Friday, May 26, 2006

Film Review #44: KINKY BOOTS (2005) *** Director: Julian Jarrold *** Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Joel Edgerton, Sarah-Jane Potts *** Since its U.S. opening last month, Kinky Boots has fallen into place as the latest “naughty” British comedy based on sexual innuendo among the strait-laced. It follows The Full Monty, Mrs. Henderson Presents and Calendar Girls, even sharing a scriptwriter and producers with the latter. Setting this film in a shoe factory – with warmly leather-hued, circling close-ups of the assembly line comprising the opening title sequence – probably encouraged complaints that Kinky Boots is just another knock-off. Kinky Boots is only a song or two shy of a full-fledged musical, a genre that depends upon not straying too far from type or complicating what happens between songs. *** It’s not hard to detect the outlines of type in this story. A fourth-generation cobbler so intimate with his craft that he carries a set of tools in his jacket, Charley Price (Joel Edgerton) – lacking self-knowledge – instead sets out for London with his social-climbing fiancé Nicola. This will be a mistake of rash youth. When Charley’s father dies, he’s soon back in Northampton. Price & Sons shoe factory is failing. One night, disheartened and drunk, he encounters punks harassing a towering Black drag queen. He’s knocked flat and Lola (the always-welcome Chiwetel Ejiofor) stashes him in her dressing room till he comes to. From backstage, he sees part of Lola’s show. It is quite good. Back home after this glimpse of the strange, he must start firing workers. With each he demurs, “What can I do?” Then one answers him, “Change the product.” This would be Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts, familiar from TV work on NYPD Blue and Six Feet Under). Destined from that moment to replace the ill-suited fiancé, Lauren visits the drag club with Charley. Soon, tart-tongued Lola is designing stiletto boots “the color of sex” for Price & Sons’ new collection, which must make a splash at the annual international show in Milan. Ever since Mickey and Judy, saving the farm has involved performing to thunderous applause in the nick of time, so Milan means getting Lola and her back-up group onto the runway. En route, Charley discovers his own niche still lays in his own back yard. *** In Kinky Boots, the pot-holes in this road, not surprisingly, consist of getting Lola onto that factory floor with the blue-collar workers, where the drag queen tangles with the likes of shoemaker Don and his buddies. With foresight years ago, Lola’s father supplied boxing lessons. So Lola can take care of herself and has moved on to other tests of “real” manhood. As a kind of chorus, nearly every woman in Kinky Boots – even Lola’s elderly provincial landlady – seems unfazed by Lola’s presence, even affectionate. Don’s only comrade among them – ironic, since she fancies herself superior – is that rashly chosen fiancé. This doesn’t mean that women are broader-minded. Au contraire, here it signals that this is a restore-and-maintain story, not a tear-down-and-start-over story. Remember, only one gay person in Kinky Boots is around long enough to even have a name, much less a sex life or partner. *** Kinky Boots has four song and dance numbers. Naturally they star Lola. Among his increasingly apparent myriad talents, the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor sings and dances with great command. (Happily, he’s got five more films coming this year and next.) The opening number is a hummer days afterward: “I want to be eee-ville! I want to be bad!” Tap tap tap, synchronized dip, stride, twirl and grind, great eyebrow work and that deep melodic voice to which you pay sudden attention each time. *** The production and performance values for Ejiofor’s musical numbers are high. In this regard, a related film like The Full Monty seems sloppy, emphasizing raucous abandon over musical performance. Further, this film’s musical score evokes emotions any audience can connect with, as when Charley switches on the lights at Price & Sons after his father’s funeral – a moment flooded unexpectedly with Nina Simone’s voice, a dirge powerful as an undertow. Or, the torch-song instrumental that backs Lola as she impudently snakes across the factory floor to Don’s lap the first day there, setting off a firestorm of wordless, hilarious, epic struggles that cross his face. *** Director Julian Jarrold, whose first feature-length film this is after some Emmy-nominated TV work for the BBC, seems to use this story as a visual meditation upon the seductions and limits of assembly-line sameness. Some of DP Eigil Bryld’s most beautiful shots linger on machines turning leather into shoes. Charley’s dismissals of some workers are shot as a series of interchangeable conversations, suddenly derailed by Lauren’s out-of-place advice. The choreography of Lola’s production numbers is explicitly structured upon satiric repetition and mirroring of patterned movements. Lola has knowingly modeled her own persona on others (including movie incarnations, from the Lola poster on her wall). *** In contrast, Charley starts out lumpy-faced, with a hang-dog air and scruffy haircut. Many turning points depend on his clumsiness – actually his failure to live up to type. He discovers key financial papers by spilling coffee on his desk. His factory workers fill in crucial gaps after he’s fumbled with his office speaker and left it on. He stumbles on the runway in Milan. Little by little, Charley’s looks and finesse improve. When he tells that developer his factory’s not for sale, it’s like turning a lens just slightly to bring him into focus. And somehow, in the scene right after he and Lauren have kissed – did Charley duck into some Italian salon for a make-over? *** The New York Times’ Stephen Holden does not like this film but usefully commented that the movie drag queen, “flamboyantly confrontational but tenderhearted . . . arrives just in time to be the 21st-century replacement for that poignant outcast of an earlier era, the whore with a heart of gold.” He cites Gone With The Wind’s Belle Watling – a comparison Lola would like for its brush with grandeur. Just go in with your eyes open. *** This review was written for, where it appeared 5/26/06.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Film Review #43 – “On FRIENDS WITH MONEY” *** Writer/director Nicole Holofcener *** Cast: Jennifer Anniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand *** B+ *** There is a scene midway through Nicole Holofcener’s FRIENDS WITH MONEY where the wildly affluent and moderately ditzy Franny (Joan Cusack) discusses her long-time younger friend Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) with her husband as they undress for bed after a dinner out with friends. Franny and her husband are planning a gift of $2 million to their toddler’s daycare center, while Olivia, having quit her job as a high school teacher, has started cleaning houses. Franny’s helped Olivia out financially before – she’ll resist lending her money again, but she will fix her up romantically with a personal trainer who turns out to be a jerk. Olivia does just fine in both the money and man departments by closing fade-out, and turns out to be a fine friend in some old-fashioned ways that matter. But first, Franny’s husband wonders aloud if the two women would be friends at all if they met now. Thinking a moment, Franny decides, “Probably not.” *** Ostensibly FRIENDS WITH MONEY is about the anxieties that money can produce among intimate friends in a highly mobile society. Holofcener recently told the Washington Post that creeping income disparities in her own circle of friends and family had eventually caused such mischief that she found herself “ashamed when I cared, ashamed when I was materialistic, jealous when I didn’t have it, guilty when I did.” *** Her film presents a quartet of West Coast women played by Anniston and Cusack, along with Catherine Keener (a screenwriter whose marriage to her work partner falls apart) and Frances McDormand (a fashion designer with an enormously gentle, appealing husband whom nearly every other character insists must be gay – adding an astute, efficient subtext to the film about the maddening, contradictory burdens even progressive women put on men). *** Each of Holofcener’s feature films has used some issue of current, representative social mores as a frame on which to hang a story about relationships among women. In 2002 her LOVELY AND AMAZING focused on the toll of women’s pervasive discomfort with their bodies (or some might say, on contemporary narcissism). Her first film, WALKING AND TALKING(1996), tackled the strain that occurs for life-long best friends when one gets happily engaged and the other’s problems with men persist. Between films, she’s worked as a television writer and director on what could be called similar fictional commentaries on contemporary life: HBO’s SEX AND THE CITY and SIX FEET UNDER, and WB’s GILMORE GIRLS. *** But Holofcener’s films really wear their social issues like a loose garment. For good or ill, she is primarily a story-teller of personal lives. *** The strength of Holofcener’s story-telling resides in choreographing the critical junctures in her often quirky characters’ relationships. FRIENDS WITH MONEY manages to juggle four women’s relationship issues with their partners and each other through a series of vignettes about their non-earth-shattering but personally significant crises. *** Olivia’s apparent crisis is just the dramatic device to get things rolling. Like the sleep-walking woman on the edge of the cliff in an old melodrama, somehow she fails to grasp the danger of her stint as a maid that her friends – and even Franny’s Mexican maid – see it for. Not that Olivia’s a fool. Her reassuring answer to the client who’s embarrassed his house is so messy – “That’s what I’m here for” – suggests that she probably was patient with those high school students. Olivia often takes the time to think before she answers, a sign of more self-possession than her friends give her credit for. And in a film whose aesthetic depends so heavily on the human face, you know something is really wrong when she comments about the jerky boyfriend that the “sex is fun but he doesn’t look at me.” Holofcener’s filmmaking proceeds by small, carefully crafted and very often rich, purely visual moments. This signifies both her considerable craft and her major challenge. *** Catherine Keener’s been in all three Holofcener features and it’s a pleasure to re-watch the films just to see her decade’s growth as an actor. Holofcener’s casts indicate that from the start, actors who have turned out to be very good have loved working with her. Why would this be so? FRIENDS WITH MONEY offers us spectacularly good acting among all its principals that is quintessentially screen acting. In that way it reminds me a bit of Rodrigo Garcia’s work. His NINE LIVES (2005), along with his previous two films (TEN TINY LOVE STORIES in 2001 and THINGS YOU CAN TELL JUST BY LOOKING AT HER in 2000) and his directing work – actually much like Holofcener’s – on several HBO series, work more radically by stringing together anthologies of discrete, short episodes. Like him, Holofcener has a dazzling ability to create finely wrought, up-close scenes – sometimes scenes that go a great distance forward on physical acting, though she’s no slouch with dialogue. Screen actors love this chance to do close work with director and camera; when it clicks it can sometimes approach the rare cinematic equivalent of what stage actors describe as that electric exchange with a live audience. *** Such close work can be risky. Viewers and critics alike often prefer it in small doses. For example, director Amos Gitae did work like this in his new FREE ZONE's opening scene, with that ten minute close-up of Natalie Portman weeping silently against the soundtrack’s Israeli song. But whole films built on such close work require an unaccustomed attention that can be exhausting and translate to complaints of boredom, demands for editing and wishes for “larger” aims – that is, more action, more dialogue, greater consequences, and different cinematography. Indeed, if critics have complained about Holofcener’s work – even while appreciating her extraordinary skill with actors – it’s been to wish she were more “adventurous,” less “modest.” *** Here in upstate New York, FRIENDS WITH MONEY straddles a line, screening simultaneously at both the mall multiplex and at a locally-owned small art cinema just off-campus. I’m reminded of a birthday card I saw recently: on the cover there’s a girl with candles on her cake, inside the message, “Dream bigger.” Tighter, deeper, both more focused and generous than her first two films, FRIENDS WITH MONEY is the film I think we’ll look back on as that moment when Holofcener did just that. *** This review was written for, where it appeared 5/11/06.