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Chico & Rita (2010)
Cuban Jazz Gets Fine Treatment
15 July 2012
"Melodrama" originally meant a play with music. Now, of course, it's a play with scenery-chewing emotion and lines like, "I had to kiss you again!" and "For 47 years I've been waiting for you to walk through that door!"

The Oscar-nominated Chico and Rita is both of these things, but it works so well because the music of Bebo Valdés is seamlessly woven through the story.  This is not just incidental, or background music; the music *is* the story, and it overlaps quite a lot with Bebo's story.

 Now, what we usually think of as Cuban music today is heavily influenced by African rhythms and salsa dance tempos. While such flourishes appear here and there in the club scenes, the heart of Bebo's music is the traditional ballad, or Filin. For lovers of classic musical traditions, it is a joy to hear.

In addition to the thematic music Bebo wrote for the film, the sound track features songs ranging from the Cuban night club acts of the 1940's-50's (featuring Mexican pop classics like "Besame Mucho" and "Sabor a Mi") to the Latin-Bop (Cubop) fusion of New York, with cameo "appearances" by Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster, Nat Cole, Chano Pozo, and Thelonius Monk. While all the music is entirely authentic, I could catch only one spot (Monk) where an historical recording was used. Bebo Valdes and his orchestra recreated all the rest for the film, making it sound as fresh as it was when the story takes place. Nice job!

Of course, this is all animated, and sometimes the artists get an interesting angle on the character. In the Nat Cole scene, his brother Freddie provided the voice-over. The artists (crews in Spain, the Philippines, and Hungary) who were supposedly drawing Nat made him look a lot like Freddie. I wonder how that happened?

So... while the plot is mawkish and cliché-ridden, it doesn't matter. Check out this movie for the music... and, incidentally, for another great rarity in theatrical movies: toon erotica.
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On the Road (2012)
Revisionist treatment with pluses and minuses
15 July 2012
There are very few works of 20th-century American literature that can be called indispensable to our understanding of our culture. And one of these few is Jack Kerouac's On the Road. As everyone knows, it's the thinly-veiled autobiographical account of Kerouac and his friends in their pointless but exuberant adventures across America. For 50 years, it's been waiting to be made into a movie. Now, at last.

So, everyone already knows the story… well, no; chances are, if you're like me, you read the book and yet remember almost nothing of the story. The book burns through its shreds of storyline as if they were just tinder for the blaze of its energy; the real fuel is the pacing, even with all its redundancy. It's the momentum that sucks us into the breathless chaos of Kerouac's world. We come away impressed by the energy, not the content.

Film could certainly have been used to amplify this effect, but this is not that film. Instead, we have a more conventional treatment, focusing on character development. It's a nice production, with an attractive cast. But the story comes at us very differently from the book experience. The manuscript has been rewritten to add breathing space and objectivity. We see Sal Paradise, only half-formed at the start of the story, pull himself together to become a serious writer. We see the endlessly exuberant Dean Moriarity ultimately coming to grips with the progressive self- destruction attributable to his amorality, and suffering. This might be a fair reading of Kerouac's ultimate feelings about that part of his life, but it's not the feeling that Kerouac shares with us in the book. We have lost our innocence; our last chance to revisit it, even for a few hours, is taken away.

I'm not going to rage against this re-conception of the story, though, because it makes other changes from the book that might be improvements. Several episodes that were censored from the book are restored in the film. (Some discussion of this at So the movie is more historically accurate, and far more sexually explicit than the book. (That could also explain its delayed US release). In one poignant scene, Carlos Marx (Allen Ginsberg) is whining to Sal about how vulnerable he feels due to his poorly-returned love for Dean. To the best of my recollection, that conversation was not in the book (please tell me if you believe otherwise), but was expressed in a private letter from Ginsberg to Kerouac many years after the fact. This kind of thing changes the emotional flow of the story, certainly, but it adds depth, too.

Few of us will actually suffer nostalgia for the gritty overindulgences of the Beats. But remember, this came at a time when society was absolutely saturated with the message that everyone should be "normal," safe, predictable. Without the tiny minority of Beats attacking that message, and specifically without On The Road to chronicle that attack, the cultural revolution of the 1960's would have been even more difficult than it was, and perhaps less effective. Good, bad, or ugly, we must embrace this story.
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Titus (1999)
Extraordinary creative use of sets and costumes provides a surrealistic ride through Shakespeare's most violent play.
10 September 2002
Wow, this is strong stuff. But good. The whole opening scene was a little kid playing with war toys, setting the table for the surrealism to come. I was skeptical at first of this device, but I liked the way this character evolved silently, as he witnessed again and again that war is NOT fun and games. I wish the leaders of our country would get this message. In this context, none of the story's violence is gratuitous. The most impressive aspect of this production is the no-holds-barred use of sets, costumes, props, makeup etc. to make the flavor surreal, without ever departing from Shakespeare's intent. All very creative and artful. And the music wasn't bad. So, disturbing as the story is, I applaud the production. The acting is a bit uneven. Hopkins is well-cast, but as usual, his delivery is overly stylized and bombastic. The emperor is even worse in this respect--intentionally exaggerating the infantilism of his character. But with so much focus on the other elements of the production, this is not a big distraction. Well worth seeing!
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Walkabout (1971)
The most compelling visual and dramatic masterpiece ever.
5 May 2002
In 50 years of seeing movies, nothing has affected me like Roeg's Walkabout. If you have ever dreamed of running off and living in the wilderness, this film is for you.

The landscape of the Australian outback is the real star of this beautiful film. It must be seen on the big screen to be enjoyed properly. Just wonderful cinematography, outdoors--no special effects (except for a unique "storybook" sequence, the like of which I've never seen anywhere), no lighting. The astonishing beauty goes on and on; I can never get tired of looking at it.

On top of that, the story is moving and memorable. Two very proper, white, schoolchildren get lost in the outback, and encounter an aborigine youth who is on a solo walkabout, an adolescent rite of passage. Relying on their new friend for survival skills--an interesting relationship without any language in common--they have to follow his long trek. Naturally, the trip becomes a rite of passage for the white kids, too.

The story points up how completely we have lost our sense of place by our addiction to the artifices of civilization. A portable radio, tuned to an educational station, provides the only source of "civilized" information to the youths--its conspicuous irrelevance to their actual life an ironic commentary.

The way the lost kids ultimately find their way back to civilization is not dramatic--but the way their return affects their native guide is a real shock. And that seems to be the climax; but there's a further kick in a deliberate anti-climax, forcing us to dwell on the sense of loss that is entailed in the return to civilization.

"Excellent" is not a good enough rating for this movie. To me, it is absolutely transcendent, virtually in a class by itself.
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The Trial (1962)
An absolute masterpiece of B&W cinematography!
4 May 2002
If Kafka wrote a nightmare scenario, Orson Welles followed his cues to perfection in creating a series of nightmare scenes, growing incessantly from the extremely banal to the increasingly disturbing. But drama aside, the movie is a visual masterpiece. The sets are stunning --even the seeming ordinary such as warehouses and hallways are transformed by the way they are shot. Lighting is used to maximum impact, while every shot, every camera angle is a memorable work of art. Never has black-and-white film been used to better effect. Every lover of classic cinematic art should have this film.
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