Sunday, 30 December 2012

Hitchcock (2012)

Boyfriend and I went to see Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012) last night. It was only playing at one cinema, and at that one cinema, it only had one showing on one screen. We were still the only people in the theatre (which has never happened to us before, and prompted Boyfriend to dash up and down the aisles tossing popcorn in the air). Now, I'm not usually one to buy into conventional claptrap about this generation being the worst one there ever was or anything, but when I saw live bodies that could have been watching Hitchcock filing out of the theatre for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 instead, it sort of gave me a sinking feeling. Like maybe the Mayans were right about the end of the world, and it's just that nobody noticed.

Just as Scarlett Johansson planned.
Hitchcock is a biopic focused on the making of Uncle Alfred's Psycho (1960). It follows the production from pitch to premiere, as Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) strives to prove that he is still a relevant director and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) patiently (and then less so) attempts to communicate that his real shortcomings are as a husband. Eventually Hitchcock realizes he's been a twat, he and Alma kiss and make up, she helps him re-cut Psycho and it goes down in cinematic history. That's the entirety of the plot, making it the only movie of a reasonable length in theatres this Christmas, as far as I know.

Hitchcock is watchable and enjoyable. I want to say that straight up front, before I start criticizing it. I urge those of you with film-going parents and grandparents to consider taking them to Hitchcock, a movie under two hours long with no dwarves, no syphilis and no dynamite massacres. Newcomer Gervasi's direction is surehanded and charming, and the actors appear to be having great fun (although the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh could only have been made by drawing her name out of a hat while blindfolded: she acts like Faye Dunaway and looks like Grease's Rizzo). Finally, if you're an early 60s freak (which I am), the costumes are to die for.

It is, however, bizarre to me that someone out there decided that the best way to spin a biopic about Alfred Hitchcock was as an autumn-years romance. Every character in this movie is nice, well-intentioned, and considerate (even Ed Gein [Michael Wincott], who appears as a sort of fairy godfather figure to Hitchcock). Our heroes may fall prey to momentary lapses of judgement, but there are no genuine betrayals: and since no one makes any real mistakes, the audience doesn't have to worry, and therefore doesn't have to care.

I want that dress.
The script is also clunkily insistent on reminding filmgoers that This Is The Past: characters are prone to saying things like "Hitchcock, aren't you worried that Psycho will threaten your reputation as a master of suspense, which you made by directing your previous films North by Northwest and Vertigo?" (not an exact quote, obviously, but closer than I would have liked). Similarly, when Hitchcock and Alma mortgage their house to fund Psycho, Hitchcock attempts to spin genuine suspense around whether or not the project will succeed. Personally, I assume that anyone going to see a film called Hitchcock knows the answer to that question.

All in all, Hitchcock is sweet, reverent, and extremely polite: exactly the kind of film that the real Hitch would have hated. Still, if the film can spur even a few holiday moviegoers to pick up Psycho or The Birds and ignore Breaking Dawn - Part 2, I'll endorse it as a Christmas miracle.

Hitchcock's infamous casting couch.
SCENE STEALER: James D'Arcy is almost unbelievable good as Anthony Perkins -- he's got the boy scout smile, the slight stammer, and the eager, hungry gaze down to a T. How did a film that went so wrong with Vera Miles (Jessica Biel?) and Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson???) go so right with Anthony Perkins? And, having done so, why didn't they give him more screen time? He's only got a few scenes, and it's a real drag (ah ha ha ha HA HA HA ha ha ha HA... ha ha).

Friday, 28 December 2012

Les Miserables (2012)

In commercial film, there's not a lot of creative wiggle room. Once a day's work has been committed to celluloid, changes cost amounts of money which are usually not spent. Cutting-floor redemption is possible, but generally speaking, films are eventually "completed" (or more accurately, locked in). The audience not liking this scene or that line might result in bad box office or poor reviews, but -- except in rare instances -- it would kill profits to keep re-shooting, re-cutting, and re-releasing until literally everyone was satisfied. Once a film is done, it's done.

Stage musicals aren't like that. The evolution your average musical undergoes in its journey from paper and piano to the Great White Way is Darwinian. Musicals are work-shopped, toured, translated, revised, recast, and reworked until, often, the final project in no way resembles the original. This fine-tuning can last long after a show opens. Broadway musicals are essentially engaged in a last-man-standing deathmatch. Hollywood blockbusters do a couple weeks, or at most a couple months, in theatres, then they go to DVD. But a musical can perish in under a week, or it can run for over two decades. That means that every facet of a successful, long-running live show has been calibrated for maximal audience enjoyment. Structurally speaking, Broadway musicals are perfect.

Someone working on Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) didn't get this, and it shows.

Yeah, Cosette, you're cold, we get it.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Streets of Fire (1984)

I make a habit of having a go-to "sad movie" -- not a movie that is sad, but a movie I watch when I am sad, because it will make me happy. For many years, my "sad movie" was Pretty In Pink. Recently, however, Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984) has usurped the niche Pretty In Pink once occupied as my all-natural upper of choice. Whatever you think of the relative cinematic value of Streets of Fire, I challenge anyone to watch it and not come away feeling better about life.

Duel of the fates.
Rock starlet Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) plays a gig in her tough-as-nails hometown and is immediately kidnapped by Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe) and his motorcycle gang. Luckily, diner waitress Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) won't permit such injustice: she summons her out-of-town brother Tom (Michael Pare) to Ellen's aid. Tom descends upon town in a fancy car, getting into verbal or physical fisticuffs with virtually everyone he meets, but somehow finds a willing sidekick in the butch-cute McCoy (Amy Madigan). Reva and Ellen's manager/lover, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), convince Tom to rescue Ellen -- it doesn't hurt that the price is right, nor that Ellen is an old flame of Tom's. Exactly how Tom, McCoy, and Billy prise Ellen from Raven's clutches is a story too convoluted to detail here. Suffice it to say that when they touch down in the diner, Ellen in tow, they've blown up half the town and are followed by an entourage consisting of a bleached-out, coked-out Ellen Aim groupie and a handful of down-on-their-luck doo-wop singers. Raven attempts to take revenge, of course, but Tom puts him in his place with a sledgehammer and Ellen lives to play another show and continue with her tour.

I hesitate to call Streets of Fire "so bad it's good". It's bombastic, paratactic, melodramatic, utterly unnecessary, totally unrealistic, terrifyingly random and brain-squishingly stupid. But it's not bad. Quite the contrary. How? Why? A, because the mise-en-scene is gorgeous. B, because every performer gives 150% in this movie. This is something that can be hilarious in B-movies where the combined cast is as talented as a high school football mascot, but several of Streets of Fire's actors are exceptional talents who went on to fame and/or fortune. Van Valkenburgh, with her haunted-eyed, autumnal beauty, could have done Chekhov; and here she is doing Streets of Fire instead! C, because the script makes room for four major female characters, three of whom are not even interested in boinking our hero. Passes the Bechtel Test and then some. D, because the soundtrack, holy fuck the soundtrack. You didn't even know this movie existed, but you already have several of the songs it popularized irreversibly seared into your memory. "I can dream about you, if I can't hold you tonight...." yeah, that's Streets of Fire. (Jim Steinman composed most of Ellen Aim's music; if you don't know who that is, here's a reference).

As for the script, well, it's not particularly polished. The characters are needlessly at each others' throats; no one ever says "yes" or "no" where a "fine, dickhead" or "fuck you!" can be substituted.  Also, situations escalate into physical violence with a clockwork regularity that is both stupid and transcendentally beautiful. I will say, though, that despite the schoolyard trash-talk and the hair-trigger tempers, a weird grace eventually surfaces in the relationship between Tom and Ellen. When he bids Ellen goodbye with a smile and tells McCoy, "we were just going in different directions, it's nobody's fault", it's a moment of refreshing emotional maturity in the midst of so much 80s action schlock. (This line does come mere minutes after Tom socks Ellen out cold to keep her from getting in his way, so take that with a grain of salt, I guess).

To sum up Streets of Fire's selling points: there is a Jim Steinman soundtrack. There is kissing in the rain. There is a sledgehammer duel. There is a doo-wop quartet. There is everything you need to shake even the most killer case of the blues. Go watch it already.

That's some bad hat, Harry.
SCENE STEALER: This is a tough one, but since I've already talked up Deborah Van Valkenburgh and Diane Lane isn't exactly an overlooked talent, I'm going to go with Amy Madigan as McCoy. Before they cast Amy Madigan, this part was written for a male, which means McCoy spends most of her time giving Tom useful advice and being a badass and no time whatsoever flirting with him (his one halfhearted attempt is shot down with "you're not exactly my type"). What was the last movie you saw where an elfin blonde babe punched out a bartender for being too slow with the tequila?

She looks so angry at that pole.
Also, honorable scene stealer mention to the bar dancer played by Marine Jahan -- whose short haircut, athletic build, and aggressive dance moves all create an androgyny that's ahead of the game given that Streets of Fire was released in 1984. Online sources suggests that Jahan identifies as female, but the first time I watched this movie, I was really impressed that an 80s blue-collar beer-and-wings bar would hire a drag queen stripper.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

The fact that Skyfall has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes while The World Is Not Enough (Michael Apted, 1999) is sitting at 51% is scientific proof that there is no god.

As scientific as this nuclear physicist's hot pants.


Monday, 10 December 2012

The Dark Crystal (1982)

I am here to shit all over your childhood by stating what should be obvious to anyone not blinded by nostalgia goggles: The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982) is a terrible movie.

"WHAT DID SHE SAY??????!!1"
Jen (Jim Henson) is a "Gelfing", an innocent doe-eyed creature ("last of his kind", except not) cared for by the sagely "Mystics" (bald, wizened llamas) and reviled by the wicked "Skeksis" (desiccated ostrich corpses). Jen is sent on a quest to find the Dark Crystal. He finds it. That is all the synopsis I can even be bothered to write. I am not going to delve into the minute details of this stupid movie.

I guess that it is good that I finally watched The Dark Crystal. I was getting nervous that I'd seen so many B-pictures that I'd lost the ability to know whether a movie was bad. Now I know that I can still tell if a movie is bad. This movie is bad.

Before you start sharpening your pitchforks, I'll sum up the reasons why (in three "P"s, no less).

1) The puppets.

The blonde one does look sort of like Taylor Swift.
Enjoy your stay in the uncanny valley. The Skeksis and Mystic puppets are serviceably outlandish, but the Gelflings look like human children with pointy ears. In addition to being utterly fucking creepy, their expressionless faces belie every moment of emotion and high drama in the film. What's that, Jen? Your best friend, the only other living member of your race, has been stabbed to death? Have you considered feeling an emotion about that?

I simply don't understand the choice to use what were basically toddler puppets for the Gelflings. Why not either cast real kids, or make the Gelfings fantastical creatures, in line with the Skeksis and Mystics? As it is, they combine the worst of both worlds. Jim Henson's later, better, puppet extravaganza Labyrinth (1986) gave in and featured a live-action human heroine in a Muppet world, so at least we know he learned from his mistakes.

2) The plot. The Dark Crystal has one, but I can't follow it, and I'm damn sure most kids can't follow it (who knows, maybe the average 8-year-old is smarter than me, but realistically, I doubt it, because what is my liberal arts degree good for if not overanalyzing literature). This might be acceptable if The Dark Crystal's story was in any way unique or novel, but it is Hero With a Thousand Faces bullshit on autopilot. Virtually every attempt to add interesting complications to the story results in a plot hole, and and an asinine twist ending unravels more loose ends than it ties up.

3) The pacing. This movie moves at an utter crawl. It is slow to an extent that is barely comprehensible. I have a theory that over-indulged puppeteers basically turn into doting parents: so thrilled by their creations that they can't understand why no one else cares that their baby can walk and talk. To an extent, this is understandable, but listen, Dark Crystal moviemakers: when you're putting your climax on hold to feature an interminable puppet dinnertime scene, you're doing it wrong.

The Dark Crystal is what would happen if you took Labyrinth and sucked out all the things that made it good, leaving an empty celluloid husk. The Dark Crystal is capable of making people physically ill. Please, if there is a child (or an adult) you are thinking of exposing to The Dark Crystal, don't. Just don't. Every genius misfires at least once, and this was Jim Henson's turn.

Did I stutter?
SCENE STEALER: There is no scene stealer. This movie sucks.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Sleepwalkers (1992)

Boyfriend and I recently received a VCR on indefinite loan from Boyfriend's parents. (Thank you, Boyfriend's parents)! Since then, we have tirelessly scoured Value Villages, scouted Salvation Armies, and spelunked small-town flea markets for long-forgotten celluloid trash and treasures. We have left no stone unturned in our quest for the best, and more importantly the worst, movies. And I am happy to inform you that in the latter respect, Sleepwalkers (Mick Garris, 1992) paid off big time.

This screenshot is somewhat misleading regarding the actual content of the movie.
Based on a Stephen King short story which was (to no one's surprise) never published, Sleepwalkers follows mother-and-son monster duo Charles (Brian Krause) and Mary (Alice Krige) on their disastrous quest to find a virgin to feed on. As their crucially intacta target they choose small-town usherette Tanya (Madchen Amick, parlaying her Twin Peaks fame into a fleeting sixteenth minute). Once Charles and Mary have taken out Charles' pederastically ambitious English teacher Mr. Follows (Glenn Shadix), Tanya's parents (Lyman Ward and Cindy Pickett gearing up for Ferris Bueller), and 3/4 of the local police department, we realize that Tanya's apparently invulnerable pursuers are weak to the scratch of a cat. Before you can say "meow mix", Charles and Mary meet a horrible, but also hilarious, death by tabby: cue the end credits, scored by Enya (no, really).

How is Sleepwalkers not remembered more fondly in the annals of horror trainwrecks? Its highlights rival the creme de la creme of the cinematic cheese-and-corn buffet. Someone is stabbed in the eye with a corkscrew. Someone is stabbed through the ear with a pencil. Someone is stabbed in the back with a boiled ear of corn. And the script. My god, the script. The script is so achingly bad, so wondrously inept, that it sent me into transports of unadulterated joy. Somebody out there, somewhere, wrote this. Somebody out there chose to have his or her villain ruthlessly stab a police officer, then punctuate the crime by screaming "COP KEBAB!" (Gore warning on the cop kebab... obviously).

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sleepwalkers is that deep down inside this terrible movie is a decent movie trying to get out. A few moments -- Mary setting bear traps for the neighborhood cats, Mary and Charles' weirdly Oedipal relationship -- are almost disturbing. Plus there are cameos from Clive Barker (what?) Mark Hamill (what??) and even Stephen King (post-coke, ostensibly). Hollywood vegetables bent on remakes could do worse than Sleepwalkers. There is a scary movie in there somewhere. In the meantime, the original is entertaining in its own right.

Did you know she was in Mad Men? True fact.
FINAL GIRL: Tanya's sort of a nonentity in this movie; a force more acted-upon than acting; no brighter than basic human survival requires; basically, a cut-rate Molly Ringwald with a 90s makeover and a lobotomy. Madchen Amick does what she can with it. She can scream convincingly, anyway, which is all the role really demands. Also, she gets a bonus introductory dance montage that makes the movie ten times better if you're a Motown fan.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Favorite Movies

I spent some time this morning uselessly choosing my top ten favorite movies in order to put off going to the gym for as long as possible. So here they are: my all-time favorites offered up for your heartless judgement.
 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)

It is perhaps time that I admitted something that may, in retrospect, already have been obvious to all of you. I think I might just have bad taste in movies. I didn't like Lawrence of Arabia. I didn't like Citizen Kane. But I liked I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997), which movie critics high and low universally reviled. Well... life goes on, I guess. And this review, too, goes on, as I spend several paragraphs and an irretrievable hour of my life trying to justify my fondness for this film.

The hilllllllls are alive.
I Know What You Did Last Summer kicks off in the smallest of small-town USA (seriously, this is legit Springsteen territory). Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), Barry (Ryan Phillippe), Ray (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and Helen (Sarah Michelle Gellar) have just graduated high school, and to cap off their caps-off, Helen's been named Croaker Queen (think that's bad? Her surname is Shivers). Everything's peachy keen until a drunken Barry accidentally steers his car into a hapless jaywalker and the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed quartet have a hit-and-run on their hands. They drop the corpse off a dock and attempt to go about their post-high school lives, but inevitably the dead guy wasn't sufficiently dead and soon enough he's back to pick the pals off one-by-one.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
What I really love about I Know What You Did Last Summer is that it's a horror movie long before the Fisherman sinks his hook into our heroes. The small-town beauty queen who goes to NYC to make it big as an actress, then slinks back with her tail tucked between her legs... the nice boy from a good family who cuts his best friends dead when he decides he's been slumming it.... the smart kid with potential who ends up working his dad's fishing boat....That's horror. The grim figure stalking them through the backstreets, ready to gut them with a meat hook, is just the icing on the cake.

Parts of this movie are a little too meta and self-referential for my tastes (there's only one Scream and this ain't it, so quit telling each other slasher stories and name-checking Jodie Foster already). And of course, it's utterly predictable -- the bad kids die, the good kids live, and a sequel is shamelessly plugged. But there are also moments of inspired brilliance -- like Helen dumping the Fisherman's body in the basin while still wearing her Croaker Queen crown. Basically, I Know What You Did Last Summer is time well wasted. If there's nothing else on, you could do a lot worse. Citizen Kane, for example.

Jennifer hasn't quite found her sea legs, bless her.
FINAL GIRL: Julie (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the film's de facto final girl....

I think she borrowed that apron from Pyramid Head.
Is a lot less interesting than Missy (Anne Heche), the Fisherman's sister, who also makes it through to the end of the film. Missy is a slightly more genteel spin on the character Janus Blythe played in the original The Hills Have Eyes -- she's so ignorant and backwoods, it's hard to tell whether she's evil or just a hick. But Heche's haunted eyes and Les Mis bones stick with you as one of the few moments of genuine pathos in a movie that is mostly goofy fun. I wish Heche had done more acting in the 90s and less mooning around declaring that she was an alien being named Celestia.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Skyfall (2012)

THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE. SPOILERS. SO MANY SPOILERS. DON'T READ THIS POST IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN SKYFALL YET, BECAUSE IT WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE. Turn back now! This is your last chance! I am not responsible for your misery if you read beyond this point without having seen the movie. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Get it?

SPOILER: Bond seduces a woman and drinks a martini.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) is one of those earworm film titles that lodges in your head the very first time you hear it, whether you've seen the movie or not. The string of three apparently random nouns has been endlessly parodied, often by sources that have no business acknowledging the film's existence (I'm looking at you, Goof Troop). What makes this title so compelling? Is it the sex? Is it the lies? Is it, god forbid, the videotape? I don't know. All I know is that if a movie features a twentysomething James Spader and has "sex" right there in the title, I'm checking it out.

I like this screenshot because it looks like an excerpt from an infomercial for a new, improved vacuum cleaner.
The plot of Sex, Lies, and Videotape is celluloid-thin. Married couple Ann (Andie MacDowell) and John (Peter Gallagher) are the proud owners of a dead bedroom when John's school buddy Graham (James Spader) comes to town. Ann and Graham become increasingly intimate confidants; John doesn't notice because he's too busy banging Ann's sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo) behind Ann's back. Graham soon confides to Ann that he's not only impotent, but that he gets his ya-yas out by filming women's sexual confessions. Before you can say "holy indie blockbuster, Batman!" Ann and Cynthia have both made tapes for Graham, inspiring both the voyeur and his subjects to reclaim their sexual agency. It's a happy ending for everyone but John, but you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs and he's a lawyer anyway.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is genuinely about nothing but those three things, but it never stops being interesting, because it finds infinite new angles to examine its material from. Sex is simaltaneously John's affair with Cynthia, Ann's desire to finally experience an orgasm, and Graham's peeping-Tom tapes. "Lies" encompasses Cynthia's sisterly betrayal, John's infidelity, Graham's history as a complusive liar, Ann's feigned disgust at Graham's very "personal" video project. The videotape is both the tape-er and the tape-ees, and what happens when the tables are turned and Graham's camera is finally pointed his way.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape moves at a hypnotic crawl, but it becomes increasingly engrossing. Despite its self-consciously trashy-cute title, and despite its seedy subject matter, the film depicts its characters in a manner that is both respectful and truthful. There's not a false note in the performances or the directing. You may get impatient during the slower scenes, but it's worth it in the end. Oh, the sex. Oh, the lies. Oh, the videotape.

I think this was his Marlon Brando impression.
SCENE STEALER: Steven Brill provides some much-needed comic relief as a drunk in the joint Cynthia bartends, He has exactly three pickup lines and swaps them out, or occasionally mixes them up, as the situation requires. Looking at Brill's filomgraphy, he was also the dishwasher in Edward Scissorhands and the screenwriter for the Mighty Ducks movie. One might say that the early 90s were... Brill-iant.

Ba ha ha ha ha!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Scream (1996)

Most great slasher movies are not especially good slasher movies. Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street... they're justifiably iconic, but they're also ill-acted, ill-written and largely ill-conceived. It might be fair to say that most slasher masterpieces (slasherpieces?) are brilliant in spite of themselves.

And then there's Scream.

Scream (Wes Craven, natch; 1996) is scary. Scream is funny. Scream is so tightly written, directed and edited that you barely notice two hours go by. Best of all, Scream shamelessly panders to the horror buffs in the audience. It pays twisted homage to the great-not-good slashers of yore while thumbing its nose at the genre's cliches. At times, Scream is less a horror film than a love letter to its predecessors, and yet it's often better than the films it pretends to rip off.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.
High schooler Sidney Prescott (90s roll call: Neve Campbell) is having a rough year. The anniversary of her mother's murder is fast approaching, and someone's marked the occasion by offing Sidney's English-lit classmate Casey Becker (90s roll call: Drew Barrymore). Sidney's friends and peers are assholes who loudly speculate with a total lack of empathy as to who could have committed the murder(s); her boyfriend Billy (90s roll call: Skeet Ulrich) wishes she would get over her mother's death and let him go to third base already; and Gale Weather (90s roll call: Courteney Cox), a cheesy tabloid reporter wearing April O'Neil's hand-me-downs, is writing a tell-all book about how Sidney fingered the wrong guy in her mother's murder. As Sidney's bad week gets worse, more locals are gutted, and a party thrown by Sidney's buddy Randy (Jamie Kennedy) is crashed by the murderer and summarily blood-soaked. Sidney and Gale are forced to take matters into their own hands, slaying the killer and saving the day. Traumatized Sidney may be, but she'll have something unique to write about in her college admissions essay.

There's not a lot I don't love about Scream, but there are aspects that I find bemusing. Principally, the killer -- retroactively dubbed Ghostface -- seems to be a bit of a misfit in ye olde slasher canon. Most horror villains derive their staying power from their utter inscrutability: picture the blank and silent Michael and Jason, or the lumbering Leatherface. Ghostface is more in the flamboyant Freddy Krueger vein, but he's neither as grimy nor as grotesque as Krueger. Characterized by flirtatious pre-slaying crank calls, the ritualistic cleaning of his blade, and an odd tendency to get kicked in the balls, Ghostface veers uncertainly between glamor and effeminacy. It makes a little more sense when his true identity is revealed, but Ghostface is still an odd anomaly in a film that purports to follow the splatter bible by rote.

In intention and execution Scream is quite similar to 2012's The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard). Despite its being released over 15 years earlier, I think Scream is the more successful of the two films. Its big finale is certainly truer to its humble splatter-flick roots: Scream reinvents its conventions where Cabin in the Woods in content to merely bulldoze them. The scene in which Sidney assumes Ghostface's mantle to terrorize the killer beneath, for instance, redefines the much-maligned "Final Girl" stereotype. What's that Nietzsche quote? "Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you." I'm aware that I'm  babbling nonsense, so I'm just going to insert a picture of Rose McGowan here and get on with the review.

Scream is set in California, except for this one scene which apparently takes place at the North Pole.
SCENE STEALER: Sidney's best friend Tatum (Rose McGowan) is a simpering, lollipop-slobbering, pigtail-twirling pop tart -- until Ghostface makes his move. Then she turns into a biting, kicking harpy who comes closer to besting her killer than any other victim. Tatum's death -- trapped as she tries to crawl out the pet flap in the garage door and electrocuted by the door-open mechanism -- is probably unique in cinema history (and real life, for that matter). It also lends itself almost too well to a feminist analysis of the slutty blonde's role in the horror genre. Isn't it true that Tatum, although infantilized and objectified by the other characters, perishes only when she becomes willing to objectify herself by crawling out an exit intended for a lower form of life (the family cat)? Or should I just put down the Camille Paglia and go take a long walk in the fresh air?

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Child's Play (1988)

Think about how many movies you've seen that aimed high, then didn't follow through. Got a few (thousand) in mind? Now think about how many movies you've seen that set the bar low, then cleared it beautifully. Not quite as many, right? Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988) is one of those rare movies that achieves everything it sets out to do, but doesn't really attempt much in the first place. As such, it occupies a rather Pyrrhic niche in the annals of film making, but it's still an enjoyable watch.

A perfect doll and a killer... BUT WHICH IS WHICH???
All grade-schooler Andy (Alex Vincent) wants for his birthday is a "Good Guy" doll. When his single, working mom Karen (Catherine Hicks) is able to snag one off the back of a black-market pushcart, it eases her guilt about having to work on her son's big day. She watches with all the maternal aplomb of the Virgin Mary as the talking doll (Brad Dourif) tells Andy its name -- "Chucky" -- and promises to be his friend forever. Unfortunately, Karen punches out a few hours later only to find that Andy's babysitter has been defenestrated and Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) of Chicago's finest doesn't believe Andy's "Chucky did it" alibi. The rest of the movie is horror duck-duck-goose: Norris chases Karen chases Chucky chases Andy. Once the obligatory skepticism is dispatched and everyone accepts that they've got a homicidal doll on their hands, there's a final showdown in Karen's apartment that doesn't even pretend not to be setting up the sequels.

Okay, so Child's Play is schlock. But I've seen schlock-ier schlock. The satire is dead-on; I'm just old enough to remember the pop-culture wasteland of Eighties fad toys, each with its own tie-in cartoon (my personal Kryptonite was Rainbow Brite). The acting is across-the-board decent, even when the actors are asked to stray way beyond the call of duty (and over the line of dignity). Raymond Oliver, for instance, playing Chucky's former black-magic mentor, is handed the most inanely offensive voodoo stereotype this side of Live and Let Die, but damned if he doesn't just act the living shit out of it anyway. The whole movie is like that. Its parts are so determined to be better than the whole that the whole becomes somehow elevated.

For a film that gave birth to a slasher franchise, there's surprisingly little slashing in Child's Play: I'm pretty sure the death count stopped at two (three if you count characters reincarnated over the course of the movie). Since it's already leaning towards suspense rather than horror, it might have been interesting to see the script play longer with the Andy-or-Chucky whodunnit setup. But, man, who am I kidding? This is mediocrity in its most honest form, and maybe that's a good thing. The fairest thing I can say about Child's Play is if you think you might like it, you probably will.

When you can't get Shelley Duvall....
FINAL GIRL: There's only two girls in this movie, so it's not like this was a hard-won title, but our Final Girl for Child's Play is Andy's mom Karen. I liked Karen, actually. She's a plucky, self-sufficient single parent who's able to keep her head on straight when things start going crazy (not to mention avoid the stupid romantic angle with Detective Norris that I assumed at the outset was a given). She also appears to have ripped her shapeless beige jacket straight off the back of Elizabeth Shue in Adventures in Babysitting. It's survival of the fittest out there in Hollywood.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Master (2012)

In The Master (2012), P. T. Anderson has made the wrong movie for the right reasons.

The reasons: Scientology's growing hold on America's entertainment elite, Anderson's gift for capturing things as they are and not as they appear to be, and the considerable talents of Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The movie: about an hour's worth of half-baked polemic stretched over two hours and change.

Smile!
Freddie Quell, ex-Navyman, is having trouble reintegrating into society after WW2. His efforts are not aided by his moonlighting as a bootlegger, brewing potions so fancifully toxic that it is a miracle he only manages to poison one character over the course of the movie. Fleeing said accidental manslaughter, Freddie falls into the retinue of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a cult leader with a taste for Quell's chemical moonshine. Freddie becomes a devotee of Dodd's philosophy, known as The Cause, but proves to have too many personal demons for Dodd and his acolytes to expel. Quell returns to his empty life of womanizing, and The Cause -- which is beginning to attract the attention of skeptics as well as spiritual seekers -- relocates to England.

Anderson has created a fantastic cast of characters. His women are especially nuanced and complex by Hollywood's standards, including Laura Dern as a Cause-devoted housewife, Amy Adams as Dodd's constantly gestating spouse Peggy, Amber Childers as their ambitiously amorous daughter and Madisen Beaty as Quell's all-but-child-bride. Likewise, Anderson creates a series of haunting and poignant moments that linger with the viewer: Quell's lustful attack on a woman carved from sand, the grotesquely business-minded ideological and sexual demands Peggy places simultaneously upon her husband, Quell ripping a toilet from the wall of a small-town jail (there's a similar moment in Walk the Line: does Phoenix have a contractual clause entitling him to irreparably destroy one bathroom fixture per picture?). Yet it all goes nowhere. Anderson has laid the foundation for a masterwork and then sent it off to theatres naked. It's one thing to sit through ninety minutes of this stuff, but at over two hours, the unformed musings of even a cinematic genius grow wearisome.

Not a screenshot, but damn she's gorgeous.

Scene Stealer: Amy Ferguson is excellent as Martha, a co-worker/lover of Freddie's and a character so minor I can't even find a proper picture of her using Google image search. Martha is a department store model who parades through the aisles in the latest fashions, announcing the price to disinterested shoppers, and her malaise is evident underneath her runway poise. Hopefully next time we see Ferguson, it'll be in a role big enough to actually merit a couple early screenshots.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Hindsight is 20/20. I used to really love Anne Rice, and now I recall the teenaged summer I spent in a black broomstick skirt reading The Vampire Lestat with bemusement. Similarly, it might once have seemed appropriate to cast Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in a movie that demanded they be taken very seriously, but now all you can see when you look at them is Brangelina and the Sea Org. Finally, it might once have seemed like a good idea to re-imagine vampires as mopey navel-gazers, but we all know how wrong that can go.

Very, very wrong.
Today we're not talking about Twilight (thank god). We're talking about Interview with the Vampire (Neil Jordan, 1994). That means fewer sparkles, but the same amount of whiny existentialist bullshit.

"Louis... am I pretty?"
The titular interview is conducted by one Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater), who stumbles upon the palely brooding Louis (Brad Pitt), decides the dapper stranger must have an interesting life story, and plops him down in front of a tape recorder. Louis doesn't disappoint, obligingly revealing that he is a vampire and recounting his sordid tale. It mostly revolves around Louis' twisted menage a trois with his pouty sire Lestat (Tom Cruise) and their pint-sized progeny Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The three vamps are amusingly horrible to each other until Lestat is burnt extra-crispy in a New Orleans house fire and Claudia is shut outdoors by snobby European vampires to die a horrible death of lethal vampire sunburn, leaving Louis the last vampire in the ring. Malloy is very impressed by Louis's story and suggests that Louis make him the latest recipient of the honor of vampire-hood; Louis refuses, sulking out into the night and cuing a Guns and Roses cover of Sympathy for the Devil.

Half the problem with Interview With The Vampire is the casting. It's never gratingly wrong, but it's seldom more than competent. It may be a miracle of its own that Cruise didn't butcher his character, but can anyone get exciting about a performance that is just... okay? Kristen Dunst, similarly, is out of her depth here. An adult vampire trapped in a child's body, Claudia is motivated by her pent-up sensuality, but in Dunst's hands she never convinces as a frustrated adult. Claudia seems to desire Louis in exactly the same way she'd desire an ice cream sandwich or a pony. This was a Dakota Fanning role back when there was no Dakota Fanning, and Dunst just isn't up to scratch.

The other half of the problem is that this movie takes itself way too fucking seriously. Louis is a yawnworthy hero, constantly fretting over the mystery of his existence; since his moral quandaries are never resolved, they become tiresome. Lestat and Claudia's machinations are entertaining in a sort of undead soap-opera fashion, but they don't get enough narrative weight to rescue the film from its milquetoast protagonist. I also wish that more had been done with Christian Slater, who feints at having a personality in the first couple scenes but is reduced to a one-man Greek chorus by the end.

I'm not even going to take the cheap shot and be all like "well at least my generation's vampires didn't sparkle". Let's face it, that's way too fucking easy. Louis and Lestat's incessant, gratuitous posing and moping paved the way for Cullen and his ilk. It's a damn shame, because movie vamps never used to be such wimps. Where's Max Schreck when you need him?

Preparing to EAT YOUR SOUL, that's where.
Best dressed person in the room? You're darn tootin'.
SCENE STEALER: Thandie Newton as Yvette, a slave on Louis' plantation and, briefly, his reluctant confidante. Yvette gets very little screentime and mostly appears opposite undead all-powerful vampires, yet her carefully chosen words and enigmatic expressions suggest that she's probably the most interesting person in the room. I probably shouldn't hold my breath for that tie-in novel at this point.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Wicker Man (1973)

I was thinking about watching this movie with my mom.  I am so glad I didn't watch this movie with my mom.

The Wicker Man is not parental bonding material
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) follows bobby Sergeant Howie's (Edward Woodward) investigation of the disappearance of pre-teen Rowan Morrison (Gerry Cowper) from an isolated farming community called Summerisle. Howie finds himself stymied at every turn by the conflicting statements given by Summerisle's villagers: Rowan is dead, or not human, or she never existed. All very frustrating, and just to add insult to injury, the innkeeper's daughter (Britt Ekland) won't stop doing naked dances and banging on his bedroom wall (VERY distracting). Gradually it emerges (actually, no one's that subtle about it) that the inhabitants of Summerisle are neo-pagans led by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) in the practice of ancient sacrifices and fertility rites. Guess who's due to get sacrificed for a bountiful harvest? Protip: it's not Rowan Morrison.

Despite its endless tit parade, The Wicker Man is, at its core, both conservative and reactionary. It's no coincidence that it came out a couple years after the hippie movement's heyday. In The Wicker Man, anything redolent of back-to-nature -- even folk music or not wearing a bra -- is evil. Yet, like Milton, Hardy seems to be on the devil's side without knowing it. His heathen villagers are ignorant and wicked and the very very Christian Howie is gallant and good, but Hardy's film imbues its villains with a crucial charm its hero lacks: a sense of humor. When Howie, stumbling upon a fertility rite, blusters "They are NAKED!" and Summerisle replies that it would be too dangerous to jump through a fire fully clothed, we can't help but snigger a little bit at our hero's expense. Howie is noble enough, but not particularly sympathetic.

From what I understand about The Wicker Man's production, it's a miracle that a finished print ever saw the light of day (forces ranging from uninterested studio heads to Mick Jagger himself conspired to smother it). Consequently, there are several different cuts floating around. The one I watched -- a 2009 Lions Gate release -- has an un-hemmed quality, laden with scenes and shots which don't contribute directly to the movie's plot. Yet the wealth of information we receive about Summerisle, not all of it relevant or useful, lends the movie's setting a realistic, almost documentary quality. The movie-makers were presumably aware of this unsettling effect, given their winking special-thanks intertitle to "Lord Summerisle and the people of his island" (which has never existed).

Rule Britt-ania
SCENE STEALER: Britt Ekland (acting)/Annie Ross (voice)/Jane Jackson (naked butt shots) as the landlord's GGG daughter Willow. Ekland was apparently dubbed over because her Swedish accent didn't gibe with rustic Summerisle, and used a body double due to her pregnancy, but these decisions made from necessity turned out to be artistically inspired. There is something fantastically fertile and lush about the Willow created in post-production: the combination of Ekland's sweet face, Ross' throaty brogue, and Jackson's, uh, killer dance moves render the character a Frankenstein-ed fox. We're able to see Willow as Howie sees her: not only too tempting to resist, but too tempting to exist (which she doesn't: or rather, she exists only as parts of three separate women).

Monday, 17 September 2012

One Million Years BC (1966)

There are Claymation dinosaur battles in this movie. That in and of itself ought to be enough to convince you to watch it. If not, the rest of my review follows below.

Tyrannosaurus SEX.

One Million Years BC (Don Chaffey, 1966) revolves around the misadventures of Tumak (John Richardson), musclebound caveman extraordinaire. Tumak offends his people, the Rock Tribe, by, I don't know, being too good a hunter or some such shit (it can be hard to grasp the nuances of the drama since everyone but Raquel Welch communicates in grunts). The Rock Tribe kicks Tumak out and he wanders around the desert, finally stumbling upon the blonde, buff Shell Tribe, where Loana the Fair One (Raquel Welch) takes a fancy to him. Eventually the Shell Tribe exiles Tumak for being a troublemaker (it's the Rebel Without A Cause of the Jurassic Age), so he and Loana head back to the Rock Tribe to seize power. Then a volcano erupts and the surviving Shell folk and Rockers have to make nice and ally their tribes. It's very touching.

One Million Years BC is an almost ideal B-movie experience that keeps you on its side by never overreaching itself. Despite its ponderous opening narration ("This is a story of LONG, LONG AGO") this is not a movie that wants to show you History As It Was and the Real and True Origin of Things. It just digs sexy cave chicks and dino duels, which is goddamn glorious. Sign me up. The movie's influence does actually extend beyond Welch's tyrannic sex appeal -- thirty years or so later, The Lion King cribbed the Rock Tribe's dramatic clifftop betrayal for Mufasa's "long live the King" death scene.

The unapologetic anachronism of this movie might be dated, but it's also refreshing. The best historical epics (and admittedly, One Million Years BC isn't one of them) often play fast and loose with historical accuracy. Contemporary period movies needs to rediscover this freedom -- the freedom to slavishly adhere to historical accuracy only insofar as it serves the story. Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette feinted towards intentional anachronism, to a collective critical snigger, but MA's burgeoning cult status shows that Coppola's instincts were clever.

Historical films need to pick and choose their history, or they become instructional videos. It's not that they SHOULD spurn facts, if the facts are relevant, but I see far too many movies that get the brand of typewriter right, then forget the human element. We have universities, history books, documentary films to tell us about FACTS, but FACTS are not why we watch a movie like One Million Years BC, so its frank evasion of "historical accuracy" is a relief.

Historical accuracy, as it is practiced nowadays by shows like Mad Men, is a circus act -- impressive, but not moving. The overt anachronism in this movie is liberating more than naive. I'm sure that the director and producers knew that there was no historical period ever when coiffed cavewomen with good teeth fended off pterodactyl attacks, but you know what? They wanted to do that. So they did. And I'm glad. Aren't you?

Mankind discovered the hot roller shortly after the wheel and fire.

SCENE STEALER: Raquel Welch gets all the attention as the sex symbol for this movie, and rightfully so, as she is as sexy as fuck. For the record, though, Martine Beswick as her rival Nupondi the Wild One -- Tumak's spurned Rock Tribe girlfriend -- has the better acting chops.

Did I mention that there's a cavewoman catfight in this movie? Just watch it.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


Let me begin today’s review by noting that rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. I’m not dead, I’ve just spent the last ten days involved in not one but two Atlantic Fringe Festival productions and reviewing a bunch of the other ones. It’s been busy. But we can put all that behind us now and get to what really matters: watching fucktons of movies and judging their worth. (This qualifies as a hobby, right?)

Logically speaking, no movie's perfect – this being a flawed universe and so on – but Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988) comes damn close. I think it's one of the best movies of all time, and bonus, it’s a lot more watchable than some of the pretentious twaddle saddled with that accolade (I’m looking at you, Citizen Kane). Roger Rabbit succeeds brilliantly on two levels: as a technical achievement, and as a comedy with an unbeatable schtick (cartoon characters as living, feeling beings).

You'll be glad you "saw" this movie. Get it?
Private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) hasn't worked for 'toons since he lost his brother and partner in the line of duty ("'toons killed his brother... dropped a piano on his head," recounts Eddie's girlfriend Dolores [Joanna Cassidy], with an impossibly straight face). But times are tough, and Eddie takes on a bit of dirty business: photographic proof that 'toon star Roger Rabbit's wife, Jessica (the troubled couple are voiced by Charles Fleischer and Kathleen Turner), is "playing patty-cake" with movie mogul Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye). Of course, Acme turns up dead, and Roger is the prime suspect. The unlucky rabbit pleads his innocence to Eddie, and the pair set off to figure out who framed Roger Rabbit (it turns out, of course, to be the only guy without a sense of humor: Christopher Lloyd's Judge Doom).

Thank god this movie was made before CGI went mainstream. Computer graphics would have gotten the charm of pen-and-ink cartoons all wrong: cleaned it up, slicked it down, rendered it in (heaven forbid) 3D. But Roger, Jessica and their ilk could have wandered out of some forgotten Tex Avery short. They look like the old cartoons, and better yet, they move that way. I've heard an urban legend that Jessica's breasts were animated to bounce up when a normal woman's would drop downwards; I don't know how true that is, but whatever they did, it worked. Also impressive is the amount of interaction the cartoon characters have with their live environment. This is necessary in the case of main characters, of course -- anything else would look cheap and lazy. But why make one of your extras a 'toon octopus bartender who serves drinks to real humans? What's that? Just because you can? Zemeckis, I like your style.

There's an (admittedly featherweight) political subtext to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The treatment of 'toons as second-class citizens is reminiscent of American racial segregation, and the Ink and Paint Club (a humans-only 'toon revue where Jessica performs) calls the Cotton Club to mind. I do wish that this movie had depicted the social standing of 'toons a little more clearly: 'toons can be employed and legally married, yet murdered without ramification? It's not really consistent, and it just gets more confusing when you try to figure out whether toons age, reproduce, die. 

That's my only nitpick, though, and it's more of a headache than a dealbreaker. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a truly great cinematic experience: one which is timeless, and yet could only have been a product of its time. If anyone ever tries to re-release this movie in 3D, I'll drop a piano on their head.

Someone at Disney designed that dress. Believe it.
SCENE STEALER: Jessica Rabbit, goddess that she is, is the obvious choice here... too obvious, in fact. But there's someone else in this movie who deserves some love, too.

Always a class act.
The one and only Betty Boop!

Betty's only in the movie for a few seconds -- an old friend of Eddie's, she's been reduced to the Ink and Paint Club's cigarette girl because things have been "a little slow since cartoons went to color." Her defiantly cheerful hip bevel and "boop-boop-de-doop" are the most bittersweet moment in the film, wacky fun that it is -- doubly so when you learn that Betty's original actress, Mae Questel, voiced the cameo (she was 79). Ah, it's a cruel world that can't protect Betty Boop from the ravages of time.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Heathers (1988)

Did your high school have a know-it-all? A too-smart-for-his-own-good kid in a uniform of Converse sneakers, plaid shirts and sunglasses, with ambitions of facial hair? A kid who always arrived late for class, then sat in the back row peppering the teacher with cynical asides, smugly correcting the grammar mistakes in handouts and generally making it impossible to get any real work done? A kid who later spent his college years in a shitty garage band "without a genre" or as a half-baked political activist before abruptly selling out and going to law school? I know this isn't a standard high school cliche like The Jock or The Cheerleader, but am I sort of ringing some bells here? Well, Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988) is the cinematic equivalent of your standard high-school know-it-all. It's almost always right; it's almost never kind; and its caustic wit is sharp and clever, but too cruel to be really funny.

September from the "Croquet Babes in Blazers" calendar.
Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has bitten and scratched her way up Westerburg High's pecking order, only to find that being at the top of the food chain disagrees with her stomach. Her peers in the teenage aristocracy -- the totally vile Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) and slightly less monstrous Heathers Duke (Shannen Doherty) and McNamara (Lisanne Falk) -- entertain themselves by tormenting their classmates, a hobby their victims passively accept until transfer student J. D. (Christian Slater) comes to town. Before you can say "Swatch dogs and Diet Cokeheads", J. D.'s seduced Veronica into serving Heather Chandler a fatal antifreeze cocktail. Her death kickstarts a vogue for teenage suicide at Westerburg, and when Veronica tries to right matters, she's nearly offed by the nutso J. D. Our heroine finally manages to save the day seconds before J. D. blows up the school: Heathers' ending, in which Veronica lights a cigarette off the explosion that consumes J. D.'s body and wryly declares "there's a new sheriff in town", is among the most deeply satisfying I've seen, despite its being a studio-mandated rewrite.

Heathers falls prey to an assumption that's pretty pervasive in high school genre flicks: that all high school kids, from the 7th graders to the seniors, are equally barbaric to each other. I don't buy this. Maybe my senior high school years were sheltered, but no one was really that horrible to me. I endured the same insecurities I assume my peers did, but most of my highly tragic inner turmoil was self-inflicted; no one else really messed with me. That's why I'm always a little skeptical regarding movies about the wanton cruelty of 11th and 12th graders. By the time kids are talking about college, most have matured beyond torturing each other for the sheer joy of it. The kind of malicious cafeteria politics depicted in films like Heathers (or the more recent, and funnier, Mean Girls) as taking place between older kids seems more suited to 7th or 8th graders. In my experience, by the time they're old enough to drive, high schoolers more closely resemble the characters of Daria, Election or The Breakfast Club -- they endure tiffs and rivalries, but they don't dogmatically despise less "popular" classmates simply by virtue of their existence.

Heathers has a fantastic script, not a single line of which sounds like anything a real human being would ever say, some ravishingly bizarro costumes, and a bevy of drop-dead (hee hee) gorgeous actresses who do not resemble any 16-year-old who ever walked this planet. Best of all, its heart is in entirely the wrong place. This movie is not interested in exploring the deep, underlying causes of teenage anguish. It doesn't want to make you feel better. Instead, it's an extended snigger at the expense of the common enough adolescent misconception that unhappiness is somehow ennobling. Self-destruction is one of this society's last sacred cows, and Heathers' amoral inconclasm is occasionally obnoxious, but also endearing in spite of itself. Its heroines are from a different, darker valley than the Disney dolls who populate teen movies nowadays: they drink and have sex, and how complicit Veronica is in Heather Chandler's murder is admirably left ambiguous. All in all, I do recommend Heathers, although it can be more bewildering than enjoyable. I'll stand by any movie where a band called Big Fun releases the single "Teenage Suicide: Don't Do It!"

Suspenders: are they right for you?
SCENE STEALER: Shannen Doherty's Heather Duke gets the clearest narrative arc of all the Heathers: the second she gets her hands on the deceased Heather Chandler's trademark red scrunchie, Duke goes from the sweet, long-suffering underdog of the Heathers to the wicked queen of Westerburg High. Absolute power corrupts her absolutely, and Veronica's disbelief and horror at the change that has been wrought upon her "friend" are believable enough: Doherty's china-doll face and doe eyes belie the horrible transformation that has taken place. I haven't seen Shannen Doherty in anything else, but my understanding is that she got to be kind of a big deal later, which doesn't surprise me. She's the only actress playing a "Heather" who's able to imbue her character with a soul, twisted though it may be. Hooray for Shannen Doherty! P. S., I know this is not a big deal and does not have the slightest bearing on her talent as an actress at all, but have you noticed the way one of her eyes is higher up than the other one?


Yikes.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

To Rome With Love (2012)

I'm a Woody Allen fan, in a mild, non-committal sort of way. Luckily (or not) To Rome With Love (2012) is a mild, non-committal sort of movie. It mostly gives the impression that Woody Allen wanted to take a vacation, chose Rome, and as an afterthought, decided to make a movie while he was there.

Rome if you want to.
To Rome With Love anthologizes four stories: provincial newlyweds Milly and Antonio (Alessandra Mastronardi and Alessandro Tiberi) have their small-town naivety shattered while vacationing in Rome (good), a sage old architect (Alec Baldwin) gives a wet-behind-the-ears architectural student (Jesse Eisenberg) romantic advice (better), an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) wakes up famous (boring), and a retired producer (Woody Allen) discovers an operatic talent (Fabio Armiliato) who only sings in the shower (irritating). If the latter two stories had been cut and the spare time spent focusing on the first two, To Rome With Love would have been the better for it. As it stands, it's a bit like one of those "grab bags" you can sometimes buy from online shops: one or two good things, and the rest is stuff you have no interest in.

If I was to rate each of these stories on its own, I'd give the architects a 4/5; the love triangle is the oldest story in the book, but the young student's disappearing-reappearing mentor is a refreshing conceit. I'd give the newlyweds a 3/5: the coquettish Milly is allowed to surprise us, and Penelope Cruz is amusing as the hooker Antonio forces to impersonate the absent Milly at his important business meeting. I'd give the opera singer 2/5: it's a one-note gag (pardon the pun) strained to the breaking point, but Woody Allen and Judy Davis are at least diverting as bickering retirees. And I'd give Benigni's famous/not-famous switcharoo a 1/5: it's briefly entertaining, but there's really no story here. Even if this is how Allen feels about fame deep down -- that one day you just wake up and the entire world wants to know what you had for breakfast -- he might have been better off venting his frustrations to his shrink than to paying audiences.

Rome around the world.
SCENE STEALER: I'd be a bad Haligonian if I didn't plug Ellen Page, who plays pretentious starlet Monica in the tale of two architects. Casting Page as the selectively heartless Monica was a clever move on Allen's part -- a more traditionally bodacious femme fatale would have consigned the character to cliche, but Page is elfin and sad-eyed and the audience, like her target, doesn't see the danger until it's too late. Even then, we're all like "is she really going to sleep with her best friend's boyfriend on her best friend's couch? Really? Oh, they're going to do it in the car? That's fine, then." Who can stay mad at Ellen Page?

Monday, 13 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

I saw The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012) at a midnight screening on opening night, and I wasn't impressed. In fact, I fell asleep in the middle. That said, it was 2 AM and I'd been watching Batman for eight hours (they were showing Batman Begins and The Dark Knight beforehand, and I can't resist a movie marathon), so I thought I'd give the film another shot before I said anything mean on the internet. Now that I've seen it twice, though, I've made up my mind: The Dark Knight Rises may be enjoyable, but it's definitely disappointing. The film is smarter (not to mention longer) than most summer blockbusters, but it doesn't reach the bar set by Begins and TDK. This trilogy deserved a better finish.

Dancing cheek to cheek.
The Dark Knight Rises has the dubious distinction of being a Batman movie which features very little Batman. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has holed himself up in Wayne Manor, Howard Hughes-style, and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is the first person to see him in eight years when she pops upstairs to steal his fingerprints and his mother's pearl necklace. Pursuing Kyle leads Wayne to Bane (Tom Hardy), but not in time to keep the masked baddie from imprisoning the entire Gotham police force and turning the city into a lawless no man's land (sound familiar?). Anarchy isn't what Bane really wants, though. Bane is with the nefarious League of Shadows, and what he really wants is to blow Gotham to smithereens: in fact, he's acquired a nuclear weapon for the occasion. Bane breaks Wayne's spine and tosses him into a Middle Eastern prison to keep him out of the way, but these are piddling trifles to Batman and soon enough he's back to save the day. This is accomplished through a large number of dull action sequences, and finally Batman and Catwoman are able elope to Europe (either that or Alfred [Michael Caine] is going senile). In the end, a young Gotham ex-cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is left to take over as Gotham's newest masked sheriff.

Many, many critics have identified the parallels between Bane's ragtag anarchists and the Occupy  movement (there's even a scene where Bane and his goons storm the Gotham equivalent of Wall Street, terrorizing the poor, helpless capitalists). Chris Nolan has been very coy on the subject, but he's not fooling anyone. This movie's politics are abhorrent, not because they're conservative but because they're cheap. Think about the function of the nuclear bomb in this movie: why does Bane need it if Gotham's common folk will tear each other apart in the absence of the law? TDKR's nuclear MacGuffin exists so that Nolan doesn't have to follow the logic of Bane's "villainy", and Batman's "rescue" to its inevitable conclusion: that Batman must save Gothamites from a world without prisons, police, and the Patriot Act (which the film renames the Dent Act for easier digestion). In essence, he must save the people of Gotham from an enemy worse than the Scarecrow, Two-Face, or even the Joker: themselves. Some studio bigwig must have clued in that this was a moral which mere commoners might find unpalatable, and demanded that the nuclear weapon be added in as well just to make it really clear that Batman was the good guy. Ain't nobody gonna argue with a nuke.

I'll let the Green Arrow handle this one.
Even apart from its politics, The Dark Knight Rises retains the weaknesses of the previous two Dark Knight movies without retaining their strengths. Bloated runtime? Check. Hokey script? Check. The B-movie tricks Nolan puts his A-list actors through here are cringe-worthy. Michael Caine is made to deliver a bathetic monologue to a grave marker. Gary Oldman is made to spend three quarters of the film gasping pithy truisms from a hospital bed. Marion Cotillard is made to die very slowly while delivering death-rattle exposition. It's like watching race horses being forced to give pony rides. And unfortunately, the dark realism that sold Nolan's previous films is on shakier ground here. Between his ridiculous mask and his shallow motives, Bane never quite makes it out of comic-book territory. Additionally, the mask muddies his dialogue: since Bale's bat-rasp is back full force, "dramatic" conversations between the two verge on incomprehensible. Also, why is it that every time Bruce Wayne leaves America, it's suddenly Batman in Clicheland? I've counted exactly four geographical locations in The Dark Knight universe: the Middle East, the Far East, Russia (where they make ballerinas), and Gotham. TDKR's treatment of Talia (Marion Cotillard) and Bane's far-off origins reminds me a little of the "filthy Eastern ways" gag in Help! (1965), but Richard Lester was playing it for laughs and Nolan apparently means us to believe that there's a prison somewhere out there that is literally just a huge hole in the ground. How can anyone be expected to take this seriously? What happens when it rains?

This review is harsher than I meant it to be. The Dark Knight Rises isn't bad. It's maybe a 3/5. But it could have been so much more. As far as the Seven Stages of Grief go, I'm still in the "bargaining" stage with this movie. If there had only been a better script... if they'd edited more tightly... but no. The Dark Knight Rises is what it is: a sprawling, grim, and perhaps deliberately inflammatory finish for an equally dark, and often equally exasperating, series. I saw Batman Begins five times and The Dark Knight six, but with The Dark Knight Rises, I think I'm gonna stop at two. I've had enough Nolan for a while.

Meow.
SCENE STEALER: Anne Hathaway's wonderful Selena Kyle (she's never actually called Catwoman) is the high point of this movie: the only bad thing about the character is that she's underused. If every second of the usually riveting Marion Cotillard's screen time had been given to Hathaway instead, the latter would still leave us hungry and the former would hardly be missed. Kyle is wry, self-aware, and instantly more sympathetic than the film's ostensible hero -- when she warns Bruce Wayne that he's "going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us," you not only believe her, you kinda look forward to it, too. I'm glad to see that the Catwoman character has not, after all, been forever tainted by you-know-what-movie (Batman geeks: the healing process may now commence).

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Pulp Fiction (1994)

I'm going to take a break from the Batmania today to take a gander at Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). This film was Tarantino's second home run, following 1992's Reservoir Dogs (I guess he probably spent 1993 mucking around as the screenwriter on Tony Scott's True Romance). Pulp Fiction earned Tarantino the mass approval his earlier work never drummed up (including that ultimate bourgeois booby-prize, an Academy Award) and that's the story of How Tarantino Became King of the Movies.

Long may he reign.
Pulp Fiction follows multiple story threads: gangster Vincent Vega's (John Travolta) date with his boss' wife (Uma Thurman); a boxer (Bruce Willis) accepting a bribe to fix a match, then winning anyway and leaving town; a pair of gangsters (Travolta again, plus Samuel L. Jackson) cleaning up post-wetworks. The stories don't happen in any special order, so the characters wander in and out of each other's worlds, generally to destructive effect. When the dust has settled, there have been near-death experiences, there have been actual death experiences, there have been rapes, drug overdoses, botched robberies and dance-offs. It's not too surprising that the movie wraps on Jules Winnfield (Jackson's thug) decision to retire: after a nearly three-hour run time, he's had enough of this shit.

Truthfully, I'm not interested in talking about whether Pulp Fiction is a good or bad movie. It's neither. Tarantino has been called a DJ rather than a director, and rather than taking this as an insult, I think it's the most useful way to interpret his work. His innovations are structural: they have nothing to do with the narrative content. We've seen, for instance, the aged boxer and the mob boss a million times before. What we've never seen is the boxer save the mob boss from sadomasochistic hillbilly pawn-shop owners with a handy katana. That's where things get interesting. Even Tarantino's widely-touted dialogue is not so much novel as unexpected. I've had lots of stupid conversations with my friends about TV show pilots and what to eat for breakfast. It's just that we expect people up on the silver screen to be a little more erudite.

If you know a lot about movies and pop culture in general, you are likely to enjoy Pulp Fiction. If you are not particularly fascinated by McDonald's menus from France or doing the Twist in tacky fifties diners, you might want to give it a miss. It's the cinematic equivalent of D+D's neutral-neutral, and therefore un-rateable: you'll get out of Pulp Fiction however much you can put into it. I give it a 1-5/5, depending.

Blueberry pancakes play a pivotal role in this movie.
SCENE STEALER: Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, lovesick robbers who impulsively turn their brunch into a stick-em-up. Pumpkin and Honey Bunny bookend Pulp Fiction, pulling their guns just before the starting credits roll and being politely sent packing by Jules and Vincent at the close of the film. Although this is one of those movies where you want to learn more about all the characters (the fascinating Mia Wallace disappears after the first act, one of Pulp Fiction's only major disappointments), Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are unique in that they almost seem to deserve a movie of their own. Who are these British brigands? Did love or crime come first? How did they wind up inhaling pancakes in a lousy LA diner? I guess we'll never know.