30 April 2011

MAY 2011 MOVIE PREVIEW

In years past, I have used this space to offer my summer box office predictions. I shall no longer do that, having thoroughly embarrassed myself and proven that I have absolutely no concept of what will or will not be popular.

This speaks to the disconnect between me and summer movies, I think. There's something inside of me yet that still honestly enjoys the concept of a big tentpole movie, getting all excited for it, being in a crowded theater opening night, and so on, and so forth. And yet, when I encounter anyone who waxes enthusiastic about this year's summer slate, all I can think is, "really?" Lord knows it doesn't look to have as many flat-out awful films as last year, but there's not a single blessed thing that I'm actually looking forward to. Even the Pixar film this year doesn't look like it can possibly be enjoyable. Maybe it's the effect of having too many big summer releases (remember back in the '90s, when there were five or six films every season that were the Big Events? And now there's one every damn week). Maybe it's CGI fatigue.

God, I hope it's not just that I'm getting old.

Anyway, the films of May, including the one single solitary movie for this whole four-month wasteland that I am, unabashedly, excited for.

6.5.2011

For several years now, the first Friday in May has been given to the big Marvel Studios release; and this year, that would seem to be Thor, in which Marvel's take on the Norse god is given the red carpet treatment. Thing is, and no offense to the folks who adore the Thor comics (he was my dad's favorite character in the Marvel stable back in the '70s, for starters), doesn't it seem a little bit like Captain America is actually going to be the big Marvel film of the year? Whereas all the good buzz out of Australia and the UK cannot convince me that those fucking awful trailers are hiding a great film in Thor, nor that we should expect a decent superhero movie from director Kenneth Branagh, whose instincts have been fairly consistently wrong for 15 years now - and if you're not all that fond of his Hamlet, I won't quibble if we say that his last good movie behind the camera was his debut, Henry V, all the way back in 1989. Not the dude I'd put in charge of my massively expensive franchise-starter, is all I'm saying.

In counter-programming, we've got the de rigeur romantic comedy, Something Borrowed, whose advertising makes it look like a parody of everything wrong with the genre: the rival who is a terrible harridan, the sarcastic male friend who gets to hog all of the jokes, Ginnifer Goodwin. I kid Ms. Goodwin, who has only been in 11 movies; but doesn't it seem like she's ubiquitous in these things?

Also: Jumping the Broom, another film born of the cynical, and yet hardly unsupportable belief that there needs to be "special" movies for black people, because white people won't watch "normal" movies with black casts. For my part, Paula Patton and Loretta Devine are two actresses that I admire enough that in all honesty, I'm kind of more excited for this than for Thor.

Limited release: Can Jodie Foster redeem Mel Gibson? Probably not, but it shall be fun to watch them flailing about in the wildly concept-ey The Beaver anyway.


13.6.2011

The saddest weekend of the summer, when studios dump their most embarrassingly unmarketable misfire. This year, it's Priest, another cod-religious horror thriller from the director and star of the deathless Legion; it feels like the trailers have been out for about nine years, and never once made this look like it was even a little bit watchable.

Certain to be at least somewhat better, Bridesmaids finds the Apatow Group making its first movie with a female protagonist, and won't that be interesting to see? Possibly, given that the producer and his merry men have been silent for nearly a full year, the better to let us rest from their briefly unavoidable shtick, and that the excellent Kristen Wiig is in the lead (though this has not so far helped any of the Tina Fey-led comedies).

On the smaller side of things, Will Ferrell tries his hand at quiet indie dramedy again, this time as a recently fired, recently divorced man selling his whole life in a tag sale: Everything Must Go. It's a Raymond Carver adaptation, though, so it's not worth writing off sight-unseen.


20.5.2011

It disappoints me when a weekend is flat-out conceded ages before the fact; another reason not to love summer. If you don't want to see the one big release, you get no other options. And boy howdy, do I not want to see Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which adds Ian McShane to the cast, and removes Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, and both of these are choices I can be excited about; but then the trailer comes along and is just a string of tedious-looking moments strung together. And with Gore Verbinski stepping down for director Rob Marshall, who hasn't yet met a property he couldn't ruin, my enthusiasm is not high.

Also: new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris. Some of us will go to the new Woody Allen movie in the face of all reason, because that's what we do. We deserve only the contempt of other people.


27.5.2011

Sequel vs. sequel showdown! One is a cartoon about erratic characters doing exactly what they did the last time around, and the other is Kung Fu Panda 2. Oh, I do have fun with The Hangover, Part II, but seriously: this looks like a profound mistake. It shall rake in money, no doubt, but when the ads rely to such an obscene degree on characters flat-out stating "wow, this reminds me of last time", you've done something wrong. Check this out, scroll down to #2. Fucking eerie, right? Anyway, it's going to suck on toast, though Kung Fu Panda 2 honestly is the sequel that has both the most reason to be and the best chances for recapturing the spirit of the original - the first honest-to-God good film in DreamWorks Animation's CG years, no less - of any sequel in this sequel besotted year.

That one movie I said I was unabashedly excited for, by the way? You've probably already guessed I was talking about Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

28 April 2011

WEST BANKRUPT

There are filmmakers with an innate control of the medium, an ability to tell stories visually so effortlessly and intuitively that you never notice the strain. Julian Schnabel is not one of those filmmakers. With Miral, he has now gone four-for-four on movies based on real-life stories, all of them projects that the director clearly has no tiny amount of passion for, and all of which told in four dissimilar but equally halting & uncertain visual styles that leave me, for one, wanting to grab the director and shake him back and forth, shouting, "Yes! I know what you're getting at! So just go and do it already and stop being such an amateur about it!" There's such a tentativeness about his work: it's undeniably evident that the painter-turned-cineaste has ideas about what he wants his movies to say, and even how he wants them to say those things, but either because of a failure of resolve or nerve, he can't quite make the jump from idea to execution, and his projects all end up in the same half-baked valley that gives one a rather itchy, unsettled feeling in a way that a flat-out unsuccessful movie could never have done.

Miral is a lightly fictionalised retelling of the childhood and adolescence of Palestinian writer Rula Jebreal, who not-at-all coincidentally is presently dating Schnabel. Though, as the titular character informs us right at the start, this isn't just her story, but the story in part or in full of three other Palestinian women, beginning with the historical figure Hind al-Husseini (Hiam Abbass), who in 1948 founded a school and orphanage for Palestinian girls; then briefly touching on Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri) and Fatima (Ruba Blal), two women broken by the culture they live in, united by Nadia's little daughter Miral (Yolanda El Karam), whom Fatima cares for after Nadia's death; and then, the great bulk of the movie advances us to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when teenage Miral (Freida Pinto, who never entirely stops looking more Indian than Arab, though she admittedly bears a striking resemblance to Jebreal) falls in love with with PLO leader Hani (Omar Metwally), and spends some effort trying to help in the fight against Israel, slowingly learning from al-Husseini, her father (Alexander Siddig), and her cousin's Jewish girlfriend (Stella Schnabel, the director's daughter) that a hard-line approach to life isn't necessarily the best or happiest way to be.

This is Schnabel's second more-or-less political film, after Before Night Falls and its study of a politically-sensitive Cuban poet; that film suffered a bit from not having an entirely clear sense of its own status as a political statement, but it's not remotely so muddy as Miral, which tries to be three things all at once: a loving tribute to al-Husseini and her politically agnostic attempts to make life better for downtrodden Palestinians; a saucy, shit-stirring attempt by a New York-born Jewish filmmaker to produce an outright pro-Palestine movie (no accident, I deem, that the financing for Miral came from four countries, none of them the United States); and a coming-of-age drama about a young girl who learns that diplomacy and peace are maybe better things than revolutionary violence, however sexy revolution looks from outside. Sometimes, these impulses sit awkwardly atop one another: the film lionises the mostly ineffectual Oslo Accords, presenting them as the big emotional climax to the whole film, while smarmily noting in an ending title card that the Accords ended up having no particular effect. "Because of them damn Jews" the film does not say, though it's a sentiment unmistakably present from its absence, if you follow me.

None of this ends up cohering within itself, and the movie, though it self-evidently has a Message about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, makes virtually no effort to clearly explain what that Message is. "The Palestinians are people too", maybe, but that's awfully milquetoast for a film that talks so punk; "boy, my girlfriend sure is amazing; take a bow, sweetie!" is likelier, but I feel quite a cynic for even suggesting it. Politically incoherent movies are nothing new, of course, and Miral wouldn't be that big of a problem in this regard except that politics are so obviously its first and foremost raisin d'être. There are a lot of points where Jebreal's script grinds to a halt for several minutes to have people discuss some fine point of revolutionary policy; in one tremendously clumsy moment, Miral and Hani discuss the relative merits of violent resistance vs. non-violent appeals to reason and international opinion while making out against the side of a car.

And that, rather than any thematic instability, is the real problem with Miral: it's simply a poorly-handled movie with a script that's made up almost entirely of bland talking, and a director whose only thought for how to dramatically spice up that script is with shake, handheld close-ups that call unnecessary attention to themselves while adding virtually nothing valuable to our sense of the characters or their actions. And this is where that aspect of Julian Schnabel I was talking about shows up; the one where he has clear thoughts about what he wants, and not about how to get to what he wants. It's meant to be intimate, direct, personal; the very pointed use of onscreen text to tell us where and when and who is the subject of this part of the movie or that is clearly designed to stress the film's historical continuity and its depiction of a society rather than just one, or even four, women. But the divide between this being achingly obvious as the "point" of Miral, and this being the actual effect of Miral, is a huge divide.

Not helping matters is the general inhumanity of it all; despite a packed cast, Miral is just too busy for Schnabel to do more than set the camera in front of the actors and pray that they bring something to it. Vanessa Redgrave's hugely irrelevant cameo in the first scene is a perfect example of a game actor being wildly misdirected, and her performance, a ragged bundle of jangling nerves and weird vocal tics, evokes nothing but a sense of wonderment that a gifted performer could be that unfocused. Later on, Abbass, Siddig, and Willem Dafoe (as al-Husseini's American friend and - possibly, the film implies more than it states - her ex-lover) are all onscreen at once, and I distinctly remember the thought, as crystal-clear as a mountain stream: "I really love all three of those actors. I wonder why none of them are doing anything even marginally interesting."

That is the problem with all of Miral, a movie locked inside its own head, trying desperately to get out. A three-handed conversation about the fate of Palestine between Hiam Abbass, Alexander Siddig, and Willem Dafoe ought to be interesting, just as a story that in patches seems to state that, "all things considered, terrorism is probably a viable way for Palestinians to make their points" should at least be interesting, whether it's even a little bit morally justifiable or not. And yet, the undernourished and overworked visuals, and the even more overworked "let's explain everything and then explain it again" narrative arc seemingly conspire to make sure it's not interesting at all. Miral is not, it must be said, a "bad" movie, but I almost can't imagine a worse, or at least less-engaging, version of the same subject, and that, too me, is much the greater sin.

And nothing out of any of this can even start to justify the Bizarro World choice of ending the whole thing with Tom Waits's "Down There By the Train", but maybe I am just not as awesomely cool as I'd have to be for that to make any damn sense at all.

5/10

27 April 2011

THE ZOMBIES ARE REVOLTING

This was to have gone up on Sunday, but I had to do a little dance with Netflix to get the film at all. My apologies & thanks for your patience.

After White Zombie made a splash in 1932, introducing the very idea of "zombies" to American filmgoers, it would seem like the next logical step would be for a small explosion in zombie pictures. This was the '30s, after all, when Hollywood was in arguably the most knock-off friendly period in its history. And yet, for years, nothing.

This is not as unusual as it seems on its face. Recall that this was a time when the paranormal was grudgingly allowed into movies if at all, even Universal's massively successful Dracula was followed by only a trickle of vampire movies, in no small part because of the squeamishness many producers and studios had about the notion of vampires in the first place. Not to mention that the idea of zombies zombie lacked the immediate folkloric familiarity of vampires, werewolves, mad scientists - for most Americans, White Zombie was their sole point of contact with the idea of reanimated corpses under the control of a voodoo master. In fact, this resulted in a lawsuit when Amusement Securities Corporation, the financiers of White Zombies, attempted to prevent brothers Edward and Victor Halperin, creators of White Zombie, from using the very word "zombie" in any future production.

For of course, there was ultimately another zombie movie produced, else we would not be here: from 1936, the Halperin's Revolt of the Zombies, the second-ever English language zombie movie, and a tremendously loose sequel to White Zombie itself - the lawsuit dictated that it couldn't be marketed as such, which is probably for the good, since other than the zombies themselves (and, sort of hilariously, the close-up of Bela Lugosi's eyes that the first film used as a shorthand for "hypnosis is going on right now", despite the absence of Lugsosi from this project otherwise), there is not a single thing connecting the two movies.

You'll very quickly find that I haven't very many nice things to say about Revolt of the Zombies, but I shall begin with one of them: even after the span of more than seven decades, during which the zombie picture has been done and redone and overdone from every angle, I still think that even the most seasoned viewer will find that this movie has a rather outstandingly original concept. Now, I can't claim absolute knowledge, but I still think I'd know if there was another zombie film set in WWI-era Cambodia. But not quite yet: we begin on the Franco-Austrian front, where a Cambodian priest, Tsiang (William Crowell, who, you'll be amazed to learn, is not actually Asian), imported along with several of his countrymen to fight on behalf of their French occupiers, comes to the offices of the French military with a proposition: he is the last member of his religious order who knows the rituals of creating unkillable, robot-like humans, which are called by his people zombies.* His idea is to create an army of these "zombies" for the French, thereby guaranteeing them a victory in the war. Only one French officer, the translator Armand Louque (Dean Jagger), believes this story, but when Tsiang goes ahead and creates just such a platoon, everybody freaks out a little, nobody more than General Duval (George Cleveland), who immediately arrests Tsiang - as he and his German counterpart, von Schelling (Adolph Millard), discuss during a brief truce, the possibility of the Yellow Hordes using this zombie magic to take over the world from the white folks is too horrifying to contemplate.

In the meantime, Tsiang is murdered by von Schelling's second-in-command, General Mazovia (Roy D'Arcy); a magnificently overblown villain he is, too, with a thin little mustache and the god-damnedest accent ever and the general aura of somebody who, if you ever shook hands with him, would prove to be covered in a thin layer of ice-cold slime. Being as he positively reeks of evil, it's no shock that Mazovia wants to steal the zombie-making magic for himself, but nobody on the French or German sides comes anywhere near that conclusion; instead, concerned that Tsiang's knowledge has fallen into the wrong hands, Duval and von Schelling agree that, just as soon as this little war thing is over, they'll go straight to Angkor Wat, and destroy whatever they can find of the zombie-creating totems.

That gets us about 10 or 12 minutes into the film; I quoted it at length firstly because it's so full of completely weird notes - zombies as a secret war weapon! zombies created like Model Ts in an Angkor assembly line! Germans and Frenchmen, working together! the most over-the-top movie villain of 1936! - and because the movie hereafter ceases to be interesting. Scratch that, the movie ceases to be watchable. We've already seen what is, by a huge margin, the best scene: it's the march of Tsiang's zombies over a trench on the Austrian front, getting riddled by bullets and not falling down, with Lugosi's eyes superimposed. From here on, there's nothing approaching that level of otherworldly eeriness, which is all the more criminal considering that director Victor Halperin did such a magnificent job of suffusing White Zombie with an almost non-stop barrage of poetically horrifying moments. The best moments are the ones that leave a modern viewer, who knows all about what zombie movies "ought" to do, scrunching his or her brow and murmuring, "well that's peculiar"; the worst are... well, they're pretty fucking awful, is what.

The trip to Cambodia includes every character we've seen so far but the unfortunate Tsiang, including Armand Louque's good buddy, the Englishman Clifford Grayson (Robert Noland); he was introduced in a semi-pointless scene in which Louque admitted his frustration at not being able to convince anyone that zombies could exist (this was before Tsiang's little demonstration), including the absolutely crackerjack observation that science has accepted the existence of mental telepathy as a fact, the two men coming to the conclusion that Louque just needs to be more determined in pursuing his objectives. We're also, at this point, introduced to Duval's daughter, Claire (Dorothy Stone), and she is the saucy little minx who comes aboard to make absolutely damn sure that nobody in the history of ever would be able to squeeze even the tiniest scrap of enjoyment out of Revolt of the Zombies.

Here's what happens: Louque falls in love, instantly, with Claire; Claire falls in love, instantly, with Grayson; Grayson likes Claire, but lacks the confidence to do anything about it (diatribes about this person or that needing more confidence and determination make up something like 25% of the dialogue in Revolt of the Zombies). Louque proposes to Claire, and she accepts, which makes Grayson jealous and then an especially grating contrivance propels Claire into Grayson's arms. Louque goes a little bit apeshit over this, and to get his revenge, sneaks into Angkor Wat, finds the secret zombie recipe (the scene where he first practices on his aide Buna, played by Teru Shimada, is a small anti-masterpiece of incoherent blocking and random character motivations), and turns everybody in the movie into his zombie retainers, except for Claire. Realising that he can't force her to love him, he releases all the zombies from his control, as a sign of good faith. Before you can say, "well, duh", they break into his palace and kill him.

After I outlined the first 10 minutes so precisely, I have given this whirlwind tour of the last 55 for one reason alone: it's horrible and awful and boring and I didn't want to spend any more time thing about it. There is, it's true, some not-entirely-small fascination in seeing a movie set up a character to be our hero the way Revolt of the Zombies does with Louque, only to reveal in the second act that, aha! he's actually our villain. That would be notable at any point in film history, and it's positively startling in a cheap programmer from the mid-'30s.

Such a tiny grace note, though, in the face of so much grinding! One does not anticipate that a movie titled Revolt of the Zombies will be primarily about a love triangle, with a jilted lover turning into a voodoo chieftain out of a desire to show off in front of the girl. But titling isn't the film's strong suit: in point of fact, the uprising that ends the story is only a "revolt" if you squint a little, and there aren't any zombies according to any standard definition: only the bodies in the opening war scene can be plausibly described as dead, while every single other "zombie" we see over the course of the movie is simply under hypnotic control. There was some confusion in White Zombie as to exactly what makes a zombie, but at least the bulk of them seemed to be genuine reanimated corpses.

That is, however, the kind of complaint more easily made by a modern viewer with more concrete ideas of what a zombie movie should be; about on par with seeing Caribbean magic being practiced in Southeast Asia. Distracting, but not ultimately a film-ruining problem. The film-ruining problems are far more typical: there's a stupefying amount of talking, as the same thing is said over and over again (Louque becomes a zombie warlord because he had to learn determination, or some such), in front of cheaply-done projections of Angkor Wat, by a lot of really irritating actors. There's no trace of the fine career that Dean Jagger would enjoy in the future; but he and Robert Noland, for all their wooden blandness, aren't nearly as detrimental to the film as Dorothy Stone's simply ghastly turn as Claire. This was the Broadway veteran's only chance to headline a feature film (she'd been in two shorts, and would appear, years later, as a spear-carrier in a William Dieterle melodrama), and to say she failed to impress would be putting it lightly. It's already hard to particularly like the character, who is dropped into the movie without ceremony and proceeds to engage in a pointlessly meanspirited trick to win a man; Stone perhaps thought there was still a chance we'd feel sorry for her, and accordingly played the character as snappish and peremptory, drawing out all the shallowest, ditsiest parts of the character. What a fun way to spend an interminably long 65-minute horror flick!

One would never compare this film to White Zombie and conclude it was four years younger: it's rough and blocky in the manner of a crummy early sound film, lacking anything like a credible soundscape or any of the visual elegance of its bigger sibling, the story is crude and inexplicable, the acting stagey, the tone completely gaudy and not even a tiny bit horrifying. Perhaps it's as simple as the lack of a strong central performance like Lugosi's to anchor the movie, but I doubt it; it was likely just a case of lightning only striking once, and the men who showed off just how expressive American horror could be ended up proving, with equal force, just how far the same genre could sink in the hands of clumsy expression and a lack of visual invention.

25 April 2011

A WAY NORMAL LIFE FOR A TEENAGE GIRL

Marc Lummis, one of the finest folks I've known for age, wanted to dedicate his Carry On Campaign review request to Caroline Rinaldy, one of the finest folks I've met in the last couple of years. It gives me great pleasure to so dedicate.

For a quote-ready teen comedy driven by endless pop-culture references and with a conceptual hook that couldn't be more "MTV in the 1990s" if it tried, Amy Heckerling's Clueless is a shockingly vicious satire of the moneyed classes of Clintonian America; it is the sort of comedy in which only the constant flow of jokes keep us from recoiling at the sheer nastiness of it. There's hardly a single likable person in the whole thing, and some of those who start off as likable have been corrupted by the end. Yet the tone is so unflinchingly breezy and playful that it never descends into the misanthropic nihilism of so much satire, and the inevitable Hollywood happy ending is much more delightful and contented than it is sour, though a dark undercurrent is there if you want to see it. But let me not get too far ahead of the game.

In the mid-'90s, something must have gotten got into the water supply, for it was then that, out of nowhere whatsoever, Jane Austen movies began cropping up like dandelions. "Naught weird about that", you might counter, "she's a popular author, and books by popular authors in the public domain get made into movies." But some context: between 1895 and 1994, there was one theatrically-released Austen movie: the 1940 Pride and Prejudice starring Greer Garson. That same book was adapted for British television with some regularity, once a decade or so throughout the 20th Century, and all of her other novels were given the BBC treatment at least once; but there was nothing at all to predict the sudden onslaught of Austenania in 1995, beginning with the UK television premiere of a new version of Persuasion that received theatrical distribution throughout the world, followed by the iconic six-part Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, and Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's Oscar-nominated Sense and Sensibility. Beating all of these to American theaters, in July of that year, Clueless was Heckerling's bold revision of Emma (given a more straightforward adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow the following year), set in the materialistic world of Beverly Hills, California. Given the general directive by Paramount, "give us a teen film", Heckerling responded by updating her favorite novel as a teenager and created a cottage industry: this film essentially invented the now-tired "Major Literary Title X in a high school!" trope. I do not have any idea what all this means, but to my knowledge the sudden - and, 16 years later, still ongoing - explosion of a single author in the popular consciousness is unmatched elsewhere in the annals of film history.

1995 was also right about the time that quintessentially '90s teen soap Beverly Hills, 90210 was just beginning its decline in popularity, which means that when Heckerling was writing the script, that film was at its absolute peak of annoying ubiquity. On some level, then, Clueless is just another "let's make fun of pop culture!" parody, though that level is tiny and dull. What's far more interesting about the film is the smiling savagery with which it tears down the lifestyle pornography that 90210 so emptily embodied, the kind which has been further refined by increasingly indulgent reality television and ever-more superficially glamorous TV melodramas in the decade and a half since Heckerling's film debuted. At first blush, Clueless appears to be just more of the same: the film begins with the hectically cheerful narration of Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone, in the role that made it look for a few years like she was going to be a star), daughter of privilege and queen bee at her posh high school, purveyor of some of the darnedest slang you ever did hear. Her mission in life is to make everyone around her happy, which largely consists of helping her lawyer dad (Dan Hedaya, just to make sure we get that he's the venal, greedy kind of lawyer) with his paperwork, teaching the new girl, Tai (Brittany Murphy, glorious in her breakthrough), how to dress and act like a billion-dollar whore, and making sure that everybody she knows is in a happy romantic relationship. Given the custom of American film comedies - and American films generally - to expect us to fall in love with our protagonists, one's first assumption is that Cher will be our ditzy but lovable heroine.

It doesn't take very long - and, to be fair, the title pretty much spells it out for us - to figure out that Cher is a goddamned idiot. The more generous reviewer might choose the word "naïve". Either way, one of the very first things we see her actually, actively do is to deliver a rambling non sequitur "argument" about foreign aid in debate class, one of the film's most iconic scenes during which, among other things, she mispronounces the word "Haitians". There's a lot that this speech reveals about the character, depending on how far we want to drag Clueless through the mud of politics; minimally, that she is wildly unconcerned about academics or anything at all beyond the materialistic world of the 90210 bubble; and maximally, that she specifically isn't unconcerned about the world, but that her understanding of human nature is so fundamentally warped that she actually thinks the suffering of the Third World is actually equal to the travails of a party gone wrong. It's this second reading that I gravitate towards, though by no mean does the film insist on it; it just fits so well if Cher is, rather than a clueless teenager, someone who actually no longer has a functioning sense of what is right and wrong in a global sense; someone who is fundamentally unable to comprehend what a lack of money actually looks like. Elsewhere in the film Cher invests herself in charity work, and this is not, generally speaking, played as the actions of somebody who has just learned that there are unfortunate people in the world, and then helps them out in a clumsy way; it plays instead as someone who has always known there are unfortunate people, who has just decided to do something about it, and who honestly thinks that "unfortunate" means that they don't have enough caviar.

Consider something like Born Yesterday, wherein a similarly superficial and ditzy woman has enough integrity to realise that her life is all wrong, and reaches out in some tentative way to fix it, to find just how far afield from the traditional character arcs Clueless finds itself. This is Marie Antoinette, "let them eat cake" territory, and if it had come out five years earlier or twelve years later, in a period of economic decline, rather than at the start of the most exuberant financial expansion since the 1960s, this exact movie would seem like a call to class warfare. As it stands, it's just a comedy, and a brilliant one; the Heckerling whose previous screenwriting consisted solely of the deathless Look Who's Talking and the immortal Look Who's Talking Too is not in evidence. Even the Heckerling who directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High, one of the smartest of all '80s teen comedies, can't be entirely responsible for this film that mines so much humor out of making fun of not just its protagonist, but its whole cast, no exceptions, without ever feeling sour or nasty or misanthropic. The most surprising thing about Clueless, given how enthusiastically it indicts its characters and their universe, is how much fun it is.

I would love to be able to say, "this is how Heckerling did it", and yet I'm at a loss to explain how Cher's own romantic travails, involving an un-closeted gay kid (Justin Walker), and her blandly smug college-age ex-stepbrother. Josh (Paul Rudd, who must have been ecstatic that this easygoing, gleefully self-centered performance put him on the map and distracted everybody from his headlining role in the same year's Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers), end up being as engaging as they are. Despite our sure and certain knowledge that Cher is completely frivolous and indefensibly unaware of the needs and feelings of anyone around her, it's really hard not to want her to end up in love; hell, even when the very inevitable happens and she realises to her dumbfounded shock that she wants to end up with Josh, we still want her to end up with him, despite the fact that at the very least, it's kind of squicky; ex-siblings they may be, but there were cultures in history where that still counts as incest. No matter how gleefully savage the satire, no matter how much it stresses Cher's lack of substance, Clueless is still a completely engaging romantic comedy.

And here's the punchline: for that reason, I wonder if it might be the truest Jane Austen adaptation of them all. Think about all the filmed Pride and Prejudices you've seen. Awfully sincere, aren't they? Delicately re-creating the period sets and costumes, hitting the melodrama and angst between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy for all they're worth. Some have something of a sense of humor, some have not.

Here's the first line from Pride and Prejudice. It's really damn famous, and you've probably encountered it before:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Roll that around. Say it out loud. Think about it. It's kind of funny, isn't it, in a sly way? And kind of pointed, and even, I daresay, satirical? And then think about Sense and Sensibility, where Austen oh-so-subtly indicates that both of the Dashwood sisters are, in the own different ways, vaguely absurd characters? Really, once you get down to it, there are places throughout all of her books where Austen is plainly, though with impeccable refinement, mocking the people and societies in her stories. Yes, she cares about them and wants them to be happy, but she always understands and even emphasises the fact that they are inherently foolish. That detail is mostly absent from every major Austen adaptation, except this one. So, am I suggesting that if Austen were alive today, she'd be writing stories more like Clueless and less like the films based on her own novels? Well... yes, frankly. And for that reason if none other, I raise my glass to Heckerling, and her broadly mercenary assignment that turned into the sharpest, best teen comedy of the 1990s.

24 April 2011

OTHER THAN THAT, MRS. LINCOLN...

The newly-created American Film Company, in the end credits of its very first feature, The Conspirator, announces its intentions to oversee the creation of "entertaining, engaging, and historically accurate" movies about great events in U.S. history, and this first effort comes so damn close. It is, as far as my limited expertise suggests, more than necessarily accurate; it is not quite so much entertaining and engaging. Though it's a hell of a lot more fun to watch than one might expect given the basic outline of the concept: director Robert Redford uses the trial of the Lincoln assassins as a metaphor for Gitmo.

In his eighth film as director, Redford does a much, much better job of presenting his liberal homily than in his last project, the unendurable thesis paper on celluloid Lions for Lambs. The Conspirator takes us back to the terrible days of mid-April, 1865, when the U.S. Civil War was a breath away from ending, and a resentful Southern sympathiser and actor named John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell*) responded by assassinating president Abraham Lincoln during a production of the hit play Our American Cousin. So deep is Redford & Co.'s commitment to history that they force us to endure a good five minutes of what audiences in the middle of the 19th Century considered top-shelf farce, including the hi-fucking-larious line "You sockdologizing old mantrap", the very line that was Booth's cue to pull the trigger, knowing that the wave of boisterous laughter to follow would hide the sound of the gunshot - much as in The Man Who Knew Too Much, except it would be like if the London Symphony Orchestra had been playing "Chopsticks" instead of an Arthur Benjamin cantata.

In the aftermath of this crisis, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) devotes all his energies to rounding up the clutch of conspirators responsible for the assassination and trying them as quickly as he possibly can in a military court, where he can be certain of receiving a "Guilty, now go hang the fuckers" verdict in record time. This sits poorly with Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), a firm believer in due process, habeas corpus, and the civilian trial of civilian criminals; thus, when Stanton's vendetta extends as far as Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), mother of known conspirator John Surratt (Johnny Simmons) and owner of the boarding house in Washington where the conspiracy was hatched, Reverdy can no longer sit back quietly, but orders his young protégé, Union war hero and attorney Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), to defend Ms. Surratt in the face of seemingly intractable bias against her. Including Aiken's own feeling that she must be guilty, but as he sits in court and observes that the panel of generals, led by David Hunter (Colm Meaney), sitting in judgment of the accused has already made up their minds; that Stanton seems delighted to run roughshod over civil rights in favor of swift retribution and vengeance against a woman who may in fact be just as innocent as she proclaims.

Now, in the main, this is a fascinating story effectively unknown outside of Civil War aficionado circles, and it deserves the telling. Except for the declamatory parts, where a character (usually Reverdy or Stanton) stops the movie dead in its tracks to make some passionate speech that manages, just barely, to fit in character, but really is a sign of Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon (working from a story he co-wrote with Gregory Bernstein) nudging us in the ribs a bit - "I say, don't you think Stanton sounds a little, I dunno, Rumsfeldey? OMG, and they both held the same cabinet position! I hadn't even noticed!" It's a queer thing: the film is never such a message picture that you get the feeling that The Conspirator is first and foremost a harangue about civil rights, but at the same time, those scenes are never far enough away that you can quite forget that they keep happening. It ends up feeling just a tiny bit desperate, the filmmakers's glancing at us nervously to make sure we Get It, and feeling just a little bit guilty that they stuck a PSA into their period courtroom drama in the first place. But not guilty enough to have not done it.

Indeed, the guiding principle behind the creation of The Conspirator appears to have been that under no circumstances should it be allowed to be completely enjoyable. As a legal thriller - and functionally, all the political asides and history lessons notwithstanding, that's structurally how the screenplay works - this could be a perfectly fun exercise, over-familiar genre tropes given a facelift by Mark Garner's absolutely gorgeous set design and Louise Frogley's costumes; disreputable or not, there's a certain delight in seeing pulp boilerplate working itself out in unfamiliar contexts. But the filmmakers are so concerned with the trappings that they struggle a bit with the story: The Conspirator is beholden to its production design, not enhanced by it, and the so very thoughtfully dusky and brownish cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel manages to suck all the air out of the proceedings that Redford's characteristically over-precise direction, with its Very Suggestive camera angles and Refined Detachment from the material, hadn't already ground to dust (still, it's his most unfussy work since 1994's Quiz Show, still his single great moment as a director).

What that leaves is the characters and the actors, and generally they give more than the script gives them. In fact, there's not really a truly weak link in the whole cast: Kline gives his most restrained, straightforward performance in ages, and McAvoy is a terrifically inspired choice to play the muddled protagonist; the actor is not without his flaws, chiefly a sort of brittle desire that we feel sorry for him, and that fits this character better than most of the roles he plays. In small roles, Evan Rachel Wood and Justin Long both manage to avoid the traps of being smugly self-knowing that they sometimes fall into - something Wood spectacularly failed to do in the recent Mildred Pierce miniseries. The best in show, however, is unquestionably Wright; her role is barbarically trite - a woman who suffers, choosing to suffer even more to save her son - but the actress manages to salvage an incredible amount of humanity from the film's representation of her character as symbol and icon rather than person. She even manages to sell, barely, Redford's ham-handed use of Mary Surratt's widow's weeds as a visual signifier. And though the script often permits her to do nothing but stand quietly with thin-lipped determination, Wright even manages to make that credible, if not any more interesting than it has right to be.

The human element, plus the inherent fascination of the story, almost makes The Conspirator a good movie. Heck, it's at least watchable, in the "flipping by on cable, don't have the energy to keep looking" sense. It's stateliness and self-importance both ultimately make it feel like we're being talked at rather than invited to partake in a narrative process, but there have been, and will be, worse period pictures than this, and its worst sin is never incompetence, but only a certain airless lack of humor about what it's doing and how.

6/10

22 April 2011

A PINCH OF GALT

As I am an honest person, I should confess that I was never going to admire Atlas Shrugged - I'm sorry, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, to give it its proper, and stupendously overweening title. Fact is, I am one of those folks for whom the very name "Ayn Rand" triggers some deep revulsion, instinctive and vigorous. Was I looking forward to seeing the craven, pandering adaptation of her best-known work fail at the box office? Yes, I was. Was I looking forward to making fun of its massive incompetence, instantly apparent from its embarrassing trailer? Yes, I was. Was I prepared for how fucking boring it was going to turn out to be? No, and that's the worst of all - Atlas Shrugged: The Phantom Menace isn't even fun-bad, it's just colossally inept; it's almost impossible to imagine how such ludicrously melodramatic material could be made without a trace of camp, purposeful or inadvertent (one recalls the 1949 film of The Fountainhead, with a Rand-penned script, redeemed enough by King Vidor's crazy-quilt operatic direction that it just manages to be worth watching).

Atlas Shrugged - which I have not read, have no desire to read, and on the basis of this film, am most certainly never going to read in the future - tells the story, in essence, of how all the captains of industry in America pack up their toys and go home. Or, as Rand would have it, the smartest, most capable, generally all-around most superior folks - all of whom happen to be wealthy business leaders - sick and tired of being forced to underwrite the existence of poor people (if they're so deserving of food, shelter, and dignity, why aren't they brilliant industrialists?), spirit themselves away to a magical new world where individualists can be as rugged as they like, and there is no taxation. That hasn't happened yet by the end of this first chapter, which is mostly concerned with setting up the paragons of human virtue Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), heir to the nation's foremost railroad company, and Henry "Hank" Rearden (Grant Bowler), inventor of a new kind of super-steel that threatens to put all the other metal companies in America out of business. Together, Taggart and Rearden combine forces to build the finest high-speed rail line in North America - someone should tell all the Rand acolytes in Washington presently fighting high-speed rail with everything they've got.

Does that sound like a plot? Hell if I know. Atlas Shrugged: The Curse of the Black Pearl has a story, I suppose, and it even kind of has conflict, if by "conflict" we mean "Dagny Taggart* stares down everyone who disagrees with her or stands in her way until they back down". Mostly, it has talking. Weirdly esoteric talking about weirdly esoteric things. For this is, in its fashion, a film about Ideas, and that's satisfying up to a point, though writers John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole might have done a better job of clarifying those Ideas and Expressing them Clearly and Coherently. An opening voice-over and montage tries to set up the film's peculiar vision of 2016, but never quite manages to explain why there's no longer any air travel, or how the entire U.S. government was replaced in just two election cycles by Stalinists, though I suppose the latter point makes sense to the sort of person whose understanding of what words mean is shaky enough that corporatist Democrat Barack Obama can be described, without shame, as a "socialist".

And then there's the main bulk of the movie, which concerns Dagnabbit's attempts to build her railroad, and Rearden's attempts to something, I guess it involves him keeping control of his super-steel despite the government and his competitors bending all their will towards socialising the smelting industry to get his efficiency-increasing metal safely off the market. It takes a lot of verbiage to get this done, with actors like Michael Lerner and Jon Polito adding an unfair patina of legitimacy to endless scenes of dirty politicians cutting crooked deals, and doing it in language that is basically inscrutable. At times, the only possible way to understand what is happening in any given moment is to just give up and assume that because the bad guys are doing it, it must be evil, but the dialogue typically involves so much jargon floating around that it's not even clear why they're evil, besides their pure evilness.

In short: while it would be possible to object to Atlas Shrugged: The Rise of Cobra on philosophical grounds, it's giving the film much too much credit to do so. The correct objection is on sheer dramatic and aesthetic grounds, by which yardsticks this is a complete, dismal failure. That it makes no sense and pushes through its story with a stubborness that does not in any way make up for its lack of momentum is one of its chief problems. That it possesses such atrociously uncharacterised characters is another. The villains, I've mentioned, aren't apparently driven by any coherent, real-world ideology; the heroes, meanwhile, aren't apparently driven by anything human. I cannot imagine either one of them actually being happy; they are not driven by the desire to have money, power, or influence; they have sex (it's okay, because Rearden's wife is a cartoon harpy), but that clearly does not excite them nearly as much as talking about building shit does. The simple answer, of course, is that they're not characters at all, but representatives of a philosophical proposition. This might be okay in a novel (though based on the book's reputation, my guess is that it's not), but it's a hard go for a movie.

Making matters worse, Schilling and Bowler are both pretty awful actors. Bowler less so; he basically just uses his chin and his masculinity to do all the work for him, a bland but not unholy thing to do (it's not that far from the routine shtick of Fountainhead star Gary Cooper). Schilling, though, whoo boy. Her performance is an early frontrunner for Worst Thing in a 2011 Movie, all bug-eyed expressions and clipped line readings and the feeling, overall, that she is playing a woman who spend every off-camera moment regenerating from a pod. It's not entirely inappropriate - the onscreen evidence suggests that Dargy Tangent has neither an inner life nor the ability to feel feelings, and perhaps Schilling is just committing fully to the role it was written. Perhaps she's just giving a terrible fucking performance and refusing to give the film the only human core it might possess. It's a tricky distinction.

Overseeing it all, Paul Johansson - primarily a TV actor, secondarily a TV director, and only a distant third, a director of films - has no real sense of how to deal with this, his first theatrical feature. There are meaningful close-ups on people at moments that in no imaginable way require such a thing; his handling of the innumerable "men in a board room conspiring" scenes require the actors to really stretch out the words, robbing these inert scenes of even the minute inertia they might have possessed; his blocking is disorienting and involves a lot of purposeful striding, then standing still, then purposefully striding over there - his Hank Rearden and Tangy Dorrit seem to be aware that they're striking poses, and make the best of it. And his bland staging emphasises, rather than hides, the film's rushed production schedule and cramped budget; the film looks like the kind of indie that sets a scene in a refinery because the producer's uncle was able to get them into a refinery one Saturday, with unconvincingly redressed sets that are forced into roles they're ill-suited for (Rearden's "office" looks like it's in a stairwell). Really, the only thing he is any good at is showing off the trains that anachronistically litter this movie, watching as they gleam in the sun: it's almost easy to understand why the lovers would rather talk about locomotion than screw each other, for in Johansson's hands, trains are infinitely sexier than the prudish mechanism of the film's lone sex scene.

It has always been a mystery why ideologically conservative movies over the past two or three decades have been so artistically incompetent ('twas not always the case; some of the best films of the 1940s are as reactionary as you could ever hope for); I think that Atlas Shrugged: The Sands of Time might contain at least something of an answer. Movies of this sort fundamentally do not care about people, and are frankly proud of how much they do not care about people, and the dramatic arts are all inherently fixed on the idea that, at the least, people are interesting enough to observe for 90 minutes or more. This is not the opinion expressed in Atlas Shrugged: The Fellowship of the Ring; here, people aren't interesting, they're just a necessary evil, except for the necessary part. Draggy Target at one point gapes in unhidden contempt, "What's the point of all this stupid altruism?", and she speaks for the whole of the movie, which whatever its motives - creating a counter-ideology to mainstream Hollywood, paying tribute to a great American novel, attempting to con the Tea Partiers into buying tickets to a shit-ass cheapie programmer because it's their political duty to do so - was certainly not created out of a desire to perform an act of kindness to the human race.

2/10

20 April 2011

BLUEBIRD OF NEUROSIS

Hop is still a fresh enough memory that one is tempted to give Rio credit solely for not sucking. Lord knows there's nothing else to give it credit for: it is nearly the platonic ideal of a children's movie that is completely devoid of either merit or flaw, existing solely that it might exist. Some of the time it is a touch better than that, as in the design; some of the time it is a touch worse, as in the music. But a few wee deviations from a baseline of purest mediocrity aren't enough, in the grand scheme, to call any attention away from Rio's essential core of magnificent averageness.

It briefly does not seem like this shall be the case. The film opens with its best scene, in which a menagerie of Brazilian jungle birds conduct a sprawling Busby Berkeley-flavored song and dance number, a coruscation of charmingly designed, brightly colored cartoon animals dancing to the beat of one of the few musical moments in this heavily musical film that actually evokes Rio de Janeiro with any particular success. It is a playful, energetic, completely fun moment - I saw the film in 2-D, but I suppose it plays tremendously well in 3-D - and it promises an effervescent, buoyant comedy that doesn't necessarily come to pass. At any rate, the film only comes remotely close to this level of visual extravagance and kinetic energy once more, near the other end, after a long steady drip of kiddie flick pablum: celebrity voices that call too much attention to themselves, pop songs that don't belong, spastic physical humor. There is a startling lack of reliance on shit jokes, for a children's movie. That came as a nice surprise.

At any rate, during that opening number, a little baby macaw, blue from head to talon is delightedly hopping and bopping, when he decides to join in the fun - this despite not yet having learned to fly. He tumbles to the ground, and that's where the poachers find him. In no time at all, he's sold to an exotic pet dealer and ends up stranded in the depths of a Minnesota winter (the film make about 30 dozen jokes about how cold and icy Minnesota is, which makes sense when you remember that the upper Midwest is covered in a thick layer of permafrost), where he is found by a little girl - not bought, because that would make one of the heroes complicit in the exotic animals trade - and raised up to be her beloved companion.

15 years later, the bird, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), and the woman, Linda (Leslie Mann) are living a life of quiet contentment, when an ornithologist from Rio, Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro, the only prominent cast member who is actually Brazilian), comes along with news that Blu is the last male of his species, and the scientists in Brazil want to mate him with the last female of his species. This is getting really boring to recap, so basically Blu and the lady bird, Jewel (Anne Hathaway) end up fleeing from bird smugglers with an insane cockatoo (Jemaine Clement), finding help from a pair of enthusiastic birds, cardinal Pedro (will.i.am) and canary Nico (Jamie Foxx), and a wise toucan, Rafael (George Lopez, theoretically cast because fuck, it's not like Americans can tell 'em apart), and a bulldog, Luiz (Tracy Morgan). Along the way, Blu's terror of flying - his terror of life in general, basically, as with most every Jesse Eisenberg character) is established as the personal flaw he will have to inspiringly overcome in the third act, while the omnipresent ticking clock about "the roads will be closed soon for Carnaval!" lets us know where the climax will occur, though the twin facts that Rio is set in Rio, and every single American movie ever set in Rio has a major scene set during the Carnaval parade, have already pretty much clued us in.

Directed by Rio native/Ice Age veteran, Carlos Saldanha,Rio is primarily good for one thing: making a cartoon version of Rio de Janeiro look as glowing and and vibrant as a basket of candied fruit. In this it is more successful than even the most touristy of live-action Rio pictures, given that the animators at Blue Sky studios have the luxury of making their favelas look as sanitary and storybook-exotic as they wish. Part of me finds this reprehensible in some abstract way, and part of me knows that it would be really damn dumb to expect Lil' City of God from the people whose chief claim to fame are those Tex Avery-influence Scrat cartoons. Anyway, while I could have wished for a bit more of the bright colors, the film overall is warm enough that it's always fun to look at, even if it's mostly content to re-create every postcard you've ever seen in rounded-edges CGI.

With essentially nothing to do, the cast mostly just reads lines and calls it a day, though Eisenberg gives a more nuanced, innocent performance than the film really has any right to demand. No-one, not even professional ruiner of music will.i.am, is so distracting that it wrecks the film; nor does anybody do much to add anything, though Hathaway's blandly middle-American voice is kind of out of place.

Only the music registers as a serious disappointment: unexpectedly, Rio is effectively a musical, but most of the music is, well, typical of will.i.am and Jamie Foxx, let us say, and leave it at that. "I don't like samba!" shouts Blu at one point, so I imagine he's probably glad to wind up in a movie with so very little of it. But for God's sake, how do you set a movie in a city as well-known for the vitality of its music culture as Rio de Janeiro, and then use the same crappy pop that shows up in every last damn middle-of-the-road family film? Even worse, how do you end up in that situation after you've hired Sergio Mendes as your music supervisor? Imagine if T-Bone Burnett had filled the O Brother soundtrack with Britney Spears, and you begin to see the scope of it. Herein, we find Jemaine Clement rapping "Like an abandoned school, I've got not principal", the kind of anti-clever line that bothers me more the more I think about it.

But like I said, that's only a dent in the wall of impersonal proficiency that marks the bulk of the movie: anodyne characters, anodyne situations, anodyne gags, but not actively harmful. Since it seems that this is where we've ended up as a culture, at least I can be grateful that there are so relatively few pop culture jokes, and a couple of them are even wanly funny.

Last note: if you are a grown-up and are obliged to see the movie, I found the best way to make it through was to really focus on the film's depiction of the relationship between bird Blu and human Linda. All of the visual shorthands used, the bulk of the performance, and much of the dialogue, plays exactly the way it would if they were romantically involved, which leads me to read Rio as a tragicomedy about incompatible sexual partners agreeing to let each other find more socially acceptable lovers. In that light, the weirdness of a G-rated movie hinging on a scientist forcing birds to copulate barely even registers - and incidentally, if this is what Pixar's cancelled Newt was going to turn out like, it's probably no great loss.

5/10

I MAKE THINGS

Since nobody has complained very much so far - and since, after all, this is still my blog - I don't suppose it would be pushy if I kept pimping out the various video projects here and there that I'm working on in my non-reviewing life? Okay? Excellent, because I've got another one.

This is, in fact, a momentous step forward for me: the first time I've actually finished a music video that I started (after three stalled-out attempts). I shot it for a buddy of mine from college, Robert Jarosinski, and his band Convergence (their site is right here), as part of the lead-up to the band's new album Umbrella Spokes, coming out later this month.

Do please pay special attention to how elegantly it has been formatted. It took me way too long to figure out how to make a 16x9 mp4.



And cutting off the obvious criticism at the pass: yes, that's one hell of a shaky tracking shot. One does what one can with the equipment at hand, and on a no-budget shoot of dubious legality, a dolly is about as easy to come by as an anthropomorphic unicorn to push it.

WHEN THE SCREAMING STOPS

The full disclosure part first: I am not a fan of Scream. I find it smug and appallingly cynical, how it attempts to paper over its failings as a slasher film and a horror movie with a hyper-awareness of generic tropes, serving up hackneyed clichés while it winks and snorts and chuckles, "boy oh boy, isn't it just damn funny how clichéd these clichés are?" as though by virtue of pointing out its own shortcomings, they ceased to therefore be shortcomings; or, god help us, become actual strengths. This is the sin common to most meta-movies.

All that said, I can understand why so many people loved Scream, making it and its first sequel the highest grossing slasher films of all time, not adjusted for inflation.Viewed strictly as a pop-culture object, it's tolerably smart and clever. So I'm willing to concede that my aversion to the film is largely one of taste (it's also been my observation that the people who like Scream the least tend to be devotees of '80s slashers, which, yeah). I will make no similar concessions about Scream 4, or Scre4m, depending if you follow the copyright or the onscreen title. Taste or not, this is a ramshackle failure as a slasher film and a satire of slasher films, an embarrassing and flailing continuation of a story that had been sealed up and resolved and done away with and boxed up and left for dead 11 years ago. It is better than Scream 3, but so are most things.

The film's problems become apparent fairly quickly. Remember how each of the previous 3 Screams opens with a famous or semi-famous person being killed off by a man wearing the famous Ghostface mask? So do director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson, teaming up once again after Williamson took the third movie off (though the filmmakers later collaborated on the well-forgotten werewolf picture Cursed). In this case, a pair of teen girls (Lucy Hale and Shenae Grimes) who get chased and savaged by a prank caller, just like the first Scream - and then it turns out to be the opening of Stab 6 (the series based, in-universe, on the events in the Scream "reality"), being watched by a pair of 20somethings (Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell). The one girl can't believe how fake and stupid Stab 6, which annoys the other girl, who proceeds to stab the first in the gut - and then this turns out to be the opening of Stab 7, which is being watched by two more incredulous girls (Aimee Teegarden and Brittany Robertson), who can't get their heads around how incredibly bad horror movies have gotten over the years. The rule of three tells us that this must be Scream 4 and not Stab 8, and so it is; a figure in the Ghostface outfit (Dane Farwell) kills the pair and sends us into our proper plot.

But let's stick around the teaser for a minute: whatever are Craven and Williamson trying to tell us? Two things, mostly: one is that horror movies in the last 15 years have grown self-devouring, using self-reflexive gags and in-jokes and parodies of iconic setpieces in a desperate attempt to remain fresh and effective - and what 15-year-old movie started that trend, I wonder? The second thing is that horror sequels have to do increasingly ludicrous things to avoid turning into simple, hateful rehashes of the first one over and over again. A fair point, and what's startling about Scream 4 - the only startling thing about it, really - is that Craven and Williamson don't merely make that point, they make it over and over again, putting self-conscious references about out-of-date sequels and pointless remakes into the mouths of seemingly half the cast. This goes far beyond Scream 1 jokingly saying, "Gosh, slashers are formulaic! See how formulaic we're being?" This is saying "Everything that is wrong with horror movies is present, right here, in Scream 4. It is symptomatic of all the terrible things that have made horror unendurable in the last ten years. Fuck you, Scream 4." I, personally, cannot recall the last time a film insisted on its own pointlessness with quite this much ferocity.

Anyway: the plot finds ways to bring back all the regulars: former Final Girl Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is back in Westboro to promote her book about surviving and thriving in the decade since she was at the epicenter of three murder sprees; Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is now the sheriff, and his wife, the former Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is trying to write a book, but quickly gets more excited about helping out with the investigation into the new murders, fighting with her husband in the process; it's sort of eerie that a movie written before the Cox-Arquette's announced their separation manages to incorporate it so nicely as a metanarrative undertone. And then there are a huge fucking number of new kids and other expendable meat: Sidney's teenage cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe), her shithead ex Trevor (Nico Totorella), horror film buffs Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), a pair of insufficiently bumbling deputies, Ross Hoss (Adam Brody) and Anthony Perkins (Anthony Anderson), or, as I like to call him, "Deputy Fuck You In The Face, Kevin Williamson". And Deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton), trying to steal away Sheriff Dewey.

It wouldn't be sporting to give away the plot (many people die, a series record in fact, until the killer is stopped - and the killer's identity is awfully arbitrary, a twist ending solely for the sake of a twist); suffice it to say that Sidney goes absolutely bugshit when she finds out that there's another killer in her life, while the kids are all both scared and excited that the grand tradition of Westboro slashers, which they've only known from the Stab movies, has now come to life in their own time. But mostly, it's about Craven and Williamson being crabby, crusty old men, insisting that all these new horror pictures get off their damn lawn.

In the process, they reveal a complete lack of the one thing that made Scream work: there's simply no sense that they understand the horror landscape anymore. There's only one dismissive reference to torture porn, and the scene where the rules of horror films are explained - the most famous element of the Scream franchise - consists largely of things that the filmmakers seem to assume ought to be true about latter-day sequels and remakes, but aren't necessarily supported by the actual evidence of this or any other horror film ever made (e.g. gay people apparently can't die - since when?). The one good gag in the movie comes when Kirby, a horror buff (because In The '00s, girls can be horror fans! and just like boy horror fans in the '90s, they can have the most obvious fucking taste in horror movies possible!* is challenged by the raspy Ghostface to name the remake of the classic horror film that... leading her to desperately launch into a recital of some of the films from the past decade to do a more-or-less awful job of rebooting some iconic work or another, a 15-second wall of film titles spat out rapid-fire. It's an obvious but cutting joke at the expense of the collapse of even a pretense to originality found in contemporary horror, and a much subtler, perhaps accidental poke at Craven himself, who produced a significant number of the films named. Outside of that, though, neither Williamson nor Craven apparently knows or cares anything about the modern state of horror, nor even the classics: Peeping Tom is name-dropped in a manner that suggests the writer doesn't have quite as solid an understanding of horror history as he would like us to pretend (he would have it that slashers are slashers because they share the killer's POV, which is... not part of the standard definition). Watching Scream 4, you might not even get the sense that, in point of fact, there basically aren't any slashers nowadays, not according to anything even vaguely resembling the old model.

In short, it is a film made with little motivation other than to complain about how much everything sucks today, all these cash-in bullshit projects, like Scream 4; and really, at some point way back down the line, you'd have thought that somebody would question whether it was right to have people who clearly hated the mercenary nature of their project be in charge of that project just because of their history. 11 years is a very long time in pop culture, and it's resulted in a Scream 4 that is every bit as cynical and calculating as the worst moments in any of its forebears, but far more tossed-off, pointless, and uninteresting.

4/10


Reviews in this series
Scream (Craven, 1996)
Scream 2 (Craven, 1997)
Scream 3 (Craven, 2000)
Scream 4 (Craven, 2011)

18 April 2011

DEATH IN THE FAMILY

Despite its gloriously fervid title, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (winner of the 2010 Palme d'Or, mainstay of last fall's festival season, but some of us just didn't get to be the cool kids last year) strikes me as being the most mainstream, I daresay normal, film yet made by Thailand's reigning superstar director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, darling of a certain clique of the arthouse set that I happen to belong to. Note, however, that "mainstream" and "normal" are words that can have either concrete meanings, or relative meanings, and in the particular case of Uncle Boonmee, I use them both in a spectacularly relative way.

The film relates the final days of a plantation owner, Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), dying of kidney failure. He is being visited by his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), and his nephew, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), wishing to bring him comfort in his last moments; but those aren't the only visitors. Death, it seems, attracts beings from the other world, and Boonmee also finds himself meeting up with the ghost of his wife, Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and his long-lost soon Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong), who many years ago chased a monkey ghost into the jungle, mated with her, and has now himself become a monkey ghost, with glowing red eyes and a pelt of jet black hair. For Boonmee, they are the memories of his past in this life; he's also receiving visions of what might be his lives before this one - though the film does not state that they must be - nor does it make it unmistakably clear that Boonmee, and not the audience, is the primary audience for these visions.

This might sound like a puzzle box movie, the kind which invites you to spend the next several days after you watch it figuring out what everything meant and how it all fits together. It might sound like that, but it most undoubtedly is not that. In keeping with Weerasethakul's previous films, Uncle Boonmee always seems "about" the feeling and texture of individual scenes, and the overall laconic, even hypnotising mood of the whole experience, rather than about generating any particular "meaning", though I think that it's not hard to say, in the broad sense, that the film's themes are a fascination with the process of death (in a spiritual way, not a morbid one), and the regrets we have for our past. As much as he is obsessed with anything in particular, Boonmee is constantly preoccupied with karma: worried about punishment for the sins he committed in his youth as a soldier, curious about what he did in other lives that led, for good or ill, to this one. His dinner with his sister and nephew, and then with his ghostly wife and son as well (a scene that begins in a register of ineluctable creepiness and becomes quickly melancholic and surreal, once it becomes apparent that none of the three living people see any of this as peculiar in the slightest), the film's highest achievement, is primarily about nostalgia and remembrance, looking back and reflecting on all the steps between Then and Now.

In awarding the film its Cannes prize, jury president Tim Burton cited its creation of a dreamlike state, and as much of a cliché as the word "dreamy" is in describing any slow-moving art film with self-consciously anti-realistic elements, I've not been able to come up with a more apt description of Uncle Boonmee. Even more than Weerasethakul's other films, which are equally slow-moving, meditative, and surreal, this plays like a somewhat disjointed series of hallucinations, right from its incredible opening sequence: several minutes of a cow being led through a jungle at night, bathed in shades of blue so dark it's nearly inscrutable, punctuated with a shot of a dark silhouette with glowing red eyes (a monkey ghost, we'll learn; but which monkey ghost? My first thought was that this figure might have been Boonmee in his past life, and the movie supports and does not support that reading to equal measure). Kind of the film to let us know in the opening minutes how it is to be watched: you have to give yourself over to the rhythms of the film completely, and not expect meaning to reveal itself except gradually, and invest yourself more in how each image, anchored by an omnipresent soundscape of natural noises, moves you. Perhaps that is what it's like to be near death, hyper-attuned to the small details of every moment; that is at any rate the feeling I got from Uncle Boonmee, that it encouraged an extremely reflective awareness of place and movement and color.

I did call this Weerasethakul's "mainstream" film, didn't I? Yes, and only for this reason: compared to his earlier features, Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century, one does not get the same sense in Uncle Boonmee that the filmmaker is actively trying to destroy the medium of cinema and replace it with something more to his liking. For one thing, unlike the previous films, Uncle Boonmee does not break into two apparently irreconcilable parts; nor does it seriously challenge any particular aspect of film grammar, though viewers who find its beyond-glacial pace to be so much indulgent, pretentious fluff might not agree with me on that point exactly. In fact, compared to his previous work, it surprised me a little bit how easy it is to follow along what, specifically, happens in Uncle Boonmee: however inexplicable the import of any given event, it's never really confusing what events occur in what order.

Considering that, it's perhaps weird that, to me anyway, Uncle Boonmee ends up being the murkiest of Weerasethakul's features. There's something about the contrast in emotions and sensations in each of the other three that adds up to an implicit whole, something you can leave the theater thinking to yourself, "I don't know what the hell just happened, but I understand why". Uncle Boonmee lumps everything together into a uniform greyness, deliberately, I think, and not unsuccessfully, but there's no sense of intuitive rightness with it the way there is, arguably, with the others. I would not call any of them "dreamlike"; that word fits Uncle Boonmee because parts of it feel, honestly, so arbitrarily cryptic, particularly the coda, after Boonmee dies,* and Tong and Jen react in each their own ways. The best moments of Uncle Boonmee have the impact of any great work of art, creating images and thoughts that carve themselves deep into your brain; but unlike Blissfully Yours and Syndromes especially, it's not hardly all best moments.

Weerasethakul's aesthetic being what it is, it's hard to imagine any true believer in his work finding Uncle Boonmee a waste of time, any more than I can see it turning anyone who finds his work frustrating and lacking focus or meaning; but I think both sides of that debate can agree that it's a "less-so" iteration of his craft. It's perhaps a better of an entry point to his canon than his previous films, and that is both a good thing and bad, and for the same reason - it's easier to get a handle on the edges, more opaque in the middle, and not as radical in its ideas or its execution.

8/10

HEAD FULL OF ZOMBIE

It has for some time been my custom to celebrate Easter by diving into a zombie movie or four; the problem is that there are precious few important zombie franchises and I've already reviewed most of them; also that once you get past the tip-top of the A-list of the subgenre, a disquieting and dispiriting sameness infects most of the lesser - often much lesser - zombie films. In the interests of keeping things fresh, I've decided to do something just a bit different this year: rather than scrounging up some other damn Italian or independent American gorefest to poke at for a few weeks, I'm going to take a look at a pair of films from the very dawn of zombies in the movies, before George A. Romero introduced the notion of gutmunching cannibal undead to the horror film lexicon.

In fact, the first of these films, White Zombie of 1932, almost certainly holds the honor of being the very first zombie picture ever made. Back in those days, the very word "zombie" was new and bold and exotic; the standard histories tell us that the word was introduced to nice, regular Americans in a 1929 pulp novel, The Magic Island, in which a visitor to Haiti is terrorised by a voodoo cult. Whatever the specific details, it is certainly the case that around the turn of the 1930s, the idea of wicked Caribbean witch doctors had just taken firm hold on the pop culture consciousness; and since this was also the same time that the one-two punch of Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein, in 1931, broke down the longstanding taboo against paranormal horror films in America, it was probably inevitable that somebody would hit upon the idea of combining the two, and soon.

The men who got there first were brothers Edward and Victor Halperin, respectively a producer and director of low-budget pictures; mostly romances to that point, but they knew a good idea when they saw it, and kicked off the second, final phase of their career as horror filmmakers. Armed with a scant $50,000 - not the pocket change in 1932 it would be today, but still hardly enough to make any kind of decent-sized production - the Halperins started another longstanding tradition by renting Universal's own Dracula and Frankenstein sets and thereby giving their White Zombie a sheen of prestige they couldn't otherwise afford. They also managed to pick up Universal's Dracula star, casting Bela Lugosi in the role of their film's villain, a white voodoo mastermind with the eminently unforgettable name Murder Legendre. This was Lugosi's first indie production after breaking through, which makes this, in its own way, the first definite step on a path that would lead ultimately to Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and the posthumous shame of Plan 9 from Outer Space. A truly depressing legacy for what would be, despite the cheap, rushed context in which it was delivered, one of the absolute pinnacle performances of Lugosi's career, and I would not choose to fight with anybody who wanted to call Murder Legendre his all-time best work.

Nor do I think you'd find many people willing to disagree that Lugosi is the best part of White Zombie, which makes it unfortunate that he's actually only the fourth-most important character in the plot, despite top billing. In cold reality, the film largely belongs to Madeline Short (Madge Bellamy) and Neil Parker (John Harron), a young couple just arriving on Haiti, where they are to be married. Apparently, Madeline once caught the eye of a landowner, one Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who was so eager to help her and her fiancé out that he gave Neil a job, and further offered to pay for their wedding at his Haitian plantation, where they could jump right into a tropical honeymoon after the ceremony.

If that sounds vaguely suspicious, it should: once the lovers arrive at Beaumonts, they are told by local priest Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn) in no uncertain terms that their host is dangerous, though even Bruner doesn't know that the reason Beaumont has arranged for the wedding to be in his own backyard is because he hopes to break up the couple and marry Madeline himself. And the only way that will happen is if Beaumont can convince the local sugar baron and voodoo king, Legendre, to use some magic on the girl. What Legendre does is rather far from a simple love potion: he arranges to poison Madeline with his zombie powder, leaving her apparently dead mere hours after the wedding, but animate and under the control of Legendre's telepathy. This naturally doesn't sit well with Beaumont, who wanted a fully living bride of his own, but when he confronts the voodoo man, it turns out - unsurprisingly - that Legendre has more plans than Beaumont had planned for. And about this time, Neil makes the intensely unsettling discovery that his dead wife is no longer in the coffin.

White Zombie, being as it is a B-movie from 1932, sails in at a stately 66 minutes, by which point some of the more indulgent latter-day zombie films haven't even introduced their own revenants. It's also a top-notch example of why deep down inside, I will never like contemporary cinema as much as I do '30s cinema; for with that kind of running time and a fully-loaded plot to deal with, Victor Halperin and screenwriter Garnett Weston simply do not have time to dick around. It might strike a modern viewer, raised on a stead diet of Night of the Living Dead copies, as annoyingly slow-paced and dismayingly free of gory deaths, but White Zombie is a lean beast, wasting nothing - even the opening credits are over the opening action of the film, and not title cards, a massive shock for the era. We need exposition? BAM - it comes in one crisply-expressed speech at the very top of the movie. We need a sense of foreboding? BAM - it comes right after the exposition, as the couple's couch is stopped by a funeral right in the middle of the damn road, explained by the coachman (Clarence Muse, the only prominent African-American in this Haiti-set movie, though given a role that, by '32 standards, is freakishly unconcerned with the color of his skin) to be part of a ritual whereby the locals attempt to ensure the bodies of the deceased can't come back. Need a creepy-ass villain? BAM - no sooner have Madeline and Neil laughed this quaint custom off than they drive past Legendre, flanked by a team of uncomfortably mute, staring associates, who gazes at Madeline with a soul-blanching wickedness that only Bela Lugosi at his very best could ever have expressed, ending when the voodoo man has snatched the young bride's scarf, promising very bad things to come.

So all praise be to efficiency; but that doesn't mean that the Halperins and crew are trying to blitz through the film and get it over with. On the contrary, White Zombie is marked by a pronounced willingness to linger on disquieting atmospheric moments, with cinematographer Arthur Martinelli capturing sequences like Gothic paintings, eerie and tableau-like (what does it say that two nobodies like Martinelli and Victor Halperin were able to do more evocative things with the Dracula sets than Tod Browning and Karl Freund?). No modern viewer can possibly be as creeped out by the mere fact of animate corpses as people were in the '30s, but even still something remains of the ethereal unholiness of Halperin and Martinelli's pointed, slightly diffuse shots of zombies just... standing there, gaping without changing their expressions in the slightest. Or, in what is perhaps the film's best-known scene, we follow Beaumont as he gets the tour of Legendre's sugar mill, staffed by zombies: in one incredible shot, the undead shuffle around the mill, driving its gears, making no sound except the rhythmic creak of the blades chopping sugar cane (the sound in this scene, and in fact at points throughout the movie, is wildly sophisticated for a cheap-as-hell horror flick in 1932). This is followed by a shot of a zombie stumbling, mutely, into the mill, right onto those same steady blades - we don't see anything, of course, but the unearthly silence of this whole sequence, except the creak, creak, creak of the blades, gives the sequence a kick that 80 years aren't enough to dilute.

White Zombie isn't exactly Expressionistic, the default mode for most paranormal and mock-paranormal American horror in that decade; the style of White Zombie is something akin but necessarily different, something more gauzy and less visually aggressive but no less nightmarish. The film creates atmosphere like nothing else, and that is part of why it remains a horror classic generations after audiences embraced it with moderate enthusiasm and critics lambasted it. The visual mood, and the incredible aura projected by Lugosi, whose eyes control all of the action in the film, and did any actor have eyes better suited to the task? Especially with the light being focused right in his eye sockets, giving him an intense look even by his own standards. There's a moment where just his eyes are superimposed over the action, floating and hovering and flying: it would be stupid as shit if it weren't so uncanny. Even with a stupid-ass beard, Lugosi can command the camera with nothing but his carnivorous grin and the unnerving way he wrings his hands as he controls his victims: it's overacting and then some, but Lugosi always had a habit of making overacting look perfect.

This trait is not, unfortunately, shared by his castmates: for though White Zombie is beautiful and anchored by a god-damned triumph of a performance, it's held back by a cast of the most alarmingly inert non-entities you could hope to see in a '30s quickie. Bellamy, a silent film star who had a rough time in the sound era, comes off the worst: even through the shaky sound quality that has come down to us through the ages, her line-readings are painfully flat, and her expressions curiously unchanging. It's no accident that she's at her best playing a braindead subhuman, where her silent film training actually comes into some use. Frazer and Harron at least are better than she is, but neither makes much of an impression; Frazer does get one outstanding scene where he realises just how badly Legendre has screwed him over, but in the main the lead males generally stand with gently bemused looks on their faces, with Harron descending into a banal succession of "this is my sad face" moments, leavened only by his occasional outbursts of terror. Neither man is remotely enough to hold the screen against Lugosi, though better actors than they have failed.

The complete disintegration of every non-Lugosi performer and every non-Legendre character leaves White Zombie in a curious fix: the best moments are absolutely as great as anything else you will ever see in '30s horror, but the rest - that is to say, the majority - is staid and undernourished, exactly the stereotype that young people have of early sound cinema. Luckily, horror fans know how to take the good with the very bad, and White Zombie shines through its own failings; but how much better it would be if it didn't have to, if this minor horror classic were instead an all-time genre masterpiece. It comes close, though, and set a standard that virtually none of the subsequent "voodoo zombie" films of the next three decades came near to meeting.

16 April 2011

THE PAST AIN'T THROUGH WITH US

Reader Tess LeBlanc deserves an apology: I managed to lose the e-mail in which she made her request for a review as part of the Carry On Campaign. At long last, I have made good on my promise to her.

I owe Paul Thomas Anderson and his 1999 feature Magnolia an apology: my memory of that film, which I last saw eleven years ago and did not like, was that it was a straightforward attempt to do a Robert Altman. And it's not the opposite of that: its hefty cast of Angelinos moving with increasing spiritual dissatisfaction to a city-spanning incident reveals for once and for all just how these unconnected people are all linked together was obviously influenced, a lot, by Altman's 1993 Short Cuts. Hell, I knew that without even having seen Short Cuts yet in the fall of 2000.

And yet, calling Magnolia "Anderson's Short Cuts" is just plain wrong. It's his "Short Cuts plus the work of Gabriel García Márquez", maybe, his "Short Cuts in Wonderland", his "I Watched Short Cuts On Acid". That is to say: Short Cuts is clearly the starting point, but not the ending point for a movie that is probably the most overstuffed with ideas of anything in Anderson's career. Like his whole generation of American filmmakers, the director is a magpie, snatching ideas from earlier movies as he sees fit; but his thievery has never been this loopy and unexpected, combining elements from all over the map, as though Anderson were terrified that if he didn't completely expunge every single crazy thought that came to him, he might explode from the pressure of it.

Hence we get a film that opens with a characteristically laconic Ricky Jay narrating three stories of extrarordinary coincidences (only one of them historically true), the first of which has been filmed using vintage cameras and meant to look as much as possible like a silent film from the first decade of the 20th Century, as prologue to a film in which, despite a massively hyperlinked cast, only two things that can be honestly be termed "coincidences" ever occur. Hence we get a film in which all of the main characters are connected in a non-diegetical musical number, each of them singing along to Aimee Mann's single "Wise Up", the kind of boldly batshit choice that could only be made by a director who knew that this was his one big chance (following the success of Boogie Nights) to get away with every little thing that caught his fancy.

Before I get too far ahead of things, it might be a good idea to briefly recap the story: Magnolia, of course, is the story of nine people over one day in Los Angeles, all of them tied together. Starting at one end of the loop, we have Jim Curring (John C. Reilly), an LAPD cop looking for love, who thinks he's found it in the form of strung-out, nervous junkie Claudia (Melora Walters). She's the embittered daughter of Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the host of a popular game show, What Do Kids Know?, which is currently witnessing a thrilling run by Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) for the record set ages ago by Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who has since become a burned-out pathetic shell of humanity. What Do Kids Know? was the brainchild of TV executive Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), lying in his home and dying of cancer; he's being attended by his newest trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) and nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and with his dying energy, all he wants to do is reconnect with his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a telemarketing genius behind the "Seduce & Destroy" program that teaches pathetic single men how to demhumanise and capture women for sex.

A lot to keep track of; the movie does a very good job of keeping it simple for us. For starters, and despite the film's reputation, this is not really the story of how nine people get all tangled up in each others' lives. Take a good hard look at the relationships again, or let's just pull up a chart kindly provided by a Wikipedia editor on the film's page:

That certainly looks all intertangled, but check out the left arm. Who is Dixon? He's an African-American boy, played by Emmanuel L. Johnson, and he appears in all of two scenes (when I mentioned the two major coincidences in the film, his second appearance was one I was thinking of, and that's probably giving it more credit than it deserves as a "coincidence"). Which isn't enough to put him on this list, so let's look at it if he's removed:

And there we have it: Magnolia is actually made up of rather more manageable sub-networks that really never interact, all hinging on What Do Kids Know? as the common element. It's even easier than that, in fact; the chart's alleged "Jim-Donnie" link is also fairly slight (it's the second of the two coincidences), and if we take that out, the plot gets even more streamlined. I'm not going to keep making new charts to show all the ways that Magnolia is less messy than it seems, but it actually boils down to just a few major storylines: Jim and Claudia, Donnie is pathetic, Stanley is his father's puppet, the suffering of the Partridges.

What connects the characters is not so much their lives, but the world they live in (Anderson sees to it that the tertiary details fleshing out his film also make it clear that all these stories are taking place in proximity to each other), and the themes of the stories: bad fathers, the need to find love, the desire to escape the past. I'm not sure that those three things address each and every single plot development that happens in Magnolia, but the lion's share fall under one of those umbrellas (oh, and dying of cancer, but that isn't really a "theme").

So, Magnolia is not ultimately a film about interlocking characters as it is of resonant character arcs; and for the most part, it's a very good version of that. Some of the stories are great: this was the film where I first took note of some fella named John C. Reilly, who gave the best performance in the ensemble, anchoring its most fully-realised subplot. Some are not: I love Macy, but the Donnie plot could be removed in its entirety without damaging the film in the slightest degree, and it would have the added bonus of cutting out several scenes in a gay bar that suggest that Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't spent much time talking to gay people. And there are the general sorts of issues, like the fact that in a film set in Los Angeles, the only significant African-American characters are a screaming Evil Mammy named Marcie (Cleo King), a Magical Negro preteen, and April Grace as an unflappable interviewer who punctures Frank Mackey's profound wall of self-protective misogyny, a role with just about the least-discernible inner life of any halfway major character; and for that matter, the biggest Latino role belongs to Luis Guzmán cameoing as a playfully fictitious version of himself.

Somehow, though, I think "fixing" Magnolia's flaw-ridden script would make it somehow a less-interesting thing, for it's the very same loopy indulgences that make characters like Donnie, Frank, and Linda so weirdly inhuman (Moore's breakdown in a pharmacy is a simply hypnotic patch of crazy overacting), that make it so obviously personal for Anderson. From the opening scene on, this is clearly a movie made by somebody with Ideas, lots of them, Ideas coming out his ass. The latter-day film it reminds me of is none of the many hyperlink films so obviously inspired by it, but Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, another L.A. story where the various plot threads don't all come together the way the filmmaker plainly believes that they do, and where the sheer accumulation of notions that have no connection to our reality, but make perfect sense given the context of the film's reality make it clear that we're watching a passion project. At any rate, Southland Tales is one of the only other recent films I can think of where a thunderstorm of frogs would seem as entirely reasonable as it does in Magnolia.

That mad passion cuts both ways: for as much as I can't help but respond to Anderson's singularity of vision, I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't something profoundly alienating about Magnolia (which also happens to be true of Southland Tales). Part of it is that the film is so palpably fussy, that the director threatens to crowd the life out of his movie: I'm not here to talk about film trivia, but just reading about the use of religious symbolism in the movie, especially the number of deliberate references to 8 and 2 (from Exodus 8:2, the Plague of Frogs verse); the number of places where the film takes its cues from the work of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann - and, incidentally, if you have an active dislike of her breed of acoustic pop (as does your humble blogger, for one), there will always be a wall separating you from a pure love of Magnolia - the ironic and not-so-ironic use of titles in seemingly arbitrary ways, the use of metaphorically laden dialogue in places where it calls maximum attention to itself (Stanley's big monologue): Magnolia at all points feels to me like such a monumentally difficult exercise, both to make and to read in all its details, that turns into a "crossword puzzle", to use Roger Ebert's cautionary phrase.

I wonder if that's why the most widely-praised of the actors at the time of the film's release was Cruise: there's something inherently dissociative about watching a famous person best known for being a pretty face playing such a broken, hate-filled man, which isn't quite the same thing as "good acting", but a lot of critics regard it that way; I'd not hesitate even a second to suggest that Reilly, Hall, and Walters at a minimum give more accomplished performances. But it's Cruise's Frank that hits a sweet spot between being an actual human person and an approximation of a kind of human experience; we never believe that he'd exist in real life, but then again, Magnolia is not a document of real life or real emotions, but an overblown concept of life and emotions, run through the mind of a filmmaker who is obsessed with concepts to the point of distraction in this film.

That is, undeniably, attractive and even thrilling; at the same time, I can't help but get an itchy feeling from Magnolia, and the bloated 3-hour, 8-minute running time doesn't help with that even one tiny bit. It's exhausting, frankly, and the fact that it's a formal work-out just as much as a narrative one makes it even rougher: the film is edited to some peculiar rhythm that redefines what cross-cutting can do as much as any film has since the 1910s; chronology jumps forward, then back, then back more, then forward, and so forth, as each of the plotlines of Magnolia take place at the same time as others, so that seconds in one plot go by in the span of a whole 10 minutes of scenes from the other plots. It takes a lot of getting used to, and I'm not sure that it's the "right" choice: but then, stylistic excess is all in Anderson's film, right from the moment that we're introduced to the charaters as the camera dives towards them like a kamikaze pilot, as Mann's enervating cover of "One" plays on the soundtrack. Energy is not the problem with Magnolia; keeping up with it, now there's the problem, and I'd be happier doing that if I felt like there was anything to it besides an ingenious puzzle box decorated with a lot of very good actors. But even if I have major reservations about the film (and not, I must admit, nearly as many as I had in 2000; maybe when I watch it again in 2022, I'll love it?), it's crazy ambition is all that it takes to set it above a similar but infinitely blander exercise in connectivity like its withered descendant Crash; Magnolia's sin is ultimately that it tries too much and has too much going on, and that is a sin that we need more of in our cinema.