Saturday, July 28, 2007

Film Review #113: Hairspray
Director: John Waters
Cast: Rikki Lake, Divine, Ruth Brown

Rikkie Lake was an Ithaca College freshman when she answered an ad for “fat girls who can dance,” landing the Tracy Turnblad part in the original 1988 film Hairspray. She didn’t know who John Waters was – the Baltimore director had her wait until she’d finished acting in his “cleanest” movie to watch Pink Flamingos and others. She hadn’t known the actor Divine – who taught her how to walk in high heels – was a man either.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots to like about Adam Shankman’s just released new Hairspray – Nikki Blonsky’s infectious Tracy, Queen Latifah’s arch Maybelle, the wonderful dance duet between Tracy’s mom and dad, Edna and Wilbur (John Travolta and Christopher Walken), Maybelle’s son, Seaweed J. Stubbs (the charismatic and talented Elijah Kelley), who teaches Tracy her best moves and romances her best friend Penny, Michelle Pfieffer’s deliciously wicked Velma. But it’s a good sign that it was hard to find the original last weekend in local rental shops because they were all signed out. Waters’ own film has more bite and sass, and single-handedly illustrates how some projects are straightened up and bleached out to market them to mainstream audiences.

The new film isn’t a re-make of the first so much as a screen version of the Broadway musical, itself a sanitized adaptation of the original. That stage musical – with a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that’s also used in the new movie – will mark its fifth anniversary running at the Neil Simon Theater in Manhattan in a couple weeks. The 1988 film has had several DVD editions as part of John Waters sets, and as a stand-alone in 2002 after the play opened. The new film was shot in Ontario to accommodate the kind of production numbers that come with a $75 million budget – Baltimore’s existing sound stages weren’t big enough. Waters’ film was shot on location in Baltimore and Allentown with a budget that made its grand finale scene one crane shot “really expensive.”

Here’s the story: it’s 1962 in Baltimore and Rikkie Lake’s 15-year-old Tracy Turnblad and her friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) are obsessed with the Corny Collins Show, a daily locally-produced live TV dance party. After dancing with Seaweed (Clayton Prince) and his sister L’il Inez during Special Ed classes (the practice of labeling and consigning black students, which Tracy sees and objects to, has been updated to a more generic “detention” in the new version), Tracy attracts the attention of Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard), star dancer and boyfriend of the spoiled Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick). Saddened that her new friends can’t join her on the Collins show, Tracy aims to integrate the show and wrest the Miss Auto Show crown from Amber despite Amber’s conniving mother Velma (Debbie Harry in a “one-wing” ‘do that Waters swears people “actually walked around in” back then) and father Franklin (Sonny Bono). Legendary R & B singer Ruth Brown (fresh from her Tony-winning Broadway turn in Black and Blue) plays Motormouth Maybelle. As the record shop owner and “Negro Day” deejay, she and L’il Inez take the governor hostage to force Tracy’s release from reform school. There’s a scrappy, mean race riot at Tilted Acres amusement park in which white counter-protestors menacingly shake rope nooses at the black kids and wallop the white kids with over-sized pocketbooks. A cattle-prod wielding psychiatrist (played by Waters) locks Penny up for dating Seaweed. The new film, although it actually looks like the original in many small details, considerably streamlines the plot digressions and characters. But all versions include a male actor portraying Tracy’s mother Edna as the stay-at-home laundress and all portray the happy ending of local TV’s integration via dancing teens.

Hairspray was Waters’ homage to Baltimore’s black music scene on the cusp of huge 1960s upheaval; Maybelle’s record shop walls are covered with posters advertising Little Anthony and the Imperials, Mary Wells, Etta James and others. Baltimore was a test market where record companies marketed songs by introducing new dances that went with them. The Buddy Deane Show, upon which the Corning Collins Show is based, was really picketed. Instead of expanding, it went off the air – because the parents of the show’s regular white dancers preferred that course to integration.

In the original 1988 film, Waters also openly recalled that the radical 60s abruptly flowered. In that context segregated record hops actually signify the end of an era. A reefer-smoking, Odetta-channeling, Allen Ginsburg-quoting beatnik (Pia Zadora) tells Tracy she’ll “never overcome with hair like that,” inspiring the laundress’ daughter to discard her fashionably mainstream, bleached, bouffant ‘do in favor of ironing her hair – something that her black reform school cohorts help Tracy to do. Catch phrases of those times appear as dialogue, as when Edna echoes Bob Dylan by sagely observing, “The times, they’re a-changin’ – something’s blowin’ in the wind.” Or L’il Inez, at first barred from the Corny Collins Show, strikes a pose and declaims – MLK-like – “I have a dream!”

Waters is fearless about offending in ways the newer versions can’t hope to match, though let’s concede that no one staging a 2002 musical could have Velma’s character hiding a bomb in her hair-do to waste the Miss Auto Show if Amber failed to win the crown. Waters’ “popular” teenagers are meaner and more aggressively sexual than any up to those in the next year’s satirical Heathers. Most telling, his white racists behave so badly they routinely amaze (and crack up) black characters who thought they’d seen everything. The new film has Edna follow the white kids to Maybelle’s record shop, where she’s tempted by Maybelle’s buffet table into an early truce. In Waters’ original film, it’s Penny’s mother, hysterical, paranoid, clutching her purse, begging for mercy and running away shrieking when the police cruiser she spies has a black officer behind the wheel. Imagine Queen Latifah’s solemn, candle-lit anthem (“I Know Where I’ve Been”) from the new film – which actually occurs in darkness well away from the chaos of the original scene – transplanted to Water’s film, and it’s clear how foreign such a scene is to Waters’ approach and how, by masquerading as a dignified portrayal of the civil rights movement, it actually masks how mean-spirited that movement’s opponents were.

In Waters’ film the music is the real deal too – from the ultra-cool, finger-snapping, syncopated Madison line dance, to the hilarious placement of Gene Pitney’s melodramatic “Town Without Pity,” to the steamy “Bunker Hill” whose lyrics encouraged some truly dirty dancing, to the Ikettes’ marvelous “I’m Blue.” There’s even a cameo of Toussaint McCall singing his “Nothing Takes the Place of You.” As likable as Shaiman and Wittman’s Broadway score may be, the original film will still ruin you for “in the style of” sound tracks.

And John Travolta can say what he likes about playing Edna straight. By sheer dint of repetition, he seems to have gotten a fair number of reviewers to line up behind him. But it’s nonsense. There is never a second in the new film that a man in drag isn’t playing Edna, though it’s an oddly pinched, straight version of drag. The real moment of truth occurs as Travolta’s lovely duet with Christopher Walken (“You’re Timeless to Me”) comes to rest – you’d know this were missing if Edna were a “real” woman – without the requisite closing kiss.

Instead of grasping what Waters was exploring with Edna Turnblad, Travolta and others have simply assumed that a gay filmmaker was indulging himself by including a drag queen in his story. Amazingly, there are stretches when Divine does fade into Tracy’s put-upon, working class, adoring but most unglamorous mother. On the bonus track, Waters reports that the pre-makeover Edna, standing among on-lookers at the edge of the on-street sets, was often taken as an on-looker herself by similarly house-dress-clad Baltimore women. Waters recalls Divine exclaiming, “Believe me, no one can call me a drag queen lookin’ like this!”

Long years of type-cast notoriety have obscured Divine’s marvelous performance. Actually seeing the original film excavates that performance, which is in turn magnified on-screen by Divine’s second role in the movie, playing the bombastic Arnold Hodgepodge – a straight role that, curiously, John Travolta did not seek to reprise. Seeing the original resurrects the question of why this particular mother in this cultural moment might be best played by a man, and the neighboring question of whether there’s any American woman who even could play Edna as “well” – though either of the two Roma divas (members of another maligned and theatrically defiant group) in Jasmine Dellal’s recent Gypsy Caravan might pull it off. That change that Edna senses “blowin’ in the wind” compares to another historical moment of upheaval, when the convention of men taking all stage roles disintegrated. Several years ago the film Stage Beauty gave us that moment, with all its attendant stress between enacted and inalienable “femininity” about which is the more “real.”

See for yourself.

An abbreviated version of this review appeared in the 7/26/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Film Review #112: Vera Cruz
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Sara Montiel, Cesar Romaro

It might be a throw-away line, just a comment on the riff-raff’s bad manners, spoken with characteristic understatement by former Louisiana plantation owner turned soldier-of-fortune Ben Trane (Gary Cooper). It’s 1866 – the US Civil War is over, but Mexico has its own revolution going on – and Trane has just ridden into a remote Mexican crossroads, tied up his horse and walked inside the cantina. Despite his nod and his “Howdy,” the men on the steps and those inside drinking and gambling – obviously all ex-pat American gunmen – just stare back at him. A second, more pointed “Howdy” brings another more pointedly belligerent silence.

Turning to the already nervous lone Mexican behind the bar, Trane asks, “What gets into Americans down here?”

One of the men has spotted two silver initials on the fancy saddle – “JE” for Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster) – so they know whose horse Trane is riding, and assume he’s done Erin harm. This tense stand-off with Erin’s gang follows a complex opening that has established the rivalry between Trane and Erin, in which both escape government troops and Trane twice smoothly thwarts Erin’s attempts to rob and kill him. He had also refrained from killing Erin, who soon shows up to return the favor. Over a drink, the two join forces to sell their services to the highest bidder. That might be rebel Benito Juarez’s General Ramirez (Morris Ankrum) or, as the opening scroll informs us, the French-backed “foreign emperor” Maximilian (George Macready) and his agent, Marquis Henri (Cesar Romero). A third path to riches quickly emerges in the form of a $3 million gold shipment hidden in the carriage of the Countess Marie (Denise Darcel) on her way to the port city of Vera Cruz. Her treachery is offset by the daring Juarista spy, Nina (Sara Montiel, in her first role in a US film – the only principal part played by a Mexican).

At 94 minutes, Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz moves crisply and vividly from one violent stand-off to the next, amid whirlwind betrayals, ambushes, trick riding and shooting, and an attempted gang rape.

In the years since this film was released in late 1954, Cooper’s remark about “what gets into Americans” has become hugely resonant, particularly as the “down here” has expanded, with obvious parallels to clandestine Latin American adventures and Middle East interventions – try watching David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999) alongside it, for starters.

Brooklyn’s BAM Rose Cinema recently screened Vera Cruz, along with five other films by this director, in a program entitled “Overlooked Aldrich.” Robert Aldrich, who died in 1983, is likely better known for films like the Mike Hammer mystery, Kiss Me Deadly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard. But the more minor Vera Cruz stands up as remarkably current in portraying volatile issues that now concern us, including conservative fears about our southern border and immigration, the nature and limits of American foreign intervention and profiteering, and our deep ambivalence over what distinguishes the aims and methods of “good” revolutions (like our own) from terrorism.

When Aldrich filmed Vera Cruz, the Eisenhower administration was grappling with similar questions as it tried to formulate policy for the correctly anticipated wave of Latin American revolutions. While setting this film in 1866 during Mexico’s war for independence enabled Aldrich to use the Western as a template, the film’s title allowed him to evoke a more recent Mexican upheaval that began in 1910 with the overthrow of dictator Porofirio Diaz and involved a protracted struggle among factions. The movie’s characters, after all, never reach the port of Vera Cruz. But mid-1950s audiences would recall that US Marines occupied Vera Cruz for six months in 1914 to protect US oil drilling interests in nearby Tampico, making this film an easily grasped parable. The film’s exploration of whether the Mexican rebels are “savage” or “civilized” – General Ramirez has several exchanges with Trane and Erin about this – taps into still timely powerful stereotypes. So does the script’s choice of the Black former Union officer, Ballard, to rescue Nina from the gang rape.

In Ben Trane and Joe Erin, Aldrich gave us well-delineated, three-dimensional hero and anti-hero. The film’s brilliance lies in their uneasy relationship. Despite their many antagonisms, each is deeply drawn to the other, and they work intuitively well together under fire. Though they’re both in it for the money, Trane never shares Erin’s pleasure in cruelty – his unsettling grin and emotional outbursts show up in later films by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, who both admired Vera Cruz – yet Trane weeps after killing him. Further, Trane the former slave-holder – this complex character initially most identifies with the emperor’s court, which includes a liveried Black slave at a ball – gains respect for the Juaristas only after they meet a series of tests that look an awfully lot like benchmarks.

US fire-power has advanced beyond the Winchester repeating rifle, but Trane’s now-prophetic question is still on the table.

This review appeared in the 7/19/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Film Review #111: Days of Glory (Indigènes)
Director: Rachid Bouchareb
Cast: Jamel Debbouze, Samy Naceri, Roschdy Zem, Sami Bouajila, Bernard Blancan

It’s 1944, and French troops push toward Alsace. Sgt. Roger Martinez (Bernard Blancan), commanding a company of North African recruits, is having a smoke. Martinez is a pied noir – literally, “black foot” – born in Algeria of a French settler father. His orderly, Saïd (Jamel Debbouze), asks him if he misses his family. After Martinez answers yes, he explodes in anger, realizing the orderly has spoken in Arabic and he, lulled by a quiet moment, never imagining such a test from this soft-eyed, guileless boy, has answered in kind. Finding a photo of Martinez’s mother tucked in a book, Saïd has guessed that Martinez – who now roars, “Never mention this again!” – is “passing” as white.

If you had a doubt that we’re in the midst of a bandwagon-level World War II revival, recent news that Spike Lee will direct a stage revival of Stalag 17 – a 1953 Billy Wilder film starring William Holden – on Broadway next year should seal the case. Whatever spin Lee puts on the German prison camp story, Days of Glory informs us that struggles within the military over racism weren’t confined to US forces as the Allies fought Fascism. And as Algeria’s official entry in the 2006 Oscars, Days of Glory was a finalist for Best Foreign Film.

Originally titled Indigènes – French for “natives” and not complimentary – Days of Glory recounts how 500,000 troops recruited from French colonies in Africa – primarily Algerian but also Moroccans and Senegalese – helped liberate France and often served as advance for the regular French troops. The film follows them from their home villages through training, to Italy, the Rhone Valley, the liberation of the French city of Marseilles to cheering crowds, and the march north into the Vosges Valley in bitter winter – the Africans wore sandals – and into a tiny Alsatian hamlet. In an early scene they are sent up an open rocky hill to provoke the Germans into showing themselves. Terrified like frightened farm-boys the world over, they were shot from behind if they turned around, just as some were shot when the war ended and they protested their officers’ attempts to dismiss them without pay. In 1959, the year that director Rachid Bouchareb was born in Paris to Algerian parents, the French government froze the pensions of these veterans following Algerian independence. France passed legislation to redress this in 2001 but neglected to actually allocate funds.

Bouchareb worked on this project, his fourth feature, for over a decade. Members of his family and those of many of the cast fought in World War II for the French and then against them in Algeria’s war for independence. Since the history of the African recruits has been largely left out of official accounts, Bouchareb researched his film by traveling to Africa and interviewing surviving veterans as well as people still living in the French cities liberated by African troops. Bouchareb says in the DVD’s making-of bonus (released in mid-June) that previously it was simply not possible to finance a war film with a largely Arab cast. Jamel Debbouze, a comic film star in his first dramatic role, is a co-producer. Morocco also helped finance the film, providing military troops for extras and training the cast in maneuvers. Bouchareb’s animated short, The Colonial Friend, about Senegalese soldiers in World War II, which has often screened at festivals with his 2001 feature, Little Senegal in festivals, is also on this DVD.

Besides Saïd, there’s the Moroccan Berber Yassir (Samy Anceri) – a goumier or mercenary soldier. He’s there for the money and easily robs the dead, but cares tenderly for his brother Larbi (Assaad Bouab) and wails when he dies in the frozen woods.

Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) falls in love with the French woman Irène during Marseilles’ liberation, and she with him. They both write for months and the army intercepts both their mail, thwarting their efforts to contact each other – until each feels heartbroken and bitter, believing they’ve been used by the other.

Abdelkader (Sami Bouajila) hopes to make corporal and rise on his merit. He’s a natural leader who galvanizes and exhorts the men when they are fearful, breaks up fights, and is the lone survivor six decades later in a visit to the cemetery where the rest lie buried. Martinez' early advice to him on leading men - when you don't know what to do, light a cigarette to buy some time - is surprsingly effective for building tension over several repetitions, and an example of Bouchareb's mastery of small details.

Anti-epic in scope, Days of Glory sticks to its five human stories, only signaling changes of geography with a shadow passing over the landscape from an aerial shot. Personal performances make this film and rightfully earned the five principals an unusual group award in Best Actor category at Cannes in 2006. After seeing Days of Glory, France’s then-President Jacques Chirac was so moved that he declared the Algerian pensions reinstated – at an estimated cost of $190 million. Such cinematic efficacy must make Michael Moore green with envy.

This review appeared in the 7/12/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of recent films that did not open in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Film Review #110: Longford
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis, Lindsay Duncan

Given the unattractiveness of the principal characters and the unwillingness of the filmmakers to turn this story in Saw Brittania - for reasons that will become clear - it’s a wonder we can watch it on this side of the pond at all. Despite a US screening at Sundance in January, this uncommonly fine small docudrama has not gone the theatrical route. Instead, originally made for British TV’s Channel 4 where it premiered last October, Longford first broadcast here on HBO in February and still occasionally airs (next on July 10th, for example).

Now it makes the radar via rental venues. As Frank Pakenham, the prison reformer, British MP and seventh Lord Longford, actor Jim Broadbent stares owlishly from the stark black and white DVD cover, a wreath of silvery hair askew, while Samantha Morton, as the serial murderess Myra Hindley, gazes away, her profile wreathed in cigarette smoke. Separating them, a field of inky black surrounds – almost swamps – the single word title in white. Like everything about this well-wrought film, the DVD cover’s graphic design is a study in confident understatement, dramatic structure and clarity.

Longford relates the lengthy though intermittant relationship between a deeply spiritual patrician lawyer, committed to prison reform and rehabilitation, and Myra Hindley, who lured five children into her car and handed them over for violation and murder to her lover Ian Brady (an icily, mesmerizingly malicious Andy Serkis, Gollum in Lord of the Rings). When Myra’s sister’s boyfriend turned them in – apparently they sought to recruit him – their arrests led to three graves outside Manchester, the sensational 1965 trial and subsequent life terms.

Some years later, in a bizarre apparent attempt to one-up each other from separate prisons, each confessed to two more murders. Longford includes clips of archival TV coverage of police and volunteers searching the moors’ bleak expanse, plus clips of news comments from two victims’ parents and splices of TV personality David Frost interviewing Longford. The “Moors murder case” still retains its hold on the British public – this is the second film project prompted by Longford’s 2001 death and Myra Hindley’s the next year.

In sentencing Myra, the judge stated he believed that she had come under Brady’s corrupting influence. This was one of Longford’s key beliefs too in his often derided campaign to secure her parole – despite a damning audiotape secretly made by Brady during one of the prolonged murders, on which Hindley’s voice instead suggests little reluctance or hesitation. Lesser filmmakers would put this tape to lurid use. Instead, Hooper and Morgan structure a film in which key turning points occur as something is overheard or confessed that, as Hooper says, “tests the idea of forgiveness utterly to its breaking point.”

The story is framed by a 1987 radio interview that Longford, a Catholic convert, gave about a book he wrote about saints – later the same year as Brady and Hindley’s additional revelations, and after Myra has dismissed Longford – in which an angry caller demands to know whether Longford now regrets supporting Myra. The main narrative occurs in the long pause before his answer.

This begins with Longford’s first visit to Hindley, at her request – he had visited prisoners since the 1930s, including killers – and covers his years of advocacy, his intellectually accomplished family’s consternation, his foray into fighting pornography as a substitute cause (it doesn’t go far enough to call this wry, wholly effective section comic relief), his wife’s meticulously considered change of heart and her own visit to Myra, and Longford’s anguished decision to finally listen to that cassette tape, which he received anonymously and kept in his desk drawer for years.

Similarly to the oblique manner in which Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart approaches the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading, Hooper and Morgan show us Longford’s face as he listens to that cassette, rather than what he hears. Then, fade back to that radio show and Longford’s answer to the caller. Quick cut again to Myra’s prison dayroom, where she sits beside the radio, smoking, and hears him say that forgiving her has “proven difficult.”

These shifts are hugely effective in conveying Longford’s struggle. He is often shot with a hand-held camera against an open blue sky, while Myra almost always – with two vivid exceptions – appears in tight, static shots that express the confinement of both her circumstances and interior life.

Though a minor key film, Longford comes from a majorly popular cinematic team. Peter Morgan also wrote The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and the forthcoming movie of his own play, Frost/Nixon. All these works argue that even singular grand figures are best known via relationship. Tom Hooper, now filming John Adams for PBS, gave us the intrigue of PBS’ Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness and Elizabeth I, both with Helen Mirren. The DVD has some extras including a straightforward but informative commentary track with Hooper and Morgan together. If good and evil interest you at all, let this film into your house.

This review appears in the 7/5/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.