Tuesday, January 04, 2011

This Week In Tickets: 27 December 2010 to 2 January 2011

Here's something you don't see every week: A T.W.I.T. page that not only has two new movies starring Jeff Bridges (first-billed in both although, arguably, his younger co-stars should be), but two movies featuring characters named "Beef".

This Week In Tickets!

Pretty good week - two award contenders, and two movies, that while really not great, are at least visually interesting. I maybe would have preferred that Tron not eat the entire day on Tuesday, but you live and learn on that.

Saturday was spent on a day-trip to Maine, seeing a bunch of extended family that, most years, I hardly see at all, but between weddings and family get-togethers, I saw them a bunch in '10. This is a cool thing, really, although it made my holiday weekend movie viewing sluggish. Of course, part of that was just me - I have no idea what I did with December 31st, although I do recall looking up and realizing that grocery shopping was going to have to be put off if I wanted to get to Phantom of the Paradise. It was that kind of lazy long weekend.

So, this closes the book on another year of movie-going. I'm planning on writing up a "This Year in Tickets" piece for eFilmCritic this weekend, and will have some stats up here when it goes up. The 2010 weekly planner isn't quite as ready to burst as 2009's was, but that is in large part the result of switching to a model that is able to take being stuffed full better. I note that I have pretty much failed on my "watching the backlog" resolution from last year, but I'm going to try again anyway - look for a "Fantasia in January" series soon. I'm also going to try and check out more of what I can find online; the new laptop makes it a much less painful experience than trying to feed things through the SlingCatcher.

The theaters I go to will probably shift a bit, as my employers are moving offices from Waltham to Burlington this month. I probably won't go to the Burlington Mall AMC very often (unless its suburban prices are much better than the city's), but I suspect I'll be hitting the Arlington Capitol a lot more, as new bus route will make it and Fresh Pond places that are on my way home, rather than out of my way. It'll also leave me less time to write, though, as I won't have the nearly one hour on the same bus that I do right now.

But, that's a couple weeks away. In the meantime, here's my last movie of 2010 and my first of 2011:

Phantom of the Paradise

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 December 2010 at the Brattle Theatre (20th Century Fox 75th Anniversery)

You look at the description for Phantom of the Paradise and you know it's going to be screwy: Brian De Palma doing a glam-rock version of "The Phantom of the Opera" with diminutive Paul Williams as the villain. Even taking that into account, this is a seriously screwy movie. Fortunately, it's the sort of screwy that is energetic as opposed to just weird.

Rock impresario Swan (Paul Williams) is about to open a new club in New York, The Paradise, but he needs a fantastic opening act, and what fifties throwbacks The Juicy Fruits are playing just won't cut it. He hears a great piece from singer/songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley), but rather than actually doing business with him, swipes the sheet music, starts auditioning singers, and throws Leach out of his house and into jail when he tries to clear things up. Leach escapes, is deformed, and makes a deal with Swan to have the talented Phoenix (Jessica Harper) sing his music - although Swan opts for a rocker who goes by "Beef" (Gerrit Graham).

Laid out like that, Phantom sounds ridiculous, and that's before seeing the slapstick details and truly bizarre last-act left-turns that things take. De Palma's screenplay really makes almost no sense whatsoever, especially where Swan is concerned. Sure, there is a certain purity in being completely evil, even when being honest - or even merely extortionate - is clearly of greater benefit, but if the idea is even partially satirical, then De Palma overshoots the mark by some distance. Then he heaps some more silliness on top, but, hey, at this point, there is no point in being less deranged.

While it's a relatively early and, even for this director, not-particularly-subtle movie, it's still a De Palma film, which means it's certainly a treat to watch at times. There's a split-screen tracking shot that is right up there with anything he's ever done, which makes it pretty spiffy. The look of the film is garish as hell, but it's a fun ugliness; the filmmakers merrily blur the line between what was considered cool in 1974 (but dated now) and which bits of tackiness are timeless. Like the best of Brian De Palma's movies, there's often a feeling of just letting it rip even though looking at what's going on suggests everything must have been very tightly controlled, from the background anarchy in the first music number forward.

That cast can't really be said to elevate their material, sad to say - William Finley's performance improves markedly when his face is hidden behind a mask and his voice is electronically mangled, for instance. Paul Williams is a talented musician and a songwriter with an impressive range (he penned the music for both this and The Muppet Movie, and hit the nail square on the head with both), but except for rare moments, is neither threatening nor silly enough to get Swan to the proper extreme. There's some good work at the supporting level, though - Jessica Harper makes Phoenix sweet and crush-worthy without making her a complete doe-eyed innocent, and George Memmoli actually manages a few moments of dry, deadpan wit as Swan's second in command. And then there's Gerrit Graham's Beef. Graham may not do his own singing, but the man holds nothing back otherwise, making Beef as over-the-top as a proper glam-rocker should be while getting laughs beyond his role's silliness.

There's at least one surprisingly good print of Phantom of the Paradise floating around, and a midnight show at a funky theater seems like the best way to see it. It's not a great movie in and of itself, but it's just well-done enough for the kitsch to bring out more laughs than groans, either of which can be contagious with the right crowd.

(Fromerly at EFC)

True Grit '10

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 January 2011 at AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run)

No individual movie is truly necessary, but few recent films have likely seemed as unnecessary as a new adaptation of Charles Portis's novel True Grit. At least, until after one sees it; at that point, having Joel & Ethan Coen apply their distinctive voice to this particular story seems the most natural thing in the world, and the movies would be a poorer thing without it.

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a fourteen-year-old girl, but who else is going to put the affairs of her recently gunned-down father in order? Her siblings are younger than she is, her mother is certainly not up to it, and her head for sums and determination means she will likely be taking control of the business anyway. It is not just money that concerns her, though - she wants Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man responsible, to hang, which means hiring a marshall to track her down. Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is described as the meanest in the territory, which appeals to her, even if he is a fat old drunk. Their party is crashed by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who wants Chaney for the murder of a Texas state senator, but even with their combined experience and determination, catching Chaney will be difficult - he has fled into Indian Territory and allegedly hooked up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper).

This initially seems a very talky western; Mattie's years-later narration is initially plentiful, and there is a wonderful bit of black humor that comes from the last words of three men about to hang. We see Mattie's talents as a hard (and pushy) negotiator, many jokes are made about how LaBoeuf (pronounced "La Beef") does like to run on, and even Rooster turns fairly chatty after a bit. The words come in big, chewy chunks, the sort that gives the audience a clear indication of the level of education nd sophistication the various characters have (or wish to project). More often than not, the exact words are not nearly so important as the grammar and way it rolls off the tongue.

The assembled cast helps a lot with the latter part, naturally. Though her name appears after her better-known, more experienced castmates, Hailee Steinfeld is the film's impressive star. A lesser actress might just manage the grim-faced Mattie, mature and hardened beyond her years; Steinfeld manages to sneak in moments of petulance without making the audience think less of Mattie, and a sense of a kid setting out for an adventure that is always there but never prominent enough to make her seem silly or immature. She manages to hold her own alongside Jeff Bridges, who makes Rooster her complement, outwardly laid-back but jaded. It's a nifty performance, in that he gives off the initial impression of being silly, but dispenses of it pretty quickly, and his interplay with the slightly puff-ed up Damon is always good. Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper make for interesting villains - dangerous not because they are typical raving or icy monsters, but because the actors convince us that Chaney's cowardice and Pepper's practicality don't have much room for respecting human life.

The Coens and company take all this and sew it all together with the genre's usual trappings, which they have a handle on as well as anyone. Regular cinematographer Roger Deakins shoots fine footage of the wide-open spaces, making them as beautiful and foreboding as the moment demands. Carter Burwell's score is always a perfect fit, making nice but not ostentatious use of traditional music. And every detail of the sets, costumes, and other production design is just right, hitting the sweet spot between backlot-clean and revisionist-gritty.

And the shoot-outs are great. Westerns are about confrontations, and everything from the last paragraph combines with the Coen's knack for setting the right pace and knowing how to quickly jump from words to action. The first shootout comes after a crackling scene where the audience gets just enough time to have the hairs on the back of its collective neck prick up, feeling like anything can happen, before the situation is quickly, violently, and decisively resolved. That sort of action can be tough; quick build-up, clear action, and a finish that doesn't leave the audience feeling cheated is a tall order, but one the movie delivers a few times.

Has it done before? Sure, and not just in the novel's first adaptation; this True Grit is an unashamedly traditional western even with some of the Coens' signature style. But there aren't enough of those made in this day and age that for ennui to be a reasonable reaction, and even if there were, few would be so well-done in every detail as this one.

Full review at EFC.

Tron: LegacyRabbit HolePhantom of the ParadiseTrue Grit '10

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