Yes, that means what you think it means.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that this would be an interesting film. It is, after all, about an important historical figure who did the first real scientific research into sex, it has an all-star cast, and Bill Condon's last feature was the sublime Gods and Monsters. Liam Neeson manages to convey a character of many contradictions; it's not a runaway character performance, such as Jamie Foxx's brilliant portrayal of Ray Charles, but it is still a very solid one. Laura Linney is excellent, as usual, and Peter Sarsgaard is rapidly turning into an anti-suck factor. All of the movies I've seen him in thus far have been pretty good.
The film, while in no way prudish, is quite restrained in terms of how much sex that it presents. There are certain areas where I was surprised at how graphic it was with only an R rating, but the tone of the film pretty much keeps things breezy. Despite the subject matter, this does not in any way come across as being a dirty movie, which was a very important tightrope to walk.
The production values here are superb as well, from Frederick Elmes' clean J-D-C Scope anamorphic photography to Carter Burwell's evocative score, which is supplemented on the film's music track with well placed period songs (Ella Fitzgerald's "Too Darn Hot" becomes sort of a victory anthem at one point). No, it isn't quite as good as Gods and Monsters, but it is a more ambitious project, and Condon's success with it makes me eager to to see where he goes from here. Be sure if you rent the DVD to check out the end credits, which have a funny little surprise, and his commentary track.
The best thing that I can say about this movie is that Adam Sandler's performance is excellent. Like many comedians turned dramatic actors of recent years (Jim Carrey being the most prominent), I prefer his take on drama than on the type of comedy they do. Sandler inhabits his character beautifully, and it feels like John Clasky could walk off the screen and start cooking. Cloris Leachman is also hysterical in this film. I did have a problem - and it's a pretty big one - with the script.
Sandler's wife is played by Téa Leoni, and her character is the element that totally fucks up the film (this is not the fault of the actress). She's self-important, bigoted, unobservant, critical, bitchy and many other negative adjectives. She's just the source of everybody's problem in the film. When the tension between Sandler and Paz Vega begins to build up, you want Leoni's character to just disappear because nobody likes her, even her children.
The film makes a lot of noise at the beginning about the class differences between the Claskys and the Mexican help, but it doesn't go anywhere with that. Sure, the upper middle class comes across as being full of itself, but the any social critique is defanged before it can get too close to home. I also respect the idea that Sandler and Vega's characters, while acknowledging what is between them, are too decent to allow it to ruin their lives. While I respect many of the ideas that writer/director James L. Brooks was trying to get out there, I felt that he didn't really have the courage to follow through with this one. There are some laughs, but overall it's a pretty dead show.
Knowing too much about a film beforehand can hurt it, but there are some cases where knowing the backstory behind a film before one sees it can add immeasurably to its impact. A good example of this is Medium Cool.
Haskell Wexler worked as a news cameraman for many years before becoming disatisfied with the profession because he found it impossible not to get involved in what he was shooting. He wrote, directed and photographed Medium Cool, which is a film about a news cameraman played by Robert Forster who becomes disatisfied with the profession, and presented it in a quasi-documentary style. The film had a narrative thread that culminated in a major scene taking place at a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, an event that he foresaw because he had felt it brewing as a cameraman. The finale of the film was actually filmed as the riots were taking place, in and among them.
While the film does follow the fates of its characters, their problems are rooted deeply in the political landscape of the era, and it is the depiction of that era that the film excells. The events leading up to the explosion of violence at the DNC are shown in the film... for real. At the beginning, Forster is shooting the police and military flippantly doing riot training, and he takes Marianna Hill out to see a roller derby. This fake, forced violence is contrasted sharply with the material shot at the riots outside the convention itself. Shots of Verna Bloom navigating through the brutal disorder are shocking as much for the savagery going on around her - which was all really going on - as it is for the danger the character is in. This is cinéma vérité at it's more extreme, where the film crew and actors were in genuine danger.
The sad part about all of this is that there is no way a film this politically charged would ever have been produced and released by a major studio in this day and age. Every cutting criticism that Wexler makes towards the media is more relevant today than it was when the film first came out. If his screen alter ego gets a bit heavy handed in his railing, it is earned by the truth of what he is saying.
I had wanted to see this film for a very long time, but my local video stores didn't have it. Now, thanks to Netflix, I was finally able to get this one. It was well worth it. This is the type of film that, had I seen it when I was in college, might have gotten me killed, so I am somewhat glad that I did see it when I'm older and more responsible. However, the honesty here is something that is refreshing to any filmmaker. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, it is not a question of making a political film, it is a question of making films politically, and Medium Cool is an excellent example of the truth of that statement.
Please note that the lousy songs on the DVD were not the original songs heard when the film was released theatrically.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
While I loved Roald Dahl growing up, I never got around to reading this particular book. I also never got around to seeing the first film version, at first through circumstance, then eventually because I was worried that there was no way that it could live up to the hype. It is a movie that most people had seen in their childhood, and we all know how forgiving that can a person on subsequent viewings.
Most of my friends are terrified of Oompa Loompas.
I liked the idea of seeing Tim Burton's take on Dahl, though, and from a visual point of view, I was not disappointed. Every shot is packed with visual information, and the film is well cast in that department as well, so that every element of the imagery contributes to the twisted atmosphere that I loved about Dahl. There isn't much substance to the story and the morality is pretty straightforward, but it is spectacular to behold, and the spectacle is the thing here. The Oompa Loompas are all played by a single actor, Deep Roy, and much of the humor of the film comes from seeing him in different guises.
While the film looks rather nice, how much of this is cinematographer Philippe Rousselot is anybody's guess. Some of the special effects look rather cartoony, which doesn't hurt the film as much as the overreliance on digital post-production color alterations. Danny Elfman's score is pretty much exactly what you expect it to be - not that that's a bad thing, but it would have been nice to hear him stretch out a bit more - but his arrangements of Dahl's Oompa Loompa songs (which he provides the vocals for), each in a different musical style, are great. The real star of this movie though, above and beyond Charlie Highmore, David Kelly or Johnny Depp and even Burton himself is Alex McDowell, whose production design is glorious.
You can love it but, believe me, it don't always love you back.
It's kinda like dating a German chick."
The Bad News Bears
Michael Ritchie's 1976 original is an interesting anomaly among sports movies. It's actually about sportsmanship, not winning fairly. The humor in it is also very harsh without being mean-spirited towards its characters. The kids are foul mouthed little bastards who acted like real kids instead of those plastic little androids you usually see in movies. I was thus quite skeptical about the idea of a remake because the current political climate has become way too overprotective of children, and I was worried that they would soften the film up for modern audiences.
I knew that they may have been onto something when the cast the one and only Bad Santa himself, Billy Bob Thorton, in the Walter Matthau role. I like Richard Linklatter's films in general, and I thought School of Rock somehow managed to be endearing without getting sickeningly cute. Then I saw one of the film posters, which was almost exactly the same as the that for the original film, but with cartoons of the new cast instead of the old one.
Look, let's be honest here. I'm not saying that The Bad News Bears is such a classic of American cinema that the text of the original is inviolate and must be adhered to at all costs. All I mean is that it is a very beloved film, one which many people, including myself, grew up with and one that retains its humor even thirty years after the fact, and a certain amount of respect is warranted from the remake.
I needn't have worried. Linklater obviously loves the original film and references it often in this one. And, more importantly, it isn't toned down. I knew this when, ten minutes into the film, I lost count of how many times "shit" was uttered... and not just by Thorton himself. No, these kids are just as wonderfully cheeky as the ones in the 1976 film. Thorton isn't quite as disgusting as he was in Bad Santa, but, of course, that would be impossible. He is still quite wrong, though (wrong in the right way, I mean). The updating of the scene in which Matthau passes out is a perfect example, and there are many guffawing implications of even more heinous behavior over the course of the film. There is a very, very, very slight bit of pussying out on the character at the very end, but again, this is a different era than what the original film was produced in, and is fitting for this version. On the other hand, I challenge anybody not to laugh uproariously at the sight of a bunch of strippers with bouncing silicon breasts cheering at a Little League game, a repeating gag that is used to great effect in the final game.
Another area where the film was quite successful is its presentation of the game itself. Linklater, cinematographer Rogier Stoffers and editor Sandra Adair shot and cut the film in such a way as so to make all the events in the game quite comprehensible without mimicking televised baseball, which is no easy feat. Composer Edward Shearmur pays homage to Jerry Fielding's work on the original by also adapting Bizet's Carmen for use in this film, although here it has shades of techno as well (think his Charlie's Angels score). The movie was consistantly funny, a worthy updating of the original. It is clearly meant to remind people of the original and not stand side by side with it and definitely not replace it.