Cures for the workin' man's blues
Monday, October 31, 2005
Cures for the workin' man's blues
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Reel Fanatic: "A History of Violence" and the fear factor
Canadian director David Cronenberg doesn't directly ask any questions in "A History of Violence," but he leaves the audience with many as the closing credits roll. And that's exactly as it should be.
In it he gives us what seems to be the ideal American family, Midwestern diner owner Tom Stall and his beautiful wife and two seemingly perfect children. As Stall, Viggo Mortensen tells us early on that he is "the luckiest son of a bitch in the world," and since he says it after a scene of pure sexuality with the radiant Maria Bello, it's almost impossible to disagree with him.
But as briskly as Cronenberg introduces our protagonists, he brings their world crashing down around them even faster.
Stall becomes a local hero after he thwarts an attempted robbery of his restaurant with surprising precision, killing the assailants. Among the unwanted visitors this brings on is a one-eyed Ed Harris, who claims to have known Stall in his former life as a Philadelphia mobster. It's a Rashomonic quandary: Who do you believe?
Though I've enjoyed almost all of Cronenberg's many films, his last two have been his best.
After years of reeking brutality writ large on the screen in films like the chilling "Dead Ringers" and the simply disturbing "Crash," 2002's "Spider" marked a definite turning point in which Cronenberg began focusing on the consequences as much as the horrific acts themselves. In that flick, Ralph Fiennes delivers his finest performance among many as a mentally disturbed man who finally confronts the moment in his childhood that drove him to madness.
Likewise in "Violence," it's the moments before and after the violent acts that matter most. In many ways its a simple story, taken from a graphic novel by John Wagner andVince Locke, and we find out the truth about Stall fairly early on. It's the fallout that really hits home, burned into our brains by two of the best performances you'll see on the big screen this year.
As Stall, Viggo Mortensen is on a consistent slow burn, never tipping his hand until he has to about who he really is. Bello is even better. We believe every moment as everything she believes in is ripped from her by fear and distrust, and its often painful and uncomfortable to watch.
An aside: As violence envelops Tom Stall, his son learns to mimic what he sees around him, leading to two intense moments you won't soon forget. As these unfolded on screen, the woman behind me felt the need to yell very loudly, not exactly a "yee-haw," but definitely a joyful noise. Though she was clearly a part of the audience Cronenberg was trying to reach, she completely missed all of the points he made.
Demko's DVD shelf
Let's make this week a tribute to the great nation of Canada. It's often easy to forget they've given us so much more than Bryan Adams.
How I wish I could have gone to "Degrassi Junior High." This Canadian series came out in the early '80s and ran for three years, plus an additional two as "Degrassi High," on PBS in this country. It was a welcome companion to its American counterpart, the sublimely silly "Saved By the Bell."
Though "Degrassi" was as heavy on the melodrama as the sudsiest of soap operas and the kids seemed to confront a different after-school special issue each week, it was also very real and very funny, a predecessor to the sorely missed "Freaks and Geeks" (www.freaksandgeeks.com).
You can now revisit these cool kids all over again as "Degrassi Junior High: The Complete Collection," hits DVD this week. You can buy it at www.publicvideostore.org while supporting public television at the same time.
Monday, October 17, 2005
"Elizabethtown" is one
long, painful road trip
I'm virtually certain that if I ever met Cameron Crowe, I would like him a lot. Actually, after seeing intimate films like "Say Anything" and the nearly perfect "Almost Famous," I kind of feel like I already know him.
But as it is with every friend, there comes the painful, awkward moment when you have to tell them that something they've clearly worked very hard on, and poured their heart into, simply isn't any good. So, it truly pains me to say that "Elizabethtown" is simply awful.
The flaws are too many to list, but I'll do my best. The primary problem is that our lead characters, played by Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst, are vacuous, annoying people. The kind you would run into a burning building to get away from.
Sure, they look good. I would probably enjoy watching Dunst eat a peanut butter sandwich, and the ladies obviously love Bloom. That Crowe made them so loathsome is somewhat of an accomplishment, though not one to be lauded.
The story is a familiar one, most of it, in fact, ripped from Crowe's previous movies. At the onset, in pure "Jerry Maguire" fashion, we see Bloom's Drew Baylor finding out he is responsible for costing his shoe company $1 billion, and ready to kill himself. This is all spilt out so fast that you have no time to decide if the world would miss him.
From there he has to go back to the title town in Kentucky because his father has died. We meet the supposedly colorful characters from this stock Southern brood so fast that I couldn't tell you one of their names. It was, however, nice to see Loudon Wainwright III again as an uncle.
I guess Dunst's Claire, a stewardess he meets on the trip down there, is meant to be some kind of angel. Why she cares about him except, of course, that he looks like Orlando Bloom, is never explained.As these two "connect" in an all-night cell-phone encounter, you'll want to claw your eyes out just to feel something real. Bloom looks vaguely disinterested throughout, a kind of vacant gaze that, I guess, should show he is in pain. I know I was.
During Drew's Southern adventure, you'll see scenes that appear to be ripped straight out of "Almost Famous." The wedding party in Drew's hotel tries in vain to re-create the electricity that was found in the hedonism of those rock 'n' rollers in "Famous," and you'll just cringe as Susan Sarandon, as Drew's mother, does Kate Hudson's forlorn solo dance from "Famous," this time as a supposedly cathartic act at her husband's funeral. It's unwatchable.
There are moments of pure joy among the ruins of "Elizabethtown," reminders that Crowe was, and surely will be again, a great writer and director. You'll laugh out loud when you see the words KISS forever in the oddest place, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute at the funeral is priceless.
I've heard that Crowe made about 20 minutes of cuts after "Elizabethtown" got a harsh reception at the Toronto Film Festival. He didn't go nearly far enough. The last 20 minutes of the final cut, Drew's meaningless road trip through the American South, could also have been chopped off and would have been an improvement.
Please, Mr. Crowe, don't take this the wrong way. As we're reminded more than once in voice-overs in "Elizabethtown," "there is a difference between a failure and a fiasco." Well, you've made your fiasco, and there's nowhere to go but up.
Sunday, October 09, 2005
Wallace & Gromit & laughs galore
When I was in college, a good friend told me she would no longer accept my opinions about movies because, as she put it, I like everything.
While that wasn't true then and is less true now, as Richard Nixon put it best when talking about art, "I know what I like."
I've reached the point in my life when I can tell in advance when I won't like a movie, and am therefore surprised when it happens. I tell you all this as a qualifier before delivering this unconditional love letter to the creators of "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit." Accept it for what you will.
Although I had never heard of Nick Park, and certainly not Aardman Animation, I remember seeing in 1992 a series of claymation commercials for British Electric featuring cute sheep, chickens and other creatures talking about how much they enjoyed electric heating. They had the same sly wit that Park has perfected in his signature characters: British batchelor Wallace and his silent canine companion Gromit.
If you've never heard of them, don't let that stop you. They're instantly accessible characters, and in "Were-Rabbit," the laughs fly fast and furious.
In their first feature-length flick, the duo have a pest-control company called, of course, Anti-Pesto. Just in time for the town's annual giant vegetable contest a terrible beast called the Were-Rabbit starts ravaging all the gardens, and our heroes have to stop it.
The true joy in watching it unfold, along with the great animation, is the voice work of Peter Sallis as Wallace. He makes noises you'll hear no other human being make to bring to life Wallace's many eccentricities. Ralph Fiennes and Helena Bonham Carter also clearly had fun as, respectively, Wallace's nemesis, Victor Quartermaine, and the noble but ditzy Campanula Tottington.
And the jokes. I thought they might go over the heads of younger viewers, but I found them laughing louder than me at exchanges like this:
Quartermaine (after his hairpiece has been sucked up in the bunvacc: I want my ... toupee.
Wallace: Oh, yes, of course. We take checks or cash.
Quartermaine: No, you idiot. My hair is in there.
Wallace: Oh, no, only rabbits in there. I think you'll find the hare is a much larger creature.
A G-rated flick for moviegoers of all ages? I'm just crackers for it.
"The Gospel" makes a lot of joyful noise
The late Steve Goodman once said the song "I'll Fly Away" proves you don't have to know much about Jesus to enjoy spirituals. In the same vain, I ask: Do you have to be black to enjoy gospel movies? No, but it probably helps.
Rob Hardy's "The Gospel" has been released into theaters, rather than straight to DVD, thanks to the trailblazing work of Tyler Perry. After Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" made $22 million in its opening weekend and more than $50 million at the box office, Hollywood executives realized it's not really about black and white, it's about green. And there's much of it to be made in this welcome new genre.
"The Gospel" tells a simple and familiar tale, basically that of the prodigal son, in this case Boris Kodjoe, who returns to his childhood church after his father, the pastor, becomes ill. It features solid performances, in particular from Idris Elba and Donnie McClurkin as rival pastors who square off over the church's future. The story, though it drags at a few points, is told soap opera-style: Short scenes that mostly move at a brisk pace.
What really makes "The Gospel" sing, if I can put it that way, is the music. About half the movie is gospel singing by great choirs, most of it arranged by Kirk Franklin, culminating in the inevitable revival featuring gospel greats like Yolanda Adams and Martha Munizzi. The scenes are electric. (One quibble: Why put McClurkin in a musical movie and not let him sing?)
Filming scenes with large groups of people is difficult to pull off. For examples that work perfectly, check out the end of Robert Altman's "Nashville" or the beginnings of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" parts one and two. Hardy himself succeeds in bringing to life the world of black churchgoers in the spirit, and you will feel in the moment.
As I left the theater, my dark side couldn't help wondering if Tyler Perry ever had to sit in a room full of Hollywood executives and tell them that black people are much more than the pimps, pushers and thieves we usually find in movies. One thing I do know is he won't have to again.
Demko's DVD shelf
If it weren't for sports, I could probably get rid of my cable TV and get along just fine. It's not that I don't like some of what the networks offer us, it's just that I much prefer watching the shows on DVD, so I can watch them in order, or if I'm feeling particulary couch-potatoish, in a marathon viewing session.
This week is a bonanza for TV on DVD: three of my favorite shows.
For topical humor that spares no targets, you still can't get much better than "South Park." Though the show has lost some of its edge over the years, the sixth season, out this week, features the pitch-perfect parody of "Lord of the Rings" in which our little foul-mouthed friends go on a mission to return the one video.
I'll also be Netflixing the second season of "Arrested Development," which is somehow still on the air on Fox. If you watch it, you know why it's great, and if you don't, I probably can't convert you.
Finally there's the first season of "Veronica Mars." Veronica, a sort-of teenage private eye played byKristen Bell, is the rightful successor to Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but without the superpowers. It's not too late to catch up on the running mystery and jump on board for season two, now unfolding on UPN.
Friday, October 07, 2005
Reel Fanatic: 'Serenity' is old
fashioned sci-fi done just right
Fall is the best time of year for film buffs.
After the bombast of summer - and this one was particularly atrocious - you get to see not only the movies that are being dangled as Oscar bait, but also those that were too tricky to market in the crowded summer.
One of those little gems is Joss Whedon's "Serenity," the unlikely successor to "Firefly," Whedon's space Western that only lasted 15 shows on Fox. The movie, theme and storywise, lifts huge chunks from the original "Star Wars," but this is more a valentine than a ripoff job.
Its likeness to "Star Wars" is, in fact, much of Whedon's point in making "Serenity," I think. It shows us how great sci-fi movies used to be, something George Lucas himself forgot about the time he came up with those wretched little ewoks in "Return of the Jedi."
The story of "Serenity" is that of Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the ragtag band (not ragtime band, as the kind folks at www.whedonesque.com pointed out to me) of petty thieves that make up his crew on the spaceship Serenity. Fillion is Harrison Ford down to every facial gesture, and boy have we missed him.
Also aboard the Serenity is a seer with a secret, a freaky psychic named River Tam played by newcomer Summer Glau, who is exactly Whedon's type for a heroine. Like Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the famous vampire slayer, she's a waif-thin powder keg about to blow, and Glau is definitely a star on the rise.
What River knows could bring down the all-powerful force that controls the universe - in this case the Alliance - that is requisite for any sci-fi adventure. To take her out, the Alliance dispatches an assassin known as the Operative played with chilling precision by Chiwetel Eijofor, the English actor who co-starred with Audrey Tautou in Stephen Frears' criminally under-seen thriller "Dirty Pretty Things."
To reveal more about what River knows or where the movie goes from there would ruin it for everybody, but trust me, as the Serenity crew flees from the Operative and works to reveal its dangerous secret, you'll love the ride.
Two things set Whedon's work apart from the other fluff filling up our movie screens: great dialogue and a finale that really delivers.
Fillion, in particular, plays his reluctant hero role to the hilt, delivering this speech to rouse his troops: "Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all comin' to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Sure as I know anything, I know this. I aim to misbehave."
Whedon has been a master of banter for years, with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" his college course, "Angel" his graduate work and now "Serenity" his graduate thesis.
As for the finale, Whedon, who both wrote and directed "Serenity," isn't afraid to show that actions have consequences. I'll just say that in the final standoff between Serenity's crew and the Operative's Alliance troops, not every one will survive, and that's very refreshing.
DEMKO'S DVD SHELF
If I were a millionaire, I'd probably buy at least four DVDs a week. Everyone must have at least one vice, and this is one of mine. As it is, I have settled for the next best thing: Netflix.
Just out is the fourth season of the only show that rivals Whedon's best work for witty dialogue, the WB's "Gilmore Girls." In this season, young Rory (Alexis Bledel) heads off for college at Yale, while Lorelei (the greatly underappreciated Lauren Graham) is left behind in Stars Hollow, a quirky little town full of characters that will be instantly burned on your brain.
As Paris (Liza Weil) once told Rory when they were preparing for a high school debate, this show is all about "wpm's" (words per minute.) The usually dead-on pop culture references fly very fast, and you'll connect with the characters almost as quickly, even if you missed the first three seasons.