Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Aristocrats

THE ARISTOCRATS (Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette, 2005)

In Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's documentary THE ARISTOCRATS nearly a hundred comedians talk about or put their spin on a dirty joke that has made the rounds among comics for years. The film boasts a who's who of funny people: Drew Carey, George Carlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Gilbert Gottfried, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Robin Williams, Stephen Wright, and a whole lot more. Shot over four years on the street, in the homes and offices of comedians, and backstage at clubs, THE ARISTOCRATS compiles a verbal history of a joke so nasty that it can't help but be passed along.

The joke, which has roots in vaudeville, centers around a man who goes to a talent agent in hopes of getting his family act booked. Their performance contains all things scatological and sexual and then some. The agent asks what the name of the act is, and the man responds, "The Aristocrats."

Many of the comedians admit that they don't think it's a very good joke or, at least, that the punchline is lacking. The humor comes from the joke teller's improvisational ability and the one-upsmanship that it encourages.

It's an understatement to say that THE ARISTOCRATS is not for those with delicate sensibilities. (For an approximation of the joke's depravity, take the foulest things you can think of and multiple by ten. That puts you in the ballpark.) Although it has no objectionable content except for language--but oh, what an exception!--the film's a cinch for an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Rather than deal with the logistical headaches that rating brings, ThinkFilm is releasing it unrated.

THE ARISTOCRATS is an unrepentantly filthy movie...and a very funny one. Frequently I'm not enthusiastic about this kind of humor, but the creativity and escalating outrageousness the comedians put into the joke is something to behold. The joke allows comedians to show off their unique skills and artistry while saying things that would make the roughest sailors blush.

Provenza and Jillette include versions that run the gamut from the tame, relatively speaking, to the foulest imaginable (and worse) and the verbose to the word-free. It's impossible to remember who tells the joke best, but two of the most memorable performances include a mime telling the joke on the street--that he's wearing a wireless mic pack may be funnier than anything--and a SOUTH PARK rendition.

Grade: B+

(Review originally appeared in a slightly different form as part of my Deep Focus Film Fest day 2 coverage)

Friday, July 22, 2005

On Depp and Wonka

In my review of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, I speculated that Michael Jackson informed Johnny Depp's portrayal of Willy Wonka. I was hardly the only one to suggest this, but after reading this Hot Blog entry, I'm more willing to concede that it may not be the case. David Poland links to a brief Yahoo Movies UK story in which Depp claims he was drawing from children's TV hosts.

One of the hosts he mentions is Uncle Al. There's a blast from the past. As a kid I watched THE UNCLE AL SHOW, which broadcast from WCPO, channel 9, out of Cincinnati. The show aired from 1950 to 1985, although best as I can tell, it was shown nationally only from 1957 to 1958. I had forgotten all about Uncle Al, but streaming video of the show refreshed my memory. (The video quality isn't particularly great, but it will give you an idea of how Al sounded and what the show was like.)

Depp strikes me as the kind of guy who wouldn't make the most obvious choices, which Michael Jackson would definitely be, so I think there's truth in his assertion of what informed his version of Wonka. He's given me reason to reexamine his performance whenever I might see CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


Roald Dahl’s book CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was made into the 1971 film WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY starring Gene Wilder. Johnny Depp takes over the role of the candy man in Tim Burton’s remake. Depp’s FINDING NEVERLAND co-star Freddie Highmore plays Charlie Bucket. He may not have a lot, but he has a loving family to surround him in their ramshackle home. Charlie is one of five children who find a golden ticket that grant the winner and a family member access to a special tour of Willy Wonka’s factory, which has been closed to the public for a long time.

It’s unlikely that there’s a director better suited than Tim Burton to remake CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. The fanciful fairy tale visions he’s lent to EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and BIG FISH come to bear beautifully in the imaginative world Burton and his production and art designers have created. His skewed sense of humor is displayed through witty visual jokes, like a home literally picked up and moved and a young Wonka’s “world journey”, and wordplay via a perfect vessel in Depp. Although the character of Wonka is familiar to audiences, Depp’s version is another of his original eccentrics. He’s been quoted as saying he modeled his look after Vogue editor Anna Wintour and personality after children’s TV show hosts, but in spite of his denials, there’s at least some Michael Jackson in there. His Wonka can be creepy, but that’s okay since it matches the film’s darker tone. Depp is very funny in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. David Kelly gives a sprightly performance as Charlie’s Grandpa Joe, and Highmore’s earnest portrayal of Charlie adds the dose of reality needed in a movie with its head in the clouds. Attempts to provide Wonka’s backstory can slow down the film’s momentum, but overall Burton puts an enjoyable twist on a beloved story while justifying the remake's existence.

Grade: B

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the July 19, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Wedding Crashers

WEDDING CRASHERS (David Dobkin, 2005)

Divorce mediators John Beckwith and Jeremy Klein help couples end their marriages, but during the weekend they love to take in a wedding or two. In WEDDING CRASHERS Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are the uninvited guests who tear up at the ceremony and tear it up at the reception in pursuit of bedding beautiful women susceptible to the romance in the air. John and Jeremy get more than they bargain for when they crash the wedding of the U.S. Treasury Secretary’s daughter. At an invite-only, post-reception party on the Cleary estate, Jeremy can’t get away from Isla Fisher as the Secretary’s sexually insatiable daughter Gloria while John has the purest intentions in trying to win the heart of Rachel McAdams as Claire, who is practically engaged to an über-competitive lawyer.

WEDDING CRASHERS thrives on the comic timing between Wilson’s laidback dude and Vaughn’s highly-strung wiseass. They carry on like a couple of lifelong pals who know how to push one another’s buttons. Vaughn is at his best the more wound up and exasperated he gets, and with the majority of the abuse being heaped on his character, the opportunities for laughs are plentiful. He spits out jokes like a riveter, sometimes so quickly that there’s a delayed reaction in realizing what he’s just said. Fisher is an excellent match for him. Her diminutive size makes an amusing contrast to Vaughn’s large frame. Fisher’s screwball performance is delightful in how she constantly surprises. McAdams has quietly assembled a string of good performances, although WEDDING CRASHERS doesn’t require much more of her than to be appealing. The supporting cast and cameos are also well chosen, including the reliable Christopher Walken and Dwight Yoakam. WEDDING CRASHERS is a brash, frequently hilarious film that may be overly long but satisfies our desires for a lot of comedy and a little bit of romance.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the July 19, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Dark Water

DARK WATER (Walter Salles, 2005)

In DARK WATER Jennifer Connelly plays Dahlia, a depressive mother in the midst of a contentious break-up with her husband. She wants to find an affordable place to live and a good school for her daughter Ceci while remaining close to Manhattan. Dahlia locates such a place across the river on Roosevelt Island. The apartment isn’t anything fancy, but it fits in her limited budget and is near an excellent school. The new home comes with its share of problems, though. Ceci develops an imaginary friend who lives in their building and insists she is real. The apartment ceiling has a large spot of water damage that won’t seem to go away despite the repairs made.

DARK WATER is a bid for mainstream Hollywood success for director Walter Salles, whose credits include the South American films CENTRAL STATION and THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES, and Jennifer Connelly, who has favored acting in smaller, grittier films like REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Their independent sensibilities carry over to DARK WATER, which is more of a psychological thriller and character study than a horror film. Salles paces the film deliberately, like the slow but steady leak that stains Dahlia’s ceiling. He uses expressionism to convey her state of mind. The film is painted in dark, drab colors, and rain falls constantly and oppressively so that the dampness and smell of mildew is almost tangible. (Considering most movie characters reside in spacious lofts that exceed their economic strength, Dahlia’s apartment in the dank building is unusually accurate.)

Connelly brings the intensity that marks her performances. She does superior work creating a woman struggling to be a good mother while feeling like she’s falling to pieces. The supporting cast is equally adept. John C. Reilly lightens the dreariness with his very funny turn as a sleazy real estate agent. Pete Postlethwaite’s maintenance man is creepy and amusing, and as Dahlia’s lawyer working out of his car, Tim Roth makes it hard to determine if his character is on the up-and-up.

The mystery regarding the supporting characters—are they as insidious as they might appear—adds the uncertainty necessary to bolster a story that otherwise lacks much surprise. Dahlia has trouble trusting others and sometimes herself. Salles’ great stroke is showing instances when characters are lying to her but she doesn’t know it, which gives legitimacy to Dahlia’s confusion and paranoia. DARK WATER is a remake of a J-horror film, so the themes and plot devices aren’t exactly fresh, especially to those who have seen the THE RING, THE GRUDGE, or other films of their ilk. Salles’ formal skill and Connelly’s rigorous performance enhance the genre’s familiar elements, turning DARK WATER into a compelling examination of the stress involved with parenting.

Grade: B

(A shorter version of this review first aired on the July 19, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Sunday, July 17, 2005


MABOROSI (MABOROSI NO HIKARI) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1995)

MABOROSI (MABOROSI NO HIKARI), director Hirokazu Kore-eda's first narrative feature, opens with a young girl chasing after her grandmother and pleading for her to return home. The old woman explains that she wishes to die where she was born. She continues on her way, undeterred by her granddaughter. A young woman named Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) awakens. Although she was dreaming, this event happened when Yumiko was a girl. Her husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) tells her that he is not the reincarnation of her grandmother. Ikuo implies that unlike the old woman, he is not going somewhere never to return.

Yumiko and Ikuo are new parents who appear to be deeply in love. Then one night Yumiko is awakened by an ominous knock on the apartment door. She is summoned to a police station to identify a man who was run over by a train. Yumiko doesn’t see the body, or what remains of it, but can confirm that the person killed was her husband. This incident is tragic enough as is, but apparently Ikuo committed suicide, walking the same way as the train and ignoring its horn and squealing brakes.

A few years later Yumiko has been matched with another man for marriage. She and her son move from the city to the country and the seaside home of her new husband and his daughter. She becomes integrated into the community, but her new life is still haunted by questions she has regarding her husband’s death.

MABOROSI, which roughly translates as "strange light", delicately explores the survivor’s mourning and grief. Hirokazu's second film, the brilliant AFTER LIFE (WANDAFURU RAIFU), examines death via the experience of the deceased. Together the two provide an intriguing balance, with MABOROSI naturally being the sadder film.

The arresting opening scene efficiently sets up what MABOROSI covers. Yumiko’s experience with her grandmother has given her a very specific fear of death. Without reason or foreknowledge, someone is gone. Despite one’s best efforts, one cannot stop death. Why do people choose to die, to quit living? Her grandmother seems to know her time is near and wishes not to fight the inevitable. Ikuo, on the other hand, would seem to have no reason to commit suicide, yet he does. While the grandmother’s death might be easier to accept, it still elicits feelings of anger and confusion in Yumiko because she chose to stop living. Does the dream indicate that Yumiko intuitively or subconsciously senses similar feelings in Ikuo? Possibly.

Hirokazu quickly establishes a very special, endearing relationship between Yumiko and Ikuo. It is important he does. When Ikuo abruptly dies, the loss she feels can be better understood. The world becomes large and empty. Hirokazu underlines this feeling of smallness and insignificance predominantly through the use of long shots and filling the soundtrack with loud, ambient sounds. The long shots create an overwhelming world to inhabit, one in which everything is distant. The use of natural light often makes scenes dark, as if much of the light on earth has been snuffed out with Ikuo’s death. The constant sound, whether the roar of trains, the sea, the radio, or crickets, becomes deafening to one in search of silence. There is no rest, no escape for the mourning.

Hirokazu's films are notable for their soothing, meditative qualities. To the impatient viewer they may seem slow, but those who succumb to his rhythms can enjoy another world where the constraints of time are washed away. MABOROSI doesn’t have a large arc because the film refuses to advance until Yumiko reaches an acceptance of Ikuo’s death.

Masao Nakabori’s exquisite cinematography shows new and stunning ways of seeing the world. The careful shot composition reaches its artistic peak when the new brother and sister run and explore the land of the country. A shot in which their running reflections are mirrored in the water is especially spectacular. Ming Chang Chen’s score finds an appropriately beautiful and melancholy tone.

During the past decade Hirokazu has built a small but strong body of work that places him along the best modern directors. He's also one of the most empathetic filmmakers, softly guiding viewers through his meditations on life and death.

(This is a revised version of my DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Harry Potter Day

J.K. Rowling's sixth Harry Potter novel,HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, was released today. I had no part of getting in line to buy the book at midnight--just so that's clear--but I am looking forward to reading it. I walked over to B. Dalton's--a rare stand-alone shop rather than a mall store--to get it while my laundry was was in the washing machines. I was a little surprised that there wasn't a bigger crowd, but apparently there was a line before the store opened at 8 a.m. (A store employee told me that the first person claimed to have arrived at 5:30 a.m.)

Aside from being curious about the phenomenon, I didn't feel compelled to read the series until the release of the first film neared. Typically I don't feel that it is necessary to read the source material before seeing film adaptations--or see the originals before the remakes--but in this case I wanted to know what to expect. I was prepared to write it off as nice but forgettable kid's stuff, but I really enjoyed the first book and tore through the next couple in short time.

It's hard to say if Harry Potter will be a fad or stand literature's test of time, but I'm inclined to favor the latter position. These are rich, well-written books that are likely to enchant children and adults for some time to come. The films haven't matched the novels, but that was, and will continue to be, an impossible task, really.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Small Change (L'Argent de poche)

SMALL CHANGE (L'ARGENT DE POCHE) (François Truffaut, 1976)

Husband: It’s terrifying to think of the way kids are in constant danger.

Wife: That’s not exactly true. I mean, whereas an adult would have been laid out for good, kids are as solid as rock. They stumble through life, but they’re not hurt. They’re much tougher than we are.
Childhood is a recurring subject in François Truffaut’s films, and the French auteur focuses his attention on its joys and tribulations in SMALL CHANGE (L'ARGENT DE POCHE) (or POCKET MONEY, as it's translated in the subtitles). The small French town of Thiers is home to the characters occupying the series of daily vignettes. SMALL CHANGE lacks an overarching structure to push it forward. Rather it simply observes the children and the adults in their lives.

Truffaut knowingly elicits memories of his seminal New Wave film THE 400 BLOWS (LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS) in early classroom scenes. The tone, however, is gentler, and although one boy’s story is tragic, SMALL CHANGE is optimistic.

The stories in SMALL CHANGE mostly take place around the school, an apartment building, and, where else for a Truffaut film, the movie theater. In a masterful sequence, a young boy is left alone in the apartment while his mother searches for her missing wallet. The boy wanders around his environment, picks up the cat, and then leans out the open window when the cat falls onto a lower perch. He is several stories high, and others watch with dread as the child gets precariously closer to the edge. Truffaut milks the scene for all its worth, amplifying the tension to maximum effect before the resolution. There are entire thrillers which generate less anxiety than this one scene.

The joy of SMALL CHANGE is seeing the very natural performances of the children. What is remarkable is how this extends from the very young to those bordering on adolescence. Truffaut is so precise with his observations and unintrusive with the camera that we feel as if we are seeing a documentary instead of contrived movie scenarios. He finds the small pleasures of children and captures their fear and excitement, such as one boy’s first crush and kiss.

This delightful classic defies most cinematic representations of childhood. Unlike most films which feature or focus on children, SMALL CHANGE does not make them overly precocious or sentimentalize their experiences. A popular, misguided cinematic postulation states that children are merely miniature adults. Truffaut scoffs at such a notion, presenting the kids as they are in all their triumphs and mistakes. We smile when they’re being good and a little bad. Two brothers decide to let their parents sleep late and make a breakfast of chocolate milk and bread. One boy seriously, but innocently, tells a dirty joke on the playground.

Children can be incredibly kind and selfless, but they can also be mischievous and cruel. They can also try the patience of adults, a frustration echoed by teachers and caretakers. An especially interesting scene takes place between a girl and her parents. They are going to a restaurant, and she wants to take her dirty purse. Her parents try to convince her to take a nicer one, but she is unrelenting. They threaten to leave her in the apartment while they go to eat. The stubborn child refuses to give in, and her parents do indeed leave her behind. She ups them when she uses her father’s bullhorn to broadcast her cries of hunger to the building’s other residents. Predictably the neighbors chasten the absent parents and assemble a rig to deliver food to her. The scene effectively portrays the child’s obstinance, ingenuity, and manipulative skills. It highlights the aggravation children can bring as well as the intelligence they possess.

Most of the stories are warmly amusing, but one unblinkingly looks at a troubled boy. It comes as no surprise at the end of the film to discover that he is abused, but Truffaut uses the prior events to create more poignancy for him and his situation. The boy, who wears the same clothes day after day, is unresponsive and unprepared in class, and the teacher comes down hard on him. Certainly he is crying out for help in the only way he knows how, but recognizing this is easier in hindsight.

SMALL CHANGE silently watches the action most of the time. An exception occurs after the boy’s abuse is revealed and one teacher delivers an impassioned monologue about children’s rights. The speech wouldn’t have sounded out of place during the Clinton administration and makes some good points, but it also strikes me as being very idealized, especially when the educator speaks of what would happen if kids could vote. The importance of community is emphasized throughout SMALL CHANGE and would support those who believe it takes a village to raise a child.

Grade: A

(This is a revised version of my DVD review. Follow the link for more information on the quality of and features on the DVD.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

On republishing reviews

You may have noticed that recently I've been republishing reviews that have appeared on another site. I'm leaving all of the DVD information with my reviews and excising it in the transition to here. (I'm providing links to the originals for those who might like that information.) I'm also revising them as I see fit, which may amount to no changes, minor grammar corrections and wording changes, deleted remarks, additional commentary, or some combination of these. The most substantial changes will come in reviews for those films I see again, such as the new content in my UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG review.

I'm not severing ties with fact, I'll probably have something for it in the next couple weeks--but with Reel Times: Reflections on Cinema becoming my online home, it makes sense to compile as much in one place as possible. Republishing reviews here will also help keep the blog regularly updated and bring new attention to my older work, the quality of which has pleasantly surprised me, for the most part.

While I'm talking about the site, I might as well point out that one of my regular Google searches about myself--c'mon you know you do it to...I mean about yourself, not me--turned up one of my review quotes on Insights, a web magazine for the New South Wales Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. They're giving away passes for BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE and selected one of my quotes for use on the contest entry page. Pretty wild.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

That Obscure Object of Desire (Cet obscur objet du désir)


Carole Bouquet and Fernando Rey in That Obscure Object of Desire

For almost fifty years Luis Buñuel made movies that explored humanity’s perverse obsessions. THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (CET OBSCUR OBJET DU DÉSIR) once again finds him plumbing the deep, dark recesses of sexual desire, and in this, his final film, the great surrealist throws one last curve at the audience, having two actresses play the lead female role.

Mathieu Faber (Fernando Rey) is a middle-aged, well-heeled widower who rapidly becomes fixated on the new, young maid Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina). She rejects his initial advances and abruptly quits the job. Mathieu is dejected, but they will meet again.

He is granted another opportunity to win her, and this time Mathieu and Conchita fall into a happy rhythm. He visits her in the apartment where she lives with her mother (Maria Asquerino). He delights in their time together. Mathieu believes she feels the same way; however, Conchita perplexes him at times. Undoubtedly this is part of the fascination, but his aggravation is slowly building. She sits in his lap and kisses him but resists going any further. Conchita eventually reveals that she is a virgin. Thinking that she wishes for their relationship to be legitimized in some fashion, Mathieu attempts to forge an agreement with her mother. Conchita will move in with him, and he will see to it that money is not a concern for either woman.

Conchita is appalled when she learns that he has attempted to purchase her. She breaks off the relationship. Mathieu is as despondent as ever. He will be afforded more chances to please her, but can he discover what she wants from him?

Through flashbacks Mathieu tells his story about “the worst woman on earth” to his fellow train passengers. They witnessed him dump a bucket of water on Conchita in the station and are very curious what would provoke such an unusual action.

Fernando Rey and Ángela Molina

At face value Buñuel appears to use two actresses to express the duality of Conchita. She is virgin and whore, sadist and masochist, redeemer and punisher. She is all of these things yet none of these things, which adds to her mystery. The actresses do not look alike--the French Bouquet, with her kittenish face and cool demeanor, contrasts sharply with the earthy, Spanish Molina--and no effort is expended to make them resemble each other. Alternating them is an effective means of communicating different aspects of the character’s personality. Plus, in some mystical, cinematic way, the switching of actresses is seamless rather than jarring. It makes perfect sense, perhaps in a Jungian context, whether it is intended to or not. (In the interview reprinted in the Criterion DVD booklet, Buñuel contends that there is no rational explanation.)

THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE focuses on the struggle between the conscious and unconscious mind. Mathieu proclaims love for Conchita, yet from the very start his attraction is immediate and animalistic. His feelings are not intellectually derived, but he states his emotions as if they are verifiable fact. For much of the film he is disconnected from his more primal urges, from his shadow self, and until he is able to integrate these aspects of his personality, he is doomed to repeat the vicious cycle with Conchita. Mathieu’s inability to understand himself is at the core of his failures with her.

Buñuel wittily stages this tempestuous battle of the sexes, but he also leads us into darker corners of the heart and soul. Mathieu’s spurned attempts to have intercourse with Conchita are perhaps more humorous than correlating scenes in teen sex comedies because of the obstacles, or, on one occasion, garment, keeping him from fulfilling his desire. At the same time, these scenes can take on a more insidious tone. Mathieu reaches the point where he is unconcerned with Conchita’s wishes and must satisfy his urges. As he displays in other moments, he views her as an object, an item to be possessed and something to do his bidding. This is when Conchita resists most, determined to be seen for what she is instead of some mental ideal into which she has been constructed.

THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE is an intoxicating descent into one man’s experience of the emotional terrorism intended to shake him from his ways. Buñuel’s final film is a darkly comic piece that aims to do the same to us.

Grade: A-

(This piece was originally published as a review of the Criterion DVD. Follow the link for more information on the DVD.)

Reality TV, new and revisited

THE AMAZING RACE is one of my favorite TV shows, but I came to it a little late, missing the first three seasons. Luckily Game Show Network has started rerunning the seven previous races. Considering that the series ran only in the summer until the 2004-05 season and doesn't return until this fall, the reruns are a welcome substitute.

The first thing that struck me about the first season of THE AMAZING RACE was the leisurely pace, not only in the editing but also in the participants' behavior. The show editors have definitely refined the structure (and improved it), and the contestants have become more intense about every little move. Seeing the first episode demonstrates that the director and editors were still finding their way in how to convey the order and closeness of the teams while the race is in progress. There's too much emphasis on travel details and not enough on the racers, but I expect that the first season will get better. After all, later seasons are edited about as well as anything on television.

The new show from SURVIVOR producer Mark Burnett made its debut tonight. ROCK STAR: INXS is sort of a rock and roll version of AMERICAN IDOL, except the prize isn't an individual recording contract but the chance to front the once-popular Australian band. INXS hasn't been on the scene for some time--rightly so, since lead singer Michael Hutchence was found dead of an apparent suicide in late 1997--but as a brand name and huge 80s act, the time may be right for them to cash in their chips for nostalgia all things 80s. (They certainly have a better chance of selling albums with the INXS name than something else.)

To the show's credit, they don't hide the issue of Hutchence's death, although I certainly don't expect it to be mentioned beyond this first episode. My bet to win is Jessica. Not only is she the hot young thing with the pipes who can add some sex appeal to a band of middle-aged guys, but also, in picking a woman, INXS would gain someone who would face less scrutiny and comparisons as a replacement for Hutchence. (To be honest, though, I don't see any of the other women winning, so this theory's shot if she's packing her bags soon.) If a guy will win, the smart money should be on Brandon, who seems like he's out of the Hutchence mold.

Based on one episode, ROCK STAR: INXS looks to be a fun, zippy show that will give us enough rockin' with the ace house band while still finding time to tell the competitors' stories. If the first show is any indication, it doesn't look like we'll be seeing complete performances by each singer, and I don't think that it's necessary. It was easy to see from a little bit that Dana's style, at least on this song, didn't match the band and that Suzie's botched lyrics were going to put her in the hot seat. The dismissal was surprisingly low-key and about as polite as it gets for this sort of program. The early verdict is that ROCK STAR: INXS will be worthwhile summer viewing, but we'll see how it progresses.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg)


One of the greatest films of all-time, Jacques Demy’s THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG) is a colorful musical which was nearly lost forever. The original negative was damaged to the point where it could not be repaired. Release prints underwent a cheaper process which led to the fast fading of colors. Demy made a high quality tri-color print in 1963, and luckily no color fading had occurred in it when the choice was made to restore the film. The restoration effort resulted in a new negative in 1992 with the sound remixed in Dolby Stereo by Demy’s widow Agnès Varda and UMBRELLAS composer Michel Legrand.

Seventeen year-old Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) works in her widowed mother’s shop during the day and spends evenings with her new love Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). They fantasize about their future together, and as befits their youth, their options are limited to what they know. Perhaps they’ll sell umbrellas, as she does at the eponymous family business, or work at a gas station, which is Guy’s place of employment.

Geneviève and Guy are seeing each other on the sly. Guy initially avoids telling his sick godmother Aunt Elise (Mireille Perrey) what he will be doing and with whom he will be going one night. Geneviève tells her mother Madame Emery (Anne Vernon) that she and a girlfriend have activities planned. When she learns of the romance, Geneviève’s mother insists that her daughter is too young. These are minor obstacles, though, when two young people are in love, and all is right with the world.

But trouble descends upon the deliriously happy couple. The umbrella shop faces financial difficulties. Madame sells her necklace to help pay the bills. The purchaser, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), is a young man who may also have eyes for Geneviève. Bad news arrives when Guy finds that he has been drafted for military service in Algeria and must report for a two year tour of duty. Will absence make their hearts grow fonder, or will the separation tear them apart?

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG deviates from other romances, and other films, in that all of the dialogue is sung, from sweeping declarations of amour to everyday pleasantries. (Demy also used the same technique in his 1966 film THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT [LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT].) THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG differs from other musicals in that it plays almost as if it’s one long song rather than several distinct compositions. There aren’t memorable songs but familiar, beautiful themes, most notably the haunting main melody. Michel Legrand’s music is the film’s heartbeat, and it soars and dips according to the melodrama. The stylistic affectation may require a period of adjustment for some, but the technique works quite well. Life becomes music, with shifts in key and tempo expressing changes in the story and the characters' interiors. It's hard to imagine UMBRELLAS being as emotionally affecting as a more conventional musical.

Deneuve, one of the screen’s great, classic beauties, was twenty when she made this, her first major film. She radiates like few before or after her. Deneuve isn’t the only on screen beauty. Sets and clothes bloom with the colors of springtime flowers.

Sometimes magic gets captured on film. That happened with this simple, tear-stained story of young lovers. Demy drenches the film in color and music, providing an aural and visual palette for the heightened emotions. The vivid feelings even cause Geneviève and Guy to leave the ground, as seen in a tracking shot in which they glide above the street while the camera pulls back. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is mostly bright and boisterous, but the perfect ending lands on a moment of quiet beauty that expresses sadness for what was lost and happiness for what existed. The film breaks your heart, but what a glorious way to have it happen.

Grade: A+

(This is a revised version of my DVDMon review of the Fox Lorber DVD. Koch Lorber has since released a better DVD edition, although I revisited the film at a summer film series. If the opportunity to see it on a big screen presents itself, go.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai)

NOBODY KNOWS (DARE MO SHIRANAI) (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2004)

A mother abandons her four children, leaving twelve-year-old Akira to care for his younger siblings in NOBODY KNOWS. Their mom disappears for long stretches a couple times but returns, so the kids have no reason to think she is not coming back. Since the landlord believes that only Akira and his mother live in the apartment—the two youngest were smuggled into their new home inside suitcases--Kyoko, Shigeru, and Yuki are instructed to stay inside at all times, except for when Kyoko must step onto the porch to do the laundry. Akira is wise enough to understand that mom may have left them for good, but he can only do so much to care for his brother and sisters.

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda tells this harrowing tale with such delicacy and grace that the dark places where NOBODY KNOWS eventually travels don’t feel oppressive. Through a documentary-like approach and reliance on tight close-ups in their apartment, Hirokazu evokes the children’s worldview and their ignorance of how perilous their situation is. The child actors are remarkable in their simple, unaware performances. As Akira, Yûya Yagira won the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for his heartbreaking work.

Whether intended or not, NOBODY KNOWS owes much to the films of François Truffaut, specifically THE 400 BLOWS and SMALL CHANGE. Hirokazu’s film is what the first Antoine Doinel film might have been like if it focused exclusively on the time he ran away from home and found a hidden place in Paris to live and play. A tracking shot of Akira running through the city and the film-ending freeze frame are the strongest tip-offs to any 400 BLOWS homage. The children in NOBODY KNOWS turn their parent-free home into a little paradise. Hirokazu dwells on the resiliency of children, a theme that also resonated in SMALL CHANGE and which gives the film a lightness not inherent in the subject matter. It’s one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A

(Review first aired in a shorter version on the July 5, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

My Summer of Love

MY SUMMER OF LOVE (Paul Pavlikovsky, 2004)

As Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce Leda, Paul Pavlikovsky's MY SUMMER OF LOVE promises a scorching romance between two girls to entice the viewer, although it proves to be something else altogether.

Despite their differences teenagers Mona (Nathalie Press) and Tamsin (Emily Blunt) form an intense friendship that leads to love. Red-haired, freckled Mona lives above a pub that her born again brother Phil (Paddy Considine) converts into a spiritual meeting place. She's none too pleased that Phil found God in prison. Along comes Tamsin, a beautiful boarding school student who has returned to her parents' enormous home for the summer. Mona and Tamsin bond over lost family members and those still around who they feel have betrayed them. They're an inseparable duo who bristle at Phil's warnings of the devil's temptations at work in their town.

The devil doesn't have horns, a tail, and a pitchfork but a friendly face and seductive lies. Pavlikovsky keeps MY SUMMER OF LOVE compelling because we're never entirely sure if Mona should doubt Phil's conversion or if he has insight into unseen evils plaguing the town. Out of his conviction Phil erects a large cross at the top of the hill in the hope of saving others. The power of transformation runs deep through the film, not only with that specific religious symbol but also with words, images, and music. The swan plays a key role, whether as the name of the pub before it changes into a place of worship, a knickknack Mona's mother had, or the classical music Tamsin plays on her cello. Water and its importance in key moments of transformation comes into play as well.

Coupled with Ryszard Lenczewski's picturesque cinematography, Press and Blunt's natural performances communicate a palpable sense of the summer's heat and the hazy days of adolescence and ardor.

Grade: B

(Review originally appeared as part of my Deep Focus Film Fest day 3 coverage)

Land of the Dead

LAND OF THE DEAD (George A. Romero, 2005)

Director George A. Romero is credited with creating the zombie movie genre as we know it with 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Recent years have produced many variations on his work, including a remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD, 28 DAYS LATER, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Now Romero returns for LAND OF THE DEAD, the fourth film in his zombie cycle. The survivors in the post-apocalyptic world live in a zone where two converging rivers and electrified fences provide buffers from the living dead. The wealthy live in the posh private high rise run by the seedy Kaufman, played by Dennis Hopper. The rest scrounge in the streets, including the hired guns who fight the zombies while searching for supplies in the war zone. While on patrol, the mercenaries notice that the living dead are developing rudimentary abilities to think and communicate.

Among horror aficionados Romero is revered not only for his flair for gore but also his social satire and commentary. LAND OF THE DEAD follows in that tradition. Romero finds creative ways to stage zombies feasting on flesh while tackling subjects such as gated communities, war profiteering, and entertainment as a weapon of mass distraction. While Romero’s more ardent admirers insist that he’s injecting an incisive exegesis of modern life, the commentary’s depth is debatable, but nevertheless the political and social points add a distinct flavor to an otherwise familiar film. LAND OF THE DEAD is more contemplative than many of its cinematic siblings, but it still finds time for the humor and gut-munching that fans demand. Hopper is perfectly cast as the slimy head of the high rise. He delivers what is likely to be the film’s signature line while picking his nose, which is just the sort of oddball touch Hopper brings to all he does. 28 DAYS LATER is the latest, greatest zombie film, but with LAND OF THE DEAD, Romero has made a better film than most of his imitators.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired in a shorter version on the July 5, 2005 NOW PLAYING)


REBOUND (Steve Carr, 2005)

Conventional wisdom proclaims that there are no new ideas in Hollywood, and this summer’s slate of movies supports such thinking. Each week brings a sequel, a remake, or a TV show adaptation. Richard Linklater’s BAD NEWS BEARS remake is due later in July, yet the last two months have already produced two films in a similar mold. Will Ferrell coached hapless soccer players in KICKING & SCREAMING, and now comes Martin Lawrence as a disgraced basketball coach working with miserable middle school athletes in REBOUND. Lawrence plays self-centered Ohio Polytech coach Roy McCormick, whose off-court and sideline antics earn him a suspension from the National College Basketball Association. With his career in tailspin, Roy agrees to lead the inept Mount Vernon Junior High Smelters. The team is the usual assortment of uncoordinated outsiders, so they’ll need all the help they can get.

REBOUND retreads and recycles the underdog sports movie template with as little character and inspiration as possible. It’s a laugh-free exercise in moviemaking by numbers. A random middle school game would have more drama and comedy than REBOUND can muster. Eddie Murphy has made a successful transition from raw comedy to family films, even if the pics often leave a lot to be desired. Lawrence can be considered a successor to Murphy, but his first venture into kid flicks--helmed here by Murphy’s DADDY DAY CARE and DOCTOR DOLITTLE 2 director Steve Carr--finds him ill-suited for the task. Lawrence has always come off as smug on screen. In REBOUND that quality makes him seem all the more insincere when he’s not supposed to be. Lawrence also seems uncomfortable in a PG-rated environment that forces him to rein in his style.

Grade: D

(Review first aired on the July 5, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Monday, July 04, 2005

All Hands on the Hard One

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times had an interesting article about, what the writer dubs, "personal screenwriters". Much of it focuses on the work relationship between Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and Sydney Pollack and David Rayfiel, but the part that jumped out at me was this news about a new project for Robert Altman and Anne Rapp:
Rapp, feeling she and Altman needed to "stretch their wings," parted ways with the director in 2000. Rapp didn't get a movie made during the five-year hiatus, but they have recently reunited and are now reworking the 1997 documentary Hands on a Hardbody, which follows a marathon competition to win a pickup truck, into a drama for Altman to direct.
Aside from the fact that there's another Altman film in the works--he already has PAINT and A PRARIE HOME COMPANION in the pipeline--the big news to me is that S.R. Bindler's HANDS ON A HARDBODY is providing the inspiration.

On the basis of The Austin Chronicle's rave review I saw the doc at the Dobie Theatre in Austin, TX while on vacation in the summer of 1998. The film's human drama and comedy, not to mention the contestants' endurance, knocked me sideways. so much that I put it in my '98 Top Ten. I haven't watched it in a few years, but my suspicion is that if it had come out a few years later, it might have been a modest arthouse hit. (HANDS ON A HARDBODY anticipates reality television, which didn't make a mark in the US until SURVIVOR'S summer 2000 debut.) It provides the opportunity for a great multi-character story, which is Altman's stock in trade.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Radio review

Whether listening live or via the online archive, I hope everyone was able to listen to my appearance on NPR 820 WOSU-AM's Open Line on June 30. The broadcast is still available in the archive, although it looks like you'll need to listen or save it to your computer within a week or two.

I really enjoyed the experience and hope to be invited back. Melissa, Kaizaad, and I had enough differences of opinion to keep things interesting, which always helps. I don't think I got into a groove into after discussing BATMAN BEGINS, the second topic of conversation, but generally I was pleased with how I represented myself. When my parents get around to listening to it, their main observation will probably be that my last name was pronounced incorrectly, something which I meant to point out during the news break but forgot because the first half hour flew by. There was no mention of this blog--I was identified as being with WOCC TV3 and The Film Journal, for which I've written the least--so for the time being there shouldn't be an influx of public radio listeners hogging bandwidth.