Feb 26, 2008

One more kvetch about the Oscars

I suddenly remember that this was the 80th edition of the awards and so we expected some major actors and directors to be around for the celebration. Where were the great American greats? Instead we had some Cyrus unstoppable munchkin that sings and Jonah Hill (love him, but he's no De Niro).
It's not as if we can't figure out that the presenters are all plugging some new movie. But (and please forgive my idiotic naiveté) the Oscars should be above that kind of shit. Maybe now that we know that nobody watches it (lowest ratings ever), they'll go back to bringing interesting people on stage, not just plugs.
They could have invited all the living Oscar winners or something with a bit more pizzazz...

Sounds like sore losers to us that when no Americans win Oscars for best acting, everybody makes a big deal that it's the lowest audience ever. It may be so, but it's still 32 million people watching, so let's keep things in proportion.
I bet next year only American people are going to win.

Feb 25, 2008

There Wasn't Enough Blood

The Oscars are my Superbowl.
We sat, we saw, we endured. It was rather boring, as it always is.
There is some justice in the world that Tilda Swinton (looking fabulous with makeup intended to look sans makeup and a great strange dress) won the Oscar for best supporting actress.
There was genuine surprise when Marion Cotillard won, very deservedly, for her ballsy channeling of La Piaf. She was the only person wearing an interesting dress, by Gaultier, that made her look like a beautiful fish. It was white and it had scales. Her movie won best makeup too, which is great.
The rest was utterly predictable. It's a problem when the same actors who have won all the awards come to the Oscars to pick this one up too. Used to be, in ancient times, that there were not that many awards before the Oscars or if there were, nobody paid them any mind. Now the Oscars are a foregone conclusion which makes the whole affair pointless and boring. Solution, move them up before all the other ones happen.
Bardem (adorable), Daniel Day Lewis (how can anybody be so handsome?), The Coens. I still don't get why people like their movie so much. I don't like or believe the story, so as well made as it is, I feel nothing but frustration with the movie. I think PT Anderson was robbed. But he knows in his heart his movie is the best film to come out of this country in years (and I'm not even a fan of his other movies).
Production Design? There Will Be Blood was ROBBED by Dante Ferretti's none too thrilling sets for Sweeney Todd. I can go on for hours about the stripped-down beauty of the production design for TWBB. A genius case of less is more. Oh, well. But that Jonny Greenwood's amazing score for the movie did not even qualify (because there was not enough original music or some idiotic rule) is also absurd.
We knew that Once was going to win best song and mercifully it did, because the three horrid songs from Enchanted only served for bathroom or chatter break (they actually make you feel like tying a noose around your neck, they are so incredibly hideous). Once again, I beg the Academy to kill this pointless category. No more musical numbers, please.
I knew the Austrian movie was going to win. It's a fine film, but nothing to write home about. It's a great story, told very efficiently but rather coldly. Everybody knows that the foreign film nomination process is absurd. The best foreign movie I have seen this year, Israel's The Band's Visit, which did not qualify, ridiculously because most of it is spoken in English.
Ratatouille vs Persepolis, I haven't seen the first one, but it is such an obvious choice. Persepolis is gorgeous and smart. Brad Bird is super talented, but I'm sick of the ugliness of computer generated stuff.
Jon Stewart was funny and relaxed but not that funny. Even the dresses were boring and predictable.
Everybody looked exactly the same. Luckily, a couple of actresses were wearing terrible things, and that woke us up. Rebecca Miller was wearing some kind of ridiculous Pierrot outfit, Cate Blanchett was wearing a hideous maternity dress and non-working hair, poor Ellen Page was wearing a stupid dress and Jennifer Hudson looked like a giant marshmallow, which is to say, not good.

Feb 23, 2008

Near Riot at The Duchess of Langeais

It's nice to see that a French film by 80 plus year-old Jacques Rivette can command such lines.
But before we could see the movie, there were technical problems with the projection at the IFC.
And almost all hell broke loose among the nice, entitled crowd.
To be fair to the high-minded but short on patience crowd, the riot had more to do with having to endure that stupid IFC animation that may trigger epilepsy attacks, and the sound (sans images) for their not very appetizing coming attractions three times in a row.
It apparently got so bad out there that at one point, one man informed us, the manager had locked himself into the box office and refused to come out. There were inflamed patrons banging on the door as if storming the very meme Bastille. Then the beleaguered manager sent a poor young usher to talk to the aggrieved masses. She very nicely apologized and tried to explain that because of the unforseen success of the film (no doubt fueled by a great review in the New York Times) they had been forced to change theaters; therefore the technical contretemps. This did not appear to mollify some jaunty, entitled patrons who started screaming at her with all kinds of demands as if she were solely to blame for the malfunction. One prophet of doom even cautioned the rest of us that we should demand our money back because those people had no clue about what was wrong and fixing it would take forever. He then stormed out of the place quite righteously. Needless to say, the film was up and running five minutes later.
What can I say?
I love this town to bits, but there certainly are some serious basket cases of unalloyed narcissism combined with rampant neurosis and the most horrid sense of entitlement living among us. New Yorkers' schedules, apparently even on a Saturday night, are so tightly wound, mind you, that a 15 minute delay at the movies is almost cause for World War Three. Are your dinner reservations going to get screwed? Are your dogs, cats and/or children going to starve to death? Or are you just a bunch of entitled, rude, smartass pricks that need to CHILL OUT?

ps: the movie is quite good by the way. An old fashioned, tragically ironic bodice ripper, brought to you by the great Honoré de Balzac, sparsely and dryly translated into film by Monsieur Rivette.
Chapeau to both.

Feb 21, 2008

Lust, Caution, For Real

For a country of 1.321,851,888 billion people, the Chinese government is rather persnickety about sex. What, they don't want to give people ideas?
Movies with sex scenes are banned in China. Not only that, their producers are banned from working for a specific number of years.
I know Lust, Caution was heavily censored. And people who include sex in their movies risk ruining their careers forever.
Recently, a famous young Hong Kong actor had to abandon his career because somebody posted some sexy photos he took of himself cavorting with female celebrities and now he is shamed and humiliated and will dedicate his life to good works and charity.
Imagine! He should move to Hollywood, where no amount of debasing behavior is ever enough to sink anybody.

Feb 19, 2008

The Band's Visit

The Band's Visit is a small, charming Israeli film that is wise, well written, funny, deadpan and very human. The characters are real, the situation is slightly absurd and it is like a little wishful fable that humanizes neighbors who are perfectly capable of living in peace with each other, but won't.
The Egyptian Classical Orchestra of Alexandria (a police band, in fact, that plays beautiful classical Egyptian music), comes to Israel for an event and gets lost, ending, instead of in Petah Tikva, which is a minor city in Israel, in Bet Hatikva, which is a godforsaken one horse town in the middle of nowhere. The Egyptians, led by Tawfik, wonderfully played by Sasson Gabbai, are quiet and dignified, except for a young, handsome firebrand named Khaled, played by Saleh Bakri, who is the very handsome and talented son of the very handsome and talented Mohammed Bakri, who is one of Israel's best known actors and an Arab. The Israelis in the film are like they are, blunt and aggresive, represented by the fierce and lonely Dina, owner of a small restaurant on the side of the road who offers them hospitality and sees in them a chance to shuffle off the stifling boredom of the town, which she describes simply as dead. Plus, given that there is no bus until the next day, they are truly stranded and in need of help.
The movie just lets things happen. Dina takes Tawfik and Khaled home with her, she leaves some musicians in the restaurant and she asks her nebbishy friend to take some musicians with him home, even though it is his wife's birthday. It is a credit to the movie that its powers of observation are firmly rooted in reality and that it steadfastly refuses facile, sentimental gestures. Instead, it delivers a wonderful deadpan chronicle of true awkwardness and a lovely sense of the absurd, if not quite the surreal.
On the behest of Tawfik, a sad and serious band leader, the Egyptians comport themselves with utter dignity while the Israelis try their best, which is very funny. Eran Kolirin, the writer director, has a fantastic sense of emotional control and keen powers of observation. The gestures are always small and very significant and the deadpan is not devoid of feeling, which is hard to achieve. He finds a lovely balance between the dry humor and the emotional reality of the characters.
There is a great scene at the house of the nebbish with his sour wife berating him for ruining her birthday with the funniest repository of sarcasm I've heard in a long time. Hebrew, like Yiddish, can be a bitterly funny language and the way people speak in this movie makes great use of that. Then there is a wondrous scene in some roller skating rink disco that seems entirely possible under the circumstances. It seems totally surreal and totally realistic at the same time. It's what would be the idea of fun in a town like that.
The actors are all fantastic, and the direction is so intimate that you can almost feel the sense of awkwardness on your own skin. You can also fill in the blanks of all that is unsaid, all the political noise, all the hatred, the misunderstanding, all that is not there, but it is part of the subtext. But for once, these people are behaving like people, trying to strip themselves from the historical baggage and the ideological bullshit and just be together for one night.
The movie ends poignantly and quietly and thankfully without resorting to any dreaded clichés of the band playing noisily for everybody. But its concerns are real. The Band's Visit achieves what nobody thinks possible: that these Jewish and Arab individuals sit around a table and connect on a human level, as human beings and neighbors.

Feb 18, 2008

Oscar Pool

Some categories are very contested and they are hard to call. This year at least the 5 nominees for best movie are all very decent films. The supporting actor and actress categories are very tight too; so is the adapted screenplay, with everybody doing a great job.

Winner in red, my favorite in blue:

Performance by an actor in a leading role
George Clooney in "Michael Clayton"
Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah"
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises"

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War"
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild"
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton"

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
Julie Christie in "Away from Her"
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose"
Laura Linney in "The Savages"
Ellen Page in "Juno"

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There"
Ruby Dee in "American Gangster"
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement"
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone"
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton"

Best animated feature film of the year
"Persepolis" (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
"Surf's Up" (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

Achievement in art direction
"American Gangster" (Universal): Art Direction: Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Beth A. Rubino
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Art Direction: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount): Art Direction: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Art Direction: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

Achievement in cinematography
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit

Achievement in costume design
"Across the Universe" (Sony Pictures Releasing) Albert Wolsky
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Jacqueline Durran
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal) Alexandra Byrne
"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Marit Allen
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount) Colleen Atwood

Achievement in directing
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
"Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production), Jason Reitman
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson

Best documentary feature
"No End in Sight" (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
"Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
"Sicko" (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O'Hara
"Taxi to the Dark Side" (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
"War/Dance" (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine

Achievement in film editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Christopher Rouse
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Juliette Welfling
"Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment): Jay Cassidy
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) Roderick Jaynes
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Dylan Tichenor

Best foreign language film of the year
"Beaufort" Israel
"The Counterfeiters" Austria
"Katyn" Poland
"Mongol" Kazakhstan
"12" Russia

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Dario Marianelli
"The Kite Runner" (DreamWorks, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Participant Productions, Distributed by Paramount Classics): Alberto Iglesias
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) James Newton Howard
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney) Michael Giacchino
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate) Marco Beltrami

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
"Falling Slowly" from "Once" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard and: Marketa Irglova
"Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"Raise It Up" from "August Rush" (Warner Bros.): Music and Lyric by Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack and Tevin Thomas
"So Close" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"That's How You Know" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz

Best motion picture of the year
"Atonement" (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
"Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production) A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers

Adapted screenplay
"Atonement" (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
"Away from Her" (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

Original screenplay
"Juno" (A Mandate Pictures/Mr. Mudd Production), Written by Diablo Cody
"Lars and the Real Girl" (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
"The Savages" (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins

The Orphanage

Scary movies. Isn't this a great concept or what? Movies can make you laugh, cry, swoon, but the ones designed to scare the living daylights out of you, I have a special fondness for those. The pioneers of film figured this out from the very beginning: ghosts and mysterious night creatures and unexplainable evil are made for celluloid (the films of Lon Chaney, Nosferatu, etc).
Why do we love to sit in a dark room and be scared? It's another version of telling scary stories around the campfire -- keeps you on your toes. It's a little catharsis. You keep saying "it's only a movie", but you surrender and let your heart pound. A little act of mini bravery.
I do not like slasher films; I like classic scary stuff, done with a minimum of special effects, if possible. Movies that are big on atmosphere and can sustain a feeling of suspense and dread until it is intolerable. Or movies that just really give you the chills.
The Orphanage is one such film. It basically lays out every old fashioned trick in the book and it works like a charm. Every creaking door, every bump in the night, every swaying window, every door at the end of a corridor, completely over the top music (sometimes a bit much), ominous camera moves, it all works.
The Orphanage is a Spanish film produced by Guillermo Del Toro, and directed with great aplomb by J.A. Bayona. The screenplay is pretty solid. Yes, there are moments when you go, "why would a mother let a child go into a cave alone?", or "why does she insist on staying by herself in a house full of ghosts"? but the movie sets up the premise well enough that it gives you the answers.
A lovely family of three moves into a former orphanage and their adopted child plays with the ghost children, who are horribly unhappy. Bayona sets up the big horrible jolts with great precision, and they scare the hell out of you, because miraculously, even though everything is overtelegraphed, when they come, you are not quite ready for them. I love when that happens! He also is good with atmosphere, creating a place in which the things that are left behind are not in and of themselves creepy, but of course they are. There are also creepy people in this world, so the creepy is not only relegated to the beyond. The whole aesthetic of the old uniforms of an orphanage, old dolls, old masks, children's drawings, take an ominous, disturbing form. And as in any good ghost story, you empathize with the plight of the lost souls, but what disturbs you is that they don't repay your goodness in kind. They keep scaring you! They don't play by the same rules as the living. They don't mean ill, but they can't help it. Their desperation has an unhinged tenor.
Bayona uses every old and every new cliche in the book. So besides the creaking and bumping and slamming doors, there is a very suspenseful sequence with a medium (Geraldine Chaplin, perfect), which is done entirely through video monitors. One of the new tropes of horror (I believe thanks to Japanese films like Ringu and The Eye) is the video screen going blank and the weird distorted sound and imagery that comes from a screen, our newfangled conduit to the beyond. This too works like a charm. Mexican fans will be delighted to see Edgar Vivar (aka Ñoño, from El Chavo del 8, the longest running show in Mexican and probably Spanish speaking TV) make an appearance as a paranormal expert. This is a nod from Del Toro, and it is interesting since this obese actor was famous for playing a child. Kinda creepy.
The good news is I kept sinking back into my seat and protecting myself from the movie with my coat.
The bad news is that this movie has the CHEESIEST, MOST CORNBALL ENDING EVER TO GRACE A HORROR FILM. This is unforgiveable, this fucking happy ending in the beyond.
I suspect that the problem is that Guillermo del Toro is too nice (to judge from his other movies, he also tends towards the overly cheesy, like the overwrought title sequence in this one, which telegraphs too much). You cannot be too nice in a horror story. You ruin it. Had the film ended where it should end (about 5 minutes before the end), it would have been a perfect Gothic with a satisfying, creepy, sad ending. It would have left us still disturbed about the misery of those in the beyond. I would have gone home in fear of every weird noise coming from behind my walls, which is what every horror filmmaker should desire. There would still have been a sense of redress, which is one of the tropes of horror (when you are not thinking sequel). But what good are happy ghosts!? It's like betraying your own movie.

Un Mundo Maravilloso

I almost resent giving space to this failed Mexican movie, but I saw it yesterday at Lincoln Center as part of the Film Comment Selects series. I had really liked director's Luis Estrada dark political satire La Ley de Herodes and I was looking forward to this one, what with the recommendation of such august film buffs as the Film Comment guys. But A Wonderful World disappoints. It is a political satire/fable, and the premise is interesting. In a not too distant future, the Mexican Minister of Economy declares there is no more poverty in Mexico and plans to run for the leadership of the World Bank. However, a homeless drunk gets in his way. On paper, the movie should work like a charm. It's a very dark satire of the Mexican elite's indifference to the poor. But the execution is very flawed, even if the film boasts a veritable roster of some of the best Mexican acting talent around.
This is what really bugged me:
The rhythm is glacial. The plot meanders. And every scene is way too long. Every scene could have been cut in half and it would have still expressed its point, but Estrada loves the sound of characters cursing colorfully yet endlessly. He and his co-screenwriter, and the editor haven't apparently gotten yet William Shakespeare's memo that brevity is the soul of wit, and so it is with this film -- long and increasingly witless. Satire requires precise, surgical timing, economy of words and feelings and a coldish heart. None of this is in evidence here.
There is a virulent strain of sentimentality coursing through this film's veins that really is unbearable.
It's so bad that in scenes where the bum cries you can actually hear they added sniffles in postproduction. So cheesy! There is a ridiculous, rather offensive love story, between the bum, played with great panache, and quite some hambone by Damián Alcázar, and a poor woman called Rosita, played by the unfathomably ubiquitous Cecilia Suárez. Now why is this offensive?
1. Because Cecilia Suarez is not believable as an impoverished inhabitant of a slum. She is tall and pretty and white as snow and and her attempts at sounding low class are absurd. I wonder if there are no other Mexican actresses available that don't look like they were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. She seems like she's trying to channel a silent film actress and the comic character of La Chilindrina, and she is not only insufferable but silly. Why could a poor woman not be anything other than a blathering, innocent imbecile? It is a disgraceful performance and no friend of anybody who is poor.
2. Because the Mexican rich and or middle class (and this includes the filmmakers) still think that the poor speak and behave like comic characters out of a 1940's movie. This may have been the intention, but it backfires, because instead of portraying them with some modicum of dignity, they are just corny stereotypes. Good hearted and innocent, to boot. This is patronizing. And patronizing is what the Mexican elites are and have always been to the poor. This is actually one of the points of the movie so it is rather maddening that this awareness didn't seep through to the way the poor are portrayed.
The bum has a collection of bum friends (all great Mexican actors: Jose Carlos Ruiz, the great Jesús Ochoa and the great Silverio Palacios) and they are cool, but the direction as usual is as if they were playing to the rafters in Azteca Stadium.
3. There is a sequence in a hospital which is a completely unnecessary, cheap, pathetic dig at Mexican Jews (which by the way, are like less than 1% of the general population). It's supposed to be a very fancy private hospital, called Sinai, and it seems like all the patients wear yarmulkes just so you don't miss the point, that Jews are the only people in Mexico who can afford fancy hospitals, which of course is not true. An attempt at wit is to see signs for the spa and the golf course and the pool in the hospital's lush grounds. My heart froze when I saw this. It is amazing to me that screenwriters Estrada and Sampietro would write something so objectionable, so stereotypical, so inane and so uncalled for.
4. I can imagine what they were trying to achieve with the production design, which oscillates between the shiny modern Mexico and the slums, which are given a sepia, Fellinesque treatment, but even this seems pretentious and half baked.
In short, a good idea terribly executed. Lazy and mediocre, written with more stupidity than wit.

Feb 13, 2008

Bernard and Doris...

...is just worth looking at (on HBO) to see two amazing pros at work. Susan Sarandon is absolutely wonderful as Doris Duke. I miss her (Susan, not Doris). She should be in every movie, she is so good.
I predict Emmy.
I don't really care if she looks like Duke or acts like her. Hers is a portrayal of a smart, too wealthy lady who keeps people at bay, who is imperious and spoiled, and lonely of course, all because of her gazillions, but also capable of feeling. She is probably the only woman on Earth who had a soft spot for Imelda Marcos. And she was very fond of her butler, in her fashion.
And my darling, darling, Ralph Fiennes, like nobody has ever seen him before, playing not only a gay Irish guy with a hideous ponytail and dreadful clothes, but a soft, vulnerable, meek soul. He who has played princes and kings and nazis and dapper British soldiers and Voldemort is wonderful playing a devoted butler. A servant. It is a lovely characterization. He is not terribly flamboyant, opting for the more interesting ambiguous choice, but there is such deliberate softness in the way he moves, his every movement seems to be designed not to telegraph gayness, but to serve. When she leaves for months on end, he is desperate without her, even though, as he clarifies, he swings to the other side. I don't for the life of me understand the character of Bernard Lafferty, Ms. Duke's loyal butler. But the film is a solid exploration of their rather strange codependent relationship, very well directed by Bob Balaban. Fiennes is truly moving as this softspoken man, the epitome of subservience, who gets routinely wounded by Miss Duke's random insensitivity, when he is not softly deflecting her advances.
According to the film, Lafferty was accused of all but poisoning Duke, since she appointed him the sole executor of her enormous estate with a 5 million a year salary. Yes, money poisons everything. Is it possible that this man really aimed to please and was not in it but for the sake of tending to her? Can the greedy human mind comprehend the notion of loyalty and devotion on such a grand scale? Not really. One cannot escape wondering if indeed he didn't stick around for convenience. Not that he murdered her, or manipulated her, but that she was convenient to his submissiveness. The other question is about his unhappiness. Even with all that money, he drank himself to death at the age of 40, so there must have been something really sad and haunting and unfulfilled in all his servitude.

Feb 10, 2008

In Bruges

I'm a fan of Martin Mcdonagh's Oscar winning short "Six Shooter", which I loved so much it actually inspired me to make my own humble short. And I really liked his play "The Lieutenant of Inishmore", but I am a bit disappointed by his first feature, In Bruges. I thought it would be smarter and funnier, particularly smarter. McDonagh does have a way with words, but it seems to have eluded him in this film, which works better as a concept. Maybe it would work better as a play, but as a film it feels half-baked. I see that he is referencing Waiting for Godot and he's playing with his usual mashup of violence and humor, and he is paying homage to old, masterful movies like Touch of Evil and Vertigo, but the whole thing feels really forced and rather soulless.
I am willing to suspend my disbelief and swallow that the wonderful Brendan Gleeson and the incredibly uneven Colin Farrell are hitmen on holiday, but why? They really seem to be the nicest chaps, with no edge of meanness. Lovable thugs who work for a fastidious thug, played rather maniacally, by Ralph Fiennes, whose performance over the phone is actually funnier than when he actually shows up. It is nice to see him in a comic role and sporting a perfect thuggish accent, but he is not believable either. And the actors are saddled with stupid lines, which is really surprising coming from Mr. McDonagh. Gleeson is divine as a hitman perfectly content to spend some downtime sightseeing. He revels in the calm. I love Brendan Gleeson and if there is a reason to see this movie, he is it. Farrell is all over the place, and trying really hard to be funny, which may not be entirely his fault. He is best when he feels guilty and dissolves into tears, but otherwise he mugs for the camera like there is no tomorrow.
And if there is a subplot involving a racist dwarf and obese Americans, you know the movie is aiming low.
Jeremie Renier, who has starred in the distinguished films of the Dardenne brothers, L'Enfant and La Promesse, has a bit part here. This always bothers me, that when the big foreign production comes to town, the best actors in that country end up playing stupid bit parts. Such is the pecking order.
Some American critics have vociferously objected to the violence, which is really beyond me, considering Hollywood is still churning out violent porn like Rambo. The violence is over the top in concept, as Farrell kills human beings that are taboo to kill. And this may be the point of the movie, that the principles of criminals are bogus, and killing anybody is wrong, period. But it's a point we expected Martin McDonagh to make with his accustomed panache, not all dumbed down.

Feb 4, 2008

Find Me Guilty

You would never catch me watching a film starring Vin Diesel, but I heard rumors that this one was different. For one, it is written and directed by Sidney Lumet and two, Vin Diesel plays a real life mobster called Jackie Di Norscio who is much older than him. He actually gives a performance, as opposed to just showing up in bulk. The mystery is, why him? Why have Vin Diesel get impressive hair prosthetics when you could get someone like Chazz Palmintieri or Harvey Keitel or James Woods, or even Al Pacino to play the role? It is a great role and Vin gives it his all, but he is too young for the part, makeup department heroics notwithstanding. His voice is right, his accent is right, his goombaness is right, but his age is wrong and it's distracting. His body still has the swagger of a young man. But he gets brownie points for trying.
Jackie DiNorscio apparently was a junior mobster who dealt drugs and did bad things and when DA Giuliani went out to get the mob, Di Norscio refused to rat out his friends. He served a long sentence in jail and in an extreme case of honor among thieves, fired his attorney and colorfully defended himself and his mobster friends in one of the biggest RICO cases in the history of New York.
This movie has an excellent cast: Alex Rocco, Linus Roache, Annabella Sciorra, Raul Esparza, Ron Silver, Peter Dinklage. Every single one of them is amazing.
Like the Sidney Lumet movie that it is, it wears its Noo Yawk authenticity beautifully. The dialogue sparkles with curse words. One thing you can say for Sidney Lumet, his movies have spunk. He gets spirited, dramatic performances out of his actors. In a similar spirit to his great Dog Day Afternoon, this is sort of a celebration of the underdog. Of course, this guy is no good, but somehow he has heart. He is sincere. And he is not a rat. He has the pluck and the street smarts to defend himself in court. The movie claims that most of the dialogue was taken from court transcripts. I can believe it. This trial was a circus that took almost two years. Lumet treats it wisely like a circus because it is essentially a court room drama. In his capable hands it is lots of fun, because the actors are a joy to watch. It's as if they know "we're stuck in a court room for two hours, so let's give em their money's worth". I was mentioning Alex Rocco because he plays Nick Calabrese as the best embodiment of a prick ever committed to celluloid. It is a killer performance. Peter Dinklage as the leading lawyer for the mob is also fantastic (did they indeed have a vertically challenged lawyer, I wonder?) Linus Roache, who is an Irish actor, does a stupendous job as the overzealous DA, and where the hell is Ron Silver anymore? Why aren't he and his sexy raspy voice in more movies?
In the end the movie is truly very sad. It's the history of a schmo, of a fall guy. Lumet does this incredible balancing act between the comedy, the drama and the pathos and I was deeply touched at the end, but it left me with a deep discomfort. This guy went through all that trouble to save people not only who did not deserve it, but who would not have done the same for him. The happy ending of this movie is so very sad I can't shake it. Check it out.