Saturday, September 26, 2009

Fame

Fame [PG]
Grade: D
Cast: Naturi Naughton, Kay Panabaker, Anna Maria Perez de Tagle, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mulally, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles S. Dutton, Debbie Allen
Director: Kevin Tancharoen

Was one Fame not enough? Oh, sing the answer in one voice, please. I must admit to being derelict in my film reviewing duties by never having seen the 1980 original. It doesn’t really jump out on my must-see old movies list alongside Citizen Kane and Jules and Jim.

I’ll concede there might be films worth remaking. But most films worth re-introducing to a new generation would be unthinkable to remake. No one would touch Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven or Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Even if you replicated the scenes impressively, there is little chance to recreate the artistic signature. And there lies the dilemma of the remake.

In practice, remakes need fungibility and forgettability. By the former, I mean they must have some form of cultural currency that is interchangeable across generations. By the latter, I mean the original must be successful enough to recognize but forgettable enough to blur inevitable comparisons, lest the new version be found wanting. However these qualities usually mean we’re not working with material touched by a specifying greatness. Even to think a film is fit to remake suggests it is either flexible or disposable or both, and it is a little insulting.

Fame’s reaching-for-the-stars storyline certainly has potential for cross-generational appeal. And the earlier film would not be deemed so sacred as to be untouchable or unapproachable. For that reason one might dream of a good ,daring remake to this material, but this isn’t it.

We all know the basic idea of Fame, a film about the New York School for Performing Arts. They want to live forever. They want to know how to fly (High!). They live. They love. They learn. They dance, and sing, and act, and, er, rap. Some win. Some fail.

Early in the film, a voice teacher criticizes a student for singing a song but not feeling it. Likewise, Fame lines up the notes but not the feeling. There’s the student with the demanding parents. And the one with fuddy-duddy parents. And the other one with demanding parents. And the working class one. And the kid with the rage. And the kid from Iowa. Because no one actually lives in Iowa. It’s only kept around as a constructed other for New York and LA so that bumpkin characters can have someplace to come from. We dip into a little of each, but Fame only generates poignancy by resorting to the most over-the-top things – a quick suicide attempt or a teacher’s crushing stories of showbiz failures past.

In a film throwing performances at you, there have to be a few that work. Most of them involve the silk-voiced Naturi Naughton and her singing. And there are bits and pieces of art direction, particularly a trippy Halloween ball thrown by creative students. That said, I wonder if directors have lost the ability or ambition to film sweeping musical numbers. If you watch old musicals, they mainly cut only when Cyd Charisse stumbled in her four-inch heels. These are chopped up and stitched together pretty heavily. We call that cheating.

The great leap for Fame is to find reason to take another bow in this age. In 1980, the sweat-behind the starshine idea might have seemed fresh. Since then, the concept has been adopted into numerous television shows. American Idol is in a sense a live version with real people and slicker packaging. Perhaps that’s why the filmmakers bet on it. But where this idea once might have been novel, these shows have made it old hat by now, and spoiled us on access to the real thing. The view backstage no longer lures only a movie camera.

The Informant!

The Informant[R]
Grade: C
Cast: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula
Director: Stephen Soderbergh

There are few actors who I consistently dislike, but Matt Damon is among them.

He has an unnatural and disruptive screen presence. He pings and pongs between awkward and inanimate. As a result, he struggles his way into characters with murky histories – in the case of Jason Bourne, no history whatsoever. He is everyone and no one – America’s Nowhere Man.

It is fortunate for The Informant! that it needs a Nowhere Man in its lead. Damon’s discomforting instinct fits a man who is never comfortable in his own skin. The motivations for his “heroic” actions – blowing the whistle on scandal-plagued agribusiness giant Archers Daniels Midland – start shady and become opaque and absurd. Like a good host chatting with everyone and revealing nothing, he treats us to a fascinatingly cornfed voiceover of his life, filled with comic observations on fishing and embezzlement. Soon we will see that these are filled with fictions. The Informant in this case is not a reliable informer.

In fact, The Informant is that rare thing – a film that might have a more entertaining voiceover than what’s actually on screen. Damon is a better reader than believable emoter, and its plot is a happy-go-lucky thriller on par with (sigh) watching corn grow. Admirably, it is a film with a mission. It takes the canonizing assumptions of a whistleblower movie – the unassailable virtue of the whistler – and stands them on their head. The Informant! suggests a sort of virtuous emptiness at the heart of the American character. A sophisticated take. So why did I leave the theater rubbing my forehead?

That’s sort of the rub. So far this year, Soderbergh has stylishly painted over a weak and pretentious script (The Girlfriend Experience) and underdirected an interesting one. This is Erin Brockovich style Soderbergh – laying back and letting the story do the talking. But Brokovich had an all-the-marbles do-gooder plot and star power at its heart. Not here. What directing ideas there are a little too cutesy--- the ancient computer fonts, the Marvin Hamlisch score. Soderbergh mistakes irony for style.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

9

9 [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly
Director: Shane Acker

Why does every anime-inspired American sci-fi animation film feel like someone has watched too much Star Wars?

Am I wrong? The new film 9 shows repeated scenes of little cloth people escaping giant fireballs exploding through cylinders. It even has a rising spirits in the firelight ending pulled right from Return of the Jedi. The only thing missing is the Ewok song. I won’t pretend to say that it was missed.

The Battle of Terra was the first to go with the Star Wars thing, yanking its space battle plot quite clearly from the original Lucas favorite. With its stitched-up, fiber-suited mini robots, 9 is less The Battle of Terra than The Battle of Cloth World. That’s a reference lost on those that haven’t reached the age of 30.

9 is a superb looking anime. I mean superb. From the microscope eyes to the zippers on the robots’ stomachs, the detail is staggering. The setting is a near-perfectly clouded apocalyptic junkyard of a planet – like Wall-E without the cheer.

It’s as if creator Shane Acker has put too much thought into the image and not enough into the story. It overuses apocalyptic military-industrial complex clich├ęs that barely stitch it together. A group of nefarious war-making machines have killed off mankind and are on the verge of finishing off our little cloth friends. Only nine or so of our robot Raggedy Anns and Andies are left to fight, led by a robot called 9.

The imagery of 9 will earn it fans. And it has some brilliant little action sequences. But as chase scene piles on chase scene, and tired plot points fail to develop, it becomes tougher and tougher to sit through. It’s a film to admire in ways, and a filmmaker to be excited about. But like it’s story, that remains for a future time.

Extract

Let’s all take a moment and appreciate Jason Bateman.

He’s one child star that didn’t go all Todd Bridges on us. Instead, he kept fighting, hooked onto a hugely influential sitcom (Arrested Development), and now has carved out a burgeoning movie career in Juno etc. as a dependable wisecracker.

For being in the spotlight so long, it’s strange that he would have such a gift for onscreen Everymanhood. But it’s hard to argue the evidence. His vulnerable sarcasm is the only thing that keeps afloat Mike Judge;s otherwise soggy Extract. It’s not quite enough to save the movie, it at least sticks the finger in the dyke.

Bateman’s priceless reactions are refreshment in a film that is otherwise draining.. Joel, the owner of an extract manufacturer ready to sell to Big Food, runs thorugh his share of professional and domestic mayhem. Whethergetting punched out by a social reprobate or going on tor hiring pool boys to seduce his distant wife, the film has plenty of mayhem.

Judge fills out the rest of the time with the “quirky” characters that come and go from the factory. Mainly they seem like the people whose auditions were rejected from other Mike Judge projects – some blue-hairs from King of the Hill, a stoned, not-too-smart rocker for Beavis and Butthead, etc. Say this for Judge, he can write a funny line for anybody. But he forgets to make us care a whit about them.

For a film with such a cynical view of its characters (not one ever makes the right choice.), it completely wimps out and goes sweet at the end. It looks like he might hit the road with Milan Kunis’ gravelly thief on a multi-state criminal spree. Nooooo. Instead he goes back to the factory, makes amends, and starts lining up the inexplicable and undeserved soft landing.