26 September 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: FAME PUTS YOU THERE WHERE THINGS ARE HOLLOW

Any movie that openly courts direct comparison to the 1984 rock mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is all but begging us to find fault with it. So it's all the more impressive that Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping should be such an exceptionally rewarding comedy, given the giant breathing down its neck. I'm not sure that there has been any film in the intervening 32 years to so directly and liberally borrow from the Spinal Tap playbook, and while I'm not at all sure that Popstar is perfect in all its particulars - for one thing, its widespread embrace of 2010s pop culture ephemera almost certainly means that it won't age nearly as well as its predecessor - it more than earns it place in the pantheon of great parodies.

If there's any single target of the film's satiric jabs, it's the 2011 concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which provides both Popstar's subtitle and its main character's Bieberish stage persona. But co-writers/stars Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, & Jorma Taccone (the latter two also directed) cast their nets rather substantially wider than any one artist, or even any one generation of dodgy pop music. The film's subject is Conner Friel (Samberg), who was once a member of the turn-of-the-century boy band Style Boyz, as "Kid Conner", but whose ruthless arrogance and zest for self-promotion left his bandmates Owen, aka "Kid Contact" (Taccone) and Lawrence, aka "Kid Brain" (Schaffer) in the dust. Since then, Conner has rebranded himself as Conner4Real, and whose first album was one of the biggest sellers of its era. We pick up with Conner right on the eve of the release of his long-delayed followup, Connquest, his life an endless whirlwind of breathless yes-men and thoroughly generic praise, with Owen serving as his much-disrespected DJ and Lawrence off farming in the country. When Connquest, made in a blur of mindless indulgence and no artistry to speak of, is greeted by unrelentingly savage reviews and non-existent sales, Conner is plunged into a desperation spiral that sees him lashing out in virtually every direction to blame every possible person other than himself. Will he eventually give in to the obvious desire for a Style Boyz reunion, in the process making up to Lawrence and Owen for his years and years of irredeemably obnoxious behavior?

Well, obviously. The paint-by-numbers storytelling of Popstar is as much part of the joke as anything, a riff on the "everything comes prepackaged" media culture that is the movie's primary target. Besides which, the plot of the film is never more than a pretext for the film's gags, which come in several different flavors, but generally clump into four broad areas: real, honest-to-God famous people in the music industry show up to say nice things about the idiot clown Conner (the film has one of the deepest benches of celebrity cameos of any film I've seen in... ever); the way that celebrities are covered in the media is a baffling melange of angry moralism and desperate, unchecked idolatry; music video and concert parodies; and full-on absurdism. There's quite a lot of overlap between these four points, such as in the TMZ parody that features Will Arnett as the ringleader of a group of professional gossips whose unhinged ejaculations of rage leave them feeling like the carnival grotesques from a Fellini film.

But in the main, it's the music video parodies and absurdism that are where Popstar shines, which of course makes sense. The three writers got their start as the Lonely Island, a Saturday Night Live-adjacent comedy troupe that for more than a decade has been producing some of the most inspired comic shorts out there, weird little fantasias on the vocabulary and iconography of music videos paired with bizarre songs whose aggressive treatment of mundane topics veer off into the realm of pure surrealism. It's a shtick that hasn't worn out yet, and Popstar is really nothing more than the feature-length version of those shorts, much more so than the other films made by some combination of the trio (Hot Rod, directed by Schaffer with Samberg and Taccone in lead roles; MacGruber, directed and co-written by Taccone; The Watch, directed by Schaffer with all three in cameo roles), and while the act of expansion isn't an unmixed blessing - there are enough dull patches between the really inspired bits that even at just 87 minutes, Popstar feels padded - seeing the group's strange and proudly off-putting genius carried off with the resources of a studio feature is frequently awe-inspiring. As with any comedy, different viewers will have different responses, but for myself, the film would have earned its place among the funniest movies of the 2010s just thanks to the monumental mixture of filth and braindead jingoism "Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)", with its earwormy repetition of "fuck Bin Laden" as a sexual metaphor, staged with backup dancers in camo bikinis writhing behind Samberg. Not everything is at that level - indeed, nothing else is at that level - but the amount of creative awfulness on display is always impressive, even when it needs to slow down a bit between the best gags.

I will not say that the movie is particularly surprising; even without benefit of knowing the Lonely Island's output (there's not a single song in Popstar that wouldn't have worked fine as a Lonely Island standalone), the movie makes it very clear early on what general wheelhouse the jokes are going to be in, even if it's generally unexpected in the specifics - the particular nature of Conner's megalomania, the Daft Punk-esque humiliation he lays upon Owen, a spectacularly random cameo by Seal and the secret story of how he got his facial scars. Plenty of the humor does feel like Spinal Tap dusted off for the modern age, and nothing more; and Spinal Tap undoubtedly had more profound things to say about rockstar egos and the devouring trashiness of the music industry than Popstar (which often as not settles on "this guy is a dick. Here's a weird-ass song about how the Mona Lisa sucks!" without any particular digging or context). There's something very inside-baseball about a lot of the jokes here: it is a movie for people who know a lot about 2010s pop culture, by people who know a lot about 2010s pop culture, and many of the jokes simply aren't funny on their own terms. Is an offhand reference to Taylor Swift committing murder a proper joke, as such? I don't know, but in this moment in history, I know that it made me laugh like an idiot, and I have to think that's sufficient.

9/10

24 September 2016

FORESTS OF THE NIGHT

No movie has ever had such an easy bar to clear as director Adam Wingard and and screenwriter Simon Barrett's Blair Witch: be better than 2000's stupefyingly awful Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, unrelentingly terrible and trashy even by the standards of horror sequels. At the same time, Blair Witch had another bar to clear, almost as impossible as that first one was mindless: do something that justifies creating a sequel, 17 years later, to the 1999 indie film sensation The Blair Witch Project. The original is a still-divisive work that divides viewers into the camps of "an outstanding one-off masterpiece, don't you dare touch it" and "nauseating, dimwitted garbage, why would you ever want another one?" I don't suppose I can imagine a film that would make either of those groups happy, let alone both of them, and if I could, it would look nothing like Blair Witch, a wholly disposable movie that largely resembles all of the other first-person camera movies of the last several years in its strengths, which are more or less equally balanced by its flagrant weaknesses.

Though I am happy to have the world's first movie trilogy about which, if all you knew about the films was their respective titles, you'd probably assume they came out in exactly the reverse order as really happened.

Unlike Book of Shadows, a bold attempt at meta-commentary that falls flat on its ass within the first ten minutes and never gets back up, Blair Witch plays things largely safe: it's a direct, in-universe sequel to the original movie. And like so many recent sequels made after the span of many years, it comes rather damn close to erasing whatever line exists between "sequel" and "remake", copying most of the same beats as The Blair Witch Project in the same order, though by no means are all of those beats played in the same way. At any rate, here's what we have: first, the promise from a very bland title card in emotionless sans-serif font that a group of filmmakers went missing in the forest outside of Burkittsville, Maryland in 2014, and what we're watching is a selection of footage edited into a coherent form from the memory cards that were all that was found of them. And perhaps I am a miserable old-media purist, but a cache of tapes found hidden in the woods somehow feels more physically meaningful than a pile of memory cards.

So in 2014, what happened is that James Donahue (James Allen McCune) has just gotten the first lead, after years of searching, as to what might have happened to his sister. His sister being none other than Heather Donahue, one of three documentary filmmakers who went missing in 1994, when James was just 4 years old. Footage of what appears to be Heather, if you pay very close attention to just a couple of frames, has surfaced online, and James has gotten in contact with the Burkittsville native who found it. For reasons that the film pushes through fast enough that it's not too hard to buy into the conceit, James has deigned to let one of his friends, Lisa (Callie Hernandez) film a documentary about his quest to find Heather, and our first footage comes as she rigs him and herself with earpiece cameras with built-in GPS transmitters. Also along for the ride, and to provide extra sources of footage, are James's other friends, Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). In Burkittsville, they meet up with local Blair Witch hunters Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry), each equipped with their own cameras, much junkier and lower-resolution than Lisa's HD DSLR, and over everybody's misgivings, and Peter's outright objection, they force their way into the expedition, in exchange for showing James where the possible footage of Heather was found.

If you're counting, that's already seven different cameras, and at least two more will show up before too long. One of these is a drone, which, I want to be absolutely clear and fair, makes perfect sense. Lisa is obviously well-heeled - her wide assortment of photographic equipment fills a large table - and I can't imagine why someone who could take a drone on this kind of shoot wouldn't want to. I want to be equally clear that Wingard and Barrett can go fuck themselves. A drone belongs in a Blair Witch picture like an anaconda belongs in a bubble bath.

There are, at this point, almost as many reasons to hate first-person camera "found footage" movies as there are dead teenagers in the forest, but there's something uniquely horrible about movies that position themselves within that form while doing everything in their power to avoid having to deal with what that entails. The very best movies in the style - The Blair Witch Project, [REC] - gain most of their power from the locked-in limitation of having just one perspective, which more often than not leaves the audience feeling out of control and helpless. The more cameras you add, the more it becomes nothing but a conventionally-shot movie with a lazy excuse for bad cinematography built right in. At least Blair Witch looks nicer than average, with director of photography Robby Baumgartner doing what he can to light the nighttime woods in a manner that's sufficiently threatening and atmospheric without feeling fake, but the found footage conceit is treated with more perfunctory contempt here than in any movie this side of Chronicle.

If this all implies that, title notwithstanding, Blair Witch is just another damn found footage horror movie, something like a segment from one of those dreary V/H/S anthologies accidentally blasted up to 89 minutes, then I have correctly done my job as a critic. There's really nothing here that the genre faithful haven't seen before: even setting aside the constant borrowing from The Blair Witch Project itself, the film generates most its scares in almost exactly the same way that films of this sort tend to. It generates them very well! I don't want to take that away from Wingard's direction, which oscillates effectively between moments of hectic panic and moments of tense, watchful waiting. It's not an especially artful way: mostly, Blair Witch generates terror through sheer overwhelming stimulation, correctly assuming that enough incoherent noise and dizzying, stomach-churning cinematography will get the audience wired enough that anything would seem pretty horrifying. Still, the film's last 20 minutes or so are legitimately nerve-shredding, leaving me as desperately keyed up as any horror film has in a couple of years, though I am sorry to report that the film's spell has already dissipated by the time the end credits are done rolling.

Prior to the climax, though, Blair Witch is boilerplate found footage tedium: there's very little to distinguish the characters, outside of the handful of well-placed shots to silently indicate that Peter (who is African-American) particularly distrusts Lane (who has a Confederate flag on his living room wall) for racially-motivated reasons, and this ads a layer of interest that carries on much longer than it maybe should. Otherwise, it's six characters screaming at each other in the woods, occasionally distracted by the script's unfortunate decision to add some kind of mysterious time dilation to the action and thus complicate the Blair Witch mythology in ways that it would have been better not to. In fact, the whole of Blair Witch feels a bit like fan fiction: elaborating on details of the original that most people probably don't remember or never noticed, and often not doing so in a way that makes any real sense within the context of this film by itself. Barrett's attempt to pay homage to moments in the original by re-conceiving its primary ingredients is nifty enough, if you're familiar with the first film, but the payoff is minimal. And in the case of a traditional Blair Witch Stick Totem that has been blown up to the size of one of those novelty giant teddy bears you can win at the county fair, it's openly goofy.

Basically, the thing is just a lot of generic fluff attached to a brand name that was irreparably damaged in 2000, and was already hated by as many people as loved it. Undoubtedly, by the standards of the 2010s found footage horror film, Blair Witch is in the top half; the top third even! But there's damning with faint praise, and there's being a passive-aggressive asshole, and given the state of the genre here in 2016 "it's good, for found footage" is too mean even for me to say it without a twinge of guilt.

5/10

22 September 2016

LIFE DURING WARTIME

A review requested by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Ugetsu is everything. I don't think it's the best movie ever made - I don't, in fact, think it's even the best Japanese movie of 1953, what with Tokyo Story sitting right there - but it is among the fullest. It packs its sleek, powerfully efficient 96 minutes with observations on human behavior under stress in several different iterations, combining at least four different genres and two mostly separate plotlines so skillfully that it never feels like what we're watching is any kind of monstrous hybrid. It is probably the most watchable of Mizoguchi Kenji's great movies, which isn't any little thing, given that it comes by that quality without sacrificing the downbeat social commentary of his other early-'50s masterpieces, Life of Oharu and Sansho the Bailiff, or their aching, awesome solemnity.

The film is, ultimately, about war - it is maybe even the most important of all war movies, despite showing not more than a few minutes of anything we might properly consider to be "combat". It's about the civilian cost of war, not its military aspect, presenting a world drawn from history (it's set in the 16th Century, during Oda Nobunaga's campaign to unite Japan under his rule) in which violence is omnipresent and there is little chance to avoid suffering. It is a depiction of the cruelty and arbitrariness of a world full of conflict, in which pain falls upon people irrespective of their deeds: in keeping with Mizoguchi's career-long concern with the representation and treatment of women in the rigidly patriarchal culture of Japan, Ugetsu is the story of two men who make terrible and selfish choices, and how those choices end up harming their wives, who cautioned against those choices in the first place. One can bemoan how unfair it is of Mizoguchi and his screenwriters to play this trick on his female characters, and that's of course true: it is very unfair, because the thing that Ugetsu primarily depicts is the rotten, shocking unfairness of war.

Adapted primarily from two stories in Ueda Akinari's 18th Century ghost story collection Tales of Moonlight and Rain (the translation of Ugetsu monogatari), Ugetsu's twin narratives center on a pair of marriages in the rural village Nakanogo. Genjuro (Mori Masayuki) is a potter frustrated at the lack of success he's found in his craft, which ultimately leads him to a larger town where he makes a small windfall. His wife Miyagi (Tanaka Kinuyo), on the advice of a wise man, begs him to leave well enough alone and focus on securing the homestead against the coming onslaught of soldiers; he only throws himself into the task of making even more pottery to sell at an even greater profit, and is caught off-guard when the promised onslaught arrives. He flees town with his friend Tobei (Ozawa Eitaro), obsessed with becoming a samurai, and Tobei's wife Ohama (Mito Mitsuko); the first of many grim omens to come is when the four adults and Genjuro and Miyagi's son Genichi (Sawamura Ichisaburo), crossing a lake in a thick fog, cross paths with a small boat containing a single passenger (Amano Ichiro) who warns them about pirates before dying. Miyagi and Genichi return to shore, over her impassioned pleas, while the other three continue to another town to sell pottery, after which point they are separated, and the tragedies of Ugetsu begin in earnest.

The unifying constant throughout the movie is the needless suffering imposed in a warring society: each of the four protagonists experiences their own form of misery, and in Miyagi, Tobei, and Ohama's cases, that misery is directly connected to the experience of trying to scrape by and survive in the face of soldiers ransacking the whole landscape. Genjuro's story, surely the one for which the film is best-known, is a bit subtler: he falls in with the intoxicating Lady Wakasa (Kyo Machiko), who absorbs him into her household in an empty mansion so thoroughly that he seems to completely lose all memory of Miyago and Genichi. But Lady Wakasa has her own story of wartime suffering (SPOILERS FOR A 63-YEAR-OLD CANONICAL MASTERPIECE): having been killed years ago, she exists only as a lonely, loveless ghost, and the infatuation she and Genjuro share is a falsehood, a dark parody of the kind of existence she might have lived in time of peace, turned into something hungry and haunting because of her violent death.

It is a perfect script that Kawaguchi Matsutaro and Yoda Yosikata put together: outwardly a domestic tragedy about the ways in which two foolish men abandon their marriages and consign their wives to needless violence, which is by turns a satire of military vainglory, a poetic love story, and a stone-faced horror film as it progresses, returning to tragedy in a final scene that is among cinema's all-time best, particularly as contrasted to the opening, which it consciously reverses both in narrative action and, famously, in its cinematography. And we'll get to the cinematography in a second, since it's the single most celebrated (and rightfully so) aspect of the movie. But I really don't want to go on without paying the script its due: there's nothing quite like Ugetsu as a story, at least not anything that does these things so supremely well. It occupies some kind of paradoxical middle ground between the avowedly fabulistic and the earthy, concrete, and realistic; its description of daily life in the late Sengoku period has the precision and detail of journalism in just the same way that every individual scene - particularly the ones involving Lady Wakasa, but certainly not only those - showcase the characters operating in an elevated manner that suggests a kind of mythic time divorced from history. And all this is in service to one of the greatest anti-war statements in art.

But anyway, yes, this has been known since 1953 as the movie what has that musical score, and those camera movements. Not in that order. And God knows that it's a reputation that Ugetsu comes by entirely fairly. It was, by all accounts, Mizoguchi's avowed intention that the act of watching the film should resemble reading the narrative picture scrolls of traditional Japanese art, and that's exactly what he and cinematographer Miyagawa Kazuo carried off: this is among the most emphatically linear of all films, dominated by action moving across the screen as the camera pans from right to left - I will not say that there is not a single example of left-to-right movement anywhere in the film, but if such a thing exists, I've not seen it in my half-dozen or so viewings of the film over the years. Undoubtedly, this gesture reads differently to an audience versed in the artform being referenced than it does to, for example, me; given that Ugetsu (one of the very first Japanese films to make a significant impact on European and American critics and viewers) was knocked in its home country as a film designed for export and Western accolades, it would appear that it maybe reads worse. But it is, anyway, sublime to look at it, simply on purely cinematic grounds. Much of the time, the horizontal movement feels like the world itself holding the characters locked in place: one of the main characteristics of the movement is how implacable it feels, disconnected from the onscreen action and moving at a steady pace regardless of what it passes by. There's something downright deterministic about it, maybe. It sets the film's universe into a tightly-controlled frame, one that binds the onscreen action as much as it depicts it.

And yet, it's also capable of being transporting in its beauty. One of the most famous moments in the film finds Genjuro lounging in a hot spring, with Lady Wakasa joining him; the camera starts moving left in a coy nod of censorship (we never see her enter the water), but as it continues to track along a trickle of water, it becomes much more about what we do see than what we don't: a peaceful natural setting, one that dissolves into a patch of bare earth as the tracking shot transforms into another tracking shot that ends on the couple sitting on a blanket. It's as perfect a visual gesture as the movies have ever made, combining two moments of bucolic pleasure in an elegant but also highly unnatural way, simultaneously underscoring the pleasure the characters feel as part of an unending stream of moments that have neither a beginning nor an end, while also reminding us that there is something inherently impossible and wrong about their love, which is after all a violation of social codes and basic morality. There are few camera movements that do so much, so poetically, and so swiftly.

The movie is an impeccable piece of craft across the board: the musical score by Hayasaka Fumio, Mochizuki Tamekichi, and Saito Ichiro is perfectly tied to the visuals in ways that I don't have anything like the proper vocabulary to describe, but the severely slow drip of notes adds considerably to the sense of myth and poetry, reiterating the inherent formalism of the cinematography. I presume that its immediate success in the esteem of critics was the result of some enthusiasm for the exotic atonality of the style, which remains strikingly austere no matter how many mid-century jidaigeki one sees; regardless of Orientalism, there's a rightness to the music, which sounds ancient and ritualistic simply on its own merits, and which helps to place Ugetsu in a culture whose rhythms and values are fundamentally strange, no matter how close the humans seem to us. It's also edited tremendously well, with some great cross-cutting in particular, linking moments of action in a continuum of violence, or savagely interrupting the Genjuro idyll with reminders of the brutal human world he has selfishly abandoned. The overall pace of the film is a mixture of languid moments stretched over long takes, and a constant sense of propulsion; aided, no doubt, by the film's tendency to elide scenes that aren't directly germane to the plot, which gives the sensation that we keep jumping forth in time. It works; everything about the film does. Ugetsu is beautiful to look at and vividly humane, but it's also a flawless piece of machinery, with every component working tightly together to help present its message and emotions. The result is one of cinema's most expressive works, and a film that everybody with the smallest interest in the medium must see - not just ones, but several times, whenever a reminder is needed of humanity's boundless capacity for cruelty and, more optimistically, humanity's ability to atone.

10/10

19 September 2016

THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN

If we want to be brutally honest about it, Sully never really does quite get around to making the case that the story it's telling needed to be told. It tells the story, to be fair, very well; in an era when highly proficient movie storytelling for middle-class adult audiences was more common, this would seem unexceptional but for how very good it is, with a couple of world-class performances and some very fine, taut directing by Clint Eastwood (whose career in the last decade has, anyway, largely been given to making highly proficient movies for middle-class adults, and I absolutely do mean that as a compliment). In a world where such a thing is a rare, it's kind of hard to see why Sully, of all things, managed to snag its position as the official kick-off to the 2016 Oscar season. It is good - even very good, if you're at all sympathetic to the whole middle-class adult thing - but it's weirdly smallish. I could just be responding to its astonishingly abrupt ending that feels at least one scene too short and almost deliberately trivialises everything that went before, I don't know.

The film is the true story of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who became a bona-fide Great American Hero on 15 January, 2009, when he managed to land a crashing plane on the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey, saving every one of the 155 human lives aboard. He is played, naturally enough, by that walking, talking, breathing icon of Americana, Tom Hanks, though this is very much the sober-minded, visibly strained Hanks of Captain Phillips, not the lovable teddy bear Hanks of yore. I suppose that's the only Hanks that Eastwood would have ever been likely to work with. The performance that results - and to an inordinately high degree, the performance is the movie - is somewhere between Richard Phillips in that film and Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle in Eastwood's last film, American Sniper: a crisp professional so attuned to correct procedure that he's able to bury his emotional response to stress until after the fact, at which point he turns into a miserable, confused bundle of raw nerves, obsessively rehashing his past actions in his head. Of all the ways this project could have gone, transforming Sully into a quietly upset man filled with joyless anxiety at the thought of being made a heroic figure is surely the best: it's a far cry from the "aw shucks, I'm just a fella" tone would have happened if this were, say, a James Stewart vehicle in the 1940s - or a Tom Hanks vehicle in the 1990s - and if it's not quite the full-throated PTSD drama that American Sniper was, or that its first half keeps threatening to turn into, it's still an impressive sober and reserved character study that only briefly wears the clothes of a hagiography (like American Sniper, it ends with real-world footage after the events of the movie are over in celebration of the protagonist, and like American Sniper, that's very much the worst part of the whole feature).

Todd Komarnicki's screenplay, adapted by Sullenberg's memoir Highest Duty, manages to have some unexpectedly cunning ideas about how to structure a story which has very few moving parts: basically, Sully and Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) pilot US Airways Flight 1549 off the ground at LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, NC; minutes later, they fly smack into a flock of geese, whose heavy, large bodies zip right into the both engines and render them inoperable. With hardly any time to think about what he's doing, Sully concludes that the plane doesn't have enough altitude to make it to an actual runway, so he takes the plane down in the Hudson. Over the next week, he and Skiles are the subject of over-the-top adulation in the media and unnecessarily accusatory investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is hoping to find some proof of human error in order to protect US Air and its insurers. And that's really the whole of the story, and its virtually non-existent conflict.

So how to make a movie out of this? The film offers two solutions, and they're both entirely successful. First, of course, is to heavily tilt things away from "what happened" to "how it affected Sully", turning this into a psychological drama oriented primarily around Hanks's wonderful portrayal of Sully, a dark-hued piece of virtually silent acting in which modesty shades into self-loathing depression, and stoicism turns into inarticulate mumbling from a man who is painfully ill-equipped to process what has happened to him. The film turns the most generic imaginable biopic scenes of Sully having awkward conversations with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) over the phone as she deals with unwanted media attention and implicitly asks for some comfort, into deeply harrowing moments of human fragility and suffocating isolation. It helps that Linney, if anything, is even better than Hanks: given a stupefying nothing of a role, even by the standards of "the suffering wife" clichés, Linney manages to suggest through very little beyond her unraveling tone of voice an entire feature film's worth of being trapped in a house by a raving mob of reporters and terrified by the omnipresent knowledge that your beloved almost died in a terrible plane crash. The immensely small-scale, low-key intimacy on display is unexpected and entirely rewarding, almost objectively the best thing Sully has on display.

The other solution is a function of the first: having decided that the movie shall be about Sully's attempt to process what happened, the screenplay is built around a flashback structure which mimics that process. Under the studio logos at the start of the film, we hear the sound of Sully and Skiles preparing for take-off, and then see what appears to be the event itself, but turns out to a nightmare about attempting to return to LaGuardia and instead crashing the plane into downtown Manhattan. We're thus already in the subjective realm of Sully's head, and when the film finally gets around to depicting his act of bravery, it's done in a way that reiterates his thought process during the post-crash plotline. In fact (and this is the film's more impressive structural trick), we see the accident happen three times in the course of the movie, every time as a flashback of Sully's, every time doing something completely different: both in terms of the information and perspectives we're offered, and in terms of how it ends up feeling. In fact, the full portrayal of the water landing and the subsequent rescue option functions more as the climax of the film (in a Shakespearean, "the climax happens in the third act of five" sense), rather than its instigation. For it is after relieving the complete event, from start to finish, that Sully begins to emerge from his dark cloud of self-doubt and start focusing on how to prove his virtue to the hostile NTSB. And this, as much as Hanks's performance, reinforces the idea that Sully isn't about an act of heroism, but about how a man deals with a traumatic event in the whole world trying to praise him rather than let him own that trauma.

The question, however, remains: is all of this an argument that the movie, in and of itself, needs to exist? One thing it absolutely cannot be accused of is an excess of either ambition or scale. To an extent, it makes its smallness work on its behalf: there's a lack of fuss in the no-nonsense 96 minutes that capture something fascinating about the workaday nature of piloting an airplane, even one in a moment of crisis. It is, ultimately, a procedural, staring without editorial inflection at the actions taken inside the cockpit of a plane and later outside of it in the water. There's not a scrap of melodrama to it, which makes it a surprisingly effective thriller: the surgical precision with which Eastwood and company march through the steps of escaping a sinking plane makes Sully one of the most viscerally unsettling plane crash movies I have seen.

All that being said - and I don't want to diminish the reality that it's a greatly pleasurable film to watch, on top of everything, which counts for a whole lot - everything that Sully does, another film could probably have also done, and maybe with more consequence. Its very best element, which is the way a man deals with trauma while obsessive reliving his violent memories, is basically a watered-down version of what Eastwood just did in American Sniper. And without spoiling things, I'd be hard-pressed to explain why the ending feels so damn unfulfilling; but there's such a thing as efficiently wrapping things up once the emotional journeys are complete, and then there's such a thing as failing to actually complete all of the journeys.

On top of which, the craftsmanship is at a surprisingly low ebb for an Eastwood movie: the sound design is extraordinarily good - it is one of the most plane-sounding planes in the annals of cinema - but everything else ranges from proficient and totally devoid of character (Tom Stern's utterly banal cinematography, which returns us to more or less full saturation after years of his Eastwood films looking bleached-out and wan; an aesthetic that I've always thoroughly admired, though I know it brings the pair in for plenty of mockery), to the actively deleterious in the case of the editing by Blu Murray (a member of Eastwood's team of associated craftspeople since 2002 and an assistant editor for most of that time, promoted to led editor for the first time), which slices multiple scenes into unnecessarily small chunks that feel more frantically pieced together than the mood of the moment requires. The cockpit scenes during Sully's first actual (non-dream) flashback are a particularly clear example of the edit being simply busy, without any point to it.

In short, Sully is nowhere near a masterpiece; but was anybody expecting it to be? Frankly, I feared it would be much worse than a nifty real-life story injected with great thoughtfulness and gravitas. It is middlebrow drama through and through, but there's nothing sinful in that, and in Hanks's work it has at least one element that I think will long outlive this moment and this awards season. Plenty of movies have gotten by with no more than that.

7/10

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: CAT ME IF YOU CAN

In its own way, Keanu is a miraculous little picture. It is a comedy - an American studio comedy - that is driven by its plot and not by the material the stars produced while riffing on set. Possibly as a result of exactly that thing, it has a running time, with end credits and all, the comes in short of 100 minutes. Which is impressive enough. But then we add in that it is intelligent and funny, simultaneously - and not just intelligent, but sharply and fixedly satirical, with a clear-headed perspective on contemporary social relationships that already traffics in material that movies try the level best to avoid completely; but it is aware of the solemn duty of comedies, that they never allow anything to get in the way of the humor, so it carefully layers its social commentary right below the jokes, where you only have to grapple with it if you want to. So it's imperfect; lots of movies are imperfect. But most movies are not special and singular in the ways that Keanu is. God knows most comedies aren't nearly as funny, and that's pretty much all it takes by itself.

The film is, at heart, about the psychotic things that cat lovers do. Right from the start, we see glimmers of this: somewhere in a dank part of Los Angeles, a pair of glowering, semi-demonic black-cloaked assassins (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the latter of whom co-wrote the script with Alex Rubens) execute all the gang members working a drug warehouse, ending with the boss King Diaz (Ian Casselberry). They are, however, thrown briefly by the presence of Diaz's unbearably adorable tabby kitten Iglesias, petting and kissing the small animal while Diaz optimistically supposes this means that he is to be spared. He's not; Iglesias escapes in the chaos that ensues, and races across L.A. to the soaring accompaniment of chorale music. Two thoughts had by this point presented themselves to me: one was that the opening is pretty nasty and dark for the first scene of a comedy, even as over-the-top parody. The other was that all things are forgiven in the presence of a kitten scampering down the Los Angeles River with classical music playing him on his way. All things. I will confess at this point that Keanu unquestionably works better if you are a cat person, and I cannot speak to what it might do for those wretched, black-hearted souls who are not.

Anyway, Iglesias ends up on the doorstep of a certain Rell (Peele), who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, and who responds with appropriate obsession to the mewling fuzzball that has sought him out light a sign from God. That is, he takes photos of the kitten - renamed "Keanu", after the Hawai'ian word for a cool breeze, and also after the blank-faced star of The Matrix - in a series of movie-inspired tableaux to serve as a 12-month calendar for friends and family. Rell's cousin Clarence (Key) is a little put off by this at first, but soon melts, as anyone would (seriously, the litany of kittens they got to play Keanu are the sonofabitching cutest imaginable), and so it is that both men respond with outrage and horror when they return from a movie that night to find that Rell's house has been broken into and Keanu has been stolen.

The rest of the movie finds Rell and Clarence making a plunge into the heart of darkness, as they discover that Keanu is in the hands of a druglord named Cheddar (Method Man), and have to pose as the Allentown Boys - the same assassins from the first scene - in order to get close enough to snatch the kitty back. The surface-level comedy is that both men are boring, vanilla middle-class types - Rell is a pop culture nerd, Clarence is so uptight that it's starting to cause problems with his wife (Nia Long), they bond over Liam Neeson movies - and they are very, very bad at pretending to be ultra-violent gangsters, but just barely good enough to keep inveigling themselves more and more in the madly dangerous world they've stumbled into. The barely-deeper-than-surface-level satire is, of course, that Rell and Clarence are both African-Americans, as are virtually all of the characters in the film of any significance (though Will Forte puts in a wonderful small performance), but everything about them reads as white. And not just white, but like, painfully awkward, boring white: Clarence's most defining attribute is that he's a George Michael fan, and Rell's taste in cinema is that of every skinny college freshman who was the only person in some Minneapolis suburb who liked Kubrick and thinks it makes him edgy.

Basically, Keanu is a frank (but not terribly aggressive) attempt to reckon with the complexity of race in America: that there is not merely a Black America and White America, but Respectable Black America and Poor Black America (of course the same intra-racial division is found among white folks, but pop culture has generally been much better about recognising that it exists, at least, even if it's not with a terribly high degree of sophistication). I'm not really in a position to say if it does this particularly well; what I think can be said is that it's probably not as good as any given episode of the stars' late sketch comedy TV show, Key and Peele, which had its share of little acid bombs on the same topic, presented with much more focus than the movie can provide. Still, for a movie to grapple with that kind of thing at all is rare enough that it's worth some attention.

As I mentioned, though, the film's not primarily concerned with being a social studies lesson. To its absolute credit; nothing kills comedy faster or more thoroughly than hand-wringing earnestness, and such earnestness as Keanu provides is mostly part of Clarence's litany of liabilities in terms of surviving as a pretend murderer. No, the social aspect silently powers Keanu, but mostly, the film is dedicated to letting Key and Peele demonstrate their admirable comic timing and chemistry - it's almost impossible to think of another American comedy duo the 2000s have produced that's nearly as good (for that matter, it's hard to think of any comedy duo worthy of the name in contemporary pop culture) - for the first time in a cinematic setting. And as far as that goes, it works: Keanu is frequently great, using the ancient comic trope of the nervous outsider in a dangerous spot to good effect by virtue of having to top-shelf talents working through jokes that are rarely fresh, but have the force of the duo's commitment to sell them. Besides, it can always retrench to showcasing it's devastatingly sweet kitten, at one point sporting a do-rag and gold chain in what will surely go down as 2016's most violently adorable image.

That all being said, Keanu absolutely feels like the work of tremendously talented sketch comedy veterans giving a feature-length screenplay a test-drive (this particularly includes Key and Peele veteran Peter Atencio's directing, which is maddeningly free of urgency). Even with its thankfully un-bloated running time, the film is perhaps too long: there aren't that many different jokes to be mined from scenario, and most of the film is an exercise in seeing the same handful of ideas (men with high-pitched voices adopting bass growls and taking unsavory delight in saying the N-word; the same men freaking out at the thought of violence; Clarence convincing a bunch of tough criminals that George Michael is an important part of black culture) worked out in different iterations. I wouldn't say it wears out its welcome, but it ceases to be surprising very early on. Not everything plays: Anna Faris's tremendously unselfish cameo as a drugged-out lunatic version of herself sounds good on paper but drags on, and the film starts to become too much of an action film (which it is never very good at being) as it enters its final quarter.

All of which is very real, and which certainly keeps Keanu from being a complete slam dunk, but what can I say: as old-hat as the jokes got, I was still laughing at them an hour into the movie. Flawless timing and otherworldly chemistry can paper over a lot sins in a comedy, and Key and Peele have both of those qualities to spare, and even when Keanu objectively doesn't "work", it still works. Besides, and I cannot over-emphasis this enough: kitty!

8/10 (really, 7/10 with an adorable cat bonus of one point)

17 September 2016

OUT OF SIGHT

Fundamentally, the only thing that Don't Breathe gets wrong is that is has the wrong protagonists. Or maybe it's even that it has the right protagonists, but doesn't know what to properly do with them. So much of the film feels like it should be a perfectly engaging bit of end-of-summer tosh, a shabby little shocker of, if not the first order, then comfortably the second. Fede Alvarez's direction is more pointed and confident than when he proficiently and indifferently remade Evil Dead back in 2013; if nothing else, he's absolutely perfectly nailed the mixture of rhythms - from cautious, low-boil tension to shrieking terror and then back again - that go into making this sort of thriller work. And while the film's visual design is every bit as full of convenient holes as its plot (my goodness, but this movie's blind man does like to leave random lamps in on the corner of rooms at 2:30 in the morning), the sense of a creepy haunted house drawn from the most unexceptional sort of suburban residential architecture services the film enormously well. Then you get to the script that Alvarez wrote with Rodo Sayagues, and you discover what kind of protagonist they're trying to pass off on us, and it's just the most deflating thing. Hard to appreciate a mercilessly slow build of tension when you spend half of the movie muttering to yourself "for God's sake, why haven't these fuckers died yet?" Not since Frozen - not that one - have I encountered such a good-in-most-ways thriller that broke apart completely as a result of forcing me to spend time with people who so little deserved my sympathy.

We'll return to that, but for now, the plot: in Detroit, that city which most pithily sums up the idea of post-industrial poverty in the United States, there are many desperately poor people, but we for the moment chiefly care about three. These are Alex (Dylan Minnette), Roxanne AKA Rocky (Jane Levy), and Money (Daniel Zovatto), which is also an AKA, I suppose, but we never learn for what (incidentally, two of these people are white and one is Latino, which isn't exactly what the phrase "the miserable poor of Detroit" calls to mind, but movie industry gonna movie industry). They are house robbers, breaking their way into the homes of the extraordinarily rich thanks to Alex's father's job at a home security firm; apparently his job involves bringing home his keys that unlock everything in the world and deactivate the alarm systems his company installs, and then leaving them in unsecured locations, which is the first time the movie dragged a reluctant "...well, if that's actually going to be the premise, I'll let you have it" out of me. Anyway, we quickly learn about our three brigands that Money is the outright sociopath, breaking shit and pissing on stuff; Alex, who nervously recites legal factoids to the others (most pertinently, that as long as they keep their takings to under $10,000 per house, they aren't technically felons); and Rocky is the one who is Just Doing It For Her Daughter. Sister? Gotta Be Daughter. The relationship between her, and little Diddy (Emma Bercovici), and her nightmare of a mother (Katia Bokor) only really makes sense if Rocky is Diddy's mother, but very, very late in the movie, we have it confirmed that these ragged-looking twentysomethings are in fact just teenagers. Which is a development that legitimately costs the movie a whole hell of a lot: young adults driven to crimes and bad decisions out of economic want have a wholly different tragic dimension than teenagers doing the same.

Anyway, Money's fence lets him in on a secret, way out on the edge of town, where nobody lives, there's one solitary inhabited house, and the owner of that house once received hundreds of thousands of dollars in a settlement when a rich teen girl ran over his daughter and killed her. With proper justice denied, the old man had to settle for money that he apparently didn't want, or at least hasn't visibly spent; he still lives in a rundown shithole, and his only apparently expenditure of late has been to trick out his house with security from Alex's dad's company. Money and Rocky enthusiastically decide to rip him off, and Alex is wrangled into thanks to his unspoken but super-obvious crush on Rocky. While they're observing the man (Stephen Lang), they discover that he's blind, a victim of the first Iraq War; this is almost enough to completely rattle Alex, but he's still stuck thinking with his dick, and it doesn't even give Rocky and Money pause to think that they're about to steal the whole net worth of a blind man whose sole loved one was brutally taken away thanks to the mindless indulgence of an entitled upper class idiot. Our heroes!

I mean literally, our heroes. The film knows that Money is a greedy prick, to its credit, but it genuinely seems to think that Rocky's motives to take Diddy away to Los Angeles obviate her choices, and Alex's forthright guilt does the same for him. As a result, I hated both of them much more: Rocky especially, given the needless way that the movie keeps making her reiterate her bad choices. At one point, somewhat more than midway through, there is a point where they can abandon the money and escape reasonably intact and safe, and she goes out of her way to decide that she's not going to do that. If I hadn't mostly loathed her before then, I surely would have after. It doesn't help that Levy's and especially Minnette's performances are both pretty mildewy and whinging; if any little bit of sympathy had managed to accrue to the protagonists, their watery facial expressions and shrill line deliveries would surely have done it in.

The thing is, Don't Breathe is a horror film and a thriller, but mostly it is a thriller. This means something very specifically important in this case. If this were, say, a slasher movie, it wouldn't matter if the "good guys" were awful. In that kind of horror picture, the real protagonist is the killings themselves and the make-up effects used to execute them; having unlikable victims is, indeed, part of the charm, since we are secretly hoping they die in robust ways. Or not so secretly. But in a thriller of this stripe, we need, somewhat, to feel sorry for the victims: we are meant to be able to inhabit their situation and feel empathetically what they feel. We can't root for their deaths, because the entire effect of the movie hinges on the question: "what if that were me?" If it were me, I pray that I would not be a repulsive asshole - a hypocritical repulsive asshole, in Alex's case. And mind you, in the real world, being kind of needlessly obnoxious and stealing from a man who's really no better off than they are wouldn't earn the characters the ghastly things that happen to them - but in the karmic universe of a genre film, they get just what they've earned.

There could be something in here: the story of a blind man with a unique set of skills turning the tables on his idiot teen assailants, only told from the other side. But grasping, perhaps, that they've left the villain of the piece as the more inherently sympathetic figure (and Lang's performance, outclassing everybody else in the movie by margins that I almost can't even get my head around, makes him something close to a tearful Lear figure, making it even harder to root against him in this context), even as he uses his military training to rather effortlessly take the teens down, Alvarez & Sayagues turn him into some kind of psychopathic super-monster; I will not say how or what, other than that it's too crass for the straitlaced, mostly realistic tone of the movie, and not nearly crass enough to transform it into ripping good exploitation. Anyway, the film enters a moral dead zone: ludicriously evil bad guy versus pointlessly unlikable leads. Who could definitely have been made likable, but no matter. It leaves the film a perfectly-tuned, well-oiled machine without an engine: this kind of thriller simply can't function as a pure exercise in craft, it needs someone for us to feel for, and it lacks that, and so there's nothing to do but admire, in an empty way, what Alvarez and his crew have accomplished.

By all means! Let us so admire! The assembly of the film's visual elements leaves very little to be desired: especially Pedro Luque's choking, underlit cinematography, which sets off Naaman Marshall's wonderful production design. The blind man's home undoubtedly comes across as much too spacious and elaborately laid-out for a stock bungalow in a run-down part of Detroit - and the basement, where much of the most important action takes place, is easily four times bigger than it has any sane right to be - but it serves well as a creepy movie set full of appropriately secretive hidey-holes for the blind man to pop out of, doing his absolute best Teleporting Killer routine. And the sound design is, genuinely, superlative stuff: many of the sounds are unreasonably loud and given grating, jarring timbre, exaggerated and heightened in a horror movie elaboration of the way that sounds magnify when everything is unnaturally silent. Everything about the film works, except for the fact that it just plain doesn't work at all. 'Tis pity that such a well-honed thriller should take place around such a vacuous center.

5/10

14 September 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: EVERYBODY WING CHUN TONIGHT

I want you to ignore the modestly impressive 7/10 rating attached to this review. Ip Man 3 is a fascinating film even in its mistakes, and a great film in its triumphs: anyone with the most glancing interest in action movies, especially martial arts movies, has really no choice but to see it. This is all despite the important fact that the film is a little bit broken, and by "a little bit", I mean "fundamentally, kind of. No, definitely". It is a mixed-up jumble of plots that accompany each other less from some kind of narrative urgency than because there was enough room in the film's 105-minute running time to accommodate them all, and those plots run the gamut from the utterly clichéd to the also clichéd but presented in such a an opaque way that if it wasn't for the clichés you'd never have a prayer of figuring out what was going on.

The film, which premiered in Hong Kong in December 2015, is the slightly lagging sequel to 2008's excellent martial arts picture/morality play Ip Man and 2010's gonzo jingoistic Ip Man 2, and between them they provide a close enough approximation of the life of Ip Man, the midcentury martial arts teacher chiefly responsible for the worldwide popularity of the Wing Chun style (that is to say, one of his students was Bruce Lee, and he's chiefly responsible for Wing Chun's visibility. But Ip was a fascinating human being and deserves more than to be footnoted as an addendum to Lee's biography). A more abstract version of his life was presented in Wong Kar-Wai's 2013 The Grandmaster, which I suspect is the more well-known movie, at least among the cinephile set and, I mean, it is better. But that's no poor reflection on the Ip Man trilogy: the first film, at least, is genuinely great, and both of the sequels have a lot that's entirely worth the sifting it takes to get to them.

Anyway, we're here to talk about Ip Man 3, which picks up in 1959, at which point Ip (Donnie Yen) has settled into a quiet life with a school in Hong Kong, where he lives with his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Lynn Hung) and second son Ching (Wang Yan Shi), while his legend gently fades. His son has a rival at school, and that rival has a father named Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang Jin), who is a pretty solid Wang Chun fighter in his own right, and who instantly cops a rather haughty attitude around Ip. This is the point at which I can no longer properly summarise the plot of the movie, not because it becomes mired in spoilers, but because it gets inordinately thick and dense. The ingredients that follow include a Triad attempt to force the school out of business, which is cotangent with but not identical to a plot to kidnap the schoolchildren and sell them into slavery. There is involved with this a corrupt American land developer, Frank (Mike Tyson). There is also Cheung's jealousy towards Ip, which ends up providing the last act after writers Chan Tai-Li, Jill Leung, and Edmond Wong accidentally wrap up the other conflicts too early, and threading throughout all of this is Wing-sing's discovery that she is dying of cancer, and her husband's desire to be by her side despite all of the other things pressing upon his attention. And just in case that's not enough moving parts, the film includes a thoroughly spurious scene early on in which Ip is visited by the eager, arrogant young Lee Jun-fan (Chan Kwok-Kwan), AKA Bruce Lee, a scene that demonstrates mostly that the casting director had a phenomenal eye for picking a Lee doppelgänger, and to remind us that still and all, Bruce Lee is much more famous than Ip Man.

It's messy as all hell, and not the most intuitive thing to follow "confusing" is a strong word, but the way that subplots are mashed together doesn't follow any reasonable kind of interior logic nor the generic conventions of martial arts movies. Which are not, let us be honest, overwhelmingly elegant, clear pieces of clockwork narrative functioning. Still, Ip Man 3 could only be helped if you keep a chart of names and relationships handy. The question that arises is, of course, Does any of this matter? Frankly, it does not. The storytelling in the film is uninspired, and the character drama trite - Hung gives a superlative performance, filled with silences and powerful reaction shots and brief, sharp explosions of pain and love, and she still can't make anything of her lengthy plotline more consequential than "and then his wife died, and it was sad". But it has the goods where it needs to. Obviously, this means the action is terrific, pretty much across the board: after Sammo Hung filled the role of action director in the last two movies, the new one replaces him with Yuen Woo-Ping - and let's not pretend for a second that Hung isn't a fantastic action choreographer. But there's something that's simply more florid and extravagant in Yuen's work, which is in this case augmented heavily by Yen's own contributions, much of it through on-set improvisation. And may I pause for a second to note that it is fucking nuts to think of such precise, inventive fight scenes coming about through improvisation, and let's all tip our hat to Donnie Yen's willingness to go for broke at the sprightly age of 51.

Regardless of who did what and when, the fights in Ip Man 3 are utterly wonderful, captured with glorious clarity and restraint by director Wilson Yip, returning to the franchise for the third time and perhaps doing the best work he has so far in framing and staging the fights: there's something almost reminiscent of a Hollywood musical from the '50s in the way the film uses obviously transparent sets and relaxed but precise camera angles and cutting to really showcase the sheer perfection of the human movement on display. The most technically impressive is probably the climax, between Yen and Zhang, although the most interesting is surely the fight between Yen and Tyson, a surprising and delightful assemblage of Chinese and Western fighting styles that makes wonderful use of different camera lengths to accentuate different aspects of how each fighter moves their body and makes contact. It also showcases Tyson having a giddy ol' time - it would be at least an exaggeration to say that he's giving a particularly "good" performance, but my God, is he ever a joy to watch: he was clearly having a blast making the movie and it radiates right off the screen.

The fighting, anyway, is one very important reason to watch the film. The other is Yen, who has always been good in the role, but has aged into it over the course of three films, and who's really quite special this time around. There's a soothing calmness to his performance, punctuated by violence, and flashes of desperation in the more family-oriented plotlines; as trite as it is to say, his screen presence is full of the wisdom of a grandmaster, patient and fluid and then very suddenly powerful for moments at a time. It's not quite fair to call this a great character drama - "save the school from the land developer!" doesn't give him very much to do - but Yen's Ip Man is the kind of figure who ought to have a great character drama around him, and it's enough to give Ip Man 3 at least the temporary aura of being a much more profound movie than it is.

7/10

12 September 2016

EVERYDAY MIRACLES

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

Director Vittorio De Sica released the bitter and grim Bicycle Thieves in 1948 and the utterly crushing Umberto D. in 1952, and in between them made only one film, about the dirt-poor inhabitants of a shantytown. With this evidence in hand, it is easy to make all of the wrong assumptions about 1951's Miracle in Milan, which is to those films as... I don't even have a pithy comparison lined up. I cannot say that it resembles them not at all, because in point of fact it resembles them a whole lot. Broadly speaking, it is Neorealist: real-live locations are used with barely anything to dress them up, and real-live human beings populate those locations, rather than professional actors. It's shot in unsentimental black-and-white by G.R. Aldo, and it takes place squarely in the present, with an Italy that's still not quite done shaking off the recent war hovering in the back of every scene. There's a truly angry critique of the no-holds-barred capitalism that has swept into Italy, replacing the infrastructure of the country at the cost of individual human lives.

Despite all of this, it feels entirely unlike anything else that De Sica was producing around this period for one overriding reason: it is monumentally joyful. There is no other word I'd rather use to describe it: the opening sequence presents a situation of domestic joy so intense and unapologetic that it feels almost impossible that a director of De Sica's clear-headed pragmatism could have ever believed in it, and yet it sets up a tone that the movie never really deviates from. It is a film dedicated to the principle that no matter how miserable life might become, it is still possible to be truly and completely happy, and no matter how crushing one's circumstances, it is still possible to life with great dignity and love. For a director of De Sica's convictions, one could almost decry this as reactionary, and yet during the film's 100 minutes, it's practically impossible not to wholly and enthusiastically believe in all of it, and the embrace with both arms the film's prescription for how the world could be so much better if only the people in it were more open and forgiving and sincere, a theme that makes up for in raw conviction what it lacks in real-world sophistication.

Miracle in Milan is above all things the story of a pure fool. It begins, explicitly, "once upon a time", where an old lady named Lolotta (Emma Gramatica) discovers to her ecstatic delight an infant boy hiding among the cauliflowers in her garden. She adopts him and raises him with a giddy sense of the world's possibilities, in which every mistake is the possibility to create something new, in which learning and discovery are joyful, and in which everything is to be greeted with the sheer pleasure of being alive. Then she dies, and the little boy, Totò (Gianni Branduani) knows sadness for the first time, as he is sent off to an orphanage. When he turns 18 (and is thereupon played by Francesco Golisano), he re-enters the wide world, having learned only what Lolotta has taught him. While this means he's quite smart in a book-knowledge sense, he's also completely at sea with the cynical, untrusting world of adults, and thus he ends up falling in with the homeless population of Milan. Undaunted - perhaps not even realising that "daunted" is a thing - Totò encourages his fellow dispossessed to build a thriving community on a large, seemingly abandoned parcel of land, creating a complete shanty-city, with names like "1 X 1 Plaza" and "5 X 5 Street" so that the children of the community can learn simply by living there, and with a complex, self-sustaining, mutually supportive society run by no individual, but simply by the sense of the collective good.

There ends up being a plot in all that - a couple, in fact, one with a cruel land developer who feels like an extra from a Soviet propaganda film in the '20s, the other involving the titular miracles, which are presented in a flagrantly and unapologetically un-Realist way - but it's almost besides the point. Not least because how much of the not-super-long movie has passed by before anything that seriously looks like conflict decides to assert itself. This is very a much a film of mood and attitude, all of it derived from Totò, as written, and as Golisano plays him: with a big, broad, friendly grin at all times, but importantly not a pervasive sense of naïveté. He's not a character unaware of cruelty, greed, and politicking; he is a character who perceives these to be a violation of the basic goodness of humans, and who responds their presence with a self-conscious decision to counter them by being pleasant and warm. It's a performance that takes some finessing, and Golisano - who had acted before and would again, though this is far and away his most prominent role - does fine work in shading Totò as an intelligent, thinking, aware man, and not simply a generically good one.

On the back of this character, De Sica and his team of writers - the most important being Neorealist mainstay Cesare Zavattini, who wrote the unproduced screenplay that he turned into a novel that he re-adapted into this film - have founded a truly beautiful and moving fable of human beings at their best in the most adverse situations. It is a delicate movie, without the self-conscious Importance that makes De Sica's better-known and more widely-seen work so easy to admire, but I wholeheartedly prefer this to any of the director's other films that I have seen: it manages to be so profoundly sweet and uplifting without sacrificing any sociological insight - the portrait of contemporary Italy that the film paints is a grave one, powered by thoughtless men acting from short-sighted greed - or easing back on aesthetic savvy.

Indeed, Miracle in Milan is a greatly impressive, multi-faceted piece of cinema: right from its fairy tale garden, the film has already started in on its most persistent stylistic trope, which is to present a deep background to the action, in which we see not just three-dimensional spaces like Lolotta's home or the shantytown, but also have a sense of the world beyond which contains these spaces: a world of buildings, trains, cities, and God knows what. It is a full world, and maybe not a kind or humane one; but Aldo's cinematography presents it all in an evocative greyscale range that makes this among the most beautiful Italian movies of its generation that I've seen. Nor does the beauty stop with Neorealist landscapes: the visual effects by Hollywood import Ned Mann (who retired after this project) include some absurdly lovely picture-book images, like the early depiction of desperate men huddled together in a sunbeam that manages to be severe in its depiction of suffering even while possessing something of the spiritual awe of an illustration in a Bible.

All of this is to say: Miracle in Milan is both an incisive depiction of Italy's problems and a deeply pleasurable magical realist proof that those problems needn't be crippling. "Deeply pleasurable" is not a phrase one typically throws at the films of Neorealism - at least I never have - and the fact that De Sica was able to make something which boasts the best Neorealism in a crowd-pleasing framework is a miracle in and of itself. Given its pedigree, it is astonishing how relatively little-known the film is; this is a complete masterpiece.

10/10

10 September 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: EVERY MINUTE OF THE FUTURE IS A MEMORY OF THE PAST

He doesn't get as much press or awards attention as Cristian Mungiu, but I dunno: Corneliu Porumboiu will always be "my" Romanian film director, somehow. His feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest is one of my favorite comedies of the 2000s and one of my favorite satires ever; and now, ten years later and with feature #4 behind him, I still root for him in a way that I don't, really, for anybody else making movies right now - not in Romania, not anywhere else in the world. And that's true even when said feature #4, The Treasure, is perhaps not impossible to disregard as a trifle. A trifle laced with arsenic, to be sure. But especially coming on the heels of his pointedly aimless and tough When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, this is pretty much a crowd-pleaser through and through. A crowd-pleaser by Romanian art film standards, but still...

Crowd-pleaser or not, The Treasure is very much in line with the nibbling sarcasm and historical long-view that made 12:08 East of Bucharest so great: once again, we are presented a dry character comedy about people dealing with the fallout from the collapse of Romanian Communism, years and years later. And just to add to the woes of its leads, The Treasure drops in a dose of post-2008 economic misery to boot: Costi (Tuma Cozin) is keeping his head above water and providing meagerly for his wife and son, but without any margin for error, and that's far more than can be said for his neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcărescu, who lived through a version of these events with Porumboiu), who is pretty much completely broke. So broke, in fact, that he's willing to trot out a madcap fantasy premise into the stark long-take, grey-on-grey Euro-art realism of The Treasure's cinematography and mise en scène: apparently, his great-grandfather buried a treasure back in the old family home, many decades ago. The rise and fall of the Communist regime, shuffling the property away from the family and back again, means that nobody has ever had a chance to go back and find it, and Adrian, with absolutely nothing to lose, has decided to go hunting. But he doesn't even have the not-terribly-high fee needed to pay for the metal detector operator, which is where Costi comes in. In fact, Costi also doesn't have that fee, but he at least has the means to trick somebody else into giving it to him.

That gets us to The Treasure's A-plot, which finds Costi and Adrian standing around uncertainly as metal detector owner Cornel (Corneliu Cozmei, who actually does this for a living, and is not an actor) decodes the various bloops his gizmo makes while offering up no indication that he finds these two bozos interesting on any level other than as a source to pay his fee. And this is - I mean, comedy is in the eye of the beholder, but this is hilarious stuff. In part, that comes from the basic contrast between the flighty, magical realist nature of the scenario, and the tar-black, bone-dry humor with which Porumboiu stages it, along with the flat visuals provided by Tudor Mircea's cinematography.

This is the same aesthetic the writer-director has used four times now (ignore the pawky humor, and it's the same aesthetic as the great majority of films produced in the decade-plus of the Romanian New Wave), but his preceding films have all generally drawn from the storehouse of art film narrative scenarios; applying this style to a lighthearted domestic fable - it's just inches from a 1990s Chris Columbus film, really - does miraculous things to refresh not just the aesthetic, but also the story itself. We are constantly aware that this is not going at all the way that a story about adult men going on a treasure hunt "ought" to go; it has absolutely no narrative urgency, and the characters seem annoyed and baffled to be there. It's an anti-caper, focused with journalistic-like zeal on the grind of using a metal detector (damn near half the movie feels like it's about Cornel explaining his readings to the client) and the curious bureaucratic tangles involved in recovering pre-War objects, which both threaten the men's quest and end up weirdly benefiting at the end. It's unromantic in the extreme, with unlovely visuals and tired, petulant protagonists.

As if being a sardonic anti-farce wasn't good enough, The Treasure does all of this while smuggling in a running commentary on the exhausting fact of being a Romanian in the 2010s, obliged to deal with the huge shitpile of problems that all the Romanians between 1947 and the present day have left for them. It's right there in the basic scenario, of course: Adrian's ancestors leaving behind unclear rumors about some kind of undefined Something Valuable, which was lost to time in part because of the feckless meddling of the government under Communism and the even more feckless meddling of the government in years since. The shifting fortunes of the old family home reflect a country and a population whirling from a lack of definite personality in the wake of the post-Cold War world: the building has been everything from a school to a strip club, we are told, trying to find the thing that would work for it and never quite figuring out what that might be, while leaving the physical markers of all its incarnations behind for the treasure hunters to find. So what if it's an obvious metaphor: they are digging through Romania's recent past, trying to find something of value. In any context other than a dry, self-negating comedy, maybe that would be cloying, but guess what: it's not any other context.

The payoff for all of this is a film that's funny, smart, and at 89 minutes, mercilessly efficient (the long takes of European slow cinema rarely crackle by as fast as they do here). It's also, maybe, just a smidgen insubstantial; after every one of Porumboiu's earlier films, I found myself almost vibrating with excitement about all of the ideas that had just been dumped into my head, and this time I left thinking that it had been very pleasurable, and even, surprisingly, very sweet and sentimental in the final scene, and how about that. It is not bravura cinema. But maybe it doesn't have to be, in order to be a thoroughly beguiling entertainment that doubles as a razor-sharp social document.

8/10

09 September 2016

THE STUFF THAT DREAMS ARE MADE OF

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

It can no longer be argued, as was once stated with some casual authority, that The Maltese Falcon was "the first" film noir (it was released in October, 1941, more than fours years after You Only Live Once), or even that it represented a uniquely important moment in the artistic development of that genre. But even if its singular impact is probably not at the level that French critics once claimed for it in the 1950s, we must still grant it this: The Maltese Falcon is a truly superlative movie, arguably the best detective movie ever made in Hollywood, and deservedly counted among the more or less perfect American films of the 1940s. As the first film ever directed by Warner Bros. screenwriter John Huston, it counts among the all-time great debuts: it storms out with almost nauseatingly quick, unrelenting pacing, and features a glorious quartet of exaggerated supporting actors behind the first top-notch, everything-is-going-perfectly performance in the career of Humphrey Bogart. With cinematographer Arthur Edeson, Huston captured a constant sense of ragged nervousness, in the plentiful close-ups breaking into the rooms filled with slashing lines of light and shadow (if for nothing but the way that window blinds violently throw bars on the walls of various spaces, The Maltese Falcon would deserve its status as a noir classic). These are placed by editor Thomas Richard as little darts of unbalanced energy: among its many merits, the film boasts an arrhythmic, jagged editing scheme that suggests a hunted animal or a cocaine fiend darting uncertainly through the night. There's a pervasive, stomach-churning sense of unease present at every moment in the film: one that doesn't align exactly, to any of the characters - certainly not the ice-cold protagonist! - but maybe puts us in the mental state of the rotten world where the story takes place.

This third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1929/30 novel, the second under the original name, is a splendid distillation of a great classic, jettisoning only as much of the sordid content as absolutely had to be dropped in order to satisfy the Hayes Office (and sometimes not even that: like Hammett's editors before them, the Hayes censors okayed the word "gunsel" on the assumption it meant something like "low-level gun-carrying hitman", whereas it was a slang term for a young man kept as a homosexual plaything). Much of Hammett's ripe, rancid dialogue is kept intact, delivered by Bogart in a curt, vicious register of unadulterated cynicism as Sam Spade, San Francisco private detective and all-around joyless bastard.

Let us not mince words even a little: The Maltese Falcon is a pervasively nasty movie, with a grand total of one mostly sympathetic and generally faultless character, and even she is compromised by being the willing handmaiden to a cold-blooded sonofabitch whose character is well-known to her. The film presents with tossed-off conviction a world in which everybody is awful and does awful things for awful reasons; it is suffused from head to toe with the toxic spirit of hard-boiled detective fiction that filtered into film noir, in part because of this very movie, and which we might summarise as the fervent conviction, having looked at the world and everybody in it, that humanity's just not worth the effort, but since we're stuck with it, we might as well do the best we can. I'm not sure if there's a non-villainous character in all of noir who embodies that mentality quite as perfectly as Bogart's Spade, a nominal hero who barks out withering sarcastic put-downs for no reason other than to constantly put down everyone around him, and who reveals a wounded & boyish Romanticism in the final act that cuts through the bilious attitude of the rest of the film just so that we can see how effectively he's able to strangle that feeling to death. Both in the bark and in the tattered Romanticism, it's hard to imagine a more perfect marriage of role and star persona: Casablanca foregrounds Bogart's Romanticism while The Maltese Falcon foregrounds the almost erotic delight in being cruel, but between them, they're probably my two favorite examples of the thematically expressive possibilities of movie star acting in all of the 1940s.

All of that without even saying one particularly concrete thing about the film - and really, either you know the plot of the 75-year-old canonical classic, or you are in for an extraordinary treat when you get around to watching it, and shame on me if I spoiled it - so let's ground it a little bit. Our ingredients, of course, are Spade, a real dick of a dick, who speaks in crushing, patronising tones to his undoubtedly much-put-upon secretary Effie (Lee Patrick); who treats with bored, bureaucratic efficiency the matter of wiping away every memory of his dead business partner; who coos sorrowful romantic words to the woman he's about to send, possibly, to her death in prison. And the latter two characteristics are probably signs of his lingering humanity, which he keeps trying to swallow down. This is, indeed, the point: live in a corrupt world, and you will eventually be corrupted. Our other main players, then, are Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), AKA "Ruth Wonderly", a low-rent conwoman prone to weeping and heaving melodramatically to disarm the men around her - it's a fucking brilliant performance, absolutely the best thing I've ever seen Astor do in her considerable career. When you don't know where things are going, she seems flustered and pathetic, her performance coming across like overheated genre nonsense that fits in well with the mildewy cinematography and florid dialogue. When you've seen it, it suddenly clicks in that O'Shaughnessy is kind of a lousy actress who knows enough about the genre she's in to be aware that she can get away with it - Astor is playing the genre against the audience to make us thing she's just florid when she is in fact a crocodile with a strong knowledge of soap operas. It's superbly attuned to make the increasingly repulsive reveals about her character yet more shocking.

Anyway, the cast. We've also got Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a simpering, mincing, gardenia-scented dandy who's as explicit a murderous homosexual psychopath that could conceivably have been filmed in 1941, and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the easily-riled, hotheaded and oversexed young gunsel with not remotely the mental or emotional equipment to survive the snake pit he's been tossed into. And my favorite supporting character of all of them, Sydney Greenstreet's Kasper Gutman, a smugly superior, obese raconteur - that is, he's the Sydney Greenstreet character (though how should we have ever known this in this, his film debut?) - who's oily baby face radiates insincerity and anti-charisma, who presents at once an aura of sophisticated Continental tastes, along with a pathetic, grubby hunger for money and attachments. When it's not playing at its convoluted, violent, MacGuffin-denominated script - and the Maltese Falcon was surely cinema's greatest, purest MacGuffin until Indiana Jones started hunting for that lost ark - the film's chief pleasure is in seeing these acidic personalities ping off of each other, worked into a lather by the self-amused Spade, who never manages to seem in any particular danger, if only because of the clear sense that he doesn't particularly give a shit if he's alive or dead. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is an extended debate between Spade, O'Shaughnessy, and Cairo, involving some exposition and a lot of accusation and innuendo, and the way Richards slices across the action is ingenious: the editing keeps isolating Spade in his careful, crafty observation, while clumping the two criminals sometimes in a tight pairing that makes them look like co-conspirators, other times favoring shots where they seem tense and stand-offish with each other. Even with the audio off - and why would you want that? You'd miss the snarling writing - you could tell how the power is shifting in the scene, who knows what and who's keeping what from whom, just from who's onscreen, for how long, and whether they're sharing the frame with anybody else.

I mean to say, it's as laser-focused as any movie could daydream of being, in its story and its editing and its framing; and then along comes the feverish acting and sumptuous, cold-hearted dialogue to add a sense of completely extraneous style and flair that translates that sinewy, machined storytelling into the exuberant stuff of A-list Hollywood entertainment. It's really all just beyond criticism - oh, I suppose you could slag it for its caustic nihilism, but then you're really going to throw out all of film noir, and why on earth would you want to do that? This film is a tremendous, world-class achievement, brutal and brutally efficient, but directed and acted with an almost zany verve that accentuates the comic, dancing qualities in the writing and narrative. It is maybe not my favorite film noir - I'd like some more plunging blacks and kaleidoscopic chiaroscuro for that to be the case - but it's a nigh-perfect incarnation of all the things that make that style so endlessly exciting, fun, and compulsively watchable, even at its most sickeningly cynical and bleak.

10/10

06 September 2016

A VERY SPECIAL THANKS TO THE CONTRIBUTORS TO THE SECOND QUINQUENNIAL ANTAGONY & ECSTASY ACS FUNDRAISER

Update 9/6/16: As of Labor Day, I've got 48 reviews left to write. With four months to go in 2016, that means that I can finish these up at a rate of 12 per month, which shouldn't be impossible. My class schedule should, at any rate, be much kinder to me than it was last fall, on top of which now I know what the hell I'm even doing in grad school. Still, these might bleed out into the new year, and for those of you who've been waiting since last summer to see your request fulfilled, the author humbly asks for your continued patience.

Previously: Drumroll - the 2015 Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy Cancer Fundraiser has ended, with a total of 172 donations reaching the AMAZING total of $5360 raised for the American Cancer Society and other cancer research foundations. That's almost four and a half times the total we raised in 2010! So a huge round of applause to everybody who gave.

It's especially gratifying for me to announce this at this point in time: quite by coincidence, on 18 June 2015, shortly before the fundraiser ended, I was given the all-clear by my oncologist. After 10 years without a trace of cancer in my body, I'm completely out of the woods and don't ever have to go back for a check-up. So this day isn't just exciting to me for the sheer fact of the fundraiser; it's personal celebration too.

Thank you again to everyone who donated, for making this such a roaring success.


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