Monday, January 18, 2010

Viva Doctor Parnassus

Two more movies I've seen recently...

Viva is a very strange animal, a newly made film that is a tribute to the softcore sex movies of the 1970's. A woman named Anna Biller wrote, directed and starred in the movie which has a typical period plot of an abandoned housewife deciding to explore her wild side and get sexually involved with all sorts of period characters like nudists, madams, "art" photgraphers, swingers and other assorted weirdos. Biller also did the set design and costuming for the film, wrote a few original songs and even created an animated drug trip sequence. She really captures the cheesy garish look of those movies and actually goes beyond the genre to toss in references to Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Blow-Up and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 

Despite all her hard work, though, the movie left me asking "Why bother?". Although there are some intentionally humourous moments arising from that period's ideas about "liberation", it's not really a spoof. nor is there enough dramatic meat to take seriously. It all seems a loving tribute to something that was never inteneded to be taken that seriously.

It's a shame that at this time of the year, in the so-called "awards season", all the films released the previous year are boiled down to a few highly touted movies battling for Oscars. This season it lloks as though everyone is expected to bow down and worship at the feet of Avatar while much more imaginative films like Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus get completely forgotten about. What liitle notoriety the film has comes from the fact that Heath Ledger passed away while making it, and that Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell were all called upon to replace him.

Outside of the stunt casting though this is a really impressive fantasy about a wager between an immortal man and the devilthat involves the man's daughter and an amensiac stranger with a shady past. It's a wild and impressively realized film with all sorts of bizarre fantasy landscapes and a psychedelic "Pilgrim's Progress" take on the choice between good and evil. It has good work from Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus and Tom Waits as the Devil, and the use of Ledger and his celebrity stand-ins is well worked into the story. Hopefully the DVD edition will give some insight as to how Ledger's death may have changed the  plot.  It's a visually rich, crazy film with strong philosophical ideas. Pity no one is paying any attention to it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Truth and a Kat

The most interesting movie I've seen lately has been a classic, The Awful Truth, which I just saw for the first time. It's looked on as one of the cornerstones of the screwball comedy genre but it dones't really have that feel. It has the right plot, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a feuding husband and wife who get divorced only to realize they still care for one another, but this movie is missing a lot of the speedy dialogue and crazy supporting characters that were common to other screwball films.  Instead there is a lot of more subtle physical comedy which is no surprise considering that director Leo McCarey had previously done a lot of slapstick comedies, in particular some of Laurel & Hardy's work. There is some business with Grant wearing a derby that belongs to Dunne's supposed lover that is very reminiscent of some of Stan and Ollie's past hat mixups.

I've also been watching something else with a far lesser reputation, some of a series of Krazy Kat cartoons released by King Features in the early 60's. This were the most recent attempt to bring George Herriman's legendary comic strip to the screen after a couple of abortive attempts in the 20's and 30's. Unfortunately this series bore little resemblance to the strip. All the main characters were there, Krazy, the brick throwing Ignatz Mouse, Offisa Pupp and a few others and they looked pretty much like Herrimann's creations but the cartoons themselves mainly consisted of one of Krazy's cousins coming to town and stirring up some kind of trouble with none of the intricate relationships or surreal dialogue of the original work. The most interesting aspects are that Paul Frees did all the male voices running through the gamut of accents he made famous with Jay Ward cartoons and that several of the cartoons were directed by the great animator Gene Deitch.  I've always had a starnge fascination with the bizarre series of cartoons Deitch did with Tom & Jerry and there is a litlle of that craziness in his Krazy Kat work, with weird little stories about safaris and Ignatz's imaginary baseball career. I can't really call the stuff funny but it was very interesting to watch.