Saturday, May 29, 2010

Home Fronts (35 Shots of Rum and The Messenger)

35 Shots of Rum (2009), the very fine new film by Claire Denis, has a recurring image that drew me right in: a father and daughter eating together in the kitchen. Their compact Parisian apartment is still large enough to contain a living room, yet their choice to eat while standing says a lot about two people who are comfortable with each other yet also eager to move forward. The tension between the oppressiveness of family and the fear of its members to change is at the heart of Denis's movie. Even when they have company for dinner, he has to stand too.

Lionel, the father (Alex Descas), is a train engineer, in perpetual motion without really going anywhere. His young-adult daughter, Jo (Mati Diop), spins her wheels in a music store. In the same apartment building are long-time neighbors pining for each of them: Noe, an intense, wayward Brazilian immigrant (Gregoire Colin), represses his feelings for Jo; Gabrielle, a middle-aged cab driver (Nicole Dogue), carries a rather vibrant torch for Lionel. One evening in a tavern, dancing and booze lead one of these characters to make a move on another, while one of the other pair experiences rejection at the hands of the other.

That's pretty much all that happens in 35 Shots of Rum, save for a climactic wedding that's wisely left offscreen. Yet Denis, whose previous credits include the Billy Budd update Beau Travail, which I found hard to penetrate, and that grisly vampire movie Ed talked Jason into reviewing, which I will never see, is attuned to the seismic shifts in familial relationships and alive to the despairing beauty of Paris after dark. The atmosphere of the film is charged, but Denis never pushes her effects. 35 Shots of Rum is like Goodbye, Solo without the plot schematics, or Summer Hours bereft of that horrid house. Lionel and Jo's home feels lived-in, and you feel a twinge of rue when it's time for one of them to leave.

The piercing drama The Messenger (2009) is, for all its Iraq War topicality, like a buried treasure unearthed from the vault of 70s American cinema. It features some of the freewheeling, high-wire acting of Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, only with both of its leads playing variations of "Bad-Ass" Buddusky. Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), injured in Iraq by an IED, returns home restless and angry, his feelings only intensified after being assigned to a Casualty Notification Team. Teamed with Cpt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), an older veteran and recovering alcoholic, Will feels ill-suited for the thankless task of notifying "NOKs" (next-of-kins) of the deaths of family members serving overseas, and Tony's rules -- "Always say 'killed' or 'died," "Never touch the NOK" -- do not help.

Foster and Harrelson have been effective onscreen before, but in The Messenger each has the thrilling volatility of Jack Nicholson in his prime. In The Last Detail, Nicholson's Buddusky was a cocky Navy officer eager to give a younger sailor a taste of life before taking him to the brig. Foster plays Will as a young man driven by pure gut instinct, the kind that kept him alive in wartime but leaves him lost and disconnected with his new assignment. As Tony, Harrelson is more self-contained, only gradually revealing that his rigid adherence to protocols reflects the 12-step program that got him sober. When Will chucks the rule-book and starts connecting with the NOKs, Tony loses his bearings and falls off the wagon.

The Messenger was directed and co-written by first-time filmmaker Oren Moverman, who deftly sidesteps most of the perils in his story's emotional minefield. Like Hal Ashby, he is extremely generous with actors, not only his two leads but the supporting players who display an unpredictable gallery of reactions to the bearers of bad news. One dead soldier's girlfriend (a pitch-perfect [sorry Tom, but sometimes a cliche fits] Yaya DeCosta) responds by making small-talk laced with denial; she won't stop talking out of fear of what they're going to say. Another's father, the mayor of the town (Steve Buscemi, his best work in years), knows immediately why they are there, exclaims "Oh, no!", then browbeats Will and Tony all the way back to their car. During the film's critical juncture, when Will gets involved with a grieving yet dignified widow (the remarkable-as-usual Samantha Morton), Moverman takes a page from Robert Altman's playbook, slowly zooming in and then reverse-zooming out of their scenes, taking what could have been a predictable turn of events and conveying the characters' uncertainty of what to do next.

Like many performance-centered directors, Moverman occasionally errs on the side of flamboyance: one protracted sequence, where Will and Tony make drunken toasts at Will's ex-girfriend's wedding reception, is as misconceived as this kind of scene always is. The Messenger is similar to The Hurt Locker in how it's been amusingly hailed as apolitical when its antiwar message is explicitly clear, and consequently here and there are moments of shouting when silence would be better. Yet I remain haunted by the film as its flaws fall away. Reviewing Platoon many years ago, Roger Ebert quoted Francois Truffaut as saying that "it's not possible to make an antiwar movie, because all war movies...end up making combat look like fun." Ebert went on to argue that Oliver Stone had achieved what Truffaut claimed was impossible. Yet I think it's The Messenger that achieves what Platoon and The Hurt Locker and so many other war films ultimately fail to accomplish -- by depicting the struggle at home.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part III)

One of my favorite passages in Pictures at a Revolution concerns a party that author Mark Harris describes as a clash between worlds. The party was at Jane Fonda's beachhouse, and the date was July 4, 1965, a few years before Fonda would become known as both a great actress for films like Klute and as "Hanoi Jane" for her conduct in protest against the Vietnam War. Those who only remember the latter may be reminded by Harris that Jane Fonda was as much a part of the Old Hollywood as she was the New, and her guests were divided into these two factions: Henry Fonda, William Wyler, Fred Zinneman, Sam Spiegel, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, and Darryl Zanuck on one side; Peter Fonda, Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Tuesday Weld, and Jack Nicholson on the other. (Sidney Poitier, also in attendance, was as always a faction unto himself.) The era's generation gap might be best exemplified by the reactions between Jane's brother and father to The Byrds, who were playing on the beach: as a stoned Peter grooved to the music, Henry stormed outside and yelled, "Can't you get them to turn it down?"

During the festivities, a transplanted Jewish-German East Coaster named Mike Nichols wandered over to a small group of partygoers lazing under a large tree. "Once again an immigrant in a new land," Harris writes, "he surveyed the tribal rituals, the lapses of etiquette, the deferences and courtesies and small humiliations of this hothouse of West Coast privilege and restlessness, and filed them away for future use." It was under that tree that one of the guests, a fellow New Yorker, Buck Henry, whimsically asked, "Are you having a good time in L.A., Mike?" Nichols deadpanned, "Yes. Here under the shadow of this great tree, I have found peace."

Initially I was reluctant to read Pictures at a Revolution because although The Graduate is my all-time favorite movie (the topic of my very first post on this blog) I already knew so much about its making that I couldn't imagine Harris offering anything more. Admittedly, the author does quote large chunks of Nichols's meaty DVD commentary. Other stories, though, like the aforementioned party where Nichols and Henry first met, were brand new. At the time The Graduate had been well into the planning stages, but it was there that the movie was born.

The Graduate
  • Along with Warren Beatty, Rex Harrison, and Sidney Poitier, Mike Nichols is one of the most prominent personalities in the book. It's amazing to reflect on just how dazzling a wunderkind Nichols was. In the late-50s and early-60s, he was part of a wildly successful comedy team with Elaine May. Nichols and May had cut a popular comedy album, guested on The Ed Sullivan Show, and starred together in a Broadway hit directed by Arthur Penn (seven years before he made Bonnie and Clyde). Soon Nichols became a stage director himself and had won three straight Tony Awards for Best Director himself by the time of Fonda's party. By this time, he was looking to expand his range to the silver screen. (Elaine May, too, would become a movie director, her credits including the hilarious original The Heartbreak Kid starring Charles Grodin, and the unfortunate Ishtar starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.)
  • After a couple of false starts, Nichols chose Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on a 1962 play by Edward Albee, to be produced by Warner Brothers and to star Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, for his film debut. "He had less than three months to learn how to make a movie, outmaneuver a notoriously combative studio head...and figure out how to direct the world's most famous couple," Harris writes, quoting Nichols himself as saying, "'And I wasn't entirely sure how a camera worked.'"
  • Nevertheless, he is described on the set of Virginia Woolf as "successful lion tamer to two of the world's least controllable celebrities...he would push Taylor and Burton until she would break down in tears and he would be too shaken to come out of his dressing room, and they would still return the next day eager for more." In 1966, the movie would be a box-office hit and eventually nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, including Best Director. This gave Mike Nichols the cache to make virtually any movie he pleased.
  • Before directing Virginia Woolf, Nichols had read Charles Webb's 1963 novel The Graduate and liked it, thought the book had terrific dialogue and needed only a workable structure. The younger-man/older-woman scenario was, Nichols believed, "'a good, old gag'"; though in early 1967 he fretted that he had been beaten to the punch by a similarly-themed $800,000 MFA thesis project titled You're a Big Boy Now, courtesy of a UCLA grad student named Francis Ford Coppola.
  • This proved difficult, however, as the script went through several writers, including Calder Willingham. Described as Stanley Kubrick's screenwriter and poker buddy, Willingham submitted a draft that Mike Nichols found "vulgar" and dismissed. Nevertheless, he would successfully arbitrate for co-screenwriting credit shortly before the film was released and was Oscar nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • The script that was ultimately used, however, was by Buck Henry. A gifted comic writer who along with Mel Brooks had created the TV series Get Smart, Henry's friendship with Nichols began under Jane Fonda's tree, and while Nichols was making Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Henry was given the chance to shape The Graduate into something substantial. "As the story of Benjamin, Elaine, and Mrs. Robinson passed from the hands of a novelist in his early twenties into the custody of a writer and director who were both in their mid-thirties, it became both more detached and more sympathetic."
  • However, the transformation of Benjamin Braddock on the page made it increasingly difficult to cast the right actor to play him. In Webb's novel, Benjamin "is the scion of an apparently WASPy family, a cocky, aloof college track star who returns home for the summer before beginning two years of graduate school, then announces to his parents that he has wasted his life...." Harris astutely notes that this version of the character would have been perfect for Warren Beatty. But Buck Henry had eliminated the character's superiority complex and made him more of a bumbler: along with Nichols, he "located The Graduate's comic center in (Benjamin's) complete failure to live up to his own standards, and unlike Webb, they came up with an ending in which it's not clear if Benjamin triumphs by meeting those standards or by discarding them." Yet Nichols and Henry had gotten so far ahead of themselves in terms of how Benjamin should behave they went through an excruciatingly long casting process (another WASPish blonde, Robert Redford, wanted the part badly) before an unknown actor made them rethink how the character should look.
  • In 1965, the pair took a break from their respective duties to see Dustin Hoffman perform with Joel Grey in an off-Broadway production called Harry Noon and Night. Hoffman played a Nazi-hunchback-transvestite, and Buck Henry came out completely believing that the actor was all three. Neither he nor Nichols thought of Hoffman right then for The Graduate, but they had become aware of his amazing versatility.
  • Harris writes that the New York theater world in the mid-1960s had three types of young male performers: those who were conventionally handsome enough for Hollywood to come calling (e.g., George Peppard, who won the male lead alongside Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's); those who were not conventionally handsome and were confined to bit parts onscreen (Alan Arkin, Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, et al.); and those, like Hoffman, who couldn't find film work at all. Hoffman was extravagantly talented but relentlessly combative, driving directors insane with his endless quest for authenticity.
  • Just as the director and screenwriter's mutual ages alloted them a healthy distance from the source material of The Graduate, the casting call for Benjamin took on a new dimension once they began considering older actors. Charles Grodin, also still an unknown (The Heartbreak Kid was a few years away), gave the best reading, according to Nichols; but he adds that the twenty-nine-year-old Dustin Hoffman gave the best screen test (with Katharine Ross): "'He had that thrilling thing that I'd only seen in Elizabeth Taylor...That secret, where they do something while you're shooting, and you think it's okay, and then you see it on screen and it's five times better than when you shot it."
  • After Hoffman won the part, he actually had to turn down another one: a Nazi playwright in Springtime for Hitler, a new movie written and directed by Buck Henry's Get Smart partner and Anne Bancroft's husband, Mel Brooks.
  • The clout that Mike Nichols had earned up to then gave The Graduate an astonishing three weeks of rehearsal and one hundred days of shooting. In Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, one of the interviewees compares the filmmaking technique of Altman ("who leaves everything to chance") with that of Nichols ("who leaves nothing to chance"). It's funny how two of my own favorite filmmakers could have such disparate styles. I guess it boils down to whatever works best for the director and the material.
  • Anne Bancroft was already an Oscar winner (Best Actress for The Miracle Worker in 1963) but still not quite a star. (Great observation by Harris: "Hollywood didn't have much use for an actress with her kind of dark, brittle strength.") Initially distracted and irritable during rehearsal, Nichols helped her find Mrs. Robinson with a clipped reading of the line, "Benjamin, will you drive me home?" Suddenly, Bancroft got it: "'Oh, I can do that. I know what that is. That's anger.'"
  • The cinematographer for The Graduate was Robert Surtees, an Old Hollywood veteran who this time out got to try some radical things. Surtees knew that Nichols (who had quarreled with DP Haskell Wexler on Virginia Woolf), would be difficult to work with, but welcomed the opportunity following Doctor Dolittle.
  • Some challenges during the shoot were technical: for the key scene when Elaine discovers Ben and her mother's affair, a wall had to be removed for the long pull-back shot from Mrs. Robinson to Benjamin. Another was figuring out how to simultaneously light the mid-30s Bancroft to look older and the late-20s Hoffman to look younger. Other hardships were brought on by Nichols himself, who had his star terrified to the point of acting paralysis. ("Don't forget to trim the inside of your nose," was one of his regular bon mots.) On the DVD commentary track, Nichols freely admits that he was a prick and that he would do it differently today.
  • For me, what holds up the movie remarkably well today is its innovative technique -- the subjectivity of its perspective. Surtees accomplishes this via POV shots like the one of Benjamin in scuba-gear at the bottom of his parents' pool; while editor Sam O'Steen achieves it through tricky editing rhythms: some scenes feel extracted from a play (as when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson lie in bed and talk about art), others deftly convey the passage of time (like the groundbreaking montages scored to Simon and Garfunkel). In a New Yorker piece a few years ago, David Denby recalled that his mentor, Pauline Kael, disliked the movie and its protagonist, complaining that "There's nothing in his head." Of course there is, Pauline: We are.
  • As with Bonnie and Clyde, early screenings of The Graduate to the Hollywood establishment went poorly. "'It's a shame about the boy,'" people would say to Nichols, unable to see in Dustin Hoffman anything resembling leading-man material. Similarly, many film critics (Kael, Richard Corliss, John Simon, Richard Schickel) panned the picture, with one notable exception: the New York Times's Bosley Crowther, whose ceaseless attacks on Bonnie and Clyde led to his dismissal, gave The Graduate a rave for his final review: "'The overall picture has the quality of a very extensive and revealing social scan,'" Crowther wrote.
  • Regular audiences -- particularly the burgeoning youth market on college campuses -- went berserk for the movie, placing it atop the box office for months. This subsequently led to studios' hiring younger filmmakers to make movies for younger audiences, as well as opening up leading-man roles to the Arkins, Hackmans, Duvalls, De Niros, Pacinos, and Nicholsons where they previously could not tread.
  • Mike Nichols and Buck Henry had little in common with the counterculture that went wild for their movie. (A running gag in the movie is how clean-cut Benjamin is repeatedly assumed to be an "outside agitator.") Yet The Graduate cannily explores and exploits the era's generation-gap, never more so than at the climax. Nichols and Henry crucially altered the book's ending so that Benjamin would arrive after Elaine had formally exchanged vows, rather than before. (Webb groaningly despised the change, believing it undermined Benjamin's virtue.) There's a lot going on in that whirligig sequence, a satirical dismantling of church and family values in one fell swoop.
  • With the famous final shot of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus, Nichols believed he was saying that they "would end up like their parents." This is the reading commonly accepted today (see (500) Days of Summer), but audiences weren't convinced then and neither am I. It reads to me as more of a "What do we do now?" ending, like Robert Redford at the conclusion of The Candidate, hopeful yet worried, ambiguously open-ended.
  • More interesting to me is what Nichols says about his own personal link to the story -- that he along with his alter-ego Hoffman had transformed Benjamin Braddock from the blonde stud of the novel into a "'Jew among the goyim...a visitor in a strange land.'" Physically and emotionally, Benjamin becomes an outsider in his own family and culture. By zeroing in on something specific (however unconsciously), Nichols made the movie's appeal universal.
  • The Graduate received seven Oscar nominations, including nods for Hoffman (Actor), Bancroft (Actress), and Ross (Supporting Actress). Henry and Willingham were up for Screenplay, as was Surtees for Cinematography (nominated twice, for both The Graduate and Doctor Dolittle). (Sam O'Steen's innovative editing was ignored.) All came up empty-handed, however, with only Mike Nichols winning for Best Director.
  • Harris savages Bob Hope's hosting of the Academy Awards telecast, which had been delayed for two days due to the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his funeral in Atlanta. (Had the show gone as planned, it would have played to a largely empty house.) "As Hope continued," the author writes, "it became clear that beneath the surface of his comedy was barely concealed reactionary anger." When Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross appeared onstage as presenters, "they looked like they were trapped at a family dinner with an uncle they didn't like. 'Hi kids,' said Hope, barely bothering to conceal his lack of interest." (Later in the broadcast, a patently clueless montage featured a clip from Gone With the Wind ending with an image of a proudly flapping Confederate flag.)
  • Every ten years or so I hear the same criticism: The Graduate is "no longer relevant." Yet within the same timeframe I always meet a new generation of young people who love the picture. The cultural ephemera of the movie are definitely part of the late-60s fabric. Yet the emotions beneath the surface seem timeless.

Next: a reunion of Old Hollywood's most famous onscreen coupling, an old-guard director fancies himself a socially-conscious rebel, and the only African-American movie star on the planet becomes trapped by his own success....

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Games People Play (The Damned United and An Education)

Michael Sheen gives a career-altering performance in The Damned United, all the more surprising in that it's written by the same screenwriter who got him pigeonholed in the first place. Sheen's Brian Clough, a legendary British soccer football coach from the 1970s, lets you know immediately he's far removed from the actor's Tony Blair (in The Queen) and David Frost (Frost/Nixon), both scripted by Peter Morgan along with this one. A successful coach in Derby County, Clough accepts an offer to lead hated archrival Leeds United after his nemesis, Don Revie (a puffed-up Colm Meaney), agrees to head the nation's World Cup team. With his two kids in tow, Cough keeps the Leeds brass waiting as he holds a TV interview disparaging the iconic Revie and his team as a bunch of dirty cheaters. Sheen's onscreen plasticity is as apparent here as much as his previous films, but there's something sturdier about him this time: feet planted on the ground, voice deeper, facial expressions rolled into a cocky sneer. "We think you're the best young football coach in the country," an exasperated boss acknowledges. "Best old coach in the country, too," Cough unhesitatingly replies.

It's a lively, expansive performance, and for a while Morgan's script (based on the nonfiction book by David Peace) and Tom Hooper's direction keep you guessing exactly what kind of movie this will be. Is The Damned United an inspirational sports flick? It certainly starts that way: Cough is thrust into an unwelcome environment, largely his own design, and -- those of us not privy to the story will expect -- will beat the odds and triumph. Then things take a sudden U-turn to chronicle Cough's rise to glory as coach of the ragtag Derby County team: Will this -- the flashbacks -- be the main narrative, with the Leeds story serving as bookends? Hooper and Morgan end up parallel-plotting both Derby and Leeds threads, crosscutting to convey how Cough's failings end up undermining his formidable talents in each instance. Most of all, they state outright that Cough's put-upon, keen-eyed assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), was responsible for a great deal of the success at Derby, and that Taylor's refusal to join Cough at Leeds doomed the latter's aspirations.

Spall has spent the better part of his career trapped between Harry Potter and Mike Leigh, so it's good to see him play a normal person here. Yet the Taylor/Cough relationship turns out to be what The Damned United is about after all, which wouldn't be a bad thing if Morgan's heart were in it. I've never cared for the mannered ephemera that forms the basis of his writing, but it's obviously a serious interest. Watching Morgan going all Judd Apatow -- capping with a hopelessly lame moment where Cough gets on his knees and begs Taylor to work with him again -- is excruciating. I'm half-expecting an American remake starring Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, with the same squishy, feel-good center and tons of double entendres about "balls."

Years ago, I overheard in a coffeeshop a trio of female college undergrads endlessly razz a fourth for having a boyfriend who was a few years older than she was. "When he was a freshman in high school, you were ten!" one shrieked while the others joined in, which said more about them than the target of their scorn. I was reminded of that girl's poise by Carey Mulligan in An Education, a performance so universally and justifiably praised I have little to add beyond an affirmative nod. I also concur with David Denby's assessment of Peter Saarsgard as "an actor of major talent waiting for a major role, and he almost gets one" as David Goldman, mid-thirties paramour to Mulligan's teenage Jenny. Saargard is as charmingly voluble here as he was brilliantly subdued as prickly editor Chuck Lane in Shattered Glass. (Listening to the real Lane's audio commentary to that film, you get the impression he almost prefers his onscreen counterpart.) Also fine is Olivia Williams as a teacher with high hopes to get Jenny into Oxford, as are Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour as Jenny's well-meaning parents, concerned about her relationship with an older man yet also seduced by David's formal manners and affluent lifestyle.

Nick Hornby based his screenplay loosely on the early-60s, London-based memoir by Lynn Barber, and the theme he builds the movie around is a compelling one: Does a young woman learn more in school or in the world? Jenny's path to Oxford may ultimately liberate her, yet it's an awfully dull stretch to get there; whereas being with David opens her range of experiences culturally, economically and sexually, but would it limit her options, in the end, to become the wife of such a man? The Danish filmmaker, Lone Scherfig, keeps An Education humming along so pleasurably that you almost don't notice that her movie drops the very stakes it's raising. I'm unclear if it's Scherfig or Hornby who doesn't offer enough social context. For example, when Jenny's parents so willingly hand off their daughter to David, that it's because they're a product of an environment that did that sort of thing, instead of being merely obtuse.

There is a more troubling issue along these same lines, and that is the movie's attitude toward Judaism. A big deal is made over the fact that David is Jewish, followed quickly by an even bigger deal that it's not a big deal. The headmistress at Jenny's school (a clipped Emma Thompson) is depicted as a Jew-hating gorgon, only to have her worldview seemingly validated when it's revealed that David is a moneygrubber and a cad. Before seeing An Education, I'd thought that charges of antisemitism were a little over-the-top. Now, I have to admit that they make a stronger case than any counterarguments so far. (One of these -- suggesting that because David is a liar, how do we know he's not lying about being Jewish? -- is easily the most dubious.) An Education is ultimately so reductive that I'm willingly to believe that its makers were simply oblivious to their own implications. That's still a disappointing irony in a movie that's supposed to be about opening your eyes to the complexities of the world.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Spirit of '67: Pictures at a Revolution (Part II)

"These movies, known as road-show pictures, were long, large and lavish: They opened initially in a limited number of huge movie houses, sometimes with two or three thousand seats, in engagements that offered reserved-seat tickets at significantly higher prices than the national average.... Handled wrong, these movies could turn into Cleopatra or Mutiny on the Bounty. Done right, they were The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur, money machines that could often play theatrically for more than two years before exhausting their audience."

Such was a particular type of motion picture of 1950s and early-60s Old Hollywood: "road-show" movies, now having morphed into the "blockbusters" of today. Some things have changed: Avatar played in theaters for barely three months before coming to DVD; and it's science-fiction and fantasy, rather than historical epics and musicals, that are the genres of choice. Yet as Mark Harris indicates in Pictures at a Revolution -- his study of the Best Picture nominees of 1967 -- the fundamental building-blocks for these kinds of films remains the same. Last time we looked at Harris's analysis of Bonnie and Clyde, a movie that barely got made and was expected to do nothing, which became a revolutionary hit; this time we follow the author's glance toward "the only movie of the five that that had been fueled by a studio's bottom-line goal to manufacture an immense popular hit, and the only one that flopped."

Doctor Dolittle

What to say about a movie that has garnered less acclaim that an Eddie Murphy remake? I can't remember if I've even seen the original Dolittle, but it doesn't sound like I'm missing much. The culture out of which the movie was made, however, is a fascinating place to visit:
  • Harris notes that, between 1964 and 1965, "Hollywood did not react well" to the astounding box-office receipts by a quartet of films, three of which were musicals: Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. (The fourth was a James Bond flick, Goldfinger.) "Historically," he writes, "the only event more disruptive to the industry's ecosystem than an unexpected flop is an unexpected smash, and, caught off guard by the sudden arrival of more revenue than they thought their movies could ever bring in, the major studios resorted to three old habits: imitation, frenzied speculation, and panic."
  • I love the above quote in how it shows just how little has changed. A few years ago, when March of the Penguins was a surprise hit, you could practically hear studio heads barking that all movies must now include "some goddamn penguins!" Today it's 3-D that's all the rage. And when a 3-D film finally performs below expectations (nothing "flops" anymore), tomorrow it'll be something else.
  • By the mid-1960s, once-popular biblical epics were now alarmingly passe. Bad news, at the time, for John Huston (slogging through The Bible) and George Stevens (dithering on The Greatest Story Ever Told). But still encouraging on the whole for Hollywood, "which had always known how to produce musicals and would now simply make them bigger, longer, and more frequently."
  • Musicals, Harris writes, were the epitome of Old Hollywood because it could use the same lots, costumes and music departments (with "seventy-five piece orchestras") that it always had. He adds that if audiences wanted more musicals, "the studios would just build more soundstages, buy the rights to every Broadway show.... and, once that well ran dry, invent musical versions of old films from their own libraries." Substitute "comic books" and you have a good description of the Hollywood of today.
  • Doctor Dolittle was based on a series of popular Hugh Lofting books. Although it would have seemed an ideal fit for Disney, the studio "specialized in public domain properties--Snow White, Sleeping Beauty--that it didn't have to pay for." (I never knew this.) Finally, it was 20th Century Fox that purchased the rights.
  • Another problem was the menagerie of animals that would be necessary for the movie. Harris doesn't quote W.C. Fields' famous axiom, "Never work with animals or children," but it fits.
  • Harris gets a lot of comic mileage out of all the fiascos caused by our furry and feathered friends during production. During filming of a scene involving a squirrel that wouldn't sit still, a tiny drop of alcohol was given to calm it. The squirrel responded by falling off its ledge. Another chapter begins hilariously bluntly: "The giraffe stepped on its cock."
  • The author also shows us an untamable wildebeest who went by the name Rex Harrison. "(He) could be explosive, impatient, capricious, and vain, but also charming, apologetic, and compliant, sometimes within the same conversation or at different points during the same stiff drink." Put it this way: when Richard Burton thinks you have an alcohol problem, you know you're in trouble.
  • Rex Harrison was at the height of his career following his Best Actor win for My Fair Lady and made incessant demands all during production of Dolittle. He repeatedly tried to eliminate one particular song he hated: "Talk to the Animals." At one point Harrison was even fired, to be replaced by Christopher Plummer (fresh off The Sound of Music), but eventually was rehired again.
  • Although Harris did a notable job keeping Warren Beatty's personal life out of the book, he seems weirdly fixated on disparaging Harrison's wife, Rachel Roberts, who was every bit the imbiber that her husband was, and is repeatedly described in moments where she "barks like a dog."
  • Admittedly, this does lead to one of the funnier (if cringe-inducing) passages in Pictures: when Harrison and Roberts mortify a restaurant crowd of Old Hollywood types, he singing a raunchy ditty and she doing panty-less handstands.
  • Sidney Poitier was offered the sidekick role of Bumpo, a rather offensively stereotypical African comic-relief character that he nonetheless seriously considered (in order to shed his noble image). Harrison wanted Poitier badly. But the studio ended up eliminating the character completely, which was probably for the best.
  • Doctor Dolittle wrapped a nightmarish shoot, went enormously over-budget, and opened to poor reviews. Harris: "The reviews weren't scathing, but their yawning tone and the impression they conveyed of dullness and overkill was almost worse." (To put it in more recognizable terms, the Tomatometer was not fresh.)
  • Ah, but there were still the Oscars, and Fox's campaign was a model of proto-Miramax savvy, offering free voter screenings that included dinner and champagne.
  • Dolittle scored nine Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture that many thought should have gone to Richard Brooks's acclaimed adaptation of In Cold Blood. A chorus of outrage greeted the news.
  • In the end, the film won two awards: Best Visual Effects, and Best Song. That song was "Talk to the Animals," by Leslie Bricusse, which Rex Harrison had loathed.
  • A 150-minute "children's film," Doctor Dolittle's box-office failure would prove to be a harbinger for the (temporary) death of the Hollywood musical. Road-show movies would continue, and musicals would eventually return, but the two have scarcely connected since.
Next: Mike Nichols goes Hollywood, what constituted a "leading man" got a unexpected new face, and the counterculture embraces a film that couldn't have cared less about it....

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rocky Mountain High (John Woo's Red Cliff)

For all of its gazillions of dollars, technological innovations, and offerings of new patients to ophthalmologists everywhere, world cinema's latest "game-changer" may turn out to be not big blue Avatar but Red Cliff, John Woo's deliriously epic spectacle that smashed box-office records in China and barely made a blip on screens in the States. The version that appeared in most art-houses here was sliced and diced from 290 minutes down to 148, which -- to paraphrase a favorite line from Walk Hard -- wasn't half the movie the top half of the original movie was even after they cut it in half. Luckily for us, the two-part, full-length "International Version" is now available on Netflix, and if seeing it at home is a little like viewing Lawrence of Arabia through a periscope, it's still by far the most exhilarating experience I've had watching a movie all year.

Ironically, the fun of the film derives from something that's always bugged me about Woo -- as a critic once noted, the sense that he approaches every cinematic cliche as if he's never seen one before. I was well sick of his action-thrillers by the time Mission: Impossible II and Paycheck rolled around, to the point where I hoped I never saw guns and doves together in the same frame again. Woo was wise to take a break, return to his roots and tackle a different genre. There's nothing new on the surface of Red Cliff, a swords-and-horses extravaganza with echoes of Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and plenty of other films released over the last decade. What matters is it's all new to Woo. Painting on a large canvas clearly excites him, and he renders the experience every bit as fun as Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe make it a chore.

Red Cliff is a film propelled by its villain: Cao Cao (the outstanding Fengyi Zhang), ambitious prime minister of the 3rd-century A.D. Han Dynasty, manipulates the young emperor to declare war on the neighboring Wu kingdom governed by the relatively temperate Liu Bei (Yong You). In the first major battle sequence, Cao Cao's army encounters heavy casualties at the hands of Liu Bei's commanders, a trio of super-warriors that could have stepped out of a Kurosawa picture. (The wire-work isn't overdone; it just there enough to make you laugh.) One of them uses shields to reflect the sun on a cavalry charge in a moment that easily trumps a similar scene from Braveheart; another rescues a baby in a frantic sequence that becomes a clever homage to Hard-Boiled. The Han forces turn out to be too massive to overcome, yet it's notable that Liu Bei's primary concern is protecting the throngs of refugees evacuating the battlefield. Although Red Cliff is based on an ancient Chinese tale (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), the notion that a ruler would find responsibility in taking care of his own people is, one might suggest, downright visionary.

The Han invasion prompts a hasty alliance between the Wu and Xu kingdoms, the latter of which is led by the capable yet insecure ruler Sun Quan (Chang Chen, who played the charismatic bandit in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Liu Bei and Sun, however, become supporting characters as their respective military strategists take centerstage: the eerily prescient, fan-waving Zhuge Liang (a wonderful performance by Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the stoic, music-loving Zhou Yu (Tony Leung). Kaneshiro and Leung never interacted as the nameless cops in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, which Woo seems hellbent on rectifying here. The heart of Red Cliff is the growing bond between these two men, often framed together in tight close-ups where they valiantly stare each other down without cracking a smile. (Both, as Jerry Seinfeld would observe, are "close-talkers.") Zhuge and Zhou never stop reminding us that their alliance could turn adversarial at any moment, a forced tension that's never wholly convincing given the palpable guy-love they feel for each other. (In case we miss the subtext, Zhou's wife -- played by Chiling Lin -- points out after an impromptu musical recital between the pair that her husband "hasn't played his qin in a long time.")

Despite his usual macho-centrism, Woo fares well with a couple of key female characters: Xiao Quiao (i.e., Mrs. Zhou), who figures prominently in the closing act, wielding nothing more than a cup of tea; and Li Ji (Jia Song), the spunky Xu princess who goes undercover as a male soldier and befriends a likably dimwitted Han commander. A few of these plot threads get a little tangled in the second half of Red Cliff; for a while, Woo seems to lose the focus and momentum that he achieves in the first half. Just then, though, Cao Cao rouses his weary, typhoid-afflicted troops for the final battle. Cao Cao may have a name that unfondly recalls the Star Wars prequels yet he has all the personality a George Lucas creation lacks, cunning without being superficially evil. Inspirational speeches are nothing new in this kind of movie, but it's a kick that the one we hear in Red Cliff is delivered by the bad guy.

Woo's staging of the battle scenes isn't without glitches. There were a few instances during the grand "tortoise formation" set-piece -- at the end of Part I -- where I had no idea who or what I was looking at. Woo could use some of Peter Jackson's clarity. Yet as much as I admired The Lord of the Rings, its Orcs and Elves and Hobbits and Wizards kept me at a degree of emotional distance. (The moments that registered strongest for me came from the less fantastical Viggo Mortensen, Miranda Otto and Bernard Hill.) Red Cliff, for all its dazzling size and daunting scope, is still rendered on a very human scale. By now we've all grown accustomed to Hollywood's disinterest in people; even James Cameron, who has always populated his blockbusters with memorable characters, suggested (rather depressingly) at the climax of his last film that our collective destinies lie as avatars inside a computer screen. The everywhere-but-here success of Red Cliff, though, suggests a compelling alternate fate, one where we are no longer privileged stars at the center of the universe but now have to fight for screentime.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Out of Ohio (Fire in the Heartland)

This Tuesday, May 4, marked the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings -- a commemoration extremely prominent on-campus and in-state, yet seemingly below radar nationwide. It's entirely possible that current news items like oil spills and car bombs knocked the event off the front page. Indeed, approaching Fire in the Heartland, the new documentary by Daniel Lee Miller, may come with the kind of trepidation that prompts one to say, "Oh, God, that again?" Are the deaths of four students from four decades ago still relevant? Coming on the heels of the site of the shootings' recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places, Fire in the Heartland makes a convincing case that the answer is yes.

I should admit upfront that I'm not the most unbiased observer (Miller and I are professional acquaintances) and that I saw a rough-cut of the movie in a fairly impressionable milieu (the Kent Stage, with a large crowd of aging yet still boisterous activists). But I found Fire in the Heartland an effective attempt to delineate an exceedingly complex chain of events -- or at least one that does so from a specific point-of-view. Most documentaries on this subject give the impression that the shootings came out of thin air; they also often make a feint at objectivity by adding a National Guardsman or two to the rotation of talking-heads. Miller, though, begins the story in the years leading up to 1970. He also interviews almost exclusively former SDS and BUS members, a stronger tack in the first half of the film than the second.

The terrific opening hour of Fire in the Heartland offers the clearest answer I've yet seen to the question, "Why Kent State?" In sum, it happened there due to a young activist movement that developed gradually out of northeast Ohio's blue-collar roots. The tension between a large university campus (over 20,000 students) at the center of a small town became fractious and rife for misunderstandings. According to Miller, the events of 1970 were precipitated by a pair of crucial events: the 1968 walkout by Black United Students (BUS) in protest to the racist Oakland, CA police being allowed to recruit on campus; and the 1969 "takeover" of the Music and Speech Building by members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes when interviewee Chic Canfora recounts having heard the dire news on the radio while in actuality trapped in a classroom and pondering what to do next: "Wow," she remembers marveling, "I've taken a building!"

So much time is spent on supplying context that the actual events of May 1-4, 1970 go by surprisingly fast. My guess is Miller wanted to sidestep the iconic images and overly familiar information that the shootings have produced. (He succeeds with this elsewhere too: for Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and the death of Robert F. Kennedy, he avoids the stock visuals and soundbites.) While the voices are informed and effective (among them wounded students Tom Grace and Alan Canfora), after awhile they all begin to sound the same. I'm not saying the filmmaker needed to trot out a token Guardsman or townsperson who might offer a counter-perspective; his sympathies are clearly with the students (having been one himself), and I don't mind subjectivity as long as it's clear-eyed. Miller certainly offers that. But he misses an opportunity to show something that's little known: those who experienced the shootings first-hand frequently differ among themselves as to what happened and why.

Fire in the Heartland stumbles in a few other areas. Although it's commendable to see more attention than the norm devoted to the African-American perspective (BUS warned its members to avoid the rally on that day, certain that the Guard's guns were loaded and that they would be inviting targets) as well as the shootings that occurred ten days later at Jackson State, I'm not sure it's necessary to fill the soundtrack with Marvin Gaye and the theme from Shaft every time a black face appears onscreen. Much of the music is too omnipresent and loud. Far more elegant is Miller's layering of images: I really liked, for example, how the protest-as-a-lark vibe from the Music and Speech incident carries over into the carnival-like atmosphere on the Kent State campus prior to the killings. Additionally, he reveals an empathy that stops short of sentimentality. When Mark Rudd, notorious 60s hellraiser (see The Weather Underground for a fine documentary about his involvement with the radical SDS splinter-group The Weathermen), speaks in glowing terms about his first visit to Kent -- "I was born and raised in New York City," he says earnestly, while images of cows on farmland whir by, "and I found northeast Ohio very exotic" -- it gets a knowing laugh from the audience. Yet the humor isn't derisive. Rather, for all the violence that was wrought back then, it distills a touching innocence and purity that lasted right up to when the shots were fired.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Break Time!

Emerging from a brief hiatus to announce another one. Nothing solemnly serious or likely to be long, just stuff corresponding to the end of the semester, sunspots and ever-shifting constellations. I've also been somewhat blocked in writing about the Doctor Dolittle portions of Pictures at a Revolution. I honestly can't remember if I've seen the Rex Harrison original and if it's as big a stinkeroo as its reputation suggests. (Oh, let's not kid ourselves: the answer's yes.) In any case, the movie does offer some interesting parallels to the blockbuster flops and Oscar-nomination-wrangling of today, which I will ruminate on at a not-so-later date.

In the meantime, a few quickie reviews. Mike Judge's Extract was a disappointing all-buildup-and-no-payoff, lacking the satirical thrust of Office Space and the fitful brilliance of Idiocracy. Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad at first feels like the world's worst movie, then ventures into intriguing satire before copping out at the end; Heathers covered similar ground better.

Olivier Assayas's euphorically acclaimed pastoral-familial drama Summer Hours has been likened to nothing less than the creative heights of Rohmer, Ozu, and Farm Aid; and, well, I found it to be very, very...pleasant. Not terribly dynamic or insightful, lacking the pent-up passions of the oft-scorned Merchant-Ivory films. The movie makes better use of Juliette Binoche than, say, watching her unpack groceries for ten minutes in the coma-inducing Flight of the Red Balloon, but as usual she doesn't get a chance to cut loose. I've now seen four Assayas films -- including Irma Vep, Boarding Gate, and his contribution to Paris Je t'aime -- and I'm still not sold that he's a great filmmaker. I don't get the sense that he really feels anything for his subjects where it counts (the heart, the gut), and even his most accomplished sequences, like the teen revelry that closes Summer Hours, would be even more effective if they didn't appear so choreographed. (For a perceptive counterpoint, see the Film Doctor's review.)

On the plus side, I just finished Part I of John Woo's exhilarating international version of Red Cliff and am waiting in bated breath for Netflix to send Part II. I've always been a non-admirer of Woo's, rolling my eyes at his guns, doves and slo-mo. But with Red Cliff he's eliminated two of those tropes and employs the third sparingly. He's made a pop-Kurosawa extravaganza that's more joyfully invested in the genre than Wong Kar-Wai and Zhang Yimou have ever been. (Even the best sequences of Ashes of Time and House of Flying Daggers leave me with the sense that the filmmakers think they're slumming.) I haven't seen the mangled U.S.-theatrical release of Woo's film, scaled from five hours down to two-and-a-half, but like Ed Copeland I can't imagine what could have been cut that isn't essential. Check out the original, stat, and don't let its length daunt you: The time goes flying by.