28 February 2011

Forget the Oscars, Let's Dance

Last night I watched James Franco with a grimace then a smile as he deep sixed his status as Hollywood's It Boy.  All the while I was thinking: by god, there's not enough dancing at the Oscars this year.
This is probably because I'd just enjoyed two recent films that prove closing with a dance number can be a brilliant gambit. (Close confidants already know I have a soft spot for this guilty pleasure.)
But in the current cinema, check out Giorgos Lanthimos' excellent climax to Dogtooth:

Like many of the emotionally deadpan sequences in the film, this starts out tittering and finishes sinister. And that's before the next scene, in which the older daughter (the sister who dances longer) uses a barbell for something other than its intended purpose. The static long shots emphasize the way the camera (and the viewer) can't seem to turn away from the bizarre machinations of this family.

Next we have Andrea Arnold and her (I'm using this word in all honesty) breathtaking finale to Fish Tank:
Here's two more sisters that need to get out of dodge. Mia, in her standard monochromatic clothes, centers the screen and is brought for the last time between her colorful mother and younger sister. It's rather silly to post it in this space, of course, with no other context from the film. But you must see it or see it again--Fish Tank is The 400 Blows in our time.

22 February 2011

Have You Seen...? #3 (The Last Days of Disco)

If you haven't already, see Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco for the beautiful title alone. The rocking tonic of it puts you at ease straight away. And Stillman is never less than at ease (be sure you see Metropolitan too), somewhere in between the delirious romantic comedies of the 30's and self-contained worlds of Wes Anderson.

I'm a pretty even mix of prudish and voyeuristic impulses so The Last Days of Disco gives me an ideal heroine: Alice (Chloe Sevigny). With her new best friend she embarks on a life as a slush pile reader for a stodgy publishing company, unhappy shotgun apartment resident and devotee of a Studio 54 stand-in referred to only as The Club. In the course of the film Alice becomes increasingly disillusioned but never less than demure. You'll be beguiled by Ms. Sevigny's beauty and try hard to push from your mind the overwhelming image (from Brown Bunny) of Vincent Gallo's semen trickling out the sides of her mouth.

The great regret of the film is that Alice's catty friend Charlotte is played by Kate Beckinsale and not Parker Posey. I picture her in filtered images like the one above, where you can squint and imagine the star of The House of Yes. For advanced viewers, familiar enough with the cadence of her voice that hearing it is second nature, turn down the volume and imagine that Ms. Posey is delivering Charlotte's hard-edged words under those dark forelocks (e.g. "Anything I did that was wrong, I apologize for. But anything I did that was not wrong, I don't apologize for.").

All of Alice and Charlotte's potential mates are cads, but the most extreme is Des, (Chris Eigeman, not seen nearly enough), the consistent Oscar Wilde figure in Stillman's work. All his lines feel clever and offhand, such as, "I'm going to turn over a new leaf in Spain. I'm going to turn over several new leaves," but Des is always sucked back into his nebulous job at the Club. There he runs into various exes, who are upset when they learn that he's not gay after all (Des' game is to break up with women by claiming he's just realized his homosexuality).

I appreciate Stillman most for employing heightened, well-enunciated dialogue that is disarming, perhaps not strictly believable, but actual good writing. As opposed to the mumbling "authenticity" of a certain genre of indie cinema at present, the forces that have conspired to present us Greta Gerwig as a star.

I firmly believe that The Lady and the Tramp debate scene, a close cousin to the Smurfs sequence in Donnie Darko, should be canonized. Des' somewhat less caddish lawyer pal Josh (Matt Keeslar) holds forth on the hidden meanings of the animated canines. A taste:

There is something depressing about it, and it's not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types, which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond Cocker Spaniel with absolutely nothing on her brain. She's great-looking, but--let's be honest--incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest, is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind--an oily jailbird out for a piece of tail, or... whatever he can get.

Precisely! I knew there was a reason I never liked that Disney offering.

I figured I hadn't seen a Whit Stillman film since The Last Days of Disco because of my general ignorance but it turns out I haven't seen a new Stillman film because he hasn't made one in 13 years. IMDb says he's filming a certain Damsels in Distress right now but, unconscionably, without Chris Eigeman.

Still, The Last Days of Disco lingers with the recursivity of the dance floor--Alice's everlasting shyness, looking away as her arms go up. The camera stays in a long shot, showing the community of dancers, not just the stars. And, as proven by countless wedding parties, the sweetly schizophrenic Josh is right: disco is forever.

19 February 2011

My Life Story as Written by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer

I'm only on page 3 but this is relevant to my interests:

  After the movie Linda and I stood under the marquee and talked to the manager, or rather listened to him tell his troubles: the theater was almost empty, which was pleasant for me but not for him. It was a fine night and I felt good. Overhead was the blackest sky I ever saw; a black wind pushed the lake towards us. The waves jumped over the seawall and spattered the street. The manager had to yell to be heard while from the sidewalk speaker directly over his head came the twittering conversation of the amnesiac and the librarian. It was the part where they are going through the newspaper files in search of some clue to his identity (he has a vague recollection of an accident). Linda stood by unhappily. She was unhappy for the same reason I was happy--because here we were at a neighborhood theater out in the sticks and without a car (I have a car but I prefer to ride buses and streetcars). Her idea of happiness is to drive downtown and have supper at the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel. This I am obliged to do from time to time. It is worth it, however. On these occasions Linda becomes as exalted as I am now. Her eyes glow, her lips become moist, and when we dance she brushes her fine long legs against mine. She actually loves me at these times--and not as a reward for being taken to the Blue Room. She loves me because she feels exalted in this romantic place and not in a movie out in the sticks.

Except I would have driven, naturally.

16 February 2011

Three Times: The King's Speech

Three reasons to begrudge The King's Speech for existing:

1. The key line in the poster above: "Based on the Incredible True Story." It should read: "Man with Infinite Resources Overcomes Stammer." Very credibly.

2. The King's Speech is a transparent, awards-grabbing "prestige picture." With all caveats about how the Oscars are a joke anyway, it would be a shame if, in a year when America produced two excellent films (The Social Network and Winter's Bone), the biggest award went to a profoundly mediocre British movie. The Academy is also locked into a pattern of awarding "make up call" Best Actor and Actress statuettes to people who probably should have gotten Oscars before. In this case I'm almost okay with it, as Colin Firth (as the only-interesting-because-he-stutters King Bertie) will win even though he really earned his award for A Single Man last year. Geoffrey Rush, as the speech (and several other kinds of) therapist Lionel Logue, could well pull down Best Supporting for general cheeky Australianess.

3. The entirety of the film is contained in the trailer. For viewers with even a passing familiarity with 20th century English history and the conventions of the biopic genre, there is not a single surprise in The King's Speech. And all the big, "meaningful" lines are in the preview as well (many of these are terrible, see below).

Three visual elements that confirm Tom Hooper should stick to directing television:

1. There's one laughable shot where Bertie's head is entirely blocked from view by a gramophone. The irony! Only the machine can make itself heard!

2. The fact that we cut and back and forth to a kettle on the fire as Lionel (literally!) brings his first conversation with Bertie to a boil.

3. Hooper waffles between different visual styles from sequence to sequence. In what I can only assumes are attempts at grandeur, he frequently employs a retreating camera for long shots.  Except the camera doesn't track backwards smoothly, nor does it bounce up and down quite enough for a true handheld feel. Everything he does, he does in half measures. Even simple two shots of characters talking are poorly framed right into the actors' jowls.

Three most wince-inducing lines of dialogue in The King's Speech:

1. Lionel: "Why should I waste my time listening to you?"
Bertie: "Because I have a voice!"
Lionel: "...Yes, you do."

2. [royal family inexplicably watching clip of Hitler speechifying]
Little Girl: "What's he saying?"
Bertie: "I don't know but... he seems to be saying it rather well."

3. Lionel [to Bertie in regards to a King George V coin on the table]: "You don't need to carry him around in your pocket."

Three reasons we should have seen a film starring Guy Pearce instead:

1. Guy Pearce plays the reluctant King Edward VIII, whose life is actually interesting. While we worry about how Bertie pronounces words beginning with "P," Edward provides the pithy response, "kinging," to a query about how he's spending his time. His answer points to the two proper activities for onscreen royalty: nation building and fornicating.

2. Edward's lady of Shanghai, Wallis Simpson, is played by Eve Best with the sauciness we used to see from Helena Bonham Carter, wasted as Bertie's boring scold of a wife. The best sequence in the film is centered on Edward and Wallis, clearcutting ancient firs and scouring the ancestral mansion for the best bottle of champagne.
3. But I'll be honest. I really love Pearce in The King's Speech for his natty attire. His aviator outfit is a sheepskinned dream, his tweeds hang just so and my foremost life goal is to one day own a cabled sweatervest half as luxurious as his.

14 February 2011

Two Blushing Pilgrims

Because I am a hugely romantic person, I decided the best preparation for this Valentine's Day would be taking in a Gnomeo & Juliet and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet double feature. The former was a sparsely attended screening (and, yes, I did feel the ticket taker judged me for going to see Gnomeo) and the latter was a midnight screening with a nice mix of couples and perverted nighttime wanderers.

You might be shocked to learn that Gnomeo & Juliet is not a good film. Kelly Asbury has managed to direct a movie that antagonizes Shakespeare from start to finish, in spite of the permanently blushing gnomes of the title. After beginning by calling Romeo and Juliet a "boring" play, he refuses the Bard's language in favor of sub-Shrekian howlers from "let's go kick some grass!" to "a weed by any other name is still a weed." Not even appearances from garden gnome Elton John help very much. Full disclosure: I did not see Gnomeo in 3D, which might have made all the difference...

I'll move to the only element of the film that is not instantly forgettable: Mercutio's role is (perhaps?) filled by a pink lawn flamingo named Featherstone, a somewhat inspired character. He seems a broad caricature of a Hispanic homosexual in the manner of Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage but, to my great fascination, Featherstone is given a backstory in which he is paired with another pink flamingo. This second flamingo, who never speaks, is differentiated from Featherstone by its mascara'd eyes. It is absurd to think that Featherstone would be paired with a straight female lawn ornament so I got to thinking of possible explanations for this lost love. It occurred to me that the other flamingo could be made up in drag. If I had a chance to interview Asbury, this is the only question I would ask about the film.     

I first saw Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet in the most appropriate setting: a freshman English class in high school. That was half a lifetime ago and, as I recall, there was actual Leo-induced swooning by some of my classmates those sunny afternoons.

Much criticism of Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet places it in contrast to Franco Zeffirelli's well-loved 1968 version. I found myself oddly defensive of the newer film though, perhaps because we all get defensive about our sentimental youth. The most amusing part of the 1996 reviews is the vicious critique of Luhrmann's "MTVification" of the story (how quaint to remember when MTV played music videos). The frantic, small screen style of the editing is richly nuanced compared to what the channel might inspire today--a reality TV Romeo cast on the Jersey Shore.

Certain engaging details emerge when you're not watching Romeo + Juliet on a 20 inch TV from across a classroom. Benvolio has tanlines from his shoulder holster and Mercutio's Queen Mab speech is capped by the Montagues sampling Ecstasy. I was pleased to see that "Post Haste" delivery services fail to leave important packages at your home just as regularly as UPS. And, although I'm in favor of gun control, the "Swords" and "Daggers" are pretty awesome with their custom pearl inlaid grips blinged with Roman Catholic iconography.

What's not awesome is the diction of all the actors in the film except the dearly departed Pete Postlethwaite, with whom some hint of iambic pentameter remains. I understand nothing Mercutio says (on a perhaps related note I don't recall seeing Harold Perrineau in a film since) but Luhrmann frequently has his characters repeat key lines so we get a second chance at comprehension.

The reason to see the film are the moments of greatness concentrated in the first half hour. I struggle to think of a scene that better conveys love at first sight than the aquarium meeting of DiCaprio's Romeo and Danes' Juliet. The tears made of tropical fish. The doomed ballad "Kissing You" from Des'ree. The obscenely handsome baby Leo. The frenetic wonder of the camera.

Back to my 14-year-old ride home on the number 3 bus, reading my Folger edition of Romeo and Juliet. I got to Act 1 Scene 4 and the star-crossed lovers (I thought about how someone had actually coined that term!) started their Elizabethan flirting. "My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand / To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."

No matter how you feel about Luhrmann or DiCaprio or Shakespeare, you have to admit: Romeo had some game.