Volume 4, Number 17
This Week's Reviews: Italian for Beginners, The Cat's Meow, Scotland, Pa.
This Week's Omissions: Crush, The Independent, Life or Something Like It.
Capsule Reviews: High Crimes, The Scorpion King.
|Italian for Beginners
BY: DAVID PERRY
The list of introductory Dogme 95 productions -- The Celebration, The King Is Alive, The Idiots, Mifune -- were all efforts at Scandinavian milieu, complete with abusive parents, abusive siblings, and abusive spouses. Even the knock-off films, including American indie julien donkey-boy, were relegated to this down-in-the-dumps cinematic style.
For that reason the latest Dogme film Italian for Beginners comes as one of the biggest surprises of the year. This is not some revolutionary moment in filmmaking (though some would comment that the first Dogme film, The Celebration, was), but is notable for the fact that it is not the same doom and gloom Dogme film that art house denizens have seen come around from Denmark's auteurs de rigueur collection.
Lone Scherfig chose to make a romantic comedy with the aesthetic rules set by the Dogme founders. In tone, the movie is similar since the cinéma vérité virtues are still clear -- through handheld cameras and natural lighting, the disparages of the characters are a little more highlighted. Scherfig also shows a liking towards close-ups of the characters' faces, which further emphasizes the fact that the problems number as highly as the visible pores on their faces.
Ostensibly, Italian for Beginners is light and cuddly, but so much of the feeling comes prearranged by a century of Scandinavian cinema that the rom-com virtues become non-existent in particular moments (would Runaway Bride have made as much money if Julia Roberts struggled under the fist of her masochistic father? Would Pretty Woman have been such a hit if she needed to enact euthanasia on her mentally abusive mother?). Only in the film's finale does the audience truly come to understand that despite the occasional moment of misery, Italian for Beginners is an about-face from the Dogme agony.
The film deals with the coupling of six desolate souls in a small Danish town where they share a devotion: the Italian language. Andreas (Berthelsen) has just been brought into town to take over as pastor of the local church after the old pastor (Mejding) lost his religion; Jørgen (Gantzler) is the manager at the hotel Andreas is staying at; Halvfinn (Kaalund) is the aggressive manager of the hotel sports bar and Jørgen's best friend; Olympia (Støvelbæk) is the clumsy attendant at the local bakery shop; Giulia (Jensen) is the Italian waitress at the sports bar with an interest in Jørgen; and Karen (Jørgensen) is a hairdresser who gets many of her customers from the hotel when Jørgen recommends guests to her.
When the film begins, Halvfinn and Jørgen, as well as three old ladies, make up the entire student body in the weekly adult education class on conversational Italian -- Halvfinn is already pretty fluent in the language from a pack of Italian soccer players who taught him when they regularly patronized the sports bar, Jørgen is there just to learn the language so he can speak to Giulia. Soon Andreas and Olympia join in an effort to find some companionship through the educational class (and, they find it in each other) and Karen joins when she finds a long unknown bond with Olympia and a kindling love with Halvfinn. By then, the language doesn't even matter anymore.
Taking into account the film movement that brought about Italian for Beginners, the film's ending scenes turn out to be some of the biggest modesties of the year. With the self-destruction that has filled much of the Dogme films thus far -- from the ethereal in The Celebration to the sadistic in The Idiots -- the happiness that comes to life in Italian for Beginners must be seen as the biggest departure yet attempted in this already tiresome film wave (despite a slow release schedule in America, Italian for Beginners is actually the 12th Dogme film).
Considering the Dogme classification that begins the film, Italian
for Beginners feels unusually strained by its own pretense. If not for the
stipulations that run a Dogme production (and the critical ink brought upon it simply
because of the connection) Italian for Beginners could have easily been made like
the superior Together, which enjoyed the vérité without the pretentiousness.
Lone Scherfig's Dogme entry is better than the entries from founders Lars von Trier and
Kristen Levring. At least it can be said that the film is the first Dogme film that could
have been made in Hollywood. And, with a few alterations, Julia Roberts could star.
Up at the
|The Cat's Meow
BY: DAVID PERRY
On 19 November 1924, the Oneida, William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon stationed yacht, had a sudden removal from its decks. That evening, one of the ship's 14 guests was mortally wounded and would die just days later. Anyone who has read Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon already knows the murder theory bandied out in Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow (and, for that matter, the identity of the victim, which shall not be revealed in this review at the request of the filmmaker), but they miss out on the fun that is constantly present in the film.
Bogdanovich has spent much of his life working in the footsteps of the greatest directors of Hollywood history. Through his films and his books (despite being known mainly as a filmmaker, most cinema lovers would happily note him as an indispensable writer of books on films and their makers), he has elevated out of merely being the director of What's Up Doc?, Paper Moon, and The Last Picture Show (though few people will question that he has made any other films of interest), and into the notoriety of being a rare film historian who actually rubbed elbows with the heroes he documents (if the LA Times knew how to best use their film critics they would have already pressed Kevin Thomas to do a retrospective on Bogdanovich's career).
One of the bigger names that Bogdanovich befriended was Orson Welles, whose seminal 1941 film Citizen Kane fictionalized the life of Hearst. Their time together bore one of the most interesting books between two filmmakers (only comparable to François Truffaut's interview with Alfred Hitchcock) with This is Orson Welles, a compendium of facts and rumors settled through a decade of friendship. Welles admitted that he had once intended to film a sequence based upon the 19 November incident but ultimately decided that it would not work too well to continue his story of Charles Foster Kane. Perhaps that is why Bogdanovich has chosen to make The Cat's Meow -- Bogdanovich finally gets to posthumously give something to Welles that he was never before able to do himself.
The party was mainly meant as a gathering of the Hollywood elite on the Oneida, though its proximity to the birthday of movie producer Thomas H. Ince (Elwes) meant that Hearst (Herrmann) could have an excuse for the get together. Among the other 12 on the boat were aristocratic novelist Elinor Glyn (Lumley), Hearst gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Tilly), aspiring actress Margaret Livingston (Harrison), Hearst mistress Marion Davies (Dunst), and contemporary celebrity Charlie Chaplin (Izzard). However, the facts over that evening have become so debated that no one knows if those people were really on the yacht that evening.
Like Gosford Park, the murder that occurs late in the film serves as little more than an addendum to the director's central interest. Where Robert Altman had his eyes on British class differences in the 1920's, Bogdanovich is intent on the Hollywood history at the same time. The way Bogdanovich films certain aspects of the film -- from characters dancing the Charleston to the nimble face of Marion Davies -- seems like the gaze of an enamored fanboy. There's never been a movie so simultaneously in wonderment over the time and in love with the people; so lovingly has Bogdanovich made this movie that when the movie falters it seems regrettable but still condonable.
Due to the mystery of the story, much of the film has to work with guesses by the director and screenwriter Steven Peros (from his own play) and the embellishments feel forced. Especially as the filmmakers must piece together ways Hearst was involved in the death's cover-up, the suspension of disbelief begins to crumble. Yes, Hearst's power over many people was unquestionable, but the way various characters -- previously shown as sprite and independent -- show a willingness to play his game feels awkward. Only in dealing with Parsons (whose contract always seemed rather odd) does the movie give a suitable answer, though they then recycle it elsewhere (is this a mistake by the filmmakers or was that really the only tool Hearst could use on those particular people?).
Though affectionate to a fault, some of the most notable aspects are in the actors Bogdanovich assembles to play his famous characters. Izzard perfectly captures that smooth self-assurance that supposedly characterized the off-screen Chaplin; Lumley gives Glyn the dry emotion that one would expect based upon some of her novels; Tilly literally evokes the spirit of Parsons, who could be the most unsettling people to pop around Hollywood (if the LA Times knew how to best use their gossip columnists they would have already pressed Patrick Goldstein to do a retrospective on Parsons' career); Dunst is ethereal as the lively Davies, whose career was growing at leaps and bounds on the shoulders of her lover; and Herrmann not only looks like Hearst but also pulls out a performance that is incredibly similar to the constantly threatened power-monger that has been documented over the years (think J. Edgar Hoover with a little J.P. Morgan).
Lumley as Glyn best sums up the movie in her framing
narration, which reminds the audience that this is not simply the story of celebrities and
their suspicious dealings, but of a way of life that ran a city like Hollywood for years.
Today gossip is a constant facet of entertainment journalism but it is of a different
degree. For every photo of Brad Pitt nude and story of Tom Cruise's alleged homosexuality,
there's a hint of the ghost of Louella Persons. Today, CNN covers the possibility that
Robert Blake killed his wife; the Hollywood yesteryear that saw people like Chaplin,
Livingston, Davies, Glyn, Ince, Parsons, and Hearst has been taken over by a world that
now finds the celebrity lives more interesting than their own. Maybe Bogdanovich is right,
those were the best of times -- eavesdropping, affairs, murder, and all.
I Hate About You
BY: DAVID PERRY
In Henry IV, Part II William Shakespeare wrote "Past and to come seem best; things present worst;" in Richard II he wrote "O! Call back yesterday, bid time return." As revisionist Shakespeare becomes more commonplace than the actual cinematic productions of his text, these words calling for a return to yesteryear seem all the more pertinent. In the past two years, revisions of Hamlet, King Lear, Love's Labour's Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Titus Andronicus have popped up, with only the occasional television movie keeping with the original text.
Each revised edition has its niche to fall into -- the 1930s musical, the teen-angst drama -- and Scotland, Pa. is no exception. It is a satire on everything from Shakespeare to the fast food business to the rural bumpkins. The disdain it seethes comes from a hatrid for the low paying, high maintenance jobs that people have tolled at for decades. It just so happens that the story of Macbeth can be used as a way to portray this odium.
Set in the small town of Scotland, Pennsylvania, in the 1970s, the movies looks at the way ambition can get the best of people as they try to make a fortune out of the fast food industry. Norm Duncan (Rebhorn) has sold his interests in a line of donut shops and turned to burgers. Though the single Duncan's shop is not doing remarkable business, it is serving as a statement of pride for Duncan and the legacy he can leave his sons: a wannabe Gene Simmons in Malcolm (Guiry) and a wannabe Liza Minnelli in Donald (Dunsworth), neither of whom really care about it.
This leaves an opening for someone to take over the place. Through the pushing of his wife Pam (Tierney), Joe McBeth (LeGros) kills Duncan and takes over the place from the kids. With his additions to the place (like a fry truck and a drive thru window), McBeth's becomes the hit of the burger chain business, moving these two lovers out of the trailer park and into the mansion (at least by Scotland standards).
Everything seems perfect until the state sends in an investigator, Lt. Ernie McDuff (Walken), to investigate Duncan's murder, which has moved from simply a robbery case into possibly a patricide. As he continues to snoop around, everyone near the McBeth's begin to question the way they have come into power, including Joe's best friend Anthony 'Banco' Banconi (Corrigan).
Anyone who has read Macbeth can notice the similarities in the synopsis, and the connections do not end there. Director/screenwriter Billy Morrissette also adds the three witches (in the form of hippies played by Andy Dick, Amy Smart, and Timothy 'Speed' Levitch) and that damn spot (in the form of an imagined grease stain). He seems to have had fun trying to incorporate as much of the play into this movie that the film begins to strain at the seams as it fails both as a revision of the play and as a satire.
Meant to be a comedy, most of what is found in Scotland, Pa. fails to really induce many laughs. There are times in which something entertaining comes about in the midst of the film, but most of the film is spent in such puerile humor that nothing really strikes a smile.
Even though the laughs are few and far between, at least the satirical edge can be highly defined and intriguing, but, in the end, nothing really comes about from this in Scotland, Pa. The audience can easily infer that working the skillet in burger joint isn't any fun, especially when the managers and owners are incredibly inept, but none of this comes in with a sting that might convince the audience that they are peering into something important. This is not Network; this is not The China Syndrome.
As much as I love the play, none of my criticisms come from
a disliking towards trivializing it in such a fashion. On the contrary, I respect any
filmmaker willing to tackle something like this, because he or she knows ahead of time
that they are going to have a tough time meeting the standards set by others. Some have
succeeded immensely like Julie Taymor (Titus) and Michael Almereyda (Hamlet),
and then some just follow in the footsteps of Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) and
Kenneth Branagh (Love's Labour's Lost). Too bad Billy Morrissette is in the
latter camp, reminding us that sometimes it would be nice to go back when no one had
messed the Bard's best works.
Capsule Reviews: Since things are backlogged and there happens to be two spots in this week's lineup, I have decided to use capsule reviews for High Crimes and The Scorpion King (plus, they were not viewed in a theatre). Though, as I said in the last capsule review column, these would be better suited if they were called "Flippant Remarks."
(Dir: Carl Franklin, Starring Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Jim Caviezel, Amanda Peet, Adam Scott, Bruce Davison, Tom Bower, and Juan Carlos Hernández)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Each film since Carl Franklin's breakthrough indie hit One
False Move helps to continue worries that the neo-noir hit was a fluke. High
Crimes, a hackneyed courtroom/ military/romantic amalgam, tries to work on many
levels but fails at nearly all of them. Overwrought Ashley Judd and pompous Jim Caviezel
performances make this film feel intentionally funny at times, but then it veers back into
self-absolution and relationship preaching, digging itself into a trench it cannot get out
|The Scorpion King
(Dir: Chuck Russell, Starring The Rock, Michael Clarke Duncan, Steven Brand, Kelly Hu, Bernard Hill, Grant Heslov, Peter Facinelli, and Ralph Moeller)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Lumbering wrestler-turned-actor The Rock (aka Dwayne
Johnson) plays the mythic adventurer the Scorpion King in the third installment from The
Mummy franchise. This prequel does deliver more interesting characters than the
previous two films, but it still lacks any real support from credible characters and
scenarios. Tired jokes do not help the matters, nor does the continually horrendous visual
effects found in these movies. But, at least it probably made Steven Sommers proud.
|BUY THIS FILM'S
|BUY THIS FILM'S