Tuesday, December 18, 2007

New DVD releases December 18

At the end of The Commitments, we see a montage set to the band’s cover of “Try a Little Tenderness,” where we see what the members of the band have been doing since they split up. The very first shot in the montage is of Jimmy (Robert Arkins), the band’s manager, listening to Outspan (Glen Hansard), the guitarist, and Derek (Ken McClusky), the bassist, as they perform on a busy Dublin street corner. The opening of John Carney’s Once finds Hansard, 16 years older but still hale and hearty, performing by himself on a Dublin street corner, and while it’s two different movies, it’s easy to imagine Hansard’s character merely being Outspan later in life. Certainly, in addition to being musicals set in Ireland, both movies are about the depth of feeling music can produce in us, and they’re both small treasures because of that.
Hansard, whose character is simply known as “Guy” (as in not the name), is playing one night when he’s approached by a woman (Marketa Irglova), simply known as “Girl”, who likes what she hears (even though she only gives him ten pence). As it happens, she’s also a musician – she plays piano, and she practices at a music store (the owner lets her). The two play together enough to know they’ve got something connecting them on a musical level. But does that connection exist elsewhere? After all, he’s got an ex-girlfriend living in London whom he still pines for, and her husband is back in the Czech Republic (she went ahead to try and make enough money for him to move to Dublin), while she lives with her mother and child. Does it matter the two of them may have feelings for each other, as expressed through the music?
What makes this all magical is those feelings are expressed through the music, and thrillingly. I still recall the chill I felt – in a good way – when Hansard and Irglova first performed “Falling Slowly,” the first song they perform together, in the movie – it simply and beautifully captures those feelings. Carney sets all the songs up simply – except for “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy,” which Hansard performs on a bus in response to the question of why his girlfriend left him, everything is done with a naturalistic feel. The two main characters are similarly grounded – he works as a vacuum salesman, while she works a variety of jobs, including selling roses. Both of them, in other words, have a practical life, and let loose only in their songs.
You could argue this is a new Brief Encounter for the millennium (except the two never consummate their relationship, as they did in the earlier film), or that she’s merely his muse, but I think it’s a lot more than that, and that has to do with the music. Hansard (who, along with Carney, is in the band the Frames) and Irglova also do a good job acting out the non-music parts. But the songs are where the real emotion comes from (the opening line of “Falling Slowly” is “I don’t know you but I want you”), and Carney captures the emotion of the songs without sentimentalizing it, as do Hansard and Irglova. It’s the music that makes Once so special.
My senior year in college, I was without a TV, and was concentrating more on the girl I was in love with, and the history thesis I had to write. All of which is to say I missed being part of the audience for The Simpsons when they started their march to being the most popular cartoon, and sitcom, in TV history. I respect the writing, and have liked some of the eps I’ve seen, but it’s not part of my vocabulary the way, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was. All of which is to say I was able to enjoy David Silverman’s The Simpsons Movie for what it was, and not how it stacked up against the TV show. True, most of the supporting characters get little screen time (including my personal favorite, Mr. Burns). True, the movie feels like one half-hour ep stretched out to feature length (even at 87 minutes, this feels a tad long). And true, the environmental message, while undoubtedly sincere, does tend to blunt the satire the show is famous for. However, the movie in some ways sums up the basic appeal of the show – the family. The show’s fans have always seen Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa as representative of the American family, for better or worse, and that certainly comes out in this movie. The plot may involve things usually seen in an action or sci-fi movie – pollution in the lake causes the town of Springfield to be closed down, and EPA head Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks, who’s one of the few celebrity voices here – the others being Green Day and Tom Hanks, as themselves) convinces President Schwarzenegger to blow up the town – but it all comes out of the basic actions of the Simpson family. As in almost every episode, Homer does something stupid but eventually comes around, Marge is impatient but loving with him, Lisa has a crusade, and Bart wishes Homer wasn’t his dad (this part is, admittedly, over the top). The beginning of the movie has the family watching an Itchy and Scratchy movie, and Homer declaring they’ve been gypped by paying for a movie from a TV show when they could just watch the show for free. The Simpsons Movie never achieves greatness, but you won’t feel gypped either.
Ever since the Lord of the Rings franchise, studios have been turning out fantasy films of their own, hoping to reproduce some of that magic, box office and otherwise. Some have come close (the first Narnia movie), but most have fallen short. Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust, though it has some good parts, falls in the latter category. Based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, this starts out well – in 19th century England, Tristan (Charlie Cox), a goodhearted but clumsy lad, wants to win the love of Victoria (Sienna Miller), the callow beauty of the village. One night, they’re out together, and they spot a falling star going towards the kingdom of Stormhold, outside the village (which is protected by a huge wall). Tristan declares he’ll go and retrieve the star for Victoria, and this will prove his love. What he doesn’t count on is the star is actually a girl named Yvaine (Claire Danes). What Tristan also doesn’t count on is he’s not the only one after the star – Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), a witch, wants to cut out Yvaine’s heart because it will give her eternal youth, and the sons of the king (Peter O’Toole) want the stone Yvaine is carrying, because whoever gets it will be the next king. One more thing Tristan doesn’t count on is falling in love with Yvaine.
Until Tristan goes through the wall into Stormhold, this is actually pretty good – Vaughn sustains a fairy tale atmosphere that’s appealing. Once he crosses over, however, there are problems. For starters, the attempts at humor are hit and miss at best. Robert De Niro, for one, is way too cartoonish in his portrayal of Captain Shakespeare, a pirate who pretends to be tough but is really swishy (and that’s a tired conceit anyway). He does have one good moment, when he’s dancing along to a can-can number, but that’s about it. And the business about the sons of the king who appear as ghosts after they’ve died is another joke that gets tired. Ricky Gervais does brighten things up in his brief scene as a trader. Vaughn does better by the fairy tale side, especially with Pfeiffer playing another great villain character after Hairspray. He and his Layer Cake cinematographer Ben Davis also avoid the paint-by-numbers look of that film with some lyrical shots, especially when Yvaine is lighting up (her light burns brightest when she’s feeling good, as when she’s falling in love with Tristan). But the story is choppily told – I’ve never read the novel, but I wonder if scenes involving the unicorn and the dream where Tristan is warned about Yvaine being in trouble were better handled than they are in the movie. And then there’s Danes. She certainly looks aglow when she’s in love, but there’s something about her that seems too modern for a fairy tale like this, and at the beginning, when she and Cox (who’s adequate, nothing more) are squabbling, she comes off as pouty. One wonders if this would have soared if Miller had played the lead instead. Stardust could have used a little more.
When Blade Runner, the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, flopped upon its initial release in 1982, few could have predicted people would still be talking about it 25 years later. After all, most critics thought director Ridley Scott and writers Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples (with an uncredited assist from Roland Kibbee) had made a muddled mess of Dick’s novel (Pauline Kael admitted the movie couldn’t be ignored, but complained it “gives you the feeling of not getting anywhere”). As for audiences, those who were hoping for another light-hearted Harrison Ford adventure like the first two Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark were bewildered by the storyline and turned off by Ford’s monotonous voiceover narration. However, it did gain a cult following, thanks to the stunning visuals and blending of science fiction and film noir. Then in 1989, a different version of the film was discovered, shown in some theaters, and was eventually released to theaters and video to great acclaim in 1992. This version eliminated the voiceover, shortened some scenes, and had a different ending and meaning, and was the so-called director’s cut. Now, Scott has redone the film once again for his final director’s cut.
For those who don’t know the story, a brief summary is in order. In 2019 L.A., man has the ability to create replicants, or androids that can pass for humans. However, after a bloody battle between replicants and humans, all replicants have been outlawed, and humans hunt them down to destroy them. Deckard (Ford), a former “blade runner” (detectives who hunt down replicants), is called out of retirement to hunt down a group of replicants, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), who have stolen a ship and are looking for their creator. Meanwhile, Deckard finds himself falling for Rachael (Sean Young), who turns out to be a replicant. In the original cut, that’s as far as it went, but in the director’s cut, Scott changed it to imply Deckard maybe was a replicant as well.
Scott has never been really a director of ideas (after all, Kingdom of Heaven is about the Crusades yet eliminates almost all religious discussion from the war), but this film, in any version, is an interesting meditation on what it means to be human. True, Batty is certainly villainous, but Deckard’s superior (M. Emmet Walsh) and co-worker (Edward James Olmos) are just as ruthless, if not more so. And even in the original version, we saw Deckard being cut off from life, whereas the replicants, whose life span was only four years and whose memories were all imprints, seemed to embrace life, and acted out of self-defense. Making Deckard a replicant adds a further twist to that. And the noir-ish world Scott and production designer Lawrence G. Paull create further add to the sense that life for mankind is empty. Finally, all the performances are good; while this was never one of Ford’s favorites, he brings toughness and vulnerability to Deckard, Young is bewitching as Rachael, and Hauer is charismatic and ruthless as Batty while remaining sympathetic. There’s also good work from Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy as other replicants. The new special edition DVD contains both earlier versions, plus a new “director’s cut,” which is basically a tweaking of the 1992 version (which Scott claimed wasn’t his cut, even though it was closer to his vision). Whatever version you see, Blade Runner is still worth watching.

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