Doodad Kind of Town

Quick Take: "Hamlet 2"
August 31, 2008, 8:10 pm
Filed under: Musicals

I enjoyed myself immensely at “Hamlet 2,” although in hindsight, I’ll admit it felt like a movie I’d seen before.

Christopher Guest and his ensemble of regulars more than covered the comic territory of amateur theatre in 1996’s “Waiting for Guffman.” Twelve years later, “Hamlet 2” offers nothing original in the way of lampooning the passionately committed, yet wildly untalented, people who sometimes devote themselves to it. What it lacks in originality it almost makes up for in the sheer comic gusto of Steve Coogan’s performance.

Coogan throws himself into the role of Dana Marcshz, a failed-actor-turned-high-school drama-teacher, with shameless abandon. Marschz, like Guest’s Corky St. Clair before him, is an easy target for laughs, a obvious loser who is blissfully oblivious to both his lack of talent and the impending collapse of his marriage. (As his long-suffering wife, Catherine Keener has a discordant surliness that throws the movie off-balance whenever she appears.) He rollerblades to work, draws inspiration for his teaching methods from films like “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and ultimately seeks to save the school’s drama program by staging a rock musical sequel to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. (It adds Jesus Christ in a time machine to the original lineup of characters.) Coogan makes something daft and delightful out of the role, adding some nice, tossed-off bits of physical comedy (Dana never quite gets the hang of those rollerblades) and bringing a ridiculous conviction to lines like “Mango iced tea is my kryptonite!” And ultimately, he makes the character sympathetic. You actually end up cheering for his strange little show to become a hit.

The big production number in “Hamlet 2” is a bouncy little show tune called “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” (which sounds a bit like the title number from “Little Shop of Horrors”); it’ll be stuck in your head when you leave the theater. But, for me, the show’s opening number – “Raped in the Face” – is the showstopper. Its staging – highlighted by Coogan’s appearance in the number, inexplicably, as Albert Einstein – is the most dead-on skewering of contemporary musical theatre since Richard Curtis imagined “Elephant Man” as a musical in 1989’s “The Tall Guy.”

The Other 12-Movie Meme
August 30, 2008, 1:25 pm
Filed under: Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, Woody Allen

I’ve been tagged by Joseph Campanella of CINEMA FIST with a new, 12-movie meme. This, of course, is a new twist on the “original” New Beverly Cinema 12-Movie meme first started by Piper over at Lazy Eye Theatre – and this one comes courtesy of MovieMan0283 at the Dancing Image.

As Joseph notes, this one is “damn difficult.”

The challenge is as follows: “Pick 12 movies that you’ve never seen before, and that are very difficult to find on video.” (More specifically,the films can’t be available on Netflix.)

The difficulty was in finding films I had always wanted to see that weren’t available on DVD; pretty much everything on my ‘want to see’ list is there and waiting for me on Netflix, or very soon will be. I hedged about including Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” and Visconti’s “Ludwig” since both are being released on DVD within the next six weeks. (Which is well before I’ll probably get around to seeing them.)

So this list does not represent my “Holy Grail” of film experiences. In most cases, I’m curious about – but not passionately interested – in the films I’ve listed. But if I’d rent them on DVD if they were available. Eventually.

In alphabetical order:

1) “Brewster McCloud” – Early Robert Altman – it came right after “M*A*S*H,” although it wasn’t nearly as successful. Bud Cort plays a eccentric loner whose dream is to strap on mechanical wings and fly around inside the Houston Astrodome. Also marks the film debut of Altman regular Shelley Duvall. I wouldn’t give this a film a second thought if Altman’s name weren’t on it But Altman’s too smart and too iconoclastic a filmmaker to have made this as cloyingly quirky as it sounds.

2) “Fedora” – Billy Wilder’s 1978 adaptation of a Tom Tryon novel about a reclusive, aging film actress (Marthe Keller) and the producer who tries to lure her out of retirement (William Holden). It’s hard not to think of Wilder’s earlier classic “Sunset Boulevard” when you hear about this one; I’m interested to know how they compare. “Fedora,” however, was barely released, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen it show up on TV. That suggests it may be an utter failure, but I’d like to see for myself.

3) “Girlfriends” – A late ’70s comedy/drama about the friendship between two women – one who pursues her independence and an artistic career and one who opts for traditional marriage. Melanie Mayron (who went on to television’s “ThirtySomething”) plays the independent-minded one. It came out when I was in college, and got a fair bit of attention, but I never got around to seeing it. The director, Claudia Weill, went on to make a romantic comedy with Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas (“It’s My Turn,” which I saw and liked), then apparently worked only in television from that point on. I have a feeling that “Girlfriends” may be horribly dated now, but I’d still like to check it out, if only for the late-70s nostalgia it may invoke in me. That it also has Christopher Guest in a feature role only adds to my curiosity.

4) “King Lear” (Jean-Luc Godard’s 1987 version) – Its alternate title is “King Lear: Fear and Loathing,” which evokes Hunter S. Thompson and suggests this may be a sort of “gonzo” experience. And “gonzo” sounds like the right adjective for a film whose cast includes Woody Allen, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Godard himself, and stage director Peter Sellars as a character named William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth who is struggling to re-write the Bard’s works from memory after they’re destroyed in the Chernobyl disaster. In other words, this isn’t your high school English teacher’s “King Lear.” Completed in 1987, the film wasn’t actually shown anywhere until 2002, and apparently it’s been around enough to generate some IMDB comments (“aggressively, offensively, violently boring” was my favorite). But it’s nowhere to be found on Netflix.

5) “The Little Drummer Girl” – Long before she got caught in an endless loop of 60-year-old-dingbat roles, Diane Keaton was a formidable actress who frequently played complicated, shrill or difficult women. (Though you’d never know it these days, her range goes far beyond “Annie Hall.”) In this 1984 adaptation of a John Le Carre thriller, Keaton plays an actress with controversial political views on the Israeli/Palestine conflict who get lured into an actual Israeli intelligence mission. (I’m sure any and all similarities to Vanessa Redgrave are entirely coincidental.) What can I tell you, folks? “Mad Money” pushed me over the edge. I need to see some gritty, intelligent work from Keaton again, and this film (which I missed on its initial release) might just do the trick.

6) “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne” – Brian Moore’s novel about a poor Irish spinster – winding down her days in a lonely boarding house room, comforted only by copious amounts of whiskey and some misguided notions about a fellow boarder’s interest in her – is probably the most depressing book I’ve ever read. But I’d gladly brace myself for this sad story again just to see the phenomenal Maggie Smith in the the title role. (Bob Hoskins has a supporting role, but interestingly dominates the film’s poster at left. Go figure.)

7) “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” – I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen this; I could be wrong. I have vague memories of a seeing seeing some D. W. Griffith films in my college Introduction to Film course, but don’t recall whether this was one of them. Anyway, it’s from 1912, it’s got Lilian Gish in a major role, and it’s generally thought to be the first gangster film.

8) “The Red Desert” – Over the last year, I’ve been sporadically renting Antonioni films. This is the only one I want to see that isn’t available on Netflix. I don’t even remember what it’s about, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve loved discovering Antonioni’s work so far, and I’m sure this one will be just as challenging, baffling, and ultimately rewarding as the others.

9) “Saint Joan” – Jean Seberg was 18 years old and fresh out of Iowa when she won a national contest to play the title role in Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Shaw’s play. By all accounts, she held her own alongside such estimable talents as John Gielgud, Anton Walbrook, and Richard Widmark. I read “Played Out; the Jean Seberg Story” years ago, and have wanted to see “Saint Joan” ever since, but have had few-to-no opportunities to do so.

10) “So Sad about Gloria” – Ok, this is the wackadoo selection on my list, so bear with me. I remember reading newspaper ads for this 1974 film which promised: “The heartbreak of ‘Love Story.’ ‘The terror of ‘Psycho’.” Since “Love Story” and “Psycho” were two films that loomed very large in my early adolescent experience, I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the one film that could combine the intense emotional drama of both. (Perhaps some young rich Harvard hotshot lost his poor-but-beautiful-and-witty lover to the bullet of serial killer?) But “So Sad about Gloria” – rated “R” and showing in only a couple of theatres in the far-off big city – was out of my reach. God only knows why it popped up in my brain again, but a quick glance at IMDB shows that the people who wrote that intriguing ad copy may not have been familiar with the actual film. It’s a cheap exploitation flick about a recently released mental patient who has dreams of herself committing ax murders. There’s quite a stretch from that plot to the whole “Psycho meets Love Story” concept, but one I’d like to figure out for myself. (Bonus weird fact: the director, Harry Thomason, went on to co-produce the TV series”Designing Women.” That’s quite a stretch, too.)

11) “Those Lips, Those Eyes” – A backstage romantic comedy set in a summer stock theatre and starring Frank Langella, Glynnis O’ Connor (what happened to her?) and Tom Hulce. It’s about people doing musical theatre and it has clips of musical numbers from well-known shows, and that’s about all it takes to get this former community theatre performer interested in seeing it. (Well, that and the fact that it’s got Frank Langella, who was pretty damn handsome at the time. ) It got decent reviews when it was released in 1980, but never made much of a showing in theatres.

12) “Wild Boys of the Road” – An early film by Wiliam Wellman (“Public Enemy,” “Wings”), this Depression drama focuses on a group of teenagers who are forced to become vagabonds, searching for work after family circumstances become desperate. I saw clips of it in a documentary on Wellman shown on TCM, but neglected to record the film when it was shown later that evening. I’d like to get around to seeing it someday.

And now,the final part of the meme is to tag five fellow film bloggers, so I am tagging:

Marilyn at Ferdy on Films
Fox at Tractor Facts
Alexander at Coleman’s Corner in Cinema
Nick Plowman at Fataculture
Daniel at Getafilm

A Little Film Clip for a Sunday
August 24, 2008, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Over the last three days, I’ve been enjoying a sort of movie “binge” that has included watching Catherine Breillat’s “The Last Mistress,” Mathieu Amalric’s brilliant performance in “Kings and Queen,” Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in “The Fountainhead” and Gene Kelly and Cyd Charise in “It’s Always Fair Weather.”

But my favorite two minutes in the entire “binge” were these from “Way out West.” I could watch this over and over and over. Enjoy!

"A Girl Cut in Two"
August 19, 2008, 11:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

For a movie that deals largely in sexual perversion, “A Girl Cut in Two” is a remarkably tasteful and discreet affair.

There are plenty of kinky goings-on among the characters in this film, but they’re never shown onscreen. And if you blink, you might miss the subtly telegraphed suggestions of offscreen bedroom mayhem that are contained in bits of throwaway dialogue or the choice of a character’s attire.

Maybe this is business-as-usual for French director Claude Charbrol; you couldn’t tell by me, as I’m pretty sure this is the first of his films I’ve ever seen. Its elegant and mordant wit appealed to me, even as I recognized it wasn’t the most original of stories.

In fact, it’s pretty obviously based on an early 20th century New York scandal involving architect Stanford White, artist’s model Evelyn Nesbitt, and a mad millionaire named Harry Thaw. (If you aren’t familiar with said scandal, I’d refer you to the 1981 film “Ragtime,” a film whose plot is partly set in motion by the events.)

In this fictional take-off , the story is transported to contemporary Lyon, France, where the players are a revered, middle-aged writer (Francois Berleand), the spoiled and unstable heir to a chemical company fortune (Benoit Magimel) and the weather girl for a provincial cable channel (Ludivine Sagnier). Sagnier’s character, Gabrielle, projects a sort of unfocused, giggly innocence; she’s costumed in a series of floaty tops over shapeless blue jeans, and made up with sky blue eye shadow and pale pink lip glosses. Nonetheless, she soons exhibits a taste for darkness, as well as some major Daddy issues. (She has some cryptic dialogue early on which indicates that her father hasn’t been around during much of her life.) So when the much older author takes a shine to her while he’s at the station shooting an interview, she quickly becomes obsessed with him.

We’ve already glimpsed a bit of the writer, Charles, at home. In a large and airy manse in in the country, he enjoys a happy menage a trois with his wife and his agent – the former always clad in white and sporting a halo of soft curls, the later a reed-thin, somewhat severe-looking brunette who invariably wears black. No details are given, but after his agent makes a pointed wisecrack about him being like the Marquis de Sade, you don’t really need any more details.

Charles begins an affair with Gabrielle that is pretty much conducted on his own terms and at his own convenience, which leaves her ample free time to be wooed and pursued by the tempestuous rich guy. Magimel’s character is a spoiled brat who lives unapolgetically off the family fortune. From his first moments on screen, it’s clear he’s up to all kinds of sexual mischief of which his family strongly disapproves; there are eventual implications that his partners range from horses to 10-year-old girls. His family has even hired a minder to accompany him everywhere and remove him from situations which ignite his unseemly passions. Gabrielle doesn’t love him, but she humors him in his relentless pursuit of her. Meanwhile, she runs to join Charles at his slightest beckoning, even when he celebrates her birthday by taking her upstairs at a genteel-appearing sex club into (with apologies to Gordon Lightfoot) “a room where you do what you don’t confess.”

We don’t see what goes on in that room, but those familiar with the Stanford White scandal already know to what tragic end this uneasy love triangle is headed. Actually, even if you don’t know about the real-life story, I don’t think the events which unfold in the second half of “A Girl Cut in Two” will surprise you. The story itself is nothing new or special. It’s the deadly clever wit with which the story is told that will keep you engrossed till the final frame.

"Vicky Christina Barcelona"
August 17, 2008, 6:51 pm
Filed under: Woody Allen

Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz are the best things to happen to Woody Allen in years.

By now you may have heard that “Vicky Christina Barcelona” is the best Woody Allen movie in 20 years. Even if that were true (to my mind, both “Bullets over Broadway” and “Small Time Crooks” would easily best this one), it’d be damnation with faint praise at best. Pretty much everything here except Bardem and Cruz amounts to the same pretentious twaddle that Allen’s been dishing out for years, only wrapped up so prettily that you might not notice.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johannson) are two graduate students spending a summer in Spain. Vicky, the more grounded and conventional of the two, is researching her thesis on Catalan identity. (There was an awkward moment when several members of our Saturday night audience giggled over this revelation, apparently understanding her to be researching “Cattle and Identity.” Which sounds like a vintage Allen joke and could have set up a much funnier film to come.) Christina, by contrast, is a restless, artsy free spirit, who hasn’t found out what she wants from life or love, “but knows what she doesn’t want.”

We know these things because the film’s narrator tells us so. At great and uninspiring length. I’m no fan of voiceover narration; nine times out of ten, it’s an indication of lazy filmmaking. A good director and good actors should be able to show us what the characters are thinking and feeling, and not resort to spelling it out for us. And the narration in “Vicky Christina Barcelona” does not justify itself. At one point, while we watch Bardem hurrying out to his car in darkness, the narrator unhelpfully adds, “Juan Antonio hurried out in the dead of night.” Well, duh.

But back to our story. Bardem plays a hunky Spanish painter who approaches our two heroines in a restaurant one evening and invites them to come away with him for a weekend of sightseeing and hanky-panky. Vicky, because she’s the grounded one who’s engaged to a stolid young stockbroker, declines in the form of a lengthy, analytical put-down. But Christina, because she’s the free spirit, cocks her head seductively, tosses her blond mane and purrs acceptance. We’re ten minutes into the movie, and Allen’s familiar paint-by-numbers approach to character development is solidly in place. Nevertheless, soon both women are taking off with Bardem in his private plane.

Christina gets sick at the outset of the trip, so it’s the uptight Vicky who joins Bardem in a visit to his poet father, drinking copious amount of wine, listening to romantic guitar music -and ultimately, making love in the moonlight. Confused and guilt-stricken, she returns quickly to her relatives’ home in Barcelona. Christina, meanwhile, recovers and gets her shot with Juan Antonio. They fall in love, and she moves in with him.

And that’s when the movie really takes off.

Because Juan Antonio has a crazy ex-wife, Marie Elena (Cruz) who once tried to kill him. She winds up on his doorstep again after a failed suicide attempt when she has nowhere else to go, and he takes her in; with Christina, the two of them form an initially uneasy – and eventually tres sophisticated – menage a trois. From her first appearance, Cruz seizes the film and makes it her own. She’s not afraid to be completely unhinged, nasty, snarly and over the top, but she’s never scary, only hilarious. Most of her dialogue is in Spanish, but even if there were no subtitles, I think we’d still laugh. Something about the ridiculousness of her petulant irrationality needs no translation. The crazy/beautiful woman is a stock character in Allen’s films; he fetishizes unstable women in way that, at its worst, feels a little sick. But Cruz’ performance is miraculously light-spirited, not creepy. Nothing about her behavior would make you want to spend time with her, and yet the movie feels a lot more fun and buoyant when she’s around.

And Bardem and Cruz have an amazing onscreen chemistry that is both delicate and electric. When they spar, you get a sense of what their whole relationship history has been about, the passion as well as the fighting. During their scenes, you completely forget you’re watching a Woody Allen movie. And I do mean that as a compliment.

To be fair, though, they’re not the only ones giving performances that are infinitely better than the material. The role of Vicky is humorless and overwritten; it’s to Hall’s everlasting credit that she make something real and touching out of the caricature she’s been handed to play. A lesser actress would have turned Vicky’s extended rants shrill; Hall makes them persuasive and reasonable. Similarly, her transformation (under Bardem’s spell) into a relaxed and sensual creature has a subtle, unforced luminosity.

Johansson’s Christina, by contrast, is nothing special. Her performance feels almost phoned in, as if the only direction she were given is to part her pouty lips, toss her hair around and look game for anything- and she barely accomplishes that much. I know Johansson loves working with Woody, but I don’t think he’s done anything valuable for her career. She deserves much better parts than this.

As far as Allen’s screenplay goes, “Vicky Christina Barcelona” suffers from many of the same weaknesses as his other recent films. There are the annoying lapses in logic (how is that Vicky, a graduate student studying Catalan culture, has never learned to speak Spanish?) There are the superfluous cultural references, awkwardly inserted to give the film intellectual cred (there’s a lot of talk about Gaudi architecture, but we barely get to see any of it. It’s never shown in sufficient detail or glory for us to understand why Vicky – or anyone – would be inspired by it. If the Gaudi church really has such an influence on a major character, it ought to be almost a character itself.) But the sumptuous Spanish locations are filmed so gorgeously and ravishingly that you sort of let this stuff slide. It’s amazing how a few sun-soaked shots of Spanish countryside can make a mediocre little film feel like a decadent, late-summer escape. Allen isn’t really getting any better as filmmaker as he get older, but at least he’s learned how to pick his locations.

"Brideshead Revisited"
August 10, 2008, 7:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Back in the early ’80s, I went through a rather passionate Anglophiliac phase, during which I watched a lot of Masterpiece Theatre and read a significant number of novels by Evelyn Waugh.

My memories of that period are a little dim now, but there I remember two things distinctly:

1) “Brideshead Revisited” was, by far, my least favorite of Waugh’s books.
2) I was not able to make it through all 13 excruciating hours of the TV miniseries based on “Brideshead”. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would have taken me longer to watch the series than it did to read the whole damn book.

(Ok, point#2 may be a little unfair. It wasn’t all “excruciating” – Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews were actually quite good, and there were some bright, amusing spots here and there. But I don’t think I could be persuaded to sit through so much as a single episode of it again.)

Anyway: to put it bluntly, the new film version of “Brideshead Revisited” was nowhere near the top of my summer “must-see movies” list. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother to remake it, and fully expected it to be another airless period piece/interior decorating showcase, bound to bore me silly.

But I was pleasantly surprised. “Brideshead Revisited” actually works onscreen, though I suspect that Waugh purists and lovers of the television series will be disappointed. You might say that it often feels like the cinematic “Cliff’s Notes” version of the novel, and you’d probably be right. But I was just so happy to have the story told in under 13 hours this time that I really didn’t care.

For the uninitiated, “Brideshead” is told from the point of view of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), an Oxford student who falls under the spell of the wealthy and devoutly Catholic Flyte family. He first develops a close friendship with fellow Oxonian, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), the eccentric, teddy bear-toting, usually inebriated (and probably gay) son who brings Charles home to the family estate. Charles is dazzled by the beauty of the Flyte’s palatial home, but even more dazzled by the beauty and quick wit of Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell).

But what Charles -a self-professed atheist -fails to grasp is the depths of the family’s Catholic faith. The icy and powerful family matriarch, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thomspon, giving a beautifully nuanced performance) sees to it that her children are absolutely devoted to God – exhorting them to pray, leading daily rosary services in the family chapel, and ultimately driving each of them into private hells of guilt and self-recrimination. In opposition to her, Charles sets himself up as a sort of savior who will help Sebastian and Julia find enlightenment, but he is thwarted in his efforts.

Goode has a thankless role as the outsider who is a bit too desperate to be liked, too hungry for the upper class family’s approval, and too assured of his own value to them. He’s a bit of a cipher, overshadowed by Atwell’s lively, soulful performance as well as Whishaw’s sensitive work. Thompson projects a quiet but deadly confidence that leaves you in no doubt as to her Lady Marchmain’s control over her offspring; during the second half of the film, when her character is gone from the story, you still sense her presence and influence. And Michael Gambon is a brief but welcome presence as Lord Marchmain, who is estranged from the family and living is Venice with his Italian mistress.

Director Julian Jerrold (whose recent work includes the delightful “Kinky Boots”) and screenwriter Jeremy Brock (“The Last King Of Scotland”) have distilled the story down to its essential plot points and thematic elements, and it moves along briskly at just under 2 hours and 15 minutes. There’s plenty of visual grandeur to be glimpsed, but the story and performances are riveting enough that I never once found myself admiring the furniture or the silverware when I should have been listening to the characters’ dialogue.

Waugh’s novel was about many things (including, to me at least, a ridiculous and almost shameful over-idolization of the British upper classes). But it was mainly about redemption and grace. The final image of this film subtly but effectively depicts a glimmer of grace reaching an unlikely recipient. It’s one moment the filmmakers get absolutely right.

So Many Movies, So Little Time: A Poll
August 7, 2008, 11:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve gone and done it again. I’ve gotten excessively trigger-happy with my DVR and now have 13 movies awaiting me in the queue. There’s so much good stuff waiting to be seen that I don’t know where to start.

So, reader, let me open this decision up to you – which movie(s) should I watch first, and why? And are there any I’d be better off deleting right now than ever taking the time to watch?

The choices:
12 Monkeys
Apocalypse Now**
Crash (the 1996 David Cronenberg film, not the 2005 Best Picture)
The Fountainhead
The Graduate**
The Letter
Lost Highway
Monsieur Verdoux
The Saddest Music in the World
(** I’ve seen before)