Sunday, November 30, 2008

Speaking of Baz and Oz

According to the Internet Movie Database, he's signed on to direct Wicked. I'm delighted he'll be doing it, but as the screenplay is being written by Winnie Holzman, who did the musical book, apprehensive we'll get the shiny, happy, vision instead of the intense Elphaba who fueled Gregory Maguire's novel.

Oz Down Under

Brandon Walters, Nicole Kidman.
Australia dir. Baz Luhrmann

“The only thing you own is a story. Better make it a good one.” - The Drover

“I’ve been to five continents and Australia has, by far, the most self-overrated, racist sots I’ve seen anywhere.” - ShatterEarth, aka Si

  Every great society has a kick-ass founders’ myth. Romulus and Remus. Rhea and Gaia and Zeus and Cronos. Abraham. Muhammad. 1066. 1776. Qin Shi Huang.

  Australia was founded as a penal colony for the UK after they could no longer drop their rejects off in America. The first convicts were such assholes that, if the History Channel is to be believed, the occupants on the first boat of women to be dropped off were all raped. With a founding story like that, who wouldn't want to make up their own? Better yet, hire a locally renowned movie director to invent one for you.

  Baz Luhrmann chose to skip over his home’s early colonization and hop straight to the cusp of modern Australia, setting his story in 1939 and running it through to bombing of Darwin, when its white inhabitants were still just superior enough to be practicing cultural genocide on “stolen generations” of mixed race Aboriginal children. They were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in institutions.

  It’s a good place to open this new legend. When Nicole Kidman, as ranger-wife (and soon to be widow) Lady Sarah Ashley, drops into Luhrmann’s brown and dusty world occupied by brown and dusty people, a riot of pastels trails into it with her. No matter how hot and parched and brown the land gets, pinks, baby blues and lavender are never long away when Kidman’s in a shot.

  Lady Sarah and Hugh Jackman’s character, The Drover (he is referred to by his job title throughout the film), must steer 1,500 cattle across the range and sell to the military in order to save the family ranch. With them are assorted ranch hands and a young mixed-race Aboriginal boy named Nullah. Nullah needs the shelter from authorities Lady Sarah (whom he calls "Mrs. Boss") provides, yet longs for a traditional walkabout with his shaman grandfather. Against them are the boy’s treacherous father, played by Moulin Rouge and LotR alum David Wenham, and competing rancher Bryan Brown.

  Completing the cattle drive constitutes the first act, where most of Australia’s humor lives. Act II is all about securing what was gained. Like Nullah, Drover wants to roam freely on the land but he, too, wants to have Mrs. Boss to come home to.

  While the basic premise doesn’t steer too far from your average polished-woman-falls-for-tough-but-tender-roustabout-in-the-midst-of-a-great-and-trying-quest epic formula, Out of Africa it ain't. It's more African Queen. Until the final act, when things take a turn for the serious, it may be epic but it’s still a Baz Luhrmann film with screwier-than-life characters (albeit toned down from the usual Baz), look-at-this! frolicking camera shots, unlikely coincidences, and delightful resource thieving that never takes itself so seriously you want to club someone.

  Australia runs 165 minutes and although there were a couple of instances I wondered how long it was going to turn out to be, the editing is tight enough that at no time did I find myself wishing it would hurry along. I don't know if Australia will become the tourist poster its home country hopes it will be, but it easily makes a great pitch for giving Baz Luhrmann a real budget.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Speaking of Ugly ...

WTF is up with this?
Kidman is one of those women who turns other women off. And no, not just because she's pretty and we're jealous. It is because we perceive, and men don't, that she's one of the most overrated actors in the world, a woman who has been the kiss of death in practically every movie she has starred in.
When I was at WQBK-FM in Albany, NY, Jo Carenza and I used to joke that we were going to start a new gender because of consultants who said we had to play Journey and Foreigner to appeal to female listeners. So, maybe it's just me, but what a bizarre pronouncement. I don't think I've heard very many men approach rapture when they speak or write of Kidman's acting skills. I think most men see her as someone who's there to bring on the pretty, and most women do too, and appreciate that someone who is hired to bring the pretty can do it interestingly, without presenting our gender as an airhead. Most of the movies she's in that are cold or lukewarm at the box office aren't exactly in the Jerry Bruckheimer league, you know? Dogville? Like anyone ever expected that was going to land in the top 10 some Monday morning?

Anyway, I'm going to try to catch Australia this afternoon. If I do, check back tonight or tomorrow morning for a review.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Boyfriend, The Vampire I

Twilight directed by Catherine Hardwicke. 122 minutes.

  There's an old wisecrack, goes like this:

She: Let's share our fantasies
He: Let's not. Your fantasies would bore me; mine would shock you.

   I'm not a he, but novelist Stephenie Meyer's fantasy still bores me. Thankfully, director Catherine Hardwicke gives Twilight enough visual style and bang to cover up what's not there.

   Lovers Bella and Edward enter Twilight isolated from most of their world. Bella, because she’s recently moved in with a father she barely knows and Edward because, well, he’s just not like everyone else. He’s a vampire, one of a new breed that manages to co-exist with humans by instead killing Bambi.

   Edward explains at one point he’s attracted to Bella because the smell of her blood drives him crazy; it's never stated, but safe to guess Bella is attracted to Edward because Edward automatically senses when Bella’s in danger and rushes in for the rescue whereas the best thing her father, the town police chief, can (is allowed to?) manage is handing Bella a can of pepper spray as she's on her way out the door.

   The tradition of vampire myth as metaphor for sex in times of repression** hits blunt: Can Edward control his urge to feed? When the opportunity presents itself to get a few licks, will Edward (like True Blood's vampire "Bill") be able to pull out in time? Talking fangs, of course.

   Although there’s at least some subtext, there’s little in the way of subplot. There’s little in the way of plot, period - the bulk of the movie is taken up by the teen romance, which many more mature viewers will recognize not as a teen romance but non-threatening teen fantasy. It doesn’t take long at all for Edward to be exposed as a vampire, there’s pretty much nil drama there. Will the bad vampires, the “non-vegans” as Edward’s adopted family would call them, get to Bella and do what non-vegan vampires do?

   Visually Twilight is striking, with a color palette heavy on washed out blues. It's filled with gorgeous Oregon and Washington State scenery and action that takes advantage of it. The actors are adequate and effective; I thought the supporting teens came across as normal, a little nerdy, and their easy-going nature both framed and contrasted with the two main players. Both Robert Pattinson's Edward and Kristen Stewart's Bella remain uncomfortable and jittery throughout the movie; Stewart crosses into twitchiness at times and it seems, in retrospect, to be as much a stylistic choice as an acting decision. I suppose all the twitching is intended to depict sexual tension, but really it just looks like they need more fiber in their diets.

   I haven't read any of the novels in the Twilight series, have no idea how much time is going to move, but can only assume the novels will allow Bella to graduate high school. Pattinson ("Cedric" from the Harry Potter movies) is obviously past his teens and at 18, Stewart is pushing her credibility as a Junior classman. Hopefully, like Pattinson's the other teen monster series, Twilight will improve with age and experience.

Bottom lines:

What's good: visual style, cinematography, Pacific northwest location shots, the supporting teen players, pretty people.

What's not: teen fantasy wish fulfillment. This is the stuff your creative writing instructor spends 3-12 months telling you to avoid like the plague.

Why it doesn’t matter: the teen female demo has been so neglected, for so long, that anything of semi-decent quality that appeals to girls is going to be a smash. There are four other installments in the series - get used to it.

**now that we have YouPorn, is it any wonder vampires are so much friendlier than they used to be?

Ugly Is as Ugly Does

Florida's Sun Sentinal decided to go People and GQ one better, like Maxim, and publish an "UnSexy" celebrity list. Their suspects: Amy Winehouse, Donatella Versace, Sarah Jessica Parker, Margaret Cho, Andy Dick, etc., etc.

I can only assume the list was put together by Sun Sentinal writers and editors (none are named) who will not be railing against the physical perfection industry anytime soon.

Most of the people on this paper's UnSexy list are not only famous and/or rich, but they're also extremely talented. It's interesting, how we go glazy-eyed and slobber over celebrities who obtain their success, in part, by appearance-based genetics we can never imitate (not without going under the knife, anyway) and then turn around and throw knives at people who obtain their fame and fortune in spite of looking, more or less, like the rest of us. It says so much more about us than it does the target.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Damn!

I'm talking to Laurel to see if we can get a Team Green trip for this! So what if it's totally illegal ...


Thursday, November 13, 2008

It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World

Ralph Fiennes, Keira Knightly, Hayley Atwell
Directed by Saul Dibb; 110 minutes

The Duchess

The Duchess is a bio-pic based on the heavily lauded 1998 Amanda Foreman book, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana was the “it” girl of her day: gorgeous, rich, vibrant, rich, politically involved, and very, very rich. She was a Spencer, and married to William Cavendish, 5th Duke of Devonshire.

The Duchess doesn’t seem entirely sure what it wants to be and say. It’s not solidly romantic (or downer, as they often are) enough to be a costume/bedroom drama in the Merchant-Ivory mode, nor is it brutal enough to fall into Dangerous Liasons-style intrigue and depravity.

The Duchess also wants to make a statement on suffrage, and doesn’t mind giving its title character an implausible innocence to the wicked ways of her world to illustrate. I’ll admit up front, I haven’t read Foreman’s book; maybe Spencer truly had no choice about the circumstances of her household, but I have a difficult time believing it. We’ll come back to that.

Where it might best succeed is as a retelling of England’s Prince Charles - Princess Diana - Camilla Parker-Bowles triangle, set far enough in the past that no one can outright accuse the producers of doing so (oops! I think I just did). It’s no small coincidence the publicity makes a point of mentioning Diana Spencer was a direct descendant of Georgiana’s father, the first Earl Spencer.

As the movie opens, Georgiana is among friends on immaculately manicured lawns, indulging a betting habit, backing her future lover in a footrace while indoors, her mother (portrayed by Charlotte Rampling) is busy horsetrading as well, convincing Cavendish of the girl’s likely capacity as a future breeder of Cavendish heirs.

Playing Charles to Knightly’s Diana is Ralph Fiennes, who turns in one of his more understated performances as a man who's clueless to everything but his own needs and wants. He beds his terrified, virginal wife by trying to introduce her to kinks straight out of the gate; barely tolerates her when she fails to produce a son right off the bat; makes a mistress of her live-in BFF; rapes her when she threatens his secure spot as "top"; threatens to divorce, separate her from her children, and ruin Georgiana's lover’s political career if she refuses to cut off the affair and give up custody of its issue - after having previously installed one of his own out-of-wedlock children in the household.

On paper William sounds like a pig; in his time, he may well have been. Fiennes humanizes the character by making it clear Cavendish is only doing what he believes is expected of him. He’s not an evil man, he’s just playing the game he’s been bred to and doesn't get why "G" won't play her part. Only after having flexed his power and gained some understanding of how rigged the game is, does he take his head out of his ass and cut Georgiana some slack.

Georgiana, surprisingly, seems to not be fully aware of the rules. In reaction to the news she’s become engaged to one of the most powerful men in Britain: “He loves me?” she asks her matchmaking mama, who confirms it and encourages the fairy tale. Again, I haven’t read the book, but I’ve just got to call “bullshit” on this one. We’ve heard all about the adage, “lie back and think of England,” too many times to refrain from calling bull on that.

The horribly mismatched odds in this battle of the sexes, which give the story it’s dramatic tension, just aren’t entirely believable - the film's main flaw. In addition to the example above, if Georgiana really wanted William’s mistress out of the house, there would have been plentiful ways to make it happen. What the movie only hints at, history openly acknowledges: Elizabeth Foster was lover to both husband and wife.

The other weak spot is watching Ralph Fiennes act circles around Keira Knightly. She has great charisma and sells her performances, but she’s becoming more and more the female answer to Tom Cruise. She does a great job of expressing what’s put in front of her, but whatever character she plays, it always ends up being Keira Knightly as (insert role description here). The movie is The Duchess, but the character to study is the Duke.

Monday, November 10, 2008

(Almost) Forgotten Music: Killing Joke

This was a huge anthem for alternative (we called it "New Music" then) music fans in the early 1980s. When it became clear the music of our older brothers and sisters' lives was going to retain its top dog position in popular culture, many of us stopped trying to find the compromise between punk/new wave and classic rock, and rejected the latter entirely. In most US cities, you'd have had to turn off your radio and get out on the dance floor to catch this.

FYI, Nirvana totally nicked this guitar riff for "Come As You Are."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Happy Election Day

Just for the heck of it, I invited listeners to tell me about their voting lines this morning.

First to call was Chenelle (sp?) in Hendersonville, who is voting at a church on Center Point Road. Her line has 150-200 people.

Stephanie is an MTSU student who votes in Brentwood, and there were 50 in her line.