Friday, February 24, 2006

Ballet Russes

An educational and uplifting evening was had by all last night; Images held a screening of the documentary Ballet Russes with producer Robert Hawk in attendence for a Q&A session prior to the movie. Hawk (who also produced Chasing Amy, Trick, and The Slaughter Rule) talked for an hour or so before the movie about how the project came into existance. In the year 2000, the original dancers from the famous Ballet Russe du Monte Carlo (most of whom were now in their eighties and nineties) were to assemble at a dance convention in New Orleans. Hawk called upon documentarians Daniel Gellar and Danya Goldfine (Frosh) to conduct interviews with the dancers. Gradually, the project blossomed into a documentary which was initially four hours long and was eventually trimmed down to two. The complete interviews are also stored in their entirety at the Chicago Conservatory of Music.

As great as it was to hear about the picture in Hawk's own words, the real treat of the evening was the movie itself, which is one of the most inspiring and uplifting documentaries I've ever seen. It tells the story of the Ballet Russe company, from its origins in Russia to its tours of Europe and America during the 30's and 40's, and the eventual split between the owners, not to mention the story of young, black ballerina Raven Wilkinson and the trouble the company faced when they toured the American South, which deserves a movie all of its own. The interviews are purely joyful. The eighty-plus dancers display more enthusiasm and energy than almost anyone I know who's my age, and every one of them is a fountain of anecdotal history. Also wonderful to see is the archival footage of the dancers in their heyday, which was all shot by fans during their concerts and collected for the documentary by Gellar and Goldfine. To hear the old dancers talk about their experiences and to actually see them at the same time is so amazing, I'm surprised that no historic documentary I've seen has used such a technique before.

It was also fun to see some of the feature film clips from the dancers' brief Hollywood careers, including Spanish Fiesta, The Gay Parisian and Seven Brides and Seven Brothers. The best of the whole bunch was a clip from the Rita Hayworth musical Tonight and Every Night, in which Mark Platt dances in three or four different styles at an audition as the director switches stations on the radio. If anyone from Columbia should happen to read this, please, we need this movie to get released on DVD!

While ballet historians and dance buffs may find the odd quibble with the inclusions and exclusions, this is overall a masterful film; both a celebration of a great dance company and a forlorn farewell to an artform that will never be quite as great as it once was. One of the best films of last year, and one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. Highly reccomended.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

"Interview with Death" Trailer Online

Image hosting by Photobucket

Click on the above picture to view the trailer for Kevin "Fuzzy Duck" Shreck's new satiric stop-motion piece, Interview with Death. Schreck is a 16-year-old filmmaker whose political documentary, Dear Leader: Mr. Kim is the very best student film I've ever seen. I'm certain he's going to go far, and after seeing this trailer, I'm even more certain.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Viva Laldjérie

Image hosting by Photobucket

With twaddle like Date Movie and The Pink Panther stinking up the local multiplex, late-January/early-February is always a depressing time for cinema aficionados. It's usually this time of the year when I'm most thankful to have Images, the local arthouse cinema, just down the road, especially since they are running a series of worlds films on Monday nights throughout the month, for completely free. Beyond the Femme Fatale - Leading Women in New French & Francophone Film brings to Images a diverse collection of French language films dealing with women's personal, political and cultural identities. Last week they showed the terrifically fun murder mystery musical 8 Women, which my friend Max described perfectly as "a French lesbian Clue." This week, the selection was quite a bit more serious - an Algierian picture from 2004, Viva Laldjérie.

Set in post-terrorism Algiers, the film concerns a young woman named Goucem who works at a photo shop and is the mistress of an older, married doctor who secretly supports her and her mother. She discovers that he has lied to her about taking a business trip and begins to suspect that he plans to leave her and cut her off. Goucem's Papicha is a former exotic dancer with a pipe dream of re-opening the Cobacobana nightclub. Living across the hall from them is a prostitute named Fifi, who becomes entangled in her own web of trouble when she sleeps with a government agent and misplaces his gun.

Viva Laldjérie is far from a perfect film - admittedly, it is quite flawed. While the performances are terrific, especially from the simply gorgeous Lubna Azabal (Paradise Now) who portrays Goucem, director Nadir Moknèche keeps us at arm's length throughout, allowing us to see what his characters get up to but never really letting us inside their heads. The story is immensely downbeat in a way that often cloys for sympathy, and seems to ask more from the audience than it gives back in return. There a lot of loose ends which are never quite resolved, characters' motivations that aren't quite explained (namely the agents who come after Fifi and the young man who develops a crush on Goucem). It could be the director's intention, to provide us with a fly-on-the-wall slice of life perspective, but it's more likely that his storytelling methods just aren't quite as sharp yet as they will be someday.

Fortunatley, what Laldjérie lacks in terms of story and character exploration, it makes up 110% in heart. The film uses the city of Algiers the same way Manhattan uses New York City and Man With a Plan uses Vermont - it's as much (if not more of) a character as any of the actors. Moknèche, whose second feature this is, clearly loves the city, and relishes showing as much of it as possible. After years of violent political turmoil, the filmmakers were finally able, in 2004, to shoot in places where they would previously have been asked to leave or been in danger. As weird as it might seem to draw a comparison to March of the Penguins, the films share quite a few of the same traits. Neither are spectacular philosopically or in terms of story, but as richly detailed looks at places you'll probably never get a chance to visit, they are a blessing and a gift on the part of the filmmakers. At best, Viva Laldjérie is beautiful as a documentary of a newly liberated city which, like is characters, is unsure of its new self, but also steeped in tradition and brimming with majesty. For those of us who rarely have enough money to travel overseas, cinema is the only way we can visit places we wouldn't ordinarily be able to, and that is reason enough for me to thank Mr. Moknèche.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Popcorn Bucket Vol. 1

I've been relentlessly lazy in regards updating this thing over the past few weeks, and for that, I am deeply sorry. In attempt to try to remedy my neglectful behavior, I've decided to start this semi-weekly column made up of scattered cinematic thoughts. And I won't let you down again...I promise.

- Went up to Boston on Sunday with friends Jess, Andrew and Max to attend the Boston Faith and Film Festival's "Images of Evil" series, which included the original Nosferatu, Rosemary's Baby and A Clockwork Orange. While not my favorite silent movie - that title belongs to The Passion of Joan of Arc, or Metropolis, depending on how I feel - F.W. Murnau's vampire classic looked gorgeous on the big screen and was a real treat to see. Rosemary's Baby I was seeing for the very first time ever, on any medium, and that was completely incredible. Mia Farrow's performance ranks among the very best by any actress, ever, and the story has a way of completely enveloping you in its paranoia and wooziness, and the horror of its inevitable ending. Just incredible. Discussions followed after both films which weren't particularly earthshaking, but alright. Unfortunatley, we opted to leave before the 9:00 showing of the Kubrick film to avoid being caught in a snowstorm on the way home. Better to be safe than sorry.

- The trailer for Werner Herzog's newest film, Rescue Dawn, is now online. From what they say, it's a dramatic re-telling of the events of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a survival story about a pilot shot down during the Vietnam war. Christian Bale is starring as Dieter Dengler, alongside Steve Zahn and Jeremey Davies. The trailer seems to selling it as a pretty standard, albiet rather dirt-covered and beautiful looking war pic, but knowing our man Herzog, I'm sure were in for something really poetic and interesting.

- I've done a lot of DVD buying this week, probably more than I should...I discovered an out-of-print Criterion copy of Hitchcock's Notorious in Newbury Comics on the weekend and just had to get it, along with some nice cheap copies of The Fisher King and An American Werewolf in London. I also recently scored the special editions of The Fly, The Producers and Reservoir Dogs on the discount bin at Wal-Mart, as well as the new 2-disc Legacy edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. I have a love/hate relationship with Wal-Mart (or rather, a love/hate/hate/hate/hate relationship), as I despise everything that they stand for and hate going in there, as everyone who works and shops there looks like they just came out of a George A. Romero movie, but dammit, do they have cheap DVDs there. Sometimes they're just unavoidable.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Match Point

Image hosting by Photobucket

I caught Woody Allen's latest, Match Point at Images not long ago too, which was a less rewarding experience. At first glance, it appears to be a drastic departure from the rest of Allen's work, but truthfully, it's a lot of the same ground that he's covered before, and better. Its stance on the idea of luck is handled like a twelfth grade English paper of a movie. It opens with a shot of a tennis ball in motion and Rhys-Meyers' narration likening the fate of man to a ball that hits the side of the net and can land on either side. He continues to remind us, consistenly throughout the film, before he really whacks us over the head with it, at the end. It's an interesting enough idea to chew on, but if you've seen any other Woody Allen films you probably won't learn that much.

In addition to the five-part luck essay, the one's reaction to the movie also depends and enormous amound on how attractive you personally find Scarlett Johansson. I seem to be one of three red-blooded males that live on this planet who find her to be pretty much interchangable with the girl who works at Starbucks, and probably wouldn't even recognize her if I saw her walking down the street. As such, I found it hard to get 100% emotionally invested in a film about a man who jepoardizes so much of his personal and financial well-being just to fool around with such an average-looking gal who's not really that interesting of a person either. That's not to say Match Point doesn't have its merits. I can't describe them without ruining the plot, but let's just say that when Rhys-Meyers starts to get down to the end of his rope with the Johansson situation, that is when things really start to pick up and get interesting. There are plenty of really good potboiler moments that keep you guessing, as a good sex thriller should. It just doesn't have as much to say as it seems to think it does.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Akira Ifukube 1914 - 2006

Image hosting by Photobucket

Akira Ifukube passed away recently at the age of 91. The composer of more than 200 movie scores including Rodan, The Mysterians, and the Zatoichi series, he will always be most remembered for his immortal soundtracks for the Godzilla series.

Seeing the original cut of the first Godzilla film last year at the Brattle Theater was one of the greatest filmgoing experiences of my whole life. It felt like I have taken a time machine back to 1954 Japan as I watched the opening credits - looming white characters on a black background with Ifukube's booming score, which was both terrifying and empowering. His theme perfectly captured the dread and horror of the films nuclear armageddon warning, while at the same time sounded like a fanfare for Japan and their first contribution what would become one of the most successful and beloved genre film series of all time. Along with director Ishiro Honda and modelmaker/effects man Eiji Tsubaraya, the brilliant team responsible for kaiju cinema's golden age, he will be fondly remembered.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Producers

Image hosting by Photobucket

The film adaptation of Mel Brooks' The Producers broadway show seemed to come and go without a great deal of fanfare and very mixed reviews, which is a real shame. Critics seem to have lambasted it for it's stagey cinematography, its over-the-top performances, and lack of sublety, even though these are the same people who fell over themselves to praise overblown fluff like Phantom of the Opera and Rent. Personally, I have to wonder if they even saw the same movie I did, but in truth, it just stands as a testament as to how out of touch a lot of film critics really are. I loved it, and haven't laughed so hard in a movie theater for a good long while.

The Producers over-the-top and stagey for a reason: it's a sendup of Hollywood musicals of the 30's and 40's. And it's a brilliant sendup at that. Everything onscreen is submerged in a glorious, all-singing, all-dancing Old Hollywood style. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that, had the Hay Production Code been more leniant toward risque humor and musical numbers with dancing girls dressed as Nazi stormtroopers, this could very well have been made in the old studio system. It is almost defiantly rendered in an anti-Moulin Rouge/Chicago quick-cut fashion, with no angst to be found throughout the whole film. For those of us who love to laugh, and appreciate how sophisticated lowbrow humor can be, it is a revelation with a laugh every second.

Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane) is a once-great Broadway reduced to the laughing stock of New York, having to make love to wealthy, horny old ladies in order to finance his shows. When a timid young accountant, Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick) stops by to do his books and comments that, through a little bit of loopholing, one could make more money producing a flop than a hit, Bialystock hatches a scheme to produce the worst play ever written, collect all the backers' money when it's over, and take off to Rio. Their search leads them to "Springtime for Hitler", a theatrical valentine card to Der Feurher by wild-eyed Neo Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (Will Ferrel). They hire the worst director in town, the screamingly gay, cross-dressing Roger DeBris (Gary Beach), and everything seems set to go wrong. Unfortunatley for them, however, something ends up going right.

I've never seen the Broadway show, so I can only compare the movie with Mel Brooks' 1968 film. The original is a comedy masterpiece which will probably never be out-done by anybody, but this version is a fine successor which stands on its own two legs. Several plot changes were made from the original film, as well. The out-of-it beatnik character "LSD" who plays Adolf Hitler was eliminated to get more bang for the musical buck - instead, the homosexual director DeBris portrays the dictator. Uma Thurman's role of Ulla, the producers' sexy but dim-witted Swedish secretary was expanded upon too - rather than being a one-joke minor character like in the original, she is given more to do and is a source of rivalry between Max and Leo. Thurman is terrific here - I've always liked her, but I'm so used to seeing her play sword-weilding assassins I'd forgotten how beautiful and charming she could be. She's a head taller than both Lane and Broderick, too, which makes their physical comedy that much more of a hoot to watch.

Broderick and Lane are just terrific. They both appear to be completely comfortable inhabiting the roles of Bialystock and Bloom, and are having the time of their lives playing them before the camera. Mostel and Wilder would be proud. Will Ferrell, who I usually find to be really, really annoying, actually does an alright job here, though he's hard to believe as anything besides Will Ferrell impersonating Kenneth Mars from the original. The musical numbers are brilliant. Honestly, I defy you not to tap your toes at Leo's number "I Want to Be A Producer" or laugh at Max during his "Along Came Bialy" routine, complete with a chorus line made up of old ladies with walkers. "Springtime for Hitler" is better than you ever could imagine - for Brooks fans, it's the next best thing to actually seeing Bialy and Bloom's horrendoes production on stage for real.

Interestingly, The Producers seems to have a lot in common with Little Shop of Horrors, another movie that was made into a stage musical and back into a film again with a less than impressive critical response. At the time, films like Flashdance were the norm for musicals and no-one seemed to know what to make of a campy spoof with a talking plant. Gradually, though, it built up a cult following over the years. That's what I think is going to happen to The Producers too. It was misunderstood in its own time, but future generations wiser than ourselves will know the truth.