30 November 2011

ALOHA OY

In The Descendants, Matt King (George Clooney) at one point has this to say (in voiceover, for about 3,000% of the dialogue in the first half of the movie is in voiceover): "Somehow it feels natural to find a daughter of mine on a different island. My family seems exactly like an archipelago - all part of the same geographic expression but still islands - separate and alone, always drifting slowly apart." This is not a line that has any business being in a film that thinks so highly of its own truthfulness, but it's pretty much par for the course in a picture that telegraphs every emotional beat and holds the viewer's hand every step of the way, giving us the most sanitised and programmatic version of catharsis imaginable. It is a perfect movie for people who want to see things that are emotionally rigorous and challenging, but are desperately concerned that they might have to deal with characters who aren't filed into the "likable" or "hateable" piles within the first 15 seconds we've met them.

It's doubly upsetting that this awards-ready machined pablum could have come from Alexander Payne, who has made his entire career out of character studies of difficult, often totally unlikable characters, and finding the thing about them that makes them worthy of our consideration. In the eight years between 1996's Citizen Ruth and 2004's Sideways, he made four good-to-great features that found a perfect sweet spot between ironically mocking their protagonists and genuinely caring for them; the seven years since were punctuated only by his short contribution to Paris, je t'aime, the best of that film's segments and arguably the masterpiece of Payne's whole career. Since then, he has apparently forgotten entirely how to make a movie, although maybe part of it is that he couldn't survive the departure of his regular writing partner Jim Taylor (who stays on as producer), who is replaced with the relatively green Nat Faxon and Jim Rash to co-adapt Kaui Hart Hemmings's novel alongside Payne.

Whatever the case, The Descendants features as its lead a man with a horribly challenging decision to make: how is he going to dispose of his family's 35,000 acres of virgin Hawai'ian real estate. I am not going to go all class warfare on the movie or anything, but it takes quite a lot to put over the personal tragedy of a man of unimaginable luck and privilege, and it doesn't help that the movie seems wholly unaware that this might even be a difficulty. So anyway, Matt has that on his plate, and then his wife is injured in a boating accident and slips into a coma from which he learns, some weeks later, she will not be recovering. And if that wasn't enough, while he's trying to deal with his intractable, angry 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), she reveals the unwelcome news that this whole time, Elizabeth King has been cheating on her husband.

From here we get a customarily Paynesian travel story: Matt, Alex, and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller), as well as Alex's intensely mellow boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause) travel from here to there over the islands, first to inform all of Elizabeth's loved ones that the doctors are pulling the plug and it will only be a matter of days until she dies; eventually their path takes them as far as Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), the man she was having the affair with, though Matt is not looking to have a confrontation so much as offer, in a very strained way, his offer of forgiveness to the man who cuckolded him. Meanwhile, he learns to be a better father, but not in such a way that's actually uplifting, being as it is that he bonds with his eldest over their joint stalking of Speer.

As I say, every Alexander Payne movie involves some measure of looking down on his characters, but he always pulls up at the last second and saves his films from dabbling in true misanthropy. Until now - perversely enough, it's the director's first movie with a protagonist who is basically an all-round okay guy that is also his most truly nasty piece of work, and I think that's even because Matt King is so nice: since unlike the self-centered whine snob of Sideways or the vicious teacher of Election, we don't see any reason for him to be called on his shit, the film has no problems making villains out of the people who do call him on his shit, or otherwise cause him pain or inconvenience, and since this is true of virtually the entire case, The Descendants isn't hurting for people that it pretty much straight up hates. Especially Elizabeth - one of the big showstopping scenes comes when Matt screams and rants at her comatose form, and there's no sense at all that we're meant to find him even slightly wrong for doing it, not even seconds later when he censures Alex for doing the same thing. At the end (NOT MUCH OF A SPOILER ALERT) when he stands by her bed and weeps his good byes, it plays less like he understands that she is truly a decent person and more that he is demonstrating, as he has been all movie, what a noble martyr he can be.

The one thing that keeps The Descendants above water, and only just, is George Clooney. This isn't exactly the kind of character he usually plays (Matt is far more sullen and miserable than the typical Clooney starring role), but it still feels like something he could do in his sleep, and there's absolutely no arguing that this is his most accomplished performance. Still, it is something he could do in his sleep, and that is what makes him a movie star - the things that he does in his sleep are what he's best at and what makes him worth watching. And this too is part of what makes Matt so likable, but it's not so annoying to be forced to like him thus; the writing and the acting are doing basically the same thing, I guess, but the acting does it better.

Beyond Clooney, there's simply not much to recommend it: not the relentlessly joy-sapped tone (for a dark comedy-drama in the About Schmidt mold, this is a perfectly un-funny movie) that suggests more than all the rest of it that Payne has lost his sharp touch. The whole movie is so damn solemn - Phedon Papamichael's cinematography manages to keep from overly sentimentalizing Hawai'i (and for this DP, that alone is an achievement), but otherwise feel exhausted and totally uninteresting, and the pacing stretches into oblivion, particularly in the middle - and while I admire that the film wants to show a picture of tropical life as a place where people actually go about the business of their lives, and it's wonderful to see a return of the tiny adult slice-of-life pictures that were far more common before Payne took his protracted break from filmmaking they are now, The Descendants would be far more satisfying if it was actually good at those things. I do not refuse to hold out hope that this is just Payne re-learning how to make a movie, but that doesn't do much to make me feel better about the tepid and mean-spirited thing we have before us.

5/10

DECEMBER 2011 MOVIE PREVIEW

So, I'm pretty close to done caring about the year - the big glut of Oscar-begging releases in December never appeals to me simply because my taste and the Academy's overlap so very little, and this year seems especially dire on that front. Even the films that "should" seem exciting just really aren't. On the other hand, 2012 is shaping up very pretty in a lot of ways, so pushing through the last month of a generally flat but never outright hateful year doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

2.12.2011

Something you don't see everyday- not one single new wide release. But of the tiny releases, one that I am especially thrilled to finally see is Shame, the sophomore effort from director Steve McQueen, whose debut Hunger was absolutely phenomenal and one of the best first features of the '00s. And hey, it even brings back Hunger star Michael Fassbender!


9.12.2011

Also, if this is what wide releases look like, they're welcome to keep them: New Year's Eve, which takes the Valentine's Day/Love Actually concept of a big cast of moderate stars in a bunch of little romcom plots and takes it well beyond the point that it should have stopped. Also The Sitter, an R-rated comedy with Jonah Hill that was apparently the best thing David Gordon Green could think to do after hitting what was apparently not a career low with Your Highness.

Thankfully, there are limited releases enough to make up for it: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which has a lot to live up to, but the talent to do it; Young Adult, with re-teams Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman in a pairing that is hopefully going to be good for both of them after the terrible things that happened when they parted ways; and hell, let's even throw in W.E. since even though I cannot imagine how a costume drama directed by Madonna can possibly be good, I am desperately curious.


16.12.2011

I didn't like Guy Ritchie's edgy steampunk Sherlock Holmes, and would ordinarily say that its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, seems like an awful idea, but I am still desperately hoping that it wins the weekend box office and I have to go see it. Because if it doesn't, then I'll have to go see Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, which is undoubtedly the saddest thought that I've been plagued by all year, and coming up to it is like nearing the date of your death sentence.

Five days before its actual wide release, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol makes an IMAX-exclusive run; nothing about the film seems like it can possibly be compelling (the franchise was never truly great to start with, and Tom Cruise just keeps getting older), but shit, live-action Brad Bird. That's me in the seats the second I can possibly get there.

Limited: Roman Polanksi's apparently just kinda OK adaptation of the much-loved play Carnage. So much for a post-Ghost Writer career renaissance.


21.12.2011

The pokiness of the month generally is resoundling answered with one of the fullest release weeks of the whole year, split between three days. Besides M:I-GP breaking big, there is also The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is undoubtedly going to improve on the middling Swedish original, though I am not certain that there is a masterpiece to be carved out of this material; nor am I thrilled that ordinarily-slow director David Fincher has cranked out a second movie in hardly more than a year. But the teaser trailer was one of the best things of 2011, so that's that.

Far, far more promising, by my lights, is The Adventures of Tintin, which is in one breath Steven Spielberg's first animated film, first mo-cap film,and first 3-D movie; and deep down inside, I think that the fact I am excited for those three things does not actually change the fact that I am not actually excited by Tintin itself, especially being that I am an American and thus have no real attachment to the character.


23.12.2011

Saddled with an uncertain release date in the middle of nowhere, We Bought a Zoo looks to bring Cameron Crowe back into the world, apparently by replacing tyrannical quirkiness with uncut schmaltz, but maybe the trailers are just desperate to attract a family audience.


25.12.2011

I'll tell you what says Christmas to me: a sci-fi horror thriller, like The Darkest Hour. Shit, can anything be more horrible than being the Christmas Day counter-programming?

The real players are two of the biggest likely Oscar players of the year, assuming they both don't suck: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, the fourth feature by three-time Best Director nominee Stephen Daldry, whose best film was a tepidly charming British dramedy, and who's worst was The Reader, one of the absolute worst Best Picture nominees of all time. I am prepared to be let down. The actual wide release film is War Horse, the second Spielberg movie in four days. It is undoubtedly going to be so damn sentimental that it will hurt, but I'm more excited for this one than Tintin anyway; heck, I'm probably more excited for this than any other December film, which says more about the month than anything. But I have never been much averse to letting my emotions be ruthlessly played by Steven Spielberg.


28.12.2012

A lousy release date for a mini-budget indie, but I have it on good authority that Pariah is damn fine, and if the best it could get was a Hail Mary qualifying run, then so be it.


30.12.2012

And so the year ends with Meryl Streep playing a nice version of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

Oh, and one of the most wildly praised films of the year released anywhere in the world is crapped out to make a desperate bid at the Oscars: Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's political firebomb A Separation. Hope y'all live in a tiny segment of either LA or New York if you want to see this presumptive masterwork! Also, fuck you, Sony Pictures Classics.

29 November 2011

THE WILL TO POWER

There was every reason on earth to assume that J. Edgar was going to be bad or horrible: it is an Oscar season biopic, and that is absolutely never a good sign, directed by Clint Eastwood, a filmmaker with a one-size-fits-all aesthetic, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who hasn't done anything to seriously challenge himself since 2002's Catch Me If You Can. And sure enough, J.Edgar is almost exactly what it feels like it ought to be with all of those strikes against it, but the whole effect is honest-to-God compelling anyway, possibly because the straitjackets of Eastwood's directing, DiCaprio's limited acting, and the inherent formalism of the biopic all unite so nicely with the subject matter of a man of great power and virtually no imagination who persisted in seeing the world in terms of binaries, primarily his unyielding certainty in his own rightness against everybody and everything else.

It is still a considerably flawed movie. Of all the great living American filmmakers, Eastwood is the likeliest to be hobbled by an ineffective screenplay, frequently not even attempting to fix it: his last film, Hereafter started shooting against the complaints of its own writer that the script wasn't ready yet. And that is exactly what happens in J. Edgar, particularly when we compare it to its two most obvious antecedents, The Aviator (a biography of an prominent 20th Century figure with severe mommy issues) and Milk (a gay-themed biopic written by J. Edgar screenwriter Dustin Lance Black). Those films boasted directors in the form of Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant, respectively, who have customarily attacked a poor script as an opportunity and a challenge, and both of their films ended up being better than they had any right to be. J. Edgar, on the contrary, is exactly as schematic as the form dictates, beginning in the 1960s with a surly J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) reciting his memoirs to anaide, presenting his own private history of the preceding 40-something years during which he turned the FBI into a dominant force in American law enforcement, the self-serving revisionism of an angry man with a passionate need to control everything and everyone around him.

The biggest problem with the film is its strict adherence to the familiar biopic formula of taking place entirely within a nest of flashbacks: neither Eastwood nor Black can ever quite make sense of the hopping back and forth between the 1960s and Hoover's rise to power - contrasting the Lindbergh baby kidnapping with the Kennedy assassination might make sense somewhere, in some tortured way, but it is not here - and the immediate comparisons we get to make between a doughy, wrinkled Hoover in his old age and the leaner, but no less lively Hoover-as-24-year-old are too self-conscious to come across as well as the filmmakers certainly intended (meanwhile, some of the cuts used to "cunningly" tie the two eras together are just too cutesy for words, and far beneath what Eastwood's regular editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach, have proven themselves capable of in the past).

What is a little bit surprising, given the pedigree, is how convincing the actual meat of the character study is: there's a little bit of Psychology 101 and a whole lot of Freudianism in this tale of how Hoover's leathery mother (Judi Dench) turned him into a neo-fascist power freak by insisting that he always be in control of everything, while forcing him to tragically and traumatically stomp all over his attraction to men with her sneering hatred of "deviants", language that Hoover himself adopted, but thankfully it's not spelled out for us so glaringly as in The Aviator, which all but opens with the thesis statement, "this is about his mother". Indeed, by the time Black starts to hammer us over the head with things, the movie has been going on for quite long enough that we've figured it out, mostly, through the film's implications and innuendos, though this does not make the last 25 minutes any less garish or trying, as we get characters screaming at Hoover and scenes of him dressed in his mother's clothes, weeping softly (J. Edgar falls apart in the last act as thoroughly as a decent-until-that-point biopic could possibly do).

Up until it comes down with an attacks of the obvious, though, J. Edgar is remarkably non-sensational in telling its tale of how a miserable, crabbed hypocrite tried to purify himself through moral absolutism, and through using a position of considerable power to force that absolutism on everyone else. Eastwood and Black regard Hoover as a tragic figure, rather than as a monster - in the broken-down last act, he's visually and narratively contrasted with Richard Nixon, the director's hamfisted way of saying, "see what an actual cartoon bad guy looks like?" - and though the film never absolves him for being a petty tyrant and arbitrarily cruel to the only people he ever let into his life, the filmmakers feel sorry for him much more than they want to indict him.

A lot this is programmatic, and it doesn't all work the way it might: as Hoover's lifelong companion and presumed lover Clyde Tolson, Armie Hammer is mostly asked to stand and be pretty, and then he is asked to wear some of the most unutterably bad old-age makeup in modern memory (DiCaprio's does not look half as bad, though it's no great shakes), and with that character given so little of interest to do, some of the best chances to dig into Hoover's actual heart and soul are simply ignored. Naomi Watts, as the FBI director's personal secretary, gets even less to do, though her make-up is probably the best in the movie. I don't mean to keep bringing it up, but it's wildly distracting; film being a visual medium, when the visuals get in the way of the story being told, that is a problem, and it's no good when the big emotional confrontations primarily raise questions like, "Why is Armie Hammer wearing cake batter all over his face?"

But DiCaprio himself is unexpectedly good - or maybe it's better to say that J. Edgar uses his limitations better than anything else has in years. He's stern, mirthless, and inflexible; awful sins in most performances, but that's who the character was, or at least that's who the film wants him to be. And Eastwood's famously stripped-down aesthetic of heavily desaturated colors and arch-minimalist music is far better suited to this sober-minded business than it was to e.g. Changeling; Tom Stern's characteristic cinematography is as effective as in any Eastwood film since Letters from Iwo Jima.

Which doesn't keep the film from being sort of tired on the whole: Eastwood's entire scheme of late has been to be something of a generic magpie, telling stories of every stripe using that same basic, raw sort of filmmaking (the cinematic equivalent to Hemingway's unadorned prose), and it frequently doesn't work at all, such as when he tried to make a paranormal drama with Hereafter; but then again, the very messiness of that film, or Changeling, makes them fascinating curiosities. J. Edgar is far too competent to have that kind of fascination; but it is not good enough on its own terms to reach the highs of a Million Dollar Baby. In the process of making a largely effective biopic, Eastwood has made... a largely effective biopic, and there's not much that's less interesting than an effective biopic, particularly one that's overlong and has the structural wobbliness of J. Edgar. It's good to know he can still crank out a straightforward, handsomely professional piece of work, but it didn't have to be so safe and sedate in the process.

7/10

JEKYLL AND HYDE: THE EARLY YEARS

Over at Fandor's Keyframe blog, they're doing a week in praise of silent actors, occasioned by the limited release of The Artist. I was commissioned to write a piece on the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore - because silent horror is kind of how I roll - and that piece has gone live today. Here's a sample to whet your appetite:
Barrymore rose to the occasion with one of the best of his silent performances: his Edward Hyde in particular is a virtually perfect embodiment of what Stevenson wrote way back in the 19th Century. Unlike most of the latex-heavy later iterations of the character, Barrymore’s Hyde isn’t nearly so grotesque and simian; indeed, in his first transformation (a miracle of acting technique – in one long take, the matinee-handsome Jekyll turns into a snarling, hulking monster, and it’s 100% Barrymore’s expressions and a little bit of surreptitiously applied makeup that makes it work), he looks like a normal, everyday human being, only meaner.
Be sure to head over there and read the rest!

28 November 2011

THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF

Martin Scorsese has always been at his best when he's challenging himself the most, and that is why Hugo always seemed like a great idea for him even though it was completely weird: a big-budget 3-D family movie with a child protagonist, set in a magical realism version of Paris around 1930. The good news is that it's even better than the best-case scenario would have seemed to have been: the director hasn't just recharged his batteries but been completely reborn. There is a freshness to Hugo that he hasn't had access to in ages, an intoxication in the sheer joy of making cinema (a joy that is reflected in John Logan's screenplay, adapted from a book by Brian Selznick). After a decade of theoretically interesting genre experiments that have tested the limits of Leonardo DiCaprio's ability to furrow his brow and be serious, Hugo is a heady blast of energy; I will go all the way and say that it's Scorsese's best film since Goodfellas - thoroughly entertaining, formally challenging, and an outstanding demonstration of some of the best craftspeople now active in American cinema doing their very best work.

The story is simple enough that it doesn't seem that it should possibly be able to fill 127 minutes: there is a young boy named Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who lives in an apartment inside the walls of the main Paris train station, keeping all of the clocks there wound up and in good repair. In his free time, he steals food and tools to fix a mechanical man that is the only memento he has of his late father (Jude Law); he also dodges the orphan-hunting station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and a wily old man, Georges (Ben Kingsley) who owns the toy shop in the station where most of Hugo's spare parts come from. In due course, Hugo manages to fix the robot with the help of Georges's aggressively precocious granddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and in the process they discover a) that Georges invented it in his youth, and b) he is Georges Méliès, pioneering film director in the 1890s and 1900s, and arguably the single most important figure in the first decade of cinema (among his credits: inventing the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and creating the first visual-effects driven narratives).

There are two stories in Hugo, and Scorsese obviously loves them both very much. One of these is the main tale of how Hugo takes the bitter, broken old Georges and gives him a new lease on life, "repairing" the old man as he repaired the robot, in a metaphor that the film over-stresses just a little bit, but in a movie that is meant to be enjoyed by children, one can usually concede an overcooked theme here or there. The other is a big, sappy love letter to Méliès and early sound cinema in those days before anybody really knew what cinema was. Scorsese probably knows more about film history than any other director in the world, and he's in a good position to fill Hugo with references to movies from Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory to Safety Last, some obvious and some powerfully oblique, and setting the whole show in a blatantly artificial Paris that's taking its cues from À nous la liberté. It is tempting therefore to regard Hugo as just a giant puzzle for cinephiles, but the real magic of it isn't that it lets people in the know look at each other with smug little grins, but that it makes that whole century-old world of silent cinema alive and vibrant and real. At one point, Hugo and Isabelle sneak into Safety Last, and we watch them watching the movie and having an absolutely grand time of it, which serves as a metaphor for Hugo itself: it tries to show, and largely succeeds, how intensely fun it can be to watch old silents, and to put its own audience of 21st Century young people right in the same position as our protagonists, watching in amazed delight as Harold Lloyd almost falls off a clock tower.

It's not just a PSA for old movies, though (admittedly, at a couple of points, someone gets to talking about the need for film preservation in such earnest tones that it was a touch surprising that the URL for Scorsese's Film Foundation didn't pop up onscreen). It is a celebration of all movies, and the transportive joy that comes from watching them, particularly when they are made by a director with as surefooted a sense of visual creativity as Méliès - or Scorsese himself, though he's far too humble a filmmaker to ever compare himself directly with such a master. He has, however, left himself wide open to have those comparisons made on his behalf, for even as no filmmaker now working has quite the same facility with how to use a camera kinetically as Scorsese, responsible for some of the most perfect moving shots in the history of the medium, it's even more impressive when Scorsese applies his talents to a 3-D movie. In what has turned out to be a watershed year for the format, what with Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Pina demonstrating how essential the technology can be in sustaining a film's message and mood, Hugo is still The One - it is the best 3-D movie I have ever seen, a film in which depth is never used in a gaudy way but always in a spectacular way. Shots down narrow hallways, shots through windows with Paris sitting outside like a delicate little shadow box, shots through the robot man with the dimensionality drawing our attention simultaneously to every gear and wheel. It is, as has been widely noted, the bleeding-edge equivalent to Méliès's own movies, in which stunning effects and bold ideas were the whole entire point of the thing; it's cinema as pure presentational event, dazzling us solely because it is fun to dazzle.

Unlike those movies, Hugo has a story, and a fun one (it takes a bit long to get going, but at that point we're still getting used to the eye-popping visuals, so it balances out. For it's 2011 after all, and one can't just do a straight-up Cinema of Attractions riff (this is the term used to describe these early films, in which spectacle was its own justification), but Scorsese has the right ingredients to do that if he wanted: Dante Ferretti, arguably the best living production designer of storybook-realist set designs, has provided a labyrinthine vision of the train station that ranks among his best work ever, along with his frequent collaborator Francesca Lo Schiavo, one of the great living set decorators; Sandy Powell, arguably the best living period costume designer (and unquestionably the most prominent) clothes everybody in just the right mixture of colors and textures and lines to suggest the glories of '20s Paris without it feeling like an actual fussed-over period piece. Scorsese's right hand, Thelma Schoonmaker, edits with her usual narrative propulsion and thematic insight (outside of The Departed, I've never found her work other than flawless*). The cast is uniformly strong, with Kingsley and Christopher Lee as a kindly bookseller as the best in show, but nobody, out of a very well-packed cast of character actors in small (sometimes very small) roles, has anything to be ashamed of; 14-year-old Butterfield himself is impressively able to shoulder the weight of the movie, appearing in virtually every scene and always burying his character's emotional pain in a way that is moving and doesn't feel at all "acted". Even Moretz, a child actress I find fatiguing much of the time, is perfect in the role of a buzzy, hectic-but-not-annoying enthusiast.

There is, in fact, only one flaw in particular that I can think to bring up: though Scorsese's current regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson, does a perfectly fine job of giving the whole thing a nice bedtime story gloss of warm shadows, Hugo is positively rotten with our good friend orange & teal, to the point I wanted to start screaming. And this isn't just picky criticking, it actually gets in the way of the story and emotional beats. For example, early on, Hugo's eyes are so blue and his face is so orange, he looks basically inhuman; and the movie is so uniformly-colored that if not for the nutsy excess of the sets, it would start to become boring to look at. And that is the reason I am not giving the film a perfect score, though there are plenty of good reasons why I might: starting with its miraculous opening sequence in which a gear turns into Paris, and Scorsese's balletic camera moves us in and out and all around through Hugo's marvelous world - it is easily the best opening sequence I have seen since WALL·E - down to the closing gambit in which Scorsese demolishes the difference between his own brand of movie spectacle and Mélès's by showing us several clips from the French master's films, converted to 3-D and looking far more amazing like that than all of the tawdry summer blockbusters to lazily post-convert. All in all, it's a truly magical thing; catch me in a less nitpicky mood and it might even get that 10. As it is, this is surely essential viewing, a great family movie that is a great formal exercise and about as much fun on both counts as I've had in a theater all year.

9/10

27 November 2011

DANGER ZONE

It being Thanksgiving weekend, and thus the time of year for being thankful, I figured I would at long last express my gratitude towards the last three contributors to the Carry On Campaign, who all requested an essay that I was unable to achieve in a timely fashion for one reason or another. The first one up is the review requested by one Cameron Shaw, who was by some months the last person to make a request, though she was also the very first person to donate. I gave her a pass on account of she is a close personal friend of mine; and it is because she is a close personal friend that her request was for me to watch and review one of the all-time iconic movies which I had, to my endless shame, never actually seen before now.

Top Gun is not a subtle movie. It is a movie where watching it, you get the feeling that every last sentence in the screenplay ended with an exclamation point. It is a movie in which the characters are all so uni-dimensional that they're not even given proper names, just adjectives describing how we're meant to feel about them: "Maverick" is the free spirited rule-breaker that we can't help but admire for his moxie, "Iceman" is the rock-steady, cool-as-a-cucumber jerk, "Goose" is the charming, amusing sidekick. I'll confess to being a bit rankled by it all, but that is my fault and not the film's - it knows what it is and it is quite the best possible version of what it is. Complaining, "I didn't like Top Gun because it's loud and the plot is barely there and the characters are flat and all that matters is sleek photography of Navy jets gliding in and out of frame like a sports car on a mountain road in a TV commercial" is like complaining that broccoli tastes like a green vegetable.

Some of us do not like green vegetables, and some of us do not like big noisy dumb action movies, but I'll admit this much about Top Gun: it is the exemplar of its form. It takes being willfully stupid and shallow and wildly stylish - not the same thing as "stylised" - to a whole other level of artistry. There is an extremely good reason that at 25 years old, this is still an iconic film amongst those who like their action movies to double down on the sizzle and don't give a shit about steak, which is that not a single one of the movies to follow in its wake - which includes not just the vast majority of director Tony Scott's subsequent filmography, but countless summertime blockbusters and popcorn movies from Michael Bay's explosion porn and all his many imitators, to Luc Besson's flashy Euro-trotting action adventure epics - has come even close to replicating its absolute purity. Top Gun informs us at the beginning that it expects us to like our jets shiny, our heroes ballsy, and our patriotism full-throated, and it proceeds to spend one hour and forty-nine minutes exploring those ideas with the minimum possible level of self-reflection. It is the ideal time capsule of the Reagan '80s right down to its synth-soaked musical score and the two hugely successful pop songs it kicked off, Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone" and Berlin's "Take My Breath Away", both produced and co-written by Giorgio Moroder, the man behind earlier quintessentially '80s piece "Flashdance... What a Feeling"

In fact, Top Gun is basically "Flashdance for Boys",* producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson's third great success (Beverly Hills Cop was second) at capturing the Zeitgeist in a bottle with a film that is unabashedly and unashamedly tacky, trashy, and wildly stupid. Indeed, Top Gun might be as stupid, and as proud of its stupidity, as any major box office hit of the 1980s, and this is a feature, not a flaw.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Maverick (23-year-old Tom Cruise, in the role that took the promising newcomer of Risky Business and made him a for-real Movie Star), whose real name, Pete Mitchell, is completely irrelevant next to the fact that he is a hotshot pilot with a killer smile and charm to spare, and a total lack of interest in how things in the Navy are supposed to be done. His skills far outweigh his dangerous recklessness, and he is sent to TOPGUN, where the absolute best of the Navy's pilots are trained to be even better, and there he continues to be a hotshot and a smiler, effortlessly seducing his civilian intstructor Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood (28-year-old Kelly McGillis, in the role that... oh, sorry about that Kelly, you should not have tried to break out as the female romantic lead in the most homoerotic movie of all time), sparring with the far more disciplined hotshot Iceman (Val Kilmer), and raising all kinds of hell. At one point, his radar intercept officer Goose (Anthony Edwards) dies in an accident that is, shockingly, not even remotely Maverick's fault, and this sends the ace spiraling into self-doubt, which he recovers from just in time to learn that teamwork is even better than being a lone wolf, if you're the best member of the team, so that he and his TOPGUN buddies can win the Cold War, or some such. Truth be told, the final act doesn't make any sense on a number of levels, but it lets Maverick Cruise kill Commies in a plane, and that is the part that matters.

The film appeals to the most reactive, lizardlike part of the 12-year-old male's brain: the filmmakers have done such a good job of it that they even manage to nail the 12-year-old's difficulty deciding whether girls are hot or if they're still gross. This makes life awful for poor Charlie, who has to adopt a man's name just to show up in the cast, and also be played by the, let us say, handsome McGillis, while Goose's wife is played by Meg Ryan at maximum bubbly girliness. In the meantime, there is a rather lengthy scene during which Iceman flirts with Maverick in a locker room, and later there is a volleyball scene in which most of the cast are shirtless, sweaty, and filmed like the bottles in a tequila commercial, while Kenny Loggins sings the spectacularly mis-titled "Playing with the Boys". The film is itself too pre-sexual to actually feel like a PG-13 gay porno - the only sex that matters is the onanism of having the biggest flying dick, and not the kind that goes on between two persons of any gender (as evidenced by the hastily stubbed-in Maverick/Charlie sex scene that was filmed in response to test audiences, and feels that way). But it is certainly hyper-male, obsessed to the point of psychosis with male-male bonding; so it's probably more homosocial than homoerotic anyway. But basically: boys being boys with boys. It caters to laddishness, to immaturity, to being a dude among dudes.

It's altogether disreputable, then, and in a way that has made a lot of people very happy over the years, though there's a huge part of me that is sort of terrified by that fact. For sure, it's glossy as all hell: Tony Scott even at his worst is a magnificently flashy craftsman, finding a nice balance between clarity (the film's editors, Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber, earned an Oscar nomination and it's hard to say it wasn't deserved) and pizzazz that has always kept his films coherent, at least; this was less of a concern in the '80s than today, but the degree to which Top Gun manages to look like an advertisement (for planes? the military? masculinity itself?) while functioning as a motion picture is to its credit even in the context of its time, when few movies were willing to adopt such balls-out shininess, the kind that if not perfectly handled, turns into the worst kind of superficiality, viz. the aforementioned Mr. Bay.

Not that Top Gun is anything but superficial. It is a pinnacle of superficiality - a masterpiece. It contains the most superficial of all important Tom Cruise performances; its theme barely even has the substance to count as "jingoism", which at least has a literate Britishness associated with it. I will confess that even though it commits absolutely no errors whatsoever, I did not like it much at all; but even my dislike is from a place of awe, rather than derision. Top Gun is basically perfect, even it is perfect at one of the worst sorts of things a movie can attempt.

25 November 2011

GEE, IT'S GOOD TO BE TOGETHER AGAIN

Being the final day of Muppet Week at Antagony & Ecstasy

That The Muppets would be first and above all a nostalgia trip was probably to be expected; that it would be so very little else besides is a faint disappointment at least, though the fact that it is, after all, the Muppets we're talking about takes some of the sting out - if you're going to be nostalgic, you might as well be nostalgic for the very best. It's clear through every single inch of the movie is that co-writers Jason Segel & Nicholas Stoller love the characters created by the late Jim Henson with the purest and most undying sort of love, and obviously regard it as the privilege of a lifetime that they have the opportunity to write a grand comeback for them. It's awfully easier to wish that the film could be a bit more of its own thing and a bit less "wow, isn't it wonderful how we all came into the theater already loving the Muppets so much?", but it is a far better thing than their last theatrical vehicle, 1999's Muppets from Space (though it's hard to imagine what wouldn't be, outside of a feature-length video of Segel lighting the puppets on fire and then urinating on the ashes), and that's worth at least a little bit of something.

It's not just that the film is full of references to Muppetania past, or that it proudly and willfully trumpets its attachment to jokes and attitudes that were already deliberately anachronistic during the Muppets's heyday, though it does these things. In fact, the plot is itself about Muppets nostalgia: it introduces us to a pair of brothers from Smalltown, U.S.A, Gary (Segel) and Walter (Peter Linz), the latter of whom just so happens to be a three-foot tall felt puppet himself - the movie does not dwell on this fact any more than is absolutely necessary to drive the plot, for which I am especially grateful - and whose youth was a plagued experience until he first saw The Muppet Show on TV, and realised that there were other beings like him in the world. This made him a lifelong Muppet obsessive, with the single overriding dream of visiting Muppet Studios in Los Angeles to meet his heroes and expressive his love and gratitude. His chance comes when Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, who was born to be in a Muppet movie) elect to spend their tenth anniversary in the city of Mary's dreams, that selfsame L.A. - making Mary arguably the least sympathetic person in the history of cinema, but let's run with it - and extend Walter an invitation to tag along; at least Gary invites him, Mary sort of passive-aggressively doesn't actively say no.

There, they find the old Muppet Studios a creaking, abandoned relic, and even worse, Walter overhears a big oilman, Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), plotting about how he's going to buy the property and raze it to drill for his precious, precious crude. The rest of the movie concerns the attempt to thwart him, which inevitably involves finding the Ur-Muppet, Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire), and convincing him to put on a show to save the place. This in turn requires finding all the usual suspects, and then proving to themselves and the world that even though time has passed the Muppets by, they are still just as clever and funny and necessary as they ever were. This is done successfully, though maybe not in quite the way you'd predict.

I am first not entirely convinced of the honesty of the theme: while the plot of The Muppets neatly mirrors its practical function to Walt Disney Pictures, attempting to prove the financial viability of the classic characters with a target audience that was not yet born at the release of their last truly great vehicle, the 1992 picture The Muppet Christmas Carol, it's really not at all the case that Kermit, at least, has been invisible for so long that your average 12-year-old has absolutely no idea who he is, and the film goes even farther by suggesting without saying it outright that the last time anybody cared about the Muppets was at the time of 1979's The Muppet Movie, and that's just plain insanity (The Muppet Show itself stayed on the air until 1981, and it wasn't poor ratings that ended it). But in a less literal sense, it is true that family entertainment has moved on a lot since the days that Henson worked his special brand of optimistic humanist magic, and not for the better. So much of the film's relentless pursuit of proving that Kermit and friends remain legitimately fun, appealing, and hugely worthwhile entertainment is certainly a valid point of view, and since the method in which Segel, Stoller, and director James Bobin (treating the material with pointed anonymity and absolutely none of the dryness of Flight of the Conchords, the arch-ironic sitcom he co-created) try to prove this point is by showcasing the Muppets being the Muppets as best as they can write it, it's basically a whole hell of a lot of fun. If you're a Muppet fan. Or willing to be made a Muppet fan; but really, why would anyone flat-out not be a Muppet fan? This is, anyway, the movie's perspective on the matter, and I am content to agree with it.

And so, that's what we get: a love letter to the Muppets, crossbred with just a soupçon of fanfiction - that Segel has written a part for himself in which he becomes best buddies with the Muppets makes him something of a Mary Sue (and I like to imagine that the names Gary and Mary indicate that Segel isn't entirely unaware of this). Given what it is, it's no surprise that the affair is uneven, though it surely skews towards being successful. The flat moments are rare, and mostly bunched up near the front, during the more patently expository phase (though it's shocking how much the Gary/Walter plotline isn't annoying and is, in fact, somewhat touching in spots). There aren't more than two or three outright dead spots, of which the two that most rankle are both musical numbers: a "clean up the theater" montage pointless set to "We Built This City", and a gruelingly unamusing barbershop quarter cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". Most of the other missteps are so minor that it barely seems right to call them flaws: there's an over-reliance on pointing out that movie characters can use montages and the like to do things more quickly than real-world people (and the biggest problem there is how closely together the jokes occur); the celebrity cameos, outside of Alan Arkin and maybe Zach Galifianakis, are nowhere near as inspired as they were in earlier Muppet movies.

The worst thing is that, for a film that bases itself so utterly on our collective cultural love of the Muppets, there's a lot of fumbling with the characters: Whitmire's Kermit has never been better, but he still labors too intently under Henson's shadow, and refuses to put his own stamp on the character. This has the effect of ossifying the genial frog, much as the '40s and '50s turned Mickey Mouse into a cardboard Everyman. Some of the other characters are better than others: Eric Jacobson, who took over Frank Oz's characters in the early '00s, does wonderful things with Fozzie, and acquits himself fine with Animal, but turns Piggy into a shallow caricature; Bill Baretta makes a hash of Dr. Teeth and Rowlf in their small roles. Dave Goelz, the only Golden Age Muppeteer on hand, at least provides needed and welcome continuity with Gonzo, but there's not enough of him.

Still and all, complain though I might about incidentals, for every one moment that made me outright grimace, there were a half a dozen "aww" moments, and though the film is heavier on grins than on belly laughs, there are a couple of absolutely ingenious conceits dotted here and there, which tact forbids me from mentioning for fear of spoiling. The new songs, mostly written by Bret McKenzie, are generally not as memorable as one would hope for, but none of them are bad, while one, "Pictures in My Head" (the only one not written by McKenzie, as it turns out), gives Kermit a sweetly heartwrenching chance to muse on the friends he's lost over the years - it's frankly a bit too harshly depressive for the Muppets of yore, but it feels right in the moment, anyway - and the opening "Life's a Happy Song" is an exceptionally bouncy bit of fun that swiftly and painlessly introduces us to the new characters. The musical highlight is a reprise of "Rainbow Connection" that's not half as exquisite or simple as in The Muppet Movie, and this somehow feels lazy, but we might well ask if it is every the wrong thing to hear Kermit the Frog sing "Rainbow Connection", in any context.

The whole thing is ultimately too in awe of its own characters, respecting them without pushing them, to feel as fresh and sharp as The Muppet Movie; but it compares tolerably well to the early sequels The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan; none of the new filmmakers have Henson's gift for being embarrassingly earnest without coming across as treacly, and there are a lot of places where the movie suffers from an acute attack of the sweets. But they've kind of earned it, don't you think? They're the freaking Muppets, after all, and while there's nothing terribly ambitious or ingenious about a movie that hoists out the characters with pornographic abandon and says "Here. Muppets. Love them", no pop-culture figures of the last 50 years are quite as worthy of that kind of abnegation of intellectual rigor. If its reflected glory is not probably enough to make it a classic in its own right, the way the first three movies are, thirty-odd years later, it is neverthless a fine and enjoyable Muppet picture for this day, and if it manages to bring the characters back into the sun and spawn its own run of sequels, I am assuredly not one to complain.

7/10

24 November 2011

IN THANKS

As I am presently sweating off what very well might be the heaviest meal I have ever eaten - at least, I have not been in such pain so long after a meal in as long as I can recall - yes, these are quintessentially first world problems - my hugely ambitious plan for blogging tonight will have to hang on for another day.

But that just gives me a good excuse to take advantage of this day of thanks to say that, as always, I am profoundly grateful to all of you, my readers; this has been my most professionally satisfying year of blogging since I started this all the way back in 2005, and it would not have been possible without your support and good feelings over the years. So I thank you all, deeply and sincerely.

To my US readers celebrating, and to everyone else for whom it's just a Thursday, I hope the day finds you and your families well.

23 November 2011

LIKE AN OLD FAMILIAR SONG

Being the third day of Muppet Week at Antagony & Ecstasy

The confession first: I enjoy The Muppets Take Manhattan more than it deserves: it is not, in any meaningful way, a better film than The Great Muppet Caper (Frank Oz, directing solo for the first time, can't match Jim Henson's easy shifting between moods in that picture, but he's more adept with the camera), and depending on your tolerance for unabashed sentimentality, it would be easy to claim that it is worse. This is due almost entirely to one single musical number right in the middle of the film: Miss Piggy is daydreaming about how different her life and the lives of the rest of the Muppet gang would be if they all had known each other since infancy, and we transition to a baby version of Piggy singing to a baby Kermit a '50s girl-band pastiche, "I'm Gonna Always Love You", with babies Fozzie, Gonzo, and Scooter providing back-up. This scene is, itself, an argument against the film - it serves no kind of narrative purpose whatsoever, and brings the story momentum to a dead stop - but it was so instantly popular with everybody who saw it that it inspired the creation of an animated TV series, Muppet Babies, that started just a couple of months after the film's premiere. And the important part is this: I am of the particular age that Muppet Babies, and not The Muppet Show, was my introduction to the core Muppet characters (of course, as I am a human being, Sesame Street was my introduction to Muppets as such), and remains one of the cornerstones of my childhood nostalgia; so my affection for the film which, whatever its flaws, has live action Muppet babies that are even cuter than their animated counterparts, outweighs my critical judgment. Apologies in advance.

When The Muppets Take Manhattan came out in 1984, it had been three years not only since the last Muppet feature, but three years as well since The Muppet Show had stopped airing. So when the film opens with Kermit singing the light, bouncy "Together Again", he's laying out the manifesto for the entire feature: the Muppets are back, and they're just like you've always known them, and everything in the world is well. This is the primary mood of the film: of all the many stories in the Jim Henson universe whose message boils down to "standing by your friends is the most important thing", not one of them is so thematically focused as this, nor so devoid of ornamentation. It is for this reason that despite including some of the darkest overtones of any of the Muppet movies, The Muppets Take Manhattan is undoubtedly the sweetest and most nakedly good-natured, almost to the point of dysfunction.

The story is as much a throwback to '30s and '40s tropes as The Great Muppet Caper, if not more: Kermit the Frog, in his senior year at college, has just directed a musical starring all his school friends, with the distinctly musty title Manhattan Melodies. The reception is so rapturous, in fact, that he's encouraged to find a producer to mount the show on Broadway. Things don't go that easily, and the Muppets are all obliged to find work doing whatever they can; eventually, concerned that they're putting too much of a strain on Kermit's natural tendency to want to bend over backward to help his friends, the whole gang agrees to split up and find their on way, letting the frog be his own man for the first time. The one exception is Miss Piggy, who is engaged to be engaged to Kermit, and who stays behind in New York to spy on what she believes to be his nascent relationship with the pretty human Jenny (Juliana Donald), daughter of the colorful ethnic (Louis Zorich) who owns the diner where Kermit has found work, however unsatisfying and low-paying. It comes to pass that Kermit attracts the attention of Ronnie Crawford (Lonny Price), the son of a great producer, and to the surprise of nobody, I hope, he's able to get his show on the fast track, and immediately gathers all his friends back. What is surprising, his plans are interrupted by a car accident - the sight of Kermit lying in a dazed pile on the street is as unsettling as it would be to watch Mickey Mouse in a pool of his own blood - and the last act of the movie involves the Muppets rehearsing the show while their leader, suffering from a bad case of amnesia, takes a horrifyingly soulless job in an all-frog ad agency.

The Muppets Take Manhattan is the first film to suffer from what would become the standard flaw of pretty much all Muppet productions, especially those made after Henson's death in 1990: it trades, a lot, on the audience's affection for the characters, without doing anything to work on its own merits. That is to say, The Muppet Movie, or any random episode of The Muppet Show, is great on account of sharp writing and ingenious gag construction and an essential warmth of spirit, and if that film, or that episode, was a viewer's very first exposure to the Muppet universe, there's no reason to assume that the viewer wouldn't be able to respond just as positively to it as anybody else. The Muppets Take Manhattan assumes, on the other hand, that the viewer already has a relationship with Kermit, and Fozzie, and Piggy, and everyone else, and it uses that assumed familiarity both to take some shortcuts in setting up character and plot, and to lend the film the bulk of its effect; on its own, it simply doesn't do enough to establish that the dissolution and then reunification of the Muppets is the stuff of great, emotional drama. This is not inherently a bad thing: it is one of the things that franchises have over stand-alone movies, that they have a great reservoir of past experience with which to manipulate the viewer. On the other hand, the slide of the Muppets from non-threatening anarchist tricksters to sentimental icons isn't terribly exciting - The Muppets Take Manhattan is both the least funny of the good Muppet movies (sometimes it seems almost that this is on purpose), and the least complex, lacking even one single example of meta-narrative play like that which made the show, the previous movies, and the future Muppet Christmas Carol so bracing and clever. Unless we count the presence of several Sesame Street characters, and Uncle Traveling Matt from Fraggle Rock in the final scene, a cute little gesture that would be significantly bettered three years later in A Muppet Family Christmas.

And yet the whole thing is so easygoing and so damn nice, it's hard not to be charmed by it. The songs by Jeff Moss are at least the equal of The Great Muppet Caper - both films had a songtrack by a Sesame Street veteran, and in both cases there's something ingratiating about the jaunty uptempo tunes reminiscent of that show's best music that's pleasing to the ear, even though there's not a "Rainbow Connection" between the two of them. The Muppet performances are all as good as a band of professionals could be expected to give after years of honing their work, even if there's no height like Frank Oz's work on Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper or Dave Goelz's Gonzo and Jim Henson's Kermit from The Muppet Movie. On the other hand, The Muppets Take Manhattan serves to cement the character of Rizzo the Rat, who had made a few appearances prior to this but only now achieved the final version of his personality, and gave Steve Whitmire his best role in the core Muppet canon (though I'd happily get into a knife fight to defend his best character overall being Wembley from Fraggle Rock). And that is maybe also a reason that my defenses are unduly weakened by The Muppets Take Manhattan - Rizzo is high in my personal pantheon of great Muppets.

Anyway, the whole thing is childish and gloppy with overbaked sentiment and a great deal of fun to watch. It's Muppet fan service, perhaps, but there are worse fandoms to serve. It is ultimately a story made from a place of love, not mercenary motives or cynicism, and that carries through right to the desperately earnest and obviously heartfelt final lines:
What better way could anything end?
Hand in hand with a friend.
If there's a better way to sum up Jim Henson's simple, boundlessly humane philosophy, I have not seen it.

I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO KNOWN YOU, BUT I WAS JUST A KID

"[Actor] doesn't play [Celebrity], they become [Celebrity]" is one of the most redoubtable and lazy tools in the critic's handbag, sure to come up anytime a new biopic is in the offing. All of us, I think, have fallen into the trap here or there because it's an easy and sincere thing to say about a particularly skilled bit of mimicry - but it is still to be avoided at all costs and with great prejudice.

I didn't have to work very hard to avoid bringing up that particular chestnut in regard to My Week with Marilyn, because if one thing about the film is 100% certain, Michelle Williams absolutely does not become Marilyn Monroe. She is playing Marilyn Monroe, and moreover playing her phenomenally fucking hard. It's awfully tiresome to watch, frankly, though that's true of the movie generally, which finds TV-trained director Simon Curtis and TV-trained writer Adrian Hodges crafting what feels a shitload like a TV movie, and not the kind of TV movie like you get on cable, where it feels more cinematic than the vast majority of what ends up playing on cinema. It suggests a network special during sweeps from the mid-1990s.

The factually-derived story centers on the time that Monroe went to England to star in The Prince and the Showgirl, directed by and co-starring Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh); a frothy and lightweight but readily-likable romantic comedy whose production was so miserable for everyone involved that Olivier abandoned directing altogether. The third assistant director on that film was a young man of privileged background, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), who had never worked on a movie set before and never would again, but thought it would be run to try to make it as a film professional; over the course of the tortured shoot, Monroe latched onto the mewling youth, and eventually adopted him as her aide, emotional bodyguard, and (if Clark's memoir The Prince, the Showgirl and Me is to be trusted), her lover for one single week.

That's basically the story that My Week with Marilyn tells: goggle-eyed innocent (Redmayne always looks, in everything, like he's about 15 seconds away from crying) meets the most famous, and famously sexual, woman of the 20th Century, and his deep wells of candor permit her to bear her soul and reveal the hurt, wounded woman behind the pin-up bombshell. Or does she? The other possibility is that she's so intensely aware of her own persona that she understands that "broken little girl" is merely a part of her carefully-nurtured legend, and uses it as a weapon to get what she wants from Colin, viz. sex with a virile young man who is not ill-tempered playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).

I am not going to make statements beginning with, "The biggest problem with My Week with Marilyn", because it's almost nothing but problems, but certainly one of the most endemic, conceptual problems, which it was likely never going to survive, is that the story and the theme don't support each other. If we pretend that the female lead isn't one of the most iconic beings in the history of popular culture, what we basically have here is the story of an overly romantic boy who gets in way over his head in the soul-destroying world of actors and their egos, who falls head over heels in love with a woman who just needs, for a few days, somebody who won't treat her like a prop in his own self-obsessed life, leaving him stranded and wracked by the experience. It is, in essence, Colin's story. And the one and only thing that Hodges and Curtis care about is the biopicky striptease by which they share with us The Real Marilyn Monroe. That is a tension that is never resolved because nobody, not even Redmayne, appears to notice that it's there in the first place. Fuck, even Me and Orson Welles, which did almost nothing right besides fail to catch on fire as it ran through the projector, managed to nail that balance.

Even without that, of course, there's the question of how much more about The Real Marilyn Monroe we as a culture can possibly need. No half-century dead film star has been dissected and examined by more people from more perspectives than Monroe; the insight that she was a nervous woman, desperate for anyone to love her, who played a vivacious blonde goddess that was a famous movie star in front of everyone she ever knew might possibly be shockingly new to someone, somewhere, but that person is almost certainly not enough of a Monroe fan to give a shit about My Week with Marilyn in the first place.

Besides the which, the film doesn't say anything about Monroe, not even as regurgitation: it talks a lot about her, sure, but the whole thing is so strained and tentative that it doesn't really demonstrate what it's talking about. This is, in great part, Williams's fault: she is a great actress, and she does everything in her power to recreate Monroe's gestures, her way of walking, her breathy, ever-so-slightly dazed voice (the padding used to give her Monroe's shape is, sadly, much more of a distraction than a performance aid), and it's one of the most skillful bits of mimicry out of all the many attempts to capture this woman of all women in film. But being Marilyn Monroe shouldn't look like hard work - that's the whole point of Marilyn Monroe. When she was onscreen, playing a character that she made up to be her public face, it looks absolutely seamless, and that's as much a part of Monroe's genius as anything else. You want to see a movie that showcases the gulf between that seamless being-Marilyn and the bitter soul of Norma Jeane Baker? Watch Some Like It Hot (the actress's very next movie after The Prince and the Showgirl) and listen for the acid in the back of her voice as she says "I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop". There's more potency in that single line delivery than in all of William's performance, and the movie surrounding it ain't half-bad, either.

Just about the only part of the film that actually works is the moviemaking stuff, a nostalgic trip into Pinewood Studios of old, with lots of cattiness and British charm (as inordinately pleasant acting veteran Dame Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench steals all of her scenes and runs right out of the theater with them under her arm, cackling). It is here that we get the real star of the film: not Williams's exertions and certainly not Redmayne's bland, mildewy lead role, but Branagh's delectably robust performance as Olivier, presented her the comic foil to Monroe's light tragedy, a gargantuan presence with no patience at all for the severe Method acting favored by his leading lady - that Williams tries so hard to be Monroe while Branagh suggests Olivier only in the slightest degree is perhaps a tiny nod to the characters' vastly different styles - and a deliriously fun bitch who gets all of the movie's best lines (a favorite: directing Monroe is like "trying to teach Urdu to a badger") and gives it all of its life. It's not much - the film is still a hacky, obvious biopic, directed with a crabbed lack of visual flair, and marching through its predetermined story with stentorian dullness, it includes too many characters (Julia Ormond's Vivien Leigh; Emma Watson, in her first post-Potter role, as Colin's love interest; Toby Jones's burly American studio exec Arthur Jacobs) that go nowhere, and it's much too bubbly to survive a mid-film drop into drama. But it has Branagh camping it up as best he can. Take what you can when you get it.

5/10

MO' PENGUINS, MO PROBLEMS

Happy Feet Two isn't really all that horrible, as animated sequels to musical adventure-comedies about animals that talk like television addicts go; but there's nothing much about that genre that inspires confidence even at the best of times, and besides the which, it has the unfortunate task of following the original Happy Feet, a beautifully-designed family epic that was one of the best non-Pixar animated features of the last ten years. So what might just seem like niggling flaws dotted all over the surface of HF2, petty annoyances that keep it from being anything but a bearably cloying time-waster, are thrown into hard-edged relief: it could have been this, but instead it is that, and that is hardly better than Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa or Ice Age: The Meltdown. Both of which are in fact handily worse than Happy Feet Two, but it's not as disappointing in those cases. Besides which, it's the first genuinely unsuccessful film that George Miller has ever directed, and that is surely worth some extra sadness.

As you perhaps remember, Happy Feet was the story of an emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood), who had a hard time growing up in a world where all penguins sing to express their inner selves; he'd much rather dance. And the film around him was a fairly basic story of being true to yourself and not letting the bastards get you down, told in such a fascinatingly weird milieu - penguin Moulin Rouge! in essence - and with such exhaustively beautiful visuals, and with such utter conviction that even though it was a story we've all seen a hundred times it's still a story that matters very much, that I, for one, found it positively irresistible. In Happy Feet Two, Mumble (who still looks like a half-chick, half-adult for absolutely no reason other than to make him visually distinct, and Christ did it bother me) has a wife, Gloria (Pink, or as she is anally credited, "Alecia Moore [P!nk]"), and a fuzzy little son Erik (Ava Acres), who can't really sing and can't really dance and mostly just sits there terrifying his parents with his apparent inability to function in penguin society whatsoever.

A couple of things happen at the same time that bring this situation to a head: first, Erik, and his two friends Atticus (child rapper Lil P-Nut) and Bo (Meibh Campbell) all trundle off to another part of Antarctica, where the Adélie penguins live, traveling there with Mumble's Adélie friend Ramon (Robin Williams), out looking for a lover. There they find a cult has grown up around the messianic Sven (Hank Azaria), who is a puffin and not a penguin, and I cannot to save my soul figure out if the filmmakers intended for us to know that before the characters find out. Anyway, Sven can fly, and he inspires penguins by the dozens with his feel-good New Agey bromides; Erik immediately decides that the only thing he wants to do is fly, and devotes himself to visualising that happening, on the logic that whatever you believe to be true will be true. The second thing is that, after Mumble leaves looking for his son, an iceberg shears from the wall surrounding the emperors' enclave, trapping them in a deep well. It ends up taking the combined efforts of several penguin nations just to keep the emperors from starving, but a bit of cross-species work is required to actually free them from their frozen prison.

It may or may not be clear from that synopsis, but Happy Feet Two has one hell of a messy script, written by four men, two of whom also contributed to the first one (Miller himself, and Warren Coleman), and all of whom apparently had an entirely different idea of what the movie should be about. The film has too many characters, too many concepts about the way life in this somewhat fantastic version of Antarctica works, too many musical numbers, and too much craziness all around - it's a whirlwind of activity and energy, very little of which makes sense and none of which coheres until the final act, when most of the characters have had their individual arcs arbitrarily dealt with so there can be a huge (and admittedly, enthrallingly choreographed and "shot") dancing jamboree to wrap up the plot. Watching the film is quite fatiguing, and the only part of the movie that worked for me at all was the stuff with the krill. With the what?, you might reasonably ask, because there was no mention of krill anywhere in that whole plot synopsis. Aye, well much like Scrat in the Ice Age pictures, the krill cross paths with the actual plot several times, but they never really interact with it except by coincidence. Also like Scrat, they are by far the most effective part of the movie that contains them.

They are Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon) - and yes, those are actually versions of the same name, but let us not judge the writers too heavily for it - who have left their giant krill storm on account of Will's newfound sense of self-identity and a desire to be something more than a minute crustacean suited only to being eaten by indiscriminate whales. In the face of all the chaos happening on land, the adventures of the krill are satisfying because it is so straightforward: a little tale of being your own person and being brave in the face of the unknown. Also, because Pitt and Damon have exquisite chemistry and bounce off of each other with perfect comic timing (I do not know if they recorded their lines together or separately, so there is that caveat). And thirdly because of Damon's enthusiastic descent into homoeroticism.

If only for those two, Happy Feet Two would be at least somewhat useful; there are a few other good things (the final dance sequence, bits and pieces of comic business throughout, Richard Carter's growling turn as an arrogant elephant seal), and it's never, ever hard to look at: there is surprisingly little improvement over the original, five-year-old movie, but since Happy Feet was already just about the best-looking animated film of the '00s outside of Pixar, that's not a terrible thing, not at all. Mostly, though, it's just dispiritingly sequel-ey: bigger, lousier musical numbers, no real character development, and a horribly muddled theme that at least tries to do something different from the original, but ends up tying itself into knots, expressing the idea of "it's always the most important thing to be yourself except when being yourself is impossible, in which case you should shut up and listen to your dad", which has the merit of being unusual, anyway. It's a sign of how aimless and hopelessly inchoate Happy Feet Two is that it can't even express its platitudes in clear language. It is still only a little worse than Cars 2, so that's a thing.

5/10

22 November 2011

SOMETHING SO QUIET THAT'S WAITING FOR YOU

Being the second day of Muppet Week at Antagony & Ecstasy

The Great Muppet Caper is perhaps the most Muppet-ish of the Muppet movies; not the best, for it is not as funny as The Muppet Movie, nor as full of heart, nor as nuanced in its dismantling of the fourth wall. But it gets the Muppet-ness of the characters more than The Muppet Movie, and this is at least partially because it was directed by Jim Henson himself, the man who died knowing more about what special alchemy turned felt hand puppets into the Muppets than anyone else could ever hope to learn. The 1981 feature was his first theatrically-released project, and to a certain extent, this shows (there are far more moments in this film than there are in The Muppet Movie that look like an episode of The Muppet Show composed for widescreen); but it would not do to accuse the director of the dauntingly complex TV special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas of not knowing his way around a camera, particularly when it comes to favoring his little three-foot creations and making their world look natural and lived-in enough that it's genuinely shocking to stop and think about how the sets would have all been full of trapdoors and holes and the like (in this respect, the film was a fine bit of practice for the next year's The Dark Crystal, which Henson co-directed with Frank Oz, and which remains arguably the most technically audacious project of Henson's career). No film could better suggest the physical reality of the Muppets, although some have come closer than others.

If I lead off with that observation, it's not by accident: the irritating but unavoidable fact is that, despite being a really fantastic Muppet film in visual and craft terms, frequently showing off how insanely talented Henson and his collaborators were and how ingenious they could be in times of need (a whole damn mess of Muppets on bikes, putting the single Kermit scene of the previous movie to shame; a jaw-dropping Miss Piggy underwater musical number), The Great Muppet Caper is perhaps the shallowest of the three classic Muppet films,* with the least amount of the unashamedly sappy humanism and generosity of spirit that was the heart and soul of Henson's whole damn career - odd that it should be true of the only Muppet film he personally directed, but there you have it.

The Great Muppet Caper opens with the most aggressive demolition of the fourth wall that the Muppets ever attempted, give or take the Disney theme park attraction Muppet*Vision 3D (which was, incidentally, the last thing Henson directed, and the final time he performed any of his characters): Kermit the Frog (Henson), Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz), and Gonzo (Dave Goelz) are hanging out in a hot air balloon, waiting for the credits to be done. Fozzie is getting rather impatient ("Nobody really reads those, do they?" he grouses, to which Kermit sagely replies that they all have families), Gonzo mostly wants to cut the ropes and see what free-fall feels like. Eventually, after much commentary from everyone involved, the credits end, the balloon lands, and our three heroes launch into a spirited performance of "Hey, a Movie!" the first of Joe Raposo's seven original songs and maybe my favorite; I think that nobody could argue that the film's music is as wonderful as in The Muppet Movie, and there is no single piece that dominates like "Rainbow Connection", but the bright and predominately uptempo song score has no clinkers to speak of, and the relentless upbeat tone recalls, in a very good way, Raposo's collection of beloved tunes from Sesame Street. But yes, "Hey, a Movie!", in which Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo inform us of how we're meant to watch the rest of the film: it's not really Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and everybody else, like it was in The Muppet Movie, but a made-up story in which the three Muppets are playing characters who happen to share their personalities and names, but not at all their professions, which is how we get to the point that Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins (you can tell them apart from the hat), investigative newspaper reporters with Gonzo as their photographer.

The thing that's best about this is how intensely the film insists that there's a "real" version of these three figures that is not identical to the role they're playing in the movie itself, without ever having to come out and state that it's doing so. Instead, the film simply takes as given that they are real, and the whole musical number is just there to make sure we don't get confused. It's dense as hell: post-modern in that The Great Muppet Caper demonstrates, heavily, its own fictive nature (not ten minutes go by without at least one outright reference to "we're in a movie" for the whole of the running time), and anti-post-modern in that it does everything possible to elide the fictional layer underneath the fiction of the movie itself.

And while that's clever and all, it's part of the reason that The Great Muppet Caper doesn't wrench the heartstrings like The Muppet Movie, or any number of other Henson productions: it's too pleased with how clever it is. This would be far less endurable if the film weren't so funny, and so inventive, but The Muppet Movie is also funny and inventive.

So, in due course, the three reporters fly to Britain to investigate a jewel thief case: fashion designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg) has been robbed, and the boys' jobs rely on their figuring out whodunnit. It turns out to be her brother, Nicky (Charles Grodin), and the dashed-off way that the film relates that information indicates how little The Great Muppet Caper cares about its own plot: the stuff that matters is the character interactions, primarily Kermit's courtship of Miss Piggy (Oz), whom he initially believes to be the same Lady Holiday. And, the chance to show off, and be witty, and all that.

It's not very warm, but it is a lot of fun, with mercilessly punny, stupid humor blended seamlessly with esoterica and snappy dialogue, as is typical for the characters - it took four people to write the script, of whom only Jerry Juhl had any previous Muppet experience, but the results crackle along, even if the movie ends up being neither a completely airtight homage to '30s screwballs (which appears to be the case for at least the first third of the movie) nor focused enough as a mystery-comedy to work perfectly on those grounds.

Mostly, though, it's Frank Oz's chance to show off with Miss Piggy like he never did before or ever did again. I am, confessedly, a Fozzie man; I enjoy Oz's porcine diva just fine, but she was never one of my favorites of the A-list Muppets. Still, there's no denying that she is magnificent in this movie: there are a solid half-dozen scenes in which Oz shows just how much you could actually get out of these puppets, whether it's the explosion of delight that she launches into upon being hired at Lady Holiday's offices, her side trip into an action movie during the third act, the water ballet that is maybe the most "how did they do that" dumbfounding thing in any of the Muppet movies, her giddily romantic performance of "The First Time It Happens", the other candidate for best song in the picture. It is too much to suggest that The Great Muppet Caper is The Piggy Show down the line, but it is a flawless vehicle for her unique personality.

And that alone is enough for the Muppet aficionado to regard the film as essential; besides the which, it's awfully playful and sturdily constructed, with better running gags than any other Muppet film, and two of the all-time best Muppet cameos, when John Cleese shows up as a befuddled wealthy man with a pig breaking into his house, and Peter Ustinov trading quips with Oscar the Grouch, mostly because that is the most awesome thing that could ever be. The one thing the film cannot do is jump the gap that The Muppet Movie danced around so effortlessly: it never quite stops feeling like a kids' movie that is just swell for grown-ups, while the best Muppet projects don't even seem to notice that the kid/adult divide in entertainment even exists. But even an imperfect Henson movie is bound to have quite a lot of charm, and whatever nitpicks I have about the movie, it never stops working for even a moment.

DAWN IN THE DUMPS

It's precisely three shots into The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 that Taylor Lautner takes his shirt off, if that's your thing, and in all honesty I don't suppose that there can possibly be a more legitimate reason to see the movie.

Actually, the shocking thing about Breaking Dawn 1 is that, after three years and four directors, the Twilight franchise has finally ended up in the hands of a filmmaker who's capable of turning it into a legitimately functional piece of cinema. Bill Condon may or may not be your idea of a great director (he is not mine), but he has succeeded in doing away with all the whirling camera movements and suffocating slate greys and blues and omnipresent diffusion filter that dominated Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight, Chris Weitz's New Moon, and David Slade's Eclipse, replacing them with a straightforward, grown-up approach to filmmaking that assumes a) that we want to look at what we're looking at, and b) that we want it to look even vaguely natural. That's not much, but it's enough to make Breaking Dawn the best of the Twilight pictures, though I do love the English language too much to feel very nice about what I just did to the word "best".

Do you remember how Eclipse ended, all the way back in summer, '10? With a ponderous lack of conflict, dreadful werewolf VFX, and the moment that made a thousand teenage girls melt in ecstasy, when Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), the mopey girl who can't take a deep breath without falling down and cutting herself to ribbons, the blank-faced prima donna of Forks, Washington, finally said "yes" to her sparkly vampire boyfriend Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who refused to turn her into a vampire or have sex until they were married, because he is a good Mormon surrogate. Now, it's their wedding! in a magical woodsy glade that is positively apocalyptic with droopy white plant hangings, and everybody we've ever seen in any of these movies who isn't dead yet, and also Bella's terrible nightmare about murdering everybody she has ever loved. It's like symbolism, except without the part where you have to decode what it means.

But, they get married anyway, and even though Bella's ex best friend Jacob Black (Lautner) comes in and is all smoldering and pissy that his crush who has never, at any point in their shared lives, led him to believe that she is sexually attracted to him, is now getting married, everything goes wonderfully, and then Edward and Bella are whisked off to a beautiful island that the Cullens own off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, where they enjoy the most acrobatic, room-destroying fucking that you can possibly depict in a PG-13 movie (and apparently, Condon's first cut was tagged with an R for too much sexiness by the MPAA), and then Edward is absolutely horrified that he has somehow damaged his glowing 18-year-old virgin bride and refuses to touch her. Which is just as well, for that one night of lovemaking is all it took to get Bella knocked up with a human-vampire hybrid - something that nobody thought could even happen - and the baby is growing at a freakish pace, and reducing its mother to a rickety bag of dry, grey skin and bones (the makeup and digital amplification that went into making Stewart look like the wrong side of a years-long heroin habit is, all by itself, a better effect than anything in the first three movies).

So, here's the thing: maybe five things happen in Breaking Dawn, the exhaustively long book by Stephenie Meyer, and for the most mercenary reasons imaginable Summit Entertainment required Condon and longtime series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg to divide those five incidents and 700 pages into a pair of two-hour movies. This despite the fact that its three predecessors were all unendurably boring despite condensing roughly the same amount of plot into just over two hours each. Which means, naturally enough, that Breaking Dawn is pretty freaking tedious, though at least the switch from "Bella moons over Edward" to "Bella has sex with Edward" means that it's not as much a clone of the other movies as Eclipse was of New Moon. Also, the whole last 40 minutes, when the baby starts to kill Bella, is at least modestly effective, though none of it is a tenth as gleefully outlandish as on the page, where Meyer started for the first time in her monotonous epic to pile on Grand Guignol quantities of splattering blood - in the book, the fetus literally eats its way through her uterus, a wonderfully insane spot of body horror that is not even slightly indicated by the peekaboo blocking Condon is required to use in order to keep the film comfortably within its audience-friendly rating.

Boring, yes, but I still say it's the best, even though it has, pound for pound, less content than any of the three preceding movies; for at least it's not gloomy to look at. As shot by the unbelievably overqualified Guillermo Navarro, Guillermo del Toro's go-to cinematographer, parts of it are even kind of lovely - Rio and the island, especially - and the whole thing is properly saturated but not too bright, and the vampires in particular look a great deal more physical and less ethereal than ever before. Nor is there even a single instance of sparkling vampires, even in places where there really had ought to be.

And, for the first time in the franchise, Stewart is doing something that is not staring ahead and mumbling like a stoner. It is not necessarily something good, but she has apparently decided the time is come to do anything besides play Bella Swan, and lets some oxygen into the role for the very first time. This is a brighter, more articulate, more physical Bella, a Bella who does not appear to be largely dead (that is, until she is largely dead), a Bella who is still not convincing as a young girl in love, and the performance still seems to be Stewart's way of elliptically demonstrating that she hates Bella Swan and Twilight more than anyone else alive. But it's different, and different is necessarily good. Anyway, it's the closest the film comes to a good performance: the side characters, never very interesting, have all dropped massively in quality since the last movie, and the handful of new characters are some of the worst yet, with Maggie Grace giving a 90-second performance that might very well be the worst piece of acting in 2011.

These are, for the most part, incremental changes: the unspeakable - literally - flowery dialogue is still intact, as is the wall-to-wall miserabilist indie rock soundtrack, Pattinson still has no chemistry with Stewart, Lautner still can't outact the shirts he so angrily throws to the ground all the time (also, I never really thought about this before, but he has a face like a smug potato). At least one of the scenes ranks among the dumbest things you will ever see in a movie theater, as Jacob and the other werewolves stand in a circle and have a telepathic argument; it barely worked in the book, when the action switched over to Jacob's first-person POV for a few chapters, but Rosenberg's solution to that perspective is grimly obvious and Condon basically treats it as a dialogue-heavy confrontation between cartoon wolves that look almost like something besides CGI. Also, Lautner has to fall in love with a baby with a face that is the most uncomfortably artificial looking thing ever - I think it has computer-animated eyes, but maybe it's just a lot of post-processing. Anyway, it looks horrible, and that's without the bit where a teenage boy is falling in love with a baby, something that makes a little bit of sense if you've read the books and don't care about anything decent in the world.

Anyway, it is better than Breaking Dawn 2 is apt to be - for there is one whole plot point left in the whole two hours of that movie - and less fun - for that movie is going to have to resort to some awfully crazy shit to keep itself moving - and almost good enough to be watchable in the most unengaging, disinterested way possible. Almost.

4/10