I Me Mein: Sam Mendes’ Cabaret
Although one is walking through the rain ostensibly to Studio 54, one is actually ushered into what amounts to a spruced up seedy night club by the name of the Kit Kat Club. Manhattan is a world away and the folks behind the “newest” production of Cabaret have done their best to transport you to Weimar Germany, where the waitresses and waiters put on a strong face, only ever hinting at the sinister reality underneath. The table is small, with a quaint lamp atop it, and you aren’t given a program until the end of the show. Whatever it is I just saw, I was mesmerized. I was both welcomed to and rejected from the cabaret, and I couldn’t have asked for anything else. Read the rest of this entry »
Singers in the Dark: Les Misérables
Despite practically growing up on musicals, a) I never got to see Les Misérables live and b) the televised/filmed productions of the seminal musical have never really struck me as deeply as, say, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, Company, Chicago, Cabaret, etc. Les Misérables is great, I am certainly not denying that, but it never cracked my list of “favorites”. That said, I am truly a sucker for some of the music, “On My Own” probably being my favorite. The 10th Anniversary “Dream Cast” Concert is quite lovely to behold, and thus, hearing of an actual film adaptation of the musical intrigued me. The original story, based on the novel by Victor Hugo, had been adapted to the screen a handful of times (including one with Liam Neeson), but Tom Hooper’s period spectacle would mark the first time the musical would make it to the big screen. And, because I love musicals, I was excited. Instead of getting in line for the tickets, I should have gotten in line for the guillotines.
Les Misérables tells the sad, sad tale of a bunch of people prior and during the French Student Rebellion (June 1832), and not the French Revolution (1789-1799). Included in this group of the afflicted is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who spent over a decade in prison for stealing bread to feed his family; Javert (Russell Crowe), the dutiful officer; and Fantine (Anne Hathaway), the poor single mother who goes to certain extremes in order to allocate money to send to the couple taking care of her daughter, Cosette (later played by Amanda Seyfried). As Jean Valjean moves up in the world under a pseudonym, the presiding officer holds a grudge and the animosity between the two ends up involving pretty much everyone else somehow or another.
The implications of a theatrical adaptation of a stage show, whether it is an actual play (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rabbit Hole, etc.) or a musical (Cabaret, Chicago, Sweeney Todd) is to not merely paste the songs in a film like setting, but to fill in some of the holes by utilizing everything that film as a medium has to offer. Expand on character relationships, elaborate on character goals and motivations; effectively explain plot holes or context. With a musical (and its source material) that is so often incorrectly assumed to be about the French Revolution, you would think that the film adaptation would give the perfect opportunity to give more context to the time and setting of the darn thing. Alas, no. Tom Hooper, who can do period detail very well (see: Elizabeth I and John Adams from HBO), instead seems to concentrate on just seemingly cutting and pasting the singing of the stage show to a well-dressed back lot. Without that context or background, the stakes are not nearly as high and the audience, including myself, has less of a reason to care about a) the characters involved and b) the situations they are stuck in. There is no primer as to the Student Rebellion and the most we are offered are a couple lyrics sung by a dirty, if cherubic blond kid in a thick Manchester accent. He sings about the lack of change and the remaining bourgeoisie reign, but so what? That alone isn’t enough to make me care. Give me higher stakes and give me more reason. A couple lines from “ABC Café” are hardly reason enough to make us care about a Student Rebellion (who, by the way, seem too well dressed to really seem like they care about the upper class).
Part of the problem is the streamlining of the material. On stage, you have more time because you have an intermission, and those going to a musical have, generally, educated themselves enough to get the gist of things. If not, then the book or the lyrics do some of the heavy work for you. There is not as much an issue in terms of time and linearity because of the sparseness of sets and locations, but in a film, you must deal with time as a concept. Which means that as Valjean contemplates his existential identity crisis in “Who Am I?/The Trial”, in the space of three cuts, he goes from his little house to riding on horseback to the courthouse. Those three cuts take less than three seconds altogether. There is no actual travel, unless you count the split second, blink and you miss it ride on horseback. This is not limited to that one scene, but several scenes. The love story in the second half of the film looks entirely moronic because there isn’t enough time to develop Cosette and Marius’ attraction to one another. Star crossed love is romantic when the characters are allowed to revel in what they have just experienced, however brief it may be; but when it is reduced to literally ten seconds and no less than ten reverse, point of view shots, the rest of the stakes for love are dwarfed and just look stupid. In an attempt to quicken things up and make an already deathly long and poorly paced film seem shorter, some plot points are either dropped or obscured by and buried under the “let’s get through all the songs first”.
This, I suppose, is in itself a mixed bag. You have seen the ad more time than Sascha Baren Cohen’s ratty Thenardier has stolen gold pieces, and it has been something the Les Misérables have been pushing really hard: the live singing. Marketed as “the first time it’s ever been done before” is not actually true. The 1995 television adaptation of Gypsy (starring Bette Midler) featured live singing; Susan Stroman’s ill-fated screen adaptation of the Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers had live singing; and Julie Taymor’s experimental Beatles musical Across the Universe had “live singing 80% of the time” (this according to the director’s commentary on the DVD). Les Misérables only stands apart from the first two in that the live singing isn’t so much singing (not in the performing way that most musicals employ) as it is giving life to the songs. When it’s done well in the film, it can be truly visceral and moving (Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks, for instance, nail you in the soul). When it does not work, it just seems sort of sad. While it is no surprise that Hathaway stuns with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, the songs that seemed to work best were those that featured most of the company. “At the End of the Day”, “Lovely Ladies”, “One More Day”, and “Red and Black” all had verve and life to them, which several of the other solo/character focused songs did not.
Which brings me to this – Newsflash, I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice. I never have. He is a lovely actor, and his voice is technically fine. But, that’s what I don’t like about it. Jackman, as much soul as he tries to put into “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” seems to be so focused on technique and placed in a situation where he has to move and where the vocals will come out imperfect, he loses the essence of the tune. It sounds professional, sure, but the wealth of vibrato works against him in a way. Russell Crowe, for all of his unpolished singing abilities, in a way, surpasses Jackman vocally because you can hear the tune. The gravelly, maybe somewhat nasally quality gives more life to the character than Crowe actually provides when he is acting. (Much like Gerard Butler in Phantom, but worse.) It probably was not the best idea to hire Crowe, due to the complexity of the music and the range it requires.
With that laborious focus on singing and period detail by Hooper (whom I still, probably unfairly, resent for winning Best Director of The King’s Speech), the story, as I said, gets left behind. Which makes it feel like the intentions were to just see the famous people performing the songs one after the other. There are maybe 10 lines of dialogue total in the film, which, for most mainstream audiences, is not anywhere near enough. Again, with the medium of film, you have the opportunity to a) make a musical more accessible to other audiences and b) expound on story, characters, etc. There was zero attempt to do this; just song after song after song. It’s not this cycle that is inherently the problem; it’s the missed opportunity to make the story more enjoyable.
Aside from singing and famous people, some very strange focus (hah) was put on the film’s cinematography. Mostly, my time was spent scoffing in the theater, writing furiously on my notepad. If you’ve heard anyone complain about the camerawork, listen to them: it is pretty much the most abhorrent work I’ve seen this year. (As random as Killing Them Softly was, at least it was nice to look at and properly framed.) There should be a meme that says “FRAME A DAMN SCENE RIGHT, HOOPER!” I’m pretty sure his logic went as follows: “Okay, you go over there and act and I’m going to have my camera right up in your face. And then I’m going to turn it on a 135-degree angle.” While I’m sure the logic behind this was to provide an intimacy in the performance that the stage inherently cannot give, it does not explain why so many of his frames were off balance. That just looks like some of the half-assed pictures some of the slackers in my photography class take, except more expensive. Also, one can certainly utilize more than one camera angle to achieve intimacy. A musical, shot in all close-ups! There’s a reason why Fred Astaire was never shot in close up: so you could still get the essence of his performance.
When Hooper is not placing cameras six inches away from his actors’ faces, he is editing like he stepped into the editing room while on cocaine. I seriously wondered while I was sitting in the film if the people from Glee were editing the film. What few nice moments and nice frames there are on screen are snatched from us with a splice. This, again, affects linearity, but the constant CUT, CUT, CUT is so uninspired and useless. It works as an antithesis to the artistic desire to achieve more intimacy in the performances. The camera work itself does not work. Shakier than some of my own camera work on my short films, there seems to be no evidence of any SteadiCam used. Just tripods and someone seemingly drunk walking around with a camera. This is not supposed to be a poor man’s Dogme 95 inspired musical! You are no Anthony Dod Mantle! The action scenes don’t work either. If there isn’t a random Dutch angle (which, as far as I can tell, has absolutely no reason to be in there), there’s a fly, swoop, and a lot of cutting involved. I guess Michael Bay would be proud.
The film’s two saving graces are Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. I would like to think that Hathaway ignored Hooper’s direction altogether and that her transcendent portrayal of Fantine, however short it is (not a spoiler because of the source material), was pure instinct. She gives power, emotion, and passion to a film where there is none. Her heart shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is the film’s highlight. It’s close enough to get every look of Fantine’s but far away enough so that there is distance. It’s not the camera that should destroy the distance between audience member and character; it’s the character themselves and their power. And Hathaway succeeds in spades (a little reminiscent, it has been said, of Renee Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc). Samantha Barks, a newbie to the film world, has portrayed the gloomy, heartbroken Eponine before on stage and in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables. Despite that, she still brings something entirely new and fresh to the film, her performance of “On My Own” absolutely splendid. I suppose, if you’re going to spend your money on the film, do it for these two girls, one of whom I wouldn’t be too mad should she win the Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne, whom I didn’t know could sing, is actually quite good as well, but the film’s inability to really dig deeper into his character and his motivations leave a lot to be desired and mar the experience.
Les Misérables is a trifle; a film that could have easily avoided its problems by reeling back its eagerness and giving the story a chance. The singing might be cool, but what’s a song without a story behind it? Les Misérables is also probably the first film whose cinematography made me actively angry in the theater. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are the film’s saviors. So, while you sit in the theater for what was, for me, a nearly unbearable two and a half hours, I’m going to sing these words:
“I had a dream this film would be,
So different from this Hell I’m watching,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now Hooper’s killed the dream I dreamed.”
Summer Movie Roundup
I had Netflix this summer, which basically meant my time was spent either doing homework or watching movies. Over the course of the vacation, I watched 74 films. I have written about 30 reviews. Hope you all enjoy.
P.S. The posters won’t appear, but it’s not like that really matters.
The Graduate (1967) | Directed by Mike Nichols
What a great film! It’s as seductive in its wit, satire, and drama as Mrs. Robinson. An incredible portrait of growing up after high school. One of the most unique coming of age tales I’ve seen in recent years. The film was very well written and avoided melodrama, which was great. Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross were all fantastic. Hoffman plays mild mannered good boy excellently, and Bancroft, who was only 6 years his senior, is one hell of a temptress. Very funny, and perhaps has jumped into my favorite films list.
This film, after Bullets Over Broadway, was my first Woody Allen film. I’d been worried because I had very high expectations. And I rented it so I could weep about how single I am. Thankfully, neither occurred. It was a brisk, intelligent, and funny film. Allen was hysterical and Keaton was top notch. But my favorite scene was when Allen is standing in line at the movies and complains about the pseudo-intellectual talking behind him. The relation to German philosophy and the breaking of the fourth wall was perfect, and I think that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shares its non-linear, memory lane format. I loved it.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Let me tell you I am a huge fan of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, my favorite film of his being either Psycho or The Birds. The Lady Vanishes is, in several ways, a departure from his normal grimness and morbidity. Light as air and as ironic and witty as Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (my favorite film), rarely does darkness taint this film. As it should be. Its frothy ambiance and amusing characters fill out any trepidation one might have when boarding a train. The claustrophobic setting is no doubt reminiscent of Agatha Christie fare, but it’s funny and more light hearted. Its as if everyone is in on the joke. This is thanks both to the impeccable directing as well as the superb screenplay. The two leads are marvelous! A superb caper, and significantly better than his oft acclaimed The 39 Steps.
Something Wild (1986) | Directed by Jonathan Demme
Something Wild this way comes! Sporting a look reminiscent of Louise Brooks in her scintillating role in GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Melanie Griffiths shines as the pathological liar trapped by her own subtle insecurities, Audrey/Lulu. She takes mild mannered Charlie, played by Jeff Daniels, on a whirl wind of a ride allowing himself the freedom from routine and obsessive compulsion, something he’s accustomed to but rebels against subconsciously by doing subtle things like not pay lunch bills. Ray Liotta steps into the picture in his first role as Audrey’s violent ex-husband. I would say that this film, heartwarming, weird, thrilling, and romantic, is like the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s like The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and Bringing Up Baby on crack and in the 1980’s. I was wary about it for a third of the film, finding it kind of weird and finding Daniels just annoying and underdeveloped. But Demme, who won an Oscar for directing in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs, subtly allows Daniels character to create a back story for himself, allowing the viewer to see how “nice guy”-ish he really was, and allow him to develop further into a nuanced character. Melanie Griffiths was awesome. It’s a Wild and fun and romantic ride.
You’ve Got Mail (1998) | Directed by Nora Ephron
Based on the James Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner (which was, in turn, based on a stage play), Nora Ephron’s charming You’ve Got Mail seems very quaint in an age where every kid has a smart phone and an iPod and complain when a YouTube video takes too long to load. This, children of this generation, is what life was like for internet users in 1998. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who seem to just exude chemistry ever since their film Sleepless in Seattle, play people who like each other. Or at least, they like their online, anonymous personalities and slight facades. In real life, Hanks is the big bad chain store crushing Ryan’s cute little book shop, and a very Pride and Prejudice relationship begins. The banter is funny, as Ephron’s script always are (written with her sister, Delia), and it’s a perfectly suitable romantic comedy. It’s queer watching people use dial up, though. But the story itself doesn’t seem very dated. But it doesn’t feel as cutesy romantic as it could be. Instead, it just comes off as a little bland at times and fluctuates between true romance and the dull over trodden gimmick of the two leads who hate each other but really love each other secretly. But, it is, for the most part, enjoyable fluff.
Videodrome (1983) | Directed by David Cronenberg
The minute the film starts, you have a sense that it’s going to be some political or social commentary or allegory about obsession with media. It’s prophetic message may seem snooty and pretentious at times, but it ends up being overrun by its graphic, haunting imagery. The visual effects work better than the dialogue itself in serving as a prophetic warning. Some notable lines are in there, like “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” and such, but literally having a beta-max shoved into your chest is scarier than anything you can imagine. The storyline involves James Woods, the president of a sleazy TV channel, stumbling upon a frequency to a channel that’s even more sadistic and sexual, called “Videodrome”. Torture on screen, that’s what the people want! And considering the surge in torture porn flicks, it’s not hard to believe at all now. The film is well acted, but it’s the make up and horrifying visuals that make this film as indelible as it is.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) | Directed by Wes Anderson
I love a dysfunctional family as much as the next guy, considering I have one myself, but The Life Aquatic just didn’t cut it for me. The characters were shallow, the story was deeply uninteresting, and the humor was full of itself and twee. It was so quirky and annoying, I wanted to punch the screen. I remember enjoying the Royal Tennenbaums because it was darker, more skewed on its views on humanity, and its emotional complexity was more ambiguous. Its dark humor wasn’t as blatant and self serving as well. Luckily, I don’t own this movie. However, as always, Wes Anderson’s color palette was nice.
The Prestige (2006) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
I’ve basically learned since Memento not to doubt the logic and skill and brilliance of Christopher Nolan. Even with his blockbuster films that are as mainstream as you can get, like The Dark Knight,there’s a level of darkness and emotional complexity and integrity to the work itself that is so rare to find these days. And so, why not make an allegorical film about…auteurism. Jean-Luc Godard said, “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” And by that, Nolan gives us a fairly straight forward, emotionally gorgeous, and visually stunning tale of two rival magicians trying to one up each other with who gets the better trick, and the most prestige. (Though, the word is meant to symbolize the fraud itself and its presentation to the audience.) Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman do an awesome job playing really petty magicians, Scarlett Johannsen is gorgeous, and, per typical of a Nolan film, the end will rape your mind. Great, under rated film.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) | Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
If there were ever a shocking, a sprawling, and an intense mystery thriller for a neo-noir generation, it would the this film, the Swedish adaptation of the first novel in the Millenium triliogy by Stieg Larsson. Instead of being marked by nonstop action and excitement, the plot draws you in slowly and steadily, and grasps you until yuour last breath, never letting go. Michael Myqvist plays journalist and investigator Mikael Blomkvist of the Millenium periodical. He’s consulted by a powerful man about the disappearance of his niece. He is joined by genius punk-goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, played with pathos and power by Noomi Rapace, and they work together as an odd couple team. As they go through the case, more and more dark details are revealed. It’s a winning psychological thriller that keeps you on the edge without being a complete assualt on the senses. There are graphic scenes of rape, but they are not gratuitous. The original translation fo the Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women, and the film delves into the chauvnism and the crimes committed against women, without being blatant or misogynistic. It’s Rapace who makes the film, sporting this dark and slightly disturbed look, and that look is as dark and mysterious as her personality. An incredible and visceral film, but it runs a bit too long at over 150 minutes. I am eagerly anticipating the remake by David Fincher and starring Daniel Criag and Rooney Mara (the Social Network).
A Little Romance (1979) | Directed by George Roy Hill
What could be more charming that riding on a gondola in Venice and kissing under the Bridge of Sighs, falling in love for all of eternity? Very little, in fact. A Little Romance is at a disadvantage in my own personal views from becoming an annoyingRomeo and Juliet rehash. Two photogenic young stars, one played by Diane Lane and the other by Thelonious Bernard, embark on a romantic adventure against the will of Lane’s mother. But, young love is far more optimistic and less melodramatic than Shakespeare plays it, and its end result is more delightful and amusing and romantic than you could imagine. What won me over? The charming, if volatile Bernard, who plays a dashing and handsome young French boy who loves the cinema and quotes Casablanca upon meeting Lane’s Lauren. On their way to falling for one another, they are joined by Lawrence Olivier, who is in splendid form as a pickpocket. It is charming and their determination without cynicism, as well as without the obnoxious cutsiness of Nicholas Sparks, make this a beautiful film, with breathtaking scenery and some wonderful performances. It’s dated in a way, for those weened on trash like The Notebook, but it will remain a picturesque illustration of young romance at its cinematic finest.
Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
Manhattan seems to be a companion piece to Allen’s Annie Hall form 1977. It elaborates on the ideas of pseudo-intellectualism, but there’s still that sweet sentimentality intact. The scene where Keaton and Allen are standing in line at the movies listening to the guy talk about neo-realism and whatnot seems to be the thesis for Manhattan. How the broad talk of philosophy can in the end ruin a friendship and how one must get down to the bare bones, simplification of tenderness. This is shown when Allen continues to date and yet intellectually demean his 17 year old girlfriend, played by the grand daughter of Ernest Hemingway. We see she’s a perfectly capable of understanding these concepts, but she just doesn’t care for them. She wants emotional stimulation as opposed to constant intellectual stimulation. And it works. However, Allen’s inner intellectual is drawn to his best friennd’s mistress, Keaton again, who is wonderful, and he must decide between true beauty and emotion versus simple, almost emotionless intellect. But, really, its sharp evaluation of New York City sophisticates plays second fiddle to its gorgeous photography. Gordon Willis captures the stark contrast of black and white beautifully, and the Gershwin filled score is absolutely immaculate. It’s a beautiful, endearing film about love and the city.
Following (1998) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
I think Christopher Nolan is a god sent to us by the film lords. And, while Following is certainly not his strongest films, it is an impressive debut nonetheless. A thick and hard boiled neo-noir about guys who burgal for the thrill of it. The black and white photography is fitting, but it never pulls you in aesthetically. It feels like there should be more contrast in the lighting to show the contrast in characteristics between the male leads. It plays out much like Double Indemnity. But unfamiliarity with Nolan’s back and forth story style may find this jagged and rough edged film disconcerting and maybe irksome. All said and done, it makes for a good neo-noir and an interesting piece of filmmaking. But, if you’re looking for a better Nolan noir, look for Memento.
Insomnia (2002) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
It’s funny that I should watch this film while slightly sleep deprived. But being up late at night is nothing compared to Al Pacino’s insomnia-ridden cop in Nolan’s excruciatingly tense mystery. Based on a Norwegian film of the same name directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, Insomnia is an interestingly existential film, though it doesn’t try to be. Pacino’s LA cop, on the hunt for a murderer of a 17 year old girl in Alaska, accidentaly shoots his partner and tries to cover it up. Already under suspcian for something back home, he is unable to sleep and has flashes of visions. Not to ention the fact that where he’s staying in Alaska; well, the sun never goes down. Hillary Swank plays the sharp, star struck local cop who is on the same case. And Robin Williams, in a brilliant departure from his broad comedy, plays the murderer. He’s not funny. His character, who plays mind games with Pacino’s cop, could have easily been a bad rip off of Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, but Williams brings his own twisted nerve to the character, keeping it fresh. Visually, the film is captivating, utilizing symbolic motifs and great cinematography. But, it’s a Nolan film. A film of pure tension and suspense, Insomnia will keep you up at night.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) | Directed by Robert Aldrich
As I was reading the essays that came with the Kiss Me Deadly Blu-ray, it kept saying that it was a sci-fi noir. I would have to say that’s an overestimation of the film. It is more hard boiled film noir in the classic vein, if significantly more violent and a bit more exciting, than it is science fiction. Yes, it took place during the Cold War, and yes there’s some stuff about nuclear war fare that isn’t exactly spelled out explcityly. But, if there is anything to draw you to this hot as hell classic, it is how ahead of its time it was. Robert Aldrich’s superb and intense film plays up the violence and the misogyny to unbelievable levels, making it both shocking and entertaining. And Ralph Meeker’s off kilter, nasty private dick is one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in a while . And the box, of course; the great Whatsit, which inspired Quentin Tarantino for his film Pulp Fiction. That said, it is classic noir, so if you’re not really into repugnant anti-heroes and hot dames, then oh well.
Pulp Fiction (1994) | Directed by Quentin Tarantion
Non linear storyline. An homage to everything you can think of. Punchy, kick ass dialogue. Samuel L. Jackson quoting the Bible. Uma Thurman and John Travolta dancing. This hell fire of a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino is a pop culture masterpiece, tones and perfected by its rousing and interesting characters and most of all by the killer screenplay written by Tarantino and Roger Avary, for which they won an Academy Award for. It’s hard to tell what the film is actually abuot, but that may be just the point. A throwback to the hard boiled and trashy novels of the 1950’s, the film relishes in its meandering story lines and interconnected plots, reveling in exactly that subgenre. Samuel L. Jackson is absolutely superb as a philosophical hitman, and he delivers his lines with perfect beat, enunciation, and emotion. He’s as moving as he is funny, and Tarantino’s social analysis throughout the film is spoken through him, and it’s dead on. Travolta is also fantastic as the partner, and he plays a character which could be really annoying and ignorant. Instead, he’s cool, funny, and clever. And Uma Thurman plays the wife of WIng RHames. I have to say, Uma Thurman seems to be at her very best when she’s dealing with Tarantino. She was kickass inKill Bill, and in this, she’s cool, witty, and her pathological decision making is nothing but intense. The film may be over two and a half hours long, but it’s fast paced. And not by action, but by compelling story and incredible dialogue. Truly a masterpiece of the modern era of film, and a love letter to all things trashy and pulpy.
Peeping Tom (1960) | Directed by Michael Powell
In many ways, I feel that David Cronenberg’s disturbing and smart Videodrome works as an unofficial companion piece with Michael Powell’s unsettling masterpiece Peeping Tom. Both are essentially about the cruelties and horrors of voyeurism and what it does to people. Both are sexually charged with deep and horrific psychoses of their main characters. Bot are propfetic and comment on social desires, taboos, etc. But, of the two, I prefer Peeping Tom, as it is more elegantly handled, but just as penetrating. Psychotic Mark Lewis, played by Carl Boehm (who looks like a more handsome and younger version of Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’sM), kills women. He films them to the point of death. And the he watches it over again. A very, very obvious exploration into voyeurism, the first person point of view would inspire the same kind of madness in Black Swan (which was also inspired thematically by one of Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s masterpieces, The Red Shoes). Moira Shearer plays a young woman who begins to befriend the young man, who works as a photographer, as as the film goes on, his personal traumas are revealed in the most suspenseful fashion. A great piece of filmmaking, with its subtext as potent today as it was in 1960.
My Man Godfrey (1938) | Directed by Gregory La Cava
Godfrey is a “forgotten man”, basically a bum, who is picked up by a family of aristocrats for a scavenger hunt game. He is then hired by the family, in particular, Cornelia Bullock, to be the family’s butler. The test for him, a reserved, wise man (as men like that tend to be in films of this style), is to last in the house without walking out. The Bullock family is bonkers. Steeped in extravagance, the family is always in trouble or doing something stupid, like getting drunk and partying and whatnot. I was rather disappointed with this film. As a big fan of the screwball comedy, and an admirer of William Powell in The Thin Man, the film seemed devoid of actual wit. Yeah, people banter back and forth, but none of it is actually very funny. The comedy itself shouldn’t feel so dated, instead it just feel half hearted and kind of stupid. And I don’t appreciate there being not one admirable character. The entire family seems repugnant and/or idiotic. And William Powell’s forgotten man is supposed to come off more as kindly and wise than oh so holier than thou. Oh, boo hoo, a movie with a message about the worth of money. Like we haven’t seen that before. Kudos to Pwell though, Without him, the film would be a dull and unfunny and preachy.
Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sophia Coppola
Sophia Coppola’s Oscar-winning tale of lonely people in Tokyo is perfection. Absolute perfection. The slow, beautifully languid pace fit the meandering soul of the film itself, and the performances were spectacular and so nuanced. The locale is beautifully claustrophobic. The sense of emptiness and loneliness slowly being filled was incredibly palpable and honestly tugged at my heart strings. Murray’s pitch perfect fictitious self dazzlingly personifies loneliness and Johansson’s throaty and equally superb part embodies the lost soul she’s trying to find. It hit all the right notes in humor, drama, and romance, and I found it particularly pleasing that the two maintained a close, intimate relationship, but did not sleep together. To me, the unification of those souls, finding and helping one another back on their way – that translated perfectly to the screen.
The Piano (1993) | Directed by Jane Campion
Stanley Kubrick once compared film to music, that “it should be a progression of moods and feelings.” That couldn’t be a more beautiful and accurate description of Jane Campion’s highly exotic, erotic period tale of a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her daughter (a young Anna Paquin) sent to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. She brings her treasured piano, but her new husband (Sam Neil) cannot carry the piano back to their house. Eventually, the natives who help them bring their belongings introduce her to Baine (Harvey Keitel), a swarthy man. Hunter plays her character lovingly and, as a mute, without words. Other actresses could fall prey to scene chewery and believability, but Hunter is tender and nuanced. From years of repression, she finally is able to indulge herself and become free by having an illicit affair with Keitel. She maintains her love for the piano, which is an extension of who she is an appendage to her soul. Campion’s film is beautiful, with exotic photography, and Hunter and Paquin both deserved their Academy Award winds. Paquin isn’t cute or precocious, however. She is nothing but real, acting much older than she is. The Piano is an example of a film that needs little words to show its beauty, but reveals its gorgeousness through its pure mood and tone.
Being John Malkovich (1999) | Directed by Spike Jonze
Clearly, as evidenced by his screenplays for Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even Synecdoche, New York,Charlie Kaufman enjoys being both self-referential, self-aware, and exploring the flaws, fallacies, and beauties of the human mind in all of its existential beauty. I would say Kaufman’s script for the amusingly dark Being John Malkovich, directed with style and flair by Spike Jonze, helped me understand what existentialism actually is: the philosophy of being. And in being, the exploration of existentialism is more humorous and dark than it is completely serious. John Cusack plays a down-on-his-luck puppeteer who finds a portal into the mind of the great actor John Malkovich, in a world where no one seems to actually know his filmography. (They keep saying he’s in some heist movie…) Meanwhile, he falls In love with an acerbic, stuck up Catherine Keener, who in turn falls in love with John Malkovich, but only when Cusack’s wife (an unrecognizable, incredible performance from Cameron Diaz) is inhabiting Malkovich’s body. And so, not only do we get a funny lesson in the philosophy of being and existing, but in are thrown the philosophies of sexuality, love, and fulfillment. Indeed, this is an interesting journey, and Malkovich is in full, overacting form. He’s supposed to be, of course. Cusack’s character, though, is too unlikable, and Keener is just repugnant. The kudos should really go to Diaz, for making a full transformation. The film has visual flair, giving perspective into…perspective. The film isn’t only an exploration of being and existing, but an exploration of what makes us tick.
GoodFellas (1990) | Directed by Martin Scorsese
This may be a complete travesty in the film world, but I could not stand this film. Having heard much about how realistic it was in comparison with the gangster epic by Francis Ford Coppola The Godfather, Scorsese’s brash, violent, and devious film takes out the romance of being in the mob and tries to make it as realistic as possible. Realistic though it may be, it is by no means, in my personal opinion, not any more entertaining. Ray Liotta(who was just as scary in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild) makes his mark on cinematic history as Henry Hill, the real life mobster who got into the gang as a young teen. I suppose it may be interesting to watch the workings of organized crime from an outsider’s view working to get in, but its unremorseful violence and profane script dissolves all interest. The meandering and overlong storyline also takes a hit at one’s attention span, and and its inconsistent narration makes it seem a little sloppy. The visual style remains the same, and by that I mean uninteresting. The violence, as I said, is brutal, tough, and nasty. It’s not a fun film to watch. But kudos to Scorsese for a first class selection of music, a playlist that reflects the times and the characters. But…Joe Pesci…seriously. Punctuating your screenplay and having your one uneducated and dense and trigger happy character spout the f-word every other word doesn’t make him seem any more interesting and it doesn’t add any depth to the character. Somehow, though, he managed to nab an Oscar, which I think may have been a bit more deserved for My Cousin Vinny. De Niro feels barely there. But, I guess the reason why everyone lauds the film is because of its realism. Woo hoo. Based on the book Wiseguy by co-screenwriter Nicholas Pillegi, GoodFellas is a unique piece of celluloid for its realistic look at the mob, but its entertainment value is as scares as anyone In the witness protection program.
City Lights (1931) | Directed by Charles Chaplin
Much like his next film Modern Times, City Lightsshows Charlie Chaplin’s romantic side more than ever, and it shows how hesitant he was to jump into the era of talking pictures. Made four years after the “first” talkie, The Jazz Singer, Chaplin maintained that if the Little Tramp talked all of his magic would disappear. He had his point, for the incarnation of the Tramp in The Great Dictator isn’t as delightfully quaint. One of the problems I’ve had with silent comedies is that they feel like a bunch of shorter gags made for one and two reelers just strung together without a coherent storyline. Buster Keaton avoided this with his death defying, if less entertaining The General, but Chaplin fell prey to this in his funny, but long and slow The Gold Rush. City Lights escapes this problem by giving the Tramp a serious love interest in that of a beautiful blind flower girl. It’s fluid and funny, and that is what matters. He is adamant on helping her get money to pay for her rent as well as for her to undergo surgery so that she can see. Ah, but there is a catch. He had accidentally been masquerading as a millionaire, after befriending an alcoholic one who invited the Tramp into his home. And that means that should the flower girl see him, she would know him for the bum he really is. And he hasn’t a care in the world. The strongest thing this film has, besides great gags, is a touching storyline. It is his most romantic feature, next to Modern Times. It is filled with heart and doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, but pull gently more and more until the beautiful, slightly ambiguous ending. It’s delightful, hilarious, and heartwarming, and one of my favorite Chaplin films.
Bronson (2008) | Directed by Nocolas Winding Refn
Bronson is one of the most exhilarating movies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a while. I’m not normally a fan of ultra-violence, but director Nicolas Winding Refn is so theatrical, so flamboyant, and so delightful in his violent performance art, it doesn’t matter. And it’s indeed theatrical. And it is indeed exhilarating. The film grabs you by the crotch and doesn’t let you go for a moment. Tom Hardy, in a role that has me questioning why the hell he doesn’t have a crap load of big awards on his shelf, begins the film by introducing himself as the world’s most violent prisoner. And he makes his motivations explicit. “I’ve always wanted to be famous.” And so, Charles Bronson, formerly known as Michael Gordon Peterson, addresses an audience on a stage, as if performing some vaudevillian one man show. The cinematography, by Larry Smith, is as harsh as Bronson’s knuckles, and the violence is intense, but darkly humorous. Hardy humanizes the character in a completely bizarre and brilliant way. Yes, he is a madman, but his exuberance and delight and charisma is so undeniable, you find yourself rooting for him. At times, he doesn’t even seem evil. He seems like an Alex Fletcher 2.0, only with a hell of a lot more muscle. Various symbolism about repression and being confined and claustrophobia and splattered in red across the screen, but the visualization makes the experience truly memorable. But the winner of the formula? Ding, ding ding! Tom Hardy is brilliant and absolutely brutal as the lead, perfecting the accent and bouncing back skillfully between being horrific and being hysterical. The blend of classical music and British pop/techno makes it feel a lot more like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but in reality, as much as they are about desensitization to violence and its effect on society, the films themselves are very different. Kubrick’s film is at once repulsive and cringe worthy, but that was the director’s intention. Refn, however, wants to, like Bronson, give you a show. And that he does.
The Sting (1973) | Directed by George Roy Hill
Having been born in the 1990’s and most familiar with caper films like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, from a ‘90’s child point of view, Roy Hill’s masterpiece crime movie The Sting can best be described as an “old timey Ocean’s Eleven”. However, for the sake of screenwriter David S. Ward, it’s far cleverer than Soderbergh’s film. (Not to say his film isn’t good, it’s great.) A street grafter (Robort Redford) wants to avenge the death of a friend (Robert Earl Jones) by pulling the ultimate con on the gangster (Robert Shaw) who killed his friend. He gets the help from a professional con man and cheat (Paul Newman) and what follows is a particularly jolly and fun movie. George Roy Hill had previously worked with Newman and Redford on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film that, much to the dismay of Cinephiles, I despise. I dislike it mainly for its strange pace. But, thank goodness for The Sting. Its pace is jaunty and fun, and it’s a film that almost lacks much of a dark side, except for the finale. Newman and Redford have perfect chemistry together, as we all know, and the master and apprentice repartee is brilliant. Robert Shaw is pleasantly menacing as the gangster, completing this excellent ensemble. The Sting is one of the more delightful films I have seen this summer, and while the stakes are high, it’s a big win for the viewer.
Shrek: Forever After/The Final Chapter (2010) | Directed by Mike Mitchell
The Shrek series is best known for creating an empire at DreamWorks Animation that is comparable to that at Pixar Animation. What’s the difference between the two studios? DreamWorks’s films, in particular the Shrek series, are cheekier, more sarcastic, often more self-referential, and often crasser. And, everyone copies them, not Pixar. And so, DreamWorks pushes the sequel limit with the multiply-titled fourth Shrek film, alternately known as Shrek Forever After and Shrek: The Final Chapter. The fourth film is evidence that, after the second, the formula was running very, very dry. The self-aware fairy-tale series does an It’s a Wonderful Life-esque morality tale, when Shrek (the insufferable Mike Myers) wishes that he were just as fearful a single and unmarried ogre as he used to be. And he stupidly gets his wish when he makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). And gone are his children, his family, his friends, blah blah blah. And he has a day until he can set things right et cetera. It’s the most boring plot you could ask for, one that has been tread over a billion times within the cinematic work. The animation is lazy, the jokes are boring, and the movie seems extremely half-hearted. Even its self-awareness is lacking. The characters are so incredibly stupid, and yet they try to wink at the camera (as they have for the entire series) with an “oh look how clever we are lampooning fairy tale”. Even the voice work is insufferable. Cameron Diaz seems barely there and Jon Hamm is completely useless as a member of some ogre-rebellion. You would have thought that after ten years, the animation would be mind-blowing, kind of like when you watch Toy Story and then you watch Toy Story 3. It’s a completely unnecessary sequel and I hope that this is where the fairy tale finally ends.
Fat Girl (2001) | Directed by Catherine Breillat
Catherine Breillat is a professor of Auteur Cinema. This is so incredibly obvious with her polarizing filmFat Girl, a film so uncomfortable and so infuriating that it is difficult to watch. However, this is not for the general and obvious reasons that many people talk about, such as its lengthy sex scene, its rape, the sexual violence, etc; it is hard to watch because the characters within her film are not so much characters but mouth pieces for her feminist theory fodder. Following is a short personal op-ed piece I wrote about the film:
But not exactly why. Yes, the sex scene is repulsive and excruciating, but it’s more the shockingly stereotypical and pseudo-feminism stuff that is spouting from the character’s mouths that make this irksome. The male character, Fernando, is a prime example of a character that self-contradicting in his ethics and what he carries out. And it doesn’t help that Breillat is propelling various ideas of how men use women and how that is either perfectly fine or disgusting, as her interviews are not entirely clear. She says, “Fernando is not an asshole.” And then goes on to say that he is being sincere in an instantaneous manner, and that sincerity disappears when he gets his desire. Doesn’t that mean he’s not actually sincere? Her understanding of the male persona, at one moment describing men as sick dogs who just want to sleep with women and then hailing them (seemingly) for their ability to have that power, is infuriating. Four or five times, throughout the lengthy bedding scene, Fernando changes his onions to suit whatever the girl wants. Yes, this tactic is slightly realistic, but the constant change of mind to express opposing ideas makes little sense and instead gives off the impression that the character is just a mouth piece for the director, who has made the two characters just part of a thesis for her feminist theory class. The portrayal of males and sexuality reaches two different extremes, and whether or not they are true, the explanation and justification for these actions are not true within the male world. I am very sympathetic with the female character, of course, as the male is being very manipulative. Breillat isn’t clear as to whether she’s condoning these actions or tactics, as her interviews and own quotes remain murky. It’s just very obnoxious to see this portrayal that wants to express very different ideas within one character, which makes the character themselves a work of self-contradiction.
This did not change much as the film went on. Fat Girl, otherwise known as A ma soeur! (For My Sister) , is somewhat a demonstration in shock cinema (which is a term that recalls titles more like The Rocky Horror Picture Showthan deliberately intellectual cinema along the lines of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) and somewhat a demonstration of deliberately and obsessively intellectual and theoretical subject matter. It only occasionally appears to be an actual movie, but too thin are the strands of plot and story that hold the auteur’s ideas together cohesively. The characterization of Elena (a gorgeous Roxane Mesquida) is derisive and sometimes bizarre, while her liver Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) is too often chauvinistic and, as aforementioned, self-contradictory. And the relationship between the two is like someone’s thesis for a gender studies class acted out by people, but a lousy and overtly sexual one. Trading ideas instead of feelings, the director speaks too blatantly through the characters instead of letting them find their own voices. This is also true of Elena’s relationship with her younger sister, Anais (Anais Reboux). It’s superficial and unbelievable at first, something you would hear in a sitcom, where the dialogue is so wooden and pseudo-analytical, that it drives the viewer up the wall. However, this is lessens as the film goes on, and the relationship manages to normalize itself. The real star of the film is sweet, emotional Anais, who manages to voice her (or the director’s) ideas and theories without succumbing to too much ludicrousness. She’s far more cynical and realistic about love and sex than her sister. Her wounded soul is apparent only when she lets us see it instead of making it forced. Her performance is surprisingly nuanced for someone so inexperienced and young. Given the material for the film, I would have found it hard to do. But her cries and whimpers, her laughs, and her ideas all seem more real than is deserving of the film.
Fat Girl is an interesting film, but its ideas, characterizations, and overall tone are too polarizing to be enjoyable or watchable. Breillat is an intellectual at heart who tries too hard to instill her ideas on frame and in dialogue than make a film where the characters find themselves instead of act as a go-between for her and the audience. If anything, watch the film out of curiosity and for Anais Reboix’s moving performance.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010) | Directed Barry Levinson
I don’t know of too many films that tackle very polarizing issues, like abortion or doctor assisted suicide. That’s not to say they don’t exist (the former subject has a few, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,Citizen Ruth, and Vera Drake), just that they are fairly rare. Leave it to HBO to go full throttle with this subject, and leave it to them to go directly and film something about the source. HBO Films’ You Don’t Know Jack chronicles the career of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death”. Al Pacino plays the good doctor and the film goes all the way from the beginning of his ideas for doctor assisted suicide to his trial and conviction by the Supreme Court. While the film vividly and realistically presents the cases, victims, etc. for the audience, the problem with it is its one sidedness. It tries its best to show both sides of the issue (sort of), but I suppose it’s not their job to show both sides. They are telling Dr. Kevorkian’s story, not the issue itself. And it’s not a documentary. Though, insight would have been nice. Al Pacino’s performance was stellar, of course. He again transforms himself into someone whom is slightly sinister and yet benevolent at the same time. You Don’t Know Jack is an excellent docu-drama, thoroughly entertaining and brings some of the issue to light.
Monster (2003) | Directed by Patty Jenkins
Patty Jenkin’s roaring film Monster (see what I did there?) is a demonstration in complete transformation from actress to character. Less than a portrayal, Charlize Theron embodies that of her character, convicted and executed murderer and prostitute Aileen Wuornos. Her performance will go down in the history of cinema as one of the finest things, one of the most heart wrenching, and one of the most terrifying. Hers will stand next to the great roles in cinema, such as Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., and others. Her performance alone reminds me of why I love cinema. It moved me. Anyways, enough about Theron. Monster is the incredible film that manages to let its own character let the audience become sympathetic towards her, as opposed to the director forcing it down their throats. Christina Ricci is excellent as Aileen’s lover, Selby. The raw emotion is what pushes the film, and it will tear your heart out without remorse.
The Wages of Fear (1953) | Directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot
Having been shocked and pleased with Henri-Georges Cluzot’s great film Diabolique, I was expecting the same sort of tension from his previous masterpiece The Wages of Fear. I was sorely disappointed. The film is about four men in some South American country who are hired by an American oil company to transport two trucks of nitroglycerin. From there, the road is rough and the terrain is dangerous. And the movie is boring. Regardless of what it says about American industrialism and its horrors, the biggest problem with the film is that it is extremely dull. It takes about an hour for that brief synopsis to actually begin, for the driving to start ot for driving to even be mentioned. Before, it’s just a few characters wallowing in how much they want to get out of their god-forsaken country. And even as they do drive, the tension is limited except for a few scenes. The characters are all rather repugnant. Especially Jo (Charles Vanel), who spends the entire film either whining or yelling at people for no reason. I was highly disappointed in this film. What one is wagering is their attention span.
Paper Moon (1973) | Directed by Peter Bogdonavich
Peter Bogdonavich’s Paper Moon is a strangely sweet and funny film about dark times and dark people. It’s not exactly a dramedy and it’s not exactly a dark comedy either. It’s funniness is fairly frank and honest, but its setting is the darkness. A con man and his friend’s daughter (Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum) go about during the Great Depression getting rich by selling Bibles to people. It’s a very sweet, very strange ale, and Tatum O’Neal absolutely shines as Addie Pray. She’s precocious, but not annoying or unbelievable. She’s also devilishly clever. Tatum is the youngest person to ever win an Academy Award, for she was ten when she won Best Actress for the role. I remember feeling a little uneasy about whether she deserved it or not, but she most certainly did. Paper Moon makes a most entertaining yarn of a film. The black and white photography is in particular gorgeous. It’s a classic that could fall way to be overly sweet, but it has just enough sour in there to please everyone.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) (1946) | Directed by Jean Cocteau
I managed to miss the Disney Renaissance growing up, which means I’ve never actually seen their musical animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in its entirety. I suppose it was, in a way, a good thing, as it left me fairly unbiased when viewing the enchanting Jean Cocteau adaptation of the film (Le Belle et la Bete) form 1946. It is, in the most honest and glorious fashion, a fairy-tale film. Everything about the film exudes mystique and enchantment. The gorgeous set design, the magnificent special effect, and, above all, the story and romance are all perfect. Its magic is palpable with some of the most impressive special effects (that would be increased in impressiveness for Cocteau’s Orpheus). Jean Marrais portrays the Beast (as well as a handsome suitor) while Josette Day is radiant and beautiful as Belle. Based on the tale written by Leprince de Beaumont, this adaptation transcends the fairy-tale medium itself (even though it is so distinctly that), by telling us a love story and having us fall for the beast over the handsome man he was. The emotion that Marrais portrays under the thick makeup is tender and vulnerable, something shown underneath a hard and beastly exterior. Greta Garbo, upon seeing the film and its ending, said, “Give me back my Beast!” And that is how we, the audience, feel. I have only felt this strongly and similarly about a beastly character once before, in Peter Jackon’s 2005 adaptation of King Kong. We fell in love with something that looked monstrous but was in fact more kind and gentle than any man. Josette Day is equally as kind and generous in the film, and she pulls off a part that is as vulnerable as the Beast’s. This enthralling and ethereal film is one of the most beautiful ever, and transcends the art of the fairy-tale by making cinematic magic by putting a beautiful love story on film. Indeed, it was Beauty killed the Beast, as well as the audience.
The Others (2001) | Directed Alejandro Amenabar
The Others is a peculiarly traditional film, as well as interestingly symbolic. Beneath the dust that covers the gigantic Gothic household where Nicole Kidman and her two children live, and behind the shadows that shroud the house in mystery, are symbolic references that allude to the Bible as well as to more sociological comments on religion, superstitious and its effect on people. Kidman plays the religious, hardened, and heartbroken Grace, whose deeply religious views she pounds into her children puritanically. Her children, Nicholas (James Bentley) and Anne (Alakina Mann), live each day in the darkness, as they are sensitive to light. The one light they can handle is the barely-there glimmer of hope that their father will return home from the war safely. In traipse three servants, one of whom is a mute, and one, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan),seems to be the ring leader. Their connections to the house are deep, the roots of which are hidden. But as the daughter begins to see intruders her mother can’t, strange things begin to happen. This is a deceptively traditional film. Its production and camera tricks are so traditional, you will, at times, be thinking you are watching a ghost story from the 1960s. That’s not a bad thing; as a matter of fact this film may work somewhat as an homage to those ghost films. And just like those films, every frame contains something about religion and the afterlife. These messages might be a tad more sophisticated and complex, but in the end the most important part of this ghost story by Alejandro Amenabar: it scares you. Yes, as conventional as the scares seem to be, they are indeed frightening. The deceptive turns and wicked twists pay off well, and the ending is satisfying. The Others is an accomplished film in the traditional style of ghost story telling. It does the best thing a ghost story can do: keep you up at night.
Lake of Fire (2006) | Directed by Tony Kaye
The abortion debate is so extreme and controversial that it is hard to ever have a conversation with anyone about it without it turning into a debate. It’s harder still to document the issue itself without letting your own biases get in the way of being evenhanded. Somehow, though, Tony Kaye, the skilled music video director and director ofAmerican History X, managed to do it. And not only did he show both sides in a documentary, he actually made the documentary well. A compelling look at all aspects and facets of this extraordinarily painful debate, Kaye presents the issue through interviews, archival footage, etc. It took Kaye 17 years to make the film, which leaves room for 17 years of opinion and change. The interviews come from both the completely rational as well as the completely fanatical. Filmed in black and white, which may be aesthetically important to show that the issue itself is not merely black and white, the documentary is often hard to watch. If it had been in color, it would literally be unwatchable at some points, as some abortions and the aftermath of such procedures are shown and documented. The murders of several doctors who had performed abortions occurred during the production of filming. Protests are shown. Even Norma McCorvey, the history making Jane Roe of the Roe v. Wade case, is interviewed. Fanatics on both sides are interviewed. And philosophers, writers, academics, and politicians give their input. (The black and white cinematography is rather compelling even as a piece of cinema verite at times.) And while even handed and ambiguous it may be, the best thing one can say about this emotional and riveting documentary is that it will move you, make your blood boil, and make you think. That is the best any documentary can do. Make you think.
You Can Stop the Beat: Review of the “Musical is Back” Number form the 2009 Oscars
Back in 2009, perhaps the biggest showstopper of the Academy Awards was the musical number they performed to celebrate Mamma Mia! becoming the highest grossing movie musical of all time. Its leads were Hugh Jackman, who hosted the ceremony that year, and Beyoncé. And the behemoth of a ceremony performance was directed with all the “bigger is better” attitude by none other than Baz Luhrman. Next to Michael Bay, I would say that Luhrman is one of my least favorite directors. This is because he does not know when to say “no” or “that’s enough”. He has fantastic ideas, but he always goes over in his execution. Make a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Julie”, retaining the dialogue? How nifty! Ah, but let’s add explosion, gun fights, and what I think is “visual panache. Use contemporary pop songs to tell a tale of La Boehme? That’s awesome! Let’s add even more “visual panache” and make it an assault on your senses!
Admittedly, I did love his first film, Strictly Ballroom, a theatrical, flamboyant, and funny independent New Zealand film. But, it kind of went to hell from there. Apparently, what modest flamboyancy he could contain in that film, he wanted to really up the ante in his others. But, yes, he was hired to arrange and direct “The Musical is Back”. Actually, I don’t remember it really going anywhere since 2003, when Chicago won Best Picture at the Oscars. And then there was The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Dreamgirls, Sweeney Todd, and Hairspray. But apparently, it needed to be brought back.
I guess if there is a distinct thing about Luhrman is that he starts fairly minimalistic and simplistic andthen he jumps into it head on. And he does the same with this number. Hugh Jackman starts off the number in front of the stage, the curtain closed, singing Irving Berlin’s “Putting on my Top Hat”. Hoofing his way across, he embodies the class (that he “reeks” of), the effortless smoothness, and gaiety of the stars like Astaire, Kelly, and Crosby. You can tell that Luhrman wanted to be faithful to the musicals of yore, for even the choreography is reminiscent of films like Top Hat and Singin’ in the Rain. Dressed to the nines, the curtain opens up and it reveals a large staircase. And this is where it starts getting bigger. However, it remains just fine for now.
A legion of dapper dancers dressed in the same costume come out to the top of the moving staircase to join Jackman in his number. All in all, they remain kind of a side piece, something to look at, but not truly engaging. It makes sense, since all eyes should be on Jackman, and it could merely be the camera work of the telecast, but nevertheless, it leaves one wanting more. Jackman then breaks out into the chorus of Singin’ in the Rain, but stops, when he realizes that “something’s missing”.
That “something”, of course, is a female lead. Making an impactful entrance, Beyoncé utilizes her big, brassy vocals to burst in with “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity. It’s perfect for her choice, and I guess the sequence is supposed to be a small narrative between Beyoncé and Jackman, but it’s a strange song selection. The film version of Sweet Charity was released in 1969 with Shirley McLain and was directed by Bob Fosse and is fairly unknown o the general public. The original musical that starred Gwen Verdon is better known. Jackman returns, calling out her name in much bravado, singing “Maria” from West Side Story.
She also sings “Putting on My Top Hat” and her vocals are flawless. In enter the female dancers, who are dressed in a skimpy and more questionable costume than the men, but in the same style. As if to reflect how he feels, Jackman sings “You’re the One that I want” from Grease, and the background dancers are at a standstill, leaving us to marvel at the pair and what seems like a love game. Some of the notes that Beyoncé hits are really amazing. They’re smooth and controlled, but added is her R&B know how and her deliciously sexy style.
And then, for some reason, Jackman sings “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” from The Sound of Music. It doesn’t technically make sense if this is supposed to be some off kilter narrative, something that was equally troubling in Moulin Rouge!, but perhaps he’s questioning her leading him on? I’m not sure.
Perhaps my favorite part of the number, the lights turn blue, maybe to reflect Jackman’s mood, and Beyoncé croons the sexiest version of “All That Jazz” from Chicago I have ever heard. She makes it suggestive and sultry, and these tasty vocals are matched with equally suggestive choreography. In a slightly narcissistic move, Luhrman interjects this nonsensical number with “Lady Marmalade”, which was used in his Moulin Rouge! To no one’s surprise, her voice is perfect for the song, but it’s unnecessary, and makes her “Maria” sounds like a questionable prostitute. She is joined by teen stars Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens from the High School Musical franchise and Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried from Mamma Mia!, where the women look especially…slutty. I understand that the outfits are supposed to be a sexier black tie version of the men’s costumes, but it doesn’t work. And personally, I don’t think the four of them should have been at the ceremony at all. They’re tween stars, and the only one I feel who has acting potential is Seyfried, and possibly Efron (since he did the indieMe and Orson Welles), but really. Just to draw in more viewers, I say.
Maybe to represent the specialness of the evening, they break out in “One Night Only” fromDreamgirls, which is only fitting in style because of the previous track and its salacious rhythm. I think it was from that Moulin Rouge! song that it got out of hand. It just gets bigger and bigger, and more annoying. The cast then obnoxiously does, not exactly a mash up, or even a medley, but a layered number of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” fromJesus Christ Superstar. It doesn’t really work, with the loudness and intensity of “You Can’t Stop the beat” taking over and distracting from the tenderness and perfection of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. The latter song only makes the narrative worse.
And then, the mood lighting sets in again, with Jackman saying a really awful line: “the best part of breaking up is getting back together again.” What the hell? It’s not even from anything. Singing another not-technically-a-song-from-a-musical, Beyoncé purrs Etta James’ “At Last” (which was featured inCadillac Records). This seems to have been chosen just to show off Beyoncé, which wasn’t really needed since she has already done enough, like with “Lady Marmalade”. And then Efron and Hudgens sing over her with “Last Chance” from High School Musical 3: Senior Year. Yet another stupid song choice, chosen merely because of its stars. Really, by now, it’s getting a bit much with the song selections.
Jackman jumps back in with “Maria” as the other two stars continue singing their song, and then it transitions slowly with “Mamma Mia!”, from the eponymous movie, and then, trying to salvage the narrative, Beyoncé sings a couple bars from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from Evita. Basically, too much is going on here. They are singing four songs at once and trying to maintain focus on each one, and it fails abysmally.
“Mamma Mia” goes into full swing, but in a really weird way. It’s sung partly in the form of a drum line, with strange choreography. It looks and sounds terrible. I guess it makes a little sense to use the song, since Jackman introduced the huge number because the movie had made more in England thanTitanic or something, but all in all, it’s kind of a weird selection.
The finale is a conclusion of the beginning song, and it ends with Beyoncé singing the final bars of “Over the Rainbow” form The Wizard of Oz and Jackman singing the final bars of “Somewhere” from West Side Story. It’s all very loud, but Beyoncé sounds good. And it ends, thank god.
I can say that the beginning of it, and up to “All That Jazz”, was fine, even very good, but it got out of control. I don’t like Hugh Jackman’s voice, for, as trained as it is, it’s not smooth. It’s hampered by vibrato and a shaky quality that probably appeals to people my mother’s age, who think that Gerard Butler made the perfect “Phantom” and that Rod Stewart is still popular. (Though, Rob Stewart doeshave a helluva sexy voice.) The only other star who manages to shine, regardless of the wretched material he’s given, is Zac Efron. Having proven his chops in Hairspray, he seems to be a veritable cast member. Cooper, Seyfried, and Hudgens all fail to sing above a whisper. It’s a testament of whether you’re made for the stage or not if you can sing above everyone else and manage to make some sort of impact. But those actors do not. I honestly wasn’t a big fan of Cooper in Mamma Mia! when he sang “Lay All Your Love on Me”. Seyfried’s voice is very frail, but it’s melodious.
Besides it being a general pain inducing onslaught of sensory massacring, the biggest problem to me was the song selection. This was supposed to honor the greatest musicals the screen’s ever known, right? Then why go with songs from High School Musical, Evita (the song is memorable only for its stage production), Sweet Charity (ditto), and Dreamgirls? They certainly haven’t made the impact on the musical that Singin’ in the Rain and West Side Story have. Why not choose something from A Chorus Line, Rent, or My Fair Lady or Cabaret? The former two won Pulitzers for their stage productions and received good reviews, and the latter two won Best Picture. Also, were they or weren’t they trying to create a narrative? What was with that? Addressing Beyoncé as Maria, using songs about love and leading on, Jackman’s horrid line about breaking up…none of it made sense with the other songs. The layering mash ups become cumbersome to listen to. It makes one question whether they were pulling songs from a hat or trying to create some linear if abstract narrative or plot or relationship dynamic or simply trying to get the most memorable songs from musicals. They, or Mr. Luhrman, failed on all accounts.
Guilty of Luhrman’s “distinctive theatrical” brush, this gigantic musical number was a miserable piece in Academy Award Ceremony history. IT really was just awful. No wonder why it was one of the lowest rated telecasts in 9 years.
Fellini Fiasco: Review for “Nine”
According to Wikipedia, Neorealism, or Italian Neorealism, is a style of art that is characterized by portraying the poor and working class families of characters and filmed on location. Sometimes using non processional actors, neorealism portrays everyday life of poverty and desperation. One of the most famous of the Neorealist directors, supposedly (though it doesn’t really make sense” is Federico Fellini. Fellini was famous for making brooding and dark films, like La Strada and La Dolce Vita. At a time in his life where he had reached a sort of “director’s block”, he made a shocking and groundbreaking surrealistic film called 8 ½, the numbers representing the number of movies he had made thus far; eight feature length films and the ½ for a short film.
The film, famous for showing trippy and fantastical dreamscapes, was adapted by Arthur Kopit into a musical called Nine (though, I think it should have been called Nine and a Half, considering the musical was a full length production), with the score by Maury Yeston. Originally starring Raul Julia, the first production was in 1982, and it was directed by Broadway legend Tommy Tune. In 2009, Oscar nominated director of the musical Chicago, Rob Marshall, adapted the musical to the screen with a “so-starry-it’ll-blind-you” cast.
Nine is a midlife crisis movie, illustrating famed Italian director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) going through a troubled time, trying to direct a new film while he can’t even write the first page of the script. Meanwhile, the women in his life are shaking things up, with his wife Louisa (Marion Cotillard) fighting depression, his mistress Carla (Oscar nominated Penelope Cruz) whining about not being able to be with him at all times, his star and muse Claudia Jensen (Nicole Kidman) losing faith in his new film, and his mother (Sophia Loren) being all motherly, as well and sorting out his problems with his costume designer and confidant Lili La Fleur (Judi Dench). His life falls apart, and when he tries to turn to these women, it just gets worse. Think of it as Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women in musical form, but with the main man at the front of the film.
The visual design is the film’s strong point, of course, with the dazzling Rob Marshall doing a fine job, and Oscar winning costume designer Coleen Atwood doing what she does best: creating flashy and amazing pieces. The cinematography by Dion Beebe is top notch, and the overall cinematic style is gorgeous and luxurious, like Marshall’s previous work on Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha. It flows through the musical numbers easily and smoothly.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s Italian accent sounds oddly thick and cumbersome, and halfway through the film, we’re still not used to it. But, it doesn’t exactly mar the performance much. His singing ability is quite average, and he tries to make it through numbers like “Guido’s Song” and “I Can’t Make This Movie”. I kind of wonder why Marshall didn’t cast Antonio Banderas, who played Contini in the Tony winning revival of Nine on Broadway.
Marion Cotillard gives a fine performance as his wounded wife, struggling with loving Guido while he’s off philandering. Her voice, however, is weak and not meant for this role, one that belts out “Take It All” as a “lover wronged” song. Her eyes are full of emotion and she has a genuine sense of loss and sadness, but it’s a musical role and the latter half of it is not good.
Penelope Cruz is Carla, Guido’s sexy mistress. Cruz is the best of the cast when it comes to singing unprofessionally, as she purrs her way through “A Call from the Vatican”, what sounds like Maury Yeston’s answer to “When You’re Good to Mama” from Chicago. While the song, full of blatant sexual references (as opposed to “Mama’s” being subtle innuendos), may sound sexy from Cruz’s soft vice, the song itself is actually quite bland and a little vulgar. Cruz spends most of her time in the time whining, and if we’re supposed to sympathize with Carla, it doesn’t work. Marshall tries his best to play up “mistresses have feelings too”, but why should she whine when Louisa is the most hurt?
Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas, or Stacy Ferguson, does a terrific job in an underwritten, almost unused character; Saraghina, the whore from Guido’s childhood, and she storms through the screen singing “Be Italian”, easily the best number in the film. Sexy and sultry, she looks great and the choreography is awesome. But Saraghina only has that one little role.
The rest of the cast, in comparison with Cruz and Cotillard, are hardly in the film. Judi Dench is divine as Lili and she does a good job singing “Folies Bergères”, but it isn’t great. Kate Hudson plays a Vogue fashion reporter who hits on Guido constantly, and while she does a good job singing “Cinema Italiano”, the version that’s featured in the film sounds flat and boring. Check out the single version, that’s on iTunes. Sophia Loren is hardly in the film, making appearances here and there, acting motherly. You’d think they would have used her as much as possible, but they don’t. And Nicole Kidman is again hardly in the film, which is a disappointment. While she soulfully sings “Unusual Way”, it’s a bit unusual that the director didn’t manage to incorporate equal amount of screen time for all of his actresses.
Nine is quite obviously not as good as Chicago, simply because Nine isn’t that great to begin with. The score is average, and the story is better told by Fellini himself than someone else. The film 8 ½ broke the fourth wall in many ways, introducing new techniques and ways to look at art. But the musical can’t deal with that. It tries to be big and huge and have as many stars as possible, but it becomes top heavy and its storyline weighs it down. Overall, Nine is enough.
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