Recently Rated Movies: Classical Beach Boys, Star Wars for Girls, and a Tragic Son

Death in Venice (1971)
Dir.: Luchino Visconti
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I am woefully unarmed in any discussion involving Thomas Mann's writing. Despite everything I have read in my life, he is a blind spot. I am able to reel off the names of his three or four most well-known books, and know just enough about him to help me in crossword puzzles, but that is all. I am willing to admit that I have not read the man, or Mann, as it were. Therefore, I was absolutely unprepared for watching Italian director Luchino Visconti's film version of Mann's 1912 novella, Death in Venice.

As part of my Tower of Film project, which I wrote about in great detail a few years ago and which is the now the chief guiding force behind what movies I choose to view (though not the only criteria), Death in Venice came up as a selection for the year 1971 based on its nomination at the 1972 Oscars for Best Costume Design, as well as its nomination for the Palme d'Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Part of the problem in watching films from far behind, long after they have come out, and yet still trying to approach them with a blank state of mind, is going in without being affected by the acclaim and recognition (or conversely, derision and hatred) the film received before you got to see it. Such knowledge can influence your opinion positively or negatively. You can blindly accept that all of the 4-star reviews and nominations are automatically correct. You can also enter the film cynically and believe that "nothing could be that good," and leave the film with the notion that they must have been a right bunch of fuckwits to think this movie was anything worthwhile. In both cases, it can prevent you from thinking through the film for yourself. The biggest part of watching a film is actually watching the film.

Because of my then-lack of knowledge regarding Mann's story, I did not know what I was in for with Death in Venice. I did read up on a synopsis of the novella before I sat down to watch it the other day, and it jibes pretty closely with that of the film (with one minor change I will mention in a moment). A middle-aged writer named Gustav von Aschenbach travels to Vienna on vacation and becomes enamored, from a distance, by the singular beauty of a teenage Polish boy named Tadzio. As time passes, Gustav runs across the boy time and again in public settings and comes to be obsessed with the teenager. So far, so creepy. He never speaks to or touches Tadzio, but he does begin to follow him about the city, and his family becomes increasingly aware of this intrusion. Meanwhile, a cholera plague is developing in the city, and Gustav not only begins to notice the city falling apart, but captures the virus himself. The more his obsession with Tadzio grows, the more Gustav worries about his own looks, and takes to having his hair darkened and wearing makeup in public. Eventually, Gustav sits on a beach chair and watches Tadzio get beaten up by another boy on the beach. Tadzio wades into the water, stares back at Gustav, but as Gustav attempts to rise and meet the boy, Gustav slumps sideways on his chair in death.

Director Visconti changed Gustav's profession from writer to composer, and then loaded his version with the music of another Gustav -- Mahler, that is, after whom Mann, an acquaintance of Mahler, supposedly based his character's physical description and first name. The composer's music dominates the entire film to the point that even if I were the most ardent Mahler fan, I might be sick of it by the end. Assuredly, it fills one's ears with glorious sound equal to and even beyond the measure of the cinematography, settings, and costumes that dance before your eyes (the Oscar nom is well deserved). Sadly, for me, despite the excellence of those separate elements, Death in Venice went on far too slowly and too long, and I grew restless for its conclusion. And take it from me; I find L'Avventura to be pleasantly paced.

This is where I part ways with the popular, cultural acceptance of Death in Venice. I don't find the story interesting in the least. I understand the metaphor at play here (Gustav, an artist, is driven to distraction, while his world crumbles around him, more with the ideal of true beauty and not necessarily with a mere child), but I did not enjoy spending two-plus hours with what would appear to modern society as a budding pedophile creeping about a historic city to steal another surreptitious glimpse as a boy a quarter of his age. While I am used to be complicit in other acts of voyeurism as seen through the eyes of the protagonist/antagonist in many, many other films (Hitchcock, De Palma, and many noir films as prime examples), in this case, I had a sense of great unease in the process.

And yet, I do find much to commend in the film. Apart from elements that I already lauded earlier in this review, Dirk Bogarde, an actor who has grown on me immensely over the past decade as I finally got a chance to see his body of work, is a fine choice for Gustav, even if he is largely silent for much of the film. Physically, the role suits him to a T. As for Visconti, I had only seen three of his fourteen films before watching Death in Venice: his first film, Ossessione (1943), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), and his Italian political epic, The Leopard (1963) I ranked all three of these films as "8" (out of 9 on my scale), having enjoyed all of them greatly (and all for very different reasons, as they exist in quite different genre). Death in Venice, unfortunately, didn't catch me the same way, but its influence is already so widespread (operas and other homages in literature and film), that it doesn't need me to help it along. It will be just fine without me paying a revisit.

Strange Magic (2015)
Dir.: Gary Rydstrom

TC4P Rating: 5/9

In a interview made in tangent with the release of Strange Magic, producer George Lucas noted that he had already made Star Wars for 12-year-old boys. He wanted Strange Magic to be for 12-year-old girls. This is odd, because most of the 12-year-old girls that I knew when Star Wars came out (I was 12 myself at the time, you sickos) loved Star Wars as much as the boys. Not that I have done a scientific study, but based on what I saw around me back then and moving forward through Jedi, nearly every kid in 1977, no matter the gender, was crazy about that film. And has been ever since.

My immediate question back to Mr. Lucas would be, "Why didn't you just give Leia her own lightsaber in Star Wars, and then Strange Magic wouldn't have to have been made at all?" Seriously, why make this?

This one was arduous. I mean, really tough to get through. Supposedly inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (in that there are fairies, elves, and sprites in a dark forest and much talk about love potions in it), Strange Magic is stuffed to its spiracles with all manner of classic magical beings, bugs, reptiles, squirrels, and whatever other small woodland creatures they could imagine in an extremely lush forest setting. It looks marvelous -- apart from the more human faces on the fairies, which show so little emotional range I was instantly reminded of The Polar Express -- and their world is very inviting at first, which is part of why sitting through nearly 100 minutes of cliched dialogue and trite situations is so very draining. I guess they thought that Pixar gets away with longer running times in animated films all the time, so why can't we. The difference is that Pixar (apart from the Cars films) has interesting stories and characters with real life and personalities built into them.

Then there is the music. Characters break into song at every possible moment, and often with just the first couple lines of a song, or the first verse and chorus, or just the chorus of something. There are songs I love here and songs that I hate as well, but it doesn't matter; they seem to be from the George Lucas playlist. I have a hard time believing that 12-year-old girls in 2015 are going to be familiar with many of the music snippets from the '50s, '60s and '70s. There are current songs in the mix as well, such as Lady Gaga's Bad Romance and Beyoncé and Jay-Z's Crazy in Love, but they are definitely in the minority here. The net they cast musically is so wide and scatterbrained that none of it makes a lick of sense when jammed together. I guess that if a kid watching this gets to learn a little about older music and decides to do the research into discovering more, then all the better, but within the film, the stew of music really doesn't flow very well and just makes me visualize someone just randomly flipping through an iPod while the soundtrack was being created.

And yet, every once in a while, Strange Magic's magic would work strangely on me. I chuckled at a line here or there that was delivered by a couple of the side characters, even if their type has been better represented in nearly every other animated film ever made that had a main villain with toadies at his beck and call. Design-wise, my favorite character was the white, mouse-ish imp that plagues the heroes even though it is clearly meant to be lovable. As I usually do, I enjoyed Alan Cummings' voice as the Bog King, but I preferred when he was singing rather than hearing him spit out such stiff lines of dialogue. There are snippets of the musical sequences where I can see what they were going for, such as when they finally fully use the title song by ELO during the big romantic awakening between the lead characters. The film breaks its ADHD tension and settles down for a couple of minutes. The characters and the song actually seem to work together, the scenery is lovely and moonlit, and the romance of the scene is pretty effective. And then the film jumps back to its lyrics-dropping, manic self.  

While I am all for everybody being in love in whatever combination they so please in real life, I can see the more morally uptight twitching their noses at the combinations proposed throughout Strange Magic as more proof that Hollywood is trying to indoctrinate their kids into some form of bestial nuptials administered by Satan himself. Not that I believe any of that b.s., but it is easy sometimes to see where the Huckabees, Santorums, and Bachmans of the world get their dim-witted, knee-jerk fire. You know, all it takes is just one film with a frog making out with a mushroom, and we are all doomed for the pits of Hades.

Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)
Dir.: Brett Morgen
TC4P Rating: 7/9

Goddamnit, at this point I don't care if it was a suicide or a covered-up death by misadventure or murder. There seem to be scores of documentaries or docudramas out there now about Kurt Cobain leaving this void, and I am sure many more will be heading our way in the future. The Cobain doc machine has become a cottage industry of its own, almost to the point where I start to wonder if Nirvana and Courtney Love are almost encouraging the continued controversy around the supposed mystery.

Of course, I don't really believe that. (Or do I?) To do so would add me to that particular group of trolls that respond to every article in which it is mentioned that Cobain definitely committed suicide with accusations that the writer must be getting paid by Love (or with some far more graphic form of compensation) to say things that point away from conspiracy theories regarding her involvement or outright direct responsibility for his death.

The obstacle with any film about Cobain is that his death will eventually override it. You can delve into his past all you want, but the ultimate tragedy of his life fairly stains everything. After all, these films would likely not be made about his life without what happened at the end of it, and all that he created in his lifetime are likewise soaked in it. Things that even might have appeared loving or innocent get suffused with the shadow of that ending.

Cobain: Montage of Heck is not going to block out the cries of those who feel he was either murdered by Love or that she was at least involved in covering up his murder. In fact, it may turn up the volume on those cries. This is because Montage of Heck has the full cooperation of Cobain's family, including his daughter Frances Bean, and Love herself. Nothing sets off a Love-hater more than Love herself showing up, flapping her gums, and continuing her assumed inconsistency. (Myself, I am no fan of Love's, except to say that I thought she was exceptional in The People vs. Larry Flynt, a film that I adore.)

Kurt's death is barely mentioned just before the credits, but as I said, his suicide (yes, I said it) hangs over every second of the film. Taking its title from a sound collage Cobain created in 1988, Montage of Heck is composed of interviews with family and friends, animated recreations of moments in his life, unreleased live footage including behind the scenes footage from the acclaimed MTV Unplugged performance, and a steady parade of Cobain's diary clippings, notes, drawings, and song lyrics. To director Bret Morgen's credit, we get to see all sides of Cobain's personality, the beautiful and the ugly, the truly inspired and the merely profane, and as a father both loving and ambivalent. We get to understand exactly why he turned to heroin, but like any story involving the narcotic, it is never portrayed as glamorous in the least, especially when we see how idiotic and downright filthy Cobain and Love are under its influence. (I can't even imagine the smell that must have permeated that home.)

For me, I am still mad that I got cheated out of more new Cobain music after In Utero, which I still feel is one of the best albums ever released, and which showed dramatic progression from what Nirvana put out on its first two already excellent discs. Cobain's Beatle-esque sense of melody was ever-growing, and it actively disgusted me at first that we were not going to ever know what lay ahead musically. Sure, Cobain may have crashed and burned eventually in some other way. Maybe he would have become a shell of his former self, like an updated version of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett. Or he could have cleaned up his life, found inner peace, and his muse may have departed at the same time.

Back to reality: he is gone from this world all the same. The question is, do I want to accept he is gone forever and then use films like Montage of Heck as tribute and testament to a lost artist of great promise and talent? Or do I want to, twenty years after his passing, remain enraged to the point of boiling over because of an assumed cover-up of murder or at least rather loose investigation into a mysterious death? At the risk of upsetting all the drama-thrivers in the world (goddamnit, they are legion these days), I think that I will choose the more peaceful path...


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