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

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)


EDIT:
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?


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Unbroken & Into the Woods

Unbroken

That first scene is pretty terrific--a real understanding of geometry and space, underplayed tension that increases unpredictably, a sense that these young men have done this before and are burying there emotions beneath jokes out of necessity, characters who seem like they could be worth meeting.  But it does start going downhill after that.  Oddly paced, unwieldy flashbacks, dialogue that proves boring and clichéd, blank-slate characters, and a tone that strangely never wavers from the underplayed tension of the beginning.  There is hardly any variation in the flow of the film, no rise and fall, so no scene is allowed to stand out over any other.  With a story like this, it must have seemed you couldn’t go wrong, but in fact there is just too much story, too many episodes of near-death that all start to feel the same.  The movie turns into something of a slog.

I did like it, but it mostly made me want to read the book.

Rating: 7/10.



Into the Woods

I have no knowledge of Sondheim or the original version, but I quite liked the songs and ideas here.  The performances and vocals are nearly all good (Depp is lousy and the kids are a little annoying), with Emily Blunt my vote for best in show (loved her final song).  Funny how James Corden seems like he’s playing his character Craig from Doctor Who again.  The direction, though, is a bit flat, and the production design is disappointingly familiar.  We have seen the same thing recently in Once Upon a Time, Jack the Giant Killer, Maleficent, etc. and there’s nothing here to stand out from the pack.  Only a couple of the songs are staged cinematically (“Agony,” “On the Steps of the Palace”) and a couple are kind of terrible (“After the Sky.” “It Takes Two”).

Worth watching, but mostly made me want to see the stage show.

Rating: 6/10. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Long Goodbye, Madame De. . ., Andrei Rublev




The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973)  Rating: 8/10

My third Altman. Like Many New Hollywood films, it's a reworking of a Classic Hollywood genre, updating the worldview for the cynical, censorship-free 1970s. But wasn't film noir always cynical? Isn't it always the point of movies like Out of the Past, The Maltese Falcon, Touch of Evil, that corruption is everywhere, that death waits at the end of the road, that the girl will betray you, that nothing ever quite makes sense? So what does the whole "Rip Van Marlowe" conceit really have to say? I dunno, I haven't read any Chandler, maybe Marlowe's different--I suppose The Big Sleep has sort of a happy ending. But it seems a bit weird for The Long Goodbye to say its describing the passing of old values when that was what the previous stories were about in the first place.
It's obviously influential. The Coens' version of a drunken Faulkner in Barton Fink was pretty clearly taken from Sterling Hayden's drunken Hemingway here. And The Big Lebowski is basically updating the whole thing to the '90s for comedy. And Inherent Vice, book and film, clearly wouldn't be here without it.
A fascinating film, plenty of details to think about. But I am not sure it is a great one.


The Earrings of Madame de . . .  (Ophuls, 1953)  Rating: 8/10
My first Ophuls. As gorgeously shot as advertised, filled with breathtakingly elegant camera-movements (and people). The dancing montage is dizzyingly smooth and beautiful. Yet there is something contrived about the plot and the tragedy that is oddly distancing. The film is like a piece of jewelry etched with a tragic figure--one can admire its beauty with the eye, but it is still cold glass to the touch, not flesh. An exquisite bauble.
(Incidentally, Davies' The Deep Blue Sea seems an attempt to climb inside the same plot, ask the characters how they feel, and excavate the emotions until they overwhelm--and it's filmed just as elegantly. And I don't think this can be entirely attributed to the difference between a modern film artist and a classical one.)



Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966)  Rating: 10/10
Second viewing.  Got to see it on the big screen at the IU Cinema. Even with an old print, and a brief breakdown in the middle when the sound went out, still awe-inspiring. I remembered the beginning and end very well, but there were great stretches in the middle that felt almost brand new. I had forgotten what an epic it is--the sheer scope of the battle scenes is just stunning, and magnifies the horror of it all even more.
This movie is more than a "you are there" experience--somehow it has captured raw scenes from the Middle Ages and Medieval art and they are manifested before your eyes. It is a massive monument, a historical pageant, an epic history, a single fresco. You start to wonder if everything there is to know about art, faith, and civilization is contained within it. You start to feel that all other movies are just noise and frivolity--THIS is what Art is FOR.