30 July 2016

KEEP ON TREKKIN'

Wouldja look at that, hire some filmmakers who actually give a shit about Star Trek, and poof! you have yourself a perfectly solid Star Trek movie. It only took three tries - and getting J.J. Abrams hired away to direct a film in that other space franchise - but the neo-Trek prequel/reboot series that started in 2009 with the simply-titled Star Trek has finally turned out a movie that resembles the original TV series and its six theatrical sequels in more than just character names and costume design concepts. The film to get there is a certain Star Trek Beyond, which is notable as well for having the most godawful title in thirteen Star Trek features, and I really didn't think that after Star Trek Into Darkness there was even the abstract possibly of going any lower on that count.

Beyond kicks off in grand Star Trek movie fashion, by assuming we're all big ol' nerds who've seen the other films and have them pretty much memorised and require absolutely no spooling up. So Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), in year three of his five-year mission leading the USS Enterprise, is bored out of his wits. The frontier of space exploration in the United Federation of Planets turns out to be mindlessly schlepping diplomats and negotiating treaties with flyspeck civilisations out in the deep reaches of the galaxy: the opening sequence dramatises this workaday existence in a goofy comic sequence that would run damn close to being obnoxious and trivially silly if it wasn't so utterly sweet at heart (being utterly sweet saves Beyond from a lot of sins that have felled a good many Star Trek pictures over the years). And may I salute screenwriters Simon Pegg & Doug Jung for opening their new movie with this gambit: by directly marching up to the fifty-year-old Star Trek formula of exploring new worlds and having the swashbuckling main character complain that it's boring. The remainder of the film, of course, finds Kirk being rejuvenated, and if it's too much to hope that Star Trek itself can ever feel like something truly fresh and new in this year of our Lord 2016, Beyond does its very damnedest to at least be fun enough that it manages to be exciting itself.

Fun. Yes, that's the word. Beyond is fun - it is, in fact, maybe the most fun that any of the 13 Star Trek movies have ever been. The emerging critical consensus is very much that this feels like an oversize episode of a television show, which isn't entirely fair on the details - it is very consequential and involves life-altering decisions and events - but gets at least one thing exactly right: the appeal of the movie is exactly the appeal of hanging out with the main characters and watching them do their thing. I'm not sure the film gets to this point entirely honestly: these specific incarnations of the characters, played by these specific actors, haven't been around for long enough to earn that kind of "you know us and love us! Enjoy romping through a summertime adventure with us!" goodwill, particularly since the previous films have generally done as Star Trek movies do, and focus on Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) to the general exclusion of the rest of the characters.

This, then, is what makes Penn & Jung's script so important: they have put real effort into giving most of the cast some chance to stand out. Is it cheating that they're drawing so much on the personalities from a canonised TV classic to flesh out these characters? Yes, probably, and not everybody in the cast thrives on it: after two films of being generally terrific and maybe my favorite ensemble member both times around, I found Karl Urban to have weirdly lost his grip on Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, who now feels like an embarrassed attempt to poorly ape DeForest Kelley's prickly Southern asshole with a lot of mugging and playing to the cheap seats. Though when the plot starts carving out smaller chunks from the main narrative, and puts Urban and Quinto alone together, Urban does manage to find something of his own version of the character once more, at least temporarily.

Anyway, that's what really marks out Beyond as a tiny little genius bit of writing: not the plot, which is such boilerplate that I'd fall into a boredom coma if I had to reacap it (latex-headed despot wants to destroy the Federation using an unimaginable superweapon, and the only reason it's not as lifeless as the conflict in the 2009 Star Trek is that Idris Elba plays the bad guy, and even under thick makeup and with nothing to do until the last ten minutes, Elba is the absolute tops). It's the way the plot breaks the cast into neatly-defined parcels that allow most of the characters to shine: Spock & McCoy, Kirk and nervous young Pavel Chekhov (Anton Yelchin, to whose memory the film is dedicated), Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Pegg himself) and mysterious white-faced alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella, a great old-school Trek addition, with her erratic behavior always managing to feel convincingly alien without getting in the way of enjoying her presence), and Nyota Uhura (Zoë Saldana) and Hikaru Sulu (John Cho). Not since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has any Star Trek movie of any generation put in such an earnest effort to give each member of the cast a meaningful contribution to the plot, and it doesn't actually work: the Uhura/Sulu leg of the story is absolutely given short shrift, with Sulu barely even registering for the first three-quarters of the movie (the ballyhooed "he's gay now" scene barely even causes a flicker, and would practically count as subtext if one doesn't go looking for it), and Uhura coming across as a generic "strong female character = can punch things" figure, though at least it's better than "Spock's nagging girlfriend", like she was in the last two movies.

But anyway, the movie is positively rotten with its love and affection for these characters, giving them plenty of characteristic moments even if half of them don't actually have characteristics, and throwing a great many good-natured quips and corny jokes at the audience. It's unbelievably pleasant, and it's handled with a great deal of energy by director Justin Lin, taking a break from Fast & Furious movies to bring just enough contemporary flash and dazzle (not to mention over-editing, the one acute flaw in the movie; when you have sci-fi action choreography as natty as the second-act climax of Beyond, you should really let it take places in long enough, continuous enough chunks that we can appreciate it) to let the film work as a 2016 tentpole filled to the brim with the series' now-familiar top-notch CGI, but not to go overboard, as Abrams did, in making it feel like he secretly wants it to be something else. This is altogether Star Trek: most of the action takes place surrounded by coastal forest and rocks that look moderately artificial, the aliens are all obvious masks on normal human bodies, and any technical problem can be solved by throwing five-syllable words at it. And the people making it adore it for that: it is an astonishingly sincere movie, with not one detectable spot of cynicism even in the most theoretically-dire moments, like when the Beastie Boys are used to blow up alien spaceships. This in a movie released in 2016 and set in 2263, no less.

Not everything plays well: the film is addicted to shots where the camera rotates from side to side like we're on a boat in a storm, and the finale includes yet another aerial battle through a sterile urban environment where windows blow out of CGI buildings. And by God, it's trivial: if it captures the original series' love for its characters, born from a deeply optimistic belief in humankind's ability to figure it out and do right even in the face of overwhelming odds, its appeals to the original's sometimes ludicrous, always heartfelt humanist philosophy are so vaguely "be nice to each other" as to feel like they were taken without alteration from a kindergarten teacher. But the Star Trek movies were never really great cinema, and most of them were nowhere near this confidently entertaining and convinced that a good attitude and non-stop swashbuckling was enough to put over a fluffy summertime diversion. It's not a popcorn movie for the ages, but it's certainly facing in that direction.

7/10

Reviews in this series
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise, 1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (Nimoy, 1984)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (Nimoy, 1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Shatner, 1989)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Meyer, 1991)
Star Trek: Generations (Carson, 1994)
Star Trek: First Contact (Frakes, 1996)
Star Trek: Insurrection (Frakes, 1998)
Star Trek: Nemesis (Baird, 2002)
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Into Darkness (Abrams, 2013)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)

29 July 2016

BEST SHOTS: THE 1977 BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY OSCAR NOMINEES

It's an exciting experimental week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot at the Film Experience: to tie in with the monthlong appreciation of 1977 (including a brief appreciation of that year's nominees for Best Animated Short film by yours truly), Nathaniel has selected not one, but all five of that year's nominees for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography as our collective subject for the week

UPDATE 7/29: All films completed!

The Nominees:
Close Encounters of the Third Kind *WINNER*
Islands in the Stream
Julia
Looking for Mr. Goodbar
The Turning Point

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY

A review requested by Andy Stout, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

A film like Martyrs has to exist, and I'm glad it does. That is not the same thing as being glad I've personally seen it, and it sure as bloody hell isn't the same thing as recommending it to any living human being.

Coming out a few years into the torture porn cycle of the 2000s, and a few years after the New French Extremity movement had largely run out of gas, Martyrs is a commentary on both of those trends that's also a manifestation of them at their most extreme. It is the torture movie to end all torture movies, perhaps even literally - hard to imagine where the genre could go after this other than deeper and deeper into Human Centipede-style provocations with nothing in mind other than to dare the audience into making it all the way through. Martyrs certainly has a lot more on its mind than that, though I'm not sure that it's successful at not being primarily a dare.

I'm jumping the gun a bit - one of the most notable things about Martyrs is how cleanly it breaks into three acts (and a prologue), and each act is more of a button-pushing provocation than the last. The first 40 minutes or so of the movie are actually pretty much just great horror filmmaking, a bit gorier and more nihilistic than the average, but not anything that's going to cause any sort of moral panic or grave hand-wringing. We start without any context at all, as a ten-year-old girl, Lucie (Jessie Pham), covered in blood and filth, runs through the streets of some nameless city (the Franco-Canadian co-production was shot in Québec). It is an extraordinary opening: clattering noise on the soundtrack, with barely-perceptible underlit images flying by until Lucie bursts out into the daylight, at which point bright images fly by, only slightly more perceptibly, and now we can see the freaked-out handheld camera that was only vaguely apparent at first (the film boasts the work of three cinematographers: Stéphane Martin, Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, and Bruno Philip - I do not know who was responsible for what footage). It's altogether appalling, an instant series of aggressive swipes against the viewer's sense of stability and decorum. Since this will be the mood that Martyrs seeks to escalate for all of it 99 minutes, this is the ideal opening.

Lucie ends up at an orphanage, where she recovers physically but not emotionally, suffering from visions of a human figure brutally attacking her. Between the opening credits (footage taken of her by doctors and therapists), and the introduction of a new protagonist in the form of Anna (Erika Scott), the film starts to lock us out of Lucie's mind almost immediately, and that's where it leaves us for 15 years, shifting gears entirely along the way. Now we're in a neat middle-class home filled with a neat middle-class family: a husband (Robert Toupin), a wife (Patricia Tulasne), and two teenage kids (Juliette Gosselin and Xavier Dolan, just a year away from his first film as a director). They're not terribly pleasant people, but in a fairly generic way: the brother, Antoine, is unnecessarily mean to his sister, Marie; Mom pranks the family by dropping a dead mouse on the breakfast table; things of that sort. That doesn't mean they obviously deserve what comes next: the arrival of an empty-eyed adult Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï), dressed in a hoodie and wielding a shotgun. After murdering the whole family, with animalistic fury, she slows down enough to check in with Anna (Morjana Alaoui), who is horrified and not entirely surprised. Apparently, Lucie has suspected for some time that the now-dead parents were responsible for kidnapping her all those years ago. Revenge has not given her any emotional freedom, though: she has a vision the dark figure attack her again, which Anna witnesses from outside as her friend apparently beating herself to death.

I am running through the plot of Martyrs much more slowly than the film does itself: all that barely gets us to the one-third mark of the film, with two major shifts to go. First, as Anna lingers around the house now filled with five dead bodies, she discovers that Lucie was entirely right: there is a secret death dungeon in the house, currently holding a badly abused young woman (Emilie Miskdjian), whose naked body is an unrecognisable pattern of cuts and scars, all topped off with some kind of monstrous steel headpiece. And once Anna has succeeded in prying it off - attended by a great deal of blood - a cluster of very officious individuals show up to clean the house and cart Anna away to a very dark industrial-looking facility where she meets a turban-wearing elderly woman (Catherine Bégin), who kicks off the actual meat of Martyrs as far as most people think about it and talk about it.

That's more than understandable - the last half-hour of the film is one of those "once seen, never forgotten" deals - but the whole of Martyrs is such a marvelously well-built machine that I'd like to restore to it some of its effectiveness as an entire feature. Because without that first hour slowly and steadily tweaking the viewer, I'm not sure that the final act would hit quite as hard. The important thing to note is that it doesn't hit the ground running. I mean, it does, in the most literal possible sense. But it develops from there. First, it's just sensory overload: an awareness of sound and disordered imagery, which assaults us first with its agitation and second with the ugliness and violence it depicts. Then, for a long time, the film drops to a crawl: the family is depicted with a great deal of deliberate slowness; the process by which Lucie kills them all is drawn out; Anna's attempts to help but also stop her friend take a great deal, and so on and so forth. The film simmers on low, with mercilessly controlled by writer-director Pascal Laugier to feel even more languid than is actually the case, with a great many moments of nothing in particular separating the explosions of violence. Which are, themselves, largely presented with guttural bluntness that makes them much more horrible - especially Marie's death, presented in a flurry of feathers as her bed virtually explodes under Lucie's attack.

None of this, understand, is very pleasant to watch: this isn't a goofy slasher movie where the excessive of gore is part of the melodrama, nor even a straight horror film where we get enough of an adrenaline rush from the sense of danger that it provides a nice jolt of catharsis. This is a depiction of cruelty without any purpose or meaning. Even if we never know much about that dead family, even if the little we know about them mostly makes them seem vaguely unpleasant, it is gut-wrenching to see their bodies neatly piled up in the bathroom. Watching them die, watching them become aware that they are about to die, is extraordinarily distressing. The scene of Anna pulling steel bolts out of the other woman's skull is so visceral as to be almost impossible to watch. But for this much, at least, Martyrs still feels pretty much like a horror movie: there's a feeling of genuine terror and involvement, and the excellent score by the wonderfully-named "Seppuku Paradigm" (brothers Alex and Willie Cortés), moody and dark electronica, is heavy while also propelling the film along.

All of this changes after Anna enters the facility where Martyrs earns its reputation as one of the most intense and repulsive of all torture movies. The idea is that the turban-wearing woman and her crew are trying to torture the most innocent young women they can acquire, in the hopes that being put into a near-death state through pain and agony will trigger an ecstatic response. This will give them a sense of what the world after this one looks like. And so, for the rest of the movie, we watch as they abuse her with an almost clinical absence of narrative, escalating from petty torments like something a cruel child might do in the schoolyard, up to an act of violence that puts Martyrs among the most sickening movies I've ever watched. Twice, in fact, and I will say this about the movie: seeing it more than once is, unbelievably, a very useful thing to do. The first time, one is mostly just repulsed. The second time, it's possible to think about why Laugier is up to this particular game. Which is not, I hope, simply about the rather dopey idea that women's suffering ("martyrdom", you might say) can be spiritually transcending, nor is it about the coy non-ending ending, in which we're left unaware if the Other World is so beautiful it can't be endured, or so repulsive it can't be contemplated. Though Laugier seems awfully proud of both of these things.

What Martyrs is doing, basically, is the good old "why do you like this revolting crap?" routine, but it does it more honestly than any movie I can name. We're miles away from Funny Games, which similarly uses extremity to critique extremity; there's never a sense that Laugier is pulling that film's intellectual smug trick of insulting the audience for wanting to be entertained. Martyrs is a genuinely gripping, engaging horror movie, one that uses our empathy for all of the characters who get variously damaged and murdered to keep us in a state of suspense and emotional involvement; it's not "fun" according to any remotely healthy definition of that word, but it is astonishingly watchable, even at its most upsetting and wretched. Laugier understands the appeal of these movies, whether from humanism (watching people dying as a reminder of our own fragility) or from anti-humanism (outrageous gore is exciting and cool), and does not diminish that appeal.

But in pushing the violence so far that the only reasonable response to it is to be vaguely deadened and muted - as horrifying as the climax is, twice in two viewings I've ended up feeling numb to it by the end - Laugier deprives us of any sort of real positive reaction. And by couching it in the form of a story about torturers trying to achieve spiritual ecstasy, he invites us to think about motivations: ours, the villains, his own for making the movie. Why do we like this? Or, more to the point, why do we like it sometimes, and not others? What is the purpose of committing to watching a movie so fully offensive and obnoxious? I don't believe Martyrs has any remote interest in answering those questions: it only invites us to contemplate them. Our response to the movie is the movie, in a way, and that gives this far more value than all the Saws and Hostels put together. Does any of this actually make it worth anybody's effort to watch the film? I don't know, but my instinct is to say that it doesn't. Still, the kind of person who'd be inclined to seek Martyrs out is probably not the kind of person who'd regret that decision.

NA/10

26 July 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: GIMME SHELTER

The absolutely worst thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it's titled 10 Cloverfield Lane. For the title means that we're going to have some expectation that it will in some capacity tie into the 2008 giant monster from space movie Cloverfield, no matter how much we want not to. Thus, no matter how carefully Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle's screenplay keeps refusing to give us even the slightest hint as to whether the unhinged survivalist keeping a young woman and man locked with him in a subterranean bunker is right to do so, or if he's just a dangerous lunatic, it takes a viewer with steelier willpower than I to not keep giving the movie sidelong glances and asking, "yeah, but there are aliens, right? This whole time it's about aliens."

Maybe it's about aliens, maybe it's not. I won't spoil the film any more than it already came pre-spoiled. Of course it's about fucking aliens. But for most of its running time, that's not what it's about at all, and I think with a little more massaging and craftiness, and a screenwriter capable of coming remotely close to being able to concoct a reasonably convincing human female, there could have been a pretty swell modern-day Twilight Zone story in here. If nothing else, the film has an absolute all-timer of an ambiguous villain in the form of John Goodman's Howard the survivalist: as nobody but the Coen brothers have ever seemed to notice before now, Goodman's big, gregarious papa bear demeanor can be easily tweaked just a few notches into something towering and threatening. Howard's not an achievement in pure burning menace like Charlie Meadows in the final act of Barton Fink; hell, he's probably not as actually, unpredictably scary as the short-fused Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. But this is still excellent work from Goodman, who uses his big frame and quiet, steady voice to project somebody who is so eminently capable of being dangerous that it's somewhat immaterial if he's being specifically dangerous about any one thing at any given moment.

For reasons that are hard to pin down, nothing else in 10 Cloverfield Lane is nearly as good as Goodman's performance: it's a strangely uninvolving movie for the most part, despite a crackerjack premise and solid acting all around. It's a little too slick and polished, maybe; it has all the earmarks of production company Bad Robot, which has an unerring tendency to make movies that look like really glamorous TV pilots (and TV pilots that look like unusually impressive low-budget movies, to be fair), which is sort of a problem - one expects a tension-filled bunker to be kind of grimy and underlit, right? Or is that just me? - but production designer Ramsey Avery and cinematographer Jeff Cutter tag-team on making a space that's claustrophobic and tense, while also feeling like Howard put some manner of effort into humanising it, despite having a weak handle on how humans live. It feels like a set; but it feels like a really well-made set that has been meticulously planned out to maximise the potential of the screenplay.

It's a good screenplay, too. Not a great screenplay. The characters are largely inauthentic, acting the way they have to in order to ensure that the plot develops at the right pace rather than because it feels like an inevitable part of who and what they are. As far as is possible, the actors compensate for this. Our main character is Michelle, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and she's a sketch more than a complete role: there's a sense that she ought to feel on heightened awareness constantly, being trapped in a bunker with two men, one of whom almost certainly is lying to her about his intentions, but for protracted sections, the script largely forgets that this is the case; it falls entirely to Winstead to keep up a sense of tension in her character. This mostly works, with Winstead's way of crouching against walls and flicking her gaze all around selling most of what we need to know about Michelle's nervous, wired state, which simply isn't there in much of the writing. Even she's not able to redeem the way that Michelle acts in accordance with a three-act structure rather than her own good sense; in particular, there's a moment where she discovers a frantic, scratched-out cry for help that seems impossible to me: surely she would have discovered it before then if she was actually hunting for a way out as systematically as it feels like she must have been.

As for the third character, Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.): he's mostly present to add a layer of interest to the film & keep it from being a repetitive two-hander, and Gallagher accordingly plays the part with a good sense of humor and no stabs at crafting an inner life.

Anyway, despite all of this, 10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely onto something; its depiction of power dynamics and the way people try to outwit seemingly unsolvable problems can be quite clever, and it's generally a pretty fine depiction of reasonable paranoia. Director Dan Trachtenberg keeps shifting the tone between outright menace and more unexpected, loose hang-out moments - there are jokey song cues that have no right to work as well as they do - which keeps us mostly on our toes. It's not really anything deeper than a doodle, which is a shame; but it's a reasonably fast-paced thriller that manages to keep us confused about where precisely it's going even though where it's generally going could not be any more obvious. Howard is sufficiently unpredictable that we remain as confused and nervous around him as Michelle, so even if the characters are ultimately underwritten, we still end up feeling a solid bond with them.

I'm even intrigued, on paper, by the loopy final act, though the execution is conspicuously lacking. There's something to be said for letting a movie that spends as much time stretching the viewer's nerves tight having a sudden explosive unraveling of action. There'd be even more to be said for it if that action was particularly interesting, as opposed to be mostly a rather lifeless Jurassic Park riff with plasticky CGI, and if it ended in a way that left this movie feeling meaningfully contained, as opposed to being open-ended for the sake of it. In practice, the whole thing feels nonsensical and a sop to fanboys who came for the title and nothing else, and it casts a retrospective pall over the whole feature; but then, 10 Cloverfield Lane feels always and above all like it's failing to be the best version of itself, so a finale that seems at odds with the rest of the film is mostly just par for the course.

6/10

ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK?

Scary is subjective, what makes one person quiver down to the base of their spine makes the person sitting next to them yawn with boredom, all that good stuff, and I wasn't thinking about any of that "let us be sensibly objective" bullshit while I was quivering in pleasurable agony in the mostly dark theater watching Lights Out, a horror film that jangled every last one of my nerves more expertly than anything in ages. Since at least The Babadook, and even that at least let up now and then; Lights Out succeeded in continuously freaking my shit out right up till the very end. Even after it had fully laid out all the exposition clarifying what was going on - especially after that point, in fact - which virtually always the death knell of cinematic ghost stories.

Setting that aside, is this, in fact, a good movie? Well, that depends on what you consider "good" to mean. Having compared it to The Babadook, I might as well keep on doing it: like that film, Lights Out is a symbolic study of depression, specifically how a woman whose husband has recently died begins to fall apart, leaving her young son to deal with the emotional fallout, which comes in the form of a long-fingered, rasping ghost that flutters around at the edges of the light. And Lights Out is... not really great at doing most of that. In fairness, it's not really trying: at no point in that little sketch did I actually get as far as the film's actual protagonist, the woman's adult daughter by a previous marriage, and calling Lights Out a symbolic study of anything is already loading it up with baggage it wasn't built to carry. This isn't a "smart" movie. It is a "scare the bejesus out of you" movie.

The hook is absurdly straightforward: when the light is off, it is possible to see crouching in doorways or in the backs of rooms the figure of a spindly humanoid with long scraggly hair. When the light is on, that figure disappears - but it can move. And when you turn the light back off, it can attack with those awful talon-like figures. If that sounds familiar, that's because there's nothing inherently unique about this conceit: if nothing else, Lights Out bears clear similarities to "Blink", among the best-loved episodes of the 21st Century incarnation of Doctor Who, and I shouldn't think that it was invented there, either. So what, if it's well-executed, and director David F. Sandberg already proved himself capable of that back in 2013, when he used this same idea for a punishing little short - also titled Lights Out - that earned him the chance to expand it into this feature, with the assistance of writer Eric Heisserer (the curious can find the short online without too much effort - right here, for example - and if you're not curious you really ought to be).

The feature-length Lights Out is not as good as 80 minutes of the 2.5 minute Lights Out, since at that length it's obliged to trot out character drama, and the drama it comes up with isn't the best in the world. So we've got Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), about whose current life we learn very little other than that there's a guy, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), who's over-the-moon crazy for her, but she wants very much to keep things at "we hang out and have sex" level, even after eight months. This, we can infer, is because of the broken family life she left behind: her mother, Sophie (Maria Bello) has frequent bouts of crippling depression, which was apparently enough to drive Rebecca's dad away many years ago. Since then, Sophie has remarried and had a son, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who is about ten now, and by all accounts she's been able to get things more or less under control. But all it takes is a nasty setback to put her back in a depressive spiral, and they don't come much nastier than losing your husband to a brutal attack by an unidentified assailant. We know who killed poor Paul (Billy Burke), though - it was that scraggly human figure (Alicia Vela-Bailey) skulking around in the warehouse he managed late one night.

The plot develops pretty seamlessly from this: the thing shows up in Martin's bedroom at night, and Sophie apparently knows it and talks to it like a friend, which is when Rebecca forces herself back into a situation she thought was far behind her. The secrets of what link the creature has to Sophie's childhood are explained with gratifyingly little fuss: unlike the vast majority of ghost movies I can name, Lights Out doesn't present the "aha, this is the photograph and these are the news reports that let us know this wrathful spirit's identity!" as the kick-off to the disappointing third act pseudo-exorcism, we learn exactly what's up with "Diana", as the thing calls itself, scratching its name into Rebecca's floor, before the halfway point of the movie. I find this enormously gratifying: it makes Diana somehow much more threatening and horrible, in that knowing almost everything there is to know about her does not in any way make Rebecca and Martin safer. Knowing everything just underscores how difficult it is to escape her, since there will always be shadowy places that she can hide.

It's a beautiful piece of machinery: Sandberg uses lots of empty frames with hanging corners drooping with gloomy shadows to keep us on our toes: there's always a place for Diana to suddenly swoop in to terrorise the characters, so it grows more and more nerve-wracking as we keep waiting for jump scares that don't pay off. Director of photography Marc Spicer has a field day with all the underlit interiors he's asked to supply (it's a pretty satisfactory knock-off of Gordon Willis's work), and goes all-in on the finale, lit with what is clearly not an actual blacklight, but has the sickly, nauseating colors that imply something akin to one. And the editing, by Michel Aller and Kirk M. Morri, is superb: given how much the film's very concept rests on alternating between what you see and what you don't, the precision of deciding where the camera is pointing at any given beat is vital to keeping up the sense of constant wariness that drives the movie.

The pity about all this is that it can't be tied to a better human story: I'm not inherently opposed to the depression narrative, which gives Lights Out something of the feeling of an early-season episode of The X-Files, in which the paranormal gives weight to character drama and vice-versa. But these particular characters - more to the point, these particular performances - don't live up to that. Bello is dismayingly broad in her portrayal, while Palmer's early prickly defensiveness which she only lets down by accident (her flirtation scenes with DePersia are excellent, though he is kind of terrible at everything else) grows less impressive as it becomes clear that she's not going to try to do much of anything else. Bateman is largely wonderful at playing a child who has to play-act at being a grown-up because the actual grown-ups are letting him down, but doesn't quite get how to do it, and the film needs a strong performance in his lynchpin role; but there's not much else going around as far as the acting is concerned. Perhaps with a stronger human element, we'd be looking at an instant horror classic: as it is, I shall content myself with being contented by getting a good strong dose of the creeps, always a rare pleasure for the horror film habitué.

7/10

25 July 2016

JULY OF BLOOD: GOD, I HOPE I GET IT

There aren't too many slasher films as scattered as Curtains. When I put it that way, it sounds like it's not even a compliment. And I suppose it probably isn't a compliment, at that, given how much the movie at the end feels like a collection of scene ideas tacked to a board over the screenwriter's desk, rather than any sort of cohesive final object. But this is as clear an example of the whole being greater than the sue its parts as you're ever likely to trip across; and besides, if those parts don't quite hang together, the film comes by it honestly.

I'll only give you the whirlwind version of the production history: Richard Ciupka, a cinematographer of good standing, wanted to make his directorial debut (his prior career is a fascinating one, swerving from chintzy sexploitation sequel Ilsa, the Tigress of Siberia over to the superlative Louis Malle character drama Atlantic City in just three years; I was all set to praise him for being the only man to shoot both an Ilsa and and Best Picture Oscar nominee, and imagine how staggered I was to learn that he wasn't - Dean Cundey managed the same trick, though it took him two decades), and he saw in Robert Guza, Jr's screenplay a chance to do just that with a sophisticated, grown-up thriller about professional cruelty and jealousy. Producer Peter Simpson wanted to re-create his success in the thriving field of slasher movies by following the 1980 hit Prom Night with another film about pretty girls being hunted by a blade-wielding crazy, and he saw that in Guza's screenplay. Neither man was necessarily wrong, but oh my, how they were wrong for each other, and the production of Curtains, which started in 1980, descended into a furious chain of fights between producer and director with Ciupka storming off with the project only halfway completed. Simpson spent the next couple of years re-shooting, junking footage, replacing actors, and eventually cobbling the whole thing together in a form that hit theaters in the spring of 1983 (it would be released in its native Canada for another year and then some), with Ciupka refusing to lend his name to the hybrid project, which instead was cheekily credited to director "Jonathan Stryker", named after the menacing Svengali who drives the plot of the movie itself.

You an absolutely see the results of all that fumbling and reworking onscreen; even just the visual end result boasts all the scars of its production. The whole thing is credited to just one cinematographer, Robert Paynter, but it surely doesn't look that way. The footage quality is all over the place, with at least one phase of the production looking shamelessly under-saturated relative to everything else, while also being distinctly soft (my suspicion is that we're seeing the results of using a crappy lab for a few isolated reels). Meanwhile, the narrative is nothing if not shambolic: there are no fewer than three candidates for lead character based on where we are in the movie, and even beyond that, the emphasis on different people in the ensemble cast is such that none of them actually feel like they've been properly defined, leaving it entirely a result of which actors are the liveliest as to which characters are the most engaging.

For all that, it's surely captivating, and by the midway point, the lack of focus has emerged as a real benefit to the movie: it feels like it's gaslighting us just as thoroughly as its characters. Mind you, by the end of the movie, the lack of focus has become acutely annoying: the not exactly a Final Girl sequence, hinges on the character whom I would call, up to that point, the least interesting and most ill-defined member of the cast, and it's only thanks to the really excellent, inexplicably terrifying mise en scène that the sequence hangs together at all. But anyway, Curtains: the movie that opens with actress Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Eggar) losing her mind right in the middle of running lines with movie writer-director Jonathan Stryker (John Vernon), who has just written the title roll of Audra for her, and is finding she's not up to the challenge, so he berates her right up to the point of madness. Aha, except that it's all a ruse: Stryker and Samantha have agreed that the best way for her to research Audra will be to get her admitted to a psychiatric institution and her breakdown has been all for the benefit of the doctors, the better to convince them that she belongs there. And here comes the gaslighting: once Samantha is securely locked up, Stryker announces that he's casting the lead in Audra from among a group of six up-and-coming actresses, and when Samantha discovers this fact, she also discovers that she's not going to be getting out anytime soon. So, as one will, she breaks out - and we all know what happens when people break out of the asylum in a slasher movie.

Even by the time this prologue wraps up, it's clear that regular conceptions of pacing and rhythm will not be major priorities to Curtain: it transforms almost invisibly into a montage depicting Samantha's entrapment as a series of disconnected moments which the editing doesn't link at all; instead, it fashions each of them as a separate little diorama, with each pause driving Samantha more and more into a fit of depressive isolation and, possibly, actual madness. It's a patchwork in which we lose all sense of time and continuity, and it's dour and moody, and I actually loved it a little bit. It helps that Eggar, who hated the project in all of its incarnations and only took it for the paycheck, is a Real Actress, who places a genuine sense of frustration and cold rage into Samantha's exile. For that matter, it's pretty unexpected and fascinating that Curtains puts so much energy into depicting the sorrows of a middle-aged woman who finds herself shanghied into the exposition of a slasher movie; it's a genre about and for the young, and Samantha is a singularly unique protagonist, even if she more or less stops being the protagonist by the end of the opening sequence. Still, you can see the echoes of Ciupka's hope that this would be a respectable adult variation on slasher movie themes, and even as it becomes "pretty young things trapped in an isolated house get killed", our initial alignment with Samantha never quite gives up its hold.

The bulk of the movie is, of course, pretty young things trapped house in the snowy woods: one of them, Amanda Teuther (Deborah Burgess) doesn't even get that far before having a peculiar nightmare about a doll standing in the middle of a rainy road reach out and strangle her. She wakes up just in time to be murdered in real life, unbeknownst to the rest of Stryker's hopefuls: Brooke Parsons (Linda Thorson), Patti O'Connor (Lynne Griffin), Christie Burns (Lesleh Donaldson), Laurian Summers (Anne Ditchburn), and Tara DeMillo (Sandra Warren). For some truly baffling reason, the director has decided to pen them all up in one house for the weekend to test for the part, leading to a hothouse of jealousy, backbiting, and the constant crushing sense that Stryker only really has them there to make it easier to bed them all one by one. Samantha finds her way there, to Stryker's rather discomfiting lack of surprise, and she looms over the nervous young actresses like a stormcloud.

I will not spoil what happens, although I will say that Curtains found the one way to actually surprise me: while it seems clear enough that Samantha is just a red herring, it's deeply unclear which of the remaining characters (possibly including Stryker) might be responsible for killing the young performers, while wearing the mask of a wrinkled red-headed hag - carefully arranged so that the victims, as their numbers dwindle, feel no sense of impending danger. And eventually, the reveal turns out to be just off-beat enough that it's almost impossible to predict: there's a certain unofficial inviolate rule of slasher movies that is violated, perfectly fairly, and in a way that adds a surprising dimension to the character arcs of the people who remain alive by that point - it's like if the whole thing was a secret O. Henry homage.

Anyway, the fragmentary narrative construction plays well within the off-kilter mystery framework of the film - because they've all been pieced together from little chunks of story, everybody's behavior feels simply wrong, and we can't force them into being right no matter what. It's a blurry scenario that seems as untethered from reality as its ultimate killer: the menacing dream doll returns in the real world during an extraordinary extended sequence that results in Christie's death after ice skating: the appearance of the hag-mask killer is so much more ethereal and baffling than scary that even the victim doesn't seem to process what's going on at first.

In short, Curtains makes good use of being a total, unsalvageable mess by turning a lack of coherence into something like a Euro-art horror film of psychological disarray (Ciupka might have lost the battle for control of the movie, but the results are nothing like the mainstream hack-and-slash boilerplate that Simpson was looking for; even the Final Girl sequence, thanks to its funhouse-like arrangement of hanging mannequins, has a more abstracted feeling than your average Jason Voorhees wannabe with a big knife). In many ways - too many - Curtains is utterly dissatisfying, particularly when it focuses on any characters other than Samantha, Patti, or Christie, and the abruptness with which it starts disposing of victims smacks of the desperation of a filmmaking team anxious to get us to the plot resolution rather than anything artful or creative. But the potency of individual scenes can be extreme, and those moments tend to linger: Samantha's misery in the asylum lingers over the first half, and Christie's tearful shame after she sleeps with Stryker - an astonishingly painful, honest moment for a slasher film that's actively uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch - lingers over the second, and the whole thing is suffused with a sense of human frailty and vanity and woundedness that are nothing like the usual "horny teens get tossed in a dumpster" boilerplate of most slashers - or of Curtain's own climactic murder spree. At any rate, having a performance as soulful as Eggar's and as bright and alive and vivid as Griffin's (Patti is a stand-up comic, and the combination of wacky upbeat energy masking terrified self-doubt in Griffin's performance is brilliant: it is by far the film's worst misstep that she gets so very little to do relative to the dull Brooke and Tara) both set Curtains aside as a far more humane slasher film than the vast majority of the subgenre, even without the resonance and engaging strangeness of the film's dysfunctional structure and arrhythmic pacing. It is impressive that the film is any good at all, given the strikes against it, and I don't want to go too crazy in pretending like it's a masterpiece when really it's just impressively creative in the ways it goes wildly out of control. By this late point in the initial slasher wave, though, any creativity at all was a good thing, and the fact remains that as broken as it surely is, Curtains is one of the tiny handful of genuinely unique one-offs in the genre's history.

7/10

Body Count: 8 are strongly implied, but the last one could always be just a bad mangling. But I think the spirit of the thing dictates that we call it 8, mostly bunched up into a sudden explosion of violence lasting 14 minutes.

24 July 2016

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: BIG OL' SPACE ROCKS

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: because nobody stopped them when the dragged god-damned dinosaurs into the ice age two movies ago, the makers of Ice Age: Collision Course have seen fit to make a movie in which Pleistocene megafauna turn back an asteroid strike. Sadly, they are not doing this to the accompaniment of a Diane Warren song.

In 1998, we really couldn't know what a Michael Bay film was, and certainly we'd never seen anything like what would become his signature aesthetic. So the question I had when revisiting Armageddon for the first time since it was new was, with 18 years and no fewer than four Transformers movies of practice watching Bay movies in the bag, not to mention the inevitable patina of nostalgia, would it seem like a worthier, more historically momentous achievement than the borderline-incoherent grab bag of whirlwind action, hoary jokes, and barrel-scraping cartoon machismo that I remembered? And when that inevitably turned out not to be the case, would it at least be more comprehensible and digestible?

Nope!

Before I get into anything else, though, a genuine question: by what holy right is this movie two and a half hours long? It's utterly demented. This was not, you understand, the era in which summer popcorn movies regularly blasted past two hours without looking back as though it was their job. That came later, and not least because of Bay's influence. So there's not a clear market reason for the film to end up as the second-longest wide release of summer 1998, after that bright and sassy popcorn movie Saving Private Ryan. Even less so when we consider the content. Here, for all intents and purposes, is the entire plot of Armageddon: when an asteroid The Size of Texas™ is about to hit Earth, thereby wiping out all life, NASA signs up deep sea oil driller Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) to fly into space, with his plucky rag-tag crew of eccentrics, to dig a hole 800 feet deep into the asteroid's surface. There, a nuclear warhead shall be planted and detonated, thus shattering the asteroid into piece presumably each about the size of New Mexico, and thus of no real concern. The crew must be tested and trained, and even then there is no predicting the series of crises that befall them on the unstable surface of the asteroid itself, which splits the team in half, with the drill team forced to scramble as they try to cut through a layer of solid iron as the clock ticks down to the point of no return, when the asteroid shall be too close to Earth's gravitational pull to still deflect its fragments. Crafting this intricate epic of human endeavor took a WGA puzzle box of writing credits: Robert Roy Pool and John Hensleigh wrote a story which was adapted by Tony Gilroy (!) and Shane Salerno, and this formed the basis for a final screenplay credited to J.J. Abrams (! again) and Hensleigh. Based on the caveman level of sophistication in the final product, I cannot imagine why this was the case.

This is the general sort of movie that got cranked out in the 1950s by the handful, usually with a running time somewhere between 75 and 80 minutes; the one specific "killer asteroid" movie I can name from that period was the somewhat posh When Worlds Collide of 1951, which skipped by in a mere 83 minutes on its way to collecting a special Oscar for its visual effects, which is one more statue than Armageddon could claim off of its four nominations (the 1962 Japanese production Gorath, a clear When Worlds Collide copycat, luxuriates in its indulgent 89-minute running time). And that's really enough - give it a good 105 minutes, because 80-minute features that weren't cartoons had no real marketplace in the 1990s. Hell, two full hours. We'll be generous.

151 minutes? That is, I'm sorry, complete horseshit. Not remotely enough happens in Armageddon to justify that. There are like, literally, four plot points in the movie. This has a lot of ramifications, the chief of which is that the film is a powerfully awful, hateful grind: it takes 68 minutes until Harry and the boys get into space. I can't think of a solitary interesting thing that happens in those 68 minutes. We spend a lot of time learning about the personalities of the team: Charles "Chick" Chappie (Will Patton) has a kid who doesn't know him! "Rockhound" (Steve Buscemi) is addicted to statutory rape! Otis "Bear" Kurleen (Michael Clarke Duncan) is, um, he's a big black guy, with a deep voice, so they call him "Bear"! Oscar Choice (Owen Wilson) is... feathered... hair? But certainly A.J. Frost (Ben Affleck) matters, because he's fucking Harry's daughter Grace (Liv Tyler, back in that indescribably short window when she could be credited above Affleck), who has a courteous hatred for her emotionally unavailable father. That cornucopia of human experience is worth 68 minutes. Hell, if they had to start cutting, maybe we'd have lost the scene where A.J. plays "sexy nature documentary" with Grace's bare abdomen and a box of animal crackers, as Aerosmith's feeble power ballad "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" flickers on and off an the soundtrack! Why, that's the movie's most memorable scene! Albeit for shabby reasons.

Perhaps as an attempt to provide some sense of action-packed life where there is none, Bay introduces us to something horrible: his editing. It took three people to cut Armageddon: Mark Goldblatt, Chris Lebenzon, and Glen Scantlebury. It also took all of the caffeine. If you have ever earned a headache for the trouble of attempting to follow along as the Transformers films shimmy from cut to cut like a bumblebee in a hurricane, then you know what existed in limited form in Armageddon. And I say "limited" because it does not in fact harm the action sequences like it does in those movies: the action in Armageddon is absolutely cut quickly, but you can generally sense the rhythm and how the editing reinforces the beats of the action. The "slow" scenes, though, Jesus Christ. The asteroid is discovered by a cranky old man, Karl (John Mahon), who detests his shrieking harpy wife Dottie (Grace Zabriskie), and their interactions - a scene of an old dude on an old-school observatory telescope set up in a barn yelling at his wife at the barn door, you understand, nothing kinetic or tense about it - are stitched together like an experimental film trying to capture the perceptual experience of a bad methamphetamine overdose, all tiny fragments colliding at nearly the speed of light. And this is true, generally, of all the scenes that are more "human"-sized than action-packed, which is most of them in those same opening 68 minutes. We are not quite at the point reached eleven years later in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, where the editing is so fast and so disinterested in continuity or legibility that you begin to wonder if Bay's not trying to invent a brand new filmmaking vocabulary. But it's still pretty fucking fast and pretty fucking nauseating.

So anyway, yes. For the first hour of Armageddon, virtually nothing happens, and it happens at the most unrelenting speed. Movies of this sort are typically defended against critics of my sort by some variation on "so what, it's fun!" Bull and shit. The first hour of Armageddon is not fun in the smallest degree. It is an unspeakable, paradoxical combination of being absolutely boring while being dizzyingly fast. I suppose in this wide world, people have had fun watching it - the film made piles and piles of money in 1998, becoming the year's highest grossing film worldwide. But it's nothing to do with any kind of fun I've ever had in my life.

Eventually, it finally gets into space, the editing slows down and yes, I do start to get it: it's not my flavor of balls-out summertime entertainment, but I can see what's meant to be entertaining. The visual effects were certainly at the forefront of what 1998 models + CGI could achieve, and Willis's precise combination of snarky matinee star personality and put-upon middle-American dad bearing fits the film's sense of blue-collar bravado well enough (this is, in this respect, Bay's attempt at a James Cameron movie). It's still much too long and much too full of stuff, just adding to the running time and serving no purpose - the asteroid drilling starts at minute 96, or 48 minutes prior to the end credits begin, and I cannot think of any way for that to be anything but indecent - but it's at least lively and consequential stuff with frequent recourse to a ticking clock. The whole movie is a ticking clock, in theory: having gone all-in with hyperbole by creating an asteroid The Size of Texas™, Armageddon continues the festivities by placing its discovery just 18 days prior to impact. But you would not know this from the first act; in the space of two scenes, Harry's crew disperses so far that one might be forgiven for assuming that several months have passed. So it's really only during the frenzy of activity on the asteroid and in Mission Control that any actual sense of urgency creeps in.

The movie's a lost cause; all that time exposing us to the characters hasn't made any of them terribly sympathetic, and unlike the same summer's other killer asteroid picture Deep Impact, there's only the most unwilling lip serviced paid to the notion that people might have emotions surrounding the imminent demise of every human being in the world. The stakes are only ever these people on this mission and if they'll succeed, like a noisier, busier Apollo 13 - and that was shameful of me, dropping Apollo 13 into the conversation like that; Apollo 13 has more human truth in a single scene of Kathleen Quinlan dropping her wedding ring in a shower than Armageddon has in all its many scenes of Willis and Tyler futilely trying to craft the illusion that they have any emotional history together whatsoever - and without having presented them as more than a collection of bland Looney Tunes wannabes, there's not much causing us to give a shit if they live or die. I give a shit about Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton), back in Mission Control, trying to keep his and everybody else's shit together; Thornton is the solitary member of the cast who seems to be under the impression that he's in a movie, and has to present a character with thoughts and concerns and worries that the audience will tap into (the only other performance within spitting distance of "good" is Peter Stormare's hammy turn as a Russian astronaut addled by months alone in space).

There's good hiding in all this: Bay does have a proper eye, and in the half-second fragments we see the surface of the asteroid, it's pretty damn atmospheric and alien. Also, say whatever one will, he's clearly passionate about banging his toys together and screaming "KABOOM" for all the world to see, and passion is better than its absence. The film also has something that at least resembles a sense of humor: most of the comic relief falls flat (it's mostly all centered around Rockhound, and he's much too repulsive to have the necessary charm of good comic relief), but there are some one-off jokes that have a curious zing, like the tongue-in-cheek "65 million years later" title card after Charlton Heston tells us about how the dinosaurs died, or a dog gleefully tearing into a display of Godzilla toys - an obvious in-joke, but a welcome reminder that the summer of 1998 did in fact produce even worse major films than this one. Still, it's wretchedly paced, acted with no grace or human spark, horribly edited, and it has the scientific literacy of the worst student in 10th grade physics trying to bullshit his way through an oral presentation with a hangover. There are worse Bay films, God help us, but this was the "Abandon All Hope" signpost that suggested just how bad the future looked.

3/10

23 July 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: ALLERGENT

Poor The Divergent Series. I mean it. You come into the world raring to be the new Hunger Games - made by the same studio no less, Lionsgate - with a new Hot Young "It" Actress to pin your hopes on, and then it's all downhill after a kind of solid start. Eventually, you flare out so spectacularly - having done incommensurate damage to that same actress's formerly promising career - that the studio paying for you eventually throws in the towel and announces that they're going to send you off to television to die your sad, unmourned death. It's actually sad, even while it's kind of hilarious. It's hilariously sad. It seemed like the ideal time to take a look at the film that performed so woefully that it staked this particular vampire: just how bad is The Divergent Series: Allegiant, anyway?

In fact, not that bad at all. Let me rephrase that: it's bad. But it's the best of the Divergent movies, managing to tell a largely coherent story with well-defined stakes, something the original Divergent couldn't manage. To say nothing of the gaping chest wound that was The Divergent Series: Insurgent,which remains among the most profoundly uninteresting YA adaptations of the current decade. Unquestionably "the best of the Divergents" is a pretty shitty, snide compliment, akin to "the smartest Lionsgate executive", whom I hope and pray was not the one who first came up with the TV idea. Or "the finest actor out of Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, and Theo James", which is unquestionably Miles Teller for the third Divergent film running. That's pretty much entirely because at this point the movies have stopped asking him to do anything at all besides dial the Insufferable Douchebag shtick up to 11 and spend the whole sarcastically auto-critiquing it, like he's secretly starring in the Divergent/Deadpool crossover that nobody else knew they were making. It's enough to make him not merely the best - by far - of the three disposable white boys in the cast (it helps that he alone does not look like an Abercrombie model set loose in the wild to fend for himself), but really the only person onscreen who expresses any emotion other than a wisp of sorrow that they signed a multi-picture contract.

So anyway, Allegiant starts up mere seconds after Insurgent ended, with the teeming mass of Factionless rebels about to storm through the newly-opened Wall that has till now cut off the post-apocalyptic city of Chicago from the wasteland outside. Don't worry if you've forgotten who the fuck the "Factionless" are, the movie escapes that part pretty quickly. Anyway, with the villainous Erudite dictator Janine now dead (Kate Winslet doesn't put in even the tiniest cameo, though she apparently lobbied for such a thing, which if true is the saddest thing in the history of Winslet's career), Factionless leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts) has sidled without too much hesitance into the role of replacement dictator, much to the annoyance and concern of her former ally Johanna (Octavia Spencer). I had forgotten how hilarious it was that nobody in this universe has a surname outside of the main character. That being, of course, Tris Pryor (Shailene Woodley, abject - even more than in the last film, it's extraordinarily tangible how much she wishes she was someplace else), revealed at the end of the last movie as the Specialest Special of them all, and she is not at all excited by Evelyn's immediate decision to close off the Wall once again. So she plots a trip over the Wall with her usual band of friends – smoldering boyfriend Four (James), brother Caleb (Elgort), generic friendperson Christina (Zoë Kravitz), and the flagrantly unreliable Peter (Teller), who has been the snakelike asshole for two films in a row, and yet the characters put real effort into making sure he joins them so that he can betray them yet again.

Outside of the Wall is a rust-colored wasteland, but eventually the group is picked up by the shock troops of the Genetic Testing Bureau, run by David (Jeff Daniels), who re-explains over the course of an hour what was summarized in the last three minutes of Insurgent: genetic testing was used to establish the ridiculously unsustainable society based on one-word personality types that they left behind in Chicago. Tris's ascendance as the Divergent of Divergents proves the Bureau's experiments worked, and David wants her and her friends to help him restore the world, or something. The details make very little sense, but that's only because David is an untrustworthy psychopathic totalitarian monster, since the only thing that crops up more often in The Divergent Series than adult authority figures who put absolutely no effort into hiding their transparently evil intentions is Tris's instant readiness to believe every lie that comes out of their mouths.

I frankly couldn't tell you what, exactly, the Bureau's plan is, but at least the conflict is pretty straightforward this time: the Bad People want to murder everybody in Chicago, and Tris must find a way to stop them. My understanding is that this all changed, sometimes unrecognizably, from the source material by screenwriters Noah Oppenheim and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage - I only made it one-third of the way through Divergent before I elected to stop reading the books altogether, so I could hardly say - and maybe that's why Allegiant feels a little freer and looser than the last two movie. If nothing else, spending most of the movie outside of Chicago means staying clear of the incomprehensible mush that has been the world building till now. Indeed, the film is at its clear-cut worst whenever it returns to Chicago and watches Evelyn and Johanna puke out their messy word salad, and raises the question of what kind of wrathful God would decide that Watts and Spencer deserved this punishment for their sins. In the wasteland and the sleek halls of the Bureau, though, Allegiant is a passably tolerable slurry of dystopian sci-fi clichés, which does not (nor should it) get anybody's pulse racing, but boilerplate sci-fi is still more rewarding than whatever the fuck it was that the first two were on about.

It's even - dare I say it? Dare I even think it? - not uninteresting to look at. The Bureau is a pretty damn neat location, if nothing else, full of shiny plastic surfaces that have an eerily organic quality, like we're inside the guts of a living being that evolved out of Apple products. Production designer Alec Hammond, freed from the constraint of "take Chicago, make it look like a bomb hit it", has turned out a more than credible sci-fi world, one that isn't necessarily an all-time original masterpiece, but at least looks somewhat different than the sci-fi worlds we generally get in the movies. And the wasteland is just plain terrific, all done up in corrosive oranges, browns, and rusts, with rivers running the color of dried blood and scraggly mutant plant life that feels like a fever dream after reading too many midcentury short stories about Mars. There's a stately air of high-class pulp throughout the visual conception of the world outside the wall and the technology found there which gives Allegiant a pretty fun world to peer at while you're studiously ignoring all of the droning bullshit that the characters are talking about. Plus, cinematographer Florian Ballhaus and director Robert Schwentke don't hold back in embracing the newly-colorful world; Allegiant is lushly over-saturated with a whole rainbow of corrupt greens and reds, almost glowing with merry toxicity. Frequently, the rotting earth can be seen peering through the huge glass walls of the Bureau, and the contrast with the smooth white interiors is something truly neat and fun.

That suddenly-aroused visual sensibility, combined with the fact that we finally have a Divergent movie with a discernible narrative structure, is enough to make Allegiant far less of a tired-out death march than I supposed it would be. It's still a death march, you understand: the characters suck, the actors are bad at playing them, and the basic building blocks of this whole world remain astonishingly dubious even for a parable. But it's a death march with pretty scenery.

5/10

Reviews in this series
Divergent (Burger, 2014)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent (Schwentke, 2015)
The Divergent Series: Allegiant (Schwentke, 2016)

ALEXANDRE THE GREAT

A third review requested by Zev Burrows, with thanks for his multiple contributions to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

To date, the 1974 film Stavisky... is the only straight filmed treatment of one of the key events in interwar French history (the 1937 Hollywood film Stolen Holiday is a fanciful and mostly fictionalised interpretation), but that's not the only historically intriguing position the film occupies. It's also something of a cross-section of French film across the decades: the cast includes three generations of iconic French leading men, if inadvertently. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays the title character, while Charles Boyer has one of the meatier supporting roles as an older patron, and the very young Gérard Depardieu appears in one scene, just three years into his career. Of course, nobody could have imagined that Depardieu would eventually have an international fame every bit as great as his older co-stars', but the mere fact of it gives Stavisky... a neat little capsule feeling of past, present, and future. So too does the mixed aesthetic of a 1930s-set biopic with distinctly '70s cinematography, make-up and costumes doing all they can to evoke the past, and a score nimbly blurring the 40 years separating the story from its production. And certainly not least, Stavisky... is more or less the dividing line in the career of the great director Alain Resnais, whose work in the '50s and '60s as one of the great figures of French cinema during the Nouvelle Vague (a movement he did not consider himself a member of) was fired up with aesthetic and political radicalism. He'd not made a feature in six years prior to Stavisky..., and it mostly established the template he'd ride out for much of the rest of his life, using a much more subdued version of the same explosive aesthetics, hidden inside what a casual observer might mistakenly dismiss as "prestige" cinema, in pursuit of his beloved theme of memory and nostalgia as unreliable traps.

Stavisky... is hardly stripped bare of politics: the opening sequence concerns Leon Trotsky's (Yves Peneau) arrival as an exile to France late in 1933, and the real-life events of the main plot were the lead-up to a right-wing riot that lead to the leftist French government relinquishing power (this is not seen too much onscreen). The aesthetics are quite a bit cagier in their radicalism: to look at it, Stavisky... seems for all the world like a tony slice of awards baiting cinema, and it's only as you really start to settle into the film's rhythm that it starts to be clear that the movie is off, somehow. For starters, by not actually having any rhythm to settle into. It's hard to explain how Stavisky... is paced and assembled - not as a history lesson, that's for damn sure. I do not know how well-known the Stavisky Affair was in France in 1974, but Jorge Semprún's screenplay (or, at least, Resnais's direction thereof; the project preceded Resnais's involvement, but it aligns so much with his interests that I have to assume it was tinkered with) is not heavily invested in needless exposition. Or even, arguably, needed exposition. For well over half of its running time, Stavisky... barely even has a narrative, instead focusing on scenes of Serge Alexandre Stavisky (Belmondo, for whom this was a passion project) more or less floating through 1933 France as an irrepressible con-man and raconteur and head-over-heels lover of the theater. He wastes enormous sums of money on quixotic artistic and gambling impulses and makes even more enormous sums fencing jewels and passing counterfeit bonds. He has friends and colleagues among the elite, and he's chased by the dogged Inspector Bonny (Claude Rich), and... and...

Stavisky... - the ellipses start to make sense at this point - is massively interested in delaying the answer to that "and?" It is a film about a man whose entire life is dissembling, and whose historical importance owes mostly to the impression of scandal surrounding him because of that dissembling, and to explore that idea, the film itself dissembles. We don't get a square answer from Stavisky... for ages and ages, and when we do, the answer is "nobody knows the answers". The fragmentary nature of the plot, moving through scenes that are contained within themselves but not clearly linked together, turns out to have a possibly explanation: we're watching the recollections of the people who knew Alexandre, weeks or months after the fact, giving testimony to the police. Explicitly, the people offering that testimony have no clear sense of who he was or what motivated him, and that stretches backward to reveal that all we thought we were learning about the man was, in fact, just impressions and suggestions.

That's a bold and sassy approach to take, offering the viewer clarity in the form of the claim "so everything you've been watching is, in fact, ambiguous", and it pure Resnais. I think it would take a great deal of stretching to call this one of the director's masterpieces; even in his more audience-friendly post-'60s mode, he had the heights of Mon oncle d'Amérique in front of him still. The French critics who accused Stavisky... of being a little too much of a crowd-pleaser to engage with the political context it was so eagerly weaving into the borders weren't "wrong", though the film has already attempted to inoculate itself against that criticism in the opening title card: "les auteurs n'ont pas cherché à faire œuvre d'historiens" ("the authors do not seek to do the work of historians"). Stavisky... is not a political history; it is, arguably, a cultural one, with Alexandre Stavisky filling the role of the aspirational bourgeois right at the point that Europe started passing the point that World War II was assured. His fascination with theatricality - apparently Resnais's chief interest in the character - is an extension of his willingness to lie and fake and put on a show for the world to admire him and give him what he wants: if he has an inner self, nobody including the filmmakers knows what it is (including Belmondo, who brilliantly plays charisma as a concept rather than a charismatic man, only giving Alexandre a personality in his scenes alone with his wife, played by Anny Duperey). He is a hollow man, and it is his kind of hollowness that created the circumstances of pre-War Europe's descent into a terrifying lack of ideological commitment. If the film fails to place that in explicitly left-wing terms (and to be fair, the Trotsky material is certainly oddly underexplored and maybe not to the film's absolute benefit), that's because it's fonder of implication than statement, and this is true in all ways.

Anyway, for all the brilliant slipperiness of the structure, it is a crowd-pleaser, the disappointed critics had that right. It's gorgeous: shot by Sacha Vierny with the ungainly graininess familiar from most '70s cinema, but using that in the film's favor to give it a patina of age. It looks as fuzzy as it feels, like an unrestored painting by a forgotten master - and certainly, there's mastery in the lighting, which bathes the exteriors especially in a faux-nostalgia that is on the one hand appealing and on the other hand plays up the same sense of artifice that all the scenes leaning on the main character's theatrical interests do. Nothing else in the film's technique is quite as extraordinarily useful to its argument as the cinematography, though I'd be much remiss in failing to mention that this was the first feature film with a score composed by musical theater legend Stephen Sondheim (out of a grand total of two). And it's a pretty great score, at times, though he sometimes relies a bit too heavily on pastiches of '30s music in a way that feels less than inspired. Mostly, though, the score synthesises those pastiches with more forcibly tuneless, contemporary-feeling music that pulls Stavisky... out of time and gives it a sense of brittle modernity which helps situate it in a more intellectual place than the costume drama trappings suggest. That being said, the best thing about having Sondheim come aboard was that it meant his reliable collaborator Jonathan Tunick came along as well to do the orchestrations, and they are amazing: there's a moment in which an oboe loudly cuts into a somewhat routine "this is tense" musical passage in a way that gave me an honest-to-God jolt.

It's only in a career as impressive as Resnais's that Stavisky... can be honestly referred to as "minor"; the ideas are not terribly unique, though they've been worked out in an extremely satisfying way. Belmondo is beyond superb, and so, for that matter, is Boyer, as a prim old conservative who is fascinated by and then made ever so slightly sad by his new mysterious friend - I'd be tempted to consider the best work either of them ever did, though I really had ought to see more of Boyer's work in his native French before I start making that kind of huge claim. It's a thoughtful critique of reflexive capitalism disguised as a puzzle box hiding inside a fussy costume drama; quite a pleasure it it is to unpack, and more of a pleasure when there's something genuinely worthwhile inside of it all. If it's quite overshadowed by the masterpieces surrounding it on both sides, it's still quite a nifty successful experiment on its own terms.

9/10

21 July 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: MAKING A SPLASH

Here's an object lesson in what cultural hegemony looks like, from the perspective of the hegemon. So at this point in history, China is the second-largest market for American films after the United States itself, and several of the highest-grossing films in the history of the Chinese box office are American studio blockbusters: Furious 7, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Zootopia, and so on. However, as of the spring of 2016, the single highest-grossing film in the history of the Chinese box office is a home-grown production, The Mermaid (replacing another native production, Monster Hunt), and let's agree for the sake of having data to work with that we'll overlook the amount of chicanery that allegedly goes into boosting China's box office hits. The Mermaid was a big damn hit, is the point, among a population who make big damn hits out of the same movie that Americans make into big damn hits. Then it crossed the Pacific, and was released into the United States in a microscopic, hastily-planned release that made almost $3.25 million in its seven-week run, hitting #17 on the box office lists the weekend it opened and drifting down from there. Because when you live in the country where all those Hollywood blockbusters get made, nobody can force you to give a fuck about what they're doing anywhere else. U! S! A!

Setting aside what it says about Americans' incuriousity about subtitled movies, I can't pretend that it's a world-class crime that The Mermaid couldn't make bigger inroads. Oh, it's undoubtedly a good deal better than plenty of gigantic Hollywood hits, of course. And other than being in Mandarin, I can't think of a single culturally-specific element of the movie that should have hampered its financial prospects outside of China, at least no more than Furious 7 or Age of Extinction are culturally specific. It's charming throughout, and at times enormously funny, and it even manages to justify some cheap-looking CGI by presenting it in the guise of whirlwind cartoon slapstick. It is perhaps (probably) less charming, less funny, and less effectively cartoonish than director Stephen Chow's best-known films in the English-speaking world, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, which both came out during the last period when subtitled movies could actual snag pretty wide distribution in the States and acquire an appreciative audience in this country at least kind of commensurate with their merits. But it's pretty delightful nonetheless and a worthy mid-tier addition to the director's list of films, which now stands at an even ten titles.

The fantasy romcom adventure movie is also a message movie, presented with all the grace and delicacy of a bullhorn pointed straight at your ear: The Mermaid really, really hates industrial pollution, and wants to whip us all up into a frenzy of... well, I'm not quite sure, to be honest. The film is too silly and light-hearted to engender actual anger in its viewers, even if Chow purposefully negotiates a shift in energy in the last third of the movie towards something more somber and sincere. Regardless of all that, it's already going in on the anti-pollution themes from the very start, before we have a plot or even an inkling (beyond the title) of the scenario: the opening credits are set against a montage of brightly colored toxic wasted being dumped - by boats, or straight out of the factories, it's all the same - into bright blue water. It's an especially intriguing opening gambit because it certainly feels like it should be ugly and terrible: the images are almost like a parody of the excess of digitally-augmented color palettes that so often make the bland pop films of all nations drift from "unmemorable" to "actively irritating. But it works, almost exactly for the reason that it's eye-searing and tacky: the blaring colors quickly get across the point that this is all very unnatural and wrong, and it sets the movie on exactly the right footing - everything to follow will be in service to consequential ideas, but always in a brighty, movie-friendly way.

The story is, allegedly, Chow's attempt at a Little Mermaid-infused Western-style fairy tale, and I guess I can see that. Business genius and all-around hearthrob Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) has lately acquired a portion of the ocean called Green Gulf, up till now a marine preserve, to develop it. This involves, in part, using sound waves to antagonise and drive away the sea life, which includes the last population of merpeople, living in a shipwreck, and they are done being humanity's victims: one of their own, a mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun), has been trained and physically altered so that she can reasonably pass as a human (albeit a human perpetually wearing floor-length dresses and chunky boots), to seduce Xuan and assassinate him. Naturally enough, she starts to fall in love with him and vice-versa, though not until she's already failed to murder him by a few different methods.

There's frankly very little doubt where this is going to end up, at any point (though I'd be curious if the bone-deep clichés the film uses played at all fresher in China), but The Mermaid is all about the layovers on the way, not the destination. Chow's overriding strength as a filmmaker has always been his creative sense of fearlessly wacky slapstick comedy - Kung Fu Hustle is the closest thing to a feature-length Bugs Bunny vehicle as I have ever seen, and that's including two different actual feature-length Bug Bunny vehicles - and The Mermaid goes all-in on big, dumb comic moments, ranging from the closest thing to actual wit that's likely to show up in an effects-driven film, all the way to the completely tasteless and crude. At one point, the pissy octopus-man (Luo Show) who most hates humanity out of all the merpeople, ends up disguised as a hibachi chef, and has to do his best to avoid breaking while his limbs are being chopped up and cook right on the spot - that tasteless and crude, and the scene sits proudly on the blurry line between wonderfully zany and horribly unsettling. Or, there's the early scene that successfully plays as high comedy the act of blowing up a goldfish with sound waves while scary music plays.

Mostly, though, The Mermaid lives in a place of friendly absurdity. In one scene, Shan and Xuan engage in impromptu musical number with a cheesy kung fu movie flair; the film's villain (Zhang Yuqi) is introduced on a barely-controlled jetpack that turns into the first of the flat-out goofy visual jokes; there is an "octopus tentacle that looks like a giant dick" joke that works better than you'd ever believe, in no small part because Luo is so madly committed to his role that the dick joke is only, like, the third most vital part of the shot. There's an extended bit about communicating "half woman, half fish" to a pair of policemen that is, legitimately, the funniest thing I've seen in a 2016 film.

It's an easy film to like, is the point. The earnestness and directness of the environmentalist message certainly complicates what I'm about to claim, but The Mermaid really is just lightweight popcorn fun, with exactly the same beats as any mainstream romantic comedy of the last decade, approached as physically anarchic rather than character-based. Unchallenging crowd-pleasers transcend culture, it would appear, but from the perspective of one of the most ruthlessly middle-of-the-road summer movie seasons in recent memory, I'm a little annoyed that America has to import its crowd-pleasers just to have a good one.

7/10

19 July 2016

BEST SHOT: ZOOTOPIA

This week is the annual animated film in Hit Me with Your Best Shot, and Nathaniel has selected a real recent example of the form: 2016's very own Zootopia, the smash hit that has become (unadjusted for inflation) the third highest-grossing film ever made by the Disney animation studios, one of the year's most acclaimed wide releases, and a film that I just didn't care about very much at all.

That being said, "didn't care about" doesn't mean "haven't thought about", and as soon as Nathaniel announced the title I knew where I wanted to go for my picks for a shot. It's from the film's middle & best third, when it is most committed to being a weird film noir dressed inside the body of a silly talking animals comedy for children set inside a pretty remarkable series of the world's major biomes transformed into urban environments. The most unique thing about Zootopia is its genre promiscuity: a social issues picture, a surprisingly grim and cynical story about civic corruption, a trite "follow your dreams!" kiddie flick, and a talking animal comedy parodying our own society all share space in the film's 108 minutes. And the shot I've picked, along with the moment in which it occurs, is one of the most striking examples of that.

Where we are: rabbit police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and fox conman Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) have followed the thread of their case to the jungle neighborhood in the city of Zootopia. There, they interview nervous (and unpleasantly scarred) black panther Manchas (Jessi Corti), and catch him right as he starts to break down in a manner much more animalistic than anthropomorphic. Out of several possibilities, this shot is, I think, far and away the most striking part of that process.

It's so damn noir. I mean, just the use of depth: the frame is completely dominated by the big panther in the foreground, writing in agony, but the color contrasts direct our eyes to the far back, where Judy and Nick stand as horrified witnesses to the action. And I do very much love their perfectly legible expressions, even in that tiny format. Really, if that was all this shot had going on, framing its its heroes in a sickly-lit halo in the background, contrasting them with the twisted posture of the panther, I probably wouldn't need anything else. Sometimes, being striking as all hell is all you need; and how many CGI animated films noirs are there, anyway?

But I also love the frame's sense of real danger. The reason this sequence has clung to me tenaciously while a whole lot of Zootopia frankly hasn't is that it's a sudden, shocking, terrifying intrusion of very grown-up tension and PG-rated body horror - for what else can we call an anthropoid cat suddenly losing control of himself physically and turning into this story's version of a monster? And I don't think any other image from this sequence captures that so well: the slightly cocked angle puts us ill at ease to begin with, and then the obvious dismay on the panther's face and the alarmed shock on the detectives' - Nick's flat ears are the real kicker here - makes this all slightly unbearable even before we have a chance to see what the hell is happening to the poor animal. It is menacing - it is old school, "kids' movies should be ready, willing, and able to seriously fuck kids up" kind of animated menace.

And besides all of that, it takes advantage superbly of the film's gimmick: yes, in a world full of sentient, civilised animals, this would be the scariest possible thing. For Manchas, it's being unable to control himself as he reverts. For Judy and Nick, it's being confronted with the reality that a normal citizen just like themselves is about to turn into a savage, hungry predator. It really plays up the conflicts that arise in a specifically animal-based society, and that's the most important strength Zootopia has in its back pocket.

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: WOMEN PLAYING ROLES ORIGINATED BY MEN

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: if you have been paying very close attention you might have stumbled across the obscure little tidbit that the new Ghostbusters remake has four women in the leading roles, whereas the 1984 original had four men. Whatever is true of this particular case, history demonstrates that the concept of gender-swapping lead roles can pay off handsomely.

The story goes that Howard Hawks was hosting a party full of Hollywood sorts, and the talk turned to dialogue - how do you make it snappy, how does it flow, and so on, and so forth. He pulled out a copy of The Front Page, the acidic 1928 newspaper comedy stage play written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, to read it for his guests - he took the role of flim-flam man/newspaper editor Walter Burns, and a female guest read the role of Walter's best ex-reporter, the knowing, mistrustful "Hildy" Johnson. Hawks realised on the spot that having a woman read Hildy added an entirely new dimension to the material, and threw himself directly into the task of acquiring the film rights from Howard Hughes - who'd produced The Front Page for the movies in 1931 - but transforming it through mostly minor shifts to the original screenplay by Bartlett Cormack and Charles Lederer into an acerbic screwball comedy about the same flim-flam editor Walter Burns, and his same best ex-reporter, the knowing, mistrustful "Hildy" Johnson, who has a uniquely appropriate reason for mistrusting Walter - she used to be married to him.

There's no way on God's earth that a story that perfect can actually be true, but it doesn't matter. However it got that way, on 11 January, 1940, Columbia Pictures premiered Hawks's His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant as Walter and Rosalind Russell as Hildy, and the entire subsequent history of cinema is better off for it. I think it's risky to throw around terms like "the best film comedy of the sound era", but I do know that any serious attempt to pinpoint what movie might earn that title needs to spend a real long time contemplating this one. It's certainly one of the most important - this is nothing less than the movie that proved once and for all that overlapping dialogue could be a powerful tool in the filmmaker's belt, 12 years after the beginning of the sound era in Hollywood. Perhaps that sounds like a little thing.

But remember that when they first started recording sound on set, they were terrified of having pops and hisses.

They were terrified as well of poor clarity.

Because, if you're going to go to the trouble of having talking pictures, you want to make sure that the talking is clear.

Otherwise, the audience might lose something important.

So the actors always delivered their lines as neat, self-contained objects.

They did not blur together at all.

It's part of the glorious artifice of 1930s Hollywood, but it could be very staged and artificial.

By the end of the 1930s, this was starting to change, as comedy was starting to pick up speed, and screwball characters got more manic and loud. But the sanctity of the individual line was preserved even here.

Still, nothing prepared audiences for the bomb dropped in January 1940, when Hawks forced the Columbia sound department to help him record the sounds of multiple people talking all at once - a lot of those people off-camera, too - delivering dialogue that Hawks and Lederer (who co-wrote this remake) had carefully crafted so that you didn't need to hear all of it to get the gist. What's important is the sense of the thing; what's important is the sound of the thing, really. It's important that people are talking, less what they're saying, so that the movie's soundscape is one of constant activity, in which half a dozen people are pursuing half a dozen different goals, and doing it damn quick so they can move on to the next half-dozen. In the short term, this means the first and only of the great Depression-era newspaper comedies that captures, thanks to its blitzkrieg of dialogue, the "damn tthe torpedoes!" speed of a news organization operating at full tilt, which also makes it the most breathless, daring, keep up or die trying of all screwball comedies, the only film I have seen other than 1941's The Lady Eve that's so constantly funny at such a machine-gun pace that I actually get tired out from watching it. In the long term, this means we get Nashville. So it's a win either way.

None of this matters when you're watching the film, of course. Hawks's demented tornado of words is not here to impress us with the magic tricks that a sufficiently driven sound department was capable of (incidentally, the fact that His Girl Friday was not among the eleven - fucking eleven! - films to receive a Best Sound Mixing Oscar nomination in 1940 is maddening. The fact that it received no other Oscar nominations besides is a moral crime). Really, the only reason it's there is for that old-fashioned Hollywood obsession, building up terrific characters. There has to be a lot of fast-moving dialogue coming from every direction, because without it, how could Grant's Walter impress us as the primus inter pares of fast-talking hucksters, the maestro whose ability to tear through big meaty paragraphs with the speed of a lightning strike is the model to which all the other buzzing, cynical newspapermen aspire? And without all of that, how could we be so intoxicated by the sheer vitality of that world, the acidic wit and miserable sarcasm that come at such a pace that you could rest assured that if you need to stop paying attention for a few seconds, you'll be able to drop right back into the flow and be immediately swept away again? And without that intoxication, how could we understand how madly in love with the life Hildy is, no matter how many times she angrily insists otherwise?

That's the plot, really - not "how will Walter snatch Hildy back from her boring new fiancé, a tedious insurance salesman inevitably played by professional boring other man Ralph Bellamy" (whose casting is the inspiration for a Grant ad-lib that is among the most extraordinary bits of meta-humor in cinema history, and before meta-humor was even a thing that people really talked about in polite company). Definitely not "how will Walter and Hilty cover the political treacherous story of how the mayor of a deeply corrupt city succeed in illegally executing an insane man in order to cynically sweep up some votes", which is more a hook that Hecht and MacArthur included because not talking about profound, widespread political corruption was anathema to the Chicago-based playwrights (the stage version of The Front Page, if I recall correctly, is explicitly set in Chicago; the first movie is DEFINITELY NOT set in Chicago *wink*, and His Girl Friday is not set in New York, since New York is otherwise referenced in dialogue, but it's on the same train line as Albany).

Nosir, the plot is "how will a great newspaperman come to her damn senses and realise that there's no life she could live that would suit her as well as this one?", and even the patching-up-the-marriage subplot is only an echo of that. Or maybe they echo each other. What His Girl Friday is doing, really, is to eroticise being in the news business: Walter and Hildy don't get off on berating each other and bickering at 100 miles a minute, exactly, but they do get off on the fast-paced world of constant stress where that bickering is a natural byproduct. That's one of the things that turning Hildy into a woman gains for the material: in principle, I suppose a gay Front Page could be staged, but I think it would be very hard to stage it well. And you'd lose the other thing that His Girl Friday wins by the sex change: the very real jolt that the material gets by virtue of having Hildy as the only woman in a boys' club, but also coming across as the most cocksure boy of them all (achieved in part by casting Russell, an exceptionally masculine leading lady by classical Hollywood standards). For long stretches, the film makes no comment at all on Hildy's gender: the other reporters in the crime building pressroom talk to her like one of the guys and an icon to them all, she and everybody else refers to herself without pausing or blinking as "a newspaperman", and her sole outfit (the film takes place over one long afternoon and night) is severely deglamorised by costume designer Robert Kalloch - it's a beaut, one of the great costumes of the whole era, with its savage "touch me and I will stab you in the face" diagonal stripes and the streamlined vertical lines, letting Russell slice through rooms like a shark. That is to say, it is a woman's outfit that is by no stretch of the imagination "feminine".

All of this emphasis on occluding Hildy's gender pays off in the moments when it hits us hard, like a swift punch to the balls. When she, alone among the reporters, passes a kind word to the dismal prostitute Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), the moment gains enormous power not just because Hildy is nice to the downtrodden, but because we can see for just a few beats, before she gets her defenses back up, how much the reporter is personally offended as a woman. When Walter lets it slip that he has goopy, romantic feelings for her that go beyond his admiration for her unmatched skills as a writer, it adds a stunning level of warmth to both characters, who would otherwise run the risk of being too caustic to ever really like - they're our assholes, but they're still assholes. The way the film allows the heat and love of their dead marriage peek through the cracks in both Russell and Grant's performances is key to modulating the film's cynicism. By no means is His Girl Friday a warm and fuzzy romp with nice people that we'd like to know in reality, but it has a humane edge absent from the straight filmed versions of The Front Page (beyond several TV versions that I've never seen, it received a third feature adaptation in 1974, about which the nicest thing I can say is that it's the best of director Billy Wilder's bad films), and this makes it an infinitely more satisfying experience.

Setting all of that aside, ultimately His Girl Friday is great because it starts with extraordinarily good material - there's hardly a single line of dialogue that isn't a gem of a laugh line - and executes it flawlessly. Grant and Russell are beyond superb; Russell has the more complex part and she does more with it, more than she ever did with anything in her career (every time I watch her in anything, I'm always at least slightly disappointed, which I think is entirely my fault for seeing her in this first). The moments she allows us to see Hildy's righteous hatred of Walter jockeying for prominence with her memory of how much they were in love - basically every scene she and Grant share together - are exemplary, all carried out in her stiffened body language and nervous eye movement. Her long, slow reaction to the jailbreak that sets her back on the road to rejoining the newspaper is mesmerising, as we can watch almost each individual thought cross her mind as she weighs the costs of diving back in against the orgasmic pleasure it will give her. Grant has the relatively easy job of just hurling dialogue, though I cannot imagine anyone doing it better; he can make something as straightforward as shaking Bellamy's hand into a giddy, gleeful moment.

It's also an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, which happens so rarely with comedies that I'm always pleased by it. Hawks, it needs hardly be said, was one of the all-time great film directors, and beyond his miraculous handling of his cast - not even the tiniest role could be overlooked in getting every person to the same overclocked register, or the whole edifice would be broken - it's beautiful how elegantly he uses the form of the film to give jokes the best chance to land hard, and the characters all the room they need to really impress us. The very first shot is a silky tracking shot that glides to the left through the hectic newsroom to pick up Hildy and her reedy fiancé Bruce entering the door, immediately shifting back to the left with them; between the constant sound of activity in the background and the impressive flexibility of Joseph Walker's camera, we have all that we need to get ready: things are going to be loud and move fast, the film promises, so be ready to keep up. Later on, similar little shifts in camera position give punch to jokes - Hildy jumps between two conversations, and the camera weaves back and forth with her - or sometimes there's just a burst of staccato editing to make a similar point. The whole movie seems to quiver with the same energy driving the mad dialogue and the breathless acting, and it all builds up the feeling of a racing pulse, like the movie itself is about the have the adrenaline overdose that it's characters seem perpetually in danger of experiencing. It is a relentless film, maybe the single most unyielding comedy I have ever seen, and this heightens everything about it: the jokes are funnier, the romance is sweeter, the satire is nastier. It's one of the most aggressive comedies of all time, and it earns that aggression by also being one of the most perfect.

10/10