Monday, January 30, 2006

Long Time, No Post: The January Doldrums

T. S. Eliot once wrote that "April is the cruellest month."

He was SO wrong!!!

April is a fine month. Little green things start sprouting up from the soil and on long-barren tree branches in April. The stores are filled with pastel-colored clothing and Easter candy. If it snows, you know it's the last snow you're going to get for the season, and you can start putting away your big, clumpy boots and polar fleece and stuff the snow shovel in the back of the closet.

No, JANUARY is the cruellest month!! All the pretty Christmas lights get packed away, and everyone goes back to work. The days are gloomy, and the snow (when we get it) is gray, ugly and dirty.

This January, as in all Januaries past, I've fallen into a bit of a post-holiday funk. Nothing serious, mind you, just an unfortunate tendency to spend ridiculous amounts of time sprawled in a recliner - wearing comfy sweatpants, eating bad carbs (Trader Joe's organic chocolate chip cookies are a particular favorite) and catching up on, ummm, quality TV.

Ok, that last part was a bit sarcastic, but, I have in fact been watching some good stuff. For example, I've now become the last person on the planet to get hooked on "The Sopranos." It's been on HBO since, what, 1999? And I just watched it for the first time 9 days ago. But thanks to the miracle of Comcast On Demand and their "Sopranos - Season 1 in 3 Minutes" featurette, I have now made it to the finale of Season 2. Only three more seasons to watch before the final season begins on March 12. And that means I've got to put in some more seriously dedicated viewing time, 'cause the Winter Olympics start on February 10. (I really can't miss my favorite event, the two-man luge.)

I've also been watching the awards shows, and I must say they are DUUUUULLLLLL. Ho hum! No surprises anywhere. And the actresses are all dressed ever so tastefully - and unspectacularly. Only "Desperate Housewife" Marcia Cross stands out every time - flame-haired and colorfully dressed amid a sea of understated white, black and champagne-hued gowns. Her bold orange Golden Globes dress was gorgeous, her plummy lavendar SAG awards dress divine. You go Marcia! Next to Felicity Huffman, you are my favorite Desperate Housewife! (of course, I don't actually watch the show!) What I really crave, though, is one of those legendary fashion mistakes - you know, a real howler like when Bjork wore that stuffed swan to the Oscars a few years ago, or Lara Flynn Boyle showed up on the red carpet in a pink tutu and lace-up ballet slippers. Oh for the days when Cher still showed at these shindigs!

Then there's Isaac Mizrahi - he's on the red carpet, too, but you don't have to watch awards shows to find him. His God-awful talk show is broadcast on the Style Network about 4 times a day - four times too often, if you ask me. Once upon a time - about, oh, five years or so ago - Isaac had a tasteful, tightly formatted, 30-minute show on the Oxygen channel with interesting guests (mostly Broadway actresses) whom he actually allowed to talk about their lives, to finish their sentences, and even to sing sometimes. Then some mastermind at the Style Network decided Isaac should be given a free-wheeling sixty-minutes of air time with an on-set barista to whip up cappucinos while he chatted with celebrities and dispensed fashion tips to the audience.
On paper, that doesn't sound bad. But in reality - 60 minutes of Isaac Mizrahi doing and saying anything that pops into his head is a mind-numbingly exhausting experience. The man literally cannot shut up. He prattles on and on (with a intellectual vacuity that would embarass a fifth-grader), interupting his guests to go off on bizarre tangents of his own choosing. Think I'm being mean? A mere 10 minutes ago, I caught his interview with the feisty Margaret Cho (who I love BTW) about her very political new book "I Choose to Stand and Fight." Ms. Cho attempts to talk about a recent KKK rally in Texas, and Isaac blurts out "Oh my God, that is the first time those letters - KKK - have been used on the Issaac Mizrahi Show! I love that! I'm so excited about that! The Isaac Mizrahi show is talking about the KKK! The Isaac Mizrahi show is dealing with issues!"

This is my "favorite" Isaac Mizrahi moment. A close second - the day he came out barefoot, carrying his shoes and three, equally obnoxious, day-glo colored pairs of socks. He took an audience vote to determine which pair of socks he should wear. (Shouldn't a fashion designer tell US what socks to wear with a beige suit and brown shoes? Just a thought.) Oh, the lime green pair beat out the yellow and orange ones.

Well, kids, the Oscar nominations come out tomorrow. Of which I shall have plenty to say later on. For now, I'm keeping my fingers crossed for lots of nominations for "Capote" and "Crash."

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Match Point? No Point!

I just got home from seeing Woody Allen's new film "Match Point" - it was the biggest disappointment yet in a generally disappointing film season.

This film has been praised to the skies by people more important than me. I'll be damned if I can understand why.

For the record, I am a HUGE, old-school Woody fan. My heart beats wildly for films like "Bananas," "Sleeper," "Annie Hall," "Love and Death," "Manhattan," "Hannah and Her Sisters," and "Crimes and Misdemeanors." I can even find some guilty pleasures in his more pretentious offerings like "Interiors" and "Shadows and Fog." I was as thrilled as anyone to hear that "Match Point" was a career resurrection for the man who hasn't made a good movie in something like 15 years.

Instead I found myself infuriated, so much so that I had to sit down as soon as I got home (even though it's late and I'll be nodding off in the choir loft at church tomorrow morning) and list my greivances against "Match Point".

1) The Jonathon Rhys-Meyers character is Irish - and the contrast between him and the upper-class English family into which he insinuates himself is the pivotal point of the film. So why doesn't he speak with an Irish accent - or any kind of accent that would distinguish him from the upper-crust Hewett family? As it is, Rhys-Meyers and the Hewett's Rupert-Everett-lookalike son sound like they went to the same public school.

2) Admittedly, everything I know about the British Class System, I learned from PBS, BBC America, movies and novels. So I'm no expert. But I find it highly implausible that the upper crust Hewetts would allow a young man of Rhys-Meyers humble origins to become such an integral part of the family so easily - bestowing him with a cushy job in the family firm and allowing him to marry their darling daugther just because he's polite and shares their love of opera. Isn't it more likely that they'd invite him to dinner or a party and treat him as an amusing addition, kept at arm's length in a sort of friendly/sort of condescending way? Wouldn't it make more sense that he'd strive - but constantly fail - to be totally accepted by them - that he'd always be on the outside looking in? His effortless ascent into the upper classes here is pretty hard to swallow.

3) Woody's worst stock charcter is back - the unstable, unfocused, deeply neurotic young woman presented as Irresistable Sex Goddess. This time it's Scarlett Johanssen as the aspiring actress with perilously low self-esteem and a drinking problem, a sexy, pouty mouth and an enticing way with a come-on line. What does Allen see in these women? What is so attractive about a girl who can't get through the day without a drink or a night without a Seconal, and lives in a narcisstic haze of her own self-created problems? And don't confuse these characters with Annie Hall. Annie may have done her share of dithering and lah-de-dahing, but she ultimately has a good heart and good sense and you know she'll always land on her feet. By contrast, Johanssen's character and all her predecessors, are perpetually about two steps away from rehab or a suicide attempt. Allen's been fetishisizing women like this for a long time - at least since "Stardust Memories" -- and frankly, it's a little sick.

4) Woody still doesn't know how contemporary young adults talk or what matters to them. Some of Allen's worst recent films ("Anything Else" springs right to mind) present 20-somethings who are apparently unaware of the existence of email or cell phones and who rave about Cole Porter and Billie Holliday (and buy their music on VINYL for heaven's sake - in 2003!!!). The Hewett offspring and Rhys-Meyers are just British versions of the same anachronistic characters (thought at least they have cell phones). I half expected one of them to come bounding in, asking "Tennis, anyone?"

5) There's a conversation among the four young leads early in the film about faith and luck, and the roles they play in how our lives turn out. Emily Mortimer's character says "I don't believe in luck, I believe in hard work." Now, when someone makes a comment like that, you'd rightfully expect it to be a key to their character - you'd expect to see Mortimer elsewhere in the film working hard and dilligently at something, you'd expect her to be focused and energetic. Either that, or you'd expect some pointed, ironic scenes demonstrating why the charcter wouldn't know hard work if it punched her in the face. But you get neither here. Mortimer is just sort of gangly and sweetly compliant, without much personality or focus of her own. One wonders why Rhys-Meyers pursues her at all. Unlike, say, the Elizabeth Taylor character in "A Place in the Sun," Mortimer is not beautiful or desirable. She is way too available for trysts on Rhys-Meyers' shabby sofabed, and not in a rich-girl-goes-slumming fashion, but in an almost emotionally needy way. (Both Mortimer and her brother seem to have been raised in some sort of upper class hothouse without many friends outside the family - only late in the film do we get some fleeting appearances from their purported chums.) She does, in spoiled-rich-daughter fashion, pester Daddy to find Rhys-Meyers a job in the family firm, although she can't put together an intelligent sentence about what that firm is or what an actual job there would entail. Which brings me to point 6:

6) Rhys-Meyers is a tennis pro at the start of the film. It is highly unlikely that anyone who runs a global financial firm (as Papa Hewett does) would offer him a job just because he was a bright lad who worked his way up from nothing. Cause see, he worked himself up BY PLAYING TENNIS not handling corporate mergers. The fact that Allen doesn't get this - that he actually has Rhys-Meyers making "an impressive contribution" from his first week on the job - is such lazy writing and such an insult to people who actaully DO work in finance - that I don't even know how to finish this sentence!!

Monday, January 09, 2006

Silly Fun in Venice

A friend treated me to a matinee of "Casanova" this weekend as a birthday gift - it was a gift much appreciated.

I wanted to see it primarily because it was shot in Venice - a city which has haunted and enchanted me ever since I spent a single day there in February 2000. I recall arriving just across the bay from Venice at about 9:30 that morning (after a 4-hour bus trip from Innsbruck), when the fabled city was completely enveloped in fog. As we approached Venice by boat, the magnificient 14th century buildings of the city emerged from that fog, one by one. It was magical entry into a magical city, the dreamlike force of which I can't even begin to describe. (And to complete the experience, upon our evening departure, the fog rolled in again and obscured those same buildings, one at a time, as we sailed back across the bay to our waiting bus.) In between, we took a gondola ride, ate pasta, drank wine, wandered the narrow streets, and gaped at a city that seemed so exotic and, yet at the same time, so familiar.

What makes Venice feel familiar is that you've seen it so many movies (among them Summertime," "Room with a View" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley"). When you stand in the Piazza San Marco or cross the Bridge of Sighs or ride in a gondola, you you can't help but have a moment of deja vu. Now you can add "Casanova" to the list of movies you must see before visiting Venice - it is a big, opulent valentine to the beauties of the city.

I'ts also one of the happiest and silliest romantic comedies of the year. I wouldn't put it on my top ten list, but I enjoyed myself and had a few chuckles. For me, Heath Ledger is not the Yummiest Young Actor on the screen(I save that honor for Orlando Bloom!), but he is sufficiently charming in the title role. Just sufficiently, though. Sienna Miller as the fiesty feminist with whom he falls in love is pretty, but lacks the challenging spark her character should rightly possess.

No, it's the supporting cast that provides the delight in this film: Jeremy Irons is the deliciously evil Grand Inquisitor who gets to spout all the best lines in his best, plummy, upper-class British accent (my favorite is his response to an assistant who observes that the purported Casanova seems confused: "Fornication on a massive scale leads to confusion!") Oliver Platt, with a daft working class accent and some obvious body padding, is a hoot as Miller's intended fiance, a pork fat mogul nicknamed "Il Lardo." And I was especially happy to see British actor Tim McInnerny - who, in my humble opinion, rarely gets the good roles that he deserves- as the Doge, Casanova's protector. (McInnerny played Hugh Grant's best friend in "Notting Hill" and Cruella DeVille's manservant in the live action "101 Dalmations" and its sequel.)

The plot - which I'm too lazy to detail here - struck me as a bit goofy, kind of like in that Charlie Sheen version of "The Three Musketeers" a few years back, where the characters had a tendency to toss out lines that no one alive in the film's actual time period would ever have uttered. While there were no obvious anachronisms in "Casanova," I couldn't shake the feeling that the whole thing had been 'dumbed down' to appeal to audiences full of Heath Ledger fans and Sienna Miller wannabes, youngsters more accustomed to witty repartee at the level of "American Pie" and "Wedding Crashers."

But, oh, that gorgeous Venice scenery! I had to gush about it several times to my friend - "It really looks just like that!" To which he finally and sensibly replied - "Probably because it was photographed there."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

"The Producers" and the 2005 Holiday Movie Season

The holiday season is a merry time of tinsel and twinkle lights, rum-laced eggnog, sugar cookies and Santa. Festive - one might even say, jolly.

Except, of course, in movie theaters, where Serious, Ponderous films of near-epic length fill the screens and vie for Oscar consideration. Normally, I look forward to this season with wild anticipation. I’ve never been a fan of special effects-laden summer blockbusters, preferring to get my cinematic thrills from stately adaptations of serious novels, three-hour historical dramas, big-budget biographies and lots of major emoting from sure-to-be-nominated stars.

But the 2005 holiday film slate seems overloaded with very loooong, very serious films, to the point where even a trifle like “Fun with Dick and Jane” was a welcome distraction.

Take “Syriana” (nicknamed “Snore-iana” by one of my moviegoing companions.) I’m sure this was a blistering, brilliant indictment of governmental and corporate corruption - and I could say so for sure if only I had been able to follow any of the three or four parallel, mostly incoherent plotlines within. “Syriana” is more convoluted than a whole season of “Alias.” Here is a neat summary for you, so that you can save yourself 2.5 hours and 9.5 bucks: Oil companies and neoconservatives are bad. (At least that’s what I THINK the point was. By the time the Bad Torturer Guy started pulling out George Clooney’s fingernails, I lost all track of what was going on, and hid my face under my coat.)

Much better was “Munich” a fine, well acted and directed film which I admired very much. It’s very bleak and tense and raises a lot of issues about the nature of terrorism that it doesn’t neatly resolve. I applaud Steven Spielberg for making it, and it hope it wins a lot of awards. But there is no way in hell I could sit through those 2 hours and 45 minutes again.

And I didn’t even see “Brokeback Mountain” (which friends tell me is slow and ponderous), or “Memoirs of a Geisha” (which the same friends tell me is beautiful and slow and ponderous.) Or “King Kong” - 3 and half hours of ape histrionics is a little more than I can handle just now.

Sometimes a gal just needs to see a big, colorful, flawed-but-fun musical extravaganza like …

Now, “The Producers” has received a sound drubbing from nearly every critic in the country - and the theatre buffs on “All That Chat” (the message board where I frequently lurk) have just about ripped it to shreds. And many of their points are valid. It IS stagey and doesn’t reimagine the stage play in any fresh or exciting way for film. Director Susan Stroman is no Bob Fosse or Rob Marshall -she’s more like Morton DaCosta. DaCosta directed both the stage and film version of “The Music Man.” Now the film version of “The Music Man” hardly represents great filmmaking. But it’s a lot of fun because the show itself is so much fun. Same standard applies to the film version of “The Producers.” I’m crazy about the stage production, which I’ve seen twice (although never with the original leads.) So, I mostly enjoyed the film - in fact, I’ve seen it twice already, and I might just squeeze in a third viewing before it leaves the theatres.

I was excited to finally see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the roles they originated on Broadway, although I ultimately came away a little disappointed with the results.

Lane was delightful. He is the master of the comically arched eyebrow, the double-take, and brilliantly timed, smart-ass retort, yet he never abandons the emotional truth of the characters he plays. He was a joy to watch, and I didn’t once think about Zero Mostel while I watched him sing, dance and twinkle his way through the role of Max Bialystock. Matthew Broderick, on the other hand, made me miss Gene Wilder. Wilder’s wild-eyed hysteria in the original film seemed natural and organic to him - it never felt false or ‘put on’ just for the sake of being wacky. Broderick, by contrast, ‘puts on’ over-the-top facial contortions and shrill wheezing and whining like they were parts of an ill-fitting costume. It's often painful to watch. He occasionally reminded me of Pee Wee Herman at his most annoying. I liked Broderick better on the second viewing, but only marginally so.

Lane and Broderick reportedly had legendary chemistry together when they played these roles on stage. In the film, that chemistry is most apparent in their (unexpectedly touching) courtroom duet, “Till Him.”

As for the supporting cast - let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Uma Thurman is a train wreck. Ulla should be a busty, blonde Amazon who belts like Ethel Merman and dances like Cyd Charise. Thurman has the requisite platinum locks and skyscraper gams, but her odd, droopy face and flat chest don’t quite add up to ‘bombshell’. And she sings and dances like a woman on the lower rungs of the community theater ladder. When she belts, she goes flat. When she executes a spectacular dance move - well, she doesn’t - a dance double is obviously edited in. And her ‘Sveedish’ accent comes and goes without warning.

As for Will Ferrell - let me just say this - he must have the hardest-working agent in show business. If you had to guess ten years ago who would be the most successful of SNL’s alumni, would you honestly have picked Will Ferrell? He’s a decent sketch comic and provides some fun in movies like “Old School” and “Wedding Crashers.” But, please, why does everyone (even Woody Allen for God’s sake!) want to work with this guy? In “The Producers” he’s not BAD exactly - he’s entirely serviceable, in fact, - but he sorely lacks the show-stopping nuttiness that Kenneth Mars brought to the original film. Will Ferrell’s performance mostly made me feel bad for Brad Oscar, Broadway’s original Franz Liebkind. I saw Oscar play Bialystock on stage, and he was superb(enough so to give Lane a run for his money), so I can only imagine how great he must have been as Liebkind. How sad that in the film he is reduced to a walk-on part as a cab driver.

Happily, Gary Beach and Roger Bart repeat their Broadway roles as Roger DeBris, the flaming director, and his “common law assistant,” Karmen Ghia. Both are so far over-the-top and beyond political correctness as to be absolutely, riotously hilarious. Whenever they were onscreen, I was deliriously happy. I got to see Beach do this role on Broadway, and it is one of my favorite theatergoing memories. I’m going to buy the DVD of the film just to be able to see his hysterical performance again and again (and Lane’s).

I love the songs in “The Producers” - every one of them. I’ve had the Broadway cast recording on CD for 4 years, and I still love to play it and sing along. (In fact, it’s in my car CD player right now.) You’d never confuse a Mel Brooks song with one of Stephen Sondheim’s, but his music and lyrics for “The Producers” are a happy blend of his trademark, ebullient vulgarity with sweetly old-fashioned melodies. I was disappointed to see the very funny “King of Broadway” number cut from the film, and also by the cuts in “Springtime for Hitler” (including the elimination of a whole section with one of my favorite lyrics - “The Fuhrer is causing a Furor!”).

Other bits I loved: the “I Wanna Be a Producer” number with Jon Lovitz’ fun cameo and some of Broderick’s best scenes in the film, the sparkly, NYC-circa-1959 sets, the all-too-brief appearance of Andrea Martin in the chorus of Little Old Ladies (I wish she had more scenes) and Lane’s big, brilliant, 11 o’clock number, “Betrayed.”

I’ll take “The Producers” over the Big Important Serious Films of December - any day!