...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bringing Up The Rear

On Sunday, I will participate in the Bataan Memorial Death March (in honor of the soldiers who survived the original trudge through the Filipino jungle), a marathon for the crazy and the Enlisted. And probably the Enlisted Crazy. It goes the 26.2 miles around White Sands military base / missile range. The road isn't paved and often goes up and down hills and sand dunes.

I'm not running it. I thought I was cracked, but apparently there are people who are broken. I'm walking it. My buddy Jesse has done this three years in a row. He's not a runner. In fact there's a story (which he probably started) going around out there that he once smoked a pack of cigarettes while walking it. Anyway, he finishes about dead last every year (actually he finished 744 out of 745 in '07). Though I won't run it, I plan on finishing one place ahead of him.

Before you ridicule a man for walking a marathon, just think of the last time you walked 26.2 consecutive miles through the desert. Okay, the time your car broke down outside of Primm, Nevada, and you walked to Vegas doesn't count. There are no strippers and free drinks at the other end of this march. Which is unfortunate and they should consider that marketing ploy. I mean the soldiers who survived the original march would have appreciated it back in the day.

My only concern is staying burn-free and hydrated. I've packed my backpack like a champ. Surviving this means I get to post reviews of the second two Lubitsch Musicals next week.

Which brings me to my viewing of Cosi Fan Tutti on Wednesday night. "All Ladies Do It" as the English title goes. Going into depth about this flick would absolutely violate my PG rule on this site. Instead, I'll speak of it vaguely.

The director, Tinto Brass, has about a half dozen similarly-themed films available in the US DVD market. They're always about sexually-liberated women who would sooner share their love than share their pasta. Like Russ Meyer was aesthetically obsessed with the tops of women, Brass is obsessed with their bottoms. Normally in his films a naked female posterior makes the rounds about once every 5 minutes. In "Ladies", there may be more time with cabooses on screen than not. It's as if the last vestige of Brass's sanity vaporized and leaked out of his cigar smoke. Either he's on something or he's onto something...

Unfortunately, this is not one of his better films. (Note: Brass's productions walk a fine line between "films" and "movies". I'll admit I show a bias towards ridiculous European films over ridiculous American movies. Additionally, productions that show a lot of flesh are visually bribing me to call them "films" and often get their way.) This one lines right up next to Miranda, maybe a half cheek higher. The unrated Caligula, which was only partially his, is a nauseating wind blossom of Bacchanalian brilliance. And Transgredire has more flirty charm, prettier faces and places, better plotting, and darn it if it isn't sexier. It's still not what one would consider brilliant, but a little whiff of obsession goes a long way.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Death without Hope

The Mist (2007)

Wow.

I'm sure that's reaction of most when The Mist fades to black. Either "Wow, that sucked," or "Wow, that was AWESOME!"

I'm in the latter group. And, WOW, has Frank Darabont gone to the darkside regarding themes of hope. In Shawshank, it was "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." But in The Mist a whole lot of good people die. And one of the most powerful themes revolves around the horror of hopelessness. Perhaps if some of the characters had been full of hope, things would have ended differently, but the events that prestaged the ending allowed no room for optimism.

A strange mist blows down from the mountains, over the lake, then blankets a small New England town. Many of the locals hole up in the neighborhood grocery store when it becomes apparent that there's something murderous in the mist.

The film posits: who's scarier, the monsters or us? We win the nomination by some measure. Not that the creatures from the mist aren't unnerving. The tiny spiders that blanket a body are effectively creepy. The giant flies are amusing, especially the sound of their feet sticking to the plate glass windows. And there's a humbling shot near the end of some Thing that is a little intimidating.

One's opinion of the film is likely influenced not only by the increasingly downbeat 3rd Act, but also the performance of Marcia Gay Harden as the Christian zealot. The fire-and-brimstone side of human personality is played hot, high, and crazy. This may turn off some. But truly the killer intentions don't end with the fundamentalist types. The film illustrates where it lies within us all.

This is a B-movie first and foremost. The budget was about 1/6th of the average H-wood action movie; the utilization of the grocery store illustrates how tension can be built through staging on one main set.

And as a final note, unlike THX 1138, this is not a single-key film. There's unrequited lust between several sets of characters, occasional bursts of humor, and moments of internal conflict. Like THX, characters may be suffocated by their universe, but in The Mist it's often by their own hand.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

All you need is LUH

THX 1138 (1971)

No, this is not a Lubitsch film.

It's a Lucasfilm. George's first feature in fact. Watched it tonight (Monday) on Netflix's Instant Viewer. Best video quality so far.

To sum up the plot: It's the future; a massive bureaucracy runs a society underground. Citizens are kept under heavy drug sedation. THX and LUH are a couple that skip their meds and mate. They are then punished and THX tries to escape.

Since this one feels like a student film, I'll try to review it as such.

Pro: One has to admire Lucas sticking to his vision and style.
Cons: This movie serves a good how-to-not-make-a-SciFi-film lesson. Though the constant voices spouting numbers and codes serve to embody the depressing, dystopian, dismal universe of the film, it becomes meaningless which then becomes annoying and distracting, largely taking away from whatever is trying to be achieved on screen. It's also easy to see the Lucas of Star Wars, as the action, plot, and themes are all in a single key. Few surprises, little depth. A film that's 100% straight-forward depressing is as shallow as a film that's 100% straight-forward happy. Nowhere within this film can the Lucas of American Graffiti be found.

Pro: LUH is an interesting female human character.
Con: Possibly the only one I've seen amongst his films.

Pro: Effectively displays not only the suffocating nature of a soulless state-run universe, but also it's ultimate inability to stop its sharpest criminals/revolutionaries. Done in by the bureaucratic need to stay under budget, the state gives up the chase at the end and lets THX escape.
Con: Seems awfully like a way to end your film when you don't know how else to end your film. As for the above themes, Lucas seems to be trying to update Orwell's "1984". The problem is that Orwell's story was more involving and ultimately more affecting because human desires and contradictions powered the actions and consequences.

And lastly, (I have no "Pro" here) in this special edition of THX 1138, Industrial Light and Magic added a ton of CG special effects. And they're all obvious and jarring. Like the "young" Jabba added to "A New Hope", newer flashier effects don't necessarily mean better effects. The low budget tunnels, hallways, masks, and giant white prisons from the actual production are organic and immediate. Little monsters and teeming garages filled with futuristic cars are not.

Despite all of this criticism, I would certainly look forward to Lucas exploring these themes as an older wealthier man, if he chooses to direct an film that doesn't have "Star Wars" in the title.

Monday, March 24, 2008

It begins with Lubitsch

Last night (Sunday) I finally opened the Lubitsch Musicals box set from Criterion/Eclipse. It’s been sitting there, impatiently waiting to be sprung from its shrinkwrap.

I am an Ernst Lubitsch fan. As many filmies have noted, he’s The Forgotten Great American Director. Much of this is due to the paucity of available Lubitsch titles on VHS. An entire generation, or two, have not had the opportunity to watch more than one or two of his films, such as Ninotchka or To Be or Not Be, from the ‘40s. As fine as those titles are, Lubitsch’s style and charm is largely straightjacketed by the Hays Code that governed American cinema’s morality after 1934. Before the Code was enforced, Lubitsch was best known for his audaciously adult comedies. Characters slept around, broke hearts, mended hearts, flirted, then slept around again. And they were never punished by the movie morality gods for it. As a result, many of his early romantic comedies are much more mature and thought-provoking than their present day counterparts.

And despite all of the serious plaudits laid out above, these comedies are thoroughly goofy. Not stupid and childish, but more like a tipsy flirt.

LOVE PARADE (1929)

The first narrative American musical. And what a way to begin.

The first moments of the film: The credits are superimposed over someone flipping through a lingerie magazine, full of women in various states of undress. This cuts to a shot bursting with visual delights. In the center of the screen, dancing girls can-can. At the top of the screen blinking lights spell out “PARIS” in the night sky. And in every corner of the screen jut long erect necks of champagne bottles, framing the great French phallus of the Eiffel Tower. God bless, Ernst Lubitsch.

As a film, Love Parade is a fizzy bottle of champagne. Not a glass, but the whole bottle. It’s bubbly and sweet. Everyone moves about as if there’s a bottle open off-screen. And if the viewer just drinks it all in enough, she won’t notice how silly the story really is.

Let’s get this out of the way. Maurice Chevallier is a cad and a ham. The American female lust that chased him must have largely been due to the fact that he is tall and has a thick Gallic accent. He has only one emotion, goofy smile. Not necessarily happy, just goofy smile. This causes his acting to range from irritating to giddy. When I’d read that he had several asides to the camera/audience, I anticipated the worst. But in fact, his asides to the camera are very funny and work very well, like punctuation to a comic sentence. In Parade, he plays an attach√© from Sylvania (Lubitsch loves to create fictional European countries) who gets kicked out of France from bedding too many broads.

Jeanne MacDonald is a treasure. Though her clothes stay on for the entirety of the film, she is maddeningly sexy as a randy Queen who desperately desires a mate. It’s a good thing that Chevallier, ever the male tart, shows up just in time to serve her royal needs.

Their first sequence together is the highlight of the film. He’s been ordered to see the Queen for punishment. And once the Queen looks up from the report of his exploits, she looks like she’s ready to eat this lanky Frenchman alive. The banter that follows between the two of them is intoxicating. Not necessary because of the dialogue, but because of the actors’ performances. Watch their faces. There is so much devilish fun in her eyes. His showy attempts to act coy fail spectacularly. Both appear ready to burst into laughter. The flirting works so well, that the viewer may just forget what the characters have actually said having been seduced by the dance they’ve done.

The supporting characters have a lot of fun as well. Chevallier’s Parisian servant (Lupino Lane) returns with him to Sylvania. (The fact that Chevallier’s character is not French, but does have a French accent, while the servant is French and does not have the accent is quite funny. Though this happened out of technical necessity, the film does address this in a joke that is, of course, of a sexual nature.) Once in Sylvania, Lane falls head over heels (literally) for Lilian Roth’s Lulu, a six-foot busty brunette in a French maid’s uniform…………

………wait, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, so though they engage in a playful shoving match, this is fight he’ll lose.

As far as the actual music goes, there’s a great joke at the end of the first full song. There’s some quality banter to “Anything to Please the Queen”. But other than that the other tunes neither offend nor astound. Characters burst into song because that’s what seems to happen when the little bubbles start to make people giddy.

And yes, the women are luminous and the men are ridiculous. The ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but really, to a point, who cares?

MONTE CARLO (1930)

To today’s audiences Maurice Chevallier may appear…how shall I put this?...to have a certain lack of testosterone. But compared to the gentlemen of Monte Carlo, he’s Bruce Willis.

Jack Buchanan is completely miscast as a male lead, especially next to the feminine fountain of Ms. MacDonald. Part of it has to do with his face: a joker’s smile with no lips, protruding cheekbones, and beady eyes. Additionally, it’s in his voice. There’s an unusual emphasis on his S’s that aren’t so much the stereotypical sibilance that some equate with homosexuality. Rather the hiss is elongated and held, so that he sounds like Sterling Holloway’s snake Kaa from The Jungle Book.

Basically, he’s unintentionally unsettling. And he has no chemistry with MacDonald. As a result her mojo is lessened without an acceptable sounding board. Sexy sometimes takes two.

The scenario itself is ridiculous without being comically so. Buchanan poses as her hairdresser to……well, I don’t know….touch her? There’s a surreal song called “Trimmin’ the Women” sung by Buchanan and two other exceedingly feminine men about the joys of touching women while cutting their hair.

On top of the fact that the story doesn’t work, the lack of chemistry, the sparse and forgettable songs, the film is also limp in the humor department. It’s rare to see a film do so much to accomplish so little. 90 minutes of not much.

There are small positives. There’s some fun wordplay during a song at the beginning of the film. There’s also an inventive train/music montage that’s surprisingly artistic and effective. And MacDonald works hard to achieve her groove and her lovely face is expressive as always. Lubitsch plants some little clever visuals here and there, but, for the most part, Monte Carlo is a losing hand.

29 Weeks?!

For twenty-nine weeks that previous post sat lonely at the top of page. But no longer.

In an attempt to resurrect this blog, I have decided to largely focus on film (and occasional music) discussion/thoughts/reviews. The goal is to make these entries snack-sized yet filling. A few sips of scotch rather than a barrel of malt liquor.

This works better for you and for me, since this darned job-thing keeps my writing time limited. And I like scotch.

The site will also remain PG-rated, as far as language goes. This is a challenge for me since I love dialing up colorful metaphors when I have specific passions about film. This approach will be even more difficult since the films I’m currently watching are brazenly adult.

Note: I finally saw No Country for Old Men on Friday night, but I’m not ready to discuss. At first blush it was a lot better than I thought it would be. That may or may not change as it stews.