Monday, January 26, 2009

The worst movie ever

For some reason, I've been having an old Hollywood film fest lately, and I got around to a film I've always been curious about, The Prince and the Showgirl starring Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier. The juxtaposition was just too much for my curiosity.

Sadly. It is one of the worst films I have ever seen (seen being a flexible verb, as I ended up working while watching), though Marilyn is undoubtedly lovely, and drooling over her is probably the only reason to watch. Olivier is hidden behind a vaguely Hungarian accent and an impossibly stiff manner, not to mention hideously bad writing and plotting. It's not impossible to write a romantic comedy along these lines that still has charm: he, a tradition-bound aristocrat or aristocratic rogue; she, an artless American girl... but oh my lord, this wasn't it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Lights! Camera! Action! Commerce!

Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch the 1936 film Lloyd's of London, which might perhaps be known to film buffs as the film that made Tyrone Power a star. Most people, however, would probably say, "Lloyd's? The insurance company that insured J. Lo's butt?" And yes, you'd be right. That Lloyd's.

The film is about how an insurance company saved England. No, really. Boyhood friends Jonathan Blake (a fictional character) and Horatio Nelson part at the age of 12, one to go work for Lloyd's and one to go to sea and become Lord Nelson, the naval hero. Though they never see each other again, their bromance lasts forever, even as Blake revitalizes Lloyd's, Nelson revitalizes the navy, and both fall hopelessly in love with married women. During the Napoleonic wars, insurance rates for English shipping start soaring out of sight, threatening to cut off commerce altogether. Lloyd's plans to go to the admiralty to get military escort for the commercial ships. Knowing that this will hopelessly cripple his friend Nelson in his fight against the French, Blake steadily keeps insuring the ships at the old rate, risking everything he owns and his lover's entire fortune as well. Just as he can't last any longer, he gets a letter from Nelson thanking him and begging him for anything more he can do -- and he gets the idea to go send a false semaphore message of Nelson's victory. (This actually did happen inexplicably, historically.) He's discovered, and his lover's awful husband threatens to expose him but can't because he doesn't want his wife's fortune all to be lost -- instead he shoots Blake, at the moment that Nelson has finally forced the battle at Trafalgar and gets shot himself. Nelson dies; Blake lives, waking just in time to see his friend's funeral parade.

That's a long summary, but I have to say it was fairly gripping, and considering I was watching it in 10-minute snippets on YouTube, that's pretty impressive. It was the best kind of historical fiction, where the history gives it importance, but the film is fictional enough that you actually don't know what will happen at any given moment. I mean, Lloyd's could practically have failed for all I knew. It's a lovely old-fashioned black and white film, with plenty of amusing historical characters thrown in -- Ben Franklin wandering through Lloyd's, for one. Plenty of now-forgotten old character actors, but first billing went to child star Freddie Bartholemew, which amused me a bit. Power, who went on to be a big star but arguably didn't make any really legendary films, is impossibly young and pretty here, that kind of '30s matinee-idol look that suits oddly with my battered and bloody modern action-hero sensibilities, but works well enough for the role of aspiring gentleman.

A film that will make you adore your insurance companies! If it had come out a couple of years later, it might be remembered as a weird kind of business-oriented Mrs. Miniver, one of those patriotic wartime films. I hope it makes it to DVD. It has a lot of interest both on the cinematic-historical front and for its content.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rhetorical questions

If, as Chris Matthews wearily noted while Obama was speaking and dancing with his wife at his eighth inaugural ball, our new president's political gift consists of the ability to muster repetition with spontaneity, then the repetitive nature of political rhetoric must also come naturally to him. At the same time, there's a shock value to certain words that breaks up the repetition. "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus..." and then a break of the rhetoric to include those so rarely included, "AND nonbelievers." Very nicely done. Rhetoricians were disappointed by the lack of a "by the people, for the people" repetition, but I think Obama's words will be just as important.

But he did have one quasi-biblical rhetorical moment that I thought was very fine; when invoking the revolutionary history of the U.S., he led into the future with, "So it has been; so it must be." I thought that was a nice summation of his theme of "remaking America." If he had put that closer to the end than the beginning, it might have had a little more impact. But overall, I thought it was an excellent speech, and an inauguration full of symbolism. Thanks, John G. Roberts.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Norbit-ing yourself

Remember how Eddie Murphy had a lot of Oscar buzz for Dreamgirls and then Norbit came out, which a lot of media types speculated ultimately cost him the Oscar? I remember reading that the studio had offered or even wanted to push back Norbit's release date, but Murphy insisted that it go out on its scheduled date. Well, that's staying true to your roots, I suppose.

This crossed my mind because I saw a commercial for Underworld 3 tonight. Having no interest in vampire films, I've never seen 1 and 2. And the first thing I thought was, "Whoa, Norbit." Not that Michael Sheen has any Oscar buzz -- perennial bridesmaid, and anyway, Frost/Nixon's not that amazing a film, I don't think, which hurts Oscar bids (cf. Being Julia) (my opinion of F/N will be forever suspect because I so worship the play). But IF he did...

Ditto for Anne Hathaway and Bride Wars. I saw the trailer for it with Australia, and it looked so bad that my friend actually grabbed my arm in horror. And then we watched Australia. Not the best money I've ever spent.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Ghost of Jennifer Aniston

I read The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller -- lest you think I've only been watching movies lately. Unfortunately, I had heard rumors that it was going to be made into a film with Jennifer Aniston (very old rumors; I think they might have been also rumors about Brad Pitt costarring as her husband, so you can guess how old they were). So I couldn't get the visual out of my head the whole time.

Interesting meditation on marriage: love, sex, fidelity, expectation, the daily grind, set in an academic town in the nineties. A young couple move in next to a senator's wife (where's the senator?) and the two marriages go through some rough times in tandem for a couple of years. I hate giving away plot, so it's hard to critique that openly for you, but it's a reasonably good read. Personally, I'd have liked more about the political side, but there are reasons that it's not a big part of the wife's life.

Lovely descriptive writing, and fairly good entry into the head of the younger woman (the Aniston character); a lot of almost stream of consciousness interiority that is specific enough to be interesting, but not so overwritten as to be totally unbelievable (you know the type that follows a clear trajectory that nobody's musings take). Certainly a good, slightly lighter read, though nothing earth-shattering.

Ah, awards season

Has anyone seen The Reader yet? How can Kate Winslet be a "supporting" actress in that one? Considering that the other role I know of in that film is played by two people (Ralph Fiennes as the older version), isn't that virtually saying that there is no lead actor in that film at all?

Nonetheless, lovely that she won, even if she did give two boring, emotional laundry lists of thank-yous speeches.

I thought of live-blogging the Globes. I did watch the whole thing, or rather I had the TV on the whole time while I was working. Random thoughts shoot through your head, like the first one in this post, or "Really have to see this John Adams miniseries," "WHAT was Mickey Rourke in when he was younger?", "The Jonas Brothers, I'm going to put a pen through my eye," or "Where's Sean Penn?"

My poor Frost/Nixon, shut out (0 for 5). At least it had good company, like Benjamin Button, which I swear I heard one commentator refer to as Benjamin Britten, except I'd be shocked if she actually knew of the British classical composer.

Like everyone else, I have to go see Slumdog Millionaire now, partly because I have slight skepticism about the politics of the film. I'm delighted that the Indian cast and crew seem so happy, but I just wonder a bit about an "Indian" film only winning when it's written by a white Brit and directed by Danny Boyle. I'm not objecting to it entirely; if it's good, it's good. But I'd be curious to see if any Indian reaction parallels the Chinese reaction to Crouching Tiger, which was something like "Been there, done that, unless you're Western and don't watch REAL Chinese films."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Frost/Nixon; Play/Film

Here it comes.

I did enjoy the movie, though I must repeat that the experience was like going back through a book waiting for your favorite bits. But in the end, it lacked the tension and drama of the play. How could it not? Cuts do exactly what they say they do. They cut. What is worse, they cut away from Frost and Nixon, who are the heart of the film, and should have been even more titanically so than they are. Feisty and interesting as the side characters are, they're fluff in comparison.

In a film, of course you'll lose the blocking and so forth, but one major difference between stage and screen is that the stage also used the screen. The backdrop was a bank of television screens that were used to project movement between settings, but also to do closeups during the interviews. This allowed the telling closeups to be juxtaposed with the actual interview, and showed the play's theme of the power of television much better than Sam Rockwell can tell it in the film.

Because Rockwell is also hampered by one of the other major changes in the film, which is that Jim Reston, the angry young researcher, can't be the constantly onstage Greek chorus and commentator. Instead, the side characters all appear in documentary-like cuts, talking to the camera, telling us what happened. What happened to showing, not telling? I have some sympathy here, because it's a story that requires a lot of telling. But I think it would have been better to stick to Reston and pretend he was writing his fifth book or something. Give the film a point of view and a narrator; the best documentaries all do anyway. When even Caroline, Frost's girlfriend, had a spot, I got a little bogged down.

So who do I blame for these little misfires, Ron Howard or Peter Morgan? Eh, I wasn't really unhappy enough to place blame, though I stick to what I said many, many times before anticipating this movie: Howard is good. He is very, very good. Only once would I say he was ever close to great, with Apollo 13. Lightning did not strike twice, but I knew it would be solid, and it was. I think that the pacing and editing could have been much snappier at times, and with less cuts at others. That's all on Howard, ultimately, unless he doesn't get final cut. I would think that a director of his stature does.

There were actually a couple of changes that I really liked within the script. Sheen mentioned that Frost seemed to feel that the film serves him better, and he's right. Because the film can run around to different locations more easily, you get to actually see what Frost was doing, desperately seeking investment and advertising, before the pivotal scene when he hits rock bottom and declares, "I have to work!" In the play, it came across a little as 'what the hell was he doing before?' Then the film actually shows him working and phoning Reston to go get the unpublished transcript that turns out to be the smoking gun. In the play, Reston pops up on the last day with the file on his own, leading you to wonder what the hell Frost was doing while he 'worked.' It's much better development of Frost. When I watched the play, that was a huge hole for me in the Frost characterization, and all the worse because Nixon's motivations hang together so easily.

I can't get over how completely Frank Langella inhabits his role as Nixon. It's like Helen Mirren as the queen; you really start thinking you're watching the actual person. It's harder to get that feeling from Michael Sheen's Frost if you're American (and young), but Sheen's intense eyes really make his performance. The film's closeups unfortunately restrict appreciation of their body language, which contrasted so brilliantly. Will either get loaded with accolades? Sheen certainly not, bridesmaid again. Langella? As a Republican icon of sorts? I thought he might, but Sean Penn looks like he'll take 'em all.

Among the excellent supporting cast (Sam Rockwell, a funny Oliver Platt, a steely Kevin Bacon, Rebecca Hall), I was most surprised by Matthew Macfadyen, whose great big, sad eyes and beautiful voice did as much for John Birt as they failed to do for Mr. Darcy in the Keira Knightley P&P. (Sorry, but that's how I felt.) Birt was a rather floaty role in the play, not having a solid presence or purpose next to the fiery and funny Reston. Here, he had the lovely stillness that I was wishing for a couple of posts ago: Frost's rock in a storm. It made his celebratory naked dash into the ocean all the funnier for me.

I leave you with one joke from the play that was edited down in the movie, but got one of the best laughs onstage:

Jim Reston: Where's David?
Bob Zelnick: At a movie premiere.
Reston: What, the night before we start taping? What premiere?
Zelnick: The Slipper and the Rose.
Reston: [pause] The Cinderella movie?
Zelnick: He's the executive producer. [It more or less ended here in the film.]
Reston: [in horror] The one with Richard Chamberlain singing, 'Ding diddy ding ding'!?

Prelude to a post

Finally went to see Frost/Nixon! I enjoyed it, though it was faintly like rereading a book to get to the bits that you remember were your favorites. I'll post a nauseatingly detailed analysis quite soon, but in the meantime, here's a fine interview with one of the costars, Michael Sheen, in which he speaks very interestingly about stage vs. film work, and his 'process' of acting.

Tinkerbell and all

I finally got around to (how many of my posts start with that phrase?) Stardust, the 2007 movie based on Neil Gaiman's novel. I expected a mildly pretty, entertaining fantasy film. Instead, I have to say I was completely charmed from beginning to end. It reminded me in an odd way of Moulin Rouge (that might send some people running), that is, a film with a lot of color, costume, humor, and special effects surrounding a core of very sentimental or very real feeling about true love, etc., which might nauseate you or suck you in. Consider me suckered.

You might be scratching your head trying to remember this movie. It got not quite enough publicity, since I think the studio was banking on the presence of Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Claire Danes to open it. Problem is, I don't think either of the latter two can open a movie at this point, and the presence of DeNiro in a fantasy film as a flying pirate mostly had people... scratching their heads. He was very funny (just shut your ears and ignore his total lack of even an attempt to do a different accent). Pfeiffer enjoyed swaggering about being evil, much like in Hairspray, and Danes was lovely, though her speeches tended to be rather bugeyed and overaccented. What happened to that lovely stillness she had in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet? And lastly, Charlie Cox did the hapless-to-heroic thing a lot better than anyone's done it lately. I wish I'd gone to see that darn Pinter double bill when I was in London in June; he was in it and I'd be curious to see his stage acting in a modern piece.

I definitely recommend this one. For the child at heart, as they say. Oh, and a Ricky Gervais appearance for those who want to satisfy the cynic at heart, as well.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Once you've seen one...

I've steered clear of jewel thief and heist films as a rule, mostly because I feel like you know what's coming... the main variation will be the clever plot. As far as I can recall, I have broken this rule twice: once for Catherine Zeta Jones' dance through the laser beams in Entrapment, and now once for the sake of Peter Ustinov, with the 1964 film Topkapi.

I've always liked Ustinov, mostly because I was in love with the film Quo Vadis as a child, and he plays such a magnificently idiotic, tyrannical Nero that you can't ever forget him. On the other hand, I also once watched The Egyptian, of which I said to my parents that I wouldn't have believed that a film with Peter Ustinov in it could be so damn bad. Here, he plays a half English, half Egyptian lowlife con man who's sucked in by a pair of professional thieves to help with their plot to steal the sultan's knife with its four emeralds. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for this performance, which I think was probably due to the joy of seeing Ustinov play such a hapless loser... the scenes of him with his shirt off, getting the rope wrapped around for its later use in dangling a man down to the museum window, are a testament to what an actor without vanity will do for the sake of his art.

It's a nice enough film, though the sixties' colored lenses in the beginning will drive you temporarily insane. Maximilian Schell and Melina Mercouri, the pro thieves, have a crazy chemistry (playing a rigid Swiss and a self-dubbed nymphomaniac), and the shots of Istanbul are fascinating. But as with most heist films, you know what's coming... and it comes so terribly slowly that you might not hang in there for the actual heist. Hang. It is worth it in all its insane intricacy, and the end comes swiftly thereafter.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Secure in the homeland

Back in Chicago, after MLA San Francisco (it was lovely, thank you, though I wish I'd gotten to see more of SF) and a stint in NJ, aquarium-less this time.

A few cultural thoughts:

1) I dreamed about Frost/Nixon last night. Specifically, going to a screening of it with the cast and crew. I think my subconscious is trying to get my butt to the movie theater. Hint taken.

2) I really, really want to read Netherland.

3) Brace yourselves for a disquisition on how Disney mismanaged the Narnia franchise and how bitter I am about the whole thing. And I wasn't even really into the movies, but I miss my big Yearly Movie Event that Lord of the Rings got me used to for three years. New Line's lesson to the world: jump off a cliff and sometimes you hit a really big trampoline.