Our cable company has been giving us a free week-long preview of the Starz and Encore premium cable channels, and I've been pleasantly surprised at how many films they've shown lately that I was curious about, but not curious enough to go see in the theatre or rent, like 8 Mile, The Bourne Identity,and Frida, Salma Hayek's pet project slash star turn slash biopic about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. There's just something about films about painters that seems to fascinate me. Guess maybe it all ties in to that search for my missing alcoholic crack whore art muse. Anyway, I enjoyed the hell out of Ed Harris' thematically similar Pollock, and was happy to finally get a chance to see this. And I wish I could say that I was bowled over and blown away, but while Frida is often visually stunning, it tends to jump from melodrama to melodrama and rarely allows a glimpse into what made its subject, or for that matter co-lead Alfred Molina's Diego Rivera, tick. This is probably a result of several rewrites- I noticed where no less that four screenwriters are given script credit. That rarely lends itself to coherence, and it's a tribute to director Julie Taymor that she's able to not only hold it together, but inject some of her trademark imagination into several brilliantly staged scenes which combine animation with reality. I really enjoyed her adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, cleverly retitled Titus, and this was her first film since. There's a parade of cameos by actors like Ashley Judd and Geoffrey Rush, the latter almost unrecognizable playing Russian philosopher Leon Trotsky, who enters Frida & Rivera's orbit in exile (of course, Frida sleeps with him). By the time Kahlo journeys to France for an exhibition and winds up sleeping with Josephine Baker, I had begun to roll my eyes a bit and wonder who was next...anyway, Frida Kahlo was a remarkable artist and woman, and perhaps deserved a bit more of an in-depth look...but this is far from a failure, and its ambition gets it over in the long run. This was a labor of love for Salma Hayek, and she gives the best performance of her career (that I've seen, anyway) as Kahlo. Frida is well worth watching, but don't go in expecting a lot.
Another of my Holy Grail films fell by the wayside the other night when I caught a showing of the 1997 film The Whole Wide World, which starred Vincent D'Onofrio as pulp writer Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, Kull, and many other rip-roaring characters. It also stars Renee (sigh) Zellweger as teacher/writer Novaline Pryce, who had a romantic, but mostly unrequited, relationship with Howard in the Thirties, while he was in his creative prime and in the days leading up to his suicide. She eventually wrote a memoir about her time with him called One Who Walks Alone, and it's on this book that this movie is based. It's fascinating all the way through, and the leads are outstanding, especially D'Onofrio, who brings a spark and fire to Howard and keeps him a mostly admirable figure, even though he's portrayed as a eccentric yahoo mama's boy for the most part. There are several memorable scenes, many of which take place during walks or picnic excursions the two would take and feature some gorgeous outdoor scenery. Also, another noteworthy segment features Howard sitting at his typewriter, pounding the keys furiously while the story he's writing is narrated in a voiceover as the camera spins about him, completely engrossed in the sheer physical act of writing to the complete exclusion of everything else. These are just a few of many amazing moments in this film, which is a bit more of a "chick flick" than you'd think, but is one hell of a good one none the less.
At the Daily News, they gave us 3 $5 passes to the nicest theatre in Bowling Green, and finding myself with a Saturday afternoon to kill, I decided to take in a matinee showing of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. But. I didn't get off work till 12:30 PM, and the first show started at 12 noon, with the next screening to begin at 4PM. What was a poor boy to do? I decided to take in the 1:00 screening of a film that was taken from a Saturday morning cartoon I had seen several times and enjoyed very much, Disney's Teacher's Pet...which would leave me with only an hour to kill before LotR started. Pet is the story of a intelligent, talking dog named Spot, whose most fervent wish is to be a human boy like his owner, Leonard Helperman. This he accomplishes in part by dressing in human clothes, tucking his ears under a hat and donning glasses, and attending school (Leonard's dingy mom is the teacher, and of course doesn't recognize her son's pet) as a new student named Scott Leadready II. The look of the series and character designs are by Gary Baseman, whose oddball balloon-person figure drawings guarantee a novel look for the film and series, if nothing else. Having watched the cartoon on TV, I pretty much knew that it would be fun and clever, and it was for the most part...but the story didn't really live up to the excellent visuals. It was a pretty straightforward tale of Scott seeing a TV show that had a mad scientist, from Florida, as a guest whose particular goal in his experiments was to create humans from animals, which he had done with varying degrees of success. Scott, of course, sees his chance to make his dream come true and undertakes the journey to see the Wizard, I mean the mad scientist, and many complications ensue before it's all resolved. While the plot is nothing special, there are several clever in-jokes, wisecracks and film spoofs (Pinocchio, and its Blue Fairy, especially get lampooned quite cleverly) along a few imaginatively staged musical numbers. It's never dull. As befits a project so closely based on a particular artist's style, though, this film is at its best when it comes to the odd, but brilliantly colorful and very clever visuals. This film will look better on a large screen, I'll bet, than a small one because it's just bursting with vivid color...and it puts most of Disney's recent hand-drawn output to shame, Lilo & Stitch excluded, because it's so audacious and bright. Teacher's Pet engages the eyes more than the mind, but it's well worth checking out as a rental, especially if you have a large screen TV. I will admit to being just a wee bit uncomfortable as I sat and watched- I was the only adult in the house that didn't have a child with them! Whatta geek.
Other films, sans pictures: I did finally get around to viewing Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King later that day, and I found it to be as impressive as the first two before it. I know the hardcore are whining because Peter Jackson has taken a lot of liberties with Tolkein's narrative, and a couple of the rearrangements and omissions do bug me a bit- but I think this trilogy is a textbook case of the ends justifying the means. When you step back and look at this film series objectively, it's amazing how he was able to pull off such a daunting and exhaustive task and do it so well, and stay so true to Tolkein's vision. While I'm sure the eagle-eye obsessive fan can spot numerous continuity glitches (and there's a website devoted to them, contributed by people who have a hell of a lot more time on their hands than I, that's for sure), and even I, who usually completely overlooks stuff like that, noticed a couple, it's completely irrelevant to the sum total of what Jackson and his fine group of actors have done. I'm hoping that eventually a DVD box set will come out that has all three films, with omitted scenes, and it costs less than a sports car so I can afford to buy it...
Caught two Hitchcock flicks on TCM, 1956's The Man Who Knew Too Much, which starred Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day as a vacationing American couple with son who get mixed up in political intrigue and kidnapping. I'm tellin ya- I don't go out of my way to watch Hitchcock films, but when I do get in the right mood and one comes on I haven't seen before then I'm hooked, which is what happened with this one. While credibility got a bit stretched in a couple of places, mostly this was a taut, riveting suspenser and I enjoyed it very much, especially the penultimate set piece in which Doris Day is forced to decide whether to scream at a symphony performance attended by the assassination target, warning the target and ensuring the death of her son as a result. What followed was a bit anticlimactic, but still enjoyable. This film was a remake of Hitch's 1936 attempt at this story. Not as enjoyable was the other Hitch film I watched recently, 1966's Torn Curtain, which betrayed its conflicted and troubled production and wasted the talents of Paul Newman as its star. Lots of negativity and controversy surrounded the making of this film, which I read about in the unauthorized Hitchcock bio that Donald Spoto wrote several years ago. It was watchable, but never gripping, and the ending seemed to come out of left field. Not one of the Master's best by a long stretch. Julie Andrews was better than I expected, though, as the love interest. I keep hoping TCM will air Saboteur, which starred Priscilla Lane. I haven't seen this film in years and years, and definitely not since I have become so infatuated with Lane.
Caught a showing of 1997's Donnie Brasco, which was a veritable compendium of every Italian stereotype you could think of, but was still very watchable and engrossing thanks to excellent performances by all involved, especially star Johnny Depp, who plays an undercover FBI agent who wins the confidence of wiseguy Al Pacino and infiltrates the Mob, at the cost of his sense of self and his marriage. Was this film good? Fughettaboutit.
Finally, I saw a film that I hadn't seen in years: 1983's The Keep, made by director Michael Mann right before Miami Vice. I had read the novel by F. Paul Wilson beforehand, and found it an unusual concept and a hell of a good read, so I was really looking forward to the movie at the time. However, it didn't play anywhere nearby where I could see it, and had to wait to rent it on VHS a year later, and I hate to say it but it was not worth the wait. I was disappointed in the miscasting, the subtle script changes, and the rubbersuited monster, which was portrayed much more mysteriously in the book. The story involved a immense keep, located at the foothills of the Carpathian mountains next to a small village, which comes to be occupied by Nazi soldiers in the waning days of World War II. The walls of the keep are studded with what appear to be silver crosses, and despite the assurance of the village caretaker that they are made from nickel, the greedy soldiers eventually find one cross that seems to be made of real silver, and pry it off...releasing an ancient evil that the keep was designed to confine forever. As it wreaks havoc on the Nazis, every subsequent night, eventually the Nazi general seeks help and gets some advisement from a nearby professor who did a study of the keep in the past. The professor also happens to be Jewish, and arrives with his daughter, who is taking care of the frail old man. The being appears to the old man, and they strike a deal- if the Professor will carry a certain talisman out of the keep for the being, then the being will give him new strength and promises to go after Hitler! Adding to the complications are the arrival of the Gestapo, which is trying to find out what is causing the deaths of the soldiers, and a fellow who is an immortal warrior of sorts, whose task in life is to deal with the keep's occupant should he ever be released. See? Fascinating stuff. But it gets buried in a mass of poor performances, miscasting, and cutting-edge for 1983 but hokey-looking now special effects. A lot of notable performers get lost in the mess, including Gabriel Byrne as the SS leader, Jurgen Prochnow as the conflicted Nazi general in charge of the doomed battalion, and Ian McKellen, giving the hammiest perf I've ever seen from that fine actor, as the Jewish professor (reminding me a lot of his Magneto in the first X-Men film). Scott Glenn, then an up-and-comer, plays the champion, and his seedy looks just don't suggest any sort of supernatural warrior. I watched this, thinking perhaps the time that had passed since I saw it last might improve it, but sadly just the opposite was the case.
And that's pretty much it for movies I've seen lately! More about comics and music later...