Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review Briefs: The Lords of Salem, Trance and Bert Stern:Original Mad Man

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Movie Review Briefs: The Lords of Salem, Trance and Bert Stern:Original Mad Man

by Tony Dayoub

One basic lesson filmmakers would be wise to learn is not to put their significant others in their movies. There are exceptions of course. Michael Powell was in love with Deborah Kerr, and yet they made two of their best films together, the The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp before their breakup and Black Narcissus many years afterwards. But we're talking about Kerr, who could enchant anyone if she were simply reading the phone book, and Powell, who could film said reading and have us anticipating the next name to be read. None of the directors of the last three films I've seen come within miles of approximating Powell's talent, nor would they claim to. However, a particular kind of hubris can blind artists both high and low. With this group, it' fairly obvious that their movies would likely improve significantly if the relationship between them and their muse were... less intimate? Read on, and see if you agree.

The most blatant offender is Rob Zombie who, after years of casting her in harmless featured roles, finally caves in and makes his not unattractive wife Sheri Moon Zombie the star of The Lords of Salem. The unusually beautiful cinematography; the atmospheric New England setting; the casting of cult favorites like Bruce Davison, Meg Foster and Dee Wallace; and most of all, the long ignored subject of witches made me very interested to see if Lords is the movie where Zombie finally graduates to coherent horror filmmaking. Sadly, no. This visual pastiche of Rosemary's Baby and The Shining (complete with segments organized by days-of-the-week chapter headings) seems to be building to something revelatory and powerful which never quite arrives. Perhaps Zombie ran out of film stock shooting Sheri Moon on her endless strolls through the town of Salem. I don't think I've seen this much moody ambulation since Quentin Tarantino followed Pam Grier as she made her way through LAX and the Del Amo Fashion Center in Jackie Brown. But there, it was Tarantino and Grier and in this... sigh. There is the germ of an interesting concept in The Lords of Salem, particularly in how the witchy double-dealings circling around Sheri Moon might be the trippy hallucinations of a death-metal DJ who also happens to be a recovering addict. Yet Zombie seems caught up in his wife's beauty, luxuriating her with precious screen time that spotlights her vapidity instead of using his talent to distract us from it.

Director Danny Boyle has been riding high from a string of successes that include an Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-nominated 127 Hours and the wondrous opening ceremony for London's 2012 Olympics. But with Trance, he squanders a clever little noir premise in service of perhaps the stupidest erotic MacGuffin I've ever seen. James McAvoy plays the inside man in an art heist masterminded by Vincent Cassel. A head injury McAvoy obtains during the spectacular robbery (that deftly echoes the opening bank heist in 1968's The Thomas Crown Affair) compels Cassell to fruitlessly torture the amnesiac for the location of the painting he misplaced. So he sends McAvoy to Rosario Dawson, profoundly miscast as a hypnotherapist, hoping she can crack his noggin to find the answer. During production the talented Dawson and Boyle were an item. That shouldn't excuse (but might explain) the cheap thrill Boyle inserts into Trance as a key plot point in unraveling what aspires to be a mindfuck of a movie. I'm no prude, and certainly not one to argue about a revealing full frontal nude scene featuring Dawson. But in pausing a film rapidly snowballing with accumulated information to allow Dawson's character to shave her vagina and then elevating the throwaway development into a full-blown, pivotal component of Trance's mystery, Boyle debases his cast, his lead actress, the movie, and most significantly, his own career. It was all I could do not to laugh at any contrivance Trance came up with after that.

Photographer Bert Stern is one artist who found a way to successfully capitalize on his attraction to women in the service of a brilliant career, here covered by the documentary Bert Stern: Original Mad Man. The first two-thirds of the film covers Stern's meteoric rise as a creative advertising exec before he became the celebrity photographer of choice. He made the biggest splash with The Last Sitting, the final photography session Marilyn Monroe would sit for before her death. This early portion of the film underscores how the obsessive compulsion the admitted womanizer has for his female subjects is also what makes his revealing artwork so unique and powerful. Director Shannah Laumeister should know, as she is an intimate of Stern's for many years and has herself been the gorgeous subject of plenty of his photos. If the movie gets a bit dull, it is at about the point that Stern's career begins to implode because of the excesses that often plague gifted men at the height of their arrogance. This coincides with about the time Laumeister met Stern, and here the documentary becomes a hagiography of both the man and the two's longtime romance. Before long, Laumeister is paging through photo after photo of herself, wishfully aggrandizing her role as Stern's muse at the expense of more information on the man himself. Original Mad Man (currently playing in limited release and opening this weekend in Atlanta) is the strongest of the three films reviewed here and worth a look. But even Laumeister isn't able to avoid what Stern could so deftly, using attraction to fuel a project instead of derail it.

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