The Jungle Book (2016)

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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.

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Sing Street (2016)

SingStreet

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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/

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

A Mighty Wind (2003)

 

 

Today’s cinema adventure: A Mighty Wind, the 2003 “mockumentary” feature by master-of-the-genre Christopher Guest, following the efforts to reunite several legendary folk-music acts for an impromptu concert paying tribute to their recently deceased producer.  With several characters developed from an earlier appearance on Saturday Night Live and songs penned mostly by the principal cast (along with Annette O’Toole, wife of frequent Guest collaborator Michael McKean, and C.J. Vanston, the film’s music director- who also appears), it received mostly positive response from critics and moderate success with the public, though it failed to achieve the popularity of Guest’s previous effort, Best In Show– possibly because of its focus on a less universal interest (folk singers are not as much of a draw as fanatical dog owner, apparently) and its more serio-comic tone.  Nevertheless, it has achieved a substantial cult following, alongside Guest-and-company’s other films, and together with these has exerted a visible influence in the creation of a whole new pseudo-documentary style for popular entertainment- particularly on television where successful shows such as Modern Family can be clearly seen as an outgrowth of this genre.

The script for A Mighty Wind, as with all Guest’s movies in this style, was generated through improvisation by its stellar cast, which is comprised almost entirely of veterans from the director’s stock company of players.  When pioneering folk-music impresario and producer Irving Steinbloom passes away, his three children- spearheaded by the fastidious and über-cautious Jonathan- organize a televised memorial concert to be performed at New York’s famous Town Hall; featured will be three of their father’s most famous and beloved acts, two of which have been long-disbanded.  The New Main Street Singers are the latest incarnation of a “supergroup” which once dominated the folk scene, now touring the County Fair circuit and headed by husband-and-wife team Terry and Laurie Bohner, with a sizable lineup which includes the minimal participation of only one original founding member; The Folkmen, an acoustic trio comprised of the relatively good-natured Mark Shubb, Alan Barrows, and Jerry Palter, are enthusiastic about the challenge of returning to the stage to and pleased to be performing together after decades apart; the most eagerly anticipated reunion, however, is that of Mitch and Mickey, a ballad-crooning duo whose starry-eyed connection fueled a successful career in which they captured the idealistic imagination of a generation of fans- and which collapsed along with their romance, leaving Mitch a burnt-out, drug-addled  has-been and Mickey the discontented middle-aged housewife of a medical catheter salesman.  As the date of the concert approaches, the various participants offer a behind-the-music look at their personal and professional lives, revealing both the expected clichés of the musical genre and a few not-so-typical surprises- including adult film careers, bizarre cult affiliations, and gender-identity issues- along the way; but the most pressing concern is whether or not Mitch and Mickey can overcome their long-unresolved passions and resentments to recapture the former magic of their collaboration- and indeed, whether they will make it to the stage at all.

The first and foremost objective of A Mighty Wind, of course, is to amuse; beginning with his involvement in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap– the grand-daddy of all “mockumentaries,” and a classic that maintains an enormous fan following to this day- Guest has mined comedy gold by sending up the foibles of odd little social niches- small-town community theater in Waiting for Guffman, competition dog breeders in Best in Show– with shrewdly observational explorations of their rarified worlds.  A Mighty Wind is cut from the same cloth as his earlier efforts, and it mercilessly attacks its target with just as much relish.  The folk music movement of the early sixties was marked not only by the militant political activism of Phil Ochs or the oblique poetry of Bob Dylan, but by the squeaky-clean warblings of such groups as The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels; in its portraits of the three fictional acts upon which it focuses, A Mighty Wind draws inspiration from all these sources for its parody, but it takes particular glee in its depiction of the extremely white-bread, middle-class sensibility that marks the genre.  These are not the visionary firebrands we might expect from a group of folkies dating back to the pre-hippie days, though there are traces of Dylan and his ilk to be found in the character of Mitch; rather, they are an assortment of more-or-less middle-of-the-road types who seem oblivious not only to the gap between their personalities and the music they perform, but to any of the irony that can be derived from it.  Aside from the New Main Street Singers, who deliberately present an almost sickeningly wholesome image in spite of their bizarre habits and shady histories, these people are more or less exactly what they appear to be, unsophisticated and bland.  They are unquestionably talented- in order for the premise to work, they have to be talented- but their music comes more, perhaps, from imitation than imagination, the pleasant-but-hollow product of a privileged generation trying to emulate the hard-won brilliance of musical pioneers who came before them.  A great deal of the movie’s comic genius can possibly be better experienced listening to the soundtrack album, since the keen musical parodies crafted by the cast beg for our full attention in order to be properly appreciated; even so, in true “mockumentary” fashion, a lot of mileage is gained through “archive footage” of the groups performing in their heyday, along with wickedly satirical photographic depictions of various events, costumes and album covers from the era, most of which evoke memories of real-life personalities and their work.

A Mighty Wind, however, does not depend solely on the easy laughs derived from poking fun of bygone trends in music and pop culture; it also finds a wealth of humor in the well-developed, fully-drawn characters created by its superb collection of comedic performers.  With each outing, Guest’s growing gang of cohorts, comedy legends all, managed even greater dimension in the creation of their characters, making whichever group of off-kilter average folk they happen to be skewering seem more and more fully realized and authentic.  By this time around, the troupe had reached the point of tipping the scales beyond simply lampooning their subjects, resulting in a genuine emotional connection that sometimes brings the story- almost- into the realm of serious character drama.  To be sure, the satirical edge is never absent, but there are moments when heartfelt sentiment emerges with enough strength to transcend the comedic style and unexpectedly strike a more resonant chord.  For the most part, this is reserved for the segments of the film that revolve around Mitch and Mickey, who seem to embody the lost spirit of the sixties, a feeling of youth and unlimited possibility that was soon to be buried and replaced by the worldly cynicism born of disappointment and failure; in the tentative efforts of this broken duo to bridge the gulf between past and present, A Mighty Wind expresses a yearning for lost idealism that cannot help but affect us at a deeper level than the snarky humor that otherwise dominates it.

Whether or not this is a negative criticism depends upon your point of view.  For many fans of Guest’s trademark formula, the crossover into pathos may be too much, an attempt to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves- and, of course, the key connecting theme of all these films, and the source of most of their comedy, is the fact that its characters take themselves far too seriously, investing their storm-in-a-teacup concerns with world-shaking significance and underscoring their own foolishness at every step.  For me, however, the underlying factor which makes these comedies funny- as opposed to hip and snarky- is the humanity with which Guest and his players treat their buffoonish creations.  In their efforts to puff themselves up, these champions of mediocrity enact our own desire to make a mark in the world, to rise above the mundane and often unfulfilling drudgery of an unremarkable life.  By laughing at them, we can laugh at our own occasional pomposity; but because they are also, in the end, so recognizably human in the insecurities and uncertainties that inevitably show through their facades, we can forgive them their self-aggrandizement and, by extension, forgive ourselves for ours, as well.  A Mighty Wind takes this equation one step further; by giving us an assortment of throwbacks to an earlier era, one at once more naive and more promising than our jaded present day, it sets up a sort of reflection on our entire cultural identity, with all its irony-laced sophistication, and its collective longing to believe in itself again- even if it’s just for a moment.

I don’t want to make it sound, however, like A Mighty Wind is one of those feel-good comedies that wins our attention with laughs and then degenerates into pseudo-heartfelt preciousness.  Guest and his compatriots ensure that they never even come close to that boundary, simply by virtue of their entirely honest approach to the characters.  There are no scenes of forced emotional climax; the epiphanies take place between the lines, without comment, and become part of the landscape on which further developments are built.  Nor does the film present some false fable of life-changing redemption, comic or otherwise.  The final scenes make it clear that whatever may have happened during the adventure of the concert, these people will continue to lead a life on the fringes, still seeking- though perhaps with renewed vigor- to grab another moment in the sun by whatever means necessary, no matter how ridiculous; and we love them all the more for their determination to go on trying, even though we may giggle at the absurdity of their attempts or feel a bit embarrassed for them over the indignities to which they stoop in their quest.  Still, whereas in previous outings we only shake our heads and dismiss these further shenanigans with bemusement, in A Mighty Wind, thanks to the genuinely sympathetic insight we have gained into at least some of these loony losers, there is a pang of wistful regret added to the mix that creates a distinctive sense of melancholy.  It’s not a bad thing, in my view, for even if the movie lacks the outright hilarity of Guffman or Best in Show, it stays with us in a way those previous gems do not, and the stronger emotional connection it makes leaves us feeling all the more satisfied.

Whether or not you respond to the way Guest’s film strives for more legitimacy through its forays into tenderness, it is undeniable that the work of the ensemble has here reached a new level of brilliance.  Each character, no matter how small, is invested with a sense of complete life, contributing indispensably to the overall picture presented by the film.  The front lines are manned by the performers taking on the personae of the musicians.  Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Guest himself are The Folksmen, giving the workmanlike trio an unrelenting aura of positivity that may occasionally be strained but is never forced, making them a sort of flip side to their trio of heavy metal rockers in Spinal Tap; foremost amongst the New Main Street Singers are John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch as the headlining Bohners, who give the pair a comically unsettling aura of sexual ambiguity and deep dysfunction under their slick-and-shiny patina of professional cuteness, with Parker Posey adding her own touch as a former-delinquent-turned-group-member who exudes the vacuous zealotry of a brainwashed teenage cultist; and giving the film its heart- while still providing mordant commentary through their keenly-observed  performances- are the incomparable Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, as Mitch and Mickey, respectively.  These latter two take their improv-built characters to a depth and fullness that rivals those in any conventional screenplay, layering them with a kind of subtext and dimension that makes us forget these are not real people on the screen. Levy brilliantly exudes the aura of the intense, visionary and antisocial poet, seething with all the charisma that entails, until he opens his mouth to reveal his true nature as an inarticulate, fatuous burnout whose emotional and social maturity seems to have ceased developing circa 1965.  It is O’Hara, though, who steals the show with her remarkable portrayal of Mickey, the sensible and pragmatic housewife who finds the dreams of her youth- and her passions for the love of her life- are reawakened by the chance to relive her gone-but-not-forgotten glory days.  She alone, of all these misfits, defies ridicule; she is foolish, yes, and caught up in an illusion as much as any of the others, but she is also eminently likable in her blend of down-to-earth simplicity and mature sophistication, and we find ourselves hoping alongside her that the promise of her past can at last come triumphantly to fruition.  It’s a forgone conclusion that it won’t, at least not in any lasting way, but O’Hara’s complete and sincere commitment to the role allows us to fool ourselves just as willingly as Mickey does, and her inevitable disillusionment is ultimately perhaps more heartbreaking for us than it is for her.  It’s a transcendent piece of acting, by any standards, and together with her old SCTV cohort Levy, she makes A Mighty Wind as poignant a portrait of unrequited longing as any “legitimate” Hollywood romance.

Other fine performances come from stalwarts such as Bob Balaban (as the anal-retentive Jonathan Steinbloom, who along with Michael Hitchcock as a Town Hall event coordinator provides the movie’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment), Fred Willard (as a leering and embarrassingly tacky  sitcom-has-been-turned-agent), Ed Begley, Jr. (as a public television executive of Jewish/Scandinavian descent), and the scene-stealing Jennifer Coolidge (sporting a ridiculously unplaceable accent as possibly the stupidest P.R. agent in history).  Making the cast’s contribution even more impressive, of course, is the fact that those impersonating the musicians not only wrote the movie’s musical selections, but also played and sang them, in some cases teaching themselves the necessary instruments.  The result, as noted above, is a collection of songs that are not only wickedly hilarious but are as infectious and memorable as the ones they so cleverly mock; indeed, Mitch and Mickey’s signature hit (which plays a key role in the story) is so authentic that it stands on its own, without irony, and received a nomination for Best Song at the Academy Awards; and the film’s title tune (with its brilliant lyric, “A mighty wind is blowin’ […] it’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ you and me”) was actually awarded a Grammy for Best Song Composed for a Movie.

In this prodigious display of talent, its easy to overlook the contributions of the film’s director.  Guest- in addition to his subtly hilarious turn as the vaguely dim-witted, Garfunkel-haired, fuddy-duddiest third of The Folksmen-  humbly provides his skills as a guiding hand; much of his genius rests in his willingness to turn his collaborators loose in front of the camera and let them work their magic, but his ability to piece together a finished result cannot be underestimated.  He shapes a coherent, intelligent, touching and hilarious narrative out of what must have been hundreds of hours of footage, and A Mighty Wind is a testament to his patience and dedication as much as his sense of humor and his talent- both behind and in front of the camera.

As with all of Guest’s films, appreciation for A Mighty Wind is dependent on a number of factors.  A taste for satire is required, as is a fondness for dry humor and an enjoyment for both “high” and “low” comedy; it certainly helps to have at least a passing knowledge of whichever insular world on which he has chosen to turn his focus.  Those without exposure to the history or conventions of folk music may find little amusement in A Mighty Wind, just as those who have never seen a small town theatre production may not “get” Waiting for Guffman.  For those “in the know,” both films are funny; but whereas Guffman (and Best in Show, for that matter) has a tendency towards an almost mean-spirited ruthlessness in its approach, this time around, the Guest Gang seems to have mellowed; not that they have lost their edge, but perhaps they have softened it.  There is a fondness for the people of A Mighty Wind that seeps into us as we watch, bonding us to them in a way we could never achieve with, say, Corky St. Clair of Guffman; these characters become a part of us, and seem as real to us- perhaps more so, in fact- as the true-life musicians that inspired them.  Furthermore, because the film’s humor- and its pathos- is based more in its characters than on its subject matter, A Mighty Wind might just be, despite the relative obscurity of the milieu in which it dwells, the most accessible of these movies.  At any rate, it certainly touches on a more universal nerve than any of the others, and does so in a way that is both touching and faintly unsettling, like a wistful reminder of a mark we once made for ourselves as a culture- and a remonstration for having fallen so far short of it.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0310281/

 

Pinocchio (1940)

Today’s cinema adventure: Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature, based on the classic children’s story by Carlo Collodi, about a puppet bestowed life in answer to a kindly woodcarver’s wish for a son.  As the follow-up to Disney’s first foray into feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it represented an enormous leap forward in the development of the art form, with the animators taking huge strides to overcome the difficulties they encountered- and correct the mistakes they had made- with their first effort,  resulting in a visually stunning masterpiece which has, in many ways, never been surpassed.  In particular, Pinocchio represents a watershed moment in the advancement of effects animation (as opposed to the character animation at which Disney’s artists were already adept), with its extensive depiction of such elements as fire, smoke, magic, and especially water, creating a dazzling and fully realized environment in which this metaphorical fairy tale can be played out.  Additionally, thanks to the use of live action footage and articulated models (maquettes) as a reference for the animators, the film incorporates a level of realism which enhances its ability to engage and transport its audience, as well as featuring inventive angles and perspectives which would directly influence the advancement of cinematic technique in live-action filmmaking.  Finally, Disney’s development of the multi-plane camera, which allowed the combination and separate manipulation of different layers of imagery within a single shot, yielded an illusion of depth which prefigured the use of 3-D technology, and helped to narrow the gap between live-action and animated filmmaking- a gap which grows ever smaller to this day.

Of course, it could go without saying that Pinocchio, as with all of the Disney features released during the initial Renaissance of the studio, has become a classic, revered as an iconic milestone in the genre of animation and beloved by generations of audiences as a cornerstone of family entertainment; indeed, critical appraisal of the film has been almost universally positive from the moment of its release, though the outbreak of WWII prevented it from becoming financially successful until it was reissued several years later.  However, though its status as a pinnacle of animated art has never been questioned, there have been numerous dissensions over the years regarding its content.  Much of the criticism revolves around the divergences Disney made from the source material in order to make a more marketable film: Pinocchio was transformed from a sarcastic, mischievous hooligan into an inexperienced, innocent naïf who is only led into trouble through his good-hearted gullibility, and his design was softened to resemble less the pointy-nosed, spindly marionette of the book than the real boy he will eventually become; the cricket, a minor character in the original story, was developed into a central figure and anthropomorphized to the point that, in the words of his supervising animator, Ward Kimball, “the only thing that makes him a cricket is because we call him one;” and a number of bizarre and/or gruesome incidents and characters were either removed or revised in order to present the story more as a heart-warming fable than as a cautionary tale.  The objections to this sanitization of Collodi’s novel stand alongside countless protests surrounding the studio’s similar treatment of other classic sources, fueling the long-standing criticism of the studio for “Disney-fying” its material- producing films that subvert the original intention of the authors and sugar-coat their messages for the sake of appealing to the broadest possible audience.

Thankfully, it is not my role to determine the validity of either of this viewpoints here; though it seems to me they are criticisms based on opinions of what the film should be, rather than reactions to what it actually is.  Pinocchio is, first and foremost, exactly what it was intended to be: a visually stunning and highly entertaining work of art.  Whatever social or literary obligations the Disney artists might have disregarded, they succeeded beyond reasonable expectation in their goal to create a finished project that holds up to every standard of excellence- not only does Pinocchio exhibit a still-breathtaking mastery of technical skill, it features an intricate, meticulously executed artistic design that is evident in every frame.  From the dozens of whimsical clockwork devices on display in Geppetto’s humble cottage, to the rustic Italian Alpine village in which the story is set, to the garish and foreboding over-stimulation of Pleasure Island, to the wonders of the undersea world where the climactic segment takes place; the entire film vibrates with a life and personality that can only result from the passion and enthusiasm of its creators.  Even more remarkable is that all this dazzling work is never gratuitously applied, but is wholly dedicated in service to the story: the quantity and humor of Geppetto’s constructions speak volumes about his character, the lurid excess of Pleasure Island clues us into the menace lurking behind its surface, the painstakingly immersive depiction of the ocean environment transports us there with Pinocchio- every tiny detail serves a purpose, and instead of overwhelming us and reminding us of the artificiality of our experience, the richness and variety on display here draws us in and gives us the feeling that the world of Pinocchio is just as real as any place we have seen in our own lives- and perhaps even more so.

Of course, no matter how fully-realized this spectacular world may be, it must be populated if the story is to be told.  The characters in Pinocchio– even the minor ones- are as richly developed as the elements which surround them, designed and animated to such specific perfection that the breadth of their characterization is visible in every frame they inhabit: Jiminy Cricket, with his instantly likable blend of gentility and earthiness; Honest John the Fox, the picture of tawdry pretension and avaricious hunger, and his mute sidekick Gideon the Cat, a sort of skeevy Harpo Marx; Stromboli, a menacingly immense combination of flamboyance, volatility and mean-spirited cruelty; Lampwick, the ultimate hoodlum, cocky and uncouth, yet ultimately pitiable as he suffers the direst fate of any character in the film; even Monstro the whale, aptly personifying the unstoppable, chaotic wrath of the universe; and, of course, Geppetto, lovably dotty and infinitely kind, with his pets, Figaro and Cleo, the lovable kitten and goldfish pair that provide gentle comic relief with their yin-and-yang interplay as they respond to the various events taking place around them.  As for the star of the show, Pinocchio is crafted as the epitome of innocent boyhood; his sweet nature and his excitement for the brave new world before him are his defining characteristics, and he is in a constant state of action, exploring possibilities, embracing experiences, and honestly seeking to please- even when he lies to the Blue Fairy, we get the sense he is doing it as much to save her from disappointment as to save himself from trouble.  As a result, he comes off as a plucky and enthusiastic young hero, instead of the cloying and disingenuous brat he could so easily have become if his creators had chosen to make him deliberately cute or precocious.

The personalities of all these now-iconic characters are a completed by a collection of carefully-chosen voices.  Pinocchio was the beginning of a long Disney tradition (now standard for animated productions but at the time unprecedented) of utilizing seasoned and recognizable talent to provide the vocal contributions to their films, featuring Cliff Edwards (as the cricket, a then-popular singer well-known for his work on Broadway and early talkies), Walter Catlett (as the charlatan fox, another Broadway actor familiar to audiences at the time for a string of high-profile character roles in films like A Tale of Two Cities and Bringing Up Baby), Christian Rub (a distinctive and much-loved radio and film performer who not only gave Geppetto his voice but was used as a physical model for the character as well), Evelyn Venable (a popular screen ingénue renowned for her beauty, austere but warm as the Blue Fairy), and Dickie Moore (as Pinocchio, a seasoned child actor with several high-profile live-action roles under his belt).  All of these, as well the other, lesser-known voices, fit their parts to perfection, as definitively as any live-action cast embodies their characters.  It is impossible to imagine any other voices coming from the figures onscreen in Pinocchio– which is yet another testament to the gifted artists who brought them to life, incorporating the nuances of the already-recorded dialogue into their final rendering of the film, an effect that is perhaps not too unlike that of a motion-capture suit of today transforming an actor’s personality into an animated form.

As if all this sublime artistry were not enough, there is still the perfection of the musical score.  Music plays an important part in every Disney classic, and it has never been better than in Pinocchio; the background score by Paul J. Smith is an indispensable part of the film’s character, as are the songs of Ned Washington and Leigh Harline, which are interwoven seamlessly to it throughout.  Though all of these songs are well-known by generations of children who have grown up with them, one in particular (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) has become not only the signature tune of the Disney empire but an anthem for optimists the world over; as crooned by Edwards over the film’s opening credits, it sets a tone of wistful longing and lets us know that in the end, though there will be much adversity to be faced, everything will come out right.

It’s hard not to gush about Pinocchio: by way of disclaimer I have to admit that it was my favorite Disney movie as I was growing up, with its metaphor of “becoming a real boy” providing me with much food for thought on my way through childhood and adolescence.  Despite this personal bias, I feel completely justified in my enthusiastic assessment of this film.  It is still, over 70 years later, consistently listed as one of the top ten animated films of all time, and it has provided immeasurable influence not only on the art of cinema, but throughout popular culture in general.  It is widely considered the pinnacle of achievement by the studio that created it (no small feat, considering their impressive track record) and it set a high standard for so-called “family films,” providing stimulating entertainment at all levels of maturity rather than just presenting formulaic pablum designed to occupy juvenile minds for 90 minutes- an egregious cheat still perpetrated by far too many so-called artists who churn out such sub-par, straight-to-DVD fodder.  Though today’s high-tech animators can render remarkable imagery that looks far more realistic than anything in it, Pinocchio can hardly be called crude or primitive- it is a work of pure art, exquisitely produced using techniques which have fallen out of fashion in an era that seems only impressed by the newest innovations in a rapidly accelerating parade of obsolescence.  Thankfully, it hasn’t gone anywhere: it is still out there, in home video cabinets the world over, captivating yet another generation of young minds and reconnecting parents to their own childhood, and thanks to painstaking restoration and the ready availability of high-resolution formats, it looks as good as new- perhaps even better (see, I do like technological advancement).

As for those who complain that the movie is not an authentic representation of Collodi’s novel, I think it is only right to point out that several other screen versions have been made of Pinocchio, many of them striving to remain much closer to the source material.  Without exception, they have all bombed, both critically and financially.  Perhaps the latest incarnation, currently in production and starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, can break that unfortunate cycle; but until it, or yet another attempt, succeeds, the Disney version will continue to reign supreme.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032910/

Velvet Goldmine (1998)

Today’s cinema adventure: Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ 1998 glam-rock fantasia with sexy, charismatic performances by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Ewan McGregor, and Christian Bale, a film that has gained a loyal and substantial cult following despite the poor reception it received upon its initial release. Boldly structured in the mold of Citizen Kane, it follows the attempts of a journalist to piece together the decade-old mystery surrounding a glam-rock superstar who unsuccessfully faked his own assassination before fading into obscurity. Interweaving scenes of the writer’s quest with flashbacks depicting the rise and fall of his enigmatic subject, Haynes’ film plays fast-and-loose (deliberately) with facts and fictionalizes significant real-life figures as it pays tribute to- and laments the fading of- the musical and cultural mini-era on which its focus lies. To this purpose, the film’s designers have crafted a dazzlingly surreal and authentic recreation of the English rock-and-roll scene in the early seventies, reconstructing the peculiar mix of tinsel, trash, and haute couture that defined the look of the period, as well as the darker, grittier eighties of the film’s parallel narrative. In particular, Sandy Powell’s superb costume designs succeed in capturing both the outrageous fashion of the rock-and-roll glitterati and the more subdued flavors worn by their less-glamorous followers and fans. The sparkling package is wrapped in the vivid cinematography of Maryse Alberti, which evokes the authentic photography of the day so completely there are times you swear you are looking at archival footage.

Inhabiting this time capsule world are several superb performers, each in the early stages of their highly successful respective careers. In the key role of Brian Slade is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who effectively embodies the ultimate glam rocker, channeling the spirit of David Bowie (on whom the character is heavily based, along with, to a smaller degree, Marc Bolan) and yet investing the performance with his own energy as well- cheeky yet vulnerable, jaded yet naïve, sexually charged yet romantic, he manifests the image of the androgynous bad boy while letting us see into the complex personality beneath it. He is matched by Ewan McGregor (as Slade’s collaborator and lover, Curt Wild- inspired in equal measure by Iggy Pop and Lou Reed), who likewise presents a convincing portrait of an archetypal glam figure- but a distinctly different one, rougher-edged yet ultimately, perhaps, deeper. The two performances complement each other like a dovetail joint, and both men are at their most impressive- and mesmerizing- when they are called upon to perform in the numerous musical sequences, pulling off the full rock star act with exuberant bravado and absolute confidence. In a less showy role- but no less superb- is Christian Bale, playing the journalist and former fan who is haunted by memories of his youthful involvement in the glam culture and of his personal connections to both the iconic stars in the history he is tracing; always a deeply compelling actor, Bale is effective throughout, but he is at his best as the rosy-cheeked youth of the flashbacks, riding the extremes of his adolescent emotions as he tentatively explores his own developing sexual and ideological identity and comes of age in a heady time of seemingly limitless possibilities. Toni Collette is both deliciously tawdry and surprisingly grounded as Slade’s wife Mandy, impressively evolving with the character in an arc that takes her from hippie muse to jaded has-been; and Eddie Izzard is appropriately loathsome as the oily manager who shepherds Slade into the world of rock-and-roll excess.

Despite the considerable strengths described above, however, Velvet Goldmine is not an unqualified success. Haynes is a gifted director, justly acclaimed for his ability to translate complex and esoteric themes into a compelling screen experience, but often criticized for failing to create a cohesive whole; his films often seem more interested in conjuring elemental forces than in using them to work toward a specific purpose. Of course, such a technique allows the audience to form their own personal conclusions; it’s an impressionistic style of filmmaking, and like other impressionistic art forms, it’s not to everyone’s taste. With this effort, his passion for the period and the attitudes it represented is very clear, and he succeeds admirably in approximating the glam milieu and bringing it to the screen. However, the formula he chooses to do so creates some problematic issues: the investigative drama which drives the plot seems a brilliant device for exploring this seminal period in contemporary pop culture, allowing him to explore the what made it such an appealing time for those who embraced its spirit and why its memory and influence linger today; however, the brooding, mournful tone of the mystery- as well as the deeply personal importance placed on discovering the answers by the film’s protagonist- suggest a weighty significance at the core of the nostalgic proceedings that somehow feels misplaced. To be sure, Haynes is presenting a document of a time in which a generation overflowed with the excitement of changing attitudes and the promise of freer personal expression, a time which was to morph all too soon into a glitzy, self-centered era in which shallow, self-destructive excess would take a heavy toll; the collective loss of innocence resulting from this social odyssey certainly spawned the kind of emotional wounds reflected by the characters in Velvet Goldmine, and the healing power of reconnecting with these cultural roots, of rediscovering the spirit that generated the whole process in the first place, is clearly a major part of the film’s intended effect. In these terms, Brian Slade provides the perfect metaphor: hungry for the freedom to be himself, whoever that may turn out to be, he soars into a fantasy world made real- only to eventually succumb to the lure of nihilistic hedonism, transforming his existence into an unsustainable nightmare from which he must eventually choose to escape or die. However, Slade is not an Everyman, not even a glorified one like Charles Foster Kane, and his experiences, though they may resemble a magnified version of those shared by many who participated in the glam sub-culture and the disco era which followed, ultimately seem more the consequence of individual character makeup than a reflection of some greater social phenomenon. More germane to the group experience, perhaps, is Bale’s journalist, burned by the broken promise of his youth and seeking a way to come to terms with the deep longings left unfulfilled; but the plot on which his redemption hinges, the conceit of uncovering the secrets of a former pop icon’s decline and fall, ultimately feels forced. After all, there is no mystery to be solved- the story to be told is so common as to be predictable- and in the end, there are no real answers to be found there, only an implausible plot twist and a phantom wound that will never stop itching. To make a resolution even less palpable, Haynes’ screenplay (from a story written by himself and James Lyons) wraps the plot about a man exploring an enigma in another, larger enigma: invoking the spirits of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, he introduces a mysterious, possibly extra-terrestrial gem which secretly links the characters and their histories to a long procession of pop superstars, suggesting that the cycle of fame is some sort of mystical cosmic reflex which affects our social evolution, and even hinting at the deliberate manipulation of our pop culture by an unseen and arcane outside force. Another apt metaphor, and an interesting proposition- one which seems borrowed from the handbook of glam-era theatricality as represented by such flights of fancy as Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, a source of much inspiration to the events portrayed in the film- but in this case, perhaps, a needless complication in an already over-complicated mix.

Speaking of Ziggy Stardust, it seems necessary to also remark that the heavy fictionalization of the figures represented- which amounts to the creation of a sort of alternate glam universe- has been a point of considerable controversy surrounding Velvet Goldmine. Taking well-known real-life icons and re-inventing them for dramatic purposes is an acceptable tactic that goes back, no doubt, to the very beginning of story-telling; however, Haynes has here blended real events so completely into the soup that the result could be very confusing to those unfamiliar with the true history of those involved. Though Brian Slade is not David Bowie, he certainly feels like it; indeed, Bowie himself, initially involved in the project, pulled his support and the rights to use his songs after discovering that the script incorporated elements from unauthorized biographies by his former wife and others. To make matters even more confusing, mixed in with the original musical selections composed for the film are older songs by such glam-era artists as Roxy Music, T. Rex, and the New York Dolls, among others, performed by the fictional singers as if they were themselves the originators. Though I’m not one to quibble about adherence to historical accuracy- after all, my favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia, and my love for Shakespeare is in no way affected by his fondness for rewriting history to suit his needs- in this case it seems appropriate to suggest that, before making any assumptions based on the recognizability of the figures on display in Velvet Goldmine, it would be wise to do some research and decipher who these characters really are (or, rather, really aren’t).

Nevertheless, Haynes’ film provides many pleasures: the aforementioned musical sequences, mounted with a gaudy theatrical flair that captures the glitter-rock essence to a tee, are the film’s best scenes, nostalgic yet freshly minted; and there are moments throughout that reach through the layers of conceit to grab at your heart-strings, electrifying touchstones that instantly transport you to the memory of some shared, universal experience- the yearning, impossible ache of a teen-aged Bale staring at homoerotic photos of his idols; the sharp humiliation of Collette’s Mandy Slade as she confronts her husband in the midst of his dehumanized, drugs-and-sex-saturated oblivion; the explosive, adrenaline-fueled vitality of McGregor’s first stage performance as Wild (in which, incidentally, he strips naked for his adoring audience). All in all, the exponential popularity of Velvet Goldmine is not surprising, nor is it undeserved: though it may leave us unsatisfied on some nameless level, and though it sometimes feels as though it takes itself far too seriously, its youthful exuberance and its visual perfection go a long way towards making up for its shortcomings; and even if it ultimately leads us to prefer and embrace the real-world history which it distorts for its desired effect, it seems fitting and desirable to find satisfaction in that which is real rather than in a glittery fantasy- and that, come to think of it, is perhaps the true message of Velvet Goldmine.

 

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120879/

All That Jazz (1979)

Today’s cinema adventure: All That Jazz, the 1979 feature by Bob Fosse which reinvents the “backstage musical” as a fantasia on death and show business.  Framed as a portrait of Joe Gideon, a workaholic director/choreographer whose self-destructive habits sabotage his life and his relationships, the film is in reality a thinly-veiled autobiographical exploration of Fosse himself, documenting his failures as a husband, father and lover, depicting his excessive use of cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, exposing his serial womanizing, and revealing his obsessive dedication to his work as both an escape from and a response to the downward spiral of his personal life.  More importantly, it is a vehicle for the legendary director- with the help of co-screenwriter Robert Alan Arthur- to deliver his cynical observations about the entertainment business and its people, and a stylized allegory of his long flirtation with death- personified here by a mysterious, angelic woman in white, with whom Gideon carries on a hallucinatory fantasy dialogue, interpolated with the scenes of his life in the “real” world.  Laced with gallows humor, it’s a film which gets most of its mileage from contrasts- between the slick veneer and the seedy underbelly of the world it presents, the syrupy platitudes and the cold-hearted motives of the people who inhabit it, and the self-loathing and the self-aggrandizement that characterize its central figure- and by extension, the director himself.  Standing in for Fosse onscreen is Roy Scheider, whose performance as Gideon was derived from first-hand observations on the set, and provides a highly truthful and sympathetic representation of a man, weary from a lifetime of literally and figuratively “putting on the show,” who is so jaded and hollow that he is unable- and unwilling- to distinguish truth from illusion.  The ethereally beautiful Jessica Lange provides a chilling blend of seduction and sincerity to her embodiment of the angel of death, lending real emotional weight to the prospect of a final embrace; and the remainder of the cast- which includes some of Fosse’s own paramours as some of Gideon’s, as well as a sizeable collection of real-life Broadway performers portraying various denizens of the show biz circus that surrounds his life- do a superb job of capturing the authenticity of Fosse’s world.  Of course, the real star of this mix of cold reality and Fellini-esque fantasy is Fosse himself- for as elaborate as the film’s dramatic structure may be, it serves primarily as a framework for numerous displays of his legendary gifts as a choreographer, captured by the first-class cinematography of Guiseppe Rotunno and performed by practitioners well-versed in his distinctive style by years of first-hand experience.  These range from the breathtaking and justly famous audition montage which opens the film, to the erotically-charged airline number with which Gideon shocks and dazzles his producers, to the macabre hospital hallucination sequence featuring Busby Berkely-style feather dancers, to the culminating jazz/rock fantasy that serves as a grand finale for both the film and its protagonist’s life.  Whatever unique insights may be offered by Fosse’s look at his own psyche, the foremost value of All That Jazz comes from these dance sequences which offer perhaps the quintessential representation of his iconic style on film.  For many viewers, the highly theatrical, stylized conceit upon which the film hinges may seem too heavy-handedly symbolic, but it must be remembered that Fosse is not attempting to present a universal picture of humanity and death, merely his own personal take derived from a lifetime of channeling reality into fantasy; and if the self-observations he presents ultimately seem, despite their seemingly brutal honesty, to be just one more level of show-biz B.S., his perspective on himself acts as a microcosmic illumination of the dangers and demons of the creative personality, and as a warning to avoid the pitfalls which he so whole-heartedly embraced.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078754/