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by Bill Gibron

25 Oct 2009

“I am not a number. I am a free man”
- Number Six (Patrick McGoohan)

It is the line that leads us into every episode, a reminder of the show’s most obvious and undeniable theme. Unlike other late ‘60s entertainment, lead actor (and series creator) Patrick McGoohan wanted everyone to know that his hour long spy drama was not your typical espionage experience. Like an uprooted and reconfigured 1984, or one of Anthony Burgess’s dystrophic cautionary tales, McGoohan meant to challenge the stifling status quo. Borrowing a little of America’s counterculture creativity, and marrying it to the pop art poetry of his native Britain, the performer embraced the idea of treating the audience as participants, not patsies, in his weekly game of cat and mouse. As a result, The Prisoner became the Twin Peaks of its time, the Gravity’s Rainbow of secret agent science fiction and a stunning television classic. 

Perhaps second only to the original Star Trek in terms of concrete cult status and lingering fanbase frenzy, McGoohan’s gamble remains an astounding masterpiece of mangled mainstream intent. Tired of playing the standard special operative, and realizing that the entire James Bond franchise had upped the anti when it came to such storylines, McGoohan, a UK superstar, decided to completely deconstruct the rules regarding such shows. Instead, he devised a puzzle box of prospective mysteries, filtered them through an inventive framework, and then proceeded to make each episode an illustrated battle between conservative, Establishment ideologies and the personal preferences for freedom, liberty and choice. Even the title held a three-pronged connotation. It created an image that reflected the lead character, his state of mind, and the world(s) in which he lived.

Premises don’t get any more intriguing than this one. McGoohan plays a nameless British intelligence officer who quits his post and prepares to leave town. Just before he’s able to escape, he’s gassed and wakes up in a weird little seaside burg known only as The Village. There, he is referred to by a numeric tag, in this case, Number Six, and forced to report to a Big Brother-like interrogator named Number Two. A captive, and held for the information in his head (the main question being “Why did you resign?”) Number Six learns that there is no fleeing this bizarre, baffling place. Indeed, whenever he or anyone else attempts such a strategy, a large floating orb (nicknamed “The Rover”) is released from the ocean. It tracks down anyone attempting a getaway, and encases them in its opaque elastic shell. Then it’s straight into The Village’s hospital for a little ‘R’ & ‘R’: re-education and re-indoctrination.

From such a foundation, The Prisoner took a multi-level approach to its individual storylines. Ritualistically, we are introduced to a new Number Two each time (creating its own interest level of internal intrigue) and the elusive Number One is always mentioned, but never shown. In each episode, we witness another in The Village’s odd assortment of festivals (art, costume gala), events (elections, speed education broadcasts) and personnel. It’s the final facet that’s the most interesting, since it sets up the biggest dichotomy in the show. Number Six is always viewed as a fighter and a rebel, unwilling to conform to the brainwashing, psychological control and outright attempts to undermine his spirit. By comparing him to people who either love The Village, wish to join him in any plan of escape, or use friendship as a mask to proceed as an agent for the omniscient officials, The Prisoner provides many of its most memorable exchanges.

Indeed, beyond the stunning art design with a great deal of Londonderry air and Carnaby Street whimsy tossed in to increase the arcane factor, and the terrific technological twists (phones are angular and modern, rococo buildings housing elaborate science labs and room sized computers), it is the interaction between people that makes The Prisoner so special. Thanks to the wonderful writers responsible for the program’s intelligent and biting scripts, conversations crackle with meaningful political and social suggestion, while dry Brit wit bubbles beneath all the intrigues and enigmas. Initially, the first few shows stutter a bit in providing us with recognizable hooks to get a handle on. This is partly because The Prisoner was never devised with a wholly linear format to follow. It is also an obvious attempt to keep us squarely in Number Six’s shoes, allowing us to experience the adventure right along with him. Still, in an episode like “Dance of the Dead”, where a washed up body and an available radio are utilized in one of Number Six’s many escape plots, we can feel rushed toward a resolution.

By “The Chimes of Big Ben” and “A, B and C” however, we find the dynamic settling in, and except for a strange instance toward the end where Number Six magically changes human form, and acting ability (McGoohan was off filming Ice Station Zebra at the time) for the “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” installment, The Prisoner perfected the art of audience expectation evasion. Relishing the chance to play with both the Village and its residents, stellar episodes like “Hammer Into Anvil” (Number Six avenging the death of a young girl) and “Many Happy Returns” (Number Six thinks he’s made it back to London) also pick apart the approach to the entire premise. Instead of limiting the narrative to the fairytale like location with all its Alice in Gestapoland style, the plots placed our hero in all manner of outside situations (parties, offices, his old haunting grounds) as a means of reconfirming his personality. We are not only supposed to cheer for Number Six, but sympathize with and support his plight.

Thanks to the iconic way in which McGoohan is presented here, it’s impossible to think of anyone denying the character’s emotional and ideological pull. Shot from an angle that suggests a man used to slipping under the radar (from above and downward) and always featuring the performer in a semi-smirk, eyebrow cocked in knowing perception of the situations at hand, Number Six looks both dominant and deceived, a man caught up in a world which he didn’t create, but able to navigate its weird waters with cunning, drive and more than a little moxie. Toward the end of the run, we see our star slowly manipulating the format to force a confrontation between himself and the dreaded dictator of The Village, Number Two. “A Change of Mind” sees McGoohan’s character creating a bond with a female doctor (all the medical staff seem to be women, for some reason) with the intent of thwarting his nemesis. Similarly, “Once Upon a Time” sets up something called the ‘Degree Absolute’ which turns out to be a battle to the death between these long time antagonists.

With American Movie Classics gearing up to offer an update on the series (starring Passion of the Christ‘s James Caviezel and Ian McKellen), A&E has overseen a painstaking remaster of the original series, complete with a stunning Blu-ray release that brings everything brilliant about the show to dazzling life. The extras packed presentation, including new commentaries, making-of featurettes, character and setting documentaries, and a bevy of bonus background gives the Prisoner fan as much context as they could possibly want. With gorgeous imagery, razor-sharp sound, and a load of exciting content, the new format box set answers a lot of questions about the material…except one.

Indeed, the lingering concern that every fan has centers around the identity of Number One. The final episode, “Fall Out”, offers its own somewhat imaginative take on the answer (something about how a famous line in every introduction is read), but many The Prisoner faithful find such a solution unrewarding. The reason for this, however, is understandable. Something strange happened along the way toward a reasonable resolution to all this mysterious spy stuff. McGoohan, who only wanted a very short run to begin with, agreed to a full 13 episodes understanding that ITC executive Sir Lew Grade was only willing to contract for same. Surprisingly, Grade actually wanted two seasons, not just one. By the time the requisite number had been reached for series one, McGoohan was shocked to learn that Grade had pulled the plug. After several meetings, the men came to an agreement. Four more episodes were allowed, with the finale wrapping up the series for good.

That may explain the rushed nature of the resolution, especially when you consider that McGoohan originally wanted to make seven installments total. Besides, it’s hard to labor inside a storyline that keeps delaying revealing to the audience the story’s purpose.  All the techo-babble and pseudo sci-fi speak can only get you so far. At some point, clues have to be clarified and hints explained or fans will fade out. This is why the initial Peaks comparison is so apt. David Lynch designed his ‘90 show around the solution to the question “Who killed prom queen Laura Palmer?” Once revealed, the series lost its narrative purpose. As a result, it turned into an idiosyncratic mess for eccentricities sake. With The Prisoner, the problem was more metaphysical. In the finale, during his speech to a gathering of Villagers, the President of the Assembly says the following about our hero:

“We are honored to have with us a revolutionary of a different caliber. He has revolted. Resisted. Fought. Held fast. Maintained. Destroyed resistance. Overcome coercion. The right to be a Person, Someone, or Individual. We applaud his private war and concede that despite materialistic efforts he has survived intact and secure. All that remains is recognition of a Man.”

As the main symbolic and dogmatic thesis to the show, The Prisoner faced the daunting task of making such a stance seem new, fresh and exciting each and every episode. For some, seeing McGoohan defiant and flip every scene could certainly create a stigma of staleness. Also, there are moments where The Village feels purposefully and pointlessly insane, merely making up new elements to fluster and fool Number Six. Like any series with an ambiguity at its core, The Prisoner rests and falls on its handling and revelation. It did a decent, if not quite definitive job.

If simplicity and easy answers are all you’re looking for in a one hour thriller, then perhaps you should focus your entertainment attentions elsewhere. The Prisoner is more of a sum of its parts than a cleverly considered bit of clockwork creativity. There are slow spots (“Free for All”‘s election element takes a long time getting started) and one extremely odd bit of mindmeld exploitation (“Living in Harmony”‘s take on the Western genre and its archetypes). Still, the energy the series gives off, and the experimental way in which it handled ideas both distinctive (the balloon like bounty hunter “Rover”) and deranged (“A, B and C”‘s use of dream/memory manipulation science) makes it a stand out example of an ambitious series that celebrated its epic ideals and aesthetically challenging execution of same.

And that’s what’s most riveting about this nearly 40-year-old program. The Prisoner defied the corrosion of conformity and mocked institutionalized violence and state sanctioned interference with personal freedom. It celebrated the human being and blasted any society wanting only compliance and control. There were nods to Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the increasingly bitter political process and the “tune in, turn on, drop out” dream of the peace and love generation. For Number Six, and the actor playing him, anything remotely resembling a group or collective conscious was to be considered corrupt and anti-individual. It was as if that famous ‘60s saying – “Never trust anyone over thirty” – was reclaimed and retrofitted by the show to state, “Never trust anyone but yourself”.

In the end, it really didn’t matter who Number One was, which side of the Cold War The Village sat, why enumeration was used to identify the citizenry, or what in the world that killer beach ball really was. The Prisoner was more interested in one’s individual capacity for choice than any future shock folly. In fact, one could successfully argue that this entire experience was a test, a proving ground created to test Number Six’s loyalty and tenacity. If he really wanted to resign from a world loaded with underhanded dealings, back stabbing best friends and governments grasping to one-up each other, how far would such a man be willing to go to prove his point? Would he be willing to challenge every facet of his humanity, including his personality and his soul? Would he allow himself to be locked away, only to champion his desire to be free? The way in which the answer is discussed and discovered is one of The Prisoner‘s best features. It’s what keeps the series timeless…and very telling.

by Bill Gibron

24 Oct 2009

The disconnect between two people from similar cultural backgrounds. The pain of relationships breaking up and/or never happening. The wonders of a city lost in a strident class crisis. A single day of sex, drugs, soul searching, and music. This is the universe of Micah, the “second best” aquarium technician in all of San Francisco. A one night stand at a party has turned him from a fiery community activist and racial advocate to a combination hopeless romantic and unbearable cynic. The object of his (dis)affections is Joanne, the enigmatic gal pal of a white museum curator who appears privileged and acts passé. Together, they spend an eye-opening Sunday trying to piece together each other’s past while avoiding any chance at a future togetherness. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and definitely not the Medicine for Melancholy each person appears to need.

As plotlines go, this intriguing title really has little to offer. Micah and Joanne wake from a posh party, intersect throughout the next 36 hours, and then resolve their issues as only two still-strangers can. Somewhere near the back end of the last act, writer/director Barry Jenkins tosses in a random rally of local residents, their call to arms over Bay area rent controls and property price hikes adding fuel to the fires our leads have already lit. There’s also a sequence near the finale where Micah melts down the indie scene into a series of stereotypical human and sonic maxims. But for the rest of the time, Medicine for Melancholy (new on DVD from IFC Films) is a tempting tone poem that never really breaks out into the kind of compelling free verse that would indicate something definitive or dramatic. Instead, it takes its cues from its characters and meanders around a little before slowly fading away.

By using San Francisco as a vital aspect to the story, Jenkins injects a great deal of local color into his mostly monochrome visuals. In fact, he purposely desaturates the print so that the clear contrasts between our two wannabe lovers remain ambiguous and blurred. We visit the Museum of African Diaspora, as well as a gorgeous urban art project consisting of manmade waterfalls and politicized slogans. Jenkins doesn’t do a lot outside of this, painting his pliable travelogues and letting the camera get in too close once Micah and Jo start interacting. One has to credit the filmmaker for avoiding certain formulaic pitfalls. He doesn’t mandate that his temporary paramours quip precociously, or take their emotions to some syrupy level of RomCom ridiculousness. Instead, this is a slice of life carved as carefully and considerately as the delicate balance demonstrated between the couple.

But there are troubles here, problems that pop up like unwanted extras in a crowd scene and keep us from caring too much for anything Micah or Jo have to offer. When dissecting the concept of “interracial” romance, our hero fails to recognize his own obvious attraction to women of light skin tone (in an aside, we see a MySpace post featuring a clearly Caucasian ex). Jo is the perfect antithesis of what he rants about - porcelain features hinting at a mixed lineage that goes totally unmentioned. In fact, the whole “black is black” element doesn’t get a lot of explanation. Instead, Jenkins plays it like a fact when all it really stands as is an assertion. Before long, the debate starts to turn circular and then careless. Because they’re so closed mouthed, Medicine for Melancholy‘s leads create just as much confusion as the man putting the half-completed thoughts in their mouths.

And then there’s the issue of chemistry. Actors Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins are model agency apropos for their parts, each one exuding the kind of iconoclastic radiance the simply story requires. But there’s no sizzle between them, no inherent need for them to be together. Indeed, much of the time, Jo seems to simply be playing Micah for a weekend reprieve from her stuffy, sterile life - and that would be fine, as long as we find the pair perfectly matched. But beyond the exterior, our couple trades in cross-purposes. He’s earthy without being totally bohemian. She’s cultivated without becoming a sculpture. Still, we keep waiting for the moment when their combination brings on the heat. Sadly, it never comes.

Indeed, many in the mainstream audience will look at this obviously independent effort and wonder why the She’s Gotta Have It era Spike Lee doesn’t sue. Others will find it almost impossible to overcome the obstacles of limited plotline, unclear characterization, and dramatic pauses large enough to drive a few dozen cable cars through. San Francisco obviously has many, many problems regarding the gentrification of neighborhoods, and ill-prepared viewers would be carping like crazy had Medicine for Melancholy turned into some preachy social statement. But there’s such a thing as being too inconspicuous. Jenkins needed to turn down the ambience and amplify the action, if only a little. And no, montages of his cast dancing to various underground poptones doesn’t count.

It’s been said that the title is taken from a 1959 Ray Bradbury anthology. That would make sense, considering the science fiction author once said that, in order to create a literary fiction, all you had to do was “find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her around all day long.” That describes Medicine for Melancholy perfectly. Jenkins obviously believes that he’s fostered personalities so complex and personable that we’ll gladly track them as they explore the outer reaches of Northern California and the inner areas of their own identities. Sometimes, he’s absolutely right. At other instances, we stand around like strangers at friend’s function and pray for our chance to exit. This is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But there’s really not enough here to remain memorable.

by Bill Gibron

23 Oct 2009

In his new documentary, Chris Rock takes on a very controversial subject. No, it’s not about race, though ethnicity and cultural factors do enter into it. It’s not about gender politics or inequalities, though they also play a part in the final discussion. It’s not about neighborhood disenfranchisement, turf wars, social agendas, or individual personalities, though we see a great deal of them as well. No, Rock’s going deep into the heart of commercial cosmetology (and the media frenzy surrounding same) to discover why black women obsess on their coiffure. In trying to help his pre-school daughters understand the difference between bad and Good Hair, the comedian uncovers a multibillion dollar industry relying on misinformation, misrepresentation, and misguided personal opinions about fashion to maintain its beauty salon stronghold.

The premise is pretty simple: Rock gets a few of his friends (including fellow comedian/filmmaker Jeff Stilson) to rally around his quest for clarity, grabs a camera, and then sets out to ask the tough questions. Always tinged with humor and wit, he confronts famous African Americans about their hair choices, from known actresses (who prefer those notorious “weaves”) to the Rev. Al Sharpton (who was introduced to his first “process” by none other than James Brown). We visit the Bronner Brothers’ Annual Hair Convention and Show in Atlanta, following four stylists from around the country who are each vying for the honor of champion in the Battle Royale competition.

There is a trip to one of the few black-owned businesses catering to hair care products for the community and a discussion of the perils inherent in straightening. Perhaps most tellingly, Rock hangs out at a local barbershop and gets the male reaction to $1000 extensions and high maintenance women. Some even suggest the inflated costs of fashion, in combination with the social desire to look “good”, causes much of the strife between black couples. Indeed, some men laugh, saying their lady will gladly not pay her rent to get her weave adjusted or changed out, while importers of the “raw material” (usually from India), sit back and count their cash.

If it wasn’t for Rock tossing in the occasionally satiric rejoinder, Good Hair would be merely shocking. Like all good gateway films, it lets the audience into an arena they would rarely be able to visit themselves. While clearly geared toward the African American population and the problems it faces, Good Hair makes several rather universal claims. Indeed, this film could easily be called “Good Body” and focus on the mind-blowing Madison Avenue trend toward skeletal models and unrealistic depictions of the female (and now male) form. It could also be called “Good Man/Woman” and focus on the unreal/unhealthy expectations placed on couples by a media bent on celebrating the less than honorable elements of the battle of the sexes. In fact, aside from the whole “nappy vs. straight” debate, this movie is really about how a people use prettiness as a reflection on their value - and how misguided that can be.

Because the focus is on hair, and the stigmas/significance attached to it, Rock finds the perfect foil for his always pointed funny business. Even in situations that you’d think were serious (most of the Indian hair comes from temples where an annual ritual sees millions shave their heads), he is on target and terrific. One of the best exchanges comes with a black market mane merchant, who doesn’t quite get the comedian’s Western references. Equally intriguing are the interviews with the Battle Royale competitors, each one offering their own arch opinion about styling, the Bronner Brothers show, and the other participants. As we get to know these people, learn their strengths and their flaws, we find ourselves handicapping the contest. The finale, while not without controversy, is one of Good Hair‘s best moments.

The most compelling insights also come from the one-on-one interviews. Former child star/ Disney TV diva Raven-Symoné proudly ‘pimps’ her hairdo, arguing that she too will one day get into the weave business. By contrast, Tracie Thoms (Death Proof) celebrates her “natural” look, arguing rather successfully that it’s more attractive and becoming than a Caucasian interpretation of what black hair should be. Poet and national treasure Dr. Maya Angelou shocks Rock when she reveals that she had her first process at age 70 (!) and rapper/actor Ice-T celebrates the “anything goes” attitude about beauty. Whatever makes a woman happy, he argues, guarantees less ‘bullsh*t’ for the man she’s with. As if to emphasize this, Rock returns to the barbershop, where the customers prove the points made on both sides. While several men compliment the entire high tech approach to attractiveness, a sole voice hollers for realism - and is quickly shouted down.

Where Rock stumbles a bit is in getting to the heart of media manipulation. Soul Train gets a shout out (the syndicated ‘urban’ response to American Bandstand is where many African American’s learned their style points), but ‘70s sensations like Afro-Sheen, or magazines like Ebony and Jet are never discussed. Similarly, the comedian never pushes his subjects to reveal the underlying reasons for their hair issues. Clearly, many of the actresses and singers believe it is a business decision, a necessity to compete in what many still see as a lily-white world. But even Good Hair is guilty of its own image manipulation. When discussing a woman’s natural look, a picture of proto-feminists mega-activist Angela Davis is flashed on the screen. It’s an image that many would argue highlights the misguided demonization and stereotyping of African Americans and their otherwise noble heritage.

Still, for its minor missteps, Good Hair is a great deal of fun. Rock could read a daily production meeting call-sheet and still find a way to make it hilarious, and as a director, Stilson makes the wise decision of showing the comic constantly interacting with his subjects. Even during the sit downs, the camera glides over to Rock as he presses a participant for more information. The Battle Royale conclusion is kind of a letdown, if only because a couple of important rules are only revealed at the end, making the win seem slightly tainted. Still, for all it has to offer, one gets the impression that Rock could never really uncover the truth about “good hair”. Like so much about self-worth and image, it’s a subject wrapped up in unanswerable riddles. Luckily, the comedian is around to make fun of them.

by Bill Gibron

21 Oct 2009

Why does everyone want to re-evaluate Waterworld? Are there really members of the motion picture mainstream that feel this overblown bit of lame liquid future shock is actually some manner of misbegotten masterpiece? If it wasn’t for the obvious rips from the entire Mad Max canon, combined with star Kevin Costner’s immense ego, this would be nothing more than a failed featured attraction at some cut rate Florida aquatic theme park. As it lumbers about, eradicating any claims of implied environmentalism with each new piece of preposterous plotting, one gets the distinct impression of something being made up as it went along. And by the end, when evil is vanquished and good given hope, we don’t celebrate the triumph - we just wish everyone had drowned in the first place.

The set-up for this story has the polar ice caps melting, the resulting run-off leaving the entire Earth an H2O-only zone. Over time, humanity has developed into gangs of roaming hordes, each one protecting their own secrets and unnatural superstitions. Into their mix comes the mutant known as The Mariner (Kevin Costner). With gills behind his ears and a skillful ease in the water, he’s instantly targeted by raiders, traders, and other sea-skimming scum. When he arrives at a trading post looking for a bargain, he runs into Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and Enola (Tina Majorino). The older woman looks after the little girl, claiming the elaborate tattoo on her back shows the way to the last bit of mythic “dry land” on the planet. When the Smokers - a villainous bunch led by the despotic Deacon (Dennis Hopper) - discover the child’s whereabouts, they attack. Thus begins an adventure in which the Mariner reluctantly protects the pair from the madman and his minions.

Waterworld falls into the category of a movie that’s more interesting to learn about than actually experience on the screen. The tabloid like tale of cost overages, bad weather, impossible production parameters, exploding arrogance, massive reshoots and constant re-edits is the stuff of legend. It started superstar Costner on his long slide into commercial irrelevance and proved that Kevin Reynolds had no business helming a multimillion dollar action epic (remember Rapa Nui? Thought so). While many still sight the lunacy of using the actual ocean as the backdrop for the film (nowadays, CG would substitute for water cutting significantly the grueling 157 day shoot), it was the clash of personalities that finally undermined this movie. Reynolds, Costner’s longtime friend, walked off the set with nearly two weeks left. It was up to the Oscar-winning actor to guide the film through its final days, turning an already bloated and repetitive work into something even less sensible.

There are aspects of Waterworld that do work, pieces of a puzzle that will probably never, ever come together. Dennis Hopper and the whole Smoker mythos are really interesting, considering that they live on an oil tanker and wage war against the seafarers for violently vague, always unclear reasons. Mr. Crystal Method is so over the top, so wickedly flamboyant that it really doesn’t matter why he’s so amped up and aggressive. There’s also a couple of intriguing sequences that show you where the movie could have gone. The Mariner promises Helen and Enola a meal, and turns himself into a piece of bait to hook a horrific monster fish. Sadly, such oversized threats are never mentioned again - NEVER. Similarly, we get a wonderfully ethereal look at life on the ocean floor, the hero showing off the submerged wreckage of civilization. So much of Waterworld takes place on the surface that when we glimpse this particularly effective material, we wonder why the “Underwaterworld” wasn’t explored as well.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters much that Costner is such a lox here. The Mariner is one of his worst performances, all faux physicality and no subtlety. While Tripplehorn and Majorino are trying to bring some finesse to their interchangeable damsels in distress, our lead just sits back and lets his tan and weak, wispy ponytail do the acting. It’s especially obvious when he’s surrounded by supporting players like Michael Jeter, Kim Coates, and Gerard Murphy. They are bringing the mediocre material to life as Costner constantly undermines the energy. He’s obviously trying for stoic and stubborn. Instead, he simply looks inert. By the time he must take a stand and save little Enola from the Smokers, The Mariner is a joke, not a champion worth cheering. With so much of Waterworld on the brink of utter stupidity and pointlessness, the last thing it needs is a lead that can’t electrify the viewer.

Sadly, the new Blu-ray version of this film proves one thing definitively - prettying up a picture with a near flawless 1080p 1.85:1 reproduction does not increase its entertainment value. While many will complain about the lack of any alternative versions (there are many variations on the “final” cut, including added footage which fleshes out some of the back-story and material viewed in the trailer but not in the actual presentation itself) or true added content, the new home video format does bring the movie back to its theatrical roots. Even the soundtrack is significantly improved thanks to the DTS-HD 5.1 mix. But the lack of extras really stands out. Instead of a warts and all backstage peek, a chance to get the real story of Waterworld out there once and for all, Universal pretends that nothing significant happened during the shoot and gussies up the tech specs for a pristine (albeit pointless) presentation.

While it is true that time, and the obsessive culture of the Internet, has lessened Waterworld‘s “Fishtar” reputation to some extent, this is still one massively flawed film. In fact, it’s hard to see how the concept could really work at all. Because the ocean is so vast, so infinite in its many uncovered mysteries, making it the center of some interesting action scenes and stuntwork masks an obvious fact - the scope of the setting is just too broad to be made believable. What about weather? Hurricanes and typhoons? If there are others like the Mariner, why would they choose to live above the surface? With so much available underwater, why not build something there and stay? Certainly there are logical answers for all these issues, one’s crafted out of necessity and creative limitations. But make no mistake about it - Waterworld is not some sort of forgotten gem. It’s a decent enough experience - but the story of how it was made makes for a far more fascinating entertainment. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Oct 2009

The tragedy of faded beauty has long been a source of literary melodramatics. While limiting in its assessment of female value, it does strike a chord amongst those who view their worth through such slippery sliding scales as talent, skill, and attraction. In her slyly satiric novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, famed French author Colette commented on the Belle Époque era of Parisian society with its celebrated prostitutes, idle wealth, and decadent attitudes. Using the story of a retired madam’s son, his wayward youth, and the older woman who would finally teach him about love, the novels contrasted passion with the plain truth, arguing emotional completeness vs. social responsibility. They also addressed the notion of aging and its aftermaths head on.

Now director Stephen Frears brings us his witty, droll adaptation of Colette’s works, offering Michelle Pfeiffer one of her best roles in years. She is Léa de Lonval, friend of former escort Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates). Hoping to steer her son away from the aimless debauchery he insists on partaking in, the women conspire to set Chéri (Rupert Friend) straight. What at first seems like a few weeks in the countryside sewing some wild oats turns into an epic love affair between the boy and Léa. Six years go by and everything is bliss - that is, until Madame Peloux demands grandchildren. Arranging a marriage for Chéri with Edmée (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another former ‘fallen woman’, she sets in motion a series of events that will bring both Léa and her lover to the brink of utter heartbreak.

Clever, charming, and slightly superficial, Chéri is the kind of pert period piece that gets by on a great deal of creative goodwill. For all its narrative flaws - and there are many - we still admire Frears’ delicate direction, the pitch-perfect performances of Pfeiffer, Friend, and Bates, and the consistently catty dialogue from screenwriter Christopher Hampton. This is a movie filled with brilliant putdowns, cutting asides, bubbly bon mots, and enough backhanded compliments to make a contemporary coffee klatch jealous. In the name of gossip and glorified one-upmanship, our haughty heroines use words like weapons, hoping to inflict a little damage during their breakneck back and forth. Pfeiffer and Bates excel in these moments, leaving a memorable impression about the rivalries and responsibilities of being the former toast of the upper crust sex trade.

Where Chéri stumbles a bit, however, is in the relationship between the title character and Léa. We can see the attraction on both sides - Pfeiffer looks stunning, even in her ‘aged’ demeanor, while Friend is all smooth muscled sensuality. The narration keeps us abreast of their developing love, even referencing their occasional spats as nothing more than the arguments experienced by any ‘married’ couple. But they don’t have the same level of discourse as they do with others around them. Hampton’s words let these characters down time and time again. Maybe we are to assume that neither Léa nor Chéri is capable of being truly open and honest. Perhaps it’s simply the way things were in turn of the century society. Gender and power certainly come into play. Yet for all the sensationally snide and humorous quips traded, Chéri can’t work up a decent romantic exchange.

Of course, with Frears fabulous work behind the lens, we tend to forgive such flaws. Chéri is a sensational movie to look at, a lush and opulent work that doesn’t go overboard on the gaudiness or glitz of the era. Instead, the director lets nature do most of the work, gorgeous garden settings and sky blue oceans reminding us of how painfully beautiful the world can be. Even in the baroque homes and hideaways owned by our hookers, Frears is never indulgent. We recognize that these women have means and money. But they also have the sense to realize where it came from, how hard it is to keep, and how to manage it practically while living the good life. All of this is reflected in Frears’ approach. While not necessarily realistic, it does tend to tone down the more arch elements of Colette’s canvas.

But it’s the emotional beats that are supposed to stir us, the raw lust between Léa and Chéri, the sickening realization that age is slowing destroying their special bond. Indeed, Pfeiffer is excellent in those moments when every little wrinkle, every mention of the past, becomes a telling thorn in her side. Similarly, Friend must “grow up” and take on the responsibilities of a gentlemen, even if his status came from less noble origins. But he’s just not believable, not in any rational, understandable way. Instead, Chéri often comes across as whiny, brattish, and too high maintenance to be worth the carnal benefits. We never see a real sense of reciprocity. He’s all puppy dog longing. She’s watching her last chance at youth slowly slip away. One half of the movie is very powerful and prescient. The other gets lost and then limps along.

Still, there’s enough here to warrant attention, especially for those who remember the last time Frears, Pfeiffer, and Hampton collaborated (1988’s Oscar fave Dangerous Liaisons). Chéri may not contain the same authority and intensity as that previous powerhouse, but it’s clear that when these artists get together, something special usually happens. While the recently released DVD highlights how happy everyone is to be working together again, what’s clear is that this latest result pales in comparison. You’ll laugh at this look at faded beauty. You’ll also feel bad for the women who’ve worked exceptionally hard to find a way to live beyond the prying eyes of their snooty, snobby peers. But when the core conflict arises, when we are asked to sympathize with Chéri’s plight and his love for Léa, something goes missing. For the most part, this movie is marvelous. It’s the empty bits that prove the most problematic.

//Mixed media

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