Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Love: Jane Eyre

There are several people who, if they read this, will probably laugh and consider me something of a hypocrite.  That's fine, I'll own up to it.  It's no great secret that I'm not the world's biggest Jane Eyre fan.  As novels of the time go, I'll take the sisters Brontë any day over any sort of dalliance with Jane Austen.  The Brontës, at least, had a flair for the gothic and a penchant for a bit of melodrama.  Books like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights had a movement and the movement was haunted, the inherent romance more passionate and a little less calculated.  Manners, social standing, it's all still there, of course, it's just more fun when it's shaded a little darker.  Regardless, I've read Jane Eyre twice in my life so far.  Once of my own volition and the second time because, um, I was an English major and that kind of thing sort of happens.  That second time I wrote a fairly bitter paper I may have mentioned here before.  Bitter may not be the right word.  Let's call it snarky.  There was a lot of talk of bipolarism, a fair amount of compare contrast between Governess novels and 'chick lit', and an excessive section citing Virginia Woolf's criticisms of Charlotte Brontë from A Room of One's Own.  Yeah, I've still got the Word document, I've opened it now and am scanning a particularly pissy paragraph in which I outline the characters as a downward sloping hierarchy in which each character past Jane (from Mr. Rochester to Mrs. Reed) is nothing but a "less prominent malcontent." Color me amused by my own past work.  Ah, college.  With all that out of the way, allow me to state for the record: I may have my share of problems with the book, but goddamn I fell hard for this cinematic adaptation.
I'd long suspected that Charlotte Brontë's novel could lend itself beautifully to a properly executed film.  To be fair, there have already been quite a few.  Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt tried their hands at it in 1996, and I'm sure that was nice and all.  Long before that, even, Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine got gloomy on the moors in 1943.  Welles certainly emits the proper degree of pompous entitlement for our Byronic Mr. Rochester, and I'm sure it's all well and good.  While I admittedly have not seen the other versions (or, if I have, I was quite young and likely fell asleep), I have to admit that it seems like quite a task to one up director Cary Fukunaga's (whose previous work was Sin Nombre) dark, magnetic, brilliantly atmospheric rendering.  22-year old Mia Wasikowska steps into Jane's plain garments with no small amount of skill.  Ironically, while I'd found her ill-fitting and overgrown as the lead in last year's crash and burn Alice in Wonderland, here she seems a perfect match for the practical, quietly talented, restrained melancholy and escapism of our mousy governess.  The roles, it would seem, wouldn't call for too much of a difference; Alice merely gets to express, in temperament and fantasy, what Jane wishes she were allowed to.  Here though, she is restrained and burning: that desolate fairy locked in a lonely, isolated manor with a precocious foreign child, mysterious happenings, and one smoldering, predatory Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Her Jane is not quite the one of the novel, she is instead one that makes the story feel intimate and personal, inviting us in to experience this haunting alongside her.  The result changes the story, makes it feel immediate, fresh, and transcendent.  It's not the stodgy old text, it's not some tired old script with the dust blown off of it; it's a riveting, beautiful adventure.      
What Wasikowska manages on her own is only amplified in her scenes with Michael Fassbender.  In their pairing, the chemistry is undeniable and deftly portioned across the film.  The wordplay, existent in some form in the original, is here as bright as Hepburn and Tracy while never slipping into a context at all unbelievable.  The body language?  Out of control.  Like, seriously.  This is the sort of film romance that can make even the worst cynic (ahem, me) forgive the story's soapy conclusion, the match is unreal, and works to amplify each character as well as our sympathies.  Set amongst the dimly lit rooms, those foggy passages and bleak English gardens, there is real magic, an absolute spark that never cloys or panders to sentiment.  Fukunaga has found a way to make an overly familiar gothic love story between a homely young governess and an unpleasant enough bachelor into a surprisingly powerful, swiftly paced, positively dazzling film that's never tiresome, or slanted towards any audience in particular.  Moral of the story: if you think you're over Jane Eyre, think again.  This is a stunning adaptation that's as wildly successful in its storytelling as it is enjoyable to watch.  See it, and don't think of it as homework.

Monday, March 28, 2011

For Your Pleasure: Edward Fairfax Rochester

True fact:  Michael Fassbender is the sort of actor who can make adult characters skieving on teenage girls seem almost socially acceptable instead of just plain creepy.  I'm just going to put that out there and let that sink in.  He did it in Fish Tank, he does it again (hardcore) on Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre.  And, alright, so maybe in Fish Tank it doesn't turn out great, but I'm pretty sure that there's still a fair amount of like pent up teen dream lust at work in that absurdly charged dance rehearsal scene.  I swear to god that none of this is perhaps as pervy as it sounded just now.  What really matters is that Fassbender just has this magnetic sort of bad intentioned look about him.  When he plays Magneto in X-Men: First Class this summer, I'm sure we'll catch him and his jaw (there's something about his jaw, just watch it) contemplating the deflowering of Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.  Which will, of course, mean that millions of teenage girls will want to be Mystique, as they'll quite probably want to be Jane Eyre.  As Mr. Rochester, master of Thornfield Hall, Fassbender puts in a performance that could easily snatch the swoony spotlight away from that scene in that snore fest Pride and Prejudice miniseries where Colin Firth emerges from the lake.  Pfft.  I mean, really.  Rochester is a melodramatic, Byronic hero.  He's broody and bitter and angry and feisty and dark and terribly mysterious and his hair is full of secrets and he's mercurial and sort of unnerving and he doesn't like children and he doesn't like insipid conversation and he makes snippy, clever comments and when you drop all of that in a dimly lit manor house and dress it in a well-tailored nineteenth century suit and a pair of riding boots, well, all of that makes him fabulous.  I'll be honest with you: I feel that in writing this I'm conforming to the sort of stereotypical female la la romanticism that's allowed Charlotte Bronte's work to live on for so very long. You know: that flowy shirted mystery man who serves as out and out fodder for a million overtly romanticized fantasies of gothic life on the moors.  I mean, I've always had my issues with the novel itself and personally was always quite dubious of the melodrama on the page.  Somehow, though, the movie wipes those doubts away.  I mean, if Rochester doesn't much like kids and also believes that an orphaned governess is most certainly his equal, that sounds pretty good.  Oh shut up...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

RIP: Elizabeth Taylor

After six weeks of hospitalization at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles: screen legend, pop cultural icon, and longtime tabloid figure Elizabeth Taylor passed away this morning after suffering congestive heart failure.  She was 79.

Taylor was a star whose life and achievements need no introduction.  As perhaps the last remaining supernova in the studio star system, Taylor was a striking beauty, a textbook definition for Hollywood glamour and a cult figure for fans fascinated by her off-screen love affairs, scandals, eight marriages, and seven divorces.  Born in London, England, Taylor grew up on screen, launching her career in the early 1940's with films such as National Velvet and continuing seven decades and some 50+ films.  At the height of her acting career, Taylor won two Academy Awards for her work in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1960)  and BUtterfield 8 (1966).  She's our most iconic image of Cleopatra, took on Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and starred in a fair amount of critical hits and misses including the epic Giant in 1956.

In the 80's, Taylor moved away from film and solidified her roles as businesswoman and pop omnipresence through cameos, cartoon voice work (she was the voice of Maggie in a Simpsons episode), and perfume lines.  Beyond this, however, her philanthropic work with various AIDS foundations have helped push the issue into the public view.  In a recent Harper's Bazaar interview, Taylor said it best: "I never planned to acquire a lot of jewels or a lot of husbands...For me, life happened, just as it does for anyone else." [source]



Mixtape: 20th Century Foxes

In which the teenage wildlife gets born free and roams the San Fernando Valley in the heavy stoned days. We Farrah our hair, iron it out, put it in braids and slip into glitter platforms. We jump on our long boards, grab our guitars, and dream of a life in which our fame brings us more sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. We are Jodie Foster before she was a lesbian, Cherie Currie after she was a Runaway, Scott Baio before he was in charge. We are 20th Century Foxes.  Listen to it to the left, or check it out on 8tracks here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Love: The Adjustment Bureau

The New York Times just published an article about free will, the gist being that the more you believe that you’re the agent of your own future, the happier and more moral you tend to be. It’s a concept we are desperate to believe in and have spent centuries trying to prove and disprove without much in terms of official evidence. Based on a story by the ultimate free-will examiner Philip K. Dick, The Adjustment Bureau, preys on that collective hope and angst, wrangling difficult philosophical questions without losing the audience in the muck of its own theories.
David (Matt Damon), our free will protagonist, should have met Elise (Emily Blunt) only once, her impulsive behavior an inspiration to him just moments before he gave speech that was to announce a crippling political loss in the New York Senate. That one-time event would alter David’s path and send him directly to the White House a few years later. David and Elise were not meant to meet again according to the plan designed by the mysterious Chairman and executed by the Adjustment Bureau. But those in control did not account for “chance,” and the two continue to run into each, their connection undeniable, even when their love threatens their lives, dreams, and possibly the rest of the world.
Bureau is a powerful film, a mix of old Hollywood magic and deep philosophical soul-seeking that skates across a variety of genres and topics without alienating the audience with too many concepts or too much saccharine sentiment. The film succeeds because it doesn’t focus on the hi-brow, but on the people, the deeper existential questions growing organically from their personal reactions to their situation. This rests entirely on the shoulders of Blunt and Damon who make Elise and David into full, living beings. Their chemistry is relaxed but intense, their rapport instant. From the first moment of “love at first sight,” their relationship is instantly engaging and believable, and sets up the emotional context of the film. While their characters may be extraordinary in their professions, love, and story arcs, Blunt and Damon break down the walls that lesser actors put up. Although I’m one of Inception’s biggest defenders, DiCaprio’s performance there as an equally fate stricken rebel is utterly laughable in the face of Damon’s in this film. The combined strength of the Damon/Blunt duo, aided by Anthony Mackie's equally subtle but effective performance as a traitorous member of the Bureau keeps the film far above schmaltzy waters and makes the film authentic, allows it to go deeper.
Subtlety is the name of the game in Bureau, in the performances and the general stitching together of all the film’s elements. The Adjustment Bureau tracks David and Elise in Moleskine-like notebooks, their intricate fate lines moving dynamically yet delicately across the pages and as the Bureau members travel, they open normal doors into fantastical new places. But the CGI never distracts from the film. The sets are art deco enough to lend the film a clean look befitting one of its main characters; Gotham City. Thomas Newman’s score is properly glittery and mysterious (even if it does sound like his work on similarly themed films like Meet Joe Black and American Beauty), my only complaint being that it’s broken up with too many loud, blaring rock songs that make certain scenes feel disjointed.
Bureau is a short film, topping out at just about an hour and half. It’s a concise, entertaining love story that relies on our connection to the characters to engage us, not the work that it takes to unpack its concepts, even though those concepts will stick with you for days after. As it is in real life, we never really know what or why things happen, b ut the film doesn’t leave you unsatisfied. Instead it perfectly replicates that feeling you get when, somehow, against all odds, things work out and you wonder just who or what was looking out for you.

Squalor: Paul

I usually love when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost join forces.  The previous entries in their collaborations (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, and UK television series Spaced) have been smartly executed, surprisingly sophisticated genre send-ups loaded with all the right pop cultural references and never skimping on comedic flair.  I'd forgotten, however, that that duo is a trio.  This time, director/writer Edgar Wright has been subbed out for Superbad director Greg Mottola.  I'm sorry to tell you this, but apparently, without Edgar Wright, the duo falls pretty flat.  Paul is just alright.  Which, by the standards in place, means it's something of a miserable failure. There are just too many elements, too many co-stars, too many sophomoric moments that would be more at place in a slapstick film aimed at 13-year olds.  In fact, in many ways, Paul comes dangerously close to a sort of science fiction variation on the live action/CGI  blending Alvin and the Chipmunks-type kiddie flick. It's Alvin if the Chipmunks dropped the f-bomb quite a bit, smoked some weed, and made constant dick jokes.  So: in some ways, it's an R-rated comedy that really would be best enjoyed by someone who doesn't enjoy Hannah Montana ironically. A far cry from Hot Fuzz, where cartoonish action antics were appropriated in a manner that kept them dark and quite adult.    
The premise of Paul is a stretch littered with pop cultural allusions and occasionally clever moments.  Pegg and Frost star as Graeme and Clive, a set of British comic book geeks who follow their stateside visit to San Diego's Comic Con with a roadtrip through the paranormal sites of Southwestern America.  Along the way, they pick up Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an smart mouthed alien on the lam from government agents who needs their help to finalize plans for his grand escape back to his home planet.  Paul's been stuck here for decades, and his backstory allows for some of the film's slickest moments.  We're given some great reasoning for Paul's generic appearance, as well as the impact he's had on pop sci-fi.  There's a small gem of a scene, for instance, in which Paul, in his confines at Area 51, is shown on the phone serving as a creative consultant for Steven Spielberg during the production of E.T..  Another satisfying moment has Paul taking down a Jesus Freak with his extensive knowledge of the universe.  These little pieces, and Paul himself, work well enough.  Rogen's voice is a decent match for our laid back extraterrestrial hero.  He's an alien more American than his hosts, and the irony isn't lost on the audience.  The problem, however, and the places where the film really just falls flat, lies in that interaction between CGI and live action.    
There are a surplus of moments where Paul speaks or does some fancy alien trick, and we're shown these reactionary expressions by the actors that just seem completely after the fact.  Paul is plagued by this disconnect.  Pegg and Frost aren't the only ones to blame; Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Jason Bateman are all granted these moments of inescapable falsehood.  As a result, the actors are just plain awkward, frequently given to overacting which (no matter how good the CGI is) contributes to this constant inability to suspend disbelief.  Paul just never really feels natural.  From the jokes, to the relationships, to the pacing; it can't quite seem to find its stride.  It's always forced, always an effort, and thus exhausting.  There's so much potential here, and a fair amount of it is squandered in favor of character likability, faux-development, and forward motion.  It may be a road movie, but I really wished it would just slow the hell down and fix up the half-baked connections between its characters.  Paul's a decent distraction if you're searching for a no-brainer, but marks a sharp decline in the Pegg/Frost collaborative send-ups.  Honestly: for sci-fi comedies: try Galaxy Quest.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #18: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.

Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is not as widely viewed as it should be.  Call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that could have something to do with it not being in print on DVD in the states.  I mean, this is a film that shouldn't just be available to rent, it should probably be canonized into the Criterion Collection and remastered for blu-ray. Why?  Because it's dirty pretty in that way that only  baroque pieces from the late 80's and early-90's can be.  Because it's all about color symbolism and painterly settings and visually representing its complex metaphors.  Also, because (spoiler alert?) more stories should be able to manage a really satisfying scene of cannibalism.  It's a lavish, vulgar, graphically (in all definitions) daring bit of cinema...which I found really pretty awesome. 

The film is a sweeping, twisted allegorical presentation of Thatcherian England from a man who is very clearly pissed off.  I can't claim to know or understand the exact sentiments of British folks during this time, but the film's barely veiled plays with symbolism seem to extend a constantly raised middle finger to the folks in charge.  Michael Gambon, who many know only as Dumbledore, is here one of the vilest villains ever to appear on screen.  He's titular thief Albert Spica, a gluttonous, brutish character who owns the restaurant the film is set in, and who frequents it night after night; entertaining a posse of scared idiots as he gorges himself, abuses people who displease him, and harasses his silently aloof wife Georgina (Helen Mirren).  It's a life of complete excess in which food, sex, and violence are almost interchangeable.  Art is nothing, culture is nothing, greed is everything.  Spica, as criminal, is government. Ebert gave the best summation when he wrote "Thief = Thatcher's arrogance and support of the greedy. Wife = Britannia Lover = Ineffectual opposition by leftists and intellectuals." [source]   Add to that a heaping dose of cynicism on the general nature of man (Greenaway definitely seems to run his characters according to bestial instincts) and serve.  Together, the players move through a world of very nearly hamfisted representation.  The restaurant is a hellish red in the dining room Spica practically lives in while the women's restroom is a heavenly, pristine white.  As she catches the eye of the Lover and takes up an affair with him (in the lavatory, in the freezer, in the kitchen,etc), Georgina is very nearly trapped Persephone getting her brief respite from the Underworld before getting dragged back down to her own personal shitshow.   

Of course, the film was (and I think still might be) hugely controversial.  Apart from its NC-17 rating, critics still love to spend time slamming its half baked color scheme and transparent, gratuitous use of cliche metaphor.  Here's where I step off the high horse of pretending to wax all pretentious about this and just tell you what's what.  Fuck that noise, man.  While there may be some forced allegory going on, it seems to be for a purpose.  Apart from adding significantly to the lavish art direction and visual appeal of the film, it's a political statement that doesn't seem to want to waste time obscuring its message.  If Greenaway was mad he was mad right then and not waiting for someone to catch on years later.  As controversial, violence-ridden, over-sexed political attacks go, this one manages to be a hell of a lot more succinct than Sweet Movie. And a lot more palatable, too.    
The thing about The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is that the savagery is just so brilliantly micromanaged that I have to admit I enjoyed it.  It's sort of like Kubrick hooked up with Merchant Ivory and left Sally Potter to move bits and pieces of whatever she chose around the set while Derek Jarman served as consultant.  The film is luxe and vibrant in the most detestably glorious of ways.  When it practices its horrors, they're less the horrors of reality and more like one of those Renaissance paintings exhibiting all manner of atrocities. While it may not depict anything the average audience would like to see, it goes all out and doesn't screw around.  I mean, this movie has two huge things going for it outside of the art direction:  let's talk about Dame Helen Mirren and cannibalism, shall we?  Dame Helen Mirren is almost always awesome.  Cannibalism can frequently make for really memorable cinema. Combine the two elements, and you get a pitch perfect level of DisturbingAwesome.  Seriously.  The final scene is incredible.  It hits with such a high magnitude that you'll still be feeling the shockwaves weeks later.  It's a brilliant ending that manages to one up the human meat cookery in Sweeney Todd and Titus Andronicus in terms of spectacle and the absolute bluntness of its revenge elements.  THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A GOOD REVENGE SCENE. This is fact. Hard fact. Requited love may make us happy, but a well-executed, well-deserved revenge sequence makes us cheer.  It's cathartic when a villain gets what's coming to them.  And...Spoilers spoilers spoilers: this one has a very good, very morally ambiguous revenge that's tragic even as it takes no prisoners.  In what may be the oddest thing about Greenaway's film, it manages to conclude almost optimistically.  After a couple hours of animalism, he allows his characters to make one large step towards a darkly shaded light.  It's a strange moment, and it resonates.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Friday, March 11, 2011

Squalor: Hall Pass

When I made the decision to rest my over-stressed brain with the Farrelly Brothers’ Hall Pass, I expected to tune out, laugh, and relax in a stupor of crudity and meaningless silliness. Instead, it's a treatise on the dangers of sprawl on a marriage wrapped up in far too much sentimentality to be funny.

Rick (Owen Wilson) is living the epitome of suburban life. He’s a good dad in a good sized McMansion filled with 3 sweet kids and a beautiful suburban wife (The Office’s Jenna Fischer). He gets his coffee at the local chain, ogles the barista with friend Fred (Jason Sudeikis) and recalls the good old days, when chicks were easy to get, and his shirt buttons weren’t buttoned up so high. After an embarrassing incident at a meet and greet at their wives’ friend’s mansion, both Rick and Fred’s wives give them a coveted “hall pass” that gives them a week off marriage. What the wives come (shockingly) to realize, however, is that the hall pass was for the wives all along.

The Farrelly Brothers aren’t exactly avant-garde, but Hall Pass plays it way too safe. Most of the humor comes from the obvious stereotypes of suburban life, rarely dipping into clever territory. Given their first taste of freedom, the men (curious friends in tow) end up at an Applebees to pick up girls at 9p.m., overeating and falling asleep before they have a chance to get their mack on. Minivan jokes are everywhere, and Wilson sports a Hawaiian shirt and socks pulled up high when he’s “going out on the town.” There were admittedly enough laughs to keep me in my seat, particularly from Stephen Merchant, the lanky British friend (currently on the Ricky Gervais show). But the majority of the time the laughter dies down into an amused chuckle or blank stare, especially when the Brothers inject the whole thing with the inevitable heartwarming goo that every relationship comedy ends with.

It is nice to see the tide of popular culture taking a turn towards respecting married life and the men and women that populate relationships; especially here as it’s clear the problem isn’t the relationship between Wilson and Fischer, but that they weren’t taking time to be together, to keep things romantic. But after so many of these comedies, it’s impossible to control the automatic eye roll when each character basically looks at the camera as a light bulb goes off above their head. Maybe I’ve just become jaded or maybe, like the suburbs, the film is just a bit too bland.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mixtape: I Chose Not to Choose Life, I Chose Somethin' Else.

In which we are all relinquishing junk in bits and pieces. For this mixtape you will need one room which you will not leave. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. Paracetamol, mouthwash, vitamins. Mineral water, Lucozade, pornography.  One television and one bottle of Valium procured from your mother, who is, in her own domestic and socially acceptable way also a drug addict. Now you're ready. Now all you need is one final hit to soothe the pain while the Valium takes effect. Now we're ready to reinvent the wheel, to give the double disc soundtrack to Danny Boyle's Trainspotting a whole 'nother take.  Bow down, Mother Superior as we take our pleasure in other people's leisure.  Have a hit and listen here.

For Your Pleasure: Max Fischer

Max Fischer* saved Latin, and you are his Rushmore. He's going to build an aquarium in your honor. Because, well, that's the kind of socially awkward overachiever he is.  I'm almost reluctant to throw the Max Fischer fascination out there so early (this is only my second entry on the beloved fictional boyfriends front), as most people simply wouldn't understand.  I mean, I'm not sure I get it myself.  Max Fischer is an obnoxious, pretentious, bitter dweeb of a high school student.  When I was 16 or 17 myself I don't think I would have said I was "attracted" to him in so many words.  I'm not, really.  Max isn't Jason Schwartzman at his cleaned up hipster cutest.  He's also vaguely obsessive and just a little bit evil.  It's quite likely, in fact, that most teenage girls would be quick to dismiss Max with a very curt "ew."  Yet, I've always been totally fascinated by Max Fischer.  The thing about Max, I suppose, for me, is partially a matter of projection.  Or is it reflection?  I love Max Fischer because in many ways I was Max Fischer.  Teenage eccentrics, I think, learn how to fetishize their fictional compatriots.  We have to find the characters that represent abstracted, amplified notions of our own personality.  We love them.  We belove them.  We do so because they're proof that outside of crammed cafeterias and gym class horror shows, these are the people who matter and whose lives make good stories.  There were comrades in arms, the characters who we wanted to be, or who we wanted to be friends with.  They changed with the subculture:  the Buffys, Craft witches, the Darias or Gwen Stefanis (who is real, but not), Margot Tenenbaum.  Then, there were the strange "others."  The ones who we had to admit to ourselves (but possibly deny to our friends) we would probably find ourselves dating given the opportunity.  Self-destructive artists, dark rock stars, quirky little guys with plastic framed glasses.  All of the above. When I was a teenager, when I was a college student, and yes, I suppose, sometimes even now, I suffered from closet romanticism suppressed by absolute apathy.  Max Fischer, aside from overachieving in everything (but succeeding at very little), was much the same: a romantic disguised as an asshole.  If only my school had offered fencing...

*Rushmore, 1998.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

R.I.P. Sam Chwat, Dialect Tutor to the Stars

Until my NPR listening session today, I had never heard of Sam Chwat, but Sam had heard nearly all of Hollywood. Once a speech therapist, Chwat worked with some of Hollywood, music, and politics' most iconic to develop accents or get rid of them. Hear more about his interesting work here and here. He passed away last week at the age of 57.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Love: Rango

Rango is an animated film that's nothing like your average storybook.  It's an animated film that doesn't bother with candy colored confections, 3D gimmicks, or the infantilization of the adult half of its audience.  It's wonderfully gutsy, gloriously verbose, supremely oddball, and never bothers playing down to the ten and unders.  You'd never know it from the cloying advertisements, but Rango is more than just talking animals in cowboy hats.  Much more.  It's a damn good revisionist Western just as much as it's a smart, surprisingly mature comedy.  The combination of these elements with dazzlingly intricate computer generated animation makes for a film that rivals Pixar as it trips steadily along in a direction that feels unfettered by contemporary Disney's family friendly standards.  The animated heroes of Rango spit, smoke, drink, cuss a little bit, and shoot guns like they're going off the market; it's strictly PG, of course, but a PG that doesn't pretend the world is populated by villains who only drink smoothies and cowboys who never say damn.
The film is an impressive feat; style and substance that finds unbelievable humanity in cold blooded reptiles and makes you believe that it's possible for a lizard to walk around with a full head of curly auburn ringlets.  It's the latest directorial effort of Gore Verbinski, who's most well known for the first three chapters of The Pirates of the Caribbean series.  In some respects, Rango bears some similarities to the off kilter direction the third Pirates installment was headed, and not solely due to the presence of Johnny Depp.  It's a hallucinatory epic with a larger than life captain at its helm.  As the voice of Rango, the little Hawaiian shirted chameleon that could, Depp puts in a better character actor performance than he has in quite awhile.  There's emotional vibrancy in his voice, a real range that's positively manic and patented Depp.  Depp finds Rango's heart and his egomaniacal swagger, he takes the character off the page and transforms him.  Rango is just a pet lizard, a creature launched from his aquarium delusions into the very wild deserts of the golden west.  One thing leads to another and he's the new sheriff in a barely hanging on ghost town of odd looking desert animals. Jack rabbits, ground squirrels, rattlesnakes, tortoises, all struggling to survive in a serious drought.  It's typical western fare: newcomer in a small town, a change of regime, some underdog heroism.  The movie has a very clear reverence for the genre, more so than Fievel Goes West, for example.  Rango is less silly appropriation and more genuinely interested in inverting Sergio Leone.  It's some weird combination of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and True Grit on acid, and that's a beautiful thing.  

I suspect Rango is the type of film that will divide filmgoers into camps of love and hate.  This isn't a movie for the crowd who finds Shrek's humor cutting edge.  It's weird, wonderful and all too willing to go the extra mile, to step out on that limb, to raise its freak flag in the midst of a swarm of gatling gun equipped bats.  There's an artistry to the film that sometimes relishes those barren landscapes and sunsets with the enthusiasm of a cinematographer on a John Ford or Coen Brothers film.  There are a whole lotta moments more There Will Be Blood than Toy Story 3.  For some, this will be boring.  For children, the 75% of the humor will sail straight over their heads.  The film's dialogue throws around five syllable SAT words and a good portion of its characters could probably keep up with Jesse Eisenberg wielding an Aaron Sorkin script.  Point being: this ain't really a kids movie.  Adult cinephiles, however, particularly those wary of the saccharine and tolerant of the bizarre, are likely to find something to truly love.  I have no complaints.  To me, this was a truly original piece of animation more deserving of gushing praise than certain Pixar sequels.  It might not play to your base emotional impulses, but it captures something sublimely imaginative.  

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #17: Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.

When I tell you that I've been trying to watch Russ Meyer's 1965 cult film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! for the last seven years of my life, I'm not exaggerating.  At one point or another, during the hullabaloo that surrounded the release of Kill Bill, this movie got a mention from one critic or another (could it be Ebert?  Meyer's friend and one time collaborator?  very possibly).  I'd heard the title before, of course, but I'd never had a context.  Suddenly it acquired these strange mystical properties.  It was an exploitation picture, but not simply that.  It was the right kind of exploitation movie: one filled with violent ladies, car chases, and the sort of dialogue Tarantino coveted.  I had to see it.  Had to.  It's been a long road, and sure, there's a chance that if I'd gone the torrent route I could have had it years ago.  But, uh, instead I waited it out. I've had a hell of a time getting my hands on a copy of this movie, but I finally prevailed.  I have been to the promised land of kitsch and camp.  I have seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  Now you ask, dear reader, was it worth all the trouble?  Yes, dear reader.  Yes, it was.  It. was. glorious.  Glorious in that way that only the worst, most unpretentious objects can be.  It's the cinematic equivalent of a cheap plastic snow globe with a palm tree and a flamingo.  It's a jumbo slushee in a souvenir cup.  It's a novelty shop half full of costumes and gag gifts, half full of sex toys.  It's short and to the point, eighty minutes of go go kill kill nonsense in spectacular black and white.  The amazing thing is that at some point, this was actually risque.
By today's standards, Meyer's buxom team of bad girl strippers are remarkably tame.  A little lurid and raunchy, pulp femme fatales who talk a big game and walk about in skimpy clothing, but not much more.  The violence is PG at best, the sex is a male fantasy illusion built mostly because out of the omnipresence of top heavy femininity with architectural cleavage.  In 1965, I'm sure there were folks who said this was pornography.  There might still be people who consider this to be a film about breasts. It's Russ Meyer, after all, right?  I'm not going to lie: I don't see it.  Roger Ebert observed that Meyer's women used their bodies as weapons.  Tura Satana, with her jet hair and dark cat eye makeup didn't unzip her jumpsuit in an attempt at titillation.  To Ebert " her abundant cleavage seems as firmly locked in place as a Ninja Turtle's breastplate. One cannot think of her as fondleable." [source] There's a truth to that that doesn't read as some sort of dual edged misogyny.  These women are wicked.  They're formidable and statuesque, frequently shot from low camera angles that make them larger than life.  Every bit of their appearance seems tailored to make them all the more Amazonian.  The tiny hot pants, low cut tops and go go boots never seem to make them silly sex objects, but instead accentuate the enormousness of their physicality.  They're solid and dangerous and unconfined, proportioned like comic book villainesses; less suggestive and more Amazonian.  These ladies are tough broads in for the kill.  Even when they're busy fucking around, you know they're not fucking around.  We don't get much of an explanation for their actions, but nothing they do is surprising.  When they break that poor teenage boy down, snap his spine and steal his Gidget-weak girlfriend, it's just a thing.  It might be an average weekend, who knows?  These are ladies who drive out to the desert to play chicken in their own muscle cars.  They're in control.  The cars are an extension of their power, some phallic symbol re-appropriated for their own use.  They're the original Grindhouse girls; deranged characters who can only be used and abused by one another, but never by the man.  The men in the film are nothing. They're paralyzed or protectively maternal.  One of them, a muscle bound ignoramus, is actually called the Vegetable.  He's not a threat, just a sex toy with a screw loose.  In Meyer's film both genders are given the stereotypical qualities of the other.  It's not a subversion, but a perverse, simplified, exceptionally fun way of acknowledging the duality inherent in all humanity.  

Or, maybe that's reading into it too much.  After all, this is Meyer we're talking about.  It's a movie where the dialogue is a delightfully absurd blend of hyperbole and snarky come-ons.  It's very nearly Shakespearean in the reach of its cheese.  "Oh, you're cute... like a velvet glove cast in iron." Pure liquid gold.  If this film were made today, it'd be bloody, brutal, and too often nude.  Unfortunately, there are attempts to make this happen.  I'm not sure I'd want that.  As it stands, there's a purity to it.  Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! toes many a line, one of them being a bizarre almost adorable charm and absolute viciousness.  Is it grrrl power or sex and violence?  Lucky for us, the images are almost ambiguous.  It's up to you to decide.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

RIP: Jane Russell

Actress Jane Russell passed away Monday in her California home of respiratory related illness, she was 89.  Russell, who starred opposite Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is perhaps most famous as the young starlet whose sultry looks sparked an old Hollywood censorship controversy when she appeared in the Howard Hughes film The Outlaw.  Or, more specifically, the poster for The Outlaw, which review boards (and the Catholic Church) felt revealed a little too much of Russell's chest.  Oh, Hays Code Hollywood, so silly.  Russell went on to star in mostly fluffy film fare, including Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, and Bob Hope's The Paleface.  She retired from acting in 1986 and is survived by her children and grandchildren.

[via NYT]

Love: Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is comedic comfort food, especially for anyone that’s ever been to a trade conference where booze and sex are often the focus over insurance, engineering, or whatever it was you were sent there to network about. A mix of quirky sweetness and crude hilarity, Rapids is both a natural Ed Helms vehicle and a great diversion.
Insurance salesman Tim Lippe is the typical Helms’ archetype; he’s pre-engaged (at least in his mind) to his older, former high school science teacher (Sigourney Weaver), gets excited about renting a red Chevy Cobalt, and orders a root beer proudly at a bar. Each year his Wisconsin Insurance Company has won the coveted “Two Diamond” award at anannual Insurance conference in Cedar Rapids due to the beguiling charm of Roger (Thomas Lennon), their star agent. When he's killed in an accidental act of asphyxiation ala David Carradine, it’s up to Tim to continue the winning legacy, even after getting caught up with a group of debauched conference rebels including Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and John C. Reilly.
While the jokes might not be all that new and skim from most of the stuff that Helms and Reilly have already been in, it’s Helms that makes Rapids feel like a better film than it is. He has an innocent charisma that makes you root for him in any project, despite his stupidity or banality. It also makes the hijinks that happen to him all the funnier, particularly this time around when he unknowingly goes on a crack bender and falls in love with a prostitute he’d previously been giving butterscotch candy to.
John C. Reilly is also more subdued than normal here, allowing his off color, over the top performance to shine by backing off before it overwhelms the film. Helms, Heche, Reilly, and Whitlock as an ensemble are an oddly perfect fit and mirror the real life conference experience, where you find yourself marooned and sometimes liberated with a group of strangers you wouldn’t normally spend time with and won’t see again. Awash in dark paneling, outdated wallpaper, and Cosby sweaters, everything from the sets to the costumes reinforce the familiar reality of the film, even when the plot takes utterly silly turns.

While it’s no Hangover, by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a rag tag adventure with the group of friends in high school, a trip that at the time felt a lot more audacious than it actually was.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...