Saturday, December 30, 2006
Centennial Tributes: Carol Reed
By Edward Copeland
In an introduction on the great Criterion Collection DVD of The Third Man, Peter Bogdanovich speculates that Carol Reed is largely forgotten now because his greatest works came early in his career and were eclipsed by his later, lesser efforts such as Trapeze and The Agony and the Ecstasy and the movie he won the Oscar for, Oliver!, which while fun (sorry Josh R) doesn't come close to equaling his early efforts. I don't necessarily agree — because The Third Man still seems to tower among many movies made today, even if younger viewers are unfamiliar with The Fallen Idol or Odd Man Out. Still if the only movie that Reed, who was born 100 years ago today, ever made had been The Third Man, he would still be deserving of a place among the ranks of film's greatest directors.
Re-watching The Third Man recently, it once again captivated me from the moment the great zither music by Anton Karas begins to play over the credits. With the presence of Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten and great black-and-white cinematography (by Robert Krasker, not Gregg Toland), the movie almost plays as if the gang from Citizen Kane has teamed up again. If that weren't enough, it also has a great script by novelist Graham Greene (and Trevor Howard is fun as well). If you haven't seen The Third Man (and shame on you if you call yourself a film buff and you haven't), watching the Criterion DVD really is the way to go, not only for a crisp print but to be able to compare the different versions offered for British and U.S. audiences (though only the different openings are included — we don't see what 17 minutes David O. Selznick cut for American audiences). With its great scenes of Vienna, sly performances and perhaps the greatest entrance of any character in movie history, The Third Man stays near the top of all films ever made, even nearly 60 years after its release.
While The Third Man remains the greatest collaboration between Graham Greene and Carol Reed, it wasn't the first — that came with 1948's The Fallen Idol. Often mischaracterized as a mystery or a thriller, it's a more humanistic tale of what one would do for a friend and when the truth is better than a lie or vice-versa. A charming child actor named Bobby Henrey stars as Phillipe, the son of a French ambassador to England who has developed an deep attachment to the family's butler Baines (a great Ralph Richardson) due to his parents' frequent absences. Baines' kindness toward the child is not equaled by his shrew of a wife, the household's head housekeeper (Sonia Dresdel), who is such an unlikable character she makes Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca look like Mrs. Doubtfire. Baines isn't much fonder of his wife than the boy, keeping a mistress (Michele Morgan) on the side that he hopes to leave her for — not that Mrs. Baines wants to let that happen. When Mrs. Baines dies accidentally, Phillipe is convinced that Baines murdered her and does everything he can to try to protect his friend — only his lies just serve to get the butler deeper in trouble. The Fallen Idol creates quite a different mood than The Third Man or Odd Man Out, but it is still quite good.
Before The Fallen Idol and The Third Man came another great black-and-white feature from Reed with Odd Man Out in 1947. To think that Reed produced these three films in consecutive years astounds me and is an incredible achievement to this very day. James Mason gave one of his very best performances as Johnny McQueen, an Irish nationalist fighting for freedom from Britain who attempts to evade authorities after he's wounded in a botched robbery attempt. It actually offers even more suspense than The Third Man and its subject matter had to have been seen as daring in England in its time. In the Bogdanovich intro on the Criterion DVD of The Third Man he repeats the oft-told Orson Welles line that no great film performance was ever given in color. While I disagree with that statement, I can't help but wonder if it applies specifically to Reed as a filmmaker. Though I haven't seen all of his films — and his filmography is surprisingly slim when compared with someone such as Otto Preminger — it certainly is true that no film he made in color comes close to matching the greatest of his black-and-white efforts.
No film makes a better case for this that his 1956 effort Trapeze starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollobrigida. This triangle set amidst the soaring artists of a circus surpasses hokey and comes perilously close to being plain awful. Lancaster plays a former trapeze star, reduced to being a rigger after an injury, who finds life in his work again through the young prodigy Curtis. Lollobrigida threatens to come between them both personally and professionally but, let's face it — the real romance here is between Burt and Tony with nearly as much gay subtext as Curtis had with Laurence Olivier in Spartacus. As a film, it's pretty dreadful but has a good live-action film ever been made that was set in a circus?
Of course, Trapeze turns out to be a real fun ride compared to The Agony and the Ecstasy, though at least they got the first part of the title right. Come to think of it — has any really good film been made about a true-life artist either? If so, this account of Michelangelo (the ever-stiff Charlton Heston) trying to paint the Sistine Chapel for Pope Julius II (the most British pontiff of Italian lineage in the history of the papacy as played by Rex Harrison) certainly is not that film. It begins with a nearly 15-minute, dry recitation of Michelangelo's artistic works up until that point — and it's all downhill from there. A running gag in the film is Julius constantly asking Michelangelo, "When will it end?" to which the artist replies, "When it is finished?" and Lord knows I felt the same way trying to get through this snoozer of a film, despite its colorful cinematography. Of course, as history it's fairly suspect as well. Granted that it was 1965 and Heston would have never played Michelangelo as the homosexual that history seems to have concluded he was, the film does have to insert some female love interests for him, lest people watching the movie get the right idea.
Now while I don't worship Oliver! the way Josh R does nor do I hold it in the disdain that many worst picture survey participants expressed last year, this certainly wasn't a great film or the one that should have brought Reed an Oscar. It does have great performances from young Jack Wild, Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis and, most especially, Ron Moody as Fagin, and many of the musical numbers are well done, but Oliver! is way too damn long. I imagine a great deal of the hatred exhibited earlier this year had to do with Reed winning best director in 1968 over Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I always try to blame the Academy for Oscar's mistakes instead of the winner. For me, the greatest crime Oliver! commits is its excessive length. When little Oliver (Mark Lester) delivers the classic line, "Please sir — may I have some more" I have to believe that someone mistook his request for additional gruel with a desire for more footage and he should have been refused if that had been his wish.
However, when you're talking about Carol Reed, all roads lead back to The Third Man in the end. Nothing else he made matters as long as it exists. It's his legacy and the most important reason he should be remembered today on what would have been his 100th birthday. Though The Third Man was released in England in 1949, it was released for Oscar consideration in 1950 — and what a year and what competition it faced. Joseph L. Mankiewicz won for the great All About Eve and Billy Wilder was nominated for directing the even better Sunset Blvd. and he had to contend with John Huston for The Asphalt Jungle as well, so Reed's direction of this masterpiece never really stood a chance, though the nominations it didn't get remain an outrage. No supporting nomination for Welles (though I'd still have voted for George Sanders' Addison De Witt). At least Robert Krasker won for his cinematography. The fact The Third Man lost editing to King Solomon's Mines is downright silly. Graham Greene's great screenplay was completely ignored. Of course, the greatest outrage is its omission from the best picture ranks when Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride and King Solomon's Mines made the cut. Then again, I think Harry Lime and the gang had the last laugh — who really wants to watch those movies again after they've seen them once? In Harry's mind, all the Swiss could take credit for is the cuckoo clock but if Reed's legacy consisted solely of The Third Man, that would be more than enough for which to be grateful.
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Soul Food...from a Can
By Josh R
The history of African-American recording artists in this country is one with a turning point. In the late 1950s, upstart producer Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, the specific mission of which was to bring Rhythm & Blues out of the realm of ethnic specialty and into the mainstream of American culture. From the get-go, it was an uphill battle. While there had been African-American R&B artists with some crossover appeal, notably Fats Domino and Little Richard, white audiences were, at best, wary of the rumblings coming out of Detroit. Rude, rough, racy and unapologetically confrontational, R&B was a tough sell for that segment of the population that wasn’t quite ready to accept any show, overt or otherwise, of African-American power, strength and defiance. Well-heeled suburbanites who happened into Harlem’s Apollo Theater, that inner-city musical cathedral where blues and gospel merged with the insistent beat of rock n’ roll, might well find themselves scuttling towards the exit doors in fits of apoplexy ... and it’s not hard to imagine them double-bolting their own front doors after staggering home to New Rochelle.
When Domino’s first crossover hit, “Ain’t That a Shame,” was infamously covered by squeaky-clean Pat Boone — whose easy-listening style made The Beach Boys look like a metal band — the cover version hit No. 1 on the pop charts, eclipsing the success of the Domino original. Since the Boone track received much wider radio airplay in segregated areas, Gordy understood that a change was needed if black artists had any hope of getting their sound into the mainstream — without seeing it plundered and cannibalized by the Pat Boones of the world, who would ultimately reap the rewards of other people’s labors. A canny appraiser of what white audiences were ready to accept, Gordy deliberately steered R&B away from its boisterous origins, cultivating a milder, softer sound that was more patently listener-friendly. Thus, the raucous, hair-raising vocal stylings of Little Richard were jettisoned in favor of the smooth, silky falsetto of Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s first top attraction in what would soon prove to be an unprecedented stable of talents. It was the most nonthreatening approach he could have taken, and it proved to be a lucrative one — while white audiences of the early 1960s weren’t necessarily prepared for electric firebrands in the James Brown and Tina Turner mold, they were more than happy for the spectacle of smiling black men sweetly harmonizing about having “sunshine on a cloudy day.” Whatever you happen to think of the Motown sound as refined and perfected by Berry Gordy — and I, for one, happen to love it — it must be acknowledged that it was a sanitized, smoothed-over (if not de-fanged) version of how R&B was originally conceived.
This is essentially true of the new film Dreamgirls, based on the wildly successful Broadway musical of the 1980s and brought to the screen by writer-director Bill Condon. Not-so-loosely based on the saga of The Supremes, the trio of singers molded by Gordy into the most influential girl group of all time, the film looks and sounds like a reasonably fair approximation of the Motown style. But looking and sounding the part is only half the battle, and Condon’s effort ultimately feels less like a genuine reflection of the hardscrabble African-American experience in America (and the personalities who served as its artistic spokesmen) than a nice, safe little film pitched directly at a suburban white audience. The result feels cautious, and somewhat on the bland side — the cinematic equivalent of the kind of mass-marketed soul food that comes out of a can. To be fair, this is R&B filtered through the more conciliatory sensibility of Broadway ... nobody expected Hustle & Flow, but we weren’t expecting Mahogany either.
Dreamgirls follows the story of The Supremes closely in many respects. For anyone unfamiliar with the history, Gordy replaced the group’s original lead singer, the soulful Florence Ballard, with Diana Ross, the light-skinned beauty with the tiny little voice. While a consummate performer with star quality to spare, Ross — and I’m sure I’ll get tons of flack for saying this — was never much of a vocal powerhouse. Or really even much of a singer. If not for the science of electronic amplification, it’s doubtful she might ever have found herself on The Supremes roster, let alone serving as its lead vocalist. She was, however, a personality that could be packaged and marketed to the target audience, unencumbered by the kind of virtuosic skill that might overpower the mellow vibe Gordy was trying to create. It was about as far from Aretha Franklin as one could get — it was Nancy Sinatra and Brenda Lee. To be blunt — and go ahead, start firing off those outraged comments accusing me of stereotyping — she sang like a white girl. She also was romantically involved with Gordy at the time, which hardly hurt her cause. Ballard sank into obscurity and poverty, and died at the age of 32, a victim of depression and alcohol abuse.
The film provides its own thinly veiled version of The Supremes in The Dreamettes, a trio comprised of brass-lunged Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), demure Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) and pert Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose). Ambitious would-be producer Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) lands them a gig singing backup for established star James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy), a soul singer in the James Brown-Little Richard mold whose popularity doesn’t extend much beyond the R&B circuit. While romancing the dynamic Effie, whose unabashed confidence makes her full-bodied sensuality only that much more pronounced, Curtis doesn’t permit sentiment to distract him from the goal of using the Dreamettes as a vehicle for crossover success. He installs conventionally pretty, honey-voiced Deena as the new lead vocalist of the re-christened Dreams, demoting Effie to the role of backup vocalist. Her pride and vanity wounded by Curtis’ rejection of her talent, Effie’s inability to accept her diminished role leads to her eventual dismissal from the group. Unlike her real-life counterpart, Florence Ballard, she eventually rises up from the subsequent indignities of poverty to achieve success in her own right as a solo artist. Meanwhile, Deena (now Mrs. Curtis Taylor Jr.) has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the extent to which she has had to sublimate her own personality — conforming to the confining mold Curtis has pushed upon her — and tries to recover her own voice as both an artist and a woman.
It’s basically your standard rags-to-riches formula, enacted in predictably soapy fashion. The cast is undoubtedly talented, but with two notable exceptions, they fail to imbue their roles with much in the way of personality. Foxx comes across as neither dynamic nor ruthless enough to convince as the kind of upstart who could build an empire from scratch — his failure in the role is surprising given what a natural choice he would have seemed to be for the assignment (for a character who, in his own words, "step(s) up to the dark side," he seems pretty harmless). Beyonce looks and sounds like a dream, bringing a creamy luster to her vocals in what would also seem to be a tailor-made role — but she is similarly hamstrung by the soft-focus approach favored by Condon. Her character is supposed to be dewy-eyed and pliant, but without a sense of genuine drive behind the come-hither stage smile, her character arch isn’t particularly compelling. Her performance of the song “Listen,” written specifically for the film, shows off her vocal chops to great effect, and is the only moment in the film where her undeniable star quality is fully utilized. The talented Anika Noni Rose, who won a Tony for her buoyant performance in Caroline or Change?, by necessity comes across as a bit of a third wheel.
That leaves two performers — and they are, for all intensive purposes, the only thing which lends the film any measure of distinction. I watched Jennifer Hudson as a contestant on American Idol — while she impressed with her powerful vocals, there was nothing in her presence to indicate the potential for stardom. As Effie White, however, she commands full attention, at times offering enticing glimpses of what Dreamgirls could have been if brought to life with more conviction. I didn’t see the legendary stage version, but anyone with any familiarity with the show knows that its centerpiece has always been Effie’s raging anthem of defiance and denial, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie, sang the song with such force that it drew ovations the likes of which hadn’t been heard on Broadway since the age of Ethel Merman. Hudson puts the number over with a voracious theatricality and a shattering sense of urgency, all but blowing the lid off of a film which would otherwise seem to settle for tepid complacency when it should be going for the jugular. It’s the highlight of a performance that, while strong from start to finish, may not quite deserve the overweening praise that’s been heaped upon it by critics — truth be told, it’s only when she unleashes her spectacular voice upon the Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen score that the effect is truly riveting. If I remain unconvinced as to whether or not Hudson is, in fact, much of actress, let it be said that she is ideally suited to the demands of the role, and demonstrates a thorough understanding of the bruised feelings and fractious fits of temperament which make Effie a cyclone of a diva. Condon, who has been instrumental in drawing career-best performances from the likes of Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, doubtless deserve some of the credit.
It is Eddie Murphy, however, who provides Dreamgirls with its most effective acting performance. As the rough-living soul singer who can’t temper his electric style to suit the demands of the industry, he creates a touching study of a tortured soul struggling to bridge the gap between his natural assurance as a performer and his lack of wherewithal when the curtain comes down. Once the former has been cruelly taken away from (Curtis tries to shoe-horn him into the mold of an Al Green-style crooner), it isn’t long before his self-destructive impulses fully take hold. The advance word was that Murphy, along with everyone else in the film, would be swept away by the tidal wave of Hudson’s tour-de-force, but that proves not to be the case. Again, this is the sort of film that can only furnish good performances, as opposed to great ones, since there isn't much complexity of characterization — but Murphy certainly acquits himself well, and he and Hudson come closer than anyone else to suggesting the turbulence of the artistic temperament, and the restless, audacious spirit of a generation of musical pioneers.
The re-emergence of the movie musical has been a heartening development in recent years, even if the films themselves haven’t always provided much cause for cheer. Dreamgirls is far from a debacle on the level of The Phantom of the Opera, which was as overwrought as it was overproduced, or as disappointing as The Producers, which managed to be singularly uncinematic in Susan Stroman’s insistence on treating her original Broadway staging as if it were the Holy Grail. Hell, next to something like Babel, it could be called a masterpiece (will I ever stop razzing Babel? Not in this lifetime, kids). But Dreamgirls, while not a bad film, is sorely lacking in the one crucial ingredient by which a musical succeeds or fails — a sense of vitality. Bland and safe when it needed to be vibrant, it keeps its soul hidden under a bushel.
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Thursday, December 28, 2006
It isn't easy hating evil
By Edward Copeland
Finally, I got to see a good copy of Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well thanks to the Criterion DVD version. A long time ago I had attempted to watch it on the previously released and atrocious DVD version which contained some of the worst subtitle translations I've ever read. So much so, that I abandoned the effort realizing that that was not the way to see this film. It was worth the wait.
The Bad Sleep Well, like many Kurosawa efforts, is too long, but it is quite good telling the story of a man (Toshiro Mifune) determined to bring down corrupt bureaucrats and corporate bosses for reasons that aren't spelled out initially.
It's always interesting to see a Kurosawa film that is set in the time in which it was released, and The Bad Sleep Well is a good example of a non-period piece from him, even if it's not quite up to the level of something truly great such as Ikiru.
It wouldn't be fair to delve too much into the story for those who may want to see it eventually, but then this film aspires to being much more than just a simple revenge tale, exploring various issues of guilt, justice and the risk of becoming what you hate in the single-minded pursuit of vengeance.
The Criterion print presents the film in crisp, clear images, showing some of Kurosawa's best technical work and cinematography. It also contains a 30-minute documentary from a Japanese series exclusively on the making of The Bad Sleep Well that provides some great insights on how Kurosawa worked from many of the actors and craftspeople who worked on the film.
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Wednesday, December 27, 2006
Peckinpah goes to war
By Edward Copeland
With the strides — if that's the correct word — that Sam Peckinpah made in the depiction of cinematic violence, you would think that he would have found his way to World War II long before 1977's Cross of Iron. (Of course, he had filmed a war movie before in 1965's Major Dundee, but not one set in WWII). While too long and again overusing slow motion, the film is an interesting piece despite its flaws, namely for telling the story from the point of view of German officers. Of course, Cross of Iron does cop out a bit in this regard.
Unlike Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima this year which gives a genuinely sympathetic view of Japanese soldiers without going to the extent of showing the soldiers as opposed to their country's efforts, Cross of Iron goes to great pains to separate its German characters from the Nazis and their goals.
The maverick sergeant (James Coburn) who plays the lead role, frequently expresses his disdain for the war, tries to save an adolescent Russian soldier and prevents the rape of some women.
Even the ostensible villain of the piece, an ambitious Prussian aristocrat (Maximilian Schell), makes a point of emphasizing that he does not belong to the Nazi Party. After awhile, all the qualifying remarks started to remind me of the "I hate this case" aside that Mary Steenburgen's defense attorney makes in Philadelphia as she's representing the law firm that fired Tom Hanks.
Despite those moments, much of the movie does prove compelling with Peckinpah providing the horrifying images of war you'd expect him to come up with, such as scenes of tanks rolling over corpses and particularly brutal deaths.
The most puzzling part of Cross of Iron is its lack of forward direction and a particularly odd series of comical freeze frames to wrap up the movie.
It's not one of Peckinpah's best works, but it certainly was a step up from The Killer Elite.
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Tuesday, December 26, 2006
You can't get blood from a stone
By Edward Copeland
You also can't generate interest from a bore and nothing surprised me more than how uninterested I was watching Blood Diamond, almost to the point that I considered not writing anything at all because I find so little to say. Sure, the performances are good — Leonardo DiCaprio keeps getting better with age — but the story itself left me cold, something that's not helpful for a film that runs about 2 1/2 hours long.
It's puzzling — because the film raises so many interesting issues involving the exploitation of Africans, especially children, to finance the world's diamond trade yet it ends up playing as if it's just an action film, and not a particularly interesting one.
DiCaprio is good. Djimon Hounsou is fine — I've never quite understood all the adoration he's received since Amistad. Every performance of his seems to be the same to me whether he's playing a 19th-century slave, a New York resident suffering from AIDS or the African who finds a valuable gem here and fears for his family's future.
To me, the biggest surprise in Blood Diamond turns out to be Jennifer Connelly. She seems to be working in reverse from the so-called Oscar curse on supporting actress winners. I thought she won for a nothing role in A Beautiful Mind, but since then she's really impressed me, first in House of Sand and Fog, to a lesser extent in this year's Little Children and now in Blood Diamond.
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Altman at his loopiest
By Edward Copeland
Earlier this year, when the Academy announced that it would finally honor Robert Altman, albeit with an Honorary Oscar instead of a competitive one, I made a concerted effort to start catching up with those films of his I'd never seen and to revisit some of the ones that I had. That journey has brought me to the really odd comedy O.C. and Stiggs.
I'd first caught most of this eons ago on late-night cable, when it attracted my attention simply by the inclusion of the political candidate Hal Phillip Walker from Nashville — giving the face of Thomas Hal Phillips here and not just a voice. Watching the entire film, his presence seems like an inside joke because there isn't much to it, just as there isn't much to the film itself.
Imagine Altman trying to make one of those Savage Steve Holland teen comedies from the 1980s — and doing it badly — and you get the idea. In fact, on the DVD, Altman acknowledges that he really had little interest in making O.C. and Stiggs except as a satire of all those 1980s teen comedies which he admits to despising.
O.C. and Stiggs isn't awful, the way Beyond Therapy was, but it's just really weird. However, it does have some pluses — namely an early appearance by the wonderful Cynthia Nixon and one of its two leads is Daniel Jenkins, son of Ken Jenkins of Scrubs fame, both of whom would find their way into a much better Altman project — the first great HBO series, Tanner' 88.
For that alone, we should be glad that O.C. and Stiggs came to fruition, as odd an unsuccessful as it may be.
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Saturday, December 23, 2006
Prada, Prada, Prada
By Edward Copeland
It's been said that clothes make the man, but this year it certainly seems to be the case with many movies that performances make the film and acting most definitely gives the surge to an otherwise so-so comedy in The Devil Wears Prada, particularly a trio of turns by Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci, that make the whole enterprise worth watching. Unfortunately, the lead role in the movie belongs to Anne Hathaway and though she can't really be blamed, her part is so colorless and her motivations so mystifying, that it's no wonder the characters who surround her are able to practically blow her off the screen.
Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, an aspiring journalist living in New York with her aspiring chef boyfriend (Adrian Grenier, in another role whose every scene makes the viewer start tapping their feet in impatience for the interesting characters to come back). For some reason, Andy (as her friends call her) decides that a good path to writing success would be to apply for a lackey position with a viper named Miranda Priestly (Streep), who runs one of the world's top fashion magazines. Why should Andy choose this career path? Is it desperation? Has she been out of work for a long time and needs any paying gig? Beats me. Andy has no interest in being a clotheshorse or pencil-thin — until suddenly she does.
Her sudden turns in the movie seemed motivated more by the clock on the wall than anything written into the character herself and, unfortunately, Hathaway offers little by way of fleshing Andy out. Then again, what is Andy but a vehicle for meeting the real stars of the film, particularly Streep in what may be the comic highlight of her career as Miranda. She's cold, calculating and just when you think it's a one-note turn, she'll show you another layer to Miranda — but not for long.
Tucci also gets some good screen time as the magazine's long-suffering art director Nigel, who does the Extreme Makeover on Andy. The other fine performance comes from Emily Blunt as Miranda's No. 1 assistant, who tries to be as ruthless and heartless as her boss, but just can't quite cut it, even as Andy is unwittingly pulling an Eve Harrington on her.
If not for that troika of thespians, there wouldn't be much to recommend about The Devil Wears Prada, which goes on far too long for as light a vehicle as it is, but it's worth it if only to see Streep, Tucci and Blunt shine. That is all.
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Friday, December 22, 2006
Road to Morocco (minus Hope & Crosby)
By Josh R
In order to enjoy films, individually and collectively, you need to be willing and able to exercise suspension of disbelief.
You can’t expect every film to be, in every respect, completely realistic. For instance, if you look at the portion of It’s a Wonderful Life in which the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what the world would have been like if he had never existed, and your reaction is one of “Well, that’s just not believable” or “That would never happen,” then honey, you’re missing the point. You have to leave your understanding of what is within the realm of realistic possibility at the door.
But there are limits.
Case in point: there’s a little film called Babel winding its way through our nation’s movie theaters that is so completely illogical in every respect that it strains credulity well past the breaking point.
Now, Babel isn’t a fantasy-based film such as Harry Potter, nor science fiction, nor the kind of broad comedy where you accept the ridiculousness as in keeping with the spirit of the thing — it purports to be a realistic drama. But the implausibility factor has been ratcheted up so high that somewhere, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are watching this thing and mumbling to themselves, “You’ve gotta be fuckin' kidding me.” Copeland, I know you had issues with Training Day. I'll bet it's starting to look pretty damn reasonable right about now.
I shall now proceed TO SPOIL THE ENTIRE FILM, ruining many major plot points for the uninitiated, because frankly, I think it deserves to be spoiled — and I don’t mean by treating it to ice cream. For those of you playing the home game, I have enumerated the ways in which Babel flies in the face of reason and sanity, in some instances violating even the very laws of physics, to better help you keep score.
A film such as this needs big name stars (and a producer with a strange sense of humor) in order to get made. Babel provides these in the attractive personages of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as an American couple vacationing abroad. The loss of a baby to crib death has caused a rift in their marriage — apparently Pitt’s character deserted his wife and remaining children shortly after the little tot heaved its last breath, which is how so many grieving parents react under the circumstances (1). Really, there isn’t any explanation beyond that — the kid died, and Dad went away. And then came back.
Anyway, Pitt is trying to make amends with his understandably aggrieved missus, who treats him with the kind of edgy hostility usually reserved for traffic court. Getting back into his wife’s good graces apparently entails dragging her on a trip to the ever-popular vacation paradise that is the economically depressed rural western portion of Morocco (2). When the wife asks the husband exactly why they’re there — and who can blame her? — Pitt replies “to be alone.” His notion of being alone involves getting on a stuffy, overcrowded tour bus which travels from one depressing third world sinkhole to another (3) since, apparently, the Moroccan Board of Tourism wants British and American visitors to see only the cruddiest, most poverty-stricken parts of their mountainous terrain (4), the areas where they’ll think twice before sampling the water. As far as I know, the tour hasn’t been sponsored by UNICEF.
This is the portion of the film that makes sense, relatively speaking.
Meanwhile — or rather, before all of this — a Moroccan goat farmer buys a rifle from a neighbor for the purpose of scaring off jackals which threaten his flock. He immediately gives the gun to his 11-year-old son Yusef (4.5, making allowances for cultural differences), who proves to be a crack shot on his very first attempt at target practice. Hitting a rock from a distance of several yards on your first try can be attributed to dumb luck, but apparently, if you put a Model 720 12-gauge shotgun in the hands of a child with no prior knowledge of firearms, some of them can hit remote targets with the pinpoint accuracy of WWII snipers (5). Of course, I don’t know much about shooting things and how quickly it takes to acquire advanced skills, but these kids today can theoretically develop some sense of what’s involved from their Xbox and PS2 combat games — and just because I didn’t see a game console in the rock-and-mud hut which Yusef and his family call home doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.
In any event, this child prodigy makes Annie Oakley look like a quadriplegic trying to operate a slingshot. This is a wee bit of a problem since Moroccan pre-teens don’t grasp the potential consequences of shooting at moving vehicles for fun (6). In the single most spectacular and unlikely piece of sharp-shooting since David felled Goliath, Yusef hits Brad & Cate’s faraway tour bus from the top of a mountain and at an approximate distance of at least half a kilometer — it’s the third time he’s fired the gun since Daddy gave it to him to play with, so his skills have understandably improved (7). It would be a tough shot for even Vassili Zaitsev, but to be fair, Mozart was writing symphonies at 5 — you just can’t stop these natural gifts!
Of course, Yusef’s bullet finds its way right into Cate Blanchett, to the understandable consternation of her husband; this was not one of the things listed on Dr. Phil’s 10 Easy Steps to Fixing Your Marriage. Since there are no hospitals nearby, the tourists must travel to an isolated village with one doctor, who can be of only limited assistance given the patient’s critical condition. Over the course of the next several hours, Brad Pitt has no success in getting an ambulance to come for his wife, since there are apparently certain political considerations which take precedence over the Moroccan government’s desire not to have a gun-shot American tourist bleed to death on their turf as they twiddle their thumbs and the entire world watches via live CNN coverage (8, 9 and 10 — because it’s too cracked to assign a one-point value). Really, if the film has a message, it’s that public relations are not Morocco’s strongest suit ... or any kind of priority whatsoever. I guess they're not counting on that tourist trade. Over the next few hours, Blanchett smokes hash and Pitt beats a guy up.
Later on, Yusef’s father is equally upset to learn that (a) his son shot and perhaps killed an American tourist and (b) that his daughter has been letting Yusef watch her undress though a crack in the wall. Again, we can make allowances here for cultural differences, although I’m sure there are plenty of American parents who might experience similar reactions under the circumstances (“You shot somebody?! And you saw your sister naked?!?!) (11).
It gets better — if that's the operative term.
Back home in the good old USA, Pitt and Blanchett’s two remaining children are being cared for by Amelia, an illegal Mexican immigrant who works as their nanny — the one aspect of this film which is, sadly, entirely plausible, given America’s history of exploiting its illegal immigrant population as cheap labor without benefits. These kids have such a close bond with Amelia that they are — as is commonly the case with so many children under school age from affluent WASP homes that employ illegal servants — completely fluent in Spanish (12). I suppose this is theoretically possible given that, as Amelia later states, she has been with them since birth — although I have to believe that most English-speaking parents would prefer for their infants to learn English before they learn to speak other languages. Imagine how proud Brad Pitt must have been when his son’s first word was “Popi.” (13)
Anyway, Amelia has a sticky problem on her hands. She’s been planning to make a daytrip to Mexico for her son’s wedding, since, as we all know, so many people who have entered this country illegally — either by sneaking across borders at great risk to their personal safety or in crates marked "Handle with Care" using drink coolers as toilets — make casual return visits to the countries they escaped from (14). The difficulty stems from the fact that she must stay and care for the children, since she has no friends who can sub for her, and there are no professional babysitting services available in the isolated rural community of San Diego (15). A nephew, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, does in fact know someone who can take care of the children, but Amelia has a much better idea. The most logical thing to do, given her predicament, is to transport the children out of the country without the knowledge of their parents (16 — again, it should be worth more, but I shouldn’t play favorites). It doesn’t occur to either Amelia or her nephew — who, while presumably both illegal, haven’t really been fully impressed by the seriousness of all matters relating to the unlawful conveyance of persons across international borders — that this may not be the best way to proceed.
At this point, I feel compelled to say that there is a certain scale of permissibility when it comes to taking other peoples' kids places without them knowing about it. If a child falls and breaks his arm, by all means, take him to the hospital — even if you can’t get in touch with the parent. Under the circumstances, this is considered entirely acceptable behavior. Taking a child with you on a brief excursion to the grocery store when you run out of milk is probably not likely to be considered a major transgression. You might even let them get candy bars at the checkout. If the parent takes issue with your actions, it’s what can be termed “an error of judgment.” Taking a child on a long-distance road trip without the consent of the parent is actually what is known as “kidnapping.” If said unauthorized road trip, however innocently intended, involves taking the child out of the United States of America and across international borders, that is what is known as “stupid beyond all measure of human comprehension.” For anyone out there reading this who works in the field of private child care, including you kids who want to earn a few extra bucks babysitting, it’s important to take note of these distinctions. It's really very simple: get them to bed at a reasonable hour, make sure they brush their teeth first, and try not to take them out of the country. Write yourself a note in case you forget.
Happily for Amelia and company, the wedding goes off without a hitch — the kids even get to see a live chicken being slaughtered. When it comes to time to return home, the group naturally decides to go back the way they came, since it’s so easy for Hispanic persons to get though Mexican-American border customs checkpoints without unimpeachable documentation of citizenship (17). Given how sensitive the issue of illegal immigration is in our contemporary sociopolitical climate, the extent to which the film trivializes matters — making the characters' attitudes toward breaching borders casual beyond the realm of plausibility — is insulting in the extreme. As a fate would have it, a particularly nasty customs official decides to give them a hard time, at which point Bernal’s character does the only sensible thing he can do under the circumstances — even though he has done nothing wrong, he makes like O.J. Simpson, guns the Buick and engages the border patrol on a high speed car chase (18). For their own protection, he dumps Amelia and the children, because the safest place for them to be is apparently in the middle of more than a hundred square miles of uninhabited desert surrounded by rattlesnakes and with no food or water (19). In interest of fairness to the person who wrote this, whom I will be tactful enough not to mention by name, Bernal’s character is supposed to be somewhat intoxicated at the time — not so much that he can’t drive from Mexico to San Diego, you understand, but just drunk enough to act like an idiot with a death wish.
As if things weren’t muddled enough, there is a third storyline, although the relation it bears to the other two is minimal at best — so much so that there’s little reason for it being in the same film. Chieko is a deaf-mute Japanese teenager whose life is no bowl of cherries. At the age of budding sexual awareness, she is itching to sow some wild oats. Unfortunately, there is no one in the city of Tokyo who wants to have sex with a pretty, nubile teenager who flaunts the fact that she doesn't wear underwear (20). Sometimes, boys are mean to her when they find out she’s deaf. As so many women with physical handicaps know, the best way to get back at people who are intolerant of your disability is to flash ‘em some cooter (21…and ewww). In a howler of a scene, she tries to seduce her unreceptive dentist by licking his face, after which he goes right back to cleaning her teeth (22). Twice (23). Not having achieved the desired result, she proceeds to jam his hand into her crotch. Much to his credit, he sends her and her molars packing after that.
We eventually learn — not that it provides any real justification for the inclusion of the Japanese storyline in this film — that Chieko’s father originally owned the gun which he gave to the guy who sold it to the man whose son used it to shoot Blanchett (yeah, that’s how far they have to reach to establish a link). To all you world travelers, if you’re ever big-game hunting in a Middle Eastern or North African country, as soon as you’ve racked up as many antlers as you can stuff in your carry-on, the best thing to do is to give your $700 .720 caliber 12-gauge shotgun to some Third World local in a turban you don’t know very well (24). It’s just good manners — and apparently, there’s very little legal liability as far as Japanese law enforcement is concerned (25).
Somewhere in the midst of the insanity is an unrealized potential for great camp. Unfortunately, Babel is about as much fun as watching someone pulling the wings off butterflies for 2 hours and 22 minutes. The filmmakers take such gratuitous pleasure in observing the unrelieved suffering of others that the result verges on sadism. Usually, the year’s stupidest film is also its most depressing, but this kind of thing would be unbearably depressing even if it wasn’t such a crock.
Incredible as it may sound, some of the performers are on the receiving end of year-end awards buzz. Rinko Kikuchi plays Chieko — while she doesn’t embarrass herself as an actress, the filmmakers do a pretty good job of it for her. No one could be credible in a role like this, which would probably be degrading if it weren't so utterly absurd. The character belongs in a different film entirely (and that film is Shortbus). Adriana Barraza has some quietly affecting moments as Amelia, and might even have emerged with her dignity intact if the character’s behavior weren’t so unrelentingly stupid from start to finish. Of Mr. Pitt’s performance in Babel, I would like to say that he did a terrific job in Thelma & Louise. It’s not that he’s bad, but the performance seems to me so utterly inconsequential that I doubt we’d be hearing any mention of the word Oscar if a non-celebrity were playing it (and there are plenty who would have done it just as well, and probably better). I’m not one of those snobs who think that someone needs to be able to cry on cue in order to be considered a good actor. That said, the most amusing aspect of Babel for me was the manner in which the filmmakers abruptly cut away from Pitt’s big emotional scene to divert attention from the fact that the actor, while giving a strenuous physical representation of crying, wasn’t actually doing so.
Oddly, the person who may come across best in Babel is Blanchett, mainly because she spends the bulk of the film writhing on the floor in pain. Which is more or less how I experienced it. Although no one involved with Babel deserves an Oscar nomination, the people who have to sit through it deserve a cash settlement.
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Thursday, December 21, 2006
The first casualty of war is truth
Call him drunken Ira Hayes
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Indian
Nor the Marine that went to war
Then Ira started drinkin' hard;
Jail was often his home
They'd let him raise the flag and lower it
like you'd throw a dog a bone!
He died drunk one mornin'
Alone in the land he fought to save
Two inches of water in a lonely ditch
Was a grave for Ira Hayes
"The Ballad of Ira Hayes" as sung by Johnny Cash
By Edward Copeland
I've been familiar with Johnny Cash's song for a long time but it wasn't until I finally saw Flags of Our Fathers that I realized who he was talking about — and the tragic story of Ira Hayes, well-played by Adam Beach, is one of this otherwise flawed film's most positive attributes.
The first of Clint Eastwood's two films concerning the World War II battle for Iwo Jima certainly looks great, but the film itself, written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis from the book by James Bradley and Ron Powers, never seems to find its bearings. There is a great story to be told here, but the structure and pacing undermine its effectiveness.
The focus is on three servicemen in World War II, the aforementioned Hayes, John "Doc" Bradley (Ryan Phillippe) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), who helped raise a flag at Iwo Jima — only it wasn't the flag made famous in the photo since an officer ordered the original removed when a greedy connected soldier sought to take the flag as a souvenir and the men were ordered to replace it with the second one.
Unfortunately, most of the men who raised the original flag died during the battle and the U.S. government — hungry for P.R. to spur the war bond drive as funds to pay for the war begin to run dry — employ the three young men to tour the U.S. in the fund-raising effort. (Imagine — a government fighting a just war actually searching for ways to pay for the effort instead of passing debt on to future generations while giving huge tax benefits to the wealthiest Americans.)
While this certainly provides meaty material for a story that most people today would be unfamiliar with as well as some parallels to current events, the bouncing structure never seems to coalesce in a way to allow Flags of Our Fathers to gain momentum. Instead, the film moves in fits and starts.
Eastwood does compose some nice sequences, but many of the battle scenes uncomfortably resemble outtakes from the opening of Saving Private Ryan. Still, the performers do help a lot — especially Beach as the tormented Ira Hayes, guilty for taking credit for something his fallen comrades did, and Bradford (13 years after he first appeared on the film radar as the young protagonist in Steven Soderbergh's underrated King of the Hill) as a soldier hoping to build a juicy life out of his good fortune.
It's easy to see why Flags of Our Fathers has faltered at the box office — it's not enough of a war story to satisfy the action junkies and the dramatic side of politics and guilt don't quite come together. It's a shame, but read on to the next post — Eastwood sure didn't wait long to make up for this disappointment.
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By Edward Copeland
As a director, Clint Eastwood had made some very fine films (such as Unforgiven) but nothing, not even all the early buzz, prepared me for the power he summons as a filmmaker in Letters From Iwo Jima. I had the unique opportunity to watch Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima basically one after another and Letters is such a remarkable movie that it only made what I already thought was a mixed effort with Flags look like an even lesser film.
Sure, they are being sold as companion pieces, but it's not necessary because Letters From Iwo Jima is the true keeper and the one that will really stand the test of time long after Flags of Our Fathers fades from our memories. With nearly all the dialogue in Japanese, I really think that Letters From Iwo Jima stands a chance at becoming the first foreign language film to scoop up a best picture Oscar win and, based on what I've seen so far this year, it deserves the prize.
Ken Watanabe stars as a Japanese general sent to oversee operations on the island as they anticipate an imminent U.S. attack and are determined to hold this bit of Japanese soil. Watanabe, who has been good in English-language roles in The Last Samurai and Memoirs of a Geisha, exhibits even more acting power speaking in his native tongue as the officer who knows he and his men have basically been left to die and who holds a soft spot in his heart for the American way of life due to time he spent in the states long before war reared its ugly head.
Whereas the battle scenes in Flags of Our Fathers seem overly familiar, Letters From Iwo Jima makes it seem as if Eastwood was holding it all back for this film, creating some of the most harrowing images of warfare I've ever seen on film.
The film, written by Iris Yamashita from a story by Yamashita and Paul Haggis, Letters From Iwo Jima delivers an emotional punch that's difficult to duck or resist as you watch the Japanese soldiers torn by their desire to win the war or just plain survive, especially once they realize that devastated Japanese forces elsewhere have basically abandoned them to die on the island — and expect them to do so. The faces of the actors playing these desperate men likely will be burned in your memory for long after Letters From Iwo Jima has finished its tale.
It's also worth noting that while Letters is a good 10 minutes or more longer than Flags, it never drags as Eastwood's other film did. I feel as if I should go on forever about how great this film is — I haven't even touched on the great technical aspects such as Tom Stern's cinematography — but at the same time, my memory of it is so fresh that I feel as if I should see it again before I expound more — and that I should also let others savor the experience for themselves.
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Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Sexual perversity in suburbia
By Edward Copeland
I was a fan of Todd Field's In the Bedroom, especially the performances of Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, though I understood the criticism some had of it — it was pretty heavy and humorless. I'm glad to say that Little Children raises Field's work as a director another notch and does inject levity into the proceedings.
In fact, for the first hour or so, I was enthralled and thought I might be watching the best 2006 film until I started to fear that various story strands weren't going to come together in a cohesive, satisfying way. I still liked Little Children a great deal, but alas it doesn't tie its story together in a way to really make the whole package work.
Usually, I'm no great fan of voiceover narration, but in Little Children it really works as performed by Will Lyman as an omniscient storyteller, who I assume is lifting passages directly from the novel by Tom Perrotta upon which the film is based (and whose screenplay was co-written by Perrotta and Field). Those passages insert a lot of sardonic humor into the story and serve as elaboration instead of exposition.
Kate Winslet is the ostensible star as a suburban mom with an unhappy marriage to a man with a secret Internet porn habit and a daughter to whom she can't really connect. She spends most days taking the girl to the park where other stay-at-home moms gather to gossip and chatter, especially about the sudden return of "The Prom King" (Patrick Wilson), a rare father who shows up to the park with his child.
Having failed the Bar Exam twice, Wilson seems unsatisfied as he depends upon his wife (Jennifer Connelly), but he and Winslet develop a friendship. On top of these stories hang the community's concern about the arrival of a released sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley, long absent from movie screens but still recognizable from his days in the original Bad News Bears and Breaking Away), especially a former cop (Noah Emmerich) who develops an obsession with the freed man.
For most of the film, I was entranced, not only by the performances and sharp script, but especially by Field's visual style, which has really grown since In the Bedroom. However, as the film moved along, the feeling that there wasn't a clear destination in mind began to gnaw at me, a feeling that unfortunately proved to be true. The Wilson-Winslet plot and the Emmerich-Haley story, though loosely tied through Wilson's character's connection to Emmerich's, almost feel as if they belong in separate films, though Emmerich and Haley's tale does resolve itself more satisfactorily than the Wilson-Winslet one does.
I don't want to sound too harsh about Little Children — even with its flaws, it's one of the better films I've seen this year and I liked it better than In the Bedroom. Winslet, as usual, turns in a great performance, and it's good to see Haley again, even if I think a lot of the praise his performance has generated can be more attributable to his comeback than to his acting itself.
Still, Field as a director really impressed me and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.
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Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Does this look inanimate to you?
On the 19th day in the month of December in a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a very entertaining treat to its very existence. This hysterically funny joy came, as such joys often do, in the local movie theater…
By Edward Copeland
Twenty years ago today, one of the most enjoyable films of my moviegoing life was released and while movie musicals have seen somewhat of a resurgence of late, for me, none hold a candle to Frank Oz's great film version of Little Shop of Horrors.
Chicago was fun. Moulin Rouge was designed for viewers with the attention spans of gnats. The Phantom of the Opera was a bore. I could never bring myself to see Rent, because I loved the stage version too much and could see that Chris Columbus was going to blow its transfer to the screen. Dreamgirls had good performances but turned out to be an overlong botch and Nine — that sounded like a terrible idea for turning from a musical to a movie when I first heard about it and then the film managed to be even worse than my low expectations. The two best attempts at stage adaptations were undermined by bad casting — Helena Bonham Carter in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd and John Travolta's horrid drag performance in the film version of the musical Hairspray. Really, of the three best recent attempts at movie musicals one was animated — 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut — and the other two barely got seen — 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and 2003's Camp.
However, re-watching Little Shop of Horrors , the movie still holds up as one of the best movie musicals to come out in the post-death-of-movie-musicals era. To think that a Roger Corman 1960 quickie filmed in a little more than two days could decades later inspire such a winning musical still astounds me. Granted, my exposure to Little Shop of Horrors came during my formative years in high school, I was pleased to see how much I still enjoyed the film when I sat down to watch it again for the first time in years, though it did produce a bit of sadness in me that Howard Ashman isn't here anymore to keep producing work such as this. His great book and lyrics teamed with Alan Menken's music are infectious and launched the team's work on the resurgence of Disney animation with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before Ashman's death from AIDS during the production of Aladdin, when Tim Rice was brought in and future Disney animated scores lost all of Ashman's wit and subversive qualities and became Disneyfied, saccharine and hackneyed. Still, we should be grateful for the Ashman lyrics we did manage to hear, especially his infectious score for Little Shop of Horrors, often sung through the Greek chorus of Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell.
One thing that really struck me upon re-visiting the movie is how great that set is to behold. It simultaneously seems like a stage show transferred to the big screen while opening up with its wonderfully artificial yet three-dimensional rendering of Skid Row thanks to the imaginative and magnificent production design by Roy Walker (who served the same role on Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining) aided by art director Stephen Spence and set decorator Tessa Davies. Putting some of the finishing touches on the film's canvas are the spot-on costumes designed by Marit Allen, John Jympson's editing and Robert Paynter's cinematography. Director Frank Oz (the Muppeteer best known as the voice of Yoda and Miss Piggy) never directed a movie better than this and Little Shop shows an astounding display of cinematic gifts on his part that he's unfortunately never come close to matching. Of course, what really makes this movie soar are the many great performances, led by Rick Moranis as Seymour Krelborn who discovers the mysterious plant with a hidden agenda.
Moranis' lovesick nebbish is a delight (and his singing isn't half bad either) as he longs for the delightfully daffy Audrey (Ellen Greene, repeating her stage triumph) and finds that his way to her heart could involve murder and world domination at the behest of a plant from outer space. Seymour even goes so far as to name the plant Audrey II after his unrequited love interest, who unfortunately is embroiled in an abusive relationship with one Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin in one of his greatest performances). Greene gets some of the show's best numbers such as "Somewhere That's Green," where she longs for a domestic life similar to those that look so perfect on TV, and "Suddenly Seymour," her duet with Moranis where they declare their feelings for one another once Scrivello is no longer in the picture, though of course a bigger villain stands in the way of their happiness. We still get to see Greene from time to time. IMDb list her most recent credit as a role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless, but it's a shame that she wasn't able to turn this star turn into bigger and better things either in theater or the movies.
Martin's Scrivello manages to be funny and scary. His scenes turn out so superbly they almost threaten to take over the entire movie. His set pieces within Orin's dental office (Did I forget to mention that he's a dentist? Relax! Want some nitrous oxide? Suit yourself.) are priceless. His sadistic dentist could prove just a one-note joke (with one great song) if it weren't for the scenes here, most especially when he encounters the world's most masochistic patient in Bill Murray, playing the role that a young Jack Nicholson had in the original 1960 nonmusical version. It's not often that you can say that someone plays a part better than Jack did, but Murray pulls it off here. Then again, has anyone else ever tried to play a Nicholson part on film after he's put his stamp on it other than Murray? (Of course, since I originally wrote this piece five years ago, we had the late Heath Ledger take on The Joker and win a posthumous Oscar for it.) This brilliant comic duet — where the sadist finds a masochist offensive — remains laugh-out-loud funny to this very day.
However, of all the great cast members, none prove more important that one who only appears as a voice — the great Levi Stubbs of Four Tops fame (who, alas, left us since I originally wrote this) giving voice to Audrey II. From the moment Audrey II begins to speak in Stubbs' great baritone, seducing Seymour with his plead to "Feed Me," to his climactic showstopper "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" (the coolest Oscar-nominated song until "Blame Canada" from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut usurped the title), Stubbs owns this movie. I'd also be neglectful not to mention the great work of the late Vincent Gardenia as the owner of the flower shop where Seymour and Audrey work and cameos by the likes of the late John Candy, Christopher Guest and Joe Flaherty. Of course, I know purists of the stage show will regret that test audiences made Oz and the studio relent and nix the more pessimistic ending where Audrey II wins and everyone ends up as plant food, but the movie entertains so thoroughly, I'm prepared to forgive it. So here's to those integral to the film who have left us in the past quarter-century since its release: Levi Stubbs, Howard Ashman, Vincent Gardenia, John Candy, producer Denis Holt, associate producer David Orton, composer Miles Goodman, director of photography Robert Paynter, film editor Jim Jympson, set decorator Tessa Davies, costume designer Marit Allen and any other members of the cast and crew who might have left us that I missed and to the ones still with us on the
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Guess what's coming to dinner
By Edward Copeland
OK, The Last King of Scotland doesn't include the much-told tale of Idi Amin serving up the head of an opponent during a dinner while he ruled Uganda, but I couldn't resist using that as the title of the review anyway. In the major critics' awards so far, Forest Whitaker has managed a nearly clean sweep of best actor prizes for his work as Amin and seeing the film, it's easy to see why.
If you are old enough to have seen footage of the real Idi Amin, Whitaker perfectly captures the bluster and charisma of this brutal tyrant who longs for good P.R. while dispatching his enemies in the most vicious fashion possible.
As a general rule, I find the vast number of movies about real-life African or African-American characters that are told through the eyes of some white guy (Think Kevin Kline in the Steven Biko story Cry Freedom) a bit disconcerting. However, here, where Amin is seen through the eyes of a Scottish doctor (James McAvoy), it seems necessary. You almost need an outsider to tell Amin's story because it would be difficult to focus a tale exclusively on him. As great as Whitaker is, a little Idi goes a long way, even if McAvoy's protagonist is a bit of a bland one.
Co-written by Peter Morgan, the same screenwriter who produced this year's gem The Queen, The Last King of Scotland is far from a perfect movie and director Kevin MacDonald lets it drag on a bit too much at times, but it's another case of something that seems to be more and more common: Films that are worth seeing for performances alone and Whitaker certainly provides one of those here.
Sure, some of the machinations of the plot are a bit much — it says it's based on real events but it's also based on a novel so who knows if the doctor really knocked up Amin's wife (Kerry Washington)? Still, Whitaker's turn provides such a powerful punch that it's easy to overlook The Last King of Scotland's flaws.
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Monday, December 18, 2006
Company Worth Keeping
By Josh R
The first time I saw Citizen Kane, I probably was about 14 years old. I didn’t see what the big deal was. Listening to classical music was about as much fun as sitting through a Yom Kippur service, and following televised election returns produced nearly as many thrills as shopping for school supplies. Wine tasted like the kind of bitter over-the-counter medicine your mom had to force down your throat when you had the flu, and shellfish — I don’t count shrimp — wasn’t something I was even willing to look at, let alone ingest (let’s be honest…no matter how they taste, the tentacled bastards still look like overgrown insects). From the moment I first heard them, the vocal stylings of Billie Holiday brought to mind visions of singing Muppets. Personal tastes are subjective, formed in the early stages of our development, and aren’t always subject to change.
Stephen Sondheim’s Company, initially presented on Broadway in 1970 and the winner of the following year’s Tony Award for best musical, is one of those shows I’ve managed to remain resolutely blasé about since it first popped up on my radar screen. I’ve listened to the score countless times since I got the original cast recording some 15 years ago, and have seen several productions of it, most notably the 1996 Roundabout Theater Company revival directed by Scott Ellis. While the score includes two of Sondheim’s most indelible compositions — the acid-laced skewering of “The Ladies Who Lunch” and that bittersweet anthem of longing, “Being Alive” — as a whole it doesn’t qualify as one of the composer’s most interesting or memorable.
The essentially plotless book by George Furth, generally acknowledged as one the weakest for any Sondheim show, feels like a series of second-rate sketches from The Carol Burnett Show — the kind where Carol reported for duty in plain clothes and played it relatively straight. Basically, it’s a series of vignettes linked together by the presence of Bobby, a commitment-phobic bachelor, who is alternately intrigued and horrified by what he observes of the state of matrimony, as embodied by his circle of married friends. I’ve always maintained that it’s a show I’d rather listen to than watch on a stage.
If I remember correctly, I was 16 when I saw Citizen Kane for the second time in a high school journalism class and recognized it for the masterpiece that it is. I don’t remember how old I was when I developed a taste for chardonnay and shellfish — just put a steamed lobster in front of me and I’m as happy as a clam. I can listen to Dvorak’s New World Symphony over and over again for hours on end, and election night usually finds me glued to the television set parsing over returns with the feverish intensity of Madame Curie trying to isolate radium.
I’m not entirely sure how and when most of these reversals came about; some must have been the result of gradual persuasion as my tastes reached maturity, while others took the form of abrupt about-faces. I can however pinpoint Dec. 5, 2006, as the day when Company not only finally made sense, but made a believer out of me. A character in the show, the tart-tongued Joanne, says toward the end of the evening: “You’re not a kid anymore. I don’t think you’ll ever be a kid again, kiddo.” I guess I’ve done my share of growing up since mixed drinks went down like Nyquil and listening to Tchaikovsky produced about as many fissions of delight as hearing a policeman outline the specifics of car safety for my fifth grade class. From this point on, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to be blasé about Company again, or regard it with anything close to indifference.
Lest you infer that my tastes are as changeable as the winds, I’d like to state for the record that Billie Holiday still sounds like a Muppet. And somewhere deep down, I suspect that Company still has as much depth as a television special featuring The Muppets. The brilliance of the current Broadway revival, directed with bracing clarity by John Doyle, is that it not only minimizes the flaws — and I have to believe, based on my previous experiences with the show, that those flaws still exist — but succeeds in making them incidental to the point of irrelevance. Doyle’s interpretation marks a radical departure from any Company that’s come before, and not just because the actors double as the orchestra. This is Company deconstructed, re-imagined, and enthrallingly revitalized before our very eyes — all this while remaining fairly faithful to the original text, which now re-emerges through the fog of previous productions with a startling sense of urgency.
If my reaction borders on incredulity, it must be noted how inexorably trite Company has always seemed in previous incarnations — seeing it shoot off sparks on the stage of the Barrymore Theatre is like watching the least coordinated kid in gym class team pull off a gravity-defying double play worthy of Derek Jeter. The other Companies I’ve seen — even the good ones — never really solved the problem of how to transcend the problems of the George Furth book, which still gets slammed by critics some 30-odd years after it was first unveiled (neither Ben Brantley nor Clive Barnes could resist taking potshots at it in what otherwise amounted to glowing raves for this production). If the Sondheim score is challenging and intricate, the Furth book is facile and undernourished. The 1996 Roundabout production — cast within an inch of its life with a veritable dream team of past and future Tony winners and nominees — played like period kitsch, complete with shag carpeting. If it allowed each of its cast members to shine in turn when given their moment in the spotlight — particularly Veanne Cox as an anxious bride-to-be, and La Chanze, performing that classic ode to urban alienation “Another Hundred People” — it never really made a case for Company as anything more than a tuneful cabaret on the subject of marriage with corresponding skits.
The skits are still present and accounted for — the wife who demonstrates her karate moves on her husband for the benefit of a dinner guest, the couple who decide to spice up their marriage by getting divorced, the parents who experiment with pot after the kids have gone to bed and the bride who wants out of her own wedding — and they still manage to prompt a few mild titters. But there’s something else going on beneath the surface — if not flat-out desperation, than a growing sense of unease. Company doesn’t look or sound the way it has before, something which informs and deepens the material in unexpected ways. As directed by John Doyle, who helmed last season’s acclaimed revival of Sweeney Todd, it’s still set in Manhattan, but in a very different Manhattan than the one Neil Simon imagined — and it’s one that most of us seldom if ever get to see.
If you’re seen the city as a tourist or moviegoer and are only familiar with bright lights, busy sidewalks, honking horns and colorfully noisy “Noo Yawk” types, it may surprise you to know that there are two very different civilizations co-existing on one little island — and they can be defined by their proximity to sea level. The world of tastefully furnished penthouses and rooftop VIP lounges might as well exist on a different planet from the hustle and bustle of the street some 40-odd stories below — and if you live in the world of $500 a plate benefits, trust-fund legacies, personal shoppers and corporate board memberships, the most you see of that other planet on the ground is the distance between the doorman and the limousine (Yes, Virginia, there are lifelong city-dwellers who have never set foot in a subway station). Doyle has jettisoned the day-glo colors, the shag carpeting, and the element of bourgeois boisterousness that has characterized previous Companies, and turned the volume down to a hush, dulcet tone. The stage is a spartan expanse of icy blacks and silvers aligned in sharp geometric patterns, populated by elegant figures subtly clad in black-and-white Armani, with transparent Lucite boxes serving as all-purpose furnishing and props. A spirit of well-heeled cosmopolitan lugubriousness hovers in the air; subdued and sophisticated to the point of reverence, it’s almost like looking into a post-modern museum installation. A classical white column with a wraparound radiator extends upwards like a lone barren tree — tellingly, the character of Bobby stands on the radiator, which serves as a perch, clinging to the column when what’s going on below becomes too frightening to bear. Noise and energy can be intimidating, but it’s silence and tact — that oppressive underpinnings of that peculiar brand of sophistication that used to make me squirm in my seat when my grandfather took me to dinner at The Harvard Club — that can truly inspire discomfort and dread. By taking Company away from its Neil Simon-ish origins and steering it firmly toward the realm of John Cheever, Doyle has removed any shred of triviality from a work, on paper, would seem to consist of nothing but.
This infusion of chilly elegance alone only partially accounts for the transformation of Company. As in his production of Sweeney Todd, Doyle’s cast doubles as the orchestra. Although that production had many admirers — myself among them — the device felt more like a gimmick (albeit an effective one) than a dramatic necessity. The opposite proves to be the case in this context. The actors who played married couples are paired up with corresponding instruments — a violinist is mated with a cellist, a trumpeter with a trombonist, etc. — creating a sort of Noah’s Ark of matching musicians. The only one who doesn’t play an instrument is Bobby — incapable of making music on his own, he watches from the sidelines, sometimes with a visible relief at not having to participate, and at other times with a wistful yearning to be included.
A show requires a compelling central character in order to hold an audience’s interest, and until now, it’s an area in which Company has been noticeably lacking. The character of Bobby has always existed as something of a cipher, with few distinguishing traits and no clear motivation beyond some general fear of commitment — his pathology isn’t any more complex that than which can be encapsulated in an hour-long episode of Oprah. The part is usually played in a vein of bland affability, as a benign sort of everyman onto whom anything can be projected. This approach always seems to beg the question of how Bobby can exist as the object of all of the other characters’ attentions, when he’s just not that interesting on his terms.
In the current Broadway production, the role is played by Raul Esparza. For several years, I have been familiar with the actor by reputation, although this marks the first time I’ve seen him onstage — and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. While Esparza is a remarkably polished singer, it need be mentioned that he is first and foremost a supremely gifted dramatic actor — he invests the role with such depth of feeling and unearths so much unsuspected complexity that it blows the lid off whatever you thought you knew about the superficially charming child-man torn between playing it safe and Being Alive. Glib and avuncular at one moment, guarded and defensive in the next, he’s a man who’s struggling to find his bearings, a prisoner of his own self-imposed isolation and both comforted and frightened by his own capacity for detachment. Finally, the character makes sense. Watching Esparza burrow into the tangled web of emotions that inform his concept of Bobby marks the first time I’ve ever truly understood the character as damaged — and damaging to others (particularly the women he comes into contact with).
If Doyle and Esparza rightly restore the focus of the show to where it needs to be and always should have been — on Bobby, as to opposed to the gallery of colorful kooks surrounding him — then it’s perhaps only right that the peripheral characters don’t register as strongly as they have before (and in The Roundabout production, Bobby was almost an afterthought). The one exception is the martini-soaked Joanne, expertly rendered by Barbara Walsh, a Tony nominee for her memorable turn in 1992’s Falsettos. The actress wisely steers clear of trying to imitate the role’s originator, Elaine Stritch — this Joanne is less a volatile, brass-knuckled firecracker than equal parts high-fashion vampire and louche siren. With the stony features and heavy-lidded sensuality of a young Anjelica Huston, she expertly navigates her way through the curdled cocktail of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” With all due respect to her formidable predecessor, I doubt anyone watching the original production thought the brassy, ballsy Ms. Stritch was ever really in any danger of turning into one of those caftan-wearing, Life-Magazine-clutching ladies trying on hats at Bergdorf’s while trying not to fade into the meaninglessness of their own existence. You can tell Walsh’s Joanne has not only been there, but that she’s scared of going back — and would probably disappear altogether, if she didn’t work so hard to stay drunk and catty. The rest of the casting is not always as successful — Heather Laws struggles mightily with the rapid-fire pace of “Getting Married Today” — although a trio of saxophone-toting lovelies named Angel Desai, Elizabeth Stanley and Kelly Jeanne Grant do a bang-up version of “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (for those familiar with the song, it’s wittily orchestrated so that the celebrated “do-do, do-do, dos!” are saxed instead of sung). Desai makes a refreshingly spiky Marta and gets optimum mileage from “Another Hundred People,” while Stanley makes the flight attendant April a more touching figure than she would normally be, given how the character is essentially a walking dumb blonde joke. The other performers are essentially just along for the ride, although they more than justify their presence with their prodigious skill as musicians.
As capable as many of the other performers are, it’s Esparza’s Bobby who takes this Company out of the realm of shallow cabaret and makes it a thoughtful, occasionally harrowing consideration of one man’s inner turmoil. At the show’s climax, Bobby finally sits down at the piano, and begins to play the opening notes of “Being Alive”, haltingly, painfully at first and with visible effort. The song gradually grows into a genuine, haunting plea for deliverance from a life half-lived and self-imposed exile from the realm of human contact. Esparza invests the song with such pain and yearning that it eclipses any other rendition you may have heard in terms of its dramatic impact. Instead of ending with a reprise of the jaunty title song, the show ends with the lone figure of Bobby onstage, gazing up into a spotlight, blowing out his birthday candles in the fervent wish of being able to love and be loved. Growing up is about change, a realignment of interests and priorities. More than coming to recognize the merits of things you were never able to appreciate as a kid — Citizen Kane, alcoholic beverages, Company, whatever — it’s about arriving at the realization that whatever it is which frightens you the most, that which you’ve been holding at arm’s length, may be the one thing you truly need.
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