Sunday, February 27, 2011

My OSCAR Predictions 2011 (with apologies to Ring Lardner)

Well Al, I kinda got all cornfused this annum and my Oscar artikle got all messed-up at the printers and it rained last night so my perdickshuns will not be ready at press time.

Plus Spring Training started yestiddy and McGraw said I better be right or he will ship me off to Greensboro or somewhere.

So I have to get loose and practice cause you know, no one can hit me when I am right and the infield can ketch.

Vegas says the over/under on Kings Speach is 8...sounds high to me

You know me Al

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Weekend Withnail 4

Withnail: [sees a sign warning about accidents] These aren't accidents! They're THROWING themselves into the road gladly!
THROWING themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness!
Throw yourself into the road, darling! You haven't got a chance!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Les mensonges (2010)****

Les mensonges (The Lies) is a beguiling and taut little mystery, all about a studious retail banker (Marilyne Canto) and the elderly customers for whom she acts as a fiduciary. But Canto’s quiet, unremarkable life hides a dark secret; a secret that a horrific accident and an impatient heir from Paris (Nicolas Giraud), threaten to drag into the sunlight. Hippolyte Giradot is cast as Canto’s husband and, as usual, he morphs a small part into something involving and memorable. Giradot has been playing so many earnest, well-meaning husbands lately he is on the verge of turning into France’s version of Stephen Collins. But if that means we get to see him in more films, this reviewer won’t complain.

To call Les mensonges a mystery is not really accurate, for we see where all this is going long before we get there. It is more a character study of quiet desperation cloaked in the trappings of a mystery, and kudos to veteran TV-movie director Fabrice Cazeneuve for creating a compelling portrait from the most basic of elements. Canto’s calm, vanilla interpretation adds the right touch of universality to her character, and her lack of histrionics makes the whole affair all the more chilling.

Closing Escrow (2007)***1/2

An erratic but strangely entertaining look at the real estate madness that swept America in the mid 2000s. Wendi Mclendon-Covey steals this show as a New Age/Zen spouting agent, who is spiritually empowered mainly by greed. While some of the jokes fall flat, there’s an undercurrent of truth beneath all the silliness. In fact, its probably the most accurate depiction of the real estate business you’ll ever see. In other words, the movie is insanely warped. If you’re a realtor or a fan of “House Hunters” on HGTV, Closing Escrow will make for a pleasurable sit.

In the Valley of Elah (2007)****

A haunting film about the effects of prolonged exposure to barbarism on otherwise decent, responsible young soldiers. Sublimely talented Charlize Theron is great as a police detective who gradually becomes more involved in a case she wants no part of. But as interesting as Theron is, this is Tommy Lee Jones’s picture. His blunt instrument of a face perfectly registers the growing disappointment and heartbreak we all feel as he and Theron slowly unravel the mystery of his son’s death. To fully appreciate Jones as an actor, think of all the widely varied roles has played throughout his career, then think of another actor who would have been better in any one of them. Bet you can’t.

Monsieur Joseph (2007)***1/2

Veteran character actor Daniel Prevost has the lead here in the title role, as an aging Algerian immigrant who has built a nice life for himself as a bookstore proprietor in a small town in France. After 40 years, Prevost considers himself fully assimilated and a pillar of the community. When this confirmed bachelor hires an attractive, somewhat slutty young woman (Julie-Marie Parmentier) to help out at the store, a chain of events ensue that cause the underpinnings of his neatly ordered life to collapse one by one. On the surface, the film is a cautionary tale about the effects of hidden racism. But on a deeper level it’s all about the danger of delusions, and how ultimately people believe what they want to believe, no matter how thin or fleeting the evidence.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Morlang (2001)*****
Dir: Tjebbo Penning

Posted by Guest Blogger Shu Zin

Morlang is my favorite kind of movie. It has been made strictly for thinking, feeling adults, without even a wink at Hollywood or the twenty-something set, who would most likely never see the sense of this sort of movie, nor thrill at its realism.  There is mystery, and there are thought-provoking, intense human situations and plenty of bite and humor in this intelligent, beautifully-paced movie.

The writing is first rate; the story is about a successful artist, Julius Morlang (Paul Freeman), who catches his wife with another man in the most extraordinary way. Director Tjebbo Penning lets us in on what he’s up to with a marvelously tongue-in-cheek scene at the very beginning, when Julius Morlang is seen responding to his applauding public with a smug, almost simpering smile and a prissy little kiss for his wife. The direction is subtle and appreciative of irony, as the artist reveals himself in a most affecting and credible way. His career has begun to wane with the fickle art market in Amsterdam, and his agent and old friend, Wim, nags and subtly insults Morlang incessantly, urging him to spice up his work to accommodate the current taste of buyers.

 Morlang is exquisitely shot, brilliantly directed, cast and acted, and the story is compelling, full of the surprises of life and some of its highs and lows and a hilarious scene as Morlang goes through Dublin Airport Customs. This film is sensitively done, with an ending that totally knocked my socks off. A real treasure, shot in Amsterdam and Ireland. Highly recommended to grown-ups.

Posted by Guest Blogger Shu Zin

Monday, February 21, 2011

'Round Midnight (1986)*****
Dir: Bertrand Tavernier

Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is a densely atmospheric tribute to the American jazz musicians who fled second-class citizen status in favor of the enthusiastic and adoring audiences of Europe. While a fictional work, the film features many real life musicians portraying thinly disguised versions of themselves; avoiding the sanitized artifice that plagues so many films about jazz. Tavernier does not ask us to accept Sal Mineo as Gene Krupa or regal Diana Ross as used-and-abused Billie Holiday. The expat musicians here huddled in a seedy Paris hotel are played by real life jazz stars; names like Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin. And what they may lack in dramatic polish is more than made up by a convincing off-center sensibility. Jazz musicians live in a deeply introspective world, and the character interactions in this film quietly sizzle with just the right touch of awkwardness.

In a squalid New York hotel room, Dale Turner, an aging saxophonist, says goodbye to his dying musical mentor Hershel (Hart Leroy Bibbs) and departs for Paris, where there is still a growing audience for bebop. Turner is played by Dexter Gordon, a real life tenor sax great and Grammy winning recording artist. Art often imitates life in this film and Gordon made a similar exodus during his own career, spending much of the 1960s based in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

The hulking Gordon consumes the role – there is no other word for it – with the same improvisational verve found in his sax solos. He delivers his lines of dialogue with long, loopy pauses peppered by occasional bursts of verbal 16th notes. He affects the gravelly voice of the classic burn-out; a life lived on a steady diet of whisky, heroine and Gitanes. Gordon’s vocal tonality here is reminiscent of the impossibly low, hair-raising notes he often achieved on his tenor sax – notes previously thought beyond the instrument’s capability and a hallmark of his best recordings.

Once in Paris, Turner becomes a virtual ward of Buttercup (an outstanding performance by Sandra Reeves-Phillips), a sort of potty mouthed version of Mother Teresa for wayward musicians. Buttercup leases out hotel rooms to expat jazzmen and keeps them fed, punctual for club dates and, most important of all, off the junk. Turner spends his evenings performing at the Blue Note, a smoky, low ceilinged hipster warren. There Turner regains and refines his improvisational chops, while the bar’s crusty proprietor (the great John Berry) keeps an eagle eye on Turner’s glass, insuring that nothing stronger than Perrier finds its way in.

Production designer Alexander Trauner and set builder Phillipe Turlure do outstanding work here recreating the small club and the adjacent side street. The rhombus layout of Paris lends itself to convincing and playful exterior sets, but here the men show admirable restraint. They resist the temptation to lard the tableau with neon signs and traffic, offering instead a placid neighborhood of second tier watering holes and bakeries; exactly the kind of low profile venue a wounded spirit would go to regroup.

As Turner’s audiences steadily grow, his performances attract a struggling young illustrator named Francis (Francois Cluzet), who huddles by a basement window, happy to absorb the music for just a few muffled minutes. Francis’s flighty wife (Christine Pascal) has deserted him and their 12 year old daughter (Gabrielle Haker), and the financial strain has made an evening at a jazz club an unthinkable luxury. One night between sets, Francis works up the courage to approach this god of the saxophone, who gravelly asks, “Hey man, can you buy me a beer?” Francis eventually realizes that this is not the indomitable Dale Turner he grew up idolizing, but a penniless, desiccated husk whose talent has gone to seed.

As an unlikely friendship develops between these two lost souls, Tavernier elects to present without a shred of sentimentality. And there’s ample opportunity, for Francis soon experiences the many worries and frustrations wrought by a personal relationship with the self-destructive. But these two men, utterly dissimilar and from different sides of the world, manage to find their missing qualities in each other. Francis puts aside his self pity and rediscovers the inspiration to pursue his artistic career, while Dale realizes that musical exploration need not be a fearful and lonely endeavor.

But there are no climactic, cathartic moments where all is made right and the principals find themselves on the fast track to success. Tavernier is too smart for that and, fortunately, he knows his audience is as well. The creative life, while full of exhilaration and despair, is above all a long tough slog. Eventually Dale will seek to return to the scene of his former glory and, in the process, his new found strength will be severely tested. And this time, the stakes are a lot higher for the saxophonist than merely his musical reputation.

But the trials of Dale Turner serve only as a narrative background wash, for ‘Round Midnight is really a film more about music than musicians. There are a number of wonderful performances here, and Tavernier integrates them so seamlessly the film avoids any sense of being a biography occasionally interrupted by music. From the opening strains of “As Time Goes By”, it should be clear to audiences that these extrapolations by Turner are the last remaining links to his dissolute past.

Dexter Gordon’s solo technique heavily exploited intentional lateness – he was always slightly behind the beat – but the result is an exciting expansion of the melody; making familiar tunes refreshing and new. This musical reimaging was the stock-in-trade of bebop; its practitioners were to jazz what the impressionists were to painting. And while the film alludes to critical favorites like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, no one was better at it than Dexter Gordon.

This film was made 25 years ago, and Dexter Gordon has been dead and buried for 20 of them. Whether anyone will even be playing bebop 25 years from now is an open question. Sadly, I suspect the answer is no. But if some future musician should attempt a revival of this uniquely American style, it will probably be a result of seeing this film. ‘Round Midnight is unquestionably the greatest film ever made about jazz. I submit it’s also the greatest film ever made about music, and the frail human souls who create it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dogtooth (2009)*****
Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Review by guest blogger Shu Zin

DOGTOOTH is a Greek film about a fanciful and eccentric family, ruled by a control freak father and his compliant wife. They are determined to shield their children from the rugged, nasty world at large through fear and misinformation, isolating them from outside human influence. The result is 3 near-adult siblings who have no clue about society, while they are smart, disciplined and well-educated about math and science, having been home-schooled. The parents, together with the progeny, 2 sisters and a brother, live in a big house with generous grounds and a swimming pool.

I don’t pretend fully to understand what this film means to say, except to insist that the result is a delicious, wickedly funny and completely engrossing film, wildly original, violent and sexy and thought-provoking. I would disagree with those reviewers who say it is an overheated, didactic film about the down side of overprotecting children. What comes across for me is that, no matter how protected from outside influences children are, human nature will out. Rebellion, violence, politics, self-preservation, commerce and sexual expression happen, no matter what exposure to whatever society humans are denied.

It is hard to characterize the things that occur in this movie, but there are many, many deadpan and hilarious moments and a distinct chill around the edges. One of the funniest is when the two sisters decide to have a contest/game; it consists in the two of them anaesthetizing themselves with ether they use in their study of medicine. The first one to wake up, wins. The director handles this scene in the driest possible way; what we see is hilarious and to the point.

There is also an evening entertainment featuring a family dance performance that is at once very funny and oddly affecting. That the eldest, a daughter, finally escapes and ends up where she does is the droll icing on the cake, subtle, dark and screamingly funny. The film is beautifully shot on the family estate, with a few scenes at the father’s workplace. The situations that arise are always surprising, and there is no question that some developments will cause intense discomfort. My advice? Watch this gem with your mind engaged, think it through, let yourself laugh, and enjoy the complete originality of this bizarre offering. I was hyper-attentive from start to finish, and this is one I’ll revisit more than once. Highly recommended.

Review by guest blogger Shu Zin

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

News and Notes - Ides of February Edition

  • Wondering what Laurent Cantet’s been up to? Well, he directed a segment of 7 Days in Havana and next he’s doing a remake of English. Why do I have a queasy feeling?
  • Speaking of remakes, they’re revamping Arthur, with Helen Mirren in the Gielgud role.

  • Not usually into splatter films, but this absurdity making the film festival rounds might be worth a look: Mutant Girls Squad
  • On a very different note, here’s a blog about 2 of my favorite things: the art of writing and life in Provence. Meet Deborah Lawrenson… 

Monday, February 14, 2011

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967)****

Dir: Jean-Luc Godard

The title may sound like a bad romantic comedy from the 1990s, but 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is another one of Jean-Luc Godard’s patented exercises in allusion and abstraction. Made during Godard’s ridiculously productive year of 1967 - he released three feature films that year, including the densely packed Weekend, which should count as two films at least - this outing deals obtusely with language; specifically, the power of language to persuade, to limit and to outright lie.

The baseline narrative involves the Jeansons, a young bourgeoisie family consisting of lovely Juliette (Marina Vlady), her dimpled but distracted husband Robert (Roger Montsoret) and their two kids: precocious Christophe (Christophe Boursellier) and squalling Solange (Maire Boursellier), a four year old who is often tossed about like a sack of potatoes. As is usually the case with Godard, the story of the Jeansons only serves as a backdrop for his larger purpose: the delivery of pointed commentary on the intrusive evils of capitalism.

The Jeansons, like most middle-class families, are madly in love with bright, shiny new things, and laboring to acquire them consumes all their time and energy. Godard intersperses slightly twisted scenes of mundane life with shots of large scale municipal construction projects, paralleling Juliette’s desire for a new dress with the expansionist tendencies of Western governments. The “Her” referred to in the film’s title is the city of Paris and, according to Godard, Paris’s rapid infrastructure growth, President Johnson’s bombing of North Vietnam, and the materialistic lust of consumers all stem from the same deep-seated insecurities.

When Juliette’s addictive shopping puts a strain on the family budget, she turns to the oldest profession as a way to, pardon the pun, make ends meet. While the strumpet/capitalist is one of Godard’s favorite, and most overused, metaphors, in this context it’s not mere hyperbole. Daytime prostitution was something of a fad among middle class Parisian housewives in the 1960s, and the windfall from this activity helped to subsidize many fashionable design studios.

Godard communicates here in symbols that range from impossibly subtle to downright gaudy. When Juliette’s best client – a visiting American, of course (Raoul Levy) – requests she parade around his hotel room with her head covered by a bag emblazoned with corporate logos, the result is an analogy that’s groan-inducing for its obviousness. On the other hand, the film’s narration, read by Godard himself in a conspiratorial whisper, contains so many oblique literary references that most viewers will find its finer points impenetrable.

In general though, the director’s sheer audaciousness works to the film’s advantage. In an amazing scene, Juliette drops Solange – literally – at a modern office suite that happens to function both as a day care center and a brothel. Both concerns are run by an elderly, no-nonsense manager (Joseph Gehrard) who attends to the children while making sure the harlots in the next room keep to their schedules. And in a humorous scene, a young woman dreamily lounging in the bathtub (Helena Bielicic) is suddenly interrupted by a meter reader (Robert Chevasue) who’s much more interested in the apartment’s electrical usage than the protests of the angry, wet and totally naked.

But Godard unleashes his darkest bile on the science of marketing, and uses bright primary colors to signify emptiness and distraction. He also visually alludes to the drapeau tricolore to the point of overstatement. In Godard’s view, the citizenry are held docile by a contemporary version of bread and circuses. Clever advertising has made choosing the right kind of detergent seem infinitely more important than the mischief our elected leaders are up to in foreign lands. While we waste our time searching the supermarket aisles for the right brand of tin foil, backroom deals are made to destroy the beautiful historic buildings of our cities and replace them with bland, anonymous hi-rises.

With new bridges and freeways encircling Paris, and bombs falling on North Vietnam, the Jeansons quietly retire for the evening; another days’s energy spent. Godard elects to end his diatribe with a slow zoom beauty shot of household products in a grassy field. The world faces imminent destruction, but we can take comfort in our endless supply of colorful boxes of soap. The fact that this analogy is as effective today as it was 40 years ago not only validates Godard’s vision, it’s also depressing as hell.