31 January 2012

FEBRUARY 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

February is always a tricky month: like January, there's a lot of "release this now and hopefully nobody will notice it" garbage, but sometimes you get lucky. And my gut tells me that this year, we're due: there are not, admittedly, any films on the immediate horizon that appear to be particularly great, but I dearly do hope that at least a couple of them might be good enough, which is often the only thing you can hope for.

3.2.2012

And here's one of those maybe good-enough films right up top: The Woman in Black, a haunted house picture starring a newly post-Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. Now, there's nothing as easily fucked-up as a horror picture (unless it is a romantic comedy, an awards-baiting biopic, or a summertime action movie), but the trailer has a good amount of old-fashioned creepiness to it; and ghost stories have been doing well these days. Anyway, on the curve that we are obliged to use for the first third of the calendar year, it strikes me as being a good bet.

It is, at any rate, the only film of the weekend that I'm expecting good things from at all: Big Miracle, or Dolphin Tale 2: With Whales This Time, is transparently the kind of feel-good animal story that I, at least, have never been able to abide, though it has a heck of a cast; and Chronicle, a found-footage teen sci-fi thriller... is a found-footage teen sci-fi thriller. With a cutesy-poo "mysterious" marketing campaign that has not, as yet, made it look any less terrible.


10.2.2012

An unusually well-balanced mix of three films, from action to romantic drama to kid's adventure movie. That all three of them look pretty damn bad is incidental to the elegance of the marquees they shall produce.

Firstly, there's Safe House, which looks for all the world like Tony Scott film shot by Paul Cameron, up to and including Denzel Washington as the morally ambiguous co-lead; and yet it was neither directed by Tony Scott, nor shot by Paul Cameron at all. Which sets it fully in the world of rip-off and knock-offs, though I have to wonder how many people in the target audience are actually aware of what's being ripped off. Next (I don't know why I'm saying these are in any particular order, but still, next) is Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which I can't get my head around at all: first because a sequel to the 2008 Journey to the Center of the Earth makes absolutely no sense, second because setting a sequel to a modern-day Jules Verne adaptation inside a completely unrelated Jules Verne novel make sense in the most excitingly sick way. Then is The Vow, which looks for all the world like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation that isn't, and in this case I suppose the target audience knows that and doesn't care.

There's one other wide release, and it even keeps the balance in order: it is, I am sad to say, the 3-D re-release of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. The first in what, we are threatened, is to be a six-year plan to squeeze every last drop of money from the films, on the back of what appears (from the trailers) to be an unusually shitty conversion job, and a film that is more or less hated by everybody. I remain entirely unclear why George Lucas didn't see fit to begin with the actual first Star Wars, but he acts like he knows what he's doing. Incidentally, if this goes to #1 at the box office - which I do not anticipate - I'm not going to see it; partially because I don't see the point of another pan of The Phantom Menace, partially because I vowed six and a half years ago not to watch any of the Star Wars films until such time as Lucas releases the unaltered version of the original films, because he obviously cares what I do or say.


14.2.2012

Happy Valentine's Day, courtesy of Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, and Tom Hardy, and the romantic spy comedy This Means War! Hell, that's at least one-third of a cast worth paying attention to, and I admire the obviousness of combining things girls like (romantic comedies) with things boys like (spies) in what shall undoubtedly be a spirited comedy that doesn't feel blandly focused-grouped at all.


17.2.2012

If there is one safe bet all month, it is the U.S. release of the two-year old Studio Ghibli feature (their 17th), The Secret World of Arrietty, which may well be from a first-time director, Yonebayashi Hiromasa, and may well be sort of cheap-looking, if we are to trust the trailers, but goddammit, Studio Ghibli. Let us not dwell on the fact that the last one released in the States was the weak Tales of Earthsea. At any rate, it is based upon solid source material, and until Takahata's Tales of the Bamboo Cutter finally shows up, we'll have to take what we can get.

Also, there is a sequel to Ghost Rider, and it is called Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, in case you give a shit. At the very least, dropping the director of Daredevil for the directors of Crank feels like a step in the right direction.


24.2.2012

This Tyler Perry kick I've been on comes to a close with the punningly-titled Good Deeds, in which a certain Wesley Deeds, played, of course, by Perry, probably doesn't end up with a huge sum of money and thereafter is forced to defend his sanity in a court of law and prove that country folk can be just as smart as city dwellers. He probably does, though, learn to be a better man with Jesus. Just guessing.

Amanda Seyfried tries to jumpstart that career that just stubbornly refuses to pick up, this time as an action heroine, with the paranoia thriller Gone, which at least has a tremendously straightforward title to its credit. Over here, we have Wanderlust, a new David Wain comedy, starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd and a "hippies are silly!" concept from 1973. And lastly, we have Act of Valor, which is advertising itself with special emphasis on the fact that the whole cast is made up of non-actors from the NAVY Seals, as though that was actually a good thing; and maybe for people for whom the military matters more than art, it is

30 January 2012

B-FEST 2012

Late January can only mean one thing around these parts - yet another visit to B-Fest, the annual bad movie marathon held on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. 24 hours of the worst that cinema has to offer, coming just frequently enough that a body can survive it year in and year out.

This particular B-Fest marked a special milestone: it was the first of my second decade of attendance (I first went as an NU sophomore way the hell back in 2002), with which I believe that I officially become an old hand. And as such, I get to indulge in the crabby old man sport of complaining about how much better everything used to be, and goddamn all these DVDs they're project and for $35 I damn well expect to see some 16mm prints, dammit. Though, as has been the case, the jump from all-film to very nearly no film at all has had one extremely good side-effect, which is that A&O (the Northwestern student group that puts B-Fest on every year, and deserves more thanks for it than one blogger can ever provide) has been able to scrounge up some considerably rarities, including more direct-to-video trash. Indeed, as much as I would love to complain about the lack of celluloid, I can't help but be honest and admit that B-Fest '12 had just about the finest mixture of titles of any year I've attended, finding space for movies from the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, multiple countries, multiple genres, a good mix of black-and-white and color, and finding just the right cross between obscure and famous bad movie classics. The schedule itself wasn't perfect - the best stuff came during the wee hours of the morning, and it felt like it took forever for things to pick up after a solid opening film, but all in all, I have no real complaints. Not a blockbuster B-Fest, but there wasn't a single overarching problem with it, like there have been in other years.

Okay, maybe one problem: not a single short other than the annual Wizard of Speed and Time. In most years, the weirdest and most inexplicable bits of B-Fest are the strange little short films the A&O folks are able to scrounge up; for no reason I can quite make out, they didn't bother to this year.

The diary and reviews below the jump.

29 January 2012

THE ANTAGONISTS, 2011

Why, I ask, should the Academy have all the fun? Like everyone else, I assume that my taste is just as good as theirs if not better (seriously - the song from motherfucking Rio), and that is why I am proud to present the third annual Antagonist Awards for Excellence in Cinema That Appeals to Me, and To Hell With Y'all. With this, my retrospective of the 2011 movie year is complete, and I can with a clear conscience look ahead to the new horizons of filmmaking c. 2012, such as the 3-D reissues of The Phantom Menace and Titanic.


BEST FEATURE
The Tree of Life
Surprise, surprise, I'm still in the bag for Terrence Malick's grandiose, visually staggering exercise in the origin of morality and the nature of God, and the painful dynamics of a tight family. The mere fact that I don't agree with about any of its central conceits about spirituality, gender roles, or history, and it still just ruins me every time, is proof enough that it's doing a lot of things right.

1st Runner-Up: Certified Copy
A terrifically dense exploration of what signifies "reality", half experimental film and half character study, anchored by two great performances and Abbas Kiarostami's well-honed sense of cinema's own inherent authenticity

Also Cited:
Hugo
A Separation
Tuesday, After Christmas

Hugo, is, as some of the naysayers have it, spectacle for spectacle's sake, but when it's spectacle this complex (bleeding edge technology meets 110-year-old popcorn cinema), I am and will remain quite unapologetically a fan. A Separation is just dumbfounding, a mesmerising concoction of Iranian sociology and personal suffering turned into a legal thriller of the first order. Tuesday is the most aesthetically straighforward of the five, a devastating three-way depiction of how infidelity changes all the people it touches; all the unbelievably convincing, well-written people.


BEST DIRECTOR
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
When one's favorite motion picture in five years got to be that way on account of an uncompromising auteur's 30-year quest to make it exactly how he envisioned it... I mean, you sort of have to, y'know?

1st Runner-Up: Asghar Farhadi, A Separation
Most of what is best - of course, the whole film is a bunch of individual "bests" - but what is best about this film always comes back to the precision with which each beat, each gesture, and each frame is tied into one flawlessly complete whole. If that's not the sign of great directing, then great directing just plain doesn't exist.

Also Cited:
Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Gore Verbinski, Rango

Kiarostami's ability to erase the lines between moments and characters is the key to the film's challenging, bracing central mysteries. Scorsese's love of toys hasn't resulted in so much creativity since the early 1990s; the opening tracking shot is his single finest creative moment since the cocaine bust sequence in Goodfellas. Verbinski's complete embrace of logic so absurd that even "cartoon" implies more sanity results in as deliriously, engagingly singular a vision as mainstream American animation has ever produced.


26 January 2012

TYLER PERRY: DADDY'S LITTLE GIRLS (2007)

It's a bit silly to talk about a director's sophomore feature as representing all sorts of breaks from his customary style; but hindsight permits us to observe that 2007's Daddy's Little Girls, the second film directed by Tyler Perry and the third he wrote, is something of an outlier. It is the first of his features that he did not act in, which makes it necessarily the first not to feature his Madea character; it is the first one not based upon one of his stage plays; it is the first to hinge on a male protagonist; it is the first that is strictly a drama, without any trace of the sometimes desperate comic relief of his earlier films; and perhaps as a direct result of the rest of these firsts, it was his first film to underperform at the box office, and remains the lowest-grossing work of his cinema career.

I'm not sure if this feels altogether fair or not, but this much is certain: Daddy's Little Girl is confounding in a way that Madea's Family Reunion is not. Family Reunion is weird as hell, sure, but in a way that's mostly straightforward: you get where it's going and why, only it takes some might strange paths to get there. Daddy's Little Girls, on the other hand, is a mass of conflicting impulses and half-formed ideas, though it also has individual elements far more successful than Perry's earlier work; it is at once a huge step forward and a huge collapse backwards. My suspicion is that this was partially because Perry had absorbed enough of the criticism of his two earlier film productions to want to prove his maturity as an artist, only when the rubber hit the road, it turned out that he wasn't a mature artist, at least not in the way his harshest critics might have wanted.

More to the point, I think that with this film, Perry was lashing out against the charges that he was perpetuating crude racial stereotypes by responding, and not without a hint of snottiness, "I am too black!", and so he fills up the script - which I hasten to remind you, was newly-conceived at this time - with authorial tracts that sometimes even manage to feel like something that the characters might actually be inclined to say at that moment, all of them designed not so much to answer the specific charge that he was running a latter-day minstrel show, as to establish that he was, at any rate, sensitive to issues of African-American identity, and sensitive to the damage caused by racist caricature. And thus having inoculated himself against any criticisms ever again, he makes his antagonist a shrill harpy of an ex-wife so single-mindedly driven by the desire to acquire wealthy and live in tacky surroundings that she attempts to force her teenage daughter into whoredom.

The whole thing is such a frazzled combination of overt messaging on the one hand, and garish pandering on the other, that the film ends up fighting against itself almost constantly. If, somehow, a white filmmaker had been responsible for directing this, he would never, ever have been able to escape the charge of racism, nor should he. It has an unmistakable tang of "Well of course minorities are worthy of respect and consideration, but, seriously, look at how these people act!" It doesn't help matters that, while nearly everything in the film is as sober as sober can be, with hushed lighting and somber line deliveries all over the place, whenever the characters identified, frequently in dialogue, as the "disreputable" sort of black people - the golddiggers, the drug dealers, the gangsta wannabes, the perpetual adolescents - they are played 100% for broad comedy of the Madea school, and just to make sure we get it, Perry has the mature, upstanding characters respond to their cartoon adversaries with exaggerated eye-rolling and grimaces.

And on the other side of the coin, Daddy's Little Girls is unquestionably a more accomplished piece of filmmaking than Madea's Family Reunion: the transitions are smoother, the scenes are assembled with much less fumbling around with camera angles that refuse to work, the acting doesn't swing from pole to pole so broadly; though this last may have less to do with Perry's newfound skill with directing actors, and more with the quality of the actors he was able to afford this time around: the two lead roles are played by Idris Elba, who had by this point already completed his extrarordinary run on HBO's The Wire, and Gabrielle Union, one of the many talented black actresses given a rare chance to actually show off how could she could be, even hamstrung by Perry's overwritten, underdeveloped scenarios (if there is nothing else we can thank the filmmaker for, there is always this; but I'll have much more to say about that when I get around to For Colored Girls). So it does, in a sense, represent Perry's new maturity, just not in the direction it needed to if he was going to rise above the perception that he was a self-exploiting black clown, a perception that frankly, he has earned several times over.

As for the actual plot of this film, it is once again pretty much hokum: Elba plays Monty, a mechanic living in Atlanta and just barely able to keep his three beloved daughters safe and fed in the heart of the ghetto. Union is Julia, the state's only black female legal partner, who one day takes the advice of her assistant Maya (Melinda Williams), Monty's neighbor, to hire the mechanic as her driver. This ends poorly when Monty takes a lengthy detour to the emergency room, where his daughters have been rushed following an ultimately harmless accident, and he is promptly fired; but this has already planted the seeds of doubt in Julia's mind, that the mythical Decent Black Man that she has been hunting for might actually exist, deep within the ghetto that she has for so long written off as the home exclusively of cartoon gangbangers with funny speech patterns. Do both Julia and Monty get to use this situation as a chance to spout off about how they feel about their skin color, and the sense of community they long to feel with all black people, if only that community could recover its dignity? Absolutely. Do they, and by extension the film, unconsciously delegitimise ghetto culture, with all its trappings and forms of communication? Pretty much, yeah. Does Julia discover that her adherence to class structure is blocking her from finding true love with this smart, articulate, spiritual mechanic? Duh. Does she come riding in to help when Monty's Gorgon of an ex-wife, Jennifer (Tasha Smith), attempts to spirit them away? Obviously, though you wouldn't know that since I haven't mentioned the custody subplot yet. But it's that kind of movie.

Of course, church figures in there - this is a Tyler Perry movie - but not as organically as it does in his previous films, nor with the same functionality. In essence, the church exists as a place for Monty to hear sermons that comment on his situation and form something of an echo chamber for his conscience; there isn't the same "trust in Christ and all is well" moralising that rounded out both Madea's Family Reunion and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which is probably for the best, given how dramatically unsound it left both of those scripts. No, the moralising here is largely secular, and largely self-defeating, given that every single clarion call for black dignity (which I hope we can all agree is a good thing) is nestled inside the context of racial stereotypes that wouldn't have felt out of place in a particularly lazy '30s movie, if you could depict hookers and druglords in a '30s movie (which of course you could, but not, like, really).

I did mention, at one point, that I wasn't going to go too far down the rabbit hole of race theory in this retrospective, being as I am, basically, the whitest white person ever (the "herbal tea and Beethoven before bed" kind of white). But it's just so damn fascinating to see it working in this film, right there on the surface; Tyler Perry remains a wildly unsubtle filmmaker, but where the first two Madea pictures are little more than tragicomic morality plays with the delicacy of a sack of bricks, Daddy's Little Girls is legitimately trying to dig into some complex sociology that 40 years of post-Civil Rights Era thought hasn't been able to make sense of, and seeing a filmmaker of Perry's arch-populist bent try to get his head around that is sublimely weird just in its failure. Once again, he failed here to actually make a movie that was effective at its stated goals, but the mess left behind is infinitely more captivating for its outrageous ungainliness than a great many more proficient filmmakers have ever been able to manage.

25 January 2012

OBVIOUSLY

The first thing is, the accusations that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is exploitative 9/11 porn, while true, miss the point. That particular bed had already been shat in by the horrendous 2005 source novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, which leaves only the argument that, well then, maybe they shouldn't have made the book into a movie. Also true, and also missing the point, because they did. To be fair, the film is a lot better than the book, or at least (and this is close enough to the same thing), more tolerable than the book. This is at least partially because Foer does, in fact, have ideas and talent and a keen sense of inventive formalism, which he persistently used in the worst imaginable way in his sophomore novel, making it not just irritating, but irritating in a splashy, gimmicky way. The film's screenwriter, Eric Roth, is a hack of the first order, whose chief and only gimmick is to turn everything he touches into Forrest Gump; thus does the script never really have a chance to delve into anything as luminously misjudged as the book, except sometimes when Roth takes Foer's suffocatingly fussy prose and uses it, intact, for the main character's constant voiceover. Because of course there's fucking voiceover.

At any rate, calling EL&IC 9/11 porn is well and good: and the film opens on its absolute worst gesture in that direction, as a man falling from the World Trade Center that day, as we will soon enough gather if we can't guess from the start, is framed by director Stephen Daldry rather uncomfortably like the title character in the opening shots of the filmmaker's debut feature, Billy Elliot, which was, as you may have forgotten, not about people jumping to their deaths following a terrorist attack, and using the whole slow-motion, falling-in-space, context-free thing to open this movie is easily the most nauseating decision Daldry and crew make along the way; but on the whole, it's no more obnoxious than it might be, and it at least skips out on ending with the same wildly tacky gesture that the book did. Besides, what EL&IC does to 9/11 isn't half as misjudged as what Daldry's last film, The Reader, did to the Holocaust, so I vote for taking what little restraint and refinement we can get when we get it.

So, the movie tells us of a 10-ish-year-old boy, Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn, discovered during Kids Week on Jeopardy), whose father died on what he insistently refers to as "the worst day". Now, in life, Thomas Schell (played in the copious flashbacks by Tom Hanks) was a wonderfully happy sort of father who tried to encourage his maybe-autistic son to go out and experience the world by means of all sorts of elaborate scavenger hunts. When, a year after the attacks, Oskar finally gins up the courage to go inside his father's long-abandoned closet, he stumbles across a key in a ceramic jar, with the word "BLACK" written on the envelope, and concludes that he has just taken the first step into his father's last game; in short order, he is off on a journey through the five boroughs of New York to find everyone with the surname Black, and ask if they knew his father or the key, in the process revealing the unity of a city still recovering from its greatest modern trauma, and reveling in its great cross-section of humanity.

That's the idea, anyway. In practice, EL&IC is too emotionally bullying and manipulative to feel like anything other than an endurance test for people who, for whatever reason, don't want to have things like a weepy Viola Davis (as sad Abby Black, first of Oskar's victims) or Sandra Bullock (wasted as Oskar's mom, a role that a cardboard standee with a tape recorder could have played) cue us to understand that... wait for it... now is when you're meant to start sobbing and have meaningful revelations about how we're all connected and family is love and blah blah puke. It is unbearably shameless - in comparison to Daldry's maudlin piling on of forced, melodramatic signposts, a tearjerker like War Horse seems about as warm as a Bresson picture. And while I've already said that I wouldn't go into the 9/11 thing... I mean, hell, there's such a thing as using the imagery of that day tastefully and purposefully, and then there's smacking the viewer with it like a 2x4 to the head (a late shot that visually mirrors the collapse of the first tower to Oksar swooning is particularly galling).

The problem is mainly than Daldry doesn't understand subtlety, neither emotionally, nor in any aspect of his directorial style (I recall The Hours, which looks more accomplished with every new project he releases, but still has a bad case of being too suffocatingly over-worked for its own good). Not one cut, not one sound cue, not one camera angle can go by, without being insisted upon in the most garish, obvious way; there is no moment that can't be overblown into the most wearying assault on the ears and eyes. Particularly his handling of poor Horn, who is probably not a naturally gifted actor like Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell was and continues to be, but isn't helped at all by direction that encourages him to load up on showy tics and keeps thrusting him into close-ups where he can't do much but furrow his brow and grimace like a parody of a 1915 silent movie.

It's a horribly tricky part, anyway, given that it's the keystone of the entire film's emotional landscape, and written to be almost deliberately unsympathetic (hard to say, on that last one; it could just be that Foer has no idea how not to make a 9-year-old with Asperger's sound just like himself, and the movie blithely follows suit). Of course Oskar has to be alienating; he has to have Asperger's in order to be emotionally blocked-off, and he has to be emotionally blocked-off in order to serve as a thunderously ham-fisted metaphor for post-9/11 New York (post-9/11 everywhere else is not a place the film is concerned with exploring). But there can be delicacy in all things; there is a right way to play this, perhaps like Haley Joel Osment in the opening scenes of A.I. What we get instead is basically Rain Man played by Jake Lloyd's Anakin Skywalker.

Really, though, nobody's terribly good in the film; Horn just suffers the most because he's in virtually every scene. Hanks is outlandish and quirky and wholly irritating; newly-minted Oscar nominee Max von Sydow is just sort of there; Viola Davis is sleepwalking; Jeffrey Wright is probably the strongest person we ever see, but he gets one whole scene, and half of it is in mute flashbacks. Chris Menges's cinematography is soft-focused to the point of self-parody; Alexandre Desplat's score is an unusually syrupy Koyaanisqatsi knock-off. There's nothing anywhere in the film's rushed but still deadening 129 minutes that isn't forced and obvious and cloying, and it is probably most interesting for giving Daldry the status of having directed the worst Best Picture nominee in two different years, the kind of achievement not seen very often since people like Sam Wood and Mervyn LeRoy stopped making pictures.

4/10

24 January 2012

TYLER PERRY: MADEA'S FAMILY REUNION (2006)

Diary of a Mad Black Woman made a lot of money. Like, a whole lot, particularly relative to how much it did not cost to make. If one is in the position of a Lions Gate executive, and one has just released a film that cost practically nothing, and made a huge amount, what does one do? Obviously, make sure the exact same thing happens over and over again, which is why Tyler Perry, the come-from-nowhere hero who brought black evangelical Christian message movies and staggeringly unconvincing drag to American multiplexes, was given a swell contract to keep cranking out movies based on his series of hugely successful plays (which at that point already ran to seven entries). At the same time, a bunch of other studios perked up and noticed that Lions Gate and The Tyler Perry Company had scrounged up a whole new marketing segment, full of something called "black people", who had the temerity to want to see movies in which the protagonist were not twentysomething Caucasian males, throwing out over one hundred years of conventional wisdom, in which everybody wants to see movies about white guys, because that's that the white guys who make all the movies felt like making.

It was a brave new world.

The first of Perry's films under this new deal came out one year after Diary, setting a precedent for February releases that has not only held for Perry's films, but for most movies pitched at an urban audience - I assume we all know what "urban" is a euphemism for in marketing circles, and also that the assy hinterlands of late winter are a fine time for dumping urban movies into theaters, but when the real money starts rolling in, that's when it's time for people like Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper to do what they do.* I will refrain from going to far into that rabbit hole; we have a lot of retrospective to go, yet.

The point being, the second Perry film, Madea's Family Reunion, based upon the third play in the Madea cycle, is actually the first that he directed, and there has not since then been a Tyler Perry script directed by anyone else (nor, barring a fucking strange cameo in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, has he acted under anyone else's guidance to this point; this will have changed by the end of 2012). It suggests many things, one of which is that the chief problem with Diary was indeed that its director, Darren Grant, lacked Perry's innate understanding of how best to handle the peculiar tonal shifts of Perry's screenplay; at any rate, Family Reunion is altogether the better film. At the same time, Perry's own performance of the titular Mabel "Madea" Simmons, doyenne of sass and the constant threat of gun violence, is also a hell of a lot better, so it can't all be to his credit that the new film is better than the first. At any rate, the screenplay isn't in any particular way stronger (it is, in some key ways, worse), so it can't be that, either.

Leaving that aside for the moment, the film tells another story of a woman trapped in a horrible, abusive relationship, who escapes to the comforting arms of Madea, who sagely advises her that the best response is to burn the holy shit out of her attacker. A very satisfying notion, undoubtedly, I remain befuddled by how someone as aggressively unchurched and vengeful as Madea can be made into the lesson-dispensing centerpiece of an entire cinematic/theatrical universe pivoting on the precept, "let go, let God", though this paradox is less script-breaking here than in Diary, by virtue of Madea not being such an enraged monster from the Id, slicing her way through couches with a chainsaw and waving a gun at ever homind shape she encounters. The gun is still there, sure, but it doesn't go off so many times.

So, the ingredients that make this one different: a much bigger cast and more plots, for a start. The title comes from the fact that Madea is busily trying to arrange a huge reunion of all the dozens and dozens of Simmonses in Atlanta, and while this is happening, she's obliged to help with a number of crises: her granddaughter Lisa (Rochelle Aytes), the fiancée of the very, very nasty Carlos (Blair Underwood) is one of them, as is Lisa's sister Vanessa (Lisa Arrindell Anderson), currently living with Madea and surly, flatulent Uncle Joe (Perry, role #2) with her two young children, and fretting in all sorts of neurotic ways about how to keep them safe, while also fighting her attraction to handsome bus driver Frankie (Boris Kodjoe). For her part, Madea is presently taking care of a foster child, Nikki (Keke Palmer), forced on her by court order as a result of her breaking house arrest in Diary - and incidentally, I had no idea that there was anything resembling continuity between the Madea pictures, and I am delighted to learn that I was wrong.

Madea is the title character, and the sun around which the plot orbits, but she is not the focus; ultimately, the story is mostly about the separate tales of Lisa and Vanessa, and how they are slowly drawn together as both girls learn to deal with their mother Victoria (Lynn Whitfield), who is unbelievably evil. I mean that literally. It turns out that she has, essentially, sold Lisa to Carlos in exchange for keeping her wealthy and him out of prison - whatever secrets they hold on each other are left undisclosed, but you can tell that it must be awful by the way the cluck and plot and flirt gleefully with one another in the ripe delight of their own viciousness, like Edmund and Goneril done by Cecil B. DeMille. And this is by far the nicest thing Victoria does to her daughters.

I would love to know what in the hell goes on in Perry's mind, that he can only think to construct a drama around three types of characters: sensitive, romantic women with dormant Christian morals that only need the love of a good man to be roused; depraved monsters of greed and abuse; and shrieking comic harpies that wear dresses and enormous comic fake boobs but do not, in any way, resemble women who actually exist in the real world. There's more to it than that, of course; there are many supporting players, including ones played by Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson (a repeat of her Diary character), the latter of whom gets a gigantic monologue near the end that comes from nowhere at all, but is staged and performed with the most glorious heightened excess; I will confess that as batshit as it was in the context of the plot, the moment worked, if only because Tyson and Perry so obviously believed in it, tortured gesticulations and all.

That, as it happens, is my chief takeaway from Madea's Family Reunion: Tyler Perry is a horrible writer and confusing director whose films are weirdly magnetic anyway, because he throws himself into everything he's doing 100% (I will admit to reading ahead a bit, but this is a good place to start developing a thesis). The comparison between this film and Diary is useful, because at heart they are basically the same narrative (wronged woman gets revenge, both physical and material, on her evil rich significant other; everybody is saved by recognising the healing power of Christ except for Madea, who would, if she met Jesus, almost certainly pull a gun on Him, and is nevertheless our hero and icon); both suffer from impossible characters drawn in the crudest, most straightforward This Is Good and That Is Wicked dichotomies imaginable; both blend ridiculous melodrama with even more ridiculous drag and fart humor. But Madea's Family Reunion is miles better - no, scratch that, miles more watchable; it is still not good. It is not good, though, in bold, weird ways, and while the dysfunctional script in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, married to slack direction, resulted in a shrill, unappealing mess, the dysfunctional script and operatically excessive direction of Madea's Family Reuntion land someplace closer to outsider art than bad moviedom.

Perry may not know his way around a camera, and he may have absolutely no shred of style - unless combustively awful day-for-night counts as "style" - but he has passion, and he turns that onto his actors, who even at their most ludicrous (primarily Lynn Whitfield, who is called upon to play a wicked mother too outrageous for the standards of a Disney princess film) have a warped conviction that virtually nobody in Diary possessed; and there is, of course, Perry's own performance, which dials down the craziness and dials up, of all things, the gravitas of his central matriarch, as though a 6'5" woman with an Adam's apple, a bad wig, and rubber tits could possibly possess gravitas. Of course she can't; but since Perry doesn't know that, he goes right on and acts as though she could. The results are spectacularly weird; but it puts something across regardless, and whether that's the thing Perry wanted to communicate, I cannot say. The film may be too garish to play as a moral lesson, but its pageant-like approach to family history and intense sincerity somehow feels more compelling, if far less persuasive, than a sedate, rational approach to the same material would have. It is, in fact, a bit like Madea: hardly credible as a source of wisdom, but so horrifyingly unique that you hang on its every word, regardless.

SOME THOUGHTS OF A NOMINATION MORNING

So, now we know what the bizarre new rules end up doing, and all the other things that were such big question marks for so long. And now the only stage of the three-month Awards Season that actually matters can begin in earnest.

Below, my thoughts on these categories, so far as I can have them at an hour before I am accustomed to being away or in any other way functional, along with my 100% non-binding gut reaction predictions for what I expect to end up winning on February 26.

For those interested in such things, of the 118 nominations I predicted, 83 came to pass; or if you roll that way, 74 of 103 not including the three short categories. One cannot express this as a straight percentage, because of those naughty Best Picture and Best Song categories, where I missed the correct number of eventual nominees. I consider this to be an unsatisfactory, but not screamingly embarrassing, record. In the Big 8, I went an awful 33/44.

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Will Win: The Artist

My predictions: 6/9, though I only predicted 7 total
Missed: Extremely Loud, War Horse (one of my alternates), Tree of Life (another one of my alternates)

Was anyone predicting 9? I mean, golly. And for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, too, which absolutely nobody was predicting anymore. I cannot have an opinion, given that I am seeing the film just this very afternoon, but it seems like a dubious choice. Meanwhile, I am fucking over the moon that my Tree of Life managed to scramble in there.


Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius

My predictions: 5/5

No real surprises there, but did anybody watching notice how not in any particular order they announced the names? For a second, it seemed like Allen missed out. Once again, the mere fact of Malick is enough to keep me excited in a slate that really pretty much covers the whole gamut of possibilities, quality-wise


23 January 2012

GIRLFIGHT

Steven Soderbergh has, for a while now, been conducting experiments and going through exercises, more than he's been making actual, functioning movies. Some of us find this unbearably exciting, and some of us are turned off by it. I find it unbearably exciting, and that's why I loved the living hell out of Haywire (a film he actually shot before his last feature, Contagion), which calls itself an action thriller, and this will have to do in lieu of a better tag; it is however, more of an anti-action movie, to comfortably sit on the shelf next to the director's anti-biopic Che, anti-character study The Girlfriend Experience, and anti-docudrama The Informant! (which doubles, conveniently, as an anti-farce). Which is to say, that even though it is filled with a great many fight sequences, most of them long and inventive, the overwhelming impression the film leaves is of grubby, quiet interiors and not so much of the hot chick kicking ass that the advertising promised and the studio executives clearly hope to trick people into paying money to see - not since The American has a film so conspicuously failed to be a conventional thriller. It's more like Kill Bill filtered through The Limits of Control, which is obviously going to charm a whole lot fewer people than most other combinations.

It is the third film, the first in over twelve years, to unite Soderbergh with writer Lem Dobbs; the last time they did this, the result was The Limey, which tells us something of the neighborhood we're in, tonally and thematically, though I will point out immediately that Haywire isn't is good as its predecessor, which remains one of the two or three best entries in the director's overstuffed CV, nor do I expect Haywire to match its achievement in having the all-time best DVD audio commentary, featuring a director and screenwriter just about ready to jump off their chairs and get into a knife fight (and this, maybe, is why they haven't collaborated again in over a decade). Like The Limey, Haywire plays with chronology (though not to nearly the same degree); it is again a meditation on its genre rather than being a full-throated example of said genre; it relies to an inordinate degree on casting to get the desired effect out of characters, not because of the performances involved, but simply due to the actors involved; it is color-coded (in blues, yellows, and greys), not in the programmatic narrative manner of Traffic, but according to the emotional tenor of the scene; it is edited in an unconventional manner that seems really damn weird and maybe even film-breaking, except that it seems so entirely pointed and deliberate; without violating spatial or chronological continuity, the film nevertheless doesn't care a whit about traditional continuity editing; one might be inclined to wonder how editor Mary Ann Bernard thought she could get away with it, if she wasn't Soderbergh's own pseudonym (same for Peter Andrews, the film's nonexistent cinematographer; the gorgeous shabby-chic cinematography isn't quite as peculiar as the editing, though some of the compositions are intensely strange).

What's going on, if I don't miss my guess, is that the dialogue scenes are being edited like they were fight scenes. "And the fight scenes are edited like dialogue scenes!" would be the right way to round that out, but it's not the case; they're being edited like fight scenes, too, and very well-edited fight scenes at that, with the cuts landing in time to the kicks and punches, creating a sort of visual music of physical brutality. Such brutality! Haywire has some of the most uncomfortably fleshy action sequences in recent memory (though not half so violent as to justify the movie's befuddling R-rating), with coffee pots and flat screen televisions and car windows breaking in ways guaranteed to make all but the most strong-willed wince, aided by a soundscape that rather pointedly refuses to glamorise the fights with a musical score, in favor of a heightened Foley landscape of gut-wrenching snaps and cracks and thuds.

And the fight scenes are helped even more by the fact that the lead player, Gina Carano, is not a professional actor but a MMA champion doing all her own stunts, and being unusually convincing about it. If the film is an exercise, as Soderbergh films tend to be, the chief nature of that exercise lies in fashioning an entire movie around a non-actor, tailoring everything about the project to her particular strengths and weaknesses. It is probably not an accident that the first person she interacts with is Channing Tatum, one of the few relatively important movie stars who can be reliably trusted to give a worse performance than an untested newbie; nor that the rest of an over-packed cast of faces like Ewan MacGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Fassebender really needs them to be just that: faces, instantly recognisable because they are celebrities, but not required to otherwise do anything (in this respect, more even than its experimental relationship to action cinema, it especially feels like a successor to The Limits of Control). It is the kind of film where Bill Paxton shows up as the protagonist's father, and we think "wow, Bill Paxton, what was the last thing he did?" and it seems perversely to be the case that the film anticipates that this would be our response. Anyway, the point of all this seemingly unnecessary stunt casting is to surround Carano with such a weirdly over-qualified group of people that our ability to properly gauge the quality of any of the acting in the film is short-circuited for 93 minutes; because, heck, if Michael Fassbender is really doing nothing more than Channing Tatum, than who knows anything for certain?

So, the action is exciting, and the non-action is strangely electric because of its refusal to settle down, and the look of the thing, with its color-coding extensively followed through the sets and costumes in addition to the lighting, is eye-catching without being obvious. Which leaves us with the script, and another chance for Soderbergh to break Dobb's screenplay all out of sanity. This time, at least, Dobbs appears to be in on the game, given that he structures the script using flashbacks (Carano's character, a private sector spy and government contractor who has been sold out by her boss, tells the whole story to a hapless diner patron played by Michael Angrano as they drive into the wilderness) that don't explain the nest of twists and double-crosses so much as they parody their own complexity. At one point, Mallory - for that is the name of our contractor - asks her pathetic little traveling companion if he's following her story, and his attempt to recap it reveal him to be quite a pleasant audience surrogate, trying to juggle far too many details that don't fit together properly yet. The resolution is dropped on us so quickly and fleetly as to almost not register (by that point, anyway, we're either too invested in the minute-to-minute beats of the action to care, or we've checked out of the movie past the point that it's ever going to capture our attention). And throughout, there's a sardonic little sense of humor (the final line, which calls back to the first line, is the best example; another is Mallory's explanation for how her companion can mend her arm) that shows that Dobbs doesn't really take any of this more seriously than Soderbergh does.

Haywire is, admittedly, ephemeral; it is an action movie made at the scale of a chamber drama, with characters shallow even by the standards of a thriller. The degree to which this is a critique of the tropes its playing with, and the degree to which it's simply an attempt to do those tropes in a new way, is hard to pin down; but either way, the sleek weirdness of its style means that it's a fairly unique beast. An exercise it may be, but exercises can be wonderful entertaining things; and while I know that I say this as a dyed in the wool Soderbergh junkie, I won't be at all surprised if this ephemeral, lighthearted bit of stylistic experimentation and non-acting ends up in my year-end best-of calculations; to be frank, I'd be more surprised if it didn't.

9/10

BANISH PLUMP JACK, AND BANISH ALL THE WORLD

There are a whole lot of films based on the plays of William Shakespeare - some of them aren't even Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet - and the great majority of them are bad. Alright, "bad" is a strong word: some of them are bad, such as George Cukor's stillborn 1936 Romeo and Juliet that tries to put over a 34-year-old Norma Shearer and 43-year-old Leslie Howard as the dazzled star-crossed lovers, or Kenneth Branagh's criminally misconceived As You Like It from 2006. The vast majority of them are just prestigiously dull mediocrities, with the stand-outs tending be the ones that significantly re-conceive the play down to its very language (Kurosawa's Ran, from King Lear, or Forbidden Planet, from The Tempest), or the ones that are exercises in their own style rather than the actual matter of the play (Julie Taymor's Titus, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet), or the ones that are from some other planet entirely (Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books).

Occasionally, though, you'll stumble across a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare that is at once faithful to the source material and a genuinely effective piece of cinema; films that can navigate the archaic diction and verse, the staging conventions of Elizabethan drama, and the psychological gulf of 400 years without sacrificing realism or artistry. Laurence Olivier's Henry V is one of these; so is Roman Polanski's Macbeth. Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Romeo and Juliet has its share of passionate defenders, whose point I see even if I am not among them.

But the best of these "realistic" adaptations, and indeed the best Shakespearean film ever,* by my lights, is 1965's Chimes at Midnight, one of the last features completed by the benighted genius Orson Welles during the torturous European exile phase of his career. It is a combination of four plays: primarily a condensation of the matter of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, with a little bit of Richard II to provide context at the beginning and a little bit of Henry V to round off the plot that Shakespeare himself left on a cliffhanger. In this respect, it is the only theatrical version of any of the history plays outside of Richard III or Henry V filmed to date; a significant pity, given that the two Henry IV plays are indisputably better than the former, and at least the equal to the latter, which is their sequel.

In point of fact, though, Chimes at Midnight isn't even that; it's actually all of the scenes featuring the drunken scoundrel of a knight, Sir John Falstaff, with just enough of the historical drama left in to keep the whole thing hanging together. Sort of Henry IV: Only the Best Parts, then, and a miracle of condensation it is too, given that fat old Jack Falstaff is one of the great characters in English literature, and instead of getting some two hours of his blustering and pontificating and robustness in the midst of five hours of warfare and politicking, we just get those two hours, like a hit of pure cocaine. It is, I think, a change that the populist Shakespeare would have welcomed (he wrote a third Falstaff play, the godawful Merry Wives of Windsor, so we know he wasn't above whoring himself to give audiences all the drunken pratfalls they could possibly want to pay for).

This change in material allows Welles to significantly reconfigure the dramatic focus: from the movements of armies and countries to the relationship between a dissolute old man and the only person in the whole world he truly loves, a callow young boy who happens to the Prince of Wales. Their relationship has always been the beating heart of the Henriad, but by cutting out everything extraneous to that main narrative arc, Welles turns a political history into a personal tragicomedy, one that is far more enthralling, entertaining, piercing, and heartbreaking than it would be buried in the midst of all that chatter about events that the average filmgoer in the 1960s wouldn't have been able to place comfortably within 200 years.

It gives Welles the role of a lifetime to play (well, duh, he played it: a famous egotist and prickly auteur, failing to give himself one of the classically great roles? You jest), a compression of the whole gamut of Falstaff into a dense pack with nothing to distract us from the character or the actor, and Welles, it must be said, nails it. Even "nails it" is underselling it. I speak from a position of admitted ignorance, having not seen all of the multiple hundred film and TV versions of Shakespeare, but I can see this much without any hesitation: Welles's Falstaff is the single best filmed performance of any Shakespearean character I can name. And it's not by a very small margin, either. Obviously, that's partially because the very role is such a gift; unlike Hamlet, whose play-defining ambiguity makes it impossible for any single performance to "solve" the part, Falstaff's loud, domineering personality constantly guides the actor down a certain path; there is, more often than not, exactly one way that is obviously right to deliver every single line, and Welles finds them all.

Which isn't to say that it's a lazy or obvious performance, or that the results aren't still incredible: watching the actor's quiet glances, the unguarded moments seen only by the camera where he reveals to us just how much he understands about every other character, is to see film acting at its best, subdued in ways that a theater performance could never be. And even in his bigger, actorly moments, Welles is still a pleasure: his tired recitation of the famous "honor" soliloquy (here wisely restaged as a harangue to an unlistening Prince Hal), his naked yearning to be loved in the moment when he defends his character while pantomiming the prince, his quicksilver streams of rampant bullshit when he's caught in a number of consecutive lies following a foiled robbery: it's hard to imagine a better screen interpretation of any of these moments, among the finest in English drama. The best, I think, is at the very end, following the newly-crowned Henry V's abjuration of the fat villain, when Welles masks his face in an unknowably mysterious half smile: is it shock, or a last conviction that Hal must be joking, or pride that he has raised up such a fine young king, or some combination of all three? It's the most flexible moment in the whole part, and Welles milks it for everything; leaving us open to be completely emotionally walloped by his subsequent line, the devastating-in-context "Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound".

On its own, a great performance of Falstaff would be enough to justify; he's a fantastic character, and deserves celluloid immortality. But Chimes at Midnight is an across-the-board masterpiece; Welles ranked it at the top of his own filmography, alongside The Trial, and while it suffers somewhat from the involuntary cheapness that marks all of his European movies - in particular, the dubbing is at times just a step above a Godzilla film, with multiple characters voiced by Welles himself - it's impossible to deny the artistry of one of the medium's great frustrated geniuses. The touch of the man behind Citizen Kane is fully evident in all the shadowboxes made out of the rustic Tudor interiors, with timbers jaggedly slicing across the frame and into the cozy atmosphere like some impossible marriage of German Expressionism and Thomas Kincade. Admittedly, cinematographer Edmond Richard was hardly Gregg Toland, but he was no slouch (his first feature was that same The Trial, as gorgeous as anything to come out of Europe in the 1960s), and there are some remarkable deep-focus shots all through the movie; among the most perfect are a pair that come late in the film, after Prince Hal has become King Henry V, and stands at the far end of a dark, moody throne room separated from the camera by a flock of adoring courtiers; shortly thereafter, this shot is answered by one of Falstaff in the same position in the frame, alone in the brightly lit but horribly empty main room of Mistress Quickly's tavern. Everything we need to know about the emotional stakes for the narrative end game is established in two quick strokes.

The contrast between the castle and the tavern is, in fact, one of the mainstays of the film's visual vocabulary, as Welles and Richard bathe the former in sheets of black, and move through with purposeful, angular tracking shots, while the latter is bright and crowded and the camera swoops in and out madly, moving fluidly but without obvious purpose; they even make use of hand-held cameras long before that had become a thing that people did just because. This isn't subtle: it's contrasting the iciness of the halls of power with the liveliness of Falstaff and his circle, establishing Welles and the film firmly on the side of criticism which holds that fat Jack, for all his obvious immorality and selfishness, is a vital force; he is representative of the drive to be happy and content with oneself, and to enjoy all that life has to offer. He is lust and lustiness, in its greedy sense but also in its broader, more humanist sense. And he is not, himself, a subtle figure, so it fits that he is not expressed in subtle visual language.

I could go on and on about the imagery in the film, and how very characteristic it is of Welles, one of the best visual storytellers America ever produced, but it would reek of fanboyism (one last thing: I adore his framing of the mid-film battle between Henry IV and Percy's armies, particularly a low-angle shot of Falstaff waddling out in full armor as soldiers stream around him; it is, in a very subdued way, a parody of the big historical war epics that had been so much in vogue for the last decade or so when the film was new). Suffice it to say that if I can't quite join Welles in esteeming it at the very top of the director's career, that is only because there are so many riches to choose from in that particular filmography; and I do, for the record, think that it's his best performance. And, for what it's worth, he's got quite a few good actors surrounding him, including a terrifically broad Margaret Rutherford as Mistress Quickly, and John Gielgud "doing a Gielgud" as Henry IV. The surprising stand-out is Keith Baxter, whose career is littered with TV and movies nobody has ever heard of, knocking the role of Hal out of the park; it's arguably the trickiest role in the entire script, easy to play as a snotty teen or to read too much of the future Henry V into it, but Baxter finds a perfect note of filial affection and puffed-up regality, making a perfect foil to Welles at every moment.

As a period film, Chimes at Midnight looks as good as its budget could conceivably allow; it helps that there are surprisingly few locations, though it never feels that way thanks to the acrobatic cinematography. Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's score does a great job of setting the period tone as well, while keeping the mood upbeat - despite its bittersweet finale, Falstaff's tale is essentially comic, and that, too, is part of where the bright visuals and Welles's gigantic performance come in handy, making this, on top of everything else, the funniest Shakespearean movie I know of, although given how few of his comedies even get filmed, and how few of those can figure out how to make his humor work, this is not a tremendously difficult record to set.

It is, all in all, a masterpiece: of Wellesian camerawork and of '60s costume drama, of filmed Shakespeare and of Shakespearean acting. Why it remains so damn hard to see, I can't say; the limbo that has sucked up Welles's Othello apparently got this one as well, though his Macbeth - in my opinion, the least effective of his features - remains a fairly accessible way to see the director's approach to a different kind of Shakespeare altogether. Some day, maybe, Chimes at Midnight will be out in the open for all to enjoy; until then, let those who can scrounge it up be glad that they have the experience of both top-notch Shakespeare and top-notch filmmaking, a rare combination that, when it works, is like nothing else in the whole world.

20 January 2012

GO BACK TO SLEEP, PLEASE

Sometimes, we compare movies to fast food: usually McDonald's and usually in the context, "Some entertainment is like McDonald's - no damn good, but it's comforting to know what you're getting". This is a lazy comparison, but it has the benefit of being a really poppy image that anybody who's ever eaten at a McDonald's, which is all of us, can instantly grasp. There are, however, other fast food joints than McDonald's, which is, while undeniably not good is also not bad, not as much as it surely could be.

A few years ago, Taco Bell had a limited-time menu item called the Black Jack Taco. It was a shell dyed dark purple, filled with their normal meat-surrogate, as well as a pepper jack "cheese" sauce. Anybody could tell it was going to be a piece of shit, but at the time I lived three blocks from a Taco Bell, and sometimes when it is 1:00 in the morning you are hungry, and the McDonald's where gay prostitutes and drug dealers hang out* sounds like a bad deal, so you go to the Taco Bell. Sometimes you even do this sober, as I was when I decided, what the hell, I have to at least see what this Black Jack Taco is meant to be all about...

It was all about the single worst case of indigestion of my entire life, in the end, like someone was pelting me with softballs right in the gut for the next hour. Curiosity assuaged, I moved on with my life, until about two weeks later - in broad daylight this time, and still sober, I found myself wondering, "could it actually have been that bad?" And being committed to the scientific method, I tried another one, and found out that, in fact, it was worse - it was the goddamnedest bad thing I'd ever gotten at Taco Bell (at Taco Bell, I declare), and I should really, at some point, learn not to toy with powers of darkness that I do not comprehend. Undeterred, I went back a third time, just to see, because, Christ, you can't make something that bad and actually legally sell it in a food-vending establishment, can you? This is the industrialised world, for God's sake. Anyway, the promotion was over by that point, for which the last tattered shreds of my stomach lining will always be thankful.

Underworld: Awakening is that Black Jack Taco given cinematic form. I saw Underworld, the 2003 steel-blue/slate-grey Matrix knock-off that can think of nothing better to do with vampires and werewolves than have them fire guns at each other. I saw, too, Underworld: Evolution, the 2006 sequel that added to this mix a whole lot of unnecessarily complex mythology stating, in effect, "werewolves and vampires are destined to forever fight one another because OOH SHINY!". I saw Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, the 2009 prequel that narrowly remains the series low point by virtue of telling, in numbing detail, a story that was already quite clear thank you from the first two movies, with a worse cast than the others. And yet, armed with more than five and one-quarter hours of Underworld's unabashed shittiness, I still managed to waltz right into Awakening while brightly thinking to myself, "Maybe this one will be good, though! I mean, vampires vs. werewolves, that's a heckuva concept! And Kate Beckinsale wearing a leather catsuit tighter than her own skin!"

Well, yes, Beckinsale in tight leather, and her one-note performance is at any rate a welcome return to normalcy after sitting out the third movie except for a small cameo. No, she is no damn good, but she is at least bad in a way that feels like a cozy, organic part of the series' background insipidity. And she is pretty much the single reason to bother with Awakening, unless you miss the days when CGI sauntered up and announced its CGI-ness with a weightless, otherworldly sheen. And here, it's doing it in 3-D; really overwrought 3-D that serves mostly to make the effects look even worse, for when CGI fog covers Beckinsale's lady parts in a singularly unpersuasive way, it is merely stupid; when CGI fog does the same, while moving back and forth and, if I am not mistaken, right through Beckinsale, it is not only stupid, but contemptible.

The plot, worked up by series godfather and Mr. Beckinsale himself, Len Wiseman, along with three co-writers (including, weirdly, Autumn in New York scribe Allison Burnett, and sci-fi/comic icon J. Michael Straczynski), starts up somewhat after Evolution ended, with rogue vampire Selene (Beckinsale) and her half-vampire, half-werewolf lover, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman, in a blindingly short stock-footage cameo) on the run from, not the vampires, and not the Lycans, as the werewolves are called her, but from humans. You see, now humans know about the vampire-Lycan war, and they've declared genocide on both races, which has not caused the centuries-old feud to simmer down in the slightest. No sooner is this set up than Selene and Michael are caught and tossed in a deep freeze, from which Selene awakes 12 years later, to find that both vampires and wolves have been reduced to a handful of scattered populations barely able to stay alive. Also, the hybrid who escapes along with her turns out not to be Michael, who we are assured by people who weren't there is dead, dead, dead (wink, sequel hook, good Jesus), but hers and Michael's three-quarters vampire, one-quarter Lycan daughter, Eve (India Eisley, who is 19 and looks 10). Conveniently, Selene can see through Eve's eyes and vice versa, which provided a decent plot hook and a better video game mechanic as Selene chases her daughter to a vampire coven where plot happens, and then to the headquarters of the Evil Pharmaceutical Company With A Secret, where plot also happens. In both places, Selene fights a ginormous Lycan mutant who is, by a huge margin, the most convincing CGI werewolf the series has yet bestowed on us.

I had one complaint about Underworld. That is a total lie. I had a shitload of complaints, but the biggie was that there were zero stakes: other than the uninteresting Michael, the film, and its first two sequels, lacked any human beings like you and me and the rest of the audience to be our surrogates so that we actually had any visceral investment in the gun play. Gun play, I want to remind you, occuring between vampires and werewolves. Gun play. Anyway, Awakening proves me the fuck wrong: it is all about the place that humans intersect with werewolves and vampires, and it is not remotely interesting, possibly because no sooner does it actually acknowledge the really keen part of this idea (the all-out three-way war), than it konks the protagonist on the head and skips ahead a dozen years, to find that the war is already over and all that remains is a tepid little jog over here and then back to start, firing guns and striking poses in skintight leather along the way.

Directors Måns Mårlind More and Björn Stein (credited, awfully, as "Mårlind & Stein" like they're some sort of damn world-renowned duo) push through this folderol with maximum attention paid to the series' trademarks: low lighting, blue all over, really damn loud fight scenes, close-ups of Beckinsale's pale face and artificially bright blue eyes; it's not their fault that this is the fourth time we've heard this tune, and it wasn't very good in the first place. There are a few good patches every so often - the choreography of an early car chase is uncharacteristically thrilling, and Eve's makeup when she goes crazy vamp girl is genuinely unsettling - and a whole lot of solemn mugging by Beckinsale while anonymous music screams in the background. The removal of all the tedious mythology of the earlier films in favor of lots of forward action is welcome; too bad that they removed the only thing resembling a tweak to the formula, the war with humans, in the process. What's left is super-slick; and it is irritating and chaotic and dumb as a box of rocks. Really damn dumb rocks. All the Kate Beckinsales in all the catsuits in all the world can't face that down.

3/10

19 January 2012

TYLER PERRY, A PROLOGUE: DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (2005)

It's really kind of odd when you reflect on it, given how much the man has become a national point of reference, but a mere seven years ago, white people had no idea who the hell Tyler Perry was. Leastways, I did not, nor did my white people friends. This fact is, and should be, taken as a sign of the pronounced disconnect in how Americans of different skin tones take in culture (as is the related fact that Perry's movies continue to make shitloads of money despite no white person seeing them, nor knowing other white people who see them), but I am not going to spend this retrospective talking about race in America as filtered through Perry's cinema, a subject that I am not qualified to discuss at that kind of level, though I will note that if I were going to talk about that, I'd probably fall in line with Spike Lee's famous disparagement of Perry's shtick as "coonery".

No, mostly I'm just trying to give some context to the fact that when the teaser poster for Diary of a Mad Black Woman first popped up in late 2004, I was one of many people who had no idea what the words "Tyler Perry's" over the title meant. Just one of those dozens of cases where a book I'd never heard of that lots of people liked had been turned into a film, I assumed. Regardless, it was quite an appealing teaser, with a bold use of bright purple and a really lovely bit of subtlety to the design. Go back and take a look at the top of this review, tell me that I was wrong: if you didn't know what the movie was about, that teaser would be enough to make you think that it's a graceful, atmospheric character study. Or at least trying to be.

Then the second poster came out, and it looked like this:

I stopped expecting a graceful character study.

(Weirdly, several subsequent Perry films have used the same "classy teaser"/"godawful, broadly comic one-sheet" marketing strategy).

We know better now, of course, and that's what seven years' worth of perspective does for you. "Graceful", is of course not a word customarily used to describe anything that Perry touches, and the somewhat outraged bad reviews it received on its initial release - it still holds the lowest scores on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic of any of the author's features - are perhaps due to shock on the part of the critics of the day (who, being typically white and cosmopolitan, would probably have been about as ignorant of the man as I was), completely flummoxed by the whatever-the-hell in front of them.

And, admittedly, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, adapted from Perry's 2001 play, is what-the-hell sort of movie if ever such a thing existed, jamming together not two but three separate genres that probably should have remained that way: a dementedly melodramatic love story about the titular woman, Helen (Kimberly Elise), who is kicked the curb with outsized glee by her scuzzy, cheating, corrupt lawyer husband, Charles (Steve Harris); a staggeringly broad drag farce centered on Helen's grandmother, Madea (Tyler Perry himself, but you almost certainly knew that), who takes the sad-eyed woman in and teaches her the ways of self-assurance; and, in a staggeringly sharp third-act turn, a public service announcement for Southern black Christianity. Not an apologetic. Not a missionary piece. Perry seems entirely unconcerned with the viewer who is not already fully invested in his brand of faith; he is, rather, reminding all of the people who already agree with him how they are meant to behave in a world that frequently tries their faith.

To be fair, the Christian message movie and the absurd melodrama fit together reasonably well, insofar as the spectacular mustiness of the main plot can fit together with anything that addresses life in America in the 21st Century. Problems are introduced, character crises are set in motion, not just for Helen but for virtually everyone she knows, those crises are solved at a big, noisy church service, and they are solved with a literal deus ex machina - the minute that the characters remember that God is there for all their woes, they stop being sad. That however many people, three or four anyway, would have this revelation at the exact same time strains credibility, but on the other hand, everything about Diary of a Mad Black Woman is so blatantly and pridefully artificial that it almost wouldn't fit if it didn't end on a huge contrivance. The film is, in essence, a modern day version of the medieval theology plays that presented simple situations in blindingly obvious colors and resolved them with big, showy gestures. Subtlety? Fuck subtlety. And as much as that means that Diary feels massively broken (and, in truth, probably is massively broken), I admire its commitment to itself.

Speaking of fuck subtlety: Madea. Holy God. Even when you know what you're getting into, it's hard to be ready for it. Madea does not fit into the rest of the film, in any way whatsoever: only the scenes where she banters, i.e. screams invective at, her brother Joe, mostly because Joe is also played by Tyler Perry in a nightmare of latex. But at least Joe resembles a cartoon version of a human being. Madea resembles nothing at all: not least because Perry's onscreen performance of a character he'd introduced five years earlier in a play titled I Can Do Bad All By Myself (which was, eventually, turned into a movie) ranks among the all-time worst drag performances in history, even counting the ones that are deliberately bad, like Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot. Spike Lee and other media theorists have argued that Madea sets the whole of African-American society back to the '20s, by presenting a degraded view of black femininity and dignity (a view refuted by people like Oprah, and I mean, shit, if you can't trust Oprah...), and this is perhaps true; there is something extra-toxic about Madea that just isn't there in things like The Klumps or Big Momma's House. Perhaps it is that Madea seems genuinely violent and dangerous.

However, I must break from Lee and his colleagues by arguing that Madea isn't just an insult to black dignity, but to the humanity of all people: she, if I can use that word fairly of such a genderless monstrosity, is anti-funny and anti-charming and anti-life in every possible way. It is no accident that of all the characters who find Christ at the end, even the ones who aren't remotely plausible (the film tries is damnedest to sell us Charles's conversion to the side of good; this might have possibly worked if it hadn't done so well making him a one-dimensional psychopathic sleazebag), Madea ends with as little respect for God or church as anybody in the film has ever demonstrated. And we're meant to love her, adore her all to pieces; this doesn't seem to be a tension Perry is remotely aware of.

In the face of Madea, all of the film's other problems don't seem like such a big deal: the subplot with Helen's hunky new beau, Orlando (Shemar Moore), who is actively stripped of all agency that extends further than "be the prop in Helen's rebirth, present exactly when she needs you, with no personality of your own", for example, or the mind-boggling ten minutes when, from out of nowhere, Helen shifts into torture porn mode to get revenge on Charles. Through out all of this, Elise remains the one thing that is constantly good, playing the decent, rich humanity in her character when she is able, and simply pretending that it's still there when it's not. Nobody else survives the script's reduction of their characters, not even Cicely Tyson in a small role as Helen's mother.

No does director Darren Grant survive; if I have not mentioned him before this moment, it's because he doesn't seem to matter very much, except in a negative way (he's done hardly anything in the years since). This was the only Tyler Perry Company production, of the only Tyler Perry screenplay, not directed by Tyler Perry, and there is a distinct sense of the director not having a handle on the material: the tonal shifts (which are many) clang against one another, and the performances do not connect to each other in any meaningful way, and the whole affair is the worst possible combination of visually and emotionally flat, and comically vile. I do not know that a stronger hand, with a better sense of what was supposed to be happening, would have saved Diary of a Mad Black Woman; but then, that is the journey we are about to take, straight into the heart and soul of the movies Perry himself made, to his own specifications.

MILESTONES

Last night, a little bit after midnight in Chicago, Antagony & Ecstasy hit one of the grandest milestones in the life of any blog: its one millionth visitor.* I have taken a snapshot of the evidence, for all posterity to enjoy.


Thanks to all of you for helping me get there, especially you, visitor from Syndey, Australia, using Safari on a Linux machine. Here's to the next million!

I'm not certain if it's the best way to celebrate, but later today I'll be inaugurating a new series: since it is a slow time for new releases, it seemed like a good moment for a retrospective, and there's a filmmaker with a new movie just about six weeks out, and I've been thinking for awhile now that It might be a decent thing for this much-dismissed auteur to get his due critical tribute, even if that tribute largely consists of me finding variations of the phrase, "yes, this is awful, but in such a remarkably unique way!"

That's right, tonight is the kickoff of Antagony & Ecstasy's retrospective on the works of Tyler Perry.

18 January 2012

WHO'S STILL AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

There is possibly no filmmaker now living better-qualified to direct a movie set entirely within a single apartment than Roman Polanski, whose historical basis in such locations includes an entire "apartment trilogy" of horror films: Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, and The Tenant, each of them a master class in giving physical location a breathing vitality that makes the setting as important a character as anybody in the cast. And sure enough, his new film Carnage, adapted from Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage by the playwright herself alongside Polanski, is a terrific demonstration in how fluid a motion picture set can possibly be in one location and taking place in real time (except for the first and last shots, and one single cut midway through - a hugely regrettable cut, insofar as it comes at no point in particular and only saves the movie about 45 seconds).

Indeed, the film is so damn good at taking place in a very small, unchanging space and yet still feeling pretty much like a movie and not like filmed theater, that after a while it starts to feel like it's not doing much of anything else. Right around the point that I found myself more concerned with puzzling out if there was an errant lighting stand visible in a corner of a mirror than with what the characters were saying (there's not; it turned out to be part of a lamp), it became clear that the cleverness and ingenuity of how Carnage was made was pretty definitively trumping what Carnage was ostensibly about; that it was, essentially, a fun exercise for the director and nothing else, notwithstanding its impressive run of awards in its previous life as a stage play. And for all I know, maybe this absolutely murders onstage, when you're right in there with the actors screaming at each other; this is not what happens onscreen. And sure, Polanski scrounged up four pretty much unassailable actors to do the screaming and self-revealing, and they have probably as much fun playing their modestly fleshed-out archetypes and chewing on some really big dialogue and moments, as the director has coming up with nifty ways of framing them doing it. But that doesn't translate into much for the viewer besides a good chance to reflect on the considerable mechanical skill of the numerous people involved, which is a perfectly fine and not terrifically edifying way to spend 80 minutes, and God bless the film for its admirable brevity.

The four actors involved are Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as Penelope and Michael Longstreet, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as Nancy and Alan Cowan. The Cowans, you see, have just arrived to pay a visit to the Longstreets on the occasion of a nasty altercation in a park, when the Cowans' son hit the Longstreets' son in the face with a stick, knocking out teeth and causing temporary, but massive disfigurement to the boy's face. What reason the two couples have for getting together isn't totally clear - it becomes obvious eventually that it's not totally clear to them, either, which is meant to be illuminating of something or other - but while they try to hash out a mutually-beneficial solution that teaches both children the value of non-violence and open communication, the parents' carefully-manicured personalities start to break down through a series of incidental moments that would, individually, mean nothing at all, but in concert with one another demonstrate the moral vacuum at the center of the upper-middle-class lifestyle enjoyed by all four. Though how Michael, a traveling luxury hardware salesman, is meant to be on the same economic footing as Alan, a corporate lawyer working with a pharmaceutical company, is a question the script doesn't even seem aware could be asked. Perhaps in Reza's native France, people love the shit out of expensive doorknobs.

Anyway, that's the intent: in practice, the movie runs is too much a part of the very same world it's putatively satirising to do much damage, and it has to reduce the characters to stock types in order to get its point across. It's still funny enough as it shuffles through its various permutations of characterisations to be a completely engaging watch, though it's not half as intelligent as it plainly assumes itself to be, which is more frustrating by far than if it simply owned its lack of depth and devoted itself to making fun of Penelope's cardstock liberalism, Michael's barely-veiled thuggery, Alan's sarcastic awfulness, or Nancy's neurotic defensiveness, without trying to tie those traits into bigger social currents.

It gives the actors lots to play with, at least, and plenty of grandiose moments of conflict in every possible permutation other than Penelope-Alan vs. Nancy-Michael, while giving everybody plenty of lines to say that bear no resemblance to how people in real life have ever talked, but are still robust and dramatic enough that it's satisfying to watch. The four co-leads are not equally matched: Foster, sadly for those of us who love her, is the obvious pick for Worst in Show, as she is least able to navigate the breakdowns her character goes through in the third act without resorting to overwrought hysterics. But even she gets her good moments, and the other three are pretty stellar throughout - Winslet is the best, playing her moments as subtly as possible and therefore standing out from what really does amount, frequently, to a Baked Ham-Off; Reilly is impeccably cast as a jolly bourgeois husband with a mean streak, and Waltz, given the most cartoonish character to start with, is quite content to play Alan as a parody of how Jeremy Irons would have attacked the same character 25 years ago, which I mean to be a compliment even if it didn't come off that way.

It's amusing, full of entertaining Oscar clip moments, and wholly disposable, which is the one thing that it probably shouldn't be, given the pedigree; but better that than disposable and boring. I will concede that, ingenious filmmaking and striking physical manipulation of the actors aside, it does not seem at all up to the standards of Roman Polanski; when it briefly seemed last year that The Ghost Writer might be his last film before an indeterminate time spent in jail, it felt like a good send-off, whereas right now, I just desperately hope he can stay out of trouble long enough to do something special to make me forget this minor toss-off more than I already have.

6/10

17 January 2012

THIEVES' SEAWAY

I shall begin with a parable.

Barry Ackroyd, in more than a quarter of a century as a cinematographer, has been responsible for many fine pieces of work, with at least a handful of award-worthy turns in projects like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Green Zone, and The Hurt Locker (for which he received an Oscar and ASC nomination). To those who care to look, it's been obvious for a while that he's a talented man and his presence a welcome sight, even if he's not the most versatile kid on the block. And for all that, I don't think I was ever quite as blown away by just how good Ackroyd is at his job until I'd seen what he made out of Contraband, a working class thriller about smugglers that is the absolute epitome of the words "a January release". Not that Contraband is his masterpiece, or something absolutely ridiculous like that. But it's not as far off as you might think, and here's why it strike me as important: it's one thing to do great work in a Ken Loach or Paul Greengrass film, or in an Iraq War picture made with enough integrity to eventually dance into a healthy clutch of awards. It's quite another to do that in a quiet little Mark Wahlberg vehicle that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, going to end up in the best-of-year conversations next January. And yet, this film does, in fact, boast great cinematography, not the showy noir kind of cinematography that some might have thought to use, but an appealingly rough-hewn mixture of artificial lighting and pointedly graceless handheld camera that magnificently captures the rhythm and texture of the film's unrefined mise en scène. Ackroyd did not have to do this, but he did; maybe because he was paid to, maybe because honor drove him to, maybe because he's too good to allow something crappy to come out under his name.

My point isn't that Barry Ackroyd is a consummate professional and a fine craftsman, although if it was, it still would have been worth the saying. Rather, I am struck by how much the whole of Contraband is basically the exact same thing as the cinematography, over and over again: it is a film made by people who do not seem to notice or care that they are making a crappy mid-winter action film that people only see because there's nothing else out. It's a film that it would be incredibly easy to regard as make-work and to accordingly look down on it, except that not a single person involved appears to have done so. They are all Ackroyds, giving their level best, however good that is (it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that J.K. Simmons's level best is a shitload better than Lukas Haas's level best, for example), and always treating this grubby genre material as though it really does deserve their respect and effort. That sort of attitude is eminently respectable, and honestly gratifying, for meat-and-potatoes films like this are a dying breed. Contraband certainly doesn't reinvent the wheel, but on the other hand, it's such a very nice wheel, perfectly round and with the spokes in exactly the right places. The world needs good wheels.

In this film, Wahlberg plays Chris Farraday, a former smuggler based out of New Orleans who has since gone straight and started a modest business as home security specialist (this information - the smuggling part - is communicated in glaringly ham-handed expository dialogue that is the only really obvious misstep in first-time writer Aaron Guzikowski's adaptation of a 2008 Icelandic film). As it happens, Chris's brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) has taken up smuggling himself, only he's terrible at it, and has managed to get himself deep in debt to an erratic local gangster, Tim Gibbs (Giovanni Ribisi, whose twitchy, mannered performance is readily the worst part of the movie). In response to Chris's overtures to smooth all this over, Gibbs has threatened the ex-smuggler's wife, Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and sons. This spooks Chris enough that he agrees to go on One Last Job, leaving Kate under the protection of his best friend, affable crimelord Sebastian Abney (Ben Foster) while he jaunts off to Panama City to bring back a pallet of counterfeit money the size of a small car.

The pleasures of all this are utterly simplistic: watching a smart, capable man execute a well-oiled crime and save his family. Not a blessed thing about the film is challenging, though a good deal of it is smarter than it has to be; perhaps as a side-effect of casting Wahlberg, one of our great reigning cinematic avatars of blue collar toiling, Contraband ends up working better than it has any particular reason to as a study of how the working class of New Orleans lives and feels. It's not a great work of social realism, but it also understands that social realism is a thing worth admiring; similar in tone if not in ambition to Rocky and its blend of social document and rousing sports movie. Indeed, playing around with genre is one of the things Contraband does best, though not insistently: the first part is a drama about the rough life of an ex-smuggler, the second is a gritty caper film about the planning and execution of a smuggling job that goes wrong, and the finale is an action movie and chase sequence. Each of these three different movies all works quite well at what it does, though the climax of the action film rather betrays the moral perspective of the working class social study that opens (turns out that there isn't anything wrong with a little dirty money).

Making his first wide-release English-language feature, Baltasar Kormákur, of the breakthrough Icelandic picture 101 Reykjavik, directs crisply and effectively, keeping the pacing and thrills up (a cat-and-mouse sequence among the containers on a cargo ship sets a standard for nail-biters that the rest of 2012 will be hard-pressed to maintain), and dragging good performances out of everyone from Beckinsale in her rare "I'm actually trying" mold to an absolutely delightful J.K. Simmons being all kinds of burly and huffy as the captain of a ship with a sharp mistrust of Chris. It is a brisk movie, and a terrifically engaging one; not designed to win any awards, mind you, but frankly, it's more successful at what it's doing and a hell of a lot more watchable than most of what is designed to win awards, even if it has a significant tendency to evaporate pretty much the second the credits begin to roll.

7/10