Friday, November 1, 2013

Day 85: I'm The Face

Directed by Franc Rodham
Starring: Phil Daniels, Leslie Ash, Phillip Davis, Mark Wingett, Ray Winstone, Sting

Many times on this blog, I've reviewed film that were adaptations.  And, most of those times, I made the statement that I was unfamiliar with the source material and, therefore, couldn't say whether or not the film was a faithful adaptation.

This time, however, I'm extremely familiar with the source material: the classic 1973 rock opera by The Who, Quadrophenia.  Depending on who you ask, it's either the seminal portrait of early '60s teenage angst, or an overblown love letter from The Who to themselves.  Personally, I'm in the former category.  It's one of my all-time favorite albums, painting a picture of a young man trying to find his way in a world he doesn't feel  a part of.  The album is not without its faults, though.  Pete Townshend may be an amazing songwriter, but he's not the best storyteller.  The album's story becomes somewhat muddled and confusing if listened to on its own.  Thankfully, Townshend was probably aware of this, so the original issue of the album came complete with a short story and a photo book to help keep the listening audience from becoming too confused.

But where the album comes up short on plot, it more than makes up for musically and thematically. The protagonist, Jimmy, is a Mod in the early 60's who wants nothing more than to fit in with his Mod friends and engage in as much pill-fueled mayhem as possible.  He also claims to suffer from multiple personality disorder (he calls himself "Quadrophenic," a play on "schizophrenic"), with each of his personalities represented by a musical theme, all of which pop up in different places on the album, and all meld together in the penultimate track, "The Rock."

Naturally, such a heady concept would be difficult to capture on film.  So how does this adaptation measure up?

First of all, it should be noted that this film, oddly enough, is not a musical.  Unlike the film version of The Who's previous rock opera Tommy, Quadrophenia eschews the "song and dance" style and instead opts for a more gritty, realistic approach.  The songs from the album are treated more as mood music than anything else.  It works well at some points, but the album is very synth-heavy.  And seeing as how there were hardly - if any - synthesizers in early '60s rock n' roll, the effect can be very jarring at times.  We go from scenes featuring rock bands in dingy clubs (and an appearance from The Who on Ready, Steady, Go! on the TV) to a much more modern soundtrack.  Sometimes it works (such as with the acoustic number "I'm One"), and other times, it sounds much too advanced to fit into the world we're seeing on screen.

The story of Jimmy (Daniels) is much expanded on the screen.  However, the focus of the film is less about Jimmy trying to fit in, and more about the rivalry the Mods had with Britain's other music-based movement of the time, the Rockers.  Jimmy's old friend and neighbor Kevin (Winstone) is a Rocker, forcing him to choose sides between his old friend or his new friends.  The other emphasis is on the drug-fueled mayhem, of which there is much.  Amphetamines were the drug of choice for the Mods, so Jimmy spends much of the film running wild during the night and being sick and lethargic during the day.  These two parts of Jimmy's life come to a head during a road trip to Brighton, where he and the other Mods start a full-scale riot when trying to accost a couple of Rockers who'd been harassing them.  Jimmy and several others are arrested, including the coolest of the Mods, known simply as "Ace Face" (Sting).  But Jimmy's parents get word of what happened (and find his stash of pills) and kick him out of the house.  Jimmy quits his job, is rejected by his sweetheart and starts to rebel even against his friends.  With more pills and a quart of gin, he hops the train back to Brighton, only to find out that the Ace Face he admired so much works as a bell boy at a posh oceanside hotel.  Disillusioned with everything he though he believed in, he steals Ace's motor scooter and drives it off a cliff.

Where the album was more of a broad, abstract painting of a disaffected youth, the film gives us a more detailed portrait, not only of the character, but of the time.  But unlike some other rock films, such as Pink Floyd: The Wall, this is not a literal interpretation.  Liberties are taken with the character and the story, which isn't a bad thing.  The original was pretty vague to begin with, so to have some of the gaps filled in help move things along quite well. However, there is one glaring omission: the aspect of Jimmy's split personalities.  The idea is suggested by Jimmy's dad, but it's never expanded on.  The only illness seems to be Jimmy's drug-induced paranoia, which eventually gets the best of him.  The four themes from the album are still there, but in the context of the film, they don't mean anything.  Again, they're just mood music.  And that, along with the story possibilities lost with the omission of this plot point, seems like a huge waste.

That's not to say this is a bad film.  It's actually quite a good one, with a lot to like.  But fans of the album may find themselves disappointed in the final product.  I would suggest to anyone who's not either heard the album or seen the movie to do both.  They compliment each other well, each making up for the weakness of the other.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Day 84: 22 Short Films About Middle Earth

Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Sylvester McCoy
Featuring appearances by: Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Elijah Wood, Ian Holm

Normally, the title of my reviews are taken from a line of dialogue in the film.  But as I sat through The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, this joke, dumb though it may be, kept popping into my head.  Why?  Because the first hour or so of this marathon film is mostly backstory and exposition.  One hour into a film called The Hobbit, and Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) has about 10 minutes of screen time.  As if he's a bit player in his own movie.

And this brings me to my chief complaint about this film: it's long.  Really long.  I've sat through three-hour films before, and they're a crap-shoot.  Either that three hours flies by because you're so entranced by what you're seeing, or your looking at your watch, wondering when the whole thing is going to be over.  I was in the latter camp for this movie, though I didn't think I would be.  After all, Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy is probably my favorite movie trilogy ever (yes, I even like it more than the original Star Wars trilogy).  But the epic length was necessary for The Lord of the Rings in order to fit in as much from the book as possible.  As a book, The Hobbit is a quarter of the length.  How, then, will Peter Jackson expand it into three epic films?

By adding as much of Tolkien's Middle Earth mythos as possible.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle earth was not just contained in two books.  He wrote volumes about the history and mythology of his make-believe world of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits.  And Jackson draws from these other works as well, padding out a film that would have been perfectly entertaining at two hours, and instead ballooning it to three.  Not all of the padding was done this way, but a majority of it was.  As a result, when the film goes off on these tangents, it becomes unfocused, and left me looking at my watch.

But the preceding lengthy rant should not give you the idea that I hated this movie.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  I liked it quite a bit.  When the film focuses on Bilbo and the band of dwarves, going off to reclaim their homeland, it's a funny, action-packed, entertaining piece of work.  Almost like the best action films.  Martin Freeman is wonderful as the young Bilbo Baggins, claiming the role as his own, and not trying to feed off Ian Holms' previous portrayal.  Ian McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf the Grey, and picks up right where he left off from The Lord of the Rings.  Richard Armatage plays the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, and does a fine job in the role, taking the part of the dwarves from merely comedy relief to actual, respected warriors.  Probably for that reason, they decided not to give him the stereotypical bulbous nose and red cheeks some of the other dwarves had.

But the real star here is the country of New Zealand.  Once again, Peter Jackson films his native land with a lush vibrancy usually reserved for nature documentaries.  In fact, everything in this film looked amazing.  Much has been made of the fact that Jackson shot the film at 48 frames per second (twice as fast as the standard 24 fps).  The reasoning behind this was that it would reduce motion blur and make for a much crisper image, which is exactly what I saw.  I understand, however, that this new technique didn't translate well to 3-D.  But I didn't see it in 3-D (which I try to avoid whenever possible).  My only concern was that it was going to look like the world's most expensive soap opera.  But as it turns out, I had nothing to worry about.

If you are a die-hard Tolkien fan, you are absolutely going to love this movie.  In fact, chances are good you've seen it multiple times by now (I love being so current).  But the movie's length and tendency to wander may make it harder for casual fans, or those who had never read the book, to get into it.  But if you've got the time for it, it's certainly worth a look.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Day 83: Do You Hear The People Sing?

Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkenson

You're probably wondering why I haven't posted here in...*looks at watch*...five months.  To be honest, I just lost interest in the project.  I just couldn't find any movie that I really wanted to write about.  What fun is it to watch the classics - films everyone knows are great - only to watch them and find out, surprise! they're great!  Volumes have been written about them, so there's really nothing new I can bring to the discussion. 

To be even more honest, there really hasn't been that much going on at the cinemas, either.  Nothing that has been coming out for the last year or so has done much to pull me in or part me from my hard-earned cash.  That is, until I saw the trailer for what is probably the most anticipated musical film adaptation in years: Les Misérables.

The first trailer I saw featured Anne Hathaway, head shorn and body beaten, playing Fantine and tearfully warbling through I Dreamed a Dream over a montage of images from the filmThis did more than just pique my interest.  Those images and that sound told me that I absolutely had to see this filmI swore I would see it on Christmas Day, the day it opened.  But it turned out I had to work on Christmas, so I had to wait until the day after.

All of this can make it seem like I've seen the stage show hundreds of times and knew every song inside and out.  But I haven't and I don't.  I own the original Broadway soundtrack and came to love it very much, but I have yet to see the show on stage.  And since the stage version was pretty much unknown to me, my knowledge of the story was incomplete.  Most soundtrack versions were also incomplete, as the score features a lot of recitative (that is, talk-singing) between numbers.  Album producers consider this nothing more than filler, so they don't include it, even though these sequences can contain key plot points. It should also be noted that I have yet to slog my way through all 1,463 pages of Victor Hugo's novel, though I have attempted it numerous times.

The story is, indeed, immense, spanning decades and involving a massive cast of characters.  In fact, it's so immense, that I'd need a couple hundred pages to describe it all.  If you've never seen the show or read the book, it concerns a man named Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict turned upright citizen, and a police inspector named Javert (Crowe), who hunts him down to the ends of the earth for breaking his parole.  Along the way, we see the plight of the lower rungs of society, from a prostitute (Hathaway) and her estranged daughter (Seyfried) (whom Valjean adopts as his own), to a pair of crooked innkeepers (Baron Cohen, Bonham-Carter), to a group of privileged university students who rebel against the government.  All the while, the themes of sin, redemption, right and wrong and mercy versus the rigid arm the law are all explored.

The thing that I remember loving about the original soundtrack was the emotional arc of it.  Most of that emotion was retained in this film version, though it was through a method that was very much unheard of in the realm of musical films: live singing.  Every note of every song was filmed live on camera.  This goes against the usual practice of recording the vocals weeks - even months - ahead of time, then having the actors mime to their own singing.  Director Tom Hooper wanted the maximum amount of emotion from all his actors, and this was a downright revolutionary way to go about it.  But the problem is, it doesn't always work.  Don't get me wrong, there are times when it works wonderfully - especially, in I Dreamed a Dream, which is not only sung live, but done in one, long, heart-wrenching take, in which Anne Hathaway bears her very soul to the camera.  But there are many times when it seems that the backing track (which was recorded later) seems to be playing catch-up to the actors' performances.  The effect is like that of an orchestra without an conductor.  Everyone is just reacting off of everyone else, thus the music can sound sloppy and unpolished at times.  Granted, this may be what Hooper was going for, but the end result ends up sounding improvisational at best and unprofessional at worst.

As far as the vocal performances go, live singing doesn't leave any room for studio magic.  I've already said that Anne Hathaway was wonderful, but so was Hugh Jackman.  I knew he was a wonderful singer, after I saw his performance as Curly in Oklahoma!  But I didn't know he had the range he has.  His musical acumen really surprised me.  The same could be said for Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius.  Both showed an incredible amount of musical talent, while not making the acting seem strained and over-reaching.  The same cannot be said about Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter (Mr and Mrs Thenardier).  They look and act as if they'd wandered off the set of Sweeney Todd just to ham it up for their roles in this film.  But the most glaring miscast in the entire film was Russell Crowe as Javert.  It's not that he lacks the gravitas required for the role - it's just that he lacks the musical chops.  Les Miz is, more or less, an opera, but Crowe sings his part with a rock-and-roll baritone that seems extremely out of place.  I'm sure there were more qualified actors who might have been considered for the role, and I think some more thought should have been given to them.  Crowe seemed out of place the entire time.

But despite its flaws, the most important aspect of the story - the emotional arc - is left comepletely intact.  The ending is one of the most bittersweet I have ever seen in any film.  And believe me when I tell you that there was not a dry eye in the house, including mine.  All the suffering and all of the sorrow finally finds closure, and all of the weary souls who had been trod upon from the beginning of the film find rest.  And while the ending scene comes off as a bit overly-theatrical, the message of swords being beaten into plowshares is enough to make even a jaded film-school graduate tear up.  And that takes some doing.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Day 82: Are We Not Men?

Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Arthur Hohl, Kathleen Burke (as "The Panther Woman), Tetsu Komai, Leila Hyams

Every once in a while, I'll watch a film for the first time and realize it has influenced pretty much every aspect of my pop-culture world.  Then it's as if I've been clued in to about a million in-jokes and references.  Island of Lost Souls is one such film.  Seriously, everyone from DEVO to Van Halen to Oingo Boingo was influenced by this film.  It's been remade at least three times by directors who cite it as being one of the most influential they've ever seen. Every had anyone tell you, "The natives are restless?" This is where that came from.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When a shipwrecked sailor named Edward Parker (Arlen) is found adrift, he is picked up by a ship transporting animals.  He gets along well enough with the crew, particularly the amiable yet coy Montgomery (Hohl).  However, when Parker slugs the ship's captain for his cruel treatment of a strange deck hand named M'ling (Komai), the captain vows revenge.  He gets it when the ship makes its delivery - to another ship, in the middle of the ocean, no less.  While the animals are being unloaded, the Captain conks Parker on the head and unloads him, too.  A large man in a goatee (Laughton) protests, but the captain turns a deaf ear and sails on, leaving Parker behind.  The large goateed man introduces himself as Dr. Moreau.  He also re-introduces Montgomery and M'ling, who seem to work for the mysterious doctor.  Moreau promises to return Parker to civilization first thing in the morning.  However, being British and impeccably polite, he offers him dinner first.  He also introduces him to Lota (Burke), one of the native women.  Parker and Lota get on like Tarzan and Jane until they hear screams of agony coming from a nearby building that Lota dubs the "House of Pain."  Parker investigates and finds Moreau and Montgomery vivisecting one of the beast-like natives without anesthesia.  Parker tries to run, but runs into the native village.  Right when they're about to tear him apart, Moreau appears with a gong, a gun and a whip.  He screams, "What is the law?"  One of the natives (Lugosi, credited as "The Sayer of the Law") repeats.  "Not to spill blood. That is the law. Are we not men?"  The other beast-men follow suit and Parker is spared, and spooked.  He demands to be let off the island, but Moreau has other plans.

That's really all the plot synopsis you need, as a film like this one works best if you know very little going in.  I've probably already said too much, but I refuse to spoil the ending.

Instead, I'll just talk about how out-of-the-loop I felt as I watched this film that has apparently been a favorite of film buffs for decades.  Sometimes I'll come across such films, and they won't leave any lasting impact on me, or I'll find them overrated or just downright dull.  That's not the case with Island of Lost Souls.  It's wonderfully made, superbly acted and probably one of the creepiest films I've seen in a while.  Charles Laughton was amazing as Doctor Moreau, playing the role more subtly than most actors of his day.  On the opposite end of the spectrum was Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law.  He's not in the film very much, but toward the end he has a monologue when he and the other natives confront Moreau.  And though it is very big and very over-the-top, it's probably one of the finest moments in Lugosi's career.

If you haven't guessed by now, the film was based on the H.G. Wells novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, which as been made and re-made at least three other times.  I've never seen them, but I've read about them. And if the reviews are any indication, this is the superior film version of the story, though Wells was very vocal about his dislike of the film, claiming it was made purely for shock value, rather than touching upon the weightier subjects of eugenics and the role of morality in science.

And of course, he's right - about the shock value, that is. This film is pretty shocking, especially for 1932.  It's dark and violent, but then again, so is the story.  The characters are all men of action, not the kind who try to out-debate one another (though there is a bit of that, too).  As it is, the story isn't weighed down by a ton of dialogue and runs by at a brisk 71 minutes.  But the genius of this film is how much they were able to put into that brief running time.  The subjects that Wells brings forth are touched upon, but by action rather than by words, and the audience will definitely be thinking about the film, and the questions it brings up, long after it's over.  It shocks like a good horror film and it makes you think like a good science fiction film.  That's a tough task to pull off, but Island of Lost Souls does it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Day 81: Pain Don't Hurt

Directed by Rowdy Herrington
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Sam Elliot, Ben Gazzara, Kelly Lynch, Jeff Healey (and his band), Terry Funk, Kevin Tighe, "Sunshine" Parker (not making that up), John Doe (that either)

A few months ago, I reviewed a documentary called Best Worst Movie, which posed a question: What is it about bad movie that we love so much?  While Best Worst Movie was about Troll 2 and its legion of devoted fans, I have to say that I have just watched a movie that, while reviled by many critics, is loved by millions of movie fans.  And that film is Road House.

The story is pretty darned simple.  Dalton (Swayze) is a bouncer who goes from town to town taking work in various dive bars around the country.  One night, Frank Tilghman (Tighe) approaches Dalton and asks for his help in cleaning up his bar, the Double Deuce.  Dalton asks for, what I'm guessing, is an astronomical fee for a bouncer, but Tilghman pays it anyway, and Dalton makes good on his word, picking up and moving to a small town just outside Los Angeles Kansas City.  And all the famous Kansas City sites are there: the rugged mountains, the palm trees, the 101 freeway.  Too bad they couldn't work in Kansas City's legendary Santa Monica Pier.  I guess it just wasn't in the budget.

Anyway, Dalton immediately begins cleaning up the Double Deuce, starting with the corrupt bouncer (played expertly by pro wrestler Terry Funk) and a bartender who's been skimming out of the cash register.  This causes them to join forces with Brad Wesley (Gazzara), who practically owns the entire town.  And he's also a completely corrupt monster, as individuals who own entire towns tend to be.  Wesley sends his goons to rough Dalton up, and he ends up needing stitches.  At the hospital, he meets his officially designated love interest in Dr. Elizabeth Clay (Lynch), who offers Dalton medical assistance, dry humor and gratuitous nudity.

Wesley calls Dalton in an attempt to make peace by buying him out, which is how Wesley solves all his problems.  But Dalton knows Wesley just wants to use him as one of his thugs, so he turns him down.  Wesley then turns his attention to Dalton's friends, prompting Dalton to bring in some backup, in the form of old buddy and fellow cooler Wade Garrett (Elliot).  And then the movie really begins.

I don't think I'm overstating it when I say that this movie is ludicrous in every way possible.  The story is completely unbelievable, the characters - while attempting to be deep - are just one-dimensional cliches, and they don't even bother to try to make Southern California look like Kansas City.  However, this mess, with all it's bar fights, rock music, gratuitous nudity and multiple explosions is a very entertaining mess.  It plays almost like a parody of action films, with every element and action trope turned up to eleven.

However, when we see Sam Elliot ride up on his Harley, look up at the sign and call that place "The Double Douche," he gives the movie something it didn't have before: credibility.  Simply put, he makes this movie.  Not only that, but he makes me wish this movie was about Wade instead of Dalton, as his character, and Sam Elliot's portrayal of that character - are superior is just about every way to Patrick Swayze's.  Not to take anything away from the late Mr. Swayze, but I have a hard time believing this guy had been in that many fights, let alone won most of them (yeah, yeah, "Nobody ever wins in a fight.").  I don't have any trouble believing Sam Elliot is a bouncer, because he looks and acts like one.

His presence in the film is a bit like imagining if John Wayne had been in Blazing Saddles.  The difference is Blazing Saddles was meant to be funny.  I don't think that's what Road House was going for, so I can't exactly called it a success.  Well, that's not entirely true.  It sought to be entertaining, and it certainly pulled that off.  It's just it took a very roundabout way to be entertaining.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

We've hit a snag...

Basically, it's a financial snag.  The remainder of the films I have to watch for my Oscar Challenge are still in theaters.  And at a minimum of $8 per ticket multiplied by 4 films, comes out to $32.  And times are so tight right now, that I simply can't afford to go to the movies four times this week.  So it's looking like another challenge has beaten me.

Story of my life...