Wednesday, August 16, 2006

 
Kong Love

It is hard to grow up in America, or perhaps anywhere, without having the "beautiful princess" and "prince charming" fantasy ingrained in your mind well before the time you actually experience anything close to love.

I'm no exception. I was raised on the "Disney-fied" ideas of "someday my prince shall come" which morphed into other unrealistic notions of love everlasting such as the concept of a "soul mate." But it wasn't until recently that I took these ideas to the extreme. Yes, it's true: I'm in love with a 25-foot tall ape.

Don't scoff! I'm not the only one. Do you really think a vibrant, sensual and talented woman like Ann Darrow (as portrayed by Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson's 2005 update/tribute to the original King Kong) can really prefer a skinny, intellectual playwright?

While many see King Kong as an action/adventure film, for me it is a much more telling interpretation of a single gals' plight to find "Mr. Right." Bridget Jones Diary you say? Cute movie, but given the fact that Mark Darcy doesn't get shot down by planes while atop the Empire State Building, it is far from reality. (Just try imagining Colin Firth swatting at planes. I think not.)

Of course, I don't mean this literally. But like King Kong, Darcy is the image of the perfect man: Prince Charming of the modern age. Well, let me step back for a second. The thing about Mr. Darcy--the one created by Jane Austen--is that he's not perfect. He's a snob when Elizabeth meets him and too proud. But the fantasy is that a smart and interesting woman can transform him into the perfect man through love. Right.

I'd argue that King Kong is similar to Darcy, albeit with more hair. And perhaps more of a temper.

But unlike Bridget Jones (and any number of rom-com fantasies) King Kong gets it right because in the end, the film recognizes that it is just a fantasy and beauty, Ann, or really any woman who has bought into the tale, must face bitter disappointment as the romantic figure of her dreams plunges to his death. It isn't just that Kong dies, it's that Ann--a figure of doom from the start, expressing how "nothing good ever lasts"--must give up the dream of her soul mate. Love isn't perfect and she'll have to settle for dull Jack Driscoll (a well-cast Adrien Brody, despite criticism to the contrary).

I think Kong had a huge impact on me because I finally saw how I'd been searching for him in the men I chose to fall for (no pun intended). In place of an inappropriately large hairy ape and tall landmark building, I'd chosen obstacles such as an entire country's distance, or emotional gaps that could not be bridged. I entered into these situations fully aware that they were not meant to be. Like Ann, I was resigned to this fact, but held on as long as I could.

It could never work.

Beauty may have killed the beast, but it was reality that killed the romantic fantasy.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

 
American Song and Dance

An American in Paris is not a great movie. Rather, it is a great musical. Perhaps the best pure musical ever made. And I admit I'm fudging the language a bit, because I would consider that other Gene Kelly movie (you know the one) to be the greatest movie musical. Period.

But this Kelly romp somehow manages to out-dance and out-sing that classic. The ballet finale of the film brings forth all of the romance and power, transforming a lukewarm, by the numbers romantic-cliché plot into a chill-worthy finish.

Still, it nearly loses its way to that dazzling climax. The story and dialogue are to the film as "story and dialogue" are to a porn film: Just there to set up what we really want to see. Instead of the 'ol rumpy pumpy of a skin flick, An American in Paris is an orgasmic feast of musical genius: The Gershwin songs, Gene Kelly's dancin' shoes, Leslie Caron's dancin' legs, Oscar Levant's fancy fingers on piano, and Georges Guetary's suave singing.

The flimsy plot follows Kelly's former GI, Jerry Mulligan in Paris after WWII. Mulligan, an eager painter, falls hard for Caron's shop girl, Lise. Naturally, there are complications. The melodrama is pretty standard. If it weren't for the music, I don't think I could endure scenes like the one where Lise pleads with Jerry that they should enjoy the time they have together, not worry about when they are apart. (He's getting "sponsored" by society gal Nina Foch; she's being prepped for marriage to Guetary.)

Despite Caron's amateurish performance (this was her first film, she would improve a great deal), there are moments to recommend the film that aren't set to music. Notably, some snappy dialogue here and there, (mostly provided by the priceless Levant). Kelly always manages to be charming, even when he's being a bit creepy, like when he first meets the shy Lise. Guetary and Foch are both good as love's also-rans. While the outcome is never truly in doubt, they are both likable and sympathetic. Hell, I think Guetary is 10 times sexier than Kelly (until Kelly dances).

Also of note is the Oscar-winning art and set direction. Making the most of the Paris setting and wild party scenes like the Arts Ball. The vibrant colors out-do Moulin Rouge! (and An American in Paris was released in 1951).

In the end, it's the music that wins the day (and in my humble opinion won the Oscar for Best Pic). The main narrative is peppered with classics including "Our Love Is Here To Stay," "I Got Rhythm," and "'S Wonderful."

The high-point though, already touched on above, is the "An American in Paris Ballet" at the end of the film. This 18-minute musical interlude, choreographed by Kelly, is bursting with color, imagination, beauty, energy and eroticism. The blandness of the Kelly/Caron romance, unable to flourish through dialogue, is made lush and ripe as they replay their courtship in dance. It contains one of the most romantic and beautifully sensual moments ever filmed, as they dance in shadows and fog on a fountain to the gorgeous Gershwin music. Heaven on earth.

Those who don't like musicals will probably resist the overall charms of the film. But they will miss out in seeing one of the finest examples of how the musical could transform the medium, bringing forth feeling that could not be expressed as deeply with simple words.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at ezboard.com.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

 
Allen Analysis

There's an old joke. Uh, two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know, and such small portions." Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.

-Alvy Singer, Annie Hall

From the opening moments of Annie Hall, the film is funny, familiar and touching. The above quote, the first joke Woody Allen tells in his opening monologue, has always rung true for me. Probably now more than ever before.

The film is filled with the misery and disappointments of life and love: An old woman walking down the street informs Alvy (played by Allen) that "love fades"; Alvy explains at one point that there are two people in the world, the "horrible" and the "miserable," and be thankful if you're only miserable.

I identify with the character, down to little details. The first scene, of a childhood Alvy visiting a doctor with his exasperated mother, is like a page from my own childhood. Could it be a lot of children out there worried about the "expanding universe?" When Alvy asks, "What's the point?" I realize I often ask this same question myself. I think the film is about answering that question. Or, perhaps saying there doesn't need to be a real answer or a real point. It just is.

Annie Hall has had real influence in my life. A viewing of it a few years back was critical in my decision to end a bad relationship. It isn't that I needed to see it to realize things weren't working. But, seeing the romance between Alvy and Annie Hall gave me a sense of peace (and final resignation) over my own situation. To paraphrase the film, what I had on my hands was a dead shark.

The best films always make me see something a little bit clearer in my life and myself.

In Allen's most significant work, he goes beyond his self-obsession and strikes a chord with the viewer. I think Annie Hall is the peak of his career, at least in terms of the prototypical Allen film. By that I mean any film where he's the star, playing his nerdy neurotic self and relating to other intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals-lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers on the street.

Those strangers often provide a punch line, and some wisdom:

Alvy Singer: Here, you look like a very happy couple, um, are you?

Stranger: Yeah.

Alvy Singer: Yeah? So, so, how do you account for it?

Stranger: Uh, I'm very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.

Stranger: And I'm exactly the same way.

Alvy Singer: I see! Wow! That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something?


The first time I saw Annie Hall I was probably too young to comprehend what Allen was trying to get across. That the only truly happy people in this world are (perhaps) too empty to realize how complicated and difficult life (and relationships) can be.

It is an odd little scene, because Alvy is making a joke at the clueless couple's expense. But at the same time, he envies their ability to be happy and not worry and obsess over every little detail.

That said, it is very clear that Alvy is willing to endure the difficulties of life and relationships, that he wouldn't want the emptiness of the bland couple on the street. Allen's characters recognize the pain of life and in the end, they want MORE. Because when it comes down to it, the portions really are too small.

*This review originally ran on the web message board Moviola at ezboard.com.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

 
Movie musings in a (sort of) movie-less week.

While I'd planned to check out Miami Vice this past weekend, I didn't get a chance. I will see it, but probably more out of curiosity to see how it was shot (high-definition digital video) versus any real Oscar vibe.

And yes, I was a fan of the show back when Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas donned pastel and passed on the socks. I even confess to copying the style myself (the horror, the horror)...luckily that was just a phase and didn't cause the same kind of long-term psychological impact I experienced via the mind-bending style morphing from black spandex, a la Olivia Newton-John in Grease to hippie beads and an uber-crush on Treat Williams in Hair in 1978 and 1979, respectively. My mother still has the evidence, but I will not be sharing it here.

In any case, moving on to much more serious matters, the movie that is truly on my mind right now is Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. It opens this week and has thus far gotten mixed (from excellent to lukewarm) reviews.

As some of you know, I live and work in Manhattan and I was here on Sept. 11, 2001. Very fortunately, I was not working near the WTC that day and even more thankfully, I did not lose any close friends or loved ones. However, the event had a profound impact on my life to the point that I couldn't even watch or read the regular news for about a year. I was truly traumatized and it took me a while to really get back to the new, post-9/ll "normal."

I have been drawn to the films that are starting to come out on the subject, like the acclaimed United 93 and now what sounds like a more sentimentalized account in WTC. It is an odd personal dilemma to want very much to see both films, yet to be fearful about their ability to transport me back in time. And there is no doubt in my mind that seeing either-regardless of the quality-will put me in a mood that I'm not sure I want to be in. Just reading the reviews pulls me in that direction. I literally cannot get through one review of Stone's film without starting to tear up. However I know, as much as it may take me back to that day I must see these films. I'm just not sure I'm ready.

I did finally see Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated Munich. It feels like a pre-cursor to viewing these other films, especially given the last image on the screen. It was excellent, and further proof that Crash was the least worthy of last year's Best Picture contenders. Munich has its flaws, but overall it is a harrowing reflection on revenge and the cycle of violence. It is an even sadder commentary, given current events. In terms of acting, it further cements my love (lust) for Aussie Eric Bana. It was good to see him in a film that finally matched his talents.

Another recent screening was Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, his follow-up to the striking In the Mood for Love. Speaking of moods (which is really what this is all about, how films impact mood), I don't think I've seen a more visually haunting film in ages. It seeps under your skin and I don't think anybody conveys that kind of poetry today better than Wong. It was so beautiful that I fell into it, like a trance. The only other movie I can think of that (recently) had that kind of hypnotic pull on me was Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani, another tone poem for the patient film viewer. Both films use both their visual and musical landscapes to convey a sense of loneliness and desperation.

Which brings me back to the beginning... I think that right now I'm looking for movie experiences that are more authentic than what I'm guessing a pop culture dream like Miami Vice can provide. I read an interesting interview in the most recent issue of Film Comment with Richard Linklater, where he comments on the dream-like state that movies put us into. Nathaniel at "The Film Experience Blog" (http://filmexperience.blogspot.com) also referred to this in a post about the sublime Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo. If you look at Mia Farrow's expression at the end of that film and recognize yourself, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Of course, the problem with going into that dream-like state with films like United 93 and World Trade Center is that the world's they present aren't dreams, they're nightmares. And unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you can't wake up.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

 
My second column is now up at Oscarwatch.

Or it was... here's the repost:

The 9 Steps to a Quirky Comedy: Little Miss Sunshine

Step 1: Cast of the moment.

Bonus points for including precocious (but un-annoying) child star in the making. Double bonus points for the fact that said child star, Abigail Breslin was excellent in her first film, Signs. Triple bonus points for the fact that she co-stared in that film with this week’s crazy-man star Mel Gibson and it was directed by last week’s crazy-man writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan. (Night probably sent Mel flowers, given how Mr. Apsycholypto has drawn attention away from heated speculation over his own sanity.)

As if Breslin’s measured cuteness weren’t enough, she’s surrounded by always reliable Greg Kinnear as dad Richard; Alan Arkin as Grandpa; scalding hot Steve Carell as Uncle Frank; appropriately pissed-off Paul Dano as brother Dwayne; and Toni Collette as mom Sheryl (proving again that Aussies excel at American accents).

Step 2: Everybody must quirk.

Nowadays an important element of a quirky comedy is that there can’t just be one off-center character. They all have to be wacky.

With that in mind, Kinnear does another amicable spin on his “lovable loser” persona. This time he’s obsessed with getting his “9-step” self-help program for success off the ground.

Arkin isn’t just a pervy grandpa; he’s a pervy, heroin-snorting grandpa.

Carell’s character is gay (which in a less interesting film would be the lazy route to quirkiness). Here he’s also suicidal and an expert on Proust.

Meanwhile Dano’s big brother has taken a vow of silence.

Breslin and Collette have the most “normal” characters, though I think the movie makes it pretty clear that just being in this family makes one a bit loopy.

Does all this quirkiness work? Surprisingly, yes. But I think that’s mainly due to the skill of the cast. In lesser hands this would feel like the mental ward in the Dudley Moore stinker Crazy People. At least nobody walks around in a blue robe and slippers. (Cinema shorthand for lovable nut.)

Step 3: Camp. The title alone says it all. It’s hard to get campier (or creepier) than a beauty pageant for 8-year-olds.

Step 4: That lady from Donnie Darko.

Okay, I know not every quirky indie hit includes actress Beth Grant (and the aforementioned cult hit was hardly a comedy) but I knew exactly what I was in for when DD’s uptight Sparkle Motion leader showed up as a pageant official. Unfortunately, I think she’s wasted here. I guess you can’t get any better than her Darko declaration: “Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion.”

Step 5: Lowbrow comedy spun around for a highbrow crowd.

Was it just me or did anyone else expect Christie Brinkley to speed by in a Ferrari? This road movie owes a lot to National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Step 6: Winners are lame, losers rule.

Well okay, the lesson is really that winning is about trying… But lets face it, losers are more interesting and they certainly have more quirks.

Step 7: Dysfunction Junction.

Not only are the characters all quirky, they don’t like each other much.

Step 8: Dark subject matter.

That’s clear from the beginning with Frank’s failed suicide attempt. However, I don’t think a certain plot twist (which I won’t give away) really works. Yes, it makes for a nice punch line later in the film… but I think it takes the film down a notch and pushes it from quirky to ridiculous.

Step 9: Get up and dance!

In my book, nothing says quirky like a bunch of white folks grooving to Rick James.

Will that groove play into Oscar season? I think Carell has the best shot because his character is just a little deeper. I’d love to see Collette recognized because she’s great in everything, but I think her fine performance will be obscured by the insanity around it.

Speaking of that crazy actor…

As already reported on this site and others, Mel is asking the Jewish Community for forgiveness for his Anti-Semitic drunk rant and he would like to meet with Jews in order to “discern the appropriate path for healing.” I think that’s very brave of Mel. I suggest that when the meeting takes place they invite a mohel. (And for those of you who don’t know, a mohel is the person who performs a circumcision in the Jewish religion.)

Nameless…

I’m still open to suggestions… Maybe I don’t need an “official” moniker?

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