I loved Baz Luhrmann's musical Moulin Rouge, but what I adore even more than the film itself are works like it - artistically divisive movies that give you no choice but to love or hate them.
What modern cinema desperately needs are more pictures by directors with a personal vision, where the subject and style provoke immediate, passionate responses, and where fierce arguments over the quality of their execution should ensue. Recent examples include Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream and Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, and no matter what you think of the end results (I found Requiem exhilarating and Dancer laborious), these are works that should be seen; they're a break from the norm of traditional narrative, and indicate a slow but steady change in the way we watch movies. I have no doubt that many audience members will loathe Moulin Rouge - I can already direct you to a few critics who do - but if you respond at all, you may find yourself, as I did, wishing it would never end.
While set in the Bohemian section of Paris, circa 1900, Luhrmann's work is all about the intense feelings we often have about pop music, the breathless highs and lows we feel when hearing a song with special meaning for us personally. (It's telling that the movie's signature number is Elton John's "Your Song.") Ewan McGregor plays Christian, a struggling playwright who falls hopelessly in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a comely courtesan and the Moulin Rouge's star performer, and when McGregor serenades her with that Elton John tune, the moment is so outlandishly, romantically perfect that you might want to applaud. You might also feel that way during the lovers' love-song pastiche that culminates, giddily, in a rendition of "I Will Always Love You," or when Satine's employer (the fabulously hammy Jim Broadbent) delivers an insinuating version of "Like a Virgin"; there are more knockout individual set-pieces in Moulin Rouge than we've had in an entire year of films. And the leads are riveting: McGregor, in terrific voice, is immensely charming and emotionally direct, and Kidman has true star radiance here, proving herself a divine musical-comedienne.
There's little more I can say without giving away the movie's pleasures, which are all laced into its brilliant, anachronistic design. Those who can easily dismiss the joys of pop will find plenty to hate here, and I won't argue that Luhrmann's style isn't off-putting; his editing rhythms and zooming camerawork sometimes threaten to overpower the screen. But the movie, visually arresting throughout, remains a transcendent experience, two hours of sheer cinematic bliss. Or, some of you will find, two hours of maddening nonsense. Either way, it deserves an audience; works like Moulin Rouge allow, a hundred years after their inception, motion pictures to remain a vital, incomparable art form.
With its three-hour running length, huge budget, historical content, and swoony love triangle, it's obvious what Pearl Harbor's inspiration was: The film is Titanic with duelling DiCaprios. It's also Titanic as a whupass fantasy; we might have been mercilessly attacked in 1941, but by God, we got payback. (It's like watching the survivors of the Titanic paddle back and kick the crap out of that pesky iceberg.) By now, director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's epic will have made more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, yet with its ridiculous overstaging, contemptible dialogue, and incongruous computerized visuals, it's a movie that's all too easy to make fun of, despite (or maybe because of) its earnestness.
What, exactly, about Affleck's good-natured, wiseacre cockiness makes Bay think he's Gary Cooper? He's so dreamily, dramatically lit and forced into such phony romantic tableaux that you might want to hide your face whenever he's onscreen; you feel this way toward many of the mostly talented, mostly horrifically-directed members of the cast (Kate Beckinsale, Josh Hartnett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, and Dan Aykroyd included), but Affleck is a special case because he appears to truly believe he's doing fine work (as he did in Bay's and Bruckheimer's Armageddon), and you feel badly for him. He becomes emblematic of the film as a whole.
Excepting the computerized explosions, Pearl Harbor's technical aspects are fine, yet they're put to the service of an insanely protracted storyline; I think any reasonable viewer could find six or seven places to end the film before it actually ends. (I also think anyone could find at least an hour's worth of footage that could have been cut, and not missed, before the Pearl Harbor attack.) Promoted as the event film of the summer - we're basically being told that it would be un-American not to see it - Pearl Harbor is sadly, sweetly terrible. And, if you haven't yet, you're still going to see it, aren't you?
WHAT'S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?
In the new heist comedy What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito play thieves - one professional, one a con-in-businessman's-clothes - who spend the majority of two hours trying to outfox each other, and the game proves to be a tame, mostly unfunny drag. While Lawrence has toned down his more hyperactive tendencies, he doesn't connect with anyone else onscreen, and DeVito displays his patented, snarling, piggy DeVito-ness, which has grown increasingly monotonous 20 years after Taxi. The script, by Matthew Chapman, isn't necessarily stupid, but Sam Weisman's direction sure is; every joke is hammered home in a sub-par-sitcom style, and the movie never develops a rhythm. It's all mostly worthless, but it isn't grueling to sit through, because if Weisman didn't do anything else for the project - and it doesn't appear he did - at least he lined up a tremendous supporting ensemble.
As much as I didn't care for What's the Worst ... , I found William Fichtner's turn as a brand-new stereotype, the Screamingly Effeminate Detective, hysterical. I also loved seeing Bernie Mac, giving zing and character to an underwritten role, and Richard Schiff, doing a comedically melancholy riff on his West Wing persona. And beyond this trio, we're also treated to Nora Dunn, Glenne Headly, Carmen Ejogo, Ana Gasteyer, Siobhan Fallon, and John Leguizamo; each one perks your interest. None of them is given much to do, so it's not really worth catching the film just to see them, but they're the absolute best thing that could've happened to this dreary comedy.