Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Written by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan
Directed by Susan Stroman
It should be noted right off the bat that I spend my life accounting with figures and such and that I have a not-so-secret desire somewhere deep in my soul. Yes, that’s right, I wanna be a producer of a big show on Broadway! Well, maybe not Broadway as they are more frequently interested in commerce more so than art (when is that “Apprentice” musical opening??). I also had the chance to catch the Broadway musical earlier this year, albeit not starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as it was originally cast a few years ago. I saw it and I did not love it. There’s nothing terribly exciting about watching an actor put on a bad Nathan Lane impression (or in my case, an understudy putting on an impression of an actor putting on a bad Nathan Lane impression).
The film interpretation, directed by choreographer Susan Stroman is very loyal to the stage production and a lot more enjoyable to watch with Broderick and Lane in the leads. Stroman gives a refreshing taste of the classical Hollywood musical, staging some musical numbers on stages themselves (revolutionary!), some on sound stage sets that recreate the streets of New York and others on the actual streets of New York. The result is a lively, energetic film with many hearty laughs at the expense of the absurdity of the theatrical world and Broadway itself.
The one thing I did not see was this supposedly perfect chemistry between Broderick and Lane that helped the stage production amass a record setting number of Tony’s. As Max Bialystock, a middle-aged Broadway producer slash scam artist, Lane is slimy, quick and crafty. He always has an answer and his timing is on cue at all times. It became obvious to me how vital Lane is to this show as Bialystock highlights his strongest traits, a smooth liar who constantly fumbles but knows how to wiggle himself out every time. This will replace his role as Albert in “The Birdcage” as his signature. On the other hand, I found Broderick to be annoying and difficult to watch at times. To begin with, the character of Leopold Bloom is a pathetic coward, prone to overly dramatic panic attacks if one steals the remaining scrap of his childhood blue blanky. Broderick then takes this character and overdoes every movement, every expression, almost every line. Bloom may be an awkward guy by nature but Broderick himself looks uncomfortable and unsure how to make this character work on screen. As a result, instead of going forward side by side, Lane ends up carrying Broderick along with him.
Broderick works much better opposite Uma Thurman as Ulla. Thurman has never looked more like a classical movie star and together they generate some genuine sparks during an enchanting number called “That Face” in which the walls that prevent love from growing between an unobtainable woman and a bumbling, mumbling accountant are broken down with a dance and a kiss. Another addition to the cast, Will Ferrell, continues to enhance his character work with more depth and less Will Ferrell. As Franz Liebkind, the author of the supposedly worst play ever written, “Springtime for Hitler”, Ferrell is infallible, maintaining the caricature of a neo-Nazi musical nut job throughout without giving into his own self-indulgence.
Caricature is typical Mel Brooks and “The Producers” oozes caricature, from a blond bombshell who can barely speak English to an entire parade of gay theatre folk in costumes as cliché as sailors, leather cops and Indian chiefs. My issues with Broderick aside, Brooks’ incapability of seeing characters other than one he could conceivably play (think white, straight, Jewish type) as characters with actual personalities is what ultimately stops “The Producers” from selling. Hysterical laughter one minute, an awkwardly hushed theatre the next.
Written by Robin Swicord and Doug Wright
Directed by Rob Marshall
Director Rob Marshall has wrapped us a very special present with his follow-up to the Best Picture winning “Chicago”, “Memoirs of a Geisha”. He took all the time he needed to pick just the right box and a multiple-patterned wrapping in brilliant colours before meticulously covering the box and tying a flawless bow around it. It shines like nothing we’ve seen. It’s a shame that upon opening this gift, we see that he forgot to put any thought into what to put in it to begin with as tearing away this perfect packaging leads to nothing more than an empty box.
I have not read the highly successful novel this film is based on. And perhaps I am less in touch with my feminine side than I thought as I do not understand what all these Geishas are complaining about. Sure, the story begins with a young Japanese girl sold to another household and separated from her sister and only remaining family. She lives the life of a slave but is inevitably given the chance of any girls’ lifetime, to become a Geisha (this is not “Memoirs of a Housekeeper” after all). A geisha, in case you’re not entirely familiar, is a moving work of art, a Japanese hostess trained in the art of culture, dance and music. She is not a prostitute or at least this is what we are told. Understandably, I was puzzled when a bidding war begins over our heroine’s virginity in order for her to pay off her debt to the household she grew up in and become a true Geisha.
Ziyi Zhang plays Sayuri, the most sought after Geisha in all the land. She holds her own in what is her first English speaking role but ultimately does not say very much and pales in comparison to Michelle Yeoh, who plays her mentor and brings some much needed spunk, confidence and authority to this fragile, whiny weeper. Perhaps speaking English is the problem itself. Let alone that a large number of Chinese actresses play Japanese parts, this film would have been more effective if it was actually in Japanese. It makes no sense that these women would be speaking to each other in broken English all the time. The struggles to enunciate lead to emotions not being conveyed. The self-imposed communication barrier never allows the viewer to be taken in by this beautiful existence as the beauty comes across as contrived, designed for the North-American box office and not made for artistic purposes … Hope they’re not too disappointed come Oscar time when the only nominations they get are technical ones.
If you’re into art, then “Memoirs” will narrowly carry you along throughout a rich, colorful journey. As for me, I will let Mr. Marshall keep his pretty box to re-use next time on the condition he promises to put something of substance inside it.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Written & Directed by Stephen Gaghan
As human beings, we are able to detach ourselves from injustices and hardships taking place throughout the rest of the world. Disassociation is not merely a capability, it is often a necessity for survival of the mind. Film going is often thought to be a primary means of exercising this need. Escaping into the dark of the cinema to avoid the world’s problems is both common and effective, even when dealing with more personal problems instead of the global variation. The whole theory is threatened by films like, “Syriana”, a film that makes sure you’ve been punched in the stomach and spit on while lying on the floor recovering before exiting the cineplex. The realism of the oil industry, from the US government corruption trickling all the way down to illegal workers on the verge of becoming suicide bombers in Iran is difficult to completely grasp, even more troublesome to digest, yet still a topic that needs more awareness brought to it. What becomes easy to forget when you’re trying strongly to focus on how vast this particular reality reaches is that this is actually not reality; it is still a movie after all. It is a reality shaped by the vision of director Stephen Gaghan.
Gaghan is the Academy Award winning screenwriter of “Traffic” and the construction of this new story comes together much the same way. There are three separate storylines that intersect each other throughout while becoming clearer as the end draws closer. As a director, this is only Gaghan’s second project and a definite step up from his previous effort, the Katie Holmes thriller, “Abandon”. He keeps the viewer engaged and affected throughout, showing as much strength and control as “Traffic” director, Steven Soderbergh. The difference between the two is Soderbergh’s ability to better balance the time spent on your toes and the time spent clutching your chest in pain. The scope of Gaghan’s script is too vast to be fully absorbed, leaving the viewer moved but not clearly understanding why. I respect Gaghan’s ability to pick up a scene at any given time without over explaining every tangent or spending too much time contextualizing the viewer but this can leave the viewer feeling removed … not the desired effect when your hopes as a director lie in educating the viewer on this poignant topic. Thank goodness for home theatre and multiple screenings.
What is missing is a more human element while at the same time, most of the human elements involved seem unnecessary. Again, going back to “Traffic” (as you will find yourself unable to resist comparing the two as well), the majority of the drug-related threats were personalized, tying the string between the drug lords mass-producing their product to the street kids and upper class privileged buying the junk. Here, the players’ humanity is incorporated to give them some characterization, depth. With so much happening in their professional lives, their personal lives seem superfluous and consequently lend nothing to their motivation, eventually being ignored and mostly unfinished. The most personalized focus comes from George Clooney’s portrayal of Bob Barnes, an agent with the CIA who seems just as lost and caught up in this cyclone of corruption, greed and power as we are. Clooney’s performance begins so quietly, so passively, and builds like a rumbling beneath your feet before a natural disaster strikes. Getting on in years and always well intentioned, Barnes no longer knows who controls his life, only that it is not himself. He has much to say but cowers when given the chance to say it. To a large extent, he has given up trying to make change. Clooney plays Barnes as exhausted, apathetic and frustrated without having the drive to change that. He has been telling the same lies and making the same deals for so long, he no longer questions to what goal they contribute. He has not been corrupted but he turns away his eyes to every command he executes under the moral armor that his decisions are not his own. Only they are.
Gaghan’s camera is constantly positioned either very close or very far from the action, sometimes within the same scene. The effect is a varied degree of understanding, that we are closer to the problem than we think one minute and then detached and removed, lost the next, with numerous obstacles obstructing our view. We try to piece together the connection between the American government, the Saudi monarchy, the corporate control, the legal whitewashing and the resulting racism that instills fear and lack of understanding of everything Arab and hatred of America by the Arab people. I walked in with a vague understanding of the interconnectedness of all these issues and left “Syriana” with the concrete knowledge that it is oh so much more complicated than I originally thought.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Written by Stephen Chbosky
Directed by Chris Columbus
I should tell you, I should tell you … I really just don't like "Rent." I've tried. I've seen the show. Yes, it was in Toronto and not on Broadway but I still saw it. I bought the soundtrack a good month or so before the release of the film in an attempt to build some excitement. I think I listened to it once, twice tops. And finally this December, amongst a packed house of Rent-Heads, possibly some of the most unstable brand of fans I've ever met, I sat through this directionless film interpretation about a bunch of 20-something aimless artists who would rather starve and freeze then sell out. It may be easier to say this as an artist who is writing this in his cubicle having sold out so he can afford to match his scarf to his hat to his shoes mind you but I still manage to get more accomplished than most of the free-loaders in this film.
I originally felt that perhaps my disdain for this show came from some unresolved issues with an ex-boyfriend who was a big Rent-Head. I would always tell people who asked that I did not like the show but followed that up by saying that I had this inevitable ex-boyfriend bias. It feels good to be able to say I simply do not like it now and it helps to know why. From a story perspective, “Rent” basically introduces you to a bunch of young artist types and shoves their values down your throat for the first two thirds of the film. Nothing really happens but we know an awful lot about the types of people who are singing. You’ve got singers and filmmakers, dancers and drag street drummers. Some of them have A.I.D.S.; some of them shoot up a fair amount of heroine. Some of them take heroine and have A.I.D.S. What they don’t have is depth. The story relies on their plights to provide a deeper meaning but as nothing aside from the looming threat of losing their loft space transpires, you pretty much get the starving for your art thing within the first little bit.
“Rent” makes for a better stage production than a film. It is mostly sung and that can get awkward when choreography is not involved. The stage is a more natural setting for this or at least more so than someone singing directly into the camera while riding their bicycle. In fact, I had my doubts about this translation from the start when it was announced Chris Columbus would be directing. It would be his first project since helming the first two “Harry Potter” flicks. I’ve got nothing against the young magician movies but this is a story of suffering, poverty and despair. I became more hesitant when I learned that the majority of the original Broadway cast would reprise their roles. This is a simple jump from stage to screen for people with experience like Anthony Rapp or Jesse L. Martin but is less successful for say Idina Menzel or Adam Pascal. Pascal plays Roger, a musician who barely leaves the house since his former flame died of AIDS. Rosario Dawson plays his romantic counterpart, Mimi, and mops their filthy loft apartment floor with him because she knows how to play for the camera. It doesn’t hurt that she can hold her own in the vocal and dance department. And while on the subject of music, as this is a musical after all, there are certain numbers that pick up the pace of the film, like “The Tango Maureen” in it’s dream sequence group tango or “Light my Candle”, a seduction in low light or even “Take Me or Leave Me” where a newly engaged lesbian couple square off on accepting the other for who they are. With few other exceptions, the remaining musical numbers often feel tired and repetitive with moments of lyrical genius and reassuring insight that are sadly too few.
Columbus tries hard to keep the gritty reality of these artists’ lives relevant and convincing but crumbs on floors and duct tape on couches are not enough to ground these characters. The first two thirds of this film are supposed to sell these artists as one big family bound by their convictions but when they are nothing but these convictions, there is little else to hold them together. When actual tragedies start to happen in the last third, they are happening to hollow vessels hiding behind lifestyles and calling it art.
Tuesday, December 6, 2005
Written by Gill Denis & James Mangold
Directed by James Mangold
I find it quite peculiar that biopics about musicians all seem to contain variations on the same plot points. Musicians have troubled childhoods, often including traumatic experiences and/or stern upbringings that will likely cross the line into abusive. Musicians get married and then inevitably neglect their spouses and cheat on them with groupies post getting discovered and making something of a name for themselves. And it wouldn’t be a movie about a successful musician if said musician didn’t get into a full-on battle with drugs and alcohol. I can accept that these issues might be typical of a musician’s influential background and the industry that exploits their talents by running them around the world, away from their family. What gets me is that these stories aren’t stories at all but real lives. There are probably more people out there going through exactly what you are and you don’t even know it. The similarities may be seemingly unavoidable but the film must differentiate itself to make it’s own name. The emphasis must then be placed on two things … the performances of the lead actors and of course, the music. In the case of Johnny Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” director James Mangold takes it one step further and crafts a destiny driven love story, set against the backdrop of the familiar rise and fall of a rock star.
The larger force at work gets started early for Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon) as Johnny becomes enamored with June upon hearing her sing on the radio when he is just a boy. His discovery is innocent but the influence will be lasting as the sound of her voice inspires desire inside of him to have the same opportunities and the calm that her voice brings to his impoverished and troubled childhood will be something he searches for for decades to come. When the two finally do meet, the calm returns to him immediately and their chemistry is unmistakably natural. As they sneak glances when the other isn’t looking, they look affected without understanding why. The insight comes the first time the two take the stage together. They speak a language that no one else can discern only the language isn’t spoken, it’s sung.
Watching two people fall in love on stage and through song while one or the other alternates fighting against it energizes the performances. Their infatuation and excitement invigorates their voices and faces, inspiring anticipation in both the onscreen audiences and those in the multiplexes as we anxiously watch to see where this will lead. Having Phoenix and Witherspoon sing their own parts only deepens the performances’ authenticity. It removes the detachment from the character one would ordinarily experience while watching with the constant awareness of that voice not being from that body. It doesn’t hurt that they both sound fantastic too.
As June, Witherspoon’s exuberance is infectious. She demonstrates a strength in vulnerable times that is usually masked by a giant smile. Phoenix plays Johnny as a naïve genius, unaware of how his decisions affect those around him. He very rarely looks determined or calculated; instead he is impulsive and organic. And certainly he can brood with the best. Together, their connection is palpable. Amidst drug detox, ballooning egos and the collapse of marriages, the pull between them remains intact and retains its hold on their hearts. The happiness they could have and both deserve is always just out of reach and you will want so much for them to have it that you will not want the credits to roll. And though you may wish they could keep on singing for you, it is still a relief that they can finally drop the act.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
Written by Deborah Moggach
Directed by Joe Wright
Writer’s Note: This review is best read aloud in a fake British accent or a real one if you happen to actually be British.
I am quite the fool for a good period drama where a roomful of young women flutter about making high-pitched inaudible noises at the announcement of a new male prospect coming to town. Mothers trying desperately to marry off their daughters into good homes or even better, rich homes that will in turn provide the rest of the family with security and stature. Women who only speak in turn and do what they’re told. I jest. Besides, you don’t find these women in these movies any more. Modern period pieces are more concerned with disproving how proper people were. Less women sitting daintily and more women picking their noses.
Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” was exactly what I wanted. It is both beautiful and engaging, a challenging while light-hearted romance … Everything I needed to help erase the memory of the Bollywood Musical remake “Bride & Prejudice” I painfully sat through earlier this year. This being yet another interpretation of a famous Jane Austen novel, I certainly needn’t rehash the story for you; I’m sure you know what to expect.
Kiera Knightly plays Miss Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter of five Bennet’s. She does not have any particular talents or ambitions that would differentiate her from her siblings. She is simply not interested in losing her head over whether or not she gets married. Miss Elizabeth would rather be alone than be with someone for convenience sake. That maturity, that knowledge that there are more important things in life gives her a peaceful glow that is only shaken when her independence is threatened by a marriage proposal that will undoubtedly end in a loveless existence. Of course, there is still some fear in her that she will never find another to love but she braves on. After all, she does have her pride.
Matthew MacFadyen plays Mr. Darcy, good friend to Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods) who is interested in marrying Miss Elizabeth’s older sister, Miss Jane Bennet (Rosamund Pike). He broods and skulks but we are still intrigued as he has such beautiful eyes. These are eyes that suggest something more sensitive beneath this brutish façade. Mr. Darcy is well intentioned but has yet to master the art of human interaction as is quite clearly shown as he flexes his hand and fingers awkwardly after touching Miss Elizabeth’s hand. For her, it is a simple touch; for him however, a vulnerable revelation that he has likely never been loved nor allowed himself to love. Remaining safe in his tower above the commoners has shaped for him many a prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice meet on the dance floor when Mr. Darcy unexpectedly asks Miss Elizabeth to dance. When the dance first begins, the conversation between the two is cold, guarded and expressed in the third person. It is aggressive, confrontational. They are both angry that the other’s existence remains with them when they are apart. As it continues though, they cannot deny their chemistry as the dance flows naturally until the end nears and there is no one left in the ballroom but these two. Fight all you like but you cannot will love away and that is a lesson that you must let go of both your prejudices and your pride before you can learn it.