31 December 2009

BULLSHIT SHERLOCK

It is not a pleasant feeling when you know before the end of a film's opening shot that you're not going to like it very much, and thus it was for me and the new Sherlock Holmes: beginning with the Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow and Legendary Pictures logos marked out in wet cobbles (I do love seeing how the Warner shield can be played around with, even as I frequently do not love the attached movie), it pans up to a patently CGI depiction of late-Victorian London, and the camera starts to move forward uncertainly, as though asking, "Well? Shall I zoom forward like a ritalin-addled music video?" And then of course it does, shooting forward with crazed abandon, jerking unsteadily as the CGI and live-action elements are composited together rather less successfully than you would hope is the case. And it was in this moment, all of 15 seconds into the film, that I thought, "Dammit, this is absolutely a Guy Ritchie movie".

Ritchie, you likely recall, made his splashy debut with the reasonbly awesome British gangster picture Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in 1998, and has never done anything remotely that good since: Snatch in 2000 was nothing but a decent retread of the same material, while Revolver and RocknRolla were both significantly less than decent. I have not seen his Swept Away remake, and I cannot begin to imagine why I would ever wish to. He never seemed, to me, like the right choice to make a new film version of the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective, and my every suspicion has been borne out: this Sherlock Holmes is a great deal more indebted to Ritchie's particular brand of stylistically exhausting action-adventure than to Conan Doyle's elegant prose and intensely intellectual anti-hero.

I don't mean to come across as some crabby Conan Doyle purist, mind you, because nobody likes a disgruntled conservative fanboy, but stick with me here. You pay what is, I am certain, no inconsiderable sum of money to get your hands on the Holmes brand name, wouldn't it be the sensible thing to use all the trappings of that brand to their fullest? Okay, somebody didn't do his research, but the point stands: if you're going to the trouble of making a Sherlock Holmes movie, you really should make a Sherlock Holmes movie. Because if the only goal is to present Robert Downey, Jr. as a steampunk martial arts crime fighter, I am 99% certain that you can do that without having to drag Sherlock Holmes into the mix, and raising certain expectations that you have no real intention of fulfilling. Outside of a couple scenes where Holmes plays that parlor trick where he glances at a room or a person and goes on for two pages about all the tremendously specific things he can deduce about them, which was already a wee bit tedious in the short stories, this depiction of the detective is much more about the fist-fighting and much less about the clever mental processing.

Let it not be argued that Ritchie doesn't have a certain skill with crafting such fight scenes on a model well-suited to modern blockbuster cinema. But that is both a compliment and an insult all in one, really. Ritchie's aesthetic has long been heavy on the darting camera and slow-motion style made popular in the wake of The Matrix, and his Sherlock Holmes is absolutely no exception. Which has at least the capacity to be fun, except that the execution is fairly botched, and the film comes across as much more antic than exciting: it keeps on going and pounding and none of the scenes are cut together in a way that lets you follow the action all that terribly well. And Jesus, but there's a lot of it! The ads promised a buddy comedy mystery with lights of action-adventure, but the balance is much out of proportion.

The only thing that keeps the slightly chaotic film together is the interplay between Holmes and Watson, played respectively by Downey and Jude Law. I am not certain that this is entirely in accordance with the film's intentions. What makes Sherlock Holmes interesting, when it is interesting, is the unabashed homoerotic take on the material. Homoeroticism is obvious not a new element in Holmes scholarship of course, but this film is much more forthright about than most; it is text rather than subtext. It can be somewhat amusing to see that Law is fairly well alone in committing himself completely to this angle; but I did "interesting" by intent, and not "good", for there's something a bit garish and calculated about the way the men's relationship is played for humor. Of a certainty, I'd rather see something with the comparative wit and grace of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to the braying lad comedy on display here.

Downey is, as should be no surprise whatsoever, the best-in-show here and really the only particularly positive element of the whole. Playing Holmes with the intense stare of the overcaffeinated, he nails the neurotic, socially unthinking elements of the character's persona, although as a whole the performance feels too much like the actor's bag of tics, carefully assembled to a pattern rather than erupting naturally out of the character, like Downey's fantastic turn in Iron Man. It is certainly not one of his stronger roles, although it is rare indeed that he's not fun to watch onscreen.

The supporting cast around him is nowhere up the same task, especially Rachel McAdams, giving the worst performance of her career, apparently inspired by a lengthy study of the expressions and charisma found in the cooler at a seafood market. But the role she was stuck with is of virtually no value to the plot except as a device, and a particularly functional tool meant to prove that Holmes likes women. Law is decent but has little energy; Mark Strong is not nearly the same thundering villain he was in The Young Victoria.

Meanwhile, the story is vastly convoluted, far more than can be at all justified, and sets up a sequel with appallingly reckless abandon; and for a high-budget feature, the whole thing looks awfully cheap, especially those glassy CGI sets. The costumes and production design are convincing but hardly have the opulence of a major production. And Ritchie's particular directing quirks guarantee that nearly all of the setpieces are far more dizzy and draining than they are pleasant.

All told, this is just a mindless summer popcorn movie, except it was released in December. Which makes its particular brand of mediocrity much more odd and noticeable, but once your burn off the novelty all that remains is a very dully entertaining buddy picture that is just too hectic to really work, and provides nothing even vaguely intellectually stimulating to keep you going through the laggy parts of the plot.

5/10

JANUARY 2010 MOVIE PREVIEW

Heavens to Betsy, I seem to have missed doing one of these last month. Ah well. Not much to get excited about, anyway. But January, now that's the month. They always put the good stuff in at the start of the year, right? RIGHT?

Christ, I get demoralised sometimes.

8.1.2010
The new decade gets kicked off right with a shitty-ass vampire movie starring Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, Daybreakers. Apparently, in the future, they win and normal humans are kept as farming stock, or something. The trailer makes it look like Underworld with Twilight's makeup.

Deedle-dee, moving along... Michael Cera has another starring vehicle called Youth in Revolt, triggering my stock bitching about how once I used to like him and now I really really don't, and the foul Anand Tucker directs Amy Adams in a stunningly routine-seeming romantic comedy, Leap Year. Oh, and Tim Allen makes his directorial debut with Crazy on the Outside, about an ex-con and the wackiness that happens with his family. Don't see any cause for alarm with that one.


15.1.2010
I am such a fucking pushover for post-apocalypse movies that it's frankly embarrassing even to bring it up. So the fact that I can look at the trailer for The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington ferries a bible across a nuked-out America, and think to myself, "Well, that's going to be bad", that's when you know a film has troubles. Probably has something to do with the Hughes brothers, directing for the first time since the reprehensible From Hell.

Elsewhere, Jackie Chan plays The Spy Next Door in a family movie variant on his real movies.


22.1.2010
Crazily enough, this is the second weekend in a row to pit a religion-themed end-of-the-world movie against a family comedy starring a sometime action star. The former is Legion, with Paul Bettany as an angel who comes to Earth to save humanity when God decides to kill us all, and the trailer is so gleefully trashy that I have some dim hope for this being so bad it's good. The latter is Tooth Fairy, with Dwayne Johnson as a tooth fairy, in a plot that appears to be modeled after The Santa Clause.

Randomly, the third major release of the weekend is Extraordinary Measures, a true story about parents trying to cure their children's rare disease. Doesn't it feel like this should have at least been given the shallow courtesy of an awards-season release? I mean, if it were any good at all?


29.1.2010
Poor bastard Mel Gibson. He used to be a proper movie star, and now he's shunted to January. I guess that's what you get for being a racist, sexist, homophobic psychopath. Anyhow, Edge of Darkness - boy, what a compelling, original, and descriptive title - finds him uncovering a conspiracy, under the direction of Martin Campbell, and that last detail almost gives me a glimmer of hope; he's directed both of the Bond movies in the last 20 years that were good.

The only other release stars Kristen Bell, poor bastard Kristen Bell, in When in Rome, a romantic fantasy comedy that looks to be the blandest, most innocent, dullest chunk of empty calories of the first quarter of the year. Maybe longer. Though since it is directed by Mark Steven Johnson, of both Daredevil and Ghost Rider, I think bland and dull might be an indefensibly optimistic read of the situation.

Say whatever else one might about January, at least it doesn't take long to write up!

ROCK AS LIFE

Thankfully, with the new year beginning on a Friday, there's basically a one-week vacation from new releases, so over the next several days I'm going to take the opportunity to review some films from 2009 that I either didn't have a chance to see during their release, or couldn't find the time to review, in addition to whatever crap is still lingering in the multiplexes before it gives way to the even greater crap of January first-run releases.

First up, one of the marvelous rock documentaries of this or any other era, Anvil! The Story of Anvil. It is, as you might suspect, about Anvil, and Anvil is a metal rock group from Ontario, Canada that formed in the mid-'70s, began recording in the early '80s, played the Super Rock Festival in Japan in 1984, and influenced some future superstar metal bands (Lars Ulrich and Slash both appear early in the film to give glowing testimonials). But for the men of Anvil, there was no stardom. For a reason that can only be waved away as the caprice of history, they never had their big break, and despite an outsized level of influence over the form, never became more than a tiny little band beloved by aging aficionados of thrash metal in its purest, earliest form.

And yet Anvil lives. Despite never attaining stardom - indeed, never even becoming a reliable source for beer money for the band members - Anvil never disbanded and never stopped playing, and that is where filmmaker Sacha Gervasi found things when he got in touch with the group in 2005. In the early '80s, Gervasi was an Anvil roadie, and eventually grew up to become a bit of a screenwriter with two credits to his name: The Big Tease and The Terminal. If the timing is anything to go by, it was this latter film - directed by some small-timer named Steven Spielberg - that put Gervasi in a position to get back in touch with the group with the intention of filming a documentary about their travails. Perhaps this was Gervasi's attempt to bring his former favorite band in the world to greater prominence; perhaps he was just damned curious about its fate himself.

What he found makes for an interesting enough story in sheer music history terms; but Anvil! is so much more than just a "Where are they now?" exposé of a group that virtually nobody has ever heard of. It is as well a stirring tribute to human tenacity in the face of unendurable odds; This Is Spinal Tap played straight and, by virtue of being true, given a deeply moving tragic edge. We could accuse the band's frontman Steve "Lips" Kudlow and his high school buddy, drummer Robb Reiner, of possessing a Quixote-like foolishness masquerading as dogged professionalism, perhaps, and it is much to Gervasi's credit that he doesn't just present the men as noble saints fighting the world to make their dream come true. That's part of it, but at the same time the real world keeps sneaking in around the edges of the band's fantasies. Poverty is a very real element of these men's lives - Lips notes acerbically that bassist Glenn Five can't even afford a house to live in - and Kudlow and Reiner's wives are seen to be suffering for their husband's time-sucking, moneyless hobby; suffering happily, maybe, but suffering nonetheless.

Mainly, though, the film's perspective is one of awe: awe that any pair of men could wait so patiently for year after year, into the decades, and still keep the faith that their dreams are just around the corner even in the face of the most humiliating setbacks. Gervasi picked a serendipitous moment to re-enter the band's life: in 2005, Lips was approached by a European fan named Tiziana Arrigoni, who had taken it upon herself to arrange a month-plus continental tour on Anvil's behalf, and believed she could promise them €1500 per gig. So off to Europe they went, only to find that despite Arrigoni's best efforts, the tour was not remotely the success, artistically or financially, that anyone anticipated; things got bad enough that Reiner tried to quite, although Kudlow was able to talk him off the ledge, and by the time they played the Monsters of Transylvania rock fest to a crowd of fewer than 200 souls, having been promised 5000, any notion that this trip might have been their big break went out the window.

Undismayed, Kudlow next decided to approach the well-regarded metal producer Chris Tsangarides, the man behind Anvil's most artistically perfect album, 1982's Metal on Metal, to see if he might be willing to help them with their proposed thirteenth album (I don't wonder that the presence of Gervasi's cameras helped embolden the band to make this jump. Tsangarides was delighted by their demo tape, and glad to help out; but then that poverty thing struck again, and only a loan from Kudlow's sister let This Is Thirteen become a reality. But even then, the indifference of record labels proved a sticking point, and the band was forced to sell CDs off their website.

The same dramas play out over and over again over the course of all these months: Kudlow has panicked fits centered around his fear that he will never justify the legend that he and others have built around Anvil, always unconvincingly reassuring himself that the important thing is the music, and that he continues to play for the people who have always stood by him; Reiner is always on the verge of giving up, for unlike Kudlow, he seems to have interests and pursuits outside of the band, including painting (and if he's never going to have a gallery show all his own, he's still not half-bad and clearly puts thought into what he's doing). And the viewer starts to gain an awareness through all of this of the two men's indomitable souls, which will not let reality or practicality keep them from being Anvil, for being Anvil is the only thing they have ever known, and the only thing they have ever wanted. They are noble fools, and in recording their fevered commitment to one unattainable dream, Gervasi has created a sometimes heartbreaking tribute to the human capacity for optimism and ambition. In the final moments, when they once again play a Japanese fest, to what is all but certainly the largest crowd they'd seen in the 22 years since Super Rock, Anvil! honestly and effortlessly becomes one of the most uplifting and inspirational movies of the year.

Thanks to the movie, the men of Anvil had greater success in 2009 than in any year of their existence; maybe even more than their entire career combined. Necessarily, this is not mentioned in the film, which ends instead with the standard "what happened to the subjects during post-production" title cards, suggesting that Kudlow and Robb keep on keeping on, to hell with the promise of success. And while, in real life, I am quite happy for Anvil and hope that they continue to ever greater things, the end of the movie is better art, for it does not give us a glib happy ending but a reassuringly pragmatic one: these men who have always defined themselves as Anvil, nothing but Anvil, continue to fight their fight, to be this thing that they have created for themselves, for in the moment that they cease to be Anvil they cease to live. It is this depiction of tenacity unrewarded, striving for the sake of always moving forward, that makes Anvil! one of the most moving documentaries I have seen in a rather long time.

9/10

29 December 2009

SOMETIMES AWFUL THINGS HAVE THEIR OWN BEAUTY

I have a mental list of the professions that do and do not turn out good film directors. Screenwriters? Less often than you'd think. Music video directors? About half the time. Editors? Rarely happens, but they're usually pretty good. Producers? Surprisingly, yes. Actors? Good directors of performance, yes; of the camera, almost never. Effects artists? Absolutely not, not even Stan Winston. Cinematographers? Hell no. Every single film or short I've seen directed by a former cinematographer has been a maddening self-indulgent mess of style and absurd lighting trickery, save for the work of one man. I don't mean to say terrible things against cinematographers, but maybe it's because their job is all about the look of things, and they can too easily lose sight of all the other things that a director is responsible for. In this respect, they remind me of the newest addition to my list of careers that positively do not prepare one for the challenges of helming a feature length motion picture, the fashion designer.

I do not know positively one way or the other if anyone prior to Tom Ford has made precisely that entirely un-intuitive jump from one industry to another, but I hope not: because Ford's debut film, A Single Man, is exactly the worst case scenario of what pops into your head when you hear the phrase "movie directed by a men's fashion designer and gay icon". It is visually devouring, so extremely fussed-over and precise and classy and utterly arid that it chokes the life out of you - it is the experience of being suffocated by a velvet cloth soaked in Grand Marnier, and as the last threads of life exit your body, you get at last a clear view of your murderer, and he is a statuesque teenage androgyne with immaculately tousled shoulder-length hair that he effortlessly flicks out of his steel-blue eyes as he watches your death spasms with studied indifference. It is a film resolutely concerned with its visual surface, and by God, that surface is put together with the utmost care: every lingering, desaturated shot and deliberately framed, empty-space heavy composition, and every grainy, abstract insert shot has the thudding intensity of Purpose; more often than not a Purpose that Ford stole from better filmmakers, but if mere thievery were A Single Man's only crime, I really don't suppose I'd have anything mean to say against it.

Ford, unfortunately, steals indiscriminately and without understanding what he does; and so his film is crammed to the stuffing point with visual notions that are all individually striking (I hesitate to use the word "beautiful"), and completely and utterly incoherent when you start lining them all up together; to say nothing of how excruciatingly fatiguing it is to watch this much Visual Art getting thrown at your face over the course of 99 minutes. I do not like the word "pretentious", and I like even less to use it as an insult, but A Single Man is a phenomenally pretentious movie, in the way that only a debut film can ever be. Ford is like a very well-traveled film student who knows the films he wants to emulate, but doesn't know any better way to that than by crudely emulating shots and ideas, letting his film strangle in the process.

Exhibit A: for most of the movie, our protagonist is very sullen and depressed, and to show this, everything is extremely desaturated, almost to Clint Eastwood/Tom Stern levels of desaturation. Sometimes, he will remember a pleasant moment or something nice will happen to him, like having a pretty boy smile at him, and then the saturation will ratchet right up, past "normal" and right into "prostitute's makeup". This is already a fairly obvious and boring way to visual represent emotion, but the fact that the extremes are so, well, extreme is enough to make "obvious and boring" into "intensely aggravating". And I have not even mentioned: though usually, this saturation change happens at cuts, occasionally the shot itself will just suddenly start fading up with ungainly, over-hot colors, like there was somebody was twisting a knob back and forth. But the only knob here is Tom Ford.

Exhibit B: the grain. What about the grain? Exactly. A Single Man is a surpassing grainy movie, enough so that if you have walked through life without ever thinking about film grain, it would take but this one film to set you right. And I have absolutely no idea why it's there, unless it's some vague concept that film grain is artsier than otherwise.

At any rate, Ford doubtlessly did not go to film school and therefore did not get to work all of this crap out of his system when he was 18, so perhaps he will have learned something and his next feature won't look like somebody tried and failed to cross-breed Wong Kar-Wai and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

So over-concerned is the director with getting his perfect, claustrophobic visuals across that he manages to largely forget about the story; which is just as well, because A Single Man, adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novel, does not have a particularly interesting story. It's 1962, and there's a Cuban missile crisis on, but all that English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) can think about is how nice it might be if he died, in a nuclear conflagration or otherwise, as he has spent 8 months since the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, wandering around in a miserable fugue, wondering when it will feel good to be alive again. His alcoholic best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) tries to perk him up by suggesting that he should go straight with her, but it really takes the tenuous, hinted affections of a rail-thin twink student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), to remind George that there is vitality and goodness in life. Then George suddenly dies of a fucking heart attack. If you read that spoiler-tagged text, you're welcome, that I saved you the bother of seeing the piece of crap.

Colin Firth puts everything he has into making George a credible character, and in terms of sheer raw challenge and craft, it probably is his best performance ever, like people are saying. But it's extremely far from his best character, and without that, no amount of talent can make a difference. There is in A Single Man a massive deficit of incident, psychology, or just about any of the other things that make drama dramatic. One would have hoped that the first prominent American film with a central gay male protagonist since Milk would at least bother to find something interesting for that gay male protagonist to do or think, but this is a stifled, pointless movie, and just in case you managed to ferret out some kind of point, along comes the ending to say, "Haha, fuck you, I don't think so". If I had any outrage left over for a movie that had already battered me into submission with its visuals and then bored me into a coma with its plot, I might try to be pissed that Ford and co-writer David Scearce try to slide that ethics-busting teacher/student quasi-relationship in under the radar, but I'll leave that exercise for those who have any emotional investment in the film other than pronounced joy when the end credits start.

3/10

28 December 2009

MORE LIKE "NEIN"

Remaking Federico Fellini's epochal 1963 masterwork is not at all as heinous as it sounds: indeed, if we were to start listing films clearly influenced by Fellini's massively self-reflective pseudo-autobiographical movie about an Italian film director who can't come up with an idea for his next project, we'd even stumble across some near-masterpieces. Woody Allen had his Stardust Memories; Paul Mazursky gave us Alex in Wonderland; François Truffaut even put a Fellini joke into his magnificent Day for Night. Kon Satoshi's Millennium Actress recalls the notion of memory as cinematic moments; Charlie Kaufman's screenplay for the Spike Jonze-directed Adaptation. snaps up the idea of a movie that documents the process of its own creation. And the best example of all, especially for our current purposes, is Bob Fosse's musical All That Jazz, a similarly self-lacerating portrayal of a broken-down creative genius that is such an accurate portrayal of the director's mind that Fosse managed to predict the cause of his own death.

Now, not a one of the films I just named is a remake of , so much as a personal retelling of its concepts and thematic concerns. And strictly speaking, the new film Nine is not a remake either: on paper, it's an adaptation of a 1982 stage musical with songs by Maury Yeston, and a book by Arthur Kopit with Mario Fratti's "adaptation from Italian", and this musical is itself adapted from ; though since the Fellini movie is so essentially a work of cinema, it is a fairly loose adaptation with entirely different concerns. But I will not get into all of that here, save to say that screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella are quite eager that we should compare Nine with , much more so than Kopit and Yeston were.

And it suffers badly from the comparison: for of course, Rob Marshall is no Allen, Fosse, or Truffaut. He is the middling director who created the deeply shallow prettyfest Memoirs of a Geisha back in 2005, and ruined the fuck out of John Kander and Fred Ebb's Chicago in 2002 - in this reviewer's eyes, one of the strongest stage musicals ever created, and one might despair that if he could do that, then Nine never had a chance. Although in at least one respect, it might have at least been an improvement over Chicago: like that film, Nine employs a gimmick in which all of the musical numbers are presented as the protagonist's fantasies, but at least here that gimmick is fairly well motivated by the story. Make no mistake, I still think that deep down, Marshall doesn't actually like making musicals: at least, to judge from the horribly indifferent way he puts them together, he certainly can't enjoy it all that much.

In this version of the story, international superstar director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is stuck, wondering what his next feature - his ninth - is going to be. And not in that Terrence Malick sense where he is going spend three or four years letting ideas percolate; he's only ten days away from the start of principal photography on a feature that has neither a script nor a concept, although it has already been cast with Guido's regular leading lady, Claudia Jensen (Nicole Kidman, playing an obvious Anita Ekberg surrogate). Everyone is getting right pissed at Guido, even if he is a genius: his producer Dante (Ricky Tognazzi) is tired of fending off the press, his costume designer Lilli (Judi Dench) is getting antsy to know what kind of costumes she needs to put together. Fleeing Rome for a small spa in the country, Guido manages to bring even more misery upon himself, inviting his mistress, Carla (Penélope Cruz), to relax with him, but when the press corp and production team alight upon the spa, Guido's long-suffering wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) comes along with them, and when she finds that Carla is present, things get nasty, fast.

Torn between the movie he can't make and the women he can't understand, Guido drifts into fantasies constantly: when any of the women in his life speak to him, or when he recalls the significant women of his past, he cannot help but to think of them as a dreamlike interpretation: a splashy musical number staged invariably on the half-finished skeleton of his giant film set in Cinecittà, waiting like everything else for him to come up with an idea for what it should ultimately look like.

I'm not going to spend any energy comparing Nine with its previous incarnations, only to judge it as the film we have right before our eyes. And that film is a pretty spotty, dodgy affair, although at least it looks stupidly gorgeous. Cinematographer Dion Beebe and I, we have had our differences in the past, but there are moments - Collateral, In the Cut - where he is absolutely right on the money, and to this group we can add Nine, by far the most accomplished of his collaborations with Marshall. The amount of technical accomplishment in his work here is exceptional: here he must exactly recreate Gianni Di Venanzo's set-ups and lighting from the Fellini movie, there he must plunge nearly all of the set in absolutely black but still give it texture; here he uses atrocious amounts of grain to suggest age, there he has to design a shot that will look equally good in black-and-white or in color, as it is going to switch from one to the other in post-production. It was plainly a challenging project, and not only did he make it work, he made it work and made it beautiful.

It's a lot of effort in service to a pretty limp affair: Marshall's staging of the musical numbers - traditionally an important component of the musical - is altogether limp when it is not inane. As far as inanity goes, I would chiefly point to "Guido's Song", in which Day-Lewis jumps about on his film set like a jungle gym while there is too much cutting and the actor performs in that awful sing-speak method that Rex Harrison pioneered, for letting non-singers perform in musicals; a close second is "Folies Bergère", a manic rip-off of "Razzle Dazzle", the worst-staged number in Chicago. The limp numbers include nearly everything else, but especially Cotillard's striptease "Take It All" (a mediocre song created just for the film) and Cruz's "A Call from the Vatican", in which she cavorts about in lingerie while cooing sexily. Make your own limp pun, but if a number is meant to be sexy, it should damn well be sexy: not just a matter of pretty girls grabbing at their crotches. That's porn, not eroticism. Two numbers are at least fitfully entertaining to look at: "Be Italian", performed by Black Eyed Peas frontwoman Fergie, which is rather well edited (unlike everything in the movie; but that's what happens when you cast non-dancers. It takes a manic genius like Baz Luhrmann to make that aesthetic sing, and Marshall is no Baz Luhrmann, either), and has some bold use of sand and the color red - and here, the porn choreography actually works. The other well-staged number is "Cinema Italiano", performed by Kate Hudson in profoundly pointless role. The song itself (written for the film) is unspeakably hideous, but the energy is there even if the dancing is mostly a lot of pumping, and this is where that awesome flipping between black and white and color happens. It doesn't really make sense, but damn me, it's fun to look at.

The rest of the film is pretty much just vapid and simple: when he's not stealing from Fellini, Marshall has no ideas whatsoever, and he does an awful job getting good performances out of anyone but Cotillard, who gets two numbers unlike all the other women in the film and stands out like a sore thumb as just about the only person who can act and sing and do them at the same time. Frankly, the film Nine is a shitty, shitty musical: the numbers studded in indifferently, and indifferently assembled. And when you are making a musical, and the music fails, there's not much point to the rest, even if it is Dion Beebe and he is making it pretty. It's rather more mediocre than straight-up bad, but there is nothing about it to make it more than a nail in the coffin of the short-lived Musical Renaissance of the '00s.

5/10

For more thoughts on Nine, click here for my conversation with Zev Valancy of On Chicago Theatre, where we discuss the movie and its shortcomings with specific reference to its ancestry in two far better works.

TEN FOR MONDAY: DISNEY SONGS

Going to quite the Disney Top Tens with this one, and one of the most damnably difficult lists I've ever put together, it is. The ten best musical numbers in any Disney feature, as defined by the quality of the song, the visual, the performance, and so on and so forth. I have elected to limit myself to one per feature; the film that would have otherwise dominated the list is probably pretty obvious, if you've been following my Disneython along at home.

EDITED: burying it below the jump. It's making the front page take way too long to load.

(The following are all taken from non-English dubs; Disney is for the world, after all)

10. "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin



It was almost a three-way tie for tenth, but I'll have to tip it to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's huge showstopper on account of, well, Disney showstoppers in the 1990s were a pretty damn special thing. And this might be the showiest of them all: bombastic music and one crazy, cock-eyed visual burst after another. Not for nothing is this the moment at which the moribund film kicks into high gear and becomes a minor comic masterpiece.


9. "Little April Showers" from Bambi



Disney's frequent pre-war songwriters, Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, provided an exceedingly delicate water-based chorale that forms the backdrop for one of the most profoundly beautiful passages of animation in American history - maybe even the best moment in Bambi. So good was the realistic animal animation in this sequence that future animators were still stealing it almost 40 years later, in The Fox and the Hound.


8. "Whistle While You Work" from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs



Churchill and Morey wrote a stunning number of songs for Disney's first animated feature (many of them cut), the most famous of which is surely "Heigh-Ho". And a great song, but much shorter than you might recall. I much prefer the fairy-tale charm of having an exiled princess convincing woodland creatures to help her out just by singing sweetly. Corny as all hell, yes, but this is a fantasy, and Disney's gagmen obviously had fun coming up with things for all the animals to do, combining naturalism and slapstick caricature with abandon.


7. "Bella Notte" from Lady and the Tramp



The most outstandingly romantic moment in Disney - hell, in all animation. Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee's achingly sincere '50s-style ballad is paired with one of the most indelible images in the studios's canon, as two dogs eat spaghetti and, oh look, they're eating the same strand they just kissed isn't that sweet? Hard to say if the music, or supervising animator Frank Thomas has more to do with this all working so well, but the fact that it does work well is what matters. Why isn't real life like this?


6. "The Three Caballeros" from The Three Caballeros



Give Ward Kimball carte blanche to direct this adaptation of the Mexican folk song "Ay, Jalisco, No Te Rajes", and this is what you get: an insane, cartoon-logic orgasm of shape and color. Nothing I can say could possibly augment the experience of just watching the thing.


5. "Feed the Birds" from Mary Poppins



Did I say they all had to be animated? No, I absolutely did not, and it would be a sin to ignore the Sherman Brothers' finest contribution to Disney, a heartbreaking lullaby that supposedly made Walt himself cry every time he heard it. It is a simple number, visually and musically - probably the least showy thing on this list - but when a piece of music is that soaring and haunting, you don't need pyrotechnics.


4. "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid



The most dangerous moment in Disney: how many people my age, myself included, have been so damnably messed-up by wanting love to be a matter of singing fish and boat rides and all? But it couldn't be so evil if it weren't so beautiful: Alan Menken's best-ever melody, full-stop, spins around one of the most impeccably-choreographed of all animated dance numbers (dig that one tadpole who spins around as he jumps). I also have particular affection for the moment when the "camera" breaches the water and rocks unsteadily for an instant: my favorite example of simulated cinematography in Disney.


3. "I've Got No Strings" from Pinocchio

(For some reason, every non-English dub of this song I could find has its embedding disabled. But you can see it in Swedish here)

Leigh Harline and Ned Washington's set of five immaculate songs for this film is arguably the strongest soundtrack in Disney history. But my favorite has always been this silly little spin through international stereotypes as seen by 1940, because in some way it encapsulates the whole movie's story: the profoundly innocent little puppet keeps meeting people much smarter than he is who want something from him that he doesn't understand, and it's all just a wee bit upsetting and confusing for him and us. That the song is insanely catchy helps; the number also includes one of my favorite bits of animation in the whole film, with the spinning Cossacks - proof that even the most cartoonish visual cue, the movement line, can look like graphic art if you do it right.


2. "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Dumbo



An acid trip before people knew what acid was. An uncanny piece of music by Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington, made far more terrifying by just about the most surreal animation in the Disney canon. "Baby Mine" is much more emotionally wrenching, "When I See an Elephant Fly" far more fun to listen to, but this is the moment that I always think about when Dumbo comes up: a howl of G-rated nightmare imagery that has lost none of its prickly otherworldliness in more than 60 years.


1. "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast



The perfect start to an essentially perfect movie: we are introduced to the character and her world in quick strokes, all set to a coruscating song in which Alan Menken's skill with motif and counter-melody matches with Howard Ashman's gift for naturalistic lyrics like nowhere else; and if that weren't all enough, it's spectacular to look at, with Belle's blue dress popping against the rich earth tones of the rest of the town.


And just for the hell of it, because the song was already about Nazis:

25 December 2009

BONE THIS

The worst thing that ever happened to Peter Jackson was getting ahold of big budgets. When that happened, the gifted, snot-nosed indie director of the brilliant gore comedy Braindead (Dead Alive to us Yanks) and the unnerving psychological thriller Heavenly Creatures all but instantly forgot every damned thing that he ever knew about fleet storytelling. Yes, yes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is some kind of masterpiece of modern filmmaking, they tell me, but I've never particularly loved the films - for all their ambition and matinee-adventure spectacle, they are burdened by a profoundly graceless visual style and a sometimes clunky approach to adapting a narrative that was, in its novelistic form, more about the bits around the edges than the story itself. Then came his three-hour King Kong remake in 2005, with its intensely dull first hour of sheer, unadulterated padding, and a cornucopia of scenes that nearly all go on for half again longer than they should.

Now comes the director's tenth feature, depending on how exactly you count them, and by far his worst yet: an adaptation of Alice Sebold's celebrated novel The Lovely Bones that I have not read, but I am reasonably confident that it's not possible for it to be as garish as Jackson's interpretation of the material. Much as I wish that somebody had sat the director down during the Two Towers shoot and explained that just because you have a helicopter, that doesn't mean that you have to use helicopter shots, so it is clear in this film that nobody in a position to do so took him by the shoulder and whispered, "Peter, just because you can put in a massive CGI dreamscape..."

The film takes place in two locations: a small Pennsylvania community where a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) is murdered in early December, 1973, and "The In-Between", a place that isn't Earth, nor Heaven, but some strange and magical place where Susie finds herself surrounded by symbolic fantastic landscapes as she watches her family mourn her as the years turn on, while her murderer continues to live his twitchy life just down the street. In its regular shifting between a serial killer thriller set in a desperately unexceptional suburban neighborhood, and an anything-goes world of impossible landscapes and colorful explosions, The Lovely Bones recalls Tarsem Singh's The Cell, though it is the differences rather than the similarities that are telling. In both of Tarsem's movies (The Fall is the other), the incredible visions on display are all the more incredible for having the tang of reality: as much as possible, they use practical effects -and it is often not possible, but this is the mark of great CGI use, to create only that which cannot be created otherwise. Jackson's film makes CGI its whore: a big, glitzy, gaudy whore. A shinier and hollower realm of fantastic possibilities can hardly be imagined; in the same season that James Cameron's Avatar made me recant all sorts of long-held beliefs about mo-cap and 3D, it is incredibly satisfying to have The Lovely Bones come along and remind us of how awful it is to live in an age when computers' ability to depict anything in a movie is usually married to withered, limited imaginations. And to accuse Peter Jackson of having a withered, limited imagination gives me absolutely no pleasure at all.

If Susie's afterlife is marred by a certain blandness of conception, the world she leaves behind is a perfectly pedestrian vision of the 1970s captured in plasticine tones by Jackson and Andrew Lesnie, a cinematographer whose single trick, as revealed in so many films stretching back so many years now, is to make everything he shoots look like a clothing catalog: outdoor-wear in The Lord of the Rings, the Sears Roebuck casual collection here. It's pretty, but just a bit on the wrong side of harshly lit, and somehow it seems airbrushed despite the fact that you can't airbrush motion picture footage. As to what happens when Lesnie gets his hands on the RED, to shoot the bits of the fantasy scenes that are actually live-action... ah, how good it is to have a movie to reconfirm all of my bigoted feelings about video at the same time that it reminds me of the evils of CGI!

There's a human element inside all of this slack style, but it's not really all that much more interesting than the run-of-the-mill production design. The one outstanding choice made in the whole filmmaking process was to cast Ronan as Susie: having already proved herself a great actress in Atonement, she is given frustratingly little to "do" in The Lovely Bones, but she looks absolutely right for the part, with her piercing, eerily blue eyes, and porcelain skin that is given a deathly sheen by Lesnie's camera. So that's a significant mark in the film's favor. And so, I guess, is Stanely Tucci's clammy performance as George Harvey, the serial killer and (presumably, but this is nicely PG-13) raper of girls, a nicely unhinged and blustery performance from a generally under-adored actor; although I think that it might have been nice if he wasn't always wearing a giant hat with "I AM A MURDERING PERVERT" written on it in neon letters. Or, at least, the hair and makeup equivalent thereto.

Other than those two individuals, everything about the drama of The Lovely Bones is bad-to-wretched: Mark Wahlberg's needlessly fussy performance as Susie's dad and Rachel Weisz's absolutely impersonal performance as her mom; Susan Sarandon's hugely embarrassing "crazy drunken earth mother turn" as Susie's maternal grandma. Even the very mechanics of the plot simply don't work: there's nothing remotely interesting about what happens to Susie in the In-Between, except that it's allegedly pretty, and while there are theoretically interesting things happening to her family, the grinding of the crime thriller angle makes everything else fall by the wayside. Like I said, I haven't read Sebold's novel, but everything about the movie leads me to belief that it might be pretty interesting and entirely unfilmable.

Jackson's directorial abilities have failed him entirely: the film is slackly paced and maddeningly edited, with a hideous Brian Eno score that at least entertains through its weirdness. And there is an unaccountably bad montage set to The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" that absolutely does not feel like it could conceivably be the work of a filmmaker that I have ever respected, let alone love. And though I have already said it, let me get just one more dig in at the visual language, which confuses perfunctory computer animation with visionary elegance. There is, so far as I can make it out, no reason on earth for The Lovely Bones to exist: it is not emotionally meaningful, nor lovely, nor is the plot sufficiently twisty to be diverting. It just sucks, even by the standards of a damnably unexciting Oscar season.

3/10

HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS

Once again, my thanks to all my readers for giving me another year; and welcome to the new friends who only started reading in the last 12 months; whatever your own personal traditions and beliefs dictate for 25 December, I hope it finds you healthy and happy, and surrounded by those you love. Since I am not exactly a religious man, I shall have to crib from another Tim in saying, "God bless us, every one".

Happy Holidays.

24 December 2009

PLAYING YOUR GUITAR AND SWEATING OUT THE HATE

At the very least, Crazy Heart, writer-director Scott Cooper's debut feature in both of those positions, has a refreshing lack of pretension. No social commentary, no grand statements about the human condition, no wild aesthetic quirks that prove only that the director has more ambition than talent behind the camera. It is only a simple, rough around the edges character study, buoyed up by some pretty fine performances - despite what you may have heard, there are more people in the cast than just Jeff Bridges - and if its story (that is, the generally connected series of incidents that functionally mimic a story) feels a bit too much like one of the country songs that liberally dot the film's landscape, and not so much like a functioning drama... well, character studies are like that sometimes, and anyway, we like country music around these parts, especially if it's good country music.

And by God, Crazy Heart does have quite good country music: it has been quite a good long while since I've seen a film with so many original musical numbers, to also have such an impressive roster of original numbers; though one would expect no less from an old genius like T-Bone Burnett who, in addition to serving as one of the film's weirdly large slate of producers, co-wrote the songs and score with the late Steve Bruton and Ryan Bingham, the young frontman of The Dead Horses (he also shares his name with George Clooney's character in Up in the Air, another awards-season hopeful; this means absolutely nothing, but it's too miraculously strange not to mention). The song getting the big awards push is "The Weary Kind", which in the course of the film is written by Jeff Bridges's "Bad" Blake in the full influence of a love affair, and I suppose it's fair to say that it's the best new track we hear. But to focus on it is to miss out on several other songs, meant to be the biggest hits of Bad's decades-long career, and damn me if they aren't absolutely good enough for us to believe that yes, twenty years ago that number was enough to make young girls fall desperately in love with the singer-songwriter. Bridges sings and plays guitar on nearly every track, and he does a damn fine job of both: it turns out that he has a beautiful, whiskey-worn singing voice, which lends the songs that extra punch of vérité, that makes them sound as real country and not as movie music - since they were written by real country artists, this really shouldn't come as a surprise, and yet if you'd told me that my favorite part of Crazy Heart was going to be the soundtrack (that, indeed, I would especially like the sountrack at all), I should not have believed you.

And even if I had, and I had believed that Bridges would turn out to be great country singer, I would have absolutely called you a liar if you said, "oh, by the way, Colin Farrell turns out to have an outstanding singing voice, too", but that is also the case; in the role of Bad's long-estranged ex-protégé and current neo-country superstar Tommy Sweet, Farrell is actually the one who gets to sing "The Weary Kind", and who gives a stunningly deep and nuanced performance, despite featuring absolutely nowhere in the film's marketing, and having nothing more than a cameo-sized role. The exact nature of what happened between Tommy and Bad that caused their falling-out is never explored, but Farrell's brief performance makes it clear that he still idolises and worships this father figure who taught him absolutely everything.

It's but one of the fine supporting performances in a film that is being roundly described as a proving ground for Bridges; but that is terribly unfair to stars like Maggie Gyllenhaal (giving her first really fantastic performance in ages - since Sherrybaby, if I'm not forgetting something, and I'm not), or Robert Duvall, to say nothing of the huge cast of supporting characters and featured extras, almost every one of whom finds something interesting to do in their tiny span of the movie. Hell, if there's anything really special about Crazy Heart after the music, it's that there's really not a single false actor in the whole piece, from the headliners to the spear-carriers. Which is much rarer and precious than it ought to be, and it reflects incredibly well on Cooper that he was able to direct a large-ish cast to such uniform strength in his first at-bat.

But, Jeff Bridges is the best in show, if only because he's in essentially the whole movie (almost every single scene, and more than half of the individual shots), and gets a really complex, fascinating role to play. Bridges has a rock-solid steadiness, about him that makes him easy to take for granted, but there it is: he's one of the best actors of a good generation. I'm not prepared to join in the chorus calling Bad Blake the best performance of his career, because his career is rather too marked by a uniform level of quality, rather than particular peaks and valleys (for sentimental reasons, I would anyway pick The Dude); nor would I say, in the heat of passion, that it's the best male performance of 2009. No matter what the case, though, it is a great performance, never insisting on anything, exuding weariness every time Bridges moves his scraggly, bearded face (which makes him looks uncannily like Kris Kristofferson). He presents Bad as slow to outright shows of emotion, but never in a way that makes him seem bland; rather in a way that makes him seem cagey and eager to stay away from anything that makes him confront how disappointed he is in himself.

The only real problem with Crazy Heart is that it's so simple and focused on being the best character study it can be, that it has nothing else to it. We watch the film, we get to understand Bad, we are theoretically moved by his romance with a music journalist named Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal) - the huge age difference is only a little bit distracting, and that mostly because Jean, like any other non-Bad character, doesn't have much there to deepen her, although Gyllenhaal suggests a great deal that isn't in the script - we hope for his redemption. That Cooper is able to tell this story with such a complete absence of fuss is more than admirable, particularly given the incredible strength of the performances, and the character who is being studied. But the self-conscious lack of anything truly cinematic (this story could be every inch as effective in a stage production - maybe even better, we'd be hearing the music live), coupled with how little thematic resonance the story really possesses (outside of the usual "a man can fix himself at any age" boilerplate present in at least two other movies currently in theatrical release) leaves Crazy Heart as something of a one-and-done film: altogether worth seeing, and worth enjoying the experience of seeing it, but there's just not enough meat on its bones to make it a lasting masterpiece.

7/10

23 December 2009

AIRHEAD SATIRE

It is altogether possible that I might have almost liked Up in the Air if it had come as just a no-frills, "don't stop me if you've heard this one" romantic comedy, and not an unstoppable awards season juggernaut. But it didn't and I don't.

First point of clarification: I still don't think I would have been tremendously enthusiastic about the film, or even positive about it, because it's kind of fucking odious in a lot of ways. Not the least of which is its calculation that you can put George Clooney in anything and let him turn the Clooney on, and the result will be uncut liquid magic. A calculation that is all the more irritating for being largely true: if you just settle in and let the actor's movie star charm lap at your toes like warm ocean water, Up in the Air is doubtlessly a whole lot of breezy fun. And here is at least part of the problem: it is such breezy fun that it becomes apparent that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea that they were telling a story which pisses right in the eye of the huge proportion of the American workforce that is currently unemployed. Maybe I'm just extra-sensitive, being part of that number. We're going to call that my full disclosure for the review.

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who fires people for a living. His company, CTC, is in the business to send representatives across the country to deal with the unpleasant task of letting people know that their services are no longer required by their employer, usually doing this to a great many individuals all at once; Bingham is extremely good at his job and he likes it, not because he is some kind of emotional sadist but because he understands how to be the anchor for these people at the single worst instant of their lives. He may not be there to help them with the wreckage, but he knows how to hold their hand at the impact.

And that's pretty much that. Having elected that this should be their scenario (the Walter Kim novel upon which the film is based, it must be noted, was published long before the current economic crisis), co-adapters Jason Reitman (who directs, as well) and Sheldon Turner can think of absolutely nothing interesting to say about a man whose job is putting people out of jobs. Oh, I take that back, there is the well-publicised little thing that Reitman did, where he filmed individuals in a number of cities talking about having just been fired, allowing them to address him as if he were the man who'd let them go - that is, allowing them to address Ryan Bingham, although he is not real, and they have really been fired. Reitman then assembled all these interviews into little montages at the beginning and end, and once somewhat earlier than midway, and I am absolutely certain that he felt that he was doing something noble and good by giving the downtrodden a voice. Except for two things, which both reduce this very honest attempt at social commentary to the level of gimmickry, the worst kind of bad joke: first, the real people are intercut with staggeringly distracting cameos from the likes of Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons; second, all three montages are used for no purpose other than to prop up a tired and altogether typical story of a man who has spent his whole adult life living alone - by his conscious choice - who just needs that special lady and a spunky truth-telling sidekick to make him realise that the only thing which can make you happy is to surround yourself with loved ones, and especially, to get married. The movie's twisty ending I will not spoil, other than to say that it is a hideous violation of character logic, and carries this "marry or you will never stop suffering" theme to absurdly tragic heights.

Blithely heteronormative movies are ten a penny, of course, and not really anything to get worked up about, unless you want to spend your life in a constant state of indignation (and if that's what you want, more power to you. Do you know why I say this? Because I, unlike the makers of Up in the Air, am not bothered by people who spend their lives in pursuit of goals that I do not share or understand). What makes Up in the Air so tremendously irritating is its swagger, its absolutely fucking smugness about heteronormativity. "Here's a pair of people who are having quite a lot of time meeting up in random cities and screwing like rabid animals for one night at a time," the movie declares, "and as you can see, they are both altogether happy in their lives. How about we see if we can't screw it up for them?" It's the way that the movie puts so much effort into proving that Bingham and his female counterpart, Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), have put a lot of thought into becoming the people they are, and have decided that they are completely happy being that way, and YET, it just takes one pissy 23-year-old reeling from a break-up to show how desperately empty their lives be.

Nor does it help the movie's argument that the contrary position is being held by a silver-tongued devil like Clooney, while the pissy 23-year-old is played by Anna Kendrick, instantly (sadly) recognisable as the bitchy friend from Twilight, in a tremendously shallow performance that's all about a tart tongue and quick flickers of sorrow bursting out; Clooney and Farmiga positively mop the floor with her in a rare example of a tremendously well-done scene in which the two adults calmly explain their philosophies as the young woman sputters and spits. I have little affection for Farmiga - minimally, the taint of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is not so easily washed clean - but her work in this one scene is potent enough, subtle and wise, that it almost justifies the odd cult following the actress seems to have. And Clooney, well, he's Clooney: his performance in Up in the Air certainly does not stretch him (Fantastic Mr. Fox finds him in much more interesting waters), but we never complained that Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable didn't stretch themselves, so why make such an argument against Clooney? He plays his persona, and that is enough.

That I find the film supercilious, shallow and obnoxious certainly leaves me alone on the dance floor, but I'm used to that feeling, especially around Jason Reitman, one of the most bizarrely over-appreciated new directors of the last five years: his debut feature, Thank You For Smoking, is a callow and self-contradictory political satire, and while I did honestly enjoy Juno, I would be extremely hard-pressed to credit anything specific that Reitman of all people did to make that movie pop. If there's a reason that people find him an exciting new talent, it has not at all revealed itself to me: certainly, it cannot be his decidedly pedestrian sense of composition and shot progression, nor can it be his adoration of anonymous indie rock (where the soundtrack to Juno at least made character sense, there is no reason whatsoever for Up in the Air to possess the music that it does); I pray that it is not his palpable fear that the audience might not "get it" if he doesn't spell out the film's message in big, easy to read words. There is a particular moment near the end, when the indie rock and the pedestrian aesthetic and the hammer-handed storytellingcombine in a montage that ought to embarrass the director far more than it apparently does: inexplicable, unpremeditated hand-held cinematography plus some outstandingly awful "snappy" editing, all in service to the keystone moment in the film's deeply flawed message about giving up what makes you actually happy in favor of what seems to make your family and neighbors happy.

The film is obvious; it is reductive; it is cloying; it is in fact devoid of any particular merit that I can perceive, other than the fact that it's never a punishment to watch George Clooney onscreen. Just as I never buy that Bingham is a lonely soul, whose love of air travel and hotels masks a pit of the deepest pain, so do I not care that he is able to clamber out of this pit that I don't perceive and find the joy in human connections. Frankly, everything that he says when he's being an "asshole" makes a lot more sense to me than the lukewarm sentiment that Reitman and Turner force him into. And while I don't doubt that my peevish response to Up in the Air is at least partially motivated by everybody else's piles of love for the film, I still refuse to admit that it's okay to heap that kind of praise on a film that treats the wracking terror of living in today's economy as the pretext for the kind of "vapid man finds redemption" story that was old hat when sound cinema was still a gimmick.

4/10

ALAN J. PAKULA: PRESUMED INNOCENT (1990)

And y'all thought I had given up on the Pakulathon.

To greet the 1990s, Alan J. Pakula directed and co-wrote (with Frank Pierson) an adaptation of Scott Turow's legal thriller Presumed Innocent, a film that works not unlike a grab-bag of narrative tropes from earlier successes - and failures - in the director's career. There's a "wrong man" angle, as seen in The Parallax View; a sordid sexual history leading to current woes, as in Klute; a fixation on the details of procedure, in the vein of Rollover and All the President's Men (though here the process is law, not finance or journalism); and there's a lot of energy spent looking at the protagonist's marital state, which is true in some way of about half of Pakula's films. In other words, it's pretty easy to see what drew the director to the material, especially since it tended to recall his earlier, more successful films, rather than the odd little domestic films that he'd begun focusing on in the 1980s; having not made a film that made even the slightest box office since Sophie's Choice in 1982, four movies earlier.

Starring Harrison Ford, who had just enjoyed a very high-profile decade and had quite a few movies yet to go before his star began to fade, alongside white-hot names like Bonnie Bedelia, Brian Dennehy, and John Spencer, Presumed Innocent ended up being just exactly the box-office hit that Pakula needed to keep his career alive at the start of its third decade: not a smash success, but by far his biggest success since All the President's Men. And for the most part, it's not absolutely hard to see why. The film is not up to the level of his greatest thrillers, certainly, but for about 105 of its 127 minutes, it's one of the better-written and better-paced samples of the courtroom dramas that were so curiously prominent in the latter half of the 1980s and most of the 1990s. No masterpiece, but it has a certain snappiness to it that is entertaining, at least.

Ford plays Rozat "Rusty" Sabich, a prosecutor in the vaguely-identified Kindle County (Turow meant for it to be identified with Cook County, IL, and while the movie was mostly filmed in Detroit and a studio in New York, I'd swear on my life and my blog that there's a shot prominently featuring Chicago's Navy Pier and John Hancock building in the background), who gets a spot of bad news one day from his boss, Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy): another prosecutor, Carolyn Polhemus (Greta Scacchi) was found raped and murdered in her apartment that morning. Horgan forces Sabich to take the lead on solving the murder, and to solve it quickly: the successful handling of this one case will probably be the single deciding factor in the upcoming election which is likely going to see Horgan on his ass, replaced by his former subordinate Nico Della Guardia (Tom Mardirosian). There's just one glaring problem: much unbeknown to to Horgan, Sabich and Polhemus had an affair some months earlier, which has since ended with Sabich's wife Barbara (Bedelia) forgiving him, although Sabich was still pretty well obsessed with his ex-lover right up until finding that she was dead. So he unwisely asks his friend in the police Homicide division, Detective Lipranzer (Spencer) to help him cover up any trace of his involvement with the woman.

After a few days of no forward development, Della Guardia wins the election, and he and his new deputy Tommy Molto (Joe Grifasi) waste no time in announcing their intention to prosecute Sabich himself for the crime, having spotted a great number of irregularities that can be best answered if the investigator was protecting himself. Sabich acquires the defense attorney who he once considered his greatest opponent, Sandy Stern (Raul Julia), and straps in for a potentially humiliating and lengthy trial where his dirty laundry is likely to get a good airing for the whole county to see.

At it's very best, Presumed Innocent still isn't the kind of movie that's going to set the world on fire, but it cannot be said that Pakula, even in the waning days of his career, didn't have a good mind for how to keep a procedural narrative skimming along smoothly and efficiently; he even manages to successfully navigate what by all rights ought to have been a crippling flaw, when the film abruptly and without warning switches from being a story of Sabich's investigation to the story of his indictment. The director keeps the movie going fast enough from one plot point to another that we never have a good chance to notice, until after it's over, how thinly stretched the story can be at some of its most convoluted turns. Nor, indeed, how absurdly swiftly the plot jets forward, often folding what seems like days of incident into the space of a single cut.

The bare minimum requirement for a film like this - like either portion, the investigation or the courtroom sequences - is that it be interesting to watch the protagonist thinking and discovering, and while this is largely a matter of personal taste, I found that Presumed Innocent meets this requirement. It is not nearly as durable a character study as Pakula and Pierson seem to wish that it should be (and this is a double pity, for one of Pakula's best strengths in the 1970s was his invisible ability to combine interesting character drama with genre storytelling); and this is mostly because the filmmakers want to leave open the possibility, as long as they can, that Sabich might indeed be guilty of Polhemus's murder. That's a fine approach for a movie to take, except that the film largely ignores it for the entire duration of the trial, and only whips it out as a third act "wait, you don't really know what's going on!" tweak. But in order for that tweak to work, we need to be denied access to Sabich's innermost thoughts for the preceding hour and 50 minutes, which in turn means that we don't ever get to know him. Which fits uncomfortably with the director's obvious desire to film Sabich with the same psychoanalytical focus that he used more or less successfully for nearly all of his previous characters. In essence, Presumed Innocent can only work as an entertaining courtroom thriller, because it's too conflicted about how it wants to present its third act to do much thematically interesting with its first and second acts. It has pleasures in abundance: Ford and Julia are both acting at a greatly elevated level, and the mechanical aspects of the plot are more than entertaining. But there's no depth.

Even being little more than a slick entertainment, the film is still good enough to suffer horribly from its ending: a twist ending obvious enough that you've probably already thought about it, but so stupid that you can't believe they actually went there, and disgustingly riddled with holes. The killer's motivations make sense, but the rationale behind the killing, and the incredibly complex frame job, absolutely do not. And what the ending says about gender relationships is incredibly disappointing, especially from a director who had in the past overseen so many interesting and deep female characters.

There are some movies like that: they have such a completely atrocious ending that it spoils everything that went before. As Presumed Innocent wasn't that outstanding to begin with, its fall is not that severe; and my sense of it is still that it's an enjoyable bit of a thriller. But my god, the last quarter hour - that is just raw, unforgivable badness. Coupled with the fact that Pakula's gentle slide into forgetting how to make movies that look interesting continued unabated - and this time, he dragged down Gordon Willis with him, their first collaboration since 1978's Comes a Horseman having none of the creativity, beauty, or moody impact of their great string of '70s visual masterpieces (Willis, it should be noted, was having a pretty rough time of the late 1980s himself) - and it's hard to see Presumed Innocent as anything but the most disposably entertainment. It has some tight editing, maybe, and the sound design remains as great as ever in a Pakula film. But it did not promise much from Pakula in the 1990s, and he would not break that promise.

22 December 2009

TO THE VICTORIA GO THE SPOILS

For a prestige season biopic about a member of the British royalty, The Young Victoria could certainly be a whole lot worse, and this is something I clung to as no uncertain comfort during the film's 104 minute running time that feels a good deal longer. There might be no genre that I want to love quite so often and succeed in loving so infrequently as the costume drama; the promise of spectacle and gorgeous design too often gives way to stilted Olde Tyme dialogue and lots of scenes of people acting very prim and hushed as dust languorously drifts through sunbeams in an approximation of beautiful cinematography.

That's not what turns out to be the problem with The Young Victoria; in fact, I still haven't quite settled upon what exactly turns out to be the problem with The Young Victoria, except that perhaps the young Victoria isn't as interesting as the old Victoria. But I'll get there soon enough.

As I was going to say, if there's one thing that sets The Young Victoria apart from the great majority of recent costume dramas, it is that the tone is resolutely modern: not in the aggressive manner of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (a film with its own exhausting combination of brilliance and massive problems, but let's not get into that here), but in a much simpler manner, keeping itself breezy and bright in the manner of a modern romantic dramedy, and this has virtually everything to do with the casting of Emily Blunt as Princess Victoria of Kent, later Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom - say whatever else one will about Blunt, for good or ill, but she is not for a second believable as a 19th Century monarch. There is just something about her bearing and build that marks her as indisputably a product of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries; it is perhaps not clear that I consider this a strength of the film, as it gives this Victoria an unusual level of freshness and emotional relatability for a costume drama protagonist. I have only particularly liked Blunt once before (in The Devil Wears Prada, of course), but I must with this film concede a second point in her favor; her portrayal of the young Victoria is quite ballsy and bold and fun, even if it isn't terribly convincing that she grows up to become the most symbolically important British ruler of the last 400 years.

The film breaks into two parts, and they are close enough to equal halves that I am simply going to call them such. The first part begins with Victoria's birth in May, 1819, but mostly concerns itself with the matter of the year prior to her accession to the throne in June, 1837, in which the princess was the focal point of a fairly ridiculous number of political calculations on all sides: her mother, Victoria, Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson), and the duchess's advisor and probable lover Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) both want to use the future queen as their pawn in an attempt to gain wealth and power; her uncle, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) hopes to manipulate her into giving aid and comfort to his kingdom in despite of Britain's best interests; the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) wants her to shore up the Whig party's political future; King William IV (Jim Broadbent) just hopes that she can stave off all these other players long enough to keep his kingdom intact. And Leopold's hatchet-man, and Victoria's first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg (Rupert Friend), the only thing he wants is to know that she loves him as much as he loves her.

Maybe I'm just easily amused, but I found all of this madcap political wrangling, replete with an overbearing motif of chess symbolism, to be altogether delightful; best of all is Blunt's steely reserve in the face of seemingly a whole nation full of people conspiring to use her for their own ends. At times, Julian Fellowes's screenplay errs on the side of too many names being exposited rather too quickly, and all at the same time; and certainly director Jean-Marc Vallée goes a bit nuts trying to punch up the drama of the situation, while also helping to keep the story straight (I swear, every new scene in the first ten minutes is introduced with another damn title card). But by the same token, the cast pops and snarls and swoons with abandon, and the editing, by Jill Bilcock (Baz Luhrmann's old editor) and Matt Garner, is unusually tight - almost every shot ends at least a few frames before you expect it to, if not longer, and the result is a film that's insistently pounding forward, always keeping you a little bit on your toes. In addition to being dodgy history (but who expected otherwise?), it is somewhat manic, stupid fun; but fun it is anyway, if you have even the remotest tolerance for period drama.

Then, alas, Victoria becomes queen, and The Young Victoria just plain stops - the scene where she basically gives her mom a regal "fuck you" being perhaps the last truly delightful moment in the film. There are still traces of the high-falutin' politicking of the first half, but for the most part, only two narrative strands remain: Victoria is unduly influenced by Lord Melbourne, or Victoria and Albert flirt shamelessly in letters. To be honest, the love story almost works: neither Blunt for Friend really rings my bells, but they have a kind of twisted chemistry despite how little screentime they share for three-quarters of the film, and their first post-coital morning is one of the most charming, humane moments in the piece. But the political intrigues are absolutely dull, dull, dull: did you know that Victoria nearly destroyed the British empire over the selection of her ladies-in-waiting? Well, I didn't, and now that I do, I still don't think it was all that interesting to watch. The Young Victoria makes a strong argument that the only thing interesting about the queen was her love affair with Albert; and even that got a much more lovely and touching workout in the 1997 Judi Dench vehicle Mrs. Brown.

This is when the film goes off the rails and becomes exactly the stuffy, wandering costume drama that it so assiduously failed to be for a good 50 minutes; and here is where the things that were already kind of hard to avoid, like Vallée's hyperbolic direction and Hagen Bogdanski's anonymously picturesque cinematography - and gawd, but the less I think about Ilan Eshkeri's loopy, soaring score, the happier I'll be - finally swamp the movie and take all the fun right out of it. There's still the usual costume film compensations - the costumes, obviously, by Sandy Powell, and the sumptuous production design - but in the end, The Young Victoria is just another one of the same damn things that buzz about like mayflies every year: delicate and elegant and forgotten the moment they pass from sight. It would take a much stronger first act to save the film from that inevitable fate.

6/10

A MUSICAL HALF AGAIN AS GOOD

Perhaps you recall last week, when Zev Valancy of On Chicago Theatre and I discussed Federico Fellini's neo-surrealist film masterpiece , and perhaps you do not, in which case, Shame! but no harm, no foul, because you can still catch up with our two-part conversation here and here.

Anyway, the next phase of our discussion is up and running: in which we took a peek at the Maury Yeston musical Nine, adapted from Fellini's movie with quite a few thematic and narrative changes along the way. Zev had the courtesy to divide his half of the project into bite-size chunks; I am going to do no such thing, for if there's one thing I can assume that Antagony & Ecstasy regulars are good at by now, it's reading multi-thousand word posts without a break. But I will hide the whole thing below the fold, as we used to say back in the newspaper biz.

TIM:
Hi Zev,

Well, I certainly understand now where you were coming from when we were talking about - the musical Nine is a very different thing entirely, considering that it has the same concept and most of the same character names. Just for all the reader's benefits: Guido Anselmi has been renamed Guido Contini, but he is still a major filmmaker with creative block, haunted by the ghosts of all the women in his life.

Now, I have to admit that I wasn't able to find an actual copy of the book of the musical, but I think between the cast recording and various online sources, I think I was able to figure out most of the specifics of the plot and dialogue, but I hope that if I say anything that's just flat-out wrong, you'll be so good as to set me straight. To begin with the most obvious narrative departures from the Fellini movie, it seems to me that Guido in this piece is still thrashing about looking for an idea; in the movie he's already spent a huge sum of money on a giant, half-constructed set, although he doesn't really know what the plot is yet. Also, the way I've always read the film is that Guido already knows at the start that he's trying to make an autobiographical movie, whereas in the musical he doesn't make that decision until the beginning of the second act - although he has been thinking about his history with women for most of the musical before that point.

I think the big difference that this makes is that is much more "about" creative block, while Nine is "about" Guido's history of regrets in regard to all the women of his life. And I think it rather has to be that way: derives so much of its meaning from the fact that Federico Fellini is making a movie about Guido Anselmi failing to make a movie about himself, and that kind of meta-narrative layering just isn't possible in a theatrical production about making a movie (that is, Nine cannot be the project Guido is trying to make in the way that is). You warned me before we started this project that they're not the same story, but I don't think I really appreciated the degree to which that is the case until I was finished with Nine: and certainly my inclination isn't terribly much to judge it by how much it is or isn't the movie. Though I still think the comparison is instructive.

At any rate, I think the most substantive difference between the two versions, and the thing that makes Nine the most interesting on its own, completely independently of the movie's existence or non-existence, is the musical's treatment of women. Am I right in thinking that the only men that ever appear onstage are Guido, and the nine-year-old version of himself? Which is a fascinating gimmick, if gimmick is the word.

The women of Nine are so much more present than the women in ; especially poor, stepped-on Luisa. I really have the sense that I understand them as characters in a way that I absolutely do not with the Fellini, even the prostitute Seraghina, who in the movie is presented more as animal than as human woman. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it a feminist text - they are still all defined mostly in terms of how they function in relationship to Guido - but certainly, they are all rich and interesting and represent different forms of vitality and being in the world, and that makes Guido seem that much more washed-out as both a man and an artist. I understand what he wants, but I never get the sense that even he knows who he is, and as I understand it, Nine is mostly about how he decides to confront this gaping personality deficit as a result of confronting both physically and mentally all the woman-shaped demons of his past.

But that's a lot of rambling, and I have to admit that the musical was so far from what I was anticipating that I'm going to shut up, regroup my thoughts, and let you take a smack at it. So tell me: what makes Nine tick?


ZEV:
Hey Tim,

I think you're exactly right that my response to 8 1/2 was colored by my experience of Nine. While it can be argued that the story of a man facing the demons of his life (many of them in the form of his relationships with women), and possibly learning to grow up is a major element in the Fellini, the musical definitely foregrounds that story. I think this makes sense for a piece of theatre, particularly a mainstream Broadway musical. A man fighting his demons and learning to grow up (which is pretty explicitly the story of the musical) is much clearer and stronger as a dramatic spine and emotional throughline than a man struggling with creative block, particularly as the film's ending is so oblique and surreal. This isn't a value judgment--Fellini would have made a very different film if the emotional throughline were clear and resolved at the end--but it's necessary for a mainstream musical. While the musical's plot is, by the standards of the form, non-linear, the emotional story has to be accessible or the whole play collapses.

To briefly address a few of the major formal changes. Aside from Guido as an adult, Guido as a nine year old, and a few of Guido's young friends (who are cut from many revivals--the only place you hear them on the original cast album is during "Be Italian," Saraghina's song) everyone on the stage is a woman. The reasons for this seem to be both thematic and formal. First off, it very clearly focuses the audience on the idea of Guido as a man defined by relationships with the women in his life. It's pretty impossible to miss, really. The other main reason, I'd imagine, is that it's striking and pretty damn cool. More on that later.

(Interestingly, this wasn't Maury Yeston's idea from the start--early drafts refer to a subplot of a star-crossed romance between an Italian girl working at the spa and a German boy visiting. That plot disappeared entirely, with the only remnant being the song "The Germans at the Spa," which is cut from most contemporary productions as it sets up a plot point that goes nowhere.)

As for the title change: 8 1/2 refers to the film's place in Fellini's canon. Nine refers to the mental age at which Guido is stuck. ("My body's clearing forty as my mind is nearing ten," as he tells us in his first song.)

Guido's film is a completely different beast. In the musical he has no idea what movie he is making for the entire first act. This leads to two of the most fun numbers in the act. The first is a little bit of music that makes me incredibly happy, called "Movie Themes," as Guido wildly casts around for a film idea, while the chorus sings music from the films he's imagining (culminating in a surprisingly good fake African chant when he imagines making a documentary). The second, longer piece is "Folies Bergere," in which his French producer orders him to make the musical that he promised her, reminiscing about the Folies she attended as a child, while the critic she's hired to help him work on his script savages all of his previous films ("a mixture of Catholicism, pasta, and pornography"). Only a side comment from Claudia comparing him to Casanova spurs him to make that the subject of his film--with himself as star and his biography as plot, of course. The "Grand Canal" sequence, showing the movie being filmed, is a major section of the second act.

As for the name change from Anselmi to Contini: first off, it sounds better sung (the phrase "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" is set to a really haunting piece of music), and second, it rhymes with Fellini. (Get it?)

As for what makes it tick: I think we've pretty well discussed the emotional throughline, which is pretty constant even as the plot follows its somewhat winding path. But what keeps it bring produced? I think a lot of it comes down to how gorgeous the music is, the sheer thrill of a large ensemble of women singing their hearts out, and the possibility for beautiful stage pictures. The original production was set in a white tiled spa with each woman getting her own pedestal, and all of the costumes in black until the "Grand Canal" sequence. It was, apparently, orgasmically gorgeous. The Broadway revival had Carla flying on in a giant bedsheet, dozens of chic 60s costumes, and lots of water.

In some ways, Nine is my equivalent of the movies you see where the storytelling is just decent but the cinematography is so pretty--I'm willing to forgive the book problems because of the quality of the music and the chance it gives performers to do fantastic work. I got the chance to see it in May of 2008, in Porchlight Theatre's production at Theatre Building Chicago. Seeing the production made clear the flaws in the script and lyrics, and it wasn't a spectacle on the level of a Broadway production, but it was such a visceral thrill hearing all those women raising their voices, separately and together.

So you've said a lot about how the musical compares to the movie, but not a lot about your reaction. So, um, did you like it?


TIM:
Pfeh, details, details. If we start in with "like" and "dislike", we'll be here all night.

Actually, I did in fact like it quite a bit, which I really didn't expect to - the snatches of the show that I'd heard weren't really enough to build my confidence (a few bars of "Guido's Song", the part of "Be Italian" that was in the movie trailer, "My Husband Makes Movies"). Listening to it all in one piece, though, made it clear that it's not really about the tunefulness of any particular moment, but the flow of how the whole thing works together as a unit, with motifs drifting in and out all throughout the thing. I guess I mean to say, I think it works better if you don't try to think of it as a collection of songs, but of segments of music colliding with one another, which is true of a lot of my favorite musicals.

It also definitely helps me, at least, that when I'm thinking about it as a musical whole, I'm less focused on the lyrics. Which you've noted as having flaws, but I get the sense that I might be a bit more down on them on the whole than you are. Certainly, I don't think the whole thing top to bottom has problems - only about 5%, but it's a tremendously distracting 5%. I particularly found the couplet "Be Italian / You rapscallion" to be either so stupid it's brilliant or so stupid that it's incredibly stupid, but I haven't decided which yet.

But why focus on that, because there is some outstandingly lovely music throughout: "The Bells of St. Sebastian", the first-act finale in which Guido recalls his oppressive Catholic childhood, plays right to my tastes, and I agree with you completely on "Movie Themes", the "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" refrain (it totally escaped me that "Contini" and "Fellini" scan the same, and rhyme); and I thought that "A Call from the Vatican", Carla's phone sex number, was awesomely slinky and I can only imagine how much better it must play onstage. Generally speaking, I much preferred the music in the first act to the second act; maybe it's because the "Grand Canal" medley felt a little too big and dizzy for me, maybe it's just because I think the plot is more interesting before Guido decides to make an autobiographical "Casanova". Although "I Can't Make This Movie" was outstanding, and if I understand correctly that it is the first moment where Guido is alone onstage, it must be quite the coup de théâtre. Obviously, Maury Yeston is no Nino Rota (who is?), but I rather liked the whole thing, and if I'm not quite a Nine partisan, certainly I can see myself trying to snag a ticket the next time a production shows up in town.

(Weirdly, I am totally unmoved by "Be Italian", which seems to be the consensus pick for the big fun showstopper. I think it's because the song stands out so badly - it's the one number that feels like a sop to people who want to walk out of a show with one easily hummable song to guide them).

Not to change rails too dramatically, but I did have one really big issue - I hesitate to call it a "problem" - with the show: it seems really anxious to insist on Guido's Italianness in a way that doesn't feel at all organic or necessary. "Be Italian" is obvious, with its message of "Italian men are natural lovers, and you should follow your native urges to become a great horndog", but there are little bits scattered all over the show; there's a line "I am a mature Italian film director!" that made me wince with its overburdened exposition. Am I reading far too much into it? Or is this as much of an exotic "othering" of Italian masculinity as it strikes me as being?


ZEV:
Well, I am glad you (more or less) like it--after all the nasty comments directed towards the score in the reviews of the film I've read, I appreciate knowing that someone who isn't a musical theatre geek can still get a lot out of the show. Of course Maury Yeston isn't Nino Rota, but Rota also didn't have the burden of telling the story through song--he supported Fellini. It's apples to oranges, but I think both scores fill their functions pretty well.

I think you're absolutely right that the show functions as a score, more than a collection of songs. While Yeston's use of motifs isn't as complex as Stephen Sondheim's (or as robotic and irritating as Andrew Lloyd Webber's), there are several themes woven throughout. (The most prominent are probably the "Guido Contini, Luisa Contini" and "Be Italian" chunks.) I think this is set up quite well from the start: the "Overture Delle Donne," features Guido conducting the women of the cast as they singing many of the show's musical themes to "la la la"s. He tries to control them and convince Luisa that he still cares about their marriage simultaneously. As in the best musical theatre, a piece of music theatricalizes an idea in a way that's startling and fascinating to watch--not to mention that, when done well, it's absolute heaven to hear. (By the way, here's a bootleg of the original production's overture. Carla's the one in the bodysuit arching her back at the end. Slinky indeed.)

I'd say that your formulation of 5% of the lyrics being clinkers is about right. I'd add that another good 20% are just disappointingly prosaic, and it's amazing how the great and eh lyrics can coexist right next to each other--that "Be On Your Own" can include a line as cliche-sounding as "No need to carry out this masquerade/When all that we're about's begun to fade" shortly before one as simple and devastating as "And you'll take with you all you own, from A to Z,/And all of me."

And "Be Italian/You rapscallion" is a stupid lyric, full stop. "Rapscallion" is a word with very specific connotations: for me it belongs to England from about the Elizabethans to the Edwardians. It sounds ridiculous coming from an Italian prostitute in what I'm guessing is the 1930s.

I'm completely in agreement with you on "The Bells of St. Sebastian's": no matter how many times I hear it, I get chills up my spine when it gets to the "Kyrie Eleison"s. Though it's apparently not your favorite, I think "My Husband Makes Movies" is the song I like nearly as much--a beautiful melody, and as emotionally resonant an exploration of the difficulty of loving an artist as any I've encountered. "Unusual Way" is probably the most covered song in the score--it needs the context of the plot less than most, and the melody is hard to forget. I have a real affection for the "Grand Canal" sequence because it is completely insane (even more so onstage, when the women suddenly show up in these gigantic gowns), but I don't know how well it really works. The only songs I could take or leave are the title song, which is so high up in soprano-land that, at least on the original cast album, it's a little hard to listen to, and "Getting Tall," in which 9-year-old Guido tells his adult self exactly the lesson he's supposed to learn. It's just too on the nose--plus, listening to boy sopranos is not my favorite thing.

As to your comment on the Italian elements being emphasized oddly--it is strange, though I never really noticed it before. My personal guess is that it's because so little of the show actually feels Italian at all. The audience needs an occasional reminder that they aren't watching Americans.

If I may be permitted one extra bit of nerdy joy--one thing I love in this show are the orchestrations. Orchestration is an element that people outside of musical theatre nerds rarely notice, but the way that Jonathan Tunick (one of the masters of the field) uses the orchestra is just stunning: the flutes in the waltz and the harpsichord (I think) under "My Husband Makes Movies" are two of the best examples, but the orchestral writing is gorgeous throughout.

And amid all the talk of the show's women, I want to say a word for Raul Julia. He's not the most gifted singer (some of the high notes are pretty painful), but even on the recording he's utterly magnetic. He's the prime example that being a great musical theatre performer does not necessarily require being a great singer. Better singers can be found, but I'm not sure anyone will do the part better. It's a shame that only a few of his film roles showed off what was apparently a prodigious talent onstage, and a greater shame that he died so young.

Any more thoughts on the show, especially now that it's had more time to sink in? Any final insights on how it works in and of itself versus how it works in dialogue with the film?


TIM
Ah, yes, "Getting Tall", a song so memorable that it had completely slipped my mind a scant handful of hours after listening to the score. Well, they can't all be hits. Or indeed, even halfway decent.

The more I sit and think, the more that I really take away from Nine is how very little reference it actually needs back to 8½, which at least theoretically invalidates this whole little project of ours, except I know that Rob Marshall brings quite a bit of the Fellini back into the musical - and isn't that going to be a peculiar sight to see? But all in all, it pleases me how little I wanted Nine to be 8½, which is not at all what I expected I fully anticipated a whole long thing where I was going to be disgusted by the liberties taken, and want Yeston's head on a pike - but by the end of "Guido's Song", I was pretty well ready to take the musical as its own entity, that uses the movie as nothing more than a springboard but little more.

And a pretty good musical, at that. I don't think I really have any further thoughts, but this was the first time in ages that I listened to a new (to me) show and liked it pretty much all the way through; compared to most of the dreck out there nowadays, it's a sterling masterpiece. So if nothing else, I'm grateful for that.

Not to mention, now I get to be paranoid to find out how Marshall is going to fuck it all up.