A sexagenarian romp

Champagne at the Plaza Athénée

Champagne at the Plaza Athénée

The genre, if it can be called that, is geriatric screwball comedy. Not enticing, though the premise of Le Week-End held some promise: a trip to Paris to revitalize a tired 30-year-old marriage. Unfortunately for all concerned, including the audience, once Mr. and Mrs. Burrows get off the Eurostar train from London, everything goes wrong, for them and for the film.

Cardiac climb to Sacre Coeur

Cardiac climb to Sacre Coeur

Nick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) are at no point sympathetic characters, nor is their marriage believable. The simplest way to relay the movie’s failure is to catalog its many flaws, which is a list of implausibilities. Start with their home life, which is spoken of but not seen, as all the action takes place in Paris: (1) Nick is dismissed as a professor of philosophy in Birmingham because he suggested one of his students spend more time on her studies than her hair. He was fired? Really? Even academia is not that petty. Anyway, as result, they are all but penniless in Paris. (2) Their marriage is so sexless that at one point he crawls toward her begging to smell her crotch. Now, maybe men that feeble exist. Maybe they even stay in marriages. And maybe there are women who indulge such caponized behavior, or who are the cause of it. But if any of those pathologies exist, they need to be explored a bit when the storytellers aim the camera at her lifted skirt and his kneel-crawl. In this movie, that scene adds nothing but campy vulgarity. (3) They refer to their children in the plural (“Once the kids have gone, what’s left of us?”), but the only one offspring emerges in the plot, a derelict married son who phones for money. Why “kids” if the plot only calls for one? Answer: lazy writing. (4) Nick had an affair years ago, and Meg is still punishing him for it— sometimes. At other times, she buys him art books they can’t afford. She is the very definition of fickle, while he’s a grizzled Lloyd Dobler—smitten to the point of emasculation.

Splurging on books

Splurging on books

Then there’s Paris: (5) Meg hates the inexpensive Montmartre hotel room he booked— her entire objection: “It’s beige”— and so flees for a taxi, with him rushing after shouting “Don’t do this, Meg!” They drive around, meter ticking, until she sees the Plaza Athénée, one of Paris’s most luxurious hotels—say, $900 per night. (6) He vandalizes their room by pasting mementos to a wall, including snippets from the generous pile of coffee-table art books she bought. (7) On the street one night, they encounter an old friend of his (Jeff Goldblum, displaying his full range of signature quirks) who of course happens to be a wildly successful author with a pregnant young wife and, for that touch of the imperfect, a pot-smoking son secluded in a bedroom. No movie these days can be without someone filthy rich, or someone dysfunctional: Jeff G provides both. Finally (8), perhaps the worst flaw of all, the one that makes it impossible to like these people: they are presented as petty criminals. Superannuated delinquents. They run from paying their bills at a restaurant, and at the Plaza Athénée. They are caught at the latter, and called to account, and Jeff Goldblum comes to their rescue. The end.

Goldbluy's buying

Goldblum’s buying

I could go on, but recalling the flaws is as tedious as watching them in the first place. Broadbent and Duncan are fine in their roles, but Nick and Meg are inconsistent and often embarrassing to watch. Writer Hanif Kureishi and director Roger Michell (whose first film, Persuasion, was marvelous) seem to want to have it both ways— a comedy with a broken heart— but there is little humor, and no heart.

Andersonville trials: Wes

Would you buy a movie from these guys?

Would you buy a movie from these guys?

As much as I loathe Paul Thomas Anderson’s films (see below), his contemporary and nominal analog Wes Anderson is at least as bad. (That’s→ him with the wine, alongside preening Brody and talent-free Schwartzman.) One of his earliest films, Rushmore, left me so stupefied that I actually felt disoriented. The ending— that is, the point at which it stopped— was a relief, but also a surprise. What—? Was it over? Why had it gone on that long? Why had it even started? “What the hell was that?” I asked my companion, an Englishman with film chops. “All I know is, it was frightening,” he said. “Empty, and frightening.” And not comic, though it rather desperately seemed to want to be.

This, for 99 minutes.

This, for 99 minutes, in varying colors.

As it was with Rushmore, so it was with Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums,  Moonrise Kingdom, and the absolutely execrable Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I wonder myself why I keep subjecting myself to Wes A’s films. But Grand Budapest Hotel is the coup de grâceHenceforth, Andersonville is a no-go zone. I’ll never again pony up the $ or the time to see anything by either Wes or by Paul Thomas, whose career has not gone downhill only because there was no way down from Boogie Nights

Filming in Germany

Filming in Görlitz, Germany

Wes A’s eighth feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel had been scheduled for release in December for Oscar consideration, but was held until the new-year dead zone, where it was entombed. Or so I predict. By a very specialized measure, it actually opened big, but after 10 days in domestic theatres, the gross was <$5 million. Starting the roll-out with only four theatres was a wise marketing move, allowing the publicity machine manufacture good press and capitalize on generally favorable reviews (I am a minority voice, no question). But I don’t know how it will build viewers. It is all technique, and even that seems to rely more on television sketch comedy than on the full vocabulary of cinema. It’s all style, no substance. To borrow from Macbeth— a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Empty calories

Empty calories

The word “zero” came up a lot as I watched the film in the theatre, fidgeting in my seat but at no point inclined to awaken the gentleman who was snoring behind me. One of the main characters is actually called Zero, but I fear it wasn’t a warning to the audience. No, that name is probably another of WesA’s failed attempts to amuse. Or so I assume. In lieu of any other conceivable purpose, it must be intended as a comedy, however mirthless, no? It’s hard to say with Wes A. He also delivers a rare female character to be Zero’s love interest. Played by the engaging young Irish-American actress Saorise Ronan, Agatha is a pastry chef whose airy, sugary concoctions signal her relative slightness, and also serve as a rather obvious metaphor for the film itself: these are empty calories.

Norton as Nazi

Norton as Nazi

The movie clearly had a big budget (details are not forthcoming), it has a very big cast, and one would think that it developed from a big idea, given that it is set in Central Europe during the rise of the Third Reich… ish. It’s all fictionalized and bowdlerized and generally caponized. Instead of the swastika, we get two stylized Z’s, like lightning. But while the visuals are painstakingly created, and even occasionally say something, as when a greedy son smashes a valuable painting, evidently because he doesn’t know it’s an Egon Schiele (faked for the film), the screenplay has zero fresh ideas, or serious ones, or even comic ones. It’s a kaleidoscope, with no more change of pace or tone than that toy has.

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Andersonville trials: Paul Thomas

“Clean up in aisle one!”

About ten minutes into There Will Be Blood– that’s only one scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s world– somebody in the audience said, aloud, “We get it already. Digging oil wells is dangerous.”

Anderson never directed a crisp, concise scene in his life. Boogie Nights (155 minutes), Magnolia (188m), There Will be Blood (158m)– that’s 8.5 hours for three movies. And before someone points out that Punch Drunk Love was only 95 minutes, I would counter that it felt twice that. At least.

Pascal is among those credited with this paradoxical axiom, “I am sorry for the length of my letter, but I had not the time to write a short one.” Amen. It does take time– and talent and discipline– to sculpt and winnow an idea down to its most purposeful and powerful elements. But Anderson doesn’t winnow, he wallows. In his world, if a four-minute scene is good, then it’ll be twice as good at eight minutes, and three times as good at twelve. It’s a wonder his movies aren’t six hours long, especially considering  his remarks about his work, which are the dead opposite of Pascal, e.g.: “Oh, how I hate it when directors are supposed to explain their films. I only say this much: If I had had more cash, I would have let it rain cats and dogs.”

The best way to deal with this endlessly over-rated film is with adjectives, starting with endless and over-rated. Then, of course, bloated. Slow. Fatuous. Loud. Unfaithful (to Upton Sinclair’s satire, Oil!). Sentimental. Confusing (Paul Dano’s twin characters). Abrupt (the ending). And, finally and crucially, pointless. I didn’t care about a single character, and the film introduced no new ideas or even flavors to the oil industry, family loyalties, ruthless ambition, misanthropy, religion, or bowling.

Fritz in France

Death's escort service

Death’s escort service

Liliom (1933) is the only movie that Fritz Lang made in France, after he fled Berlin Nazi Germany and before moving to Los Angeles under contract with MGM. He brings all his skill, insight and humor to the wonderful Ferenc Molnár story, which was adapted by Rogers and Hammerstein in 1945, and made much more famous, as Carousel.

Liliom, even more than most good films,must be seen– a review of it can only give pale glimpses. I offer just two lovely moments, one cinematic, one almost poetic:

Mourning Liliom

Mourning Liliom

First, a lap dissolve to indicate, as that technique so often does, the passage of time. It begins with the principal’s names carved in wood Julie Liliom– then that dissolves to new names carved over those Andre et Daniele– and that in turn dissolves to Mado Jean. Lovers fading into the background as time passes. Foreshadowing doesn’t get sweeter than that.

Second, when Liliom is asked his surname, he replies, “Zadowski, like my mother.” It is the only indication that he is illegitimate, and that sad fact is all the more poignant for being so understated.

Boyish Boyer

As I watched I kept wondering what latter-day feminists might think of this film, because Liliom slaps Julie often enough to be accused of wife-beating by another character, and he has a lot to answer for when he’s lifted to heaven’s gate. But of Liliom’s character, Julie says, “Bad boy. Brute. Darling.” She loves him utterly, and knows he would never really harm her. The final moments of the film deliver its message– love people for who they are, for better or worse, you won’t change their character, and even brutes have hearts and can be worthy of love.

Liliom's death

Liliom’s death

But I save my final remark for Charles Boyer. I’ve always enjoyed his work, but I was not prepared for a performance of this skill and range. He is alternately charming or savage, cocky or rueful. And he gives a gorgeously physical performance– in a class with Burt Lancaster as Elmer Gantry, or Toshiro Mifune as a samurai. Except for the brief but touchingly beautiful scene of him on his deathbed, Liliom is always in motion, and when he sits with Julie on a park bench for the first time, seducing her, brushing her breasts with his hands, he seduces the whole audience. Well, me anyway.

Patricia Neal falls for two vultures

Strictly for the birds

Strictly for the birds

Something for the Birds turned out to be much wittier and more interesting than I expected based on the silly title and even sillier publicity, which makes it look like a screwball comedy. Out of curiosity, I looked at the user reviews on IMdB—make that singular, review, because there was only one. Written by someone called Matt_Wall, the headline alone was grating: “Oddly Prescient Mismatch Comedy of Oil Lobbyists vs. Environmentalists.” He went further in the text, stating that it was “hard to believe this script was written in the early 1950s.” Oh, really, Mr. Wall?

Published 1964

Published 1964

The eponymous birds are California condors, and the plot is about fighting gas companies who are threatening their existence. Evidently Mr. Wall appears to be one of a disturbingly long list of people (the majority of people?) who seem to believe that nothing much happened before they were born, or before they became aware of it. Gas was first drilled for in California in 1821, and there have been conservationists since Wordsworth (if not Plato), so this was an old story by 1952—an old story, but to be fair, an increasingly headline-worthy one. As for the condor, California’s Audubon Society had been fighting to preserve its habitat since the 1930s. In addition, it almost goes without saying that environmentally conscious movies predate this one. To name a very famous example, which this film resembles, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) has Jimmy Stewart filibustering Congress for the establishment of a national boys’ camp, in opposition to corrupt politicians and dam-builders.

Predators on display

Predators on display

The Birds script, credited to I.A.L. Diamond among others (obscure all), has enough wit so that it hardly needed a screwball spin or the silly musical score. Victor Mature is not a great actor (“Actually, I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor. Ask anybody, particularly the critics”), but he is well cast as the oily lobbyist. On the other hand, Edmund Gwenn and the divine Patricia Neal bring their reliable gifts to their roles; both exude intelligence, dignity, and disarming honesty.

Any summation I offer could not compete with the dialog, which has more than a few good lines aimed at Washington, D.C.’s den of predators and thieves:

Gwenn, Neal

Gwenn, Neal

“No one has ever accused me of being unpatriotic. In fact, I was the
first man in the House to speak out against the Japanese beetle.”

Congressman: “Is it your practice to distribute gifts to people in high
places?” Lobbyist: “Only to those who accept them.”

“You know how it is in Washington. The more you deny something, the more everybody believes it.”

Said of a widow: “That’s quite an accomplishment, surviving a Southern
congressman.”

After a wolf whistle: “That’s the mating call of the Potomac night
owl.”

Journalist: “You’d barbecue your grandmother on the Capitol steps for a buck.” Lobbyist: “And you’d be right there with your little notebook taking down her last word.”

Said of a lobbyist: “Steve hasn’t an enemy in the world, but I like
him anyway.”

Buccaneering a trend

Spirited Ustinov

I recently watched Blackbeard’s Ghost, tempted to it for one reason and one reason only: the great– nay, the glorious Peter Ustinov. The movie is a romance, but the leads, Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette, are mere snares to Ustinov’s timpani. He is at the center of all action, as he should be. Unfortunately, the movie, typical of celluloid juvenilia, is frantically unfunny. What captivated me, and prompted me to write this, was not the show itself, but how much it got me thinking about the Disney heritage that is shared by all Americans (and others) who enjoy the occasional Hollywood cartoon or movie.

McEnery and Mills

Over the moon for McEnery

The chronology of Disney movies that I saw growing up are almost a record of the stages of girlhood:  Lady and the Tramp when I was five, Old Yeller when I was seven, Sleeping Beauty at nine, Pollyanna at ten, and when I was 14, The Moon-Spinners, in which Peter McEnery and Crete (but mostly the boyish and British McEnery) combined to awaken the soul and open the future future of a girl marooned in a rural midwestern village with a set of World Book Encyclopaedias, a Crosley TV fought over with six siblings, and the nearest movie theater nine miles away.

Issued 1968

Issued 1968

By the time Blackbeard’s Ghost was released, I was 18 and utterly unaware of its existence. It was 1968, one of the century’s seminal years, the year of Bonnie and Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bullitt, Pretty Poison, and Rosemary’s Baby, not to mention temporary sensations such as Three in the Attic and Wild in the Streets (such a crush I had on Christopher Jones). It was the year of Hair on Broadway and Laugh-in on TV, of Electric Ladyland and The White Album, of Richard Nixon vs. Eugene McCarthy vs. George Wallace, the Chicago Seven and Julian Bond, of the Black Panther shoot-out in Oakland and the Black Power salutethe Prague Spring and the Tet Offensive, MLK’s and RFK’s assassinations—earth-shaking headlines, week after week. Who noticed what square folks like Ed Sullivan and Doris Day and Walt Disney Studios (Walt died in 1966) were up to…

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Beatrix redux, and reduced

Renee Zellweger as Potter, with a real Mr. McGregor

Renee Zellweger as Potter, with a real Mr. McGregor

Feature films inevitably take liberties with biography, and with history. So do painters and playwrights, for that matter. They have to, and it’s usually acceptable. As Bryan Burrough, author of the book Public Enemies, said of Michael Mann’s 2009 film starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger, “if it was 100% accurate, you would call it a documentary.” The problem with Miss Potter isn’t just the inaccuracies, which are largely errors of omission. It’s the fundamental insult to Potter, and all similarly accomplished women.

Watson and McGregor

Watson and McGregor

Renee Zellweger does an admirable job in the lead role, using minimal make-up, so Potter isn’t glamorized. But the script reduces her to a romance-novel heroine, a smart and skilled woman trapped in a repressive era, with parents who don’t want her to marry a tradesman (her publisher, Norman Warne), and who build obstacles to her liberation at every turn. The story revolves around her relationship with that Warne and his sister (Emily Watson, engaging as always) more than around her very real accomplishments:

Potter, 1891

Potter, 1891

Beatrix Potter began publishing in the 1890s and continued almost to her death in 1943. She was not only an author and illustrator of the famous children’s books, she was a natural scientist and a respected conservationist in England’s Lake District. Her animal characters were drawn with scientific accuracy– that alone sets her apart. Peter Rabbit looks like more like a real rabbit (albeit wearing a blue jacket) than Bugs, Roger, the Trix or Energizer bunnies, any Easter rabbit you’ve ever seen, or even Lewis Carroll’s natty White Rabbit.

Zellweger at one of many locations in Great Britain

Zellweger at one of many filming locations

In fact, Miss Potter exhibits two ironies. First, the rather stunning fact that a 21st century  movie reverts to a 19th century attitude to present an accomplished woman. They centered the story on the romance, which is fine, but they need not have gutted Beatrix Potter’s character in the course of their adaptation. WTF, as they say. Second, that the director, Chris Noonan, who gave us a fully anthropomorphized pig in Babe, and writer Richard Maltby, Jr., decided to trivialize and romanticize a noteworthy British author and scientist because she’s a woman.