Jun 26, 2007

Dirk Bogarde Au Plein Air

They have free open air cinema at the Parc de la Villette pretty much everyday in the summer. They rent comfy lounge chairs or you can sit sur l'herbe like the famous peeps in the Manet painting. People bring a picnic, which in France means a gourmet feast, not Fanta and Cheetos. The screen is enormous. They wait until around 10:30 pm when it gets dark and voilá: The Servant, by Joseph Losey, screenplay by Harold Pinter, genius acting by Dirk Bogarde, in a pristine, gorgeous copy.
I hadn't seen it in ages. It is still visually stunning. It's still chillingly creepy and vicious, the humor poisonous, bless Harold Pinter. (I remember the elation some of us felt last year when we learned the news of his Nobel Prize. Go Harold!) And Dirk Bogarde is so unbelievably perverse and resentful and mean, it is sheer joy to see such excellence, such intelligence, such elegant command, such perfection. A master of the minimal. The undisputed genius of the unspoken. So evil. He rooooooocks in this movie.
And everybody else follows suit. James Fox is excellent and so is Sarah Miles. I was thinking that it's not easy to peg this movie down. If it is a condemnation of the absurdity of the British class system, the thorn on the side is that the servant is such a terrible bastard.
In a way, this must be the fear of the upper crust, The Revenge of the Serfs. The servants finally taking over and exacting their long awaited revenge. The beauty here is that the servant is a worse snob than the master and equally revolting. He acts out of a sense of setting things right yes, of getting his due but not out of justice or righteousness, let alone fairness or decency. It actually seems just bitter, mean and corrupt, like the system itself, which makes this quite a provocative film. You reap what you sow it seems to say. Raise a servant class and it will take your eyes out. I wonder if it was wishful thinking on the part of Harold Pinter. On the other hand, without the class politics, it is a great study on psychological manipulation. It is a bit over the top, but it works. And as Bea points out, must have influenced Roman Polanski greatly. I'm checking dates on the imdb, because I'm pretty sure Repulsion came after and there are many stylistic echoes between the two films.
Many people left during the movie because it was hard to read the subtitles and because the pacing is rather glacial and perhaps because the French may have little patience with the British stiff upper lip, which in this movie is stiffened to a gelid peak. Also, La Villette is a very working class area so it's not like you have a bunch of snobby eggheads in the park applauding the rise of the masses. Still, at the end, those who stayed actually applauded. That made my day. And then we all ran like maniacs to catch le dernier metro because service is interrupted weekdays at 1 am. That's how it is.

Jun 17, 2007

The Death of Film

Yesterday I attended a talk about Apple's Studio 2, or whatever it's called, which is the new bundled program that includes Final Cut Pro and a bunch of other things. I'm trying to learn the technical aspects of the craft, you see, so I don't stand like a moron in the middle of my next shoot, looking like a Neanderthal in Einstein's lab. That means that I go to shilling sessions like this, where a major geek explains horribly complicated (to me, that is) digital shit to other geeks.
Yesterday, the geek in question, who was a very nice guy, was talking about the cameras of the future and the postproduction of the future and the workflow of the future and I detected some terrifying glee in his voice as he spoke of the imminent demise of film. Hollywood is going digital, bla bla bla, soon film will be a thing of the past, like 8 Tracks or Betamax or even CD's.
To me this is tragic. Why? Because film is beautiful and digital video, as far as I can tell, is not. Because film spools and purrs and breaks and scratches and digital video is zeros and ones living in a scary virtual limbo of data files and hard disks. Film is sensual. Digital is not.
I know, we will get used to it. Supposedly, the visual aspect of the technology is going to improve. They are trying hard to replicate the beautiful textures and depths of film in digital video. I know for some my apprehension must seem like pining for a computer the size of a fridge, instead of enjoying a laptop. It's like those people who still prefer LP records to mp3's. Same thing. Mp3s are wonderful and the iPod is the eighth wonder of the world, but we miss the sounds and the touch and the hiss and the purr of the old technology. I miss the sound of rotary phones. I miss the hum and click of the IBM Selectric typewriter. That doesn't mean I don't love my laptop (I do hate my cellphone with a passion).
I look at the footage of my film, shot in HD. The actors' features, good and bad, are enhanced, as if you were looking at their every pore with a magnifying glass. Not even the most flawlessly beautiful actor in the world can withstand such scrutiny. And still everything seems kind of flat, or too perfect. Too defined. Human sight doesn't seem that defined to me. It has softer edges, no?
Sure, digital has huge convenient advantages: there is minimal processing -- it's called downloading and it's a bitch, but it's not like taking the negative to the lab. Video is also cheaper to produce. You don't have to worry about burning feet of film; now you have to worry, like I do, of losing footage that was not copied correctly, that is irrecoverable. I hate technology.

Jun 14, 2007

Janet Maslin: Spoiler Alert

An ancient hatred of mine is back!
Lo and behold, the nefarious Janet Maslin, erstwhile film critic of the New York Times, is at it again.
She used to tell all the jokes in her reviews of funny movies. She wouldn't leave one joke out of the page, if she could help it. Thus, she basically ruined every comedy for the people who read her. You'd go to the movie only to realize you had already heard all the jokes. Mirth-killer. Party-pooper. Idiot. She put me in a homicidal mood, I have to confess. On a molotov cocktail throwing, sharpshooting, arson provoking, guillotine wielding, rope twisting around the neck, kind of mood.
Well, apparently, time has not changed anything. They still, incomprehensibly, employ her at the Times, where she is still in charge of telling other people's jokes. Today, she tells all the jokes in some old Woody Allen books and in some new Woody Allen books. So if you are in the mind of buying such books, you have been warned, do not read her review.

Speaking of Woody Allen, I don't find him funny anymore. Not even if Janet Maslin tells the jokes. I find him actually excruciatingly unfunny. I was once one of his biggest fans, but lately, let's say in the last 10 years, I can't stand his movies and I can't stand his smug little pieces in The New Yorker.
He's one of those artists who has decided he's not going to live in the same world with the rest of us (like Stanley Kubrick, another neurotic Jew, at the end of his life). Our world is irrelevant to Woody Allen, and so his world seems irrelevant to me. It kind of tries to look like our world, but it really isn't because there isn't one shred of reality in it. His movies all take place in a fake New York, (or lately, in a fake Europe) all populated by women who are either horrendously shrewish or cloyingly ditzy or cartoonishly sexual, but none of them realistic or sympathetic. The last movie of his I saw was that thing about the tennis player and I thought it was contrived and airless, as if conceived inside a can of peas.

Review of a Movie that I Refuse To See

Something from New Zealand called Eagle vs Shark. I have been subjected to the preview of this movie more times than a sentient being should be allowed to suffer. It's a modest, well-meaning independent comedy from New Zealand. So what, you may ask, is my objection?
From the preview, it looks like it's one of those independent films that are made for the hipster mind.
Films about two losers who fall in love, shot with washed out colors and featuring ugly people. Films to which the adjective "quirky" applies. Not only does it apply, it has been conceived with the sole purpose of being quirky and it is marketed as such. Most of the time what this really means is one or two adults prancing about (and dressing and looking) like children.
"Quirky" is fast becoming as repulsive to me as "whimsical".

I'll give you more examples of the genre:

You and me and everyone we know. Hated, HATED, that movie.
The Science of Sleep. Don't get me started.
Year of the Dog. Didn't see it but it looked like it fit the bill. Enforced deadpan, washed out colors, and a story about a woman grieving for her dead dog. Nisht far mir. (Not for me).

Jun 11, 2007

Vive La Piaf!

Finally, the French found someone who could play the life of Edith Piaf. And so, they have made the biopic to end all biopics, the weepie to end all weepies: La Vie en Rose. I don't know about my fellow moviegoers, but I bawled through the entire film. Just knowing they were going to save that magnificent anthem, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, for the very end, made me bawl with anticipation. As the young Piaf sang the first bars of Milord, I dissolved in a puddle of tears from which I did not recover. La Piaf has this effect on me. Her singing reduces me to a quivering mound of nerves. There are two other singers that do this to me: Dinah Washington and Chavela Vargas. With Washington I just bawl inconsolably, even if she's singing a happy tune. Actually, even worse if she's singing a happy tune. With Chavela, it's Mexican heartache, it hurts.
I have a theory about why I cried throughout La Vie en Rose, a movie that borders spectacularly on the cheesy. I heard Piaf's music in my childhood and to hear it again in almost sensurround brings, not specific memories, but a whole waves of the past back to the surface. Hence, I bawl.
Marion Cotillard, the young woman who plays Piaf, has, on top of a huge amount of talent, balls of fire and ovaries of steel. Of platinum.
Who would want to step in those shoes? Who would want to embody a beloved national myth? What if she failed? In France, they would not have forgiven it. Here, people are much less passionate about such things.
Actors who have been asked to inhabit the lives of the very great are mostly mired in a thankless job; a phyrric victory at best. Particularly because as a rule, biopics suck. If they are biopics about talented artists, they tend to suck even more. Think of Robert Downey in Chaplin. Or Will Smith in Ali. Marion Cotillard's is probably the most fierce, convincing, fearless, courageous performance I have ever seen. It is also completely over the top, as is the movie, but that seems to fit. Apparently, Edith Piaf had a truly rotten life. A life of tragedy made for the movies. And if there ever was someone over the top, that was Piaf.
Olivier Dahan, who wrote and directed, could have used some discipline in the telling. For a French film, La Vie en Rose is quite a mess. There is none of the elegant restraint and brilliant storytelling one is accustomed in French quality films. This is meant to be a blockbuster, American style. But since it's French, it can't be all straightforward and bourgeois, and the result is all over the place. Not so much jumping back and forth in the chronology of events, but sloppiness in the storytelling, a camera with needless Parkinson's disease and a bit de trop in the histrionics of it all. It completely ignores WWII, her relationship with Yves Montand, and other important milestones and quirks of her life. Prague substitutes for New York, and you can tell. The New York scenes are particularly inauthentic. Characters are introduced and then unceremoniously dropped never to appear again, etc. But there are some great French actors like Sylvie Testud as Momone, Piaf's best friend, Gerard Depardieu, who appears for all of like one minute and is as always, grand and alive, and Emmanuelle Seigner as Titine, the whore who loved Edith as a child.
If you surrender to the power of Piaf, the movie almost works, because Cotillard makes it happen, because it is a great, terrible story. And because it's the voice of Piaf that sings.

The Best Valentine's Day Date Movie...

...is a documentary called Crazy Love, which is the bizarre true story of Burt and Linda Pugach, a Bronx tale of l'amour fou. You've probably heard about them: he's the guy that had some goons throw lye in her eyes, so she couldn't get married to someone else. Because he loved her so! Before that, he also had people beat her up on the street, so she would look for protection in him. The day he met her, he stalked her with dozens of roses, etc. You know the kind.
After the attack, which partially blinded her and left her disfigured and hairless, he spent 14 years in jail, writing love letters to her while she became a hard, lonely cookie. So when he came out of the slammer on good behavior (he originally got 30 years), they reunited and got married, quite unhappily, to judge from the footage, to this very day.
This is a story that spans from the end of the fifties to today, and it is clear that it is very much a product of its time. In those days, even though they worked, women were not supposed to be independent. They were supposed to marry, so someone could take financial care of them. Women were also supposed to save themselves for marriage, if you know what I mean. Nobody wanted damaged goods. As his and her old friends recollect upon the past, you realize that if this same story happened today, she would have felt she had other choices. She would go into match.com and find a new date. She would not be 35 years old and a virgin, even with a marred face, a wig and eternal sunglasses. She would not have felt like she'd been left to wither and die. Society's conventions have changed quite a bit since then.
The movie itself is not great, but the story is fascinating. The cast of characters is quite interesting. I loved hearing all those old New York accents from the Bronx. Even that has been lost in this city.
Now everybody talks like we're from the Midwest or something. Only the older people still have that wonderful New Yawk squawk.
So if your honey is complaining about how you are this, that or the other; if you are having relationship troubles, forget about couples therapy. Go see this movie together. It will make your relationship look the picture of health.

Jun 7, 2007

Knocked Up

I have been criticized by some of my very brainy loved ones for saying that Judd Apatow's The 40 Year Old Virgin was one of the best movies last year. There is a contingent that doesn't get my deep affection for the oeuvre of Will Ferrell, Apatow and the Farrelly Brothers (at the beginning). Well, blow me.
Knocked Up is quite funny. It has some hilarious moments and some truly poignant moments, for which I give Apatow, an unabashed romantic, credit. But it also drags in places, since the structure seems to be to sit and wait for the baby of the lovely, talented Katharine Heigl, to pop out.
The 40 YO V seems to me a more solid achievement. However, I enjoyed best the cast of characters, particularly the excellent Seth Rogen and his amazing collection of stoner roomates, all consummate comic actors. Also, Paul Rudd is my love. Gorgeous timing, glorious deadpan, smart, solid acting. If he wasn't married, I would stalk him. I love it that he considers himself a Jewish nerd (in an interview on Entertainment Weekly). Jewish yes, but no one who looks like Paul Rudd can possibly be a nerd. I will not compare him to Cary Grant because that would be too much, but there is something similarly graceful in a leading man (a far as I'm concerned) who is so adept at comedy. It is a mystery to me that he is not a bigger star.
I don't mind the barf and fart humor at all. In fact, one of the jokes that made me laugh the hardest was a beautifully delivered bit involving pink eye and farting in pillows. Also, a shoutout to the filmmakers for calling the Cirque Du Soleil what it is: a freaking nightmare. And there is a mini-Talmudic discussion about the genius or lack thereof of Steely Dan. (Do gentiles also have this argument?) I've always been in the camp of genius, but Mr. Ex-Enchilada used to compare them, unfavorably, to muzak.
One nitpick: Though he populates the screen with the women in his life, his wife Leslie Mann, playing Paul Rudd's wife, (I wasn't blown away by her) and his two lovely and very funny daughters, I couldn't help but noticing that for Apatow, and perhaps for most males in this country, women are semi-hysterical, mysterious creatures there is no use in trying to understand. Some of the women's reactions seemed petty and shrill and uncalled for. For a guy who loves romance so much, one would think he'd give us girls more credit. On the other hand, if this is really the amount of anxiety women give men in this country, that they'd rather not grow up at all than deal with us, we are in trouble.

Jun 1, 2007

In Praise of Ben Affleck

I have a bit of a feeling of Deja Vu. I have a feeling, my dear readers, that this is not the first time you are subjected to my partiality for Ben Affleck.
The reason I bring him up again, is because I saw him on the Bill Maher show the other day and I was delighted by his coherence, intelligence and articulateness. I also think he is very handsome and adorable and likeable. He was discussing the sad matters of current affairs and he really let it rip against the Democrats for being spineless, cowardly idiots who do not stand for their own principles. He was sincerely agitated, just like all of us frustrated liberals, and he made a wonderful impression. He was paired with that unfunny hot air balloon aka P.J O'Rourke, who was rather annoying. He made Ben look like an elder statesman. And I think Ben has political ambitions. He looks presidential to me. If they can have Conan the Barbarian governing California, the thought of a handsome Ben Affleck ruling the country is not farfetched, or unwelcome. And why would he be any worse than any of the people who usually run for office? Go Ben!