Sunday, April 17, 2005

Bleak Goes to the Talking Pictures

Well, not really. Multiplexes annoy me. I'd be just as happy never to eat popcorn again. Soda pop I find cloying and obvious. I hate idle whispering, usually expounding the subtleties of a plot development a three-year-old could anticipate -- e.g., "He's not really dead!" or "She has to cut the blue wire first!" Loud questions which invite such exposition are worse. As are hopeful witticisms ending in a salivary "Haw!" or remarks aiming at critical sophistication and beginning with "Well..."
Instead, I rent DVDs. I recognize that these deprive me of the entirety of The Cinematic Experience, and leave me without recourse in discussing the latest movies, except to disapprove a priori of such gallumphingly sophomoric propaganda as The Motorcycle Diaries, Kinsey, and Fahrenheit 911. ("But how can you say that? You haven't even seen them!" "Don't need to." "But that's prejudiced." "Mm hmm." "You don't have an open mind." "Right again." "Well, I don't have to listen to this." "Exactly.")
So I catch things late. Sometimes a year late. Sometimes several decades late. So you'll find nothing new here, and no stars, thumbs, exclamation points, or instant cultural insights. Given that the best movies are by their very nature mediocre -- interesting paradox, eh? but not all that interesting -- and that some of the worst movies are among the best (isn't this fun?), and that not seeing the vast majority of them will have no impact on one's life whatsoever (as will seeing the vast majority, but you're down two hours each by measure of the great hourglass), you're probably best off not listening to my views. Nothing is recommended.
I enjoyed Sideways a great deal. It made me laugh spontaneously at several points. Unlike so many of the so-called comedies one sees which are like a drunken fellow at a party whom you can't shake off, and who insists upon making crude remarks in too loud a voice, elbowing you painfully in the ribs, and guffawing -- while others in the room cast their eyes nervously in his direction while slowly edging away. No, this is really funny. Not that it doesn't have its crudities, a certain number of which are perfunctory in any Hollywood product. Yet even these work as often as not, by dint of being well-spaced, and actually surprising when introduced by effectively deadpan delivery. I don't know much about wines (which are just inferior booze to me, so sue) but, whether accurate or not (I'd venture to say the former), the satiric treatment of philooenology, or whatever it is, is priceless. The film is rated "W," for "What is that man doing to that lady, Daddy?" "They're married, dear, and he loves her very much" won't cut the mustard here, I'm afraid. Also "H" for "How come they can say bad words and they don't get sent to their rooms?" So watch it when the children are in bed, the maiden aunts have left for the evening, and you're very tired of that book you're reading which (while Of Vital Importance and Deeply Informative) just seems to go on and on.
Next up is Last Life in the Universe. Let me see if I can explain this one. It's a Japanese movie set in Thailand. The Japanese fellow speaks Japanese (no surprises there) and the Thai girl speaks Thai. The only language they have in common is a bit of garbled English, or "Engrish." Fortunately, there are lots of subtitles, many of them lucid. If you think you are having trouble following the plot, you're probably not, and it's not the subtitles which are at fault. If you think you aren't having trouble following the plot, you probably are. In either case, be patient. If you think there is no plot, well, there is and there isn't, but don't wet the carpet over it, it's all in good fun. I hope I won't be scaring you off when I note that it's a "relationship" movie, one about two lonely people finding solace in each other's company during difficult transitions. Yawn. No, don't go to bed, stick with it. There are surprisingly few longueurs for such a languidly paced movie. And we are spared the customary bouts of flopping flesh, deep grunts, and inexplicable changes of position. We are likewise spared Sensitivity and Soulful Gazes, for the most part. The sexuality is largely implicit, if you can credit such a counterintuitive innovation. I must also mention, and hope that this doesn't scare anyone off, either, that it's a gangster movie. Only with the gangster movie removed. There. I think I've explained all of this with considerable clarity.
Finally, we have Bright Young Things, based on the immortal Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Vile Bodies. I enjoyed the movie immensely, although I have Major Quibbles (which is either a disease of the spinal column, or a character in one of Waugh's other books.) There are countless anachronisms here, always annoying in a movie set in a particular period, in this case the 1920s, also known as, not entirely accurately, The Jazz Age. Flappers did not flap to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," which came along a decade later, and in any event the British had their own swing orchestras, many of them quite creditable. Nor did the (fairly modern-sounding) electrical recordings of swing bands coexist with the creaky acoustic recordings of affected tenors and novelty bands, as the film would have you believe. (Hey, it's all historical, what's the diff?) Further, although Waugh's novel, written in 1929, has a War, it has nothing whatsoever to do with World War II (which, don't ya know, came later), and indeed the situating of said War in a specific historical context (the wrong one, but leave that aside) rather undermines Waugh's climax, and to no evident purpose. This might all have been avoided had the brief scene of Churchill's radio broadcast been snipped, or, better, not filmed. Guess someone thought the audience might get confused. Also, the homosexual characters are painted up in eye makeup and garish lipstick, and act with the most broadly effeminate gestures this side of The Perils of Pauline. Once again, we wouldn't want the audience to become confused, so we'll have to find a way to make it plain to them. I assume that having certain characters carrying signs saying "GAY" was considered too strenuously literal even for general audiences, those unsophisticated boobs. Finally, the character of Mrs Ape is badly miscast (one of the few miscastings in the movie, I must add), and the filmmakers have decided to take Waugh's deeply funny and in the end complex satire of religion, and turn it into -- how could they resist? -- a sniggeringly sophomoric lampoon of faith. This trendy, if tiresomely predictable, turn leads them to stand a few incidents on their heads, making the scenes with Mrs Ape and her angels seem irrelevant and gratuitous. In Waugh's novel, the religious satire was deliberate, and it was sharp. But it was also keenly double-edged, which was part of its brilliance. Well, that one sailed right over the heads of the filmmakers. But, other than these lengthily expounded reservations ("Other than that, Mrs Lincoln etc."), I enjoyed the movie immensely. The characterizations, the acting, even the sets (give or take a few ignorable anachronisms) were splendid, and the movie by and large captured the novel very well. The casting seems to be the result of some universal employment legislation for British actors, so that you'll find yourself recognizing, or sort of recognizing, lots and lots of minor characters. But it's all well done, Waughian (Waughesque? Wavian?) eccentricites intact and winningly fleeting. The long and the short of it is, Give me a scissors and let me cut ten minutes and rearrange a few scenes -- and for God's sake let me put the music right! -- and I'll have a first-rate feature for you in no time. While we're awaiting that development, do see it, but ignore the awkward bits as outlined above. Rated "D" for leaden-handed Drug references of the "Hey, maw, they had drugz back in the olden dayz, haw, haw" variety -- another bit of in-your-face-cracker literalism that can be overlooked.