Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge , from a screenplay by Mr. Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, turns out to be a surprisingly sentimental, mostly badly sung, anti-erotically danced, visually postmodern, claustrophobically designed hodgepodge of musical strategies built around the bizarre assumption that Nicole Kidman is a great musical talent. Her virtually inaudible singing makes Marilyn Monroe sound like Ethel Merman. Her engaging costar, Ewan McGregor, is more of a belter when he’s alone, but when he’s doing his frequent duets with Ms. Kidman, he seems to be dragged down to her low-decibel level.
My first shock came when Mr. McGregor began belting out a few bars of the title song from The Sound of Music . This in a movie called Moulin Rouge ? Then I remembered that 20th Century Fox had produced both The Sound of Music and Moulin Rouge . The copycatting continued with “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” without Monroe and “Material Girl” without Madonna. But when the less familiar songs from all over came on, the movie seldom soared.
My final, terminal shock came when Ms. Kidman started coughing up blood, and Greta Garbo’s Camille (1937) came to mind. Unfortunately, Jean Renoir’s exquisite French Cancan (1955), with its tumultuous sensuality, never did. Instead, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972), with its vinegary anti-eroticism, seemed to be the model for Moulin Rouge . This is to say that a great deal of energy is expended here without embarrassment, and some people may like this semblance of style despite its lack of charm.
Mr. Luhrmann and his colleagues have worked like whirling dervishes to make the plot look like it’s moving. The machine-gun editing alone deserves special mention. The main problem is that this is 2001, and the pseudo-licentiousness on display is naïve even for 1900 Montmartre. Mr. Luhrmann and Mr. Pearce seem to want to have it both ways by parading Ms. Kidman as Satine, the city’s most famous courtesan, and then not having her sleep with anyone on-screen because she is suddenly in lo-o-o-ve. In this respect, she is more like Rita Hayworth’s Gilda in the 1946 movie of that title-that is, what the late Parker Tyler labeled a “good-bad girl,” one who can start a striptease in public merely to enrage the man she really loves, but who is too much of a sap to realize it. But that was more than a half-century ago, and times and women have changed. For example, Molly Parker’s Florence, a stripper who is taken to Las Vegas in Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World by Peter Sarsgaard’s Richard, a wealthy stockbroker, makes no bones about the fact that she is a whore who is in it just for the money. Still, she emerges with more dignity and intelligence than Ms. Kidman’s Satine, who is nothing more than a sappy convention of current song lyrics.
Indeed, I began to feel sorry for Richard Roxburgh’s lecherous Duke of Monroth, who is deceived and pushed around like a cuckold in a Molière play. After all, he had been led to believe that Satine could be had with diamonds and pearls. Top honors, however, go to Jim Broadbent as the Impresario, who makes the whole picture go round and round until it almost justifies its title.
The Girls in the Band
Jim McKay’s Our Song , from his own screenplay, follows three Crown Heights high-school girls through a hot summer of hanging out together, rehearsing with the Jackie Robinson Steppers Moving Band and making momentous decisions about the direction their individual lives are taking. Their task is not made easier by the bad but typical news that their special high school is closing for lack of funds.
Lanisha Brown (Kerry Washington), like her two girlfriends, comes from a single-parent household, but she is clearly the most together of the three in not lacking the energy and endurance to conform to society’s burdensome rules. Jocelyn Clifton (Anna Simpson) ends up drifting away from her friends in slavish pursuit of a more “in” circle of kids. Maria Hernandez (Melissa Martinez) has paid the price of unprotected teenage sex with an unwelcome pregnancy that throws her upon her own resources, which seem meager indeed-particularly in view of the foreshadowing provided when a single mother Maria’s age leaps off a roof with her child.
Though poverty and drugs are lurking around the edges of the well-scrubbed-looking buildings, Mr. McKay’s image of Crown Heights does not look like an exploitably lurid slum or even one of the notorious “projects.” Still, there is something vaguely formulaic about the bonding of just three high-school girls (two being too intense and potentially crush-forming, and four being too diffuse and unwieldy).
There are many precedents in Hollywood history for upwardly mobile, winsome, white-though older-threesomes, beginning perhaps in the depths of the Great Depression in 1932 with Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match and Lowell Sherman’s The Greeks Had a Word for Them , with camaraderie as the key to the former and unabashed fortune-hunting to the latter. The Depression camaraderie continued in John Farrow’s 1938 Broadway Musketeers , but the fortune-hunting resumed in William A. Seiter’s 1938 Three Blind Mice , and then in better times with Bruce Humberstone’s 1946 Three Little Girls in Blue , and finally in the great travel-of-innocents-abroad era with Jean Negulesco’s Three Coins in the Fountain (1954, Rome) and The Pleasure Seekers (1964, Spain).
Mr. McKay’s threesomes are never a closely knit team like all their white predecessors, and they are certainly in no position even to fantasize about fortune-hunting. Their dreams are much more modest and realistic, but the arithmetic of their fates is more implacably cruel as Lanisha alone seems to be climbing to a better life, while Maria seems doomed to fail with her unsupported pregnancy, and Jocelyn seems too much a good-time girl to go anywhere.
The band is the only unifying force which gives their lives a discipline and cohesion that no other institution-family, school, community, society-seems capable of giving. Mr. McKay does not degrade any of his characters, nor does he sensationalize their problems. Instead, he employs the band as a recurring punctuation to their existence, as if to suggest that its impressive impact on the community, and on the audience at large, offers a clue to the social redemption not only of his three protagonists, but of all American inner cities as well. Only the money and concern from the rest of us are currently lacking.
Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Adventures of Félix has this to recommend it: Its eponymous protagonist (Sami Bouajila) is not coyly and tentatively bisexual; he is instead unabashedly and unashamedly gay, and he never hesitates to say so, even when he is on the verge of being assaulted. When the film begins, Félix is cohabitating happily with his boyfriend, Daniel (Pierre-Loup Rajot), in the small town of Dieppe in Northern France. Their physical relationship is rendered graphically from the outset. Finding himself suddenly unemployed, Félix impulsively decides to hitchhike all the way south to Marseilles in search of the father he has never seen. His ground rules for the trip include avoiding the big cities, superhighways and all forms of mass transit.
Along his self-imposed pastoral route, Félix unexpectedly finds a scattered surrogate family consisting of a “grandmother,” Mathilde (Patachou), a “sister,” Isabelle (Ariane Ascaride), a “cousin,” Daniel (Pierre-Loup Rajot), a “kid brother,” Jules (Charly Sergue), and even a “father” (Maurice Benichou), a lonely fisherman who advises Félix to let his real father live out the remainder of his life in peace-advice that Félix apparently adopts before returning on the train to his lover in Dieppe.
Although the hero’s dominant mood is cheerful, the film is hardly all sweetness and light, particularly after Félix is revealed early on as H.I.V.-positive, with a prescribed daily “cocktail” of pills. Nonetheless, he indulges in safe sex on the road with his “cousin” after earlier resisting the persistent advances of his “kid brother.” Curiously, his most spirited and satisfying encounters are with women-his feisty “grandmother,” Mathilde, and his surprisingly resourceful “sister,” Isabelle, with her passel of children from different fathers, each enjoying a joyous joint custody through the warm heart of a wise mother.
Félix is not a conspicuously brave pilgrim, being easily bullied by homophobes and racists along the way. Having witnessed a murder and having been pursued by the killer, Félix is too scared to notify the police. He is much more comfortable assisting his new male friends in the flying of kites with a frequency that is suspiciously metaphorical, possibly as an aerial correlative for the release of inhibitions. Not that Félix seems particularly inhibited, but whatever loneliness he once felt from the lack of a father seems to have been dispelled by an odyssey that has proven, gently and generously, that one can make up one’s family as one goes along.
Richard Widmark, Live!
Richard Widmark is being honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (70 Lincoln Center Plaza, 212-875-5610) with a 16-film retrospective culled, on the whole wisely, from the 70 films in which he appeared from 1947 through 1991. The series will run from May 18 through May 31. Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950) will open the program on Friday, May 18, at 3:45 and 8:30 p.m. (Mr. Widmark will appear at the 8:30 show), and Saturday, May 19, at 3:30 p.m. Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947) features Mr. Widmark’s Tommy Udo, a particularly monstrous villain. I prefer his more sympathetic performances in Don Siegel’s Madigan (1968) and Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950). But he was good in everything he did, and vastly underrated in the process. I was intrigued to learn that the Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax was his son-in-law.
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