Apr 20, 2006

Capote II

I wonder what Truman Capote, who adored attention so much, would think about having not one, but two biopics immortalizing his writing of In Cold Blood on the silver screen. Two camps have seen the dramatic potential of this story and fortunately for us, with vastly different results.
Douglas McGrath's version, Infamous, is based on the book of interviews by George Plimpton, whereas last year's Oscar winner for Phillip Seymour Hoffman is based on the biography by Gerald Clarke.
So which one did I like better? Infamous.
When I saw Capote, I thought the filmmakers got on a high moral horse and punished Capote for how he went about writing his masterpiece. It bothered me that they neglected to give credit to the quality of the book. It was an interesting film, but felt a bit cold, somehow superior to its subject.
Infamous is less controlled, and thus much more emotionally gripping. There is a lot more information in it, not only about Truman Capote but also about his relationship with the two convicts, particularly Perry Smith. It gives a far more complex idea of who he was and what he did to write the book.
Here Capote is an incorrigible gossip, someone you couldn't trust with a secret, a talented imp hungry for attention, a master namedropper, and a brazen, self-centered charmer, who could be callous to his lover, selfish and needy with his friends. It also shows his extreme sensitivity, his serious commitment to his art, the sad family reasons behind his larger than life character. The British actor Toby Jones, who in contrast to Hoffman, has the right physique for the role, gives an astounding performance as Capote. Not only because of the mannerisms and the voice, but because of the intellectual acuity, the vulnerability, the neediness, the calculation and the constant presence of deep pain beneath the surface. As much as I liked Phillip Seymour Hoffman, at times I thought he was verging on the caricature, and he had only a couple of scenes in which the human being behind the eccentric flaming queen persona came through. I don't blame the actor, but the writing. Toby Jones, as outrageous as he looks and behaves, and he is hilarious, never seems a caricature. He is wickedly funny and extremely poignant, and he is given a lot more backstory, a lot more personal detail to work with. The material allows him to scope out much bigger emotional and psychological territory. I guess what the first film lacks is this poignancy.
has a marvellous cast of thousands. Sandra Bullock plays Harper Lee, and she is quite good, with a pretty solid Alabama accent and great empathy and intelligence. Then you have Sigourney Weaver, wonderful as Babe Paley and super sexy badass Daniel Craig as Perry Smith. Juliet Stevenson is dead on as Diana Vreeland and Peter Bogdanovich is very funny as Bennett Cerf. Before events turn serious, this movie is a hoot of characters and New York gossip and the eccentricities of the idle rich that Capote fawns over. It just seems much more full of life.
It also dwells much more into the sexual attraction and the intimate relationship that Capote forged with Smith. In essence it is a tragic love story. The personal fallout of having written such a masterpiece which dealt with actual people, feels far more tragic in this film. Infamous does not easily condemn Capote for his sins, and does not do a simplistic moral equation in which manipulating people for the sake of art is an evil thing to do, deserving of punishment. The tragic outcome is here for us to ponder, as is that gem of a book and the curious, wounded, maddening spirit who wrote it.

Sir No Sir!

You must run to see this excellent and important documentary now showing at the IFC Center on 6th Ave and W3rd St. Sir no Sir! is a powerful film about the GI anti-war movement in Vietnam. It just makes one feel ashamed at the collective apathy and lack of balls we all have manifested in comparison.
Here's the little review that appeared in The New Yorker and made me pay attention:
The rise of protest against the Vietnam War is more than forty years in the past. This blunt, heartfelt documentary, directed by David Zeiger, revives those passionate days and restores the historical record with his account of widespread opposition to the war from within the U.S. military itself. Starting with the lonely voices of Donald Duncan, a Green Beret who resigned his commission in 1965, and Howard Levy, a dermatologist who accepted court-martial rather than train other Army doctors, Zeiger presents men and women who braved the stockade or worse to denounce the war from within. Jane Fonda is a character here, as she gives a moving account of her activities on behalf of the soldiers themselves. Along the way, myths are dispelled and dormant outrage reignited: Zeiger’s technique, though conventional, is eloquent, as are the interviewees, whose righteous energy burns as brightly now as in the evocative archival footage.—R.B. (IFC Center.)
True, it's a different era. These are not the sixties anymore, where there was so much revolution going on: the civil rights movement, the hippie movement, women's lib. Young people truly felt the world needed to be changed. And to their credit, they tried to change it. Now, when you hear about somebody changing the world it's usually Bill Gates or Google or some stupid phone company. Now we have lobotomized complacency all around.
As one of the original Vietnam Vets said yesterday after the opening screening, there are instances of resistance currently that have actually made a dent: the widespread protests in France about the new labor rules, and the mass mobilization of this country's immigrants. Then why is it that about this misbegotten war nobody seems to be doing anything?
It's a different coverage of the war: we never see the civilian injuries, the maimed soldiers, the draped coffins coming home. This war is kept as far away from our human consciences as possible. It's a distant, sanitized war about an enemy that perhaps Americans feel more justified in attacking, even though those poor Iraqis had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.
Also, as Sydney Schanberg mentioned in a panel after one of the performances of Stuff Happens, this government has not asked us to sacrifice absolutely anything. The stock market is up, the President advises us to go shopping, and the only people making any sacrifices are the soldiers and their families... people don't care. Will they care now that gas prices are hitting an all time high? Will that finally push them to the brink of outrage? What if the finale of American Idol is bumped to show some important news about the war? Bummer? Or does something utterly monstruous need to happen to wake people up to the Irak disaster? Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the illegal spying, and now our very scary nuclear pissing contest with Iran, none of this seems to bother most Americans.
A young woman stood up yesterday after the opening screening of Sir no Sir! and talked about how she was part of the anti-war movement. Perhaps she is. She and fifteen other cats. What anti-war movement? Where is it? As my dear moviegoing companion pointed out to me, every time we go to a film like this or an anti-war lecture, most of the people in the audience have white hair. It's the hippies from the sixties all over again. I can't imagine how they feel now, having been through that momentous era, to come all the way back to the worst national regression ever. It must be dismaying. Where are the young people now? Why aren't they demanding that their peers come back unharmed? Boy, I so wish there was a compulsory draft service. Then we'd see a righteous anti-war movement in an instant.
There are also Iraq Veterans against the war. One of them showed up yesterday. A young man with a Hispanic last name who has been a career soldier for 14 years. Last year he asked to change his status to a conscientious objector and says that his case is still pending, so he's still in service.

WTF is Latin Cinema?

If there is one thing that drives us Latins crazy is when we all get mixed in the same basket, as my dear friend Marta points out.
Oh, so they are kinda dark skinned and passionate and speak something other than English, then it must be Latins. Case in point, Variety's news about the 2006 Cannes Film Festival competition lineup:
LONDON — Latin cinema is the big winner, while U.S. and French filmers hold their place, in the Official Selection of the 59th Cannes Film Festival (May 17-28), announced in Paris today.
What exactly is Latin cinema, may I ask? Does it come from LatinLand?
It's a way that Hollywood people can wrap their little marketing minds around several films that hail from very different directors from different countries with even different languages. So there are films from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Mexico in competition. If you think about it, three of those are European countries, one is in Latin America. Bonus points if you guess which. Nobody ever thinks of mentioning Anglo cinema for films from the US, Ireland, Australia or Canada, Wales, Scotland. You get the picture.
In any case, the president of the Jury is Wong Kar Wai (whose exquisite movies rather bore me) but there are some very smart people in it: the great Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, director Patrice Leconte. Sounds like the deliberations could be fun. I hope they don't go too pretentious on us.

Apr 13, 2006

What's Self Serving?

It's not the same as a self-service cafeteria, in case you are confused. The other day, my fellow movieclub colleagues and I had an interesting discussion about what defines something self-serving. This arose because we all went to see Michel Gondry's Dave Chappelle's Block Party at BAM. We all really enjoyed the movie. It was charming, spirited, funny and touching and it gave you a strong sense of the talent and variety of hip-hop artists, of pride in the hip-hop culture, of place. Also, it showcased Dave Chappelle at his sweetest. We then went to dinner to a South African restaurant where we had to scream to be heard. The music, although great, was too loud, as is the custom everywhere in NY.
So one of us asked the question: why is it that this movie doesn't feel self-serving? But because the rest of us were temporarily deaf, we thought she said that the movie was self-serving and we heartily disagreed with her. As you can imagine, this was not one of our more successful debates.
Still, the question lingered. What makes something self-serving? How do you define it?
I can tell you it's like that famous definition of porn, I know it when I see it. If we take the Chappelle movie as an example, Dave Chappelle decides to throw a block party in Bed-Stuy and invite his very famous rapper friends. It's a free concert and he's doing it, convincingly, because he likes to and he can. The concert scenes are interspersed with scenes of Bed-Stuy neighbors before the concert, of Dave Chappelle traveling to Ohio to invite a black college marching band and some white people and other black people to his concert. The movie is spontaneous, breezy, funny and at no time does one feel that Chappelle is doing this to aggrandize himself. He has a self-deprecating streak that avoids that. You don't feel he's a hero to the community, you just feel he, for whatever reasons, enjoys doing this. Not self-serving.
So as an example of self-serving, I thought of that horrid film Life is Beautiful, by Roberto Benigni, where he marshalls the idea of being a clown in a concentration camp in the Holocaust to spew forth some vile, empty bullshit about hope and love and god knows what other utter nonsense. To me, it is not that the Holocaust is off limits as a venue for comedy. It's tough, but maybe someone will come along that will make it a veritable barrel of laughs. I can think of Mel Brooks' movie The Producers and Chaplin's The Great Dictator. But the difference is that both movies make fun of the villains, instead of using the victims as a forum for their own shtick. Life is Beautiful (for starters the title makes me gag) is so calculated to tug at your heart strings, so forced in it's making some sort of saint out of its protagonist, so blatant in its exploitation of maudlin human sentiment, so enamored of Benigni's comic-redemptive qualities, so utterly fake and insincere, that on top of making me want to retch, it seems to me a perfect example of self-serving. One of us argued that it worked for a lot of people. Well, A Million Little Pieces also worked for a lot of people and that didn't make it good. People fall for the corny bullshit. That doesn't mean it's true.
There's an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm that features a screaming match between a Holocaust survivor and a survivor of the show Survivor that is freakish and subversive and uncomfortably hilarious. Truly pushing boundaries, which is what Larry David does best, but not self-serving. Another good example of using comedy in touchy contexts is my new boyfriend Martin McDonagh's, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, where he skewers the IRA. Again, he makes a broader, powerful, intelligent point about the absurdity of religion-based sectarian violence. I can't articulate how smart and ironic and knowing and shocking it is. How well structured and incisive and bitterly funny and uncomfortable. It is certainly not something pat that appears to have fallen out of a Hallmark card because my new boyfriend wants to be loved by mankind. It is fueled by true outrage, not by some sort of needy childish innocence. Beware of childish innocence in anybody over the age 14.
Is this blog self-serving? You tell me.

Tom Hanks has the same taste as me!

Almost. Yikes. I thought he would love crap like The Shawshank Redemption and other treacly stuff he's done before, but no, the man has a certain penchant for slightly perverse movies.
He loves 2001. He loves Fargo. (J'adore Fargo). He loves The Godfather (it's becoming sort of a cliche to love that movie so much), strangely enough he loves Elephant by Gus Van Sant, (it bored me). And he loves Boogie Nights. Not bad. Not bad for the guy who has given us the unforgiveable Forrest Gump and the equally awful Cast Away or whatever that horrid 2 hour FedEx commercial was called.
By the way, who asked him?