Monday, March 11, 2013

Long Weekend, Longer Movies

It's a long weekend for the Labour Day public holiday so, apparently, we're going to discuss really long movies! I mean, I can't think of a better reason, can you? There's really no better way to spend a few hours on a grotesquely hot day like Victoria has been having lately than in a cool cinema enraptured by unfolding cinema. Following an Oscar season that saw the average best picture runtime pushed to about two and a half hours, audiences are certainly showing a willingness to sit through long pictures if it's actually worth it so I suspect we'll be getting studios giving their filmmakers a little more slack in those regards. As for the three films here? Well, as Meatloaf would sing, two outta three ain't bad!

If you watched Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged adaptation of Hamlet, George Cukor’s remake of A Star is Born, and the Wachowski/Tykwer collaboration of Cloud Atlas one right after the other then it would take you 590 minutes without stopping. That’s nearly half a day. Throw in the intermissions that the filmmakers blissfully included (even in the home entertainment release, which is how I viewed A Star is Born's restored cut) and adequate pre/post-film food and bathroom breaks then a viewer could surely waste over twelve waking hours under the air-conditioning. Actually, that's wrong: it would not be a waste at all. For sure, I can certainly say that the first two are worthy endeavours and very much deserving of their gargantuan runtimes. As for Cloud Atlas? Well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

It’s taken me a lot of time to finally get around to catching Branagh’s mammoth 1996 undertaking of Hamlet. I knew I only wanted to see it in the plush surrounds of Melbourne’s Astor Theatre, projected from a 70mm print (a print that Branagh himself helped save from being dumped by the film’s local distributor), but situations beyond my control stopped me every time. With my imminent departure from Australia I knew I couldn’t leave the country without witnessing all 242 minutes (nearly four and a half hours with intermission!) and, gosh, am I glad I did. Hamlet is truly one of the few films I have seen that warrants – nay, demands – the use of that wholly misappropriated word “epic”. As if the runtime wasn’t enough – the longest film I have ever seen if we don’t include multi-part documentary When the Levees Broke (255mins) which I saw theatrically, and beating Gone with the Wind by a mere 6 minutes – then the lavish production within more than earns the tag.

Sumptuously crafted in a mix of theatrical pomp and cinematic bravado, Hamlet entirely earns its 242-minute sit. Deservedly Oscar-nominated for the awe-inspiring production design of Tim Harvey, Alexandra Byrne’s costume design, Patrick Doyle’s musical score, and Branagh’s own screenplay, the film was Branagh’s fourth trip to the Shakespeare well, of which I have only seen his delightfully spirited Much Ado About Nothing from 1993. He’s gone twice more, but I do suspect the lack of financial success here somewhat dampened his mood to really embracing the work of the Bard again in such a similarly engulfing fashion. It lost three of its nominated categories at the Academy Awards to The English Patient and another to Billy Bob Thornton’s screenplay for Switch Blade, which is a shame. Not that I consider ambition to be an overriding factor in judging a film's worth (unabridged ambition being something that ultimately destroys Cloud Atlas), but it certainly reads as a stronger case of adaptation and design than those films. That it failed to get cited for Alex Thomson’s 65mm lensing says a lot, but that branch stopped being impressed with the super-large format a long time before. Hamlet, Baraka and The Master can sit quietly as bosom buddies.

Despite battling heat-fuelled fatigue, I successfully made it through the film without falling asleep for longer than a second or two, and can only praise its rapturous retelling of Shakespeare’s play. That stunning black-and-white checked room surrounded my mirrors is a wonder of design, as is the seemingly endless supply of impeccably tailored coats, soldier uniforms, and gowns. If some of the bit part actors flail about – that’d be Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams – then it was made up for by the likes of Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie (emerging out of retirement, thank heavens!), Kate Winslet, and especially Branagh himself. In fact, I was so enamoured by Branagh that I could have watched four more hours of the man acting the delicious, hammy scholar. It certainly helps that 1993-1996 was an especially sexy moment for him. Don’t you agree?

He's the one on the left.

I was a big fan of Branagh take on Marvel comic Thor thanks to its incredibly feminine gaze and overt camp sensibilities. It shares a lot then with Hamlet in which the handsome multi-hyphenate chose to not set it in a gloomy castle and a colour palate consistent with that of mud. Instead utilising a lavish, heightened sense of style that makes the four hours of viewing feel much less of a slog, but rather an invitation to marvel. There’s always something heavenly to look at amongst the design, whether it's an intricate piece of accenting detail on a costume, or the sharply details sets. Of course, that's when one isn’t revelling in the extravagant performance at the centre. It’s a film to cherish and admire, although I suspect the cool kids would still find it hard to indulge. Their loss, really.

Likewise then for George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born. A remake of a 1937 films starring Janet Gaynor that is nice, if underwhelming, it’s hard not to see Cukor’s take the story as the one it always had the potential to be. It’s impossible to watch and not see the superlative, transformative performance of Judy Garland as surely one of the finest feats of acting ever put on screen. If the film surrounding her occasionally has issues with its latter half (Vicki Lester’s fame never truly feel as big as the screenplay suggests), then Garland’s performance more than makes up for it. With every quiver of her voice, dart of her potent dew-dropped eyes, and the way she interacts with different characters in fabulously different ways, Garland well and truly inhabiting that role with the determined spirit every big as similar to that of her on screen persona. Garland’s desperation to make her come back the biggest come back of all time is obvious and imbues the role with pathos far beyond the superficial nature of some of the elements at hand. In a world where people take Oscar’s preference for one thing over another far too seriously, Garland’s loss to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl is a moment that we can surely all agree was just flat out wrong. That Garland’s Vicki wins an Oscar almost feels like rubbing it in her face.

As a musical there could certainly be more songs, but the ones there are a suitably fabulous. Everybody knows Oscar-nominated “The Man That Got Away” (another inexplicable loss, and to “Three Coins in the Fountain” no less), but the entire film is peppered with such lovely songs that Garland just tears into. Inspirational, too, to filmmakers. One number that sees Garland turn her house into a stage on which to perform appears to be a clear inspiration for the “Everything Old Is New Again” sequence from Bob Fosse's 1979 masterpiece (and my personal favourite film of all time) All That Jazz, whilst the elaborate “Born in a Trunk” medley was quite clearly Martin Scorsese’s go to reference point 13 years later for the infamous “Happy Endings” montage from New York, New York. A film that starred none other than Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli. It’s really not hard to see why the film is so revered. I have to finish off the A Star is Born trilogy (of sorts) with the Barbra Streisand version of the 1970s. Something tells me there are more laughs to be had in that particular version, what with the big career highlight sequence being set at the Grammys instead of Oscars. Oh, dear.

Of course, whereas Hamlet and A Star is Born come with the most un-hip and un-popular elements that cinema can have to modern day audiences (flamboyance! prettiness! traditional musical sequences! girly romance!) they succeed thanks to their timeless nature and an appropriate level of taste. Cloud Atlas certainly aims for timeless in its bloated account of our inter-connectedness, but it manages to become entirely tasteless in doing so. Filled with far too many story strands that tell the exact same story of persecution and identity – to some that’s the film’s strength, which I find very odd – with wildly varying degrees of success, Cloud Atlas also comes off looking like the arch enemy of a $100mil blockbuster: cheap!

The filmmakers have bitten off more than they could chew with this adaptation of the so-called “unfilmable” book (On the Road did that task better). The futuristic sequences look far too flat to resonate, with the visual effects appearing uninteresting and lacking depth and pop. The period sequences certainly look a lot better, but only one featuring Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy feels like it could stand alone as its own story. It could have been a very moving account of a gay romance, but then they need to throw the kitchen sink of visuals at the screen every ten minutes. A 1970s story, a sort of blaxploitation espionage tale set on the streets of San Francisco, was my favourite from a visual standpoint, but Halle Berry’s distinct lack of acting ability makes it a far less remarkable experience. And let’s not even get started on the embarrassing litany of accents and make-up faces that Tom Hanks and Berry have to utilise, especially in the far-future tale of cannibalistic space age horsemen. And Jim Broadbent’s awfully un-reigned performance! Ugh, what was that all about? After this and the vaudeville slapstick routine of The Iron Lady, I think Broadbent has truly lost it.

Really, I could go on and on about the misjudged elements of this movie. Sadly, the filmmakers haven’t even allowed any room for intellectual thought since they so explicitly go to every effort humanly possible to spell out its themes for audiences. An altogether embarrassing combination of unabridged ambition that could have functioned on so many better levels had its filmmakers just taken the Project Runway mantra of “edit!” to heart. The editor should be ashamed of themselves for such rote assembly. Those three hours just felt endless. I secretly suspect the film is actually still going, but I’m too scared to go back to the cinema and check.

Basically, on the “Hugo Weaving in Drag” scale of film critique, I wanted to feel like this:

But in the end I felt like this.

Whatta grump.

Was your long weekend... er, long? Did you escape the heat inside the cinema? I wish I was in one right now because, oh my gawd, it's too hot here. I'm definitely a grump now.

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