the look

Pasolini’s Edipo re (Oedipus Rex) (Pasolini, Italy, 1967)


“all jane austen, all the time!”

I suppose The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord, USA, 2007) does exactly what it’s intended to do—it’s a fluffy, effervescent modern romance tale with a(n extremely) thin veneer of pseudo-literariness, compliments of the ever-oh-so-en vogue Jane Austen who has become this kind of fetishized symbol of courtship and unattainable romance. Once you get past the glaring reality that this imitation is in no way an adequate substitution for the original, it’s quite pleasant in its low-key kind of way. The film assembles a formidable cast of female acting talent—Maria Bello, Amy Brennamen, Kathy Baker, Maggie Grace and the ever-talented superstar-in-the-making Emily Blunt—not exactly a roster of “A List” talent, but from a more under-the-radar brand of actress who does an extremely fine job at fleshing out portraits of women who are damaged and maybe a touch eccentric, but who are also immediately recognizable. They’re the type of unassuming, rarely-heralded performances that feel genuinely “lived in.”

The material itself is unfortunately riddled with contrivances as events in the character’s lives mirror the latest Austen book they are reading for their book club, and when the conclusion rolls around with Austen-esque reconciliation and marital happiness for everyone involved (which isn’t a spoiler, btw) it comes off as particularly unsatisfying, even borderline insipid (if anything, it just emphasizes how much skill went into Austen’s novels). Basically, the material is rubbish but the caliber of the performances and some of the offhand moments means it can’t be wholly dismissed either.

doc double dip

There’s really not much to say about Wordplay (Patrick Creadon, USA, 2006)—it’s the type of documentary that dominated the form before Michael Moore for better or worse “revolutionized” and/or “popularized” the form. It’s perfect for Sunday afternoon network television, and that’s actually exactly how I happened to see it (compliments of PBS). That’s not to say in its modesty its not engrossing—Creadon has assembled a colorful cast of characters ranging from famous crossword puzzle enthusiasts like Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls to committed professionals like Tyler Hinman and Ellen Ripstein, former champions of the annual Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (winners are generally considered the best crossword solvers in the world). The film culminates with the tournament, where we follow most of the professionals we’ve been introduced to puzzle, fret and sweat over timed puzzles which they master with dazzling, laser-like speed, precision and ingenuity. I guess it says a lot that as the final stages of the tournament unfolded I ended up abandoning my unpacked boxes lying around my new apartment and watched riveted for the remainder of the film.

Another conventionally-constructed doc with more explosive subject matter is For the Bible Tells Me So (Daniel G. Karslake, USA, 2007), which dares explore the landmine-rigged terrain of homosexuality within the American church, particularly focusing on the effects of a son or daughter coming out within the context of the traditional conservative Protestant family. As a critic I can’t make any claims of art for it, but as a gay man with a conservative, religious family struggling to come to grips with that reality I can certainly assert to the films power and potency. The merits of For the Bible Tells Me So rests in its careful, almost obsessively even-handed approach—it’s careful to present as many sides of the issue as possible, and never resorts to demonizing the parents, even those that remain steadfastly dubious of their child’s sexual orientatation.

In a relatively short amount of time a number of powerful personal stories unfold: the ascension of Gene Robinson from devout but sexually confused father to bishop of New Hampshire Episcopal Church, former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt’s lesbian daughter Chrissy who has come to be a spokesperson for her father’s presidential campaign, and young Jake Reitan who managed to not only convince his parents of the legitimacy of his sexual preference, but inspired them to join him in his crusade taking on that incredibly destructive conservative juggernaut known as Focus on the Family.  Their attempted confrontation with the organization is probably the most affecting moment in the film.

The film is also peppered with Biblical scholars debating and explicating on the few but oft-quoted Bible verses regarding homosexuality, though admittedly since all are sympathetic to GLBT rights the scholarly input comes off as inevitably one-sided.  Of course it would have been ideal if James Dobson & Co. had gone on the record to espouse their own views, but I’m sure they are well aware that they would not have come off particularly well even in a context as neutral as this. Aside from one brief cartoon meant to paraphrase the APA’s views on homosexuality that comes off as a bit too glib and condescending (it relies much to heavily on stereotypes that the rest of the film works so hard to avoid), For the Bible Tells Me So is a rather important achievement. Now if only it manages to find some kind of an audience outside of the already converted…

“dad’s bags aren’t gonna make it”

Just a few moments into The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and it all made sense to me—at some point someone is going to bundle up all of Wes Anderson’s films into a stylish box set, and the resulting collection is going to be the cinematic equivalent of reading J.D. Salinger’s 9 Stories. For better or worse, it seems pretty clear that like the elusive author, Anderson has settled upon carefully attending to a little universe he has created, one comprised of a very select group of actors playing variations of essentially the same characters in what are essentially variations of the same stories. And just like I happen to like Salinger, I happen to like Anderson’s whimsical little tales for what they are, all the while acknowledging that what I’m witnessing is essentially a limited, extremely insular worldview.  But that’s very much the pleasure of it as well.

Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is the text that seems to hover over the Anderson oeuvre, and if from it The Royal Tenenbaums brilliantly took its cues for character, setting and tone, then The Darjeeling Limited gleans from it structure, form and content, with Hotel Chevalier, a brief, impressionistic tale of romantic miscommunication playing Franny to the Zooey-esque spiritual searchings of the feature length Darjeeling Limited. Like Zooey, The Darjeeling Limited is a story of misplaced spiritual yearning, with the desire for an elusive mystical experience covering for a much deeper, more important need: that of emotional healing. The main difference, of course, is that Zooey takes place in a single overstuffed apartment in Manhattan while Anderson packs his characters off to India to come to essentially the same revelations (that is, finally coming to grips with death, the reinforcement of even the most dysfunctional of family units, the acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s life situation, etc.).

If the train trip through India literalizes the spiritual/emotional/psychological journey aspects of the story, it certainly adds a problematic element to the proceedings, despite the fact that Anderson is always quick to point out the shallowness that comes from the infantile nature of his characters. Lamentably unaware of their obliviousness, the brothers Whitman (ah, another literary reference, this time rather tellingly to our archetypal literary narcissist) stumble through rituals of Eastern religion just as they blunder through the Indian countryside, and when that proves to be futile, Western Christianity rears its head via an encounter in an isolated Catholic monastery (though that only serves to reemphasize once again the shortcomings of religiosity).

Unsurprisingly for Anderson’s world, it takes the unexpected presence of death—of an outsider, no less—to finally set the brothers in the right direction, that is, directly back towards home. That the brothers finally seem to be finally moving on by the time the final classic Kinks tracks is cued (perhaps a bit hamfistedly symbolized in the dispersal of elegantly embossed luggage, however beautiful the slo-mo sequence might be), it also shows a step forward for Anderson… yes, the past is still hangs over the head just as it does for all of Anderson’s characters, but at least there seems to be a definite indication that there is movement being made in a forward direction, with the chance of moving on.

Interestingly, even if an Indian adventure proves futile for the brothers, the wide open expanses always lurking outside the diorama-like train compartments seems to give Anderson the space to breath and develop his most fully realized film since The Royal Tenenbaums, still his best film to date. And the introduction of knock-kneed, sad-eyed Adrian Brody into the Anderson universe is nothing less than revelatory (this is likely his best performance since winning his Oscar).

Overall a fantastic film, and I for one eagerly await the next chapter of Anderson’s “story.”

“welcome to paris! welcome to paris!”

Not invoking the memory of Before Sunset when writing about 2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, France, 2007) seems to be an impossibility–just try and find a review that doesn’t–and I have no intention of doing so myself, as my thoughts on this film are intimately tied up with that one.  In her feature film debut, Delpy seems bent on magnifying the nervous tics that constantly threaten to burst through the serene surface of Linklater’s graceful film, and finally, by giving herself over fully to her obsession with character neuroses she comes up with something that’s quite simply manic. It’s a risky move alright, but in the end it pays off—for when all is said and done Delpy manages to step out of Linklater & Co’s seemingly insurmountable shadow and demonstrates that artistically she’s fully capable of standing on her own (it also makes it obvious that there is unmistakably a lot of Delpy in the Before Sunrise/Sunset films, which gives weight to Delpy’s claim in The Telegraph that she and co-star Ethan Hawke are the actual authors behind the screenplay of Before Sunrise).

From the first Delpy sets her film at an incredibly high pitch, and one that threatens to quickly become rather unbearably shrill.  But as it turns out, she is not working on an unknown frequency at all: those familiar with the all-too-brief flowering of screwball comedy in the 30’s and early 40’s will have little problem adjusting to this very mannered, very literate style of verbal and physical slapstick.  As is the case for even the best examples of screwball comedies, not all of gags take flight, and indeed, 2 Days in Paris has a large number that fall utterly flat (immediately jumping to mind is the allergic reaction at the party, the parent’s raunchy humor around the dinner table, and most particularly the entire fast-food scene near the end of the film).  But moment to moment the film is extremely funny, and if Delpy and Adam Goldberg are in no way Hepburn and Grant or Dunne and Grant (or any other immortal screwball pairing of your choice), they carry off their prickly relationship with a certain aplomb.

For indeed it is in the “off-moments”—in little fragments of conversation and verbal sparring, in the little movements and mannerisms that gage the comfort level of a romantic relationship—that Delpy’s talents both in front of and behind the camera shine most brightly. An admittedly flawed but undeniably formidable achievement from a renaissance woman (Delpy not only directed and stars, but also produced, edited, composed the score and sings the closing song) who seem to be finally getting her due.

More from the backlog…

Alice Walker and Steven Spielberg are such an odd, initially incongruous match that it’s rather hard to believe that The Color Purple (1985) manages to be as good as it is.  Not that it’s anything great, mind you, especially since Spielberg’s reverence to the material is distracting (the impoverished backwoods of the American South seems just a bit too color-coordinated, polished, and in some ways just as grandly mythic as Gone with the Wind), but overall he does justice to Walker’s characters, which are the very things that sets the film (and the book) on fire. It’s quickly apparent where Walker and Spielberg see eye-to-eye, as both share a clear-cut, almost fantastical worldview where good people are obviously, undeniably good, and bad people are obviously, hopelessly evil. In her book, however, Walker is more uncompromising in her rendering of the best and worst of humanity, and willing to carry it out to its natural conclusion, and that is where the film really fails: in the final act Spielberg imposes on the film happy resolutions for all of its characters, where even the most sadistic get to experience magical redemption.  The result, while immediately cathartic, leaves an extremely empty feeling.

Italian for Beginners (2000) takes a while to get going, its presentation of its cast of social semi-misfits quite tedious and more often than not feeling rather contrived. Despite its distinctive Dogme 95 style (which my boyfriend actually compared to “every cheap soap opera in Europe”—a fascinating observation if true, as the claim of Dogme is realism, and soap operas more or less define artificiality), Bergman seems to echo throughout the entire thing—disaffected clergymen, family secrets, personal tragedies, death, death, death—though the revelations (and numerous funerals) serve as the starting point for all the neat romantic pairings that eventually form. But after a while it begins to breath and branch off into more organic directions, and also starts develop a sense of warm, offhand humor that nicely counterbalances the tragedy. As the awkward Olympia, Anette Støvelbaek is the standout—a performance that’s exceedingly graceful despite the character’s clumsiness. And even if the film’s conclusion feels unfairly calculated and is most definitely cheating, I admit that I still fell for it.

As I slowly made my way through The Clark Gable Collection (loved the hate mail I received for that review!), I have to admit I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Boom Town (1940), as I have a general aversion to “real men taming the wilderness” type of films. But it quickly became apparent that this Clark Gable/Spencer Tracy vehicle is more sudsy than gritty—a massive soap opera, when it comes down to it. Along for the ride is Claudette Colbert as the woman Tracy loves but Gable gets to marry—like San Francisco several years before, this forms a tangled love triangle with more than a hint of homoeroticism thrown in for good measure. The spectacular and spectacularly awkward Hedy Lamarr shows up in her haute couture Adrian gowns about halfway through and her detached amusement seems to indicate that she’s acting in another film entirely. Overall an early take on the type of material that would eventually spawn the massive, decadent Giant —only unlike that film, Boom Town doesn’t drone on endlessly, overstaying its welcome.

“she’s a sapphist!”

Opening sidenote: The above quote is probably one of the funniest lines in a film I’ve come across in a long, long while. The delivery is priceless.

Funny that it took so long for me to get around to 8 Femmes (8 Women) (François Ozon, France, 2002) as it’s a film so obviously up my alley… and while I wasn’t exactly disappointed I wasn’t entirely satisfied either. It’s truly a bizarre little confection, really—featuring an exemplary cast showcasing a number of the most recognizable female names in contemporary French cinema (Deneuve, Huppert, Ardent, Beart, Sagniere, Ledoyen, to say nothing of the legendary Danielle Darrieux, still spry in her mid 80’s) but all shoehorned somewhat inelegantly into a hodgepodge of distinctly British manor house murder mystery tropes and equally distinct American classic Hollywood melodrama conventions. Most of the fun—and don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to be had—is derived from the sense of fun via the obvious fun these actresses are having, as well as Ozon’s awareness that the real pleasure in this particular type of mystery is less in the final revelation than in twisty paths required to get there.

Curiously, it was the musical numbers that fell most flat for me—interesting because if I ever made a film I’d do a similar thing (make musical numbers out of 60’s French pop songs and integrate them into a seemingly incongruous storyline) but each number felt uncomfortable clunky here, too forced and too calculated. Even more odd is that the musical sequences provide the film with some of its most striking moments—particularly Huppert’s emotional, showstopping cover of the  Françoise Hardy classic “Message Personnel”—but on the other hand each time a character breaks out in song it brings the film to a grinding halt, which is exactly what a musical number shouldn’t do. As I seem to say at the end of every review of a Ozon film I’ve written, it’s really a failed experiment and yet has so many points of compensation that despite myself I just really don’t care.

ADDENDUM: Every time I come across this review, I’m surprised at how harsh my initial reaction was, considering how fond my memories of it are.  I’ll have to write a full re-evaluation one of these days.