29 August 2016

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: BLIND TERROR

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: put three people in a dark house with a murderous blind villain who uses his physical disadvantage as a weapon against his victims, and you have Don't Breathe. Flip that around to have a blind protagonist trying to outwit the killers, and you find our present subject.

Absent anything else we might have to say about the 1967 film Wait Until Dark, adapted from Frederick Knott's 1966 play - and that is a considerable amount, given that it's one of the greatest movie thrillers of its generation - my first question is this: what on earth goes through Audrey Hepburn's mind when she's asked to appear in this movie? You have here a woman whose screen persona is completely built around her classy Continental elegance, whose personal life was marked by serious-minded humanitarianism, and you drop her into a horror-thriller about a heroin dealer antagonising a blind woman - it all seems so incomprehensible that Hepburn's seventeenth starring role should be such a grubby, grotty turn from all of the princesses and doe-eyed gamines and society women preceding it, even granting that she'd started acting in more genre-ish films in the '60s (though as crime thrillers go, Charade and How to Steal a Million are pretty fizzy and lighthearted romantic capers - and I love them both very much, let's be clear about that). But hey, it works - there's a lot that's inherently great in Wait Until Dark, but there's a lot that's specifically great because of Hepburn's performance, which I think shows off perhaps the best technique of her entire career (though as far character-building, I'd put it behind The Nun's Story). It's a weird capstone to her career - she made four more filmed appearance stretched across the remaining 26 years of her life - but a damned impressive one.

But let us set aside Hepburn for the moment. The film is already firing on all cylinders long before she appears (a quarter of the way into the 108-minute film); it's started putting in a claim to being a top-shelf thriller before it has more than the hint of a plot or any character who will still be alive past the 20-minute mark. There is something already immaculate and dreadful about the way the very opening scene is cut, starting on close-ups too narrow to be particularly useful in explaining what the hell we're looking at, and slowly spiraling back with a steady, slightly over-quick rhythm that becomes increasingly chest-tightening in its refusal to let us find our feet. Meanwhile, the two characters we see, Lisa (Samantha Jones) and old Louis (Jean Del Val) engaging in clipped dialogue that does a great deal to place the film within an attitude before it clarifies that they're doctoring a fancy doll to smuggle heroin from Canada into the United States. And that attitude is kind of my favorite thing about the first half of Wait Until Dark: it's a film dominated by criminal hipsters, using a kind of free-standing slang and chilly smugness that feel a little bit like some nihilistic fantasia on beatniks. Lisa is our first embodiment of this nasty-minded sensibility, and even in her brief appearance, she sets the film off on an evocative note that lingers and echoes.

And even then, the film still isn't done introducing itself in a thoroughly rattling way. After the dirty naturalism of the opening sequence, the film kicks off its credit sequence, blocky sans-serif fonts that somehow make the images even uglier - it's enormously dated (I'm pretty sure that just looking at the film's main title card, it would be possible to accurately date its release to within nine months), but I think in a good way; that moment of urban squalor crime in the late '60s and early '70s is like nothing else, and even though Wait Until Dark spends most of its running time as a single-set stage adaptation - one that never feels like filmed theater, to its credit - opening the way it does positions it within a more harshly contemporary tradition than you'd expect from a 1960s movie derived from a Tony-nominated play. Even better - and arguably, even more '60s - is the brilliant musical cue accompanying the credits, one of the best achievements in the career of Henry Mancini. It is, by Mancini standards, experimental in nature: carried primarily on two pianos tuned just slightly apart, so that the sound of the music hits our ear in a way that feels terribly wrong in ways that can't be readily described (supposedly, one of the pianists even complained of feeling ill), and matches well with the melody's steady refusal to resolve in any way; it's a grim-sounding piece that sets up the film's tone well, even if much of Mancini's score in the middle falls short of this wonderful sonic assault. There are some tepidly twinkling moments in the score when Hepburn and a little girl (Julie Herrod) interact; thankfully, the final half-hour gets fully back on track.

So anyway, with the table all set, the film can properly begin. It's at heart an early variation on a home-invasion thriller, with a little bit of a crime caper element to the first half, as we attend more to the criminals than to their prey: Lisa handed off her doll to an unsuspecting dope named Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.), who brought it back to his brownstone, and then lost it. So Lisa's accomplice, whose name might very well be Harry Roat (Alan Arkin), scrounges up a pair of low-rent con-men with ties to Lisa, ex-cop Carlino (Jack Weston) and Mike Talman (Richard Crenna), to help find it in the Hendrixes' apartment. They don't. They do find Lisa's body hanging in a garment bag, right where Roat wanted them to, after leaving finger prints over every available surface. With two pliable patsies in his back pocket, Roat can then turn to the main game of the film, launching an elaborate con against Sam's new wife Susy (Hepburn), who met him about a year ago, right after losing her sight in a car accident.

The rest of the film plays out as a series of grabby moments of tension, starting with Susy being confident that somebody might be hanging around in her apartment, but unable to flush them out, and then progressing through to her terrible decision to trust Mike, who has presented himself as an old war buddy of Sam's, and thereby leak all of her suspicions about the untrustworthy cop played by Carlino, or the strange old man and his son played by Roat. I will not spoil it any more: it's all very twisty and mechanically elegant, as screenwriters Robert Carrington & Jane-Howard Carrington lay it out. The film has been coming under fire since 1967 that it doesn't really make a damn bit of sense that Susy continues to play dumb about the doll once she figures out where it's hiding, but that strikes me as uncharitable: by that point, she knows damn well that whatever the men want, it's not any good, and part of the depth that Wait Until Dark affords itself is to sketch out a simple but persuasive image of Susy as a steel-willed badass, which is part of where casting Hepburn pays off so well. It's simultaneously shocking to watch someone whose most iconic roles tend towards the demure and gracious playing someone as tough-fibered as this, but at the same time, there's a degree of moral determination that creeps into Hepburn's performances that make it entirely believable that Susy would be the kind of person to do the right thing out of pure stubbornness, even if she's not sure what in particular is right about it.

It's hard to imagine all of this being much tighter: Terence Young, certainly known best then and now for directing three of the first four James Bond pictures and providing the spy with his sense of worldly materialism, shifts gears with tremendous success to create something with impeccable timing to grate more and and more on the viewer's nerves as it goes along, manipulating camera angles to shape our perspective in ways that let us see just enough to be enormously nervous about Susy's immediate danger, and thus delighted when she proves resourceful enough to surpass each new little wrinkle. Beyond which, he and cinematographer Charles Lang use low-lighting in some exceptionally creative ways to slowly restrict our perspective to complement, Susy's own. And all of this makes the film a great exercise in sustained and rising tension even without reference to the film's famous climax, which of course is what makes everybody from Stephen King on down quiver with terrified joy and has for over 40 years now; it's astonishing just how well the ending holds up, in fact, given that one of its best moments - a really nicely timed jump scare (with a literal jump involved) - is an idiot cliché, and the chief reason it's celebrated is a pure gimmick. Which I will not spoil for those who haven't seen it, other than to recommend watching Wait Until Dark in the darkest room you are able to arrange. But it's outstanding, genre-defining stuff, with amazing horror-movie lighting and a merciless sense of pacing how it doles out the moments that really punch the viewer in the gut.

If that's all there was to it, Wait Until Dark would still have my enthusiastic recommendation, but that's not even the best thing about it: it has, in the form of Hepburn and Arkin, two of the very best performances in the genre's history. Arkin, for his part, plays a strange, campy menace, allowing Roat to be a cringing coward when necessary and generally acting more like a bored asshole than a potential killer, but that's part of what makes him so damn good. He feels wrong, like he doesn't belong in this film or this universe, like a reptile in human skin. Even the most perfunctory, drawn-out expository dialogue snaps to life with Arkin's whiny, upbeat, hissing delivery, and his fixed, deeply unsettling smile. It's one of the great performances of a movie sociopath on the books: amused to be cruel for the sake of it, even scarier in happiness than in anger. And Arkin does it all with the limitation of having his eyes hidden by dark glasses for most of the movie (a neat little unstressed detail: he's wandering about dressed like a parody of a blind person).

Hepburn is even better: the script helps her out, given how nicely it layers in suggestions about the Hendrixes' marriage without stating much of anything outright, and letting Hepburn and Zimbalist play with those suggestions however they see fit. The result is one of the most natural, organic characters she ever played, with the same low-key intimacy that she got to explore in The Nun's Story or fellow 1967 release Two for the Road, and not much else. This extends to her portrayal of Susy's blindness, which is perhaps almost entirely mechanical in its expression - if there's a limit to Hepburn's performance, is that I'm not entirely sure what she thinks about being blind, outside of the annoyed pride with which she delivers such a telling line of dialogue as "I was the best in blind school today", and she never approaches the subject when the screenplay doesn't command her to - but the mechanics are superb. She's about as good as anyone ever has been at staring at nothing without, like, staring at nothing; it really does feel, to a degree it virtually never does when actors are playing characters who can't see, like her eyes simply aren't a sensory organ anymore. And she very carefully weaves in just the right amount of unsteadiness into Susy's movement, even something as simple as reaching out to touch an object: it's not broad pantomime of blindness, and it's not the effortless confidence of someone who has full use of all their faculties and senses other than vision, as in for example A Patch of Blue from just a couple of years earlier. Susy is still learning how to get along, and even if she's most of the way there - enough to be able to tell that two ostensibly different men are wearing the same shoes, for example - it's possible to tell in Hepburn's alert stiffness how the character is still very aware of controlling her body rather than just inhabiting it. It's a performance that perfectly hits the golden spot between vulnerability and resourcefulness - we're always aware that Susy can survive this experience, but it's frequently not clear that she's as aware of it as we are, which is a much more interesting way to present the protagonist of a thriller than just "helpless blind lady with nothing but her wits". I would go so far as to say that Hepburn's blend of weakness and fortitude is the key ingredient to everything else in Wait Until Dark, providing exactly the correct note of nervous ambivalence that makes this such a superlative, viscerally effective thriller.

10/10

28 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: THREE TIMES

Mountains May Depart is not the first film to completely lose the thread as it approaches the ending, of course. But it's extra-awfully disappointing that it does so, because before that happens, it puts up a really impressive case for being one of the very best movies released in the United States in 2016.

The eighth narrative feature directed by the great Jia Zhangke is something of a supercharged version of his pet theme: what it means to be Chinese in a globalising world where China is poised to become the next great power, but at the cost of becoming an uncomfortably Western version of itself. To get at that this time around, he's pulled in the episodic structure of his last film, 2013's A Touch of Sin, to look at the travails of a small cluster of people across 25 years of history, broken into three moments: 1999 (internal evidence later in the film suggests the first segment actually covers 1999 through 2007), 2014, and 2025. Throughout all three sequences, the film develops its message in a beautifully intricate mixture of historical analysis and character drama, blurring chronological distinctions in the depiction of people in "the past" trying to live in the future, as people in "the future" are constantly forced to reckon with their choices and actions in the past.

Mountains May Depart - the original title, I am given to understand, is closer to Mountain, River, Old Friend - touches on all of this material with great delicacy and extraordinary insight into its characters, at least in 1999 and 2014. The first story is a basic love triangle: Shen Tao (Zhao Tao) is an enthusiastic young woman employed as a shop clerk, eagerly preparing for the upcoming millennial celebrations, and enjoying her time with two of her closest childhood friends, Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi), an aspiring entrepreneur, and Liang Jangjung (Liang Jingdong), a coal miner, both of whom would very much like to move their relationships with Tao out of the realm of friendship. This is the most barbarically straightforward plot imaginable, but in the execution here it feels as keen and fresh as it must have when it was first told thousands of years ago. Partially this is simply because of the fullness of everything surrounding the central love story: the portrayal of China on the cusp of the millennium has the same giddy sense of possibility that the films Jia himself made around the same time showcased (some of the footage was, in fact, shot by Jia and cinematographer Nelson Yu Lik-wai in 2001, on video - it has been blended into the film through the exigency of shooting new scenes on heavily outdated technology), now filtered through a slight haze of nostalgia, and one could just as easily admire Mountains May Depart as a remembrance of Chinese culture during a recent historical moment separated from the present by untold changes in the world as for anything to do with its character drama.

But the character drama is, nonetheless, quite splendid. Zhao's performance, slowly coloring in shades of heartbreak and dogged fortitude as it stretches across the decades, is an extraordinarily strong foundation for the rest of the movie to build itself upon, and her portrayal of Tao the high-spirited enthusiast, Tao the pensive romantic, Tao the desperate mother, grow so organically from each other that her shifts in mood end up providing the movie with much of its structure. Hell, she even makes Tao the somewhat-too-obvious surrogate for "The Contemporary Experience of China" (I mean, just look at the symbolically-laden men she's forced to choose between: the traditional worker who will obviously never amount to much, or the hungry capitalist who will only cause her suffering even as he helps her achieve things she could never otherwise have) feel both like a well-sketched icon in an editorial cartoon as well as a reasonable, sophisticated embodiment of cultural currents too big for any one human to experience.

As it uses Tao, and at times her conspicuous, heavy-feeling absence, to play around with ideas of what China is and has the potential to be at this critical moment in its history, Mountains May Depart doesn't forget to provide a full set of arcs for the two men, both of whom have their own set of tragedies and difficult questions, though I cannot say that either the roles as written nor as performed are as wholly rewarding as Tao is. Still, the profoundly generous humanism of Jia's earlier work is on full display in the way he makes certain to allow us to fully understand and appreciate the inner workings of all the major characters, even when in the case of Jinsheng, he gives us increasingly good reason to dislike him. And this is all while engaging in some showy but highly motivated formalism: each new sequence of the film takes place in a wider aspect ratio, with 1999 shot in the 1.33:1 of video (initially a practical matter, necessary to match the old footage), 2014 in 1.85:1, or standard widescreen, and 2025 in 2.37:1, anamorphic widescreen. The slow expansion of the palette is contrasted by the reduction in content, as the 1999 scenes are frequently a flurry of activity, the camera swerving around with intoxication to catch it all, while in 2025, there are many austere, half-empty frames, foregrounding the brittle emotions at play in its story. It's as obvious as the "love triangle where they're all symbols for sectors of Chinese society" bit, and just as successfully carried off with considerable insight and craft.

And so, after loving two-thirds (or a little more) of the movie with undying passion, from the richness of the characters all the way down to the shocking precision of where the film's title card unexpectly shows up, I am sorry to say that Mountains May Depart slams into a wall. Part of this is undoubtedly the arrogance of language on my part: much of the 2025 material is in English, centered on Dong Zijian's performance as the frustrated, emotionally yearning college student Daole, and he is terrible. The plot hinges, at a deep and thematically critical level, on Daole having become so comfortable with English that he has forgotten Mandarin, and by extension, his Chinese heritage - right at a time when China is about to replace the United States as the world's most powerful nation, no less - and this is really, incredibly hard to buy into when the actor's command of English is so shaky. Not to mention how clattering some of the sound lines in English, translated from the Chinese of Jia's original screenplay. This is, among other things, a reminder of the dangers of watching movies in a language you don't speak: for all I know, every last line delivery in the whole movie is just as terrible as Dong's, and I simply can't tell. But something about his physical stiffness tells me that's not the case.

Beyond that, the film suffers from having an almost equally trite plot as the 1999 material (the 2014 sequence, to its credit, is generally unexpected in how its story develops), involving the strife between distant fathers and needful sons, and the pain of a child who never properly knew his mother, but without the cutting wisdom of the 1999 sequence's sociology and character drama to help it through. And while I greatly admire that Jia's willingness to blow through his comfort zone - he is a master of rifling through the past, not predicting the future - there's no mistaking that the world of 2025 feels clumsy and half-formed compared to the laser-focused precision of 1999 and 2014; it's a botched marriage of contemporary technology and unimaginative but distracting extrapolations from contemporary technology, along with a curiously inconsistent attempt to chart out the evolution of America and China's relative power in the coming decade, which at times feels like China has already eclipsed its Western counterpart, and at times feels like the only difference between then and now is that the dollar is weaker. Nothing, beyond the central performance, is truly objectionable - it's a bit formless and wobbly, that's all - but it's galling how much it deflates the exemplary first two acts of what could have been a truly great film, and instead ends up a beautiful, intelligent misstep that Jia will hopefully learn much from on the way to reasserting his greatness.

8/10

27 August 2016

LES TEMPS DIFFICILES

A second review requested by Vianney B, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

There is a minor contradiction secreted away in the production history of Delicatessen. The 1991 film exists mostly so that Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro could prove they had what it took to write and direct a feature, and thereby secure financing for the screenplay they really wanted to make, The City of Lost Children. And that's exactly what they did, using Delicatessen's impressive critical, commercial, and awards success to leap into making the far more ambitious, higher-budget movie, with Jeunet continuing on as a solo director to keep it up, sometimes having more resources and sometimes fewer, but never having to return to such a low-scale production as his feature debut. And yet for all this, I'm not sure that any of the films that Delicatessen's success enabled are actually as wholly satisfying on their own terms. It really is the perfect version of itself, barring a few errant shots or cuts here and there. Nor I do not think that the lack of resources is entirely coincidental. There are the films like Amélie that get made when a filmmaker has the ability to run wild and indulge himself, and while that can be exhilarating, just as easily it can be exhausting and annoyingly solipsistic. Delicatessen is a perfect demonstration of the idea that great art needs some constraints: everything Jeunet and Caro did in the film, they did deliberately and with focused intent, and the resultant film is just way the hell tighter than anything else the filmmaking team, or Jeunet solus, have ever put their names to.

Generally speaking, Delicatessen is described as "post-apocalyptic", which I think is a little too cut-and-dry. From a production design standpoint - and everything in the film, up to and especially including the acting, needs to be understood from a production design standpoint (which was, for the record, provided by Caro himself) - the world presented in the film is a polyglot of elements from mid-20th Century France and America, with most of the props having the vague sense of '60s home goods invested with untold years of decay and corruption (this is a perfect example of the "restraints create art" ethos: many of the objects seen in the film were scavenged on account of the small art direction budget). The sense that results isn't that we're watching some hideous future, but rather a nightmarish alternate version of the recent past, where everything went terribly wrong. More than anything, Delicatessen feels like it takes place just across the Channel from the bureaucratic hellhole England of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a 1985 release set pointedly "somewhere in the 20th Century".

Which makes sense, given that Gilliam's work was a state influence on Jeunet and Caro, and Brazil looms particularly large over their body of work: beyond Delicatessen, both The City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection (Jeunet's third feature, and first without Caro co-directing) are fairly obvious in their borrowings from Brazil, though neither goes so far with it. Delicatessen doesn't just share aspects of its design mentality with Gilliam's film, it shares a very distinctive strategy for cinematography, with wide-angle lenses creating a sense of bug-eyed closeness that manages to avoid the edge distortion typical of wide angles, while exploiting their tendency to make objects in the center of the frame uncannily, uncomfortably present. It's one of the two most obvious ways that the film visually puts across a feeling of thoroughly unnerving otherness, the other being its tightly constrained color palette - this is an outstandingly yellow movie, introducing its central location emerging from a thick yellow fog like the ruins of a medieval abbey, and never letting us forget about it through all of the shots of locations that appear to be permanently stained in ochre soot. It's overwhelming and also subtle, but also cunning in its way: the payoff to all that yellow is the film's solitary use of blue (yellow's opposite in the RGB color system) is all the way in its final scene, when it is specifically used to counterbalance the diseased feeling of the whole movie up to that point. Among the film's other points of interest, Delicatessen was the first film of major lasting significance shot by Darius Khondji, and it's very much in line with his later triumphs: tightly constrained in color, marked with a certain filthy texture to the stock, and instantly effective at creating a very specific atmosphere.

So anyway, all of that visual presence is in service to something, after all, and here's what that is: wherever and whenever we are, there is a solitary building on the outskirts of what used to be civilsation. On the bottom floor of this building is a delicatessen, run by by a rubbery, fat butcher named Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus); he's also the landlord for the apartments which occupy all of the upper levels, all of them populated by a visually grotesque menagerie of idiosyncratic characters: such as Marcel Tapioca (Ticky Holgado) and his wife (Anne-Marie Pisani), grubby impoverish sorts; the Interligators, Aurore (Silvie Laguna) and Georges (Jean-François Perrier), she dressed like a '50s schoolchild's idea of a society lady and plagued by a voice that only she hears, urging her to commit suicide; the nameless man (Howard Vernon) who lives in a watery dungeon full of snails and frogs, looking a bit slimy and frog-eyed himself; and Clapet's own estranged daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), a birdlike young woman with a thin face and sharp eyes. We learn pretty damn quickly that this building houses some kind of horrible secret, given that the opening scene features Clapet laughing broadly as he plunges a cleaver into the skull of a terrified man (Pascal Benezech) hiding in a garbage can; it's no real surprise that the denizens of the building are all in on a conspiracy to entice drifters with the promise of a job, and then murder them for their meat, distributed evenly among all residents. It's all part of the world of absolute social collapse and near-total privation that the film sketches out; cannibalism, it's implied, is the only way to get any meat in this place.

The plot, such as it is, begins when ex-clown Louison (Dominique Pinon) takes up Clapet's job posting, and turns out to be a skilled enough hand that the butcher is reluctant to kill him right away. Worse still, Julie takes pity on Louison, and starts feeding him a powerful soporific tea to keep him asleep and safely in bed at the times that Clapet waits in the stairwell to kill whoever ends up crossing his path. Naturally enough, Julie and Louison fall in love, because as you can no doubt tell from everything I've written so far, Delicatessen is first and foremost a romantic comedy. That's not me being even a tiny bit sarcastic: after the florid design of the thing, which I broadly use to include the peculiar timbre of the cinematography and the physical distortions of the actors, the most notable thing about Delicatessen is its indefinite use of genre. I could not, if you forced me to, state with absolute confidence if this is mostly a horror film that happens to be so quirky and funny that it's not even a tiny bit scary, or if it's mostly a comedy that invests so much in violent death and a despairing culture in the midst of collapse that it becomes horrifying. What I can do is to approvingly note of the fact that as it moves towards the end, it abandons either to become a live-action Tex Avery cartoon: the nerve-wracking physical anarchy and use of slapstick as a murder weapon is entirely in the spirit of a Screwy Squirrel short, and the film even gets away with the old "bathroom fills up with water until somebody opens the door" bit at the end, having spent most of its 99 minutes building exactly the kind of demented anything-goes universe where that feels like a perfectly reasonable thing to occur, in between the attack by separatist vegetarians who live in the sewers and the Rube Goldberg suicide machines.

Whatever mode it's occupying, what dominates Delicatessen is shocking: this is as dewy-eyed and sweet in its outlook as anything in Amélie. Even while indicting them all as willing cannibals, Jeunet and Caro and co-writer Gilles Adrien portray the residents of the apartment with an essential affection and whimsy, using a playful sequence early on (the residents all creating musical interludes to the accompaniment of Clapet having sex with a certain Mademoiselle Plusse (Karin Viard) on squeaky bedsprings) to set up the idea that the apartment is a living organism, an ecosystem in which every emotionally aberrant figure within has their key and necessary role in the proper functioning of the whole. Given how frankly evil they are, and how joyfully the starts knocking them off, it's a bit surprising and pleasant how much Delicatessen openly loves its cast.

Most of all it loves Louison and Julie, who are the aspect of this film that looks forward the most clearly to Jeunet's solo projects: childlike innocents playing at a beatified, sexless version of romance, set against things like the circus and tea sets to accentuate just how much they're too lighthearted for this corrosive place and this corrosive world. It is a bent, weird, ugly, and menacing film in so many ways, but it is entirely driven by the sweet charms of its central pair; in turn, the saccharine sentimentality of that plot (that thing which ruined Amélie for those - I am not one, by any stretch - who consider it to be ruined) is counterbalanced by the savage nastiness of the setting and plot. It's a perfect balance, and while there's the odd moment here or there where the directors fluff the timing of scenes or repeat concepts once too often, Delicatessen is something close to a miracle of style and tone and narrative all slashing at each other from odd angles to produce a flawlessly unified whole. Lord knows that this isn't for everybody, but if we take the idea of a romantic comedy set in the ruins of a dead society and dressed up with cannibal horror seriously at all, it's hard to see how it could turn out better than this.

9/10

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