Monday, April 30, 2012

Sucker Punch

For a movie about a lolita ninja squad fighting Nazi zombies and dragons, Sucker Punch is a surprisingly serious affair. Burrowing down deep into the psyche of the abused Babydoll, the film discovers a nesting-doll series of CGI fantasies, moving from mental asylum to brothel to bazooka-wielding shogun giants and heavy-metal riffs. Each wacko set piece is more ludicrous than the last, but the film is nothing if not sincere in its impassioned defence of escapism. This is surely the most ambitious piece of exploitive Hollywood trash since Showgirls, even if Zack Snyder lacks Paul Verhoeven’s sneering wit and cheerful willingness to stomp on the audience’s toes once in a while. If anything, Snyder is too obsequious towards his viewers, providing us with a litany of cringe-worthy clich├ęs and self-help homilies. The impossibility of this film is best summed up in one of its central devices: Babydoll, escaping from dingy reality through her dancing, which creates a vision so potent that all who watch her are mesmerized. It’s escapism in its purest form, a fantasy to hypnotize the world and then obliterate it. In the film, Babydoll shuts out everything and gives in to her own mad motion, free for a blissful moment; in reality, Snyder is peeking at his audience as he feverishly flails, anxious to please and desperate with the stink of sweat and failure. Shut your eyes and dance, fool.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Salesman

The pulp mill’s been shut down for 240 days and counting, winter has hit town like a fist, and the only flicker of life at the local car dealership is the omnipresent buzzing of the fluorescent lights. So what’s a salesman to do? Dance away his troubles with his daughter in the church basement, apparently, as the band enthusiastically tears through a Quebecois-folk rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Romance in Durango” (the singer reads the words off a sheet in faltering English, and his phonetic performance suggests he doesn’t have a clue what he’s saying). The cultural mash-up is so unlikely it would come across as ridiculous if it hadn’t just followed the even more implausible sight of a priest blessing a pack of snowmobiles.

The moment lends a touch of surreal ecstasy to the largely quotidian world of Sebastien Pilote’s The Salesman, but most of the film’s other pleasures are much more mundane. The early scenes float calmly on the gentle rhythms of small town life, later to be ruptured by a series of cascading tragedies both personal and economic. A potent economic screed married to a modest character sketch, the film succeeds by virtue of its fidelity to both parts of the argument. Marcel, the titular salesman, may well be a symbol of blind capitalism run amuck, but one nonetheless feels sympathy for the lonely man whose skill at selling seemingly comes from the sheer emptiness of his own life. When finally confronted by the suffering his dutiful salesmanship has caused others, he soldiers on, alienated from his own guilt. “Was it my hand that held the gun?” sings Dylan, via some French guy in a basement. Marcel dances on, never catching the warning. “I’d be a rich man if I spoke English,” he later says.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Farmer's Wife

The Farmer’s Wife, a 1928 silent from Alfred Hitchcock, is an almost terminally quaint romantic comedy about a pompous jackass who learns the only woman who could ever love him is a salaried employee. Or is that too harsh a description for a film that strains so desperately to be merely innocuous? It all starts innocently enough, when a widowed farmer goes into mid-life crisis mode and begins propositioning the local bachelorettes willy-nilly before eventually settling for his long-suffering, remarkably patient maid. At times, the humour is surprisingly raw—a fact not helped by its general lameness—giving the film’s ambling, pastoral pacing an occasional jolt of crass energy. “You know, her back view’s not a day over thirty,” muses the farmer of one prospective bride, in what amounts to fairly representative dialogue. Later, he insults another potential mate’s millinery with such force she collapses into a hysterical fit. Understandably, the man has good reason to believe he will die unloved and alone.

I remain confident in my belief that even lousy Hitchcock has its charms, and The Farmer’s Wife is surely not without its merits. Shackled to a weak script—based on a stage play, as is common with so many of his weakest early efforts—Hitchcock adds a bit of life to the proceedings by setting his camera loose to nestle in strange corners. The director pokes and prods this little world to life through sheer cinematic brio, if nothing else. Too bad his efforts are saddled to so much plodding slapstick and all of these dull, emotionally stunted characters. At every rejection, the farmer descends into a rage that turns him into a kind of human blowfish, his cheeks puffing up as if he were allergic to the word, “No.” Worse yet is his manservant, the improbably named Churdles Ash, who offers wincingly broad comic support. Groaning and grimacing, he lurches stiffly through each scene on a desperate hunt for the slightest sip of liquor to ease his unending torment through a waking hell of servitude and humiliation. Ha?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Ring

People looking for insight into the mind of Alfred Hitchcock might well turn to The Ring, a 1927 boxing film that sports a rare solo writing credit from the director (although his wife, Alma Reville, also had a hand in it). Imagine their surprise when they discover the film is, at first blush, little more than an anti-climactic melodrama, largely devoid of suspense or the darker passions that course through his strongest work. Talk of circles and rings aside, the film actually offers little more than a quaint triangle. A promising boxer dubbed One-round Jack comes under the wing of heavyweight champ Bob Corby, who flirts with the youngster’s wife in-between sparring rounds. The girl, not even afforded the distinction of a name, is bandied about as a prize between the two men—a fact so explicit that the film even assigns her a monetary value (she’s worth more than two quid, at least).

The tension between the two men is played as pissing match, complete with all the expected warning signs of machismo run rampant. The most obvious is the armband Bob gifts to the girl, who hides it from her husband-to-be in embarrassment (the wedding ring Jack gives her is notably dwarfed by the shiny bauble). Every scene unfolds at an unhurried pace, but the confidence of the film—particularly after the muddled, self-conscious efforts of Easy Virtue and Downhill—is striking. The outcome of the final fight is never in doubt (love rallies for the knockout in the fourth round), but the sequence itself is a perfect showpiece for Hitchcock’s talent. He skillfully cuts between the two small figures in long shot, framed in a patch of light amid the darkened rabble, and the disorienting close-ups of the two bodies slamming against each other. It’s visceral and yet poetic without ever feeling precious. Here, at last, is Hitchcock moving beyond merely throwing style at the screen to see what sticks. He’s in full command of his abilities, a prizefighter that knows how to pick his shots.

That confident mastery of the material invests the slight scenario with surprising nuance. While the film at time seems blandly obvious and even anti-dramatic, Hitchcock approaches it with a detached, quizzical attitude. It ceases to be an old-fashioned love triangle and becomes instead a more tricky study of paranoia. Significantly, Jack never really sees any sign of infidelity, only the flirty familiarity between his wife and his mentor. Out of doubt springs despair, and the affable Jack devolves into a sullen primitive, sometimes listless and other times snarling with so much rage he can knock over photographs at ten paces with a single glare. Yet the film is filled with faulty vision, calling into doubt everything we see. Key events are hidden behind crowds, while point of view shots are typically blurred, either punch drunk or liquor addled. Little actually happens in the film, and the crowd brays for more blood; the performers oblige for their (and our) benefit. Optimists might say the film ends with the girl renouncing her fickle love for whoever’s on top, learning empathy by admitting her love for Jack when he is at his lowest point. The more cynical might say that it doesn’t matter who wins or loses—all the audience wants is a fight.