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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Posted : 4 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 January 2017 05:58 (A review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children)

By Tim Burton’s own admission his films are never strongest from a narrative perspective, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is dense in unraveling its mythology and nearly elliptical in story focus. It doesn’t matter much though, because Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children gives Burton a chance to bring to life a merry band of misfits and oft-kilter imagery, his two strongest points. Although a nagging sense of 20th Century Fox trying to find a replacement franchise for X-Men lingers throughout, and a sense of Burton’s nightmarish whimsy hovering on autopilot has lingered since Alice in Wonderland (although, Frankenweenie was a glorious high-point).


I’m not entirely sure what the plot involved in Miss Peregrine is exactly, there’s a home for mutants, I mean, peculiars, children born with unusual abilities, led by a headmistress (Eva Green) that can manipulate time and turn into a bird, and a rogue band of adult peculiars who eat eyeballs of the children in effort for immortality and to live outside of the of the time loops. Oh yeah, the peculiars have to leave everything behind to live in a time loop from various eras, with Miss Peregrine’s being stuck eternally in the mid-40s. Oh, and the bad guys are led by Samuel L. Jackson who can shape-shift and has invisible monsters made up of spidery limbs and sharp teeth with no eyes.


Burton’s particular visual eye and mordant humor roars back to life throughout Miss Peregrine, and it’s most enjoyably daffy when we simply sit back and observe the oddities. I mean, we get to watch Eva Green wander around various sets dressed in gorgeous midnight blue gowns, smoke a pipe, and generally be vampy and eccentric. If you can’t get enjoyment out of that, then you may not be the kind of person I would enjoy shooting the shit with.


While exposition and mythology dumps weigh the story down frequently, Burton still gets plenty of chances to fire off his mixture of absurd humor and terror. After the atmospheric opening credits, we immediately jump cut to a sunny expanse of Florida beach, and it feels like a horrific landscape that a tortured soul like Butterfield would want to flee for more eccentric waters. Or the ending battle between good and battle peculiars that finds us watching the spidery monster men fighting with reanimated skeletons, and quicker than you can say Ray Harryhausen, this moment feels ornately bizarre and hilarious in equal doses. The old Burton isn’t dead yet, even if he is buried in layers of corporate synergy lately.


Then there’s the ensemble of quirky supporting players, many of them memorable for their gimmicks than for personality, but it all adds up to a colorful world that’s fun to visit. There’s a girl with a monstrous mouth in the back of her head, a pair of twins who wears masks to cover their gorgon-like faces, an invisible boy who enjoys playing pranks, and a few characters who names I can actually remember! Like Lauren McCrostie’s Olive, a redhead who must wear rubber gloves or burn everything she touches, Finlay MacMillan’s brooding Irish heartthrob Enoch, who can reanimate the dead by placing hearts in their bodies, and Ella Purnell, a young actress who appears stitched together from Burton’s visual obsessions, as Emma, a willowy girl who can control the air.


Granted, reliable players like Judi Dench and Terence Stamp (how is he just now appearing in a Burton film!?) are given too little to do, but we also get the chance to watch Allison Janney, Chris O’Dowd, and Rupert Everett come play in Burton’s quirky cinematic world, and I hope all of them make return trips. And if any leading man seems primed to overthrow Johnny Depp as Burton’s premiere fetish object it has to be Asa Butterfield, who looks like a Burton drawing come to life with his large eyes, pale skin, raven hair, and gangly limbs.


Yet what stuck out most for me was the empathy that Burton brings to these kids. Beneath the aesthetics on display, even in Burton’s weaker efforts his visual acuity and sense of play is always a treat, there’s a real sense of yearning to make an emotional connection, of finding your tribe, of finding acceptance among your peers. After all, this is a film where one of the more memorable sights is of Butterfield pulling Purnell across a beach with a rope as she floats above him for all the tenderness and haunting lyrical qualities it displays. More of that and less of the whiz-bang pyrotechnics next time around, please.

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La La Land

Posted : 4 months, 4 weeks ago on 25 January 2017 03:11 (A review of La La Land)

If La La Land were a person, it would be an eager-to-please, bright sunny person with very little going on behind the eyes. There’s loving nods and references to your idols and objects of obsession, and then there’s pure pastiche stitched together from the better parts of several famous movie musicals but without their emotional context. La La Land is a prime example of a charming time waster, an adequate movie musical that lacks any sense of depth that keeps something like Singin’ in the Rain vibrantly alive.


La La Land steals proudly from Jacques Demy’s musical output, but all of this referencing is missing the melancholy and depth of feeling in its characters. Writer-director Damien Chazelle sure does know how to signify exuberance, but he can’t seem to make us care about any of it. It’s wonderfully sweet, happy, and cute in the moment, but it fades nearly instantly from your memory.


If I sound contrarian to this movie, know that I enjoyed La La Land in the moment, but find its near full frontal assault on awards season slightly baffling. I suppose given the dark temper of 2016 something this light feels like a blissful oasis. There’s several positives to this film, but the strength of other films like Moonlight or Kubo and the Two Strings is how they linger in the mind and heart. La La Land is a sugar rush that’s immediately pleasing before fading from the mind.


At least there’s a few moments of heightened movie-making that are clearly trying for something greater. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling bring their chemistry once more, and their fun repartee as actors does a lot of the heavy lifting for the material. Not that there’s much to lift here. Stone plays an actress who dreams of hitting it big, Gosling plays another of Chazelle’s white jazz savior proxies, and their characters are fun to watch romance and spar together. But this is the extent of what La La Land asks of them.


Stone can carry a tune, and is a pleasing dancer, while Gosling is a gifted actor who should probably lead with his other talents, because musical star is not one of them. Think of how good he is in Lars & the Real Girl, Crazy Stupid Love, or Half Nelson, then watch how adequate he is here. Any number of fellow actors in Gosling’s generation could have given this performance; it lacks his trademark wit and self-effacing charm. His warbling lacks soul, while Stone mugs up a few of her musical moments like a theater kid making good. God, do they try valiantly to bring their characters some soul, but there’s no major arch for them to play, no memorable song for them to belt.


La La Land comes roaring out the gate with an impassioned free-for-all dance number on a Los Angeles freeway, and nothing will top this sequence. The solid colors, almost eye bleeding vibrant and bright, and acrobatic choreography are an adrenaline shot that perk you up immediately. Then the vague sense of fealty creeps in and we’re left with a nagging sense that everything is a flimsy bubble ready to pop at a moment’s notice. Strange considering the depth of feeling Chazelle brought to Whiplash, which had actual thoughts in its brain and characters for its actors to play.


I think it’s because nothing happens in this movie that you can’t see coming from three scenes before. The romance follows the projection of A Star is Born without the tragedy and romance. There’s an extended dream sequence in the end that steals outright from the “Broadway Melody” in Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris’ impressionistic ballet, and a scene where a date starts off with a repertory screening of Rebel Without a Cause and ends with a late night trip to the Griffith Observatory. La La Land is obsessed with proving its bonafides as a prodigal child of movie musicals but forgets to invest some heart, soul, or real feeling while it’s at it. I enjoyed it in the moment, but the second the credits rolled all I could muster as I turned to my friend was an noncommittal, “It was cute.” Naturally, this will probably dominate the Oscars.  

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Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted : 5 months, 1 week ago on 13 January 2017 05:12 (A review of Kubo and the Two Strings)

Fairy tales, for all of their splendor and magic, are built upon mutating tragedy and strife into digestible bits. They wrap their morality plays in sweeping epics of romance, adventure, and rousing entertainment as a way to explain the dangers of everyday life. Kubo and the Two Strings openly plays with these conventions, beginning with Kubo imploring us to pay attention to the stories he tells as they will reflect his journey.


Kubo and the Two Strings is a delicate, nuanced portrait of healing from loss and grief, with a healthy dose of the power of imagination and creativity. Like its brethren Coraline and ParaNorman, Kubo and the Two Strings is another beautiful, emotionally complex stop-motion masterpiece from Laika. With Studio Ghibli temporarily shuttered, Laika is the best animation studio currently in operation. Laika knows that the best animated films, the ones that we continually return to as cultural iconography and hold up as artistic high-water marks, are those that operate at multiple levels.


Like the best of children’s literature (think of Roald Dahl’s books) or films (Pinocchio), Kubo and the Two Strings is not afraid of going dark. A sense of impending peril hovers over Kubo from the first frame until the last. He learns hard lessons about life, and he learns them frequently. I mean, this is a film that opens with his mother getting capsized during a thunderstorm, hitting her head against a rock, and fearing that her infant child possibly drowned. Any other American studio would balk at so dark an introduction, but this is merely prelude to a very rich film.


Mythologies are built upon familial strife where generations must do battle on a grand scale to overcome their conflicts. Kubo is an orphaned Japanese boy who cares for his mother after her injury, and listens intently while she tells him stories about his dead father. He must never go out at night for fear that the Moon King, his grandfather, and wicked aunts will track him down. Much of this is presented as daring adventure and thrilling action, but look deeper for what is going on. Kubo is dealing with the deterioration of a parent, the harm of abusive family members, the dissolution of a family unit, and the pain of losing a loved one. Strong, heady stuff that’s wrapped up in glossy, candy-coated visuals that makes the bitter medicine easier to swallow.


Then there’s the strength of Kubo’s subtler message about using your talents as an outlet for grief. Kubo’s two strings is eventually revealed, and I won’t spoil the surprise, but it has something to do with the musical instrument he plays throughout. This instrument, a shamisen, was a source of magical powers for his mother, and Kubo demonstrates his own developing mastery and sorcery skills by playing the instrument. His origami creations are only hindered by his ability to imagine them.


In the beginning, Kubo uses his limited skills to entertain the villagers with stories of daring samurais battling with horrific monsters and gigantic beasts. By the end, Kubo is able to conjure these pieces of paper into birds that help him fly, a miniature version of his deceased father that acts as moving compass, and generate powerful blasts of magic from the strings. As his ability to process his grief grows, so too does his ability to harness his magical abilities to save himself and his two protectors, a monkey and a beetle-like humanoid. Kubo’s art is his greatest weapon against his tormentors, and the strongest source of healing and calming in his life. It’s a metaphor that’s developed with consummate skill and rich intricate details.


Pieces of culture, namely the myths and stories that are the backbone of it, are strongly felt in the monsters and magical world Kubo encounters. There’s a gigantic red skeleton with swords stuck in its head, an undulating tooth-filled mouth at the bottom of the sea surrounded by yellow eyes, and the Moon Beast, a creature that looks like a combination of a centipede and a Dunkleosteus. Even the frightening twin sisters that chase after Kubo are decorated in Noh masks and long cloaks, looking like a nightmarish anime witches come to three-dimensional life. You can’t help but think back to the whimsical, quirky, ornately designed monstrosities that Ray Harryhausen designed and their eternal influence upon these films while watching these moments.


Kubo and the Two Strings borrows the emotional textures and story structure of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and throws them into a visual world that plays like Hayao Miyazaki remaking an Akira Kurosawa film. These contrasting tones and styles actually merge well together given the strong point-of-view the film contains throughout. Here is a film that earns the description “magical,” not just for the visually delightful ways to entertains us, but the ways it engages every member of the audience at different levels. If I had my way, this would be taking home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature this year.

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The Reluctant Dragon

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 January 2017 04:41 (A review of The Reluctant Dragon)

Worth a watch less a complete film and more as a curio from the most fertile creative period in the Disney studio’s output. The Reluctant Dragon pretends to be an extended behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the Disney animation team makes one of their cartoons, but it’s a scrubbed clean and antiseptic look. This is not a real look into making an animated short or feature, but a scrubbed clean face of a studio in troubled times.


Take for instance that many of the animators and staff that Robert Benchley meets during his wanderings in the studio are actors and day players. At the time, Disney was in the midst of an animator’s strike, and Uncle Walt was a contentious figure among the staff at this point. Dumbo, here glimpsed through a cameo appearance from Casey Jr. and a team of animators studying an elephant model, contains a biting joke about this exact dispute if you know where to look for it.


The Reluctant Dragon also throws a lot of wizardry at the screen in hopes that something will entertain you. To be fair, it does contain a lot of truth about the long, slow process involved in making an animated film, but the actors-as-animators-and-technicians deliver their jargon in awkward bouts. None of these interactions feel remotely plausible, and a cringe-worthy degree of artifice kicks in during these live-action bits. There’s also a change from black-and-white to vivid Technicolor for no discernible reason other than they could do it, so why not.


There is a certain glee in spotting early versions of characters from Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, and a cameo from Bambi as a demonstration of what a completed cell looks like. These charms cannot go unsaid, even some of the material surrounding them is clunky. But everything entertaining about this oddity goes back to animation, which is really the backbone of the Disney industry.


Where The Reluctant Dragon soars is in the four animated segments, which vary in quality but provide more consistent amusement than the rest of the film. “How-To Ride a Horse,” the first of the How-To films starring Goofy, is a hoot. The kinks of later “How-To” shorts have yet to be worked out here, but this feature is off to a solid start. “Baby Weems” is the weakest of the lot. A series of barely animated storyboard drawings, “Baby Weems” is interesting in concept but the story is weak and lacking in several ways, including humor. “Casey Junior” is charming but slight, but the entire sequence involving it is a real winner.


Of course, the best part of the film is the two-reeler short film, “The Reluctant Dragon.” The story involves a book worm, who moves, sounds, and acts a bit like Pinocchio with a developed frontal lobe, helping a fey dragon integrate into the village. It’s just a bizarre story with several fun characters, and a minor delight that plays far breezier and more whimsical than much of the studio’s upcoming output.


The Reluctant Dragon was thrown together to keep revenue coming into the studio after the outbreak of WWII, and it shows. It has less in common with the Golden Era’s immaculate features and far more in common with the Package Years. Its placement is something of a clear signpost of this transition, released just before Dumbo in the same year, a year prior to Bambi and the first of the package films, Saludos Amigos. It’s an odd little curious object, one that has gained cobwebs as a complete package but pieces have found life separately. Then again, that’s something that could be said about the entirety of the Package Years.  

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The Freshman

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 3 January 2017 10:08 (A review of The Freshman)

Everyone knows the basic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock several stories up in Safety Last, but he’s a rarely watched performer. Despite being dubbed the “third genius” of the silent clowns, he frequently disappears behind the towering giants of Keaton and Chaplin. I say all of this to admit that Lloyd was a blind spot for me until very recently, and still I’ve only seen The Freshman.


It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Lloyd has fallen into the crevices, but there’s a slow burning resurgence and appreciation of his work. Thank Criterion in part for their three stellar home video releases, but there’s something deeper at play here. Lloyd’s everyman character, known only as the “Glasses Character,” was a blank projection for the anxieties, hopes, dreams, and fears of the roaring 20s. There’s something refreshing about watching his character barrel through and try to overcome, and there’s something poignant about his blank canvas absorbing the ordinariness of the audience.


Perhaps Lloyd has fallen behind Keaton and Chaplin because his character is not as immediately recognizable as theirs. Chaplin’s mustache, cane, and ill-fitting clothes are immediately recognizable cinematic totems, and Keaton’s large, expressive eyes and immobile facial experiences are a caricature that is consistent across his films. Lloyd is a true everyman, and his comedy is very different from the two of them. Lloyd provides escapism to his audience, but his gags are not the mile-a-minute mixture of pratfalls, sentimentality, and visual wonderment that is found in films like The General or The Gold Rush.


Lloyd was still a great genius, but his comedy was less rapid-fire punchlines then it was a humorous novelistic approach. His gags build slowly, and the entirety of the frame begins to vibrate with his tenderness and neurosis. His everyman, here named Harold Lamb, adopts a fake persona in an effort to charm his fellow classmates in his first year at college. His introductory speech to his fellow students is a study in social awkwardness dialing it up in slow motion until you’re empathetically cringing for him.


Moments like this, where Lloyd’s eager to please and be liked freshman rubs up against cruelty, are common throughout. The Freshman has two sequences that work wonderfully as comedy pieces and short films in their own right. The Fall Frolic is a heady party where the reverie on the screen can be felt as a viewer. Lloyd’s tuxedo is in a constant state of decay and he contorts his body into bizarre positions to mask the quick tailoring needed to repair it. He eventually learns that the entire student body views him as the butt of their jokes, and Lloyd’s cracked face in the storm of adversity is quite humbling and emotive.


The other great scene is the climatic football, because of course it is. The Freshman isn’t the first college-centric movie, nor is it the first to be about football, but it is the first to successful merge these ideas and actions into one film. Lloyd’s blank canvas underdog gets his chance to shine in the Big Game, and manages to come up a winner by being himself and playing slightly dirty. There’s a cavalcade of great gags here, but my favorite has to be the sight of him untying a football to turn it into a yo-yo like object. Instead of basking his character in the love felt for winning the game, but in a love letter and sighing while the shower pours down on him. It is a quiet moment of solace and a light chuckle to end the film on, essentially quieting his anxieties about socializing and the world of college.


Starting afresh is always an anxious proposition, but The Freshman puts it through the proverbial wringer. As a first brush with Harold Lloyd, this is a wonderful introduction to his more low-key personality and comedic genius. He truly was the “third genius,” and if the rest of his work is as good as The Freshman then his reappraisal is long overdue. His bespectacled character is a proxy for all of us, and his eternal optimism and pluck is aspirational.

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Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 2 January 2017 05:11 (A review of Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte)

Restraint is never a word that can be bandied about with Robert Aldrich, but Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is a true spectacle of Grand Guignol camp histrionics. As a spiritual cousin to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is the ghastly eccentric to that film’s richer, scarier pedigree. There’s not as much going on between the ears of this film as Baby Jane, but Sweet Charlotte is one hell of an entertaining piece of trash.


Since this story is also based on a piece of writing by Henry Farrell, the basic gist of Sweet Charlotte’s structure borrows heavily from Baby Jane. There’s a flashback to a horrific event, here the murder of Charlotte’s married lover (Bruce Dern) in her family’s summerhouse during a party. Charlotte discovers her lover’s body, complete with missing hand and head, and returns to the party in a bloodstained dress. Everyone assumes she did it, and her father (Victor Buono, going broad even for him) uses his vast political and economic influence to keep her protected long after his death.


Everyone leaves Charlotte (Bette Davis, in full-on bug-eyed, screeching manic glory) alone to be a town eccentric in her swampy antebellum mansion, a thing that practically screams Southern Gothic decadence in full bloom. That is, they leave her alone until 1964 when the Louisiana Highway Commission intends to demolish her house and build a new highway through the property. Charlotte calls upon her cousin Miriam (Olivia de Havilland, underplaying at first before revving up in the final stretch) to help her battle the Highway Commission and keep the house.


From there, Sweet Charlotte dolls out a series of barely contained secrets, colorful supporting characters, and the atmosphere is that of overheated pulp. The dialog is purple prose, the tone is consistently set at hysteria, and there are some lovely visuals at play here. Check the way Aldrich uses expressionistic lighting and shadows to frame Olivia de Havilland at several key moments, or the way he uses a Vaseline-like filter in a scene where Bette Davis is being gaslit. The entire thing is completely ridiculous and permanently set at eleven, but it’s just so much damn fun!


The entire cast is clearly having a ball getting to go full-tilt crazy throughout. Davis actually modulates her character quite well as she goes brittle and breaks over and over again. She gets shouty and screeching in several spots, but she also lets her large eyes do the heavy-lifting in a few key scenes. Agnes Moorehead chews through several soundstages worth of scenery, and she’s a treat to watch as the butch housekeeper. Joseph Cotten could do oily like no one’s business, and his molasses rich presence here is fun. Mary Astor gives her final screen performance as an old woman with dark secrets waiting to die, and she gives the role more pathos than it probably deserves. With only two scenes, Astor makes for a haunted presence that lingers long after the film is over.


But Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is stolen from all of these stellar actors by Olivia de Havilland. Her role was originally intended for Joan Crawford, and Sweet Charlotte echoes and recycling of elements from Baby Jane is entirely intentional. Depending on which version of the story you believe, or maybe they’re all a bit true, Crawford ended up leaving the production shortly after filming started, either through her own volition or she was fired. Davis called in a favor from her close friend de Havilland, and the role is one of her more memorable for what she brings to it. After playing the good girl so often, it’s practically perverse and shocking to watch de Havilland go bad here. Her cosmopolitan exterior and prim manners are a delightful bait-and-switch, just like variations of the exterior-interior dichotomy were in The Heiress or Gone With the Wind.


Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte’s considerable charms are somewhat hampered by the overindulgent running time, a persistent problem with Aldrich’s films. Sweet Charlotte is overlong, even more ornate and ostentatious than Baby Jane, and broadly kitsch and creepy by turns in documenting Charlotte’s violent break from sanity. Graphic for its time, potently strange to view nowadays, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte is ball of bayou potboiler batshit craziness.

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The Met Opera HD Live: The Magic Flute

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 31 December 2016 08:09 (A review of The Metropolitan Opera HD Live)

 In 2006, Julie Taymor directed this heavily truncated version of Mozart’s famous opera, and the taming of the material leaves the production slightly listless. Not only was a large chunk of material edited out, but also much of it was changed to be more “family friendly.” The Magic Flute feels more akin to a mammoth Disney super-production than the original, more aggressively strange work.


If nothing else, The Magic Flute is another visually audacious and beautiful production from Taymor. All of her hallmarks are here: puppetry, masks, ornate costuming, purposefully anachronistic sets, and rear-projection. The cumulative effect is a full-scale assault on the senses, and Taymor’s gifts for visualizing and imagining are best in a theatrical context. If any material can survive her roof-blowing antics then it’s an opera, something that already demands are certain largeness of scale and proportion.


The fanciful aspects of the production are emphasized here, and it does make for a certain briskness and entertaining value. However, this does leave The Magic Flute incoherent and with a general effect of too much spectacle in service of a thin story. I blame the edits that removed much of the sub-plots involving Pamina and the Three Boys. Given how sharp or atonal the actors playing the Three Boys are throughout, maybe it’s for the best their parts were dwindled down.


For the most part the actors play their roles quite well, with all of them but one singing their faces off to an impressive degree. Nathan Gunn steals the show here, throwing himself into his role with exuberance and joyous hammy theatrics that play well in the opera house, your mileage may very since the camera is more intimate. But the lead role as played by Matthew Polenzani is problematic at best. He sings perfectly well, but he seems lost amid all of the spectacle and awkward in projecting for the stage.


Overall this is a solid production, handsome and lively, but it lacks a certain brio. There’s a chance you too will be befuddled by the hastiness we’re rocketed through the story with. The Magic Flute is another case of Taymor’s vision sacrificing narrative clarity or quiet moments. Her vision is laudable, but her inability to modulate is exhaustive.

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The Tempest

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 31 December 2016 02:19 (A review of The Tempest)

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on/And our little life is rounded with a sleep.”


Julie Taymor’s reading of The Tempest is heavy on the dreams, but light on the second half’s understanding of eventual surrender and quietness. The Tempest is an elegy and a humbling, and the play is one of the richest in both characters and visuals in William Shakespeare’s canon. It’s a damn shame then that Taymor took so much of it literal, fails to modulate her admittedly fervent imagination, and seems completely at odds with the poetic acceptance of mortality.


Taymor’s The Tempest doesn’t just fail to go quietly into the dying light, it doesn’t just rage against it, but goes completely unhinged at every opportunity. Credit must be given for the boldness of her vision, commitment to seeing it through, and moments of grand beauty, but they cannot smooth over the numerous problems of tone and performance. The same problems that plagued Titus plague this Shakespearean run-through, but the major difference is that Titus could contain a persistent tone of extremity much better than this golden sunset.


Sometimes less is really more, and a little bit less of Taymor’s incessant visualizations would go a long way towards taming this thing. Frenzied is the best descriptor of it. Maybe on stage this exact production would work better, but the intimacy of the camera makes the grandiosities assaulting and overbearing to so delicate a work. Even worse is how often the special effects work looks half-finished or just downright terrible. Several instances of rear projection are clearly artificial, and CGI hellhounds are just embarrassingly terrible.


Then there’s the curious case of Ariel in this production. Ariel is a sprite, and Taymor’s decision to paint Ben Whishaw ghostly white and make him translucent and consistently leaving a ghostly trail behind his movement is beautiful. The choice to have Whishaw naked and prone to developing breasts and long hair at random moments is just…well, a bit overheated, like so much of the film. Yet Whishaw’s performance is magical, ethereal, and tender in equal measure. He’s wise to underplay so much of the part and makes smart choices about where and when to go big, like a scene where Ariel appears as a terrifying harpy.


There’s also the unique and smart choice to cast Caliban as a symbol of colonialism’s horrific stain, but Djimon Hounsou never gets the chance to invest tragedy into the part. Taymor sets up a smart idea for Caliban, then does nothing with it and leaves him playing second-fiddle to the two clowns of the piece. Those clowns are played by Alfred Molina, great as always, and Russell Brand, who is surprisingly effective with the language and holds his own in a fairly strong company of actors.


But Hounsou isn’t the only fine actor giving an awkward performance here. Chris Cooper just wasn’t made for Shakespeare I suppose, or perhaps he just wasn’t made for this particular part. Meanwhile, David Strathairn, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, and Felicity Jones are doing their best with limited screen-time or limited acting partners. The long absences of Strathairn, Cumming, and Conti are practically criminal. Jones’ love scenes with Reeve Carney are limp things primarily because Carney is achingly beautiful to look at, but completely miscast for Shakespeare given how awkwardly he handles what little dialog they left for him to recite.


As any adaptation of The Tempest is meant to do, Helen Mirren dominates this one in the gender-swapped role of Prospera. Surprisingly, very little changes to the source material by flipping the central role around this way, but Mirren gives a knockout of a performance. Of course, Mirren acing Shakespeare is a given, but she plays a full range of emotions here with commitment and tenderness. Her relationship with Ariel is richer here, as Mirren treats Ariel more as a companion and less as a servant. She nurtures the part and rides it into the big finish with a soulful demonstration and a smashing of her magical scepter.


The Tempest is a garden of good ideas without someone to nurture them into blossoming. Too many images and costuming call attention to themselves, too many choices make promises that the film cannot keep. There’s some lovely performances, a couple of tremendously exciting visual stimuli, and a lot of aiming for the highest peak even when a moment doesn’t require it.   

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Across the Universe

Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 31 December 2016 02:18 (A review of Across the Universe)

Who needs a plot when you can arrange 33 songs by the Beatles in random order and have a series of talented performers do them in a bunch of loosely connected music videos revue style? This is very similar to Mamma Mia, a hastily assembled collage of memorable pop tunes lacking a memorable or even serviceable story. There’s also the triteness of Forrest Gump, our small band of youths just so happen to take part in every single major movement and moment of the turbulent 60s.


Across the Universe is only as good as any singular moment since there’s not a clichéd story that Taymor doesn’t use, nor is there a character that exists beyond a mere sketch. Hell, most of these characters feel like they’re named or brought in just to provide an excuse for another song. There’s our leads Jude and Lucy, Max, Sadie, Prudence, and a nearly uncountable number of groan inducing puns and references. Well, thank god for the soundtrack at the very least.


Like many of Taymor’s film, Across the Universe is both aggressively literal-minded and a potent example of ambition exceeding execution. The chaos of Prudence wandering through football practice while singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a nifty idea, until you realize that it doesn’t look anything like football practice but very heavily choreographed dancing. While a bowl of strawberries is the inspiration for, ugh, do I even have to finish this sentence? You damn well know what song it is.


What’s shocking is how many of the sequences demonstrate Taymor modulating her artistic impulses. “It Won’t Be Long” works for the pop-rock girlishness and joy that Evan Rachel Wood invests into it. While “I’ve Just Seen a Face” primarily takes place in a bowling alley and effectively visualizes the thrill of falling in love and “Helter Skelter” uses simplistic special effects and Dana Fuchs’ throat-shredding howl to maximum effect. The best of these moments is “Let It Be,” which contrasts race riots with the Vietnam War, takes the gospel underpinnings of the track and dials them up to eleven. It’s a moment of deeply felt emotional honesty and rawness, a moment that Across the Universe could have used more of.


These provide a nice counter-balance to the moments where Taymor goes full-throttle visually audacious. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a psychedelic collage of puppetry, vintage circus advertisements, and asymmetrical perspectives. Oh, and Eddie Izzard cameos as Mr. Kite leading a dance troupe of Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” finds Uncle Sam, G.I. Joes, and newly drafted young men carrying the Statue of Liberty across a clearly artificial Vietnam jungle in a politically loaded sequence. Then there’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” performed in a hospital with a multiplying Salma Hayek dressed as a sexy nurse. These moments stand out for the right reasons, and work just as effectively as short films in their own right.


The actors are valiant throughout, performing all of their songs with conviction and holding their own against a series of guest stars. Joe Cocker, one of the great interpreters of the Beatles, shows up in a triptych of performances during “Come Together,” it’s cute and fun to see him having fun with the classic. Bono proves a bit distracting as Dr. Robert during “I Am the Walrus,” mainly for the strange speaking voice he adopts and hammy acting. It’s a pity that Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy aren’t given enough to perform, despite being clearly brought in to act as proxies for Janis Joplin and a hybrid of Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix, they have the best musical chops out of the major players. Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, and Evan Rachel Wood are all uniformly solid, and all of them display strong singing voices. The entire cast harmonizes beautifully on “Because,” “Dear Prudence,” and “All You Need Is Love.”


Taymor is too idiosyncratic of an artist to leave Across the Universe totally unsuccessful as an exercise, but not enough of the material engages with the songs in any meaningful way. She clearly had a lot of ideas about how to visual them, and it is audacious in its grand ambitions. But ambition can only go so far when it’s tethered to so much silliness and excessive style. Taymor is a visionary artist, but I wonder if she knows how to pivot her considerable gifts and never-ending imagination for the more intimate style that filmmaking provides.

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Posted : 5 months, 3 weeks ago on 31 December 2016 02:15 (A review of Frida)

When this project was originally shopped around town in the 1980s, no one in Hollywood knew much about the iconoclast artist Frida Kahlo. It was considered as a prestige project for an actress like Meryl Streep or Jessica Lange, very obvious choices for a proudly Mexican woman who wore the traditional garments of her culture. Thankfully, these versions, including ones that nearly starred Laura San Giacomo, Madonna, Marisa Tomei, and Jennifer Lopez, all failed or stalled out in development hell and we were blessed with this passionate, fiery one.


Frida was the dream project of star/producer Salma Hayek, and she spent the better part of her earliest career chasing the various film productions and trying to star in them. Eventually, through sheer determination, pluck, and smart career moves, Hayek obtained the rights to Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s paintings, got Harvey Weinstein and Miramax to purchase the rights, and chased down Alfred Molina and Julie Taymor to co-star and direct. Hayek’s love and passion for the project is palpable throughout, and she brings out strong work in all of her collaborators.


Yes, the film’s script is loaded with the problems typical to any biopic, but Frida works hard to overcome and garnish them. The film finds the direct lines of autobiography in her art, and uses Kahlo’s famous statement about never painting dreams or illusions but her own life as a way to wrestle with her work and obsessions. Even better is how vibrant and heavily present the culture, symbols, and textures of Mexico are in the film. Frida goes a long way towards adding considerable flavor to more routine moments, even transforming a few sequences into grand surrealist poetry.


Take the ways that Taymor utilizes about a dozen of Kahlo’s more famous paintings and uses them demonstrate the emotional catharsis or understanding of the artist. The harrowing sequence were Kahlo miscarries ends with her sitting up in her hospital bed, emotionally placid, and painting as a way to exorcise the pain and horror of what she’s just experienced. After marrying Diego Rivera, Hayek and Molina are posed in a manner that directly echoes her famous painting of the pair, and it functions are a moving wedding photo. These are but a handful of the strange, oneiric moments where Kahlo engages with her paintings, either by stepping directly into them or by transitioning out of them. 


I previously mentioned how Frida uses the culture of Mexico in deep and meaningful ways at several points, and one of the most prominent comes very early in the film. The bus accident that leaves Kahlo scarred and crippled for life transitions into a stop-motion sequence from the Brothers Quay using Day of the Dead totems as doctors reassembling her spine. It’s a nightmare turned absolutely beautiful in the ways it positions us inside of Kahlo’s mindscape, and it uses the culture of Mexico to add vibrancy and imagination to a terrifying moment. Even better is the cameo from Chavela Vargas, one of Kahlo’s many lovers, belting out “La Llorona” over a montage of Kahlo’s final days. This is a direct connection to the artist, and turns Vargas and “La Llorona” into a siren call from approaching death.


No story about Frida Kahlo would be complete or feasible without also detailing aspects of Diego Rivera’s life. These two artists were instrumental to each other during the peak period of their artistic and political lives, acting as lovers, adversaries, champions, and kindred spirits. The potential for actors to dig deep and provide several fireworks is written into the lifeblood of the roles, but Hayek and Molina prefer to play it all real and not as entombed icons.


This was Hayek’s “role of a lifetime,” and she excels at every turn, from the bright schoolgirl to the tortured wife to the political activist to the towering artist. Hayek finds the reality in every twist and turn, and was rightly nominated for a slew of awards for her work here. Not content with just starring in and acting as a midwife to the production, Hayek even recreated some the paintings in the film. Frida was her chance to break out of the Latin sex bomb archetype that Hollywood had encased her in, and her post-Frida career is far more interesting for the artistic cachet it brought her.


Matching her every step of the way if Alfred Molina. He’s her equal in every measure here, and he creates a Diego Rivera that is by turns charming and a bastard. During her lifetime, Rivera was the well-known and prominent artist, and Molina plays him as such, but also adds tender grace notes that hint that he knew time would cause her work to eclipse his own. Think of the scene where he stares at Kahlo’s notebook after having her feet removed, and Molina’s face is one of pure love and sympathy, supportive and empathetic. Where was the love for Molina’s performance during the awards season? At least BAFTA, SAG, and a few critics groups were smart enough to throw some nominations and accolades his way.


These two provide the anchor and support of the Frida, around which a small galaxy of impressive visuals and big name guest stars orbit (OK, maybe Ashley Judd’s cameo as Tina Modotti is an odd bum note). The cinematography is possessed with bright greens, blues, and reds, the score by Elliott Goldenthal deservedly won an Oscar, and the entire production is handsome as ever. Perhaps I’m too enamored with Frida, I admit it has faults, but I simply do not care. It dives into Kahlo’s psyche and gives us many an incident and anecdote to tackle, many a glorious image to drink in, and a pair of lives rich with passion and brains to marvel at.

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