Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Review: The Producers (2005)

The Producers
135 minutes
Rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The Producers, the 1968 Oscar-winning debut of Mel Brooks, is one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s a complete original; sharp, witty, charming, and utterly shocking in an innocent way. The acting by Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel is top notch, the writing is spot on, and it is and will be a classic for generations to come. The Producers, the 2005 musical remake, is based on the hit Broadway adaptation. I wish I could just cut and paste the above paragraph and substitute Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane for Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. You have no idea how much I wish I could say that this new version honors and celebrates all that was good about Mel Brooks and his comedy classic. I wish it were so, but it isn’t…

The Producers 2.0 is a travesty, a cataclysmic flop, and a stunning miscalculation on every level. It is the worst musicals in ages, and one of the worst films of the year. It is a film so terrible that it devalues the original in a way that no remake ever has before. Gene Siskel once said that no good movie is truly depressing while every bad movie is. In a season of alleged downers such as Brokeback Mountain, Munich, The Family Stone, Rent, King Kong, and Syriana, no movie saddened me more than The Producers.

A token amount of plot - After discovering a scheme that would allow more profits from a flop show than from a hit show, rock-bottom Broadway producer Max Bialystock (Nathan Lane, badly aiming for the back rows even in close up) and cowardly accountant Leo Bloom (Matthew Broderick, also seemingly forgetting how to act for the camera after all these years on Broadway) go on a hunt for the worst play imaginable so that they can produce an instant-flop.

For starters, each and every song is nearly ten minutes long and none of them advance the plot or deepens a character. Every song is monotonous, repetitive, and useless. They repeat information we already know, after the characters have spoken said information prior and during a given song. A climactic number even spends five minutes recounting the entire story for no particular reason. Worst of all, the lyrics are witless and as banal as can be. It is rare that one watches a musical and dreads the songs. As a musical, The Producers stands proudly alongside its betters such as Grease 2 and At Long Last Love.

The original film was 85 minutes. This version runs 130 minutes and the padding shows. The biggest casualty of story expansion is Leo Bloom. Bloom was originally a cowardly loser who wanted to get rich by doing something daring and bold. In this version, Bloom sings at length about his secret dream to be a successful Broadway producer. So then why is he aligning with Bialystock who plans to produce an instant flop and end both of their careers? And the extra three new endings don’t help either.

The film also butchers much of the original’s charm. The initial office meeting between Leo and Max is one of the funniest scenes in film history, yet here it goes on and on, without a drop of comic timing to be found, just two people yelling at each other when they should be whispering. Every scene, every song, and nearly every line is completely over the top, which not only makes for an annoying cinematic experience, but kills the humor when we finally see the show that Max and Leo have been producing. In the original, the musical number in question is the punch line to an hour-long setup, and an explosive orgy of comic inappropriateness and gleeful naughtiness. Now, it’s merely another over the top song and thus is no longer special.

In the original, the play was funny because the lead actor was an atrociously bad actor and intentionally miscast. Now, the lead actor is merely ‘funny cause he’s gay’. Much of the new humor comes from ‘queenie humor’, which is shocking coming from someone as enlightened as Mel Brooks. Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (co-written by the recently deceased Richard Pryor) is still the funniest and one of the smartest films ever made about racism. In this film, producer Brooks and director Susan Stroman are laughing at gay people, not with them.

We have terrible, boring, pointless songs. We have bad writing, unfunny new jokes and botched old jokes. We have insanely over-the-top acting that completely kills any sense of human interaction. Please, rent or re-watch the 1968 classic instead.

Grade: D

Monday, December 12, 2005

Review: King Kong (2005)

King Kong
188 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a complete joy; a ripping yarn that refuses to let the audience settle for less, both in technical and artistic achievements. At its best, it has the showmanship to remind you of how you felt while watching your favorite adventure film from childhood. It’s not perfect, but its flaws are ones born out of risk, imagination, and the willingness to swing for the fences in an age when all too many filmmakers settle for a ground rule double.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

Review: The Family Stone (2005)

The Family Stone
102 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

The Family Stone is an odd duck, as it is undermined by its own cleverness, even while that cleverness earns points for moxy. It is subtle in its characters, yet overly broad in its plot mechanics. One word of warning though- do not be fooled by the light and fluffy advertising materials for this film, which make it look like a reverse-formed Meet The Parents. While the skeletal outline merits such comparison (instead of a wacky male going to meet his girlfriend's uptight, rigid family, it's a rigid, uptight female going to meet her boyfriend's wacky family), it is a far more dramatic and far darker story that really never tries to be funny in the traditional sense.

The plot, to wit... Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a workaholic nervous wreck, nervous because she is spending Christmas with the family of her longtime boyfriend Everett (Dermot Mulroney). Her fears turn out to be well founded as she is more or less ambushed
by the Stone family, using her uptight nature and overly formal manner as weapons against her in their slightly frumpier, jollier household. Desperate for backup, Meredith calls on her sister, Julie (Claire Danes), which only makes matters worse as the family seems to like Julie far more than Meredith. As the weekend progresses, lines are drawn, confessions are made, and the reasons for the Stone's behavior are made potently clear. If the previews resemble Meet The Parents, then the synopsis above will likely remind viewers of You Can't Take It With You, without the element of class warfare.

But, while the plot spins off in often-wild digressions and often- forced directions, the acting and the character development keep it grounded. Every single character is played by an esteemed and well-liked actor, and they are all in top form. Diane Keaton plays the matriarch, aptly named Sybil, as she has several sides to her, using soothing, maternal cliches to dish out brutal truths and accusations. Craig T. Nelson shines in a rare lead role as a sympathetic patriarch who tries to remain uninvolved by the character assassination until it crosses the line. Dermot Mulroney wins points by not being the usual blank slate the occupies the role of the 'prize child' (think Teri Polo's thinly written role in the Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers), and actually having a backbone as he stands up to his siblings and his mother. Luke Wilson also shines in a subtle performance as the oldest brother of the family, a proverbial black sheep who immediately sympathizes with Meredith's plight. Finally Rachel McAdams revels in the chance to play a normal, grouchy little brat of a sister, after playing several versions of 'the ideal woman' in the last couple years. Here she is vain, petty, and often the instigator, and she obviously loves every minute of it.

At the very least, The Family Stone is a triumph as an acting treat, and on that level alone it is worth seeing. From a story and plot point of view, however, it flounders. I won't reveal the overly complicated storyline, except to state that it becomes tripped up in its own would-be cleverness. When the film sticks to emotional truths and character, it succeeds. The tangled web of conflicting story lines is merely a burden, a burden that the film cannot overcome. Bonus points are nonetheless earned by the subtly of certain plot developments and that fact that crucial information is delivered visually rather than through expository rants.

In the end, The Family Stone is worth seeing for what it attempts, regardless of whether it always succeeds. It attempts to be a different sort of family dramedy. It attempts to be a different kind of holiday movie. It attempts to be a romance of a most unusual sort. The effort is appreciated and the characters are far richer and deeper than is the norm for this sort of film. And the quality character work is backed up by strong acting by a strong ensemble. Thus, despite my misgivings about how the story works itself out, the film is worth seeing for the strong acting, and several worthwhile emotional beats that arise out of character and honest feeling. The Family Stone is a big, messy movie about complicated, messy people and their messy lives.

Grade: B

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Review: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain
135 minutes
Rated R

By Scott Mendelson

Based on E. Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain has been allotted plenty of industry attention due to the obvious fact that it is one of the first big-studio homosexual romantic dramas. Yes, in this film, you do see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal engaging in sexual activities, kissing, hugging, etc. Now that that’s out of the way, one must view this film not on its noted status as the first such film, but its quality if it were merely the 50th such film. And, in fact, Brokeback Mountain does feel like the 50th such film, as it’s not really about being gay at all. Like all of Ang Lee’s previous movies, it is about regret, missed opportunities, and the crippling nature of social expectations and very real responsibilities. And, by that standard, it’s quite compelling.

Ennis (Ledger) and Jack (Gyllenhaal) are young cowboys in 1963 Middle America. They meet and spend a summer working as sheepherders in a place called Brokeback Mountain. They eventually engage in a torrid romance that ends as August arrives. Four years later, they meet up again, as they will for the next sixteen years, every few months, for a brief respite from their own very different lives. While Ledger and Gyllenhaal share top billing, this is clearly Ennis’s story, as we see far more of his life then Jack’s. Aside from romantic yearnings for Ennis, Jack’s life seems content. He is seemingly happily married to Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy salesman, and he has most of the comforts of a financially stable household.

Ennis, however, is the model of lower-class tragedy. As the summer of 1963 ends, he immediately marries Alma (an Oscar-worthy Michelle Williams) and, within four years, he has two children, a one-sided marriage, and bills that keep him and his wife working non-stop in menial, psychically demanding jobs to support their bare minimum lifestyle. For Ennis, Jack is an escape from this impoverished and joyless life. Alma has no such outlet for her burdens, and her pain becomes the most devastating aspect of the film. She quickly discovers the nature of Ennis and Jack’s relationship and heart-breakingly realizes that she has based her future with a man who can barely support her, does not love her, and eventually cannot be passionate with her.

For twenty years, Jack and Ennis meet for occasional ‘fishing trips’ and for twenty years, even when seemingly able, they do not take their relationship beyond romantic getaways. Jack wishes this, while Ennis refuses, blaming social intolerance. But Ennis is really afraid of being truly destitute, of abandoning his children, and afraid of the possibility that he cannot open up emotionally to anyone at all. Alas, Jack and Ennis’s relationship is not a great love affair, but a fantasy, based on idealized memories of their first encounter. Jack and Ennis are wildly different people, and their lust would likely not have been enough to sustain their differences in a normal relationship. Of course, had they tried and failed early in life, they both could have moved on. The tragedy is that their yearning is both what sustains them and what renders them unable to rebound from their respective problems.

Like most of Ang Lee’s previous work, Brokeback Mountain is a good, emotionally potent film about lives unfulfilled due to fear and the excuses we make to stop ourselves from pursuing what we really want. Bruce Banner runs from Betty Ross’s nurturing love because he fears that his inner rage will hurt her. Master Li uses his potentially final breaths to confess his love for Yu Shu Lien, now that possible death has freed him from the social constrictions that have rendered him silent. And Ennis uses social intolerance and family responsibilities to disguise his fear of being incapable of baring his soul to another person. In the end they all lose, they all end up wasting their lives.

As the film winds down, Ennis must come to grips with the life he has made for himself as he undertakes a journey that will vaguely remind people of screenwriter Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece, Lonesome Dove (the mini-series adaptation of which is perhaps the finest western ever made). But in the end, there is a glimmer of hope, and a potential first step. Perhaps all of these lives we see connected through Brokeback Mountain will not be in vain.

Grade: A-


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