Monday, November 29, 2010
Sunday, November 28, 2010
"It's when you're safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure. When you're having an adventure you wish you were safe at home." ~ Thorton Wilder
Those words hold a significant truth about the basic theme of the 1996 British miniseries, Neverwhere, a story crafted by one of my favorite writers in Neil Gaiman. Upon watching the six roughly half-hour episodes, it sums up everything the protagonist experiences in quite the pretty little package. It's an adventure, pure and simple, underneath all of the fantastic and fairy-tale stylings in which Gaiman dresses the story. And some of the best adventures involve the fish-out-of-water, the inexperienced catalyst, the unaccounted-for fly in the antagonist's ointment. Neverwhere features one wonderful example of that type of character in an atypical hero named Richard Mayhew (Gary Blakewell).
Gary Blakewell as Richard Mayhew (above) and Laura Fraser as Door (right)
Neverwhere appeared first as the miniseries then as a book penned by Gaiman, a veteran of acclaimed comic book stories such as the tremendous Sandman series. The series aired on BBC Two and eventually became available on DVD through A & E in the United States (I first watched it on loan from Netflix). One of the most noticeable traits of the series, at least in the way it looks, is the "PBS video" appearance. Yes, Neverwhere is shot in video. It was meant to be edited later to give it more of a "film" appearance, yet that never happened, so it aired "as is." And you know what? It doesn't take away from the story's richness one bit.
I love Neil Gaiman's work. I enjoyed the Sandman series, his 17th century reimagining of Marvel superheroes in 1602, and the enormous imagination of Stardust, Coraline, and the book I just finished, American Gods. Gaiman is known for painstaking research and detail, digging up fairy tales and giving them a new wash for a new audience. Neverwhere demonstrates that word imagination very deftly. World creation in a fictional setting is never easy, yet here's London Below, as realistic and alive as if it actually existed. The characters, both good and evil, so endearing, you might wish you really knew them.
Neverwhere is pure adventure, pure storytelling from the mind of one of the great modern weavers of fantastic fiction. If you can get past the "PBS video" look of it - which really doesn't take much effort - you'll find a wonderful tale that should be listed among the great journeys that heroes have taken in literature.
But that's just me. Find out for yourself, and I hope you enjoy the adventure.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
One of Scorsese’s more obscure films is 1977’s New York, New York. Oddly enough, everyone probably knows the theme song thanks to a certain iconic crooner who recorded it several years after the film came out; but most have probably never seen the movie that bears its name.
Set in post-war Gotham, New York, New York is a hybrid beast that is tough to pin down. Physically, it looks like a grand MGM musical – most of the movie was filmed on a sound stage, the sets are gorgeous, the colors lush, and the atmosphere is dream like. That said, the story is a rather bleak tale of two star crossed lovers who fall in love, fight (a lot) and do not end up happily ever after. The dialogue is mostly improvised, which might make New York, New York the Granddaddy of mumble-core. Oh, and one more thing, it’s also a musical; but wait, it’s not one of those films where people just break out into song; the main characters are in show business so we get to see them singing on stages, in plays, night clubs, and eventually, in movies.
Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) is a selfish cad who can blow a mean saxophone. The start of the film finds him wandering a massive VJ Day party hitting on women. Oddly, Jimmy is one of the few men not in uniform – in fact he sticks out like a sore thumb in his Hawaiian shirt. Be that as it may, he eventually sets his sights on a WAC named Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Sitting down at her table, making small talk, we get our first taste of the odd dialogue in New York, New York. In a scene that seems to go on forever, Jimmy repeatedly hits on Francine, and she keeps turning him down and it goes something like this,
Jimmy: I guess a little small talks in order here now
Francine: Can it get any smaller?
Jimmy: Now look I can take a hint
Francine: Can you also take a walk
Jimmy: Do you want me to leave?
Jimmy: I'll leave right now
Jimmy: You expect me to leave after the way you just talked to me?
Francine: Will you go away
Jimmy: I don't want to, I want to stay here and annoy you.
…and that’s just the start of it. Honestly, this give and take, which is sort of cute at first, becomes irritating at the five minute mark – I worship Robert DeNiro, but he’s no Groucho Marx, and Minnelli is no Margaret Dumont.
But hold on, it does get better.
Eventually Jimmy and Francine hook up and it turns out that his saxophone playing, and her singing voice are a match made in heaven, and soon the musical duo throw a band together and take their show out on the road.
Once they start performing, it’s clear that the audiences have come to hear Francine warble, and Jimmy has problems with this. His ego is so fragile that he starts coming apart, and his relationship with Francine begins to fray. In one of New York, New York’s more powerful scenes, the couple are engaged in a screaming match in a car. Francine (now nine months pregnant with Jimmy’s child) is hysterical over Jimmy’s behavior, and the more hysterical she becomes, the more terrifying and enraged Jimmy acts. At one he point he lunges over the back seat, hands clawed as if he were set to strangle, and screams in her face, “Did I tell you to have that baby?!?!” – and then suddenly Francine goes into labor and he rushes her to the hospital. This is where you’d think that Jimmy might come to his senses, instead, he visits Francine in the hospital, and when she tells him she had a boy, he tells her, “I can’t be a father”. And like that, he just walks out of her life.
After this New York, New York sets it’s eye on Francine and her bullet like rise to the top. Free of Jimmy’s hostile ways and hateful attitude, she becomes the star she always knew she would. Her songs become big hits, she is featured on the cover of dozens of showbiz magazines, and eventually she becomes a movie star.
The second half of New York, New York is Liza Minnelli’s film and she owns it. If her Francine is anything, it’s a white washed portrayal of her mother, the iconic, Judy Garland: a tragic love life, a brilliant career. But, unlike Judy, Francine is not self destructive, but like Garland, she can sing and preform like few before her.
Watching Minnelli belt out a song like “The World Goes Round” is nothing short of magic. And Scorsese’s camera loves her unique face…those huge eyes, that oddly formed mouth, those blindingly white teeth that form that famous overbite…for some reason, she looks beautiful in spite of everything – especially when she’s singing.
In one of New York, New York’s most imaginative moments, Jimmy goes into a movie theatre on Times Square to see Francine’s new film. Suddenly, we are watching a film that features Francine, as an usher in a movie theater, imagining herself as the star of the film on the screen (think about that for a second, it might make your head hurt). This fifteen minute section (which was cut from New York, New York when it was first released), is a gorgeous homage to the lost art of movie musicals, and makes up for the many less than stellar moments in the film before it.
In the final half hour , New York, New York is flawless. First up, Jimmy goes back to the club he first met Francine. She’s now headlining there. Then, we get to hear the title song of the movie and marvel over Liza Minnelli doing what she does best (at this point, it seems that she’s no longer playing Francine: this is Liza with a Fucking Z – from the clothes she’s wearing, to the cut of her hair, to the way she is performing …). After the show, Jimmy gets to meet his son, and then he asks Francine to meet him after the show so they can go out and get a cup of coffee.
Of course if this were a film from the 40’s or 50’s we know what would happen next. The lovelorn couple would have been reunited and walked off in a Technicolor sunset – Scorsese had something else in mind.
New York, New York is not for everyone, in fact it can be a real effort to get through – but that’s what makes it so incredible. If you do wade through the less than compelling scenes you are rewarded with some moments of sheer cinematic genius, and as long as you did not expect a happy ending, you may even come away appreciating it for the flawed classic it is.
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The African-American cook has a boiling prejudice against men of her own skin color, accusing him of having something else up his sleeve. Her prejudice is an alarming one, as it concerns protecting the little girl she helped raise--but it's also just a surprising form of black on black racism. Tillie is perhaps the most angry at the newly introduced couple, and the look in her eyes is enough to send anyone running, while John merely laughs. Could it be that John himself is holding a prejudice against the fact that a house cook is telling him what to do?
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Saturday, November 6, 2010
My fascination with this film began a little over a year ago when I first rented the DVD. By the time the end credits were rolling, I was ready to restart the film and watch it again. At first, my reason for another viewing was to see if maybe I had missed something; some plot point that cleared up the ambiguity of the story’s denouement. At least that’s what I told myself.
The second viewing actually took place a day or two later. It was a Saturday morning, very early. I settled in on the sofa and sipped a mug of coffee and found myself again mesmerized by this strange and fascinating tale of an avenging Mother Superior who goes toe to toe with an alleged pedophile priest.
Set in the late fall / early winter of 1964, Doubt takes place at an inner-city Catholic grade school where Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) rules the roost like some kind of Ninja in a black bonnet. Sister Aloysius is not fond of ball point pens, candy, sugar, berets or long fingernails. She strikes fear into the hearts of her students as well as the rest of the nuns who teach at the school. More that that, she’s also not afraid to physically discipline her charges. Her only fear seems to be the winds of change that are blowing around her (both figuratively and literally), and she holds on with an iron grip to the past as she sees societal changes slowly creeping into her own cloistered existence.
A young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) is also a teacher at the school, and while it is obvious that she wants to impress Sister Aloysius, she’s also more concerned with teaching her students than terrifying them. Strangely enough, though Sister James appears the most innocent of the three main characters, her actions are what set in to motion the film’s story.
One afternoon, Sister James notices something that she finds suspicious concerning the school’s only African American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), and Father Flynn. Once she reports her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, Pandora’s box opens and no matter what she might try to do to close it up again, Sister James can not.
Doubt deals with very a delicate, but very timely, subject matter; the sexual abuse of a minor at the hands of a Catholic priest. And while it might seem a simple leap for the viewer to believe this accusation against Father Flynn…well, as Ringo Starr once said, “It don’t come easy”. Indeed, my obsession with this film is partially based on my looking for clues as to the priest’s guilt or innocence. And that’s just it – there are no real clues, no witnesses, just a strong suspicion and whatever baggage the viewer brings to the table. Personally, I find myself flipping back and forth every time I view this film. One minute, every outrageous accusation that Sister Aloysius throws at Father Flynn makes perfect sense, then later, it just seems like she’s got some sort of hidden agenda, and maybe Sister James was right when she said to her, “You just don't like him! You don't like it that he uses a ballpoint pen. You don't like it that he takes 3 lumps of sugar in his tea. You don't like it that he likes Frosty the Snowman and you are letting that convince you of something that's terrible... Just terrible...”
Amy Adams take on Sister James could easily be overlooked, but that’s because she plays the young teaching nun so effortlessly. Adams gives this character heart and a conscience. She’s still feeling her way through the world of teaching and the convent life, she still seems to actually care for the children she teaches. I think Adams really shines in the one scene where, disgusted at herself for the trouble she might be causing, she mimics Sister Aloysius and starts berating one of her students. Later on you can see how heartbroken she is for her actions.
Another reason I am obsessed with Doubt is due to what I call “The Showdown Scene”. This is the moment of the movie when Streep and Hoffman’s characters face off – it is a masters class in acting. It’s also a brutal moment when it is hard to tell exactly who is really the bad guy. This is when Sister Aloysius proclaims that she has no proof, but that she does have her “certainty” and then, looking both crazed and defiant, clutching her crucifix like it might be a dagger she screams at the priest,”I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me. “ Clearly this is woman with a rather large axe to grind. So when Father Flynn looks defeated, I ask myself is it because he’s guilty, or is it because he’s up against such an angry, unbalanced adversary who is willing to go to the police. Maybe it was just easier for him to walk away, than risk public humiliation.
But in the end, Father Flynn does leave – reassigned to another parish (with a promotion!) and by now the viewer might be willing to believe that he was up to no good, that Sister Aloysius did have the goods on him after all (she tells him at one point that she spoke to a nun at his last church). But then we discover that was a lie. And in the film's waning moments, we start to ask ourselves what went on. If that’s not enough, in the final scene, Sister Aloysius is sitting with Sister Jane on a bench in the dead of winter and the Mother Superior breaks down in tears, once more clutching that crucifix like a dagger, but then hiding it under her tunic and sobs, “Oh sister, I have doubts. I have such doubts!” That’s when I usually scream, “About what? His guilt, your faith in God, the way your run the school, your life’s profession?” And then I tell myself, I am going to have to watch this movie again, maybe then I’ll figure it out.
Who knows, maybe I never will.
When I first saw John Carpenter's underrated gem of an action-comedy-martial arts-fantasy flick, Big Trouble In Little China, I was a student majoring in Amateur Party-Attending and Alcohol Consumption at Central Michigan University, circa 1987. It was a Saturday night, and I stumbled into my dorm sometime after midnight. Merrill Hall was good about having movies to watch in the commons room on Saturdays, and as my eyes adjusted to the non-smoky, bright interior of the dorm lobby, this is the wondrous sight they saw:
The stunning alley fight that establishes the line between good and evil, and puts our hero Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in the thick of the strangest adventure that involves magic, demi-gods, and modernized Chinese mythology - that was it...I was drawn in and would never leave this movie's warm and goofy embrace.
Big Trouble In Little China is director John Carpenter's true cult film. Halloween may be his incredible debut and a study in suspense that would make Alfred Hitchcock jealous, but this 1986 tribute to true adventure and Hong Kong action films didn't fare as well at the box office. You'd think it would've done better, as nearly everyone I know loves the movie. But, in reality, it's just that my closest friends and I tend to like the same movies, and so when I ask a "movie non-buff" if they like it, I usually get a shrug and/or a blank look. Halloween usually gets more of a response.
Haven't seen it? Here's a quick rundown: egotistical yet philosophical trucker Burton and his buddy, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun), run afoul of local bad guy David Lo Pan (James Hong) who turns out to be a cursed demi-god in search of a Chinese girl with green eyes so that he can become human again. As a result, Jack loses his truck and Wang loses his girlfriend to Lo Pan and his admittedly kick-ass henchmen, the Three Storms who possess the names and powers of rain, thunder, and lightning. Enlisting the help of a group of good-guy warriors and tour guide/sorcerer Egg Shen (the great Victor Wong - you've seen him in Tremors), Jack and Wang storm Lo Pan's vast underground world to rescue Wang's girlfriend and intrepid reporter Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall, thankfully pre-Sex In The City). What follows can be described as John Wayne meets the dark side of Oz in a crazy battle underneath Chinatown.
Big Trouble In Little China always reminds of me what it's like to have fun watching a movie. You could describe the film as "good dumb fun," but really, there's nothing dumb about it. The hero is immensely likable, the villain is appropriately over-the-top, and the pure fantasy facets of the movie tell you screw reality and sit back to enjoy the ride. It looks good; there's a rich palette of colors, enhanced by neon and bright but unobtrusive special effects. It sounds good; Carpenter's minimalist score - as usual - fits with the action on the screen, and the whooshes and crackles of the battle scenes cartwheel out of your speakers.
One of the little details I loved about the movie is the hint of a wider world than we actually see. Yes, there's the actual story, but there are strong clues that this battle of good (the Chang Sing gang) and evil (the Wing Kong gang) has been raging for centuries. And not only the battle itself, but the characters as well, especially Egg Shen and Lo Pan.
When discussing his search for a green-eyed woman, Lo Pan remarks "There have been others, to be sure. There are always others, are there not?" Maybe there have been other adventures, other heroes that have thwarted Lo Pan with Egg's help. Hmm. We definitely know Egg and Lo Pan have crossed paths before, and Egg isn't just a lovable, kooky local magician. When Lo Pan tells the Three Storms that Egg is leading the band of heroes, the Storms give each other a fearful look. Egg apparently already has either faced them, or has carved out a reputation for himself battling other demons. And there's a telling exchange between the two adversaries during the climactic battle scene, as they battle to a magical stalemate, and Lo Pan brags, "You never could beat me, Egg Shen."
When a movie, no matter how much in the "big dumb fun" niche it is, stirs the imagination of my childhood and causes me to dream up my own continuing stories (I always called mine More Trouble In Little China - don't judge)...then it will win my heart. Big Trouble In Little China won my heart in 1987 on that post-party, not-entirely-sober Saturday night in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, and has kept it for 23 years and counting. Although Carpenter has made a number of my favorite films, such as the aforementioned Halloween, They Live, Prince of Darkness, and The Thing, this movie - this true definition of a "romp" - remains my favorite of the bunch.
Monday, November 1, 2010
My sister and I have begun a new tradition in our apartment. Every Friday night we resist the temptation to visit some over crowded, smelly bar and instead we watch a Classic movie. I’m not exactly an expert on what classifies a Classic film so forgive me if our selections aren’t quite classic enough for you. Just know that these films are typically seen and adored by people who call themselves film fans and for one reason or another I have suspiciously avoided seeing them. Whether this is due to my non-stop horror movie watching or because I detest really long movies, remains to be seen. But know this, every week you’ll be getting a fancy review of the latest movie watched at the Dumas household and oh how lucky you are.
Last week we settled in to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). I admit to having avoided it simply because I had heard of its dark and depressing themes and how “heavy” it was. In fact we had plans to watch it the week before, only to switch it at the last minute for something more light hearted. When I was reminded by the synopsis on Netflix that our two main characters were George and Martha, I was immediately brought back to my childhood.
The George and Martha series by James Marshall was a staple of my literary repertoire growing up. Due to this, I could never listen to excerpts from the play or read anything about the film without picturing two very fat hippos trying to outdo one another. As it so happens, James Marshall came up with the idea for the series while his mother was watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This of course means that he based his lovable characters on the dastardly and at times disturbing duo. After seeing the film, I couldn’t imagine that Marshall would want to use these two as models for a children’s book largely based around teaching morality lessons. I emailed my Mom and asked her to send me one of the George and Martha books for research.
What I found was that I was continuously raising my eyebrows during any moments that suggested George was less of a man. One story in particular depicts George as boasting about diving off the high dive. Once at the top however, George starts to panic. Martha than proceeds to climb the high dive and jumps off, while George sneaks off the ladder while everyone is distracted by Martha’s giant splash. Despite the book obviously catering towards a more light hearted level of fun and games, I can’t help but be secretly put off by George and Martha. Were their constant games in the book just warm up for when they bashed each others faults relentlessly in front of strangers? Was Martha secretly an alcoholic who had a soft spot for younger men? I had so many concerns about the two lovable hippos now that I had been exposed to their inspiration.
Watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is like renting Showgirls with your grandmother by accident. You just feel embarrassed, and you feel trapped--but also it’s very difficult to look away. It’s the very embodiment of watching a gruesome wreckage after a car accident. It’s a film that takes you on one of the wildest rides in emotional roller coaster history, causing laughter and fits of silliness one minute then plunging you down into a state of depression the next. What is that we can take away from a film as heavy as this? To be honest I’m not entirely sure. I had misgivings about even writing on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because I wasn’t even sure that I did understand it.
I understood that much of it was beautifully shot, and that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were simply amazing in their roles. I understood the implications that Martha may have been barren, and how cruel George’s last game really was. But then I also understood how continuously cruel Martha was to George. Through all that she had done, the second that the “child” gets brought up, means that George is immediately seen as the bad guy? Or perhaps that’s just what I felt although that may not have been what it meant. Nevertheless, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an extremely difficult film to watch. It stands miles apart from the likes of “torture porn” movies and causes you to understand what the term “disturbing” truly means.
I’m glad that I finally got to see it, but still find that I’m grappling with what it all really means. Does it have a larger meaning? Or are we meant to simply stare at its level of sheer horror while we unsuccessfully try to wipe its horror from our minds? I think I’ll stick to children’s books.