Wednesday
Mar172010

Cinderella Liberty (1973)

Ahhhh, the ‘70s: bell bottoms, disco balls, mood rings, arena rock, the true arrival of Feminism, the end of Vietnam and increasing cocaine use sounded the end of the tumultuous ‘60s and brought to the decade a ferociously despondent hangover in the form of the Golden Age of the American Cinema. Maverick filmmakers, artists, writers and actors all contributed to what would be the second maturation of the American film audience (film noir being the first), the meteoric rise of the independent producer and the final death rattle of the old Hollywood Studio System.

Socially more aware, war weary and politically jaded, the American people looked at its movies now in a much more artistic vein. The large epics had fallen away, musicals were dead, the traditional western was fading and hokey melodrama could no longer stand up against the bare reality of the times. Late ‘60s films such as The Wild Bunch, Bonnie & Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Easy Rider had changed the landscape. Young directors eager for their shot to make a movie poured out of the country’s growing enrollment in film study programs. Film criticism, often sneered at by those in the theater, galleries and literary circles, was finding artistic relevance in the renewed fervor for the cinema.

It was in this time that names like, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Ashby and Rafelson began emerging, altering not only the way films were made, but marketed as well.

Another such man was Producer/director Mark Rydell. He had cut his chops in the ‘50s and ‘60s as an actor (a product of the “Actor’s Studio” in New York) and began directing television shows such as I Spy and Gunsmoke. It was with the success of the latter that he was given the opportunity to break into feature filmmaking with The Reivers (1969) and The Cowboys in 1972 (infamous for being one of the few films wherein a character of John Wayne’s dies).

In 1972, the young Rydell was tapped by 20th Century Fox to helm an adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, Cinderella Liberty, an inside look at the bureaucracy of the United States Navy. A topic the author would explore again with The Last Detail (made into an exceptional Hal Ashby film). Rydell agreed, on the condition that he could make the film from a single chapter of the novel dealing with sailor John Baggs’ obsession with a hooker and her illegitimate son. Ponicsan adapted the chapter for the screen.

Also on board was legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. Hungarian born, he fled the country during the Soviet invasion of 1956 bringing with him fellow cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (legendary in his own right) and footage of the takeover which they sold to CBS News. To show the strange ways that Hollywood careers can arise, Zsigmond was director of photography on madman Ray Dennis Steckler’s camp classic The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1964). His other credits of the period included Psycho A-Go-Go and Satan’s Sadists. This is the same man who won an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and filmed the visual masterpieces McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Deer Hunter (1978) and (the notorious yet neglected) Heaven’s Gate (1980).  

The lead character, Baggs, would be played by James Caan, fresh off his Oscar nominated performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. Caan’s career is a troubled and interesting one. Athletic and handsome, he often played macho figures with a reluctant sensitivity while suppressing a menace that always seemed to be brewing under his skin. He had a reserved intensity like many actors of the time (Bruce Dern comes to mind), but Caan’s style was more physically intimidating and only half as crazy.

Surprisingly, his big break would be as the reserved, thoughtful and courageous Brian Piccolo in 1971’s Brian’s Song. This led to the role of Sonny Corleone and huge stardom for the remainder of the decade (The Killer Elite, Rollerball, A Bridge Too Far). But his later films never did well and there is a sense that he stopped taking the chances on roles that he eagerly gambled on early in his career. This hesitancy (along with some negative offscreen notoriety) created a stagnancy in the ‘80s with Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and a role in Coppola’s Gardens of Stone (1987) being the few exceptions. He returned to form in 1990 as the tortured author in Misery and was frighteningly good in Steve Kloves’ vastly underrated Flesh and Bone (1993).

Rydell discovered Marsha Mason (who would play the prostitute Maggie Paul) in a local theater production in San Francisco while scouting locations for this film. Originally set to star Barbara Streisand (what a different, worse film it would have been!) Rydell backed his decision to use Mason by giving up a large portion of his budget. That is how much he believed in the young actress. His instincts were acute.

Mason was primarily a stage actress and had little film experience going into Cinderella Liberty.  Imagine the risk of casting someone for a major Hollywood role (over Streisand no less) whose lone film credit was 1966’s Hot Rod Hullabaloo. History has proven the decision to be a wise one as Mason received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance and would go on to notch three more in the next eight years (The Goodbye Girl (1977), Chapter Two (1979) and 1981’s Only When I Laugh). She had a chipper yet down to earth quality that translated well into likeability and realness. In this film, as a booze-soaked prostitute and neglectful mother, Mason’s endearing attributes would be needed to keep the story and character from drifting into the realms of degradation and misery. 

As Baggs, Caan balances the obtuse masculinity of the sailor with a tender but firm nuance that has trademarked many of his characters. He is not the misfit anti-hero seen in so many films of the era (think of Jack Nicholson’s Navy “Badass” in The Last Detail later that same year). Baggs is humble, ethical and rather uneducated, but dignified in his simplicity. He dislikes cursing and lying (strange qualities in a sailor) and always seems a bit puzzled by the ease with which others fall back on them. Ultimately, the lifer path of a Navy man begins to wear thin and he searches for real companionship.

He is held in port for medical reasons (a humbling cyst on his rectum) and is issued a “Cinderella Liberty” pass until further orders come through. It is a temporary pass (freedom in check) for Navy personnel but requires him to be back at the base every evening at midnight. He becomes stuck in limbo (much like his emotional state) and aimlessly walks the streets of Seattle. He passes adult book shops, porno theaters and sleazy bars (all alienating) while he contemplates his future. To add to his sense of solitude, the Navy has lost his papers (he now figuratively does not exist to them) and it will be awhile before he can even get paid or shipped off.

He enters one of the dives and spots Maggie (Mason) playing pool. She is drinking heavily and hustling sailors for a few bucks. He hustles her in a few games and wins her services for the evening. She takes him home to her seamy apartment where her illegitimate, eleven year old, bi-racial son is sleeping on the couch. He suggests they make love on the floor (the bedsprings are squeaky) so as not to wake the kid. His sensitivity is apparent. She responds to it. They begin to form an unusual bond.

Baggs begins to look out for the boy, teaching him basketball and boxing (and to quit his swearing). The street smart kid begins to look at him as a surrogate father. Maggie begins to fall in love with him as well. He becomes equally enamored with them and starts to enjoy his peculiar position as “man of the house”, however fleeting it might be.

Circumstances continually put roadblocks in their path to happiness and union. The Navy continues bumbling Baggs’ paperwork predicament giving the characters more time to screw things up. It would normally have been a whirlwind romance, demanding a happy ending in the old Hollywood, but this is a rougher edged cinema. Maggie’s own defeatist desires begin to resurface. She returns to drinking heavily, turning tricks and ignoring her child. There is an unwanted pregnancy. The culmination of all their various issues is at times surprising, always honest and very touching.

In the end, Cinderella Liberty is a realistic look at the longings of everyday people; the efforts we go to in realizing those desires and the unplanned outcomes driven by forces beyond our control. With a veritable who’s who of character actors (Burt Young, Bruno Kirby, Sally Kirkland, Eli Wallach and Dabney Coleman), the visuals of Zsigmond and the actor friendly direction of Rydell, it remains to this day a unique character study and a memorable film in the pantheon of ‘70s America’s Golden Age.

Monday
Mar152010

2012

Roland Emmerich has been trying to eradicate mankind for his entire film career. His latest, 2012, is an apocalyptic disaster picture based on the Mayan calendar's prediction* of the end times. Previous to that, he gave us The Day After Tomorrow, a climatic auger of doom based on the global warming scare. In 1998, he resurrected Godzilla to trample the earth to death. Aliens threatened the annihilation of the planet in Emmerich's UFO hooey Independence Day in 1996. And in 1992, Herr Direktor showed us a glimpse of our suicidal bellicosity while simultaneously destroying our will to live by teaming Jean Claude Van Damme with Dolph Lundgren in a single film called Universal Soldier.

Why does this man despise humanity so? I know the Germans have always trended toward mayhem and carnage, but this is just ridiculous.

People have been fascinated with end times mythology and crackpot messages of doom since our first ape-like ancestors struggled out of the mud and began drawing characters on the walls of their caves. The evolution of these cataclysmic prophecies has progressed little to this day as ape-like creatures with brains of swamp gas (John Hagee) still act as “Chicken Little” harbingers of Armageddon. They’ve just conveniently thrown the Jews and “Destroyer Jesus” into the mix.

This is not to say that certain omens prognosticating the horrific fall of mankind cannot be seen in recent events. The specter of a possible, if unlikely, Palin presidency still haunts the American political conscious. Surely, that would be an omen of impending catastrophe. How about the persistent popularity of rap music (how long, Oh Lord, how long?) for a glimpse into unfortunate foreordination? What about M. Night Shyamalan still being allowed to make pictures? Can anybody reassure me that inevitable suffering and calamity does not await a species that allows the “Big Red” cinnamon gum jingle to be resurrected for a mobile phone company? And personally, the increasing unavailability of X-Factor Lemon-Lime Strawberry Gatorade in the 32 ounce jug as a balm for my crippling hangovers must hold a clue as to our ultimate demise.

I’m not saying the signs aren’t out there. I’m just skeptical that an advanced tribe of bloodthirsty, cocaine-addled Mexicans correctly envisioned the fall of man. Coke and human sacrifice are good for a lot of things (including very lively Saturday nights), but predicting the future isn’t one of them. On the other hand, if the Mayans could have foreseen anything as insidious as a Roland Emmerich film, they likely would have portended our ruin.

*Disclaimer: the Mayan 2012 calendar kafuffle is really a misunderstanding. The “end time” date represents transition, not destruction. But as you know, Hollywood prefers destruction. “Transition” is a theme for filmmakers who have a budget of $10,000 and can only snag Felicity Huffman as a lead - and only if she works for scale.

With that in mind we will dispose of the typical format for film reviews today because 2012 is so appallingly bad, so utterly devoid of merit, so stained on its very soul that conventional structures of prosaic mockery will not suffice. Its flaws (like its target audience) must be addressed in sound bytes and heaps of ridicule.

My observations:

1) In my initial screening of the film I dropped some acid and tried to sync up Rush’s 2112 with it - in the same spirit that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon supposedly acts as a surreal soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz (it doesn‘t). All I really garnered from the experiment was that when Geddy Lee’s voice is combined with the disastrous vision of a German filmmaker, it only seems like the end of humanity is at hand. I also discovered that Rush is an absolute downer when you’re tripping balls. The whole “Temples of Syrinx” thing seemed like a sure bet.

2) It’s a little premature (and naive) of Hollywood to depict every future U.S. President and 40% of his cabinet as African-American going forward. This seems to occur exclusively in disaster pictures. There’s some ironic liberal cynicism in there somewhere.

3) Actors playing scientists spouting theories on neutrino counts and their effects on the earth’s core would be a lot more believable if they had not formerly appeared as a drag queen in a British comedy or a douchebag martial arts instructor in a rare David Mamet failure.

4) With the world literally falling to pieces, where were Dick and Liz Cheney blaming it all on Muslims and the attorneys who represent them?

5) If the apocalypse ever does come in my lifetime, I’m heading over to Amanda Peet’s house to hide out in her eyebrows.

6) George Segal has fallen a long way from his Oscar nomination for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

7) The credibility of this film comes immediately into question when the screenwriter makes the hero (John Cusack) a writer. Writers are never heroic. They drink a lot and write about heroism. And they’re selfish assholes.

8) Additionally, on the far-fetched front, Woody Harrelson plays a heroic blogger/conspiracy theorist/survivalist. Not that bloggers or tin-foil-hat nut jobs can’t do good deeds, but everybody knows Woody Harrelson can’t read or write.

9) How the hell did the Russians emerge as evil again? Sounds like my Randroid, Libertarian, Reagan worshiping brother-in-law wrote the screenplay.

10) If your hot ex-wife has to fuck a nerd, make sure he’s seeking a pilot’s license.

11) Turns out John Cusack is the greatest driver in the world.

12) I still can’t believe that Thandie Newton is the same charming actress I was introduced to in Flirting back in 1991. What the hell happened to her?

13) Hollywood has turned on Arnold Schwarzenegger here with a diegetic TV aside, proving that politics does ruin everything and that even hulking Austrians cannot escape the wrath of limousine liberals or the Republican Party.

14) The screenwriters shamelessly and lazily rehashed a line from Jaws thinking that either the audience was too young or too dumb to notice. After our protagonist family barely escapes the smoke-billowing, earthquake shattered devastation of L.A. via a twin engine, a character observes, “We’re going to need a bigger plane.” Aargh. 

It was here, at the one hour and five minute mark, that I began cheering for the chaos - rooting on the nuclear meltdown of the earth’s very core. I could take no more. If one more precocious child actor quipped, if another archetypal character was introduced, if there were any more last second rescues from the brink of sure death, if Amanda Peet remain clothed, I was sure to lose my mind.

I snorted my final line of coke, placed my cat on the stone altar, plunged my hand into its chest and pulled out its beating heart. The DVD player switched off. The movie was stopped. The gods had been appeased. As, finally, was I.

Friday
Mar052010

C. Adolph's 2010 Oscar Predictions

Updated results below, at end of post!!!!!!!

I’m just going to come right out and say it. No decent film lover or cinema enthusiast should take anything related to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seriously. It’s a rigged, multi-faceted con game of celebrity ego, shallow popularity, industry onanism and shady horse trading.
Rarely, if ever, are the most deserving films and/or people awarded and significantly less often are the proper films and people even nominated.
It’s an MTV/Nickelodeon awards ceremony for dimwitted adult philistines.
Which is not to say that the gambling possibilities involved in such an endeavor are not ripe for the plucking.
Over the years I have cast my lot into various Oscar pools, ran a few of my own, won a few, been cheated out of a few more, but always managed to make a good showing. Which is not typically true for those with the breadth of film knowledge and aesthetic purity that I possess. Generally, impeccable taste and an undying belief that not every year has to turn into an artistic mind fuck for the truly talented tends to create gaping errors in Oscar pool judgment. Better off to peer into the Hollywood abyss with a cynical eye and realize that pool winners are born from the calculative appreciation of knowing what the vapid cesspool of entertainment professionals will likely vote for above the Pollyanna naiveté of believing they will do what is just and true. Or, if you are a complete idiot, choosing your personal favorite to win, assuring you a crushing defeat.   
This year will be a bit different for me. Once upon a time I made it my business to see most, if not all, of the nominated films prior to the ceremony, thinking this would give me the ultimate edge in prognostication. I found over the years that it could easily be argued that ingesting all of the nominees beforehand was inversely damaging to one's ability to predict the winners. Too many personal issues get in the way of sound, cool-headed, bloodless judgment. Especially with the technical categories. One tiny glimpse of a finely crafted garment of chic modernism and your temporary bias could overcome the inevitable fact that stodgy English period pieces almost always win for "Costume Design". Similarly, having seen the four astoundingly better performances by other supporting actresses in 1990 would have cost you. Simply for doing what was decent and sensible by not voting for Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost.
And this year is particularly noxious for not including what should have been a no-brainer, shoo-in for “Best Picture” along with many other awards - The Road. Its lack of a single nomination reeks of politics.
It’s all a fool’s game.
Fortunately, I have a sixth sense for fools.
So hop up on the C. Adolph Oscar Pool Bandwagon and come on in for the big win.
Without further ado:

C. Adolph’s 2010 Academy Award Predictions

Best Picture - This is a perfect example of how abysmally self-gratifying this has all become for the motion picture industry. There has been a slew of films in this category recently that aren’t even good enough to be nominated, let alone win (Slumdog Millionaire, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, ad nausea), so the Academy’s answer to this dilemma is to expand the fucking field to ten nominees. “What’s that you say? Your plate of shit is displeasing? Let’s just spoon some more on there for you.”
Winner: The Hurt Locker

Best Actor - Two man race. Clooney’s losing wind.
Winner: Jeff Bridges

Best Actress - Been a long time for Streep (who was robbed for Doubt) and Julia Child is a beloved icon, but the Hollywood race often goes to the shallow.
Winner: Sandra Bullock

Best Director - ‘Bout time a chick won this thing. Hell, there’s a black President. Might as well be female directors. I just wish Bigelow’s oeuvre was a little more impressive. I mean - Mission Zero, K-19: The Widowmaker, Strange Days and Point Break? C’mon. Renny Harlin deserves an Oscar by those standards. She did have to fuck James Cameron for a few years, however. She’s probably earned it. God knows the evil kinks that man must demand to be satisfied.
Winner: Kathryn Bigelow

Best Supporting Actor - Way too much buzz on Waltz for him not to win.
Winner: Christoph Waltz

Best Supporting Actress - So you don’t think the Academy Awards and all it stands for is so much bilge water? After Sunday night - Number of Oscars: Stanley Kubrick - 0, Mo’Nique - 1.
Winner: Mo’Nique

Best Original Screenplay - I’m leaning Hurt Locker here and if it does beat out Inglorious Basterds  for this it should win “Best Picture” over Avatar.
Winner: Hurt Locker

Best Adapted Screenplay - No contest.
Winner: Up in the Air

Best Foreign Language Film - Got to go with the Krauts this year.
Winner: The White Ribbon

Best Animated Feature Film - What a bullshit category. And the best actor Oscar goes to… Stewie Griffin!
Winner: Up

And the technicals…

Art Direction
Winner: Avatar

Cinematography
Winner: Avatar

Costume Design
Winner: The Young Victoria

Documentary
Winner: The Cove

Film Editing
Winner: The Hurt locker

Makeup
Winner: Star Trek

Original Score
Winner: Up

Original Song
Winner: “The Weary Kind”, Crazy Heart

Sound Editing
Winner: Avatar

Sound Mixing

Winner: Avatar

Visual Effects

Winner: Avatar

Wednesday
Mar032010

Moon

Interesting bit of lunar paranoia from the fruit of David Bowie’s loins (had to be careful with the wording on that sentence, I can tell you), Duncan Jones.
Moon is sort of Solaris meets 2001 meets Silent Running with a little of John Carpenter’s overrated cult hit Dark Star thrown in for the film’s small dash of humor.
Sam Rockwell plays Sam, a working man on the moon, hired by an energy conglomerate to oversee its helium excavations on Earth’s favorite satellite. In this not too distant future man has overcome his fossil fuel woes and the planet is - by the standards of the company’s press releases anyway - a carefree, energy efficient and wonderful place to live. Which, given the bloodlust for oil these days, sounds like a pretty reasonable assessment of a world with energy options.
Sam has been stationed alone at the processing facility for almost three years now and his stint is nearly up. His days consist primarily of maintaining the equipment on base, venturing out on the lunar surface to check on the automated roving harvesters and trying to keep a sense of sanity amidst the isolation and loneliness.
He is assisted by a do-all computer named “GERTY” (voiced by Kevin Spacey), his co-worker and ersatz friend, that is frightfully reminiscent of HAL from 2001. But Jones’ script is a bit cleverer than sheer homage and veers from this obvious technophobia into less explored territory. Namely, and without being too ambitious, the philosophical notions of not only “what” it is to be human, but “who” we are as individuals.
SPOILER ALERT: we don’t really ever find out, which is why Moon outshines most of the sci-fi dreck out there.
It’s a plaintive meditation on the self that keeps you on an intellectual edge throughout. Is all the paranoia justified? Is the energy company a nefarious entity with ulterior motives? What about GERTY‘s loyalties? Is Jones making some grand socio-political/economic statement about the dehumanization of the worker in contemporary corporate culture? Is he exploring the boundaries of human consciousness? Or are all of the strange happenings simply due to the fact that Sam has lost his fucking mind from what Ren and Stimpy called “Space Madness”?
And my own personal question outside the parameters of this most enjoyable film – is Sam Rockwell the weirdest actor working in Hollywood today?

Friday
Feb192010

Jane Eyre (1944)

Film adaptations are always a tricky business. A novel’s purist followers can never be fully appeased. Viewers who are unassociated with a book’s themes and literary intimacy can lose interest in the subtle nuances, editing, and license that filmmakers must use to realize the vision of the work. It is a problematic endeavor and one that invariably leaves a portion of the audience cold and unreceptive.

Jane Eyre may be one of those novels you plodded through in a high school or college lit class during your academic travails. Volumes of critique too numerous to indulge in here have been written in its name. Every conceivable angle of social, artistic, religious, literary, gender and psychological theory has been bandied about by intellects and crackpots alike.

Nevertheless, there are a few truisms regarding Charlotte Bronte’s novel that cannot be denied. It is a work of timeless beauty. In 1847, a female author addressed the stringent grip that religion, class, sexual repression, marriage and (lack of) education held over society. It was so condemning of these institutions and practices, in fact, that she submitted it under the androgynous pseudonym of Currer Bell in order for the book to have a chance at publication.

Its prose is elegant, its environs often grotesque, yet it blends love and forsakenness, helplessness and courage, delight and horror into a story of profound strength. It is a seminal work of female authorship whose progressive ideals, unfortunately, have not been fully realized to this day.

There have been at least nineteen screen adaptations of the novel (both film and television) dating back to 1910. Its story has been used in other works as varied as Wide Sargasso Sea and I Walked with a Zombie. This 1944 production originally was the property of David O. Selznick who, after stints as a producer with MGM and RKO, had setup Selznick International pictures and began producing independently. He had recently made the successful Rebecca in 1941 and feeling that the theme and story were a bit too similar to Jane Eyre, he sold the package (many of his original people were retained including director Robert Stevenson and Orson Welles) to 20th Century Fox. In typical Selznick fashion however, he continued submitting his trademark, winded memos to Fox VP William Goetz, which had suggestions on everything from set design to how to utilize the wunderkind Welles.

Director Robert Stevenson was under contract with Selznick for over ten years (he was originally brought over from England to do a sequel of Gone with the Wind) and strangely never did a film for the mogul. Selznick had continually loaned the director out to other studios. Now, Stevenson found himself in a struggle to maintain creative control over Jane Eyre as the ego of Welles and Selznick’s intimations that the actor should have a greater part in the production undermined his directorial authority.

There has been much discussion regarding who should be credited with the overall vision of the picture. Many shots (lighting, depth of focus, camera placement and movement) are, at times, truly Wellesian, but remembrances from both cast and crew have insisted that Stevenson was fully in control of the picture. By most accounts, the mannered Englishman subtly wrestled the reins from the dynamic, bombastic American. Welles’ humble refusal of a co-producer credit certainly suggests this.

Welles’ influence cannot be denied however. He was purportedly involved in all facets of the production, even hammering down nails in the set pieces. Cinematographer George Barnes (Academy Award winner for 1940’s Rebecca) was an associate of Gregg Toland (who shot Citizen Kane). Following Welles from the Mercury Theater was Bernard Herrmann, who had done the music for Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as well as many of Welles’ radio productions (including Jane Eyre). John Houseman (co-founder of Mercury with Welles) co-scripted the adaptation and Agnes Moorehead would play Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed.

The tragedy and injustices that befell Welles’ Hollywood career are too detailed and painful to address here. Suffice to say that his portrayal of Rochester in this film was the first in a long line of acting roles that he took in order to fund his own ambitious projects.

His acting style is often an acquired taste, difficult to appreciate by those who do not hold him in high esteem. From stage roots, his performances can seem brash, impressionistic, unduly heavy and at times, downright hammy. For the character of Rochester, this style cannot be more apt. The booming voice, the overconfidence, the sudden shifts in emotion all play directly into the very fiber of the brooding man of station with the dark, haunted past.

Joan Fontaine would play Jane and her naturalistic approach to acting was a fitting contrast to Welles’ pomposity. It is a true reflection of the characters’ relationship. She was coming off a Best Actress Oscar for 1941’s Suspicion and had received another nomination for Rebecca (1940). These two roles as the meek, innocent, victimized wife of men with shadowy intentions made her a natural for the lead in Jane Eyre. She was a favorite of Selznick. He sensed in her the untainted youthfulness that could perceive menace but seemed helpless to combat it. This quality was used perfectly (and similarly) in all three of these films. Her Jane is not quite the outspoken, determined heroine of the novel but it plays well with the film’s intent of Gothic horror and Victorian oppression.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Jane Eyre is a young orphaned girl who has been taken in by her Uncle. His untimely death leaves her in the hands of her cruel, uncaring Aunt who, for convenience (and against the Uncle’s death bed wish), ships her off to a school for orphaned girls. Here, the Dickensian horrors of poverty’s children are in full force. The stern Evangelical Minister who runs the school takes an immediate dislike to Jane (the other girls fare little better) and her childhood is spent in abject misery. Hunger, lack of care, disease (Bronte had lost her mother and many siblings to sickness), poor living conditions and, of course, rigid religious dogma and punishment become her everyday life. She does receive an education however, and upon turning eighteen accepts a governess position at Mr. Rochester’s Thornfield Manor.

She begins to tutor Rochester’s ward, Adele. Slowly, she builds a spiritually kindred relationship with the gruff, secretive owner of the manor. They fall in love. At their wedding, Rochester’s haunted past catches up with him and Jane flees his ignominy in disillusionment.

Withholding a spoiler – it can be stated that her sufferings, inner growth, and self-determination thereafter allow her to return to Thornfield on her own terms and fulfill the destiny of her life and character.

The cast and crew are replete with current and future talents. Director Robert Stevenson (a member of the “Bronte Society”) had early success with his 1937 version of King Solomon’s Mines, but it was not until his autumn years at Disney Studios in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s that his talents flourished. It is arguable that his films have been seen by more people worldwide than any other director in film history (Spielberg might take exception). His huge run began with Johnny Tremain and Old Yeller in 1957 and continued with Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), Kidnapped (1960), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), In Search of the Castaways (1962), Son of Flubber (1963), Mary Poppins (1964), That Darn Cat! (1965), The Gnome Mobile (1967), The Love Bug (1968), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Herbie Rides Again (1974), The Island at the Top of the World (1974), One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975), and The Shaggy D.A. (1976).

Admittedly, no title in that lineup is going to win you a Palme d’Or, but it will surely get you in the door for an interview with any movie studio in the free world.

Stevenson co-wrote the script for Jane Eyre with John Houseman (The Paper Chase) and another young upstart by the name of Aldous Huxley who had previously adapted Pride and Prejudice for the screen in 1940 and penned a little ditty titled Brave New World in 1932. Bernard Herrmann scored the film (he composed an opera of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights) and would later add to his success writing music for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. An eleven-year-old Elizabeth Taylor is glimpsed in the role of Helen, Jane’s friend at the orphan school for girls and long time television actresses Peggy Ann Garner (excellent as young Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and Margaret O’Brien (Adele) are here, just beginning their careers.

The film’s strengths lie in its use of gothic horror (“the mad woman in the attic”, haunted manors, fog cloaked exteriors) and psychological moodiness. Like The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, Thornfield Manor itself is a character with which to be reckoned. It has no charm and holds many secrets. It suffers from neglect. Its drafty interiors and old relics are as cold and distant as the soul of its owner. Jane is the one who breathes life, love, music and art into it. The rest of its inhabitants are ghosts, waiting for unattainable rest. Bronte’s hints at the mystical are served well.

Ultimately, Jane Eyre is about a woman of independent thought, trapped by economic and familial hardship, religious oppression, classism and lack of love. Bronte’s words speak for her heroine thusly:

 

                             “I am not talking to you now through the medium

                              of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal

                              flesh: - it is my spirit that addresses your spirit;

                              just as if both had passed through the grave, and

                              we stood at God’s feet, equal, - as we are!”      

 

We should all be so eloquent and forthright.

Friday
Feb122010

Bronson

"That was a real kick and good for laughs and lashings of the old ultraviolent."

                           -Alex, a character from Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

 

“My name’s Charles Bronson. And all my life, I wanted to be famous. I knew I was made for better things. I had a calling. I just didn’t know what as. I wasn’t singing. Can’t fuckin act. Running out of choices really. Don’t we?”

                          - Charlie Bronson (nee Michael Peterson), a character in real life.

 

I normally don't like to begin reviews of a particular film with quotes from another but the imitative style and unapologetically derivative visual tone of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson is so overt that it could be considered a sequel to Kubrick's masterpiece. At the very least, a kindred spirit.

Which is not to say it's a bad film.

Quite the contrary. It's a marvelous bit of highly stylized brutality. But it would be markedly disingenuous to claim it does not borrow liberally from its predecessor.

As Tony Roberts' character admits in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories when a fan asks if their horror parody was an homage to House of Wax, "Homage? No. We just stole the idea outright."

And imitation is the highest form of flattery, is it not?

When culling film ideas for form and substance, you cannot do any better than pick from the tree of the master himself.

I was reminded of a similar effort back in 1995 called The Young Poisoner's Handbook. A nifty, enjoyable little movie about another British psychopath that lifted heavily from the Kubrick oeuvre. Even down to the music.

I wish more films strove for such excellence.

Before we get into listing the comparative themes - a bit of background on Bronson.     

It is based on a true story - the indescribably violent existence of a real life English convict (lauded as "Britain's Most Violent Prisoner") named Charlie Bronson (Michael Peterson) who affected the American movie star's name when he began work in the underground fighting circuit. He was born to and raised by respectable, conservative parents in Luton (where the "Silly Party" won!) but showed, from a very early age, an anti-authoritarian streak that would become both his undoing and path to legend. A small-time postal robbery landed him in the pen for seven years but, once in, his brutally violent nature compounded his time to, essentially, the rest of his life. He remains in prison to this day, nigh on thirty-six years after his first arrest. And for no greater crime (on the outside anyway) than petty theft. On the inside, however, his psychopathic nature and self-defeating penchant for violence has caused him untold sufferings - most, perhaps, completely deserved.

He is a very bad man, just bright and egotistical enough to believe his own bullshit to the point of vicious circuity.

Simply documenting his animalistic trappings would make for a very boring film for anyone not seeking a psych degree. But Refn and leading man Tom Hardy give us something unique. Neither paean to the lawless rebel or anthem to the misunderstood loner, Bronson becomes something higher and artistic, rising above the simple vulgarity of its subject into the fine air of operatic tragicomedy.

The intermittent narration (from Bronson via Hardy) with its heavy Anglican idiom will immediately recall Alex's from Clockwork, although a bit lower on the class scale. As the "humble narrator" preoccupies himself with bashing in the teeth and ribs of prison guards, Refn is busy too, demolishing the fourth wall. In addition to the narrative bits there is a running one-man stage performance from Bronson in front of a mock audience that segues the action, providing the film with an even greater sense of humor and arcane tomfoolery - much like the esoteric stage announcer (all 326 hours of him) in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's masterful yet interminable Hitler: A Film From Germany.

The meat of Bronson follows the various routes that our antihero's imprisonment takes. From well kept cells to sanitariums to sadistically small cages. And this is where Refn's "homage" kicks in to high gear.

 

The ironic use of classical music throughout, overlain onto scenes of savage violence.

The narration mentioned above with its deliberately dissonant message.

The systemic inhumanity of the prison culture and those who oversee it.

The convenient machinations of a "law and order" government to avoid scandal.

Psychopathic and sociopathic disorders.

Violence equating to pleasure.

Sadomasochistic fantasy.

Drug experimentation on the criminally insane.

Alpha male behavior run amok.

The absurdity of celebrity rising from very anti-social behavior.

The inherent likeability of a very mean spirited git as a leading character.

Grinning, nasty humor.

And a direct rip off of framing, mise en scène and camera movement.

 

Again, if you've got to steal from someone...

The main allure of Bronson, however, is the strutting, brutish performance of Tom Hardy. His beneath-the-skin emotional boiling attached to a menacingly muscular frame proves very intimidating. From his booming, gravelly voice, the purposeful gait, the piercing gaze, the bushy moustache, the bald pate, the clenching fists and the rippling shoulders and biceps - he commands a great deal of physical respect. Think the innerving volatility of Robert Carlyle's Begbie from Trainspotting mixed with the wiry intensity of Ben Kingsley from Sexy Beast. And then put them both on steroids and drop their IQs twenty points.

Hardy is brimming with that sort of energy throughout. Even when he is stylistically clowning it up as storyteller on the imitation stage he has formidable presence. I suspect (I've been wrong before about these things) he'll make the jump to star status in the States sometime in this decade.

Someone's got to fill that Heath Ledger void, right? Russell Crowe's a bit long in the tooth now, innit he?

Bronson is a strange little film. It edges along a path of familiarity but keeps the audience off balance most of the time. You don't root for this guy. You shouldn't like him. He deserves most every beat down he gets and he's his own worst enemy. He's a prick. A  loser. A hyper-violent asshole. An expendable dooooosh. So, why did I like this film?

For lack of a better explanation, the best thing about it is, it's never the film you want it to be.

It has it's own agenda.

Never preachy or academic, it's about an irredeemable gobshite who truly belongs in prison because he's too dumb and mean to exist in any tolerant society.

And the resurrection of Kubrick's ghost is most welcome these days. Hell, Avatar will be the biggest money maker of all-time and probably win "Best Picture". Sandra Bullock is about to receive an award for, get this, acting.

So I finally figured out why the caged bird sings.

To drown out all the other fucking noise out there.



Friday
Feb052010

Ox-Bow Incident, The (1943)

   “A person is smart… people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.

                                         -Agent K. (Tommy Lee Jones) in Men in Black (1997)

Ask most people today what they think of mob rule and they will speak of Transylvanians with torches storming Castle Frankenstein, angry Springfieldians amassing to harm Homer Simpson, Black Sabbath lyrics from the early R.J. Dio era or how much they loved The Sopranos.

What they will fail to mention are the dangers of ochlocracy or “mob think”. It can breed fear, malice, hatred, mistrust, greed, bigotry, and terror.

Much like a Tea Party Rally.

One must be vigilant (see “irony”) against such bandwagoning and conformity in order to prevent injustice from occurring.

This is the timeless warning of 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, a morality play masked in chaps and spurs that was Hollywood’s first anti-western and a catalyst in the way many filmmakers would deal with the genre in the future.

Ox-Bow spawned the 1950’s collaborations of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart; dark, brooding oaters like Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie. This led to the revisionist westerns of the ‘60s; Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1967), Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch in 1969.

The 1970’s blurred the “black hat/white hat” western morality into a further shade of grey with Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Missouri Breaks (1976), Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Peckinpah again with Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973), and Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976.

If Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves and Dead Man are children of this movement, Ox-Bow is their grand pappy. 

Daryl F. Zanuck did not want to make the film. The horrors of World War II were heightening and the Fox Studio Head was reluctant to back a film with no significant heroism and a lynching at the heart of its story. On the home front, Japanese-Americans were being held in internment camps on the west coast. There were race riots in the major cities of the north. In the south, the hangings of African-Americans were all too commonplace, and had been since the end of The Civil War.

Director William Wellman’s argument was that Ox-Bow was an engaging, ever-relevant story of mass hysteria and mob mentality, much like what the United States was struggling against with the fascism of Germany, Italy, and Japan. He also owned the rights to Walter V. T. Clark’s source novel and was eager to get it made.

Zanuck agreed to back it on two conditions. The budget was to be miniscule and Wellman would have to direct two pictures of Zanuck’s choosing without question. Wellman agreed. Zanuck was ultimately correct on the venture. The movie performed poorly at the box office despite being well received by critics. It was only through later screenings on television that the film gained a larger audience and earned its status as a classic of the genre.

Zanuck was never averse to “message” pictures, he just liked the dollar a little more. As one of the few goys among the Hollywood moguls, he was remarkably forthright in his desire to condemn anti-Semitism and racism. Zanuck himself got the House of Rothschild (1934), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949) made during a time when most other studio heads (particularly L.B. Mayer) were either hiding their Jewish roots or wrapping themselves in the American flag and a manufactured air of wholesomeness.

All of the studios touted these prestige and/or “message” pictures and were proud of them all, despite poor box office performance, but it was Zanuck and his love of controversy who realized, “People will accept enlightenment if it is skillfully served to them. They will not go to the theater for enlightenment alone.”

It was with a paltry budget, a big name star in Henry Fonda, and a disturbing new vision of subverting a beloved genre that “Wild Bill” Wellman set out to make the first “anti-western”.

It is Nevada in 1885, and cowboys Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan-M*A*S*H*’s Colonel Potter) are returning from the range. They ride into a town “deader than a Piute’s grave,” and head for the saloon. After a few whiskeys and a curiously good-natured fistfight (a cowpoke insinuated Gil and Art might be cattle thieves), a man storms into the bar and announces that a local rancher has been shot dead and his cattle rustled.

The rancher was a friend of the cowpoke Farnley (Marc Lawrence) and, after his humiliation by Gil, he’s pumped up for vengeance. He gathers some like-minded vigilantes from the town (they are all quickly whipped into a hanging frenzy) and forms a lawless, makeshift posse. Gil and another man go speak to the town Judge (Matt Briggs) and ask him to quell the fervor of the hanging party until the Sheriff (Willard Robertson) arrives back in town. The acting Deputy (Dick Rich) is notoriously sadistic and sets out to lend legitimacy to the mob. The wheels of injustice are in motion and reason is given a deaf ear.

“The law is slow and careless”, says Farnley, “We’re here to speed it up.”

Despite a call for calm and patience from the Judge and shopkeeper Davies (Harry Davenport), the posse gains new members; Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), a local big wig who dons his former Confederate army uniform and Ma Grier (Jane Darwell), a tough talking cowgal with a thirst for blood. All of them are poisoned by personal shortcomings and insecurities, fueling their vendetta against an unknown enemy.

They ride out into the night and stumble upon three sleeping cowboys, Martin (Dana Andrews), Martinez (Anthony Quinn) and Harvey (Francis Ford- brother to Director John). Their guns are taken and they are questioned. It is obvious to any rational person that they are innocent, yet small bits of circumstantial evidence begin to arise. Martin had purchased cattle from the dead rancher, but has no bill of sale. The rancher’s gun is found in Martinez’ possession and, out of coercion and panic, the senile old Harvey erroneously confesses that Martinez killed the rancher. This is all the mob needs for a conviction. A last ditch effort is made to vote on postponing the hanging until the sheriff can be found, but only seven men (out of about 20) call for it. 

The condemned are allowed to write a letter and eat some food. Major Tetley has wrangled control over the proceedings and by morning, thinking the Sheriff might be arriving soon, he rashly decides to begin the executions.

The three men are strung up, hung, and then shot.

The mob rides back toward town and runs into the Sheriff, approaching from the dead rancher’s place. They learn the rancher has survived his bullet wound and the guilty party is now in custody.

A discernible pall hangs over the lynchers as they slink back to the saloon.

Once there, Gil pulls out the letter Martin wrote to his wife and reads it aloud. It is a devastating accusation from the grave, appealing to conscience, justice, and forgiveness. Gil and Art walk out to their horses. Art asks him where he’s going.

“He said he wanted his wife to get this letter, didn’t he”, Gil replies harshly, “Said there was nobody to look after the kids, didn’t he?”

The two men saddle up and ride out of town.

This film is as strong of an indictment toward mob mentality, gang ethics and vigilantism as it is a heartbreaker. It acts as an affront to the cavalier way that former (and future) western “heroes” dispense justice. Its star, Henry Fonda, despite top billing, receives little or no more screen time than most of the other players. His character is ineffectual, ignoble, and shows only mild reluctance toward the will of the mob, until it is too late. His sidekick Art is even worse. All the characters suffer from misjudgment. The Major wrongly sees his son’s humanism as feminine and weak. Ma Grier sacrifices her better judgment in order to prove she’s as tough as any man around. The Deputy is a bully and is driven by the want of power and respect. Farnley is mistrustful of everyone and even the Judge cringes and fusses when he actually has to do his job. Only the town preacher (Leigh Whipper) and the shopkeeper maintain a voice of reason throughout.   

The scant budget and obvious soundstage sets (there are only a few brief outdoor location sequences) add to the film’s creepy sense of claustrophobia and doom. Orson Welles would later use interior western sets at the Republic Studios to equal effect in his 1948 version of Macbeth. With the majority of the scenes taking place at night, Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (three-time Oscar winner) utilized shadow and minimal lighting to give menace and psychological darkness to the characters and surroundings. It is the first western to use this type of expressionism.

It’s like a John Ford nightmare, where Maureen O’Hara is raped and killed by Apaches and John Wayne is too cowardly to do anything about it… powerful, strange, unique.         

The Ox-Bow Incident is a small, internal picture. Unlike most westerns that use the vast spaces and vistas of the terrain to give their stories an epic, heroic feel, Ox-Bow is contained and introspective. It represents the place where Americans' desires to expand their society overshot their ability to keep it civilized. The danger, it warns, may not be from an unseen enemy lurking just past the hills or beyond the mesas but, rather, inside the hearts and minds of us all.

Monday
Feb012010

Lilya 4-ever (2002)

It is in our nature as political animals to want to attribute human traits to nations, a way to symbolically capture the spirit of their peoples and help us define the character of something too large and messy for neat categorization.

The United States is, of course, the drunk, horny frat boy of the globe. Selfish and belligerent, but really starting to feel the hangover from his excesses.

The Chinese? The patient, abused servant, with a recently deceased master, who now holds the keys to the manor.

And Mother Russia - the ugly, battered old matriarch, ravaged from years of abuse and neglect, simply wanting to be left alone to die peacefully in the corner of her dilapidated mansion.

In cinematic terms, America is Daniel Plainview from the final scene of There Will Be Blood.

China is Charlie from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

And Russia; the beaten, impoverished whore from Lilya 4-ever.

So, when we are introduced to our desperate, bruised, fleeing protagonist in the opening frames of Lilya 4-ever it is to a cacophonic wall of growling, German industrial metal from Rammstein. As we cut to the first scene of exposition, to an unbearably drab and ugly landscape of Eastern European tenement/apartment buildings, a subtitle pops up revealing, "somewhere that once was the Soviet Union".

Not exactly a fairy tale setting. As a matter of fact, it is Estonia.

And you just know that none of this is going to turn out well.

And right you are because Lilya 4-ever, Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson’s third feature (he is the heir apparent to the Bergman throne), is more of a sadistic dare than it is a movie. Lilya’s character arc begins at a nadir and subsequently falls off the chart of despair.

She is a sixteen-year-old spirited youth whose interests primarily entail hanging out with her friend, bumming smokes, huffing the occasional tube of glue, drinking vodka, mouthing off to her elders, underachieving at school and dreaming of a way out of her numbingly boring, grotty, slate-skied Estonian existence.

Her mother has taken a lover who promises to bring them to the States. Problem is, the mother has no real intention of including her daughter (Oksana Akinshina) in the move. In what can only be described as a need for better Estonian child welfare policy, she is left to fend for herself when mother and lover book for the U.S.A.

Her aunt usurps the family apartment (it’s a cozy one by former Soviet standards) and banishes the girl to a filthy rat hole of a room where an elderly tenant has just died. He lovingly left a stool in the toilet for her as well. She is cold, hungry, parentless and destitute. Then, in true Russian fashion, things take a turn for the worse.

At times like these I am always reminded of a line from Schindler’s List. One of the Jewish women steps off the inhuman cattle car to Auschwitz and naively utters something like, “Well, at least the worst is over. What else can they possibly do to us?”

Ah, Europe. Ah, joy!

Lilya is, of course, channeled in the direction of prostitution in order to feed herself. It’s quite repulsive to her (we see the sex from her angle with the panting, grunting faces of lecherous men poised above her) but she seems proud to finally have money to buy junk food, cigarettes and even a basketball for a twelve-year-old boy from the neighborhood who has befriended her and become a bit of a younger brother. This is the closest the film ever gets to tender emotion.

She struggles along, pulling tricks out of the local disco, when a young man catches her eye. He seems nice, takes her on some dates and doesn’t demand sex from her. As their relationship grows he reveals he works in Sweden and would love for Lilya to accompany him there. He can even find legitimate work for her. He snags her a passport (with another person’s identity on it - uh oh) and buys her a plane ticket. He tells her he has some business to take care of and will meet her there in a few days. Uh oh again. But no worries, his boss will pick her up at the airport. Run, you stupid little girl, run!!!!

Lilya’s naiveté, her youthful optimism, infatuation and willingness to escape the hell of Estonia lead her into the hands of monsters.

A typical fate for many impoverished females from the former Soviet Union on the international sex trade.    

Moodysson’s film never dips into warnings or social commentary however. It is simply a small character study of shattered hope and dashed dreams.

It is never particularly disturbing like Funny Games or the more emotionally abstract moments of a Cronenberg or Lynch film, just relentlessly brutal and exhaustingly pessimistic. There are few surprises. You know from the outset that Lilya is doomed (hence, the ironic title) yet this human car wreck of a character demands attention. You will be driven to turn it off again and again. You will curse Moodysson for the near sadistic way he compels you to watch despite your good nature and your desire for justice and closure. But, it will stay with you for days, even weeks.

It is not so much a film, but a task.

I have not seen Moodysson’s two previous efforts, Fucking Amál and Together. Both critically acclaimed films that deal with, shall we say, lighter, more ebullient and satirical topics.

So, if they are as warm and life-affirming as Lilya is bleak and oppressive, they must be made of gumdrops, moonbeams and unicorns. 

I put them on my Netflix queue immediately. I need to wash the grim off of me.

Monday
Jan252010

Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The

I'm an admirer of Terry Gilliam.

But he’s a difficult bloke to love.

His production troubles (Lost in La Mancha) and budget headaches (Brazil, Adventures of Baron Munchausen) are legendary. Inexplicable illnesses, deaths, weather, project overlaps and cost issues have shut down more of his productions than those of Orson Welles’ due to hedonism and ego. So biblical have been the Job-like sufferings of Gilliam in his art that it's the closest I’ve ever come to believing in a wrathful God. The vengeful havoc that He hath wrought on this poor filmmaker is inexplicably cruel. If there is a deity, he's a mean bastard and he really has distaste for Terry Gilliam’s work.

Probably for that Life of Brian thing.

Yahweh is not known for his sense of satire or parody.

But Gilliam is a glutton for punishment.

He comes off the relative success of The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys (and to a lesser extent, cult status with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and makes something as horrific and indefinable as Tideland. He gets a shot at mainstream convention and gives us The Brothers Grimm - a silly, watered down version of his visual flair and surreal storytelling to appease an audience that was never there in the first place.

This is the director who made Brazil, one of the greatest movies of the past 25 years, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, an underseen and underappreciated visual feast of fable that should hold a place between Willie Wonka and The Wizard of Oz as one of the those rare, timeless gems that adults and children can both enjoy.

And let's never forget the man was the sole American member of a little British comedy troupe where his animation seamed together the brilliant lunacy of something called Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Pretty good credentials for a guy viewed as the biggest financial black hole of the cinema since Michael Cimino.

So, with another break and another few backers who have decided to roll the dice against a stacked house and a surefire, crippling economic failure, he gets a shot at redemption.

And he titles this comeback… the project which will set his career right again... wait for it…

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

He likely could not have alienated more of the casual movie going audience had he called in a bomb threat to the theaters and violently wielded a large shillelagh at the ticket booths.

There has never been a want for very bad titular ideas in the history of film. They are too countless to list here. But what we can offer is a short slate of fatally long-winded titles that guaranteed box office failure. No matter how nuanced, how against the grain, how subversive, how clever the rubric - wordiness equates to commercial failure in Hollywood.

And I'm pretty sure Gilliam knows this. Sometimes he's his own worst enemy.

Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Those Daring Young Men and Their Jaunty Jalopies

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx

Can Hieronymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?

The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!

Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?

Etc.

As you can see, we're not exactly looking at Jaws, Titanic or Avatar type opening weekends here. Which is not to argue that a film's box-office potential is any measure of its quality. Far from it.

What it is to say is - at least give the thing a fighting chance out of the gate before you bury it in obscurity or ignominy with a garbled mouthful of a title.

It's like when I try to recommend The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. I get to the "of" part, mumble some Spanglish and end up saying, "Fuck it, it's the border movie with Tommy Lee and January Jones".

And I took three years of Spanish in high school.  

Life is hard on the little things. Give them names that don't cause people to become confused or recoil in disgust.

Which brings us to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassas.

It's sort of an amalgam of all the strengths and weaknesses of Gilliam's previous work. Dazzling, cool-as-hell visuals mixed with a clusterfuck of thematic ideas and plagued by some uncontrollable, behind-the-scenes tragedy. In this case, the untimely demise of Heath Ledger.

And just a few words about that. Heath Ledger was a gifted actor who seemed well on his way to a career of interesting role choices and unusual performances. But let's nip all this unwarranted idol worship in the proverbial bud. The guy was not James Dean for chrissakes. And I don't recall Monty Clift being in anything near as childish as Lords of Dogtown, A Knight's Tale or 10 Things I Hate About You. Let's put Ledger's death right around the tragic equivalent of River Phoenix's and move on from there.

This reminds me of the Kurt Cobain/John Lennon comparisons. Grow up and get a fucking grip.

But we were dissecting The Imaginarium weren't we?

Briefly, it is a story of a traveling sideshow of actors led by the mysterious Dr. Parnassus ( a memorable Christopher Plummer). We discover the old Doctor is a bit of a gambling man and has bet consistently throughout the ages (he was granted eternal life for the hand of his daughter when she turns sixteen) with none other than Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), Old Scratch himself. Parnassus' struggle against the devil and his own ethical shortcomings is about all the thematic consistency you can bleed out of Gilliam's mess. As simple as man's desire for endless life and a shot at redemption. The rest of the film is a collection of half-baked ideas and questions of morality, purpose and love that are never fully explained and go primarily unanswered. There are just too many dead-ends and emotional cul-de-sacs to the film. Gilliam seems to be saying something about gambling, atonement, good vs. evil, the fear of one's own desires and the struggle of pure artists in a rigged commercial game but it all gets lost in the meandering storyline. It could be the first film diagnosed with ADHD. 

As with all Gilliam's work, the visuals are magnificent to behold. The set designs are jaw dropping. The Victorian-age thespian wagon the troupe travels in both blends and contrasts with the facades of modern day London. The concept of the imaginarium itself (a mirror one walks through to realize hopes, dreams, fear or desire) is well done, just never fleshed out. The film has Tom Waits in it, which anoints it with a sense of cool regardless of the outcome. And, of course, there are midgets.

What ruins the film is ironically what ended up saving it after Ledger's death. Gilliam was talked into finishing it, after some salvaging re-writes, with Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law stepping in to play Ledger's role during the unfilmed imiginarium sequences.

The result is this forced hodgepodge of a movie. A Frankensteinian patchwork that never finds its bearings because it never really knew in which direction it wanted to go.

The Terry Gilliam fund for wayward artists starts anew.

Your donation would be greatly appreciated.

Friday
Jan152010

Big Fan

Living near Philly now, I am privy to a lot of the misplaced intensities, vicarious hero worship and emotional transference that envelopes fans of professional football. In the South, the college game is still king and brings with it its own set of psychological disorders. But up here in the bitter cold of the Northeast, the ghosts of Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, Norm Van Brocklin and Chuck Bednarik still stomp the cold, icy turf in a war without end now called “The NFC East”.

Before I indulge further into the type of storied sportswriting hyperbole that made Grantland Rice famous, I must confess I am a New York Jets enthusiast. And it don’t get any colder, bitterer or more unspeakably frustrating than that. When the horrific visage of Fireman Ed screams “J-E-T-S – Jets, Jets, Jets” - to me it simply stands for “Just Eat The Shit”.

Which is why these diehard fans are always so puzzling to me - those who live, breathe, work and die by the performance of their ball club year after disappointing year.

This gentleman was single-handedly responsible for much of my misery and anxiety over the yearsIf I based my moods and general outlook toward life on the successes and failures of the New York Jets, I would have been summarily executed years ago for being a murderous, raging psychopath. As it is, just being a casual enthusiast of “Gang Green” turns me into a foul mouthed, cynical, misanthropic beast for five months out of the year. Just ask Simone. Better yet, don’t. She’ll never shut up about it.

So it was with great pleasure that I watched Robert Siegel’s Big Fan the other night during the mid-week lull of playoff time. It is a small, dark, spot-on character study of fandom and the avid freaks who fall victim to it. In this case, mid-thirtyish loser Paul Aufiero (brilliantly played by Patton Oswalt), a really pathetic Giants fan.

And by “pathetic”, I simply mean he’s from Staten Island.

And as most anyone knows, no good ever came from there.

Funnin’ aside, Paul is a lost little soul. He eats, drinks, sleeps and chronically masturbates to the Giants. He has a particularly unhealthy man-crush on fictional linebacker Quantrell Bishop (“QB”) with jerseys, posters and vaguely homoerotic dreams to prove it.

He is a parking lot attendant with no desire for upward mobility (a trait of his I adored), quite celibate, emotionally stunted, pudgy, childish, still lives with his mother, hangs around exclusively with another Giants aficionado played by Kevin Corrigan (who has made a career of playing the dimwitted loser sidekick), meticulously scripts his talking points he uses on “The Zone” call-in sports show where he is known simply as “Paul from Staten Island”, has a bete noire named “Philadelphia Phil” who continually riles him with Eagles smack talk, snuggles with (and jerks off under) his multicolored NFL blanket he’s obviously had since childhood and tailgates at Giants’ games but cannot afford tickets so he hangs out in the parking lot and rigs a 13” TV to his car battery to watch the game with his dullard friend in the freezing fucking cold.

Yeah, pretty bad.

But I forgot something. In a bizarre turn of events (and a slight misunderstanding) he is actually beaten to a pulp at a strip club by none other than his hero, Quantrell Bishop. Leading “Philadelphia Phil” to later quip on that bit of irony as the equivalent of himself getting pummeled by Dr. J.

I thought that was funny. I love Dr. J. I had a man-crush on him in junior high. Major Sixers fan of the era. Dawkins, Mix, Toney, Cheeks, Jones, Malone. I digress.

This unfortunate beating at the hands of his idol leads to an epidural haematoma and an ethical quandary for Paul on whether to press charges or sue his hero. If he does, Bishop would obviously be suspended and thus possibly cost the Giants a division title. What would seem like an obvious choice to some (certainly Paul’s relatives can’t understand his hesitancy) becomes almost a non-issue to Paul. He is all consumed by the Giants and Bishop, their success is paramount to any small sufferings he may have incurred. After all, does he not always suffer for them?

Siegel’s script (he also penned 2008’s The Wrestler) is tight and his direction is appropriately minimalist. We slog through Paul’s simple, determined life with the knowledge that he is bright enough to know the limitations he puts on himself with his choices, but also realize that they are in fact his to make. And he seems quite content with his decisions (when the G-Men aren’t losing). Sure, he’s a bit lost. Aren’t we all, at least a little? Most of us try to grasp onto something larger than us to find a place and sense of purpose in this life - whether it be a football team, a political figure, a cause or Jeebus Christ Almighty.

Which is why I only hang out with gamblers. There’s nothing more depressing than blind fealty.

I guess what it comes down to (and what this film succeeds in showing) is that in this current culture of fame obsession and the vulgar pursuit of wealth at any cost, the fractured personalities of the uncelebrated and poor take on weird forms and strange directions. Many people have done worse with their lives than root for the New York Football Giants.

Just ask an Eagles fan.

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