30 April 2012

MAY 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

Notwithstanding the good and necessary habit that the cynical filmblogger must practice of regarding all Hollywood franchise fodder as contemptible and inartistic, I will share a dirty secret with all of you, because we are all about trust: I am more excited about this summer movie season than I have been in years: certainly since before I started this blog. Most of the reasons why are coming up later than May (which, truth be told, looks faintly awful), but it needed confessing: I plan to eat the popcorn and cheerfully, readily shut down my brain, and watch things a-splode, and enjoy it. And I've been waiting for it for months now.

I will do my absolute best to continue delivering the haughty, withering reviews that you have learned to expect of me.

That admission out of the way, let's take a quick spin through May, light as it traditionally is on wide releases.

4.5.2012

There are only two real candidates for Big Film of the Summer, and the first of them comes right at the start: The Avengers, which once, four years ago, was going to be the grand culmination of Marvel's multi-year, multi-studio attempt in creating a franchise out of bits and pieces grown in isolation, and now feels more like one more stop along the road to whenever superhero movies burn out: I, for one, had a much easier time being enthusiastic before Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and, undoubtedly, The Avengers 2 were all in the pipeline. That being said, it's still been an impressive example of corporate willpower, and love it or find it all somewhat distasteful, there really is no precedent for it in the history of big studio filmmaking. Besides, if even half the hype and enthusiastic reviews are true, it's going to be well above par for superhero movies, possibly - fingers crossed - up to the still-unsurpassed standard set by the very first movie in this puzzle, 2008's Iron Man.

Counter-programming having been impossible, there are no other big releases, though of the limited releases, I must admire the perseverance of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which seems to be unaware that it's no longer 1996, and glib, charming British movies are no longer beloved by audiences nor awards-granting bodies.


11.5.2012

The second week in May, traditional home to movies that are going to shrivel up and die. That is clearly not what the studio hopes for Dark Shadows, the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration, this time with vampires. If it turns out to be the particularly dopey broad culture-clash comedy promised by the trailer, shriveling up and dying is the most it deserves


16.5.2012

Sacha Baron Cohen having exhausted the limitations of improvisational assault comedy, The Dictator is fully scripted; it is also, apparently, the second fish-out-of-water comedy in a row, this time with a repressive Muslim dictator stripped of his power and thrown into New York. Hopefully there's more to it than that, and it's not like there's any particular reason to mistrust Cohen, but something about it seems... off?


18.5.2012

I have one expectation and one hope for Battleship, and they are the same thing: that Liam Neeson growls "you sunk my battleship!" before shooting an alien in the face. If this does not happen - or worse, if the line is given to Taylor Kitsch - I intend to hate this boardgame-to-movie adaptation even more than I already have pencilled it. Because, seriously, if your only idea for making an exciting action movie about battleships is to put aliens in it, then fuck you.

Speaking of adaptations that shouldn't be, the second 2012 movie based on a self-help book is going to be What to Expect When You're Expecting. I expect regressive gender stereotyping and blandly fuzzy "family is best!" themes.


25.5.2012

Men in Black III is a thing now. And all the wishing in the world won't make it not be a thing.

Low-budget horror film about the fallout from Chernobyl: ingenious, or tasteless? Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis instructs us that it is not the former, but that hasn't kept producer Oren Peli from throwing his weight behind Chernobyl Diaries, and I'll admit this much: the trailer is a bit atmospheric. Summer horror isn't usually a good bet, but I will reserve my judgment.

Somehow the new Wes Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom, isn't getting a wide release, but it starts its American run here. I sort of wish he'd have stuck with animation for a bit longer, but I'm trying very hard not to pre-judge this one off of the sour flavor his last two live-action films left in my mouth. At least, there seems to be no chance of this one having the same uncertain racial politic as The Darjeeling Limited, so there's that comfort.

HOW TO STUFF A ROBOT BIKINI

I've been in a Vincent Price mood lately, and Turner Classic Movies just so happened to come along to scratch that particular itch for me last week, and that is why today and tomorrow are given over to a pair of "Why the hell not?" reviews - something I frankly don't do enough of, and will not have a terrifically good chance to do again for some time.

Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine is the movie you think it is. With a title like that, anything else would have been a severe disappointment, though with a title like that, the foggy line separating "good because it is campy" and "good because it is bad because it is campy" becomes very, very foggy indeed, and so disappointment or the lack thereof becomes a particularly nasty, tricky thing to quantify. At any rate, the film boasts one of Vincent Price's most archetypal performances - which may or may not mean the same thing as one of his best - which is all the more that it needs to stay alive these many decades later after the films it was largely spoofing and ripping off has faded into an obscurity even darker than the one covering up Vincent Price B-sides.

And since one can hardly even discuss the film's plot without explaining its context, permit me to do so: in the early to mid-1960s, American International Pictures, that legendary home of the best tacky B-movies no money could buy, fell ass-backwards onto an exciting new series, the Beach Party movies starring teen idols Frankie Avalon and Annette "The Busty Mouseketeer" Funicello, consisting of five movies released between 1963 and 1965, along with assorted spin-offs. Also in the early to mid-1960s, United Artists and Eon Productions started releasing the James Bond movies, which were about as far removed from the Beach Party pictures as you can get, prestige-wise, but occupied approximately the same position among the majors studios as Frankie and Annette did on the drive-in circuit: slightly garish wish-fulfillment fantasy with a genre wrapped around it (farcical teen musicals vs. spy thrillers), that made a tremendous amount of money relative to their cost.

The beach movies are really goddamn weird; I don't know if that was always the case, or if what seemed like routine teenybopper tosh back in the day simply proved unable to survive outside of the protective bubble of the '60s. At any rate, they're hybrids of all sorts of characters and situations that don't seem like they should fit properly into bubblegum pop musicals, filled with cameos and in-jokes referring to AIP's various other properties, most of which were some manner of horror film; let us say merely that Vincent Price showed up in these movies in some odd places, pimping out his contemporaneous Poe movies. And that starts to bring us around to where we need to be.

In relatively short order, the franchise began devouring its own tail, and that's where Dr. Goldfoot comes in: it's one of those spin-offs I mentioned, but while something like Ski Party is a fairly obvious variation on the formula ("it's a beach party, but in the winter!"), Dr. Goldfoot is more of a theoretical, even conceptual spin-off, owing in part to the film's own awareness that the beach films were on their last legs, and in part to the intention that it should be a sort of parody of the James Bond films that had turned into such a cultural watershed just ahead of AIP's own far more modest franchise. The closest I can come to describing it - and it is not very close - is that the film is a Bond parody set in the thematic universe of the beach movies, but it is not itself a beach movie. And despite being a strange amalgam of all sorts of things, AIP honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson had enough faith in the project to give it the highest budget - over $1,000,000 - of any AIP project to that point.

All of which I admit, makes the film sound more interesting - or at least more difficult - or at really least, more problematic - than it actually is. I would dearly love to be able to slide an "under-appreciated classic" or some such phrase into this review, but it wouldn't belong there. Dr. Goldfoot is, bless its heart, pretty darn stupid, which is not at all an impediment to it being a terrific lot of fun, until it stops being much fun at all. And that's sort of the problem, but we'll get there soon enough. Meanwhile, the film: after a fun opening credits sequence animated by Ar Clokely, the creator of Gumby, with a title song provided by the Supremes, of all strange possibilities, we land in San Francisco, "the day after tomorrow". Here, a daft young man named Craig Gamble (Avalon) meets an obnoxiously gorgeous woman who calls herself Diane (Susan Hart), though by the time Craig and Diane first bump into each other in a dumpy little restaurant, we already know that something is hugely off about her: she was filled up with bullet holes by the cops without so much as losing her stride. The reason, we quickly find out, is that she is a robot controlled by a devious supervillain Dr. Goldfoot (Price). She, or it, identified as No. 11, is his finest creation in an army of gorgeous female robots designed to seduce the wealthiest men in the world, marry them, kill them, an bring their fortunes back to Goldfoot's lair beneath a cemetery. Craig was misidentified by Goldfoot's incompetent assistant, Igor (Jack Mullaney), himself revived from the dead by the mad doctor, as being Todd Armstrong (Dwayne Hickman), an extravagantly rich son of San Francisco privilege; and this turns out to be bad luck on two counts, first because Craig fell in love with No. 11 pretty much on the spot and is now dedicated to finding her; then, because Craig works for his fussy uncle Donald J. Pevney (Fred Clark) in the San Francisco office of the Special Intelligence Command. This means that the phrase "I'm/you're a SIC man!" is used many times - fewer than it feels like, I am sure, but more than I was comfortable with.

Price may be the draw, and the top-credited name, but Avalon is the lead, and that makes a lot of difference: he's good enough at being goofy in a relaxed, "aw shucks, me, a sex symbol?" way that the film never actively suffers for his presence; he was AIP's top male lead of teen movies for a good reason, which is that he actually had a sense of humor and a game willingness to make light of himself. But his was still a B-studio contract player stuck in dippy comedies in the 1960s, and that puts a relatively firm ceiling on how good at anything he could actually be, and crucially, how much of his charm remains applicable almost five decades later. It means that a lot of the actual plot of Dr. Goldfoot is taken up by a comic lead about whom the nicest thing we can say is that he's awfully pleasant and unserious, but never really laugh-out-loud funny; and everything about his interplay with sideckick Hickman relies on our appreciation of their work together in previous AIP movies, and this is something that most of us are not so very likely to have.

But Price, now Price is a bit of pure magic. He complained in later years that the film was compromised from its original concept of being a full-on camp musical, some of this footage surfacing in a TV special called The Wild Weird World of Dr. Goldfoot; but on set, at least, he does not appear to have had any reservations about the project at all, throwing himself all the way into playing a terrifically overripe bad guy with an exaggerated everything: evil laugh, imperious treatment of his flunky, sexlessly lascivious attitude towards his robot girls. If there is one thing I have always loved about Price, it is that he never tries to be above the junky material he appears in (this is one of the main reasons I've always preferred him to fellow B-movie legend Christopher Lee), but instead breathes life into the movie by treating it as an equal, and apparently believing with his whole heart that camp can be played just as sincerely and richly and thoughtfully as anything else. In this respect, Dr. Goldfoot is one of his masterpieces: unlike the Corman Poe movies, or even some of his wackier horror vehicles, it's impossible to argue that Goldfoot is a particularly dignified role, but Price respects the character even at his most trivial, and so the various parodic Bond villain tropes he has to embody feel altogether real and honest, and therefore funnier. By no means is Dr. Goldfoot one of the great Bond parodies - though it was a major influence on Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which was - but I think there's a real chance that Dr. Goldfoot, the character and performance, is the all-time best parody of a Bondian supervillain. No other actor could get so much mileage from such little material; even his constant berating of Igor remains fresh.

And that is, alone, enough to keep the movie full of energy for quite a long time; whether it would work in the face of a truly bad hero, I cannot say, but as I said, Avalon manages to be harmlessly charming, and when he and Price finally meet face to face, they turn out to have really excellent chemistry, so the film never does end up drifting into "one good performance and a whole lot of shit" territory. Where it does end up drifting, alas, is into "the minute it starts having a plot, it begins to fall apart" territory: so much of the appeal of the movie lies simply in watching '60s thriller tropes set up and then subverted or more often straight-up ignored, that the film's relative inactivity becomes a merit. At a certain point, though, the fact that Goldfoot is a villain and that Craig is a romantic hero becomes important, and so the movie ends with a chase across rear-projections of San Francisco, intercut with second unit photography of people who don't look very much like any of the actors off in the distance. Better yet, it's a comic chase, which means lots of incongruous vehicles are used. And oh, my goodness, does it die a horrible death. At 88 minutes, there's no chance of the film overstaying its welcome, but the last 20 of those minutes feel like at least 75% of the total running time. It is an agony.

It's because activity is not the point of this movie: joking and fooling around are. Director Norman Taurog - I have to wonder how he ended up directing pictures of this sort after becoming the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar in history, and I imagine he wondered the same thing - is fairly good at that; at letting the camera hang out and watch, keeping the pace up through judicious use of editing around the bouncy performances. But he cannot deal with the movie running around and up and down, for this has not prior to that been part of its vocabulary, and the shift is too drastic to work.

Does it really matter, though? It's not like the film was some kind of masterpiece until that point. It's a fluffy, dumb lark, and absolutely nothing more. A dodgy ending is enough to suck some energy out of the film, but not enough to make it "bad" - it was that already. It's just so fun and silly that there's no real point in noticing that it is bad, and the worst that the ending does is provide an opportunity to stop paying quite so much attention to a film that is already something you kind of pay attention to more than it is something you attentively and fixedly watch. And since it was made chiefly to provide an excuse for teenagers to make out periodically, it's hard to conclude that it's not succeeding on whatever aesthetic level it actually pretends to.

SOMETHING HAS GONE AWRY

So, I was gone all weekend, and prior to leaving, I set up not one, nor two, but all of three posts to go up in my absence. You have perhaps noticed that none of those have, in fact, published; because fuck Blogger, is why. I will dribble them out over this evening and into tomorrow, so as to avoid stacking everything, but in the meantime my apologies for my apparent demise.

Further apologies: after doing an entire Whit Stillman retrospective just because I had plans to see Damsels in Distress yesterday, I fucked up and did not see it at all, nor do I think that I'll have a chance to see it while it remains in theaters. Because I abhor gaps, and because, frankly, I'm really excited to see it, it shall be reviewed, eventually, when the DVD hits, but till then, I didn't want anyone to sit around, waiting for something that wasn't going to show up.

The moral of the story: don't ever take weekend vacations.

26 April 2012

LUCK BE A LADY

If I may: Jesus Christ, Zac Efron. I think The Lucky One finally, definitively proves it: he is the dullest, least charismatic of all the twentysomething kinda sorta vaguely movie stars but probably not really. Even Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, fuck, even Taylor Lautner have an easier time making the camera love them.

In The Lucky One, the seventh feature adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel and, I am sorry to say, pretty much square in the middle, quality-wise, Efron plays Logan Thibault, an ex-Marine recently out of Iraq, sometime around the end of the 2000s. While in Iraq, Thibault found a photograph of a pretty woman half-buried in the sand (the photograph, not the woman), and became convinced over the remainder of his tour of duty that she was his lucky charm, keeping him alive even as his fellow Marines died all around. Inspired by the last words of his best friend (Robert Terrell Hayes), though he did not know at the time that they would be his last words, Thibault hunts down the location where the photograph was taken by tracking down which exact lighthouse appears in the background, and walks all the way from Colorado to Louisiana in a soul-searching trip that would undoubtedly be more interesting than the movie which follows it.

The rest of the movie plays out as a series of montages set to treacly light rock, loosely united by meandering dialogue scenes. In Louisiana, and we can tell it is Louisiana because there are two separate moments when zydeco music plays underneath all the people talking with Standard American English accents, Thibault discovers that the photograph is of a certain Beth Green (Taylor Schilling), who runs a kennel with her grandmother Ellie (Blythe Danner). He shows up merely to thank her for being his guardian angel, but a series of "hold on, the phone", "oh, are you talking about this completely different thing that I'll ramble on about?" contrivances that wouldn't have held water in a '40s farce eventually silence him, as he slowly becomes aware that slowing this weirdly scattered woman down and telling her what he wanted to tell her would prevent his movie from having a plot (this was not an issue in the book, where Thibault was driven to lie for reasons he did not himself understand at that moment, AKA his penis).

Do Thibault and Beth fall very much in love, but slowly, on account of her having a terrible history with a local deputy, Keith Clayton (Jay R. Ferguson), who continues to pop up to be a stalkery dick? Oh, they do. Does Beth's moppet of a child (Riley Thomas Stewart) cotton to Thibault's decency and potential as a family man? He does, he does. Does Zac Efron generally act sweet and charming and playful with everyone in the movie, except when he has to play his love scenes, and then he gazes at Schilling with a sort of empty stare, like he just died the exact second that the director yelled "action", and his corpse hasn't toppled over yet? In fact, that is exactly what happens, and it is one-half of the reason that The Lucky One sucks as a romantic drama, assuming that we can accuse the actors of being cumulatively everything that is wrong with the movie, while ignoring the cliché-spouting screenplay adapted by Will Fetters - whose last job at trying to get a dubious teenybopper to grow up into leading manhood was the R-Patz 9/11 hatchet job Remember Me - or the stiff, pacey direction by Scott Hicks, the manhandler of such leaden dramas as Snow Falling on Cedars and Hearts in Atlantis, or the snoozy landscape cinematography of Ala Kivilo, who renders the Lousiana woods in the same training-wheels sun-kissed aesthetic he employed in The Blind Side. I did, actually, legitimately like Mark Isham's score. It was tender and swooning without trying to clobber the viewer into feeling weepy and/or aroused.

So as I was saying: let's stick to just the actors. Efron is a vacuum: he has exactly one expression that is meant to connote every shading of romantic feeling under the sun, and it mostly looks like he neets to be rebooted, or to pound back a few espresso shots. He still qualifies as the more effective member of the romantic dyad powering the movie. Schilling, you may recall, was rocketed to a semblance of prominence as the female lead of the epic bumblefuck Atlas Shrugged: Part I, where she was called upon to play a woman who exulted in her own inability to feel feelings. She is better in The Lucky One, simply by virtue of having emotions, though it is not necessarily clear from her performance that she knows what those are. There's a certain manic cluelessness to her scenes in the first half of the movie, when Beth is unaware of her own growing feelings for Thibault, and Schilling's performance consists of widening her eyes and grinning a hollow, joyless grin, and laughing in exactly the way that you'd get if somebody was reading the stage direction "Beth laughs" out loud, without knowing in advance that it was coming. When she and Efron make out, there is a tangible uncertainty, like when an alien woman in Star Trek demanded that Kirk explain this Earth concept of "kiss" to her. I will concede that Schilling settles into the character as the movie proceeds, but it is much too late by that point to redeem anything.

Unsurprisingly - at least, I elected not to be surprised - the one element that stays above water in the whole movie is Danner, who doesn't give a "good" performance as such, but sure as hell gives a rangy one. She seems to have given up relatively early on in the process of rehearsing Nana Ellie as a consistent, credible person, and instead uses the part as a showcase: here am I, Blythe Danner, being sassy with the sex jokes! and here I am being soulful and wise! here, warm, inviting, and friendly - here, prickly and tart and self-reliant. Maybe none of this was deliberate, and it's just a lack of caring, or severe under-directing; I'd believe either one. But I sort of dig that Danner has apparently used the movie as an excuse to put together a reel for casting directors who need to find a 70ish woman who can do just about anything. Because she is awesome, and it's pretty much the only thing of value that The Lucky One actually manages to provide.

4/10

25 April 2012

CANADIAN ANIMATION: A PRIMER

Part of the

Upon learning that there was going to be a blog-a-thon about animated short films at Pussy Goes Grrr, I knew pretty much immediately what I wanted to do for my entry, and with apologies to not one but two commenters who hoped to see Yuriy Norshteyn put in appearance, there was simply no space for him given my unifying theme. But I will happily give a shout-out to Norshteyn's 1975 Hedgehog in the Fog, which is one of the absolute best animated things I've ever seen, and if you get a chance to check it out, please do. It's awfully easy to find on YouTube.

But still, it's not where I wanted to take this essay. Instead, I wanted to indulge in one of my all-time cinematic obsessions, and write a post in tribute to the animation of Canada, where some of the most consistently entertaining and visually innovative non-experimental cartoons in the whole world have been made for decades now, mostly courtesy of the great NFB. Here follows a brief celebration of some of the best and brightest Canadian animated shorts of all time. It's more of a Greatest Hits compilation than an attempt to dig out anything rare or obscure (if you're a fan of the form, you've very probably seen all of these before), and I had to cheat a hair - at 61:11, it's just a snip over the official blog-a-thon rule that the slate has to come in under an hour, but just skip the credits for the fourth movie and you'll be more or less there. Anyway, I didn't have to include a 30-minute film, but I would have hated myself if I didn't.

On to the films!

24 April 2012

IT'S ALMOST LIKE MEN AND WOMEN ARE FROM DIFFERENT PLANETS, LIKE MARS AND VENUS OR SOMETHING

Ordinarily, the lede paragraph is where I'd put a hackles-raised jeremiad of disputable racial sensitivity, complaining about how we have all of these really terrific African-American actors, and because of the rather nasty segregation that goes on in movie casting offices, the only movies where they have big leading roles are dodgy Tyler Perryish exercises in trashy clichés. I am not obliged to do that, because surprisingly enough, Think Like a Man, which looks for all the world like one more of those "urban viewers" jobs (right down to the release date) that get burned off right before the "real" movies for "mainstream" (i.e. white) audiences start to flood the multiplexes, is actually kind of good. Kind of great, almost, given its generic limitations - "great" and "21st Century romantic comedy" are unlikely to ever belong in the same sentence, irrespective of the skin tone of the people involved. And so instead of saying e.g. "I like Gabrielle Union so fucking much, why can't she ever manage to get a decent part?", I get to say "I like Gabrielle Union so fucking much, and it's awesome to see her get such a fun role in such a fun movie".

Union is merely one of many faces in a generous ensemble cast made up of all sorts of good, great, or downright excellent actors, including Taraji P. Henson, Romany Malco, Jenifer Lewis, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, Meagan Good, Kevin Hart, and Terrence J. There are even a couple of token white guys, Jerry Ferrara and Gary Owen. I have not provided their names, partially because it was really hard to keep track of them all, and partially because names are sort of unimportant: they are stock types, and Think Like a Man is the kind of movie that does not merely traffic in stock types but loudly and enthusiastically announces that it is trafficking in stock types, perhaps as a means of inoculating itself against further criticism Scream-style, perhaps to make sure that we don't get our hopes up too terribly high. More to the point, this leaves the film with a certain self-aware hokiness that make the most contrived bends the plot takes in the back half - and they are some excruciatingly contrived bends - a bit more palatable, since the movie doesn't appear to take them any more seriously than we do, while leaving the sassy, fluffy appeal of the characters firmly intact.

The point being, we're introduced to the characters via both narration and onscreen text; the narration coming from short, wildly sexist Cedric (Hart), who acerbically runs through a pleasant little History of Gender Roles in the form of a Korean animated sequence detailing cavemen fighting mammoths because that's how men prove their manliness; then he gets on to describing himself and his five basketball buddies as belonging to the American male archetypes - the Player, the Mama's Boy, the Happily Married Man, and that kind of thing. Within the next 15 minutes, the film has already repeated this information using onscreen tags to inform us not just which of the stock men we're watching as they are positioned into a stock plot, but also which stock female they're being paired with - hence a starry-eyed dreamer with a bile-spewing career woman (Ealy and Henson), a manchild and his live in girlfriend who wants to make their house look something less like a dorm room (Ferrara and Union), and to a certain degree it almost feels like writers Keith Merryman & David A. Newman, and director Tim Story are poking fun at the material as much as they're presenting it, what with the super-serious Courier New titles and a metronomic switching between subplots that stresses the artifice of it all rather than buries it.

The film is adapted from comedian and television personality Steve Harvey's undoubtedly well-concered, sober-minded, and not at all condescending relationship guide Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, and for long stretches the movie feels something like an infomercial: the women in the cast gush and coo over how brilliant and insightful the text is, and the men, when they learn of it, act with terror and alarm that would have been slightly overwrought if it were nuclear arming codes during the Cold War and not a flippant collection of "men are boys, haha silly boys, deny them sex" anecdotes. This would be more troubling if the bar for movies adapted from non-fiction advice books wasn't so low (how I wish I could here write "Coming soon: What to Expect When You're Expecting: The Movie", and be joking), and as it stands, the worst parts of the movie are consistently those where we're actively exposed to Harvey's actual prose; for this, too, draws attention to exactly how much what's going on is a cliché and makes suspension of disbelief harder, if not outright impossible.

But, you know, clichés aren't inherently bad, when they're being used as tools rather than crutches, and Think Like a Man isn't trying to rise above its genre rather than simply work as a particularly appealing example of it. And that is mostly done through the acting, which is superlative right down the line (Terrence J is much the weakest member of the main cast; it's a lot harder to say who's strongest, though I'm mostly torn between Ealy and Union), with the actors never talking down to the material (maybe Henson, once or twice), and instead staking out whatever the most reasonable, human being-ish position they can find relative to the script; and helped out too by some punchy dialogue that will win absolutely no awards for being clever, but at least flows naturally and when it is obvious, does not pretend to impress us by being better than it is. And it's also a fine return to form for Tim Story, who ten years ago made a relaxed, charming hang-out movie in Barbershop before wandering into the thickets of the dense Fantastic Four and the ludicrous Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and has happily returned to the infinitely lower-key and more satisfying pleasure of watching people that are fun and appealing interact in fun and appealing ways. That all of this comes wrapped in a package that eagerly and urgently stresses every cloying gender stereotype of the worst kind of shticky humor is dismaying; that the whole thing clocks in north of two hours is nearly unforgivable. But it's all so frivolous and light in touch that it still manages to be fun, if more in the "what a neat way to waste time!" register than the "what a smart, insightful comedy of manners!" register. But even that, for a contemporary romcom, is a real achievement, and I cannot deny that leaving Think Like a Man, I was in a far better mood than when I went in.

7/10

23 April 2012

WHIT STILLMAN: THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998)

With The Last Days of Disco writer-director-etc. Whit Stillman solidified the pattern that had begun with his 1994 sophomore effort Barcelona of taking four years off in between his breezy, talky comedies: four years that were very well spent, though I do not know and to be honest do not care if the time was spent coming up with an idea, fussing over the script (it seems rather unlikely that Stillman can crank his scripts out all that quickly), or securing financing. Whatever; it isn't important. The point is, at the end of that four years, 1998 saw the release of Stillman's third film, the first of two movies that year about the legendary discotheque Studio 54 (or its fictional analogue, here), beating 54 to theaters by three months; I imagine that both in '98 and today, you can find someone claiming that 54 is the smarter work, but I can hardly imagine what the inside of such a person's mind must look like. Anyway, the pertinent facts are that some extra money was pitched Stilman's way to make certain that his film hit theaters first, and that left Last Days of Disco with a bit of an inflated budget, which it spectacularly failed to earn back - calling it a "bomb" is inapt only because that suggests considerably higher figures than indie cinema tends to work with. Thus, by the nightmare logic of the American film business, the movie that should have seen Stillman locked in as one of the great indie filmmakers of that era instead left his career on ice for so long that it appeared, to all intents, to be over.

Timing undoubtedly had something to do with it: a seismic shift had occurred in the American independent landscape between 1994 and 1998, brought on by the titanic stomping of Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein, and the arch, formalised writing and pointedly under-stylised visuals that Stillman was so good at were simply not at all to the tastes of a niche audience having a passionate love affair with post-modernism and pop culture riffing; it's difficult to think of a less post-modern filmmaker of the 1990s than Whit Stillman. But such is the cruelty of arbitrary fate.

The good news is that none of this gets in the way of loving The Last Days of Disco now, and love is, I think, an appropriate reaction to the movie. It is less fresh and insightful than Stillman's first and still best movie, Metropolitan, but it makes up for it by being more complex, mature, and at times poignant like nothing he'd done yet. Like his previous work, the film is about a heavily self-contained community responding to the impact of the world outside, but in this case, for the first time, Stillman's interests seem to be deeper than simply cataloging the foibles of an in-group to which he once belonged; here, he manages to position that in-group within the context of a grander human history, succeeding for the first time in telling a story that genuinely seems to have something important to say about life as it is lived outside of what we might call the Whit Stillman Bubble. Though needless to say, the Bubble is still there, and peering inside of it is still absolutely fantastic and fascinating; but there's a depth to the characters that outpaces even Metropolitan, a film that I still love and, honestly, prefer.

The film announces itself with a gag that perhaps stands as the single best predictor of whether you are or are not on Stillman's wavelength of comedy: it takes place, according to the pair of opening title cards, in-

"The very early 1980s"
"September"

-which is both astringently wry humor, and a fairly smart encapsulation of the film's overall emotional mood. September, the month that comes before autumn really sets in, is more important than whether it was particularly 1981 or 1982 - and, too, sometimes a memory is more precisely about a time of year than the year itself, and this is above all things a memory piece, where a general sense of a moment in history trumps the exact retelling of what happened when (in fact, the one definite historical event that might serve to anchor the narrative, the Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park in Chicago, happened in July, 1979).

The Last Days of Disco follows a somewhat rag-tag group of people all involved in the culture surrounding an unnamed club (an amalgam of the places Stillman frequented in his disco days, including Studio 54): the most important of these people to the film's overall shape is Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny), a functionary at a small publishing house, though selecting a protagonist is basically impossible. The rest of the group includes Alice's co-worker and roommate and in a vague and uncomfortable way friend, Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale); Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), one of the club managers); Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin), a friend of Des's who "works in advertising" and as such is persona non grata at the club, though his job security rests on getting people into it; Holly (Tara Subkoff), a meek girl who is roped into being Alice and Charlotte's third roommate; Dan (Matt Ross), the token liberal in an apolitical crowd, who works at the same publishing company and starts dating Holly; Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard), a passing acquaintance of Alice who is modestly attracted to her; and Josh Neff (Matt Keeslar), who was in college with Des, and immediately starts pursuing Alice when they meet by chance at the club.

It would be too exhausting to say what, exactly, happens to all of these people along the course of the film; The Last Days of Disco has a somewhat loose, hazy narrative style in which events tend to happen between scenes rather than during them, and all we get to see are the aftermaths, or occasionally, the wind-up. What it all adds up to is a sharp examination of what it's like to live in a major city in your early 20s, and how difficult it is to make a personality for yourself in the face of too much stimulation. Which is almost exactly the same thing that Metropolitan adds up to, except that the later film is a bit more brittle and considerably more nostaligic: if the dominant feeling of Metropolitan is precision, the dominant feeling of The Last Days of Disco is more general and sweeping, lighting upon character types and eras in history rather than specific characters and moments.

The era is stated right in the title, of course, and that unsurprisingly leads to a film all about things ending and being lost; it is considerably more melancholy than either of Stillman's preceding movies, and undeniably less funny, though it still has its share of nifty lines. A late monologue that's more defiant than triumphant, and a dreamy final dance scene on a subway train are just about the only things that keep the film from tipping into real sorrow; that, and the overwhelming love Stillman plainly has for his disco days. I will confess: there's probably not a single genre of music for which I have less use than disco, and not having lived through the period I can't have feelings about it one way or the other. But even granting that, The Last Days of Disco is less of a paean to disco per se than a tribute to people who know that their way of life is ending but still maintain it as best they can, hopeless dreamers and idealists being true to what they know. And this is also basically the same as Metropolitan.

So how the hell is it a different movie than Metropolitan? And here we get to the characters, who though they are types, are impressively well-observed and real - Stillman's endlessly artificial dialogue and even the stately contrivance of his plots sometimes distort the fact that he is ultimately concerned with genuine feeling, and I do not know if there are two more genuine characters in any of his films than Alice and Charlotte, whose relationship is one of the most interesting damn things of any American movie in the latter half of the 1990s. Sevigny is a hit-or-miss actress for me; calling Beckinsale "hit-or-miss" would be doing her a real kindness. But they both click into their parts here, individually and as a pair, with Beckinsale absolutely devastating the film and everything else with her portrayal of a really terrible human being who delights in cloaking her meanness in unconvincing, back-handed compliments and insulting concern; Sevigny responds to this - until the end, Alice is the ultimate reactive character - with a perfect mix of fear and hatred on the one hand, and a yearning to copy that behavior and make it her own on the other. It's as excellent a depiction of a toxic friendship as I know, even granting that "friendship" generally and "female friendship" specifically, is a subject that movies don't really know what to do with.

This dynamic is not the sole reason that Last Days of Disco is worth watching; they're not even the only two good performances. But it is this relationship, to me, that gives the film its unique value and makes it such an essential work: it turns a film about Young Adulthood as a concept and grounds it in a very particular and distinctly common situation, and it is from this nexus of incredibly rich human detail that the rest of the film grows. Like Metropolitan, the results are perhaps only a minor masterpiece, but that still means it's a masterpiece of a kind, and if it had been Stillman's swan song, a director could hardly hope to be prouder of such a strong exit.

21 April 2012

SPARKS NOTES: IT'S THE SINGER, NOT THE SONG

Holy balls, The Last Song is a terrible movie. Should this be surprising? No: Miley Cyrus + Nicholas Sparks + the autocratic hand of the Walt Disney Company. But am I surprised? I don't know. Maybe. A little. Stunned is a better word, perhaps; like taking a frisbee to the back of the head and it's shocking and painful and you're not quite certain whether you're going to crumple up or keep walking and for a minute you just stand there and everything seems wrong, inside your body and in the whole world, too, just for a split-second. Pull and stretch and tug, and make that split-second 107 minutes long. That is The Last Song.

Making it even less of a surprise: The Last Song wasn't some horrible accident of history. It came about because Disney, looking to transition Cyrus from Hannah Montana teenybopper to accomplished young actress of note (still waiting...), called up Sparks one day and asked him to make a vehicle for her. This he did, even going so far as to let Cyrus name her character (Veronica "Ronnie" Miller), and co-writing the screenplay with Jeff Van Wie as he also wrote the novel alongside it; the screenplay was completed first, while the book was published before the movie's premiere. This is especially unfortunate because it makes it virtually impossible to avoid directly comparing The Last Song with 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came about in almost exactly the same way. Spoiler alert: 2001 is better.

Thus we have a made-to-order vanity project as written and conceived by a man of rather mercenary talents at best, starring a young woman whose skills as an actor are no match for the bloodlust with which a massive entertainment corporation enjoys using her as a meat puppet. Is it any wonder that The Last Song should end up being so atrocious, readily the worst of all Nicholas Sparks adaptations and indeed a strong candidate for being one of the worst mainstream American movies of 2010? I say thee nay, again; it is not a surprise. But I still wasn't prepped for it, and I'm still kind of reeling. Enough of that, however, let me try to dig into the thing as far as I dare.

The book, to begin with, was outlandishly square, and functioned very much like a semi-conscious parody of Cyrus's stringently clean-cut persona: Ronnie is a combination of prickly edges and beatific innocence that presumably could actually exist in the real world - there are many millions of 17-year-old females in the United States - but still plays exactly like a fabrication made up by a middle-aged white dude with a fetish for "nice", throwing himself into the challenge of making a sullen, dark figure who could still be a heroine in the stranglingly narrow limits of SparksWorld morality, where any teenager who drinks, or smokes, or kisses with her mouth open, can at best be redeemed as a former sinner; she cannot be one of the paragons of humility and decency that the author favors in his women (though at least his middle-aged characters get to have some vigorously gentle premarital boning, typically for One Perfect Night; but not poor Ronnie, even if she is a legal and emotional adult at the end of the narrative). So Ronnie is some kind of psychotic amalgam of what might have passed for "the bad kid" back in 1962 with the the mores and edginess of 2009, almost like Sparks looked at the inane mash-up for the 1950s and 1990s in the woebegone film version of A Walk to Remember, and thought it looked absolutely great, and he should do one of his own just like it. It's also tailor-made for Cyrus as Disney would like us to think of her: saucy and grown-up and cool, but faithful and familial and delieriously pre-sexual. And at the same time, this is all so divorced from anything that real-life people, teenagers especially, might legitimately think, feel, and say, that it serves mostly to make the Cyrusbot Persona seem even more artificial and unconvincing than it was in the first place.

That's true of the book, anyway, and a bit less so of the movie; the book has a kind of demented madness about it that carried that attitude all the way to the last chapter, which is unfortunately not altogether true of the film. I find it interesting to note in passing that as the first Sparks film he himself wrote, it would stand to reason that The Last Song would be generally the same in both of its iterations, unlike the previous Sparks adaptations, and this is mainly true; the overlong book does of course stuff in more detail and subplots, but the movie plays as a very crisp, direct, and self-sufficient version of the story. What surprised me that even when Sparks wrote the movie, the ambitious, foggy, Catholic-cum-Baptist religious focus present in all of his books somewhat, and in The Last Song to a particularly degree, still managed to be buffed out to the point of invisibility, which is a damn shame: Sparks's blissed-out, dogmatically insubstantial "Whee, I'm a Christian!" bromides fit in so nicely with the ones that Cyrus herself sometimes remembered to say in public.

Anyway. Bad-ish Girl Ronnie Miller - she has a tiny nose ring, y'all, for totes serious - she arrives in Georgia one day (no, not North Carolina, because apparently Sparks's own artistic credibility is cheaper than tax credits), driven by her mom Kim (Kelly Preston), alongside her 10-year-old brother Jonah (Bobby Coleman), there to visit with their long-absent father Steve (Greg Kinnear) for the whole summer. The important bits to know are that Steve used to be a piano teacher, and then he went touring and it didn't pan out, and then he and Kim split up; Ronnie used to play piano and was a major prodigy (soloing at Carnegie Hall at 7 years of age), but as her vitriolic hate for Steve grew, her interest in playing dried up, and now she just uses hating piano as a weapon to attack her dad. Because she hates the shit out of her dad, y'see. For she is Brooding and Hurt.

The inevitable re-connection of father and daughter gets left to simmer for most of the movie, in favor of Ronnie's slow infatuation with local rich boy (that's another amazing thing about the book: it's crazy sympathetic to the rich) and volleyball champ Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth). As she slowly learns to open up to another person, she becomes not such a hopeless misanthrope, and everybody celebrates except for her dad, who's too dying of cancer to celebrate. Which was perhaps a spoiler, but it was literally the only thing I knew about the movie or book as of a week ago, so I think it probably doesn't deserve to be. Kinnear, incidentally, looks like absolute shit in his cancer make-up, which is the one way the movie attempts to make it not completely offensive that it's pulling that hoary old stunt in such a ridiculously simplistic way - until he passes out on the beach and reveals his secret sickness, Steve hardly registers as a legitimate character, making one wonder why a Kinnear-sized actor would have taken such a limited part. Taa-daa! Heart-wrenching death scene! To be fair, Kinnear does as much as he can to save the movie, which means in practice not that he sells the character, but that he never bursts out laughing at Cyrus.

So far, so boilerplate, though the ham-handed application of cancer would be enough to get me on the film's bad side; what shoves The Last Song into the realm of really outlandishly terrible cinema is partially director Julie Anne Robinson, whose management of tone is incredibly disproportionate to what's actually going on (one shot of a raccoon is shot and scored with as much "holy shit no, not a raccoon!" tension and dramatic impact as all the vistas of all the Orc armies in the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy), and there absolutely came a moment when I started giggling and never quite managed to stop. But mostly, it's Cyrus and Hemsworth, who represent some kind of theoretical low for how terrible two romantic leads can be, together and separately. It's really quite amazing, in fact, how much chemistry they do not have; and impressive, in its way, how broken their performances both are: Hemsworth, with his eyebrows on loan from Billy Zane in Titanic, does not demonstrate an interest in any mode of performance other than smoldering (sometimes happily, sometimes dramatically) and posing in ways that accentuate his muscles best; he gets one absolutely terrific line reading in response to Kinnear, but otherwise it really comes across as just straight-up whorish. And Cyrus- OH, MILEY CYRUS!- My word, I could have spent this long and written about nothing at all but her performance in all the facets of its badness. She's so wildly bad as to single-handedly make The Last Song a good bad movie and not just a bad one, though she's also the single biggest reason that it's bad and not mediocre. So hard to call whether she's a net benefit or not.

But heavens, it's a sight to see. She starts out playing "Angry Transplanted New Yorker Ronnie" with a curious nasal flatness to her voice, that when combined with the strange thing she does to her mouth throughout the movie - flaring her lips, to make her teeth look really prominent, and to not at all make her mouth look sumptuous and seductive and inviting, which I imagine was the point - I swear to God, it plays exactly like she's doing a Jerry Lewis impersonation. And you know what, watching a teenage girl making bedroom eyes at a painfully model-bland Australian boy while talking like Jerry Lewis, is kind of the best thing ever. Eventually, she dials it down (alas), and favors a single attitude, that I am 100% certain was described as "upbeat", or "chipper" or "positive" on the set, but comes off as hugely insincere and sarcastic, and also tends to leave her with inflexible line deliveries that are underarticulate and over-enunciated, if that's even possible. Did you see Revenge of the Sith? Remember "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo?" Imagine an entire feature-length performance of that line delivery. It's pretty spectacular, by which I mean that it is objectively and entirely a spectacle. A nightmare spectacle of flailing incompetence that does not begin to recognise its own limitations, but a spectacle; the kind that, once seen, is not easily forgotten.

19 April 2012

FUN WITH CARTOONS

A quick note to plug a blogathon that I'll be joining next week: The Short Animation Blogathon hosted at Pussy Goes Grr. The idea behind it is pretty much the simplest thing imaginable: everyone involved assembles a slate of animated films totaling less than an hour, and posts it, with some amount of discussion of their choices. Clearly, a grizzled old animation buff like myself would be all over this one, and I hope that some of you will be, as well.

The blogathon runs April 23-27.


18 April 2012

IF YOU GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY, YOU'RE SURE OF A BIG SURPRISE

I can't even remember the last time that we had a horror movie that became such a talking point across such a wide range of cinephiles, so praise be to the long-delayed The Cabin in the Woods for that reason all by itself; though whether it's actually categorically responsible to refer to The Cabin in the Woods as a "horror movie" is less clear-cut, I think, than conventional wisdom would seem to have it. And I must also part with conventional wisdom in claiming that the movie is a hotbed of spoilers and even accidentally reading the headline of a review will ruin the experience for you: to be perfectly honest, I don't see how any reasonably attentive viewer couldn't see the general shape of the thing by the end of the third scene, and around the 30-minute mark, it's all clear enough that the only real spoil-able moment is a swell cameo at the end, that I shall not spoil, other than to say that the performer in question is starting to make a habit of doing this sort of thing and I enjoy it.

But, you've got your warning: spoilers all over the damn place. I genuinely don't think they matter. The whole entire point of the film is that you're always a step ahead of the B-plot and at least two steps ahead of the A-plot. Still, anyway, watch out.

Now, I will concede at the start that at the onset, Cabin had to do virtually nothing for me to like it, and could almost certainly not do enough for me to love it. It has met those expectations - the only thing it needed to win my approval was to be a better post-modern deconstruction of horror movies than Scream, which was written by Kevin Williamson; Cabin, as you might have heard if you're really paying attention to the minutest esoterica in the darkest corners of the internet, was produced and co-written by Joss Whedon, who is basically the smarter version of Williamson and has been ever since 1997. And then, Whedon is also the film's biggest limitation, because for all that he is clever and then some in nearly everything he does, there's a certain slapdash quality to his genre riffs (and pretty much everything he's ever done is to some degree a genre riff), where it's pretty clear that he thinks he knows more than he actually does. And sure enough he and co-writer Drew Goddard, who also directed and therefore deserves more of the credit for what what Cabin is than I've seen him getting, anyway, put together a movie that was clearly made by two boys who did a hell of a lot of homework, but still manage to drift on some points; among them being that the "lonely cabin in the woods" isn't actually a hugely common horror trope, showing up more in films making fun of horror than in legitimate straight horror itself (in fact, other than The Evil Dead, I'm not certain I can name a single non-ironic version of the trope; plenty of summer camps, but no lonely isolated cabins).

This is all, however, largely beside the point.

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie about a group of five friends who travel to a, um, cabin in the woods, there to spend the weekend. What they don't realise is that this cabin is in the middle of a massive high-tech controlled reality where a whole corporate hierarchy full of drab businesspeople are engaged in creating optimal cheesy horror movie shocks and violent deaths, in what I persist in believing is a cockeyed slam on Hostel, which is also about drab businessmen blandly killing young people in a controlled environment. Which is the last time I'll play "spot the reference", because to a certain degree, Cabin is nothing else but references, and a huge part of the fun for the horror aficionados to whom the film is catering (even more than it caters to Whedon's already robust fanbase) lies in spotting all the in-jokes and such. And quite a lot of fun it is, particularly in a shot late in the movie that seems to exist solely because one day, the film will be on DVD and we can pause on it and figure out what each and every thing onscreen is spoofing.

Anyway: the five kids in the cabin - innocent Dana (Kristen Connolly); brooding intellectual hunk Holden (Jesse Williams), with whom she's being set up; girly-girl Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her boyfriend Curt (Chris Hemsworth, who worked on this set long before his stint as Thor), whose cousin owns the cabin; and pothead Marty (Fran Kranz, mugging like an Adam Sandler sidekick, the only weak link in the cast or even the film as a whole) - almost immediately realise that spooky, inexplicable things are happening, and the sharper among the group (Dana and Marty) also note how very much out-of-character everyone's acting; almost like they slot in neatly to the stock horror movie figures carved into granite over the course of the 1980s. Thankfully, they do not state this outright; there is no outspoken post-Scream moment where anybody points out that it's just like they're in a movie, and this is a huge part of the reason that the film is so much better than all of the other meta-horror in the last 15 years.

We, meanwhile, are well aware that the reason things are so strange, and everyone is behaving so oddly, is that they're under the control of a team of white-shirted technicians, led by worker bees Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), who control everything from the outside temperature to the chemicals seeping into the kids' bodies via their hair, their marijuana, and even the air around them. It's all very much like The Truman Show (which is given a nod), and even more like The Hunger Games, which wasn't yet anything approaching a cultural phenomenon when Cabin was produced, but it still says something that of the two films from the first third of 2012 that heavily focus on a team of bloodless bureaucrats playing young people like rats in a maze in front of an infinity of cameras and with the apparent idea of producing populist entertainment, the one that is far more intelligent about its concept and more rigorous about how that concept would work in the "real" or at least real-enough world, is not the one that's making shit-tons of money.

The "apparent" idea, because it turns out that the real secret behind all of this is a world-wide conspiracy of Lovecraftian dimensions - and I love, love, love that Whedon and Goddard don't just tip their hat to nearly every tradition of cinematic horror, but to literary ones as well - that mostly serves to give everything an extra layer of what I am compelled to call "absurdity" for want of a more precise term. But it is sort of absurd, all of it: the movie's contention that the formalism of the Dead Teenager Slasher-style plot has ritualistic and socio-cultural roots stretching back to pre-history, presented without an apparent whisper of irony or sarcasm or tongue-in-cheek reserve, for that exact reason ends up being one of the funniest things about the movie.

And make no mistake, The Cabin in the Woods is a comedy - a comedy with lots of deep dark mood lighting and blood and tottering zombie rednecks, but a comedy. A comedy, plus a satire, plus a parody, all adding up to the conclusion that horror movie formulas are just so effing damn stupid that ascribing all of it to the machinations of an Elder God cult is practically sane in relationship. What it really just isn't, is horror: for horror depends on the intrusion of the uncanny, perverse, and inexplicable into the mundane and normal. Cabin does exactly the opposite, taking the uncanny, perverse, and inexplicable, and intruding the mundane into that; rationalising every slasher and monster and Thing Going Bump as the by-product of a world of office betting pools, petty quibbling about bureaucratic responsibilities, and conference calls (the conference call scene in this movie is, for serious, the funniest thing I have seen all year and then some). It is, in fact, anti-horror, and that is exactly what makes it an effective piece of commentary on what legitimate horror is - it is light-years from Scream, a horror movie acting like it was above horror, for this is aspiring to be horror when it is not. And my respects to those who managed to be creeped out by the kids' misadventures, but I was as resolutely not-scared as I think I've ever been at a movie with so much blood and monsters.

So, here's where... I don't want to say that it all falls apart, because it doesn't exactly do that. The thing is, the movie is extraordinarily clever without being all that smart, and most of its observations are pretty surface-level stuff, dressed up largely by the wit of the screenplay, the absurdly great performances by Jenkins and Whitford (who turns out to be even better with Whedonesque prattle-speak than with Sorkinese) and the general bone-dry humor of the office scenes, which are about as good a jab at the morality and politics of horror-watching as any of us could hope for, and Goddard's nifty swiveling from tone to tone - present from the very first moments, in which a series of friezes of ancient ritual sacrifices, covered in blood, cuts to a '70s-looking coffee vending machine. But ultimately, for all the outstanding gags dotting the whole picture, it's not a satire of horror as a whole genre, but of a very specific horror movie that doesn't necessarily exist outside of Whedon and Goddard's minds (the best we can say is that it's a parody of The Evil Dead, but that doesn't feel like what they're gunning for, and if they were, Evil Dead II already did it better). And by virtue of operating somewhere outside of the actual horror genre, it sacrifices a bit of applicability as a commentary on the act of watching a horror movie; whereas e.g. Drag Me to Hell, to name drop yet another Sam Raimi movie, makes us constantly aware of what we're doing by watching this horror movie right now, The Cabin in the Woods makes us aware of what we're doing when we're watching those horror movies other than this one. It is a small difference and somewhat disappointing.

That being said, the movie's an absolute delight; though I will not vouch for the delight apt to be received by those not well-versed in the genre it so playfully references and mocks. My feeling right now is that it's more of a frivolous lark with some good ideas than a potent, lasting piece of meta-commentary or generic deconstruction, but larks have their place too, and I will anyway credit The Cabin in the Woods with being intensely committed to its premise even to the loopy-nihilistic ending; a commitment rare enough in any mainstream filmmaking, but especially in the lowest-common-denominator striving of most genre fare.

7/10? I don't know. I walked out of the theater thinking 7/10, but I also feel like I just wrote an 8/10 review. I dug it, let's not worry about numbers.

BEST SHOT: SERENITY

Another Wednesday, another episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience. This week, in celebration of the Joss Whedon moment we're going through with The Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers on everybody's lips, Nathaniel has assigned Whedon's feature film debut as a director: 2005's zippy popcorn sci-fi adventure Serenity, the sequel and finale to his maddeningly short-lived TV show Firefly. Which, between them, represent my absolute favorite stuff in Whedon's entire career, give or take whatever he contributed to Toy Story.

(There's a lot of stuff in this post, so I'm burying it beneath a jump - no reason to make the whole blog take that long to load up).

17 April 2012

SPARKS NOTES: A SOLDIER'S STORY

Some fun facts for y'all:

Dear John, the first of two Nicholas Sparks adaptations from the first quarter of 2010, and the fifth overall, was the very first to open in the #1 at the U.S. box office. In doing so, it became the Lost in Space of the 21st Century, by standing proud and tall on the weekend of 5 February to unseat a James Cameron film that had been devouring all sorts of records from its reign at #1. This was, yes, the film to bump off Avatar, thus securing for itself a permanent seat of honor in the cultural dialogue, where by "cultural dialogue" I mean "a moderately difficult trivia question". Show of hands if you could have answered the question, "What replaced Avatar at #1?" - the only reason that I could is because I have a spreadsheet dedicated to exactly this kind of information sitting in a place of pride on my computer desktop, and also because Dear John has long been one of my great shames as a blogger: if this whole "I'll review everything that opens at #1" rule has any merit whatsoever, surely it would include grappling with the film that stole the thunder from the all-time highest-grossing movie in the history of everywhere. On the other hand, I don't suppose that even just two years later, anybody still cares, just like I probably hadn't thought about Lost in Space for the better part of a decade prior to researching this paragraph - truth be told, I thought that U.S. Marshals was the film to knock out Titanic, and I'll bet that's another movie that nobody has thought of since some time in 1999.

But anyway, back to Dear John, one of the most significant box-office performers of the decade. How I do hate it. I cannot call it my least favorite Sparks movie, because every time I let my mind drift in that direction, out from the mists sidles Kevin Costner's smug ass face from Message in a Bottle, reminding me. But it's definitely a cozy #2, at least as of this writing. I still have Miley Cyrus's bid for credibility as a dramatic actress sitting just out of the corner of my eye. Oh, my beloved reader, I cannot tell you how much Dear John fills me with unhappiness. The contemporary romantic drama is by no means my favorite genre, but it still can deliver certain compensations, even if it's just an excuse to watch pretty people canoodle, and Dear John fails even on this level. Amanda Seyfried, who should not require any help at all to look lovely on camera, has been lit in such a way that suggests the gaffer and cinematographer had a blood feud with the actress, because everything that could be done to exaggerate her naturally prominent eyes until they're so buggy that it looks like she's trying to shoot them out of her skull like bullets, has been done. And even this is only one sin, not even the most angrifying sin at that.

Dear John was directed by Lasse Hallström. Maybe that says nothing; maybe it's even a sign of comfort. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly likes him. Also, I know that people have good feelings toward My Life as a Dog, which I have not seen. But in my corner of town, the unholy three-fer of The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News, shat out 1-2-3, neat as you please, for three consecutive Christmas seasons between 1999 and 2001, is all the evidence I'll ever need of the filmmaker's irredeemable douchebaggery. I think Hallström might actually have been the reason I chickened out on Dear John in the first place. But anyway, he directed it, and he did so very, very poorly. If Nights in Rodanthe is such as a plonking, pointedly inoffensive piece of Sparksian white bread as to seem like a parody, Dear John is a travesty of same; all dappled beaches and dappled horse barns and anything else you can dapple, because fuck yeah, Lass Hallström loves him the shit out of dappled light, and there are couples lounging in sunsets and montages set to dementedly lite-rock indie ballads.

And in the midst of this, Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried: he as "Dear" John Tyree, a bad boy who joined up with the army to get his life on track, she as Savannah Curtis, the nice girl he meets on the beach one spring break when he's on leave and she's helping with an unnamed Habit for Humanity group. They fall in love, they weather the trials of being separated by school and the army, and then what maybe is meant to be a twist happens - the book up and says "this was all in early 2001", but the movie never makes even the slightest hint at a date until the 9/11 attacks, and the peekaboo way that this event is smuggled into the movie is just tacky as balls, and Hallström and screenwriter Jamie Linden seem almost pleased with themselves for reducing one of the most if not the most significant event of the decade to a complicating plot element for their bland little lovers - and Sparks at least plays completely fair with what he's doing with 9/11, particularly because the book is doing double-duty as a "support the troops" fable in addition to telling a singularly limp love story. It was, I dare say, the most opportunistic and shoddy misuse of 9/11 as a plot element in a romantic drama for almost a whole month, until Remember Me opened (what a bizarre year 2010 was). Anyhow, John re-ups, not out of patriotic fervor but because he feels sort of peer-pressured into it, and that makes the love affair much harder to sustain, but not as hard as when Savannah ends up getting married. And there's still a lot of complications to go, which is why I feel okay spoiling that bit.

It's just a... weirdly put-together story. It already was, in the novel, mixing earnest but flimsy pro-military material in with flimsy and sleepy romance and a fucking peculiar subplot about John's obsessive coin-collector dad, played by Richard Jenkins in the movie, who ends up being autistic. This was Sparks's way of paying tribute to his autistic son; I suspect that even the son can tell he deserves better. Though Richard Jenkins, who is so far ahead of the rest of the movie that he's very nearly lapping it, is ideally cast and plays Asperger's without any of the gory indulgence of a Hoffman in Rain Man or a Penn in I Am Sam.

The novel is tedious and grinding, and its star-crossed lovers so emotionally immature as to be nearly impossible to like (the "tragedy", if it can be called such, is that couples grow less emotionally intense after the first flush of romance, which counts I hope as neither an insight nor particularly sad); and yet the movie is worse in every way. There are a lot of stupid little changes that don't matter - the movie is pointlessly shifted to South Carolina, instead of Sparks's beloved native North Carolina - and stupid little changes that do - Savannah's friend Tim (Henry Thomas) is now her father's friend rather than her age-appropriate possible boyfriend, and that makes the ending a hell of a lot ickier - and a big huge change to the ending that more or less invalidates even Sparks's thin, watery little themes, and feels anticlimactic and tacked-on only because it was - the ending was changed because of everybody's favorite, test audiences.

The biggest flaw, though, is not Hallström's trashy, cloying directing, nor Linden's feeble reduction of the plot, nor a Deborah Lurie score that sounds like cheap Christmas candy, nor so much post-production tinkering with the visuals that the actors appear to be carved from wax: it's that Seyfried and Tatum have absolutely no credibility as a romantic couple. Tatum, bless him, isn't good at romantic dramas, or much else, and his casting obviously has more to do with his hunky, brooding, heavily-chiseled face than anything. Seyfried, I cannot explain: I have liked her in bad movies before, but she's just dreadful and empty here. Throw the two of them together, and absolutely nothing happens: two voids looking past one another and responding to each other's lines of dialogue rather than having a fluid, living conversation. It's unconvincing in every single scene, but not hilariously so, not enough for Dear John to attain some level of campy badness. It's just pale, simpering non-eroticism, and anchoring a movie that has done so very little else that's any good, it results in one of the most painfully boring love stories of its generation.

16 April 2012

WHIT STILLMAN: BARCELONA (1994)

Released in 1994,Whit Stillman's sophomore film Barcelona came out four years after its predecessor, Metropolitan. In the context of his later career, this can be described as pretty quick turnaround. On the other hand, four years is a whole lot of time to work on a second feature, and given how pointedly artificial and fussy Stillman's first screenplay was, it seems fair that he'd have to take a lot of time to get things just so for the next go-round. And sure enough, Barcelona is pretty awesomely fussy, though a bit airier than Metropolitan, owing partially to being more opened up in physical space than the cramped Manhattan apartments of the director's first movie, partially because the smaller cast of protagonists isn't quite so madly in love with their own philosophical constructs.

The confession first, before we go any farther: of the three films that were, for quite a long time, the totality of Stillman's authorial career, Barcelona is the one I've thought about the least, primarily because it's my least favorite. It's still a delightful movie, wielding perilously over-wrought dialogue like fencing foils, and advancing through its plot with a relaxed, observatory pace that takes plenty of time to chase down ideas that seem interesting, without forcing itself to blitz from event to event, but still manages to clock in with a neat and tidy 101-minute running time that feels just about exactly the right length for what it's attempting to do. But depicting a cluster of collegians who don't really know what they want out of life is one kind of thing, and depicting a pair of mid-'20s professionals who more-or-less do know what they are want and are more-or-less getting it, leaving room solely for their romantic travails is a different thing, and Stillman's arch, overly-intellectual style fits the first scenario more comfortably. The film also suffers a bit from a third act that ties things together a bit too neatly and without being 100% honest to the characters as we've gotten to know them; and in the spirit of "criticism is always inherently subjective", I'll admit that I'm a bit cooler to Stillman's conservative politics as they're put forth in Barcelona, a movie that is explicit about such politics, than in Metropolitan, which exists within a conservative framework but isn't making any specific arguments along those lines.

But enough of that, and on to Barcelona itself. Inspired by the writer-director's own experiences in the titular city, the film takes place "before the end of the Cold War", somewhere in the 1980s. It is about two American cousins: Ted (Taylor Nichols), who has been sent to Barcelona from Chicago by his company to work in their Spanish sales office, some good time before the movie begins, and Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Naval officer newly arrived in advance of the U.S. fleet, meant to do some public relations work to encourage the locals to believe that the arrival of a whole mess of U.S. naval ships is something they might want. And this is something Fred does not manage to do very well, given that his attempts at winning the hearts and minds of the locals who spout short-sighted, painfully false ideas of what goes on in the daily lives of Americans is to get haughty and angry, eventually convincing a newspaper writer that he's a CIA plant. Even Ted kind of dislikes Fred, owing in part to a long-ago falling out that happened when they were both 10-year-old boys, and owing in part to Fred's unannounced arrival to live in Ted's living room for an undisclosed length of time, borrow his civilian clothes, and steal his money. On the other hand, Ted longs for some American contact himself, and they are family...

I've laid out the scenario of Barcelona more than the plot, mostly because the plot as such simply isn't the most interesting part. What ends up happening is that both of the young men get snarled up in an increasingly confusing (to them, and to us) series of romantic mishaps, largely involving two friends named Montserrat (Tushka Bergen, a dead ringer for Heather Graham) and Marta (Mira Sorvino), intensified because of Ted's steadfast desire to both over-think and over-simplify every situation in his life, and because Fred is far more concerned with being thought interesting than being liked. It's fine stuff, and fits in nicely with Metropolitan's exploration of how the very, very articulate can easily ruin their own romantic lives by focusing on their thoughts about romance rather than on their feelings about romance, though it suffers a bit from all of the women in the cast being largely undeveloped.

Which is kind of a flaw, but not really, since developing the women or indeed the romantic subplots that give Barcelona its spine is of minimal interest to the film and to us. The heart and soul of the film lies in the relationship of the two men, and the disorientation they feel in a culture that has decided in advance of the evidence that they must be superficial, awful people. And it must be said, by reducing his focus to just two characters - though Ted is the narrator and receives more screentime, the film is otherwise pretty evenly balanced - Stillman manages to be far more precise in his character studies than he was in Metropolitan; though as with that film, he begins by focusing on the "type" that each man occupies (Ted is uncertain of himself, shy, and talky; Fred is brash, eager, and boyish), and then proceeding for the rest of the movie in feeling out the ways that they subvert the role that the film has provided for them. And as with Barcelona, Eigeman proves to be extravagantly good at doing this - Fred is already the more overtly dynamic character, and he begins the movie from a place of stronger definition than the deliberately blank Ted. The best moments and line readings are all Eigeman's - his slightly abashed confession to his superior officer that he can't wear civilian clothes in front of the military-hating Spanish population because he doesn't own any civilian clothes is easily my favorite single beat in the entire film - and while he's playing approximately the same character as Nick in Metropolitan, it's done so well in both cases that I don't want to complain. If only small '90s indies were like '40s studio-system pictures, we could even say that Eigeman had a star persona.

Anyway, after establishing these characters and having a lark with the way they speak, Stillman spends the back half of the movie trying very sincerely to expand upon his style, watching as these pointedly stiff, self-aware figures are batted by a real world that doesn't like them and that they can't control, and while the ultimate direction of the story continues to feel contrived and artificial even by Stillman's heightened standards, I admire the ambition of it. There is again, in all of this, a curious and pleasing tension between the filmmaker's awareness that his characters are in certain ways self-deluding and too anxious to separate themselves from life, and his very strong affection for them and forgiveness; even more than in Metropolitan, one senses that in part, Stillman likes these cousins because they are sort of alienating, broken people, not despite it. And that extends, I think, to the manner in which they do and do not stand in for the United States as a whole: while owning that his country is a bit arrogant and clueless, Stillman is still right in there defending its honor against the criticisms that he experienced himself in Barcelona before the end of the Cold War, the "wrong" criticisms of America instead of the "right" ones. It's never a political screed more than it is a character piece, not even as the characters get increasingly buried in politics; but on both the personal and national level Barcelona is saying the same thing - I get to poke fun because I am doing it out of love. If that leaves the movie with a certain America First-ness that I'm a little discomfited by, it's worth reiterating that the main thing here is love, and that even more than Metropolitan, Barcelona oozes affection for its subjects, and that carries it through even the weaker character moments and the more jarring shifts of narrative and tone.

15 April 2012

THE BRIGHT AND HAPPY CHRISTIANS

Since Ordet is all about the Big Questions, I don't see any reason not to lead off my review of it with Grand Statements all my own - though since the movie is anything but hyberbolic, I do so with a fair and appropriate degree of shame. First, it is the greatest movie about religion, which means something a little different here than faith or the lack of it (between them, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky have quite a lot of good things to say on that topic), or the nature of God (a subject that still hasn't quite received its proper cinematic treatment yet, though I think 2011's The Tree of Life comes as close as anything I've personally seen). Faith is, unquestionably, a major component of the film, but it is ultimately more concerned with how faith is executed by human beings sweating and stumbling through and hoping to find answers - Ordet is investigating how we believe, rather then why or if we believe. Second, it is the most demanding major film in the career of the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who is among the most demanding filmmakers ever to live, and while it is pleasingly light on symbolism and deliberate obfuscation, it still requires an intense amount of work to even start unpacking it: I've personally seen it three times now, and I'm nowhere near the point I'd like to be with it, but I'd rather write this before I turn 80, so...

The 1955 film was the second-to-last in Dreyer's career (his final work, Gertrud, came out nine years later), and it is the unmistakable product of a mature artist who was at that point as well-versed in how films are made as anyone else in the sound era; and yet he refuses all ownership or artistic claim over the picture, which has no closing credits and no opening credits but these:

"Kaj Munk
Ordet."

For it was based upon a 1932 play by Munk, a Lutheran pastor whose dramatic works retains considerable cachet in his native Denmark; he was assassinated by the Nazis in 1944 and is regarded as something like a national hero. What, if anything, Dreyer meant for his ideal audience to take from all this is beyond guessing, though I suppose we're meant to understand that he, as screenwriter and director, along with his uncredited cast and crew, were devoted rather more to the task of bring Munk's own ideas to the screen rather than put their own stamp on the material.

And, indeed, Ordet is on the most basic surface level quite a descriptive movie. The performances are, each and every one of them, excellent, and yet there's not any kind of showcased "acting" that makes it possible to make qualitative judgments of the "this person was better than that, while the third guy was Best in Show". Not because of any trumped-up realism - in fact, the film is undoubtedly arch and stylised - but at times it doesn't feel like what we're watching is acting at all, just the most perfect expression of the characters as written and conceived, the actors serving as vessels and conduits rather than artists of themselves. Most cinematic adaptations are, on some level, an analysis of their source material, and though I speak in the ignorance of having no firsthand experience of this or any other Munk play, Ordet doesn't really give that impression; like it's an embodiment of the piece rather than an interpretation.

As for what is described: it is a relatively simple scenario about a small community in 1925, where some degree of religious feuding would appear to have taken root. Virtually all of our time is spent in the main rooms of the Borgen farmhouse, the home of the proud patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), who claims at one point to have been the first man to establish a rich sense of (theoretically Lutheran) godliness among a population of former agnostics and heathens. Now widowed, Morten fathered three sons: Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), the eldest, has abandoned faith completely and adopts an agnostic stance apparently of the "God is dead" school rather than the "God never was" one; the middle child, Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), was a bright theology student driven to madness by the work of Søren Kierkegaard, and now patters about thinking himself to be Jesus Christ; the youngest, Anders (Cay Kristiansen), doesn't necessarily have strong religious convictions in any particular direction, given that he's presently courting Anne Petersen (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of the tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel), the community's leading proponent of a much severer, fundamentalist Christianity than the warm but doctrinally non-specific flavor of the Borgens. Morten and his three sons all live together, along with Mikkel's fiercely devout wife, Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), and their two daughters.

The film breaks neatly into two almost equal halves. In the first, the main topic is on Anders's love for Anne, with Morten initally railing against the match on religious grounds, and then immediately supporting it with all his passion when it becomes clear that Peter also opposes the pair on religious grounds. It's a pacey, quiet life study, in which the religious mores of the Borgens are mixed and contrasted within the family and against the community at large - there are irresistible, though entirely superficial resemblances to The Brothers Karamazov in all of this. Then, in the second half, the very pregnant Inger goes into a difficult labor, and I need to take a moment's pause: there's not much point in discussing Ordet without going on ahead and talking about the ending, but at the same time, it's not a movie in which knowing the ending actually changes it that much. Anyway, if you feel that way about spoilers, I'd stop here: rest assured that the movie is brilliant and worth your time, even if the phrase "the great movie about religion" doesn't sound interesting to you (I'm hardly in the cheering section for organised religion).

That being said: Inger loses the baby (Mikkel states with forced sternness in one of the finest line deliveries of the 1950s that Morten's first grandson is in four pieces in a bucket), and then dies. She is mourned; her death even brings together Peter and Morten. And then, Johannes, who has been missing for days, shows up with his mania completely cured, and asks his family with withering contempt why they didn't pray to God to restore Inger's life. Which he then does, and sure enough, the dead woman rises from her coffin on the very morning of her funeral, spiritually piercing and a masterstroke of filmmaking; it is the first moment in a film buzzing with subdued ambient noise (birds, clocks, creaking wood, breathing, talking) that is totally silent, and her rise itself takes place in the whitest shot in the entire picture

The simplicity of the plot I've just sketched out, which takes a bit over two hours to play out, goes hand-in-hand with such richness of philosophy, spirituality, and morality that one feature hardly seems enough to contain it. I imagine much of this is Dreyer's inheritance from Munk, for much of it is buried so far into the bones of the story that it's unimaginable to separate it into parts: there is, for example the conflict between the fundamentalists' fervent embrace of a dead Christ and the Borgens' more friendly, living religion, disdained by Peter as "bright, happy", despite the fact that the fundamentalists seem perpetually cheerier than the family does; this culminates of course in Inger's resurrection. And this is in direct response to Peter's glib but chilling suggestion that he'd be fine with Inger's death if it were part of God's plan to shake Morten into the "right" sort of religion; contrasting with mad Johannes's confusion that modern Christians seem far too concerned with the safely dead and gone 2000-year-old Jesus and can't stand the idea of a present Jesus in their daily reality. I could and would like to go on, but it's too easy to turn a review of the film into a laundry-list of themes that it does a very fine job explicating on its own.

And anyway, having established a false binary, I'd like to respond to myself, when I suggested that much of Ordet is Dreyer's attempt to present Munk's play as itself, and not his own spin on the material. In fact, Ordet in its cinematic form is so intimately tied to the visual language of film and Dreyer's particular approach to visual storytelling that the theatrical basis of it has been burned completely away, and without any obvious "opening up" - most of it does still take place in a small number of locations, and frequently we only see three walls in any given space, suggesting not so much a filmed play as a play in which the camera and thus the audience is right on stage interacting with the characters.

For the interaction of the camera and the characters is at the heart of Ordet. If Dreyer's best-known (and best) film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is his film "about" close-ups, Ordet is "about" camera movement, dolly shots and pans especially. If there is a characteristic "type" of shot in the movie, it is one that occurs at least four or five times, in which we are watching a situation play out, only to have the camera twist to the side to watch someone else respond, and then back to the first set-up, locking that character back out of the shot; it is exactly the sort of thing that is typically done in an insert shot and has been since the silent era. So why, then, would Dreyer and his cinematographer, Henning Bendtsen, do such a thing, which after all calls so much attention to itself? - for if editing is the "invisible art", then not editing, but including obvious and jarring camera moves, is the very opposite of invisible. And part of me imagines that Dreyer specifically wanted us to notice how he moves perspective in these moments, or in the dozens of other places where everything about a shot calls maximum attention to whatever the camera is doing, because he wants to comment on the nature of point-of-view. To remind us, that is, that we occupy a certain perspective relative to the characters and their beliefs, and that this perspective is mutable and to a certain extent beyond our control.

While I like that - the formation and alteration of belief/perspective is the innermost theme of the picture, and it is well to have it called out in the visuals - I think that this is at best a secondary effect. I do not recall who said it that the difference between a dolly shot and a zoom is that the zoom closes a physical space off to us while a dolly expands it, and that is true regardless of whether we're moving towards or away; this might seem pointless to mention in a film with no zooms, made before the right lenses for such zooms were even available, but the point remains that a physically active camera turns the flat space of a film screen into a dimensional space that we can occupy, and in Ordet this means that the Borgen house is "real" to us in a very substantial way. And even that's not quite it. What the movement of the camera is doing, more than anything, is supplying a particular kind of sinuous rhythm to to the environment we're watching - we read tracking shots in a special way, as being "fluid" more than other shots. It's not the case that they represent our own perception: look to your left, and then back. Did it feel like a camera pan? Only if you did it extremely slowly. It probably felt more like a cut.

So, lots of camera movement lead to a certain heightened, artificial, flowing feel; and these flowing, gliding movements in and out, back and forth, leave the whole of Ordet with a gentle waving motion to it, almost like the film itself is breathing, expanding and contracting. It is a film about life - life as opposed to death in the literal and metaphorical resurrections depicted; celebrating life in the form of the humane Lutheranism of the Borgens in contrast to celebrating death, suffering, and sacrifice that goes on in Petersen's clutch of fundamentalists - and the film itself feels a bit like a living thing, moving slowly and to rhythms that become familiar to us intuitively rather than because they are insisted upon or pointed out. If it is a philosophical masterpiece, that is in no small part because it is a cinematic machine of the tightest, smartest construction, in which every last shadow and every twitch to widen from a two-shot to a three-shot has been placed with precision to make us feel one specific thing in one specific moment, so that after the whole 126 minutes of it, we have not simply watched a movie but been taken in hand by a great hypnotist and carried from despair to bliss solely on his word that it should be so. And so it is. When Ordet ends, it is on one of the most uplifting final moments in the movies, a moment of grace on par with City Lights and maybe nothing else.