Doodad Kind of Town

Catching Up: "Burn After Reading" and "The Women"
September 28, 2008, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Coen Brothers, George Clooney

The last couple of weeks have been crazy-busy around here; only this week was I able to make it to a theatre and start catching up on recent releases. Miraculously, I managed to read not one single review of the Coen Brothers’ “Burn After Reading” before seeing it yesterday. (In fact, I haven’t read one yet.)

Most of the Coen’s finest past films take place in a world of conventional moral order, where there are both consequences for bad behavior and hope for redemption. Recall the final dream sequence in “Raising Arizona” where H. I. McDonough envisions a future in which “Ed and I, we can be good, too.” Or the comeuppance of the racist politician who literally gets run out of town on a rail in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Or Marge Gunderson’s rueful coda to the bloody venality of “Fargo”: “And for what? A little bit of money. Don’t you know there’s more to life than a little bit of money?”

All through “No Country for Old Men,” I kept wishing for a Marge Gunderson character to show up and bring the voice of moral clarity into the ever more senseless and violent actions of the main characters. But no such voice of reason was heard. “No Country” was firmly set in a post-modern, nihilistic world where evil and self-interest were the only driving factors. “Burn After Reading,” the Coen’s absurdist, comic follow-up to “No Country” is of the same mind as its predecessor, even if its rhythms and tone are brisker and (at first glance, anyway) sunnier. It’s instructive that, in the film’s final moments, a character asks “What have we learned from all this?” and can’t think of a single thing. There isn’t really a point to “Burn After Reading” – it’s hilarious, violent, silly and shocking by turns, and very well-acted by a talented cast – but in the end, it doesn’t amount to a lot.

Watching “No Country,” I was stunned and incredulous when Josh Brolin helped himself to satchel full of money from a dead man’s hands at what was obviously the site of a drug deal gone wrong. (“How could he be that stupid? He has to know someone is going to come looking for that! He’ll never be able to stop looking over his shoulder!” Such is the thought process of someone like myself who could never take that money without thinking through the moral and practical ramifications.) In “Burn After Reading,” I frankly had the same reaction when two health club employees find a disc containing classified intelligence information. They don’t give so much as a moment’s consideration to doing the right thing (returning to the disc to its owner) without calculating how to make money off the transaction, whether in the form of a reward or a ransom. Why do they do it? Lonely, fortyish Linda Litske (Frances McDormand) needs money for a series of elective plastic surgeries she hopes will make her more attractive, while the cheerfully, air-headed Chad (Brad Pitt) just seems to think it’s cool to play spy games.

The disc belongs to one Osborne Clark (John Malkovich), a recently fired CIA operative with a drinking problem and an icy spouse (Tilda Swinton) who’s cheating on him with an ex-hit man (George Clooney). Clooney’s married to a children’s book author (Elizabeth Marvel), but finds time not only for Swinton, but to meet women through an Internet dating site as well; it’s here he hooks up with McDormand’s Linda. Linda isn’t looking for love so much as good time, to the dismay of her health club’s manager (Richard Jenkins) who awkwardly tries to profess his feelings for her.

Most of these characters are unlikable on paper, and while I can’t say I was exactly rooting for any of them, neither was I ever disgusted by any of them either – even as their actions got stranger and less defensible as the film went on. McDormand and Pitt, in particular, emerge as oddly sympathetic, if foolish. And the Coens do a neat job of keeping many intersecting story lines straight and moving briskly. Their usual tendency towards gross caricature is notably toned down here as well, striking their trademark absurdist tone without ever becoming cartoony.

It’s hard for me to reveal, however, just how pointless the whole thing becomes without resorting to major spoilers. Let’s just say there are some shocking plot twists and events you won’t see coming; they land like a punch to the gut, but they aren’t lingered over. And things don’t end well for many of those characters, although at least one gets off scot-free and in considerably better financial shape than when the story began. Like the two CIA officers in the final scene, I was left unable to make sense of what I had seen, but somehow feeling it was it all worth my time. “Burn After Reading” isn’t my favorite Coen Brothers film by a long shot, but I’ll give them some kind of credit – they created a twisted, amoral kind of a world in which I would never want to live, and yet kept me properly entertained for the entire 97 minutes I spent there. But I don’t think I’d ever want to revisit it.

As for “The Women,” perhaps the less said, the better. I didn’t come in with high hopes – as far back as January, I was already proclaiming my outrage that this film was even being made. After seeing it, I’m still feeling outraged, and I expect that Clare Boothe Luce, author of the original play, has been spinning in her grave ever since this was released.

Right off the bat, we know we’re in disaster territory when Annette Bening says of another woman, “There’s a name for women like her, but it’s rarely used outside of a kennel.” That line comes straight from the original 1939 film – and it was both witty and true 70 years ago- but such prim coyness doesn’t make a lick of a sense in a time where you can see women wearing T-shirts with “BITCH” spelled out in glittery capital letters. Or, for that matter, in a film where the lead character boasts to her housekeeper of her sexual prowess: “I can suck the nails out of a board, and that’s the truth!”)

That misbegotten”bitch” line is only the tip of a mighty big iceberg. Writer/director Diane English (who created TV’s marvelous “Murphy Brown” – and from whom I frankly expected better) has turned Luce’s sharply witty bitchfest into a big, soggy dramedy of sisterhood, female empowerment, “being there for each other,” and other Oprah-esque trappings that would have made Luce and her flock of acid-tongued heroines gag. Sadly, everything I predicted in my original post turned out to be true (including an obvious product placement for Dove’s anti-aging skincare line!) At one point in the proceedings, Meg Ryan blurts out “What is this? A 1930s movie?” Oh, if only it were.

A Preview of Coming Attractions
September 21, 2008, 2:36 am
Filed under: Robert Altman

My life has become a little overscheduled as of late, with days and evenings eaten up by choir rehearsals, off-hours conference calls for work, homeowner’s assocation meetings and yoga classes. I’ve had little time to breathe (well, except in yoga classes, where breathing is sort of essential), let alone to blog.

Nevertheless, I’ve made time to watch Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece, “Nashville” almost twice in its entirety, and I’m working on a longer-than-usual post about it. In the meantime, enjoy the original theatrical trailer – it manages to introduce every one of the film’s 24 characters while making Altman’s “metaphor for America” sound more like a soapy TV miniseries. The final tag line (“For movie lovers. The damnedest thing you ever saw!”) is a good as outright admission that Paramount had no idea how to market “Nashville,” but figured someone would like it.

Stay tuned for more…..

NASHVILLE trailer Robert Altman
Uploaded by NilbogLAND

Hidden Treasures and Guilty Pleasures; "The Emperor’s New Clothes"
September 14, 2008, 10:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is the first of what I hope will be a recurring series of posts highlighting movies I like very much, but that aren’t quite in the mainstream. They’re not necessarily unknown or even obscure, but neither are they widely seen or screened. Most pop up on cable from time to time, but usually on an early weekday morning or in the middle of the night. All are available on DVD.

Some of these films are, indeed, guilty pleasures; I’d be hard-pressed to defend them as quality cinema, but I enjoy them anyway. And some are genuinely good films that may have been overlooked or under-acknowledged at the time of their initial release.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” falls into the latter group.

This delightful, dryly comic trifle was in and out of theaters (in Chicago at least) in about a week upon its initial release in 2001. Don’t be fooled by the title; this is not a retelling of the popular Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, though it is whimsical and wise in its own way. Rather it’s the kind of story that plays “what if” with actual historical events, and does so to charming effect.

“After his defeat at Waterloo, the great Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena where he died on the fifth of May, 1821… Or so the history books tell us.” (Opening title card of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”)

The film opens on St. Helena where Napoleon (Ian Holm) is dictating his military memoirs to a secretary from the relative comfort of his bath. We soon learn that the men attending Napoleon have hatched a plot to restore him to power in France. A Napoleon look-alike – a lowly galley hand named Eugene Lemorand (also played by Holm) will take Napoleon’s place in England. Meanwhile the Emperor – disguised as Lemorand and working as a galley hand – will return by ship to France. Once it’s confirmed that the former emperor is safely ensconced in Paris, Lemorand will announce to his English captors that he is an impersonator, and Napoleon will be made Emperor once more.

Well, those are the plans, anyway. And we all know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

Napoleon eventually makes it to Paris, although his route proves more circuitous than originally planned. (An unexpected detour lands him in Waterloo for a night, where he discovers, to his great dismay, that the battlefield of his inglorious defeat has been turned into a tourist attraction, complete with vendor stalls full of tacky souvenirs. He’s disgruntled to find himself sleeping in a bed beneath a placard reading “The Emperor Napoleon slept here.”

After finally arriving in Paris, Napoleon is delivered to the home of a former soldier to await the unmasking of the impostor in exile. However, he arrives to find the soldier recently deceased and his young widow (Iben Hbjele) deeply in mourning and just barely eking out a living by selling melons from a push cart. She has one boarder, a doctor (Tim McInnerny) who hovers around her just a bit too solicitously. Out of his element in this humble setting, Napoleon resorts to his customary imperious behavior, demanding accommodations and care. This, understandably, doesn’t sit well with Pumpkin (yes, that’s her name – is it because she sells produce?), who knows him only as a soldier from her late husband’s regiment.

In England, meanwhile, the real Lemorand is enjoying his masquerade far too much to come clean, despite repeated, angry entreaties by his co-conspirators to do so. He fails to capture the emperor’s mannerisms (given lessons in how to walk like Napoleon, his instructor bellows “You’re waddling again! Never waddle!”) But while Lemorand may not walk the walk, he convincingly talks the talk. Soon he’s barking orders at underlings, continuing the emperor’s bathtime narration of his ‘memoirs’ (now focusing on sexual – rather than military- conquests) and lapping up enormous quantities of fine food and wine. There’s no way he’s giving up this gig.

Back in Paris, the real Napoleon gets increasingly impatient. Eager to exercise a little authority, he organizes Pumpkin and her fellow merchants into a new distribution scheme that sends their fruit carts away from the central marketplace and into the better neighborhoods of Paris. Soon melon slices become the favored summer treat of fashionable Parisians, and Pumpkin is able to trade poverty for prosperity. Not surprisingly, her once chilly relationship with the man she knows only as “Eugene” begins to thaw.

There’s more of course, but I’m not giving it away. This is a movie you should for yourself.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is humorous and melancholy by turns. Its comic scenes are droll and dry, never laugh-out-loud funny, but delightful nonetheless. Its darker scenes are muted – never too dark – but used effectively throughout to raise the dramatic stakes. And the shifts in tone are not wobbly or forced.

It’s also a beautiful film to look at, with nearly every shot composed in an elegant, painterly fashion. You want to freeze the frame from time and time and just look at the pictures. Yet the film doesn’t have the heavy, overstuffed feeling of a typical period piece; it hasn’t been costumed and art-directed to death. That’s undoubtedly a reflection of a limited production budget, but it also gives the film and its characters a welcome bit of room to breathe.

Holm’s Napoleon is ultimately a bit cuddlier than the real man probably was, although his occasional flashes of temper are properly startling. Hbjele (best known to American audiences as John’s Cusack’s estranged girlfriend in “High Fidelity”) is a worthy foil for Holm, grounded and even-tempered where he is mercurial. McInnerny – a wonderful British actor who, to my mind, is under-recognized on this side of the Atlantic – gives a smart, subtle performance. Witness the scene where Hbjele rejects his awkward marriage proposal: the carefully controlled play of emotions on McInnerny’s face as he struggles to downplay his outsized hope, then hide his disappointment, gives a sympathetic moment to a character who doesn’t otherwise engage our sympathies.

Director Alan Taylor is an American best known for his work on television series such as “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” I’m not sure how he got this gig (produced by Britain’s Channel Four and shot at Cinecitta Studios in Italy) but I wish he’d get more like it. We could use more historical films with this one’s lightness and quiet charms.

Good Stuff to Read and Watch
September 13, 2008, 4:50 pm
Filed under: Mike Leigh

There are two great kinds of lazy posts:

1) Video clips

2) Links to other good reading/viewing on the web

This is Lazy Post Type#2. It’s a day made to be lazy here in Chicagoland, with heavy, nonstop rain pouring down on us. (I’m not complaining, believe me; I’m happy to be far away from hurricane territory.) It’s the perfect day to stay in and slowly make my way through my always-overloaded DVR queue. I’ve already watched Fellini’s “I Vitteloni” this morning, and more is planned for later this afternoon. Meanwhile, take a look at:

1) Dennis Potter’s last interview at Ferdy on Films: The late great British television and film writer (“The Singing Detective,” “Pennies from Heaven” and others) gave a final interview in 1994 when he was in the throes of terminal cancer. Despite the immense pain he was obviously feeling, Potter gives an impassioned plea for responsibility and civility in the media and describes his both his early life and his last days with clear-eyed compassion. The entire interview can be seen in a series of 8 video clips here. Marilyn says that watching this interview could change your life; that might sound like hyperbole until you actually see it. Carve out 74 minutes of time this weekend and see for yourself.

2) Interview with Mike Leigh on Salon: (note, you may need to be a subscriber to read this): Salon’s controversial critic Stephanie Zacharek interviews one of my favorite directors about his latest film “Happy Go Lucky.” Leigh make some interesting, and rather trenchant observations about critics who have derided “Happy Go Lucky” for being too optimistic and light-hearted. If you weren’t already interested in seeing it, I predict you will be once you read this.

In a postscript to her interview (conducted at the Toronto Film Festival) Zacharek heralds the upcoming Ricky Gervais comedy “Ghost Town” as “both breezy and smart” and announces “There may be hope for romantic comedy yet…” Nice to hear, as I’m a fan of Gervais, but haven’t been convinced (based on the so-so trailer) that “Ghost Town” is worthy of his talents. Then again, it’s best to Zacharek with a grain of salt; she’s an often eccentric reviewer with skewed tastes (as this infamous piece on Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in “There Will be Blood” demonstrates.)

3) Note to DeNiro and Pacino: Time to make better movies: This commentary at MSNBC about the sorry state of the careers of Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino isn’t particularly insightful, but it reinforces everything I already think about how far these two veteran actors have fallen. If further proof is needed, check out this clip from the David Letterman show. (Aha! Surprise -this is both kinds of lazy posts in one!) Neither of these guys seems to know how to deliver a punch line.

"I Served the King of England"
September 9, 2008, 11:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I spent as much time driving to and from a matinee of “I Served the King of England” today as I spent in the theatre actually watching the film. Those of you familiar with Chicago suburban traffic – and the amount of road construction underway in and around Evanston in particular – will not be surprised to hear it took me a good 50 minutes to drive the 14 miles between my home in the northwest suburbs and the Century Cinema in that north suburban town.

As I navigated the many detours and the unfamiliar one-way streets of downtown Evanston, I kept muttering to myself, “This movie had damn well better be worth the trip.”

And miraculously, it was worth every second of the trip. And then some.

Infused with more whimsical humor than dark drama, “I Served the King of England” traces the history of mid-20th century Czechoslovakia through the eyes of an ambitious hotel waiter named Jan Dite (Oldrich Kaiser). We first meet him as he leaves prison sometime in the early 1960s. He’s a grizzled little man with a patient smile; as he tells us in voiceover narration, “I was sentenced to 15 years. But due to the amnesty, I got out in 14 years, 9 months.” Clearly he’s pleased by this insignificant reduction in his sentence. On his release, he’s given a dusty, ransacked house on the Czech/German border (it was abandoned by its original German inhabitants at the end of the war). The place is a mess, but he sets to work cleaning and repairing it with uncomplaining gratitude. The humble dwelling, he discovers, was once a guesthouse, and guesthouses are something that Dite knows well. As he holds a beer glass up to catch a ray of light, the film flashes back to the 1920s when he was a waiter in a small Prague pub.

The young Dite (played by Ivan Barnev) had one burning ambition: to be a millionaire. He pursues his goal by providing excellent service to wealthy and well-connected men, advancing through a series of jobs at increasingly posh hotels (including one which is little more than an elegant brothel for rich industrialists.) Barnev has an ingratiating, innocent appearance that belies his character’s single-minded ambition, plus an almost Chaplinesque gift for graceful physical comedy. And, as portrayed here, his rise to the headwaiter position at Prague’s best hotel is an idyllic parade of friendly customers, big tips, rich foods and beautiful women in floaty, flowery summer dresses. That these women are prostitutes, made available for rich men’s pleasures, seems almost beside the point. Their scenes in the story feel strangely innocent; couplings take place offscreen, while the onscreen hijinks between the “hostesses” and their guests are comparatively tame. (On a hot summer afternoon at the brothel, the women and their guests are provided with trays of snowballs, which they pelt at one another in a lively battle on the hotel lawn.)

Dite adores the women, and makes love to many along the way – again, in innocent-feeling scenes that end with Dite decorating the women’s bodies with flowers, fruit or money, and holding a mirror up for them to admire his handiwork.

It’s all very heady and funny, but we know where this story is heading. (We’ve already seen Dite emerging from prison in the future, and we ostensibly know what happened in Europe in the years leading up to World War II.) Dite, however, seems blind to the changes taking place around him; the arrival of the Germans doesn’t make a dent in his relentless opportunism. Even as the once-bustling hotel restaurant falls into a ghostly near-emptiness, he blithely continues to focus on his wardrobe and his plans to purchase a hotel of his own. When he begins courting a fervently patriotic German girl, it’s clear he has begun a moral descent which will eventually lead to that stretch in prison.

What keeps the film engaging (and not merely shocking) at this point is that even as we watch Dite make disastrous moral choices, we never stop caring about him. We don’t hate him, we just want him to wake up to what’s happening around him. That’s partly due to the structure of the film (we’ve already seen him in his post-prison life as a contented and unambitious older man, so we know he eventually does get wiser) and partly due to the actors who play him. Barnev, who is short of stature and baby-faced, looks boyish even while sporting a thin mustache and a few age lines. In his boyishness, the venality of Dite’s ambition is softened, made to feel almost harmless. Kaiser, in his scenes, has the self-contained, amused demeanor of a man who’s seen dark days but is happy just to be alive. He’s a character you embrace from the moment he shows up.

Before “I Served the King of England” was over, I was already making plans to see it again, figuring out which friends of mine would love it and have to see it with me. It’s that kind of movie: engrossing, captivating, charming and challenging by turns, morally complex but with a properly hopeful ending. You might want to ignore me when I tell you it’s the best movie released so far this year (because I’ve previously attached that accolade to two lesser accomplishments,”Flawless” and “Swing Vote.”), but this one truly is. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Happy Afternoon with "Amarcord"
September 8, 2008, 2:46 pm
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited, Frederico Fellini

You’d never know it by the looks of this blog, but I’ve been watching a LOT of movies lately.

Trouble is, I seldom feel motivated to write about them.

An overload of movies – even though many of them are quite good – has somehow made me blase rather than enthusiastic. If I were to start writing, I fear I’d turn into the Peggy Lee of movie bloggers, adding one movie-inspired verse after another to my signature hit (“Is that all there is to ‘Tropic Thunder’? … to ‘The Last Mistress’? … to ‘The Fountainhead’? … to ‘The Saddest Music in the World’?” And so on and so on.)

It took the the work of a master to break through this fog and remind me of why I loved movies in the first place. I spent a very happy couple of hours this weekend with Fellini’s “Amarcord,” a joyous, raucous, funny remembrance of life in an Italian village in the 1930s. From the very first scenes, when the ‘puffballs’ come in on the breeze, signifying the end of winter, the film itself springs to exuberant life, bursting with joy and randy good humor.

The lively opening sequence shows the villagers gathering in the town square for the ritual burning of “The Old Witch of Winter” (an effigy on a pole), dancing hand in hand around the bonfire in a scene that distinctly recalls the finale of “8 1/2.” These introductory scenes have the feeling of a big, opening production number in a stage musical. We meet all the players as Fellini’s camera sweeps along the main street, accompanied by Nino Rota’s lively, sensual theme music. There’s “the Lawyer,” the elegant gentleman who will provide intermittent anecdotal narration about the town’s background and legends. There is Grabisca, the town’s aging beauty who longs for love and family and spends solitary afternoons at the cinema watching her screen crush, Gary Cooper. There’s Volpina, the shamelessly randy town prostitute. And most importantly, there is Titta, the adolescent protagonist, whose circle of school chums (lusting endlessly after the girls and women of the village) and family (arguing endlessly at their kitchen table) will be at the center of the film.

“Amarcord” unfolds over the next two hours as a series of vignettes, capturing one year in the life of the village. Hearts will be broken, there will be marriages and deaths, celebrations and disappointments, love both requited and requited. And there will always, always be sex. Even Titta’s slow-witted uncle Teo, while out on a day trip from the country hospital where he resides, climbs a tree to profess his one greatest desire (in this scene): “Voglia una donna! (I want a woman!)”

I didn’t just want “Amarcord” to go on forever, I actually wanted to live in that village. I can’t remember the last time a movie made me feel like that.