Tuesday, February 28, 2006

FINAL CUT: Giant Steps Are What You Take

There are a great many ways to spend your time and money on the Las Vegas Strip. You can take a seat at one of the many sitcom-themed video slot machines and slowly lose your money a dollar at a time. You can slip ten dollar bills into the g-string of the comely young woman writhing about your nether regions. You can while away the day in a store devoted entirely to the glories of Coca-Cola. Clair opted to spend the afternoon getting a Swedish massage. And me? What would I do with a day in Las Vegas? Go to the Luxor and take in a 3-D film on the IMAX screen about space. Welcome to my brain.

The idea was planted in my head as we rode the moving walkway -- the incredibly long moving walkway -- from Excalibur to Luxor, and I spotted a poster advertising a movie I was quite eager to see: Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D. The bozos at Navy Pier only kept it around for a couple weeks, so my opportunity seemed to have come and gone But here was a chance for Vegas to earn its keep. With my wife ensconced in the lap of luxury, I was off to the movies.

This movie is the latest expression of Tom Hanks' affection for the glory days of the space program. As executive producer, as well as the film's narrator, Hanks is following in the footsteps of Apollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon in creating movie monuments to the first steps of lunar exploration. I can't accurately gauge how many people share his enthusiasm. I mean, I do. I suspect I'd be doing the exact same thing he is if I had the resources. But it wouldn't surprise me if people rolled their eyes and said, "Again? Jeez, Tom. Move on." We're not exactly covering new ground here. It's ground I'm more than pleased to go over again, but not necessarily new. It's you and me, Tom.

But the idea behind Magnificent Desolation is a good one: if we take the big IMAX screen and current 3D technology, and put them together with state-of-the-art special effects, we could show people what it might actually be like to stand on the moon. Filmmakers are still trying to get a handle on what works best on the really huge screen -- I've seen an awful lot of sharks and rainforests. So this seems like a positive development, moving actual production into the domain of the documentary.

A quick word about the Luxor IMAX. My previous encounters with IMAX technology have either involved huge screens in traditional theater settings or enormous domed OMNIMAX screens. But the Vegas version was something altogether new: seating was on levels stacked almost directly on top of one another, like decks on a ship. You walked up a ramp to get to the proper level, and you were essentially looking straight down on the next row, while the row above looked down on you. It was a wall of seats. It had a bit of the feel of a ride, too, especially when the handrails lowered to become a kind of safety bar. I see the benefits as a viewer, in that everyone has an unimpeded view of the screen, and is roughly the same distance away. And I suppose it saves space, not needing a big auditorium. (Costs you a lot of revenue, too.) But it's also a little unsettling. You may feel trapped with people on either side of you at the movies, but it's nothing compared to having a metal bar keeping you in your seat.

So it's in this atmosphere that we get our first look at the moon. It's actually a combination of real photos that have been digitally adapted to fill the screen and new footage shot on a soundstage. The effect is striking. The moon seems both more vast and smaller when viewed in this manner. It's appropriately otherworldly, making the moon seem newly alien to an audience that has grown bored.

I will admit that the use of 3-D doesn't add all that much. The thing about 3-D is, even at its best, it doesn't really look like real life. There's unusual depth, but no shape. Essentially, you're looking at a great big ViewMaster. In fact, the film's most dramatic image -- astronauts standing at the edge of the vast Hadley Rille -- is conveyed entirely through the huge screen, with the third dimension providing none of the vastness or height of the location. It's interesting, but ultimately unnecessary.

In a way, that's all Hanks and director Mark Cowen have to sell. Beyond a series of inspirational quotes, read by well-known actors in a weird Civil Warish touch, it's all about the stunning imagery. And evidently, they can't make it fill 40 minutes, because they end up doing something incredibly damaging to their film: they start making stuff up.

Everything went by the book on the moon, Hanks tells us. There were no life-threatening disasters, no last-minute contingencies. But what if there were... he ponders. Oh, yes, we now get to see a fictional mission, wherein a mishap with the rover forces two injured astronauts to make a long trek back to their lander. Since we don't know these people, and since they don't really have anything to do with the real-life astronauts whose exploits we have been re-living, there's not much suspense concerning their fate. If anything, it's a nifty piece of filmmaking, and demonstrates the potential of putting Hollywood in the IMAX format, as well as the opportunity for a dramatic film set in space that observes the laws of physics. But it's seriously out of place in the context of things that actually happened.

Worse is the framing device of a young girl named Veronica Lugo, who tells us that she will grow up to live and work in space, and has a crudely-drawn picture to illustrate the point. I'm not dissing the child or the picture. But when her drawing comes to life and the crayon images start flying through space, I begin to question the authenticity of the artwork. And when we see a potential future for the girl, in which she oversees mining operations on the far side of the moon, I'm no longer sure there really is a Veronica Lugo. It's manipulative, and there's no need for that.

In fact, it's when I saw this grown-up Veronica Lugo in action that I realized what I was really looking at: propaganda. It's an advertisement for space travel. Which is interesting, because I'm a big fan of space travel, and if this were a product readily available to me, I would definitely buy it. But this back-door sales pitch, trying to sneak it in under the guise of history, is insulting. Magnificent Desolation is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It actually succeeds in the impossible task of making a walk on the moon tangible to an audience. You get to be there. That should be sales pitch enough. But the burden of fiction, the weight of scenes included to try and make the film "more exciting", eventually becomes too much for this little film to carry. The moon should have been able to handle everything all by itself. But all that Hollywood finally got in the way.

I have one more gripe, and maybe it's petty, but it's huge to me. The film ends, as so many of these do, with a roll call of the astronauts privileged enough to voyage to the moon. Among them is Apollo 13 command module pilot Jack Swigert. Which the caption spells as "Swigart". Right there, probably a foot tall on the damn IMAX screen, is his name misspelled. I was stunned. Tens of millions of dollars went into re-creating the lunar experience, and we couldn't spend one cent on a proofreader? I'd have done it. I'm in the book. More to the point, didn't Tom Hanks get to see the movie? How could this happen? And considering how much of the film is dramatized and re-created, how the heck can we trust it? One of the few things we rely upon as fact, the filmmakers get wrong. These things matter. If you intend to portray yourself as a historical record, you'd better get it right. And if this seems petty, remember that it was a math error that blurred the Hubble. It was a tiny miscalculation that lost the Mars Observer probe. An open valve killed the crew of Salyut 1.

In space, details matter.

Friday, February 24, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Glitter Gulch

A side effect of our most recent Depressing Vacation was that I got to experience, for the very first time, the kingdom of vice and geegaws that is Las Vegas, Nevada. It is possible that I was previously in Sinville as an infant, but this was the first time I was in town with working memory cells. And from the first moment we drove down the Strip, the essential truth of Las Vegas was clear to me.

This place is nuts.

It's hard to say what finally sealed the deal for me. There are three possibilities that I've isolated:

1) It might be when I realized that I could still see the beam that shoots out of the top of the Luxor when we were an hour down the interstate.

Vegas is -- news flash -- big on light and glitz. Every casino -- even the trashy ones that could be torn down any day now, like the Frontier -- has a huge, flashing sign, usually with some sort of Jumbotron advertising the various concerts, magic shows and strip shows contained within. It's a street turned into a carnival midway. The sun never sets on Vegas, because a thousand little suns are always standing by to fill in the gap. The moment we checked into our hotel, we also had to check the drapes, because we knew we would need to block out the 1000-watt kleig lights aimed at us to illuminate the building.

This should appeal to me. As my wife is fond of pointing out, I'm a big fan of Times Square in New York. This is a place equally dominated by neon and commercials. So why do I find the Strip exhausting, when I find Times Square invigorating? I think it's scope. Times Square is closed in. It has limits. If you're at one end, you can see the other. And you can know that there is a way out. A couple years ago, I was at a theater festival in New York, and we were at a bar around midnight or so, and it became clear that one of our number, Joey Cranford, had yet to see the electrical wonderland of Broadway. So we went at once. We walked a whopping two blocks, and there we were, bathed in color and noise. It was a magical effect, like Dorothy walking into Oz.

Vegas, on the other hand, doesn't seem to end. Las Vegas Boulevard (the actual name of the road) is deceptively long, and no matter where you are, it seems to go on as far as the eye can see. The glitter isn't a district or a neighborhood or a square. It's everything. Mind you, this isn't actually true. There's a lot more city out there, but you're never going to see any of that. When you're on the Strip, the show goes on and on.

2) It might be when I saw the man with the oxygen tank sitting at the same slot machine for over four hours.

One of the greatest disappointments of Las Vegas was the discovery that the old slot machines -- the ones that took coins and dispensed coins and had handles to pull and made happy dinging noises -- are gone. They've been replaced with cold computer terminals with impossibly confusing rules that are never explained and that spit out pieces of paper telling you how much you've won, and that only if you've had the wisdom to get out. Hundreds of thousands of these machines, with only different names to distinguish them.

So it was all the more baffling to me that people would sit at these machines for hours on end, pressing the "Max Bet" button over and over in a rote, emotionless fashion. And it's not like they were waiting for the big score. Twice on our last day in Vegas, I watched "slot machines" ringing up wins approaching thousands of credits, and the players couldn't have cared less. There was no joy. No fun. No thrill of victory. It looked like work, only with free drinks.

And my introduction to this was at the Wynn, where an old man with an oxygen tank sat punching away at one of these life-sucking kiosks. And we walked around, and visited shops, and looked at some weird water show, and saw Avenue Q. And after all that, the old man hadn't moved. He was going to hell in a coin bucket, and didn't even seem to care for the ride.

3) But it was probably when we made our way to the second floor of the Venetian shops, which were designed to look like an exact replica of an Italian plaza, complete with gondolas, and for a moment I thought I might not be able to breathe.

If you're picking a casino in Vegas, there are really three ways to go:

Old School
These are the ones that, as my friend Ted explained, opened for business at least 25 years ago and have watched the town change around them while they stood completely still. They have bad color schemes and still think filling an entire room with mirrors is a good design choice. They fit your impression of what Vegas is supposed to be like, but they don't necessarily wear it well. The Tropicana, the Flamingo, and the Sahara all go here. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I kind of enjoyed the Sahara, even though it felt like it was in the Strip Ghetto. But they definitely look their age.

(These are not to be confused with the Fremont Street casinos, which are their own kind of Old School, with lots of smoke and wood paneling and the sense that this whole gambling thing could be outlawed at any moment and we'll all have to pack our things and git. Now that's taking you back.)

Theme Park
Welcome to our living cartoon, these say. We picked a theme, and it's everywhere. Sometimes the effect is really cheesy, like Excalibur, which is what you'd get if you went to Medieval Times, but had to stay for two days instead of two hours. Sometimes it's all about the facade, like Caesar's Palace, which has just enough theming to cover the walls, and then really doesn't give a crap. At its best, it can have real charm. My favorite of all the casinos I saw was probably Paris, which evoked not only another place but another time. It was elegant, but playful. It actually felt enjoyable, and you could walk through it without having it drilled into your head that you were in a casino.

Of course, there's no finer example of the theme park casino than New-York New-York (which must have those dashes in there for trademark reasons or something), which even goes so far as to have its own ride. (That would be the Manhattan Express rollercoaster, which my colleague Padraic pointed out goes beyond the usual sense of danger and may actually be deadly.) New-York has draped itself in so much decoration that you immediately get lost. It's gleefully over-the-top. Even if you don't think the joke is funny, it's a very well-told joke. It's Disney World without the tasteful restraint.

Nouveau Riche
You know that charmingly Trump-y notion that expensive things are classy? That's the classic Trump move: "I'll build a tower that's all gold, because gold is money and money is class and I'm made of money, baby." Basically, it's remarkable that Trump is only just now building a tower in Las Vegas. (For the record, so is his ex-wife. It's that kind of town.) This kind of casino just wants to overwhelm you with how rich it is, and to revel in the sheer expense of it all. Atop the heap sit Wynn and Bellagio, boastful and proud, dropping cash in a heartbeat. (Mandalay Bay is kind of going for this. But they're stuck at the end of the Strip, so they can't lord it over anyone.) You can't make it big and pricey enough here.

These categories aren't absolute. For example, Treasure Island started out Theme Park, but they've been trying to change their image and become a little more New Money. Or the MGM Grand, which has been around, hints at a movie theme and has a lion exhibit, and plays with gold decoration all over. It has little bits of all three.

The Venetian is a Theme Park for the Nouveau Riche, and that's where I had my attack. Rather than a cartoon version of Venice, this place wants you to think it's giving you the real deal. The shop facades are intricately detailed. The ceilings are painted to resemble an almost perfect sky. (Somebody in Las Vegas is getting paid big bucks to paint ceilings to look like skies, by the way.) There's a museum -- affiliated with both the Guggenheim and the Hermitage -- with classic art. The features aren't made of plaster, like the Luxor's grand Sphinx. The Venetian is real stone. The message I got, loud and clear: "You're in Venice, bitch." It was absolutely overwhelming. The place is hyper-real, and instead of trying to awe you with flashy beads, it demands that you see the details and admire them.

Say what you will about Vegas, but it definitely got a strong emotional reaction out of me. I'm still processing it all, so you can expect a few more entries on the subject in the next couple weeks.

Because this time, what happened in Vegas is not staying there.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Girl in the Plane

My wife's grandmother passed away a week ago. We were in Nevada over the weekend for the funeral.

By all accounts, Mary Ellen Davis was a remarkable woman. While she was still in her teens, she decided to take up the relatively new hobby of flying airplanes. My mother-in-law told the story of Mary Ellen's first solo, when an apple-cheeked young girl flew from Las Vegas to California, and strolled up to the local diner to find someone to sign her logbook. Naturally, she was met with a bunch of perplexed looks, as all the men wanted to know where the pilot was. I suppose this might demonstrate how the era was not altogether enlightened. On the other hand, she flew the plane. There's a fantastic picture of Mary Ellen in her plane, with her daughter, mother, and grandmother all in the shot.

It seems she and her husband were real forward-thinkers. They ran a furniture store, which led her to collect housewares that would become extraordinary pieces of modern art; designs by Noguchi, Eames, Herman Miller. Then she ran a record store, and always knew the latest sounds.

Clair said she wished I had met Mary Ellen. I have to agree. I'm told she could have a gruff nature, but she certainly sounds fascinating. I got a little glimpse of her, though. At the visitation, there was a picture of her on her wedding day, and she was wearing the most fantastic hat. It looked sort of triangular, and angled up sharply. It was very art deco. And it gave me a clue where my wife got her love of great hats.

I've been lucky, I suppose, in that my life has been relatively untouched by death. So the impact of two deaths in two months is more than a little sobering. Still, I guess my grandmother and Clair's grandmother were quite fortunate: they lived long, rich lives, and had a loved one nearby at the end.

We should all be so blessed.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: There's a Penguin on the Television Set

We held out as long as we could. We resisted, we dodged, we fought. And in the end, we succumbed to the clarion call of the penguin.

March of the Penguins is probably going to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. It's unavoidable. Actually, I shouldn't say that, because the documentary branch of the Academy consistently screws up. But there's such overwhelming love for these penguins and their movie, victory seems practically assured. So as part of my own personal "Oscars on Netflix Month", I invited the penguins into my home. I'd see what all the fuss was about. And, in an unusual twist, I would end up having seen as many Best Documentary nominees as I had contenders for Best Picture.

Between the National Geographic specials and Animal Planet and everything else, it seems like the world of nature has been pretty well covered. But director Luc Jacquet has stumbled upon a fascinating subject: the mating rituals of emperor penguins in the frezzing desolation of Antarctica. A few critics have made the observation that there's nothing in this movie that you couldn't see on the Discovery Channel. But the travails these creatures endure for the purpose of procreation are so extraordinary, and the drama of their journey is so expertly told, I have no problem saying this story belongs on the big screen. Besides, the Enron movie couldn't have been on CNBC?

Penguins are, in that wonderful way that nature so often is, weird. They are birds, but they cannot fly, and are much more at home in the frigid seas, flitting about like guided torpedoes. On land, they have a delightful waddle, tromping across the ice with unexpectedly craggy clawed feet. Their first appearance in the film is in a blurry long-shot, looking like bedouins crossing a desert. They're very appealing characters, so we're inclined to like them immediately.

Jacquet immediately exploits this, as he captures the immensely long line of penguins emerging from the waters to walk upwards of 70 miles to their breeding ground. The sight of so many creatures waddling for miles is captivating, and it's only the first of the hardships these penquins will endure, all for the purpose of propagating the species.

What follows is a series of "holy cow" moments, as the penguins battle the elements, predators, and sheer bad luck in their effort to being new penguins into the world. A behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD shows that a lot of really depressing footage got left out, but you still have the sense that the deck is definitely stacked against the birds. Each egg (balanced on the feet of its parents to avoid contact with the ice) seems terribly fragile, so each chirping penguin chick feels like a major triumph.

Jacquet (or maybe Jordan Roberts, who wrote the narration for the American release) does not resist the temptation to anthropomorphize these animals. Penguins are monogamous -- for a year at a time, which the filmmakers point out. Nevertheless, the film does hint that the penguins mate and raise their young out of a sense of familial love, rather than pure instinct. It's a little distracting, only because it's so easy to get sucked into thinking that animals act like humans. In the end, the penguins' story stands on its' own, needing little help from man to be more compelling.

A real test of a movie's quality in this day and age is how badly you feel the need to own it. Am I likely to whip it out and watch it again? March of the Penguins is closer than I would have ever thought to being on my ought-to-own list. The striking images of the Antarctic wasteland are enlivened by the gregarious penguins. My favorite image actually comes from that making-of featurette, when the filmmakers have arrived at the nesting ground, and are beginning to set up their cameras. They are trying to be low key, but the penguins have noticed them, and immediately walk over the check things out. It's hard to imagine a more innocent response. I've just railed against trying to make animals seem like humans, but here's an instance where I wish people could be more like animals. Our ability to trust is at an all-time low. Seeing the curiosity and apparent friendliness of the penguins is a true shock. And it's an image I wouldn't mind seeing again.

APPENDIX: I stumbled across the following comment at the realityblurred website:

"Interestingly, while the US version featured narration by Morgan Freeman, the original French version of March of the Penguins had the penguins “speaking” dialogue, so it was far less reality-based than the US version, although ours certainly still anthropomorphizes the penguins enough for us get to know them."
I hereby take back my comments about the excessive anthropomorphizing. Dialogue? Ugh. Nice save, Jordan Roberts.

Friday, February 10, 2006

MY BONNIE: Building A Mystery

Since I just mentioned it the other day, this seems like as good a time as any to break out the next chapter of Dead Men Are a Girl's Best Friend.

Here it is, the third chapter, and we haven't actually seen our detective doing any detecting. So I thought we'd better get her out of the office.

I'm very proud of Zelda. Bonnie doesn't have a lot of connections with people, so I figure she's going to be that much closer to things. My dad helped me research the glorious Lincoln Zephyr (which evidently has a rabid following), although he had no idea why. Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

BRIC-A-BRAC: Running Commentary

My friend Jessica said she read the blog. I was very surprised. She's not a blog-reading type. If she hadn't said anything about it, I'd have never known. Which sent my brain down a winding path, which is how we get to this incongruous beginning.

The highest grossing movie last weekend was a remake of the killer-on-the-loose gem When a Stranger Calls. It will not be the last marginally-successful horror film to get another look. After all, only a few months ago, we got a new version of The Fog.

The fact that this movie made $29 million reflects in no way on its quality. In fact, it may prove to be a milestone in audience stupidity, since the story's only ingenious moment (namely, that the calls are coming from inside the house) is given away IN THE FREAKIN' COMMERCIALS! It's as if The Crying Game had been marketed with the tagline, "Dude looks like a lady." We have almost achieved complete brain disconnection at the movies.

So having established that When a Stranger Calls is a piece of mindless tripe, it still has to be galling for the makers of movies that aim higher to find that the crap horror flick blows them out of the water. Let's say you're Noah Baumbach, writer-director of The Squid and the Whale (a film I haven't seen, and may not, since stories about bitter divorces don't entrance me). Even if Noah knows in his heart of hearts that his movie is better than When a Stranger Calls in every possible respect, don't you think a small part of him would rather have the big box office?

Artists want to engage the public. Well, most of them do. I guess someone like J. D. Salinger doesn't. But most forms of entertainment arise out of an individual's needs to express themselves. Every painting, every book, every song, even When a Stranger Calls, is meant to elicit a response. Newton's law is the hope of every artist: that for each action, there is an equal and audible reaction.

Back when I began my novel, it was posted on The Greenroom website along with a hit count, a running meter of the number of times someone had accessed each article. My ongoing mystery usually tallied about 10 views for each chapter. Meanwhile, nearly every other article accumulated at least 30 or 40 hits, with the really popular ones approaching 100. That's a humbling thing. It makes a person think they're not being heard.

Now, when I set up this blog, I debated whether or not to allow for comments. After all, the whole idea behind the blog was to get back in the habit of writing, and to share random musings with whomever cared to listen. I didn't expect to begin a discussion with anyone, so comments seemed like they'd be an unnecessary feature. And yet, I liked the idea that if anyone did read my words, they might be moved to say something in reply. A writer's vanity, if you will.

My very first post got a piece of spam as a comment.

So I put the filter system on, and left well enough alone. And every now and then, I'll go back and scan my previous articles. And they all have one thing in common: no comment.

Do bloggers actually care if anyone reads their stuff? They must. Otherwise, why bother? I can't quite wrap my head around the concept of writing something, posting it on the internet to be accessed by anyone with a computer and the right amount of curiosity, and not expecting that someone else will read it. The odds are slim, maybe, but if there's even a chance something will get read, then it probably will.

Nixon's made a lot of satirists very happy when he talked about being supported by a "silent majority". After all, if you're deluded enough, you can interpret silence any way you like. But after a few dozen of these posts, I'm beginning to have a tiny bit of sympathy for the man. When you put yourself out for the world's judgment, you do hope against hope that they're going to like you. And even if the really loud people tell you how much they hate your guts, that still means (a) you're having an impact, and (b) there are still people out there you can't hear, and they might feel differently.

I'm always surprised when someone like Jessica says they read the blog. Because so much of this process takes place in a vacuum. It would seem that there are countless bloggers who treat the internet as a diary, a place to offer whatever random neuron firings come their way. But I have this ongoing need to believe there's an audience out there. Because otherwise, it's just me and a keyboard, talking to myself.

It means the calls are coming from inside the blog.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: The Nightmare Before...No Particular Day

Corpse Bride came out the weekend I got married. At the time, it seemed like it might be an amusing diversion to go see it, like when my friend in high school Shelley Thompson dragged both her family and the groom's to see Father of the Bride. You know: "Hey, those fictional people on the screen are getting married...JUST LIKE US!" As it happens, our wedding party ended up settling for the actual wedding, which is just as well. Our wedding had the benefit of originality.

The film's official title -- Tim Burton's Corpse Bride -- announces the specific appeal of the movie to a brand-hungry audience. It's a return to the rampant imagination of the former animator, best glimpsed in the now-classics Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the year's second major showcase for the lost art of stop-motion animation. (Wallace & Gromit was the first, and with both snagging Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, stop-motion actually helped deny any CGI film a nod for the first time.) What's more, Burton has brought along several of his equally demented collaborators, including actor Johnny Depp and composer Danny Elfman. Attach all that to a story about a nervous man who accidentally marries a sweet but quite dead beauty, and it seems like a welcome return to form.

Unfortunately, the whole enterprise feels like a re-tread through familiar territory. A huge dance number involving skeletons looks like an outtake from Nightmare. A deceased pet evokes memories of Burton's charming short Frankenweenie. Even the most charming scene in the film, a reunion between shocked mortals and their dearly departed loved ones, reminded me of the relationship netween the living and the dead in Beetlejuice. Corpse Bride, as it turns out, is Tim Burton's Greatest Hits.

It's really a shame, because the craft that has gone into the movie is astonishing. Digital camera technology permits a fluid and flexible approach to cinematography, allowing sweeping shots never before possible. And fine mechanisms give the characters an array of expressions to equal any live actor. Corpse Bride flows with the grace of the most beautifully shot live-action film, and the craftsmen who made it deserve all the credit they can carry.

But they're working in service of a film that doesn't go anywhere. None of the characters in John August's screenplay actually does anything. Aside from a brief but charming scene by a piano, we never actually see Victor (Depp) and Victoria (voiced by Emily Watson) express the kind of affection for each other that makes their sacrifices hit home. Emily, the Corpse Bride (spoken for by Helena Bonham Carter) takes the blame for dragging Victor into the land of the dead, but it's not something she took steps to accomplish, but merely stumbled upon. Even the villain, vainglorious Lord Barkis (the dulcet tones of Richard E. Grant) merely backs into a situation that allows him to be evil. In fact, he creates his own undoing, rather than meeting his fate and the hands of any of our heroes.

Meanwhile, many precious moments are spent getting to know Victor and Victoria's hideous parents, as well as the many bizarre residents of the underworld. They get all the songs, too, so a significant portion of the film is spent with people we don't especially care about, talking about the characters we do.

A quick word on those songs. Elfman has clearly gotten ambitious, because they wander all over the place, steadfastly refusing to settle on a melody or a chorus. Combined with overly-clever lyrics (the dead sing of becoming "the remains of the day") and cluttered production that makes those same lyrics inaudible, the songs stop the film cold. I'm all for musicals, and I'll bet that Burton and Elfman could come up with a beaut. But this just feels like songs for the sake of having songs.

At 77 minutes, the movie never has the chance to get boring. But it just feels padded, like a 20-minute short that Burton and co-director Mike Johnson crammed with songs and characters to make it a feature. What's sad is that he probably could have used that time to get to know his characters. Instead, we get more dancing skeletons. It's a waste of a lot of talent, but even more, it's a waste of an opportunity. Corpse Bride is a artful movie, but not an especially engrossing one. With this particular toybox to play in, you can't help expect a lot more.

Never say that Tim Burton doesn't have a vision. It just never looked so narrow before.

Friday, February 03, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: To Live and Die in L.A.

Being a poor year for "important" movies, it was beginning to look like I might not manage to see a single Best Picture Oscar nominee prior to the actual announcements of the nominees. Then we picked up Walk the Line, and I felt like I had at least one under my belt. So when we actually added Good Night, and Good Luck over the weekend, I was feeling pretty good about fulfilling my moviegoer duties.

Of course, they didn't nominate Walk the Line.

Fortunately, we watched Crash the night before.

The fact that this movie came out last May and we're still talking about it is a real tribute to the marketing forces lined up on its behalf. At the time, I remember encountering a brilliant strategy to get the film in the public eye. The studio arranged to run a ten-minute segment from the film on TNT, right in the middle of a block of Law & Order. Talk about a captive audience. And it was interesting enough to keep the film in my mind, even as it staked its claim as a "serious" film, and thus a depressing way to spend two hours at my local cinema.

Having seen it, I realize that depressing is not the right assessment. Crash is a tragic film, as it deals with the way people are ruled by fear, and try to assuage it by lashing out at each other. It's not a particularly hopeful film. But it is invigorating, delving into a diverse collection of characters to see how people play off of each other, completely ignoring a host of similarities in favor of tiny differences.

Screenwriters Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (Haggis also directed) are working with a huge canvas. Drawing in people from a wide range of racial, economic and educational backgrounds, they throw them all into Los Angeles like bugs in a jar and see what happens. Time and time again, characters are pushed to the edge -- a mild black TV director, a sour white cop, a stressed Iraqi shopkeeper -- and consistently make bad decisions because they are so scared of losing what little they have. And yet those same people are also capable of showing great compassion and love. The ongoing shock of the film is that it accepts the premise that all people are basically good, and tries to illustrate the accumulation of forces that drive them to do horrible things to each other.

It is a huge cast, and a very talented one. Some stories seem to take prominence, but everyone gets a moment to look good and bad. It reminds me in many ways of Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling assembly of suffering characters and one weird night in the Valley. My initial feeling is that Magnolia is a better film, because in many ways that film is actually about the bizarre coincidences it chronicles. It's actually about the people, without the baggage of issues that Crash is forced to carry. But those issues actually make Crash a more admirable film, as it tries to find meaning and understanding in these random connections. So Crash actually occupies a strange middle ground between the character-based Magnolia and an issue-driven, multi-thread story like Traffic or Syriana.

I think Magnolia jumps to mind because of an interesting phenomenon I noticed when that film came out. Improvisers hated it. Relevance? Long-form improvisers work with a form called the Harold, a performance of anywhere from 25 minutes to an hour in which multiple stories interact with each other, often uniting at the end of the piece to form a cohesive whole. So I was baffled when improvisers started slamming Magnolia, a film which -- in my eyes -- used many Harold-like techniques. And like all things that don't actually matter that much, I let my surprise slip away into the back of my mind, until Crash came out and the same damn thing started happening all over again.

The thing is, there is a certain unreality to the proceedings in Crash. For example, a pair of roving commentators cum carjackers, played by Larenz Tate and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, accidentally run over a Korean man (who they identify as Chinese). The moment calls for a very quick decision on their part, but they spend a very unreasonable time debating the issue. It's distracting for a second, but I went with it, because it's not wise to take this movie too literally. The pressure has been turned up on all these characters, so I'm willing to give them room. Along the same lines, I didn't even have to think about questioning the logic of so many characters interacting with each other in very coincidental ways. I took it at face value. So why performers who rely on that kind of cleverness onstage reject it so immediately onscreen is not very clear to me.

If my tenure as a high school debater gave me nothing else, it gave me the ability to examine both sides of any issue. Crash is a film that presents its characters as capable of both good and bad, complicated individuals who are doing the best they can, and sometimes do the wrong thing while they're trying to do the right thing. Haggis and Moresco don't have answers. But they find wonderful new ways of looking at the questions. And that's why Crash is sticking with me. And why it's sticking with the Academy eight months after it came out.

A marketing campaign only has to do so much.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

RED ENVELOPES: Miss Page Will Not Perform Tonight

When casting the pivotal role of Vicky in The Red Shoes, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger stumbled into one of those fantastically perfect situations where you get just the right actor for the right role. Like Christopher Reeve in Superman, or Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, where the actor so thoroughly inhabits the part that the role and the actor become inseparable. So it was that Powell & Pressburger chanced upon a flame-haired ballerina from Scotland named Moira Shearer.

Shearer passed away on Tuesday, but if ever someone can be said to live on through her work, it's her indelible performance in The Red Shoes that immortalizes her. Very few films have even attempted to capture ballet on celluloid, but this movie manages to make the art form seem rapturous and inviting, even as the underlying theme would seem to warn you away forever.

The plot revolves around a tyrannical ballet company manager (Anton Walbrook, perpetually on the verge of exploding), who promotes Shearer as his new prima ballerina, preparing an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" as her showcase. While preparing for the piece's debut, she spends a great deal of time with the composer (a passable Marius Goring), and the two eventually fall in love. The ballet is a smash, and Shearer is acclaimed, but Walbrook is so jealous that he fires Goring. Shearer leaves to be with her new husband, but agrees to a return performance. Forced to choose between her lover and her love of dance, she cannot decide, and her red ballet slippers take over, driving her to her death (in much the manner of the shoes in the Andersen story).

It's one of the all-time bummer endings, and especially in light of the exuberant tone that has preceded it. The film effectively captures the atmosphere of a collection of artists, with their petty complaints and irrepressible camraderie. Thought we meet a host of important figures in the company (the ballet master, the conductor, the set designer, the departing star), we're not overwhelmed. The sense of family, with Walbrook as the stern father, is pre-eminent.

And then there's the ballet. Even today, studio executives would probably have a coronary at the mere thought of devoting at least a quarter of the running time of a movie to a complete ballet. But "The Red Shoes" is the very core of The Red Shoes, and it is fantastic. It's a unique creature of the cinema, with special effects and dreamy interludes impossible to accomplish on the stage. Critic Danny Peary argues that this takes you completely out of the story, but I think there's a very clear line between the ballet being performed by these characters and the ballet we're actually witnessing. I have no particular love of or appreciation for ballet, but I find this particular ballet fascinating.

Another big draw is the magnificent cinematography of Jack Cardiff. Filmed in lush three-strip technicolor, The Red Shoes has an incredibly rich palette, drawing you into both the stunning French Riviera locations and the decorated ballet stage. Along with another Cardiff masterpiece, the darker Black Narcissus (which is hovering near the top of my Netflix queue), this is a film that would be a sterling achievement for its' look alone.

In the center of it all is Shearer, who is every bit the spitfire her appearance suggests. We first meet her as Walbrook is giving her the brushoff. But she stands up to him, and charms her way into his company. Then, when we see her first real ballet performance, we see exactly what Walbrook does: a star in the making.

The ending is tragic, of course, and almost cruel. The two men in Vicky Page's life have put her in an impossible situation, but it hardly seems fair to make her pay for it with her life (except to punish them, so everybody loses). But it is Walbrook's memorable curtain speech that cues the waterworks. As he nearly shrieks each word, as though trying to command his own grief into submission, he introduces the heartrending sight of "The Red Shoes" with no ballerina at all. The characters in the film know the same thing that we do, that no one else could ever dance "The Red Shoes". Only Vicky Page. Only Moira Shearer.