Monday, September 24, 2007

Going "Into the Wild" to Live Deliberately; "Jane Austen" for the 21st Century


directed by Sean Penn
starring Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Jena Malone, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughan, Kristen Stewart
based on the book by Jon Krakauer

Midway through watching “Into the Wild,” I began to suffer racking stomach pains. No, it wasn’t the movie; more likely something I ate for dinner. But physical discomfort may well have colored my reaction to the movie. Curiously, it may not necessarily have been a negative impact: on the one hand, it did make “Into the Wild,” which runs nearly 2 1/2 hrs, seem interminable; on the other, it made me feel a keener empathy with the protagonist’s trials—especially those involving his stomach.

That sounds flippant, but flippancy had no part in what I was feeling as I left the theater. Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller and directed with a kind of earnest sensitivity by Sean Penn, “Into the Wild” is a sober and sobering, yet ultimately sympathetic portrait of Christopher McCandless, a young man who abandoned his privileged middle-class existence to wander the remotest corners of America and eventually made it his goal to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. For those who haven’t read the book, I’ll avoid the cardinal sin of spoiling the ending, but if you know anything about Krakauer, you can guess where the story goes. (Think of it as a darker My Side of the Mountain or Julie of the Wolves - for those of you who read Newberry Award-winning books as a child.)

The film begins with Chris (Emile Hirsch) graduating with honors from Emory University, under the proud eyes of his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and the more watchful gaze of his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone). But even on this day of celebration, it’s impossible to mistake his disinterest in his accomplishment and the logical life-trajectory that lies before him. Within weeks, he gives away all his savings and goes deliberately awol, hitchhiking and doing odd jobs across the country and eventually heading for Alaska. He travels light, moves often, and never again makes contact with any of his family.

This is a cruel blow, and Penn doesn’t try to soften its harshness. Even as he interjects childhood flashbacks and voice-over by Carine to suggest that the McCandless’ troubled marriage may have contributed to Chris’s alienation, the film provides equally revealing glimpses of the lacerating pain his disappearance inflicts on the people who genuinely love him. At the same time, it stops short of framing his quest as a simple act of selfish self-indulgence. The jury’s out on whether Chris was more a fearless seeker or a feckless spoiled kid, but Penn wisely steers clear of that debate, instead focusing on a youth struggling to instill new meaning into his life through experiences he’d never had or would have had in his previous life. The movie, in weaving back and forth between Chris’s past and his culminating present in Alaska, clearly, even schematically, structures his odyssey as a narrative of growth from innocence to experience.

Penn obviously shares the awe Chris must have felt in discovering the panoramic canvas of a country he’d lived in his entire life but only began to claim for his own once he began his solo journeying. Cities appear only in passing and in their dreariest light (Chris’s brief stopover in Los Angeles shows us only its skid row), while the camera dwells with leisurely romanticism (perhaps too leisurely) on the grand open stretches of the America that the developers haven’t yet gotten their claws into, from canyon deep to river wild, to the tune of original, almost comically earthy songs by Eddie Vedder. While the film acknowledges, occasionally quite graphically, that living “in the wild” is far too dangerous to undertake lightly, it’s still far closer in spirit to Thoreau and the Hudson River School than Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.” More than the narrative, it’s the visual and aural aspect of “Into the Wild” that betray where its sympathies lie.

As for the character at its center, he remains—and rightly so—an enigma. We’ve all known at one point or another members of his breed, incessant travelers or adventurers with an insatiable desire to explore the new and unknown—often accompanied by an addiction to risk and restless impatience with social constraints. To many if not most of these individuals, human attachments matter less than (and ultimately succumb to) their search for self-fulfillment. As portrayed by Hirsch, young McCandless is attractive, likable, even charismatic; the people he encounters respond to him, from a farmworker (Vince Vaughan) who hires him to a hippie couple (a wonderful Catherine Keener and first-time actor Brian Dierker) and a lonely older man (Hal Holbrook) who take him in, to a teenager (Kristen Stewart) who falls for him. But none of them can hold on to him, and even at his lowest point, one senses no regret on his part for deciding, in essence, to be alone. It’s a testament to McCandless’ vision, however misguided it might seem to others, and Penn’s respect for that vision, that the end of his story feels quietly, almost tranquilly inevitable. There’s a kind of integrity to his spirit that defies the most scathing criticism and that reaches, against all odds, transcendence.


Also saw:


directed by Robin Swicord
starring Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Emily Blunt, Maggie Grace, Hugh Dancy, Jimmy Smits, Marc Blucas, Kevin Zegers

Like the novel from which it’s adapted, “The Jane Austen Book Club” is a modest piece of entertainment, “pleasing, though by no means capital” (to quote Austen herself), with an appeal that’s not limited to Austenites but offers more layers of appreciation to those familiar with the Austen canon. The six major novels form the spine of Karen Joy Fowler’s: one book per meeting hosted by one member of the club. The club consists of five women and one man of varying ages and backgrounds, all residents of present-day central California. They read, they meet, and they discuss; and in between their reading and discussion sessions, they may not notice (but we do) that their own lives and personalities echo aspects and arcs of the novels they’re reading.

Some of the subtler echoes, which are quite cleverly crafted in the book, are dropped in the transfer to the big screen. The film overall, however, remains faithful to Fowler’s Austen-loving spirit and gentler wit. Plot-wise, it retains the placid, loosely episodic feel of the book, though screenwriter and first-time director Robin Swicord makes an ill-advised decision to inject drama by flirting with the possibility of a “Notes on a Scandal”ish affair between one of the book club members, a high school French teacher named Prudie (Emily Blunt), and a student (Keven Zegers, grown considerably studlier since “Transamerica”). Swicord does this by making Prudie much more deeply unhappy than the mildly discontented character she was in the book. The only result is that of all the story arcs Prudie’s feels the most forced. Thankfully, Blunt is a fantastic actress who almost makes Prudie’s brittle, cankerous misery sympathetic, and thankfully there are five other characters with more convincing plotlines than hers.

The cast of “JABC” is terrific, filled with actors who are either (like Blunt) stars on the rise or underrated veterans: Kathy Baker as Bernadette, the kindly, slightly eccentric eldest; Maria Bello as Jocelyn, the resolutely single dog breeder with a strong aversion to any kind of disorder or loss of control; Amy Brenneman as Jocelyn’s best friend, Sylvia, who discovers that her husband of twenty-plus years (Jimmy Smits) has been having an affair and wants a divorce; a surprisingly likable Maggie Grace as Sylvia’s beautiful, impulsive lesbian daughter Allegra; and an adorably geeky Hugh Dancy as Grigg, the Austen newbie who clearly has a crush on Jocelyn but whom Jocelyn tries to push on to Sylvia as rebound material. Never mind if you can already see how all the romantic entanglements are going to be resolved; never mind that most of the characters have been made about a decade younger than they were in the book. (I’d mind that more if I didn’t like all the actors they cast so much.) What matters, as in Austen, and what Swicord and the cast delivers, is the grace with which they reach their happy endings, and the smaller revelations and insights they uncover along the way. It isn’t quite on the level of Austen, but it’s a very palatable surrogate.


William Wyler Blogathon: "The Big Country"

Goatdog at Goatdog’s Movies is hosting a William Wyler blogathon, to which I arrive late, but not, I hope, too late to contribute a few passing thoughts.

Once again, in paying tribute to a great artist, I must also pay tribute to my father—something I’ve been doing rather frequently as of late. Enough, at least, to cause me to reflect on just how much he’s influenced my opinions on arts and culture, especially film, and to realize something I always knew but never fully appreciated: my dad has pretty good taste. So I must applaud goatdog’s effort to brush off some of the dust that’s collected on Wyler’s reputation, if for no other reason than that Wyler has always been one of my dad’s favorite directors. Interestingly, it wasn't so much Wyler’s big-ticket Oscar-winners that won his love (with the exception of “Roman Holiday,” a staple of my childhood) as lesser known films like “Friendly Persuasion,” “How to Steal a Million,” and “The Big Country.” And while I never did warm to “Friendly Persuasion” and only really fell in love with Peter O’Toole in “Million,” “The Big Country” earned a special place in my personal cinematic pantheon.

A sprawling western starring Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, and Burl Ives in an Oscar-winning performance that may be better remembered than the movie itself, “The Big Country”(1958) never quite achieved the classic status one might have anticipated from its pedigree. Why that is, I’m still trying to figure out. While it drags in some places and overall could have used some judicious editing, it has the sweeping visual majesty of a classic western, fine performances all around, and a broadly appealing story, or rather, set of stories - the outsider who refuses to conform to the local culture of swaggering bravado; the blood-feud between competing ranching families over precious water rights; the two interlocking love triangles, both surprisingly understated for a picture of this scale; and the various paternal or paternalistic relationships that underlie much, if not most, of the movie’s dramatic tension. It also features a memorable fight sequence between Peck and Heston and one of the best final showdown scenes of any movie, western or non-western. Above all, it boasts one of the greatest musical scores ever, composed by Jerome Moross, whose name seems to have languished in even more undeserved obscurity than the film.

I could go on at length about the many reasons why this film deserves many more accolades than it's received, but because the hour is late, I’ll focus briefly on just one aspect that, to me, exemplifies Wyler at his best. And that is his use of the pregnant pause. (Note: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.) As other contributors to the blogathon have observed, no one knew better than Wyler the power of the unspoken word—the word that everyone can hear in the silence, as clearly as if someone were shouting it. In “The Big Country,” it serves as a vehicle for both character development and commentary on narrative conventions and viewer expectations. There is, for example, the sequence during which Jim McKay (Peck) studies the movements of a crotchety horse he’s just refused to ride, followed by his wordless request of Ramon (Alfonso Bedoya), the Mexican ranch hand, to saddle him up, establishing McKay as a hero who won’t perform at the expected moment or with the expected words, but only on his own time and in his own way. There’s that beat when the conflicted Steve Leech (Heston), having defied his boss/surrogate father for the first time in his life, catches up to ride alongside him, underlining not just his loyalty (expected) but the hierarchical relationship that can only end with Major Terrill’s death (perhaps not as expected). There’s the dramatic pause that hangs in the air after Hannassey père (Ives) demands why Julie (Simmons) is trying to protect Jim—a pause during which Rufus finds his answer after looking from one to the other; and another, equally dramatic, following Rufus’ admonishment to his son (“Are you blind?”), during which the same comprehension dawns eons more slowly on the latter. The canny viewer will have caught on to the truth long before this, yet it’s not at all clear that Jim or Julie have fully realized it until this moment, either.

And, finally and most unforgettably, there is the moment at the end when Jim and Julie, riding off together, pause not to kiss, nor to speak, but simply to look at each other. That wordless gaze is at once the most eloquent vow imaginable, the seal on the unuttered confession witnessed earlier, and the biggest tease ever. For McKay’s part, as with everything else he’s done, his most important actions must occur away from the eyes of third parties. For the movie’s part, it’s a silent, coolly amused nod to our demand for the requisite happy ending. It’s as if Wyler were saying, “They don’t need to say it. They’ve earned it because they’ve stopped to think about it: have you?”

Such moments may have lengthened the film a whole, but they also made it into that rare thing: a contemplative western. And for that alone, “The Big Country” deserves to be remembered.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Cronenberg, Viggo Deliver on "Promises"; Taymor Soars "Across the Universe"


directed by David Cronenberg
starring Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel, Armin Mueller-Stahl

The one absolute that applies to David Cronenberg’s films is that they are not for the squeamish. Throughout his career, Cronenberg’s demonstrated a pervasive fascination with the vulnerability of the human body to mutilation, deformation, and decay that's earned him the nickname “Baron of Blood.” His latest effort, “Eastern Promises,” is no exception to the trend, even if its scenes of violence are relatively few and discrete. (Discrete, but in no way discreet – they're heavily telegraphed, yet shocking in their impact.) However, like last year’s “A History of Violence,” it reflects a shift in focus from the physical to the psychological effects of that violence - though both are still present and, as always in the Cronenberg universe, inextricably intertwined.

Set in the seedy underbelly of contemporary London, “Eastern Promises” loses no time plunging the viewer into the noisome, blood-soaked world of the Russian mafia before introducing an uninitiated outsider, Anna (Naomi Watts), a hospital midwife who helps deliver a baby girl from a teenage Russian prostitute named Tatiana. Anna, who's half Russian herself, attempts to trace the infant’s family after Tatiana dies from a hemorrhage. Guided by the girl’s diary, she finds her way to a restaurant run by one Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a courtly elderly gentleman who also happens to be the head of the London branch of a notorious Russian crime syndicate, the vory v zakone.

Anna, who has personal reasons for her interest in the baby’s fate, soon gets in far too deep for comfort or safety. As she presses on, despite the warnings of her family, her encounters with the vory v zakone, along with the film’s narrative perspective, become increasingly mediated through the mysterious figure of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), chauffeur and clean-up man for Semyon’s troubled son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Ultimately, the movie’s most urgent question becomes not the fate of Anna or the baby, but that of Nikolai.

That’s all to the good, for “Eastern Promises” is at bottom a relatively ordinary film galvanized by an extraordinary performance and a handful of stunningly filmed scenes. That’s not to belittle the script, constructed with admirable economy by Steven Wright (who previously delved more deeply into the perilous existence of illegal immigrants in London in “Dirty Pretty Things”) and splashed with a gritty realism that makes it more plausible than the literally cartoonish arc of “A History of Violence” and tempers the outsized nightmarishness of Cronenberg’s directorial style, which heightens the story’s not-so-subtle allegorical dimensions. But it’s Viggo’s authoritative embodiment of Nikolai that unites the film’s realistic and archetypal qualities into a continuous and convincing whole.

There’s been a fair amount of attention to Viggo’s painstaking research into the language, accent, cadences, carriage, and demeanor of real-life Russian gangsters in order to get in character. Not being Russian or having any knowledge of either the Russian language or Russian underworld, I have no idea how to rate the authenticity of his portrayal. But what I can say is that he disappears so entirely into the role that all I saw was Nikolai, never a part being played by Viggo Mortensen. At the same time, Nikolai is unquestionably the part Viggo was born to play. There’s always been something vaguely and rather sexily menacing about him—or maybe not so much menacing as redoubtable, and, at the same time, complicated. Even as the returning king in “The Lord of the Rings,” he managed to imbue the most straightforwardly heroic character of his career with more inner conflicts than Tolkien himself ever contemplated. And his best characters, like Tom Stall in “History of Violence” and the officer who puts Demi Moore through the wringer in Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane” (by far the most interesting part of an otherwise uninteresting movie), have been composed of layer upon layer of contradictions and complications, carefully packed under a seemingly impenetrable facade.

Here, in his trench coat, dark sunglasses, and fearsome tattoos, he cuts a powerful figure evocative of the Terminator, but one whose motives and loyalties gradually blur into a big question mark. Is he serving as guardian angel to Anna, protector of the unstable Kirill, instrument of the vory v zakone, or an independent with his own secret agenda? As in “HoV,” the narrative eventually supplies an answer to the mystery that comes as something of a disappointment—in large part because Viggo’s depiction of the character as an unsolvable enigma has been such an intriguing Rorschach test for the viewer. As Nikolai, he moves seamlessly from the unflappable, almost suave poise and ironic amusement underlying his interactions with Anna to the tightly coiled, (literally) stripped-down physicality of a gripping, intensely visceral fight scene in a bathhouse that’s already stirred a lot of excited media chatter.

The rest of the cast provides fine support, from Mueller-Stahl as the ruthless Semyon, whose grandfatherly veneer hardly masks the coldness of his eyes, to Watts, whose haggard yet luminous face registers with wonderful clarity the moment at which Anna shifts from naive curiosity about Semyon’s attentiveness to wary, dawning comprehension that a darker game lies afoot. Cassel, too, is excellent as Kirill, a perpetual drunkard and loose cannon who uses brutality as a (mostly unsuccessful) means of exorcising his insecurities and staving off a repressed identity crisis. Yet the story, while serviceable, is ultimately not quite as interesting as their characters. In fact, the film ends up being less a study of malevolent social forces, though it’s certainly that, than a moral parable with a surprisingly sentimental streak. To the extent Cronenberg ends on an ambiguous note, it’s fitting that our last view rests with Nikolai, in seeming repose, his expression and intentions unreadable. Anna and the dead Tatiana may be the soul of “Eastern Promises,” but Nikolai is its body and its animating spirit.


Also saw:


directed by Julie Taymor
starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, others

A Beatles musical? Why not? That seems to be the raison d’être for Julie Taymor’s most recent cinematic confection, and it turns out not to be a bad reason. Not everyone will enjoy “Across the Universe,” but it offers a very engaging viewing experience for those willing to open their hearts and minds to the idea of 30-some of our most iconic rock songs as the narrative glue for a transatlantic Vietnam-era romance.

Taymor’s film bears no relation to the Beatles-inspired Cirque du Soleil show currently playing in Vegas, though in its own way it, too, is fundamentally all about love. There is a plot here, of sorts: Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young dockworker from Liverpool (of course), journeys across the Atlantic to find his American father and stays after befriending Max (Joe Anderson), a well-heeled, rebellious (but as far as I can tell, not murderous) WASP, and Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max drops out of college and persuades Jude, who’s fallen in love with Lucy, to move with him to New York. There they sublet from sexy Sadie (Dana Fuchs), an aspiring lounge singer, Jude starts to develop his budding talent as a graphic artist, and their happy bohemian household expands to include Jojo (Martin Luther), a guitarist fleeing the Detroit riots, an unhappily closeted teenager named Prudence (T.V. Carpio, whose plaintive “I wanna hold your hand” will make you regard that song in a wholly different way), and Lucy, who begins to return Jude’s feelings. Troubles arise when Max is drafted and Lucy becomes a passionate SDS activist, leading to an eventual drift, rift, and parting with Jude. But never fear, all you romantics, for it just might be that all you need is love to work it out.

As a saga, “Across the Universe” is rather slight, and takes a while to pick up momentum. Once it does, though, it sweeps you effortlessly into its orbit, helped considerably by the strength of the song arrangements (which were done by Taymor’s husband, composer Elliot Goldenthal) and the solid vocal and musical skills of the cast. In fact, I can identify the precise moment at which the film began to work emotionally for me: it’s when Lucy, gazing wistfully across the room at Jude, delivers a beautifully melancholy rendition of “If I Fell” in an unexpectedly rich and sweet voice. That’s when I, too, fell, and kept falling.

Oh sure, the movie could have stood to lose a few numbers, like the pedestrian interpretation of “With a Little Help From My Friends” as party time for Max and his college buddies, or Jude’s labored attempt to turn the ironic detachment of “Revolution #1” into an angry tirade against Lucy’s endless postering and picketing. And there’s a trippy digression in the middle that seems to serve little purpose other than to showcase the theatrical flair of Taymor, Bono, and Eddie Izzard. But for every minor misstep there’s a genuinely inspired stroke, like Taymor’s witty spin on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a U.S. Army recruitment chant, or her reimagining of “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a visually dazzling commentary on the carnage of war, or the dreamy aquatic “Because” that somehow transcends being merely a glorified music video. In the end, if you love the Beatles, you should feel like celebrating. Because that’s what this film is—a celebration, not a disquisition.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"3:10 to Yuma," "Nanny Diaries," and Other Odds & Ends

3:10 TO YUMA

directed by James Mangold
starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, others


directed by Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini
starring Scarlet Johansson, Laura Linney, Paul Giamatti, Donna Murphy, Chris Evans, Alicia Keys

The title of this post should be “When Mediocre Movies Happen to Great Actors.” Or maybe it should be “When Great Actors Happen to Mediocre Movies.” I’ve been ruminating on this topic since seeing both “3:10 to Yuma” and “The Nanny Diaries” this past weekend. The first I was eagerly anticipating; the second I’d had no particular interest in after reading a number of tepid reviews, but was persuaded to see with friends after a pleasantly leisurely Sunday brunch. Curiously, my reaction coming out of both was similar. I found “3:10 to Yuma” mildly disappointing, and “The Nanny Diaries” not as bad as I’d feared it would be—though by no means good.

“3:10” was the better film. But not by much. The problem is not so much one of craft—it’s well-made as far as it goes—as lack of imagination. As a remake of what was by all accounts a very good western, it doesn’t do much with the original material other than to amp up the action and add a few half-heartedly p.c. nods to the dark side of how the West was won (e.g., dispossessed and practically invisible Indians—no small irony there, given how little we see of them—and Chinese coolies to build the railroads). The story remains the same in its essentials: a notorious outlaw named Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is separated from his gang, captured, and escorted to the nearest railway stop to board the titular train to Yuma, Arizona, the site of a state prison, while his band follows close behind. The film focuses on Wade’s interaction with Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck rancher who agrees to help guard Wade and get him to the train in exchange for a badly-needed $200. It also deals to a lesser extent with Evans’ troubled relationship with his long-suffering family, especially his adolescent son (Logan Lerman), and the hot pursuit by Wade’s band, hell-bent on freeing their leader and wreaking bloody revenge.

Crowe and Bale are two of the finest actors under 50 working today, and they manage to burrow into their respective characters with their usual depth and conviction. Unfortunately, the characters themselves never end up feeling fully dimensional, maybe because we’ve seen these archetypes before—charming psychopath with flashes of humanity versus tightly-wound man of integrity weighed down by sense of failure—or maybe because their fates become blindingly predictable early on in the film. Rather more interesting is a nearly unrecognizable Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade’s sadistic second-in-command, whose pathological loyalty to Wade is pitched to spark speculation about the feelings that lie beneath it. For the rest, “3:10 to Yuma” is a fairly by-the-numbers narrative that’s remarkable only for how much it strains even the most willing suspension of disbelief in its all-out shoot-’em-up climax. All I can say is that for a physically handicapped man, that Dan Evans sure can move. But so it goes.

As for “The Nanny Diaries,” though it belongs to a completely different genre (and viewing demographic) than “3:10 to Yuma,” it shares some of the same problems—the main one being that the scripting of the characters doesn’t do justice to the talents of the actors picked to play them. The movie ends up feeling like a warmed-over version of “The Devil Wears Prada”—duller, squishier, more earnest, and less entertaining. I haven’t read either book and therefore can’t really speak to the merits of either film as an adaptation. However, unlike “Prada,” which turned a one-note screed into an appealing wish-fulfillment-fantasy-meets-morality-tale constructed around an extreme yet believably nuanced figure of terror, “Diaries,” in trying to reshape its narrative into more of a coming-of-age tale, only ends up creating ultimately unconvincing central characters.

The protagonist, Annie Braddock (Scarlett Johansson) is now a Jersey girl and recent college grad who’s Trying to Figure Out What to Do With Her Life—go for a job in finance, as her devoted single mother (Donna Murphy) anxiously urges, or pursue her interest in anthropology? Since I myself, nearly a decade out of college, am Still Trying to Figure Out What to Do With My Life, I have much natural sympathy for Annie’s situation, and can even buy the farfetched premise that she might stumble into the position of nanny to a little Upper East Side tyke. What I can’t buy, and what the movie never sells me on, is the idea that Annie would become so emotionally invested in said tyke (although he is very cute) and his hellish family dynamics that she would stay on indefinitely, taking the constant abuse without even trying to figure out an alternative game plan, while hiding the whole misadventure from her attentive mother. Scar Jo has a tough job with this role, but she’s also frankly miscast; as someone who’s best when she plays a thoughtful and self-aware character, she can’t pull off the combination of comic pratfalls and maddening indecisiveness that comprises Annie’s character. Instead, she labors through the physical comedy and looks mostly vacantly ineffectual as Annie is faced with one reason after another to walk out, and doesn’t.

Laura Linney fares better as Annie’s boss and adversary, the Upper East Side mom dubbed simply “Mrs. X.” I adore Linney; she's one of the best actresses around, and was in fact the main reason I agreed to see "Nanny Diaries" at all. But while she ably evokes the pathos lurking just beneath the brittle polished surface and the fear of losing a privileged existence that hangs by a very thin thread (Mr. X, played by Paul Giamatti, is a repugnant boor who’s clearly having an affair), even she can’t rescue her character from its strong smack of caricature or its preposterous 180-degree turn at the end. The tribulations of Mrs. X in some ways seem as willfully self-imposed as Annie’s, yet it’s to Linney’s credit (and the film’s discredit) that we never entirely swallow the condescending suggestion that Annie is clinging to her post because she feels pity for Mrs. X as well as for her son. There’s a crisis moment in which Annie quite improbably lets this slip in front of Mrs. X, who retorts, “Who do you think you are?” and lights magnificently into her for presuming to think she understands what’s going on inside this family. I don’t think we were intended to sympathize with Mrs. X at that moment, but being thoroughly fed up with Annie by this point, I did. (Alas, the movie ends up vindicating Annie, or trying to, and in doing so rings totally false.)

It’s this moment, in fact, that crystallizes the movie’s failure in attempting to present Annie’s experience as an exercise in social anthropology. In itself, the anthropological angle isn’t a bad idea, even if directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ("American Splendor") somewhat overdo the conceit, repeatedly freeze-framing different New York social types as natural history exhibits. The device, amusing at first, gets old fast (Edith Wharton this ain't), and is less effective than their bitingly funny evocations of some of the more bizarre social practices of the X’s circle, including a ridiculous patriotic-themed costume party where Annie is forced to dress up as Betsy Ross, and a nanny-mother mediation session where the (mostly minority) nannies are hypocritically encouraged to speak their minds to their implacably well-pressed, well-heeled employers. Yet at the end of the day, “Diaries” strains too much credibility in demanding us to accept that someone in Annie’s position could truly “go native” and, further, affect the society she infiltrates as much as she does. In this respect, "The Nanny Diaries" is far more of a fantasy than "The Devil Wears Prada." It's also far less diverting.

GRADES: “3:10 to Yuma” B/B-; “The Nanny Diaries” B-/C+


Miscellaneous notes:

The Toronto Film Festival is well underway. Day-to-day coverage is available from GreenCine Daily and The Film Experience.

I did not have a chance to commemorate the death of (yet another) childhood icon over the weekend, Madeleine L’Engle, so I’ll note it briefly now. I will not call her an author of children’s books, because I bristle at such reductive classifications of books that, like hers, were clearly meant for all ages. I will, however, say that A Wrinkle in Time was one of the most mind-expanding, soul-piercing books I read as a child, and remains one of my favorites today. I read the rest of that trilogy (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet), but the two sequels, while quite good, never matched the sheer emotional and imaginative power of the first.

Also recently laid to rest: actress Jane Wyman, former wife to former President Reagan. The only movies I ever saw her in were “The Yearling” and “Pollyanna,” but may the rest of her distinguished cinematic legacy live on.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

R.I.P. Luciano Pavarotti: The Golden Voice

Luciano Pavarotti died tonight (Thursday morning Italian time) of pancreatic cancer. He was 71.

And so another of my childhood icons passes on...This loss feels even more personal, though, because Pavarotti was virtually a member of my family household when I was growing up. My earliest memories are filled with his golden voice on LP, waking me up on weekend mornings to the strains of "La donna è mobile." I saw him twice in live concert during the '80s, watched him more times than I can count on PBS' Great Performances, and even got carted along by my parents to a very silly movie called "Yes, Giorgio" in which the Pav starred as an opera singer in mid-career crisis who romances an attractive female doctor treating him for a throat ailment. (The one thing I remember vividly about the movie is that I cried at the end when the lady walks out as he's performing "Nessun dorma" at the Met - because I thought she was leaving him. To this day I don't know what her exit actually signified, although my parents tried to reassure me that she was not saying "No, Giorgio" but merely taking a walk to cool her head.)

He may not have been the greatest tenor of all time, or even of his time. But in my mind - and in many others - there is no question that he had the most beautiful tenor voice of all time, for all time. There was nothing like it before him (no, not even Caruso, or Jussi Björling, or Franco Corelli), and I can't imagine anything like it coming again. And the fact remains that Pavarotti was also blessed with remarkable natural musicianship, a matchless gift for lyric phrasing that served him equally well in bel canto arias and Neopolitan folk songs.

He was, as well, a canny businessman with a genius for self-promotion and marketing, and this aspect of his life and personality has tended to eclipse his genuine brilliance as a musician. He was one of the most successful "crossover" artists who ever lived, and this kind of success usually comes at a certain price among the cognoscenti who bemoan the dumbing down or dilution of great art. And then there are the other criticisms, most of them aimed at the latter half of his career: He got lazy. He cut corners, lip-synched, and insisted on delaying retirement even after his voice had clearly deteriorated. He was no good as a dramatic singer, and no good with languages other than Italian - in stark contrast to his chief rival, the much more cerebral, disciplined, yet also more artistically ambitious Placido Domingo. He was a womanizer, despite his ever-increasing bulk, and dumped his loyal wife of three decades for a woman much younger than himself. Etc., etc.

And yet none of this matters a damn once you've heard him sing. (Well, pre-2000, anyway; for no particular reason, though perhaps a subconscious one, I stopped listening to him after about that time, so I never heard him in his decline.) While he was probably at his peak as a pure opera singer during the 1970s, I think his voice actually became more gorgeous during the '80s. Though my dad says there was a brief period where he bottomed out, thereafter it became richer, smoother, more luscious, if less pointed and, arguably, less passionate. Less passionate because he made everything sound so effortless. His voice, as my parents and I sometimes discussed, seemed to get wider, even into the '90s - wide like the sea, on a calm and sunny day.

Maybe this reflected the change that was happening in his career as he became ever more popular. From the "Three Tenors" to a seemingly endless line of CDs he produced that were the equivalent of "Opera for Dummies" (still great singing on them, though), he was beginning to settle into a cushy groove. No matter how the critics might carp, he still had a million-dollar voice and smile, and he had the love of the people. He was a man of considerable personal charm, which he knew how to turn on max for his adoring public. I still remember his 1991 Hyde Park concert, when he offered, as an encore, an aria from Puccini's Manon Lescaut - "Donna non vidi mai," or, he translated it, "I have never seen a woman like that." A pause, appreciative laughter from the crowd, and then: "With your permission, I would like to dedicate it to the Lady Diana." Enthusiastic applause, followed by a beguiling performance of a meltingly romantic aria, in front of a crowd of thousands, as a tribute to one of the most famous beauties in the world. That was Pavarotti as I'll always remember him. Perhaps somewhere, in another state of being, he's singing for Diana again.

In his honor, here are my Top Ten Pavarotti Arias (i.e., the arias that Pavarotti sang best and made his own). These are not tied to a particular performance, but in all cases I'm thinking of him singing it at his best.

10. "Recondita armonia" from Puccini's Tosca. I actually don't like Tosca much, and I got heartily sick of this particular aria as a kid after having to listen to a tape cassette my dad made of a dozen different tenors singing it. But even then, I always thought Pav did it best. (Domingo does a better "E lucevan le stelle," though.)
9. "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore: Such a melancholy love-song, it took me years to accept that in the context of the opera it is not meant to be taken seriously at all.
8. "Questa o quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto: Short, simple, and utterly seductive.
7. "Ingemisco" from Verdi's Requiem: Ok, this is cheating since the Requiem technically isn't an opera. But good lord, it basically is. I listened to this track first after I read the sad news. It seemed somehow appropriate.
6. "Di quella pira" from Verdi's Il Trovatore: Get an early recording of this (mine's circa 1969-70, remastered by Decca so quality is excellent) - Pavarotti in his younger days sings with genuine fire and brio, and hits the high C's out of the park.
5. "La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto: See note for "Questa o quella." This was my favorite song as a kid. I'm not joking - I knew it better than anything by Madonna or Michael Jackson. Along with "O sole mio," Pavarotti could probably sing it in his sleep, but he always infused it with a delightful sunniness that belies the caddish lyrics.
4."Vesti la giubba" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci: Melodramatic as they come, but he makes it simply tragic by not overemoting and just singing to bring out the painful beauty of the melodic line.
3. "Cielo et mar" from Ponchielli's La Gioconda: The title of the aria means "Sky and sea." No title, and no music either, was ever better suited to Pavarotti's type of voice.
2. "Che gelida manina" from Puccini's La Bohème: Possibly the most romantic aria ever written. Pav spins it into pure gold.
1. "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot; Even before "Yes, Giorgio," this aria always brought tears to my eyes - but only when Pavarotti sang it.

Requiescat in pace, Pavarotti. For the peace you've given so many souls, you've earned your own many times over.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Tale of Two High School Fantasies: "Hairspray" and "Superbad"


directed by Adam Shankman
starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, James Marsden, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes, Elijah Kelley, Brittany Snow, and introducing Nikki Blonsky


directed by Greg Mottola
starring Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, and introducing Christopher Mintz-Plasse

I finally got around to seeing two movies that won over both critics and audiences this summer: “Hairspray,” the adaptation of the Broadway musical that was in turn adapted from the 1988 John Waters film, and “Superbad,” the raunchy teen comedy that marks the latest of the Judd Apatow-produced hit parade. Two very different movies; and yet there was an odd convergence. Both put a provocative spin on age-old teen fantasies (becoming a star; finding love; getting laid), while at the same time, both strive with almost puppyish earnestness to ingratiate and entertain. And the end result in both is just enough of an edge to raise some eyebrows, but not so much as to obscure the films' inherent sweetness.

While I enjoyed both, I have to admit “Hairspray” left a bigger smile on my face. Partly because I have a soft spot for Broadway musicals, partly because there’s just something irresistibly infectious about its shiny happy spirit and the rollicking energy of its song-and-dance numbers. I haven’t seen “Hairspray” in its previous incarnations, but I certainly didn’t feel like anything was lost in translation. Set in Baltimore in the early 1960’s, it remains an engaging if willfully wishful parable of diversity as the great unifier, its messenger a plus-sized high school gal who loves to shake her groove thang and embraces integration as “the new frontier.” Her name is Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), and at the story’s outset her greatest dream is to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” a daily TV dance program featuring a proto-Mickey Mouse Club of local teenage dancers—all white, of course, except when “Negro Day” comes around once a month—and to attract the attention of Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the blue-eyed heartthrob of the show. Later, after learning some funkadelic moves from the stars of “Negro Day,” Tracy expands her ambitions to making the Corny Collins Show fully integrated. The most formidable obstacle to these goals: Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer), the racist, antisemitic, anti-cellulite TV station manager and mother of bitchy blond Amber (Brittany Snow), Tracy’s chief rival for stardom (and Link’s heart).

Does Tracy beat the odds and achieve her heart’s desire? Do you even need to ask? “Hairspray” drives so single-mindedly towards its upbeat resolution that it seems almost beside the point to notice how far removed the story (particularly the racial narrative) is from social and historical reality. Nonetheless, it’s hard for the nagging, snuffly little voice in me not to note the sad fact that integration didn’t happen so smoothly and in many ways largely failed. Even if the point is to celebrate the cultural integration of African Americans and their fantabulous innovations, the snuffly voice still takes issue with the simplistic equation “Hairspray” seems to draw between the African American influence and the sexing up of whitebread pop culture—even though it’s equal parts tongue-in-cheek and sincere tribute.

Still, these twinges of liberal discomfort take nothing away from watching Tracy and her allies sing and dance their way so ebulliently to their well-deserved happy ending. Director Adam Shankman may not exactly boast an impressive resume (“The Pacifier,” “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” and, ugh, “The Wedding Planner,” anyone?), but he certainly knows a thing or two about good choreography and how to showcase it on camera. And even as he bathes the entire film in a period-appropriate Technicolor-esque glow, he inserts visual gags and sly prods at the ’60s (like the aerosol-induced beehive ’dos or the sight of pregnant women smoking cigarettes and downing martinis), that along with the wink-nudge lyrics and dialogue, keep a spark of John Waters subversiveness alive.

That said, the heart of the film lies not in its irony but in the enthusiasm of its performers—especially the younger ones. For the most part, the more established stars (Pfeiffer, John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah) deliver performances that are competent without being inspired; Travolta in particular is surprisingly muted as Tracy’s mom, though he shows he can still cut a rug even when in drag and a fat suit. The one real standout among the adults is James Marsden as the golden-throated “Corny” Collins. He’s absolutely note-perfect (literally and figuratively) as the host who shows some genuine soul underneath the slick of his pearly whites and perfect hair. Allison Janney, too, gets some good laughs out of a minor role.

It’s the youngest cast members, though, who really give “Hairspray” its lift. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Right from the effervescent opening number (“Good Morning Baltimore”), Blonsky is so winsome as Tracy that she pulls off the tricky feat of being incorrigibly perky and sweet without being the least bit annoying. Ditto Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton. Pretty-boy Efron shows enough talent to live up to his “High School Musical” hype, though he’s outshone if not upstaged by the electric Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, the black boy who teaches Tracy the moves that make her a star. “Hairspray” is at its best when one or more of these kids are singing and dancing. It flags for a stretch in the middle as it gets caught up in subplots involving the elder characters, but picks up again towards the end and goes out on a high note with the final number, the deliriously catchy “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” If you don’t find yourself shimmying in your seat or at least bobbing your head, then, well, you must be a square. And not the kind it’s hip to be.

Like “Hairspray,” “Superbad” has some good throwback music, but in other respects it’s considerably more contemporary in its sensibilities. Or at least it affects to be. Actually, once you set aside the endless f-bombs and the don’t-go-there-oh-shit-he-did-just-go-there gags, what you have is a tale of two high school geeks who fantasize about sex with hot chicks but who don’t have the first clue how to approach the girls they like. A tale, in other words, that’s timeless. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play the potty mouth (Seth) and the straight man (Evan), respectively. They’re a decent comic team, though Hill seems to be trying a little too hard to earn his laughs, while Cera (who’s really rather adorable—actually they both kind of are) doesn’t seem to be trying quite hard enough, though maybe he’s just going for subtle and understated. Wrong movie if so. Still, their characters’ friendship is at once funny and believable, and grounds the movie. There’s a turning point when we discover that a large part of Seth’s obnoxiousness is rooted in his insecurity about the friendship, and in this moment “Superbad” sounds a surprisingly poignant and mature note.

I called “Superbad” a tale of two geeks, but I should have said three geeks. Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes a memorable screen debut as Fogel (aka “McLovin”), the third wheel to Seth and Evan’s duo. Mintz-Plasse looks exactly like the kind of guy who was always getting stuffed into junior high and high school lockers, and he plays that for all it’s worth. Some of the movie’s funniest lines owe most of their humor value to his geek-tastic delivery. Unfortunately, he’s saddled with the weakest and most forced storyline, involving two cops (played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen) who so far as I can tell resemble no cops known to humankind. They seem to have wandered in from another movie—like one of those SNL skits-turned-full-length-features—and at about that quality level.

The only characters in “Superbad” less convincing than the bumbling cops are, alas, the girls. I’m not giving anything important away by observing that by the end of the movie it’s clear our heroes have either gotten with their dream girls or have a real shot at getting with them in the not-too-distant future. I suppose this is no harder to buy than the idea that an overweight girl could supplant a slim blonde in the affections of the cutest boy in school. The only difference is that said girl got her man by dancing up a storm and inspiring him to fight for social justice, while all the “Superbad” geeks had to do to impress their gals was to get wasted and not act like complete tools. It may be that “Superbad”’s fantasy is closer to reality than “Hairspray”’s. If so, I prefer the world of “Hairspray.”

GRADES: “Hairspray” B+; “Superbad” B/B-