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.

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Aria

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.


Earth Girls Are Easy

August 16, 2011

Carrey, Damons, Goldblum, in furry phase

As kooky as a lava lamp, as tasty as a strawberry-chocolate Pop-Tart, Earth Girls Are Easy is as much fun as its title. This Day-Glo romp about aliens on the loose in Los Angeles is a wonderfully pixilated mix of classic movie musicals, beach party aesthetics, and old-fashioned romance.

The heroine of the piece is a manicurist (Geena Davis, the recent Oscar winner for The Accidental Tourist) who works at the Curl Up & Dye beauty parlor. Her fiancé is a doctor (Charles Rocket), but he’s a philandering fink. She’s wondering whether she’ll ever meet a decent guy when—oh happy chance—a spaceship crash-lands in her swimming pool.

The ship carries three decent guys; decent, that is, except that they don’t speak English and are covered with fur. The first problem is solved by absorbing the language of television, the latter with an extensive makeover at the Curl Up & Dye. There three are played, with tremendous agility, by Jeff Goldblum (Davis’s real-life husband and frequent co-star), Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans.

The adventures that follow are a swirl of fish-out-of-water jokes and campy cultural references, which range from a cameo by Los Angeles celebrity Angelyne (a massively proportioned starlet who is famous solely for her Sunset Strip billboards) to homages to Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor.

The film is also punctuated by zany musical numbers, featuring Julie Brown, who plays Davis’s hairdresser friend. Brown, best known heretofore for her underground hit “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” contributes some uproarious one-liners and songs, including, “‘Cause I’m a Blonde,” an ode to air-headedness, and “I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid.”

This madness is orchestrated by director Julian Temple, an English filmmaker who has done exciting work in the music-video field.

Temple has a taste for atomic-era décor and raucous color schemes. Don’t look for understatement here; Earth Girls goes for oversize, including Geena Davis’s 6-foot frame (she spends a good portion of the film in a bikini), and the Griffith Park Observatory, which doubles as a disco. Like the giant doughnut the looms over Hollywood at a crucial moment, the movie is high silliness.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

Funny movie. Expected more from Julie Brown and Julian Temple based on this, and that Jim Carrey fellow really fell off the map.