Monday, April 28, 2014

The Great Gatsby


The Great Gatsby

One Day


One Day

Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas

The Hunger Games


The Hunger Games

INTERMISSION

Darling Readers:

I have compiled and edited all of my columns from my heyday of writing film reviews so that they may be savored and enjoyed by others.  These columns were originally written for a consumer review site, Epinions.com and appeared between 2000 and 2006 at odd intervals.  With the demise of Epinions this year, friends requested that I save these little musings of mine so I have placed them all here in chronological order. (They'll make the most sense if you go to the end of this blog and read them in reverse).  I have also been engaged by a new website, www.movierewind.com as a regular columnist and will be providing them with a review a week for the foreseeable future.  As these new columns are being housed by the fine folks there, I will not be posting them here, but I will post links so that you can click through and continue to enjoy my tasteful Hollywood life and my thoughts on the state of the modern cinema.

Kisses,

MNM

Dreamgirls


WE'LL MAKE YOU HAPPY

Where does the time go? No sooner do I get one project tied up than a dozen others come down around my perfectly coiffed head, burying me up to the tops of my size six Capezio character tap shoes. It's very annoying. Pre-production work on my new film project, Flaming Desire, the musical remake of Die Hard has slowed over the usual and inevitable creative differences. Wardrobe presented me with a gown for the difficult escape by helicopter from the roof sequence that made me look like a refugee from Anatevka, not a glamorous international business icon. I tried it on, looked in the mirror and I could have sworn it was Lazar Wolf looking back.
While the film is at a low ebb, I am continuing to look at other opportunities to use my many talents. My publicist has suggested that I should join the current pack of junior celebs headed by Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Normy and I thought this would be a marvelous idea so we headed off to Chateau Marmont where we settled ourselves into the bar. We didn't have long to wait before Britney came in with a couple of her young lady friends. I squealed Britney as loud as I could and hustled my way across the room, but one of my taps caught on the edge of an ill-placed throw rug and I fell straight into the arms of a rather burly security guard. By the time I recovered, she had left the building. The paparazzi photograph shot up my skirt that landed on Page Six was not flattering.
Normy and I decided not to wait for Lindsay Lohan to make an appearance and instead headed for the Cineplex where we caught a showing of Dreamgirls starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy. I had thoroughly enjoyed the stage production some years ago (and had a few meetings with Michael Bennett over starring in a film version at that time. Our concept was that all three of the Dreams, Effie, Deena and Lorell were aspects of the same personality and that I should play all three roles). Alas, that project never came to fruition and we have all had to wait for several decades for a suitable film to arrive.
The wait has been worth it. Writer/director Bill Condon, who adapted Chicago to film several years ago with director Rob Marshall, has again managed to find a way to present musical material to a post modern audience so that they will find it engaging and entertaining rather than quaint and stilted. After the relative failures of Rent, The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers as films, I was relieved to find that my chosen genre is still capable of being an exhilarating experience in the correct hands.
Dreamgirls is loosely based on the rise of The Supremes and Motown records during the 60s and early 70s, as it chronicles the lives and loves of three young women from naive girls from the wrong side of the Detroit tracks to international singing superstars. The three are Effie (Jennifer Hudson), a tempermental diva with a powerhouse voice and overly zaftig figure, Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a somewhat timid beauty and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose), the spitfire comic relief. One evening, they appear at an amateur night talent competition. Would be impresario Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) catches their act and recognizes that they will be his way into the music business. He arranges them to sing back-up for established star James 'Thunder' Early (Eddie Murphy), engages Effie's brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) to help him make a new kind of musical sound and soon the Dreams are born, but not without cost to all of the characters, especially Effie who is shunted aside as both lead singer and lover by Curtis in favor of Deena who has a more appealing look and blander voice. Bitter fights and recriminations ensue but there's eventually an uplifting reconciliation or two in the final reel.
Henry Krieger's original Broadway score, a pastiche of Motown and midcentury soul/R&B numbers, is augmented by a few new tunes by the composer to keep the movie flowing. Condon, as director, has wisely recognized the difference between stage and film musical. A stage musical needs pauses to let an audience reflect and digest the emotional moment. Film musicals must constantly move forward. Any musical moment that does not further plot or character development is wasted and a modern audience's attention span won't stand for it. Condon has taken and shaped the original material with judicious trims and interpolations into a constantly moving texture of music and image that carries us through the ten years of the plot, allowing us to interact with the leading characters, but also to reflect on the greater changes occuring in American society with the final ascendancy of African-American culture to full recognition.
The original Broadway production, long renowned for its constantly moving cinematic staging was set in a neverland of neon lights and moving pillars. The film is set in an all too real Detroit and Hollywood with costumes (Sharen Davis) and production design (John Myhre) recreating the world of Motown (here called Rainbow Records) in full detail. To get us into this world, the film uses music only in concert sequences for the first fifteen or twenty minutes. Gradually, characters start to sing off-stage about their lives and we are ready for this due to the assured direction of Condon who brings us into traditional musical territory slowly and deftly, without any of the usual 'that's so unreal' that prevents the suspension of disbelief with musicals.
Performances are excellent all the way around. Beyonce is gorgeously photographed and made up and exquisitely lovely to look at. If she's not the greatest of dramatic actresses, the script doesn't make too many demands on her. The revelation and emotional heart of the story belong to Jennifer Hudson, the former American Idol finalist who brings heft, sass, and a huge belt to Effie. The core moment of the story, her 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going' thrills in the film, in similar ways to Jennifer Holliday's original stage performance. Jamie Foxx is appropriately slimy as Curtis and Keith Robinson shines in the underwritten part of C.C. Eddie Murphy, who could very easily have fallen into his old schtick, actually delivers a decent dramatic performance as the star on the skids, quite restrained in the second half of the film as his career and his life collapse around him.

Dreamgirls is hugely entertaining, exceedingly well crafted, and definitely worth the $8.00 at the cineplex in a town near you.


Multiple wigs.  Sequin dresses.  Gratuitous Jackson 5 reference. Oversize album covers. Seedy club. Alley strutting. Vintage telephones. Vintage microphones. Vintage radios. Gratuitous Lady Sings the Blues reference.

Happy Feet


TAP YOUR TROUBLES AWAY

Happy belated turkey day wishes to all of my fans out there in the dark. I just haven't had a moment to myself for weeks, what with preparing my new musical film remake of Die Hard and seeing to my other business ventures, not to mention the busy social calendar. Why, just last week I was the guest of honor at the opening of the newest Lane Bryant in Tarzana. Why they chose me for the ribbon cutting ceremony, I cannot be sure as I could not possibly look stunning in most of their clothing but a paying job is a paying job, as my agent is fond of telling me.

Normy and I spent the long holiday weekend at home at Chateau Maine. We had a lovely little catered luncheon for a few of the Hollywood old guard who are still around. Nice round helpings of turkey a la Vicki all served up by catering staff in these tasteful little turquoise sequined pilgrim outfits. After the meal, we gathered round the Steinway and sang some of the old songs and had an impromptu contest to see who could created the best night club act using only items in the room. Doris Day won. She had brought along some of her dogs from Carmel and they yodeled the choruses of 'The Lonely Goatherd' with her. There was no way my tapping on top of the piano to Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto was going to compete.

We did get to the cinema over the weekend. Our first stop was, of course, at the new dance film, Happy Feet from director George Miller starring a lot of penguins who deliver more rock'em-sock'em musical numbers in ninety minutes than Nicole Kidman and Ewan Macgregor managed in two and a quarter hours of Moulin Rouge. I was attached to this project briefly, several years ago, when the protagonist was going to be a female penguin named Mumbelina and it was to be a live action film with the actors in large plush costumes. I left the project when they went another way over the usual creative differences.

Happy Feet is part children's musical fantasy and part ecology lesson, taking place in the Antarctic amongst the emperor penguins made famous by last year's documentary, March of the Penguins. Penguin Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman as a two bit Elvis impersonator) meets penguin Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman as a drag queen Marilyn Monroe) and from the mating comes an egg which eventually produces Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood who seems to have loaned his preternatural blue eyes and beatific smile to the animators - tap moves by dance genius Savion Glover in a motion capture suit). Mumble, as a penguin, is different. While the other penguins sing elaborate choruses and musical numbers and are encouraged to find their heart song, he can only emit off-key squeaks. Instead, he has the titular 'Happy Feet', tapping up a storm from the moment he leaves the egg. This aberration is considered heretical by the colony's leaders (led by a curmudgeonly old penguin voiced by Hugo Weaving) who loom over the other birds like a bevy of old puritan prelates, using the rod to keep their flock in line. Mumble, who doesn't seem to mature as the other penguins do, flubs his voice lessons, gets nowhere with his heart throb Gloria (Brittany Murphy doing a Whitney Houstonesque diva), and eventually leaves the colony determined to solve the mystery of why there are fewer fish on which to feed.

The film then becomes a road movie interspersed with solemn eco-drama of such preachiness that one expects an Al Gore cameo. Mumble meets up with various other penguin species (mainly voiced by the nimble Robin Williams doing a male Carmen Miranda and a James Brown clone), has some fairly scary encounters with penguin predators and eventually comes face to face with the only species on the planet capable of upsetting an ecosystem through sheer orneriness. Everything comes out all right in the end when all tap hell breaks loose and the value of following one's own convictions is upheld.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but am uncertain as to who it is aimed at. While it is marketed at children, young children are likely to find some of the scenes with predatory animals quite disturbing. They will also nod off in the last third when the ecology lesson is conducted. Older children will find the idea of tap dancing penguins somewhat juvenile. Adults will have fun recognizing all of the various sources of music (which range from folk song to the Beatles, to Elvis, to the Communards), marvel at the animation effects (many of which are quite wondrous to behold) and will either embrace or be off-put by the ending depending on their political beliefs. (The film has come under a good deal of withering attack from some right wing pundits who view it as an assault on religion and right wing environmental policy - it really is neither. It's message is simply that if people create a disturbance in the natural world, it's up to them to recognize it and change their behavior to set things right.)

George Miller, who previously made the animal based family fable Babe, guides the proceedings with a sure hand. Issues of the environment are obviously important to him and he makes his points well, dressing them up in enough hijinks to keep the film palatable. A lesser director might have made a dreary lesson that would be unwatchable. He and his animation team have worked out ways to make essentially identical looking penguins into individuals and given them personality and verve. His talented voice cast has also given their all to the project and it's fun to hear how well a number of them can actually sing, especially old pros like Miriam Margolyes.

While the environmentalism is laid on just a little too thick to make it a perfect film, it remains highly enjoyable. However, be prepared to console very young children after the scary parts.


Dropped egg. Crevasse hiding. Aurora austraialis. Leopard seal teeth. Bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay. Gratuitous downhill snow sliding. Plastic beverage ring plot device. Aquarium exhibits. Rousing tap finale. 

The Black Dahlia


FLOWER CHILDREN


Flaming Desire, my new musical adaptation of the Bruce Willis actioner, Die Hard continues in pre-production, but at a slower pace than I would like. The first draft of the script simply would not do. I gave the writers explicit instructions that the property would need to be re-tooled around the character of Holly but they keep insisting on trying to make John McClane the more central figure. I am most put out with them and had to raise my voice to them on the telephone several times this afternoon. They do, however, have a decent dénouement where I defeat the evil villain by sneaking up behind him, taking my tasteful holiday hooded cape, pulling it down over his eyes and shoving him through a plate glass window on the seventy-third floor. This then leads into the finale production number where the assembled surviving cast sings 'Hooray for Holly's Hood' in four part harmony as John and I kiss in the glow of a new dawn breaking. There won't be a dry eye in the house. 

Kim Dee, my personal costumer for the project, has outdone herself in the sketches. Six absolutely ravishing outfits for the Office Party sequence alone. It's going to be sort of a dream sequence in which I lead the chorus in a dance routine describing all the business ventures of a typical Japanese multi-national corporation. It's very modern and will be just the kind of thing to bring the young people back to the theater. I only wish we could get it done fast enough to have it in the theaters to compete with Dreamgirls. Unfortunately, production won't be completed till late spring so we will probably have to go up against the next Harry Potter installment. 

Normy and I were able to take a few hours off from overseeing a busy production team to catch a film. Our choice, at the dollar cinema, was Brian DePalma's latest offering, The Black Dahlia based on James Ellroy's novel of the same name. A few years back, director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland turned Ellroy's novel L.A. Confidential into a brilliant piece of cinema that was one of the best films of the last few decades (and would have swept the Academy Awards had it not been up against some little film about a floating class metaphor). Like L.A. Confidential, the novel The Black Dahlia takes real events and people from mid century Los Angeles and uses them as a skeleton on which to flesh out a fantasia of mid-century corruption and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, lightning does not strike twice. 

Where to begin? The screenplay, by Josh Friedman, rather than using the novel as a starting point, feels compelled to try and squeeze in every occurrence and twist of character. This leads to an hour of very confusing exposition as various characters are introduced, their stories expanded, then dropped in favor of new characters. The lack of a coherent protagonist and point of view leads to much tedium and asking of 'Who is she again?' and then, at the end, a twenty minute Rube Goldberg dénouement as all the plot threads are quickly woven together into a solution that is as laughable as it is uncompelling. 

Brian DePalma, the would be Hitchcock, has made some tight and interesting films in his time. His Carrie, for instance, is a minor masterpiece of teen horror that helped cement the reputations of Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, and Stephen King, amongst others. In recent years, his movies (Snake Eyes, Raising Cain) have become more and more over the top Gothic and collapsed unintentionally into camp. While he does his signature slow motion gruesome set pieces (this one involving a fall from a stair and an impalement) and coyly explores lesbian sexuality which has more to do with hoary movie clichés than actual human relations, he never manages to find a consistent tone or narrative point of view that would clearly lead a viewer through the tangle of plot. 

The story concerns two L.A. cops, played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart and the young woman who loves them both (the ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson). Both cops, involved with low life dealings and petty corruption in the department, are present when the body of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered in South Los Angeles in January 1947 (a real criminal sensation of the time). Short is dubbed 'The Black Dahlia' by the media due to her habit of always wearing black and a flower in her hair and her story becomes a moral tale of good girls gone bad in the wicked ways of Hollywood. Eckhart becomes obsessed with the murder, allowing it to take over his life, while Hartnett, pursuing his own investigations, becomes involved with a femme fatale with a similar look (Hilary Swank). Her wealthy family is, of course, connected with chicanery of the highest order and everyone hurtles toward their respective dooms over the next hour or so. 

The film has a wonderful look. Vilmos Zsigmond's photography, Dante Ferretti's production design and Jenny Beavan's costume design combine to create a moody, seedy Los Angeles with menace around every sundrenched corner. It's complemented nicely by Mark Isham's jazzy trumpet score. The film might have worked better if the stills were taken and made into a graphic novel. We'd get all the prettiness without having to sit through turgid dialog and unconvincing performances. 

All of the actors have been better in other projects. Hillary Swank seems to believe she's appearing as a drag queen rather than as a woman. It would be difficult to believe the lady has two Oscars based on what is on view here. Hartnett and Eckhart both look yummy but the former seems to sleepwalk through his scenes while the latter is coiled so tight, I wanted to give his character a Xanax most of the time. It's hard to believe two such men would want to be in a room together, much less buddies. In a smaller part, Fiona Shaw goes so far over the top with her character that she seems to be channeling Noel Coward by way of Charles Addams. Not what one usually wants from a character vital to both plot and theme. 

I cannot recommend this. A better idea would be to rent L.A. Confidential again and read the book. 

Bisected torso. Bare-chested boxing. Josh Hartnett buttocks. Gratuitous k.d. Lang. Fountain impalement. Demented father. Dreary dinner party. Gunned down floozy. Gratuitous Ellis Loew.

The Prestige


LORD OF ILLUSIONS

Things have been so exciting here at Chateau Maine the last few weeks that I have had simply no time to write to all of my fans or to get out to the cinema the way that I should. However, as of today, I have an important announcement. I shall be returning to the screen in a new musical production. It had come to my attention that 80s nostalgia is all the rage so it was just a matter of finding the right 1980s property to adapt for a screen musical extravaganza. I am happy to say that I've found exactly the right one: Die Hard.

I do realize that there will need to be some substantial rewriting to make the tale of rugged cop John McClane battling evil terrorists in a Los Angeles office tower suitable for my unique talents, but I'm sure the crack screenwriting team I've assembled will be more than up to the task. First off, we're going to have to change that title to something a bit more feminine. Tentatively, we're going with Flaming Desire as, against a background of mayhem and exploding helicopters, we play out a tragic love triangle between the hero, his separated wife, and the chic terrorist who tries to come between them. The Bonnie Bedelia part, my role, will of course need to be beefed up quite a bit and include at least three tap numbers, the first to be an office party hoe-down where I dance up and down a set of taiko drums to Rockin Around The Christmas Tree.

Normy and I decided to head off to the Cineplex last night to celebrate the good news. Our choice was The Prestige, a new film from Christopher Nolan of Memento and Batman Begins fame with the dreamy Hugh Jackman and the equally dreamy Christian Bale in the leads. The Prestige, like another film from earlier this summer The Illusionist, is set in the late Victorian era, the heyday of stage magicians and illusions. Performers such as Houdini packed vaudeville houses, music halls and respectable theaters thrilling their audiences with death defying displays and seemingly impossible feats. Our way into this world is through the eyes of Cutter (a sly Michael Caine), a designer and builder of the cages, cabinets and other contraptions needed for stage magic. As he explains to us, every successful magic trick has three parts - the pledge, where the magician promises something wonderful - the turn, where something impossible seems to happen, such as a vanishing - and the prestige, where order is restored, in a way even more impossible (such as the return of the vanished person or goldfish bowl or canary) in the most unlikely of places.

Into this world come two talented young magicians, Angiers (Hugh Jackman), aristocratic and wealthy and the much more pedestrian Borden (Christian Bale). Both start out as plants and shills for a senior stage magician Milton (Ricky Jay, a real stage magician who moonlights in films). One night, a trick goes horribly wrong and Angiers wife (Piper Pearbo), Milton's scantily clad assistant, is killed when an escape from a water tank fails. Angiers blames Borden and what was a friendship turns to bitter rivalry spanning years and continents. Each grows in reputation and fame and spends great energy trying to damage the other one. This starts with sneaking into each others' acts to ruin illusions, and escalates over time to more and more deadly maneuvers.

When Borden invents a trick called 'The Transported Man' in which he is able to enter a cabinet on one side of the stage and then appear out of another on the other side practically instantaneously, Angiers is determined to find out how he does it. He uses his sometime love and duplicitous assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to infiltrate Borden's household. She swipes his coded diary which leads Angiers to Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and his assistant (Andy Serkis) who promise to build him an electrical machine that can achieve this same result. This leads to plots, counterplots, and eventually a triple twist ending involving murder, conspiracy, criminal justice and a willingness to sacrifice everything to best the other.

Like MementoThe Prestige plays with time and chronology, sometimes telling the story in chronological sequence, sometimes in flashback and fairly close attention needs to be paid to keep from getting muddled in the storytelling. Nolan, who co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, knows exactly what he is doing and every reversal of plot makes perfect sense if one has been keeping up. This is a film that needs to be seen in one sitting without distraction, or pieces will not make sense. The stunning surprises at the end are not too hard to figure out well in advance if you are a discerning viewer. I had Borden's secret guessed halfway through the film and Angiers' secret shortly after he acquired Tesla's machine.

Jackman and Bale are both in fine form. Bale, in particular, is able to put an individual stamp on a tricky part which must be viewed one way as the film proceeds and in a completely different way retrospectively. They obviously enjoy the period settings and the pushing of psychological buttons that their bitter rivalry requires. Caine is also in fine form. In many ways, he acts as almost an omniscient narrative presence to keep the audience informed, but he never falls into the trap of simply playing a device. I also highly enjoyed David Bowie, one of the quirkiest of actors, as the eccentric Tesla. It would have been easy for him to take the part into loony mad scientist territory but he goes in a much dreamier, unfocused direction which I found interesting. Scarlett Johansson, who has become Hollywood's 'it' girl of the moment, is a somewhat vacant screen presence. She's pretty enough, but her character is underwritten and she brings nothing to the role. A more experienced actress would have been a wiser choice.

The production captures the atmosphere of the 1880s-1900s theatrical world nicely from dingy basement saloons to opulent tiered box European theaters. Fog rolls in and out of the streets and the atmosphere feels like a post modern update of Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes films of the 1930s. The film, like those, is also a grand puzzle. But I wish it had a solution that did not require the violation of the second law of thermodynamics.   All and all, I do recommend this film to fans of the actors, and fans of ingenious puzzle thrillers. It's a good time.

Crushed canary. Crushed fingers. Multiple crushed necks. Onstage drowning. Gratuitous Ricky Jay. Bullet catch gone bad. Chisel injury. Multiple top hats. Duplicate cats. India rubber ball bouncing.

Mindhunters


HUNT AND PECK

It has just been so busy here at Chateau Maine as I try to put my life and world back in order following my stay at that dreadful Gitmo all inclusive tropical resort this past year. Invoices and bills are piled all over the furniture. There is a spectacular backlog for deliveries of my clothing line to market and my checking account is overdrawn again for the third time this month. Fortunately, residuals from my television series Picky Vicki, a competitor to Siskel and Ebert that ran in syndication a few years back and is now something of a minor hit on some obscure cable channel will be coming in soon. 

Normy and I have been in discussions and we both feel that I am in desperate need of a new project to raise my visibility. Musicals are making something of a comeback in Hollywood, what with the high profile of Dreamgirls and last year's film versions of Rent and The Producers. I simply have to find just the right property. A quick perusal of the Sunday New York Times shows that there is a market for '80s nostalgia. I simply have to find a seminal '80s property that lends itself to my unique entertainment gifts and will be easily adaptable to screen requirements and a compact budget. My first thought was The Terminator as I was born to play Sarah Connor and had a lovely design for a second act machine gun ballet but James Cameron was unwilling to relinquish the rights as he is considering a similar adaptation himself. 

In the midst of all this, I have had little time for film viewing, but I did manage to collapse the other night in front of the television for a showing of Renny Harlin's film Mindhunters with brief appearances by Val Kilmer and Christian Slater and starring a lot of B and C list performers whose names are unfamiliar, even to the initiates of Hollywood. Renny Harlin, a Finnish film director who used to be married to Geena Davis, used to be one of a crop of rising young action directors handed 'A List' projects. He directed the second Die Hard film and the Stallone vehicle, Cliffhanger before he and his wife decided to resurrect the pirate/swashbuckler genre with Cutthroat Island. That particular debacle, along with its follow-up, The Long Kiss Goodnight more or less did in both his and Geena's careers, as well as their marriage so I suppose he has to take what he can get these days. 

Mindhunters is an odd cross between Agatha Christie's classic Ten Little Indians and Se7en, and The Silence of the Lambs. A group of FBI trainees, interested in becoming profilers of serial killers, is helicoptered in to a training facility on a remote island. The facility, a cross between the fake town at Quantico made famous by so many films, and an abandoned power plant left over from a dystopian fantasy like Brazil, is presided over by the famous, and eccentric Jake Harris (Val Kilmer) who is in danger of losing his little kingdom due to complaints about his eccentric training methods. The students, led by studly J.D. Reston (Christian Slater), is given an assignment. They must use their profiling knowledge and the facilities available to them to catch a serial killer, 'The Puppeteer'. Soon, however, their adventure becomes horrifyingly real when J.D. is killed in an ingenious and grotesque way and the group has to use all of their knowledge and skills to track down a real serial killer who has infiltrated their midst, before they are picked off one by one. 

The film relies heavily on a Chinese Puzzle box of a screenplay (Wayne Kramer and Kevin Brodbin) which keeps changing direction and upsetting expectations, at least for the first two thirds of the film. The last piece more or less runs out of gas when the number of surviving characters has dwindled to three and we get a very standard female in jeopardy sequence that could have been lifted from any one of dozens of other, and better, films. There are the requisite Rube Goldberg methods of dispatching characters that prey upon their weaknesses, creepy and troubling clues, and mounting levels of paranoia as each new victim is offed. It becomes a kind of game for the viewer to try and predict who's next and just how it will happen. 

This film is all about script and style. Character sketches are perfunctory at best. As there are no real characters, only types, real actors aren't really needed and the lesser luminaries of Hollywood who appear do fine. Amongst the twenty and thirty somethings who are dispatched are Jonny Lee Miller, once considered a rising young star in Britain before a failed marriage to Angelina Jolie and bad career choices; Patricia Velasquez, best known for wearing a whole lot of body paint and not much else in The Mummy; rapper LL Cool J; ex-ballet dancer Will Kemp; Kathryn Morris from Cold Case; and Eion Bailey from Band of Brothers. None of them make much of an impression as they are mainly pawns on a chessboard, bent to the will of the mechanics of the screenplay. 

Harlin makes good use of Charles Wood's production design and Robert Gantz's cinematography to create an air of creepiness and cleverly disguises that his Dutch locations are not the coastal edifices we think they are. It's a good looking film and Harlin is a good enough director to give it a consistency of pace and tone which make it eminently watchable. Too bad he didn't find it necessary to people it with some characters we might care something about. In the end, Mindhunters is a soft drink left open too long - no bubble and fizz and no nutritive value whatsoever. 

Helicopter landing. Exploding boat. Toppling dominoes. Liquid nitrogen to flesh. Gratuitous 'Smoking is bad for you' message. Stopped watches. Gratuitous 'Coffee is bad for you' message. Bloody writing. Gratuitous Val Kilmer. Near electrocution. Near drowning.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Devil Wears Prada


VANITY FAIR

I had a lovely morning on the terrace at Chateau Maine with the scent of orange blossom in the air and nice cup of Earl Grey tea to sip upon while Jerry, the maid, took a beater to the hall carpet which she was giving a good airing on the back lawn. With a gentle thwack, thwack, thwack in the background, I decided to give a call to my business managers to check on some of my ancillary interests which I was unable to attend to during my time at that rather dreary tropical resort. I'm glad I have been able to put that vacation behind me. I spent some time with my lavender scented stationary last night penning personal notes to the editors of the travel sections of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and US News and World Report informing them that Gitmo's in the Caribbean should not be given any sort of favorable review in their august publications.

My business managers informed me that my clothing lines were in dire need of some revitalization. GlamourPuss gowns, haute couture based on the costumes form 'Cats' are starting to look very passé with the closing of the original production. Women of style are now aping Elphaba and Galinda in Wicked - a trend of which I approve, although the green make-up does tend to stain. VickiWear, my lower priced line for the woman on the go, is still doing relatively well, however, due to a new deal signed with the Dollar Store and a new slogan, 'A Buck for Blouse and Bloomers'. It's obviously time to roll up my sleeves and go back to work making the world just a tad more lovely, one lady at a time.

I decided that if I were going to re-enter the world of high fashion, an update on its politics and trends was in order so Normy and I flipped through the titles available at the local dollar cinema and came across The Devil Wears Prada with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. I did not read the novel when it came out, but did read the jacket and was aware that it was a roman a clef by Lauren Weisberger, a young lady who had the good fortune to work for a time as assistant to Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. It seemed like the very thing to give me an insight to the current fashion mind. I had asked my agent to suggest me for the part of Miranda if the novel were ever filmed as who else would be as well suited to play a successful trend setter and fashion executive, but that I would require a minimum of three musical numbers and two dance sequences. I suppose they were looking for a less musical adaptation.

The Devil Wears Prada tells basic movie tale number 39B, naïf comes to the big city and at first embraces, than rejects the compromises for survival in the rat race. The setting, this time around, is the world of high fashion. Young Andy (Anne Hathaway), an aspiring journalist, takes her newly minted Northwestern University BA to the big apple to find a job in the magazine world. She applies for a job at Runway magazine as a personal assistant to the legendary editor, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) without a clue as to whom she is or what sort of a life or job she is assuming. Miranda, having run through a bevy of young female fashionistas (personified by her other assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), decides to take a chance on Andy and Andy finds herself thrown into a brave new world of clothes, accessories, latte runs, dog walking, impossible errands, and constant beck and call.

Andy, at first derided by the other employees for her frumpy style, eventually has an obligatory Cinderella moment when Nigel (Stanley Tucci), a design director, gives her one of those cinema montage makeovers and at the end of it, another ugly duckling becomes a designer clad swan. Seduced by the clothes, the glamour, a famous journalist (Simon Baker) and Paris during fashion week, Andy must choose between her new high powered life style and her old life represented by her steadfast chef boyfriend (Adrian Grenier) and her best bud (Tracie Thoms). The outcome is never in much doubt but there are a few twists and turns along the way.

The film is dominated by Meryl Streep's performance as Miranda. While a lesser actress would have made the dominating and demanding editor into a screeching harridan, Streep finds the velvet glove over the steel fist. She never raises her voice, never loses her cool and she makes even the most outrageous demands on Andy, such as finding a pre-publication copy of the last Harry Potter novel, seem natural extensions of her pursuit of excellence. Streep creates such a convincing character, nuanced, compelling and, in the few scenes where Miranda's mask slips, all too human, that the movie loses steam when she's not on screen. We're nowhere near as interested in Andy's adventures in fashion wonderland as we are in what makes Miranda tick. Anne Hathaway is a charming and fetching young actress, but she's not got the chops to carry a film when the supporting cast is stealing scenes left, right and sideways. The part may be an impossible one for any young actress to play as she has to be the straight man to all the assorted zanies.

There are also good turns from Stanley Tucci as the ambiguously gay designer and the fabulous Emily Blunt as Miranda's other assistant. Emily is set up to be the villain of the piece, but Ms. Blunt's quirky line readings and perfect capturing of fashionista wannabe bring the audience around to her side quickly and, by the end of the film, we're rooting for her to find the happiness she seeks. Adrian Grenier, Simon Baker and Daniel Sunjata also score in supporting roles as the boyfriend, the new love interest, and a high powered fashion designer.

The film rockets along at a rapid place under David Frankel's assured direction. It's helped along by a great visual look, Patricia Field's costume designs and a hip and happening soundtrack including hits from Madonna, Moby, Alanis Morissette and a French translation of 'Dream A Little, Dream Of Me' underscoring a romantic Parisian dinner. I was, however, a little disappointed at the lack of sequins and ostrich feathers in the highlighted couture.

I found that I enjoyed the film immensely and will recommend it to my readers, but the recommendation is based solely on its MTV video qualities and a fabulous Meryl Streep performance. Much of the rest of it is fairly standard fare.

Toasted cheese sandwiches. Boots. Harry Potter reading. Miami hurricane. Gratuitous Dolce & Gabbana joke. Cupcake with candle. Museum benefit. Misplaced magazine mock-up. Taxi accident. Cloak and dagger publishing politics.


The Island


PARADISE LOST
As I explained in my previous column, I have been somewhat incommunicado recently due to what one can only call an enforced stay at an exclusive, if rather dreary tropical resort called Gizmo or Gitmo or some such name. I have been unable to locate it in my Frommer's guide to give all of my enchanting readers more details. Suffice it to say that it lacks many of the amenities of even the most moderately priced prix fixe communities and I would suggest you book with Club Med or Sandals for your sunshine and surf needs. The cuisine was repetitive, the decor very Bauhaus brutalistic with far too much modern sculpture in what appeared to be razor wire and the staff ever so rude. I assume they were French.

Soon after my arrival, I was chatting with the hotel director who kept talking about extraordinary rendition. Now, I am absolutely known for my extraordinary renditions of entertainment masterpieces so I decided to give him and his colleagues an impromptu performance of one of my great hits, Bomb Me Baby from my musical Puttin On The Blitz. You must remember it. It's the number in which I lead two dozen tap dancing chorines dressed as WACs in a carefully choreographed routine on the wings of a B-52 bomber as it's fire-bombing Dresden. It must have been new to these gentlemen though, as they sat there open mouthed through the entire song. I expected at least a booking in the lounge for the rest of my stay but they seemed to have forgotten their manners and returned me to an even smaller and more dismal guest room.

Enclosed and dystopic vacation resorts being on my mind, while channel surfing last night, I stumbled across Michael Bay's film from last summer, The Island starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. The opening scenes were somewhat reminiscent of my recent vacation so I decided to spend a couple of hours with this mindless popcorn film. Like most of Michael Bay's works, there are chases, explosions, expensive cars, and few recognizable human characters on screen.

It's the future and the world has been seriously damaged by a 'contamination'. The survivors run around a large, spotlessly clean enclosed city that looks suspiciously like a left over set from Logan's Run. They drink vegetable cocktails, seem indifferent to sex, and all hope to win the lottery that will allow them to escape to a magical non-contaminated tropical island. Clad in spotless identical white track suits and working at make-work jobs under the eyes of black suited supervisors, it doesn't take us long to figure out that all is not as it seems on the surface. Our hero, Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor), begins to question why he has a meaningless job, bad dreams and faulty memories and what lies outside his sterile environment. When he realizes that Dr. Merrick (Sean Bean), is not a benevolent ruler and that he and his companions are little better than lambs to the slaughter, he grabs Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and the two of them escape to the outside with the help of a greasy maintenance man (Steve Buscemi). They then have to deal with the outside world and alert society as to the monstrous goings on within their former home.

The plot is infused with elements of other, better dystopian science fiction/fantasy including Brave New WorldBlade Runner and THX-1138. Michael Bay's major contribution is to devote the second act of the film to endless souped up chase scenes as our heroes try to elude both the police and mercenaries hired by Dr. Merrick led by Djimon Hounsou. I imagine his character has a name, but as he's strictly a plot device, it's relatively unimportant. Our heroes ride levitating trains, jet bikes, survive truck crashes, bouncing railroad wheels (a strange anomaly in a world where the trains have no rails), and a fall from a fifty story building encased in a large neon sign. By the time it's all said and done, all I could think of was the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote. I was expecting them to run off a cliff, hover in the air for several seconds with a quizzical look and fall to the desert floor only to bounce and then be smacked by a train.

McGregor and Johansson make a handsome couple but have little chemistry together, mainly due to plot reasons. Their characters are a little naive when it comes to the more erotic matters in life. Even when they heat it up at the end, it's a bit like watching Barbie and Ken. Both stars are game, and try to make something from what they've got - which isn't much. McGregor does get a dual role and has a bit of fun sending himself up in his secondary part. Sean Bean takes what could be a camp villain and, instead, tries to make him cool and collected - the result, in the midst of the mayhem, is that he's rather boring and we don't particularly care about him one way or the other. The only truly enjoyable performance comes from Steve Buscemi doing his usual quirky everyman. Unfortunately, he disappears from the film early on, leaving little but explosions and crashes to keep us from falling asleep for the next hour or so.

The film was an enormous failure financially. Its production cost being estimated at well over 120 million and its US box office return being less than 40 million. The visual design is interesting, the special effects are spectacular, but with no characters to care about and a plot that seems cobbled together from bits and pieces of better films and stories, the whole enterprise comes across as dreary and hollow and it's no wonder that audiences stayed away in droves. I can't say I'm sorry I've seen the film, but I'm very glad I did not pay $10 to see it in the theater. Not only would I have been disappointed, I would have been deaf for a week from the roar of all those explosions in six track Dolby.

Amino acid injections. Lethal injections. Hand nailed to door. Gratuitous moth. Collapsing letter R. Rattlesnake encounter. Gas chamber escape. Carbon hulled yacht.


Step Up


DANCE FOOLS, DANCE

Hello everyone. This is Mrs. Norman Maine. My, you can't imagine how good it feels to utter those immortal words again. It's been far too long and I know all of my fans out there in the dark have just been frantic at my recent absence from stage, screen and tabloid. I swear, it's not my fault. I have been, shall we say, indisposed in recent months.

As you may recall, I was furiously working with the creators of 'The Lord of the Rings: The Musical' to revamp the part of Galadriel for me when last I posted here. There were some artistic disagreements regarding the big second act tap number for the character and I had a teensy little blow up with the director and needed to leave the theater to cool off. I walked down the street to a lovely little falafel restaurant and was just sitting down to a nice plate of hummus served by Hassan when the entire place erupted into a bevy of flak jacketed men with submachine guns. Everyone in the place was herded into a van (my protestations must not have been heard) and then transferred to some sort of transport plane. I ended up being dropped off at a dreary tropical resort called Gitney's or Gitmo's or something like that where I was given a rather squalid little room without much in the way of amenities (and no room service) for what seemed like months. Occasionally, some men would come in and ask me incomprehensible questions about bombs. I could, of course tell them nothing as I am not in the explosives business, rather that of high fashion and culture.

I'll continue my adventures later, suffice it to say that I am glad to be back at Chateau Maine and settled down again with Normy and the cats. We decided we had better celebrate my return with a trip to the local Cineplex and I thought what could be better than a dance movie. We tried to find a current film celebrating the art of tap dancing, but none were playing locally so we had to make do with Step Up, a new film from director Anne Fletcher about dance and diversity in a Baltimore performing arts high school.

Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum), a young thug of indeterminate ethnicity from the Baltimore projects, decides to amuse himself one evening by breaking into the Maryland School of the Arts together with his hoodlum pals Mac (Damaine Radcliff) and his little brother Skinny (De'Shawn Washington). While there, they engage in some wanton theatrical vandalism (A scene quite painful to someone like myself who has trod many a happy hour upon the boards) and Tyler is caught by security. As a juvenile offender (although Mr. Tatum looks every one of his twenty six years), Tyler is sentenced to community service at the school with the custodian under the watchful eye of the Director (a slumming Rachael Griffiths). Here, he meets Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan), a promising dancer who needs to come up with something original for her senior showcase. Sure enough, sparks start to fly and Tyler's street moves fuse with her ballet training into a Debbie Allenesque production number while they each learn something from the other and various uninteresting subplots spin off in the background involving minor characters about whom we do not care.

When the film sticks to dance, it mainly works. Ms. Dewan is obviously a trained dancer and Mr. Tatum moves well, if a little clumsily. They partner each other well and look good together and the film does show us how dance is a form of physical communication and poetry. The chemistry ends the minute they leave the dance floor. Neither is a terribly accomplished actor and their romantic young love scenes are somewhat painful. Mr. Tatum, in particular, seems to believe that wrinkling his forehead and walking like a Neanderthal with a hemorrhoid problem is a step away from Brando's method. They are not helped by a formulaic screenplay by Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg which telegraphs each plot development from miles away and which asks the young actors to all talk like bargain basement Eminem clones.

The film strives to be a Fame or a Flashdance for the new millennium, but the silly ultimate dance sequence (which seems to have been lifted from the Broadway version of Carrie) and the badly written subplots put it more on a par with that other gem of an early 80s musical, Staying Alive. It does have some fun modern fashions on the high school students that look completely out of their budgets and a catchy soundtrack, but it's certainly not worth evening prices at the cinema.

LED Belt buckle. Mouthy African-American juvenile. Gratuitous twin violinists. Underused Rachel Griffiths. Cheating British musician. Pick-up basketball game. Drive by shooting. Snooty townhouse mother. 

Bullets Over Broadway


GIVE MY REGARDS

Normy and I have arrived in Toronto where we have settled into a suite at the Super 8. Not as luxurious as I am used to but there was apparently some sort of mix up in reservations with the Ritz. The desk clerk when we arrived there was exceedingly snotty and pretended not to even know who I was. Normy got so excited, he threw a telephone at the gentleman; fortunately, there were no paparazzi around or Normy would have to share the gossip columns with Russell Crowe. We adore Russell as a performer, but he's not really the sort one wants to associate with on a more intimate level.

I had my first meeting with the producers of The Lord of the Rings: The Musical this morning to go over the character of Galadriel. The first thing we need to fix is the amount of stage time for the character. In the script as it stands, Galadriel is little more than a glorified cameo with only one ballad early in the first act. This will never do as I am always guaranteed, by contract, two up tempo numbers, a ballad, a tap number and a dream ballet in any stage musical in which I create a role. I'm thinking that the easiest way to ensure an appropriate dose of my star charisma is to rewrite a bit and make sure that Galadriel become an integral member of the fellowship. I'm thinking we could jettison a couple of the more extraneous hobbits. They'd never be missed. Of course, the big tap number will take place in the Mines of Moria where Galadriel does battle with the Balrog. Tapping back and forth over the bridge of Khazad-Dum while the flames leap higher is going to be such a spectacle.

While relaxing with Normy the other night, I was able to do some channel surfing and ran across Woody Allen's 1994 film, Bullets Over Broadway with Dianne Wiest, John Cusack, Jennifer Tilly and Chazz Palminteri. I had not seen this film since its initial release and remembered enjoying it so I settled in for a few hours of diversion. Normy began to snore after fifteen minutes. Woody Allen really isn't his thing.

Bullets Over Broadway is a postmodern homage to film styles of the thirties, combining elements of the Broadway backstager with the gangster picture and mixing them up in Allen's own intellectually humorous style. John Cusack plays the typical Allen protagonist, hapless, put upon, wise cracking and self analytical - this time a 30s playwright named David Shayne who owes a thing or two to Clifford Odets and the other social realists of the period. Shayne has written a socially relevant play about love, but lacks the financing to get it produced on Broadway. A shady producer (Jack Warden) finds the money from a Caponesque gangster (Joe Viterelli) but it comes with strings attached: the gangster's moll, Olive (Jennifer Tilly) must be cast in the pivotal role of a lady psychiatrist despite no discernible talent. With the financing in place, stage legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) takes the lead and is joined by supporting players Tracey Ullman and Jim Broadbent. A mob war is going on so to protect Olive during rehearsals, a bodyguard, Cheech, is dispatched (Chazz Palmintieri). The play is not working, Shayne sees his career going down the toilet until rewrites start arriving from a most unlikely source.

The film is one of Allen's more accessible with its easily understood farcical situations and its use of thirties film cliché styles. The writing is tight, riffs facilely with the dialog of the era and, unlike some of his other films, rarely descends into existential angst. Perhaps these are the contributions of co-author Douglas McGrath. It's given a proper Hollywoodized New York sheen by production designer Santo Loquasto who has been associated with most Allen projects since the mid-1980s.

The movie really clicks along on the strength of its performances. Dianne Wiest won her second supporting actress Oscar for her basso-profundo leading lady who owes a wink and a nod to such fictional Broadway divas as Margo Channing and to such real ones as Tallulah Bankhead. Her delivery of the film's most famous line 'Don't speak' in a variety of forms is an absolute highlight. She is closely rivaled in talent by the squeaky voiced Tilly whose ditzy Olive not only incorporates every Jean Harlow mannerism off-stage, but also credibly creates a vulnerable and real bad actress in the show within a show. It takes an extremely good actress to accurately portray a bad one and Tilly has brilliant comic timing. She was also honored with an Oscar nomination. Chazz Palminteri, has the hoodlum with an unexpected talent took home the third Oscar nomination from the cast. He's good, but it's too close to the goombah roles he's played in other films. The weak link in the leads is Cusack. It's not that he's bad, he just has to play straight man to this cast of crazies and he hasn't been given as much to work with as the others.

The supporting cast is top notch, as is usual for a Woody Allen film. Future Sopranos regulars such as Tony Sirico, Edie Falco and John Ventigmilia can be spotted in bit parts in the gangster parts of the story. Tracey Ullman and Jim Broadbent, although they have lesser roles, also do excellent work, especially opposite Ms. Wiest.

This is a film that's worth another look if you haven't seen it in a decade or stopping on when flipping through channels or purchasing from the sale bin at the local Best Buy.

Sarcastic Louise Beavers type maid. Street assassinations. Belasco theater rehearsals. Gratuitous Mary Louise Parker. Gratuitous Harvey Fierstein. Out of town tryout. Pool hall rewrites. Hot water with lemon. Chicken in pocket. Understudy triumphant.

Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith


DISH SERVED COLD

I have the most exciting news for you all. Joseph, my manager, has finally found a theatrical project worthy of my talents. I have just signed to play the part of Galadriel in the new musical version of The Lord of the Rings which will open soon in Toronto. Normy and I are busy running around Chateau Maine packing up all the necessities for an extended stay in that city, which I'm told is just a bit north of New York. Perhaps it's a suburb of Fishkill or Mount Kisco. Anyway, we are due there early next week so we can help with the creative process. One of the points I insisted upon in the contract was input into the shape of the show and I'm eager to meet the rest of the artistic team. I've checked the books out of the library to make sure we're true to Tolkien's vision, but they're awfully long so I'm having Jerry, my housekeeper, prepare a one page précis on each which gives all the salient points and themes without getting too bogged down in narrative detail.

Normy will be going with me as he is to be the music arranger and will make sure that my numbers properly showcase my talents. He also has a certain knowledge of design and I'm expecting him to work closely with the costume designer on my wardrobe. I'm told the part is that of a queen of unparalleled beauty so the regalia better support that image and rely on more than just a few cheap rhinestones and tinfoil.

In between placing vital necessities, like hair care products, in the Louis Vuitton, Normy and I did sneak out to the local Cineplex this past weekend for the opening of the supposedly final installment in George Lucas's Star Wars saga, The Revenge of the Sith with Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman. This film, the last of the prequel trilogy which began with 1999's The Phantom Menace and continues in 2002's Attack of the Clones brings the back-story of Darth Vader to an end and sets the pieces of the plot for the original Star Wars into motion. As the missing link in a pop culture phenomenon that has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche, it's bound to be a monstrous success no matter what reviewers like myself may have to say about it.

As the film opens to the familiar titles and text crawl with John William's famous fanfare resonating in THX surround sound, we are a little time further forward from the events of Attack of the Clones. Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) and his sidekick Anakin Skywalker (Christensen), two of the heroic Jedi Knights are in the thick of the wars between the Republic and a separatist faction led by Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). A robot general, loyal to Dooku, named Grievous (voiced by Matthew Wood) who has a bad case of the croup and the ability to reorganize his limbs, has kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) bringing Republic business to a halt; it's up to our intrepid Jedi heroes to save him. It becomes clear that Palpatine has his own agenda and that his rescue is a means to help bind young Skywalker more closely to him.

Meanwhile, Skywalker's secret wife, Padme Amidala (Portman), has discovered she is pregnant. Skywalker begins to have visions of her dying in childbirth. When Palpatine, revealing himself to be truly the evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious, offers to teach Skywalker the secrets of life and death to save his wife, Skywalker rejects the Jedi and becomes Darth Vader, helping Palpatine engineer a coup which makes him emperor and which destroys the Jedi. The unleashing of this evil leaves Palpatine with a bad case of psoriasis and eventually physically destroys Vader enough to require his donning of his famous black suit and respirator. Obi-Wan and Yoda (voice by Frank Oz), who survive the coup, not only spend the second half of the film having to bring down their old friend, but also having to take charge of Padme and Anakin's new born twins so they can be delivered to the proper sets of adoptive parents on Alderaan and Tatooine. The film ends with a lovely visual echo of one of the most famous shots of the original Star Wars, bringing just the right emotional sense of closure to the cycle.

This film is better than its two predecessors in the prequel trilogy. Rather than a farrago of nonsense about trade wars or clone armies, it returns to the mythopoetic themes that infused the original film which made it work so well. Plot needs require Lucas to delve a bit more deeply into character as his protagonist hero must become a villain over the course of the film and the transition must make a certain amount of psychological and narrative sense. This is done against a political background of democracy crumbling into empire that has a certain resonance in modern day America. There has been some sniping in the right wing press that Hollywood is again attacking the Bush administration but this is plainly silly. Lucas wrote the basics of this back-story in the 1970s while making the original films and this film was scripted before the start of the Iraq War in 2003. The parallels are much closer to the Vietnam era (which would have been the major influence on someone of Lucas's generation) and on the historical precedents of Rome and Nazi Germany.

Rather than the historical parallels, I was actually much more struck by literary and religious parallels. Much of the imagery seems to have actually been guided by John Milton's Paradise Lost and his account of the fall of Lucifer from the exalted company of the angels to the depths of hell. I think it no accident that Lucas decided to set his climax on a world of fire and brimstone. The themes of hubris and the fall of the mighty, the conflict between public and private duties, and the corruption of power are old themes throughout world mythology and Lucas uses them for maximum effect. It's too bad that he still can't write more than the most stilted of dialogue. The plot is serviceable enough but line after line is clunky. The original trilogy benefitted by having real screenwriters come in and polish up Lucas's drafts.

The performances are a notch better than the previous films. Hayden Christensen has gained a little in gravitas from the pouty teenager he played in Attack of the Clones and makes a serviceable Anakin. Natalie Portman spends most of the film wringing her hands and having to deliver some of the worst lines ever put on screen. She's a reasonable actress who is wooden here as she's given nothing to play. Ewan McGregor enjoys himself as he morphs into Alec Guiness. Ian McDiarmid, as the evil Palpatine, gives the best performance of the film as he slyly seduces Skywalker and the rest of the galaxy into his personal madness. Most of the rest of the supporting cast aren't around long enough to register. Jimmy Smits comes and goes, Samuel L. Jackson develops some hokey lines and then falls out of a window, Jar-Jar Binks is here but, fortunately, never opens his mouth.

George Lucas obviously loves these films as he's able to put all of his toys at Industrial Light and Magic and Skywalker Sound to full use. There are digital vistas and spacecraft and creatures galore, almost too many for the brain to notice and absorb. Some shots are so busy, they're overwhelming and it's hard to decide what you should be paying attention to. Production designer Gavin Bocquet understands that it's his job to connect this film to the originals and there are clever visual references towards styles of uniform and spaceship evolving towards the looks used in Star Wars. John Williams's familiar music provides its usual panache.

The film is epic in scope and hops from planet to planet, each with its own unique environment. There are clever cameos from future players such as Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the Wookies, the Death Star and Governor Tarkin (Wayne Pygram made up to look like the young Peter Cushing). About the only character that doesn't get at least a passing mention is Han Solo. (I kept expecting an eight or ten year old boy named Han to turn up at some point - maybe it's just as well that Lucas refrained). It can be enjoyed as a Saturday matinee serial by those who have not seen the other films, but is obviously meant as a love letter from Lucas to the fans who have supported him for nearly three decades. It's rated PG-13 for violence and darker story elements and is clearly not for very young children.

Jedi decapitation. Flying R2-D2. Vertical elevator gone horizontal. Horizontal elevator gone vertical. Liquid opera. Jedi defenestration. Gratuitous Jango Fett clones. Evil blue and purple fingertip lightning. Implied child murders. Yoda back flips. Free fall into shallow pool. Molten lava balancing act. Senate chamber duel. Gratuitous Keisha Castle-Hughes.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


TOWEL ROAD

I had no sooner ended my stay with the Trappists than Madame Rose, my publicist called, to tell me about a fabulous entertainment opportunity involving a hospice benefit somewhere in Florida. As my public profile has been a little lower than I would like of late, I wasted no time in catching a Delta flight down to Miami and soon was being chauffeured up to some little town with a name like Pine Park. I've always felt that it was my duty, as a public figure, to appear at these charitable affairs, especially if they are well covered by the media and, as we sped into town, I could see that there were television trucks everywhere.

On my arrival, I found that things were just a tad disorganized, no proper stage management and most of the acts appeared to be performing on the front lawn. After dodging a crowd of people with bullhorns, someone thanked me for being there and suggested that I simply perform for the television cameras as a sort of freeform performance art. Off I went, but every time I would start my routine for a camera, this group of not terribly good acrobats, 'Jugglers for Jesus', got in the way. I ended up doing an extended tap routine on the top of a CNN van. Someone later told me that the whole show was produced by a Terri Schiavo. I kind of like the idea of being a Terri Schiavo dancer and wonder if there might be a future in a troupe of that name.

After the benefit ended, I returned home to Chateau Maine and Normy where we've been fairly sedate over the last few weeks while we evaluate our options for our next entertainment venture. We have ventured out to the cinema, a time or two, most recently to the new film version of Douglas Adam's cult novel, The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. This property has been in development hell in Hollywood for more than twenty years, lumbering on through studio corridors even past the death of Adams, several years ago. At one point, with a much earlier draft of the script, I was attached to the project as Marvin, who in that conception, communicated through a clever series of tap combinations that came out as Morse code. The financing failed to materialize, however, and I moved on to other projects.

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy came to life originally as a BBC radio series, morphed its way into a series of novels, was adapted for British television, recorded and became an early computer game, heavily influencing the late boomers and early generation X who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s. Douglas Adams, author and humorist, remained the guiding force behind the entire empire until his death. He retains a screenplay credit for the current film, although the material was apparently reworked by Karcy Kirkpatrick. I wish I could say that the film was worth the long wait, but sadly, it is, at best a pedestrian effort, which could have benefitted a little from Douglas Adam's comic genius.

The story, taking elements from all five books in the 'Hitch Hiker' trilogy (don't ask), is a bit of a classic road movie. Everyman Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) wakes up one morning to find his house is being demolished to make way for an expressway bypass. This turns out not to be such a big problem as the Vogons, a lumbering race of bureaucratic bad poets, have scheduled the earth for demolition for an interstellar bypass. Arthur escapes with his friend Ford Prefect (Mos Def), a being from somewhere around Betelgeuse who has been masquerading as human, by hitching a ride on a Vogon ship. Here Ford gives him a copy of the titular guide, which is dramatized by cute little animated graphics and the reassuring voice of Stephen Fry, as Arthur tries to cope with the strange new world he finds himself in.

Ford and Arthur are eventually ejected by the Vogons and end up on the spaceship 'Heart of Gold', fired by an improbability drive, along with Zaphod Beeblebrox, president of the galaxy (Sam Rockwell in overdrive), the curvaceous Trillian, an earth adventuress whom Arthur admires (Zooey Deschanel) and a dysphoric robot named Marvin (body by Warwick Davis, voice by Alan Rickman). Soon this quintet is zooming around the galaxy, meeting some of the wackier denizens, and running away from bad tempered Vogons and galactic powers that be. They end up dealing with planetary construction, bored super computers, nasal religions and overly intelligent white mice, amongst other crises.

While this little synopsis suggests that this film would be a good natured romp, it can be, at times, somewhat painful to sit through. For every sequence of witty non-sequitur humor, the hallmark of the novels, there are moments of twee sentiment, or references that will be completely non-understandable to those who have not read the source material. It starts promisingly enough with a musical production number starring the dolphin population of the world, loses some steam in exposition, and eventually ends up all over the place.

The actors are game for the challenges. Mos Def and Zooey Deschanel, in particular, seem to understand the need to take the material absolutely seriously in order for the humor to shine through, no matter how absurd the situation. Martin Freeman, in the protagonist role, is fine, but spends most of the film befuddled by the craziness of the others and never gets to develop much as a character in himself. The big weakness is Sam Rockwell. Mr. Rockwell is a fine actor, but his Zaphod, played as a rock star on steroids, is so over the top that he becomes irritating in a matter of minutes, Even when his second head is revealed, all it does is make him doubly irritating. Director Garth Jennings seems not to know how to rein him in or that sometimes less is more. Jennings, with a background in music video, handles his camera well, but there's nothing especially compelling or interesting in the visuals and the film develops no sense of its own style.

The film is perfectly innocuous as an entertainment, but could have been so much more. If Douglas Adams had survived to supervise, some of the more obvious problems might have been fixed; or the film might simply have languished in development limbo for another dozen years.

Dolphin choreography. Six pints ale. House destruction. Earth destruction. Poetry reading. Bad tea. Yarn vomit. Legless John Malkovich. Giant computer. Face slapping. Monster feeding. Planetary construction. Emergency towel.