Sunday, March 25, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Nine”

Sometimes, you hear about a film project and it’s an absolute dream. You line up a prestigious director, decorated cast consisting of award-winning actors, throw it a big budget and slot it for a prestigious holiday release, in anticipation of big box office and critical hosannas translating into a slew of show-business awards. And then sometimes it goes terribly wrong.

In 2008, plans were finalized for the film version of the Best Musical Tony Award-winning play Nine. It seemed to be a natural fit for a film project. The original musical was based on Federico Fellini’s classic movie 8 ½. One of the plays the original musical beat for the Tony, Dreamgirls, was adapted into a highly successful film version in 2006. Nine was meant to join the burgeoning renaissance of movie musicals, which includes not only Dreamgirls but also Moulin Rouge!, Hairspray, the Best Picture Oscar winner Chicago and Mamma Mia!, which became the highest-grossing film of all time in the UK. Nine’s glorious cast included Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Dame Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren, plus nominee Kate Hudson and Grammy-winning singer-rapper Fergie. The project was helmed by Rob Marshall, who shepherded Chicago to roaring success. It had the backing of The Weinstein Company, with an incredible track record of box office and Oscar winners dating back to 1992. And a sensational trailer that debuted at Cannes amidst a flurry of publicity to exhibitors and ecstatic advance word:

So why did the project fail? One could easily blame the intense box office competition at the time the film went into wide release. The blockbuster Avatar appealed to all demographics and became a cultural event, and the reboot of Sherlock Holmes, it could be argued, had siphoned the more mature audience that was meant for the sophisticated Nine. One might make the case that its failure was also owed to Up in the Air, the acclaimed dramedy that was also attracting the same crowd. Had an overabundance of films aimed at the same demographic cannibalized the audience? Sure, you could have argued that, but how does that explain why the film received mixed to dismal reviews? I was absolutely ecstatic to see the trailer in the spring of 2009, but the final project felt underwhelming when I finally caught it at a New Year’s Day matinee performance. It wasn’t from distaste for the genre, either, so that argument was out.

A word on the marginal plot, taken directly from Fellini’s original 1963 film. Movie director Guido (Day-Lewis) has director’s block and is working on his latest project following a nervous breakdown. He has no script and no confirmed cast, only a leading lady (Kidman) and some sets. His loyal costume designer (Dench) has been working with him forever and wants him to do something about his procrastination. Heck, the whole movie is two hours of procrastination, set to music. He’s been cheating on his wife (Cotillard) with longtime mistress Carla (Cruz), and both come to the town where he’s filming the movie. An American journalist (Hudson) has started asking uncomfortable questions (he’s hiding his recent meltdown from the press). His mother (Loren) figures in his imagination, as does the town whore (Fergie) who introduced him to the mystique of the female gender in his boyhood. Nine concerns whether his wife ultimately wises up and leaves him, and whether or not the film is made. Neither question’s answer is at all consequential.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “Madeo” (Mother)

[Ed. N.: Obviously this has nothing to do with the titular mother in Albert Brooks’s amazing comedy Mother, which you can read all about here.]

In the opening shot of the Korean thriller Madeo (that’s “mother” in English”), an elderly woman appears in a field. She comes slowly to the camera. There is a mountain range behind her, but nothing else indicates signs of life around her. The soundtrack cues a soft Spanish guitar and, after she faces the camera with a blank stare that betrays nothing, the woman sways gently to the music. Where is the music coming from, if this were not a music video? This is the first sign that this is not the typical “revenge” epic that we can expect from South Korea, and even then, the famed revenge trilogy by Park Chan-Wook is like nothing else you’ve ever expected and there is nothing typical about it.

Do-Joon is not the brightest young man. He’s 27 years old and lives in a small seaside village in South Korea, miles away from the bright lights of Seoul. Here, everyone knows each other. His mother is some sort of apothecary, dispensing homemade herbal remedies and performing at-home acupuncture for village residents. He doesn’t appear to have a job and personifies the apt descriptor “a few bricks short of a load”. Obsessed with losing his virginity, it doesn’t help that he and his mother sleep in the same bed. She makes dishes that are designed to boost his virility. One night, he unsuccessfully chases a teenage girl in a desperate attempt to woo her. Because he is of less than average intelligence, he cannot recall what happened that night and is quite surprised to find himself arrested for the young girl’s murder. No thanks to inept local police forces and a worthless attorney, he lands in prison for 15 years. His distraught mother sets about finding out what truly happened, because she believes in the innate goodness of her son and doesn’t believe that he has the capacity to harm another human being.

Director Bong Joon-Ho, who made the stunning 2006 sci-fi horror thrilled The Host, removes the sci-fi element and places the horrors of people’s actions into the most unassuming setting. The trespasses and transgressions committed here are only between one another. Despite the penchant for Korean films to seamlessly incorporate elements of Christian theology into such cinematic masterpieces like 2006’s Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, this is a town that seems untouched by the Divine, a remote outpost in a godless universe where we are responsible for our own actions and inflict unspeakable horrors of the more mundane but no less horrific kind unto one another. Bong’s settings are drab, awash in shades of grey, whites and blacks. This is the kind of town where you can see lifers spending their entire existence without ever leaving.

There are extraordinary revelations in the latter half of the film. In a more conventional (I am trying not to say “American”) film, this would have been a straight-up revenge epic, with bloody retribution in the end. Madeo is structured more like a mystery, and as we find out more about the murder, we are slowly fed information about the poisonous relationship between mother and son, the dead girl’s life, the way minor players figure into the mystery, and it all ends in a whopping half-hour where everything becomes unambiguously clear. The effect is stunningly unsettling, if not downright upsetting. There is no cheap emotional payoff. Let’s just say that if this were remade in Hollywood, the go-to actress to play the mother wouldn’t be Ashley Judd, but Tilda Swinton.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Eurovision 2012: Russia’s Buranova Babushkas

With the impending return of spring comes, across Europe, the first signs of an annual ritual casually making itself known on the cultural calendar once again. That’s right, it’s the Eurovision Song Contest, which I spotlighted in a piece you can read more about here

Russia first participated in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994 and has competed continuously every year since 2000. They even hosted the competition in 2009, as part of the reward for winning the Contest the previous year. They take this contest seriously there. With the increasingly larger presence in the global market Russia continues to occupy, it follows that they would attempt to participate in the cultural climate, as well. They’ve largely stuck with English-language hits to generate greater appeal and potential crossover success on the pop charts. Russia has done well in the last decade and a half, winning in 2008 for native pop singer Dima Bilan’s pan-European smash ballad “Believe” (which included a memorably bizarre appearance from Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko), and placing in the top three five times total. At one point, the faux-lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u. came in third, around the same time that they briefly enjoyed American success with their hit “All the Things She Said”. Last year’s entry, Alex (Vorobyov) Sparrow’s “Get You”, was even produced by RedOne, the man who co-produced Lady Gaga’s blockbuster album The Fame.

A word must be said about the selection process for each country’s entry. Usually left to their own devices to choose the entry, the winner is often selected by popular vote, depending on the nation. While the Russians have generally favoured high-gloss pop music, their selection this year is downright bizarre. The winning entry is Buranova Babushkas and their song “Party for Everybody”, which was chosen by the public over returning favourite Bilan and t.A.Tu.’s Julia Volkova and their blockbuster duet, amongst others.

For those of you who speak Russian, yes: “babushka” as in grandmother. These eight women hail from a tiny village called Buranova in Udmurt Republic in the Urals. Having competed in the Eurovision selection contest in 2010, these grandmothers came third in that national competition and have won the right via public vote to represent Russia at the big contest in Baku, Azerbaijan in May. The song isn’t even in Russian, but in Udmurt, with the chorus in English. My Google skills tell me that the non-English lyrics generally sing of the routine in daily life in that village: kneading dough, lighting the oven, laying out tablecloth while waiting for the children to come home. It is light years away from the flush of new wealth in cosmopolitan Moscow and is much closer to the simpler existence in small villages in Soviet Russia (or one might imagine).

Let’s face it: this selection is the American equivalent of choosing notorious American Idol also-ran William Hung to represent the country, should the U.S. actually participate in Eurovision. They are not professional singers by any means, nor are they accomplished vocalists, with the production overwhelming the voices and a beat that could have come from having a karaoke machine make love to a drum machine. The costumes are traditional and are likely hand-made. And yet, as with so many reality-show contestants, the Buranova Babushkas have a compelling back story. Their only purpose for entering Eurovision is to raise awareness and money to build a new church in the village of Buranova, which numbers only 650 in population. And let’s face it, it’s rather endearing to hear this story and watching them dance with abandon, much like this remarkable Mandarin remake of “Bad Romance” with seniors. I’m just saying that they likely don’t prioritize public opinion other than for the purpose for which they came to Eurovision. Plus, after the first minute or so, the clip is immensely catchy.

How will the Buranova Babushkas fare at Eurovision? Just remember that Alex Sparrow’s entry was designed to win the contest outright, given how American it sounded, and it placed fourteenth. Also remember that an outright bizarre entry like Verka Serduchka almost claimed pole position in 2007.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Oscar 2012: the Aftermath

Best Actress and Best Actor
Less than a week after the most epic of parties, with the red carpet all rolled up, and the stars all (hopefully) back at work, here are some random notes on this year’s Academy Awards aftermath. I’m not concentrating on the actual show itself, but discussing the ultimate question: what does it all mean?

Let’s discuss the success of The Artist. It wasn’t a clean sweep, Lord of the Rings-style. It was more like a respectable showing, a la Chicago in 2002. This doesn’t mean that studios are rushing to make eclectic projects like this one. Harvey Weinstein is not overcome with a sudden urge to bring back silent movie en masse. What this does mean, as a business model, is that the major studios and boutique shops (like The Weinstein Company and Focus Features) will continue to attend film festivals and acquire domestic distribution rights to worthy projects, dress them up in critical praise, and create Oscar campaigns for them. No, the major studios are still producing Transformers sequels and busily re-booting tried-and-true franchise options. (Unless you’re Christopher Nolan or Steven Soderbergh and can do whatever the hell you want.)

Jean Dujardin will continue to be a star in France, and his next few projects might get limited release in North America, but people here may forget he exists. The real test of longevity will be how he navigates his career without TWC’s direct involvement. He’s charmed everyone by appearing on talk shows, participating in that hilarious Funny or Die video, and he’s sexy to boot. He will now have to decide if an American project might entice him and he can become a domestically-recognized movie star, or if he’ll continue in French films exclusively. He may want to call fellow French Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, for tips. She’s continued working in their native France while also taking on strong supporting roles in such prestige projects as Inception, Nine and Midnight in Paris, all of which were nominated for or won Oscars. Dujardin will have to choose wisely, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. In the interim, it’s likely that his next film Les Infideles, which caused some controversy in France due to its outrageous movie poster, will be given a local release.

Now that Meryl’s won an Oscar for her outstanding performance in The Iron Lady – a film I did not love but in which she was tremendous – the pressure’s now off to give her a third Oscar, something people have been buzzing about since at least 1985. She still has more nominations than any performer, living or dead, and as many Oscars as Jack Nicholson and Ingrid Bergman, one away from Katherine Hepburn’s all-time record. However, the next person in line for the Best Actress award will be none other than fellow nominee Glenn Close. Seeing Close on the red carpet for the first time in years, looking beautiful but also age-appropriate given the lack of any (obvious) plastic surgery, should remind the Academy to take notice of the outstanding work she’s done since her last Oscar nomination 23 years ago. She’s since won two Tony Awards and three Emmy Awards (and countless nominations) for, amongst others, a political stage play, a big-budget Broadway musical smash, noted miniseries and excellent ongoing work for serious, prestigious television series such as Damages and The Shield. Heck, Damages just might be her signature role and may outclass almost about everything she’s ever done in film. She’s now lost at the Oscars six times. She is due. Her next project is Thérèse Raquin, currently in pre-production. This is an adaptation of an oft-performed Emile Zola play and novel, smells of prestige, and is due out next year. Close for Oscar, 2014? It could happen.