“The Truth”: Kore-eda’s French Film

July 17, 2020 § Leave a comment

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Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Catherine Deneuve and Clémentine Grenier in “The Truth”

“The Truth” (La Vérité) is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first movie made outside Japan, and except for a couple of Japanese visual touches (e.g., a lingering shot of leaves falling from a tree) it’s a genuine French film, and a lot more French than many recent films from France. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Fabienne, a haughty, extremely Deneuve-like movie star; Juliette Binoche as Lumir, her embittered screenwriter daughter; and Ethan Hawke as Lumir’s easygoing TV actor husband, Hank. The movie begins with the arrival of Lumir, Hank and their young daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier) at Fabienne’s country house outside Paris. The reason for this uneasy trans-Atlantic reunion: the imminent publication of the Fabienne’s memoir, The Truth

Family get-togethers are to Kore-eda what Westerns were to John Ford, and as in “Still Walking” parent-child wounds and misunderstandings propel the plot. Fabienne has been famous for so long that she treats everyone, including her current husband, as a robot whose only function is to smooth her way through life. A monster of narcissism, Fabienne defends her high-handed behavior as not only permissible but necessary. “I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend and a good actress,” she declares to Lumir, as no one could possibly succeed in all three roles. “You may not forgive me, but the public does.” (Given her imperiousness, it’s hard to believe Fabienne can fathom what her public thinks, but this statement goes unchallenged.)

As for the memoir, we immediately learn that its title is risibly ironic. Far from telling the truth, Fabienne has concocted a liar’s fantasy in which she was a devoted, hands-on mother and actress who got her most famous part on merit. In fact, she was a mostly absent mother who stole the role from her best friend, Sarah, by sleeping with the director. Though Sarah, a mother figure to Lumir, killed herself after that coup, Fabienne never mentions her in the book. Also absent from The Truth is Fabienne’s longtime, long suffering manager, Luc. Lumir’s father, Pierre, fares even worse: though he unexpectedly turns up at Fabienne’s house and stays for dinner, according to the memoir he’s dead.

At the same time, Fabienne is acting in a sci-fi film called “Memories of My Mother” whose star, a young actress called Manon  (Manon Clavel) bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Sarah. Manon’s character, struck by a fatal disease, goes into space to avoid dying, and consequently never ages. Every seven years, she returns to earth to visit her daughter, who ages normally and is played by progressively older actresses, including Fabienne. Beyond the strangeness of playing the child of a much younger woman, Fabienne is alternately threatened by and admiring of Manon, and treats her in similarly extreme ways. 

Despite the film-within-a-film structure and its recollection of “All About Eve” and “Day For Night,” “The Truth” is essentially a mother-daughter grudge match, the kind that transcends culture and nationality. Generational  family conflict is a familiar theme around the world, and Kore-eda’s script makes the most of it. He also makes the most of Deneuve, who seems to relish playing a deeply unflattering version of herself. “The Truth” is replete with echoes of her life,  including a dress like one she wore in “Belle Du Jour.” An even more uncomfortable reference is Sarah, whose acting talent and shocking death recall Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died tragically at 25. Perhaps for that reason Kore-eda gives Deneuve all the best lines, including, “Nowadays anybody can be an actor,” and “What matters most is personality, presence.” Sometimes it’s not even dialogue: when someone adds Brigitte Bardot to Fabienne’s litany of great French actresses whose names share the same first letter, she merely widens her eyes, shrugs and grunts.

While “The Truth” isn’t a great movie, its cast and director make it worthwhile. Particularly good is Ethan Hawke, who plays another of his charming Americans abroad with skill and grace. Hank is well aware of his flaws and shortcomings, yet he remains a good husband, father and—despite Fabienne’s attempts to insult and undermine him—son-in-law. Though he could easily have made the situation worse, Hank gracefully brings mother and daughter to an understanding. And as in “Boyhood” and “Juliet, Naked,” he’s wonderful with kids, adept at entertaining not just his on-screen daughter but an entire children’s table. The rapport between Hawke and Grenier is amazing to watch: while most child actors give purposeful, one-dimensional performances, Grenier’s is full of fleeting looks and gestures, and so natural that their father-daughter relationship looks real. Credit also goes to Kore-eda, whose skill at directing children made “Shoplifters” and “Nobody Knows” the masterpieces they are. In “The Truth” he works the same magic but in a foreign language, through an interpreter. 

Related posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/like-father-like-son-what-was-lost-in-translation-and-what-wasnt/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/13/on-directing-children-hirokazu-kore-eda-reveals-his-secrets/

The Tokugawa Period Origins of Tokyo’s Nightlife, and Why They Matter in “Midnight Diner”

July 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

The Master (Kaoru Kobayashi) and Some of His Regulars in “Midnight Diner”

Although Netflix’s “Midnight Diner” tells universal stories of love, life, death and reversals of fortune, its setting–a tiny back alley eatery in the nightlife district of Shinjuku–is not only very Japanese but traditional to Tokyo. Both the restaurant and its customers have deep roots in the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), specifically the Genroku Period (1688-1703). This brief era marked the flowering of urban culture in the new capital of Edo, the hallmarks of which–restaurants, bars, and all manner of nightlife, licit and illicit–still thrive in Tokyo today.

Although Westerners date the origins of restaurants (those independent of inns) to post-revolutionary France, when chefs were suddenly freed from the kitchens of the aristocracy, in Japan restaurants began more than one hundred and seventy years earlier, after the Tokugawa Shogunate instituted the sytem of alternate attendance (sankin kotai) to prevent its feudal lords (daimyo) from overthrowing it. Because after 1615 daimyo were required to divide their time between their fiefs and Edo, leaving their wives and children in the capital as hostages, a vast economic system grew up to support not only their travels but their substantial, non-productive retinues in the capital. Not only restaurants but all kinds of commerce, including shipping, banking, department stores, theaters, fine arts and crafts, have their roots in Tokugawa Period Edo, which by 1700 was one of the largest cities in the world. As the merchant class grew and prospered, its money and desires created something new and original: nightlife.

Those familiar with the woodblock prints and paintings known as ukiyoe–the “Floating World”–have seen the denizens of Edo’s vibrant nighttime culture: the geisha (literally, “arts practitioners”), kabuki actors, singers, dancers, storytellers, wrestlers, merchants, prostitutes, masterless samurai and revelers who flocked to the entertainment district of Yoshiwara. All of these chonin (townspeople) were inhabitants of what the great Japan scholar G.B. Sansom calls “the world of fugitive pleasures.”

That world lives today in mizushobai, “the water trade”, the wonderful Japanese term that denotes all the nightlife businesses, from bars and restaurants to theaters and nightclubs, as well as the sex trade. In contemporary Tokyo, mizushobai is centered in the Kabuki-cho section of Shinjuku, where “Midnight Diner” is located. Viewers will notice that apart from the annoying Ochazuke Sisters, three loud and embittered single “office ladies” who inexplicably show up for dinner in the wee hours, almost none of the regulars have daytime jobs. They include a bar owner (the cross-dressing ex-actor Kosuzu), gangsters (Ryu and Gen), a stripper (Marilyn) and a jolly retiree (Chu) who is Marilyn’s biggest fan. Other customers include singers, actors, sex workers, local police and criminals, both petty and non-petty. All are served without judgement by Master, whose house rules are simple: no fighting, no arrests, and–for customers who order off the menu–the supplying of any ingredients he doesn’t have on hand.

There’s a memorable Christmas Eve* scene in this one of this season’s episodes, when the regulars, most in festive dress, sit glumly at the counter. “Here we are, a bunch of social misfits with nowhere else to go,” says one of the men, at which point he is pelted with chopsticks hurled by Marilyn and one of the Ochazuke sisters. As heirs to the great Tokyo nightlife tradition, all of them know better: their restaurant is a gem, not a consolation prize. Underscoring that point is a large crate of crab legs brought by the younger of the yakuza, Gen, to make up for trouble he caused earlier. Master grills the crab, everyone chows down, and the Genroku tradition of urban pleasure lives on.

The cultural origins of Tokyo might explain the failure of the Korean and Chinese adaptations of “Midnight Diner”. Although China and Korea have their own urban cultures they didn’t originate four hundred years ago, and lifelong night owls are a more recent phenomenon. In contrast, Shinjuku is home to a substantial population that barely sees the light of day. Like Master, who can be seen enjoying a solitary pre-work cigarette on his balcony as darkness falls, their world is nocturnal–and deeply historical.

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*In Japan, Christmas Eve is celebrated the way New Year’s Eve is in western countries, with parties and without religion

Related posts:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2020/06/30/the-return-of-netflixs-midnight-diner-food-memory-and-geography/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

The Return of Netflix’s “Midnight Diner”: Food, Memory and Geography

June 30, 2020 § 1 Comment

Kaoru Kobayashi in “Midnight Diner”

This post contains plot spoilers

Readers of this blog might recall my previous piece about “Midnight Diner,” Netflix Japan’s show about a tiny backstreet eatery, its mysterious chef/proprietor and the colorful night owls who make up its clientele. https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2017/02/03/midnight-diner-and-sparks-two-compelling-netflix-shows-from-japan/ Over the past three years, the series has found a devoted fanbase of not only cooks and Japanophiles, but afficionados of the moving and universal tales of love, loss and missed connections, bound by the dish highlighted in each episode. the latest installments of “Midnight Diner” are labeled Seasons 1-3, it’s the same show as before, plus or minus some characters. The earlier two seasons, called “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories”, are still on Netflix and provide a good introduction to the major characters. This time around, the proprietor, “Master” (Kaoru Kobayashi) offers his customers less advice but sticks to his old policy: a single unchanging menu item (pork noodle soup), plus whatever he is asked to make from ingredients at hand or ones that his customers bring him. As in earlier seasons, these dishes, like Proust’s madeleine, evoke the lost world of the characters’ past. They also provide tantilizing clues to the geographic origins of the customers who order them.

In Episode 5, a portly restaurant critic and food snob orders butter rice, a dish that immediately identifies him as a native of Hokkaido, Japan’s dairy belt. As it happens, the diner has another affixiando of this unusual (and, to most Japanese, off-putting) dish: an impoverished busking guitarist who sings of his lost love in Hakodate, Hokkaido’s second-largest city. Improbably, the two men are acquainted: the busker was the high school boyfriend of the restaurant critic’s sister, and the critic sets out to reunite the long lost lovers.

Another geographic clue pops up in Episode 8, with the appearance of Rinko (played by You, baby-voiced, one-named actress best known for her role in Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows”) a former teen idol who always orders her favorite childhood dish: yakisoba (fried noodles) topped with a fried egg. When a homeless man returns Master’s lost wallet and refuses a reward, Master offers him a free meal instead. The man sees Rinko interviewed on the diner’s TV. When Master tells him she’s a regular who always orders yakisoba with egg, the man tells him to sprinkle green nori from the Shimanto River on it. “You won’t believe it’s the same dish,” he says. Master obliges and buys the nori, then adds it to Rinko’s yakisoba the next time she comes in. At that point, the mystery unravels: the homeless man is Rinko’s long-lost father, who abandoned her as a child. But before he left, he was a devoted father who cooked his daughter’s favorite dish, always making sure to sprinkle Shimanto nori on top.

Although there’s no happy reunion between Rinko and her father, Master is able to convey the homeless man’s love for his daughter through a regional food. Intrigued, I did some research on the green nori that elevated Rinko’s yakisoba. Although I grew up in Tokyo, I had never heard of the Shimanto River, which is located in southern Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. Nor did I know that nori, usually translated as seaweed, is also found in fresh water. I was fascinated to learn that the Shimanto is not only Shikoku’s largest river but the last pristine river in Japan. Unspoilt by channels or dams, it is famous both for its natural beauty and its 22 footbridges that, lacking sides, allow flood waters to pass over them.

Regional details such these illustrate Tokyo’s role as Japan’s great melting pot, a megacity of dreamers and strivers who sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. As several of the new episodes illustrate, both the successes and failures of “Midnight Diner” find themselves unable or unwilling to return to their hometowns and families. Adrift in the nighttime world of Shinjuku’s entertainment district, they are pulled back in time through food: the childhood dishes that Master, a fine cook in a humble establishment, recreates for them.

related post: https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/lost-in-translation-american-movie-critics-on-japanese-films/

Next time: Mizushobai: The Origins of Tokyo’s Vibrant Nightlife

Revisiting Peg Entwistle’s Life and Death: Myth vs. Reality in Netflix’s “Hollywood”

May 21, 2020 § 2 Comments

Peg Entwistle in 1932/Courtesy Bruce Torrence

Filming “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk

Jeremy Pope, Darren Criss and Laura Harrier in “Hollywood”

Soon after Netflix released the new Ryan Murphy-Ian Brennan miniseries “Hollywood,” I heard from Chris Yogerst, a University of Wisconsin film professor who has corresponded with me off and on since 2010, that Peg Entwistle’s story was a major theme. Naturally, I got right on it.

Since releasing my short film “Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk,” my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2009 and my book of essays (Peg Entwistle and The Hollywood Sign) in 2013, a number of Peg-related projects have been announced, such as this one ://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/10/05/the-newly-announced-peg-entwistle-biopic/ , but “Hollywood” is the first major one to be completed. It’s also the most imaginative, using Peg’s story not as a grim cautionary tale but the departure point for a wildly revisionist Hollywood history.

At the outset of “Hollywood,” a script about Peg is greenlit by the Paramount-like Ace Studios. The screenwriter, Archie Coleman (Jeremy Pope) is predictably male but also black, and his struggle to make it in Hollywood gives him empathy for Peg’s tragic story. Fortunately for Archie, his champions at Ace Studios are self-professed outsiders: the director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), though passing for white, is half-Filipino, and the acting head of production Avis Amberg (Patti Lupone) is a former silent film star whose acting career was cut short by her apparent Jewishness.

Though the Peg Entwistle project begins as a straightforward biopic featuring a blonde, white starlet, Avis agrees to cast Claire Wood (Samira Weaving), a Dorothy Dandridge-like actress whose screen test blows away the competition, in the lead. Thus Peg becomes Meg, and the film changes from a tragedy to a triumph of interracial romance and career redemption. If that weren’t enough, a major subplot involves Archie’s romance with the young Rock Hudson, and the couple soon smash racial and sexual barriers by walking the red carpet hand-in-hand at the Oscars. When Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) becomes the first Asian to win an Academy Award, every studio-era wrong is righted, and it’s only 1948.

In short,”Hollywood” is a fantasia of racial and sexual justice. Though it’s based in fact–Rock Hudson, his manager Henry Willson (Jim Parsons) and the gas station/prostitution ring all existed–the series becomes increasingly fantastical as it careens toward a universal happy ending. This revisionism actually works for Peg Entwistle’s story, which–stripped of her Depression Era suicide–becomes a tale of  movie stardom and true love.

Unfortunately, Ryan and Brennan can’t let go of the biggest myth about Peg: that the Hollywood Sign symbolized Hollywood The Industry. In fact, it didn’t even symbolize Hollywood The Place. As I’ve said many times, the Hollywoodland Sign (which is how it appeared even when “Hollywood,” is set) was a billboard for the neighborhood where it stood. What it symbolized was real estate, nothing more. If Peg Entwistle hadn’t been living in Beachwood Canyon in 1932, she would have chosen another spot from which to jump–or might not have jumped at all.

As for Peg’s drinking beforehand, it didn’t happen, not only because there were no legal alcohol or bars during the Depression but because no inebriate could have climbed Mt. Lee, let alone the ladder to the top of the H. In “Meg” this fiction does, however, give Rock Hudson something to do: in the role of bartender, he not only serves Meg a drink but tells her how to get to the Sign. The directions, it should be noted, are accurate.

For Peg Entwistle’s actual story, as well as photos and artifacts, here are links to my film, documentaries and book:

DVDs

eBooks

Out of Place, Out of Time: Thinking About Films During Covid19

April 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s “Safe”
Debra Winger and John Malkovich in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky”
Ralph Fiennes in Anthony Minghella’s “The English Patient”

During my first week of lockdown, when I was still getting adjusted to being home all the time, my thoughts seized on “Room,” a movie so claustrophobic that I never want to watch it again. Mercifully, I soon started thinking of Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece “Safe,” which approximates the isolation and angst of our present moment better than any film that has come since. As others have noted, images of a masked, desperately ill Julianne Moore—so strange and otherworldly when “Safe” came out—appear almost normal in the midst of Covid19.

At the beginning of “Safe”, Moore’s character, Carol White, a 1980’s suburban housewife as bland as her name, circles through life like a goldfish in a bowl. Unhappily married but too passive to do anything about it, Carol is forced to change her existence when struck by a mysterious environmental illness. After conventional medicine fails her, she flees to a desert community where similarly afflicted people live under the rule of a cult-like leader. In the end, Carol is utterly alone in her suffering—and yet it’s clear she always was.

Four weeks into my Safer At Home life, the films I recall are all about other times and places. Before Covid19 brought the world to a halt, 2020 was going to mark my return to overseas travel, something I haven’t been able to do since being sidelined by surgery in 2017 and a recovery that lasted two years. After that financial constraints put far-flung destinations beyond my reach until this spring, when I planned to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. When that trip became impossible I set my sights on Scotland this summer, but that too seems unlikely.

Marooned in my living room, I find myself thinking about movies in which travel is a major theme. Two of my favorites, “The Sheltering Sky” and “The English Patient,” are set in the same place and decade: North Africa in the 1940’s. Far from home, the expatriate characters of both movies regard the desert as an exotic refuge and adopted country. In “The Sheltering Sky,” the bohemian Kit and Port flee the dissatisfactions of post-WWII America for a culture whose dangers they fail to grasp. In “The English Patient”, an aristocratic Hungarian cartographer’s wartime affair with the wife of a British intelligence officer leads all three to separate, tragic fates.

Despite the attractiveness and complexity of these characters, the real star of both films is the Sahara. Vast, beautiful and unforgiving, the desert is beloved, fetishized and misunderstood by its foreign visitors, regardless of their origins or intentions. As Michael Ondaatje writes in the novel on which “The English Patient” is based:

The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscapes.

“Parasite” and the American Aversion To Subtitles: An Evolving Story

February 26, 2020 § 2 Comments

“Parasite” with English subtitles

Of the many heartfelt acceptance speeches by “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, the most memorable was not made at the Academy Awards, where his film won four Oscars, but at the Golden Globes. Accepting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bong said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Who could argue with that? Well, President Trump, for starters, who recently ranted bizarrely about the injustice of “Parasite” winning the Academy Award for Best Picture at a rally. Beyond the fact that his predecessors never involved themselves in awards season, Trump clearly hadn’t seen “Parasite.” Why would he? The film is entirely in Korean, which means that he would have had to read subtitles for two hours and twelve minutes.

Ah, subtitles. From the time I was a child, I remember hearing that Americans—apart from intellectuals who worshipped French cinema and the films of Ingmar Bergman—would never willingly read them, thus dooming all foreign language films to art house theaters and meager receipts. I always found this hard to believe, but then I grew up in Japan, where every non-Japanese film was subtitled and audiences of all ages and backgrounds still flocked to see them.

Japanese is a difficult language to master, with complicated grammar and levels of formality, the highest and lowest of which sound quite different from standard speech. Korean is even more complex, but at least its writing system—Hangul—is a single alphabet. In contrast, written Japanese mixes kanji (Chinese characters) with hiragana and katakana, syllabaries that bridge the gaps between Chinese and Japanese, which are very different languages. Though homonymous, kana serve different functions: hiragana is used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign and technical terms. In addition, Japanese subtitles use furigana—hiragana renderings of harder kanji that younger viewers might not know yet. So Japanese audiences, while at the same time following the onscreen action, appreciating the performances and listening to sound effects and music, have to read several lines of dialog at rapid speed. This is far more challenging than reading English subtitles on foreign films, yet no one objects.

Japanese subtitles with kanji, hiragana, katakana and furigana

After “Parasite” won its historic superfecta (Best International Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture), Morning Consult published this survey https://morningconsult.com/2020/02/04/for-u-s-audiences-foreign-cinemas-one-inch-wall-of-subtitles-seen-a-mile-high/?fbclid=IwAR0zLbIpwdtGd89O79M5mTSnlaV7CAK8xVk_UY-ZqaLc5A5w0Ow1nFfq8Ag
In addition to listing American viewers’ many reasons for disliking subtitles, it ranks non-English language movies as the least popular of all genres. Reason Number One: “It’s hard to read subtitles and follow the action of the movie.”

Because Japan and America have the same literacy rate—99%—the American aversion to subtitles is clearly a matter of custom, not ability. It’s understandable, since until recently the vast majority of films shown in the United States were, if not American-made, in English. Now, as international films garner greater recognition and popularity, American audiences are seeing and liking them more. And fans of Jong Boon Ho, whose films explore such universally compelling themes as economic inequality and environmental crisis, already seem to read subtitles without complaint.

A Chance Meeting With Antonio Banderas, 25 Years After The First One

January 24, 2020 § Leave a comment

Early January brings one of my favorite film events of the year: the Foreign Directors’ Symposium at the American Cinematheque, where the Golden Globes nominees talk, often illuminatingly, about their films and those of their fellow directors. Before the panel, there’s a reception where I like to to catch up with friends and meet a director or two. (Or, as last year, to complain about subtitles https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/kore-edas-shoplifters-what-was-lost-in-translation/ )

At this year’s reception I was waiting for a friend to arrive when Antonio Banderas sat down across from me with his lunch. This was a surprise not only because I had expected only Pedro Almodóvar to show up, but because it was our second encounter. The first was at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, where “Desperado” launched him and Salma Hayek into international stardom.

Film festivals are a blur of screenings, meetings, press conferences, lunches, dinners and very little sleep, and none more than Cannes. Compounded by jet lag and sleep deprivation, the days and nights soon merge into one giant day and night, with predictable results. One minute you’re watching a movie; the next you’re standing on the beach with a glass of rosé in your hand, having already forgotten the walk from the Palais. And it’s only 11:30am. After lunch, two more screenings, cocktails, a premiere and dinner, things get really trippy.

Though I’ve forgotten most of the movies I watched and the people I met that year at Cannes, I remember the “Desperado” party vividly. It was a seated dinner near the Palais, and my table included the director Robert Rodriguez and his wife and Salma Hayek. After dinner everyone mingled, and that’s when I found myself standing next to Antonio Banderas. I knew him from the five Almodóvar films he’d made at that point, and was about to introduce myself when I noticed Melanie Griffith giving me an icy stare from across the room. From some Spaniards at the Festival I’d heard they were newly together, so I hesitated, unwilling to risk her ire. Then the speeches began, and the moment was lost.

They say you never have a second chance to make a first impression, but here we were at close range again, a quarter century later. Though I never would have approached Antonio, I decided it was time to speak up. “I met you 25 years ago at a party in Cannes,” I said. He lit up. “Oh no, did I say something bad?” “No, of course not!” I said in horror, unable to imagine him saying anything untoward, and told him how I had almost introduced myself at the “Desperado” party. Instantly we were chatting like old friends: about how quickly time had passed; “Pain and Glory”; his fateful heart attack two years ago; his having just seen Salma; his new theater, Teatro Soho, in his hometown, Málaga; and his new Spanish language production of “A Chorus Line,” bound for New York this spring. While we were talking, he got word on his phone that he had won that National Film Critics Circle Award. “Is that good?” he asked me. “It’s great; now you’re going to win everything, I said enthusiastically.

I was wrong about the Golden Globes, as it turns out, but the Globes are an unreliable predictor of the award for which he was later nominated, the Best Actor Oscar. It’s a prize Antonio richly deserves to win: his performance in “Pain and Glory” is peerless, both a career triumph and a sign of great work to come. Some of that work will be on the stage, where he was discovered by Almodóvar at the age of 21. “Leaving the theater for movies was like leaving a beautiful woman,” he charmingly told me, adding that his favorite American acting experience was on Broadway in “Nine”. Now, with his Teatro Soho and his arts school, Teatro Jóvenes Artistas Antonio Banderas, the stage is again his home. So is Spain, but the world is his oyster.

“Pain and Glory”: Antonio Banderas In The Role Of A Lifetime

January 19, 2020 § Leave a comment

Antonio Banderas in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”

Three months after seeing “Pain and Glory,” it remains vivid in my mind, as movies seldom do these days. (Quite a few I’ve forgotten by the time I get home from the theater—which says something about both the quality and the quantity of films I’ve watched over the years.) Not so Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film.

The story of Salvador Mallo, an aging film director grappling with a cascade of physical ailments and the ghosts of his past, “Pain and Glory” is a triumphant summation of Almodóvar’s themes of art, love, childhood, passion, religion and suffering. But it’s also the high point of his work with his greatest male star, Antonio Banderas, who during the past thirty-eight years has been Almodóvar’s alter ego, leading man and muse.

Those who know Banderas only from American films will find him a revelation in the eight films he has made with Almodóvar–particularly if they understand Spanish. For though Banderas is a reliably strong actor in English, he’s always the exotic foreigner. In Spanish, however, he operates at an entirely different level: both funnier and darker, he delivers performances of great variety and complexity. The roles Banderas has played in Amodóvar’s previous films prove his range—and his gameness:

1982 “Labyrinth of Passion”:   Sadec, a terrorist

1986 “Matador”:   Ángel, student matador, failed rapist and false
confessor to two murders

1987 “Law of Desire”:   Antonio, possessive gay lover of a film director

1988 “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”:   Carlos, the previously unknown son of Carmen Maura’s character’s ex-lover

1990 “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down”:   Ricky, a recently released mental patient who kidnaps a former porn star/B movie actress/recovering heroin addict with whom he had a one-night stand during an escape from the asylum

2011 “The Skin I Live In”:  Psychopathic plastic surgeon

2013 “I’m So Excited”:  Airport ground technician whose wife, a colleague, is played by Penélope Cruz

As good as Banderas was in these movies, his performance in “Pain and Glory” stands at an entirely different level, suffused with suffering, humor, self-knowledge and acceptance. In a role that could have been an exercise in scenery chewing, he is nuanced and restrained throughout, a feat of immense control.

After being named Best Actor at Cannes and by the New York, LA and National Film Critics societies, this week Antonio Banderas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. Because of Joaquín Phoenix’s nomination for “Joker,” he is considered a dark horse, and the Academy is notorious for favoring what the late Heath Ledger called “the most acting, not the best acting.” But I hope Banderas will triumph, just as he did two weeks ago when he won the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Actor Award while we were talking at a pre-Golden Globes reception. More on our conversation next time.

“Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” and “Little Women”: Two Period Movies with Striking Parallels

January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Adèle Haenel and Noémi Merlant in “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire”

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Saoirse Ronan in “Little Women”

This post contains plot spoilers

Although I didn’t set out to see Céline Scíamma and Greta Gerwig’s new films back-to-back, I did last weekend, and was struck by their similarities. Both films are about women who struggle against the strictures of their times, and both feature women who–despite stiff odds–defy convention to become artists.

What’s surprising is that the two movies are set a century apart and in different cultures: “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” in France in the 1760s and “Little Women” in New England in the 1860s. Though I would have thought a Parisian portrait painter and an aristocratic maiden from 18th-century Brittany would face greater social obstacles than the daughters of a progressive, educated family in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, all the female characters grapple with the same problems: how to decide their own futures, including whether or not to marry, and how to earn a living that would enable their freedom.

Explicit in both stories is the role of art. Only because she is a talented artist (and the daughter of a successful painter whose ateliér and school she inherits) does Marianne (Noémi Merlant) in “Portrait” have a profession. Her income allows her to remain unmarried, and thus independent of domestic obligations. In contrast the noblewoman Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whose engagement portrait Marianne has been hired to paint surreptitiously, has no prospects but marriage: one arranged by her widowed mother, a countess eager to return to her native Milan. The countess, having lost her older daughter to suicide after she refused the same match, is determined to force Héloïse into an aristocratic marriage that will ensure her return to Milan and both their futures. Héloïse, after strong resistance and a brief affair with Marianne, submits to her mother’s wishes.

A century later in New England, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the second daughter of a progressive, educated family, is determined to become a writer. Her work is soon published, but because Father March (a minister, like many intellectuals of his day, though without a church position) is disinclined to hold a job, her earnings must support her family. For all their modern, egalitarian ideas, the Marches aren’t far removed from the countess in “Portrait”: they place their economic hopes on the marriage prospects of their prettiest daughter Amy, an aspiring painter. Amy obliges by accepting the proposal of Laurie, the neighborhood rich boy/dreamboat (Timothée Chalamet) previously rejected by Jo. This romantic coup is not without a price, however, as Amy must give up her artistic ambitions to become a wife and mother. Meanwhile Jo, who understands all too well that marriage would spell the end of her writing career, embarks on her glorious spinsterhood only to end up marry an admiring professor (dumpy and German in the book; smoldering and French in the movie) in the end. As Greta Gerwig makes clear, this plot twist was forced on Louisa May Alcott by her publisher and readers, for whom a happy ending required marriage. But Alcott herself never married, made a good living off her copyrights and, when asked why she remained single, stated “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Both films share indelible images: longing glances across crowded theaters, musical performances, unrequited love, even skirts accidentally set on fire. But the strongest link between “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Little Women” is thematic: the struggle of young women for autonomy and artistic self-expression in societies that demand their conformity through marriage.

“Parasite”: Joon-ho Bong’s Dark Masterpiece Is Everything “Joker” Isn’t

October 13, 2019 § Leave a comment


The last movie I saw, Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” was inflated by many into a treatise on our winner-take-all economic system (though not by me). This week “Parasite,” the 2019 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, accomplishes that aim, and brilliantly. Unlike “Joker,” “Parasite” not a superhero backstory. It’s not even American. But the Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who co-wrote the script, has made a brilliant, universal black comedy that says everything about the cruelty of class inequality.

It starts with four-member Kim family, long on smarts but short on cash, barely surviving in a dank basement apartment in a poor neighborhood in Seoul. In spite of their work and academic credentials, all the Parks are unemployed until a stroke of luck lands the college-age son, Kim Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), a lucrative job tutoring the high-school age daughter of a rich tech executive named Park (Sun-kyung Lee). Soon Ki-Woo’s sister, Kim Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a talented graphic designer, is teaching art to the Park’s son, in the guise of her brother’s acquaintance. Realizing the pot of gold they’ve discovered in the naive, vacuous Park family, the Kim parents then get themselves hired as the family’s chauffeur and housekeeper, again as unrelated workers.

Looking for Free Wifi in “Parasite”

The Kims’ brilliant plan proceeds without a hitch until the discovery of a disturbing secret in the bowels of the lavish modernist Park home. Then, just as quickly as it succeeded, their clever scheme unravels. In the film’s shockingly violent denouement, neither family escapes unharmed or unchanged. What emerges from the catastrophe is a stark truth: economic inequality is a disaster for rich and poor alike.

“Parasite” owes a debt not to incoherent movies like “Joker” but to last year’s Kore-eda film “Shoplifters.” Like the Shibatas, Kore-eda’s family of unrelated but caring grifters, the Kims are economic losers living at the margins of a rich, uncaring society. But unlike the Shibatas, the Kims are ruthless in their pursuit of money and position, and not above using violence to achieve their aims. In “Parasite” the Kims emerge bloodied but scrappy, while their victims the Parks are vanquished. This reversal of fortunes cries out for a sequel, and I hope Bong makes it.

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