Thursday, June 25, 2009

Once Upon A Girl (1976, Don Jurwich)

Fairy tales have been interpreted as rape parables by feminists for years so they already make a perfect fit for boners. Like x-rated animated features, there's also a small niche of live action erotic fairy tale comedies with the sophistication of a snickering eleven year old. Animated fairy tales have the extra benefit of being instantly identifiable with Disney's most frequently adapted material, which is why you see cheap knockoffs in the dollar bin at the grocery store for undiscriminating grandparents to bring frustrated children who wanted the real Little Mermaid and not the Sri Lankan knockoff.

Once Upon A Girl owes existence to Ralph Bakshi's 1972 film Fritz the Cat, a feature length animated movie for adults. Bakshi's best films were all ahead of him and so too were the imitators on Fritz's heels, eschewing the satirical stories of Robert Crumb and Bakshi's beautifully lively animation for a lot of gratuitous dirtiness. The number of actual porno cartoon features is small, since decades from South Park any animation for an adult audience had to be produced for dingy grindhouse programming. In the wake of Fritz's financial success, the era of novelty x-rated animation - which ended with 1981's Heavy Metal - produced a lot of gratingly witless weirdness wherein every sexual reference or naked cartoon girl is lingered upon naughtily like a child who's just learned to swear.

The live action segments which intersperse OUAG also bring Ralph Bakshi to mind, except here they're so obviously time filler to save just a few minutes of expensive animation. In the film's single live set, a transvestite Mother Goose played by Hal Smith ("Otis" on The Andy Griffith Show) is on trial for obscenity and retells the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Room to a room of very 1970s looking young people off the street. The twist is, get this, all the stories are dirty! The animation for all three segments is mostly competent and completely lifeless, fitting the state of the medium in 1976. The cast is mostly all humans, drawn with the stiff posture and expresionless faces to be found on increasingly incompetent Saturday Morning programming emulating Scooby Doo. According to the hosts of The Silent Movie Theater some Josie and the Pussycats storyboard artists contributed to this film and it shows in the female anatomy on display, which like Josie is a blander, more realistic version of Dan Decarlo's Bettie and Veronica design. The mannequin men and the semi-proportional women who populate the rest of the show have about three expressions each to convey themselves, mainly by raising and lowering the eyebrows over their dot eyes. Other casualties of the animated times include a wonky, incessant synthesizer score and shrill voice acting. Jack's voice in the Beanstalk story has a stutter, which is not only unfunny and annoying but probably saved a few precious dollars of screen time, having him flap his mouth hole a longer amount of time.

The very dull animation makes the ensuing slapstick sex so cardboard that the intercourse itself is banal by repetition. There a lot of fucking, tits and boners, punctuating by lousy voice acting about the clap and other explicit talk assuming hilarity for being spoken in a cartoon. Unfortunately once the initial shock wears off at the end of the first story, the following are tedious and mostly predictable. The only truly amusing moments come from fleeting gags involving animal sidekicks with hard ons - much less disturbing than cartoon humans with them - and a mincing homosexual troll under a bridge. A few misguided attempts at pioneering sexual slapstick occasionally liven the monotony, such as when Jack hides from the Giant inside the Giant's wife. Otherwise, a bore and a chore. The disbelief at what you are seeing - by now only accounting for the age of the style - is quickly surpassed by disbelief that this had a viable audience. With shock value diminished by time, there's nothing to recommend to this except kitsch novelty, and shoddy kitsch too.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Terminator: Salvation (2009, McG)

The most inerrant feature of the Terminator franchise, once seemingly dead yet revived six whole years ago after twelve years before the last installment, has been John Connor. In addition to changing the actors who play him, his will and purpose in the two non-Cameron sequels has been refashioned each time to suit the shortsighted needs of each film.

In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Nick Stahl's portrayal of a John Connor turned haggard druggie (since Judgement Day was prevented) was at least plausible. Seeing T2's Edward Furlong play an older version of the character he immortalized as a child would've been unsettling anyway. Whoever was playing Connor still didn't matter much since Mostow had the benefit of Schwarzenegger, even in his aging twilight and on the cusp of fulfilling the Terminator series' vision of running California into the ground. Mostow's indistinguished career prepared him perfectly to fashion a PG-13 facsimile of Terminator 2, which was boring on arrival since every sci-fi action movie had been emulating T2 up until The Matrix in 1999. Terminator 3's adaption to the lameness of Matrix knock-off style was having a acrobatic hot chick Terminator in tight leather effectively taking the place of the T-1000.

Salvation continues T3's aimless slouch towards trendiness while not even attempting faint resemblance to the series from where it came. Like T3 the rating is PG-13, although in retrospect even T2 could qualify with a little less blood. The series most brazenly copied is now Michael Bay's Transformers via frequent scenes of humans running from giant robots that dwarf the landscapes, which are also mostly deserts. The premise of a Terminator set in the future war shown briefly by Cameron in his two films was kicking around as the possible third movie for a long time, yet even T3's brief view of that future bears closer resemblance to Cameron's blue-lit nighttime palette than McG's arid grey and yellow post-apocalypse. Being set in the future also precludes the need for time travel, another radical anomaly from the original formula.

Terminator: Salvation's biggest anomaly and biggest problem is the absence of Schwarzenegger. As in, THE Terminator. Without him, the producers doubled down on the new casting of John Connor as the number two reason people would come to see Terminator flicks. Poor John Connor now has to be played by Christian Bale, whose stock hero performance so resembles a chunk of wood that he would've made a fine Terminator. Unfortunately this is just another in his continuing line of post-Batman roles in which he's a human action figure all geeks can project their asexual power fantasies upon. If the same actor can play Batman and John Conner in potentially multiple movies, why not have him play the next James Bond? At least he could use his real accent. As a star to hang a whole movie around, I wasn't expecting much from Bale and given the box office performance perhaps Hollywood also will be less inclined to regard him as an ace in the hole.

There are barely even any of the iconic Terminator skeletons in this movie. Instead, there's a focal Terminator played by a side of beef named Sam Worthington, who undergoes the something almost resembling time travel, being frozen and waking up in the future as a Terminator who doesn't know he's a Terminator! He barely raises an eyebrow upon discovering that fact or even when being told he's woken up in the future. There's no logical sense of progression to the robots introduced in the series and Worthington functions mainly as a mcguffin to be sought out by everyone, ultimately giving him more screen time than Bale's monotone histrionics or fresh faced Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese.

Yelchin provides a weird conduit to the tactics of JJ Abrams, the only director with a faker name than McG. Both shamelessly exploited fan nostalgia and the casual knowledge of non-franchise fans by casting young lookalikes or just good looking young people as the younger versions of beloved characters with decades of memories behind them. Granted, Kyle from the original movie was never a character known by name to anyone but fans of the the first movie the way non-Trek fans know the name "Mr Spock." Although his inclusion here is gratuitous pandering, Yelchin does bear an uncanny resemblance to Michael Biehn's appearance and performance. There should have been more of him than Bale or Worthington but even if there had been, Michael Ferris and John Brancato's script still would have had him doing idiotic things. When first introduced, he's not only living by the skin of his teeth with the help of a mute little girl in the ruins of LA, they're hiding at night atop the highest point possible, the Griffith Observatory. I'd be tempted to think this was a reference to the location of Arnold's arrival in the original Terminator if the stupidity weren't so self-discrediting.

On the matter of the war-torn post apocalypse: George Miller's The Road Warrior doesn't logically spell out how people are logically able to survive day by day, yet the world of Mad Max feels real unto itself because of the desperate savagery of its inhabitants. Terminator: Salvation's post-apocalypse is lazily cribbed from The Road Warrior, throwing handfuls of armed survivors into remote desert locations, but they're not mobile or threatening and nothing about the future world feels particularly dangerous until a giant robot appears from nowhere. Cameron's vision of the future wars (and T3's for that matter) were of a constant ground war of attrition. Brancato and Ferris actually blew their chance to show Bale commanding a battle on land, something teased since Terminator 2's prologue. They aren't even sure how he ultimately became the leader against the machines. He's not yet in charge at the start of the film despite being the only person who had Terminators sent back in time to kill him; he's so important! He still has to get chewed out by gruff Michael Ironside about how he's too reckless a soldier and doesn't play by the rules and other stuff that would get him canned immediately. Amongst other new absurdities, Ironside lives in a nuclear submarine with the other military commanders and the human resistance also has fighter jets. Did they run out of those by the time the future-events of T1 and 2 took place, and all they had left were jeeps with mounted machine guns? This is a really dumb movie. I wonder if they even noticed that the title is displayed twice during the opening credits or if some dumb person just thought that was necessary.

As a generic boilerplate science fiction action movie, this one is at least technically competent. As a Terminator film - whatever that is without Cameron - the contradictory attempts at reinvention and series fidelity only compound the lack of wit or inspiration. Near the end of the movie, an Arnold lookalike shows up playing one of the first Terminators hot off the press. His face gets melted off in seconds so you don't notice it's not him, then the rest of him gets melted in minutes so the movie can end. That's all McG did here - grudgingly reuse someone else's icon as a stepping stone to create something boldly unoriginal.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965, Otto Preminger)

It's hard to review this movie without spoiling the ending and even harder to watch when Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osbourne ruins the ending before you've watched it. Usually an innocuous source of grandfatherly trivia in between excellent commercial free programming - the only game in town - it saddens me that Osbourne now cannot be trusted before the movie to give away too much of a tricky plot. Especially not for Bunny Lake Is Missing, which he managed to sabotage in the opening sentence. For shame, Osbourne; you've compromised the cool dry air of metropolitan cinematheque sophistication by letting your omniscience make a blunder fatal to movie watchers who want unfiltered viewing. One of the original taglines even warned against patrons entering the theater after the film started, a la Hitchcock's Psycho. Osbourne should've warned you not to stop watching the movie or something, and that's it.

The stars of the film, Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea, manipulate your sympathy towards them almost from scene to scene every few minutes. Lynley carries most of the film until the final act when Dullea suddenly steps out further and they're great together. Preminger's work with actors is so masterful, his relatively unknown leads are captivating even when surrounded by Olivier, Noel Coward and The Zombies (via TV footage shot specifically for the film.) Olivier's a better actor than I thought, he's able to move things along when they need to be moved along as in Rebecca. Coward has a macabre comedy routine as a creepy old man and Marita Hunt is a creepy old woman they're seen episodically, first with Lynley and Olivier then Olivier and Dullea.

Denys Coop's late period black and white photography is superb. Saul Bass title sequences are always a treat. Paul Glass' music is a little overbearing at the big moments and suitably impish in the quieter parts. All the details work in harmony. This is essentially a perfect movie.

As to the twists, well...There's a remake on the horizon and two things are assured. One, no alternately delicate and frightening depictions of mental illness. Two, no way that the ending will be fresh for anyone because the trailer will probably give away the first answer to the big question Bunny Lake centers around, and if you really want to you can find out the ending just by reading the cast of characters on IMDB. You can't really do movies that build up twists upon twists anymore because if a movie does have a twist post Fight Club and M. Night Shyamalan, there's only one and it has to be as ludicrous as possible. This is a thriller from another era, existing between the modernity of Zombies songs and the old hands like Olivier and Coward, with a secret that's actually unpredictable.

So see it now, while you can. No one will be admitted once the clock starts ticking!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

Rebecca must have been a great novel. As a film and Hitchcock's first American production there's a glossiness that feels distancing, thanks to producer David O. Selznick, who also kept him at a distance from the stage when winning the Best Picture Oscar. Hitchcock didn't get anything for decades until a lifetime achievement award and remarked in the interim that it was much more a Selznick picture than his own. By cleverly shooting only what he wanted and leaving Selznick without option to re-edit alternate coverage or the order of events, he at least got the film to look and feel like one of his own. Unfortunately, Selznick insisted on strict adherence to the original novel and that's not usually a trademark of Hitchcock's classics. There's a formal stuffiness as a result, instead of formal lyricism. At least it helps that the story is equally claustrophobic and dualistic.

Fans of the novel, especially Americans unfamiliar with Hitchcock, might have been happy at the time. Even without having read the book, the feeling taken away was mostly of seeing a book-to-movie adaptation from a well financed backer with unwavering fidelity to the details of his purchase, rather than a standalone cinematic achievement and a world unto itself. That takes trust in the vision brought to the table by the adaptor, who in this case is not really Hitch but an untrusting Selznick. Rather than unfolding gracefully, the last half hour of the film tacks on the solving of a mystery like there's barely any time left and it's rushed pacing seems foreign to the preceding. This may have been required to squeeze in every last detail where there could have been streamlining in Hitchcock's hands. There's nothing inspiring about a film which almost the best you can say about is that it's well made. The production values aid the mood of the gothic mansion Rebecca centers around through sheer size and detail without leaving a deep impression.

In spite of Hitchcock's infamous quotation about actors place in movies, the cast is what saves the experience from being crushed under the weight of its own David O. Selfnik-importance. Joan Fontaine is a good lead, convincingly naive and scared. She's the only actress to win an Oscar for acting in a Hitchcock film; 1941's Suspicion. She's English and does an American accent well. The story finds her moving to Laurence Olivier's estate in England where the creepy staff has never gotten over the death of his titular former wife, and there's a secret about her death being hidden. This modern telegraphed variation on Jayne Eyre makes the waiting up until those last scenes a bit airier and one wonders what Hitchcock would have done differently for the sake of pacing. Olivier's only got a couple big scenes and comes out of his regal shell for them although his seemingly sudden impulse to sweep Fontaine away into his life is never really explained or expressed by him in any way.

Rebecca shines best in the supporting cast, accomplishing one truly outstanding character in the creepy housekeeper who torments Fontaine, Judith Anderson. She manages to steal the entire movie and is reportedly a mystery of Hitchcock's devising - in the novel she's still a major player, but with a back story. Here she's a ghost, and her doings as a catalyst as more striking for it. George Sanders as Rebecca's sleazeball cousin is great too, and features heavily in the plot-heavy final act.

Entire books have been written about the collaboration of two of cinema's biggest control freaks over this picture, but the short story is that it's just a good movie and not either of their best, thanks to one another.