Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Good Old-Fashioned Sex, Violence -- and Tap Dancing

Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! may be the best-looking dumb movie ever made. As I write this I still haven’t been able to sit through the whole frustrating, mind-numbing thing. It’s rare that a picture this visually rich, featuring imagery this magical and romantic, should get such a negative reaction out of me; but as drop-dead gorgeous as Moulin Rouge! is -- that’s how braindead it is. You may never see another picture that has this little going on in what passes for its mind. Even its Love Story, derived from Puccini, is insipid.

I don’t think that I’d mind the use of modern music if the songs were original... but Luhrmann populated his soundtrack with Standards. It’s Rogers and Hammerstein and Elton John and The Beatles and murgatroid knows who else. It’s beyond jarring -- it’s flat-out annoying. I must say that Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor acquit themselves as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Kidman, whom I used to dismiss as just being the latest bit of fluff, actually seems to be kind of a sport. With this and The Golden Compass she’s almost made me forget about her abysmal taste in men. Jim Broadbent seems to turn in an effectively creepy performance -- until you realize that it consists of several pounds of make-up and sticking his face all the way in to a fish-eye lens. 

Bereft of any kind of emotional weight or through-line musically, stylistically, thematically or any other kind of -ly you can think of, Moulin Rouge! (even the exclamation point in the title is a sign of its excess) is just a big, loud boring mess. Only in terms of its ambition, I think that it has a lot in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s very-nearly-as-insipid One From the Heart. The difference is that the latter picture, for all of its thematic shallowness, is a work of intelligence and talent that’s well worth watching. 

Meanwhile, Agent Double-Oh-Seven is faring rather better of late. After the best-forgotten (and ever so forgettable) Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale -- one of the best in the series -- finally gets the sequel it deserves with Skyfall.

This is very much an oddball and out-of-the-way Bond offering, and much as I liked it, I wouldn’t want more than one Bond picture to follow this path. Fortunately, I don’t think any future Bonds can pattern themselves along the lines of this one, as it closes down Dame Judi Dench’s era as “M” while thoroughly incinerating the setting of Bond’s origins that it’s only just created!

Let’s not mince words here: this outing is personal in scale and is about nothing more or less than Bond’s loss, through apocalyptic means, of the only Mother he’s ever known. In that respect I found it both cathartic and pretty hard to take. I did not see the ending coming, as I hadn’t seen the end coming in my own personal story of matriarchal loss. That it manages to accomplish something so intimate (really astonishingly intimate for a James Bond movie fer crine out loud) and still manages to deliver everything that we normally expect from the series (including a terrif opening credits sequence that sets us up for what’s to follow) makes this one a candidate for greatness. Daniel Craig, whom I respect in all other ways, has been mouthing off of late about how he hates being James Bond and wants out of his contract. If we’d been given another Quantum of Solace, that might have happened. Thankfully for fans, Skyfall has assured us that Craig won’t be singing “O Freedom!” anytime soon.

Earlier in the winter, I was disappointed by The Iron Monkey, a somewhat over-praised martial arts adventure from the great action choreographer (but not-so-great director) Yuen Wo Ping. The makings of a classic are here, all right -- but the action is just ridiculously under-cranked, to the point where it doesn’t look so much like martial arts as it does a Keystone Kops comedy. Yip! Hah! Hoo! Hee! Hah! This is the sort of thing that makes the genre a joke to people who’ve never seen it done better. 

UNGOWA!! I don’t think I’d ever seen the original 1932 Tarzan, The Ape Man with Johnny Weismuller -- and I’m glad that I didn’t when I was an impressionable, over-sensitive little kid! GOOD FLAMIN', FLIPPIN' LORD this pre-code picture would have given me screaming nightmares for life! Near the end of the picture, Jane and her Dad and the whole expedition are captured by pygmies (who are played by midgets in stark blackface, which is danged scary enough for starters)… and what happens to them in that pygmy village makes the Universal horror movies of the time look like a sweet romp in Candy Land. 

I guess there’s a reason why this screen Tarzan became the definitive one despite its playing fast and loose with Edgar Rice Burroughs... as directed by W.S. Van Dyke, I’d have to say that it’s pretty vigorous, sensual filmmaking, and it fiercely holds your attention even when it’s practically beating you over the head with its stupidity. On the other hand, it’s pretty canny about human nature. There’s an Exact Moment in the picture when Jane and Tarzan first hop into the proverbial sack of leaves and make wild jungle sexing -- and without a single line of dialogue, without shoving it in your face, the filmmakers never leave you in any doubt as to when that moment occurs. This is about ten million times more erotic than Bo Derek flailing about in the tall grass with her top (and bottom) off.

Watching 1939’s Babes in Arms you’d be forgiven to believe that Judy Garland really, truly had a heartthrob on for Mickey Rooney. Maybe she did. But did Rooney ever have a heartthrob for anyone but himself? Babes in Arms is the original “Let’s Put On a Show!” musical, and it showcases Rooney and Garland as two almost off-the-charts talented kids... but Garland’s vulnerable side is there like an open wound, whereas Rooney is just troupin’ baby, just hitting his marks and flashing that grin and being that all-American kid that he was playing. As a Busby Berkley musical it’s pretty low-key until the very end... and then the stops come out, and somehow a show put on by a gang of kids in a barn becomes a Hollywood Extravaganza worthy of... well, Busby Berkley. As far as this picture is concerned, it’s a case of What’s not to like? -- except maybe that healthy dose of Jingoism at the end.

-- Freder

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