Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Time Of Year That Makes Us Shiver With Antici...

Once a year people across the country go to the movies in their underwear. Once a year mothers, fathers, teenagers, people of all ages and walks of life head to the local theater with toast, water pistols, glow sticks, rubber gloves, confetti, and toilet paper in tow. Once a year thousands of people don fishnets and heels, corsets and lab coats to see the movie that has been thrilling, chilling, and fulfilling audiences since 1975.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is pure campy satire at its very best (or worst). The plot is perhaps one of the most bizarre ever to grace the screen, chronicling the plight of Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), a young couple who find themselves stranded at a mysterious castle when their car breaks down on a dark and stormy night.

It is created in the template of a mad-scientist horror flick of sorts, wrapped in the guise of science fiction, dipped in musical comedy. “Rocky Horror” is the baddest of the bad, taking the worst elements of the corniest B-genres, and turning them on their head in a plot so disjointed and immature it would make Ed Wood weep. It was designed to be snubbed by serious movie critics, such as myself.

But it is by being so intentionally inane that “Rocky Horror” shows its brilliance. By using elements of movies that are rejected by mainstream society, it reaches out to audiences who are just as misunderstood. Beneath the kinky overtones, “Rocky Horror” hides a biblically inspired allegorical subplot. People feeling stranded, tempted by something forbidden and exciting, end up facing the perils of decadence, sound familiar? Contrary to the thought that “Rocky Horror” is parodying the Bible, it is merely implicating the idea that what may appear to be absurd can actually harbor a great deal of intellect. In other words, it doesn’t want you to take it, or yourself, at face value.

Perhaps it’s because of its overt seditiousness that “Rocky Horror” has become such a cultural phenomenon. Everyone remembers that feeling of excitement and revolt they had doing the “Time Warp” in a crowded theater on Halloween when their parents thought they were trick-or-treating. But, as any die-hard Frankie Fan will tell you, “Rocky” isn’t about rebellion, it’s about acceptance.

“Rocky Horror” is a satire, but not in the most obvious respect. It doesn’t mock B-movies, or the Bible, or even society itself. It makes fun of the ideal that our culture has developed in thinking that it can play almighty and denounce the individual for the sake of mainstream approval. It may take one night a year, when we dress up as characters, act goofy, and throw movie theater etiquette to the wind, to remind ourselves that if we can dream it, we can be it. And why should anyone tell us otherwise when it’s the independent thinkers who are having all the fun?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Accents Aren't The Only Thing That Could Do With A Touch Of Reality

When a movie includes a cast of five Academy Award winners, one nominee, a Tony Award Winner, is based on a Broadway hit, and has Rob Marshall holding the strings, what’s not to love?

Let’s begin with scene one. Guido Contini (Daniel Day Lewis) is an aptly named famous Italian filmmaker with a bad case of creative blockage. As he stares, frustrated, at his unfinished set, who should appear out of the shadows but Nicole Kidman, sashaying across the room to plant one on our scruffy hero. But that’s not all! Penelope Cruz! Kate Hudson! Judi Dench! And there’s more. Marion Cotillard! Fergie! Sophia Loren! Draping themselves languidly over pieces of faux Italian architecture all for Guido’s profligate pleasure. You’d think that such a convergence of acting talent would deserve an introduction that was a little less, well, kitschy.

Like Roxie in Rob Marshall’s 2003 film, “Chicago”, Guido’s imagination is the setting for all the musical numbers. But while Roxie was fame-hungry and star-struck, Guido has had his fill and regards the ladies of Italian cinema with an air of unimpressed gaudiness. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from dominating his fantasies. With “Chicago”, Marshall enhanced public opinion of musicals with an infusion of sex appeal. But where “Chicago” was spiked, “Nine” is drenched.

At one point in the film, a dusky prostitute named Saraghina (Fergie) performs a number about what it means to be Italian or, more specifically, an Italian man. Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps the celebration of a culture should avoid fostering stereotypes of happy-go-lucky sleaziness. Most of the choreography in the movie consists of voluptuous women in lingerie flinging sand and glitter about and crawling on hands and knees towards the camera. Judi Dench appears to be one of the few who stands (literally) above all this. But she compensates with an equally palpable and horrendous vocal performance of a song about the Follies Bergere. Or as she pronounces it, Berge-GRUH.

The best three minutes of the movie come when Kate Hudson, who plays an American Journalist, bursts into song in the jazzy and ultra-chic number, Cinema Italiano. The Latin beat and rapid lyrics united with Hudson’s surprisingly throaty and belting voice generates the spirit of the movie that “Nine” wishes it was. It is more of a music video than a musical interlude, but it’s the ideal Italian indulgence that will have you up and dancing before you can say “Uomo Romano”.

In a nutshell, “Nine” is about Guido’s many lovely ladies and how they are so much more than the superficially idyllic bombshells of his fantasies. It is about his realization that by fostering this ideal he is becoming detached from reality, from where he came from, and from who he is. This reaches its peak in Daniel Day Lewis’s emblematic vulnerability-grasping-fall-on-his-knees-screaming-in-agony scene which, despite its affluence, is not what makes him a great actor. Guido had become corrupted with the glitzy pizazz of the film industry and forgotten his true aptitude along the way. It’s movies like “Nine” that make today’s filmmakers and actors do the same.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Woman Who Brought The Wind

Straying from my “all movies all the time” repertoire, I recently saw a play that just can’t be ignored.

Snuggled away in the rolling hills of Southern Wisconsin is the little hamlet of Mineral Point, famous for its unparalleled hospitality, independent thinkers, funky arts scene, and Cornish Pasties. Right in the middle of Mineral Point’s historic district, tucked between nineteenth century stone cottages, is the Shakerag Alley Arts Center, home of the Alley Stage. In the late summer dusk, audience members, perfumed with citronella, trooped up the rustic brick walkway to an intimate outdoor theater, the stage implanted in the base of an evocative rocky cliff. The play was “Los Vientos De Marzo”- “The Winds of March”.

I first met Lynn Werner in a writing workshop at Shakerag Alley. She was a small woman with a thick silver braid hanging down beneath an artsy head scarf, and piercing, slightly mischievous eyes. They were eyes that had seen the worst but Lynn was a poet and I suspect that helped them retain their glint. She said she hoped I could make it to a one-woman play that she was preforming at the Alley Stage in a few months.

As she made her way onto the stage that hot August night, she was accompanied by a haunting tune…

If a wind should blow, do you hear them call,

Or do you say “It is merely the wind”?

If a wind should blow, do you hear them cry,

Or do you say “It is merely the wind”?

The set was simple, just a few cardboard boxes, a stool, and a clothes rack draped with colored cloths and a birdlike ethnic mask. A vibrant salsa melody wafted over the sound system and Lynn began to dance. As she unpacked the boxes, a Coca Cola bottle, a small wooden chest, she was a free spirit tossing tissue paper in the air.

Without warning, the melancholic sound of wind cut through the salsa music like a chilly blade. Howling, it swept us back to a time when the free spirits, the salsa music, were inaudible.

It took us back to Columbia where Lynn was a filmmaker, interviewing and documenting the stories of the Columbians, the workers, the mothers, the friends, the revolutionaries, the culture whose voices were being silenced beneath a gale of governmental oppression. Through herself, Lynn conveys the resigned agony of a wife who will never see her husband again, a man in the field who battles the sun for survival, and her own vigor-infused friends fighting for their people, their country. We visit the buxom fish-selling women of the wharfs and the side of an understanding priest. We travel from the serene shade of a tree, to the sweltering expanses of sugarcane. Lynn is the documentarian, the subject, and the lens.

But it was really an autobiographical story. It was the the story of a woman who wanted to open the ears of the world to the voices of Columbia, who wanted to bring the struggle for human rights out of the darkness; but who felt guilt. She was fighting for a people, not with them. What right had she, an outsider, to try and feel the anguish, the spirit, of an entire nation? And she had left it all. Most of her films were destroyed, her friends assassinated. She had come home to safety, but she could not escape the voices of the wind.

And so, that muggy August night in quiet, peaceful Mineral Point, Lynn went back to Columbia. And using words in that vulnerably unassailable way that very few can, she took her audience with her. On a stage in Southern Wisconsin, she brought Columbia to life and in doing so reminded us that seldom is it “merely the wind”.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

100 Years Of Phascination

Too often our beloved stories become so wrung with new concepts, remakes, and additions to suit the tastes of each generation, that any semblance of their original splendor becomes nothing more than a historical reminiscence. Such is not the case with “The Phantom of the Opera,” a story much bigger than its humble origins within the pages of a cheap, 1910 Gothic thriller.

It is a tale of romantic tragedy at its finest. A grotesquely disfigured musical genius is madly in love with Christine, an aspiring opera starlet. The young singer is in love with her charming beaux, Raoul, but finds herself at once enthralled and horrified by the man who gave her a first taste of sensuality. And a man with the face of a monster, who is so close to a long denied love and yet, is rejected and tormented because of his ugliness. Taking place in the Paris Opera House only heightens the melodrama.

The Phantom first appeared on the screen in 1925. Played by Lon Chaney, he was the embodiment of repulsion, his face little more than a warped scull, embedded with really nasty teeth. The film was intended to thrill, the Phantom portrayed as a predatory figure of horror. But in moments of almost pathetic, almost feline virility, Chaney manages to arouse in us a feeling of pity. However, in attempting to disturb, the film skims over the enthralling qualities that drew Christine and Leroux’s readers to the Phantom in the first place. It is undoubtedly melodramatic, but lacks passion.

In 1988, after several uneventful remakes of the film, “The Phantom of the Opera” opened on Broadway as a musical adapted by Andrew Lloyd Webber, starring Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Webber’s then wife, Sarah Brightman, as Christine. The story leapt to life as if it had been waiting for a commanding soundtrack and multi-million dollar production fee to put the wind in its sails. Crawford was mesmerizing, alluring, tender, and frightening. He requested that the costume designer make his sleeves shorter to create the illusion of elongated hands, which he moved with a haunting grace, sweeping with music, twirling a cloak, caressing Christine’s gentle body.

The show rapidly and rightfully became a cultural phenomenon. As the chandelier made it’s infamous, electrifying sweep from ceiling to stage at the end of act one, audiences literally clung onto their seats in a moment of breathless, thrilling terror. The theater was where the Phantom was born, and where he belonged.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before stage became screen once more. In 2004 Joel Schumacher’s rendition of the musical hit the cinemas. Emmy Rossum, a young ingénue not unlike Christine, played the Phantom’s love interest. Gerard Butler was cast as the Phantom of the new era: rock-star voice, Gothic Belle Époque underground bachelor pad, swarthy wardrobe, and devastatingly sexy in every way. With the advent of the stage production, every conscious woman in America was already dead gone on the dark appeal of the Phantom. Making the face beneath the mask ugly may as well have been a matter of formality.

Not bad for someone hiding from a world that hated him.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Have A Feeling We're Not In Disneyland Anymore

Through films we can gaze into our world through a window, examine ourselves, delight ourselves, and captivate ourselves. But with animation, we can experience entirely new worlds, the stuff of which is often beyond our wildest flights of fancy (or fear).

“The Triplets of Belleville” pushes the limits of creativity. In it we are transported to the lurid land of Belleville through the travels of an elderly granny, her dog, and a trio of outdated singers on a quest to retrieve a young bicyclist, abducted by the French Mafia. It is an undoubtedly peculiar story, told almost entirely without dialogue. Perhaps that is best, as the visuals are more than capable of speaking for themselves.

In Belleville, everyone is a caricature. Even their rendition of the statue of liberty mimics one of the culture’s many misdemeanors. It is an unsettlingly foreign place filled with creepy, almost nauseating people. These are the kind of characters who are funny in a way that invokes nervous giggles rather than buoyant laughter. Everyone seems to have been steeped in cigarette smoke and melancholy and they send shivers of curious fear down the spine as they leer out at you from the alleys behind their grimy apartment buildings.

A work of satirical environmental fiction, “The Triplets of Belleville” evokes a feeling of culture shock. The bourgeoisie are represented as sinister wine snobs with grotesquely bloated wine-sniffing noses and long cigarettes clenched between fetid teeth. Their minions include a waiter who has been so accustomed to his position that he has taken to bending over backwards to gratify, literally, and a squat, mousy fellow who bears a striking resemblance to a certain renowned animator. The lowerclassmen who lurk in the dingy streets are no less unsettling.

The movie is so weirdly dark, it is almost easy to miss the humor. But it is all humor, really, from the giddy parade accordion player who holds up traffic by getting jammed between her perch atop a bus and the ceiling of a tunnel, to the triplets’ unconventional (if practical) method for getting dinner. It is comedy so pitch black we are almost afraid to laugh at it.

The film opens with a sequence poking fun at the entertainment industry and the people who enjoy it. It also gives us a look at The Triplets during their golden days and their home before they became sour with time and corruption. Not that it was Candyland to begin with. This episode is reminiscent of Americana city life, hinted at by its early Disney-esque style and greyscale-induced nostalgia of times gone by.

But things have changed. The good-looking former starlets are now musty. Their majestic stage has morphed into the corners of smoke-filled nightclubs, their voices now creaky, their instruments are everyday curiosities. As they ride off into the night, the horizon peppered with neon and garbage-bin fires, we escape from the eerie, tarnished, realm of Belleville and back into our world; a place perhaps now a little more familiar and a little more estranged.