Review: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

>> Friday, September 24, 2010

USA/C-127m./Dir: Baz Luhrmann/Wr: Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce/Cast: Ewan McGregor (Christian), Nicole Kidman (Satine), John Leguizamo (Toulouse-Lautrec), Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler), Richard Roxburgh (The Duke), Jacek Koman (The Narcoleptic Argentinean), Kylie Minogue (The Green Fairy)

No drink has been subject to more misinformation and unwarranted vilification than absinthe. In the early 1900’s, the forces of Prohibition and the competing French wine industry spread rumors that absinthe was poisonous, hallucinogenic, and unnaturally addictive. The propaganda stuck, and absinthe was banned in most countries until the last decade. However, in truth, absinthe is simply an herbal spirit distilled from aniseed, fennel seed, and wormwood. It is no more dangerous than any other hard alcohol.

In recent years, the truth about absinthe has begun to surface and most of the bans have been lifted. Curious drinkers can once again enjoy the spirit through the traditional louching method (water added slowly, usually over a sugar cube to slightly sweeten the drink) or as an essential ingredient in many classic cocktails. Unfortunately, the new century has been just as cruel to absinthe as it has been kind, in that the beverage has been irrevocably linked with Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical crap-tacular Moulin Rouge!

If modern drinkers think of absinthe at all, it is likely in relation to the instantly iconic “I’m the Green Fairy” scene from Moulin Rouge! In the film, Christian(Ewan McGregor), a naïve writer, settles in the Montmartre district of Paris and falls in with a group of bohemians, led by Toulouse-Lautrec (John Leguizamo). The ragtag band of artists and musicians not only rope the young poet into writing a musical production for the Moulin Rouge cabaret; they also introduce the innocent to absinthe. In the film, hallucinations beset Christian as soon as he takes his first taste. He imagines that the fairy illustrated on the label of the bottle comes to life. At first, the animated pixie (Kylie Minogue) allures the writer by dancing suggestively, and then she bedevils him with more dizzying visions. Not only does the film propagate the hallucinatory myths surrounding absinthe; it also depicts the bohemians preparing the drink incorrectly (fire was never a part of the traditional louching method).

Of course, you probably wonder what I think of the film beyond the inaccurate depiction of absinthe and its effects. In truth, I try to think about it as little as possible. The film is god-awful. Sure it’s pretty to look at, for two seconds at a time--because that is the longest the editor chooses to hold a shot--but story-wise and musically it’s anemic. The characters are barely one-dimensional, the narrative is pure melodrama, and the stabs at humor (punctuated by cartoon sound effects) are embarrassing.

It must be said that Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman have pleasant singing voices and a few of the musical mash-ups are somewhat clever. However, for every pop song that is repurposed well in Moulin Rouge! (such as Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” and the “Love” medley) there are twice as many that are cringe-inducing (the uses of “Like a Virgin” and “Roxanne” are especially nauseating); and the recycling of familiar show tunes (such as “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “The Sound of Music”) make you wish you were watching better films that came before.

Lovers of good movies are advised to stay far away from Moulin Rouge! I’d recommend visiting The Wormwood Society and finding a good absinthe to sample instead.

Drinks Consumed--Absinthe, Champagne, and various wines

Intoxicating Effects--Melancholy, harmonizing, seeing things, and bickering

Potent Quotables--CHRISTIAN: It was the perfect plan. I was to audition for Satine, and I would taste my first glass of absinthe.
FAIRY: I’m the Green Fairy.

Video Availability--DVD and Blu-ray (20th Century Fox)

Similarly Sauced Cinema--
José Ferrer starred in John Huston’s Toulouse-Lautrec biopic, Moulin Rouge (1952).

Absinthe: History in a Bottle
Bonnecaze & Cie Absinthe Glass
Bonnecaze & Cie Wormwood Leaf Absinthe Spoon No:15
Bonnecaze & Cie Glass 2 Spout Absinthe Fountain


Booze News: Don't miss BOARDWALK EMPIRE

>> Sunday, September 19, 2010

While it isn't exactly a movie, Boardwalk Empire is the most enthralling soused cinema entertainment that has been produced so far this year. The first episode of HBO's new 1920's Prohibition gangster drama premiered this evening, and I can't wait for the second episode. In terms of writing (The Sopranos' Terrance Winter), direction (Martin Scorsese) , acting (Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephan Graham, the great Dabney Coleman, and many, many more), and production design, the show easily bests Hollywood's recent theatrical output.

Like the late, lamented Deadwood, Boardwalk Empire promises to be appointment television, until HBO eventually decides it's too expensive to produce. Until that inevitable day, I highly encourage soused cinema enthusiasts to tune in and support the best that TV has to offer.



Review: Pay Day (1922)

>> Sunday, September 5, 2010

USA/Silent/B&W-26m./Dir: Charles Chaplin/Wr: Charles Chaplin/Cast: Charles Chaplin (Laborer), Phyllis Allen (His Wife), Mack Swain (Foreman), Edna Purviance (Foreman’s Daughter); Syd Chaplin (Charlie’s Friend & Lunch Cart Owner); Henry Bergman (Drinking Companion)

When critics discuss Charlie Chaplin’s best work, they usually mention the twelve classic shorts that he created under his 1916-1917 contract with Mutual Studios (including One A.M. and The Immigrant) and the later features that he made as an independent producer with United Artists (The Gold Rush, City Lights, etc.). The short subjects that Chaplin produced for First National Pictures between those two golden eras (1918-1923) are largely ignored. That does a great disservice to Chaplin’s First National output; because the best of those films--A Dog's Life (1918), The Idle Class (1921), Pay Day (1922), and The Pilgrim (1923)--match or surpass the quality of the Mutual shorts and are amongst the best work the comedian ever produced.

Pay Day (1922) is a banquet for lovers of soused slapstick. The short begins with Charlie arriving late for work on the construction site of a multi-level building. The foreman (Mack Swain) quickly puts the tardy laborer to work catching and stacking bricks on the second floor of the structure. As the workmen below pitch bricks in the air, Charlie catches the missiles in increasingly difficult positions (achieved through the simple special effect of running the film backwards). A short lunch break interrupts this acrobatic act, and Charlie (who didn’t bring his own lunch) manages to swipe the other employee’s meals through the aid of several well-choreographed elevator gags. After more brick stacking, Charlie receives his pay, a portion of which he hides from his battle-axe of a wife (Phyllis Allen), so he can go out drinking.

The second half of the short consists of the aftermath of an evening of drunken debauchery. Charlie and several of his work companions stagger out of the “Bachelor’s Club” and say their goodbyes before heading for home. This includes bickering over world affairs, a chorus of “Sweet Adeline,” getting tangled up in each others coats, and confusing Charlie’s cane for an umbrella. When it at last the men part, Charlie is so lubricated that he mistakenly hops on a lunch wagon, taking it for his streetcar home. This extended drunk sequence proves that, even after producing dozens of booze-fueled short subjects, Chaplin still found intoxication to be one of the most reliable themes from which to develop original comedy.

Pay Day might not rank with The Immigrant (1917) and A Dog's Life (1918) as one of the top ten shorts that Chaplin ever produced, but it would rank very near the top of the remainder of the list. It may be second-tier Chaplin; but it is a solid laugh-getter that is more inventive than the best films of most other comedians.

Drinks Consumed--Unknown (consumed offscreen)

Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, stumbling, slurred speech, hiccups, bickering, and harmonizing

Potent Quotables--CHARLIE (SLURRED TITLE CARD): Where’s Christen-z-zen street?

Video Availability--The First National shorts have received a couple of major DVD releases, first from Image and later by Warner Home Video. If possible, try to get the out-of-print, original Image DVD which features the shorts as they were originally released in the 1920’s. The Warner Brothers release features the re-cut versions that Chaplin released in the 1970’s. Some of these re-cut versions have less footage, and others are stretch-printed to run a sound projection speed, which gives the video a staggered, unnatural look that ruins the timing of the comedy. Warner also did a poor job of transferring these inferior versions. The films are framed incorrectly, they play at the wrong frame speed, and the picture quality is poor due to PAL-conversion.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--Chaplin continued to use soused slapstick after he jumped from short subjects to feature films, most notably in his masterpiece, City Lights (1931).

The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion
Unknown Chaplin: The Master at Work (DVD)
Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema


About Me

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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