Tuesday, November 27, 2012

SKYFALL

"What makes you think this is my first time?"

SKYFALL, the latest James Bond thriller, begins with a splendid high-speed chase involving all manner of transportation and a capable female colleague who seems to be able to match Bond stunt for stunt and quip for quip.  Eventually Bond is fighting a villain atop a speeding train, with the female colleague perched far away with a rifle trying to get a clear shot at the bad guy.  Bond falls to what looks like his death, and there’s a rather sticky situation – not only does the bad guy get away with vital information about every single British Intelligence officer serving in the field, but the shot that takes Bond down was fired at M’s specific command, despite the lack of a clear enough shot to ensure Bond’s safety. 

Bond lays low for a while, hiding out in some tropical place, drinking and screwing himself senseless.  Meanwhile, British Intelligence is having a rough time of it – as supervillain Raoul Silva (a marvelous and genuinely frightening Javier Bardem) has decided to take some revenge on the entire organization in general and Judi Dench’s M in particular by publishing that vital information  online.  Computer messages with the words CONSIDER YOUR SINS pop up on M’s computer before assorted bad things happen, Bond sees TV coverage of a particularly nasty event and decides to report for duty, and we’re off.

There’s no denying that SKYFALL is a substantial improvement over the previous outing, the lackluster QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  The story is clearer, the action scenes better handled with none of the handheld jittery camera and bad editing that made certain scenes in QUANTUM damn near incomprehensible.  SKYFALL is a return to solid action movie-making, and that turns out to be a blessing and a curse, as the film also thinks it has something important to say about the state of the world, and the high price of keeping us all safe, and the vexing question of how far the good guys can go before they become bad guys too -- M gets an extended speech that touches on all of those issues, and it seems characteristic of the film that it only touches on those issues. 

It is hard to understand what the film is trying to tell me – mixed messages are the order of the day here.   It turns out that British Intelligence has already gone pretty far in being Bad Good Guys, and they’ve become a pretty nasty and arrogant bunch – Bardem’s Silva has a pretty solid grudge against them in general and M in particular, M having sold Silva out to the Chinese in return for some captured agents and the smooth transition of power in Hong Kong. Silva’s experiences in a Chinese prison have left him a physical wreck and ready for some payback, and I for one don’t see how anyone can blame him for wanting to wreak a little havoc.  The film’s more than casual racism cannot be denied, as the film’s heroes are damn near exclusively White and British, and the film’s villains are damn near exclusively Neither.  It has to be noted that the only person of color to survive to the end of the film does so by taking a notably servile role – the sharp and smart black woman who makes such an impression in the film’s opening sequence is finally revealed as the new Miss Moneypenny (new for this version of the franchise, anyway).  The really tasteless moments when Bardem as Silva suggestively strokes Bond’s skin at one point brings back all kinds of ugly memories of stereotyped gay villains from the bad old days of the past, and would be really appallingly offensive if it wasn’t mitigated somewhat by the real justice of his grudge, and the overt symbolism of his Bond-executed final dispatch – Silva gets stabbed in the back.  The film’s surprisingly forthright criticism of the arrogance of British Intelligence, best shown by Ben Whishaw’s snotty young Q who damn near brings down MI6’s entire computer network due to sheer conceited stupidity, doesn’t fit well with the film’s ending, in which a Great White Male Authority Figure is installed in M’s position, with Bond's full support and respect because well, he's the new guy in charge and loyalty and all that. 

Now of course this could all be very much the point, but I'm going to have to say that it never feels like the point.  Over-reaching has never been a characteristic of the James Bond franchise, until SKYFALL.  A shame, as the Daniel Craig version of the franchise had upped the ante considerably over the earlier incarnations, as we got to watch Craig's Bond learn the hard personal lessons of being a killer for hire.  SKYFALL seeks to up the ante still further, and it just doesn't work.  I hope they settle for less next time.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

For the last few years I've been attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a great and glorious occasion held each July at the Castro Theater. Here are some notes from this year's festival:

WINGS – a brand new restored gorgeous print, with live music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and live foley sound effects by Ben Burtt. The film is beautifully made, no question, with some still damned impressive aerial fight sequences that only get more amazing when one remembers that those are real planes really zooming around like that. WINGS was the first Oscar winner for Best Picture and it sets the template for so many Best Pictures to come in that it manages to sidestep any serious issues that it might have dealt with. The movie just plain hasn’t got much on its mind, especially in comparison with earlier World War I related films like Vidor’s remarkable THE BIG PARADE, which is far more forthright about the real horrors of war in general and WWI in particular. WINGS settles for being a romance with a wartime setting, and even then it leaves a lot to be desired. CASABLANCA it ain’t. A good part of the blame has to go to Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, who doesn’t let the horrors of war do anything to diminish his essential Bright Eyed And Bushy Tailedness -- no one has ever seemed less affected by the experience of war. On the other hand, there are some fine performances from Richard Arlen, who actually manages to imbue his character with a measurable IQ, and of course the magnificent, irresistible Clara Bow. There’s even a cameo from a pre-stardom Gary Cooper. Cooper, who can’t be onscreen for more than three minutes, frankly obliterates Arlen and Rogers in a dazzling display of what I can only describe as Magnetic Underplaying. He’s absolutely natural and at ease onscreen in ways that Rogers in particular can’t come near.

Next up was a film from Ernst Lubitsch, THE LOVES OF PHAROAH, a German super-production made with some backing from Hollywood. Big sets, big story, lots of stuff going on all the time, and unfortunately it just never got off the ground somehow despite all the spectacle and wackadoo plot games. A big story like this demands a painterly eye and some real control behind that camera, which means that it required the Fritz Lang of METROPOLIS or DIE NIEBELUNGEN to get it going and keep it interesting. There’s one moment early in the film when the Pharoah makes a grand entrance through a gigantic pair of doors, and I remember thinking at one point in the film that Lang would have made damn sure that both parts of that door swung open at exactly the same time, and Lang’s big set pieces never fall as flat as the ones in Lubitsch’s film. Lubitsch did get some fine performances from Emil Jannings and Albert Basserman in particular. Emil Jannings really goes for broke here – heavy emoting and stylized hyper dramatics, culminating in one of the most remarkable stunts I’ve ever seen an actor pull off. Basserman, who was one of the last German actors to escape Europe before WWII really broke out, has a tiny moment of real power that I can’t describe without giving away some hellacious spoilers, but trust me on this – he was marvelous.

And then came MANTRAP, a comedy from Victor Fleming that I can’t believe hadn’t come my way before. The plot concerns Ralph, a successful divorce lawyer who seeks to escape his flirtatious clients by going on vacation in the wilds of Canada. Ralph is rescued by Joe, a local shopowner married to the alluring Alverna. Ralph soon falls victim to Alverna’s charm, hardly surprisingly as Alverna is embodied by the impossibly appealing Clara Bow. Plot, schmot. The movie is really about how we must all fall madly in love with Clara Bow, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling madly in love with Clara Bow. It can’t be helped. Her energy and enthusiasm and sex appeal and just sheer total animal joy are absolutely intoxicating, and it is to the film’s credit that it resists the temptation to go all Moral on us, tacking on a righteously lecturing ending. Everyone lives happily and presumably sexily ever after. Works for me. We should all be so lucky.

THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA was next, a German film starring Brigitte Helm, best known for her work in Lang’s METROPOLIS. Here she plays the a woman who falls for a junior military officer, the problem being that she’s already the kept woman of a higher-ranking military officer. Love and tragedy ensue. After all these years of knowing Helm only from METROPOLIS it was a real pleasure to see her do something else, not bound by the rather rigid demands of playing Extreme Purity (METROPOLIS’s almost too saintly Maria) or Extreme Wickedness (Robot Maria from the same film). Her Nina Petrovna comes off as a prototype of a von Sternberg heroine, sacrificing all for love. She’s got some wonderful moments during her big seduction of a rather clueless Lederer, who keeps not getting the idea that he’s supposed to make the first move. A lovely performance in a fine film that deserves to be better known, I think.

One of the real pleasures of the festival was a program of silent Felix The Cat cartoons, from the era when Felix was more popular than Mickey Mouse. Several shorts were shown, all of which had delights. There were plenty of marvelous gags, including some flat-out bizarre moments of the kind that Disney never really got into. One strange cartoon set in Toyland featured the silhouette of a lynched clown suspended over a chessboard, for example. A wonderful program.

These extraordinary works were followed by an extraordinarily ordinary little film called THE SPANISH DANCER. I don’t have a lot to say about it. Despite some fine flourshes and a rather entertaining climax, the film never quite got as much steam going as I’d wished, due at least to a lackluster male lead, one Antonio Moreno, who was no Douglas Fairbanks, as was made all too evident at the screening of Fairbanks’ great comic adventure THE MARK OF ZORRO the following day. Fairbanks, as Zorro, has a great time in the dual roles of the kinetic Zorro, merrily doing improbabl stunts with the greatest of ease, and Zorro’s altar ego Don Diego, virtually immobilized with boredom and doing strange tricks with his handkerchief. The plot is rather unwieldy, and if I have to say that Fairbanks’ more serious moments can be a bit of a drag on the film, well, the plot moves quickly enough and Fairbanks is never very serious for very long.

The real attraction this year, though, was a glorious restoration of G.W. Pabst’s PANDORA’S BOX, starring the luminous Louise Brooks as Lulu. I’d seen the film before, of course, but never on a screen as huge as the Castro’s, and never in such sparkling clarity, and the score by the Matti Bye Ensemble is one of the finest in my experience. I was just plain staggered by the film. I felt like it finally made total sense this time out, in ways that I can’t really put my finger on, and I had friends in attendance who felt much the same way. My friend Phillip and I had to go for a walk afterward to get our bearings, we were so hammered by the experience. The film is the story of Lulu, a kept woman in 1920s Berlin who seems able to charm any living male and many living females. Lulu’s no seductress or Garbonian vamp: she’s completely delightful in every way, able to make everyone she meets believe that they’re the most important person in the world. Not the least of the seduction jobs Lulu pulls is the one she plays on the audience, as American actress Louise Brooks could seduce the Pope himself. The film charts Lulu’s rise and pretty terrible fall, as well as the rise and pretty terrible fall of those in her orbit. Poor Lulu’s ugly fate is particularly interesting when contrasted with the fate of MANTRAP’s Alverna, who will clearly keep on delighting all those lucky enough to bask in her magical, infuriating, delightful presence. Of course, MANTRAP is a comedy, a film of the light while PANDORA’S BOX is very much a tragedy, a film of the shadows. I think it is a measure of MANTRAP’s accomplishment that I can think of it at the same time as I think of PANDORA’S BOX without feeling that a disservice is being done to either film. A great comedy is the other side of the coin from a great tragedy.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

SHORT TAKES---

Damn it has been a while. Here are some capsule thoughts on some things:

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

"Well, dammit, what were you then?"

The Cold War was never colder than in the novels of John le Carre, and this latest film adaptation of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (a famed BBC version with Alec Guinness as master spy George Smiley was made in the 1980s) manages to lower the temperature to near freezing levels, keeping the action slow and the talk hushed. This is a a daring move in these days of full out in your face action thrillers, but this is no James Bond/Tom Cruise Mission Impossible adventure. In le Carre’s shadow world of intrigue and betrayal and counter betrayal and assassinations both physical and emotional, a wise person keeps himself under wraps, giving away as little as possible, and, as Smiley, Gary Oldman delivers an astonishing display of the power of underplaying, using only the smallest of gestures and the quietest of voice levels; in one scene a shift of his head a fraction of an inch to the right speaks volumes. The basic plot couldn’t be simpler -- Smiley is re-called from a forced retirement to hunt down a highly placed traitor in British Intelligence. A deceptively simple storyline, stated that way, but there’s nothing simple about le Carre’s novel or this film. Keep your eyes and your ears open, and you’ll have a great time. For my money, the best film I saw in 2011.

THE ARTIST

"Wizz pleasure!"

Was I dreading this. A latter-day silent film, winner of multiple awards, about the effect of the advent of sound on the career of a popular actor? Oy. I dragged my feet going in, and found to my delight that THE ARTIST is that rarest of rare things -- a feel-good movie that actually made me feel good. The story of George Valentin, a silent movie star (a combination of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert) whose career falters with the advent of sound, and of Peppy, a young actress whose career takes off with the advent of sound. It sounds familiar, of course, and part of the joy of THE ARTIST is the way it manages to breathe life and energy and basic good cheer into its rather familiar storyline. Jean Dujardin's lauded performance as George is simply magical, he's one of the most appealing leading men in recent memory, with an intoxicating blend of virility and silliness I found irresistible. I gave in at one moment in particular, when George happily bounces downstairs before heading out to work, only to briefly pause at the front door to get an admiring look at a life-size portrait of himself in all his grinning glory -- never has self-regard been made so charming and so appealing, and the miracle is that Dujardin never once crosses the line into obnoxious egotism, and even more miraculously, neither does the film he's starring in.

Well, almost never. There's one ghastly mis-step where director Michel Hazanavicius over-reaches, using a track of Bernard Herrmann's score from VERTIGO that is wildly inappropriate, but it doesn't last long. Overall, THE ARTIST is a treat. It manages to embody the Magic Of The Movies in ways that Scorsese's HUGO could only lecture me about.

GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

"I'm crazy."

David Fincher's film of the wildly popular Stieg Larson novel, with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. Mikael Blomkvist, a disgraced magazine publisher, is offered the chance to redeem himself in the public eye if he aids an older tycoon in the search for the tycoon's missing relative. Blomkvist is aided in his search by Lizbeth Salander, the title character, a computer hacker with some serious emotional baggage. The best parts of the film, and the novel, are the opening sections centering on Blomkvist and Salander and their respective lives and growing relationship. And while the investigation into the disappearance is done with some good energy, all of David Fincher's most energetic filmmaking and marvelous set pieces and unexpected touches (one in particular involving a mass murderer's taste in music is probably the comic highpoint of Fincher's career) and an excellent performance from Craig and a better than excellent performance from Mara can't cover up the fact that we're dealing with what is really just another serial killer movie. A real shame -- I wish Larsson had come up with something more interesting for these characters to spend our time doing. There's less than meets the eye here. I doubt I'll bother with the inevitable sequels.

THE DESCENDANTS

"Your money won't buy you out of this."

A solid bore. Rich white guy Matt King, played by George Clooney, is having a rough time: his wife won't be emerging from the coma she's fallen into following a boating accident, and it soon becomes clear that King's life is in danger of coming apart at the seams, and there's some stuff involving the sale of some important real estate that has been in the family for generations, and you might be moved to care but I just plain never was, try as I might. Only Shailene Woodley, as King's elder daughter, made me even remotely interested in the proceedings, as her character moves from open contempt for her father to a solid affection and respect for him. I hadn't expected the film to be such a bore, it just meant NOTHING to me at all, and it is hard to figure out what the problem is, as the same director made SIDEWAYS into such an interesting and energetic film. But of course SIDEWAYS had the great Paul Giamatti who is always interesting to watch, while THE DESCENDANTS has George Clooney, an actor I've never been able to warm up to beyond his considerable physical charms. There's a reserve, a distance, a sense that he's the smartest/best looking/best person in the room and that he knows it, that I always find off-putting when it comes to generating any real sympathy for any plight his characters might be in. Yeah, I know, Matt King is supposed to be distant and a little lost and a little smug even, but there's something about Clooney's performance, and the film that contains it, that prevented me from giving a basic goddamn about him and what he was going through.

Monday, November 28, 2011

HUGO

"Dream with me."

Martin Scorsese’s attempt to cash in on the family friendly big-budget 3-D extravaganza trend. The film centers on orphan Hugo, played with a surprising lack of charisma by Asa Butterworth, who keeps the clocks in a Paris train station wound and running accurately, and his quest to repair a broken automaton left him by his late father, stealing necessary bits of clockwork from a toymaker with a small shop in the station who turns out to be none other than the great filmmaker Georges Melies blah blah blah. There are subplots involving Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, and a very weird performance from Sacha Baron Cohen as the station guard who occasionally brings the film to a halt. The film follows a terribly predictable trajectory until it turns rather jarringly into a lecture on the importance of film history and preservation, believe it or not, and just when you’ve gotten used to the sudden shift in the story it shifts back into Big Event Movie mode with an entirely predictable and deeply silly Big Action Scene that serves no purpose other than allowing Scorsese to cram in references to Hitchcock, M.C. Esher, and Harold Lloyd before going for a big ode to the magic of cinema and family friendly tear-jerker ending.

There’s some cool stuff, to be fair, especially some marvelous recreations of Melies’ style of filmmaking, with its outlandish painted sets, crazy costumes, dancing girls and overt theatricality. But it left me very very cold indeed. Like Del Toro’s outlandishly overpraised PAN’S LABYRINTH, it expects me to take more of an interest in the problems of its juvenile hero without ever going to the trouble of making me give a flying goddamn about the little wretch in question, and that's entirely the blame of Mr. Butterworth and ultimately Mr. Scorsese himself. Maybe a better child actor could have made him more interesting. If only the film had been made with a Freddie Highmore, Jamie Bell, or a Haley Joel Osment.

Well-intentioned, and I guess if it leads people to seek out the glorious work of the great Melies, well, it won’t have been an entire waste of time and money. And I'm thinking that Melies is himself a key to the film's slight successes and more drastic failures. The film never makes me really share the sense of Wonder that it works so strenuously to generate with all the big CGI 3D stuff and invitations to “dream with me.” It requires a different kind of filmmaker to get away with stuff like this, someone better able to tap into the real innocence and sense of wonder associated with childhood while still regaining his adult sensibilities, and I’m sorry to have to say that Martin Scorsese is quite simply no Georges Melies, or even Terry Gilliam any of the latterday followers of the great man. HUGO simply doesn't have enough of the life that animates even the least of the Melies films is wants to desperately to be a tribute to; it is just as mechanical as the big clocks that Hugo tends. There’s a terrific merry energy to Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON that Scorsese can’t manage to bring to the screen, settling instead for a sugary sentimentality that will certainly move a lot of people but started to infurate me, at least partly because it has so little to do with the very real magic of the real films created by Georges Melies, who created, among other things, what must be the first depiction of hilariously simulated same-sex analingus in movie history, in a remarkable little short called THE COURTSHIP OF THE SUN AND MOON.



I certainly don’t expect to see such things in a G-rated holiday extravaganza, but I don’t think it is expecting too much to get some of Melies’ sly energy in a film devoted, even if only in part, to his memory.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


TREE OF LIFE

Terrence Malick's latest got a lot of boos and bravos at Cannes, as well as the Palme D'Or. I pretty thoroughly disliked it.  Malick is clearly aiming for big metaphysical emotional human-historical targets here, as he attempts to link fragmented scenes in the life of a dysfunctional family (Brutish Dad, Saintly Mother, Sensitive Son in 1950s Texas) with nothing less than the creation of the universe -- there's an extended sequence showing can only be the Big Bang, the formation of Planet Earth, single cell animals, dinosaurs, the lot.  And it doesn't stop there: there's another sequence set on a beach where all of the characters from all periods of the film (except dinosaurs) are shown walking around while wearing white gauzy clothes, and there are fervently whispered voiceovers about grace and so on.

I didn't buy it for a minute. For all the magnificence of the cinematography and the carefully chosen classical soundtrack, all the emotive whisperings and ever-so symbolic symbolism, the only thing of cosmic significance on display in TREE OF LIFE is Malick's failure to bring this film to anything resembling meaningful life. Plenty of distinguished works have been loaded for the same bear Malick is aiming for: Joyce's ULYSSES, Faulkner's THE HAMLET, Wilder's OUR TOWN, Tarkovsky's THE MIRROR, O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, to name just a few, and I'm sorry but TREE OF LIFE falls very very short of being in their company, coming off instead like Tarkovsky-Kubrickified version of some 70s TV drama.  My problems with the film aren't with the film's perceived "sincerity" or "seriousness," and I'm certainly not trying to come off as all hipper than thou.  I've been deeply moved by lots of films, lots of books, lots of things in life in general.  I found more honest emotional resonance, more sheer power and beauty, in the climactic incinerator sequence of TOY STORY 3, where assorted pieces of plastic and fabric join hands to meet their fate, than in the entire two hours plus of Malick's phony, bloated piece of kneejerk high-art weepy sincerity-porn.

Believe it or not, I've been an admirer of Malick's for a long time, since college when I was knocked out by a screening of BADLANDS, still for me Malick's best film.  DAYS OF HEAVEN has its interest, but for all the visual beauty there's also the first instance of the preciousness that would overcome Malick later, in one of Linda Manz' voiceovers, when she out of the blue announces that she's thinking of her future, and wants to be an earth doctor, or some such -- it just brought the film to a halt, but it didn't last long.  I saw THIN RED LINE on its first release as well, and was very impressed with it, up to a point.  A recent revisit confirmed that, for me, the film just goes on for far too long -- the last half hour or so focussing on Jim Caviezel fell very flat for me, especially after the incredible tension of the middle section, which ends when the great Elias Koteas is transferred out of the unit.  The trademark whispered voiceovers didn't cloy as badly as they later did, and the film's astonishing beauty was, for me, unprecedented in a war film.
 
I seem to like THE NEW WORLD a good deal more than most people.  I didn't have problem with the slow pace, or the voiceovers, or much of anything in the film at all.  It struck me as being one of the more profound timewarps in movie history -- it really felt like I was looking back through the ages at colonial America.  What can I say -- I bought it, I went along with the leisurely pace and the radiant beauty and the film's lingering sadness.  And Malick got a real performance out of Colin Farrell, which up to then I hadn't thought was possible, and he got one of the last watchable performances of Christian Bale.
 
Now to be fair, there were things about TREE OF LIFE that I did like.  Mr. Malick did manage to depict the world of children really skillfully, I thought.  The whole memory of the boy entering into the neighbor's house was the most remarkable thing in the film, I thought, the kind of nagging childhood incident that resists easy explanation.  And the entire film is just flat out gorgeous.  I keep remembering that one shot of a flock of birds against the sky, twisting in and out of assorted shapes -- the kind of astonishing thing that only Malick seems to be able to capture, that shows me something everyday in a way that makes me feel like I've never seen it before.  I just wish the rest of the film had been of any interest to me at all.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

THEATRE IS HELL

Saw two of the most eagerly anticipated plays of the year in the last week, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s production of something called WAR HORSE, and Tony Kushner’s latest play, THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES.

WAR HORSE is the story of Joey, a British horse brought to life via lifesize puppets manipulated by clearly visible operators. Through some kind of theatrical alchemy, the operators disappear, and you get remarkably lifelike and interesting creations. Alas, that's about all that's lifelike and interesting about the show. Joey’s story follows a terribly familiar trajectory -- he is purchased by a familiarly vaguely disfunctional family (Sweet Dreamy Son, mother who is Loving But Firm, Drunken Boob Father), sold to the British Army for use in WWI, familiar confrontation with the Horrors Of War, reconciliation with Sweet Dreamy Son who had joined the Army specifically to track down his beloved Joey. I’m not giving anything away here, there’s no doubt whatever where the trite story is heading; there’s not a single narrative surprise from start to finish, other than at the extreme clumsiness of a lot of the story-telling. At one point about 30 minutes in, after a lot of straightforward Boy/Horse Bonding and family drama, church bells are heard, prompting one character to announce out of the blue:“Well, you know what that means -- the German Kaiser has refused to withdraw his troops from Belgium! We’re at war!” It pretty much goes along from there.

As if sensing the thinness of the story, the show’s creators have gone to great lengths to keep the action lively at all times, and they just plain go too far. WAR HORSE is, ultimately, just a big honking barrage of THEATAH!!!! Sets! Lights! Music! Puppets! Sound Effects!! Projections! Annoying Folk Songs From Some Broad With A Violin! Guys with Bird Puppets on Sticks To Wave Over The Audience! Big Serious Message! It’s like some insane collection of all the Biggest Moments from 80s British exports like LES MIZ and NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and CATS. For example, Joey has a battlefield encounter with a tank that will bring back fond memories of MISS SAIGON. And so on. For all the energy and flash, the show is best when it settles down for a bit and lets us just watch those wonderful puppet horses. There’s a marvelous couple of minutes where Joey and another horse named Topthorn run around the stage together and engage in some Equine Bonding. But it is back to sound-and-fury business before long.

But what really makes the show unforgivable, for me at least, is the High Solemnity that the show cloaks itself in. Everybody’s working very very hard indeed, and the expectation seems to be that you will be a better person when it is over. This is Serious Theatre, even Medicinal Theatre -- Art That Is Good For You. It can’t be a surprise that Steven Spielberg has already bought the screen rights. His film will doubtless a masterpiece of taste and restraint compared to this bloated self-important all-out assault of gimmicks that have all been done better elsewhere.

The title of Tony Kushner’s THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL’S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES doesn’t exactly suggest that anything as base as entertainment is in store. And by and large, it isn’t. The unwieldy title, which brings echoes of works by Bernard Shaw and others to mind, is as unwieldy as the play itself, which brings echoes of other works by Shaw and Chekhov and Marsha Norman to mind.

So Gus, a Brooklyn longshoreman labor organizer and devout communist, has gathered his family together to announce his intention to commit suicide. The assorted family members talk it over, and then talk it over, and then talk it over some more. There are lots of subplots among the assorted children and their significant others and a male hustler with whom one of the family is having an affair (don’t ask). To be fair, there are moments of real warmth and passion, and some splendid big scenes during which Kushner just lets loose -- everybody’s onstage at the same time talking at once, and thanks to some fine direction and some fine performances, it miraculously manages to be exciting rather than exasperating.

But not for long. Now I don't usually have a problem with big overstuffed works for the screen, the stage, or the page. Some of my favorite things are big overstuffed works for the screen the stage and the page. The problem is that Kushner is so busy making all of his 1001 Serious Points about Capitalism and Socialism and the Scriptures that little things like story and character and even plain old plausibility get forgotten about. Big scenes involving Pill and his attachment to a hustler and the problems created with Pill’s partner of almost 30 years don’t add much to the play, culminating in a long scene where both the hustler and the partner declare their love for Pill in long and agonizing speeches, and all I could do was wonder what on earth either the hustler or the partner ever saw in the self-pitying Pill in the first place.

Kushner overloads the play outlandishly. The cast of characters include two, count em, two theologians and an ex-nun. Gus’s children are all given cutely ever-so-symbolic nicknames like Pill (for Pier Luigi) and Empty (for Maria Theresa). The characters are all ferociously articulate and launch into long windy speeches at the drop of a hat -- it begins to resemble a version of Marsha Norman’s ‘NIGHT, MOTHER as written by the combined editorial staff of some humorless gay alternative weekly. And at three hours and 45 minutes long, the play is quite simply indefensibly overlong.

Is this the same Tony Kushner whose ANGELS IN AMERICA held me spellbound in a fine revival earlier this year? Damn right it is. And after seeing both parts of ANGELS back to back in a dazzling marathon (one that felt like it flew by in an instant, as opposed to the current play’s agonizing tedium) I can testify to what Kushner can do when he’s really cooking. With INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL, Kushner is furiously boiling and stewing and roasting and stir-frying, but what winds up on the plate is not at all appetizing. I didn’t leave a tip.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

SHORT TAKES ON RECENTLY VIEWED STUFF:

BLACK SWAN
It goes like this: little Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer who is up for the role of the Swan in a production of Swan Lake, and her Svengali-ish choreographer/impresario tells her that her dancing is technically perfect but emotionally frigid. This sends Nina very predictably over the edge, and anyone who has ever attended the movies at any time in the last 50 years should be able to see what comes next. Aronofsky & Co. try to shoehorn in some stuff about Nina being a perfectionist and there are vague hints about anorexia and self-mutilation, but Nina's real problem is quite simply that she's batshit fucking crazy. The movie tips its hand very early as to where it is headed, when Nina, while washing her hands, finds that flesh is peeling off her fingers, only to then realize that it was All In Her Mind.  The whole godforsaken movie falls into place after that, and I had to sit there and listen to the gasps of folks who were actually surprised at the little plot twists that any sentient third grader should have seen coming (GASP! THERE'S NO DEAD BODY IN THE BATHROOM!!!!!!). 

The movie aims for a high seriousness (and borrowed High Art Cred with the World O'Ballet setting) that it misses by miles, finally devolving into a flashy but cheap little horror flick for Lincoln Center donors who don't get out to the movies much, with lots of Flashy Editing and Special Effects for the easily impressed. At least we're spared the overt moralizing of Scorsese's SHUTTER ISLAND, with its Dachau flashbacks and prattling about morality, but Aronofsky's film collapses under its own solemnity just as completely as Scorsese's does. It comes off, ultimately, like Aronofsky found an abandoned Tracey Ullman sketch, didn't realize it was a comedy, and brought it to the screen as high tragedy.

Don't be fooled. BLACK SWAN is bogus crap from start to finish. But at least it is made with some energy, as opposed to--

TRUE GRIT
There's not a lot to say about the Coen Brothers' latest opus, because I just found it a bore. Very prettily shot by Roger Deakins, lots of things that they couldn't apparently do in the 1960s like graphic gunshot violence and some silly computer-generated rattlesnakes, and all that. I was bored senseless. No tension, not even the barest basic interest. An utter waste of time, resources and actors. Even the usually reliable Carter Burwell phones it in this time: his score consists of the hymn "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" played and played and played and fucking played again. And of course it has gotten the usual raves and award nominations, the Coens having evidently inherited Clint Eastwood's cache of Blackmailable Material on American Film Critics & Oscar Voters.

SHOAH
Now we're talking. Claude Lanzmann's 1985 film SHOAH, all 9 1/2 hours of it, shown in a brand new 35mm print, and I did the whole thing in one day and was just blown away. A film about the Holocaust, which contains no historic footage or recreations, depending entirely on Lanzmann's interviews with survivors and others involved with the camps and the workings of the Holocaust itself. Astonishing, and heart-rending. I can't blame anyone for being scared off by the extreme length, and I'll cop to finding some of the interviews rather, shall we say, prolonged, but the film has a cumulative impact that is like nothing you'll ever see.

The film is more than just a batch of tear-jerking accounts of the daily horror. The film includes illuminating interviews with an American historian who gleans remarkable and revealing information from a simple train schedule, for example. One other sequence is among the most chilling moments in any film, play, or work of narrative art I've yet experienced: over footage of a truck driving through industrial areas, Lanzmann plays a simple voiceover reading a letter from a local German officer detailing the success of the local extermination programs, and giving some specifications needed for modifications for certain specific equipment and transport vehicles. The blandness of the language doesn't disguise the fact that he's talking about how large moving vans used to gas Jews need to be modified because the resulting corpses tend to congregate near the rear exit of the van, thus throwing the van off balance and making driving difficult. As the letter ends, the onscreen truck is shown to be manufactured by the very company that manufactured the killing vans in the letter, and is finally shown driving past the still thriving factory.

THE LEOPARD
A brand new restored print of Visconti's early 60s epic of family and history in a changing 19th Century Italy. This is at least the third version of this film that has been released in the last 20-odd years, and I'd always missed it, mostly because I have a severe allergy to Burt Lancaster's acting. What a fool I was. This new print is a marvel, as is the film itself. A big juicy delicious inter-generational saga, with politics, civil war, religion, hypocrisy, intrigue, love, lust, betrayal, the whole passion-desire-bloodshed-and-death kitchen sink, and miraculously it manages to keep its head, never getting too serious or too silly. Burt Lancaster, in his finest performance, plays the patriarch of a more than usually distinguished Italian aristocratic family, who is doing what he can to ensure his family's future endurance in changing times, while dealing with his own hot-blooded desires. Alain Delon plays Lancaster's charming nephew, and Claudia Cardinale lights up the screen as the lusty daughter of a local politician who you just know is going to be causing trouble as the film progresses. The film's main astonishment is a 45 minute ball sequence where the entire film comes together, everything is dealt with and summed up and I dare you not to be moved and impressed. If all great films were this entertaining...