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El reloj (2008)
A refreshing take on gay desire
It's hard to explain what makes this short so interesting without "giving away" what it's about. So if you don't want to know what happens, then stop reading now... though I have to add, as fair warning, that if you're the kind of person who would stop reading now, then you're probably not going to like this film anyway. You'll complain at the end that nothing happened.
Which is exactly what I find refreshing about this film. So many gay films are fantasies about the fulfillment of desire: Finding that the object of your desire is also interested in you. Coming out of the closet and finding that you're accepted. Achieving love despite all obstacles. And that's fine. I mean, after the warm-fuzzy review I wrote of "Beautiful Thing," I can hardly pretend that I'm not susceptible to gay romances based on wish fulfillment.
But I also love the fact that "El Reloj" is the opposite of all that. This is a story about desire not being fulfilled--and not in a grand, tragic way, but in an utterly mundane, dammit-now-I'll-always-wonder-what-might-have-happened-if... kind of way. The story is ambiguous, which is part of the intellectual pleasure, but I'm operating on the assumption that we're supposed to understand that at least one of the protagonists, if not both, is sexually interested in the other but lacks the courage or the skill or whatever to make the final push that will carry him (them?) from desire to fulfillment.
I like it because it's realistic. There's a lot more frustrated, unrequited desire in the world than otherwise. I like that Marco Berger was able to capture that--and that he *thought* to capture that; that he thought this was a story worth telling. On the strength of this short alone, I'm keen to see his debut feature, "Plan B."
Angels in America (2003)
As I suspect is true of most of the people who assigned this film ten stars, I am a huge fanyea, verily, a devoteeof the *play* "Angels in America." When I heard that HBO was turning it into a miniseries, I was duly thrilled, and that excitement carried me through my first viewing of the broadcast with only a minor sense of letdown. I recently re-watched the film over several evenings, and with the added distance of several years, my disappointment in the film is stronger. The play deserved a better screen adaptation than this.
The acting, I'm pleased to say, isn't one of the major problems. With one exception, the cast do a fantastic job. I don't have the space to single out every actor for the praise they deserve, but I do have to make special mention of Jeffrey Wright's Belize (Ma cherie bichette!) and Meryl Streep's Ethel Rosenberg. The one weak link in this cast is Emma Thompson. She's reasonably believable as the Angel, though hardly an obvious choice. But she's too British to pull off Emily, the Italian American nurse (she doesn't even remember to keep up the accent), and she's too posh to play the psychotic homeless woman (again, accent). If you're going to do the actors-playing-multiple-roles thing, then Thompson needs to work in all three roles.
The film's biggest problems lie in the directing and possibly the editing. The pacing is spotty, especially in Part 1. Some scenes play out too slowly: for example, Roy Cohn's first scene, with the phone, which isn't as frenetic as it's supposed to be; or the "quartet" scene, where we watch the two couplesHarper and Joe, Prior and Louisin overlapping crisis. Other scenes play out too fast: the first meeting of Joe and Louis in the washroom, for instance, which moves too quickly to build up much sexual tension between them.
There are missteps in tone right from the beginning of the film. The rabbi's opening monologue is too light, too feel-good, too Hallmark channel or Steven Spielberg. And the confessional scene between Louis and the rabbi shortly afterward, which works on a stage with minimal scenery, becomes unbelievable when it's placed at the cemetery entrance, with people passing behind and a whole row of rabbis listening inand the coffin, the central presence in this scene as originally written because it symbolizes Prior's mortality and reminds us that Louis is a person who abandons people who have claims on his love, nowhere to be seen.
But the biggest problems with tone surround the Angel's appearances. Kushner warns in his playwright's notes that unless "the director and designers invent great, full-blooded stage magic," the results will be "disappointing" and "ineffectual." Now, on a stage, in a live theater, the special effects used in this film would have more than fit the bill for "great, full-blooded stage magic." But on screen, in the age of CGI, the special effects didn't come across as that spectacular. A major failing hereparadoxicallyis Nichols's insistence on using wide shot to show us the scale of what they created. Again, I'm sure that live, on set, the staging of the Angel's appearances looked amazing. But on screen, it just looks like Emma Thompson hanging from a cable way up in the air (and wriggling around in a funny way) in a room with abnormally tall ceilings. Sci-fi has spoiled us, Nichols. Unless you have the budget to compete with the scale of a CGI blockbuster, don't try. I'm willing to bet money that designing special effects on a smaller scale, relying more heavily on close-ups to fill our vision with wonder, would have produced more spectacular results. This would have been especially important in the wrestling scene, which is supposed to be deathly serious but was so over-the-top that it actually ended up coming across as slapstick.
I have a similar complaint regarding the use of sex in the Angel's appearances. The Angel wasn't a convincing erotic presence because we were shown too much. Wide shots of the Angel and Prior copulating in mid-air wreathed in fire, or the Angel and Hannah locking lips and thrashing around amid fireworks, weren't as impressive as I'm sure they sounded on paper. It just looked, to borrow a line from the script, ungainly. Again, close-upsglimpses of naked flesh, eyes and mouths in ecstasywould have been more effective. The close-in shot of Hannah falling back onto the bed in post-coital bliss was more emotionally powerful, and a more striking piece of stage magic, than the wide shot that preceded it.
Some final remarks about Kushner's rewrites for the screenplay: I regret the loss of the magic realist scene in the Mormon Visitors Center, between Harper and Priorbut I'm prepared to sigh and say, "Well, you can't preserve everything, that's why the movie's never as good as the original." The additional scene between Hannah and Joe near the end of the movie, at the entrance to the subway, was a worthy addition, an excellent way to provide more closure for Joe's storyline. Throughout the movie, religion was more prominent than it had been in the play: Hare Krishnas chanting in the street, the gospel choir at Belize's friend's funeral, the apparently Amish choir outside the subway. That added a nice dimension to the work. I am baffled, though, by the unhelpful additions to the scene between Hannah and Joe at the Visitors Center, and that trite line about "Hold to what you believe" is...an embarrassing stain.
I'm probably coming across as a perfectionist. But "Angels in America" is an outstanding work that deserves perfection. I've seen films so good I'm prepared to hail them as perfect. I would really have liked this to be one of them, but it wasn't.
Beautiful Thing (1996)
Flawed but sweet
Every now and then, when I'm in the mood to watch a sweet little gay romance, I dig out my VHS copy of "Beautiful Thing." The film has its flaws. Exchanges of dialog that aren't quite believable. (They perhaps worked better on stage than on screen since we expect less realism on stage.) Ben Daniels was miscast as Tony, or at least needed better make-up and wardrobe: he doesn't look young enough or privileged enough for that character. And then there's that annoying closing dance in the courtyard...
...But before I launch into that pet critique, let's talk about what works well in this film. Excellent use of actual locations in Thamesmead: the film gives you the feeling of settling into the real-world geography. Great music--and I have in mind not only the Mamas and the Papas but also the very clever selection from "The Sound of Music" and the sweet, understated John Altman instrumental that recurs through the movie. Superb acting of the kind you expect from the British: even the small parts feel like three-dimensional, fully thought-out characters. The two male leads aren't especially attractive (as would have been required if this had been an American production), but they make the romance so endearing that they somehow seem to get cuter as the film progresses.
My great regret about this film--the thing that keeps me from enjoying it as un-self-consciously as I would like, and as the filmmakers presumably hope I would--is that closing scene where Ste and Jamie dance in the courtyard, ignoring the crowd around them. My understanding (someone correct me if I'm mistaken) is that in the play, that final dance occurred in the relatively more private space of Jamie's balcony, which makes so much more sense. I can understand why Jonathan Harvey and Hettie Macdonald would be tempted to provide a more dramatic, defiant, celebratory coming out for the end of the movie. And I have tried so hard over the years to justify that decision in my head as a believable event in the world of this movie: Ste and Jamie are both accustomed to being victims of violence, so the decision to live openly is a knowing, calculated risk. Ste is presumably leaving the estate to move into the new pub with Jamie and Sandra, so he's no longer in danger from his father and brother, as everyone had been so afraid earlier. Jamie's making foolish decisions in the reckless euphoria of coming out, but Sandra's there watching out for him, glaring at the crowd like a mother velociraptor, daring anyone to threaten her child.
I've tried to explain the closing scene in all those ways. But the fact remains that after all the work this film went through to make itself believable--the locations, the superb acting--it lapses inexplicably at the final, crucial moment into a fairy tale ending. That was an unfortunate decision, and tagging the film "An urban fairytale" doesn't suffice to make the decision palatable. This film simply has the wrong ending. I've seen Harvey say that he wanted to provide a positive image of hope for gay working-class youth. Those young people would have been better served, and the story would have been sweeter, had the film stayed more believable up through the end.
Still, the film's worth digging out from time to time for another viewing.
Mamma Mia! (2008)
Just go listen to ABBA Gold
Having read Anthony Lane's review of Mamma Mia for the New Yorker, I approached this film with appropriately low expectations. I knew everyone was going to have orange skin. I knew the actors would not be doing very graceful or interesting things while they sang. I knew the film was just a vehicle for ABBA songs, which meant that it was going to have a thin, contrived plot--and that was fine with me. Like virtually every other viewer who has chipped in to the financial success of this film and the Broadway musical it was based on, I was only watching it for the ABBA anyway. It would be nostalgic, it would be peppy, it would be fun. I'd get to enjoy the pleasure of anticipation--"Oh, I know what song is coming here!"--or, alternatively, the laughter of surprised recognition when the actors launched into a song I hadn't seen coming.
In the end, I didn't even get that. It was clear within five minutes that this film was going to be excruciatingly overacted. The loud cackling laughter, the slapstick, the spastic dancing, the needless acrobatics (hanging and falling off of roofs). Certain leading actors' inability to sing, which made it hard to enjoy the music. I give the creators credit for incorporating songs into the storyline in, let's say moderately clever ways. But watching how poorly acted and choreographed this movie was, I thought: Is the problem that the people making this film are too embarrassed by the silliness of the premise to take it seriously enough to make it good? You can know that the premise of your film is silly--you can signal to the audience that you know it's silly--but you can still love it enough and pour enough care into it to create a film that's impressively executed and delightful to watch, even heartwarming. Baz Luhrmann has demonstrated that brilliantly with Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge. Perhaps Luhrmann could have made this film enjoyable. As is, I'd have gotten more enjoyment from just putting on my headphones and popping ABBA Gold into my CD player.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Not as great as the hype, but deeply moving
Perhaps the hype surrounding this film, together with my enthusiasm for the short story on which its based, caused me to go in with my expectations too high, but I found "Brokeback Mountain" mildly disappointing. It was a good film, but it wasn't the great film I was hoping for. I'd like to see the film a second time on the big screen, the sign of a good film; but it's not a film I feel a need to own, which would have been the sign of a great film. (By way of a benchmark, recent films that did fall into my must-own category were "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Goodbye Lenin.")
I can't put my finger on why "Brokeback Mountain" failed to meet my must-own criteria. The actors gave surprisingly good performances. I was particularly impressed with Anne Hathaway during her phone conversation with Heath Ledger's character--she did an excellent job of conveying her character's private thoughts with just small movements of her eyes. Heath Ledger's various nominations for best actor awards are well deserved, though I hesitate to say his performance actually ought to win those awards. I'd say the same about Ang Lee's nominations for best director. Depending on what the competition is, I wouldn't mind seeing "Brokeback Mountain" take the Best Picture trophy at the Oscar's.
Still, there was something about the film that didn't quite come together. I was close to crying a couple times, but only close--the film couldn't get me over the edge. (By contrast, I still weep every time I watch the flying Lenin bust in "Goodbye Lenin.") The film steered well away from the sin of maudlin sentiment, but its emotional energy didn't come into the tight focus that would have made it not just good but great.
I will say two more things in the film's favor, though: First, it is a highly faithful rendering of the original short story. The dialog, even certain articles of clothing, were true to Annie Proulx's original vision. A good film doesn't necessarily have to be faithful to its original material (the film adaptations of "Yentl" and "Orlando" come to mind). But the conscientious fidelity of this film impressed me. There was only one significant deviation from Proulx's story: a certain character with whom Jack gets involved at one point (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers) is a woman in the short story, not a man as in the film. I presume the change was made to simplify Jack's sexuality--a regrettable move but understandable given the contemporary politics of sexuality, which favors clear-cut distinctions between gay and straight. A similar kind of change was made in the film version of E. M. Forster's "Maurice."
The second, and final, thing I need to say on behalf of this film is something that many others have commented on as well. The film stays with you. For two days afterward, I was in a kind of funk somewhere between sadness and moist-eyed gratitude that I live in a time and place where I can BE with the man I love, thank you God. As a matter of hard-nosed aesthetic criticism, I wish the film could have coupled that "aftereffect" with a more powerful in-theater experience. Still, the "aftereffect" is an accomplishment.
The Promethean (2003)
LDS cinema needs more films like this
Actually, it's possible that the filmmaker might not be entirely comfortable with the label "LDS cinema," but since I saw this short as part of the LDS Film Festival (in Provo, Utah), I will never be able to think of this film as anything but. Which is not to disparage the film. On the contrary: I find this short exciting precisely because it shows what a new generation of LDS filmmakers may be capable of. So much of the material LDS filmmakers have been churning out lately has been either (a) efforts to import Hollywood conventions into the Mormon world, creating a parallel entertainment industry for LDS folks who want to see family-friendly films about people like themselves, or (b) efforts to export Mormon stories into the mainstream, often with a muted--or, in the case of "The Book of Mormon Movie," not so muted--missionary agenda. "The Promethean" avoids this import-export dynamic. Instead, "The Promethean" seeks to engage in ongoing philosophical and artistic conversations from a perspective that is distinctively, but not self-consciously or uniquely, LDS.
Precisely for that reason, LDS audiences may not know what to make of this film. This film isn't really intended for the kind of suburban Utah audience who's been the target of most LDS films, from "God's Army," to "Out of Step," to "The RM," to "Pride and Prejudice." "The Promethean" tries to be "arthouse." There's a certain awkwardness about the attempt--like the filmmaker's trying a little too hard to convince us that, yes, an LDS film can be hip enough even for a facial-haired, body-pierced, coffee-drinking, Sundance-type crowd. But chalk that up to a novice's insecurity (and maybe too many years living in the Mormon corridor). The film is intellectually engaging and a welcome change of pace from the schmaltz of "A Pioneer Miracle" or the heavy-handedness of "Rain," both of which it justly beat out in competition.
"The Promethean" is an allegory, loosely inspired by Greek mythology and set in an anonymous contemporary urban landscape. Every day, Prometheus is intercepted by hit men in Greek masks, condemned to death in the presence of Zeus, and shot. The next day, he returns to life, and it all starts over again. Yes, you saw this in "Groundhog Day," but "The Promethean" aspires--successfully--to the philosophical gravitas of "Memento." The theme here is freedom of the will . . . and it's at this point that we see an LDS influence at work. Prometheus must claim his freedom (his agency, in LDS parlance), even if this means the gods must die. The film reminded me of the Mormon take on the Eden myth, which sees the eating of the forbidden fruit not as damnable but as a necessary, albeit dangerous, step forward in human development. "The Promethean" uses a different myth to tell much the same story: as Eve must violate God's prohibition in order to progress, so Prometheus must take drastic measures to free himself from the god who holds him captive. It's a distinctively, but not uniquely, LDS take on a philosophical issue of interest beyond Mormon circles. If LDS filmmakers aspire to make distinctive contributions to the film canon, "The Promethean" would be a good model to build on.
Chavez: Inside the Coup (2003)
Do not miss this film!
I've been surprised at how negative--and vehemently negative--most of the comments posted about this film have been. I saw the film for the first time last night, and if I had time, I'd go again today. This film is a fascinating documentary, affording us a rare, perhaps unprecedented, fly-on-the-wall look at a coup in progress.
Most of the complaints I've seen about this film are ideological in nature--i.e., reviewers who oppose Chavez are upset that the film presents him so sympathetically. Though I myself am not a Chavez fan, neither am I moved by complaints that this film is one-sided, propagandistic, etc. When I go to see an arthouse film--especially one with a title like "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"--I'm not really expecting to see the kind of conscientious effort at even-handedness I'd expect from, say, PBS's "Frontline." I don't mind that the filmmakers have constructed a view of events that's sympathetic to Chavez, given that the whole point of the film is to challenge an already widely disseminated anti-Chavez representation of those same events. It's not as if the pro-Carmona folks who run Venezuela's private news stations haven't had a chance to air their version, no?
Besides, I'm not convinced that this documentary *is* unreservedly pro-Chavez. Particularly at the beginning, the film does not shy away from showing Chavez as a second Peron--another Latin American colonel turned populist demagogue. We see how he promotes a personal cult; we see how he encourages the poor to view him as their benefactor, someone who might buy them cement or intervene in their personal legal entanglements. The scene on the plane where Chavez discusses globalization doesn't exactly make him look like a sophisticated analyst of current events. And after that bizarre scene where he quotes poetry to explain how he came to know his grandfather was a freedom-fighter, not a murderer (with Simon Bolivar casting what look like incredulous, sidelong glances from where he stands framed in a painting on the wall), it's not hard to see why the opposition has questioned Chavez's sanity.
That said, the film clearly invites us to root for Chavez and his people during the coup attempt. And it clearly wants us to hiss at Carmona, and the privileged wealthy, and the fat cats who used their control of private media outlets to suppress the truth about what was going on in the presidential palace. One of the points that this film drove home for me is how important the media have become in shaping--not just reporting--events, and how frighteningly easy it is for a few people to control the public's understanding of events. That this film itself is an example of trying to control the public's understanding of an event is ironic but not scandalous. (Welcome to postmodernity.)
In any case, the film's point about media manipulation is well taken and powerfully made. If nothing else, the film offers an exhilarating ride, well worth the price of a non-matinee ticket, and it will provide plenty of conversation material for afterwards at the coffeehouse. Do not miss this film!
The Glass Is Half Full
With the third installment finished, what can be said for Jackson's adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings"? The films were lovingly made. The films were lavishly made. Sets, costumes, special effects, soundtrack--all very impressive.
Still, I feel let down by these films. The most generous thing I can say about Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" is that it's . . . decent. If I were evaluating the trilogy simply as a swords-and-sandals fantasy epic, I'd probably have higher praise for it. But this isn't just another swords-and-sandals fantasy epic--or at least, it isn't supposed to be. This is a film adaptation of a minor classic of British literature. And when you work with a classic, you have certain responsibilities to the original text that Jackson didn't live up to.
When you make a film adaptation of a classic--for instance, a Shakespeare play--you cut and rearrange material as necessary. But you don't add material. You don't write new lines; you don't invent new conflicts; you don't import Hollywood cliches. Yet that's what Jackson did with Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." We see it from that first battle scene in "Fellowship," which looks like something out of "Attack of the Clones"; and then we get that canned confrontation-turned-into-laughter reunion of Frodo and Gandalf; and then we see Merry and Pippin behaving like the Three Stooges with a stolen firework; and so on and so on, down to the imported breakup-and-reconciliation dynamic between Frodo and Sam on the way into Mordor, to Denethor's improbable-but-photogenic fiery plunge off the top of Minas Tirith, to the Rocky-like melodrama of Sam's carrying Frodo up Mount Doom, to the soap-opera passion of Aragon and Arwen's final kiss. Hollywood cliche after Hollywood cliche. Jackson had the decency not to try to "improve" on Tolkien's story (I shudder to think what a Disney adaptation of "Lord of the Rings" would have come out looking like). But the classic feel of Tolkien's novel gets watered down by anachronism.
I've wanted to be generous in evaluating these films: I've tried to do the glass-is-half-full thing. But half full is also half empty. I'd hoped for better from the maker of "Heavenly Creatures." All that advance hype about the sets and the costumes and the props led me to hope that Jackson was going to recreate on film the spirit of Tolkien's trilogy, which grew out of a lifetime's immersion in the language and literature of Anglo-Saxon antiquity, mediated through the Romantic vision of the nineteenth century. Instead, Jackson's trilogy looks like Tolkien as read by a Star Wars fan who plays Dungeons & Dragons every Friday night.
I don't want to minimize Jackson's accomplishment: the glass IS half full. Still, Tolkien deserved better. As a lover of "The Lord of the Rings," Jackson is passionate and lavish; but he isn't altogether faithful.
This movie isn't cinema
The problem with the Book of Mormon Movie is that it isn't cinema. It's either a really expensive roadshow or a really bad made-for-TV movie. This film has no business being shown in theaters. It is, in fact, the kind of film that in the evangelical Christian market would have gone straight to video, available for purchase by catalog. The only reason this film is on the big screen is because the geographical concentration of Latter-day Saints makes that feasible. But just because it's feasible doesn't mean it should have been done.
As hoaky as I think Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" is, I have to give DeMille credit--he knew how to make a movie. He knew that you can't just put scenes from the Bible on screen. You have to play with the material, working biblical scenes into a unified narrative of your own creation, with a single dramatic trajectory carrying the audience through from start to finish. The makers of the Book of Mormon Movie didn't know to do that, or they were afraid to take the necessary liberties. They just put scenes from the Book of Mormon on screen. The result is a series of vignettes, not a unified narrative. There's no plot, no climax, no denouement. We just...well...plow through selected highlights of 1 Nephi and the opening chapters of 2 Nephi.
Why did Gary Rogers even bother making this film? I'm not a fan of turning the Book of Mormon into cinema in the first place. But if you're going to do it, do it right. Get ample funding. Get good writers. Do the research necessary to approximate the historical period. Take the liberties necessary to transform scripture into a cinematically interesting story. Don't just "put the Book of Mormon on the big screen."
Last year, I said that "Fellowship of the Ring" was a "decent adaptation" of the original book. I can't be that generous with "The Two Towers."
I could tell from the trailer that Jackson was planning to beef up the battle at Helm's Deep and the Arwen-Aragorn-Eowyn triangle--and I recognized the cinematic wisdom of both those moves. I hadn't anticipated that the second film would end so much sooner than the second book did; that too, though, I can see the wisdom of.
But Jackson took too many liberties for me to enjoy this film as an adaptation of a minor classic. There's too much new material lifted from pulp fantasy, too many Hollywood cliches: the attack of the wolf-riders, the surprise eleventh-hour arrival of elvish troops, Pippin's strained scheme to rouse Treebeard from his apathy, the detour to Osgiliath, the confrontation between Frodo and the airborne Ringwraith (what was that supposed to show, anyway?).
Viewers who have never read the book will no doubt enjoy the film as an entertaining, action-filled, special effects bonanza--though I must say it does a gross injustice to Tolkein to turn his work into merely that. As for the D&D geeks who camped out in theaters on the night of December 17, they will no doubt forgive Jackson his infidelities because the film has cool monsters and sword fights and elvish dialogue--which has always been the way to that crowd's hearts and wallets. There's no question that the film deserves another round of Oscars for sets and costumes and special effects. But the film is still a disappointment.