Monday, November 30, 2009

Briefly: An Education (2009)

Television is ruining the movies. In a world where cable has tapped into the potential of smart, thoughtful long-form dramatic television, movies can look awfully small. A cop movie would need to be awfully good to compare with The Wire. Cinematic gangsters will never be the same after The Sopranos. And a coming-of-age drama about a woman's place in the changing society of the 1960s like An Education, handsomely made and uniformly well-acted as it is, can't really rate with a show like Mad Men, which is about the very same topic during very same time period. There's only so much you can do with one story and 95 minutes; Mad Men's already produced thirty-plus hours on the subject. Nearly any film's going to look slight in comparison, though An Education does itself no favors by confining most of its running time to the rather predictable relationship between 16-year-old Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and thirtysomething David (Peter Saarsgard) and epiloguing most of its messy (and, thus, far more interesting) aftershocks. The film's cinematography is as rich as mahogany and the jazzy soundtrack evokes the time and place of London just prior to its swingin' days. But unfair as it may be, as I was watching it, I couldn't stop comparing An Education to Mad Men. One is like the British Cliffs Notes version of the other. Mulligan's gotten a ton of buzz for her performance, and she is convincing (if a bit too old looking) as Jenny, but I was even more enamored with Alfred Molina as her well-meaning but out-of-touch father. His nuanced performance is full of genuine humor and pathos; despite his limited screentime, he creates a complete character. It's like someone you'd see on television.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Briefly: Whatever Works (2009)

The message of Woody Allen's Whatever Works couldn't be clearer. The film's main character, Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David), comes right out and says it directly to camera at the film's conclusion:
"Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself. Because it's by no means up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck, than you'd like to admit.
Boris' philosophy might be a sublime approach to life but it is a dreadful one for filmmaking. As human beings, we should all live and let live, do unto others, and count our blessings. But film directors need to do more than shrug their shoulders, be polite, and leave the ultimate quality of their work to luck. Supposedly based on a screenplay Allen originally wrote back in the 1970s for Zero Mostel, Whatever Works tells the story of how the curmudgeonly Boris learns to live and love again after a bad divorce and a suicide attempt, in large part because of his relationship with a young runaway from the South named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood). Thematically, Allen's back in Annie Hall territory, with another story of a naive country girl and her instructive relationship with a "sophisticated" Manhattanite. But Annie Hall had a real affection for Annie; Boris, and by extension the movie, treats Melodie with open contempt, calling her, and really anyone who isn't from New York City (including her stereotypical rube parents, Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.), cretins, imbeciles, and morons. David plays himself on Curb Your Enthusiasm with a similar air of superiority, but there he's the butt of the jokes at least as often as the rest of humanity is. In other words, Curb often sides with the viewer; Whatever Works always sides with Boris. Maybe Boris' theory is correct. Maybe Whatever Works doesn't work because of simple bad luck. Or maybe Woody Allen just took an old screenplay out of a drawer, one that wasn't good enough to make back when he wrote it, and hoped some very fine actors would elevate the material.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

This Is It (2009)

Before the Clearview Chelsea's 5:30 PM screening of This Is It, the theater ran a coming attraction for 2012 I'd never seen before. The footage was familiar — an assortment of the world's recognizable landmarks obliterated by an assortment of the world's most recognizable natural disasters — but the background music was not. Instead of a traditional musical score, the editors inserted a pop ballad by former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert entitled "Time For Miracles." (To watch this trailer, go here). You or I might take the complete destruction of human society as a great tragedy; with the aid of Lambert's ode to undying love, the trailer treats the cataclysm as an exuberant celebration of the human spirit. Yes, the Mayan apocalypse has brought about the end of the world. But look on the bright side: John Cusack ain't giving up on love.

Jarring as the 2012 trailer was, it proved a fitting warm-up for This Is It, a documentary that fashions footage from rehearsals for Michael Jackson's 50 night stand at London's O2 Arena into a approximation of what the final concert would have looked like had Jackson not died following a cardiac arrest on June 25th. The film pauses for intermittent glimpses into the King of Pop's creative process, but it's predominantly a series of musical performances noticeably enhanced by extensive cutting and overdubbing. We might see Jackson and his band on stage performing Thriller, but we hear what sounds like a combination of live performance and studio tracks, maybe even original master recordings in some cases. In finished form, they present an image of Jackson as a tireless, consummate performer. But would our reaction be the same to less polished footage? How much does our interpretation of the sound affect our interpretation of the visual? If a carefully crafted pop melody can make images of global destruction uplifting, can a few carefully crafted audio tracks make an unhealthy man look well?

I don't know. I do know that at times I felt like the movie was trying to convince me Jackson was in better shape that he really was. Certainly he's far skinnier than any of the dancers he's sharing the stage with. Even under a mountain of layers, even in jackets with huge, ridiculous shoulder pads, he looks tiny (as Roger Ebert notes in his review, he's also the only person on stage who's always wearing long sleeves). Near the end of the film, he gives the assembled production a pep talk that is heartfelt but also kind of weirdly rambling; one moment he says they are there to deliver great escapism to the fans and the next he's warning them they all have three years to reverse global warming or the earth will be doomed (Someone call Adam Lambert!).

It's easy to say that Michael Jackson was crazy or sick. But look at what his work asked of him, and consider how you would react in his situation. The This Is It show included a Jackson 5 tribute medley, where Michael would be called upon to sing and dance as he did when he was ten years old. Imagine if you had to sing in public and sound exactly as you did at that age? Jackson is required not just to perform forty year old songs, but to perform them with perfect fidelity; he can't just sing "Thriller," he's got to sing with the signature "Thriller" dance moves and people made up as zombies. We wonder why Jackson stopped making hits, why he creatively stalled out in the mid-90s. How could he move into new artistic areas when he's required to perpetually recreate his past? That sort of pressure to look and sound forever young could drive anyone insane.

Not that director Kenny Ortega pauses for even a second to contemplate the perversity and absurd excesses of the Jackson stage show, and why would he; as the director of the This Is It concert series, he helped invent it. There might have been a truly revealing portrait of Michael Jackson in the raw footage he used to form This Is It, but I imagine the lawyers who ultimately control this material (at least one of whom receives a producer credit on the film) would never allow that to happen. Certainly there are a few tantalizing moments — a few untouched a capella lines here, a cracked joke there — but not many. Jackson is typically seen in wide shots, and often framed from head to toe. That choice ensures we're able to scrutinize his fluid dance steps; it also reflects the way the film always views its subject from a safe distance. The audience never gets too close for his (or his estate's) comfort.

And so we're left to watch and guess. In some ways, that makes the film more interesting; you hang on Jackson's every word and gesture, searching for clues to his true personality, his state of mind, his health, and above all, what his reaction would have been to a project like this documentary? I suspect a perfectionist like Jackson, who we see obsessing over the smallest details in musical arrangements and dance steps, would have hated the idea of giving the public unfettered access to imperfect footage. The fact that This Is It observes Jackson from such a remove, and forces us to consider his performance through a filter of carefully sculpted sound, makes the film both less honest and, paradoxically, truer to Michael's vision. This isn't how it looked and sounded on the stage of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But this is probably pretty close to how it looked and sounded inside Michael Jackson's very troubled mind.

NOTE: On, Vadim Rizov writes about a fascinating companion piece to the 2012 trailer, an Adam Lambert music video that features the musician singing while people all around him run for their lives.


David Spade Would Like To Remind You...

...that he was not in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.

Yes, there is a guy in the movie who does kind of look like him. But it's not him. No, it's just a random guy who looks exactly like him and whose wardrobe is entirely dayglo.

Yes a random guy who looks exactly like him and whose wardrobe is entirely dayglo and who rides a skateboard as if he's never done it before in his entire life.

Oh and Sharon Stone wants you to know that's not her making out with Steve Guttenberg, either.

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