If it's Xmas, there must be films featuring Jimmy the spy, Harry the mage and Frodo of the nine fingers as well as a brace of romantic comedies; not to mention the first of the serious (and not so serious) Oscar contenders from the major studios, including a brand new musical and an outre Kaufman script. Jimmy is showing his age; Frodo is coming into his own; and the cinematic Harry may be reaching his peak before he becomes passe. And we are finding it increasingly easy to appreciate Reese and Huge and a writer named Charlie. But the hit of the (local) summer may be, of all things, a musical film adapted from a stage production. So that's where we'll start.
Chicago is a great movie and my current favorite for the Oscar, because it is a damned near perfect musical, an entertaining and diverting film, which is genuinely cinematic in its conception and, did I mention, great fun.
After he made Cabaret, Bob Fosse got together with Kander and Ebb to create a new musical based on the 1942 movie, Roxie Hart, which was itself based on actual 1920s trials in Chicago. The resultant show debuted in 1975, and its director's heart attack during the rehearsal period inspired a great movie musical, also created by Fosse, All That Jazz. Recently Chicago was revived on stage in a new production put together by Fosse's protege Anne Reinking. In the wake of the success of Moulin Rouge, money was found to make a film version and it's recently opened to critical ovations, good box office and, already, a host of awards.
There was a need to 're-invent' the musical. The idea of people bursting into song in the midst of daily activities had become twee. Fosse's film version of Cabaret, which brilliantly integrated the songs (on stage in the Kit-Kat Club) into the narrative, was the model. Baz Lurhmann began the re-invention with Moulin Rouge, which was so operatic and stagy that the audience could accept the interpolation of songs. The creator of Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon, has written a script for Chicago that goes a step further and finds an even better way for the song and dance to be integral but not stultifying. The movie opens with a bang: its best-known number, "All That Jazz", being staged in a theatre with Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) belting it out with a chorus. It ends with Velma and Roxie (Renee Zellwegger) doing a double act on another stage. But, in between, all the musical numbers are staged in Roxie's imagination and arise from it. This allows for stylised and inventive sets, colorful choruses and a perfect integration with, and commentary on, the narrative.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Velma has killed her husband and her sister after finding them doing a horizontal folk dance ("I don't remember a thing") and Roxie kills her lover after his promises turn out to be worthless ("We both went for the gun"). They find themselves in the same lock-up under the care of matron Mama (Queen Latifah) and defended by Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). But the story is just an excuse for some great production numbers, including: "When You're Good to Mama", which Latifah vamps up like an old-time Blues singer rather than a contemporary rap artist; the "Cell Block Tango (He Had it Coming)" wherein six murderers give their stories; "The Press Conference Rag (They Both Went for the Gun)", demonstrating Flynn's manipulation of his client and the press by portraying everyone but him as a puppet on his string; and "Razzle-Dazzle" when he explains his court-room technique. The songs are linked to the narrative by a bandleader (Taye Diggs) who introduces each 'act' - a device similar to the MC in Cabaret and also used by Fosse in All That Jazz.
None of the leads are specifically musical stars, although Zeta-Jones (looking very like Louise Brooks) was a dancer before she tried straight acting. But each handles the demands of their role well. Zellwegger can occasionally look a little out of place in dance number (although she appears to do an anachronistic Marilyn impression which also owes something to Marion Davies) but the strength of the chorus overcomes these concerns. Zeta-Jones is fabulous, her best role since Mask of Zorro, exuding sexuality and zest in her song and dance numbers. Gere plays it sly and ironic, and his singing is toned down to a sort of Rudy Vallee croon, which really suits the look-and-feel of the film. Latifah handles her role with gusto and John C Reilly, as Amos, Roxie's feckless husband, finds the pathos in his "Mr Cellophane" solo. (Reilly also appears in The Hours and Gangs of New York, so he's had a damned good few months in film.)
It is the ghost of Bob Fosse that haunts this movie. Kander and Ebb's good music and brilliant lyrics were incorporated into Fosse's production style originally and, even though the play has been restaged in the 1990s by Anne Reinking, and re-imagined by director/choreographer Rob Marshall and writer Condon, it remains infected with Fosse's touches in the dancing, the sets and the mis-en-scene. Not only from Cabaret and All That Jazz and his original creation of Chicago, but Sweet Charity as well, reinforced by the presence of Chita Rivera (a lead in that movies as well as the Velma in the original Broadway production of Chicago) in a small part.
I'm a sucker for good musicals. They allow for the expression of strong (and outre) emotions through the music rather than through over-acting. Chicago is a great musical. I recommend it highly.
I'm a believer. When I first heard of Peter Jackson's TLotR project I was more than a little sceptical about the possibility of the end-product in any way approaching the depth and interest of the books. After The Fellowship of the Ring I was prepared to concede that he might be able to pull off a miracle. In the light of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers I admit my doubts were baseless. TTT is the middle and most difficult of the books. While FotR follows a chronological path, more or less, TTT (and The Return of the King as well) has a different structure. The first half follows events in the west - in and around Orthanc - while the second half deals with the attempts by Frodo and Sam to enter Mordor, in despite of Barad-dur, the second eponymous tower. It is this part of the trilogy that I always found the most difficult.
In the movie, Jackson again converts everything into a roughly chronological narrative, so the adventures of the fellowship in the west are interspersed with Sam and Frodo's travails and with their interaction with Gollum. Ironically, the two hobbits and their strange companion hold their own against the slam-bang action in the west. In fact, the interspersing of the two main stories helps the narrative flow, so that the more measured progress of the hobbits is contrasted with the frenetic pace of the developments arising from Saruman's pressing of his war against Rohan.
A word first on Smeagol/Gollum. The creature has been realised by a mixture of CGI and the movements of an actor (Andy Serkis), complemented by the same actor's voice. And incredibly well realised. The scene in which the two parts of the creature contend with each other over their intentions towards Frodo is the centre of the movie and brilliantly presented. His movements are essentially Serkis' but his expressions are those of the graphic artists; so who is primarily responsible for the success of the Gollum?
Jackson takes some liberties with the story in the west, placing Eomer outside Helms Deep, taking Erkenbrand's role in the book. An additional warg attack allows for another action sequence and some gratuitous scenes for Aragorn which enable Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett to have minor roles (credited above the title) in the film in which their characters should play no part. But I like the changes he makes, they add to the dramatic development, especially in the light of Jackson's eliding of both parts of the story: in the west, the confrontation at Orthanc doesn't occur, and, in the east, the boys don't reach Shelob's lair. Perhaps he's saving both for the third part - to increase Chris Lee's role and to have a strong action element for Frodo and Sam who'll spend most of the movie trudging through Mordor if the book is followed.
There are a number of new characters apart from Smeagol, including Eowyn, Faramir, Theoden and Grima. All are well-realised, although Eowyn and Faramir's best scenes are yet to come. Vitto Mortensen's Aragorn continues to be the central character in the western part of the film, complementing Elijah Woods and Sean Astin as the questing hobbits, whose heroism is far more internal but well shown. My major reservation with the film is the Ent scenes. I don't think they've thought deeply enough about the ents and the differences in physiognomy that might have emerged by their identification with separate trees. This is exacerbated by a failure to use the young hobbits, Merry and Pippin, enough in counterpoint. Maybe they'll also come into their own in the third episode.
The Two Towers is a much better film that The Fellowship of the Rings because the adaptation of the book to a film narrative works much better, threading the separate stories into a coherent whole, and moving from action to reflection to discussion to doubts. Thoroughly recommended.
Second year at Howarts
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is also a better movie than the first of the series but I am not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about the Rings sequel. It may be that the story in the second Potter novel is the weakest of those thus far (and that, by reducing the novels the essential narrative without the corroborative detail of the school and classes, the films concentrate us on the central plot itself) or that the familiarity of the Potters breeds more contempt than that of Tolkien. But the fact is that Ring II has taken much more than its predecessor (both here and OS), much more quickly, while Harry II has taken less - a fair deal less.
One obvious fact is in the comparison of the newly introduced CGI character. The Gollum works magnificently; Dobby is more annoying in the film than it is in the novel - if that's possible. Aside from Harry and Ron, most of the characters have too little to do. This is especially the case with two quite delicious new characters, Kenneth Branagh's spot-on Gilderoy Lockhart and Jason Isaacs' Lucius Malfoy, both of whom had potential to do a lot more. Most of the staff are also seen too little, McGonagall, Snape, Hagrid and the newly introduced Sprout (Miriam Margolyes) are almost always in the background. The tone of the film, like that of the earlier novels is light, especially in comparison with the Ring cycle. I wonder if this too might have an impact - the lightness was just right in the months after 11/9/01 but not as fitting for 2002-2003.
But leaving those minor cavils aside (and seeing them solely as reasons why the movie has not appeared to have the same visceral effect on movie-goers as the earlier episode), The Chamber of Secrets is still an amazingly well-acted and directed movie with an exciting main narrative, convincing and involving special effects and a great deal of humor. By following the book, the movie loses some of the oomph given the Philosopher's Stone by Emma Watson's Hermione. This leaves the narrative burden on the shoulders of Harry and Ron. They handle it well enough but, unlike the earlier film, you feel that they achieve their goal more by good luck than good management.
It's all jolly good fun and a diverting time but there is too little 'back-palate' in the movie. Scenes from The Two Towers keep coming back; those from the Chamber have not done so with the same resonance. I suppose that's, to an extent, the difference between Tolkien and Rowling: the latter is good light-weight fun fantasy; the Rings is a matter of life and death: a struggle for the world. There is hope that the later Potter books will evolve into this as Harry grows older and the threat of Voldemort grows more menacing, but there is a real worry that the lovers of the books will not become repeat viewers of the Potter sequels as they were of the first episode.
Bonded to a formula
In biology there is an hypothesis that ontogeny replicates phylogeny, ie that in its development the foetus goes through an evolutionary process from single-cell to multi-cell to 'fish' and thence through amphibian and reptile to mammalian and eventually human. Die Another Day, the twentieth official Bond movie, is prime example of this theory. It seems to replicate bits and pieces from each of the previous nineteen. I didn't keep count of every reference but starting with the obvious ones from the early movies: Jinx wears Honey's bikini (Dr No); the briefcase from From Russia with Love is seen in new Q's basement; Jinx is threatened with a laser, a la Goldfinger; the Thunderball jet pack; and so on. New Q (John Cleese) reminds Bond that the weapon-enhanced watch he's been given is his twentieth.
By now, not only are the Bond plots interchangeable but the sequencing of the movies remains constant. The pre-credit sequence (so well satirised by Goldmember), the clues leading to the villain and his henchpeople; the 'good' Bond girl and the 'bad' Bond girl; the doomsday device (in this case an echo of the diamond-encrusted space beam from Diamonds are Forever in yet another homage); the denouement in which Bond administers the coup de grace in a bizarre setting - in a jumbo jet similar to The Living Daylights. It's all become very predictable, down to the unsubtle double entendres.
This movie is an improvement on The World is not Enough and an acceptable action adventure movie. It is not a bad night's entertainment but faint praise seems to be the best I can do. Pierce Brosnan remains at best a second-rate Bond, an improvement on Moore but inferior to Dalton and, of course, Connery. Halle Berry has too little to do but does it stylishly and the villains are just not villainous enough. It's all a bit too predictable, too much time is given to chases and fights (although the sword-fighting scene is well enough done) and there is little sensa wonder left in the series. It is probably best to kill Jim off now before Huge is asked to play him and make a series of spy movies featuring Halle Berry's Jinx. Now that might have some edge.
Twice the Nick
Charlie Kaufman's first filmed script was Being John Malkovich. Adaptation is the most recent, the second seen in Australia (Human Nature, made between, has been released about the same time). The man can write. BJM was a truly original idea; as suggested by the title Adaptation is an adaptation of a book largely about orchids and John Larouche, a man who seeks them in the Florida Everglades. But this is a meta-comedy, if I can invent a term. It's a comedy about the travails of a writer, set to adapt a difficult book, who adapts it into a self-referential play on the problems of adapting books to movies and on the process of writing. In doing do, Kaufman supplements the book's characters, the orchid-hunter and his biographer, Susan Orlean, with a fictionalised version of himself, complemented by a fictional twin brother. Nicolas Cage plays both Kaufmans, Charlie, the tongue-tied intellectual, and Donald, the more earthy sensualist, who has decided to write his own script, a serial killer movie in which all the characters are the same person. If that all sounds complicated enough, Kaufman then plays fast and loose with the real-life characters of Larouche and Orlean and comments on the script-writing experience through Robert McKee (another real-life character whose persona is used and abused by Kaufman), a scripting guru played by Brian Cox.
Like Malkovich, the film is directed by Spike Jonze, a fresh talent who is unafraid to experiment with style and substance. The brilliant script is supplemented by three great performances from actors who are usually anathema to me. Cage, Meryl Streep (Orlean) and Chris Cooper (Larouche) are normally too obvious in their craft for me, but this time, under Jonze's control, they each deliver great performances. The end result is a film that is perhaps not as good as Being John Malkovich but is nonetheless a worthy awards contender, particularly for the script and the supporting actors. Like Malkovich, this is not a film for everyone but if you enjoyed the off-the-wall humor of BJM, you'll like Adaptation. It will surprise you and entertain you and may even give you pause for thought.
Wromantic but wrong
The Hollywood-style romantic comedy has been a staple for over seventy years. Early stars like Cary Grant, James Stewart, Jean Arthur and Katherine Hepburn helped establish the form. Of more recent times, Hugh Grant has seemed to be a Cary Grant reborn and Reese Witherspoon is among the few women since Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell to be able to carry a film on her own. In that light, it is a little sad to report that Huge and Reese's latest films are no better than OK. Sweet Home Alabama is the Witherspoon vehicle. She is a fashion designer with a successful New York life and a brand new well-connected fiance, but with complications back in Alabama, including a high school sweetheart to whom she's still married. The rest is pretty predictable, although enlivened somewhat by Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward as her parents. Reese is good but the script is not good enough to enable the film to reach above the average.
The tag-line for Huge's new comedy with Sandra Bullock, Two Weeks' Notice, is "Over. Done. Finished". The things that looked overdone was Sandy's latest nip and tuck which has left her with all angles and no apparent planes. Huge is very good but the part given to Sandy, the leftist Harvard law graduate who becomes the corporate counsel for the front man in a development company, is truly unbelievable. The film is, if anything, even more predictable than Alabama. The unanswered question is why Huge's character cleaves to Sandy's whining lawyer, and not her successor in the job, played with some style by Alicia Witt. This is another lightweight, reasonably entertaining movie but, at a time when there is so much good stuff around, it would be a low priority on the hit list.
Small but perfectly informed
In Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, Richard Rodriguez demonstrates that he has fully appreciated Joe Bob's injunctions on sequels: if a film worked the first time, then just remake it. The original was a bit of surprise hit: a spy spoof in which two kids, Carmen and Juni Cortez, did the espionage after their spy parents went missing, assisted by a plethora of Bond-like apparati that resembled enhanced toys. The same kids and their parents are back, supplemented by a matching pair of spy kids, the Giggles, who are anglo and all superior, when compared to Carmen and Juni, the hispanic children of Carla Gugino and Antonio Banderas. In addition we have a pair of grandparents (good roles for the delightful Holland Taylor and the dependable Ricardo Montalban) and a mad scientist, Steve Buscemi. Unfortunately there is not the same level of inventiveness in either the plot or the gadgets and the other kids, the Giggles and the presidential daughter, are not up to Juni and Carmen's high standards. On the other hand, the portmanteau animals and the obvious homage to Ray Harryhausen, particularly in the spider-monkey, are excellent. Still good fun but a little below the standard of the original. A third film is planned. I hope that is the end of it.
Fine, fine, fine
We caught up with two European director's recent films on DVD towards the end of last year. Istvan Szabo's Sunshine tells the story of four generations of a family of Hungarian Jews. Ralph Fiennes plays the elder son of each of three generations of the Sonnenschein family after they move to the city. The first Fiennes Sonnenschein is a lawyer and judge in the Austro-Hungarian Empire who plays a part of WWI and the brief communist/anarchist interregnum after it; his son is a fencer and Olympic champion whose conversion to Catholicism does not save him from the death camps; his son survives the camps to be policeman in the post-war Communist regime which he serves until 1956. The film is overlong and drags at times, but it is a fascinating catalog of the twentieth century in central Europe as it moves from traditional monarchy through anarchy to democracy, dictatorship and communist domination. Jennifer Ehle is particularly effective as the judge's wife who survives to become the family matriarch. Fiennes remains too wooden for mine.
Tom Tykwer's first film (before Heaven) was Lola Rentt (Run Lola Run). This is something of a five-finger exercise. It involves a thirty-minute story told thrice, with different outcomes arising from slight changes in the characters' actions. Lola's boyfriend has mislaid a hundred large in gangsters' money and has half an hour to find it. Lola is running: to dad to beg for the money while boyfriend considers a convenience store robbery. In the first two versions, she fails to make it and various tragedies occur. In the third, both she and the boyfriend make out like gangbusters (sorry about that) and end up with more than is necessary. Franka Potente (recently the female lead in The Bourne Identity) is the eponymous Lola and very effective but, while fun, this is also very lightweight.
Good year/bad year
I have been asserting that 2002 is possibly the worst year ever for major studio films. A couple of good flicks at the end doesn't amount to a hill of beans in comparison. The Award Preview website lists movies and performances likely to be nominated for the Oscars and/or the Golden Raspberries (the anti-Oscars). While I don't agree with all their choices, here their lists:
Best films: (top five) About Schmidt, Chicago, Far From Heaven, The Hours and The Pianist
(others): About A Boy, Adaptation, The Fast Runner, Gangs Of New York, Hable Con Ella, The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, Minority Report, Monsoon Wedding, Spirited Away and Y Tu Mama Tambien
Worst films: (top ten) The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Bad Company, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, Femme Fatale, The Master of Disguise, Mr. Deeds, Pinocchio, Rollerball, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones and Swept Away
(others) 40 Days and 40 Nights, Abandon, Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights, All the Queen's Men, Bad Company, Big Fat Liar, Big Trouble, Collateral Damage, The Country Bears, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, Crossroads, Death to Smoochy, Dragonfly, Deuces Wild, Fear dot com, Formula 51, Full Frontal, Ghost Ship, Half Past Dead, Halloween Resurection, The Hot Chick, I Spy, Jason X, John Q, Juwanna Mann, Knockaround Guys, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Murder By Numbers, National Lampoon's Van Wilder, The New Guy, Queen of the Damned, Resident Evil, The Rules of Attraction, Scooby Doo, The Scorpion King, Serving Sara, Showtime, Slackers, Snowdogs, Sorority Boys, Stealing Harvard, Stolen Summer, Supertroopers, Sweet Home Alabama, Swimfan, The Time Machine, The Transporter, The Tuxedo, Windtalkers and XXX.
I haven't seen most of the 'bad' films so I'll take their word for most of them. The incredibly heavy preponderance of crud seems to confirm the standard of the year.
[Note: Information about the movies mentioned, including cast and crew lists and all sorts of trivia, is available at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).]
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Last updated: 10 February 2003