Thursday, December 31, 2009


Sorry if updates seemed slow this month. I thought it would be late in the month when things would go wonky, but I followed a stacked schedule for theatrical releases during the first week of December with a dental emergency immediately after. (I actually just typed "mental emergency," which I guess works, too.) My whole plan for having a productive end of the year went kablooey.

As you can see, though, I am back on track...

Please be sure to also check out my list of My Top 15 Movies of 2009, which I posted to my other blog.

I also voted in the DVD Talk end-of-the-year poll, and these are the top 20 DVDs as picked by the writing staff. I kind of hate being part of any list that includes Watchmen, but such is a democracy. I wrote the blurbs for Wings of Desire, The Human Condition, and Up.


* Avatar, the James Cameron blockbuster makes up for its lackluster script with truly stunning effects.

* Broken Embraces, the new Pedro Almodovar is the movie for Penelope Cruz fans to see right now. Forget the one with the music.

* The Messenger, the hard-hitting drama with Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, and Samantha Morton. Portlanders, it's finally here.

* Nine, the musical remake of Fellini's 8 1/2 lacks the original's creative spark and is really just a snoozer. Second appearance by Penelope Cruz, first by Marion Cotillard this month, both of whom make this at least passable. Don't forget my review of the Fellini a few entries back.

* The Princess and the Frog, Disney's fun-filled return to classic animation is a winner.

* The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Rebecca Miller's new film. It falls apart in the final third, but the strong start and performances are enough to keep it as a recommended feature.

* Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie's movie is the worst thing you could have done to yourself this Christmas.

* A Single Man, Tom Ford's movie is the best thing you could have done to yourself this Christmas.

* Up in the Air, Jason Reitman and George Clooney deliver the true winner of the season. I loved it!

* The Young Victoria, a lovely historical drama with Emily Blunt as the titular Queen.


* Beautiful Losers, an interesting documentary about a group of contemporary artists who came up through NYC in the 1990s.

* In the Loop, Armando Iannucci's blistering political satire. Peter Capaldi and James Gandolfini let the profanity fly!

* Lion's Den, one of my favorites of the year is a little-seen prison drama from Argentina. Martina Gusman is fantastic.

* Public Enemies: 2-Disc Special Edition, Michael Mann's gangster movie is the prettiest nap you can ever take. The second appearance of Marion Cotillard in this month's list of reviews. Between this and Nine, she deserves better.

* Spectacle: Elvis Costello With... - Season 1, a show where Elvis sits and chats with other musicians about music. Its brilliance is equal to its simplicity.

* Tora-san: Collector's Set 1, the first four movies in the extensive Japanese film series, featuring a charismatic drifter in increasingly addictive romantic adventures.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


"They were the only good things in my life. Maybe that's why they left."

Réne Clément's 1956 historical drama Gervaise is an adaptation of Emile Zola's L'assommoir, part of the French author's multi-part character epic, Les Rougon-Macquart. The novel's title, L'assommoir, is said to be an old colloquialism that is roughly the equivalent of the American phrase "to get hammered." Apparently the focus of this chapter of Zola's narrative was alcoholism and the devastating effects it has on a family. The drinking is also there in Clément's film version, but the focus is more on the title character, Gervaise Marquart (Maria Schell), and how she gets hammered by life.

As Gervaise herself tells us in her hopeful opening narrative, she is the girl who shouldn't have expected very much. At the start of the picture, which takes place in the late 1800s, she is living with her common-law husband Lantier (Armand Mestral), who has taken her on despite her limp and given her two boys in the time they have been together. Too bad for her that Lantier is the kind of man no female deserves, and pretty soon he runs off with a loose woman who lives across the street. Gervaise's anger leads to her having a knockdown drag-out fight with that strumpet's sister, Virginie (Suzy Delair). Despite taking place in a giant public laundromat, it's a pretty dirty scuffle, ending with Virginie's bare ass being spanked with a paddle. The indignity is one she promises never to forget.

With Lantier out of the way, things start looking up for Gervaise. She marries a kindly roofer, Henri Coupeau (Francois Périer), despite the protests of his family. They have a daughter together, Nana (Chantal Gozzi), and they make plans for Gervaise to open her own launderette. This dream is nearly scuttled when Coupeau falls off a roof and Gervaise's insisting on taking care of him herself leaves them broke. The kindly blacksmith Goujet (Jacques Harden) loans her the downpayment for her lease, revealing his buried love for Gervaise and sparking an unacknowledged jealousy in her husband in the process. Once again things are looking up for Gervaise.

Of course, you can only look up so long before the sun burns your eyes, and that's when the blindside comes. Gervaise is one of those up-and-down melodramas where every step up the ladder the protagonist takes is followed by her being knocked back two more, all the way to the bottom and down to hell if the earth would just comply and open up. It's the sort of story that, when done poorly, compels the audience to throw up its hands and cry, "Enough! I give up!" When done well, however, as Gervaise most certainly is, it makes co-dependents of us all. Yes, Gervaise, we'll watch you get your hopes up, and we'll wait with wetted lips for them to get dashed on the rocks. Especially because we know each failure will be bigger than the last.

I think an essential component of any such movie succeeding is the strength of its lead. In this case, Maria Schell imbues Gervaise with a natural warmth and kindness that somehow makes us root for her even as we slowly begin to realize that she's not really that innocent of a victim. Or maybe "innocent" is the wrong word. It's more that she is less a victim of opportunistic men then she is her own bad choices. Whatever societal forces may be informing her misguided decisions, and the lack of education that leaves her without other tools, it becomes increasingly hard to reconcile the Gervaise that fought back against Virginie and whooped her ass with the Gervaise who allows a besotted Coupeau to let Lantier move in with them, and who is then manipulated in jumping between the beds of both men. We know she is capable of better, but she has latched onto bad luck as her own addiction. It's like she wouldn't know what to do without it. With her kind face and clear, expressive eyes, Schell reminds me a lot of Liv Ullmann, which is probably a major reason why I was drawn to her. She is an excellent actress in her own right, though, and later played both the love interest in Luchino Visconti's marvelous Le notti bianche and the immigrant frontier wife in Anthony Mann's version of Cimarron.

Symbolically, the blacksmith Goujet is Gervaise's conscience. He never fails to see what is really going on, and when she later tries to lie to him, she can't really do it. He also serves as the example of social change, and when he is sent to jail for organizing a strike to protest unfair wages, that's when things really go south for Gervaise. Without him there watching, she has no one to help her pick her drunken husband up off the street or ward off Virginie's machinations. As in Carné's La jour sa lève, work is what sets a man free. When Coupeau stops working, he disappears inside a wine bottle, whereas Goujet's taking Gervaise's eldest, Etienne (Christian Férez), under his wing offers the boy a way out of the squalor. Jacques Harden lends Goujet a rugged earthiness that would have made him right at home as the love interest in one of Douglas Sirk's movies from the same period. The scene when Gervaise goes to see him and Etienne off, and he doesn't see her standing there on the train platform--or quite possibly ignores her--is one of the most heartbreaking in the movie.

Its rival for saddest scene is the very end of the picture, when we see poor Nana heading on the road to ruin herself. René Clément had already proved himself an expert at portraying childish behavior and the hidden meanings behind it in Forbidden Games when he made Gervaise, and he turns Nana into a cautionary element that is integral to the narrative. If Etienne is an example of how a child can escape his surroundings with a little guidance, the blank sponge that is Nana soaks up all the nastiness, all the dirty laundry, that fills Gervaise's shop. Left to her own devices, the unbathed child wraps a ribbon in her hair and runs to an eager group of young boys. They turn to chase her the way a flock of birds shifts flight in mid-air. It's a creepy image all on its own, but knowing where that chase will lead her, it's all the more chilling. Nana is the star of another of Zola's novels, which has been adapted to film itself more than once, most notably by Jean Renoir in 1926.

Observing behavior that is meant to remain unseen has always been Clément's strong suit. Be it the cons of Alain Delon in Purple Noon or the secret rituals the children undertake in Forbidden Games (which was written by Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the same team on the script for Gervaise), Clément is attracted to the hidden actions and the pathology that underlines the things people do to themselves and one another. In a pivotal scene in Gervaise, his camera coyly pans down from up above the table where Gervaise, Lantier, and Virginie sit to look under the table at what is happening out of sight. One could almost call the drift of the camera "sprightly." It's a delicious moment, made all the better by Suzy Delair's relish for playing the villainess.

The same attention to detail is paid to all of Gervaise, and the director and his crew recreate 19th-century France with gritty accuracy. One of the most impressively realized sequences takes place on Gervaise and Coupeau's wedding day, when the working-class wedding party goes to the Louvre, many of them for their first and only time. They tour the museum, looking at the paintings, laughing at the ones with nudity, tracking mud through the institution's corridors. Clément shows us both the expanse of the galleries, but also the tight formation of the group, including ducking down to check out that dirty footwear.

Alongside Schell's charisma, such exacting focus on getting every inch of the movie right is crucial to our accepting the emotional histrionics of Gervaise. The movie never feels like a put-on, and it's most certainly never manipulative. By creating a believable world, René Clément also makes the story believable, even when we don't want to believe that our heroine is going to go the wrong way again. Real life is full of mistakes, and a movie's main character is allowed to make them, but the storytellers are not.

This disc was a Christmas present from my good friend and regular editor, the writer Maryanne Snell. What can I say, it was an Essential Art House Holiday. Many thanks, Maryanne!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


A man is shot behind a closed door. He stumbles from the apartment and tumbles down the stairs, passing the only witness, a blind man. Police are summoned. The believed shooter has locked himself in his room at the top of the tenement. By all accounts, he's a good man. No one knows who the dead man is, much less why their neighbor shot him. The only one with all the answers is behind a closed door and not talking.

This is the opening scene and basic set-up of Le jour se lève, Marcel Carné's tense 1939 thriller. The shooter is played by the formidable Jean Gabin, one of the more naturalistic and believable actors of early cinema. His presence is like that of Bogie's, his girth a precursor to Gerard Depardieu. But in truth, he is just Gabin, unlike no other. Perfectly believable as a working-class hero, and the kind of personality that could hold our interest pacing a tiny studio all by his lonesome. Which is essentially what he does in Le jour se lève, though his dark night of the soul is mixed up with memory and regret. The title translates as Daybreak, and Jean's character, Francois, will stay barricaded in his apartment overnight, as the police and the townspeople wait for him to reveal himself. He's locked in his own head at the same time, a victim of stinkin' thinkin' not just tonight, but in all the events leading up to this.

Through a series of flashbacks, Carné and writers Jacques Viot and Jacques Prévert reveal that Francois is caught in two intersecting love triangles. He first falls for the pretty Francoise (Jaqueline Laurent) when she comes to his work to deliver flowers to his boss' wife. Francois labors in a factory where the hazardous conditions are affecting his health; in every way, he is a man with a death sentence hanging over his head even before he becomes a murderer. He and the girl quickly bond, the common name between them working as a starting point for what turns out to be a sweet, intimate relationship. Their scenes together are shot quietly, first by necessity (everyone else in the house is asleep) and then just by nature of the love they share. Carné is a tricky bastard. He knows that if someone whispers, the listener will automatically lean in. Here we fall in love because we can't help but climb into the room with the lovers. Francois and Francoise speak so quietly, we are engaged to be a part of their liaison.

On the night when Francois visits her house, he ends up following Francoise after she leaves him for a prior engagement. She ends up at a small theatre where a dog trainer named Valentin (Jules Berry) is putting on a vaudevillian act where his pooches do ludicrous tricks. It also happens to be the night where Valentin and his pretty assistant Clara (Arletty) are splitting. Clara is a more mature woman than the naïve Francoise, and she sees through Valentin in ways the younger girl is not yet sophisticated enough to manage. Clara also spots the beefy Francois at the bar and quickly attaches herself to him. She becomes his mistress while Francoise remains his chaste girlfriend. Yet, the question is what Francoise's relationship to the slimy con man Valentin is, and whether it's as chaste as her connection to Francois.

It's the untangling of Valentin's lies that eventually gets him shot, the act revealed as the climax of Francois's flashbacks and just prior to the full climax of Le jour se lève. Valentin is a creepy cat, and Jules Berry squeezes every ounce of slime out of the performance as he can. There is a natural division between the men, and though we never see their hands, they would be the telltale sign of how different they are. Valentin's hands would be soft, never having seen hard labor, and Francois's would be rough. Valentin crows about his own intelligence, and the postcards he has sent Francoise from around Europe are meant to suggest that he can offer her a life beyond this remote village. Francois is just a dumb brute by comparison, stuck here for life, no prospect of moving on. Even though Francois sees a paying job as his ticket to personal freedom, the girl may not feel the same. This is the stick Valentin pokes him with, and the true measure of Gabin's performance is how much his understated seething makes us seethe on his behalf. Put that gun in my hand, I'd shoot the huckster, too.

Le jour se lève has a lot going on underneath its melodramatic plot. In addition to the bits about the class distinctions, there is also a lot being said about male aggression. It's kind of like Peckinpah's Straw Dogs in reverse, with the smart guy in the role of antagonist. There are also interesting things to be gleaned about the role of women at the time: how they are perceived, and how those perceptions not only define them, but also how they spur the men in their lives to treat them and/or act on their behalf. Clara is arguably a fallen woman, but she is also a realist. Francois is kind of kidding himself when he tells her he's not the romantic type. He demands a certain honesty from her, waiting to judge her beauty until he sees her without her stage make-up, but he lies to himself. He's an absolute romantic, and he's also a total wuss when it comes to ending their relationship. Clara takes it like a trooper, though that doesn't stop her from being a right bitch. I suppose a lifetime of being thrown over for the innocent girls has given her good reason to debunk the myth of that innocence.

Watching Le jour se lève, I had the feeling that I had seen this all before. Not that I found it derivative, but that some other movie had been derived from it. Turns out there was a good reason I felt this way, I hadn't realized that this was the movie Hollywood remade in 1949 as The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda and Vincent Price and directed by Anatole Litvak. I reviewed that film three years ago as part of Kino's Film Noir: The Dark Side of Hollywood boxed set. It was my favorite of the box, and though my memories of it are fond, Le jour se lève strikes me as the superior picture. More grimy, less hamstrung by production codes when it comes to the finer details of the love affairs. From what I can recall, the broad strokes are the same, though the ending of each version is more befitting the country of origin. Fonda is actually in a similar talent class as Gabin in terms of solitary action and the way he commands a screen. Both movies also have a cinematic realism that is quite effective. We aren't seeing our wronged men making their bad choices on a soundstage. Small town life, particularly as the neighbors spill out to watch the spectacle of the stand-off, is as much a part Jacques Viot's story as anything else.

One fascinating thing about Le jour se lève is how little it actually explains itself. Or, more accurately, how little we are told about the motivations of Francois. He doesn't make any big speeches to Valentin before he kills him, and really, he is reacting more than anything, goaded into proving the power of his might vs. that of Valentin's twisted talk. There is no such antagonizing factor in his final decision, however; it's still just him all alone. My first impulse was to say that he's a man that doesn't allow decisions to be made for him, and so he maintains control by choosing how it will all play out. Thinking about Gabin's face both times he uses a gun, I realized we really have to read his expressions to understand where his real shame lies. He let Valentin poke and prod him into making a mistake, effectively removing the control from him. It's the one decision that we could say he didn't make for himself, and the last scene of the movie is him taking over his own fate once again. The fade-out is on Francois and no one else. There are no parting words. Just the man in his room.

This disc was a Christmas present from my good friend, the writer Christopher McQuain, and thus got immediately bumped up in my post-holiday queue. Thanks, Chris! Check out his top 10 picks for the films that defined the last decade here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

8 1/2 - #140

"I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same."

Several years ago, I blogged about how I didn't believe in writer's block. Don't let that there are only three comments on the entry fool you, it was one of my more "controversial" topics. I got plenty of e-mails about it, had it brought up fairly regularly at work-related social gatherings, I had a lot of professional writer friends who either agreed or disagreed and wanted to hash out what separated us and what linked us. I stand by that lack of belief still. I may get stuck, I may have bad days, but "writer's block" is still not a real condition.

Upon once again watching Fellini's 1963 masterpiece of troubled creation, 8 1/2, it occurred to me that one of the big problems with Nine [full review], the newly filmed musical adaptation of this unadaptable classic, is how much the writers of that travesty missed the point of Guido Anslemi's ailment. He is not blocked, not even remotely, his problem is an overabundance of ideas and a lack of clarity. Nine reduces his artistic plight to comedic business: he can't write, refuses to write, lies about writing. Then again, the entire production of Nine is one of simple-mindedness. The play makes it all about Guido's frayed libido and offers a solution of monogamous fidelity. In 8 1/2, one female muse does show Guido the way, but the true lesson is he needs all of them. The wife, the mistress, the fantasy. He needs everyone, male and female, to get his work done.

The great Marcello Mastroianni stars in 8 1/2 as Guido, the successful film director whose career is heading toward the skids. He's hiding out in a health spa, drying out via a combination of medicine and Catholicism. He is working on his new screenplay with a caustic writer named Daumier (Jean Rougeul), who keeps telling him that his script is incomplete due to a lack of a point, not for want of story. In fact, Guido has too much story. It's everywhere around him. It appears to him in dreams, as visions and reenactments of memory, creeping into his every living moment. Fellini has dismantled the wall between reality and imagination, leaving us to decide where to apply the definition of each. In truth, of course, it's all imagination, this is a flickering fiction we are watching, and the curtain will drop at the end, Guido conducting his cast the way Fellini is off screen conducting his.

Guido's life has become one of never-ending spectacle. A famous figure whose films are known for their "soullessness," he is followed by religious figures, studio busybodies, actresses and their flunkies--all of them part of some spectacle or other, none of them any more substantial than their accusations. Throughout 8 1/2, more and more people gather around Guido. His producer, crewmen, and, of course, his wife and mistress. The mistress is a flashy married woman named Carla, played by the gorgeous and sexy Sandra Milo, a silly creature who is playful with her lover even as she is selfish and demanding. By contrast, Luisa Anselmi (Anouk Aimee), in her glasses and plain white shirt, is serious and demands very little. Her biggest request? Don't lie to her. Unfortunately, lies are Guido's stock in trade. His new epic, despite the fact that it has a spaceship as its central set piece, is really a rehashing of his biography. From the memories of his childhood, of his mother and father and the mentally unstable whore Saraghina (Edra Gale) who dances a rumba for a young Guido and his chums, all the way through his interactions with Carla and how he hides his infidelity from Luisa, these things are the spine of his script. A painful run-through of screen tests, showing an endless parade of interchangeable actresses going through the motions of each part, reveals how stuck in his own mess Guido is.

The director is the architect of his own fate. Success is his albatross. He is trapped by expectations--those of the press, the businessmen, the clergy, and even his own. What does he have to say that he hasn't said before? Is the reason that he can't make a movie about love because he doesn't know how to experience true love in his own life? That's what his actress tells him. Most of the film is spent waiting for Claudia, played by the divine Claudia Cardinale, to arrive. She appears as visions prior to her really showing up, and she is the simple idea that Guido is waiting for. Just before she lands, he has his most elaborate vision, in which all the women of his life are part of an extended harem that he is trying to maintain control of. It's within this dream that it becomes clear that it's all gotten too complicated for him. It's like Hemingway implored, that each writer must struggle to write that "one true sentence." Claudia is that true sentence, and she is also the truth teller. She sees right through the filmmaker's pretense.

The wonderful thing about Federico Fellini is how effortlessly he blends his reality into the fabric of show business. Channeling his own anxieties about maintaining creative success into 8 1/2 could have been an exercise in precious self-indulgence, but it's really just another day at the office for a director whose lifelong passion was the sparkle and glitz of performance. Much in the same way Bergman was drawn to the façade of entertainers and what it revealed about the human condition, Fellini works to bolster the illusion as if it were the true mirror rather than a distorted reflection. He and cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo create a stunning black-and-white world full of open spaces, isolating Guido within his spacious mindscapes, while also working with art director Piero Gheradi in creating a monument to the complexity of his fantasies with the towering launchpad for his cinematic spaceship (an excellent metaphor that--filmmakers are all astronauts, the movie set their point of take-off).

Sound is also important, perhaps just as important as the look of the movie. The music of Nino Rota creates surreal audioscapes; the score for the dream where Guido sees his parents reminded me of desolate Twilight Zone episodes like "The Lonely" (the one where Jack Warden is a convict living with a robot on an isolated asteroid). The sound designers, Mario Faraoni and Alberto Bartolomei, also add telling effects to different scenes. Listen to that sucking noise Guido hears when he gets on the elevator with the priests. It's like they are drawing him down into death itself, like a fading patient hooked up to a ventilator in a hospital somewhere.

Marcello Mastroianni is one of cinema's great charmers, basically Italy's answer to Cary Grant or George Clooney. His charisma refuses to be buried, and so 8 1/2 avoids becoming dour. He's a scoundrel, always checking out the ladies, humorlessly unapologetic when caught in the act. When Carla and Luisa collide, Guido goes into performance mode, adding another layer to the acting. Mastroianni is playing the part of a cad playing his part. Yet, when Claudia comes along, he is also capable of being vulnerable. The veneer is torn asunder, and the exposure leaves him hanging out there in the big climax. His producers have scheduled a huge press conference/cocktail party out at the launchpad set, and Guido has nowhere to hide. There are so many questions and accusations being tossed at him out there, I almost didn't notice that the producer suggests that Guido has been hiding out for three days, trying to avoid this public appearance. Is it possible that we are meant to imagine Guido as a kind of Christ-like figure, dead for three days and now rising again? His floating away at the start of the picture is even reminiscent of the opening of La Dolce Vita.

If so, the order is a little backwards, because this party is Guido's crucifixion, and depending on how literally you want to take it, possibly his suicide. (And you know, given that Christ sacrificed himself willingly, this is also not off the mark.) The difference here is that no one expects Guido to come back. Not even Guido. In that, though, is his own salvation. The pressure is off, and the disparate pieces of the story he has been chewing on come together. He needed to give himself permission to stop worrying about expectations, stop worrying about how much exposure he was giving the truth, and just go with it. How cathartic that must have been for Fellini, too, getting to that point in the script and granting himself the same privilege as his character. Like the conga line of the dead at the end of The Seventh Seal, Guido's cast dances off into the sunset, which is a pretty accurate representation of what it's like to finish writing something.

In fact, I may do a little dance right now. Because I'm done, too.

Though I reviewed this watching the original release bought for my collection in 2001, you should know that Criterion just released a Blu-Ray version. Here is a review of it by DVD Talk's Adam Tyner.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


Sometimes bad blood is a metaphor, sometimes it's literal. In the Vuillard family, they have both kinds and plenty of it.

Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale is a multi-leveled yet somehow easily assembled family drama that tracks the Vuillards over the course of four days, December 22nd through 25th--not including the considerable history they bring with them to their holiday celebration. Desplechin sets the table for this feast in the very first scenes, using cut-out puppet theatre to catch us up on the family dynamic. The heads of the clan are Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who is in the fabric dye business, and Junon (Catherine Deneuve). They had four children together, though their oldest, Jonathan, died of a rare condition when very young. Neither his parents nor his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) could offer him the transfusion he needed, and even little Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was tested in the womb to see if he could help. No dice, Jonathan passed, and his specter has haunted the family ever since, particularly settling on Henri, who was born right at the same time, yet somehow leaving the next down the line, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), alone.

When A Christmas Tale picks up in real life and real time, the kids have grown up and mother Junon has been diagnosed with a cancer much like Jonathan's. Once again, there is a scramble to find matching marrow. There are complications, however, Henri has been in exile for six years, his sister having banished him in return for assuming his debts. He is a drinker and a screw-up, and everyone else has gone along with Elizabeth even though they don't have any idea why she chose to be so extreme. Henri is about to return to the family, joining them for Christmas, a move largely precipitated by Elizabeth's teenage son Paul (Emile Berling). Paul has recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, apparently at the same age that Ivan had similar mental problems. It would appear that when it comes time to fill out a hospital form, the Vuillard's can check "yes" next to "a history of mental illness."

There are a lot of narrative threads criss-crossing one another in A Christmas Tale, but Desplechin, who co-wrote the movie with Emmanuel Bourdieu, is careful never to get them tangled. Both Paul and Henri test positive as bone marrow donors for Junon, and this draws a connection between the three generations. These are the three outcasts, in a way, all on the outs due to their various illnesses, and events tend to morph around them. How the family deals with each other is based on their moods, their needs. This could be the reason for Elizabeth's jealousy, and it also allows a safe space for a side drama to play out. Ivan's wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni), apparently had a love affair with Henri first, and there were also sparks between her and their cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). As it turns out, the three boys chose between them who would end up with her, and it makes Sylvia question her time with Ivan and how much she has been the master of her own destiny.

There is a preciousness to A Christmas Tale's construction that seemed familiar to me, and it struck me midway through that it felt like I was watching a French version of The Royal Tenenbaums. I am not sure I would have ended up being able to scratch that mental itch had not Arnaud Desplechin recently interviewed Wes Anderson for Interview magazine. Their conversation revealed a camaraderie and similar interests in narrative and films. I'm not going to hazard to say it's intentional, but the similarities are fascinating. Both films deal with the reunion of a troubled family at the home where all the kids grew up. The children are all creative, though with divergent passions and personalities; the lone sister among the boys is a playwright. Mental illness and death hang around like a black cloud, sometimes baffling the two young, identical-looking nephews. There is an outsider who wishes to be accepted as more of a family member, one whose substance abuse leads to violent episodes, and who is in love with one of the women of the family. (Though Simon is tame compared to Eli Cash.) Likewise, there is even some question as to whether or not something sexual occurred between Henri and Elizabeth, a la Richie and Margot. There are also aesthetic parallels, including the drawings of the wolf that lives in the basement and the hand-crafted playbill for the Christmas Eve performance. The use of title cards to mark time and divide the film into chapters remind us that the movie is dramatic artifice the way they did in Tenenbaums, and Desplechin takes that a step further by regularly employing an iris effect to suggest nostalgia for older films, memory, and even a little voyeurism. The times where he has characters read their letters aloud directly into the camera are also reminiscent of Anderson's voiceovers and use of montage.

It makes for interesting food for thought, comparing the two, though beyond these surface points, A Christmas Tale is very much its own thing. The direct connection of mother and son when it comes time for the transplant is more concrete than anything in Anderson's film, and it's not much of a fix. Henri and Junon openly have a distaste for one another, and neither are that interested in correcting that. Family is something you take as is in Desplechin's world, there is no repairing it. The schism between Henri and Elizabeth also goes far deeper, and the truth behind that rift is never revealed. Though we see the physical evidence of it in the form of a letter, that is one piece of mail that Henri chooses not to read. If The Royal Tenenbaums is musical theatre, A Christmas Tale is literary drama.

The acting in A Christmas Tale is electric from start to finish. Catherine Deneuve is fierce and commanding as the matriarch, her steely influence holding sway over everything. At one point, Henri basically says that how much any one person can get away with is directly related to how much they can insist on others liking them; Junon can get away with anything and everything, as she demands everyone's allegiance. As that wise but unpredictable son, Mathieu Amalric consistently either disproves or proves his character's theory, I'm not sure which. His kinetic, wiry style consistently pulls the camera his way. He can take it over the top when called for, but his best moment comes at the Christmas toast, when he must pull everything back in, firing off one last salvo before passing out. I'd much rather see him in stuff like this and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly than wasting his talents as some one-note James Bond villain. I also quite liked Chiara Mastroianni in this film, and am happy to see her in something good rather than just doing her best to stay afloat in crap like Christophe Honoré's Love Songs.

In terms of holiday movies, A Christmas Tale hits some major points. It's about family coming together, and it's about a hope for a better tomorrow that comes through reconciling the past. There are also elements of magic that tie into psychosis, something we see in films as far flung in time as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Bergman's Fanny & Alexander (here, it's Paul's visions). Arnaud Desplechin is playing it a little coy at the finish. The final scene between Henri and Junon ends with raised eyebrows and a question, and the very end of the film has Elizabeth quoting Shakespeare, wondering if anything is truly mended or if this dream merely cycles into another one. Whether or not you walk away from that deciding A Christmas Tale reaches a positive or negative conclusion is down to you. It's how you choose to make your own peace that makes all the difference, something that puts you right in line with the Vuillard family dynamic.

In 2007, Desplechin made an hour-long documentary called L'aimee (Beloved). Included here, it is an interesting glimpse on the life that informed A Christmas Tale. The director began by making a film about his father selling the house he grew up in, but it soon turns into a journey of father and son through the family records. Specifically, they explore their connections to the matriarchs in their family, discussing the elder Desplechin's grandmother, biological mother, and adopted mother. Arnaud's own mother has passed away, and he is curious about the history of the Desplechin women. A journal and letters from his grandmother lead them to sort through the life she lived. She was a nurse who later suffered and died in a sanitarium, quarantined from her son. There is a respect for the incredible ladies that came before them, as well as a distance, and it sheds a lot of light on what went into the script for A Christmas Tale.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Monday, November 30, 2009



* An Education, the Nick Hornby-penned coming-of-age tale makes a real star out of Carey Mulligan. One of my favorite movies of the season.

* Fantastic Mr. Fox, the awesome realization of Wes Anderson's childhood.

* The Men Who Stare at Goats has a great cast--George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey--but doesn't have a complete script to match.

* Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, a melodrama that gets by on the strength of its acting, but the script's contrivances aren't quite up to the hype. I actually really liked Alison Hallett's review at the Mercury. You should read it.

* The Road, John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy.


* The Barbara Stanwyck Show, vol. 1, an unearthed television show starring the great actress. A little disappointing, but worth a look.

* The Dead, John Huston's final film finally comes to DVD, so why did Lionsgate screw it up so bad? Ten minutes missing? Did you leave it in your horse and buggy? Thankfully, I got an e-mail from Lionsgate and they are issuing replacements. I've added info to my review in case anyone needs to do a trade-in. Very good news!

* Funny People, the Judd Apatow drama was lost this summer, but proves an excellent DVD.

* Gilda Live!, Gilda Radner's live show from 1980.

* Johnny Mercer "The Dream's On Me", a documentary celebrating the 100th anniversary of the famous songwriter's birth.

* Lemon Tree, an effective Israeli drama about one woman's fight to protect her heritage.

* The Limits of Control, Jim Jarmusch's latest, a challenging and misunderstood journey through the artistic process.

* Toi & Moi, a romantic comedy starring Marion Cotillard that fails to generate any heat.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Years ago, I was co-host of a cable access show. Every two weeks, we'd be live on Portland television for an hour, showing music videos, working without a script. Hardly anybody watched it, there were no consequences if we sucked, but even so, that hour was a nerve-wracking, electrified, exciting time. We were beaming across the city to whatever homes had cable, to whoever might have happened across us while scanning the airwaves with their remote controls. What a thrill! From the signal that we were on the air to the studio's screen going black, whatever happened happened, there was no taking it back.

I can only imagine what it must have been like to do live television dramas in the 1950s. The best I can do is try to marry my slim community theatre experience with the cable access experience. Put together a scripted show where I had to remember lines and hit my marks with that feeling of reaching beyond the protected performance space, that what we were doing wasn't just going to be seen by those in the immediate vicinity, but potentially by hundreds. Thousands. Millions. It wasn't just a matter of showing up and running out the clock, you'd really have to perform.

That's how TV was done in the early days. Live shows, like hour-long plays, often with the best and the brightest of Broadway, new talent cutting their teeth in a new media. Eight of these programs are collected in the new Criterion boxed set, The Golden Age of Television. The collection is named for a PBS series that showcased this exciting time. The original presentations were performed live on the East Coast, shot with multiple cameras, but in the days before video tape, so no clean way to capture what was happening. The filmmakers edited as they went, it wasn't on film. What PBS resurrected and what they showed when this series first ran back in the early 1980s, bringing these vintage teleplays back to the air for the first time in decades, were recordings called "kinescopes." Essentially, kinescope was a process of photographing the broadcast by pointing a special camera at a video monitor. Like if you took a camera yourself and set it up in front of your TV and recorded a show. It wasn't perfect--you can sometimes see the curve of the screen, or a speck of dirt on the glass, or any number of glitches--but it was the only way to prevent these programs from just disappearing into thin air.

The material here is the cream of the crop, chosen from hours of television. Amongst the shows, we get early scripts from writers as revered as Paddy Chayefsky, Ira Levin, and Rod Serling, direction from future legends like John Frankenheimer, and performances by Ed Begley, Andy Griffith, Rod Steiger, Elizabeth Montgomery, George Peppard, Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Jack Palance, Mel Torme, and Piper Laurie in roles both big and a small. There are also small-screen turns by established big-screen stars like Everett Sloane, Edmond O'Brien, and Mickey Rooney. Structured more like the legitimate theatre, these high-wire acts show a precision of craft and a dedication from the talent we don't see all that much anymore. There were no do-overs. They only got one shot.

*** Disc 1 ***

Marty (1953): Directed by Delbert Mann and written by Paddy Chayefsky, this initial version of Marty predates the Oscar-winning movie by several years. It stars a young Rod Steiger in the role later popularized by Ernest Borgnine. He plays Marty, the lonely butcher in his late 30s whose bachelorhood is beginning to weigh heavy on his shoulders and his heart. His mother (Esther Minciotti) is worried that her eldest will never marry the way her younger children have--though even as she encourages Marty to get out there, she begins to doubt whether his finding a wife is the best thing for her. Life changes affect everyone, including the old moms who live with their sons.

Marty eventually meets a woman, a schoolteacher (Nancy Marchand), at a dancehall. He becomes aware of her when another guy asks him to take her off his hands. They had come here on a blind date, and he's decided she's a dog. Seeing a familiar crack in her broken heart, Marty risks further pain by sharing his hurt with the girl, and they see glimmers of happiness in one another. It's a tender story, enacted with a touching sensitivity. Steiger is the epitome of a gentle giant, and his expressions of doubt and heartache are disarming coming not just from a man of his size, but any man really. It's not usually the fella we see waiting at home for the phone to ring in romantic stories. Chayefsky builds Marty's predicament with such care, layering the story with thematic parallels, that he staves off any impending mawkishness. Marty is sweet and touching, but it's not manipulative, it comes by those heartstrings it tugs honestly.

Patterns (1955): Rod Serling's big-business drama caused a sensation when it first aired, and it went a long way to building the reputation that would eventually lead to the writer landing his own series, The Twilight Zone. Unlike that show, this Fielder Cook-helmed drama stays close to the earth, detailing the regime change in a large corporation. Fred Staples (Richard Kiley) is a new vice president being brought in to edge out the old, Andy Sloane (Ed Begley). The boss, Mr. Ramsie (Everett Sloane), sees Andy's moralistic approach to business as a relic from his father's age, a hold-over from a time long gone. Fred doesn't know he has been fashioned into an assassin's bullet, but it doesn't take long for his true purpose to be revealed.

Rod Serling's strength has always been socially conscious dramas that manage to wear their pointed message out in the open, but like Chayefsky, he wrote in such a way that it never seemed obvious or cloying. In Patterns, the pieces all move with precision--there is the hard-charging boss, the rising star and the fading champ, the secretary who sees everything (Elizabeth Wilson), the wife (June Dayton) who wants to see her husband climb the ladder. Everyone has a function, but the way the gears lock together never show. Grandstanding speeches come off as natural. They are written with an ear for speech, and spoken by true masters. Ed Begley is fragile as the aging executive, losing the last grip he has on stability, and Everett Sloane is ruthless as the company president. It's all Richard Kiley can do to remain standing between them as they obliterate one another.

No Time for Sergeants (1955): The lone comedy in the set stars Andy Griffith as Will Stockdale, the country bumpkin draftee who gets through the army on his blind luck, blind charm, and well, blind everything. His is the kind of character who never seems to clue in to what all is going on around him, to the precariousness of his situation or the dismay he may be causing others. In truth, they are uptight and overly concerned with rules and such; he is free to be himself.

No Time for Sergeants was adapted by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby) from a novel by Mac Hyman, and this Alex Segal-directed production actually predates the more famous Broadway version, which grew out of this show and also starred Griffith. It's also the first show in The Golden Age of Television to feature a first-person narrator that talks directly to the audience (Bang the Drum Slowly is another), and we follow Griffith as he crosses through the sets, even makes jokes about the empty facades and the ease with which he gets from one place to the other. Griffith is definitely charming (if not also a little annoying), and though the humor is of an antiquated variety, the down-home joking hasn't grown stale. Harry Clark plays Will Stockdale's foil, the flummoxed Sergeant King, and he and Griffith play off each other really well. It's a little like watching a live-action Looney Tune.

*** Disc 2 ***

A Wind from the South (1955): This quiet love story set in Ireland stars Julie Harris as Shevawn, the sisterly half of a brother/sister duo running a bread and breakfast in the countryside. Unlike her angry brother (Michael Higgins), Shevawn hasn't resigned herself to a life stuck in her hometown, she dreams of travel, a fantasy life fueled by the lives in transit passing through their establishment. Amongst the current guests is the American ad man Robert (Donald Woods), a man equally frustrated with his stagnant life, but who covers his frustrations with jocularity, poetry, and drink. Shevawn and Robert share a brief one-night affair, one that stirs both of them, and that plays out in surprising, satisfying ways. The emotional denouement shows a lot of depth. The script is by James Costigan, a notable name in early television, and inspired by, of all things, an album of songs recorded by Merv Griffin in tribute to The Quiet Man (Collector's Edition). While the future talk-show host doesn't appear on screen, he does sing "A Soft Day" at the start and close of the show, as well as at the act breaks. As the lyric goes, "A soft day, thank God/ A wind from the South with a honeyed mouth."

Harris was a Broadway star who would be one of the emerging talents in 1950s television; she would match this success with big screen triumph in A Member of the Wedding and East of Eden. I quite liked her in A Wind from the South, it's a role filled with earnestness and longing, but tempered by sweetness--the actress' specialty. Directed by Daniel Petrie (Rocket Gibraltar), the tiny drama has a remarkable sensitivity, exploring the notions of dreams and how desires often must give way to reality.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1956): Daniel Petrie also directed this baseball story, adapted by Arnold Schulman from a book by Mark Harris. A young Paul Newman stars as Henry "Author" Wiggen, the first-person narrator of the story. He is a minor league pitcher who becomes entangled in the life of his catcher, Bruce Pearson (Albert Salmi), a player of little talent and even less brains. When Bruce becomes terminally ill, Author takes him under his wing, doing his best to keep his ailment a secret so he doesn't get cut from the team. The locker room talk here is pretty tame, but the camaraderie is still a lot of fun. Author is an amusing character, hung up on taxes and caught up in his own story to a point where he almost forgets that it's someone else's tale he's telling.

Or maybe that's the consequence of having Paul Newman leading the charge. He's an electric performer, even at this stage, imbuing Author with an Actor's Studio twitchiness. The method gets in the way of Newman's naturalism a little, but his inherent charisma and comfort in front of the camera was too pronounced to squash. Albert Salmi is also very good. I am used to seeing him as the heavy, but he is quite convincing as a big palooka.

Speaking of big palookas...

Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956): This famous Rod Serling drama was one of the first productions on "Playhouse 90," the series that ushered in the 90-minute drama. If these guys could do a full hour, why not an hour and a half? No big deal, right?

Well, it was a big deal, but Requiem makes it look easy. Jack Palance stars as Mountain, a boxer who is over-the-hill at 33. He lost his latest bout in a big way, and the doctor says if he keeps fighting, he'll go blind. To make matters worse, his trusted manager, Maish (Keenan Wynn), didn't think he could make it past three rounds, and when the bruiser manages to take it to seven, Maish doesn't make book and it puts the gambler in big-time hock. As Mountain tries to figure out what to do with himself if he's not fighting, Maish has to figure out how he's going to pay off the gangsters. In between is the cut-man Army (Ed Wynn), who'd like to see both of his friends get out of their predicaments with dignity.

Requiem for a Heavyweight is a remarkable piece of work. It set the standard for boxing stories, so much so that filmmakers are still borrowing from it to this day. Jack Palance is nearly unrecognizable as the punchy knuckleduster, turning his massive girth into sensitive mush. His relationship with Kim Hunter's employment officer is sweet and believable, the smart gal falling for the gentle giant. Serling's ability to capture the essential human decency of any situation makes Requiem more than your basic sports story, he takes this very specific tale of descent and makes it a play about universal triumph.

*** Disc 3 ***

The final disc belongs to John Frankenheimer, an innovative director who would move from television to direct movies like The Manchurian Candidate and Ronin. What Frankenheimer brought to the screen in terms of style is immediately apparent from the very first scene on this DVD. There is a tremendous sense of movement, of smart choreography and tricky set-ups, that is unlike anything that came before it. With the constant creativity of the age, of new programs being staged every night, such innovation was inevitable. It's like exercising: you only get stronger the more you do it.

The Comedian (1957): The Comedian opens in a television studio, jumping back and forth between the control booth and the floor, staging close-ups using a video monitor in the extreme foreground, showing us the tail end of a disastrous rehearsal for comic legend Sammy Hogarth's latest extravaganza. Hogarth, played with knowing verve by Mickey Rooney, is making his transition into 90-minute television. How meta can you get? Based on a story by respected writer Ernest Lehman, this Rod Serling teleplay tears the live TV world apart, showing us the inflated egos of its stars and the people they destroy from the top on down. Edmond O'Brien (D.O.A.) plays the washed-up writer who chisels Sammy's schtick, and singer Mel Torme is his hapless brother, a do-it-all assistant who is also the butt of most of Sammy's jokes. In a Sweet Smell of Success-style twist, Whit Bissell plays Elwell, a gossip columnist looking to take Sammy down because of a vicious impersonation of his signature style the actor once performed. (Note: Lehman also wrote that picture.) It all comes to a head on the big night.

The Comedian is unrelenting and sometimes brutal. Sammy is an irredeemable character, even with the hidden pain Serling unearths in the final act. He's not meant to be redeemed, we're only meant to see the source of his pathology. The actors are all incredible. Rooney is incendiary, O'Brien is tragic and feral, and the only nobility in the play belongs to the women, with Kim Hunter and Constance Ford seeing the writing on the wall long before their men do. Torme is the only weak link, his portrayal of Lester Hogarth never quite coming together, perhaps a case of the character's weakness overtaking the actor.

Frankenheimer is the real star, though. The Comedian is an ambitious piece of work, full of inventive, nearly surreal set pieces and featuring a final-act montage that must have been a real bear to undertake. Layering stock footage and scenes of the Sammy Hogarth show, he elevates this one-off production to a level that was equal to anything playing at the local movie house.

As an aside, The Comedian is introduced by Claudette Colbert, whom we learn over the closing credits is scheduled to be on "Playhouse 90" the following week. Likewise, Sterling Hayden introduces the next program...

Days of Wine and Roses (1958): This hard-hitting drama about alcoholism was probably the first time most Americans saw inside an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Cliff Robertson stars as Joe Clay, the anonymous witness for this session, who tells the story of his drinking life with Kirsten Arnesen (Piper Laurie). They met through booze and stayed together with booze, and the J.P. Miller script tracks the ups and downs of their relationship, the highs and the incredible lows. They fail more than once to kick the sauce, and Joe's AA membership acts as a wedge between them, redefining how they look at one another. The show looks at not just how drinking affects the pair, but their family and the people around them.

Like Requiem for a Heavyweight's boxing clichés, a lot of what we see here has become standard practice for addiction-based melodramas, and though the final scene featuring Joe reciting the serenity prayer may seem a little hokey now, I doubt it was as commonplace in 1958. Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie really go through the ringer in Days of Wine and Roses, they must have felt like they were running a marathon. So demanding was the show, Frankenheimer actually elected to pre-record the scenes at AA, he couldn't have Cliff Robertson running back and forth and changing his suit as much as would be required. One scene these guys are sober, the next they are drunk--there are even a couple of detox sequences. Surprisingly, Miller doesn't wrap everything up neatly in the end, either. Not everyone walks away happy.

The thing about watching The Golden Age of Television is that you would never know these productions were recorded live if you weren't told. They aren't gimmicky or shambolic, they aren't simply one-room sets like filming a stage play within its confined space. What is still amazing to see is how deftly these filmmakers pulled this off, how seamlessly they move from one location to the next, from character to character, never letting the cracks show. These are fine-tuned productions, expertly rehearsed, carefully honed to come off without a hitch. These dramas were meant to compete with motion pictures--and they do. Quite easily.

The Golden Age of Television - Criterion Collection is an invaluable historical document that also manages to be a potent testament to the quality of early television drama (and one comedy!). These eight shows, recorded live between 1953 and 1958, show a medium in emergence, propelled by unmatched talent. The writing, direction, and acting--every aspect of the performance--is a wonder to behold, and all the more impressive for the fact that this was all done exactly as we see it here. No retakes, no do-overs, pure live theatre--though not the traditional trodden boards, the theatre of the air!

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.