30 January 2011


Ray Schmit's contribution to the Carry On Campaign was in service to seeing a review of one of his favorite childhood movies. Which is, I think, dangerous ground, but in this case I happened to rather like the movie he picked, though it was by no means part of my own childhood. You lucked out this time, Ray.

Given that every filmmaker was at some point a child, you'd assume that movies about childhood would be common; they are not. Or I should correct myself, good movies about childhood are not common. Movies about childhood that are usually sickeningly sweet affairs, with moronic adventure-comedy plotlines and improbably cunning dialogue and, increasingly, horrible pop music interludes - these are common.

But a movie about the life and times of children that is sincere, well-made, non-spastic, and, if you're lucky, honest (though that's really starting to ask too much of a grown-up screenwriter), now that is a rare find indeed and worth tending with some gentleness and affection. The Sandlot, from 1993, is by no means a perfect film about childhood: the second half begins to drift rather horribly into just the kind clumsy, overly big comic adventure showcase that the first half so easily avoids. Yet it is good, with flashes of very good, overlaid with a particularly thick wash of nostalgia that stubbornly refuses to go obnoxiously cloying. It's a nice film, that's what it is, a nice film that looks at the state of suburban American childhood in the early 1960s, the filmmakers thinking to themselves with a nod and a tiny smile, "Yes, I remember being a kid. I liked it."

Set in the San Fernando Valley in 1962, The Sandlot is the years-later reminiscence of a boy named Scotty Smalls (played by Tom Guiry on screen, and by director David Mickey Evans as narrtor) of the summer he and his mother (Karen Allen) and his emotionally distant stepfather (Dennis Leary) moved; almost totally ignorant as to anything and everything involved in the sport of baseball, Scotty nonetheless decides that his best and only hope of making friends is to pitch in with the kids who play a never-ending pick-up game in a large vacant lot in the neighborhood. His profound lack of skills or basic knowledge (in an early bit of foreshadowing, we learn that he's never heard of noted player Babe Ruth) makes him a laughingstock with the other boys at first, but when the sandlot's finest and seemingly oldest player, Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), stands up for him and shows him the basics, Scotty becomes fully ensconced within this merry family of boys, sharing with them the idle adventures of a summer that, pace grown-up Scotty's enthusiastic narration, doesn't seem to be particularly significant or epochal to anybody but the nine boys involved. Which is precisely why it matters.

Essentially, The Sandlot tills in precisely the same fields as the arguably better-known A Christmas Story: a tremendously, even naïvely nostalgic look at Those Good Old Days When Things Were Simpler, narrated by the adult version of the main character, following the course of one season, laid out as a series of light comic events almost all centered around baseball, rather than one overriding narrative arc (The Sandlot goes even farther in this vein than A Christmas Story, which is loosely tied together by the protagonist's enduring quest for a BB gun). It is, like the earlier film, a nice smooth number that goes down easy and gives you a satisfying, warm feeling; while it's hard to suppose that any American boy's summer had this exact combination of life-lessons and playful incidents, it rather feels like they all ought to; and anyway, the film is dead on, tonally if nothing else, in its depiction of the spontaneity of pre-adolescence, the kind where you just up and become friends with anyone your age that you ever meet, and where every idea that floats across your brain is omigod the very best thing you could be doing right now. It's like a Norman Rockwell painting: corny and all, but awfully charming and seductive.

Up to a point, anyway. The film cleaves very neatly into halves: the first half is everything I just described, in all of its easygoing conservatism and sentimentality and warm sense of place and every other good or bad thing you could say about a light family comedy set in a '62 where any sort of racial, economic, or political imbalance is banished outright. There are a few clunky moments: most of the child actors are no better than the absolute minimum, and their characters are thinly drawn and most easily identified by one annoying character trait or another - the angry fat one (Patrick Renna), the noisy one with glasses (Chauncey Leopardi). But mostly, it's all good fun.

The second half, an extended anecdote about the horrible incident that changed everything for the sandlot kids that summer ("the Pickle" adult Scotty keeps remembering throughout his narration, and you can always hear that capital-P that makes it clear that this one event looms large in his personal narrative), when Scotty brought his stepdad's old baseball autographed by Babe Ruth, "some woman" as the boy puts it, to the playing grounds, and promptly knocks it into a neighboring yard where a big vicious dog resides (throughout the earlier part of the movie, the dog is played in snatches by oversized puppets, neatly visualising the tendency of childhood memories to make everything bigger than it really was). So begins a grinding series of comic attempts to retrieve the ball - I can only honestly think of them as hijinks. Hijinks! No other word promises funniness is coming, only for the fact to be profoundly, aggressively unfunny.* And when hijinks ensue,The Sandlot runs with abandon straight from "Soothing Americana" to "Crazy sci-fi parody with vacuum cleaners", and then comes the burly chase scene that is mostly noteworthy for introducing ten-year-olds since 1993 to the immortal strains of The Surfaris' "Wipe Out".

Facts are facts, and The Sandlot at no point till now has eschewed the silly joke or the over-the-top moment; but the completeness of the tonal shift that happens at this point still manages to throw the film off the rails and firmly turns what has been a fairly evocative and pleasing family film into a good-enough kiddie picture; and while the distinction between "kiddie picture" and "family film" might seem pedantic, it's of great importance. Eventually, the tone shifts back, but by then the damage is done; and really, the tone has only barely shifted back before a tremendously stupid finale in the American Graffiti mold, the "let me now tell you what happened to these characters" ending. Which is fine as far as it goes (there's a counter-culture joke that's delightfully unexpected), until we find out what happened to Benny and Scotty. It could be charitably described as "squirrelly", and it leaves a nasty aftertaste for a movie that generally begins better than it ends in all respects.

But when it clicks - the close-ups where Guitry, an excellent child actor for a first timer (and the young cast-member with the most successful career, by far, after 1993), shows all the embarrassment and hopefulness of being a kid in the summer; a magnificently earnest night-game lit by Independence Day fireworks - The Sandlot is one of the best kids' films I've seen from that era; and miles better than most of the hideousness that passes as kids' films today. It has a naturalness and sincerity that serve it well, and a sturdy classicism that has allowed it to age with far more grace than plenty of its fmore self-consciously pop-culture savvy brethren.

27 January 2011


"When you're looking at me, you're looking at country," proclaims Sissy Spacek's Loretta Lynn in 1980's Coal Miner's Daughter, a movie that suffers from its share of dramatic problems, but understands every inch of that statement and what drove that woman to make it. "I won't stay down long, 'cause I'm country strong," sings Gwyneth Paltrow's Kelly Canter in Country Strong, looking for that same iconic register, but not finding it. The simple fact is, though everybody clearly did their homework and is doing all the can to get all the notes right, it feels like the people making Country Strong don't actually understand country music; worse still, like they don't take it seriously enough to deem it worthy of understanding.

I do not know, of course, whether writer-director Shana Feste has any particular feelings towards country music at all, though I do know that her main inspiration in creating Kelly and her thorny personal history was Britney Spears. Which, we can all agree, does not bode well for the film's country music bona fides. But pressing on: Kelly Canter, we soon learn, is a massive star just about ending her stint in rehab, after a horrible night of onstage drunkenness in Dallas resulted in the near-end of her career and the end of her five-month pregnancy. Her manager husband, James (Tim McGraw), thinks she's ready for a comeback tour; her lover, Beau (Garrett Hedlund), a small-time singer and writer working as an orderly at the rehab center, disagrees. But James get what James wants, and they're soon off on a multi-city tour, with Beau on hand to act as opening act alongside beauty queen Chiles (rhymes with "miles") Stanton (Leighton Meester), whose desire to be a great pop country star almost outweighs her crippling stagefright. Also along for the ride is a quail chick that Kelly was tending in rehab, that James has since taken over.

Thus begins a massively undernourished four-pronged character study, a perplexing blend of threadbare narrative tropes assembled without any imagination or, crucially, any fun: though early on, it feels like some of the plot elements are going to be treated with campy absurdity (Chiles's broadly-painted neuroses, or that damn bird), it becomes increasingly clear that Feste doesn't really have the self-assurance - or, frankly, the talent - to play with the material at all. There's no way to keep a plot with this many drunken diva meltdowns from being at least a little campy, mind you, but the film's tone is too relentlessly mortuary for it to justify itself much at all on those grounds.

As the plot grinds along, it becomes harder and harder to state with any certainty that we know anything about any of these characters - least of all James, who goes from domineering puppet-master to deeply concerned husband and back in the span of a scene - or that there's anything to know about them at all. This is very much the kind of script in which a detail will be trotted out because it adds some oomph to this one scene, but its ability to cast a light on what we already know about the characters, or to influence what we later think of them, is entirely negligible. Whether it's James sexual revulsion with Kelly, Beau's disgust with commercial music, or Chiles's... so many things about Chiles, details pile up arbitrarily and without any impact. These characters aren't complete, they are a bunch of ideas in search of some connecting tissue (not to keep harping on it, but James especially is a problem: when that much drama is driven a character that the movie simply cannot make up its mind about, the story is going to suffer for it, end of story).

That leaves the movie's qualities as a country musical: and I'll say this much for the decent-sized chunk of original songs: they sound the part, more or less. The much-publicised title track is much the weakest of them all, consisting as it does of seemingly endless repetitions of the line "I'm country strong!" following a single chorus, but Kelly's big end-of-movie showstopper "Coming Home" isn't too bad (which was enough to get it an Oscar nomination); I think I'd have to go with "Timing Is Everything", presented in the movie as proof of Kelly's sublime ability to write lyrics on the spur of the moment (itself one of those character details that crops up for no reason and vanishes, only to reappear for no reason when Kelly visits a kid with leukemia; a scene that further includes the strangest & most inexplicable example of James's emotional constipation in the whole movie. It just keeps building and building like that, one entirely meaningless splat of character after another, for the whole movie), as the one that sounds the most like an actual country song.

Paltrow and Hedlund both sound like they practiced quite a lot to sound as country as they could: Hedlund's gravelly Kris Kristofferson knock-off voice is a little on the silly side, but Paltrow actually acquits herself rather better than anyone ought to have predicted (Meester is playing a character meant to have a thin, pop-friendly voice, and succeeds). Shockingly, McGraw is given no chance at all to sing - maybe it was the fear that he'd overshadow the others? I don't really know - but beyond that, at least Country Strong sounds alright.

And if you're listening to the album and not watching the movie, that's surely enough. But the movie itself, that's a different thing. After two hours of the thing, it's never clear whether Feste actually like country music; but I can't shake the feeling that she views the whole scene as a little bit tacky. And mercenary: Author Stand-In Beau gets a couple big moments where he pouts about how shitty and false country has gotten since the great old voices have died out, and though she tries to give all the main characters equal time, Feste certainly agrees that Chiles, embodiment of New Country, is at best an object of high-spirited derision. Which is fair (I tend to agree that country has been on a steady if gradual downswing since the '70s), but a bit snitty, and with the non-singing moments of Paltrow's performance coming across as supercilious as they do, it's awfully tempting to say that Country Strong feels that it's better than the culture it depicts. Any way you cut it, that's a deadly place for a movie to find itself: not just because nobody wants a smug movie, but because it's a surefire recipe for insincerity. Which Country Strong, awash in one achingly melodramatic moment with exactly no emotional impact after another, is to its very bones: staggeringly insincere. Hate country music or love it, you can't say that it's anything but completely earnest, so that insincerity might be the most annoying thing of all about the film.


26 January 2011


Just a quick note so that everyone knows I'm not dead, though I'd kind of prefer it. I have been struck done with a real wicked flu, the kind that makes it take all my available energy just to write something short like this. But no fear, my review of Country Strong is hovering just in the future. Because I'm certain you can't wait to hear about that.

25 January 2011


Rather than lard up the front page with redundant posts, I'm going to add my thoughts about today's announcement - available here - to my now completely useless predictions post. New thoughts are in red.

I went 82/105 with my predictions (39/45 in the Big Eight), plus another 11 (4) where my first alternate got nominated. This is by a huge margin my best year ever, and proof, I think, of how intensely flat awards season has been this year.

Previously: After having sat out last year in a snit about the general anemia of the whole damn thing, I am back to join the fun of guessing what Tuesday's Oscar nominations shall bring. Commentary as seems necessary; and if you are for whatever reason looking for advice in winning some kind of pool, I'd advise you to look elsewhere. Last time I did this, I only got 68/99 - a decent batting average, but nothing to be too proud of. I only wish I'd gotten off my damn high horse last year, so I could have been one of the fairly small clutch of people predicting that ugly Blind Side nom for Best Picture; it would have raised my street cred something fierce. On the right kind of street.

24 January 2011


It is now become a tradition that on the night before the Oscar nominations, I present my own nominees for what I once called "If I Ran the Oscars" and now call "The Antagonists", which name I prefer because it gets at the real point of these: which is to be contrary for the sake of it. Anyway, below the jump, all the films & performances & works of craft I'd want to see rewarded if I had the ability to do anything real about it.

The nominations and a brief word in their praise follow; the winners come the night before the Oscars.


Somewhere in all the swampiness of wasted acting talent and artificially-flavored heteronormativity and a terror of sex that masks itself in acres of naked movie star flesh and filty dialogue, No Strings Attached is hiding a deep, dark secret: it's actually not that bad.

It's not that good either, of course. There's little hope for a romantic comedy starring a talent vacuum like Ashton Kutcher, above and beyond the apparent inability of anyone working in the Hollywood film industry to craft even a semi-credible romcom these days; the January release date seals it. But just often enough, there's a single line of dialogue here or a truly effective acting choice there that suggests that underneath the soulless crust, something recognisably human is buried inside the movie, if only we can be patient and nurture it. Not being a patient man, I am still quite eager to call No Strings Attached a failure; but only a failure, and not the grim, joyless train-wreck that it's so easy to expect from just about everything there is to know about the film.

The hook: Emma (Natalie Portman) is a med student. Adam (Kutcher) is a P.A. on a television show that one suspects was pitched as High School Musical: The Series. They have a history: 15 years ago, Adam made a humiliating pass at Emma at summer camp; 5 years ago, they bumped into one another at a fraternity party and he accompanied her to her father's funeral the next day; one year ago, they discovered that each was living in Los Angeles and swapped phone numbers. All of this is laid out by the film with aggravating slowness over the course of a first act that will not get started with any sort of efficiency, and if you think that 110 minutes seems like an awful lot of time for a paint-by-numbers romcom, guess what: you're absolutely right, and it's shit like this that makes those 110 minutes crawl by like an inchworm on a cold day.

But I was talking about the hook: Emma and Adam are fucking. How exactly they are fucking is immaterial; it's one of the things the movie lays out with a deliberateness of exposition that would have made Leo Tolstoy cough and look at his wristwatch out of the corner of his eye. I'M SORRY. I won't keep harping on how goddamn slow the movie is, but it is one of the chief responsibilities of a comedy to scintillate and bubble and race by at a goodly pace; No Strings Attached almost deserves to be called light drama in this regard.

At any rate, the kids are fucking, and they have a very strict set of rules to make sure they don't fall in love. Most of these were put in place at Emma's insistence, since she has a pronounced emotional block that causes her to fear emotional intimacy more than anything else in the world, for no particular reason other than to enable the plot. There's a late stab at sort of explaining it, but it is both feeble and entirely unconvincing. In the meantime, Adam can't help himself but tumble head over heels. See how crazy it is? You thought it's predictable, but it's not! It's the guy who wants to be all cozy and romantic, and the girl who just wants sex!! Man, those filmmakers sure tricked me!

You know how it ends, of course, but predictability is not the problem here. Okay, it's kind of the problem. But I'm mostly annoyed at how fiendishly No Strings Attached wants to be a bold and brassy tale of sex among the twentysomethings, but ends up being petrified of honest-to-God no strings attached screwing around. The casualness with which most of Kutcher and a lot of Portman get splashed up on the screen, plus screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether's joy at placing dirty words in Portman's mouth - pretty girls cursing is quite edgy now, you know - both tell us that the film is a frank, sex-positive romp; but it is not. The idea underpinning every story beat seems to be: "sex is fun, but if you want to have something meaningful that will keep you from being filled with hate and self-loathing for all your life, it's cuddling with all your clothes on, that's the ticket". And that's not to dismiss cuddling. It's delightful. But there comes a point where American films' abject terror of actually praising sex gets frustrating. Anyway, I'll get another shot at this paragraph when Friends with Benefits comes out in July, so I ought to pace myself.

Its squeamish sexuality aside, the biggest problem with No Strings Attached is simply that it works neither as a narrative nor - more importantly - as a funny narrative. In no small part, it's because Emma is a completely opaque character: we never really get inside her head in any meaningful way. It's also because Meriwether's dialogue is coarse without being clever and Ivan Reitman's directing is very Reitmany. You know, he sort of pounces on the jokes and stomps them like a cockroach. When was his last good movie, anyway? Dave? Because that was a long damn time ago.

And the cast doesn't or can't do much: Cary Elwes just sort of pokes his head up and collects a paycheck, while Kevin Kline manages to wring all the fun he can from the part of Adam's incredibly shitty dad. Greta Gerwig and Olivia Thirlby appear and get nothing to do and thereby get to fund their appearances in more interesting, smaller movies. Kutcher is horrible, because that's just what he does: if he read from the King James Bible he'd somehow be able to make it smarmy. Portman has been getting a lot of flack for appearing in this right in the midst of her Oscar run (which is kind of a weird thing to criticise her for), but if anything, the film is further proof of her talents. It cannot be easy to emerge from that kind of wantonly under-written character and also spend that much time rubbing against Kutcher, and still have virtually all of your dignity intact.

But back to my opening sentiment: this could all be so much worse. It's not that No Strings Attached is awful, it's just completely neutered. A pity, given the concept: can you imagine what a great comedy director in the screwball days could have done with the story of two people who accidentally let personal feelings get in the way of their sexual relationship? You know, back in the days when actual perversity and neurosis was allowed to worm its way in between the lovers? Actually, you don't have to imagine, you can just go rent Trouble in Paradise, Ernst Lubitsch's outrageously sexual 1932 crime farce. It's better than No Strings Attached and it's almost half an hour shorter. You're welcome.


23 January 2011


The second of two reviews request by Kara Wild with her donations to the Carry On Campaign; the first is here.

Well do I remember when The Prince of Egypt opened: for it was 18 December, 1998, which happened to be my 17th birthday, and I recall my mother asking if I wanted to see it.* I scorned this idea, of course, but for exactly the wrong reason: not because I was taken up in those days pot and surreptitious drinking and sex, and nice, normal things like that, but because I had already chosen my side in the Disney/DreamWorks war, and I wasn't going to see no god-damned Jeff Katzenberg movie, the fucker.

Don Bluth's departure from the Walt Disney Company in the late '70s might have been prickly and contentious, but it didn't have anything on the bile-soaked blood feud between CEO Michael Eisner and studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that came to a head in 1994, shortly before the release of Katzenberg's greatest financial triumph at Disney, The Lion King. A man of his enviable talents would not remain untethered for long, and before the year was over Katzenberg had joined forces with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form a new entertainment company, DreamWorks SKG. Katzenberg's presence meant that DreamWorks would spend plenty of energy on animated films; his personality meant that DreamWorks Animation would be devoted to the task of crushing Disney.

The first battle came in the fall of 1998, when both companies released computer-animated films about ants (according to a legend that seems too perfect to be true, John Lasseter pitched his ant movie in the very last meeting that Katzenberg attended as a Disney executive). Disney handily won that first engagement both at the box office and in history, with the aid of by Pixar Animation Studios - brought into the company fold by Katzenberg himself, which must surely have galled him - for although A Bug's Life might be oftener counted among Pixar's weakest films than its strongest, when was the last time you remember having any conversation at all about Antz?

That little scuffle was nothing at all to DreamWorks Animation's second feature, one that sought to meet and top Disney at its own game: a traditionally-animated musical about a young man finding a better life, taken from folklore. And just to be sure, it was given a budget higher than any animated film had ever received, even in the days when Disney was pitching huge amounts of money at any project that would stand still. In the end, The Prince of Egypt turned out to be the highest-grossing animated film produced by any studio other than Disney, for a little while at least. It also proved to be the start down a dead end path for DreamWorks, which tried to do the "male protagonist adventure film" thing for a few years until realising that there was much more money in unendurable slurries of pop culture jokes and soulless post-modernism. But for a little while, at least, the house that Katzenberg built was still making a good-faith effort to create sincere, engaging art.

"Good faith" - a curious term to use, for of course The Prince of Egypt is unique in being an adaptation of the first part of Exodus, making it the most overtly religious major animated film ever produced (for all its founder's all-American conservatism, Disney generally shied away from actively Christian stories). For some of us, this might not seem like such a big thing: Disney focused on medieval European fairy tales, DreamWorks was going to dabble in ancient Middle Eastern fairy tales. Not that much of a difference, really. Except that Katzenberg and company were obviously trying to pull a Passion of the Christ on their audience, making a rollicking entertainment that doubled as a spiritual lesson, at least to judge from the opening title card, which solemnly and neurotically assures us that though liberties have been taken with the letter of the story, the spirit remains the same. Oh, and the closing card, which points out using the primary texts of three different major religions that Moses is regarded as a dominant figure not just by Jews, but by Christians and Muslims as well. Which is why The Prince of Egypt was briefly banned in a few Muslim countries with particularly strict laws on creating artistic depictions of prophets, but that's mostly just trivia.

The sad fact is that The Price of Egypt is actually terrible theology, unless you define "good theology" as "carefully dabbing out all the unpalatable material in the Torah so that it won't offend modern viewers". There are, in truth, only a few specific changes to Exodus; and nearly every single one of them is designed to obscure the degree to which the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible is a mean-spirited piece of work; i.e. in the film, we are told that Pharaoh is stubborn and prideful and for this reason he will not permit the Hebrews to leave Egypt; in the source material, he several times decides to let them free, until God "hardened his heart", apparently because God wasn't done showing off. But going any further in this direction would be tedious and pointlessly confrontational of me; let it suffice to say that The Prince of Egypt is exactly as religiously correct as you anticipate from anything that Steven Spielberg signed off on.

Happily, the film taken on its own terms is nowhere near as broken as I've probably indicated so far: its biggest flaw as a movie is that it turns much too serious for its own good, though it otherwise is an entirely satisfying animated adventure story, one that would have given me pause were I a Disney exec (though it also does not suggest in any way the degree to which DreamWorks would begin stomping Disney following the release of Shrek in 2001). It suffers from what would become the chronic DreamWorks problem of casting voices based entirely on the marquee value of the actors involved, and the songs save one are on the mildewy side (they're by Stephen Schwartz, who was also one of Alan Menken's post-Ashman lyriscists in the mid-'90s; if you've ever rolled your eyes in disbelief at the candy corn inanity of "Colors of the Wind", you owe him a punch in the gut, and if you like "Colors of the Wind" you have my pity).

But it's a beautiful film, and it opens huge: a grand, soaring aerial shot over the Giza pyramid complex, where countless Hebrew slaves are singing that one good song, "Deliver Us", as the directors focus in on individual acts of torment, then dart back out for a wide view, than back; thanks to particularly dramatic and thunderous music that feels as much like an oratorio as it does like Broadway, it's all very imposing and historic and impressive. As the focus starts to tighten on a woman placing her infant son in a reed basket to save him from the Egyptian murder squads, the music becomes less portentous, more winsome and pained, as the mother sings a lullaby to her child and sends him down the river to his fate, where he's found by the Queen of Egypt (Helen Mirren), who adopts him as her own - the only significant change to the story not plainly motivated by a desire to jolly up mean ol' YHWH, the change from Pharaoh's daughter to his wife is made for purely dramatic reasons, as it then allows the story to be about two brothers having a terrible falling-out.

(About the film's directors that I so casually mentioned: none of them went on to be tremendously important forces in the world of animation, though all remain employed: Steve Hickner does storyboards at DreamWorks, Simon Wells did the same though he's directing a mo-cap film for Disney, while Brenda Chapman, the real reason I've launched into this parenthetical in the first place, has recently become dubiously famous for being punted as director of Pixar's Brave, and made history with The Prince of Egypt as the first woman to serve as director on an American animated feature).

After the mini-opera of "Deliver Us", The Prince of Egypt skips ahead and never quite comes up to the same level of visual beauty and dramatic profundity; but it also never drops so far as to become particularly problematic. In a nutshell: the adopted boy, Moses (Val Kilmer, a wildly bad choice: not because he isn't up for the acting challenge, but because he sound like he just took the bus in from Iowa) does not know that he is a Hebrew, but just accepts life as the naughty younger brother to Rameses (Ralph Fiennes), heir to the throne, and constant disappointment to the Pharaoh (Patrick Stewart, another bad choice: his voice is much too distinctive and horribly distracting, but at least he's not in the movie much).

The usual personality conflicts in any family-oriented brother vs. brother story occur; Moses finds out that he's a Hebrew and flees Egypt after accidentally killing a slave-driver; he falls in with a Midianite tribe and marries Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer, yet another bad choice: she sounds banally American despite being drawn to look "exotic"), daughter of the Midian chieftain Jethro (Danny Glover). Years pass, and Moses hears the voice of God (a melange of sounds and numerous different voices, but Kilmer's predominates; he's a better God than Moses) coming from a burning bush. And from this point on, it's pretty much exactly the story told by all three Abrahamic religions: "let my people go", ten plagues, Passover, parting the Red Sea.

As far as taking a classic piece of folklore and using it as the basis for a story of family ties and the desire to find one's place in the world, The Prince of Egypt is every bit as successful a narrative as most of Disney's movies from the same decade, though it is, like I said, a bit hamstrung by its absolute desire to be thought Very Serious and Significant. There's very little room for fun anywhere, and the designated comic relief villains, the Egyptian priests Hotep (Steve Martin) and Huy (Martin Short) are noteworthy primarily for being mostly dreadful, both in their design (they're the only cartoons in a steadfastly realistic film, or at least one where the stylisation is largely inspired by Egyptian art), and particularly in their ghastly big number, a tonally incoherent piece of comic menace that benefits from some dramatic animation and nothing else.

Still, the central nugget of the film, which is emphatically not one of spiritual awakening but of the pressure of being torn between duty and family, is entirely convincing, not least because of Fiennes's best-in-show performance, a warmly human take on a schematic literary figure. It is thanks to him above all that the matter of Moses and Rameses is shown to be a personal conflict, not a religious or political one; though the script keeps stating this over and over again, nothing in the film's depiction of Moses really makes it believable. But in Rameses, in him we can see the pain of being abandoned by a loved one, and while reducing the Exodus story to "Pharaoh was upset at Moses and took it out on the Hebrews" is terribly theology, it's remarkably compelling drama (this is all ultimately taken from the 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, but the DreamWorks version is infinitely more intimate than DeMille's starchy melodrama).

It helps everything that the characters are so convincingly animated by a great team, many of whom followed Katzenberg from Disney, some of whom returned there. At this point, DreamWorks was still trying very hard to replicate that studio, not present a new way forward, so it's hardly surprising that most of the characters feel so Disneyesque, nor that the fluidity and quality of their expression is at times the equally to anything Disney was putting out around the same time (The Prince of Egypt was released the same year as Mulan, and a year later than Hercules; the latter in particular is a fine film for many reasons, but exquisite character animation isn't clearly one of them). Again, Rameses is a highlight: even underneath his make-up, designed to further connect the film visually to Egyptian art, his feelings are quite plain. But the animators in charge of Moses pick up where Kilmer's performance never reaches, creating a sensitive figure quite the equal of his adopted brother. It's in these two gracefully-drafted characters that The Prince of Egypt finds its best footing: for all the sturm und drang all over, it's the littleness of the central humans that makes it a good film, not the epic scale - though by all means, the epic stuff is often quite good, though at times it goes a little over the top (the plague of fire is excellent; the passage of the Red Sea is kind of silly and too self-conscious, as in a moment where a whale's silhouette can be seen in the wall of water. It's meant to be dramatic, but it's mostly goofy, and though the filmmakers could not have anticipated it, recalls the already-completed "flying whales" sequence from Fantasia 2000 in a most uncomfortable way.

The Prince of Egypt is a movie made by incredibly talented people, working to put together one of the most beautiful animated films of the late 1990s; they are undone only by the certainty that they are doing something important. There needs to be a bit more oxygen, is all, and a bit less hushed awe, and definitely less distracting celebrity voices (a close second to Patrick Stewart in this regard is Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, the kind of inspired miscasting that, taken in isolation, would make the film sound almost kitschy). But as far as an exercise in working out the kinks, The Prince of Egypt could have been a great first step for DreamWorks to take. They didn't unfortunately, go in the direction promised by this film; after a few mostly harmless light entertainments in traditional animation, they embraced the dark side and a decade later, we have Megamind. It did not have to be so, and while it is no masterpiece, The Prince of Egypt makes me weep for its promise of a road not taken.

22 January 2011


Kara Wild's donations to the Carry On Campaign were in service of a double feature of animated features from a critical point in the commercial history of American animation: two competing studios' attempts to out-Disney Disney when the Mouse House was just about to topple from the position it at held for over 60 years as the dominant force in the medium. First up, the earlier of the two.

It is a story well-known to the animation buff, how Don Bluth was once the greatest rising star in the Disney Animation Studios in 1970s until his dissatisfaction with the management at that company drove him away to set up his own competing studio. Strong in the belief that it was his vision that was truly heir to Walt Disney's own beliefs about the role of animation in popular entertainment, Bluth managed for a short time to give his old company its first serious competition ever in the mid-'80s, seemingly poised to take on the title of The New Walt, unclaimed since Disney's premature death in 1967, until his former employer got its head screwed back on and roared back to life in 1989, as The Little Mermaid wiped the floor with Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, forever crushing Bluth's presence as a major player in American animation.

After that, Bluth was lost for a time, falling from distributor to distributor trying to find money to make Rock-A-Doodle, a flop that cost him his studio; for the next few years he and long-timer creative partner Gary Goldman cobbled together projects made on thin budgets with a fraction of the staff of their earlier work, on hectic schedules: Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park were both released to chilly reviews and worse box-office in 1994, showing all the expected flaws of two projects cranked out in such quick succession, and the following year's The Pebble and the Penguin was no better.

The light at the end of this tunnel came when Bluth was hired by 20th Century Fox to kickstart their own animation studio, attempting to steal some more of Disney's thunder. Traditional animation was big business in the mid-'90s: over a five-year span, Disney had released four movies which all set new box-office records for the artform, and was starting to look like a juggernaut. Who better to combat Disney than one of Disney's lost sons, went the reasoning, and thus it was that Bluth was given resources the likes of which he hadn't had since breaking off with executive producer Steven Spielberg a decade earlier. A beaten-down Bluth no longer fought the paradigm that the Disney Renaissance had carved into stone, and so his first project with Fox had all the Disney trimmings: a lost princess, a magical villain, Broadway-style song and dance numbers, a love story, and a hypnotically inappropriate connection to reality. This was Anastasia, the latest telling of the oft-told tale of a young woman posing as the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last imperial ruler of Russia (it was 20th Century's Fox's own second version of the story, though 1956's Anastasia has little to do with 1997's).

Though nobody could have known it at the time, 1995 marked the end of Disney's megalithic dominance, and ultimately of the prominence of the decades-old form of cel-style animation itself. 1995's Pocahontas was the first stumble for the old masters, followed by a quick succession of movies that underperformed commercially and were met with unenthusiastically positive reviews of the "Well, this is okay, but what happened to The Lion King?" variety. Thus, when Anastasia was released in November, 1997, it was accompanied by the feeling that maybe the time had come to give somebody else a try at this animation thing. The film was accordingly met with mostly solid reviews and the best box-office returns of Bluth's career, and seemed like a good start for Fox Animation Studios and a return to the salad days for the director - directors, I should say, for by this point Bluth and Goldman were receiving equal credit on all their films. A mere three years later, Titan A.E. killed both of these dreams, but now is not the time for that; now, let us sit with Bluth and Goldman in the full glow of their last triumph.

As I mentioned, Anastasia is Bluth's most overt attempt to pull a Disney, right down to the structure. There's a narrated prologue in which Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Angela Lansbury) recounts the fall of the Russian Empire to the Bolsheviks, introducing all of the characters; then the title appears as the camera glides through the sky in "present day" (1926) St. Petersburg, where a big musical number tells us all we need to know about the state of the plot, after which we're introduced to Anya (Meg Ryan), an 18-year-old living in an orphanage with no memory going back far enough to reveal what we already know: she is Anastasia, last of the Romanovs. Cue the Yearning Song.

Sometimes it's obvious and sometimes it's not how much the opening 20 minutes of Anastasia owe to Disney's Beauty and the Beast; I'd say it owes even more to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though given the lead time of animation, I'd it's quite impossible that the 1996 film could have influenced Bluth and Goldman in anything but incidentals. But the point here is not to accuse anyone of being unimaginative, but to simply point out that Anastasia is basically a Disney movie - one with a darker villain than Disney would have been comfortable with, one with a specific historical context largely unknown in Disney, and one with more wall-to-wall celebrity voices than Disney had used up to that point, but it wouldn't take much to convince somebody that this was Disney.

Which may be a disappointment to those of us waiting with baited breath for The Secret of NIMH reborn, but it's not really such a bad thing. Disney got where it did in the mid-'90s by being absolutely fantastic, after all. Anastasia is not absolutely fantastic, but it's more than good enough. In fact, the movie's greatest single sin might be the unconscionable hatchet job it makes of history, arguably a worse case of Disneyfication than anything Disney ever perpetrated (and I am not forgetting Pocahontas). A lot of the changes made are invisibly small: Maria Feodorovna lived in Denmark, not France, after the revolution, which occurred in 1917, not 1916, when Anastasia was 15, not 8 (this last is not of course a small change, but a forgivable one necessitated by the Princess Film formula which the filmmakers were so eagerly adopting). Some of the changes are insane: here, the Revolution was caused because the mad monk Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) was in a huff that the Romanovs had dissed him socially, and so he used his contract with Satan to stir up the peasants, before dying in the Revolution and brooding in Limbo until his curse that all the Romanovs must die could be fulfilled. It's also kind of perverse to open the main plot of the film with a big-ass musical number in which all of the comrades of Leningrad "St. Petersburg" could sing and dance about how much they had to keep secrets from the Soviet government - though look for the words "Soviet" or "Communist" in Anastasia and you'll look in vain.

And while all that is true, I'm somehow inclined to overlook it; or at least to box it up in a handy "yes, but". Yes, but the movie is first and foremost a fairy tale about a princess, and frankly its connection to real world events is so tenuous that it really doesn't even register as being factually inspired. Besides, I have a hard time imagining that most people wouldn't be able to figure out at a fairly young age that most of Anastasia is what was called, in an age when genres were a bit different, "historical romance". Really, the only unchecked lie in the whole movie is that Anastasia Nikolaevna lived past 1918, and that's not really the kind of ahistorical sin that matters: the whole "Anastasia lost and found" legend is the Early 20th Century Studies version of following the sexual travails of Snooki and JWoww.

So yes, the movie: a perfectly serviceable and charming story with an ending you can predict from all the way at the first scene. The con-men Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer) will reunite Anastasia with the Dowager Empress, but not before Dimitri falls in love and discovers that she's the actual, for-real Anastasia, and not an idiot fraud. We attend to some stories for the tale, and some for the telling, and in this case it's Bluth and company's skill as artists, as well as some of the better celebrity voice casting in an animated movie of the 1990s, that give Anastasia its merit.

Admittedly, the animation is not as great as it could be: the animation team was not as experienced as in Bluth's best films, to say nothing of Disney's work at the same time, but it's not at all hard to look at. While clearly trying to remind people of Disney - Anastasia's eyes are right out of the post-Ariel character model so popular at that studio - most of the character design has an angular quality uncommon in American animation in those days, something just personal enough that you can tell there's a difference. I might have very little use for Dimitri's design in particular (he's kind of scrunchy and the animators have a hell of a time communicating emotion with his face), but at least he's not the exact same dully handsome male lead present in just about every Disney film of the Renaissance years. There are other flaws: Anastasia pre- and post- being made a pretty lady (signified by a dress just different enough from the one Ariel first wears as a human in The Little Mermaid that you can't accuse them of plagiarism) has a noticeably different facial structure, and much of the character movement suffers from a problem common to Bluth films, where the acting is just too broad, as though everyone was in a silent film.

That's all offset by the pleasing colors, the ambitious and surprisingly successful use of CGI effects - it took Disney years to perfect that - and some of the more imaginative moments, like the Parisian musical number in which the backgrounds are inspired by different styles of French art. Styles 30 years out-of-date, but that's a nitpick.Anastasia really looks good: a nice chaser for people who know and love Disney but want something just different enough that it's not uncomfortable. That mostly describes everything else about the movie, save for the Bluthian addition of some genuine darkness (Rasputin is a rotting corpse for most of the movie, enough so that in this day and age, Anastasia would undoubtedly be slapped with a "PG" rating).

It's a light entertainment, but still fully entertaining. The songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (better known for their stage musicals Once on This Island and Ragtime) are pretty good for a late-'90s original movie musical: I especially enjoy the energy of the aforementioned Yearning Song "Journey to the Past" (itself a somewhat unconventional version of the trope, in that the heroine is active, rather than passive), as well as the aforementioned townspeople's exposition song "A Rumor in St. Petersburg", while the leitmotif "Once Upon a December" is a surprisingly moving minor-key ballad that provides one of the most visually beautiful scenes in the film. The other songs are a bit spotty: in particularly, the villain song "In the Dark of the Night" sounds like someone's wholly inept attempt to copy Jim Steinman.

The script is amusing and reasonably clean; it would have undoubtedly worked better with the whole magical villain element dropped, which would have among other things saved the film from a climax that sputters to life rather arbitrarily. The performances are, perhaps surprisingly, mostly good, if a little distracting: while John Cusack is better than I tend to think he should be in the role of a jerk-ass hero, he's always plainly John Cusack, a fate that also befalls Grammer and Lloyd (though not Ryan, perhaps because she is better-identified by her face than her voice). It's not an ambitious film, but one that simply wanted to compete successfully in a rough marketplace, and Bluth cared enough about his craft to make sure that it would do so with dignity and beauty. Thirteen years after I saw it for the first and only time, I was shocked by how much of the film I remembered, and not without enthusiasm; a clearer sign that it's not as shallow as it might seem, I cannot imagine.

21 January 2011


Being a concerned friend, when Mark Kreutzer donated to the Carry On Campaign, it was with the express intent of filling a terrible gap in my 1980s romantic-comedy education. To which I can only say that I now owe him a debt of gratitude; for quite a gap it was, and glad I am to have learned better.

The mobster comedy is a noble old form that goes back into the 1930s, hitting such heights as Ball of Fire and Some Like It Hot; but despite the frequent appearance of the Mob as a comedic foil in comedies throughout Hollywood's golden age, the subgenre began to dry up in the years of Coppola and Scorsese; as though, now that the mobster drama had become a truly artistic style, it seemed unfair or, God help us, inappropriate, to poke fun at gangsters and their ways. Now, with actors like Robert De Niro happily (or unhappily) parodying their own tough-guy status in comedies and comic action films, it might seem odd to even bring it up, but the 1980s were a low point for the form, which was only revitalized - critically, at least - when Jonathan Demme, a director known neither then nor now for being terribly concerned with generic throwbacks, directed a neo-screwball mob picture that helped to make a star out a promising 30-year-old actress named Michelle Pfeiffer. Married to the Mob is not a great motion picture, but it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch, thanks to a damn sturdy cast and a director with a sublime ability to make fluff seem deeper than it really is.

Thought its plot is twisty and gnarled, the hook is quite straightforward: Angela de Marco (Pfeiffer) is the wife of a high-level mafia enforcer, "Cucumber" Frank (Alec Baldwin, looking all of 16 years old), and she pretty much hates the life. So when Frank is offed for sleeping with the boss's mistress - that's Tony "The Tiger" Russo (Dean Stockwell), as wiry and unpredictable as a movie don has ever been - Angela sees it as her chance to escape with her kids to an anonymous hidey-hole in a particularly crappy corner of Brooklyn. Unfortunately for her, Tony is smitten with his late employee's widow, and he tracks her down in no time flat, as do FBI agents Mike Downey (Matthew Modine) and Ed Benitez (Oliver Platt), who move into the apartment upstairs from Angela to set-up a recon post. With all due predictability, Mike, disguised as a plumber, falls in love with Angela, while Tony's intensely jealous wife Connie (Mercedes Ruehl) starts to harass the woman she's convinced is trying to steal the boss.

The difference between Married to the Mob, the tedious mob comedy in line with Wise Guys from two years earlier, and Married to the Mob, the disarming and delightful film that holds up surprisingly well after more than two decades, is that the script by Barry Strugatz & Mark R. Burns (who re-teamed the following year for She-Devil and thereafter faded into obscurity), or at least Demme's treatment of it, is a classically-structured farce. Oh, sure, a farce decked out in '80s trappings and cultural references, but the exact manner in which complications are layered one atop the next, as lies and misunderstandings compound, only to be swept away by an incredibly busy final sequence (which is in and of itself one of the great extended comic exercises of the 1980s), is very much in keeping with a style of comic storytelling that has never been entirely forgotten, though its cinematic peak was decades before Married to the Mob was produced.

Married to the Mob's revision to a late-'30s idiom of comedy, blended with a frank contemporary attitude, required a very deft and energetic hand, which Demme provided with great success. One of the director's great skills throughout his career has been the way he fills his frame with details, and the busy story is accompanied by an equally busy mise en scène that visually reinforces the hectic goings-on; not to mention the director's usual attentive ear for how music can reinforce the energy of his movies (the score is by David Byrne of the Talking Heads, the subject of Demme's excellent 1984 concert documentary Stop Making Sense; singer Chris Isaak appears in a small but memorable role). The opening scene, set to Rosemary Clooney's mob movie stalwart "Mambo Italiano", is a typical example of how the movie operates: a bubbly sound mix married to breezy but not over-fast editing, with the camera settling in just when it needs to to capture the right dialogue to keep the movie speeding on without overloading us with information. Generally speaking, the movie is a perfect example of how tight directing can give a funny, shallow movie all the oomph it needs to remain memorable; though it's not a film that one would use as a showpiece of Demme's skills, it's impossible not to be aware of his touches throughout, constantly elevating the material.

Beside excellent direction, the film is blessed with its cast: virtually nobody is off except for Modine, who was still recovering from the emotionally brutal Full Metal Jacket shoot, which perhaps explains why he spends all of Married to the Mob looking a bit shell-shocked. Otherwise, everybody is excellent, though there are three performances in particular that rise above and beyond the occasion. Of these, it's Ruehl's performance that needs the most added attention: as a broad caricature of Italian-American womanhood - and Ruehl does not challenge or rise above this caricature, it must be said, but one of the chief problems of Married to the Mob is the, um, enthusiasm with which every moment of the film indulges in stereotypes - Ruehl is convincingly messy and funny, while managing to gather every gasp of sympathy she can pull in for a woman who is, after all, the most consistently wronged character in the whole picture. Stockwell received a few nominations, including at the Oscars, for his great work as a mob boss, finding a delicate balance between violent excess and idiocy, creating a credibly dangerous villain who never threatens the light comedy of the movie, and does it all deliciously far from his comfort zone. The best in show, however, must be Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of the key performances in her run of films in the '80s and '90s that established her a bona fide movie star (in the same year, she co-starred in Dangerous Liaisons; The Fabulous Baker Boys was just over the horizon). It's a somewhat atypical role for the actress, but one she nailed: indeed, it's her steely combination of wits, determination, romanticism, and the ability to work her way around a snappy line of dialogue that put me in mind of the great screwball comediennes of the '40s and first clued me in to the debt Married to the Mob owed to that excellent tradition.

All in all, it's an excellent bit of fun, almost entirely disposable; still, there's no denying the huge piles of talent onboard, and a funny comedy is never a thing to dismiss outright. Time has been inordinately kind to Married to the Mob; I'm sorry it took me 22 years to catch up with, and I think it likely that 22 years hence it will still be every bit as sparkling and delightful as it remains today.

20 January 2011


There's a line from the Citizen Kane trailer (an exuberantly weird little number, consisting of Orson Welles introducing us to all the cast members) that I like to reference whenever I can: "Dorothy Comingore is a name I'm going to repeat: Dorothy Comingore. I won't have to repeat it much longer, you'll be repeating it." Welles rather misjudged the degree to which his little picture would jumpstart the actress's career, but I like the spirit of it anyway, and in that spirit:

David Michôd is a name I'm going to repeat: David Michôd. I won't have to repeat it much longer, you'll be repeating it.

Michôd isn't a Hollywood starlet, but an Australian writer-director, and his first feature, Animal Kingdom, is the most amazingly self-assured debut in quite a long time. It's a crime drama, and plenty of first-time directors have started off with crime dramas, especially in the last 15-odd years, but most of them do not step forth so fully-formed, handling the raw materials of cinema as though they were born to do it. And while Animal Kingdom is not a perfect movie, it's a perfect version of itself, which is really the most we can ever ask of any work of art.

Inspired by the 1988 murder of two Melbourne police officers, Michôd's story centers on Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), a 17-year-old whose mother dies of a heroin overdose in more or less the first seconds of the film. Actually, Animal Kingdom's first, rather long, shot is of the Australian edition of Deal or No Deal playing on a rinky-dink TV, a bold opening gambit that establishes the shallow, easy-money-worshipping middle-class lives of its characters (all the more so when we find out that J is watching the show sitting next to his mother's corpse, though it's not certain that he knows she'd dead). And from then on, it's off to the races as J ends up moving in with his grandmother, a tiny, grizzled woman named Janine, who universally goes by "Smurf" (Jacki Weaver), and her sons: Andrew, or "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), an armed robber and one of the most wanted men in Melbourne, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a drug dealer in bed with the police narcotic force, and Darren (Luke Ford), barely older than J himself, who idolises his brothers. Along with Pope's friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), the whole clan mostly hides out in an overstuffed home, hiding from the police and being driven to an extreme even worse than their already edgy idling state.

To give away more would be a disservice to Michôd's excellent machine (and even as it is, I've really only described the first couple of scenes), though this being the sort of film it is, it's not terrible shocking when good cop Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) shows up midway, trying to do what he can to help J out of a shatteringly horrible situation, both because it's morally right and because he hopes that by flipping J he can finally put the Cody gang out of business. It's also not giving away much of anything to say that most of the drama centers on J's gradual movement from dull teen, peripherally aware of how fucked-up his mother's estranged family is, to being faced front-and-center with the violent truth of their lifestyle.

The real star of the show anyway isn't the well-trod story - though a more breathlessly exciting crime story has been hard to come by recently, unless you caught the French import Un prophète - but the showmanship with which Michôd and his crew present it. Animal Kingdom is, and I mean this in the best possible way, a hard film: loud, brazen sound and heavily punctuated editing (courtesy of Sam Petty and Luke Doolan, respectively) give the film an almost industrial feeling that matches well Adam Arkapaw's at times metallic cinematography; while Michôd's handling of the frequent acts of violence is postively brutal. The death of the two cops that kick-starts the main line of the plot in particular is shockingly matter-of-fact and unexpected, not exploiting gore for its own sake but absolutely sickening us with its starkness; it's this moment above all that proves Michôd is a fella to keep watching for.

It would be easy for the human element to get lost in the midst of this sensory beatdown, but the cast is entirely able to keep above the fray, remaining incredibly distinct and memorable throughout everything that happens (though Frecheville is almost too convincing as a disaffected teen male, if you catch my meaning). No points for guessing that Weaver, she of the film's already-iconic line readings, is a standout: like a fairy-tale grandma from hell, with her diminutive stature and broad smile and crinkly eyes, Weaver's cheerful psychopath is the most bone-chilling aspect of the whole movie, the kind of woman who might give you a hug and then wait till you've turned around to plunge a knife between your ribs. Her overwhelming presence has tended to dilute the impact of some of the other performances in the popular reception of the film, though all possible praise also need to go to Mendelsohn, playing the most sociopathic of the Codys with lumbering menace, playing up his character's lack of intellectual agility (some quickly tossed-off dialogue suggests that he's on meds for an unnamed emotional disorder) and never letting us forget that he would kill anybody for almost any reason.

Insofar as Animal Kingdom has an particular flaw, beyond its familiarity (and that's not much of a flaw for a genre movie to have), it's that the stakes are ultimately never extremely high. A boy we don't much connect with falls into a pit of vipers that we connect with very much indeed, thanks mostly to Weaver's irresistible energy, and we never really doubt that things will end up where they do, and the whole bold and brassy affair doesn't really have much to say about the world outside of its own walls. The final moments suggest a psychological depth that gives it more punch that it had before, but as a result that same depth is somewhat entertaining; in the end, it's just a hugely entertaining, unforgettable showcase for a bunch of people before and behind the camera playing for the rafters and doing a great job of it. Well, darn.



Maybe there's a cautionary tale in here someplace, though I can't quite be certain who would benefit from it. Just seven years ago, beloved French-born music video director Michel Gondry wowed the world with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of those movies that seemingly everybody loves, a tragic and funny and whimsical and tender romantic anti-comedy. Just seven years ago. Now he's put his name to The Green Hornet, a crappy work-for-hire superhero flick. No, wait, it's not crappy - it's worse than that. It's devoid of enough content to even make an aesthetic judgment like "crappy"; "crappy" is a word we save for movies where enough is going on for some of it to go wrong. Though there's enough material in The Green Hornet that it fills 119 minutes, I am not persuaded that anything actually happens.

Based on the character created for radio in 1936, the film stars Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen in a mask. I'm sorry, that's mean of me, and it's early in the review yet. The film stars Rogen as Britt Reid, son of Los Angeles crusading journalist James Reid (Tom Wilkinson); born into money and influence, Britt is a shallow party animal until the day his father dies unexpectedly and leaves him with a newspaper empire to maintain, with a legacy of social activism to restore to a paper that has fallen on hard times along with every other print outlet in the '00s. But Britt accidentally finds his way into a much more present way of fighting corruption and crime in L.A. when he discovers that his father's mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) is both a martial arts expert and a genius inventor, and the two take to the streets as masked crimefighters in a car packed to the gills with all sorts of delightful tricks. Crime is fought, but not as much as you might think.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest problem is that the script by Rogen and Evan Goldberg can never decide how much it wants to be a superhero movie, how much it wants to be a parody of a superhero movie, how much it wants to be an homage to '80s action flicks - save for his post-Tarantino sense of irony, the villain Chudnofsky, played by Christoph Waltz in his first post-Oscar, post-Basterds role in America, is a a fairly straightforward example of the sort of bad guy you'd expect to see opposite Chuck Norris or a young Bruce Willis - and how much it wants to be a laid-back "dudes hanging out" comedy on the model of Rogen & Goldberg's Superbad and Pineapple Express (the latter of which fuses '80s-style action and bro comedy much more effectively than their current effort). That's a lot of splintered personality to deal with, and that's before we throw Gondry into the mix, a filmmaker with exactly no experience in any of those genres, and whose characteristic treatment of man-child protagonists is light-years from Rogen & Goldberg's.

The end result is mostly a Seth Rogen vehicle with some pulp-hero trappings, and Gondry's influence as a visual artist felt almost solely in some montage sequences that bear more than a small resemblance to his music videos (in particular, the depiction of Kato's perception of time slowing down when he fights uses a trick taken straight out of his 1999 video for The Chemical Brothers' "Let Forever Be", tricked out with some CGI). The most inventive bit of Gondryesque creativity comes in a telephone montage that uses split-screen in a way that I don't think I've ever quite seen before. There are a few other splashes of the director's personality, but in the main this is clearly not a film that he made because it afforded him much possibility to continue exploring his obsessions, and even though his obsessions had been taking him to increasingly insubstantial places with The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, something so personal that it's a mess is always going to be preferable to the opposite.

It's not even seemingly all that personal for Rogen, though he wrote, executive produced, starred, and apparently called most of the shots on set. Meaning, I guess, that the worrisome obsession with heavy objects being dropped on the villain's henchmen is all Rogen: the film has the most dead-eyed approach to on-screen violence of anything I've seen in ages, not fetishising it as did Kick-Ass but simply not caring about the piles of dead bodies the Green Hornet leaves in his wake, in the most callous, PG-13 way possible. But the point I was driving at, was that Rogen clearly has no real attachment to the Green Hornet as such, and the grinding joylessness with which he moves through the character's origin story does not have the tang of an affectionate fanboy so much as a writer who thought it might be fun to set the exact same character he always writes into a scenario where he's a flailing moron trying to fight criminals way out of his league.

I cannot say if Rogen's shtick has grown old, as such, for I never really thought that it had before; but it is simply not right for this kind of movie, not right at all, and through scene after scene of him acting like a hopped-up idiot, trying and miserably failing to attract Cameron Diaz (who is stuffed into the movie for no good reason, except to be the brunt of some incredibly mean-spirited jokes), generally behaving as a jolly sociopath, delighted to beat the shit out of people and demand his own way from the people he considers friends, it all seemed too gruesomely unpleasant to be labeled a "comedy". It's not just that The Green Hornet can't make up its mind what kind of film it wants to be - which it can't and it's a huge problem - but that whenever that indecision gets too thorny, Rogen and Goldberg scatter to the safety fratty misanthropy and a peculiar line of gay jokes; and with Gondry being palpably unhappy to sit in the director's chair - which he's as much as admitted in interviews - there's nothing to keep The Green Hornet inflated except those few splotches of brilliant filmmaking where it seems like the film wants to be more than an unusually lifeless, formula-ridden action movie with a snotty sense of easily-marketed humor, but keeps getting suffocated.


18 January 2011


Conventional wisdom tells us that this has been a fairly weak year for American cinema; and I'm not about to tell conventional wisdom that it's wrong. Following a summer of rare ineptitude - I hope it's not just my increasing age that leads me to call it the worst summer movie season in my memory - we received a fall and winter of many perfectly good movies and almost none that are completely stunning; though I'm kind of pleased that this will be the first Oscar ceremony of my life in which I haven't particularly disliked a single one of the Best Picture nominees, I'm nonetheless a bit put out that not even my dog in that fight (that being Toy Story 3, naturally) is a film that I think particularly deserves to win that kind of award.

And yet, when the time came to whittle the year's offerings down to a top 10, and 10 honorable mentions, I found it harder to do than it has been in years; I could happily have added another set of ten without feeling like I was reaching even a little (some of the titles that came closest but just missed the cut include the operatic biopic Vincere, the vast character study Carlos, and Catherine Breillat's strange and marvelous modernist fairy tale Bluebeard). For of course, American cinema's only part of the game; and this year witnessed an exceptionally rich selection of films from around the world (though since I use the eligibility rule of, "first non-festival release in the U.S. between 1 January and 31 December", a lot of these are, strictly speaking, 2009 films. My apologies to non-U.S. readers if this list is old news).

At any rate, the net result is a list that is, beyond question, the most obnoxious, pretentious, and obscure in all my days of assembling a year-end Top 10; for this I apologise, though perhaps I can defend it on the grounds of being my tiny way of praising the diversity of cinema, in this year when there seems to be such heavy-footed consensus on the 8 or 10 films that are the only ones anybody got to enjoy, all year long.

The 10 Best Films of 2010
1. Day & Night
2. Last Train Home
3. The Illusionist
4. Sweetgrass
5. Fish Tank
6. White Material
7. A Prophet
8. Toy Story 3
9. Blue Valentine
10. Another Year


The story of the McKerrow family is so ludicrously impossible that it could only possibly be true: no writer would dare string together this much contrived drama. In the mid-1960s, Loren and Carol McKerrow, having been told they could not conceived, adopted a baby boy, Marc - and no sooner had he come home than Carol ended up pregnant. She gave birth to another boy, Paul, and the following year to Todd. Growing up, Paul was the star of the family, the one who was good at sports and popular at school; Marc, already suffering from mood swings, did not handle this well.

Over the next couple of decades, Paul would discover that he was born the wrong gender, and has since become Kimberly Reed; while Marc suffered injuries that required a large chunk of his brain to be taken out. This left him at the mercy of violent outbursts that terrified those who loved him, and Kim and Marc had not seen each other for many years when she returned to Helena, Montana, for their 20-year high school reunion; hoping to reconnect with her brother, Kim was heartbroken to learn that he was unreachable. So far, we're right on the edge of what you could possibly get away with; but then, a month after the reunion, Marc's years-long quest to locate his birth parents bore fruit, and he discovered that he was the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. That Orson Welles, and that Rita Hayworth.

That kind of over-the-top family story would, at some point, have to be turned into a movie: but the 2008 documentary Prodigal Sons, which only received a proper commercial release in 2010,* is by no means an exploitative melodrama. In fact, it was directed by Kimberly Reed herself, resulting in one of the rawest and most exposed films that I think I have ever seen. It reminded me, above anything else, of another documentary that first premiered in 2008, Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary: like that film, Prodigal Sons tells an intensely personal story with equally intense openness, and the whole thing feels so intimate that I half feel like I have no business watching it. Yet, in both cases, I am profoundly grateful to the filmmakers for sharing their stories.

Before we get any further, it's important to make it clear what Prodigal Sons is not: it isn't a film about transgenderism, and it isn't a film about brain trauma and mental illness (at least, not primarily, although both of those things are irreducible elements of the greater story). It's about different ways of grappling with the past, with a version of oneself that no longer exists; and about the tensions that crop up in those families where there's just a little bit too much history for anyone to be at ease, ever. It is evident that Kim wants very badly to love Marc, but doesn't know how to do that, particularly since the one thing he most needs in life, to be surrounded by the reminders of his life before the accident, anchoring his present in a simpler if no happier past, is exactly the same thing that Kim needs least: constantly seeing images of Paul McKerrow, in all the photos Marc carries around like fetishes, serves only to remind her of the agony of being trapped beneath a thick wall of lies about her most essential self. This is the tension that underlies most of their interactions, and Kim's story, as presented within the film, is largely one of coming to terms with her own past as a means of reaching out to her brother in his hour of dire need (though she announces this in voiceover near the end, we've already been able to guess as much: given that Kim herself is responsible for including so much footage of Paul, we can safely assume that she no longer believes, as she states at one point, that she'd just as happily destroy any evidence that Paul ever existed).

If Kim's traumas largely animate the first half of Prodigal Sons, Marc's animate the second: his violent outbursts start to become an increasing problem not just for Kim, but for their mother, and for Marc's wife and daughter, all of whom are constantly in fear that he'll hurt himself or someone he loves. That word, "love", that's the tragedy: Marc is at all points shown to be a broken man, who genuinely believes every word he says about wanting to reconnect, wanting to be a happy member of a well-functioning family, and who knows even as he says these things that he's always a breath away from having what amounts to a fit of insanity. There has been a little bit of chatter as to whether Reed, in directing this film, is exploiting her brother, which is absurd. Prodigal Sons, among its many graces, is if anything a tribute to Marc's struggle to fight the thing inside him. Much of the latter part of the movie consists of conversations between Kim and Marc where it is unmistakably clear that she truly loves - make that, truly wants to love - her brother, and will do whatever is in her power to help him, to stay by his side. That's not exploitation, it's human tenderness at its most beautiful.

Reed never whitewashes any of this: she presents both herself and Marc with sentiment but without trying to hide the fact that they are both messy people, making the wrong decisions: she is remarkably unforgiving about her own desire for life to be exactly the way she demands, in defiance of the fact that none of us are ever given that luxury; nor does she soft-pedal the degree to which Marc is a legitimate danger, and that even before his brain injury, he was a resentful brother, jealous of a young sibling who, even as a woman, he seems to regard as the bigger man. There are moments where we, alongside Kim and the other family members, are watching Marc in his most stable moods, nervous as hell about how much longer until the next explosion; but like Kim, we're always hopeful that this time, maybe he's finally better.

Life will be what it is, though, and the despairing truth behind Prodigal Sons is that nothing gets resolved that quickly; the film ends without concluding anything, and armed with the knowledge that Marc died unexpectedly in June of 2010, it's even more sorrowful. The lesson of the film is that living is a process, not an end-point; Reed's perfect honesty and candor, for which all viewers must be forever thankful, documents a moment in a few very specific lives that anyone with a heart and mind can understand and recognise.

It's so beautiful and heartbreaking that I hesitate to point out the other way it reminded me of Dear Zachary: it has fairly significant problems as a cinematic object. I'm enough of a dick to mention that, but not enough of a dick to point particular things out (though I will mention Reed's use of voiceover narration to explain things we already know borders on the pathological), particularly since Reed has the excuse of not being a trained filmmaker, and that it seems that much of the early footage was shot without any real idea of the thing being cut into a documentary for an audience broader than the family. Still, it's not something that can be simply brushed away. It can, however, be forgiven in light of what the film does so altogether right: shine a light on some profoundly difficult lives with humility and generosity and love.

(A numerical ranking seems inordinately tactless)/10


Okay, a movie I didn't bother reviewing, not a movie I "missed". I actually saw Pixar Animation Studios' Day & Night months ago, and there's a pretty significant chance that you did, too: it played in theaters in front of Toy Story 3, the highest-grossing feature of 2010. I don't think I'm being perverse if I say that I distinctly preferred the short, at that; my bona-fides as a Pixar fanatic and a Toy Story 3 partisan are not, or should not, be in question, but the feature suffered, I think from a bit of shakiness in the beginning, while Day & Night, directed by character designer Teddy Newton, is quite probably the most impressive short-form piece that Pixar has put out - no small bit of praise for the studio behind Luxo Jr. and Geri's Game, just for starters.

Since there's a pretty significant chance that you saw the short, I can probably get away without synopsising it; and I'm damn tempted to do just that, since it's been plaguing me ever since June just how one would go about describing Day & Night without it sounding like a particularly incoherent dream. But let me make the attempt: in a black void, there is a fellow with a bulbous nose, and his body acts as an apparent window onto a world - I hesitate too say "behind" the black void, because that is not even remotely what the film indicates. But at any rate, this fellow soon meets another just like him, with a pointy nose; that, and where the first man is a window on the daytime landscape, his counterpart only looks over night. Whatever Day stands in front of is bright and energetic; when Night stands in front of the same space, we see the same landscape but empty and barren. The two fight, but in short order discover that there is beauty in both the daytime and the nighttime worlds.

Among of the film's incredible achievement is that it takes what I just described - if "description" is a fair word for that pile of verbiage - and turns it into a narrative that makes perfect sense while you're watching it; the rules of the universe, wherever it is, are established in all of 30 seconds, and after that it's all just letting the story play out. Newton's ability to finesse a remarkably difficult conceptual hook into a supremely easy cartoon is proof enough that he has storytelling skills much the equal of anybody working at Pixar. Yet this is also, possibly, the least of the film's achievements: it is technically, formally, and thematically a work of great accomplishment, and merely being able to tell a weird story coherently is just cake at that point.

Day & Night is about duality; this is obvious just from the title. What is maybe not so obvious is the way that this theme is reinforced in the formal construction of the piece. It is conventional wisdom that Pixar is responsible for proving that fully-rendered computer animation had narrative potential: never forget that their early groundbreaking works, which we now enjoy for the story and the personalities of the characters, were initially meant as straightforward tech demonstrations, and that it was mostly Steve Jobs' whim that let John Lasseter have a crack at making those demos fun to watch. It's also fairly well-known that the Pixar folk are huge fans of traditional cel-style animation, despite being the godfathers of the medium that has driven the old style all but to extinction in the marketplace. Day & Night represents the first marriage of those two forms in a Pixar production: the characters of Day and Night are themselves 2-D figures, while the world they reveal in their transparent bodies is CGI. This can be read on the one hand as an historical argument: traditional animation serves as the window through we we arrive at computer animation. Yet it is also, taken in hand with the film's message that even apparent opposites can live in harmony, a blast against the received wisdom that, in the CG age, traditional animation is dead: no, as you can clearly see here, they are both working together, serving a purpose that neither could achieve alone. Both forms are equally necessary, equally expressive.

There is then the matter of technological advance. It's generally understood that Pixar's shorts, not unlike Disney's Silly Symphonies back in the 1930s, are laboratories for working out new techniques; hence we have the combination of traditional and computer animation in a single frame, and I don't imagine this is the last we'll see of this gimmick, either. But Day & Night also serves, like Partly Cloudy in 2009, as a way of working out the use of 3-D, that fancy-ass over-priced new toy that Hollywood is humping so eagerly (I wonder what to make of it that both shorts use 3-D more interestingly than their accompanying features, Up and Toy Story 3, did; probably only that Pixar directors, rightfully, don't like being told that commercial concerns are going to dictate their storytelling choices). I'm more than happy to argue that Day & Night is the present masterpiece of 3-D cinema; Coraline uses 3-D in some amazing ways, no doubt, and for all their gimcrackery, Avatar and TRON: Legacy certainly understand the way to wring jaw-dropping spectacle out of the technology. But none of those have done such a fine job as Day & Night at using 3-D to deepen the meaning of the film, please forgive the inadvertent pun. Day & Night in 2-D is an excellent piece; Day & Night in 3-D is rapturous, building a world like nothing else I've ever seen. Day and Night are flat; the lines describing their limbs and their eyes are all on the same plane; the world within them stretches deep back, as far as the eye can see. The idea that they are the window on a different reality than the one in which they exist is much more pronounced in this way; particularly since they are "above" the black void, but the world inside them stretches much past the wall of the void. The black space is just the are in which the animation occurs in 2-D; in 3-D it is a limiting universe in which Day and Night themselves are the only things that exist, and by their very existence prove something much greater in scope than the nothingness where they reside. Visually, it implies a whole new theme: the inner life is bigger than the world containing it.

It's another facet of the idea of duality explored so fully in Day & Night's jam-packed six minutes: of course the main one is the big dualism, the difference between I and You, the Same and the Other. That idea is given a great pride of place: the only words in any human language spoken in the film come, right at the climax, in the form of a speech given by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer which states essentially that the self will always tend to reject what is different on the grounds that it is easier to remain insulated and ignorant than to do the work to understand the unfamiliar. It's a platitude; Dyer is a platitudinous thinker, but in his writing he presents a fairly straightforward practical philosophy that would, at the least, make the world better if more people followed it (disclosure: I once was made to attend a lecture Dr. Dyer gave, and found him to be an incredibly pleasant, if only somewhat charismatic speaker; what he said struck me rather deeply, though it takes a lot of filtering the New Age fluffiness out of what he says). And if Day & Night ultimately adds up to nothing more than, "Don't immediately dislike people who are not like you", that's by no means a disagreeable message, or a valueless one - and anyway, the film certainly does add up to more than that, even just on a script level: there's also a significant message about one's knowledge of self as a direct function of knowing others that's implicit in the twist ending. At any rate, however trite the "Don't judge others" moral might sound, and however unoriginal it no doubt is, it's unfortunately also a moral that remains absolutely fresh after thousands of years, and projects like Day & Night will continue to matter as long as human beings are human beings.

Oh, and it's funny. I didn't mention that, did I? I should have, because it's super-funny. Lot of comic sound effects and all. Funny.


17 January 2011


There is nothing quite like a Mike Leigh film: nobody tells the same stories that he does in the same fashion that he does with the same characters that he does. He is, simply put, one of the handful of truly unique voices working in cinema (though, paradoxically, almost no other writer-director builds his stories through such a robust collaborative process with his actors), and the release of a new film under his name is always a cause for celebration even if the film isn't a slam dunk masterpiece.

And by all means, though I'm inclined to see Another Year as a half-step back from his last couple of films, it's still a great piece, essential viewing if anything in 2010 has been. As the title suggests, it takes place over a year in the life of an old married couple, environmental engineer Tom (Jim Broadbent) and therapist Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a pair of terribly well-adjusted idealists with lots of friends and 30-year old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman). Over the course of this one year, Tom and Gerri deal with the great and small issues of a number of people, of whom the most insistently present is Gerri's co-worker Mary (Leslie Manville), a low-functioning alcoholic with debilitating anxiety about being single, and a rather uncomfortable crush on Joe. Over the course of the year, we'll meet other figures, with the biggest impression being left by Tom's childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight), a sad-sack drunk to stand in contrast to Mary's manic one, and Tom's older brother Ronnie (David Bradley), facing down the miseries of aging more quietly than anyone else in the film does anything.

That rundown is about as far as the movie goes in for plot; most of its energy is given over to setting up situations for the characters to fall into, and watching to see what happens. Which is, mostly, very normal and endlessly fascinating. Given the cast involved, and their combined years familiarity with Leigh's process (only Bradley, of the main cast, has never worked with the director), no points for guessing that the characterisations are incredibly persuasive and deep, that they elude being pinned down.We need go no further than Tom and Gerri themselves to see characters who are played as very specific individuals (Sheen's performance, I'd cautiously suggest, is the strongest in the film), and yet which have enough of a core of ambiguity that makes for a thoughtful look at human behavior, rather than a prescriptive one. Are Tom & Gerri essentially smug about their perceived superiority over Mary, both because they aren't boozy wrecks, and because they deign to befriend a boozy wreck and try to save her? Or are they good friends, trying hard to pull a woman out of a self-destructive cycle and giving up when that self-destruction hits too close to home? If it's the former, are we meant to look at them as hypocrites, or just as regular people doing what regular people might do in that situation. Another Year refuses to answer these questions, which it anyway raises only implicitly; that is its great strength, that its ideas come about naturally as a result of the events it records, rather than tailoring ideas to fit into a pre-established thematic schedule (which isn't to say that the film lacks a thematic hook: it is generally about the idea of companionship, both romantic and friendly). It is exceptionally naturalistic even by the standards of its director, one of cinema's greatest living naturalists.

"Companionship", I said; by which I mean that the film is largely about the social codes by which we - specifically a certain breed of middle-class Briton, though this is clearly an example of the universal being grounded in the specific - engage with other people. Tom and Gerri dominate the film; every interaction and line of dialogue within the film tells us something about who they are; yet Another Year is, at the end, not about Tom and Gerri. The film opens and closes on shots of other individuals, who have been or are about to be affected by the central couple (the opening scene features a triumphant extended cameo by Imelda Staunton as a therapy patient trapped in a completely unsatisfying life, Gerri's polar opposite in every way): everyone in the movie expresses some facet of what it means to be around other people, behaving according to or in violation of the rules of polite society, which Tom and Gerri represent to a T. If there is a clearly-defined narrative arc, it is of Mary's violation of one of those rules, and her estrangement from the the only people that have ever thrown her a lifeline. It's telling that it's not her out-of-control drinking that causes a problem for her friends - they seem to regard it as sad but colorful - but her icy cruelty towards Joe's new girlfriend (Karina Fernandez). The final scene of the film is a tragic little vignette, with Mary trying to work her way back into Tom and Gerri's lives, and finding that it's no so easy, particularly for a woman with crippling self-doubt. Leslie Manville's expressions are heartwrenching, enough to make it clear that even here, Leigh is passing no judgment on anybody, but just laying human experience as bare as he can. Which is very bare, and painful, and recognisable.

So far, so great: the only point where Another Year stumbles is in that the whole thing feels a bit overdetermined. This is particularly prominent in its rigid structure: in each of four seasons, we follow Tom, Gerri, and the rest for about a week or so, dropping in just long enough to see a slice of their lives. It's a clever enough way to build a story, and Leigh has some fun playing around with the audience's lack of knowledge about exactly what transpired in the last three months. But it's also annoyingly schematic, and beneath the level of intelligence shown by the rest of the script. Nor is it helped by Dick Pope's cinematography, which is both extremely well-executed and ill-judged: filming each season with a different color hook (pink in spring, green in summer, brown in autumn, white in winter), and changing the lighting drastically from segment to segment, Pope unquestionably gets the point across, but the descent from the soft pastels of the spring segment to the gloomy, underlit, desaturated winter scenes begins to seem awfully rote: particularly at the end, where the combination of script and imagery couldn't possibly be screaming "Everything dies!" with less grace. Astoundingly, Leigh and Pope have conspired to find a way to make death a metaphor for death.

That's not the only misstep: some of the bigger dramatic moments are leaned on a bit too heavily, and the final shot, which would have been a real sock in the gut at half the length, goes on making its point and trying to impress upon the viewer the Immense Gravity of It All, and generally walking right up to the point where the tragic dissolves into the irritating. Thankfully, that doesn't quite happen, but it's closer than it needs to be.

Other than those problems - and they're definitely not small problems - Another Year is awfully close to a triumph: I personally didn't find it as thrillingly complete as Happy-Go-Lucky or Vera Drake, but Mike Leigh operating even at 90% is still Mike Leigh, an irreplaceable international treasure. Perfect or not, Another Year is a film to be grappled with for all the estimable things it does right.