Saturday, August 4, 2012

Notes on the Problem of Tone in Recent Movies

Note to readers: This post contains spoilers.

This Pixar animated fairy tale Brave has a lot of charm; it’s one of the few movies this summer that I’ve been able to send friends to. But it takes a wrong turn in the middle that’s almost disastrous. The heroine, a bright, tomboyish Scottish princess named Merida, has reached the age to be courted, but she has no interest in any of her suitors and she bests them easily at the archery competition that’s meant to determine which one is worthy of her hand. Merida hopes that she can win her mother’s sympathy but instead the queen is furious at her unladylike behavior. So – in the film’s most inventive sequence – the princess enlists the help of a witch who promises to deliver a potion that will alter the queen’s perspective. What it does is to transform Queen Elinor into a bear. The scenes that follow, in which Elinor continues to attempt to act in a queenly manner while her body keeps working against her (and while she’s unable to communicate except through gesture), are comical, and Merida’s efforts to keep her father, a celebrated bear hunter, from seeing Elinor while trying frantically to track down an antidote underscore the princess’s imagination and resourcefulness, certainly appropriate in a coming-of-age story. The problem is what we might call tonal follow-through.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Will It Go Round in Circles: Fernando Meirelles' 360

Desperate to earn money, a downhearted young woman is about to debut with a Vienna escort service. Her family quarrels in their dingy Bratislava apartment. An Algerian dentist stalks his Russian hygienist in Paris. Two bodies writhe on a bed during an adulterous affair in London. A recovering alcoholic attends an AA meeting in Phoenix. Several miserable passengers endure a long wait when their flights are delayed by snow at a Denver airport. So much anguish, so many destinations, so little time. Actually, at 113 minutes, 360 seems twice as long while tracking the sexual encounters – or lack thereof – among various troubled characters across the globe.

The well-credentialed team of filmmakers includes director Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, 2005) and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, 2006) but their collaboration winds up as less than the sum of its many moving parts. The script is adapted from an 1897 play, La Ronde, that Max Ophuls covered onscreen in 1950 with star Simone Signoret; Roger Vadim did the same 14 years later with Jane Fonda but employed a new title, Circle of Love. What goes around, as everyone knows by now, comes around.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Bad Faith: The Dark Knight Rises

As fans of superhero pictures (and that’s most of the world, evidently) know, the Batman series divides into three categories. There are the Tim Burtons, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), with their magnificent, High Romantic Anton Furst designs and Michael Keaton as a brooding, mysterious Bruce Wayne – a portrayal that, in a better world, would have made him an actor to be cherished forever. Burton put a premium on character and let the stories unravel like fairy tales. The Joel Schumacher entries, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), were extravagantly (but not wittily) overdesigned; they were like arcades, or gay roller discos, and they underused their stars, Val Kilmer and George Clooney respectively, so that afterwards you couldn't remember anything they’d done.

Then Christopher Nolan took over the franchise in 2005 with Batman Begins, which he also co-wrote with Davis G. Goyer. Nolan brought art-house credentials (Memento, a wildly overrated puzzle picture that didn’t make basic plot sense) and a grim relentlessness that I would have said was precisely the wrong kind of approach for a comic-book adventure. And the concept was misconceived. Bruce (Christian Bale), like the character Michael Keaton played in the Burton pictures, has never been able to move past the pointless deaths of his parents, before his eyes, at the hands of a mugger, but it isn’t grief that motivates this Bruce; it’s guilt. As a boy, Bruce was so terrified of bats as a result of falling down a well on his dad’s estate that, when his parents took him to see the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat), the prop bats on stage distressed him and he asked to be taken home early. They encountered the mugger on a deserted street outside the opera house; if Bruce had only been able to control his phobia, his parents might be alive today. So when, years later, returning to a Gotham City overrun with gangsters and all manner of corruption, he chooses to disguise himself as a bat, it’s his way of conquering those childhood fears and doing penance for the fact that his inability to handle them led his parents to their deaths. (The real corruption – or at least stupidity of a monumental order – must have been at Warner Brothers, where this plot premise made it past the pitch stage.) But first there’s a long sequence at a Tibetan monastery, which seems to belong in some other movie altogether, where Wayne is trained in martial arts by mystics (the westerner among them is Ra’s Al Ghul, played by Liam Neeson, whose goatee is more expressive than his performance) who turn out to be the League of Shadows, fanatics with a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah God complex, dedicated to wiping out cities overrun with evil, like Gotham. So Bruce has to defeat them – temporarily, at least – and stage an escape before he can return to battle the more homegrown evil in his own hometown.

Bruce Wayne and his murdered parents in Batman Begins 

The chief villain in Batman Begins, though, is the sinister Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), who, as The Scarecrow, poisons his victims with a psychotropic aerosol that maddens them and projects their worst fears onto his burlap mask. Perhaps I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, but I consider it a sign of bad faith in a director of a comic-book movie that he thinks nothing of putting his audience through the same misery as the characters entrapped in their cruelest fantasies – like the maggots foisted on a screaming Katie Holmes (as Bruce’s childhood friend Rachel Dawes, now an ADA of impressive moral fiber and courage). By the time Crane had pumped enough aerosol in the streets of Gotham in the climax to send paranoid zombies after Rachel and some unfortunate little boy, I was looking around for something to throw at the screen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sinfully Good: Andrea England's Hope & Other Sins

When I was a young guy, hopeful about breaking into the singer/songwriter market I wanted to call my first record Love and Other Delights.  It seemed to capture the essence of what my songs were about. Andrea England has topped that by choosing Hope & Other Sins as the title for her new release. It’s definitely more thought-provoking, and when combined with A Man Called Wrycraft’s startling and gorgeous cover art it sets an expectation for England’s third CD to dig far deeper into the listener’s subconscious and really tug at your heart and head. The production, by Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ Colin Linden, helps fulfil those expectations.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lennon Interpreted: Michael Occhipinti & Shine On's The Universe of John Lennon

The Universe of John Lennon (True North 2012) is the latest in a long series of tribute albums to one of the most famous songwriters in contemporary pop. According to Amazon, there are already dozens of tribute albums to the ex-Beatle, the most recent in the jazz world from Bill Frisell: All We Are Saying (Savoy Jazz, 2011).

This new recording by Canadian guitarist Michael Occhipinti and his band, Shine On, offers listeners fresh insights into Lennon's music, insights that are inventive but not necessarily imaginative. As a musician and arranger, Occhipinti takes some calculated risks with these songs that stand up well. But after repeated listens, the music often fails to match up with either the intent of the original, or even the lyrics themselves. In other words, the music is so good that it often sounds detached from the lyrics. That said, there are still a few highlights that distinguish this album from the pack.

Monday, July 30, 2012

You Want to Make a Musical Out of That? Far from Heaven, New Girl in Town

Charlie Plummer, Alexa Niziak, and Kelli O’Hara in Far From Heaven (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The biggest deal at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer is a new musical of the 2002 Todd Haynes movie Far from Heaven starring Kelli O’Hara, who has taken a couple of weeks off from her Broadway show Nice Work If You Can Get It to perform in the Berkshires. Any chance to see O’Hara, a pure-voiced, remarkably expressive singer who is also a first-rate actress, is worth taking, and in the role of Cathy Whitaker – played on film by Julianne Moore – she sings superbly and conveys affectingly the bafflement of a quietly elegant, optimistic 1950s New England housewife who suddenly discovers that all of her assumptions about her life and her community are false. Moore, whose beauty is somehow touching and remote at the same time, brought to the part a sense of profound alienation; O’Hara, who has a gift for plumbing the depths of conventional characters, comes at it from a different perspective.

Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie are drawn to unusual projects, to say the least. They wrote the score for Grey Gardens, which was based on the Maysles Brothers’ documentary about those cousins of Jackie Kennedy’s, mother and daughter, who lived in poverty in a dilapidated Long Island mansion with dozens of cats; and in Happiness, which had a limited run at Lincoln Center, all the characters are dead people, the victims of a bus crash, who each have to dig into their memories for a moment of perfect happiness before they’re permitted to proceed to their eternal rest. It seems almost superfluous to point out that neither of these musicals works, though Happiness, which was directed and choreographed by the resourceful Susan Stroman, had a knockout of an opening number, and the flashback section of Grey Gardens that took up all of act one – the part of the narrative that the writers (Doug Wright supplied the book) had to invent – seemed grounded in some kind of playable narrative, unlike the ghoulish, inscrutable second act.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven (2002)
Possibly Far from Heaven, a collaboration with playwright Richard Greenberg, is even more of a head-scratcher. Why would anyone want to turn Haynes’s movie into a musical? It’s about a Hartford, Connecticut Mattron who discovers that her husband is gay and then falls in love with her African-American gardener. Haynes intended it as a corrective to the Technicolor soap operas of the fifties that tamped down homoerotic subplots and relegated black characters to demeaning subsidiary roles, and its ideal audience seemed to be made up of academics with a fondness for post-modern deconstruction and serious admirers of Douglas Sirk’s glossy hothouse melodramas, who have often claimed that Sirk rebelled against the social constrictions of his era in histrionic pictures like Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows. I don’t think much of Sirk, but his movies are seldom boring; Far from Heaven, by contrast, is arid and theoretical – though no less preposterous. Haynes creates an alternative version of the fifties that borders on the Martian. Raymond, the gardener (played by Dennis Haysbert), is highly cultivated and can speak articulately on a variety of subjects; the only thing he doesn’t seem to know anything about is gardening, and we never see him do any. Yet despite his intelligence, he’s shocked when his squiring a white woman around draws unpleasant attention, as if he’d never heard of racism. Haynes is so eager to show us how superior this black man is that he draws him as if he’d been dropped into New England from some sociologically advanced planet. The movie is so fanatically bent on pushing through its thesis that it winds up looking idiotic. The point of casting Dennis Quaid, an almost iconically straight actor, as a closeted homosexual is that we’d never imagine he might be. But instead we don’t believe he could be, which isn’t the same thing. Haynes’s strategies run to making the Whitakers’ little boy effeminate and their little girl a tomboy, to show us that children can sometimes elude gender stereotypes.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Evil That Men Do: Chinatown and L.A. Confidential

Los Angeles has always had a knack for attracting men (and it's almost always men) who saw an opportunity to take the City of Angels and try to remake it in their own image. These self-made men also didn't get to that position by being kind, or by doing the right thing. In fact, they rarely possessed any kind of moral compass; often they were sociopaths if not downright psychopathic. I'm speaking of people like William Mulholland, William Randolph Hearst and other 'captains of industry.' These titans, these monstrous icons, would later have streets, buildings and cities named after them, but their crimes, the terrible things they did, would largely be forgotten. Of course, this is a familiar story of any big city. Toronto, for example, has a street and various schools named Jarvis. But you wouldn't want to pull back the veil of the Jarvis clan in the 18th and 19th centuries because you might not like what you would find. The hothouse climate of LA, though, seems to attract an inordinate number of them.

Inevitably, when these guys went about their business, other people, often innocent people, paid dearly. It is even said by some that the tragic Elizabeth Short may have been killed by famous men who used her for their own ends and then disposed of her. (Short, whose nickname was Black Dahlia, is a famous-in-death young woman who came to Hollywood in 1946 looking for fame and all she found was murder by dismemberment in 1947. Short's murder has never been solved and has become the basis of many books and films, including Ulu Grosbard's interesting, but flawed 1981 picture True Confessions and Brian De Palma's reviled 2006 The Black Dahlia.) Besides the Dahlia story, Hollywood has rarely had the cojones to tackle stories about these men right in L.A.’s own backyard. But over the years, filmmakers like Philip Kaufman – in his 1993 film Rising Sun – and Robert Altman – in his 1973 picture The Long Goodbye – have all addressed what these legendary giants do either directly, or indirectly. But it wasn’t the prime focus of those works. Two great films, however, both of which I consider masterpieces, have confronted these men straight on: Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) and Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential (1997).