Sunday, July 23, 2006

There's a lovely valley between those hills.

Film Forum kicked off their "Summer of Swashbucklers" series (which will include The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and Gunga Din, among others, all throughout the month of August) with Fanfan La Tulipe, a classic French swashbuckler flick from 1952, which is mostly unheard of in the United States, except for old folks who saw it way back in the day. It's a shame its so unheard of (as well as the fact that my friend Gillian and I were the youngest members of the audience, most of whom were over fifty) because Fanfan is absolutely terrific.

Fanfan (Gerard Phillipe) is a handsome young peasant who gets caught red-handed beneath a haystack with a local farmer's daughter. Her father demands he marry her and marches him off with the aid of a group of pitchfork-wielding yokels, but on the way back into town, he encounters an ample-bosomed gypsy fortune teller named Adeline (Gina Lollobrigida), who tells him that he is destined to become a soldier in the the army of King Louis the XV and win the hand of his daughter. Fanfan quickly dodges the bumpkins and enlists into the service, only to find out that Adeline is in fact the daughter of the recruiting seargent, who uses her feminine charms to lure gullible men into joining the service.

Once he's stationed outside the King's palace with his regiment, Fanfan becomes determined to fulfil the phony propecy and win the heart of the Princess. With the help of his compatriot, Franche-Montagne, he sneaks into the palace at night in hopes of meeting her, but the pair are mistaken for spies and sentanced to death. Adeline begs King Louis for a pardon, which he grants them, but unbeknownst to her, he is expecting a "little something" in return. After Adeline rejects his lewd advances, she runs off to hide in a convent, with the King's henchmen chasing after her and Fanfan galloping to her rescue.

Fanfan La Tulipe is every bit as good, if not better, than all the great American swashbuckler movies, owing a lot of its bravado-brimming humor to Gunga Din, but with more sexual innuendo than you can shake a sword at. It's pretty jarring for someone used to seeing American Hays Code films from the same period to see; not only are there a lot of clever lines and double-entendres, there's also Lollobrigida's awe-inspiring and mind-boggling cleavage, which would've been enough to give any American film censor of the time peroid a cardiac arrest. Gerard Phillipe's performance as the lusty, suave but also buffoonish Fanfan is brilliant; reminiscent of Errol Flynn, Cary Grant and both Douglas Fairbanks's rolled into one (he also does one of the best/funniest "drunk" acts I've ever seen). Lollobrigida is both hilarious and gorgeous, and the rest of the cast is top-notch as well. If I had any complaints about the film it'd be that the swordfight choreography is a tiny bit sloppy, but in such a fun and enjoyable movie, it hardly matters.

Sadly, Fanfan isn't availale on Region 1 DVD at present (the 2003 remake, starring Penelope Cruz, is, although I can't vouch for its quality as I haven't seen it) but it will be showing at the Film Forum until August 3rd. I'd encourage anyone in the New York area, whether you're bummed out by ADD'ntertainment, left cold by Captain Jack Sparrow, or just someone who loves movies, to go and check it out.

Monday, July 10, 2006


To watch Superman Returns is, for me, to watch something that should have been an awe-inspiring piece of work, but instead ended up being terribly disappointing. Given the entusiastic bubblings of delighted fans who poured out of the cinema after the show (not to mention the gleeful buzz it's recieving here in cyberspace), it leads me to believe that it isn't just the film which is inherantly flawed, it's also me, the viewer. The viewer is asked by the screenwriters, the director, and everyone involved in the production to meet them halfway. To a degree, one must go to a film, as well as having it come to you. Superman Returns seemed at first to jog, then stumble in my general direction, before it muttered "ah, fuck it" and proceeded to wander someplace else. Thus, so did my mind, as I was watching it.

As has been widely publicized by Singer, the film is a direct sequel to Superman I & II (and not III and IV) starring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel. Unlike the X-Men films, which reinvented the universe of its characters to make them fit into our own time in the present day, Superman Returns muleheadedly tries to pick up exactly where Donner's second film left off. For fans of the original series, this choice was most likely a delight. Unfortunately, I only vaguely recall seeing bits and pieces of the Reeve movies on TV a very long time ago, so I felt a little lost. Not only is the film littered with references to the first two, it also invests all of its emotional stock in them as well. Singer and his team of screenwriters seem to have assumed that everyone knows Superman from either seeing the movies or reading the comics, so there's no reason to "build him up" as a character. Because the film piggybacks on the emotional buildup of the previous movies, a lot is lost on those who don't know the Donner films inside out. Frankly, a lot of the time, I was a little bored.

When Superman returns to earth after five years of exploring the remenants of his homeworld (and, coincidentally, Clark Kent comes back to work at the Daily Planet on the same day), he finds that criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) was let out of prison and has hatched a diabolical scheme involving the deaths of millions. Worse than that, however, he finds Lois Lane, now the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", has moved on, settled down with some other bloke and now has a five-year-old kid. When he's not saving people from muggers and trying to stop Lex and his dimwitted girlfriend (Parker Posey) from executing their plan, he flies over to Lois's place and uses his x-ray vision to watch her eat dinner with her husband and kid. Eventually, more stuff happened but I'm not completely sure how or why it did.

The movie has more than its fair share of weak links. Kate Bosworth looks at least ten years too young to be Lois Lane, and didn't really seem to have spunk, determination, or stubbornness of any woman who'd be so angry at her ex-lover that she'd immediately go out and get somebody else. Spacey and Posey have a lot of funny moments together, but Luthor's plan is so completely illogical and ridiculous, even for bad guy in a superhero movie, that you have to wonder how the hell he'd ever think it could work. For the most part, however, the movie just wasn't that much fun. The romance subplot is so cripplingly serious that it squeezes just about all the joy and wonder out of all the other aspects of the film.

To be fair, Superman Returns has a lot going for it, too. The digital cinematography is top-notch, and the IMAX projection was probably the clearest and most beautiful I've ever seen a motion picture. With its deep, saturated colors it looks more like an Alex Ross painting come life than any other film I've seen before. The CGI work (and this is coming from someone who is ruthlessly hard to please when it comes to computer graphics) is flawless all over. The best performance in the movie, surprisingly enough, is from James "Cyclops" Mardsen, who, after his dreary glorified cameo in X-Men 3, does a marvelous job as Richard White, Lois's husband. Far from just a cardboard-cutout "other man" type, he breathes life effortlessly into the character, making him more three-dimensional than either Superman/Clark or Lois Lane. I really wanted to love this movie. I wanted it to pick me up and draw me in, to make me feel like a seven-year-old kid the way King Kong did last year. Sadly, however, I remained in my seat as a grumpy, jaded adult, while the film, in all its visual beauty and three-dimensional glory, stayed fimly rooted to the screen.