Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 May 2013

The Spock-a-wing Diamond Part II

Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby film is certainly something to see. I would even say it is worth seeing. If only for Catherine Martin's costume designs.

I wanted to like the film in its entirety, to be honest. There was a moment early on after the second or third outrageous party sequence where I thought okay, this will be like a wild party version of this story with opulence and ridiculousness and that will be really fun. But I couldn't keep it up. This movie got boring really quickly.

The parties were my favorite part of the movie. Every single party sequence is delightful. They all feel inventive and fresh and totally ludicrous. Luhrmann throws a great party. At one point, people are in a swimming pool with inflatable zebras. There is a sequence where someone is dumping metallic confetti on someone else out of an oversized champagne bottle. It is all very fun.

But Gatsby is not trying to be fun. Gatsby is trying to be serious. Or at least something approximating serious. And this is where Luhrmann runs into trouble, because, see, he doesn't actually know how to be serious. Or honest. Maybe he doesn't know how to be honest. His characters are all surface. Not one of them ever actually feels human. And this isn't because the actors aren't trying to play the roles. I think they're doing fine jobs (except for Tobey Maguire, whose career I will never understand). Luhrmann introduces his characters in artificial, silly ways – the shot that introduces Gatsby is a slow-motion medium-shot of Leonardo DiCaprio raising a champagne glass while fireworks go off in the background. I was surprised that when he smiled a small glint of light didn't hit his teeth with a ting. It's a hilarious moment, and the audience with whom I saw the film all laughed.


The film simply can't be taken seriously. None of the characters has a bit of nuance. None of the settings ever feels anything other than computer generated. None of the morality makes any sense.

Side note on morality: Gatsby is somehow "better" than the Buchanans because he wasn't born rich, but instead worked to scheme his money by cheating the government or cheating working people or whomever he cheated? That is absurd.
I am in love with Gatsby's sweater. And that's it.

Still, Gatsby wears nice suits. 
All of them do.  

I might say that Baz Luhrmann is himself a little bit like Tom and Daisy Buchanan. When someone's throwing a party, Luhrmann is enjoying himself. He feels right at home. He knows where to put the camera; he knows how to fill the screen; he knows which music will fit perfectly with what's going on. As soon as things get even slightly more serious, however, Luhrmann becomes that awkward person who has stayed at the party too long, begging the host – who long ago asked his guests to leave – to tell him a story that will only bring down the mood.

18 May 2013

Souter and Pasties

Yesterday I went to a talk by Martha Nussbaum about religious intolerance in France and the United States. It was a nice talk, but mostly preaching to the converted about the logics and rationales for religious intolerance and how stupid they are – her particular target was the banning of the burqa in France.

And then at one point she was talking (quite hilariously) about a case in which a strip club was decided by the Supreme Court of the U.S. to contribute to violence in some area of the country because of nude women or some such business. As it happens, Justice David Souter was the only one to have made this connection in a concurring opinion for the Court.

And Nussbaum said something like "I am not sure what the difference between pasties and a g-string and full nudity really is in terms of incitement to violence. And I am not sure if Justice Souter really is the most qualified person to make that judgment."

I thought it was funny. A gay in-joke. But, actually, the whole room laughed. Are there really that many people in on the joke? Is Souter's possible homosexuality enough of a talking point that everyone in the room knew what she meant? Or did I read something into the comment that I wasn't supposed to read?

The whole thing, frankly, confused me. Especially because I was apparently laughing a little too loudly – a young woman turned around to see who was laughing behind her.

16 May 2013

Killer Joe

I just have to tell you how bad this is!

Killer Joe has been sitting on my shelf for months. a couple months ago I had 35 films that I still wanted to see from 2012 and Killer Joe has always been one of them. My friend Justin told me this movie was terrible, but I insisted on seeing it. This is the great Matthew McConaughey season, we are told (with KJ, Magic Mike, and The Paperboy this year and The Lincoln Lawyer last year). I am inclined to agree. McConaughey's doing different and better projects than his standard rom-com fare. His performances are getting better, and he's getting more interesting to watch. But either Killer Joe is a hiccup in a winning streak, or we're only seeing something we want to see... that really isn't there.

The other pro, on the face of it, for Killer Joe is that it was written by Tracy Letts. I loved the original play of Killer Joe when it came out. It was part of the earliest strand of the 1990s New Brutalist movement in Britain. They loved KJ in the UK, though it didn't gain many fans in the US. Letts would have to wait until Bug came out to really take off. But I always thought it was good; I have always been a fan of the New Brutalists – Kane, Ravenhill, Butterworth: that's my stuff.

And that's fine and all. As a play. But William Friedkin's Killer Joe purports to be a movie. I'm here to tell you it isn't one, and the main trouble with this is Letts's screenplay. He hasn't cut down his dialogue even a bit, and the film is just one, long, talky scene after another. And another. The film starts with Emile Hirsch convincing his father (Thomas Haden Church) to hire someone to murder their mother, and the conversation between them goes on for about 7 or 8 minutes. This is fine for a play, really, especially if someone is going to be naked in the next minute or shoot someone in the stomach or fellate a chicken leg right in front of us. But these things are only shocking or strange in a play. In a movie... one has the feeling one has seen all of this before. I was bored out of my mind.

Killer Joe was strange and cool on stage in the early 90s before YouTube. Nowadays, we begin our days looking at video footage of hick Texans doing stupid things.

Friedkin's film has all sorts of other problems – does it like its characters? are we supposed to identify with their moral quandaries? are these people still talking? – but central to these problems is also the fact that McConaughey is just too likable and good-looking to play Joe in the first place. He's never really the scary, unpredictable force that he needed to be to make the play work. (Scott Glenn played Joe in the original New York production.) The film already doesn't work, but the unbridled, insensitive chaos at the center of what worked about the play, is completely lost in the film adaptation.

And let me predict for a moment before we all get too crazy: everyone should probably calm down about Letts's upcoming August: Osage County. If Friedkin couldn't get Bug or Killer Joe to work onscreen, why is it that everyone is thinking John Wells (who? he's directed one film) will get the Sam Shepard/Eugene O'Neill-inspired behemoth of August to work. With Letts once again penning the screenplay, this seems to me more and more unlikely.

08 May 2013

The Warm Embrace of the Spanish Main

I love watching movies and noticing strange homoerotic activity. Last night I watched the Frank Borzage Technicolor pirate drama The Spanish Main. It's a beautifully shot film – the "glorious Technicolor" is sort of amazing – but the only print available is via the Warner Archive and the colors fluctuate and are not quite at the level they might be were it to be restored.

Also... the movie stars Paul Henreid as a powerful swashbuckler and he doesn't quite do it for me in this role. Truth be told, he would do a couple other pirate movies after The Spanish Main, including one in which he played Jean Lafitte, the American pirate/hero. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Paul Henreid as an actor, I just don't really buy him as a dangerous pirate. He spends most of the movie grinning broadly, so I guess that isn't so bad.

And Maureen O'Hara is fine, too, (and gorgeous, obviously) but she's playing the daughter of the viceroy of México, and she doesn't look a bit Spanish and speaks in a proper mid-Atlantic accent. Walter Slezak plays some kind of petty Spanish despot and is delightful and funny (and I even sort of bought him as a Spaniard). There is also a lesbian pirate played by British actress Binnie Barnes who is sort of in love with Paul Henreid (but whom we are clearly supposed to read as queer-identified).

The thing that struck me the most about The Spanish Main, though, were two parallel scenes in the film's first hour. In the first one, Walter Slezak is being fitted for an outfit for his wedding (he is supposed to marry Maureen O'Hara) and so he is talking to one of his ministers while the effeminate haberdasher (played by Bobby Barber) measures the portly man for his suit of clothes. This happens:

Immediately after this, Slezak looks down and says to the little man: You are to fit me, not fondle me.

It's a very strange no-homo moment in this movie.

But then a couple of scenes later, after Paul Henreid has been whipped aboard a ship (we don't see any of this whipping, obviously, since it is 1945), two of his friends go to rescue him and this happens:

Aside from the fact that Paul Henreid is shirtless and so the scene is even weirder, no one thinks to comment on the odd position that Henreid's friend (Curt Bois) is in as he unties him. Henreid doesn't have no-homo moment. He just goes with it.

And then...

...the cinematographer just zooms right in. Look at Curt Bois's face! This whole situation is hilarious to me.

And it shouldn't surprise us that movies like this from the 1940s and '50s alternately embrace and disavow homoeroticism in various ways. The Spanish Main's relationship with homoeroticism (including the conversations between the two women) is incredibly complex.

As you know, I am always on the lookout for such things, and somehow it turns out that I usually find something.

06 May 2013

Viewing Habits of Late

The movies I've been watching lately have been a little nuts, I freely admit. One of the reasons I've slowed down my rate of posting on the blog is because for the most part I am watching older movies, films I assume none of the people who read my blog really wants to know about.

The reason for this weird new set of viewing habits is the Dartmouth library. I'm leaving Hanover in less than a month, so while I have access to the extraordinary library at Dartmouth, I thought I would watch as many of the rare films that they have as I can. I have chosen alternatively classic Hollywood fare and foreign pictures from the second half of the twentieth century. Many of these have been very interesting movies, at least to me, and so I thought I'd share some of them in a miniature report.

Nils Gaup's Ofelaš (which was released in the U.S. in 1989) is a bit of a Norwegian anthropological study. Evil villains hunting down peaceful families who are just trying to make their way in the wild snows of Norway. There were a series of these sorts of movies around this time if I recall correctly: movies that aren't documentaries but aim to record more primitive or traditional ways of life through narrative cinema rather than historical information. The filmmaking for Ofelaš is rather awful – so many closeups! – but the impulse is a sweet one, and this same impulse would give us Nikita Mikhalkov's superb Close to Eden in 1991, so I can't fault the impulse too much. If you want to watch something like this: the way of life of a people far removed from your own urban or suburban existence, rent Close to Eden.

And I finally got to see Kinugasa Teinosuke's Gate of Hell, which I've wanted to see for ages. I watched it on an old VHS copy from the library, and then the next day I got an email from the Criterion Collection saying they've released it on Blu-ray. Watch it on Blu-ray if you can. Gate of Hell is all about color. It is a superb film about stubbornness and foolishness that is recorded in blazing technicolor from the early 1950s: an intriguing antidote to all of the samurai movies from this period. Not that I dislike samurai movies; I love them, actually, but this is a samurai movie about honor and affection that moves in a slightly different circle – by turns comic and tragic. Just excellent.

Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay's Revolt of Job is a Hungarian film from 1983 about a Jewish man and wife who know that they are going to be sent off to camps by the Germans during the genocide of European Jews in the late 1930s. They live in this little village in Hungary and are childless and so they adopt a little Gentile boy so that they will have someone to whom they can leave a legacy. This movie is very funny for most of its running time – the boy is unruly and violent and very, very silly, and the parents are patient and loving but blustery and gruff in their own way. But running through the entirety of Revolt of Job is the knowledge that the parents and their child will soon be separated and in a violent and horrible way and so tragedy looms over the movie and its inevitability colors all of the comedy of the first three quarters of its running time. I found this film deeply moving.

And this last week I rented two Soviet films from the early 1980s. War-time Romance, from director Pyotr Todorovsky is the story of a man who begins to have an affair with a woman whom he loved during the second World War. They are both much older now, but neither of them is very smart about what he or she is doing, and they even spend a good deal of time with the man's wife, who understands everything that is happening from the very beginning. War-time Romance is on DVD from a Russian company, and the film is subtitled in English. I don't speak Russian, and even though the English translation is so bad that it is almost unreadable, War-time Romance shines. It is a beautiful film about loss and loyalty and love. Todorovsky's affection for his characters is coupled with a cold view of their situations. You watch the lives of these characters unravel toward awkwardness and comedy but Todorovsky manages to keep a respectful tone to the movie so that one can't help but feel sorry for them even if they've made their own troubles. Lovely.

My other Soviet movie was even better: Yuli Raizman's Private Life, which Wikipedia calls a "little-seen" film. If this is true, it is the fault of distributors and not of filmmaking. Private Life is an excellent film. An older businessman gets fired from his (apparently very important) job as a higher-up in some government ministry. What he does for work is unimportant, because the film is about what happens when he doesn't have a job to go to. He wanders around his home, speaking to fully grown children he doesn't understand at all and a wife who neither loves him any longer nor is interested in anything he might have to say. He has dedicated his life to work, but has not spent any time investing in his private life. Now without work, he is totally at sea trying to navigate his life at home. This is not a comedy, though it has a couple of charmingly funny sequences. Instead, Raizman treats his characters with the utmost respect. Private Life is a kind of serious drama of the banal, where small decisions have large consequences and one is reminded to pay attention to life as it passes by. Raizman does not include any of our standard USAmerican platitudes about "living in the moment" or "carpe-ing the diem" or "finding the beauty in plastic bags" and such. Rather, this is a character study of a man whom we might think silly or whom we might dismiss as a blowhard, and Private Life watches this man deal with the loneliness and terror of life without work. It's excellent. And the film's ending is absolutely perfect.

I have another three weeks in Hanover, so we'll see what other strange little gems I can collect...

03 May 2013

Way to Make a Guy Feel Special

The time-honored traditions of ancient Roman comedy make their way back to the present.

What better way to make a theatre-history teacher feel good about himself?

This Is Forty

Is this really forty? Because I don't actually believe it.

If this is forty, no thanks.

Judd Apatow's latest movie has some really funny bits in it, but – and I mean this sincerely – why aren't there more of them? Instead of more bits, Apatow has included more sentiment: an extraordinary amount of sentiment, in fact.

This film is filled with deadbeat fathers who wheedle their sons out of money, with whining, awful children who just really, really need to see the last episode of Lost and hate all of their outfits.

And all of this would be fine, really, if there were just. more. funny. bits.

In truth, there are bits, they just aren't funny. The most baffling, I think, was a long-ish sequence about a painting by John Lennon and selling it on E-bay; it produces not one laugh and is completely extraneous to the plot. I thought it was headed somewhere, you know, like toward a joke later in the film, but no.

As it is, This Is 40 is funnier than Funny People, but, well, that isn't saying much, and This Is 40 is stuffed full of so much so-called morality that by the time the movie was over I was actually angry with it.

Did you know? You should never yell in front of your kids. And you should always tell your husband or wife the truth. And once you're married, you really should be married for life, because the institution of marriage is really special. Also, if you get pregnant, that means you're having a baby. No one ever thinks about ending a pregnancy, in case you're wondering. And, man, isn't music just great. Yeah, it's so great. Especially with that special someone. We should all have more of it in our lives. And wouldn't the world be so much better if we just hung out with our grandparents more? Totally. I love those guys. In fact, we would all just be so much happier, guys, if we didn't fight as much, and I know this logic is sort of circular, man, but just go with it.

There are other things to say. Paul Rudd is still really, really attractive. And Melissa McCarthy has two scenes, both of which she knocks out of the park. Her second scene is so good, that Apatow includes a 3-minute gag reel during the closing credits of McCarthy doing the same exact bit a second time while Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd laugh hysterically. It really is hilarious.

But these scenes are few and far between, and this is a 125-minute comedy that feels really long.

Mostly, I think I'm just sick of Judd Apatow's insistent moralizing. And his characters' moral points of view (none of which I think is any good) doesn't make any of them one bit happier. No thanks.