Sunday, December 23, 2012

Film Review | Lincoln

Night at the Museum
by Thomas Delapa 

Laws and sausages, it's been said, are best not watched being made.

There’s a generous helping of the former—and a side of the latter—in Steven Spielberg’s heralded historical biopic, Lincoln. But will movie-going voters stomach a 150-minute presidential profile in courage that feels like a heavy chip off the block of Mount Rushmore?

No, Lincoln doesn’t land in theaters with a crash or a thud. It’s more like a whisper, the kind of hushed tone you’re schooled to use in museums and mausoleums. As a biography, the title itself is a misnomer of sorts, since Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner’s opus only spans a few months in early 1865, as the 16th president pokes, prods and pushes Congress to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery in the U.S.

For nearly two score years, Spielberg has been synonymous with blockbuster Hollywood entertainment, alternating with his high-minded historical fare like Schindler’s List, The Color Purple and Amistad. This prestige production is even further removed from the patented Spielberg action formula. There’s nary an action scene to be found in these parts, so there’s absolutely no mistaking it for Gettysburg—not to mention Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Rather, Spielberg makes a strategic retreat to Washington, D.C., training his camera on a foray of low-key interior scenes that might as well been staged at Ford’s Theatre.

Towering (literally) above the cast in beard and stovepipe hat is lanky Daniel Day-Lewis, who’s a dead ringer for Honest Abe—with reedy voice and stoop to boot. Evidently awestruck that his star looks like he just stepped out of a penny, Spielberg constantly poses his star in pensive, heroic profile. The two-time Oscar winner shrugs off his premature bronzing in a few forceful scenes, but he generally keeps under wraps, weighed down by a long, dusty cloak of legend. Instead of freeing the slaves, Day-Lewis should have insisted on emancipating his painstaking performance style a tad.

Partially drawn from a book (Team of Rivals) by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kushner’s script similarly gets bogged down in musty backroom political deal-making. Sensing an opening as the grisly Civil War draws to a close, Lincoln and his shrewd secretary of state, Seward (David Strathairn), hunt for votes in a raucous House of Representatives, both from their own abolitionist Republicans, led by an irascible Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), as well a handful of Democrats who might be persuaded, pressured, even bribed. Unsure of the dramatic bite of these smoke-filled shenanigans, Spielberg does his own logrolling, slipping in comic touches gilded to cornpone fiddle music.

As HBO’s fine John Adams mini-series showed, authentic American history can be truly compelling, but Spielberg and Kushner are too reverent and mythologizing, even as they go to pains to display Lincoln’s folksy, sometimes earthy wit. (Did you hear the one about Ethan Allen, George Washington and the outhouse?) The solemn tone is weighed down further by John Williams’ grandiose score, which chimes in with salutary horns better enlisted for an Arlington processional march. I may be going out on a limb here, but I do declare that the topic of slavery isn’t the hot-button issue it used to be. Spielberg, however, still seems to be fighting the Civil War, and, um, with horses and bayonets.

So you have to ask, then, why the filmmakers were so keen on running this long, lavish production up the flagpole, especially in an election year. Is it the curious resemblances to the presidency of Barack Obama, also recently re-elected and presiding over a bitterly divided Congress? While basic civil rights for African-Americans are at the heart of Lincoln’s crusade, Kushner (Angels in America) may be embedding his own topical amendments, from gender equality and racial intermarriage to gay rights.

Whatever the pertinent political motives, Lincoln makes for starchy, button-down history, more monument than movie. It may be an honest Abe, but it’s not nearly a winning one.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Film Review | Samsara

Around the World in 90 Minutes
by Thomas Delapa

In Sanskrit, samsara roughly means the "ever-turning wheel of life and death." In director Ron Fricke's meditative non-verbal documentary, Samsara translates into a mute mélange of image and music that revolves from the humdrum to the stunning.

Five years in the making, Samsara is a return trip to the New-Age travelogue territory for Fricke that marked his 1992 Baraka -as well as 1983's trailblazing Koyaanisqatsi on which he was the cinematographer. In this incarnation (or perhaps reincarnation), Fricke and collaborator Mark Magidson trekked to 25 countries spanning the globe for a sensuous and spiritual spectacle, but one that will leave some audiences hunting for a thematic road map.

Fricke calls his work a "guided meditation," and the cascade of images captures a paradoxical world of dynamic contrasts: the sacred and profane, desert and mountain, city and country, rich and poor, primitive and modern. Central to both Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, "samsara" isn't exactly an heavenly concept, but rather signifies the eternal cycle of life and death, including the infernal bugaboo of human suffering.

This odyssey starts at the birth of a new day at Buddhist monastery in India, where monks painstakingly create, grain-by-grain, a mandala sand painting. Visually, Fricke and Magidson's running motif is the human eye, whether on a resplendent Chinese dancer, a statue of King Tut or on a gallery of candid subjects staring at the camera, giving off expressions that run the gamut from disquieting defiance to inviting exoticism.

Fricke's camera also takes the long view, giving us remarkable vistas of deserts, mountains and cityscapes, often captured in revealing time-lapse. A busy downtown shimmers at night, punctuated by a moving necklace of headlights, while a river of commuters rushes through the Tokyo streets in fast-motion like so many human ants. You may feel like a stranger in a strange land as you eye these human caravans and wonder in bemusement where on earth we are headed as a species.

But confused audiences may well ask, "Where in the world is Ron Fricke?" since his globe-trotting is so fast and furious that it might make your head spin. Inner-directed spectators will take to the ambiguities and apparent incongruities of Fricke's eco-montage. Others will no doubt wish for better directions. Fricke doesn't readily connect the dots or his shots, so you'll have to DIY, folks.

Still, there is much to marvel at in this trippy New Age tour, which could be looked at as an upscale update of 1961's sensational Mondo Cane. Pessimists will think that the modern world really has gone to the dogs, especially after observing the unsavory scenes from a Chinese chicken factory, where workers in pink jump suits and masks systematically kill on a scale that would be the envy of Joseph Goebbels. Fricke never fails to remind us of evolution of mechanized man, embodied in the scary spectacle of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers marching in robotic formation. In the frankly bizarre category, the dead winner is a Ghana coffin shop, which makes it possible for one newly departed to rest in peace inside a casket customized into a giant shotgun.

Fricke aims high in this movie (it was photographed in lush widescreen 70mm), but the results are scattershot. With no script per se, only a rough scenario, he and Magidson let the images speak for themselves. They sometimes say volumes in beauty, mystery, weirdness and wonder. Other times, they barely whisper. Samsara is 90 minutes of checkered pictorial pleasure, but it's a world away from cinematic nirvana.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Young Frankenstein revived at Denver's Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre

Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre "Film on Fridays" Fun Fact

Did you know that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN utilized the very same laboratory props (we're talking serious beakers and electrodes) that Universal Studios used in its classic 1931 Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff?

So walk this way to the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre in Denver and watch on Friday, Sept. 14, as it revives Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder's monstrously funny comedy that put a side-splitting jolt into the Hollywood horror movie. In the final film of  Elitch's electrifying summer season, Wilder is Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, reluctant inheritor of his grandfather's ungodly experiments to bring back life from the dead.

This 1974 classic also stars Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Gene Hackman and Elitch acting alumna Cloris Leachman. Young Frankenstein is one spoof that never gets old! Rated PG. We're "Keeping it Reel" with a 35mm print.

An Elitch Theatre Advisory Board member, Ms. Leachman appeared on the Elitch stage in both 1983 and 1986 and won an Oscar for her supporting role in 1971's "The Last Picture Show." She's also won an amazing eight Emmy Awards for her TV work, more than any other performer. In "Young Frankenstein," our own last outdoor picture show of the summer, she's Frau Blucher, the mad-cap doctor's loyal housekeeper whose very name strikes fear in any nearby horse.

Lawn seating begins at 6:30 pm, with the show at dusk, preceded by live music (the Denver Soundtrack & Take That!) and theater tours. Latest Translyvanian weather report for Friday: a high of 76 and sunny.

Suggested donation $5+, with kids under 14 and members free.
Historic Elitch Theatre's "Film on Fridays" series is curated by Thomas Delapa.

4500 W. 38th Ave (at Utica), Denver, CO 80212.
Phone: 303-623-0216 (messages only)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Film Review | The Dark Knight Rises

Dark and Stormy Knight
by Thomas Delapa

Holy overkill, Batman!

In The Dark Knight Rises, the Caped Crusader flies out of retirement, loses all his money and Alfred, gets the guano beaten out of him, and has to save Gotham City from a masked madman with an atomic bomb. 
Whew, all this for one superhero with no real super powers. Where are the Avengers when you need them?

In the final installment from the dynamic box-office duo of director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale, Batman seriously loses his mojo, again. The operative word here is ”serious,” as Nolan morphs his brooding comic-book incarnation into a hooded Hamlet. To agonized alter ego Bruce Wayne, to be Batman or not to be Batman, that is the lofty question.

Hobbled and a recluse after his epic battles with the Joker, Bruce Wayne falls to a new low before he’s roused out of semi-retirement. First his mother’s pearls are stolen by a crafty cat burglar and then a mysterious, hulking mastermind orchestrates an uber-hostile takeover of Wayne Enterprises. In these dire and depressing times, neither Wayne nor Batman is too big to fail. 

Zeitgeist watchers will note that Batman’s capital new bane is Bane (Tom Hardy), whose new boss may or not be Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney. This Bane is a Humongous-like thug (see: Road Warrior) who mellifluously speaks through a metal muzzle. When you can understand what he’s saying, he comes across like a campy Darth Vader minus the cape and charm. Except for the prospect of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, he’s Bruce Wayne’s biggest, baddest stress test yet.  

For all the millions (reportedly upwards of 250) squandered on this production, Batman’s swan song looks and sounds pretty much like a clone of any elephantine action movie. Long gone are the moody gothic designs and lighter touch of the Tim Burton series, replaced by a blandly modern Manhattan and cardboard villains. The only new toy in Batman’s arsenal  is a “Bat” fighter jet that looks like, yes, a big metallic bat. Despite the ultra-modernistic design, its options don't include an auto-pilot, an oversight only flown in as a plot gimmick. 

In this B(r)at Pack entry, Hollywood ageism is the greatest stealth enemy. Not unlike the Harry Potter series, talented pros like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are pushed into the wings while the spotlight switches to minimal millennials like Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cast as an idealistic cop who wants to see Batman flap back into the swing of things. In skin-tight black leather and leading with her rear end, Hathaway is neither cat nor sexy kitten, only a kid actress who couldn’t carry Michelle Pfeiffer’s high heels. Reprising his throwaway role as the super-hapless Commissioner Gordon, Gary Oldman’s American accent is so forced he always seems to be throwing his voice from inside the Bat Cave. And if you’re looking for romance from this errant Knight, the best you’ll get are the bromantic weepy-eyed looks that Caine’s Alfred shoots at Master Wayne.

In the ups and downs of Batman’s last flight, not only must he battle the baddies and his own demons, but also Manhattan’s nasty 99%, who are unleashed as part of Bane’s suspiciously pinko plan of mass destruction. Once the urban masses take over the city, they set up kangaroo courts that send the rich and powerful hopping to their deaths across a frozen river. During the anarchy, Batman finds himself hurled into a prison hell-hole—literally—where his Herculean task involves an extreme messianic ascent that might go over big at the X Games. 

It’s all batty and super-pretentious, and any snickers that may arise will be muffled by the noise and Bale’s obliviously earnest performance, equal parts Dirty Harry and Jane Eyre’s Rochester. If this movie is a tragedy of sorts, as it so wants to be, it’s only because of the horrific real-life events that will forever shadow it. Otherwise, the joke is on the audience. Seriously. 


Thursday, July 19, 2012

Denver's Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre -- "Film on Fridays"

Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre’s “Film On Fridays” Lights Up the Summer Skies

Step to the front tomorrow night, July 20, as the Historic Elitch Gardens Theatre's outdoor film series proudly presents Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant REAR WINDOW (1954), featuring a remarkable three Elitch acting alumnus: Grace Kelly and Raymond Burr, along with Wendell Corey.

Only 21 and a relatively unknown Broadway and TV actress, Kelly was reportedly paid $125/per week for the summer as an ingenue, appearing in eight 1951 productions, including The Man Who Came to Dinner. She lived for the summer in a basement apartment with her mother at 4020 Raleigh St, often riding a bike to rehearsals. Backstage on Aug. 10, Kelly received the famous telegram from producer Stanley Kramer asking her if she could come to Hollywood to co-star opposite Gary Cooper in High Noon. This and other roles led to her three-film association with the celebrated director Alfred Hitchcock, beginning with Dial M for Murder in 1954. She would famously marry Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 and become Princess Grace Grimaldi of Monaco, retiring from acting.

Raymond Burr, of course, would go on to great fame after several Hollywood films as TV's Perry Mason in 1957 and, later Ironsides. Burr was a terrific friend to Denver, filming several episodes of his Perry Mason TV movies here (at the former Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater) in the 1980s and 1990s. He also raised millions of dollars for Denver educational and medical facilities.

Tickets: $5 suggested donation, with Elitch Theatre Members and kids under 14 free. Lawn seating begins at 7 pm, with the film at dusk, preceded by live music and tours. Grab your lawn chairs and blankets, but you won't need your binoculars! 
Projected in authentic 35mm prints whenever possible, Elitch's Film on Fridays is "Keeping it Reel," offering a diverse lineup for young and old ranging from director Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard to Mel Brooks’ ageless comedy Young Frankenstein. Curated by Thomas Delapa, Film on Friday's includes rare prints from the UCLA Film & TV Archive, NBC Universal, Criterion Pictures and Swank Motion Pictures. All proceeds go to the theater’s renovation campaign as a landmark performance-arts center. The Elitch Theatre is located at 4500 W. 38th Ave (at Utica), Denver, CO 80212. More information at and on Facebook.

Remaining Schedule
Aug. 3Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder and starring Gloria Swanson (Elitch’s, 1967) and William Holden, with Cecil B. DeMille (Elitch’s, 1905)
Aug. 17Beetlejuice (1988), directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton and Sylvia Sidney (Elitch’s, 1928)
Sept. 7 – Stay tuned for surprise sci-fi classic!
Sept. 14Young Frankenstein (1974), directed by Mel Brooks and starring Gene Wilder and Cloris Leachman (Elitch’s, 1983, 1986)

About the Historic Elitch Theatre
The Historic Elitch Theatre’s mission is to create a vibrant, multidisciplinary cultural arts center in Northwest Denver that strengthens and engages the community through innovative live arts programming accessible to a diverse public.

The Elitch Theatre has been an important part of Colorado’s cultural landscape since its inception in 1891. It was the first cultural center in Colorado, and is the oldest summer stock theater in the nation. In 1896, it was also the site of one of the West's first showings of Thomas Edison's "Vitascope" motion pictures. Many pioneers and famous faces such as Grace Kelly, Douglas Fairbanks, Edward G. Robinson, Sylvia Sidney, Raymond Burr, Patricia Neal, Cecil B. DeMille, and Robert Redford, to name a few, passed through this iconic American theater at one point in their careers. One early star at Elitch’s was only 15 years old when she first appeared on the Elitch Theatre stage and was called “Tony” for short. This Denver girl grew up to be the famous Broadway producer, Antoinette Perry, for whom the Tony Awards are named. The Elitch Theatre delighted Denver audiences for 100 years, with the last production occurring in 1991. In 1931, DeMille called it "one of the greatest cradles of the drama in American history.''

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Film review | Moonrise Kingdom

The Emperor’s New Khakis
By Thomas Delapa

Well, at least one critic got it right.

“This summer’s sleeper hit” proclaimed Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post of director Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

As an aside from the popcorn gallery, I’ll just say, “My kingdom for a No-Doz.”

An arid heir to recent Anderson live-action films like The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, this Kingdom is anything but wild. Set in 1965 (for no apparent reason) on a mythical New England island (for no apparent reason), it’s the soporific study of an runaway boy scout who teams up with a misfit girl. Imagine a kiddie Badlands or a washed-out Blue Lagoon. However you picture it, it’s no good.

After showing such sparkling promise in his 1996 Bottle Rocket debut and reaching the heights in The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson’s talent and imagination have fizzled. Sure, he’s still crafting his meticulously composed vignettes of wry Americana, but his story sense—never much more than plebian—has lately been a dud. When you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie, you keep looking around wondering if anyone else (besides his actors) is in on the joke.

Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (scion of the Francis Coppola house) dream up “New Penzance Island,” a bucolic backwater where adults act like kids and kids act like adults. At Camp Ivanhoe, upright, uptight Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton) is in charge, browbeating his boys with quaint threats and exclamations like “Jiminy Cricket!” All of them get in line except one: Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), a precocious bespectacled boy in a coonskin cap who goes AWOL from his pup tent and embarks on an oddball odyssey into the wild.

But this movie deserves no merit badges, except for Pretension and Quirkiness. It’s dressed up with nowhere to go, accessorized with Anderson’s typically overstuffed tableaux, photographed in long, gratuitous dolly shots. Abetted by bloated budgets for art design, Anderson fills his frame with trinkets, doodads, graphics and decor that refer back to nothing in particular, except maybe his own airy, flea-market imagination. His and Coppola’s dialogue is equally arch, composed of non sequiturs fit for only a king of smug indie obscurity.

Sam’s journey leads to a romantic rendezvous with Suzy (Kara Hayward), his sulky, eye-shadowed queen in this L.L. Bean-flavored land of plaid and khaki. While adults in the fairy tale are sappy and tree-thick, at least Sam and Suzy are accorded a royal treatment.

Don’t be blinded by the glittery star court that Anderson has assembled—Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Norton, as well as frequent star Bill Murray—as they are all overshadowed by the aimless and lackluster story. While Anderson wants to give us a preppie, pipsqueak riff on Adam and Eve, his career now looks like a fool’s paradise.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Film Re-view | Contempt/Le Mepris (1963)

Waiting for Godard 

by Thomas Delapa 

For those filmgoers who believe that world cinema is in desperate need of a renaissance, if not revolution, there's no better antidote than the re-release of Contempt, director Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 modernist masterwork now playing at Denver's Esquire Theatre for a limited run.

Godard, a key figure in the French New Wave that also gave us Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais, made Contempt (Le Mepris) four years after his breathtaking debut in Breathless. A freewheeling homage to the American gangster movie, Breathless made a star of Jean-Paul Belmondo and heralded Godard as a Picasso-like destroyer of the staid conventions of movie-making.

Relatively speaking, Contempt was Godard's first big-budget production. Based on a novel (A Ghost at Noon) by Italian author Alberto Moravia, it was financed by Carlo Ponti (Sophia Loren's husband) and shot on location in Rome and Capri. But what made it a cause celebre was the casting of Brigitte Bardot, then Europe's reigning sex goddess. "B.B." had burst (literally) upon the scene in 1956 in Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman, virtually redefining sexuality in the commercial film. With Bardot aboard, Godard hired Hollywood heavy Jack Palance, an unknown Michel Piccoli and legendary German director Fritz Lang to play himself.

Photographed on luscious widescreen color by Godard ace Raoul Coutard, Contempt is an exemplar introduction to a director who once signed his name, Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard. It's a difficult, exhilarating film, crammed with allusions to painting, drama, music and other movies. In fact, the finished product was so upsetting to U.S. distributor Joseph E. Levine that Godard was forced to add a nude scene with Bardot, though even that was subverted by Godard the trickster.

From Moravia's novel, Godard extracted, in his words, the "story of a misunderstanding between a man and a woman." Paul (Piccoli) is French writer who's come to Rome's famed Cinecitta studios with his wife Camille (Bardot) at the request of an egomanical American producer, Prokosch (Palance). Prokosch is unhappy with the movie version of Homer's Odyssey being directed by Lang. Then in his seventies, Lang had behind him such landmarks as Metropolis and M and Hollywood hits The Big Heat and You Only Live Once. Art constantly intersects with life in Contempt; to wit, Godard himself appears as the Odyssey's assistant director.

Like his New Wave brethren--most former film critics--Godard was infatuated with the cinema's power and traditions. In the memorable opening, a camera approaches the screen as it follows an actress reading a book. At the end of the shot, the camera leaves her and turns in close-up to us. Godard never wants us to forget that camera, nor of the world it creates, "a world that responds to our desires," says the narrator, quoting the seminal French film critic Andre Bazin.

Film has given us our popular mythology, our equivalent to the Greek epics, but then Homer didn't have to deal with producers, agents and stars. To Godard, Lang acts as the conscience of film, a cultured man who labors with Sisyphean endurance to bring a faithful version of Homer to the screen. But off the set, it's Prokosch who has usurped the role of the gods. Though evidently he despised working for Godard, Palance is marvelous as a titan of venal vulgarity. "I like gods, I know how they feel," he pontificates, reading aphorisms out of a little red book.

Godard's allusions give Contempt a cultural density that's no so far from Joyce's own Ulysses or Eliot in The Waste Land. Homer's work, of course, is an epic of Ulysses' treacherous journey back to Greece after years away fighting in the Trojan War. While Homer's hero battles sea monsters and sirens on the way home, his loyal wife Penelope fends off a gaggle of suitors until his return.

In this tale of demi-gods and men, rarely can Godard's "shipwrecked victims of the modern world" live up to such noble deeds. They speak different languages and must use a translator (Giorgia Moll) in conversations. Paul is passive and cowardly, testing his wife's fidelity by allowing her to be alone with Prokosch. Bardot's Camille has the beauty of Helen, but is impulsive and enigmatic. For Godard, men and women are indeed ruled by different planets, embodied in the primal reds Bardot wears versus the cool blues of Piccoli.

A seer about contemporary gender relations, Godard pessimistically finds little common ground between the sexes. In a scene that lasts a full 30 minutes, Paul and Camille have a meandering, banal--but realistic--argument in their empty new apartment, literally going around in circles as studied by Coutard's fluid camera. Unlike the women of old, Camille isn't content to be merely an appendage to her husband's life, and this change for Paul has turned his love for her into an Achilles' heel.

But Contempt isn't merely talk. It's a gorgeous film, from the crystal blue waters off the island of Capri to Godard's meticulous compositions and Georges Delerue's ominous yet tender romantic score [which Martin Scorsese cribbed in 1995's Casino]. Godard's zeal for cinema is so intense that he visually "quotes" from a number of his favorites, such as Roberto Rossellini's Voyage in Italy and Lang's own silent Siegfried saga, thus adding complex layers of meaning to the story. When Lang tells his crew to prepare to shoot the "Cyclops scene," there's a cut to the camera, a modern one-eyed monster that's devoured many a mortal.

For a time in the heady 1960s, Godard and his daring and smart compatriots opened up the eyes and ears of a generation of hungry filmgoers. They blazed a trail into a new type of cinema that was challenging, literate and passionate. Today that trail is overgrown, ignored or trampled on by profiteers, contemptible celebrity seekers and a conspicuously less demanding public.

Ulysses made it home, but as a near 50-year-old Contempt sorely reminds us, world film today is adrift at sea.

Originally published in Boulder Weekly 12/11/97; minor additions 4/23/12.
Contempt was released as two-disc DVD set by Criterion in 2002.