Monday, January 01, 2007

Yes, *that* "Popeye"

feeling a bit dreary since returning from KC a few days ago. New Year's Day showers are not helping matters.

do, however, have more good news from the Altman camp, and that is that "Popeye" is a very cool movie. yes, i said "Popeye." in discussing this one with various folks over the past couple days, i mostly have gotten pretty incredulous reactions, for obvious reasons. at the same time though, most people who have seen the movie have a really positive opinion of it. but even those folks are surprised to learn that Altman did it.

from what i gather, directors in the old days had to be able to do genre movies on command. like it wasn't about the director's identity, or the whole auteur thing, but just telling the story and abiding by the conventions of the Western or the horror movie or the screwball comedy or whatever. maybe this is oversimplifying things, but i'm pretty sure there were plenty of directors in the old days--and now too--who just sort of know how to make movies but don't really have a vision so they can adapt to any type of scenario.

Altman has done a fair amount of what you could call genre movies: "Gosford Park" is textbook British interclass intrigue, "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" is a Western of sorts, "3 Women" is a European-style art film (that's not really an official genre, but stylistically it is), and from what i hear, "Quintet"--which i can't wait to see--is a postapocalyptic sci-fi sort of a thing.

the party line on "McCabe" is that it's a subversion of the values of the Western and while it'd be neat and tidy to say that Altman subverts every genre he dabbles in, it's not really true. which brings me back to "Popeye," which is, in the simplest terms, a cartoony musical. it's not much more or less than that, i.e., i don't think Altman is subverting the material. at the same time, though, it's an immensely enjoyable and well-crafted film.

the coolest thing about the movie is how you really feel like you're watching a live action cartoon. Sweethaven, where the movie takes place, is this tiny seaside town and it has a really cozy yet artificial feel, like a movie backlot. like you get the feeling that you could walk around the whole town in five minutes.

also, all the actors do an amazing job of creating caricatures--they all have these really exaggerated affectations that bring to mind cartoons. Robin Williams is just awesome as Popeye: of course he's outfitted with those grotesquely enlarged forearms and calves, but beyond that, he just animates the character so well, with the ever-present pipe and squinty eye. i haven't read much of the comic book, but he really gets at the--yeah, this might sound a little stupid--philosophical center of the character, which is just sort of "I yam what I yam," as he sings in one of the songs. he's got that kind of blue-collar philosopher vibe, i.e., "I don't know much, but I do know right from wrong."

there's one hilarious scene where Wimpy (you know, the fat dude who loves hamburgers) steals Popeye's orphan Swee'pea and takes him to the racetrack, and Popeye ends up in a whorehouse. he's cursing the immorality of the place, calling it a "house of ill repuke" (he's always subbing "k" where it doesn't belong, e.g. Swee'pea is an "orphink"), and talking about how he doesn't want to catch a "venerable disease." good stuff.

there isn't a bad actor in the movie, to be honest, and even the ones playing bit parts make you smile when they're supposed to. Shelley Duvall is adorable as Olive Oyl; she really nails the physical comedy at the heart of the role: she's all gangly and clumsy and dorky. her pratfalls are often accompanied by silly sound effects like in cartoons. and Paul L. Smith is great at evoking Bluto's blustery rage; there's an awesome scene where Olive Oyl stands him up at their engagement party and he's just getting madder and madder and destroying everything in the house. really awesome cartoon mayhem.

there are tons of memorable tableaux that really feel like comic-book panels coming to life, such as this great prizefight, a chaotic dinner scene, that engagement party, a barfight, all these great, timeless small-town scenarios just teeming with characters like in a Brueghel painting. and it's great how the movie just sort of lapses seamlessly into utter fantasy, like how Popeye does the human-punching-bag thing on some dude's face, or how Bluto bonks Popeye over the head and literally drills him through a dock. the stunts and special effects in these parts are hilarious and awesome, like the actors just suddenly become animated or something. it's hard to describe, but for example, there's this one part where Bluto kicks Popeye down a hill and he starts rolling; in one shot, it's clearly Williams, but in the next, it's a rag doll or something. just a lot of great absurd effects like that.

all the actors really tear into their roles, relishing the chance to mug so extensively. (i wouldn't want to neglect mentioning Ray Walston, who's totally hilarious as Popeye's grizzled dad.) what's cool though is that like a lot of the best Disney movies, some of the scenes are really poignant despite all the silliness. the courtship between Popeye and Olive Oyl is just super cute and fun to watch; there's one of those classic "Lady and the Tramp" moments where they get closer and closer and closer before kissing and it's just really sweet and captivating to watch (the pic above is from that exchange). and Williams and Walston play off each other amazingly in their scenes together; they're just totally inhabiting their roles and riffing on the characters.

the songs, which are by none other than loopy popsmith Harry Nilsson (anyone seen/heard "The Point"? it's his weirdo cartoon--i.e., actually animated--musical about individuality), are really, really odd and circusy and sort of uncatchy/avant-garde. a lot of them are just one word or phrase repeated ad nauseum, i.e., the Bluto theme, which goes something like, "I'm mean--you know what I mean?" or the Olive Oyl song, where Duvall just tunelessly rambles, "He needs me, he needs me, he needs me." the melodies aren't all that memorable (except of course the "Popeye the sailor man" finale, but i'm almost positive that one originated in the cartoon and isn't a Nilsson composition), but the performances are really fun and spirited. Duvall just straight up can't sing, but she makes that into a virtue.

so is it an Altman movie, per se? sooooort of, i guess. Altman loves him some ensemble casts, and this film certainly has one. it also makes use of that overlapping dialogue stuff he's famous for in some of the crowd scenes. but it's more just a really fun cartoon riff; it's not exactly a kids movie--more of whimsical fantasy really. though it drags on a bit at the end, i'd recommend it to anyone who likes smiling. cool to see some of that old crazy Robin Williams too.

there's a few clips from the flick on YouTube (what the hell *can't* you find on that site?), so here's a little taste. this is the "He Needs Me" song. it's a pretty fascinating and poignant scene. as you hear right off the bat, what's going on is that Swee'pea has been kidnapped and Popeye is sulking about it. Olive Oyl is eavesdropping and she hears him say, "Olive was right." this is basically when she finds out he's in love with her. really cute and staged in a really nice way. the clip gives you a real sense of the film's strange, surreal atmosphere--kinda Tim Burtonish almost, but not as precious. anyhoo, "He Needs Me":

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