Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly is rarely less than intriguing, but also very rarely more than that. It seems resolved to refuse us such mundane elements as suspense or intensity, and so we’re left with its unusual visuals, and with an idea or two, but not much plot or character.

Ironically, Richard Linklater’s first foray into this variety of stylized animation/live action hybrid, Waking Life, was much more exciting, even though it consisted primarily of talking heads, a plotless series of philosophical duets, rather like mini-My Dinner with Andre-style conversations. Here, with the action based on an apparently more or less faithful adaptation of a novel by science fiction master Philip K. Dick, the storytelling gets lost in some kind of fog. This may intentionally mirror the mind-altering effects of the addictive drug that is the center of the plot, but it’s not much fun for an audience. (There were several walkouts at the showing I attended.)

Keanu Reeves, who has been sleepwalking through many roles for quite some time, is well cast as the somnambulist hero – although I’m not sure if that’s a compliment. Robert Downey, Jr., is much more riveting as a duplicitous, hyper addict. He’s almost the only interesting character, in fact.

The visual handling of a plot element in which undercover cops wear high-tech disguises that constantly morph their appearance, so that they look like everyone and no one and can’t be identified, at first seems imaginative but rather rapidly becomes annoying. And the last couple of scenes seem unnecessarily ambiguous and difficult to follow. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional; and by that point it may not matter to some viewers.

Linklater is a gifted director who has given us at least one masterpiece (Before Sunrise), and who hardly ever repeats himself. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.

Spring Awakening: an off-Broadway musical

The young actors are dressed as teenage German schoolboys in the 1890s, sitting rigidly in Latin class. Their frustration with the demands and insults from their strict schoolmaster are evident. Then one of the boys reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a wireless mike, and begins to belt out a vivid and very 21st-century pop-rock song. The other boys pull out their own mikes and join him. It’s a startling moment, exhilarating, thrilling. And many of the musical numbers that follow are also brilliantly staged and pulsing with energy. They provide some of the most exciting performances I’ve seen on stage in some time.

The idea of juxtaposing Frank Wedekind’s famous play about adolescent repression and rebellion from more than a century ago with a contemporary, rather Rent-like rock score is aesthetically bold. I wish I could say it was more than that. But once the plot and characters begin to become clear, the production becomes progressively less interesting. The dialogue (excerpted from the original) and the songs, for the most part, don’t add to each other or comment on each other – they seem to exist on different planes, and the sum is much less than the parts.

The performers seem to have been cast foremost as singers, and most of them are marvelous at that, although they are far less surefooted with the lines. Most impressive is John Gallagher Jr. as the doomed second lead Moritz. A hopeless nerd when he speaks, he expresses his growing frustration and rage in his songs, the hardest-rocking and funniest in the show (they provide the only real synergy between the plot and the music). Also excellent is Jonathan B. Wright as Hanschen, a sensualist and a gay seducer full of sly wit. Wendla, the lead female character, is well played by Lea Michele, who opens the show with the haunting “Mama Who Bore Me,” a wistful ballad that doesn’t entirely prepare the audience for the more eye-opening (and louder) numbers to come. Melchior, the lead character, is more problematic. In a role that calls for intensity and charisma, the very handsome Jonathan Groff gives us rather wan slickness instead. Not a bad belter, he falters in the ballads which ought to break our hearts.

The plot elements and characters that caused the play to be censored and banned for decades – masturbation, teenage sex and pregnancy, masochism, budding homosexuality, suicide, and a botched abortion, watched over and abetted by oblivious or malevolent parents and teachers – left me cold. This can’t have been the intention, obviously. It’s hard to say if a straightforward production of Wedekind’s play would work with contemporary audiences who have grown up with such descendants of Spring Awakening as Rebel without a Cause, West Side Story, The Graduate, Hair, Rent. But in this context, the play is just a framework that keeps getting in the way of the songs. Duncan Sheik is the composer; Steven Sater did the less satisfying lyrics and the book.

Still, the musical staging and performances are so good that the show is well worth seeing. Director Michael Mayer and choreographer Bill T. Jones both do superb work. Currently in the intimate space of the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea, the show will be moving to Broadway next season. I’m not sure how comfortable it will be in a larger theater, and it’s certain to lose some of its power. But I do hope more people get to experience the considerable excitement. If only that excitement carried through to the end of act two.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


This is a new opera by Elliot Goldenthal, staged by his life partner Julie Taymor, based on John Gardner's novel, which reimagined Beowulf from the monster's point of view. I enjoyed some aspects of it very much, but found it a mixed bag overall. The first half-hour in particular was too monochromatic both musically and visually for my taste. The arrival of a blind-bard character called The Shaper livened things up considerably...as did a mezzo-soprano Dragon, the highlight of the evening. (She had a tail impersonated delightfully by three 'back-up singer' sopranos.)

This must be the first opera I've ever seen in which the poetry of the libretto was so good that it outshone the music. Nonetheless I found the metaphysical musings unconvincing and uninvolving. Eric Owens is good in the very demanding title role. Taymor's visual and dramatic flourishes are not as wonderful here as in the Met's Magic Flute, but there are thrilling and beautiful moments.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Superman Returns

It’s conceivable to feel affection or nostalgia for the hokey, visually clumsy 1978 Richard Donner Superman. But reverence? Yet that is what Bryan Singer, director of the new Superman Returns, has been professing in publicity interviews. Singer is a great talent, and the new movie is vastly superior to the old one. But the careful respect with which the director approaches the material is ultimately what keeps this from being a really exciting or important movie. And it so longs to be important.

Like Batman Begins, last summer’s DC Comics spectacular from Warner Bros., Superman Returns wants above all else to avoid ridicule. Studio executives seem to have said, we’ll give you mountains of money, as much as you need – just don’t embarrass us with another Batman and Robin or Superman IV: Quest for Peace. In this, both movies succeed: they are rarely or never cringe-inducing or campy-silly. But there’s also a certain dullness to them, a lack of risk-taking or exhilarating imaginativeness. Compare them to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, Sam Raimi’s second Spider-Man movie, even Ang Lee’s much-maligned The Hulk. In each of those, there seemed to be real creative fire at work, and real feeling – and a willingness to go for broke visually and emotionally, to risk absurdity, in order to reach operatic heights.

There is much to admire in Superman Returns. It has a visual elegance and consistency that couldn’t have been easy to bring off – gigantically budgeted spectacles can look patched together and ugly, as indeed the 1978 Superman often did. And the holy-holy-holy tone applied to Superman’s relationship to us Earthlings (he’s our Savior, we are repeatedly reminded), which might be expected to wreck the movie, actually provides some of the emotional high points. The unfulfilled love story between Superman and Lois Lane also produces a surprisingly strong emotional tidal pull. And there’s not a dry eye in the house when the words of wisdom spoken earlier by a magically reincarnated Marlon Brando, as our hero's father, are repeated by Superman to someone I can't name without spoiling a clever plot point.

Other pluses: The stately pace makes for a long (over 150-minute) movie, but helps avoid the rushed, chaotic feeling of many action fantasies. The brilliant notion of having Superman’s “flying” often instead become silent, graceful hovering or floating, is beautifully accomplished. Kevin Spacey is an inspired choice to play a merciless villain with a sardonic edge. Kate Bosworth, as Lois Lane, has a difficult role (torn between two lovers and also between two rather ridiculous headlines Lois has written, one of them implausibly a Pulitzer winner), but she more or less maintains her dignity and credibility.

Christopher Reeve, certainly the best part of the seventies movie, is a hard act to follow. The part doesn’t require an actor exactly – more like a convincing presence. As written, Superman is also Super-Nice-Guy, and his resolute cheeriness and politeness could become grating. But I believe Brandon Routh accomplishes what he needs to in nearly every scene. Who knows if this should be called acting, or what he could do with a different kind of performing challenge? But as a physical and vocal presence, he is convincingly and satisfyingly Superman. (He may find it hard now to be accepted playing any other role.)

As for Imax 3D: Thank God for Imax, which is the closest we get currently to the magical sharpness and clarity of the now rarely-used 70mm. It has added to the visual impact of every feature I’ve seen it used for: Batman Begins, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Polar Express. Just as a superior way to see the “flat” scenes in Superman Returns, it’s wonderful. But the 3D effects, used just for a few scenes, are a mixed bag. The flashing symbols onscreen telling you to put on and take off your special glasses are an amusing reminder of the days of William Castle exhibition gimmicks, and they bring this sometimes too-solemn movie down a welcome peg or two. But while in wide shots, with clearly differentiated foreground and background, the stereoscopic effect is eye-popping, in several of the darkly lit interior scenes, with their fast editing, the action becomes murky, all but indecipherable…just a lot of blurry things flying around.

My main objection to this movie, and even more so to Batman Begins, is that it is a detour away from genuine artistic development for one of our best young directors. Certainly it’s depressing to think that Christopher Nolan, who gave us a mindbending near-masterpiece in Memento, already spent a few years of his life on one Batman movie and is now preparing another, which will occupy him for more precious years. But is making a better Batman movie than Joel Schumacher really a worthy goal for a talent so large? For Bryan Singer, the stakes may be slightly different, since none of his movies, including The Usual Suspects, has been as amazing as Memento, and since his best work, in fact, was in another stupefyingly expensive comic-book movie, X2. Nonetheless, $260 million (and Lord knows how many months and years) could have been used to make four (seven? ten?) more interesting movies. These big successes may well bring great future opportunities to Nolan and Singer (and the money and adulation may be hard to resist). But they won’t get these years of their lives and careers back. Will they be glad they spent them this way?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A movie that could change the world: The Road to Guantanamo

It’s one thing to gain an impression of an event or set of circumstances far outside your own experience, by reading the news. We can read about the prison at Guantanamo and possibly form very strong opinions about the fact that it exists, the way the prisoners were identified and taken into custody, the way they have been treated since. Along with many others, I have been appalled and ashamed that the US government is responsible for a place like Guantanamo. Others may feel just as strongly that such prisons are a necessity in a dangerous world. But these feelings remain abstractions, still far removed from the real prison and the real prisoners.

Now a remarkable new movie brings the reality home, simply yet with great force, by following the stories of several young British men who got caught up in the wide net of Guantanamo, and who were eventually released. They themselves describe the events in ‘talking head’ interviews, while actors recreate the stories in vivid scenes.

There is certainly room for questioning whether these men are being entirely truthful, and whether the reenactments are as fair and objective as the filmmakers seem to present them to be. But that doesn’t really diminish the power of the film. To actually see people captured in large groups during the chaos of war, to see them undergoing harsh interrogation and frightening techniques to break their wills, to see humans installed in cages and robbed of all dignity, is far different from reading about it in a newspaper. The specific circumstances of these specific individuals may have been precisely as described, or not, but there is little doubt that many, many individuals in custody have undergone similar treatment – while fewer than 5% of the prisoners have been either charged or are deemed likely to be charged any time soon.

I don't really mean to suggest that I don't believe the young men's accounts - I found them very convincing. My main beef with the film is the way American soldiers are portrayed – the actors seem to have been encouraged toward caricature as they yell at the prisoners. (The British soldiers are more convincing, at least to my ears. Since the filmmakers are British, they may have a less reliable ear for the authenticity of American speech.) Otherwise the staging and editing are of high quality, as they have been in most of the films of co-director Michael Winterbottom.

I wonder if anyone could ever persuade the President and the Secretary of Defense to watch this film. They would no doubt characterize it as agitprop, distorted and untrue. But no one watching The Road to Guantanamo could fail to be moved by the story it tells. No one who sees it will have his preconceptions unchallenged. And everyone should see it – certainly anyone with an interest in the subject, and whose previous knowledge, like my own, has been based mostly on news accounts. It’s a movie that could change the world, if enough people see it.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Short Takes: Fourth of July Weekend


How could a movie about a subject as, well, static as crossword puzzles be interesting, especially at feature length? As this delightful little surprise of a movie demonstrates, it can’t, exactly. The movie works because it’s about people…charming, sweet-natured, but obsessed. The central figure is Will Shortz, puzzle editor at The New York Times and also an NPR regular, who has organized and hosted a competition for crossword enthusiasts every year since 1978. The movie focuses on several of the top competitors in the tournament, with occasional interruptions for funny interview excerpts with celebrity crossword-heads like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart.

It’s all very lightweight, but the enthusiasm and camaraderie of the principals is infectious. They’re all great friends, and by film’s end you may feel, as I did, that you’d love to be friends with them too. The competition itself is exciting without being cutthroat or mean-spirited. That said, 94 minutes is possibly more of this than absolutely necessary – it could have been even more fun at just an hour.

The Devil Wears Prada

Meryl Streep gives an all-time classic comedy performance as the most fearsome boss in New York in this new farce. The scenes with her, and with Emily Blunt as her fiercely neurotic ‘first assistant,’ are consistently hilarious and delightful. Stanley Tucci is also slyly charming and funny as the gay art director who comments on the action while serving as wise, sweetly cynical confidant to all the straight women at the fashion magazine offices where most of the movie is set.

However, the movie is not nominally about any of these three characters…it’s instead the story of the non-fashionista (Anne Hathaway) who becomes the ‘second assistant’ and is the source of, first, ridicule, then admiration as she learns the ropes. Virtually everything about this main plot is unconvincing and fake, and this is especially true of the interminable, dull scenes involving our heroine’s personal life. It’s almost, but not quite, enough to drag the whole movie down. Hathaway tries gamely, but she’s miscast as an ugly duckling, and the writing of the role is hopeless.

Still, see it for the three sterling comic performances by Tucci, Blunt, and especially Streep, who may reach her biggest audience ever with this role, and deservedly so.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

This skillfully wrought little documentary has a good subject and handles it effectively. (Though, like Wordplay, it would be better at just an hour, feeling stretched out to feature length.) It’s primarily about General Motors’ EV1, an electric car halfheartedly test-marketed in California beginning in 1996. The audience responds to the space-age-looking little two-seater as if it’s a teddy bear or a favorite pet…when GM starts hauling them off to the scrapyard, there are gasps and moans as if we’re watching living beings euthanized. I resisted this anthropomorphism…they’re only cars, folks.

Nonetheless, the filmmakers convincingly cast Detroit auto makers, big oil companies, and the Bush administration as villainous, shortsighted, or both, in deliberately sabotaging the EV1 and its siblings. And there is satisfying irony in watching the success of the Prius and other hybrid vehicles, creating a bandwagon effect that brings Ford and GM aboard at last.