Saturday, July 8, 2017

The 6 Best Jane Austen Adaptations

July 18 marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death at 41 years old. Pointless debate swirls as to the cause of death. It was easy to die back then.

Your reviewer has no course-work or disciplined study of her written output. I like movies. But I managed to get through her big five novels: Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park; Emma; and, Persuasion. Nowadays she is pigeonholed primarily as a source of romantic longing and generally happy endings, but it was not ever thus. There is nothing to compare with her wit, wickedly sarcastic eye for human behavior, and, on occasion, wrenching pathos. That she could have written the better part of P&P by the time she was 21 speaks to an exceptionally agile mind and perhaps time on her hands.

As the married father of two daughters: one, an Austen fan, the other decidedly not, I was steeped in the filmed output that began as a BBC swell in the VHS 80s, became a tsunami in the mid-to-late 90s thanks to Emma Thompson, A&E, screenwriter Andrew Davies, Colin Firth's wet shirt, and Clueless, was strung along by a solid P&P soft re-boot with modern young actors in 2005, and then finally reclaimed somewhat by ITV/BBC in the oughts with a re-hash of the big five minus P&P plus Northanger Abbey. It probably reached its temporary ebb with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in 2015.

Herewith then, dear viewer, are the best filmed adaptations.

1. Persuasion 1995. BBC/WGBH/Sony Picture Classics

Everything that men can't stand about Austen is missing from this. Only 107 minutes with good energy and great actors, it adapts Austen's shortest and final novel with beautiful concision. Amanda Root as Anne Elliot begins the movie with the lost bloom of a 27-year-old, too beaten down to be a run-of-the-mill plucky heroine. Her family and friends convinced her to reject the indomitable Wentworth (a still young Ciaran Hinds) 8 years ago when he was just a penniless younger brother to local clergy.

Her feckless noble-born father, hilariously played by Michael Redgrave, empties the family coffers, and now the family must "retrench" to rented digs in Bath.

Wentworth returns a swaggering captain in the Navy; newly victorious against Napoleon and newly wealthy from booty, making women fan themselves and drop their hankies in all company. He is initially cool and almost cruel regarding Anne’s reduced circumstances and “greatly altered” appearance, but a series of crises energizes her sharp mind and wide streak of competence and decency. Her progression to a renewed mojo and purpose, and his renewed appreciation of same is a romantic joy to watch. Natural candle lighting imparts intimacy and some measure of realism.

This trailer is awful. Ignore it’s tone.

Hall of Shame, Persuasion BBC 2007. The reliable Sally Hawkins is wasted on a nearly slapstick ending. This story should be easy to film.

2. Pride and Prejudice 1995 BBC/A&E

There's no dodging it, much as you may wish. After two previous BBC attempts in the 60s and 80s, and a ghastly 1940 movie version, BBC and A&E finally nailed it and completed the revivification of Austen that started with Persuasion above.

5 hours and 27 minutes of reasonably modern production values, stately pacing and - in Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and about a dozen memorable character actors - the best television acting you will ever see. Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet is definitive. Her filming schedule lasted 8 months (for context, Vivien Leigh was Scarlett O'Hara for about three months) and she is in almost every scene with countless close-ups. I never got tired of her despite the unfortunate period-appropriate wigs. Colin Firth as the almost irredeemably uptight Mr. Darcy brings facial expressions calibrated like a fine watch. Purists have complained that this Darcy is more revealed than redeemed, but in Firth's performance socially awkward young males may find a worthy model of determined self-improvement.

I won't sport with your intelligence by recounting the plot, but screenwriter Andrew Davies (who gave us the original British House of Cards and has an Executive Producer credit on the American version) adapts the exhausting novel almost flawlessly if not always faithfully. There is a solid dose of Austen's sly humor and dialog, but also real emotion as the pride and prejudice of the protagonists are ground down to finally make them good and decent enough for each other.

Another awful trailer.

Honorable mention: P&P 2005 with Keira Knightley. Hideous Americanized ending, but otherwise time-efficient and almost breathless adaptation with stylishly trashy sets, and beautiful exteriors.

The 1980 BBC version has some admirable qualities but poor Elizabeth Garvie is completely overmatched in the Elizabeth Bennet role and the production is clunky and one-note with mystifying unfunny additions to the book. Future horror star Claire Higgins was 25 when she was supposed to play spirited teenager Kitty Bennet. It didn't work.

3. Sense and Sensibility BBC 2008.

I don't suggest this to be controversial, since most would probably leap to Emma Thompson's 1995 version, but this 3-hour BBC adaptation is wonderful.

Austen's first major published novel is hilarious in spots but in some ways has the darkest melodramatic moments. A newly widowed mother and three daughters find themselves disinvited from her deceased's wealthy estate and must go to live in a very modest cottage at the behest of a distant cousin. Here they have to start over with little but their beauty and some good-hearted if rustic friends.

19 year old daughter Elinor is the kindly and reserved adult of the house, keeping the exceptionally beautiful and spirited middle sister Marianne and their coddled mother in check, until they all fall in love one way or another with the dastardly local nobleman Willoughby who nearly "ruins" Marianne. The hysterical unquenchable sadness of the jilted Marianne is beautifully written by Austen with none of her usual irony and wit, so that one suspects this was either closely observed in another or experienced brutally first hand.

Hattie Morahan as Elinor and Charity Wakefield as Marianne remind us of Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in the lead roles but they're generally more appealing and come off as the very young women that the characters are supposed to be. Thompson was 41 when she made her version and had to advance Elinor to 27 to make it work. But Elinor is a notable character precisely because of her youthful good Sense.

The supporting cast is fantastic. Downton Abbey and Beauty and the Beast dreamboat Dan Stevens is acceptable as Elinor's morose and plodding boyfriend Edmond Farrars. David Morrissey of Walking Dead semi-fame is the honorable Colonel Brandon, Dominic Cooper is the best Willoughby by far and even Harry Potter’s Mark Williams is good.

Andrew Davies is the screenwriter again. This is beautiful dramatic work and I think a little under-appreciated in the canon. And there's even a duel with swords! And it's in the book!

Honorable mention: Thompson's witty 1995 version, of course. Simpering Hugh Grant is all wrong as Edmond, but this is otherwise serviceable.

Hall of Shame: The 1981 BBC version is barely competent, and dull.

4. Emma A&E/PBS 1996.

There's really not a bad version of Austen's funniest book, except maybe the 4-hour 1972 BBC version.  Gwenneth Paltrow’s version is tolerable.  The 2009 BBC version with Romola Garai is fine and thorough. It’s hard to go wrong.

But this 1996 Beckinsale version is superior thanks to its brevity and a lovely natural performance by Ms. Beckinsale before she decided to waste her skills on the Underworld franchise. This Emma is really young and thoughtless and more worth the redemption. Olivia Williams is breathtaking as Jane Fairfax and Bernard Hepton near the end of his career is quite funny. The ubiquitous Mark Strong makes a suitably grown up, brusque, and not overly attractive Mr. Knightley.

Honorable mention: Clueless.

5. Mansfield Park. BBC. 1983

Conversely, there’s not a great version of what was reportedly Austen’s personal favorite book. Evidence suggests it is unfilmable. Six solid chapters in the middle are an interminably detailed description of rehearsals for a play that never actually happens.

The story features two female leads; the heroine, wounded and halting Fannie Price, and the anti-heroine Mary Crawford, vivacious and selfish.  In her we find arguably Austen’s best character study, and she remains recognizable today. Always on the cusp of genuine kindness and decency but always undercutting her own happiness with a self-written narrative of stylishly damaged worldliness.
If you’re up to it, this version covers the entire book soup to nuts in about 5 hours and features a sublimely weird and sympathetic Fannie in Sylvestra Le Touzel (her real name). Jackie Smith-Wood as Mary is okay but this character demands a lot of charisma and she comes up short, thanks in part to an awful wig, and, as was so often the case with middle-period BBC, being too old for the part. The shot-on-video quality is unfortunate and BBC’s dogged devotion to natural sound and unnatural lighting is a humorous distraction.

There simply is no trailer available. Sorry. I once wrote an enormous 13-clip video review at my old blog, but BBC and Youtube made me take them down. Even a 23-second clip I uploaded recently was blocked. A completely forgotten shot-on-video footnote can’t stand that kind of free coverage. Someone might actually watch it.

Honorable mention: Mansfield Park. ITV/PBS 2007 version. Cheaply made with a tossed off feel and shoddy character development, but it features flashing-eyed Hayley Atwell as the best Mary Crawford ever put to film. 120 minutes. biddy-bang, biddy-boom.

Hall of Shame: Mansfield Park. Arts Council/BBC 1999. Patricia Rozema’s wretched attempt to teach Austen a lesson about slave rape, patriarchy with a touch of incestuous desire, with egregious slow motion. Frances O’Connor is cast as Fanny Price but she plays the character like a sassy Elizabeth Bennet with one eyebrow permanently arched. This misses every possible point. Avoid.

6. Northanger Abbey 2007 BBC

I don't know the book. It was the first that Austen tried on her own to publish but it often isn't lumped in with the big 5. There are several filmed versions nonetheless. This has Andrew Davies yet again for 90 minutes of screenwriting. Extremely predictable and light-hearted, it briefly tells the story of young Catherine Morland who is addicted to the 18th century equivalent of “bodice ripper” novels - the sort that Austen probably giggled over as a teenager.

When Catherine is unexpectedly invited to visit the large estate of a charming second son of a glowering old general, her fevered imagination begins to suspect the general of murdering his wife and she nearly destroys her own chance at romance. This version rides entirely on the fine acting of the two leads, Felicity Jones, 9 years before Star Wars Rogue One, as Catherine, and JJ Feild as Henry.  They are delightfully expressive and funny and that's about it.

30 second trailer. PBS/BBC still don’t understand Youtube as a marketing tool.

Commence comments.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)

2008. 115 min. PG-13 - adult situations, kinda
IMDB says...Two sisters contend for the affection of King Henry VIII.

The 73rd Virgin says... Spoilers below. But I’m guessing you wouldn’t be watching if you didn’t know how it all ends. Based on a novel by Philippa Gregory, which I’ve never read, although seemingly every female I know, has.

Wikipedia can take the fun out of historical drama. It’s not Anne Boleyn - Vampire Hunter, but the revisionism just wears me down.

This is visually sumptuous, which isn’t that impressive in this day and age, and everything looks really, really clean. But the costumes are great and seem to be period-appropriate, based on the ghastly paintings of the day. It appears to have been made primarily with fans of the novel in mind. It also appears to have failed to make a profit.

Americans Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn and Scarlett Johansson as her sister Mary are surrounded with benchmarks of BBC such as David Morrissey (stern but slimy as the Duke of Norfolk), Kristin Scott Thomas, and heartthrobs Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch in small roles.

Johansson is made for this kind of movie. She looks like a painting by Holbein just as she looked like a Vermeer in, “Girl with a Pearl Earring”. And she plays the part of Mary here with an innocent kind of gravity, but as capable of self-preservation. Portman probably has the more difficult role as the mischievous and rather unsympathetic Anne. There is no way you can read the history and think that she just fell off the turnip truck, but this is the first time I’ve seen her portrayed as a willing and helpful pawn of her father and uncle’s scheming.

Now, I’ve seen Henry VIII played as a dashing young man prone to excess, as a bulbous gross old man - although he died at 55 - and as all points in between. This is the first time I’ve seen him played as a big-eared, black-bearded Croation in Eric Bana. He doesn’t project any of what must have been one of Henry’s most notable characteristics – a very bright mind. Ageless Kristin Scott Thomas is very good as the girls' mother.

Near the end, Screenwriter Peter Morgan and Portman portray Anne as a pitiful kind of cornered animal scrambling for a way out, and she’s pretty effective.

So what’s my problem? Aside from Bana? We know that despite the presentation of sister Mary as a virginal innocent in love with her callow first husband, she had, in fact, already been knocking boots with the King of France for 4 years, before she birthed two of Henry’s unacknowledged children. And we know that Mary did not, in fact, raise Henry’s eventual successor, Elizabeth I, as the end credits so portentously suggest.

Thomas Cromwell just kind of flutters into view and back out again. We only know who he is if we care enough to research it. That’s bad historical fiction.

Near the end, Mary rides breathlessly away from London – no escort – right, to save her own skin, when in fact Henry and Anne more or less kicked her out of town after she married beneath her station. Then she rides breathlessly back to London – no escort – right, to try to save Anne’s skin, when we know in fact she was smart enough to not be anywhere near the place when the heads started coming off.

Strangely, the one useful feminist message that might be extracted from this movie - when your looks are blown then it’s finally time to settle down with the nice guy who can put up with you - is passed over.  The charismatic Redmayne is wasted in the role of Mary’s kindly and sincere second husband, with whom in reality she found a bit of happiness.

It’s only a novel, after all, and I shouldn’t get my short clothes knotted-up in the devil’s playground over accuracy, but the fiction here just isn’t that interesting.

And none of this really ever needs to be done again.
FWIW IMO the best Henry VIII is 2003’s PBS Masterpiece Theater version, also scripted by Peter Morgan, with Ray Winstone as the sharp, ruthless, and self-aware king with a clear fear for his immortal soul, overridden by his baser needs. Helena Bonham Carter was quite good as Anne.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Harder They Come

1972. 120 min. R - some nudity, killings, tamarind switch, you'll need the subtitles.
IMDB says... Wishing to become a successful Reggae singer, a young Jamaican man finds himself tied to corrupt record producers and drug pushers.

The 73rd Virgin says... The best reggae movie ever made with the best soundtrack; the best black exploitation movie ever made; the best near-documentary of third world darkness and vibrant, buoyant rebellion ever made; and a clear-eyed study of celebrity culture that anticipates Snoop Dog by about thirty years. That about cover it? Forever in my Top 10. Only running about 7.1 on IMDb. Pffft.

Ivanhoe Martin (singing star Jimmy Cliff) comes down out of the rural hills of Jamaica headed for Kingston to find his mother and to try to make it in the big city. He brings a mango, the clothes on his back, and cardboard suitcases stuffed full. He’s quickly relieved of the suitcases and is greeted unenthusiastically by Mom.

Recognizing the hazard of being alone and starving in trench town, he drifts toward a local Pentecostal church and, although he has no feeling for Christianity, he develops a passing interest in a comely choir member, who happens to be the pastor’s hand-selected future fruit tree. Like every other youth in town he also hopes to cut a record. With great efficiency, these early scenes establish the day-to-day struggle to survive in an economy and culture rigged against 95% of the people. These people don’t work at beach front hotels.

But the film is more than just third world struggle. This revival scene featuring an undoubtedly real preacher is just explosive, and the editing is brilliant.

Since he’s fixed up a bicycle, Ivan gets to deliver the church’s revival music LP to the local record pressing plant, and manages to ingratiate himself enough with the demonic record producer Mr. Hilton to get an audition. This almost uninterrupted recording scene seems to be shot live with just a couple reaction shots, and is more visually interesting than a thousand routine music videos. The subsequent robbery of all royalties was repeated thousands of times in Jamaica and elsewhere.

While being kicked out of the church he gets into an altercation with one of the caretakers and cuts him up. Whatever you think of the special effects, having Jimmy Cliff in your face with a knife is a fairly effective visual. The judge considers him to be salvageable, which leads to an unpleasantly organic scene where he is strapped over a barrel and has his buttocks lashed with a tamarind switch until he reflexively urinates on the ground. Shaft was never like this.

Back on his ass, with no money from his soon to be hit recording, Ivan falls in with ganja traders, the ravenous protection marketer “Jose”…

…and the wise, soft spoken and wildly dreadlocked Rastafarian trader “Pedro”. The unidentified trader smokin’ up and selling matching pistols might as well be old Satan himself. Pedro doesn’t want Ivan to buy the guns.

And that’s enough plotline. Suffice it to say that while Ivan and his friends are sitting in a movie theater watching some god-awful Italian Western, one of his companions counsels “hero can’t dead ‘til the last reel.” Ivan’s gradual decline through record company greediness and his own ill-formed priorities and judgment bring us to the slightly surreal climax.

Jimmy Cliff is perfect and charismatic in his role, and the rest of the acting is fine with entirely local commercial actors or delightful amateurs.

What makes the movie great is, of course, the music, and a nearly documentary gaze into a society that was almost unknown outside of Jamaica. There is also a lot of story here, difficult to follow at times, but fascinating in its depth. And it was all shot on glorious Super 16mm film.

The soundtrack is famous and there’s not a weak song on it. The album liner notes breathlessly observe that the writer of the eternal “Johnny Too Bad” for the Slickers was on death row by the time the movie came out. This sounds apocryphal and, as they say in journalism, “too good to check”. But as much as we nowadays enjoy having our lines blurred between bad guys and pretend bad guys, these brothers were keeping it real in the truest sense of the word.
It’s hard to describe in retrospect the impact this had on a group of white college boys in the Midwest in 1979. Still reeling from the mechanical mincing foppery of the disco age, and trying to dodge the ubiquitous urban cowboy movement, - and being too far from the coasts to have much exposure to the punks - we needed heroes. Imperturbable, inscrutable, ganja-smoking bad asses like Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, and Burning Spear did nicely, and the weird patina of self-celebrating spirituality and the unspoken but overwhelming sexism of Rastafarianism only added to the aura.  These heroes were both more broadening and safer than falling in with the urban cowboy crowd. If I wanted to go somewhere every night, drink beer, get in a fight, fall off a mechanical bull, and wear a hat - that was completely within reach - but I was unlikely to be riding a little motor scooter through Kingston with ganja in my backpack and my .38 next to it - and my new 45 RPM right next to them both – with my weekend wife seated behind me.

“Ivan” would be name-checked in dozens of English punk and ska music references throughout the 70s. The soundtrack album had a huge effect and was played constantly on what was then beginning to be referred to as “college radio.”

Jimmy Cliff’s smiling visage occasionally shows up in Jamaica tourism ads and he was in the mostly forgettable Robin Williams/Peter O’Toole comedy “Club Paradise” in 1986, but he remains an international star. He converted to Islam in the 70s, but claims, “I couldn’t align myself with any one particular movement or religion so as to limit myself to anywhere or anything like that”. Hopefully, he won’t get his head chopped off as an apostate for that statement.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

12 Years a Slave

2013. 134 min. R - demeaning nudity, hardcore violence.
IMDB says... In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

The 73rd Virgin says... This could have been a homework movie. Instead, it is complex and immediately engaging.

The story is well known: In the early 1840s, an upscale, upstate New York musician and leading citizen, Solomon Northrup, takes up with two charming strangers on an ill-advised tour to Washington DC and disappears into the maw of Southern slavery.

The movie’s darkest moments are wickedly mundane, which serves the dual purpose of making it watchable by diluting out the brute physical horror, and driving home the point that slavery, or any other widespread social evil, requires the acquiescence of huge swaths of decent human beings with decent human feelings.

There are only a couple sweaty, toothless, leering white trash characters, and one psycho plantation owner. All else is basic greed, avoidance of boat-rocking, and the delicate social construct that allows momentary sympathy for a mother separated from her children, and the breezy admonition that they will soon be forgotten.

This effect reaches its pastoral peak when Solomon is nearly lynched by a vengeful trio for beating a white man, is then rescued by the business-first overseer, and then allowed to hang with only his toe muscles keeping him alive for hours, while frightened slaves go about their plantation business and give him a wide berth. One terrified girl gives him a drink, but all else proceeds quietly around him, including the plantation’s mistress momentarily checking up on his condition from a far-away balcony. Director Steve McQueen has no fear of still frames and still faces and silence. Much of the scene is almost a photograph.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a special effects-laden whipping scene shows the realistic effect of a leather strip as it reaches the speed of sound and cracks off liquefied and vaporized flesh from a slave’s back. Seeing this on DVD is one thing. I suspect there were people in theaters running for the exits.

Screenwriter John Ridley gives us side characters with deep backstories with only a few strokes. Alfre Woodard’s Mistress Shaw is on screen for about 4 minutes, but her tightrope walk as the pampered house-bound plaything of her slavemaster is expertly described and understood before the story moves on. And for once, southern belles aren’t let off the hook for the enterprise. They’re in on it, top to bottom.

Despite McQueen’s long close-ups on faces, and his little pauses to study Spanish Moss hanging in trees, the story moves admirably fast. Youtube blockage prevents any clipped admiration for McQueen's fluid moves.

It feels odd raving about the cast as if this were Ben-Hur, but the masterstroke is casting charming, almost cuddly, non-threatening white actors like Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Garret Dillahunt as the greatest evil-doers. Benedict Cumberbatch is also excellent as a kind-hearted gentleman slave owner who is appropriately dismayed by the brutality of the enterprise, while reaping its benefits.

Elegant Michael Fassbender oozes manipulative malice and borderline psychosis as Master Epps, but only takes it over the top once or twice, and does very well with the accent.

All these nice guys cast as bad guys force the white audience to identify with them. We can all hate the raving stump-toothed inbred Deliverance escapees, but now we have to hate Paul Giamatti. And he is us. A neat trick.

Executive Producer Brad Pitt seems out of place as a not-quite Amish, not-quite Canadian abolitionist handyman. I thought he was great in Tree of Life, but here he’s just Brad Pitt with a beard and an accent he tossed together on the flight to New Orleans.

Fans of Chiwetel Ejiofor going back to Dirty Pretty Things and Serenity have been expecting him to become a star for a decade, and it seems to have finally happened. Movies like this can sometimes bury the hero in the larger story (for example, 42), but Ejiofor is so physically noticeable and so adept at communicating Solomon’s intelligence and grief that we never lose sight of his story, and the tiniest threads of bravery and cowering that his redemption hangs upon.

The Pitt-heavy trailer is below.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

2013. 117 min. R - reflects the times
IMDB says...In 1985 Dallas, electrician and hustler Ron Woodroof works around the system to help AIDS patients get the medication they need after he is himself diagnosed with the disease.

The 73rd Virgin says...Fine acting and production design in service of a heartfelt and preachy script. Matthew McConaughey as real-life Ron Woodroof and Jared Leto as fictional transvestite Rayon deserve all the praise they’ve gotten, of course. I never lost interest or sympathy for the characters and the recreation of the era is about perfect.

But there is a moral preening quality to the script that gets a little old. It is careful to make really sure you know who the bad guys are, and over-simplifies the incredible complexity of developing treatment for an infection that no one was even sure was a virus 5 years before.

Fictional Doctor Eve Saks (bland Jennifer Garner) pisses and moans about pharmaceutical marketers wearing Rolexs but then happily dispenses their drugs to her patients. Who should wear Rolexs? Only investment bankers, Hollywood stars, mullahs and dictators?

The best scenes follow Woodroof in his pre-diagnosis days as a well-paid but decidedly marginal electrician with an extreme “pussy addiction” as his friend puts it. And McConaughey really shines as the smooth smuggler who crosses the Mexican border 300 times and trolls for HIV patient customers at clubs and city parks.

McConaughey was born to play this, but in truth he’s not far outside of his narrow if charming acting range. Even with the weight loss and awful hair and bad glasses you never forget who you’re watching. I am in that extreme minority who thinks Reign of Fire and Dazed and Confused are his greatest achievements.

I lost track of the ways the pharmaceutical companies and/or the FDA were supposedly overly greedy by rushing products into human testing or overly cautious in not allowing other untested products into immediate human use or overly greedy in pushing the relatively toxic AZT into widespread use or overly cautious in not allowing ddC to be used earlier, and downright wicked in following the kind of cautious protocols that helped keep Thalidomide out of widespread use in the US, while it was busily deforming babies around the world.

In an especially silly scene Woodroof bribes a hospital orderly to steal bottles from the AZT patient trials. Even though these were double-blinded trials with sugar pill placebos, somehow the bottles have AZT printed on them in 72 point type. Did you get that, kids? Director Jean-Marc Vallée is trying to show you something.

You will also perhaps be surprised to learn that the horrific onset of symptoms and speed of death in the early years of the HIV-AIDS epidemic was not just from HIV but from HIV and PROCESSED FOODS!

Steve Zahn appears as Woodruff’s cop buddy with whom he shares orgies. That’s fine. But in a city the size of Dallas, every time Woodroof runs afoul of the law Zahn is there. Even more than Officer Keough popped up in Silver Linings Playbook. This just disrespects the audience.

Michael O’Neill does everything but twirl his moustache as the one-man FDA wrecking crew determined to kill Woodroof. The reality of blank-faced bureaucrats delaying access to treatment because “this is the way we’ve always done it”, would have been more dramatically intense, but would have required more careful scripting and more respect for the audience.

It could be lots of people could have portrayed Rayon, and of course LGBT activists are angry that the role went to Leto (would I have been upset if Rock Hudson portrayed me? Don’t think so). But Leto is still fantastic and is given the best line:
Rayon’s father on meeting his unrecognizable son – “God help me.”
Rayon – “He is helping you Dad, I have AIDs.”

That was chilling and hilarious at the same time. I just don’t see why Hollywood’s “longest stalled script” couldn’t have gotten sharper in all those years in development. And the movie never really credits Woodroof with specific accomplishments, other than a vague notion that some patients are doing better. He’s been dead since 1992. Is there NO summation available?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chaos (2005 – not the notoriously awful horror movie but the somewhat less awful cop-action flick)

2005. 106 min. Rated R for violence and language and incredibly bad aim
IMDB says....Two cops, a rookie and a grizzled vet, pursue an accomplished bank robber.

The 73rd Virgin says...This one’s been stinkin’ up the Recycle Bin for a while.

Soon Movies Eat the Soul will have a gala review of the great Elizabeth Gaskell chick-flick, 1999’s “Wives and Daughters”, which features one of the most darling actresses to ever grace celluloid, Justine Waddell. But eyes ever fixed on the completely empty cup, we will begin with a review of Waddell’s sublimely awful 2005 outing, “Chaos”.  I never thought I would say that Wesley Snipes is the best part of any movie, but sure enough, he is.

In an insanely convoluted plot that still manages to be dumb, we begin… with rain…and a chase scene with vehicle pop up and roll overTM. Black dude has blonde girl hostage (daughter of the mayor! I guess the President’s daughter was booked over at Lockout).  As credits roll we get Jason Statham’s voice-over with lines like “I don’t apologize for doing my job”.  Move over Rainer Wolfcastle, Statham’s here as Detective Connors.

Now Snipes and his multi-racial gang of gun-totin’ black clad commandos will roll up in a black SUV and park on what appears from above to be an empty, car-less street - but which is teeming with people at ground level – and enter a bank in broad daylight unchallenged. These are at least pleasantly familiar clichés. Snipes is good in some decent action/shootin’ up the place scenes.

Next, comes the hostage negotiation scenes. Gum will be chewed and snapped; onlookers will stand within a few feet of a full blown gun battle and bank explosion; 80s hair will be worn; people will die. SWAT will jump the gun. Didn’t see that coming.

Next, an unpleasant cliché arises in the form of Statham as a misunderstood suspended cop who seems to have been a part-time detective and part-time high profile hostage negotiator. Whatever. He was suspended because the mayor’s daughter got shot.

The bad guys use feints within feints to escape and the not very interesting investigation begins. Ryan Phillipe is pretty good as a slightly newer cliché – the college educated detective. Of course HIS FATHER was a legendary hero cop, killed in the line of duty, who everyone including Statham respected. I’m stuck on a plane and I could write this shit.

So where is Waddell in all this? She’s detective Teddy Calloway, plaything of both Captain Jenkins (normally watchable Henry Czerny) and Statham. She enters the story in bed, ala Jaqueline Bissett in Bullitt, but she will eventually get out of it and deliver some bland dialogue and the occasional meaningful look. In fact, all the reaction shots are so clumsy and stilted they feel like they were done on different days by Peoria’s Number One Newscam or something.

We will then follow Statham for nearly an hour and a half as he locks his jaw and drifts in and out of his native accent, and seeks out clues about the identity of Snipes. Guess what? They knew each other.

As the plot convolutes even further there is money taken from a police evidence room, crooked cops, a suicide, and Waddell gets one slightly funny line at the end, “Did we all get shot today?” As it happens, yes, all four major police characters get shot, each one of them in the arm or shoulder. At least two of them get to boss the EMT around so that he will presumably stop rendering aid before they lose their manhood. Great googly-moogly this willfully, nay - with gusto - sucks ass.

Here Waddell takes over Sigourney Weaver’s part in Galaxy Quest. “According to our computers….”

But Galaxy Quest was a comedy.

A lotta things blow up. Snipes goes through about a hundred high capacity clips, one bullet at a time – and talks a lot. There is a motorcycle chase, two interrogation scenes, an approximately 19 year-old female coroner who instantly hints at oral sex for Phillipe, a discussion of Chaos Theory, a long expository ending, etc. You’ve seen it all before. At some point it ends.
By the time she was 20, Waddell had starred in three BBC films as Tess of The Durbervilles, Estella in Great Expectations, and the aforementioned Wives and Daughters, which puts her in the same league as Kate Beckinsale. But then she went to Hollywood and was in the very poor Dracula 2000 with Gerard Butler. He wound up a star, and she wound up here. For all I know she’s been off having babies with drummers, but how did it come to this?

Around this time she was also in Thr3e which is a slightly better movie but didn’t serve her well. Neither did the kind of interesting, The Fall, in which she was barely allowed to speak. So what’s left is an all-Russian dialogue horror movie that isn’t available on Netflix or Amazon, and, somewhat hopefully, Killing Bono, which I haven’t seen.

Here she is interviewed at 36 – still smokin’ hot – describing how she learned her all-Russian lines more or less phonetically.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

2014. 123 min. PG-13; intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence
IMDB says...The world's most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity's scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.

The 73rd Virgin says...I’ve never been a fan of the franchise, and I always avoid movies where “restoring the balance” enters the dialog, and I’m suspicious of movies with “an international cast of stars”, not to mention one of the Olsen twins, but director Gareth Edwards made the third-best monster movie of the century (aptly titled “Monsters”, 2010), a low-budget near masterpiece. So I was interested in what he would do with a big budget.

The cast is a mixed bag. Aside from the wearyingly ubiquitous Bryan Cranston (in a bad hairpiece covering up his Breaking Bad shave-job, presumably), there is 50 year-old international art-house star Juliette Binoche (in a fright wig, perhaps to offset Cranston) as a nuclear plant emergency response team leader and Cranston’s wife and mother to their disturbingly young son, Ford. All-purpose insert-a-Japanese Ken Watanabe is the anodyne mirror image of Raymond Burr in the 1954 original – the furrow-browed scientist from another country, always near the power center but never in charge – along with BBC favorite Sally Hawkins as his furrow-browed English side-kick.

A blessedly short and creative credits roll offers early encouragement. As we open, it’s 1999 in the Philippines and furrow-browed scientists are exploring a sink-hole which contains an impossibly huge skeleton and something like an egg. From there to a Japanese nuclear power plant which is picking up strangely rhythmic seismic activity. We watch its destruction - one of those destructions where the only radio chatter is between husband and wife - and then we jump to today where little Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is now an EOD (explosive ordnance device) expert for the Navy, with a wife and son in San Francisco.

All set? It will come to light that the exclusion zone contaminated by the power plant destruction is no longer radioactive and is isolated for more nefarious reasons. It seems that ancient monsters actually feed off of radiation. Fair enough. My belief is suspendable to that extent. But then we learn that these ancient monsters that evolved billions of years ago also evolved electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) devices in their front legs. I’m still pondering what selection pressure supported THAT genetic trait.

Ford will be considered essential to the furrow-browed scientists because he knows the word “echolocation”, and they knew his dad, and he happens to be to hand when the bad ancient monster leaves its nest and heads for San Francisco. Scientists and Ford wind up on the Navy carrier USS Saratoga admiraled by David Strathairn. Could there be a worse actor to portray an admiral? At least since Anthony Perkins died? A flat-top haircut does not an admiral make.

Finally, they hatch a plan; use nuclear warheads as bait to draw all the monsters (balance restorers and balance destroyers) to a spot 20 miles off the coast of San Francisco (why not 40?), and then use another warhead to destroy them. But the warheads have to be transported from Las Vegas by train (by the Navy? – not sure) and EOD expert Ford needs to go along to arm, or perhaps disarm, or perhaps disarm and then re-arm one of two – or perhaps three – warheads. So he scrounges up a full uniform and tactical gear.

Ford’s Navy wife (Elizabeth Olsen) is smart enough to be an ER nurse, but not smart enough to keep her cell phone nearby while watching newscasts of Honolulu’s destruction, in case her missing husband might call. And when he finally reaches her, full in the knowledge that monsters are coming from the west and nuclear weapons are coming from the east, he says something like, “I’m coming to get you”. I dunno. I’m thinkin’ maybe, “get out of there and we’ll talk later.”

No matter. As my wife observed, there is almost no tension in any of the intertwining stories. Godzilla really is there to “restore balance” as Watanabe is forced to say at least twice. He also intones about “man’s arrogance”, thinking that we can control nature. Or, say, fix global warming by regulating back yard barbecues and lawn mowers.

But it’s really not awful. The second half gets a lot more action, and director Edward’s skill for mixing big strokes with finely observed side-details begins to overcome the very dodgy script. There is at least a very pretty moment as Navy paratroopers – I think – do a “Halo insert”, that is skydive down into a monster fight to the tune of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”, straight out of 2001. Silent jets, disabled by EMPs, dropping into the ocean is a pretty creepy effect as well. And he allows long sequences of muted sound and music to add some dignity to the proceedings.

The special effects are good enough that we really don’t need the rainstorm that enshrouds the final monster fight. And the whole mess is only two hours. If you don’t overthink it, as I obviously did, you won’t be too bored.

But in the end, it just makes me want to see The Host or Cloverfield again.

And the preview...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu)

2013, 126 min. PG-13 for some disturbing images and (oh, for God’s sake) smoking
IMDB says... A look at the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II.

The 73rd Virgin says... If you’ve reached an age where you say to yourself, “gosh, it’s been too long since I’ve seen an animated movie about a heroically good-hearted, soft-spoken, near-sighted, Japanese engineering genius who visits Nazi Germany and then designs the fighter plane that terrorizes Asia and the Pacific from 1940 to 1945, combined with a touching gentle love story about his marriage to a consumptive young woman, with dream sequences involving Italian Count Caproni – and lots of Schubert ”, then here you go. It is enormously complex, thoughtful, and shaded.

A little boy with thick glasses wakes up on a sunny morning and climbs up a hill to a little fanciful airplane powered by tea pots and takes off into the blue sky. He observes above massive fanciful aircraft powered by oars, out of which drop grey lumpen monsters. I’m thinking, “We’ve seen ALL this before Hayao – got anything new?”

As it happens, yes. I suspect the (forever getting ready to retire) animation director Hayao Miyazaki is winking at us, and saying, “now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…”.

We will soon be following the very loose approximation of the life of master aeronautical engineer, Jirô Horikoshi, based on Miyazaki’s manga. This is not biography.

Like all Miyazakis, it’s filled with detailed side-of-the-frame visual grace notes that immerse you more than most computer animation could ever hope to. The classical music playing on the Victrola is next to an empty record sleeve that confirms Beethoven; the record has a red Columbia Records logo. While rescuing a young quake victim with a broken leg, Jiro splints the leg with, what else? A slide rule – with numbers lovingly detailed into place. In an Ozu-like sequence, the young over-worked husband falls asleep in his suit and tie next to his wife’s “floor” bed. The frame is still for a very long time; then she slowly shifts her comforter over both of them.

Note that this comes out under Disney’s Touchstone imprint with no mention of Disney anywhere on the posters. Maybe it’s the 1923 Tokyo earthquake sequence with thousands of refugees in the foreground and the huge fires that left 100,000 dead in the background. Maybe it’s the matter-of-fact description of Japan’s interwar militarism and off-hand references to their utterly bestial behavior in Manchuria and China. Maybe it’s the girl from the cover art standing on a classic Miyazaki wind-blown sunny hillside suddenly kneeling down and coughing up bright red blood through her hands. Maybe it’s the characters’ constant smoking. The movie has many such moments that should be shocking to our sensibilities but are instead sedate, and not even judgmental.

There is an extended scene devoted to the aerodynamic improvement of flush-mounted rivets.

Dark foreshadows abound. The same fires towering over Tokyo after the 1923 quake, re-appear near the end with US bombers bringing the flame. Along the way, Jiro will fall in with a German pacifist who warmly warns him, “Germany will blow up; Japan will blow up.” For this, Jiro now has “the Thought Police” on his tail and has to finish his groundbreaking war-death machine while in hiding.

In the great one’s canon, I would rate this a little below Princess Mononoke (adult), and My Neighbor Totoro (children), but it's still beautifully difficult.

It opens with an unfamiliar (to me) quote in French from poet Paul Valéry, “The wind is rising...we must attempt to live.” For Miyazaki and his gentle hero, mission accomplished.
The pointless, insufficient trailer is below. 

Blathering on and quoting myself from about a year ago, below:
My first experience with Miyazaki was the children’s masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro from 1988 – before John Lasseter of Pixar and Disney began to make such a fuss over him. Late in his career he was taken under Lassater’s fawning, gushing wing and is now a household name.

I’ve almost become blasé about the beauty of the Ghibli/Miyazaki movies. In total, my children and I must have watched various chapters of the entire canon 150 times. I’m not kidding. There is nothing to compare them to.

Those made for small children involved basically happy stories with only modest crises. And in almost all of them, both parents began the movie alive and stayed that way, too. How these came under the parenticidal Disney logo remains a mystery.

Those made for older children and adults featured fantasy stories, but with complicated flexible antagonists, conflicted heroines, and sometimes quite violent, epic, and doom-clouded storylines, coupled with endings that were still basically happy but left heroines in unresolved conditions, perched between childhood freedoms and adult burdens. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, have apocalyptically violent climaxes, and Castle in the Sky features a mushroom cloud. Disney productions never came close to these battlefields strewn with bodies of fantastical creatures. Happy endings aside, these were high drama mixed with visuals that still have no equal.