Thursday, February 26, 2015

December movies, part two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

Ballets Russes is a documentary about the performing institution that popularized ballet in America from the 30’s to the 50’s, told through some wonderful archival footage and many interviews with the principal dancers (many of whom happily survived at least until recently), including a 2000 reunion. I am not any kind of ballet fan, but the film has great material – behind the scenes clashes, breakups, wartime turmoil, adventures in Hollywood, and so forth, and it’s so engaging that it’s only afterwards that its limitations really occur to you. For example, the old footage is seen (perhaps out of necessity) only in fragments, concentrating far more on providing glimpses of key figures than on illustrating technique, form or overall shape – our sense of the company’s artistry emerges in the telling much more than in the showing. There’s an intriguing social history there, of the popularization of the cultural form, but this too seems secondary to the film’s celebratory purpose and must be constructed in bits and pieces. And the brief anecdote of the company’s first black ballerina, who aroused such hostility in the South (including a backstage Klan visit) that she eventually had to leave the company, only points up the absence of such weight elsewhere in the film. To a certain (likely the larger) section of the audience, all of this will of course not matter at all, and as I say, it didn’t matter that much to me either as I watched it. The personalities are terrific, and if the movie’s techniques are conventional, they’re executed with much grace.


Three…Extremes is made up of three squirm-inducing stories directed by Park Chan-wook (Old Boy), Takashi Miike (mainstay of the film festival’s Midnight Madness section) and Fruit Chan. The first, by Chan, is called Dumplings – place your bets for what they’re made of. The second, by Park (a director whose work I’ve yet to warm to, despite the Tarantino-led accolades), is about a film director terrorized by an extra, and Miike’s third is the most dream-like and intriguing, as well as probably the cleverest. Like most compilation movies, the cumulative impact is relatively limited – no matter how well crafted the episodes are, they’re pretty much confined to putting across the premise and then getting off the stage. But variations across all three segments on the themes of self-disgust and macabre family dynamics lend it a broad feeling of coherence, and obviously it’s never dull.

By the way, I watched Ballets Russes and Three…Extremes on the same Sunday afternoon. Isn’t diversity a great thing?

I didn’t much enjoy the stage production of The Producers when I saw it in Toronto a couple of years ago, although many said it was hampered by weak casting of the two leads. There’s no question it felt dead at the centre, although it was difficult to imagine how high the tacky material could ever be elevated. The new film version, directed by Susan Stroman (who was also at the helm for the theatre – this is her first film), confirms all these doubts. Like the film of Rent, the movie suffers from woefully inadequate strategizing on what a meaningful cinematic version might actually consist of, but it’s not as facile as Rent in (to some degree) covering that up with superficial energy and glitz. The early scene where Nathan Lane’s crooked producer meets Matthew Broderick’s buttoned-down accountant and quickly starts to lead him astray is shockingly drab and lifeless (that stuff about the blue blanket is surpassingly lame), plunging the movie right into the hole.

It’s A Flop!

The main casting innovation, Uma Thurman as the Swedish bimbo actress, similarly strikes out – Thurman simply can’t lower herself into this with sufficient conviction (the only mystery is why she felt inclined to try). The less estimable performers do better. Will Ferrell’s genetic predisposition to shtick works fine here, and I must admit to getting my biggest laughs out of Gary Beach (who won a Tony for this) as the outrageously camp director, particularly during the Springtime for Hitler routine, which all these years later remains pretty surefire. But these are slim pickings indeed. My mind wandered to other musicals, not to the likes of Minnelli or Donen (which would be not so much wandering as inter-galactic leaping) but rather – I admit oddly – to Michael Ritchie’s filming of another Broadway mainstay, The Fantasticks. Ritchie’s movie was panned and never properly released, although I caught it once on late night TV. That one’s a choppy and often threadbare film (the Internet movie database has a long list of scenes that were cut from it), but it has some moments of beauty, perhaps all the sweeter for their obviously problematic context. It feels like a movie someone at least cared about making.

Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone is ultimately a little disappointing as only a very good film can be – it’s so very smart and accomplished that you’re frustrated at its failure to be a masterpiece. The elements of that failure are pretty clear. The film is about Christmas at a rambunctious liberal family, where the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings home his girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) for the first time; they’re loose and liberal; she’s neurotic and uptight…a disaster looms. The cast includes Diane Keaton, Claire Danes and Rachel McAdams, all excellent. I haven’t smiled or chuckled as much in any film this year (no laughs out loud though), and the sentiment got to me too. And a dinner scene where Parker puts her foot in her mouth all the way up to her thigh is just about the squirmiest thing I’ve seen all year, including those giant insects in King Kong.

Turbulent Blessings

And yet…even that fine scene seems a little contrived and overwritten, pushing Parker’s ineptitude way beyond the point where someone in her situation would have figured it out and shut it down (or else had someone step in to shut it down for her). The film ultimately succumbs to an extreme desire for tidiness, arranging for several unlikely and under-dramatized character pairings, and tacking on a sentimental one-year-later epilogue. And it doesn’t really have much to say about anything at all, except the same old stuff about the turbulent blessings of family. I thought as a counterpoint of one of my favourite films of the year, Agnes Jaoui’s Comme une image (Look At Me), which was similarly well-constructed and accessible and pleasant and unobtrusive in its style, but which (like Jaoui’s previous film The Taste Of Others) seemed continually philosophical and probing about the interaction of the social and the personal. Even Jaoui’s titles are beautifully resonant in a way that The Family Stone just isn’t. I see that I’ve laid out the film’s faults in much more detail than its virtues, but that’s my own evocation of family for you – always playing up the negative.

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