31 May 2011

JUNE 2011 MOVIE PREVIEW

How was May? Enjoyed Thor, I hope? For myself, I'm kind of boggled by the sort of non-ness of the summer season up till now, with the biggest splashes made by two sequels that, when you get right down to it, doesn't it seem like nobody liked them very much? Or is this just me in a situation where I don't know anybody who voted for Richard Nixon?

Anyway, with but a handful of wide releases, and the two big arthouse pictures of the summer just starting their crawl across America, I don't know that I have more hope for June, but it seems at least a little more promising.

3.6.2011

See? Right here, there's one of the best-looking tentpoles of the whole damn season, X-Men: First Class. Ignore the fact that it's a prequel whose entire story has pretty much been covered already. Ignore the fact that it's been eight years since the last tolerable X-Men movie. Ignore the fact that director Matthew Vaughn is coming off the rancid Kick-Ass. Ignore that the trailer makes it look like the film boasts the tackiest appropriation of John F. Kennedy since Forrest Gump. And once you've ignored that, answer me this: is it possible that James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence AND Michael Fassbender all managed to sign up for a bad script?

Plus, if you've ever nurtured the desire to see Christopher Plummer dancing in a gay club, you've got your chance with Beginners.


10.6.2011

There's no doubt that J.J. Abrams knows a thing or two about how to tease an audience, and the fact that Super 8 can be so rapturously anticipated by so many people despite the fact that we know essentially nothing about it (a monster is involved, and the whole thing is more likely than not akin to an early Spielberg picture) is testament to the goodwill he's generated in doing so, project after project. Me, I have to confess that the man has never yet attached his name to something that I completely liked - and I understand that the disastrous sixth season of Lost was not at all his fault, but it went so spectacularly far off the rails at the end, that it's pretty much ruined me for anybody even tangentially involved. Basically, I hear the name "Abrams", and I tense up to be majorly disappointed, and Spielberg as producer or no, I will remain dubious about Super 8 right up until the end credits start to roll. No - until they stop rolling. The man knows how to fuck up an ending.

On the other hand, it's competition is a kiddie lit adaptation called Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, so at least it can always get worse.

Limited release: a Norway first-person-camera horror picture called Troll Hunter. Consider me enticed.


17.6.2011

Green Lantern is my favorite DC superhero. I mean, considering that Batman doesn't count (saying Batman is your favorite is like calling Beethoven your favorite composer: it can certainly be the truth and very defensible too, but it also makes you look like you have the most stupidly obvious taste). So the mere fact of a Green Lantern movie ought to get me all excited and everything, even though it's really fucking goddamn hard to get excited for the third of four superhero origin stories this summer (and by the way, how much bullshit is it that the X-Men folks managed to pull that trick with the fifth film in their franchise?). But God Almighty, those trailers are hideous. It looks like a CG cartoon, not a live action film with CG effects; and Ryan Reynolds falling through the cutscenes from Green Lantern: The Game is not the sort of thing that makes the fanboy in me feel even the slightest bit happy. All I'm saying is, pissiest weekend of the summer for me.

It's being counter-programmed with a Jim Carrey vehicle in which Our Jim gets to play housekeeper for a bunch of CGI birds; Mr. Popper's Penguins, which feels like a November release to me, but what do I know about latter-day broad Carrey comedies? It looks better than Green Lantern, anyway, though that's probably just the anger talking.


24.6.2011

Here's what we know: Pixar trailers are often bad. Insipid, even. So the fact that the trailers for Cars 2 look so damnably impersonal shouldn't necessarily be a red flag. And yet it seems clear that the big day has arrived: Pixar is about to release their first bad film. This isn't Cars hatred talking,* for repeated viewings have brought me around quite a bit on that film: I won't say I out and out love it, but I like it a great deal. Still, it doesn't seem especially worthy of a sequel (when the hell will we ever see The Incredibles 2, anyway?), and gawd, those trailers, and that concept... this isn't the butterflies I got waiting for Toy Story 3, it's much more resigned than that. And yet look at how Toy Story 3 turned out.

Christ, Lasseter, why you gotta do this to me?

Distracting, however slightly, from the existential crisis over in the kids' movie section, Cameron Diaz swears a lot in Bad Teacher.


29.6.2011

May I admit something absolutely horrible? I look at the ads for Transformers: Shoot the Moon, and I see all of that footage of Chicago, and I think to myself "Gee willickers, I don't remember the last time I saw a big-budget movie that captured that much of the flavor of the streets of the city I love more than any other, depicting both the tourist landmarks and the workaday corners that you never see on film with a splendid eye for their essential feeling. I think I kind of want to see that picture." In my defense, it cannot possibly be as bad as Revenge of the Fallen, as we'd have heard by now about the dozens of editors keeling over dead from the horror of the raw footage if it were.

DAYS OF MALICK: SOMETIMES I WISHED I COULD FALL ASLEEP AND BE TAKEN OFF TO SOME MAGICAL LAND

Matt Henderson donated to the Carry On Campaign with these words: "No real essay to commission, but I will gently nudge you into considering a Malick retrospective". Absolutely no nudge was necessary: I've been planning on doing this ever since the day The Tree of Life was announced. Still, I'm glad to dedicate the following week in Matt's name.

In January, 1958, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, both of Lincoln, Nebraska, went on a murder spree that began with the death of Fugate's mother, stepfather, and baby sister, and ended with Starkweather's execution by electric chair and Fugate's imprisonment for 17 years. 15 years later, a movie came out inspired by the couple's one-week rampage, titled Badlands. Superficially, this film fits securely into the chain of glamorous period killer/lovers that cropped up in the wake of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967; but Badlands is hardly an ordinary movie. And the man who wrote and directed it is hardly an ordinary filmmaker.

The career of Terrence Malick did not begin in cinema, but in philosophy; a Harvard philosophy student, he had published a translation of Heidegger under the title The Essence of Reasons by age 26, was teaching philosophy at MIT not terribly long after that, was an essayist, a graduate of the American Film Institute, a personal acquaintance of Jack Nicholson (whose directorial debut, Drive, He Said, boasted an uncredited rewrite by Malick).

In the forty years of Malick's career, he has achieved the status of living legend, fueled in large part by the stunning 20-year break he took between his second and third features, as well as the counter-intuitive way in which he directs his actors and the sprawling - one might say messy - manner in which he pulls his completed films from an undifferentiated mass of raw footage. In 1973, though, Malick was still just a filmmaker, with one student short under his belt and a couple of screenplays, and when Badlands was released, it was not accompanied by the gongs of an Event, like all of his subsequent features have been. It was just a movie; though a rapturously-received movie, and if I may say so myself, one of the greatest movies ever made (in fact, I did say so).

Before I go any further, I'd like to pause a second: Malick's films, if you have not yet had the privilege of seeing one yourself, are incredibly dense: at their easiest, these are still among the most complex films ever released by mainstream American studios, both formally (the pictorially exquisite, informational-laden cinematography; the massively unconventional editing schemes) and thematically (because when you translate Heidegger in your mid-20s, it's going to show up in your movies). One must of necessity pick and choose what one is going to say about these films, and I'm going to concede up front that some of the richest threads that one could pursue are just going to be too much for me to handle. Simply in the interest of keeping things manageable, I'm not going to spend too much time talking about the influences on display in Malick's cinema, preferring instead to let the movies speak for themselves, as cinematic objects & not the pronouncements of one of the greatest Renaissance men of modern filmmaking. Unpause.

Badlands tells the story of 15-year-old Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek, in her breakout role), transplanted from Texas to South Dakota on the event of her mother's death, and 25-year-old Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen), a laconic trash collector who transparently wants to pretend he's James Dean. They fall in love, Kit murders Holly's father (Warren Oates) when the old man refuses to accept their relationship, and the couple begin skipping across the northern plains, never too far from the law, killing people as necessary (or not completely necessary), and ending up in the badlands of Montana, and there you have the title.

That's tolerably similar to a lot of movies, but Badlands is not at all like the films with which it ostensibly shares a subgenre. Forgive me for returning to Bonnie and Clyde, but it's always struck me as one of the most obvious comparisons to make (the following year's Thieves Like Us is another). Arthur Penn's era-defining crime drama is often accused of glamorising violence, crime, and amorality (charges that I've always sort of agreed with, though I'm not sure it's not missing the point). The same is true for a lot of movies about criminals in those days of the waning counter-culture, massive discontent with society and the government, and so on and so forth - that is, its always been true that American movies tend to ask us to root for the bad guy, but it was a particularly ripe time around the turn of the 1970s for that kind of thing.

Badlands does not do that. In fact, this is perhaps the most superficially obvious truth about the movie: it emphatically does not ask or even allow us to view Kit and Holly as folk heroes, or delightfully wicked cads, or noble sinners. There is one reading of the protagonists that Malick allows, and that is as two kids, with far too much romantic imagination and far too little connection to their own humanity; two broken people who are in no way evil, so much as they are detached and disaffected.

In no small part, this is accomplished by the tremendous performances Sheen and Spacek give: Malick rarely gets his due as a director of actors, possibly because the acting in his films tends to be wildly stylised, and even then, the leads in Badlands play their parts in a remarkably unconventional register, reminscent (if I am not very much mistaken) of the acting in a Robert Bresson movie. What is first and most prominently notable about both actors is the uniform flatness of their work, in which every emotion is reduced to the same level of mild disinterest. There are too many examples to try and focus on just one or two, but I'm especially thinking of Spacek's delivery of the omnipresent voice-over - the film is told almost entirely from Holly's perspective, sometime well after the fact - which sounds rather more like the uninflected recital of a child reeling of a passage memorised by rote, than of a young woman recalling the defining period of her life with passion of any sort.

That sounds harsh, and I don't mean for it to be: the flatness I'm referring to isn't the mark of poor acting - oh my God, no, the very opposite - or of intentionally undernourished characters, like you get in e.g. Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the flatness of a particular sort that would become very familiar in Malick's films down through the years, indicative not of dullness but of a trancelike state; the individuals in these movies are visionaries in an exceptionally literal sense. In the particular case of Badlands, one gets the feeling that Kit and Holly are dreaming their way through the narrative, always having the slightly glazed expressions of the newly-awakened sleeper who hasn't quite figured out what is real and what is the last trace of a quickly fading vision, and their muddled, "off" inflections do nothing to dispel that impression (for my money, the incredible, multi-faceted final shot, of clouds floating by from the perspective of an airplane, does even more to solidify Badlands as a dream, though whether it's Holly's, Malick's, or anyone else's is more than I can say). It wouldn't be until 2005's The New World that the filmmaker would return to this register of cinema-as-dreaming to anything like this degree; but that is of course a good way in the future from where we are now, and to the viewer in 1973, unable to see the future curves of Malick's career, Badlands must have seemed quite singular - nor does it, in truth, feel old hat even today; films with this kind of impressionistic abstraction are still terrifically uncommon, except insofar as they've become Malick's trademark.

Oh, I went and used the i-word! Look out, or I'll say "poetic" next. Seriously, though, discussing any of the director's films and Badlands in particular without allowing oneself to call them "impressionistic" is like fighting with one arm tied behind your back and the other cut off; when a tool that precise and perfect is available, you use it, even if everyone before you has done the same; there's a reason for it. So: impressionism. "The depiction (as in literature) of scene, emotion or character by details intended to achieve a vividness or effectiveness more by evoking subjective and sensory impressions than by recreating an objective reality", says Merriam-Webster, and if that doesn't describe Badlands as perfectly as any phrase could, then I don't know what.

There are quite a few subjective and sensory impressions that get evoked as the movie drifts along its unhurried way, none more significant or iconic than the landscape photography crafted by three different cinematographers, Brian Probyn, Tak Fujimoto, and Stevan Larner. This is incredibly beautiful, of course (you may have heard that Malick movies are famous for their landscapes), but it's not just beautiful; one could argue that the whole meaning of the film is contained in how the exteriors are shot.

Badlands is structured in four parts, two sets of two: first comes a "domestic" sequence of interiors, ending with Kit's murder of Holly's father; this leads into a "pastoral" sequence, in which Kit and Holly set up a tree house far away from civilisation, and live the life of idealised savages. Another act of violence kicks us into the same pattern: interiors, domestic life, scrounging around where people live, and then another protracted sequence of just Kit and Holly out in the wild; though instead of the verdant greens of the wood, they are this second time in the titular badlands, driving across an endless expanse of dusty, desert plains.

The exterior photography in this film is dominated by horizontal lines; the horizon itself, spectacularly exploited in the fourth sequence and in the latter half of the second sequence; the contrast in colors between the blue sky and the brown earth is pushed to draw as much attention as possible to that contrast and thus to the wide rectangular shapes created thereby. The result is that the movie is tremendously easy to look at: as an animal, we're "meant" to look at rectangles and vistas - consider the position of our eyes - with bright colors and little clutter to get in the way of our seeing exactly what we're supposed to see. The interiors, for their part, are cluttered and lack any particular framing discipline - I mean to say, any overarching discipline, every individual composition is precise and deliberate. You don't need a degree in art theory to get the point: there is a perfection to the shape of nature not found in humans. The fact that Kit and Holly, broken people both, force a vertical element onto the exteriors is surely not incidental.

Indeed, the bulk of the second sequence is the only violation of the horizontal aesthetic of interiors in the whole movie: by building in a tree, the characters enforce their own vertical-ness onto the landscape; yet it's not chaotic, like it is in the interiors, but rather the only successful marriage of human and natural iconography to be found within in the film.. The temptation to run to the simplest, most reductive readings of this is hard to resist, and the movie is much subtler and more sophisticated than "living in nature is good! living in houses is bad!" - for we never do lose sight of how psychologically empty our two main characters are and remain (contrast this with The Thin Red Line, in which the character most in-tune with the natural world are the most psychologically robust; this is in fact part of why I prefer Badlands of all Malick's features, that it has such an unresolved tension at its heart).

The second sequence also makes for a convenient place, if a brutally awkward segue, to mention one of the other great characteristics of Malick's cinema that sprung forth fully-formed: his use of music. In this case, it's a little bit of Satie, an unfortunately heavy-handed use of Nat King Cole's recording of "A Blossom Fell" (the one truly ungraceful moment in the film, with the line "The dream has ended, for true love died" given much too prominent framing by the visual editing), and most famously, the use of several pieces from the "Musica Poetica" pieces from the Orff Schulwerk, composed by Carl Orff and Gunild Keetman; in particular, the multiple appearances of "Gassenhauer", a short rhythmic piece for xylophone, have forever yoked that piece of music to Badlands.

The Schulwerk pieces and the Satie are both entirely contrary to what we might expect from a languid piece of Americana set in the northern plains, with two aimless, uneducated protagonists: it's very moody music, unambiguously European, jagged modernism interrupting the flow of sublime landscapes. Even better, the Schulwerk pieces are self-consciously primitive, and relentlessly spare: the series was conceived as a way of teaching the structure and performance of music using the simplest possible melodies. Which makes it, in its fashion, the best possible accompaniment to the story of these two young people who are trying to feel their way about, blindly, into who they are and what they are doing on this planet. The use of "Gassenhauer" to accompany the sequence in the woods is unconventional, even jarring; but the insistent simplicity of the music, combined with the sweet pastoralism of the imagery, could not be more perfect. This is a moment of bliss, but it is a moment of bliss that is artificially created from the juxtaposition of irreconcilable forces. And it thus matches perfectly with these two wholly artificial characters, so divorced from real feeling that they can only think of themselves as figures in a story, or myth: Kit by playing the part of a movie gangster, Holly by sacrificing her actual experience to the literary framing of her narration. It is a surprise, maybe, that such an emotionally intuitive, elliptical movie, drenched in a heavily sentimental affection for the American West, should be so powerfully anti-Romantic about its anti-heroes, but then, Malick's films, for all their infatuation with the poetic and the sublime, always manage to dodge around Romanticism, and in this respect Badlands merely prefigures what was yet to come.

30 May 2011

PARIS, JE T'AIME

He adored Paris. He idolized it all out of proportion. Uh, no, make that he, he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in warm golden tones and pulsated to the great tunes of Cole Porter.
These are not the opening lines of Midnight in Paris, but they could just as well be. Instead, Woody Allen's 41st feature film opens with a different, but still just as obvious riff on his magnificent 1979 picture Manhattan, with a series of shots of Paris playing over a jazzy piece of music, from morning to night, the kind of heavily sentimentalised images you might find in a tourist's scrapbook, providing that tourist had access to a photographer as gifted as Darius Khondji.

Not, Lord knows, that riffing on Manhattan is some kind of failure! In fact, the film that thus opens is Allen's best, or at any rate by a considerable margin his most pleasurable, since at least Sweet and Lowdown, which perhaps not coincidentally was also a loopy, desperately romantic tribute to the glories of the Jazz Age. Obviously, one should never take the word of a dedicated Woody Allen apologist at face value, particularly given our clockwork-like tendency to proclaim "Woody is back to form!" every three years (in 2008, Vicky Cristina Barcelona; in 2005, Match Point; in 2002, Hollywood Ending so it's not a perfect fit, but you get what I'm driving at).

Midnight in Paris is like enough to Vicky Cristina Barcelona as to be cousins: both are at heart incredibly sentimental tributes to a particularly gorgeous European city, both of them essentially larks, satisfying little comedies with very little snap or bite - as Allen ages, he seems increasingly less able to marry drama and comedy the way he used to, though I'd defend You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger on that front, and would be rather lonely doing so. If I am inclined to give Midnight in Paris the edge, it's largely because it's a great deal more generous than VCB: that is to say, with Midnight in Paris, Allen has made his first film in years and years and years where it seems like he actually feels affection towards his characters, or at least his protagonist: without letting the character off the hook for being a bit too starry-eyed for his own good, there's little or no judgment involved. My gut tells me that Woody hasn't been in such a forgiving mood since Everyone Says I Love You, all the way back in 1996.

That protagonist is an American screenwriter (and specifically a script doctor, based on what we hear), named Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson in one of the better, even one of the best Woody Allen impersonations, capturing all those special things we think of when we hear the words "the Woody Allen character", the neurosis and the intellectualism and the self-hating egotism, and combining it with something much more Wilsonian, a kind of innocent enthusiasm that makes that same neurosis seem bittersweet, almost. It's the actor's best work in a very long time; possibly his best performance ever in a film not directed by Wes Anderson.

Gil is in Paris with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams who, you are correct, has no business playing a character named "Inez"), and her Republican parents John and Helen (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), the young couple tagging along while Inez's father closes a business deal. They're all kind of unbelievably awful, right-wingers as depicted by a man whose satiric tooth has been blunted for a long time & thus can't come up with anything for them to do but grouse about the French and socialism; though the actors, McAdams especially, play the characters straighter than Allen seems to have written them, and thus manage to restore to them a measure of dignity; Inez manages therefore only by the narrowest of margins to avoid becoming a complete harridan, but she does avoid it, and so the film does not turn into a sour broadside against the wrong sort of people like Allen's recent, wholly unendurable Whatever Works.

Still, they're not at all the kind of people Gil should spent his time with, nor are Inez's old friends, the outlandishly fatuous Paul (Michael Sheen) and Carol (Nina Arianda), who also happen to be in Paris vacationing; and so it is that Gil's days and nights are filled with John's ugly Americanism and Paul's pretentious diatribes and Inez's ridicule at his fantasy of living the romantic life of a struggling author in the most beautiful city in the world. It happens one night that Gil is alone on the streets, when at the stroke of midnight an old Peugeot pulls up, and the inhabitants urge him to join them; before Gil knows what's going on, he finds himself transported to the 1920s, surrounded by the brightest lights of the Parisian art scene: F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill), Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), Cole Porter (Yves Heck), and on, and on... For Gil, who has been complaining all vacation that he wishes he'd been alive in the '20s, this is better than heaven, and every night he finds an excuse to sneak out and enjoy the world of his romantic imaginings, and particularly the airy flapper Adriana (Marion Cotillard), beloved of all the brilliant people of the day.

There's a theme in all of this, but for a long time, the chief joy of Midnight in Paris lies in the wistful, light comedy Allen is able to spin out of all this. Wilson is absolutely indispensable, nailing the delighted bafflement of a man who has no idea why he's gotten so lucky, even making some clumsy-on-paper lines like "How long have you been dating Picasso? I can't believe I just said that" sing with easygoing warmth. And of course Allen, perhaps the most literate comic writer in the history of American cinema, goes to town with jokes praising and poking fun the icons parading across his sets: his Hemingway is a terse showboater with a sociopathic streak (and Stoll's performance is a marvel, broad without being silly), the one-scene cameo by Salvador Dalí (the actor playing the painter is such a delightful surprise that I will not say who it is) is almost savage in its parody of Surrealist excess (never has the word "rhinoceros" been used as a punchline so effectively so many times in a row), Zelda Fitzgerald is both a ditzy clown and a woozy victim of her own life, and so on, and so forth. It's the light mockery of somebody who knows what he's talking about and loves the object of his parody; it's humor for the well-read, though probably not as daunting as Allen's Love and Death in that regard (anyone likely to see a Woody Allen movie probably knows why painting Hemingway as a monosyllabic violence freak is at least conceptually funny).

With Khondji giving the whole thing the burnish of unabashed nostalgia (this is the first Allen film to use digital color-correction, and it doesn't not show), Midnight in Paris spends most of its time indulging the director and the protagonist in their affection for the wit and glamor of the '20s; yet throughout, Allen never quite hides the fact that Gil is a bit too sensitive and romantic for his own good, and as the movie goes on, it becomes clearer and clearer that it's no act of wish fulfillment, but a cautionary tale about daydreaming about the past so much that you cease to be able to function in the present. It's a theme expressed with some (much) heavy-handedness, but with such good cheer and sweetness that it's not at all a harangue; Allen is absolutely here to entertain, not to instruct, and the pointed, gently self-critical outro of this most delicately entertaining of Allen pictures serves not to spoil a breezy night at the movies, but to provide just that right dash of thoughtfulness to keep the film lingering as the bubbliness subsides. A more smitten love-letter to Paris you'll not find anytime soon, and as insubstantial as it is, that's hardly a match for how wonderfully pleasant it is.

8/10

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: COMEDY SEQUELS

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the single best piece of counter-programming of the year has to be the head-to-head faceoff between two intensely different comedy sequels, R-rated frat epic The Hangover, Part II and family-friendly animal adventure Kung Fu Panda 2. The comedy sequel is a rough problem for many filmmakers: the films that don't simply repeat the original note for note often suffer from mere exhaustion. Today's example of the form is no exception.

Even today, when sequels are planned before the original film has finished shooting, and it's assumed as a matter of course that the bulk of the audience will have a fairly intimate knowledge of all the esoterica of series mythology, one must stand in a little bit of awe of the makers of Ghostbusters II, and their massive, granite cojones. Here is how the movie begins: the Columbia logo, with no audio playing underneath, and then to a title card, accompanied by a chord: "FIVE YEARS LATER". There is no pussyfooting around, now acting like this is just a movie for anybody to come and enjoy. No sir, the people behind Ghostbusters II know damn good and well that you came to see the follow-up to Ghostbusters, and that you have not stumbled into the theater by accident. The filmmakers in fact are more than a little bit smug about how much they know you loved Ghostbusters, that they can open the film with just the words "FIVE YEARS LATER". Five years later than what? is not even a possible question. Five years later than when we fucking blew your mind, is what.

They don't even include the title, in fact - there is never onscreen text reading Ghostbusters II, anywhere in the movie.* After the opening scene, there is simply an animation of the ghost from the first movie's logo, thrusting his hand towards us, two fingers thrust in the air. "We don't even need to motherfucking tell you what movie you're watching," say the filmmakers, "you know you're here to see the follow-up to Ghostbusters. Which was iconic and beloved, and that's why the title is just the classic image that, in all probability, you have on a T-shirt". There is a faintly unlovable feeling of entitlement to all this, in fact, which is not at all a rare sensation one gets while watching a sequel, but it's especially baldly expressed in this case.

I have no Aesop-style moral to this story: as the sequel to the second-highest grossing film of 1984 (Ghostbusters broke $200 million back when breaking $200 million really meant something), Ghostbusters II was met with a level of enthusiasm that justified all of the filmmakers' presumption; it set the record for highest three-day weekend box office of all time upon its release, a distinction it held for one week (and the previous record had been set all of three weeks earlier; 1989 was a really special summer). Clearly, all that pent-up desire was very real.

That's why it's a bit of wrench that Ghostbusters II is kind of just a little bit lousy. Not an atrocity in the eyes of a loving God, or anything like that. It is, however, an almost uniformly substandard follow-up that, since the original film remains so beloved by so many people, still gets to be disappointing even two decades and change later. What's really special about Ghostbusters II is that it manages to hit all three of the great sins of movie sequels all at once; which actually takes quite a bit of doing. In fact, I cannot immediately think of another example of a film that does so besides Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and The Jewel of the Nile, though I am eager to have readers remind me of the ones I missed.

The first of these sins is of deciding that since the original was good, audiences really just want the original again, exactly the same way, but with some different sets and costumes; in the particular case of comedies, this often translates into "the same jokes, but broader", much as it translates, for action movies, into "the same explosions, but bigger". The most egregious example in Ghostbusters II involves the climax; since the original had a large creature stomping down the streets of New York, so must this sequel, even though it requires a nearly heroic level of contrivance and sheer bullshit to set up even the rickety justification that we get here.

The second, very closely related, is that in order to re-create the situations that made the original beloved, a giant reset button has to be pushed (we might well call this the Jewel of the Nile Rule, so appallingly does that film set things back to square 1). The snarky interplay between Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver was great the last time? Let's whip up some clumsy explanation of how they broke up in between movies, so we can see her reject his advances again (never mind that it would be infinitely more rewarding to see how their interplay has changed as a result of time spent together). Even worse, since the original movie had a long sequence in which the Ghostbusters were fighting the prejudices of a skeptical world, Ghostbusters II absolutely must spend its first act showcasing how the heroes tumbled into obsolescence and shame, despite the fact that this would seem to be completely impossible given the climax of the first movie. It's especially galling, given that there is virtually nothing inherent in the plot that requires the Ghostbusters have to start from scratch; several scenes would require the change of only a line or two to accommodate a new scenario, in which the Ghostbusters remain in-demand and the toast of the city, and still get thrust into this strange new event.

It's the third sin, though, that really breaks a movie. The first two are essentially fanboyish nitpicking, but the third is unanswerable. This is when a sequel is made because there is a market demand, not because the makers have some creative idea about what can be done to extend the world built up in the first film. Its symptoms are a certain detached, mechanical approach to the art of filmmaking, the almost palpable sense that the people making the movie just do not want to be there. Despite sharing with its predecessor director Ivan Reitman, writers Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, Ghostbusters II has none of the same inspiration; the plot is somehow both more convoluted and more rote at the same time, involving all sorts of weird, hastily-expressed conceits, all in service to a brutally routine "the big bad wants to kill everybody" scenario.

Look no further than Bill Murray, the animating spirit of Ghostbusters, with his bone-dry sardonic quips and aura of just goofing around because he could; by his own admission, he didn't have much love for this project, and his snark and - critically - his ad-libbing are much toned-down from the last film. You can just tell he's not having as much fun, and when Bill Murray isn't having fun, nobody is having fun.

There are other issues; the addition of a baby is the kind of criminally bad idea much beloved of third-rate sitcoms, and Ramis & Aykroyd should certainly have known better, while the saccharine sentimentality (the movie's conflict is expressly in terms of "being an urban jerk makes things bad, but singing and being happy makes things good") serves only to further bury the Murrayesque snark that made the original such a pip.

All that said - and make no mistake, I do not like this movie - Ghostbusters II manages to do some things right. The core of Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, and Ernie Hudson (who still gets shunted to the side, despite his character being present from the opening this time) remain fun to watch, even with Murray stuck in first gear; the bit of the story about how the ancient evil warlock trying to come back is basically Dracula and the quisling art restorer who does his bidding is basically Renfield, is the kind of lightly-applied detail that is all the more charming for being mostly invisible (also charming: the Renfield-analogue is played by Peter MacNicol, who would go on to play the actual Renfield in Mel Brook's earth-shatteringly misbegotten Dracula: Dead and Loving It). The visual effects were pretty damn top-notch in 1989, and remain absolutely heartwarming to those of us who love a good practical effect. And the whole thing is at times pretty effectively creepy: for some odd reason, Ghostbusters II seems to amp up the scares over the comedy (or maybe the comedy just doesn't work: between Murray's disengagement and the grating exaggeration of Rick Moranis's most unpleasantly bumbling qualities compared to the first film, there does seem to be an awful lot of bad humor going on), but sequences like the hunt through a murky subway are quite agreeably spooky for what amounts to a family comedy from the late '80s.

That is: Ghostbusters II has flashes of inspiration imprisoned in boilerplate, a film marginally better than the average almost solely because of its cast, but without any spark of delight. It's not hugely misconceived or mangled by people with no connection to the series; it's simply not put together as well. And that is somehow the more painful, for one cannot get angry at it, or imagine a better version. It does not squander goodwill, it lets goodwill leak out slowly, and it chiefly for this reason I have absolutely no desire to ever see a Ghostbusters III: imagine how horrible it would be to have this same muddy lack of insight coupled with how much older they all are now, and the impersonal mediocrity of the first sequel would almost by necessity expand to apocalyptic proportions.

29 May 2011

SUMMER OF BLOOD: CAN YOUR HEART STAND THE SHOCKING FACTS ABOUT GRAVE ROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE?

Once there was a struggling independent filmmaker whose name was Don Coscarelli, and he wanted to make a horror movie. The 22-year-old had produced and released two features by the end of 1976, both fairly prosaic tales of small town teenage life, both of them lacking that certain something, that frisson which can only come from a sick and twisted tale of murder and monsters and the paranormal. Thus did Coscarelli lock himself away in a cabin to crank out a prosaic tale of small town teenage life that turned un-prosaic rather quickly; a story of a teenage boy's quest to uncover the mystery of just what it is exactly that is happening at the Morningside Cemetery in his quiet neighborhood. This was Phantasm, shot in 1977 and released in 1979 following a lengthy post-production, and in the blink of an eye it became one of the definitive '70s horror pictures, in the last few months before '70s horror got steamrolled into oblivion by the ubiquitous, cheap, and unimaginative slashers.

Cheap Phantasm was; unimaginative is emphatically was not. It looks on paper an awful lot like plenty of other films, past and future, on the model of "inquisitive kid gets in over his head"; horror films and thrillers with one foot planted firmly in bedtime story. What sets Coscarelli's picture apart from its genre cousins is the batshit crazy tone, a certain feeling of his not giving any kind of a shit whatsoever about telling a story that makes sense; it's suggested at the end that some indeterminate amount of the movie might have been a nightmare, even a recurring nightmare, complete with a shocker ending that seems to immediately invalidate that same possibility. But really, we're comfortably in the territory being so effectively mined by the Italians right around the same time Coscarelli was shooting Phantasm, the magical land in which "making sense" is completely ignored, as long as the mood and atmosphere are right, and the story follows in some way the effective logic of a dream.

This effect, which does much to set Phantasm so far apart from the bulk of American horror in the late '70s, was largely an accident: Coscarelli's assembly edit was sprawling and full of much incidental detail and let the plot warm up slowly and methodically, and it was some three hours long. Deciding that nobody in the world would sit still for a horror movie of that duration - one where the horror didn't even kick in for 90 minutes - Coscarelli mercilessly carved over half of the film out, leaving behind only the stripped-down, elemental version of the story, blitzing through its content with a pell-mell intensity that has no time for niceties like sense or coherence. Serendipity, and a director-writer-cinematographer-editor with no ego, for a multi-hyphenate; and surely one of the most appealing things about Phantasm is its tear-ass pacing. At 88 minutes, the film is not long (though it's not so very short by '70s horror standards), and it feels a good deal shorter still, a raw blast of sensory information that feels like it has barely started before it gets crazy and ends; which is also kind of dreamlike, now I think about it.

The opening scene gets things off and running, with a middle-aged man named Tommy (Bill Cone) screwing a hot blonde woman (Kathy Lester) right in the middle of a cemetery at night. Their assignation ends with her stabbing him with an oddly ceremonial dagger; the next we see of Tommy, he's being planted in the ground, with two of his closest friends, Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) and Reggie (Reggie Bannister) serving as pallbearers. Jody, poking around the large structure in the cemetery that seems to double as funeral home and mausoleum, starts to become aware of a peculiar scuffling sound, and out of the corner of his eye seems to keep just barely missing the movement of a small humanoid in brown robes - the editing Coscarelli uses to suggest how this figure remains just out of direct view is absolutely smashing, by the way (incidentally, the "small humanoid in brown robes" nearly derailed the movie just as it was about to start filming, when another indie director named George Lucas included similar-looking characters in his 1977 picture Star Wars, but Coscarelli elected not to change anything, on the grounds that the beings in his movie are otherwise not remotely like Jawas).

Another mourner notices the scuffling creatures: Jody's younger brother Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), though he has not been invited to the funeral proper; Jody is trying to keep him from having another episode as happened when they buried their parents the year prior. Thus, nobody is aware that he's there spying, able to watch the tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) hoist Tommy's coffin as though it weighed about ten pounds. This, plus the homunculi, is enough to convince Mike that something horrible is going on at Morningside, and he sets himself to investigating what the Tall Man is doing with the bodies he's spiriting away.

That investigation takes up virtually the entirety of the movie to follow, considerably more than an hour: Mike sneaks in to the mausoleum, finds something inexplicable and creepy, and runs back home. Meanwhile, Jody, wishing that he could move out of this crappy little town and get his life back on track and be his own man (a nostalgic musical number between Jody and Reggie is the single sour note in the movie, cutting the momentum off dead, but it's before anything has really happened, so it doesn't hurt much), like it was before his parents' deaths forced him to become a surrogate parent, pays little attention to Mike and his ravings, though to his - and Coscarelli's - immense credit, Jody pretty instantaneously comes around the moment he gets evidence of Strange Doings at the Cemetery, in the form of a dismembered but highly ambulatory finger that bleeds yellow. Phantasm mostly only boasts two locations: the cluttered, homey house that the brothers share, and the uncomfortably smooth marble halls of the mausoleum, and on paper it would sound like the film ratchets back and forth between those two spots with joyless steadiness. That this does not turn out to be the case whatsoever is largely thanks to how steadily Coscarelli continually cranks up the phantasmagoria, with every trip to the mausoleum resulting in weirder and more terrifying revelations and each return to the familiarity of the Pearson homestead showing it to be increasingly less secure, more degraded by the Tall Man and his minions and their actions.

And even that only works because the weirdness is genuinely unsettling and strange. The film's big famous moment - the only part I'd seen or even knew about before watching it - is the matter of a silver ball that ricochet's through the hallways of the mausoleum, latching onto a victims head and screwing a hole into his brain, resulting in a massive jet of blood shooting out. It's an almost ridiculous gore effect that nearly saddled Phantasm with an X-rating (simpler times, the 1970s), but in the best tradition of surrealist horror, it's not disgusting so much as it is inexplicable and disorienting; and for my money, it's not half as memorable anyway as the moment when Mike stumbles across a dimensional portal and finds the Tall Man's homeworld, a ghastly landscape of dusky reds, as good a cinematic depiction of Hell as that decade produced, though I don't know that Hell was the deliberate intent.

Even some of the moments that largely don't work - with a budget this small, Phantasm could hardly avoid some dodgy effects, with the silver sphere in particular looking rather unashamedly shitty the second time we see it - don't break the movie, so much as add to its sense of the inexplicable and the alien. What Coscarelli achieved here was a sort of exercise in disequilibrium: taking the most low-key kind of Americana (presumably, the kind celebrated by his first two films), and cutting it with exaggeratedly horrific concepts (a great early moment: the Tall Man, on the streets of town, stops for a minute, and when he walks on, we see behind him a hilariously prosaic advertisement for slushees). I cannot know if the film would have been helped or wrecked by the addition of that original opening 90 minutes: if the creation of a whole movie's worth of normalcy would have made the encroaching surrealist nightmare that much more unnerving, or if it would have been worth the sacrifice of the Phantasm we have now, one that hits the ground running.

On the whole, I wouldn't want to change it: the film is not at all perfect (it is in fact rather hokey at points, but the hokiness is borne of total sincerity), but it's so very much it's own thing, that I'd consider it a fool's errand to muck with it. For one thing, it's honestly creepy: the lengthy scenes of Mike or Jody trying to figure out where this or that noise is coming from are all of them masterpieces of slow-burning tension, and Scrimm's gaunt, unreadable face is the most terrifying thing about the Tall Man, who for the bulk of the movie is too inexplicable to register as genuinely frightening.

Better yet, Phantasm has the courage of its convictions: there's no doubt that Coscarelli made this out of love, for it's simply too strangely personal to be the kind of moviemaking-by-numbers that would come to dominate horror in the coming decade. Not least because the ultimate explanation for the Tall Man's plot is so damn bizarre - good breeding keeps me from spoiling it, but even if I wanted to, I'm not really sure that I could possibly write a review that dealt with the ending in a way that was able to tie it into any sort of argument about anything. It comes from nowhere but the fevered mind of its writer, putting ideas down because he found them compelling, and not because tradition or cliché told him to. And even if that results in a movie that gets progressively loopier over its last 20 minutes, as it switches from horror to sci-fi, it's hard to argue that Phantasm isn't memorable.

More than this steadfast attachment to its story, and more than its adherence to the chaotic structure of a hallucination or a dream, right down to the deliberate introduction of plot holes and apparent contradictions, what really marks out Phantasm as a labor of love, to me, is its protagonist: Coscarelli is invested in Mike Pearson to a simply shocking degree for an R-rated movie with a 14-year-old lead. Take out the nudity, violence, and language, and in all respects Phantasm could function as a Disney movie from the same period; it is a story in which an adolescent is depicted throughout with respect and admiration, shown to be every bit as smart, capable, and observant as the very best of the adults around him, and it helps that Baldwin's performance, though a bit too wide-eyed (there's an ineffable aura of '80s Spielbergian excess in the way Coscarelli frames the young actor, though this would hardly have been possible in 1977), is the strongest in the film.

There's something delicious about the way Phantasm thus plays with our heads: on the one hand, it cannot be mistaken for anything but a particularly outré gore picture, yet the plot never stops feeling like it's a family-friendly shocker, even more so when we recall the number of made-for-TV horror movies in the '70s that were family-friendly, and yet were also legitimately scary, in a way that no kiddie-horror film these days would even daydream about, if anybody was actually inclined to make such a thing. This combination of the adult and the adolescent is as disorienting as anything else in the fabric of this most self-consciously anti-real movie, but it also give Phantasm a curiously transgressive feeling, a sense almost that Coscarelli is getting away with something. And that, in turn, provides a genuinely sharp edge to a movie that can, in tiny patches, come across as just a tad daft, and needs that little bit of grounding if its hypnotically crazy bends are to be believed as anything other than Italian-style oddness for oddness's sake. That, plus Coscarelli's remarkable skill in his four roles behind the camera, the thick nighttime cinematography and terse editing doing so much to make the most uncanny parts of the movie that much more crawly, results in a movie that could hardly be any better, even if it's not perfect; but the shagginess about it is quite a significant part of what gives the film its charm and personality, and sets it apart as one of the great auteur pieces of '70s genre cinema.

Body Count: Between you, me, and the internet, I really don't know. 3, says my gut, but it could be up to 7, depending on whether or not we believe that characters said to be found alive offscreen are actually alive. I will not even start to wade into the matter of who "really" died vs. who died in a dream.

Reviews in this series
Phantasm (Coscarelli, 1979)
Phantasm II (Coscarelli, 1988)
Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (Coscarelli, 1994)
Phantasm IV: Oblivion (Coscarelli, 1998)

27 May 2011

WHAT HAPPENS VEGAS DOES NOT STAY IN VEGAS

When The Hangover opened in 2009, a lot of people - including myself - were a great deal gentler with it than it deserved. I cannot speak for anyone else, but in my particular case, it was a matter of sheer, untrammeled joy that there was a comedy that was actually funny, and moreover a comedy that was made with a fairly high level of cinematic craftsmanship, that led me to simply not care that the film was by turns misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and praised a faintly ugly form of American masculinity.

Now here we are with The Hangover, Part II, which is in all essentials the same movie, and in this case, it's a great deal harder to overlook those things. There are at least a couple of reasons for this: firstly, where The Hangover had the benefit of being the first funny American comedy in months and months, Part II has the horrible misfortune to come out two whole weeks after Bridesmaids, a movie that matches the Hangovers in crudeness, tops them both for funniness, and does it all without even once sacrificing its humanity. (The proof, to me, lies in comparing two moments: in Hangover II, one character loudly says "cunt" in a crowded restaurant, and the joke is that the word is shocking; it also kind of makes the character seem like a sexist dick. In Bridesmaids, the protagonist, losing an argument with a teenage girl, hisses "cunt" at her: it's still shocking, but also surprising and witty, as well as a character moment, and we leave the scene not liking her any less for it).

The other, bigger reason is that Part II, isn't nearly as fresh and novel as The Hangover was two years ago, largely because Part II feels like the exact same movie in almost every respect, as if co-writers Todd Phillips & Craig Mazin & Scot Armstrong just took Jon Lucas & Scott Moore's original screenplay and did a find and replace to exchange Bangkok for Las Vegas, a Thai-American teenager for a missing bridegroom, and a drug-dealing, cigarette-smoking monkey for both the tiger and the baby in the first movie.

There are a lot of other cosmetic changes, but the core of the thing is identical: in the beginning, Phil (Bradley Cooper) calls a wedding party to sadly intone that the wedding is off, because of something dreadful having happened; then we flash back a few days to find that Phil's friend Stu (Ed Helms) is getting married in Thailand to the girl he met shortly after Phil and Stu formed two-quarters of a miserably dysfunctional bachelor party weekend in Vegas. At the insistence of other friend Doug (Justin Bartha), Stu reluctantly invites bearlike man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to join in the wedding, but fails to entirely explain that there will be other people there, including Stu's 16-year-old genius future brother-in-law Teddy (Mason Lee), thereby triggering a wave of resentment in Alan that results, in short order, in a long night of drinking and druggy excess that leaves Phil, Stu, and Alan groggy in a hotel room, missing Teddy, and wondering how the hell things got to this point. So begins another post-debauch mystery, with every major character getting at least one chance to moan, "I can't believe this is happening again!" or some variation thereof, just so that the audience knows for sure that the filmmakers are aware of how shockingly unimaginative they're being.

Now, the flipside to this is that, since Part II is basically The Hangover Redux, it almost has no choice but to be funny (or not-funny, depending upon your tastes) in much the same manner as the original film; and this I found to be the case, vaguely. The things that worked best about the first movie still work: the chemistry between Helms, Cooper, and Galifianakis being chief among them; while the things that were worst have become even more grating, by which I am chiefly thinking of the ungodly sight of Ken Jeong as Leslie Chow, the mincing, flailing Asian crime lord, whose presence in this film is easily the most contrived single element in making sure the structure of the new film matches the old one as closely as possible. In the middle, everything else is about the same, only less so: the bracing crudeness of the original has become a bit more crude and a bit less bracing, presumably because it's now just another part of the formula: the penis jokes are less funny mostly because of the sudden ubiquity of floppy flaccid penises in R-rated comedies in the last few years. The expected she-male prostitute subplot is somehow too tastefully done to be as funny as it feels like it ought to be, though it's happily not so gay-panicky as it also feels like it ought to be.

Really, the biggest single difference, and it's not to the new film's credit, is the recasting of Alan's personality; perhaps the most amusing character in the original Hangover, he's somehow infinitely more aggressive in his anti-social naïveté, a monsterously self-regarding creature whose antics cut rather more towards upsetting and cruel than towards charming and clueless. Maybe it's Galifianakis fatigue, and maybe it's the common comedy sequel mistake of adding emphasis to whatever was most characteristic in the first movie, and thus making it a caricature of itself (see also: Sparrow, Jack).

But all in all, I would be lying if I said I did not laugh, though I did not do so very often or very deeply; and it is still the case, if nothing else, that Phillips's direction is far more accomplished and appealing than pretty much any other gross-out comedy director now working. Some of the shots he and cinematographer Lawrence Sher set up are quite handsome, in fact, and the manner in which the film presents the grottiest images of Bangkok it can possibly muster, and then wraps it in a sleek, just-slightly-contrasty visual aesthetic, lends a certain tension to the visuals that should be self-defeating, and yet somehow, it's rather striking. Now, it is the case that the director manages to fumble pacing and comic timing a little - the film feels more than its 102 minutes, and some of the gags hit us with the punchline a bit too hard, and the ending spins wildly out of control in its cutesiness. I do not mean to defend The Hangover, Part II up to the point where I try to call it some kind of great, or even good movie. For it is unquestionably the fact that it remains smugly overprivileged like the original, without the appealing distractions that made the original so palatable to so many people. It is not, however, as overt about these things: there are no shrieking harpy women, only impersonal set-dressing women for example. In fact, the problems with this sequel are much like the jokes: basically the same, but significantly lessened. Let us take what progressive developments as we may.

5/10

25 May 2011

BLESSED ARE THE MEEK

I have not seen, in quite some time, a movie that has messed with my head as thoroughly as Meek's Cutoff has these past couple of days: torn between my lustful admiration for its visual aesthetic, my removed admiration for its narrative anti-flow, and my utter bafflement as to whether its climax-deflating final scene is the necessary and only conclusion to the film, or a smug cop-out because "art movies have peculiar endings". That the film is so far beyond my ability to peg it down is, I suppose, sign enough that it's doing something right; do we not, after all, long for that movie which does not spoon-feed us, but demands active engagement and thought? Meek's Cutoff is assuredly that, riding a thin line between the intangibly graceful and the merely frustrating in its rejection of narrativity, extremely counter-dramatic even by the standards of director Kelly Reichardt's notoriously slow-moving, plotless features.

Meek is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), and his cutoff can be interpreted in two ways: as the shortcut he hoped to make in leading a small wagon train across the western American desert, and as the point when the members of said wagon train begin to turn on him, "cutting off" his leadership, as it were. Nor should the pioneers feel terribly guilty about throwing Meek over; for he has led them into lands where there is not a drop of water to be found, and things are getting worse by the day. After a while, the group encounters a Native American (Rod Rondeaux), a fellow who is plainly well-hydrated, and so begins an internal debate: follow him, or kill him before he kills us? and if we do follow him for how long? Questions not made easier by Meek's blustering insistence that he knows what's going on, in the face of clear evidence that he does not.

That's not the scenario, mind you, or the opening act - that is the whole damn movie, right there. "Pioneers can't decide whether to trust there shiftless guide or a possible murderous Indian, and they're about to die of thirst", for 104 minutes. Needless to say, Meek's Cutoff is not a film to all tastes.

Initially, the seven voyagers following Meek - the Tetherows, Emily (Michelle Williams) and Soloman (Will Patton), the Whites, Glory (Shirley Henderson) and William (Neal Huff) and son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), and the young Gatelys, Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Thomas (Paul Dano) are sort of an undifferentiated blob of humanity, with Emily, Glory and Thomas standing out primarily because they are played by more famous actors. It's one of the most cunning facet of Reichardt's treatment of Jonathan Raymond's screenplay that these figures become increasingly distinct and personal as we spend time watching them go through the miserable and repetitive actions of being on a wagon train; there are none of what you might call "character moments", just a good number of minutes-long scenes of almost total silence, simply observing people. It's a damn sight close to Reichardt's 2006 breakthrough Old Joy, in fact, in the way that characterisation is derived from watching behaviors rather than hearing words spoken.

At a certain point, Emily more or less becomes the main character of the film, as the first and most active partisan of following the unknown native, not because of some anachronistic political correctness, but because she astutely notes that it's probably the one chance they have at not dying (there's a gorgeous little scene where she mends his shoe, acerbically noting that she wants him to be in her debt). As such, Emily probably has the most "character", and Williams's performance is the most effective in the movie (though the deliberately stylised manner in which Reichardt and Raymond build character makes it hard to necessarily peg these as "good" or "bad" performances). Even so, one doesn't leave Meek's Cutoff having the sense that it's some kind of tribute to a strong-willed Western woman, or even a particularly edifying elucidation of one. Emily is distinct, and Emily is realistic, but Emily is also a bit of a placeholder in the grand scheme of things.

For Meek's Cutoff is not about these people's lives or deaths; not even about their suffering. It's about the brutal contrast between nature and the human; the main character of the film is neither Emily nor Meek, but the Oregon desert, a plane of scrub and dried mudflats. Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt (shooting his first feature after a long career as camera assistant), using an exciting unconventional 1.37:1 aspect ratio, capture the quintessence of the landscape: the open aspect ratio serves to emphasis just how much of it there is in every direction, making the people seem awfully small in comparison, and Blauvelt captures the desert light in just such a way to emphasise how desolate and brown everything is. The film captures the feeling of that place like one of the great Westerns of yore, the kind where the heat and dryness roll off the screen. I was desperate for something to drink after Meek's Cutoff; and as far as the experience of watching the movie captures that hopeless, parched spirit, I have to consider it some kind of minor masterpiece.

For that matter, the film's deliberate anti-plot can be seen as the attempt to recreate the endlessness of being on a wagon train, though I think it might be subtler than that (and if not, it's still a valid defense of the film's "boring" pace). If Meek's Cutoff can be said to be specifically about the landscape, it's chiefly about how the landscape smothers the human beings walking through it (always from right to left - I don't quite know why all of the important action in the film is from right to left, but it impressed the hell out of me), and could be more dramatically called a story of humans at the mercy of their environment. And that's what makes it all click: the travelers at Meek's mercy, Meek and the rest at the Indian's mercy, the whole lot of them at the mercy of whatever water they can never find. It has been noted elsewhere that the film's "climax", in which Meek pulls a gun on the Indian and Emily pulls a gun on Meek, comes far too long before the ending shows up, but the very idea of a climax is an artificial overlay on the central conflict of Us vs. the World; though a bold and brilliant scene - and the source of the very best acting in the movie - the standoff is ultimately more about the futility of any actions the characters might attempt (if anybody dies in that moment, it's hard to say that anything changes, other than somebody feeling like they let off some steam) than about resolving the tensions between them. They go right back to the same pattern of being entirely at the mercy of the landscape, with the dramatic moment that would have wrapped things up in a bow if this were a normal movie simply petering out as nothing but a mere distraction from the actual stakes. (For my part, I'd anyway say that the climax of the movie - that is, the moment of greatest dramatic shock - is when some of the last of their precious water splashes on the ground; the last time we see any water in a movie that toys with us by opening on a lengthy shot of a river).

If this reading has any merit at all, it comes at the expense of showing Meek's Cutoff to be nihilistically predetermined; a reading that Reichardt's choice of final shot doesn't discourage (truth be told, I don't think my ambivalence towards the non-ending is because of where it occurs in the story, but because of the image upon which the fade to black occurs; a little too flippant, a little too "fuck you, characters, I've taken you as far as I can, now deal"). There's a certain bit about the resiliency of the human animal in there, but it's not inspiring so much as it is gobsmacked at just how much punishment we can take; and yet it didn't leave me feeling sour at all. There's a kind of Tarkovskian undertone to what happens, unless I am very much mistaken - Tarkovsky light, by all means, let's not go crazy with over-praise. But the God's-eye-view of the action, coming from a place that isn't as harshly cynical as in, say, a Kubrick or Antonioni film, but nonetheless acknowledges without sentiment that humans can suffer and it can be our own fault; I for one associate that kind of aesthetic with Tarkovsky, especially when coupled to the almost religious intensity of Meek's Cutoff's landscape photography. The film has undeniable flaws - there is a thin line between all these wonderful things I've said and sheer pretentious smugness, and at times Reichardt leans over as far as she can without tipping - but it's so singular, beautiful, and troubling (after three days, I haven't stopped thinking about it for ten minutes) that those flaws come nowhere close to invalidating the whole piece.

9/10 (or really 8/10 plus a bonus point for so thoroughly unnerving me)

24 May 2011

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: HERE BE PIRATES

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: eight years after making pirates the toast of pop-culture once more, Johnny Depp and friends are back to try to wring a little more blood from a stone with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Movie swashbuckling, however, is far older than CGI blockbusters, older even than sound; I've plucked this example out of all the annals of celluloid piracy largely to make an annual tradition of reviewing a Michael Curtiz/Errol Flynn collaboration as part of this series.

There was never a time when the pirate movie was out of fashion; since the first half of the 1910s, there has not been a decade and indeed barely even a single calendar year without a single solitary example of the genre. There was, however, a time when the pirate movie was in abatement, and that time was the early 1930s. Despite the big business done by swashbuckling epics like the evergreen Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks in 1926, Hollywood's best and brightest had not figured out how to marry the essential requirements of the form (seafaring, swordfighting, energetic action) with what was in those days the unwieldy, tempermental, studio-bound equipment used to record sound. And so, for some length of time the onscreen adventures of pirates came to end.

In 1934, MGM released an adaptation of Treasure Island that did more than fair business for itself, and as far as I have been able to make out, it was the first attempt to make a convincing ship-based adventure in the sound era, though it would take quite a generous or naïve viewer to overlook the preponderance of sets involved in the film's creation. It wasn't until the next year that the problem of making a sound movie using actual water tanks & location shooting was finally solved, in stunning fashion, when Warner Bros. decided to take a chance on a B-picture director of little particular merit, an unknown contract actor who'd had small parts in minor films (cast only after most of Warner's big stars proved unavailable), and a genre far removed from anything remotely akin to the largely urban comedies, musicals, and dramas that had been the studio's bread and butter since the start of the decade. This gamble paid off like few ever have when Captain Blood made Errol Flynn one of the biggest stars of the day, turned Michael Curtiz into one of the best-regarded action-adventure "man's man" filmmakers of his generation, and kick-started a Golden Age for gung-ho adventure movies as good as any that have been produced in all the decades since.

Considering what we now know about pirate movies, Captain Blood takes a surprisingly long time to get revved up; it is almost precisely halfway through the 119-minute feature before any high seas adventuring starts, and a lot of the most choice piracy is rather more assumed to have happened than depicted. For its first hour, the film is something of an historic romance, opening during the 1685 rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth against the recently restored King James II of England (briefly played, with zestful fatuous excess, by Vernon Steele). In those days, we are assured, there was a certain physician, Dr. Peter Blood - yes, that is exactly where the title comes from, it's not some kick-ass pirate name, and who the Christ would go to a doctor named "Blood"? I assume Dr. Killpatients must have had his shingle hung right next door.

Blood is of course played by our man Flynn, who glides into the slot of '30s Leading Man like he was born to do it, a dashing smile underneath dramatically tousled golden hair and a chin you could use to break boulders. Was Flynn a "good" actor? Lord, no; but he was the best of all possible Errol Flynns, and as much as I bow to no-one in my adoration of The Adventures of Robin Hood, I would still, under duress, point to Peter Blood as the most agreeably Flynnian character he ever played: a man of such ridiculous pure noble heart that even when he's sacking every ship in the Spanish Main, we simply know it's because he's just trying to make the world a better place. It's actually quite cunning how screenwriter Casey Robinson, adapting Rafael Sabatini's novel, tricks us into so viewing Blood, despite his profession and leading surname: first, because he's a doctor. Third, because he's a doctor whose commitment to saving the wounded is so complete that in the first scene, just the very second that he's done establish to his housekeeper how far he is above the grubby, violent politicking that is ruining England (and that's the missing second), he agrees to aid one of Monmouth's grievously wounded supporters, with not a second's thought to what it means to him personally.

What it means is a quick trip to kangaroo court, where Blood, branded a Monmouth partisan and thus a traitor to the crown, is sentenced to live as a slave in the West Indies. And that's the fourth thing: having first shown that Blood is a man who refuses to choose sides between having a shit sandwich or a turd burger on the throne, Robinson then doubles back to show that, nonetheless, James II and his cronies are devils in the flesh, and the "worse" side, so whatever Blood does against them later, it's surely morally justified. They're slavers, for god's sake!

In Port Royal, Jamaica, Blood is purchased for £10 by Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland), the niece of wicked miltary commander Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill); she means well, but is taken aback by the morally righteous Blood's refusal to submit to slavery in even its nicest form. It takes the quick-witted doctor only a short time to set himself up as an indispensable servant to the gout-ridden governor (George Hassell), and only a short time from there that he's able to arrange a slave rebellion, taking a whole mess of Monmouth supporters with him to start a freewheeling life of piracy (the scene where he cons the governor's other physicians, played by Donald Meek and Hobart Cavanaugh, into financing his escape, is a glorious piece of studio-system contrivance that works almost solely because Flynn puts it over through sheer charisma). But Arabella does not forget him, nor he her; and as he establishes a code of ethical conduct for all his crew to follow, and strikes up a clearly ill-advised partnership with French pirate Levasseur (Basil Rathbone, whose natural haughtiness manages to save the character from one of the worst French accents you've ever heard), a part of him still longs to put the life of a buccaneer behind him and become a man of peace once more.

Let us not mince words: the plot of Captain Blood jerks along in the most erratic spurts, with the first hour representing a self-contained three-act drama, and the second never settling upon a plot or conflict. "How about Levasseur for a baddie?" it seems to ask. "Hm, maybe not, that wrapped up too fast. Let's see what's going on in Port Royal." The film contains in itself the matter of a whole trilogy, the result of condensing a book even more packed with details from the life of a pirate; it is an undeniable mess. But it simply Does Not Matter In The Slightest. For one thing, however much the different elements of plot get tangled up, Robinson does a fine job of making the whole thing about the relationship between Blood and Arabella, giving it an in-hindsight structure by which it all flows rather nicely. For another, Curtiz has a certain skill, familiar to anyone who has seen his later, obscure war movie Casablanca or the rare film noir Mildred Pierce, of charging through complex and chaotic narratives with a surety known by few other directors of the era; a certain ability to stress the important scenes with the force of an orchestra all playing the same note at once, and breezing through the bits between the important scenes quickly enough that you can't get bored, but not so fast that it starts to rattle apart.

Whatever the case, both halves of Captain Blood, the pirate and non-pirate editions of the story, are crammed full of all the adventure that $1 million in 1935 dollars could buy; that translates into plenty of effects work and extraordinary sea battles (some of them re-using footage from 1924's The Sea Hawk), grand swordfights against dramatic landscapes, gorgeous sets used to represent Port Royal, and a pirate invasion sequence in the film's midpoint that remains one of the most impressively overwrought moments in any '30s action film. Curtiz got around the issue of sound in all of this through the wildly simple trick of not recording sound, instead relying on the exhilarating Foley work and even more exhilarating score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold - his first movie score, composed in a three-week rush - combining with Curtiz's bold compositions to create all the vitality that audiences were beginning to expect, now that the bugs were out of sound cinema. In most ways, the film is less sophisticated than the candy-colored Adventures of Robin Hood, but that isn't necessarily a problem: Captain Blood is the scrappy younger sibling, unpolished but direct, where Robin Hood skates by on sheer scale. They fill complimentary needs.

In all this grand epic awesomeness, we have our Movie Stars: Flynn, owning every single frame he stands in, and de Havilland, herself a brand-new discovery at the ripe age of 19, playing the charming naughtiness of Arabella with a delightful sexiness that the actress would rarely get to show again, once she sidled into a string of innocent waifs and starchy icons. It's eerily obvious why Arabella wanted to buy Blood, and there's a largely unstressed but omnipresent kinkiness to their relationship, a tension wherein both players obviously think of the other as a body, first and foremost; one imagines a Captain Blood just two years earlier, where all that would have been played right on the surface. Still, the chemistry between the two actors is perfect, Code or not, and it's no wonder at all that they teamed up an impressive eight more times. Rounding out the cast, Atwill and Rathbone are more than creditable villains; I'd love if Rathbone had something more of a part, but I suppose that's what Robin Hood is for.

It's all so much candy, I guess, but candy made with the utmost precision and attention and care in every detail; the film was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (along with The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and winner Mutiny on the Bounty, confirming 1935 as a watershed year for action-adventures); what's impressive is that in the last year the Academy allowed write-in votes, Curtiz came in second in total votes, while Korngold and Robinson both came in third, without benefit of being nominated. A concerted bit of campaigning by Warners, maybe, and I know you're not supposed to use the Oscars as a mark of quality; but for such a shot in the dark popcorn movie to inspire that kind of enthusiasm is just crazy, and that right there should tell you about how much more Captain Blood is than just a popcorn movie: it's the popcorn movie of the mid-'30s, one of the most joyful and watchable of all adventure pictures no only of its era, but of all time.

23 May 2011

YOU'RE A NAUGHTY ONE, SAUCY JACK

I think this is a telling anecdote: the night after I saw Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I found myself at a party with some other gentlemen who'd already seen it as well. "Wasn't it the worst thing ever?" one of them asked (no, but that's a forgivable response), and then the important part: "I didn't know until it started that the actual title was On Stranger Tides."

We could chalk that up to not paying enough attention to the marketing - or, alternately, paying exactly the appropriate amount of attention to the marketing - but it sums up rather neatly the degree to which On Stranger Tides doesn't really have any kind of personality or identity on its own. It's just "the fourth Pirates movie". Hell, I myself got confused, earlier in the same day, which entry in the series it was. They all tend to melt together after a certain point; that point, for me, is the end of the opening cannibal sequence in the second film, Dead Man's Chest, the last moment at which I felt like the franchise was meant to be entertainment and not product, though as in all things your milage may vary. Far be it from me to begrudge Disney the right to make money however they see fit, but if On Stranger Tides fills any kind of actual need whatsoever, I am not perceptive enough to spot it. Was anyone genuinely still foaming at the mouth for still more adventures with the increasingly played-out Captain Jack Sparrow, played by the increasingly resentful Johnny Depp? And if there are such people, can this possibly be the film they were hoping for?

In this go-round, Sparrow sneaks into London to spring his longtime right-hand, Joshamee Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from imprisonment, having been wrongly accused of being the selfsame notorious pirate Jack Sparrow. Cue a chase scene. Sparrow then finds out someone is impersonating him, and he goes to investigate. Cue a fight scene. Long story short, there are three different groups chasing after the legendary Fountain of Youth - the Spanish, the British under command of former pirate and series stalwart Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and the dread pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane), traveling with one of Sparrow's ex-lovers as first mate, Angelica (Penélope Cruz), who claims to be the villain's daughter. Sparrow and Gibbs are the only men who know the location of the Fountain, and each get shanghaied into one of the competing factions. Also, Jack and Angelica fall back in love, which is an extra little "fuck you" to those of us who enjoyed Depp's characterisation more when it seemed likely that Sparrow was gay.

That implies a straightforward quest narrative, doesn't it? But On Stranger Tides is by no means straightforward; I'd be tempted to call it episodic, but even that would be crediting it. It's more like the story advances in chunks: here's the chunk where they're hunting mermaids, here's the chunk were Sparrow and Barbossa team up, here's the big fucking chunk with the British missionary Philip (Sam Claflin) and the imprisoned mermaid Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) play at being the romantic subplot, and prove to be even less interesting and important to the overall scheme of the picture, and to suck out even more air from the proceedings than the incorrigibly bland team of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the original trilogy.

The plot advances, in essence, because it is made to advance, not because there is flow from one event to another. And though, in the most functional sense, there is a chain of causality underpinning all of it, everything still seems pretty damn arbitrary and laden with plot holes and obvious contrivances. For example, everybody in the movie but Jack seems to know everything about the Fountain and its absurdly arcane ritual, though where or why they would come into such exactingly specific knowledge is something the series' regular, writers Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, apparently don't consider interesting enough to address (fun fact: as "suggested" by an unrelated novel by Tim Powers, On Stranger Tides is the first Pirates movie without an original story. So to speak). Ideas like the notion that Angelica is lying to Blackbeard, are dropped minutes after they're introduced, the beginning is needlessly protracted involving all sorts of narrative red herrings - the "impostor Jack" mini-plot contributed nothing at all. And the rhythm throughout is brutally plain "this then this then this then this" plodding.. I would perhaps sum it up as a story being posited, rather than one being told; nor a terrifically invigorating story at that, lacking as it does the high stakes of even the worst films in the series till now - for far too long, there doesn't seem to be much of a motivation for Jack Sparrow to be involved in this story at all, a problem compounded by his repeated complaint in the early going that he has no idea what is going on.

Still, the film is structurally more sound than Dead Man's Chest or At World's End, lacking the same burdensome mythology and narrative dead ends (the false first act in DMC, the sheer multiplicity of conflicts in AWE, and the reams and reams of exposition in both), and it anyways answers my chief complaint about the third film: there's a lot more piratey action relative to the plot - the producers have acknowledged that it was a deliberately stripped-down attempt at returning to the simplicity of The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first and (by a hefty margin) best film in the franchise. And yet, that doesn't save On Stranger Tides from being worse than either of its immediate predecessors; or maybe I had better say, more disposable than either of them, though the chase through London is agreeably done (though replete with a stupendously pointless cameo from a distractingly famous British actress), and a mid-film encounter with an army of killer mermaids has plenty of the matinee-movie creepiness that made the first film such pip, even if it goes on a bit long.

At the risk of sounding like an auteurist, I honestly think it's the difference between having Gore Verbinski direct and having Rob Marshall direct: for even though the trilogy made under Verbinski's watch often went to some very airy and very stupid places, there was always the constant sense that the filmmaker was committed 100% to the bizarre energy of the scripts, treating the cartoonish adventures of Jack Sparrow with the logic and mania of a cartoon (the same mood, in many ways that he and Depp recently demonstrated in Rango) . Marshall, whose best work to date has been trashing the seemingly-untrashable musical Chicago, has nothing like that level of inspiration: his handling of the material evinces no idea clearer than "that's how they did it in the other ones", and instead of a baseline of absurd whimsy, there's just exhaustion, all over everything. At their most tedious and unpleasant, the other Pirates movies have all been energetic, but On Stranger Tides is altogether droopy; both in terms of its pacing, which idles along without any urgency, and leaves the shortest of all four films feeling much longer than its already indulgent 137 minutes; and in terms of its visuals, which are not half as glossy as anything previous in Marshall's career (he works here for the first time without cinematograpehr Dion Beebe, instead inheriting Pirates regular Dariusz Wolski), and suffer from being woefully underlit for most of the middle.

A certain insipid lack of personality was always a danger, of course; as much fun as it is to imagine that some future Pirates sequel (and there will be, of course) will shed all the accretions of these last three pictures that ship has sailed, if you'll pardon me for being a complete douchebag. The Curse of the Black Pearl was alchemic; a perfect storm of the right actor, director, and character coming as a complete surprise. Ever since then, it's just been about cranking out Jack Sparrow Adventures, sausage-like, by the carload, and nevermind if the shtick keeps getting rattier every time. At least the four years off seem to have rejuvenated Depp, who's not as obviously repulsed by the role as he was in At World's End; but that overwhelming spirit of "Jack Sparrow Delivery Vehicle" pervades every moment of the film, which absolutely dies every second Depp isn't onscreen, and boasts virtually no worthwhile performances, from a desperately overthinking-it Rush to McShane's utter, unpleasantly obvious boredom with a character who is nothing but a patchwork of PG-13 nihilism and bullshit paranormal trickery; leaving it to Richard Griffiths in a one-scene performance as a squishy, irritable King George to steal the whole entire movie from every other human being onscreen. I don't know if it's fair to say all of this is bad, but it's mediocre to the point that it burns like acid, and it's pretty hard not to feel angry towards a swashbuckler where all the fun has been replaced by line items on a Disney accountant's spreadsheet.

4/10

SUMMER 2011 DIRECTOR'S POLL

It's been quite a while since I've done a director retrospective. And with the Carry On reviews down to just the last handful, and summer always the easiest season to stay on top of things - not to mention that an impending move means that I'll have less access to art theaters than I've enjoyed since starting this blog - I've decided to spend August looking at the work of some filmmaker or another.

But which? That is for you to decide, my dear readers. Though I pledged never to do one of these again, I've decided to go the route of setting up a reader poll - no point in me spending months tracking down, for example, every last extant G.W. Pabst film only to find out that nobody here but me gives a shit about G.W. Pabst - which is going to be open from now until 11:59 PM, CDT, June 30 (UTC -5 hours, for the non-Americans out there).

Check it out on the sidebar over there to the right. Incidentally, you can write in someone else - comment on this post to explain who - though there are certain filmmakers I will not consider, chief among them being Terrence Malick, who will be getting the weeklong retrospective treatment starting on May 30, and Tyler Perry, who I've been hinting for ages would get a retro, and it's going to happen in November.

Now, a closer look at the candidates:

Kathryn Bigelow
American
Years active: 1982 - current
8 features, 5 TV episodes, 1 music video.

The first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, Bigelow is known for her action films and thrillers, including cult-classic surfer/crime picture Point Break and neo-vampire movie Near Dark. Rumor holds that she is presently working on her second War on Terror movie, following the rapturously-received The Hurt Locker.


Sergei Eisenstein
Russian
Years active: 1923-1945
7 features and 2 shorts completed during his life, 1 feature completed in 1979

One of the most important filmmakers in history - his Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential and widely-studied films ever made - Eisenstein was one of the architects of modern editing theory, and a forward-driving visual artists whose compositional language in movies such as Ivan the Terrible is among the most sophisticated that the medium has ever known.


John Hughes
American
Years active: 1982-2008
8 features as director

The quintessential chronicler of the suburban experience during the Reagan Years in such films as The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Hughes's romanticisation of teenage life shaped how an entire generation viewed itself growing up and coming of age.

NOTE: Because of the importance of his screenplays in the development of pop cinema in the 1980s, should he win, I will also be reviewing a yet-undetermined number of Hughes-penned features that he did not direct.


Sergio Leone
Italian
Years active: 1959-1984 (as director)
7 credited features, 1 uncredited, scenes from 2 others

He did not invent the Spaghetti Western, but Leone's masterpieces in that field - including the Man With No Name Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West - unquestionably remain the most popular exports in the history of the Italian genre film, and the filmmaker's peculiar celebration and condemnation of extreme violence in one and the same breath has influenced countless contemporary imitators, most famously Quentin Tarantino.


Preston Sturges
American
Years active: 1940-1955 (as director)
12 features, 1 which exists in multiple forms

A writer-director in an age when such a thing was virtually unheard of, Sturges's movies, like The Lady Eve and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, were and remain, simply, among the funniest damn things ever put to celluloid; inspired travesties of sex and money and Americana that remain dauntingly manic even 70 years on.

NOTE: At this time, I have been unable to find a copy of Sturges's last feature, 1955's The French, They Are a Funny Race.


Tarr Béla
Hungarian
Years active: 1977-current
9 features, 1 TV movie, 2 shorts, 2 anthology segments

Famous - notorious? - for his 7.5-hour Sátántangó, Tarr's aggressively unfriendly, glacial aesthetic is alienating by design, but it's useless to deny that he is one of the most important living filmmakers, a man whose phenomenally unique work must at least be grappled with by every serious cinephile.

NOTE: At this time, I have been unable to find a copy of Tarr's contribution to City Life, the sequence "Utolsó hajó". Also, as his most recent project, The Turin Horse, has not yet been released outside of Europe, I will not be reviewing it as part of this retrospective, should he win.