30 August 2012

SEPTEMBER 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

We've got one more release date in August left, I know, but just for a junky horror movie, so let's hit fast-forward and take a peek at the year's wobbly transitional month, when the crap genre films that wouldn't fit in summer meet and mingle with the crap prestige films that aren't actually good enough for the real fast and furious part of Awards Season. Okay, that's not fair, and one of this month's prestige movies actually looks very prestigey indeed. But you get my point: September has, over the years, become another dumping ground. So let's sack up and dig in.

2.9.2012

Terrence Malick's sixth feature, To the Wonder, opens at Venice. Nobody knows whether this means it opens anywhere else in 2012. But it will officially exist, and that is all that matters.


7.9.2012

And here's the very model of a crappy wannabe Oscar drama The Words, with Bradley Cooper as a struggling writer confronted with a moral choice. At some point, I hold out hope that our culture's Bradley Cooper Moment will be over, but I am aware that it is not going to be soon.


14.9.2012

I don't like the word "limited". As in, The Master is in limited release as of today; but how limited? Less limited, I imagine, than the one-night-only 70mm projection that happened in Chicago a couple weeks back, when I wasn't looking. And will not be repeated until sometime in the winter of 2013, it is said. So even though it's the first film entirely shot on that gloriously wide format since the 1990s, I, for one, will not get to see it that way for months yet, which is a real pisser. And I don't even love Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, not really, but golly, was I excited for this one in 70. Bah. Still ought to be a highlight of a dodgy month.

How dodgy? Resident Evil 5 in 3D dodgy. I still haven't seen Resident Evil 4, and I fear this is the time to fix that.

The arguably less desperate & transparently mercenary use of 3-D this weekend comes in the re-release of a cartoon, Pixar's great Finding Nemo, and of all their movies, this is the one that wants it the most, so I, for one, am hugely excited.

Finally: Nic Cage wanted his own Taken, and they're calling it Stolen.


21.9.2012

The surest sign that summer is completely over: weekends crowded with a bunch of wide-releases. In this case, no fewer than four, the first time that number has been hit since June. Which was, you may notice, in summer, but run with me here. More releases, fewer tentpoles, and that's what makes the last third of the calendar year go 'round.

And three, of them, at least, look positively fucking dreadful: House at the End of the Street, which had damned well better be more than just a stalk-and-kill teens movie, because Jennifer Lawrence is way too talented for that; End of Watch, a cops vs. druglords movies that, judging from the trailer, appears to have been shot on cell phones; and most unpromisingly, Dredd, a new adaptation of Judge Dredd with an eye toward being more faithful to the comic book than the Stallone vehicle was, though it does not seem to consist of anything besides Karl Urban seeing mean things in a less jokey way.

It's all enough to make a fella look forward to Trouble with the Curve, which may be naught but a feel-good movie about fathers and daughters starring the un-retired Clint Eastwood in a movie written and directed by first-timers, but at least it appears to involve recognisable human emotions.


28.9.2012

People I trust admire the work of animation director Genndy Tartakosvky, making his feature debut with Hotel Transylvania; the whole project feels too thrown-together and the cast is a disaster of stunt casting and people I cannot stand, so it's going to take more than just a talented director who was hired as a replacement for somebody else to make the idea of Adam Sandler as a cartoon Dracula palatable. The annoying thing is that, of all the weekends this month, this is the only obvious winner of the box-office race, so I'll be obliged to see it regardless.

Jockeying for 2nd place are another Oscarbaitish drama about parenting, Won't Back Down, AKA "The Viola Davis Make-Up Oscar Role", and Looper, which I am inclined to call my most-anticipated of the month, which has a lot more to do with the combination of writer-director Rian Johnson and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt than with the rather overdone feeling of its sci-fi concept, because the last time those two collaborated on a genre riff that felt way too obvious and bland, it was Brick, and that was an awfully damn good movie.

29 August 2012

DRUNK WITH POWER

There isn't really any legitimate reason for Lawless not to be a great movie; but it isn't. It's a good movie, and that in and of itself is nothing to sniff at; but not a great one, not like it should be. The pedigree is right: director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave reuniting, seven years after the magnificent Aussie Western The Proposition, to tell another story of life in a semi-mythic time, when even the "good" people had to resort to incredible, loathsome violence to get by, leading us into a world so corroded that we might well wonder whether it's even worth hoping for it to be saved. It's been enacted by, on paper, one of the best casts of 2012 (outside of Shia LaBeouf), and that cast has more than lived up to what we demand of them (including LaBeouf, who has never been this good, in anything, ever). It should roar of the screen with fire and intensity, and it does not: a hugely promising opening quarter, and an apocalyptically charged final shoot-out, both admirably rise up to that level, but a great long chunk of the second act simply sits there, blinking, moving in no particular direction at all.

Adapted from Matt Bondurant's largely non-fictional account of his own grand-uncles, The Wettest County in the World - a vastly superior title to Lawless, any way you cut it - the film takes place over something like a period of years during Prohibition, in Franklin County, Virginia, where the three Bondurant brothers - Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy), and Jack (LaBeouf) - operate one of the biggest moonshine operations in what declares itself to be the nation's single biggest alcohol-producing county. Life is good for the Bondurant boys, until darkness comes in the form of the Chicago gangsters, no longer content simply to buy Franklin County hooch, and now anxious to muscle in on the selling of it as well; and this is to be enforced by the brutal figure of Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a dirty cop who promises great pain to all those who try to fight for their own independent way of life. Like the Bondurants, for example.

So begins an Epic Struggle, with the bootleggers on one side, making ever more money as Jack's cunning and ambition (cultivated to overcome his physical weakness) find new ways to produce and sell moonshine, and as he and Forrest begin to court new women, preacher's daughter Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and Chicago expatriate Maggie (Jessica Chastain); on the other, the local cops, under the increasingly barbarous thumb of the devilish Rakes. Good things and bad things happen over the course of months, until there is a Final Confrontation.

If that sounds sort of foggy: it is. The dominant mode of Cave's screenplay for The Proposition was of self-conscious mythology, with details purposefully failing to come into focus, and that approach is potent and exciting for a movie that has just a handful of important characters and covers about a week. Lawless involves significantly more people and a hell of a lot more scale, trying to capture the texture of a whole culture over the course of something like a decade, and Cave's use of the same general tone that worked so well in The Proposition is disastrously off; characters and plot threads simply wander in and then wander off when nothing is done with them, and the middle hour is constructed of something more like mini-arcs that take place in order, without ever building up to anything. The excellence of the concluding sequence gives the illusion that the film is a cohesive whole; but an illusion is all this is.

Hillcoat compounds this with somewhat unfocused direction that relies on too much obvious shorthand; one especially galling moment pairs shots of Jack in his sexy new car with his pretty new girl, with a herd of wild horses galloping through an empty field, because that's not a clumsy, cliché way of expressing "sense of freedom" visually. Even when it doesn't hit that level of hammy obviousness, Lawless feels awfully typical, with none of the poetics of The Proposition. Even at the most basic level of cinematography, this film is rather ordinary, though shot, as was The Proposition, by Benoît Delhomme; it has a certain bleached-out flatness that expresses both the scenario's nihilism and the semi-remote 1920s setting, but does neither of them with the same awe-inspring sense of scorched-earth brightness of the best shots in The Proposition.

Forgive me if it seems like all I want to do is compare two movies: Lawless works in such a similar register, to such lesser effect, that it's hard not to. Both films are perhaps most notable for their unpleasant violence, and it's deployed the same way, but without a stronger movie surrounding that violence, it just comes off as dark and mean for its own sake in Lawless, and that is really the key to all the rest of it: the parts that don't work are harsh and unpleasant.

"The parts that don't work". I want to stress that, because when all is said and done, while enough doesn't work in Lawless that all I can think of, over and over, is, "you're better off just sticking with The Proposition," quite a lot of it is actually quite good. The design team's re-creation of 1920s Virginia is nothing short of sublime, giving us a world that feels incredibly rich and real and lived-in, grounding the story as it plays out; and the costume design by Margot Wilson goes another step above and beyond simple realism, into the realm of character creation beyond what the actors and script are thinking about (the first shot of Chastain in a smart dress, in the midst of so many down-home folk, is the first time I've literally gasped at costume since... God, I don't even know, Atonement?). The score that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis put together is subtle and gloomy in all the right ways, and the acting is sensational: it would be very nice if Chastain and Wasikowska had something (or anything) to do, but the cast is top-to-bottom great, with Pearce's twitch, inordinately mannered melodramatic villain standing apart from the rest in just the right ways, Gary Oldman's cameo as gangster Floyd Banner so perfectly conceived that it makes me weep there's not more of him, and Hardy gives, unquestionably, the best performance of his career since Bronson in 2008, as a furious thug who keeps himself tightly reined in, burying all his rage beneath mumbles and intense stares, and then burying feelings like affection, fear, and joy even farther beneath that rage. It's complex and amazingly subtle, and if Lawless was a complete shitpile outside of Hardy, it would still be worth watching, just for him. As it is not a shitpile, he's still the best thing about the feature: that one intense X-factor that pushes the movie over from "the good and bad are in a battle for this movie's soul" to "this is a good movie with problems". Which it is, a good movie with problems. Big ones. But it's got just enough of the grubby spirit of the great gangster pictures of old that it has more going for it than just a few top-notch performances and some well-placed costumes.

7/10

28 August 2012

JUST A LITTLE BIT OF FIXIE DUST

There have always been and will always be motion pictures about subcultures, but creating a feature about Manhattan bike messengers, with an emphatic message about how riding fixed-gear bicycles without brakes is the finest and noblest of pursuits, now that's tapping into an insulated community that matters to essentially no-one in the world. Perhaps surprisingly, this does not end up hurting Premium Rush, which sure as hell sounds like it ought to be the most insufferably indie, hipster thing on two wheels; except insofar as this is presumably what doomed the movie to a quick, merciless box-office death, which I guess must hurt a little.

It deserves a better fate than that. By no means is the film perfect - its imperfections, in fact, are singularly obvious, and not only would they have been easy to fix, it probably took more work to create them than correcting them would have taken - but it's an ideal August release (though it was first scheduled for January, after spending all of 2011 sitting on the shelf - two damning strikes), a rather straightforward genre riff that requires almost no intelligence to process, but which has been made by talented people who desired that it tick off as many of the boxes that come with its genre as possible. It is primarily fun, in a way that makes you feel glad rather than vaguely guilty that you went and had it.

And it's thrillingly brief: 91 minutes, over and done. That kind of concision sometimes seems to be a lost art in contemporary filmmaking, and do I sometimes give movies points just for not wasting too much of my life on a padded running time? I do. But it's a good thing for this kind of ultimately frivolous, fizzy entertainment: stick around for just long enough to be entertaining, and stop before bloat sets in. The same way you're supposed to eat candy, really, which is exactly what movies like this are: tasty, well-crafted, empty calories.

In point of fact, even at 91 minutes, Premium Rush suffers from some bloat, but it's not because the film takes to long, but that it makes some mistakes about what to do with its plot. Herein, we have a relative simple situation: legendary bike messenger Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been sent to A Prestigious Law School On The Upper West Side (for all that the film has a raging hard-on for New York geography, the word "Columbia" is conspicuous for its absence) to pick up an extremely sensitive envelope and deliver it to a woman in Chinatown. Before he's able to get off campus, he's approached by an extremely dubious man in a suit, claiming to be a university employee, but is in fact dirty NYPD cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), who wants the envelope. Cue a chase up and down and all around Manhattan, complicated by Wilee's newly ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), romantic and professional rival Manny (Wolé Parks), a dogged bike cop (Christopher Pace), and several Chinese mobsters.

We don't really need more than that. The film itself knows this, for it takes great pains to demonstrate that Wilee's name is an affectation based on Wile E. Coyote, the star of several Looney Tunes shorts in which there is no trace of a plot beyond "one character wants to catch another, and fails" (and a dumb affectation it is, too: nobody seems to notice, within the movie, that the coyote in question is noted primarily for being crushed to a pulp by high-speed collisions with rocks, trucks, and the ground). All that Premium Rush requires, and certainly all that it promises, is a film-length chase between the clever, dextrous Wilee, and the increasingly frustrated, wholly inept Monday. This, at any rate, is the way that Gordon-Levitt and Shannon play their characters - Shannon in particular, whose spittle-flecked, miles-over-the-top bad guy turn that's just one "You meddling kids!" away from pure and unadulterated camp, is the film's strongest individual element and the basis for many of its best moments.

And, too be fair, a lot of the movie consists of absolutely nothing beyond that: high-profile blockbuster writer David Koepp, playing director this time around, understands what we're here for, and he and his stunt people have put together some extraordinarily fine bike chases, laced with gallows humor (Wilee has a knack for visualising the possible outcome for all moves he might make, which typically involve him being walloped by cars and thrown in the air like a dummy), and pepped up with ebullient scene transitions that imagine Manhattan as a model of the kind you might make for a school project; and most of it's practical stuntwork, too, a soppy love-letter to the days when filmmakers were limited by what was actually possible, and had to do what was actually possible in the most complex, convincing way to make their action movies (there's even an end-credits cookie with Gordon-Levitt, blood pouring from his arm, that's as much a "See? We actually did this!" gambit as a fun outtake). Sprawling, dumb fun, but good sprawling dumb fun, and exciting sprawling, dumb fun, and it is August, and thinking too much can be bad for you in times of elevated heat.

But, even though there really needs to be nothing at all beyond "Monday is bad, Wilee is good, now go" to set up the scenario, Koepp and co-writer John Kamps are extremely anxious to give their action a context and a frame, and that's when we get The Explanations. It's one thing to let us know why Monday is so damned anxious for that envelope, which is only fair - MacGuffins need to have some connection to the characters, or there are no stakes at all - though I do think that the writers tip their hand much, much too early for what amounts to be a bone-simple situation. Gambling debts. There, I said it in two words, and the film takes almost 10 minutes.

Because, instead of just having someone pop up and say, "gambling debts", Premium Rush rewinds its clock (almost every new scene is stamped with a graphic telling us the time, presumably to increase our sense of anxiety, though I did not find it did so), to earlier in the day, to show us exactly how Monday accrued those debts, and also throws flashbacks at a number of characters and situations that we don't absolutely need to see in such detail, giving thick backstories to characters who aren't important enough to deserve those backstories except that the backstories give them so damn much screentime. This does two things, both of them bad: it robs the film of its tight alliance to Wilee's perspective, thereby robbing the action of its inexplicable chaos and thus much of its fun; far worse, it slows the film down, and given how early the flashbacks start, and how many of them there are, that means that the film never quite builds up all that much momentum. Do we need to know about a young woman's travails with Chinese immigration? Not when it means less JGL onna fast bike, we sure as hell don't.

Ultimately, this is mostly at the level of annoyance: the movie is still heightened, quick-moving and entertaining, although it is possibly the least-entertaining version of itself because of all the chronological gamesmanship and narrative lard. The Premium Rush we get is fun and diverting, but there is a Premium Rush just one script revision way that is massively exciting and epically shallow in the best way, and I am somewhat disappointed that this isn't the one that was released. But still: Gordon-Levitt being cool, Shannon being apoplectic, and madly high-pitched music and editing driving the thing forward like a bat out of hell. One can complain, but not too loudly.

7/10

27 August 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: MEN WITH BIKES

Every week 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: at the time of this writing, Premium Rush has already spectacularly failed to be a blockbuster or even a film likely to break even on its production budget. But I will still use it to dip into the long and storied history of films documenting our culture's deep and abiding love of that noblest of all vehicles, the bicycle.

The chief attraction of the 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure since sometime early in the 1990s has been that it was the first feature directed by Tim Burton. But this was not always the case: in 1985 itself, for example, Tim Burton was known, if at all, by a small and self-selective audience of animation fans who would know him only for the stop-motion short Vincent that he was allowed to direct during his unhappy stay at Walt Disney Animation. At that time, of course, the more obvious point of appeal would have been...

Well, that's the hell of it. Look at it from any angle you want, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure is a stupefyingly weird idea for a movie: the character of Pee-wee Herman, created by stand-up comic and Groundlings member Paul Reubens in the late '70s, had been the centerpiece of a midnight stage show in Los Angeles that was hugely successful as midnight stage shows go, getting the actor some nationwide prominence on TV chat shows, but that's a limited sort of fame at best. And yet, Pee-wee's Big Adventure was greenlit by Warner Bros. on the strength of literally no script at all, just the studio's faith that Reubens would be able to deliver something of merit. Even weirder: it worked. The film made back its $6 million budget more than six times over, inspiring the creation of a TV show based around Reubens' character, Pee-wee's Playhouse, which was enough to make the nasal man-child one of the biggest pop culture figures in America in the back half of the 1980s (we had some really fucking weird pop culture back in the 1980s - a bull terrier hawking beer was almost as big in those days as Pee-wee was). It also set Burton on the very fast, very short track that ended with the huge-budget blockbuster Batman four years and two movies later. Happy endings for everybody, then!

Looking back with years of Burton steadily making himself a household name and then a brand, there's not all that much of the "Burtonesque" to Pee-wee's Big Adventure outside of a few scenes, chief among them a nightmare involving abnormally freakish clowns performing surgery on a bicycle in an environment made up of neon tubes and canted surfaces covered in a black-and-white checkerboard pattern, and a strange hitchhiker lady whose face explodes in some kind of family-friendly, PG-rated body horror that was the main reason I did not watch this film even a single time between the time it scared the ever-loving shit out of me when I was 7 and sometime in my early 20s. Outside of this, there is nothing of the way that his earlier shorts, Vincent and Frankenweenie, speak to the aesthetic he'd so assiduously cultivate, or that even his sophomore feature, Beetlejuice, looks for all the world like the movies he'd still be making 15 and 20 years down the road. And yet, Burton was an inspired choice to direct, maybe the best choice in the mid-'80s, because Pee-wee Herman as a concept is basically a cartoon character - Reubens's flexible, rubbery voice alone would drive us to that conclusion - and the wall-to-wall wackiness that makes up Pee-wee's Big Adventure is cartoon logic through and through. And the thing about Tim Burton that is easy to forget, is that he was by training, at the beginning of his career, an animator, something that's obvious from the first moments of the film and never lets up. It's not quite as formally bracing as when Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin started applying the visual storytelling of the animated comic short to live-action features in the '40s and '50s, but Pee-wee's Big Adventure is chiefly successful because of its commitment to an artistic ideal: make something that looks, talks, feels, and moves like a cartoon.

A lot of that has to do with Reubens himself, of course, whose physical immersion into the Pee-wee Herman role is almost terrifying in its enthusiasm. And a lot, as well, owes to composer Danny Elfman, writing only his second film score, the first for a movie not written and directed by his brother: the Oingo Boingo singer, hired by Burton on a profoundly lucky whim, is the film's rather obvious secret weapon, laying a musical foundation for all the warped activities that bounces and sidles around crazily, owing a clear debt to Nino Rota's music for , but bent around and jazzed up like a meth binge. Burton himself supplies a searingly bright color palette and a perfectly-aimed visual sense of humor.

Above and beyond all this, though, the film's screenplay is just right for the movie it wants to be: concocted by Reubens with fellow Groundling Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol, it starts off by posting an impossible character - a grown man with the emotional maturity of an 8-year-old who nevertheless functions as an entirely self-sufficient, well-liked member of his community - and a ridiculous scenario, in which Pee-wee's beloved bike (the kind with pedals, not the kind with a motor in it) is stolen by fellow man-child and rich brat Francis (Mark Holton), except that Pee-wee follows a dubious fortune teller's advice to hunt for it in the Alamo. Cue a road-trip, where we learn, if the opening sequence in Pee-wee's buoyantly daffy hometown hasn't made it clear, that nobody in this universe, nor any of the events which transpire within it, have any particular connection to reality. Illogic governs everything about this story, and yet it's a rigidly consistent and disciplined illogic that makes all the sense in the world if you were yourself 8-years-old at one point, and especially if you were an 8-year-old who watched the same Bugs Bunny cartoons that the writers did.

This whole-hearted embrace of the mentality of a young boy (definitely a boy: the fact that it's structured as a love story about a bike, complete with an "eww, girls!" subplot that bookends the movie, makes that crystal clear) is both the film's great point of distinction, and after a certain while it's main liability; there's only so far you can take a plot whose entire point is to have the hopscotching, addled rhythm of a distracted child, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure does end up with a really bad, and almost certainly unavoidable case of Episodic Structure; it never builds up to anything, because it never can build up to anything, just play out events one after another until eventually there's been enough running time that the bike chase through the Warner studio lot that was Reubens's first idea for the story can be presented. Growth or lessons learned would be a violation of the movie's concept (though the final story beat suggests that some growth is okay, as long as it doesn't have actual onscreen ramifications).

I do not want to go so far as to say that the film is boring: Reubens's manic performance and Burton's high-speed direction and primary-color visuals prohibit that. But limited, maybe, and while it is delightful, it's also very same-ey in the ways that its delightful, at least until the studio chase. There's a reason the cartoons that inspired its storytelling were all between six and eight minutes long.

Minimally, the film is never anything less than distinctive: the candy-colored kitsch style that dominates it wasn't really picked up by anyone after Burton jumped feet-first into his more characteristic Expressionist mode with Beetlejuice, and so it still looks as pointedly original as would have been the case a quarter-century ago, with the caveat that the '80s-ness of it all has gotten extraordinarily pronounced as the years go by, and so we could never go so far as to call it "fresh". Its charms, in whatever measure they exist, remain potent still, and while it's a small classic at best, and that largely with the aid of nostalgia, it's got a mountain of personality, which more than justifies it in the face of whatever shortcomings dog it.

26 August 2012

A BOND OF FLESH

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


OCTOPUSSY
Directed by John Glen
Written by George MacDonald Fraser and
Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson

Premiered 6 June, 1983

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
What we have here is nothing less than a perfect little standalone mini-movie that sums up in less than ten minutes the entire raison d'être of the Roger Moore era Bond films: in a Latin American nation that is pretty obviously Cuba, though I'm damned if I can remember the name cropping up, Agent 007 has been tasked with interrupting a launch of some airborne weapon. This he does by impersonating a local military man, Colonel Toro (Ken Norris), but the ruse falls when the actual Toro shows up, and Bond is only just able to escape with the aid of his lovely local assistant Bianca (Tina Hudson). She's towing an experimental plane hidden in a horse trailer, and Bond is able to fly it in all sorts of breakneck ways back to the military airfield where he attracts and then drops a heat-seeking missile which ends up completing the job that he couldn't at first. These exertions leave him almost out of fuel, so he lands the plane, folds up its wings - plane has folding wings, y'see - and coasts it into a gas station, where he smiles his most jolly of smiles at the flabbergasted attendant, and brightly demands, "Fill her up!".

We have everything: sexy location; sexy woman; horrible puns ("Toro. Sounds like a load of bull."), frothy word play ("What a small world, I'm a Toro too"), and one of the best-delivered quips in Moore's career as Bond in that gas station button; terrifically "cool" action with that ridiculously little plane hauling ass through a cramped hanger. The line between camp and thriller action is never more excitingly toed than when Moore prods his captors to check out the super-gorgeous woman making kissy faces at them in the next truck over; Moore himself has only rarely been this winning, or physically credible as an action star. And because it has nothing at all to do with the rest of the film, it can be snipped aside and enjoyed for just what it is: the super-concentrated form of all the most escapist things Bond has to offer in one fun-size package.

pretitle_5
Rating: 5 Union Jack Parachutes


TITLE SONG
The run of adult contemporary ballads masquerading as James Bond themes finally ends on its lowest point, "All Time High", as performed by Rita Coolidge. "Octopussy" being rejected as a potential song title for reasons that we can all agree are fairly obvious, and not even putting in a cameo in the lyrics, the way The Spy Who Loved Me did in "Nobody Does It Better". Which, since I brought it up, is this song's most obvious progenitor, and an example of how to do this sort of thing right, if you insist on doing it at all: "Nobody Does It Better", though a bit out-of-place as a Bond theme, is a rock solid singer-songwriter ballad, whereas "All Time High" is even further out-of-place for Bond, and blows as a singer-songwriter ballad.

I'm pleased to say that it was with this most recent viewing of the film (my fourth, I think), that I figured out part of why: while the limp music is by Bond franchise stalwart John Barry, the lyrics are by Tim Rice, one of my great bêtes noires in the history of dramatic songwriting. And while the song isn't typical of his work by any stretch, the overall blandly vague "weeee are in looove" sentiment that has diddly shit to do with anything hits a very distinctly Rice-ian sweet spot of sounding like it means something without actually meaning anything. "Doing so much more, than falling in love" goes one particularly grating line in the chorus. What more? Spelunking? Bio-chemistry? Do please tell, Rita Coolidge, in your guise of one of Bond's many lovers, what more than falling in love? Jesus fucking Christ.

song_1half
Rating: 1.5 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
Hey everybody, Maurice Binder found a laser pointer! And by God, he uses it as enthusiastically as that jackass at every movie in the late 1990s. Can't find way to work octopuses into a sequence of sexy women moving slowly and looking smokily at the camera? Have an octopus laser image slide up a woman's naked thigh! Want to do something fun with the "007" graphic? Slide a laser version of it down a woman's naked thigh! Want to coyly point out that Bond sleeps with all the women? Have a little man-shaped laser blob "walk" across a woman's mostly-naked breasts! The possibilities are GODDAMN ENDLESS!

Also, there are some kind of vaguely acrobatty, "pick up a woman and spin her around" or " soar through the air like you just jumped off a swing" moments, several of them against spin-art backgrounds. I think we can safely point to this sequence as the moment that the creative foundering began in earnest.

title_2
Rating: 2 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Adapted - and greatly expanded, I am told - from Ian Fleming's short stories "Octopussy" and "The Property of a Lady", Octopussy starts with an exquisitely disorienting scene of a circus clown (Andy Bradford) in East Germany running through the woods like his life depends on it. Which it does, in fact, depend on it, because he is being pursued by knife-wielding twins (David and Anthony Meyer), who cause him a fatal wound, though he does not actually die until he delivers a message to the British Embassy: a forged Fabergé egg. This, we shortly learn, is MI6 agent 009, and nobody knows what the hell is going on, so M (Robert Brown) sends his most competent agent - that being, of course, James Bond - to track down the only thin lead that has cropped up: the real version of the same egg is up for auction at Sotheby's. Here, Bond is able to connect the egg to exiled Afghani prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), whose motivations are as yet unclear; we, however, know a bit more than Bond does, since we know that deep within Moscow, the highest levels of the Soviet government are under internal assault from General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), who is trying to trigger war with the West at all costs. And here I must pause to note that, as much as the Bond franchise never seemed to find its way in the 1970s, despite trying unsuccessfully to latch onto all sorts of ripped-from-the-headlines concerns about the economy and environment, this movie does a smashingly good job of leaping into the Thatcher/Reagan '80s with both arms wide open, what with its story of a Soviet Union that was better-organised and better-armed than we were, that was just one demented leader away from destroying the very fabric of Western democracy. For this was back before the Iron Curtain fell, when we did not know that in the '80s, the only thing propping up the rag-tag skeleton of the U.S.S.R. was vodka and hope and a shitload more vodka.

But I digress.

The first chunk of Octopussy, up to almost the one-hour mark of a movie that, at 130 minutes and some seconds, is the second-longest of the official franchise to that point (but factor in the expanding length of end credits, and it winds up south of Thunderball) is pretty much airtight. For the first time in years, decades even, we're back to a James Bond who is, oddly enough, doing the work of a spy in the employ of the British government: the achingly slow reveal of the plot to him and to us (we're ahead of him only insofar as we know that Orlov is involved, but we don't know how or why) makes this perhaps the only Bond movie that's actually effective as a mystery as much or more as an action thriller. There's a definite barebones feeling about the whole thing, on the model of From Russia with Love, even as the ever-punning Roger Moore and a distinct uptick in gadgets make it clear that we're still in Bond as popcorn entertainment mode.

Then the plot starts to coalesce, and go straight to hell. Khan leads Bond to a mysterious smuggler named Octopussy (Maud Adams), based out of India, who owns a circus touring Europe - a clown in East Germany ring a bell? - and the outrageously over-complicated plot that ensues offers at least one too many candidates for Main Bad Guy, while the details of Orlov's plot to nuke West Berlin wouldn't even make sense as a parody: smuggle jewels out of Russia to feed to Khan to sell at auction to pay Octopussy to use her circus to smuggle more jewels and unbeknownst to her, a nuclear bomb. I think. I've never actually followed every curve of the plot, any time I've watched the movie. But the point is: nuclear bomb will fuck up U.S. interests, because if there's one thing we haven't seen enough of in the Bond franchise, it's ticking-clock scenarios involving nuclear bombs. Such a dismally confused way to end from such a rich, elegant beginning.

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Rating: 3 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAINS
To be honest, I don't know who belongs here, so I'm putting two men down: first up, we have Kamal Khan, the elegant, maliciously bored smuggler who, by virtue of being played by Louis Jourdan, sounds like he absolutely should be a slam-dunk of a bad guy: the actor has an elegant cruelty about him that was attached straight out of the factory, and it should be the easiest matter in the world to make him a potent foil for Bond, especially the refined gentleman version of Bond played by Moore. But this was the Jourdan who'd acted in Swamp Thing the year before, not the Jourdan who devoured the screen alive 35 years earlier in Letter from an Unknown Woman, and that is not a Jourdan that I care for overmuch. If nothing else, he's a Jourdan who seems somewhat uncomfortable in the role (though not remotely as uncomfortable as in Swamp Thing), and one gets the impression that he either didn't entirely "get" what it meant to be in a Bond film, or felt a little dirty for being in something so tacky. Either way, it's a missed opportunity, particularly since irrespective of Jourdan's performance, Khan is such an impossible character: the film plays coy for much, much too long about whether he's playing Octopussy or is being played, and whether he or Orlov is the big boss, and he never really does anything particularly menacing besides stand in palaces, sneering.

Still, the man fills out eveningwear well, and I might almost give him a pass, but here to drag the average way, way down, is Steven Berkoff's astonishingly bad performance as Orlov, which doesn't sport one of the worst Russian accents I've ever seen onscreen only insofar as he's using a German accent, and that, coupled to the overall "orders! vich will be obeyed! vizzoutQUESTION!" tenor of his line deliveries, makes it really hard to shake the feeling that he completely misunderstood the script, and thought he was playing a Nazi, not a Soviet ideologue. Ghastly cartoon nonsense.

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Rating: 2 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Octopussy does, in the end, prove to be a hero and is duly rewarded by getting a chance to ride the 007 Express, though her status to Bond Girldom is rather shaky in my eyes, except in that she is officially recognised as such. But for all that she is the film's title character and serves as the inscrutable, half-hidden Harry Lime for a huge portion of its middle, she's really not given very much to do - thanks to the pointlessly over-loaded series of nested villains and secret plots within other secret plots, removing her entirely would not only fail to weaken the film, it would probably make the film better, as it would accordingly be more streamlined. Hell, she doesn't even do anything to help Bond out that couldn't be easily, and profitably, dumped onto the shoulders of the Secondary Bond Girl.

Given all that, I still appreciate with Maud Adams does with this non-character; I was rather enthusiastically in favor of her smaller role as Andrea Anders in The Man with the Golden Gun, and despite the obvious fact that we really oughtn't have one actor playing two such prominent characters in this franchise (this had happened before and would happen again; each time, it bothers me less), I am not displeased to see more of Adams. It's not that she's unspeakably hot; in fact, I think you could easily make the argument stick that she's the least attractive Bond Girl, which does admittedly set us securely in "world's tallest midget" territory. But I am consistently in favor of the leading ladies who give Bond the most trouble and call him the most on his shit, and Adams has a bitter streak to her that makes everything she says and does seem a lot more potent than it actually is. It's a fantastic performance of a frivolous character, which counts for at least a tiny bit.

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Rating: 3 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
Two chief villains are hard to parse; but damn me, Octopussy has a full-on aquadron of featured henchmen: the knife-throwing circus brothers Mischka and Grischka, Guy with a Sawblade Yo-Yo (William Derrick), potentially any combination of Octopussy herself, Khan, or Khan's mistress, depending on how you want to parse things, and the most legitimate claimant to the title of Lead Henchman, Khan's faithful bodyguard Gobinda (Kabir Bedi). He's not exactly one for the ages; prior to this viewing, I'd completely forgotten that he existed. And he does tap into the film's rather uncertain "India, place of exotic things and people that are disgusting and dangerous" undercurrent. But that's countered by the very real sense of omnipresent menace he brings to the table; until he starts to be too active and thus too familiar, he just kind of appears, looking scary, in a way that meets at least my minimum threshold for Bond thuggery.

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Rating: 3 Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Khan's aforementioned mistress, Magda (Kristina Wayborn), who suffers something of the inverse of Octopussy; she's set up to be much too important before basically evaporating into nothingness. Not "nothingness" exactly - she's around to the very end - but the impact she seems poised to make is largely forgotten after Bond beds her as part of Khan's grand plot, and from that point on she's just standing around where she's needed, holding whatever allegiances to whichever side are required to facilitate the drama of that scene. In a film that was at least one rewrite away from a completely satisfying back half, she is the most notably inconsistent, maddening element.

Also, she suffers from unbelievably bad post-production dubbing.

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Rating: 2 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
Memory is an odd thing, sometimes. Octopussy is one of the Bond films I consistently tend to recall the least, which I think is because of the ways I tend to file the movies in my head: by theme song (which is gruesomely forgettable), by villain (hard to pin down), and by the most splashy stunt (this is the least "stunty" of Moore's Bond films). I knew I liked it, mostly, but I didn't know why. And I certainly, in a hundred years, would not have said, "oh right, Octopussy, that's the one with the best action in the Moore era". But it is, in fact, that exact thing.

Being a Moore film still puts a cap on just how good that action can be, of course, especially with Moore himself a blithe 55-years-young at the time of the movie's release. And maybe "action" isn't the most appropriate word; but the thriller sequences are frequently terrific: the bombast of the opening plane scene, the tension of the clown chase that starts the movie proper (largely generated by the sheer incongruousness of it all; I misremembered "the one with spies dressing up as clowns" as being something that made the film weak, not one of its biggest strengths), an ostensibly comic chase scene that, in between the quips, has some genuinely sharp cutting, a fantastically-staged bomb-defusing sequence with Moore in his own clown make-up, horribly unable to cross the handful of yards to get to the bomb.. To cap it off, there are two extraordinary sequences that find Bond crawling around on top of fast-moving vehicles: a circus train screaming through the German countryside (where the editing does not convince us that Moore is actually doing the stunts), and a plane high over some desolate quarter of India (where the editing does so convince).

On the other hand, there is a de rigeur "storming the enemy's lair with a small army" sequence that's just one Burt Bacharach score away from being parody, and a scene that will live in infamy: Bond, swinging on a vine, with Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan yell piped in. If it is not the worst moment in any Moore Bond picture, that's only because the series promptly marched into a bottomless pit for the next movie after this. So it's not perfect, by any stretch. Still, for this era of Bond, it's damn close.

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Rating: 4 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Having effectively clamped down on gadgets in the preceding, "grounded" Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, just as effectively re-introduce them without spiraling into camp. The ever-present Seiko wristwatch is here, this time with a much-too-noisy radar function; another watch serves as a TV receiver (Bond immediately uses it too check out a woman's cleavage, in a gag that is not nearly as funny as I think it is). A pen that shoots acid - Bond makes the obvious "poison pen" joke and is just as obviously glared at by Q (Desmond Llewelyn) - and has a mini earphone hidden in the cap, the better to listen in on the bug that the wristwatch detects.

But the one that I always get way too much of a kick out of, is the small watercraft disguised as a crocodile, a bigger, dumber riff on the duck snorkel from Goldfinger, but do I care that it's dumb? No, I do not. I find it delightfully silly, and it's the last delightful silliness in a good long while.

I'm not sure if the experimental plane hidden in a horse's ass is delightfully silly or not, but it has, I fear, always gotten a grin out of me.

Llewelyn's role in the action continues to expand, and while he gets no quintessential Q moments, I do find his addled response to Octopussy's legion of girl warriors to be awfully cute.

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Rating: 3.5 Easily-Riled Welshmen


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
This one took me a good long ponder. Peter Lamont's second outing as production designer is, if nothing else, a bit more consistent across the movie than his work in For Your Eyes Only, though the closest that we get to a take-your-breath-away creative set is the Soviet war room, and even that is a bit too readily derived from fellow Bond designer Ken Adam and his work on Dr. Strangelove. That said, for all the villainous lairs that are teeming pits of multicolored lights and impossible geometry and overwrought spaces, I don't know if I can offhand name another set in the series where production design serves character development quite like Octopussy's palace, a rather lavish affair that is, for some time, all we see of its mysterious inhabitant. No, it's not a gaudy showcase, but it fits the movie's atmosphere beautifully well. And as much as I like eye-candy, suiting the film as a whole is probably the more mature, valid way to go about design.

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Rating: 3.5 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
The confluence of Jourdan and Moore, with all those jewels, and the overall sexiness of the opening "let's hunt smugglers at Sotheby's" gambit certainly give Octopussy a leg up, but glamour doesn't end up being all that high on the film's list of priorities: beyond laconically demonstrating that Fabergé eggs are yet another topic on which he knows everything there is to know, and rocking the holy hell out of a white tux, Bond never really stops to enjoy the high life this time around; he is a classy man throughout, but more passively classy, if you catch me meaning. Moore is charming enough to skate by on even passive class, but there's nothing resembling the life-changing casino scene from For Your Eyes Only.

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Rating: 3 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Bond injects himself into Khan's backgammon game, and introduces himself as a gentleman must.
Forced or Badass? Insofar as it calls back to the "please shut up and let me play baccarat" moment in Dr. No where this trope was first introduced, I think it best to call it crypto-badass, with the caveat that backgammon is, after all, way the hell less badass than baccarat.


BEST QUIP
MAGDA: "You have a very good memory for faces."
BOND: "And figures."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Roger Moore was 54 at the time of shooting, and that is the short version of all we need to know.

Thing was, Moore himself wasn't terribly excited to play Bond again, at his increasing age; and to that end, For Your Eyes Only was meant to be a potential transition film (which explains the erratic nods to series continuity, and perhaps even the more sober tone). But along came rival producer Kevin McClory, and rival Bond vehicle Never Say Never Again, and boy, if it wasn't going to star Sean Connery himself, returning to the role after a 12-year gap. Albert R. Broccoli was no fool, and he was not going to try to fight a Connery Bond picture with a brand new actor in his own series; thus Moore was persuaded to stay on, and the film is rather noticeably wrapped around the fact that he just wasn't spry enough to be a credible action hero anymore.

Hence the emphasis on spying and cloak-and-dagger thrills in the first half of the movie; a first half that includes some of my favorite material in all of the films Moore made as Bond. In this, his sixth outing, the actor had long since eased into the part, but I find this to still be the most comfortable of Moore's performances, which is a distinctly different thing than the best. It most certainly isn't the best - there's too much of a knowing twinkle that pushes off a half-step away from the character, as though Moore is more concerned with being "Roger Moore's take on James Bond" than actually playing James Bond. Still, if there's any value at all to the light, playful approach that this actor took towards this character, then it's never more charming and effective than here, in moments like the quip-a-thon of the opening sequence, or Moore's priceless reaction shot to Magda's description of a cephalopod tattoo as "my little octopussy", which finds the spy glancing every direction possible, the gears in his head plainly rolling through so many jokes that even he is ashamed of them.

I suspect that, having run out of things to do with the character, Moore just wanted to have fun this time. Not that he doesn't take the part seriously when it's necessary; the final chase to stop the bomb is proof enough that Moore hadn't given up completely yet. Frequently, the only thing holding the movie together in the face of its increasingly desperate story is Moore's commanding authority as Bond, the Bond we know and love, the Bond whose company is such a comfort as the psychotic Commies and thieving Afghanis try to destroy all the good things in the world.

This could all get so soft as to be pointlessly fluffy, but John Glen's approach to directing kept Moore's performance on track, and the film retains a vestige of the harsh edge that made For Your Eyes Only such a bracing thing, even if it's unquestionably the least-intense of the five Bond movies Glen helmed. He still had an editor's knack for staging scenes to escalate and tighten as they move along, though this approach cannot save the film's confused back half, only make sure we jog through it at a heightened clip; while the film is the first of the genuinely bloated Bond movies (it will be well over a decade, and two leading actors later, before we see another Bond picture that comes in under 130 minutes), it only rarely drags.

Other points of note: we have, at long last, our second M, with Robert Brown replacing the late Bernard Lee, though the movie does not clarify whether it is the same M, or a new man with the same title (his secretary is still Lois Maxwell's cheeky Miss Moneypenny, thankfully, with a new assistant of her own: the groaningly-named Penelope Smallbone, played by Michaela Clavell). Either way, out of a very small pool of three, Brown's is my least-favorite M; he lacks the crabby grampa vibe that Lee increasingly brought to the role, and comes nowhere close to Judi Dench's sharpness. Lee was, of course, a hard act to follow, and the filmmakers hedge their bets by doing little more than introducing Brown and giving some M-ish scenes to Q; the actor does well enough with what he has, though he cannot truly rise above the "square boss" constraints of the part.

I would also add that Octopussy includes a singularly random scene demonstrating nothing at all except that they eat the craziest, most disgusting food in India, a whole year before Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom committed similar acts of cultural insensitivity. This has absolutely nothing to do with James Bond or his 13th big screen adventure, but I still wanted you to know about it.


OVERALL SCORE
35.5/60
The same score I gave For Your Eyes Only; this seems oddly perfect.

25 August 2012

HANDLE WITH CAR

There's something undeniably throwbacky about Hit & Run, which I am tempted to call a romantic comedy structured around car chases in lieu of having any better generic framework for it, though what it is a throwback to, I cannot quite say; unlike, for example, the grind house homages of the Quentin Tarantino school, it doesn't start and end as a love letter to '70s schlock cinema, though there's certainly an unmissable '70s tang to the way the film worships at the holy foot of the American Muscle Car; at the same time, "is it violent action? is it feel-good comedy?" tension of the entire project is reminiscent of dozens of '80s films, while the meandering dialogue that frequently puts a chase scene on hold to allow to characters to debate the ethics of bigotry, homosexuality in the digital age, or what causes men to like big cars comes straight from the talky American indie scene in the '90s.

Perhaps the only way to really pin the film down is to assign it to the category of "things that Dax Shepard likes", for Shepard, who I last recall thinking about sometime in the middle of the last decade, writes, co-directs (with David Palmer), and stars in this movie that, at a certain remove, functions solely so that Dax Shepard can do cool things: drive big cars fast and spin them around in circles, fire handguns, flirt and make out with real-life Shepard fiancée, the unbearably cute Kristen Bell. This is fair, sort of: virtually movies are, after all, wish-fulfillment fantasies of a sort when you dig down deep enough, though not typically for the people who make them at the exclusion of the people expected to pay money to watch them.

Anyway, Hit & Run is not really all that bad of a movie, and parts of it are extraordinarily charming: the parts involving Shepard and Bell, playing a bantering couple moving out to Los Angeles after dating for one year, so she can take a once-in-a-lifetime academic job. Not every real-life couple sparks onscreen chemistry; think of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were only credible together when they were screaming invective and humiliating each other in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But Shepard and Bell, happily, fall squarely on the "awesomely well-suited for each other" side of things, soundly replacing Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-Man as the most appealing real-world onscreen couple of 2012, insofar as that is an actual race. When they talk about insane, inside-joke bullshit, edged with meanness and full of raging lust and playful affection, it feels incredibly right, and real, and charming; indeed, though I'd have given just about anything for someone other than Shepard to have played this character, it's impossible to imagine someone with better chemistry with Bell.

Once you get past those parts, okay, Hit & Run sort of sucks. The film is about Charlie Bronson (Shepard), cooling his heels in a podunk town (in, I think, California, but it could also be somewhere in the Southwest), having entered the Witness Protection Program (thus explaining the forced tough-guy name). Here he has met overqualified college professor Annie (Bell), who has been invited to go to UCLA to build a major program in conflict resolution - and, if the movie did nothing else right, I'd have to tip my hat for whipping something so inordinately quirky as a girlfriend with a Ph.D. in conflict avoidance, and then actually making that a consistently important part of her character, and a significant plot point at numerous moments throughout the film - which is super-awkward, since Los Angeles is the one town in the whole world where Charlie absoutely really cannot go, since that's where the man he unsuccessfully testified against, Alex Dimitri (Bradley Cooper), roams the streets free, with a massive chip on his shoulder almost as prominent as his ridiculous white guy dreadlocks. But True Love trumps physical self-preservation, which is why Charlie and Annie are soon on their way in Charlie's idiotically recognisable classic muscle car, pursued by his short-tempered, nervous handler, U.S. Marshal Randy (Tom Arnold), Annie's psychopathic ex Gil (Michael Rosenbaum), sexually frustrated gay cop Terry (Jess Rowland), and a whole mess of angry gangbangers looking for Charlie's head.

The ensemble cast is generally pretty fine - Cooper makes the worst out of a character that's already more a bundle of clichés than actual personalities traits, but he is very much the weakest link - but that doesn't do much to save a film that feels sweet and likable whenever it's about the central romantic relationship and how the action-packed road race surrounding them metaphorically represents how difficult it can be to get over a lover's sordid past; whenever it's actually about a big ol' highway chase movie, with car stunts that required either a bigger budget or a better choreographer, with shoot-outs, and with embarrassingly mix-tapey rock stnadards underscoring every tiny bit of action (another '90s throwback), it feels threadbare and frankly, rather stupid: the low-fi approach to car stunts is refreshing, but Shepard and Palmer don't have enough talent to match their desire to make a rollicking action comedy, and there's really no getting around that fact. Shepard's script is knowingly hokey enough that the film's uncommon smallness of scale and ambition almost feel like they're there on purpose, sometimes, but too many of the big setpieces feel like kids goofing around on an abandoned stretch of road, knowing that they damn well better not actually damage the cars they've borrowed for the day.

With the action being pretty much a washout, the only thing left to save the movie is its value as a hang-out piece, and it comes close: the characters and actors are all mostly fun to watch, though they're all also insubstantial stock types, even the ones that aren't (to my knowledge "gay cop frustrated because there are no other gay men in his hick town" is not a stock type in this or most nearby universes, and yet it still, somehow, plays like it is). Other than the central couple, who are delightfully lived-in whether they're being terribly cute or terribly annoying - and there are certainly moments where they're almost too annoying for words, including a horribly twee opening scene - everybody and everything feels like window dressing, and that makes for a movie with way too damn much stuffing, however easy-going it is throughout, and how gently pleasing it as at its not-infrequent best moments. It's the kind of film that, if you landed on it one night on basic cable, would be a pretty perfect way to waste some time, but with the extra pressure of watching it as a proper movie, where you have to pay attention and engage with it, it just barely falls short.

6/10

23 August 2012

EXPENT

The charms of The Expendables weren't just ephemeral and one-note, they were about as obviously one-note as it gets: lots of '80s action stars, having hit the age where getting money any which way they can sounds just great, are finally all appearing in the same motion picture, and that's how we got the best ensemble cast of 1988, albeit in 2010: Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzennegger (the last two in small roles, admittedly), alongside newer faces Jet Li and Jason Statham, as well as what-the-hell choices Terry Crews and Randy Couture, as a shame-faced admission that there hasn't be a single important new action star this century besides Statham. There's really not much else besides that: look at all these people gathered up in one place! Whee! And the Whee factor having been pretty much spent all on that one scene where Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis appear together (though never all in the same shot), the very idea of The Expendables 2 makes altogether no fucking sense.

But The Expendables 2 exists anyway, and it justifies itself the only way it can: slightly larger cameos for Schwarzenegger and Willis (and all three stars are on camera at once, multiple times, so as to give you a bit more of your money's worth), a new cameo from Chuck Norris and a villain role for Jean-Claude Van Damme (the only actor who seems to understand the absurdity of the whole production and camps it up accordingly, which isn't surprising in the wake of JCVD), which I believe uses up all of the major action stars of that generation, unless Stallone can convince Steven Seagal to put in an appearance in the eventual Expenadables 3, which he shan't, because Seagal famously has no sense of humor about himself, and is also way the hell fat now. To increase the younger, "hold on, you're not really an action star" side of the cast, Liam Hemsworth has jumped on for the most thankless role imaginable, and I like to amuse myself by imagining that the producers legitimately got him and brother Chris (who'd be at least marginally more appropriate for this project) confused.

Other than that, the film is a virtual carbon copy of the first movie, with an ever-so-slightly less xenophobic tint (the villains are white people in Asia, not Latin people in Latin America), distinctly better action sequences (especially the climactic fight between Stallone and Van Damme), and a screenplay by Stallone & Richard Wenk so unrelentingly stupid that it ought to violate some human rights treaty or another just to screen it in public. I have not, after a great deal of consideration, decided what the worst line of dialogue in this film is, but I know that it is also the worst line of dialogue I've heard in a movie in 2012. Stallone's mumbled elegy, "Why is it the ones who deserve to live, that want to live the most, die, and the ones that don't deserve to live, keep on going?" would certainly be up there, along with every single line that trades on one of Schwarzenegger's classic utterances ("I'll be back" is trotted out multiple times, and he's the butt of a "terminated" joke). And the maddening character and story illogic is almost as bad as the dialogue, particularly the way that the movie goes out of its way to convince us that Hemsworth's character, a young kid who is with the Expendables (that's the name of Stallone's mercenary team, as you may or may not remember or care) just for a time, is the hottest shit new fighter that any of them have seen, so that when he gets killed by Van Damme kick-boxing a knife into his chest - a moment that I think serves to cleanly decide whether you land in the "this is so awesome" or "this is so fucking dumb" camp about the movie as a whole - we feel sorry about it and want to see him get revenged.

It doesn't take; nothing that happens in the film, emotionally, takes, though there is thankfully less of it than there was in the first movie. Within two scenes of Hemsworth's demise, it's impossible to remember or care that he ever existed (though I will say this, I never enjoyed the movie more than when I consciously elected to read the Stallone/Statham/Hemsworth dynamic as an old man showing his new, young lover off in front of his ex); the momentum of the story isn't built that way. Like its predecessor, it's an action movie of the old school; and that school dictates that the heroes go after the bad guys because they are heroes and bad guys, that you can drop Stallone in any place in the world and where he heads, that is where the small army with rocket launchers will be.

Its purity is admirable, in a way, as is the film's earnest commitment to a its R-rating (though not as unusual as they were even just a few years ago, R-rated action movies are still unusual enough to merit praise just for the sake of following through; also because I, for one, have more respect for a movie that acknowledges blood and suffering than a movie that tidily pretends that killing a human is a sanitary affair). It's brutish and crude, but honest, if that's worth anything. It would be worth a whole hell of a lot more if the thing weren't so uncompromisingly retrograde and stupid; even back in the '80s themselves, Stallone was the one making the unbearably moronic films like Cobra, the Rambos, or the later Rockys, a far cry from Schwarzenegger's sturdy action mechanisms, or the thuggish physical poetry of a Van Damme picture. And The Expendables 2 is every inch a Stallone picture, with the ensemble element of the first film considerably muted (my boy Statham only gets one major scene, with the criminally awful pun, "I now pronounce you... man and knife", and otherwise just stands around shouting sour quips at Stallone; Li only sticks around for the opening sequence; Lundgren never engages in what we might comfortably describe as "action"), and the emphasis on Stallone's emotional journey [sic] rendering him very much the film's protagonist, where he was just the main character in the preceding movie. A thin distinction, but an important one.

So anyways, it's dumb as hell, and there are lots of guns fired and things going boom, and Simon West, taking over directorial duties from Stallone, is at least better at staging action sequences, though the film is still over-edited to its intense disadvantage, with virtually every large-scale fight sequence (including a really big one near the end that is clearly meant to be a showtopper) rendered virtually incomprehensible at anything deeper than a "who's firing the gun now?" level. The gags are hatefully sophomoric - Bruce Willis's immortal "Yippee-ki-yay" line from Die Hard is brought in to showcase just how severe the difference between witty action one-liners and stupid laugh lines actually is, and it burns like fire to see such a classic moment savaged so badly - and the characters have lost even the one note that they had last time; it's like a half-note now. It's not a very good action movie, which makes sense, given that it's the sequel to a not-very-good action movie; robbed of the novelty that made its predecessor at least inventive in its badness, all that's left is the stupidity, the bad jokes, and the violent action, noisy and messy without being overly creative or even "awesome" enough to be more than an assault on the senses and on the dignity of all the 10-year-old boys who came up with a much, much cooler version of this same idea 25 years ago.

4/10

I DO, I DO, I DO BELIEVE IN SPOOKS

It is damned easy for the animation buff to get on a rant about how computer animation came in and destroyed everything, and it seems like we hardly ever get an animated feature done in any either form besides broadly realistic fully-rendered wire-frame CGI, and I know that because I've been on that rant. The fact remains that it is low on nuance to say that kind of thing, and while it is certainly the case that all the Blue Skies and all the Sony Animations in all the world have done a great deal to underline the notion that only corporatist hacks do fully-rendered CG, that's not the whole story. To with, ParaNorman, the second feature produced by Laika, the stop-motion animation house responsible for 2009's Coraline. Now, ParaNorman was not made on computers even to the degree that much so-called traditional animation is these days; it was produced with posable dolls that were photographed, one frame at a time, and painstakingly repositioned millimeters at a time. And yet, just like Coraline, so much of the finished product is digitally smoothed together and propped up with patches of CGI in the corners and in the big effects, just like in a proper live-action movie - in fact, ParaNorman has some of the best visual effects as such that I've seen in 2012, though that's not something that an animated movie is ever going to get very much notice for - and it's quite impossible to imagine the film without the aid of computer animation, because a great deal of what makes it visually impressive simply could not be in a pre-digital age. So which is it? Traditional stop-motion or not? The answer, of course, is "fuck it, it doesn't matter", and the moral of the production history of ParaNorman is that we shouldn't get hung up on production methods and just be grateful that the means exist for talented visual artists to express their ideas with such clarity, fludity, and precision.

All of which are at a feverishly high pitch here: ParaNorman is quite probably the most sophisticated stop-motion feature ever made, which is not really an opinion, as much as a summary of all the facts. If only for the stupendously innovative way that the animation team designed the characters' facial expressions - they were painted on a computer and formed by a 3-D printer, leading to a perfection and variability unimaginable in animation prior to this (Laika estimates that the protagonist of this film is capable of 1.5 million different expressions, a particularly impressive number when you realise that at 24 frames per second, it would take 17 hours to see all of them) - and the unbelievable nuanced lighting effects, this would be enough to jump over Coraline and leave The Nightmare Before Christmas so far behind as to look like a grammar school project. It's so beautiful that it's almost unbearable, but this only secondarily the point: far more important is the way that all this exciting new tech is able to deepen the film's world, emphasise the emotions of the characters, and build a complex and sustained mood in a richly cinematic way.

If there's a downside to all this, and I'm not certain that "downside" is the word I'd use, it's that the story being told here isn't nearly as solid as the one Henry Selick attacked in Coraline, and while the place-setting in the first third or so is wonderful, writer Chris Butler (who also co-directs, with Sam Fell) might have been well-advised to spend a bit more time fleshing out a conflict that doesn't dabble in such well-worn, obvious tropes. ParaNorman centers on Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee), an 11-year-old who lives in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, a town whose single apparent claim to fame is that in 1712, a witch was executed there, for nowadays the town's entire economy seems to run on witch-themed tourist shops and restaurants. It's a morbid sort of place to live, but Norman is morbid even by the standards of his peers, for he has the ability to speak with ghosts, who are thick on the ground in Blithe Hollow (the filmmakers skip the obvious "Blithe spirits" joke, which speaks better of them than it does of me), and the boy has been ostracised to the point of invisibility by bullies at school, by authority figures, and by his family. But as his strange Uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) tells him, Norman has an important gift, and only he can save Blithe Hollow from the witch's angry spirit, readying herself to wreak vengeance on this, the 300th anniversary of her hanging, right in the middle of the town's big celebration of same event. So Norman, his new friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), a bullied but sweet-tempered fat kid), Norman's sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick), Neil's brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), and cowardly bully Alvin (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) go on what amounts to a fetch quest to stop the witch.

The rather dismissive way I've just dealt with the last half of the movie points the massive problem I, at least, had with ParaNorman's script: it comes down with a godawful case of the Trites, as Norman discovers that the only way he can save the town is by being true to himself and not letting the bullies, in any and all forms they take, get him down. Which is a fine and noble message, but one that's been told better than it is here, and that's not even mentioning how arbitrary much of the conflict ends up being: there's a lengthy "let's find the witch's grave" subplot that ends up serving as a great big parenthesis in the middle of the story, and the feeling is of a film that would have been airtight at 65 minutes, but because we don't know how to release movies of that length anymore, it ballooned up to 93 minutes without any inherently exciting material getting it to that point. The saving grace is the characters: uniformly well-played by the best animated cast assembled in a couple of years, at least (especially a top-notch Smit-McPhee, remarkably more sensitive and nuanced as a voice than in the live-action roles I've seen of his), each given precise and deep personalities both in the writing and the design, which itself is a major gamble that pays off handsomely: the film's style is unabashedly grotesque, suiting its horrific scenario, and for a mainstream American animated picture with a presumptive family audience, the characters are stunningly unattractive on the face of it; but it takes only a few minutes of watching the animator's clean, graceful treatment of them to get used to it, while at the same time those designs express in straightforward physical terms what kind of person the characters are. It's a hell of a thing to see, really.

Even with the characters propping up the increasingly strained story, the best part of the movie lies in the first half, which sets the mood and builds one of the most unified animated worlds I've seen in ages: just listing all of the tossed-off background jokes would be another review in and of itself, so I'll content myself just to point out a sign outside the school reading "Spelling Bee Next Wensday". Even more than just building a magnificent place in the form of Blithe Hollow, though, what I love most about the film is how seriously it takes itself: this is a legitimate horror movie, that gets the idea of a creepy old forest and town with menacing buildings that possess no straight lines or right angles better than most "actual" horror does these days, and despite the expected post-modern gags (a fake-out, "they're watching a movie" opening; spot-the-reference moments that are a bit too cutesy), ParaNorman is an earnest attempt to make a spooky bedtime story about witches and zombies, and for that I respect it.

Indeed, respect is easy in coming for a movie that does something virtually no family films are willing to: it understands that the young people in the audience aren't as innocent as adults might want them to be, and it goes places that are frankly shocking for a "kids' movie", whether it's the unabashed embrace of gore, the awareness of sexuality if not of explicit sex (mostly in Courtney's "I'm going to fuck you soon" leers at Mitch, though there's a surprising moment when a character is revealed to be homosexual that's so not-a-big-dealish about it that it's already kicked off a backlash from angry conservative parents), or a terrific throwaway line where Norman is asked to swear that he'll perform a task: "Like, the F-word?" the confused pre-teen asks, and as little as that may seem, I triple-dog-dare you to imagine the phrase "F-word" in a Disney or DreamWorks picture. Character names based on the F-word, maybe, for the parents, but the acknowledgement that The Children might be aware of it? Never, not on your life. And that's what makes ParaNorman so damn smart and worthy of love: it's not dumbed-down, not sanded off, not safe. Like last year's best animated film, Rango, it's a genre film that happens to be a cartoon that happens to be family-friendly, only for the accident that the filmmakers wanted to make a movie that randomly turned out to be that way. But a kid's movie it's not: it's a drop-dead gorgeous, deliciously creepy horror-adventure-comedy that, irrespective of genre, age, or medium is one of the very best films to have come out this summer.

8/10

22 August 2012

BEST SHOT: DOG DAY AFTERNOON

The third year of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience ends tonight, with a film commemorating events that took place 40 years ago this very day: Dog Day Afternoon, one of the best bank robbery movies ever filmed, a crown jewel in the careers of director Sidney Lumet and star Al Pacino, quite possibly the high water mark of the 1970s "life on the filthy streets of New York City" subgenre that produced so many classics of urban blight, and for the trivia buffs out there, one of the five features made in the short career of actor John Cazale, who never acted in a movie that wasn't nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. To top it all off, it's one of the best movies about summertime heat ever made, as is only right, considering its title.

For a reason that is not clear to me, it never seems to have picked up the cachet of many similar movies from that era, never attaining the level of must-see classic that accrues to, say, The Godfather or Network, and this is unjust: it typifies all the things that are beloved of 1970s studio filmmaking as well as anything else. At any rate, if you need an excuse to see it, the anniversary is as good as any; "this film is a stone-cold masterpiece" was enough of a reason for me to revisit it for the first time in a shamefully long number of years, and I am grateful to have been pushed into it by this series.

So! to pick a best shot. It was not all that hard for me to know where I wanted to start looking, for even after the span of some years, one scene stuck out in my memory: late in the movie, as the bank robbery has long since gone to shit and lead robber Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) has becoming increasingly convinced that he's not going to come out of this alive, he dictates his last will and testament to one of his hostages. It is the finest moment of acting Pacino gives in this movie, and one of the best scenes in his career, and I knew I wanted to focus on this moment for that reason, though I was not certain that there'd be a particularly great shot involved. Silly me. Since this is a Lumet film, and if there's one thing he was great at throughout his career, it was using the camera to help draw out the best parts of his actors' performances. And that's how we get this:

It couldn't be much more straightforward, or perfect. Four characters on four planes, but what really hits in the moment is not that Sonny is surrounded by people, but that he's isolated even in the middle of them; they're out of focus, while he's in focus, once of the simplest tricks in the book, but it always works if you do it right. Still, even though he's the focal point of the shot, Sonny is still a messy disaster: the back-lighting on his shirt gives him an aura that serves to make him fuzzier and more indistinct, while his slumped posture (and he's constantly moving throughout the shot) makes him look saggy and weak while the other people involved are still and sturdy. And as for that back-lighting: note that everyone else has a light trained on a side of their body visible to the camera, while Pacino is bathed in gloom - of course, there's some light on his front, or there'd be nothing to look at, but while the other people here are front or side-lit, Sonny is blocking the light, in a sobering, quiet gesture of fatigue and despair. Coupled with Pacino's excellent reading of his will-writing monologue - dazed, sad, tired - it's a shot that could not more perfectly sum up the "let's please just get this over" feeling that has fully latched onto the plot at this point.

And one last thing, because I did after all call this one of the great summer movies: doesn't everybody just look miserably damn sweaty? I love it.

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: SHINY MOVIES WITH POP STARS

Every week 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: though it's technically a remake, what strikes me about Sparkle is its affinity with a much more recent film, which also had a title that sounds like lip gloss for 9-year-old girls, and which also tried to making an actor out of a pop music figure. Really, they made this one way too easy for me.

When Precious: It Was a Book Before We Made It Into a Movie came out, one of the things that cropped up in a great many reviews was that Mariah Carey was, shockingly, unbelievably, unfathomably good in her medium-small role. This should not be inherently surprising: singers frequently appear in medium-small roles in movies and do just fine for themselves; people as diverse as David Bowie, Kris Kristofferson, and Bette Midler have all made that jump and frequently been not just good but great, so Carey's prominence as the third-most impressive performer in her movie should not have been necessarily revolutionary. But one thing that Bowie, nor Kristofferson, nor Midler had, that Carey did, was Glitter, a transcendentally ill-advised 2001 vehicle that did not, as it is often said, represent the singer's first stab at movie acting - she appeared in the Chris O'Donnell/Renée Zellweger romcom The Bachelor that was lost at the same time that everybody in the entire world forgot that Chris O'Donnell was a thing, once. It was, however, hers and her people's attempt to make a movie star out of her and not just a character actor, one of those decisions that probably seemed really keen in the late '90s, when Carey's career was perched right on the line between "extremely successful recording artist" and "pop icon", but was in reality about as well-informed as the fateful moment when Kevin Costner managed to finagle a small fortune out of Universal to make his epic about post-apocalyptic fish people. Glitter, and its soundtrack album, tanked so hard that Carey's career stalled out for nearly half a decade, though as aggressively terrible as the movie is, she's lucky to have rebounded from it at all.

Herein, Carey plays Billie Frank, the child of a thoughtless, meanspirited white father who vanishes when the girl is quite young, and an alcoholic black mother (Lillian Frank) who barely manages to support both her habit and her daughter by singing, which involves, at least in the movie's first scene, dragging the terrified child onstage to complete her numbers when she is herself to plastered to finish. It's all okay, though, because little Billie has the most pure and powerful and beautiful voice of all time, and even her drunken mom understands that She Has A Gift That Will Change Her Future.

But not for a while yet: first Billie has to end up in foster care, so she can grow up with two tart-tongued ethnic friends, who literally introduce themselves, "she's black, and I'm Latin", and so I never bothered thinking of them as anything but Black Girl (Da Brat) and Latina Girl (Tia Texada), and when they're all grown up in the halcyon days of 1983, when the void left by the death of disco has given the world a need for a new kind of pop, they get a job working as backup singers for the gorgeous but vocally untalented Sylk (Padma Lakshmi, who was dating Salman Rushdie at the time, and is thus by default the most interesting person involved in the making of this movie). The shifty record impresario Timothy Walker (Terrence Howard) - who we don't immediately know is shifty, but he's a record impresario, so it's safe to assume - directs Billie to sing for Sylk, all Singin' in the Rain like, and this ruse works for just a short time before it is discovered by local club DJ Julian Dice (Max Beesley), who rescues her from Walker's nefariousness and starts writing songs that will make her a star in her own right. Sadly, there are certain dark melodramatic loose ends lying in wait, and while Dice and Billie fall in love, his attempts to guide her career look more and more possessive, and eventually they split up but we know they're meant to be together because they right the same song across time and space, but just when they're about to patch things up, Walker shoots Dice, and Billie sings at Madison Square Garden about pain and suffering and it is The Most Transcendentally Beautiful and Tragic Thing.

The legend goes that writers Cheryl L. West and Kate Lanier cobbled this together from details out of Carey's own life, so it's convenient for them that she apparently survived through the exact plot of A Star Is Born (all versions, but since it's music, primarily the Streisand one). As well as, for that matter, the Lanier-scripted What's Love Got to Do with It. But really, the aspiring music star rises to prominence though personal pain genre is its own thing, just as much as a film noir or a Western or a slasher movie is. So there's no actual reason to slag on it for being predictable, though it is very much that, to an absurd degree. There are plenty of things wrong with it before we have to crouch on "boo! hiss! cliché!" to bash at the movie. For example: the myth of Carey's autobiography does not explain why the action is set in 1983, when the singer was a hearty 13 years old, except that it permits the film to compound all its other sins by adding anachronism to the mix: if there's one thing Carey's overproduced screeching doesn't sound like (and even not being a Carey fan by any stretch, I can still recognise that Glitter is some of the worst material in her singing career), it's '80s pop; the fashions and to an extent the production design might tell us one thing, but the noises we hear tell us something very different. In a better movie, this tension would possibly be enough to be an irritation that derails the project, but Glitter is so pointless and dumb that it never matters. It sucks when Carey sings; it sucks when she does not sing; that the nature of its sucking shifts in between does not register and does not matter.

Nothing works here: Vondie Curtis-Hall's directing (because why not let a TV actor direct your biopic?) is largely perfunctory except when it is terrible, as in the moment where à propos of nothing, he uses an explosion of glitter - hey, it's the title of the movie! - as a scene transition, and the film as a whole is shot by Geoffrey Simpson to be much too dark and gloomy. Mostly, though, Glitter is just not a good film; it becomes overtly bad primarily through the writing, which compounds the mustiness of the plot with lines like "Is she black? Is she white? We don't care. She's exotic. I want to see more of her breasts", and shuffles through characters and situations so abruptly that a good ten minutes after Black Girl and Latina Girl had been dropped at the side of the road, I found myself wondering what they were up to and I had to go back to find out. Oh, readers, that is a lie: I did not rewind. I went to the Wikipedia page.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, what is worst about the film is the acting: and surprisingly Carey is not Worst in Show; that honor clearly goes to Beesley, whose attempts to play a smoldering loverboy and sensitive artistic collaborator are undone by his permanently leering expression, and sleazy line deliveries that suggest "...in my pants!" is being silently added to the end of every sentence he says. But Carey is probably the bigger problem, for it is a movie entirely about her; not her as a music star and certainly not her as a person, but her as a product to be consumed by the great teeming mass of culture, and while Glitter game well into her career, it still has the sense of presenting her to us: her is Mariah, here is her voice, here is her body; devour her, lust after her, idolise her. The reduction of the pop star to nothing but her hair and breasts and skin color is a tremendously poor fit for a movie about the soul inside a pop star who doesn't want to be seen as just those things; making matters even worse, Carey is made particularly unappealing as both a music idol and sex object in a movie that makes her look overwhelmingly crashed out. Her time off for "exhaustion" after the movie's completion was undoubtedly the egocentricity of the rich and detached, but at the same time, you don't have to watch more than a couple of scenes to see that, in fact, she was not a terribly energetic and happy person.

Maybe that's why her performance is so sublimely incompetent; I don't know. It doesn't work, though, not for an instant. When she is called upon to express emotions, you can watch the individual pieces click into place ("now I have to make a frown, and now I have to crinkle my forehead, and now I have to look down at the ground, and now I have to tremble my lip"), and it's so much exactly what you want it to look like when a famous person, detached from human experience, has to train themselves how to feel feelings, it's hard not to read just that into a movie: here is Mariah Carey, the robot, breaking apart for our displeasure. Christ, she can't even sing convincingly, lip-syncing so badly that one pities the editor who had to decide that, against all the evidence, these were the best takes.

Glitter is so much about Carey at every moment and in every respect that nothing else needed to go wrong: the singer being a commandingly poor actress and deeply unsympathetic anti-emotive trainwreck are all it takes to make Glitter rancid and unwatchable; that the rest of the movie ecstatically joins her in a rush to the bottom is merely icing. This is an unusually brittle, heartless movie, stupid and empty, and the sight of Carey desperately failing to put over anything resembling a character is more pathetic and off-putting than it is hilariously bad. Glitter is too washed-out and worthless to even be so bad it's good, and when a pop star's semi-biopic can't get up even to that level of tackiness, things have gone even farther wrong than you'd already have expected from this misbegotten scenario.