22 January 2009

Back In Time

In honor of the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards, which brought me no joy, I've decided to talk about two films, selected for me by the library shelves, that brought me a good deal of joy.

(Digression on the Oscar noms: If you replaced stinky Juno with spellbinding The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, wouldn't any of the Best Pictures of '07 win this year? I say yes. I think PT Anderson, in particular, must be kicking himself that There Will Be Blood came out a year too early. This is a year where a great film would have swept. Instead, Benjamin Button might sweep, which makes me sad inside.)

Having thoroughly enjoyed Lola and Bay of Angels, I was excited to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and complete the early-Demy trifecta. To add to my delight, I read on the back of the box that all the dialog is sung, which would be either charming or preposterous. It turned out to be charming, even though the lack of full-on musical numbers was disappointing. Growing up in the 90's I was used to a stately, grand dame Catherine Deneuve--even in Belle du Jour, there is a world-weariness about her. But this is Genevieve as Umbrella Nymph, thin-limbed and pastel, so intimidatingly perfect that Guy, away in Algeria, can't muster enough good words to keep her hanging on. Even dancing in France he can hardly touch her--sure there are pins in her dress, but there is something of a protective bubble around Genevieve at all times.

And so she falls in with jewelry dealer Cassard (Marc Michel, from Lola, with a new pencil mustache but still wonderfully serious at all times). My favorite moment in the film is when Demy gives Cassard a 360 degree flashback to the square in Nantes where he had chased true love Lola. The shops are now in color and empty and heartbreaking. Michel pictures this at the dinner table without changing expression but you can see the tiniest of glimmers in his eye and think, damn the movies are fun. Guy of course comes back and finds Genevieve gone away and does some running around in the rain without an umbrella before setting his eyes on Madeleine, who was always too attractive to be just his Aunt Elise's nursemaid.

Even with all the lovely seaside color in Umbrellas, I found the most beautiful frames to be the last, with Guy and Madeleine and son in yellow slicker playing in the snow outside of Guy's Esso service station (which, charmingly, serves the "Cherbourgeoisie"). The thick snowflakes and midcentury Esso gas pumps remind me of nothing so much as Douglas Sirk--I didn't know Demy had that imagery and melodrama in him.

I next watched Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell step on a ship headed for Cherbourg (in "Europe, France" according to Monroe's Lorelei Lee). Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a traditional musical buoyed by above-average humor in the non-singing moments.

I believe that comedy is always better on ships and when delivered by dead serious ten year olds.

Henry Spofford III (and valet) steals the show every shining time he arrives. While Lorelei's other suitors mostly gawk at her, indecisive with age, Spofford lays out her appeal succinctly: "you've got a lot of animal magnetism." For me, Monroe does have more magnetism in this film than any other I've seen. She is comfortable with Russell--their voices, hair and heights all compliment each other.

Howard Hawks frames the film nicely with a red hot start...

and demure white finish.

This is, of course, a conventional conclusion, the wild girls settling down (how Russell's Dorothy winds up with the less-than-gorgeous Elliott Reed is hard to figure) but the end doesn't come before Lorelei delivers her fantastic lines, "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"


10 January 2009

The Best Film of 2008...

...is The Class.

The only strange thing about this judgment is that I haven't yet seen The Class. Herein lies the problem of film year 2008. I'm so convinced that I will like Laurent Cantet's yet-to-reach-me film that I've placed it above all the others I've seen. Cantet has the pedigree (Human Resources, Heading South and Time Out) and I'm always a sucker for classroom films (see my adolescent affinity for Dangerous Minds or repeated rewatchings of To Be and To Have).

In fact, I have to go back to France for the only other movie from '08 that I'd even consider "very good," Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. It's studded with fun moments: Paull's mirror moment with the wolf, Faunia's trip to the mall with Junon, Ivan's awesome "Love and Happiness" remix, his wife Sylvia's (inevitable?) hookup with cousin Simon. And one transcendent moment: Henri's mind-blowing, c-u-next-tuesday toast to his mother and sister. It just seems unfortunate that the plot is made to revolve around eldest sister Elizabeth who is easily the least interesting person in the film.

And so I come to the putative "contenders." Slumdog Millionaire is the most frame by frame predictable movie I've seen since Pearl Harbor. There is no suspense. Except for the anticipation each time the host pronounced "MILLONAIRE!!"

I was speaking to a friend of mine who wanted me to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and I told him that I'd probably check it out from the library in 18 months if I saw it on the shelf. He persisted, saying that it was quite touching and, "it's written by the same guy who did Forrest Gump," at which point I realized I would probably only consider Button if it were one of two movies on the shelf and the other was the Sex in the City movie ("Mexi-coma!" see, it was a terrible year).

Revolutionary Road
has the look and cast of an Oscar picture but I wondered throughout the film what happened to Richard Yates' arch tone--Sam Mendes starts right in with the screaming. While the details feel right (many olives in many empty martini glasses, the Wheeler's cabinetry, Leo's sunglasses at the beach), the film felt more oppressive than anything. Easily the best scenes are Michael Shannon's, precisely because he is the only hint of Yates' authorial, mocking voice--but even this is undercut by the cliched premise, "only the crazy man sees the truth." Not to mention the overwrought symbolism of Mendes' climax--oh, yes, I understand it now, it's a red stain on the perfect white carpet of 1955 America! Deep. Original. I do, however, applaud the scene where Winslet smears a handprint onto the car window while cheating on Leo--my heart will go on and on.

What about the comedies? I hid out in the bathroom during Mamma Mia!, I slept through In Bruges, I laughed hard only once at Burn After Reading (Brad Pitt's pronunciation of "rapport" and Malkovich's reaction), I waited for some real stakes in Happy-Go-Lucky and found Vicky Cristina Barcelona more breezy than sexy in spite of Penelope Cruz's best efforts.

The "intelligent" summer blockbusters were, as it turns out, average blockbusters. Iron Man's lines aren't necessarily funnier just because Robert Downey Jr. is saying them and all of Batman's lines are funny just because of (what I can only hope) is the worst voiceover in the history of the cinema. My throat is still raspy from many, many Dark Knight impersonations that weren't even 50% as ridiculous as what it actually sounded like in theaters. In defense of Batman and Iron Man, I will say they are much better than Wanted, which is, in the immortal words of my friend Kevin McCarthy, "essentially a film about a faulty loom." Quantum of Solace was good but mostly a tease--still waiting for the first full-fledged martini and theme song Daniel Craig Bond picture. And for my tastes there really wasn't enough beefcake in QOS.

I'm more bewildered by all the praise heaped on Rachel Getting Married, which centers around faux Golden Globe winner Anne Hathaway's attempt to play a "troubled girl." I found her performance flat, her personality shown through actions (casual sex, car crash, ugly tattoo) rather than acting. Instead of a realistic view into Kym's possible mental illness, her entire crisis is explained away in a rehab meeting--she is sad and damaged because she accidentally killed her brother. Rosemarie DeWitt, playing her sister, gives a much more nuanced portrait of relentless self-involvement. Even the film's best scene--the dishwasher loading competition between groom and father of the bride--is undercut by the coincidence of dead Ethan's choo-choo-train plate being revealed in a stack of dishes. Ridiculous. And the only moment I really believed Kym was when she yelled for that incessant band to shut the fuck up. I needed a break too.

I should also admit I haven't seen the potentially excellent Synecdoche, New York, The Wrestler, Milk and Che. But I imagine I will find the latter pair unsatisfying because they are biopics and the former two limited because of their directors. Here's hoping I'm wrong. Until then I'm sticking with The Class as my film of the year--can't wait to see it.