24 August 2016

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: TALES OF THE CHRIST

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: a third feature-length adaptation of Ben-Hur is, you know, definitely a thing one could choose to produce. While wondering who in the hell they made this movie for, let's return to the most famous, downright iconic version of this material.

There's nothing one lowly little film blogger can possibly do to diminish or burnish the reputation of one of Hollywood's all-time Classical Epic Masterworks, so I don't feel even the tiniest bit bad about saying in front of God and everybody: I really don't like the 1959 version of Ben-Hur. At all. It has the best action setpiece in any of the American and Italian Bible epics from the 1950s and 1960s (the chariot race, of course), which makes it a strong contender for the best action setpiece made during the whole of the 1950s; it has a second action setpiece (the sea battle) that's pretty damn good, though some of its charm is stolen away by comparing it the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, and finding that the 34-years-older movie trumps its mega-budget remake pretty soundly in the staging of this scene (mind you, the '25 Ben-Hur was a mega-budget production in its own right, and from an era when if a filmmaker needed a full-scale sea battle, they'd damn well go out and film a full-scale sea battle - models? Forced perspective? What the hell are those?). So that gives us one sequence - a long sequence, to be sure - that does almost all of the work of justifying a gigantic mass of cinema stretching to some three and a half hours, and that without the overture, intermission, and entr'acte.

What remains is the most egregiously boring movie ever graced with the Best Picture Oscar, along with ten other statue - the film set the record for most Oscar wins, and has never since been surpassed, only tied - though in fairness, egregious boredom is one of the cornerstones of the Bible epic genre, with filmmakers generally spending more effort making sure that the film is appropriately solemn and denuded of any sort of fleshiness and emotional effect, in favor of the unsmiling earnestness of a boring day at Sunday School. I have mentioned in the past that of the two major strands of the Bible picture, the Old Testament adaptation and the story taking place alongside the New Testament, I much prefer the former: besides having inherently more dramatic source material, filmmakers have tended to be much less flattened by their own sense of sobriety in adapting narratives from the Torah, which tend to be much more action-packed, eventful, and (in Hollywood's hands, anyway), packed with sex.

As far as that list goes, Ben-Hur is about as resolutely sexless as the "early Christian times" movies ever got, which is perhaps why some of the people involved in making it took it upon themselves to smuggle some in: those being, first and foremost, Gore Vidal, one of several uncredited screenwriters who added odds and ends to the work of credited Oscar-winner Karl Tunberg, who had the wisdom to look at this gruelingly square, immaculately white-bread material, and realise that the way to fix at least parts of it was to add a hefty measure of camp, not that "camp" had that name yet in the late 1950s. At any rate, Vidal was by all accounts the one to decide that engine driving the entire bloated beast of Ben-Hur was a gay relationship back in the past history of the titular hero Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) with his childhood friend, the Roman soldier Messala (Stephen Boyd). Famously, Heston was left in the dark, probably as a means of self-defense rather than anything else (less famously, director William Wyler would later deny being aware of any homosexual overtones to the Judah/Messala scenes, which is really hard to believe - the tender shot of the two men's spear's touching tip-to-tip is so overt by '50s standards as to verge on gay porn. And then there's the group massage scene that opens the second act in an ultra widescreen tableaux of oiled male torsos). Heston, of course, was a campy enough actor by accident that it works anyway: his weird combination of stiffly declaiming lines and posing like he's the subject of a Renaissance portrait, with his pained, skin-stretching expressions and general hamminess are hardly the same as Boyd's focused, intentional portrayal of homoerotic love and lust, but Heston's robust way of "playing noble platonic male friends in ancient times" is so overcooked that it kind of seems like he's leaning into the gay subtext as well.

Anyway, regardless of who intended what and who knew what and if Vidal even added as much to the final draft as he claimed - Ben-Hur had a particularly contentious SAG arbitration session - Boyd at least seems to be playing his early scenes with Heston without any doubt as to his intentions: tenderly grasping his co-star's arm, looking at him with bright eyes starving for affection, line deliveries of exactly the tenor that a natural braggart uses when he's hoping to make his crush swoon with admiration. Even if for whatever reason - living in the 1950s, for example - one would prefer to maintain the fiction that this iteration of Ben-Hur isn't all about the tempestuous fall-out between lovers, the fact surely remains that Boyd's obvious passion and affection, and subsequently his acidic hatred and the animalistic pleasure he takes in watching Judah's pain, are the most human, feeling thing in the whole movie - close to being the only human feeling, though Jack Hawkins's unfortunately small role as the Roman Consul who adopts Judah and makes him a member of the Roman nobility is a pretty fine portrait of brittle bitterness yielding to fatherly warmth and patrician pride. Naturally, neither Boyd nor Hawkins were nominated for the Supporting Actor Oscar that this film took for Hugh Griffith's one-note clown of Arab Sheik Ilderim in magnificently unpersuasive brownface makeup.

Anyway, Boyd and Hawkins, and I am quite out of anything positive to say about the film's human drama, or anything else to do with its sluggish narrative. Look, we don't need an argument that the material of Lew Wallace's weighty novel can be covered more quickly than the 1959 film: the 1925 film is right there to make the argument for us, snapping along with more urgency and excitement than this film, and requiring an hour and change less time in which to do it. The '59 Ben-Hur takes its time to do just about everything: scenes pass by with an exaggeratedly slow pace, which I imagine was probably meant to somehow evoke a stately, pageant-like sense of Ancient Rome and Judea as a more elegant, ritualistic place. Maybe that's giving the film too much credit. At any rate, the effect is nothing so lofty; it feels instead like a we're being dared to find the sets sufficiently interesting to keep staring at them during the glacially long takes of conversation slowly crawling back and forth between slow-talking actors.

Wyler, it is known, was hostile to the MGM 65 process he was obliged to use (65mm film with an anamorphic lens, for the ludicrously wide finished aspect ratio of 2.76:1), finding it difficult to come up with ways to fill the frame with enough detail that it felt functional, but not so much detail that it led to clutter. The solution he and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees ended up landing on was to rely on the deep staging which had been a hallmark of Wyler's career since the early '40s or before, exploiting the increased clarity the larger film stock permitted for background elements, and using long takes to allow our eyes to move through the composition to find the actors. As solutions go, it's really not very effective: there's a grand total of one composition of human beings that I find particularly admirable, in the very first meeting between Judah and Messala: Heston is a tiny dot all the way down a long hallway, while Boyd's shoulder and head fill the frame. It neatly evokes the sense of distant friends reuniting and even underscores the homoeroticism of the moment, by virtue of placing us in Messala's perspective and presenting Judah as a revelation to whom all the lines in the composition direct themselves (okay, that's a lie: there's also a shot of Heston's silhoutte in the foreground, with the chariot circus stretching deep into the background, after Messala's death, that is striking and appropriately grim. So two).

Otherwise, it's pretty much the usual list of awkard rooms full of empty walls, and close-ups that cannot do anything to overcome how barren the frame is around the character's head. The result is a profound lack of visual dynamism that's helped not at all by the subdued cutting, nor by Wyler's self-evident lack of passion for the material, which manifests in the actors being permitted to give some of the slackest performances in any Wyler film: in particular, Palestinian-born Jew Haya Harareet, making the first film in English in her brief career, is clearly not comfortable with the language, and wears a perpetual look of alarm no matter what the scene requires; it doesn't help that she's saddled with playing the romantic leading lady in a male-dominated movie whose ideologically underpinnings demand that it have no sexuality. But there are other weak links: Heston clearly hasn't been given much instruction, and at one point, Wyler and the editors even left in a take where he stepped on Harareet's line and had to repeat himself.

All of this is largely extrinsic to the story and screenplay itself, which was probably never going to result in a terribly compelling movie. Even the in-all-ways better (save the chariot race) 1925 film can't handle the requirement that this story of First Century revenge amidst Roman politiciking in Judea transforms into A Story of the Christ, and that film dealt with it by trying to recklessly compress it as much as possible. The 1959 film exults in this tacked-on material, devoting almost a full fifty minutes to fleshing out this subplot, and that is after it has more or less satisfactorily wrapped up its sole conflict, the hatred between Judah and Messala - which is to say, after it kills off its best character and performance. The film's hands-off, bloodlessly generic depiction of Christ (Claude Heater, seen only in chaste, sterile shots from behind) is presumably somebody's idea of spiritually inspiring, but I cannot imagine why; all of the explicitly religious material is so prim and carefully managed to avoid offending anybody of any religious or non-religious bent. Which of course means that it has almost no real sense of zeal driving it; just a few choice quotes from the Sermon on the Mount to try and give some kind of shape to the film's jerry-rigged new conflict, between Judah and the whole Roman Empire, all without having to actually get its fingers dirty with such nastiness as theology or morality. I will concede that Heston's expression of shock when he realises that the bloody man he's trying to give a ladle full of water is the man who did the same for him years earlier is the most subtle, effective bit of acting Heston does in the whole feature, but it's not much to salvage 50 minutes of screentime, especially when they end in a crucifixion sequence that looks baffling cheap, given how much money was spent on this movie.

Beyond this, there is a whole script full of awkward, over-written dialogue about Life In These Ancient times. Among the worst is an early expository discussion of the signs and portents of the so-called Messiah that rivals any half-assed biopic in its clunky foreshadowing and attempt to situate the material for the audience. Though I think I will always hate most the cartoon slogans foisted onto Sheik Ilderim, which strive to be both old-timey and comically exaggerated.

But the chariot race is so good! For one thing, the wide aspect ratio turns out to be ideally-suited for capturing two or three teams of horses at different planes along the Z-axis all at once; there's also no beating the physical heft and gravitas of actually going out and filming a goddamn chariot race in full-scale and depicting the whole of it in 12 minutes of real time. The sound mixing is amazingly loud and violent for the era, insisting on the physical truth of the race even more. And Miklós Rózsa's film-long flirtation with Holst's "Mars, the Bringer of War" is never more appropriate nor effective. It is really quite perfect as action cinema, truthfully among the most essential stretches of American filmmaking in the 1950s. A bit of a pity that it's stranded in the back half of such a logy, undisciplined sprawl of meandering narrative and pointless, protracted scenes, but at least we live in an age of big televisions and DVD chapter selections.

5/10

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: WHEN I WAS JUST A LITTLE BOY

My Golden Days is the mindlessly generic title the film has been given in English for international distribution, but the French original translates to Three Memories of My Youth. And this blunt, functional title succinctly describes the content of Arnaud Desplechin's latest novelistic epic about domestic emotions, which does indeed consist of three very distinct pieces (four, actually: the three memories and then the present-day framework of remembering them). All well and good, except for one thing: the least-interesting of the memories, by far, gets most of the screentime. By far.

Broadly speaking, this is the shaggy dog story of how it came to be that there were two Paul Dédaluses running around Europe. The one who matters is an anthropologist, played by Desplechin's reliable collaborate Mathieu Amalric, trying to return to France from Tajikistan. Being questioned by immigration officers sends him off into a series of reveries: not just about the time that, as an idealistic leftist 19-year-old in the 1980s (played then by Quentin Dolmaire), he left his passport in the USSR for a political refugee to use, but prior to that, to a snippet of his grim childhood (played then by Antoine Bui), with an abusive father (Olivier Rabourdin) and an emotionally unstable mother (Cécile Garcia-Fogel); and his romantic interlude, after returning from the USSR, with 14-year-old Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet).

So here's the deal: the great majority of the film (which, other than the Amalric-starring framework narrative, takes place entirely in chronological order) is about Paul's relationship with Esther, cast in Desplechin's telling as the natural extension of the first two segments, though all three are presented as essentially self-contained anecdotes. The mode here is assuredly, and happily, not that of a biopic which suggests that one single memory can unlock a whole human life, or anything of the sort. Rather, it's basically a Dickensian bildungsroman, ruthlessly carved down to two hours, in which events don't inform each other in a blunt cause-and-effect manner, but simply give us some kind of understanding about who the subject is, as a person. We can read a throughline: Paul's unhappy childhood led him to lash out by joining in with radical politics, which later informed the aggressive, inorganic way he tries to live his adolescent sex life as a freethinking cultural anarchist. But it is not schematic or deterministic in any way, which is very much one of the best strengths of Desplechin & Julie Peyr's script. My Golden Days unfolds in a singularly casual way, with events studded in as fragments, necessarily limited by the grown-up Paul's limited perspective as an adolescent, as well as his difficulty in recalling all of the fine details of his youth. It's really quite lovely.

But as I was saying, this is mostly the story of adolescent romance and sexual jealousy, as informed by revolutionary politics and a high-strung sensibility that's not really "artistic" in Paul's sense, but has the philosophical underpinnings of artistry. And that's like, dirt common in French cinema. I cannot say with blithe confidence that François Truffaut's Stolen Kisses invented the genre of love stories focused on brilliant, egotistical young men who cover up their insecurity and crappy behavior with an elaborate line of sophisticated verbiage, but it certainly established a tone that many, many movies have eagerly replicated. And Stolen Kisses came out all the way back in 1968. That's a lot of year's worth of movies doing more or less exactly what My Golden Days is doing in more or less exactly the same way it's doing it.

If Desplechin's take on the material is especially elevated, it's for two primary reasons. The more disposable is that My Golden Days is something more or less like a prequel to the director's 1996 breakout film, My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument (another film whose English title is kind of terrible, in that case because it exactly reverses the emphasis of the French), which gives it a bit of arthouse novelty. The other is that the thing is generally well-mounted and acted with whip-smart intelligence. Roy-Lecollinet is a bit hamstrung by the script's subjective point of view: since much of the point is that adult Paul recalls how adolescent Paul never came close to figuring Esther out, it wouldn't really do for the film to present her as a fully-formed personality. That doesn't necessarily make it interesting. However, Dolmaire is really quite remarkable in this, his very first work as a screen actor. He threads the fine needle of presenting Paul with a great quantity of empathy and understanding - we fully understand why he makes the choices he makes and how he tries to navigate through life - without requiring sympathy on the viewer's part when Paul is being a bit beastly. In his hands, Paul's wounded Romantic worldview emerges as a series of behaviors rather than as overt statements, and he seems truer, somehow, than most of the callow young men in whose steps he walks. Besides, Desplechin is an old hat at making these movies aping the tenor and structure of literature: he combines the insight and acuity of a really fine psychologically realist novel with a specifically cinematic way of structuring scenes and establishing character.

I mean to say that we should not, by any means, pretend that My Golden Days is somehow bad. It is good - maybe even quite good. It is also damned frustrating. The film is much, much more interesting in its first quarter or third than it ever is again: not least because the story of Paul's sojourn in the USSR is far more original and unexpected than the other two threads. But even setting that aside, the filmmaking itself grows less interesting as the film evolves: the scenes start to flow into each other in a much more conventional narrative structure, and the framework with Paul as an adult abashedly and hungrily reliving his past almost entirely disappears, costing the film what might be its single most effective element, the collision of nostalgia with realism, sentiment with honesty.

So again, My Golden Days is not at all bad. It has been written with intelligence and performed with insight, a handsome piece of filmmaking that uses no style when it doesn't need to in order to put its ideas over. But it also makes the critical mistake of putting a better, richer, more unexpected and original movie right there - it peters off rather than builds, and it never, ever addresses the question, "but what if I'd rather be watching that other movie, the one you started with?" A petty reason for being disappointed with a movie, but it really does bring it upon itself.

7/10

23 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: MORE THAN I COULD BEAR

In my notes for Norm of the North, I find this sentence: "The screaming lemming Norm pulls out of his ass has a great big smile, not sure if lazy animation or subtle joke". Having finished the whole movie, I'm still not sure - lazy animation is one of the defining characteristics of the film, and if it's a subtle joke, it's the only one in to be found. But it's also the kind of movie about which it's easy to suppose that the animators felt compelled to amuse themselves by sneaking in invisible references to anal sex.

Also, before I completely bury the lede I want to make sure you all noticed: Norm of the North has a scene where the title character pulls a screaming lemming out of his ass. So, y'know.

We should acknowledge at the onset that Norm of the North began life as a direct-to-video movie, which explains much of what there is to know about it. Not, mind you, how in the living hell it managed to snatch a theatrical release; I cannot imagine what about this project led anybody to state, "yes, we are absolutely confident that this has serious box-office potential above what we'll be able to make from DVD sales", although with a world-wide box-office take of $27 million and change, I suppose that insight paid off; given that Norm of the North couldn't possibly have cost more to produce than the producers had in their wallets right then and there, it surely must have been generated some kind of profit (the film's reported budget was $18 million, but based on the "came pre-installed with the software" quality of the animation, character modeling, and textures, I absolutely refuse to believe that's even theoretically possible).

So anyway, a direct-to-video kiddie flick that is, at any rate, the cheapest American-made animated feature to secure a theatrical release in 2016, and it got dumped into the unholy wasteland of January: you'd have to be a fool to expect anything at all from this material. Though for my part, I still didn't have my expectations sufficiently lowered. Norm of the North is a uniquely charmless motion picture, owing in no small part to the hideous, "attach a corpse to a car battery" quality of the herky-jerky animation of characters uniformly built out of the simplest possible shapes, and devoid of even the smallest hint of flexibility. But even if it weren't as ugly as a sinner's asshole, the film would still likely founder on the shoals of its world-class awful screenplay, which turns something as barbarically straightforward as "save the Arctic glaciers from land developers who want to build condos right on the ice" (this would not seem to be a terribly difficult evil plot to confound) into a confusing mash, with a hero who doesn't actually have a motivation for the first hour of a 90-minute film.

That hero being Norm (Rob Schneider), a polar bear who'd rather dance than hunt, and who has been blessed with the ability to speak to humans. This puts him in a unique position to understand what's going on when businesswoman Vera Brightly (Heather Graham) arrives with a camera crew to shoot the promotional video for the new land development planned by the corrupt yoga buff and archcapitalist Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), owner of the punishingly ironically-named Greene Homes - he's also the film's solitary character animated in anything like a creative way, being made primarily out of rubber hose-style limbs. Fast forward a bit past the parts that I frankly couldn't quite parse, and Norm is wandering around New York, everybody thinks he's a man in an unusually persuasive bear suit, and Greene is planning to use the bear's burgeoning viral popularity as a means to force his contentious development plan through something called the Polar Council, which is apparently the U.S.-based organisation that dictates what can and cannot be done with Arctic land. And at this point I must openly wonder what the hell world this movie takes place in, because absolutely none of this makes sense; it's like screenwriters Daniel Altiere, Steven Altiere, and Malcolm T. Goldman wanted to write a movie about a polar bear who travels to New York to fight capitalism and save his homeland, but for some reason they wanted very much to use this plotline without even glancing in the direction of global climate change, and this cumbersome workaround was what they came up with in a pinch. It's all part of the general confusion as to who this movie could possibly be for: undemanding kids quick-witted enough to follow the series of narrative dead ends as Norm works for Greene while thinking he's working against Greene, and we're also apparently rooting for Vera to succeeding in pushing through Greene's deal, so that he'll write a recommendation letter for her daughter (Maya Kay) to get into a prestigious private school, despite this being at odds with Norm's own quest.

But none of it probably matters: the kids, if they were unlucky enough to stumble into this movie, have the lemmings to think about. Ah, the lemmings. This film's obvious version of Despicable Me's minions: there's three of them, and they get subjected to all kinds of cartoon slapstick that's at odds with their rigidity. They also pee. They pee very often, in places one had oughtn't pee. There's a scene of them peeing into a fish tank, with the fish only mildly alarmed, and it went on for what seemed to be at least several hours. Also, their pee was not yellow, which seems like an odd oversight; perhaps a concession to good taste, in which case too late. I apologise for putting so much energy into talking about the lemmings' urination habits; it's simply that it's impossible to talk about Norm of the North without really coming to terms about all the peeing that happens. But they do not only pee! From my notes again: "The lemmings fart so hard that they must have, like, shit themselves". Truly, this is a film that keeps on giving.

The other thing that Norm of the North is really proud to showcase is some beastly footage of Norm dancing his signature "Arctic Shake" to various generic pop songs, as director Trevor Wall sends the camera spinning around and landing in all sorts of Dutch angles. It's insipid and bland - like the dreaded dance party ending routine, only it happens four times throughout the feature (including, of cours, at the end). But at least some modicum of effort has been put into animating Norm in these moments: the only other thing that's similarly suggestive that any artistry was involved in putting this film together is a shot of Norm's fur rippling in the wind generated by a helicopter, a wildly disproportionate amount of detail for a film in which every last single human has flesh seemingly carved from marble.

Anyway, the whole thing is vile: arbitrary and confusing in all of its plot developments, unspeakably hideous, and thematically incoherent. It's almost unfair to accuse it of being 2016's worst theatrically-released animated feature: of course it is. That was obvious before 2016 even began. But recognising that this was always going to be the case, and forgiving it for having turned out so, are not at all the same thing, and Norm of the North is an invaluable case study in the very worst of what children's entertainment can be like while still remaining even minutely commercially viable.

1/10

22 August 2016

IF YOU LOOK AWAY, EVEN FOR AN INSTANT, THEN OUR HERO WILL SURELY PERISH

Like so many other animation buffs, I've learned that it pays to be breathlessly excited for any and every new movie turned out by Laika, the studio Phil Knight bought for his son Travis using the billions of dollars Phil earned for co-founding Nike (there's a real possibility that Phil Knight is my favorite living billionaire, just for using his personal fortune to keep financing this little underperforming oddball). Add the same time, despite being overjoyed by how good each new Laika film has been, I've assumed all along that we've seen the best they would ever be able to offer: director Henry Selick's Coraline from 2009, the studio's first film, set the bar so high that it would be no kind of humiliation when they thereafter proved unable to top it. So anyway, imagine my surprise that Kubo and the Two Strings, Laika's fourth feature, has turned out to be maybe better than Coraline? The least I'm willing to say is that it's equally as good in a different way, and that's already far beyond any praise I would expected to hit.

The directorial debut of Travis Knight himself, with a screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, from a story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle, Kubo shifts slightly but distinctly from Laika's previous work. Those films - Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls - all have one foot firmly planted in horror, a holdover from the glory days when children's entertainment assumed as a matter of course that kids liked scary stuff. There's still a bit of that left behind in the new film's villains and set-pieces (one early sequence is probably the creepiest thing I've seen in an all-ages American movie since ParaNorman itself), but the mood is much more of an adventurous quest of a sort that, prior to watching the film, I hadn't realised had been missing from our screens for so long. Nothing quite like a good, straightforward fantasy quest with a health dose of The Legend of Zelda to it. And Kubo is an absolutely splendid example, with just the right sense of dreamy nonlinearity to it to feel like it has been assembled from the bones of some vaguely-remembered fairy tale.

It would be no fun to give away the surprises, but what we have here is a 9-year-old boy, Kubo (Art Parkinson), whose mother escaped with him when he was just an infant, and his murderous grandfather and aunts were trying to capture him to pluck out his right eye (they already got the left one). Now living on high cliff overlooking the see and a tiny rural town, Kubo earns money to keep him and his unspeaking, virtually comatose mother alive by playing his magical samisen in the village square, using it to create elaborate puppet shows using pieces of origami paper that dance and fold themselves as Kubo tells his never-ending tale of the great samurai Hanzo in his fight against the Moon King.

As we can figure out from the very start of Kubo's first show, unless we are very young indeed, Kubo and the Two Strings is a story about storytelling: Kubo's performance is a way of making sense of his own autobiography (Hanzo was his father, the Moon King his grandfather), and staving off the same depression that has claimed his mother by using narrative as a tool to make the world around him better. It's also a way of turning that trauma into pleasure for the audience, for as Kubo's storytelling methods demonstrate, an audience is necessary for the creation of narrative meaning. Beyond this, there's an addition self-reflexive layer: the film opens with the same dramatic invocation that Kubo uses to start his show, which is all the more cue necessary to start noticing the way that his story, in addition to being a metaphor for the film's narrative, is a metaphor for the film itself: given Laika's extremely prominent pride in their craftsmanship and the physical presence of their immaculately-crafted stop-motion puppets, it's not hard to imagine Kubo's work with origami as the studio's back-patting praise of its own work.

So it's all one thing, is what I mean to say: Kubo's attempt to keep himself in control of life through the power of stories and the whole Laika project. It's all of it about how a great story can completely redefine the way we think about life, and give us a mechanism for processing negative, hurt feelings in a safe way. And this is not me reading anything into Kubo and the Two Strings that it doesn't put out there right on its own: the film's beautiful, beautiful ending, which treats its villain with more generosity than any animated film I can name outside of the work of Studio Ghibli (and while Miyazaki Hayao obviously casts a shadow over everything Laika has done, Kubo is an exceptionally Miazaki-esque film, right down to its flirtation with Japanese folklore), is a miniature expression of the idea that we interpret life as narrative, and can therefore choose which kind of narrative it shall be.

Anyway, the film's resonances and themes are stunning, and would be worth it even if the rest of the film wasn't every bit as good. Kubo takes the humble old form of the quest to gather items, making no attempt to sex up that ancient genre with subversion or irony: it's just a little boy, a humorless talking snow monkey (Charlize Theron), and a dimwitted samurai-turned-giant-beetle (Matthew McConaughey) on one hand, the ghostly Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara), Kubo's otherworldly aunts, dressed all in black with empty-eyed smiling masks underneath broad-brimmed black straw hats, on the other. There are elaborate monsters in between Kubo and the three items he needs to stop the Moon King, some drawn from Japanese mythology, some not; there are also mysterious, beautifully-designed caves and lakes and ruined castles. I did not make the Zelda comparison idly; this is as close to a film version of that game as I think we're apt to get, and certainly the best, capturing the odd video game narrative logic of moving from place to place more as a matter of intuition than narrative logic, and finding those places to be amazing sites to explore and discover. The film glides through its episodes with stately rhythm, with Knight moving the story just slow enough that we can really suck in all the beautiful locations Laika's incredible team of designers have made for us, while also keeping in mind how much of the film is a race against the implacable, genuinely horrifying Sisters.

Technically, this is the best thing yet made by Laika, continuing the studio's increasingly sophisticated, invisible, and unnameable hybridisation of computer animation with cutting-edge stop-motion animation techniques to create extrarodinary visions: the giant skeleton fight justifies the movie all by itself, and it's far from the only great accomplishment of staging and framing animated action. I believe I noticed that the facial animation has been made a little less fluid than in The Boxtrolls, perhaps because Knight wants us to really notice and appreciate the sublime physicality of Laika's craftsmanship. It works, anyway; like the placeless story ("Japan", but not specifically), and the indefinite narrative flow, it creates a sense that this is all unreal in some important way, belonging to the world of fable and myth rather than concrete reality.

It's not quite perfect; the script makes too many concessions to the 2016 animated marketplace in America, with jokey, anachronistic lines that do nothing to help the film's delicate tone; "That's so you" says the beetle at one point (the beetle is the film's obvious weak point, through no fault of McConaughey's warmly idiotic performance; but I do wish his very recognisable voice was maybe not in this cast), and there's no earthly reason for a bland 2010ism like that to infect the fairy tale Japan of the movie. Still, that's a minor annoyance in the face of so much that works tremendously well: the complexity of the theme, the beauty of the settings, the gracefulness of the animation. Kubo is a legitimate work of art, not merely the best animated film of 2016 by a resounding margin, but very probably my favorite animated American studio feature of the decade so far.

9/10

21 August 2016

A MISSION FROM GOD

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

Let us be very clear about one thing: The Blues Brothers is, by any objective standard, a messy wreck. This is true of the 1980 theatrical cut, and it's even more true of the extended cut prepared years later by director John Landis, which is among history's most pure examples of "I love these people too much to cut away from them" in the annals of after-the-fact tinkering. It's sloppy, unfocused, and it routinely jams the brakes on the plot any amount of momentum it has been able to pick up in order to pause for extended bits - comedy bits and musical bits alike that are lingered over in either version like sacred objects for religious veneration.

That this is so does not in anyway change that The Blues Brothers is an absolutely wonderful movie: surely the best musical action-comedy of the 1980s, and by almost any standard I can think of the best of all the Saturday Night Live-derived features, of which it was the first (I will entertain arguments in favor of Wayne's World and MacGruber, but they'd have to be awfully persuasive). These are neither of them terribly impressive bars to clear, but that's by no means the fault of a movie which is one of the enormously charming passion projects of its era, a misshapen collection that ends up working mostly despite itself, and all because it does such a good job of showcasing the filmmaker's love for their subject, and convincing us to love it to.

The Blues Brothers, for the uninitiated, began life as a two-off SNL sketch by cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in 1978. It's really quite difficult to say what in the hell the Blues Brothers were even supposed to be: watching their first two television appearances now, everything in your brain insists that this must be funny, and yet there's absolutely no joke to be found. Same with the 1978 album Briefcase Full of Blues, which is in no way a novelty cash in, though it sure as hell seems it ought to be: two white guys of modest talent pouring their heart and soul into classic blues, and it's not "good" exactly, and it's not pretending to be, but there's also no hint that we're supposed to be mocking it. What the Blues Brothers were, first and above all, were the vessel for Aykroyd to share with all of America his giddy, childlike love for blues and an entire generation of outstanding African-American musical geniuses who were on the verge of being forgotten before the success of the Blues Brothers launched them back into the stratosphere. The cast of The Blues Brothers includes, in smallish or cameo roles, Cab Calloway, James Brown, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and Aretha Franklin, and it is not really an exaggeration to say that for at least a couple of names on that list, the only reason I can idly mention them here in 2016 is because Aykroyd put them into his huge hit movie in 1980. It is almost impossible to imagine a world in which Aretha Franklin is anything but one of the preeminent musical legends of contemporary pop culture; yet that was the world of 1980, when a failed attempt to redefine herself as a disco star had left Franklin all washed up, until this very movie started to rehabilitate her as a soul icon.

Anyway, that really is the point of The Blues Brothers; not its meandering, shaggy story, but the musical world it celebrates. It is a film in which Belushi's "Joliet" Jake Blues can have a spiritual event so profound that it causes a physical response while listening to Brown (as a charismatic preacher) perform "The Old Landmark" to a packed church; subtlety about its goals is not really a priority here. Which is why it's hard to take the movie to task for how effortful it is to get the music in place: it takes the creation of an entire subplot solely to come up with an excuse to have Franklin sing "Think" as a full MGM-style production number in a fried chicken restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, and even then, it feels pretty damn forced and arbitrary when it starts. The flipside, of course, is that it results in a a full MGM-style production number of Aretha fucking Franklin singing "Think". Slapdash filmmaking and all (in her New York Times review, Janet Maslin called out this specific number for its poor framing, which is correct, and Landis himself owned as much. She also claimed that the film would "have been more enjoyable if it had been mounted on a simpler scale", which is not correct to an extreme degree), it's the best musical number in any non-animated movie from the 1980s. Not a decade with a lot of musicals, sure, but the sheer gusto, the way that Landis and Aykroyd and Belushi stage the whole number as something between fannish appreciation for Franklin and acolytes worshiping their god in the flesh, the go-for-broke surreality with which the song breaks out into the casual, grimy realism of the film, these things all go into making it a masterpiece of the form regardless.

Every single time the movie comes across a song by a living, breathing legend, it adopts that same awestruck pose, even moreso in the extended cut, where most of the songs have been lengthened (incidentally, if we're to choose between a shaggy cut and a very shaggy cut, might as well go with the shaggier, longer one: the songs are the best part and they only get better with length, so why not watch the movie that stretches them out, even if most of the plot additions are almost entirely unnecessary). But the slaphappy "gee whiz!" attitude that permeates the musical numbers isn't limited to them. The whole movie has something of that same attitude, throughout: if the project is based in Aykroyd's adoration of the blues (as honed into a filmable screenplay by Landis), the execution feels like it owes a bit more to Belushi's charming, shrugging, "why the hell not?" comic libertinism. I have avoided mentioning the story at all, because it quickly goes off the rails into "this happened then THIS happened" territory: the short version is that after Jake gets out of prison, he and his brother Elwood (Aykroyd) learn that the Catholic orphanage where they grew up is going to be closed down due to non-payment of taxes. They decide to reunite the scattered members of their band, now living respectable lives, so that they can stage a benefit concert. The long version is the same, but with a a thick strain of religious sincerity and Catholic commitment to good works running throughout, and the narrative addition of the brothers being hunted by a vengeful woman (Carrie Fisher) with military-grade weaponry, the total might of the Illinois state police, a country band that got stuck with the Blues Brothers Band's enormous bar tab one night, and a passel of Illinois Nazis, whom we hate.

It's this latter chunk of narrative that resulted in The Blues Brothers setting the record at the time for most cars wrecked over the course of shooting a single movie's chase scenes, at 103. And if you recall the classic iteration of the old "put on a show to save the ____" musicals that are as old as sound cinema, you would perhaps be hard-pressed to figure out where any wrecked cars, let alone 103, fit into the formula. That's part of the ineffable magic of The Blues Brothers: it manages to combine a blues musical with a feature-length chase sequence and have it feel perfectly normal to do so. Much of that, I think, rests on the stars, who are very much the glue keeping this sprawling epic of nothing in particular together. The joke - in many ways, the only joke - is that Jake and Elwood are a pair of complete blanks who cannot be fussed by anything, speaking to each other in the same nasal tones of emotionally flat Chicago pragmatism no matter what is going around them. They are bothered by nothing and have no discernible personalities, until they start performing or hear others perform. And then they are writhing ecstatics, dancing and bobbing in strange, galvanising gestures. I don't know if this should work, especially over the course of such a long movie - the shorter cut of The Blues Brothers is still 133 minutes, a crazy amount of time for an aimless adventure comedy based on characters created for a sketch comedy show (and the Blues Brothers' appearances don't even rise to the level of narrative implied by the word "sketch") - but the thing is, it does work. Aykroyd and Belushi give everything to the movie, with their bone-dry irony standing as the best work either man ever did in a feature film (it might very well be the best thing Aykroyd did anywhere), and the film conforms itself around them, to gaze upon its crazy cartoon events with the same aura of "Well. That happened" detachment of its leads. Nothing else in Landis's comedy work is like this; hell, not much else in the 1980s is like this, with the vogue of the time very much for absurdist vulgarity and sarcasm, rather than the weird, almost alien dry comedy on display here. Which is perhaps why The Blues Brothers has aged so extremely well: it still doesn't feel like anything else, especially, with its weird mixture of enormously big-scale slapstick and the driest form of anti-humor. It's comedy playing a straight man off another straight man, with the rhythm of the film very carefully calibrated to let that unexpected combination flourish (the title cards introducing the lead actors and the film are so perfectly cut that you could teach it as an example of comedy editing at its best: unblinking, unsmiling, deadly serious, and therefor joyously absurd).

It is mystifying that a film so aggressively formless in its aesthetics and structure should end up feeling as tight and intentional as The Blues Brother does; there's a genuine sense of the miraculous going on here. It was an unrepeatable experiment, something we didn't need the evidence of the widely-despised 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000 to prove. Objectively, The Blues Brothers is a failure - and yet, watching it, every last thing about it works. I do not know where in the comic timing, the bravura action, the incandescent musical performances, or the grubby Chicago location photography, almost unnaturally realistic for everything else going on, the alchemy happens. I just know that despite everything, The Blues Brothers is one of the finest and most lasting pieces of mainstream pop entertainment from an entire decade.

9/10

MEAT AND GREET

Revised so much from my original review at the Film Experience that it's no longer fair to consider them the same piece of writing

On the one hand, it's profoundly unfair to attack a movie like Sausage Party for the quality of its animation. The whole point of the Disney-Pixar business model is that you spend a gargantuan pile of money to make an even more gargantuan pile back; the reason those studios' films look so good is that cost well over a hundred million dollars even at their cheapest, which means they need to make several hundred million dollars to turn a profit. Take a step down in budget, and you see the same thing with DreamWorks; another step down (but keep the giant box office windfalls) and you're at Illumination. You can't do that with an adults-only cartoon; they are by their nature going to be hugely limited in appeal. The $30 million (or $19 million, depending on which report you trust: pennies either way) it cost to make Sausage Party is close to the maximum that could possibly be spent on it by any producer with a serious interest in ever seeing a profit, and if you're going to insist on making a film using fully-rendered CGI (and if you're not, here in the 2010s marketplace, you're going to limit your appeal even further), $30 million simply isn't going to buy very much.

On the other hand, Sausage Party looks, like, really bad. Direct-to-video mockbuster bad. Not one surface, whether it is made of wood nor metal nor flesh and blood, fails to looks like it has been covered in plastic glaze; several characters' eyes appear to be exposed several F-stops brighter than the rest of their bodies. One particular character, a talking crunchy taco shell, has an entire face that feels like it's been glued to her using the Photoshop smear tool. Again, this is unfair, but understanding why the thing is does not excuse it. This is, by the way, exactly why the stranglehold 3-D CG animation has on the American theatrical market pisses me off: dirty cartoons from Ralph Bakshi to South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut have found ways to make cost-cutting measures at least look like a deliberate style. You can't do that with CGI: it's pretty much either good or bad, at least as long as it's done in the "ape natural lighting and real-world physics" mode that pretty much invariably happens.

But anyway, here I am talking about the animation in Sausage Party, and isn't that silly. The film is, of course, making all sorts of waves for how edgy and whatnot it is: a not-quite-parody and not-quite-satire of the Pixar-style premise of a secret world where inanimate objects have an elaborate culture unseen by humans, and in this case speak unbelievably dirty lines of dialogue and have wildly acrobatic animated sex. Which is where the comedy comes in, and I suppose it even works: comedy is, after all, the art of unexpected juxtapositions that shock us into laughter. The handful of writers - though bro-auteurs Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg are quite obviously the ringleaders - know the Pixar model inside and out, from the abrupt switch between sentiment and goofiness to the third-act chase scene, and they alternate between using and mocking these conventions with a fairly high level of success. Insofar as the joke is "this is Toy Story but they talk about fucking and drugs", Sausage Party could not be a better riff, which is all it theoretically takes to make the joke work.

Theoretically. Now, it isn't mine to tell people that what they're laughing at isn't funny, because humor is that most subjective of all things. And the giddiness of the movie is charming and amusing, and I laughed. I did not laugh hard, nor often. In part this is because, to a significant extent, "this is Toy Story but they talk about fucking and drugs" really is the primary gag - the opening 10 minutes or so are an especially dire case of the movie doing nothing whatsoever for a laugh other than dropping in F-bombs, on the grounds that, hell, isn't seeing a toyetic cartoon character say "fuck" for no reason funny? And it is. Once. After which point we've gotten the joke. If I can go to the most obvious possibly comparison point, how about South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? That film's creators, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, make a big show of their inaugural "fuck", and then they never again uses that as the joke in and of itself. The joke of something like "Uncle Fucka" is precisely that neither farts nor cursing are actually funny until ramped up to such a degree of absurdity that they cease to mean anything. Sausage Party mostly seems to think that cursing is actually funny, and instead of complicating it, a great deal of the humor is just about escalating it to ever cruder, grander heights. And even there, South Park has it beat: that film understands that if you have a movie full of F-bombs, the climactic joke isn't a whole lot of F-bombs, the climactic joke is that "Barbra Streisand" is the ultimate curse word.

But still, it's quite fearless, that escalation; you can kind of see the wildly over-the-top ending coming from a fair distance away, but the joyful enthusiasm with which the filmmakers pursue it, abandoning even the slightest hint of taste or restraint, is hard to argue against. You can tell that they were a bit ecstatic to make this, ecstatic that they could get away with so very much and do it in a way that's so unbelievably generous to the characters. It's really quite sweet, in fact. I still don't find it funny, but it's sweet.

The film, anyway, follows the travails of a hot dog named Frank (Rogen) who lives on a grocery store shelf next to a sexy hot dog bun named Brenda (Kristin Wiig) - like, unacceptably sexy, with a curvy ass and giant boobs and a mouth shaped like a tight vagina, and it's a uniquely off-putting attempt to do the whole "sexy lady version of a gender-neutral thing" trend, which is maybe the joke? I don't think it's a joke. Anyway the pair shamelessly flirts, and talk about what will happen when one of the Gods puts them in a shopping cart and takes them to the Great Beyond outside the store, where Frank will finally be able to slide up inside Brenda. But as a honey mustard jar (Danny McBride) who was returned to the store reveals, the Great Beyond is a nightmarish hell where the Gods are interested only in eating the sentient beings they have purchased, and he causes an accident that leaves Frank and Brenda cast outside of their respective packages and forced to navigate the store to find their way back home. Meanwhile, they are pursued by an asshole douche (Nick Kroll) convinced that Frank is responsible for leaving him bent and broken. Along the way, they pick up a trio of shocking ethnic stereotypes that I think the film thinks it's playing with ironically, though there's no onscreen evidence backing this up: Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz) and Sammy Bagel, Jr. (Edward Norton), who despite his name is a pretty unambiguous Woody Allen nebbish type, who between them re-enact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the closeted lesbian Teresa del Taco (Salma Hayek). It's kind of mystifying, really, the number of ethnic stereotypes Sausage Party trots out like it's no big thing: the wise old Indian figure, a bottle of spirits named Firewater (Bill Hader), is easily the most weirdly, distractingly terrible but it's the brief cameo appearance of several Chinese sauce bottles, speaking in wholly unapologetic Engish, that wins "most unecessarily awful" honors. I half-wonder if this is in there so the folks progressive enough to remain unoffended by the sexual and religious libertinism can still be mortally offended, because let's be perfectly clear, Sausage Party is very much the kind of movie that intends to claim a victory if it leaves any viewer offended for any reason.

So all of that happens, alongside a subplot concerning the horror-movie violence that befalls food once it reaches a human kitchen, and at least the film has the courage of its convictions. It also has what has become the de rigueur Rogen/Goldberg attempt at Philosophical Depth. Not the whole Israeli-Palestinian thing, which is frankly just forced and dumb, though at least it assumes its target audience has a functioning understanding of international politics, and that's rare territory for such a broad bit of American-made entertainment. No, it's the thing where Frank learns the truth about the food world's religion of being chosen by the Gods to see the holiness outside of the grocery store, that their entire system is a damnable lie, and tries to reveal this truth to everyone, annoying the hell out of Brenda in the process. It's a smart enough parable of the way that religion starts out reasonable and productive before turning sectarian and puritanical, and how loudmouthed atheists needs to cool it on the arrogance if they want to point those things out, and it's worked organically into the fabric of the adventure narrative. It's not really groundbreaking - like the theology in the same team's This Is the End, a film which Sausage Party resembles in many incidental ways, this feels very much like the kind of stoner profundity that is awe-inspiring to a bright but lazy undergraduate. That is to say, the film's target audience.

Which is also to say, not me, and I return to the point: you can't tell people that what they're laughing at isn't funny, and the crowd I saw Sausage Party with loved it. I do not begrudge their love, though I sure as hell don't share it. The film is a clever enough subversion of stock animation tropes, I suppose, though the concept doesn't really go beyond what a 10-minute short - or hell, even a trailer - could do with the same basic material. It's shocking and therefore funny when cartoons curse and perform oral sex - ultimately, this is the film's vision for what "adult animation" looks like. In Japan, where "adult animation" is about as bold and groundbreaking a concept as vanilla ice cream, they get things like Kon Satoshi's Paprika and Miyazaki Hayao's The Wind Rises. We get animated films like that in America, too: complicated studies of human beings with philosophical depths that no child, no matter how precocious, could fully appreciate. You know, films like Inside Out. Sausage Party is a film for witty, urbane, politically-minded adolescents - but still adolescents. It is what it is, anyway, and I'm happy for the people that it makes happy. At the very least, it's better for American film culture that this exists than if it didn't.

6/10

19 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: SINCE YOU BENGHAZI

Love him or hate him - I know which side I'm on! - the fact that Michael Bay of all people has turned into a "one for me, one for the studios" director is utterly fascinating. One would not imagine that a man whose name has become a shorthand for lowest-common-denominator popular excess would have a hard time fulfilling the duties of providing ginormous crap entertainment, yet it's as clear as could be to look at the recent pattern of his career. He keeps making Transformerses for Paramount, despite announcing every time, in almost as many words, "I hate these fucking things and I won't make any more of them"; in exchange, Paramount lets him make smaller projects (though damn near everything is smaller than a Transformers) with less commercial appeal. And indeed, the two features thus produced (Pain & Gain was the first one) are both among the three lowest-grossing films of Bay's career. They are also, wouldn't you know, among his very best movies.

Yeah, yeah, faint praise.

In fact, I wish I could go farther: the sleek, wiry, 90-minute-long 13 Hours is his best work since his sophomore effort The Rock all the way back in 1996 (The Rock remains, all these years and movies later, the only Bay picture that I think is actually, genuinely good), a sweaty thriller in lurid digital hues that actually cares about the agony of human death in some measurable way, and presents sufficiently differentiated characters that we can appreciate the fact that some of them might die. For the first time since... ever, Bay's erotic fixation of U.S. military equipment has a meaningful plot justification, and while the whole thing is grossly gung ho and giddily violent and pro-war, there's a certain regal Hollywood classicism to the way screenwriter Chuck Hogan presents the "America, Fuck Yeah!"-ism as an extension of the people and the scenario, rather than purely as a military recruiting video.

The reason I cannot go farther is that 13 Hours, as released in its final cut, is actually 144 minutes long, and it is a desolate slog. Bay, of course, has made an art form out of movies that are indefensibly too long; the mean length of the four Transformers pictures, which are toy commercials that are also car commercials, is 153 minutes. And they feel subjectively much longer than they are. It's weird and inexplicable that a filmmaker whose aesthetic hinges on pure kineticism and velocity, with images, edits, and effects zooming towards the viewer at the speed of sound, would make so many movies that are such endurance tests of slack pacing and non momentum. I well remember the experience of falling in love, getting married, and fathering an infant son, all during the second act of Transformers: Age of Extinction. But anyway, back to 13 Hours.

The film takes as it subject the 11 September, 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, a controversial event that at the time resulted in much right-wing vitriol hurled at U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. As you reflect on that, and on 13 Hours's 2016 release date, it's natural to come to the conclusion that this was Bay's Fahrenheit 9/11-style attempt to nudge the results of the American presidential election away from Clinton. You would be wildly optimistic to do so. For 13 Hours to be purposeful anti-Clinton propaganda, it would first have to be in some meaningful away aware of the real world and the political consequences of actions, and that's asking way the hell too much of it. The order of the day is the earnest, manly solemnity of Our Boys - the heroes are actually CIA contractors, not in any way members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and this is referenced quite a lot in dialogue, yet the movie seems to have no awareness of this fact - doing what must be done for Righteousness and Freedom, even when it is hard, and even when those damn bureaucrats back in Washington aren't willing to support them.

It's thoroughly generic combat picture boilerplate, basically a weepy jock version of a Kathryn Bigelow movie. This is of course more or less inherently obnoxious, but I am in favor of digging up the good where we can find it. In this case, the good is that there's some real effort made to flesh out the six members of the CIA's Global Response Staff, the ex-military private contractors hired to protect the Agency's insufficiently secret base in Benghazi. Those being Jack Silva (John Krasinski, on the backside of a hardcore muscle-training regimen), newly arrived in country, his old buddy Tyrone "Rone" Woods (James Badge Dale), and the four smudgier characters: Kris "Tanto" Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave "Boon" Benton" (David Denman), John "Tig" Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa), and Mark "Oz" Geist (Max Martini). Not a one of them is anything but a bundle of war movie clichés - there are pregnant wives back home, and all of that - but the actors are all game enough to put some kind of meaningful personality into their portrayals. Dale in particular creates a pretty decent character, earnest and soulful in a way that easily could be corny, but is effectively heartfelt, in however dopey a fashion.

Nobody would ever mistake any of this for a classic ensemble film about the psychology of men in war, but stacked up next to the necrotic inhabitants Pearl Harbor, the last Bay film that cared this much about the human-scale drama underneath all of the explosions, it's practically Strindberg. And with such a "strong" "human" "foundation", 13 Hours gets to feel a bit more meaningful, with greater impact to its mindless action, given that it's happening to people we at least recognise as fellow humans. This is kind of great, actually, because say what you will about Bay's movies (no really, say it! It's oodles of fun!), the man really does have an eye for dramatic Pop-infused compositions that rapturously depict violence and mayhem as cinematic ballet. It's just for the most part, he only uses that eye in concert with loathsome screenplays and editing that seems to view continuity and legibility as its sworn mortal enemies. Neither of these things attain in 13 Hours, which is a remarkably slowed-down, talky movie, one that actually lets some scenes find their own rhythm rather than just cram them into a blender. Apparently, when Bay does this, it means movies that are almost a full 66% longer than they ought to be, which is a pity - but at least editors Michael McCasker, Pietro Scalia (a god among editors), and Calvin Wimmer get to care about making sure that we understand how places fit together and how actions evolve over time and between shots.

The film is generally more of a thriller than an action movie, and sometimes an effective one: besides the editors' ability to make scenes come to a slow boil - relatively slow, anyway - Lorne Balfe's bass-dominated score does a fantastic job of reaching in and wiggling the viewer's guts to get some kind of discomfort and tension throughout. The film also boasts some of the very best sound mixing of the year, presenting combat as a multi-directional whirlwind, but one where certain tendencies can still be detected, and the relative direction of threats teased out. It's still a Bay film, which still means glossy, superficial imagery that certainly doesn't work to the benefit of the tension: Dion Beebe shot this, not that you could tell right off, given that all Bay films look like each other. But even so, within the whorishly oversaturated, metallic color scheme, you can still make out something of the experiments with the texture and lighting quality of digital cinematography found in Beebe's collaborations with Michael Mann (this is Bay's first all-digital production). The film has a sharpness to it that adds a harsh note which goes some way in redeeming this from Bay's usually empty style.

Looking back over all of that, it damn near looks like I'm defending the thing, so let's be sure to quash any of that: this is still bozo, pro-war, pandering jingoism whose indifference to real-world geopolitics is so complete, despite a lengthy splooge of exposition right at the start, that it manages to make a mockery of the very same Americans it so lustfully praises, by failing to seriously consider what they were doing besides Embodying Masculinity. And naturally, it can't start to conceive of the Libyans as anything other than the mass of people who are Not Americans. Having relatively strong characters and relatively clear editing for a Michael Bay film does not mean that it can claim either of those as triumphs relative to cinema as a whole: the cast are still stereotypes and the cutting still a dizzy mess. And I cannot overstate: this fucker is long. Long in ways that can only be explained by meanness: there's simply no way that the shorter version of this movie isn't more focused and driving and therefore pleasurable to watch and stronger in its impact. As it is, 13 Hours has no impact: it is far too enervating to do much of anything other than be annoying. But you can see the good film inside of it. So that's new.

5/10

18 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: LOVED AND LOST

Whatever else we can say about it, L'attesa is hella art film. If you fell asleep in 1965 and just woke up, you'd probably find nothing exceptional about it, assuming that all European (and especially Italian) "serious cinema" was like this: gorgeously shot, minimally paced, perhaps more ambiguous than it needs to be, chilly and arch in its depiction of human behavior to the point that the characters feel like abstractions than psychological beings. I mean every last one of those things as a compliment, but I won't hold it against you if it sounds instead like I've described something icy and airless. It is both of those things.

The scenario is one of those things that exists solely to give actors a chance to work through a gamut of challenges (and indeed, the script by director Piero Messina and his colleagues is derived from playwright Luigi Pirandello, who made "throw random and/or arbitrary challenges at actors" into an entire career): Giuseppe is dead. The film never entirely confirms this, but Messina leaves precious little doubt in the way that various side characters look sandblasted with guilt and grief anytime his name is mentioned (frankly, not only does it seem pretty clear that Giuseppe is dead, it seems pretty clear that he killed himself). But what we definitely no for sure is that Giuseppe is someplace not here, and the house where he used to be is closed up for mourning, with nobody mourning harder than Anna (Juliette Binoche), Giuseppe's mother. And who do you suppose should arrive at this sad place than Jeanne (Lou de Laâge, a teen star managing the shift to art films well, though she's much too callow to pull focus from her co-star)), the fiancée that Giuseppe never told his mother about.

Clarifying that her brother has passed away, and that Giuseppe will be showing up in a few days - Easter Sunday, of all metaphorically freighted possibilities - Anna invites Jeanne to stay and wait (The Wait is the English translation of the film's title). This is theoretically an act of kindness to the young woman, but it is pretty clear to watch them interact that Anna is desperately hungry: for what, we have to rely mostly on implication and Binoche's superb performance, but some of it, surely, is a chance to learn more about her son and in some way resurrect him by imagining him as a man rather than a son. Some of it is the possibility of watching Jeanne glide through life as young people will, and snatch some vicarious pleasure through seeing Jeanne have all the fun that Anna can't, and maybe never did.

I don't want to race past it too fast: this is a grandmaster-level performance from Binoche. It's been a few years since we've seen her do something really, genuinely hard, and it's a glorious privilege to be reminded of what she's capable of when she sets her mind to it. Apparently design, Anna as a script construction is all notes and fragments, ideas about how the character should function that aren't necessarily given concrete life. We might honestly ask ourselves if this is for any other reason so that the film can be properly esoteric and artfully cryptic (which isn't nothing - there's something about the way that L'attesa demands attentive viewing that in turn rewards us for unpacking the film ourselves rather than have it chewed up and predigested for us) but it at least gives Binoche plenty of room to work with small gestures and expressions that build outward from the pencil sketch she's been provided with. The resulting character is an astonishment, seething, raw-nerve emotions that are all kept buried deep below the surface - not as an act of subterfuge, but due to the numbing effects of potent depression and grief. If it's possible for something to be expressionistically underplayed, Binoche achieves that here: the way she non-verbally depicts Anna's state of mind through weary poses and lifeless movements, or even just the limited set of expressions she fixes onto her face throughout, has the emphatic over-the-top presence of really fine silent movie acting from a more theatrical rather than realist tradition, and yet the limited dialogue and the hushed way Binoche delivers it suggests to our sound-trained eyes and ears that she's barely doing anything at all.

Anyway, Binoche leaves L'attesa as an extraordinarily wracking depiction of grief so intense and regenerating that it shades into derangement. In fairness, she is not alone. Messina cut his teeth training under Paolo Sorrentino, and like that director, he has a knack for depicting upper-class spaces as expressions of character psychology not as on a metaphorical or symbolic level, but tonally (this also means that the not-insignificant population of Sorrentino haters would be well-served by passing L'attesa by; it feels very much in the fashion of his work, only with a much darker emotional edge and extremely narrow geographic confinement). He and cinematographer Francesco Di Giacomo have set up quite the array of striking imagery, too, gorgeous compostions of soft, quiet, melancholy spaces, with the repetition of set-ups, locations, or even just structural shapes providing a rhythm and shape to the film that accentuates the tension between Anna and Jeanne as the latter grows more and more restless while the former becomes more desperate; so too does the relative lack of variety or flexibility in the midst of the non-stop parade of perfectly designed, graphically satisfying compositions serve to increase an aura of depressed hopelessness.

It's all very sophisticated in aesthetic conception and execution, I think, though fairly blunt in its emotional message: loss causes enormous pain. That's really all there is to it, and the rest of the movie is variations on what that pain is and how it manifests; in the lies Anna tells both to satisfy herself and to protect Jeanne; in the raw-skinned presence of every misery Binoche can conjure up and then not express except through innuendo and asides; in the general hushed, sepulchral air of the thing. Which is, in turn, its appeal: seeing a simple feeling expressed with great artistry and intensity. In which respect, it's every respect the Italian art movie, and I know too many people with a built-in resistance to such things to act like this is a slam-dunk masterpiece for the ages. But it knocked me for a loop, anyway.

8/10

16 August 2016

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: DIRTY CARTOONS

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: American animation has always been frustratingly unwilling to take on adult-oriented subject matter, a gap that Sausage Party means to address. There could be no better excuse to look back at the first time a filmmaker tried to use childish cartoon content in contrast with deliberately vulgar material.

It disappoints me that I don't like Fritz the Cat. I would like to like it very much, just as I would, generally speaking, like to like all the subsequent films of director and animator Ralph Bakshi, making his feature-length debut with this project, after years suffocating at Terrytoons, the most anodyne of all major American animation studios. God knows it's an important film, and not just for the trivial reason that it's the legendary first-ever X-rated animated feature (to those not in the know about the historical minutiae of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system: "X" used to be an official category, the next step above the still-extant "R", meaning that under no circumstances would a minor be permitted to see the film. It was in all important ways identical to the present NC-17, which replaced it to do to rampant abuse by distributors which would claim "X" or even the non-existant "XXX" as ratings on pornographic films that had not been submitted to the MPAA. Fritz the Cat was officially rated X by the MPAA, but was beaten the theaters by a handful of animated films with these spurious pseudo-X ratings).

I should rather say, the film's importance is intimately related to what earned it that X, though the fact it was so classified is the trivial part. This was the first English-language animated feature of any note to deal in direct, explicit ways with sex, drug use, and politics, making it the first animated feature made in the United States for an expressly adult audience (I say "expressly" because despite Disney's reputation as a maker of children's entertainment, most of their features through at least the end of World War II were intended for the same general audience as every other mainstream Hollywood production of the era, and at least Fantasia and The Three Caballeros were arguably aimed more directly at adults than children). Certainly it is was the first American animated feature to engage in a meaningful, probing way with the culture as it was lived in more or less the same time as the film's production, and I think it's probably literally impossible for those of us who were not around in 1972 to rightly gauge what impact the film made when it was new. To read vintage reviews, which were predominately though by no means overwhelmingly positive, it apparently seemed like an staggeringly radical moment of infinite opportunity, as the unique tool set available in animation had been proven to be adaptable to questions of modern social import, and the promise of a new wave of serious grown-up animation was bright on the horizon.

In the end, for the whole of the 1970s, Bakshi was pretty much the only filmmaker to take advantage of the doors he'd just opened, and "adult animation" still seemed in every possible way like a farcical novelty and unsupportable animation until at the very earliest the 1989 debut on television of The Simpsons; in practical terms, I don't think it took root in television until the very late '90s or the 2000s, and as of 2016, it still hasn't in feature animation, given the boggle-eyed amazement so many people expressed at the fact that something like Anomalisa could possibly have even been made. So that is, through no fault of the film's, the first problem with Fritz the Cat: we can't watch it now with the same sense of "wait, they can do this now?!?" astonishment that the critics of '72 did. Bakshi's revolution failed. Hard. No matter how sincerely it was meant as a game-changer then, it's damn near impossible to consider Fritz the Cat anything but a curious novelty now.

Still, let us do what we can to meet the film on its own terms. And such very weird and unique terms they are - an after-the-fact analysis and dissection of the youth movements in America in the late 1960s made just a couple years later, Fritz the Cat is like a double-layer time capsule of attitudes in 1972 about the trends of 1968, all filtered through the mind of someone whose relationship to that era seems fraught. Not Robert Crumb, underground comic legend and original creator of Fritz: no matter how hard the animators worked to re-create the cartoonist's immediately recognisable style in motion, he disowned the movie almost immediately and has never really had a kind word to say about it. Nor, really, should he: the evidence of his subsequent filmography allows us to state with something like complete confidence that this is all Bakshi. Animation is one of the most collaborative forms in all of art, but my God, if ever a film felt like an act of solitary psychoanalysis on the part of its writer-director, Fritz the Cat is it. The whole film is an intensely bitter act of self-loathing: the protagonist, young Fritz the Cat himself (Skip Hinnant, cast because Bakshi thought his voice sounded inherently insincere - which it surely does), an NYU college student in the late '60s, contains a set of attitudes about society and the people within it that are largely equal to the ones expressed by the film's own representations, yet he is treated without fail as a scummy hypocrite and unlikable braggart. It's as though Bakshi wanted to embody all the things he like least about himself and his worldview, and assault them through ice-cold hip mockery for 78 straight minutes. It's ungainly and ugly as hell and really hard to turn away from, if only from the captivated horror of seeing a messy car accident.

Wherever the worldview on display here came from, it is a corrosive one. This is an angry movie, flashing its anti-mainstream bona fides right at the start, by depicting a blue-collar worker literally (if inadvertently) pissing on a hippie, and that sets the stage for a film that is entirely captivated by filth, though never again scatology. Bakshi's filmography cleaves into two halves: stone-faced high fantasy, and sarcastic, leering stories of life in New York City at its most unsanitary and vulgar (1992's abysmal Cool World describes a third kind of Bakshi movie, but since he hates it, let's not bother with it). The latter kind uniformly feel more passionate and desperate and horny and alive with manic energy, and Fritz the Cat earns all of those adjectives - it's a portrayal of New York squalor as both the worst thing in the world and the only genuinely true place that humanity can experience itself. Watching this film is peering into the heart of a creator for whom Giuliani's Disneyfication of Times Square must have counted as a soul-crushing personal tragedy.

Fritz the Cat is madly in love with how repulsive it can depict the city. Bakshi's style, in part enforced by his film's minuscule budget, is full of crude sketches and line drawings - the backgrounds are simply tracings of photographs, colored in as thick splotches - with characters who exist as simple lines and jabbing, repetitive movement - it is the primitive, artless Terrytoons style, doused in acid and dogshit and pools of stale human urine. Without finding it in any particular way pleasant to watch, I will unhesitatingly concede that Fritz the Cat has a perfect aesthetic to go with its attitude, crude and rough and devoid of any sort of polish or smoothness. Especially the coloring: sometimes, it looks like the cels were inked with smeary felt-tip markers. The aesthetic is profoundly unlovely and it has an immediacy that is not found anywhere else in animation of that era: even in Disney's Xerox years, with their visible pencil marks and scruffy drafting, there's not such a potent feeling of the animators trying to present their art without any adornment or mediation. The whole thing feels like it has been assembled as a first draft, with sequences and shots pieced together in a messy flurry, as though trying to think it through would rob it of its vitality.

It's striking - God knows it's striking. But it is also amateurish and sloppy and chaotic in ways that are hard to follow, almost physically unpleasant at times. And all of this is in service to a rotten core. Fritz the Cat is a singular, cohesive, and powerful vision, but it's also an alarmingly toxic one. Fritz is a callous womaniser, prone to hypocritically going on long rants that he doesn't understand or even remember about society this and culture that, is obsessed with African-American culture in way that zips madly from appreciation right past overweening white guilt into straight-up fetishisation, and even while presenting all of these as the terrible characteristics of a terrible person, the movie largely replicates them. Especially his views on women. Say whatever else one can about everything in the movie, Fritz the Cat showcases some astonishingly deep-set misery about women. They are flirty airheads, defined only by their capacity to have sex (frequently by being fed a line of obvious bullshit); they are joyless ball-busters; at their most positive, they're big, hefty earth mommas who feel more like self-employed prostitutes. And they are constantly bare-breasted - the film's obsession with depicting plump breasts and erect nipples goes beyond "we're an X-rated cartoon, whoopee!" into something pathological, at least by the time that the hissing lizard-woman leading a fascist desert cult leans so far forward that her breast flops out of her top (yep, her reptilian, presumably non-lactating breast; but then, Fritz the Cat has virtually no interest in pretending these animals aren't everyday humans). It's downright sordid, really.

To watch Fritz the Cat is to be assaulted by the firm, fired-up belief that the world is a shithole and that all of the good people trying to make it better are little more than dupes. For all it's blustering comedy, it's ultimately a satire, and a deeply enraged one, at the failure of the hippie movement to make good on its optimistic hopes for bettering the world. Hell, for all I know, this might even be the first "the '60s failed" movie on the books. And I suppose it's even successful at pursuing its goals, granting that the successful expression of a toxic worldview isn't really something to get all excited by. Besides, for all that the film captures with rotting majesty a certain dark, pathological view of New York as a physical space and as a cultural mindset, where all kinds of human beings smash together in violent, hateful ways, it collapses really quite terribly when it leaves the city in its second half. There's never anything particularly sophisticated or mature in the film's snotty look at the world, but at least in the first half, it's grounded in Bakshi's incredibly precise and idiosyncratic vision of the city he knew best. The second half is just mindless blather. I frankly don't know that it makes me like the movie less, but it certainly makes it much worse, dysfunctional in ways that feel like accidents and not the free-form narrative experiments of the barely-connected anecdotes in the first part of the movie.

Anyway, I think it would be wrong to call Fritz the Cat a "failure". The ending sequence is awfully hard to defend, but till that point, I'm pretty sure that it's exactly what Bakshi wanted it to be. It's just that the thing he wanted it to be is so unpleasantly and artless and airless: the film's evocation is grimy misery is skillful and aesthetically revolutionary, even, but it's also emblematic of a worldview in which grimy misery is all that there is. And I honestly don't know that I see the point. Even granting that Bakshi's best leaves me feeling pretty ill-tempered, not always for reasons he intended, it's absolutely the case that he did better than this. I would like to offer the final words to the great animation historian Michael Barrier, who wrote in 1973, as he was in the process of helping to inventing the discipline of animation criticism:
"The animated feature that emerged from all this travail is one of the most important cartoons ever made. In it, Bakshi established himself as almost the only cartoon director whose current work is worthy of serious attention.

"This is so even though Fritz the Cat is, in many respects, a pretty bad movie."

6/10

14 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: I REMEMBER MAMA

It's just really, really special to be a cinephile alive in the days of Joachim Trier. Three features in, all three of them genuinely great (the others being Reprise and Oslo, 31 August, one of the very best films of the 2010s), and none of them are especially like the other two, on top of it. And it gets even more impressive: Film No. 3, Louder Than Bombs, is the Norwegian director's first film made outside of his mother tongue (though it is still a Norwegian co-production), set in New England and written entirely in English by Trier and his regular co-writer, Eskil Vogt. You would never know that there was even the potential for a language barrier based on the finished product. Hell, most born-and-bred English-speaking screenwriters would be hard-pressed to come up with something as literate and sophisticated and solemnly novelistic as Trier and Vogt's layered, heavily introspective character drama about the grieving process and the limitations of personal perception. Which don't sound like two themes that naturally go together, but they very much do in this case - just one more way that the script is a real darn impressive thing.

Getting as far as a plot synopsis takes some ironing-out and I would very much hate to rob Louder Than Bombs of even its mildest surprises, so allow me to be somewhat abstract: three men are all mourning the same woman, world-renowned photojournalist Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert), who scoured the world to draw out uniquely striking and damning images of war. Three years ago, she died in a head-on collision with a semi truck late at night, and this has affected each of her male relatives differently. Those being her widow, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), her professor son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a new father, and her now high-school aged son Conrad (Devin Druid) who, we quickly surmise, was given perhaps a little too much emotional shielding by his father and elder brother. Two things are happening to rip the scab of all three Reed men's wounds: first, a major retrospective of Isabelle's work is about to be staged in New York, and second, as a direct result of this retrospective, Isabelle's colleague Richard Weissman (David Strathairn) is going to write a New York Times tribute to her memory that for all of its intimacy, sincerity, and respectful affection, is also going to bring up some uncomfortable facts that Gene and Jonah have been happy to let slumber.

Solely as a "shake up the ant farm" chamber drama, that gives Louder Than Bombs plenty of fuel to burn, and there's a great deal more to it than that; in fact, the film is effectively running two complete narrative lines in tandem through its entire 109-minute running time. They complement each other nicely: one is a story of how we misremember the loved ones whom we've lost, the other is a story of how we fail to connect with the loved ones who are still with us. I believe I have mentioned that Trier and Vogt are Scandinavian.

Louder Than Bombs is a resolutely unflashy film, which is a very different thing from saying that it's indifferent to style. Just for the surgical use of focus in the film's many deep shots - the favored approach to two-shots here is to drop one of the characters in the background, so as to put us in the position of the foreground character attempting to figure them out - the work that cinematographer Jakob Ihre turns out is inspired and admirable despite its superficial plainness. I would with some real enthusiasm call this a more or less flawlessly shot movie, given its particular set of goals. While the film is enormously talky, and it lays its themes out with somber deliberateness, there's still a huge amount of storytelling that goes on in the composition of frames and the block of action. I would not be at all surprised if the rest of 2016 clocks by without my seeing a single image that puts me aquiver so much as a shot during a sequence of Gene having a typically banal dad-who-can't-connect-to-his-sullen-teenager conversation with Conrad: Gene is in a car outside the park where his son is doing nothing at all, watching as Conrad lies to him, and while there's nothing inherently special about the moment, the execution is superb in every detail. Of composition and lighting: Gene is stuffed up close and is underlit while Conrad is bright and far enough back that we have to strain to see him properly. Of writing: the screenplay trusts that the action will be clear enough in its emotional import that it doesn't have to put a button on things or do anything to clarify it. Of acting; Byrne lets just a teeny tiny note of pleading, whining desperation crawl into his voice, while wearing the most terribly crestfallen expression, while Druid reels of lines in the rote monotone of a depressed teen, before snapping shut with a crisp, curt, "I'm busy" that puts a sudden and nasty end to the moment.

I end with that item on purpose: for all of its admirable qualities, Louder Than Bombs puts a great deal of weight on its cast, in a frankly risky way. A dialogue-heavy film about character relationships that puts Gabriel Byrne and Jesse Eisenberg in its two biggest roles is reckless at best: both of those actors have been good in the past, but they've also both been objectively terrible at least once and are frequently locked into stubborn mediocrity (to be fair, Eisenberg's career low point as the godawful Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman was still in the future when Louder Than Bombs premiered). It's not the least of Trier's successes that he's able to guide both of his stars to such excellent performances: in Byrne's case, probably the single best performance of his career, capturing the frustration of an unsuccessful parent with a resentful child as a profoundly sad thing, while also playing, in one of the film's less effectively-developed subplots, the embarrassed affection of a widower starting to feel feelings again, with Conrad's English teacher Hannah (Amy Ryan, whose impressive streak of roles that give her not remotely enough to do continues apace, though at least she's got more to do here than in e.g. the nothing wife role in Bridge of Spies). Throwing ringers like Huppert and Strathairn - aye, and Ryan, for all that she's overqualified - into the supporting adult roles is a good way to build a bulwark for Byrne and Eisenberg, and the film's use of Druid is inspired: for most of the film, he is allowed to be nothing but a flatlining depiction of depression, which already seems like a canny use of a young actor's natural tendency to closing up, and then when he starts to erupt in the final scenes, it catches us all the more off guard.

The film's best performance, though, and by a fairly extreme margin, is given by Huppert, in a role that frankly doesn't even seem like it properly exists. Isabelle is dead, to begin with: we never see a version of the character who exists outside of some other character's memory of her, or some other character's invented concept of her - and the film's rather crafty argument lies in conflating those two things. At the same time, Isabelle is surely the most important character in the whole movie: every major character but Hannah spends the entirety of their screentime reacting in some way to her life and how they feel about it. Faced with what must have been an astoundingly difficult role, Huppert thrives completely: she not only plays correctly an idea of what a fiercely strong, somewhat unloving woman felt like to the people who tried to work their way around her, she also manages to suggest just a little bit of something that none of the characters maybe picked up on: a deep sorrow whose meaning is hard to pin down (that her career has been hard on her family? that her family has gotten in the way of her career? that she is surrounded by death and devastation every moment of her professional life and can't shake it?) but which reverberates throughout her scenes and the whole movie.

Huppert is also at the center of the smartest, hardest aspect of the entire film: its portrayal of memory, perspective, history, and knowledge as all messed up with each other. You wouldn't think to look at it that it's structured in a particularly weird way, but an enormous percentage of the movie is flashbacks and imagined scenes, and a couple scenes of narration using a deadening, detached third-person perspective to take moments out of the present and put them in some kind of literary past tense. Louder Than Bombs is first and last and always about trying to cope with things that have happened at the expense of things that are happening, and dwelling so much in such obviously fragmentary flashbacks is one of the most visible, immediate way it gets us there. The past is literally always clinging to these characters, ready to break out, but never to provide clarity or knowledge. We, in the God's-eye-view position, can maybe piece together some kind of knowledge, about Isabelle at least if not any of her survivors, but they all linger in their half-formed wisdom. That is the film's tragedy, and what makes it one of the finest family dramas I've seen in a great long while.

9/10