Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel)

A dysfunctional family Christmas—in French.

At the heart of the family madness is the death of the oldest child, Joseph, as a boy. (This isn’t a spoiler—they tell you in the first few minutes of the film.) The only possible cure for Joseph, who suffered from a blood disease, was a bone marrow transplant. None of the family—his parents, Junon and Abel, or his younger sister, Elizabeth—were a match. So as a last ditch effort, they conceived another child—Henri—in hopes that he would be able to save Joseph. But Henri isn’t a match, either.

The rest of the movie is how that set of circumstances plays out over the years in this sometimes crazy but usually charming family. It all comes to a head at this particular Christmas gathering.

Catherine Deneuve, as the matriarch, Junon, is not to be missed. But honestly, they were all wonderful. This is one I might well have to see again—not only because I enjoyed it so much, but because there’s so much going on, at any given time, that I’m sure there were things I missed. In fact, I think Arnaud Desplechin, the director, wants to leave you with question marks. Not in the sense that you don’t understand the film, but in the sense that all your neurons are firing.

Desplechin is a fan of Truffaut’s idea that four ideas should be introduced in a film every minute. Not necessarily serious ones. But four, none the less. You definitely feel the largesse at the end of this movie. Yeah, I definitely think I need to see it again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

DVD: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

I’m in mourning that I didn’t see this one in the theater. I meant to, but it’s long—over two hours—and it was always a battle between work to be done and babysitter time and an afternoon at the movies. Work won. But I wish, now, that I’d put whatever deadline I was on aside.

It is just gorgeously shot—not in Missouri, where it’s supposed to take place—but in Alberta, Canada. No matter. Beautiful, moody. Great music. Brad Pitt, whom I would love to disdain for being a Hollywood pretty boy (and let’s face it, he is), is fabulous. He’s Jesse James and we know, per the legend, that he’s temperamental, prone to outbursts, and violent—something that, not surprisingly, terrified those around him, even his “friends.” Pitt managed to make me feel as edgy as if I’d been in the room with him, or Jesse, enduring the discomfort. It’s an impressive performance.

There are a couple of small parts for big actors in this film, too. Mary Louse Parker as Z, Jesse’s wife, barely utters a word. Sam Shepard appears briefly as Frank, Jesse’s older brother. Nice performances, both of them. I love it when big actors take small parts—it’s this kind of detail, or rather fine-tuned addressing of the details, that can really elevate a film. A bit part, poorly performed, is like a mosquito buzzing in your ear.

I’m on the fence about Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. He’s so…creepy. I’m guessing that he’s meant to be—shifty-eyed, creaky voiced, fidgety. That this is part of who Ford was, or was supposed to be—an identity-less wannabe who, one way or another, was going to make his name via Jesse James. But he’s so convincingly creepy that I had a hard time watching him.

In fact, early in the movie, Frank James says something to him along the lines of: “I don’t know what it is, but the more you talk the more you give me the creeps.” (Um…yeah! Well said!) Then he aims a gun at him and prods him on his way. It would be a relief, except he doesn’t go away. He keeps creeping along.

This movie gave me a new fascination for Jesse James—a story we all know about, but I’m guessing few of us know in the details. And seeing the dynamic between him and Ford made me think of it as a paradigm for other assassinations, or attempts. I’m thinking particularly of John Hinckley, Jr., who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in order to get Jodi Foster’s attention, and Mark David Chapman, who seemed to both admire and hate John Lennon. What the incidents have in common--people who were angry at their own invisibility, in love and hate with a celebrity for being so…celebrated…and acts of violence that were supposed to re-sort the equation somehow. Oh, and probably some mental illness mixed in there, too.

It didn’t work in Chapman’s or Hinckley’s cases. And it didn’t work for Robert Ford—who, unlike the others, wasn’t charged as a criminal for what he did. It seems people were angry that Ford had the nerve to take down the legend Jesse James in such a mundane manner. And Ford paid an ironic price for it.

Definitely a good rental—but make sure you set aside the time to watch it all the way through. (We didn’t the first time—and ended up watching it again.) It’s moody, and watching it in pieces breaks the mood.

"Slumdog Millionaire"

Finally saw it. And I have mixed feelings that I’m having trouble sorting out. The beginning brings Robert Redford’s 1994 “Quiz Show,” about the exposure of game-show cheat Charles Vandoren, to mind. But it quickly evolves that the cheat question—Jamal, our main character, is a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”—is just a vehicle through which to tell a love story. It’s clever storytelling, it’s well done, it works. And it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of India.

I think what’s giving me mixed feelings is how appalling it is to see extreme poverty, particularly children living in that situation. I had a brief—and uncharacteristic—sense of goodwill toward Angelina Jolie. (I’m not a fan of spoiled celebrities.) If I had money and found myself confronting kids like this, I think I’d end up bringing a few home, too.

The other think that makes me squeamish is how, as a pampered American who kids herself that she is somewhat aware of the world around her—I have no idea how accurate this glimpse is. Is all of India like what they show? Or just the slums? Is this an India past, not present?

I have no idea. The realization makes me uncomfortable. Hence my mixed feelings. I’m having trouble separating my thoughts about the film from my unease.

I’m hoping to get at some issues related to both—the movie and my questions, as an American, about India—by shooting some questions to Mia Inderbitzin, who is in the film. Mia was my next door neighbor growing up. And has it happens she lives in India, and has a part in the film. I’ll be posting our email interview sometime in the near future, I hope. Meanwhile, very open to any thoughts others might have—and questions they might want to pose to Mia—about the film, about the difference between Indian film and U.S. film, or even about the recent tragedy in Mumbai, where Mia lived until recently. (She’s safely in New Delhi now.)

Oh, and if you’re going to see the film, make sure you sit through the credits. Your reward will be an old-style Bollywood dance scene featuring the cast of the film. Lots of fun.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Here’s my one sentence summary: It’s a cheery “Waiting for Godot.” I liked it—a lot. Which is especially gratifying because it was an accidental see.

We started out trying to pick up “Slum dog Millionaire” at the theater next door. But it was sold out (at 3:15 on a Sunday, what the hell?) so we ran for a newspaper (sitter was already installed, so we had to use the time) and found this one playing a short cab ride away.

I’d been vaguely aware of it. When we went to see “Rachel Getting Married” it was playing at the same theater, and the guy behind us in line was seeing it. He said it was supposed to be good. The guy was a serious movie-goer, but you just never know about other people’s taste.

I also read a brief blip in The New Yorker on it, too, but it was a forgettable review. Part of my, “eh, so what?” response to it, after reading this review, was also that the main character was described as, well, happy. I think the NY-er review said something about the unexamined life. What’s interesting about that?

Had I realized the writer and director was Mike Leigh, the same guy who wrote and directed “Vera Drake” and “Secrets and Lies,” however, it would have been in my top five.

I saw “Vera Drake” a couple of years ago and found it a grim but incredibly moving, compassionate and thought-provoking profile of Vera Drake (played by Imelda Staunton), an abortionist in 1950’s England. Ditto “Secrets and Lies,” which stars Brenda Bleythn as Cynthia Purley, a woman ravaged by life, who also has a secret she is forced--very unwillingly, at first--to confront.

Both earlier movies are profiles of deeply interesting women. So is “Happy-Go-Lucky.” But unlike the earlier ones, HGL is, by and large, an easy ride. You really can’t help but like the unbelievably cheerful and giddy Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her “mates.” In fact, her friendship with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), made me envious--I wanted to hang out with them. And as the movie unfolds, you find she actually does have a deeper side, she just doesn’t blather on about it. In fact, she almost never says anything serious.

It’s kind of interesting how Leigh manages to convey a serious message in a mostly un-serious way. Based on the two earlier movies, I would never have believed him capable of such a light touch. The movie does skirt around a couple of grim characters and scenes, but it’s not the stomach-twister that Vera and S&L can be. (In a good way, but still.)

I looked up Leigh when we got home and discovered, to my awe, that though he is credited as the writer on his films, he does not actually write the scripts. He comes up with ideas, frameworks—and then he and the actors go through a careful rehearsal in which they improvise the lines. But it’s all done pre-shooting. “You will find hardly any improvising on camera anywhere in my films,” he has said. “It's very structured, but it's all worked out from elaborate improvisations over a long period.”

His biggest lament is that, because he won’t cast big stars and can’t tell producers exactly what his movies are about, it’s hard to get them made.

“My tragedy as a filmmaker now,” he says, “is that there is a very limited ceiling on the amount of money anyone will give me to make a film. Because they don't know what it's going to be about and because I won't use stars and because there isn't a script. And I really passionately want to have the resources to paint on a much bigger canvas.”

I seriously hope he keeps managing to get his movies made. He’s damned interesting.