Monday, November 28, 2011


"Dream with me."

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


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

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

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

Thursday, May 19, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 27, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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