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Fascinating production of a brilliant musical
Chess has a long and storied history, from the megahit concept album before the work ever appeared on stage, to would-be director Michael Bennett's withdrawal from the creative process five months before the London show was set to debut and Trevor Nunn's dramatic rescue of the show, to Nunn's Broadway flop and the dozen or so subsequent attempts to "fix" the show. This is, in a way, the latest of those.
The first act of the Stockholm Chess is a marvel to behold. It sets up its players in clever fashion, first bringing in dignified but discontent Anatoly (Körberg), trapped in a marriage and a state he wants little of, as we see in his relations with wife Svetlana (Nilsson) and keeper Molokov (Myrberg). Then the headstrong, brash American Freddie (Ekborg) and his long-suffering second (coach and assistant) Florence (Sjöholm) are shown as Florence has reached her breaking point with Freddie. Last, the weird comic arbiter of the match (Skoglund) is brought into the fray. After the first match, Freddie storms out; this leads to a debate and later Florence, at her wits' end, meeting with Anatoly - who defects and starts hints of a romance with Florence. The first act flows with beautiful logic, more so than any other version of Chess.
Sadly, the second act doesn't hold up half as well. It has wonderful moments, but a lot of it is just overkill (an argument between Anatoly and Svetlana uses the music that was in the original the climactic chess match) or songs for the sake of songs (Sjöholm's wonderful "Om han var här" - "Heaven Help My Heart" - is rendered almost random by lack of context). There is no single line of tension in the second act, and it goes through the songs until coming to the epilogue without any satisfactory climax. The plot, which had been so tightly wound, now disappears into the ether.
The physical production, though, is magnificent, allowing the show to capture both massive moments (a memory-recreation of the 1956 uprising in Budapest, when Florence's father was taken from her) and tender (the mixing of a lovely duet between Florence and Anatoly in the second act with an astounding, romantic trapeze act) with equal skill. Robin Wagner's genius has not dimmed a bit over the years, and there is no scene that does not have a set to fit.
The acting and singing are a mixed bag. Tommy Körberg has been playing Anatoly since before he was called Anatoly, and is still just as good at it - as good in 2003 as he was in 1986. The music suits his unique voice, and he is a strong center of the show. He is more than matched by Helen Sjöholm, who inhabits Florence as completely as I've seen any actress do it.
Her performance ranges from angry to sensual to passionate to ironic to tender, and captures every emotion (and all in between) with skill and style.
Anders Ekborg would never be mistaken for an American on the street, but he plays the ugly American (as Freddie is written here) with panache, and uses his solo to make him sympathetic. Josefin Nilsson is less fortunate as Svetlana, playing her over the top and dislike able in a very diva-esque way.
Per Myrberg is a consummate actor who takes a part that is all too often handled as a comic stage Russian and turns it into a fierce, formidable villain. Rolf Skoglund as the arbiter - usually a role handled fiercely as the straight man - tries to play it up as a comic actor, but between his unfortunate French stereotype and his awful singing voice is completely wrong for the part.
Much of the appeal of Chess is the music, and some of the best of it is here - I don't know that anybody can beat Helen Sjöholm's "Lämna inga dörrar på glänt" ("Nobody's Side"). All of it is a joy to hear (except for Skoglund's singing), and the orchestrations haven't been this good since the original London production.
If the second act were as good as the first, this would be the best production of Chess to date. As it stands, it's certainly a very good one, but not the ultimate Chess some hoped it would be.
[Note: The show is in Swedish and the DVD that is available lacks subtitles.]
Jersey Girl (2004)
Disappointingly average and unambitious
I've been a Kevin Smith fan for years, but my disappointment with Jersey Girl doesn't come from the lack of Jay and Silent Bob, or the fact that it isn't a typical View Askew film. I knew it wouldn't be that, and I went into the theatre just hoping to see a good film.
Jersey Girl has some nice moments, and some moments of genuine, skillful humor (especially for a musical theatre fan). However, the film as a whole is an enormous letdown for one reason: it's typical. Rather than making another typically Kevin Smith movie, Smith managed to make a typical Hollywood flick. Instead of insight, we get cloying sentimentality; instead of maturity, we get a series of cliche moments with a good-looking cast that just doesn't dazzle for whatever emotional whallop Smith thought the film would pack.
The situation and choices facing Ben Affleck's character are nothing new, and Affleck goes dutifully through the exercises, emoting when he needs to, but never really getting much out. You wind up rooting for him more or less out of the same sense of duty. George Carlin's father is depressingly tame compared to his brilliant standup routine; Jennifer Lopez is sweet but her perfunctory character never really makes any impact on the audience. Raquel Castro plays the absolute cliche end of a film child that she's written with the appropriate sweetness. Liv Tyler's character goes wildly from a toned-down character from one of Smith's earlier films in her first scenes (building up a bit of false hope that there will be something new to this blah exercise) to another cliche character in the later portions of the film. Not much of it can be blamed on anyone except the writer/director, though.
On principle, I have nothing against Smith branching out into other genres of film than those he touched on in his first five; that's an artist's choice, and should be his and no one else's. But Jersey Girl is simply settling for the typical and unambitious in film. If this is an indication of where Kevin Smith's career is heading, then I think he has lost it as a director who bears watching.
Is it really The Two Towers?
Peter Jackson's film The Two Towers encapsulates a heavily edited and modified version of parts of Book III and Book IV of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which are normally published as The Two Towers (following the original printings). Indeed, there are many places in the second entry where it only bears a superficial resemblance to the source material. But that, in and of itself, does not automatically condemn a film.
The problems with Peter Jackson's The Two Towers are many. Aside from the lackluster direction that action fans are depressingly willing to look away from, and the eminently forgettable score, most of them lie in the telling of the story.
Jackson cross-cuts between three different stories in his course; at most, Tolkien only ever did with two. Unfortunately, these stories are not at all similar in tone, and there are points in the major battle sequence where we cut away to rather tranquil scenes. He already had enough difficulty creating anything of a pace or a mood in his subpar Fellowship of the Ring; with The Two Towers he simply falls flat on his face. It is understandable that Tolkien's generally more leisurely step was not well suited for transition to the screen; unfortunately, I don't think the problem was solved even quasi-adequately. Jackson's storytelling skills are highly overrated by fans who have read the books, and I think that on their own the films don't tell the story well enough for any subtleties to be grasped.
Worse than this are Jackson's rewrites to the story. I'm not approaching this from a "How dare he rewrite a classic!" aspect, mind you. What upsets me are the way that he alters plot elements and turns them into banal cliches. Theoden's possession, Aragorn's near-death experience, Faramir's temptation, the Elves at Helm's Deep (it was clear that, until the battles in Book V, it was all Men making their stand and not the other peoples of Middle-Earth), the insultingly insipid "Gandalf arrives with cavalry" (why not just have him descend from the Heavens and wipe out the Orcs with a mighty blast of magic?)...not just alterations, but blatant and frankly boring elements that have been done a hundred times before. I could have accepted plot changes if they had made the story better, or even if they had been adequate replacements that worked for a superior filmic pacing, but these are just plain awful and make the resulting film worse. And there were large swaths of material lost in favor of this waffle, which only adds insult to injury.
Characters are changed without needing to be; again, the result is always worse. The Faramir depicted in the film, for instance, doesn't serve any real purpose as he did in the book. Most actually seem less three-dimensional here than either in the novel or in the first film, which is quite an accomplishment. To put in something of a positive word, Gollum was a technical achievement (though when I saw it in the theatres twice, audiences laughed - not an effect that seems intended by the source material).
Nothing in this mess improved on the source material or even came close to matching it. As a film, it's a passable entertainment if you can overlook the severe pacing issues; as an adaptation it's a miserable failure.
An overrated mis-adaptation
The Lord of the Rings, when it debuted in 1954-1955, was an original attempt to present a full high-mythic tale in the form of a fantasy novel. It took a bit of time, but the novel caught on. Since Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara (1972), which was published because it was basically a regurgitation of Tolkien, written fantasy has gone into self-referential cycles. The end result is a series of doorstops that present a world that is a caricature of Tolkien's.
In many ways, this is reflected in Peter Jackson's Dungeons & Dragons-esque retelling of Tolkien's novel. The visual cues are obvious, from the elves bearing requisite pointed ears (not even vaguely implied in Tolkien) to the showy wizard duel to the added fight scene with the cave troll to the overtly D&D Balrog to the climactic battle scene (whereas Tolkien ended Book II of his novel with a departure scene and began Book III with a decidedly different interpretation of the battle scene). Scene after scene reveals how profoundly Jackson's films have been affected by the literary chaff and dross that are Tolkien's imitators, and they are a decided first strike against him.
In the adaptation of Book I of the novel (the much-maligned Shire business), Jackson hacks away at Tolkien's deliberate, measured pacing. He eliminates many of the scenes that set up the bucolic Shire and summarizes many of the rest. With Tolkien's pacing lost, though, Jackson is an utter failure with regard to replacing it. He meanders rather quickly through the Shire with little reason, making it a sort of bizarre muddle to lead into an action sequence (though many of the more suspenseful and exciting sequences from the novel are dropped). The film makes it to Rivendell, where it succeeds at being pretty, but still lacks any continuity of pacing. The lion's share of the Book II adaptation is spent on the massive set piece mines of Moria, where it really turns into a big game of Dungeons & Dragons (well, with a Balrog instead of a Dragon, but still). He plays up the melodrama of Tolkien's story but none of its human drama; little wonder that the snippets of Lothlorien that follow Moria are terribly awkward. Then some obligatory scenes, the final battle set piece, and the overly-ominous setup for the following two films. It just stops, never having figured out what to do with itself, and sends its audience home in sensory overload.
There are some good actors and some awful ones here; I'll leave it to you to sort them out, but none of them is near his or her prime in the muddle that Jackson cranked out. There's no really classic shots that don't look rehearsed in front of the camera, no epic moments that don't seem forced. The direction is rather bland and fails to convey anything of the sense of wonder that Tolkien created. Nothing about the story rings true in this retelling; it's all rather mechanical, and the main differences are alterations that just don't work too well. The music, technically proficient but unable to provide differentiation or rouse emotion, doesn't give it a hand there.
Despite its extreme length, Fellowship of the Ring comes off as something not far removed from David Lynch's adaptation of Dune: a lengthy highlights reel of scenes from the book without a sense of coherency. We cut off at a drastically different point than Book II of Lord of the Rings did, and are left with a film that is far more of a mess than it initially seems. It has exciting moments (though mostly not in the fashion that they were exciting in the novel), and these may even trump the bad storytelling for many viewers but in the long run, speaking of it as a film, it doesn't cohere.
A beautiful film, but...
Anastasia is an absolutely gorgeous cartoon musical, perhaps the last really amazing work in the classical form of the genre. The songs, especially "Once Upon a December," were thrilling and their presentation was astounding. The character animations are astounding, and the expressive qualities were incredible. The voice cast is stellar as well (and seems particularly matched to the animation). And all of the locales are incredible, from the Russian palaces to the marvellous sequence where Paris by night looks impressionistic.
All that said, the history is really lackluster. I understand it's a "G" rated film, but the view of the Russian Revolution is...ugh. If it had portrayed this realistically (it's possible for Czar Nicholas to be sympathetic - he was a wonderful family man, but no good as a ruler), the film would've been elevated to a completely different level. It's a shame that it skimped here.
Then we have the villain of the piece. Honestly...it's a terrible distraction. Rasputin is like a villain out of a completely different film, tacked on to create a conflict. His inclusion really stops Anastasia from transcending the typical fairytale reality of Disney's animated musicals...the story, the real character story, in Anastasia was far more interesting. Had the villain scene been cut, it could have been told even more clearly and vibrantly, and perhaps the genre would've gone somewhere instead of kind of slipping off into never-never land. Ah, well. It's worth watching, don't get me wrong, but don't go expecting the film to be uniformly good.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Even more disappointing than many reviews indicate.
I have a fairly strong background with science fiction and philosophy, and while I think the original Matrix is highly overrated both as SF and as philosophy, I have to admit: it is an action film par excellence. Not so with the sequel.
On a science fiction level, the sequel never really manages to get over the embarassingly silly idea of the first one, with the "humans as batteries" explanation. And I have to say, Zion is the home base in a hundred different banal space operas; why did the Matrix franchise feel the need to ape this bad cliche? Philosophically, it's weaker; rather than as a sort of exploration on the same lines as Descartes' famous essay that led to his conclusion, "I think, therefore I am," the Matrix Reloaded tries to deal with the problems of free will and causality, which are almost unbreachable in film. The film has some ponderous dialogue about causation, but there's no nuance to it, nothing to suggest that any characters have any interest in the subtleties of modern philosophy. I'd love to see a filmic depiction of something like the Frankfurt example (where a hypothetical person is about to make a choice, but is then literally forced to make that same choice - bringing the "could have done otherwise" principle of free will-based morality into question), or in general dealing with the rather fascinating subject of whether or not we make the choices that we seem to make. Despite the claims of some of its supporters, the Matrix Reloaded offers nothing insightful into this discourse. It's a shame, because the first movie did open up a lot of people into realms of philosophy.
The plot is also much less focused. The entire first film can be mapped on the Campbell-derived hero's journey structure; while I'm not a proponent of the structure myself, I have to admit it makes for solid plotting in its own particular niche (proven by Star Wars and The Matrix). The sequel's plot is much more stereotypical genre hackwork: the hero goes from destination to destination, collecting plot coupons and using them along the way. That it is set up in such a way that insufferable, wooden dialogue and stock SF in Zion precedes insufferable, wooden dialogue in the formerly more interesting Matrix only serves to make the film's plot dry and of interest only to that sort of fan who made up explanations for why the human-as-battery thing worked in the first one. The twist of the Architect's speech was really the only interesting part of it all, and I must admit it makes me curious as to how they'll finish it up. All in all, though, it does a terrible job of structuring and delivering its plot.
And then there's the action. Reportedly, this is the reason we all came, to see Neo dancing on the faces of a hundred Agent Smiths and a killer car chase scene. And I'm all one for good medieval weapon fighting and car chases and kung fu, so don't get me wrong here. It looked really cool in the trailer, and indeed on screen - but it was all just sound and fury, signifying nothing. The battle with the Agent Smiths was completely uncompelling, because Neo was so good that he was never in any danger. The same went for the whole business with the weapon fight sequence. Even the acclaimed freeway sequence was too long, and it kept pushing the heroes to the brink and then bringing them back so many times that it stopped being interesting and became trite and boring. Slow motion was used because it looked cool, not to emphasize any interesting aspects of the fight scene. Good action depends on the audience caring about the outcome, and that is not in the Matrix: Reloaded. Watch the original movie again; in every single scene, right up until the end, the characters' lives and missions are in very real danger; it makes the race to get to a phone nailbiting stuff, the relief on seeing no body palpable. The Matrix Reloaded doesn't even come close to this level, instead hoping that you will be so dazzled by sfx and choreography that you won't care that the fights are pointless, long, and have no dramatic impact.
And the special effects are glitzy indeed, but frankly - there's nothing in them that we haven't seen a hundred times since the original movie debuted. What the Wachowski brothers really proved was that CGI, when mixed with reality, still looks fake no matter how much money you spend on it.
It's really a shame; the first movie was quite intriguing and really intense in the action department. The sequel isn't even in the same class.
Unsurpassed Science Fiction.
Last summer, I'd picked up the Madacy version (packaged as the "Excelsior Collector's Edition" from the "Hollywood Gold" line at the modest price of $6.99) of Fritz Lang's classic. It took a while before I could get through it, but once I could, I fell in love. (You see, the Madacy version runs at a moderate frame rate, but is low-quality black & white with a horrible soundtrack.) I knew then that this was a great work of art.
Today, I lucked into the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis in a video store that was having a closing sale. Produced in the mid-'80s, with tinting and a very '80s soundtrack, the Moroder version (running at, surprise surprise, around 80 minutes) was, to my mind, clearly a better version: it was a better picture, had different missing scenes, and the colorizing made it much easier on the eyes.
I'm told that the Kino International version is superior to the Madacy version in terms of video quality, and you may want to check it out--it runs at about 90 minutes. The Madacy version runs 115 minutes, and a version I'm told is quite inferior, by JEF Films, runs 139 minutes. The differences are mostly due to frame rate, and a variety of other factors (like Moroder's version lacking separate screens for title cards, subtitling them instead, or the various scenes each version has) make up for the rest. For the time being, the Kino and Madacy are probably your best bet, but a DVD is forthcoming with a new restoration plus Moroder's. Just remember, don't judge it by run time.
Metropolis is a visionary work of silent film. It is accused by some of having fascist/nazi motives, but in all honesty the film seems to come down hard on both the totalitarian elites and the riotous workers. Both sides of society are rotting from lack of contact, and it is all falling apart unless they meet in the middle.
Fritz Lang establishes himself as a visual genius, and the visuals rule in Metropolis. The sets, the skyline, everything...other visual masterpieces of SF, like Star Wars and Blade Runner, probably won't date as well as Metropolis has. The very expressionism in the workers and the factory is a sense of desperation more than being quiet sheep, and the characters are all brilliantly played. You must see this movie if you are to believe it, and only rarely will you be reminded that this is 1926.
No science fiction piece has ever gotten past Metropolis as far as visuals or ideas are concerned, for the time. Take the time to take it in, and remember: it was all original back then.
Pretty dang good, for a slasher.
This is a slasher that plays it by the rules, so if I'm spoiling anything for you, it's because you've never seen a slasher movie before.
Prom Night IV gives us the gift of slashing in a film that is lit with decent effectiveness, not shot notably poorly, with sub-par to decent acting and some moderately suspenseful scenes. The prom thing is more or less done in the intro, where we get to see a couple slashed in a prom in 1957. Our mad killer here is a Catholic priest gone horribly wrong--he kills with a cross where the long end has a blade.
Our victims, two teenaged couples, are headed down to a retreat that used to be an old monastery for a weekend of debauchery. Meanwhile, a young priest newly charged with watching over the insane priest (who's been kept underground by the Church) is developed for a bit, but manages to slip in his duties. (Prom Night IV is very good at giving "bonus slashes" before it gets around to killing the teenagers.)
The highlight of Prom Night IV is Nicole de Boer, who you might remember from The Cube or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (she was Ezri Dax). Her acting, which is pretty good, manages to elevate the rest of the movie (since she is the film's heroine). The rest of the cast is pretty small-time, though, and doesn't live up to Nicole.
It does have the requisite T&A shots (and a really poor sex scene), to be certain, and it manages to fit 8 deaths into a film that only focuses on those 4 teens. All are pretty freaky and well done, too. Once the suspense starts, it's pretty good at not letting up, despite following the rules strongly. The extended scenes before the slasher starts on the teens build everything up quite well.
This is a slasher movie, and you will enjoy it only if you're in the mood for one. However, it does what it does well, and as such is worth picking up if you are.
Cheesy Slasher...plenty of service, no suspense.
I'd say this review was going to be a spoiler, but...well, to be honest, it's a slasher movie. You know how it's going to go.
Friday the 13th: the Final Chapter features a small family made up of a relatively young mother, the movie's "innocent" girl, and a young video game player and mask-making prodigy (a young Corey Feldman) that lives out into the woods. A bunch of teenagers rent the house next door for a night of debauchery. Jason Voorhees, being a slasher, wasn't adequately killed last time, so he gets to come back now. The non-character teenagers in the house, like most people in this film, exist only to increase the body count and have no discernable character traits except for degree of sexual experience, which is enough to get them all killed by the end of the film, playing straight by the rules.
This episode of Friday the 13th follows the slasher cliches to the letter, but the only times suspense is even attempted are during a few "false scare" scenes early in the movie and in the final chase sequence. The actual killings just aren't all that scary--Jason murders again and again. It's a badly shot, poorly lit, trashy fast-food slasher with wretched acting. You can pretty much not only call every death, but from time to time predict the exact manner of the death.
As far as gore and T&A go, Friday 4 delivers, but in that "fast-food" style. As a result, it doesn't even hold a lot of fun for slasher fans. It reeks of lack of effort, and really wasn't entertaining as teen-killer fare goes. Avoid it--you'll find a slasher that does it with more style pretty easily.
El topo (1970)
Description is not enough...
El Topo is Alexandro Jodorowsky's second film (the first being Fando y Lis), and his first to rise to success as a counterculture film in the 1970s, which was then followed by The Holy Mountain.
I don't know that anyone other than Jodorowsky could've made El Topo. Though the film has its critics (and the total of ratings here is low for a film that does what El Topo does), it's one you ought to see. There are things in the movie that Jodorowsky undoubtedly meant to disturb the viewer, and the high level of violence is counterbalanced by the imagery. (Jodorowsky, as a filmmaker, is a master at crafting bizarre ideas and symbolism into filmed images.)
The plot is...um...weird. I won't tell you the plot, because it's honestly a good deal better in the execution than in the planning--this is why I think nobody but Jodorowsky can film the movies he's done.
On a side note, it seems most copies of El Topo are taken from Japanese laserdiscs, meaning several things: one, there is a loss in quality, as the minimal transfer is master film; film reel used for LDs; master cassette; tape you get. So it's probably 3rd gen, has the standard of Japanese film where any "naughty" bits are given a digital blur, and two, it has subtitles in Japanese. I could read some of them (studying Japanese will do that for you), and the sub job isn't exactly great, but it does the trick. (I believe copies of The Holy Mountain are the same, but I have yet to pick one up for myself.)
In any case, El Topo's a film for people who enjoy bizarre, violent films, and probably just as good an introduction to Jodorowsky as you can find.