Martha Bayles: September 2007 Archives
Several big-name reviewers sniffed at Snow Cake, a Canadian film about a gloomy ex-con named Alex (played by Alan Rickman) who forms a (non-romantic) bond with an autistic woman named Linda (Sigourney Weaver) in a tiny whistle-stop near Winnipeg. Some dump on Rickman for being gloomy; others scold Weaver for taking on a no-makeup role that requires her to act like a four-year-old; still others mount their high horse and intone that autistic people don't act that way.
I beg to differ. Rickman is one of the few actors who can light up the screen with the merest hint that perhaps he might smile. Weaver draws on her inner child, including the one that throws tantrums, in a surprisingly convincing way - and since every autistic individual is different, and the screenwriter Angela Pell has an autistic son, I wonder where the high-horse critics get their expertise.
And finally, Snow Cake contains a killer-diller blindside blow, one of the most shocking I have ever seen. (Lately this is a preoccupation of mine - see two entries below.) I won't tell you where or when this hits, but it is staggering in a way that makes perfect sense out of (almost) everything else. I could criticize two or three things about this film, but withal, it has more class and integrity than most of the big-budget bullies getting all the attention.
(I am so happy to have used the word "withal." Part of a campaign to revive really useful but moribund English words.)
In today's New York Times, there is a nice short piece about the Drexel movie theater in Bexley, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. It's not really an art house theater, although it occasionally shows filmfest fare. But neither is it a decaying single-screen relic. Instead, it's an experiment in populist preservation, created and sustained by Jeff Frank and his wife Kathy, natives of the area who bought it in 1981 and turned it into a showcase for classic Hollywood films, jazzed up with some old-fashioned hype (such as giving free passes to people who wear red shoes to Red Shoes). Blessedly, the Franks seem to have made a go of it.
I especially liked Jeff Frank's comment that he after graduating from film school, he went home to Ohio with the thought, "Go to Hollywood! Go to New York! Be involved in the film industry." But now he sees himself "as a sort of George Bailey, who never fulfills his dream of leaving Bedford Falls, yet comes to realize that remaining in his hometown is his passage to a wonderful life."
Perhaps we will see more such efforts, now that the technical quality of how consumers watch is declining just as the technical quality of what they watch is rising. All the fine camera work and special effects in the world are lost when people see movies on cell phones (a delivery platform that gives me even worse heebie-jeebies than those crummy little screens on the backs of airplane seats).
At the other extreme you have the phenomenon described by Joe Morgenstern in this weekend's Wall Street Journal (see below): the grotesque distortion that occurs when 4:3 images are stretched to fit deluxe flat-panel TV screens whose ratio is 16:9. As Morgenstern writes, "compact cars resemble stretch limos, puffy faces look like their cheeks have been pulled out," and "actors, even basket ball players, seem to have put on 30 pounds."
Why do people tolerate this? Morgenstern interviews two top cinematographers, whose reaction is to pretend it's not happening. And who can blame them? No true craftsman wants to see his careful work end up in a pawn shop in Pottersville.
Once upon a time there was a musician, a teacher and performer of Western classical music, in Beijing. During the Cultural Revolution this man was attacked and humiliated by a gang of rowdy students - a painful experience made infinitely more so by the fact that one of the students roughing him up was his own son, Chen Kaige.
Chen Kaige is now a renowned film director, best known in America for rich costume dramas such as Farewell, My Concubine and Temptress Moon. But Chen is also the author of Young Kaige, a soul-searching memoir about his participation in the Cultural Revolution. (Unfortunately, the book does not appear to be available in English).
Chen Kaige's 2002 film, Together, tells a different story but one suffused with strong emotion drawn from this background. It is about Liu Cheng (Liu Peiqi), a comical but affecting peasant from a small provincial city, where he works as a cook and nurtures the musical career of his gifted 13-year-old son, Liu Xiaochun (Tang Yun). Xiaochun is devoted not just to the violin in general but to a particular violin that, according to Cheng, was left to him by his deceased mother.
Despite his rough manners and lack of education, Cheng manages to take Xiaochun to Beijing and enter him in a national contest, which he loses. But then, hearing one of the judges, Jiang (Wang Zhiwen), complain about the system being rigged in favor of the not-so-talented children of the rich, Cheng cajoles Jiang into taking Xiaochun as a pupil.
Jiang is a fine but embittered teacher who lives alone with six cats in one of the old, picturesque but poor districts of Beijing known as hutong (meaning something like, "street wide enough for two carts to pass"). When he has taught Xiaochun all he can, he gracefully allows the boy to graduate to Shifeng Yu (played by Chen Kaige himself), a celebrity teacher more skilled at hustling his students into the big time.
Father and son also live in a hutong, but one seemingly threatened by redevelopment, because right next door is a new high-rise, one resident of which is Lili (Chen Hong, the wife of Chen Kaige), a pretty young woman whose life consists in entertaining her rich boyfriend and spending the money he gives her. Lili isn't a prostitute, as uncomprehending critics have suggested, but rather a "kept woman" (to use an antiquated phrase) But she is not happy, any more than Jiang is happy pretending to teach music to the unmusical offspring of plutocrats.
As these characters are drawn into a tale of Horatio Alger ambition and Charles Dickens self-discovery, the film feels both old and new. It feels old because of these literary echoes, and the way it tackles the themes of money, success, and loyalty - which is strongly reminiscent of classic Hollywood. (Some reviewers have found hints of Frank Capra, and they are right.)
Yet Together also feels new, because while hardly a tragedy, it does take a somewhat critical stance toward the way these themes work themselves out in contemporary China. It's tempting to say, well great, the Chinese have their own Frank Capra. But that raises a troubling question: Was Together released in China? I have checked the Internet Movie Database, and according to that fairly reliable source, it was not!
About a year ago, I posted an entry about a little known film called The War Within, which I admired for its refusal to satisfy our kneejerk expectations of a happy ending.
Now I have seen another film that does the same thing. Civic Duty is a UK-Canada-US production whose protagonist is not a Pakistani suicide bomber wandering around New York, but an all-American accountant, Terry (Peter Krause), who happens to be down on his luck. Having lost his job and with too much time on his hands, Terry becomes obsessed with the mysterious doings of his new Middle Eastern neighbor, Gabe (Khaled Abol Naga).
Terrifically acted, the film engages in too many pseudo-artsy camera tricks for my taste. But this is a small vice compared with its major virtue: a courageous script that, like The War Within, encourages us to draw conventional conclusions then yanks each one away.
Terry is a media-manipulated reactionary who carries suspicion too far ... or is he? Gabe is an angry Muslim but innocent of any crime ... or is he? There's no hero, though Terry's girlfriend Marla (Kari Matchett) comes close. But even her love for Terry and trusting good nature do not produce the Hollywood resolution we crave. And much as I love Hollywood, on this topic I prefer irresolution.
With mixed feelings, I read in today's New York Times that the hottest TV show in Russia is a Russian version of Married With Children, the in-your-face sitcom that happily deconstructed the American family between 1987 and 1997.
I was never a big fan of Married With Children, which in hindsight seems a loss leader in substituting vulgarity for wit. But if the Russian media want to allow this freedom while murdering journalists and suppressing political speech, then the more repressive tolerance to 'em (as Herbert Marcuse used to say).
But it is really depressing to see what passes for expert commentary in Russia. The Times article quotes Daniil B. Dondurei, editor in chief of Cinema Art magazine, saying that TV shows like Schastlivy Vmeste (Happy Together) are "training [people] to not think about which party is in Parliament, about which laws are being passed, about who will be in charge tomorrow. People have become accustomed to living like children, in the family of a very strong and powerful father. Everything is decided for them."
Huh? Turn on your TV, Mr. Dondurei. This is Married With Children, not Father Knows Best. You need to update your critique, unless of course you are trying to be irrelevant.
The best part of him will never leave the building ...
Here's my best shot at taking Scorcese down a few pegs ...
The first courtroom drama was Aeschylus' Oresteia, in which a cycle of blood vengeance driven by the Furies is arrested by Athena, instituting drama's first jury trial. "Let me be just," the goddess tells Orestes. "Let me remember the fair tongue of reason."
Jury trials abound in films, of course, but the most famous will always be Twelve Angry Men (1957), based on the stage play by Reginald Rose and directed by Sidney Lumet. After many revivals of the play worldwide, the film was remade for television in 1997 by director William Friedkin. Remarkably, that remake is not available on DVD, even though the cast includes George C. Scott, Ossie Davis, Hume Cronyn, Jack Lennon - and Sopranos star James Gandolfini.
Twelve Angry Men is not just about the jury system, it is also about racial and ethnic conflict, which is why it proves a perennial. A superb recent update is The Jury (2002), a British-made television series directed by Pete Travis, set in London's Old Bailey courthouse and glittering with young and old British thespians (Gerard Butler and Derek Jacobi, to name just two).
The series follows the trial of of a 17-year-old Sikh boy (Sonnell Dadral) accused of murdering an English classmate with a sword. The evidence is strong against him, but at the same time, the victim's anti-immigrant father, relatives, and police cronies do everything they can to push the proceedings toward a lynching.
The Jury departs from Twelve Angry Men by including a great deal of drama outside the courtroom, in particular the stories of a half dozen jurors whose lives are in such turmoil, they actually find respite (and for one couple, romance) in a murder trial. If you want to know how it all comes out, you'll have to watch it. I'm no spoiler, and besides, it contains far too many shadows of doubt to yield a snap verdict.
Where are the "cutting-edge" artistes of Hollywood taking us? This article from the Washington Times will give you some idea.
Blood Diamond is a much better film than I expected. Extraordinary production values, even in this era of pricey trans-national co-productions; and superb performances, especially by Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny, a mercenary from Zimbabwe (back when it was Rhodesia); and Djimon Hounsou as Solomon, a fisherman from Sierra Leone whose village is raided by paramilitary thugs trading in illegal diamonds.
Forced into slavery in the mine, Solomon finds a huge diamond, which he manages to bury during a government raid. Barely escaping with his life, Solomon desperately wants to retrieve the stone, not so he can become rich but so he can rescue his son, Dia, impressed into murderous service as a child soldier.
Greed and paternal love are then united, as Solomon reluctantly teams up with Danny to find the stone. Of course, as director Edward Zwick says on the DVD commentary, the real diamond is the boy, not the stone, and as the story unfolds, this hard lesson is learned by the hardest of men, Danny the mercenary.
Why "Too Happy"? Because the right ending occurs about 10 minutes before the credits actually appear, and those last 10 minutes are nothing but feel-good gas. There are so many grim scenes in this film, the ending I am calling "right" - which consists of a narrow escape and an honorable death - is plenty. Why ruin it with additional scenes poured out of that big bottle of Hollywood Formula? Probably because the film was audience tested on the kind of people who find anything but swelling music, warm embraces, and applause for the hero "depressing."
Bitter truths beautifully presented, then coated with saccharine at the end. That's what I call depressing.