The House


All That Jazz

Bob Fosse directed five features in 15 years, starting with 1967's Sweet Charity and ending with 1983's Star 80. This pace suggests that Fosse was very deliberate in choosing his material, like Stanley Kubrick or Sergio Leone. Yes and no. Fosse was an obsessive artist, but not about movies—or rather, not just about movies. Seeming to believe that dance was the purest way to express joy, Fosse used moviemaking to exorcise joy's opposites: not just pain, but the obsessive nature of artists—particularly the way attention to detail can cause men to shut themselves off from the rest of the world. On stage, choreographing sexual-playful spasms of intricate movement, Fosse seemed to revel in his naughty-boy sense of play. But on film, he examined the self-destructive component of celebrity and asserted that self-loathing was the driving force of show business.

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TAGS: all that jazz, anthony holland, bob fosse, erzsebet foldi, kathryn doby, leland palmer, lenny, lenny bruce, phil friedman, roy scheider, star 80, sweet charity


Cabaret

Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning movie Chicago is a workhorse. In a better Holly-world every film would be this good. But in a more perfect Holly-world, only films that went beyond competence would merit 13 Academy Award nominations. No visionary himself, Marshall's strategy consisted of aping Fosse, calling it homage and hoping for the best. It was a canny decision. Fosse's filmmaking style—perfectly cut to the moves of dancers synchronizing flawless steps to Kander and Ebb's exhilarating score—might have yielded an impressive result no matter who directed. But a movie musical is more than the sum of its numbers. Fosse knew this, which is why his own film version of another Kander and Ebb musical, Cabaret, shot over three decades ago, feels less dated than Marshall's 2002 Academy darling.

Chicago plays like a movie about a movie about two murderesses striving for fame in the Roaring Twenties, Cabaret is a love trangle set in Weimar Republic-era Berlin. Renée Zellweger gives a capable performance as corrupt Chicago's good bad girl, the killer Roxie Hart. As Velma Kelly, a murderous rival of Roxie's who schemes to reclaim the spotlight that the younger woman stole, Catherine Zeta-Jones is also capable. The same goes for Richard Gere as crooked lawyer Billy Flynn; John C. Reilly as Roxie's suffering husband, Amos Hart; Queen Latifah as prison matron "Mama" Morton—they're all so fucking competent! But Liza Minnelli didn't just rise to her role in Cabaret; she reached higher, creating a three-dimensional Sally Bowles, so fake she's real. The quality gap between Zellweger's performance as Roxie and Minnelli's as Sally might stem partly from each actress' personal experience: Minnelli had the demons of her mother, Judy Garland, to escape, while Zellweger has admitted in interviews that she pretty much fell into acting. But bravery might also be a factor. As we watch Minnelli's fearlessly self-revealing performance as Sally, we glimpse in her wild eyes and anxious body language the screwed-up childhood that Sally must have had—the past that fuels both character and performer to sing and dance or die. If Zellweger harbors comparable demons, either she refused to tap them or her director failed to demand that she try. Her performance is content to charm rather than disturb. Even though we watch Roxie kill onscreen, the actress conveys no sense that the character would be capable of committing such a deed, much less using it as a platform for tabloid infamy. Her Roxie is a one-dimensional cutie pie, a spoiled, dreaming bad seed, and her mild drive to be a star seems disingenuous.

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TAGS: bob fosse, cabaret, Catherine Zeta-Jones, chicago, fred ebb, john c. reilly, john kander, liza minnelli, renée zellweger, richard gere, rob marshall


Lenny and the Price of Freedom

Lenny

Lenny opens in shocking fashion, with an extreme close-up of Valerie Perrine's mouth. Perrine is playing Honey Bruce, the ex-wife of comic Lenny Bruce. Though it's a pretty obvious homage by director Bob Fosse to Orson Welles and one of the earliest, most famous shots in Citizen Kane, the effect is entirely different. The close-up is so extreme that the tiny hairs around Perrine's mouth are visible. The shot of Charlie Kane's mouth is fantastical; this shot of Honey's mouth is obscene.

In terms of content, she is talking about Lenny Bruce's many drug and obscenity arrests, but the visual impact of that strange close-up is what we remember. After some brief moments of Bruce's act during his brief prime and more of the film's frequent Kane-like interview-driven narrative, the film starts in earnest—not with star Dustin Hoffman recreating the comic's early nightclub days, but with Perrine recreating the early career of Honey Bruce, a.k.a. stripper Honey Harlow.

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TAGS: all that jazz, bob fosse, cabaret, dustin hoffman, lenny, lenny bruce


CookiesFor a certain kind of music nerd, the idea of the humorous rock song will always be blasphemy: rock is about rocking, fucking, liberation, etc. At least that's how it used to be; I suspect that the contemporary equivalent of the embittered rockist for whom Iggy & The Stooges are the pinnacle of civilization is the person outraged that most rock critics these days come from indie-rock land, where raw power is low on the priorities list and ass-shaking is optional.

Typical comment-board shot from the massively contentious A.V. Club's list of the Top 25 Albums: "Christ jesus: boring white people pick boring white people's music. ... I know that you feel safe with 90% of this music because it won't expose that you can't dance ... but you are MISSING OUT on a wild world of awesome shit that's going down right now. Please, get up off your SORRY FUCKING ASSES and go do something dirty or scary." I'm bizarrely fascinated by these kind of aggrieved comments, which suggest the terrifying idea of rock without irony, where no one learned anything from Kurt Cobain's suicide and where to truly understand music you have to be constantly living in a 16-year-old's idea of decadent Bohemia.

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TAGS: 1990s, burial, cookies, structure & cosmetics, the brunettes, untrue


There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's epic drama There Will Be Blood—in which Daniel Day-Lewis' prospector-turned-robber baron antihero, Daniel Plainview, pick-axes his way toward an oil fortune—isn't perfect or entirely satisfying, but it's so singular in its conception and execution that one can no more dismiss it than one can dismiss a volcanic eruption occurring in one's backyard.

It cannot be diminished—as Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia could, and to my mind, rightly were diminished—as another instance of a facile, energetic director hurling homage at the audience.

In Blood, as in Anderson's fourth, most distinctively original feature, 2002's Punch-Drunk Love, the director lays his influences on the table (in plain view, as it were). But he isn't content to quote and rearrange with his usual hyperkinetic fussiness. There are moments, scenes, and an entire section that I think veer out of control, and not in a good way. But for the most part, Anderson seems to have absorbed his influences and created a singular work; there are so few tonal or dramatic miscalculations—and so few reversions to the cinematic karaoke machine mode of his first three pictures—that when one does pop up, it's a such a shock that it takes you out of the movie. From the opening section, in which Daniel the prospector finds and stakes a crude oil claim and inherits the young son of a worker who died in his employ, through the complex, moving, frequently upsetting midsection that depicts Daniel amassing his fortune, acquiring and betraying allies, out-thinking and sometimes terrorizing his rivals, and destroying people he should treasure, Blood becomes as pointed a critique (and celebration) of capitalism as the Godfather movies—and other things besides.

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TAGS: boogie nights, daniel day-lewis, hard eight, jonny greenwood, magnolia, paul dano, paul thomas anderson, there will be blood


There Will Be Blood

I caught the latest Paul Thomas Anderson debacle at a press screening on November 28, well before the critical drum circle had risen to its current "Burning Man" pitch. In the clear light of late autumn drizzle, There Will Be Blood appeared to be no more and no less than what it truly is: a bomb, and an overwrought one at that. It may be a tonier work than the detestable Boogie Nights, but Anderson's underlying crudeness and his overkill "sensibility" haven't evolved an iota. (Yes, Virginia, I can hear the jihadists singing in the comments section already.) A friend who hated the movie as much as I did asked afterwards, as we dodged rain in the Oaktree Cinema parking lot, "Did that amount to anything beyond a couple of games of one-upmanship?" I confessed I hadn't thought of Blood in those terms. Still, her question perfectly encapsulated the anorexic one-dimensionality of the picture, and I had to agree.

First things first: I adore Daniel Day-Lewis. Always have. And while it might be nice to hitch my RV to the Dodge pick-up truck of hosannas greeting his Blood work, I must counter that Day-Lewis, in rendering the Texas-for-Central California scenery to mucilaginous mush, turns in the worst performance of his career to date. Granted, Scorsese-phobe that I am, I haven't subjected myself to Gangs of New York, yet I fail to see how it could be ghastlier than the one-note, one-scale Sean Connery brogue that Day-Lewis affects as wildcatting oilman Daniel Plainview, a frontier charlatan gobbling up all available land, circa the early 1900s, in order to drill, to uglify the landscape and thus line his pockets with filthy lucre.

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TAGS: boogie nights, daniel day-lewis, david o. russell, gangs of new york, i heart huckabees, jonny greenwood, paul dano, paul thomas anderson, radiohead, robert altman, the ballad of jack and rose, there will be blood


Smiley Face

The essence of stoner comedy is the unlikely triumph of the seemingly maladjusted stoner over normalized, disapproving society—Cheech & Chong miraculously arriving in time to Battle of the Bands, Harold & Kumar finally reaching White Castle. As the above duos imply, camaraderie is a big deal, and victory arrives in the most unlikely ways. So I'm not sure if Smiley Face—Gregg Araki's technically untitled new film—counts as a member of the genre: pitting one Jane F. (Anna Faris) against a world that ranges from indifferent to actively hostile, Smiley Face's main innovation is making Anna lose big and end up alone.

During the utterly ineffectual D.A.R.E. anti-drug-abuse indoctrination we received in elementary school, we were informed that pot was a gateway drug that would, sooner or later, lead us directly to heroin, financial ruin and death; it was only after a few years that I began to realize this was untrue. But Jane makes pot look like an even less healthy option than hard-core opiates; they should've just shown us this. At her functional peak, it's morning: the first bong hits of the day are being taken, the Stone Roses are playing in the background. (Araki's hipster soundtrack is typically impeccable, concluding with the ironic coup of R.E.O. Speedwagon's "Keep On Lovin' You," but still: he's showing his age with that music cue.) Unfortunately, pot makes Jane hungry, and hunger leads her to consume the cupcakes her roommate's made for a sci-fi convention ... and said cupcakes turn out to be pot cupcakes. Barely mobile at this point of excessive THC consumption, Jane sets out to tackle the glad new day—to pay the electric bill before the lights go off, to pay back her dealer before he takes her furniture, to buy more pot for her roommate, to ace a crucial acting audition, etc. None of these things are accomplished.

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TAGS: Anna Faris, gregg araki, Smiley Face


Love Actually

I've been a Richard Curtis fan for years now. Upon seeing my first episode of the incredibly witty Blackadder, I never looked back. (Full disclosure: Curtis's Bean was never my cup of tea, but it apparently falls under the "You can please some of the people some of the time" category, and certainly the concept shows the man's versatility.)

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TAGS: alan rickman, andrew lincoln, bean, bill nighy, blackadder, chiwetel ejiofor, colin firth, emma thompson, four weddings and a funeral, hugh grant, Joanna Page, keira knightley, Kris Marshall, liam neeson, love actually, lucia moniz, lynden david hall, martin freeman, martine mccutcheon, notting hill, richard curtis, Rowan Atkinson, the tall guy, Thomas Sangster


Talk Is Cheap: City Lights

City Lights

What is there left to be said about City Lights? Everything that can be written, it seems, has been written. The greatest ending in the history of cinema. Orson Welles' favorite film. Chaplin's masterpiece that could only have been made after the advent of sound. And so on, and so on. That the masterpiece of silent cinema could only have been made after the talkies began seems an especially prescient point; watching City Lights, with its dialogue-as-robotic-squawking opening, I felt increasingly aware of the purity of silence.

The silent form, as employed by Chaplin, forces a certain distance from the Tramp that allows us to empathize with him in a way we could not empathize with a character we heard speak. Of course, the other comment that begs to be made is that, with sound, the grandiosity, the mythicness of the film—be it City Lights' ambitious comedic sequences, or its moments of silent poignancy—could not be taken seriously.

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TAGS: charles chaplin, city lights, orson welles, slavoj žižek


Sterile Decay: I Am Legend

I Am Legend

A highly modernized reinvention of Richard Matheson's 1954 same-named novel, I Am Legend pits Robert Neville (Will Smith) against legions of formerly human, light-sensitive mutants occupying the decrepit remains of New York City, ground zero for a cancer cure-turned-lethal virus that appears to have wiped out all of mankind (Neville is spared due to a unique DNA sequence that renders him immune). With the canine Sam(antha) as his only companion, Neville routinizes his life - hide by night, hunt/work by day - in an effort to fight off both the long-gestating plague as well as the insanity that accompanies prolonged solitude. Though convinced through statistical logic that he is the last man on earth, Neville continues searching for a cure. His tireless, apparently pointless persistence stems from post-traumatic shock compounded by a need for purpose in a world seemingly without any.

In one of the film's best scenes, Neville stops at a movie store to exchange his latest rental, interacting with carefully placed mannequins that help him simulate the human experience he's been so long deprived of. When I saw Legend with an audience last weekend, the audience greeted this scene and others like it with nervous laughter. But it's in these uneasy moments that I Am Legend almost becomes a film worth carrying with you after the lights have gone up. Too much of the movie simply coasts along, acknowledging textures of sanity and spirituality but never subsuming them.

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TAGS: i am legend, Richard Matheson, will smith







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