I have not seen Alan Parker's 1980 film Fame, but I suspect that it's much better than Kevin Tancharoen's 2009 remake of the same name.
Parker, the gifted British director of such unconventional musicals as Bugsy Malone and The Wall, no doubt had more on his mind than making a lowest common denominator song-and-dance picture. Sadly, newbie feature director Tancharoen (Britney Spears Live from Miami) has done just that; Fame 2009 is the kind of safe demographic-crossing fluff that's been so watered down you've gotta wonder who the prime audience is meant to be. It's too boring for kids, too square for teenagers, and too vacuous for adults. Who's left? Drama nerds and wannabe ballerinas?
The film is a series of loose sketches involving a group of high school students attending a prestigious performing arts academy in New York. It's split up into five chapters- "Auditions," "Freshman Year," "Sophomore Year," etc. We get to know a small handful of students who, conveniently, seem to have more problems than their peers. There's the Iowa farm boy who desperately wants to be a famous dancer, only he can't really dance. There's the bashful drama student who is too self-conscious and insecure to even fully engage in class exercises. The aspiring poet/rapper who's angry about his ghetto upbringing. The classical pianist who would sing R&B were it not for her strict and controlling father. The excessively talented slacker who likes the bashful drama student. The life-loving actress who can't keep her grades up. And so on.
The kids are all played by unknowns, many of whom were obviously cast for their particular talent. And many of them are very good, if only their characters weren't so underwritten. (Nevermind the huge distraction of casting 20-somethings as characters who, in the beginning, are supposed to be 14 years old).
The kids are ably supported by a phenomenal set of teachers, and if there's anything good to say about Fame, it's that the school's staff is cast to perfection. Charles S. Dutton, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally, Bebe Neuwirth and Debbie Allen lend a collective gravitas that transcends the film; they are far better than the movie deserves. Tancharoen's direction, too, is far better than the script merits. The cinematography is composed of tastefully handheld shots and an unusually muted color palette punctuated by stylistic flourishes during the well-choreographed song and dance numbers.
If it sounds like I'm praising the film, it's because most of the pieces are there, save for the most vital. The screenplay by Allison Burnett is too afraid to offend, too scared to take chances, too conventional to bring characters off the page and into reality. It's Screenwriting 101 garbage, an empty exercise that feels lifted from the vault of rejected Disney Channel projects.
And it sinks the movie. Fame suffers a worse fate than just being terrible; it's not good or bad, just instantly forgettable. A host of familiar critic-friendly descriptors were invented for exactly this kind of film. I've already used six of them (lowest common denominator, safe, fluff, watered down, square, vacuous).
Is there a point where harmlessness becomes offense? Where trifle becomes sin? If so, Fame is reprehensible.
Anyone who's seen Alien, The Descent, Event Horizon and a host of other sci-fi/horror geek treasures will recognize that Pandorum is more than a little derivative. But unoriginal is not always a bad thing, and any genre nerd who wants to nitpick should take a second look at some of their favorite films before committing treason by inadvertently outing, say, the Holy Trilogy for its lifting of ideas from numerous films that came before.
What's impressive about Pandorum is that it steals elements from other iconic stories and then re-assembles them into something unique and compelling in its own right.
It starts off as a simple mystery, evolves into an action movie, then slowly turns into something epic in scope, a colossal, ridiculously ambitious concept that manages to come full circle with an immensely satisfying conclusion.
So much sci-fi begins with an interesting idea that completely unravels as the film goes on; here's a movie that gets so much better as the ending approaches.
Because part of what makes Pandorum work is the initial mystery, I'll tread lightly on plot details.
In 2174, a massive spacecraft called Elysium is launched. Its destination is Tanis, an Earth-like planet chosen for colonization after our own Earth is destroyed by overpopulation.
The story begins when Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Lieutenant Payton (Dennis Quaid) awaken from hypersleep to a spaceship that appears to be deserted and out of commission. The two astronauts suffer from memory loss due to years of uninterrupted sleep, and the first act is mostly the two of them attempting to piece together just who they are and what their mission is. As Bower begins to explore the ship, he comes across hideous demon-like monsters that rove in packs and seem hellbent on hunting and eating the astronauts. The question is whether the monsters are real or simply hallucinations brought on by pandorum (a form of deep space insanity).
It may sound predictable, but anyone who thinks they have an idea of where the film is going is probably wrong. The story is told as a series of slow reveals; layers are peeled to present new questions and answer old ones, and surprises are frequent.
Director Christian Alvart handles the material with patience and deliberation. The downside is that he sprinkles generic, unimaginative action sequences in as filler, which detract from the film's intelligence and greatly contribute to an overall cheese factor that keeps the movie from being worthy of serious consideration. In a movie filled with so much slow-burn dread, creeping fear and deep space horror, it's frustrating that Alvart feels the need to dumb down the story with mindless video game-like fights. Then again, the pic was produced by Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat), a hack director of video game adaptations whose only decent movie to date is, ironically, Event Horizon. That the film outshines Anderson's body of work despite his scattered fingerprints is a relief, but it could've been so much more.
No matter. Pandorum is firmly planted in good-but-not-great territory, and should still please avid genre fans and casual moviegoers alike, even if it doesn't inspire fan clubs and Halloween costumes in the years to come.
It Might Get Loud
Oscar-winning documentarian Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) follows up global warming with a slighter but far more enjoyable subject: the electric guitar.
It Might Get Loud, which opens at the Circle this Friday (along with a Guggenheim Skype chat), examines the power and mystery of the axe through the meeting of three genius players- Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Edge (U2), and Jack White (The White Stripes).
Guggenheim anchors the film with a sit down conversation where the three musicians meet to discuss their feelings, philosophies and technique as guitarists. He intercuts archive concert footage and one-on-one interviews to loosely chronicle the history of each player, resulting in a film that's a must-watch for any fan.
The film almost demands good-natured siding on the part of the audience; each player is so unique and so iconic and Guggenheim splits up the time so evenly among the three that viewers will inevitably gravitate to one story and wait patiently for each segment. The most fascinating thread is Guggenheim's exploration of Edge's effects obsession. His pre-occupation with pedal boards and processors is in such direct contrast to White's purist approach (the beginning of the film is White building a guitar MacGuyver-style with one string, a piece of wood, a pick-up and some nails) and Page's lack of posturing is so different from the image-oriented White... The group dynamic is something to behold.
Guggenheim falters only when he tries to get too personal with the musicians--a prolonged shot of Edge doing yoga is not necessary--but the director so rarely drifts away from the music that it's hardly an issue.
The bottom line is that, as a tribute to the electric guitar and three of its most iconic players, It Might Get Loud is a success. It might not be necessary viewing for most people, but for guitarists and devoted fans, it's essential.
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