Monday, November 28, 2005

A rant about "Rent"

When it comes to the songs of "Rent," I am a true believer.

I believe that these people are artists struggling against a system designed to keep them down, not self-indulgent deadbeats who just don't want to pay their bills. I believe that New York can be the Bohemia these beautiful people are singing about so passionately. It was this passion which beat down reality, listen after listen.

Unfortunately, director Chris Columbus doesn't believe. How could he and still take this story and make a movie from it that is, against amazing odds, often boring?

The songs are still there, and with the original cast members mostly on board, they sound great. Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played Mimi in the Broadway show, opted out because she was pregnant, and she is sorely missed. If I'm not mistaken, the actress who played Joanne on Broadway backed out, I assume after taking a reassuring look at her bank account, on the principle that, at 42, she is too old to play an angst-ridden 20-something.

In translating the remaining stars' efforts onto film, however, Columbus made two crucial errors right from the start.

First, rather than even try to set the story in anything that looked like the New York of the late 1980s, before Giuliani and gentrification "cleaned it up," he has his cast decked out in what is clearly period attire and singing through the streets of what is clearly 2005 Manhattan. Any of the other directors who were rumored to be interested in this project, notably Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann and Spike Lee, would have leaped at the challenge of re-creating this bygone era rather than cower from it.

Apparently Columbus took the movie's mantra, "No day but today," very literally.

Second, he took at least a third of the book from the musical, the parts between the mostly memorable songs, and changed them from sung lines to simple dialogue. It disrupts the flow tremendously, and leaves the impression that Columbus would have been perfectly happy to present "Rent" as a play if it weren't for all these darn lyrics Jonathan Larson left for us to enjoy before he died of a brain aneurysm on the musical's opening night.

Despite Columbus' best efforts to destroy it, by sheer will his actors bring some scenes in "Rent" the movie to vibrant life. Most notably, Wilson Jermaine Heredia is perfect as the drag queen Angel Dumott Schunard. You'll never think of Santa Claus the same way again after you see his most dramatic entrance. He makes every scene he is in better, and Jesse L. Martin (Det. Ed Green to you "Law and Order" buffs), plays off this energy in a great turn as Angel's lover Tom Collins.

Apparently it's the season to play gay if you want to be taken seriously on screen. Look soon for Cillian Murphy (hopefully presented at some point by the Macon Film Guild) dragged out in the film adaptation of Patrick McCabe's fantastic novel "Breakfast on Pluto," and just try not to think about "South Park" if you get to see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal play gay cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain."

Only Broadway officionados should recognize the name Idina Menzel at this point, but that won't last long. As the drama queen Maureen in "Rent" she's flirty, funny and always seemingly unaware of what's she's going to do next and who it might affect. It certainly doesn't hurt that she's also sexy as hell.

Which brings us, by rough segue, to Rosario Dawson as Mimi, clearly the ringer in this project. Before I say anything bad about her, let me say this: It's not her fault. She clearly tried very hard, and her gymnastics at the Cat Scratch Club almost make you forget that she's fully clothed in her strip-club routine to the great song "Out Tonight."

Her problem is that no sparks fly between her and Roger, played on film and on Broadway by the vapid Adam Pascal. As she smolders, he barely burns at all, and mostly ruins her performance. She sings fine, and is a great actress. If you want to see her in a much better movie about New York, check her out with Ed Norton in Spike Lee's "25th Hour."

As an ensemble, the cast gels perfectly for the show-stopper "La Vie Boheme," wisely filmed in the tight confines of a restaurant where its stars get to dance on tables, moon authority figures and do all the other things we would if our ego finally lost its eternal struggle with the id. Heredia and Martin are also a joy to watch prancing down the sidewalk to the musical's best love song, "I'll Cover you." But these moments are unfortunately not the norm.

After about two hours, the gentleman in front of me felt the need to check the time on his neon-green cellphone, but I didn't mind. Columbus clearly knew as well as we did that it was time to wrap things up, so he went straight for the director's crutch: the montage.

Instead of seeing Mimi sing "Without You," a powerful song on paper, we get scenes of Angel's health deteriorating, people fighting and other things needed to wrap up the story, but never do we see anyone singing. At this point, it goes from musical number to background music, and the change is jarring.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe in "Rent." And I really did want to believe the director of "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" could deliver it for me on film. But I've been lied to before, and I'll get over it long before I get to see Peter Jackson's "King Kong." If that's not any good, I'll really be depressed.

Monday, November 21, 2005

"Hello, I'm Johnny Cash,"
and this is my movie

Warden: Mr. Cash, try to refrain from performing any tunes that remind the inmates that they're in prison.
Johnny Cash: You think they forgot?

As the opening credits of "Walk the Line" rolled to a crescendo of stomping feet in Folsom Prison, I couldn't help but be worried.

What would Hollywood do with the story of Johnny Cash, a man who spent most of his professional life flipping off anything that could be called the establishment?

What I quickly learned, however, was that it is me who is woefully ignorant about the life of the late man in black.

Several years back at one of our annual old book sales I picked up the holy trinity of books about Cash, by Cash: "Cash," "The Man in Black" and "The Man in White." Had I bothered to read the first two volumes, I would have learned that the story of Johnny and June Carter Cash is one of burning, yearning love that burns even brighter on screen in "Walk the Line."

Though it manages a large ensemble cast with ease, all the characters except Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny and Reese Witherspoon's June are wisely kept in the background. When those actors are playing Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and, most memorably, Waylon Payne as a delightfully wicked Jerry Lee Lewis, that's no small feat.

On paper it would seem to be monotonous as Johnny asks for June's hand and is rebuked again and again, but the sparks between these two are so hot it rarely gets boring on screen.

Like Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles before him, Phoenix invokes the spirit of Johnny Cash with almost chilling precision. From the smallest detail, down to the almost-cleft upper lip, he is the young Johnny Cash. And in early scenes from "Walk the Line," when he's on tour with his Sun Records mates, his singing and stage presence are pitch perfect.

He gets upstaged, however, by a shockingly good Reese Witherspoon. Until now I thought her range only went from cute to really cute, but again, I was wrong. Her skill in playing June Carter from the precocious young talent who was overshadowed by the other members of the Carter clan to the savior who would rescue Cash from his worst demons is fun to watch. Until now, I only would have expected to see Reese and Oscar in the same sentence in yet another revival of "The Odd Couple."

I've been railing for years, mostly at work to anyone who has the misfortune of sitting near me, about Hollywood's inability to cast Southerners to play Southerners. They let Nicole Kidman murder one of my favorite books, "Cold Mountain." Perhaps after this tremendous star turn from Nashvillean Witherspoon, who threatened to abandon the project if it weren't shot in and around Memphis, someone will get the message.

Before they died, Johnny and June anointed the two young stars to play them in "Walk the Line," just as Ray Charles did with Jamie Foxx. It's tempting and almost impossible not to draw more connections between the two biopics, but doing so only shows the glaring faults of "Ray."

Though Jamie Foxx was electric as Charles, and well-deserving of his Oscar for Best Actor (though personally I would have voted for Don Cheadle in "Hotel Rwanda), I was bored during much of the movie. When Foxx isn't bringing Charles to life on stage, it plays out like a very overly melodramatic TV movie, often dragging to the point of audience distraction (well, my distraction, anyway.)

By focusing on a short period of time, from about 1955-1968 or so, and almost exclusively on the love story at its core, "Walk the Line" avoids many of "Ray" 's pitfalls and keeps the story moving at the driving, train-like pace of Cash's signature songs.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

"Chicken Little" vs. films for the child in all of us

Duke Phillips: Why do you have to be so critical?
Jay Sherman: I'm a critic.
Duke: No, your job is to rate movies on a scale from "good" to "excellent".

I feel a lot like poor Jay Sherman, star of the short-lived animated TV series "The Critic," in trying to criticize "Chicken Little." After all, to paraphrase what John Prine said about Elvis, $40 million in box-office receipts in one weekend can't be wrong.

Well, I think it is. To sum it up briefly and move on, I didn't like "Chicken Little" for one very important reason: It wasn't funny. I don't ask for a lot from children's movies, but that's where I draw the line.

It does look great, but if this is Disney's attempt to catch up with the innovators at Pixar, they've got a lot more work to do.

I defy you to give me one original gag from "Chicken Little." I'll save you the effort: there weren't any. In its defense I also can't think of any blatant product placement either. It's just a mindless tale filled with stock characters that, thankfully, was over in about 75 minutes or so.

Lest I seem like a grumpy old man, which in many ways, I am, let me just say that I love children's movies. "Babe," with its timeless tale of the pig who wanted only to be a sheep dog, is as good in my mind as "The Godfather."

What I love about the best children's movies is the power of imagination, the sensation that for those 90 minutes or so you truly are somewhere else. It's a forgotten - and perhaps lost - art.

Though few people saw it when it hit theaters in 1999, Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant" is my favorite animated film. Bird, who worked on "The Simpsons" and would later create Pixar's behemoth "The Incredibles," has a sly wit that is mostly kept in check here.

It's simply the tale of a young boy in the 1950's who befriends the "Iron Giant," a robot who has fallen from the sky voiced by a then-unknown Vin Diesel. Whether as a heart-tugging tale of friendship or an allegory about cold-war paranoia, it works on all levels.

Hiyao Miyazaki has been called "the Disney of Japan," which I'm sure at the time was meant as a compliment. Disney the company, in fact, struck a deal with Miyazaki to dub his films with English-speaking stars. Their first, and still best, collaboration was the magical "Kiki's Delivery Service."

It features a young Kirsten Dunst as the voice of Kiki, a 13-year-old witch forced to make her way in the world in her mandatory year of independence. Kiki, for reasons that go blissfully unexplained, chooses to make her new home in a European seaside village, where she uses her shaky broom-flying skills to operate the titular "Delivery Service."

Though Miyazaki's style is sometimes lumped into the broad category of "anime," it truly is unique, more like a moving impressionist painting. And as Kiki and her wisecracking cat Jiji, voiced by a subdued Phil Hartman, move through it, they meet colorful characters who will stick in your mind a lot longer than annoying pig with a penchant for disco in "Chicken Little."

When Peter Jackson got geeked up enough to take on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy I was fairly excited. And except for the 18-or-so endings of "Return of the King," they're great movies, but my favorite part still remains the first 30 minutes or so of "The Fellowship of the Ring" that takes place in the Shire, home of the lovable hobbits.

It made me flash back to the made-for-TV animated version of "The Hobbit," reviled by Tolkein enthusiasts everywhere but loved by, well, at least me. Directors Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. stripped Tolkein's tale of much its mythology and made it simply the story of the reluctant adventurer Bilbo Baggins, yanked from his life of comfort by Gandalf (voiced by the late John Huston) to help a band of dwarves recover their treasure from the dragon Smaug.

The best thing I can say about this oddity is that I was 7 years old when it came out, and I love it as much now as I did then. I learned to play the piano to its songs, and on some days still can't get "The Greatest Adventure" out of my head. Though it prompted some hipster at to say "Tolkein would have cried," I laughed and learned a lot.

I'll close with some words in defense of Disney. It's all so easy to attack the 500-lb. gorilla, but I've loved many Disney films. One of my favorites was "Bedknobs and Broomsticks." Made by the same director, Robert Stephenson, it's essentially "Mary Poppins" retold with Angela Lansbury instead of Julie Andrews as a kind witch instead of a nanny.

With the aid of a magical bed, Lansbury and her three young charges rise to the defense of England during World War II, doing battle with corrupt booksellers, animated-lion royalty and, eventually, invading Germans. It's all tremendously silly, of course, but also a pioneering blend of live-action and animation. It was restored for DVD in 2001 to its original length of a whopping 139 minutes, and I guarantee it will hold the attention of children young and old until the very end.

Sadly, my all-time favorite Disney movie can not be purchased on DVD, because the company quietly retired it after a 40th-anniversary re-release on video in 1986. I'm talking about the much-maligned and very un-PC "Song of the South."

Released in 1946 as the first Disney movie starring professional actors, its Joel Chandler Harris' beloved Uncle Remus stories brought to life and used to help our young hero Johnny deal with the separation of his parents. At least that's what I thought it was as, my mother tells me, I was "dancing in the aisles" to "Zipa-Dee-Do-Dah" and falling in love with B'rers Rabbit and Bear.

To certain adults who lobbied to have Disney pull it from video shelves, it is also, undoubtedly, an unrealistic and atrocious portrait of the reconstruction era in the South, and Uncle Remus can be seen, I suppose, as a fool who simply excepts the Jim Crow status quo with a smile.

I never saw it that way. To my 7-ear-old eyes, Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, was just a kind old man, who happened to be black, and told great stories. As every children's movie should.