The Jungle Book (2016)

junglebook1

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Pride L.A.

Rudyard Kipling was a product of his era.  An Englishman born in Colonial India, he grew into a prolific author and poet whose canon was informed by his childhood experiences there.  Though his literary gifts were undeniable, and much of his work is still widely read more than a century later, he has come to be seen as a champion of British Imperialism.  The world view of white-privileged conquerors, with their assumption of racial superiority over the indigenous populations they subjugated, is deeply embedded in the fabric of all his stories- including the much-beloved children’s tales for which he is most remembered today.

Needless to say, in a modern world keenly aware of the issues surrounding race, this makes him a controversial figure.  He is regarded by many as an unapologetic racist whose writing, even at its finest, was little more than propaganda for the cause of white supremacy.  Others vehemently insist that he was a humanist working from within the system to illuminate both the noble and ignoble traits of all people and thus promote a more egalitarian mindset.  Arguments and evidence are plentiful in support of either side, as well as of the myriad viewpoints which lie somewhere between those two poles.

Of course, the majority of modern moviegoers are unaware of this literary debate, which is undoubtedly why two major studios have both developed family-friendly blockbusters based on the most well-known of Kipling’s stories: “The Jungle Book.”  The first of these, directed by Jon Favreau from a screenplay by Justin Marks, is the Disney studio’s latest effort to remount one of their animated classics as a live-action film for the 21st Century generation.

Their previous version- the final film personally overseen by Walt Disney himself- was released in 1967, and though it has become a cherished favorite to those who grew up with it, at the time it was heavily criticized for taking Kipling’s rather solemn original and turning it into a rollicking, jazz-infused comedic showcase for a star-studded cast of voice talent.

This time around, Marks and Favreau have doubled down on that same approach, while also expanding the basic story framework to include elements from the Kipling tale (or rather, tales- what we have come to know as “The Jungle Book” is actually derived from several short stories concerning the man-cub, Mowgli, and his adventures in the jungle with his animal mentors).  The result feels like a satisfactory blend, a best-of-both-worlds crowd-pleaser which captures the serious tone and allegorical flavor of Kipling while still delivering the good-natured hi-jinks expected from a studio known for its fun-for-all-ages romps.

It’s also a technical masterpiece.  The use of CGI and performance-capture technology has yielded a breathtaking visual experience, giving us a lush and majestic experience of the Indian wilderness as well as remarkably believable depictions of the animals which comprise most of the cast of characters.  This latter element also benefits from superb vocal portrayals by the likes of Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong’o, and the always-welcome Bill Murray.  Perhaps most importantly, newcomer Neel Sethi gives an on-point performance as Mowgli, a remarkable accomplishment for a young actor whose work took place on a soundstage far removed from the world on display in the finished product.

Yet for all its excellence, this new “Jungle Book” feels somehow overdone.  There’s a “bigger-is-better” philosophy at play which detracts from its meticulously-constructed authenticity; a larger-than-life quality may be appropriate to the material, but is it really necessary, for instance, for King Louie to be the size of King Kong?  Although Marks’ screenplay does a good job of underlining the humanistic parallels with the animal kingdom, the sincerity of his intentions is steamrolled by heavy-handed execution, perhaps most tangibly in the manipulative orchestral swellings of John Debney’s score.  And on the subject of music, the inclusion of the best-known songs from the 1967 film not only seems perfunctory, but also jarringly incongruous within the realistic environment created to evoke the period and setting of the story.   .

These observations are, of course, likely to be immaterial to most of Disney’s target audience- perhaps rightly so.  After all, whatever his socio-political philosophies may have been, Kipling wrote his Mowgli stories to entertain, and “The Jungle Book” certainly succeeds in doing justice to that purpose.  Still, one can’t help but wonder how much richer it could have been made by a subtler hand, one that might have allowed for a bit of reflection on how to reconcile our modern sensibility with the more troubling issues contained in an iconic tale that, like it or not, is deeply ingrained into our cultural consciousness.  Perhaps we will find out in two years, when Warner Brothers releases their take on it.

Until then, this one will do well enough.

Midnight Special (2016)

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

MIDNIGHT SPECIALadamdriverAndjaedenlieberher

Movie “mash-ups” are a hallmark of our Postmodern era.  It is as if everything that has come before in cinema has been collectively smashed into pieces, and filmmakers freely pick up whatever shards they like and combine them to make something new.  It doesn’t matter if the pieces are recognizable, nor is it necessary to justify the appropriation by calling it an “homage.” This is, arguably, how it should be.  Each generation redefines the culture on their own terms, and it has always been standard practice for artists to “borrow” from those who have exerted a strong influence over their own work.  However, when they are not driven by a cohesive vision that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, far too many films fall short, no matter how sincere their creator’s intentions may be.  Unfortunately, “Midnight Special,” the newest feature from writer/director Jeff Nichols, is one of them.

Drawing heavily on the work of Steven Spielberg in his heyday, it combines several genres- chiefly science fiction and family drama- to tell the story of Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers who has been kidnapped by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), from the compound of a religious cult that believes he is their only hope to survive the imminent apocalypse.  With the help of an accomplice, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the fugitives flee across the country in an attempt to reunite with the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst) and journey towards a mysterious destination to which Alton’s visions seem to be leading them- all the while trying to stay ahead of the cult’s operatives as well as a government task force, spearheaded by Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), that wants to find Alton for reasons of their own.

There are a lot of threads to follow in “Midnight Special.”  Nichols takes his time unraveling them for us, and doles out information sparingly as he goes.  In the first few minutes, he effectively introduces us to the main elements of his premise; from this point on, however, his film develops into a continuing series of complications, each one serving only to lead to the next, while offering only the merest scraps of information about the deeper mystery at the heart of the proceedings.  By the time we get to the big revelation- which is simply announced to us, somewhat anti-climactically- we have already been led through so many confusing turns that it’s difficult to still be invested in the outcome.

Of course, anyone familiar with Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” will sense from early on where the story is going.  “Midnight Special” has so many echoes of that classic (among others) that it is hard not to compare the two works.  To go into detail about the connections would spoil the current film, but it is worth noting that the things that make Spielberg’s movie so memorable are painfully absent here.  The sense of adventure is replaced by a feeling of impending doom; and although both movies center on families threatened and pulled apart by momentous events, “Close Encounters” nevertheless manages to be joyous and fun while “Midnight Special” struggles to stay just this side of despair.  It’s fair to say that they are different movies from different eras, but one still cannot help but think that Nichols movie takes itself far more seriously than needed.

It’s not the fault of the cast, who mostly deliver heartfelt performances.  Young Lieberher is engaging and likable while still managing to be suitably grave.  As his adult protectors, Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton all play admirably against sentimentality, and if they come off as unrelentingly dour it seems more a function of the script and direction than the integrity of their work.  As the cult leader, the venerable Sam Shepard (whose presence underscores strong parallels with another vintage film, Daniel Petrie’s “Resurrection”) provides understated sorrow instead of predictable menace.  The standout performance, though, comes from Driver, whose turn as the government expert trying to unlock Alton’s secrets evokes the wonder and excitement so sorely missing from the rest of the film.  His screen time is all too brief.

“Midnight Special” is not a complete failure; it offers an intriguing exploration of the way that belief- whether in religion, science, or worldly concerns- can keep us blinded to truths that lay outside our understanding, and it avoids pandering to its audience with easy answers or familiar clichés.  In the end, though, there is little payoff for these ruminations, and the movie leaves us wondering far more about the details of its plot than the implications of its ideas.  It disappoints us more than it challenges us- and considering the sources from which it draws its inspiration, it is a strong disappointment, indeed.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Beasts of the Southern Wild, the 2012 first feature from director Benh Zeitlin, a movie which rose from acclaim in the festival circuit to become hailed as one of the best films of the year.  The story of a little girl and her father who face the destruction of their way of life as rising sea levels threaten to submerge their Louisiana fishing community, it not only took top awards at the Sundance, Los Angeles, and Cannes film festivals (among many others), it also surprised many industry insiders by earning nominations for several Academy Awards- including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Quvenzhané Wallis, at 9 years old the youngest person nominated to date for this award), and Best Director, with newcomer Zeitlin edging out several favored contenders to gain his slot in the latter category.

Adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from the latter’s one-act play, Juicy and Delicious, the film unfolds through the perspective of Hushpuppy, a 5-year-old black girl who is part of an isolated community on the Isle de Charles Doucet, known to its residents as “the Bathtub,” an island in the mouth of the Mississippi River delta at the southernmost edge of Louisiana.  Following a generations-long tradition, the people of the Bathtub eke out their simple existence by harvesting the riches of the sea; they are separated from the wider world by geography- and the levee which protects the population of the north from the fluctuations of the tides and the weather- but they are fiercely proud of their heritage and their independence, despite the precarious nature of their existence at the mercy of the ever-rising sea levels.  Little Hushpuppy- though she lives by herself in a separate house- is under the care of Wink, her short-tempered but loving father; she is also, like all the children of the community, under the watchful eye of Miss Bathsheba, the island’s schoolteacher, who tells them how the melting ice caps will cause the ocean to eventually submerge the Bathtub.  Her lessons also include stories about their prehistoric ancestors and the fierce wild beasts- the aurochs- which preyed upon them.  These things have a deep impact upon Hushpuppy’s inner life- she imagines the great aurochs slowly being released from their frozen sleep by the melting ice, and slowly making their way towards the Bathtub.  She also maintains an imaginary relationship with her long-absent mother, as well as making drawings which she intends to be found by “scientists of the future.”  As for Wink, his health is clearly deteriorating; he disappears for days, eventually returning in a hospital gown, and he sometimes collapses into a near-catatonic state, but he refuses to acknowledge this weakness to his daughter.  An approaching storm soon supersedes all other concerns, and though some islanders opt to abandon their homes for higher ground, many stubbornly refuse to leave.  Wink and Hushpuppy weather the violent storm, but when it subsides, the Bathtub is flooded underneath several feet of water.  The two form a camp with fellow survivors to wait for the flood to recede, but their hardships are only beginning; the salt water lingers, slowly killing the land beneath it, until Wink develops a desperate plan to solve the problem by sabotaging the levee.  The resulting consequences could lead to the islanders’ forced evacuation from the land they love, as well as the separation of father and daughter.  As the aurochs grow nearer in Hushpuppy’s imagination, she resolves to undertake a journey which might help her to flee the troubles which have enveloped her world- or to find the answers and the strength she needs to face them.

Zeitlin’s movie is a remarkably unique accomplishment, to be sure.  He takes us into a world most of us have never seen or even known about, revealing its conditions with a documentarian’s style while using it as the basis for a multi-layered metaphor infused with humor, drama, and fantasy, one that addresses human concerns from the most basic and primal to the most pressing and contemporary.  With a restless, hyper-mobile camera, mostly utilized for extreme close-ups and wide establishing shots, he pieces together a clear, compelling narrative that grabs us from the beginning and keeps us riveted throughout.  He tells his story through impressions, a whirlwind of fleeting images that somehow conveys all the pertinent information we need to follow the plot and connect with the emotional reality of its people, while also suggesting the perspective of its tiny lead character on the constantly-fluctuating reality that surrounds her.  This is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he never looked at any of the raw footage from the shooting process until it was time to edit the film into completed form.  Any of these feats alone would be enough to mark Zeitlin as a gifted young director; taken all together, they herald him as a prodigy.

All of his prowess behind the camera would be for naught, however, if not for the casting of young Wallis in the film’s central role.  At 6, she possesses more screen charisma than that shown by any number of established starlets in their entire careers, and the sheer power of her diminutive presence is enough to make Beasts of the Southern Wild an unforgettable film.  It’s one of the most impressive film debuts in recent memory, and certainly one of the strongest juvenile performances in cinematic history; Zeitlin builds his movie around it, and it never comes up short.  Of course, considering the young lady’s age- and the certain fact that film is a director’s medium- it is possible that Wallis’ formidable performance may be at least partly the result of careful editing, pieced together by Zeitlin himself to achieve maximum effect; even if this were the case, however, the little girl’s presence, personality, and raw honesty are undeniably on display, and these qualities cannot be faked even by the most gifted film technician.  She is well-deserving of all the kudos she has received.  She is ably supported by Dwight Henry, as her father; a non-professional, like the rest of the film’s cast, he is a New Orleans’ bakery owner whose life experience as a survivor of two real-life hurricanes- Betsy in his childhood, and Katrina as an adult- helps to infuse his performance with an innate understanding of the precariousness of his character’s situation, and he is equally capable of capturing the volatile psychological chemistry that makes Wink both charismatic and intimidating.  The rest of the cast is as authentic a collection of local faces and personalities as ever seen in a fictional film, underscoring the documentary feel and helping to transport us completely into the unfamiliar world it depicts.

There are any number of reasons why Beasts of the Southern Wild is an excellent and exciting piece of filmmaking, the aforementioned performances and direction among the foremost.  For many viewers, it will doubtless be considered great; for me, however, despite its many strengths, it falls just short of that mark.  For all its imagination, its blend of harsh social realism and youthful fantasy is held together by a plot that is ultimately as typically “Hollywood” as any mainstream studio family picture you might think of.  Zeitlin and Alibar’s screenplay undertakes from the very beginning to tug at our heartstrings in a manner which would seem insultingly blatant if not for the film’s edgy style, and despite the seemingly detached empiricism of the director’s approach, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a calculated feel in the way it manipulates our sympathies throughout.  We never really get the chance to make up our own minds about how we feel towards Hushpuppy, Wink, or the Bathtub itself and its way of life; we are guided to our conclusions by Zeitlin’s steamroller approach to the story.  Of course, it is a work of fiction, so there are no aesthetic or ethical reasons why the writing and direction should not be designed to elicit a desired response from the viewer; and it’s not as if the movie lacks any sincerity- on the contrary, it’s clear throughout that it is a work of deeply heartfelt passion.  Nevertheless, there is a heavy-handed quality to the narrative that ultimately leaves us feeling less satisfied than wheedled into submission.

This is not to say that Zeitlin’s film is a failure, by any means; Beasts of the Southern Wild is a refreshing example of the kind of cinematic magic that can be created outside of the numbers-driven system of mainstream movie-making, and it leaves an indelible impression upon any viewer.  Audiences whose tastes run towards sentimentality will undoubtedly find it an exceptionally rich experience, and even those who prefer a less “precious” approach will be moved by it, if not overwhelmed.  It may not be the masterpiece that some have hailed it to be, but it’s still an impressive work of art by a promising young director.  To be truthful, Quvenzhané Wallis alone provides a good enough reason to see it; but beyond her remarkable performance, there is also a thought-provoking and resonant meditation on the nature of human existence in the universe, both as individuals and as a whole, which contemplates everything from parental bonds to global warming and manages to leave us with a thrilling sense of hope and possibility despite a story which dwells in desperation and dysfunction.  It’s a rare film that can pull off a trick like that, and even if some of the trickery might be a little obvious, it’s still an accomplishment that deserves to be lauded.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/?ref_=sr_1

 

 

John Carter (2012)

John Carter (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: John Carter, the 2012 sci-fi/action blockbuster based on the first book of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal series of adventures about a former Civil War soldier who is mysteriously transported to Mars (known as “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he becomes a hero in the planet’s struggle against domination by an immortal race of super-beings. A lavish production from Disney Studios, it marks the first “live action” feature to be helmed by Andrew Stanton, the acclaimed director responsible for Pixar’s Finding Nemo and WALL-E, although the extensive use of CG technology blurs that definition somewhat; the studio’s certainty that the project was a sure-fire hit is evidenced by the fact that they spent a whopping $250 million dollars to make it. Unfortunately, with such a price tag, the film was required to gross near-record sums in order to simply break even; thanks to a lukewarm critical response and even less enthusiastic audience reception, it instead became one of the most notorious box office flops of all time, leading to recriminations and resignations within the studio and a massive financial loss on the quarterly report. It’s a shame, really, that the movie has now become known as a notorious bomb- an assessment that is not entirely accurate, for overseas returns were substantially better than in the U.S., and home video release ensures that, in the long term at least, it will ultimately recoup its losses and turn a decent profit- because John Carter is not at all a bad film, for what it is, and will likely prove, in time, to gain an appreciative following.

Adapted by Stanton, Mark Andrews, and Michael Chabon from Burroughs’ novel, A Princess of Mars, John Carter concerns a struggle for power between two Martian city-states- Helium, a peace-loving capitol of science, art, and learning, and Zodanga, the “walking city,” a warlike and totalitarian kingdom bent on absolute rule of the planet. The battle has raged for generations, but now, with the aid of a powerful new weapon that has been bestowed upon their leader, the ruthless Seb Than, by a mysterious alien race, the tide is turning in favor of the Zodangans. Meanwhile, on the planet Earth (where it is the late 19th Century), a former Confederate officer named John Carter searches for his fortune in the frontier of the American West; while fleeing an Apache war party, he inadvertently discovers a legendary cave of gold, in which mysterious carvings and glyphs seem to come from an ancient and forgotten civilization- and where an altercation with a mysterious robed figure results in Carter’s sudden and seemingly inexplicable transport to a vast, unfamiliar plain located (as he will later discover) on Mars. After adjusting to the effects of the differing gravity- which, due to his Earth-born bone density, gives him superhuman strength and the ability to leap hundreds of yards in single bound- he soon finds himself captured by a tribe of four-armed, green-skinned humanoids, called Tharks, led by a chieftain named Tars Tarkas. This is only the beginning of his adventure, however, as his fate brings him into the heart of the conflict over the destiny of the Red Planet, in which he must help the Princess of Helium to discover the source of Seb Than’s mysterious new power before she is forced to marry the Zodangan warlord and doom her people to eternal domination.

There’s not much point in offering a more detailed synopsis of John Carter’s convoluted plot than the one above; like the novel from which it is derived, it is a piece of melodramatic pulp fiction in which the story is merely an excuse for the action, romance and imaginative fantasy that keeps an audience coming back for more. Burroughs’ novel was originally published in serialized form of course, in All-Story magazine, beginning in 1912. It was by no means the first episodic science fiction story, but the way it combined elements of other popular genres- sword-and-sorcery adventure, westerns, romance- was a unique and ultimately influential feature that makes A Princess of Mars the direct forerunner of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Trek, and Star Wars, to name only an obvious few. This particular sub-genre, known as “planetary romance,” has proven more enduringly successful than science fiction proper (in its strictest sense, that is), and continues to inventively manifest itself through, among other things, the vast wealth of comic book literature (and its related media) that has developed into an increasingly massive force in the entertainment industry. In other words, for anyone out there who is a fan of The Avengers, it all started here. With this in mind, it is only fitting that the saga of Burroughs’ planet-hopping hero should be given, at long last, the kind of lavish, top-shelf Hollywood treatment that has been afforded to so many of its offspring, and though many critics complained of the film’s sprawling, sometimes incoherent storyline and questioned its emphasis on action and spectacle over character and logic, these things are in fact part of the essence of this particular style of fiction; Burroughs was out to thrill his readers with imaginative and impossible scenes of otherworldly escapism, not to stimulate their higher cognitive functions. More accurately, perhaps, he was out to make money by doing it, and the fact that he succeeded- to the point of building an empire that pre-dated Walt Disney, Gene Roddenberry, or George Lucas by decades- is a fact made clear simply by looking up the origin history of Tarzana, California.

The world of a hundred years ago, however, was obviously a different one than we live in today; decades of technological advances- including probes and landing craft on Mars that have yet to discover the existence of mobile cities or multi-limbed green giants- have made us much less naive about the notion of interplanetary adventure, at least this close to home. Part of the commercial failure of John Carter must be ascribed to this; the premise of Burroughs’ story, though always far-fetched, of course, seems particularly dated in the 21st Century, with its swashbuckling warriors and princesses in distress evoking memories of our own antiquated fictional heritage rather than visions of otherworldly experience. Though such elements are present in more contemporary sagas like Star Wars, they are easier to swallow by virtue of a distance in time and place- not to mention a heightened sense of metaphor- which is carefully established from the outset. Not so with John Carter, which takes place in a recognizable part of our own history and asks us to believe in a conceit that feels old-fashioned and far too familiar to be taken seriously.

However, its familiarity is not due to its being derivative or formulaic, in the usual sense; rather, it results from the fact that a century of imitators has made Burroughs’ original seem old hat. Even those who have never read (or even heard of) A Princess of Mars and its sequels will know exactly what to expect in the story of John Carter, because they’ve seen it all before; and though the reason is that this, in fact, is the original blueprint for all those space-adventure-clichés, it makes little practical difference for those who are looking for something new and exciting to occupy two hours’ worth of their attention. This is, in essence, little removed from the cheesy space-opera serials of the ’30s, except by the feature-length format and the gargantuan budget which allows for breathtakingly realistic special effects instead of miniature spacecraft on wires; it is pure escapist nonsense, boy’s adventure at its most rambunctious, designed to stir excitement and elicit fantasies- and, hopefully, to sell the next installment. Except, thanks to the perceived failure of the undertaking, there is not likely to be a next installment.

As I said before, however, John Carter is not a bad movie; though it suffers somewhat from the need to pack too much story into a commercially viable running time, thereby eliminating the opportunity for anything more than perfunctory character development, and lacks the kind of mythological scope that gives such emotional resonance to the Star Wars films, it is nevertheless an obvious labor of love. Corny as it is, it has an infectiously earnest sensibility that makes it hard to dislike- at least, for those approaching it with reasonable expectations. It strikes well the difficult balance in tone that keeps it from becoming too campy- like the painful 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, with which it shares numerous parallels- without taking itself too seriously. That’s the key to enjoying John Carter; remembering that it was never intended to be the kind of “important” sci-fi epic that has now become the standard of the genre, with serious undertones of sociopolitical allegory or philosophical subtext, allows us to simply surrender to its lightweight melodrama without faulting it for not being something it was never intended to be. This is not brainy, Asimovian science fiction designed to stimulate the intellect, but pure, testosterone-driven wish-fulfillment at its most adolescent.

Indeed, there is a lot to enjoy in this unapologetically overblown spectacle, once you accept it as it is. Burroughs’ Martian civilization is given the kind of intricately detailed, fully realized treatment that only big studio money can buy. The cities, with their spacious, retro-futuristic architecture, full of bridges and balustrades, palatial throne rooms, and majestic plazas, are executed with imaginative grandeur; the various alien technology, from great, bird-like airships to pseudo-scientifically-powered cosmic map rooms, as well as all the creatures- besides the Tarks, there are giant fanged apes, massive dinosaurian beasts that serve as mounts, and an oddly lovable amphibian-esque dog that becomes Carter’s loyal pet and protector- are brought to life by state-of-the art screen wizardry in a slick style that combines the iconic illustrative work of artists like Frank Frazetta with a modern-flavored Steampunk sensibility, resulting in a visual design that reimagines the classic Victorian milieu of the original with a firmly contemporary twist. These elements are imposed upon location settings in Utah- where, in fact, the author created his saga over a century ago- which are used to great effect in creating the arid, desolate Martian landscape, with its harsh deserts and monumental geography, making for an utterly convincing otherworldly environment. Of course, it’s no surprise that the film would be visually stunning, given the monumental budget and the participation of Disney’s all-star design and technical staff; as always with such effects-heavy blockbusters, the real test of quality lies in the less showy creative aspects of direction, writing, and acting.

As for the first of these, Andrew Stanton is a proven master of visual storytelling, and he uses his skills here to forge a clear path through the oft-confusing details of the plot, setting up early the crucial points and maintaining a strong through-line as he takes us through the meandering, episodic developments that make up the narrative. He keeps the pace quick with rapid edits and a roving camera, and composes his shots succinctly to convey a maximum of information without lengthy exposition. This is particularly helpful in keeping the audience on track, given the multiple storylines in play here- which brings us to the second foundational element of the film, its screenplay. It has already been mentioned that the novel’s sprawling narrative has been compressed too tightly into the relatively short running time of John Carter; the story might have been better served by being split over two movies, as has become the trend, for better or worse, with other big fantasy epics in recent years. Given the probable demise of this would-be franchise, it’s fortunate that Stanton and his co-writers did not choose that path, but if any one thing could have made John Carter a more satisfying film, it would have been the chance to invest more time in getting to know its characters. Pulpy as the material may be, a more in-depth exploration of the people that inhabit it- both human and non-human- might have gone a long way towards winning the emotional involvement of the audience in its action. Instead, we are presented with short, lightning-quick character sketches that give us the pertinent information about what makes each one tick, and then we’re off and running, knowing everything we need to know about them in order to understand their place- and easily predict their actions- in the story, long before it reaches its climax. As a result, the entire saga often feels as if it were a mere pageant, populated by one-dimensional ciphers who are mainly present to model the costumes and lend scale to the sets; since the story’s heart necessarily lies in its human element, such streamlined writing places a substantial burden on the director and cast to fill in the blanks and provide a greater depth of characterization than is apparent in the dialogue. Stanton, whose previous directorial outings have featured casts of animated characters (each of which are brought to life not only by actors, but a whole team of artists skilled in adding layers of nuance to every movement and expression), may have been at a loss here; his ensemble of performers seem to have been left to their own devices in filling out the inner lives of their roles.

Which leads us to that third crucial pillar of good filmmaking, the acting. The cast of John Carter is, if nothing else, a marvelous-looking bunch; Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, spends most of the film without his shirt, displaying the kind of chiseled body that was presumably much rarer in the 19th Century than it is today- after all, this was a time before the advent of personal trainers and nutritional supplements. Likewise, his co-star, the beautiful Lynn Collins, is costumed in a manner which strategically showcases her considerable physical assets, and most of the other human cast is similarly dressed- or rather, undressed- throughout. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; sex appeal is a big part of what makes these kinds of epic adventures so exciting to their target audience- the young teenager in all of us. In order to elevate these larger-than-life characters above the level of mere pin-ups, however, there must be something under the pretty exterior that will keep us interested, and though both the film’s stars make a noticeable and admirable effort, neither manages to give us much beyond the immediate requirements of any given moment. Their performances are all surface, convincing but never compelling, and though they carry themselves suitably enough for the stature of their roles, there is a decidedly contemporary flavor to their personae; they seem more like a pair of fitness models at a photo shoot than a hardened soldier and an enlightened princess. In the supporting roles, James Purefoy shows some charisma and character as a loyal second-tier hero and would-be sidekick to Carter, but his role is far too brief for him to make more than a fleeting impression; the gifted Ciarán Hinds, as the Princess’ father, is utterly wasted, as is Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston as a cavalry officer who inadvertently becomes Carter’s companion for the discovery of the cave in which his destiny lies; and the film’s primary villains, Mark Strong and Dominic West, are saddled with two of the least interesting characters in the film- the former disaffected and aloof, the latter merely a mindless brute- and are therefore unable to make either into the kind of formidable antagonist needed in such a swashbuckling tale as this. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most engaging and memorable performances come from the actors lending their voices and movements (through motion capture technology) to the principal Thark characters (Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Hayden Church), who provide us with a hero, heroine, and villain, respectively, that we can truly care about. This may be because of the higher caliber of their acting (Dafoe, as Tars Tarkas, reportedly accepted the role because he relished the challenge of giving a performance dressed in pajamas while walking on stilts, and, arguably the film’s most prestigious star, he brings no dishonor to his reputation here), but it is surely not just coincidence that these roles are essentially animated characters- the kind with which director Stanton is clearly more within his comfort zone.

It’s interesting to know that John Carter probably holds the record for the longest development period in cinema history. It was 1931 when Bob Clampett- later to become known for his genius work with Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes series- approached Edgar Rice Burroughs to purchase the rights to A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom novels; he planned to make an animated adaptation, knowing that a live action version would be impossible at the time, and he did manage to produce several reels of test footage before the studio (MGM) pulled the plug with fears that stories of an Earthman’s exploits on Mars would be too ridiculous for most American audiences. There were later efforts to produce a screen version throughout the next 80 years, but various creative conflicts and financial concerns sank the project, each time. Finally, when Disney considered the title (for the second time, having intended to produce it in the 1980s as a vehicle for Tom Cruise), Stanton- a fan of the books since childhood- fought hard to get it approved, with himself as the creative force behind it. Based on his previous track record, Disney okayed it- a decision they likely came to regret. By all reports, Stanton’s inexperience with live action production proved an obstacle which may have inflated the film’s already-massive budget, and his rejection of studio ideas about marketing and publicity might very well have been the deciding factor in making John Carter one of the biggest flops in Disney’s long history. There is a theory- which I more or less agree with- that the most significant reason for the movie’s failure was the decision to change the title (already altered from the book’s original name) from John Carter of Mars to John Carter. Stanton said he preferred this because the movie was an “origin story” that told how the character became John Carter of Mars, and studio executives reportedly changed it due to a study which showed that films with the word “Mars” had all suffered some degree of financial failure- including their own Mars Needs Moms. Whatever the reason, and whoever was responsible, it was ultimately this change, coupled with the vague and unexciting marketing campaign that accompanied the movie’s first release, that sealed the doom of Stanton’s lifelong dream project; though earlier generations may have needed no reminders about who John Carter was, in today’s market, where many have never even heard of his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, let along the hero himself, it was vital to give audiences more of a clue about what the film was about. Without such a clue, they stayed home and saved their money for the then-upcoming release of The Avengers.

It’s unfortunate that in writing about John Carter, I have to focus so much attention on its supposed financial failure (again, it was not really a flop, just not the mega-hit the studio had hoped for), but sadly, it is a significant part of the public’s perception about the movie, and it must be addressed; as years go by, its box-office receipts will become less and less important to commentators, and perhaps it can be discussed on the basis of quality alone. I hope so. Despite my quibbles about the script and the acting, I enjoyed John Carter, rather more than I had expected. Indeed, I tried very hard not to like it; but by about the halfway point I gave in to its goofy, old-fashioned charms, and by the end I was- dare I say it- glad the movie had been made. It deserved to be made. After a hundred years in which filmmakers have “pillaged” Burroughs’ stories for their own derivative efforts (the reason cited by director Robert Zemeckis when he turned down this project, specifically in reference to George Lucas and Star Wars), it’s fitting that the granddaddy of all those swashbuckling outer space fantasies should at last get the Hollywood treatment that has long avoided it. Fanatical followers of the novels (and they still are legion, even a hundred years later) may wish it had done better justice to the original, and many other audiences may wish it had made more of an effort to contemporize or sophisticate the material, but there are many, too, who will enjoy it just the way it is. Indeed, there are many who already have enjoyed it, myself included, and the seemingly passionate dislike the movie has generated from some (and some who have not even seen it, I might add) makes me once again question the value of judging a piece of art on the basis of personal expectation rather than on its actual merits; if we are too busy complaining about a movie’s not being what we want it to be, how can we enjoy it for what it actually is? Of course, there is also an unavoidable debate about the wisdom of spending enough to feed a small country for a decade on an inflated piece of escapist fluff like this one, but that is a question of ethical economics better left for discussion in another forum; in the long run, the fact that John Carter of Barsoom is at last represented in cinematic form, whether or not he is all he could have been, is a good thing, and though I have yet to discover if the movie proves more rewarding on multiple viewings (which I suspect it will), I am certainly looking forward to doing so.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0401729/?licb=0.42602754768506235

The Long, Long Trailer (1954)

The Long, Long Trailer (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Long, Long Trailer, the 1954 big-screen showcase for the talents of America’s then-favorite TV couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, directed by Vincente Minnelli and casting the two stars as a pair of newlyweds on a cross-country honeymoon in a super-sized luxury trailer home.  Designed as a vehicle for the tried-and-true antics that fueled the duo’s highly popular comedy series, I Love Lucy, it was considered a risky project by its production studio, MGM, who were skeptical that audiences would pay to see Ball and Arnaz in a movie theater when they could watch the pair, for free, in the comfort of their own living room; Arnaz reportedly made a $25,000 bet with the studio heads that the film would out-gross their highest-earning comedy to date (1950’s Father of the Bride).  Moviegoers responded well to the opportunity to see the couple’s wacky hi-jinks against the expanded backdrop of location-filmed American scenery, turning the film into one of the year’s biggest hits and winning the bet for the confident Arnaz.  Though the movie is ultimately a side note in the success story of these two American entertainment icons, it nevertheless has remained popular among their fans and offers a rare opportunity to see their beloved matrimonial shtick transported out of the studio-bound confines of their classic television show.

Based on a 1951 novel by Clinton Twiss, the screenplay (by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich) tailors its plot for the needs of the Ball/Arnaz team’s familiar joint persona.  Framed as a flashback, it tells the story of “Nicky” and “Tacy” (noticeably only a few letters off from “Ricky” and “Lucy”); he is a civil engineer whose job requires his travel to various projects around the country, and she, seeking a way to keep them from being separated during the early days of their marriage, hits upon the idea that they should purchase a travel trailer in which they can set up housekeeping wherever his work takes them.  Though he is skeptical, she convinces him with the notion that a trailer will cost them far less than a house and allow them to save more money for their future.  With their new, enormous, top-of-the-line trailer (plus the new, more powerful car they have had to buy in order to tow it), the couple sets out on their honeymoon- a leisurely road trip across the Sierra Nevadas to Nicky’s next job assignment.  Things start out pleasantly enough, though their trailer park wedding night doesn’t go exactly as planned; but as the trip goes on, the mishaps begin to pile up and take their toll on the relationship.  A rainstorm leads to a night spent stuck in a mudbank, Tacy’s attempts at directing Nicky’s steering results in major damage to her aunt and uncle’s house, and her effort to cook dinner in the moving trailer ends in disaster.  The final straw comes when her growing collections of preserved fruit and souvenir rocks become so heavy that the trailer is dangerously overweight, placing the newlyweds in serious danger as they attempt to drive up a steep and winding mountain road- a trip which, even if they manage to survive, may well mean the end of their marriage.

The Long, Long Trailer is hardly the kind of film that warrants an in-depth analysis, though if one wanted to use it as a springboard for discussion about sociological and cultural characteristics of post-war American life, it would likely provide plenty of fodder.  Indeed, watching it today, it seems like a perfect snapshot, glossy and idealized, of the particular mindset of mid-fifties middle class America, personified by a young (well, young-ish) couple on the road to a shining new tomorrow, blessed with a new affluence, possessed of a can-do attitude, and excited about the endless possibilities that wait to be explored right here at home.  Of course, the entire premise of the comedy hinges on the fact that this romanticized fantasy is not quite in tune with reality- the adventure of building a new world on the domestic front is fraught with unforeseen difficulties and offers its own challenges to the character and spirit of those who undertake it.  All of which sounds deeper than it needs to sound, for in The Long, Long Trailer, social commentary is as heavy and unnecessary a burden as Tacy’s rock collection.

What this movie is about, nostalgic retrospect aside, is laughs; the American-Dream-on-wheels premise is entirely geared towards providing a mine of zany situations for the then-reigning royal couple of comedy to exploit.  Though the names are different (barely), the characters are, in essence, the same as their TV roles; Desi is the modestly successful, good-natured-but-hot-tempered immigrant husband (here, inexplicably, not Cuban but Italian), and Lucy is the well-intentioned manipulative housewife whose hair-brained schemes inevitably lead to hilarious complications.  The movie depends entirely on their comfortable chemistry together, their combative-but-affectionate dynamic, and Lucy’s consummate skill as a comedienne.  It is this last element that carries the film, of course; though they made a great team, and although he certainly holds his own during his moments in the spotlight, Desi was always the foil for Lucy’s comedic persona, a relationship upon which their act was utterly dependent.  The biggest laughs in the film come when she unleashes her flair for physical comedy- the classic sequence in which she tries to prepare a meal in the trailer while it is on the road is the movie’s highlight- but these moments work so well because she sets us up for them; she makes Tacy (which is short, by the way, for Anastasia- I know, it’s a stretch, but go with it) as endearing to us as to the hapless Nicky, and thanks to her rubber-faced expressions, we feel like co-conspirators with her, because we can read every thought and plan even as she hatches it herself.  It’s comedy genius, and to over-analyze it is pointless- it works because it works.  Lucy and Desi knew their audience, and they knew what that audience wanted; they weren’t about to take the chance of messing with a successful formula, especially when that formula was at the height of its popularity.  There is even a musical number, though not the kind of elaborate, slapstick-laced showstopper often featured on I Love Lucy, but simply a pleasant little duet performed as an interlude while the stars are driving into Yosemite National Park.  To be sure, the stakes feel a little higher in The Long, Long Trailer than they do on the TV series; there, no matter how big the disaster that results from Lucy’s schemes, we know it will never really threaten the blissful marriage at the center of the show, but here there is at least a more palpable illusion that they could end up apart- though, of course, on an intellectual level, we know that’s not very likely.  After all, this is a comedy, and even if it pokes a little bit of situational fun at the perfect domestic dream of the mid-fifties, it also embraces and reinforces that ideal; you can be sure, by the final frames, Ricky and Lucy… I mean, Nicky and Tacy will be locked once more in a tender and loving embrace.

Although The Long, Long Trailer is mostly an on-the-road installment of the Lucy-and-Desi Show, this is not its only appeal.  There are a few interesting cameos from other familiar personalities of the era; Marjorie Main of Ma and Pa Kettle fame makes an appearance, as does an uncredited Howard McNear (better known as “Floyd the Barber”) and a prominently-billed Keenan Wynn (who has less than 30 seconds of screen-time- and no scripted lines- as a traffic cop).  Vincente Minnelli, one of Hollywood’s seasoned veterans at turning out crowd-pleasers, wisely keeps the main focus on his stars, but frames them in a gorgeous visual environment; fans of mid-century roadside Americana will adore this film, which sometimes looks like a travelogue produced by the U.S. Tourism Bureau and sometimes a montage of picture-postcards, interlaced with stylish tableaux of glamorous settings that look like vintage magazine ads, brought to life.  Minnelli (and his stars) were smart enough to utilize the advantages of the big screen, giving audiences a scope they couldn’t get from I Love Lucy, so there is an extensive use of breathtaking location footage, most notably in the aforementioned Yosemite scenes, but also in the hair-raising climax when the couple drives their trailer up the mountain (Mt. Whitney, to be exact).  The realism of this latter sequence aids considerably in its effectiveness, and captures the universal anxiety shared by anyone who has ever attempted to navigate one of the winding, narrow roads that lace the mountainous regions of America- or, for that, matter, the world.  The road trip experience, naturally, must include a good deal of focus on the vehicles used, especially the title “character” (for it is, truly, a character in the plot), which is a beautiful, canary yellow, 36-foot 1953 “New Moon.”  Those who care about such things will doubtless be delighted by the extensive depiction of this remarkable piece of mid-century design, in all its improbable luxury, as they will also be by the car which tows it, an equally beautiful 1953 Mercury Monterey convertible.  Of course, the costumes also add to the movie’s nostalgic appeal, with both Lucy’s and Desi’s outfits representing the epitome of mid-fifties fashion- not high–fashion, mind you, but modest, popular, middle-class clothes that conjure images from the countless grainy home movies taken by couples and families during the era.  In essence, The Long, Long Trailer is a love letter to its time, a nostalgic walk down memory lane for those old enough to remember it first-hand and a wide-open window through which younger viewers can catch a glimpse of an America before affordable plane travel and utilitarian super-highways made the delights of the road trip into a thing of the past.

It’s somewhat tempting, today, to watch The Long, Long Trailer with a sense of irony.  The feeling of gee-whiz wonder and self-discovery that permeated the cultural psyche of the fifties has long since fallen under the wheels of progress, transformed by the turbulent decade which followed into a quaint and kitschy joke; it’s almost impossible to believe in the naïveté we see displayed here, and the knowledge that Lucy and Desi, like so many of the “perfect” couples of the Eisenhower era, would later end their real-life marriage in an acrimonious divorce casts a somewhat cynical pall over the proceedings, and makes the inevitable happy ending seem like just another carefully packaged lie- which, of course, it was.  The whole of the movie is sentimentalized dream-factory nonsense, but that’s not a negative criticism in this case; it was never meant to be anything else, and it’s easy to forget, from a modern perspective, that the audiences of the day were no more fooled by the pretty-picture images of society presented by their popular entertainment than we are by those we are fed today.  Indeed, much of Lucy and Desi’s appeal for their many fans came because they (or at least, their characters) were a couple whose efforts to fit into a cultural ideal never seemed to go quite as planned; at the end of every misadventure, no matter what affectations they may have tried on or pie-in-the-sky dream they may have chased, what was left was simply them as they were, imperfect perhaps, but together- and that was all that mattered.  Though they themselves were icons of their era, forever associated with the now-archaic ideals and attitudes it held dear, their message transcended it; they were champions of love and companionship, acting out the universal experience of living together despite difficulties and differences- not an easy task in any era- and making us laugh at our own relationships by reflecting them back to us in exaggerated form.  To put it more simply, The Long, Long Trailer might seem like a movie we can watch with an aloof detachment, making arch commentary or snarky observations based in our modern-day sophistication- but it’s not.  It doesn’t take long to forget our superior stance and get caught up in the somehow endearing ridiculousness of Nicky and Tacy’s great experiment, and we end up laughing exactly as we were intended to laugh by the film’s creators- not with the hip, contemporary irony we may have expected.  Don’t mistake me here; I’m not saying that The Long, Long Trailer is anyone’s idea of great cinema, and I’m fairly certain that nobody involved in it thought of it that way, either.  It is, however, a fine example of slick Hollywood entertainment, designed to exploit the popularity of its stars and the mood of the time, and the fact that it still works as more than a mere curiosity piece is a testament to the considerable talent behind it.  Lucy and Desi made their true mark in television; their pioneering work there changed the medium forever, in countless ways, and their big screen projects were really little more than a footnote in their legend.  Even so, The Long, Long Trailer is a charming and worthwhile way to spend 90 minutes, and even the most jaded viewers are likely to be won over by it.  Of course, you might not be able to keep from wondering exactly when Fred and Ethel are going to show up, or when Nicky is going to break out the conga drums, but even if those things never materialize, you won’t miss them- at least not too much.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047191/

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Les Misérables, the 2012 film adaptation of the hit stage musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based in turn on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name.  Affectionately referred to as “Les Miz” by many of its legion of fans, the show had one of the longest runs in both London and Broadway history, as well as hundreds of international and touring productions, and continues to be a major draw in theaters around the world to this day; needless to say, the blockbuster film version, in development (off-and-on) for nearly 25 years, had a sizable built-in audience awaiting its debut on Christmas Day.  Directed by Tom Hooper, who was at the helm of 2010’s Oscar-winner, The King’s Speech, and produced with heavy involvement from the show’s original creators, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, it has opened to mostly positive reviews, already scored multiple nominations and wins among the various year-end film awards, and been greeted -if the crowded audience I saw it with was any clear indication- with wildly enthusiastic response from the public.

Adapted for the screen by William Nicholson, the floridly romantic score by Boublil and Schönberg (with English lyrics translated by Herbert Kretzmer) makes it to the screen remarkably intact, a rarity in Hollywood transpositions of stage musicals, with very few passages removed and a minimum of strategic re-ordering; consequently, as with the original production, almost the entire story is told through singing, with only a smattering of spoken dialogue.  The epic tale begins, as does the novel, in 1815 France, a country that has reverted to despotic monarchy only a few short years after its bloody revolution deposed the reigning aristocracy.  We are introduced to two men: Jean Valjean, a hardened convict who is being paroled after spending 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; and Javert, the strict and stalwart policeman who oversees their labor.  Upon Valjean’s release, his status as a paroled felon prevents him from finding work or shelter, and the cruelty and humiliation he suffers reinforce his hatred and mistrust of humanity, until an act of kindness by an elderly bishop inspires him to transform his life and dedicate himself to God.  He knows he cannot live under the draconian terms of his parole, however, and so he tears up his papers, vowing to begin a new life.  The story then shifts 8 years into the future, when Valjean has established himself under a new identity as a successful factory owner and is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small seaport city.  One of his workers, a young woman named Fantine, is dismissed by the foreman when it is discovered that she is an unwed mother; with no job, she is unable to send support for her child- a little girl named Cosette who is in the care of a tavern-keeper and his wife in a nearby town- and she soon discovers her only avenue is to join the ranks of the town’s prostitutes.  Meanwhile, Valjean is made uneasy by the arrival of the town’s new police inspector- none other than Javert himself, whose suspicions are aroused by the mayor’s familiar appearance.  When Fantine, now gravely ill, is arrested in an altercation with an abusive “customer,” Valjean intervenes, and promises his dying former employee that he will take care of the child she leaves behind; but when he learns that another man has been mistaken for him and arrested in his name, he knows he cannot secure his own freedom at the expense of an innocent soul.  He reveals his identity to the court, then evades Javert in order to rescue little Cosette from her cruel guardians and flee with her to Paris, where he disappears into yet another life- this time as a loving and protective father.  Another 9 years go by; Valjean and the now-grown Cosette live in comfortable but secluded anonymity, and Javert now patrols the streets of Paris, where poverty and social injustice have bred a new generation of revolutionaries- a band of students under the leadership of the charismatic Enjolras.  One of their number, Marius, becomes smitten with Cosette when they see each other in the street; but their budding romance is interrupted by fate, as her former foster parents, the scheming Thénardiers (now also living in Paris, with their real daughter, Eponine), have recognized Valjean, prompting the longtime fugitive to plan an escape to England with his beloved ward.  On the eve of their departure, the student rebellion begins, throwing Paris into turmoil and bringing the destinies of the characters together for a climactic confrontation that will determine all of their fates forever.

In the original stage version of the musical, numerous liberties were taken with Hugo’s original novel, in the interest of simplifying the complex narrative and restructuring it for the needs of theatrical presentation; even so, through clever staging and production design, the epic sweep of the original was captured and maintained in a way that helped to redefine and reassert the musical theater art form for a new generation.  In re-expanding the story from the confines of the stage to the endless possibilities of the cinematic format, screenwriter Nicholson and director Hooper have returned to the source material for inspiration in filling in the background details, which successfully fleshes out the saga with the epic stature it deserves, but they have faithfully maintained the plot structure of Boublil and Schönberg’s version.  Part of this may be because of the involvement of Mackintosh, whose insistence on keeping the integrity of the show has been a factor throughout its history, and also because any significant changes would doubtless awaken the wrath of the musical’s sizable army of devoted followers, thereby alienating the lion’s share of their target audience.  Whatever the reason behind it, the decision to present the musical largely as written has resulted, perhaps ironically, in a brave and groundbreaking piece of filmmaking; since the decline of the film musical as a viable box office draw in the late 1960s, and particularly since the undeniably brilliant screen version of Cabaret directed by Bob Fosse in 1972, Hollywood has had a fear of allowing the conceits of the genre to be manifested onscreen.  To put it simply, the idea of characters breaking out into song and dance in order to express themselves fell from fashion with the rise of a jaded generation raised on contemporary realism; the “hokiness” of musicals was rejected by an audience that associated it with the values of their parents’ era, and filmmakers have since been reluctant to put them on the big screen without justifying the song-and-dance elements by the use of some stylized approach- usually separating them from the narrative by treating them as fantasy or by presenting them as staged performances within the world of the film.  There have been few movie musicals over the course of the last two or three decades, and with few exceptions they have largely been lackluster efforts which have failed to score with either critics or audiences.  In recent years, however, the popularity of the Broadway musical has undergone a sort of revival in the popular imagination, and the comparative success of such stage-to-film transitions as Hairspray and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has given tentative indication that audience acceptance for such fare is growing in movie houses, as well.  With Les Misérables, Hollywood takes the bold step of returning to the traditional approach, at last permitting the musical score to be performed, without qualification or apology, as the primary medium through which the story is told.  Unlike Hairspray, with its kitshy camp sensibilty, or Sweeney Todd, with its dark, cartoonish stylization, Les Misérables is grounded in a gritty period realism, and yet its characters express not only their inner monologues through song, they converse, confront and comfort each other through it as well.  In today’s cinema, such a basic, play-as-written approach to such material seems a novel concept, and it is precisely for this reason that it breaks free of its theatrical roots and comes to life as pure cinema.

To be sure, it takes a little adjusting for audiences unused to the genre, and even for those familiar with it.  The spectacular opening sequence, in which scores of rough-edged prisoners drag the enormous wrecked hull of a sunken ship while they sing of the cruelty and hopelessness of their existence, thrusts us immediately into the film’s operatic milieu, without fanfare or warning; it’s a jarring, alien experience, at first, but the utter conviction with which it is performed and presented soon carry us into acceptance, and by the time the story comes to its final fruition 150-odd minutes later the cumulative power of the score rewards us with an emotional catharsis rarely achieved by standard, non-musical methods.  That is, it rewards those who are able to surrender to it; there are undeniably viewers who simply don’t like musicals, and no amount of discussion about the aesthetics or traditions of the genre is likely to persuade them to open their minds to Les Misérables.  Make no mistake, this is a hardcore musical, and anyone who has trouble suspending their disbelief in a world where thieves, prostitutes and soldiers sing in unison would be well-advised to steer clear.  At the risk of seeming confrontational, I might also say they would be well-advised not to try and spoil it for the rest of us.

Of course, there are also those who, as die-hard fans of the musical, will be coming into the theater with their own high standards and expectations about the piece; “Les Miz” aficionados generally have their favorite recordings of the show, with every vocal and instrumental nuance memorized by heart, or perhaps envision a “dream cast” in which their favorite performers from the various productions might somehow be united into one perfect rendition if the show.  These viewers are likely to be disappointed in what they see (and hear) here, as, indeed, they would be bound to be with any version of the piece short of the one they have in their imagination.  In fact, it’s probably fair to say that anyone who is a stickler for “legit” singing will probably have difficulty accepting the vocal performances in Les Misérables; though its cast is composed primarily of actors who are trained and experienced singers, the film’s highly unusual approach to capturing their vocals has yielded a different sound than might be anticipated.  In order to focus on the immediacy and spontaneity of the scenes- particularly since virtually the entire film is sung- the decision was made to forego the usual technique of pre-recording all the songs and lip-syncing to a playback on the set during filming.  Instead, the actors sang everything live on camera, with a piano providing accompaniment through concealed earpieces and the full orchestral underscore being added in post-production.  The result of this approach is a raw, improvisational quality- decidedly different from the meticulously phrased, measured delivery found on most musical theater recordings- that gives the songs an unpredictable, electric vitality; it is not the first time such a tactic has been employed, but it is certainly the most extensive use of it to date, and though it may not satisfy the ears of purists, it creates a hitherto unseen level of honesty in the performances, with each actor given the opportunity to fully express emotional reality in the moment without being hindered by a forced layer of artificiality.  This is not to say that the vocals are in any way inadequate- on the contrary, the cast of Les Misérables is more than capable of the meeting the demands of the material- but rather that they do not adhere to expectations; there is understatement where there is usually bombast and vice versa, and tempos are stretched or tightened according to interpretive need (all dictated, incidentally, by the actors themselves), giving the familiar score a freshness and an urgency that would have been impossible had the performers merely attempted to recreate the sound of those who have gone before.

To execute these performances, Hooper has assembled an ensemble of prestigious actors that, though they may not constitute a typical “Les Miz dream cast,” certainly lay claim to their iconic roles and bring them to life with a clear and infectious relish.  Heading this gallery of versatile “A-listers” is Hugh Jackman as Valjean, finally given the chance to bring to the screen the skills that made him a star on the musical stage before his days as an action-adventure star.  Those who know him only as Wolverine may well be surprised by his magnificent performance here; his renditions of Valjean’s signature songs display his prodigious musical talent and his clear, soaring tenor voice while bringing a depth and emotional immediacy that make them completely his own, and he charts this archetypal character’s journey from hardened thug to selfless benefactor with a brave and powerful range, finding surprising nuances of strength and vulnerability that continually remind us of his humanity.  As Javert, Russell Crowe is perhaps less noticeably effective, due to his stoic, seemingly emotionless presence as this ultimate champion of the letter of the law; his singing is metered and free of all but the sparsest of ornamentation, and he avoids playing into potentially passionate moments with the rigorous restraint of an ascetic.  For some, this approach to the character may seem like a missed opportunity, but in fact it is a remarkably honest interpretation, faithful to Hugo’s original portrayal, of a character whose life is devoted to a code which permits no room for personal choice; Javert does his duty, nothing more, and Crowe is to be commended for resisting the temptation to add showy flourishes.  Anne Hathaway, as the tragic Fantine, delivers the film’s standout performance, a heartbreaking portrait of a young woman driven to desperation by the cruel oppression of her time, and her stunning performance of the musical’s best-known song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” is destined to go down in cinema history as one of those great, unforgettable scenes that shows up in montages paying tribute to classic moments from the movies.  As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide double-edged comic relief in roles that could probably be described as the “Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter” characters- which may sound like a bit of a dig, but in fact it is a testament to their skill at portraying these kinds of audaciously unpleasant types.  They seem absolutely right as this pair of opportunistic reprobates, and it is hard to imagine anyone else playing them.  As Marius, the immensely gifted Eddie Redmayne truly shines, taking this crucial character and making him a likable, genuine young man with a passionate soul, and not just another handsome romantic juvenile; his own belief in his “love at first sight” is so sincere, we are swept up in it easily- and not just because we accept the convention as a necessary part of the story-, and later in the film, his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, a mournful elegy to his fallen companions and an expression of his own post-traumatic-shock demons, is riveting and heart-rendingly real.  As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is likewise believably dimensional, rising above the level of mere ingénue, and though her character gives her less chance to stand out, she invests it with so much charm and life that it seems she has a much bigger role than she really does.  Samantha Barks, one of the two principal cast members to have previously played their role onstage, gives a sweet and sad performance as Eponine, capturing the simultaneous joy and despair of her own signature number, “On My Own,” without the affectation that its heart-tugging mixture of despair and joy might inspire in a lesser performer.  Broadway actor Aaron Tveit makes a compelling Enjolras, brandishing a powerfully eloquent singing voice and a piercing intensity that perfectly embodies the enigmatic young revolutionary and makes him utterly convincing as a figure that might inspire other young men to follow him to their deaths; young Daniel Huttlestone (the other “Les Miz” stage veteran) easily wins our affections as the scrappy Gavroche, giving us just enough of the “precocious urchin” persona to make him familiar without adding the sentimentality that would turn him into a cliche; similarly, Isabelle Allen plays the young Cosette without cloying cuteness, delivering her song, “Castle on a Cloud,” with endearing honesty and refreshing simplicity.  Indeed, every member of the cast, from the cadre of student rebels to the gaggle of gossipy factory women, does stellar work and provides a memorable contribution to the whole, making Les Misérables feel like a true ensemble effort. Lastly, in a fitting touch that adds a certain intangible resonance to the proceedings, Colm Wilkinson, the Irish folk-singer-turned-actor who became an international star when he originated the role of Valjean in both the London and Broadway productions, makes a cameo appearance, giving an all-too-brief, transcendent performance as the Bishop of Digne, whose act of kindness sets Valjean on the path to redemption.  It’s also worth a mention that many of the film’s extras and “chorus” members are also alumni of stage productions of the show, including original Eponine Frances Ruffelle, who plays a fairly sizable role as a prostitute.  Their involvement is a testament to the powerful spell of the show, which engenders a lasting bond and loyalty among those who have participated in it and consider themselves all to be part of a family- a family which has every reason to be proud of its newest members, who have joined their ranks through this film.

With such a collection of fine performances on display, it is only right that the film should deliver an equally impressive production to showcase them; thanks to the efforts of Tom Hooper and his creative staff, it does better than that.  Les Misérables goes beyond the perfunctory spectacle provided by its painstaking recreation of 19th Century France and endeavors to re-invent the classic film musical in terms of contemporary cinematic approach.  Hooper does not rely on traditional methods of capturing the show for the screen, but utilizes the language of modern filmmaking to bring the experience into the 21st Century, complete with CG enhancements, rapid editing, and extensive use of steadi-cam photography.  To be sure, there are times when the constant visual motion of the film threatens to overwhelm, and one can’t help but feel that certain moments- particularly in the numerous “arias,” mostly shot in tight close-up to capture the intimacy of the experience- might have been better served with the occasional use of a wider angle lens; certainly, in some of the bigger musical sequences, for example the musical montage, “One Day More,” a more expansive perspective feels needed in order to give full reign to the magnitude of the forces in play.  There is a trade-off to be made here, though; after all, film is an entirely different medium than theater, and it is fitting that a movie should provide an experience impossible to receive from a stage performance.  There is little point to constructing a motion picture that endeavors only to recreate what has already been seen on stage, beyond preserving it for archival purposes, though this is precisely the approach that has been taken with many stage-to-screen transfers; the best cinematic transpositions of theatrical pieces come when a director re-imagines the material without attempting to make the camera lens a mere substitute for a proscenium arch.  Hooper has made his epic with this clearly in mind, and his eye for exploring the visual possibilities of the art form, from the repeated use of overhead perspective to the vastness of the crowded streets of Paris to the closer-than-close revelation of every subtle shift of expression in the performers’ faces.  In particular, he exploits the advantage of realism in the depiction of the crushing conditions of 19th Century poverty, an important factor of the story that can, on stage, only be suggested (or worse, glossed over), as well the contrasting Empire-era opulence of the salons and gardens of the wealthy. Set against the impressive splendor of the production design by Eve Stewart, clothed in the sumptuous authenticity of Paco Delgado’s costumes, and captured with the larger-than-life digital graininess of Danny Cohen’s pseudo-cinema-verité photography, Les Misérables meets and exceeds any reasonable standard for visual style, and- from a technical standpoint, at least, regardless of how picky audiences may respond to the interpretation of the content- provides a total movie-going experience worthy of its beloved source material.

Once again, it seems, I am in the position of having to make full disclosure of the fact that I am, in fact, a fan.  Though I have personally had an ambivalent relationship with the musical theater genre (as opposed to outright film musicals, of which I am an unrepentant enthusiast), Les Misérables is a piece which captured me from the very first time I heard it, and I have seen several stage productions over the years (including the original Broadway run);though its pop-opera format might seem, for some, to cheapen the translucent sincerity of Hugo’s masterful novel, its message of humanism and social awareness shines through in a way that never fails to leave me deeply moved and inspired.  Though this long-awaited film version is not, nor could it ever have been, a perfect rendition, and though I will admit to finding myself overly critical of details and choices throughout as I watched it (on opening day, of course), in the final analysis I have only praise to give it.  The deciding factor for me lies in the simple fact that, at the end, not only was I personally affected by the emotional upheaval to which it carried me- despite my every-lyric-by-heart familiarity with the show- but my companion, a skeptical died-in-the-wool disparager of musicals, was also moved to a prodigious outpouring of tears, as was, indeed, every member of the packed audience.  Make no mistake about it, Les Misérables is a tear-jerker of the highest order, and the enormity of its scope only serves to intensify its effectiveness as such.  If such fare is normally unappealing to you, or if you are one of those aforementioned musical non-lovers, you might want to skip this one, no matter how many awards it may end up getting.  You might want to, but my advice is: don’t.  Go and see it.  Give it a chance.  Like my companion, you may find yourself unexpectedly opened up and transported to a new level of appreciation for the possibilities of the genre.  It’s not a guarantee, but Les Misérables has the power to affect such a softening of the heart, and this movie largely succeeds in capturing the qualities that give it that power.  Those qualities, ultimately, rest in the soul of the story, and not in its spectacle; Les Misérables is not about revolution, nor romance, nor social injustice, nor even the desire for a better life- an oft-repeated theme within its narrative, and one from which it admittedly derives a great deal of its humanistic appeal.  It’s about the redemption which comes from the simple Christian ethic of self-sacrifice, of caring more for another than for oneself; this principal is embodied in the story of Jean Valjean, which remains the central focus throughout the interwoven subplots and ultimately yields the final epiphany towards which the entire saga builds.  When it comes, the catharsis which results from our sharing of it is powerful and cleansing, and no matter what quibbles you may or may not have about this or that detail of the film’s interpretation of the musical, they seem inconsequential in the face of that experience.  In that sense, Les Misérables completely succeeds in its purpose, and at the end of the day (if you’ll pardon the expression) you can’t expect more than that.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707386/

Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Life of Pi, the 2012 film adaptation of Yann Martel’s popular novel of the same name, relating the tale of a boy who, stranded by shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific, must survive alone in a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger.  In development for several years, it was assigned to a number of directors before finally being offered to acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee; under his guidance, the challenging material was shaped into a 3D blockbuster, utilizing extensive CG effects to realize the logistically daunting circumstances of its plot.  Long anticipated by fans of the book, many of whom undoubtedly regarded it unlikely that an adequate film could be made from the delicate source material, it has thus far been greeted with overwhelmingly positive response by both critics and audiences, who have marveled at its visual beauty and technical wizardry, as well as expressing admiration for its handling of the novel’s important metaphysical themes.

Adapted more or less faithfully from Martel’s original by screenwriter David Magee, the film begins in Canada, with an interview between an unnamed writer and the possible subject for his new book- Piscine “Pi” Patel, a teacher from India who, as a teenager, survived the sinking of a trans-Pacific freighter and spent nearly a year adrift in a lifeboat before reaching safety on the shores of Mexico.  Pi proceeds to tell his tale, first detailing his childhood in Pondicherry, India, as the younger son of a zookeeper and his wife.  Exposed at an early age to not only his native Hindu religion, but also Christianity and Islam, he becomes devout in all three- though his family, particularly his father, tries to encourage him to take a more practical, scientific approach to life.  Eventually, as Pi approaches adulthood, the family decides to start a new life in America; father arranges passage on a freighter, upon which they can also transport the zoo animals.  Halfway through the journey, however, Pi awakens in the middle of the night to discover the ship is sinking; forced into a lifeboat by the frantic crew, he soon finds himself the only human survivor, stranded thousands of miles from land- but not quite alone.  Under the canopy of the lifeboat lurks an enormous tiger, the last remaining member of his father’s menagerie.  In order to survive his ordeal at sea, Pi must establish a precarious relationship with the huge carnivore, simultaneously his only companion and his greatest threat, while also learning to procure the fresh water and food they will both need in order to survive.  The experiences and adventures they share form a strange bond between boy and beast, and Pi’s journey becomes a rite of passage in which he must come to terms with his place in the universe and define his relationship with the absolute.

Life of Pi is one of those movies that is exceptionally difficult to write about in any meaningful way; even a description of the plot is impossible to accomplish without either giving away key story elements or making the whole thing sound like an implausibly far-fetched boy’s adventure yarn.  The film’s advertising campaign makes it clear, however, that it is a movie meant to inspire a sense of wonder, so it’s no spoiler to reveal that director Lee approaches the novel’s scenario with an eye towards capturing the mystical experience of it; and rightly so: like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, from which it clearly bears a direct lineage, Martel’s novel is as much a metaphor as a narrative, offering a portrait of inner transformation through its description of outward events.  It is precisely this quality that makes the notion of transposing it to film so questionable, since translating the esoteric into a visual milieu can be problematic, to put it mildly, particularly when the outward circumstances of the story are not only limited by its setting but also extraordinarily difficult to capture on film by conventional means- the 1957 film version of Hemingway’s tale, well-acted as it may have been by Spencer Tracy, is proof enough of that.  Fortunately, Life of Pi benefits immeasurably from the technological advances in filmmaking that have allowed the convincing depiction of almost anything imaginable; even more importantly, it benefits from the supervision of a truly gifted film artist who understands the importance of using all these high-tech enhancements to serve his material, rather than the other way around.

Ang Lee is an exceptional filmmaker, one who has proven time and again his particular gift for approaching Western subject matter with the perspective of his Asian background.  With films like The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain, he has explored distinctively American subjects and settings with the cool and sensitive eye of a shrewd outsider, distilling humanity at its essence from the conflict between the cultural and personal mores of his characters; with Life of Pi, he is given the opportunity to merge these differing viewpoints in a story which draws from the elements of both.  In Martel’s novel- and fortunately, in Magee’s screenplay- the literal, narrative-based traditions of the West are blended with the symbolic, inscrutable mysticism of the East, creating a story which satisfies the needs of both; it is simultaneously a tall tale and an object for meditation, an invitation to participate in both a rousing adventure and a spiritual journey, and a celebration of both the outward and inward beauties of the universe.  With a keen understanding of this material, Lee once more coaxes the innermost revelations from his meticulously crafted arrangement of surface details, resulting in a remarkable film that combines his characteristic observational lyricism with the kind of shimmering magic that elevated his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from a straightforward martial arts genre picture to an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Unlike Crouching Tiger, however, Life of Pi is not exactly a fantasy picture; but Lee shoots it as if it were, giving even its most mundane settings a feeling of being larger than life.  He gives us a world where everything seems to shine with an inner glow, possessed of a deeper nature just beneath its surface, and in all his settings- the streets of Pondicherry with their fusion of European and Indian influence, the lush wonderland of the zoo, the cavernous, animal-filled cargo hold of the freighter, the exotic jungle of the mysterious floating island Pi discovers late in the film, and of course the alternately idyllic-and-punishing timelessness of existence in the isolated void of the ocean- everything we see has the a priori familiarity of an archetype, a deeply-embedded subconscious memory of a place we’ve never been.  This is accomplished by the surreal visual atmosphere the director achieves with the help of his artistic and technical team (particularly through the golden-hued palette captured by cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the hauntingly ethereal score by Mychael Danna), but also by a sublime artistic sense that allows him to put all the pieces together with just the right balance of dream-like ephemera and visceral tangibility.

It needs also to be observed that Ang Lee chose to make Life of Pi as a 3D movie, and though I’m not a fan of the current trend towards putting almost everything into this unnecessarily costly and often gratuitous format, his film demonstrates- like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo– what can be done with it in the hands of a truly gifted filmmaker.  Lee uses the extra depth to enhance and expand our experiences in the world of his film, particularly in regard to suggesting the overlay of different perspectives and realities that is of such great importance to the thematic core of the story.  Indeed, though Life of Pi can most certainly be enjoyed and appreciated in the conventional format, I might even venture to say that, at least in terms of artistic relevance to the material, it is the greatest use to date of three-dimensional technology; if at all possible, its a film that definitely warrants the extra effort and expense of an outing to your nearest 3D-equipped multiplex.

Besides the 3D effects, as mentioned before, there are many other technical aids that contribute to Life of Pi; it is safe to say the film would be impossible without them, for though most of the story’s circumstances could likely be provided by standard, pre-digital-age camera trickery, there is at least one crucial element that could probably never be realized without the help of the advanced computer wizardry on display here.  I refer, of course, to the tiger- who has a name I will not reveal here, since I am loath to spoil even the smallest of the movie’s many delights.  The relationship between Pi and this formidable creature is the crux of the entire film; through it comes the majority of the boy’s revelatory experience, his attempts to establish a connection to the awesome and terrifying power of the universe and come to terms with his own true nature.  The beast must seem as fully alive, perhaps even more so, as his human co-star, and it is a testament to the artistry of Lee and his CG technicians that this condition is met beyond any reasonable expectation. Remarkably, the tiger’s presence is almost entirely created digitally- the only live footage comes when he is swimming, and it is virtually impossible to tell the difference.  Pi’s feline companion exudes a palpable reality and a distinct personality, making him arguably the most impressive of the film’s triumphs.

The tiger’s utterly convincing presence is by no means the only triumph of Life of Pi, though, and while the beast is a display of special effects at their most dazzling level, it never overwhelms or upstages the rest of the film.  Rather, the tiger plays its role alongside the flesh-and-blood human cast members so seamlessly that the film’s advertising tag line, “Believe the Unbelievable,” seems entirely apt.  As for the humans, they form a superb ensemble of players, embodying their roles so perfectly as not to call attention to themselves as actors at all.  As so frequently happens in a film of this magnitude, the performers are so much a part of the cohesive whole that they tend to go unnoticed, but nevertheless they deserve praise for their fine work.  In particular, Bollywood actress Tabu and Anil Hussain make an impression as Pi’s mother and father, respectively, as does the lovely Shravanthi Sainath as a girl with whom the young hero enjoys a brief romance before he begins his fateful journey.  As the adult Pi, Irrfan Khan (another Bollywood stalwart) is serene and approachable, yet perhaps, somehow haunted- he makes us want to hear the tale of the journey that shaped him into this enigmatic figure.  As the writer to whom he tells it, Rafe Spall is appropriately likable (suitably enough for a character whose role is to stand in for the audience), but also offers a faint aura of desperation, suggesting that underlying his practical interest in Pi’s narrative as inspiration for his work is the deeper need of a spiritual seeker.  As an interesting side note, Spall was cast only after actor Tobey Maguire had already completed filming his own performance in the role; Lee decided Maguire was too recognizable and his presence would call undue attention to what was essentially, though important, a minor role, and reshot all of his scenes with Spall instead.  Interestingly, iconic French star Gérard Depardieu makes an appearance in another small- but ultimately significant- role as a chef aboard the freighter, making one wonder if his scenes might have been reshot for the film’s French release.

Clearly, though, the most crucial performance must come from the young actor playing 16-year old Pi, whose experiences- both exterior and interior- provide the main body of the film.  Making his screen debut in the role, first-time actor Suraj Sharma rises admirably to the occasion.  Chosen by Lee out of 3000 candidates, he actually attended the audition as an escort to his younger brother, but the director was taken by his appearance and asked him to try for the part; though he went through several rounds of readings, he was eventually chosen to star in the film, but before filming began he underwent extensive training- not only in acting, but in yoga and meditation practices as well as ocean survival.  The resulting performance is as magnificent a film debut as any young actor could hope to deliver, requiring Sharma to portray a profound range of emotional and psychological transformations, and he does so with utter conviction- and charisma on top of that.  He takes us every step of the way through Pi’s journey, without faltering for a moment.  It is a superb piece of film acting, and proves that this young man fully deserves a long and active future in front of the cameras, should he choose to continue on that path.

Though I haven’t said it yet, in so many words, it should be obvious be now that I think Life of Pi is a pretty great movie.  I should accompany that endorsement with the disclaimer that I am a huge fan of the book and also of Ang Lee; but even considering any personal bias, I feel pretty confident in my assessment of the film as one of the best films of 2012.  No doubt there are those who might be skeptical, particularly those unfamiliar with the original book who might suspect it of bring some sort of gooey boy-and-his-tiger adventure.  Rest assured, it is not.  Life of Pi is the story of man’s quest to form a relationship to the mysteries of existence, to reconcile the delicate balance between life and death, and to find within himself the strength and determination to keep going in the face of the uncertain and unknowable.  Like its protagonist, it draws influences from the three religious traditions mentioned above, as well as from a healthy dose of existentialism; it uses its story to explore not only themes of personal development, but of the nature of perception and reality itself.  Some viewers may feel that Pi’s tale is too preposterous to be believable, and to be sure, it strains plausibility increasingly as it progresses; to that, I can only say that this is in itself a part of the film’s unusual power, and that in the end, the story’s very unlikeliness is in fact a key factor to its purpose. Ultimately, Life of Pi asks a great many questions about existence, questions that each of us must face in our own lives, but it doesn’t answer any of them; instead, it challenges us to find our own answers, leaving us puzzled and pondering, stimulated and shaken- but most of all, amazed and- just maybe- a little bit more enlightened.

Before offering a whole-hearted recommendation for Life of Pi, I must also caution that, in spite of the presence of zoo animals and its adventurous overtones, this is not a typical “family” movie; not only does it deal with the sophisticated, “heavy” themes discussed above, it also contains much that could be very upsetting to young children- indeed, even to most adults.  Lee does not shy away from showing us the universe in its most chaotic, destructive, and unmerciful aspect, and though the movie contains a considerable amount of humor and counters its more terrifying content by also capturing the world in its most blissful and sublime beauty, his purpose is not to offer a comforting, sentimentalized vision of a reality in which, despite the scary parts, everything will always turn out alright.  That said, there is nothing inappropriate for young people in Life of Pi, and with guidance and participation from parents, it is probably a much finer choice for family viewing than the majority of safe and formulaic pabulum churned out around the holiday season; I would recommend it heartily above such “tweener” crowd-pleasers as the latest Twilight installment.  As for the rest of the film-going public, I can think of no qualification to offer with my encouragement to see this movie; it is one of those rare examples of mainstream moviemaking that successfully achieves the status of great art, and I have little doubt it will become a classic.  Thus far, Life of Pi has performed respectably at the box office, though it has been predictably overshadowed in a season that also offers impressive revisitations of James Bond and Abe Lincoln in addition, of course, to Twilight’s doe-eyed teenage vampires; let’s hope that it manages to hold its own long enough to ensure an opportunity for all fans of great cinema to experience it in its full glory on the big screen.  If you miss that chance, though, it will still be worth your while to pick it up as soon as it becomes available for home release- and buy, don’t rent.  This one’s a keeper.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454876/

Cinderella (1950)

Today’s cinema adventure: Cinderella, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated adaptation of the classic folk tale immortalized by 17th-Century author Charles Perrault, a simple tale about a young orphaned girl, forced to work as a menial servant by her vain stepmother and stepsisters, who is granted a wish to attend a royal ball where her sweet nature and her beauty win her the heart of a handsome prince.  The first fully animated feature produced by the Disney Studio after World War II, it was something of a gamble, an expensive undertaking which would have likely resulted in bankruptcy had it failed to attract an audience; it did not fail, however, instead becoming an overwhelming success which provided the financial base for the expansion of the Disney company during the 1950s, paving the way not only for more features, but for the establishment of their television division and the beginnings of their theme park empire.  It remains one of their most enduring titles, commonly ranking near the top on lists of the greatest animated films of all time and continuing to enchant viewers of all ages as it inspires new generations of would-be princesses to believe in their dreams.

The basic plot of Cinderella dates back to ancient times, and can be found in folklore from a wide range of cultures and eras.  One version even found its way into Shakespeare’s King Lear, albeit with a tragic twist, through the story of the mythic Princess Cordelia, who not only marries her dream prince but defeats her cruel and ambitious sisters with his army; another dark variation on the tale can be found in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, who included such details as the stepsisters cutting off portions of their feet and their being blinded by attacking birds.  The most familiar version today, however, arises from Perrault’s story, which added the iconic elements now indelibly associated with it, including the fairy godmother and the magic pumpkin coach; Disney’s artistic team used this as their source, eliminating some of the darker aspects and placing a heavy emphasis on the peripheral adventures of the heroine’s animal allies, which are played for child-pleasing comic effect.  Indeed, the main events of the plot comprise relatively little screen time, and the story is largely told through the behind-the-scenes perspective of the mice, whose machinations are largely responsible for Cinderella’s eventual triumph.  The film opens with a narrated prologue in which the tale’s background is set; Cinderella is the daughter of a widowed aristocrat who takes a second wife with two daughters of her own, hoping to provide his child with a motherly influence, but upon his premature demise this new stepmother becomes a domineering tyrant, forcing Cinderella to live the life of a servant while doting on her own vain and mean-spirited girls.  Despite her lowly existence, Cinderella grows into a lovely and sweet-natured young woman, befriending the animals of the household, including the mice and birds, and treating them all with kindness- even her stepmother’s spoiled and vindictive cat, appropriately named Lucifer.  One day, an proclamation arrives from the palace that all eligible young ladies in the kingdom are invited to a royal ball in honor of the Prince, whom the King hopes will choose a bride from among them; Cinderella hopes to attend along with her stepsisters, but their scheming and jealous mother burdens the girl with extra chores in order to prevent her having the time to prepare a suitable dress.  Her loyal animal friends manage to make a lovely gown from the cast-off scraps of the stepsisters’ wardrobes, but when the elated Cinderella rushes to join her family as they prepare to depart, the two selfish girls accuse her of theft, and rip the borrowed items from her dress, leaving her in tatters as they head off to the palace.  Her tears of despair quickly disappear, however, when a kindly old woman materializes, proclaiming that she is Cinderella’s fairy godmother; she promptly transforms a pumpkin into an elegant coach and the girl’s torn dress into a sumptuous gown, and sends her off to the ball- admonishing her, however, that she must return before midnight, when the spell will be broken and all her magical accoutrements will return to their original, non-enchanted form.  At the palace, the young Prince is bored and unimpressed by the procession of bachelorettes vying for his hand- that is, until the late arrival of a mysterious beauty, to whom he is immediately drawn.  They waltz together and wander the palace grounds- until the clock begins to strike midnight, when she hastily flees, leaving behind no clue to her identity except a single glass slipper, lost on the palace steps in her hurry to escape before the final chime can break the spell and reveal her lowly state.  Determined to find the mystery girl who has won his son’s heart, the King declares that the slipper will be tried on the foot of every maiden in the kingdom until a match is found, but Cinderella’s destiny may still be jeopardized by the efforts of her malicious stepmother, who is bent on seizing this last chance to secure a royal marriage for one of her own unpleasant children.  With time running out, it will be up to the heroine’s animal friends to come to the rescue and ensure that her “happily ever after” dreams will at last come true.

As with all of Disney’s early productions, the screenwriting and directing duties on Cinderella were handled by multiple individuals, working in concert under the tight supervision of Walt himself and in close collaboration with the chief animators.  It is a testament to the strength of Disney’s vision that these films emerged as cohesive works of art, blending the styles and influences of their various contributors together into a unified whole.  At the time of Cinderella, the studio had spent several years languishing under the budgetary constraints of wartime, when their output had been limited to the obligatory shorts- still popular, but eclipsed by the success of Warner Brothers’ edgier Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons- and omnibus features which packaged several of them together or mixed short animated segments with live action footage.  Though the great features of the pre-war era had earned them much acclaim and a formidable reputation, only the first of them- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs–  had been a bona fide hit, and full-length animation was too risky to warrant the considerable expense required for its production during the wartime economy; even so, the studio had honed its skills during these lean years, particularly in its recognition of the importance of music as a means to generate interest- and additional income- for their films.  Disney’s return to the field of feature-length animation was therefore bolstered by a deliberate effort to create songs which could not only add to the movie’s appeal, but which could become an asset in their own right, and Walt enlisted three established popular songwriters- Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman- to compose tunes which could also be marketed on their own through the studio’s music division (the song rights for the previous films had been sold to other music publishers).  Even with this hedging of its bets, Disney was taking a major risk with Cinderella, releasing a family-oriented fairy tale into a market dominated by the grittier, world-weary cynicism and social commentary that had grown prevalent in post-war American films; but, whether by instinct, luck, or savvy foresight, Walt’s return to the medium which made him famous came at precisely the right time, heralding a revival of optimism and a growing taste for glossy fantasy that would mark the new and prosperous decade.

Watching Cinderella today, it’s remarkable to see the seeds of Eisenhower-era sensibility so clearly visible in its framework.  The “American Dream” is here encapsulated by the movie’s story of success earned by hard work and a positive attitude, and its focus on the feminine perspective emphasizes the role of women in that objectified way of life- namely, to strive for fulfillment through the ultimate life accomplishment of marriage to a successful man.  Cinderella, after all, is trained from the outset to be a devoted wife, with a deep attachment to her father and years of experience tending to every household chore; and her fitness as a mother is plainly seen in her nurturing relationship with her animal friends- particularly the two foremost mice, Jaq and Gus, who are more or less characterized as children in animal form.  Of course, the importance of beauty is also stressed, most strongly in the significance of Cinderella’s ball attire, with both the simple-but-charming dress constructed by the animals and the sumptuously dazzling gown into which it is magically transformed being afforded considerable weight in the film’s plotline.  Throughout the movie, even in the animal subplots, traditional gender roles are subtly reinforced, and the principal male characters- the human ones, anyway- are firmly established as the natural beneficiaries of masculine privilege, a status heightened by their identification as royalty in the hierarchy of the story.  On top of all these social foreshadowings, the visual design of the film is replete with precursors to 1950s fashion, from the rich color palette, to the lines of the clothing, to the predominance of old-fashioned Euro-elegance in the settings and decor.  As a final touch, the lush and dreamy music, at once catchy and soothing, fits directly into the mold of the popular songs that would dominate the sound of the coming decade- until the advent of Elvis and his rock-and-rolling ilk, that is.  In short, Cinderella, in the clarity of hindsight, looks very much like a blueprint for life in the ’50s, and one which may have had more influence on the shape of that decade than its creators had ever envisioned.

Aside from these signposts of its place in the timeline of cultural history, Cinderella also offers a look at the state of its art form at the time.  Despite Warner’s’ dominance in the realm of popular cartoons, Disney was still the undisputed master of the genre; nobody else could do the things they were doing, and their drive to continually advance the art was still strong, perhaps even more so after years of being held back by the war.  Even so, the creative juices flowing through Cinderella seem flavored less by the hunger of young visionaries than by the confidence of mature artists; there is an obvious delight in their work here, a feeling of seasoned professionalism taking enjoyment in showing off a hard-earned mastery.  There is also a softening in tone, a gentleness which marks a shift from the more heightened drama of such films as Pinocchio and Bambi to an easier-going sensibility more in keeping with the middle-of-the-road values the studio would come to represent over the coming decades.  This is not to say that Cinderella is devoid of drama or suspense; on the contrary, it takes full advantage of its creators’ cinematic skills in order to increase the tension in a story which is, to be quite frank, lacking in the type of high-stakes conflict found in the studio’s earlier classics- extreme perspectives, rapid editing, heavy use of light and shadow, and all the other tricks of the trade with which these animated filmmakers not only enhanced their storytelling, but which were imitated by live-action directors and thereby bore significant influence on the future development of cinema in general.  Even so, it is undeniable that Cinderella is more calculated, for want of a better word, in the sense that it makes a deliberate effort to evoke reactions to its narrative, rather than allowing its form to be a direct expression of the needs of the story itself.  This is, perhaps, an intangible distinction, and one which arises more from the nature of the story being told than a change in the attitudes of the artists, but it is a noticeable factor in the ongoing development of the Disney animation machine, and one which would later result in what many critics would characterize as a decline in the immediacy and relevance of their work.

None of those later criticisms apply, however, to Cinderella; it’s a fresh and heartfelt piece of entertainment, and whatever subliminal social agenda might be read into it by progressive modern thinkers, it transcends such retro-fitted concerns with its imaginative approach to a timeless story.  Sweet without being sugar-coated, funny without undermining its deeper themes, and stylish without being shallow, it is a fine representative of Disney at its magical best.  It goes without saying that the animation is stunningly executed; in their quest to infuse the film with a high level of reality, the animators turned once more to their technique of utilizing live action footage as a guide, filming a heavy percentage of the movie with real costumed actors and models in order to give themselves a reference from which to capture the illusion of real movement and expression.  This was not accomplished through rotoscoping- the actual frame-by-frame tracing of live footage- but by free-hand drawing to recreate the filmed sequences, a painstaking process, but one which affords a considerable amount of leeway for artistic interpretation.  In this way, the Disney artists seamlessly blend the realistic style of their human characters with the more overtly cartoonish animals, bridging the two worlds with the intermediate characterization of such comic figures as the King and the Stepsisters.  It’s a fully realized world, enhanced further by the magnificent work of the background artists and the conceptual designers.  I am not one to belittle the advances in technology which have given us the remarkable computer-generated wonders seen in today’s movie houses, but when confronted with the sheer beauty of a film like Cinderella, made all the more dazzling by the intangible influence of the direct human touch, it is difficult not to lament the all-but-lost art of hand-drawn animation.

The visual artistry here, as usual with a Disney production of this nature, is in the service of a story that, for all its simplicity and kid-friendly humor, strikes deep chords in the hands of these gifted artists.  Though contemporary audiences may quibble about the story’s pre-feminist underpinnings, Cinderella‘s message is not simply a reinforcement of the traditional belief that a woman’s place is in the home with a man to take care of her; rather, the emphasis is placed on the theme of believing in yourself and having faith in your dreams.  Likewise, though outward appearance is clearly a factor in the fantasy being portrayed- Cinderella must be lovely, after all, and the Prince must be handsome, just as the stepsisters cannot be anything but homely- it is not these surface qualities that are central to the plot; it is Cinderella’s kindness and good nature that make her deserving not only of our sympathies, but of the fierce loyalty of her animal friends and the help of her fairy godmother, and it is the selfishness and jealous vanity of her two stepsisters that make them truly ugly.  Disney knew what he was doing, too; Walt himself made cuts to the screenplay in order to remove episodes that implied less attractive qualities in his heroine, and great care was taken to ensure that her happy ending hinged not on her pretty face, but on the positive effects of her inner beauty.  Finally, the brightness of the slick romantic fantasy is countered by the palpably dismal atmosphere surrounding Cinderella’s family life; despite the extensive humor provided by the mice and the comic exaggeration of the stepsisters’ unpleasant personalities, the film makes clear the grim reality of its heroine’s existence, making the best of a miserable situation in which she is treated, essentially, as a slave and a prisoner, and victimized by the severe psychological abuse of her menacing stepmother- whose cold and calculated cruelty is no less horrific for the certainty that she will, in the end, fail to prevent her ward from finding happiness.

As previously observed, Cinderella is the result of extensive collaboration, and there is little point in reciting a list of names here; the names of the directors, writers, supervising animators and designers, all of whom deserve praise for their work, can easily be found on any number of other websites.  A few individuals, however, deserve to be singled out for their particularly notable contributions.  Perhaps most significant of these is Mary Blair, credited as “color stylist,” whose concept art featured a distinct array of primary hues but went beyond the creation of a color palette to infuse the entire film with her own subtly whimsical-but-elegant visual style; her work on this and subsequent Disney projects- including the creation of Disneyland- helped to define and influence the familiar “look” of much of the studio’s output throughout the next two decades.  Also important is the voice work done by a talented cast of Disney stalwarts, particularly Ilene Woods (as Cinderella)- who landed the role after friends recorded her singing voice and sent the tape to Disney without her knowing, and who ended up also modeling the character in the live action reference footage, a duty she would later repeat for other Disney heroines- and Eleanor Audley (as the Stepmother), whose chillingly austere vocal talents would be used again in another iconic villain role- the evil Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty– and in Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” attraction.  Lastly, the aforementioned trio of songsmiths provide one of Disney’s most memorable and popular scores, which includes at least two songs that would become signature tunes for the studio (“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and the Oscar-nominated nonsense tune, “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”), and which yielded a number of successful recordings by popular singers of the era.

I must confess that though I am, perhaps obviously, an unrepentant fan of Disney movies (at least, of their canon of classic animated features), Cinderella has never been a particular favorite of mine.  Perhaps it is that my own taste runs towards the darker, more dramatic flavor of the studios original array of classics, or that the “princess” theme doesn’t have a strong appeal for me.  Even so, I am quick to acknowledge the superb artistry behind it; every frame is rich with the kind of imaginative detail that infuses the movie with a life of its own and separates a Disney film from the pedestrian efforts of lesser producers.  It contains many of the studio’s most beloved and iconic sequences, such as the architectural construction of Cinderella’s would-be party dress by the determined crew of mice and birds, the architectural construction of the fairy godmother’s magical creation of the coach and gown, the lovely scene in which a scrubbing Cinderella sings harmonies with herself while reflected in floating soap bubbles, and the ethereal beauty of her rendezvous with Prince Charming (who is, incidentally, never referred to by that name- nor any other, for that matter).  The character animation is superb, bringing to life one of Disney’s most disturbing villains in the Stepmother- a completely human monster who is more terrifying than many of the supernatural antagonists created for the studio’s other films- as well as the delightfully engaging mice, Jaq and Gus, and their nemesis, Lucifer the cat, whose ongoing conflict provides much of the film’s real action as well as its comedy.  Lucifer, in particular, is a marvelous creation, with an instantly recognizable feline personality and just the right balance of menace and silliness to make him both a tangible threat and a buffoonish foil for the antics of his rodent quarries.  All in all, there is a lot to love about Cinderella, a radiant and charming piece of filmmaking with its heart in the right place, no matter what accusations may be leveled by modern-day social critics; even if, in the end, I can’t say it places as highly on my personal “best of animation” list as it does on so many others, I still recommend it heartily, without reservation, as a fine example of Disney artistry in its prime.  In the end, or course, my opinion- or that of any other critic- is irrelevant; Cinderella is a classic, destined to remain with us for a long time to come.  After all, it has appealed to generations of children- and quite a few grown-ups- as strongly as it did upon its first release, over a half-century ago, and all those little princesses certainly couldn’t be wrong.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042332/?licb=0.9790095793792765

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Today’s cinema adventure: Bringing Up Baby, the 1938 classic by director Howard Hawks, teaming Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant as a pair of misfits who become entangled with each other in a complicated adventure involving (among other things) a tame leopard, a rambunctious terrier, a priceless dinosaur bone, several cases of mistaken identity, and a million dollars.  Despite good reviews and popularity with audiences in more sophisticated urban markets, it was a major box office flop upon its first release, leading to both its director and its female star being released from their contracts with RKO Pictures, the studio that produced it- indeed, Hepburn, who had headlined a string of financially disappointing movies, was labeled “box office poison” following this failure, and had to return to the Broadway stage in order to restore her reputation and her clout.  Nevertheless, a generation later, the film was rediscovered through the new medium of television, and has subsequently taken its place as one of the greats, a definitive example of the “screwball comedy” sub-genre, one of the finest vehicles to feature either of its iconic stars, and an influential piece of filmmaking that has inspired countless imitations and homages over the years.

The plot, based on a short story by Hagar Wilde (who also co-authored the screenplay with Dudley Nichols), focuses on one David Huxley, a paleontologist who, on the eve of his wedding to no-nonsense colleague, Miss Swallow, is sent to secure a million dollar donation to the Manhattan museum for which they both work.   It seems an open-and-shut deal- all that is required is a meeting with the donor’s attorney, upon whose approval the money will be bestowed; but David’s appointments with the lawyer are repeatedly interrupted by Susan Vance, a dizzy young society woman who seems to turn up everywhere he goes- and whose precocious antics involve him in enough confusion and mishap to blow his chances at obtaining the money.  As it happens, though, Susan turns out to be the niece of the museum’s would-be benefactor- a wealthy widow named Mrs. Random- and she promises David (with whom she has become smitten) she will persuade her aunt to donate to the museum anyway.  She enlists his help, against his will and his better judgment, to accompany him to her aunt’s country estate in order to deliver a pet leopard (named Baby) that has been sent as a gift from her big-game-hunter-brother; once they arrive, more confusion erupts, starting with Susan’s false introduction of David as a mentally unstable friend of her brother’s, and complications continue to arise- including the theft of David’s precious brontosaurus clavicle by Mrs. Random’s dog, a mix-up between Baby and an escaped (and mean-tempered) leopard from a traveling circus, and the interference of a crotchety local constable.  Through it all, David struggles to resolve the situation and make it back to the city in time for his wedding, but it becomes clear that Susan is doing everything she can to delay him and keep him by her side.

A description of the plot, in print, seems ridiculously far-fetched and convoluted; that, however, is what gives Bringing Up Baby its zany appeal on film.  The entire movie is a whirlwind of unlikely circumstances and coincidental relationships, bound together by a premise that is as flimsy as one of the diaphanous costumes that Hepburn sports onscreen.  This is the nature of the screwball comedy; we take for granted that the scenario will be ridiculous, and as long as it yields the kind of laughs we expect, we don’t mind suspending our disbelief in the absurdity of its situations.  As scenarios go, that of Bringing Up Baby is more ridiculous than most- in fact it borders on the surreal, but we accept it without batting an eye, because it also delivers more laughs than almost any other film of its era- or any other, for that matter.  It certainly helps that director Hawks drives the proceedings at a breakneck pace, scarcely giving us time to think about the credibility gaps or even to register the fast-and-furious jokes until they have already passed us by.

Much of the hilarity, however, arises from the chemistry of the two stars, perfectly matched and clearly relishing their roles; their comic banter arises so effortlessly as to belie the artificiality of the dialogue- indeed, the two performers ad-libbed some of the film’s best jokes- and they so completely inhabit their roles as to make us easily forget the many other personas they adopted on the screen over their long individual careers.  Grant in particular made a breakthrough here; his previous career had been mostly comprised of more-or-less dramatic (and none-too-weighty) leading man roles, and though he had previously appeared in The Awful Truth– another screwball classic in which he demonstrated his particular flair for comedy- nothing had prepared audiences for his work here.  Playing gleefully against type, the impossibly handsome Grant pulls off the role of the timid, nervous and befuddled bookworm without ever letting us doubt his awkward ineptitude; at the same time, he rattles off his barbed dialogue with the timing and wit of a master, making it clear that he is up to the challenge of sharing the screen with the formidable Hepburn.

As for The Great Kate, it’s hard to see her performance here and understand why she should be deemed a liability by studio executives; her sharp, patrician bearing is brilliantly undercut with a little-girlish softness that makes her instantly lovable no matter how maddeningly daffy she gets.  Careening from haughty and indignant to doe-eyed and tender and back again through all stops in between, her portrayal of Susan drives the film and gives it a heart; and even when her behavior is at its most inane, her glittering intelligence always shines through, giving this upper-crust oddball an edge that leaves no doubt of her absolute control over the entire madcap situation.  She never overwhelms her co-star, however; the two make a magnificent team, one that is immediately recognizable as perfect for each other (a conceit on which, of course, the entire movie depends), and the obvious real-life affection between them translates into an onscreen chemistry that has rarely been matched and makes this pairing one of the most iconic co-starring turns in cinematic memory.

Perfect as they may seem in their roles, both of the stars initially had trouble with the project.  Grant feared being unable to project the necessary intellectual quality of a career scientist, and was only able to relax into the the character when director Hawks told him to base his performance on the persona of silent screen comedian Harold Lloyd; Hepburn was stymied by the over-the-top zaniness of Susan, and struggled with finding the right approach until Hawks asked veteran character actor Walter Catlett, who was playing a minor role, to coach her in the art of playing outrageous comedy- he taught her the effectiveness of underplaying and naturalistic delivery (as opposed to the more deliberately comedic style she was attempting), and she was so grateful for the help that she insisted his part- the town constable with whom she tangles in the film’s climactic scene- be expanded to give her a chance to work with him more extensively.  Their initial reticence allayed, both the film’s stars settled into the rhythm of their characters and created the sparkling joint accomplishment that makes Bringing Up Baby so delightful to this day.  Their enjoyment of each other is clear to see, and infectious; they had so much fun working together on this film that shooting went over schedule (and over budget) due to their difficulty in completing their scenes without laughing.  Though doubtless this was a thorn in the side of RKO executives who were already anxious over the project, the fun translates to the screen.

Apart from the obvious joys of Hepburn and Grant’s interplay and their attractiveness both individually and as a couple, there is a more subtle aspect to their dynamic that lends a unique flavor to the goofball romance at the center of Bringing Up Baby.  Grant, though decidedly masculine in his energy and personality, plays the passive, pursued role in this relationship, while Hepburn is clearly the active aggressor.  It seems a minor twist, but by reversing the traditional gender roles of courtship in such a way, Baby sets itself apart from most of the romantic comedies that came before it.  It would be wrong to credit the film for being the first work of fiction to do this- after all, Shakespeare wrote several plays in which this inversion was explored- but Hollywood has always been known for reinforcing stereotypes, and by swapping these accepted standards of masculine and feminine behavior Bringing Up Baby became a milestone in the depiction of gender identity on the big screen.

This in itself is enough to have given the movie a special significance for GLBT audiences; but there is another point of interest here for cinema historians which also gives the movie its “gay appeal.”  In one memorable scene, Cary Grant, dressed in a frilly and feminine house robe (having had his clothes stolen by Hepburn whilst showering), is forced to meet the returning aunt- a formidable dowager- at her own front door.  The understandably flustered woman, confused by the presence of a strange man in her house, presses him impatiently with questions, and most adamantly (for some reason, though it seems the least alarming aspect of the situation) she wants to know why he is wearing those clothes; the badgered Grant, already pushed to the limit of his patience by Hepburn’s continued hijacking of his formerly sedate life, leaps in the air and shouts, “Because I just went gay, all of a sudden!”  This line, ad-libbed by Grant on the set, may be the very first instance in mainstream fiction that the word “gay” was used to denote homosexuality, though within the underground gay community it had been used as a code word since at least the 1920s.  It may not have been intentional (though frankly, it’s unlikely that a group of Hollywood sophisticates such as these would be unaware of the double meaning- particularly Grant, whose famous long-term relationship with “roommate” Randolph Scott is still the subject of much debate among his many fans), but whether it was or it wasn’t, this bold double-entendre provides one of the biggest laughs in the film, and is yet another reason why Bringing Up Baby has been accorded landmark status.

Historical footnotes aside, there are plenty of reasons to watch this little gem of late-Depression escapism today.  Not only are Hepburn and Grant a rare treat to watch, they are supported by a fine cast of character players that bring to life the assortment of other lunatics surrounding the film’s dotty protagonists.  In addition to the aforementioned Walter Catlett, whose comically cagey turn as the rural lawman provides Hepburn with a magnificent foil late in the film, there’s Charlie Ruggles (as a mild-mannered and easily flustered hunter who turns up as a guest to Mrs. Random’s estate), Barry Fitzgerald (as a heavy-drinking Irish gardener, a bit of now-inappropriate ethnic profiling that nevertheless seems innocent of malice and manages to still be funny today), perennial screen waiter Fritz Feld (here cast as a smugly pompous psychiatrist whose path keeps crossing with Hepburn’s, adding to the already-convoluted tangle of misunderstandings), and the redoubtable May Robson (as the somewhat battle-axish Mrs. Random).

More vital than any of these notables, however, are the non-human members of the supporting cast, and they too deserve mention.  Nissa, the leopard, a veteran of numerous B-movie jungle adventures, plays the dual role of both Baby and the dangerous circus escapee; the other four-legged star, in the role of the mischievous bone-thief, George, was Skippy, a terrier whose fame as “Asta” in the popular Thin Man movies made him nearly as big a draw as the human headliners, and his appearance here is highly memorable, exhibiting the exuberant canine personality that made him a natural and ensured his place as one of the immortal screen animals.

On top of the performances, Bringing Up Baby offers a fine look at late-thirties fashion and design through its sets (a sumptuous blend of Art Deco and neo-classical influences alongside the elegantly rustic charms of the Random estate, overseen by the legendary Art Director, Van Nest Polglase) and its costumes (most particularly the various range of outfits worn by Hepburn, with which designer Howard Greer manages to add some sly satirical commentary on the frivolity of fashion into the movie’s comedic recipe).  In addition, tech aficionados may find some interest in the early special effects- quite sophisticated for the time- with which the actors are sometimes made to appear with the leopard in close proximity (especially Grant, who wouldn’t go near the creature- though the fearless Hepburn directly interacted with it and can even be seen petting it in a few scenes); in several of the split screen sequences, a moving center line was required, creating a complex challenge for the technicians of the day.  They rose to it admirably; the seams are virtually invisible to all but the most attentive observers.

Bringing Up Baby, it may be clear by now, is a seminal movie for me; I have fond memories of watching it on TV with my parents, all of us laughing out loud together, and through the years I have seen it countless times- I can practically recite the dialogue along with the actors, and yet a viewing will still have me giggling uncontrollably throughout, as well as discovering nuances and subtleties that I had never noticed before.  No doubt there are many others out there with a similar relationship to this film; it was, after all, one of the first movies selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, and it has been consistently named on lists of the 100 best or funniest movies of all time.  For most, it is the movie that comes immediately to mind when the term “screwball comedy” is mentioned, and for good reason- it’s about as screwball a comedy as you can get without veering into the realm of the Looney Tunes.  For those who have yet to discover its sublime wackiness, I will give away no more than I already have; and for those who feel their modern tastes are too sophisticated for a 75-year-old comedy to provide much amusement, I can only challenge anyone to sit through Bringing Up Baby without cracking at least a smile.  After all, it has been called more than once a movie ahead of its time- which may, better than anything, explain why a film that temporarily sank the careers of both its director and its leading lady (though not, tellingly, that of the resilient Cary Grant) went on to become one of their most enduring and beloved creations.

http://m.imdb.com/title/tt0029947/

The Fall (2006)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: The Fall, a 2006 film, directed by Tarsem Singh, about a suicidal young man who unfolds an elaborate adventure tale for a little immigrant girl as they recover from injuries in a 1920s-era Los Angeles hospital.  Filmed over the course of four years at locations throughout the world, it was a deeply personal labor of love for its director, largely financed at his own expense.  It was initially released only on the film festival circuit, but, championed by filmmakers Spike Jonez and David Fincher, it was given widespread distribution in 2008, receiving widely mixed reviews; some critics found it a visually interesting bore while others placed it on their best-of-the-year lists, but the consensus was, by and large, mostly favorable, and the film was a moderate box office success.

Based on a 1981 Bulgarian film entitled Yo Ho Ho, The Fall interweaves its main narrative with epic scenes of sweeping fantasy described in the story told by its broken adult protagonist, Roy, a novice movie stunt man whose spine has been damaged in a fall during his first film shoot.  Deeply depressed, he has lost the will to live, but his morose state of mind has less to do with his injury than with the loss of the woman he loves to the movie star for whom he was doubling.  Recovering in the same hospital is Alexandria, a precocious Romanian child whose arm was broken in a fall while picking oranges with her immigrant family; curious and imaginative; she has taken to wandering the corridors and grounds, becoming a favorite among the other patients and the staff, who treat her as something of a mascot.  When she befriends Roy, he begins to entertain her with a fabulous tale of adventure and revenge, in which a masked bandit and his heroic comrades seek revenge against an evil prince for the wrongs he has done them; it becomes clear that his story is shaped as he goes by his own real-life situation, and that his ulterior motive is to use the continuing saga as a means to coerce his young companion into stealing morphine from the hospital’s dispensary in order to facilitate his intended suicide.  As the events of both stories unfold, little Alexandria exerts her own influence, inserting herself into the fantasy and affecting its outcome even as she begins to work her way into Roy’s broken heart.  Eventually, the imaginary epic becomes a vehicle for her desperate efforts to keep Roy’s hope alive- as well as her own.

Tarsem’s screenplay, co-authored with Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis, is geared towards revealing the triangulated relationship between reality, imagination, and the unconscious mind; but it is the relationship between its two protagonists that dominates the film, despite the resplendent spectacle of the fantasy sequences in which their shared psychodrama plays out.  This is not a negative criticism; on the contrary, the surreal, stream-of-consciousness yarn woven by the convalescent pair is meant to serve as illumination for the real-life process of their psychic healing, not the other way around, and it is a testament of the director’s dedication to his vision that The Fall does not make the fatal error of overwhelming its humanity by emphasizing the adventure plot over the drama which is the true center of the film.  That said, one can’t help wishing at times that a bit more effort had been made to forge a stronger coherence into the fantastical subplot, which is as all-over-the-map in its storyline as it is in its pan-geographical setting; but part of the film’s conceit is that the story morphs to suit the changing emotional needs of Roy and Alexandria, replicating the spontaneity and whimsy of a game of make believe, and though it may cause some frustration in viewers attuned to logical, linear storytelling, its structural malleability is in keeping with the larger purpose at hand.

The changing dynamics of this fantasy narrative yield numerous interesting subtleties.  We see, for example, that its visual manifestation is shaped by little Alexandria through the discrepancies between what Roy describes and what we see, reflecting her different cultural understanding- the bandits and Indians with which he fills his tale are depicted through the lens of her Eastern European, Ottoman-influenced imagination rather than the Hollywood-Western milieu he clearly intends; and the characters populating the adventure are portrayed by those surrounding the little girl in her real life (nurses, orderlies, visitors to the hospital), reflecting her associations and assumptions about them and what they represent for her.  Such clever and thoughtful touches do much to establish the elaborate meta-drama as a stage for the interaction of the two characters’ unconscious minds, as well as providing the source for a considerable amount of humor and even some subtle social commentary.

On a more obvious level, of course, it is these remarkable fantasy sequences that give The Fall its most distinctive quality- the breathtaking visual opulence that is made all the more astonishing by the knowledge that no special effects or computer enhancements were used.  Exotic, spectacular locations across the globe were used to create a surreal world of wonder; we are transported to Moorish palaces, ancient ruins, sparkling reefs, lush forests, otherworldly desertscapes, and monumental structures both well-known and unfamiliar, all beautifully photographed and magnificently showcased by Tarsem and cinematographer Colin Watkinson.  The characters are bedecked in the lavish costumes of Eiko Ishioka, which conjure a timelessly mythic quality made somehow more magical by their authenticity and their exquisite detail; and the larger-than-life majesty of these segments is undercut throughout with a playful spirit that keeps them fun and relieves the comparatively somber mood of the hospital environment in which the rest of the film is set.

Despite its inherent goofiness and its rambling inconsistency, the tale of the Blue Bandit manages to build an emotional weight as it reaches its climax; and though its characters’ fates are rendered irrelevant by the knowledge that they are wholly imaginary, they are nevertheless granted significance because we have come to care about the pair of storytellers who have created them.  It is in those less-rousing hospital scenes that the movie makes the emotional connection necessary to fuel both plots.  It succeeds in doing so largely because of the remarkable chemistry between its two leading players, Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru.  Tarsem cleverly sculpted this crucial element by shooting their segments in sequence, allowing the relationship between the two actors to develop naturally and taking care to keep the intrusiveness of his camera at a minimum- several scenes were filmed through a hole in the curtain surrounding the bed in which Pace’s character is confined, in order to preserve the feeling of intimacy- as well as allowing young Untaru (along with most of the crew) to continue in her initial belief that Pace was actually paraplegic.  In addition, much of their dialogue was unscripted, permitting the girl to use her natural expression; this not only results in a truly genuine performance from the little star, capturing her infectious real-life personality onscreen, but actually bore influence on the film’s scenario, with the director adapting certain elements of the story in response to spontaneous developments that took place in front of the camera.  This organic, delicate approach certainly paid off: the result is one of the most endearing, believable child performances ever put on film, and a magical, touching onscreen relationship that informs everything else that happens in The Fall.  Due credit goes to Pace, as well, who gives us a heart-rending portrayal of a young man crippled by morbid despair even as he manages to hold up his end of the connection with his juvenile co-star, not to mention the considerable task of embodying the fanciful hero of his fabricated saga.

Though the two central performers play an enormous part in making The Fall appealing, the real star is director Tarsem.  Having established himself as a talented film craftsman in the field of commercials and music videos (including the multi-award-winning video for REM’s “Losing My Religion”), he made his feature debut with the stylish 2000 thriller, The Cell, which was sufficiently successful to gain him the clout- and the finances- to make this highly personal film.  Choosing to pay for the bulk of it himself in order to forgo the necessity for compromising his vision to meet the demands of backers, the end result of his dedication is a visually stunning piece of filmmaking, laden with magnificent scenery, brilliantly composed frames, a dazzling array of color and light, and threaded through with an obvious reverence for the cinematic medium itself; continually incorporating elements of optical illusion and perceptual trickery (with numerous clear nods to the art of Salvador Dalì), he reminds us of the illusory nature of existence and celebrates the simple magic with which our lives can be enriched- not just on the big screen, but within our own imaginations.  He also proves that his ability is more than merely technical with his savvy handling of the actors and his wise approach of allowing their own artistry to make its contribution to his film, infusing it with an vibrant honesty that makes it much more than so many of the hollow, soulless spectacles foisted upon us in our neighborhood multiplexes today.

The most pertinent question, of course, is the same with The Fall as it is with any other move: is it sufficiently engaging to sustain interest for its two-hour running time?  Many critics- and other viewers- did not think so; doubtless those who were bored were expecting a comfortably predictable adventure fantasy, along the lines of The Princess Bride, with enough artsy quirkiness thrown in to appeal to the highbrow set.  If so, it is no wonder they were disappointed.  Tarsem’s film defies expectation, choosing instead to tell its own, bittersweet little story in a highly unorthodox style; it is a movie about the heart, the mind, and the imagination, and its characters are not the catch-phrase-spouting adventurers that populate standard blockbuster fare, nor is its action the main focus of attention.  Indeed, the movie’s formula is almost an inversion of the norm, with the action and adventure sublimated to serving the needs of the characters’ psychological journeys rather than vice-versa.  Such a switch doesn’t make for heart-pounding, adrenaline pumping excitement, and any viewer looking for such thrills is better off looking elsewhere; but if you’re looking for a rare and unique, highly affecting, thought-provoking experience that shines with the sheer joy of filmmaking as an art- as opposed to a cash cow- then you can’t ask for better than The Fall.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460791/