Monday, December 25, 2006


There's a little secret about DREAMGIRLS, the famed Broadway musical that gave the world the classic anthem "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going." A little secret that has only been shared by a small coterie of people. Simply put, that secret is this: DREAMGIRLS isn't really very good. A book that is a pretty tired parade of showbiz rags to riches cliches (guess what? Fame Isn't All It Is Cracked Up To Be) and a couple of pretty good songs. Under Michael Bennett's then-revolutionary staging, the show did supply a couple of goosebump moments (including "And I Am Telling You"), but my principal memory of DREAMGIRLS is of Jennifer Holliday throwing the single greatest temper tantrum in the history of live musical drama. She was electrifying. Not much else about the show was, though.

So it can't be a surprise that my hopes for the film were not high. Could Bill Condon, a perfectly competent filmmaker (KINSEY and GODS AND MONSTERS) work the cinematic equivalent of Michael Bennett's magic on this rather uninspiring material? Or would he follow the lead of the unspeakable Rob Marshall in creating the atrocious film of CHICAGO, easily the worst film ever released by a major studio, casting a bunch of non-singing actors, or worse, non-acting singers, shooting each scene from every possible angle but the correct one, and editing the whole mess with a rusty blender?

If DREAMGIRLS never quite hits the lows of CHICAGO, it doesn't entirely hit any new heights either. The characters are two-dimensional, at best, and the story remains trite and largely uninteresting, except for a couple of finger-snapping payback moments. The casting is mostly better than expected, happily, and thank God they can all sing. Eddie Murphy delivers the film's most assured performance: his musical numbers and his book scenes are equally exciting. Jennifer Hudson is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and her "And I Am Telling You" is easily the film's highlight. The biggest surprise in the film is the comatose work of Jamie Foxx, who brings absolutely nothing to the film whatsoever, delivering the living definition of a one-note performance.

At least part of the reason for the remarkable impact of Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" is that it is the first (if not quite the only) time that Condon actually lets his cast sing for more than a second at a time. All of the other musical numbers are very heavily edited in the way of most recent musical films: there's a cut after every three words or so, from a closeup to a long shot, or to a high shot, or to something else to illustrate the passage of time/make some plot points, or basically to just about anything that will break the continuity of the song and remind you that you are watching a movie. Condon seems particularly fond of showing me the back of his singers' heads. God forbid we should just get a chance to watch somebody sing. Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" is a potent reminder of what musicals are all really ultimately about: the pure pleasure of watching people sing. Condon similarly lets Eddie Murphy's songs and Beyonce Knowles' performance of a new song entitled "Listen" stand more or less on the talents of his actor/singers rather than on his editor, and these scenes are by far the best in the film as a result.

Think about that for a minute: actor/singers who can actually sing. After the horrors of Woody Allen's misguided EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and the aforementioned CHICAGO it is a real treat to hear people who know their way round a song get a crack at a movie, rather than Renee Zellwegger, Richard Gere, or that Gerard Butler person.

Worth seeing? Sure. Why not. See it in a theatre with good sound.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


David Lynch's latest film, the first since the surrealistically over-rated MULHOLLAND DR. Clocking in at a completely indefensible 2 hours and 48 minutes, EMPIRE covers some of the same territory as MULHOLLAND: we're once again in a no-man's-land of narrative and cinematic tricks, where Nothing Is As It Seems To Be, and everything is as Lynchian as it can possibly be.

Insert that little sound of frustration and annoyance that Marge Simpson makes here.

The story, or stories, seem to center on an actress named Nikki Grace, played admirably by Laura Dern. Nikki is making a film, and finds that the line between herself and the character she is playing seems to be fading. We also find out that an earlier production of the film in progress (in Poland, for some reason) was halted due to the murder of the two leads. We get scenes from the film that Nikki is making, scenes from Nikki's life that seem to mimic the film Nikki is making, scenes from the earlier Polish production, and scenes from the life of Nikki's Polish counterpart which seem to refer to moments in Nikki's life and Nikki's film, and scenes that might be dreams, and a sitcom featuring humanized rabbits, and a lot of other stuff that will probably make sense with repeat viewings.

If there are any repeat viewings. INLAND EMPIRE doesn't quite sink under the weight of all the metacinematic trickery, but it never really takes off, either. Lynch does begin the film brilliantly,though. The old sense of effortless Lynchian menace, which he seems able to induce at will out of ordinary settings and with a few rumbling sound effects, comes across very quickly and excitingly. But then something else happens. What had been an exciting tingle of dread gives way to a familiar sense of the familiar, that I'd seen it all before. Elements of LOST HIGHWAY, BLUE VELVET, ERASERHEAD, even the red curtains from TWIN PEAKS, and unfortunately big chunks of MULHOLLAND all inform INLAND EMPIRE.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a director working on similar themes and ideas and motifs from film to film. But with Lynch it feels like he's just plain repeating himself. Nothing's being learned, nothing's being digested, just chewed over and over and over.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


“I don’t do sadness.”

One day Bob called me over to the computer, sat me down, and saying, “Watch this,” played a video clip. About three minutes later the clip ended and I got up to find the reduced-price mailer I had gotten for SPRING AWAKENING, a clip of which Bob had just shown me. We saw the complete show earlier this week, and I’m having a hard time getting certain parts of it out of my head. In a good way.

The show is a musical version of Frank Wedekind’s apparently notorious 1890’s play, which has been banned off and on over the years. I’ve never read the play. Is the play banned because it dares to deal in a frank way with the sexual and emotional maturation of children, or because it lays the blame for what happens to these children squarely on the repressive trinity of Church, School and Home?

Anyway, the play focuses on a pair of schoolboys, Moritz and Melchior. Moritz is the school misfit, not unintelligent but rather clearly having a rough time with puberty: his hormones are really gushing. Melchior seems to be the school’s star, handsome and intelligent, clearly meant for Better Things. Moritz is being picked on by the school administration, Melchior begins a relationship with a young girl named Wendla.

The plot isn’t really the thing in this show. Anyone with any experience of narratives at all will be able to see where the story is going. What is at stake is the relentless energy and passion on that stage, the way that the screwed up hysteria of youth has been captured in a work of theatre that never condescends to the characters or to the audience. There’s none of the sentimentality or self-congratulation that mars RENT, no tacked-on pseudo-happy ending or self-righteous gabbling about the end of the millennium. A scene that evokes the ghosts of the past is powerful and harrowing and deeply moving, especially in comparison with a certain idiotic scene in GREY GARDENS.

Per Addison DeWitt: I am available for shouting from rooftops and dancing in the streets. (I thought that went out with Woolcott!)

Here's the clip.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


"Sometimes I see him looking, and looking. I just look right back."

We saw the new revival of Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY the other night. There's been a lot of buzz about this production, as it is directed by John Doyle, who gave us last year's revival of SWEENEY TODD in which the cast doubled as the orchestra, and features Raul Esparza who recently came out in the New York Times as being not entirely gay or straight or even particularly bisexual, but kind of ambivisexual, which is supposed to mean that he can relate to Bobby, the commitment-phobic hero of COMPANY. Mr. Esparza's Bobby is particularly effective, a lost soul navigating around a series of married Scyllas and Charybdeses. His final outburst, the song "Being Alive," is one of the more moving things you'll see in a theatre this year. He manages to be funny, sexy, charming, and yet still believably lonely. The cast plays their instruments ably, and they sing and act their assorted roles very well.

Maybe a little too well. The big problem with the show is the book by George Furth, which is basically a series of sketches of apparently unhappy or endearingly quirky married couples (including one married couple-to-be) as they interact unhappily or endearingly quirkily, while Bobby watches and wonders, "What do you get out of this whole marriage thing?" As my partner Bob said afterward, the problem with sketches is that they are sketchy. The book is never quite as good as it wants to be and thinks it is, and is often just plain dated. One scene involving Bobby and his scene partners getting sitcomishly giggly after smoking pot is right out of Love American Style, and there is an unironic use of the term "generation gap." The actors (under Doyle's direction) do their considerable best, but they may be working too hard, aiming for a "seriousness" that the material just can't bear. For example, the sketch ending Act One centers on Amy and Paul, who are just about to get married. The great comic song "Getting Married Today" is the highlight of the scene, and is pulled off gorgeously, but the scene soon turns very sour, as Amy displays more than sitcom-level nerves, finally calling off the wedding altogether, causing Paul to leave very near tears. Of course, in true sketch-comedy fashion, Amy comes to her senses and runs off to find Paul and go through with the wedding, but it just doesn't wash. Amy's terror-turning-into-rage and Paul's bemused tolerance-turning-into-despair are so vividly and painfully realized that I found it impossible to believe that the wedding would go on. Who on earth would marry Amy after that? There's "good and crazy" and there's "flat-out stupid."

That caveat aside, though, the production works beautifully, fluid and exciting during the musical numbers if significantly less so during the frankly underwritten dialogue scenes. (at least we're not treated to any visits from ghosts of the past) The set and costumes and lighting are excellent. The score is just amazing. I don't see how anyone with a functioning nervous system can fail to get goosebumps during that opening number, especially as staged by Mr. Doyle and performed by this cast. And the songs keep coming, "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and "Barcelona" and "Another Hundred People" and "Side By Side By Side" and on and on, all inventively staged and perfectly performed.

Bottom line: see it. Just don't be surprised if you find yourself waiting rather impatiently for the next song.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


"You're not a fool, you're a poet. A dangerous poet."

Film Forum is currently showing a new 35mm print of Jean Renoir's film. I've seen it three times in the past couple of weeks, and will probably squeeze in at least one one more trip.

I've been wracking my brain trying to put words to what it is that makes that movie so special, and I can't do it. I've tried to find writing on the film, and haven't been particularly successful. There's supposed to be a little BFI monograph by V.F.Perkins on RULES that has been delayed again and again and again. I know the usual line is to portray the film as a picture of French society just before WWII, and it certainly is that, but it isn't really that at all. At no time is anything as trivial as politics or current events ever mentioned in the film (which is very likely the point, of course). It's a picture of a bunch of people (of all classes) leading rather silly trivial lives with rather silly trivial mores. The series of ever-so-civilized affairs and social proprieties reveal how shallow the upper classes are, and the lower classes are not much better: at one point a chef mentions how he respects his boss for being angry that potato salad was improperly prepared, for having a palate sensitive enough to realize that the white wine was added after the potatoes had cooled instead of when they were piping hot. That's the sign of a real gentleman! And there are later events that show the real brutality lurking under the civilized veneer, too, and I don't mean just the still-horrifying hunt sequence.

The film isn't just a hatchet job, either. It is clear that Renoir, as director and screenwriter and actor, really loves these people even as he shows us how bloody awful they are. There are no out and out villains, and no out and out heroes. One character, the aviator Jurieu, is repeatedly referred to as a 'hero,' but the character is so unappealing in comparison with his opposite, the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye, that the term doesn't really carry a lot of weight. And Robert is a fascinating character: an accomplished rake who has just cut off a long term affair because he wants to be worthy of his wife, and who has to deal with the fact that his ex-mistress wants him back and his wife isn't happy when she finds out about the affair that was common knowledge to everyone but her. What makes the film special is the way that Renoir is able to show me so thoroughly that, as his own character Octave says, "Everyone has his reasons."

The acting is pretty well perfect. Roland Toutain can't quite make me interested in Andre Jurieu, but this is more than made up for by Marcel Dalio's endlessly fascinating Robert de la Chesnaye. He puts a fascinating twist on his words that makes me wish my French was better so that I could really understand what he's doing.

One thing that keeps coming up, both in print and in the commentaries on the Criterion DVD, is the use of deep focus, which seems to have been revolutionary in France at the time the film was made, or at least which Renoir uses in a way that had not been typical in French films up to that point. And it is marvelous: repeat viewings show all kinds of things going on in all those rooms that can be glimpsed off in the distance, sometimes very important things.

There are lots of incredibly complex shots, with lots of very carefully laid out choreography of actors/characters. One in particular begins as a closeup of Christine, who begins to tell her assembled guests/the audience about her relationship with Andre. As she speaks, her husband Robert (Dalio) and Octave (Renoir) move into view behind her, reacting to her description of her friendship with Andre, clearly mocking her statments that she and Andre are just friends. As her speech ends, Dalio thanks her for her speech, and describes the upcoming delights of the week in the country, the camera moves to include the other guests, and there is a good deal of carefully worked out activity as the shot comes to an end. I'd be here all day if I described all of it, and worked out all of the ramifications of each move and gesture. An amazing shot, only one of dozens of similar virtuosity throughout the film. And Renoir's technique is never obtrusive, never calling attention to itself.

One more important thing. Part of the danger of reading/writing about RULES OF THE GAME is the impression that the film is a humorless solemn monster. Make no mistake: RULES OF THE GAME is one of the most entertaining of the films usually considered as "classics." See it. See it often. It repays repeat viewings like few movies I know.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


We saw Douglas Carter Beane’s play this week. It provides an interesting counterpoint to the other big theatrical experience we’ve had lately. GREY GARDENS was a huge success Off-Broadway, much of the fuss centering on the female lead performance. If I can’t say I quite understand what the big deal is over Christine Ebersole’s performance in GREY GARDENS, I can certainly understand why people are so excited over Julie White’s performance as Diane, the Machiavellian Mephistophelian Agent From Hell. And similarly to GREY GARDENS, there’s not much else to make too much fuss over.

The play concerns Mitchell, a rising leading man with what Diane describes as a recurring case of homosexuality. In NYC to collect a rather improbable-seeming NY Film Critics Award for Best Actor, Mitchell hooks up with Alex, a young hustler. Alex and Mitchell hit it off, much to Diane’s dismay. Mitchell is clearly her star client, and if his gayness gets around he’ll be stuck in boutique projects for life.

The play is well-written enough. Beane can certainly get off good lines, and keeps the action rather lively. Unfortunately, none of the actors is operating at the same kind of near-operatic level of sheer outrageousness as White. She’s a grand Dickensian Giant, tearing into that role like a shark with a swimmer, great fun to watch even as you thank God in heaven that she’s safely on a stage rather than anywhere near your real life. But no one else quite comes alive on stage as completely as she does. The stage shouldn’t feel quite so empty when White isn’t around.

And later, on the way home, you'll probably find yourself wondering certain things. Like why the agent of a rising young actor who has just won the NY Film Critics Award never shows any concern about ensuring him an Oscar nomination. Or more importantly how we're supposed to feel about the elaborately happy ending arranged so beautifully by Diane: how happy is it really supposed to be? I found myself feeling rather queasy about the whole thing, and that may be the point. Or is it? I can't quite escape the feeling that a stronger set of actors being directed to get their characters across might have clarified a good deal.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


A new musical based on GREY GARDENS, the film about a mother and daughter who live in squalor in the titular collapsing mansion in East Hampton has opened. The women are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (they are referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively). The film is an unscripted snapshot of their lives, as the two women worry over their cats, fight, worry over the city of East Hampton taking legal action to get them out of their cat and raccoon infested crumbling house, and fight. Little Edie is always complaining about the sorry mess her life has become. She wants more than anything (she says) to get away from Grey Gardens and have her own life. There are some epic battles, most of which have clearly been fought and fought and fought any number of times over the years. The film is not to everybody's taste. One good friend says that he thinks the film exploits mental illness, and I've known others who just can't stand all the bitching. The film never answers assorted questions, the most basic of which is quite simply: what the hell is wrong with these two women?

The musical is split into two acts. Act One takes place in 1941, before the big party to announce Little Edie's engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Act Two is set in 1973, the year of the release of the film, and is based more specifically on the film itself. I personally preferred Act One, as it felt less like some kind of imitation. Christine Ebersole is getting a lot of worshipful attention for ther work as Big Edie in Act One and the now middle-aged Little Edie in Act Two. Elizabeth Wilson does a splendid job as Act Two's Big Edie. The rest of the cast is able enough, especially the actress who plays Young Little Edie in Act One. Her temper tantrums and budding neurosis set a very fine foundation for Ebersole to capitalize on in Act Two.

The score is fine, occasionally memorable. The book, especially in Act Two, hits on all the important bits from the movie, maybe too many of them. Big chunks of dialogue are repeated verbatim, and turned into song lyrics, to the point where I started to feel that some kind of co-author/lyricist credit for the Beales, to say nothing of the creators of the film, is in order. The emotional rollercoaster ride that Act Two's Little Edie takes is sincerely performed, but I couldn't escape the feeling that just a few too many lines and moments were lifted straight from the film, content and context be damned, just to make sure that the fans were satisfied.

There seems to be a cult around the film. I can't decide whether it is the kind of cult that surrounds ERASERHEAD, where people seem to appreciate an underappreciated but interesting and original work of art for its own merits, or the kind of cult that surrounds WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and MOMMIE DEAREST, where the doings of madwomen are "camp." The musical seems to be trying to have it both ways. They want the show to be a serious examination of the lives of these two women, but they can't resist the temptation to add that most transparent of current Broadway devices: the late second act gospel number.

I'm not the kind of person who demands that adapters maintain absolute fidelity to an original work. I don't really care what they do, as long as it works. The team behind GREY GARDENS manage somehow to hit all the bases. There are moments lifted right from the film that work beautifully, there are moments lifted right from the film that don't work at all, and the same goes for the new material. Most of Act One works beautifully, to my mind, while the big second act number "Entering Grey Gardens" hits bold new lows of sheer theatrical BULLSHIT, as the ghosts of the past (I kid you not) appear wandering around the now-ruined estate. It looks like a community theatre production of Disney's Haunted Mansion. I'd expect something like this in DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and GOOD VIBRATIONS, to say nothing of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL, but not in a widely respected and well-reviewed piece of musical theatre. I was so appalled by this number that I sat there in shock for much of the rest of the show, dreading what fresh horrors they might have waiting. Mercifully, nothing else quite sank to that level, but there was nothing quite good enough to entirely remove that bad taste from my mouth.

Sunday, November 05, 2006


The Long Dark Teatime Of The Soul

So it is Sunday. I went to see RULES OF THE GAME at Film Forum (gorgeous new print) and unfortunately couldn't quite unwind enough to enjoy it. There was an annoying static sound throughout the opening scenes, and then the obligatory fat bastard stuffing his face with candy bars and rattling each and every candy bar for maximum irritation. To be fair, the fat bastard did make an effort to be quiet after I politely asked him to keep the wrappers quiet. Mercifully the rest of the screening went off very well. I managed to get a lot of enjoyment out of the film, and will almost certainly see it again in the next week or so that it is there.

We're seeing BORAT tonight. I'll let you know.

I'm rather liking the new job. It isn't the busiest position ever. I basically answer the occasional phone, send the occasional fax, and forward the occasional bit of paper elsewhere. I'm veering back and forth between exhiliration and concern. On the one hand, I can't believe I'm getting paid what I'm getting paid for not doing a hell of a lot all day. On the other, I can't believe they're going to continue paying me fornot doing a hell of a lot all day. I've got enough of a work ethic to want to be busy, to not be ripping this firm off. But I don't get too worried. See, it goes like this:

I am 43 years old. I've been working in one job or another since I was 17, which means I've been a member of the workforce for 26 years. I've had very busy positions, for which I've been paid very little, and over the last 5 years there's been a good deal of HORROR in the two most recent jobs I've held. The first involved working for a boss popularly known as the Fat Disgusting Bitch (when not called the Fat Heifer, the Fat Sow, or my own favorite the Fat Disgusting Cunt). After almost five years of performing wonders for them (if I do say so myself, and I bloody well do) I left the job with the Fat Disgusting Bitch (long story, harassment on FaDiBi's end, threatened lawsuit on my end, I'll tell you if you're really interested and I can't imagine anyone really is) for a very interesting job with a very demanding boss (Control Freak hereafter). On my first day working for Control Freak, I was congratulated on returning from my first lunch hour: more than one of my predecessors had not. Working for Control Freak was certainly better than working for FaDiBi, but still with a disproportionate amount of stress. Control Freak has the kind of faith in ORGANIZATION and EFFICIENCY that only the deeply dis-organized and wildly in-efficient ever really have. My co-worker and I were effectively crippled by an unbelievable set of Processes and Procedures that wound up more of an impediment than anything else. Example: my To-Do list was (I'm not kidding) 75 pages long. When Control Freak laid me off I didn't exactly cry myself to sleep. By this time I was so emotionally drained by just the work I was doing every day that the prospect of temping was actually tempting.

I am going on here, aren't I? Long story short: I'm now getting paid 25% more than I've ever made for doing 75% less work than I've ever had to do. The occasional twinge of guilt remains both occasional and twinge-level; never more than a quick itch of guilt, easily scratched. I've earned a breather, and if a big firm wants to give me what amounts to an extended paid vacation, well, I'm not gonna say them nay.

Sue me.

I'll post on BORAT and RULES OF THE GAME later this week (RULES will require another viewing uncursed by static and candy wrappers). Bob and I are also seeing the musical of GREY GARDENS this week, which I'm simultaneously looking forward to and dreading terribly.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


"Trouble for you, fun for me."

The word "fun" keeps popping up in Simon Gray's BUTLEY, but not in a good way. Ben Butley's idea of "fun" is rather like George W. Bush's idea of "democracy." Butley goes through the play abusing pretty much everyone he comes in contact with. The problem with the current revival of the play starring Nathan Lane is that the abuse comes through loud and clear, but there isn't much in the way of "fun."

The plot is pretty simple. Ben Butley (Nathan Lane) is having a bad day.His ex-student/roommate/colleague and probable boyfriend (the play is irritatingly vague on the exact extent of their sexual relationship) has found another man, and it isn't long before Butley's estranged wife shows up to announce that she's found someone else too. Butley's dazzling verbal assaults make it pretty clear why people are deserting him right and left. The only real questions are why they've stayed so long, and why they showed up in the first place.

And things go from bad to worse to worse still. Lane works very hard to show Ben Butley as a man teetering on the brink of an Abyss, about to descend into his Emotional Maelstrom, having his Dark Day Of The Soul. Butley's twice-repeated line that "our ends never know our beginnings" certainly doesn't apply to this production; Lane's Butley is a miserable wreck when he walks onstage, and he's a miserable wreck at play's end. To be fair, Lane delivers an occasionally exciting performance, showing us numerous shades of misery and anger and bitterness. He's never more effective than when he's being really really really nasty.

If there's anything missing, it is the excited wicked glee that animated Alan Bates' original performance of the role, which has been preserved in a very good film. Bates' Butley is, on some level, having the time of his life: he's never happier than when he's getting a rise out of someone, and his joy in being so naughty is infectious without ever obscuring the real pain the man is feeling. Bates' Butley is "fun" in a way that Lane's Butley never is, and Lane's performance suffers as a result. When they even go so far as to play the song Mad World ("I think it's kind of funny,I think it's kind of sad, that the dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had.") to underline poor Butley's MISERY it is hard not to feel that they've just laid it on a bit too goddamn thick.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


It is about two guys who are each undercover agents. Leonardo Dicaprio plays the cop working deep undercover for a gangster while feeding information back to the cops. Matt Damon plays the other cop who is supposed to be investigating that same gangster, while feeding information back to that same gangster.

They're doubles. Get it? That's about as subtle as the movie gets.

This film is being hailed by a lot of people as a dazzling return to form for Scorsese. What it really feels like to me is a return to straightforward storytelling. The film is leaner than Scorsese's last few films; there are fewer stylistic flourishes, that feeling that he is straining really really really hard to be as 'cinematic' as he can be. There's nothing in THE DEPARTED to match the big tracking shot through the bowels of the Copa in GOODFELLAS or the dazzling fight scenes in RAGING BULL or the games with color in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and THE AVIATOR, etc. The characters and story are the stars this time out.

And this time I was actually moved to give a damn about them. Mr. Damon and Mr. Dicaprio do very good work, each coming apart at the seams most convincingly under the pressures of their respective situations. Dicaprio's work in THE DEPARTED shows all the tension and danger that his performance in GANGS so desperately lacked, and the darkness behind Damon's trillion-dollar smile has never been used to better effect.

So what's not to like? The fact that the film starts to feel rather by the numbers. There is a MILLER'S CROSSING factor, by which I mean that eventually it just becomes clear that everybody is double-crossing everybody else, and triple-crossing everybody else, and nobody can be trusted, and nobody is quite what they seem, and that rabbits will be pulled from hats (a series of incriminating recordings appears just a little too conveniently) in order to ensure big climactic scenes.

In a nutshell, the feeling that my time could have been better spent watching a few good episodes of THE SOPRANOS just wouldn't go away, especially when Jack Nicholson was onscreen. His showboat performance occasionally pays off, but all too often it just brings the film to a halt. Look boys and girls, there's Jack with a severed hand in a baggie! Look boys and girls, see how he's waving it around to get some Tarantino-style laughs!! And don't forget the big rat impression at Oscar time, y'all.

So the big question now: is THE DEPARTED sufficiently devoid of interest and content to snag Scorsese that long-deferred Oscar? I don't see how they can deny it to him this time. I'm glad that THE DEPARTED doesn't sink under the weight of Scorsese's 'cinematic genius' the way that GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE AVIATOR did, and that it is leaner and meaner and ultimately just plain better than either of his most recent pieces of Oscar bait. But all the lean mean just plain betterness of this film can't disguise the fact that it has absolutely nothing interesting to say.

And that final shot. I mean really. Just how stupid does Scorsese think I am?

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Terry Gilliam's latest and possibly most audacious film opens with an intro from the director, telling us that some of us will love the film, some will hate the film, and that some of us won't know what to think of it, but that hopefully we'll have something to think about. I manage to fall somewhere in between all three categories: I love parts of it, have doubts about parts of it, and don't quite know what to think of other parts of it, but have found it hard to stop thinking about it.

TIDELAND centers on Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), a young girl in rather horrifying circumstances who, not surprisingly for a Gilliam hero, takes refuge in fantasy. She's clearly been left to her own devices a good deal; when not cooking up her father's latest heroin fix and preparing his needles she has rather elaborate conversations with a series of tiny doll heads. Upon her mother's death (some reviews have said from an overdose but it looks like accidental asphyxiation to me) Jeliza-Rose and her father journey to his mother's home in the country, which turns out to be a deserted husk of a house in the middle of a field of weeds. Eventually Jeliza gets involved with a neighboring woman named Dell (an alarming Janet McTeer) and Dell's rather extravagantly mentally damaged brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher).

I can't really give away much more without giving away too much. A good part of the effect of the film is the flat-out surprise it generates. Certain scenes are literally jaw-dropping. Make no mistake: this is no genteel Focus On The Family-friendly fantasy. TIDELAND owes as much to Tobe Hooper as it does to Lewis Carroll. Gilliam makes it clear in his introduction that the film is about innocence and the resilience of children, and he may be understating. For Jeliza-Rose to make it to the end of the events of this film with anything like a semblance of a shred of sanity left calls for more than resilience and a refuge in fantasy: it requires flat-out Miraculous Intervention.

TIDELAND, like Gilliam's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and Linklater's A SCANNER DARKLY, will take more than one viewing to fully appreciate. I'm looking forward to seeing it again.

Friday, October 06, 2006


I started a new job recently, and haven't been able to post as much as I would like. Lots of new stuff to learn. I'll be back shortly. Here are a couple of bitesized recent things:

I went to a screening at the local IFC Center, a surprise screening of one of Terry Gilliam's favorite films with Gilliam himself appearing for a Q&A after the film. The film turned out to be TOTO LE HEROS, a not terribly interesting and surprisingly derivative film. Gilliam handled the Q&A very well, making one memorable comment about how he was considering suing Bush and Cheney for plagiarizing so much of BRAZIL, that we are basically living in his film now.

I saw BRAZIL last weekend at Film Forum. He's right. We are.

Bob and I saw THE ILLUSIONIST. An okay little movie worth seeing mainly to watch Paul Giamatti act pretty much everybody off the screen.

We rented THE LIBERTINE. Even my adoration of Johnny Depp couldn't make me sit all the way through it. When it pops up on cable, watch the first few minutes to see Depp's opening monologue, a monstrous and fascinating display of egotism and nastiness. It banished most of my concerns about whether he'd be able to make a convincing Sweeney Todd, all except worries about how he'll handle the singing. The rest of THE LIBERTINE is pretty dull, hitting bold new lows whenever a dreadfully miscast John Malkovich appears onscreen wearing the single worst piece of prosthetic makeup I've ever seen, a fake nose that sticks out like, well, a sore nose.

I've been on a bit of a Joseph Heller kick lately. CATCH-22, CLOSING TIME, PICTURE THIS, and GOOD AS GOLD one right after the other. I like CATCH-22 a lot. I can say with absolute confidence that at least one of my ex-jobs used it as their management guide, not realizing it is a satire. I had been planning on a re-read of SOMETHING HAPPENED, but it just didn't seem like the kind of thing to be reading when embarking on a new job. I switched to Michael Chabon's WONDER BOYS, a much lighter and friendlier read.

Bob and I also saw Twyla Tharp's new dance musical theatre piece, THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING. An early preview, they're still making changes. The show is based on the songs of Bob Dylan, as MOVIN' OUT was based on Billy Joel's. This one isn't a straightforward ballet piece, danced to a live band and a singer. THE TIMES features characters who actually sing their own songs, a violently unpleasant man named Ahrab (get it?) who runs a circus, Ahrab's son Coyote, and a woman who seems to have something to do with the circus, and you can probably figure out where the show is going long before it gets moving. There's a lot of heavy-handed symbolism, in particular a reference to MOBY DICK that is just plain flat out inappropriate, but there's also a lot of equally amazing dancing. Songs like Mr. Tambourine Man come off particularly well. I hope they manage to iron out the kinks, and reconsider the name of a certain boat on which two characters sail off into the sunset.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


I got the new DVD, which includes both the original theatrical release and the REDUX version, with gorgeous new transfers supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Coppola, and lots of extras. These extras are mainly remarkable for having never appeared on the initial DVD release of either version of this film. I’ll post more about them in the near future.

APOCALYPSE NOW is one of my favorite movies. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. I know that I stopped counting at 18 times during its original release in 1979. I would go to see it every chance I got, until I suddenly stopped. Screenings were becoming rarer, and prints were getting worse. I walked out of one particularly bad screening in the mid-80s, realizing that the appallingly bad condition of the print was beside the point, that I knew the film so well that I didn’t really need to see it again. I restricted myself to assorted videos/laserdiscs, which weren’t really enough but sufficed if I turned up the stereo really loud.

I still have the original programs they handed out instead of running opening/closing credits during the first runs, before it went wide. I read Eleanor Coppola’s book on the filming, entitled NOTES. As proof of my total bizarre devotion, I even managed to obtain (don’t ask how) an actual audience questionnaire from one of the original preview screenings, which asks some very interesting questions about, among other things, the sound effects.

Then along came APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which “restored” a lot of things that Coppola had been supposedly forced to leave on the cutting room floor. A reading of NOTES gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect, mainly an extended scene involving the Playboy bunnies who appear at a USO show, and a sequence at a French plantation in Cambodia. Other scenes were re-arranged: in REDUX the scene of the boat crew surfing to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” comes later than it does in the original.

I remember being mainly glad about being able to see the film again on a big screen. I don’t think the added scenes add very much, and often detract a good deal. Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore gets a marvelous new entrance, striding forth from a helicopter like the God From The Chopper, but is finally allowed to dwindle into a mere fool: an added scene of his voice being played over a loudspeaker begging for the return of his stolen surfboard is a serious diminution. Oddly, the most satisfying element of the new footage in REDUX is the opportunity to see more of Albert Hall, playing Chief, the captain of the PBR that takes Willard up the river. What was a well played minor role in the original is more fully fleshed out in REDUX, and a new funeral sequence for one of the character’s contains the one really moving moment in the entire film, as Chief hands Willard the flag from the bodybag and asks him to accept it on behalf of a grateful nation. Hall takes what could have been a mawkish moment (just how mawkish can be guessed from the atrociously sentimental electronic score playing throughout the scene) and makes it work.

More problematic however are the changes to Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard. The original’s Willard is a damaged piece of goods who has been too far out and seen way too much while out there, and his growing identification with Col. Kurtz through the dossier he reads manifests itself in a series of scenes where he loses patience with the bogus “army business” he sees around him: after the scene with the small sampan, Willard refers to how the more he sees of them, the more he hates lies. REDUX’s Willard seems rather less tightly wound: he steals Col. Kilgore’s treasured surfboard and laughs about it, and later, after nearly punching out a supply sergeant who seems to be more interested in running a USO show than filling Willard’s order for the boat’s diesel fuel, he trades these same increasingly precious barrels of diesel fuel for some time with the stranded Playboy bunnies (the interminable scene that follows really should have stayed on the cutting room floor, or at best a DVD extra). He even unwinds enough to smoke some opium during a romantic interlude with the wife of a French plantation owner. REDUX’s Willard is more of a participant in the “lies” and his growing obsession with Kurtz and dissatisfaction with the “lies” thus feels less convincing.

I have to admit that I simply have no idea what the French plantation sequence is supposed to mean. It brings the film to a crashing halt, and contains the film’s only really blatant homage to another film: one shot of the plantation inhabitants appearing out of the fog is lifted, with an uncharacteristic clumsiness, right out of KWAIDAN.

The old magic still worked though. The Wagner-scored air strike, the sequence at Do Long Bridge, and the final sacrificial scenes are still dazzling pieces, potent reminders that when Coppola is really on, there is nobody who can touch him.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Well. I had been planning on writing a review of the film UGETSU, which is playing in a new 35mm print at NY’s premier repertory theatre. Unfortunately, I am unable to tell you much of anything about the movie because the screening featured what is rapidly becoming the bane of my movie-going life: a pain in the ass little old woman with incessantly rustling plastic bags. A polite request to keep the bags quiet being simply ignored, I finally had to grab the plastic bag to get the old bitch’s attention and fiercely whisper to keep the bags quiet. I wasn't so irritated that I forgot to say please. I think I scared the hateful harpy into silence: there were only occasional and acceptable sounds from her direction for the rest of the film, by which time it was, alas, too late. The movie had been ruined. Evil old baggage. There's a special place in hell for her and all like her who annoy in theatres.

It isn’t like this is an isolated occurrence. I seem to be something of a magnet in this regard. My partner Bob told me that he’d never had such a problem with difficult audiences as he started having when we started seeing each other. Here are some examples:

A recent Kurosawa series had as a regular attendee an elderly Asian lady, a prototypical bag rustler. I had to ask her to keep her bags quiet at three separate screenings. I was finally thanked by another regular attendee who didn’t have the balls to do it herself.

A screening of HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN was ruined by a man with his children, who were all loudly rustling cheap plastic bags containing candy smuggled into the theatre from outside. Smuggling doesn't bother me. Why pay $4.50 for a soda when you can get the same thing at the Duane Reade on the corner for a buck? It was the noise that was a pain. Those fucking bags, in a stadium seating theatre, might as well have been rustling right in my eardrum. A polite request to please keep the bags quiet was answered with a loud “No!” (we let it go at that, and didn’t bother asking again). The charming gentleman wasn't as easygoing, though. At the end of the film he stood up and crushed a plastic bag over our heads. I managed to restrain myself from congratulating him on the fine example he was setting for his children, who all seemed cut out for a future asking strangers if they want fries with that.

A 3-D screening of DIAL M FOR MURDER was ruined by a gentleman who seemed to have been both a compulsive smoker and completely unschooled in the use of soap. He was sitting directly in front of Bob and me, and it soon became difficult to breathe. I had to wrap my scarf around my face by the end of the film. This was no ordinary stench. It had texture and body, and even impermeated our clothes and hair. We had to shower when we got home after the movie.

A screening of CAPOTE featured teenagers who loudly stomped into the theatre after the movie started, sat for a few minutes before realizing that they had wandered into the wrong movie and then loudly stomped their way out, and no less than three morons with cellphones. The third cellphoner actually answered the call and went into the first three rows of the theatre to talk. My heart was gladdened when about 3 people went up to her to tell her take the call outside.

A screening of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING featured a pair of idiots in love with potato chip bags that could be plainly heard throughout the film, and who resisted numerous requests from numerous patrons to keep quiet. Someone finally shouted to them to let us watch the final 20 minutes of the movie in peace. Think about that. Someone actually drowned out THE RETURN OF THE KING with a bag of chips.

A play entitled 36 VIEWS was ruined by an elderly gentleman with plastic bags. The bags rustled and rustled and rustled, and numerous requests for silence were unheeded. At the intermission, everyone within a six person radius of the old man descended on him. Only the timely intervention of the house manager saved him from being torn limb from goddamn limb.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect people to sit in monastic silence throughout a movie or play or whatever. It is only natural to shift in your seat, or occasionally whisper something to your neighbor, or occasionally knock over a soda can, or something. Sounds happen. But to sit there rustling those goddamn plastic bags, or gab on your cellphone, or make idiotic comments in full voice over and over again is more than inconsiderate, it is just plain flat out rude. And I’m finding my patience for these morons to be getting shorter and shorter. Today I was briefly concerned that I’d frightened the old bitch behind me into a stroke, but only very briefly. Fuck her if she’s had a stroke, I thought to myself, at least she’s quiet.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I like the original version with Gene Wilder. I also like, with reservations, the new version by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp. I recently read the book for the first time. Below are some kind of random notes:

The first film can be seen as a precursor of the sort of film that has become very common: a family film that adults can enjoy as well. The story is intact, but there are odd little poisonous moments that the kiddies just can’t seem to appreciate. What is a child supposed to make of Wonka’s advice to Mike Teavee: “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak” (a direct quote from Carroll’s Red Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass) or the quote from Arthur O'Shaughnessy “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” And it isn’t just Wonka. Mrs. Teavee’s mis-identification of the tune on Wonka’s musical lock (Mozart, not Rachmaninoff) and the picture of Martin Bormann used to identify the Argentinian gambler who forged the last golden ticket are all out of place in an ordinary family movie.

Gene Wilder’s Wonka comes off as a weirdly charming mystery man. His first appearance is memorable, the halting walk with the cane and the sudden somersault show clearly that all is not as it seems. His excitement over Augustus Gloop's progress up the pipe is nothing short of sadistic, he pops candy into his mouth and quotes Oscar Wilde: "The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last." There's something harder to pinpoint, though, behind the jokes and veiled threats. A certain childlike quality, an excitement that pops up on occasion, as when he pauses before activating the Everlasting Gobstopper Maker to ask the kids, "Would you like to see?" He’s also certainly a grown up, as when he clearly rebukes Veruca when she claims that Violet has two of the eternal candies: “she has got one, and one is enough for anybody.”

Depp’s Wonka is a far weirder creation. His pageboy haircut and childish voice brought almost inevitable comparisons to Michael Jackson, which Depp denied, saying that he intended Wonka to be more of a kiddie-show host. And he’s right, upon repeat viewings Depp’s Wonka does seem to owe more to Fred Rogers, or more specifically, to a Robin Williams’ version of Fred Rogers than to Jackson.

The game:
The novel has no test for Charlie. It can be argued that no test is arranged for Charlie out of a lack of time: Charlie finds the ticket the day before the tour is scheduled to take place. But that's not much of an argument. There is no test specifically targeted at his weaknesses, because Charlie quite simply has none. He wins simply by showing up. He’s the last survivor of the tour, so he wins the prize, plain and simple. It is also shown very clearly and spelled out very specifically that the Buckets are in serious danger of literally starving to death. The novel is more concerned with setting up Charlie as a good kid, and then wiping out a bunch of rotten kids in entertaining ways. It almost came as a surprise to find myself thinking of the possibility of Charlie making it to the end simply by being more devious than the others, rather than more honest and decent and pure.

The first film adds the Everlasting Gobstopper gambit. Upon finding the Golden Tickets, a figure claiming to be Arthur Slugworth, a business rival of Wonka’s, appears to offer the children a deal: if the children smuggle an Everlasting Gobstopper out of Wonka’s factory and hand it over to him, they will get lots of money. The test seems aimed particularly at Charlie: the fake Slugworth promises lots of good food and comfort for Charlie and his family in return for the candy. Thus, when Charlie hands over the Gobstopper to Wonka at the end of Wonka’s frightening fake tirade, Charlie’s honesty is proven and he is worthy of winning the Great and Glorious Jackpot.

Burton’s film eliminates this particular gambit. As in the novel, Charlie wins the until-then secret Grand Prize (a trip in the Great Glass Elevator and the Factory itself), but he turns it down when Wonka won’t let Charlie’s family come with him. Some rather heavy-handed moralizing about the importance of family follows, and Charlie helps Wonka mend fences with his own father who has been shown in flashbacks to be a cold-hearted dentist who won’t allow the young Wonka to eat candy or pursue his dream of being a candy maker. After the reconciliation, we are told that Wonka repeats his offer, and Charlie says yes this time, on condition that his family comes with him, to which Wonka assents.

The final scene of the film is very curious: Wonka and Charlie arrive in the Bucket family home after a hard day’s work, Wonka is asked to stay for dinner, the table is spread with family dinner trimmings like turkey, side dishes, etc. The camera pulls back though a broken window, and it is revealed that the Bucket family home has been transported as is, holes in the wall and poor but honest squalor and apparently permanent winter intact, to the Chocolate Room in the Wonka Factory. This has always bothered me. Why the giant salt-shakers pouring snow over the house? Why is the great free-flowing chocolate river, a marvelous symbol of Wonka’s demented creativity, shown to be frozen over? Why are the Buckets kept living in that collapsing house? If Wonka can keep his factory extra warm for the Oompa Loompas, why does he make it cold for the Buckets? And where is Dr. Wonka in this sudden orgy of frozen domestication?

The problem is that the big Pro-Family message of the film has nothing to do with the film itself. Mike Teavee, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and even the apparently single-parented Violet Beauregard all come from families, too, and all are ghastly, largely because of the families they have who either encourage their worst qualities or do nothing to curtail them. Wonka’s own family life (elements of which are shoe-horned in to the plot solely to create a final reconciliation between father and son) has been a disaster.

That this works at all is largely due to the skill and warmth with which Burton has established that the Bucket family is a pretty cool bunch of people: Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter manage to convey a real devotion to each other and to Charlie and to their parents, the grandparents who never leave their beds. These opening scenes of the Bucket family could be used to dispel any criticism of Burton’s skill with actors. The warmth and affection among the 7 members of the Bucket household are beautifully presented, without descending into Spielbergian Ickiness.

Credit must also go to Freddie Highmore, the frighteningly skilled young actor who plays Charlie. He is able to encourage sympathy without getting sticky, but even he can’t help sounding rather self-righteous and judgmental when he prattles on about his family and how they always make him feel better and all that.

I don't know if any of this really diminishes the film, or not. There's a lot to enjoy in Burton's film, but I don't think it comes near eclipsing the first version. I much prefer the simplicity of the original film's ending. When Wonka offers Charlie the warning about remembering what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted (he lived happily ever after, it turns out) I always get a little verklempt.

I like both movies. They've both got pros and cons. I'll always watch them. They're a permanent part of my library.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Much more than the indie-movie du jour. An intelligent, oddly moving little comedy. The set up isn't particularly promising: a little girl and her oddball family drive interstate to get to a low-level beauty pageant. But an intelligent script, good direction and a really good cast (remember when movies had those?) lift the rather cliched premise off the ground.

The father (Greg Kinnear) is vainly trying to re-invent himself as a self-help guru: we hear a lot about his 9-Step program to turn losers into winners. His philosophy (and lack of success marketing it) is wearing out his wife (Toni Collette). There is a son (I can't think of his name) who has taken a vow of silence until he can become a fighter pilot, and who is often shown reading Nietzche. Rounding out the family circle are a randy, drug-snorting grandfather (Alan Arkin) and the wife's brother (Steve Carrell) a gay man recovering from a suicide attempt, who tends to remind people that he is the #1 Proust scholar in the country. Little Olive seems to have come from some other planet, a dear little girl who manages to be appealing and touching and funny without ever once crossing the line into cliche. She'd convert W.C. Fields.

There's a lot of good fun in the film, largely the pleasure of watching good actors go to town on good parts, creating convincing family tensions and annoyances and then subverting them with equally convincing moments of real family affection. I'll admit to getting a lot of pleasure out of Steve Carell's slow burns and Bengal tiger-freezing glares, but he's an actor I get a lot of pleasure out of anyway. I think there are a couple of mis-steps in the screenplay and the direction; one unexpected side-trip into black comedy brings the film to something of a halt.

Don't worry about it. See the movie.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


I like him a lot. I like the air of comically clueless machismo he is able to project in films like ANCHORMAN. He is still the only actor ever to do a really convincing impression of George W. Bush, capturing the stupidity and the fratboy arrogance and the creepy lost-boy quality, the guy who is trying really hard to fit in. His Ron Burgundy in ANCHORMAN is terribly funny, a preening poser who actually believes that the name San Diego is Spanish for “a whale’s vagina” and who ends each newscast with those immortal words “you stay classy San Diego.”

What really distinguishes him from most of the other comic actors right now is his absolute conviction, the way he commits to these people and their outrageous behavior. I love that glorious meltdown in ANCHORMAN when his beloved dog Baxter is apparently killed, his helpless screaming in a telephone booth: “I’m in a glass cage of emotion!” His appearance in ELF, wearing a bright green elf jacket and canary yellow tights, is gloriously funny but oddly real: he doesn’t look silly. Ferrell is as grounded as Johnny Depp. Ron Bugundy is as complete as Capt. Jack Sparrow.

And when he goes for broke, he goes for broke. His Jacobim Mugatu in ZOOLANDER is never less than hilarious, making great comic moments out of the simplest of gestures: if Johnny Depp astounded me by being hilarious simply standing up in PIRATES II, Will Ferrell works a similar magic running strangely across an improbably large office space in ZOOLANDER.

He’s the anti-Buster Keaton. A big physical meaty presence, his body is hairy and undeveloped, exactly the body we’re all secretly afraid we’ll see when we look in the mirror. Keaton is graceful even when clumsy: his falls and stunts are dazzling. Keaton never ran the way Ferrell runs. I wish I was Buster Keaton, but I think I am Will Ferrell.

All that said, I can’t say I was terribly happy with TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY. I wanted to like it a lot, but found it oddly lacking in the inspired lunacy that made ANCHORMAN fun. It feels odd to be chastising someone for aiming higher, and I’m not complaining too loudly here. But TALLADEGA NIGHTS only occasionally takes off. The opening is promising, a very funny quote that gets even funny when the unlikely source is revealed.

I’m glad that they didn’t settle for an easy remake of ANCHORMAN. This film has a much grittier feel to it: it actually seems to be taking place in something like the real world, there are none of the talking dogs or animated dream sequences that characterized the earlier film. A good deal of it looks like it was shot on location, at actual race tracks with very real looking crowds.

There’s a moment in Heller’s CATCH-22 where we are told that Yossarian doesn’t see the point of athletic competition: it only means you can do something pointless better than anyone else. In terms of sheer pointlessness, few pursuits can beat NASCAR. Lots of cars drive round and round and round and round and round and round and round and round. The only thing funnier than the idea of grown adults taking part in this activity and calling it a sport is the pride they take in what can only be the most pyrrhic of victories: the flag waving, the sponsorships, the obscene amounts of money changing hands, and above all the Macho Posturing that Ferrell skewers so well.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


"If you lose this war don't blame me."

One of my favorite films was screened in a pristine print the other night. The audience, for a change, was great: very attentive andresponsive in the best way. All in all, the screening was a reminder of why I still go to the movies instead of restricting myself to video.

As for the movie, well, I love it. It is the Number One film in my personal Top Ten. Other films come and go, but THE GENERAL has been and is now and always will be at the top.

The plot couldn't be simpler. Train engineer Johnnie Gray's girlfriend won't see him anymore when he is unable to enlist in the Confederate Army (he tries, hilariously, but is not accepted for theperfectly intelligent reason that he is more important to the South as an engineer than as a soldier). About a year into the war, Johnnie's engine is stolen by a group of Northern spies. Johnnie gives chase, not realizing that his girlfriend is on the stolen train, now a prisoner. Eventually, he rescues the girl and recovers his engine and returns to the South, pursued by those who he had initially been pursuing. Johnnie manages to warn the Southern Army of a coming onslaught from the North, there is a big battle scene at the climax, and all ends well, and Johnnie is re-united with both his girl and his engine. That's pretty much it. The plot is a basic outline that supports aseries of gorgeous gags, each funnier and richer than the one before it. Intertitles are kept to a minimum, and I wouldn't be surprisedto find out that THE GENERAL contained fewer than the average numberof intertitles for feature-length silent films.

My eye was caught by the sheer scale of the battle scene at the end. It is one of the very best I've ever seen, on a level with the best of Griffith, Kurosawa, Lean or Coppola or Jackson. What is most remarkable about this scene is that Keaton's comic moments (and the comedy in the battle sequence is only centered on his actions) do not detract from the magnitude of the battle. He (and his co-director Clyde Bruckman) plays a rather high stakes game as a director, keeping the war serious and the comedy funny, and he pulls it off handsomely.

I have to say that something about the film has started to bother me, namely the whole issue of Keaton's Johnnie Gray as a Confederate. I'd always taken the fact that Johnnie Gray is joining the Confederate Army (the losing team, as it were) as part of the dark chill that can occasionally be felt in Keaton's work, like the straightforward shoot-out at the beginning of OUR HOSPITALITY, or the funereal fadeouts of COPS and COLLEGE. The realities of the then-current political situation in the South are never an issue in THE GENERAL, except that a Civil War starts between the North and the South (I don't remember if the words Union or Confederate are even used in the title cards.) It doesn't really try to deal seriously with anything except Keaton/Johnnie's skills as a train engineer and impromptu military tactician. But does not dealing with this give Keaton carte blanche? Would I be as ready to forgive Keaton if the film was set during WWII and Keaton was playing a German who isn't allowed to join the SS, and has to rescue his train from a bunch of Allied spies? And if I'm going to have a problem with GONE WITH THE WIND for pretty blatantly romanticizing the pre-war South (and I do) is it really fair to let Keaton off the hook?

THE GENERAL is far from unique in this regard. A lot of films and novels (BIRTH OF A NATION, GONE WITH THE WIND) set during this period show a willingness to gloss over the vilenesses of life in theSouth and to see a sort of nobility in their side of the Civil War,the once proud brought low and all that. If BIRTH OF A NATION is completely inexcusable, and I think it is, I think I can find some mitigating elements in GONE WITH THE WIND.

BIRTH OF A NATION engages these political issues head on, and of course makes a hideous racist hash of the whole thing. In BIRTH, African Americans were happy under slavery, dancing merrily for their white masters until the chaotic freedom comes and they decide they are as good as white folks and start to rape white women, thus creating a need for the Ku Klux Klan, the organization that "saved the South," and after white supremacy is restored, our White Hero and Heroine get to happily contemplate a future where they rule supreme and darkies know their place.

GONE WITH THE WIND is rather more circumspect, trying to have it both ways. The big problem with GONE WITH THE WIND is its sentimental nostalgia for the "South" as an institution, a sentimentality that is allowed to overwhelm the occasional reminderof that pesky issue of slavery. The film (I've never read the book) pretty shamelessly romanticizes the Old South, calling it a world that only wants to be graceful and beautiful (the opening scroll refers to a land of knights and their ladies fair). Of course, the characters in the film who wax thus are usually people whose opinions on the matter I'm not going to necessarily take at face value.

And there are some rather pointed reminders that all wasn't moonlight and magnolias. When Ashley Wilkes raises objections to Scarlett's hiring of convict workers, actually saying that he will not profit from the enforced labor of others, Scarlett bites right back with a reminder that he wasn't so particular about owning slaves. Ashley's rejoinder that "we didn't treat (slaves)" as brutally as an overseer of hired convicts treats his chained workers can, I think, be seen as an indication of how clueless he really is about the realities of the South that he longs to return to ("aworld that only wants to be graceful and beautiful"), and about life in general.

Clearly THE GENERAL is another order of film altogether. Both BIRTH and GWTW are rather self-consciously Epic – the stories span several years, the films are super-productions, etc. The main action of THE GENERAL encompasses about 48 hours (I'm not counting the year which passes via title card, or the opening scenes that take place in probably a single afternoon). There aren't any real pretensions to Griffithian size and scale in THE GENERAL, or at least no pretensions to a story with Epic Sweep and Grandeur. And of course, THE GENERAL is what some would call "just a comedy."

I think I'm just going to have to see this aspect of THE GENERAL as being part of what I sometimes think of as the Keaton Chill: how happy can we be at someone becoming an officer in the army that is going to lose, and lose big time? I'm not pretending to have all the answers here, and I'll admit that my grasp of Civil War history is pretty loose. This has just been on my mind a good bit lately.

Monday, July 31, 2006


I was lucky enough (thank GOD I live in NYC) to see a revival of Kurosawa’s THE LOWER DEPTHS, his version of Maxim Gorky’s play. There’s not a lot of plot, but a great honking barrage of character, all played to perfection by members of the Kurosawa Repertory Company. The film details the lives of a bunch of down and outers who live in a flophouse that seems to be located at the bottom of some kind of ravine. The film opens with people dumping garbage down the ravine onto the roof of the flophouse. Get it? Among the residents of the flophouse are an old tinker and his terminally tubercular wife, a past his prime actor, a prostitute, a man claiming to be an ex-samurai and his wife who now make a living selling candy, and assorted gamblers and dregs of society. The occupants of this flophouse are used to being dumped on. Well, life happens: as the film progresses, there’s a lot of yelling, a death or two, some illusions are shared and several more are shattered, a couple of attempted seductions and a good deal of drinking and sleeping. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it gives you an idea of the rather free-form feel of what goes on. There don’t seem to be the rigorous plot mechanics of SEVEN SAMURAI or RASHOMON at work here. The ragtag nature of the film reflects the ragtag nature of the characters.

The great pleasure of watching this film is in watching a bunch of world-class character actors carry a movie. Most of the cast, like Toshiro Mifune and the indispensable Minoru Chiaki, are familiar from other Kurosawa films. Character is summed up in a single gesture, one remarkable actress whose name I can’t remember but who was a memorable Lady Macbeth in Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD tells you everything you need to know about her character by the way she slouches into a room. Minoru Chiaki seems to have been the Japanese Johnny Depp: he makes me laugh simply by standing up and holding one foot over the fire. The most startling performance comes from Bokuzen Hidari, as an old man who seems to be some kind of pilgrim (his exact status, as priest or pilgrim, is never spelled out in the subtitles but might be apparent to a Japanese audience). Hidari played the hilariously sad-faced farmer Yohei in SEVEN SAMURAI, and is usually used as comic relief. But in LOWER DEPTHS he plays what basically amounts to a Christ/Buddha figure: he’s probably the most intelligent and enlightened person in the film, certainly the least selfish and crass. The man goes through the film with a wide beautiful smile, dispensing intelligent advice and basic human decency but never coming across as self-righteous or smug, even occasionally suggesting a sort of deviousness that makes you wonder exactly what he’s up to. There’s none of the cartoonish grimacing that can occasionally mar his appearances in other films, you really want to just keep watching him. If he was a TV evangelist, you’d send him money. You might even vote for him.

One viewing just isn't enough for a film as dense as this one. The interactions among the characters are just too intricate, and I'll need to do some reading on other aspects of the movie. For example, I'd really like to know what the Japanese characters on the back of the pilgrim's kimono mean, if they offer some insight into his character or the rest of the film. But repeat viewings will be great fun. I've discovered a new movie to try to get to the bottom of. Criterion DVD, here I come.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Kurosawa’s tasty black comedy begins at a wedding reception, one that rivals Connie Corleone’s for sheer drama: the daughter of a fat-cat corporate VP is marrying the VP’s personal assistant. As the reception begins, one of the officers of the company is arrested for cooking the books, much to the amusement of the press in attendance, who’ve been waiting for pretty much exactly this to happen. A good deal of plot is established in this opening sequence, as is the general tone of the film: the viewer is invited to share in the journalists’ amused cynicism about everything from the real feelings of the groom for the bride (is he marrying her just to get ahead?) to the sudden bizarre appearance of a wedding cake in the shape of a building with sinister associations for everyone concerned.

And we’re off and running. It turns out that the personal assistant (played by a very restrained but still magnetic Toshiro Mifune) isn’t quite what he seems: he has a very definite agenda. Hint: the movie owes a bit of a debt to HAMLET. There is a lot of good nasty fun to be had in THE BAD SLEEP WELL, of the kind that Kurosawa does especially well. Echoes of IKIRU’s bureaucratic satire and the bitterly misanthropic comic one-upmanship of YOJIMBO can often be felt, along with the unmistakable tension of the mysteriously under-rated HIGH AND LOW. Unfortunately, THE BAD SLEEP WELL falters, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly where. It has something to do with Mifune’s character having some well-founded concerns about the consequences of his actions, and these concerns being allowed to overwhelm the character and finally the movie.

The problem is that we're told that the "good" characters need to be as "bad" as the "bad" characters in order to prevail. Unfortunately, the ultimate undoing of the "good" people is not due to "goodness" but to "stupidity." In a nutshell, in order to give us a tragic ending, Kurosawa has Mifune under-estimate the "badness" of the people he is up against, and it just doesn't wash. Mifune has just been too clear-sighted about his enemies to make the error he makes, and the extended monologue a certain character makes on Mifune's behalf isn't terribly moving because of it.

Worth seeing, certainly, especially if you can manage to see it on a big screen. The Criterion DVD is great, but a DVD of any Kurosawa film is a serious dimunition. The acting is, as is only to be expected in a Kurosawa film, of the highest imaginable standard. There just aren't better made or acted films than Kurosawa's.

THE BAD SLEEP WELL. They sure do.

Friday, July 21, 2006


Mostly enjoyable, but it seems to suffer from overkill. Way too many subplots are crammed in, and way too little time is given to each of these subplots, for the story to do justice to any of them. There is also a fatal lack of escalation: the film hits an adrenaline high fairly early, and it stays at about the same level of excitement for most of its running time. It doesn’t end with the Big Finish, the Colossal Topper that makes you feel you’ve gotten you’re money’s worth of Summer Movie Excitement. But I liked it anyway, even if it does feel too much like a two hour and thirty minute prelude to next summer’s PIRATES III.

The story concerns our hero and heroine from PIRATES I, Will and Elizabeth, played ably by Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Their wedding has been delayed by their arrest by the poisonous Lord Beckett (an appropriately sinister Tom Hollander) for aiding and abetting Jack Sparrow’s escape from the law (shown at the end of PIRATES I). Beckett has an Ulterior Motive, however: he will issue pardons to both Will and Elizabeth if they find Capt Jack Sparrow and obtain Sparrow’s apparently magical compass (a detail I don’t remember from PIRATES I, I’ll have to check). Capt. Jack has problems of his own, dealing with a long overdue debt (soul, eternity) to Davy Jones, played by the magnificent Bill Nighy, who manages to be recognizable even through his CGI face of octopus tentacles. Jack manages to tangle Will and Elizabeth in his schemes, and Will and Elizabeth tangle Jack in their schemes, and everything rattles on amusingly enough: escapes from cannibals, attacks from Krakens, and so on.

Alas, the subplots start to come quick and furious: the pair of comedy relief pirates (the short fat one and the tall skinny one with the fake eye) return for no other reason than that of providing a link to the first movie. A promising bit of business, the one-eyed pirate flourishing a bible he can’t read and talking about getting religion, never really goes anywhere. Neither does the subplot involving Bootstrap Bill, Will Turner’s father (Stellan Skarsgard), who is one of Davy Jones’ crew, and who isn’t given a lot to do but make unconvincing attempts to mend parental fences with Will and wear a lot of extremely unflattering makeup. There’s a new character, a voodoo witch who offers supernatural guidance when she isn’t slowing down the plot with excessive atmosphere and trying to out-flounce Depp. Jonathan Pryce’s scenes are similarly uninteresting and unnecessary, and his character is mostly forgotten about. Only Jack Davenport’s return as Commodore Norrington, Elizabeth’s unsuccessful suitor from PIRATES I now fallen on hard times, generates enough interest and seems important to the story, or stories.

We also get the crew of the Black Pearl, the crew of a foreign fishing boat who come to an unnecessarily sticky end, the crew of another boat who manage to pick up both Elizabeth and Will at different times on the same voyage, and you just get the feeling that the whole mess could have used some streamlining. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with wild excess, but when a scene of Elizabeth hiding out in male drag aboard a ship, using her discarded dress as a marionette to get a bunch of superstitious sailors to think a ghost is telling them to go to Tortuga actually makes it into the final cut of a movie you know there’s something wrong.

But the good stuff is good. The effects are effective, and the design is particularly interesting. Davy Jones’ crew has all started to morph into sea creatures, and a lot of fun seems to have been had in assigning them marine characteristics. One of them has the head of a hammer head shark and Jones himself has the aforementioned tentacle beard and an outsized lobster claw for a left hand.

I am a total helpless sucker for Johnny Depp’s work in general and for Capt. Sparrow in particular. It isn’t often I laugh out loud simply at an actor’s posture. A good friend’s child was asked what the best part of PIRATES II was, and she replied, “Looking at Johnny Depp,” a sentiment I can’t disagree with.

Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones is a marvel, an example of what a first-rate actor can do even when buried under tons of makeup/CGI (compare Nighy’s work with Keanu’s in A SCANNER DARKLY, and you’ll see what I mean). Nighy projects a palpable menace unlike anything found in PIRATES I. For the first time, attempts to draw parallels between a sinister captain in a piece of popular entertainment and Melville’s Captain Ahab don’t seem out of order. Those icy blue eyes and icier whisper make Nighy’s Davy Jones one of the very few characters, mortal or otherwise, who can attract attention away from Jack Sparrow. I want to see more of both the actor and the character.

Strange Things: the film looks dirty. PIRATES I has that studio-produced sheen to it, it looks like a big old fantasy movie. PIRATES II has a much grittier look to it. The exteriors look like real locations rather than backlots, everybody’s got bad teeth and sunburn. There’s even one bizarre moment when the picture gets very very dark, and I was concerned that the light bulb in the projector had burned out, but no, it just seemed to be clouds passing overhead. I’m not sure what they were after, but it does seem part of a general darkening of the atmosphere, an attempt to add a “serious” dimension to the proceedings. There are moments, brief to be sure, when the stakes seem to be almost spiritual. The One-Eyed Comedy Pirate’s flirtation with the Bible and bizarrely blurted statement about the “dichotomy between good and evil,” and Davy Jones’ Mephistophelian soul-collecting from sailors/pirates afraid of their fates in the next world hint at some more serious intent that never really comes fully across. Maybe next year.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A SCANNER DARKLY -- First Viewing:

I found it troubling and fascinating, okay? It feels very free-form, almost as if it was just kind of improvised as they went along. The plot, such as it is, seems to concern a character known alternatively as Fred and Bob, depending who is talking to him. Fred/Bob lives in a house with two freeloading buddies, and Fred/Bob seems to also be a cop charged with observing his two freeloading buddies. There's a lot about a terribly addictive drug called Substance D, which apparently is so addictive that the world is divided into two camps: those who are addicted to Substance D, and those who haven't tried it yet. In order to better observe his two freeloading buddies, Fred/Bob has become addicted to Substance D. Or something.

I'll confess that I found it very hard to follow. Part of the problem is the animation. The film was apparently shot in regular live action, and then each frame was painstakingly rotoscoped and turned into a weird hybrid of animation and live action. This allows for some dazzling effects, especially a sort of anonymity suit that Fred/Bob and other police officers wear that allows them to be almost invisible: different faces and body parts are constantly appearing and changing and morphing as you watch. Cool. Unfortunately, it also gets a little distracting. You can get so lost in just watching the anonymity suits that you can lose the thread of conversations. Even worse, you can get so lost in just watching the fascinatingly dreamlike way in which walls shift and move, or the way somebody's hair moves, or the way Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson seem to have been born to be animated in this way that you can lose track of what is going on altogether. That's not really a bad thing. Or is it? After only one viewing, I can't really be sure.

I remember thinking that this film is not at all what I was expecting, which lead me to wonder what in fact I had been expecting. This made me remember that A SCANNER DARKLY is a film by Richard Linklater, who tends to play fast and loose with narrative conventions. Don't get me wrong, his films all have beginnings middles and ends, and they're usually in that order. His films just don't seem to have beginnings middles and ends in the way that most movies have them. It isn't unusual to see a Linklater film and wonder: what was that? Repeat viewings will usually reveal what is going on. Linklater is much more like Mike Leigh than Steven Spielberg. I happen to love Mr. Linklater for that.

Okay. I'll say it because it must be said. The big problem with the film is Keanu Reeves. Even extensive roto-scoping can't save his "performance." You'd think that a character having identity issues and drug problems might play to whatever alleged strengths Reeves possesses as an actor, but no. There is no more embarassing display in recent American cinema of sheer thespic ineptitude than the scenes involving Reeves trying to keep up with Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson. It is like watching Laurel and Hardy and George W. Bush. Music Cue: "one of these things is not like the others..."

Gratuitous swipe:
Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest are these:
"It stars Keanu Reeves."

Bottom line: I'll see it again. There's enough of interest to make me want to.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


An ongoing Kurosawa series showed a rarity recently: I LIVE INFEAR. Produced the year after SEVEN SAMURAI, it is a remarkablemovie. Toshiro Mifune stars as the patriarch of a rather divided family who is very very concerned about the possibility of nuclear war and the dangers of radiation. He wants to sell his successful family business and relocate his family to Brazil to avoid what he views as certain death from the H-Bomb. His family is not entirely sympathetic, and attempts to have him declared incompetent. Part ofthe interest of the film comes from watching Mifune's behavior, and trying to decide as to how right he is to be so concerned. Is his concern justified, or is he just going nuts?

Apparently there was a lot more justification for the Mifune character's concern than I had thought. A little post-movie checking showed me that there were a lot of atomic tests going on at the time the film was made. Apparently there was even one incident where a fishing boat had got caught in a fallout cloud. It wasn't just in movies that folks were thinking of departing Japan for less radioactive parts.

I don't know if anyone is going to list I LIVE IN FEAR as one ofKurosawa's greatest efforts. There's a piece of stunt casting that nearly sinks the film, and unfortunately it is Mifune himself as the patriarch. Playing a character apparently twice his age, Mifune assumes a cane and a bit of a stoop, but nothing, not even dyed hair and glasses, can hide his (to me at least) astonishing physical magnetism. Try as he might, he can't hide his youth and energy. It would be like Marlon Brando at the height of his STREETCAR/WATERFRONT beauty playing someone that old. As fascinating as the stunt is, it winds up distracting from the film. Mifune does his best, of course. He pulls off lots of wonderful little moments, especially a running habit of grunting angrily and furiously fanning at the stupidity of his ungrateful children, and his final scenes are very effective.

There are other wonderful performances as well. Takashi Shimura has a role as a dentist (kind of the audience's surrogate) who finds himself drawn into the family struggles, and he is excellent as usual: he's certainly among the most dependably excellent actors I know of. It was also interesting to see Minoru Chiaki, who played the monk in RASHOMON and the comic samurai in SEVEN SAMURAI, this time in modern dress playing a rather undistinguished, rather spineless person. Other members of the Kurosawa Repertory Company appear as well: the film is full of familiar faces. Ultimately, I LIVE IN FEAR is a fascinating and troubling film that asks a lot of difficult questions without supplying any easy answers. I liked the film very much.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Talking toys, I'm there. Talking fish, I'm there. Talking bugs, I'm there. Talking monsters, I'm there. Superheroes living undercover in suburbia, I love it. But talking cars. I mean, talking cars. There's something in me that just turns off at the idea of a movie about talking goddamn cars. It felt too close to a movie about Care Bears, somehow. That's part of what kept me from seeing the movie for so long, the Care Bear factor. The certainty that Big Lessons were going to be imparted to me via the Magic Of Animation.

And actually, I wasn't far wrong. CARS feels like it was made for kids, and frankly not very bright kids at that. The movie is a pretty naked endorsement of friendship, honesty, teamwork, etc. Our hero's journey from being a self-involved self-sufficient selfish creep to being a nice guy who values others is trite and predictable, with only the occasional faint surprise. Heartstrings are tugged and tugged. Worst of all, the energy and irreverence that kept Pixar masterworks like TOY STORY and FINDING NEMO and THE INCREDIBLES from sinking under the weight of their own assorted Messages is almost completely absent. There's a cute bit during the end credits, where we see car versions of Pixar classics like TOY CAR STORY and MONSTER TRUCK INC, but even this feels forced, as if they sensed that something was missing from the rest of the movie.

To be fair, the movie looks great. Shot after shot astounds. A scene in a moonlit field is startling, because it just looks so damn real: this one moment puts years of bogus cinematic day for night shooting to shame. A scene lit by neon is similarly gorgeous. The scenery and art direction are magnificent.

But without a more interesting story, who cares? I sure as hell didn't.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


A happy little film from France. I cannot tell you the names of anyone concerned with it, except that the director's last name is Noe. The movie begins rather mysteriously, with a pair of people on a bed. One says to the other, "Time destroys everything." IRREVERSIBLE takes this little line very much to heart. Similar to Pinter's BETRAYAL and Kaufman and Hart's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, but bearing more of a relationship to the noirish MEMENTO, IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, the action unfolding in reverse.

After the opening chat between two people who never appear again, there is a graphic trip to a gay sex club called (no, I'm not making this up) RECTUM. The camera swirls and swoops around, offering glimpses of red-lit dungeoun activity. Eventually a pair of men arrive and demand to find some one known as the Turan, and after what feels like a very long time they find him. What follows is not pretty, one of the most disturbing scenes in any movie I've ever seen. Eventually, as the film travels back, we learn that the two men are avenging a woman who has been horribly raped (which rape is also shown in one long not particularly graphic but still horrible shot). The film keeps going back and back, we learn gradually more and more about the characters, motivational knives are twisted in character's psyches, on and on until the ending/beginning which feels frankly rather abrupt, going for something of a metaphysical jump (there's a prominently displayed poster of 2001 in one character's apartment).

The acting is of a very high standard. The technical aspects of the film are beyond reproach. The camerawork is particularly fluid, the camera seldom staying in one place for long. The transitions from scene to scene, the temporal jumps backward are handled very simply so the viewer is never lost for long.

All in all, a very difficult film to watch, and an even more difficult film to like. I have a great deal of respect for it, and certainly for the actors, who are called upon to do some pretty difficult scenes. There are also some unintentional laughs provided by the subtitles, as during one scene when a character pursues a rapist to the earlier mentioned gays sex club by saying, "On to RECTUM!!"

I might be able to work myself up to see it again, to see if there is even more evident on a second viewing (particularly to see if that rather bizarre mindwarp ending is forecast at all). There's a lot to recommend it, but I can't say I blame anyone for not being able to get through it.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Kind of sums it up. Serious and adolescent.

The film is a very long two and a half hours. It kind of picks up five years after SUPERMAN II ended, if SUPERMAN II had been made in 2001 rather than 1980.

The film basically begins with Superman crashlanding on the Kent family farm, found in the flaming wreckage by his adoptive mother, played by the sublime Eva Marie Saint, the first in a series of fine actors who don't get nearly enough to do. Superman, we're told in dialogue and in a title card, has been away from earth for about five years on something of an inter-galactic wild goose chase: astronomers apparently found evidence that Krypton had not been destroyed after all, and Superman just had to check it out. Turns out those pesky scientists were wrong, and Superman has come back home.

In the interim, life has gone on, mankind has moved on, even Lois Lane has gotten on with it: she's now married and a mom. Even that consummate cad Lex Luthor has kept busy, shaking down a wealthy widow and starting up a particularly unpleasant scheme to clean up in real estate and destroy Superman.

Okay. So there's some cool stuff. Superman's big return to action is kind of neat, and has a nifty kicker that I won't spoil. I like Luthor's big nasty plan to grow another continent with crystals pilfered from Superman's Fortress of Solitude. I like the improved flying effects. There is a new intimacy in the way Superman and Lois are able to cling to each other and spin around and still talk. I liked Parker Posey and James Marsden, who deliver the only intelligent and appealing performances in the entire movie. They are the only people in the entire two and a half hours I gave a damn about. Posey plays Luthor's moll, kind of the 2006 equivalent of Valerie Perrine's Ms. Teschmacher from the original. She manages to take a rather stereotypically conceived role and plays it with some zest and fun, and her growing appreciation of Superman's virtues is the sole instance of a character changing in the course of the film. Marsden, after being wasted in not one, not two, but three X-Men films, is very appealing also, similarly breathing life into the thankless role of Mr. Lois Lane. Please, someone, give him a franchise, hopefully one where he can appear shirtless occasionally.

Okay, so the big problem with the casting is that someone somewhere decided to cast the two leads real young. Brandon Routh as Superman and a completely forgettable person named Kate Bosworth as Lois may be the same ages as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder were when they played the roles, but they can't make me believe that they've completed their first summer internships. They just don't have the weight and gravity, and certainly nowhere near the wit and warmth, that most average adults should have and that Reeve and Kidder brought to their versions of the characters. Try an experiment: think of Margot Kidder flashing those bedroom eyes at Christopher Reeve, asking him what color underwear she's wearing, and try to imagine Kate Bosworth doing the same thing. Or even better: try to remember Kate Bosworth at all.

See what I mean? Ms. Bosworth doesn't register. She doesn't need to hike up her panties and sing Dixie, but she should at least do something. How on earth director Bryan Singer didn't re-cast Parker Posey as Lois Lane after seeing the first rushes (or even after the first read-through, if there was such a thing) is beyond me.

Mr. Routh is okay as Superman/Clark Kent, solid and warm and virtuous, doing his best as clumsy Clark Kent and filling out the classic outfit very nicely as Superman. But. It takes two to tango. If Superman is going to be solid and dependable and, well, Superman, that means that Lois Lane is gonna have to add some spice to the central relationship of the film. It don't happen, and it is the film's biggest problem.

As for Mr. Spacey's alleged performance, well, what can I say. Ian McKellen he ain't. Never has an actor underplayed so hard to so little effect, and then suddenly started over-acting still harder to even less effect. I was reminded of William Hurt's horrific over-acting in last year's HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. This is what happens when stiff unimaginative monotone actors decide to show aspects of their talent that just plain aren't there. Was Gene Hackman unavailable, or uninterested, or what?

It may seem unfair to continually compare Mr. Routh and Ms. Bosworth and that Spacey creature with their counterparts in the original films, but the film invites these comparisons. Using the John Williams title theme and even the same stylized opening credits, they are clearly setting up a continuity with the older films, ill-advisedly.

So Happy Fourth Of July.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

I watched the DVD of David Lean's RYAN'S DAUGHTER recently, and find myself unable to entirely make up my mind about the film. Even more than the Kurosawa films I've seen recently, RYAN'S DAUGHTER veers backand forth between excellent and, well, how shall I say this -- not excellent.

RYAN'S DAUGHTER is the story of Rose (played beautifully by SarahMiles), a young woman living in a small village on the coast of Ireland during WWI. She falls in love with Charles Shaughnessy, the localschoolmaster (Robert Mitchum), who is considerably older than she is. They are married, and seem to be doing well enough until a new commander of the local British garrison arrives (Christopher Jones). Rose has an affair with the officer.

There's a lot more to the movie than that, of course. There's a major subplot about the IRA, a leader of which arrives in town during a storm to pick up an arms shipment (or something, the reason for this armsshipment happening at all is pretty murky) during a particularly violent storm. Anti-British sentiment is pretty virulent in this little town, and when rumors of Rose's liaison with the officer get around, it can only mean trouble.

The acting is mostly beyond reproach. I was very impressed with both Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum. Leo McKern and Trevor Howard both turn in good work, I thought, as Rose's father and the local priest. Christopher Jones has some very good moments, even if the film does go a little too far out of its way to establish his character's emotional problems (the officer was shell-shocked in the war), and then to keep reminding us of them.

The big performance problem is John Mills' work as Michael, the village idiot. The character is mute and seems to be retarded, and shambles around the town in the way that village idiots in books and movies occasionally do. It's a rather heavy-handed concept, using Michael as an all-purpose symbol of whatever needs to be symbolically embodied a tany given time, usually The Social Outcast and Unrequited Love. The Social Outcast stuff usually involves Michael behaving outrageously while being taunted by a mob of ill-mannered kids. The Unrequited Love stuff involves Michael being all-too obviously in love with Rose, and being rather Chaplinesquely heart-broken at her lack of interest. I thought there was too much of Michael the Sad Clown, accompanied by a dissonant version of the film's main love theme, and I started to dread his appearance. To be fair, though, when it works it really works: the look on his face when he finally gets a bit of recognition from Rose almost made up for everything that had gone before.

Michael and Mills' performance pretty well sum up the big problem with the movie. The unfortunate tendency to underline everything to make sure the audience gets it. This can happen visually, by having John Mills' character wear just a bit too much makeup to make sure we get that he is retarded and Quasimodo-esque or by having Christopher Jones'character appear in shadow to emphasize whatever that is supposed to emphasize, his isolation or something.

But the one thing that really drove me up the wall about the film, the one thing that I really find unforgiveable about the film, is the score. That damn Maurice Jarre score quickly becomes infuriating. There's a love theme that is played incessantly, much like the ubiquitous "Lara's Theme" from DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. If the persistent love theme wasn't a big enough problem, there's a lot of other distracting music that plays big and loud for no apparent reason, or where quieter music or no music at all might have been more effective. For one scene of Mitchum searching Rose's bureau for a piece of incriminating evidence, Lean and Jarre throw a big chunk of loud Beethovenian bombast on the soundtrack, and it just plain flat out doesn't work. A lot ofMichael's scenes are accompanied by a dissonant version of the Big Love Theme, played on what sounds like a musical saw and jew's harp. Ick. It all gets to be just too damn much.

But. The score is not reason enough to avoid the film. It is almost acliche by now to praise a David Lean film for the cinematography, but boy is it praiseworthy in this case. I could get a feeling from my TV that it was getting all excited at the gorgeous imagery it was being allowed to show, almost as excited as I was. I mentioned the storm sequence, which apparently took an incredibly long time to capture on film as Lean waited for months for just exactly the right storm to hit the coast. This sequence alone is worth watching the film for: I didn't know waves could do what they do in this film. I've never seen anything quite like it.