Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.

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Plenty

April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.


Julia and Julia

March 21, 2012

If Julia and Julia finds its place as a footnote to film history, it will be more for its technical significance than for anything else. That’s because Julia and Julia is the first major theatrical movie shot on high-definition video, rather than traditional film stock.

In this case, Italy’s RAI network funded the experiment to test the commercial and aesthetic possibilities. A lot of people have been talking for years about a future in which most movies are shot on a high-grade video (and then transferred to 35 mm. film, so they can be shown in theaters), which is much cheaper and easier to handle than film stock.

If Julia and Julia is the current state of the art, we’d better hold off on the video revolution for a while. Although this movie is photographed by one of the world’s leading cinematographers, Guiseppe Rotunno, and directed by an ambitious stylist, Peter Del Monte, it still has some serious visual drawbacks.

Shooting on videotape produces an image that is flatter, duller and less expressive than the same image on film. (If you can’t imagine the difference, compare a daytime soap opera, shot on video, to most prime-time TV shows, shot on film.) The process in Julia and Julia is sophisticated, and even produces some interesting images until, oh, the camera moves. Or a character moves. Then, to these purist eyes, anyway, the image looks streaky and unstable.

In theory, Julia and Julia should be the perfect vehicle for a video experiment, since the movie itself is a hallucinatory mood piece, and thus a strange look could be highly appropriate. Kathleen Turner plays a bride whose husband (Gabriel Byrne, of Gothic) is killed on their wedding day; years later, in Trieste, she experiences a spooky shifting reality, when she abruptly spots her husband again in their old apartment, living as though they’d been married for six years. She happily goes back to him, but this new life has a twist: She begins to realize that this other existence includes a lover, a mysterious photographer (Sting).

The poor woman bats back and forth between her two realities until we begin to get the idea that, as is so often the case, it’s all in her head. Keeping her husband alive is, on her part, merely an extension of her “passion unyielding to the grave” (as her wedding-day quote has it).

This movie is too obscure, humorless, and self-consciously arty to score a success, and much of it is awfully precious. But Del Monte does get some dreamily effective action going (somewhat in the manner of his puzzle film of a few years back, Invitation au Voyage), and there is something to be said for simply watching good-looking people in unusual roles—Kathleen Turner and Sting are both excellent.

The video process actually undercuts the movie’s stylization. Video’s flexibility has been used for exaggerated, surreal effects in everything from commercials to music videos, and some of that work is very intriguing. Spread out over a full narrative, however, video serves to flatten, to endow the proceedings with ordinariness. In Julia and Julia, the exotic begins to look mundane.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

Does nobody remember this movie? Even now, with all the inevitability of digital’s triumph over film? This was much talked-about at the time, a landmark in video’s invasion of film’s turf. I still remember what it looked like, how awkward it was (projected in 35 mm., of course) and how obviously video-made. Too soon, too soon. But surely the time is ripe for Luca Guadagnino to reunite with Tilda Swinton and do a remake of this, on digital, and give it the heavy-breathing treatment it deserves.


Dune/Runaway

March 21, 2011

Freddie Jones and Sting, a la Dune

I had been warned that Dune was confusing, so I was set to pay close attention from the very beginning. Surprisingly enough, I found that, on the plot level, Dune was rather easy to follow. There is a lot of information discharged in the first half hour, but the main movement of the story, and the many characters, are pretty easily identifiable. Oh, there’s the occasional weirdness–the bit with the potion that makes the user’s lips turn red went by too quickly for me to catch, so that when Brad Dourif came on muttering an incantation and applying the nectar to his mouth, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. But any frustration I felt due to ignorance of that particular detail was overruled by my delight with Dourif’s wacked-out performance (which unfortunately ends much too early in the film).

No, those unexplained details didn’t bug me too much. The most confusing thing about Dune is: What does this movie think it’s doing? Dune may be the most bewildering movie of the year, and not because of its plot. What was David Lynch thinking about when he decided to have people provide voiceover explanations of events we’ve just seen? “The spice…the worms…is there a relationship?” Of course there is, you bonehead, how could there not be, based on the information already provided to us?

These voiceovers are just one symptom of what’s wrong with Dune; the main problem would seem to be that Lynch has tried to be overly faithful to Frank Herbert’s novel. But that’s conjecture, since a) I haven’t read Dune, and b) I can’t hear what’s going on in Lynch’s mind, thank heaven. But there are things in the film that cry out for capsulization. For instance, Lynch got Sting to play one of the bad guys; given that, why not combine his role with that of the other bad guy played by big Paul Smith? Any reason that couldn’t be just one character, who could do twice as many mean, nasty things, thus providing a strong opposite number for the hero? (To be crass about it, that would make commercial sense too, since Sting is a big rock star and a certain audience is going to come to this film just to see him.)

As it is, Der Stingle is barely in the film at all, and the climactic knife battle with hero Paul Atreides is ho-hum time. But more than that, Sting, who has proven himself a fairly dynamic performer elsewhere, is out-and-out bad in Dune—he glowers and rolls his eyes without a trace of subtlety (and thus without a trace of menace). Or take the case of the University of Washington’s own Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the main character. MacLachlan is physically right for the part; he’s all heroic chin and hair, and he looks as though he’d have the necessary stamina to housebreak a sandworm. But he’s a bit on the stolid side, and there’s no humor in his performance. That I blame on David Lynch, who doesn’t seem to have conceived of the tone that his performers—or that the film itself—should carry. That uncertainty combined with a lack of rhythm and forward motion doom this Dune to be scattered to the winds.

After I saw Dune and Peter Hyams’ ridiculous 2010, was I ever in the mood for Runaway, the Tom Selleck vehicle about murderous robots in the near future. It is, to be sure, substantially inane; but it also has a friendly, funky spirit. Besides, it’s basically a cop movie in sci-fi trappings, as Selleck is out to catch a madman (Gene Simmons of KISS) bent on ruling the world through robot domination. Doesn’t that sound great? I thought so too. Add to that some killer spider robots, who clatter noisily before they exterminate their prey, and add Selleck’s partner, Cynthia Rhodes, the blond dish from Staying Alive, who sweats very appealingly in the scene where Tom removes an explosive bullet from her shoulder. When you mix in Simmons’ performance, which consists entirely of curled lip and bug-out eyes, you step back in time about three decades or so, and settle comfortably into the realm of chewy B-cinema. As such, Runaway works just fine. Writer-director Michael Crichton has a few good uses for Vancouver, B.C., and he gives us a shot from the point of view of a heat-seeking bullet. He also stages a genuinely exciting top-of-a-skyscraper finale (compounded by Selleck’s vertigo—say, where have I seen this before?). What’s it all add up to? Not much, really, but when you’ve been assailed by hours of pretentious science fiction hoohah, this sort of thing is a tonic.

First published in The Informer, January/February 1985

Still haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t been tempted to follow up this original experience with seeking out any alternate cuts or anything like that. Well, maybe during that sabbatical year. Sorry to say that I didn’t review Crichton’s crazy Looker at the time it came out, and thus can’t reprint anything on this Eighties website, but I did write an editorial review for Amazon.com, which can be accessed here.