Sunday, December 30, 2007

SWEENEY TODD

"I've come home again."

Let me be clear. Tim Burton's film of SWEENEY TODD is magnificent. Funny, terrifying, deeply moving and deeply disgusting. I felt the way I felt when I saw RAN or TITUS or THE GODFATHER PART II or PSYCHO. I felt purged. I felt pity and terror. It is not everybody's cup of tea. It is the absolute cinematic embodiment of My Cup Of Tea. I love every single fucking frame of it.

I'd been dreading this film. I didn't know if Tim Burton had the real chops to make this film what it needs to be: a rip-snorting blood-gushing tear-wrenching High Musical Tragedy Slaughterhouse. Could Burton handle SWEENEY TODD, getting the right balance between Blood and Tears? His films tend to either really really work (EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) or really really not work (BATMAN, MARS ATTACKS, PLANET OF THE APES) and sometimes both (BATMAN RETURNS, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, SLEEPY HOLLOW). SWEENEY TODD is his least compromised, most assured film to date. And it is also the single finest live action musical film made in, well, at least as long as I can remember.

Burton does what no other filmmaker of the current alleged Musical Renaissance has done: he has put the focus back on the characters, the story, and the songs. When Sweeney Todd sings the heart-rending ballad "My Friends" to his razors, Burton actually allows me to see Johnny Depp sing. And then he does something even more astonishing. He allows me to continue seeing Johnny Depp sing. And then, to cap it all off, he lets me see Johnny Depp sing with Helena Bonham Carter. Two people sing. At the same time. And you can see them both! Singing! Burton keeps the camera in tight, creating an intimacy that is quite simply lacking in the other recent musicals that have gotten so much attention. This is a film, after all, that is set in a series of small, cramped rooms: a barber shop, a pie shop, a basement bakehouse, an insane asylum rather than the series of showbiz stages, imaginary or otherwise, in CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS, HAIRSPRAY, or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

Tim Burton is reminding the world of how to make a musical. There's none of the hyper-caffeinated gonzo MTVwannabe editing and incompetent framing that demolishes the sense and feeling of the songs in CHICAGO (really now, didn't that film look like the work of a blindfolded babboon?), or the fear of singing on display in DREAMGIRLS (where someone beginning to sing is a cue for a cut to a shot of the back of the singer's head) or PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (where the drapes get as much screen time as the actors), or the appalling miscasting that finally sinks HAIRSPRAY. Where these other films make the mistake of laying on the "cinematic" trappings of Attention Deficit Editing and Over-Ornate Camerawork, Burton strips it all down, creating a lean mean musical machine.

That isn't to say that the film is cinematically inert, though. There are plenty of fluorishes, including a wonderful opening credit sequence, a marvelous journey through nocturnal London, spectacularly gory throat slashings, etc. I mean, really, this is Tim Burton after all. Burton, however, knows when to go for broke, and when to back off and let me watch these people do their stuff. There are plenty of small spine-tingling pleasures, among them Sweeney's lovingly careful shaving of the area on Judge Turpin's throat that he is hoping to slash open. Just imagining what Rob Marshall would have done with a song like "Pretty Women" makes me nauseous.

Johnny Depp makes a splendid Sweeney Todd, the only actor I've seen apart from Len Cariou (the Broadway original) to capture the pain behind the rage. Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is a marvel, showing me a woman who grinds corpses into pie filling in one moment and whose eyes fill with tears over the fate of a young boy the very next. Alan Rickman's surprisingly dashing Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall's repellent Beadle Bamford work beautifully. Not the least of the performances comes from the young boy playing Toby, who delivers possibly the most moving "Not While I'm Around" I've ever heard. I hope this film banishes once and for all the complaint that Burton doesn't deal effectively with actors.

I could go on and on and on. I loved it. I'll leave it to you to discover the joys of the color scheme, the art direction and costume design, and all of the other elements I haven't got space to mention, because just when I get something down here a thousand other delights come flooding back to me. I can't wait to see it again. And again. And again.

Friday, December 28, 2007

THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT AUDIENCE-MEMBER

For years I have lived under a curse. The Bad Audience Curse. I've posted on this before. Whenever I go to the theatre or movies or any place involving mass spectation, I can always count on being surrounded by only the most annoying people. Plastic Bag Rattling Morons, Loud Talkers, Cellphone-Equipped Vermin, they all seem to seek me out. This is no fantasy. My partner has remarked, more than once, that he had never had such a problem with difficult audiences as he had when we started seeing each other. Over time I've come to mostly accept this as just part of my life, c'est la vie, hey, I wonder what I did in another life to get this curse thing.

The other night was the last straw. We had tickets to see a revival of Harold Pinter's THE HOMECOMING. Really great seats, organ-donor quality tickets. Bob and I, our good friend Scott and my brother. We settle in to our seats, the lights go down, the play begins. I gradually become aware of a very faint electronic sound, like a sustained beep that varied in frequency. It sounded like a smoke detector had gotten stuck somewhere in the building. As the play continued, the sound got gradually louder, and it became clear that it was coming from the gentleman sitting directly behind me, who was wearing a pair of those infra-red hearing device headphone things (it turned out later that the sound was feedback caused by his failure to turn off his hearing aid while using the headphones). The gentleman's wife at least once told him that the headphones were making noise, but he didn't do anything about it. He also managed to compound the electronic distraction by talking out loud, ruining one of the highlights of the play, when a woman takes a particularly symbolically loaded drink of water, by talking out loud, full blast, remarking on the similarity between the woman's behavior and his wife's family.

So there we were. Watching a play by an author famed for the importance of his SILENCES, being distracted by audience noise.

Over the years I have developed a way of dealing with the type of moron who disturbs at the theatre. I say politely but very firmly, "Excuse me, but (your plastic bags, candy wrapper, talking, etc.) is making a lot of noise. Can you please keep it quiet." At the intermission I and my friends let the gentleman know that there was a real problem. He was apologetic, got up and went to have the headphones adjusted, The lights went down, the problem seemed to have been dealt with. Then of course it started again, very faintly but gradually getting louder. The feedback continued and got more and more distracting. I turned around and asked again for him to deal with them, and it got better, and then got worse.

I was sitting there writhing, feeling like piano wire was being wrapped around my head. Finally the noise reached an unbearable level. I turned around and noticed that the old bastard had taken the headphones off, and had them in his lap. I snatched the headphones out of his hands, wrapped them in my jacket, and shoved them under my seat. The old bastard tapped me on the shoulder, offering to turn them off. I told him to just sit back in his seat.

And blessed silence reigned. I and my friends could concentrate on the final quarter of the play. But. 40 plus years of audience horror was demanding to be avenged. There was just no way I could let this go, it had been too serious a series of irritations. When the lights came up, I stood up and made a show of unwrapping the headphones and dropping them into the old bastard's lap. I told him that he owed me money, that he had completely ruined my enjoyment of the play. He was getting kind of flustered, clearly not being used to being called on his bullshit, and then I delivered the final stroke: "I hope that for the rest of your life, whenever you go to the theatre or to the movies, that someone does to you what you did to me this evening."

Glowing with self-satisfaction I left in a justifiable huff. I no longer have to worry about What Goes Around in this regard, as I have finally been the deliverer of That Which Comes Around, and it came around all over that old bastard. I have worked the curse through, it is now done and has been passed on to someone else who can spend the next couple of lifetimes paying it off. The Albatross of Hateful Audience Behavior is now rotting around the neck of a nearly deaf 87 year old bastard. Good riddance! Hello bold new era of blissful silence and proper audience behavior!

Yeah, right.

Saturday, December 08, 2007




THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER is amazing. I'd seen bits of it on TCM on occasion, but never really sat down and watched it until I saw it at Film Forum in an excellent print. It looked like it had beenshot the day before, very sharp and clean. I wasn't prepared for how really excellent this film is.
I knew thebasic outlines of the plot, the famous device of the pen-pal lovers who don't realize they know and dislike each other in real life. This was handled beautifully, with real feeling and humor byLubitsch, Sam Raphelson, and most especially the actors. I don't think I'd ever seen Margaret Sullavan before, and was very taken with her. James Stewart blew me away all over again. Neither one of them makesa single false move.
But the real surprise for me was finding the darker shadings in the story. This is not a sweetness and light romantic fantasy. Well,yes of course it is, but what am I to make of a sweetness and light romantic fantasy in which a long-established marriage goes belly up, driving the husband to attempt suicide, winding up hospitalized with a nervous breakdown? These darker elements are handled with an honesty and directness that never overwhelm the joy of the film, and don't come off as cheap attempts at seriousness, but actually serve to make the experience more profound and ultimately moving.
Frank Morgan's performance is flat-out brilliant, moving from comic bluster to genuine pathos. For his performance to have not been Oscar-nominated is, to me, one of the more grotesque oversights in Oscar history. A great film and a great movie, no more no less. The kind of movie that makes one look around and bemoan the current sorry state of cinematic affairs.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


BEOWULF

"I!! AM!! BEOWULF!!!!!!"

Yeah, right, okay. You're Beowulf, I'm happy for you.

It was inevitable I suppose, considering the incredible success of Peter Jackson's adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS, that the American Fantasy Meisters would have to show that they can make big fantasy extravaganzas as well as any New Zealand guy. It was also inevitable that they would fail pretty drastically, considering the general immaturity of the American Fantasy Meisters, people who are, as I write, preparing yet another Indiana Jones film. Zemeckis' BEOWULF is a disaster, to be sure. But it isn't quite the disaster I was expecting.

The easy stuff first. The film is very very weird to look at. The much-touted motion-capture technology that is supposed to make the computer-generated characters more "life-like" is a dismal failure. Character motion is terribly stiff, facial expressions only occasionally register any sign of life. The characters look kind of like the actors providing the voices. That certainly seems to be Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, and a good deal of time has been spent on making a CGI version of Angelina Jolie's naked body. There's been some dickying around with their features and physiques, to be sure. The Beowulf figure looks less like the voice actor Ray Winstone and more like the actor Sean Bean (a memorable Boromir in Jackson's trilogy), but Beowulf's body is right out of your local video store's gay porn section. The lingering loving shots of Beowulf's muscular torso are worthy of the equally conflicted 300. I'm not really sure what they were after with Grendel. He looks like something that lumbered off a disturbed pre-schooler's sketch pad: Frankenberry as reimagined by George Romero. And what on earth am I to make of the fact that Grendel's Mother is shown to have not just a prehensile ponytail, but high heels as well?

The figures and faces just don't really work, they don't convey enough emotion or even just plain life. They flounce around a lot, to be sure, and there's a lot of activity, but there's something missing. I was reminded of Travolta's appearance in HAIRSPRAY, that he was plainly visible under a lot of unlifelike latex, he seemed weighted down with unexpressive dead weight. It all just seems off. Compare any moment of any character in BEOWULF with any single frame of Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis' Kong and you'll see what I mean. Ultimately, BEOWULF looks like a marginally more realistic version of SHREK. The technology is a failure, and I simply don't understand why any director would settle for such results. Does Peter Jackson own the only existing copy of the software to make convincing human/animal figures?

There are some cool 3-D effects, to be fair. There's one particularly cool scene involving a dragon's sudden appearance that was startling and very very effective. But way too much of it exists for the Whoa! 3-D! Whoa! effect, the "camera" goes to a lot of trouble to move around a lot to make sure the image is very very layered. One particularly elaborate moment is a long shot beginning in a rowdy hall and pulling back and back and back and back over hill and dale through forests and into a mountain lair where Grendel sits tearing his flesh in frustration over the noise.

Now for the weird hard part to write about. It has been a long time since I read BEOWULF, and I don't remember it terribly clearly. But I do remember that the story is a lot simpler than the story in this film, which adds a lot of other elements from other sources. Grendel's Mother comes off as a combination of Macbeth's witches, Morgan le Fay, and Mephistopheles. She makes a pact with Beowulf: in return for a specific golden cup and a night of good procreative sex (she needs to replace Grendel, after all) she will ensure that he reigns unchallenged and undefeated as king.

This sets up a very drastic switch in the film's tone. The schoolboyishly enthusiastic violence and sexuality (mostly latent homosexual during Beowulf's extended nude scenes, more overtly heterosexual during Angelina Jolie's notorious scenes) of the first half falls mostly away, and there's some nattering about the growing influence of Christianity and how it has affected the poor "hero" who now can't get any attention because of all the "weeping martyrs" that the Church is supplying. Poor hero, he's not getting any attention. Make no mistake. Beowulf has a need for attention that is downright Paris Hiltonian: when he arrives to destroy Grendel, he says in no uncertain terms that he is after glory, and glory alone. Little things like removing a pestilential evil from an undeserving populace are beside the point. So now we get King Beowulf feeling kind of bored and listless. Uneasy lies the head and all that. Then, to supply a big rousing finish, (Arthurian legend fans, get ready) his kingdom is threatened by a dragon, who turns out to be Beowulf's own son by Grendel's Mother, a la Mordred.

It seems that Mordred/Beowulf Junior can turn from Gorgeous Golden Youth to Dragon at will. Why Grendel couldn't pull this trick is never explained, nor are Dragon Boy's motivations for attacking Beowulf's people. Evidently being raised by a single Mom has left him with some serious Daddy Issues.

So the big climactic battle scene is Big, and Climactic, and Battle-y, in the manner of works by Hollywood Fantasy Meisters. Beowulf's very real guilt, his willing collaboration with the evident evil represented by the monstrous (if big-titted) Grendel's Mother, his responsibility for the deaths of a lot of his people at the hands of the monstrous offspring of his hellish pact, is mentioned but never really dealt with beyond one character's use of the phrase "The Sins Of The Fathers!!!" and the occasional furrowed Beowulfian brow. Okay, the point is made that Beowulf isn't humping his mistress as enthusiastically as he used to, nor does he sleep very well, but that's about it. We are meant to mourn the passing of the Great (Action) Hero and little things like moral ambiguity can't be allowed to be get in the way.
There is however one tantalizing final moment that hints at what the film has been rather desperately trying to be, and actually seems to think that it is: a serious exploration of the impulse to acquire power and use it, by fair means or otherwise, and the results of these impulses. Alas, that tantalizing hint remains only that, and is overwhelmed in the inevitable big Power Ballad over the end credits.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

BIBLEMAN -- DIVIDED WE FALL

"How could they do that to Mr. Funky?"
A DVD of BIBLEMAN -- DIVIDED WE FALL, an episode of a religious program for kids, came into my possession through the good services of my soon to be ex-good friend Kent, who demanded that I post on it forthwith. BIBLEMAN stars Willie Aames, who was on EIGHT IS ENOUGH and CHARLES IN CHARGE, as millionaire religious zealot Miles Peterson (Peter Son, upon this rock the church is built, get it?) who has:

1. A pair of protegees, one African American guy nicknamed Cypher and a white girl named, what else, Biblegirl. They've all got spiffy ill-fitting uniforms, featuring Biblical Superhero Accessories like the Helmet of Salvation and the Shield of Belief, and my personal favorite: the Shoes of Peace. The attempts to impose muscular definition upon Willie Aames' distinctly non-buff torso is among the most amusing elements of the show.

2. The full Bruce Wayne set up. A big mansion with what appears to be an extensive series of caves below it, filled to overflowing with "high-tech" impossible computer equipment.

3. An apparently endless series of ideologically loaded supervillains. The villain in DIVIDED WE FALL is known as the Wacky Protester. No, really. The Wacky Protester is a probably legally actionable ripoff of Jerry Lewis' Dr. Julius Kelp, with really hideous prosthetic teeth and ill-fitting clothes. There are some other villains as well: secular children's television programming, disobedience, and disrespect for authority figures, for example. One of the lowpoints of the episode is a gratuitous clip from a Saturday morning TV series called Mr. Funky's Wild Time, an inane animated comedy with vaguely anti-Semitic overtones.

DIVIDED WE FALL centers on the Wacky Protester's attempts to drive a wedge between the members of the Bibleman Team, so he can Divide And Conquer and take over Mr. Funky's Wild Time and use it as a mouthpiece for his own evil designs, which has something to do with destroying the Bibleman Team because um, well, who wouldn't want to destroy these guys? See, the Bibleman Team is never at a loss for an appropriate Bible quote, which they supply at the drop of a hat including book chapter and verse. They don't just do this blindly, though. Bibleman himself warns that they must take care that the Scriptural tags they ceaselessley use are "relevant to the situation, and they apply." They also engage in badly written banter, designed to show that you can have a sense of humor and be self-righteous, too.

The show is pretty idiotic on pretty much every level. It has PLAN NINE level production values. It borrows pretty blatantly from the worldly entertainments that it works so hard to denigrate. The whole silly thing would be hilarious and disturbing if it just wasn't so completely lame. I'd bring up how odd it is that the villains all seem to have New York connections (the characters on Mr. Funky's Wild Time and the evil computer Luci all speak with broad Noo Yawk Accents, and the Wacky Protester is from Hackensack) if I felt it was worth the effort.

But there's a problem. Like the equally idiotic 300, this idiotic Bibleman thing has a following. There is a Bibleman website, complete with Bibleman tour dates for the Bibleman Live show, and there's a list of Bibleman Personal Appearances at local Christian bookstores around the country. I guess I'm just way too insulated and corrupt, as a cinephilic gay man living in NYC, to understand how any even remotely media-savvy kid wouldn't collapse in hysterical laughter at the general ineptitude on display in BIBLEMAN -- DIVIDED WE FALL.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BLADE RUNNER

"Gosh, you've really got some nice toys here."

Once again I have cause for gratitude for living in NYC, as NYC is apparently one of only two cities to have gotten full-out screenings on big screens of the (probably and hopefully last) Final Director’s Cut of BLADE RUNNER, which is coming out in a big old multi-DVD package in December. They've done a final digital clean up, erasing little problematic bits, like visible wires holding up supposedly airborned police cars, etc. They even added Joanna Cassidy's face to the body of the stuntperson who runs through all those big sheets of candy glass, and it actually works. I was worried that there'd be even more serious tinkering with the story, but no, Ridley Scott hasn't done to his magnum opus what George Lucas did to his. So BLADE RUNNER is back, its visual and sonic beauty undimmed and even enhanced, and its problems still unresolved and in some ways even magnified.

1. BLADE RUNNER really is something from a purely technical standpoint. It is one of the most gorgeously made films ever. And it really really really can only be appreciated on a BIG FUCKING SCREEN. DVDs of this film are a waste of DVDs. It is like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or BRAZIL or 2001 or BARRY LYNDON in that regard. This cleaned up version looks great, sounds great, and is just a joy to behold, especially in these days of hand-held camera quick cut nonsense. And the recent big-screen engagement at the Ziegfeld is a marvel: crystal clear digital projection, great sound, goodness gracious me and mine, just an ecstatic orgy of sight and sound and gorgeousness and gorgeosity made cinema.

2. BLADE RUNNER is not a very good movie in pretty much every other way. Harrison Ford's performance is lackluster to say the least, he seems completely lost, veering from existential despair in one scene to low-comedy mugging in the next, and not in a good way. The character remains enough of a cipher for the director to be able to claim, 25 years after the fact, that he isn’t even a human being. The story is pretty well dumbed down from Philip K. Dick's remarkable novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, replacing Dick's satiric edge with a world-weary noir aesthetic that was really horribly cloying when the film was burdened with a tiresome narration.

3. It struck me this time that the movie's attitude toward women is not particularly positive. They are either replicants or repulsive. The only two (apparently) human women with speaking roles in the film are an aged Asian woman who gives Deckard information about snake scales and a thickset woman with an eyepatch who sells Deckard a bottle after he retires Zora. The three female leads are all replicants, all three of them are murderers, all three of them are used rather degradingly for sexual purposes. Zora is a performer in a sleazy nightclub whose routine involves a snake (“watch her take the pleasures of the serpent that once corrupted man!”), Pris is referred to as a standard pleasure model for military recreation. Rachael starts the film as a bold, confident woman, but her self-realization as a replicant is combined with a chilling descent into mechanization: she is finally turned into a sex toy with no will of her own. She can't even speak for herself during that really hideous rape scene (I’m afraid it can’t really be called anything else) and in her final appearance as she and Deckard run off into the elevator. Now this could be part of the point about the woeful way in which the replicants are treated, purely as things, but it never really comes across as the point, somehow.

4. Ridley Scott has gone on the record claiming that Deckard is a replicant, that he was always a replicant. And there are assorted little clues scattered throughout the film, to be fair, but they have always felt more like an attempt to draw a parallel between Deckard and the replicants he is hunting, more as an attempt to add some moral ambiguity to the story. There is one little clue that sticks out like a sore thumb, a waking vision that Deckard has of a unicorn, which is apparently intended as a piece of installed memory in Deckard's artificial memory banks, and I'm sorry but it is just plain bullshit. If Deckard is a replicant, Scott should have shot something somewhere to indicate this just a little more clearly than he does.

And anyway, if Deckard is a replicant the whole film goes out the window. It is like having Victor Fleming say that Dorothy is a witch, that she was always a witch. Actually, no, that really makes more sense, as Glinda seems to recognize some kind of magical powers in Dorothy ("Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"). Bottom Line: If Deckard is a replicant, Mr. Scott might have made it into an actual part of the film itself, not something that one can only recognize by reading an article in the New York Times 25 years after the film is released.

So what is the thrill of BLADE RUNNER? Well, for me it is purely the visuals and the soundtrack. I don’t “prefer” technique to story or emotion, by any means, but I’ll admit to being fairly susceptible to the seductions of pretty pictures on a big screen, and to needing some time to overcome the initial “whoa!” factor. My father pointed out to me many many many years ago that I am a sucker for spectacle, and I can’t entirely disagree. I’ll get carried away by the pretty pictures, I’ll admit it. I don’t think I’m as bad as I used to be about it. I could see through the pretty pictures in drivel like BARTON FINK and THE HUDSUCKER PROXY to the gaping empty derivative disasters that they are when they were first released. I still watch HUDSUCKER sometimes when it is on, just to look at the prettiness, and there is a lot of it, but the film is a train wreck. I’ll see a movie for the technique alone, hey, why not, but I ain’t going to pretend even for a moment that a film like BLADE RUNNER, as radiantly gorgeous as it is, is anywhere near a 2001 or LAWRENCE or NASHVILLE or or or or or or or, and could never be a RULES OF THE GAME or a 400 BLOWS or IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


HARRY POTTER AND THE WEIRDLY UNEVEN FRANCHISE

"I solemnly swear that I am up to no good."

I haven't been entirely untouched by the Harry Potter phenomenon. I read the first book, and enjoyed it thoroughly as a good brisk read with some genuinely moving moments. I started the second book, and put it down when I found myself wanting some kind of literary Fast-Forward button. On the advice of my great friend Kent, I've started reading ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, and have been getting good fun out of it. I'd seen the first film in the theatre, largely out of curiosity, and mostly enjoyed it, but had missed the second one because I just didn't care. I finally saw it on DVD, and still didn't care.
I saw the third film, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, when it got a lot of glowing reviews, and I agreed with them all: it remains the best of the franchise, hands down, no question, period full stop. It is still the only film in the franchise to aspire to being anything other than a sort of cinematic Cliff's Notes. Alfonso Cuaron manages to capture the funky energy of Rowling's world, the messy little details and and the more than healthy respect for transgression, the willingness to occasionally do the wrong thing for the right reasons. I keep remembering the glorious charm used to activate a certain magical map: I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

I keep wanting to slow the film down and look in the shadows for the little things that might be lurking (and they are there: at one point a tiny electric train can be spotted running through a big piece of astronomical machinery). Like the similar flourishes in CHILDREN OF MEN, these aren't slapped on to the movie in a desperate bid for attention; they feel completely integrated to the story, and help keep things interesting. This is no mean feat: the story is, when you think about it, pretty damned unwieldy. But Cuaron pulls it off, scoring some real triumphs along the way. A scene of panic in a room full of living paintings is particularly wonderful; there hasn't been anything like it in the series before or since. I mean really: Cuaron's film even features fascinating end titles.

Cuaron's film also features some of the most moving moments in the series, especially those featuring Daniel Radcliffe's scenes with David Thewlis and Gary Oldman. And any film that has glorious actors like Timothy Spall, David Thewlis and Gary Oldman onscreen at the same time, turning into animals, is my kind of movie.

My hopes were high for the next film,HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, or as I've come to think of it, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF NYQUIL. There's the occasional bit of largely computer-generated energy (one big scene involving a dragon is particularly impressive), but mostly it just lies there onscreen, never more lifelessly than during the big scene at the end showing the regeneration of Lord Voldemort, as played by Ralph Fiennes, who herewith wins my vote as the Least Terrifying Villain In Film History.

Rant: the Lord Voldemort in this film is a big fat pussy. He prances around in a Martha Graham shroud, with his head all shaven and his bad teeth and no nose, and I just sat there wondering what the fuck everybody was so scared of. This little nancyboy has the entire magical world so terrified that they daren't even say his name aloud? Why didn't Indiana Jones come along and just shoot him? He's a near total-waste. Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch of the West would kick his sorry little ass. Darth Vader would pinch his fingers together and say "I find your lack of nose disturbing." Dr. Mabuse would glance at his watch and fire Voldemort for being late. Hannibal Lecter would eat him for a mid-morning snack. Tony Soprano would snap that pencil neck. Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestley would purse her lips over that outfit, and little Voldy would just evaporate. Lady Kaede in RAN would have Voldemort's head and balls, not that I really believe he has any, on a plate in nothing flat. A certain little boy in CITY OF GOD would etc. etc. etc. etc.

Who's to blame for this sorry state of villainy? Surely the director, one Mike Newell, who seems to be able to create engaging romantic comedies but is just out of his depth at getting fear flowing. Think about it. Compare this big scene in GOBLET OF BOREDOM with anything in Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS films, and you'll see the difference. The comparatively minor scene in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING where the hobbits are attacked by the Nazgul on Weathertop is far more upsetting than this would-be apocalyptic moment, upon which a lot of the future of the franchise depends. It just flat out doesn't goddamn work.
So I was not looking forward to ORDER OF THE PHOENIX. I had made up my mind to wait for cable. But I literally had nothing else to do one Saturday afternoon, so I decided to check it out. I had a free pass, so why not?

ORDER OF THE PHOENIX puts the focus back where it belongs: the characters and what they do and why. Gary Oldman and David Thewlis make a more than welcome returns, with Oldman getting some particularly good scenes as Sirius Black. But the biggest impression is made by the sublime Imelda Staunton as Delores Umbridge. Umbridge is the teacher you had in grade school who worked very hard to appear very very sweet and couldn't be trusted in any way whatsoever, you know you had her, possibly as a guidance counselor. She's monstrous and marvelous, far more threatening and dangerous than Fiennes' flouncing Lord Whoopdedoo. A child sitting near me said about Staunton's character: "I hope she dies."

The Big Scenes are suitably big and effective, and the climactic battle between Fiennes and Michael Gambon almost makes up for the lackluster climax of the previous film. But the biggest scene of all, the biggest and most dangerous conflict takes place inside Harry Potter's head as he struggles to deal with the growing influence of Lord Voldemort's supposedly EVIL presence within him. That director David Yates manages to make this both convincing and effective makes me relieved that he will be doing the next entry, but not as relieved and excited as I'd be if Alfonso Cuaron were at the helm.

"Mischief managed."

Saturday, July 21, 2007


HAIRSPRAY

"Ah'm tryin' to ahrn in here!"

HAIRSPRAY is the best of the recent spate of musicals based on Broadway shows. That may not sound like the highest praise, but trust me, it is. HAIRSPRAY eschews, mostly, the atrocious Cuisinart editing and fatal miscasting that have characterized such recent horrors as CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS, RENT and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

Mostly.

So here's the good news: the movie has moments of real infectious fun. The story centers on Tracy Turnblad, a young girl in Baltimore in 1962, who is a rabid fan of the local TV program, The Corny Collins Show, a sort of Baltimore Bandstand. She manages to overcome prejudices based on her weight and low/no class origins, and winds up one of the dancing teen regulars on the show. Tracy is soon flirting with the hottest boy on the show, the tasty Linc, and lobbying to have the show's monthly Negro Day turned into outright integration, a position that puts her election as Miss Hairspray of 1962 in jeopardy.

The plot largely downplays the realities of the civil rights struggle as being the kind of thing that can be dealt with successfully by a good beat that can be danced to, and I feel kind of churlish even bringing the matter up. The real subject of HAIRSPRAY is the pure joy of music and dancing and stopping to sing a big song. There's a lot of good fun in the film, which includes most of the Broadway score intact, and a really catchy score it is. And for a change, the cast is up to it, with one latex-covered big-starred exception. Nikki Blonsky makes the most of her film debut, handling the singing and dancing with great aplomb. Michelle Pfeiffer is convincingly wicked as the monstrous station manager whose daughter is Tracy's main competition, and she even succeeds in making her signature song, "Miss Baltimore Crabs," one of the film's highlights. James Marsden, as Corny Collins, takes his million dollar smile and amps it up to a real vision of TV hyper-eagerness, one of the funniest running jokes in the film. Allison Janney can't be on screen for more than 5 minutes, but gets more laughs per moment than anyone else.

There are a lot of changes from the original John Waters film and the Broadway show, many of them for the better. The story feels a bit tighter and better organized, but I miss the sense of wild triumph that characterized the Waters film and the show on Broadway. The sexual charge is also missing: where Rikki Lake in the original and Marisa Jaret Winokur on Broadway made no secret of their intense physical desire for Linc, there's an odd chastity to the film's Tracy and Linc. They don't even really kiss until their big final embrace. The only convincing sexual charge in the film comes between a young black man named Seaweed and his white girlfriend, the "permanently punished" Penny Pingleton.

Okay, I'll just cut to the chase. I thought Travolta SUCKED, except for one big cool moment he has at the very end which seems to be cool enough to make everyone ignore how just plain DREADFUL he has been up till then. As Tracy's mother Edna, Travolta is almost but not quite entirely unrecognizable beneath what has to be the worst prosthetic makeup job in the history of prosthetic makeup. He also uses a really overdone accent that seems to be the way that some people in Baltimore might actually speak or might have spoken, but it just feels fake and overdone, like the makeup. I was reminded of Wallace Beery in GRAND HOTEL, who is the only person, in a film populated with German characters, to bother putting on a German accent.

There's more, alas. The screenwriter and director have updated the story to make Edna something of an agoraphobic with severe body-image issues, hammering these points home very clearly in a way that makes Edna more of an object of pity than anything else, and it just brings the story to a halt. They've also re-arranged the story so that Edna's rejuvenation doesn't really happen until the end of the story, where the show made it clear that Edna's rescue is complete purely by getting that fabulous makeover in the "Welcome To The Sixties" number, about a third of the way through the show.

I don't want to dwell to completely on Travolta, but he is a huge distraction. If they'd only been able to get a star of similar bankability who hadn't felt it necessary to wear hideously disfiguring makeup and adopt an outlandish accent, the film would have been nearly perfect.

Monday, July 02, 2007

RATATOUILLE
You probably already know the basic premise: a rat with culinary talent winds up the secret genius in a Parisian restaurant. Not the most promising of ideas, right? Mercifully, director Brad Bird (THE IRON GIANT, THE INCREDIBLES) keeps the story lively and the characters interesting, but there's an intimacy to RATATOUILLE that was completely missing from Pixar's last outing, the dismal CARS. The epicurean rodent Remy's relationship with his human friend, the hapless chef's assistant Linguini, never descends into the kind of tired sidekickery that characterizes the SHREK franchise, and the little romance that develops between Linguini and his kitchenmate Colette doesn't feel shoe-horned into the story.
The animation, as usual with Pixar, is wonderful. The character animation is terrific, lots of wonderful little gestures abound. One little moment keeps coming back to me, a little shake of the finger that Remy delivers to himself when he remembers a missing ingredient to a soup recipe, a sort of "ah-ha!" gesture that beggars description. Think about it: they actually capture the look on somebody's face when they smell something delicious. And there's no shortage of Cool Big Scenes. There's a lot of fun to be had in watching Remy scurry through the kitchen, using ladles for a ladders and dodging giant cleavers, and a sequence involving Remy learning how to transmit his directions to Linguini by turning him into a sort of living marionette would have delighted Buster Keaton.

And so on. I liked the film a lot. A lot. The film is also just plain GORGEOUS. It doesn't go for the visual gusto the way that CARS did, with its lingering views of the car-inspired landscapes and neon-lit night scenes. The world of RATATOUILLE is different from any Pixar has done before, the light feels more like Vermeer than anything else. But there are plenty of gorgeous views of Paris, and some jaw-dropping camerawork, especially one particularly wonderful sequence following Remy's journey through the walls of a building, as he samples the goings-on in assorted apartments through holes in the masonry.

One thing about the movie is bugging me, though, and I don't want to go into too much detail about the plot lest I give away any dread Spoilers. The film seems to deliver a rather carefully worded rebuke to critics toward the end of the film, telling us that even the most sloppily created work of food (or art) is more important than any work of criticism written about that work of food (or art), and I'm sorry, I just don't see it at all. I'll need to see the film again to get a better handle on what it means in this regard.

Do I think you should see it? Absolutely. See it in a theatre with the best possible projection and sound. Go now.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!

"Too Much For Guy!"

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN is the latest film from Guy Maddin, the Canadian auteur who specializes in making old-fashioned films. We were lucky enough to be able to see it with a live band, live Foley artists supplying sound effects, and a narrator (Edward Hibbert) who hit just the right note of fussy ferocity. I understand from a friend that Lou Reed fell asleep the night he was doing the narration.

And the movie was cool, too. One of Maddin's silent films, filled with cheap but effective effects and razor sharp editing, the kind of quick crazy stuff that they try to do in CHICAGO and fail miserably at doing. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! is easily the best of Maddin's films, a fast and furious melodrama divided, old-time serial style, into twelve episodes. But it isn't all fun and parody games. The film is labelled A Remembrance In Twelve Episodes, and the main character of the film is named Guy Maddin. I have no way of knowing if there is any real connection between the events of the film and the events of Mr. Maddin's childhood (for his sake, I bloody well hope there isn't), but the added feeling of autobiography lends the film an intensity that has been lacking in Maddin's other films. There's a fresh manic quality to several scenes that lift them straight into serious nightmare territory. One in particular involving Guy's youth-obsessed mother and a surgical procedure with a corpse hits Oedipal territory that makes PSYCHO seem downright quaint.

The film begins with a character named Guy Maddin returning to his childhood home, a lighthouse on an otherwise deserted island that once also served as an orphanage run by Maddin's parents. Guy is soon flashing back to his childhood life on the island with his family. Maddin's mother keeps strict tabs on young Guy and his sister through use of something called an aerophone, and is obsessed with regaining her lost youth. Maddin's father is always at work in his lab on some mysterious project that seems to have something to do with the strange wounds on the back of all the little orphans' heads. A love triangle eventually develops between Guy, his sister, and a visiting detective investigating Nefarious Deeds on the island.

I was no stranger to Maddin's films before seeing BRAND. His films always have the look of older films, like one of those exploitation films from the 30s that occasionally surface, like the immortal REEFER MADNESS or MANIAC or MARIJUANA: WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL. Films that have all the trappings of 1930s filmmaking, but with the surprising extra of nudity and drug use. Unfortunately, Maddin's films also have the drawbacks of those early 30s films: stodgy filmmaking and unfortunate performances. For all their visual beauty, they seem leaden.

All that changed around the time he made his short film THE HEART OF THE WORLD, a wondrous hyper-kinetic short in which Maddin seems to have abandoned the world of synch sound entirely. His camera was set free, his editing got sharper, the energy quotient was upped considerably, but more importantly, something seems to have been cut loose in Maddin himself as a filmmaker. His following features in this style (DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN'S DIARY and COWARDS BEND THE KNEE) are very exciting, but in BRAND UPON THE BRAIN Maddin really goes for broke. Its a great show.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY


"This is an eruption!"


Well, not really.
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY is crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Hoskins plays Harold Shand, who we are told runs all of the organized crime in London. Harold is about to make the biggest deal of his life, one that will make him even more rich and powerful and even respectable. He wants to buy up and renovate some London waterfront property, and doing this seems to have something to do with establishing ties with the American mafia, representatives of which are visiting as Harold's guests. A couple of slayings and bombings in Harold's organization threaten to blow the whole operation, and Harold has to do some quick maneuvering to ensure that his empire will stay intact and on top while not scaring off the Yanks.

This movie should work like, well, gangbusters. It seems to have it all. A great gang story, a terrific script jammed with all kinds of interesting events and tasty near-blasphemy (the movie isn't set on Good Friday for nothing), great actors giving solid work, great gritty atmosphere, funky off-the-beaten-track London locations and some neat pre-Tarantino graphic violence that must have been deeply shocking when the film was first released in 1980. So why doesn't it work? Why wasn't I as involved as I should have been? The film seems to move along in fits and starts, there's never as much tension as there really should be, even Hoskins and Mirren seem to be rather oddly restrained.

They get their moments of course. Mirren's film work has always been oddly uneven, to me. In THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY she plays Victoria, Hoskins' wife and apparent consigliere. A classy and dignified woman who makes a fascinating foil to Hoskins' rougher diamond in the butch. They're a great couple, wonderful to watch, somehow you just know these two have the best sex ever. They really come together in one remarkable scene where she manages to calm him down from a howling rage attack. She punches and slaps him, finally grabbing his hands and staring him down.

But even this scene doesn't quite seem to work as well as it might. It felt like something was missing, that the actors were holding something back. I couldn't help thinking that another take, where Hoskins and Mirren really went for broke, was in order. It's like a really great rehearsal, a really great idea for a scene that needed more time to get the best out of everybody concerned, and that's pretty much how the whole movie winds up feeling.

This can only be the fault of the director, John McKenzie. It isn't fair to McKenzie to compare him to Coppola or Hawks or Scorsese or the Tarantino of RESERVOIR DOGS, but it isn't fair to me as a viewer to make me wish that one of those filmmakers had been in charge. There just isn't the level of tension and simple sustained interest in THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY that you'd find THE GODFATHER or SCARFACE or RESERVOIR DOGS or even in an average episode of THE SOPRANOS or PRIME SUSPECT.

And it is a shame. What could have been a masterpiece isn't.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


THE LONG GOODBYE

"Hooray for Hollywood"

I saw a new print of Robert Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE, his adaptation of Raymond Chandler's last novel, starring Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe. The movie is getting a lot of attention lately as an overlooked masterpiece, an attitude which I'm afraid I can only see as having more to do with belated respect for a recently deceased auteur than the actual quality of the film itself.

The story, such as it is, centers on Elliot Gould's Marlowe, who finds himself being investigated after helping a friend of his, one Terry Lennox, cross the border into Mexico. It turns out that Lennox is accused of murdering his wife, and stealing money, and nobody (the cops, some almost amusing reimagined-for-the-1970s gangsters) wants to believe that Marlowe knows as little about what's going on as he does. There's a major sequence involving Marlowe's aborted investigation into the doings of a rather unstable novelist and his wife (who, in typical Chandler fashion, are involved with the departed Lennox and his deceased wife) and so on and so on.

The plot isn't really the point. The point is Altman's personal filmmaking style, as idiosyncratic as any in movies. The delight in actors acting (both good and bad) and Altman's roving camera are what the film is really about, and there are some wonderful moments. A remarkable scene involving a character's late night suicide on the beach, wandering off into the blackest ocean imaginable, is like something out of Kurosawa, and there's a wonderful cameo by an actress who delivers one of the most moving depictions of fear I've ever seen in a movie.

Is there enough to make the film worthwhile? Yeah. See it once. You might want to see it more than once, as I do, mainly to watch Sterling Hayden's performance and to try to see if the plot makes any sense at all. The problem, as with a lot of Altman's films, is the smart-assery that he just can't seem to resist. Altman simply never met a cheap joke that he didn't love. That goddamn title song that keeps popping up over and over and over and over and over again, even as a tune played on someone's doorbell, starts as an intriguing joke on the idea of movie theme songs but eventually just gets annoying. And there's the allegedly ironic use of "Hooray for Hollywood" at the opening and closing of the film. Okay, it kind of works to call attention to the artifice of old Hollywood versus the allegedly updated more realistic film that Altman seems to think he's providing. But Altman's ending is more movie-friendly than Chandler's ending. Chandler's novel ends with a real cynicism and despair, a real non-Hollywood ending that Altman's smart-assery just can't come anywhere near.
Or did I miss the point?

Friday, March 30, 2007




300

"This won't be quick. You won't enjoy it."

The Spartans, according to the film 300, were a bunch of Manly Men. Really Manly. And their women are really Womanly, which doesn't mean much except that when they aren't standing by their own Manly Men they are giving birth to more of them, who can be trained to be WARRIORS. Unworthy babies (evidently those who are not perfect physical specimens or who seem to demonstrate any interest in interior decoration) are exposed to the elements, meaning that these brave Manly Spartans don't have the decency or the nerve to kill off their own inadequate offspring.

And these are the people we're supposed to be rooting for: a race of people who pride themselves on being ruthless in battle but who leave their own unmilitary-worthy babies to the tender mercies of wild animals. Am I alone in thinking the Spartans were a bunch of scumbags that the world is better off without?

Probably.
300, based apparently on a well-known "graphic novel," tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, during which a small band of 300 Spartans held off a whole bunch of invaders. King Leonidas, the leader of the Spartans, learns of the impending invasion of his lands by the dread Xerxes and his Persian hordes. Leonidas decides to take 300 of his Manliest Men to stop the invasion, knowing that he and his 300 are wildly outnumbered.

The rest of the movie is just one long battle scene with the occasional interruption for largely unnecessary plot complications, including a really gratuitous one involving Leonidas' wife who is holding down the fort at home while Leonidas is off hacking limbs. There's not a lot of surprise to be had in this story, but there is a lot to be offended at.

Make no mistake: 300 worships the White Male Military Man in a way that makes BIRTH OF A NATION look like an episode of DIFF'RENT STROKES. The Pure White Manly Bulging Spartans (always ensuring their abs are shown to best advantage) do battle against an invading horde that is:

1. Racially mixed. They're identified as Persians even though a certain sub-horde incorrectly known as the Immortals are dressed like ninjas carrying what look like samurai swords.

2. Largely anonymous. Faces are very seldom visible, as the enemy is usually shown wearing concealing costumes and masks, unlike the nearly nude and exceedingly toned Spartans.

3. Sexually Ambiguous. The God-king of the Persians, Xerxes, is like a gay-panicked director's feverdream. Covered from head to toe in jewelry and piercings, he's a RuPaul of the Ancient World. He actually flounces and wears eye makeup (think late '60s Barbra).

4. Physically Repulsive. The Persians seem to have a cottage industry in surgical experimentation. There's what looks like a mutated giant turned loose on the Spartans, and a horrifying sequence showing what seems to be a man whose arms have been replaced with axe blades to speed up the execution process. Further, the Spartans' ultimate defeat hinges upon their betrayal by a hideously deformed Greek character who had the bad luck to survive the Spartans' infant screening process, and who holds something of a grudge when Leonidas spurns his offer of service. Ultimately, physical perfection is the barometer to character for this film: virtue = tight abs and big pecs.

As far as the acting goes, more time seems to have been spent at the gym or in the makeup chair touching up abs than in rehearsal. Gerard Butler fulfills the promise he displayed in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. He sounds like he learned his lines phonetically, or is trying to overcome a very thick Scots accent or a serious speech impediment, or maybe even all three. The script doesn't help much, but altogether too many of his lines are simply shouted out word by word, as in "THIS! IS! SPARTA!!" And the time at the gym has paid off. No non-pornographic film in my experience pays so much attention to the male torso: big pecs, abs that do nothing but ripple. The cast is expected to do a lot of physical action, the battle scenes are really very choreographed, you can see the actors counting off in their heads "turn and flex and hack and flex and sever and flex and slash and pose and walk walk walk and pose."

All in all, an unbelievable movie. Scary and dangerous on so many levels. Unworthy of your time, except to scare the living daylights out of you at the state of a country populated with people who don't see this garbage for what it is.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


THE PIRATE QUEEN

Is a new musical from the creators of LES MISERABLES based apparently on real historical events involving an Irish woman who manages to overcome gender prejudice, gain the respect of the men in her clan, and become a pirate/freedom fighter. There’s a BIG SET, and there are BIG SONGS. There’s a lot of that Irish clomp-dancing that people just go crazy for, and that damned Irish-sounding flute/pipe thing that we’ve been hearing since “My Heart will Go On.” There’s about 45 minutes of plot blown up to fill 2 and a half hours, and enough simplistic nattering about female empowerment to fill a lifetime’s worth of Lifetime movies of the week. All this, and Queen Elizabeth I too.

The score is memorable, in the sense that it keeps triggering your memories of other songs. Echoes of LES MIS are all over the place, big power sung chorus numbers meant to inspire Big Feelings, and tender little power ballads that keep threatening to turn into “My Heart Will Go On.” One extended wedding celebration number sounds like a remix of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Bits and pieces of EVITA and WICKED, and most bizarrely PACIFIC OVERTURES can be heard, and it doesn’t help the evening at all. I just kept wishing that I was actually watching EVITA and WICKED and PACIFIC OVERTURES and SOUTH PARK: BIGGER LONGER AN D UNCUT and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and even LES MIS instead of THE PIRATE QUEEN.

The similarities to WICKED get to be rather pronounced, especially in the second act, as the focus shifts to the relationship between Queen Glinda/Elizabeth and Pirate Queen Elphaba/Grace. Bits of staging and certain lighting effects feel plagiarized from WICKED, as well as from LES MISERABLES (a scene of pathetic beggarly types swarming out of a trap door led the man sitting next to me to laugh out loud and say “Oh, no, this isn’t ripped off from LES MIS at all!”).

And what isn’t ripped off is often downright hilarious. A song entitled “Boys Will Be Boys” sung by the Pirate Queen’s brutish and arranged fiancĂ© includes the deathless lyric “She’s confused about gender!” A later sequence involving the Big Bad British soldiers attacking a church during the christening of the Pirate Queen’s dear little newborn laddie is staged for Maximum Theatricality (Red Lights! Smoke! Chorus Boys With Spears! Choreographed Slow Motion Fighting!) and winds up inspiring Maximum Hilarity. And think about this. A “serious” theatrical production in the 21st Century actually contains the following lines of dialogue:

Impetuous Youth: I’ll make a woman of her!
Imperious Father: I hope she’ll make a man of you!

Simple fairness compels me to admit that there are some good things about the show. The sets are interesting, the lighting is interesting, the costumes are more than serviceable, if a bit too specifically intended to grab a tony for Costume Design. The cast does the very best they can with what they’ve been given, but you kind of wonder if they know how bad what they’ve been given really is. There’s a lot of head-tossing and noble posturing and grimacing to indicate suffering, and the British bad guys flick their capes a lot.

I could go on all day. In a nutshell, this is the kind of show your best friend’s mother will just love, never quite understanding why you’re laughing so hard at it.

Friday, March 09, 2007


ZODIAC

"Here comes the Hurdy Gurdy Man, he's singing songs of love..."

Imagine a film that combines ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Now imagine a good version of that movie. Try. Okay. Now. That movie in your head is not just in your head. It is David Fincher's ZODIAC, and it is very much worth seeing. Much to my surprise.

You probably know by now what the film is about: the search for a serial killer, and all that. ZODIAC is not what usually passes for a detective thriller: that cliched parade of ugly murder scenes with occasional police interruptions culminating in a Big Finish with the killer vanquished until the almost-inevitable sequel. ZODIAC reverses this formula, giving us a parade of investigation scenes punctuated with occasional ugly murders. The investigation really is the thing in this film, and there are scenes of cops and reporters talking and going round and round what sometimes feels like the same material over and over. This is at least partly the point, as the main thrust of the film is the hold that the Zodiac begins to have on the people involved in the investigation, eventually turning into an obsession on the part of Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

That this never gets dull is due in no small measure to Fincher's admirable cast. Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr., to say nothing of a host of other fine actors like Dermot Mulroney and Elias Koteas in smaller roles. I liked watching Downey and Gyllenhall together; their comedy-tinged scenes are the perfect foil to Edwards and Ruffalo's no-nonsense work.

I'd not been a fan of Fincher's earlier films, like SEVEN or FIGHT CLUB or THE GAME. They all just seem to suffer from serious Style-itis. Fancy editing and special effects and mood all over the place (the police in SEVEN seem to have no idea how to switch on a light), rather surprisingly predictable plots (anyone who thinks for a moment about which Deadly Sins have not yet been enacted will be two steps ahead of the cops in SEVEN) all combined with a feeling that some kind of never-clearly-articulated Big Message is intended (what the hell was FIGHT CLUB really about, anyway?). ZODIAC has what none of Fincher's other films have had: people I give a damn about, in a story I found interesting. The visual flourishes made sense (the Transamerica Tower assembles itself onscreen to show the passage of an extended chunk of time) and the mood-inducing touches actually worked. I found myself getting terribly upset at the approach of a car playing Hurdy Gurdy Man on its radio.

And I stayed terribly upset, even after the final credits rolled. I got a paranoid contact high from ZODIAC, one that had me jumpy and nervous and just generally creeped out all the way home. ZODIAC stayed with me in a way that few movies I've seen recently have.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


AGAINST THE DAY

"Are you kind deities? or wrathful deities?"

So I got the new Pynchon novel. In the weeks leading up to the publication date, I had been clearing my literary calendar, not getting too involved in anything too big or long. I’d re-read THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, for example, a good clear direct and above all short little book that was just what I needed. Then a few days before the Pynchon was released, I was killing some time in a chain bookstore and found myself checking out a series of detective thrillers by Ian Rankin, who’s been on my radar for quite some time now. I picked up one called RESURRECTION MEN, and soon realized that I’d been standing there reading the opening chapter and feeling no desire to stop. I went ahead and got the book, and was enjoying it a lot.

I managed to get my hands on a copy of the new Pynchon a couple of days early, an accommodating local indie bookstore offered to sell me the copy that was behind the counter. Evidently a staff person had gotten the book out early and had been paging through it. I started reading the book on the subway home, and have had an odd reaction to it. Basically, there are parts of it that I’ve liked a good deal, and there have been parts that I’ve not liked a good deal. I’ve come close to putting it down altogether a few times, but I know myself well enough to know that it would be better for me to complete one reading that I didn’t like very much than to stop completely. This way, if I ever decide to read the book again I’ll have a better chance of getting more out of it.

I’m not sure there is going to be a second reading, though. I’m just not feeling enough excitement about the book to make me terribly enthusiastic about going through the effort a second time. There are plenty of big old books that have made considerably more sense on a second or third reading, things like JR and DAVID COPPERFIELD (most of Dickens, actually) and INFINITE JEST and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW and MASON & DIXON, but all of those books had me in their grip in a way that AGAINST THE DAY doesn’t have me. I’m looking forward to being through with AGAINST THE DAY so I can move on to something just plain shorter.

I never did finish the Rankin book. It started well, but I was getting impatient with it long before I had to put it down to concentrate on AGAINST THE DAY. I’ve got a couple of other Rankins, and will be getting to them at some point.

I’m having to do some serious examination of my possessions. There’s just way too much stuff in that apartment. I overheard a woman in a bookstore discussing her personal library, and she said something that has stuck with me ever since, something about how you have to ask yourself if you own the books, or if the books own you. Soon after I did some pruning of my accumulated VHS tapes, and was brought face to face with the Folly of Pure Ownership for Ownership’s Sake. After all, how many copies of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE does one man really need?

FYI – I had four copies. On VHS. Taped from a variety of sources over the years.

I don’t have so many multiple copies of books, but I do seem to pick stuff up. Occasionally I purge long-unread stuff, like those copies of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE that seem to pop onto my shelves every few years when I decide that maybe I’ll give the book One Last Shot. I’m still not sure how on earth a copy of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY got onto my shelves, or even into my apartment, but it won’t be there much longer.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


THE COAST OF UTOPIA

“Just your ordinary nine-act play.” Robert Benchley in re: STRANGE INTERLUDE.

As SALVAGE, the third and mercifully final part of Tom Stoppard’s magnum opus THE COAST OF UTOPIA staggered to a close, Mr. Benchley’s words popped into my head, and I kind of smiled to myself. Apart from a few moments featuring Josh Hamilton and the sublime Martha Plimpton, there wasn’t a lot else to smile about.

Mr. Stoppard’s mammoth trilogy about the intellectual history of the 19th Century and the men who laid the philosophic foundation for the Russian Revolution starts well. The first play, VOYAGE, was a very entertaining evening in the theatre, stimulating and thought-provoking and moving. The acting was impeccable, and surprising. Billy Crudup’s performance as Bellinsky, the Russian literary critic who has a bad habit of putting his foot in his mouth was a revelation, a real change from the terribly stiff work I’d seen him deliver before. Ethan Hawke was having a grand time as the wildly enthusiastic Michael Bakunin, veering hilariously from one philosophy to another. Director Jack O’Brien keeps the action and the talk lively, and pulls off some wonderful little coups de theatre. If I found there to be a few too many blonde Bakunin sisters to keep track of, I didn’t let it ruin my evening.

What can I say? I liked it a lot. I didn’t feel terribly lost, considering the complexity of the play and the fact that I know next to nothing about Russian history. I seriously considered buying the T-shirt. I was looking forward to Part II, SHIPWRECK.

The first act of SHIPWRECK lived up to the promise of VOYAGE, but there were some danger signs, mostly involving casting. As the trilogy continues, one specific character begins to dominate, a man named Alexander Herzen, unfortunately played by an actor named Brian F. O’Byrne.

It would be no ordinary actor who can make this character engaging, at least as written by Stoppard. The role of Herzen is fiendishly difficult: lots and lots of long monologues that are supposed to explain complex philosophic positions and give lots and lots of historic background, interspersed with scenes dealing with mundane things like his wife’s infidelity and other domestic issues. And Mr. O’Byrne is simply not up to it. He is unable to make me give a damn about the man he is playing, or even to make me believe that he has a vague idea of what the hell he is supposed to be talking about. He might as well be reciting pi. I have never come so close to standing up and screaming at an actor to please shut the fuck up as when I sat writhing through O’Byrne’s unforgivably inept handling of the final scenes of the increasingly aptly entitled SHIPWRECK.

And it didn’t get better in SALVAGE. If SHIPWRECK was at least half interesting, at least until O’Byrne started jabbering, SALVAGE is a near-total failure. Ceaseless senseless oral diarrhea of historical data by O’Byrne, more characters introduced for a few minutes and then never heard from again, and less and less of actual interest. There’s the occasional sign of life provided by the return of Ethan Hawke as Bakunin (Hawke’s Bakunin is, by the way, the only character in the entire trilogy who gets convincingly older as time allegedly passes), Jennifer Ehle as Herzen’s housekeeper, and most especially by Josh Hamilton and Martha Plimpton as the writer Ogarev and his wife. Hamilton and Plimpton play the only interesting and engaging characters in this part of the trilogy. They actually seem to have an interest and affection for each other, and their interest in each other is infectious; you can feel the audience in the Beaumont start to react to something actually approaching energy on that stage.

It doesn’t last long. O’Byrne’s Herzen is soon gabbling again, and the play finally finally finally ends, with some ultimate gibberish from Herzen about how the important thing is to do the best you can in the period you’re in, and a really insulting final line: “There’s a storm coming.” Get it boys and girls? The storm of THE REVOLUTION!!!!!

There’s a sense of exhaustion to the proceedings, not just in the audience but onstage. Hawke and Ehle and Hamilton and Plimpton apart, the rest of the cast don’t register as clearly as they have in the earlier segments, at least partly because Stoppard is so busy trying to cram so much history into the play that the characters never come alive as anything other than names to be heard about once or twice and then forgotten about. Even the direction seems tired: the final tableau and musical flourish reminded me of nothing so much as Disney’s Hall of Presidents.

So that was it. Was it worth it? Yes and no. I’m glad to have seen it, certainly, but I can only say I enjoyed about half of it. My brother once described reading Norman Mailer’s big book HARLOT’S GHOST in this way: “The first 650 pages were wonderful.” I kind of feel the same way about THE COAST OF UTOPIA: the first 4 and a half hours were wonderful. That the remaining 4 and a half hours felt more like another 12 and a half hours is a big problem, one that Stoppard and O’Brien haven’t come anywhere near solving.

Monday, January 22, 2007





PAN'S LABYRINTH

And now for something very much the same.

As long as this film centers on the vicious sadistic military Captain (a splendid performance by Sergio Lopez) and his relationship with his housekeeper, who has connections with the rebels who want to do him harm, this film is fascinating and horrifying and grimly funny. Unfortunately, for some bizarre reason, the director/screenwriter Guillermo Del Toro has decided to muddy this gripping story with some sentimental nonsense about a little girl and her interaction with some mythical creatures including a fawn, some fairies, and that creature you'll see in all the stills with his eyes in the palms of his hands.

See, the little girl's mother is the Captain's new wife. They're all in Spain during WWII, the Captain is a Fascist leader trying to wipe out a bunch of Communist rebels, and they're all living in some house in the middle of a forest that just happens to be infested with these rebels. The little girl, named Ofelia (get it?), is informed by a fawn (no, really, a fawn for Christ's sake) that she is a lost princess from another world, and that she has to pass three tests in order to prove herself worthy, and I'm sorry but I'm getting bored writing about it.

Forget about the little girl. She's probably the least interesting little girl who has every been expected to carry a movie and failed miserably. Her trials and tribulations have wowed a lot of people, especially the North American Film Critic Establishment (NAFCE) who have uniformly raved about this oddly tired and oddly unimaginative little film. The grownups, especially Sergio Lopez as the brutal but compelling Captain and Maribel Verdu as his housekeeper, are what the film is really about.

Lopez' Captain is a memorable villain, but he's more than that. Lopez never quite sinks into the obvious cliches of the psycho sadist. He trades them for a quiet conviction that is always convincing, never more so than during one memorable scene where he performs some emergency surgery on himself. Verdu's equally quiet and convincing performance is every bit Lopez' match. You just can't take your eyes off her, she manages to make every moment live onscreen.

So why are people falling all over themselves to praise this flick? Beats the hell out of me. PAN'S LABYRINTH offers some easy reassurance about transcending suffering, all wrapped up with a message of self-sacrifice and some stuff about escape through fantasy, and people just lap this stuff up. Now I don't mind me some reassurance about transcending suffering etc., but I just wish it had been done better. For a film about a girl's escape into fantasy to help her deal with the horrors of the real world around her, I much preferred Terry Gilliam's TIDELAND, a film that couldn't expect to be embraced by the kind of folks who are swooning over PAN'S LABYRINTH. And there it is, for me, in a nutshell. PAN'S LABYRINTH is a Terry Gilliam film for people who don't like Terry Gilliam films, who need the easy happy endings and reassurance that Gilliam relentlessly refuses to provide.

Monday, January 01, 2007



CHILDREN OF MEN

"Bazooka." "I was just getting used to Froly."

CHILDREN OF MEN is Alfonso Cuaron's film adaptation of P. D. James' dystopian 1992 novel, set in a future where no more babies are being born and society is collapsing fast. Cuaron and his co-screenwriters pretty well jettison James' perhaps over-intellectualized story, keeping only the barest bones of the narrative, and creating a far more threatening world of terrorist attacks and generalized despair. An informed viewer will be able to catch echoes of Gitmo and Abu Ghrabe as well as of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.

The new story centers on Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a low-level bureaucrat at the British Ministry of Energy. He is gradually drawn into an underground conspiracy to protect the only known pregnant woman in the world from the clutches of the pretty plainly untrustworthy government of which he is a part. This involves a series of increasingly hair-raising action sequences, including one ingenious sequence involving an escape and chase via a car that refuses to start.

Cuaron, whose HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is the only one of the franchise worth seeing more than once, keeps CHILDREN OF MEN full of fascinating details (a kitten that gradually claws its way up Owen's pantleg, graffitti taken from Picasso's Guernica, lots of interesting animal imagery, including a reference to the cover of Pink Floyd's album Animals) that never seem shoehorned into the film for their own sakes, but seem designed to help keep the film alive, from sinking into a mass of genre cliches. Make no mistake, there is a lot more to this film than Spielbergian Big Set Pieces. It is interesting to compare the ending of CHILDREN OF MEN with the ending of Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS, to see the difference between a film that ends on a note of genuinely moving if qualified optimism, rather than sheer pandering knee-jerk sentimentality.

See it. See it now. Turn off your computer and go.