Friday, January 25, 2008

Recent Screenings

Well, art is art, isn't it?
On the other hand, water is water.
And east is east and west is west,
and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce,
they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.

Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know.

Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers

A bit of a dry spell in my ongoing exploration of the cinematic universe. Seems like it's been two months of good but not particularly great films, along with several mediocre efforts, and one genuinely awful excuse of a motion picture. Some notes from the journey . . . .

I Am Legend (2007) - When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was The Omega Man, based on Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, I Am Legend. Scared the hell out of me in a most delicious way. It was one of those dark, gritty sci-fi films that were so popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Everybody was terrified of overpopulation (the "global warming" of its day) and just becoming aware of our destruction of the environment. Throw in all your revolutions, Vietnam, riots across America, assassinations . . . it all added up to a string of apocalyptic flicks like The Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man, all of which starred Charlton Heston. (Is it any wonder he became Mr. Gun after surviving all that?!)

When I saw the previews for I Am Legend, also based on Matheson's novel, I wasn't impressed. Just another big, probably awful Hollywood remake of a film I once loved. I mean, come on, the Fresh Prince of Bell Air carrying the whole burden of the end of the world? But a friend of mine highly recommended it (thanks, Paul), and said it had to be seen on a big screen, so La Reina and I headed off to the AMC 17 at some vague Long Island mall to watch the end of the world. A matinee. The day was still bright and sunny. When we came out 2 1/2 hours later, evening had descended, and I was freaking out, because I knew those shrieking, rabid mutants from the film were just waiting to tear us to shreds before we could get to the car. So, yes, it was fun.

The opening sequences take place in the empty streets of New York City, three years after some mysterious and apparently total catastrophe. Grasses and weeds have grown up between rusty, abandoned automobiles, and herds of deer run wild. Will Smith, the lone survivor, and Sam, his faithful dog, are on a hunting party, chasing after the deer in his bright red muscle car. These scenes of the city are stunning, and, as Paul had said, should be seen on a big screen. The whole eerie atmosphere of the film is a cinematic wonder. A little too much CGI at times, especially with the animals and the freaky mutants, but post-Apocalypse New York looks damned impressive.

Of course, it turns out that Will and Sam aren't alone. New York is also home now to "hives" of freaky mutants who only come out at night. (They were vampires in the original novel - here they're more like zombies crossed with rabid wolves.) Now, coward that I am, I would hit the road, head out west some place where these "night-seekers" wouldn't have anywhere to hide in large bunches during the day, and try to make my stand there, but not Robert Neville (Will Smith). Neville is a military scientist who tried to stop the mystery virus from spreading in its early stages, and, now that everybody's dead, is still working on a cure. He's obsessed. Conducting experiments, making reports, keeping himself in shape to fight the mutants. For fun, he's going through every single DVD at a local rental place. (He's up to the 'G's, so he hasn't gotten to The Omega Man.)

Even Charlton Heston had mutants he could converse with. The ones here just shriek, so Will Smith just has Sam and some mannequins he can talk to. As the film progresses, you realize how much the loneliness is getting to him. Through a series of flashbacks (and some taped news shows that Neville watches over breakfast), we slowly learn how this dreadful situation came about. It's all handled fairly well, though I love a good catastrophic viral mystery and could've used a little more of the back story. And I was wrong about Smith - I'm not sure who else could carry this film on his shoulders the way he does. It's impressive work. Though some credit has to go to Abby, the German shepherd playing Sam. Damn fine canine acting.

There are some problems with the movie. You will wonder afterwards about some plot holes and implausible turns. And I know one sci-fi fan who didn't like the ending. But if you don't take the movie too seriously (I mean, it's only the end of the world), and don't expect too much, it's a pretty good ride that has a power of its own. I always respect a film that lingers afterwards, and this one has a certain dreadful sadness that carried over to the next morning, despite a dose of Marx Brothers and a night of sleep. And 24 hours later, as the sun vanished and evening opened up its wicked maw, I was still waiting for the mutants to come.

RECOMMENDED, especially for fans of those 1960s/70s sci-films, and for New Yorkers. Should really be seen on a big screen, but should hold up fairly well on DVD.

Animal Crackers (1931) - Most cinephiles say Duck Soup is the greatest Marx Brothers movie, and I'm not about to argue with them. How can one argue against Duck Soup?! But I've always been a little partial to Animal Crackers, the Marx Brothers' second film, based on their Broadway show written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.

Perhaps because they had performed this material on stage so often, the brothers seem perfectly at ease with the fast-paced insanity that ensues when Captain Spaulding (Groucho) returns from an African expedition to a party given in his honor. Don't watch it while you're tired, because this baby moves at 90 miles an hour. Mathematical research has proven that the first 2/3 of Animal Crackers contains the greatest ratio of brilliant wit per minute than any other motion picture. At times, the hilarious and intelligent lines are spilling out so fast that you have to stop and rewind the DVD. (Okay, not "rewind." Whatever one does to a DVD to make it go backwards.)

There are numerous classic lines and routines: "I shot an elephant in my pajamas;" the seven-cent nickel; "I see figgers, strange figgers, weird figgers;" and "Signor Ravelli's first selection will be 'Somewhere My Love Lies Sleeping' with a male chorus." The list goes on and on. (For a good laugh, check out the Memorable Quotes at IMDB.)

More than any other Marx Brothers' film, Animal Crackers achieves a perfect balance between the potent combination of intelligent wit, physical slapstick, surrealism, and poetry that Groucho, Chico and Harpo brought to the screen. The action slows down (to normal) later in the film, with some musical interludes that include Chico's hilarious routine at the piano and Harpo's turn at the harp, but you almost need the breather after the first furious 2/3. All in all, if I had to show one Marx Brothers' film to someone who wanted to know what they were all about, this might be my choice. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) - Directed by Steven Shainberg, starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey Jr.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise out of my recent screenings. Strange, poetic, and intelligently done, Fur imagines the crucial turning point in the life of photographer Diane Arbus. Daughter of wealthy New York furriers, Arbus begins the film as a 1950's housewife and capable assistant to her husband Allan, a commercial photographer. Her desire to break out of her staid, bourgeois environment and follow a creative path of her own coincides with the arrival of a mysterious, partially masked stranger who moves upstairs in the same building.

Arbus seems both frightened and intrigued by the new neighbor, and the film unfolds at times with the suspense of a horror movie before settling into a strange, lovely space somewhere between Cocteau's La Belle et la bête, Alice in Wonderland, and the off-kilter atmosphere of Arbus' own weirdly beautiful photography. Robert Downey Jr. delivers what may be his best performance ever as Leonard, the mysterious neighbor who's stricken with an unusual condition. Kidman does equally well as Arbus, restrained but yearning to break free, in love with her husband but driven by her creative inner life. The relationship between Leonard and Diane is rather bizarre, funny, and ultimately transformational.

Steven Shainberg directed the well-regarded,"quirkily erotic" Secretary, but Fur seems like a more mature, artistically assured work. Though it tips over a bit into sentimentality at the very end, this is a special and quietly powerful film. Strange, slyly funny, freaky, darkly delightful and ultimately touching. RECOMMENDED.

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) - Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre turned into an atmospheric 1940's zombie film. What more do you want? Directed by Jacques Tourneur, who also gave us one of the greatest film noirs of all time - Out of the Past - and the original Cat People. Delicious black and white photography by J. Roy Hunt, wit lots of crisp shadows, and light cutting harshly through slats of venetian blinds. Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter, also wrote The Wolf Man, The Beast with Five Fingers, and Earth versus the Flying Saucers. Frances Dee plays the heorine. A fun B-movie with some artistic touches, it's worth the 77 minutes of your time. Hell, it's Jane Eyre as a zombie flick! What more do you want?!

Ratatouille (2007) - Disney family film about rat infestations. Politically correct message about respecting those who are . . . uh . . . different. For some reason, though, the image of hundreds of rodents in a kitchen, climbing around on the food, just didn't seem that cute to me. Animation's good, everything else standard or clichéd. Set in Paris but might as well have been in Cleveland for the lack of any French flavor beyond a few long-exhausted stereotypes. (How about some nice French chanson, for one thing?) The Disney bean-counters probably thought rats would seem more palatable if they came from Paris. I prefer my rats mean and nasty and eating Ernest Borgnine alive.

Frances Dee, star of I Walked With a Zombie. She was married to actor Joel McCrea for 57 years.

Flightplan (2005) - You're better off canceling this flight and taking the train - like the one in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), which Flightplan greedily rips off without bothering to acknowledge. Jodie, Jodie, Jodie. Didn't you bother reading the script before you signed on to this project? Did anyone bother reading this script? Wasn't there one person among the film crew or within Touchstone Pictures who could see that this was an impossibly dumb plot? A $55,000,000 budget and nobody in Los Angeles could do better than this?

Too bad, because the first 30 minutes show some promise. A cool, mysterious atmosphere in a foreign setting, with some appropriately moody music. And Jodie's a good actress. But then, you know, there had to be a story at some point. Jodie's husband dies and she has to take his body back to the U.S. Somehow, on the long flight, her daughter disappears. That part's fine - not new, but not necessarily stupid. The plot, however, gets sillier and sillier as the film progresses, and after a while you want to smack Jodie Foster for her character and her acting and getting into this dumb movie to begin with. It's like she's trying to be the new Sandra Bullock or something. Sean Bean is the only actor in the film who manages to impress, maintaining a dignity on-screen than seems disproportionate to the ridiculousness of what's going on around him. And by the end, it has become stunningly ridiculous. Then you really want to start smacking people, particularly the screenwriter.

But as bad as the script was for Flightplan, it pales in comparison to . . . .

The Fountainhead (1949) - Directed by King Vidor, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. One of the most dreadful films I've ever seen. Still not sure why I bothered sitting through it all, except for some morbid fascination in watching an actor I like (Cooper) struggle through a train wreck of a movie. (The train, evidently, loaded down with animal waste product.) Plus, at some point, I realized I wanted to write about this travesty, so I felt obliged to actually watch the damn thing. La Reina and I grew giddy with laughter as the movie progressed. By the end, we were almost disoriented.

The blame rests entirely on Ayn Rand's relentlessly preachy, pretentious, joyless, and ridiculous script, maybe the worst screenplay ever written for a major Hollywood motion picture. She makes Michael Moore and Oliver Stone look like Masters of Subtlety. Poor Gary Cooper. As architect Howard Roark, he struggles to turn her didactic twaddle into human dialogue, but the film is a fiasco from start to finish. A two-hour sermon that defeats all of the actors, who sound stiff (Cooper) or overact (everyone else) in order to compensate for the silly words they're forced to speak. At one point, it felt like watching a bad foreign film dubbed into English. There are a few moments of camp pleasure - Patricia Neal ogling Gary Cooper's power-drill (start at 1:00) - but they're few and far between. The best part of the movie is the cinematography. I suppose if you're a King Vidor fanatic, and a completist, you might have to watch this. Otherwise, as New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote at the time of the film's release : "'The Fountainhead' is a picture which you don't have to see to disbelieve."

[I stole "twaddle" from Crowther's original review. Great word, twaddle.]


Liam said...

Is Animal Crackers the one where Chico and Harpo play tic tac toe on the back of a giraffe?

Have you read anything by Ayn Rand? I only know her as the goddess worshiped by libertarians and the drummer from Rush. Yet her novels seem to be very popular.

cowboyangel said...

No, that's The Marx Brothers At the Circus, which I've never seen.

No, never read anything by Ayn Rand. Alex had read The Fountainhead and said the book was better than the film, which, obviously, isn't saying much.

Ideology aside, it would still be one of the worst scripts ever. But her ideology didn't help. I know the message was probably simplified for Hollywood, but it seemed to be a kind of an over-the-top Nietzschean Capitalism mixed with social Darwinism. Not surprising, then, that her novels are popular these days. I could smell the Neo-conservatives from 60 years away. At least as presented in the film, it struck me as being somewhat adolescent. I could imagine a 13 year-old Hitler gleefully reading her book under the covers.

Garpu the Fork said...

I actually read "The Fountainhead" in high school, when most people aren't smart enough to know better. I'd like those weeks of my life back and a plenary indulgence.

crystal said...

My sister saw U Am Legend recently and she liked it too. I plan ti rent it. I loved the Omega Man :-) I used to keep score of all the way Charelton died in his movies, and in that one (and Khartum) he get the spear in the chest. Ebert wished Legend had kept the bad guys as vampires but zombies are very popular.

I did see Flightplan. I was kind of disappointed too. It was interesting to learn all the stuff about planes, and Sean Bean was good, but it's not one I'd want to see over again.

cowboyangel said...


Sorry about that. i had actually thought at one point that i would read The fountainhead, just to see what all the fuss was about. Afte the movie, though, I think I'll concentrate on something else.

cowboyangel said...


That's pretty funny about the Heston Death Scorecard. I had forgotten about the spear.

Yeah, I saw Ebert's review - i have to disagree with him. Rabid mutant zombies make more sense to me than vampires in terms of science gone bad.