Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What an excellent day for an exorcism

At a friend’s birthday party in 7th or 8th grade, we watched The Exorcist. For fun. “Ha, ha, let’s watch a horror movie with terrible special effects.” I had never heard of it. Someone put it on, turned out the lights, and almost immediately the future adult in my mind was thinking, “We should not be watching this. What kind of parents would allow a group of 12-year-olds to watch this? We should not be watching this.”

I spent the next two hours with my back against their living room wall, watching intermittently through my clenched hands, sometimes plugging my ears, every good humor in me petrified. I didn’t speak as we waited to be picked up after the party ended. Everyone else was joking, laughing, pushing cake in each other’s faces. When I got home and saw my mother, I burst into tears. I was so terrified that I didn’t feel shame in doing this. I was hysterical. I did not sleep that night. Yes, we laugh about this now, but that terror was very real at the time. No movie has done that to me before or since.

At that point I had been raised as a habitual Catholic and had not bothered to ponder religion or spirituality. Church was something rote but comforting done once a week, like it or not. Religion in a Catholic grade school fostered complacency or, at least, spiritual laziness. Pray to God, give thanks, say three Hail Marys after confession, blah blah.

Into the blank slate of my mind came The Exorcist, which did the thinking for me. It was a rough initiation into the realm of spiritual questioning. “The devil is real, and he works his evil on undeserving people,” the movie said to the 12-year-old me. “There is no reason to it. It happens.”

In high school, I discovered, to my utter horror, that my family actually owned William Peter Blatty's novel. I found it while rummaging through the attic of our home in Buffalo. That purple paperback cover. That white, soulless face plastered across the front. I was upset by this discovery and decided the only logical thing to do was to read the damn thing and exorcise The Exorcist from myself.

I read it in one sitting, alone in the house on some dark weekend. To leave it unfinished would mean the story was still happening in the ether. It needed to be concluded. Irony: I loved the book, especially the end. My bleak grade-school assessment of the movie was tempered by an evolved understanding of and appreciation for faith and doubt. I was very moved in the final pages when Fr. Karras squeezes Fr. Dyer's hand to affirm his belief in God during last rites at the bottom of the steps -- even though he has just seen irrefutable proof of evil.

Despite this, I had no desire to endure the movie again. Until now. For reasons unknown to me, I felt compelled to watch it Sunday night, alone, in the dark, not two miles from Georgetown, where it takes place. From its opening scenes, it conjured in me a queasy dread. But now, as a more nuanced 23-year-old, I was able to appreciate why and how it conjured the dread. It is a singular movie-watching experience; it's a full-on psychological attack on the viewer that is tactical, not sensational. The first hour of the movie is all atmosphere. Noises. Insinuations. Half-hearted diagnoses. But it all has a locomotive power that builds and builds.

Here are the notes I scribbled during it:

1:30 - Friedkin's introduction. He talks about how The Exorcist makes you question your sanity. Great. I always worried that watching the movie again would unhinge me in some way. You see how affecting this movie was on a 7th grader?

2:01 - Just seeing those red block letters (THE EXORCIST) freezes my spinal fluid.

8:00 - Fr. Merrin's clock stops in Iraq. I still remember the image vividly from the first viewing. It is so simple. Conveys the perfect sense of metaphysical dread.

11:50 - And I remember those fighting dogs, too, and Max von Sydow staring down that statue. I am queasy. We are reminded daily by our government that there is evil in our world, and that we are fighting it. And either in the real life or The Exorcist, they say it comes from Iraq. Go figure.

13:15 - This is what I found so scary the first time -- those noises from the attic. A house naturally creaks and groans as the temperature drops at night, but after watching this it seems like the most unnatural thing. It plants the seed of doubt in your mind.

34:06 - The defiled statue of Mary. Another image that was seared into my brain. The perversion! But it's nothing compared to the perversion to come.

47:09 - The battery of clinical tests perpetrated on Regan is almost as terrifying as the demonic possession. Spinal taps. MRIs. The poking and prodding. Clicking machines. The scientific rationale. The insidiousness of a white hospital room. Of a needle administered.

56:00 - I can't imagine seeing this movie in theaters, where you can't control the volume of the sound. I am watching it with one finger on the volume button, because I find the audio aspect the most terrifying. While most horror movies make me close my eyes, this one makes me plug my ears.

1:05:22 - Conflict + guilt = a body invaded by a spirit?

1:07:15 - A belief in the power of exorcism can combat the belief that the body is possessed by a spirit. Is there no reality to life? Only the perception of reality?

1:22:00 - The scariest part is this thing that says it's the devil not only "knows" Karras' mother is dead, but also that she's in hell. It could be a manifestation of guilt or remorse. How could Karras not be more phased by this? This is one of the failures of the movie: that it doesn't show Karras profoundly scared and flabbergasted from his first, wretched encounter with the girl. He seems to be taking it in stride.

1:26:30 - I am fascinated by faith and doubt, and the scenes of Karras "celebrating" Mass have tremendous weight as the story progresses. Especially shots of the transubstantiation, which is really its own form of imposed possession, right?

1:30:00 - Is the possession caused by a father complex? Burstyn can certainly relate from her real-life experience. Her autobiography refers to a "father-shaped hole" in her heart. In The Exorcist, that hole is filled by a demon.

1:34:00 - Even after all this -- the vomiting, the speaking in tongues, the thrashing, the "telepathy," the word-shaped scarring on her stomach -- Karras still has doubts about whether the child is possessed? This is where the movie doesn't make sense.

1:37:00 - I love how Max von Sydow is the hero, and how even the devil knows him, and how he doesn't flinch when the devil calls him by name, as if he's done personal battle with Satan before. Which he has -- von Sydow spent much of his career previous to this role as Ingmar Bergman's go-to metaphysical protagonist.

1:38:00 - "The attack is psychological." Indeed.

1:39:00 - There is something about priests going up against evil. I have great respect for most clergy, especially Jesuits (but not the Catholic Curch as an institution). It is adrenalizing to see them "suit up" and march unblinking toward the great battlefield of good and evil.

1:51:00 - It's really two movies in one: Burstyn's and Jason Miller's. She's barely in the second half; he's barely in the first.

1:54:00 - Never underestimate the scare power of a well-timed phone ring.

1:55:00 - Lots of people think this movie is a laugh riot. It isn't. For me. But...it is kind of comical when Karras slugs the girl at the climax. It's comforting to know that the devil in this movie is punchable. I almost want a "POW!" or "ZOCK!" to flash on the screen at this moment.

2:00:00 - The end. As always, things loom larger in the memory. I'm going to be able to sleep tonight. There is a twitch of disappointment in this -- I believe in the power of movies, and part of me would've been delighted if this movie sent me straight back into my own personal loony boon. Alas, it didn't. Does this mean I'm an adult? Now that's scary.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Dracula: Dead & Loving It: Renfield saves the night

Dracula: Dead & Loving It is, first and foremost, one of the great movie titles. I mean, come on. It's a Brooksian finish to a classic item, just like one of the film's great lines: "Children...of the night...What a mess they make." Simple. Brilliant.

and all its incarnations are prime material for satire simply by dint of their premise. Bloodsucking wraith -- alone with a lifetime of pain -- must feed on the supple necks of the misbegotten aristocracy, who then turn into vampires themselves. It can be a fairly rote allegory for the black plague or the degenerative nature of madness and isolation (as teased out by Werner Herzog in his creepy, stylish adaptation) or the need for artists to feed on helpless, exploited victims (as teased out by the wonderful, enchanting Shadow of the Vampire).

But before this turns into a college thesis, let us rejoice in the great pleasure of Leslie Nielsen as the count. If one lives for hundreds of years, one would have to develop a great sense of humor to survive psychologically, right? If we're using straight logic, Nielsen is the most believable of the Dracula incarnations. He sucks blood and cracks jokes. It's a way to make the eons pass. And there's still no drop in the body count.

Twenty years earlier, Brooks was more successful with a different MGM monster adaptation; Young Frankenstein, the funniest movie ever made, relied on the inherent comedy of silly situations rather than point-and-shoot gags, like D:D&LI, which deigns to feature the Stooges' two-finger eye poke during its climax. Yes, Brooks's comedies have dwindled in quality over the years, and D:D&LI is by no means a deviation from that trend. Why, then, do I love it so?

The answer is Renfield, who is usually the annoying, pitiable, one-dimensional dumbass in the Dracula story. Peter MacNicol, that tremendous and under-recognized comic talent, plays Renfield in D:D&LI for all he's worth (and I can't even find a clip on YouTube, or a photo on Google images). It is the most committed comic performance in the history of motion pictures -- more so than the Marx brothers, or Harold Lloyd, or Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, or those madcap fellows (Mostel, Wilder, Mars) in The Producers, or even MacNicol's own triumphs in Addams Family Values ("Brava!") or Ghostbusters II ("He is Vigo!"). MacNicol has so many whizbang moments in D:D&LI that it's hard to recover from laughing before the next one hits you.

It's all in his skittish delivery, his "Renfield shriek," his deft maneuvering of pratfalls -- plunging out of the sanitarium, eating bugs at the breakfast table, "losing" the tail of the guards. Consider his reaction after it turns out he was followed, or after he realizes he's addressed Dracula as "master" instead of, well, "Mister! Mister!" This is a Renfield for the ages, and his aggressive mastery of the second banana role makes the count shine as well, even as he's killing him, even in spite of Dracula's disparaging final line, which employs that Brooksian finish: "Renfield...you asshole!"

This post is part of The Film Experience's Vampires Blog-a-Thon. Click Bela Lugosi to get to the headquarters, where scads of other bloggers are opining about one of cinema's most enduring subjects. Tomorrow's post: a by-the-minute diary of my viewing of The Exorcist, a film I swore I'd never watch again after it reduced me to hysterics in 7th grade. Well, I did watch it again. And I survived. But it was dodgy at points...

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Ellen Burstyn's "Lessons in Becoming Myself"

This post is the first in a series on Ellen Burstyn and The Exorcist, a film I have not seen since 7th grade and swore never to watch again. Eleven years later, it is sitting on my desk in a Netflix envelope. I am looking at it right now. I am terrified to watch it. But watch it I will. I plan to notate my terror as I watch, and write a post immediately after finishing it. If I finish it. If I start it.

I biked to Olsson's yesterday to pop in on Ellen Burstyn, who was signing her memoir, Lessons in Becoming Myself. She looked good. White-haired, purple-suited, and wearing a wrist brace. I got there about 20 minutes after the start time, and no one was around except for a couple handlers. Ellen was signing copy after copy for the store. I'd like to think that a 73-year-old actor would be delighted by a visit from a 23-year-old guy who wasn't even born when she was doing her most important work. But she was as unaffected and calm as when I first met her in New York after Long Day's Journey into Night in 2003.

"What's your favorite movie so far this year?" I asked.

"The Departed," she said in that wobbly-yet-stalwart voice, "although it wasn't the greatest."

I wanted to respond: "So do you feel responsible for Martin Scorsese? After all, it was you who sought him out to direct Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore when he was a nobody in 1973. He directed you to your Oscar, and then went on to make films that are regarded among the greats. If it wasn't for your initiative, maybe no one would've noticed him."

I wanted to take her to lunch and have her spill her goddamn guts, but, well, it was only appropriate to say, "Thanks for doing this. Goodbye, Ellen."

"Bye Dan," she said.

Her memoir is very good, and I'm not generally keen on memoirs. Most feel forced, as if the celebrity feels he or she is required to conjure one once they stumble into their emeritus years. But Burstyn has lived a full and dramatic life, and it glitters with consequence on the page. She had a wretched mother, an absent father, regular beatings and mental abuse, an abortion at 16 that rendered her infertile, a psychotic husband who hounded her, trouble with alcohol and drugs, a primo spot on Broadway as a young lady with Jackie Gleason, a spiritual awakening in Europe and a fruitful apprenticeship with Lee Strasberg. And that's not the half of it.

"Lessons in Becoming Myself" works because we actually feel a chemical change in Burstyn as she grows from a needy wild girl in destructive relationships to a grounded actor with an unflappable work ethic. The book starts with shards of diary entries from her childhood and starts to crystallize only around page 133. Burstyn chronicles this change in the arena of her gradual spiritual awakening, which centers on Sufism. It's a book about the small-but-crucial choices that make or break movies, but it's also about Burstyn's self-actualization and how it fits into those movies. She gets into some heavy holistic-mystical stuff, and while passages on these matters tend to run long, they never seem fake or wishy-washy. It works for her. And her religion, Sufism, is founded on the search for truth. Lessons in Becoming Myself is its own search for truth.

Some excerpts, for those who want the Cliff's Notes version:
After the scene [in The King of Marvin Gardens], Bruce [Dern] said to me, "Now, get it. You are one of the five best actresses in America. I'll name them," and he counted them on his five fingers. "There is Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton, and you."

[An episode of Gunsmoke] was on television the other day and I watched it, more than thirty years after I made it. It's such a strange experience watching your young, thin, pretty self, while you sit on your sofa icing your arthritic knee, feeling every one of those years and probably the same number of added pounds on your aging body.

I struggled with the decision [to attend the 1971 Academy Awards] until the last moment. I even attended the rehearsals. I saw my name pinned to the seat where I would sit. Something about it seemed so cruel. Each one of the names pinned to a seat represented a life that had fought to get to the point where they were doing good work in a good film. Five of us in each category were cited, but only one would win. The others would be losers. It seemed so unfair. And a loser by dint of one vote or a thousand. Didn't matter. A loser.

After the party Billy [Friedkin] and I got in the long white limousine to go to the Whiskey A Go Go with Francis [Ford Coppola]. Driving down Sunset Boulevard, we pulled alonogside a car with Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd. They'd been at the party, too. Billy rolled down the window of the limo and shouted across to Peter's car, "French Connection, five Academy Awards." We raced on. Suddenly Peter zoomed by us shouting out his window, "Last Picture Show, best movie since Citizen Kane." Francis told the drive to catch up. As he stood on the seat putting his head through the roof, he shouted, "The Godfather, one hundred fifty million dollars." They were all screaming with laughter, with success, and with the promise of what would become a classic decade in film history.

Many people, including me, consider [The King of Marvin Gardens] to be Jack Nicholson's best work. In my opinion, everything he is credited for in About Schmidt he did earlier and better in The King of Marvin Gardens.

Coupled with news that Billy [Friedkin] had used Mercedes McCambridge's deep voice to overdub some of the demon's lines, the impression was that Linda [Blair] had done far less than she actually did [in The Exorcist]. Billy and others, including myself, feel that's why Linda didn't win the Oscar she deserved. She was a sweet, innocent adolescent girl who gave one of the scariest and most difficult performances in the history of motion pictures. She should have been granted that award.

[The Exorcist] is a classic and has lasted longer and is shown more often today than any of the films we were in competition with [for the Oscars] at that time.

One of the [Tehran Film Festival] officials told me that The Exorcist had not played in Iran because each of the three times they tried to dub it, the dubbing cast got too frightened and couldn't complete it.

I was the shepherd of [Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore]. I use that metaphor because there wasn't a title for what I was. I should have been executive producer. ... I was an actress in a film that I had brought to Warner's, sold to them, and hired the director. That's what a producer does. Why didn't I ask for credit? I was asleep -- asleep to who I was and what my value was.

[Charles Grodin] refrained from kissing me [in Same Time, Next Year] until the first performance before a live audience in Boston. Then he kissed me and he really did it. I had the sensation of an electric charge moving from where our lips met, down my body, and landing smack in my number-two chakra! ... I told Charles how I was feeling and what I thought about it. I suggested we have our love affair
only onstage. He agreed, and that's what we did.

By mid-September [1977], I'd returned to New York and the challenge of dealing with the dark forces manifesting in my life. In that period I was probably the only actress in Hollywood who was initiating her own projects. Yet with all the heady success, when I went home to my beautiful house and three-acre garden, I lived in fear for my life. So far, every time Neil appeared there was someone there to protect me. But I lived in terror that someday he would find me alone and kill me.

[Before shooting the film version of Same Time, Next Year], Alan [Alda] and I went out on a tear and, I have to say, it was fun. I don't remember too much of it, except at one point we went into a supermarket that was still open, though the bars had closed. There was a big wire bin of bech balls and my memory is of Alan and me running up and down the aisles playing catch. There were no other people in the store except one cashier who was about to close up for the night. He watched our hilarity warily. He had an expression that said: I'd like to throw those drunks out of here, but am I crazy or is that Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn?

I didn't win the Oscar [in 2000]. It was Julia Roberts's year. ... But I know what I did in

So do we. Read the book and then watch Requiem again. You can see Burstyn drawing on every aspect of her rough-and-tumble life to tackle Sara Goldfarb. Coincidentally, it is Julia Roberts 39th birthday today. You got away with murder, Jules, in 2000. Enjoy that Oscar. It's Ellen's.

Monday, October 23, 2006

I must've nipped a vessel...

Stay tuned for my entry into The Film Experience's Vampires Blog-a-Thon. I shall be writing about a film both timeless and revered: Dracula -- let me finish -- Dead & Loving It. Look for it here Oct. 30. Now stop reading if you want to experience the new Christopher Guest movie without preconceived notions.

Still reading? Hope not. For lo, I gallop into town with advanced word. The news is bad. Worse than bad. For Your Consideration, for all its scattered laughs, is a deep disappointment. As the Nov. 22 release date approaches, I will tell you why. For now, though, let us weep together for a great opportunity torn asunder.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Prestige lives up to its name (plus ClorisWatch)

Christopher Nolan is batting .1000. The Prestige has it all. Engrossing story. Two charismatic leading men, Batman and Wolverine, playing dueling magicians in hardscrabble London. Ricky Jay. Bowie. The movie is a kind of Dickensian Face/Off. It's stylish and suspenseful, but it also has much to say about showmanship, jealousy and -- on a subliminal level -- the illusion of film. Its ending, seismic and profound, is a sleight of hand itself. Well done, blokes.

Also, Mel Brooks's musical version of Young Frankenstein -- the funniest movie ever made -- has been cast. I was against this production to begin with, but the cast is sensational, especially, well, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher. Ha! Victory! Thirty-three years after she originated the role on film at 48, she will play it on Broadway at 81. I will see it because of this. Imagine the rapturous applause when she makes her entrance, and when the horses neigh for the first time! (But if Cloris is cast, why not her fellow Malcolm in the Middle guest star Kenneth Mars, who's still alive and kicking?) Some of YF will lend itself marvelously to a theatrical experience. The "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene will be uproarious in front of a live audience (perhaps the house manager can plant rotted vegetables under each seat for patrons to throw?). But I'm otherwise dismayed about this type of franchise recycling.

Related posts: Cloris on Two and a Half Shits. Musical adaptations of movies suck, generally. Everything's Coming up Hobbits.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The demon barbers storm the beach!

I've had Sweeney Todd on the brain because of the Film Experience's recent coverage, so imagine my surprise to see Len Cariou and George Hearn in consecutive scenes in Flags of Our Fathers.

Cariou (top, each side) created the role of Sweeney on Broadway in '79, and Hearn (bottom, each side) replaced him and perfected it. Both play senior-citizen versions of Iwo Jima men in Flags, and both (despite their age) should've been cast as Sweeney over Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's impending film version.

As for Flags itself, it feels and looks just like Saving Private Ryan. Except in the Pacific. Spielberg produced both, and it shows in Flags's slavish devotion to the just-so portrayal of the Greatest Generation -- we're always looking at them in sepia tones and soft light. Eastwood, though, injects a smidge of cynicism into the story of the men who famously planted the flag atop Iwo Jima in the dog days of WWII. The message of Flags: heroism is a funny thing. But not as funny as Paul Walker in combat.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Little Children is the most optimistic movie I've ever seen

If you go by its tantalizing trailer, you'd expect a serious freight train of a movie. Instead, Little Children is steady to the point of ploddy, so besieged by tones that it's atonal. It's not bad; it's quite thought-provoking, punctuated by an end that will surely blindside you with its...well, optimism. It's as if Todd Field is atoning for In the Bedroom, which is a far more controlled, penetrating and pessimistic movie about spoiled love. Also, Jennifer Connelly, Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson are the three most attractive people in the world. Alas, none of them are bound for Oscar with these roles. But! FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: Jackie Earle Haley (who has been off the radar since Breaking Away) plays a rather benign sexual predator and is so authentic it's like he really is a sexual predator who wandered onto the set of the movie and they just kept the cameras rolling. I'm pretty sure that was a run-on sentence.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The reels on the bus go round and round

Shortbus seems anthemic for generations X and Y. Watching it tonight (and not wanting it to ever end) was like watching a retrospective of the people and moods that germinated in the post-Vietnam years and were ushered rudely into maturity by 9/11. These people include me, even though the birth of MTV precedes my own, and even though I was too young to be cognizant of, say, Ronald Reagan, the AIDS crisis and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But these were more a part of John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, anyway. At the beginning of Shortbus, Mitchell's second masterpiece, we are shown a 3D paintscape of New York City. The camera glides past colored buildings, idles briefly on a Crayola-ized Ground Zero, and proceeds to peer into the apartments of Manhattan denizens, who are in hot pursuit of orgasm and its less reliable counterpart: satisfaction. The big S. Or, as Mick says, that of which we can't get no.

And so, Shortbus throbs along on a concept much more universal than an anthem. This movie is not specific to any age, nation or sexuality, even though it uses all the latitude of these days of moral decay to tell a story about 20- and 30-something New Yorkers who (gasp) have sex, fear sex and value and devalue sex as a means to an end. Yes, I wouldn't necessarily want to watch this movie with my parents and grandparents. But if I did, I bet it would speak to all of us and we'd leave the theater red-faced but a little more plugged into our shared humanity.

If you've heard anything about Shortbus, you know it's stocked with amateur actors having actual sex onscreen. "That is the definition of pornography," you think, "and I don't care to pay $10 to see porn on the big screen when I can download it for free at home." Settle down first. Pornography depicts erotic behavior and intends to cause sexual excitement. Shortbus depicts erotic behavior but intends to make a connection to you and, in turn, connect you to your neighbor. In that respect, Shortbus is more Sondheim than smutfest. We are a wired world that is incredibly disconnected from itself, Shortbus says. But when we do connect, we are capable of tremendous release.

It's easy to conclude that the film's thesis is pro-bohemia, anti-monogomy -- a live-fully-or-die-lonely statement without regard for the importance of safe sex. It is less responsible (the anti-Kushner) and cloying (the anti-Larson). This is a film that knows it is coming into the world at a breathtakingly cynical, dangerous time. "It's just like the '60s, but with less hope," says drag queen Justin Bond when she gives Sofia, our protagonist, a guided tour of the titular sex parlor. That is, I suppose, exactly the way to define our times. We are free-wheeling, but ever mindful of catastrophe. Which maybe means we're not free-wheeling at all. Which means we may, in fact, be sterile in more ways than one. The happiest people in Shortbus are two characters who have no lines, but seem to always exist in the gentle throes of coitus, a genuine smile on their faces as if to say, "There is no orgasm; there is only that connection."

There are moments of great truth and beauty in Shortbus, and I won't give any of them away. Like Hedwig, it is often funny and moving, and boasts a sublime score and soundtrack. Mitchell is a born filmmaker, and the pacing and ingenuity of the movie are so fresh and engaging that watching is like breathing pure oxygen. The cast of unknowns is perfect, especially Sook Yin-Lee as Sofia and Alan Mandell, who plays an Ed Koch-y character in one marvelous short scene. Mitchell fashioned the screenplay from these actors' real-life stories. In this way, Shortbus is like an "A Chorus Line" for the aughts. It certainly has the real-life component and generation-defining potential.

But again, it goes beyond the generational thing. It celebrates that which makes us human: the degree and quality of connectivity to others. Not to make blanket statements, but those who don't enjoy Shortbus suffer from the same chronic cynicism Mitchell has tried to cure with his jubilant work. Look at the movie's poster. It's Queer-as-Folkish. But everyone's smile is broad instead of ironic.

Upcoming posts: Borat boasts the most outrageous scene ever committed to film, but I am otherwise sick of the hubbub. The noble sweep of the Up documentaries, and why hasn't the template been copied in America? Plus, my ode to Dracula: Dead & Loving It, as part of The Film Experience's Vampires Blog-a-Thon.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead

The Departed is to Scorsese what Match Point was to Woody. That is, a return to form. It is a rush of testosterone, with a superlative cast gnashing and vamping its way through a muscular screenplay. This is a two-and-a-half-hour movie that's not a moment too long. Unlike Goodfellas, this is a cops-and-mobbers story that is both opera and chamber piece. Like its Bostonian neighbor, Mystic River, there a sequences of top-knotch suspense and sweeping violence, but there are also intimate moments of great drama and comedy. Scorsese has two generations of terrific screen actors on hand: DiCaprio, Damon and Wahlberg paired with Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Nicholson. They are all savage and hilarious, by turns. And it's great to see DiCaprio share scenes with Nicholson. I have always viewed the former as the rightful successor to the latter. Most refreshing, though, is Scorsese's direction. His choices vibrate with boldness and ambition -- a go-for-broke style that has been missing from his past two films (I was particularly floored by his handling of a scene that involves Sheen toward the end). And The Departed doesn't fizzle out when it reaches that end. Rather, it culminates much like a fireworks display, with plot points that POP POP POP with a blaring suddenness. It's a grand time.

P.S. At my screening, the score and the rest of the soundtrack were kind of "warped." It sounded like someone was playing with the distortion. As odd as it was, it worked so well that I thought it must be intentional. Other people in the theatre thought it surely wasn't, that it was a problem with the print or the projection. If you've seen it, let me know if you had a similar experience. If the distortion was unintentional, that's too bad. It perfectly suited the sour, snitch-based narrative. Nothing and no one in The Departed is on an even keel, even the soundtrack.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

'I think it's true: she tries to be what you want her to be'

That quote is David Thomson on Nicole Kidman in his new book, scandalously titled "Nicole Kidman." It is an outgrowth of his last intriguing book, "The Whole Equation," which featured a lengthy tangent about Kidman. In this new one, he gives himself 270 pages to slobber over her.

It is a glib book. It feels like the rumination was rushed, even though he gets into crazy specifics, like when he traces back to when the first Kidmans arrived in Australia in 1839. There is a ridiculous chapter on how Nicole must smell, and how her ad campaign for Chanel No. 5 somehow relates to the concept of celebrity endurance. There are bright spots, especially when he speculates on what ended the Kidman-Cruise marriage. He also fills in the blanks of Kidman's personality, which in real life always comes across as shifty at best, incomplete at worst. But there is a fire and ambition in her, if we are to believe Thomson. It's certainly evident in her filmmaking, though.

Thomson says he wrote the book to "honor desire," and he admits that sometimes he seems to be "on the brink of erotic collision with Ms. Kidman" in his dreams. Despite the admission, Thomson's schoolyard ogling is sometimes pervy:

...it may be easier to focus on the critical intersection in the enjoyment of To Die For: the fertile gap between the dumb cunning of Suzanne Stone and the brilliant innocence of Nicole Kidman ... the two personae fit together as tidily and as prettily as...well, as Kidman's breasts in the violent-colored underwear she sports in one scene.

And sometimes I was desperate for footnotes, like when Thomson relates this anecdote about Kidman and Tom Cruise meeting Stanley Kubrick at his house in Hertfordshire:

[Kidman and Cruise] sat on the sofa holding hands while he told them about the picture. "He'd look at her," said Kubrick, "and she'd look at him and he'd say, 'Okay, Nic?' and she'd say, 'If it is with you.' They're a truly married couple. It was kind of touching." Later, when the marriage was over, Nicole will say they lived in a bubble.

When and where did they say this? C'mon, Thomson. This may be a love letter, but you still need to cite your sources. And there are two glaring errors that should not have eluded any editor of any film book. Thomson writes that Kidman won the SAG Award in 2002 and that she was a shoo-in for the Oscar. Not so. Zellweger took the SAG for Chicago -- and Diane Lane and Julianne Moore were heavy critical favorites -- so Kidman's win was not a sure thing. And Thomson writes that Anthony Minghella won a screenplay Oscar for The English Patient. C'mon! That was Billy Bob Thornton.

Anyway. I devoured the book because this is my thing: think pieces about movies. Thomson's writing is delicious, generally. He puts Kidman in a context, which she's always eluded because her work is so varied and her personal life so enigmatic. After finishing the book, I am eager to revisit To Die For and Moulin Rouge!, and to see Dead Calm for the first time. It's quite a filmography, as Thomson reminds us.

What are your feelings about the woman, dear readers? Love her or hate her, and why? What's her best work, and her best moment? For me, well, I love her. When I think of Kidman's brilliance, I think of the moment she says, in The Hours, "I can't think of anything more exhilirating than a trip to London." Go back and look at her face, her eyes, the way she sucks the very life out of her cigarette, knowing the tobacco will never match the terrible ecstasy churning in her brain.

Related posts: The ravishment of Birth, Kidman in Fur, The algebraic sweep of thomson's "Whole Equation."