Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bunched Undies, Inc: 2010 Year in Review

In 2010, the continuing struggles of the global economy did not significantly slow the growth of Bunched Undies, Inc. In February, we opened our new state-of-the-art training facility. Here, newly hired staffers learn all about the patented BU style of review writing.

In April, our world-wide offices were able to keep in touch via teleconference, thanks to our multi-million dollar investment in satellite technology. Thus far, the system only receives the Ecuadoran Porn Channel, but our engineers are working to resolve the issue.

In May, we launched The Not So Snooty Film Festival at the Best Western in Kingman, AZ. Envisioned as an alternative to the Cannes Film Festival, the event drew a small but somewhat enthusiastic crowd. Next year will be even more exciting as Larry Storch has agreed to appear. Look out Cannes… we drink your milkshake!!

But all was not hard work and drudgery here at BU, Inc. In June, our annual employee picnic was a smash hit! Please be advised that next year the open bar policy will likely be revisited.

During the summer, employees were allowed to bring their pets to work. The program was very popular, but liability issues eventually forced its abandonment.

Our new Estonian theme park, UndieWorld, suffered a bit of a setback with the discovery that it was built in a flood plain. Thanks to the tireless efforts of our staff, the park was quickly reopened and most of the attractions are fully functional. Visitors traveling long distances are advised to check the local weather forecast prior to departure.

We have continued to diversify our holdings. Our luxury condominium project in Shanghai, China is nearing completion. In November, progress was slowed when “Building E” suddenly and inexplicably toppled. Fortunately no workers were trapped inside, where it would have been too expensive to rescue them.

Pending inspections on the remaining structures, this exciting new property should hit the street in early 2011.

Perhaps that was a poor choice of words…

Monday, December 27, 2010

Let it Rain (2008)****

In Let it Rain, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri return with another pitch-perfect dissection of France’s pompous creative class. Fans of Jaoui’s previous scripts, Un aire de familie (1996), The Taste of Others (2000), and Look at Me (2005) – the latter two directed by Jaoui as well – know all about her ability to craft subtle character portraits of such icy accuracy that audiences suddenly erupt in belly laughs of recognition. Bacri, Jaoui’s husband and perennial leading man, is the perfect vessel for her delightful tales of homespun hubris. Bacri possesses tools that are the envy of every comedic actor: a face that smoothly glides from sour to smug, and line readings delivered with the precison timing of a Bach concerto.

In this outing, Jaoui plays Agathe, a writer of radical feminist books and broadsides, who finds herself running for a parliament seat thanks to France’s gender equality laws. While her candidacy is a long shot – polls show her at 18% and dropping – Agathe continues to go about the glum business of retail campaigning in hopes that enough hand shaking and baby kissing will reverse her numbers. Agathe is learning that discussing politics in Parisian cafes over coffee and Gitanes is infinitely more fun than trolling for votes among the great unwashed.

Agathe takes a break from the campaign and returns to her family’s home in Provence to settle her late mother’s estate. There, she reunites with her unambitious sister Aurelie (Florence Loiret-Caille) and her impossibly narcissistic brother-in-law Stephane (Guillaume de Tonquedoc, in a brief but very funny performance). Overseeing the grande maison is Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji), an Algerian housekeeper who has spent most of her life attending to the practical needs of this family of egotistic dreamers. Without her, they surely would have starved decades ago.

Minouna’s twenty-something son Karim (Jamel Debouzze) currently works as a bartender but is attending film school in hopes of becoming a famous documentarian one day. His instructor Michel (Bacri), a burned out, second tier filmmaker, hatches a scheme utilizing Karim’s connection to Agathe to film an interview with the controversial politician. Agathe agrees – figuring she’s got nothing to lose – but the eccentric, rambling nature of Bacri’s questions reveals much more about the neuroses of the filmmaker than the positions of the candidate. But as we eventually learn, the real reason for Michel’s interest in this project has little to do with politics, but rather with making his tireless quest for personal gratification a little more convenient.

The cockeyed, yet familiar worlds constructed by Agnes Jaoui are populated by folks who are much more self-absorbed than self-aware, and her films specialize in the infliction of karmic justice upon the arrogant. There are a number of these wonderful, laugh out loud moments in Let it Rain, and each one is preceded by a slow and steady build that makes the revelation of her characters’ pretensions all the more sweet.

When Bacri meets his geeky teenage son (Laurent Jarrior) for dinner, Michel’s ego will not allow him to admit that he is unfamiliar with certain menu items, so he launches into a lengthy and erroneous explanation of how pudding is made, only to be corrected by a haughty waiter. While Aurelie mourns her mother’s passing, it is her thoughtless husband who comically seeks solace for the profound pain the tragedy has inflicted upon him. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, a sudden storm forces Agathe and the film crew to take shelter with a farm family. But when they discover Agathe’s profession, the farmers’ warm hospitality turns into a hysterical debate on the distribution of agricultural subsidies.

One bit of business near the film’s conclusion encapsulates Jaoui’s telescoping view of the human condition. When Bacri offers her a toke of marijuana, Agathe reluctantly accepts and, a few moments later, this hard charging crusader for women’s rights is held utterly spellbound by observing the activities of a nearby ant. And such are the characters of Agnes Jaoui. They talk a good game, but are easily derailed by the tiniest distraction. By her clever and incisive skewering, their pomposities deflate and whither like week-old birthday balloons.

But underneath Jaoui’s constructions and Bacri’s dissembling lays a tale both amusing and cautionary. A generation weened on the navel-gazing culture of the late 20th Century is now assuming command of the world’s levers of power. God help us.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Joyeux Noel (2005)****

Peace briefly erupts in the trenches of World War One, and the French and German commanders, safe at the back lines, are livid. This film, based on the famous Christmas Truce folk tale but greatly augmented, asks a number of important questions.

When the warring factions decide to cease fire and emerge from their trenches, the Great War becomes in essence the Great Cocktail Party, as Germans, French and Scots share food, drink and small talk. The soldiers get to know their enemies as people, and find that they have a large amount in common.

You can see on the men's worn and exhausted faces the unasked question, "Why are we fighting?", because it is clear that other than their tattered uniforms, there is little difference between them. Yet, a few hours ago, the sides were exchanging a hellfire of bullets and artillery shells.

The officers that called the truce are later severely reprimanded by their generals and face charges of conspiracy, yet ironically, it is those commanders who must conspire with their enemy counterparts in order to get the fighting underway again.

The film doesn't quite achieve the greatness of its aspirations - it drags in places and the resolutions are a bit pat- but still this is an enjoyable and worthwhile entertainment. And it may leave you wondering: What if they gave a war and no one came?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2004)***

This film is not quite the unmitigated disaster that most critics would have you believe. We do get to see Emilie Dequenne, although she isn’t given much to do, and that always adds a star. Fortunately, no animals were harmed in the making of the film. We’re not sure you can say the same about the four men who had to lug Kathy Bates around in her sedan chair, all of whom appeared to be on the verge of hernias.

There is some superb art direction and costume design as well, and fans of Spanish Colonial architecture will find much to like here. The chief problem lays with the screenplay, which apparently assumes that everyone is intimately aware of the political upheavals within the Catholic Church 300 years ago, the threat to the established order posed by the Franciscans, and Spain’s unique and highly corrupt melding of church and state during that period.

To the historically ignorant, like me, it takes about half of the movie to figure out what the devil is going on, and by then we are into a variety of seemingly random subplots - a creepy pair of twins and an overdressed, remorseful sea captain, for instance- and all of it seems to come out of nowhere. We are left with a beautifully produced historical drama that somehow manages to generate an engaging momentum, despite the fact it’s often unclear where that momentum is going.

Robert DeNiro, Gabriel Byrne and F. Murray are all quite good in their roles, and Geraldine Page is extraordinary as the sensitive and caring Mother Superior. These performances offer glimpses into the novel’s deeper truths and almost overcome the film’s botched storytelling.

But director Mary McGuckian manages to miss just about every opportunity for clarity, and a strong bond with the viewer is never forged. There is a great film in this material, with lots of juicy possibilities, but its complex layers, at least as McGuckian presents them, are just too much to digest.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Serial Saturday Part 4: Batman and Robin (1949)****

The first serial featuring the Caped Crusader, 1943’s Batman, was produced at the height of the frenzied zeitgeist of WWII, and featured an array of Japanese villains (white actors pretending to be Japanese, to be precise) and some appalling racially-charged dialogue. That serial is not suitable for children and is barely passable for adults, unless you like wall-to-wall epithets and ill-fitting costumes.

Batman and Robin from 1949 was the second cinematic incarnation, but the first in our Serial Saturday series to feature truly modern production quality and a decent print to boot. The shots are in focus and properly exposed (I know this doesn’t sound too exciting, but the older serials have some really crappy technicals) and the soundtrack is clear, strong and thankfully free of the scratchy noises and distortions that marred the Mascot productions of the 1930s.

Batman is played by Robert Lowery, a 36 year old journeyman actor with an extensive record of film industry employment in westerns and crime dramas. Lowery’s good looks and smooth vocal delivery kept him busy as a supporting actor but the rank of elite leading man would elude him throughout his career. Lowery does a good job here of portraying alter-ego Bruce Wayne as a pampered waste of air, while imbuing the Dark Knight with an imposing toughness, despite his silly couture.

Taciturn John Duncan, as the Boy Wonder, is a welcome break from the cocky, self indulgent Robins of more recent vintage. Duncan’s still waters run very deep, and while his line readings don’t exactly sparkle, he exudes a steely focus on the task at hand. I’d much rather go into battle with this Dick Grayson than the brash, mouthy Robins of Burt Ward and Chris O’Donnell.

In this 4 ½ hour opus, Gotham City faces impending doom at the hands of a mysterious cloaked figure known as The Wizard. He and his band of sharp-dressed henchmen have stolen a top secret invention that’s essentially the world’s largest remote control. With it, the Wizard can commandeer any plane, train or automobile within a hundred miles, and use that vehicle to unleash wanton death and destruction. Well, he can ram a car into a tree anyway, which was about all the mayhem this low budget serial would allow.

In Chapter One, our heroes leap to the Batmobile - actually in this production it’s a stock 1949 Mercury convertible – in hot pursuit of an armored car under the Wizard’s influence. While the Dynamic Duo is able to thwart the Wizard’s nefarious scheme on this occasion, it becomes clear that, as is often the case in serials, finally slapping the cuffs on this slippery perp will be a long, drawn-out affair.

Just getting to the Wizard’s hideout is an exercise in patience. First, his henchmen have to go to an isolated location at the shore and find the exact right bush to move out the way, revealing a narrow tunnel that descends to a secret underground marina. From there, a submarine shuttles the men to an island where the Wizard scans them with a fancy version of x-ray goggles. If the visitors pass muster, the Wizard pushes a button and allows the men entry into his secret lair of buzzing contraptions and brightly flashing gizmos.

Visiting the Wizard requires a concerted effort. And after you do all that he doesn’t even offer you a cuppa. Hardly seems worth it. Anyway, this cumbersome ritual is repeated many times throughout the serial – I suppose it was one way to extend the episodes to proper length - and eventually the viewer wishes the Wizard would just move someplace closer to town; perhaps a nice condo, convenient to schools and shopping.

And speaking of town, the Gotham City depicted here is not the hotbed of foreboding art-deco skyscrapers as envisioned by Tim Burton and Chris Nolan, but rather a flat, sleepy burg - as exciting and energetic as Akron on a Sunday morning. Street scenes are filmed on back lots with absolutely no effort expended on atmospherics – no strolling extras, no passing cars – creating the sense that the city’s entire population suffers from pathological shyness. Car chases, and there are a lot of them, are filmed in rural areas on dirt roads. Unfortunately, the speeding vehicles create huge dust clouds that partially obscure our view of Gotham’s finest cabbage patches.

The cheapness extends to the Batmobile itself. In fact, there isn’t one. Here, Bruce Wayne’s personal vehicle must suffice as the Dark Knight’s ride. When the top is down, the Mercury conveys Bruce and Dick to their frivolous idle rich appointments. When the top is up, the Dynamic Duo is hot on the trail of the dastardly Wizard. This subtle subterfuge does not fool the very sharp and shapely Vicky Vale (Jane Adams), who finally asks the burning question “What are you doing with Bruce Wayne’s car, Batman?” This query stumped even the writers, as the Caped Crusader just kind of shrugs and laughs it off.

However, these same writers did create one clever deus ex machina; the Wizard’s terrifying device requires bearings made from very expensive diamonds to perform even the most rudimentary functions. So before he can destroy the world, his henchmen must knock off every Zale’s and Jared’s in Gotham, giving Batman and Robin an all-you-can-eat buffet of misdeeds to investigate and thwart. And that, my friends, is how you get a serial to last 263 minutes.

With the advent of the fourth hour, after the Caped Crusaders have survived raging infernos, falls from high rooftops, out of control airplanes and assorted other perils, the serial begins to chug toward conclusion. And by then most viewers, along with the Dynamic Duo, will have thoroughly had it with The Wizard and his shit.

But there is one more revelation to be made - the discovery of the Wizard’s identity – and while it’s a complete surprise, it also is a bit of a letdown. But through this discovery, our heroes are able to finally to corner the devilish criminal. The actual apprehension is surprisingly laid-back and routine, kind of like the collaring of Al Capone for faulty IRS reporting.

You’re probably thinking that after such a litany of complaints, your loyal but snotty reviewer hated Batman and Robin. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I adored it. As a Batman completist, any manifestation of the character interests me, as long as it remains somewhat true to the legend. My least favorite Batman film, 2008’s The Dark Knight, took too many liberties for my taste, wasn’t much fun and was filmed in such inky darkness it was often incoherent.

This serial succeeds due to the actors. Not necessarily the acting, which barely rises above serviceable, but the attitudes of the performers themselves. From Lowery’s Batman to the lowliest henchman day-player, the cast went about their roles with earnest, absolute conviction.

There’s no tongue-in-cheek smugness and no sense that the actors felt the script was beneath them. Instead, there’s an admirable resolution to interpret every character and each line of dialogue with an unshakable commitment to believability; the cheesy sets and hokey costumes be damned. Rarely is “work ethic” used as a reason to recommend a movie, but this lunch pail, blue collar version of Batman and Robin, devoid of irony and camp, is downright refreshing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Before the Rains (2007)***

Before The Rains is an entertaining, if fleeting, epic of colonial India and by the time you drop it in the return mail, you will have forgotten all about it. Linus Roche stars as an uptight British plantation owner named Moores. He and his loyal foreman T.J. (Rahul Bose) hatch an ambitious scheme to plant acres of tea and spices, all while building a monsoon-proof mountain road over rugged terrain.

As if that weren’t enough to keep Moores busy, he also finds time to diddle his beautiful Indian housekeeper Sajani (Nandita Das), a rustic villager who takes Moores’ attentions quite seriously and serves him her heart and soul along with the vindaloo. All is peachy in Moores’ selfish paradise until one day when his wife and child return to the plantation from an extended visit to England, and find not only oppressive humidity, but a series of odd occurrences, as Moores and T.J. attempt to keep Sajani’s expectations and emotions in check.

We learn much about the depressing existence led by young women in tribal areas of India during that time, and how the Anglo concept of free will was as foreign and unknown as space travel. And it is clear that Moores’ arrogant ignorance of tribal customs has caused his harmless little affair to morph into a tide of anger and destruction that threatens to wash away his dreams like a monsoon flood.

Director Santosh Sivan has worked primarily as a cinematographer for much of his career, as is evidenced by the film’s sweeping mountain panoramas and beautiful candle-lit interior scenes. But the splendid visuals are not quite enough to elevate this film beyond the ordinary, as the script has a shortage of profound moments, not to mention a few holes. In all, the acting is quite good, especially Bose and Jennifer Ehle as Mrs. Moores. While the film features many betrayals, the first, and most damaging, is the script itself.