January 24, 2012

Theresa Russell, in mustache

Even to non-opera buffs, the idea behind Aria must sound fascinating: The movie rounds up 10 distinctive directors, and lets each make a short film to accompany the operatic aria of his choice.

British producer Don Boyd gave the directors no constraints when it came to approach or subject matter. Which means that Aria is essentially an omnibus of high-brow music videos, and a chance for some top-flight filmmakers to flex their muscles. Predictably, what results is a very mixed bag.

There’s a framing story, about an opera singer (John Hurt) entering a theater and preparing for a role. This serves as a bridge between the individual pieces, the first of which is a witty narrative to the strains of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera.

This is directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), who tells the true story of an assassination attempt on Albania’s King Zog in 1931. Zog, who survived the attack, may be the only assassination target who ever saved himself by shooting back. Adding a ripple of perversity is Roeg’s casting, which puts his wife, Theresa Russell, in drag in the role of Zog.

This is a promising start, but the next piece, with music from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, directed by Charles Sturridge, is uninspired and obtuse. Next is Jean-Luc Godard, who takes the veg-o-matic approach to Lully’s Armide, chopping up the music as he shows some bodybuilders ignoring the attractions of two women in the gym. It’s a typically Godardian workout, full of repetition, ambient noise, and a large knife.

It’s Verdi again—Rigoletto—for the film’s centerpiece, a 15-minute farce directed by Julian Temple. Temple mounts a comedy of adultery, as two marrieds (Buck Henry and Anita Morris) enjoy other partners at a motel with “theme” rooms (the Neanderthal Room, Heidi’s Hideaway).

This one’s amusing, but aside from a great moment when the aria is lip-synched by the motel’s Elvis impersonator, this entry isn’t significantly better than some of Temple’s long-form music videos (such as “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean,” with David Bowie).

Australian Bruce (Crimes of the Heart) Beresford brings his literalist approach to an aria from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt—he simply has a couple sing to each other—and then Robert Altman checks in with a curious ode to the 18th-century habit of letting people from insane asylums attend the opera on Sunday afternoon. The music is from Rameau’s Les Boreades.

Next, Franc Roddam (The Bride) does a haunting update on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in which a young couple (James Mathers and Bridget Fonda—Peter’s daughter) go to Las Vegas, make passionate love, and commit suicide. Very nice.

You expect Ken Russell to bring the house down with this sort of thing, and Russell’s fantasia on Turandot by Puccini is one of the film’s weirdest turns. It’s a surreal glimpse of what appear to be the near-death thoughts of a woman who has just been in a car accident. She is played by England’s most famous stripper, Linzi Drew.

The film is rounded out by Derek Jarman’s impressionistic take on Charpentier’s Louise, and by the end of the framing story, which closes with Il Pagliacci, directed by Bill Bryden.

Well, I liked the three Rs—Roeg, Roddam, and Russell—and Godard’s thing. Even though it’s something of a disappointment overall, Aria is still an intriguing concept. Now, can we do the same thing with rock ‘n’ roll?

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Tilda Swinton was in the Jarman segment, one of her first screen roles. Some of this movie was pretty dull, as I recall, and not because of the opera, but because the filmmakers fell down.

Driving Miss Daisy

September 15, 2011

As a play, Driving Miss Daisy won a Pulitzer Prize and rave reviews. As a film, Driving Miss Daisy already has won the best picture citation from the National Board of Review, as well as its best-actor prize. It appears to be a shoo-in to rustle up a few Oscar nominations this spring.

At the risk of sounding Grinch-like, I suggest that all of this raises a question: Why?

I don’t know what form the original play took, but the film of Driving Miss Daisy is a likable and extremely modest little concoction that comes off as just the teeniest bit self-congratulatory.

Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) is your typical strong-willed Southern lady, vinegary and plain-speaking. She is too old to drive, and when her wealthy son Boolie (Dan Aykroyd, in a deftly handled career sidestep) suggests she take on a chauffeur, she has a predictable response to the idea. She loathes it.

So Boolie goes ahead and hires a driver anyway. He is Hoke (Morgan Freeman) a 60ish black man with old-school manners and a natural inclination to chat. Alfred Uhry’s screenplay, which he adapted from his play, takes the relationship between these two from their meeting in 1948 through more than 25 years of front-seat, back-seat conversations.

It is, you will notice, the period of civil rights advances, and the ensuing friendship between the black man and the white Jewish woman is reflective of the times. This is achieved in mostly understated ways.

The most poignant scene in the film comes when, in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. Miss Daisy is interested in going, but she can’t quite bring herself to ask Hoke if he would like to join her. When she does ask him, as Hoke is driving her to the speech, he refuses. She could have asked him earlier. He sits outside alone, listening to the speech on the car radio, while she is inside the auditorium.

Driving Miss Daisy is directed by Bruce Beresford, the Australian filmmaker whose career has traveled, somewhat alarmingly, from Breaker Morant to Her Alibi. Beresford brings his customary nondescript touch to the proceedings. The finest parts of the film are the last few scenes, of Miss Daisy and Hoke in very old age. But everything that has come before seems slight.

The film is an actor’s vehicle. Morgan Freeman has quickly become the best thing in many movies (he’s in the current Glory), and he slips into Hoke, which he also played on stage, so completely as to disappear. Jessica Tandy, the aged trouper, brings grace and brittleness to her role. It’s a nice match and, if not earth-shaking, a pleasure to watch.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1990

It won Best Picture. Even with the duds in his filmography, Beresford is one of those guys who surely deserve more credit than they get when a movie turns out well, a thought perhaps inspired by the fact that he didn’t get Oscar-nominated here (although the movie won four in total, including Tandy’s). I don’t remember the film inspiring a huge backlash at the time, along the lines of what The Help (a similarly middlebrow look back at the civil rights era) has encountered, although Do the Right Thing was in competition that year and didn’t get nominated for very much, a situation that left Spike Lee, as ever, not amused.

Her Alibi

June 28, 2011

Selleck’s back and Porizkova’s got him; it doesn’t really have a ring to it, does it? Her Alibi is a new film that would like to summon up some old-fashioned movie romance, but they just don’t make movies like that anymore, nor do they seem able to.

Tom Selleck, riding high off the success of Three Men and a Baby, evidently thought Her Alibi would be just the thing to exploits his talents as a light leading man. It may have looked that way on paper, too; as a blueprint, Her Alibi contains some attractive possibilities.

Selleck plays a writer of detective novels whose pen has dried up. He’s been blocked since his wife left him a few years back. But, hanging around the courthouse one day, he spots a murder suspect (Paulina Porizkova) and decides that she will be the subject of his new mystery.

It follows that he invents an alibi for her, which gets her out of jail and into his Connecticut house (and eventually into his bed). There’s supposed to be some tension in the possibility that she’s actually guilty and might try to kill her alibi, but I doubt that audiences will worry much about that. The big question, and nearly the only question, is how long it’s going to take for Tom and Paulina to get into a clinch. (The answer is, not long.)

At one point, Selleck’s editor (William Daniels) takes a look at the chapters Selleck has written about this encounter and declares that the characters display “cretinous” behavior. I’d have to agree with that assessment. Almost every character acts like a moron: “Do I look like an idiot?” Selleck asks. Yes, in this movie, he does.

The script (by Charlie Peters) is so flimsy, it’s amazing anyone could have thought it ready to be filmed. But the most disturbing thing is that a respectable director, Bruce Beresford, would fall for this. Beresford, who made Breaker Morant in Australia and Tender Mercies over here, is strictly doing hack work. There’s nothing that suggests he’s interested in the material.

He doesn’t even get good work from Selleck, who never quite finds the groove. Paulina Porizkova, of course, is a model—excuse me, supermodel—turned actress. She made her acting debut in Anna a couple of years ago, and acquitted herself well. In Her Alibi, she doesn’t have anything to do except look fabulous, so there’s no problem. But there really isn’t much heat between the two stars.

Her Alibi even sells short its hero. Selleck is supposed to be a best-selling author, and the film is narrated with snatches of his new novel. Based on these, he’s a terrible writer, clichéd and obvious. So the movie doesn’t merely make him look like a schmuck, it makes him look worthless. The guy never had a chance.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

Selleck finally got the bigscreen thing going with Three Men and a Baby, and then he went right back into bad choices. This is an absolute stiff. It came out a few months before Beresford’s other 1989 movie, Driving Miss Daisy, which worked out a little better (I’m not sure why I expressed surprise at Beresford’s falling for the project; he’d already made a few clunkers). Charlie Peters, by the way, also wrote Blame It on Rio, a very difficult memory for me. My opening phrase was meant to conjure up the tag line for Adventure with Clark Gable and Greer Garson, which evidently I felt enough people would recognize in order to make the reference worthwhile.