Handyfilm etc

Film reviews and other thoughts

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Sunday, February 25, 2007

How I Lost My American Idol Virginity

“I have been completely corrupted,” I announced to co-workers on Wednesday morning. “I actually voted.”

After five years of ignoring and/or rolling my eyes at the pop-culture phenomenon known as American Idol, I decided to check it out this year. Pop-music snob that I am, you can be sure that none of the 8,000-plus tracks on my iPod are performed by any Idol alums. But I am also a pop-culture obsessive, and it was hard not to be curious about something that enthralls 30 million Americans every week.

A DVR has helped – allowing me to watch at my own pace and skip the very numerous commercial breaks. But to my astonishment, I have skipped very little of the program itself.

In a word, I have become an addict.

The four weeks of audition tapes were a bit much. The ghastliness of the many untalented hopefuls is appallingly funny at first, then eventually just appalling. But for a novice, learning about each step in the process of this well-engineered entertainment machine has its own fascinations. And the tears of the losers and the winners, while often laughably artificial, occasionally hit home with real emotion (usually when the contestant has real talent combined with real vulnerability).

Once the judges have winnowed the field down to 24 semifinalists, the real fun begins. But the time commitment required of a viewer is really excessive. Five hours this week alone! (It’s down to four next week, and continues to decrease as the contest progresses.)

The episodes keep to a strict timetable and a proven formula. The “tension” between robotically efficient, unflappably empathetic host Ryan Seacrest and amusingly acerbic judge Simon Cowell (as well as the spats Cowell evokes with squishy-silly fellow judge Paula Abdul) are about as convincing as the catfights on Desperate Housewives. Everyone has a role to play, and by now they have it down pat, an entertaining schtick.

But what’s likely to keep me watching are the contestants themselves. I still won’t buy their records (will I?), but several of them seem worth rooting for (or against!). Go Melinda! Show ‘em, Blake! Oh my God, they cut Rudy!

I am hopelessly ensnared…

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Short Takes – Recently Seen

Performance; Lucifer Rising
One of the most bizarre movies ever released by a big studio, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance has flashes of brilliance. Its very best scene looks like an MTV music video of the eighties (the movie was released in 1970): “Memo from T,” a song performed by Mick Jagger. James Fox is effective as the sadistic gangster who takes refuge in the home of Jagger’s reclusive rock star. The photography and editing are engrossing. The script, attempting some sort of counterculture Persona, is uneven and often very bad. The hallucinatory atmosphere is the most noteworthy accomplishment.

Performance was preceded in a recent New York showing by Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, a short film from 1982. The two are well matched – hallucinatory, sometimes effective, often risible. The Anger film has no dialogue and its performers are not professional actors, to say the least. Some of the visions, ranging from Egyptian deities to UFOs, are both entrancing and a bit silly. The degree of campiness intended is not entirely clear.

Notes on a Scandal
Effective as a black comedy, especially in its first half. Judi Dench can bring the house down with the inflection she gives a single word: “Biscuit?” Cate Blanchett is also perfectly cast, and in fact all the actors are fine. But the material deals with such scabrous behavior that it inevitably veers toward self-seriousness. So the last half hour is a bit of a chore to sit through.

The Last King of Scotland
The fact-based story is vividly told by director Kevin McDonald, but something seems lacking. James McAvoy, as the fictionalized young Scot doctor who gets swept up in the Idi Amin government in Uganda, is in nearly every scene. The true historical events come forward to shock him repeatedly, but they inevitably seem to recede while we watch his story, which is less interesting. The fast pace of the film keeps it engrossing but leads to a sketchiness in historical detail. Forrest Whittaker’s fine performance as Idi Amin is technically a supporting role, but he dominates every scene he is in. Worth seeing, but it may send you to other sources for a more complete picture of those horrific years in Uganda.

The Italian
The Italian is a Russian film dealing with a fascinating, heart-wrenching and very topical subject: the effect that the adoptions of Eastern European children by wealthy Westerners have on the local culture – a corrupting, distorting effect that may not immediately be apparent to Western observers. The movie uses a neat point-of-view trick to make its case vividly. A six-year-old boy, soon to be adopted by a well-to-do Italian couple (thus acquiring the nickname that is the movie’s title), becomes obsessed with finding his birth mother instead, and goes to surprising lengths to do so. At first the audience roots against him and for the adoption – but by the end one’s opinion is likely to have swung 180 degrees (at least). A splendid movie with excellent performances, including a really remarkable one by Kolya Spiridonov as the boy.

“They don’t make ‘em like that any more,” said someone at the end of a recent New York revival screening of this 1964 Oscar nominee. Whether this is something to be sorry about or grateful for is a matter to contemplate. The material gets a rather too heavy and reverential Hollywood treatment, but the photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Cabaret) is often very beautiful, and the scenery-devouring performances by Richard Burton and, especially, Peter O’Toole, make the film well worth sitting through (it runs 2 and a half hours).

David Lynch: Inland Empire and Eraserhead

One aspect of David Lynch’s uniqueness is that his “bad” films are often nearly as fascinating as his “good” ones, and his “good” ones are as likely to be perplexing and unsatisfying as his “bad” ones. The “good” group is generally thought to be led by Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, and the “bad” by Dune and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. All are worth seeing, but I won’t try to predict how any individual will react to them, except that you're not likely to be indifferent.

Recently I caught Lynch’s newest, the three-hour hallucination Inland Empire, and his first feature, Eraserhead, a 90-minute hallucination from 1977. The new film has its moments, but also its irritations, and it goes on endlessly. Eraserhead, in contrast, is all of a piece, and probably Lynch’s most beautifully realized and thoroughly satisfying movie.

It’s probably pointless to describe the surrealist sights and sounds in a Lynch film. They should be experienced by any literate movie-lover. I will note that Inland Empire is best when it is most “conventional,” when it seems to be about Laura Dern and Justin Theroux acting in a movie directed by Jeremy Irons. That “plot” gets dropped about halfway through, then resurfaces at the end. There is also a wonderful recurring sequence involving big humanoid bunnies in a Beckettesque sitcom (as I say, it’s better experienced than described). Eraserhead too moves past the initial quasi-plot into a dream state. But it never lost me, the way Empire, and earlier, Mulholland Drive, did. The Museum of Modern Art’s newly restored print of Eraserhead is a beauty.