23 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: MORE THAN I COULD BEAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1/10

22 August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

21 August 2016

A MISSION FROM GOD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

MEAT AND GREET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

19 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: SINCE YOU BENGHAZI

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

Yeah, yeah, faint praise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10

18 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: LOVED AND LOST

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

16 August 2016

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: DIRTY CARTOONS

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: American animation has always been frustratingly unwilling to take on adult-oriented subject matter, a gap that Sausage Party means to address. There could be no better excuse to look back at the first time a filmmaker tried to use childish cartoon content in contrast with deliberately vulgar material.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

14 August 2016

CATCHING UP WITH 2016: I REMEMBER MAMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

13 August 2016

ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH

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

It is 1972, and you have a Western with Robert Redford in it. With that in mind, what's most surprising about Jeremiah Johnson is what it somehow manages not to be: a revisionist challenge to the genre. Hell, by '72, even conservative Westerns were mostly revisionist, and one starring a man notable for his liberal politics would seem to be a surefire candidate for a downbeat commentary on American culture and values set in a pointedly metaphorical frontier wilderness. The pointedly metaphorical wilderness part, now that Jeremiah Johnson has down pat, but everything else about the movie is astonishingly old-fashioned. It is a real damn stately thing, conceived in obvious tribute to the undying Myth of the West, and playing surprisingly straight with the idea that for a man to truly find himself, he must journey to the edge of civilisation and lose himself in the isolation of nature. Perhaps this would be better if it had a more satiric, questioning edge; maybe that would just make it seem fashionably cynical. I would hardly call Jeremiah Johnson a bad movie, though it's one whose ambition frequently outpaces its execution. It's very weird, though, given its historic context.

The film was originally a fact-derived blood-and-guts epic fashioned by credited co-writer John Milius according to his own private fascinations with violent masculinity, until Sydney Pollack got involved and had his people de-Milius it. The result is mostly a meditative treatment of physical landscapes as an extension of quietly tormented internal psychology: sometime near the end of the Mexican-American War, one Jeremiah Johnson (Redford) decided to abandon the corrupting influence of civilisation to journey to the Rocky Mountains, to pursue the life of a grizzled old trapper. This is where we meet him - that is to say, where we meet him in the flesh, after a rather questionable bit of opening narration that suggests what might have happened if Yosemite Sam had gone into poetry rather than varmint-hunting, as well as a drop-dead hokey '70s folk-type song telling us all about how Jeremiah Johnson jes' wanted to forget his troubles - having a really hard time making it through his first winter. After a distant encounter with a Crow warrior who will weave his way in and out of the movie, who we'll get to know as Paints His Shirt Red (Joaquín Martínez), Johnson finds two other white hunters. One of them is dead, and serves mainly to show us in the audience just how merciless the Rockies could be, as well as to provide Johnson with a better gun. The other, Chris "Bear Claw" Lapp (Will Geer) is of rather more active help, giving Johnson a crash course in mountain man life. And from here...

Jeremiah Johnson is only in the most literal sense a continuous narrative. Watching it, one has the sense of discrete events unfolding over the course of what could be months or years in Johnson's life; very much part of the point of the thing, I suspect, is that time somewhat ceases to have much actual meaning as Johnson mostly succeeds in dropping out of the ungainly flow of urban American life, and instead finds himself living by the rhythm of the mountains. As I take it, we're meant to understand that life removed from the artificial structures of the civilised world loses that world's obsession with causality and conflict, and so narrative itself starts to loosen up and go slack; Jeremiah Johnson can't have a clear series of events that bleed into each other, because Jeremiah Johnson's experience of life no longer functioned that way. Instead, there are certain key moments interspersed with wandering states of being. It's such an extraordinary way of assembling a film plot that it's not really to anybody's discredit that it doesn't always quite work: in practice, the anti-continuity I've just described looks very much like a whole lot of exceptionally well-done sequences studded into a whole that's a bit less than the sum of its parts.

Even so, those parts can be very good (they can also be not so good: the hoedown-tinged score has a tendency to unnecessarily trivialise many moments). The early sequence in which Johnson discovers his dead, frozen colleague is absolutely terrific, for example, and it comes early enough that it casts a glow over much of what follows. Howard Hawks once famously claimed that to be perceived as good, a movie needs three great scenes and no bad ones; my own formula is that a movie needs a great opening scene and a great closing shot, and Jeremiah Johnson nails both of those. The whole introductory act is great, really, with Duke Callaghan's cinematography capturing the endless snow of the Rocky Mountain winter as a living entity, not a field of dead white but a landscape of shifting reflections and textures and shapes that seems much more active and conscious than the people milling about on it. That remarkable sense of presence, coupled with Redford's exceedingly fine work playing a mostly unspeaking man with a giant beard and a sad, desperate look behind his eyes, goes a hell of a long way to making Jeremiah Johnson interesting right away, and while I don't know that the film gets back to that level, the best parts linger.

What "happens" is that Johnson acquires both an adopted white son (Josh Albee) and a Flathead Indian wife (Delle Bolton), and manages to make an enemy of the Crow after defiling their sacred grounds when pressed into duty as a U.S. Cavalry scout. This gives the film's second hour somewhat more shape than its first, and places it vaguely but not quite in the tradition of "whites versus injuns" Westerns since time immemorial, replacing the triumphant tenor of those movies with a more ambivalent, weary one, which pays off nicely in the final scene. It's still awfully plotless and episodic, mind you, and there's very little sense that things are building in any direction. Which I think I admire, though there's little doubt that the early part of the film is generally more interesting and effective than the latter.

There's something generally stitched-together about the whole of Jeremiah Johnson. A sense of effortfulness, maybe. Pollack was a more than fine director and he'd already made a semi-mythic tale of America in his immediately preceding film, the marvelous and perpetually under-appreciated They Shoot Horses, Don't They? But something in this film remains just beyond his grip; I think working in such an abstract idiom as The Man in The West hobbled his strength for concrete, small-scale human drama (the mode of all his best subsequent films, and even several of his weaker efforts). The film strives to be grandly epic, often in some loopy ways: at all of 116 minutes in length, the film includes an overture and exit music as well as a intermission, all of them wild anachronisms in '72 and never exactly typical of Westerns; it's hard to imagine what drove Pollack to include such touches other than an active desire to make his film feel larger than life and special, somehow. It sometimes gets there: in the first thirty minutes, it gets there quite easily, and it often returns. Sometimes, it feels like the human drama Pollack wants to make and the broad-strokes adventure he also wants to make are simply too much at cross purposes for either to emerge.

For all its limitations, though, Jeremiah Johnson is very much a striking movie. It feels like "Westerns" as a category without particularly resembling any one Western I can name, and while it doesn't always perfectly capture the mythic sensibility of that genre, the attempt is bold and impressive. I doubt that anyone unsympathetic to its basic aims would find much outside of maybe Redford's uncharacteristically visual performance to cling to, but as a Western fan of long standing, I found this one, shortcomings and all, to be a fascinating attempt to capture the soul of the form and splash it out for all the world to see.

8/10

12 August 2016

FRENCH CARTOONS

Last week, I reviewed a pair of animated features at the Film Experience. In the best of all possible worlds, I'd be writing fresh reviews for both of them for this blog that ran up to my usual 1500+ words I like to spit out for animation, but we do not live in that world. Instead, please allow me to repost these articles for those of you who don't follow my work at the Film Experience, presented with only the slightest editorial adjustment.

April and the Extraordinary World - originally reviewed 3 August

As even the quickest look at a box office report shows, 2016 has been a great year for the popularity of animated films. But outside of the heavyweight American studio tentpoles, there have been genuine treasures that have still managed to slip through the cracks. Thus it's my pleasure to introduce to you the crackling Franco-Canadian-Belgian sci-fi fantasy April and the Extraordinary World, new to DVD, thanks to the endlessly wonderful folks at distributor GKIDS.

The film takes place in an alternate world where Emperor Napoleon III of France died in a lab explosion in 1870, just before our history had him falling from grace in the eyes of the French legislature; here, his son ascends as Napoleon IV and ushers in a bold new era of European diplomacy that manages to prevent both of the 20th Century's World Wars, but also results in an era of scientific stultification, meaning that by 1931, when the film proper begins, the world is still in an age of steam.

Here we meet young April, whose parents are working on a serum to prolong life. After they are killed, the latest in a long line of great thinkers to be removed from the world under mysterious circumstances, April takes up their research, and in 1941, finally cracks the secret of their serum, aided by a sarcastic talking cat (an inheritance from her parents' experiments). Thus putting her under the watchful eyes of the French authorities, but also some other even more terrifying power.

Steampunk is a well-established subgenre of science fiction in books and comics (it means, basically, "what would modern inventions look like if they were made with Victorian technology?"), but it only rarely gets its due in the movies, which is not least of the reasons why April and the Extraordinary World is so delightful. The design, based upon a graphic novel French comic book artist Tardi, is richly fanciful, presenting an evocative world full of grey soot and elaborate metalwork, looking something like post-apocalyptic Art Nouveau. One can easily take the comparison too far, but the film more than slightly resembles the work of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly in his Castle in the Sky/Howl's Moving Castle phase: the world-building involves the same mixture of fantasy and costume drama; the story blurs science-fiction and historical romance in much the same way. It even throughout in a bit of Expressionism and film noir in some of the more dramatic moments.

All of which is to say that April and the Extraordinary World lives up to its title: the idiosyncratic, detailed, and imaginative setting is all by itself enough to make this possibly the year's most special-looking animated feature. Which is all well and good, but it's at least as gratifying that it also presents such an enjoyable adventure narrative, anchored by a fantastic protagonist in the form of April herself. Part of this is how unique she is: not all that many movies make a sense of scientific curiosity and creativity the main characteristic of their lead character, and even fewer of them do that when the lead is also a woman. But she's also graced with a really excellent vocal performance in the original French, by Marion Cotillard (replaced by Canadian singer Angela Galuppo in the English dub), who gives the character a hard, sharp attitude, and generally makes her more complicated and interesting than one expects from an animated protagonist.

Besides that, the film simply has a really great story and it tells it really well. Animators turned first-time directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci keep the film moving at a quick clip, all the better to keep us at full attention, and also to deprive us of a chance to think too hard about what's going on. The plot takes some particularly strange turns in its second half, pushing It from low-key adventure (or anyway, as low-key as anything so beholden to steampunk could possibly manage to be) into full-blown pulp sci-fi, and it's one of the film's great strengths to plow throw those twists so fast that by the time we can stop to wonder if they make any sense, we've already gotten used to them.

More than anything else, though, the pacing gives April and the Extraordinary World the feeling of a great swashbuckler. It is, first and foremost, an exceptionally fun movie, starting with its playful credits and moving all the way through the untrustworthy handsome boys, flying houses, and camera-wielding rats that April encounters on the way. It's all a gratifyingly straightforward adventure, given particular energy by the old-fashioned animation choices used to bring it to life, and it's every bit the equal to all of the bigger family movies that have made so much more noise this year.

8/10

* * * * *

The Little Prince - originally reviewed 5 August

It is the end of a long, baffling journey to American audiences for The Little Prince, an English-language French-made animated feature that has been waiting since the 2015 Cannes Film Festival for this moment. A substantial hit in most of the markets where it opened across 2015, the film was scheduled for release in the United States on March 18, 2016, but for reasons still unknown, distributor Paramount got cold feet at the very last minute, and cancelled the release entirely on March 11. A few days later, Netflix rode to the movie's rescue, and now the film has finally started streaming (alongside a perfunctory New York/Los Angeles release to qualify it for awards consideration).

To say that it's been worth the effort is wildly insufficient: The Little Prince turns out to be a wonderfully beguiling, visually inventive animated feature that easily ranks among the year's best (given the Academy’s anti-Netflix bias, I can't imagine the film actually secure a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, though I can easily imagine it being better than all five movies that do). It admirable pays tribute to the philosophical playfulness and melancholy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's legendary children's-book-that's-secretly-for-adults which forms its base and provides the title, though I'm not sure we can actually call it an "adaptation". It's more of a tribute to the experience of reading the book and attempting to grapple with its solemn message than it is a straight narrative retelling, which proves to be a very successful way of handling the material. At any rate, it's an obvious labor of love for director Mark Osborne, whose great affection for the book and desire to share it underpins everything that happens in the movie.

Taking place in what I suppose is suburban France (almost all of the writing we see is in French, anyway), The Little Prince centers on a little girl (Mackenzie Foy) who has been studying with indescribably intensity to get into a highly prestigious private school. To further this end, her mother (Rachel McAdams) has organized summer into a joy-free zone of constant, regimented work. All of this is complicated by the old aviator (Jeff Bridges) who lives next door to the house the mother and daughter have just purchased; he takes a much freer, more imagination-focused idea of childhood, and when he accidentally ends up involved in the little girl's life, he starts to tell her a story of another young person he has known. This was a little prince (Riley Osborne) who traveled from a small asteroid to the Sahara, where he met the aviator, and, well, the rest is one of the bestselling books of the 20th Century.

Sight unseen, the addition of a framework narrative seemed like a surefire mistake; it has, on the contrary, turned into an enormous success. Screenwriters Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti have infused their original material with a perfect modern-day interpretation of Saint-Exupéry's musings about the gap between adult sense and childhood creativity, turning the film into a gentle but unyielding satire on the modern tendency towards micro-managed childhood schedules and the belief that the purpose of an education is to become a productive member of a capitalist society, rather than to learn for the pure joy of learning. This is all achieved with a keen sense of humor rather than a clucking sense of disapproval: Osborne, has an excellent sense of comic timing in animation, and The Little Prince is full of carefully-chosen camera angles (including several unexpected and clever birds-eye view shots) and slightly delayed character reactions to let the film's jokes bubble up organically rather than fling them at us like he's firing a gag cannon (as in, for example, the same director's Kung Fu Panda; a terrifically funny film, but not so warm and knowing in its comedy).

The film that results from this has its cake and eats it: it's a contemporary-style CGI feature that has the stately pacing and sincere sensibility of a much more delicately handicrafted piece of animated art. Which, for the record, it also is: the interludes dedicated to the original book bring it to life in the form of almost indescribably beautiful paper animation, with characters molded from paper clay. It's an inventive way of putting us inside the pages of the book, and it provides an important contrast between the slick, glossy CGI textures (which are, at times, not great: the aviator in particular feels made of plastic, not flesh, especially his eerily unmoving beard) and the more idiosyncratic book sequences, which are thus both aesthetically and stylistically set apart from the hyper-modern culture that the film opposes to steadfastly.

Besides, they're extraordinarily beautiful: if The Little Prince had nothing to offer but the effect of translucent colored paper aglow from backlighting, that would be quite sufficient for me to declare it a great animated movie. It even makes its not-too-expensive CGI look beautiful, stylizing it just enough that it feels usefully unreal - the glowering, corpselike school board deciding the little girl's fate at the beginning of the movie, for example, or the rigid boxes and ninety-degree objects that dominate the anonymous suburb where the little girl is to learn all about how to be a productive, generic member of society.

There are a few missteps along the way, including a lengthy stretch in the second half where the film tries to essentially write a sequel to the original book, and turns a bit too much into a generic kids action movie, though it manages to recover in the final scenes. And besides, even this rather unlikable part of the movie boasts some amazing dark fantasy design concepts, recalling Osborne's great Oscar-nominated short More. Beyond that, I can't think of any place the film puts it foot wrong: besides the pleasant humor and intelligent use of the medium, it boasts likable, distinctive characters (even with their absence of proper names). It's perhaps too overinvested in the "in my day..." attitude towards childhood play for all tastes, but it's nonetheless a handsome and sweet tribute to childhood imagination that deserves far more than direct-to-streaming purgatory.

8/10