Saturday, November 29, 2008
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
It is co-written and directed by Arnaud Desplechins, and I have seen his immediately preceding film, Kings and a Queen. As with that film, A Christmas Tale is about families, especially parents and children. There are also several holdover actors from his earlier film, most notably Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric.
What Desplechins does well, thankfully, is let us know immediately who everyone is. In a prologue, he outlines the family dynamics. Deneuve and her husband, Jean-Paul Roussilon, have four children, but the eldest died of cancer at age six. The comes a daughter, who has grown up to be a morose playwright (Ann Consigny), a ne'er-do-well son (Amalric), and a happy-go-lucky sort (Melvil Poupaud) is the youngest son. Consigny has a teenage son who is mentally troubled. Deneuve learns she has cancer, and needs a bone marrow transplant. Her grandson persuades Amalric, who has not been around in years, to return and be tested as a donor.
The theme of suitability as a donor is strong throughout the film. Amalric was conceived as a possible donor for his elder brother, but was not compatible. He then creates havoc in all of the family's lives, especially his sister, who agrees to pay debts to keep him out of prison, but on the condition that she never has to see him again. The father is a soft-touch who will not disown no matter what, so when Amalric shows up for Christmas with a new girlfriend (Emannuelle Devos, who was the Queen in Kings and a Queen) all may not be forgiven, but he is tolerated.
Desplechins can be remarkably sanguine about family relationships. Deneuve is quite frank about which children she favors (Amalric is not one of them), and when one of the kids proves to be a compatible donor, she accepts this by saying that they came from her womb, and now she wants some of them back. There are many secrets revealed and heart-to-heart conversations, but unlike cloying American films of this type (such as Home for the Holidays and The Family Stone) the lack of sentimentality is refreshing.
The star of this film is Amalric, who is becoming quite the international presence, what with his work in this film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and American films like Munich and The Quantum of Solace. He is impish and though a complete rascal, his charm is undeniable. Consigny is also very good as a woman with fragile beauty who seems to struggle to make it through each day.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
An Israeli film directed by Joseph Cedar, Beaufort refers to a castle in southern Lebanon that goes back to the days of the Crusades. It changed hands many times over a thousand years, and was seized by Israel in 1982. In 2000 they evacuated it for good, and this story concerns the last group of Israeli soldiers who manned it.
The early parts of the film are very evocative. The atmosphere almost suggests a horror film, as a bomb expert arrives so he can disarm a device that blocks the road (Hezbollah are in the hills, pestering the Israeli soldiers). He is almost instantly confused by the meandering tunnels (that have the look of a spaceship, which gives it that "Alien" feeling). But his confusion is also the viewers, at least this one. Throughout the film I never really got a good sense of who was who or what the military strategy was. The soldiers wanted to leave, but continued to have obstacles, but then top brass seemed to come and go without difficulty. The only character I got a good sense of was the commander, played by Oshri Cohen, a by-the-book young man who ultimately fails his men.
This film is far too moody and talky to succeed as a war film, and perhaps it's because I'm unfamiliar with the politics and culture it didn't resonate with me as a drama. There were a few things that I found interesting: it's an interesting by-product of the technology of the era that the men could watch on television what was going on around them (I remember feeling the same thing while watching Three Kings, when Mark Wahlberg was able to call home on a cell phone--certainly the Gulf War was the first conflict where that could happen). Also, an early scene showing dummies set up on the parapets to draw enemy fire reminded me of a similar situated in the similarly titled Beau Geste.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who specializes in films about teens (Thirteen and The Lords of Dogtown) has made a film that would appear to be faithful to the source material (judging by the plot summary of the book that I read on Wikipedia) and pleased the audience I saw it with (it's not often a gaggle of teenage girls will sit in the theater through the credits). To the discerning cineaste, though, the response should be a stifled yawn.
This is, if you have been living in a cave, a movie about vampires. Movies about vampires are always really about something else. Lately they've been metaphors about outcasts in society, whether they are Jews or gays or some other misunderstood group. Meyer has gone back to the metaphor used by Bram Stoker in the seminal vampire story, Dracula--the bite of a vampire as metaphor for sexual initiation.
The heroine of the tale is Bella Swan, played by Kristen Stewart. She is a brooding loner who moves from sunny Phoenix to overcast Washington State to live with her distant father. She makes friends at her new high school, but is intrigued by a quintet of weird students, the Cullens, who are all foster children of the town's doctor (why a family of vampires wouldn't take advantage of home-schooling isn't revealed, other than that it would stop the plot dead in its tracks). One of these kids, Edward, is another pale and brooding figure, and Bella is intrigued, even though he is initially rude to her. Turns out he is also attracted, but for slightly different reasons--Bella makes him hungry.
Instead of the eternal dance of young people deciding on whether to consummate their love, Bella and Edward dicker about whether he should make her a vampire or not. These kids don't seem interested in anybody parts below the waste, it's all about fangs and throats.
The Cullens are good vampires--they don't attack humans, and instead feast on the blood of woodland creatures (which would only anger PETA). Edward overcomes his bloodlust and he and Bella begin dating, and she is welcomed into their family. This leads to one of the most ludicrous scenes I've come across in recent memory--the Cullens playing a game of pickup baseball, vampire style. But then they encounter the bad vampires, who have no problem killing humans, and Bella is endangered. Will she be rescued by Edward? Well, there are three more books in the series.
None of this is interesting to anyone who isn't female and under sixteen. When Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, makes his initial appearance, the crowd of girls I was with audibly gasped, so in some way his casting was successful. But he and Stewart, who is appropriately pale and ethereal for a girl who would fall for a vampire, don't really act as much as strike attitudes. Stewart, in particular, is pretty bad, but I'm wondering if she wasn't a prisoner to the character and the material. All she does is act sullen, rarely changing facial expression and reciting her lines in a monotone. No one in the cast does much better. The Cullen father, Peter Facinelli, is saddled with a bizarre hair and makeup job.
I'm sure the rest of the books will be filmed, as this one ends with a teaser as to what will happen next. I probably won't be back.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
There's a scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in which Annie tells him her tie was a gift from her Grammy. He is bemused and asks her if she didn't grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting. Well, I had a Grammy, too (I had two of them--as Paul McCartney says of grandfathers in A Hard Day's Night, "Everyone is entitled to two"), but I lost one of them this week, and she in many ways seemed to have come to life from a Norman Rockwell painting.
She was born in 1914 in Addyston, Ohio (pictured above), a very small town just down river from Cincinnati. It was a town full of oddballs, sort of like Mayberry, with a particular habit of assigning nonsensical nicknames to everyone. My grandmother was known to her family as "Tood," though her real name was Evelyn, and no one knows the derivation of that nickname.
Her father worked for the pipe foundry, which was the main employer of the area. In 1940 she married my grandfather, who was from another small town across the river called Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. These were real country people, and I grew up knowing what country cuisine tasted like. For years when I visited she made me my favorite--navy beans with cottage ham, with cornbread. These people didn't know about fancy things like Chinese food, and they tended to boil the food until it was an unrecognizable mush (soft green beans I especially remember) but they sure did know how to fry chicken, and make biscuits that made your mouth water just to look at them.
My grandparents relocated a few miles to Cincinnati, where my father was born (he was childhood friends with a famous Cincinnati native, Pete Rose), but in 1951 they moved up to the Detroit area, and for the rest of her life she was a resident of Dearborn, Michigan. My grandfather worked for GM, and he died in 1977. After that, my grandmother lived with her spinster sister, and for over twenty-five years they formed what could only be termed a special kind of comedy act. With the timing of vaudevillians, they could tell a story or engage in misunderstandings of technology that would become family lore, such as when they kept returning electric toothbrushes to the appliance store until the salesclerk asked if they were turning the on/off switch (they just thought you had to plug it in), or somehow turning on the mute button on their TV and having to enlist the aid of family members to discover why the thing had suddenly lost sound.
A few things characterized my grandmother. For one thing, she was a rabid baseball fan. Growing up her team was the Reds, and she remembered the players from their 1940 championship team well. But her allegiance changed to the Tigers, and no one was a bigger fan. She would watch or listen to every game (she liked to watch the TV broadcast but listen to the radio call, because Ernie Harwell was the radio broadcaster). She would hold the transistor radio tight to her ear and eventually this would make her wrist sore. She knew all the players, all the strategy, and lived and died with each pitch. I went to many games with her during the seventies, when the Tigers had great players like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, and Mickey Lolich.
She was also very politically aware, and a lifelong Democrat. She was no crazy-eyed liberal, in fact her social values were pretty conservative. But she believed in the Democratic party, and always voted (for many years she was one of the those little old ladies who worked at the polls). She hated Nixon, revered the Kennedys, and sized up the current president with disdain. Even at the end she was disgusted by the misadventures in Iraq, summing it up as "another Vietnam."
Her tastes were pretty standard middle-American fare, like the Lawrence Welk, Andy Griffith, Andy Williams, and the Statler Brothers. However she also liked edgier fare. As the family were sitting around talking my father speculated that her favorite show may have been All in the Family. She also, while she was able, loved to go the movies. She took me to many, including her favorite, Gone With the Wind. I remember her saying to me afterward how terrible the Union had been to the people of the South.
That brings up some unpleasant tendencies that she did have. Though Ohio was technically a Northern state, the white people of the southern part of the state were not particularly enlightened when it came to race relations. I heard some appallingly racist comments from the elders of my family for many years. I remember when a black television repairman came to fix the TV and they reacted as if it were a home evasion, huddling back in the kitchen while he worked. However over the years she softened, and when she actually met black people she was as warm and friendly to them as she was to anyone. At the end her lucidity would come and go, but she was aware of the candidacy of Barack Obama. She was all for him, claiming it didn't matter what color he was, because he was smart and he gave a good speech. But old habits die hard, and my father told me that during a visit the Sunday before the election she walked he and my stepmother to the door of her apartment in the senior citizens' home and said, "That n*gger better win."
So long, Grammy. I'll miss you.
Friday, November 21, 2008
This entry in the Hard Case Crime series is a republication of a novel written in the early fifties, by Day Keene. Home is the Sailor is a fine, gritty book firmly in the pulp/noir tradition, but it is perhaps too typical of the genre. Though the style is pleasurable the similarities to other books are a bit too striking.
The story concerns Swede Nelson, a merchant seaman who has saved his money and wants to head back to his Minnesota home town to buy a farm and settle down. He gets as far as the California coast before he meets a beautiful young woman who owns a travel court (the earlier equivalent of the motel). She rescues him from a bar fight, and he is smitten. Of course she is not all she seems to be, and soon enough he is committing murder on her behalf.
The jacket copy tells us that it is reminiscent of the work of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, and that is a plus and a minus. It is almost too reminiscent of The Postman Always Rings Twice, right down to a dead body being placed in a car and pushed off a cliff. Since this book was written after the Cain book (and well-known film version) I'm kind of stunned Keene even tried it. Also, it's pretty clear what the femme fatale is up to early on, but there are a couple of nice twists along the way, and in this kind of book you can't be sure if the hero/narrator is going to get out of this without facing the gas chamber.
At times the writing is a bit much. Swede is a constant drinker, and we have to accept that twice he has blackouts and remembers nothing. But these kinds of entertainments do not hinge on realism, so it's best to just sit back and enjoy the rum-soaked sex and violence.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Based on the novel by Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days was produced by Mike Todd, an entrepreneur and showman who was mounting his first film production. He made quite a splash, not only making a film that would require thousands of actors, on-location filming around the world, and winning the Oscar, but also marrying Elizabeth Taylor, who accompanied him at the awards weighed down with jewels (including a tiara). Sadly, it would be the only film Todd would ever produce, as just before the Academy Awards for the following year he would die in a plane crash.
The director was also a first-timer, Michael Anderson, but he seems to be playing traffic cop here more than anything else, as there are numerous second units. The film is really more of a travelogue, a chance to show off the new style of CinemaScope developed by Todd, called Todd AO.
The story, what there is of it, concerns Phileas Fogg, a London gentleman who makes a wager with the men at his club that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Fogg's upper-crust Britishness and fetishistic punctuality are the comic spirit of the piece (one of the screenwriters was absurdist S.J. Perelman). Once he has made the bet he and his new valet, Passepartout, embark on the journey. They travel by balloon across Europe, through the jungles of India (where they rescue an Indian princess from a funeral pyre) and across the Pacific. They encounter wild Indians on the American plains. All the while they are being dogged by a British detective, who suspects that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England. Frequently Fogg seems to have hit an obstacle that will prevent him from beating the deadline, but the conflict is usually resolved in just a few moments.
All of this could have told in under two hours, but the times being what they were, when film was competing with television, that wouldn't do. Instead we get long scenes of spectacle. There are numerous shots of scenery going by, either from the balloon, trains, or ships. There is a long bullfighting scene in Spain. Passepartout was played by the Mexican comedian Catinflas, who had bullfighting experience. This is also the film that gave us the term "cameo" performance, as Todd enlisted dozens of famous stars to appear for just a moment or two, and instead of being an insult, they lined up to do it. Here's just a sample: Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Colman, Red Skelton, Noel Coward, Buster Keaton, and Peter Lorre.
Fogg was played by David Niven, who is perfect as the time-conscious gentleman. Watching him go through difficult circumstances while always perfectly dressed and groomed is the main pleasure of this otherwise very dull film. Catinflas was a huge star in the Latin world (during the introduction TCM's Robert Osborne tells us that at the time he was the richest actor in the world) and displays Chaplinesque qualities. A very young Shirley MacLaine is the Indian princess who tags along after she is rescued, but she has little to do other than be very attractive window dressing.
Monday, November 17, 2008
We start with the antagonist, who is usually a forlorn schmo. In Synecdoche, New York, it is Philip Seymour Hoffman, at his most lumpen, as a theater director who is obsessed with disease and death. We begin with him as he is putting the finishing touches on a production of Death of a Salesman in a regional theater in Schenectady. His wife (Catherine Keener) is an artist of postage-stamp sized paintings, and they have a four-year-old daughter. The marriage is not what one would call successful--in marriage counseling sessions Keener admits that she fantasizes about his death. Soon she is off to Berlin to become a famous artist, taking the child with her.
Hoffman then wins the McArthur "genius" grant and envisions a theater project on a massive scale. He leases a warehouse the size of a Boeing plant (in Manhattan's theater district!) and begins creating a simulacrum of his life, hiring actors to play all the people in it. As the years pass he has encounters with other women, such as Samantha Morton, as a box-office worker who takes a shine to him, and Michelle Williams, who was his leading lady in Death of a Salesman and then becomes the leading lady in his project as well his life. The theater piece and real life become less and less indistinguishable, and the film becomes like a set of Russian nesting dolls. An actor (Tom Noonan) who has been following Hoffman for twenty years is hired to play Hoffman in the piece. Eventually another actor is hired to play Noonan. The inevitability of death intercedes every so often (Hoffman tells his assembled actors at the beginning that we are all hurtling toward death is the theme of the play), and entropy sets in as well, as Hoffman's body and the play begin to come apart at the seams.
This is not easy stuff to digest. The film begins as comedy, although it is typically weird. Morton's house is always on fire (she is told by the real-estate agent that the sellers are motivated). There is a morbid fascination with bowel movements and pustules (the marriage counselor, Hope Davis, tends to have some kind of boils on her feet) and Hoffman is always at doctors, told he needs to see a never-ending cycle of specialists. The rules of time and space are not followed, as some characters age while others do not, and after his daughter goes to Berlin, Hoffman keeps tabs on her life by reading her childhood diary, which never leaves his possession.
The title is both a play on the city of Schenectady, New York and a nifty word that is a flexible figure of speech--it can mean both a whole representing a part, or a part representing a whole. Knowing that makes it simpler to understand, as Hoffman's theatrical piece comes to represent his life in a miniature (although it is still huge, it is still smaller than reality). What starts to become mind-bending are the shifts in identity, which he explored in Being John Malkovich. The characters start to forget who they are--Noonan becomes interested in Morton, but Hoffman tells him she doesn't exist for him, instead he should love the actress who plays her, Emily Watson. Eventually Hoffman trades places with another actress, Dianne Wiest. You definitely can't check your brain at the door for this one.
While this film isn't as thrilling as other Kaufman films, I think Synecdoche, New York is a beautiful work, thought-provoking and heartbreaking. In his review in Entertainment Weekly, in which he panned the film, Owen Glieberman made something of an Emperor's new clothes statement, saying that it was sure to be hailed as a masterpiece, presumably by critics who aren't as wise as he is. Roger Ebert took up the mantle, and declared that it was a masterpiece. I'm much more with Ebert. This film will stay with me for a long time, and that is a good thing.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
I had completely lost interest in the James Bond series during the Pierce Brosnan run, when all of the titles had the form of the word "die" and some reference to a day. Then I was pleasantly surprised by Casino Royale, when those responsible seemed interested in making Bond a real person, with a history and a psyche, and not just a smirking superman. Gone were supervillains with lairs underneath volcanos, bent on destroying the world with sattelite-lasers. I welcomed the change.
The second film in this reboot, Quantum of Solace, picks up right where Casino Royale left off, and while it isn't as good as that film it has its pleasures and I left the theater entertained. I find Daniel Craig to be a terrific Bond, who doesn't make puns and is close to the brutish character that Ian Fleming created. I also enjoyed Judi Dench in her continuing role as M, who probably has more dialogue than Bond does.
The film is burdened with a title that will have the curious running to the dictionary. The "Quantum" part is explained as the name of some super-secret organization that MI6 and the CIA don't even know about (I wonder if they have cross-over members with S.P.E.C.T.R.E). The chief baddie in this outing is outwardly an environmentalist (Al Gore may bristle at this) who really wants to create coups in nations and then secure the utility rights. This is kind of dry stuff for a spy thriller, but I appreciate that the evil plots actually have a foot in reality.
The action starts in Italy, and then Bond is off to Haiti, Austria, and finally Bolivia (I'd love to have his frequent flier miles). Along the way he crosses paths with the mysterious and beautiful Camille (Olga Kurylenko), and I'm also happy to say that this reboot is two-for-two with luscious Bond girls (I'd like to do an exhaustive comparison between Kurylenko and Eva Green, just so I can decide who is more ravishing). There are chases in various modes of transportation--cars, boats, and airplanes, and lots of derring-do.
Directed by Marc Forster, who also directed the decidedly non-action films Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace does not work best during its action sequences. It's been edited within an inch of its life by Matt Chesse and Rick Pearson. The cold opener, a chase on a winding seaside road in Italy, is done with close-ups and a blurring series of shots that last less than a second. A person could get disoriented. Forster also favors intercutting his action scenes with other events, such a horse race and, in homage to Coppola, an opera.
If the action stuff is derivatively frenetic of the Bourne series, I thought the rest of the film made up for it. As I said, I thought Dench was terrific, and loved her byplay with Bond. Kurylenko was hard to understand, but its hard to take your eyes off her. Mathieu Amalric is the villain, and if he isn't quite the megalomaniac that Bond has faced in other films, he's intriguing enough. Oh, and the "secondary" Bond girl has a classic Bond-film name: Strawberry Fields, and the song by Jack White is one of the better in the series.
The bottom line is that Quantum of Solace doesn't suck, and provides enough of what a viewer would expect at a Bond film. I'm all for the seeing the next one.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Marty is also the only Best Picture winner to be based on a TV show. It was a teleplay, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann (who both moved over to the film version). Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, however, were replaced by Ernest Borgnine and Besty Blair, respectively. It is also the only film to win both the Palme D'Or at Cannes and the Oscar.
It's a simple tale of kitchen-sink realism about a kindhearted Bronx butcher, Borgnine, who is in his mid-thirties and just about given up on love. He tells his mother that he's a fat, ugly man and that he's tired of being hurt. Early in the film there's a heartbreaking scene where he calls a girl on the phone and gets the brush off. We don't hear what she's saying, but we know it from the way he closes his eyes and absorbs the pain. But he goes out with his buddy, Joe Mantell, to a dance hall. He witnesses a plain schoolteacher, Blair, getting dumped by a callow blind date. He asks her to dance, and a romance blossoms.
The next day, his mother and friends discourage him, saying she's not good-looking enough (his mother, who pushes him to get married, is suddenly worried she'll get the boot out of the house should a daughter-in-law move in). Borgnine eventually realizes he doesn't care, and at the end of the film calls her up.
Chayefsky's script is almost musical as it captures the dialects of the characters. A famous exchange comes when Mantell and Borgnine try to figure out what to do for the night--"What do you feel like doin' tonight?" "I don't know, what do you feel like doin'?" There's also a hysterical scene with Borgnine's friends discussing the fine literary style of Mickey Spillane. Occasionally this goes way over the top--when Marty's mother and his aunt have scenes together their thick accents make it seem like an Italian minstrel show. But the byplay between Borgnine and Blair (Mrs. Gene Kelly in real life) was brilliant, and perfectly captured the feelings of two lonelyhearts as they stumble toward what they thought was impossible.
Borgnine, Mann, and Chayefsky all won Oscars. Heretofore Borgnine had been known chiefly as a heavy in films like From Here to Eternity, but he would go on to a long and varied career, which is still going today.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The story of servicemen stationed in Hawaii just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it's noteworthy today for its scene featuring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr smooching while surrounded by crashing waves, but this film is much more than that. It's an honest, albeit sanitized, look at the life of career soldiers, and the often cruel mini-societies that exist within a company. It also has a very frank, albeit sanitized, view of the women who love them.
Jones' novel was pretty hot stuff for its time, and the script, a great one by Daniel Taradash, walks a tightrope in the days when the Production Code still existed. Adultery, promiscuity and prostitution are all there, but never spoken aloud and put in the kindest terms possible. Donna Reed, for example, plays what would today be called a prostitute, but in this film she's referred to as a "hostess" in a private club.
The story centers around two G.I.s--Lancaster as the no-nonsense top sergeant who runs the company efficiently while his captain spends most of the time cheating on his wife, and Montgomery Clift as a new transfer. Clift has two talents--bugling and boxing, but he has quit the latter due to blinding someone in the ring. The captain wants him to join his boxing team, but he refuses, and earns the enmity of the other boxers, all of them non-coms, who make his life a living hell. Lancaster, meanwhile, romances Kerr, the neglected wife of the captain, who is known around camp as what could be called "loose." Lancaster is warned about her by another soldier, played by TV's Superman, George Reeve.
But they fall in love anyway, and Clift falls for Reed. Clift's good friend is Frank Sinatra, who livens things up with his gregarious Italian charm. His only problem is picking a fight with Ernest Borgnine, the menacing sergeant of the guard at the stockade. A lot of this reads like soap opera, and some of it is pretty sudsy, but mostly it's sharp, well-written and acted drama.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of American history knows what's coming, and in one scene Lancaster stands next to a calendar clearly marked "December 6." Sure enough, the Japs arrive right on time the next morning, and with the use of new footage as well as stock, the attack on Pearl Harbor is the climax of the picture. Even as primitive as the effects were in those days, or how obvious the stock footage, it's still miles better than Michael Bay's interpretations of those events.
Sinatra won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Reed won the female equivalent. This was the role that infamously became fictionalized in The Godfather as the one that Sinatra got through Mafia ties. All involved denied that, but it is true that he begged for the part (it may have been his wife, Ava Gardner, who called in favors to get it for him). His career was in the Dumpster at that time, and he took a rock-bottom fee to play the part. It all paid off for him quite handsomely, though, as the film was a smash hit and he was back as one of the biggest stars in the world.
Monday, November 10, 2008
When one hears of a Mike Leigh film with the word "happy" in the title, one would understandably suspect that it is being used ironically, much like the word "sweet" in Life Is Sweet. I've seen many of Leigh's films, including Life Is Sweet, Naked, High Hopes and Secrets and Lies, all of which exposed the unhappy lives of the contemporary British middle-to-lower class (Topsy-Turvy was a noted exception to his filmography). But Happy-Go-Lucky is about a genuinely happy person, and while there are the occasional looks underneath the rock at contemporary life, Leigh has actually made a feel-good film.
I've long pondered just what happiness means, and where it fits in life. Are we, as human beings, supposed to pursue happiness? Many think so, but then there those who think that's a fool's errand--happiness is like trying to step on on one's shadow, it's perpetually out of reach. I once remarked to a college professor of mine that I wanted to be happy and she said, "Oh, you're like a character from Chekhov." Is happiness a condition of life, or is it self-made?
Poppy, played ebulliently by Sally Hawkins, is happy. She's over-the-top chipper. We first see her attempting to make small talk with a bookshop employee, who has no interest in her pleasant chirping. She takes no offense, though, and moves on. She is a perpetual ray of sunshine that pierces through the darkest of clouds, and if those around her aren't interested, she's fine with that, too.
The film then is basically an episodic look into Poppy's world. She's a primary school teacher, and deals with a bully in her classroom. She lives with a friend, the bemused Alexis Zegerman, and does things like trampolining and learning to Flamenco. The central plot surrounds her learning to drive from an instructor, Eddie Marsan, who is a tightly-would coil of anger. At first we perceive him as a comic foil, a frowny-face in contrast to Poppy's smiley, but over the course of the picture their relationship turns into something darker.
The amazing thing about this film is Hawkins' performance--she is not annoying. Normally you'd think a person who is always giggling and joking about everything and has a goofy smile for all circumstances would be unbearable, but Poppy is actually someone who I not only could tolerate, I'd actually enjoy being around. She's what could be called a flibberty-gibbet, but she's not without a center of gravity (she takes her teaching seriously) and radiates a warmth and kindness that are infectious. At a key moment in the film she is accosted by her sister, who is married and pregnant and serious, and warns Poppy that she should start thinking about having children and saving money. Poppy laughs her off, telling her that she is genuinely happy. The sister doesn't believe it, as clearly her definition of happiness is altogether different.
This is a film that grew on me as I watched it, and by the end I realized it was one of the better I've seen this year. There are some missteps, notably a bizarre scene in which Poppy wanders the streets and has an encounter with a homeless man. It's never explained exactly what she was up to--was she just looking for someone to cheer up? Seems pretty stupid to risk getting knifed just to bring a little joy to the mentally ill.
The film ends with a great scene in which Poppy and the driving instructor deal with their issues. Marsan is terrific as a fellow who seems to have been beaten down his entire life. He's racist and full of conspiracy theories. But he is a pretty good instructor--when I got in the car to leave the theater I found myself checking the rearview mirror intoning the same mantra he espouses.
At first blush this film appears to be precious, sort of like a British version of Amelie, but it is not, and as much as I liked Amelie it is more than that. Leigh has shown, I think, what makes people like Poppy tick, and how valuable they are to society, and frankly, how nice they are to have around.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Saturday, November 08, 2008
I am a hard sell on films like this. I'm fairly immune to the sparkle of the Hollywood musical (in a bit of heresy, I'm not terribly fond of Singin' in the Rain). Usually this is because the dialogue and acting seems so amateurish, and An American in Paris has that in spades. I had tried to watch it years ago on television but couldn't make it past the fifteen-minute mark, but last night I bit the bullet and watched the whole thing. While it didn't awe me, I must admit it kind of grabbed me by the end.
Kelly plays an ex-G.I. who has stayed in Paris after the war to pursue a career as a painter. He lives in a garret and is warmly loved by his neighbors. His best friend is an acerbically witty pianist, Oscar Levant. Kelly shows his paintings on a street-corner, and catches the eye of an American dilettante, Nina Foch. Though it isn't spoken as plainly as it would be today, Foch is interested in more than Kelly's paintings. She may be the original cougar. Kelly, though, falls for a young French girl, Leslie Caron, but she's engaged to Levant's friend, a music-hall performer who helped her survive during the war.
Most of this pretty frothy. Levant, who was not an actor (later he would be most famous as a guest on late-night talk shows) is the comic relief, but his mordant humor seems out of place. Kelly, of course, is a performer nonpareil, but his acting is that kind of gee whiz stuff of musicals that is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. All of the dialogue seems like set-ups to musical numbers, which of course they are. And of course this movie wasn't shot in Paris, it was done on Hollywood sound stages, which means that it represents the Paris of the imagination rather than anything realistic.
But there is much to like here. The colors are wonderful (it was the second color film to win Best Picture following Gone With the Wind) and the music of George Gershwin is bliss. Several of he and his brother Ira's songs are on hand, such as Embraceable You, Our Love Is Here to Stay, 'S Wonderful, and I Got Rhythm. The end of the picture features an 18-minute ballet set to the title music, a jazz-influenced orchestral piece. And of course there is Kelly's dancing. He was an athletic dancer, and it's easy to recall that his original dream was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
So if all this is just so much fluff, it's terribly easy on the eyes and ears. While the magic of the Hollywood musical eludes me, I can see the appeal of An American in Paris.
Friday, November 07, 2008
Thursday, November 06, 2008
But there are a few question marks. In Georgia, it's nip and tuck as to whether incumbent Saxby Chambliss got fifty percent of the vote. If he didn't that means there will be a run-off on December 2 between him and his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin. Both are preparing for a run-off. The problem is another election is not likely to get the huge turnout, particularly from the African-American community. I would bet that Barack Obama will make several appearances on behalf of Martin.
In Minnesota, there will be a recount. The incumbent Republican, Norm Coleman, has a razor-thin lead against Democrat Al Franken--fewer than a thousand votes out of over three million cast. Minnesota law automatically calls for a recount in that event, but Coleman is suggesting that it's a waste of taxpayer money. This is why I hate most Republican politicians--would he be cheerfully ceding the election to Franken if the shoe was on the other foot? How about getting it right?
It would be so great for Franken to win. It seems like he's been around for years, and I guess that's because he has. It's hard to believe that his bit, the "Me, Al Franken decade" goes back to 1980. Beyond his skills as a comedian (and the Senate could probably use some levity), he's a very knowledgeable man who can run rings around most politicians when it comes to policy. He's the Wonk/Comic. And his election would engender apoplexy among right-wing troglodytes like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh.
Then there's Alaska. Perhaps Todd Palin had it right--they should be their own country. Do we want a state where a convicted felon can be re-elected to office? What is wrong with them up there--the cold has frozen their brains? It's not official for Stevens, a lot of votes still need to be counted, but if he does win it will make Alaska the new embarrassing state, when Louisiana used to hold that position. Stevens may go back to Washington, but the Senate may boot him (it takes 67 votes to do that, but a lot of Republicans are justifiably ticked that he didn't resign). in that event, there would be a special election to replace him. Talk about wasting taxpayer money. And would Sarah Palin run? If she does, here's hoping she cracks open an atlas and learns that Africa is not a country.
Finally, there's the disturbing news that ballot initiatives to outlaw same-sex marriages passed in California and Florida. I will never understand the opposition to gay marriage except as some deep-rooted hatred of homosexuals (perhaps not of them as people, but their "lifestyle"). Constitutions should be about preserving rights, not denying them based on hostility that grows from fundamentalist religious dogma. I just don't get how gay marriage hurts anything. After all, if two men live together as a couple, they are legally entitled to have sex with each other, and that's nobody's business but their own. Why not be able to celebrate their love for each other as heterosexual couples do? Using dictionary definitions is not a sound way of making laws. My only comfort is the feeling that this is a battle that is not over, and that eventually gays will have all the rights they should have, much as blacks do. Remember, interracial marriage was once illegal, too.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
But all of it didn't matter after Ohio turned blue at about 9:30. It was all over but the shouting then. For McCain to win, he would have to make up for it by stealing some blue states from 2004, and there just wasn't any place that was going to happen (the MSNBC crew, trying to postpone the inevitable, speculated, tongue firmly in cheek, that California or Hawaii could go McCain). I flew around the dial, seeing if other networks had called Ohio, and sure enough, they had (CNN seemed to take the longest, but when I saw a blue Ohio on Fox News' map, I knew it was over).
Even in my lifetime the advances are striking. When I was born there were large sections of this country where blacks had to use separate water fountains and couldn't share a swimming pool, where they were unseen on television and completely absent from the corridors of power. That Obama could overcome this obstacle in just this short time is mind-boggling. I would have thought that at the very least it would be a black vice-president first, in a slower progression to the White House, but this remarkable man, who two years ago was almost completely unknown, has accomplished the almost unthinkable.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
The main characters are the Naumann family. The father, played by Richard Gere, is a college professor who specializes in Jewish mysticism. At one point he explains to his students Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew phrase for "repairing the world," and this is the overriding arc of the film, as his family falls apart and they attempt to put the shards back together again. His wife, Juliette Binoche, suffers from kleptomania, and the son, Max Minghella, is tired of being under his father's watch and rebels by joining a Hare Krishna temple.
But the impetus of the story is when Eliza, played by Flora Cross, wins her school spelling bee. When her father finds out he becomes so enthusiastic that he coaches her by use of some of his Kabbala training, which leads her to visualize the words. This works much easier on the page, but the directors, David Siegel and Scott McGehee, do employ a variety of special effects to illustrate that cinematically, such as having the vines on Eliza's floral-print blouse come to life to spell out a word.
As Eliza progresses to the Nationals, her family situation gets worse, and Gere tries to keep everything together. Some of this is compelling, but only occasionally, as the film has a deadly earnestness that could give a viewer the fidgets. Cross, who is certainly a capable young actress, plays the part with very little outward emotion. When she is at the bees she has the look of an assassin. I'm sure this is how she was asked to play the part, but it's difficult to empathize with a kid who seems to be just one step up from comatose. Binoche seems to have been cast to utilize her fragile beauty (the character in the book was not French, as I recall) and you can tell she's a little out there from the very beginning. Gere is pretty good, but I must admit I inwardly chuckled when this well-known Buddhist has a confrontational scene at the Krishna temple.
For those who are interested in movies about spelling bees, I recommend the documentary Spellbound instead. That film actually had much more drama.
Monday, November 03, 2008
Sunday, November 02, 2008
Angelina Jolie plays a single, working mother in 1928 Los Angeles. She comes home one day after leaving her nine-year-old boy alone to find him missing. She calls the police, and is told that they have to wait until someone is missing 24 hours before they can do anything (today this would not be the case, as minors are exempt from this buffer period, I'll take it that this was how it was then). This is Jolie's first hint that the police department will not be on her side.
Five months later the police say that the boy has been found, in Ilinois. When he steps off the train she immediately knows he is not her son (and so do we) but in a dazed state, she goes along with it. But when she realizes that this "changeling" is three inches shorter than her son, and is also circumcised, which her boy wasn't, she begins to make a stink. To avoid embarrassment, the corrupt police department has her committed to an asylum, and it's only through the aid of a muckraking pastor (John Malkovich) that justice is done.
That's a good story, and it's a true story (although I'm sure some details are different) but there's a problem: the entire arc of the story focuses on one question--where is her son? Since the audience knows that the police are in the wrong, and that Jolie is right, the film rests on that question, and it is answered relatively early in the going, perhaps at the half-way point in the film (when a close-up of an axe is shown, only the densest movie-goer won't put two and two together). We then are subject to an extremely long denouement. I thought the movie was over at one point but it still had a half-hour to go, and much of what transpires could have been covered in end titles. A more interesting film might have been if the identity of the boy was in question, and her sanity would have been an issue for the audience.
Jolie is the center of this film, and her performance is problematic. It's a very showy part, and she doesn't hold back on the emotions required. But her character remains something of a mystery. Aside from the first ten minutes, when we see her go through her day as a mother and telephone-operator supervisor, the rest of the film has her in a state of crisis, either dealing with a missing son or sparring with the police department. I hesitate to call it one-note, but it is one level. Toward the end, when she is discussing the upcoming Academy Awards (she has her money on It Happened One Night) the scene seems stilted and forced.
Also, Jolie is so glamorous it's a bit of a distraction. The film is photographed by Tom Stern in muted colors, but her famously plump lips, awash in crimson, stand out like a lighthouse beacon through thick fog. She does look great in the clothes, particulary the cloche hats she sports. I woudln't be surprised to see them influence today's fashions.
The supporting cast is mostly fine. Jeffrey Donovan is the corrupt captain who is behind the switch, and if he had a mustache he would twirl it. Jason Butler Harner gives a weird performance as a serial killer, putting the lie that those folks are indistinguishable from the rest of us. I was impressed with Eddie Alderson, a child actor who leads the police to the real killer.
Clint Eastwood is the director, but he directs without much imprint, except for his predictably austere music score, which he composed. I'm not sure what the through-line of this film was, other than "police bad, nice lady good." It's not enough to justify two-and-a-half hours of my life.
Saturday, November 01, 2008
It took me a while, but I finally finished Saul Friedlander's massive study of the "Final Solution" of Nazi Germany, titled The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. The book won a Pulitzer Prize. It is an eminently readable book for the non-academic, but it can be slow going, as it has so many different names and particularly numbers, mostly totals of Jews that have been either deported to concentration camps or killed, or both.
Friendlander structures the book as a narrative in a chronology, from the invasion of Poland in 1939 to the last days in Hitler's bunker. He writes that the first victims were the disabled, who were rounded up and shot. The Jews, initially, were to be resettled on Madagascar. Eventually, though, the attitude taken was that the extermination of every last Jew in Europe was necessary.
Friendlander does not write sentimentally. He can begin a chapter like a slap in face: "On September 29, 1941, the Germans shot 33,700 Kiev Jews in the Babi Yar ravine near the city." He also, and I think was the larger point of the book, doesn't hold back in his opinion that there are many culpable for this tragedy, not just Hitler and his minions. He makes it clear that the German citizens knew exactly what was happening to Jews, as Himmler practically said as much in his speeches. The increasingly byzantine and insane rules that Jews were subject to--they couldn't own radios, bicycles, binoculars. Couldn't go to school, use shops. They couldn't even have pets, and the pets they did have weren't just taken away, they were killed. Also, the Nazi fascination with breeding comes across as so bizarre, as those with a partial Jewish ancestry (mischlinge) were dealt with in strange and seemingly arbitrary ways.
Also coming under fire in this book is the Catholic hierarchy. The Pope and other cardinals throughout Europe are mentioned from time to time, but Friedlander sums it up in these devastating lines: "Although sporadic protests by some Catholic bishops or Protestant religious leaders did take place, the vast majority of Catholic and Protestant authorities remained publicly silent in the face of the deportation of the Jews and the growing knowledge of their extermination. Whatever the reasons for it may have been, the pope's silence contributed to the lack of open protest by Catholic prelates in various countries, including Germany."
Friedlander is also not interested in exploring the psychology of the event. There is no "how could this happen?" He writes: "There is no point in probing once more 'the mind of Adolf Hitler' or the twisted emotional sources of his murderous obsessions. It has been attempted many times without much success...the major question that challenges us all is not what personality traits allowed an 'unknown corporal' of the Great War to become the all-powerful leader Adolf Hitler, but rather why tens of millions of Germans blindly followed him to the end, why many still believed in him at the end, and not a few, after the end." This murderous anti-Semitism was not limited to Germany, either, as Friedlander points out that many other countries gleefully participated: Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, France. All were more than happy to seize the opportunity to rid their land of Jews.
The book has an immense cast of characters, many of who are well known from the voluminous number of books and films that have created around the Holocaust. We meet Anne Frank, Klaus Barbie, Josef Mengele, the brothers who aided Jews that are the basis of the upcoming film Defiance, Raoul Wallenberg, and Amon Goeth, the camp commandant in Schindler's List (no mention of Oskar Schindler, though). I think the most effective witnesses are the many diarists, like Anne Frank, that Friedlander makes use of. I think the most poignant passage in the entire book was written by a sixteen-year-old boy who would eventually die in a camp. His name was Moshe Flinker:
"It is like being in a great hall where many people are joyful and dancing and also where there are a few people who are not happy and who are not dancing. And from time to time a few people of this latter kind are taken away, led to another room and strangled. The happy dancing people in the hall do not feel this at all. Rather, it seems as if this adds to their joy and doubles their happiness."