Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Dark Knight (2008)

Here's how big a deal The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) was. I was working for a big business when this movie came out, and my entire office was given the morning off to attend a special preview screening. The screening was at some ungodly hour like 8:30 AM, I guess so that we would be the only people in the theatre. In the lobby of the cineplex, they had set up a chocolate fountain and an energy drink bar. (Side note: this will be the catering arrangement for my wedding someday). We were then ushered into the theatre, where we spent the next two hours watching the baleful Bale and co. Then I went home and wrote the only multi-part fanfic I ever finished in my entire life. THAT is how big a deal The Dark Knight was.

But why? This is a deeply flawed movie. Why did it become a cultural behemoth so massive that entire offices were taking half-day field trips and lazy fanfic writers were inspired to untold literary heights? The cynic in me suspects that The Dark Knight's total cultural saturation was largely due to a morbid fascination with Heath Ledger's tragic death (remember this tacky rumour?), considered against his Oscar-winning performance as the Joker. Ledger's last film was catapulted to box-office infamy through tragic timing, like the last films of predecessors Bruce Lee and James Dean. I do think that Ledger's performance was one-of-a-kind, and his posthumous accolades largely deserved. But I don't think The Dark Knight is a best-superhero-film-of-all-time, 94%-on-Rotten-Tomatoes kind of a movie. I think it's just Pretty Good. Given the low bar set by other comic book movies, even Pretty Good is fine by me.

A screencap of the amazing Heath Ledger and some other guy.
The plot of this movie is largely irrelevant to what actually makes it decent, but here we go: the Joker comes to town, tortures Batman (Christian Bale) for a while, kills Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a couple of other irrelevant characters, kills Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman: SPOILER, he doesn't actually kill Jim Gordon), tries to force some Gothamites to blow each other up, and gets caught. Then there's some stuff with Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart). The end.

It's really kind of shocking that this movie runs for over two hours given its lack of actual narrative content. But bloated run times are a hallmark of this trilogy, and compared to Nolan's other efforts The Dark Knight feels the shortest, largely thanks to Ledger and Eckhart's rock-solid performances as baddie-A and baddie-B. It's not at all thanks to Christian Bale, whose Bat Voice is at its most unbearable in The Dark Knight (someone give this guy a Halls already). It's cheesy, it's hard to understand what he's saying, it allows for no emotional range. Bale is such a super-intense ac-TOR that he throws temper tantrums over lighting mistakes, and this is the best he can come up with? I could cast a better Batman with my eyes closed. (And then I could cast Poison Ivy, too, just for the fun of it. Go on, tell me it wouldn't be the best Batman movie ever).

Maggie Gyllenhaal has the opposite problem -- she's a phenomenal actress, but there is literally nothing she could have done with this character, who is ostensibly a DA or something but only functions as a prize to be won by one of the film's male leads. Gyllenhaal tries, but when the Joker blows Rachel up, it's a welcome respite from the bathetic and wearying love triangle. Rachel is at least posthumously useful, since her death drives Harvey Dent to super-villainy, giving The Dark Knight the opportunity to show off some of the best film makeup I've ever seen.

I like that he's still carefully styling the hair that he has left.

Amazing, isn't it? (Bonus: you're not hungry anymore). When Two-Face wanders into a bar, downs a shot, and wipes away the tequila that trickles from his open wounds, you know Nolan's showing off, but the effects are so good that you don't care. I guess it all balances out, because Two-Face also gets one of the worst scenes in the series, hammily demanding a mirror after he wakes up minus half a face in Gotham General. Why was this scene left in? Why is this scene ever left in? I can't find it on TV Tropes, but surely "wakes up in hospital, demands mirror, laughs/cries/kills someone" is one of the most overused screen cliches of all time.

The performances range from the iconic to the moronic; the scenes and dialogue from the stellar to the bargain-basement. The Dark Knight is certainly the most uneven entry in Nolan's trilogy, but I give it a 3/5. Whether you're gaping when the Joker barrel-rolls a truck (they FLIPPED the bitch!) or scratching your head over the deeply contrived, and totally unnecessary, set-up for the sequel (Plato's noble lie retold for comic geeks), there's not much time to be bored.

Plus, The Joker.
SCENE STEALER: Who the fuck did you think?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Batman Begins (2005)

I was one of those people who was super-excited for Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005) long before it came out. As soon as I learned that someone was smashing Blade Runner and Batman together I knew something gorgeous was in the works. I went to see the movie four times, which is a lot for a 17-year-old with a 20$/week allowance (Mom, if you're reading this, shame on you), and I considered it money well spent. It was, after all, my generation's first superhero film.

Well, let me qualify that. The Millennials technically had other superhero movies -- Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000), the godawful Catwoman (2004, names withheld to protect the guilty). They weren't all bad, and some of them were even good. X-Men can be credited with kicking off the 2000s wave of Marvel Comics blockbusters that, for better or worse, we've ridden to the present. But these movies didn't have much to say to us. They were for us, but they weren't about us. Batman Begins removed the tongue from the cheek of superhero adaptations. There was nothing retro or nostalgic about it. It wasn't just a comic book movie, it was a Real Live Film. Superheroes hadn't had a Real Live Film since Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992), which came out when my friends and I were in kindergarten, so is it any wonder we went bonkers for Nolan's take?

Or maybe I should say we all went BATTY! Ha ha ha.
Batman Begins cashed in on the 2000s ninja craze by transforming Ra's Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe/Liam Neeson), a Arab-caricature also-ran from Batman's rogue's gallery, into a badass ambiguously Tibetan/Nepali martial-arts guru type who leads the "League of Shadows" and schools the globetrotting Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) on the secrets of ninjitsu. Is this reworked character any less an oversimplified ethnic mishmash than the original Ra's? Not really, but thankfully these scenes don't last long, as it only takes Bruce Wayne about five minutes to burn down the League of Shadows' secret lair and return to Gotham City. The movie picks up some steam as Wayne crafts his Batman persona with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Soon he's ready to suit up and start clearing the streets of baddies, all the while romancing cardboard beauty Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Not too surprisingly, Ra's Al Ghul pops up again (at Bruce's birthday party; talk about adding insult to injury) to destroy Gotham. Batman summarily kicks his ass, and everyone's pretty impressed except Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), who worries that Batman's vigilantism will inspire newly masked criminals (you don't say). The End (until 2008).

Still, all I see when I look at Christian Bale in a tie is Patrick Bateman.
I tend to hold Batman Begins in higher regard than either The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) or The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012). All three films are worth watching, but the latter entries merely follow through on the world Begins created. Frankly, whoever had the balls to green-light Begins deserves a medal. Imagine how badly this movie could have tanked, trying to transform the inherently silly into something grim and nihilistic. TDK and TDKR knew that audiences bought Nolan's formula once and would likely do it again: Begins enjoyed no such assurance that filmgoers fed a steady diet of Batman camp since the 60s would take to its dark mise-en-scene. Batman Begins raised the bar on what comic book films were allowed to be. If you enjoyed Kick-Ass, Watchmen, V For Vendetta, you have Begins to thank for kicking open the door. Nolan proved that cineastes don't need their comic books shiny and easily digested.

In its own modest way, Batman Begins was a Hollywood landmark. That can be the kiss of death for a movie. The first film to try something new often gets it completely wrong, and it's up to later films to polish the formula. The Jazz Singer was the first sound film, and it was racist, maudlin garbage. Gun Crazy ushered in a new era of screen violence, but you could sound its depth with a popsicle stick. Begins, however, is actually good on its own merits, apart from having just "done something new". The casting is inspired. By enlisting A-list actors for B-movie roles, the characters are lent a measure of dignity; Alfred is not just a butler, Gordon is not just a policeman. Given cartoons -- literally -- to work with, Caine and Oldman create real human beings. (Christian Bale might be the worst misstep in this regard; his Bruce Wayne is satisfactory, but he never gives Batman much oomph.) The mise-en-scene is gorgeous, and never strays towards kitsch. Begins looks both tasteful and expensive --- not just when the Batmobile is chasing down its foes, but also when dozens of couture-attired guests attend a birthday party at the magnificent, mausoleum-like Wayne manor. This film never stops looking like one its makers cared about.

In fact, Begins might have been better as a silent movie. The script is jarringly mediocre. When lines clunk -- and clunk they do, loudly and with frequency -- it's all the more wince-worthy because this is not just "a comic book movie." Predictably, its structure is bloated -- half an hour could easily be pared. Worst of all, Rachel Dawes, the major blight on the series, gets her big day out here. Whoever thought it was a good idea to approve this character? Given the dozens of much more interesting romantic interests Bruce Wayne pursued in the comics, who on earth saw fit to create an entirely new heroine for this movie -- and then forgot to invest her with any trace of personality?

All in all, Batman Begins gets a 4/5. It's not perfect, but it's the most polished and best-constructed film in the franchise and, while its sequels do it justice, this is the film that built their world. It's a movie that deserved to become a trilogy, and god knows that that's a rare beast.

Hellooooooooo, Cillian! <3
SCENE STEALER: Heath Ledger's legendary performance has been justly lauded by fans and critics alike, but that shouldn't overshadow the fact that Cillian Murphy turns in a Scarecrow who's nearly as good. This villain was traditionally one of the silliest of the franchise: someone to pull out when you couldn't get the rights to the Joker. As Murphy plays him, however, he's a charmingly soft-spoken sociopath, who despite not actually needing to be in the movie (looking back over this entry, I notice I didn't mention him once in the plot writeup) was so deliciously watchable that Nolan brought him back for both sequels. Which he also didn't need to be in, but Murphy's performance remains enjoyable, even if he is largely unnecessary.

Friday, 20 July 2012

"Honey, go wait for me in the kitchen": the Dark Knight Trilogy and Gender

I've got a couple of manufacturer's warnings to throw at you before we get on with today's post.

First off, over the next few days, Black Cat Reviews will be doing an overview of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. These posts are going to be full of spoilers. They're gonna be spoiler-riffic. Chock full of spoilers, with a side of spoilers. Why? Because it's damn near impossible to give a satisfactory overview of a film if you're only going to talk about the first two thirds of it. You have been warned. From hereon in it's spoilers here, spoilers there, spoilers spoilers everywhere. If that bothers you, watch and then read.

Second, this is a feminist film blog. From time to time I'm going to bore you by talking about un-fun things like the male gaze, institutionalized misogyny, and OTHER LADY STUFF. Today, I'm going to be talking about LADY STUFF. So if you're not a lady, or if you don't like ladies, let me send you elsewhere.

Those are my disclaimers. Why does this post have disclaimers? Because it's not a movie review exactly, but more my collected observations on a trend I've observed in the Dark Knight trilogy. I have dubbed this trend Christopher Nolan's Lady Problem. And it's a real doozy.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Without being an enthusiast or anything, I more or less get the appeal of kung-fu movies. Kicking ass, fine. Exotic locales, dandy. Bare-chested Bruce Lee, no problem. But as much as I was fully geared to love it, I'm not so sure that Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) really earns its status as a cult classic.

Bruce Lee's fashion sensibilities are offended by last season's yellow gi.
Enter the Dragon follows the unimaginatively named Lee (Bruce Lee), a Shaolin monk turned detective, as he investigates a drug-trafficking and prostitution ring run by the enigmatic Han (Kien Shih). Han has conveniently decided to hold a martial arts tournament at his island headquarters, so Lee, who is ripped in places I didn't even know people had muscles, has a watertight alibi as a contestant. Lee finds evidence of the drug kingpin's wrongdoings and calls the police. The police come. Lee kills Han, and the day is saved. The End.

The Wikipedia article on Enter the Dragon doesn't even have a section on "plot", which is a good indicator of the kind of film you're getting into. It's kung-fu as porn: things do happen, but they only happen so that we can see as much kung fu as possible, as quickly as possible. Motivations for the characters are halfheartedly supplied, then quickly forgotten about. We never find out what happens to the kidnapped girls Han is trying to sell as sex slaves, despite the fact that it is largely on their behalf that Lee undertook his investigation to begin with. Similarly, backstory about Lee's sister, who committed suicide to avoid being raped by Han's henchman, is squicky not only because it turns the film into a revenge-fantasy-by-proxy but also because it feels emotionally manipulative. "How can we make the audience care? I don't know, let's throw in a sexual assault." Color me bored.

Enter the Dragon gets a 2/5. Required watching if you're into action flicks, but not what I'd call a masterpiece. Nostalgia is a potent drug, but if you lived in 1973 and this movie came out tomorrow, would you love it? Really? I suspect that a large part of Enter the Dragon's lasting fame has to do with Bruce Lee's hypnotic star power combined with the overlap of its release with his mysterious death. As in the equally over-hyped Rebel Without A Cause and The Dark Knight, a killer performer's real-life demise creates powerful, and lasting, box office. Am I a cynic?

Williams knows kung fu like the back of his hand.
SCENE STEALER: When Williams (Jim Kelly) is introduced, Enter the Dragon's vaguely Asian score shifts abruptly into the bass and wah-wah pedals of vintage blaxspoitation. It's a good metaphor for the way Williams -- another competitor in Han's island tournament -- takes over every scene he's in: romancing ladies, kicking racist cop ass, and generally deserving a (better) movie of his own. Williams is eventually dispatched by Han, but not before getting in these famous last words:

HAN: It is defeat that you must learn to prepare for.
WILLIAMS: I don't waste my time with it. When it comes, I won't even notice.
HAN: Oh? How so?
WILLIAMS: I'll be too busy looking good.

I hope when my time's up, I say something so profound.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

My friend Shannon got The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Robert Fuest, 1971) in one of those double-feature midnight movie bargain DVD packs, and we threw it on last night to round out an evening of swimming at BF's pool. Now, there are two possible interpretations of the events which occurred when we popped this movie into the DVD player. One is that someone secretly replaced the pool's chlorine with LSD and we were tripping balls. The other is that The Abominable Dr. Phibes is really, truly one of the most bizzaro movies ever made.

My money's on the latter.
The titular abominable doctor (played by Vincent Price!) is on a quest to avenge his dead wife, who expired on the operating table. The doctors and nurses who performed her surgery are gradually dispatched by Phibes in fashions inspired by the seven plagues God visited on the Egyptians: bats, locusts, hail, etc. Why he chose this method to kill his victims is never really explained, but there's probably a good reason. It does seem to me as though it would be easier just to snipe them or mail them all anthrax, but what do I know? I'm not a doctor. Scotland Yard's Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) is determined to bring Phibes to justice, but denied that pleasure when Phibes, having visited vengeance upon every entry on his hit list, uses a clockwork apparatus to enbalm himself and seal his body away alongside his dead wife. No surprise that there's a sequel (1972, also Robert Fuest).

Words cannot capture how weird this movie is. I'm not even talking about the plot outlined above, although god knows that's bonkers enough. I'm talking about the fact that Dr. Phibes spends the first five minutes of this movie polishing his clockwork orchestra, which plays no other role in the film. The fact that his murder-by-locusts for some reason requires Phibes to boil a gigantic pot of brussel sprouts down to Brussel Sprout Concentrate (he uses it as bait for the locusts, but the fruit flies in my kitchen aren't nearly so picky). I'm talking about the fact that for some reason Phibes' mouth is on his neck and he has to talk through a special neck telephone. It usually irritates me when people refer to this or that artist or artwork as "on drugs", as though talent and imagination can't bend the brain. In this case, though... I'm gonna give it a pass. Maybe the screenwriter was just high on life, but he was certainly high on something.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes gets a _/5. It's un-ratable. It's impossible to tell whether this movie is good or bad, let alone to tell whether it's meant to be horror or comedy; it doesn't succeed as either, and yet as the sole entry in a genre of its own, it's enjoyable enough. The production values and film stock quality are bargain basement, but the performances are excellent -- largely because the actors play it completely straight, with nary a tongue in a cheek. I hesitate to go so far as to recommend this movie, but I promise you you've never seen anything like it.

Careful with that axe Eugene
SCENE STEALER: Dr. Phibes breaks mad scientist tradition by keeping not a hunchback as a lackey, but a gorgeous art-deco fashion plate called Vulnavia (Virginia North). Vulnavia helps Dr. Phibes take his revenge on the medical profession until she unfortunately positions herself under an acid trap meant for someone else. Vulnavia is totally unnecessary to this movie, but that's part of her charm. She's like a Greek chorus figure, except that the film doesn't give her a single line. Still, when she listens to Dr. Phibes' nefarious plans, then silently turns to the camera and raises a skeptical eyebrow, you know that Vulnavia-the-lackey and you-the-viewer have reached an understanding: there is some weiiiiird shit goin' down.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Magic Mike (2012)

Over on the cineaste cesspool known as IMDB, several gentlemen are shedding salt tears to the sound of the world's smallest violin.

"I feel this movie proves how Talent is no longer an necessity, but just how good you look."

"Making a choice to go is simply a matter of wanting to see more beautiful naked men, sensationalizing it, and shoving it in men's faces... most men really don't have a choice in this."

"I feel that this movie was an attack on men."

And my personal favorite, "A film about a male stripper teaching a younger guy how to pick up women!!! You must be joking!!" (No joke, christoperbkk.This is really happening right in your backyard.)

Sensitive guys, take a journey with me now down Memory Lane.

The Blue Angel, 1930.
Gilda, 1946.
Gypsy, 1962.
Flashdance, 1983.
Showgirls, 1995.
Striptease, 1996.

Coyote Ugly, 2000.
Grindhouse, 2007.
Burlesque, 2010.
Remember all the controversy these films ignited? No? Me neither!

Saddened, violining gentlemen: there is a movie about male strippers in theatres (breathe, this has happened before). Your wives and girlfriends are going to see it. Their standards for masculinity will  be exposed to Hollywood ideals. Guess what? There is nothing in the world that you can do about it. Welcome to sexual objectification. Doesn't feel so fun, huh? Have a good cry, then, don't mind me, I'll be sitting in the back row with Laura Mulvey throwing popcorn.

Okay. Deep breath. I'm going to stop ranting now and just review Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, 2012).

Gosh, I sure hope this graphic image of bare male flesh doesn't offend anyone.
Magic Mike follows the journey of "The Kid", AKA Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who drops out of college and into male strip joint Xquisite. There, he's groomed by club owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and main attraction Mike (Channing Tatum) to become the new star of the revue. Adam eventually does become Xquisite's main draw, so Mike stops stripping and tries to start a business as a designer furniture artisan. The End. No, really. Although characters wander across the screen for almost two hours, flirting, drinking, and having random sex with each other, that's all that actually happens in this movie.

Which is not to say Magic Mike isn't good, because it is. As a "slice of life", this movie succeeds on almost every level -- not surprising, given that Soderbergh is directing. It's easy to believe the studio hype that large portions of the film were based on Channing Tatum's real-life pre-Hollywood stint as an exotic dancer. Actually, even leaving the dancing out of it, Magic Mike's realism is remarkable. I challenge moviegoers to find one film this summer with dialogue as true-to-life as Magic Mike's. This script -- the turns of phrase, the stupid "ironic" jokes  -- is ripped from the mouths of the Gen-Y slackers who live and breathe all around you. Just as realistic is the hipster malaise the film's actors project: they're trying so hard not to try too hard. This is some cinema verite shit.

Frankly, all the hype regarding Magic Mike's "male strippers" is somewhat misdirected, for two reasons. First, most of Magic Mike's "dancing" takes place as part of a skit or dramatic set-up, the dancers invoke parody and/or farce in their performances, and they never strip totally nude: this is really closer to burlesque then striptease. (As a side note, it's quite remarkable how often the dancers' routines involve feigned sexual violence towards their audience: Mike and co. force their female customers to stimulate blowjobs; they tie them up, "threaten" them, and during one Fourth of July dance routine, simulate masturbation to "machine gun" sound effects. Paging Dr. Freud!). Second, anyone who goes to see Magic Mike in order to be titillated is going to be disappointed. It's not sexy. It's not a good-time stripper bromance. It's a voyeuristic peepshow into the lives of two guys who are sex workers not because they have to be, or even because they enjoy it: they simply seem not to know what else to do with their time. As far as Magic Mike is concerned, once the glamor of the taboo has worn off, stripping is just another dead-end job.

It's hard to give Magic Mike my usual rating out of five, partly because it shoots so low and partly because it, perhaps accidentally, achieves so much. I guess I'll just lob a 3/5 out there, but that's just, like, my opinion, man. Really, I don't know anything about strippers. I've never even been to a strip club. I was invited to one for a work party once, and I almost went, but then I decided to stay in and watch Fraggle Rock instead. I'm cool like that.

Flashdance your cares away.
SCENE STEALER: Riley Keough as Nora, Adam's Manic Panic'd downfall.

When Adam spots Nora, she's draped across a coffee table, kicking her legs in the air and cooing to her pet potbellied big. "You don't need that," Mike warns him, accurately gauging the likelihood of a girl who dyes her hair like an American flag and keeps a pig as a pet having an eventual psychotic breakdown. I last saw Riley Keough in Runaways, in which she played Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning's) wet blanket older sister: she's completely transformed here, a nightmare version of the badass punk girl your boyfriend had a crush on in high school. Fast fact: this girl is Elvis' granddaughter! A little less conversation, a little more action, insert punchline here.

Cody Horn as Adam's cranky sister Brooke gets an honorable mention. She's wonderfully dour and humorless. I'm not being sarcastic: more female romantic leads should be this curmudgeonly, it's refreshing.

Brooke is not amused.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Due to today being a terrible, no-good, shitty day that tested every inch of my not extensive moral fibre, this evening's post will be composed under the influence of a half-bottle of Yellowtail Bubbles. I hope nobody has a problem with that. If you do, here's the door.

For those of you who are still with us, today's review is Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder's 1959 outing with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn-you-know-who. The American Film Institute considers Some Like It Hot to be the best comedy of all time, which makes me wonder: how do you determine the Best Comedy Of All Time? Are rankings based on pure comedic value, to the exclusion of deep emotional involvement from the audience, as in The Pink Panther, Ghostbusters, This Is Spinal Tap? Or are comedies judged not only by their ability to make us laugh, but by the stake we place in their world, the lasting effect they have on us -- as in Annie Hall, Brazil, Good Morning Vietnam?

Some Like It Hot belongs to the former group of films: all-fun, no-commitment. I don't know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but this movie requires no investment, no empathy. All it requires of its audience is that they sit back and laugh.

Rubber Duckie, you're the one!
Prohibition-era musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) witness a mob murder, so they do what anyone would do: dress in drag and join an all-girls' jazz band to keep the Mafia from tracing their tracks. There they meet ukelelist (right word? No idea) Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (Marilyn Monroe), a semi-jaded peroxide blonde who's tired of getting "the fuzzy end of the lollipop". The jazz band camps down for an engagement at a Florida hotel, where Joe pursues Sugar by impersonating a Shell Oil heir. Jerry, meanwhile, finds himself pursued by a wealthy and vaguely kinky snowbird (Joe E. Brown). When the mob drops in for a visit, Joe and Jerry steal a motorboat to make their escape: they are pursued by their respective paramours, neither of whom are dissuaded to learn the men's true identities. The End.

Gender politics in 1959 weren't exactly left-wing, but Some Like It Hot stands up surprisingly well. Much of the humour comes from Joe and Jerry's discovery that femininity, far from disgusing them, turns them into targets: of the unwanted advances of hotel staff, elevator gropings, etc. They also have to learn to walk in high heels, which is always good for a chuckle. Perhaps the movie's most unintentionally revolutionary moment is when Jerry's new "fiance" declares that the fact that his lover is male is no concern to him: "nobody's perfect", he declares with a Cheshire grin, much to Jerry's dismay.

Sexual precociousness is only identifiable in retrospect: I don't know that Some Like It Hot had anything of depth to say about 1959 back in 1959. The gender revolution was in the future, and prohibition was in the past. What was left? A good time, I guess. Some Like It Hot is still funny after sixty years, which is something you can't say about a lot of movies, particularly those that depend on sex and gender for their humor. But does its funniness excuse its total lack of contemporary emotional context? There's no one to like or root for in this movie, there's only people to laugh at. I give it a 4/5.

The Hays Code, of course, banned double chins starting in 1960.
SCENE STEALER: The all-girl jazz band is fronted by Sweet Sue, played by Joan Shawlee. Sweet Sue exploits the youth and beauty of her musicians, ruling that every performer must be between the ages of 19-24 and joshing the audience that the girls are "all virtuosos... and I intend to keep it that way!". At the same time, she's an ulcer-ridden wreck over looking after her employees and keeping the band afloat: half mama, half madam. Marilyn Monroe is at her best in this movie -- she's always better when she's playing batty as well as sexy -- but the screwball charm of the other girls in Sweet Sue's band gives Monroe some competition, and Sweet Sue's the first runner-up.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Jules et Jim (1962)

I'm going to be a pretentious cineaste loser for a minute and talk about the French New Wave. If you don't know the French New Wave, here are the essentials: late Fifties-ish to late Sixties-ish. French (obviously). Black and white. Weird, choppy editing. Crappy film stock quality. Shot on location. Near-adolescent directors. Not all of that is true of every New Wave film, but those are the basics. The darlings of the movement were Francois Truffaut (Jules et Jim, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, Pierrot le fou, Band of Outsiders). Truffaut died in 1984. Godard's still puttering around with a movie camera making stuff that's more incomprehensible than ever. Good for him.

The New Wave oscillated wildly between being transcendentally good and mind-numbingly, bogglingly bad -- not only between films, but also within films. Jules et Jim contains both the transcendental and the boggling, but the emphasis is, thankfully, on the former.

Jeanne Moreau: avoiding skin cancer before it was cool!
Jules et Jim (1962) is a bromance for the ages. Jules (Oskar Werner) is a shy Austrian, Jim (Henri Serre) a Parisian playboy, and both are writer/journalist/translators who lend credence to my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quote: “Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits -- a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage." Truffaut's two fuckoff-misfits forge a friendship over their mutual loserdom: soon they're writing memoirs about each other, having matching white suits made, and starting rumors about exactly how platonic they really are. Then they meet The Girl. Oh, shit.

Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is a card-carrying, dues-paying Manic Pixie Dream Girl: a nauseatingly overused character type nowadays, but maybe relatively fresh in Truffaut's time. She endears herself to Jules and Jim by doing stupid things like drawing on a fake mustache, carrying around a vial of sulfuric acid to throw in the face of a hated ex-boyfriend, and jumping into the Seine to get away from an annoying conversation. Naturally, Jules and Jim fall desperately in love with her, and Catherine proceeds to date one, then the other, for literally like thirty years. One day, she gets bored and takes Jim for a joyride off a cliff, leaving Jules to have his friends cremated. Boo hoo hoo, The End.

Catherine is, without a doubt, the worst thing about Jules et Jim. I don't care if Moreau's performance was #80 on Premiere Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. I don't care if Faye Dunaway did base her performance in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) on Catherine. I don't care if Jeanne Moreau is the greatest actress in French cinema, or in the world, for that matter. Catherine doesn't have a personality, she only has quirks. She doesn't have motivations, she only has appetites. Worst of all, she isn't interesting: she's just weird. Jules et Jim spends way too much time documenting her various exhausting foibles and not nearly enough time on its title characters, whose relationship is what's the real point here.

But now and then, quietly, Jules et Jim is brilliant. Rapid editing around shots of an ancient statue, making it look "alive", anticipates Kubrick's "dancing" Jesus figurines in A Clockwork Orange (1971). On the other end of the spectrum, sudden freeze frame-closeups "immortalize" Catherine's beauty, carving it in celluloid stone. An original song, "Le tourbillon", is both the climax and the touchstone of the film: its lyrics underscore the heroes' tumultuous journey, and the song itself is a delicate and lovely example of early 60s folk (never mind that the movie is set around WWI). It's too bad these lovely gems are mired in a sea of footage of Jeanne Moreau looking endlessly moody and gorgeous.

Jules et Jim gets a 3/5. What!, say film critics everywhere. A 3/5! Don't you know this movie is seminal! A work of genius! A masterpiece of the French New Wave! Blah blah blah, whatever. Like I said in my review for Gun Crazy, the fact that a movie is influential doesn't mean it's flawless.

I visited France in 2008-ish and people were STILL allowed to smoke in restaurants. Ugh.
SCENE STEALER: Marie Dubois as Therese, Jules' (or was it Jim's?) cafe groupie. Therese introduces herself as "the steam engine" because she can smoke a cigarette with the lit end inside her mouth, which is maybe the fin de siecle equivalent of being able to tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue. Dubois' filmography is Frencher than French and I haven't seen any of it, but IMDB says she played Hortense in Le legs, which is the most straightforward title I've heard in a long time.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

This morning my boyfriend and I argued over whether Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) technically qualifies as a "cult" film and, in turn, whether I should review it. BF thinks my one-time "horror review blog" is rather lax about its content. I admit that the "official" Black Cat Reviews byline -- "horror, thriller, sci-fi, grindhouse and cult hits and misses" -- doesn't leave a lot of room for a quirky semi-romance set in the mid-Sixties. But Wes Anderson is sort of indie... and indie is sort of cult... right? Right? More to the point, this is my movie blog and I'm going to review whatever the crap I want on it. I figure if a movie's piqued my interest, it must already be pretty weird. So buckle up, here's Moonrise Kingdom.

One raccoon was harmed in the making of this film.

Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a sullen tween living with her family in their summer home on a remote New England island. Sam (Jared Gilman) is an outcast Khaki Scout camping with his troop only a few miles away. The two met a year ago when Sam crashed Suzy's dressing room at a church pageant; they've been pen-pals since, brainstorming a way to escape from their suffocating lives. At the beginning of Moonrise Kingdom, the elaborate jailbreak the duo planned is put into action: they flee into the forest, determined to live together as man and wife beyond society's grasp. As might be expected, this plan works better in Sam and Suzy's dreams than it does in reality, and they subsequently have to contend with anxious parents, uptight scoutmasters, the island police, a torrential thunderstorm and Social Services herself before everything miraculously comes right and they're allowed to stay together (more or less).

I'm not any kind of Wes Anderson fanatic -- I find the pastels and poker-faced frontal shots to be a bit twee -- but his style was never more suited to his story than in Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson's whimsical touch captures the nostalgia factor of 1965 (bonjour, Francoise!) and the dying embers of Sam and Suzy's childhoods -- like Peter Pan and Wendy Darling, they are teetering on the edge of adolescence, frightened of growing up. Rather than distracting from the action, Anderson's typically idiosyncratic approach seems the only correct way to tell this story.

Moonrise Kingdom's cast is unexpected, but note-perfect. If someone told me that a summer movie featured Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel, I would assume it was a Die Hard reboot or something. But everyone's playing against type, and it works beautifully: Bruce Willis is a hangdog, puppy-eyed island cop having an affair with Suzy's mother, Edward Norton is the dedicated math teacher/scoutmaster who must recover Sam or lose his official scoutmaster badge. Anderson has some serious cheek, asking Hollywood A-listers to play second fiddle to his newbie stars (it's the first film for both Gilman and Hayward), but it works. The stellar ensemble acts as a safety net for the kids, whose occasionally awkward performances are bolstered by their experienced costars.

Moonrise Kingdom gets a 4/5. It's sweetly forgettable, inoffensive, easily liked. You can bring your mom or your boyfriend: they'll both enjoy it. Just BE WARNED that a puppy dies. I'm telling you now so that no one goes to see Moonrise Kingdom on my advice and comes back being like "YOU NEVER SAID A PUPPY DIED!" I'm saying it now, people. If puppy death is a dealbreaker, then this is not the movie for you.

Would you buy Girl Guide cookies from this woman?
SCENE STEALER: Tilda Swinton's character, known only as "Social Services", is exactly what would happen if Narnia's White Witch got a day job as a social worker -- Social Services' idea of "helping" Sam is suggesting he be sent to juvie for enforced electroshock therapy. Swinton plays her with clipped, chipper precision, all tight smiles, raised eyebrows, and steely blue-eyed gazes. It shouldn't come as a shock to anyone that Tilda Swinton is a standout: I don't know that she's ever turned in a bad performance. But even as part of an ensemble cast made up entirely of art school favorites, she shines. I don't know what's up with the Girl Guide-esque outfit, though, unless Anderson is trying to make us subconsciously recall our own childhood traumas.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Angel-A (2005)

Angel-A (Luc Besson, 2005) is sort of what would happen if you remade It's A Wonderful Life as a hybrid film noir/gangster flick. Maybe that in itself is reason enough to watch it. Or maybe wiser viewers than I would have recognized from that description that the film could never work. Or maybe both those things are true: Angel-A is a mess, but you might like it anyway.

Pity she didn't run into Javert as well.
Nebbish Arab-American expatriate Andre (Jamel Debbouze) is in the process of committing suicide by Seine when he meets Angela (Rie Rasmussen) gearing up for her own fatal dip. Andre rescues her, and in time-honored movie tradition (who started this stupid tradition? Probably screenwriters scrambling for plots), the woman he saved becomes "his", following Andre everywhere like a leggy blonde puppy. Andre is a small-time gangster who owes large wads of cash to all the wrong people, and Angela appoints herself responsible for absolving his debts, which she manages through your standard silver screen cocktail of sex, violence, and violent sex. It eventually emerges that Angela is Andre's guardian angel, but when the two develop romantic feelings for each other, things get complicated. Well, Besson probably meant for things to get complicated, but all that really happens is Andre and Angela shove each other and yell a bit and then decide to live happily ever after.

Generally speaking, most movies made in the last 10-20 years could lose 10-20 minutes without sacrificing quality. Almost no movie I know of feels too short. However, I'm willing to bestow this dubious honour on Angel-A. The film only runs an hour thirty, and that's not enough, because Besson is simultaneously trying to make a theological fantasy, a romance, and an action flick. What he actually produces is a mishmash incomplete on all three counts: we don't believe Angel-A's half-baked cosmology, its puppy love story, or its soft-boiled criminal underworld.

Angel-A gets a 2/5. It isn't really a bad movie, and I had fun watching it. I'll always prefer a film that goes too far over one that doesn't go far enough. Overall, though, it feels as though Besson had no idea what he actually wanted to do in this movie and just decided to try and do everything. Because he's Besson, it almost works, but he's on much shakier ground here than in his masterpieces Leon (1994) and (La Femme) Nikita (1990).

I don't really know what to say about this image, so, uh, here it is for you.
SCENE STEALER: Angela describes herself as "a sexy bitch", but thankfully, Rie Rasmussen invests the character with more than that. Rasmussen is genuinely odd-looking as well as beautiful, almost too tall and too blonde: it's not hard to buy her as an otherworldly being. The character also has an agreeably hard edge -- you get the idea that this chain-smoking, scowling angel would have raised a few eyebrows in heaven. Even after she's confessed her love to Andre she continues to embody snarky French ennui.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Brave (2012)

In millions of years, when humanity is extinct and alien archaeologists attempt to reconstruct our society through its cultural debris, they'll conclude that we practiced a unique form of government in which every little girl was a princess. The sheer quantity of tiaras and ball gowns littering girl-centric family films will assure them that their thesis is correct. After all, we humans could have no logical reason to saturate our female offspring with depictions of a lifestyle bearing no resemblance to their own, one they could never emulate except in the vaguest terms (by being "fair", and "modest", and most recently "brave"). Princesses, the alien archaeologists will therefore decide. Princesses, all of them.

Pixar. We need to talk. More specifically, we need to talk about Brave (Mark Andrews/Brenda Chapman, 2012). You guys are supposed to be family-film mavericks: the studio that pushes the envelope, that does what no other studio has even thought to do. Your male protagonists include robots, sewer rats and action figures. And yet when, after twenty years, it finally occurs to you that maybe little girls watch your movies too, what do you give them? A princess.

Walt Disney called, he wants his crutch back.

I don't care how fluffy her hair is.
As princesses go, Brave's Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is of the latter-day intrepid-and-independent variety. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) wants her to get married! But she doesn't want to get married! Mother and daughter have a tiff in which Merida rips Elinor's family-portrait tapestry and Elinor throws Merida's bow into the fire. Merida flees to sulk in the Scottish highlands and asks a convenient witch to "change her mum": you'd think that the generally savvy princess would know better than to be so vague with a witch, but I guess they had to get the plot cooking somehow. To everyone's annoyance, the witch turns Queen Elinor into a bear, warning Merida that she must "mend the bond torn by pride" in order to reverse the curse. Bond torn by pride... ripped tapestry... you'd think that Merida and Elinor would clue in, but they don't. Not until we've been subjected to forty-five minutes of mother-and-daughter bonding montages set to the lilting strains of an Enya soundalike. Finally, the tapestry gets repaired, Elinor gets de-beared, and Merida's suitors are sent packing. The requisite happy ending has been achieved and the audience can go home heart-warmed.

Brave's critical reception has been largely ridiculous. Roger Ebert referred to Merida as "a sort of honorary boy" for enjoying archery more than dating, while Adam Markovitz opines that the same qualities mean she's a closeted lesbian. This is amazing to me. Merida is, what... twelve years old? The fact that she's more interested in horseback riding than strapping Scottish lads says nothing about her gender or her sexual orientation. I can't believe I have to type this. "A honorary boy"? Jesus, Ebert, don't carbon-date yourself.

This sort of misguided gossip underscores what makes Brave so disappointing. In the months leading up to its release, the film was anticipated by Pixar devotees as the beginning of a new era of animated sophistication and of stories for new audiences. It may have succeeded on the first count: I don't know a lot about animation, but Brave's braes and banks were sufficiently bonny, and its characters looked human without venturing too deep into the uncanny valley. As for Brave's narrative, though... Pixar is capable of so much more than this. It's like they just couldn't be bothered.

I give Brave a 3/5. If you want the tweenybopper market, Pixar, you'll have to try again, and here's a hint: just because a story is "for girls" doesn't mean that marriage to Prince Charming has to be a plot point (and make no mistake, Prince Charming is as much a factor in Brave as any other "princess movie", simply by dint of his absence). More importantly, the fact that a story is "for girls" doesn't mean it has to star a fucking princess.

The magnificent tartan of Clan MacGuffin.
Scene Stealer: If Merida had chosen a husband after all, this guy had my vote. The hilariously named Young MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) speaks entirely in a Scottish brogue as incomprehensible to his fellow characters as it is to the audience. Like Star Wars' R2-D2, you can't tell exactly what Young MacGuffin is saying, but you can guess enough of it to amuse yourself. Brave has several comedic irons in the fire, from Merida's toddler-triplet brothers to Elinor's mincingly ladylike "bear walk", but Young MacGuffin is probably the most genuinely funny thing for the adults in the room.