Volume 4, Number 21
This Week's Reviews: The Importance of Being Earnest, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog, Pépé le Moko.
This Week's Omissions: Enough, Pauline & Paulette, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
Up at the
|The Importance of Being
BY: DAVID PERRY
One reader recently e-mailed me to ask why I use outside quotes so often. I answered, "Through my years as both a film viewer and book reader, I have picked up collections of quotes that stick to me. Unlike the epigram collections by Forrest Gump (née Winston Groom) and Rudy of Survivor, my wit and wisdom comes from other people: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rilke, Thoreau, Sartre, Longfellow, Steinbeck, et al. Whenever I see a film that brings to mind one of these quotes, I jump at the chance to use it. Occasionally I look up quotes (as I had to do last week with two of my three Frailty quotes), but most of the times you see a quotation mark in one of my reviews, chances are it's some little colloquialism or axiom that I just could not get out of my head and wanted to share with all my readers. I guess it is my niche."
Though I don't think I've ever used one for a review, a large amount of my quote collection comes from the witty mind of Oscar Wilde. Through his plays, Wilde has made his mark in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations as well as the Oxford and Webster quotations dictionaries. His biggest and best works -- The Picture of Dorian Gray, An Ideal Husband, A Woman of No Importance -- have created nearly as many fine quotes as Shakespeare, though no single work can compare in its quotability -- from Shakespeare, Wilde, or another -- than Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
The play, his final work before going to English prison for being openly gay, is like a treasure trove of memorable lines, all humorous. "In married life three is company and two none," "Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die," and "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness" automatically come to mind, with many more on the backburner. The latest film adaptation of the play may be a tough concoction of cinematic dallying with the original text, but the reason why Oliver Parker's latest Wilde production succeeds are in that oh so wonderful dialogue.
Parker last worked with Wilde in 1999 when he made the marvelous adaptation of An Ideal Husband, which transcended the original work into a form more than becoming its tone and purpose. I had not read An Ideal Husband before seeing the movie, which may have helped my enjoyment of the film, for I was unable to nitpick over any changes, only feeling rewarded by what I was privy to.
That's not the case with The Importance of Being Earnest, which I have read and know well. Every use of artistic license by the filmmakers seems to jump out like a panther attacking. When Parker portrays knight and damsel dreams for young and impressionable Cecily (Witherspoon), I worried where the film was going; when Parker subjects flirty femme Gwendolen (O'Connor) to a bare-cheeked tattoo, I cringed for dear Oscar.
Though the settings, edits, and occasional flashes have been changed (in some cases to show off the grand sets and locales used for the film, in other cases to infuse the film with some humor that's slightly more contemporary in nature), the story remains much the same: Jack Worthing (Firth) is an English gentleman of wealth who leads a double life. In the country, he is Uncle Jack to his young ward Cecily Cardew, the granddaughter of the man who became Jack's guardian upon discovering Jack as a baby in a handbag. In the city, he is Ernest, a meager man who can dine with the showgirls and shirk his tab at the Savoy.
As Ernest, Jack has found a friendship with Algernon Moncrieff, who learns of Jack's double life and of his beautiful, rich niece. To get closer to Cecily, Algernon decides to travel to Jack's country manor in Woolton telling everyone that he is Jack's brother Ernest. Algernon as Ernest proposes to Cecily; Jack as Ernest proposes to Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon's cousin. Trying to decide some way to break it to their betrothed that they are not who they have said they are, Algernon and Jack soon find even more trouble as the two women finally meet and compare notes.
Oscar Wilde's dialogue comes to life from performers who are well equipped to throw the masterful values and barbs. Firth and Everett (who previously played a Wilde role in Parker's An Ideal Husband) have a perfect rapport between them, playing friends who are constantly at odds. Meanwhile, O'Connor and Witherspoon delicately balance their characters' statuses and their dainty attempts to beguile their lovers. However, some of the finest scenes come from supporting players Wilkinson (as a local priest), Massey (as Cecily's tutor), and Dench (as Gwendolen's mother), who have in their careers played roles that had that prickly Oscar Wilde comic edge.
These actors all do gangbusters with the Wilde work, which remains consistently enjoyable throughout. The only real problems are in the Oliver Parker changes, most of which are unneeded and only cause the film to lose much of its ideal timing.
Wilde wrote in Intentions "Every great man nowadays
has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography." This is
definitely true for Wide, with his collection of admirers ranging from the casual readers
to the stage actors to the film directors. There's already been a fine biographical film
on his life in Brian Gilbert's Wilde, which went beyond that Judas statement; I
suppose The Importance of Being Earnest gets to take that title, as it is dulled
by those presupposing flourishes. To yet again quote Wilde: "Most people are other
people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions
|My Big Fat Greek Wedding
BY: DAVID PERRY
Girl meets boy. They fall in love. Boy meets girl's family. All hell breaks loose.
This is a common story for your melting pot comedy, which has grown from WASPs v. WASPs in Father of the Bride to WASPs v. Italians in The Godfather. WASPs v. Greeks has its day with the new comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which comes from the one-woman show Nia Vardalos put on in Canada and New York. Rita Wilson, who has Greek heritage on her mother's side, saw the show and told her husband Tom Hanks that she wanted to adapt it to the screen -- bringing in co-producer David Coatsworth, Vardalos' little monologue turned into a semi-wide release feature film.
In the original show, Vardalos told of the relationship that she had with fellow Second City cast member Ian Gomez. When her parents learned of her impending marriage to a non-Greek, they flipped, turning their evidently stereotypical Greek actions into cartoons that might scare away Ian and his anal retentive parents. All this made for a charming stage production that could use Vardalos terrific attributes as a narrative storyteller.
That narration is only a small part of the film version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which escalates the ethnic stereotyping to a visual level rarely seen in this political correct era. The occasional narration with its visualization makes a small chuckle, but some of it looses something in the translation, becoming too over-the-top without the already high-strung farce of the imagination.
Like her real story, the film follows a young ugly duckling Greek girl, Toula Portokalos (Vardalos), as she begins to come out of her frumpy faze and date. At 30, Toula has already been seen as a lost cause for her parents Gus (Constantine) and Maria (Kazan), who think she'll forever wait tables at the family restaurant instead of meeting the criteria of any successful Greek girl: marry a Greek man, have some Greek babies, and feed everyone for the rest of her life.
After throwing out her glasses and schoolmarm attire, Toula enrolls in the local community college to learn computer applications and finds that life really is rather great beyond her Greek "calling." Getting a job running the computer at the travel agency owned by her Aunt Voula (Martin), Toula gets the freedom from the orthodoxy controlling her life that allows her to fall in love with Ian Miller (Corbett), a WASP high school teacher. The Portokalos family proclaims their disdain for Toula's choice in a fiancé, leaving the poor guy to begin the steps to placate them, even converting to Greek Orthodox so that they can get married in that church.
Within all the sitcom scenerios abound in this little film (not surprising considering that director Joel Zwick is a veteran of shows ranging from Laverne and Shirley to Family Matters), is a highly unconventional love for the clichés America has for our Greco-American friends. Unfortunately, the stereotypes are so broad that they become too close to cartoons before the film putters away at their melodramatics and boisterous dancing. The love for her family that Vardalos shows is unquestionable, but the willingness to ridicule what they consider to be normal is rather disheartening.
Not surprisingly, though, the best performances come from
the actors given the most room to play-up the Greek typecasting. Michael Constantine and
Lainie Kazan play roles similar to many others they have portrayed, but rarely have they
put so much heart into them. Meanwhile, the always exaggerated Andrea Martin has a ball
with the urban legend throwing, vegetarian misinterpreting mensch aunt (the role could
easily have been a character walking off the Hester Street set). Unfortunately,
Martin, one of the most recognizable faces from Second City, also reminds the audience how
this film is little more than a good sketch comedy routine pushed into a 90-minute body.
While the laughs are still there, they are not enough to fill the entire duration without
lagging in redundancy.
I Am Sam
|How to Kill Your Neighbor's
BY: DAVID PERRY
If there's anything American movies have evidently perfected other than special effects driven action films, it's the suburban milieu story. According to the films that have come to multiplexes in recent years -- American Beauty, Life as a House -- people are only as depressed as their surroundings, and the most depressing surroundings are those close-neighbor suburbs that litter the outskirts of the fun-loving liberal cities.
The Brett Ratner film The Family Man got to be the rare example of a movie switching the normal blue state vs. red state mentality, though its peachiness (a ham fisted attempt at making a modern It's a Wonderful Life) helped bring the movie into a state of turmoil: if the red state dwelling is so much better, why then is the American dream to live the life of those in the blue states? It's as frustrating a question to answer as choosing a person to vote for when the presidential nominees are Al Gore and George W. Bush.
Indie films, where this quandary was honed in the first place (as is often the case with any sub-genre), gets to take another punch at the question with How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog. Beginning with a cloying photo montage, a schlock music score, and a deadpan voice over, you get the early impression that star Kenneth Branagh will meet the same fate as those other sad-sack suburbanites Kevin Kline and Kevin Spacey, who contracted cancer and took a shot to the head to get out of the melancholy worlds (of course, for the sake of irony, just as they came to see their worlds were not so bad). Luckily, nothing like this dramatic happens within the movie, which does have some sentimentality inopportunely thrown in, but still comes out of the affair with a regard far exceeding the early expectations.
Branagh plays Peter McGowan, a successful California playwright (as one TV talk show host remarks, a rare breed for that locale) who has moved with his loving wife Melanie (Penn) into a nice, spacious home that will allow him the room to write in and her the room to raise a baby in. Peter is not terribly excited about the prospect of procreating, like the best existentialist, he questions the love any parent would have who would bring a small child into this world.
A 8-year-old, Amy Walsh (Hofrichter) moves in next door, practically wearing a sign that says "Peter's route to sensible parenting." She has cerebral palsy and her mother (Jenney) is seemingly more worried with what people will think of her handicapped daughter than with Amy's own happiness. Peter and Melanie sense this, allowing Peter to spend much of the day with them so that she can actually have fun outside of her self-conscious, highly protective home life.
All of this plays to the backdrop of Peter's new play, which is rehearsing under the direction of a flamboyant wunderkind (Krumholtz) and a punch-drunk producer (Riegert) with moody, conceited actors (Schaech and Hopkins). As Peter tries desperately to secure his own home life, as well as Amy's and an impersonating stalker (Harris), he must bid to all the whims of his colleagues in the play. It's a rather impossible existence to hold for the normal man.
This is Branagh's film, and whether or not you respond positively to his left coast Woody Allen is the deciding factor on the enjoyment of the film. I liked his self-effacing, self-loathing speeches, usually spiked with enough disdain for life to make Kafka tear-up. Branagh is not a wholly commanding performer when working outside his Shakespearean calling, but he works well here, even if his casting seems rather odd at first.
Most of the other actors simply play off of whatever Branagh says, which makes most of the roles rather forgettable (in fact, I had to look up character names for this review -- only Peter stuck with me). The screenplay by director Michael Kalesniko tries to allow them some room for their respective talents, but those with the most time (especially Schaech) give lukewarm responses to the screentime they are denying from others.
As a city dweller caught in the quasi-urbanity of a red
state, some of the film came close to home, though my derision lacks the hate and
precision that How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog graciously announces. Full of odd
characters, odd scenerios, and odd dialogue, the movie has the liveliness of a toned-down
Fellini film with Jean-Paul Sartre writing the screenplay.
the Piano Player
|Pépé le Moko
BY: DAVID PERRY
still the same old story,
One of the most well known lines from Casablanca
was "We'll always have Paris,"
Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, though, is not the only film to draw its soul from Julien Duvivier's 1937 masterpiece -- with the French New Wave directors alone, the movie became a centerpiece of a marriage between the moodiness of French Renoir and the quick-wit of American Hawks. Jean-Pierre Melville went with Bob le Flambeur, François Truffaut went with Shoot the Piano Player, and Jean-Luc Godard went with both Breathless and Pierrot le Fou, where the mirroring between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Pépé star Jean Gabin is only blunted by Godard's own adolescent absurdity.
Nevertheless, 65 years since its release in France, Pépé le Moko never seems like a meager precursor to many fine films. In fact, it stands alone on a pedestal unlike many of the other films being made in Europe at the time as nations rallied behind the arts to convince them that the world was still good, war was not eminent -- just look at Germany's La Habanera the same year where Douglas Sirk (then Detlef Sierck) portrayed the Americas as the hotbed of turmoil, not the stable Europe.
Duvivier, like Jean Renoir, saw the fatalism in his own nation at the time and infused his movie with the struggling existentialism of a nation sitting directly beside the all-powerful foe. Soon after Duvivier moved around the casbah of Algiers, Renoir made his own tragic commentary on his country with Grand Illusion, a more sociological- centered statement on class resentment bringing about the Great War (and possibly, the war brewing on the other side of Alsace-Lorraine). Michael Curtiz borrowed heavily from both films in Casablanca, which, like the others, was released directly before its home country entered World War II.
Despite all the heralding thrown upon Pépé le Moko, the American compendium of foreign classics has long been without its inclusion. This is partly because Hollywood distributors chose to keep the film out of American theatres so it could not hurt the release of their own remake, 1938's Algiers (the film was again remade in 1948 with the musical Casbah). Most people today (at least among those over the age of 50 and/or those who watch Turner Classic Movies regularly) consider the character of Pépé le Moko to be the creation of Algiers star Charles Boyer, missing out on a wonderful Jean Gabin performance in the original.
The story throughout the different versions is of French gangster extraordinaire Pépé, who pretty much has the entire casbah of Algiers in his grasp. For the past two years, he has eluded authorities by sticking around the casbah, where a network of criminal associates keep him a couple steps ahead of the police at all times.
As defectors within his organization begin to make his survival (as well as the survival of his closest allies) less likely, Inspector Slimane (Gridoux), develops a scheme that will finally get Pépé out of the casbah and into the hands of his long-waiting officers. Slimane thinks that the odd way Pépé is drawn to visiting Parisian Gaby (Balin) may be the ticket to getting him to step foot out of his hideaway. In fact, Pépé has fallen in love with the unintentional femme fatale, discarding his obedient gypsy girlfriend Inés (Noro).
With lush location shooting, a dutiful cast (especially the iconic Gabin), and a delightful score by Vincent Scotto and Mohamed Ygerbouchen (which was reused for Algiers), Pépé le Moko is as strong a picture today as it was in its original release. Rialto, which has been the giants in restoring classic films like Grand Illusion, Rififi, and The Third Man, have brought the film back to theatre screens in a 35mm print that does lack the pristine look of some of their previous efforts but still holds true to their work to bring quality back to cinemas. Duvivier's work has been missing in action for so long that any print in theatres, even the most battered and beaten, is a treat for any cineaste.
Like most of the other Rialto releases, Pépé le Moko
has an importance to film history that almost eclipses its own cinematic graces. The
character of Pépé le Moko serves as part of a full circle of strong gangsters in the
foreign noir. Though not the first, his presence is unlike any others -- among the
cinematic French mob he could have been the Vito Corleone of the French imperial states,
lovingly watching over his corrupt but resolute rule. Smalltime thugs like Tony le
Stephanois, Bob the Gambler, and Michel Poiccard would look up to him with awe -- much
like the way those characters' creators looked up to Duvivier.