Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Song of the day, 05/25/2011

Susanne Christiane in Paths of Glory (1957). Director Stanley Kubrick married her in 1958 and they remained husband and wife until his death in 1999.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"The only word for this is transplendent..."

The estimable movie critic Jim Emerson recently wrote a piece for MSN movies naming the five best and five worst movies directed by Woody Allen. As a fan of the Woodman, I thought I'd toss my hat into the ring and name my picks as well.

I was surprised by how difficult it was to come up with five films deserving of a "worst" list. For all the talk about how Allen's career has declined over the past decade or so, he really is an American master. A great number of directors working today have given us terrific movies to watch (just look at this year's lineup at the Cannes Film Festival, where Allen earned raves for his latest, Midnight in Paris), but I'm not sure there's another one who's made so goddamn many. If I could have expanded my "best" list, I might have included Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Manhattan, Radio Days and Match Point.

Alas, I decided to stick with five. After much Woody Allen-style hemming and hawing ("Oh, jeez..."), here are my picks:


1. Hannah and Her Sisters
2. Crimes and Misdemeanors
3. Annie Hall
4. Stardust Memories
5. Love and Death


1. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
2. Melinda and Melinda
3. Anything Else
4. Shadows and Fog
5. Hollywood Ending

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dudley and Harry

One of my favorite scenes in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows comes early on – around page 40 of the 750-page plus tome. We’re inside No. 4 Privet Drive, the place where the 16-year-old wizard Harry Potter has spent the unhappiest years of his childhood. As the Dursleys prepare to flee, lest they be tortured and killed by the evil Lord Voldemort and his minions, Harry’s mean-spirited cousin Dudley surprises everyone when he tells the teenage wizard: “I don’t think you’re a waste of space.” As Harry explains, “Coming from Dudley that’s like ‘I love you.’”

I think what I like most about that scene is that it’s one of the few moments in the entire seven-part series where a character makes a genuine change. Other characters in the series are *misunderstood*, to be sure; Severus Snape comes to mind (is there another character in modern fiction who plays it so closely to the vest?), and Albus Dumbledore is certainly misunderstood throughout much of Deathly Hallows; he gets posthumously slimed by the mainstream media, and even Harry begins to doubt his beloved headmaster. But hardly anyone goes through quite the transformation that Big D does here.

You can imagine my disappointment when the scene didn’t make the theatrical cut of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. The deleted scene that's included on the DVD is an even BIGGER disappointment. It got me thinking about how the Potter movies have failed in some ways to clearly tell Rowling’s epic story, and how film adaptations in general offer two different experiences: one for fans of the source material, and another for non-fans.

As you may have gathered, I count myself among the countless admirers of the Potter novels. As Stephen King has said, they’re “just fun, pure story from beginning to end.” Like most Potter fans, I’ve been mostly pleased with the 6.5 film adaptations thus far. (Of the bunch, Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban is the most stylish, but the one I find myself returning to most often is Mike Newell’s Goblet of Fire; sans Quidditch, Goblet is a scarily accurate portrait of the teen years.) I can be a pretty tough movie critic when I’m a fan of the book. For example, I simply didn’t *get* Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild. Author Jon Krakauer brought his readers so close to the soulful odyssey of Christopher McCandless that, for me, that was the definitive telling of that story; Penn simply couldn’t compete. And yet that’s a much-loved movie; it currently holds an astonishing 8.2 user rating on IMDb, making it the 145th most popular movie on that website. (I’d like to think a lot of those users haven’t read the book.) IMHO, the movie is a jumbled mess.

That's an apt description of the deleted scene on the Deathly Hallows DVD, which is titled simply Dudley and Harry. The action is moved from the house to the street, where the Dursleys are piling into their Muggle car. Dudley lumbers over to his cousin, offers his hand and says, “I don’t think you’re a waste of space.” This is met with a somewhat chilly response by Harry. (In the book, Harry is genuinely moved.) It doesn't help that the scene is technically incomplete; green screens are visible in several shots, giving Privet Dr. a decidedly unfinished look. Another distraction: the bloated, bizarre appearance of the young actor who plays Dudley, which may explain why he’s filmed in long shot when we first see him, making it difficult for us to gauge his emotions.

The scene will be especially hard to follow for viewers who haven't read the books. The event that led to Dudley’s change of heart – Harry saving him from the Dementors – happened a lifetime ago. In the book, Rowling does a quick recap so as to jog our memory. But in the movie, the filmmakers expect us to remember something that happened at the very beginning of Half-Blood Prince, without the benefit of flashbacks. A lot has gone on since then (like, say, the death of Dumbledore.)

Of course, readers will remember what Harry did for Dudley. Reading the books has always been a kind of prerequisite for completely understanding the movies. Take the ending of Chamber of Secrets. I found it very moving when the students of Hogwarts erupted in applause at the sight of Hagrid, but my dad (who’s more of a Tolkien fan than a Potterhead) thought that scene was bizarre; why were the kids applauding this hairy giant who’d been given so little screen time? My dad rightly guessed that Hagrid is a way bigger deal in the books than he is in the movies. Similarly, when I saw Half-Blood Prince with a friend (who hasn't read the books, either), I had to remind him that there’d always been some question as to whether Snape was a good guy or a bad guy. What's etched indelibly in the minds of Potterheads is merely sketched in the minds of the uninitiated. People usually say, “Read the book instead.” In the case of the Harry Potter movies, I think the best piece of advice is, “Read the book FIRST.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Quote of the day, 05/10/2011

"Sometimes I don’t even want to see his pictures when they come out. But I finally get there, and it’s a cathartic experience for me to go through. Cronenberg is twentieth century. *Late* twentieth century. Cronenberg is something that we unfortunately have no control over, in the sense that we have no control over the imminent destruction of ourselves. That’s what is so clear about his work. So frightening. So upsetting."

–Martin Scorsese, Cronenberg on Cronenberg, 1992

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Spring sci-fi roundup

I’d planned on posting about how the spring movie season marked the return of smart, satisfying science-fiction to the big screen. Then I saw Limitless; BIG disappointment. Still, the fact that three ideas-driven sci-fi movies performed respectably at the box office – all in the same one-month period – certainly qualifies as a resurgence of some sort. Each of these movies has a charismatic lead performance, an impossibly gorgeous young actress to gawk at, and something thought-provoking to say about the way we live in the 21st century. Reviewed in the order I saw them:

While watching The Adjustment Bureau, George Nolfi’s ridiculous (but strangely captivating) sci-fi/romance, I was reminded of Richard Kelly’s much-derided 2009 release, The Box. Both movies are based on short stories by celebrated SF writers (Philip K. Dick in the case of The Adjustment Bureau, Richard Matheson in the case of The Box), and both are about Men in Hats conducting grand experiments on the human race. I find myself returning to The Box quite often; the movie is inscrutable but atmospheric and never dull, and the score (composed by Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire) is a super-cool homage to Bernard Hermann. Is Kelly’s movie all that more ludicrous than Nolfi’s, in which Matt Damon asks a mystery dude in a fedora, “Are you an angel?” At any rate, I was more enamored by Damon’s chemistry with Emily Blunt than by the faith-based sermon on free will that The Adjustment Bureau ultimately serves up. It’s a decidedly gooey, sentimental piece of sci-fi, but also an irresistible one – the cinematic equivalent of a big bear hug.

As mentioned earlier, the impact of Limitless is limited. It’s about an aspiring writer (Bradley Cooper) who discovers a miracle drug that gives him superhuman intelligence. Sounds like the recipe for a trippy, speculative cautionary tale about addiction and modern medicine, right? Instead, we get a weak narrative about stock market trading that’s about as much fun to watch as Atlas Shrugged is to read. You end up wondering what a young David Cronenberg might have done with this material. Director Neil Burger demonstrates some ingenuity with the “infinite zoom” shots, which, as the filmmaker has said, create the effect that you’re “rushing through the city streets but not at high speed – you are at an infinite zoom, moving relentlessly at real time but faster than everyone around you.” As others have said, this effect is “nauseating”.

After showing great promise with The Illusionist, Burger has failed to live up to his potential in recent years. (Like Limitless, 2008’s The Lucky Ones was a major letdown). In contrast, Duncan Jones just keeps getting better and better. After Moon and now Source Code (his first two feature films, if you can believe that), he just might be the best sci-fi director working today. Easily one of the best films of 2011, Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Capt. Colter Stevens, a war vet assigned to find the bomber of a Chicago-bound train. To do this, he must repeat the same eight minutes on a loop (and get blown to bits each time he fails to identify the perpetrator). With its zeitgeist-y terror plot, sexy stars (Michelle Monaghan plays Gyllenhaal’s love interest) and twisty script, the movie is an absolute winner from first scene to last. How much do you want to bet that Jones (the son of David Bowie, if you can believe that) knocks Moon 2 out of the park?