Handyfilm etc

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Location: New York, New York, United States

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sufjan Stevens's The BQE

In one of the best pop concerts I’ve ever been to, last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Sufjan Stevens offered the premiere of a new instrumental work for chamber orchestra (accompanying a triptych-screen film he co-directed), followed by a smashing second act – a dozen or so of his own songs accompanied by his own band plus the same 30-piece orchestra. The sheer sonic energy, in a beautiful mix, was simply gorgeous.

I’ll have to hear the new orchestral work, The BQE, again before I can really assess its value in relation to Stevens’s more familiar work but it was an entertaining and skillfully arranged score comparable to Philip Glass’s work for Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanasqatsi. The film itself was a mixed bag, and I sometimes found that it and the music were mutual distractions, rather than enhancing each other.

But in the second half, The BQE begins to resemble Koyaanasqatsi visually as well, as the three screens interact with each other to show zooming traffic light-patterns shot at night, and here the music works with the visuals rather than competing with it. The whole concept, an ironically beautiful tribute to a very ugly piece of urban construction, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, borders on the precious and the whimsical, which is how non-fans have often described his songs. This quality is intensified by the Warholian addition of five dancers with hula-hoops, performing downstage in front of the orchestra and below the movie screen. But half-silly or no, the whole thing was incredibly enjoyable and I certainly hope the score is released on a CD before too long.

Possibly a good accompaniment to The BQE on that CD would be the highlight of the show’s second act, Sufjan’s brilliant and beautiful 10-minute song “Majesty Snowbird,” introduced during his last concert tour but not yet available as a recording. It’s an extraordinary work, the culmination of the style developed over the course of the albums Seven Swans, Greetings from Michigan, and Illinois, as well as some of the ambitious new cuts included in his Songs for Christmas boxed set.

Like many other audience members, I enjoyed The BQE – but I was downright deliriously happy during the hour or so of songs that closed the evening. The smashing arrangements took these very lovely songs and made them sometimes overwhelmingly powerful. A couple of the more familiar ones, “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” have now been performed as definitively as they ever will be, and they possibly ought to be temporarily retired from the Sufjan concert repertoire to make room for other songs from the considerable inventory on the albums. Not that they weren’t beautiful – they were quite stunning, as were “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and “Seven Swans” and “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!” and “Chicago,” and all the rest. Even a nonsensical tall tale monologue about summer camp was captivating – and led into “Predatory Wasp,” my own favorite of Sufjan’s patented mix of the cute, the mysterious, the eerie, and the heartbreaking.

This gifted musician continues to share magnificent work with us. With mixed feelings, because I enjoy being part of a medium-sized “cult” that appreciates his work, I hope he finds the big audience he deserves very soon. It seems inevitable, if he keeps doing unbelievably fine shows like this one.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Young Frankenstein Comes to Broadway

The new Broadway musical Young Frankenstein is nothing if not too much. It has to be colossal, larger than life, overwhelming – being a fun little musical is not an option. If it hasn’t knocked you out of your seat, it’s a failure. Or so the hype and expectation would lead you to believe. The preview audience I saw it with was determined to have a great time, and indeed they seemed to get what they wanted.

Actually, this Mel Brooks show – his first since the smash The Producers – does provide a fair amount of fun for a couple of hours, although it begins rather routinely and weakly. The first two numbers, one sung by the townsfolk of Transylvania Heights and the other by Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Roger Bart) and his medical school students, are mildly enjoyable but far from brilliant – and they come nowhere near the insane hilarity generated by Gene Wilder, at the start of the 1974 film the show is based on, when he stabs himself with a scalpel.

That, in fact, is one of the few gags from Brooks’s movie that isn’t recreated in the musical. As at Spamalot, another Broadway hit based on a beloved 1970s film comedy, the audience anticipates the familiar material, and applauds and laughs at the setups, preparing to go wild over the old jokes before they ever actually happen. This phenomenon is mildly amusing in itself, but spontaneous it ain’t.

There is new material as well, some good, some less so, but the audience’s need to re-experience the movie’s highlights is a bit of a trap, at least for the book (co-written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan). Brooks’s music and lyrics may be uneven, but they are his best opportunity to create something new here. The songs are pleasingly well crafted and, I’m happy to report, appropriately ridiculous.

There are also at least two real star turns that help a great deal. Megan Mullally takes on the fiancée role played by Madeline Kahn in the movie, and from her first entrance she owns the place. She has far too little to do in the first act after her smash opening number, “Please Don’t Touch Me,” but thank God she’s back with more in Act II – just one additional big song, but plenty of chances to show off her ace comedy timing.

When Dr. Frankenstein arrives in Transylvania, he is greeted by the hunchback Igor, the role originated by Marty Feldman. Christopher Fitzgerald makes the part his own, however, and he too has a smash first number, “Together Again,” a duet that also finally allows Bart to let loose. And from here on the plot begins to gain traction as well – for a while.

One of the problems with Young Frankenstein is that it lacks the magical exploding plot mechanics of the first two-thirds or so of The Producers. That show also managed to keep the hilarity and general insanity at a much higher level than Young Frankenstein, despite some great bits, is able to sustain. Here the story builds to the first-act climax of Frederick creating a monster, just like his grandfather. But in the second act, there is less of a plot engine.

Luckily, there’s plenty of song-and-dance fun to fill this gap. But it would be better if there were both. And there’s no real way to match the black-and-white film’s hilarious dead-on parody of the classic horror movies of the 1930s. Those movies were about as far from a lavishly produced 21st-century Broadway musical as anything could be, although Brooks does often successfully capture the quality of old-horror-movie music in his underscoring.

Andrea Martin is often very funny as creepy housekeeper Frau Blucher (the Cloris Leachman role originally), and she has a great number whose title is taken from one of the big laugh lines in the movie: “He Vas My Boyfriend.” Sutton Foster, who has actually starred in more Broadway hits than most of the other headliners here, has a less inherently funny part than Mullally or Martin – she’s the sexy lab assistant Inga, and though she gives it her best and has plenty of stage time, she’s never as crazy-silly as the others. This problem also crops up with Roger Bart, who ends up playing straight man to the hellzapoppin wildness around him. It’s unfair but inevitable to compare him to Wilder (co-author of the film script as well as the star), who gave a classic screwball performance – but Bart, here, too rarely shows the gift for spectacular silliness he displayed in The Producers.

Shuler Hensley, as The Monster, and Fred Applegate, in a nifty dual turn as a police inspector and a blind hermit, provide nimble support and are called on to carry two of the best-remembered scenes from the movie: the Monster’s hilariously disastrous slapstick visit with the hermit, and the one musical number actually in the film, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman pulls out all the stops for “Ritz,” which in the movie is just a simple (and very funny) gag. Here it is stretched out for ten minutes or so, with chorus lines of monsters and even room for Inga and Igor to join in. The number encapsulates what’s right and what’s wrong with Broadway’s version of Young Frankenstein. Everyone knows they have to be over-the-top here, and they make it even bigger, more excessive, than you might imagine. And it’s fun, but it’s also, in the end, just too much.

Sets vibrate and fly apart and whirl around, strobes flash, and the big dance numbers keep on coming and coming. The people behind this show are making a Herculean effort. But they might actually be better off relaxing a bit and just being funny. When they do that, and it does happen several times in 150 minutes, this over-amplified, overgrown theme-park ride of a show seems worth all the fuss.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This is only the second feature directed by Andrew Dominik, and the first he has made on a large scale with a big Hollywood budget. It is a phenomenal piece of work. Visually, The Assassination of Jesse James is more alive than any movie I’ve seen this year, other than the very different Across the Universe. This gifted New Zealander brings a fresh perspective to an aging genre and to a story that has been told more than a few times already. You may be reminded at some points of Bonnie and Clyde, Days of Heaven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but Dominik has a powerful style all his own.

However, the dramatic impact and the narrative flow are not as strong as the photography (by Roger Deakins), the editing, the whole visual conception and control. This is primarily because the script is a mixed bag, and because Brad Pitt, while not bad, is somewhat less than electrifying as Jesse James. You never catch Pitt being a bad actor here, but this film needs him to be more than competent – he needs to be the powerful center of gravity for the story. And he doesn’t manage to do it.

That’s unfortunate, because several of the other performances are very striking indeed, beginning with Casey Affleck as the other title character, the teenage would-be gunslinger Robert Ford. Affleck’s Ford is simultaneously naïve and dangerous, folksy and coldly calculating, a loser and a sharp-witted opportunist. It’s an extraordinarily vivid performance – you can’t take your eyes off him. And in supporting roles, Sam Rockwell, as Robert Ford’s more stable, less loopily ambitious brother, and Paul Schneider, as the randiest, funniest member of the James Gang (though he’s still capable of startling, scary violence), are just as good as Affleck. This is some of the most flavorsome character acting in any recent movie.

The film is too long (160 minutes), and it loses and regains the tension of its story a few times. But it’s never boring. The use of a narrator, sounding at times like a PBS special, is effective in filling in narrative gaps, although these scenes are in a different style from the rest of the movie.

It looks as though Warner Bros. may have already written this off as a commercial failure, an overpriced art film, after its disappointing limited runs in large cities. So catch it while you can – it deserves to be enjoyed on a large screen. And I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more from this brilliant new director.

Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire is a masterpiece, a landmark accomplishment in the history of documentary cinema. I can’t recommend it to everyone – its uncompromisingly explicit medical footage of abortions will be impossible for some viewers to sit through, and its straightforward inclusion of loony-bird fringe arguments on the anti-abortion side may upset both pro-life and pro-choice members of the audience.

But while it’s certainly flawed, it is a brilliant formal achievement and an extraordinarily provocative example of the cinema of ideas. The black-and-white footage, some shot by director Tony Kaye, some from other sources, has all been digitally enhanced to have the same sharp, silvery, bright, laser-focused look. This is not superficial slickness, but a superbly effective way to glue your eyes to the screen. You’ve never seen a movie that looks like this. (I saw a high-definition video projection at Chicago’s wonderful Gene Siskel Center; I can only hope other venues will maintain the high visual standard.)

In 152 minutes, Kaye (American History X) includes a wide range of material: many talking heads, but also documentary footage of events as they happened, as well as local news coverage and even a propaganda film made by anti-abortion activists. (The film was more than a decade in the making, and the sense of events unfolding is quite powerful in the first half.)

The intent is to avoid taking a point of view, to present arguments for and against legal abortions without evaluating them. The results are certainly skewed by including the most extreme pro-life advocates, whose allegedly Bible-based rhetoric verges on insanity and whose actions lead to criminal prosecution and a death penalty for the murderer of an abortion-clinic physician. None of the pro-choice voices ever come close to this sort of appalling and over-the-top quality, and so the film may be accused of pro-choice bias.

But no one after seeing this film will ever be able to make a straight-faced argument that a developing fetus is a non-human “clump of cells.” Nor will anyone who sees it ever forget the emotional journey of its last half hour, as we accompany a young woman to an abortion clinic, and watch every step of the process. Her tears after the procedure become our own. This is a movie intended to shake you up, and unless you are made of stone, it absolutely will.

In fact, another way to look at Kaye’s giving so much screen time to the Bible-thumping extremists whose rhetoric gives the film its title is to conclude that this issue is so vexing, with arguments on both sides so convincing yet so unsatisfying, that it drives people insane. That may sound glib, but after seeing this film and hearing the arguments it presents, you too may want to stand on a street corner yelling incoherently. There is no calm, rational answer to the abortion issue.

There is one sequence that made me uncomfortable and seems a bad miscalculation. A priest’s mad rant involving Hillary Clinton and short skirts as they relate to our decadent, baby-killing society is given an inordinate amount of screen time. His scabrous idiocy is intercut with a passionate speech made by then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who is fiercely eloquent. The intercutting between these two monologues goes on for several minutes, and one is left wondering at the filmmaker’s intent. My best guess is that since there are many with pro-life views who see Elders as an extremist and a villain and a laughing-stock, it seemed appropriate to pair her with the loon priest – but his irrational rhetoric represents only his own sad mind, not anyone else’s. The effect is unsavory and uncharacteristically off-key compared to the rest of this amazing film.

More successful are the lucid and riveting talking-head interviews with academics such as Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky (whatever your opinions of these two, you may be surprised by what they say here). And there is an astonishing sequence that follows the true story of Norma McCorvey, the real life Jane Roe in Roe vs. Wade, now a born-again anti-abortion activist! The irony is brilliantly conveyed.

See Lake of Fire as soon as you can, if you dare. Its release will obviously be a limited one, but the strong-hearted (and strong-stomached) will not want to miss it. It is by far the most powerful film I have seen in 2007.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild succeeds in spite of itself. Sean Penn’s adaptation of the Jon Krakauer best-seller falls into an almost inevitable trap. It tells the story of the doomed eccentric Christopher McCandless, who cut off all contact with his family right after graduating from college to explore the West without money, a car, or other material possessions, adopting the name Alexander Supertramp, and eventually setting off alone into the Alaskan wilderness.

The trap is that Penn, and by extension the audience, buys into Chris’s dream too unquestioningly. There is little or no distance or irony. What Chris does in the film could be described as selfish, reckless, and foolish, although he is a visionary of sorts. But as portrayed by the gifted young actor Emile Hirsch, and as seen and heard through Penn’s camera and script, Chris is utterly charming, beloved by nearly everyone he meets, and ever true to his dream – virtually a saint. (He’s even celibate, sweetly turning down the sexual advances of a teenage girl he befriends.)

But even though the film would be much stronger if it took an edgier and less rose-tinted stance toward Chris’s adventures, the story itself has a powerful pull, gravitational, magnetic, almost magical. It becomes a classic road movie, with an irresistible hippie-environmentalist twist. Though you may know it’s going to end sadly, the journey itself is often exhilarating. In fact, the film seems to be suffering commercially because potential viewers don’t want to go watch a young man die. But while the film is emotional, the emotions are overwhelmingly weighted toward joy rather than sorrow, as you might expect from Penn’s infatuation with Chris and his story.

The entire cast is excellent. Hirsch is in nearly every scene of a 140-minute film, and rarely if ever hits a false note. His likability and spirit carry the film (even as they push it away from the harder edge of art). Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker (whose first film as an actor this is) and Vince Vaughn are all very fine as people whose paths cross with Saint Supertramp in his travels. And Hal Holbrook has one of the greatest roles of his career, giving one of the year’s best (and, surprisingly from Holbrook, least actorish) performances as an aging widower who is the last person to speak to Chris before his final journey. (The Keener and Holbrook characters are the only ones who try to tell Chris directly that what’s he’s doing is hurtful to his family and potentially dangerous to himself. Not surprisingly, their scenes are the most emotionally resonant in the film.)

The first-rate photography by Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries, Kings and Queen) captures the beauty and excitement of Chris’s travels without falling into nature movie clichés. The Eddie Vedder songs that fill the soundtrack are not my cup of tea, but they blend in with the movie’s ambience and don’t become a distraction. The film is a bit grandiose and overlong, with superfluous prologues and asides and portentous bits of dialogue, but these qualities are all part of Penn’s conception. He has made the movie he wanted to make. And in this case it may be better to enjoy it for what it is rather than complain about what it’s not.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah is intensely absorbing, and it features an extraordinary performance by Tommy Lee Jones. Its first two-thirds seemed to me much more satisfying than Paul Haggis’s previous film, the Oscar-winning Crash – less gimmicky and more assured. But the resolution of this murder mystery, set at and near a military base among soldiers returning from Iraq, is singularly jarring and almost ridiculous in its lack of credibility (even though this is supposedly based on “actual events”). Then this cockamamie revelation is used to make some sort of ill-conceived antiwar political statement. It threw me out of the movie entirely, and retroactively diminished the accomplishment of the first 100 minutes. But as the father of the murdered soldier, Jones makes the film worth seeing.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Blade Runner looks wonderful. It always has, but the new digitally tweaked version being shown at the Ziegfeld is extraordinary. I still find it problematic as a narrative, as drama, as a movie. The minimalist story reveals no new nuances on a second or third viewing; the characters remain barely sketched ciphers; and the restored pessimistic ending may leave an audience feeling cheated of any real resolution, so it’s understandable that something more conventional was tried in the original release. In addition, I find the recent claims that Ridley Scott “predicted our future” in this film to be fatuous nonsense. But as a futuristic fever dream experience, it remains one of a kind.