Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Favorite Films: "Roxanne"

I first saw Roxanne in 1987 in Cleveland, Ohio.  It was the first time I had lived away, really away, from home, the farthest I had been on my own.  And it was lonely.

That summer, I learned that being alone and being lonely are two very different things, and the latter is one of life's great sadnesses.  I learned that a full life could feel empty without friends and co-workers, and because I was only living in Cleveland for a summer and I was working at a newspaper with lots of much-older adults, I didn't really have either.

Roxanne did something extraordinary, something that made me not just love it, but feel grateful to it and everyone involved in its making, especially Steve Martin and director Fred ("Rhymes with Pepsi") Schepisi.  Roxanne made me feel less alone.

In a way that is hard to describe to anyone who hasn't seen the movie, Roxanne made me feel loved.

It was not made for me, personally, of course, but it felt that way, because it was made to ease the heartache of everyone who feels disconnected from life.

If a movie can soothe a heart, Roxanne is that movie.  It is that lovely and earnest, casting a sort of enchanted spell that I don't think I've ever experienced in another movie and maybe never will again.  That summer, I took a bus three different times from downtown Cleveland to the suburban theater where Roxanne was playing, and in the ensuing decades, I've seen Roxanne more times than I can count, and I still smile and feel a little light-headed afterward.

This adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac must be the sweetest and most kind-hearted movie ever made; there isn't a single mean person in it. Even the bullies who give fire chief C.D. Bales (Steven Martin) a hard time about his outlandishly large nose are only mildly insulting.

C.D. moves to a little mountain town completely removed from anything resembling reality.  Also in town for the summer is the beautiful Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), an astronomer studying a passing comet.  She falls instantly in love with C.D., the only catch is, she doesn't know it's him.  She thinks it's handsome, rugged, dumb-as-a-shoe Chris (Rick Rossovich), and because he has a grotesquely large nose that he thinks makes him ugly, C.D. helps Chris woo her.

If you wonder whether Roxanne will learn the true identity of her suitor, you haven't been paying attention to the last few hundred years of romantic literature and drama.

Of course she does, but that's not the point of Roxanne.  It's a movie that exists to evoke a feeling, to provide hope for the hopeless that they, too, can be loved.  Everyone can be loved.  Roxanne really, really believes that.  It wants you, whoever you are, to know that your problems, whatever they may be, aren't insurmountable.  That your heart, however damaged you think it is, is worthwhile.

With a lovely, jazzy, memorable score by Bruce Smeaton -- a true standout among movie scores -- and the leisurely pacing of a lovestruck walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon, Roxanne wants only to make you believe that anything is possible for anyone.  The real magic of Roxanne is that for at least a little while after you see it, you do believe just that.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Before Midnight"

 4.5 / 5 

The Before series is turning into one of mainstream cinema's greatest and most satisfying experiments, reuniting the same actors as the same characters every nine years as they age.

Most movie sequels are intent on delivering more of the same.  Three or five or 15 years later, characters experience little change, because they have to retain the same qualities that made audiences like them in the first place.

Before Midnight, then, is a genuine cinema rarity: A sequel that strikes an entirely different chord than its predecessors.  The original film, Before Sunrise, explored romantic infatuation; the next, Before Sunset, watched that romance turn to longing -- a longing, Before Midnight reveals, that was finally fulfilled.

After their exquisite meeting in Paris nine years ago, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) left his wife and child to live with Celine (Julie Delpy) as a novelist.  Now, they're vacationing in Greece, and things are complicated: They've never married but they have two daughters, and Jesse's son from his previous marriage offers a stark reminder that the ex-wife hates the man's guts.  Like the other two films, Before Midnight takes place over the course of a single day, but deviates in meaningful ways from director Richard Linklater's template.

For one thing, Jesse and Celine are not the only characters of importance; their lives encompass other people; the intrusion and influence of outsiders is an important issue in Before Midnight, and the prominent way other people figure into the movie directly confronts the audience: You thought you were going to get these two lovebirds on their own, but things are more complex than that.

Eventually, they do go off together, and Greece makes a stunning backdrop visually as they stroll through ruins and along impossibly romantic pathways -- ultimately winding up in a hotel room that strips away the romantic pretense and looks like it could be any room in any hotel in the world.

It's here that things get really interesting, because Before Midnight knows the time for the romantic cooing and cuddling of these two people is long past.  This time, the illusions, resentments, hostilities and genuine worries -- given only passing mention in the first films -- come to the fore.

Almost a third of the film's running time is devoted to what happens in the hotel, beginning with an awkward and tentative attempt at sex, through to a harrowing realization and declaration.

Before Midnight is not a gentle movie; if its first few scenes lull you into smiling satisfaction, the last few leave you wondering the same questions Jesse and Celine face -- most notably, what did they ever see in each other to begin with?

After Before Sunset, it was hard to imagine revisiting these characters.  Before Midnight presents a solution brilliant in its simplicity: Let them become very different people than they were nine years ago.

Ditching the romantic pretenses of the first two films is as shocking a move as, say, painting Iron Man's suit pink.  And for a certain crowd, Before Midnight is at least as eagerly anticipated as one of those blaring, hyperkinetic summertime blockbusters -- and the less romantic, more realistic approach may be as off-putting to some Before fans than any shock Superman might have up his sleeve.

The result is a film that is less easy to love than the first two, at least on first viewing, but that's very much the point: When romance fades into everyday love, it loses its appeal.  Relationships are hard and very often one-sided and unfair.  Life's ambitions become less overtly daring, but even more difficult and exhausting, than climbing a mountain.  And yet, it's all still worth it.

No final scene could be as nearly perfect as the final shots of Before Sunset, but Linklater and his actors (not to mention Christos Voudouris, whose cinematography is exquisite) come very close in Before Midnight.  The scene and the emotions are very different, but they leave us with the same hope: That we'll meet Jesse and Celine in another nine years.  And then nine after that ...

Viewed May 25, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, May 19, 2013

"The Great Gatsby"

 3.5 / 5 

Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, so frequently despised by high-school students (and adults who remember it as a slog) that takes far fewer liberties than Luhrmann's reputation and pre-release publicity would have you believe.

Its best parts have to do with Gatsby himself, and it makes sense that he's played this time by Leonardo Di Caprio, since Jay Gatsby is, after all, the character Titanic's Jack Dawson would have become if he hadn't gone down with the ship.  He's a self-made man, and his fulfillment of the American Dream is as suspicious as it is enviable.  Di Caprio brings him a surprising amount of sympathy, but it takes a while to get there -- the same goes for the movie as a whole.  Its first half is undeniably entertaining, but misses the ennui and tone of detached melancholy that fills the novel.

It's this that is the most disconcerting aspect of The Great Gatsby as reconceived by Luhrmann and co-screenwriter Craig Pierce.  They have every artistic right to bring their own vision to Gatsby, and while what they've done to it musically may be unnecessary, it's not at all off-putting.  The bigger problem is their inability apply a steady new tone: In the end, The Great Gatsby's strengths and weaknesses are the ones inherent in the source material.

On the page, The Great Gatsby is unabashedly literary.  Fitzgerald's lush, carefully considered prose makes the novel dazzle (or distract, depending on your view) 88 years later.  What he described as "extraordinary and beautiful and simple and exquisitely patterned" is, indeed, that.  Luhrmann's film may be beautiful, it is at times extraordinary, but it is far, far from simple.

In Luhrmann's eyes, big and loud are not enough: Everything must be bigger than big, louder than loud.  So Gatsby's stately mansion rivals Hogwart's for size and Gothic elaborateness.  That's all well and good, but the means by which Luhrmann achieves this epic, oversized vision are less effective. Everything is rendered through complicated, dizzying visual effects that look, well, fake.  The colors are too rich, the camera moves too impossibly, and the animation is too obvious.

For the first hour, everything is too over-the-top.  The 3-D effects (I saw it in 2-D) are aggressive and relentless, the blending of 21st-century hip-hop and dance music with Jazz Age visuals a bit too self-satisfied.  It all feels like a Disney-esque blend of live action and animation, and the actors often barely seem to exist within their digital environments.  There's also an odd, uncomfortable comedic tone that, critically, undermines the first meeting between Gatsby and Daisy.

The movie also misses the mark with its decision to underplay the recollection of how Daisy and Gatsby first met.  By glossing over this crucial section of the plot, the weight of the central romance and ultimate tragedy are hard to latch on to emotionally.

If it's a little difficult to quite believe Gatsby falling for Daisy all over again, that was, to be fair, always part of Fitzgerald's point: The past can't be revisited, and Daisy has changed in ways Gatsby can't grasp but Nick can.  In the novel, that central realization is conveyed by Nick through narratived description; in the movie, Nick recites many of Fitzgerald's words but they lose their impact.  As spoken narration, there's no time to linger over the complex ideas being conveyed, and the movie has to resort to underlining its thematic points through thudding dialogue that feels forced and insincere.

Emotionally, The Great Gatsby is just a little too aloof.  In part, it's due to the miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Daisy.  She's a terrific actress, and by the end she does convey some of Daisy's emotional ambivalence, it's just hard to understand Gatsby's obsession.  Mulligan just doesn't make the impression she needs to as a shimmering, fragile, unattainable beauty.

The second, more heavily plotted half of Gatsby works better on film, and a crucial scene between Nick, Tom Buchanan (tremendously well played by Edgerton), Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki) and Daisy in an overheated Plaza Hotel is pitch perfect.  It's the best sequence in The Great Gatsby, and it's no coincidence that it's the one in which Luhrmann and his hyperactive camera are the most restrained.

Reworked with a completely unneeded framing device, The Great Gatsby works better than it should.  Luhrmann's visual and musical rethinking are no less valid than any reconsideration of a classic text, but they overwhelm the more nuanced moments.  Luhrmann has tried to redefine The Great Gatsby as an entertainment for the masses, but he can't overcome the basic limitation of the novel: It's a literary and intellectual exercise more than an emotional one.  That Luhrmann manages to wring as much emotional satisfaction as he does is pretty impressive.

Viewed May 18, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Star Trek Into Darkness"

 3 / 5 

How much you enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness will largely depend on your appreciation of certain of the previous big-screen Star Trek adventures, though 21st-century Internet decorum dictates I refrain from saying exactly which one.

But it's the measure of 2009's Star Trek and now the confusingly titled Star Trek Into Darkness (what is this darkness into which the Starship Enterprise is trekking?) -- and certainly a measure of the pop-culture-obsessed times in which we live -- that a great part of the enjoyment and ultimately the disappointment of this film is counting the allusions to other movies.

In just over two hours, I noticed references to Robocop (and not just in casting), Inception, The Silence of the Lambs, The Poseidon Adventure, Avatar, Raiders of the Lost Ark and at least three, maybe four, of the previous Star Trek movies. Its giddy, wink-wink fanboy self-satisfaction becomes not only distracting, it does the film itself a disservice: Instead of creating something boldly, entirely new, J.J. Abrams and a team of high-profile writers have crafted a Frankenstein-monster version of Star Trek, and it's hard not to notice all the different parts stitched together.

But it moves at a relentless -- almost exhausting -- pace, so by the time you notice and start thinking about what it means, you've missed the rapid-fire exposition.  It goes something like: Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the Enterprise have to hunt down a terrorist who appears to be a Starfleet officer, and in the process discover that the peaceful tools of the 23rd century are being turned into weapons of war.  That's the easiest way to say it.

It's quite understandable if you come out of Star Trek Into Darkness not really understanding quite exactly what happened, because the movie never really pauses long enough to make its story seem meaningful or terribly coherent.  There's no lack of plot, but not quite enough of a story.

It's nonetheless a lot of fun, mostly, and a perfect example of escapist summertime entertainment, whizzing and gleaming, spinning and exploding in just the right amounts to never once let anyone in the audience be bored.

Keep in mind, though, that the Trek unfaithful have long accused both the series and more than a few of its subsequent movies of being just that: boring. They consider questions of ethics, moral imperatives and philosophy with abandon: 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, arguably the pinnacle of Star Trek entertainment of any sort, was an unapologetic rumination on aging, maturity and friendship.  Thirty years later, those are hardly the sort of topics a studio wants to gamble $200 million on, so today's Star Trek is an unapologetic reverie of fanboy obsession and genuinely stunning visual effects, all shot in a fashion that makes Michael Bay look like a model of restraint and pacing.

If you're a Star Trek purist, Into Darkness may make you apoplectic; if you're less enthusiastic, this may be the perfect blend of Star Trek and not-Trek, even better than Abrams' first film.

Star Trek Into Darkness certainly has a lot of great moments, none better than a gentle, thought-provoking exchange between Spock and Lt. Uhura, who in this re-imagined Star Trek universe is his girlfriend.  But their dialogue comes during a frenetic descent onto an alien planet, and its weightiness (which is genuine) is undermined by the explosive action happening around it -- "Don't take this all too seriously," the movie seems to be saying, "it's all in jest anyway."

And that makes some of the bigger scenes, which actually want to be emotional, feel underwhelming.  You can never be too sure just when Abrams' Star Trek is being serious and when it's being jokey.

For all of it, though, Star Trek Into Darkness has one epic miscalculation, which is not to trust its own choice of villain.  Benedict Cumberbatch from TV's Sherlock has a suave, confident presence and a sonorous voice -- but it turns out he's only one of two possible villains, and the movie spends a lot of time trying to justify the actions of both of them.  (I have a much larger problem with one of those villains, an unnerving and complicated one, which I'll address later, when its discussion won't be considered a "spoiler.")

Star Trek Into Darkness, then, feels like a conflicted movie, both in its tone and its meaning: Throughout, it condemns the machinations of war while glorifying them; it revels in violence and destruction while claiming to abhor them; it recalls 9/11 and the first wars of the 21st century over and over again without quite knowing what commentary to make.  Is unjustifiable war the inevitable destiny of humanity, or is it a despicable and cowardly thing?  That could have been a fascinating question for Star Trek to tackle.

Without the conviction of a single central villain, Star Trek Into Darkness lacks the conviction of a singularly focused story and feels a little weightless.  But it sure looks and sounds great and moves at a lightning pace, and for a world that, in general, moves much faster than it thinks, that may well be enough.

Viewed May 17, 2013 -- Arclight Hollywood