Brave and Magic Mike

Dave and I saw Brave two nights ago, and Magic Mike last night. I enjoyed both of them, though in different ways of course.

Brave has been resonating deeply with me the more I think back on it — I wouldn’t be too surprised if I end up thinking of it as one of my favorite animated movies ever, up there with Pinocchio and Spirited Away. Brave has a lot going on, a lot of levels of meaning weaving in and out of each other — an engaging story, myth, comedy, psychology, spirit. Some of the character animation in the second half of the movie is as on target and touching as any I can remember. The story is well constructed and touches on a number of themes very close to my heart — the place of myths and legends and dreams in our lives, healing broken relationships, inner transformations. And there’s a wonderful, heartfelt twist at the end that I loved but can’t say anything about without giving it away.

Magic Mike is a better movie than we were expecting a movie about male strippers to be, well done and likable and not cheesy at all. The script is surprisingly good, with a lot of genuine humor and well-drawn characters. The acting is good, low key but natural and convincing. The story is simple but engaging. And the dancing is really spectacular. Channing Tatum’s dancing in particular is amazing and exciting even apart from the fact that he’s stripping while doing it — he’s OK when he’s speaking lines, but he’s downright awesome when he’s flying around the dance stage.

Weekend Update: Listener Puzzle and Harry Potter 7

I finished this week’s Listener puzzle, “OZ and WR” by Theod, on Friday evening. There’s a Playfair cipher involved in this one: Four answers must be encrypted before being entered, and you don’t know what the keyword for the cipher is, so you have to crack the cipher by comparing the answers for these four clues with what you can get of their encrypted versions from the crossing letters in the grid.

Until you’ve cracked the cipher, then, these four words must be solved without any help from crossing letters. I left these four to work on later after I’d solved the rest.

It didn’t take me all that long to fill the rest of the grid, but I could only figure out two of the four Playfair entries. I figured that that wasn’t going to be nearly enough information to crack the cipher, and that I’d be stuck until I could solve at least one of the other two. But when I finally took a crack at the cipher with the information I had, I was surprised to find that it was enough to give me what were almost certainly the first, fifth, and sixth letters of the keyword and an additional three-letter sequence that was likely to be somewhere in it. That was plenty, and the keyword and the rest of the puzzle fell quickly after that.

Dave and I watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 at home Saturday night and then saw Part 2 in a theater Sunday night. It’s a beautiful pair of movies — one gorgeously shot scene after another, terrific acting all around — but as with all the other movies in the series, I was rarely swept up in it. The story is full of exciting sequences, but it also rambles a lot and contains a lot of derivative and predictable elements. I especially kept being reminded of this or that plot element or scene from The Lord of the Rings, both the book and the movie. Characters are thin and mostly defined by their quirks — one apiece for the minor characters, two or three for the major ones — and though many of these quirks are surprising and whimsical, once you know what they are, there’s no more surprise left and you can see well in advance how they will respond to each new situation that arises.

I’m sure the series is magical if you come to it at the right age and without having read or seen a lot of similar stories already, but I am so not in that group.

Nine, the Movie

Dave and I watched Nine a couple nights ago on DVD. We’d seen it when it first came out in the theaters and it was something of a disappointment to me, because I like the musical a lot and I thought that, while a lot of things in the movie were terrific, there were also a lot that seemed clunky. There were a lot of changes I couldn’t figure out the reason for, and while God knows I’m not going to be the one to object to taking liberties with a work you’re adapting, it didn’t seem like the changes were as good as what was being left out, which is a problem.

I’m also all too aware, though, that I come to the movie with all sorts of preconceptions based on my knowledge of the stage musical, and it’s easy not to see what’s really up there on the screen when I’m comparing against my memories.

I liked the movie better the second time, though I still don’t think it works all the way through. What seems to me to be the biggest problem is that the makers of the movie want to tell a somewhat different story than the stage musical does, in which the central character has a somewhat different struggle. This oversimplifies things but it seems to me that, in a nutshell, Guido’s problems in the stage musical come from his wanting everything indiscriminately, and not being able to make choices and decide what’s most important to him, and let go of the lesser things in order to hold on to the important ones; whereas the story in the movie seems to be trying to tell the story of Guido as an artist who has so mixed up his own identity with his fame and success, and is so frightened of losing it, that he’s gotten stuck trying to recreate his earlier successes and is afraid to take chances, afraid to be authentic and spontaneous not just in his art but in his personal life.

This is, in my opinion, an absolutely terrific and completely valid take on the story and the character. In some ways it’s a better, sharper approach to the story and character than the stage musical takes. The moviemakers dropped a lot of terrific songs from the stage musical, and added a few new ones, and I think that’s appropriate; but it would have been even better if they’d dropped more and added more new ones. The problem is that in too many cases the points that the songs are making are not central to the story any more, they’re just diversions, and the points that are central to the story — as it is now being told in this movie — are made in the dialogue instead.

That puts all the weight in the wrong places. In a musical, the songs seize all the attention, all the focus, all the emphasis. They can’t help but do that. So you want to make use of the songs to emphasize whatever it is that is most important for the audience to notice and understand and concentrate on in order to follow the story and be caught up by it and moved by it.

Many times while watching Nine I found myself thinking, why did they keep this song from the stage musical when it no longer has an important function in the story as it’s being told here? “Guido’s Song” for example is shoehorned into a new situation, the character’s inner thoughts at a bullshit press conference, and while the situation really does cry out for a song for Guido at this point, and while “Guido’s Song” is a brilliant piece of character drawing, it’s drawing a different character from a different story, not the Guido we need to understand here, as this movie is telling this story.

Similarly, the thread of the story in the stage version that gives the “Folies Bergère” number its reason for being has been entirely scrapped. In the stage version, this number presents a hilariously inappropriate suggestion (that Guido should make a movie musical) from a producer who is entirely unsympathetic to Guido’s work, but because Guido has signed a contract, he has to find a way to deal with it — how he tries to do this is an important thread in the stage version. In the movie, though, this song doesn’t come from the producer (and in any case the character of the producer is completely changed); the song is presented as a sympathetic suggestion from Guido’s costume designer, who is a good friend, and it’s framed so that the suggestion is not that he should make a musical specifically, but that he should more generally include more simple entertainment in his movies. It’s turned into a really fabulous musical number on the screen, too, and yet in its attractive new context it’s really just a big red herring. This long, wonderful, compelling musical number inevitably focuses our attention on the question of whether this advice would in fact give Guido a way out of his problems, and it leads us to expect that the story ahead of us is going to turn on this issue in some way. But as it happens, this is a false expectation; the problems that arise to torment Guido as the story develops are not connected with this issue at all, if we try to understand them as being connected with this issue we will end up bewildered, and in fact neither the costume designer nor anybody else ever brings this particular issue up again.

So why go to so much trouble to focus our attention on a side issue? It’s like taking highlighter pens and using them to highlight the digressions on the page rather than the main points. Even if the colors are beautiful, the highlighting makes it harder, not easier, for a reader to get focused on what’s really important.

I also found myself several times listening to a few lines of dialogue and thinking, There! That’s the main point of this scene, right there! Why isn’t this what the song in this scene is about?

So, as much as I love the stage version, and as little of the score as they kept, I found myself thinking by the end of the movie the second time around that they should have kept even less, and written a lot more new songs tailored to this new story about Guido that they wanted to tell.

Out Cold

I’ve been laid low since Friday by a pretty bad cold — mild but persistent fever, awful achiness and hypersensitivity all over, runny nose. I usually get over this sort of thing in a day with huge doses of vitamin C (1000 mg every hour), painkiller as needed, and sleeping until it goes away. This one, though, has hung on for four days now, despite plenty of the C and plenty of sleep. The fever was finally gone this morning, but I’m still achy all over and still sniffly.

I haven’t accomplished all that much this weekend other than reading in bed (I’m about two-thirds through James Branch Cabell’s Cream of the Jest right now), doing an old Listener puzzle (which I downloaded from the archive after this week’s turned out to be so easily finished), taking baths, drinking hot tea and various fizzy powdered remedies dissolved in hot water, and a lot of napping. I did get it together enough yesterday do get outside for a little bit and do a little laundry and bake a quiche for dinner, but even that little bit of exertion was about all I could manage the whole day.

Dave and I had planned to go back to see Giant Bones one more time this weekend before it closed, but obviously I was in no shape to do that, dammit. I’d really have liked to see it again, but oh well. We did stay up last night and watch Jacques Tati’s last movie, Trafic on DVD. I’m a big fan of Tati’s movies but I’d never seen this one before this; it seemed to me to be one of his weakest, right down there with Jour de Fête. Some funny scenes, but it never really seemed to take off.

Of course, both Jour de Fête and Play Time seemed that way to me the first time I saw each of them, and yet on repeated viewings Jour de Fête never got any better while Play Time now seems to me to be a masterpiece. So who knows, maybe I’ll like Trafic better if I get around to watching it again.

Play Time

A couple of nights ago Dave and I watched Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie Play Time. I became a fan of the Tati movies in college — they would show now and then at the Balboa Cinema not far from campus. Mon Oncle was my favorite, and I liked Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday a lot, but Play Time was sort of bewildering as a whole, though it had many very funny sequences. What we watched the other night, though, was a DVD of the movie in a restored version, with some of the footage that had been cut for its released restored (some but not all, as some of it is completely missing), and the whole thing makes more sense now and seems more consistently funny all the way through. Play Time is also a movie that gets better on repeated watching, partly because some of the deadpan humor takes a little time to grow on you, and partly because some of the sequences have actions and subtle visual puns and not-so-subtle sight gags happening all over the screen, all at once, and it takes a couple of viewings to absorb it and get the full point of the comedy. It also helped that we were watching it on a high-def television — the sharpness of the picture brought out a lot of the detail.

Up

On Sunday Dave and I spent the afternoon at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, and then saw the new animated movie Up in the evening.

Up is a lot of fun, with great animation, good characters, a lot of pleasant sentiment without getting gooey, and a wonderfully ridiculous story. The main character is a cranky old man, the kind who sits on his porch and yells at people to get away from his property, and yet the way the story is set up, ten minutes into the movie and you are completely on his side. The other central character is an irritatingly helpful kid in a Boy-Scout-like group called the Wilderness Explorers, and one of the many sweet touches in this movie is that Russell is drawn as Asian and not a word is ever said about it.

Dave tells me that the movie is also a fanboy’s delight, containing all kinds of references to much-admired animated movies from Pinocchio to Howl’s Moving Castle. I didn’t catch much of that.

I cared for the second half of the movie, though, less than the first half. From the point where one character is revealed to be a stock archvillain of the Evil Mastermind genre, the movie becomes a rescue adventure culminating in a way-over-the-top action sequence that is partly meant to be exciting and partly meant to be tongue-in-cheek. It seems like every movie of this sort has to lead to one of these and they’re all trying to top each other and I’ve grown kind of tired of the pattern.

The Matchmaker

On Saturday night Dave and I watched the movie of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. Kickass cast: Shirley Booth as Dolly Levi, Paul Ford as Horace Vandergelder, a young and endearing Tony Perkins as Cornelius Hackl, Shirley MacLaine as Irene Molloy, and Robert Morse as Barnaby Tucker.

I’ve never seen the play or movie before, only read it once many years ago. It was a surprise to me to see how different the character of Dolly Levi is in the movie from what it is in the musical. The Dolly of Hello, Dolly! is a confident if not entirely scrupulous businesswoman, one who dominates any situation she’s in, and an important part of Yonkers society; what’s more, she used to live the high life in New York City while her husband was alive. The Dolly of The Matchmaker is quite different, much weaker and at the same time much more human, a woman who is struggling to get by any way she can, who is all too well aware of her failings and her lack of social position in Yonkers, though she puts up a good front and conceals her desperation. Her claim of familiarity with New York City is all pretense, and she’s never seen the inside of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant before, let alone been enough of a regular there that the staff would ever break into a ten-minute Gower Champion production number on hearing that she was returning after a long absence.

Hello, Dolly! is a fun show, certainly, and that is all the justification it needs, but it’s still very strange to watch this movie and wonder how Jerry Herman got from here to the character that he wrote his songs for. He’s said in interviews that he wrote the score with Ethel Merman in mind, and maybe that’s it. Merman as the Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker would have been a monumental piece of miscasting, so you’d have to do some serious reinterpretation to make the character suit her. But The Matchmaker‘s Dolly is a more complicated and more interesting character.

The movie is delightful, and Shirley Booth is absolutely brilliant — gestures, timing, inflections, all wonderfully revealing and surprising and funny and right on target. The device of having characters face the camera occasionally and address the audience is too precious by half; I imagine it worked a bit better on stage and was only too precious by a quarter or so.

Earth

Dave and I saw Disney’s Earth last night. Thumbnail review: Photography is absolutely stunning. Musical score is intrusive and frequently corny or sentimental. Narration is thick with pathetic fallacy. If you made a game out of it and took a drink every time James Earl Jones says that the whale is “celebrating” or the polar bear is “desperate” or the elephant is “lonely”, the entire frat would be passed out within 45 minutes.

Two by Fosse

In the last couple of weeks Dave and I have watched two movies directed by Bob Fosse: Sweet Charity and All That Jazz. Dave had never seen either one, and I hadn’t seen either of them in years. I remembered not liking Sweet Charity much, but liking All That Jazz a lot. Turned out that Jazz was every bit as good as I remembered it, but Charity was a nice surprise, not a great movie musical but better than I remembered it.

The stage version of Sweet Charity seems to me to be one of the most extreme examples ever of a common problem with musicals, in which the book and the songs don’t feel like they go together. I think most of the score to Sweet Charity is terrific, and some of it is brilliant, sketching the characters with all kinds of shrewdness and compassion and humor. There are the hits, of course — I think “Big Spender” and “If They Could See Me Now” are wonderful songs — but some of the less well-known songs are great, too: “Charity’s Soliloquy” (maybe my favorite number in the show) and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “Baby, Dream Your Dream”.

But the book is heartless. Over and over again it sacrifices feeling, character, story, everything that might make you care about these people and their situations, for the sake of a cheap quip or easy sight gag. It’s feels as though Neil Simon thought he was supposed to be writing a sendup of the Fellini movie that the musical is based on, while the songwriters were taking it seriously.

The movie, though, changes a lot of that. Most of the jokes from the stage musical that make me cringe the most are either gone or toned way, way down and tossed off lightly so that they don’t derail the story. (Peter Stone wrote the screenplay.) The very ending of the story in the movie is different, and much better, much more meaningful than the painfully stupid gag that the stage version ends with. The ending is also clearly inspired by the ending of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, and in fact all the way through I got the feeling that Fosse and Stone must have been trying to capture more of the feel of that movie — the compassion, the humor (as opposed to jokes), the moments of wisdom — in this one.

Unfortunately a few of my favorite numbers from the stage version are gone from the movie — including, alas, both “Charity’s Soliloquy” and “Baby, Dream Your Dream”, though “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” is here, and wonderfully choreographed. (Dave pointed out to me that in this number Shirley MacLaine lags just slightly behind the other two dancers and is always just a little bit out of line, while the other two are themselves dancing in precision, as though she were not quite fully confident in her steps and was following what they were doing — which fits the situation perfectly, as the point of the song is that she’s slowly picking up an idea from them. Fosse must have deliberately instructed MacLaine to dance it this way because she shows in other numbers that she is perfectly capable of precision with the other dancers. Sweet bit of detail.)

I thought the use of still photographs interrupting the action here and there was a nice offbeat touch, and sort of endearing, but Dave didn’t like it at all.

Given what he did in the movie, it seems like Fosse must have not liked the persistent jokiness of the stage book. Which makes me wonder: In All That Jazz there’s a brilliant scene in which the main character, Joe Gideon — obviously based on Fosse himself — is at the first reading of a new musical he’s directing and choreographing, in which his ex-wife — I’m forgetting her name in the movie but she’s just as obviously based on Gwen Verdon — will be starring. The book is filled with corny, stupid gags, and everybody in the cast is laughing uproariously throughout, except for Gideon and Verdon who clearly hate the jokes. (What’s brilliant about the scene is how Fosse conveys the sense of Gideon’s embarrassment at the material, at being in the position of directing it, and most of all at being in this position in front of Verdon, who is the only person in the room whose opinion he really respects, and what interminable suffering it is for Gideon to sit through the reading.)

Jazz makes no secret of being based in many ways on Fosse’s own life, and the musical that Gideon is working on in the movie is full of visual and verbal references to actual musicals that Fosse worked on, so I had also figured that this scene must have been inspired by some actual rehearsal or rehearsals Fosse had cringed through. So it makes me wonder now if he was thinking of his experiences directing the stage version of Sweet Charity.

No Country for Old Men

Dave and I saw the latest Coen brothers movie a week or so ago. It’s very like Fargo in a lot of ways, so if you liked that and you don’t mind the resemblances, you’ll like this, too. It’s a grisly and intensely suspenseful thriller about a lot of people who are chasing after a suitcase full of money that disappeared from a drug deal that went very wrong. As in Fargo, the various schemes go wrong over and over again with violently bloody consequences, while a likeable rural police officer tries to catch up.

A lot of thrillers that get labeled “Hitchcockian” don’t seem to me to be any such thing except in the most superficial ways; a lot of movie reviewers seem to think that “Hitchcockian” is just a fancy synonym for “suspenseful”. But No Country for Old Men struck me as using a lot of genuinely Hitchcockian storytelling techniques and Hitchcockian touches. Hitchcock wouldn’t have indulged in anything like as much stage blood, but No Country often builds up suspense by the same sort of understated steps that Hitchcock liked to use. In some ways I was reminded of Frenzy, another rather misanthropic thriller that plays some disturbing games with the viewer’s sympathies.