Revolution / Absolute Beginners

July 9, 2012

A tale of two movies: both English-made, both lavishly produced, both abandoned by their studios. And, despite being dumped, they both happen to have arrived hereabouts at the same time.

Other than that, they couldn’t be more different in style and subject matter. Revolution is the big-budget (rumored in the $30 million range) historical epic with prestige credentials and a name cast; Absolute Beginners is a glitzy musical with unknown stars guided by a music-video director. Worlds apart, they both managed to inspire cold feet among their initial backers.

Revolution has been a well-publicized fiasco. When the film played in New York and Los Angeles late last year to qualify for Academy Award consideration, critics reacted with the kind of venom usually reserved for Benedict Arnold. Needless to say, the movie failed to snag any nominations, and its national release was postponed and then scrapped.

With that in mind, it’s hard not to root for the film—it couldn’t be that bad, right?

Well it’s not, not really, and there are individual scenes that carry considerable power. All through at least the first hour, as we’re introduced to the story of a Scot (Al Pacino) who, with his son, is reluctantly dragged into the Revolutionary war, the film is actually quite compelling.

It’s only later that the sketchiness of some of the characterizations takes its toll. Events are so telescoped, and characters glimpsed so hastily, that they don’t pay off as they should. We know that we should like the American lass (Nastassia Kinski) who loves Pacino, and that we should hate the British officer (Donald Sutherland) whose facial birthmark sprouts hair. But it doesn’t cut deeply enough.

Hugh Hudson, who nobly guided Chariots of Fire, can’t quite triumph over the shorthand and the humorlessness of Robert Dillon’s script. He’s certainly got an eye for spectacle, evidenced by the magnificent scenery filmed in Britain.

Absolute Beginners, from music-video maestro Julian Temple (he did David Bowie’s “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”), is a high-kicking nostalgia piece set during the music revolution in England in 1958. The plot, from the novel by Colin MacInnes, hinges on a youthful photographer (Eddie O’Connell) and his sometime girlfriend (Patsy Kensit, rumored to be “The British Madonna”), who are the first generation known as teenagers.

The film celebrates the fact that music helped define this new age classification, and the music in the film (arranged by Gil Evans) is just splendid; it includes a few heavyweight turns, including Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade. It’s all performed on wonderfully artificial sets, and the characters have very stylized movements and clothes.

Temple manages to sustain the manic energy of a music video over the running time of the film but, miraculously, doesn’t wear you down. This, I think, is because there’s such an air of enthusiasm about the film—Temple uses the camera and the soundtrack like a kid experimenting in a magic store.

His story wanders and then seeks relevancy in the race riots of the time. It probably doesn’t make perfect sense, if you bothered to examine it. But the film is so much fun to watch, you may find yourself asking: Why bother?

First published in the Herald, May 22, 1986

Revolution was a huge disaster; IMDb claims, unsourced, that it literally set the British film industry back by a decade. I don’t know if this review is missing a paragraph that explains the setting of the movie, but I had to insert [Revolutionary] before “the war” just now, in the hope that readers won’t be completely bewildered, or as bewildered as the audience watching the movie apparently was.



January 10, 2012

Labyrinth of hair: David Bowie

Near the beginning of Labyrinth, an adolescent girl given to flights of fancy is stuck baby-sitting her baby brother. As he wails into the night, she tries telling him a fairy story; then gives up and proclaims that she wishes he would be kidnapped by goblins.

Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t make such proclamations casually. The babe is forthwith spirited away by ugly little gnomes, who take the kid to the castle located in Goblin City in the heart of a huge, apparently unsolvable labyrinth.

The rest of the movie is the girl’s quest to retrieve her brother, by passing through a maze of false walls, trap doors, and special effects.

She must also pass by a host of creatures from a menagerie concocted by Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets, who also directed the film. Henson, that is, not the Muppets.

Although newcomer Jennifer Connelly holds the screen for most of the film, and David Bowie contributes his persuasive presence (and a few songs) as the prince of the warlocks, the creatures are the true stars. Labyrinth, like Henson’s The Dark Crystal, is torn between being a real movie and being a vehicle for bigger, more outlandish Muppets.

It’s fairly successful either way. The beasts include a goblin smitten with Connelly but beholden to Bowie; a lurching behemoth who resembles an orangutan with horns; a perky one-eyed terrier who carries on the chivalric code; various worms, birds, and creatures who play basketball with their own heads; trolls; and a guy with a peacock on his noggin.

They’re fun, although Henson doesn’t appear to be breaking any new ground, in terms of design. In fact, some of the designs and ideas are reminiscent of the work of Maurice Sendak, who is mentioned in a curious personal acknowledgment in the end credits.

Much of the fun comes from the humor with which the creatures are endowed. Henson and screenwriter Terry Jones (a Monty Python writer-performer) put a sardonic spin on much of the material, which is otherwise a familiar adventure tale of imagination, questing, and growing up.

Take the talking rocks, for instance, which warn the heroine to turn back from the castle. They don’t appreciate the derogatory comments from Connelly and her troll guide, and the rocks explain, in the stentorian voices, that they’re just doing their jobs. Can they get on with it? In rolling tones and then a milder voice: “The path you take will lead to certain destruction. Thank you very much.”

The world of the labyrinth is skillfully mounted, by Henson’s troupe and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects wizards (Lucas is the film’s executive producer). Their greatest feat: the Bog of Eternal Stench, a flatulent swamp. You can almost smell it, although even George Lucas hasn’t figured out a way to pull off this trick—not that you’d want him to, in this case.

For all the spiffy effects and breakneck pace, Labyrinth doesn’t get deeply or meaningfully into its myth, not even in the way that Lucas’s Star Wars films did. It’s an enjoyable maze to find your way through, but unlike the heroine, you never find anything at this labyrinth’s center.

First published in the Herald, June 28, 1986

Yesterday was David Bowie’s birthday—impeccable timing, right? Only a day late. I have never revisited this movie, which makes me an exception to its many fans. I have no doubt that if Labyrinth is viewed at the age of ten, it makes a lasting Ozian impression, but it never lived like that for me. Yet now I want to see it again. Damn you, Eighties website!