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The Kids of Degrassi Street (1979)
Where it all started, and ought to have stopped
In this series one sees Degrassi in its original form: classroom videos for little kids; and this was the form and the audience it should have stuck to. The more popular follow-up show remained the same, except for ever-growing pretensions to a significance in excess of its powers, and an ever-growing tendency toward salaciousness, which culminated at last--in the one chance the show received to sit up late amongst the grown-ups--in the series' house princess (along with her opposite number, a butter-wouldn't-melt little minx) losing her cherry. And who knows but what that had been the writers' covert object all along, even as far back as Degrassi Street? I'm reminded of a comment by one of the women in John Huston's life about another, whom he had raised from a child: something about the appeal to a man of seeing a girl grow to ****able age before his eyes. Such matters aside, the Junior High/High/School's Out episodes never graduated from the Degrassi Street level: they featured the same diagrammatic plots, the same tendentious conversations, the same cardboard performances (and the same cheap-looking production). In this initial series those things were only to be expected, since after all, that's what educational TV is like. But at 18 the cast remained as blank and flat as at 8, and still inhabited the same classroom toy-town universe; as if someone had carried on the Dick and Jane readers and pinned a Big Issue to each character: Dick gets AIDS, Jane gets anorexia, Baby Sally gets pregnant--but they're no more real for it. Degrassi Street was the first expression of what Degrassi had to say, and the last honest one; in those days the enterprise still had its head about it and knew its limits. Afterwards, all was overreach.
The Prisoner (2009)
Hardly worth a pennyfarthing
This series' continual allusions to the 60s original make it look like a remake, but it gradually reveals itself not to be. Rather, it's a new story based on the same idea and starting more or less the same, but leading to a different resolution (if one can call the ending of the first series a resolution). The writer seems to have been attracted by the original's artiness and over-elaboration, both of which he emulates, while failing to achieve the same measure of style or wit. That makes his script less entertaining and more tedious. But its largest fault is that the beginning and the end don't match up. If the villain's aim were as stated, it wouldn't lead him to come up with anything like the Village, and his own behavior there, assuming it to be deliberate, seems fatuous. The second largest fault is that the denouement is of the all-encompassing kind that is invoked retroactively to excuse anything the writer felt like tossing in (cf. Life on Mars and Vanilla Sky) but that fails to explain anything in particular, that is, the things the viewer wants explained. It doesn't even manage to explain itself, e.g. how are the villagers kept in the Village, and where are they really, since it's made clear that they aren't all in the same place? The story hasn't been thought through enough. And the production doesn't transform it: the settings are drab, Ian McKellen's 2 is too much of a very moderately good thing, and Jim Caviezel as 6 appears to be channeling Steve Railsback in The Stunt Man, another overlong desert allegory, which the director may have had in mind while shooting this. It's not a bad show; it's just something to watch, in lieu of watching nothing--or, in other words, TV.
The A-Team (2010)
Off the jazz
This movie starts, reasonably enough, with introductions. It presents one and then another of the team facing some dire predicament from which he narrowly and improbably extricates himself or is extricated by the others. These situations are depicted more or less in the key of the original show, which was hyperbolic and self-kidding. So far, so good.
But no farther. From thereon out the movie devolves into a straight commando story with occasional comic asides: your typical action movie, in other words. And who wants to see a SERIOUS version of The A Team? The movie does remember to remember one of the show's catch phrases, "I love it when a plan comes together," although not when or how to use it, and disremembers the most significant one: "He's on the jazz," said of Hannibal in his manic phase. In fact, the whole team was on the jazz, most of the time, and that's what made them entertaining. They were written and played as COMIC mercenaries, behaving outrageously to outsiders and indulging in zany byplay among themselves. George Peppard's Hannibal, in his cheerfully smug obnoxiousness, could have been the model for Dr. House; he was funny, and so were his teammates.
Their movie equivalents are not. In place of Peppard the movie offers Liam Neeson, one of the dourest actors around. Bradley Cooper, taking over for Dirk Benedict, comes the closest of the bunch; he has the right brand of cockiness but is hamstrung by poor material. And in any event, what humor comes through sits uneasily with a plot hinging on official corruption and betrayal. As the movie rolls on (and on and on), it tries increasingly to elicit our concern for the heroes' plight--but who wants to CARE about The A Team? Furthermore, the movie abandons the formula of the show--The Magnificent Seven, starring the Marx Brothers--for a routine Dirty Dozen-style story which ends where the show began. And even the action scenes are so cut up that we seldom get to see anybody do anything; we're deprived even of the simple pleasure of seeing people run, climb, and fight. As if by design, the movie blocks nearly every source of enjoyment, except the most primitive cinema can provide: that of watching objects move. But for that you can look at passing traffic.
As a movie, a miss; as a version of the book, a mess
A day after seeing Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with ten years separating it from my last reading of the book, I wrote this about it:
This third episode in the Narnia series is obviously striving to avoid the mistakes (both artistic and commercial) of the second: it keeps things moving briskly, makes its dramatic points clearly, and remembers that it was intended for a child audience. It will probably entertain those of that audience who are not readers of C. S. Lewis, but those who are--although they may enjoy it to a degree, as I did--I believe will agree, regretfully, that it still misses the mark.
First of all and most of all, it fails to take us back to the world of the first movie, or even of the second: Narnia is a completely different country in each. This robs us of the most fundamental pleasure of a series, that of revisiting a beloved place--and a magical one, which the Narnia of this movie is not, in spite of the appearance of a magician's spell book and a few mythical beasts. Lucy and Edmund, the two returning children, say they love it, but we don't see any evidence they do or any particular reason why they should: it isn't so very wonderful.
In spite of smiles and hearty cheers all around, this movie lacks any real joy or lightness of spirit. Even the first movie was heavier than it needed to be, and this one is more so (though less dour than its immediate predecessor). It concentrates on action and peril or the threat of peril, on keeping us anxious most of the time: too anxious, I think, for a children's movie. It has too much of alarm and too little of relief.
More important, the stress on the physical slights the moment-to-moment narrative and drama. The movie's script leaves out any number of little moments from the book (as well as whole sections of the plot) and substitutes big ones of its own, which are not out of keeping with the whole but are simply distractions from what we really need to see. For example, we didn't need a little girl to be stowing away on the ship just so we could later witness a teary reunion with her missing mother. But we did need and don't see the moral error and reformation of the one new child protagonist, Eustace. At the beginning he is certainly an odious nuisance, but that's all he is, and his repentance is not shown. Of course at that point he's a dragon, but one with an inexpressive face and without the power of speech (or even the interior monologues he is given at other points in the movie). His redemption by Aslan, we hear him tell about in a brief long shot, a throwaway.
The other two protagonists, Lucy and Edmund, hardly communicate with each other, or with their buddy Caspian. The Dawn Treader itself is a gorgeous creation, imaginatively photographed, but we don't get to see how they feel (and therefore we don't feel) what it's like to be in it or to be at sea, and on a Narnian sea. Their adventures at their various ports of call are rushed, not given their full due, so that the myth-like elements--the invisible attackers, the golden pool, the enchanted sleepers--carry little resonance (in contrast to, say, the lamppost or the courtyard of stone figures in the original movie). I'm sorry to say that halfway through the movie my heart sank a little on realizing that the characters still had five of the seven objects of their quest left to work through.
According to report, the scheduling of each next Narnian movie will depend on the success of the last Narnian movie. I should judge that the prognosis for The Silver Chair is doubtful. It would carry over none of the original protagonists, only Eustace, and the actor playing that part unfortunately is not very appealing, even reformed (or, if he can be, did not have a chance to show it in this movie). The series has accumulated no momentum because of its intermittency; its failure to carry through the best elements from the first installment; the unavoidable over-aging of its actors; and the separateness of the stories (since unlike Harry Potter and LOTR it is not a continuing serial). It has not even an audience to count on: a child who was 8 when it began will probably have attained to his or her majority before the end, if the producers manage to get through all seven of the books. The unlikeliness of this prospect seems a pity, since the last two have the most movie-suitable stories of all (the Creation and the Revelation, in Narnian terms).
And here is my addendum after re-reading the original:
I don't know how they did it, but the movie makers managed to mess up all the episodes in the book: every one: changed them, chopped them up, left out the best lines and scenes, sailed right by most of the feelings evoked and most of the messages conveyed. Lewis deserved more appreciative translators.
Dorian Gray (2009)
Dull and ill-judged
The Picture of Dorian Gray can probably never be dramatized satisfactorily. The BBC once did it faithfully, but without the narrative passages the story seemed even more incomplete than it had on the page. The novel reads like a partial reconstruction of a damaged original; Wilde tells the story with a curious reticence, so that many pivotal scenes go unwritten and the deterioration of Dorian's character is shown in suggestive vignettes rather than in its entirety. Part of this indirection was no doubt deliberate, to leave the supreme horror for the climax; and in that regard the author succeeds. However, he also introduces confusions: he states in his preface that there are no immoral books but proceeds to make a book the instrument of Dorian's corruption; and not only the painter Basil but Wilde himself seems to treat youth, beauty, and innocence as identical. Yet despite these and other weaknesses the novel evokes genuine distress--alarm mingled with sadness--in the scenes it does depict, such as Lord Henry's casually malicious temptation of Dorian and Dorian's equally casual and malicious casting aside of Sybil Vane. Some at least of this distress has come through in every film telling of the tale.
...until this one. When I first read the novel I found it vague in some respects, but when I turned back to it after seeing the film it seemed crystal clear. The motives for Dorian's descent into decadence were insufficiently described, perhaps insufficiently understood, by Wilde, but in the film, as portrayed by a particularly dull and lifeless Dorian, they don't exist at all, and despite the plethora of orgiastic detail one can't even tell what's supposed to be going on with him. His evil angel Lord Henry is all wrong: not Wilde's jaded amoralist but a stock Victorian villain, until he is made to have a change of conscience after Dorian takes up with his daughter (daughter?). This Lord Henry belongs in Dickens or Wilkie Collins rather than in Wilde. And then the film has Sybil Vane's brother meeting the young Dorian in person, making nonsense of their later encounter. Finally, in an especially poor stroke of judgment, the painted Dorian turns three-dimensional, pops out of the canvas, and tries to wring Dorian's neck. The filmmakers seem not to have understood that the ominous power of the painting lies in its painting-ness, its inanimate quality; bringing it to life renders it innocuous, as if a haunted house were to get up on its legs and dance. In all, this production tends to take on the air of a cartoon (and parts of it, like the computer-drawn buildings, are almost cartoons). It is certainly ambitious; but as a well-known wit once remarked, ambition is the last refuge of the failure.
Criminal Minds (2005)
"Are you okay?" This is a question which the members of this show's FBI profiling team ask one another whenever one of them, after having undergone a particularly grueling ordeal, is looking glum and pensive. The glum one then responds with a slice of psychiatrist's-couch confession, or an "I just wish..." speech, to be answered with an apposite piece of wisdom on the order of "You did your job, nobody can ask more of you than that." The function of these brief interludes is to demonstrate that the characters have human feelings, which are not otherwise very apparent. With a single exception--the obligatory kooky tech girl--they're characters out of Dick Tracy, or a Dick Tracy anime, and not for a second confusable with real people. The Dick Traciest of all, who is more or less the central character, also reminds one of Norman Bates in a suit, and for a while I believed he was the continuing unsub (the show's word for "suspect"), only none of his colleagues suspected it. After watching several more episodes I realized at last he was the show's idea of an arch-good guy.
When I used to hit on this show while flipping channels, I couldn't quite make it out. The protagonists seemed to be some kind of covert police force or enemy spy cell, and they seemed to be always sitting around tables or inside planes discussing criminal psychology. Only after I got to watching the series in re-runs did I gradually tumble to what it was about. An off network had begun recycling it in perpetuity, back to back with two shows I did understand, Ghost Whisperer and Without a Trace, and like them, Criminal Minds wears well in re-runs: the episodes can be watched repeatedly and still retain much of their effect. So the show is enjoyable to an extent. However, it also generally unimaginative, with stiff, slightly florid playing after the Canadian TV manner; and compared to its British counterpart Touching Evil, or to the Hannibal Lecter movies that spawned this dubious genre, it is dramatically crippled by a structure that almost never allows the villain of the week a big scene in which he confronts his trackers and expresses himself. Typically the heroes race to save the latest victim, burst in in the nick of time, and shoot the villain dead; we don't even get to see him suffer a lingering, painful end; our desire for revenge and our curiosity about him remain alike unsatisfied.
Since I don't like stories of kidnappings, stalkings, home invasions, or random shootings, which comprise almost the whole catalog of serial killers' methods, it may be I'm not the best judge of this show. But I don't think it's just my personal taste that finds the best episodes to be those in which serial killings figure only incidentally. Four episodes in particular have impressed me, two suspense and two pure horror. The horror shows--one about a homeless woman locked in an abandoned meat-packing plant and forced through a horror maze that leads to the slaughterhouse, and the other about young women abducted, frozen with paralytic drugs, painted like dolls, having doll hair sewn into their scalps, and seated around a tea table to join a lunatic's collection of life-sized dolls--were two of the creepiest things I've seen on TV, and if I'd seen them as a child would probably have haunted me for life. The two suspense shows were sharply conceived and staged: one was confined to a shopping mall where a little girl was hidden somewhere but the team didn't know where, why, or by whom, and the other, the best of all, in which a killer had targeted the kooky tech girl for an intriguing reason, rose to a taut, superbly staged climax that brought the killer into the team's office and laid it on a hacker, subbing for the kooky tech girl, to alert her via PC without also alerting the killer. This sequence raised the show far above the level of the everyday, or every-week, torture-murders, and made me wish it could have dispensed with the serial killer business altogether.
P.S. I didn't know where to put this note, and so I saved it for last: In one episode one of the regulars says "theirselfs" for "themselves." Why would the show's makers not have overdubbed this? Are they okay?
Best Worst Movie (2009)
Uninformative and somewhat unpleasant
Best Worst Movie isn't what I expected it to be. In publicizing it, its maker and its subject gave interviews in which they recounted their experiences as actors in the movie Troll 2 15 years ago, and I expected BWM to be an expansion on those accounts: a thorough history of T2's making. But BWM includes very little information on that, less than what was in the interviews, even though it had the director, the writer, and the entire cast to draw from. It doesn't, for example, tell how T2 came into being, how it was financed, its director--an Italian--came to shoot in Utah, how he assembled the cast, and so on. A viewer who didn't know T2 wouldn't be able to piece together the story from the evidence here. Instead BWM concentrates on one of the T2 actors--a one-shot actor--traveling around the country to make personal appearances in what appears to be a touring revival of T2, primarily for the benefit of the cult it has gained since its making. But apart from one fan's account of how his cell came into being, BWM is short on facts even about the cult.
So what does it show? It shows the one-shot actor telling people he once was in a bad movie and recapitulating his dialogue from it for the audiences at the revival showings. It also shows fans doing the kinds of things fans do: quoting lines from the movie, wearing homemade replicas of the costumes, and so on. A very little of this is entertaining--about enough for a five-minute feature on a TV magazine. But Best Worst Movie goes on for 18 times that length (30 times, if one counts the extras on the DVD). It's overkill. Worse yet, amidst all the repetition a somewhat unpleasant outlook comes to make itself felt.
BWM likes to stare and point at people. It doesn't have the sympathy to look beyond the obvious and perceive anything more in them, or the curiosity to find out. It's satisfied to stare. And it seems to divide the objects of its attention into two categories: Geeks and Freaks. The Geeks--the members of the fan cult--are Okay. The Freaks--those who don't like T2, or like it in the wrong way, or belong to some different cult--are Not Okay. Thus one of the actresses from T2, who gave the nearest thing to a successful performance in it but has now become, or perhaps always was, a jittery recluse, isn't given leisure to explain herself, and her invalid mother, who is in no way unusual for a person at her time of life in her state of health (and has nothing to do with anything except that she happened to be on scene), is treated as a freak, whereas the movie validates people who put on goblin get-ups, gobble down green-dyed cakes, and re-enact scenes from a 15-year-old bad movie. I submit that the life of that invalid mother, her reclusive daughter, or any of the other people the film shows as marginal--if someone had the interest and sensitivity to bring them out--could be shown to have more value than the adolescent nonsense BWM chooses to celebrate.
Consider the case: The moviemaker called on his hermitlike former castmate with no warning, she welcomed him into her house--and then he crapped on her. He lured the director of T2 to this country with a promise that he would see his movie appreciated at last--and then not only his appreciators but his former cast crapped on him. He's shown becoming quite testy about it, and no wonder; that kind of treatment is a betrayal. Hence, in the end the taste Best Worst Movie left in my mouth was more worst than best.
You can't always get what you haunt
A travelogue of spook houses was a foolish project to undertake. A spook house is a simulation of a movie, and who wants to see a movie simulate the simulation? In any case, it can't be done, there's no there there. A spook house is a fake: it uses darkness, suggestion, and sudden jumps to make you think you're getting what it lacks the resources to provide. Trying to photograph it is like trying to photograph your uncle pretending to be the boogey man.
The cameraman for this film must have recognized the impossibility of his task, or fallen before it, because he doesn't try to give even a hint of what the experience is like: the camera is constantly bobbing and weaving, zooming in on costume and make-up that wasn't meant to be seen up close. And as if that weren't enough, the spook house scenes aren't enough to fill the running time, so they're interlarded with little lectures on Halloween, horror movies, etc., telling things that anyone who would have an interest in this movie would already know. Most tedious of all is the fans' celebration of themselves, as in an impersonation of a 50s TV horror host, which is much less enjoyable than the worst of the originals.
To my mind the spook house is a great unrecognized and untapped art form. And it will probably remain forever untapped because its audience doesn't want it to be more than it is. However, as it happens, a European artist did once create a high-culture version, sans zombies and chainsaws: an installation simulating an abandoned, partly ruined house where some rooms contained vaguely disturbing evidences of the former occupants, if one looked. Had actual ghosts been added--after the Japanese fashion, say--this would have been the first flowering of the spook house form. But that will have to wait for another day.
Answer: I'd mind my own business
One time when I was living in Indiana and engaging in a dispute with a dry cleaner who had failed to clean a shirt as promised, another customer stepped in and informed me I didn't need the shirt cleaned, anyway. Probably everyone has dealt with a presumptuous idiot who considers it her right to meddle in other people's business. Remember Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park? Remember Maude?
Well, those are the people this show is aimed at, and probably the kind of people who made it. It's a glorification of hubris. Underneath that, of course, it's a trouble-making exercise: it starts fights and then sits back and watches. Here's the set-up: Someone is rude to someone else in a public place--rude, that's all; not violent or threatening. The show rewards the bystander who interferes, knowing nothing of the circumstances, and thereby risks endangering both himself and the person he's supposedly defending; risks escalating a mere discourtesy into a physical confrontation. At the same time the show punishes the people who do the wise thing: sit and mind their own business, rather than make a situation worse by ignorant intervention. The punishment they receive is nagging by the announcer: "AND SHE JUST SITS THERE AND PRETENDS NOT TO NOTICE!!!!!!" Damn right.
A show like this could only have been imagined and carried through by protected idiots: people with the security--i.e. money, job, house--to feel smug and superior and entitled to boss other people; eternally protected from recognizing either their own stupidity or the possible consequences of it. So let me point out the simplest of the facts this show doesn't grasp: A person so far out of control or so oblivious to ordinary standards of conduct as to lash out in a public setting will only be provoked further by a stranger butting in: the meddler could in fact be starting a fight. Police and other professionals who deal with such situations know this. If everyday folks are going to take it on themselves to police their neighbors' conduct they had better learn the same. In the meantime, this show should be kicked off the air. It's a public menace.
Robin Hood (2010)
A distant dream
Last night I had a dream of the Middle Ages: I dreamed I was seeing Sharpe's Rifles in The Return of Martin Guerre. Only Sharpe appeared to be on a drunk, his Rifles couldn't be told apart, and sometimes the story changed to The Lion in Winter (and once to Peter Pan). Some of it was quite violent, but it was all rather beautiful.
I wasn't asleep, of course; the dream was this film. It's like a medieval tapestry brought to life, but as in a tapestry, or a dream, the characters, so near and so huge, remain unknown, and although they go about their business with seeming urgency, yet their actions seem formal and ritualized, as if they were doing a May Day pantomime (one almost expects to see The Wicker Man).
Contributing to the enigmatic effect is the leading actor, who gives the barest outline of a performance, in the barest outline of a part. So here again, as with Kevin Costner, you have a Robin Hood story without a Robin Hood. But his absence makes surprisingly little difference; Robin Hood is more of an idea than a character anyhow. And although the film ends where one would expect a Robin Hood story to start, at the point where Robin is declared an outlaw, it has enough of the requisite elements to be doing with, especially the forest of Barnsdale, with its green, misty depths: it has true storybook allure.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Sent up, went up
This isn't the movie the critics--and, apparently, its makers--took it for. In interviews the actors and the director talked about it as if it were a straight mystery, but what it turns out to be is a Victorian pastiche, in the mode of The Assassination Bureau or The League of Gentlemen, with a farcical Holmes and Watson at its center. I personally like pastiches, but this one I didn't find very enjoyable, well appointed though it is; the violence is too nasty and most of the cast unlikable. A couple of scenes work because the dominant actors, Geraldine James and Edward Fox respectively, know how to play them; but then each disappears and we're left with the glumly miscast principals, among them the estimable Mark Strong, who might have made an interesting Holmes but is stranded playing a stock villain. In addition, the story is boring: Holmes' deductions are superfluous, none of the characters has a stake in the outcome, nothing that can happen will make any difference. The whole thing just floats away.
The Unborn (2009)
Dybbuk stops here
The cameraman, or somebody who worked on this movie, knew how to compose creepy-looking shots. Several of them were used for the trailer, and again for the intro on the DVD, and in those places they have the intended effect. But in the movie itself, creepy as they are, they soon start to become amusing on account of the dopey story.
Here's what happens in the movie's first act. First scene: A girl is out running--and sees a creepy thing. Second scene: She goes babysitting--and sees a creepy thing. Third scene: She goes home--and sees a creepy thing. Some of these she sees in her sleep, some not; she has nightmares AND hallucinations AND she's being haunted. And haunted by three different spirits (her brother, her great uncle, and a dybbuk), which is two too many.
One stops being scared as soon as it becomes obvious that the only purpose of every scene is to bring the girl into contact with some new creepy thing--usually Pugsley Addams, or bugs--and after a while one starts guessing which it's going to be and how soon it will pop up. A little way in, she asks, woodenly--she's played by a Jennifer Connelly type with only half the acting ability (which will give you some idea)--"Why is this happening to me?????" I wanted to shout at her--actually I did--"Because you're in a horror movie!!!!!"
In the second act, the girl resorts to the equivalent of a movie attic to rummage through old family documents and get steered to the character who Knows All About It (whose name someone has thoughtfully circled in ink). At first this know-it-all character goes nuts on seeing her ("No!!!!! Not that!!!!!") but later calls her up and asks her over (after midnight!) to get the whole story. This character advises an exorcism, and is even able to recommend a good exorcist--or, well, not really, because he's never done one, but again, he Knows All About It.
On her way to see him, the girl visits a rare book library to look at one of those incredibly huge, leather-bound grimoires of the kind Giles was always consulting on Buffy; and apparently the librarian is as blind as a bat because the girl is able to walk out of the library with it. Her subsequent conversation with the know-it-all rabbi, boiled down, amounts to this:
- Where did you steal this book from?
- Shut up, I'm being haunted by a dybbuk.
- Now, now, that's only a story invented by ignorant people like yourself. I've written a book on the subject....
- Shut up, I'm being haunted by a dybbuk.
- No, you're not. And if you were I wouldn't know how to get rid of it. And if I did it still wouldn't work because you're a heathen.
- Shut up and translate the book.
- Go soak your head.
- Shut up and translate the book, I'm being haunted by a dybbuk.
- Oh, okay.
The remainder of this act consists largely of these two and others being pursued by the evil spirit in the form of dogs, and humans walking like dogs, with their heads put on upside down; I'm not sure of the reason for this. The rabbi still believes nothing strange is going on; dog with its head upside down, all in a day's work. But he agrees to do the exorcism, anyway, enlisting the help of an Episcopal priest (who subjects the girl to another patronizing lecture) and, apparently, his entire basketball team.
The third act is all about the exorcism. In the course of this the dybbuk begins possessing people sequentially, just like the alien in the old Kyle Maclachlan movie, and one after another character suddenly takes on the ugly face (like those TV actresses you haven't seen in years who reappear after cosmetic surgery). Then one of them is pitched over a balcony; and the evil spirit is laid to rest, apparently.
Ah, but this is a horror-movie "apparently"--when an evil spirit is cast out it always comes back, regardless (and the movie never explains why the ritual didn't work). There follows a surprise ending that's no surprise, since the character has already been shown with morning sickness, and then......and then nothing; that's it. Except for the unhappy possibility of an Unborn 2.
P.S. I should mention that it's the theatrical version I've been describing, not the version TOO SHOCKING TO SHOW IN THEATRES. It could be that that one's really good.
...No, it couldn't.
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
This is a rendition of Maurice Sendak's slightly wistful but generally happy-natured story as it might have been told by Eeyore, A. A. Milne's donkey who saw nothing but gloom in everything. His exaggerated pessimism would seem an undesirable attitude for a children's movie to take; but then, this isn't really a children's movie.
In the middle of it, unexpectedly, there blossoms a beautiful scene where the little boy (not quite as little as Sendak's) visiting the country of the wild things is shown a miniature landscape that one of them has secretly sculpted. Sticking his head through a hole in the middle (like Alice's rabbit hole in reverse), he finds himself surrounded by this imaginary world, where everything is as it should be and all the bad things are left out: an appealing fantasy. But then the voice of Eeyore weighs in to remind us that that won't ever happen, it's all moonshine; and in the end the movie sees to it that the perfect little world is smashed up; better that way, really.
And so with the boy's ascendancy in the community of wild things. He declares himself king, and indeed, becomes king. But when he fails to make them all happy--as no king ever did or ever will--Eeyore's voice comes in again to remind them, and us, that he isn't a REAL king--presumably meaning not of royal descent--and so must leave. (The alternative isn't spelled out, but before he took on the kingship they had threatened to eat him.) Once he is exposed, even his best friend--the artist who wrecked his art or allowed it to be wrecked--turns against him. "What are you, then?" he asks. "I'm just Max," says the boy. "Well, that's not much," his former friend concludes; Max silently agrees; and the movie, seeing him through Eeyore's eyes, lets the judgment stand. No point in trying to be something you're not, even if you succeed at it; you won't be that REALLY; you'll still be what you started out as: Not Much; and you always will. You'll become an outcast and will never again be allowed on Sesame Street.
For Sesame Street is what this movie recalls, along with assorted art-house movies: it's like a Werner Herzog film with Muppets, but also extremely moralistic. However, the moral keeps changing, as the story careers one way and another, and in the end it makes no more sense than the stories in Spike Jonze's other movies. To take the most obvious example: Max reaches the island of the wild things by stealing a boat and sailing across; and he isn't dreaming. The island is part of the same reality as his own neighborhood. So how can he be the first person to set foot on it? Were I to take the story as a coherent whole, I would have to interpret it as a case study of a nearly autistic child whose self-absorption climaxes in an attack on his mother. This precipitates a total break with reality and catapults him into a hallucination in which he meets others of his kind and even achieves some stature among them but in the end is turned out even by his imaginary friends. He resorts to his mother--his victim--who he can be sure will care for him in spite of the threat he poses to her; but in her weariness, brought on by worry and overwork on his behalf, she drops off just looking at him.
Now, logically, at this point I'd expect him to turn on her and on his sister and do to them what the wild things had nearly done to him. And when the police arrive and find him among the gnawed carcasses, he's permanently detached from reality, but happy withal: he's proved to the wild things he really belongs with them and they've welcomed him back to the island and he can live with them there forever. No such ending appears on screen; but maybe it's one of the deleted scenes on the DVD.
This movie looks like art. It has indie film acting, art film landscapes, and university radio station music in some nursery-cabaret mode. It also has giant, literal incarnations of the Sendak drawings, so designed and operated as to appear almost real: too real, as far as I was concerned. And like much art, or seeming art, it isn't meant for children. I would surmise that it's aimed at adults of the type who like to see children realize themselves. Should any of them have been attracted by its artlike trappings, I think they might question whether the messages of this movie--don't imagine what might be, resign yourself to what is, and to the little you are--will nurture anyone's best possibilities.
Or, as the first Eeyore put it: Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.
The Good Wife (2009)
If I were limiting my rating of this show to the realm of present-day American TV, I'd rate it a 9.5. It's the only show I go out of my way to see. And why? Because it's the only one that gets me worked up over the characters, in other ways than by having them murdered or suffering from some dire disease. Dramatic involvement has fallen out of fashion on TV in the U.S.--most shows are too cool to care--and so I take an old-fashioned satisfaction in becoming variously worried, relieved, angry, or cheerful about what the characters are doing and what is done to them. My suspension of disbelief is facilitated by a sharp cast and vivid direction, which puts emotional suspense and its concomitants--focus, pace, mood, foreshadowing--ahead of all else.
...And I have just now realized that what I'm describing, or working toward describing, is a seduction. That pinpoints the type of pleasure the show furnishes, and explains the slight suspicion it engenders. Watching it, I feel as if I'm being enjoyably had by a high-priced, attractive call girl who's very good at what she does; but it is what it is, no more. And so, though I count myself a fan of the show, I can't for a second regard it as serious drama, although it's endeavoring to pass as such. Apart from a strong satirical streak--more like marbling, really, since it runs through every part--what it is is soap opera of a fairly high order, showing genuine cleverness and feeling. Of course it bears only a tenuous relation to real life: the legal cases are resolved patly, in sudden courtroom revelations; the personal turmoils resolve themselves into neatly defined crossfires; and in between, one gets little sense of life as it's lived, i.e. continuously. What does Julianna Margulies do in her office all day? What do her kids do while she's at work? The show doesn't care much. It's concerned with the big scenes, the sweeping flourishes, the successive waves of crisis that batter its heroine.
Margulies' persona, probably even more than her performance, is what holds it all together. The series sets her off like a diamond, but she's the gleaming center. Somehow the actress seems universal: elegant yet earthy, modern but timeless; one can imagine her in any form in which a beleaguered heroine might figure, from Jacobean tragedy to telenovela.
...And so I keep watching.
One for ghost story fans
This is the most rudimentary ghost story I've seen in some time, and also one of the most frightening. It re-awoke what I used to know as a child but a surfeit of ghost stories and movies had since made me forget: how horrible it would be to be haunted. The constant fear of coming home, or going to sleep, or turning around.... The sense of this is conveyed partly by the plain but nerve-jangling music and sound, partly by the two leading actors, who know how to be scared, but mainly, I think, because the movie observes its ghosts with the same directness and apparent belief as its living characters. It is helped in this by the absence of high-tech effects, and also by its inelegant look (which may have been intentional): grotty color, blurry focus, and a general air of undependableness. This is one for ghost story fans to watch alone in the dark.
Ne le dis à personne (2006)
This is a Ruth Rendell type of crime story, translated into French: a middle-class professional-cum-naif finds himself suspected of a crime or otherwise complicit in it and finds his life turned upside down. British TV does these things constantly, and does them better, because a side benefit of the British school of manners is the skill to wound politely; to know just what truth or half-truth subtly hinted at will inflict the most anxiety. It is no accident that Alfred Hitchcock was British. The French, by contrast--at any rate in their movies--take a blase, laissez-faire attitude to malfeasance: So you wish me to kill your husband? C'est si bon.
The trailer for this movie promised what seemed to me an intriguing plot: Man has apparently perfect marriage; wife is grabbed and murdered; then man learns she's not dead, after all, and on further investigation discovers the marriage wasn't so perfect, his wife was unhappily embroiled in some deep plot, in which he gets embroiled himself.
No doubt other people will have perceived what I didn't: that this plot is not really so intriguing, because not new; if one includes movies in which the husband rather than the wife goes missing, it's been done repeatedly. Yet it still has more going for it than the plot, or approximation to one, which emerges in this film. This runs as follows: Perfect marriage; wife murdered... but husband was out cold so he doesn't know exactly what happened; then he finds out she's not dead...or maybe: the picture is a blur. The vagueness of this, I found irritating; even more irritating than the songs that kept blaring forth on the track and drowning out the suspense. I guessed at once that the initiating incident could not be shown in detail without disclosing too much of what the viewer is not supposed to know yet. But a little thought would indicate that if the wife isn't dead and she's now walking around freely she was in on the faking, and that the person who identified the corpse as hers was in on it too. No one gets onto this, however, and so the viewer has to wait till the end of the movie until one of the culprits tells all. These are the "good" culprits, by the way; the identity of the bad culprit is telegraphed on his first appearance, both by virtue of his political standing, which serves no function in the story, and by the casting of the role--although with so many facts obscured, deliberately and otherwise (I still don't understand how all the characters are connected to one another), one can't be sure at that point just what he's guilty of.
So the movie devolves into a story of dumb thugs trying to find a woman by torturing people who know nothing of her whereabouts and, almost as an afterthought, framing the protagonist for the crimes. One would expect them to want to interrogate him too; but it doesn't occur to them to do this until late in the movie, and then almost by accident. And nowhere does the story rise to a higher level of ingenuity. It's just the MVM.
I'm either too guilty or not guilty enough to accept this movie. At bottom it's just another of those suspense stories that amount to a half-hour TV episode--specifically, an episode of the old Alfred Hitchcock series--padded out to five times the length; but this one differs from the rest in its aesthetic and social pretensions. Quite evidently, the director set out to make an art film and a political parable, and prepared himself by watching a lot of early Bergman and late Carl Dreyer, and probably Bela Tarr, as well as art horror movies. And so the movie is shot in black and white, in formal, frozen compositions that last forever; it takes place in an isolated, almost medieval village, where everybody looks as if they were in mourning; and the whole story is narrated offscreen in a muted voice. All this seems like much ado about nothing, since the moral of the fable becomes obvious at once and that is the point of the exercise, as well as the sole source of dramatic interest. Having gotten the point already, and not feeling the need to undergo ritual purification, I found the movie a reverse luxury: something I could have afforded but didn't want. Those who have ears to be boxed, let them hear.
This is my favorite comic book movie of all time. Apart from The Fantastic Four, it's the only one that gave me the same kind of square, giddy delight comics themselves used to, when I was young enough to be steeped in them, and before they became "graphic novels" and gained academic approval. It also recalled the kindred simple pleasures of the early James Bond films. More than any other picturization of a superhero, and especially in contrast to the Spider-Man series, Catwoman follows through on its central fantasy: to suddenly have superpowers and to find out how to use them. The movie shows you how it would feel to be a superhero, and leads you to imagine yourself as one. But it's only for people who want to surrender to that fantasy, not those who are set on holding back and feeling superior to it. In other words, it's for kids, not people trying to be grown-ups. But apparently many former children who haven't quite managed to put away childish things have cast off the only ones that mattered; and so they rejected this movie en masse. But I was content to let it bear me whither it would, and this it was able to do easily, since it has a spry, catlike grace of its own, and a rich, posterlike beauty besides. Not to overlook Halle Berry: although she did some dissing of the movie after the fact, by the evidence on screen she was fully immersed in the fantasy, and fully enjoying it. Cultural forecasts are always risky, but I predict that in twenty years' time, when some of the people who first experienced this movie when they were too young to resist it begin writing about movies, Catwoman will acquire a reputation more in accord with its deserts.
Without a Trace (2002)
Good and then less and less good but still not bad
For three seasons this show about missing persons was a favorite of mine. Then the show itself went missing (it changed nights) and I never saw it again.
Well, okay, I did, once in a while. But I'd lose interest before the end and so was never moved to make a note of the new time slot. The show declined, like most shows, a little at a time; it never went bad, but the qualities that had originally drawn me to it slipped away. Really, they began doing so after the first season.
Of course the show was mistitled: the missing always left traces, without which there could have been no stories. The reasons for the disappearances varied (and varied more the longer the show continued), but the best and most characteristic stories were variations on the old song "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies," about a wife who has a seemingly perfect life--rich husband, house and lands, featherbed--and runs away from it. In the song the reason is never disclosed; but on the show, in its best period, a series of interviews would build up a picture of the missing person, gradually revealing what was hidden in his life and in his psyche, so that the story became less a police procedural than a character study. The contrast between the victim's outward life and his inner one, which had become intolerable, gave the format a special resonance: the character had become separated from everything around him before he ever took off; he had left already.
At first glance the regular cast seemed absurdly over-qualified for this type of show, but their ability was essential to its coming off at all. It wasn't just that they were skillful actors but that they were all able to play in the same key, set by the lead, Anthony La Paglia. They behaved like people who had themselves lost someone (some of their losses were dramatized in later episodes) and thereby set the show's tone: an air of bereavement, of having lost something irretrievable, even after the missing persons were found. As a result many of the early episodes were truly affecting, without being forced. However, as often happens on TV, sincerity was the show's first casualty, and after the first season it seldom achieved the same level of poignancy.
Of course not all the episodes conformed to the same pattern. A handful dealt with serial killers, and although most of these were up to standard they weren't really in the show's line.
And it had its share of unlikelihoods from the start. Its style was similar to that of the British spy show Spooks: intense, low-key acting and gritty locales overlaid with flash camera-work. These combined to create an impression of devoted realism which masked the impossibility of the scenes: not one of the conversations could ever have happened as written, especially among people in the professions shown.
The biggest improbability was a prior affair between Jack, the boss, and Samantha, one of his agents, which continued to inform their dealings and the atmosphere of the office in general. The show normally observed such reticence about its regulars' personal lives that a viewer who left to get a Coke was apt to miss the only testimony to a hookup or a breakup; but this connection was supposed to remain unspoken and unsuspected (notwithstanding Samantha's habit of making doe eyes at her former paramour). The two characters evidenced no grounds for a romantic attraction, and their continual almost-but-not-quite flirtations were incredible from the start.
From the beginning, the show had a penchant for sensationalism, which came to predominate in later seasons, with particular emphases on children being molested and women being hit. And then there were the big scenes without significance: Jack tells one of his agents, "You keep screwing things up, one more time and you'll be pounding the pavement"; but the agent hadn't screwed up before, and his status was back to normal next week. There were a few outright misfires, notably a dream play with one of the regular cast in disguise (but recognizable from the first shot).
As the show went on it continued to present many good stories and scenes, but more and more often these came to center on the team members rather than the victims. The writers had to strain increasingly to devise plots that weren't mere variations on what had come before, and so they came to rely more and more on crime show brutalities. Yet they always steered clear of certain subjects, e.g. although it's stated in one scene that wives often go missing because they've been murdered by husbands, I can't remember a single episode turning on spousal murder.
In the last seasons the writers tried out variations on Jack's character, at one point trying to make him into a funny man, with doleful results, and at another point turning him, more successfully, into Mike Hammer. However, the biggest error during the latter part of the show's run was the introduction of Miss Puerto Rico (not sarcasm; that's literally who she was). A thick accent isn't an insurmountable barrier for an actor, but Roselyn Sanchez didn't only sound like Desi Arnaz, she sounded like Desi Arnaz playing Ricky Ricardo. She acted like an official greeter at the Puerto Rico pavilion at the World's Fair rather than a federal investigator, and her breezy posturing--cocking her head, sharkishly flashing her teeth, tapping her toe, striking poses at odd angles like a character out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari--killed every one of her scenes.
But she didn't kill the show; it just ran out of inspiration--and eventually, out of cases.
Clash of the Titans (2010)
'way cooler than the original
I'm glad somebody finally made a cool movie of this. It delivers what the posters for the original promised but audiences didn't get: magic, heroism, and thrills. It's absorbing and exciting--The Scorpion King done like Lord of the Rings--with the most awesome flying horse ever, giant scorpions to make you check under your bed, a Medusa that's both gorgeous and creepy, and classy English actors giving heaps of panache to stirring swashbuckler and Biblical-movie lines. The 11-year-old boy in me, who had wriggled with boredom through the clunky first movie, was glued to the screen for this one (the TV screen, I mean: he and I watched it on DVD), and as far as he was concerned it blew its predecessor out of the water.
But even he got that although it actually is cool it's also trying hard to be cool, which makes it not as cool as if it weren't, and that almost as many things in it don't work as do; notably the Olympian gods, with their extremely peculiar costuming. And he didn't get why it had to be such a mishmash. The director of it did the Transporter movies, which were no deathless classics but were professionally put together; this one looks in places as if it had been run through a food processor. Voiceovers set up the back story at unnecessary and confusing length, yet some of the simplest incidents are never explained. Like, suddenly the whole court of Argos knows that Perseus is Zeus's son, when he doesn't know it himself: why doesn't he, and why do they? The script of the original took considerable liberties with the myth; this one is a free-form improvisation on those liberties, without credit to their author. So whereas movie #1, for once following the myth, ends with Perseus and Andromeda getting together--which is kind of the point of the story--in the remake he goes off with someone else, brought in from another myth. Anything can happen at any time, and often does. (One of the unexpected events is that somewhere during his quest Perseus picks up an Australian accent.)
However, the bottom line is, it works. It's like a party that got out of control: it's a huge mess, and something somebody probably should have put a stop to, but that doesn't make it any less fun.
An Education (2009)
A half serving
This isn't much of a movie.
But then, 2009 wasn't much of a year for movies. Ten nominees for Best Picture, with barely enough content between them for five; half-realized works, half servings. In those cases, shouldn't movie admissions be halved also?
An Education--the half that's there--is essentially an English New Wave movie from fifty years ago, emasculated and prettified: in place of gritty documentary-style backgrounds we get a genteel pastel wash where all the details are blurred. Neither the settings nor the characters seem of the period. The 16-year-old schoolgirl looks 22, and her Jewish boyfriend looks less Jewish than her Gentile father. Their affair, the subject of the movie, is dramatized so circumspectly that it barely shows on screen. The movie makers seem to have been nervous about audience reaction to this; and the reaction they've gotten, despite all their pussyfooting, suggests they had the audience's measure.
Has it really only been a decade since American Beauty? Somewhere in the interim, the public (or tabloid) definition of pedophilia has been extended upward to the age of 16 or 17, so that a 30-something guy sleeping with a girl half his age is now perceived as a pervert. The word "creepy" keeps recurring in reference to this movie. Has everyone forgotten what it was like to be 16? When I was growing up 50 years ago, plenty of teen girls got crushes on older guys; a few slept with them. The latter was considered immoral and disreputable but not perverse. Now, however, a movie like this apparently has to tiptoe all around its subject, and so the teen isn't really a teen and the lovers aren't really lovers; the actors playing the roles are virtually sexless, or have been directed to act as if they were, with no hint of erotic or romantic attraction between them.
That's not the only thing missing. The plot required the establishing of only a very few essentials: the girl's feeling of stultification at school, the excitement the guy brings her, a vague sense of something not quite right there. All these could have been communicated in one two-minute scene. and the movie fails to put them across in two hours. Its mind seems to be elsewhere. But where?
Well, what I got from it in the end was a different story from the one seemingly being told. Ignoring the surface details, as if the sound were turned down, what I seemed to be seeing was a story about a college girl and a low-level professional who try to have a romance but give up in the end because they both swing the other way. The guy is in love with his gay partner, the girl with her gay teacher; but, being that this is 1960, they're all content to stay in the closet. Actually the last point has to be inferred, since the movie gives no visual clue to the fates of the characters, or to much of anything else either; in general, it makes so little use of the screen it would have been better suited to Radio 4 (see first paragraph, above).
Having now read the chapter of Lynn Barber's memoir the movie is based on, I found that it filled in what was missing on screen. It's a wry, self-critical account leading to the conclusion "I was damaged by my education"--that damage being a permanent distrust of everyone. The boyfriend is described as a short, ugly man who "talked in different accents and lied about his age, and whose stories didn't add up." The girl recognized this, he and she had no sex life to speak of, and he ended up in prison for writing bad checks. The movie softens the facts of their relationship to the point of falsity, and as counterpoint turns the secondary characters into cartoons. Her father, for example, did throw them into bed together, as Barber puts it, but she makes it clear, as the movie doesn't, that he had a lifelong fear of the poverty he'd experienced as a child, and so must have been drawn by the boyfriend's appearance of wealth.
More of a sketch than other parts of the memoir, this chapter communicates motive and environment largely by indication; the movie misses many of the cues laid down and takes the characters in directions other than indicated, so that their actions no longer make sense. It would seem that more careful reading was called for.
I enjoyed the modern setting of this production, which, lacking period frills, brings across more of the daily life of the palace than is usually shown; I enjoyed the clarity of the readings, especially in the interactions between Polonius and his children; and I enjoyed Penny Downie's atypically neurotic Gertrude.
On the other hand, Patrick Stewart seemed to me a very dull Claudius. When he played the part opposite Derek Jacobi in an earlier TV production, he did it in his earlier, blood-and-thunder mode; this time it's in his post-STNG, mild-mannered mode, as everybody's nice uncle (who just happens to have murdered Dad). And to me the conceit of everyone's being on surveillance video all the time just became a nuisance.
Then there was David Tennant. I can't see Hamlet as being at all the same character as the Doctor (Who) in any of his incarnations, and so he probably shouldn't be played in the same way. Moreover, a lot of what Tennant carries over isn't really the Doctor, but the actor doing whatever he feels like, which usually is to play the prat. He could get by with it on the series, and might as one of Shakespeare's fools, but how could Hamlet be anything like this? I begin to understand better how the expression "ham" came into being.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
So much nothing
Here's another un-film pretending to be someone's home video, and gutting the language of movie-making. Construction is fragmentary; movement, composition, and juxtaposition are next to meaningless; and however any such movie is shot, it ends up looking like all the others. A few talented directors, perhaps seeing those limits as a challenge, have managed to do relatively interesting things within the form, e.g. the way Jaume Balagueró staged Rec so that the actions looked accidental rather than choreographed. By contrast, PA is just a series of indifferently written, poorly shot scenes depicting a few unexciting incidents experienced by unintelligent characters in an uninteresting setting. If most horror films are basically twenty-minute stories with padding, this one is a three-minute story--in effect a YouTube joke clip, except that you have to wait forever to get to the punchline, and when you do it makes no sense. The film does succeed as a demo reel for Katie Featherston, whose impersonation of a reality-show subject is convincing enough to carry the show, or would be if there were a show to carry. This one is so much nothing.
Star Trek (2009)
Good for what it is, but missing a lot
"Star Trek" is good for what it is, which is boys' space opera, and on that single level it satisfies the senses. J. J. Abrams is a director with the common touch, the ability to reach a mass audience without appearing to patronize it. All the same, the movie is missing a lot of things that even boys' adventure stories should have.
Most obviously, it lacks a subject. The Star Trek series was always about something; this movie isn't about anything. It has no moral, no message, no point to make about human experience; and although its plot would seem to require that it show the maturation of the two main characters, Kirk and Spock, it doesn't: they remain the same at the end as at the beginning, like comic book characters. As a result, although the movie runs two and quarter hours, one leaves it with a sense of having seen less, about enough for one episode of a Saturday morning cartoon.
Also, the movie has no beauty, even of the mechanized kind. A lot of techno movies, and even anime, offer alluring pictures along the way; here all the mecha and the architecture, while not particularly true to life, are more like engineering designs. The film-making is similarly workmanlike: it keeps the action going, but without grace or lyricism; it does the job, and that's all.
Finally, the movie dumbs down and vulgarizes the series unnecessarily. And although Spock is pictured exactly as on the series, Kirk has been turned into a hard-drinking, hard-loving hell-raiser, who never turns into the Kirk we know and love (or tolerate). Yet, oddly for such a character, he seems to have only three acquaintances, and even the progress of his relationships with them isn't dramatized. We get only a handful of illustrative moments, one-offs, like comic book panels. The same is true of his training at the academy, and indeed of most of the other elements in the movie.
The script is credited to the executive producers; Abrams can write better than this; I wonder why he didn't redo it himself.
Just people clomping around
This movie presents itself as wild and outrageous, but now seems about as far-out as "The Munsters," and old-hat besides. With one exception: the scene in which the mad doctor seduces the husband. This is still startling, and surprisingly erotic (especially considering how sterile the movie is in general, notwithstanding its drag queen trappings); it also seems to be the central scene, since it conveys the movie's message: a plea on behalf of sexuality--not homosexuality, as might have been expected, but bi- or pan-sexuality. Its proselytizing quality makes it seem slightly offensive; but maybe I was just responding to it by the standards of its period.
Although the music is obviously a pastiche (it sounded to me like Kurt Weill by way of The Who, with borrowings from the Stones, but this is strictly a guess), it is by far the strongest element of the work, and seemingly what the work was built around. The form, to the extent there is one, is that of a cabaret show. And here I must pause to point out, in old-fogeyish fashion, that in some circles in the early '70s the true cult item was not the film but the stage play, whose adherents unanimously agreed that the movie didn't measure up. I can easily believe that, since it looks like a stage play amateurishly transferred to film. On stage the physical detail of the production may well have provided a kind of subtext; the theatre can do that in a way film can't. In the absence of a substitute, the work becomes incoherent. It isn't an accurate parody of the type of movie being parodied; even the logo behind one of the dance numbers belongs to a studio that didn't make those movies. But all the movie-buff paraphernalia is really a red herring; the atmosphere isn't Hollywood but Underground, not faux Whale but faux Warhol.
As for Tim Curry in the lead: was he the performer who created the role? He seems like an understudy filling in for Lou Reed or David Bowie, and he's neither very camp nor very tranny. The two cast members who stand out are Susan Sarandon, whose talent couldn't help showing through even then, and Meat Loaf, who in his one number brings the show to life (as Queen Latifah did "Chicago" in analogous circumstances): at last, someone who can channel the music! He is perhaps not very graceful, but he's plainly musical, and getting a charge out of the music, and this informs his every move. By comparison the rest of the cast is just people clomping around on a cluttered set.
However, I can say one thing for the movie: I didn't hate it. I had expected to, since I dislike camp, female impersonation, and that whole side of gay male culture which I perceive as woman-demeaning. (However, I quite liked "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which, if it's about anything, is about that; and so perhaps I don't dislike it as much as I think.) The way I could tell I didn't hate "Rocky Horror" was that the DVD contained something else I did hate, or a simulation of it: the audience response (which the user can choose to mix in or not). Hearing it on a recording is obviously not the same as being there, but it enabled me to imagine closely enough what that would have been like--which would be close to my idea of Hell. I had expected that the spectators' comebacks would make the time pass faster, but they were just irritating, fannishness at its most conformist. The audience talks back to the movie, but the backtalk isn't clever or original; it's a received catechism of obvious, unfunny responses, whose ritual inanity set my teeth on edge and made me cringe for any similar offenses I might have committed, in my salad days.