January 9, 2020 § Leave a comment
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.
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.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.
October 8, 2019 § Leave a comment
Not wanting to fight the crowds, I skipped the opening weekend of “Joker” in favor of one of last night’s shows at ArcLight Hollywood. While not sold out, the theater was unusually full for a Monday. Despite media and government (!) warnings of danger, my audience was well-behaved throughout, watching attentively and applauding respectfully at the end. If my experience sounds anti-climactic, it’s because it was.
I like dark films, and “Joker” is unrelenting in that regard. Gotham is bleak and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) leads a bleak life in its bleakest parts, spending his days as a clown-for-hire and his nights as his barmy mother’s caretaker. Friendless, poor, mentally unsound and marginalized, Arthur is a punching bag for everyone, from street kids to drunken office bros on the subway. It’s only a matter of time before this sad clown snaps, and when he does he starts killing with gusto.
At that point “Joker” makes perfect sense: as a revenge movie enacted by a bottled-up loner, and the latest installment in a grand cinematic tradition. Better still, it satisfyingly conjures up the glorious films that influenced the director, Todd Phillips, (who co-wrote the script with Scott Silver): “Taxi Driver”, “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club”, among others. Unfortunately, logic grinds to a halt when Phillips tries to equate Arthur Fleck’s myriad troubles to those of society at large, and his lonely search for a scapegoat to class struggle.
As soon as Arthur discovers revenge, he unleashes a movement of violent, clown-mask wearing malcontents who wreak havoc on Gotham and its elites. What’s missing from this uprising is a goal apart from mayhem. Lacking both leadership and a set of demands, the clown mob is purely nihilistic. And, like Arthur Fleck, its members embrace violence not as a means but an end.
I found a lot to like about “Joker”: Joaquin Phoenix’s electrifying and kinetic performance; the saturated colors of his clothes and the interiors; the dank Bronx locations that simutaneously evoke the past and future of urban life. Todd Phillips, previously best known for his “Hangover” series, never wavers from this gloomy esthetic, and as a result “Joker” seems like a much better film than it is. But the over-the-top violence makes it a snuff film at times, and Arthur’s killing spree makes sympathy impossible. When I left the theater (along with an audience that seemed even politer than before), I knew that one viewing would last me a lifetime. What I did want to watch again were the films “Joker” pays homage too, though I’ve seen them all multiple times. “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy” and “Fight Club” all have a coherence that “Joker” aims for and misses. But for a comic book origin movie, it’s first-rate.
August 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
Note: This post contains plot spoilers
The ending of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” which arrives after a long series of historically accurate storylines, is both a bracing exercise in alternate reality and a stroke of genius. Both times I saw the film, audiences were giddy at the depiction of Manson Family murderers meeting their just ends at the hands of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Cliff’s pitbull Brandy. The much-criticized violence with which the fictional heroes dispatch Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel is anything but gratuitous: rather, it is fitting punishment for a horrific crime.
Like Tarantino, I was a child during the 1960’s, too young to participate in the era but old enough to remember the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the Tate-LaBianca murders. Though not yet an Angeleno, I visited Los Angeles shortly before the murders and clearly recall their traumatic aftermath. Contrary to Joan Didion’s cynical claim that “no one was surprised,” the shock was palpable and the horror indelible. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Manson Family permanently altered Los Angeles: installers of alarm systems, security gates, walls and fences did a booming business after the Tate-LaBianca murders, and have thrived ever since.
In rewriting reality, Tarantino bestows on the audience that rarest of emotions: catharthis. For those of us whose childhoods were abruptly ended by the Manson Family, the conclusion of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” is nothing short of thrilling. By showing us what might have been, Tarantino lifts us up, assuaging a fifty-year-old wound.
Next time: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” and the Many-Worlds Theory
June 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
Long before “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman,” there was “The Doors.” Twenty-eight years have passed since Oliver Stone’s ambitious biopic was released in theaters, a span of time that caught me by surprise. Because I’ve seen it several times since on DVD, and because Jim Morrison remains a pop culture legend (more on that in a future post), it’s hard for me to think of “The Doors” as an old movie, but apparently it is.
Fortunately, last Thursday’s screening of “The Doors: The Final Cut,” at the Aero gave me the chance to see it again on a big screen in a re-edited and remastered edition. While the structure is essentially the same–Stone eliminated one superflous scene toward the end–higher picture and sound quality have transformed the film.
When I first saw “The Doors,” I found it uneven and at times chaotic; for years, what I remembered most were the beautifully shot, trippy scenes in the Mojave Desert. This time, the film seemed far more cohesive. Particularly effective is the development of “Light My Fire”, which we follow from Robby Krieger’s initial verse to early renditions to the recording session, followed by ever-bigger live performances. I was impressed by the concert scenes, which quickly progress from electrifying club dates to electrifying stadium shows. From Val Kilmer’s searing portrayal of Jim Morrison to the fully-immersed extras in the audience, the concerts are uncontrived and exciting to watch. Part of this has to do with the improved sound and 4K resolution: technology has caught up with, and enhanced, Stone’s grand vision.
In the Q & A after the screening, Stone mentioned that the naked dancers in the concerts took off their clothes on their own accord. “We didn’t tell them to,” he said, adding that the extras also brought their own performance-enhancing drugs. He pointed out that Val Kilmer, whose voice sounds uncannily like Morrison’s, did about 80% of the singing, an amazing feat.
I was hoping to hear Kilmer’s take on his bravura performance, but as he wasn’t feeling well that night it was left to Stone to praise him. I came away from “The Doors: The Final Cut” with greater admiration for Kilmer’s acting and Stone’s direction, as well as a new appreciation for the film. I’m sure that audiences–including those that never saw the original cut–will love it too.
June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
When I arrived at ArcLight Hollywood for a member preview of “Rocketman” last Wednesday, my expectations were high. In the trailers the uncanny physical resemblance between Taron Egerton and the young Elton John impressed me, as did the faithful renderings of John’s wardrobe, both street and stage. Most amazing of all, Egerton’s singing voice approximated the younger Elton John’s without lapsing into mimicry.
With me was my older sister, whose purchase of John’s eponymous album in 1970 was my gateway to his music. Significantly, we’d both seen Elton in concert early in his career: she in Tokyo in October, 1971, during his first Japanese tour; and both of us two years later, when he played U.D. Arena in Dayton, Ohio. It was my first big concert, a sold out show in a basketball stadium. In contrast to my sister’s Tokyo experience, which she remembers as “him and a piano in a concert hall,” this one featured Elton’s famous costumes, flashing eyeglasses and my first contact high. It was spectacular, though, like Bernie Taupin in the film, I would have preferred to see Elton alone with his piano.
All of this was going through my mind as my sister and I waited, in our Arclight-issued star-shaped sunglasses, for “Rocketman” to begin. I expected something along the lines of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but it soon became clear that “Rocketman” would be a very different experience: more musical than biopic, and a very ambitious musical at that. The first big number, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”, features Matthew Illesley (one of two excellent actors who play Elton as a child) in a carnival setting with a large group of singing dancers. In a Broadway show, this would have been the climax; in “Rocketman” it’s merely the opening salvo. Along the way to other big musical pieces, the movie compellingly recounts John’s piano lessons, family strife, struggles to break into the music business, and his fateful pairing with the lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, superb). Fame and fortune follow, but long before they arrive “Rocketman” had me in its grip.
Various critics have pointed out the many liberties John takes with events and the timeline. “Saturday Night’s Alright” was years in the future for young Reggie, but suspending disbelief is easy during a big song-and-dance number. Far more jarring is Elton’s playing “Crocodile Rock,” a song he didn’t write until 1972, at the 1970 Troubadour concert that made him an overnight star. Why not “Take Me To The Pilot,” a barnburner he actually did play that night? Because, apparently, “Take Me To The Pilot” fit the sequence with John on his private jet. Another quibble: Taupin’s giving John the lyrics for “Border Song” as an initial offering, when it happened a couple of years later. But details like this can’t detract from the emotional truth of the story: a brilliant musician’s journey through the crucible of world-wide fame.
Much as there is to love about “Rocketman,” the thing that moved me (and my sister) most is the brotherly, highly creative relationship between Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Thrown together at random by their music publisher, the two men develop an instant, unbreakable bond that endures through life’s highs and lows; it has now spanned 50 years. Though there are other love stories in “Rocketman,” the one between John and Taupin is the most touching and enduring. A week later, as I contemplate seeing “Rocketman” again, I’m still thinking about it.
May 21, 2019 § Leave a comment
Note: This post contains plot spoilers.
Normally I see scores of movies in theaters each year, so it was odd to realize I didn’t remember the last time I’d seen one on a big screen. Comfort and convenience were part of my reason for staying in, but mainly there was nothing I wanted to see. Superhero movies bore me; horror isn’t my thing, and the rest of the offerings were far less compelling than HBO’s “Barry,” or any number of shows streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
ArcLight Hollywood, for many years my second home, apparently took note of my absence. In March I got an email reading, “We notice that you haven’t used your ArcLight membership recently,” but their offer of a discount in the cafe wasn’t inducement enough to return when there was nothing to see.
Then last week, as I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever go to the movies again, a film opened that actually interested me. Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” about a doomed first relationship, is a romance like no other, an autobiographical story layered with documentary footage and stills, historical and cultural markers and echos of earlier psychological dramas. The result is a far richer and more complex film than the well-trod story line–naive young woman gets involved with older, troubled man–would suggest. Days later, I’m still thinking about it.
Set in England in the early to mid-1980’s, “The Souvenir” follows Julie, a privileged, unworldly young film student, through a multi-year affair with Anthony, a worldly, decade older art historian (and Foreign Office employee, or so he says) who casts himself as her intellectual and sexual mentor. Anthony is pompous toff imbued with the confidence of a first-class education (Cambridge and, before that, Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school whose silver-buttoned blue uniform coat he ostentatiously wears as a robe around Julie’s fancy Knightsbridge flat). Despite his generally condescending attitude, Julie is smitten.
As weekend visits to their families make clear, Julie’s background is considerably wealthier than Anthony’s, but her lack of confidence and sophistication make her his social inferior. Though 21 or 22, Julie is so green that she tries to make a film about a subject she knows nothing about: an impoverished, soon-to-be orphaned boy in Sunderland, a northern city hollowed out by the demise of its shipbuilding industry. Her cluelessness extends to Anthony, whose deceit and drug addiction Julie fails to notice even after seeing track marks on his arm. Not until a friend of Anthony’s explicitly says so does Julie realize her boyfriend is a heroin addict, and even then she seems in need of a diagram.
From that point, things go from bad to worse before reaching a predictable conclusion, but Julie and Anthony’s dysfunctional love story is not what makes “The Souvenir” remarkable. Rather, it’s the details: snippets of radio broadcasts that firmly place the film in the Thatcher years; the archival footage and stills of London and Sunderland, shot by Hogg herself; Julie’s brief punk rock interruption of Anthony’s classical music; the IRA bombing of Harrod’s, whose lighted facade Julie can see from her window. At other times, “The Souvenir” skillfully evokes past eras: in London Julie and Anthony dine among older couples in elegant rooms untouched by time, and travel to Venice by train. In the beautiful Venetian sequence–which Hitchcock would have loved–Julie wears a custom-made silk travel suit and a taffeta ballgown straight out of the 1930’s.
The other reason to see “The Souvenir” is the acting. Though Tom Burke is excellent as Anthony, he’s outshone by Honor Swinton Byrne, who plays Julie in a watchful, nuanced way that is all the more impressive given her lack of previous acting experience. While it’s true that she is Tilda Swinton’s daughter, Swinton Byrne doesn’t resemble her mother physically or technically. She is distinct, and it will be exciting to see what she does next.
Yet the greatest revelation of “The Souvenir” is Tilda Swinton, who plays Julie’s mother Rosalind. When I last saw her, in “Suspiria,” Swinton played three major roles: a Pina Bausch-like dance teacher, an elderly male psychiatrist and the monstrous un-dead founder of the German dance company where the story takes place. In the latter two roles she was completely unrecognizable, but in “The Souvenir” Swinton plays a character from her own aristocratic world: a wealthy wife and mother with beautiful manners, a large country house and a London pied-à-terre. She’s kind of woman who, when she comes up to London to visit her daughter, casually brings along one of her dogs. With her ladylike voice, gently curled grey hair, cashmere sweaters and tartan skirts, Swinton transforms herself into someone we haven’t seen her play before: the woman she was brought up to be, and whom she rejected. In a career full of acting feats, Rosalind might be one of Swinton’s greatest creations.
May 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
In the 1990’s, as studios and networks moved productions from Los Angeles to cheaper locations in other states and abroad, I asked an actress friend how she liked shooting in Vancouver. “Everything takes so much longer,” she sighed. “In LA the crews have worked in movies for generations, but there everyone’s new to the job.” She went to explain that a grip or cameraman whose father and grandfather worked on movies, often in the same job, had an inbred knowledge of the craft that a first-generation worker didn’t. Less efficient sets and longer workdays were the latter’s result.
I was reminded of this conversation last Sunday night, while watching the latest installment of Bill Hader’s “Barry,” on HBO. A brilliant, almost entirely action-oriented episode, “ronny/lily” depicts Barry’s attempt to persuade the Tae Kwon Do expert he was blackmailed into killing to flee to Chicago instead. After pretending to agree to his would-be assassin’s scheme, Ronny attacks Barry in an extended fight that ends in Barry snapping his windpipe. Bloodied and reeling from the struggle, Barry is then confronted by Ronnny’s daughter Lily, a martial arts fighter so fierce that she stabs Barry and later takes a chunk out of the cheek of Fuchs (Stephen Root), his business manager. “What are you?” screams Fuchs, as Lily scampers up a tree. The girl then leaps onto a roof where she crouches like a gargoyle, snarling at her terrified victims.
The next day I read Hader’s account in the New York Times of discovering Jessie Giacomezzi, the young actress/stuntperson who plays Lily:
Wade Allen, our stunt coordinator, told me: “Hey, if you ever need a little girl to do stunts, I know this girl Jessie. Her parents are both stunt people, and she’s amazing. I just worked with her on a commercial, and she can do fights, and she’s a gymnast.”
It didn’t surprise me that both of Jessie’s parents did stunt work; in fact, I would have been surprised if they hadn’t. In an industry filled with multi-generational experts, stunt people are most likely to follow their family’s occupation. In doing so, they carry not only their forebearers’ talent and experience but also the history of filmmaking.
The first stuntmen were Silent Era equestrians and high fallers who went on to execute feats with cars, planes and explosives. In time they passed on their skills to their children and grandchildren.The most famous example is the Epper family. Its patriarch, a former Swiss cavalry officer, supplied horses for Silent Era movies and did riding stunts for Gary Cooper and other stars of the 1930s and 40s. His six children, including three girls, grew up to ride, drive, fight and jump in movies, and include the most famous stunt people of their generation. The current crop of Eppers is the fourth generation to work in movies; presumably there will be a fifth. Incredibly, given their numbers–approaching twenty–no Epper has died in the workplace. (Not as lucky were scores of other film workers whose injuries are detailed here: spreadsheets.latimes.com/film-set-accidents/ )
TV and movie production was lured away Los Angeles because Canada and other countries–as well as states like Georgia and North Carolina–offered significant cuts in taxes and labor costs. These savings came a price. Lighting and dressing sets, setting and operating cameras and executing stunts are painstaking, laborious jobs that require expertise and experience. By discounting the importance filmmaking tradition, Hollywood bean counters reaped short term profits at the expense of many, including the very families whose work built the movie industry–and, by extension, Los Angeles.
March 10, 2019 § Leave a comment
Recently I saw (and voted for in the Independent Spirit Awards) a wonderful Brazilian film called “Socrates.” Directed by Alexandre Moratto, it’s a coming-of-age story set in São Paulo. Startlingly, it was made by a crew of 16-to-20 year-olds from local low-income neighborhoods for a budget of under $20,000.
Because this information appears on the screen before the start of the movie, I kept my expectations low. Yet I found nothing to criticize in “Socrates,” and much to admire. Beautifully shot, directed and acted, it reminded me of two towering classics: “The Four Hundred Blows” and “Bicycle Thieves.” On February 23rd, Moratto deservedly won the ISA’s Someone To Watch award, which at $25,000 exceeds “Socrates”‘s microbudget.
There have always been low-budget films, but in the past they looked it. As “Socrates” proves, that’s no longer the case: excellent visual and sound quality can be achieved for relatively little money. Lower filmmaking costs have opened the doors to new talent, and the variety and excellence of today’s films are the happy result.
January 17, 2019 § 2 Comments
Longtime readers of Under the Hollywood Sign will remember my articles on Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films and the linguistic and cultural confusion they engendered. Some of the problems stemmed from a lack of understanding of Japanese culture by American critics, while others were caused by Kore-eda’s English subtitles.
An example of the latter occurs in “Nobody Knows,” where the criminally neglectful mother refers to herself in English subtitles as “Mother.” Although in Japan it’s standard to refer to oneself by familial title–mother, father, brother, sister–it isn’t in western languages. This led to one American critic using “chillingly” in describing the mother’s perfectly normal Japanese. Clearly, “Mother” should have been translated as “I.”
In light of this, I was relieved that “Shoplifters” has much better subtitles–at least until a key scene near the end. In it, Osamu Shibata, the head of a fictive family of societal throwaways says–according to the English subtitles–to Shota, the boy he has lovingly fathered, “From now on, I’m not your dad.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what he says in Japanese. As spoken by the actor Lily Franky, that pivotal line is: “So, I’ll go back to being your uncle.”
What difference does it make? For starters, what seems to be Shibata’s rejection of the boy he bestowed with his own first name (both Osama and Shibata being pseudonyms) is anything but. He desperately wants to remain a part of Shota’s life, as Kore-eda makes clear when Shibata subsequently runs after the bus Shota is riding. In fact, it is Shota who rejects Shibata by not looking back, though when he is out of sight the boy whispers, “Dad.”
At a reception before the recent Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, I broached the translation with a member of Kore-eda’s production team. She told me that they had discussed the line but decided not to translate it literally because they assumed the word uncle would confuse non-Japanese viewers. “He’s not really his uncle,” she said, and was surprised when I told her that avuncular relationships among people unrelated by blood are common in America and Europe, too.
“Shoplifters” is a masterpiece, and highly deserving of the Palme d’Or it won last year at Cannes. But Kore-eda, who speaks no English, needs a subtitler who understands cultural nuance as well as Japanese and English. There’s so much more to languages than words.