Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New DVD releases November 20

John Waters' original Hairspray was not only a tribute to the music of his youth, but also a sly satire of the teen exploitation movies of the time. Adam Shenkman's Hairspray, based not only on the movie but the Broadway musical version of it, falls short on both counts, even though it's done with bright energy and features a good performance. The plot is close to the original: Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) wants to get on the Corny Collins Show, and must battle the evil Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) to do not only that, but to also intergrate it. The problem on the first count is the same problem plaguing the movie version of Dreamgirls - namely, the music sounds more like generic show tunes than a pastiche of the popular music at the time (with the exception of the two numbers Queen Latifah rips through). It's not bad, just not memorable. As for the latter, Waters' film already walked a tight line between parody and playing it straight, and Shenkman is too earnest for parody (admittedly, Waters has caught up with the culture he once mocked). The performers certainly try, but like John Travolta, who tries to avoid camp by stepping in the role originally played by Divine as Tracy's mother, they come off as too gee-whiz for the material (even Christopher Walken). Only Pfeiffer seems in on the joke - though she's more obvious than Debbie Harry was in the original, she gives an actual performance, and certainly seems glad to be in a musical again. This bears the distinction of having the stars from Grease (Travolta) and Grease 2 (Pfeiffer), and unfortunately, it represents those films more than Waters' original.
I still haven’t seen Werner Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, so I saw Rescue Dawn, Herzog’s fictional version of that story, with fresh eyes. As with the documentary, this tells the tale of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Army pilot shot down during the Vietnam War while flying over Laos. The rest of the movie details how Dieter planned to escape the North Vietnamese who had captured them, though, of course, the real prison was the jungle. This, of course, is old territory for Herzog - man's struggle against nature. And while Klaus Kinski, Herzog's frequent collaborator (and sparring partner), is no more, Herzog has found actors as equally obsessive (Bale) and odd (Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn are, respectively, odd and haunting as fellow POWs) for the movie. And while Herzog was criticized in some quarters for treating the Vietnamese as Stallone and Chuck Norris did in their Vietnam films, this isn't the rah-rah movie those were; Herzog keeps things grounded in the details. Maybe it's a little too grounded; I admired the movie while watching it, but it didn't grab me emotionally. Still, it's definitely the best of the brand new movies of the week.
Since the commercial failure of his last directorial effort, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Luc Besson has stuck to writing and/or producing such films as Transporter (and its sequel), Unleashed, and High Tension. Being a fan of Besson's earlier films, as well as one of the few who thought The Messenger was an honorable failure rather than a disgrace, I was looking forward to Angel-A, his latest. Unfortunately, it's only serves as proof whatever talent Besson once had seems to have slipped away. The story has possibilities - Andre (Jamel Debbouze), a hapless con artist pursued by the many bad guys he owes money to, helps a young woman he calls "Angela" (Rie Rasmussen), who in turn tries to help him, even as he wonders if she's real, or otherwordly. I don't mind the fact that it's sentimental, I mind the fact both characters are irritating as hell. I liked Debbouze in both Amelie and Days of Glory, but quite frankly, I was rooting for the mobsters to finish him off here; he comes off as grating and one-note. And while Rasmussen is pretty in a placid sort of way, she's hardly more endearing. Instead of her being a porcelain doll, Besson goes the other way, making her foul-mouthed (there is sort of a reason why, which we learn later), but again, it's too one-note. Besson once made entertaining films about distinctly odd couples, like La Femme Nikita and The Professional, but he seems to be stuck in retread mode.
After Sylvester Stallone revived Rocky Balboa for one more film, who could blame Bruce Willis for giving John McClane another go? From a financial point of view, anyway, I guess. From an artistic point of view, Live Free or Die Hard is, well, just another sequel. True, there's an attempt to bring the franchise up to date - the director (Len Wiseman) is best known for the Underworld movies, McClane's sidekick this time is a young computer hacker named Matt (Justin Long, best known for being in a series of Apple commercials), and the villain, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), is basically hacking into the computers that control things like our transport systems, money system, etc., to show how vulnerable we are after 9/11 (a name like Gabriel only shows the movie's lack of subtlety on this point). A few other things have changed - for one, unlike the first two movies, the main law enforcement officer (Cliff Curtis), after initial impatience, is only too happy to pair up with McClane, and also, McClane is older and less resilient, which the movie treats as both a badge of honor and a joke. It also is quick to do what many other sequels do, namely reference its predecessor (there's even an FBI agent named Johnson here). Unfortunately, while Wiseman tones down the CGI madness that made the Underworld movies unbearable, gets a good performance out of Long, and a servicable cameo from Kevin Smith as another computer geek, this still seems unnecessary and desperate, and the attempts to connect it to the real world are part of the problem. It also doesn't help that while Olyphant can be a good actor, he is not a good action villain (Maggie Q, who plays his sidekick/girlfriend, would have been a much better choice). Willis does tone down the wiseass attitude he used in the first three films, instead treating the whole thing as a sly joke that he allows us to get, but he also has foregone the vulnerability of the first film. It's not even worth it to hear him say "Yippekayay" one more time.
This week’s big Criterion film is Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel. Made before he made his international reputation with Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal, this story of a how a relationship between a ringmaster and his mistress, a horse rider, is tested when they visit a small town and partner up with an acting troupe plays like an interesting warm up to his more famous films. As John Simon points out in a perceptive essay included in the movie booklet, this was one of Bergman's first movies - and one of the first major European movies - to use humiliation in this way in a dramatic context. It also marked Bergman's first collaboration with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and shows an early interest in experimenting with light (a flashback involving the tale of a circus clown and his wife is deliberately overexposed, and one wonders if Gordon Willis screened this film before working on the Godfather films). If the characters are a little too broad (especially the actor who has an affair with the mistress), they are also more full of life than Bergman detractors, who only see gloom, would have you expect. And while this may not have begun his lifelong attraction in movies for performers of all kinds, it plays as a good example of it. Criterion will be re-releasing four of Bergman's major films (included with the two I already mentioned are Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring), but this is worth a look as well.

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