31 July 2012

AUGUST 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

And so we come to August, that magical month when the studios release all the movies they're only semi-proud of, the ones that still could break out but probably won't and aren't expected to; and after a summer that was not remotely as exciting in reality as it looked like it was going to be on paper (the frustratingly routine The Avengers and the clumsy and cluttered The Dark Knight Rises being only the headliners of a season that witnessed one of the smallest Pixar films ever, a criminally redundant Spider-Man picture, and whatever the hell Prometheus was - if not for the Soderbergh movie about male strippers, I'd be content to call the whole three-month period a complete wash). So a breakout film is more necessary now than in most years; though by the same token, we've had good luck with the last several Augusts, and hopefully buried in all of this somewhere will be another diamond in the rough.


3.8.2012

First up, we have a pair of rather minor attempts to counter the Batman juggernaut that didn't end up materialising the way it was supposed to: a remake of Total Recall that is probably going to be completely awful, but I've been stumping for it all summer, on the grounds that, what the hell, Colin Farrell is sometimes awesome, and it's pretty great to see a Philip K. Dick adaptation run with the aesthetic of Minority Report, assuming that's what's going on (the addled trailer makes it appear possible, but who can tell?); and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, and if I'm being honest, I find the Wimpy Kid franchise to be sufficiently simple and honest, as far as children's entertainment goes, that I don't think I'll even mind seeing it. Kids' movies that aren't nightmares of speed and fart jokes are always welcome, n'est-ce pas?


8.8.2012

You know what is TEH FUNNY? Old people being awkward about having sex! This is, near as I can tell, the sole perspective that shall be offered up by Hope Springs, which re-teams Meryl Streep with the director of The Devil Wears Prada, which is anyways better than another Phyllida Lloyd picture. Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carrell are on hand, because there's no obvious reason for them not to be. I'faith, I fairly enjoyed Prada, but not because of its direction, and the trailer makes this one look about as broad as a particularly desperate sitcom.


10.8.2012

I bet there are lots of people who aren't completely sick of anything to do with Zach Galifianakis, and I bet those people are going to have a grand time with The Campaign, teaming up with Will Ferrell in a political comedy that, something tells me, isn't going to have quite the bite or intelligence to qualify as a "satire". By the way, if you'd told me three years ago that there'd one day be a Ferrell/Galifianakis vehicle, and I'd be more enthusiastic to see what Ferrell was up to, I'd have said you were deranged.

I bet there are also lots of people whose affection for the Jason Bourne trilogy has absolutely nothing to do with either Matt Damon or Paul Greengrass, and for those exorbitatntly odd souls, we've got The Bourne Legacy, starring Jeremy Renner as an even Bournier spy than Bourne. Confession time: I am not feeling Jeremy Renner as an action star, or any kind of actor at all, really; after blowing the doors off of The Hurt Locker, I'm still waiting for him to do much of anything besides exist in a movie. But Tony Gilroy writes and directs, and that is anyway a good reason to hold out some hope.


15.8.2012

Disney has a family fantasy: The Odd Life of Timothy Green, in which a childless couple accidentally creates a magical son by wishing. I'll confess to not being entirely certain who is meant to be the target audience here: can kids actually be expected to care about two parents with a plant boy? I guess if I could answer that question, I'd be a Disney exec.


17.8.2012

If there is a film this month that ends up really being worthwhile, my money is on ParaNorman, the next feature from Laika Entertainment, the studio behind the wonderful Coraline, though not, crucially, the same director. It appears to be long on atmosphere and short on a compelling narrative, but stop-motion animation is a treasure no matter how it comes along, and if the quality is nearlyt what it was with Coraline, it will be among the most visually appealling cartoons of the year, hands-down.

With that taking care of the family audiences, there's also one for the boys and one for the women: The Expendables 2 for the former, a ridiculous idea if you ask me (but you didn't), given that the "every action star ever" gimmick that was the single purpose of The Expendables was, after all, a gimmick, and there's no obvious reason to care about it again. For the ladies, Sparkle, a movie about a girl group that seeks to make Jordin Sparks a movie star, and gives Whitney Houston her unexpected swan song.

If you live in one of the only two cities that matter, New York and Los Angeles, this is the week you get to take a peek at David Cronenberg's latest, Cosmopolis, you lucky asshole.


22.8.2012

So Dax Shepard still exists, apparently, and to prove it, he's headlining action comedy Hit & Run, if anybody out there cares.


24.8.2012

A pair of the most Augusty movies you could ask for, though one of them only got here by being pushed: that would be Premium Rush, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt fights crime on a bike, and I pray to God there's more to it than meets the eye, because he is a better actor than that. Second: The Apparition, the first genuine horror movie in months, in which ghosts exist because experimenters are stupid.


29.8.2012

Every Wednesday but the first of the month has a wide release film opening. Is that weird? It feels weird to me. The last of these is Lawless, the latest from the great Australian stylist John Hillcoat, about moonshiners during Prohibition in the U.S., and there was a time in its life when it had the infinitely better title The Wettest County in the World. Still, Hillcoat has done only right be me - though The Road could have been a lot more right - and I'm at least confident it will be worth watching, if not an instant-classic like The Proposition was, in my eyes anyway.


31.8.2012

There's the end of summer for you: months without horror, and then two right in a row. The Possession (I just realised how similar the two titles are) gives off a distinct The Unborn vibe to me, and that is a feverishly terribly vibe for any horror movie to find itself stuck with, but maybe we'll get lucky. It was produced by Sam Raimi after all and he... has never produced a good horror movie that he didn't direct as well. Move along.

30 July 2012

STEP AWAY

Someone would have to be an abject moron to be "disappointed" by Step Up Revolution, which is after all the fourth film in the Step Up franchise, and which thus is pretty much exactly the movie it's supposed to be. I think it's awfully grown-up of me to openly confess in a public forum that I am that abject moron.

The problem is Step Up 3D - or, no the problem is never Step Up 3D, the problem is that Revolution cannot begin to live up to the gaudy, campy, tacky spectacle that Step Up 3D promised. Part of this is simply the inevitable progression of time, as the New becomes familiar and its novelty fades away. In 2010, a 3-D dance movie was something different; in 2012, there is no kind of 3-D movie that is different enough to be worth the bother. The bigger thing is that Step Up 3D was completely, apocalyptically shameless: even now, five years into the new wave of 3-D movies, I cannot name any movie using the gimmick that is so excited about playing with it in the crassest way possible, and no moment that typifies the most idiotic, spectacle-driven approach to 3-D better than the scene in that film where the bland male lead dribbles a slushee over a subway exhaust vent, and the little globules of little green sugar water go flying right out into the audience. It is, verily, one of the defining moments of contemporary cinema: pointless, stupid, driven entirely by a dumb trick, reeks of the assumption that the audience is a pack of small children who need the most frivolous form of entertainment. I adore it so; it is honest in a way that very little in modern American film is willing to be.

There's absolutely nothing in Revolution so sublimely gauche as that; the 3-D is relatively well-used, sure, and movement of the human body gets a certain extra level of meaning when it happens in multiple dimensions, though the film is lucky that there's no obvious overlap in the audiences for a Step Up film and Wim Wenders's Pina, which is basically the smarter, more artistic, and far more successful version of the same idea. But well-used 3-D, and excitingly tacky, dense 3-D are hardly the same thing, and surely Wenders was never going to have theme park trickery in his movie; that is what we rely on shitty programmers like this for. And it has not fulfilled its duty.

In a franchise light on continuity, this is the most isolated Step Up yet (its only connection to the others is a very small cameo by Adam Sevani as Moose, the teeth-grindingly annoying character first introduces in Step Up 2 The Streets). The plot involves a Miami-based performance art group calling itself The Mob - it is the first sign of epically screenwriter Amanda Brody fails to understand everything about her subject matter that she imagines something as blandly functional and obvious as "The Mob" would be the chosen name of any performance art group - which uses flash mobs to perform their combinations of breakdancing and street art. The Mob's leader is a certain Sean (Ryan Guzman), who works as a waiter at the Miami signature hotel of a real estate magnate named Anderson (Peter Gallagher), whose rebellious daughter, Emily (Kathryn McCormick) wants to be a professional dancer. Naturally, then, she and Sean have a meet cute and she ends up joining The Mob as a learning experience that quickly becomes more when Anderson announces a plan to turn the waterfront slum where Sean and his family and friends all live into a resort complex; it is the most natural idea in the world for The Mob to switch gears from performance art to protest art, to shame Anderson and his company into leaving their way of life alone.

There are two ways we could look at this: as a story of two pretty young people falling in love and dancing, or as a political message movie about the need to tame rampant corporate growth, using art as a tool to fight the powerful. The first of these - the "it's a Step Up movie" approach - is the only sane way to go, because it is, after all, a Step Up movie. Besides, as a work of political analysis and as an attempt to depict culture, Revolution is an unmitigated, nonstop failure: setting aside the question of whether abstract dancing can actually function as an effective protest the way it's shown to do here (of course not, though it's nice to play pretend), it seems profoundly unlikely that people this cash-strapped could mount dances as complex as the ones we see here, Brody's understanding of "flash mobs" seems to begin and end with the name, and it takes several days if not weeks for a nationally-significant viral video to hit 10 million views. It is contemptibly divorced from human social or political behavior in every way. Let us leave it at that.

And so we have a romantic dance movie, a Step Up picture: and even here, Revolution is very probably the worst of the four, though not by a huge margin and "the worst Step Up movie" is not anyway a very meaningful statement one way or another. Still, there we are: the choreography is awfully straightforward and even then, poorly framed by director Scott Speer, the two leads are the worst dancers in the bunch (which is probably why the choreography is straightforward), and they are unbelievably terrible actors: Guzman is "better" than McCormick, which is largely just a way of saying that he acts like a leaden, unconvincing amateur, while she is genuinely alienating in her shrill, caffeinated gesticulating.It's a stridently uninteresting movie, not bad enough to be funny, not shameless enough to be amusing, and certainly not good enough to be a decent time-waster. It's boring pretty people talking about how much better they are at dancing than is actually the case, unattractively filmed, with no 3-D, nothing like enough intelligence to put over its too-ambitious plot, and simply put, no actual reason to exist whatsoever.

4/10

29 July 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: DANCE! DANCE! REVOLUTION!

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Step Up Revolution is a film about dancing and, nominally, revolutions, set in a town noted for its strong Cuban cultural influence. It is also a sequel that absolutely nobody was actually demanding. Taking all that together, one clear choice for this week's entry was really just about inevitable, though I'll admit the fact that I've been sitting on that post title since before I even had a blog helped seal the deal.

The existence of 2004's Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights - which, let's be absolutely straight here, should obviously been titled Dirty Dancing: Havana Time of My Life - is befuddling in every possible way. There is, firstly, the question of what it "is", because what it isn't covers a lot of ground: it's not a sequel to the iconic 1987 romantic-dramatic-musical Dirty Dancing, for it takes place five years earlier (1958 vs. 1963); but lacking a single shared character or setting, it's not properly speaking a prequel either. Though there are certain similarities in the central conflict, they are no greater than between either film and dozens of others, and character names are all different, so it's not remake worthy of the name. The brand name would be a lot more useful if Havana Nights did more to capitalise on that brand name. Deep down inside, there's not actually anything connecting the films besides the presence of "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" in the underscore - not the actual song, I want to point out as urgently as I can, just the tune used instrumentally - and the presence of Patrick Swayze playing a nameless character in Havana Nights who cannot possibly be held to be the same person as his character in the original film; that both the "Time of My Life" and Swayze cameos take place practically at the same time only serves to underline one's sense that, whatever Havana Nights was trying to be, a serious part of the Dirty Dancing franchise was not it.

Of course, there's an obvious answer, that old favorite chestnut of studio execs more excited by a bottom line than a drop of artistic credibility, "Brand Recognition." But since Havana Nights begins by claiming that it is based on real events, and since the only real event I could find in the movie was the Cuban Revolution (it's oh-so-vaguely inspired by the life of one of the co-producers, but that's far too extraordinary a claim to make for that reason), I am forced to conclude that the filmmakers felt compelled to reassure their target audience that events such as this could actually happen in life. And if Havana Nights doesn't trust its viewership enough to know about the Cuban Revolution, I'm not willing to allow that it trusts the same viewers to remember a 17-year-old movie.

Anyway, regardless of what the hell it is or why, Havana Nights is a movie that got made, and I'm now reviewing it. I certainly don't have to review it. I frankly don't want to review it. But I sunk 86 minutes of my life into watching it, and now I'm going to force it on all of you. In 1958, as previously discussed, 17-year-old Katey Miller (Romola Garai) arrives in Cuba with her parents (Sela Ward and John Slattery), and younger sister (Mika Boorem), on the event of her father being relocated to that country by his employers at Ford Motor Company. This being the heady days of Batista, when the country was doing everything it could to re-fashion itself as a playground for rich Americans. That fact sat poorly with a large enough segment of the poor Cuban population to stir up a popular movement to depose Batista, and this is the sort of thing happening here and there and everywhere when the Millers show up. But none of them care very much until Katey has a meet-cute with a waiter, Javier Suarez (Diego Luna, who undoubtedly got the job on account of his previous teenybopper dance movie, Y tu mamá también), whose family is in deep with the the anti-Batista, pro-Castro rebels.

Point in fact, none of them care very much even after this point, because from here, Katey - having successfully avoided the rapey advances of James Phelps (Jonathan Jackson), the unendurably square douchebox preferred by her mother - falls altogether in love with Javier, who is anyway not that interested in La Revolución one way or the other, and together they join up to win a dance contest that is, unluckily, held on the propitious night of 31 December, 1958. There's a whole lot of love story, and quite a bit of Cuban-ish music that tries to strike a balance between period-appropriate, and hip-hoppy enough to sell copies of the soundtracks to the teenagers of 2004, and it is largely successful, if by "successful" you mean, "you can tell that it's supposed to be Cuban". There is not a whole lot of historical context, just shots of sad poor people that are vague enough that only the most rampant of Fox News talking heads could get away with calling the film pro-Communist (a word actively avoided through the whole feature; Castro himself is only name-dropped once or twice), with a deeply unpersuasive scene near the end that demonstrates the filmmakers were at least aware that some people in America regard the Cuban Revolution as an ultimately negative thing, though it doesn't immediately seem that they know enough about it to have formed their own opinion one way or the other. This isn't by any stretch of the imagination a film about the revolution; it is a film that the revolution sort of happens at, because it is necessary to separate the young lovers, and the script unfortunately makes Katey's mom too understanding and forgiving much too soon, leaving Katey resoundingly free of being put in any corners.

Thunderously unnecessary Cuban Revolution subplot aside (a statement that could not ever be applied to any decent movie), Havana Nights writes itself, pretty much. This is a generic template that was old when Dirty Dancing used it, and screenwriters Boaz Yakin and Victoria Arch have more sense than to dick around with it, though I'll confess to be surprised that the Miller parents found out about their daughter's Latin fever at the semi-finals, not the actual finals, and that there was never anything resembling a "You can't dance with him!" / "Yes I can!" conflict to sweep us into the final act. Need to make more room for the "revolution" scenes, I wager; also, I suppose the difference between 1987 and 2004 is that it wasn't as okay to depict teenage girls as waifs controlled by their parents, and thus Katey had to be able to say "this is how things are, so there, the end", in order to give viewers an appropriate role model, and because that's exactly how this would have played out in the actual 1950s.

Where any film made to such a standardised model gets to distinguish itself is in the particulars, and on these, Havana Nights falls infinitely short of its predecessor: Luna isn't the worst imaginable replacement for Swayze, though his round babyish features are of an entirely different order than Swayze's carved '80s stud looks, and he's a better actor, but this is the only way in which Havana Nights distinguishes itself whatsoever. Garai is a damp rag of fizzled charisma and personality, who often seems right on the verge of slipping clear off the screen, certainly not any kind of strong protagonist that it's easy to root for, particularly since she seems to get everything so damn easy. And the dancing of the title... well, it is dirty all right, but there's not much more. Comparing the two movies is a fun experiment in looking at how movies were shot in the '80s versus the '00s, with particular emphasis on how much more fluid editing used to be, and how now it is used in the crudest and most obvious ways to disguise when movie stars cannot e.g. dance. The Cuban flavor that would seem to have been the only actual reason to make this movie in the first place barely registers; partially, of course, because New Puerto Rico cannot truly stand in for Old Cuba, but mostly because director Guy Ferland has not the slightest imagination about presenting a sense of place instead of just setting up the plot and kicking through it. This is a blessing, in a way, since his context- and atmosphere-free style means that we get through the movie pretty effectively in less than an hour and a half, and given how blank these characters are, the less time wasted with them the better. On the other hand, it robs Havana Nights of its one potential saving grace: some remote sense of what nights in Havana actually were, and how they were in any meaningful way different from every dance club in America. This, alas, was somewhat more ethnographic realism that the movie was interested in pursuing, and all we get in its place is a horribly routine star-crossed romance job with none of the spunk or humanity that made its oh-so-better forebear a generational classic.

BOND AND GAGGED

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN
Directed by Guy Hamilton
Written by Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz
Premiered 19 December, 1974

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
The third and (unless I have forgotten something important) final opening sequence in a Bond movie that does not feature Bond himself, though a cameo is put in by a statue of Roger Moore's Agent 007, threateningly pointing a gun at nobody in particular, and anybody who holds that this meets the definition of an appearance by James Bond is not to be trusted on this or any other matters.

What it has, instead, is a certain man who, before we see his face or hear his name, is introduced to us as the owner of a third nipple, somewhat up on his left pectoral. I would say that this becomes important, later, but in fact it doesn't: it's merely a convenient way to identify somebody that we've already identified by the time we learn of his particular identifying mark. But I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to keep you in the same suspense that the movie does: this is Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), and what we need to know about him right now is that he lives in an island paradise with a sexy brunette (Maud Adams), and a very short, ethnically ambiguous manservant named Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize). He's also the owner of a fucking crazy funhouse-cum-deathtrap into which he has just been deposited along with a '20s-style gangster (Marc Lawrence). After a little bit of parsing out the uncut whatthefuckery of whatever the hell we're watching - it involves neon-colored skeletons, a grim mechanical parody of the Old West that suggests what Disneyland's Frontierland must be like on peyote, and Nick Nack shouting nonsensical insults over a loudspeaker, we figure out that this is Scaramanga's training ground, where he imports the deadliest killers from around the globe to keep him sharp.

I don't think I can sufficiently impress upon the viewer who has not seen the movie, just how goddamn weird this sequence is: as if, half a decade after the '60s has limped to a close, Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman heard some mangled rumor about "psychedelia", and decided to incorporate it into their Bond movie, with spectacularly incompetent results. On the other hand, it's absolutely not like anything else in any Bond movie, and that sort of thing goes a long way with me; it's also the most immediately disorienting and arrestingly strange opener to any film in the series, and that goes a long way with me, too. Let's call it an even draw.

pretitle_3
Rating: 3 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
A ghastly, caterwauling nightmare. In later years, pop singer Lulu (better known in the UK and Europe than elsewhere in the world, where she is primarily if not exclusively remembered for "To Sir, with Love") would admit that she was not the right person to sing the John Barry/Don Black title song "The Man with the Golden Gun", which found her trying too hard to do a really poor Shirley Bassey impersonation. My hat is off to Lulu for the openness of that confession; the problem is that it still leaves us with her take on "TMWTGG", which is really quite meritless altogether. If it's not the general inanity of the lyrics, enough to make "Thunderball" look positively respectable ("One golden shot means another poor victim / Has come to a glittering end"), it's the profoundly dumb - by Bond theme standards - sexual innuendo ("His eye may be on you or me / Who will he bang? / We shall see"). And if neither one of those does it for you, there's also the way that the title is stuck into a melodic line too long for it, obliging it to be sung as "the man with the golden guh-huh-un!"

Lulu, poor thing, could not do anything about these problems, which are endemic to the way the song was written. On the other hand, she also sings every note like a 10-year-old girl who has heard about orgasms but has not the slightest idea what they're actually like. And she certainly could have done something about that.

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Rating: 1 Shirley Bassey


TITLE SEQUENCE
I have to hand it to Maurice Binder: with the motif of "silhouettes of naked girls dancing" having been locked down pretty intractably since Thunderball, it was in The Man with the Golden Gun that the designer finally did something interesting and motivated with that motif above and beyond the fairly surface-level interest of "Look, it's naked girls in silhouette! If you squint hard enough, boys, you might see a nipple!" For the first time, the flow of images tends to mirror the development of the song in a fairly specific way: the first verses, are accompanied by a dramatic succession of images distorted through water, the slowdown in the middle is matched with a more reflective, sexy passage that does an infinitely better job than the contemptible sophomoric lyrics of communicating the idea that the titular man's golden gun is an extension of (and replacement for) his phallus, and the return to the more raucous concluding verses kicks in with one of the absolute best shots in any Bond title sequence: a silhouetted woman gyrating in front of a yellow explosion from a Roman candle in front of a red backdrop.

It is, to my mind, the first really, honest-to-God beautiful credits sequence since From Russia with Love, eleven years prior (and the most erotic of the first nine Bond pictures), with the single genuine problem - and it is a serious one - being that it has to share space with the execrable theme song.

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Rating: 4 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
MI6 has received an alarming piece of mail: a golden bullet with 007's number etched onto it. This can only mean that the infamous, KGB-trained independent killer-for-hire Scaramanga, the legendary man with the golden gun (a sign of his affluence and elegance; more importantly, it is a way to kill opponents with one shot in multiplayer mode, making it supremely useful in addition to looking super-cool. GoldenEye 007 4-ever), has a contract to assassinate James Bond (Moore), leaving M (Bernard Lee) to demand the secret agent take himself off duty and hole up someplace safe, and certainly not pursue Scaramanga through secret channels, wink.

Bond tracks Scaramanga as far as his golden bullet supplier in Macau, and from there manages to trap Scaramanga's lover and henchwoman, Andrea Anders, the brunette from the first scene, in Hong Kong. Anders proves shockingly immune to a Bondian sexing-up, but does spill the beans that Scaramanga can be found at the Bottoms Up Club. Which is technically true, but this only muddies the waters: for as it turns out, 007 wasn't the killer's target at all; instead, Scaramanga puts a bullet in the head of a missing energy scientist, working on a super-efficient solar panel that might stave off the worldwide energy crisis just starting to form.

Just as happened in Live and Let Die, Bond has learned too much too quickly, and so we need to settle in for a long chunk of movie where nothing really happens: Bond travels to Thailand, pretending to be Scaramanga, to meet Bangkok businessman Hai Fat (Richard Loo), who put out the contract on the scientist, but Scaramanga got there first, and there's some business with the solar power MacGuffin, and Scaramanga killing Anders, while Bond, Hong Kong secret agent Hip (Oh Soon-Tek), and MI6's liaison officer in Hong Kong, Miss Goodnight (Britt Ekland) - her given name is Mary, but it's never identified as such in the movie - fiddle about, and Bond eventually has to join forces with a vacationing Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James) to chase Goodnight, kidnapped by Scaramanga and Nick Nack.

Eventually, the story returns from its extended bathroom break, and we join Bond as he follows Scaramanga to a small island off the coast of China, where it turns out that this whole "kill the energy scientist and steal his amazing solar panel" business was all to construct a not-very-impressive laser, because Scaramanga collects symbolic penises. The most depressing part about this unfocused, low-stakes, and generally pointless mission is that it's still an improvement over Ian Fleming's novel, which had only reached its first draft at the author's death, and was published in its raw state. At least the movie feels finished, though a finished version of what, I cannot say.

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Rating: 2 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Christopher Lee as a James Bond villain was one of those things that simply couldn't miss, and indeed did not miss (as opposed to Christopher Walken as a James Bond villain, one of those things that couldn't miss and did anyway). The actor - cousin of Ian Fleming and one of the author's own picks to play 007 himself - does not stretch all that far out of his comfort zone, but he doesn't need to in order to land squarely where the script wants him to be: as the dark counterpart to James Bond, a sophisticated, intelligent, highly efficient killer with no discernible moral code. And this is played out explicitly in what is absolutely, incontestably the film's greatest moment, a luncheon where Scaramanga entertains Bond prior to challenging him to a duel to the death, in which Lee plays the assassin's delight at meeting his one match in the whole world somewhere as a cross between a child on Christmas morning and a starstruck fan the moment they actually get to sit down in the same room as the biggest movie star in the world. The absolutely giddy enthusiasm of the moment, coupled inextricably with Scaramanga's happy chatter about how either he or his guest is about to end up dead, is shocking, and captivating, and it does a great deal to redeem a movie that has been badly slipping in the preceding hour; if The Man with the Golden Gun is mostly a better movie than a worse one (and I think, perhaps in despite of the evidence, that it is), it's primarily due to Lee's performance and this scene in particular.

That said, it takes more than an extraordinary actor to make a great Bond villain; it takes a strong plot and great threat, and a laser that doesn't apparently threaten anything beyond Scaramanga's hidden island fortress is, I'm sorry, really damn lame. Off comes a point.

By the way, I hope you don't enjoy these captivating, exciting, top-notch Bond villains, because its going to be a long time before we see another one.

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Rating: 4 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Oh, Miss Mary Goodnight. How I hate you, so very, deeply, aggressively fucking much. She is not, I am afraid, the worst Bond Girl we'll come across before we reach the end of our little retrospective - while her name is kind of dumb and a little bit of a pun, at least it's not a holiday used to set up a testicle-crushingly awful joke - but there is not one single thing about her that works in any way. Even on the most basic, prurient level of "Bond Girl as sex object", I don't find Britt Ekland to be nearly as sexy nor as pretty as Maud Adams; she has oddly-set eyes.

As the first female field operative in the whole franchise, you'd think it would be incumbent upon Goodnight to be extra-competent and together, to reflect honorably on Her Majesty's government; this is not the case. Indeed, part of me thinks that it might be a deliberate attempt to defang a character who otherwise might have been too strong to need rescuing (because what kind of Bond Girl doesn't need rescuing?) that led the filmmakers to make Goodnight just so damn dumb; dumb in a way that would be unbecoming of a Hooter's waitress, let alone a woman in Goodnight's position. There might be no moment more ham-fisted than when she tries to plant a homing device in Scaramanga's car, and basically just stands there bent waaaaay over his trunk, taking about three hours to finish the job, as though even she realises that she has no actual function in the movie besides getting kidnapped to motivate the last third of the story. Or, subsequently, when she practically brags to Bond over walkie-talkie that she has the keys to his car with her, in the trunk. Or at the end, when she snatches defeat out of the jaws of victory by leaning her comely ass onto a button that might as well be labeled "PRESS TO RUIN EVERYTHING." And just in case you were able, through some Herculean effort, to find her appealing or sympathetic on any level as a character or a human being, Ekland's performance is one scene after another of a blissed-out, semi-articulate look of cheerful confusion, with every line delivery, regardless of its content, coming across as, "Wha? La la la. Spying, whee!"

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Rating: 1 White Bikini


THE HENCHMAN
Nick Nack, I must say, presents one with a conundrum: he is such a fucking cartoon on the one hand (he's basically the exact same character Villechaize would later play on TV's Fantasy Island - not a flattering comparison), and yet the diminutive actor has such strangely magnetic screen presence on the other. The one thing you cannot possibly say about Nick Nack is that he's not memorable; and given Villechaize's hungry, devilish way of grinning at times that you'd really prefer not to see a gun-wielding midget grin, I have always believed that the character is genuinely dangerous and frightening in a way that many of the more celebrated Bond henchmen fail to be entirely. And yet, there's still something horribly crass about the way that the film keeps playing the "Wowzers, a killer midget! Goodness gracious!" card. It's hard to say whether he works in the film or not, though I know that I would never want to have him plucked out of it.

I would almost certainly have given him a net positive score, in fact, if not for the godawful final scene where he fights Bond, feeling uncommonly like the slapstick fight between Ash and the small Ash clones in Army of Darkness, and it's too ridiculous and embarrassing for words.

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Rating: 2.5 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Maud Adams holds the extraordinary distinction of being the only woman to have sex with James Bond as two different characters in two different Eon Productions films, and as she is the official, actual Bond Girl - and the title character! - the second time she showed up, that performance very much overshadows her work as Andrea Anders; and yet I think it's very much the case that if she hadn't done such excellent work holding the screen with such a thankless role (though not abnormally thankless by the standards of the Dead First Girl), she would never have gotten that record-setting invitation to come back. Admittedly, the fact that her competition is the terrifyingly wretched Goodnight makes Adams's work a whole lot easier, for one could hardly be a poor enough actress not to steal focus from Britt Ekland's performance in this movie. But Adams clears that dismaying low bar and dominates every inch of her scenes:in her first encounter with Bond, she's vulnerable enough, and clearly scared enough by the spy, to do something almost unheard of in the Bond franchise: she actually pulls our sympathy away from the spy, revealing him to be the cold, nasty thug that always manages to seem charming, and never more so than in Moore's incarnation. Moore, bless him, plays along, but Adams sets the tone and forces him to give one of the best moments of acting in his entire career as Bond. Then, when she gets to the inevitable moment that she caves in and has sex with Bond, Adams injects enough nervous, flirty energy that it doesn't read like a complete reversal of personality (plus, her arrival forces Bond to shove Goodnight in a closet, putting me deeply in her debt). A slightly more dynamic part to play in the feature as a whole, and she'd be one of the all-time greats.

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Rating: 4 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The fact is, we're going to have to get used to a lot of low scores in this category as long as we remain in Mr. Moore's company. He's simply not a physical Bond; and that results in things like fewer actual fight scenes and more chases and stunts (as I've mentioned), with the fight scenes we do get turning out like his random stay in a karate dojo: slow-moving, blandly edited and choreographed, and not that tactile. Meanwhile, The Man with the Golden Gun also sports one of the saddest car chases in action movie history: two vehicles that are never clearly defined in relationship to each other moving at city-safe speeds, until eventually Bond gets on a straight, empty road and drives for a few minutes without seeing his quarry.

The good, such as it is: there is one hell of a cool car stunt, in which an AMC Hornet drives up a twisting ramp and performs a flawless 360-degree spiral before landing, and you'd have to lack anything resembling a soul not to be excited by it. On the other hand, no soullessness is required to be very saddened by its treatment in the film, where it is quite badly ruined by a comic sound cue, put in by the ordinarily sharp John Barry on what I can only imagine was the worst day of his entire life.

There's also a relatively engaging cat-and-mouse chase between Scaramanga and Bond, made rather more exciting because we're not entirely sure who's the cat, and who's the mouse; also made rather less exciting because the bizarre funhouse where it takes place is so eagerly nonlinear that it's pretty much impossible to tell where the two men are relative to one another, until Bond shoots Scaramanga in a terribly curt anti-climax.

Fuckin' hell, Roger Moore. Why'd you gotta go and be in your 40s when they cast you?

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Rating: 1.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
None to speak of. We are told that Goodnight has a homing beacon in one of her dress buttons, but as gadgets go, that's weak sauce. The only other candidate is an attachment that straps on to the top of Scaramanga's car, giving it the functionality of a plane. The fact that it's not even a car that turns into a plane robs it of the idiot charm that accompanies e.g. Bond's Lotus Esprit transforming into a submarine, but it does permit a darling exchange that finds Bernard Lee and Desmond Llewelyn (who is back in top form after spending the last film regrettably off screen) getting a rare chance to play off of one another:

M: "So if I heard correctly, Scaramanga got away."
Bond: "Yes, sir."
M: "In a car that sprouted wings".
Q: "Oh, that's perfectly feasible, sir. As a matter of fact, we're working on one now-"
M:" Oh Q, shut up."

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Rating: 1.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
Well, he's no Ken Adam, but you know what? Production designer Peter Murton actually does a pretty fine job with a movie that sits uncomfortably on the line between the "let's use sets that look as sedate and real as we can" theme of Live and Let Die (a realist impulse that would thankfully die immediately following this movie), and the celebration of gaudy excess that the franchise had been intermittenly prior to this and would wholly embrace afterwards. There are really just two main locations where he gets to show off, of which the more prominent is unquestionably Scaramanga's hideout, with its ridiculous mirror maze and robot gunslingers on loan from Westworld. Setting aside the question of why, exactly, such a location needs to be in a James Bond movie (and thereby avoiding the embarrassing answer, "it doesn't"), I appreciate the subdued, minimalist approach Murton takes; just garish enough to be flavorful, but restrained enough to stay away from the territory carved out by the hallucinatory 1967 Casino Royale.

Anyway, I am personally much fonder of the brief appearance of the faked interior of the capsized RMS Queen Elizabeth, where M has relocated his office for the extent of this mission; the interior of the ship is at a heavy angle, with the furnishings wedged in to be upright as much as possible, with the result of a funhouse-style environment just as warped as Scaramanga's playground, but grounded in day-to-day realism - and never remarked on by any character - that makes it a good deal funnier and more memorable, to me.

Scaramanga also has a big industrial space that gets points for being incredibly big - one of the important characteristics of any proper Bond villain's lair - but doesn't otherwise look particularly different than any big metal room in any '70s thriller with sci-fi overtones.


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Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Impressively dense, limited as it is to just one scene: but holy crap, what a scene! It's the lunch that Scaramanga makes to entertain Bond, and in just a few minutes of sitting at a monumentally enviable glass table - even with the bubble-headed Goodnight in between them, ruining everything - the two killers demonstrate more class and good taste per line of dialogue than anywhere else in the whole franchise. It is so classy that I want to curl up and die with it, and while I naturally have to dock it points for being such a minute fraction of a movie that otherwise does not offer much in the way of over-the-top elegance (in particular, Bond wears some really terrible clothes throughout), if the whole movie had been like that, it would have been so unbearably lush that there'd be no point in ever watching any other Bond movie.

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Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
There are two!

1) 007 casually introduces himself to a belly dancer as he slips in, unannounced, to her dressing room.
Forced or Badass? Not really either, but since I've set up this dichotomy, I guess I have to go with Forced, since it's way the hell too laconic to be badass.

2) Bond, pretending to be Scaramanga, tells Hai Fat that Bond is on their trail.
Forced or Badass? It's pretty darn badass that Bond so causally tells a known villain that he's just one step behind, counting on misdirection to carry the day. That he's already been found out is largely beside the point.


BEST QUIP
BOND: "Who'd want to put a contract on me?"
M: "Jealous husbands. Outraged chefs. Humiliated tailors. The list is endless!"


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
The Man with the Golden Gun, out of all the Bond pictures, the one that gives me the hardest time in forming my opinion. I have a certain horrid up-and-down relationship with it: the first time I ever saw it, I pretty much hated it, and then the second time I saw it, expecting to hate it, I actually found it quite delightful and had no clue why I thought otherwise, and the third time, expecting to like it, I thought it was simply awful, and so on (this might be an appropriate time to point out that I've seen all of the pre-Brosnan Bond films at least four or five times each). It's entirely possible that this erratic response to what is not, by any means, a particularly distinguished or significant entry in its franchise is a sign of some awful failing on my part as a critic and a viewer, though I like to to myself the honor of coming up with a slightly more forgiving explanation: unlike most of the Bond movies, where good elements or bad elements tend to congregate to form generally good or generally bad movies overall, TMWTGG is perhaps the most inconsistent of all James Bond pictures, with some outstanding moments and sequences sitting quite blithely next to absolute rancidity; hell, some moments combine the sublime and the ridiculous in one gross little paradox, like that car jump: one of the most complicated and impressive stunts ever portrayed in a Bond movie, and yet it's scored with a God-be-damned slide whistle.

That pretty much describes the movie in a nutshell: plenty of things that work really well, until something comes along and wrecks it. Moore's performance, which is considerably more comfortable than his role debut in Live and Let Die, includes some of the best moments he'd ever play: pretty much everything with Andrea Anders, as I mentioned, striking the perfect balance between charming gentleman and government-endorsed savage (hell, I'd go so far as to call it one of the great moments in anybody's performance of Bond). And then there are moments when Moore doesn't even try to be professional enough to pretend that he has any interest in playing the comic beats with Goodnight being a completely useless idiot clown, or to mask his utter contempt for the J.W. Pepper scenes.

Which is fair, because in a wildly uneven movie, the Pepper material is by far the worst stuff. He at least fit into the world of Live and Let Die in some extremely broad, theoretical way; but forcing the redneck caricature to take an arbitrary trip to Thailand so that he can spout almost nonstop racist invective against the locals - his very first line is, "God damn! Little brown water hogs!", and it's downhill from there - is a sign of creative dementia. Allegedly, it was solely at the request of director Guy Hamilton that Pepper was included at all; and if there was no other reason to be grateful that Hamilton would cease directing Bond movies after this, his third go-round, that would do it for me.

As it is, Hamilton was probably a poor choice for TMWTGG. His treatment of Goldfinger way back in the day was inspired; a light, playful touch for a newer, breezier James Bond adventure. But Goldfinger had Sean Connery's far more sardonic, cold Bond to anchor it; given how much less serious than that Moore was in all but his most deadly serious moments, his films required a firmer touch to keep them on the ground. Hamilton didn't provide that in Live and Let Die, but that film was blighted from the ground up; he certainly doesn't provide it here, and the result is a movie that spends far too much of its energy being dumb, which is a very different prospect than later Moore films, which would frequently be very silly and insubstantial, but not even the abhorrent Moonraker would be, pound-for-pound, so colossally stupid as TMWTGG is during the Pepper sequences, or when the soundtrack gets bogged down with wacky sound effects, or anytime Britt Ekland moves her face muscles.

At some point, I think I mentioned that I liked the film, and the hell of it is that I do. Except when I don't. Part of me wants to hand-wave this all away as a learning curve movie, still trying to figure out what to do with Bond in the 1970s, still feeling out this new, very different James Bond that Moore played, but that only takes you so far, and it does to remember that From Russia with Love was just the second Connery movie. The good news is that the next film would find the Moore era figure itself out, for better or for worse (a great many people would say for worse), and at the very least the movies become more internally consistent from that point on. Leaving us with The Man with the Golden Gun, a movie of many conflicting impulses and identities, and surely the downright sloppiest movie in the James Bond franchise.

NB: this was the last Bond film for two of the series' most important contributors: producer Harry Saltzman, who was having personal problems as well as professional disagreements with Broccoli, and voice-artist par excellence Nikki van der Zyl. Let us pause to recognise the important things the both brought to the table, and note that they will be missed.

OVERALL SCORE
31/60

27 July 2012

CATWOMAN HISTORY

The much-maligned 2004 summer flop Catwoman, despite its reputation as being totally valueless, actually serves an extremely important function: it provides an easy answer to the question of what is the absolute worst superhero movie adapted from a DC or Marvel title in the 21st Century, thus keeping many bar fights between cinephiles from getting too much out of hand, and also providing a safety net for every person who ever directs a superhero movie for the rest of time: "Well, that completely sucked, but it was no Catwoman".

The idea for a feature film centered around DC's charismatic action girl anti-hero hed been around at least since the mid-1990s, when Michelle Pfeiffer declined to revisit the role she so brilliantly essayed in 1992's Batman Returns; from that moment, a Catwoman picture existed in many different vague forms, with many different connections to the comic book character, to the Pfeiffer creation, or some entirely new figure with the name and approximate history of one or both; the final judgment is that the eventual Catwoman we have is credited with story by Theresa Rebeck and John Brancato & Michael Ferris, and screenplay by Brancato & Ferris and John Rogers, but who really can say? It has the feeling of one of those movies that came into being because nobody wanted to be the one to stop it, and can no more be blamed on one writer or another than it can be blamed on the movements of the stars in the sky. I'll tell you who we can blame, though: who we can blame like a motherfucker, is the director Pitof, a visual effects artist (he worked on multiple Jean-Pierre Jeunet films) who was born Jean-Christophe Comar, and was able to direct three whole movies before they made him stop: shockingly, Catwoman is the second, meaning that a) he already, presumably, knew what he was doing, and b) somebody looked at Catwoman and said, "Okay, we'll give this man some of our money to make a picture".

There is not, I want to be completely clear, a good movie inside the Catwoman script that was filmed. But there was at least a way to mitigate it, and Pitof did not do that; instead, he found a way to make a film that was already doomed even worse. This movie isn't just bad, it's mean: bad in such systemic ways that even the smallest measure of joy you might otherwise get from it in bits and pieces are strangled by the bare hands of hectic action that can only be followed in a theoretical way, some of the worst CGI in any major comic book movie of the 2000s (there is a CGI housecat that will haunt my nightmares till I die, probably of cat-related suicide) and performances that run over the top and then right of the cliff. It is kind of exciting, really, how brutally overclocked this movie is, how paced like a jackhammer operated by a meth addict. If an action can possibly be stretched out over six disjointed shots, then by God, Pitof and crew found a way to make it take ten. There is a scene that takes place in a nightclub; it's thus a given that it is thus scored with a screaming techno throb that dives into your cerebral cortex and starts taking a mallet to the tenderest parts of your skull, but even worse, it has been lit with a crazy, actively disorienting strobe light effect that actively dislikes even the idea of continuity or fluid motion, turning the movie into several pinpricks of human writhting divorced of even the context of the human body. It's like a Euro-trash Sprite commercial.

Catwoman follows the lead of Batman Returns, in presenting us with a Catwoman who isn't just a savvy jewel thief (and, sometimes, ex-prostitute) who dresses as an animal because that's how you do in Gotham City (which may or may not be where the current film takes place - it isn't said), but a mousy secretary who gets the holy shit killed out of her after she discovers that her corrupt boss has a terrible plan to ruin everybody's lives for money, and is thereafter resurrected by the life energies of many cats, to become something of a feline spirit living in a human soul. In Catwoman, we find that neither Selina Kyle of the earlier movie (briefly glimpsed in a photograph in one shot), nor this film's Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is by any means the "first" or "real" Catwoman, but that Catwomanhood is a privilege stretching back to the days of pharaonic Egypt, and all Catwomans are simply avatars of the true Catwoman present in all women who want to be strong and free; it's kind of like the idea behind the post-Alan Moore version of Swamp Thing applied to Catwoman, so at least it all stays within the DC fold.

Patience-Catwoman's particular job is as art director for a major cosmetics company, Hedare, and her corrupt bosses are George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), a husband-and-wife team on the outs since he is having an affair with the new dumb model face of the company, right after ousting his wife from her 15-year tenure as primary model. This is all right on the eve of the introduction of their new product, Beau-Line (which is pronounced at least three ways by different people over the course of the film), an age-reversing cream with a nasty side-effect: use it too long, and your skin becomes addicted, and if you stop using it, you turn into a melty-skin zombie sort of looking creature; use it for even longer and your skin becomes like granite. Patience is killed for finding this out by accident; as Catwoman, she fights to keep Beau-Line off the market, but is framed for the murders of Hedare scientist Slavicky (Peter Wingfield), and then of George Hedare himself, since it turns out, contrary to what we're initially led to believe that George himself was just a puppet in the hands of the evil, image-obsessed, beautiful and granite-skinned Laurel, a twist that undoubtedly shocked the three people in 2004 who saw this without knowing anything whatsoever about Sharon Stone.

I can't stress how awful this feels when you're watching it: the idea was very obviously that since Catwoman is a girl hero, they better make a movie about girl stuff; hey, girls like make-up, so let's make her a crusader for safer make-up. This is the same reason that when they decided to make a girl version of the He-Man toy line in the '80s, they included hairbrushes and changeable outfits, and made She-Ra a princess instead of a barbarian warrior. Yes, Catwoman is always, pointedly, a female-issues superhero, but usually this involves things like mauling rapists, not having dazzlingly ill-structed fight scenes with evil beauty supply executives. Supergirl was more authentically feminist than this. If nothing else, it serves as a harsh reminder that just because a film passes the Bechdel Test, that doesn't automatically mean it's empowering to anybody who watches it, particularly when it puts Berry in such a tiny outfit that seems so likely to fall off entirely if the wind switches, or if she breathes too quickly.

Honestly, I have to be thankful for that; if not for the colossal absence of tact with which Pitof's camera ogles Berry, there would be absolutely nothing pleasurable about Catwoman whatsoever. Not its criminally musty, stupid plot; not its whirlwind of cartoon performances, which for the men range from "cartoon Euro sleaze" to "nobly constipated", and for the women range from "slutty" to "sluttily evil"; not its leaden Klaus Badelt score, which drones on and on without ever providing a single memorable note; not its terribly overwrought action pieced together in the idea that as long as there are enough cuts with enough titanic crashes on the soundtrack (at one point, a shirt falls off a hanger with that *kshing!* noise that movie samurai swords make when you pull them out of the scabbard), you will think that it is exciting and riveting instead of clumsy. I think that, in the particular case of Catwoman, nobody has ever thought that. This is about as much fun as slamming your own face with a frying pan, and at least as far removed from anything published by DC Comics.

25 July 2012

BATMANIMATION HISTORY

Batman, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight of Gotham City, true identity of the callow playboy and son of privilege Bruce Wayne, has been around since May, 1939, when he appeared in a brief story in Detective Comics #27, and in that time he has had many iterations in the pages of DC Comics magazines and elsewhere; in television and movies, we have had campy Batmans and nihilistic Batmans; dark, moody Batmans and cheeky, dumb Batmans; childish Batmans and self-serious grown-up Batmans. But the best Batman we've ever had, bar none, was an animated Batman. And while I do not at present have the time or space to do full justice to this last and greatest Batman, I would still like to share with you, just briefly, his story.

After the 1989 Tim Burton-directed Batman feature become one of the biggest Zeitgeist hits of its generation, it was a no-brainer for Warner Bros. to continue developing the character, popular and beloved now far beyond even the broadest scope of the comic-reading audience. What is perhaps startling, is that one of these directions came when some of the staff of Warner's afternoon cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures (a weaker attempt at the same basic idea - "Looney Tunes for the 1990s" - that would later result in the magnificent Animaniacs) hit upon the idea of, in effect, "Why not an animated Batman?" And so it is that TTA animator Bruce W. Timm and background painter Eric Radomski took to developing a show unlike anything that had ever been seen in American animation, backed up by TTA producer Tom Ruegger; what they produced, though influences by the Burton film (and using its iconic "Batman Theme" to sterling effect in the opening title sequence), is equally indebted to the 1940 Fleischer Superman cartoons, to various bits and pieces from Batman's history throughout the first 50 years of his existence, and to a fever dream idea of what civic architecture of the 1930s could look like if the designers weren't actually constrained by physics. The result was Batman: The Animated Series, formally known simply as Batman, which ran for 85 episodes across two production seasons, and begat a decade-and-a-half long intertwining collection of animated series based on DC superhero comics largely overseen by Timm and fellow producer Paul Dini, collectively called the DC Animated Universe, or DCAU to we who love it so; its combination of graphic ingenuity, terrifyingly perfect voice-casting, and a commitment to episodic storytelling far more like the actual stuff of comic books than a feature film could ever conceivably manage make it readily the most faithful adaptation of Batman, Superman, and their cohorts that we're ever likely to see; meanwhile, the creators' belief that nuanced, sophisticated storytelling for adults and more thoughtful children could comfortable reside inside an afternoon cartoon show (I cannot begin to stress how radical this idea was in 1992, when the more adult strains of anime were still just a rumor and there were effectively zero American animated productions that weren't aimed at the broadest possible family audience) means that the DCAU stories are usually more psychologically insightful and dramatically engaging than any live-action superhero feature has yet achieved.

I wish we could talk about the DCAU for ever and always; but with fourteen years and eight distinct series to account for, this is simply not the place for it. Instead, we shall home in on a single early example of the form, the first feature produced starring the animated Batman, back when he was still the only inhabitant of the DCAU. This was Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, initially planned to be the first direct-to-video film in the franchise, but ultimately given an expanded budget and a small theatrical release in December, 1993. It was produced after the initial run of 65 episodes that represent the animated Batman in its purest, darkest, most un-Robin'd form, and though it is a mere 76-minute slip of a thing, it is among the boldest and most ambitious stories ever attempted in its franchise, and it is as acute, and compelling, and (this part is important if you're a fanboy) satisfyingly Batmanny as any of the Batman features, if not moreso. By which I of course mean, it is moreso.

Mask of the Phantasm starts off pretty well, by doing something that not nearly enough superhero movies bother to do: it assumes we know why we're watching it. Not in the sense that it expects the viewer to have a working knowledge of the show, as the 1966, TV-derived Batman did; the only knowledge this film requires is that you know, in broad terms, who the following people are:

-Bruce Wayne/Batman
-Alfred Pennyworth
-The Joker

And let's be honest, anyone who goes into a movie with Batman in the title and starts asking questions like, "Who is that white-faced man with green hair? He's like a clown, but evil. I don't get it!" deserves exactly what they get.

Beyond that, the film is massively self-contained: the two most important characters in the movie after Batman himself are one-off inventions, and it presents a narrative conflict that begins and ends entirely within the span of the film's 76 minutes. It solves the problem of every origin story movie before or since in the only way it needs to be solved: by putting a famous superhero into a plot, and watching him get out of it. Revolutionary stuff; much more daring than e.g. two different origin stories for Spider-Man in the span of ten years.

And not just self-contained, it's also quite possibly the most solid, concise, meaningful story of any Batman feature, as well as being one of the best stories told in the DCAU. In brief: a new vigilante dressed like the Grim Reaper with a metal mask is killing some of Gotham City's most prominent gangsters, and Batman (Kevin Conroy, as good in the role as any actor has been; of course, he had lots of practice) is taking the blame, thanks to overzealous, bat-hating city councilman Arthur Reeves (Hart Bochner). Shortly after this spree begins, a woman named Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) returns to Gotham after years away: she just so happens to be the ex-flame of a certain Bruce Wayne and the current paramour of Arthur Reeves, and the daughter of the reclusive businessman Carl Beaumont (Stacy Keach), who had some strange connection to the dead gangsters way back in the time that Bruce and Andrea were dating.Let us not spoil the plot, but also mention that you don't need to be all that imaginative to figure out where this is going pretty much from the second it starts; doesn't matter. If anything, it makes the whole thing that much deeper, because being as we thus are ahead of Batman almost the whole time, his actions in the movie become far more tragic and sympathetic than they'd be otherwise.

What's surprising about the film - what makes it so much stronger than most Batman vehicles - is that this plot involving the Phantasm (who is not ever named) and the story of Young Bruce in Love aren't just complimentary, they're effectively the same story. Mask of the Phantasm is about Bruce Wayne above all else, and about how the new case he finds himself working on stirs up old memories; and this is what makes the film "big" enough to be a feature, that as a result of Bruce's reminiscing, we are made privy to Batman's origin story, kind of. Wait, didn't I just say the movie wasn't an origin story? Well, it isn't. It is the story of how a man who loved and lost was broken by it, and while the flashbacks give us new insight into Bruce's character, this is not an origin in any remotely traditional sense. The flashbacks themselves are more about character psychology than plot; one of the best and most harrowing sequences in the movie (and high in the running for one of my favorite moments in Conroy's performance of the character ever) is when a younger Bruce kneels at his parents' grave, horrified that he feels happiness in his relationship with Andrea and is thus abandoning his promise to their memory, that he would never stop suffering in order to bring justice to the world. Irrespective of being in a flashback or not, it's one of the best moments in expressing just how messed up Bruce's inner mind has become that has ever been portrayed in any medium. The purpose of the Phantasm plot isn't simply to create a new villain for the hero to fight, but to trigger the set of events that cause a much older and more-established Batman to revisit the way he felt at that moment, or the moment that he proposed to Andrea, or the moment that she dumped him with a note. The film is an exploration of Bruce Wayne's lonely soul, not an action movie with some character psychology incidentally spackled on it; this is the genius of the animated Batman at its peak, that it should be so much more about character than incident, so effectively. In a format, I hasten to add, that was being sold almost entirely to children, thanks to marketing pressure, though the adults who needed to see the show were largely able to find it.

I suppose it's not a perfect film: the animation isn't quite up to the absolute best work in the show itself (a hurried production schedule likely accounts for that, with the character animation of the wildly-gesticulating Arthur an obvious low point. And perhaps it's simply the case that the limited animation of the show works better in smaller chunks. Of course, the design remains the same - so-called "Dark Deco", a fusion of '30s style, film noir atmosphere, and a very '80s sense of widespread urban decay - and the series' ingenious trick of drawing backgrounds on dark paper rather than light paper, giving everything more texture and subtlety in its gradations of black, has not been tampered with. But I'll confess to being a little put off by the overall "farmed out to a Korean studio" feeling to much of the action in a way that doesn't happen all that often with the show at its height.

And there's also the rather calculating insertion of the Joker (Mark Hamill, whose take on the character is as definitive as Conroy's Batman), not in a way that feels forced - all things considered, it's amazing how easily he slides into this scenario, and the brief flashbacks to a pre-Joker Joker do a fantastic job of giving the character a history without telling us what the history actually is - but the mere fact that he's here smacks of somebody losing their nerve: all well and good to create a story totally independent of Batman's traditional rogues gallery, but eh, just in case....

But, thing is, it's still a superlative Batman story told with style and flair and so much more ambition than a cash-in movie made on the cheap ought to have; Timm and Radomski use the expanded possibilities of theatrical distribution well (genuinely unsettling death scenes, more complex action scenes), creating a movie that is exciting as it is intelligent and atmospheric; a fun and troubling superhero movie by turns, in all the best ways of its parent series and the iconic character that spawned them both. All that in an hour and a quarter of technically unexceptional animation made for $6 million and barely released. Good Lord, if it's that easy to get it right, why don't have more films just like it?

BEST SHOT: THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS

In the winding-down period of the third season of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, our host Nathaniel R has gotten somewhat stuck in a rather nice place: notoriously good-looking movies that don't have signature shots so much as a continuous stretch of awfully pretty things to look at. Two weeks ago, it was the almost pointlessly beautiful Road to Perdition, last week the candy-colored underground queer fantasia Pink Narcissus, now it's The Royal Tenenbaums, the third feature made by Wes Anderson, one of the most visually precise directors currently working in American cinema.

And not just that, it's possibly the most perfect Wes Anderson film, aesthetically: the first two being much looser and less-controlled, the next two being so accurate and deliberate as to be choked and suffocating. Leaving us with a movie in which nearly every single shot is visually linked to the whole, which in turn makes it tricky to pick just one as the "best".

This is a film that I have mostly committed to memory, or at any rate, as soon as its name came up in the schedule, I immediately jumped to around 15 images that were going to be on my shortlist, but one of those obviously suggested itself as the clear choice, given what I wanted to say about the film's narrative and themes. The problem was that this shot was also, perhaps, one of the most prominent shots from the entire film (hint: a fire truck figures into it), and after picking what was, in retrospect, an exceedingly obvious shot from Road to Perdition, I didn't want to go there a second time so soon. So what follows is, in honesty, my second-favorite shot, but it does what I need it to do, and that's all that matters.

If you haven't seen it (and you probably should), the film is about the Tenenbaum family, which produced three great children in the 1970s and has since decayed, particular with the paterfamilias Royal Tenenbaum (Gene Hackman) having largely evaporated from the lives of all his relatives. The bulk of the plot concerns Royal's attempts to lie his way back into the family, and that brings me to my shot, which occurs during a musical montage (this being a Wes Anderson film, a significant percentage of shots take place during a musical montage), in which Royal is taking his two grandsons out to have fun in New York, far from their domineering father.I present three frames demonstrating roughly the full span of this shot's duration.




I would first draw your attention to the marvelous use of depth: Royal foregrounded, and the third generation Tenenbaums in the middle and far distance. But that, while nice, is not why I picked the shot.

As I see it, two important things are going on, the more important of which is that this shot - and the other shots in the same montage - represent just about the first influx of unbridled joy into the movie; it is the moment at which Royal ceases to be on the outside of his family and starts to work his way back in, bringing with him a spirit of playfulness and happiness to combat the strained emotional disconnect the Tenenbaums have suffered from all these years. And this tone is helped along considerably by the use of Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" on the soundtrack, but even just as three stills, you can see in Hackman's expressions and posture how pleased he is in this moment.

The other, and more important thing, which is only somewhat obvious from these frames, I fear, is that this shot, like the others in the montage but to a greater degree, breaks from Anderson's tightly controlled visual style: if nothing else, the composition is heavily imbalanced to the right, a rarity in a directorial career dominated by centered compositions. What you cannot tell here is that this shot is handheld, and tracking backwards at a tremendous speed, meaning that it's rather loose and jittery; and part of the reason I included all three of those stills was to show how the lighting changes over the course of the shot, culminating with Hackman being blown right out in my last frame.

It is, all in all, an exceedingly "messy", untamed shot - for an Anderson film, of course, we're not in Dardennes territory or anything like that - and I take it to be the director's admission that his immaculate style is, when all is said and done, a cage: it traps the characters in rigidly defined roles and places, and in the case of the Tenenbaums, this is clearly a bad thing. Royal promises to shake-up his grandsons in this sequence, but he shakes up the film as well: introducing a brief spasm of off-the-cuff filmmaking that briefly interrupts the precision of the overall style for just long enough that the characters can get out of their ruts and start to better themselves. In a film that will always stand as the great argument that Anderson is more than just an over-fussy stylist, this moment is one of the great proofs that he knows exactly what he's doing and why.

24 July 2012

HOLY BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY, BATMAN!

Barring a pair of 1940s serials that are largely forgotten today except by the most rabid completists, the theatrical debut of DC Comics' Batman, the second most important and arguably the most popular of all the superheroes in that company's stable was the 1966 film titled simply Batman, written by Lorenz Semple, Jr., directed by Leslie H. Martinson, and - most importantly - produced by William Dozier. It is thus, from a certain point of view, the first step on a road that would lead to a very different Batman in 1989, on the way to the modern day with The Dark Knight Rises and on into the future; but the'66 Batman was not such a simple matter as "let's make a Batman movie", as though it was just a matter of doing something with the character. In fact, its production is a rather odd little snarl of business propositions, nothing so horrid as the decade the '89 film spent in development hell, but certainly a more confusing mess than you'd think to look at the finished result.

Our story begins with Dozier (told you he'd be important), ex-husband of Joan Fontaine and co-founder of her production company, former Paramount writing executive, and man with a plan: still carrying the memory of those self-same Batman serials around, two decades on, he wanted to bring the Caped Crusader to America's television screens. To this end, he conceived a motion picture to serve both as re-introduction to the character, and de facto pilot for the show; but he couldn't get the studio, 20th Century Fox, to commit to that kind of financial risk (in the mid-1960s, after all, unlike the 1980s or 1940s, there had been absolutely no superhero stories told outside of the comic book pages for quite a long time). What Fox would consider was throwing their weight behind the television show Dozier had in mind all along, knowing that the network - ABC, in this case - would pitch some money in themselves. And so, early in 1966, the first of three seasons of Batman premiered, and Dozier's long-term goal was realised before his short-term goal to get that long-term goal done.Thing was, the TV Batman proved to be a huge instant success, meaning Fox was now onboard with making a movie, only with much more ambition behind it: not "here are Batman and Robin", but "here is the Batman and Robin you watch twice a week, every week, bigger and better and more expensive than ever before". So Dozier was now able to make a much bigger project, using the expanded budget to introduce bigger sets and better props which would be worked back into the show for its second season. And the movie itself suddenly had to have bigger and bolder stakes.

That is to say, the first-ever feature film incarnation of the Dark Knight wasn't necessarily a Big Deal, so much as a TV spinoff. Which spoils things a little bit. The weirdness isn't done, though: flash-forward over 40 years, and a nest of stupidly complicated rights issues have kept the TV show from ever having a home video release, or any legal presence on the internet, making the film the only real access the modern viewer has to the Dozier-produced iteration of the character, particularly since the series, once ubiquitous in syndication, isn't so very easy to find on television nowadays. Meaning that a young person in 2012 looking to explore the history of Batman in all media has to make do with a film that, no longer meant as a "here's our concept and characters" introduction, was very much intended to be enjoyed by the fans of the show who already knew exactly what to expect.

With such a convoluted history, you'd expect Batman to be maybe a bit more than what it is: 105 minutes of frivolous campy adventure, tinged with just as much serious crime-fighting drama as its paunchy star could handle. That star being, of course, the legendary Adam West, the only TV star of the 1960s more breathy in his line deliveries and deliberate in... his wildly over-dramatic... pauses than William... Shatner. That alone tells us pretty much everything we need to know about his version of the character, both on TV and film, but for the unintiated, I should clarify: Dozier's Batman was essentially a parody, poking fun at the old serials by increasing all their stupidest elemetns (most notably, Batman's tendency to survive enemy deathtraps largely by blind luck and/or jumping out of cars at the very! last! minute!), while also rather more gently mocking the tone of what we'd now call the Silver Age of comics; indeed, this Batman is not so much a satire of the version then residing on the pages of DC comic books, as a reasonable extension of his absurd adventures to the point that they were more amusing than exciting. Which was not a very far extension.

Really, then, the '66 Batman is a rational feature film for its comic book era just as much as the '89 Batman is a movie for the post-Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen era of super-dark, brooding comic books. It's also one of the only superhero movies ever made, at any period, that captures the manically bright look of four-color comic books (the 1978 Superman gestures weakly in this direction, as do its sequels; the 2002 Spider-Man makes a good show of it), which is probably the most significant cinematic reason to still be interested in it today.

The plot, heightened from the TV show because after all, you need to give the audience a reason to march off to the theater, involves no fewer than four supervillains all planning to work their designs on Gotham City: the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and the Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, taking over for Julie Newmar, who'd scheduled herself out of the production) are planning to steal an amazing invention and use it to hold the world hostage, though how exactly they plan to do this will only be revealed in time. Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) are always a step behind the four master criminals, but close enough that they decide to throw him off the scent by disguising Catwoman as a Russian journalist named Miss Kitka, and having her seduce and kidnap Gotham's most prominent citizen - none other than Batman's own alter-ego, millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne.

I do not know if the movie was ever chopped into four parts and aired as part of the TV show, but it is spectacularly obvious that the intention was that it could be; or maybe Semple, who'd written several episodes of the show, just as Martinson had directed two, could only think of the characters in 26-minute chunks. What is the case, though, is that exactly at the quarter-marks, there is a "cliffhanger" moment, and the focus of the plot shifts considerably. It is, basically, four episodes of a show that already told its stories in two-episode chunks, and doubling that length was at least one episode too many: the last quarter of the film loses a lot of steam and includes very few top-notch gags. But this is of no real matter.

The greater problem, perhaps, is that the film is just not as good as the show had been; about as good as the weaker second season (and I understand that the third season is weaker still, though if I've seen any third-season episodes, it was so long ago that I have no conscious memory of them - certainly, I cannot call to mind Yvonne Craig's Batgirl. Though I do remember an Earth Kitt Catwoman episode, so basically, I have no idea), but a lot of the inspiration was gone. There are at least two jokes in the film that are as good as anything the franchise produced: a manifestly rubber shark tied to West's leg, fended off through the application of some "shark-repellent Bat-spray"; and a sequence of Batman, carrying a large cartoon bomb around, finding increasingly silly obstacles that keep him from disposing of it (I will not give away the punchline in service to those who have not seen it).

But for all that there are a great many funny grace notes - indeed, the film is never less than awfully funny for a 1960s pop culture parody, and its rampant absurdity transcends era - the spark isn't there; for example, the ridiculously convoluted solutions to the Riddler's puzzles aren't so warped, the villains' quipping falls flat, and the Joker has virtually nothing of use to do (he is very much the odd man out in the overstuffed plot, included less because he is as vitally important to the narrative as the Penguin or Catwoman, than because he is the most popular Bat-villain). The fight scenes, with their famous "Pow! Whiff! Thwack!" titles, suffer from what I assume was a bold choice at the time, to include the titles as graphics over the action, rather than as cards interrupting the action; it takes away some of the pop-art energy.

It's also with this film that the last lingering respect paid to Batman as a resourceful crime fighter, never exactly the focus of the show, but present throughout the first season, has been wiped clean: he is now more of a straight-man to wacky situations, over-the-top bad guys, and easily-wowed allies, than a superhero of any sort. Of course, the point of this version of Batman was never that he's terribly compelling as Batman; but the series' campiness was always best when it was treated seriously - when that was, in fact, part of the joke - and the transition from comic adventure to comedy was not a flawless one.

So many problems with a movie that I consistently enjoy watching! The fact is, for better or for worse, Batman, the movie, is the best and most available way we have to enjoy Adam West's take on the character and all that went with it, and even if it is a compromised version of the TV show, it's far, far better than nothing. The surprisingly smart parody, the bright colors, the deliciously self-amused performances of the villains (it's still Meredith's voice I hear when I read any story with the Penguin in it) - all that has carried over, in a diluted form, sure, but when the biggest problem with the movie is that it's not as good as a show that has largely been kept vaulted... at that point, you're not really criticising, but complaining. And I do not want to complain about a Batman that presents a vision of the character just as complete as Tim Burton's or Christopher Nolan's, and perversely, the Batman movie that spends the largest portion of its running time devoted to Batman - not to the villains, not to popcorn-level psychological insight, not to production design, not to anything but the sight of a hugely competent crime fighter getting in there and saving the day. That right there has to be worth something, silliness or not.

HUSH... HUSH, SWEET PUPPY

Hype is a great leveler: it can ruin a giant studio tentpole or an indie film so tiny it barely exists with equal measure. I start this way, because in the span of just about 18 hours, I saw two movies that, by every fair measure, I "liked"; and for both of them, I had such gigantic expectations that merely "liking" them, feeling entirely good about the experience I'd just had, and feeling like I could guiltlessly recommend them to anybody who asked, was a crushing disappointment. One of these was the powerhouse The Dark Knight Rises, one of the most massive pictures of 2012; the other was the microscopic, hugely-praised Beasts of the Southern Wild. They are as close to perfect polar opposites as two films could be, except that I, personally, feel almost exactly the same way about both of them: totally satisfied and utterly let down.

The film is set in a small Louisiana bayou community separated from what most of us would think of as the niceties of civilization, and depicts the aftermath of a great storm on the people who live there; it was directed by Benh Zeitlin, who co-wrote the script with Lucy Alibar from her play Juicy and Delicious, who between them are in possession of quite a lot of privileged white background (Zeitlin is a Wesleyan graduate; the two met at a New York playwriting camp), and this roused my suspicions pretty good before seeing the movie, but as it turns out this matters almost not at all. There is not a trace of wide-eyed ethnographic Othering involved; wherever Zeitlin and Alibar got their information from as to what the lives of rural dwellers so removed from material trappings that there isn't even a context for calling them "poor" would be like, but Beasts is dripping with authenticity, or with the feeling of authenticity, anyway, which is practically as good.

Our story, which freely melds observational realism, actual history, and fantasy, takes place on an island community calling itself the Bathtub, and here we encounter a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis). Like most children of that age, her ability to comprehend reality around her is still half-formed at best, and when a storm that probably isn't Hurricane Katrina but certainly doesn't mind reminding us of Hurricane Katrina decimates the Bathtub, she manages to get it inside here head that it has something to do with the release of giant prehistoric pig-like creatures called aurochs, who are coming to overrun her home and destroy everything. Not that it takes prehistoric beasts to threaten Hushppy's delicate life, for even before the storm comes in (the 93-minute film neatly cleaves into thirds: pre-storm, post-storm, outside of the Bathtub), something terrible is happening that she barely notices, in that her father Wink (Dwight Henry), has just been diagnosed with a disease that will remain undisclosed for quite a while; her mother is already gone, and we never do quite find out where to. Meaning that Hushpuppy's life is under siege from all sorts of directions, and the child will have to learn very quickly how to cope on her own, though the hard life of the Bathtub and her father's lovingly harsh instruction on survivalism give her a good leg up in that regard.

I must first say this for Zeitlin, a new director who won the Cannes Camera d'Or for his efforts: Beasts is a shatteringly fleet motion picture, and even now, reflecting on just how much is stuffed into not such a very long running time, I have to count myself hugely impressed by his immaculate control of pacing and timing. When it became clear that we were in the endgame, i actually checked the time, positive that it couldn't possibly be more than 50 minutes or so into the film (it was 70), and I don't know what better praise there can be for how easy it is to watch a movie than that.

Secondly, while his game of casting non-actors to fill basically all of the roles in the film is at least somewhat ineffective (the bulk of the Bathtub's inhabitants drift to the wrong side of the line dividing colorful local color from wacky ciphers), in Wallis and Henry, he found two immeasurably wonderful amateurs, whose ability to sink into their characters and the relationship between them is absolutely the single strongest element in the movie's favor. I am not going to jump on the bandwagon screaming that Wallis gives an amazing, career-starting performance, and she should win all the awards for it - I don't know if it's fair to say that a child of her age can even approach "acting" as a discipline in any meaningful way - but she is managed by her director with great finesse, while also possessing a profound natural screen presence that makes her just plain captivating to watch. Whatever combination of acting, directing, and serendipity went into creating Hushpuppy, the unassailable fact remains that Hushpuppy, in her current state, is a remarkable film creation, and the way the film uses her POV and Malickian narration (for example, when we see the aurochs) while allowing us to be more grown-up and aware than she is would be a real achievement for a much more established filmmaker than Zeitlin. Her growth into greater wisdom and self-reliance is fascinating, sensitively portrayed, and if that's all there was to the movie, it would be every bit the masterpiece that we've been hearing about for all these months.

Unfortunately, there are two out-and-out film-destroying problems - the fact that the movie recovers from either of them demonstrates how much it gets right, and that it recovers from both is all the proof we need that Zeitlin has catapulted to the top ranks of Young Filmmakers to Watch. But there are still two film-destroying problems, and that's just that. The first of these is a crazily awful third act, that swings the action from the now-evacuated Bathtub to a FEMA center, and the writers try to indulge in some political commentary that is, frankly, just embarrassing to behold; the "theme" starts running at a breakneck pace for a Noble Savages motif, that we're automatically supposed to get that the Bathtubbers get it and the bureaucrats don't because of, like, connection to nature and a simpler way of life. Even that would be tolerable, in its way, except that the movie so quickly scoots right back onto another plot, that it ends up not mattering in the slightest that they ever went there, and it becomes wildly obvious that Zeitlin and Alibar have, between them, not actually thought much at all about post-disaster bureaucracy one way or the other, they just figured it would be a good note to strike. Weirdly, it was the sequence out of the whole film that tapped into the "we're children of white privilege" vibe that I was afraid would be omnipresent.

The other problem, and by far the worse, is that Zeitlin and cinematographer Ben Richardson, use handheld cameras almost without exception, and not just handheld cameras, but the particularly jittery, "hey look, it's an earthquake!" shaky handheld cameras that have angered so many people in so many action films and found footage horror movies. It is an atrocious choice, that's not only gross on its own, and undoes all the lovely location photography that might be damn nice if it would stand still for two seconds, it is exactly contrary to what this story needs - for the only value of this kind of shakycam is that it adds a presumptive realism to the onscreen happenings, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is not terribly "realistic"; the effect of Hushpuppy's narration already puts us in a more ethereal, fairytale sort of realm, and the shakycam is a crude violation of that. The film is cheap, and shortcuts must be taken, but this kind of camerawork smacks of outright laziness, and there isn't a single scene where it doesn't distract from the many lovely things the film gets right.

It's a fucking shame: there's so much good happening in the movie, and I want so to love it. The acting, the scene-setting, the sweeping music (by Zeitlin and Dan Romer), the sense of being in a truly new place, a very rare sensation in the movies indeed. But that handheld camera, I swear. It doesn't wreck the movie absolutely, but it single-handedly makes it a vaguely irritating, alienating experience, and if there is an actual masterpiece in here, and not just a promising first start, it has been mangled beyond recognition.

7/10