Reviews Too Late: Catch Them When You Can

by wjw on January 26, 2015

I often use this space to complain about the wretchedness of what I’ve been watching, so I thought I’d do a change-up and praise a couple films that practically everyone else seems to hate.  Both movies have colossal star power and intelligent scripts, but the problem seems to be that they’re much more intelligent than their audience and, I suspect, most of the critics.

Into_The_Woods_(film)First up is “Into the Woods,” from Disney, taken from the musical by Stephen Sondheim, and directed by Rob Marshall, who directed “Chicago.”  We’ve got Meryl Streep (who knew she could sing?), Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, James Corden, Tracey Ullman, Billy Magnusson, “and Johnny Depp as the Wolf.”  (He’s only in the movie for maybe 10 minutes, so if you’re going solely to find out what ridiculous piece of implausible stage makeup Depp has stuck on his mug this time, you needn’t bother.)

You should really read the host of one-star reviews on IMDB to get an idea of the audience’s reaction to the movie.  First, the trailer didn’t mention the film was a musical, and the fact that the movie was full of people singing made a lot of folks hate it.  (The fact that the trailer was full of music, and that it shared the same title as a goddam famous Broadway musical seems to have gone over people’s heads.)

Next, even those who figured it was a musical thought it was going to be a cute Disney musical based on a fairy tale, like Beauty and the Beast, only sweeter and more suitable for children and with even more happily-ever-afters.  Instead they got clouted over the head by a multiple-Grammy-winning adult musical produced in the 1980s by a bunch of sophisticated New Yorkers.

Oh, the screaming!  Oh, the angst!  Oh, the utter poisonous hatred at the thought that there might be a musical intended for grownups!

Oh, the brainless people on IMDB!

For those unfamiliar with the source material, “Into the Woods” gives us a braided plot featuring Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (and his beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, a Baker and His Wife, a Wolf, a Witch, and a brace of Princes.  During the first half, the characters negotiate their fairy tales successfully, and have their Happily Ever After endings.  And then the second half explores what Happily Ever After actually means, because life just keeps going on, and delivering challenges and disappointments and angry giants and sometimes death.  And being on a journey in the woods becomes a big heaping metaphor for navigating your way through your own story, whatever story that may be.

All the characters are, basically, self-aware New Yorkers, not unfamiliar with Freud, who know perfectly well that they’re on a journey, even if they can’t quite see where it is they’re going.  Woody Allen could have written these characters.  (“Isn’t it nice to know a lot… and a little bit not…” says Riding Hood.)

They’re aware that they might be going into some kind of peril, but they also know that peril is part of the journey.

As Jack sings, “And you scramble down, and you look below at the world you left, and the things you know. The roof, the house, and your mother at the door.The roof, the house, and the world you’d never thought to explore. And you think of all of the things you’d seen. And you wish that you could live in-between. And you’re back again, only different than before.”

Anna Kendrick is about perfect to play Cinderella as a calculating big-city girl— in this version, she’s fleeing the ball not because she’s about to transform into a scullery maid, but because she can’t make up her mind whether she wants her Prince or not.  She isn’t dumb, she isn’t naive, and she isn’t wrong.  (He was, as he himself points out, “raised to be charming, not sincere.”)

Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson, as the Princes, have a wonderful duet, “Agony,” where they get to go completely over the top, tearing their shirts open and literally beating their breasts over their various romantic disappointments.   (For anyone harboring a wish to see either of these gentlemen’s bare chests, this is your opportunity.)

I was also struck by the amount of fetishism in these classic stories.  Foot fetishism in Cinderella, hair fetishism in Rapunzel . . .  and as for what’s going on between the Wolf and Riding Hood, the less said the better.

The Disney version makes some changes to the story.  The Wolf’s pedophilic attraction to Red Riding Hood is toned down, so possibly it might go over the heads of children.  Rapunzel is given an actual HEA, whereas I seem to recall that in the play she was stomped into the dirt by a giant.  The second act seems rushed in general, and the happily-ever-after song that opens Act II is missing.  And I confess myself disappointed that Emily Blunt’s character was arbitrarily killed for committing adultery, whereas her partner went off singing and scot-free.  (Though that, alas, is the way of the world.)  And I couldn’t help but notice that Jack’s cow was actually a steer, which kind of explains why it wasn’t giving milk, and the scenes where folks are trying to milk him more than a little . . . odd.  (And what was Meryl Streep drinking from that cup?)

But, y’know, minor stuff.  I had a great time, though of course I also knew what I was getting into.

200px-Inherent_vice_coverMy other thumbs-up movie is ’Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “The Master”), and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Serena Scott Thomas, Benicio del Toro, Eric Roberts, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and adult film star Belladonna (“Spontaneass,” “Buttface”) as Clancy Charlock.

Despite all the amazing star power in this flick, it did only $328,184 on its opening weekend, so my advice is to see it while you can.

There are certain challenges to making a film based on a Pynchon novel— they are, for starters, essentially plotless, with characters and incidents related thematically rather than by cause-and-effect.  But Inherent Vice is probably the easiest to adapt, because it’s ostensibly a hard-boiled Los Angeles mystery, and that gives it direction, if not quite a plot.  (Though I’ve had a movie of Gravity’s Rainbow running through my head for decades now, and I’d like to make it, so somebody give me a couple hundred million dollars, okay?  I promise to make more than three hundred grand on the opening weekend, honest!)

Pynchon’s novels are given to paranoia and conspiracy, so an investigation never quite leads to a resolution, because diving into skulduggery only reveals more skulduggery, in a kind of infinite regression.  So even in Pynchon’s mystery novel, the mystery isn’t quite solved, all that can happen is that the characters have to reach some kind of accommodation with the ghastly fundamentals of their world.  And this lack of a resolution is what drives the good citizens on IMDB craaaaaaazy, because the detective doesn’t assemble all the suspects in the drawing room to reveal the villain, the way it sposed to be.

Instead “Doc” Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, smokes a colossal amount of weed.  (Pynchon’s apparent political stance, dividing the human race into Stoners and Fascists, plays better in the cinema than in literature.)  The story is set in 1970, long after the sun has set on the Summer of Love, and the hippie scene has awakened with a big hangover named Charlie Manson.

In Inherent Vice, the hangover is Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin in a flattop so geometrically perfect that it makes his head look like a cube.  He and Doc have a co-dependent relationship, in which he is barely restrained from ripping out Doc’s intestines by the information that Doc occasionally provides to let him close cases.

The script is full of Pynchon’s writing, which is beautiful and playful and funny, and that explains why all these top-notch actors wanted to be in the movie— actors just want to say gorgeous lines, and apparently are willing to give up much of their usual fee for the opportunity.   And Pynchon’s talent for pastiche is very much in evidence, in which characters can say things like “Beware the GOLDEN FANG!”, and it turns out there’s more than one Golden Fang in the plot.  (Is it a boat?  A triad?  A professional association of dentists who discover that investing in the drug trade is more profitable than Wall Street?  Or just a pair of choppers that is used to RIP THE THROATS OUT OF SCREAMING VICTIMS?)

I wish the film had played up Pynchon’s playfulness a bit more.  Pynchon writes stories with rollicking, goofballs characters who sometimes suddenly burst into song, and he provides the lyrics, too— if you want an adult musical, this could have been one.  And I also wish the film had a bit more fun with the way Pynchon names his characters— how could the filmmakers not have taken advantage of the fact that three characters are named Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, and Dr. Threeply, not to mention FBI agents named Flatweed and Borderline?

And I also wish that Joaquin Phoenix was more of a natural comedian— he’s a very fine actor, but he doesn’t top anyone’s list of funny.  But Brolin’s steely deadpan provides all the looney comedy the movie actually needs, for all that he’s the one character who never laughs.

Go see it straight, go see it stoned.  Go see it in hippie threads, go see it in cop drag.  Just bring a few of the little gray cells, and you’ll be fine.


The Next Contest

by wjw on January 24, 2015

I have more free copies of audio Praxis books to give away!

Whoever solves the following puzzle will receive codes to give him free downloads of The Praxis, The Sundering, and Conventions of War.

I decided to reference my own Deep State and provide a crossword-style clue.  Be warned: this is an English-style crossword, similar to White Eyebrow Kung Fu, where “One hand lies, one hand tells the truth.”  One part of the clue may be taken literally, the other is, um, something else.

The clue also references one of my works.

Here’s the clue:

Confused exhorting lip salve.

Carry on!


A Night for Joiking

by wjw on January 22, 2015

Rain turning to snow.

Some nights you just want to pop open a bottle of Scotch and listen to some joiking.  So that’s what I’m going to do.


Mystery Plane Contest!

by wjw on January 21, 2015

aeroThe Dread Empire’s Fall audio books, comprising The Praxis, The Sundering, and Conventions of War, have just been released.

I’ve got some free downloads of the complete set to give away, and the first set will go to the first person who can identify this aircraft.

Sorry about the quality of the photograph.  It was the best I could do on the day.

The insert on the lower right, besides masking a sign identifying the plane, shows the aircraft’s distinctive nose.

And yes, that’s a Lewis gun mounted up top, to fire over the propeller.

Good luck!

And if your specialization doesn’t happen to be the early history of combat aircraft, don’t despair!  More contests will follow!


Prudence and Others

by wjw on January 21, 2015

My recent highway odyssey from Long Island to New Mexico reminded me of the first few times I crossed the country, in a beat-up, mechanically dubious, bright red 1972 Chevy van with something like a hundred thousand miles on it.

Nothing on this machine worked except the drive train, and that unreliably.  The radio was defunct, there was a bracket for an eight-track but no eight-track, and the engine was practically in the passenger compartment and hence very noisy.

What was I to do for entertainment as I drove through all those boring flyover states?

I’ll tell you what I did.  I made up a little game to play.  I sang to myself the contents of the entire Beatles White Album, all four vinyl sides, in order.  If I ever made a mistake, I had to go back to the beginning and start over.

I actually managed to win this game maybe three or four times during the course of all those trips.

All of which goes to explain my unhappy reaction to “Dear Prudence,” as it was playing on Sirius Radio just a few minutes ago.  I really could go for the rest of my life without ever hearing that song again.

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