Saturday, November 27, 2010

The (first) end of reason

I admire the director Alejandro Amenábar for attempting something different with his film Agora. It's got all the trappings of an historical epic--a period setting, lots of extras, big-budget sets and costumes, British actors, philosophical debates, and violence. But the movie's weakest point, commercially, at least as far as American viewers, is that the balance between ideas and actions is weighted toward the "ideas" side. There are some action scenes, but none of them are exactly cry-for-freedom, Gladiator-type crowd-rousers; instead, they are all dark and tragic.

And then there are the ideas themselves. This is one of the few major motion pictures to dare to question the place of religion, any religion, and to come down on the side of rationality and reason, even as it seems to suggest that reason will usually lose out to the fundamentalist religion with the most adherents. On the surface, the movie is about Hypatia, a female teacher and scientist who lived in 4th century Alexandria, Egypt. Apparently, little is known about her, so the film fills in quite a few blanks (for example, positing that she was believer in a heliocentric view of the solar system), but the the real subject of the movie is the conflict of religions which swirled about her.

As the film beings, Roman Egypt is largely pagan, with the Christians kept down by the pagan authorities. We see Hypatia as a beloved teacher, and at least three of her male students have unrequited crushes on her. The religious battles (which Hypatia tries to stay out of) are taken to the streets, and soon the Christians get the upper hand and a large Christian mob raids the library at Alexandria, though Hypatia and her father, the curator of the library, manage to hide some of more important documents.

Fifteen years later, most of the pagans have converted to Christianity and the three men who loved Hypatia now hold important posts in either the church or the government. Now the battles brewing are between the Christians and the Jews, and sadly the rationality and questioning reasoning of Hypatia is no longer valued in the public arena (wait, this is set in the past, right?). Hypatia comes to a bad end, which is triggered when a church leader quotes from Paul about women belonging in submission to men, and that they should neither teach nor hold authority.

There is lots of dialogue and several plot strands to follow, but for the most part, they all remain clear and intriguing. The acting is fine, especially Rachel Weisz (far above) as Hypatia and Max Minghella (above) as a slave boy who takes a liking to her. The film cost $70 million and looks it--the use of CGI for backgrounds is subtle and well-done. The few times when it's not subtle, it is extremely cool: the camera swoops down from space and focuses in, Google-map style, on Alexandria. The message about religious intolerance is sadly timely still, and probably one reason why the film didn't do very well in the States (though it drew audiences in Europe); another reason is lack of big-name stars. There is also a certain lacking in character development; besides Hypatia, no one else becomes particularly interesting. But if you want a thoughtful entertainment with great production values, about a time in history which is not frequently examined in films (Hypatia's death and the destruction of the Library of Alexandria are marked by some historians as the beginning of the Dark Ages), this is right up your alley.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: Witches and cowboys

The Alphabetical Film Festival is taking us through three shelves worth of our favorite movies on DVD, but if I had to condense my choices to one shelf, these next two films would be on that shelf.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: I don’t need to say much about the content of this little indie film that, thanks mostly to a genius marketing campaign, became a bonafide cultural phenomenon in 1999. Three young people, out alone in the woods with video cameras researching the history of the Blair Witch, who supposedly was responsible for a series of murders many years ago, get lost and can’t find their way out the woods. Over the period of several days, they begin to think that they are being stalked by the witch or some supernatural beings, and one by one, they meet bad ends. Or so it seems--one of the film’s strengths is its use of ambiguity. We have no idea what happens to the three, except that we are told at the beginning of the film that none of them were ever seen again. This movie has almost no special effects (except for some wonderful and judicious use of sound effects), no blood or gore, no scary music, and yet it is one of the 2 or 3 scariest movies I’ve ever seen.

The old truism that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see is borne out here, Tension builds slowly over the 80 minute running time, first based on the three characters becoming frustrated over not being able to find their way back to the car, then because they aren’t getting along, and finally because weird things start happening outside their tent at night, but they can find no one in the area. We never see the witch or any other people (or creatures). We never actually see anything bad happen to any of the three: one disappears in the night and never comes back; in the hair-raising finale, one guy is standing still in the corner of a room and the woman screams and drops her camera on the floor.

In summary, it doesn’t seem so scary, but when you live through their experience with them, and put together the pieces of the Blair Witch story, it comes together to become the scariest movie since the original Halloween. When we first saw the movie, I was relatively satisfied with the ambiguous ending, but admitted to Don that I didn't quite get the last shot, of Mike standing in the corner. Don reminded me of an earlier reference to the corner of the room and I suddenly got it, and I practically screamed out loud, “Oh my God, he was in the corner!” (You’ll have to see the movie to understand.) I had nightmares for weeks. The film’s style--shaky, handheld subjective camera--has influenced many other horror films (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity). And while the grousing and cursing among the three grow a little tedious by the third or fourth viewing, the payoff of the last 15 minutes remains effective, time after time. This is the only movie I refuse to watch alone.

BLAZING SADDLES: This is the granddaddy of the nonsense comedy which makes little sense but exists to make fun of (and to make endless references to) popular culture, specifically other movie genres. The primary genre being satirized here is the western, and the film's plot can be boiled down to a traditional western story: some bad guys are trying to lay claim to a small town because they know the property will be worth something when the train comes through; the town's new sheriff, not trusted by the people, takes the lead in the fight against the villains and becomes the town's savior. But this plot is mocked and subverted at every possible turn (cliches upended, anachronisms rampant) to the point where the film collapses on itself and, at what should be the climax, the fourth wall (between the movie and the audience) is literally broken, and the characters are revealed to be actors rampaging through the Warner Bros. soundstages.

I’m sure academic analyses have been done on this film, and it does occupy an important spot in Hollywood history, paving the way for Airplane! (and many other Zucker brothers movies), Murder By Death, the movies of Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, and Adam Sandler, not to mention the rest of Mel Brooks’ ouvere. It’s also responsible for making the very act of pop culture referencing in movies universally accepted. But it’s still, over 30 years years later, also plain, wild fun. And even though the acting in comedies like these is not usually notable, here everyone is great; Madeline Kahn got a deserved Oscar nomination for doing a Marlene Dietrich riff, but Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder also manage to create characters we care about, and Harvey Korman makes a wonderfully buffoonish villain. I could spend paragraphs quoting great lines and describing great scenes (in the way of Monty Python fans), but I’ll just end my remembering the first time I saw this movie, in a theater during its initial run, when I literally fell out of my seat laughing at the campfire scene. Fart jokes are a dime a dozen now, but this was (as far as I know) the first in movie history and probably still the best.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fear of Birds; or How Hitchcock taught me about modernism

Alphabetical Film Festival: THE BIRDS: My mom took me to see this movie when it first came out in theaters, which would mean I was 7 years old at the time--this is the same mom who took me to see Bonnie & Clyde when I was 12, God bless her. Bonnie & Clyde traumatized me (I had nightmares for weeks) but The Birds helped teach me about an important element in the arts, and in real life, too, I suppose: ambiguity. At 7, I was already a big monster movie fan and I was used to traditional closure in those movies; as bad as the monsters and mad scientists were, they always got what they deserved at the end, usually death, and the forces of good/God won out. I was also used to having everything mysterious explained by the end. Even in movies like Dracula, where the supernatural was taken for granted, there were still explanations (a bite on the neck caused vampirism) and rules (Dracula could be fought with crosses and sunshine).

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds was a bit different. First of all, the horror wasn't some spooky being in a cape hiding in the shadows; it came from the skies, in broad daylight, and from something one usually associates with nature and Disney cuteness: average everyday birds. The plot: a flirty, scandal-prone ingénue (Tippi Hedren) plays romantic games with a non-game playing average Joe (Rod Taylor). While they're chasing each other around Bodega Bay, a small coast town near San Francisco, something strange starts happening: common, everyday birds begin attacking people, adults and children, and in some cases, pecking them to death. The tightly knit community of Bodega Bay blames the trouble on the scandalous interloper Hedren, though Taylor, his neurotic mother (Jessica Tandy), and his ex-girlfriend (Suzanne Pleshette) all have enough problems to keep a couple of analysts busy.

The use of special effects, indeed any photographic effects beyond placing a camera in front of actors, is not among Hitchcock's strengths; the bird attacks work OK, though a different director might have made more of an effort to make them more realistic and more graphic. And they worked well enough that I have a vivid memory of screaming like a banshee a couple of years later when a bird dive-bombed me during a picnic in a woods; I was certain that I was going to get chased and pecked like the schoolkids in the movie. But the strength of the movie is the growing atmosphere of unsettled dread, mostly because of the constant possibility of more terror from the skies, but also because most of the characters are rather unlikable people--Taylor is the most sympathetic person here, but even he has a bit of a mother problem that keeps him, in today's lingo, from reaching his full potential as a modern man (he's good looking and nicely built, but doesn't seem like good husband or father material).

But onto the ambiguity (and inevitable SPOILERS): 1) we never find out why the birds are attacking--some apocalyptic man vs. nature message is toyed with now and again, but not seriously; and 2) the film ends with no closure; a sort of truce is reached as the furious flocks of birds that had Hedren, Taylor, and his family trapped in their house suddenly stop attacking and let them take the car and leave. The last shots, of the physically and mentally traumatized family members (pictured) making their way outside to the car and driving away as hundreds of birds are still menacingly massed, are unforgettable and truly shocking, not in a BOO!!-startled way, but in a "what the hell is happening?" way.

I remember being very confused at the age of 7, and asking my mom on the way out of the theater, "What really happened? How does it really end?" as though there had to be a secret, more traditional story and ending that I missed. Poor mom couldn't explain it, and still, over 40 years later, no one has. There is a famous theory that the birds attack to make Hedren, Taylor, and Tandy become better at their most important jobs, being a family to each other, but if I accept that, I have to accept Shyamalan's dreadful Signs, in which God sends aliens to lay waste to the earth just to teach Mel Gibson to be a better father.

I prefer to think that Hitchcock was on the cutting edge of movie modernism, following European directors like Antonioni and Godard in bringing ambiguous unclosed narratives to the local movie theater (and perhaps making the world safe for Bergman's Persona and Kubrick's 2001). I remember being every confused, and a little angry, that Hitchcock didn't explain everything away and punish the forces of evil, but I wanted to see it again anyway. And of course, eventually, I learned that, more often than not, issues of good and evil and morality have more in common with The Birds than Frankenstein or Dracula (or Casablanca, for that matter).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Alphabetical Film Festival goes to the garden

Wow, it's been over two weeks since I posted here, and even longer since I wrote about our ongoing project of watching our 3 shelves of DVD favorites in alphabetical order. In real life, we're up to the letter "F," but in blog life, I've only just started on the "B"s, so I'll try to plow through several in the next couple of weeks, not necessarily to catch up, but so I don't feel so much like a slacking slaggard.

BEING THERE: Usually, in the battle between films and literature, literature loses; very few books have been adapted to the screen without losing something major in translation (The Godfather, coming up when we get to the "F"s, is one of the few films that is considerably better than the book). This adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's novel gets around the film/novel problem by becoming a somewhat different creature from the original. As I recall (and it's been over 30 years since I read the book), the novel is very short and reads almost like a fable: a gardener named Chance, who has been isolated in the mansion and grounds of his employer since he was a child, has to leave his comfortable home when his employer dies. All he knows about the world comes from his knowledge of gardening and from watching television. Because he speaks so simply, he is taken by others to be a genius, using metaphors (drawn from gardening and TV) to spout wisdom, and winds up becoming a national figure in business and politics, never really understanding why or how powerful he has the potential to become.

The book, which is about 120 pages in its mass market paperback edition, was turned into a movie with a running time of over two hours. Aside from having a very different (and to my mind, better) ending, I can't pinpoint the differences between the two, but the movie fleshes out the characters, or at least makes them feel fuller even if we don't know that much more about them. Of course, the movie has the advantage of having Peter Sellers as Chance. Though Sellers was not always a very subtle comic actor (see any given Pink Panther movie or Murder By Death), he gives a marvelously controlled performance here, delivering his dialogue without accent or affect, looking cosmically serene without seeming stupid.

An example of his wit (and Kosinski's) is the scene in which Shirley MacLaine is trying to seduce him in a bedroom while a TV is playing in the background. He basically ignores her pawing of him, saying simply, "I like to watch," meaning he'd rather watch TV than have sex. But she interprets him as a sexual voyeur, so she proceeds to masturbate in front of him. He ignores her, but she feels liberated and thinks she owes it all to Chance's wisdom. Because he is soft-spoken and has a dignified manner, people feel compelled to interpret his simplistic utterings. When asked by the President if the economy will recover, he begins talking about the garden and its cycle of seasons; the President looks mystified briefly, but then decides that he's recommending optimism, that as nature does, so does the economy.

Sellers and the clever script, with its implicit critique of mass media (still potent today in our world of reality TV and the level playing field that allows bloggers to speak their simple little minds with no credentials) make this movie a classic. MacLaine is good, as is Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar-winning role as a dying presidential advisor. There is one great use of a pop song, Deodato's version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" as Chance leaves his mansion and heads out into the world for the first time. There is also a very amusing string of outtakes under the end credits showing Sellers struggling with a line involving the word "asshole," and prefiguring the now-universal appearance of such clips as extras on DVDs.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Walkers on the wild side

Just finished a good book called Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell: The Dangerous Glitter of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, by Dave Thompson. He covers the early years of the three musicians (late 60s-late 70s) when they worked together at various times and places and influenced an entire era of music. The well-researched book is ordered chronologically and bounces around among the three men, examining their friendships and their falling-outs, describing concerts and recording sessions in some detail, and follows to a slightly lesser degree their romances and drug adventures.

If you lived through this era and liked these musicians, you'll like this book, but I'm not sure it's the place to start for young'un newcomers to the 70's glitter rock era. To start with, Thompson doesn't stray far from these three and their immediate friends and entourages--a fair amount of space is given to the Velvet Underground (though I would have liked to hear a bit more about poor, tragic Nico, who is quoted frequently early on), Mott the Hoople, and Marc Bolan, but you'll get no larger musical context in which to situate the glitter/glam scene.

The subtitle hints at another problem with the book: the author's own prejudices creep in to the book too often for this to be considered a definitive, objective history. The word "dangerous" seems to be there for the sake of sensationalism: nowhere does he really make claims that they were dangerous to anyone except themselves and their loved ones. For better or worse, it's probably due to David Bowie that Reed and Pop got strong toeholds on the ladder to rock stardom as he produced or co-produced their biggest commercial successes (Reed's Transformer, and Pop's The Idiot and Lust for Life), but the author presents Bowie in a fairly bad light, as a fickle and inauthentic copier who never stayed interested in any one artist long enough to bring them to full fruition. He gives much more positive attention to Reed and Pop, though it sounds like just as many former friends dislike Reed as dislike Bowie. But I admit to be being titillated by all the gossipy and bitchy details of their interactions.

There's no arguing which one of the three is the biggest star: Bowie. But Pop was a major influence on the punk scene, not just his violent antics at concerts but his sparse and equally violent sound, dark lyrics, and rough-edged vocals (you can hear his influence in punk bands like Joy Division and Sex Pistols, and even in the current band Jet, whose big hit "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" sounds an awful lot like Pop's "Lust for Life"). Reed has arguably had the most marginal career of the three, remaining active but not particularly important or interesting except to fans of the New York avant-garde. Still, it's amazing how much Pop's vocals on Lust for Life sound like Lou Reed. Listen to "The Passenger" from the YouTube clip below and you'll swear you're hearing a Transformer outake (vocally if not instrumentally). Overall, a fascinating read about some fascinating musicians.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Princess of Mars; or, Love and hate and B-movies

I still love movies, but I don't love current movies. My formative moviegoing years were in the 70's--late-high school, college, and after--and I was lucky enough to enjoy mainstream Hollywood films (both Jaws and Star Wars came out while I was in college) and older movies as well, which I grew to love in large part because I was able to see them on the big screen at revival houses on and near the Ohio State campus. Foreign and underground films were also part of my movie diet.

In fact, the two-year span of 1974-75 (senior year in high school, freshman year in college) was perhaps the most important stage in the development of my moviebuffhood: Jaws turned me into a drooling fanatic--I saw it 15 times the summer it came out, all in theaters (no home video back then); That's Entertainment brought a taste of old Hollywood back to theaters; Nashville, a precursor of the later indie film boom, came out that same summer, though I didn't catch up with it until a year later at a 2nd run theater; OSU-area theaters introduced me to classics (Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, Gone With the Wind, Duck Soup), foreign films (Juliet of the Spirits, Death in Venice, Swept Away), and fringe cinema (Flesh Gordon, Phantom of the Paradise, Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I saw during its initial mainstream release, before the midnight crowds turned it into a hit).

My love affair with mainstream Hollywood began going bad in the 90's; the fact that I had American Movie Classics and Turner Classic Movies on cable to turn to for older movies, which I began to find far more entertaining and thought-provoking than the current hits may have been a catalyst. Now I pretty much despise the state of current films. I see perhaps 7 or 8 movies during their first theatrical release; I do keep up with the others via DVD and cable, but I rarely get enthused about any of the hits. Only the B-film market seems to provide me with the charge I used to get from major studio productions.

Admittedly, B-movies are an acquired taste, and it was Turner Classic Movies' airing of the wonderful B-films of the 30s and 40s (mostly from Warner Brothers, but also RKO and Republic) that helped me appreciate them. These movies have lower budgets, cheaper production values, lesser stars, shorter running times, and weaker scripts, but when you understand that and have a few of them under your belt, you approach them on their level. You can still find good performances, artistic direction, and interesting stories--Detour (1945), one of the cheapest productions ever, is recognized today as a high-water mark for the film noir genre. Today, B-movies are mostly relegated to the home video or cable market. Some of my more enjoyable movie experiences of the past few years have been thanks to films which either never played in theaters or never got national theatrical distribution (Night Train, Kabluey, Ira & Abby).

Which brings me to Princess of Mars. This 2009 direct-to-DVD film, based on the first book in the "John Carter in Mars" series of pulp sci-fi novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was apparently made to capitalize on a big-budget live-action Pixar film due in 2012 (not to mention a somewhat dubious claim made on the cover that this story inspired James Cameron's Avatar). The plot involves a soldier, John Carter, who during a moment of crisis, is mysteriously transported to the planet Mars where, because of the gravity, he has great strength and can leap great bounds, and has adventures with green four-armed Martians and the beautiful two-armed Princess Dejah Thoris.

Let me be perfectly clear: this is not a very good movie. In this version, Carter is a soldier in Afghansistan who is left for dead and transported via flash drive to a Mars-like planet. That could be clever, but the idea isn't developed beyond what is needed to get Carter to a planet called Mars 216. The acting is terrible: the stars are former underwear model and soap opera actor Antonio Sabato Jr. (as Carter) and former porn queen Traci Lords (the princess). Both have substantial career credits, but both are just plain bad. He seems to be constantly looking for his acting coach, not finding him, and just speaking the lines as written; she tries for emotions but the Botox gets in the way--that grimace on her face in the picture above is there for almost the entire movie. Despite Lords' presence, there is no sex appeal, and the chemistry between the leads is non-existent. Matt Lasky, as the Martian Tars Tarkas with only two arms, doesn't have to struggle with a 4-arm costume, but he does have to act with a heavy rubber mask with wobbly tusks. The best acting comes from Chacko Vadaketh in the villainous role of an Afghan drug dealer who also winds up on Mars 216. And the effects are sparse; some digital work, but mostly costumes and camera filters.

However, I knew what I was getting into so I had my expectations lowered considerably. I expected bad acting and got it in spades; in fact, Sabato and Lords are MST3K bad and therefore almost enjoyable. I expected bargain basement effects and got them, and was even pleasantly surprised at the effects that worked: the Martian landscape and skies, the giant airship (seen below), and even the cheap trick that goes back to the Superman serials of the 1940s of having Sabato leap up, followed by a cut to a cheap shot of a flying man-model, followed by a shot of Sabato landing with a thud.

What I liked about it for real: no snarky ironic tone to the dialogue, no comic-book humor, a fast-moving story arc, and a lovely lack of digital sheen. Yes, CGI can create marvelous effects and looks, but when overused or poorly used, they look just as fake as the FX of old. I am still interested in seeing what the Pixar folks come up with (I'm sure the Martians will have four arms), and it will be spectacular-looking on the big screen, and with Willem Defoe, James Purefoy and Ciaran Hinds attached to the project, the acting will surely be fine. But there is something light-on-its-feet about this version that is appealing, and I will miss that up against what will undoubtedly be the the dead seriousness of the Pixar version.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

1970 Redux

I lost track of Marc Cohn after his hit debut single "Walking in Memphis" which was, holy cow!, almost 20 years ago now. But he has sustained a choppy career over time and being the baby-boomer I am, I was interested in the concept of his album Listening Booth: 1970 in which he's covered several songs from that year. It's an interesting choice of material: some very big pop hits (Cat Stevens' "Wild World," Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed"), some lesser known songs (Simon & Garfunkel's "The Only Living Boy in New York," Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie") and one of my favorite Motown hits of all time, Smokey Robinson's "The Tears of a Clown."

Cohn doesn't stretch much past his scruffy, modern-folky ways here, and many of the songs wind up being pleasant but uninteresting copies of the originals: "Wild World," the opener, is completely bland, perhaps because others have done more interesting versions, and Eric Clapton's "After Midnight" and CCR's "Long as I Can See the Light" are OK. The best of this batch is "Only Living Boy," which uses the same basic Paul Simon arrangement but the vocal is more laid-back than Simon's more emotional take.

Better are the songs with a bit of a spin to them. Badfinger's "No Matter What" is nicely done in a twangy country style as a duet with Aimee Mann; Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" is relaxed but seems heartfelt; the only song on here with which I am unfamiliar is the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie," on which Cohn does a nice job.

The two best songs on here are duets. He sings Bread's "Make It With You," practically the definition of mainstream easy listening music, with India.Arie in a way that makes it sound almost like an current indie song. But my favorite is his take on Smokey Robinson's classic "The Tears of a Clown." That happens to be one of my favorite all-time pop songs, a noisy, chugging, upbeat R&B tune; Cohn slows it down a bit, takes away the horn arrangement, gives the chorus a bit of a delayed spin, and sings it like Elvis Costello--with some backing vocals from jazzyish Kristina Train. Overall, this might have made a better EP with 6 or 7 songs instead of the 12 here, but it's an interesting project, and one aimed right at the hearts and wallets of us baby boomers.

Below is a clip of Cohn performing "The Letter" from Listening Booth:


Friday, August 20, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: A into B

AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME: Yes, I'm a little surprised and embarrassed that an Austin Powers movie is on my favorites shelf. The first one was clever in places, but seemed to be crammed with every joke that Mike Myers and company thought of, with no editing or crafting. The third one, Goldmember, felt tired. But this second Powers film, like the 3 Bears' porridges, is just right. You can tell they still left in lots of stuff that maybe should have been edited for a sprightlier pace--my single favorite joke in the movie, when Dr. Evil, spinning around in a chair, chants, "The power of Christ compels you" (an Exorcist reference), seems improvised. Some gags go on too long (like the shadows in the tent when Powers is bending over and it looks like Felicity is yanking all manner of things out of his ass). And now that I’ve seen it several times, I can sense a kind of slapdash feel to the production and editing.

But damned if the 12-year-old boy inside me still doesn't raise a ruckus when Fat Bastard comes on the scene with his shit jokes ("I got a turtlehead pokin' out" never gets old) and gross appearance and his unwarranted ego ("I'm dead sexy!"). Normally a character like this would make me tune out, but it's become a classic bit in my head, maybe because Meyers seems to get such joy out of doing the part. I also like Seth Green, the Alan Parsons Project joke, the swingin' 60s bachelor pad, and the perfect casting of Rob Lowe and Robert Wagner as the young and older Number Two--and the crowning joke might well be the deleted scene (present on the DVD) of Lowe and Wagner in bed together. In this case, the everything but the kitchen sink approach to humor actually works--the 2001 shot, the movie stopping dead for Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello to sing, the Jerry Springer opening. Myers may never make another movie I'll want to see, but I do have a soft spot for this one.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Like most academics, ex-academics, and would-be academics who actually enjoy overthinking their consumption of books and movies, I have a love/hate relationship with Walt Disney. The Disney studio is perhaps the most obvious pop-culture propaganda machine in the world, in terms of setting the bar for children’s behavior, gender roles, and middle-class family patterns. (I rush to note that Hollywood does this all the time, but for a long time, from the 50s through the 90s, Disney was best--and most obvious--at it because all of their product was aimed at two specific audiences: kids and their parents.) I like the craft of Disney movies, but am not always so happy with their content; though I have fond memories of Disney films from my youth, the only other one likely to be on the favorites shelf is Fantasia.

But this film, made at the peak of their 90s comeback, is sheer delight all the way through. It certainly helps that the propaganda messages are less retro than in earlier films. Belle, the Beauty of the title, is a relatively strong female figure who likes books, doesn't like the macho bullshit of her would-be suitor Gaston, and takes it upon herself (without even the help of mothers, fairies, or guardian angels) to save her father, who has been imprisoned by the Beast in his lonely castle. Instead of cute forest animals, the castle scenes are peopled by animate objects (a candlestick, a teacup, a dresser) whom we discover are people trapped as objects, put under the same spell as their master who was turned into a Beast for his unkindness to a witch.

But it's not the plot or characters so much as the musical score that makes this movie special. The music and lyrics, by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, feel as if they were written for a Broadway musical, not a kiddie matinee (and indeed the film has become a hit stage musical), with memorable melodies, clever lyrics, and songs that explicate character or move the action forward, which didn't happen much in the earlier animated Disney musicals. The "Gaston" number is especially witty: "No one hits like Gaston/Matches wits like Gaston/In a spitting match, nobody spits like Gaston (I'm especially good at expectorating!)" "Be Our Guest," the song that the castle’s furniture and objects sing to Belle, has become a sort of unofficial Disney theme, and the title song actually became a top 40 hit, but my favorite song from the movie is the opener, "Belle," which introduces the everyday life of the town and the character of Belle as a smart but frustrated person (among the mostly happy and funny lyrics, Belle repeats, "There must be more than this provincial life"). This was the first Disney film to incorporate some CGI in with the hand-drawn animation, but I must say on the big HD TV screen, it was a delight to see traditional animation style bursting with color and style. A charming movie that leaves me humming its songs for days afterward.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Baritones

In the space of just a few days recently, I discovered the work of two rock singers who sounded alike to me, definitely not in style or genre, but in the pitch of their voices. My partner pointed out to me that both men sang in the baritone range, which is somewhat unusual for rock singers, who tend toward the tenor platform (even though, according to the Internet, most pop singers actually are baritones who sing higher than they should).

One is Ian Curtis of Joy Division, an influential punk band from the late 70s. Curtis and the band recorded two albums and an EP before he killed himself in 1980. The remaining members went on, in a different musical direction, to become the influential techno dance band New Order. Based on the studio recordings, Curtis couldn’t hold a tune in a bucket, but that’s not necessarily a prerequisite in the pop music world, let alone in the punk world. He had a deep, heavy, gloomy voice with shades of Jim Morrison which sounded just right for the (generally) gloomy music of the band--which went on to influence not just post-punk but goth, industrial, and techno music. Even in a relatively upbeat song ("Transmission") whose chorus goes "Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio," you had lines like "Eyes, dark gray lenses, frightened of the sun/... Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight." His monotone baritone had the effect of flattening out all emotions to their sparsest, so dancing to the radio sounded like it would have the same effect as sitting in the dark, waiting for the apocalypse.

The other singer is Scott Walker, who had his biggest success in England as a member of the 60’s pop band The Walker Brothers. [Sidebar: his real name is Scott Engel, he was born in Ohio, the band members weren’t brothers, and no one in the band was actually named Walker.] Their best known hit here is probably "The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore," which has a strong Righteous Brothers vibe. In the late 60s, Walker, fed up with the fame game, became something of a recluse and produced a series of albums of increasing ... I was going to say "eccentricity," but that’s not quite right--he just went his own way, into what I might flippantly describe as "avant-garde easy listening" music, with heavily orchestrated background arrangements not too far from loung music, but lyrics that Sinatra wouldn’t have sung for all the wine and women in Las Vegas: gloomy ("In the unbroken darkness where emptiness empties alone"), abstract ("Play it cool and Saran Wrap all you can/like a 30 century man") and literary (on the almost legendary album Scott 4, a five-minute song which recaps the Bergman movie The Seventh Seal). His voice makes it sound less fey than someone like Marc Bolan would, or less icy than David Bowie would. He sounds like a lounge singer from Mars.

The musical styles of Curtis and Walker are completely opposite, as are their vocal qualities--Curtis' voice is jagged and shallow, Walker's is smooth and deep--but they both conjure up dark worlds of emotional upheaval, and it's not just the lyrics or the backing bands, but the rich shadings of their baritone voices.

Not directly related but interesting nevertheless is the story of how I happened upon these two singers. Both were recommended to me by work colleagues within a one-week period. The colleagues also recommended movies which I saw within the same week: the fictionalized biopic Control about Curtis and the documentary 30 Century Man about Walker, who continues making music further and further removed from the mainstream.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: 2 "A" comedies

ANIMAL CRACKERS: I grew up watching comedy teams like Abbott & Costello (I liked them, especially their horror movie spoofs), Laurel & Hardy (so-so, but a bit slow for my tastes), Martin & Lewis (didn't really get them), and the Three Stooges (never liked them at all), but it wasn't until I was in college that I saw a Marx Brothers movie and I fell in love with them. Animal Crackers, made in 1930, was out of circulation for many years due to rights issues, but in 1974 it was re-issued in theaters and that's when I saw it. I was practically alone in the theater, and usually comedies are more enjoyable with a big audience, but I laughed myself silly and immediately wanted more Marx. In those pre-home video days, that was easier said than done, but luckily between the re-release of Animal Crackers and Groucho's recent concert tour, the Marxes were back in the media spotlight, and I managed to see many of their films at revival houses and campus showings.

Though casual fans probably best know and like their later MGM movies (such as A Night at the Opera), I prefer their earlier Paramount comedies, which were more whimsically anarchic and relied much less on the MGM formula that always involved a bland romantic couple which the Marxes help out. There is a plot in Animal Crackers--a famous painting is stolen at a weekend house party and the Marxes help (and hinder) the investigation--but it is cheerfully subverted constantly with extended comedy bits that have no relation to any plot thread at all: Harpo and Chico playing a crazy bridge game, Chico pestering a rich guy whom he knew years ago as Abie the Fishman, Groucho as an explorer telling his audience that he shot an elephant in his pajamas (and how the elephant got in Groucho's pajamas, he'll never know). Chico's musical bit at the piano, in which he starts a piece with a plodding melody but can't ever get around to finishing it, is his best solo bit in any of the brothers' films

The three brothers rule the film; Zeppo, the straight-man brother, fades into the background, but Margaret Dumont as the rich and stuffy Mrs. Rittenhouse is memorable as Groucho's best straight "man" ever (and she's even better in their later film Duck Soup). This was theoretically a musical, and two songs from it, "Hurray for Captain Spaulding" and "Hello, I Must Be Going," remained identified with Groucho for the rest of his career. The ending is so strange and almost surreal, I couldn't believe it made it into a major studio film: with the mystery more or less solved and all the characters gathered in one room, Harpo, who has been chasing lovely young blondes all along, sprays knockout gas at everyone, positions himself next to a pretty girl, then sprays himself unconscious. It's a weird but lovely way to bring the manic proceedings to an end. Duck Soup is a shorter, tighter movie, and has more famous lines and bits, but I still think this is my favorite

AUNTIE MAME: Rosalind Russell plays the rich madcap Mame Dennis who alters her partying life when she becomes legal guardian of her late brother's son Patrick. Her friends think that Patrick, like so many other things in her life, will be just a temporary distraction or passing fad, but she devotes herself to the boy, trying to expand his horizons and make him a free-thinker. When he becomes engaged to a stuffy, stupid high-class college girl, she holds a party which exposes her and her parents as asses. The plot is important, but it is Russell's movie all the way and she makes the most of a wonderful character. Though there is no gay content (except for a oddly-highlighted lesbian couple in an early party scene), the film has a high camp factor, not in a bad-movie way, but in the exaggerated humor and the almost over-the-top personality of Mame Dennis. Russell knows just how far to go and when to ease up so she doesn't lose the human touch and become just a drag queen caricature.

The young Roger Smith (pictured above, best known as a private eye on TV's 77 Sunset Strip) is excellent as the college-age Dennis, Coral Browne is fine as a pompous actress who is Mame's best friend, and Peggy Cass steals all of her scenes as the naive Agnes Gooch who is hired to transcribe Mame's memoir ("I'm her *sponge*," she growls). The movie is long and deliberately stagy, with blackouts and fade-ups just as in a Broadway play, and oddly, the one time the film is opened up, when Mame visits a Southern plantation with her boyfriend (Forrest Tucker), it loses steam. Maybe Mame is such a creature of the "stage," turning her everyday life into a performance, that she suffocates when given too much "reality." Russell was nominated for an Oscar and should have won. This is one of my comfort movies that I can put on to banish the blues or to make a snowbound weekend more bearable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: Annie, and then...

ANNIE HALL (1977): The archetypal Woody Allen movie, the one it still seems OK to like, the bridge from his “early funny” period to his “serious” movies. I don’t quite buy into that dichotomy as this one is both quite funny and fairly serious, as are many of his later movies, and it served as a model for the modern romantic comedy genre, at least up until the current crop of Seth Rogen-type, men-as-teenagers movies. In the main plotline, Woody woos, gets, and loses Diane Keaton (in a story that seems based on their real-life relationship), but almost as important as the comic love story are two other elements: the character study of the nebbishy hero (who would continue to be at the center of Allen’s films) and the romantic depiction of life in New York City (which would reach its peak in his next comedy, Manhattan).

Equally important is the style, which fractures time, not just in terms of narrative flashbacks and flashforwards, but in the way characters from the present actually go back in time to confront characters from the past: the adult Woody Allen sitting in his elementary school classroom, Diane Keaton’s mother (Coleen Dewhurst) in the 70’s chatting with Woody’s mom in the 40’s. Things that still make me laugh: Woody’s cocaine sneeze, the line from Janet Margolin about a headache as bad as Oswald’s in Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” the 9-year-old girl looking at the camera and saying “I’m into leather,” the surprise appearance of Marshall McLuhan. And the bittersweet ending is just right, though few of Allen’s imitators would dare to end their movies with the guy not getting the girl.

AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945): The best film version yet of the Agatha Christie classic, also known as Ten Little Indians. The plot: 10 people are invited to a house party on an isolated island--they don’t know each other and don’t know the host, a Mr. U.N. Owen. But after dinner, when the host doesn’t show up, they learn that they have been brought together because the phantom host (U.N. Owen = Unknown) thinks that each one of them got away scot free with some crime or some other bad behavior which should have been punished. One by one, each is murdered in ways foretold by a “Ten little Indians” rhyme. Is one of the ten the killer? Will anyone survive?


Because it’s a Hollywood movie (and because it’s based on a play adapted from the novel), this ending has a couple of noble survivors and an ending that ties up all the loose ends, as opposed to the very interesting novel which has a much bleaker conclusion. But even with the bland ending, this is vintage whodunit territory filled with tricky plotpoints and mostly excellent performances, especially from old pros Walter Huston, Roland Young, Judith Anderson, and Barry Fitzgerald (who overacts much less than usual). This film is apparently in the public domain and hence there are several dicey versions out there, none of them “restored” in any meaningful sense of the word, but still this is one to search out, especially for mystery fans. The acting and writing are good enough that, even knowing how it ends doesn’t spoil return viewings.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: All That Jazz

ALL THAT JAZZ (1979): Broadway director and choreographer Bob Fosse only made five movies, but two of them are on my favorites list, Cabaret and this one. The critics are right that it's self-indulgent, but when a someone makes a movie about his own (fictionalized) life, self-indulgence should be expected, especially when he uses Fellini's indulgent 8-1/2 as a model. The main character, based on Fosse, is a director (Roy Scheider) who, while working on editing a movie and staging a new Broadway musical, has a heart attack and looks back on his womanizing life. The movie presents his memories as dialogues with a death figure (Jessica Lange, at left) and as musical numbers staged in his imagination.

This film was influential in a couple of ways. First, the rapid-fire editing was picked up by directors of music videos at the dawn of the MTV era--and Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted" video is a direct homage to the "Take Off With Us" sequence in the movie. It was also, unfortunately, picked up by other directors and has become the default style for the movie musical, to the detriment of dance staged for film. (I liked Chicago and Moulin Rouge but the dance editing tends to make me cringe).

It also helped to set up another movie musical style, best exemplified by Chicago (originally a Fosse stage show). The classic movie musical had production numbers set in the "real" world with characters bursting out in song--Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story. Modern audiences supposedly find this unrealistic [well, duh, but they have no problem with Spider-Man and Darth Vader?] so now, thanks partly to All That Jazz, characters in musicals usually only sing when they're on a stage or fantasizing, even extending to the TV musical Glee.

The acting is solid, and I'm shocked that Leland Palmer, who is excellent as the director's wife, didn't go on to do more films. When I think of Fosse, I see Scheider, who inhabits the role perfectly. The ending is downbeat, but exhilarating in its audaciousness. This was the last movie I saw multiple times while it was playing in theaters. I was 23, out of college, and living on my own for the first time that winter of 1980, and as I didn't have a car (or any friends who lived nearby), I was stuck within walking distance of my apartment for entertainment. Luckily, there was a multiplex theater nearby, and when I discovered this movie, I went back to see it 10 or 12 times during the six weeks that it played (a couple of those times were later, at a second-run house after I got a car). Maybe I liked this movie so much because I had no life at the time, but it's held up over all these years, so I think there was more to my obsession than just having been a lonely gay guy dazzled by glitz and jazz hands.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Alphabetical film festival

I decided to take advantage of some re-arranging of our basement to finally attempt to organize our DVD collection. The first thing I did was to take our favorite films and put them together upstairs. Now the problem is, what makes a DVD a "favorite"? For the purposes of our home furnishings, a favorite is a movie that we would like easy access to because we're likely to watch it often. There are movies I like and appreciate, like L'Avventura or The Bank Dick or The Scarlet Empress, that I'm glad we own because I'll want to see them again, but they're not ones I'd pull off the shelf with frequency.

It wasn't hard to pick 100 or so discs to put on three shelves upstairs (and, to be honest, most of these are my favorites--Don pretty much goes along with me when it comes to classic movie favorites, and I was kind enough to let him include films like Chicken Run and The Incredibles, movies I'd never choose to watch a second time, let alone 6 or 8 or 10 times, on these shelves). Then Don had a flash of inspiration: we should spend the next several months watching all our favorites in alphabetical order as they appear on the shelves.

Easy enough, it would seem. So we embarked on our little festival. As we made our way through "A," however, I realized there was a problem. Some films that we would certainly count as favorites are either part of a boxed set (such as the Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers) and stored elsewhere or are shelved in our Horror Movies collection upstairs (Angel Heart). The solution is allowing ourselves, when we come to the end of a letter, to search through our other "holdings" to see if we've missed a movie that should be on our favorites shelves. We’re planning on making ourselves watch each movie in its turn; the only exception we’ll allow is if we’ve seen the movie already in the past 6 months or so. We’ve also decided that if we come to a film and don’t want to watch it, we’ll remove it from our favorites shelf.

So I’m going to try and write at least a little about each movie we watch over the next several months. I have a difficult time writing critically about movies that I have loved and that have been part of my movie-watching DNA for a long time, but here I can post at least a sentence or two, and wax poetic if I feel the need. If the films are not in strictest alphabetical order, it’s because we’ve backtracked to include those missing films from other shelves:

AIRPLANE!: Along with Blazing Saddles, the best of the self-referential Hollywood satires. Actually, this one isn’t so much a satire as a parody since it’s simply making fun of specific genre conventions (in this case, disaster films) rather than making any kind of pointed commentary about the genres (which Blazing Saddles does, but more on that in the B’s). The silly, scattershot jokes still hold up: the couple arguing over the loudspeakers about what goes on in the red and white zones, the soldier who thinks he’s Ethel Merman, the black jive talkers who have to be translated for the white stewardess. The running gags involving pilot Peter Graves and the little boy he takes a shine to (“Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”) are still funny but also a little shocking, and I don’t think they could get away with these lines in a movie made today. It’s great fun to see serious actors like Graves and Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen make fun of their personas, though this became Neilsen’s stock in trade for the next 20 years. And whatever happened to the handsome and charismatic Robert Hays?

ALL ABOUT EVE: Still probably the wittiest Hollywood movie ever, with tons of quotable lines, though many don’t mean much without the context of the film behind them:

“Fasten your seat belts--it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

“You’re maudlin and full of self-pity--you’re magnificent!”

“She’s a girl of so many rare qualities.”

“The atmosphere is very Macbeth-ish...”

“You have a point; an idiotic one, but a point.”

“She looks like she might burn down a plantation” (said about Marilyn Monroe)

“Where is Princess Fire and Music?”

The story, about an aging actress who becomes the object of devious machinations by a novice actress who wants to take over her next stage role, remains interesting, largely because the characters are all so interesting. And while the writing is enormously rich, it’s the delivery by a great cast that really makes this worth watching over and over. Bette Davis is spectacular and remarkably watchable in every scene she’s in (which is most of them), Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter are wonderful, and Anne Baxter and Gary Merrill are solid (though the less said about Hugh Marlowe as the playwright, the better), but the real secret weapon in the film for my money is George Sanders as the nasty but powerful drama critic Addison DeWitt. His every line reading drips with acid, he makes his stock character fully dimensional (a careful viewer will realize he’s not quite as evil as he’s made out to be by Davis and Merrill), and he and Baxter (pictured above) are absolutely thrilling in their climactic verbal battle in her New Haven hotel room. That scene is first-class acting and helped win Sanders a much-deserved Oscar for the film. I could watch this film once a month.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The End of Charlie Chan?

The Charlie Chan series had something of a bad reputation for a while, not because they're bad movies (most of them are perfectly acceptable B-range detective films) but because the lead character, a Chinese police inspector who lives in Hawaii, was always played by an Anglo actor in "slant-eyed" makeup and with a heavy halting accent. Yes, to modern audiences, this can come off as uncomfortable at best and offensively racist at worst, and I understand why some people choose not to view these films. The fact is that in 30's and 40's Hollywood, an Asian actor would never have been cast in a lead role, so Chan would never have hit the big screen at all if a white actor hadn't played the part. And the movies did provide some jobs for Asian actors; Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung got started by playing sons of Chan, and both went on to long acting careers. Though Chan's sons were usually buffoonish comic characters, they were also very modernized (and Americanized) characters, and their buffoonery was related not to their race but to their youthful age and inexperience. In several of the films of the 30's, Chan would sometimes be the victim of casual racism, and his character would always remain dignified and ultimately always got the upper hand over the racist.

Several years ago, Fox Movie Channel ran restored prints of many of the Chan films and caught some flack in the media for doing so. Eventually, however, all of the existing 23 Chan movies made by Fox from 1930 to 1942 (a couple of early ones are missing) would wind up on DVD in very nicely packaged boxed sets, all of which include interesting extras, including featurettes and commentaries. Warner Oland played Chan for most of the run until his death in 1938, after which Sidney Toler took over. In 1944, the series, with Toler still in the lead, went to poverty row studio Monogram with some drop in quality--though truth to tell, Fox had been producing the films on the cheap for several years, so over the entire run, the drop in quality seems gradual rather than sudden. A boxed set called The Charlie Chan Chanthology from MGM (which is now out of print) included 6 of the Monogram films. Before the series finally ended in 1949, 11 more followed with Toler, and after his death in 1947, Roland Winters. These have been difficult to run across, but now 4 of those films have been released in a set as a part of the TCM Spotlight series from Warner Home Video. The fact that it's called simply Charlie Chan Collection without a "Volume 1" subtitle appended doesn't give me hope that the rest of the Monogram films will wind up on DVD soon, but you never know. And though these films don't measure up to the best of the Fox Chans, two of them are actually quite enjoyable, and the other two are, if nothing else, interesting for completist fans.

Three of these films, all from 1946, feature Sidney Toler and all more or less follow the same simple formula: someone is threatened, someone is murdered, Chan takes on the case, often as a favor to the local police, and one of his sons winds up bumbling around playing detective and getting in trouble. All three films have a little something in them to make each stand out a bit. The best of the batch is Dark Alibi, in which Chan works to figure out how innocent men are being framed for bank robberies--it turns out that someone is expertly faking fingerprints left at the scene. Eventually there is a murder, some scenes in an atmospheric theatrical warehouse, and a well-shot truck chase at the climax. Mantan Moreland, one in a string of black actors who provided the stereotypical lazy and/or scared valet or driver or butler in many of the Chan films, plays Birmingham Brown; he is paired here with Ben Carter as his brother and the two do some nice double-talk scenes--and to his credit, Moreland grates on the nerves much less than Stepin Fetchit does in Charlie Chan in Egypt. The real highlight of the film is the very last shot in which Chan actually enters into the double-talk conversation, looks at the camera and says how nice it is to talk to people who understand him! Benson Fong is son Tommy Chan, and he is the least Americanized of the Chan sons, retaining more of an accent than any of the others who played sons.

Dangerous Money begins with a wonderfully atmospheric scene on a fogbound ocean liner as a Treasury agent, on the trail of some "hot money" and stolen art, is knifed to death on deck. Here we have a traditional situation in which the detective and the suspects are stuck together in a single isolated setting, which you would think would be good for the mystery plot, but really isn't. The suspects are a rather dismal lot, though there is a kinky little surprise near the end when one of the women is unmasked as a man in drag (it's not really be a surprise, but it's a fun moment nonetheless). The bumbling idiots this time around are Victor Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan and Willie Best as Chattanooga Brown, Chan's valet. There are fish in an ichthyology museum stuffed with stolen money and a mildly amusing scene in which Best fights a stuffed octopus (which reminded me of poor Bela Lugosi's more seriously intended octopus scene in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster).

The Trap has another group of suspects in a isolated setting: a Malibu beach house where a group of chorus girls are staying with their bandleader, press agent, doctor, and wardrobe mistress, resting up before the next tour. Marcia is the much-disliked star of the show who at least two of the girls wouldn't mind seeing dead; she knows some secrets about the others that they don't want revealed. When Lois is found dead, strangled after doing some dirty work for Marcia, suspicion is placed on the Chinese and French girls (San Toy and Adelaide), since garroting is an exotic foreign method of murder. San Toy calls her boyfriend Jimmy Chan to help out, and Charile and Birmingham show up as well, just in time for Marcia's dead body to be found. The group of suspects is a little more colorful here than in Dangerous Money, and Yung and Moreland are about as tolerable as they were in the other films. Minerva Urecal plays the landlady, who comes off a little like a fat Mrs. Danvers (from Rebecca). Kirk Alyn, whose claim to fame is being the first actor to play a live-action Superman (in a 40's serial), is a cop. Supposedly, Toler was so sick with the intestinal cancer that killed him just a few months after shooting wrapped that he could barely stand up or deliver his lines, but any drop-off in Toler's acting as Chan had, in my eyes, been happening gradually during his tenure in the role, so I couldn't tell that he was appreciably worse here. In fact, this is overall one of the better Toler Monogram films, and along with Dark Alibi, a highlight of the set.

The last film in the box, The Chinese Ring (1947), is the first one with Roland Winters (at right) playing Chan. A Chinese princess visiting Chan at his house in San Francisco is killed via poison dart in Chan's study. As she's dying, she scrawls "Capt. K" on a piece of paper. Of course, there are two "Captain Ks" among the suspects, one of them played by Philip Ahn, a Korean-American actor who went on to play Master Kan on the TV show Kung Fu. Moreland and Yung are back, going through their sidekick paces to even less effect than usual. Winters, another Anglo actor, seems quite uncomfortable as Chan. When Toler took over for Oland, the change was barely noticeable as the two men's looks, make-up, builds, and voices weren't that different; here, Winters seems like he's playing a completely different character--and indeed, the plot is actually a remake of Mr. Wong in Chinatown, one in another Monogram series about a Chinese detective, played by Boris Karloff. This film, though worth watching for die-hard Chan fans, does not make me want to see any of the other Winters films.

The biggest surprise here is how stylish and well directed most of these films are, much more so than almost any other Monogram films, and even more than some of the later Fox films. The plots and actors are par for the course, but these films utilize better sets than usual and there are some interesting camera movements from time to time. Sadly, there are no extras at all, so this set can hardly be seen as a must-have for classic detective-film buffs (unlike the Fox sets), but the prints are mostly in excellent shape. Only a handful of Chan films remain unavailable on DVD, mostly with Roland Winters; for the sake of the series, it would be nice to have the rest, but this one could stand as a fitting epitaph if no more are forthcoming.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Retellings 2: "All this talk of blood and slaying has put me off my tea."

Disney has done a retelling of a classic story that they themselves told over 50 years ago: Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. This might be the first time Disney has remade one of their own classic-era movies, though calling this a remake of their 1951 film is a bit of a stretch: the original was an animated musical, whereas this version, directed by Tim Burton, is not a musical and is only partly animated, using a mix of CGI and live action. Without rehashing too much of my recent review of two earlier Alice films, the challenge of adapting Carroll's work (most versions incorporate the original Wonderland story and its sequel Through the Looking Glass) is that there really is no traditional narrative arc. Alice's adventures are dreamlike, not logical, and don't exactly have rising and falling action or climaxes. Burton's version has some pluses, but stumbles in its use of a logical storyline with overused elements of quest and coming-of-age narratives.

In this version, set in the Victorian age in which Carroll's books are set, Alice is a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood; at a big summer lawn party, her simp of a boyfriend is set to propose publicly, but she's not ready for marriage. During the party, she sees a white rabbit in a waistcoat hopping through the shrubs and follows him down a rabbit hole to Wonderland (or Underland, as its inhabitants call it). The cleverest conceit here is that Alice has been here before, in half-remembered dreams from her childhood, and all the folks she runs into, from the Rabbit to the Caterpillar to the Mad Hatter, keep asking if she's the right Alice. Of course, she has to come to realize who she really is and embrace her destiny, which is to free the Wonderlanders from the tyranny of the Red Queen by fighting the monstrous Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword, as foretold by a magical manuscript.

The best part of the film is the first half-hour or so, before the narrative kicks in, when Burton is more or less directly adapting Carroll. The atmosphere is appropriately magical and a little creepy, and the characters are realized wonderfully, most of them acted by people in motion-capture outfits and produced on screen by a combination of live faces and CGI bodies. Best are Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as The Cheshire Cat. Of the two name-above-the-title stars, Helena Bonham-Carter shines brightest as the whimsically wicked Queen; Johnny Depp, as the Hatter, seems to be acting (or overacting) in a whole different film, one in which he might have been good, but it's not this one. A little bit of Depp in an orange fright wig and crazy green eyes goes a long way, and by the end I had lost all interest in both Depp and the quest storyline. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is supposed to be a "good guy," but she's actually rather creepy; ironically, an actor who has made a career out of creepy roles, Crispin Glover, is remarkably understated as Stayne, assistant to the Red Queen. Mia Wasikowski does a very nice job as Alice. Visually, Burton comes close to getting it right, but he needed a different screenplay. This is now in DVD from Disney, though not in 3D as it was exhibited theatrically.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Retellings 1: "When the wolfbane blooms"

Two recent event movies have just been issued on DVD (one was a hit, one was not) and both are retellings of classic stories. The Wolfman continues Universal Studios' misguided attempts at revitalizing their horror franchises of the 30's and 40's, though this one gets marks for atmosphere and for sticking with the original storyline. Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr. in the 40's, Benico Del Toro here) returns to the family mansion on the moors after his brother is found dead and horribly mutilated. His father (Claude Rains then, Anthony Hopkins now) welcomes him with not quite fully open arms, and he gets involved with an old gypsy woman (in 1941, the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya; in 2010, the very good Geraldine Chaplin) and an attractive young woman named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers/Emily Blunt, both of whom are stuck in thankless roles). Talbot winds up getting bitten by a wolfman and turns into one himself, with tragic consequences.

The biggest difference between the two versions, aside from the obvious upgrade in makeup and gore effects in the current film (and the new movie making "wolfman" one word rather than two), is the identity of the lycanthrope who gives Talbot the bite. [SPOILER] In the Chaney version, it's the gypsy woman's son, a relatively unimportant character played by Bela Lugosi; here, it's Talbot's father, which could have been an interesting twist if the screenplay had actually made either the son or father a rounded character. But that doesn't happen. I have never liked Del Toro, as I find him to be an mumbling, unattractive, uncharismatic block of wood, but at least here, he doesn't mumble. Hopkins is very good as usual; it seems as if he's operating at half-speed, but his half-speed is just dandy. (At least he's not just phoning it in, as Michael Caine and Sean Connery do sometimes.) Emily Blunt, who I like, is totally wasted.

There are two other good things here. One is the gray Gothic atmosphere--I'm kinda tired of all the color-leaching that's the craze these days, turning all action movies into gray-blue-white with occasional blood-red smudges across the screen, but it works here. The other is the wolfman makeup and effects in general. Especially effective is the way the beast runs, starting on two legs then crouching down to four. It's obviously CGI but it works. The DVD contains a longer unrated director's cut which is usually the occasion for harder-than-R-rated gore, but here, much of the missing footage is actually interesting backstory in the beginning which helps us understand the characters a bit more, and contains a nifty cameo by Max Von Sydow who is missing from the theatrical cut. Next time, Tim Burton's Alice.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Paperback (and hardback) writers

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books written about the Beatles, individually and collectively: biographies, annotated discographies, musical criticism, and diary-style tomes that cover their every move every day of their seven-year reign over the pop music world. I have read probably 50 of these books, and I still own 27 of them (yes, this pack rat just counted them). Of that number, there are a handful that I consider essential. For their life stories, there's the 2004 Bob Spitz biography (which supersedes the much earlier, and very good but sanitized, Hunter Davies book). For reference, there's Neville Stannard's The Long and Winding Road: A History of the Beatles on Record and Mark Lewisohn's Beatles Recording Sessions (an exhaustive log of every session ever). The best book on their songs (interpretation, influences, etc.) is Tell Me Why by Tim Riley.

Until now, my favorite book about their career and their music in general was The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner. Though that is still a wonderful book (and lamentably out of print), I've found an even better one: Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America by Jonathan Gould. Though the book contains some general biographical information, it mostly focuses on the music and how it both influenced and was influenced by the larger culture. Without dissing anyone unduly or playing favorites (honestly, I can't tell if he prefers Lennon or McCartney, and no Beatle fan worth his or her salt is truly neutral), Gould discusses the songs, the recording processes, the performances, and the critical reception of the music.

Of course, much of the info here has been reported elsewhere, but this is the first time I've come away from a book about the Beatles with a strong overall sense of how the hell they did what they did: record twelve incredible albums over seven years and change the world. Gould makes their chronology crystal clear, especially the areas of cultural overlap: for instance, in 1967, as Sgt. Pepper was soaking into the culture, Brian Epstein died, leaving the Beatles to begin the aimless floundering that ultimately hastened the end of their collaboration: making the ill-considered Magical Mystery Tour movie, going to India for spiritual wisdom, starting the business disaster that was Apple Corps. Gould doesn't go overboard in assigning praise or blame to anyone, but it does seem clear that their decline as a group of people working together (if not necessarily as musicians) dates from the loss of Epstein as their manager; even though by mid-'67, he was mostly just staying out of their way, he was still a grounding force in their business lives.

I love reading Gould on the music. He spends a good twenty pages talking about the music on Sgt. Pepper, and then goes on to discuss the reception of the album by critics, other musicians, and the general public. He does this with each album and most of the singles and always has some new insight or tidbit; for example, that "Long Long Long" on the White Album is essentially Bob Dylan's album side-long "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" condensed to under four minutes. He spends three paragraphs on "Norwegian Wood" and more or less pooh-poohs the general wisdom that the song climaxes with the singer setting the apartment on fire (a reading I never really believed).

Despite the book's subtitle, Gould rarely separates England from America in his discussions of cultural reception, and in fact, the sections on politics and other current events of the day are the weakest parts of the book. Luckily, he always returns quickly to the Beatles and their music. While I don't agree with all of his critical judgments (he thinks a lot more of "Yellow Submarine"--the song, not the movie--than I do), I find his writing and his insights always interesting. This is not a new book, having been published in hardcover in 2007, but I just got around to it and I'm glad I didn't let it sit on the "unread" shelf any longer than I did.