Doodad Kind of Town

"Whatever Works" and "Tetro" (Or What I Saw on my Summer Stay-cation)
June 29, 2009, 10:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When it comes to Woody Allen’s films, I think I’ve finally learned to keep my expectations in check. He may not have another “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and Misdemeanors” in him, but I’ll grudgingly admit that many of Allen’s recent films have their own charms, modest though those charms may be.

Even so, I couldn’t help feeling a nostalgic thrill of anticipation as the opening credits of “Whatever Works” began to roll – accompanied by the dulcet tones of Groucho Marx and Margarent Dumont singing “Hello, I Must be Going.” With Groucho on the soundtrack and Manhattan as the setting, I couldn’t help but hope that some of Woody’s former brilliance was about to resurface.

Well, “Whatever Works” isn’t brilliant. It’s sweet but a little thin, and the acting is notably uneven. But its punchlines land with delightful delicacy, and its depiction of New York City as magical place where its transplanted characters discover their truest selves is silly and seductive all at once.

Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, who clues us in right at the get-go “I’m not a likable guy.” Give the man points for self-knowledge; he’s got himself perfectly pegged. Boris is an angry, cranky mess of a human being. An expert in quantum mechanics and a self-proclaimed genius (“I was almost nominated for a Nobel Prize”), Boris has given up on his marriage and academic career, opting instead to spend his days giving chess lessons or raging at the follies of mankind to the few loyal friends who will still listen. He’s hardly a match for the sweet, dim Southern runaway, Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), barely out of her teens, who shows up on his back steps looking for a meal and a handout. But, improbably, he takes her in, gives her a meal and a couch to sleep on. And – even more improbably, but as is the way in Woody Allen films – the two stumble into a romance. Soon Melodie’s proper Southern Baptist mother (Patricia Clarkson) shows up at the door, Bible in hand, to bring her daughter home, but she, too, succumbs to the charms of the pagan city. By the time Melodie’s dad (Ed Begley, Jr.) shows up, everyone’s too far gone to ever make it back to the farm.

David’s performance is a curiously mixed bag. He’s deliriously funny when he needs to be, deftly underplaying the best of the gags and one-liners Allen bestows on him. And he’s surprisingly touching in the scenes where Boris’ curmudgeonly emotional armor falls away. But he doesn’t bring anything like the same level of conviction to the character’s nighttime panic attacks; those scenes call for a real sense that Boris is terrified and overwhelmed, but David seems no more rattled than a guy who’s misplaced his keys. Worse, he lacks the kind of Allenesque cuddliness that would take the edge off Boris’ worst behavior, namely a tendency to refer to virtually everyone as a “cretin,” “inchworm” or “moron.” (When he refers to Melody as a “sub-mental baton twirler,” it’s positively painful to hear.)

Wood is a sweet and soulful foil for David, but when he’s offscreen, her performance becomes unfocused and, frankly, uninteresting. A scene between her and a would-be suitor (Henry Cavill) was so boring that I temporarily “checked out” and planned a shopping list in my head until the film got back to Boris. Wood also has a disconcerting habit of constantly bobbing her head in any scene where Melodie must be especially earnest – it sent me straight up the wall after about 10 seconds.

But the ever-reliable Clarkson is a dizzy delight as the buttoned-up Southern matron who discovers her true passions – artistic and otherwise – under the spell of the city.

There’s stuff to quibble with here, if you’re so inclined. Allen makes easy fun of bible-thumping Christians but shows that he doesn’t really know much about them. (They don’t tend to ask for a big glass of bourbon immediately after they cross your threshold, as Clarkson does here.) And Boris’ “whatever works” philosophy is not much of a stretch from that of Allen’s character in “Hannah and Her Sisters” some 23 years ago. (“What if the worst is true? What if there is no God and you only go around once? Don’t you want to be part of the experience? Hell, it’s not all a drag.” is not very far removed from Boris’ exhortation to us to grab “whatever love you can get or give, whatever happiness you can provide, every temporary measure of grace…”).

But “Whatever Works” also invokes “Hannah…” in the best ways, not least in its (minor spoiler coming up) unforeseeable and blissfully redemptive happy ending.

Boris is a smart guy, but he gets one thing absolutely wrong in that opening monologue. “This isn’t the feel good movie of the year,” he warns us. “If you’re one of those idiots who needs to feel good, go get yourself a foot massage.”

Yes, a foot massage is nice. But “Whatever Works” may actually be the feel good movie of the year.

As for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro”….

… my friend, Bill, said it best. “There’s a whole lot going on in that movie.”

That’s an understatement. “Tetro” is a grand, gorgeous drama built around the gradual unearthing of dark family secrets. It is a visual stunner, managing to both subtly reference Fellini’s black-and-white master works and and overtly reference the Technicolor glories of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s best work.

The film opens as a very young man (Alden Ehrenreich), wearing what appears to be a naval uniform, steps off a night bus in a run-down Beunos Aires neighborhood and find his way through the streets, occasionally stopping to get directions from passers-by. These nighttime scenes are beautifully lit and photographed – in one, an almost unearthly light emanates into the darkness from inside a dilapidated newsstand.

The young man, Bennie, is coming to visit his older brother, Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo’s girlfriend (Maribel Verdu) happily lets him into their apartment, but his brother refuses to come out to greet him or even acknowledge him. As Bennie settles in to sleep on the couch, he tearfully reads an old letter in which his older brother promised to “come back and get (him.)”

Angelo, who now insists on being called Tetro, will gradually come around, of course, but not without dragging some old family skeletons out of their closets. Revelations pile up, with each newly unearthed family secret more painful and fantastical than the last.

Mixed in with the family drama are some amusing and nicely observed side trips to the struggling theatre group for which Angelo runs lights. There’s a surfeit of good ideas and good intentions at work here, but Coppola never finds a way to make them all coalesce. “Tetro” is a wildly uneven ride, swerving unpredictably between near-brilliance and tedium. There are times you can barely stay with it, and other times you never want it to end.

But ultimately, for all its overcooked visual granduer, “Tetro” is a decidedly anemic affair. The actors – every one of them – lack the passion and intensity that the film’s visual style seems to require. Think of Anton Wolbrook, almost over the top in Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes.” Didn’t his artfully overstated emotion as he introduced the final ballet sort of live up to the vibrancy and intensity of the film’s palette? Well, “Tetro” needs a Anton Wolbrook; unfortunately, the best it’s got is Vincent Gallo – and he reminded Bill and I of Denis Leary on a particularly cranky day far more than the tortured artist/genius he’s purported to be.

Hell Frozen Over: Stuck on a Plane with "New in Town"
June 21, 2009, 12:46 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Yesterday was a travel day from hell.

I was returning from a business trip to Houston. My flight was supposed to leave Bush Intercontinental at 1:45. It actually left around 9:30. The Chicago area was covered with a series of very severe thunderstorms all day until late at night. By the time the plane touched down at O’Hare – around midnight – I was ready to get out and kiss the ground.

Anyone who’s ever endured a lengthy flight delay knows the hell that is hanging out in an airport with no idea of if or when you’ll get home. The uncertainty. The weather horror stories swapped among travellers after cell phone calls to the folks at home. The temporary relief of cocktails in the bar and/or bad carb consumption from the myriad offerings in the food court. (Shout out to the Nestle’s Cookie stand and their caramel-walnut-toll house bars!)

Only in this stress-filled milieu could it have seemed a good idea to watch the in-flight movie: “New in Town,” a crappy, formulaic romantic comedy, which manages to be neither very romantic nor particularly comic.

Remember the video clip in my previous post? If not, you should go take a look at it right now. Because that “Family Guy” sketch nails “New in Town.” It is the quintessential, by-the-book “Busy Business Lady” rom com. Renee Zellwegger is the sleek, soulless corporate automaton in designer suits and chic stilettos, Harry Connick Jr. is the hunky, pickup-truck driving guy in the flannel shirt. They’re tossed together when Zellwegger becomes the new “Boss Lady” in the Minnesota food products plant where Connick is the workers’ union rep. They hate each other on sight, which means they’ll be making passionate whoopee by the three-quarter point. That’s about all you need to know – and, if you’ve seen the trailer at any point, you probably already figured that much out.

We could puzzle over how a Busy Business Lady like Zellwegger’s character ever got so far up the corporate ladder without the brains to know that if she’s going to Minnesota in November, she ought to bring a winter coat. But then, that’d deprive us of the high-larious opening scene in which she struggles to push her overloaded cart of expensive luggage through wind and snowdrifts while wearing only a lightweight jacket and high heels.

And that’s only – forgive the awkward pun – the tip of the iceberg. Can I just heave a heavy sigh here and ask why we keep perpetuating this idiotic stereotype of the woman who’s a star performer in the business world but completely inept in every other aspect of her life? Is the idea that a woman can be both good at her job and a contented, fulfilled person away from the office so terribly threatening to us? I work in the corporate world; I am surrounded by very successful Busy Business Ladies all the time, and I can guarantee you that the vast majority of them have a pretty full life outside of the office. Most have families, and even the ones who don’t aren’t likely to come unglued at the propsect of cooking dinner or changing a diaper. (I certainly don’t.) At the very least, they know how to turn off the Blackberry and lose themselves in good book once in awhile. We’ve been going down this same silly road for at least 22 years now, every since “Baby Boom’s” Diane Keaton picked up her briefcase with one hand and tucked her baby niece under her other arm like a football. And this trip is heading nowhere.

Something else we can lose now: the notion that heavy Minnesota accent = Instant Laughs. It’s been 13 years since “Fargo”; it’s time to move on.

Is is just me, or was Renee Zellwegger a better actress before she got Botox? I loved her as Bridget Jones, but these days, whenever I see her on screen, I pretty much just want to kill her. Her horrendous attempt at a Barbara Stanwyck turn in “Leatherheads” took me completely out of the movie, and the current lack of movement in her forehead only makes her that much harder to watch. (I know those airplane movie screens are a little small and hard to see, but at times I wasn’t sure whether I was watching Zellwegger or Nicole Kidman – whose forehead has also seen a great decline in mobility as of late.)

The one good thing in “New in Town”? Siobhan Fallon-Hogan. I saw her most recently as the sympathetic prison guard watching over Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark.” Here, even when saddled with a wardrobe of goofy holiday sweaters and a bad perm, she brings a genuine heart and soul to her chipper, scrapbooking, cookie-baking Minnesota secretary role. Would that the same heart-and-soul had made its way into Zellwegger’s performance.

"My Life in Ruins": A Meme Response, A Review, and a Travel Memoir All in One
June 14, 2009, 8:55 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I have two abiding passions in life. One is film. The other is travel. And over the years, my cinephilia has done a lot to feed my continual wanderlust.

Many of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit were chosen based on how amazing they’d looked to me in films.

My excitement over last summer’s trip to China was fueled at least as much by “The Last Emperor” and “Farewell My Concubine” as it was by the opportunity to sing with a North American choir performing inside the Forbidden City.

On the one day I spent in Venice, nine years ago, I was as consumed with thoughts of “Summertime,” “Room with a View,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” as I was with experiencing the actual place itself. Just being there – seeing those 14th century buildings, walking those narrow cobblestoned streets, riding in a gondola on the Grand Canal – felt like I was stepping into a movie I’d already seen many times. It was otherwordly and magical. And five years later, when I saw Lasse Hallstrom’s “Casanova,” I was just about beside myself with the joys of seeing it all again.

A couple of weeks back, Daniel Getahun at Getafilm challenged me to the Movie Period/Place meme in which I’m to answer the questions: “What’s my favorite cinematic period, and what movies portray a place that I would love to visit in real life? Essentially, during which movies have I thought, “Wow, I would really love to be there and experience that place at that time”?

I must admit, I have struggled with my response to this one. How to choose just one period, just one place? My interests are all over the place and change from day to day. Wouldn’t it have been cool to be at the opening night of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in 18th century Vienna as in “Amadeus”? To have had a seat at the legendary Round Table in New York’s Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s, as do the characters in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle”? To have frolicked at the Carnival in Venice as in “Wings of the Dove” or “Casanova” (two completely different periods there.) As Daniel himself notes, “You almost become paralyzed with the possibilities.”

So I’ve decided to break through my paralysis by cheating a little. I may not be able to settle on a time period other than the present,but I know where I’d go if could pack my suitcase and take off today: Greece. And I was able to experience that country vicariously/cinematically last weekend at the multiplex with “My Life in Ruins.”

I’m not going to pretend it was a good movie. I won’t even try to defend it artistically. As movies about Greece go, I’m sure it’s no “Zorba”or “Never on Sunday” (two films I’ve never managed to see, although both are referenced in “Ruins.”) And, with only the slightest variation, it fits neatly into the overworked rom-com template that is brilliantly pegged in this clip from “Family Guy”

Busy Business LadyClick here for more amazing videos

That’s pretty much the plot – except that Nia Vardalos isn’t a Busy Business Lady exactly, but rather an out-of-work professor of Classical Studies named Georgia who is reduced to a tour guide job at a broken-down, Athens-based touring company. Georgia, who admits she hasn’t had sex ‘since forever’ is predictably uptight, rigid and perpetually pissed off. She subjects her tour members to dry, school-teacherly lectures and drags them to temples and museums, when all they really want is to eat ice cream, buy tacky souvenirs and lounge on the beach. For Georgia, it’s all that “busy business” of ancient Greece (builidng the Parthenon, starting the Olympics, creating democracy) that makes the country great, not its modern propensity for relaxation and sipping coffee frappe drinks. She’s just begging to be set straight.

Fortunately for Georgia and her long-lost “kefi” (Greek for ‘mojo’ or ‘joie de vivre’), the shaggy and taciturn bus driver isn’t put off by her knee jerk crankiness. In due course – with a shave and haircut, and monosyllabic grunts that gradually progress into extended, soulful conversations – he reveals himself to be a handsome hunk with the heart of a poet. Soon Georgia is ditching her stiff, blazer-and-shirt tour-guide ensemble for a floaty white summer dress and abandoning her academic diatribes to undulate through the tour bus while delivering sexed-up embellishments to boring old Greek myths.

Any surprises yet? Probably not, and I don’t think you’ll be any more shocked to learn that every person on that tour bus is a living, breathing Tourist Cliche from the materialistic Americans in their sneakers and fanny packs to the lager-swilling, unintelligible Australians to the snooty Brits. And Richard Dreyfuss is along as the Wise Old Guy who encourages Georgia to “get in touch with your wild thing.”

Vardolos had a big hit a few years back with “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding,” a film not much fresher or more sophisticated than this one. And from the looks of the sold-out audience at the multiplex last weekend, she’s (initially, anyway) going to bring in the same audience. But I’m not sure Vardalos herself has sufficient charms to keep those audiences coming back. She’s likable enough, but she’s not so much a skillful comic actress as a competent straight woman with a limited range of slow-burn reactions to her co-stars’ eccentricities. She’s destined to succeed or fail based on how funny her supporting cast manages to be. And despite the presence of normally reliable performers like Dreyfuss, Rachel Dratch, and Harland Williams, the “Ruins” cast doesn’t hold a candle to the lovable, nutty MBFGW family.

And yet…

Despite the fact that “Ruins” leaves no travel film or rom-com cliche unturned, I had a pleasant, good time. Not one eye-roll in the entire 95 minutes. And that’s because it allowed me to relive memories of my own 2005 trip to Athens and Santorini – and made me positively hungry for a return trip. Everything in this film made me nostalgic for Europe in general and Greece in particular.

There’s a shot early in the film that captures what I liked most about Athens – the juxtaposition of the ancient with the contemporary, the otherwordly feeling you get when you look up from just about any modern street in Athens, and glimpse the timeless majesty of the Parthenon looming above you.

When the film characters wander through the Agora, bitching and moaning about the heat and asking when they could get ice cream, I sort of felt their pain. But I also wanted to point them not to the nearest ice cream vendor, but to the friendly taverna where we sat sipping cold, crisp moschofilero and nibbling on bowls of almonds after our own sweltering walk through those ruins. In fact, the one thing these characters maddeningly don’t do – which they really should – is have lovely, leisurely meals at open-air tavernas, passing platters of dolmades, lamb shanks, tzatziki with bread for dipping, burgers stuffed with feta and tomato and horiatiki salads. Yum! The food was one of my favorite parts of Greece, and eating out-of-doors only made it more enjoyable.

And I don’t buy the “Ruins” premise that the people with “kefi” come to Greece for ice cream and tacky souvenirs while only the dull, stick-in-the-mud types come there actually wanting to learn something. Puh-lease! If you aren’t thrilled by the Parthenon, fascinated by the ancient ampitheatres and temples or intensely interested in the museums, you really shouldn’t go to Greece. You just stay home and go to a diner for a gyro sandwich. That’ll be enough for you.

Another missed opportunity for all kinds of tourist-comedy hilarity: no one rides a donkey in this movie. I’m really surprised this was left out. I rode a donkey up the steep cliff to Oia on Santorini and I can promise you, it’s an experience that pretty much writes its own comedy script. ‘Cause your average tourist gets pretty freaked out. I’d gotten slightly separated from my friend and so ended up on a donkey between a screaming Englishwoman (“Oooh, I’m terr-ee-fied!”) and a screaming Italian woman (unintelligible shrieks of Italian terror); immediately I made the decision to be the calm, rational woman in the middle. (After all, as I tried to explain to the screaming Englishwoman, the donkeys do this every day and they don’t want to go over the side any more than you do.) I suspect there are scenes like this at the Grand Canyon,too, although I’ve never ridden a donkey there. But, trust me, the view is worth every second of anxiety and then some. In fact, it’s just a shame that “Ruins” never makes it to any of the Greek island,because that’s where the truly beautiful scenery is found.

It’s probably a sign of how badly I need a vacation that even the hotel-from-hell scenes got me all nostalgic for past trips and the clean-but-just-barely-serviceable hotels in which my friends and I have occasionally stayed while travelling on a budget. We’ve tried in vain to watch CNN on a snow-filled, 6-inch TV screen in the Czech Republic, dragged heavy bags up four flight of stairs in crumbling old bed-and-breakfasts in England and Ireland, struggled to get water pressure – or just some hot water at any pressure level – at least once in about every country we’ve visited. But even the sub-par experiences are all bathed in a post-vacation glow of shared memories and uproarious laughter now.

The final shot of “My Life in Ruins” is my favorite. It’s the Acropolis at night, all lit up against a blue-black sky. I have very fond memories of sitting at (yet another) open-air taverna at the foot of the Acropolis about 10:00 at night, gazing up at the illuminated Parthenon while sipping wine and laughing with a table full of friends. I would love to be at that table again soon.

Perhaps I’ll just slip over to Expedia now and see if I can find a cheap flight to Athens…

I’ll Be Gone for a Few Days….
June 10, 2009, 12:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Folks, I’ll be away from here for a few days. One of my favorite aunts passed away yesterday, unexpectedly, and I’ve been feeling too sad to finish my latest post. I’m also struggling to finish about four days worth of work in the next two before I take off for the wake and funeral.

I should be back here by Sunday, and hopefully will be able to finish my Movie Time Period and Place meme post for Daniel’s challenge then.

Carry on.

What I’ve Learned by Being a Movie Blogger: A Meme
June 6, 2009, 7:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This week over at Cinema Styles, our good bloggin’ buddy, Greg, posted some highly relatable thoughts under the title “Why Being a Cinephile Matters.”

I always enjoy what Greg writes, but this time especially, I felt like he took the words right out of my mouth.

Take this for example:

“There are times when I think I might as well throw in the towel myself as I wonder what in the hell is there left to write about. But then I remember how much I’ve learned about movies since I started blogging.”

Has anyone among us not felt that way? Especially on one of those days when we post what we think is a brilliant piece of analysis – and almost no readers show up to affirm our genius? (Or at least none that leave a comment anyway.) But we all do keep coming back.

Or this piece of wisdom from his comment thread:

“Once I got into blogging I realized I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.”

Boy, that hits the nail on the head. Prior to starting a movie blog, I was known among my friends at “the savant” – the ultimate movie geek with a head full of movie trivia who’d seen just about everything. Actually I’m still perceived that way within my own circle of friends, but I’ve spent too much time in the blogosphere over the last couple of years to be under any delusion that I’m something special. I am regularly humbled by the knowledge and erudition of so many fellow film bloggers -and always eager and happy to learn from them.

Greg has challenged us to post our own list of what we’ve learned from movie blogging. I’m happy to share some of mine:

1. I am not alone

I know very few people who are as geeky about film as I am. I often find it difficult to drum up a companion for trips to the arthouse theatres around the city. But in the blogosphere, there’s always someone there who knows who Mathieu Almaric is, who’s seen the latest Guy Maddin or Hsiao-hsien Hou film. Self-help writer Barbara Sher once wrote, without a trace of irony, “The Internet is where you find your tribe.” She was right.

2. On a related note, there are lots of other people in the world who as obsessive about Woody Allen’s films as I am, and they’re all ready to talk about them at the drop of a hat.
Most of my longest comment threads have come about as responses to my posts on Allen. If I post a bad review of his work, I’m likely to get the most vociferous responses.

3. I don’t have to rush out to see the latest blockbuster – or even review it at all – if I don’t want to.
Every blogger has his or her own niche, and some of my favorite writers hardly ever make it to the multiplex at all. Following their example has set me free.

4. If you’re a movie blogger, your friends will perceive you to have an unfair advantage in their annual Oscar party, “predict the winners” contest.
Especially when you take home the Oscar-replica trophy for four consecutive years. Never mind that I claimed that trophy many times in the years before I even knew what a blog was, let alone wrote one. Somehow I’ve become labeled as an “industry insider” in my friends’ eyes. I don’t think they’re going to let me compete next year.

5. No matter how much I think I hate movie talkers, there’s always someone out there who hates them even more!
I’ve only contemplated assaulting those multiplex chatterboxes – Marilyn’s actually swatted one. For this reason, and so many others, Marilyn is one of my role models!

6. There are more great movies out there than I’ll ever be able to see, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

7. Netflix is an amazing service that allows my cinephiliac obsessions to flourish.
I’m old enough to remember the days when the only place you could see movies was in a theatre or on TV; I will never, ever become jaded about the abundance of Netflix titles that are mine to watch with just a few mouse clicks and a couple days of waiting for the mail. I didn’t take advantage of Netflix till I started blogging, and now I can’t imagine how I lived without it. Back in 1975, I never could have dreamed that one day, I’d be able to watch “La Notte” on Monday night, pop it in a mailbox on Tuesday morning, and by Thursday afternoon, have a copy of “Ordet” in my mailbox in its place. (That’s my plan for the coming week, by the way.) It’s miraculous!

8. Next to Netflix, the best thing in the world to have is IFC in Theatres On Demand.
I don’t think I’ll ever part ways with Comcast Digital Cable so long as this service is available. Thanks to On Demand, I get to watch first-run foreign and independent films in the comfort and privacy of my own living room. The most recent title I took advantage of: “Hunger.” Next up: “The Girlfriend Experience.” And coming soon: Lars Von Trier’s “Anti Christ,” a film I’m particularly happy I’ll have the opportunity to watch with access to a fast-forward button.

9. Balancing blogging with the other parts of my life is a delicate balancing act that I’ll never perfectly master.
And I’ve learned to accept that. There’s a very geeky part of me that would love to hibernate for days on end with just Turner Classic Movies, some DVDs, and my laptop -but what kind of life would that be? Sometimes you have to put down the blog and connect with loved ones, make a living, stretch out on a yoga mat or just sit in the sun with a big glass of lemonade. The movies and the blog will still be waiting when you get back.

And most important of all:

10. Respectful disagreements among bloggers are a beautiful thing.
When I first started blogging, I was slightly terrified of starting a controversy or pissing someone off, so I couched a lot of my writing in qualifications and rationalizations. I’m doing that less and less as time goes on. I’ve learned that disagreements – even vehement ones – are healthy and valuable, so long as everyone stays civil. Every time another blogger comes back at one of my posts with a difference of opinion, it forces me to dig deeper and think harder in order to defend my own point of view. It makes my writing sharper and more precise, and challenges me to push past flippancy and hyperbole to make a cogent and well-reasoned case. And isn’t that a great challenge for anyone to receive? If I learned nothing else from movie blogging, just learning to sharpen my critical thinking skills like this should be evidence enough that being a cinephile does indeed matter.

Couting down the Zeroes – 2002: The Magdalene Sisters
June 3, 2009, 10:30 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

(This post also appears today at Film for the Soul, where my fellow cinephile, Ric Burke is hosting a terrfic series called “Counting Down the Zeroes,” a comprehensive look back at the last decade in film. He’s currently up to 2002. Be sure to visit his lively and incisive blog regularly in the weeks to come as this ambitious series continues.)

My reaction to Peter Mullan’s “The Magdalene Sisters” is complicated, at best.

On the one hand: as a former Catholic with strong opinions on the patriarchal repressiveness of the Church, I’m all in favor of exposing the worst abuses that have been committed in its name. And this harrowing drama about the forced incarceration of “fallen girls”in 1960s Dublin is an expose, and then some. After seeing it the first time, I literally had nightmares for a week.

On the other hand: as an artistic achievement, the film leaves something to be desired. The subject matter is sufficiently sensational that even a workmanlike writer-director such as Mullan can easily mine it for appropriate shock value. But one wonders how much more resonant the film might have been if Mullan had troubled himself to go deeper than merely depicting abuses and had investigated the pathologies that enabled such abuse to occur in the first place.

“The Magdalene Sisters” follows the stories of three young women in early 1960s Dublin who are sent to a institution known as a ‘Magdalene asylum’ where “by prayer, hard work, and cleanliness,”they can hope to earn absolution for their sexual sins, real or perceived as those sins may be. The wan and wide-eyed Margaret (Anne Marie Duff) is sent away by her family after she is raped by a cousin during a wedding celebration; her rapist apparently walks away unpunished. Another, Rose (Dorothy Duff), is taken there after giving birth to a baby boy out of wedlock. The third, Bernadette (Nora Jane Noone) is a saucy and spirited orphanage girl, given to flirting with the boys on the other side of the playground fence, even though she has yet to so much as kiss one of them. Nevertheless, her good looks and friendliness are deemed to be such a provocation to men that she must be taken out of the greater world before she succumbs to temptation.

In the Magdalene asylums found throughout Ireland at the time, young women such as these were forced to work in Dickensian laundries run by the (so-called) Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters filled their coffers with cash for their laundry services, while the women who performed them received nothing but a coarse, shapeless uniform, a meagre portion of food and a hard bed to sleep on. Some were forced to remain in the asylums for years until a family member would come to fetch them, some even stayed for life. Many tried to escape – if caught, the Sisters would beat them savagely and forcibly shave their heads. Those who stayed were forced to endure hours of daily hard labor in the laundries, plus ritual humiliation at the hands of the nuns. One scene in the film depicts the girls being forced to strip naked and run in place while two sisters humiliate them by laughing uproariously over which one has the biggest bottom, the biggest bush, and so on.

All of this is true, and all of it is horrifying. In fact, the somber mood of “The Magdalene Sisters” is established right from the appearance of the title card. The screen is filled with rows and rows of names – names of women who were incarcerated in the Magdalene asylums. The shot gives the distinct feeling of a war memorial, where you’re staggered by the seeming endless list of the fallen.

And while it’d be hard to overstate the heinousness of this abusive system, Mullan gives it a fair shot. To his credit, he creates an oppressive atmosphere in which we truly do feel that we’ve entered a living hell. The girls’ hopelessness is palpable. When Noone tries to escape one night, you feel yourself wanting to get out of there with her.

But there are a few too many shots of the girls sleeping on their dormitory beds just beneath large signs proclaiming “God is Good” or “God is Just” – ironic juxtaposition such as this only really works the first time. And true though it may be, the contrast of the girls slurping their thin breakfast gruel with scenes of the nuns tucking into platters of bacon and thickly sliced bread with jam would be more effective if it didn’t feel borrowed from every film version of a Dickens novel that you’ve already seen. When one inmate turns on the priest who sexually abused her, she screams “You’re not a man of God!” so many times in the exact same voice that I found myself talking back to the TV: “You’re right! He’s not a man of God! We get it! Move on!”

Geraldine McEwan’s Sister Bridget comes perilously close to being a stereotypical cartoon of a mean-and-evil nun.” Even as she wields her strap or her razor, she’s not nearly as frightening as she is predictable. And in the Christmas scene, as McEwan weeps huge, wet, hypocritical tears over “The Bells of St. Marys”, it’s hard not to think “I saw that coming.”

What Mullan lacks in subtlety as a filmmaker, he makes up for in graceful efficiency and some well-chosen visual images. The montage which accompanies Sister Bridget’s introductory speech to the new inmates deftly lays out all facets of the injustice visited on the Magdalene inmates in a few brief minutes. We see their personal belongings taken away (stripping them of their identity), women at work in the laundries using archaic irons and wringers (some of whom are grey-haired, indicating they’ve been at this work for many years) and finally, the Sisters’ account book and biscuit tins being stuffed with cash (indicating that the Sisters are profiting from the inmates’ forced labor.) Another masterful montage depicts a desolate Christmas in the asylum, where only a tattered paper chain decorates the dormitory, and the gift of a single orange is left on each girl’s empty bed.

There’s also a quietly rendered but powerful scene in which Margaret almost escapes, but reconsiders. Finding the garden gate unlocked, she slips outside and stops a passing car. But when the young man behind the wheel offers a ride, she demurs. As she hesitates momentarily in the gateway, we can see her weighing her choices – there’s oppression of one kind within the asylum, but oppression of another kind outside, where like all Irish Catholic women, she’ll be forever subordinate to men. Margaret chooses the asylum in a scene that delicately prefigures her ultimate fate: a brother will bring her home later that year, and according to the closing titles, she will never marry.

The actresses who play the young inmates are fine, especially Noone whose Bernadette is at once fiery and frightened, cunning and preternaturally sensual. You can see why the nuns are dead-set on breaking her spirit, and at the same time, you know they won’t succeed.

Mullan based “The Magdalene Sisters” on a 1998 British documentary, “Sex in a Cold Climate,” which you can watch in its entirety here. It’s clear he invented very little in his own screenplay; virtually every scene of abuse in his film is based on a specific remembrance of the women interviewed in the documentary. Even the stories of the main characters in “The Magdalene Sisters” seem directly inspired by those of the women in “Sex in a Cold Climate,”with the notable exception that the women in the documentary are about a generation older than those in Mullan’s film.

That “The Magdalene Sisters” starts in 1964 cannot have been without significance. At a time when women were just beginning to experience previously unknown sexual freedom, time stood still for the alleged “fallen women” of the Magdalene asylums. The arrival of automatic dryers in the laundry is the only sign of progress or change that these women see. But Mullan doesn’t address that irony directly, nor does he give us any indication of how or why Ireland’s moral authority came to rest with the church rather than the government, or how the patriarchy which punished these women has been allowed to flourish for so long. And maybe that’s too much to ask of one film. But “Sex in a Cold Climate” had already told us what happened in those asylums for all those years. It would have been even more enlightening if “The Magdalene Sisters” had told us how it happened. And why.

Playin’ Catch Up
June 1, 2009, 10:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’ve been back from Houston since Friday night, but I haven’t been able to make myself blog. It was too beautiful a weekend, too sunny and glorious, to spend much time inside with the laptop. So I wandered though the neighborhood art festival with a friend, got in a yoga class, and finished out the weekend by finally watching “What Price Hollywood?”- the 1932 George Cukor film that’s been languishing at the bottom of my DVR queue for months.

“What Price Hollywood?” is generally considered the original version of “A Star is Born,” although the story got significantly reworked before the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Frederic March version hit the screen. Constance Bennett plays a spunky Brown Derby waitress who is launched to stardom by a perpetually sozzled producer (Lowell Sherman). His career plummets while hers soars – in that respect, it’s definitely the prototype for “A Star is Born.” But, in this film, there’s no romance between the main players, only a warm and close friendship.

With the exception of “Topper,” I have little experience of Constance Bennett, so I was pleasantly surprised by how good she was in this film. Ditto for Sherman, who I don’t recall ever seeing before. (Per IMDB, this was apparently his last film as an actor – he died in 1934 – but he also had a string of impressive directing credits, including “Morning Glory” and “She Done Him Wrong.” ) Also in the cast: Neil Hamilton, who famously went on to play Commissioner Gordon in the “Batman” TV series, as Bennett’s uptight husband. All in all, a pleasant way to wind up a pleasant weekend.

And now, I’m gettin’ back to the blogging business. This week, I’ll be participating in the “Counting Down the Zeroes” series over at Film for the Soul, reviewing Peter Mullan’s 2002 docudrama “The Magdalene Sisters.” (HINT: If you like excruciatingly depressing true-life stories about sadistic Irish nuns, this is the film for you. But I don’t want to give too much away.)

I also plan to get up a post in response to this meme challenge from Daniel at Getafilm. I’m still working on my response. Turns out, all the places and times I’ve ever wanted to visit have been inspired by books rather than movies – who would have thought?