Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Most Dangerous Game, The Getaway, Dressed to Kill, Gunga Din

The Most Dangerous Game (Schoedsack, Pichel, 1932) Rating: 7/10.

A classic piece of pulp adventure that still retains some power to thrill despite its low budget and visible seams.

It stars a young Joel McCrea, who, bless him, hasn’t really figured out how to act yet--Fay Wray acts rings around him with a glance and a few words.  Leslie Banks as the villain Count Zaroff is pretty effective without being quite great.  There’s no doubt the film would be elevated significantly by a different lead, and if you changed out a couple of the sportsmen at the beginning, Fay’s obnoxious brother, and maybe replaced Banks with Karloff or Lugosi, you might have something like a masterpiece on your hands.  Because that chase finale is really gangbusters, with evocative sets (used for King Kong weeks later) and thrilling POV shots and some pretty intense violence courtesy of the pre-Code release date.  Schoedsack knew how to get some atmosphere and fear with his camera.  McCrea’s strategy during the chase is pretty weak from today’s perspective, but I’m sure at the time it must have thrilled 10-year-old boys no end.  And isn’t that the objective they were going for?

Anyway, my point is the thing is influential and worth watching.  The themes of civilized man vs. barbarian and human vs. animal are eternally rich, if barely tapped here.  Beneath the cardboard sets and even-more-cardboard people there is something primordial bubbling; an underground spring of pulp-myth that has trickled in all directions and has yet to dry up.

The Getaway (Peckinpah, 1972) Rating: 5/10.

You'd think a movie based on a Jim Thompson novel, adapted for the screen by Walter Hill, starring Steve McQueen, and directed by Sam Peckinpah would be more tight and thrilling than this. Unfortunately (with that lineup, tragically), you'd be wrong.
The characters are admirably ruthless, the opening sequence is atemporally edited with brilliance, and there are a several strong scenes, but none of that can obscure the fact that I was ready for this to be over long before it was. Peckinpah's shaggy qualities get the best of his storytelling here.

Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980) Rating: 6/10.

I got interested in De Palma after watching Blow Out last year on a whim, and realizing I’d seen a masterpiece.  (I’d seen Mission: Impossible and The Untouchables long before, of course, but neither led me on to his other work.)  I’ve since seen Obsession and this movie, and I confess I’m a bit flummoxed.  Obsession is practically a remake of Vertigo, Dressed to Kill is something like a fan fiction retelling of Psycho.  (Think 50 Shades of Grey’s relation to Twilight made explicit.)  Neither seem to exist on their own, but at least Obsession feels like an actual plot with actual characters, even if they’re (intentionally) unbelievable.

Dressed to Kill opens with a sequence of pure softcore porn, and tosses in a couple more as it goes along.  But of course no porn director, not even in the ‘70s, ever moved his camera or cut his footage the way De Palma does; the movie is always visually interesting, often virtuosic.  And along the way, he scores points for (and against) seemingly every single team in the sex and gender debates.  (If you think watching Angie Dickinson soaping herself and moaning is offensive and objectifying, De Palma can respond that we’re watching her dream, after all, so he’s really just being frank about the sexual desires and needs of the middle-aged housewife.  Right?)  The first act is impossible to take seriously (you either have to use it like porn or laugh defensively), but then it turns into a genuinely exciting thriller for a while, and turns a hooker and a nerdy kid into pretty lovable protagonists--before diving back into ridiculous sleaze at the end.  That sequence in the museum is mesmerizing!  That chase on the subway is terrifying!  That fake-out ending is stupid!
I just don’t know.  I can’t take it seriously, like I said, but then it’s probably all a big meta joke anyway.

Gunga Din (Stevens, 1939) Rating: 8/10.
Here is a movie that would have instantly become a favorite, if it weren’t so racist.  There’s an argument to be made that over the course of the narrative, the English fun and games are gradually invaded and taken over by the Indians--Din moves from dumb lackey to sacrificial hero, and the Thuggee Guru from freakish pagan priest to eloquent critic and honorable/brave adversary--but the ethics of representation surrounding them are too compromised from the beginning (they’re both white actors in brownface, after all) for me to embrace such a reading.  And the way our heroes treat all Indians they encounter is so filled with contempt and suspicion (though Din is eventually tolerated as a child), so clearly evident of colonialist cruelty, that it’s disturbing the movie never takes the time (even at the end) to punish them for it, or suggest a change of heart.  Indeed, their attitude is fully justified by the Thuggee activities.  (Again, you could make an argument that this is just reflecting the way the soldier acts in Kipling’s poem, and change of heart is implicit in the final shots, but this is undercut too strongly by the trio’s practical joking in the middle of the battle, after Din is already dead.)
All that aside, the rest of the movie is still pretty swell.  The darker elements are all smoothed over by the slick swashbuckling surface, surely among the most joyous and entertaining of such swashbucklers made in classic Hollywood.  The Adventures of Robin Hood is what most comes to mind in comparison, and while Gunga Din lacks the Flynn-de Havilland romance, the team of Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is considerably funnier than anything Robin’s Merry Men get up to.  This was clearly an important movie for a lot of directors who saw it young; it’s immediately apparent as a primary source for Indiana Jones, The Lord of the Rings, and probably Star Wars as well.  There are a couple action scenes here that must be among the finest in history to that point, and the climax especially appears to be a model for the Battle of Five Armies.
It’s basically a perfect movie for a 10-year-old boy: girls are icky, fist- and swordfights are cool, elephants are funny, and heroes can walk into the swarming enemy’s camp alone and come out alive.

(Gunga Din poster from Doctor Macro.)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jupiter Ascending and Kingsman: The Secret Service

If The Matrix and its sequels were cyberpunk/anime/martial-arts/John Woo mash-up commentaries on the Hero’s Journey, Jupiter Ascending is a mid-century-sci-fi-paperback-cover/30s-40s comics/modern-YA-fiction mash-up exploration of Cinderella.  The story of Cinderella is not quite as deeply embedded in human storytelling as the Hero’s Journey, but it’s close.  Numerous fairy tales from multiple cultures follow the same pattern, a set-up and progression still visible in everything from Jane Eyre to Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey.  The whole “princess” fantasy has been under attack for decades for its supposedly destructive effect on the dreams of young girls (and there’s certainly been some terrible versions out there), but it’s far too universal an archetype to ever go away.  So in JA, the Wachowskis decide to celebrate the story, retelling it with all the over-the-top gusto they can muster.  The result is a massive, over-long space opera, filled with weird make-up, unpronounceable names, campy performances, and cheesy dialogue.  I pretty much loved it.

Here is a movie made on a massive Hollywood bydget about stuff so geeky it will never be cool, but filmed with such unabashed love it will always have a cult audience.  It’s like Guardians of the Galaxy played (mostly) straight (and with an admittedly weaker cast), with a big ol’ homage to Brazil and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tossed in the middle for no reason.  And that action sequence through the buildings of Chicago is the best use of the city’s skyline I’ve ever seen, with Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum bouncing off the Sears/Willis Tower, the Old Chicago Water Tower, and the tracks of the L, in such a tangible way that anyone who has ever visited the city should get a little thrill of recognition.  (Now if only it was edited a little cleaner so I could tell what was happening, I’d call it one of the best action sequences in years.)  

As for Cinderella (here called Jupiter Jones), the Wachowskis decide to avoid doing the obvious “feminist” thing by making her a kick-butt action hero.  Instead, she remains a regular, working-class girl to the end, even keeping her old job cleaning toilets.  The central appeal of Cinderella has always been her ordinariness, and here the Wachowskis get to use that to affirm lower class life in the face of the evil industrialist space-aristocrats.  It’s the kind of simple populist leftism they always engage in, but here it ends up kind of sweet.  The question they seem to be posing is, Why do only boys get to have big special effects movies where they can imagine themselves being superheroes with secret identities who save the girl and beat the bad guys?  Why can’t girls get a fantasy about being secret royalty, and end up with a hunky space-boyfriend who calls them “Your Majesty” and can kick bad guy butt if they ever need him to?

Somewhat like the Wachoswkis, director Matthew Vaughn and original-comic-writer Mark Millar have filled Kingsman: The Secret Service with a mash-up of things they love about James Bond and the whole super-spy genre: suits, gadgets, supervillains with mountain hideouts, henchmen with strange deformities, etc.  They pack their movie with giddy references and in-jokes, bright colors and loud music, and numerous wild action sequences (Vaughn is partial to that speed-ramping/camera-whipped-’round in the middle of the fight style that pal Guy Ritchie pioneered, and Edgar Wright parodied in The World’s End).  Vaughn is intent on becoming a real stylist, and Kingsman is a far more stridently and, I would say, successfully directed and edited film than Jupiter Ascending.

Thematically Vaughn+Millar even set up a clever opposition between old-school gentlemen spies, nattily suited and code-named after the Knights of the Round Table, and the housing project hooliganism of young recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton).  This sets up Colin Firth as the avatar of all that was admirable in the old English aristocracy (stiff upper lip, calm under fire, courtliness of manner), while allowing Eggsy to assert the proper rights and abilities of the under class in the face of the other snobby toffs in the Service.  The problem is Vaughn+Millar don’t actually care about this theme, or much of anything concerning actual human beings, and any sense of gentlemanliness as a virtue is tossed aside by the filmmaking in favor of aggressive vulgarity.  The movie feints at some form of emotional connection (both Firth and Egerton are strong, and have excellent chemistry), but by the climax, the very idea of treating characters as people has been laughed off the screen.  Eggsy is set up as a kid who loves his mum but is cowed by his abusive stepdad, and when the movie drags in the hoary legend of spies required to shot their pet dogs, we’re meant to consider his failure a moral victory.  But the movie itself exhibits no such sympathy toward any of its human characters; within five minutes of that scene, we’ve watched an entire congregation of Westboro Baptist-types be mind-controlled into slaughtering each other with their bare hands.  And we are absolutely meant to get off on this spectacle, because it’s just so awesome.  

The general crassness at the heart of the movie hits its peak during the grand finale, when Eggsy requests a kiss from an imprisoned princess and she offers him anal sex instead.  After saving the world, he runs back to her cell where she lies waiting, and in porny POV shot we watch her flip over and lift her naked butt to him--cut to credits.  It’s exactly the kind of nasty little joke Mark Millar specializes in (whether he’s the one who came up for it here or not), and it curdles the rest of the film for me.  I’m on record on this blog as enjoying Matthew Vaughn past work, but (aside from X-Men: First Class) I think I’ve outgrown him.

Each of these movies is a potpourri (too fancy a word)--a goulash of ingredients I enjoy, but one of them is sweet in the middle and one is just nasty, and I know which I prefer.

Jupiter Ascending:  Rating: 7/10.

Kingsman: The Secret Service:  Rating: 5/10.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Best Movies of 2014

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

3. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)

4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

6. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

7. Locke (Steven Knight)

8. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)

9. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore)

10. Selma (Ava DuVernay)

11. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)

12. God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch)

Honorable Mentions:  Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy), The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Chris Miller), X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer), The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada), Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Most Overrated:  Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho)

Most Underrated/Underseen:  God Help the Girl (Stuart Murdoch), and The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada)

Favorite Guilty Pleasure:  Lucy (Luc Besson)

Worst Movie I Saw This Year: Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay) (but Snowpiercer made me angrier)

(actually posted March 24 2015)

TV 2014

No need to get fancy here.  All the television shows from 2014 that I watched for at least half a season, in order of preference:

1. True Detective (Season 1)
2. Doctor Who (S8)
3. Orphan Black (S2)
4. Community (S5)
5. Sherlock (S3)
6. Ping Pong: The Animation
7. Game of Thrones (S4)
8. Bojack Horseman (S1)
9. Marvel's Agents of Shield (first 1/2 of S2)
10. Archer (S5)
11. Marvel's Agents of Shield (second 1/2 of S1)
12. The Flash (first 1/2 of S1)

Special Mention:  Whit Stillman's pilot for The Cosmopolitans, made for Amazon and still available to watch.  Amazon reportedly ordered several more scripts, but when and if they ever get filmed is still up in the air.  So for now we're left with this charming slice-of-Stillman, perhaps the most visually lovely and rhythmically edited thing he's ever done.

Just a little more of The Wind Rises

Miyazaki and Co. love inserting callbacks to previous projects into their films, little moments where a shot composition, a character’s expression, a movement, or a design element are clearly modeled on others from before.  Ghibli Blog author Daniel MacInnes calls them “Ghibli riffs.”  Most of them are simple in motivation: the animator is reusing a movement he/she used before, or offering homage to a moment he admired in a previous film, or perhaps just inserting an in-joke for fellow animators to get.  Occasionally, they seem more motivated, coming at the storyboard or design stage of the production rather than the key animation.  In The Wind Rises, they seem to be especially intentional and thematically apropos, even revealing.  By repeating previous designs and compositions, Miyazaki is creating linkages in meaning, connecting this film to ideas permeating his entire career.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Kami-Electrified World: Hayao Miyazaki and The Wind Rises

I. Which movie? Why?

The movie this post is about is Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which I think is pretty much the best movie of 2013, and the main reason I’m writing it is there don’t seem to be all that many people who agree with me.  Which isn’t to say everybody hated it or anything.  The reviews were by and large very kind, some more than that, but far too many were of the perfunctory “it’s-nice-to-see-one-last-movie-from-a-guy-who-made-better-movies-before” variety, and far too little of that aforementioned kindness tended to show up when it came time for awards and 10-best lists and such.  Even among anime fans, the film garnered little excitement or celebration, being far outside the otaku wheelhouse in subject and style.  (Not to get too far into the weeds, but this is a movie that barely made Film Comment’s Top 50 poll--below stuff like American Hustle and Room 237, only got 4 mentions in the Village Voice poll, and didn’t even make this Metacritic list at all.  It’s safe to say that while it has a few admirers, the film is not overpraised, is what I’m getting at.)

Why is that?  At this point, it’s not even a controversial statement to describe Hayao Miyazaki as the greatest director of animated films the world has ever seen.  But if that is so widely acknowledged, why is every film from him not treated as an event, an occasion for cinephile geek-outs and think-pieces and in-depth dissections, the way a movie by Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg is?  Especially when it’s his last film.  There are probably many reasons for this reception, including but not limited to: the limited-release rollout of the movie that prevented most audiences from seeing it until 2014, the particularly Japanese (hence foreign) focus of the plot, the lack of magical fairy-tale elements, the fact that Miyazaki’s oeuvre primarily addresses children/family audiences, and even the fact that the film is, yes, animated.  (More difficult are the ethical objections some have raised concerning the film’s stance on WWII and Japan’s role in it, but let’s table those for the moment.  Keep ‘em in mind, tho.)

The last one in that list might raise an eyebrow or two.  After all, we are in the era of Pixar.  Animated movies have decisively overthrown the old live-action tyranny, been recognized as every bit as worthy as “regular” movies, topped critics’ lists year after year, and even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (thrice)!  Yes, but they’re still ghettoized in the US, relegated to fantasy plots and family entertainment.  The bigger issue with animation, though, is that so few cinephiles and critics actually know that much about it as an art form.  So few cinephiles and critics actually know anything about the history of animation outside of Disney and Warner Bros.  So few cinephiles and critics know there is such a thing as “world animation” that extends beyond Aardman and Studio Ghibli and maybe a couple other movies from Japan and France.  Why is it not a controversial statement to describe Miyazaki as the greatest director of animated films ever?  Because nobody can think of anyone else.

Which is just ignorance.  Simply among his Japanese peers, here are ten (10) major figures worth searching out, watching, lauding:  Isao Takahata, Gisaburo Sugii, Rintaro, Osamu Dezaki, Mamoru Oshii, Katsuhiro Otomo, Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno, Mamoru Hosoda, Masaaki Yuasa.  And those are just mainstream feature directors.  In the realm of the animated short--the arthouse and avant-garde of animation--witness the names Yuri Norstein, Frederick Back, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Aleksandr Petrov, Norman McLaren.  They are masters of animation, and ignorance of them while claiming to understand animation is like being unfamiliar with Tarkovsky, Bergman, Kurosawa, Kieslowski, and Godard, while claiming to understand cinema.  Both lists barely scratch the surface, or course, and I don’t claim to be an expert in either realm--but I have been watching animation intensely for the last few years, and I can at least recognize ignorance when I see it.  If we are going to understand Miyazaki we have to understand where he’s coming from.

But first, to the movie:  The Wind Rises is the semi-fictionalized life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a Japanese aircraft engineer most famous for the A6M Zero fighter plane used extensively in WWII.  Film follows him from boyhood to eve of WW, as he pursues his dreams of flight in college and then as star designer at Mitsubishi--set against backdrop of Japanese history, and including lengthy romance section w/ tuberculosis-stricken woman named Nahoko. Said dreams are also interspersed throughout film as surreal/hyperreal windows into Jiro’s creative consciousness.  

The whole thing is told with a David Lean-style sweep that I’ve simply never seen in an animated film before, and which is remarkably difficult to do--the length, number of scenes/settings/characters are all highly unusual in animation because of their high cost in money/time/manpower, to the point that only a handful of other traditionally animated films have ever been made that compare with the scale of this movie.  It is also clearly the most personal film of Miyazaki’s career, allegorizing his own life and relationship to art even as it explores the past attitudes of his country and implicitly critiques the politics of the present.

At least half of my argument for TWR’s greatness lies in the experience of watching it.  If you aren’t left in awe of the film’s grandeur, fascinated by it’s details, moved by it’s narrative, then I don’t know what to tell you.  Our tastes simply differ.  The best I can do is try to convey to you what the experience is like for me.  If OTOH, you find yourself attracted to the film but left cold or put off or confused by certain aspects, perhaps this review can help.  New information and new perspectives can often give us new eyes to see a film.  The film’s themes are built in deep, and their nuances easy to miss.  It is my hope that at least some of the information and perspectives in this post are new to you.

So what makes this movie special? And what’s going on inside it?