fall is one of my absolute favorite films of the last ten years, Sucker Punch is emphatically not. But what makes the latter film so specifically awful is in no small part the incoherence of its plot, which is a charge you could make against The Fall as well.

How to reconcile this paradox? Partially by noting that Sucker Punch, though it ultimately doesn't care about its script, spends a lot more time focusing on it. But mostly, I think, because The Fall actually has the goods: it's one of the most crazily imaginative films in a generation, fanciful and painterly ideas captured with as little digital work as possible. It's crisp and clean, where Sucker Punch is ratty and tattered as a piece of used Kleenex, a gruesome mixture of every idea that everyone else ever had stirred up and dumped out, against a backdrop of distractingly busy CGI backgrounds, coated in a thick translucent case of digital color correction - though shockingly and thankfully, there is not a speck of orange 'n teal to be seen anywhere - collecting incompatible ideas in a rainbow of assemblages that were no doubt intended by Zack Snyder, the most stylegasmic of directors, as "cool", but end up showcasing such an... idiosyncratic worldview, it's hard to imagine anyone other than Snyder himself being completely entertained by a stunningly personal film that ends up seeming like a laundry list of fanboyish obsessions and fetishes. I'll note that there's more than one way to use up a piece of Kleenex.

For a movie that absolutely nobody seems to like, it sure does seem like everybody's been talking nonstop about Sucker Punch since it opened, so you probably already know that it's about a platinum blonde girl of 20 years (Emily Browning) who is committed to a mental institution by her villainous stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). Sort of. Claiming with any moderate certainty what Sucker Punch is "about" requires a fair degree of boldness, or perhaps being Zack Snyder; my experience with the movie leads me to suspect that whatever actually happens, it's buried so far beneath layers of coruscating bullshit that it cannot be extracted from the evidence presented in the film. But let's go ahead and follow along with the movie: the girl gets institutionalised, and then her stepfather bribes an orderly whose name I presume to be Uriah Heep III (Oscar Isaac) to have the girl lobotomised outside the usual channels. This, by the way, is the closest we'll get to an indication of a date: its when they still did lobotomies and mental institutions were great edifices of concrete awfulness that make Shutter Island look like Neo-Realism. So, the late '50s, maybe.

At a certain point, an orbitoclast is held above the girl's face, but the lobotomy is apparently stopped; I say "apparently" because that's the exact moment everything goes to hell. It is possible that the great majority of Sucker Punch takes place in the split second between the moment that the girl realises she cannot escape the lobotomy and the moment her brain is pierced, and I suspect that was the intent. But it's damn unclear if that's the case, as witnessed by the confusion all over the internet about who is which character at what point and who exists where.

The reading I'm sticking with is that the girl lapses into a metaphorical flashback of the events that have befallen in the five days that she's been in the asylum, which metaphor would seem to be a Weimar-era brothel for some damn reason. In this reality, the girl is named Baby Doll, and she is the newest acquisition of the sleazy pimp Blue Jones, the metaphorical version of the orderly, whose virginity is to be saved for the High Roller (Jon Hamm), the metaphorical version of the lobotomist who is coming in five days. In the meantime, Baby Doll joins the floor show put on by Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino), the metaphorical version of oh fuck it. So the floor show is for the enticement of the clientele of the brothel, and Baby Doll learns the ropes from four girls who've been there a while: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish, who should certainly know better), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). I would hasten to point out that Amber is the only non-white person in the whole movie. Gee, Zack Snyder, you're an asshole.

Now, it seems that when Baby Doll dances, she sends everyone watching her into an orgasmic trance, while she herself enters a fantasy world in which an old man (Scott Glenn) advises her to find five items that will let her escape the brothel. Which is a metaphor for escaping the asylum. Each of these items is captured when Baby Doll dances, and her four friends use the distraction to steal whatever is needed, which is represented in Baby Doll's fantasy as a fetch quest from a video game. Not literally, but the fantasy sequences she experiences, which are the only reason that this movie exists in the first place, are uncannily like missions in an adventure game, complete with boss battles.

Just so we're clear, the fantasies are a metaphor for a metaphor, which is the kind of accretion of detail that leads to every Sucker Punch review getting mired in plot synopsis: following the movie is enough of a chore that you feel obliged to show your work to prove you got it all right, like working a calculus problem. At any rate, it's not least of the movie's problems that Snyder, who wrote the screenplay from his own scenario alongside Steve Shibuya, seems to actually forget that the brothel-reality is only the middle of the movie's three tiers of representation, sufficiently vague about the relationship it bears the the topmost reality, the asylum, that it raises quite a few questions, chiefly: what is Baby Doll's dancing a metaphor for? Best not to dwell on that question, I suppose.

That is one shit-ton of a lot of work hacking apart a narrative tangle in a film where the plot isn't even remotely important, next to the spectacle of Baby Doll's various fantasies, and the omnipresent fact of five girls dressed in what amounts to themed fetish gear - Snyder famously would have it that Sucker Punch is a tribute to female strength, which he tries to jerry-rig by making ever non-imaginary male character a transparent slimeball, but a movie in which women only succeed by dancing so erotically that men literally cannot focus on the world around them is not precisely a feminist statement, nor is a movie that show how strong young women are by calling them "Baby Doll" and "Sweet Pea" and putting them in schoolgirl outfits.

So yes, the bulk of the film consists of slantways musical numbers: as Baby Doll dances and we don't see it (which I think is actually the one interesting representational choice in the whole movie, replacing the explicit eroticisation of the character with the sublimated eroticisation of her as an essentially depersonalised element of a giant tech-enthusiast circle jerk; so of course it's going to be undone in Snyder's impending director's cut, assuming Warner's doesn't slap it down), the film instead launches into those huge, trailer-defining setpieces, each of which is set to a different techno-pop cover of a song that deserves much better, taking the functional place of a song and dance routine, and even some of the formal elements thereof. Oh, the songs that get butchered in this movie! Opening with an unforgivable rendition of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)", though that's not even the worst one: purists will wretch at the appropriation of a fucking Beatles song ("Tomorrow Never Knows"), but it was "White Rabbit" that really steamed my beans. Shorter: producers/composers Marius De Vries and Tyler Bates have committed an aural crime against humanity the likes of which even the court at The Hague is not equipped to judge.

There is nothing I have to say about those sequences, the heart and soul and only justification for Sucker Punch. They are loud, they are busy, they are filled with an amount of slow motion ramping that lumbers right into self-parody, they are blissfully clearly edited (choppy editing being perhaps the only widespread aesthetic sin Snyder has never yet committed), and they exist solely in reference to other things.

Part of me wonders if this is the new wave of cinema: referentiality and intertextuality are increasingly dominant ways of telling stories in Hollywood, and have been ever since Quentin Tarantino made his first big movie 19 years ago; Sucker Punch is perhaps an apotheosis, in that it is nothing else, whatsoever, than references to other works - including Tarantino's own Kill Bill, a film that knew how to do intertextuality just right. Perhaps this is the masterpiece of a new kind of narrative cinema, one in which meaning is only generated through the juxtaposition of disparate elements for maximum "coolness", whatever the hell that is, though I imagine that "cool" was the argument in favor of the robot samurai statue with the Gatling gun or the giant mecha in the trenches of WWI fighting zombie Germans. Perhaps meaning can no longer be generated except by slamming together familiar signifiers in new way, which is why one single film can crib so freely from Brazil, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Blade Runner, Moulin Rouge!, the collected works of David Carradine, the Star Wars franchise, and a hell of a lot of more elemental generic tropes from horror, sci-fi, jidaigeki, sword & sorcery fantasy, and video games galore - the most staggeringly obvious of which is Wolfenstein 3D though the last sequence, on a train, reminded me of a level in Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire to a degree that I'd have thought impossible for a game I haven't played in over a decade.

Perhaps that is the new way of cinema, and meaning can only be made in the arbitrary recombination of elements from other cinema solely in the attempt to create something with enough jolt to wake up the sedate viewer, and Zack Snyder is the prophet of a new way, and he and Sucker Punch, the culmination of everything he's been doing for five years now, are simply that far ahead of culture that we're all not aware of how forward-thinking and innovative they are. Perhaps that is the case, and if it ever turns out to be, that's the moment that I will lock myself away from humanity and never be heard from again.

2/10

29 March 2011

APRIL 2011 MOVIE PREVIEW

The summer season has been creeping earlier for quite some time now; but I don't think I'd ever seen an April release trumpeting itself as the first Summer Movie. Until this year. We'll get there soon in enough; in the meantime, I can think of no meta-narrative to cover a slate of films that, even by the standards of a month that often doesn't seem to know if it's coming or going, is oddly dischordant.

Fun fact: there has not been a single year in the last decade - and probably longer, but that's all the farther I checked - in which we got as far as the end of the first quarter without a single film having ruled the U.S. box office on two separate weekends: until this year. 12 weeks, 12 different #1s. A poor sign of Hollywood's quality, I suspect, and I'll make no predictions as to whether this month changes things.

1.4.2011

At any rate, the month is getting a strong start, with a movie in which Russell Brand, the suddenly-overexposed former delightfully kooky Brit, plays the son of the Easter Bunny, who moves to Los Angeles to become a rock star and teams up with James Marsden. Haha, April Fool! Nobody would ever come up such a stupid-

Ohchristgoddam.

Elsewhere in a shockingly packed weekend, Duncan Jones, director of Moon and son of David Bowie, makes his second feature, Source Code, which will hopefully prove to be the kind of brainy thiller that can't be reduced into a trailer, because that trailer makes it look kind of blandly "power of love" -ish. Also, Insidious, a bastard stepchild of Sawmeisters James Wan and Leigh Whannel and Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli. All the good buzz in the world can't convince me that it's going to be even marginally good.

Then there are the limited releases: Super, or "Kick-Ass without the troubling fetishisation of a preteen girl killing people", and Trust, director David Schwimmer's tale of sexual assault between teenagers in the internet age. You read that right


8.4.2011

Speaking of Russell Brand overexposure: he's playing the lead in a remake of Arthur. Which I still don't get. What possible reason is there to remake Arthur? Does anybody in the history of life actually enjoy the original? Is this a brand name that gives anybody the slightest feeling of hope? Are there plans to remake On the Rocks as well?

Moving into more comforting areas, Joe Wright and Saoirse Ronan reunite for Hanna, a movie that looks so profoundly obvious from the ads that I'm guessing it's not even meant to have twists, but it certainly has the aura of a really solid thriller about it, especially if the Chemical Brothers score hinted in the trailer is as fucking awesome as seems likely. Fans of inspirational true stories can take refuge in the heartwarming tale of a girl whose arm gets eaten by a shark, Soul Surfer; fans of inspirational cute true stories will have to do with Born to Be Wild, a documentary about cute wittle owangutans and ewephants.

Fans of Satan must make do with Your Highness, in which onetime savior of indie cinema David Gordon Green shepherds medieval pot jokes and ceases to matter to me in any but the most abstract intellectual sense.


15.4.2011

Yeah, yeah, Scream 4 (don't like the series, but as far as horror has degraded in ten years, I'm still looking forward to it), Rio (oh boy, talking animals who make pop culture references), and The Conspirator (Robert Redford directs a political harangue in period garb). For me, the weekend is all about the probably infinitesimal release of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, boasting a trailer of the most utterly piquant ghastliness - I have mislaid the name of the commenter who first brought it to my attention, but you have my deepest thanks - promising something along the lines of a collaboration between the Ayn Rand Fan Club of Akron and the people who make Syfy Original Movies when The Asylum is asking for too much money. Heaven help me, I'm more excited for this than pretty much any summer tentpole this year.


22.4.2011

Every time I hear the title of Disney's newest Earth Day nature documentary, African Cats, I want it to be a blaxploitation film. This is because I am an irreversibly broken human being.

Moving along: in amongst about ten dozen movies that will probably never play outside of New York, there's a new Madea film - and my relationship to the cinema of Tyler Perry has become complex in the last few months, not because he is a good filmmaker, but because he is fascinatingly bad - Madea's Big Happy Family, as well as the Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson period circus love story Water for Elephants, which will not be fascinatingly bad nor fascinatingly good nor anything involving the word "fascinating" unless it is combined with the prefix "anti-"


29.4.2011

Are you ready for summer to begin? The producers of Fast Five - which, unintuitively, is an entry in the Fast and the Furious series - certainly hope you are, because that is the exact claim being made in the last trailer. Marvel Studios must be pissed.

If you'd rather stretch the crappy in-between doldrums out longer, you can do it with Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, which is a title so unfathomably hateful that I would want the movie to fail even if Hoodwinked,six years ago, had been the second coming of Jean Renoir. Or some kind of vampire/zombie melodrama thing, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. Or best of all, Disney's latest attempt to sell high school to 10-year-olds, Prom.

28 March 2011

MOVIES I AVOIDED IN 2010: THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM

It's telling that director Zack Snyder's best film since his debut feature should be a cartoon about warlike owls. Telling of what, though, that's what I can't quite figure out: that Snyder's trademark fetishisation of slow-motion battles scenes works better when it's in a completely synthetic environment wholly controlled by the director; that there's so much CGI in all of his movies anyway that it just makes sense to go that last little push and make the characters CGI as well; that Snyder's complete divorcement from lived human behavior isn't as objectionable in an actual, legitimate cartoon. A little bit of all of them, probably.

Do please note, just because I've gone and called Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole Snyder's "best" film in six years, that's not the same as accusing it of being itself particularly good, and certainly not a patch on his first film, 2004's remake Dawn of the Dead, a fairly excellent zombie film by the standards of the '00s and the mark of a filmmaking discipline that Snyder has never seen fit to indulge in since. Only that compared to the simultaneously plodding and chaotic video game orgasms of 300 and the stultifying, style-heavy, undernourished transoposition of the comic book Watchmen to the cinema, Legend of the Guardians is at least fairly watchable, if more than slightly incoherent, and when all else fails it has a fairly unshakable claim as being one of the prettiest animated films you'll ever see, a loving-unto-obsessive rendering of owls as irresistibly touchable and unexpectedly expressive by the same animation studio that gave us the excellent Happy Feet. That's the best and probably the only significant achievement of this film: in those moments when the bizarre plot and stock characters aren't enough to hold your attention - and I think that only the most saintly of viewers could forgive the film all of its storytelling lapses - there's always going to be some stupidly gorgeous tableau to hold your attention.

Based upon the first three novels of a 15-volume series for young adults by Kathryn Lasky, and adapted by John Orloff and Emil Stern - a pair of writers who, had not previously worked together and whose combined previous experience in family entertainment, fantasy adventure, and animation consisted of exactly no films - Legend of the Guardians is the coming-of-age saga of a young barn owl named Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess using Elijah Wood's accent from The Lord of the Rings), who lives in a tree with his parents and siblings and the family nanny, who is a snake. I could not get over that, and that reflects poorly on me. But come on, she's a snake. Owls eat snakes. So maybe she's a slave. Maybe she bartered with the owl family for her life in exchange for endless servitude. Also, she's played by Miriam Margolyes, who sadly does not use the opportunity to bust out her Krazy Hispanic Nurse from the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet.

Sorry about that. Okay, so Soren is an enthusiast, as you might say with slightly arched eyebrow and just a hint of disapproval. He's specifically enthusiastic about the legend of the Guardians, the owls of Ga'Hoole. Once upon a time, you see, the noble warrior owls who live in a tree far across the sea fought the wicked Metalbeak, a story that Soren tells and retells with the greatest pleasure, to the scorn of his brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten). Yada yada yada, Soren and a band of other owls - the tiny but brave Gylfie (Emily Barclay), goofy Digger (David Wenham), and robust, actorly Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) have flown across the Sea of Hoolemere to find the Guardians, no legends but feather and blood owls like anyone, and enlist their help in fighting the very-much-alive Me\talbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his second in command Nyra (Helen Mirren), who have been enslaving owlets - including Soren's tiny sister Eglantine (Adrienne DeFaria) as their slave army. And to make matters worse, Kludd has been seduced by Nyra's master-racey teachings and has thrown his lot in with the so-called Pure Ones, the owls of the genus Tyto who believe themselves the most superior of all beings.

That "yada yada yada" is the key. I could certainly have traced out better what happens to connect Point A and Point R, and it wouldn't even seem ridiculous as such - though the fact that it all takes place in about 25 minutes is ridiculous in the extreme. And here is the grand flaw of Legend of the Guardians: in the filmmakers' zeal to condense three books with their own discrete narrative arcs into a single 97-minute feature, they failed to consider such niceties as pacing and world-building, which is why the last 92 of those 97 minutes* are blitzed through with frankly terrifying speed, a crack binge tour of a universe sufficiently complex and detailed and alien that just taking a little bit of a breather to let us feel our way through it would not only be appreciated, it's completely damn necessary.

We don't get that breather; instead, we get a hurricane of ideas both verbal and visual, alongside a vocabulary that's flung at us on the fly, the assumption being that we'll figure it out or die trying. Little owls become zombies if they fall asleep watching the moon (why?) and there's a Tasmanian devil and an echidna in addition to a menagerie of owls from both hemispheres. Look the owls have forges. The owls are selected for specific courses of knowledge based on what they're good at but that ends up paying no narrative dividends in this episode, at least. The bad owls are collecting magnetic metal flecks from the stomachs in mice in owl pellets because when all the metal is combined it creates a giant magnetic nexus that pins the owls to the ground (WHY?) (and there's actually kind of a real reason why, but the movie never even vaguely explores it). And oh lord, the names that get pitched at you! They're not especially silly by fantasy novel standards, but when you're trying to juggle them all at once and the movie simply will not pause to let you collect your thoughts, they start to blur: Soren Kludd Nyra Noctus Boron Otulissa Ezylryb Gylfie.

When the film pauses, it never does so to allow the narrative to catch up to the momentum, but to capture some moment of visual beauty with particularly pornish emphasis: the shot from the trailer of water drops cascading from Soren's wings in crystalline patterns is a particularly straightforward example of what happens over and over again, but then, using slow-motion to emphasise a specific, "cool" moment has been basically the sole trick in Snyder's bag ever since 300. And at least, Legend of the Guardians, with a demure PG rating (it's not hard to imagine that in the early '90s, it would have gotten a G, that would have been accompanied by furrowed brows and thought pieces about how animated pictures just never get tagged PG), focuses rather on moments of visual beauty than on raw violence. That is to say, it's style over substance right down the line, but at least it's never brutal or morally suspicious, something true of none of the director's other films - not even Dawn of the Dead.

And heck: it's never boring. Ever. The flurry of notions and plot points and details that leaves the film an incoherent wrack as a story also makes sure that you're so busy wondering what the hell is going on at this particular instant, that it's never languid. Of course, there's always the option of finding it all so crazy and arbitrary that it achieves the boredom of the aimless chaotic, but for me, though I surely found Legend of the Guardians impossible to follow in stretches (I literally rewound at three or four points, assuming I'd dozed off for some important plot development only to find that no, it just skipped ahead like that), it's visually dazzling in a much cleaner, purer way than most equally busy action films can claim. It's not exactly a kid's movie, but there's a whole-hearted candor to it that serves the film well, a love of spectacle that never becomes rancid in the way of most like-minded stylistic exercises.

5/10

26 March 2011

BRAIN CANDY

Sometimes, you want to go a local boutique ice creamery, where the milk is thick and fresh, the chocolate sauce is melted down fresh from candy bars so expensive you'd be terrified to eat them plain, and the fruit toppings vibrate with the bright hues of a Technicolor musical; where something as straightforward as vanilla bean is rich and smooth to the point of obscenity and the velvet texture of the melted remains is so inviting and delicious that it would be ruder not to lick your bowl clean. The kind of place that's as much a spiritual pilgrimage as it a run of the mill soda fountain, where the ice cream isn't just a dessert but a tribute to a kindly universe.

Sometimes you want a McDonald's shake.

For those later moments, when you just want sugar and fat and you want it RIGHT NOW, we have movies like Limitless. Like a fast-food shake, the film tastes vaguely metallic and predominately of something approximating vanilla - that would be Bradley Cooper, one of the most aggressively bland of all the interchangeable white thirtysomething B-listers out there right now (a type exemplified by Ryan Reynolds, who can at least do some good character acting when he wants to). Thanks to pervasive digital intermediate, it's even got the "no way is that color a real color" neon glow of a Shamrock Shake. It's not just that Limitless is all empty calories; it's all empty calories that even as you're sucking it down, you can't help but feel that you're not actually enjoying the experience. But then without having any idea of how much you've eaten, you notice that scratchy "empty cup" noise and, what the hell, sometimes you've just gotta satisfy your cravings.

Adapted from a novel by Alan Glynn by Leslie Dixon (whose career, including Mrs. Doubtfire and Pay It Forward, is precisely as screamingly impersonal as it would have to be to result in Limitless), the film starts off on a whopping wrong foot: you know how supposedly, you can only use X% of your brain (the movie settles on 20%)? You know how that's actually a total canard mired in a wild misunderstanding of neurology? (You only need to use a small portion of your brain at any given time because you aren't eating, throwing sticks, fucking, running, calculating math problems, reading and writing poetry in a foreign language, having a conversation on the phone, and looking through a kaleidoscope all at the exact same instant). Well, Alan Glynn and Leslie Dixon don't know that, or more likely they don't care one way or another. Because in Limitless, Eddie Morra (Cooper) comes across an experimental pill that lets you access 100% of your brain all the time, which makes him a super-thinker who can write knee-wobblingly brilliant metaphorical novels and make huge sums of money on the internet and learn how to dress like he's not a hobo.

We can spot the filmmakers this dollop of willful ignorance; better to ignore the specifics of Limitless - since, generally speaking, the specifics of any given scene of the film hold up to very little scrutiny - and say that the movie is at heart a metaphor: what would happen if you could take a pill that would make you a better version of yourself? In Eddie's case, you'd become a Wall Street prodigy, making a huge amount of money as quickly as possible for nondescript reasons that have to do with a Plan To Better Everyone, thereby attracting the attention of infamous corporate mogul Carl Van Loon (Robert De Niro). You would also patch things up with your girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), a woman who appears sporadically and never has anything do with any other plot strand, shoehorned in apparently on the grounds that you need to have a romantic subplot in pictures like this one, even if it rather uncomfortably sits in opposition to the infinitely more believable, "Bradley Cooper's best self has lots of one-night stands with women that he manipulates using his razor-sharp knowledge of human psychology.

There's no getting around the fact that Limitless is something of a shaggy dog story. The plot is made up mostly of loose threads and barely fleshed-out ideas - the secret history of the drug, NZT, certainly seems like there ought to be more to it than we see: why don't the people who killed Eddie's drug-dealing ex-brother-in-law (Johnny Whitworth) ever come after him, for a start? and what's going on with the apparently dozens of other people who got strung out on the drug before Eddie? - and ends with a monstrous contrivance of a penultimate scene that that requires we not seriously think about anything that has gone before, violating every possible rule of its own internal logic pursuit of a happy ending. Of course, that's not a unique sin. WALL·E does the same thing. Which I guess means that Limitless is almost as good as WALL·, except that limitless has a sarcastic final line that does nothing but make me want to punch Bradley Cooper right in his goddamn douchebag face.

The conflict is murky; Van Loon isn't fleshed out enough to deserve the name "antagonist", though De Niro is at least more present than he was in Little Fockers. Even beyond that, the plot is very little other than "a man so brilliant that he can fail at nothing proceeds to fail at nothing". Which is not, if we're being honest, a tremendously interesting plot. Still, Limitless is ditzy fun in its own fashion, though that fashion ends up being nothing but lifestyle porn and a whole lot of jumpy tricks from director Neil Burger, who uses all the razzle-dazzle he can muster to keep you from noticing that his movie is about exactly nothing until after the credits have started to role. It gets going early, with an ambitious and ineffably stupid opening credits shot that consists of a huge CGI-stitched long take zooming through the streets of New York and into Eddie's brain cells and then back, with a very weird and almost indescribable visual effect where the middle ground seems to be moving faster than either the close-ups or the far distance; this technique, meant to express how the hopped-up superthinker sees the world, reappears a couple of times in the movie to lesser effect, but the spirit is there, at least.

There's also the obvious but not therefore ineffective use of heavy-handed color correction to signify the transition from Normal Eddie to Brilliant Eddie, in which greys and blues meld into warm yellows and, naturally, oranges and teals. Plus transitions that are unnecessarily flashy and say nothing other than "Neil Burger watched a lot of Michel Gondry music videos", but we thankfully do not yet live in a world where Michel Gondry's music videos are non-awesome. Limitless is not hardly that awesome, but it's shiny enough that it's a pleasant idle distraction rather than an annoying idle distraction; and even if it does nothing at all with its central question, that same question is fun enough to roll over as you're watching that the slow moments of the film aren't terribly hard to drift through. It's disreputable, trashy entertainment at best, but it goes down well with a Big Mac, and if that's what you are in the mood for, then that's what you're in the mood for, respectable or not.

6/10

24 March 2011

THREE LITTLE DEVILS

It's become a sort of theme week: I get to review movies that I don't particularly care for at the request of people who loved them. In this case, the Carry On Campaign donation that put this particular movie at my doorstep was courtesy of Jonathan Volk, a good human being and friend who at least had the decency to pick something I disliked by accident, unlike some others.

Knowing the man's work largely by reputation alone and praying the reputation was inflated, I'd hung on to the belief, no doubt foolishly, that the title of Harmony Korine's fourth feature, Trash Humpers, referred to something other than the most obvious interpretation. It does not. Verily, this is a film in which people hump trashcans - not the actual trash inside, mind you, and not just trash. There's very nearly as much tree humping as trash humping, along with shrub fellating.

The three individuals who do this, given names on various websites that are never indicated in the movie or its credits, are played by Brian Kotzur, Travis Nicholson, and Rachel Korine, the director's wife; Harmony himself plays a fourth humper who is only seen onscreen infrequently, spending most of his time manning the VHS camcorder on which his confederates' acts are to be saved for posterity. All four performers are wearing thick latex makeup meant to make them look old, though in effect, aided by the fuzziness of VHS, they look more like the mutated sub-humans of the remade The Hills Have Eyes than old people, particularly the one played by Rachel Korine, whose skin is a specially nauseating shade of grey. Whether the characters are meant to be old people, or young people in masks, is left unaddressed and is anyway besides the point.

Trash Humpers has no plot, only a succession of motifs. The trash humpers wander through the streets of an identified city (the film was shot in Nashville, Tennessee), destroy things, interact with other outsiders (I could describe them but then I'd be stealing the movie's job), sing nonsense songs and wail nonsense words and utterances, cause mayhem, drag around baby dolls. This last repeated image is arguably the most pervasive in the film, even above humping trashcans; and the conclusion of the baby doll motif, which is also the conclusion of the film, has the benefit of being, for me at least (and there's really no reason to pretend that anybody could respond to Trash Humpers in any objective, impersonal way), the only point when Korine's button-pushing actually manipulated me in a way I felt particularly good about.

There's always the temptation, in discussing the director's modest output (four features in 12 years, plus two screenplays for Larry Clark), to use the word "provocateur"; Lord knows Trash Humpers appears deliberately provocative, though it's hard to say what specifically it's meant to provoke. Far better, I suspect, to take Korine at his word, in interviews and the like, as well as the lengthy monologue he gives his own character near the end, the only time that any of the four protagonists speaks, for any protracted length of time, in relatively clear English (relatively: in any other movie, this would be the most deranged and nonsensical of psychotic rants), and allow Trash Humpers to be some kind of paean to the life of vandals, the underground, the deranged. It is a profoundly amoral movie: even though he dwells on the damage caused by the trash humpers, including murder, Korine simply does not apply any judgment to those actions, never painting the characters as terrifying of monstrous, nor beatifying them as insane mystics and truth-tellers. He is just fascinated by their behavior, or more accurately, by the results of their actions.

The film can, then, be read as an exercise in visual abstraction: taking the weird and alienating and reducing it to its most visually elemental. Certainly, the very brash use of VHS as a recording medium and and editing system (which results in a lot of abrupt or otherwise clumsy cuts, as well as the onscreen appearance of more than a few VCR commands appearing onscreen) creates a visual texture like nothing else, one in which all of the images we see are viewed though a tape darkly, covered in a haze of low resolution and blockiness, with video noise splattering many of the takes.

The other function of the VHS is to lend the patina of "found footage" to the proceedings; Korine is said to have considered dropping the finished cut on a street somewhere and watching to see where it went from there, though this is an idea sufficiently fraught with pitfalls that I can't imagine he considered it very long. At any rate, the thing does feel like a capsule from another place and time, never "realistic" in the sense that video sometimes is held to add a documentary truthiness to cinema; more like somebody's nightmares crossed with their home videos.

It's desperately fascinating as an object; even as a concept, it's difficult to find fault with Korine's desire to create a non-narrative cavalcade of strange and often unpleasant vignettes, something like a variety show created by the psychopathic. Underground art masquerading as outsider is interesting, if nothing else, though I can't help but feel that Korine thinks he's being more daring than he really is; there is a line between the genuinely challenging and the merely gross, and Trash Humpers virtually never abandons the wrong side of that line, while his enthusiastic violations of all the rules of narrative cinema mean that the film, untethered to specific characters or emotions, is always too theoretical for it to "say" much about whatever culture it is supposedly critiquing.

One of the common complaints upon the film's release in the summer of 2010, even from critics and viewers who mostly admired it, was that after about 20 minutes, after you'd gotten the joke, the film started to repeat itself. I must be an utter idiot, for after all 74 minutes, I not only hadn't gotten the joke, I didn't even realise there was a joke I wasn't getting; but I'll agree that any individual 10- or 20-minute snippet of the film ultimately means the same thing as the whole feature, though that does ignore the very real way that certain elements only gain whatever meaning they ever do from repetition over the course of more than an hour. That doesn't change the fact, though, that a little Trash Humpers goes a long way; and as much as I'd expected to find the thing disgusting and nasty, and I even had my whole "I feel like thinking a Harmony Korine film is disgusting and off-putting means that Harmony Korine wins, but..." lede all ready to go, the most shocking thing about Trash Humpers is that it's boring: only the scene of a tween-ish boy destroying a doll and laughing evilly actually bothered me, while overweight prostitutes and a man dressed in a French maid outfit and so on all wore on and on beyond any reason I could discern. It gets, at times, hellishly annoying (the characters, especially Korine's own, speak in irritating squeaky voices), but virtually never offensive, and whether this says more about our living in a post-underground world, or about the director's shaky, self-promoting idea of what "underground" means, it leaves Trash Humpers as only a bit of ado about less than nothing.

LIFE IS A DRAG

Oh readers, such plans I did have for today. Remembering Elizabeth Taylor, watching and reviewing Limitless, taking part in this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience, amd do I get to any of it? No, of course not, I'm too busy cooling my heels in the emergency room after what turns out not to be an ulcer, nor a gallbladder attack, nor anything else medical science can narrow down more closely than a bad case of the "stop eating fried foods for a few weeks". But it sure was goddamn painful for nothing in particular

Anyway, the one thing I shall achieve, in my struggle to be in some remote way a functioning human being, is to post this week's episode of Pop Culture Shock: in which Sarah Rose & Casey & myself complete our sure-to-be-legendary Drag Queen Trilogy.



Tomorrow, if I do not die, I will post things. Note that I did say "if".

23 March 2011

REQUIEM

Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor
27 February, 1932 - 23 March, 2011

Heartbreaking, if not entirely shocking news: Elizabeth Taylor passed away this morning in Los Angeles.

What can one really say when a legend dies? She was one of the most wholly beautiful women to ever grace the cinema, a proper Movie Star of the finest sort, adding glamour and lush sensuality to anything just by walking onscreen . She gave one of the great performances of a generation in the film adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but her talents as an actress were secondary to the incredible vitality and presence she brought to every performance, even the ones that, in the cold light of day, weren't quite as "good" as the others.

I just saw her excellent turn in the 1959 Suddenly, Last Summer for the first time earlier this month; I was especially shocked and impressed by how effortlessly she held the screen in the face of Katharine Hepburn at her grimiest and Montgomery Clift at his... being Monty Clift-ish-ness. It's as fine a crash course in what made Taylor such an essential star as anything I've seen, though I'll not claim to have seen nearly everything she's made. For today, I am perhaps going to curl up with all four hours of her famously misbegotten Cleopatra, a movie I've been putting off for ages; or perhaps use it as an excuse to re-watch a perennial favorite of mine, A Place in the Sun. At any rate, now is the moment to remember and celebrate the life of one of the last icons of classical Hollywood, an actress of ethereal beauty and uncommon skill.

22 March 2011

AMERICAN IDIOTS

Mike Gibson, in contributing to the Carry On Campaign, gave me one of the richest challenges I've ever been privileged to receive as a writer: to explain my dislike for a generally well-regarded movie in clear, thoughtful terms, engaging with it on an honest level, finding refuge in smart argument rather than dismissive snark. Oh, he didn't put it that way at all, but it's the least I can do in respect of the knowledge that he requested a review of one of his favorite movies even AFTER knowing that I really don't like it very much.

American Beauty holds a place of considerable privilege in my life as a cinephile. It was the first time that I can ever recall specifically, consciously Changing My Mind about a movie, which I particularly remember since it happened so damn fast. I saw the movie, in my senior year of high school, sometime in the last two weeks of March, 2000. I adored it. A few days later, it won the Best Picture Oscar,which, if my memory serves, we all knew that it was going to do, and I was totally psyched that just one year after Shakespeare in Love unforgivably beat The Thin Red Line (yes, I was that kid), I had reason to believe in the Academy Awards again. About two weeks later, I was talking about the film with a co-worker, and was stunned to realise, all of a sudden, that I didn't still adore American Beauty. In fact, I kind of hated it. All I could think of when I reflected upon it were the flaws. And that is how 18-year-old Timmy Brayton learned that sometimes movies which seem to be saying quite a lot may in fact be saying nothing at all, and that it does not do one tiny bit to let your first impression of a work of art be the one you carry around like an albatross all the rest of your days.

(Would that I could also say it was when I learned that the Academy likes to reward superficial treatments of Big Themes and that "Best Picture" is rarely accurate! That ship had sailed years earlier, though in 1999, you could still just spy it on the horizon. However, it does remain particularly galling that in arguable annus mirabilis of the past quarter-century of cinema, the two Oscars for screenwriting went to American Beauty and the immensely distasteful The Cider House Rules).

11 years and three viewings later, I'm as chilly towards the film as ever, though American Beauty has a curious way about it, wherein you can't really say anything surpassing negative about the film without making at least a handful of significant concessions. But let's not skip ahead too far.

The film, you may not know or you have have forgotten, follows several months - the last several months - in the life of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who lives with his realtor wife, Caroline (Annette Bening), and teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), in a suburb somewhere in America.* Lester, as he informs us in an opening monologue, is a profoundly unhappy person, and most of the film's two hours pursue his attempt to remind himself of feeling good, after years of increasingly sterile, sexless, materialistic existence in a high-paying job that he can't stand, in a house as prim as a store display, with two women who barely attempt to mask their contempt for him. His attempts to find meaning in life lead him to throw away his hated job, lust after Jane's friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), and hang out smoking expensive pot with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the weird kid next door who obsessively records everything he sees on MiniDV tapes. Everything. The teens get their own B-plot, which largely revolves around Jane learning slowly that the hyper-thoughtful Ricky, derided as a freak by everyone else, is actually kind of cool, and thereby taking the first steps toward establishing herself as an independent woman.

There are a number of micro-problems within American Beauty that all boil down to the same essential macro-problem: screenwriter Alan Ball has never interacted with another human being. Hold that, I pledged not to be snarky. The problem is that Ball's treatment of suburban Weltschmerz is cripplingly broad, with network-sitcom beats dressed in R-rated threads; that, and the characters tend not to act how people act.

"It's a satire!" is the obvious and not completely unmerited response to that claim, and in satire, even great satire, recognisable human behavior isn't necessarily a goal; no-one ever accused Dr. Strangelove of documentarylike realism. But in American Beauty, Ball clearly has his collection of characters that we're meant to take more seriously (though I do not get the feeling that we're meant to take anybody completely seriously), primarily Lester and Ricky, with Jane in a comfortably distant third place. They're meant to be "real" in a way that the gorgonlike Caroline cannot possibly be meant to be anything but a massive exaggeration of actual, living, breathing image-obsessed career women. And insofar as Lester is a more nuanced, rounded character, he is certainly not comparably to the smudgy cartoon he's married to - but he's also not nearly as human-like to deserve the privilege that the screenplay ladles out on him, particularly in a smug final monologue where Ball, without benefit of having died himself, explains for our benefit what happens after death, lines that might have worked if any actor had delivered them but Spacey, who despite his very real gifts as an actor has never been completely unable in any performance to hide the sense that his characters are certain they're smarter than everyone, including you, the viewer. It's far from certain that everything Lester approves of is the same as what American Beauty approves of, but generally speaking, the music he likes and the cars he likes and the wicked "fuck yous" he delivers are lovingly coddled and adopted by the movie.

Now, Lester is a flawed person: the film certainly doesn't go far enough as to suggest that his lust for Angela is anything but pathetic and sad. Ricky, though, now Ricky seems positively beatified, his hushed sermons on finding the beauty in the common and unexceptional (the source of the phrase "look closer" immortalised on what is, admittedly, a terrific poster) treated with a total lack of irony found nowhere else in the movie. When he goes on about his life philosophy, as he does in what is perhaps the film's most famous scene, Ricky and Jane watching Ricky's video of a plastic bag caught in the wind, it's unambiguously clear that Ball is, if not "identifying" with the teen as such, certainly paying great respect to the boy's philosophy.

There's no successful way to dispute those philosophies either, since the film has very craftily made sure than when a critic, e.g. me, makes the claim that everything Ricky describes is pot-addled juvenalia, the kind that sad teens make up on the spot to justify why they're the most precious of all God's little angels, we've already been answered by the film. "Oh, but that's just the point," Ricky might well tell us with that iceberg stare and pained smirk that is Bentley's sole acting trick, "you're so cynical and broken by a materialistic society." Fine then. I'll leave it to say that when I was myself a sad teen who often got down to philosophising on the spot to justify whatever sad teen crap was on my mind, more or less exactly Ricky's age when the movie came out, I was still able to spot Ball's bullshit as bullshit.

This endorsement of a particularly adolescent male point of view - for Lester's every action is explicitly trying to restore his specifically teenage/college virility -would be annoying, but nothing more than that, if American Beauty wasn't so goddamned misogynist as well, and it's the film's treatment of women that really gets under my skin (and a lot of other people who dislike the film, I don't doubt). Caroline is presented, top to bottom, as a broken human being, and we're meant to find her caging of her husband and (to a lesser extent) daughter as the ultimate in social conformity and shallow materialism, and truth be told: I know the real life versions of Caroline, and I don't much like them. I'm not looking for the film to make her a sympathetic heroine, as such.

But there is just absolutely no getting around the snotty and apparently completely blind way that Caroline is made into a farcical villain while Lester is a tragicomic anti-hero. It's at its most unavoidable in a scene so monumentally imbalanced that it argues all by itself that Ball should never be allowed to write without a partner: Lester has just purchased a car. Caroline is aghast. He claims that he wanted it, it makes him feel good, and dammit, why shouldn't he be allowed to feel good. She drops it, they canoodle, and for the first time in ages look like they might be about to have sex, when- she worries that he'll spill beer on her sofa. Her $4000 sofa. Instantly, he launches into a speech about defining yourself by the things you own, that she is a defective person because she likes expensive, lifeless things, and it's absolutely obvious that we're getting a Moral Lesson - when American Beauty makes its Moral Lessons obvious, they are obvious. There has not been so much as a time-lapse dissolve between Lester crowing about his car and ridiculing Caroline's fetishistic love for furniture, and the only thing worse than the possibility that the filmmakers didn't notice this fundamental imbalance in the film's depiction of the "Right Kind" of materialism (masculine, cars, power, fast) and the "Wrong Kind" (feminine, domestic, decorative, fussy), is that they noticed and they did not care.

The script refuses to dig into Caroline; it suggests that she, like Lester, is fundamentally a soul in pain but instead of endorsing her pain mocks her for it; and it keeps doing this in a way that makes it seem, as though her womanhood is particularly to blame (the only other character so image-obsessed and so cruelly dismissed by the film is Angela; Peter Gallagher, in a small role as Caroline's competitor and then lover, almost makes a bid for the male version of same, but he's depicted more as an extension of Caroline than as a character in his own right). American Beauty is fundamentally uncomfortable with women, and it's especially nauseating because unlike, say, a gung-ho action movie, it doesn't even have the crassness to chortle about it.

In short: I have no use for the screenplay of American Beauty whatsoever, and I will cut myself off without mentioning its hectoring dismissal of Chris Cooper's tyrannical ex-Marine dad, the pandering treatment of homosexuality (though is it pandering if the writer is himself gay?), the clumsy use of Lolita as filigree, the structure (the last third of the movie is all about the much-foretold day that Lester dies, while the chronology of the first two-thirds is unexplained). This is long enough.

Instead, I'll come to the confession: for all that, I can't help but admire the movie, sort of. If we take as given that the script is what it is, then everyone involved has done a tremendously great job of making that script live: the actors, with two exceptions, generally give the characters exactly what is necessary for us to believe that they are people thinking the exact, highly artificial things they're meant to be thinking; and visually, it's as beautiful as any other movie from 1999. It's the congenital problem of director Sam Mendes's films that he makes no effort to rise above the script, instead realising it with the most overwhelming style possible (this was his cinematic debut), but such style! A shame that Caroline has to be such a mirthless travesty of characterisation: but how clever to always costume her to fade into the background of her well-appointed house, while Lester always clashes with it. Then there's Thomas Newman's clipped score, minimalist and driving, ironically commenting on the action and indulging its emotional outbursts, and the immaculately-timed cutting between close-ups and wide shots (and there are some breathtaking wide shots) that constantly emphasises and re-emphasises the conflict between the personal and the spatial - even as it surrounds them with painterly beauty, the film insists on making it clear that these characters live under glass. I've heard it rumoured that part of the reason Mendes always works with legendarily great cinematographers, starting with Conrad Hall here (also Roger Deakins and Ellen Kuras), is because he largely leaves the visual heavy-lifting to them, preferring instead to focus on the actors. I'm not going to say that's impossible, for American Beauty certainly bear the fingerprints of Conrad Hall like nobody's business.

Now, I said there are two exceptions to the actors being exactly what the script calls for: one of these is Thora Birch, who is incredibly stiff as Jane. Perhaps that is how teenagers are, and perhaps it is brilliant of Mendes to have left her so static and suffocated. But from the later evidence of Dungeons & Dragons, not to mention a subsequently arid career, I'm going to assume instead that Birch just can't damn act, and that what looks like a blank slate is, in fact, a blank slate.

The other performance is all the way 'round on the other side: Bening's Caroline is an act of character creation born of pure will, as the actress pulls depths out of the character not even found in outline in the script. I'm not Bening's biggest fan, and for years I'd been content to call this the first great statement of her "I'm an ice queen, and fuck you!" persona that would afflict most of her performances in the subsequent decade to one degree or another. And maybe it is, at that, but there's a lot to it beyond that, her genuinely frazzled delivery of some lines that, by rights, should be undeliverable (her treatment of "Excuse me, I must be psychotic, then!" deserves some kind of award for service above and beyond), and the way she lets little glimpses of Caroline's intense suffering - which, from the character's point of view, are only exacerbated by a fuckwit, irresponsible, spendthrift husband lusting after a teenager, audience identification be damned - peek through wherever the screenplay allows it. It's due almost solely to Bening's refusal to play her harpy character as a harpy that plot points such as her affair with Gallagher's real estate king function at all on any level besides sarcastic "that bitch!" carping.

I'd love to say that Bening gives the film's best performance; she doesn't, the script simply won't allow it. No, that's still probably Spacey, giving the closest he ever has to a completely effective performance, making Lester's most inexplicable actions seem reasonable from a certain point of view, while grounding even his most universal gestures in a corroded shell that never lets us forget how much frustration lies within this man. Even Cooper, who like Bening seems mostly not to care that he's playing a stereotype, probably gives a more sound performance than she does, which says a lot about the way American Beauty situates its males characters vs. its female ones.

Concluding thoughts, then: everything about the execution of American Beauty is perfect, in terms of giving fullest life to the screenplay's notions and themes. Or, if not "perfect" - what does that word mean, anyway? - then "damn satisfying". And yet those and notions are so very often half-assed and adolescent, the stuff of privileged upper middle class white males who can't stand the thought of having to be inconvenienced by anything ever; so frequently delivered with a snide self-satisfaction that would ruin them even if they weren't at their most faux-profound little better than you can hear on any given afternoon from a particularly literate stoner; is it fair to call the film "good" when it is the perfect execution of that? The person inside me who can never completely hate even the ghastliest film when it has sufficiently beautiful cinematography wants to say yes, it's totally fair; but the greater part of me has now seen American Beauty three times now, and two of those times I was left feeling irresistibly angry at the movie for how damn cool and smart and thoughtful it so palpably thinks itself. That's the farthest thing from beauty, even in the winking, ironic sense that the title means it.

NB: If you've ever paid much attention to my post tags, maybe you've noticed one called "art films for middlebrow people", which I use to describe that feeling I mentioned up top, when "movies which seem to be saying quite a lot may in fact be saying nothing at all"; perhaps you will enjoy knowing that I first used that phrase, before my blogging days, in discussing this very picture.

20 March 2011

WHAT A SMALL BRAIN YOU HAVE

The latest cinematic version of the classic European folk tale Red Riding Hood has come down to us lately, giving everybody a chance to see, on the big screen, the familiar tale of a medieval village gripped by the paranoiac fear of the local werewolf, and the young woman torn between her childhood sweetheart and the scion of the village's wealthiest family, and how this young woman proves to be the only person who can stop the werewolf in its depredations.

In other words, writer David Leslie Johnson and director Catherine Hardwicke have made what is often euphemistically called a "free adaptation" that really has no reason on God's earth for being called Red Riding Hood at all, except that Medieval Chick Fighting Werewolves: The Movie wouldn't have brand recognition or a built-in audience. Okay, so it would, but more the Zack Snyder kind of built-in audience than the Twilight built-in audience, which is where the film is explicitly aiming, and assuming that a goodly sized clutch of Twi-hards were suckered in by the ad campaign trumpeting that exact connection, I imagine they were disappointed by the wolf's failure to sparkle.

In this version of the tale, Amanda Seyfried plays Valeries, the younger daughter of a woodcutter in a small Mittel-European village in what looks and acts mostly like the, oh, 15th Century or thereabouts. Ever since childhood, Valerie has had a crush on Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), with whom she got into all sorts of low-grade trouble growing up, and they're beginning to play with the idea of running away together when it's announced that she's been betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), son of the local... smithy, I guess? Whatever, he's the richest man in a highly isolated community where everybody else seems to be a woodcutter, which strikes me as a dangerously imbalanced economy.

That same evening, Valerie's sister is killed by the local werewolf who lives in a cave beyond the forest, the first human in 20 years to so die. Thus begins a village-wide spate of paranoia, with the local priest (Lukas Haas) calling in the aid of famed monster hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), a deranged wolf-hunter who declares the medieval version of martial law when he concludes that, in fact, the werewolf is one of the villagers.Valerie, who discovers that she can communicate with the wolf telepathically, starts to suspect everyone, especially Peter and Henry, despite the fact that they wouldn't have been born yet when the wolf was last active.

Points to the film for not making it obvious who is, in fact, the wolf, though it gets there through the cheater's route of making virtually everyone other than Valerie and her mother (an embarrassingly blowsy Virginia Madsen) into a red herring, so that the final reveal is less, "OMG, I can't believe it was ____!", more, "ah, so it was _____." Points also for focusing emphatically more on the horror/fantasy elements of the plot than on the love triangle that isn't even a triangle (the only time Valerie seems even marginally interested in Henry is when she believes that Peter wants to eat her alive), which alone would be enough to make the film more tolerable than the Twilight series. It might not be a terribly good werewolf film (though it's a damn sight better than last year's remake of The Wolfman), but it is a werewolf film, unashamed to foreground horror and the otherworldly & not so much the lingering glances and adolescent angst.

Though lingering glances and adolescent angst are most unquestionably present, and wholly unwanted. This is bad for the film, beyond the obvious fact that we don't really need more of these teen-soapy monster movies in the world; for example, there's the fairly insurmountable problem that both Fernandez and Irons, to be diplomatic about it, were both cast for their looks, which even then are somewhat debatable: Irons has an alarmingly impersonal face, the kind of mid-tier blank generic prettiness you might find in a Sears catalog, while Fernandez perpetually sports a half-sneer and heavy-lidded expression that gives him a sarcastic kind of expression, and I kept hating him constantly whenever he was onscreen. At any rate, being pretty, even in a sort of indefinably not-pretty way is not the same as being a credible romantic lead, and neither of these young men has any sort of charisma, or, more damningly, the remotest chemistry with Seyfried.

It's perhaps not fair of me to single out Fernandez and Irons, however, not when the whole cast is at a mostly uniform level of grating impersonality. That's about what we should expect from Haas, or Billy Burke as Valerie's father, whose performance mostly consists of looking sorrowfully grim and grimly sorrowful. It's distinctly less than we deserve from Seyfried, who even when she's saddled with a lousy script (as happens all the damn time), usually fights against. It's positively ghastly in the case of a genuinely good actress like Julie Christie, playing the largely useless role of Grandma (in a desperate, wholly failed attempt to connect the movie to the fairy tale at all), and not giving a shit if you can tell that she doesn't like the movie any more than we do. Only two men break through the static: Michael "Saul Motherfucking Tigh" Hogan, enlivening a sort of nondescript village elder with a healthy dose of crazy brio, though he's nothing compared to Oldman, who overplays the quasi-villainous Father Solomon in a terrifically fascinating way. If you have a stereotype of how classically-trained actors played Shakespeare in the 18th Century, that's about how Oldman functions in the role: it's the kind of performance that one would ordinarily describe in terms that make it sound like a film-saver, but in fact he almost manages to scuttle the film even more. See, as written, Solomon is definitely a driven, crazy bastard, whose religious zeal has turned him into a psychopath. But Oldman will have none of that: his Solomon is a neurotic visionary, strong-willed and smart, terrifyingly self-aware that his morality has been warped but unwilling to fight that because he knows it's the only way. And so all of the plot points that hinge on Solomon being unreasonable and wicked simply do not work.

Unmistakably indifferent to everything she's forced to chaperon, Hardwicke's direction is mostly lazy (hence, for example, her unwillingness to reign in Oldman's devastatingly unbalancing performance; maybe because she knew it was the only interesting thing onscreen, maybe because she didn't care), and tremendously derivative: this is a maddeningly by-the-book medieval picture in almost every possible way, though occasionally she lets out with a particularly smart visual idea, and even though the script's justification for Valerie's red riding hood is laughably undernourished, Hardwicke is able to do some scattered interesting things with that bright splotch of color.

Color is a weird thing in this film: it's been tremendously fucked-about in post-production, but not in the normal ways: it's not as chilly as Twilight, for example, and it's certainly not orange and teal, and it's really not right to say that it's over-saturated, though that comes closer. The best I think I can come up with is to say that it looks digital-ey, like there was a layer of CGI vaseline over the lens at all points. It's disorienting, whatever the case, though in at least one respect it works: Seyfried's skin is almost too beautiful too stand it, clear and glowing and nigh translucent, in a manner befitting a fairy-tale heroine (so at least somebody has shiny skin).

There is a moment when Lukas Haas, in puppy love with Father Solomon and his garish coterie (African swordsmen! a giant bronze elephant!), gasps in delight at the priest's wolf-killing sword: "That is one of only three blessed by the Holy See!" Only three? What the hell is the deal with the other two? Little details like that keep crowding in at the edges of Red Riding Hood, not so much making it a better film as suggesting the better films that are just out of sight. The history of characters we barely meet, the story of the village before the original pact with the werewolf (and how did that pact come to be?); it's a damn shame we get saddled with the low-rent paranoia thriller and lower-rent teen romance that we do, and a damn shame that it ends in the most offensive, Twilight-pandering way imaginable. This is a bad film, and I will not say it didn't have to be a bad film, for it did: but it didn't have to be a bad universe in which to set a film, and there are just enough moments when Hardwicke wakes up, and when Thomas E. Sanders's production design is showed off to best effect, when you can almost see the outlines of a what a better Red Riding Hood might have looked like. Which almost makes this one even harder to endure.

4/10

17 March 2011

BATTLE WITHOUT HONOR OR HUMANITY

The onscreen title of Battle: Los Angeles lacks the colon. It is indisputably the case that this fact bothers me more than it possibly should. But it just doesn't look right. Specifically, it makes the title look more like an imperative rather than a description, and I also can't help feeling it would be better with an exclamation point. Battle Los Angeles! But, really, I shouldn't get this annoyed by something that occupies less than 0.01% of the film's running time. Or hey! maybe the filmmakers should have tried a little bit harder to make a movie good enough that I wouldn't spend the next 116 minutes thinking about the use of punctuation in the opening credits.

Because lordy, is this ever a crappy movie. Not for any single, overwhelmingly bad element (though at times the dialogue drops into "overwhelmingly bad" territory), but for the sheer accumulation of petty annoyances. The acting, the cinematography, the sound, the visual effects, the story, and on, and on: every individual aspect of the film is colossally irritating without being outright awful, like having a tag itching your neck. But combine a couple dozen of those tags, and wear them around for two hours, and you end up with something almost too obnoxious to bear.

Battle: Los Angeles takes place on August 11-12, 2011*, a date so specific and nearby that it cannot help but be distracting (petty annoyances! see?). Why those dates? What happens if the film doesn't come out on DVD until August 16th? But to move along: we get a quick introduction to a whole mess of Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton, each of them given an onscreen name and not quite enough personality for me to remember which one was which later on. Lessee, there was the Greek man who likes wedding planning (Gino Anthony Pesi), the one with a dead brother (Cory Hardrict), the one played by Ne-Yo (Ne-Yo), the one whose last name reminds me of a friend of mine (Noel Fisher), the African one (Adetokumboh M'Cormack). The character we're meant to care about the most is Staff Sergeant Nantz, and we know that he matters because he's played by Aaron Eckhart. Nantz has just turned in his retirement papers, but his boss wants him to do one last mission helping out with an evacuation of I forget which beachfront region of Los Angeles. He also has a dark past in Iraq that resulted in a lot of dead Marines, including the brother of The One with a Dead Brother. OOH CONFLICT. Don't get too excited thinking that this means Eckhart gets both the One Last Mission and Mission of Redemption stories, because after he agrees to postpone his retirement, the One Last Mission plot is mostly abandoned.

At the start of the film, there's a mysterious series of meteor strikes in the oceans just off the coast of "20 cities in 17 countries", which is already incompatible with "the 20 most populous cities in the world", which is, I imagine, what they were going with (also, one of the cities we specifically hear about is Paris, which, not to be a pedant or anything, is landlocked). With admirable speed, the film reveals these to be alien invasion forces, and ships our platoon of interchangeable Marines into... is it Santa Monica? I think it's Santa Monica. Alright, so the Marines pack off to clear Santa Monica of people before it is carpet bombed by the Air Force. There they find some civilians, led by Michael Peña (not his character name, but he's still basically the Michael Peña Character), and a stranded USAF Technical Sergeant, Michelle Rodriguez (ditto). Also many aliens, played by unconvincing CGI effects that clash rather badly with the deliberately lo-fi camerawork.

Basically, BLA - what a perfect acronym! - consists of characters walking from one set to another, screaming and shooting, an explosion, and the slightly whittled-down group walks to the next sense, rinse, repeat. It is staggeringly hectic, filmed with the jiggly camera that Paul Greengrass and Oliver Wood's work in the Jason Bourne movies made popular for a generation of directors and cinematographers who all lack the discipline and intellectual clarity of Greengrass and Wood; the editing leaves it nearly impossible to follow in even the most superficial way what is happening between the slow moments when the characters talk about what's going on, not that any of the individuals are so fleshed-out that we particularly care if this one or that one just blew up, and if the other one is about to be shot. Even the sound design is loud and crazy without being distinctive, or serving any particular storytelling purpose; I imagine that if you threw your car keys in a blender and started screaming at the top of your lungs, you could recreate the effect at home.

Director Jonathan Liebesman, who gave us both the limp ghost story Darkness Falls and the tedious slasher/torture remake-prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, is unable to do very much with this material other than copy better work by better directors: Battle: Los Angeles is deep down more of an urban war picture than an alien invasion thriller, with an aesthetic that recalls Black Hawk Down without the sense of tension and pacing (I almost thought of calling it a more self-consciously gritted-up version of Ridley Scott's film, but then I recalled the bad case of Teal & Orange that BLA suffers from, and concluded that it is a gritted-up version of nothing).

The combat scenes are so grating and loud and annoying, in fact, that they're actually even worse than the talky, maudlin character moments, and the inspirational scenes of Marines bonding (the film is an unashamed love letter to the armed forces, including a prominently placed, "Support the Troops!" poster, in a way that's almost sweetly appealing in this heavily ironic age of ours). Which are not, to be sure, great scenes per se; when Eckhart murmurs at a young boy, "You're the bravest Marine I've ever seen", or words to that effect, the only thing that kept me vomiting up from a saccharine overdose was to day dream that this was briefly the old skeezy Eckhart of the late '90s (remember that?), and he was trying to seduce the preteen.

Beyond such clunky moments bungled by a director with no sense of anything, and actors inhabiting costumes rather than characters, and screaming, busy, unpleasant action scenes (if you've ever disliked handheld camera in a popcorn movie, I guarantee you will hate it here - I even got a little nauseated and points and I never have), all that's left is a wholly undernourished sci-fi story almost as stupidly expressed as Independence Day (it's not a computer virus that takes down the aliens, but it's not much more convincing), with horrid dialogue - nearly every line more substantial than "Keep going!" or "Shoot!" is tortuously expository, and one line whose exact phrasing I did not write down irresistibly reminded me of the classic nugget from Plan 9 from Outer Space, "Visits? That would indicate visitors." - and advances from place to place that proceed as arbitrarily as in a video game. There's no sense to any of it, and no soul, just a bunch of ugly footage kludged together with speakers cranked up too loud.

And, perhaps most gallingly, though the film has "Los Angeles" right there in its title, it makes virtually no effort to capture in any way the spirit of that city, nor its iconography; it doesn't even make crude jokes about Beverly Hills getting vaporised. Which is maybe what happens when you film in fucking Louisiana. But I guess it's still "LA".

3/10

16 March 2011

A CAMP MASTERPIECE

Ellen Shapiro's donation to the Carry On Campaign offered a choice: either her favorite movie of all time, or one of the worst movies she'd ever seen. Gratefully, I elect the former - there's plenty of rarefied crap still to come, and her favorite happens to be a film I've always particularly enjoyed.

"This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened."
-Opening card, The Great Escape
In other words, "The parts that we didn't make up are true", and I'll admit to admiring the filmmakers' frankness in letting us know right from the start that parts of what we're about to watch over the course of nearly three hours is straight-up Hollywood hokum. Though all things considered, screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett didn't take nearly as many liberties with onetime POW Paul Brickhill's account of a massive break-out from a Nazi prison camp in 1944 as you might think to look at it, and a healthy chunk of the alterations were made specifically to account for the casting of Steve McQueen, who prima-donnishly demanded that his role be increased, and that a healthy portion of the big finish be devoted to him showing off his skills on a motorcycle. Also, since it is a well-known fact to movie producers that Americans don't like being told that the soldiers of any other nation are capable of heroic acts, the story is USA'd up a bit from the actual history - though the cast is undoubtedly more British than not, which is certainly gratifying.

Of greater concern than any deviation 1963's The Great Escape makes from the letter of history - and maybe "concern" isn't the right word, given how little it's ever bothered me in all my years of watching this film - is its squeaky-clean Hollywoodised tone. For a film about Nazi prison camps that ends with a dedication to the fifty real-life people who died in the course of the story depicted onscreen, this is an awfully insubstantial movie: World War II has been reduced to the stuff of mere entertainment countless times since 1939, but there's something about the scope of The Great Escape, and the fact that getting this story about these man had become such a personal quest for director John Sturges, that seems somehow unusually shallow: it's tremendously difficult to connect what we're watching onscreen to reality, and not all the title cards in the world can change that fact. The stakes here a popcorn movie stakes, and when we watch somebody die, it's rattling more in the sense of "Oh, that guy, I liked that guy!" than it is in the sense of "that really happened, and it was a travesty". Which is maybe connected to the inconvenient truth that the victim of what has always struck me as the film's most heartrending death was based on a man who survived the war and passed away in 1994.

I bring this all up mostly out of duty, not outrage: it is a bit disconcerting that The Great Escape so willfully trivialises the facts it allegedly memorialises, but it would take a far stricter moral scold than I to let that be a reason to hate on the film. On the contrary, I adore The Great Escape as one of the absolute pinnacles of Hollywood entertainment in the 1960s, a consummate work of nuts 'n bolts filmmaking devoted to the single end of creating something that is compulsively, endlessly watchable and re-watchable. Sturges was that kind of filmmaker: less concerned about Big Ideas or flashy stylistic excesses than doing a solid job of keeping the audience alert and excited. Insofar as he is remembered today, it's almost entirely for two films, this and the 1960 The Magnificent Seven (with his Oscar-nominated work in Bad Day at Black Rock pulling up an unfairly distant third place). At heart, both of those films are working in the same vein: excessively manly treatments of hyper-competent individuals creating and executing a plan, in which the mechanics of the plot are of paramount importance, above things like character or theme; one can't help but notice the massive tonal differences between The Magnificent Seven and its source, the Japanese classic Seven Samurai, and its those differences that make what I'll persist in calling a "John Sturges film", despite having an admittedly small sample size to work with. At any rate, it's those elements that are all over every inch of The Great Escape, making it a remarkably durable movie that never seems to slow down despite a potentially crushing 172-minute running time, so fascinated with minutiae that full hour has clicked by without our even realising it, even without anything specific or noteworthy "happening".

In short, here is the plot: at a Luftwaffe-run POW camp somewhere in Germany (it was Stalag Luft III and March, 1944 in reality, but neither of those are specified in the film; indeed, it cannot possibly be March that we see depicted onscreen) a group of RAF officers plot one of the most inordinately ambitious escape attempts ever hatched. It will involve a tunnel into the nearby woods, two decoy tunnels, and the evacuation of 250 prisoners in a single night. The execution of the plan is overseen by Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), nicknamed "Big X", and carried out through the the efforts of an agreeably packed ensemble cast including James Garner, Donald Pleasance, James Donald, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Hannes Messemer, and everyone's favorite icon of '60s masculine cool, that same Steve McQueen as Captain Hilts, a Yank in the RAF known as "Cooler King" for his incredible gift at being thrown into solitary confinement on a nearly constant rotation. His job in the escape planning is... sort of vague at first really, being mostly used as a distraction from the real plan, though he doesn't think of it that way.

And that, above anything else I could think to name, brings us to what makes The Great Escape so goddamned interesting. McQueen wasn't as big a star as he'd ultimately become, but he was already pretty famous in 1963 (thanks in no small part to Sturges's The Magnificent Seven), and would surely have counted as the film's star power. And he appears onscreen for all of about five minutes over two scenes in the first hour of the movie. Small wonder that the actor demanded a beefed-up role, even though his motorcycle chase sequence is arguably the most ill-fitting piece of the three-hour puzzle.

That pronounced lack of emphasis on McQueen is just part and parcel of the film's focus not on the acts of individuals, but on a collective team working together. The Great Escape is all about the process, not the men conceiving and executing that process, though some of the individual performances make those characters more precisely individualised - Attenborough, McQueen, Donald, and Pleasance stick out most, in roughly that order. It's basically a caper film, though even a caper film is usually more personality-driven than this; even in something as explicitly ensemble-based as Ocean's Eleven (either version) it's still, after all, Danny Ocean that gets the most attention.

But Sturges does everything he can to avoid making any one character the focus of The Great Escape for more than a scene at a time, even going so far as to shoot the film almost totally without close-ups of any actor, and using medium close-ups as sparingly as possibly (and in a nice touch, almost every MCU that makes it into the film is the result of an actor stepping forward from a wider shot). It's a subtlety, of course, but a remarkably effective one; for of course, even if we're not actively counting close-ups, they serve to tell us that "this is the person who matters" on a subliminal level; take that away, and then double the effect with a CinemaScope frame that makes it possible to stuff even more characters into ever shot, and the film constantly reinforces the idea that no one person is more important than the action. Tellingly, the most prominent close-up in the movie isn't even of a person: it's of a spade breaking the ground from below, as the prisoners are about to complete their tunnel to freedom.

The intense focus on the process earned The Great Escape some negative notices upon its release, but I suspect that's the same reason it has worn so incredibly well: if it's not both the best-loved prison break movie and the best-loved WWII POW camp movie ever made, it's surely in the absolute top tier of both of those subgenres. And this is, I think, precisely because its focus is less on personal stories than on action. This is an absurdly fun movie to watch: it says very little about the human condition - we learn almost nothing about any of the characters that doesn't become specifically important for the plot later on - but it doesn't ever sag for long enough to let you notice that fact. Sturges's genius, and I do not mind using that word in praise of a filmmaker with little obvious personality as a director, is that he presents each detail of the plan with all the excitement of a major setpiece: he understands the human tendency towards curiosity in how things work and rewards it by lingering over every step in the process. There's not a single moment of action for the first two hours of the movie, but it is as driving and thrilling as any war film could be; and just to make sure that it never lags, along comes a ringer in the form of composer Elmer Bernstein with the best score of his career, a rollicking, jingoistic collection of iconic marches and leitmotifs (the arch-backed strings that great the Nazis whenever they come onscreen is clearly echoed in John Williams's Indiana Jones scores) that give the film a bouncy momentum that carries us through the very few moments when Sturges and the screenwriters can't keep us enthralled by the ingenuity of the protagonist's schemes. It is, when all is said and done, a mechanical film: but god, what a beautiful machine!

15 March 2011

POP CULTURE IS A DRAG

I'm not going to make a habit of this, I promise - larding up one's front page with YouTube videos is a grand way to slow down one's blog, and I rather treasure the thought of having a fast blog.

But until it's all established, I'll thank you for bearing with me, if like a beaming dad with a new kid every week, I point you all to the newest episode of my aforementioned project in collaboration with the lovely & talented actresses Sarah Rose Graber and Casey Pilkenton.



Don't forget to visit our YouTube channel!

13 March 2011

FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART, THANK YOU

Today was the 2011 Concert for Life, the event that all of this money-raisin' and charity-doin' was leading up to since I first announced a pledge drive back in June. In honor of a student from Warren Township High School in Gurnee, IL, who passed away from cancer in 2002, this annual event seeks to raise awareness and bring in money for the American Cancer Society.

Since then, thanks to the donations of many wonderful readers, Antagony & Ecstasy was able to raise a whopping $1180, more than eleven times the target donation of $100 per contributor to the Carry On Campaign. Thanks to the mercenary bitches at PayPal, only $1136.52 of that made it to the ACS, but that ain't hay, and I am so very proud of our contribution to what is, so far, more than $41,000 raised for just a single one-day event.

More information about this year's event can be found at the website of Matt Wessel, the Milwaukee musician whose original work has been the centerpiece of the concert since it was started. My thanks to Matt for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this most excellent project.

In the meantime, I'm working as hard as I can to finish up the last few review requests I have outstanding - six, plus some special pieces that are going to take more effort - but I want to assure anyone who contributed that I have certainly not forgotten. Below, with my humblest and most sincere thanks, the complete list of everyone who contributed to my campaign drive in the last nine months, with links to the reviews some of you requested. (NB: if you donated the minimum $15, and did not request a review at the time, it's not too late! Just e-mail me, and let me know what you want to see).

Adam Bertocci, Bronxville, NY
-Requested Ghostbusters
Vianney Boncorps, Los Altos, CA
-Requested Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
-Requested The Village of Shadows
Jessica Brown, Evanston, IL
-Requested Session 9
Dayna Christensen, Boise, ID
-Requested "a bad horror film from the '00s"
Mark Clemens, Boise, ID
-Requested A Hard Day's Night
Nick Davis, Chicago, IL
-Requested Possession (1981)
Stephen Deline, Los Angeles, CA
Jason Dolha, Calgary, AB
-Requested Repulsion
Mike Gibson, Alexandria, VA
-Requested American Beauty
Robert Hamer, Vallejo, CA
-Requested The Right Stuff
Matthew Henderson, Glasgow, Scotland
-Requested a Terrence Malick retrospective
John & Katherine Hewitt, Laurel, MD
Joshua Hime, Los Angeles, CA
-Requested The Hottie & the Nottie
Rachael Horcher, Indianapolis, IN
-Requested the Back to the Future trilogy
JPK, Olympia, WA
-Requested Fearless (1993)
Robert Karol, Chicago, IL
-Requested "Top 10 B-Movie Stars"
Patrick King, Chicago, IL
-Requested An American Carol
Paul & Erica Kolodziej, Chicago, IL
Mark Kreutzer, Chicago, IL
-Requested Married to the Mob
Rebecca Langer, Saskatoon, SK
Trevor Laughlin, New Westminster, BC
Tess LeBlanc, North Vancouver, BC
-Requested Magnolia
Marc Lummis, Astoria, NY
-Requested Clueless
Jay Marks, Ossining, NY
-Requested Jeepers Creepers & Jeepers Creepers 2
Barbara Miller, Dallas, TX
Nathan Morrow, Hanoi, Vietnam
-Requested South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Geoffrey Moses, Williamsport, PA
-Requested To Live and Die in L.A.
Robert Niven, Winter Park, FL
-Requested "Top 10 Documentaries"
Kevin Olson, Salem, OR
-Requested StageFright: Aquarius
Troy Olson, Salem, OR
-Requested Invasion U.S.A.
Daniel Peach, Bowling Green, KY
Rebecca Safier, Los Angeles, CA
Ray Schmit, Downer's Grove, IL
-Requested The Sandlot
Clarence & Hilary Schnadt, Hainesville, IL
Ellen Shapiro, Los Angeles, CA
-Requested The Great Escape
Cameron Shaw, San Francisco, CA
-Requested Top Gun
Stephen Swartz, Madison, WI
-Requested The Descent 2
Zev Valancy, Chicago, IL
Benjamin Verschoor, McCall, ID
-Requested Alien³
Jonathan Volk, Chicago, IL
-Requested Trash Humpers
Chris Walters, Brooklyn, NY
-Requested Babette's Feast
Patrice Wessel-Elacqua, Redwood City, CA
Justin Wiemer, Fox Point, WI
-Requested Ordinary People
Phillip Wiese, Chicago, IL
Kara Wild, San Jose, CA
-Requested Anastasia (1997)
-Also requested The Prince of Egypt
Bryce Wilson, San Luis Obispo, CA
-The Career of Charles B. Pierce