Thursday, October 19, 2017

ROCK OPERA

This weekend Arizona Opera presents Hercules vs. Vampires...


...Patrick Morganelli's musical setting of Mario Bava's goofy but visually lush 1961 sword-and-sandal fantasy Ercole al Centro della Terra (known in English as Hercules in the Haunted World). So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is Procrustes, here depicted as an ambulatory rock...




...but still up to his traditional shtick of stretching people, or chopping them down, in order to get them to fit in bed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

OIL RICH


A couple of gems open in the Valley this week:


Loving VincentThe producers stake an unusual claim for this Polish-British animated feature, six years in the making: that it’s the first completely oil-painted movie. Each of its 65,000 frames, we’re told, was meticulously hand-painted by a team of more than 100 artists, working over the previous frame’s image, all in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.

A documentary about the making of this quixotically crazy endeavor would be fascinating. As with Claymation back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you let yourself think too long about the labor you’re witnessing, you can start to feel overwhelmed and it can throw you out of the movie.

Happily, the movie itself isn’t just visually breathtaking, it’s also an engrossing little historical drama, well-acted by the Brit voice cast in a naturalistic manner. The story is set in 1891, the year after Van Gogh’s death, and centers on Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the young man in yellow from the famous portrait. Armand’s postmaster father Joseph, another Van Gogh subject, tasks his son with delivering a final letter from the genius to his brother Theo.

Armand travels from Arles to Paris, and then on to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died. Initially annoyed by the errand, Armand becomes increasingly fascinated as he delves into the mystery of Vincent’s death.

The directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, working from a script they wrote with Jacek Dehnel, use Armand’s investigations to paint a portrait (if you’ll excuse the expression) of a truly loving Vincent. He’s beset with terrible emotional sufferings, certainly, but he’s sweet-natured and ecstatic in his visionary raptures.

But the thrill in the picture is seeing those immortal images brought to life. In the opening minutes alone, we get the Café Terrace, the Zouave reclining against the wall, Lieutenant Milliet, and so on, gliding easily into each other in service of the narrative.

I suppose there are cultural purists out there who might find using the works of one of the great figures in European art as, essentially, a storyboard, to be a crass, literal-minded stunt. But I was enchanted by this gloriously low-tech labor of love, both for Van Gogh and for the possibilities of the cinema.



Professsor Marston and the Wonder WomenThere’s something delicious about the knowledge that the furious accusations of mid-century anti-comics crusaders were, in at least one case, quite right. Wonder Woman, who debuted in 1941 in what would become DC Comics, really was rooted in fantasies of bondage, dominance and Sapphic power.

And not just fantasies, either, but realities. As we’re told in this amusing chronicle, the creator of the character, a Harvard-educated psychology professor named William Moulton Marston (writing under the name Charles Moulton), spun the Amazon by blending traits of the two women with whom he lived—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne, a student and assistant who became the third member of their marriage.

It’s likely that the writer-director Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded) has heated up the story a bit. But there are true elements that trump fiction, the juiciest being that before his comic-writing days, Marston was one of the developers of the systolic blood pressure test that led to the polygraph—in other words, he invented the Lasso of Truth in reality before he gave it to his heroine. As an adolescent in the ‘70s, watching the Lynda Carter TV version of Wonder Woman, I always found the Lasso of Truth shtick distinctly erotic; now I’d guess that Marston did too.

This movie’s historical accuracy is debatable, and some chapters work better than others, but Robinson has, any case, crafted maybe the wittiest and sweetest cinematic menage a trois in recent memory. Those looking for graphic sex will be disappointed—the threesome scenes, which involve a lot of dressing-up in theatrical costumes, are too tame and discreet for a Cinemax soft-core flick from the ‘90s. But something about their good-natured naïveté makes them sexy.

The charm in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women comes in the deadpan delivery of earnest dialogue by glamorous actors like Luke Evans as Marston and waif-like Bella Heathcote as Olive. There are nice supporting turns by Oliver Platt as early comic peddler Max Gaines and Connie Britton in a peculiarly flirtatious turn as early comic critic Josette Frank. We also see JJ Feild as fetish costumer Charles Guyette, here shown decking out Olive in a get-up very similar to Wonder Woman’s.

But the standout is Rebecca Hall as the brittle, unflappable (well, almost unflappable) Elizabeth. Her readings give a sharp edge even to lines that don’t have one built in, yet she somehow infuses them with a palpable undercurrent of love and emotional directness as well. I hate to resort to it, but indulge me: She’s a wonder.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

DON'T FEED THE TROLL

Just because Comet TV is showing the film Saturday night, as part of a festival of cat-oriented scary flicks...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is the coxcombed little troll from the third story in Cat's Eye...



...the 1985 movie anthology of Stephen King tales. It plans to suck the breath out of the young Drew Barrymore, but her valiant cat has other ideas...

Friday, October 6, 2017

RUNDOWN

Opening this weekend:


Blade Runner 2049As the makers of 2001: A Space Odyssey learned, it can be risky to put a specific year into the title of a futuristic sci-fi movie. Ridley Scott’s 1982 favorite Blade Runner, set less than two years off, in 2019, showed us a Los Angeles in which special cops of the title moniker hunt synthetic humans called “replicants” who have gone rogue. The film’s smoggy, neon-lit vision of the future was scary, but it also had a garish glamour, and accordingly it was done in the style of an old-school film noir—in its original release, it even had hard-boiled narration by Harrison Ford’s title character.

That’s the version I saw back in ’82. I remember enjoying it enormously, but it didn’t become the cultural touchstone for me that it did for so many others. I remembered it less for its plot and more for its details—Joanna Cassidy and the snake, Brion James getting a bullet in the head, William Sanderson’s little guys wandering around the Bradbury Building, Daryl Hannah doing somersaults, Edward James Olmos doing origami. I never saw any of the various director’s cuts and alternative versions that became as complicated as the quarto-versus-folio textual history of a Shakespeare play. I think I may have only seen it the one time, and in any case I hadn’t seen it in decades when I saw this sequel.

This one is set thirty-some years from now, and the glamour is gone. The environment has collapsed, California is a hazy, snowy, defoliated wasteland, and farmers raise grubs for protein. But there are still fugitive replicants, and thus still blade runners. Our title character this time is K (Ryan Gosling)—a spiritual cousin of Kafka’s Josef?—and the twisty, violent mystery he chases unfolds against backgrounds that feel almost like expressionistic stage sets.

That’s about as much of the story as I feel comfortable describing, however. After the screening I attended, a studio rep read us a lengthy list of “requests” from the filmmakers about what we mustn’t reveal, even going so far as to suggest wording to us—they seemed to want to bioengineer replicant movie reviews.

I will say that while the script, by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, shows influences ranging from Soylent Green to Logan’s Run to Cherry 2000 to Children of Men to Her to, just maybe, Kurosawa’s Ikiru, it’s ingenious and intriguing, and that director Denis Villeneuve, abetted by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, gives the film a superb look. Villeneuve also gets strong performances, from Gosling, from Harrison Ford as Deckard, the now-reclusive hero of the first film, from Robin Wright as K’s boss, from Sylvia Hoeks as a relentless corporate operative stalking the same quarry as K, from Jared Leto as her satanic boss, and from the beguiling Ana de Armas as K’s roomie. There are startlingly erotic passages, and terrific touches of verisimilitude, like when Gosling stares in fascination at a dog, presumably a rarity in that world.

On the downside: As he showed in last year’s impressive Arrival, Villeneuve is great at generating a brooding sci-fi atmosphere. He does the same for Blade Runner 2049, but the result, this time, is that the movie is glacially paced. It feels almost an hour longer than it needs to be, and even the action and fight scenes, though often shockingly violent, feel oddly lacking in urgency. And the movie’s environmental bleakness, though marvelously realized on a visual level, also grows a bit oppressive over nearly three hours. I just wish that forecasts like this didn’t seem so plausible these days.

 
My Little Pony: The MovieNot a whit less bizarre and immersively imagined than the Blade Runner flicks is this new animated feature realization of the Hasbro toy line from the early '80s. It centers on the relentlessly cheery equine inhabitants, mostly distaff, of Equestria, some of whom are winged, some of whom are horned, all of whom are colored like Jelly Bellies.

The story involves an incursion into the city of Ponyville by Tempest (well voiced by Emily Blunt), a sinister magical pony with a jagged stump where her unicorn horn should be. She and her minions are trying to corral four top Pony Princesses in order to steal their magic on behalf of the demonic Storm King (Liev Schreiber), in return for a restored horn.

Tempest imprisons three of the princesses, but the fourth, Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), eludes capture. She and her friends, which include a manically upbeat pony, a fashion-and-design-obsessed pony, a Reba McIntire-ish "cowgirl" pony and a diminutive dragon, set out in search of help, with only the mysterious clue “hippo” to guide them. In the course of their quest they encounter everything from airship-borne pirates (Zoe Saldana among them) to a sly, dandified feline hustler (Taye Diggs).

For followers of the franchise, which I'm told include not just children but many adult fans, this movie may hit it out of the park, but I found it a trifle flat. The plot seems boilerplate, and with the exception of a witty line here and there so does the dialogue. The theme is the value of friendship, which is preferable, at least, to the believe-in-your-dream platitude that's usually shoved at us as the moral of this sort of movie. But the songs in which this ideal is extolled are insipid recitatives without a memorable melody in the bunch.

Well, I take that back. "Rainbow," the song that Sia co-wrote and sings at the finale, is quite pretty.  And the pony character through which she sings it has a mane that hangs down over her face. Nice touch.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

FALL FLING

Happy October everybody! My favorite month of the year is off to a horribly rough start; let's hope it gets better.

Check out the October edition of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...


...for Your Humble Narrator's article on the origins of Lost Lake, Phoenix's big new music festival debuting later this month in Steele Indian School Park, and also my "4 Corners" column on new and new-ish Valley chowhouses, especially those in which one might obtain a nice bowl of soup for the cooler weather.

A few days ago I accompanied The Wife on one of her favorite fall traditions, going to Target and checking out the Halloween decorations and other merchandise...

 
It was there I obtained...

Monster-of-the-Week: ..this week's honoree, one of a box of Peeps Frankensteins...


Have no fear, I assure you that the abomination in question was devoured mere seconds after this photo was taken. Along with his box-mates.

Friday, September 29, 2017

VICTORIA IS HERS

Opening this weekend:


Victoria & Abdul--Judi Dench returns to the role of Queen Victoria in this jaunty historical drama, which serves as a sequel to 1997's Mrs. Brown. Both films have roughly the same point: That poor old Vickie, famed for her dour asperity, was as capable as any schoolgirl of developing painful crushes, even into her dotage.

In Mrs. Brown her favorite was John Brown (played by Billy Connolly), a Scottish groom who had the temerity to treat her like an adult human during her lonely widowhood. The naughty nickname was bestowed upon her, behind her back, by the courtiers and lackeys who were, essentially, her jailers.  In this new film, set many years later in the last stretch of her life, she develops an infatuation with an Indian servant named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), and the same sniggering, disapproving lot refer to him as "The brown John Brown."

He's one of two Indian Muslims sent to make a ceremonial presentation to Victoria who, stuporous with boredom, happens to glance up and notice him. Later she pronounces "I thought the tall one was terribly handsome" and requests him as a personal manservant. Eventually he becomes her "Munshi," or teacher, tutoring her in Urdu and accompanying her on trips. Her family--especially her son and heir apparent Edward (Eddie Izzard)--and the servants grow increasingly scandalized over the relationship. His less dreamy fellow flunky Mohammed (the dryly fatalistic Adeel Akhtar) likes it no better, calling Abdul an "Uncle Tom" and predicting disaster.

A sly, winking title at the beginning of the film admits that this is a "mostly" true story, but there really was an Abdul Karim, he really did become close to Victoria in the last decade and a half of her life, and it really did drive those around her crazy. An attempt was made to destroy most of the correspondence and other records of the relationship after the Queen's death, but a diary survived and was published in 2010.

The director is Stephen Frears, a master of this sort of thing, and he keeps it bouncing along merrily, even though much of the story is sad, from the point of view of both title characters. Dench makes us see, once again, the appalling personal powerlessness that was the price of serving as the figurehead of that particular crime family, for a woman of passionate nature. Fazal, a Bollywood star, is harder to read. The smiling, unctuous Abdul does indeed seem like a bit of an Uncle Tom, and it's hard to see whether he's a calculating climber, a sincerely besotted gull, or a heroic self-appointed ambassador of his culture. Or a bit of all three?

It's also hard to see exactly what Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall want us to take away from this interesting but enigmatic historical episode. Is it the story of a woman, isolated all her life at the heart of an Empire, getting an improbable belated broadening, or of her getting worked by a conman? Karim  lived lavishly for a time, at Victoria's insistence, and was accused, among other things, of steering Victoria to sympathy with Muslims over Hindus.

Again, these are not mutually exclusive possibilities, but the way the movie declines to dig too deeply into them leaves it less satisfying than Mrs. Brown. All the same, it's perfectly enjoyable, in an undemanding, Masterpiece Theatre sort of way. Dench is always worth watching, Fazal is charming, Izzard is impressive as the furious "Bertie" and there are nice supporting turns by Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Fenella Woolgar and the late Tim Piggot-Smith, whose last film this was. Simon Callow also pops up, in an amusing cameo as Puccini, so if you like the sort of movie where Simon Callow might pop up in a cameo as Puccini, this is probably for you.



Woodshock--With the abundance of redwood trunks, wooden paneling and cut lumber, I began to wonder if "woodshock" might be a condition into which this movie could put you. In shot after shot, Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) wanders languorously and depressively, usually wearing a white camisole, around her mother's beautiful old house in northern California, or among the titanic trees nearby, caressing the wooden surfaces.

Near the beginning, we see Theresa use a vial of some unnamed drug to assist her terminally ill mother in ending her life. Seemingly poleaxed by grief, she nonetheless returns to work at a medical marijuana emporium. Trouble ensues, first when she attempts another such mercy killing, and later when she starts smoking the lethal stuff herself, and grows increasingly paranoid.

Dunst is good, intense without hamminess and with a low-key, gentle manner that's believable and touching. But Dunst is always good, has been ever since she was a kid. Alas, Woodshock isn't the sort of movie that can be carried by a fine lead performance alone. It's the feature debut of Rodarte fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and it's too self-consciously an exercise in directorial style to work as a vehicle for a performance.

Peter Flinckenberg's gauzy cinematography gives the picture a lovely look, but the persistently ominous score and the Easy Rider-like flash-cutting give it the unearned portentousness of a student film, stretched out wearyingly to feature length. It's also more than a little reminiscent of cautionary drug movies of earlier eras, like Psych-Out or The Trip, minus the energy.  I kept waiting for a scene at a hippie club, with low-angle, solarized shots of The Seeds or Strawberry Alarm Clock jamming. Couldn't have hurt.