The Nitty Gritty Mitty Committee

I know. I know.

I know. I know.

So what’s with this trailer for the new movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)? I feel like more people need to see this. The trailer. I have no idea if the movie’s any good. All we know is it’s been in development for a long time. Folks like Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey and Sacha Baron Coen and Johnny Depp were originally attached. Now all has changed again.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig star in the story of a pencil pushing daydreamer who escapes from reality with his fanciful imagination where he’s always the hero who gets the girl. The imdb synopsis hints that there is a real life adventure in the mix too as he races around the world to save his job and the job of the woman he loves.

Taste the indie.

Taste the indie.

All of this is immaterial. The trailer is what I’m talking about. Silent, artfully photographed, ambiguous—leaving much of the plot a vague mystery—and set to the soulful tune of “Dirty Paws” by Of Monsters and Men. Seriously, the song is awesome and mournful and magical. It is a bit of an indie-gasm, but it’s sweet and pensive and it dominates the atmosphere of the entire taciturn trailer. My point is, it seems like a weird choice.

It’s a ballsy move. I’m glad they did it. I just can’t help but wonder if the film itself will have a remotely comparable tone to that of the song. It reminded me of the trailer for ParaNorman (2012) that featured no dialogue or plot explanations and instead just showed silent images from the film while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays. To me, it was bold and one of the most memorable trailers of recent memory. Is Mitty pulling a similar stunt?

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa...

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

I’m actually a big fan of the 1947 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Danny Kaye. The Court Jester (1955) is funnier, but there’s a weird surreal energy to Walter Mitty that I actually appreciate more. Mitty meets the girl who haunts his dreams and gets mixed up in a murder plot involving hidden WWII treasure and a group of killers (including Boris Karloff) led by a mysterious man named “The Boot.” In this film, Mitty’s phobias and fantasies are used against him as his foes, in an effort to hide their crimes he has witnessed, manipulate him into thinking he’s really suffering from a mental breakdown. Soon Mitty questions what is real and must weigh having a normal life with a boring wife and terrible mother-in-law or waking up to the real fantasy and save the day for the girl of his dreams. It’s actually a great little movie and most of the dream sequences are charming and brilliantly plugged into the main action. Kaye gives a fine performance as well.

Since James Thurber’s original 1939 short story focuses on the character and leaves out any complicated plot, any film adaptation is free to go in almost any direction as long as Mitty is a timid milquetoast daydreamer who imagines he can be more important than he really is. Thurber apparently hated the 1947 version.

A little more grim and surreal this time around.

A little more grim and surreal this time around.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) has even been labeled a stretched adaptation of Thurber’s short story. The protagonist (Jonathan Pryce) is a socially impotent bureaucrat who goes on wild flights of fantasy to escape his stifling reality. He also meets the girl of his dreams and gets mixed up in a bigger narrative, like the Danny Kaye movie. Gilliam’s film is decidedly darker and more warped, but the basic structure is there.

All this makes the new Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel like it would have been more in the vein of A Night at the Museum or some crap rather than the moody and brooding Where the Wild Things Are. When I heard Hollywood was remaking it, that’s what I assumed anyway. Then I saw this weird trailer. This trailer would definitely turn off movie-goers looking for simple, broad comedy and by-the-numbers guy-gets-girl plot. Is it a gag or bad miscalculated marketing?

Where does this road lie.

Where does this road lie?

Then I saw that Ben Stiller was directing the movie too. Even the ‘dumb’ comedies he directed are smart. Consider the sharpness and satirical edges of The Cable GuyZoolander, or Tropic Thunder. Maybe this will be a more interesting film after all. The screenwriter, Steve Conrad, is also known for more nuanced than broad comedy (The Weather ManThe Promotion. . . Pursuit of Happyness isn’t a comedy, but he wrote that script too).

I’m not sure what to think anymore. All I know is this: that gutsy trailer with the fantastic—if perhaps ill-placed—song has actually got me interested. If I never hear another word of dialogue from the movie I’ll probably see it.

Sean Penn?!

Sean Penn?!

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle Sept. 14th, 2013.

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Greek Tragedy with a Latin Rhythm

A tale as old as Zeus and the titans needs to be told with some zest and boisterous panache to keep it alive. Director Marcel Camus struck gold in transposing the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contemporary Brazil in Black Orpheus (1959). The theater style of ancient Greece gets a huge reboot. Instead of strange distant folk in masks spewing lines in a monotonous cadence while the chorus summarizes and informs the audience of events that occur offstage, Camus thrusts us into the wildly frenetic and vibrant world of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. Hot blood rushes through the veins of these characters and the bossa-nova beats never stop. All the torrid romance and colorfully chaotic pageantry you could want and more await you in Black Orpheus.

Orpheus (Breno Mello) is a flirtatious, carefree bus driver (shall we call him a scamp?) and denizen of the Rio shantytowns. The local children believe it is Orpheus’ guitar playing that wakes the sun up every morning. His buxom fiancee, Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), tries to keep him focused on their impending wedding, but alas Orpheus is a playboy and is not entirely sold on the idea of being tied down to one woman. Enter shy newcomer to Rio, Eurydice (the lovely Marpessa Dawn). Needless to say Orpheus is smitten right away. Eurydice will be staying with her cousin Serafina (Léah Garcia)—who lives right next door to our guitar-strumming protagonist (scamp). Amidst the festivities and excited anticipation for Carnaval, a forbidden romance blooms. Eurydice, initially distrusting of the pushy and cocksure Orpheus, soon finds herself turning to him for safety when an ominous figure—Death himself clad in a skeletal leotard (Adhemar da Silva)—crashes the party and lurks her.

If you are at all familiar with the Greek myth there will be no spoilers here. After a very expedited courtship Eurydice is haunted once more by the skeleton figure and then Mira discovers Orpheus’ betrayal and chases her away from Carnaval. Death corners her and (I will not reveal how) she dies. Distraught, Orpheus must wander through the “spirit world” of barren streets, empty hospitals, and deranged midnight religious gatherings to find Eurydice and bring her back from the underworld. Classic Greek drama. And then it all ends in terrible yet poetic tragedy.

Black Orpheus represents a very fantasy-like interpretation of Rio de Janeiro. This is not City of God (2002). This does not depict the gritty hardships of slum life or the violence of gang warfare. Camus attempts to keep the characters pure and self-contained within a world of sumptuous samba beats and vibrant colors. It’s probably closer to Donald Duck’s adventures in Saludos Amigos (1942). Black Orpheus is a picture-perfect postcard of the exotic pulsating liveliness and rich beauty of Brazilian urbanity. The story reflects more a poetry to the city than a factual account. What makes this more fanciful take on the city all the more interesting is that Camus grounds the myth in reality. Orpheus does not literally descend into the depths of Hades, but rather the tempo of the film merely shifts and what was once a spectacularly populated and light-drenched celebration has relocated and the streets are desolate and unwelcoming, but it is still the same city. The spiritual characters from the myth are humans, yet they speak in riddles. It is a fascinating blend of fantasy and realism and it somehow works beautifully.

One of the big things about this movie is the music. One thing Black Orpheus might have in greater quantities than its colors and lively characters is music. Characters will become so overwhelmed by the rhythmic bossa-nova beats that fill the score that they simply have to start dancing. This movie is like taking the pulse of a Latin drum for 100 minutes. If the gorgeous use of Technicolor didn’t wake you up then the energetic, sensual melodies are sure to get your blood flowing. Nubile bodies contort to the frantic beats and fabric rustles and sways around vigorously shaking limbs. The film is alive. The wall-to-wall music does something else too. It creates a feeling of safety and civilization so that we become all the more uneasy when it vanishes and we are left alone with Eurydice as she flees Death in a dark and dormant trolley station at night. Up until this moment all has been joyous gaiety and sexy spectacle strategically punctuated by hot evenings of love and desire. When the music goes so does our sense of safety. The scene where Eurydice tries to hide from an ever-advancing Death in dark silence is truly a wonderful bit of fantasy suspense.

Despite the tragedies that befall our main characters Black Orpheus manages to find significance within all of it. As when Romeo and Juliet died, we were sad but our experience transcended the characters’ limited worlds. There is catharsis, redemption, and peace in this tale. Black Orpheus, despite the misfortunes that rip our lovers apart, does end on a surprising but well-earned happy note. I highly recommend this movie to anyone with a taste for romance, tragedy, music, and exotic cultures.

Top 1o Reasons to See Black Orpheus

1. It introduced North America to bossa-nova music when it came out. See what they heard.

2. Although we’ve labeled it a tragedy, the film features some delightful moments of humor and playfulness.

3. If you find yourself unable to relate to the romance between Orpheus and Eurydice, Serafina’s relationship with her oblivious boyfriend Chico (Waldemar De Souza) is a very funny counterbalance.

4. Death wears a leotard…and still manages to be menacing.

5. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

6. It’s got dancing, partying, and witchcraft. You can’t beat that for romantic drama.

7. It has been hailed as one of the best and most colorful uses of Technicolor photography and they might be right.

8. The cast is full of beautiful people you probably haven’t seen before.

9. It was filmed on location and that really adds texture to the story.

10. It’s a beautiful story and a worthy adaptation. I’d rank it alongside Kurosawa’s take on King Lear with Ran (1985) as one of the great re-imaginings of a classic story.

picture references:

http://www.american-buddha.com/blackorpheus.toc.htm

http://ctache.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

http://www.moviemail-online.co.uk/film/dvd/Black-Orpheus-Extended-Edition/

http://arananfms.blogspot.com/2010/08/orfeu-negro-1959-black-orpheus.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 22, 2011

Trilogy Gilliam

"It's..."

“It’s…”

Terry Gilliam is a highly imaginative man with a background as a cartoonist and animator. He has a famous history with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he makes extremely high-concept yet personal fantasy films that usually have a dark sense of humor and a wonderfully skewed (but not far off) view of the world. Here is responsible for such wonderful films as Twelve Monkeys (1995) (best Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt performances!) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (best Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro performances!). And his Python stuff is amazing! Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Terry Gilliam has been a unique and fascinating voice in the world of film.

Metropolis meets Dali

Metropolis meets Dali

I was meh on Jabberwocky (1977); mixed on The Fisher King (1991); disappointed by The Brothers Grimm (2005): a little iffy on Tideland (2005); and not quite sold on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), but he is still one of my favorite filmmakers. Gilliam always offers tantalizingly askew visuals blended with humorous surrealism. I don’t have to think hard to come to the conclusion that my all-time favorite movies from Mr. Gilliam are from his unofficial “Dreamer Trilogy”: Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three feature protagonists who are stuck in a bureaucratic/materialistic world and must deal with the unapologetic clash of fantasy and reality. In these worlds dreams are the only escape.

"Hello. I'm Hood."

“Hello. I’m Hood.”

Time Bandits features the dreamer character as a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock). Kevin’s parents are tedious TV-heads who seem aloof at best. Kevin prefers reading about history and magic and amazing battles rather than watch nauseating game shows with his parents. When a group of time-traveling dwarfs (played by Jack Purvis, David Rappaport, Malcolm Dixon, Kenny Baker, Mike Edmonds, Tiny Ross: former Ewoks, Oompa Loompas, elves, and aliens from other science fiction and fantasy films—Kenny Baker was R2-D2!) show up in Kevin’s room on the lam from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson), Kevin winds up on the adventure of a lifetime.

"Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence."

“Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.”

The Time Bandits travel through time with the only map of all the holes in the universe (the fabric of which is evidently far from perfect). They burgle people throughout history. The ragtag band meet up with an insecure Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), a prissy Robin Hood (John Cleese), noble King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and many other fun characters (played by Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Katherine Helmond, Jim Broadbent, etc.) all whilst being pursued by the Supreme Being who wants his map back. Then there’s Evil (in a delightfully wicked performance from David Warner). Evil wants the map for himself so he can rule the world. The film is a nonstop delight of eccentricities and oddities. Warner, Cleese, and Palin steal some of the best lines.

How decisions are made.

How decisions are made.

Brazil follows the daydreams of an adult man named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in a not-too-distant future nightmare that blends the styles of the 1940s with archaic projections of the space age alongside Gilliamesque flights of fancy. The look of this film is amazing and the story is a sort of amalgam of James Thurber, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka.

It's only a state of mind.

It’s only a state of mind.

Sam is a spineless cog in the creaking wheel of bureaucratic progress (although progress is pretty static in Gilliam’s take on the world). His mother (Katherine Helmond) keeps getting plastic surgery; his apartment is being trashed by disgruntled electrical technicians (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor); terrorists—or maybe it’s the government?—keep bombing places; Sam’s best friend (Michael Palin) happens to torture people for the state; and a strange underground vigilante/heating engineer (Robert DeNiro) seems to be the only one who makes any sense in this cock-eyed reality. Other members of the cast include Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughan, Jack Purvis, and Charles McKeown. While Sam is hard at work in the relentless machine, he dreams he is a winged superhero battling samurai, rescuing the girl, and fighting obstacles that vaguely mirror the problems in his waking life. When Sam discovers that his dream girl (Kim Griest) really exists he will attempt to take on the system to save her life and save the day, because when the real world is as bleak as it is in Brazil sometimes dreams are the only things worth fighting for.

"Brazil, where hearts were entertaining june. We stood beneath an amber moon And softly murmured 'someday soon.'"

“Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June. We stood beneath an amber moon. And softly murmured ‘someday soon.'”

The humor is dark, the hallucinations deliriously captivating, the tone gritty and gray, and the solutions elusive and thought provoking. The scary message still rings true today. I still feel Brazil to be one of Gilliam’s absolute best and most significant films.

"A eunuch's life is hard."

“A eunuch’s life is hard.”

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen based on Rudolph Raspe’s novel, puts us in the seat of aging fantasist, Heironymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen (John Neville). The Baron seems out of place in the Age of Reason, but seeks to set the record straight about who he is in a bombed out theater in a battered town under siege by the Turk. Everyone has been treating the Baron’s stories as fiction until young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) believes him and the two go on a fantastic adventure to find the Baron’s extraordinary friends who can help save the town. They travel to the moon in a balloon to rescue the Baron’s amazingly fast companion, Berthold (Eric Idle), but the King and Queen of the Moon (Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese) have other plans.

"He's not going to get far on hot air and fantasy."

“He’s not going to get far on hot air and fantasy.”

They then descend into the center of the earth via the volcano of Mt. Etna where they meet the short-tempered god, Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and lovely goddess, Venus (Uma Thurman). There they also discover the Baron’s super strong friend, Albrecht (Winston Dennis). After they pass through the center of the earth and emerge on the other side they’re swallowed up by a giant sea monster and inside they find several broken ships and two more of the Baron’s disassembled band: the hawk-eyed sharpshooter, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), and the dwarf with a mighty wind for breath, Gustavus (Jack Purvis). It’s up to Sally to believe in the Baron whenever he gets discouraged and to chase away the Grim Reaper whenever he tries to collect the Baron’s soul. Once they reunite with the Baron’s trusty steed, Bucephalus, Sally and the band of geriatric heroes return to the town to battle the Turk and silence the fantasy-hating Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). Thus the old dreamer conquers all through the power of fantasy.

"The body is dead. Long live the head."

“The body is dead. Long live the head.”

You will notice many recurring actors in Gilliam films as well as an apparent affinity for tattered, complex garments and incessant use of extreme wide-angle and deep focus lenses. He gets compared to Tim Burton sometimes because they both have very strong visual styles that dictate a unique tone, but they are very different filmmakers indeed. Burton’s aesthetics originate from silent German Expressionist cinema. Gilliam seems more inspired by Heironymous Bosch. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gilliam should have directed Alice in Wonderland! Terry Gilliam is a talented dream-weaver and when he is at his best, it’s sits uneasily with you. When he’s at his most off, it is still fascinating to observe. Gilliam celebrates the wonders and the horrors of the untamed imagination. I admire and am in awe of where Gilliam seeks to take us and I hope you too will take the tour.

Enter if you dare...

Enter if you dare…

Originally published for the “Alternative Chronicle” December 10, 2009.