Saturday, August 10, 2013

Neglected Gem #44: Monkeybone (2001)

The Freudian comic fantasy Monkeybone is so inventive and enjoyable that I’ve never understood why it was treated as an extravagant embarrassment on its 2001 release. It’s messy and inconsistent, and at times the plot gets so complicated that, clever as it is, it begins to seem a little like a tin can tied to the movie’s tail. But since most Hollywood comedies come up with barely half a dozen good jokes, a movie with as many fresh comic ideas as this one – most of them gloriously visual – seems less a liability than a gift horse. Sam Hamm (Batman) adapted the script from Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel Dark Town, and Henry Selick, who collaborated with Tim Burton on A Nightmare Before Christmas, directed. It’s about a cartoonist named Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) whose agent (Dave Foley) has just landed him an animated series on Comedy Central. Stu, who’s decent and retiring – he has a peek-a-boo bang that hides his right eye, as if he weren’t sure he wanted to expose his whole face to prying eyes – isn’t interested in the fame or the franchising. But he figures that this new peak of success provides him with the perfect opportunity to propose to his girl friend, Julie (Bridget Fonda), the doctor whose sleep clinic rescued him from his lifelong nightmares and whose encouragement helped him to channel his demons into art. The strip – and now the projected series – revolves around Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), a monkey who is pure libido and embodies the randy, crass impulses that sweet Stu represses, popping up unbidden like a jack in the box with an erection. The day Stu signs for the TV show, he and Julie get into a car accident and Stu winds up in a coma. While his self-involved sister Kimmy (Megan Mullaly, who seems miscast) makes plans to cut his life support, deep inside his head Stu is stuck in Downtown, a crazy-carnival land ruled by Morphos (Giancarlo Esposito), the monarch of nightmares. His only means of escape is to steal an exit pass from Death (Whoopi Goldberg) that will boot him back to the waking world. He accomplishes the task but at the last minute his mischievous alter ego Monkeybone grabs it and, free at last of his controlling master, surfaces in the hospital in Stu’s body.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Summer Pleasures: Pacific Rim, Joyland and Under the Dome

A scene from Pacific Rim, now in theatres

The late science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (More than Human) once opined, in defense against critics who said all science was bad, that "ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud." That dictum, now known as Sturgeons' Law and usually stated as "90% of everything is crap," is actually true, though there are times in certain art forms  sixties rock, seventies American cinema when the over-all high quality belies that statistic. Of course the 10% that isn't crud isn't necessarily stellar, either. Great art, be it a film like Richard Linklater's Before Midnight or an album like The Allman Brothers' Live at the Fillmore East, isn't easily made, but there is enough out there that is at least worth your time, even if it falls short of what it could have been. Here are some recent efforts worth checking out.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Call of the Mild: The Wolverine

The first time Hugh Jackman played Wolverine, in his first American movie (and only the third movie his career), Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), a star was born. The character of Wolverine an endlessly regenerating Canadian wild man who can sprout razor-sharp claws from his knuckles, and who has a three-note emotional range, brooding, seething, and full explosion was a product of a period in the mid-70s when Marvel comics writers were trying to adjust to a changing pop culture landscape in which movie stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were playing judge-jury-and-executioner types as righteous heroes. Comics fan were hungry to see him on the screen, but comics fans and lots of other people are always hungry to see things on screen that would probably look pretty silly if almost anyone tried to create a reasonably plausible, live-action version of them.

Somehow, Jackman managed to make everything about Logan that’s the superhero equivalent of his slave name, what people call Wolverine when he’s not bounding through the air eviscerating people seem both believable and attractive, from the redwood-sized chip on his shoulder to his inherent nobility to his lupine-rockabilly hairdo and facial hair. It was the kind of performance that makes you eager to see what else the actor can do, and at the same time makes you want to know when you can see him play that character again. The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold from a script written by Mark Bombeck, Scott Frank, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie, marks Jackman’s fifth time out wearing Logan’s spiked claws and gelled hair horns. He was 31 when X-Men came out, and he’s 44 now, which, given the fact that Logan doesn’t visibly age, might have been a problem at an earlier point in our history. It’s a funny thing that people, or at least some movie stars, age so much slower than they used to, but it’s also a lucky thing, since it now takes so many lifetimes to get a movie made. In four fewer years that it’s taken Jackman to play Wolverine in three X-Men movies and two solo outings, Sean Connery had played James Bond five times, walked away from the franchise, come back to play him one more time, and walked away again.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Shadow and Light: The Fiftieth Anniversary of With The Beatles (1963)

When The Beatles' second album, With The Beatles, was released almost fifty years ago in the UK, it stayed at the top of the pop charts for a startling 21 weeks. If you consider that it was released on November 22, 1963 (on the day President Kennedy was assassinated), and was ignored by their British label's subsidiary, Capitol Records, in the United States, the feat was extraordinary. Yet despite the circumstances, or perhaps, in part, because of them, the sounds within those grooves caught the times like few other albums ever did – and changed them. With The Beatles arrived on that cold late fall day amidst a national tragedy, and yet it became a tonic. The songs would mix joy seamlessly with sorrow, their brightness overshadowed darkness, as four white boys exuberantly celebrated their love of black music.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Curdled Comedy of Manners: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s 45th movie as director, is also surprisingly one of his most memorable, largely but not only because of Cate Blanchett’s powerful lead performance as a mentally ill socialite fallen upon hard times. Allen’s track record for most of the last 20 years has been pretty mediocre, with the majority of his movies scanning at best as irrelevant. Even the few good films, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), seemed less fresh or creative than earlier Allen movies like Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1985), and Radio Days (1987), not to mention classics like Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). So who would have expected Blue Jasmine to be as unique, disturbing and honest as it is?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tennessee Williams’s Swan Song: The Two-Character Play

In its current form – that is, as it’s being performed by Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif at New World Stages in New York – The Two-Character Play was the last work Tennessee Williams produced; it opened in 1975. But he struggled with it for nearly a decade; quite different versions of it appeared in London in 1967, in Chicago in 1971 (under the title Out Cry), and in New York in 1973. It’s a meta-theatrical psychodrama about a pair of co-dependent siblings, Felice and Clare, down-on-their-luck actors who tour around the country in repertory. As the play begins they find themselves in some dilapidated theatre on their own (their staff having quit on them after weeks, or perhaps months, of working without salary), performing a piece, written by Felice, simply called The Two-Character Play. The play within the play is also about a brother and sister, also named Felice and Clare, agoraphobic recluses living in their childhood home in the South after their parents’ violent deaths.

The Two-Character Play, which shows the heavy influence of Beckett and especially of Waiting for Godot, certainly sounds like Williams, but it isn’t very good; it’s both rambling and strained. You don’t get drawn into the hermetic world of Clare and Felice the way you get pulled into the run-down motel-room existence of The Man and The Woman in Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen, another two-hander and one of the playwright’s early one-acts. Here we hardly need to be told that the play is a metaphor for life or that at the end, after the (invisible) audience has departed, the characters are going to be locked in the theatre, holding onto each other for dear life as the last special fades. Yet you can understand why a couple of adventurous, unconventional actors like Dourif and Plummer (who proposed the project to Dourif) would want to explore it, and it’s worth seeing the production, which Gene David Kirk directed, for their performances.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Delightfully Fluffy: Blithe Spirit at Stratford

Susie Burnett as Edith and Seana McKenna as Madame Arcati (Photo by David Hou)

I had planned to skip the Stratford Theatre Festival’s Blithe Spirit. It seemed to me like a piece of fluff, and there were so many “serious,” “worthy” plays to be seen at the festival. But I had a space in the schedule, and Noël Coward’s 1941 screwball farce was there, so off I went. As you might expect, it was a great decision, however inadvertent. Blithe Spirit is fluffy, but it’s delightful fluff, directed by Brian Bedford with a sure hand, performed with comic panache by a terrific cast, and all of it set in Simon Higlett’s gorgeous jewel of a set. My apologies to Mr. Bedford. I should have known better.