Saturday, August 29, 2009

Miyazaki's shimmering "Ponyo"/"Gake no Ue no Ponyo" - bliss made simple

Miyazaki's eponymous little heroine and Sōsuke conjur up simplified bliss in the mesmerizing "Ponyo"
Hayao Miyazaki's latest work, like Disney's "The Little Mermaid," is based on the Hans Christian Anderson fable of a sentient fish that wants to be fully human. The difference, of course, is that in "Ponyo" ("Gake no Ue no Ponyo"), Miyazaki's eccentric creativity is in top form. It is at once more over-the-top and yet more simple than Disney's "The Little Mermaid," although both employ the same, soothing pastel color palette.

There's a strong sense of serenity here, which is of course derived from the affecting Anderson story but also largely from Miyazaki's child-like hand-drawn animation. The story remains essentially the same: A willful little fish - named Brunhilda, but renamed Ponyo by Miyazaki's young hero, Sōsuke, who rescues it - is determined to remain landbound, even though the pull of the sea is great. Assimilation is never easy. It has to be earned. And one of the more humbling features of "Ponyo" is how hard its plucky little heroine works towards that goal.
(Ponyo's name, according to Wikipedia, is based on Miyazaki's idea of what a "soft, squishy softness" sounds like when touched.)

Some of Miyazaki's past films have been released here in both their original Japanese versions and their American-language adaptations. So far, only the John Lassiter-supervised version of "Ponyo" is available here, although it's difficult to quibble when the vocal talent is so extraordinary. Noah Lindsay Cyrus and Frankie Jonas enrich Miyazaki's visuals with their astute line readings as Ponyo and Sōsuke, respectively, but it's Tina Fey who anchors the film with her expressive turn as Sōsuke's working mom.

Of course, they are all inspired by Miyazaki who, apart from his inimitable visuals, makes excellent use of a series of quirky ambient sounds, as well as Joe Hisaishi's music - a major score that not only keeps the film always moving but often soaring.

If there's a soundtrack album from this movie, I want it. Now.

"Ponyo" is simply bliss made simple.

cinema obscura: François Girard's "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" (1993)

The compelling Boston-born, Canadian-based actor Colm Feore received a rare showcasing in his best role to date in "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" (1993), the inventively fragmented bio-documentary by François Girard about the famed piano prodigy. Girard's formidable accomplishment is that his film works as a mediation on the distance between the physical sensation of the man's art and the memory of him.

Gould was noted for his interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which consists of 32 short pieces of music. Inspired by this, Girard's wholly original film (co-written with actor-filmmaker Don McKellar) offers 32 impressions of Gould which range from interviews with people who knew him to short recreations of aspects of his life, plus some odds and ends. Unlike most biopics, this one doesn't aim to be definitive or conclusive, but leaves the viewer with a vague sense that there is no resolution. Which is exactly what makes it unique.

But Gould comes evasively to life in this ingenious, near-surreal take, thanks largely to Feore's shimmering, anchoring performance.

Lee's "Taking Woodstock" - no takers

The surprisingly tepid response from both the critics and public to Ang Lee's sauntering, most companionable "Taking Woodstock" probably has less to do with the movie itself than with the legendary event that it documents and celebrates in a shrewdly peripheral way - 1969's Woodstock Music & Art Fair, staged on a dairy farm and immodestly billed as "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music."

Certain people have become sick of hearing about it. So, you know, guilt by association.

Frankly, for a while now, I've had this hunch that people have had it up to here with any boomer milestone and, by extension, with most things that apply to the 1970s, movies included - and perhaps with good reason.

It's become an over-mythologized decade.

Perhaps Sam Adams put it best in his terse review of the 2003 documentary, "A Decade Under the Influcence" in Philadelphia's City Paper. "About as much fun, and as informative, as hearing your gramps reminisce about the good old days," Sam wrote of the doc that goes on and on about the wonderfulness of '70s flicks, spinning his new perspective.

Not everyone easily buys into the '70s hype - and the most revered Woodstock is one of the casulties of this mindset. But don't penalize Lee's new film. It's thick with sun and good cheer. Really.

Note in Passing: The cross-dressing role that star Liev Schreiber plays in "Taking Woodstock" brings the actor full circle. He also played a cross dresser in his very first feature, Nora Ephron's "Mixed Nuts" (1994).

Now you know.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

cinema obscura: Martin Rosen's "Watership Down" (1978)

Martin Rosen...

Whenever cinéastes invoke the word animation, the name Martin Rosen rarely comes up. You know the drill. Disney, of course. Chuck Jones. Hayao Miyazaki. Frank Tashlin. Ub Iwerks. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. The usual suspects. Never Martin Rosen. Who's he, anyway?

Rosen made only three films - one feature, "Stacking" (1987), and prior to that, two extraordinary animations, both based on books of serious animal advocacy by Richard Adams: "Watership Down" in 1978 and "The Plague Dogs" in 1982, a disturbing duet that is even less for children than Miyazaki's works. While Miyazaki films contain elements that might placate children, Rosen's animations sting without compromise.

The extraordinary "Watership Down" follows the journey of a band of rabbits, but we are a long way from Disney's Thumper. Little bunnies. Cute, yes. But in the world documented by Adams, matters are harsh. It's life-and-death as Fiver and Hazel, rabbit siblings, abandon their Sandleford warren to avoid destruction and death as envisioned by Fiver. Their destination: Watership Down. And while their journey is treacherous, "Watership Down" doesn't offer much surcease: Their new home is neighbored by a police state. No, not for children.

Rosen's film of "Watership Down," released by AVCO-Embassy, was a huge critical hit in its time, a distinction helped by the fact that Disney was at an all-time low. The public was accepting but less enthusiastic, not surprisingly.

"Watership Down," about small creatures trying to upset the natural balance in order to live in harmony with it, complements its mythical/realistic storyline with brilliantly colored, richly textured backgrounds and a treasure chest of characters. Rosen reached astonishing new heights here with the animation form.

Four years later, Rosen tried to recreate his success with his adaptation of another bracing Adams book, but "The Plague Dogs," an unapologetic downer about a pair of dogs that escape from an animal-experimentation center and are relentlessly hunted down, was even more grim and was barely released at all by AVCO-Embassy.

Anyone seen it?

Rosen's star vocal talent in both films was John Hurt (an appropriate name, considering the subject matters of this duo), and other notable British actors were also involved: Nigel Hawthorne, Patrick Stewart, Ralph Richardon, Joss Ackland, Denholm Elliott and Harry Andrews.

Serious stuff, indeed.

Note in Passing: Rosen produced Joyce Chopra's very dark "Smooth Talk" in 1985, and was a co-producer on Ken Russell's "Women in Love" (1969). He was also attached to a little-know Eric ("Hot Millions") Till film, 1968's "A Great Big Thing," starring Reni Santoni and Paul Sand.

Monday, August 24, 2009

they're he-e-r-e!

Since no one has bothered to mention it, I will.

It's become increasingly obvious that the Villains du Jour are Russians. I've lost count of the films in which Russians disrupt and destroy.

Perhaps the most bizarre use of Russian villainy is employed in Sophie Barthes' game but ultimately disappointing new indie film, "Cold Souls."

Paul Giamatti, every inch a good sport, plays a neurotic version of himself as an actor who resorts to "storing" his soul in order to conquer depression, uncertainty and overall insecurity and while in New York appearing in a downtown production of Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya."

Not surprisingly, the Russian underground appropriates Giamatti's soul (which is played by a chick pea!) and gives it to a Russian soap actress, the spoiled wife of the main soul-snatching thug.

She's under the impression that she has Al Pacino's soul - so she's atypically happy, behaving in a larky, decidely non-Russian way.

Like most indie films these days, this one sounds better on paper than it is in performance. But the evil Russians are boffo as usual.

My advice: Just say "Nyet!"

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds"

Formidable character, formidable actor: Christoph Waltz as the disturbingly alluring Nazi in Quentin Tarantino's masterful "Inglourious Basterds"
Perhaps the movie critics who are losing their jobs right and left these days are no great loss. Harsh? Perhaps. But has there ever been a time when reviewers seemed so hopelessly hamhanded?

A case in point: The seemingly willful clueless response to Quentin Tarantino's vigorously accomplished "Inglourious Basterds." For some bizarre reason, Tarantino's film has been put under a miscroscope (as no other recent film has) by a handful of critics, so busy nitpicking about trivia that they've literally missed the larger picture. A good picture.

The carping has reached such a ridiculous pitch the usually even-keeled Dave Kehr felt compelled to challenge one of the Tarantino-bashers on his popular movie site: "I don’t think Tarantino puts any of his critical faculties aside when he’s assembling one of his elegantly convoluted narratives. He’s a master orchestrator of audience expectations — of knowing when to fulfill them and when to frustrate them."

Elegant is certainly the operative word for "Basterds" which opens with a stunning sequence in which the director takes his time and lets his actors involve us in a long, contentious conversation and the feeling of dread that it naturally reflects. His sumptuous use of music, Robert Richardson's handsome cinematography and an ensemble cast which produces no missteps hardly prepare us for Tarantino's one inarugable triumph here - the crucial casting of a commanding actor named Christoph Waltz whose Nazi character mesmerizes as much as he taunts and frightens.

This is a real movie. Those few critics don't know what they're missing.

Their loss.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

façade: Thomas Jane

Thomas Jane, the definition of a Late Bloomer, is channeling William Holden, circa 1955, in HBO's "Hung"
It's rather remarkable to think that Thomas Jane has been making films for about 25 years now but in the past few months has become something of an overnight sensation as the hapless hero of "Hung," HBO's latest (and very good) envelope-pushing series.

The show's title is terse, to the point and wildly accurate.

For some reason, stardom has eluded Jane. He's appeared in good films (Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line") and bad films (Roger Kumble's "The Sweetest Thing" and John Duigan's "Molly"), but no one paid much attention.

His best shot seemed to be Renny Harlin's wonderfully absurd action film, 1999's "Deep Blue Sea," which may have been about a medical team inexplicably fighting off sharks but also boasted the eclectic cast of Saffron Burrows, LL Cool J, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Aida Turturro and ... Jane. I loved it. But it wasn't meant to be.

Ten years late, Jane is now proving his mettle as Ray Drecker, high-school coach and accidental stud, and watching Jane tear into the role brings to mind a young William Holden. In fact, Jane seems to be channeling Holden's Hal Carter character from Josh Logan's "Picnic" here, as he engages in fake bravado and pathetic strutting, while failing to conceal a deep-seated insecurity. And he's abetted by the very fine Jane Adams and Anne Heche. (Adams' appearance is a hoot: She looks like a Roz Chast creation.) Anyway, Jane's turns in a subtle, quietly complex performance, week in and week out. Perhaps, it's a new beginning.

Jane has just finished directing his first feature, "Dark Country," and his leading man is a hot one - you guess it! - Thomas Jane.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

dual-system 3-D! Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate"

Thanks to 3-D, Ann put the Miller in MGM's
"Kiss Me, Kate," based on the Cole Porter stage musical
San Fancisco's Castro Theatre - one of the last great movie havens for buffs in this country - has provided me with more than one unforgettable movie moment, the most memorable of which was a packed-theater screening of the 1996 restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Nothing touches it.

But coming close were a pair of '50s 3-D films, shown in the dual system, that my wife and I caught there just before we left the West Coast - Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" (1954) and George Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate" (1953). It was fascinating to see how Hitch's use of 3-D brought out the claustrophobia of his boxy sets in "Murder" and how Sidney and company used the medium to sock across the musical numbers in "Kate," making them more vital that usual. Yes, memorable.

Well, ten years later, The Castro is screening both "Murder" and "Kate" again, along with Andre De Toth's "House of Wax" (1953) and John Brahm's "The Mad Magician" (also '53), for showings set for Friday, 14 August - Tuesday, 18 August ("House" on 14 & 15 August, "Murder" on 16 August, "Kate on 17 August, and "Magician" on 18 August).

If I was going to travel 3,000 miles back there for one title, it would be "Kiss Me, Kate," which for me is the best movie that Sidney, a real hit-or-miss director, ever made. He (and Ann-Margret) loused up "Bye, Bye Birdie," which inexplicably was a huge hit, but he did masterly work on the underrated and forgotten "Half a Sixpence." Sidney also helmed "An Evening with Frank Sinatra" - or, rather, "Pal Joey."

Unlike most MGM adapations of stage musicals, Sidney's "Kiss Me, Kate" wasn't truncated the way, say, "On the Town" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" were by the studio. Perhaps Metro had to too high a regard for Cole Porter to mess around with it. Porter's grand score is just about intact, and the choreography by Hermes Pan (with an uncredited assist from Bob Fosse, one of the costars in the film) makes sure that the twirling dancers seem to be kicking their way off the screen. Ann Miller is even more Ann Miller in 3-D, if you know what I mean.

The cast includes Kathryn Grayson (in her best film role); Howard Keel (always an unusually masculine presence in musicals); good sports Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, and the talented dancers Jeanne Coyne, Carol Haney, Tommy Rall, Bobby Van and Fosse.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

empty cans

I love Joe and Mika, I really do, but for my sanity, I had to end the ... relationship
It didn't take long at all. I went cold turkey. I woke up one morning and just decided that I couldn't take MSNBC anymore.

I had become addicted during the Primary, see, and started the new year devoting just about every waking hour to watching Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski (my favorite!) and Willie Geist; David Shuster and Tamron Hall; Norah O'Donnell; Ed Schultz; Erin Burnett; Chris Matthews; Mike Barnicle; Dylan Rattigan; Lawrence O'Donnell; Keith Olberman, and Rachel Maddow. I sat there and watched them talk and talk and talk.

Actually, they don't talk. They repeat. Ad infinitum.

I'm a die-hard Democrat and MSNBC is largely liberal and I liked what everyone had to say. At first. Then, I noticed something: While I liked what they had to say, I didn't exactly like the way they often said it.

I stopped watching Olberman first. His willful immaturity, supposedly a liberal antidote to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, became annoying and then embarrassing. He seemed to enjoy lowering himself to their dubious level and apparently was becoming quite popular and wealthy doing so.

Next to go was Rachel Maddow. Her smug snarkiness started to grate - that and the weird faces she makes. Her intelligence is obvious but, after a while, she seemed only a smidgen more mature than Keith.

Talking heads. Heads? Hardly. I can think of another word to use.

Chris Matthews was fun - for a while. But once it became apparent that he loves the sound of his own voice, to the point of often not letting his guests get in a single word, I found myself yelling at the TV screen.

"Shut up, Chris!"

I was becoming grouchy and weird, so I tuned out.

That left Joe Scarborough, who probably has the best (and certainly the most entertaining) news show on the air. Joe's a conservative, but a reasonable one. He is atypically civil for a Republican and not at all mean-spirited. But, then, when you least expect it, he ... turns. Scary.

The last time I watched, the good Joe had unexpectedly left the room and the bad Joe had taken over completely. It made me nervous and upset.

It ruined the day for me. So I stopped watching. Altogether.

I'm happier now.

Ephron's "Julie & Julia" - the foodie bores

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Nora Ephron's beloved "Julie & Julia": Is this PBS or "I Love Lucy"?
There's this scene in "Julie & Julia."

"Isn't she adorable?," the immobilized Julie Powell (Amy Adams) asks her husband (Chris Messina) while watching an antique black-&-white PBS episode of Julia Child (Meryl Streep) cooking on-air and goofing off.

Huh? There are a lot of words to describe Julia Child, but "adorable" - writer-director Nora Ephron's word of choice - isn't the one that comes immediately to mind. "Strange" would fit. "Curious" is another politcally-correct way to put it. Ephron has been on talk shows of late to hype her movie and to advance the propaganda that Julia Child "changed things" (largely through her inordinant use of butter). But the fact is, she became a cooking pehnomenom not because she was a great cook but because she was good television. She was a "character" in every sense of the word. Strange. Curious. Graham Kerr was another cooking oddity of the era (circa the 1970s). He was also good television, and I'm confident that there were a lot of much better chefs who resented all the fawning attention that these two "characters" commanded and received. (Susan Boyle, who actually kind of resembles Child, is the latest example of this craze, only she makes beautiful music, instead of beautiful food.)

But no one fawns like Ephron, a self-proclaimed foodie if not a very good film writer or director. (She is, however, a great writer of short stories.) Her film, which has been receiving knee-jerk love letters from critics, is facile, slapdash and terribly repetitive. Once the conceit is introduced - a dual-biopic of Child and Powell, the young woman inspired and shaped by Child, and the ever-so-slight parallel of their lives - it is repeated over and over again ad nauseum. The first 20 minutes or so of "Julia & Julia" are brisk and breezy, but then tedium sets in and it becomes tiresome.

To call it episodic would be high praise. Ephron's pacing of her material makes it feel like a season's worth of memorable moments from a popular sitcom that have been edited down and strung together. This is most glaring in the extended sequence that recounts Julia Child dealing with sexism at Le Cordon Bleu and promptly showing up all the men there. It's like something out of an old "I Love Lucy" episode. (Remember the one set on the chocolate-candy assembly line? That's it.)

Serious bits are infrequently tossed in as if Ephron were seasoning a stew with extra salt. We learn that Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), Julia's husband, was brought up before Senator Joe McCarthy on unAmerican activities, but all the panel asks him is if he's a homosexual. Then, it's dropped. Later, when she learns that her sister Dorothy (the invaluable Jane Lynch) is pregnant, the heretofore doltish Julia breaks down in Paul's arms sobbing, implying that she could never have children of her own.

But wait!

The film makes it clear that Julia Child was a virgin until she was 40 and married late in life. And the movie also makes a big deal about Julia and Paul's active sex life (supposedly, intercourse every day after lunch - yeah, right), but what we see on screen makes us wonder if their relationship was really just a marriage of convenience. Hmmm...

Julie, meanwhile, works - unhappily - for a bureaucratic goverment office set up after 9/11 to deal with inquiries and complaints. She's too good for this job, see, even though she's the only empathetic one in her office. Again, more padding. For good measure, Ephron tosses in a couple gratuitous jokes against the Republicans and they are so low that they even bothered me, and I'm a diehard liberal Democrat.

As for the performances, Streep has, predictably, received most of the acclaim - nay, make that all of it - but Adams is actually better, simply by virtue of the fact that she (1) struggles with lesser material and (2) is playing a genuine human being.

Streep resorts to a shameless impersonation. The ham in this film isn't on the table. It's a naked parody, but it's not completely Streep's fault: Julia Child was a caricature who doesn't inspired much, if any, subtlety.

Still, Ephron does her star a hugh disservice by including Dan Aykroyd's own impersonation of Child from one of his old "Saturday Night Live" sketches (above), which is every bit as good as what Streep is doing.

He might even be somewhat ... better. Blasphemy!

"Julie & Julia" is a companionable film, easy to watch, but it's also a missed opportunity, its supporters too love-struck to notice.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Chuck Lorre's Hawksian "The Big Bang Theory"

Barbara Stanwyck and her nerdy professors in Howard Hawks' irresistible "Ball of Fire" (1942)
On the surface, Chuck Lorre's darling of a sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," would appear to be the heir apparant to Paul Feig's "Freaks and Geeks," the short-lived 1999 sitcom on which Judd Apatow famously worked as a writer. But, actually, Lorre's show comes from a much-sturdier pedigree.

Consider it an updated take on Howard Hawks' eminently playful 1942 comedy, "Ball of Fire" (from an original screenplay credited to Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who borrowed from the "Snow White and Seven Dwarfs" fable), which offerd up a brassy Barbara Stanwyck as Sugarpuss O'Shea, a burlesque dancer who falls in with eight bookish professors assembling a dictionary of slang. (One of them is Gary Cooper, younger and more attractive, but no less proper and nerdy; the other seven are played by studio stalwarts Richard Haydn, O.Z. Whitehead, S.Z. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Oscar Homolka, Leonid Kinskey and Aubrey Mather.)

"The Big Bang Theory" casts the talented comedienne Kaley Cuoco (formerly of "8 Simple Rules... for Dating My Teenage Daughter") as Penny, a starving actress/waitress whose walk-up apartment is across from one shared by two brilliant but socially retarded physicists, played by Jim Parsons (an Emmy nominee this year) and Johnny Galecki. (There are two more endearing nerds on hand - Simon Helberg, hilarious as a would-be Jewish womanizer, and Kunal Nayyar, plus Sara Gilbert as an acidic colleague; alas, there is no Gary Cooper equivalent here.)

Both shows, each brilliantly written, are about game women tying to get uptight men to loosen up, and "The Big Bang Theory" is every bit as literate, sophisticated and genuinely funny as "Ball of Fire." Luckily, it has found more success than "Freaks and Geeks": "The Big Bang Theory," aired every Monday at 9:30 p.m. (est) on CBS, is now in its third season.
Kaley Cuoco and her nerdy professors in Chuck Lorre's irresistible "The Big Bang Theory" (2009)

Saturday, August 01, 2009

cinema obscura: Tashlin Times Two

Leslie Parrish (right) toasts Tom Ewell and Sheree North in Frank Tashlin's elusive "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts," airing on the Fox Channel this month
The incomparable Frank Tashlin (1913-1972) began his professional life as a cartoonist/animator and when he branched out and started working with humans, he animated them, too. Hilariously so. And he brought a cartoonish quality to the one subject that connects most of his films.


It was the 1950s and the Playboy philosophy was just beginning its reign of terror - and Tashlin's wide-screen comedies exposed the era's accepted penchant for leering (the filmmaker essentially fetishized it) for what it was. Junevile and unattractive and funny as hell.

The Fox Movie Channel unearths two of Tashlin's forgotten treasures this month, starting with two screenings of 1956's "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" scheduled for 14 August at 9:30a.m. and 30 August at 9:30 a.m. Tom Ewell plays his patented creepy middle-aged, middle-class wolf inexplicably married to a military babe - the wonderful Sheree North - and much of the film is about his relentless ploys to get her discharged. The film is as unstable as its noxious hero, wildly incorrect and guiltily pleasurable in spite of itself.

Tuesday and Terry, together at last, in Tashlin's antic "Bachelor Flat," also on Fox this month
Fox also dusts off Tashlin's 1962 farce, "Bachelor Flat," for two screenings this month - 17 August at 2 p.m. (preceded at noon by Tashlin's "The Girl Can't Help It") and 29 August at 6 a.m. Terry-Thomas is in prime form here as displaced Britisher, a professorial paleontologist who teaches in in alien Southern California and who is wildly attractive to women - an inadvertent ladies men whose life comes to consist of colliding females.

Tashlin's here also cast includes Celeste Holm (as T-T's fiancée), and Tuesday Weld and Richard Beymer who had starrred two years earlier for Blake Edwards in another breezy Fox comedy, "High Time" (1960), all in the above photo/left.

And speaking of Tashlin, too few of his breezy comedies from the the 1950s and early '60s have made it to home entertainment in any form. Sure, it's relatively easy to see his two Jayne Mansfield flicks, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" and "The Girl Can't Help It," and "Artists and Models" (1955), with Martin and Lewis and Shirley MacLaine. But what about the many others? Aside from "The Lieutenant Wore Skirts" and "Bachelor Flat," also missing are "Susan Slept Here" (1954) with Dick Powell and Debbie Reynolds; "Say One for Me" (1959), again with Debbie Reynolds, this time with Bing Crosby and Robert Wagner, and "The Man from the Diner's Club" (1963) with Danny Kaye and Cara Williams.

Release them, I say!