Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bette, Sir Larry & Albert Tear Up the Stage, Valentino Lights the Screen and MGM Goes to Africa

Gypsy (Emile Ardolino, 1993): If I could wish for one Broadway show to receive the proper cinematic treatment, Gypsy would, without a doubt, be it. The show has been adapted twice--the 1962 version with Rosalind Russell and this one starring the one and only Bette Midler as Mama Rose--but neither have tapped into the epicness a really well-done film version could have. The 1962 adaptation was a generally pleasant experience thanks to director Mervyn LeRoy's invisible guiding hand, only slightly hindered by Russell's lack of vocal ability. With just a couple of changes, I thought for sure this 1993 version could vastly improve on it. That was my first mistake. Director Emile Ardolino is a complete slave to the stage version, barely attempting to even try and make this version of Gypsy film-appropriate; this could have been a filmed stage play and I wouldn't have noticed. The haphazard sets look like something straight out of a cheap high school production and could fall over and kill the actors on stage set with one good kick. The biggest disappointment, however, is Bette Midler's performance. True to form, she rips into the legendary score, belting out 'Rose's Turn' and 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' like the diva she is while adding an emotional depth that was lacking in Russell's performance. The real problem with Midler here is that she is outrageously over the top and stagy, almost to the point that I was afraid my TV wouldn't be able to contain her anymore. Bette is a naturally overbearing actress and has the tendency to over do her vocals and facial expressions, so she needs a director, even ones as middling as Garry Marshall or Kenny Ortega, to help her reign it in to fit within the film. Ardolino must have been in awe just to be directing a big star like Midler and too afraid of her to actually direct her. He ends up letting her run amok all over the film and she demolishes everything around her. Oh how I wish I was a studio executive right now and had the rights to this show. Just think the wonders that could be done to this show with a musical director who understands what makes a film musical different from the stage (think: Luhrmann, Rob Marshall, Adam Shankman, Kenny Ortega) and a film actress who can be both grandiose and larger than life without playing to the balcony like a stage ham (And, no, in my ideal version I would not cast a Broadway actress as Mama Rose. There are plenty of film actresses who can sing and act, thank you very much). Unfortunately, I don't know if I can trust Hollywood to correctly adapt such a tricky show; look how they fucked it up here. C

Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1946): Look, I've already admitted that I'm not a fan of Shakespeare and think he's highly overrated (Boo hiss, yeah, I know I'm a neanderthal. Whatever) so I'm not exactly a fair judge when it comes to adaptations of his work. Usually, however, I can get the gist of what the play is about when I see it actually performed instead of simply reading the damn thing (people who enjoy reading his plays seriously deserve some kind of medal for their bravery and intelligence). Olivier's version of the play, with its static camerawork and long, drawn out takes, made it even more indecipherable--if that's even possible. Half the time, it felt like I was watching a foreign language film without the subtitles; people would just talk and talk gibberish for five, six minutes and I would have no clue what happened. The opening scenes on the stage were much better than anything that followed. The actors may have been playing to the audience too much for my taste (and I get that they were supposed to) but there was a surprising playfulness and sense of humor that was sorely missing from the rest of the film. There's a moment when some advisor and his assistant are reading from some documents, advising the King about something (I really have no idea what about) and the assistant keeps mixing up the papers and getting them out of order, causing the advisor to fumble and stumble trying to get the facts straight. I'm not sure if this moment is in the text (I seem to remember very few stage directions in his stuff), but I loved Olivier's take on it. He's seems to be entertaining a very liberal notion that you can play around with Shakespeare's work and even make a stuffy history lesson more enjoyable. I just wish the rest of this film was that inspired. C-

Valentino (Ken Russell, 1977): Robert Osbourne, resident TCM host and purveyor of vast amounts of useless movie knowledge, introduced Ken Russell's grandiose biopic of the silent screen's tragic icon Rudolph Valentino as wildly inaccurate historically but reassured us that it was all for a larger, artistic purpose. I wasn't too fazed by this because earlier this year I had suffered through the clumsily inept and completely fictitious 1951 version of Valentino's life and nothing Russell could have concocted would be worse than that piece of dreck. True to Osbourne's word, Russell's Valentino isn't necessarily concerned with following Valentino's life from point A to point B. Rather, he seems more interested in discussing the intense fandom and celebrity mania surrounding movie stars. I find it fascinating that Russell decided to tackle this subject with a film set in 1920's Hollywood since it really could be considered the birth of our celebrity-obsessed media. There had been celebrities before, but never before had they been as readily available for public consumption as they had with the advent of the movies. Millions of people could see and fall in love with the same star at the same time and the hysteria surrounding these stars reached unheard of levels. Valentino depicts these stars responding to this madness in different ways, whether it's Nazimova living it up in diva fashion (Leslie Caron, of all actresses, absolutely nails this performance), playing to what her fans expect of her or Valentino himself, unsure of how to react to his sudden God-like status. Russell's film is absolutely beautiful to look at, preferring high art to realism in both sets and costumes. And, unlike with Tommy, the high class look fits much better in Valentino. Dancer Rudolph Nureyev stars as Valentino and although he's not a very good actor and adopts an accent reminiscent of Bellini ("Bellini, Bellini, you're not too skinny!") from Top Hat, he has the same kind of charisma that Valentino radiated from the screen (and it's not like Rudy himself was ever that great of an "actor" anyways). Russell's biopic may not be factual, but it's never dull and makes a greater point about celebrity and Valentino than any paint by numbers version of his life would have done. A-

Trader Horn (W.S. Van Dyke, 1931): For a film almost completely devoid of plot (a good chunk of the film is spent with the main characters pointing out animals along the savanna) and inherently racist (at one point, one of the white characters says to a white woman captured by the "savage" Africans: "Don't you understand? White people need to help each other!"), Trader Horn wasn't half bad. For the time period, the sound design was impressive, mixing animal sounds into the soundtrack to heighten the realism. I loved MGM's decision to shoot the film in Africa, lending the cinematography a naturalistic quality lacking from many of the films of the era (Hallelujah! aside). I find the most interesting thing about the movie is the way the characters are presented. Harry Carey's worldly, experienced explorer is really more of an antihero than the full-fledged action star you would expect. Duncan Renaldo (a dead ringer for James Marsden) plays the romantic juvenile lead and is not as shallow or insipid as you would expect from a 1930's studio film. There are some great shots of him simply looking around his environment, taking it all in and possibly wondering how in the hell he got there. Nothing in Trader Horn completely works as well as it should, but it's such a fascinating mess I couldn't help but be absorbed. B-

The Dresser (Peter Yates, 1983): What in the hell was this movie? A comedy without any laughs? A drama that doesn't make you feel anything? A head-to-head battle of veteran English actors that is more ham-handed and insipid than revelatory or exciting? It sure as hell beats me. I sat for two hours trying to dissect what was going on and nothing came to me. Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay star as Shakespearian actor and valet, respectively, preparing for a performance of King Lear after Finney has a mental breakdown and the aftermath of said performance. There is A LOT of talking going on in this movie but nothing ever seems to be said. Courtenay runs on and on about something and all I hear is "Blah blah blah I'm kinda gay" while Finney's lines all sound like "Blah blah blah I"m a self-important actor." The fact that this film earned Academy Award nominations by the score in 1983 is stunning while not so surprising all at the same time; I'm stunned that something so completely awful could be recognized for anything but not surprised since everything about the film (two respected British stars, World War II, Shakespeare, alcoholism, play-like structure) screams Oscar and their perspective on what qualifies as good filmmaking. D-


Anonymous said...

If you don't like Shakespeare, why would you review Henry V? Then again, your reviews appear to have no basis in objectivity, but appear to be mere opinion. The Dresser is a brilliant film with amazing acting. Although you may have not discerned it, many, many viewers have recognized the subtleties and nuances under the drama. "Rants" is a good descriptor for your blog or whatever it is.

Marcy said...

My drama teacher loves The Dresser. He's been in many theatrical productions and he believes that The Dresser is an accurate portrayal of theater life. (And my drama teacher loves to hear himself speak, so I heard his professions of love for the film over and over again...)

I thought The Dresser was somewhat boring, but my drama teacher's love for it kind of influenced me to not hate it as much as you did. But I do think "Blah blah blah I'm kinda gay" is a pretty good description of Courtenay's performance.

Dame James said...

Anon: I can take criticism and welcome any objections you have to my writing or opinions, but at least have the courtesy to explain why you disagree other than just with a dismissive "I am clearly right and you are an idiotic dolt." Otherwise, you're just as plainly opinionated as you think I am.

Marcy: I can see how having someone who appreciates The Dresser telling you what to look for and what makes it special can influence your opinion. I wish I had someone like that before I watched it; it would be good to hear why this film is appreciated in any way, shape or form.