Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Pride L.A.

When reviewing the latest entry in a popular movie franchise, such as the “Star Wars” saga or the various offerings from the Marvel “Universe,” a critic is faced with a serious dilemma.  Should the usual tools of film criticism- principles of cinematic theory, analysis of script and direction, interpretation of thematic elements, and so on- even be applied?  Or are we to accept that these movies are instead designed to satisfy the specific criteria of their legions of fans?  Although it’s not exactly “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” or “Captain America: Civil War,” “Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie” presents the same challenge.

As anyone reading this is likely to know, “AbFab” (as it has been lovingly abbreviated by its fans) is a BBC cult comedy series following the misadventures of P.R. guru (and wannabe fashionista) Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and her best chum, fashion editor and perennial party monster Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley).  These two self-absorbed, socially inept, politically incorrect survivors- or more accurately, relics- of “swinging” sixties London have spent more than two decades pursuing one ludicrous scheme after another- and delighting their (mostly gay) audiences by simultaneously skewering and celebrating the absurd whirlwind of popular culture.

Now this whole crazy circus has finally made its long-anticipated leap to the big screen, with a story that owes as much to the farcical cinema of Eddy and Patsy’s sixties heyday as it does to the “new/now/next” world of the show itself.  Having hit rock bottom (yet again) in her career, Eddy is feeling irrelevant.  When Patsy lucks onto an insider tip that supermodel Kate Moss is seeking a new P.R. rep, it looks like a chance to help her friend regain her mojo.  The two women hatch a plan- but, as usual, things don’t go smoothly, and Moss ends up in the Thames, presumably drowned.  The pair is soon on the run from the law, fleeing to the South of France with one last-ditch strategy to achieve the glamorous life of leisure for which they have always thirsted.

As penned by Saunders, the series’ star (and co-creator, with former comedy partner Dawn French), the “AbFab” movie follows the same formula as most of the small-screen episodes- which means the plot is little more than a wispy premise upon which to drape a wickedly irreverent blend of satire and slapstick.  Essentially, it’s an extra-long installment of more-of-the-same, with Eddy and Patsy stumbling through an over-inflated crisis of their own creation and lampooning the world of fame, fortune and fashion.  They are accompanied, of course, by such long-suffering bystanders as Eddy’s uptight daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), dotty assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), coyly subversive mother (June Whitfield), and a host of other returning faces from the show’s long run.  To spice things up, there are also some new characters- like Eddy’s uber-gay stylist Christopher (Chris Colfer, from “Glee”) and Saffy’s daughter Lola (the gorgeous Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness)- as well as a sea of celebrities doing good-natured cameos in which they spoof their own personas.

Yes, it’s all constructed around a now-familiar formula, and no, none of the characters seem to have changed or grown throughout their twenty-plus years of madness-on-a-loop.  That is, of course, entirely appropriate.  Nobody needs a softer, wiser version of these two champagne-guzzling anti-heroines, nor a mellower Saffy, nor a smarter Bubble.  So Saunders and director Mandie Fletcher have shrewdly delivered the movie that any “AbFab” follower might expect, and their only concession to the new format is that they spend a lot more screen time taking advantage of gorgeous location scenery in London and on the timelessly elegant French Riviera.

This means that “AbFab: The Movie” is not exactly a stand-alone experience.  Anyone unfamiliar with its endearingly awful characters and their terrible behavior will probably find much of it going over their head.  The dialogue is characteristically rapid-fire, many of the cultural and celebrity references are specifically British, and there are some regional dialects which will be an obstacle for the uninitiated.  On the other hand, Saunders and Lumley- whose interplay is always a sheer delight- lead a cast which is clearly having a blast; their sheer enjoyment is infectious, and even those who have never seen an episode of the TV show might find it hard to resist.

.Ultimately, though, this movie is blatantly, unapologetically, for the fans.  Fortunately, I count myself among their number, so I enjoyed every second of it.  I also appreciated its many subtle references to the comic cinema of the past; any movie that caps itself with a nod to one of the greatest film comedies of all time is okay in my book.  So yes, I highly recommend “AbFab: The Movie.”

To borrow a phrase from Patsy, “don’t question me!”  After all, I’m a film critic, sweetie.

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T2: Trainspotting (2017)

t_two_trainspotting_ver6_xxlgToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

A little over two decades ago, though English director Danny Boyle had built a reputation in his native country with his work in theatre and his first movie had just won a BAFTA award, he was still an unknown quantity to the rest of the world.  That changed when his second feature roared onto screens in 1996; immediately embraced by audiences and heralded by critics as a rebirth of Great British Cinema, it became an instant pop culture phenomenon, and suddenly his name was no longer as obscure as the quaint English pastime from which it drew its title.

That movie was, of course, “Trainspotting,” and twenty years later, thanks to its enduring popularity, it has gained iconic status.  Now, at least partly for the same reason, it has also gained a sequel.  Still, “T2: Trainspotting” is no mere effort at pandering to fans; Boyle, now an Oscar-winner and power player, has long spoken of a desire to revisit his breakthrough film because he felt there was still a story to be told.  With the help of original screenwriter John Hodge, he has mined the source novel (by Irvine Welsh) and its follow-up, “Porno,” to flesh out that story, and re-enlisted the now-considerably-craggier original cast to bring it to life.

For those who need a refresher, “Trainspotting” followed the wild-and-wooly exploits of a cadre of young mates – Renton (“Rent Boy”), Daniel (“Spud”), Simon (“Sick Boy”), and Franco (“Begbie”) – as they tried to navigate life (and heroin addiction) in the economically depressed slums of Edinburgh.  It ends with Renton leaving his friends behind in the squalor of their dead-end lives, as he escapes with the hope of building a better one for himself.  “T2” rejoins them 20 years later, as he returns to make amends.  Things aren’t much different, despite the intervening years.  It’s as if time has stood still for these men, or rather they have stood still while time passed them by.  Their world is still defined by the blight of poverty, and the oft-repeated catchphrase, “Choose Life,” seems as much a gilded lie as it was in their youth.  And of course there are still the drugs, with their insidious allure, and the abdication of responsibility which comes with them.  This time around, though, percolating under it all, are a host of long-buried conflicts- with each other and with themselves- which their reunion inevitably brings to the surface.

Boyle directed “Trainspotting” with the exuberant, visually engaging style which has marked his entire output.  Driven by irreverent energy, it was in turn dizzyingly joyous and harrowingly dark, laced with absurdity and irony, and marked by a refusal to rely on the tropes of social realism.  That same vision propels “T2”: it shares the same essential elements (arresting camerawork, bright colors, free-associative imagery, an edgy pop-music soundtrack), and adds a touch of self-referential humor to the mix (clever acknowledgment of the notoriously thick Scottish dialects, for instance, and several nods to the original’s iconic toilet scene).  The new film unquestionably feels like a natural extension of the old- perhaps a bit more sophisticated, and maybe a bit mellower, but no less audacious.

The cast clearly relishes its chance to revisit these characters.  Leading it, of course, is Ewan McGregor as Renton, bringing the same intelligence and good nature which allows us to like this character even when his choices strike us as questionable.  The formidable Jonny Lee Miller is every bit his equal, managing to be somehow lovable as Sick Boy, the inept con artist on the other side of their precarious bromance.  Ewen Bremner is again both comical and heartbreaking as Spud, and Robert Carlyle gives us a Begbie whose ferocity and haplessness have only been magnified by the passage of time.  Finally, new addition Anjela Nedyalkova brings a complex blend of warm and cold- along with a fresh perspective- into the mix as Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika.

When a sequel appears to such a revered original, there is always a question of worthiness.  The intervening years have added layers of resonance which help to make “T2: Trainspotting” a compelling two hours, and Boyle and company have certainly brought the same level of energy and expertise to the table.  Its quality is undeniable.  Is it a masterpiece of the caliber of its predecessor?  Not quite.  Does it add something essential to the story?  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, any film as intelligent, superbly executed, and downright entertaining as this one will always be welcome- and that not only makes it necessary, but very worthy indeed.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

Weiner-Dog (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Todd Solondz doesn’t make movies to offer you an escape from your problems; he makes movies to confront you with them.  Ever since his 1995 breakthrough, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he has repeatedly offered up grim, uncomfortable stories of the dysfunction lurking just beneath the banal surface of suburban American life.  His films are variations on the interconnected themes of failure, depression, and emotional isolation.  Not exactly the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Yet the quirky writer/director has developed a loyal cult following who continue to be mesmerized by his sardonic vision of the world and the broken, faltering lives of the people who live in it.  Indeed, there is an almost masochistic fascination to these sad little fables of modern life, not unlike that can’t-look-away feeling you get when passing a gruesome accident scene on the highway.  Coupled with this morbid appeal is his tendency to feature recurring characters in his films (usually portrayed by different actors) alongside the new ones.  The desire to see what has happened to some of these familiar figures (and the hope that they have somehow managed to improve their dismal lives) is undoubtedly key in keeping his fans coming back for more, and it provides a major hook for the filmmaker’s latest effort, “Weiner-Dog.”

Those familiar with “Dollhouse,” which remains Solondz’ most popular and successful work, will immediately recognize this title as the nickname bestowed on that film’s pathetic anti-heroine, middle-schooler Dawn Wiener.  Though clearly intended to invoke that connection, and though that much-beloved character does indeed make her long-anticipated return here, in this case the name refers to a new central figure- a dachshund who becomes the pet of four different, unconnected people through the course of her life.

First, she is gifted to a young cancer survivor, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), providing the boy with a brief respite from the stark home environment created by the antagonistic and seemingly loveless marriage of his affluent parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts).  Then, she is adopted by the now-adult Dawn Wiener (the gifted Greta Gerwig)- still awkward and desperate for affection- who takes her along for the ride as she accompanies an old schoolmate on a road trip.  Changing hands again, she becomes the pet of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a has-been screenwriter barely clinging to his job as an unappreciated teacher at a film academy.  Finally, she ends up as a companion animal for Nana (the always-stellar Ellen Burstyn), an elderly and misanthropic invalid who receives a surprise visit from her long-absent granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet).

That’s it.  The dog connects the segments by her presence, but otherwise these are stand-alone vignettes, composed around Solondz’ usual themes and exploring the various ways in which human beings treat each other- and themselves- very badly.  As anyone familiar with the director’s work would anticipate, there’s not much hope to be found in these stories, and where there are glimmers of it they are subverted by the surrounding circumstances; and yet, the film has a strange and terrible beauty.

This is the hallmark of Solondz’ work; he shows us life at its cruelest and most demeaning- almost always with the explicit qualifier that it is we ourselves who are responsible- and yet he makes it somehow lovely.  He also makes it darkly funny; he is, above all, a social satirist whose stunted, minimalist dialogue conveys both depth of insight and an arch sense of ironic humor that revels in making us laugh at the things which most disturb us.  It might be argued that the laughter is a defensive reflex, a release of uncomfortable tension; this may be true, but it’s an authentic response, nonetheless.

Cut from the same cloth as his earlier films, this is perhaps Solondz’ most elegantly-made work to date.  Cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a low-key study in composition that subtly elevates the aesthetic and allows us just enough of a cool perspective to distance ourselves without being able to completely detach.  That’s important, because Solondz wants us to reconnect with the primal emotions- fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, resentment- within us all.  He warns us that if they are left in the darkness to be stoked by our failures and losses, they can make our lives like those he shows us on the screen; those lives might seem absurd, exaggerated, and extreme, but he never lets us believe they are anything other than truthful.  Brutally truthful.

For non-Solondz-fans, it should be noted that “Weiner-Dog” (like all of his work) is likely to put off many viewers.  It’s bleak and unrelenting, with a pall of despair that hangs over it from beginning to end.  Animal lovers, especially, should be warned to consider carefully before seeing it; for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

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Anomalisa (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

Youth [La giovinezza] (2015)

YOUTH (2)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

At this time of year, movie houses are suddenly filled with films clearly intended as “award bait,” each one marketed as the next big winner in an effort to attract your attention and your box office dollars.  Discriminating movie-goers, of course, know that most of these are often just the usual mainstream studio fare masquerading as art films- but usually, in their midst, one can find the genuine article.  This year, one such contender is “Youth,” an English language film by Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino.

With an impressive cast of veteran heavy-hitters, “Youth” belies its title by centering on two elderly characters- Fred and Mick (played, respectively, by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel), who are vacationing at a luxurious resort in the Swiss Alps.  Fred, a renowned conductor and composer, is faced with a hard-to-decline invitation to come out of retirement for a very special command performance, which brings up long-suppressed feelings over his absent wife; Mick, a respected film director, clings to his self-acknowledged illusions while crafting the script for his next movie, which he envisions as a definitive “testament” about the nature of life and art.  Personal struggles notwithstanding, these two old friends spend their time together talking only of “good things,” and mingling with the other guests, who include (among others) a hot-shot movie star, a now-obese former soccer legend, and the newly-crowned Miss Universe.  Clearly, this hotel boasts an exclusive clientele.

If the above description doesn’t read like much of a synopsis, that’s because “Youth” is not really a plot-driven film.  Sure, things happen- Fred’s daughter (Rachel Weisz) has some romantic complications, and a number of background characters have their own dramatic arcs throughout- but these serve more to illuminate the ongoing meditation that is the true focus here.  Instead of rising and falling action, we are given ebbing and swelling emotion, conveyed less by what we see and hear than by what we feel- or, perhaps more accurately, what we sense.  In this way, Sorrentino allows us to experience his characters at an empathic level, and turns what seems to be a story about the existential struggles of privileged people into a contemplation of the human need to connect.

This is no simple accomplishment, but Sorrentino makes it seem effortless.  His movie is a study of the contrast between surfaces and what is beneath them; from beginning to end we are treated to atmospheric, richly-detailed visuals, photographed (by Luca Bigazzi) with an eye towards capturing both the idyllic settings and the subtle activity within them.  Breezes billow through canopies, steam rises from still water, sunlight pierces shadows; and populating the scene are the placid figures of the hotel’s guests, evoking speculation about the interplay of forces taking place behind their own inscrutable exteriors.  The cumulative effect of this visual counterpoint is a growing awareness of the inner lives of the characters which gets its ultimate payoff in a moving finale involving a performance of one of Fred’s songs- actually a piece written by the film’s composer, David Lang, which would get my vote for the Best Song Oscar, if I had one.

Of course, it’s not all accomplished with subtle cinematic style; a great deal also depends upon the characters themselves- and, therefore, upon the players who portray them.  The perfect front man for all this under-the-surface exploration is Caine, who gives us yet another sublime performance; his Fred is a masterpiece of understatement, conveying monumental passions with the slightest quaver of his voice or nuance of his expression.  Keitel, as Mick, provides a fitting contrast with his earthy, passionate persona, and there are equally effective contributions by Weisz and Paul Dano (as the movie star).  However, it’s Jane Fonda, in a brief-but-show-stealing turn as Mick’s muse and favorite actress, who makes the most spectacular impression; she explodes into the proceedings like a thunderstorm, and the effect of her performance lingers for the remainder of the film.

“Youth” is one of those movies that are hard to recommend with certainty.  Despite its familiar, English-speaking cast, it’s as European as can be; Sorrentino invokes his idol, Fellini, with situational references (there are clear parallels to “8 1/2”), stylistic homage, circus imagery, unabashed symbolism, and infusions of surrealism.  In addition, with its languid pace and heavy reliance on subtext, it often runs the risk of alienating viewers who prefer more actively engaging fare.  For myself, I found it intellectually challenging, emotionally complex, and deeply resonant; if that description appeals to you, I encourage you to see it for yourself.  At the least, you will be treated to a display of artistry by all of its participants; odds are good, though, that you will also walk out of the theater with a deeper connection to your own humanity- and in today’s world, that can only be good thing.

Sing Street (2016)

SingStreet

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

Movie musicals are a rarity these days.  Every so often a Broadway blockbuster will find its way to the big screen, but an original musical, with a new script and songs, comes along about as often as a light traffic day on the 405.  The last one of any significance came nearly a decade ago in the form of Once, a bittersweet, tuneful romance from Irish writer-director John Carney that went on to be adapted into a Broadway show in its own right.  Now Carney has returned to the genre with a new effort, the semi-autobiographical Sing Street.

Set in Dublin of the mid-eighties, it focuses on Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager whose middle-class family has fallen on hard times.  No longer able to afford his private education, they send him to a public boys’ school where discipline is strict, teachers are indifferent, and bullies rule the schoolyard.  It’s a bleak environment, but he finds a ray of light in the form of  Ruphina (Lucy Boynton), an aloof girl who frequently stands on a stoop across the street.  To impress her, he tells her he is in a rock band; her interest is piqued, and Connor starts recruiting schoolmates to make the lie a reality.  What starts as an attempt to get a girlfriend soon develops into a journey of self-discovery- and, just maybe, a way out of the dead-end life for which he seems destined.

Sing Street, on the surface, seems like an implausible mix.  Carney, evoking the gritty social realism that British cinema has been mastering since the “kitchen sink” dramas of the early sixties, places his story in an economically depressed urban landscape and populates it with characters who have more or less given up hope of anything better, yet he uses this grim setting as the backdrop for an escapist flight of rock-and-roll fancy which seems straight out of the Hollywood dream factory.  It shouldn’t work- but it does.

It’s just this odd juxtaposition of moods, in fact, that gives his film its magic.  Carney tempers the desperation with humor and grounds the giddiness with melancholy.  He treats his characters with compassion- even when they serve as antagonists to our hero- and never allows the fantasy to lose its connection to the underlying reality.  As for the romance (deftly played by the two young co-stars), instead of adolescent wish-fulfillment we are reminded, to paraphrase a line from the film, that to be in love is to be happy and sad at the same time.  It’s this delicate balance of “happy/sad” that permeates Sing Street, and serves as the lynch pin that helps it maintain its own delicate balance, right up to the sublimely satisfying ending.

The cast -mostly comprised of unknowns- brings an infectious energy to the mix, performing with the kind of authenticity that makes you forget they are acting.  Although the charismatic Walsh-Peelo definitely deserves singular praise for largely carrying the movie, he is equally matched by the lovely Boyle, and all of their young co-stars perform at the same level.  Special mention should also go to Jack Reynor as Brendan, Connor’s older brother and unlikely mentor; he gives a heartbreakingly endearing performance which, in many ways, provides the emotional center of the movie.

Finally, there’s the music.  Composed by Carney (with Gary Clarke and Adam Levine), a series of period-flavored songs brilliantly charts each new development in the fictional band’s style (as they progress though various phases of eighties pop), as well as Connor’s growing maturity.  They work as integral parts of the story, but they also stand on their own merits- catchy, heartfelt, and imaginative, they make the band’s onscreen success all the more believable.  These original tunes are the heart and soul of Sing Street, but a number of familiar eighties hits are sprinkled throughout as well, just for good measure.

It’s worth noting that the generation which lived through the era depicted will find that Carney’s film strikes a particularly resonant chord.  The clothes, the hairstyles, the videos- all are skillfully and lovingly recreated here, and it gives the movie a decidedly nostalgic flavor.  That doesn’t mean it won’t also feel fresh enough for younger audiences.  Ultimately, what makes Sing Street so appealing is that, at its core, it’s about the promise of the future- no matter how hopeless the present may seem.  That’s certainly a message that has a place in the world today, and it might just make even the most cynical of movie-goers walk out of the theater with a little more lightness in their step.

Flesh Gordon (1974)

Flesh Gordon (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Flesh Gordon, a 1974 semi-“porno” feature spoofing the classic sci-fi movie serials of Hollywood’s golden age, directed by Michael Benveniste and Howard Ziehm and starring… well, probably no one you’ve ever heard of.  Rooted in the irreverently hedonistic sensibility of the so-called “sexual revolution” of the seventies, it lampoons the old-fashioned conventions of the original Flash Gordon adventures by sexualizing all of the story elements and adding lots of gratuitous nudity and sex.  Campy, juvenile, and amateurish, it nevertheless has a certain goofy charm that helped to make it a favorite on the midnight movie circuit and something of a cult classic.  It is also notable for its cheap-but-well-executed special effects, which were orchestrated by several future industry legends (most notably specialty make-up pioneer Rick Baker) and were sufficiently impressive to put the film into consideration for an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects- though ultimately the Academy opted to skip the category that year due to a shortage of suitable contenders.

As written by co-director Benveniste, the plot follows the story of the classic Flash Gordon serial so closely that the filmmakers had to include a disclaimer before the credits, expressly stating that the movie was meant as a parody and “homage,” in order to avoid a lawsuit from Universal Pictures, copyright holders of the original.  As the film opens, the titular hero is traveling by plane, summoned by his scientist father to help in the effort to stop a mysterious attack from outer space; the earth, it seems, is being bombarded by a “sex ray,” which causes widespread havoc by causing people to break into spontaneous orgies, and young Flesh is so far immune to its effects.  Unfortunately, the plane is hit mid-flight by a blast from this deadly extra-terrestrial aphrodisiac; its pilots abandon the cockpit in order to join the sexual frenzy in the passengers’ cabin, and the unmanned aircraft begins to plummet from the sky.  Flesh manages to rescue Dale Ardor, a young female passenger with whom he struck up an acquaintance before the ray hit (compelling her to rip off her clothes, of course), and the two parachute to safety on the ground below.  There, they find themselves at the secluded home of Dr. Flexi Jerkoff, an eccentric scientist who has traced the source of the sex ray to the planet Porno, and has built a spaceship- decidedly phallic in design- in which he plans to go there.  Flesh and Dale, naturally, decide to join him, and the three new comrades set out on their journey through space.  It doesn’t take long to arrive- this is super science, after all- and they soon find themselves in the palace of Emperor Wang the Perverted, who plans to dominate the universe through its libido; the deviant despot conscripts Jerkoff into his service, declares Dale as his new bride, and sends Flesh off to be castrated.  However, Amora, the Queen of Magic, has become smitten with the young hero; planning to make him her consort, she abducts him from the palace, with Wang’s men in pursuit.  Though Amora’s vessel is shot down, Flesh escapes intact; Jerkoff, meanwhile, has managed to flee from the palace, as well.  The two adventurers reunite, and, joining forces with Porno’s rightful ruler, Prince Precious, they undertake to rescue Dale, destroy the sex ray, and overthrow the evil Wang once and for all.  To do so, they must defeat a tribe of evil lesbian Amazons, outwit Wang’s spies, and defeat the Great God Porno, a giant satyr-like beast awakened from his long slumber by the evil Emperor himself.

It’s probably unnecessary for me to have provided even such limited detail in the above synopsis; like most so-called adult movies, the plot of Flesh Gordon is really immaterial.  It exists merely to provide a framework for the various titillations and parodies which are, of course, the only reason for the film to exist.  As far as titillation goes, though virtually every scene features some degree of nudity, and there are a number of scenes in which people are seen having sex, the truth is that Flesh Gordon is really pretty tame, even by 1974 standards.  Part of the reason for this is that, although the film originally included numerous scenes of explicit, hardcore sex, both straight and gay, the filming of such material was illegal in Los Angeles at the time it was made (hard as that may be to believe now); to prevent their prosecution for pandering, the filmmakers were forced to surrender all such footage the L.A. vice squad, and Flesh Gordon was released without explicit pornographic content.  This was undoubtedly seen as a setback by its makers, but in the long run it was better for the movie; if it had been full-fledged porn, it would not have been as widely seen- or perhaps, at least, not by the same audiences- and would likely not have achieved the popularity it eventually enjoyed.  In the more “soft-core” form it was forced to take, it managed to become as much a lampoon of “skin flicks” (as they were euphemistically called in those days) as it was of the corny space operas of old.

This brings us to the satirical side of the film.  Though Flesh Gordon is loaded with crude sexual innuendo and sophomoric jokes, it somehow manages to be endearingly cute.  Sure, the humor is as juvenile as the nudity and sex are gratuitous, but this in itself is part of the charm.  Benveniste’s script does not pretend to be anything other than a collection of cheap laughs; it is free of the kind of hip, self-aware cleverness that mars so many similar attempts at this kind of send-up.  The comedy is so obvious and so gleefully raunchy, so painfully and ludicrously obvious, and just so plain silly, that it is impossible for any but the most snobbish viewers to be unamused; you roll your eyes and shake your head, but you chuckle as you do so.  One of the main reasons for this is the movie’s underground feel; the cheap sets, the grainy 16 mm look of the photography, and the hopelessly amateur acting, all give the impression of watching some weekend garage-filmmaking project undertaken by naughty teenagers while their parents are out of town.  The two directors clearly have limited knowledge of how to make a movie, with poor staging, sloppy editing, and muddled storytelling that sometimes obscures the intended focus of scenes and prevents us from getting an adequate view of would-be sight gags.  It’s somewhat frustrating, at times, but it has the effect of making much of the movie’s funniest material play like throwaway gags, the kind of parenthetical comic detail that contributes to the underlying wackiness that pervades the piece as a whole.  At times, the film’s raw quality is similar to the early work of John Waters- certainly the sex and nudity has the same glamorless, unattractive sensibility as one finds in Waters’ films from this same era- but with more of an attempt at emulating the polish of mainstream Hollywood.  It’s an attempt that falls far short of the mark, but, of course, that’s part of the joke.

Despite the low budget and the obvious inexperience of its directors, however, Flesh Gordon manages to impress with its special effects.  Certainly, these are not the high-tech visual feats of magic one could expect from an A-list studio production, but cheap though they may be, there is a sense of artistry on display here that lifts the movie above the level of low-grade exploitation cinema.  Under the supervision of Walter R. Cichy (one of the film’s three producers, along with Ziehm and Bill Osco), the designers and artists involved- many of whom, as mentioned, were established or soon-to-be established industry professionals- manage to infuse their bargain-basement work with the kind of imagination and tongue-in-cheek humor that makes the cheapness seem like a choice.  With an obvious nod to the spaceship-on-strings style of classic sci-fi history, the movie delivers deliciously cheesy visual delights to go with its inane dialogue and corny story; shaky walls, cannibalized props and sets, and primitive in-camera trickery create the appropriately campy environment, populated by such ridiculous creatures as “Penisauruses” and the aforementioned Great God Porno (voiced, sans credit, by the then-young-and-unknown Craig T. Nelson) which are brought to life by surprisingly deft stop-motion animation.  In addition, the thrift-store pastiche of costumes and the over-the-top execution of the makeup give the whole thing a Halloween party tackiness that somehow puts the perfect finishing touch on the whole package.

As for the cast, the only name of note is Candy Samples, a former pin-up and porn actress who earlier had worked with Russ Meyer, who makes a cameo as Queen Nelly, the eye-patched (and breast-patched) ruler of the Amazon lesbian tribe.  For the most part, the performances are as banal as one might expect, with Jason Williams and Suzanne Fields, as Flesh and Dale, respectively, barely able to muster the sense of excited urgency that is, pretty much, all that is required of them- well, except for their bodies, of course, both of which are suitably sexy in that pre-personal-trainer (and pre-silicon) early seventies way.  As Dr. Jerkoff, Joseph Hudgens (in his only credited film role) manages to combine likable earnestness with a Vaudevillian sensibility that, for some reason, conjures memories of Groucho Marx, and Lance Larsen exhibits signs of personality as the deposed Prince Precious, a leotard-clad Robin-Hood-like figure, mercifully keeping his mincing to a minimum as he allows the character’s name to do most of the work in conveying his sexual preferences.  The acting highlight, as far as it goes, is the performance of William Dennis Hunt as Emperor Wang, sporting outrageous Fu Manchu makeup as he chews the scenery with appropriate relish, laughing maniacally as he incites his mostly naked subjects to copulate and calling his minions “dildoes.” To be sure, none of these performances are Oscar-worthy, but they work well enough for a film which gets most of its charm from being deliberately bad.  There’s something about bad actors doing their best- even when it’s terrible- that is much less painful than good actors purposely trying to be bad; in this case, it complements the style of the film and, somehow makes it all the more satisfying.

Don’t get me wrong here; though it might seem I’ve raved about Flesh Gordon, it’s hardly some sort of visionary masterpiece.  It’s pure schlock, in fact, and shoddily made schlock, at that.   What makes it entertaining is its sheer unpretentiousness.  Benveniste and Ziehm were simply trying to make a cheap, funny, sexy movie that would appeal to youthful audiences; the vehicle they chose was designed to poke fun at the old-fashioned entertainment of an older generation, and whether by accident or canny exploitation, they managed to ride a wave of nostalgia that was rising in popular culture at the time.  These factors may have helped to give their movie a bit more push than it otherwise deserved, but what made it become a sort of mini-phenomenon was the fact that, for all its ridicule of the serials that inspired it, it exhibits a clear love for that source material.  Despite its effort to reinvent Flash Gordon as a blue movie, Flesh Gordon is undeniably sweet, amusingly naive, and more than a little geeky.  It’s these qualities that make it worth sitting through, not just once but over and over, despite the lousy acting and bad jokes; personally, I would rather watch Flesh Gordon a hundred times than have to watch the abysmal 1980 remake of Flash Gordon even once more.  Though this movie makes fun, it also celebrates the original; in truth, it’s really pretty true in spirit to those old melodramatic space operas, because they, too, were designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator by exploring the public’s sensationalistic urges for action, fantasy and, yes, even sex.  After all, the costumes worn in those 1930s movies were pretty sexy, for their time; by 1974, they might have had to eliminate costumes all together in order to get the same effect, but the principle is still the same.  Obviously, Flesh Gordon is not for die-hard prudes; but you are likely to see racier stuff on late-night cable TV than you will in this movie, so anyone else is encouraged to check it out, at least once.  It’s likely to be one of the more unique cinema adventures you’ve had, and besides, do you really want to miss a movie where the only way to defeat the villain is to use the “pasties of power?”

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068595/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabin in the Woods, the genre-twisting feature, from the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, that satirizes horror movie conventions within a larger science fiction framework as it tells the tale of five college-age friends who are secretly manipulated by a mysterious high-tech agency during a weekend getaway at a mountain lake.  Filmed in 2009, it was held from release by the bankruptcy of its studio, MGM, which could not afford the cost of marketing and publicity; eventually picked up by Lionsgate Films, it finally hit screens in early 2012, when the long anticipation by Whedon’s many fans turned it into a major box office success.  Lauded by many critics for its clever restructuring and skewering of the “slasher movie” genre, it managed to find its way onto several best-of-2012 lists in addition to becoming one of the year’s biggest financial hits.

The movie begins with the back-and-forth intercutting between scenes of a large-scale government tech lab where final preparations are under way for an elaborate and unspecified project, and a group of five young people getting ready for a trip to a secluded mountain cabin.  The kids- Dana (the sweet and comparatively wholesome “good girl”), Jules (the bleached-blonde sexpot), Curt (Jules’ jock boyfriend), Holden (Curt’s studious friend, brought along as a blind date for Dana), and Marty (the pot-smoking nerd)- set out in an  RV, and, though they have an unsettling encounter with the attendant at a run-down gas station on the road to the cabin, they remain in high spirits, looking forward to a weekend of good times.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear they are being remotely monitored by the technicians in the mysterious lab, who seem to have complete control over their environment.  Upon arrival at their destination, the five friends discover that the cabin- recently purchased by a cousin of Curt’s- is an odd and disconcerting place, adorned with gruesome art, fearsome stuffed animals, and see-through mirrors, and they eventually stumble upon a trap door which leads to a secret basement full of odd and arcane relics.  Among these objects they find a diary, written by the daughter of the cabin’s original owners; as Dana reads it aloud, it reveals a horrific tale of torture, disfigurement, and murder, practiced by the family in the service of their twisted puritanical beliefs, and includes a strange Latin invocation- which she also reads aloud, unwittingly calling the long-deceased clan back from the dead.  Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that all of these events seem to be under the orchestration of the observing lab technicians, who watch with satisfied interest as the murderous zombies slink towards the unsuspecting young people in the cabin.  Needless to say, the weekend getaway is soon to become a terrifying fight for survival, in which the would-be victims will discover that their perilous situation has larger implications more dire than any of them could suspect.

The screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods was co-written by Whedon and Goddard, who worked together on Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; though it took them only three days to write, it is undeniably clever.  It’s difficult to discuss it in much detail without giving away too many of its secrets, but it is safe to describe it as a mash-up of Friday the Thirteenth and Night of the Living Dead as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft. This in itself is creative enough, but it’s also apparent that the pair have a definite agenda here, in which they use a sort of meta-drama- self-consciously utilizing all the stock characters and conceits of the slasher film scenario- to explore the deeper psychological origins of the horror genre, linking it both to its ancient roots in the superstitions and religions of ancient cultural memory and to its modern role as a fetishized outlet for the primordial and antisocial urges that still lie at its core.  The story of the five not-so-innocent kids is enfolded into a larger plot that allegorizes the makers of such formulaic horror vehicles themselves, using an elaborate metaphor to satirize their motivations and criticize the growing trend towards “torture porn” within the genre.  The concept is ingenious, audacious and inspired; the writers have constructed a puzzle box of a movie, in which several layers of plot fit neatly inside each other, with each addressing larger and more significant themes, ultimately providing both homage to and an indictment of a genre which celebrates the bloodlust lurking in the core of human nature.  At the same time, they endeavor to create a movie which works simultaneously as a high-concept art piece and a wildly entertaining example of schlock cinema.  With the first goal, they come respectably close; with the second, however, they are much further from the mark.

On a conceptual level, The Cabin in the Woods works well; the underlying conceit, though veiled, is apparent from the beginning, allowing us to appreciate the way it informs the narrative as it gradually emerges to our full understanding.  It’s a good choice, because on the surface level, what we are given is far too ordinary to hold our interest for long.  The movie-in-a-movie storyline, with its hapless young victims being stalked and slaughtered one by one, is so familiar and predictable as to be completely devoid of shock; it’s deliberately derivative, of course, but the unimaginative, by-rote handling of the formula is no less dull for its intentions.  To make matters worse, the dialogue, loaded with obligatory comic banter and snarky “fanboy” in-jokes, is stale and stilted, with a decidedly sophomoric reliance on cliché and self-indulgence; the characters, though an effort is made to give them more personality and depth than the typical stock figures in such fare, still behave like one-dimensional stereotypes, and despite the fact that we are clearly told that their actions are being manipulated by their white-collar puppeteers, again, it makes little difference to our level of emotional investment in them- or rather, our lack of it.  It’s true that. as the movie expands from the killer zombie hillbilly scenario, they (the survivors anyway) are seen to have a little more on the ball than they’ve managed to show so far, but by the time this larger plot has taken over, so much screen time has been squandered on the regurgitation of shallow horror convention that it’s hard to care.  Even though it happens too late in the game, the development of the framing plot, in which we discover the real horrors of the cabin in the woods, is far more original and engaging, though it, too, suffers from the malady of unconvincing dialogue; the film’s final quarter is so much more interesting that it heightens our disappointment over everything that has gone before.  Still, when the movie finally reaches its endgame, fully revealing its devilishly clever dual purpose as a satirical exploration of form and a cynical commentary on human nature, it succeeds in winning us over with its sheer audacity, leaving us with a sort of grudging delight and making us wish that Whedon and Goddard had spent more than three days writing their screenplay.

The movie built on that script is certainly made well enough; directed by Goddard, with Whedon serving as producer (presumably too involved with his myriad other creative endeavors to get behind the camera on this one), it succeeds in emulating the stylistic sensibilities of the teen scream genre it draws from, using time-honored techniques of visual vocabulary to tell its story (with a good bit of sly humor) and expanding to a slicker, more contemporary mode as the focus shifts loose from the constraints of genre formula. There is nothing truly mind-blowing here, in terms of visual style or innovation, just smart utilization of the established tricks of the trade, but Goddard has clearly done his homework, and he pulls it off in a workmanlike fashion. More overtly impressive, from the standpoint of cinematic creativity, is the work of the movie’s designers and technicians, who give us a number of delicious visual treats, particularly in the climactic scenes involving an everything-but-the-kitchen sink catalogue of movie monsters ranging from the familiar (murderous clowns, werewolves, sadistic hell-spawn) to the not-so-familiar (a killer unicorn, a lamprey-faced ballerina, and a decidedly grotesque merman). These sequences were accomplished by an impressive assemblage of the finest effects artists and technicians in the industry, requiring the rental of extra facilities to accommodate the sheer number of workers, and shooting at the huge aerospace building of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, since the available studio space was inadequate for the necessary scale. The unprecedented effort was worth it- this section is by far the most fun and memorable few minutes in the movie, generating more actual laughs and thrills than the entire pick-em-off-one-by-one saga that takes up the first three-quarters of screen time.

The film’s other production values are solid, as well; the cinematography by Peter Deming, the musical score by David Julyan, the production design by Martin Whist – all these are several cuts above the level of the low-budget exploitation thrillers upon which The Cabin in the Woods depends for inspiration, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little amateurish roughness around the edges might have gone a long way towards bestowing Goddard’s film with more of the authentic grindhouse flavor it sorely needs.  The higher quality is appreciated, however, when it comes to the performances, since bad acting is rarely a plus, and since the film requires a bit more nuance from its players than the typical horror entry.  Though it’s notable that two of the cast members are Chris Hemsworth (as Curt) and Richard Jenkins (who shot their roles here before making it big as Thor and earning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor, respectively), the true stars are Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, as Dana and Marty, who are both charming enough, and more importantly project the intelligence and spunk needed to make them into a convincing hero and heroine.  Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are goofily likeable as the pair of elder-generation nerds who serve as team leaders for the mysterious behind-the-scenes project, and Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams, as the remainder of the youthful adventurers, succeed in making their characters more than the mere ciphers they might have been.  Sigourney Weaver, who seems to have made a supplemental career for herself playing self-referential cameos in this kind of satirical sci-fi fare, makes a surprise appearance near the end, but disclosing the nature of her role would be too much of a spoiler; suffice to say that her presence onscreen is welcome and her performance is amusing without being over-the-top.

I suppose I should confess that I have never been particularly fond of the “slasher movie” sub-genre, though most of my generation, which grew up with them, seems to consider them essential touchstones of pop culture experience.  I always thought they were predictable and dull, and rarely frightening; consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the effectiveness of The Cabin in the Woods, either as a legitimate entry or as a parody.  Many viewers have responded much more positively than I to Whedon and Goddard’s Lovecraftian mind-bender, but even I can say that it’s worth a look.  Even though, ultimately, I found it as predictable and unengaging as the films it sends up, it contains many aspects that impressed me, and yes, even entertained me.  For one thing, it has a lot more “heart” than most of these cold-blooded slaughter-fests, reminding us that alongside those savage instincts in our unconscious there are also nobler ones; though, in the end, the film’s “message,” if you can call it that, is cynical and even nihilistic, it leaves you with a more or less positive view of mankind- in the individual, if not in the collective.  It’s also a very smart movie, with canny observations about human behavior on the personal, social, and cultural level, and it weaves these into its formulaic plot in a way that illuminates the stock situations and conventions, revealing the deeper implications of the well-worn narrative structure and helping us to see it as more than mere repetitive drivel.  Finally, I can truly embrace its creators’ avowed purpose of decrying the level to which the horror genre has sunk in our modern era; most horror movies today are mindless spatter films, capitalizing on flavor-of-the-week trends and using sensationalistic formats to earn a quick buck and nothing more.  At best, they are meaningless, and at worst, they are thought pollution, celebrating cruelty and violence for their own sake and reinforcing some very ugly behavioral tendencies in an audience that is typically of a very impressionable age.  The Cabin in the Woods attempts to address this state of affairs by offering an alternative which both satisfies the need for a good scare and stimulates the intellect, as many (though certainly, admittedly, not all) of the so-called “old school” horror films tried to do.  It’s very clever, alright; unfortunately, in the end, it’s too clever for its own good.  Those who are likely to clue into the brainier aspects of the film will probably not respond to the horror, and those who are in it for the cheap thrills will undoubtedly be disinterested in any higher purpose.  Of course, there is a convergent group of viewers- most of them, probably, already fans of Whedon’s nerdy-cool fictional universe- who will find both levels of The Cabin in the Woods right up their alley, and they are the ones for whom this movie is made.  You might not be one of them, but it’s still worth watching; even if it doesn’t quite work (and even if it doesn’t look like it, at first glance), it’s refreshingly intelligent filmmaking.  There’s precious little enough of that out there, so get it where you can.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1259521/?ref_=sr_1

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that looking at the pictures below might be a mistake.  I try not to provide spoilers, but some of these images might give things away that you don’t want to know ahead of time, and once you see something, you can’t unsee it, so view at your own risk.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929