Volume 4, Number 33
This Week's Reviews: The Kid Stays in the Picture, The Good Girl, 24 Hour Party People, Merci Pour le Chocolat, I'm Going Home, Possession.
This Week's Omissions: The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Blue Crush, Tadpole.
|The Kid Stays in the Picture
BY: DAVID PERRY
"There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each one differently."
Robert Evans, the famed 1970s producer, began his 1994 autobiography with those words -- a perfect prologue to a story that involves countless subjectivities and exaggerations. The Kid Stays in the Picture takes Evans' prose (or, actually, his readings of the prose in the audio book of the autobiography) and allows the audience to get a glimpse into "the good life." He was the quintessential Angelino: rich, powerful, good looking, and tan.
Evans tells his story with a great deal of self-love. Even as he recounts the collapse of everything he ever loved, the words coming from his mouth seem to be framed with a smirk. It has been 25 years since he made anything that people might consider to be a masterpiece, but who cares? Barbara De Fina and Saul Zaentz aren't half as much fun.
It's no wonder that Evan's recording of the book became one of the biggest inter-celebrity gifts in years. He is a born storyteller -- a great attribute for a filmmaker -- crafting his own tale in such a way that cannot be discarded. As the story progresses, some of his memories seem to be a little illusory, but never are their completely impossible or uninteresting.
This, we must remember, is the man who went from being an affluent co-owner of a women's clothing company to the big-name producer at Paramount Studios. He took Gulf+Western's pricey purchase of the No. 9 studio and turned it into No. 1. He married young ingénue Ali McGraw and lost her to Steve McQueen. He saw controversy in a drug bust and a tangential connection to a murder. Oh, and in the process he made such contemporary classics as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and The Godfather.
It is easy to imagine that some of these achievements would give a guy a big head, but somehow Evans has retained some fleeting level of modesty. These stories are filled with some embellishments but most of them are followed by a few admissions of painful mistakes. The divorce from McGraw is the only one dealt with in the film even though he married five times -- within his vocalizations of these moments in his life, the pain of losing someone he so dearly loved (and seemingly still does) is tingeing the statements echoing from his gruff voice.
And all this occurred because he visited Los Angeles from his New York home and decided to take a dip in the pool one day. As a magazine of the time said, he "dived into a pool and emerged a movie star" when Norma Shearer asked him to play the role of her late husband Irving Thalberg in Man of a Thousand Faces. Evans is willing to admit that his acting was never any good, and those on the set of The Sun Also Rises were willing to agree: Ernest Hemingway, Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, and Eddie Albert sent a telegram to the producer Darryl F. Zanuck in protest. The figurehead of 20th Century Fox replied, "The kid stays in the picture." It is unknown if Zanuck had seen something in the young actor, was grateful for Evans' extensive preparations, or just angry to have his decisions questioned -- all that really matters is what it told young Robert Evans: who wants to be a mediocre actor when he can instead be the kind of authority that decides who can be in a movie in the face of an author and its stars? Excuse the expression, but a producer was born.
Directors Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgan choose to give the spotlight to only Evans, meaning that the opinions within are strictly from the "my side" of the historical spectrum. In many ways this seems to give the movie more life than would have been present in a talking head picture: Evans is willing to admit his own hyperbole and the rantings become all the more fascinating because of it. His is a story that has been told for decades through gossip -- it is great to get to hear it from a new point-of-view regardless of whether or not it is just as gossipy as the old.
Any given year is filled with a couple hundred biographies,
most of which are made for cable television. Regardless, The Kid Stays in the Picture
rises above the masses, it remains as memorable an experience as the facts it imparts.
Robert Evans has achieved a newfound celebrity simply by giving voice to his own crazy
life. This movie might not get an Oscar in a Documentary Feature category that prefers
deep and tragic films, but it is doubtful that a little gold won't come to it soon: in the
same way his career began, Robert Evans should soon be accepting a little gift named after
Irving G. Thalberg.
|The Good Girl
BY: DAVID PERRY
Every few years, the critical consensus on a film gets so large that it becomes impossible to not see the film without being reminded of what some people said as they left its screening at Telluride or Sundance or Cannes. The Good Girl first came into the fore when critics noticed it at Sundance earlier in the year -- in the months since then, it has become a rumor waiting to finally be exposed. And, following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project and The Believer, very often these ballyhooed films fail to meet expectations.
The Good Girl joins this list, coming out as an acceptable film but far from worthy of the attention. Ostensibly, the movie never reaches the heights of Sundance openers like Buffalo '66 or Donnie Darko or Pi, instead wallowing in a self-deprecation that fits with the Sundance milieu without any of the return. Miguel Arteta's play on Madame Bovary is the type of film that all too often tries to speak directly to critics, but it becomes impossible to not feel tired by the time the film hits its supposedly enlightened closing moments. It is a quiet movie preceded by loud fanfare, ultimately giving little more than an interesting but forgettable Punch and Judy Show.
Set in a Wal-Mart inspired superstore called Retail Rodeo, Mike White's screenplay zeroes in on the life of cashier Justine Last (Aniston). Finding herself in her early thirties and without any real future beyond the sales counter, Justine makes for a certainly depressing protagonist who seems to spend days effectively staring out the window at that desolate parking lot before her.
The place is filled with kooks, ranging from the Bible-thumping security guard Corny (White) to the passive authoritarian manager Jack (Lynch) to the vicious-minded cashier Cheryl (Deschanel) to the frighteningly perky makeup clerk Gwen (Rush). It becomes easy to see that Justine is the most stable person in the place and she -- like us -- soon wants out of the place.
Thankfully, there's enough humor from the kooks to make our stay in the Retail Rodeo watchable, but Justine cannot simply get her jollies watching Cheryl effectively abuse unknowing customers -- she is, of course, placing herself at their same level by working with them. As she stares out that window, her mind does not seem to be on the emptiness of the lot, but instead on the emptiness of her own life: she gave up college to marry Phil (Reilly) only to find him as little more than a couch potato with a love for his best friend Bubba (Nelson) and nightly tokes of marijuana.
Holden (Gyllenhaal), the newest addition to the Retail Rodeo family, soon becomes smitten with Justine. Though a decade younger, this college dropout and patchwork intellectual seems to have an effect on Justine unlike anything she has felt since she entered the teenage wasteland of retail sales.
He tells her he is named after the protagonist of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which Justine assumes means his name is Catcher. She's not a book-smart person, but she has more intellect than anyone else around her. She understands what has gone awry with her life even if she cannot find any way to fix it without ruining the lives of those she loves. Holden, on the other hand, does not believe there's anyone else to love, beckoning for her hand as if she were Martha Beck from The Honeymoon Killers, aimlessly looking for an explosive way out of her daily doldrums.
Jennifer Aniston deserves some credit for her film choices, but the acclaim that has been thrown on her for this performance is a bit beguiling. She is able to successfully create the dramatic tension needed between characters, but she cannot seem to hold onto the tone that Mike White is trying to balance within the film. Especially in a poorly structured scene in which Justine tries to offer Holden some blackberries she believes to be deadly, Aniston seems lost in the incomprehensibility of the action. The whole idea behind the moment never really comes across as acceptable and Justine only loses ground by seeming to embody an entirely different archetype for a moment (perhaps, at that pivotal moment Justine was embodying both Emma Bovary and Martha Beck).
Jake Gyllenhaal seems content to play the same goofy character in every movie, which is making him move from one of the more interesting performers to a one-trick pony. In fact, the parallels between his characters in The Good Girl and Lovely & Amazing (a small gem from Telluride) do not stop with the similar stories (young loner Gyllenhaal begins trysts with a depressed minimum wage worker far older than him) but also with exactly the same performances. He could have pulled off both of these characters in the same day, not because he's a versatile actor but because there's no real difference. Nicole Holofcener's film broke away from Gyllenhaal's character before his cartoon absurdness could become tiresome; unfortunately, White and Arteta seem to wallow in it from beginning to end.
The two filmmakers last worked together on the interesting
but equally disappointing Chuck & Buck two years ago. Their style of comedy
seems to come from a vicious disdain for the attributes of any person unlucky enough to be
characterized in their films. Though the laughs are occasionally there, they come in
moments when the impact feels forced and the pleasure has been muted. Their grasp on the
drama is better felt, but even it seems to be working from elements that have not been
properly reviewed and revised. The crispness of Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me
seems to be lost on Arteta, who instead places his protagonist in a lifestyle that is both
imprisoning and boring. It's too bad for the audience that both stultifying feelings come
from the movie as well.
Filth and the Fury
|24 Hour Party People
BY: DAVID PERRY
Tony Wilson should get some award for his resilience in the face of disappointment. This is the man who began a failed record label, opened a struggling nightclub, and used his Cambridge education to do idiotic man-on-the-street television reports. Wilson rubbed elbows with the biggest and the best -- in a way he was one too, but his trail of catastrophes have made him an unknown in America.
Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People is seemingly about Tony Wilson, but the film comes down to more than simply the biography of one of the least successful record label owners ever. Steve Coogan as Wilson constantly tells the audience "this is not a film about me," and in fact there is some truth to that. 24 Hour Party People comes along with so many characters and stories that it becomes hard to forget that there was a musical revolution going on under the leadership of such a goof.
The cinematic Wilson is no less talkative than the real one, constantly giving the audience commentary on the lost meaning behind an event or a chance encounter. In the middle of an early Sex Pistols gig, Wilson turns to the camera and tells us that the 42 people present would be changed in some way: he would pursue similar acts, others would start bands, a few would even be on his payroll.
The Sex Pistols are only the beginning. Factory Records would one day have contracts (some in Wilson's blood) with Joy Division, Happy Mondays, and Buzzcocks. He proved to be a personality that somehow held the place together for a couple decades -- a grand achievement considering that Factory Records didn't even hold much rights over the songs.
It is impossible to say that all the grand events in the Manchester music scene would have happened the same without Tony Wilson's presence coaxing them along. It is equally hard to miss the fact that the film shows a great amount of loss from the drugs that would fill the scene. He lost a few performers to overdoses and drug-induced suicides and his nightclub was always in the red because the ecstasy sales caused the booze sales to plummet. But, then again, how many of these great bands came to their heightened artistic abilities in the haze of some drug?
In a way, 24 Hour Party People feels like a ghost story without the supernatural elements. Seeing these people dancing with Johnny Rotten in the background or Ian Curtis' epileptic seizures that made his wobbly performances all the more avant-garde never feels cinematic. Winterbottom and cinematographer Robby Müller use digital grain to give the film a documentary quality. Even in the opening -- as Wilson poorly glides into the air before turning to the camera to point out the Icarus elements of his own life -- the film draws a thin line between reality and artifice. As the long-lost icons of the time mingle with Tony Wilson, the audience feels like they are literally watching the filmed behind the scenes actions from 1976.
In his constant attempts to prove his resilience under any type of movie, Michael Winterbottom astounds with a production that has the detailed music attention that seems more akin to the directors of Gimme Shelter than the director of Welcome to Sarajevo. In many ways, his perfect direction of the movie comes in the same package as Stephen Frears' genre-defying turn with High Fidelity. These are filmmakers who are constantly playing with film narrative in a fashion that never seems pretentious or heavy-handed. They find a love for movies and the characters they are given (whether they are real like Tony Wilson or fictitious like The Claim's Daniel Dillon) that can come to life in movies. Michael Winterbottom may never be as accepted as Stanley Kubrick, but his oeuvre thus far makes him into an interesting heir.
At the heart of the movie is Steve Coogan's performance,
which captures the voice and mannerisms of Tony Wilson. He is a force that captures the
attention of everyone -- both on the screen and in the audience -- as he tries to
understand the hysteria of Shaun Ryder or cheekily interviews a midget who cleans
elephants at the Manchester Zoo. The historical transformation of Factory Records may
never seem as groundbreaking as it actually was because the man at the top never allowed
it to eclipse the ever-growing desires he had. Coogan plays along the margins of the movie
-- a one-man, counterculture Greek chorus to comment on every small element of the time
that both marked and was marked by him.
Talented Mr. Ripley
|Merci Pour le Chocolat
BY: DAVID PERRY
With Eric Rohmer reinventing his image, Jean-Luc Godard getting lost in political manifestoes, and François Truffaut dead at a young age, the instigators of the French New Wave only have two names who are still making the same movies they were decades ago. Jacques Rivette recently returned with the amazingly charming Va Savoir while Claude Chabrol is still trying to creep under our skin with Nouvelle Vague Hitchcock in Merci Pour le Chocolat.
While he's aging, now a ripe 72, Chabrol has remained a constant reminder that the New Wave was not an attack on genre films (as has been the case with the Danish film wavers in Dogme 95). In fact, he seems to embrace his work as a mystery thriller filmmaker. Earlier this year, he finally had an American realization of his work with the underrated Adrian Lyne film Unfaithful. Looking at the audience response to the quiet morality tale, I have my doubts that Chabrol's style will be the next big thing in Hollywood.
For the seventh time, Chabrol is working with Isabelle Huppert, an actress who has not yet found an audience in America but has for decades been one of the finest performers abroad. Earlier this year, she delivered a performance in Michael Haneke's latest sado-cinematic opus that could only be called masterful. Even if her Mika character in Chabrol's film seems to come from the same strain as Erika in Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Huppert seems to find a new life in the roles without making them feel forced. The hefty weight that can be said by simply looking at her face in close-up gives more emotional information than any monologue can.
Mika Muller in Merci Pour le Chocolat has the cold resolve that was so readily apparent in Erika Kout. Here she is an heiress of a Swiss chocolate empire who has attempted to retain everything she loves by any means. Her first marriage was with concert pianist André Polonski (Dutronc) when they were young, rich, and in love. They quickly divorced but remained good friends. All this is spoken of at the beginning of the movie as the two marry for a second time.
In the time between their weddings, André married a beautiful Parisian named Lisbeth and the two had a son named Guillaume (Pauly). On Guillaume's sixth birthday, the Polonski family went to visit Mika in her family estate, the same one André and Guillaume have lived in during his second courtship with Mika. That evening Lisbeth left the house for the drug store after André discovered that he had run out of sleeping pills and her car careened off the road. An autopsy revealed Lisbeth's nightly drink of cognac and a dose of the rohypnol found in André's sleeping pills.
With André and Guillaume now in her life, Mika seems to be content with life again. And then a spark arrives to change everything -- after learning that there was a small misunderstanding at the hospital, Jeanne (Mouglalis), a young piano student living nearby, comes to believe that perhaps Guillaume and she were switched at birth. Using this as a pretense to enter André's home, Jeanne sees this as a golden opportunity to meet one of her heroes and perhaps get some help in her upcoming recital of Liszt's "Funérailles."
Chabrol doesn't really care about whether or not Jeanne is
really of Polonski lineage, instead using it as a McGuffin to setup all the events that he
wants to deal with. This is a film about the duplicity of family -- not in nursery
switching but in the search for a satisfactory domestic life. Mika is not a hideous
person, but a highly sympathetic character. The dear way that Chabrol treats her in the
film's finale has more love and compassion than would meet many characters. In a way, it
is reminiscent of Anthony Minghella's pity for Tom Ripley at the close of The Talented
Mr. Ripley -- even when killing to find the picturesque life these characters want,
we cannot help but feel some understand for their plight. In many ways, we fear that our
own needs might be as fleeting and treacherous.
|I'm Going Home
BY: DAVID PERRY
Manoel de Oliveira, still prolific at 93, has worked on movies for nearly seventy years beginning with the silent short Working on the Duoro River. Looking at his career makes I'm Going Home, a semi-silent film in its own rite, seem ever more beguiling. It becomes hard to say that the film falls into his two self-proclaimed work periods: "the stage of the people" and "the stage of the bourgeoisie." Instead, the movie seems to come from "the stage of one's self."
The movie has French actor Michel Piccoli playing Gilbert Valence in a proxy for the director. In the film, Valence is an actor (like de Oliveira was in his early career) wondering where life is going. It is a tough film to sit through, not out of any violence or perversion, but for its destitution.
I'm Going Home opens with Gilbert Valence regally playing the aging monarch in Eugène Ionesco's Enter the King. It is a grand performance, filled with the love for the stage that can be seen in the works of everyone from George Sidney to Louis Malle. Even if de Oliveira extends this sequence a little too long (I did not time it, but it was well over 15 minutes of the film's 90), it gives an uncompromising view into the character.
Oddly enough, this is the only glance at the character's emotions in the film's first section. As soon as he leaves the stage, he runs out of the frame as the other actors spread the rumor that police have taken Valence to inform him of a car crash killing his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. De Oliveira cuts away with a title "Some time later" and the audience still has not seen into its protagonist 30 minutes into the film.
If the first third is without a chance to really understand the character, the second and third section (both dominated by a meta-fictional performance) are spotlights for the insides of Gilbert Valence. He is reintroduced desolate and lonely -- the light streams down from a beautiful day as Valence sits in the darkness of his bedroom. His grandson is the only person left in his life and certainly serves as the only reason he has gotten any joy in his life since the accident.
Valence is able to play with a little metaphorical purchasing while de Oliveira portrays him as if the director is window shopping. The actor finds a pair of shoes that seem to confirm to himself the need to always fill the shoes of the roles given to him; the director plays all the events in the divided intimacy of a storefront view through glass windows.
The third section sees the last ditch efforts of a dying star: after another grand performance as Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, he becomes dislocated from the handful of roles that are open to an actor at his age. When his agent gets him the role of Buck Mulligan in a film adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses, Valence begins to feel that he has no choice. Regardless of the short time to learn the lines (a couple days) and the fact that the movie is in English (Valence is a Frenchman), the agent and the film's director (Malkovich) feel that this is the only route Valence can go. He feebly accepts.
Manoel de Oliveira seems to see this as the fearful feature
to an art house director. The Ulysses production is destined to failure and it
only serves as a strike to a feeble Gilbert Valence (wearing a wig and fake mustache to
look younger). If the life and career he has made is easily compromised by his inability
to change on a whim, how masterful an actor is he? It is a sad quandary and one that
leaves the movie at a sorely depressing note. The virility of this man was so strong when
he was on the stage; now, reclining in his upstairs bedroom, he seems all too ready to die.
House of Mirth
BY: DAVID PERRY
Last week Elias Bredsdorff died. His name may not be recognizable, but he was one of the most important names in the study of Hans Christian Andersen's works. Bredsdorff spent his life studying Anderson's life, teaching about Anderson at Cambridge University, and writing a book analyzing Anderson. Bredsdorff was a person who effectively spent his life's work trying to understand someone else's life's work.
It's amazing to think that we live in a society that has become so intent on knowing everything about anything that people have spent their entire lives trying to understand the life of another human being. It's not a love of celebrity (though there are some who have been devoted to someone like Marilyn Monroe for that reason), but a love of life and art's gentle ambiguity.
In the process, these people become voyeurs into the personal lives of their subjects. These historical figures may have never wanted certain aspects of their lives to come out, but it becomes the greatest attainment for these experts to find a long forgotten correspondence and rendezvous.
This seems to be the disclosure exciting the characters of A.S. Byatt's Possession. The book won the Booker Prize in 1990, a hit because of its own attempt to understand Victorian prose. Though not of the same caliber as Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize the previous year, Byatt's work stands as a great reminder of the love of reading. Alas, Neil LaBute's film version only seems to be looking at the love of discoveries, both historical and contemporary.
The choice to read Byatt's story a different way is not necessarily damning, but it does cause some loss of the impact she had carefully created in the novel. LaBute, we must remember, never really seemed like a director who would look at the bookworm love -- this is the director who has been obsessed with the meanness at the core of love, not the lyricism. His view of the story is relatively controlled, especially in comparison to In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, thanks to a certain Americanized dissatisfaction that was rightly absent in Byatt's novel.
Instead of looking at the bookishness and social classifications inherent in British intelligentsia, the film instead tries to create conflict between its modern characters by pitting post-colonial Americanism against snobby Briticism. Maud Bailey (Paltrow) wears her frumpy clothes as if she has been waiting for a person to push her to the metamorphosis out of her shell; Roland Michell (Eckhart) absently stares into an abyss of English-American conflict by throwing out observations akin to the first draft of a C-level football player's term paper. These dishonest portrayals reek of the director's attempt to balance Byatt's starchiness with an American linebacker's mentality.
Thankfully, the paralleled story that shows the secret love affair between fictitious authors Randolph Henry Ash (Norton), a beacon of good husbandry, and Christabel LaMotte (Ehle), a proto-feminist lesbian, has more chemistry than anything seen in recent movies. This is not treated as a carnal attraction, but one that pits two people in an intellectual mêlée that can only lead to some form of affection. These moments have the life of Byatt's novel with the stunning cinematography by Jean-Yves Escoffier and production design by Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker (the minds behind The Remains of the Day and Howards End). Even when the modern moments are failing to really retain any real footing, these past moments serve as constant reminders of why Byatt deserved her Booker Prize and Arrighi and Whittaker deserve their Oscar nominations.
Unfortunately, the real focal point of LaBute's tale seems
to be in his Maud-Roland affair, where he's able to establish interest through writing and
mise-en-scene, he struggles to keep that interest since nothing between these two ever
really meets the high standards created by the Randolph-Christabel moments. Neil LaBute
has the talent to realize his characters even if his writing with David Henry Hwang and
Laura Jones cannot seem to remain on the same wavelength as the growing characters. It
becomes amazing to look at what he can do with his abridging of A.S. Byatt's Possession
even if the final appeal seems to be more the satisfaction of him screaming "see, I
can do costume drama" than the actual achievement of his own work. Neil LaBute wants
us to feel like we've discovered a new side of him, but it's hard to praise a discovery
when its disclosure is aligned with so much self-proclaimed fanfare.