Saturday, February 28, 2004

we like movies

Two of them yesterday: both on the big screen courtesy of my friendly $1 theater. There should be a government funded initiative to help keep afloat twentyfive $1 movie houses in each of the fifty states. What would that run, a few million dollars to subsidize additional costs?
Maybe not even that if they were considered nonprofits and were running arthouse fare.
I want more wheat in our bread and more elephants in our circus.

I'm off topic.

The first film I saw was "Paycheck".
I knew going into this sucker that it was likely gonna be a blend of several components: John Woo film, Philip K. Dick story, Ben Ahfluck vehicle, boneheaded action film and tense puzzle thriller; what I was hoping for was the right combination of these elements, preferably more PKDick and thriller, less Affleck and action and a restrained John Woo. What I got was EXACTLY the opposite: a chaseemupshootemup centered around Ahfluck with white doves flying at the screen and multiple moments of face/off two gun staredowns.

The Dick influence is even more meagre than in "Total Recall" and the script gets soggy with unnecessary 'audience friendly' cliche-repartee. The plotting is nice and crisp, but Woo wonks that up by weighing the film down with too many 'emotional and meaningful' moments for Ahfluck. This is like giving a chimpanzee pastel paints: you're more likely to get a mess than a masterpiece.

The deus ex machina plot twists work pretty doggone well, but the fight and chase scenes are so poorly edited that it's difficult to tell what's going on most of the time. GI Joe-style video game physics and ethics allow Affleck to open up an automatic weapon on a crowd of guards without killing anyone, yet he feels compelled to throw away a loaded weapon while staring down the bigboss since (apparently) a real man uses his bare hands under such circumstances.

Paul Giamatti is wasted here doing fourth-wall spit takes to show what a schmuck he is (I get the feeling that casting directors are confusing Giamatti with Rob Schneider for some reason), Ahfluck is typically Ahfluck (which is to say, "he sucks") and Uma is... eerie. Uma isn't necessarily looking less attractive these days; she's looking less HUMAN. "Paycheck" is the movie where she goes from resembling Sarah Connor to the Terminator.

For all that, "Paycheck" is an efficient throwaway of an action film; predictable, hackneyed and Woo-ified to within an inch of its life but only boring when the fighting starts. Though it's hard to recommend a film in which Ben Ahfluck fights a legion of gun wielding suits with a bo stick, I can't really warn you away. It's a decent mindless diversion that could've been much more.

The second film was "The Company", the Robert Altman and Neve Campbell take on life in the Joffrey Ballet.

"The Company" substitutes a celebration of life in the theater for a cohesive story but the versimilitude of the artist's lives is so accurate and engaging and the dance so exhilarating that you hardly even miss having a script.

"Company" follows a season in the Joffrey from the perspective of its leads, its backup dancers, its rising star (Campbell), its company director (Malcolm McDowell), the choreographer, the stage manager, the boyfriends of the members, the parents of the dancers.

There's no real plot to speak of; in the primary character's life, Campbell moves from understudy to lead and starts a new relationship with a sous chef; but this is all window dressing.

The movie's real concern is the dance and there's plenty of it to see. From the get go (as great a credit sequence as I've ever seen), we're treated to beautiful bodies, beautiful choreography, beautiful dancing.

The actors, with the exception of Campbell, are almost all members of the Joffrey. Characters are viewed with a degree of equality rare in any sort of film; there are no villains or heroes, simply men and women. Malcolm McDowell's petulant, pissy power-driven company director is utterly dead on: aggravating, brilliant and indisputable, he runs the show and the film on the strength of his personality. Campbell has never struck me of being worthwhile of note one way or another and her acting performance here doesn't do much to affect that thinking; but her dancing is good enough to blend into the company's level of quality and that's pretty goddamn impressive.

There is one major thematic undercurrent: Altman makes it clear that the dancers are, to a one, expendable. It is the DANCE that's important, not the dancers and not their story. In one particularly astute scene, an understudy dances for McDowell and is told to stop and watch the lead dance the part. When the lead performs for them, she hits a jump and then crumbles to the floor. Stoically, she tells them that she's snapped a tendon. Stagehands ice her down and rush her out and seconds later the understudy is performing the piece for the director again, this time with the knowledge that she'll be playing it onstage that night. Cut to opening curtain; our understudy looks brilliant and our director beams from his mezannine seat. This is standard "A Star is Born" stuff, except that the injured dancer watches the performance backstage, clearly happy for the understudy, wistful that she cannot perform, but understanding the nature of the game. No one doubts the rules for a moment, no one regrets them; everyone knowing that sooner or later their time will come.

The finale evokes this point to the nth, with a setpiece of a giant that eats the dancers one at a time and a twist in the story that leaves Campbell pulled from the curtain call at the last second.

Altman's direction is surprisingly restrained. There are a few Altmanesque touches: toast burns as a new couple share their first breakfast together, a divorced couple and their matching second husband and wife hobnob at a company party, a down-on-his-luck company member is forced to crash out in a communal pad when his aunt commits suicide (he giggles and calls her "a little crazy"), a "sweet" gesture by Campbell's boyfriend that puts him onstage for the company bows; but for the most part Altman lets the scene and the phenomenal performance speak for itself.

I hardly profess to be an expert in dance, but I have spent a considerable amount of time with modern dancers. "The Company" is an almost TOO honest portrayal of the intrigues, drama, egos, talent, business and art that make up the day-to-day of a professional company. This is as real a film as I've ever seen and certainly one of the very best films I've seen thus far this year.
Highly, highly recommended.


After a thousand downloads (literally) the Gillian Welch comes down, along with the equally popular Jill Scott. I had no idea you'd be that interested in those two divas... requests are therefore recommended and appreciated.

For the future, please note that music will pretty much stay up as long as it is on the front page here, meaning five days at least.

That seems fair, no?