30 December 2011

WHAT GOD HAS JOINED TOGETHER

Typically, a movie gets just one opening gambit, and most are too scared to take the opportunity. Asghar Farhadi's A Separation gets two, and it makes both of them count: first, we see passports being photocopied, from a perspective inside the copier, one after the other, a different one very time, without anyone ever coming to replace them. It is scarily decontextualised, and it promises that we're about to see a tale in which papers - the grinding wheels of bureaucracy - are going to play a huge role, and that the specific story we're up for is just one of many that could be told.

It's a great foundation for the opening credits, and it's kids' stuff next to the first scene proper: a single shot of a man, Nader (Peyman Maadi), and a woman, Simin (Leila Hatami) sitting in a blank, obviously official room, staring right at the camera. They are there to request a divorce: Simin wants to leave Iran with their 11-year-old daughter and their visas expire in 40 days; Nader refuses to leave while his father suffers from Alzheimer's. Thanks to the arcana of Iranian law, Simin can't leave the country as a married woman if her husband stays behind; and so within just a few minutes we are presented with an insoluble problem in which both players seem equally right and totally incapable of reaching a compromise. The judge - sitting in our position - does not grant their request, and the shot ends with a close up of Simin, glaring as the judge loftily declares that her issue is a small one. She's staring angrily at him, but the brunt of her ire lands right on us, and no filmmaker could do a better judge of posing the central question of the film to come: do we dare think that we can properly judge what's going on? Do we know what is or should be true about these people?

A Separation - a corruption of the much-better Iranian title which translates as The Separation of Nader from Simin - arrives in the States on the back of just about as much praise as one movie could possibly receive, not least of which is that it's the most-rewarded film in the history of the Berlinale festival. The mere fact that it's not accordingly the best film ever made thus ought to be a touch disappointing, but let's be reasonable. It is, certainly, an instant qualifier for the top tier of modern Iranian cinema, a return to the extraordinary output of Iranian directors in the 1990s and early '00s after a half decade of the national cinema suffering under increasingly severe censorship. A Separation itself had a bit of a run-in with the authorities, which wasn't enough to prevent it from being Iran's official submission to the Oscars, in what I might call a blatant fit of hypocrisy if the film didn't deserve it.

The alarmingly convoluted plot starts out simply, with the situation I have just sketched; following the denial of her request, Simin moves back in with her mother, leaving her daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, the director's daughter) with Nader; and we will not see her again for a very long time, during which things go to hell in the most colorful ways. Nader, at loose ends about what to do with his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), hires a temporary caregiver, Razieh (Sareh Bayet), who is pregnant, unbeknownst to her new employer. It's not her only secret either, for she has refrained from sharing the details of her new job with her unemployed husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), a religious hardliner with a quick temper.

Every reviewer of A Separation will eventually come to the important point of decision: at what point will I stop talking about the story? That point, for me, is now. Suffice it to say that things transpire which put the two couples in opposition to one another, and set them in opposition within one another, and the film turns invisibly into a procedural thriller of sorts about the search to figure out the truth, guided there by an exhausted, disengaged court interrogator (Babak Karimi). The glee with which Farhadi exploits the gulf between what is on-camera and what happens out-of-frame, and his similar use of the crucial break in continuity caused by an edit, so that we in the audience are always more sure of what we think happened and what we think the characters have done, than we know what happened; this extraordinary manipulation of what we perceive to be "real" in cinema is borderline Hitchcock, if it weren't the case that A Separation was so heavily rooted in the European realist aesthetic that makes its generic elements - and there are undoubtedly elements of genre here, the second hour of the film is as nervewracking as any proper action-adventure of 2011 - play almost as parody; we could as easily call the film an anti-thriller as a thriller, and is surely an anti-procedural.

The film is, in fact, so much fun to watch that you could very nearly miss the important fact that it is also as piercing a critique of Iranian society as that country has produced in some time - since Jafar Panahi was last able to make a feature way the heck back in 2006, at least. Mostly, this is done through establishing oppositions: secular, middle-class Nader and Simin are opposed to religious, lower-class Razieh and Hodjat; the husbands are both autocratic in their own ways, their wives obliged to assert themselves indirectly and with cunning rather than force. Termeh is weary and nervous and always looked worn-out; Razieh and Hodjat's much younger girl Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) is bright-eyed and inquisitive and full of life (some of the best shots of the movie consist of nothing but lingering shots of the child actress, staring intently). Religion, sexism, and classism are all woven into the film so casually that it never feels like a harangue, nor are the character reduced to symbolic agents, as they could so easily be. Part of this is thanks to the outstanding performances from all four principals - five if we include Farhadi, and six if we really stretch to include young Hosseini - with my pick for best in show going to Hatami, who has perhaps the smallest role by screentime, being as she is packed off for most of the first hour, but who grounds the film once she returns with unmatchable moral authority, and whose focused gaze is the most commanding thing about the whole movie; and with her pale skin and flaming red hair, she stands out visually from rest of the cast, focusing our attention on her intense performance even further.

This is devastatingly great filmmaking: brilliantly shot using an extremely limited palette of compositions that are all used with surgical precision, edited so that its esoteric and largely conversational drama is as riveting as the most salacious mystery. If there was any doubt after his naggingly effective About Elly that Farhadi is a top-shelf international filmmaker, A Separation eliminates it; the final shot alone, a marathon-length job that goes on through the whole of the end credits and relies heavily on the slightest, most graceful subtleties on the part of actors, would be enough to get any director a spot in the best of the year heat. Plain and simple, this is a masterpiece: rich in specific detail about a very particular problem in a very exacting place, but redolent with universalism and human feeling.

10/10

OH MAGGIE, I WISHED I'D NEVER SEEN YOUR FACE

Firstly, The Iron Lady is historically illiterate to a degree that shouldn't be allowed for a movie dramatising events that happened less than three decades ago, and I suspect that's true regardless of whether you're a fan of contentious and controversial Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or if like me you regard her as one of the most loathsome heads of a democratic state of the 20th Century. Having a political opinion on The Iron Lady is probably inevitable, but there's absolutely no point to it: the woman we see onscreen is Thatcher to roughly the same degree that the garrulous British gentleman in The Last Station is Leo Tolstoy, and considerably less than the turgid and hideously reductive 1944 Wilson (one of the all-time great shitty biopics) is about the 28th U.S. President.

Mostly, the film is designed to showcase Meryl Streep in one those "mimic + an accent" roles that she does better than anybody else in the history of film acting, in lieu of taking interesting parts in intelligent movies. Here, she gets to play a determined woman whose rise to power is pushed back at every step of the way by sexist men on all sides of the political spectrum, and who dealt with this by digging her heels in and adopting a scorched-earth "my way or the highway!" approach to everything in the whole world but especially running a country. The film absolutely adores her for this: I just said that bringing politics in was stupid, but I don't think it takes politics to say that a movie which suggests that the right way to lead a world power is by screaming "FUCK YOU, I'M THE PEE-EM" every time anyone even mentions that other people have differing opinions is a movie with a faintly odious concept of how the world should work.

So that takes care of the what that Streep gets to play. The how, now that must have been even more exciting than the idea of playing Thatcher as a woman of great fortitude in a man's world: first, the role takes place over several decades, meaning Streep gets to play a woman from middle age to elderly decrepitude, during the last of which she is aided considerably by some of the swellest old-age makeup that I have ever seen, though perhaps it just seems that way because it's not so silent-horror-movie as the terrible things that happened in J. Edgar (it is a disappointment to all that the filmmakers elected not to have Streep also play the young woman version of Thatcher in a further cloud of latex, but at any rate that part went to Alexandra Roach, who is a bit colorless but no more so than the role insists that she be). Plus, not only does Streep get to do an English accent, the character arc involves her transitioning from one accent to another, much posher and more authoritative, one. Which must have been catnip to the noted chameleon, who has not played a British character in a quarter of a century, unless I have forgotten something.

Whatever accolades usually accrue to Streep, hold true here; myself, I find her mechanical precision tiring and much prefer her comic turns (e.g. Julie & Julia), especially the ones spiced with a little bitterness (e.g. The Devil Wears Prada) to be considerably more satisfying then the really intense, dramatic ones. So you'll be getting no "holy heck, Meryl Streep is amazing and it's like I was looking Margaret Thatcher right in the face!" here. What is certainly true, Streep is the best thing about The Iron Lady by a gargantuan margin; the only good or even tolerable thing in a movie that is mostly comprised of nothing but absolutely bizarre structural choices married to hallucinatory direction that has proceeded from the notion that the right way to deal with Abi Morgan's weird script is to run screaming into the abyss of madness. The film starts in the late 2000s, when Thatcher is starting to run headlong into senility, and is visited by the apparition of her dead husband, Denis (Jim Broadbent), who is maybe a ghost and maybe just the confused interjection of an old woman; that this point is even slightly unclear has less to do with any sort of desire to achieve character study through ambiguity, than with director Phyllida Lloyd's psychotic behavior with the camera.

Ah, Phyllida Lloyd! Her last and only film, you may remember, was Mamma Mia! which also starred Streep (in one of the worst performances of her entire career), and which was a hatchet job of the first order, as though Lloyd had decided that she didn't want to be bothered with copying things other directors had already done and so set herself to the task of reinventing film grammar from the ground up, resulting in an uninterrupted string of all the wrong decisions and some of the worst-staged musical numbers in living memory. The Iron Lady, I am staggered to report, is worse still than Mamma Mia!. At least that film didn't try to incorporate newsreel footage with the drunken abandon of The Iron Lady; it didn't whirl through camera set-ups like a Michael Bay action movie set in the musty halls of Parliament; it did have unmotivated slow-motion all over the place, but The Iron Lady makes a kind of abstract poetry of dropping into slow-mo whenever the hell Lloyd feels like and screw it if the results make absolutely no sense.

Then there is the matter of Ghost Denis, played with plummy wretchedness by a never-worse Broadbent - and who can blame him, really, when the part is this maddeningly ill-written? Functionally, Denis is there to challenge Dotty Ol' Maggie into remembering her past, raising her defenses when she's confronted with the reality that two decades after the political shenanigans that took her from power, she's remembered with virtually no love, and some outright hatred, by most of the British populace. He is the voice of her proud past, the part of her that remains steadfast in her belief that she was right - the iron of the title. There's nothing inherently wrong with it conceptually, though it smacks of Paul Bettany in A Beautiful Mind or Dustin Hoffman in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, two films that are not generally good things to call to mind. In fact, I take it back, it is inherently wrong conceptually, and it's made worse by Broadbent's tremendous lack of interest in doing anything with it, and worse still by Lloyd's dumbfounding treatment of Denis's peek-a-boo antics, like the antagonists in the Micky Mouse short Lonesome Ghosts only in a serious drama. There is a sequence in which Thatcher turns on all the electric appliances in her house to drown out the sound of Denis's voice, with the soundtrack duly cranked up to 11, as Streep lumbers about with technically flawless approximations of how old people lumber about, and everything about it made my soul die.

Next to all of its tremendous artistic shortcomings and various terrible conceptual ideas, the film's superficial psychology is practically restful: the reduction of Margaret Thatcher to a strong-willed grocer's daughter who wins everything and then loses track of it through nascent paranoia has nothing interesting to say about the historical woman, her cinematic doppelgänger, or the 1980s in Great Britain, and compared to the flailing about of the movie proper, its thematic shortcomings just seem like business as usual for awards-season biopics. It's a bit sad to say that the best parts of the movie are the ones that leave it as a wretchedly anonymous example of one of the most inherently unlikable genres in modern cinema, but that's the special Phyllida Lloyd flair for you, I guess: so dazzlingly incompetent and incomprehensible that mediocrity is a relief.

4/10

29 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE BOYS

I'd heard several different people describe Weekend as "the gay Brief Encounter", and every time it threw me: we already had gay Brief Encounter, didn't we? It was called Brokeback Mountain, and it was kind of a big deal not that many years ago. Of course, gay movies don't get a whole lot less gay than Brokeback - as has been pointed out several hundred times, there are more topless women than pantsless men in that film - and I wondered if it was maybe that Weekend was, like, the GAY Brief Encounter, rather than the gayish-but-not-threatening-about-it Brief Encounter.

As it turns out, it's really not very much like any iteration of Brief Encounter at all, because it is too busy being Weekend.* Which is, on balance, a much better thing for it to be.

It's also not exactly right to call it "the gay anything", for even though it is irreducibly, aggressively, and necessarily homosexual without a hint of apology or restraint , it isn't about sexuality of any sort. About sex, absolutely, and about sex between men specifically, but it would be like calling Annie Hall a "straight romantic comedy": true, and quite important to the themes that get expressed, but pretty much beside the point. Weekend is first and foremost the story of two people who meet and start to fall in love without either of them precisely wanting it, their understanding of this situation and their reactions to it filtered through what they think and who they are, politically, socially, and in terms of just about everything else that could define a person, including gender.

The film is simplicity personified: it consists of almost nothing but a succession of two-hander scenes and contains virtually nothing in the way of plot. It has a scenario , that Andrew Haigh (the writer, director, and editor) fleshes out with some of the densest conversations about ideas and beliefs that any 2011 movie has contained, demonstrating along the way that movies consisting of almost nothing but talking can in fact be excitingly cinematic. It was made on the cheap and looks it; cinematographer Urszula Pontikos does everything in her power to add some visual flair to the proceedings, but there is a ceiling on what she can squeeze from the camera she's using. That said, Weekend looks pretty damn fine for what was undoubtedly a microscopic budget: Haigh has claimed the American mumblecore scene as one of his influences, which is an absolutely insane comparison to make willingly of a film that demonstrates so much superiority on so many levels to that style of filmmaking: take away the urban smallness of the mise en scène and there's absolutely no common ground. Weekend has ingeniously-crafted dialogue, and shots that are put together with a very clear idea for how to visually support the characters, and a careful approach to editing that lets the right shots linger and keeps the right scenes bright and speedy. It has handheld camera. There is that.

And there are characters, wonderful, indelible characters played with heartstopping precision by a pair of actors that seem to have come from absolutely nowhere, fully-formed, though they both have been in the trenches for a while now. The more important of the two, in that he is favored in the story structure and most of the visuals, is Russell (Tom Cullen), a lonely, introspective man who has left one foot in the close, and has reached his late '20s without apparently finding much satisfaction in his personal life; after a less-than-edifying party hosted by one of his many straight friends one Friday night, he drifts to a gay bar and ends up hooking up with Glen (Chris New), who is all the sociable and open and prideful things that Russell isn't. After an awkward post-coital morning during which Glen insists that Russell record his impressions of their night together for Glen's audio library of his sex partners, the two men discover that they rather enjoy each other's company. The wrinkle: Glen is leaving for America that Sunday afternoon, meaning that whatever kind of relationship they're going to have, needs to happen fast.

It is to the film's immeasurable credit that we never have even a moment's suspicion that Glen is going to be so transformed by love that he chooses to stay in England, or that Russell will spontaneously buy a ticket and fly overseas himself. They are simply not the kind of people who do that, and since Weekend is above all things else an exercise in getting to know exactly what kind of people these are, the fact that this will end tragically is encoded right into its bones. The characters don't spend a great deal of time dwelling on this timeframe, but Haigh introduces it in such a way, and then builds the remainder of his film as to emphasise the passage of hours, that we can hardly be aware of anything else, and much of the 97 minutes of Weekend feel like a timebomb counting down with cartoon ticking noises. And that, in turn, lends a sense of horrifying urgency to all of Russell and Glen's conversations, which cover a lot of topics under the broad umbrella of "how people relate": Glen slams Russell for being ashamed of his identity, Russell prods at Glen's reasons for being so spooked by romantic feelings. Jokes are traded, secrets and fears are exposed, and sometimes, the film manages the breathtaking achievement of depicting in completely persuasive terms the warm pleasure of being alone with somebody you enjoy being alone with, and not feeling the need to say much of anything at all. And as I say, the ticking-clock scenario that forms the film's only real narrative spine heightens all of it and makes us hang on every word and every gesture.

All of this is very lovely, stripped-down filmmaking paired with two damn devastating performances - not since Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams had their emotionally apocalyptic pas de deux in last year's Blue Valentine has any film about people navigating the complexities of love boasted such convincing actors - with everything extraneous to the central situation carved away. One could be slightly disappointed that it doesn't have a slightly more robust cinematic style beneath it all - and by "one could be", I obviously mean "I am" - but even if the filmmaking is invisible, it's precise and thoughtful (the opening and closing shots are immaculate bookends that silently drop us into the characters' lives and then just as silently take us back out), and the point is clearly that too much style, like too much writing, would get in the way of the actual movie: how two men connect with one another, and it how it makes them feel good, then sad, then happily bittersweet. This is character- and emotion-driven cinema at its purest and densest and most haunting.

9/10

28 December 2011

I KISSED A GIRL AND I LIKED IT

Writer-director Dee Rees's semi-autobiographical Pariah is simultaneously the most exciting and most frustrating kind of first feature; frustrating precisely because it's so exciting, in fact, and it makes one angry that it couldn't have been even better, particularly because the reason it isn't even better is strictly a failure of nerve: an intuitive filmmaker with no small talent as a writer has apparently concluded that she's not as good as she, in fact, is, and gets to second-guessing her own script and shoring it up with "OKAY DO YOU GET IT HERE IS WHY I AM TRYING TO SAY IN THIS MOMENT" gestures that aren't necessary and frequently stop the film dead for authorial interludes that offend far more than they elucidate.

Expanded from Ree's well-regarded 2007 short of the same name that I have not seen, with the same producer, lead actor, and cinematographer, Pariah is the story of 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye), or Lee for short, a Brooklyn teenager who spends her free time sneaking off and dressing like a boy and hanging out with That Kind of Girl, Laura (Pernell Walker), in defiance of the paranoid ravings of her mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), who is concerned that Laura is going to give her daughter a bad case of the Lesbian. Too late for that, and Audrey's attempts to church the gay out of Alike end up serving only to increase the girl's self-assurance give her the fortitude to come out to her mother and her doting father (Charles Parnell) with his own set of secrets.

This is at heart a completely pure iteration of one of the most ancient branches of queer cinema: the coming out drama. The conflict that drives Pariah is, in its totality, "how will Alike be able to tell her parents that she is a lesbian, and what will their response be?" A musty and frequently not-very interesting story, though Pariah has a whole lot of secret weapons in its corner: first, there is the added racial dimension, given the added cultural animus of homosexuality in African-American communities compared to others (it's hard to imagine a movie about a white girl coming out that could properly earn the title Pariah, don't you think?); a story about a black teenage lesbian is probably not unique in the whole world, though with my limited knowledge of both black cinema and queer cinema, I cannot think of any previous movie that adopts this specific sort of protagonist.

Secondly, there is Rees's energetic aesthetic, which shifts eagerly from the realist style favored by indie filmmakers telling stories about urban life - grainy, underlit interiors, raggedy handheld cameras - into a neon-soaked dreamworld of nightclubs and all the places outside of Alike's home and school, where she's able to be herself and not worry about the approval of her family, classmates, or anyone else, and then back to realism. But the insight Rees has is to start mixing these two modes up, intruding the more abstract, surreal colors of Alike's "true self" scenes into the main fabric of the movie as she grows more certain of herself and more defiant of her parents' - that is, her mother's - conservative rules not just for how she can act, but who she can be. It's an audacious way of building a movie, and it marches right up to the edge of not working: it violates the apparent compact the film has made with its viewer that this is all going to be a nice exercise in observational realism and building up a very specific vision of a very specific place. And certainly, Pariah is good in those terms; this is a story of a particular young woman in a particular place, and the precision with which Rees depicts those particularities is a very important part of the film. But ultimately, that specificity doesn't prove to be the only thing that matters, nor is it even the most important, and the specific ways in which the director violates the reality of her movie are pointed and unnervingly effective, and the sign of a filmmaker who shall be very much worth following in the years to come.

The third and maybe most important thing elevating Pariah is the outstanding performance of Adepero Oduye. She is not the only good actor in the movie; I was particularly delighted by Kim Wayans's strained feelings of love and horror, particularly in the devastating final scene. Indeed, there's hardly a single bad performance, although Aasha Davis's turn as the religious girl who initiated Alike into the world of sex is annoyingly one-note. But Oduye is on another level entirely from the rest of the cast: she has the authoritarian command of the camera that marks a for-real movie star, but she never once coasts on that, instead probing and digging and battering herself against the part, presenting one of the most ravaging onscreen depictions of the self-loathing and confusion and depression of life stuck in the closet that I have ever seen. And again, that's coming from someone who's not a queer film specialist, but part of what makes Oduye's performance so special is that it doesn't attempt to pigeonhole itself in terms of ideologies or sexuality; it is first and foremost a study of a teenager being torn apart by the gulf between where she is and where she wants to be, and it is a great and harrowing version of that, even as she is great at presenting the part's specificity when that's what is required.

Truth be told, with Oduye in its corner, the film didn't have to do anything else; her performance could, in a vacuum, tell us all we need to know about the character and her journey. That Rees has a cunning visual scheme to help as along the way is just an added bonus. Why, oh why, then, is the script such a shakey hodgepodge of truly extraordinary scenes (everything in the first ten minutes; the last scene, a funny and smart bit involving Alike's desire to acquire a strap-on; the stuff involving her sarcastic but seemingly nonjudgmental sister), with such a stiff narrative structure that feels like a lesbian Stations of the Cross. and far too many instances of dialogue where this character or that - Alike's parents especially - announce their internal monologues with bellowing obviousness? It's a bit jarring to have so much of the film imply and trust us to follow along, and then once we've done so, hit us square between eyes with a thematic 2x4? There's the stuff of a revelatory first feature in Pariah, but not with that script; with that script, it's merely a promising effort, smart and sensitive and intermittently great.

8/10

A HORSE AND HIS BOY

Some directors, following a long break between films, come back refreshed, recharged, and ready to do bold new things - the Stanley Kubrick Effect, we can call it - and some seem to have forgotten how the hell to make a movie. It causes me nothing but pain to say this, but Steven Spielberg has, for right now, apparently forgotten how to make a movie. Not forever, I’d wager: he’s had worse slumps before and rebounded to great heights. But it makes you wonder, first with The Adventures of Tintin which was fun and entertaining and not really all that memorable, and now War Horse, which isn’t bad in any way you can put your finger on – 146 minutes is a punishing running time for such an insubstantial, episodic story, but that’s the worst of it – but isn’t good in any way either, and while it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of craftsmanship of the most proudly old-fashioned sort, it's impersonal and programmatic and lacks any trace of urgency, any feeling that the director had any particular interest in making it whatsoever: it is the sort of handsomely done prestige picture that we all glance at, nod approvingly at its immaculate taste and professionalism, and completely forget about until its name crops up when we're making our picks for the Oscar pool.

Functionally, the film occupies roughly the same space in Spielberg's career as Amistad did in 1997: his second film back after a years-long vacation, the "serious" film immediately following a lighter, audience-pleasing popcorn adventure for which Spielberg himself largely sat out the post-production phase (the analogue here is The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which is manifestly unfair to Tintin: TLW:JP is readily the worst thing the director has ever made). The Amistad comparison holds approximately true in terms of the film's quality as well, although by virtue of not being based upon a true story, War Horse isn't quite as obnoxious when it makes its frequent lurches towards cloying sentiment.

Adapted by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (the co-creator of Blackadder and Mr. Bean, which equips him not at all to write a tender war drama) from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel, and Nick Stafford's 2007 play, the film begins in a twee Devon village where a beautiful thoroughbred is born on an exquisitely lit day. From there, he is purchased at auction by a farmer, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) for a sum of money he cannot even begin to afford, and raised by Ted's son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and trained to be a farmhorse as well as a beautiful animal with the uncanny ability to stand in exactly the right place so that he looks even more beautiful and impeccably framed still. On one dramatically grey day, Albert finally gets the horse, named Joey, to plow a rocky field, thwarting the venal landlord Lyons (David Thewlis); but then bad weather ruins the Narracott's crops, and only by selling Joey to a general in the newly broken-out Great War can Ted keep what is his for another season, breaking Albert's heart as he watches his only true friend ride out to battle among the delicately crafted shadows of the picturesque village where they live. I'm trying to say that the imagery in War Horse is shameless, just positively shameless in its beauty, and bless Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's ever-dependable cinematographer for hard onto 18 years now for knowing exactly how to turn as simple a shot as Peter Mullan picking up a muddy turnip into something so damn pretty that it makes your heart stop, but Jesus H. Christ, too much pretty and it stops feeling like you're doing it on purpose and more like you're just running on autopilot, with the switch stuck on "dappled".

Anyway, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who bought Joey, is killed in action, and the horse is taken by a kindly German, Gunther (David Kross), who instantly senses that the animal is too beautiful to grind along as a workhorse in the war, and tries to escape with Joey and a black horse, and his brother; they get caught, and the horses end up in the hands of a little French girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). And so on, and so forth - the structure of War Horse is that of a series of mini-movies, each of them focused on the life and suffering of the humans who cross paths with Joey against the tumultuous background of the First World War. Joey himself isn't really the protagonist, but rather the glue that holds these stories together; it's a strange and not inherently unsuccessful way of putting a film together, though feature films don't lend themselves to this kind of serial format unless the whole thing is stylised to some extreme, and War Horse is emphatically not stylised. That is to say, it's extremely stylised, but what Spielberg and crew are doing is aping classical Hollywood forms, and making the film look as resolutely "normal" as they can, to a point that it's almost bold in and of itself (I strongly dispute the common observation that the Devon village is Fordian: the gently ironic tone, maybe, but certainly not the visual language, which bears no trace of John Ford's method of foreground actors, creating frames-within-frames, or use of the film frame a structural element).

There are a few individual shots that approach perfection: a field of tall grass that suddenly and silently erupts with cavalrymen climbing atop their horses; a beautifully-choreographed shot of soldiers driving into a farmyard as Emilie, in the background, spirits the horses away; Joey running atop trench walls, backlit by mortars. A sequence of two soldiers, one English and one German, working to free the horse from a tangle of barbed wire in the middle of No Man's Land, is terrific in absolutely every way: beautifully composed and stunningly edited by Michael Kahn, who twice in a row has been the best single element of a Spielberg film, though War Horse - his and Spielberg's first collaboration to use a digital editing system - isn't as fluid and ingenious in its cutting as Tintin. At least two of the actors, Arestrup and Emily Watson as the worried, snappish Rose Narracott, Ted's wife and Albert's mother, are pretty great, surrounded by a large cast of talented and moderately famous people who mostly can't make a whole lot out of characters with such stunted arcs as are displayed throughout the film, the most irritating side effect of its structure.

The key thing, which I have not done a remotely good job of suggesting, is that's basically okay that War Horse is so colossally unchallenging; it is not anywhere near the top tier of Spielberg films, but it's solid enough family-style filmmaking (and not always to its benefit; the rigorously non-threatening trench warfare scenes, painterly and withdrawn, cry out desperately for some Saving Private Ryan grubbiness), not as manipulative as it easily could have been - this is largely due to John Williams, whose score is not half as cloying as some of the images it accompanies, and who always introduces a note of the ethereal into even the most saccharine shots - and if nothing else, the "performance" that Spielberg's direction and Kahn's editing get out of the horse, or horses as the case may be, playing Joey is about as good as narrative filmmaking about animals can get. By the time it's over, War Horse has said precious little about warfare, and just enough about the bond between man and horse that it can effectively tug at your hearstrings, if you are the sort of person who likes horses (full disclosure: I'm really, emphatically not, and I left the theater with my eyes bone-dry). It's as good as it needs to be and no more, but enough Oscar-season movies aren't even that good, that this is sufficient to give it a pass. That said, if Spielberg can't step up to the plate next time, we'll need to have a very serious talk.

6/10

27 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

Most of us would not, I suspect, look at the 17-year reign of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and then the branch of astronomy concerned with the study of stellar remnants and the origin of heavy elements, and say to ourselves, "You know, those two things seem to me like two sides of the same coin". And I further suspect that most of us would regard anyone who did say that with considerable doubt, particularly in regard to their sanity. And that is why Patricio Guzmán, a 70-year-old documentary who has directed a great many films of which I have seen none before now, had such a steep uphill climb with his Nostalgia for the Light, which isn't quite as idiotically reductive as I've just made it sound, but still sets off to compare two subjects as alike, superficially, as apples and xylophones. The amazing thing is that he does this so well that the film has barely even introduced this comparison before you've completely forgotten that it doesn't make any intuitive sense, until in the one poorly judged moment of the entire 90-minute film, Guzmán hands the mike, as it were, to a man who states in needlessly straightforward language what the rest of the movie has implied with such delicacy and subtlety, and thereby snaps, if only for a brief moment, the precise balance of the film's unconventional but hugely persuasive argument.

The film is about two things literally, and two other things figuratively. Literally, it is about the astronomers who've set up shop in the Atacama Desert of Chile thanks to its unmatchable geological and ecological conditions (it is the driest place on the face of the Earth), and about the women who lost loved ones to Pinochet's regime, and know nothing else beyond the fact that those victims were buried in the vastness of the desert where they were theoretically never meant to be found.

Figuratively, then, it is about the desert as a place and a concept and a force above and beyond the human beings who can do little more than exploit it along the edges; and mostly, it is about the attempt to contextualise the present and create a working plan for the future, by carefully studying the past. Both the astronomers and the mourning women are trying to make sense of something that has already happened, decades ago in one case, billions of years ago in the other (Guzmán, a self-professed astronomy buff, presents nifty facts like "when we look at the sun, what we're seeing is already eight minutes old" with the gosh-wow enthusiasm of somebody who learned a neat fact a long time ago and has never seen any reason to stop being impressed by it); and if this sounds like a slightly arbitrary and forced hook for an entire feature-length argument, it is one of the chief glories of Nostalgia for the Light that you don't think about it in those terms until long after it's over.

Simply in terms of content, this is all tremendously fascinating stuff, individually and for the fascinating collision of the two threads. The authoritarian rule of Pinochet, like most of the history of South America, hasn't really penetrated the cocoon of self-involvement that defines the North American-European corridor, and if only for the unique perspective the film offers on that period of time, and the psychological impact it has had on the survivors, this would be an invaluable document. Guzmán's interview style is tremendously effective - asking his subjects questions that aren't leading, so much as they are curious (we hear the director's voice frequently), and the camera simply waits and watches them as they run through their answers. Not in the interrogative way that you feel with an Errol Morris documentary, for example, where it seems to be the filmmaker's greatest hope to catch the subject up and make them sweat for a bit; but out of a knowledge that what these women have to say is personal and important, and it is more important for the filmmaker to follow where they go rather than lead them to where he wants the movie to be. The same is true of his interviews with the scientists; every time the film switches from the women in their fruitless search the the astronomers in their comfortably sterile labs, one has the immediate pang of wondering, "how much can this really matter in the face of human suffering?", and every time, Guzmán finds the answer: because it's interesting, and because it tells us who we are.

As I said, the content here is endlessly worthwhile: a man recalling with admirable steadiness the time he measures out the precise dimension of the prison camp he was thrown in, a scientist enthusiastically pointing out that the calcium in our bones could be millions of years old (a nugget which is pointedly contrasted with the solemn image of a library of unidentified skeletal remains), and the manner in which the film travels from one idea to the next is awfully clever even when Guzmán strains a little to make his point. What pushes Nostalgia for the Light to the next level is the considerable elegance of its construction as a film. First, in the way it is anchored by the poetic musings of the director's narration, which humanises abstract concepts and draws abstract readings from human problems, and gives the whole film the feeling an essay rather than just a talking heads piece. Then there are the images, which run the gamut from that same heart-stopping sight of anonymous blue boxes, each of which holds the last remains of a person, to photography of the grandest sights in space, to the slow, stately movement of the ancient telescope that, despite its uselessness in modern science, is taken here as the physical manifestation of the thirst to find the truth of the past. It's a bit dizzying to find a documentary that does so much of its storytelling through visuals, and the contrast between visuals (out of many potent moments, the one that hit me the most was when the rocks of the desert floor were shot in such a way as to mirror the images we'd seen already of galaxies and nebulae), but this is what makes Nostalgia for the Light not just a phenomenal human story - which was guaranteed from the moment Guzmán chose his subject - but a gripping work of cinema as well.

9/10

26 December 2011

PERSONAL FAVORITES, 1981: THE WARPED FANTASY

In the wake of Star Wars in 1977, pretty much every movie studio in the world was trying to find a way to get something just like it, and this let to some very odd things getting produced on the grounds that they were family-friendly sci-fi or fantasy movies (or both, when possible). Of these, one of the oddest was surely Time Bandits, which despite having virtually no points of explicit similarity with George Lucas's space opera has always struck me as being quintessentially a post-Star Wars film of the highest order. The wrinkle is that Time Bandits is also a Terry Gilliam film of the highest order; in fact, the film where Gilliam's idiosyncratic vision started to crystalise into the form that it would mostly hold for the rest of his career. With all apologies to his solo directing debut, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits really is the first "Terry Gilliam film", and nobody could possibly have guessed what such a peculiar thing that would mean when it was put into production during that wave of wannabe Star Warses.

The good news - one of the last pieces of good news Gilliam ever received, at that - is that Time Bandits was one of the earliest films produced by HandMade Films, which was created by George Harrison in the 1970s for the primary purpose of making Monty Python's Life of Brian, largely because nobody else would and Harrison wanted to see it (this is the best single reason for being rich I have ever encountered). Presumably, therefore, the higher-ups at HandMade were okay with just about whatever damn thing Gilliam wanted to give them, and that's lucky for everybody involved, given that Time Bandits is an incredibly bizarre movie that subscribes to such an aggressively unconventional set of storytelling norms that you could be forgiven for imagining that it has no script beyond a series of undeveloped notes that Gilliam and co-writer & fellow Python Michael Palin had shoved into their pockets until about ten minutes before cameras rolled. Naturally, such a defiantly abnormal fantasy absolutely befuddled the hell out of aud- or never mind, Time Bandits actually managed to squeak onto the US Box Office Top 10 for 1981. I defy you to imagine that Gilliam could possibly do such a thing today. If J.K. Rowling's wish that he had directed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone had come true, I have no doubt that he would found a way to lose money on it.

Anyway, back to 1981, and Time Bandits: in a suburban development in England, a boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock) is living with his consumerism-obsessed parents, finding solace only in the books of fantasy and adventure. One night, he dreams that a knight mounted on a horse bursts from his bedroom closet, and this incident would have no particular note except for what happens the next night: six small men fall out of the same closet, gibbering about a map and holes in time and treasure. Understanding nothing, Kevin can do little more than stare as they fumble about, until something follows them through the closet: a huge backlit head speaking in the deep menacing voice of Tony Jay. The six men immediately push one wall of Kevin's room in on itself, running down a hallway to nowhere, and the confused boy runs after them; and just like that they all end up in a rural farmhouse in Italy, at the beginning of the 19th Century.

The Time Bandits of the title turn out to be these six dwarves, a somewhat bumbling collection led by the quick-tongued but less than quick-witted Randall (David Rappaport), former employees of the Supreme Being - that same floating head - who were formerly employed as the creators of bushes and small trees throughout Creation, until they got it in their head to steal a map of all the holes in the universe, where time and space don't move like usual, and thus sneak from era to era in search of wealth. For about half of its length, Time Bandits plays as very little more than an excuse for Gilliam, production designer Milly Burns, and costume designer Jim Acheson to create amiably chintzy versions of a few different historical settings as a young boy might find exciting: the war-torn Europe of Napoleon (Ian Holm); the forest of medieval England, home to Robin Hood (John Cleese); ancient Greece and the kingdom of Agamemnon (Sean Connery). Along the way, Gilliam and Palin get to indulge in Python-light historical travesty: their Napoleon is a petulant brat who wants only to be constantly entertained, and who is disgusted by anyone over 5'6", Robin Hood is is a completely addled do-gooder who walks about in a complete daze of good humor and obliviousness.

Eventually, things start to gel, when the adventurers are tricked into going to the fantastic realm inhabited by the embodiment of absolute Evil (David Warner, in a stupendous turn as a completely un-nuanced villain), and the plot begins to take on an actual conflict and causality becomes a thing; but even here, the focus is less on the the narrative than on the space in which the narrative occurs. There is no character arc to speak of; Kevin doesn't really grow as a result of his experiences, and there is no warm and fuzzy resolution in which he's better-equipped to deal with his sometimes obnoxious life after all is said and done. On the contrary, the script's closing gambit is as jolly a rejection of the whole idea of moralistic children's entertainment as you can hope to find, though I think I'm not the only viewer who finds it objectively happier than a more conventional wrap-up might have been.

The story logic of Time Bandits - and it is driven by a kind of story logic, just not the kind most children's movies employ, which is why it's one of the best children's movies in an entire generation - is derived ultimately from traditional European fairy tales; not the sort that end up onscreen with Disney princesses singing to birds, but the sort that are terrifying and grim and delicious in their sheer inexplicable meanness. It is an elemental sort of movie, the kind that would chiefly assault us with concepts and images and become terrifically entertaining through the wildness of it all. It is, like Gilliam's later film Tideland, absolutely innocent about its intentions and worldview, but so willful in that innocence that something about it feels off-kilter and deliberately alienating (though Time Bandits by no means so unabashedly alienating as Tideland). We are not used to stories operating on such a direct level as pre-industrial folktales, with their comprehensive lack of psychology or discplined construction; this is what makes Time Bandits so absolutely wonderful if you're on its wavelength, and also what makes it so hard to be on its wavelength.

Again, though, and not to belabor a point, but as much as Time Bandits is a delightful trip through pure fantasy (it is the first of a loose trilogy of films Gilliam made about how a fantasy world can be an escape from the crushing drabness of the everyday, in three different stages of life), it is mostly a visual feast of Gilliam's warped sensibility given a live-action outlet for the first time in its unrestrained state. There's barely a scene that goes by without some distinct visual gesture that no other filmmaker would have come up with, although generally speaking, as the film progresses, this becomes more pronounced, until we finally end in Evil's lair, the main villain himself looking more than slightly like the Cenobites from Hellraiser later in the decade, and his cloaked minions with horse skulls for faces serving as some of the most effectively disturbing children's horror ever put to film.

But the whole thing is unmistakably Gilliamesque, to use a word that wouldn't really have meaning for a few more years: the handmade quality of all the sets, which are lovingly detailed and realised even as they are somewhat pointedly cheap; the extreme flatness of the images, in which even the deepest sets feel two-dimensional, like they've been pinned beneath glass (and surely it's no accident that an animator would make this aggressive flatness his defining aesthetic). It is a unique world shot in a unique way, and laced through with the sense of humor that characterises almost all of the filmmaker's work - it seems like it should be funny, except nothing is obviously meant to be a gag - the whole thing is pretty much special altogether. Not as unique now as it once was - Brazil is an improvement on it in almost every way, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen at least as good at creating a fantasy world - but it's an intoxicating dose of children's entertainment of the rarest and weirdest and most delirious kind.

THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY NOMINEES, 2011

Feeling awards season'd-out yet? I do hope not, because today, the Online Film Critics Society, of which I am a proud member (and prouder after our really rock-solid picks, if I may say so: A Separation for Screenplay; Brad Pitt in Tree of Life for Supporting Actor, and Carey Mulligan in Shame for Supporting Actress are especially satisfying). Some of the categories are, admittedly, stronger than others, but if only for our all-over-the-place love for Tree of Life, I'd be feeling pretty good about this.

To tease you, I present our nods for picture and director. The rest can be found on the OFCS blog.

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Drive
Hugo
The Tree of Life

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Lars von Trier, Melancholia

THE HORROR... THE HORROR

First, I have sad news to announce: for reasons that will become apparent in May of the upcoming year, I will not have time for my beloved annual feature, the Summer of Blood, in 2012.

Here's the exciting bit, though. Since I love that feature as much as I continually tell myself that all of you do, I'm not just going to throw up my hands and not even try to do any classic horror in the year to come. Instead, I will be celebrating an entire calendar of violent death in my first-ever Year of Blood.

Beginning on 1 January, 2012, and going all the way to next New Year's Eve, here at Antagony & Ecstasy we'll be exploring the many faces of holiday-themed horror by looking at some of the many slashers and other genre pictures to tie their plot to a specific date. Or in some cases, a movie that just has a nice thematic resonance. We're going to get things started with the lesser-known of 1980's two New Year's horror pictures: a Canadian effort starring one of slasherdom's most important stars.

25 December 2011

PEACE ON EARTH, GOODWILL, AND THE LIKE

To all of my readers who celebrate Christmas, I hope it is a happy one, and it finds you in the company of those you love most. To all of my readers who do not, Happy Sunday, and here's to a bright and healthy 2012.

Personal Favorites: 1981 will be concluding tomorrow with a dazzling black fantasy by one of the great imaginative minds of modern cinema. Plus, there will be an announcement of a new spin on one of this blog's oldest traditions.

Happy Holidays to one and all.

24 December 2011

MERRY DEATHMAS: OUT ON THE LAWN, THERE AROSE SUCH A SPLATTER

To All a Goodnight (1980, USA)

The creators: Writer Alex Rebar, who's probably best known as the titular Incredible Melting Man, and director HOLY SHIT IT WAS DIRECTED BY DAVID HESS. It was, in fact, his very first directorial credit and for 30 years his only directorial credit, which is maybe evidence that starring in The Last House on the Left is insufficient training to do anything else.

The plot: It's history time, boys and girls. For To All a Goodnight - yes, that's exactly the way the title is treated onscreen, and no, I don't have the slightest damn idea why - isn't just a crappy slasher film with a flimsy holiday theme and crudely inflated body count; it's the crappy slasher film &c. Released on 30 January, 1980, this is nothing less than the first slasher movie of the year that slasher movies broke big - beating Friday the 13th, the classical father of all dodgy '80s slasher pictures, by almost four months. It's also the first North American Christmas slasher film after the archetypal Black Christmas, and if I am not horribly mistaken, it is the first "killer Santa" picture. Basically, it's the most important movie ever reviewed on this weblog.

Things start off with a trope that wasn't quite run into the ground yet, though by the time Prom Night rolled around that summer, it would already reek of cliché: the accidental death "two years ago" that gives Somebody a motive for revenge later on. In this case, it's a sorority prank gone wrong - we can tell it's a sorority prank because the girls involved keep chanting "so-ror-i-TEE, so-ror-i-TEE" while they scare one of their number into jumping off a balcony to her death. This has been cited, in certain places, as a pledge hazing, but even as brutally moronic a film as To All a Goodnight will become surely can't assume that rush is still happening in mid-December, and over a holiday to boot.

Anyway, we abruptly hop forward to the same place, exactly two years later, in the present day: it's Calvin Finishing School for Girls, and it is Christmas vacation time. And this is the point at which this groundbreaking, I daresay revolutionary early slasher film settles into the groove of ripping off Black Christmas with relaxed indulgence, and it will never, ever get back out of this groove until the very end, when the killer turns out to be somebody different, and not just because of the Santa Claus outfit. But I am out ahead of the movie - we don't even know there's a killer yet! Except we totally do, because we didn't accidentally wander into this film thinking it was a for-real adaptation of The Night Before Christmas. And also, before we've finished meeting the Expendable Meat, we've been exposed to an exceptionally weird POV thing where the killer is looking at the dead girl's photo, and there's really fast cross dissolving and all sorts of strange "you are in the mind of a psycho!" things that prove, if nothing else, that David Hess is not interested in doing things that are normal, and will readily sacrifice sense and coherence in the pursuit of it.

Alright, so back to the Meat: these are the girls who either couldn't or wouldn't go home for the holidays, and are currently plotting how they are going to drug house mother Mrs. Jensen (Katherine Herrington), so that she'll sleep soundly through the evenings as they have all kinds of sex with their various boyfriends, who have just flown in on a little private plane - Calvin is apparently miles from anything resembling anywhere. Not a one of these girls is given any kind of personality, except that one, I think it might be Trisha (Angela Bath), has an Australian accent; my suspicion is that it was the actress's best stab at sounding sophisticated. Otherwise, the only way that we can tell one person from another is that most of them die fairly early, so we can start to hold onto just the handful that "matter". Only one of them matters, anyway: that's Nancy (Jennifer Runyon, who'd go on to have a bit of a career; she is best-known, I am certain, as the girl taking an ESP test administered by a horny Bill Murray in Ghostbusters), who we can tell is the Final Girl because she's the only one who doesn't laugh at a joke about pot when we're meeting everyone, or at least being shown all of them, which is as close as we come.

In all of this, Mrs. Jensen is briefly visited by her friend, a fantastic Noo Yawk Eyetalian named Mrs. Ronsoni, played by Judy Hess - I don't know how she's related to the director, and I don't particularly care. Anyway, Mrs. Ronsoni, identified clear as day in the end credits as Mr. Ronsoni, which raises all sorts of exciting possibilities, is delightfully curmudgeonly and totally pointless in every way and she talks with the thickest fake accent ever, and one of the girls greets her as "Mrs. Rasini. Mrs. Ronsoni", which cannot possibly be anything else than the actress fucking up her line, and that is amazing. It breaks my heart in two that she only got the one scene, because it is the best thing I've seen in my whole life.

From here, we see young people dying, mostly in pairs, and mostly without anybody noticing, until the creepy old caretaker Ralph Kramer (Buck West) is found dead; awesomely, this triggers a conversation about a) are all the girls we've just noticed aren't here dead? and b) do any of us actually care one way or the other? The answer to b) is a big jovial "No!", because they all stay and don't really make any attempt to do anything but continue to have sex until it's eventually down to just a couple of people, mostly Nancy and the sweet nerd Alex (Forrest Swanson) who has developed a crush on her these past few days, and a killer whose identity I correctly called at the 39 minute mark, which is just about the last point at which a cagey slasher fan could possibly be expected to remain in any doubt at all.

Christmas cheer: Besides the sheer fact of being the first killer Santa movie? Almost none, honestly. It was shot in Santa Barbara, and thus we are deprived the sight of snow; beyond one pathetic string of lights, the girls haven't decorated at all.

Style of horror: Such a pristine example of the early '80s slasher film that I can barely stand it.

The good: The copy I scrounged up was released on VHS by a company called Media Home Entertainment Inc, and their logo is the most spectacularly '80s cheese proto-CGI monstrosity you have ever fucking seen. Not to mention that they called themselves "Media Home Entertainment" a name so exquisitely anonymous that it would have seemed too bureaucratic to work as a gag in Brazil. It's awesome, completely and unutterably awesome.

What's good within the movie itself? you ask. Oh, um, nothing.

The bad: It's a slasher film, and that alone brings with it a certain relaxation of quality, though To All a Goodnight is by no means a uniquely bad film; as a tedious Ten Little Indians-style "horror" "thriller", it's only a shade worse than fellow Class of 1980 graduate Prom Night, mostly because it has a considerably less talented cast.

On the other hand, neither Prom Night nor most other bog-standard slasher movies boasted such exceptionally awfully direction as David Hess brings to bear: along with cinematographer Bil Godsey, he contrived to make certain that not a single one of the nighttime exteriors - and a whole lot of the movie is nighttime exteriors - is lit well enough that you can guess in more than an abstract way what is happening. In fact, every single frame of the movie is sufficiently drab and underexposed that it's frequently hard to make out which greyish-brown shape is which, but I am willing to concede that this is a potential problem of the video transfer and not the film itself, Media Home Entertainment Inc obviously having shot their tech budget on that magnificent company ID.

And then there are the zooms, which are freakishly amateurish; did you ever playing with the buttons on a camcorder and only belatedly realising it was recording? That amateurish, and that arbitrary as well. Also, the staging of the killing scenes is deliberately befuddling, I think, as is the blocking generally: we never quite get a sense of how space is laid out, where people are, which girl is paired with which boy, how exactly Killer Santa is perpetrating these deaths (especially the one in a tree), or why we care about any of this at all.

Lastly, there is a girl who goes insane when her boyfriend dies in front of her, and her name is Leah (Judith Bridges), except that we find out that it's spelled "Leia", because fuck you Alex Rebar.

Blood: Give or take one well-choreographed death-by-plane-propeller (I am sad to report that it is cut together in almost exactly the same fashion as the more famous propeller death in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released a year and a half later), most of the blood is implied, and the violent part of the deaths always happens just a few seconds after the shot ends. It's not as pointlessly squeamish as some of the worst late-'80s slashers, but it's not a patch on Friday the 13th.

Boobs: Yes indeed, those belonging to just about every female cast member who is neither middle-aged nor Jennifer Runyon.

Sex=death: In the most pointed manner possible: a young gentleman gets an arrow through the back of his head, out his mouth while engaged in the very act of copulation. And every girl who isn't a virgin ends up dead or insane. And she's, like, specifically a virgin, our Final Girl.

Body count: 15, a gigantic number in those days, and made so gigantic in part by bringing in characters we've never seen just so that they can be killed promptly.

Sign it was 1980: The hair and clothes, primarily, but the combination of slasher elements at their most trite and a complete earnestness about what it's doing, without any of the ugly tang of "fuck it, let's make some cash" that marks overwhelming majority of such movies, can only be a sign it was released right at the beginning of the slasher film boom.

Pithy wrap-up: I tell you what, the more of these sonofabitchin' things I see, the more I have to admit that Friday the 13th was actually a really solid horror movie in context.

23 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: WRESTLING WITH ETHICS

Tom McCarthy, an actor of little particular note turned indie filmmaker of some considerabl note indeed, has a weirdly precise shtick that has worked extremely well for him in the past: build a low-key, character-driven drama/comedy with quirky situations but not quirky humor around an immensely talented but traditionally underserved character actor, once every four years. First, there was The Station Agent, the only film that has ever quite figured out what to do with the incredibly talented Peter Dinklage, which just for good measure gave Patricia Clarkson one of her best roles in the early '00s; second, there was The Visitor, which gave Richard Jenkins his meatiest part ever, and Hiam Abbass the best English-language role of her career.

And now we come to Win Win, which has an okay but hardly exceptional "prickly but loving wife" role for Amy Ryan, a funny sidekick role for Bobby Cannavale, parts that are much too small for Jeffrey Tambor, Margo Martindale, and Burt Young, and a real humdinger of a leading part for Paul Giamatti. God bless McCarthy for getting Giamatti, and Giamatti for doing such good work with the character - it's as fine as any other acting job he's done since Sideways - but you know what we, as a filmgoing culture, don't really need? More avenues to see Giamatti. Which is nothing against the film itself, but the defining trait of McCarthy's films to this point has been their feeling of discovery and revelation, and learning that Paul Giamatti can play a self-loathing sad sack who tries to become a better person is, whatever its charms, not revelatory.

More importantly, Win Win is all in all a much fuzzier movie than anything McCarthy has done before, without so much of a keen awareness of place and social context, and it suffers from a script that's purring along oh-so-nicely for about the first two-thirds, before the conflict jumps up a notch and the film goes from generous and comfortably small to slightly - just slightly, mind you - grotesque. Absolutely none of which is to say that it's not a good movie, but it's not a great movie, and that is something both The Station Agent and The Visitor absolutely were.

Win Win is about a lawyer, Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), in a financial death spiral: and this leads him to do something very stupid, very unethical, and only legal because there's no way to legislate against being a dick. Mike has been representing a doddering old man, Leo (Young), trying to protect his assets during a trial to judge his competence. Mike makes what is is plainly a spur-of-the-moment decision, and offers to act as Leo's legal guardian, which entitles him to $1500 a month. Except that, not wanting to bother with the considerable challenge of keeping an old man hale and well, Mike chucks Leo straight into a nursing home, lying that it's the court's order that he does so.

Right about now, Leo's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), shows up to visit his grandfather, but really because he's sick to death of his selfish, unloving mother and her asshole boyfriend; seizing on a chance to combat his bad karma, Mike offers to take the boy in and help him find his way. And then this, too, turns into a chance to become a user - it so happens that Mike is the coach of the high school wrestling team, and Kyle was formerly one of the top wrestlers in his state. Partially to give the boy something to do, and partially to give himself a winning team, Mike manages to get Kyle enrolled in the school and on the team, and slowly but steadily, things look like they're getting better for everyone: for Leo, who has a loving family member in his life for the first time in 20 years; for Kyle, surrounded by caring, supporting people; and for Mike, who not only has a chance to to good, but even manages to reconnect with his own family.

And then Kyle's addled mother Cindy (Melanie Lynskey) comes to town, fresh out of rehab and flat broke.

It's here that Win Win starts to break down, turning unreasonably melodramatic and being nastier to Cindy than it has to - she is the first major character in a McCarthy film treated with such harsh judgment - and the curtain-closing moment is much too easy and pat for the relative complexity of the script up to that point. It's nowhere near enough to ruin Win Win all by itself, but it is usually the case that stories with an excellent beginning and a bad ending rankle more than the other way 'round, and this works to the film's disadvantage. There is, again, too much good will built up by this point to make the film a complete washout - we like Mike and want to see him succeed, and notwithstanding his shabby treatment of Cindy, McCarthy is far too much a humanist to punish his character just for existing, so the pleasing ending is right in keeping with what feels true to the film, regardless of its contrivance and the (I daresay) Hollywoodish feeling of its forcible having cake and eating it.

So, it is the weakest of McCarthy's three screenplays; so too is it the weakest of his three directorial efforts, capturing little of the spirit of New Providence, NJ (and just because that's a place that really exists, doesn't make the name any less preciously symbolic) and generally looking awfully flat and indifferent. Everything is in a uniform shade of drab, and while there are stories that can support that kind of choice, Win Win doesn't have one. The bright side is that bland visuals aren't really a problem; it's first and foremost an actors' showcase, just like all of McCarthy's films, and it works extremely well on that front: even when the plot starts going to shit, all of the people in front of the camera are doing superlative work, especially Giamatti, Ryan, and Shaffer, an amazing find: the teenager was cast in part because he was himself a champion wrestler before blowing out his back, and this is his first performance, though you wouldn't know it. It's undoubtedly easy for a teenager to act mumbly and aloof and disengaged, but there's doing that, and doing that in a meaningful and compelling way, and given that most of his co-stars outside of maybe Cannavale are doing pretty much what they do, it might even be the most striking performance in the movie.

All in all, it's pretty slight stuff, of course: excellent performances of good characters in a story that's not as rich as it apparently believes itself to be does not equal cinema gold. But it's still immensely satisfying to watch a movie that has this much affection for its characters while still making a point of calling them on their bullshit. It's a tremendously minor strain of American filmmaking for adults that needs to exist, and right now, McCarthy does it as well as anybody out there.

7/10

GETTING PUNKED BY DAVID FINCHER

The easy part first: the David Fincher-directed and Steve Zaillian-scripted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better across the board than 2009's Män som hatar kvinnor, the Swedish adaptation of the same source novel by the late Stieg Larsson. The sole exception is the key role of that very same tattooed girl, where it's a push: in the new film, Rooney Mara is far closer to Larsson's depiction of Lisbeth Salander as an icy, furiously unemotional sociopath with a heart of gold, but Noomi Rapace's devastating anger makes for more arresting cinema. In both cases, the young actresses give a massively successful performance of a character that, arguably, would be best left unperformed: a "strong woman" who feels sort of like a grab bag of fetishes that a man who won't shut up about how much of a feminist he is might cultivate in the hopes of impressing women. But Larsson is dead, so I probably oughtn't criticise him.

Anyway, as I was saying, the easy part is that Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is better in pretty much all of the important ways than the at times laughably small-scale Swedish picture; the hard part is that somehow, part of me would rather watch the Swedish one again, and I can't say why. Maybe because the grubby, borderline-exploitative subject matter seems like it rather deserves the slick, tacky treatment it already got in 2009, and not Fincher's pop-opera approach which is obviously trying to return to the nihilistic grandeur of the director's great, unutterably bleak Se7en, but keeps falling apart in the face of how painfully the material can't stand up to the amount of seriousness Fincher throws at it. The book is a pitch-black beach read; a gaudy melodrama with anal rape and Nazis thrown in because Stieg Larsson lacked a sense of proportion but knew how to keep you turning the pages. Fincher resists that essentially trashy core of the story, and his resistance comes powerfully close to breaking the movie.

For the uninitiated: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or Men Who Hate Women if you prefer your titles accurately translated and viciously unsubtle, centers on Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), a crusading leftish journalist and co-editor of a crusading leftish magazine called Millennium, who at the film's beginning, has just succeeded in driving his career into a brick wall by publishing inflammatory, and as it turns out untrue, charges about a corporate giant. Thus cast out of polite society, Blomkvist is approached by Dirch Frode (Steven Berkoff), the elderly assistant to the positively ancient industrialist Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who offers the journalist a job: look into the 40-year-old disappearance of Vanger's beloved niece Harriet, for a huge amount of money and the promise of being able to clear his name. Meanwhile, Lisbeth Salander, who performed a background check on Blomkvist for Vanger, has her hands full with a new public guardian, Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen), who has a taste for raping his charges. Having executed a fairly nasty revenge on him, Salander accepts Blomkvist's request that she join as a research assistant when the Harriet Vanger case takes a turn for the epically convoluted.

Over one novel and two movies, the merits and flaws of this story have remained fairly constant. The merits: the sensationalism of the mystery plot, and the interplay between Blomkvist and Salander, a bitter, warped 21st Century variant on the dogged investigative journalist and his plucky Girl Friday. The flaws: the grinding exposition for the first two-thirds, before Blomkvist and Salander are thrown together (Zaillian's script streamlines this somewhat, gaining a speedier first hour at the expense of clarity and depth), the Ending That Won't (which is here considerably worse than in the Swedish film, though still not as plodding as the novel), and maybe worst of all, the colossally uninteresting resolution to the central mystery, which I'm not going to spoil, except that "we looked everywhere except where we didn't" is no kind of solution to a locked-room mystery. Also, the mere fact that the resolution of the mystery is a completely different thing than the ending of the movie ought to tell you how out of control and stretched out the dénouement is.

In all the important ways, this TGWTDT gets the job done up right: Mara's Salander is a pitch-perfect depiction of emotionless hyper-competence and implacable drive, and if she doesn't really resemble a human being, well... that is not what the character is about. Less splashy, but far more of benefit is Craig's Blomkvist: replacing Michael Nyqvist's bland take on the character last time with an actual for-real performance, Craig is the one who actually has to carry the movie, and his brisk, commonsensical attitude elevates the movie into something lighter and more sympathetic than the gruesome material and pop-nihilistic aesthetic than would otherwise have been the case.

The whole thing is stylish as anything, though I've already suggested that the style and the plot don't match each other, so much as the style tries to paper over the novel's seediness with absolutely no success. For a perfect example, let us look to the opening credits: a crazily dark and twisted series of images that feel like the most savage heavy metal cover of all time, set to a roaring cover of "Immigrant Song" by Karen O and Trent Reznor: it is a goddamn masterpiece of aggressive tone, and it has basically nothing to do with anything else in the movie, narratively or visually. That is the predominate feeling one gets with Fincher's direction and Jeff Cronenweth's noir-on-crack cinematography: it is all wildly stylish and exciting and it could not possibly be any more shallow.

Better that than no style at all, I guess. There's some parts that are in fact straight-up excellent: Kirk Baxter & Angus Wall, Fincher's regular editors, have done perhaps their best work ever here, with deliberately unsettling and unconventional cuts that scream out at the audience like a series of slaps to the face; no quiet, continuity editing here. Reznor and Atticus Ross's score, while not as revelatory as what they did for Fincher's last film, The Social Network, slinks along with jarring chords and the occasional rock screech; it does more to create an effective sordid atmosphere than all of Fincher's over-worked and over-grand direction.

In the main, though, this is only a bit less grubby than the Swedish film, and not really as much fun, insofar as it kind of isn't any fun at all: Fincher makes certain that it is much more corroded than the previous movie, with an even more unsparing and disgusting rape scene, and an attitude so resentful and broken that even the nicest character moments still feel unpleasant. I can't find it in me to call it a bad film, because it isn't; on the contrary, the craftsmanship on display is uniformly excellent, with the only serious aesthetic flaw that the film is inconsistently Swedish: sometimes text is in English, sometimes not, and there's no rhyme or reason to why or in what context. But that's only a tiny flaw in what is otherwise an extremely handsome- no, not handsome, it's too bleached-out and grim to be handsome. It looks the way it should look, basically, and it acts the way it should act, and even though the whole thing is not nearly equal to the sum of its parts, those parts are all elegant enough that the movie taken as one is hardly a waste of time; just really damn frustrating and not half as engaging as it really ought to be.

7/10, but at the lowest end of that range

22 December 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2011: THE MUMBLING DETECTIVE

Of all the filmmakers associated (usually against their choosing) with the Mumblecore branch of independent filmmaking, Aaron Katz always stuck me as having the most native talent; his debut, Dance Party, USA is among the best films of the generally indecent subgenre of inarticulate post-collegiates shuffling through life in the big city, unable to form attachments to much of anything besides hip music. It is possibly the case that this is so because it's about high school students rather than aimless twentysomethings; also that it is barely more than an hour long. Anyway, it's better than it ought to be, which is rarely enough true of American indie films that there was reason to be optimistic for his third film, the slice-of-life mystery film Cold Weather.

Sure enough, Cold Weather proves to be a satisfying movie altogether, although in a lot of ways it feels like a step backwards for Katz, artistically; or anyway, a firm and decisive step laterally, which is no better. All the charming things that make the Mumblecore aesthetic so grueling are here, all right, and they feel sharper and more prominent, somehow, than in Katz's previous feature. Bright, crisp, cloyingly artificial videography, of that very sort which flattens out spaces and murders smart compositions in their beds? Aye, there is that. Dialogue which tries so damn hard to sound realistic that it zips right out t'other side, incorporating references and turns of phrase so deliberately unfocused that it plays less like naturalism, and more like the worst improv warm-up in the history of acting class? Not so badly as in many films of the kind, though there is a lengthy conversation about Star Trek: The Next Generation that ranks among the most hideously stilted things I heard in a movie in all of 2011. Shitty, shitty sound recording? Sound recording that could only have been worse if the boom operator had been blowing on the microphone? Sound that bursts and crackles like the staticky farts of Satan himself? That, of course, is why it's called "Mumblecore", and as I have pointed out before, just because microbudget films have a harder time getting good sound, that is not an excuse to not get good sound. Not when you have the intention of charging people money to see your staticky-ass movie.

So, all that's a thing, and let us not ever pretend it isn't there. But here is why I love Katz: he finds a way - perhaps it is a huge and complete accident, and I am about to praise the director for serendipity - but he finds a way to make the inherent aesthetic shittiness of super-low-budget shot-on-video-in-my-apartment indie filmmaking somehow interesting, by pairing it with a story that goes into very different places than the standard fare of young people being ironic.

No, wait, I've gotten ahead of the film. Here's what happens: Doug (Chris Lankenau) has just returned to Portland, his hometown, with part of a degree in forensics completed before he dropped out of school. It's never completely clear what he expects to find back in Oregon besides a lack of unwelcome responsibility (we learn fairly quickly that he didn't want to be a forensic scientist, so much as he had a boyish enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes), but in short order, he's living with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and making a new friend, Carlos (Raúl Castillo), at his new job at an ice factory. That Doug works at an ice factory - and I have no doubt at all that ice factories exist; have we not all rushed out to buy ice in moments of party-planning terror? - is sign that Cold Weather can't entirely shake itself of the "ain't we cute?" mentality that has been strangling American indie films for the last 10 years, but let me not start bitching quite yet.

The first little twist comes when Doug's ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) arrives for uncertain reasons; not quite knowing what to do with this situation, Doug gently nudges her towards Carlos, and they make a date. Here is where the second and less big twist arrives: Rachel up and vanishes, Carlos is convinced that something terrible has happened, and Doug is way too excited for a chance to play real-life detective.

It's only just a mystery film, and not at all a thriller; in fact, there's nothing resembling a plot for more than a third of the 96-minute film. What there is, is a whole lot of loosey-goosey character interactions, the kind that seem aimless and boring when the film starts, and have quietly turned into something sweet and nice as the investigation ends up serving first and foremost to tighten the bond between Doug and Gail, and that sibling relationship ends up being far and away the real focus of the movie, not the doofus theatrics of the investigation (which veer irregularly from charmingly naïve to annoyingly cute throughout the movie). It's sort of like a humanist L'avventura, if such a thing weren't a contradiction in terms.

Even with the emphasis on the brother-sister relationship at its core, played with exceptional delicacy by Lankenau and Dunn as the adult reawakening of childhood dynamics - the film eschews the familiar "they are estranged now and have to learn to love each other again" plot of most sibling tales, instead showing us a brother and sister who still pretty much work well together, and examining how that works - Cold Weather is awfully slight for much of its short running time. Katz can't quite bring together a cogent commentary on detective fiction, or on our romantic affection for such stories - Doug's Holmes obsession is among the film's least-successful threads - but he does make a pretty insightful commentary about the nature of low-budget character driven talky indie movies, by refracting one through the lens of a genre framework. It tweaks our expectations and throws the artificiality of both genre fiction and narrative realism into relief; not that he indicts Mumblecore by adapting it into a chintzy noir environment, but he doesn't shy away from poking a little bit of fun at it, either.

Anyway, the collision of genre with the expected slow-moving study of twentysomethings learning a tiny bit about themselves is damned interesting, and it helps that Cold Weather is above-average as far as its character study goes: maybe it doesn't have much to say about its characters, and doesn't care enough about extrapolating from their experiences to tackle anything deeper and more universal. But it creates interesting people and lets us get to know them better, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, not at all.

7/10

A BOY AND HIS DOG

It's not at all reasonable to say of something that's as blissfully enjoyable for as much of its running time as The Adventures of Tintin is, "I was completely disappointed'; but that film's director, Steven Spielberg, has set the bar about as high as anyone could for adventure films that marry the narrative innocence of '30s serials with the very best visual effects that the most financially successful directorial career in Hollywood history can buy, and "enjoyable" is where we should be starting at, not where we end.

Herein, we have a young reporter, Tintin (Jamie Bell's voice and physical performance coated in CGI - Tintin, if you missed it somehow, is all done in that newfangled and not very satisfying motion capture thing), somewhere in Europe in roughly the 1930s (theoretically Brussels, though it acts like London). He kicks things off by buying an antique model boat called the Unicorn, and is immediately harassed for it by a villainously thin fellow named Sakharine (Daniel Craig); it turns out that the Unicorn is one of the central pieces of a giant MacGuffin Hunt that takes Tintin to North Africa and back in search of an ancient pirate treasure, aided by his resourceful terrier Snowy, and a blustery, comically drunk Scottish captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis). Incidentally, there are all kinds of moral hand-wringers fretting about the propriety of such trivial jokes made about alcoholism, and I am immensely pleased that I don't give two shits about that; such is what a steady diet of W.C. Fields in childhood will do for you. Anyway, the incidentals are largely unimportant, save that they steadily movie Tintin and Haddock through land, sea, and air into new and better places to have big, family-friendly action setpieces.

The film is based on three of the iconic Tintin graphic novels by the beloved Belgian artist Hergé, adapted by a murderer's row of writers (Steven Moffat started it; Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish finished), and I will confess now rather than later that I've never read a single Tintin story and have only the slightest idea what they're meant to be about (a more geopolitically savvy, duck-free version of Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge comics, is my nearest understanding), so I am not in any position to be either delighted or appalled by what Spielberg and crew have done with the characters; even within my tiny knowledge, though it does not seem incredibly bright to take the extremely clean cartoon characters of the original and render them in something damn close to realism only with their cartoon features kept in place, thanks to the magic of the dreaded motion capture which Spielberg's buddy Robert Zemeckis has been riding into the ground for most of the last decade. Since I've just gone and brought it up, I guess I should address that fact: yes, mo-cap; yes, Spielberg's first mo-cap, his first animated feature of any sort (I'm going to keep clear of the "is mo-cap animation?" argument*), his first 3-D movie, and so on. It is, in short, a great big toybox full of new technologies for a director who has, historically, done as well as anyone else in Hollywood at turning the best and brightest new technologies into great big fun popcorn movies.

This much, no one can deny: The Adventures of Tintin is the best-looking mo-cap film that has yet been made. Which isn't the same as having the best mo-cap (that remains the titular figure from the 2005 King Kong, directed by Tintin producer Peter Jackson), and it holds true that the best mo-cap film is still a mo-cap film, and while nothing in Tintin is quite as richly nightmarish as the waxen-faced corpse of Tom Hanks sauntering through The Polar Express or the kinky video game avatar of Angelina Jolie in Beowulf, it's still a bit eye-watering in places. Particularly in the beginning, before one has a chance to really get used to the sight of almost photorealistic people with comic book facial features, which we've never really had in the movies before, and Jesus Christ is it ever something the brain's not really equipped to deal with. That these beings populating the movie are occasionally given to moving sometimes in very odd, exaggeratedly slow ways - almost like CGI characters being molded onto footage of actual humans has suddenly given way to fully-animated CGI characters performing outlandish stunts, except it's really hard to match precise human movement to animator-created movement. Almost exactly like that.

The point being, there's a whole new world of visual storytelling possibilities that this opens up for Spielberg, one of the few mainstream American filmmakers with an honest-to-God visual sensibility (we can talk all we like about whether or not this makes Spielberg a good mainstream American filmmaker); the results are erratic, leaning towards good. The problem, I think, is twofold: on the one hand, Spielberg has been basically absent from cinema for six years, following a tremendous burst of activity and creativity from 2001-2005; his sole film in that span was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which was presumably not a very energizing or intellectually taxing project for him, so Tintin amounts to him having to re-learn his craft after a protracted absence. Except, he doesn't have to re-learn his craft; he's dealing with a whole new method of filmmaking altogether, and considering that he was one of the last anti-digital holdouts in Hollywood, it's easy to assume that mo-cap does not anyway play to his strengths or interests.

The result of all this is a movie that feels very experimental in the least exciting sense: you can almost watch Spielberg feeling his way around this whole CGI world thing without ever becoming totally comfortable with it. There is a whole lot of wandering through the 3-D animated space for no reason other than because, what the hell, we can do that now, and I frequently found myself wanting to scream "Stop moving the fucking camera!" in the first 30 minutes or so, before this simply faded into the background and became just part of the film's vocabulary, albeit an irritating part. Truth be told, it was this more than anything that felt like Jackson leaning a bit too heavily into Spielberg's space (the Lord of the Rings movies were absolutely rotten with overly-busy camera movement), and although we are assured that Spielberg has been interesting in directing a Tintin movie since the early '80s - right around the time that his Raiders of the Lost Ark rendered a Tintin movie essentially moot, funnily enough - it always kind of feels like he was a willing director-for-hire on Jackson's baby.

And yet, rather more frequently than I have thus far let on, everything gels, and The Adventures of Tintin turns into exactly that animated Indiana Jones picture that it was supposed to be - I almost said "family-friendly Indiana Jones picture", but feared that would be a tautology, given that those films are already best enjoyed by the 12-year-old part of your brain. There's a stunningly choreographed long "take" or whatever you call it in mo-cap, in which the main characters are all separated and then joined back together in pursuit of three Sheets of MacGuffin up and down and over a fictional Moroccan city depicted in awkwardly colonialist tones, a glorious bit of popcorn movie nonsense that could never, ever happen in live-action, dragging in the influences of '30s swashbucklers, Jacques Tati-style physical comedy, and even ol' Indiana himself. Even better are the flashbacks to a 17th Century pirate battle done up in beautiful CGI firelight and filled with giddy match-cuts to Haddock's enthusiastic pantomime of the battle (whatever else can be said about the film's refusal to live up to the best of Spielberg, the director's regular editor Michael Kahn is on his best behavior). And a lot of other things, too; when Tintin is focused on being an setpiece delivery system, it works really well; but unlike e.g. the Indiana Jones films, the bits in-between the setpieces are kind of bland and unpleasantly inhuman. Fortunately, the film seems to understand this and tries to overload on the action sequences, which itself becomes a little bit wearying.

But bitching and disappointments aside, this is a fun movie, if shallow. Spielberg's use of 3-D, while never revelatory, is sufficiently concerned with giving us spectacle for our dollars that it at least manages to be distractingly big to look at, the sense of humor is always in the right place even when the rest of it isn't, the acting is as agreeable as can be underneath the CGI, and John Williams's score - his first since Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - is excellent, a pastiche of adventure movie music from several generations overlaid with a saucy European sensibility that keeps it from being a pleasant copy of the Indiana Jones music. It's more than good enough, and less than great, and that simply has to be that.

7/10