Saturday, February 6, 2016

JELLYFISH EYES - #787


For decades now, going back to at least the 1980s when I was a kid, Japanese popular culture has steadily gained influence around the world. Anime, manga, and video games have become predominant art forms, with an aesthetic that eventually could be seen in American comics, cartoons, and movies. Perhaps the only modern movement to have more of a foothold is hip-hop--which itself has never been afraid to borrow from across the Pacific. Take a look, for example, at Pharrell Williams’ video for the song “It Girl.” Set to an anime backdrop featuring cute cartoon girls and colorful settings, the clip was produced by renowned artist Takashi Murakami, whose “superflat” fine arts brand has always borrowed from all of the above to create energetic pop art that has permanently altered the visual landscape.

Given the buoyant nature of Murakami’s creations and its source material, it’s only natural that he’d experiment in different media. So it was that he moved into feature-length motion pictures in 2013, directing Jellyfish Eyes, a sci-fi children’s adventure designed as a perfect vehicle for the artist’s visionary imaginings.


Jellyfish Eyes is a bit like a live-action Pokemon. It tells the story of Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), who after losing his father in a tragic accident, moves to a new town with his widowed mother. The night before his first day at school, the nervous boy stumbles upon an odd looking mini-monster whom he calls Jellyfish Boy. Like Elliot luring E.T. into his home with Reese’s Pieces, Jellyfish is enamored of Masashi’s chee-kama, a snack stick made from cheese and fish. Though surprised at first by the rubbery pink-and-white goblin, Masashi discovers his new pal is playful and fun, and so he adopts him as a pet, carrying him everywhere in his backpack. Even to school.


It’s in class that the boy discovers that all the kids in his new home have a creature like Jellyfish Boy. They also have small iPhone-like devices they can use to control them, and they have secret tournaments where their avatars fight. Unlike Masashi, they did not find their creatures by accident, but they were given to them by the mysterious scientific cabal running a nearby lab. Masashi’s uncle Naoto (Takumi Saito) works there. It’s through him that we discover that Jellyfish Boy is an escapee from the program that created the creatures, which are code-named F.R.I.E.N.D.s, a rather unruly acronym that stands for “life-Form Resonance Inner Energy Negagive emotion and Disaster prevention.”


That’s right, disaster prevention. Through means that aren’t entirely clear, the children and their F.R.I.E.N.D.s can stave off or harness other-dimensional bad energy. Energy that four black-cloaked rogue scientists in Naoto’s company want to take advantage of. It’s because of them that Jellyfish Boy has escaped. And it’s going to be up to Masashi and his little buddy to stop an even bigger monster from taking the town.

Jellyfish Eyes mashes together a variety of influences, including Godzilla [review] and countless anime series about young boys being pushed into a noble destiny by virtue of their command of something special (think, for instance, the teenage pilots operating giant mecha in Neon Genesis Evangelion). Girls get their due here, too, as Masashi’s first ally is Saki (Himeka Asami), who has the largest F.R.I.E.N.D., a hairy combo of Sweetums from TheMuppets and Spike Jonze’s take on the Wild Things. Murakami does fall a bit on familiar tropes, as the girl is of course the voice of reason among the bloodthirsty boys, but then, Jellyfish Eyes is lathered in genre trappings. The cloaked masterminds look like wizards out of a horror movie, while Naoto is caught in a cautionary sci-fi tale. In a clever twist, he ends up having to fight a F.R.I.E.N.D. that is an exact replica of himself. It all comes down to Jellyfish and Masashi, however. Like Pikachu before him, Jellyfish turns out to be as important and powerful as he his cute and diminutive. And Masashi will have to give up everything in order to save the world.


It’s all rather fun, but not entirely unique. The arc is familiar, and Murakami’s screenwriters don’t add anything to the genre. It’s really only Murakami’s colorful designs, and the exquisite digital animation that brings them to life, that distinguishes Jellyfish Eyes from any number of similar features. (Stephen Chow’s terrible CJ7 comes to mind [review]). Each F.R.I.E.N.D. is different, there are no two alike, and they are distinctively Murakami. Jellyfish Boy flies using the pink artichoke leaves on his head; he coos like a kitten when happy, snorts like a bull when triumphant. The action in the fight sequences is fast and energetic, and viewed in high-def, one can really appreciate the craft with which Murakami’s team brings it all together.

That said, Jellyfish Eyes still is little more than a trifle. The same movie made with a less revered practitioner at the helm wouldn’t have likely been imported around the world, much less added to the Criterion Collection. It doesn’t have that certain something special, it just is what it is.


Which I suppose is enough, especially when Murakami ultimately delivers his message of peace and understanding. The children eventually learn to respect nature, not to use living things as violent toys for their amusement, and to get along with one another rather than compete. (In one tremendous set-up near the climax, one schoolboy leads his entire class in a coordinated attack, sending their swarm of F.R.I.E.N.D.s  up against the big bad.) And like the aforementioned Godzilla, Jellyfish Eyes cautions against using science irresponsibly.

In all that, it may have more resonance with younger audiences; as an older fellow, it failed to charm me into that childlike state the way a more equipped filmmaker like, say, Hayao Miyazaki can. Jellyfish Eyes is basically a well-presented diversion--particularly in this package. The transfer is top-notch, and the sound design takes full advantage of the multiple speakers. Special effects fiends will also enjoy the pair of documentaries looking at the making of the movie and its invented stars.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, February 5, 2016

I KNEW HER WELL - #801


1960s New Wave cinema certainly loved the emerging ideal of a modern “it” girl and the travails she suffered on the way to adulthood, as the swinging lifestyle revealed perhaps how the cultural revolution had not necessarily turned as far as it could have (or should have). Joining the titular actress in Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 and Goya in Godard’s Masculin feminin, Stefania Sandrelli’s Adriana from I Knew Her Well is another young lady whose liberation comes with consequences, whose choices don’t always add up, and yet who deserves more. She charms the audience more than perhaps she charms the predatory men who promise her access to bigger and better things. So much so, she often looks directly at us, a knowing look in her eye, self-reflective, daring her observers to judge her harshly or, at least, with a greater moral authority than she already judges herself.

Released in 1965 and both directed and co-written by Antonio Pietrangeli (The Visitor [review]), I Knew Her Well is a portrayal of a segment of time, though it is itself unconcerned with time’s exactness. In terms of narrative, the hours and days are immaterial. We move from episode to episode with little orientation. There are breathers here and there, such as when Adriana leaves Rome to visit her family in the country--our only real hint of her origin--but otherwise we are caught up in her beguiling endeavors. She goes from party to party, man to man, auditioning for modeling jobs and for paramours, finding a laugh in almost everything, attracted to life and the people in it as much as they are generally attracted to her. All set to a pop music soundtrack, an early use of a contemporary tunes to drive the story, the jaunty ballads acting as a kind of Greek chorus, the way they do so often in life.


Adriana’s goals seem simple, and also relevant. For lack of a better description, she wants to be famous, and if she can’t pull that, she wants to at least have a good time. There are steps to this. When we first meet her, she is working in a beauty parlor in a seaside town, saving money to buy some publicity. The girl manages to travel a lot, and she manages to get herself to the right parties. Pietrangeli and his director of photography, Armando Nannuzzi (Mafioso [review]), follow her, observing how she acts in the different locations. She makes eyes at a movie star, dances with a musician, stomps away from her lecherous agent, the would-be pimp that he is. The camera doesn’t keep a consistent distance, but there are noticeable visual shifts. Those aforementioned close-ups come at more emotional junctures, an implied intimacy with the audience. At other times, our own lustful gaze turns to melancholy and pity, as Adriana turns away from us, lounging mournfully during bouts of loneliness or regret.



But then, one might also consider that she turns away from herself. In one striking scene, both sides of Adriana’s life are encapsulated in one relationship. She is on holiday with a writer (Joachim Fuchsberger), a fussy individual who is his own unique character. Tellingly, this man won’t dance or swim, and he refuses to let Adriana listen to the radio. He’s no fun, but his stiffness forces introspection. He belittles and rebukes her, and then makes up with her quickly, psychologically diagnosing her as someone who is constantly seeking the companionship of others to avoid having to be herself. He ends by saying this may make her “the wisest of all,” and he’s not exactly wrong. If Adriana were alive today, she’d have a hell of an Instagram account.


And probably a similar list of terrible lovers. She is the target of carnivorous husbands and bosses, leering old men and groping boys, opportunistic publicists and agents, con artists and thieves. The only sweet and genuine person she encounters is the one who isn’t an intellectual--the unsuccessful boxer Lunk (Mario Adorf, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [review]), whom she meets briefly, has an honest exchange with, and then abandons. She doesn’t see the effect she has on him, but we do. It’s a sweet scene, but also illuminating. From it, we can extrapolate just how much better it would be for Adriana if she realized how wonderful she can be when all pretense is gone.

There is no pretense in Sandrelli’s performance. The actress, who can also be seen in the Pietro Germi films in the Criterion Collection, is a natural presence on screen. She is effortlessly alluring, inviting the audience to watch, revealing her inner character through glances and gestures, particularly the ones that play against what she may be saying or doing. She was born to be a star.


Though narratively I Knew Her Well brings to mind the aforementioned Godard and Varda efforts, in terms of setting, the Italian film draws earned comparisons to its country-fellow, Fellini’s La dolce vita [review], particularly for its depiction of life in Rome at the time. Though Adriana is several steps down in status from the movie stars and players of that earlier effort, we know that Marcello and Sylvia are out there somewhere on the periphery. Too bad they couldn’t take Adriana under their wings and teach her how to deal with the hangover of all this excess a little bit more; then maybe I Knew Her Well wouldn’t have such a shocking ending. Its tragic nature is strangely unsettling, and ends up being hard to shake, nearly blotting out the humor and the joy that marked so much more of the film.

I Knew Her Well is sumptuous and seductive. Though it seems long forgotten, this hidden gem of mid-60s cinema has been unearthed at last. It is as bright and dazzling a bauble as you’re likely to find, but also provocative and daunting. It twinkles with story. Don’t hesitate to seek it out.


The disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

GILDA - #795


A friend of mine once proposed a game. Pick three classical Hollywood actresses that, when combined, form your perfect woman. My answer? Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, and...Rita Hayworth. (Note: We played it with men, too.)

There’s a pretty good chance that Rita Hayworth was my first femme fatale.

I’m not sure what first drew me to Gilda. My memory suggests I saw a clip of her famous onscreen arrival in some documentary about cinema, or maybe I saw a photo from the film in a book about film noir. I had an image of Jane Greer on my bedroom wall, photocopied from one of those books, a year or two before I ever saw Out of thePast. It’s also possible I found Gilda completely by accident, one of those odd movies I discovered by scouring the TV guide every week, studying every station that was known to show old films, and programming my VCR accordingly. For years I’d cart those VHS tapes around, 3 movies per, recorded at SLP.


Regardless, it was a significant moment. My sudden obsession with Hayworth was not like my fascination with Marilyn Monroe, which was fueled by the industry behind her persona; nor would it be like my discovery of Audrey Hepburn, who was never a sexpot or dangerous, but was more of an aspirational Cinderella, someone to emulate more than desire. Bacall came as part of the Bogie & Bacall package, and I wanted to be him in as much as I wanted to deserve her. Rita Hayworth felt like my own discovery. Surely no one else knew about her. Otherwise they’d all be talking about her! (Fittingly, my next Hayworth score was Cover Girl, a movie of a much different kind, and a quick lesson that she wasn’t always “bad.”)


Despite its Hayes Code-inspired “crime doesn’t pay ending,” Gilda still manages to be a fairly salacious movie, working with the imposed restrictions as a positive rather than a negative. Rita stripping off one elbow-length glove in the big “striptease” scene is the greatest argument for censorship you’ll ever see. It’s sexy and sensual and suggestive in a way a more explicit version would have never been. Because it’s also about character, and in context, it’s a spectacle that can be viewed as more sad that seductive.

Which is the real trick of Charles Vidor’s 1946 noir drama. Gilda is a bundle of conflicted emotions. It’s a film where the characters all insist that they make their own luck, but then proceed to consistently act against their best interests. Loyalty can be bought, but grudges are never forgotten. The past is something to be shed, yet it’s always present. “I was born last night,” Glenn Ford’s Johnny Farrell tells his new boss, Balin Mundson (George Macready, Paths of Glory [review]), moments after the man saves him from being robbed. Balin then invites him to leave his low-rent gambling for something more high-class--namely, Galin’s casino--and a chance to make himself over. Of course, this is not true, there is no tabula rasa or hard reboot. Both men bring baggage with them. World War II may have just ended, but another more personal war is about to begin. And it has Nazis, too!


What Johnny isn’t prepared for is Balin taking a wife, and for that wife to be Gilda (Hayworth), the woman who broke Johnny’s heart, unmooring him, and leading him to wander to Buenos Aires, where this action all takes place. A woman coming between two men who have a friendship or partnership of some kind is an old trope, but it very nearly transcends gender here. (Balin, at one point, says, “My wife does not come under the category of women.”) It’s a triangle where each person wants to be favored over the other, while also wishing, in a weird way, that the other two will choose each other so the odd man out can watch. Balin, in particular, looks longingly at Johnny while practically pushing him and Gilda together. Love and hate are interchangeable, and a relationship is a deal to be made. “Do you want me to like him?” Gilda queries, not long before she declares “Let’s hate her!” in sympathy of Johnny’s terrible past.


Of course, the woman she is willing to hate is herself. She has made a bad deal, and now she is a kept woman for a man who is incapable of love and sees her as an object. What gives the famous song-and-dance scene its undercurrent of sadness is it’s Gilda acting out in the only way that brings her approval. In our introduction to the character, she gives a private performance to her husband and lover; in the nightclub, she does it for anyone who will watch, riling up the men in the crowd, but more importantly, getting a rise out of Johnny who, deep down, does not want to share her. The song she sings, “Put the Blame on Mame,” has an ironic, almost meta slant, celebrating the misdeeds of famous femme fatales who caused elemental shifts in the world around them, including starting a deadly fire. The irony is that Gilda doesn’t really cause all that much trouble herself, her efforts are thwarted by men who are too caught up in being angry to actually do much about it.


Johnny is a weird character. He takes the existential noir code a bit too far. Midway through Gilda, when Balin is believed dead, Johnny steps into his shoes, entering into a faux marriage with Gilda that puts him in the role of protector. Rather than be with her because he loves and desires her, however, he is doing it to preserve their commitments to Balin. Johnny will make Gilda the dutiful wife she never was for her husband. Johnny will guard the man’s “things.” He is honoring his pact with the dead man, staying faithful because that’s what Balin paid him for.

Despite my undying love for this film, I can admit it’s a bit lopsided. Both Macready and Ford give fairly one-note performances. Johnny can be a bit of an uptight bore, to such a degree that when he finally unclenches--almost quite literally--in the final scene, it feels like a relief, like we can relax ourselves. His hunched shoulders and ours drop simultaneously. Which might be why that ending works despite seeming a bit tacked on. It’s a rather bright conclusion for a noir, but Gilda is kind of a bright noir in general. The casino setting means just about everything is lit up, and what shadows there are exist to hide dirty, ugly things (those Nazis!). Johnny starts in the darkness, it’s where Balin rescues him from. The cinematography here is by Rudolph Maté, who also shot Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent [review] and Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be [review]. Though perhaps more apropos to this, he shot Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman [review], another film about a love triangle and denied emotions, though one where the separation of  the lovers is due to other circumstances than any personal kinks. Still, compare Maté’s use of big set pieces there to his work here.


Gilda needs these big stages because all the better to showcase Hayworth. One could say she is as much the film’s object as she is Balin’s, she is there for the audience to watch alongside the men in her film. Yet, one could never consider Hayworth to be a passive performer or remotely contained. The moxie she gives Gilda makes her male co-stars appear all the more dull, they can’t measure up. Hayworth is fierce and bold here, with only hints of the world-weary pallor she would put to good use in later films like The Lady From Shanghai. She would revisit this fierceness in 1953 in Miss Sadie Thompson [review], which treads some of the same ground as Gilda, except with an older and more steady Hayworth at the center of the screen.

But, as they say, there’s still nothing like the first time. Gilda wasn’t Hayworth’s film debut, but it often feels like it. At least for my film-going experience, it was when she arrived, and with such spectacular style, she made sure I’d never let her go.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH - #611


When watching Anomalisa a few weeks back, I was reminded that when it comes to Charlie Kaufman, you kind of have to go all in or not at all, there is no meeting him halfway. This is particularly true since he started directing his own scripts, removing any outside editorial eye. Anomalisa and his previous feature, the astonishing, maddening Synecdoche, New York [review], allowed all of his thematic obsessions to come full-bore in such a way that, as Marc Maron would phrase it in his recent podcast interview with Kaufman, the audience would have to reckon with them. At times, it’s hard to tell if Kaufman is entirely in control or he’s just on a determined quest to get as much out as he can at any one time.

And yet, backing up and watching his first produced script, Being John Malkovich, helmed by Spike Jonze back in 1999, we see that Kaufman has changed hardly at all in the last 17 years. He’s very much the driving force here, the virtuoso guitarist who defined a band’s sound, and it’s his collaborators--Jonze and Michel Gondry--who had to redefine themselves upon his leaving.


Even if you haven’t seen Being John Malkovich in a while, you’ll still probably make the connection between the odd puppets used in Anomalisa’s stop-motion animation and the marionettes used by John Cusack’s character, Craig, in Malkovich. For Craig, the puppets are a means to express his inner anguish, as witnessed by the modern dance routine he puts his doppelganger through in the opening sequence. Likewise, anguish is the order of the day in Anomalisa. As so many reviews have suggested, it is the most human film you are likely to see right now, and there isn’t an actual human in sight. Nor do Kaufman and his co-director, Duke Johnson, attempt to make their creations appear real. The seams around their parts still show, we are aware that there is a hand guiding them. Kaufman as puppeteer.


The puppets from Being John Malkovich.


The puppets from Anomalisa.

Which creates an image within an image. Kaufman as the man holding the strings above Cusack holding the strings of the Craig puppet. What Anomalisa shows and what Craig attempts to create is a world diminished, and that diminished world within a world. It’s not just the puppet stage held within the movie screen, but also the floor 7 1/2, the floor between the other floors, where Craig goes to work, where every person who stands has to stoop. (And, it is likewise explained by a movie within a movie.) Yet this is also the visual metaphor of Synecdoche, NY, the endless iterations, the idea within the idea. You build a movie set that mimics the outside world and inside that set is another set that replicates the first and so on--with the fictional director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) standing in for the real director, orchestrating his own large scale shadow dance.

Thought of this way, the portal into John Malkovich’s head in Being John Malkovich is a similar construct. As the audience, we project things upon an actor like Malkovich--in the movie, the jewel thief role he never played--and so why not take that a step further and go inside his head and become him. The puppetmaster is absorbed by his puppet. Malkovich does a much better job of imitating Cusack imitating him than either Travolta or Cage switching in Face/Off despite being about as believable a scenario. The device also allows Kaufman to say something about our own self-absorption. When Malkovich is in Malkovich, then everyone is Malkovich. We project on him, but he projects himself right back. Or, consider it the other way: when Craig gets a chance to fulfill his wish of being in someone else’s skin, he just reverts to being who he is. He doesn’t masquerade as John Malkovich the actor, he reinvents John Malkovich as a puppeteer.


As with any Kaufman movie, there is a lot to unpack in Being John Malkovich. There is a surfeit of ideas, both progressive and transgressive. For instance, there is the notion that perception itself is a kind of malady, such as the way Mary Kay Place’s Floris dismisses her own hearing problem as everyone else having a speech impediment. (Compare David Thewlis’ Michael Stone in Anomalisa and the Fregoli Delusion, by which he hears and sees all other people as exactly the same.) Or the complicated identity issues of Cameron Diaz’s Lotte mixed with Craig’s troubling reaction to the same. Diaz has never had another role quite like this one, doing more here than burying her usual cuteness under a rat’s nest wig, but somehow tangling her own natural charisma in Lotte’s insecurity so that we can see there is more to the girl than meets the eye. For his part, Cusack has never been so unlikable. His casting subverts audience expectation, he’s usually the guy we root for, yet Kaufman and Jonze spend the length of Being John Malkovich turning us against him. Could the pair of them have cursed Cusack, or did they see the writing on the wall, that his manchild persona was reaching its expiration date. Cusack would make High Fidelity and Serendipity right after Being John Malkovich, and in both, he would play a romantic who would have to come to grips with his youthful ideals in some fashion. These are also arguably his last two truly good movies, and the last of his quality performances. This growing up thing did him no favors.


Is it telling, too, that I seem to have lost any interest in trying to dissect or summarize any of the plot here? Being John Malkovich is structurally unconventional, freely changing directions when necessary as its bizarre machinations reveal themselves. Most descriptions would probably focus on the “weird,” but Being John Malkovich is never weird for its own sake. Rather, Kaufman is really playing it for laughs. This is an absurdist comedy. The exaggeration of the situations exposes the normalcy of the characters. These are all people with small dreams and conventional desires. In some way, everyone wants control, but yet, they also all want love, even if their core problem is they don’t know how love works or how to give it. Deep down, past all the layers, the different players just want to be who they are. Even Malkovich, who gets one of the film’s truly heartbreaking moments, the brief instance between expelling Craig from his mind and the next group coming in, where he realizes he has gotten himself back. His pleads to maintain his own persona, of course, go unanswered. “Is Malkovich Malkovich?


The view of humanity we get in Being John Malkovich isn’t very positive. Everyone here is operating only for himself or herself. It is a movie, after all, where Charlie Sheen serves as a kind of moral compass, and only a chimpanzee has empathy. The brief shift of POV to go inside the chimp’s memory and see through his eyes when he was taken into captivity as he attempts to tell Lotte that he understands the abuse Craig is heaping on her is disturbingly effective. He not only empathizes, but he somehow forgives that Lotte keeps him caged in a similar manner. One might argue that Kaufman’s own empathy has increased over the years, that he exorcised something through Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dictatorial director in Synecdoche, and that by erasing the presence of the puppetmaster as a literal being on screen in Anomalisa, he allows his characters to make their own mistakes and somehow loves them more for doing so. (Though, that weird Japanese sex toy, a puppet of another kind...but then, a toy Michael Stone doesn’t really understand how to operate.) He leaves Michael to his own fate, to live out his own existence, rather than concoct the elaborate EC Comics horror curse that befalls Craig at the end of Being John Malkovich. But then, the cynic in me might say that’s the worst curse of all: leaving us alone to be ourselves.



Sunday, January 10, 2016

JOUR DE FETE - #730


The journey to bring Jour de fête, Jacques Tati’s 1949 full-length directorial debut, to screen was not one I had been familiar with. When making the comedy feature, Tati shot simultaneously with two different cameras. One used a then-untested color process, and the other recorded the performances in standard black-and-white, a precaution just in case the color process didn’t work. This concurrent fascination with and distrust in technology is amusing, given how this would be a regular theme in Tati’s later M. Hulot films. It seems art did imitate life in this case.

It also turned out to be a smart move. The color labs behind the film shut down before ever processing a reel, and so Tati released the black-and-white version to cinemas. In the 1960s, he would revisit Jour de fête and hand-color certain elements, as well as putting in some new footage, but it wasn’t until 1995 that a full version was finally made from his original color negatives. All three options are given here, in Criterion’s lead disc of their The Complete JacquesTati collection. I opted for the 1995 release, which looked pretty good, even if the color is not as vibrant as a 1940s Technicolor picture from Hollywood.


In Jour de fête, Tati stars as Francois, a bicycle-riding postman for a small village. On the “big day” referred to by the title, Francois’ village is preparing to host a traveling street fair. The run of the movie shows the carnies getting ready, the town’s participation in the festivities, and the hangover the morning after, focusing mostly on how Francois gets through his day. The mustachioed public servant is the object of regular ridicule from his customers and neighbors, and even the visiting carnival workers get in on the act. They can read this rube from a mile away. He’s eager to please and none too bright.

Francois’ main problem is combining defensiveness with hubris, and so most of his misfortune occurs by his trying to prove he is a big man. He’ll go from nearly being beaned by a falling pole to instructing the men on how to put it in the ground. Seeing a film that claims American postal workers are using helicopters and airplanes to deliver letters faster and farther makes Francois work on his speed techniques--with a little help from the roustabouts who run the merry-go-round.


It’s one of Jour de fête’s best gags, the gangly bicyclist riding his bike in a stationary position while the carnival ride spins round and round. It’s a whole lot of effort just to end up in the same place. Francois is too self-assured to see his own ridiculousness. That’s perhaps why we laugh along with those teasing him rather than feeling sorry for him: he kind of deserves it. Late in the film, when he discovers one prank has left a ring of ink around his eye, Francois fails to laugh at himself. Instead, he deflects and lays into criticizing his coworkers for being slower than he is--making it all the more hysterical when, shortly thereafter, Francois’ bicycle takes off on its own, and he must run after it in a lengthy chase sequence. Instant karma.

The trouble the bike gets into and the distance it goes shows the kind of inventiveness that would be Tati’s calling card. It’s a little bit Buster Keaton, a little bit Charlie Chaplin. Having honed his skills in a series of comedy shorts, Tati appears confident in his humor here. His gags are mostly physical and largely pantomime, they are never really dialogue-based, borrowing more from the silent titans than contemporary movie comedians. Francois probably talks in Jour de fête more than Hulot in any of the other films combined, his repeated exasperated declaration “That takes the cake” getting more silly each time it’s uttered.


An example of the look of the color film.

Yet, Tati also takes full advantage of the soundtrack. Audio effects are important throughout, such as the aforementioned scene in the post office, where every time Francois steps out of the room, we hear an even more outrageous sound cue, only for his coworkers to barely react. A scene early in the film, when the actions of a carny and a local girl sync up with an English-language western being shown in the fair’s cinema tent, is vintage Tati, combining human emotion with a modern device in a way that allows one to supersede the other--a glimmer of the sort of commentary that would eventually make Playtime [review] such a vital masterpiece. So, despite being less vivacious and funny than Tati’s next several films, Jour de fête is still a worthy precursor.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

THE GRADUATE - #800

Note: A version of this review originally appeared at DVDTalk.com in 2007. The screengrabs presented here are also taken from that disc.



The Graduate is a film with a long-reaching reputation. In 1967, it made Dustin Hoffman a star, as well as catapulting the careers of director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry into a whole other stratosphere. Even people who have never seen it are probably familiar with its famous "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me" moment. Shot under Anne Bancroft's very sexy knee, framed to suggest the vice-like grip of lust Hoffman's character will soon find himself in (and suggestive of so, so much more), it's been parodied so often, it's become one of those moments that people know even if they don't know why.

For as funny as The Graduate is, what is most surprising is how shocking and potent it still is today. The subject still seems taboo enough to cause an eyebrow or two to raise, and the transitional doubt and malaise that Hoffman portrays as Benjamin Braddock is still felt by new college graduates in the 21st century. One can even see a little of Rushmore's Max Fisher in Benjamin's melancholy stare.


If anyone doesn't know, the plot of The Graduate revolves around twenty-one-year-old Benjamin returning home after completing his Bachelor's program. Like so many young men before or since, despite having put so much work into getting the diploma, he doesn't know what he is going to do with it. The past feels like a con, and the future a scary game where, as he will explain, the rules are made up on the fly. Dodging his own celebratory party, which is populated entirely by friends of his parents, Benjamin runs into Mrs. Robinson (a slinky Anne Bancroft). Sensing his confusion, Mrs. Robinson sets her sights on the boy, luring him into an illicit affair and ushering him into manhood. It's no accident that her wardrobe is full of animal prints. She sets upon the hopeless grad like a predator. Hoffman is hysterical as the reluctant lover, so easily manipulated in his fumbling cluelessness.

Eventually, though, Benjamin is going to have to quit lounging around the pool and do something with himself. Both Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) and Mommy and Daddy (Elizabeth Wilson and William Daniels) think the answer is in dating Elaine (Katharine Ross), the Robinson daughter, home for the summer from Berkeley. This is a crossroads for Benjamin, as dating her daughter is the one thing Mrs. Robinson asked him not to do. For as much as she could be seen as the criminal in the movie, you have to feel sorry for the woman when Benjamin forges ahead with his asinine plan. Really, her only crime was expecting a dopey kid to realize how damaging such an action would be.



Naturally, Benjamin falls in love with Elaine, probably because she's the only person his own age he's talked to since he got home and thus she can understand him. Complications arise, and Benjamin is finally dumped into the deep end. Pathetic flailing leads to a crazy romantic gesture. It's action at last for our hero, with the reward being eternal happiness.

Or is it? The final shot of The Graduate is famous for its ambiguity, for the sudden deflation. How you choose to see Benjamin and Elaine's future is up to you, and this open-ended finale is one of the main reasons we're all still so intrigued with this quirky little comedy.


If quirky is the right word. I have always found The Graduate downright strange. Benjamin's creepy stalking, the non-sequiters that seem to be the only way the clearly demarcated adult world can reach back to Benjamin's generation, Buck Henry as the contemptuous hotel clerk, the dumbass diving suit. (Another Rushmore reference: Dustin Hoffman at the bottom of the pool is the direct antecedent of Bill Murray at the bottom of the pool.) Nichols and cinematographer Robert Surtees (The Sting) almost always keep their camera at a distance. If the lovers are on the bed, we are on the floor looking up. In the church, we see Benjamin's demonstrative endeavors from far away, down at the pulpit.

And yet, there are flashes of a more mobile creativity yearning to break through, just as Benjamin is struggling for his own niche. There is the silent scene from within the diving mask, the random cutting that reflects his exploding nerves the first time he sees Mrs. Robinson naked, the ebb and flow montage of their summer of love, from days of boredom to nights of business-like passion. The movie has its own rhythm and feel that no one since has been able to accurately clone, try as they might.

Nearly fifty years on, and still The Graduate can't be replicated. Though arguably the coming-of-age of the coming-of-age motion picture, it's still the benchmark we can't get past. In the contest of early adult awkwardness, Benjamin Braddock still holds the world's record.


Friday, December 25, 2015

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS - #794

This review was originally written and published in a slightly different form in 2014 for DVDTalk.com.


Sometimes, with some movies, it makes more sense to drop the critical analysis, to forget studying technique or considering the construction, and just talk about how the story moved you emotionally, how it felt in your gut when watching in.

Inside Llewyn Davis, a more recent effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, is such a movie. When I saw it on its December 2013 release, Inside Llewyn Davis really hit me where I lived. The story of the struggling artist--in this case, the folk musician Llewyn Davis, played by Drive's Oscar Isaac [review], searching for his place on the stage in 1961 New York--is one that has been oft-told, but rarely with such brittle fragility. Llewyn suffers from the dual artistic fears of thinking deep down you might be a sham and alternately being convinced that no one will understand your genius. He is a singer determined to show he is an authentic voice in a field overly obsessed with authenticity, peddling traditional numbers, playing the same songs night after night. "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."


The old joke hits closer to the truth than Llewyn realizes. Everything he does has happened before and will happen again, but the pain of it will never stop feeling fresh. Llewyn is depressed, isolated, and doomed to repeat every mistake he's ever made. "You don't want to go anywhere," Jean (Carey Mulligan), one of the many people's he's wounded, tells him, "and that's why the same shit's going to keep happening to you, because you want it to." It's quite possibly the most important line of the movie, especially if you buy into the theory that Llewyn Davis is quite literally stuck in a loop. The Coens regularly reference mythology in their pictures, having built O Brother, Where Art Thou? on a Homeric foundation, and giving a shout-out to him here, as well. Llewyn's punishment is tragic in nature. For all the efforts he makes to fix things, no matter how much he ends up getting right, the circle comes back around. The incredible journey never ends. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't start with a flash forward, it starts at the beginning and ends the same way, two beatings happening a full week apart.

This is the irony of his trip in search of opportunity and, ultimately, himself. Because Llewyn Davis is the only person he can ever be.


Inside Llewyn Davis opens with the singer on the hunt for money, a place to sleep, and a place to play. He performs on a novelty record (losing a bigger payday through his short-sightedness) and travels to Chicago just to have the door slammed in his face. In the process, he is insulted by a fading jazz legend (John Goodman) for not being a "real" musician, and himself insults another singer (Stark Sands) for being too acceptable to the audience. Later, when faced with a true-blue singer from the American heartland, he rejects her for being too true to herself and where she came from. Like many a man of mythology, it's hubris that shuts Llewyn down. He expects the club promoter (F. Murray Abraham) to go bananas for his music, but Llewyn fails to perform. He is asked to show what is inside him--the name of the movie is the name of Llewyn's one solo record--but it appears he is lacking on that front. He chooses to play him a song about protecting tradition ("The Death of Queen Jane"), and his voice is laden with feeling, but is it an honest expression? Is he just going through the motions? Or is his art so "inside" that no one else can really hear it?

Many have speculated that Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens pranking the critics who have called their work cold and calculated and too reliant on cinema's past, answering their accusations with the most authentic movie about artistic inauthenticity possible. Llewyn's self-designed world is really a world of their design, the spiral pattern inside a seashell, twisting off toward a vanishing point. Amusingly, the one time Llewyn sings spontaneously--something he has resisted throughout the movie--it's for an audience of one, his father, and the reaction is for the old man to soil himself. The artist has given his all, and that's the best he can expect in return. To be honest, in this particular profession of mine, I vacillate between knowing how the old man feels and knowing how the Coens/Llewyn feel. I guess that's one of my loops to be stuck in.


Oscar Isaac is a revelation in this movie. Unlike Llewyn, he should have no doubt about his own abilities. Having grown tired of his villain routine in movies like Sucker Punch and Robin Hood [review] (back when the routine was fresh), I admit to having very low expectations when I heard the casting. He brings far more to the role than his previous parts have allowed him to show. Llewyn Davis is arrogant and caustic and his own worst enemy, but this is part of his façade. Isaac carries the hurt with him in every shambling step, refusing to let his disappointment with family, friends, love, and music take charge. The irony of the performance is how vulnerable the actor appears playing a man who refuses to be vulnerable.

Can we weep for Llewyn Davis at the end? Sure. Do we believe he will improve? No, and that is why we weep. Is that reaction real? You bet. Which may be where the Coens have really succeeded. They have exposed moviemaking as being most effective when it's outright manipulation. The facts and the details are not permanent, they can be free to get it wrong, fudging dates and blurring the edges of different stories, because that stuff has never been true anyway. The only truth is what we find of ourselves inside Llewyn Davis, just like the true meaning of myths was always how we saw their lessons reflected in our real world. This fable is my life story as much as his. I am Llewyn Davis, and he is me.