Monday, December 11, 2006

Weekend viewing

Still dealing with the end-of-year crunch, including seeing a number of movies that won't open in Vegas until January, which I'll write about at that time if I can remember anything about them. It was like a little film festival at home this weekend without ever leaving my couch.

Bobby (Emilio Estevez, 2006)
With the huge pile of screeners sitting by my TV, this was one I was planning to give a pass, since it looked from all the reviews (both good and bad) and commercials like something I would not like, but fellow local critic and LVFCS president Jeff Howard implored me (it's his favorite movie of the year), so I gave it a shot. And it turned out pretty much as I expected. It's not horrible, and I suppose Estevez's heart is in the right place, but he really just threw together a bunch of one-dimensional 1960s-stereotype characters and placed them around an important historical event to make their interactions seem more meaningful than they really are. There's a lot of strident, capital-A Acting going on here, and Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and Helen Hunt are particularly egregious (meanwhile, Ashton Kutcher's performance as a hippie is expectedly but still notably awful). You never get a sense of who the characters are beyond the single trait they each have, nor do you get a sense of why Bobby Kennedy was so important or meaningful to Estevez and others who lived through that time. Maybe I'm just too cynical (I can't think of a single politician that I either like or admire), but even the real Kennedy speech that played over the final montage seemed boring and trite to me.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005)
Although Shut Up & Sing (see below) has been getting the bulk of the attention this year, and has a decent chance for an Oscar nomination, this is another very strong yet very different music documentary. Feuerzeig is lucky to have a wealth of home movies and recordings made by his subject, an acclaimed mentally ill singer-songwriter, so that he can depict Johnston's life thoroughly from the time he was about a teenager. And Johnston's story is fascinating, not only for how he battled through his illness to create music, but also for the weirdly serendipitous path that he took to relative fame and mild fortune. It's a visually inventive movie, too, which again owes much to the great abundance of primary sources that Feuerzeig is lucky enough to have - so much so that he paints a pretty effective portrait of his subject almost without any interview footage of him in the present day. I think the best indicator of the film's effectiveness is that I thought Johnston's music was absolutely awful, and yet I found the movie fascinating anyway.

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)
I did have to take a little break from all the award-mongers and watch something different, and these two came on a single disc from Netflix. I think it's probably unfortunate coming to these films (especially the first one) long after having seen Young Frankenstein, Gods and Monsters and countless updates and parodies over the years. I'm also a huge fan of Mary Shelley's novel, which is obviously only a broad template for these films (Bride has a hilarious prologue in which Lord Byron goes on to Shelley about all the horrifying events depicted in the first movie, events which of course did not take place at all in Shelley's novel). So Frankenstein, while it has wonderful use of shadow and some very striking set design, didn't do much for me, but Bride, which deviates even further from the novel (although it incorporates several important elements) was much more entertaining. It's obvious that Whale had much more freedom to be campy and outrageous, and a bigger budget, too (the sets are more striking and elaborate, the effects more convincing). The shrill maid to Henry and Elizabeth is very funny, as is the odd social satire of the tiny people created by Dr. Pretorius (a decidedly unscientific practice that would have been grossly out of place in Shelley's romantic-realist prose). The scene between the monster and the blind man, a sort of condensed version of one of the novel's most vivid and affecting sequences, is quite emotionally powerful, and the balance of humor and horror is deftly handled.

Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck, 2006)
I am a big fan of the Dixie Chicks, but I had a mixed reaction to their latest album, and I was sort of hard on them in a recent concert review. Like the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, this movie goes a long way toward increasing my understanding and sympathy for the emotional and artistic turmoil that went into producing some music that I'm not necessarily crazy about (although I like the Dixie Chicks album more than the Metallica one, relative to each act's previous work). Kopple and Peck follow the Chicks through the political firestorm that followed singer Natalie Maines' comments about George Bush in 2003, the subsequent fallout, the writing and recording of their next album and the slow emergence into a new kind of career. But this is not just a political movie, as I feared, or really even a political movie at all; like SKOM, it's an intimate portrait of a close group of people who have such a symbiotic relationship that one small action taken by one of them can have huge and disastrous consequences for all. It conveys a real understanding of the band as people, and helped me regain respect for what they've done musically recently, even if I still can't completely embrace it.

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