Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Movies: I like 'em

Here are some reactions to movies I've seen lately, either in theaters or in the friendly confines of Casa Jaquandor via the miracle of DeeVeeDee. I don't shy away from spoilers, so if I discuss a title you want to remain unspoiled, scroll past it, please.

:: As part of The Daughter's Christmas present, we took her to see Enchanted. I'm not sure if this movie was the result of a re-commitment to quality at Disney, or the unexpected resurfacing of the kind of quirky humor that marked the occasional Disney effort like The Emperor's New Groove, but we all found this film totally, utterly delightful. It's sort of like Shrek in that it riffs on the various tropes of all the classic animated films of yesteryear, but it differs from the Shreks of the world in that it treats its tropes with some reverence, choosing to play with those tropes, as opposed to making fun of them.

The story is pretty straightforward: through the machinations of your standard Evil Witch Queen, our beautiful Princess (who communicates through peppy song with the animal denizens of her woodland home) is transported to the Real World, where she continues to interact with the world in the only way she knows how, by bursting into song and by being so peppy and happy that most people around her start to think she's crazy. She meets a single father and his only-child daughter and quickly becomes an integral part of their lives. Meanwhile her Handsome Prince comes to our world as well, trying to find her, and eventually the Evil Witch Queen shows up too, for one of those final confrontations that involves the threat of plummeting from a great height.

Nothing at all happens in this movie that will come as any kind of surprise to anyone who's seen a classic Disney flick or two, but that's not the point, is it? The pleasure comes not from surprises, but in watching a man of our cynical world enter the typical plotline of an animated movie, such as his reaction to the Princess's ability to summon the animals of the real world to help her clean his apartment, or his constant mortification when she reacts to every emotional moment with a song ("You're not gonna sing again, are you?") The movie sets the tone right from the very beginning, when in classic Disney fashion, the first shot is of a large storybook opening to the first page of our tale.

Of course, a movie like this can also only succeed on the strength of its songs, and the team of Alan Menken and Steven Schwarz makes it all happen nicely, especially with the wonderful Central Park showstopper, "That's How You Know".

A funny thing happened when we saw Enchanted, by the way: as you might expect, the theater was full of families with children, merrily watching the show. Well, a minute or two into the live action portion of the movie, a woman comes into the theater and sits down at the end of our row, five or six seats down from me. There she sits through this happy, peppy Disney flick for about fifteen minutes before she leans over to me and says, "Is this Enchanted?" When I said yes, she got up, saying, "I thought I was in the wrong theater." I don't know what movie she'd meant to see. Maybe the current Saw sequel? Who knows? I just found it funny that it took her that long to figure out that she wasn't seeing the movie she'd meant to see.

:: Way back in 1982, my mother took me to my first-ever R-rated movie, Blade Runner. This was on the basis of my youthful fascination with all things Harrison Ford. I didn't get the movie, at all; I sort of understood the plot ("OK, Ford's a cop of some sort, and he has to round up these evil androids called "replicants" who are on the loose. Gotcha."), but for the life of me I didn't get the whole setting or mood of the film. My experiences with science fiction to that point had involved Star Wars, Star Trek, and a few books by Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I was not prepared for the murky dystopia of Blade Runner, and I really didn't get the notion that Los Angeles in 2019 would look like how I'd always envisioned Tokyo. But for the most part, I didn't really get into the story all that much.

I didn't watch Blade Runner again until college, when again I had gained a bit of appreciation for the film's production design, but again, the story left me a bit cold. The characters just weren't that interesting to me, and I still couldn't get all that emotionally involved in the story. I saw the movie a couple of times during the 1990s, with mostly the same results, but I hadn't seen it in probably ten years before a couple of weeks ago, when I watched Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

I'm warming up to the movie a bit more, but it's still something of a tough nut for me to crack. I've watched and read more noir since the last time I watched it, so I understand the film's tropes more than ever before, but still, I'm damned if I don't find it hard to really like Blade Runner still, rather than merely admiring it. I think it comes down to Rick Deckard, about whom we learn almost nothing in the course of the film. Everybody else has something of an explanatory backstory, motivations that are clear and easily understood, but I have almost no idea what drives Deckard. Maybe this is what drives the continual debate in fan circles as to whether Deckard is a replicant or not, but for me, it just makes it hard to care about him, one way or the other.

Anyway, Blade Runner is still an amazing movie to watch and to listen to (Vangelis's best film score). I just wish it had a more involving story.

:: Saturday Night Fever tends to get made fun of more often than not these days; it's always seen less as the coming-of-age story of a troubled young man than as "that disco movie", which is a shame. I'd only seen it once before, ten years or so ago, when it aired on TBS in a heavily sanitized version. Watching it in its original R-rated version for the first time, I was impressed at what a dark, grim, and cynical film it is. Disco is seen these days as a vaguely ridiculous detour that pop culture took for a few years there, a funny little thing that is seen as amusing for its camp value than anything else. It doesn't help that many movies that featured disco sequences treated disco the same way; Saturday Night Fever is probably the only movie made during the brief heyday of disco that actually took disco seriously.

(OK, I know you're all wondering: No, I'm not a fan of disco. But I find it hard to blow off disco completely, at the same time. It wasn't all crap. Most of it, probably, and as a music genre, disco had virtually nowhere to go other than right back out the door it came in, but there's still some vibrancy to be found in those throbbing beats and aggressive synths and sex-filled lyrics.)

John Travolta's Tony Manero is quite the creation, and it's a worthy reminder of what a potent force Travolta finds it in himself to be, every once in a while. Tony is at once insecure and utterly confident. The famous opening sequence of the film, with Tony strutting along the sidewalks of Brooklyn, displays the contrasts within Tony in just a few short minutes. He makes eyes at the ladies and struts as though he owns this town, and yet he's carrying a gallon of paint. He stops to put a down payment on a new shirt, as opposed to buying it outright, and also stops for a couple of slices of pizza, which he then folds together and eats with one hand. And then he comes back into his workplace, the hardware store, via the back door so his waiting customer won't see that he had to go to a place down the street to buy her the paint she wants.

Tony alternates between being likable and being loathsome. He and his friends are sexist, racist, and homophobic. They treat women as disposable objects, and yet Tony finds himself drawn for reasons he can't even begin to explain to a woman he sees dancing one night. His friends are absolute jerks, and they draw Tony into some gang-type activity; they basically gang-rape the poor Donna Pescow character, whose biggest error is to be in love with Tony, and afterwards, Tony bluntly informs her that it's her fault. One of his friends spends much of the movie agonizing over the fact that he has impregnated a girl in one of his back-seat-of-the-car escapades, but he's not agonizing so much for what he's done as for the fact that, as a "good" Catholic, he now has to marry her. In the end, he may or may not commit suicide. I like that the film leaves this point unclarified; as Tony tells the cop afterwards, "There are ways of killing yourself without killing yourself."

What I liked most about Saturday Night Fever, ultimately, is its general lack of story. I've rarely seen a film that does what this one does: it enters a life, follows that life for a while, and then exits that life, without ever establishing some kind of lesson to be learned or even much indicating whether a lesson has been learned at all. Tony Manero has clearly grown a bit in the course of the film, but as the credits roll, it's unclear as to where he goes from here or if he will continue to grow.

As for all the disco stuff, frankly, I found that once I was involved in the world of the movie, the disco stuff became just what's it's ever been: movie dancing.

(I'm told that Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, is a ghastly movie, well and truly bad. I think I'll be taking the word of those who say so.)

:: Finally, we have A Prairie Home Companion. I've been a casual, even occasional, fan of Garrison Keillor's radio show for years, and I've been listening to it more often over the last year, ever since a shift in the scheduling of radio programs on Buffalo's public radio stations has relieved the former situation that had Fiona Ritchie's Thistle and Shamrock Celtic music show airing at the same time as Keillor's PHC. I've long enjoyed Keillor's brand of humor on that show, and I looked forward to the film on that basis. The conceit of the movie is that a major corporate entity of some sort has bought all the radio stations and the theater in which the show is performed, and the film presents the final airing of A Prairie Home Companion. Nevertheless, the show must go on, much as it always has, without maudlin retrospectives and the like.

That's about all I knew of the movie before I watched it, although I quickly discovered some differences between the show in the movie and the show as it actually is. For one thing, one of the radio program's recurring characters, private eye Guy Noir, is a flesh-and-blood character in the movie, who does security for the Prairie Home Companion tapings. As the performance begins, the show as depicted in the movie is pretty much what we all expect, although the camera slides in and out of the performance as it's transpiring onstage and into and out of the lives of the people who work hard to put the show on in the first place. The main attraction here are the singing sisters, Rhonda and Yolanda, one of whom (I don't recall which) is played by Meryl Streep and the other by Lily Tomlin. These two actresses have pretty wonderful chemistry together, and I hope they can get together onscreen again at some point. (I confess to not being the biggest Meryl Streep fan in the world, but here she's just brilliant, and it turns out the she has a very good singing voice.)

Backstage films like this are a favorite genre of mine, and it occurs to me that this is kind of what I'd hoped Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip would be. The film is full of sly details about the production of a radio show: the way that performers hold off-the-air conversations right up until the very second they're on the air, at which point they effortlessly slide into character, the way performers interact with one another despite the fact that their facial expressions cannot be seen by the vast majority of people hearing the show. At one point, as Rhonda and Yolanda begin a song together, the one played by Lily Tomlin covers her mike with her hand, turns to the band, and says, "Not so slow this time, you sons-on-bitches, or I'll break your necks." And best of all? None of the bandmates so much as twitches in response. The Prairie Home Companion radio program has been on for years, done each week by the same group of devoted performers, and the Prairie Home Companion movie, while using some of those performers, adds others with star casting – the afore-mentioned Streep and Tomlin, as well as Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. And the actors who are merely playing longtime PHC performers actually pull off the illusion. Lindsay Lohan is along for the ride as well,

If that was all there was to PHC, it would be a decently entertaining movie. But that's not all there is to it: there's a strong supernatural element as well, which seems a staggeringly odd thing to find in a film of a radio show, but there it is. Into the middle of the theater walks a blond woman in a white trenchcoat, and she turns out to be the former soul, now an angel, of a woman who died in a car crash when she failed to negotiate a curve because she'd been laughing at a joke she'd heard on the radio...on Prairie Home Companion. Her presence turns the film from a bittersweet tale of the end of a radio institution into a deeply touching meditation on the nature of death.

This film will, I think, linger for a while in my thoughts. I'll consider it as I enjoy a slice of Beeboparebop Rhubarb Pie.


Jason said...

RE: Blade Runner and the inherent blandness of Rick Deckard, I think the whole point of his character is that there's not much there there, at least not until the end.

My take on the story and the meaning of this film (which I personally love, btw) is that human beings have become very dehumanized in this future environment. Every "real" human we see in the movie is corrupt, decrepit, ineffective, unsympathetic, etc., whereas the replicants are the ones who exhibit passion and concern for their comrades and other genuine emotions. While the real humans use their V-K machines to try and detect "emotionless" replicants, they are actually the ones who are lacking in emotion. (When Rachel asks Deckard if he's ever used the machine on himself, the line is not, as so many people believe, a clue that D is a replicant himself. Rather, it's pointing out that he's emotionally stunted.)

The slogan for the Nexus 6 replicant project is "More human than human," and that is reflected plainly in the plot. Deckard eventually comes to understand that humanity's creations are human, as human as he is, and maybe even more so.

It's all subjective, of course, how you respond to a given movie, but for me, this is a beautiful film about what it really means to be human, and to play God by trying to create intelligent servants.

I do agree with you on Saturday Night Fever, though. It's a great movie, with much much more to it than that lighted dance floor and the white suit...

Anonymous said...

I've seen Blade Runner twice. I liked it a lot better the second time. Still not one of my favorites but I thought it was entertaining enough.

Here's something sort of, but not entirely, off topic that you might like: 100 Best Movie Soundtracks according the Telegraph.