Thursday, July 08, 2004

Weekend of Cinema 05/02/03 – 05/04/03

I have not sent reviews to my friends for a while, although I am currently writing an essay called, “Media and Terrorist Identity in Schlondorff & Von Trotta’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”. I promise to send it as soon as it is finished, which should be next week, possibly later (I’m stuck in research land). For the time being, I’m going to catch up with a few short reviews of some recent film experiences.

Over this last weekend I saw a smattering of cinema: some artful, some strictly commercial, some walking the line between both, some deeply probing in the realm of emotion and spirituality, some disguised as pop and displaying some great writing, some just falling flat on their faces (despite favorable reviews), some displaying high intellect and very little feeling, and some delightfully informative.

Here are a few words on all that I saw. Usually, I try (read: with great effort) to write more in-depth, but in this case, I thought that some of you might just want to know, should I see this damn thing or not?

Friday – 9:30 p.m.
Little Bear

With two delightful three-year old houseguests hanging out on the big red couch in our North Oakland home, we displayed a few short animation films made for children that I sort of watched. I was eating while Madeline in Hollywood ran, so I can’t comment on it!

Based on Elsa Homeluk Minnarik’s Little Bear series that I love to use in readings with children, the film in comparison, was a little limp. The books are animated by the great Maurice Sendak (creator of Where the Wild Things Are, et al) and the films are not, which was a disappointment. The delightful, delicate, and naive quality of Little Bear’s personality that comes across in the books are sorely missing from the short films (there are three on the video). The tender exchanges between Mother Bear and Little Bear are reduced to fairly pedestrian conversations – in short, nothing in particular to grab your attention and take notice. Your kids might like them, but you’ll want to file your nails or work a crossword while they’re running – or entertain dinner guests while the kids are in the other room.

Friday – 10:30 p.m.
Mostly Martha

I avoided this film in the theaters but brought it home to check out. I liked it better than I thought I would; my initial lack of enthusiasm was a response to the fairly uneventful previews that circulated last year. A romantic comedy about a control freak that runs a kitchen – wasn’t that already done (to death) in Big Night?

The pleasant surprise was that the film had other plot lines to keep the viewer interested. I will not go into details, because I don’t want to give away parts of the film that are worth watching. Suffice to say that there are developments to help fuel what would otherwise be a fairly unresponsive romantic comedy. Among the problems that remained was a distinct lack of character development. It is clear that Martha is an obsessive-compulsive that alienates just about everyone around her – why she is like that is never dealt with (okay, some people are just born that way), nor can the viewer sense that she changes much as a result of all the trials and tribulations that the script lends to the mix. In the end, she’s able to kiss an Italian – what a stretch! The acting is functional, the story line unbelievable – the final evaluation: great child actor in a supporting role, but little else at this banquet on which to dine.

Saturday – 2 p.m.
Fellini: I’m a Born Liar

I have seen a few documentaries on the great Italian filmmaker that broke the mold for imagination. I entered the theater hoping that, as my next-door neighbor suggested, “if I just see one or two new stills that I hadn’t seen before, I’ll be happy”.

Fellini: I’m a Born Liar delivered so much more. The film was poetic, quite informative and celebratory, albeit a little slow in places. The main event was Fellini himself on film discussing his childhood (“I always identified with the vagabonds and tramps in our town”), his work, his approach to a variety of technical and thematic problems, his approach to working with actors, and his approach to dealing with producers and studios. About 30% of the film is dedicated to the obligatory talking heads, discussing their work with Fellini – some of which are salutary, some of which are fairly critical (mealy-mouthed Donald Sutherland complaining about how he actually had to work at his role in Cassanova, Roberto Benigni mumbling incomprehensible stories about receiving direction from his fellow countryman, Terrance Stamp waxing astonished about the director’s process).

I’m a Born Liar includes discussions with Giuletta Masina, Marcello Mastroianni, and a host of artists that assisted Fellini on many of his films (cinematographers, art designers, producers, more actors, etc.). There were lots of excerpts, both from the films and from locations that Fellini used in his movies. The films were not identified, which might be frustrating for viewers that don’t know the director’s work. Although one reviewer complained bitterly about this, all of the identification appears at the end of the film as the credits start to roll.

If you like Fellini’s work, see the film. If you don’t like Fellini’s films, you might develop an appreciation for his artistic process and catch a glimpse of something that could inspire you to take a second look. If you don’t give a hoot about Italian films or the huge influence they have had on world cinema and Hollywood, stay at home and wait for the next re-run of Seinfeld – Fellini would be the last one to deny a body its fool’s paradise.

Saturday – 6 p.m.

I read several rave reviews about this film and a few kids that I know recommended it to me. Usually I can trot out my inner child and see a film made for young people and enjoy it – if it is well made. Holes proved that I am firmly an adult and require some semblance of grace with my mindless entertainment. I sat through the film asking myself, “When will this end?”

I can’t say anything nice about this film, except that Patricia Arquette and Sigourney Weaver are in it, and usually that would be enough to get me through some otherwise pitiable cinematic efforts. In the case of Holes, it was merely a waste of good talent. This attempt at refreshing moviemaking brings together a group of unlikely comrades – a PC-advised ethnically-balanced cast (rife with stereotypes) – on a secluded work farm to dig away at salvation in the form of buried treasure, and the parallel stories that buried said treasure, eventually plays out in a (oh, really?) test of wits between good and evil (or the greedy and the poor in this case).

Saturday – 10 p.m.

A dear friend recently made a gift of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Trois Coleurs on DVD, so now I can sit and obsess over them endlessly in the privacy of my own home. Over the weekend, my wife Sarah and I delved into the spiritual web of stories that Blue, White and Red weave quite naturally and with great results.

I cannot say enough good things about these films. They achieve what is usually thought of as impossible – the registration and tracking of the human soul, and a non-affected glimpse into the realm intimacy. One can approach these films from a variety of viewpoints and come away from them with a wealth of critical perspectives or interpretations. The three DVD discs have LOTS of extra features – interviews with Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, among others, as well as interviews with the great Polish director and his collaborators and a host of film historians.

I will be brief here, because I want to write about all three of the films in a longer piece. Suffice to say that I loved Bleu, Blanc, and Rouge – all of which I saw over the weekend. If you have not already checked them out, get around to it! Having viewed them closely in succession, I am beginning to see the way that they rely on and inform each other to create an indelible triptych.

Saturday – Midnight

A few years ago, the Irish Gate Theater of Dublin Company paired with the Beckett on Film Production crew to commit the complete (19) plays of Samuel Beckett to film. They attracted lots of great directors (Neil Jordan, David Mamet, Patricia Rozema and others) and actors (Julianne Moore, Jeremy Irons, Kristin Scott-Thomas, the late Sir John Gielgud, Juliet Stevenson) to take part in the project and the end result, Beckett on Film, stands as a major achievement.

Several years ago, I saw a production of Endgame at Berkeley Repertory Theater. I had read the play several times beforehand and thought I knew what to expect. What I saw was a powerful realization of one of the finest plays about despair ever written. In comparison, the filmed version, directed by Conor McPherson and starring Michael Gambon and David Thewlis, left me a bit cold at times. There were certainly moments of absolute psychological clarity and revelatory brilliance. At other times, the director and the actors played the easy role with Beckett, and that is to look away from the terrible humor and beauty that can be found in nearly every line of Endgame.

In some of the bonus material in the DVD package, a few of the directors and critics volley the idea of whether or not Beckett’s works for theater should in fact be filmed. What is true is that Beckett was very strict about actors and directors following his directions to the letter. But after reading several biographies and critical studies over the years, I find no evidence that Beckett ever made any statements about his plays NOT being filmed. The Irish production company set out with this vision – that the directors and actors were not allowed to change the text in any way – fair enough!

When I watch these filmed discussions, all I can think of is how stuffy and narrow minded the critics are for questioning this issue. But I also realize that part of what they have to say is true: that theater is a three-dimensional experience that viewers take in and evaluate on their own. With a camera and a director, all of the shots are pre-determined – the audience is not allowed to look at Clov (for example) if the camera is tightly focused on Hamm.

This critical perspective may sound didactic, but it is not without its merits. Live theater, like live music that is perceived by a viewer/listener is best experienced in person – a strange synchronicity of vibration, sound, image and the physical space where you are witnessing the work occurs, and this almost never happens sitting in front of a screen. Filmed images can, of course, astonish us by presenting an eye for image design, timing, and other countless miracles that occur when great directors make movies.

Ultimately, the end product (our experience) and ones’ preference for theater over film (or vice versa) is best left to the individual. While I deeply respect the folks behind the Beckett on Film Project for bringing these plays to the screen for greater accessibility and access (some of the realizations, like the Atom Egoyan – John Hurt collaboration on Krapp’s Last Tape, are simply fantastic), there’s nothing like seeing Endgame, Waiting for Godot, or Happy Days on stage with actors that are not afraid to commit a great deal of effort and concentration to the texts.

Sunday – 11:45 a.m.
Bend it Like Beckham

Like Saturday’s Holes, Bend it Like Beckham had its share of obvious plot devices. Fortunately, the latter succeeded with the advent of greater development on characters that simply had more appeal. The relation between the actors in Beckham was far sweeter and more heartfelt, the acting was better, there were no obvious bad guys that had to be battled, and no absurd ending sequence where a string of problems were miraculously solved in a single gesture.

Although Beckham’s ending did have its fair share of lunacy, the heroines wore it better (maybe if I were a 13 year old girl I would have found the cast of Holes more appealing – maybe not!). The distinct difference, if I may go on with this ridiculous comparison, is that there was no “Good ole’ American Good vs. Evil” to have to stomach. Perhaps the British, with many more centuries of experience in Imperialism than America, know how to couch it all in a way that proves no one is above laughing at. This film will not change your life, but it may leave you longing to be a 20 year-old female soccer player. Stars Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightly made it look like a lot more fun than a barrel full of shovels in the hot desert.

Sunday – 3:45 p.m.
X2 - United

This is the unusual case where the sequel surpasses the original. The first film spent lots of time introducing the various characters, and then – whoops! Time was up and the film was over.

In X2 (I’ll keep it short), all the characters are familiar (we learned their creation myths in the first film) and although audiences are introduced to a few new recruits, there leaves lots of time to work out some major conflicts between the followers of Xavier and the ever-invasive United States Military, who just happen to have Magneto in check. The opening scene where Alan Cumming in full mutant attire attacks the president of the United States (if only!) is worth the price of admission.

In short – it just gets better as it goes along. There are lots of places where the film could have fallen into check with too much music, too much glory, too much heroism, or too much inconsequential love interest, but director Bryan Singer knows his job and he keeps the train running. (What’s that? Halle Berry in a movie and no gratuitous sex(y) scenes?) The film moves incredibly smoothly, the writing is better than you would expect in a fantasy-action-film-based-on-a-comic-book, and the acting does what it should do – keeps the viewers engaged in a fantastic world of superhuman mutants (the last barrier to celebrate diversity? – count me in!) without ever really questioning their unusual powers or unique vulnerabilities. If you were ever a kid, you might just want to see this one.

Sunday – 8 p.m.

See my comments above for Blue

Sunday – 10 p.m.

See my comments above for Blue


Post a Comment

<< Home