Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Notes from the Edge: The Dynasty Factor

Man's condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.

Thought I would offer occasional bits and pieces from the campaign trail, under the heading "Notes from the Edge." There's a lot of jockeying going on among the candidates right now, as the long and winding road gets underway. Would like to talk about several things but don't have the time. Here's a quick first installment.

The Dynasty Factor

The Los Angeles Times brings up the potential 28-year Bush/Clinton monopoly on the White House. Basically, it looks like this:

1988 - Bush
1992 - Clinton
1996 - Clinton
2000 - Bush
2004 - Bush
2008 - Clinton
2012 - Clinton

I include the whole editorial, because one needs a subscription to the LA Times and their articles can vanish quickly:
Geffen has a point about the Clintons
Geffen is right: Hillary Clinton must address the perception that the White House is home to dynasties.

February 23, 2007

THERE ARE TWO THINGS to be said about the first major intramural spat of the 2008 Democratic primary season. The first is that David Geffen has a point (and we're not saying that just because there is a remote chance that we might work for him someday). The second is that if California moves up its primary, presidential candidates visiting here will soon have to pander to more than just Hollywood moguls.

Geffen, once among Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's biggest financial backers, threw Hollywood's first mega-fundraiser of the election cycle on Tuesday — for Barack Obama. His criticism of Hillary Clinton, reported Wednesday by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, sparked an amusingly overwrought exchange between the Clinton and Obama camps.

Geffen was on to something with his passing mention of the fact that Obama is not from "the Bush royal family" or the "Clinton royal family." Regardless of what you think of Bill Clinton's presidency, or his wife's talent, the dynastic aspect of Hillary Clinton's candidacy is an issue that will increasingly come to occupy center stage in this campaign. Is the country prepared to be governed, potentially, for 28 years by two families who alternate turns in the White House?

The Clinton campaign appears unwilling to acknowledge this concern. The candidate likes talking to audiences about whether the nation is ready for a female president. But the question of whether the country is ready to perpetuate the dueling-family reign by voting in the former president's spouse is disingenuously left off the table. Maybe Hillary Clinton can make the case that she is the most qualified candidate, but she is going to have to find a way to address the dynastic issue directly. She can't have it both ways — trading on her husband's popularity but not acknowledging people's unease at turning the White House into a family business.

Yet Californians, at least, may be grateful that candidates vying for the 2008 presidential nomination in both parties will have to worry not only about what big donors think of them but what all Californians think. In recent presidential primary seasons, the California contest hasn't gotten beyond the David Geffens because the state has been solely a fundraising battlefield. But now that California is likely to move its presidential primary to early February, candidates will no longer think of their California constituencies as consisting solely of that other royalty: Hollywood celebrities.

So, if you are frustrated that one Californian's view on the race could be so newsworthy, bear with us. You'll get your turn.
Barack Obama is going to tap into this a lot, I believe, as he pushes his "new approach to politics" theme. Do people want to keep going with the bitter partisanship from the last several administrations? You wanna keep the old style - Bill and Hillary and all their baggage? Or do you want something new - Obama-rama! That's how it will be framed.

The Geffen episode also seems to have opened the door for discussing Bill Clinton. Up until then, I found it interesting how little we were hearing about him, considering that he would be First Husband if Hillary won. Now, suddenly, articles are mentioning Hillary and Bill together. What will his impact be on the race and on her chances?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Taking a Serious Look at the Candidates

Now that the interminable campaign has begun for the 2008 Presidential Election, I thought it only proper to kick off ZONE's coverage of the political circus with a serious, analytical look at some of the candidates.

What better place to start than with this penetrating essay from CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider and CNN Producer Douglas Hyde. Yes, a list of the candidates' favorite movies!

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York: "Casablanca" (1942) -- "An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications."

Former Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina: "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) -- "An insane general starts a process to nuclear holocaust that a war room of politicians and generals frantically try to stop."

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-New York: "The Godfather" (1972) -- "The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona: "Viva Zapata" (1952) -- "The story of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led a rebellion against the corrupt, oppressive dictatorship of president Porfirio Diaz in the early 20th century."

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-New Mexico: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) -- "Two Western bank/train robbers flee to Bolivia when the law gets too close."

Former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Massachusetts: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981) -- "Renowned archeologist and expert in the occult, Dr. Indiana Jones, is hired by the U.S. Government to find the Ark of the Covenant, which is believed to still hold the Ten Commandments."

I see that Richardson finally gets included with the other candidates. But that's probably only because Barack Obama is conspicuously missing from the list. Hmm . . . he skips the event in Nevada last week, and now this. Maybe his way of being a different kind of candidate is to simply not appear with any of the others. Either that or his favorite movie is Porky's and he's scared to admit it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Recent Screenings

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Directed by William Wyler. Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell and Hoagy Carmichael.

I've seen The Best Years of Our Lives several times now, and each time I watch it, I come away feeling like it should be ranked among the greatest films of all time. It's about as close as you'll get to a perfect motion picture, excelling in almost every aspect of filmmaking. And, in fact, it won seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Music. Harold Russell, a genuine World War II veteran who lost both hands in the war, received a second Honorary Oscar "For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance" in the movie, making him the only person to ever win two Oscars for the same performance.

The story concerns three veterans - Frederic March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell - returning home after the war and the adjustments that each of them must face. If that sounds too dramatic right off the bat, one of the wonders of the film is that Wyler never lets the film feel too heavy, using well-timed humor, great cinematography, and excellent editing to keep everything moving along at a good pace. There are some particularly funny moments early on, when March takes his wife, played by the wonderful Myrna Loy, and grown-up daughter, played by Teresa Wright, out on the town. March and Loy make a great married couple trying to find their way with each other after several years of absence. The scene where March first returns home is handled so well from a filmmaking point of view that director David Lean spoke of it years later in an interview. It's so simply done, yet very powerful. Wyler and his cinematographer Greg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane and was considered one of the most innovative directors of photography ever, do a masterful job throughout the film of using wonderfully crafted shots to give emotional resonance to the story. Watch carefully the scenes early in the film, when the three men are waking up in the gunner's compartment of a bomber at sunrise. It's beautiful, effective and seemingly effortless cinema.

Dana Andrews plays a heroic "flyboy" who did great in the war but comes back to poverty and a wife who doesn't love him. Russell plays a navy vet who was going to marry the girl next door but now feels like a freak because of the hooks he has instead of hands. It's hard watching what he goes through without thinking of the young men and women returning from Iraq who may be faced with similar life-changing wounds. In a small role, the great songwriter ("Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind") Hoagy Carmichael plays Butch, Russell's uncle who runs the neighborhood watering hole. We even get to hear Hoagy playing and singing a bit.

Somehow, Wyler grabs your interest from the start and never lets it go as he follows the three main characters and their intersecting stories. In the end, he delivers one of the most gratifying films that Hollywood ever produced, a genuinely funny, touching, and deeply human film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Sur mes lèvres [Read My Lips] (2001) Directed by Jacques Audiard. Starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos.

After enjoying Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped so much [see previous Recent Screenings], I decided to try this earlier film. Also written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, it stars Emmanuelle Devos as a woman with hearing deficiencies who works at a property development company. Her co-workers treat her poorly, she's lonely and somewhat frumpy, but she does have an ability to read lips, which can work to her advantage at times. Vincent Cassel plays an ex-convict who winds up working as Devos' assistant. She is both attracted and repelled by him; he doesn't care much for her or the job; but he becomes intrigued by her ability to read lips, while she discovers that his abilities as a thief can help her deal with a difficult colleague. Soon, the two strike up an uneasy working relationship that draws them deeper and deeper into a scheme to steal a large sum of money from a local gangster. As the suspense becomes more and more intense, the sexual tension between them also increases. Audiard once again takes what could be a typical low-level mob movie and turns it into something much more fascinating. While Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped operate on the surface as crime thrillers, Audiard ultimately seems to be interested in exploring individual character and relationships between people. His work reminds me at times of Claude Sautet, albeit with more violence. Read My Lips races along at an increasingly intense pace, and La Reina and I were a little exhausted and relieved when it was over. But it was an exciting and intriguing ride, with several well-placed twists and turns. Devos won a Caesar Award for Best Actress for this role, and Cassel and the other actors also do fine jobs. The script by Audiard and Benacquista is tight and well-developed. I forward to more films from this director. RECOMMENDED.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
(2003) Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and the Galapagos Islands.

For some reason, I wasn't particularly interested in this film when it came out. I don't really care for Russell Crowe, for one thing, and the storyline just didn't intrigue me at the time. Too bad. It would have been great to see this on a big screen instead of our sometimes cranky television. In the end, La Reina and I really enjoyed it. I'm still not sold on Crowe as an actor, and the one complaint I have about the movie is that he didn't seem to inhabit his role of Captain Jack Aubrey as much as he recited lines and tried to look "bold" or "heroic." Acting-wise, the real discovery was Paul Bettany, who played Dr. Maturin. It wasn't until the end of the film, watching the credits that it dawned on me that the good doctor was also the albino killer monk in the Da Vinci Code. What a transformation! Bettany may have more to work with in his character than Crowe does with Captain Aubrey. Dr. Maturin is a navy surgeon who's also a naturalist. He prefers scientific discovery over war, and his inner torment as he deals with his conflicted situation, and how that works out in his relationship with Captain Aubrey, forms the emotional foundation of the film. It's the complexity of both characters that distinguishes the film from other typical contemporary adventure films. This is a throwback to classic Hollywood, mixing action, intrigue, exotic locations and good character development to bring about a cohesive and pleasant whole. The cinematography is stunning, especially the scenes shot on the Galapagos Islands. RECOMMENDED.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) Directed by Otto Preminger. Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Karl Malden.

Preminger, Andrews and Tierney had already collaborated on one of the greatest film noirs of all time, the haunting and mysterious Laura (1944). Where the Sidewalk Ends is a much leaner, harder noir, and while it will never reaches the cinematic heights of Laura, it's a fine film in its own right. Dana Andrews plays a cop whose father was a crook and who carries a chip on his shoulder because everyone reminds him of that. He hates crooks and often gets in trouble for beating them up to get information. He's kind of an early Dirty Harry, with father issues. Already in trouble with the new captain, played by Karl Malden, he's connected to the accidental death of a former war-hero who had turned into a bullying alcoholic involved with gangsters. At the same time, Andrews falls in love with the guy's girl, played by the lovely Gene Tierney, and this creates more complications. (Doesn't it always.) The efficient and interesting screenplay is by Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood's greatest writers, who was nominated for six Oscars in his career (winning two) and whose numerous credits include Notorious, Spellbound, Wuthering Heights, Scarface, and His Girl Friday. In different hands, the film could have devolved into a typical, maudlin story of a misunderstood cop redeemed by love, but Preminger and Hecht keep you guessing and slightly off-guard. The wonderful noirish cinematography helps evoke the psychological moodiness that underlies the film's hard surface. RECOMMENDED - but only if you've seen Laura first!

Angel (1937) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas and Edward Everett Horton.

For much of Hollywood's history, Ernst Lubitsch was probably the most revered and respected director of all time. Other great directors such as Billy Wilder and William Wyler all acknowledged their tremendous debt to him. (Walking together after Lubitsch's funeral, Wilder said sadly, "No more Lubitsch." Wyler reportedly responded, "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch films.") These days, I imagine the average movie fan doesn't even know who he is, one more testimony to the ruthlessness of history and the fleeting nature of fame. In the last year or two, I started watching his films, because you can't read anything about cinema history without bumping into him at every turn. I've enjoyed several of them, especially Trouble in Paradise, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be . I can't say Angel was one of my favorites, probably because I love Lubitsch's romantic comedies (he basically invented the genre) and Angel leans more in the direction of romantic drama, albeit with Lubitsch's sly and intelligent humor at work here and there.

Marlene Dietrich plays the bored and neglected wife of a successful British diplomat (Herbert Marshall). While her husband's away on yet another trip, she goes to Paris, where she meets an American (Melvyn Douglas) who instantly falls for her. They only spend one night together, and she refuses to tell him her name, so he calls her "Angel." She realizes that she might be falling for him, too, which was not her plan, and she runs away. The scene where she disappears gives you an excellent idea of what a great director Lubitsch was, and what he contributed to cinema. Douglas gets up from a park bench to buy Dietrich a flower from an old, Gypsy-looking woman. He turns back to the bench, but Lubitsch keeps the camera on the old woman's face. In the background, you hear Douglas calling out, "Angel, where are you?" He keeps calling for her, his voice becoming more and more distant. Lubitsch never cuts away from the old woman, whose face tells you everything you need to know about what's happening. She eventually hobbles over to the park bench, leans down and picks up the flower Douglas had bought and dropped. Who up to that point in the history of film thought you could convey so much emotion by turning the camera away at a pivotal scene? Lubitsch seems to be exploring this effect, as he uses the technique on two other occasions in the film. And they all work. Partly because they're related to one of the themes of the film: what we don't know or can't see about those we love - what we can only imagine - can sometimes hurt tremendously. Marshall returns from his trip. Dietrich is increasingly restless. Douglas turns up in a most surprising way. The tension between the three builds up throughout the second half of the film.

Unfortunately, there are some moments early on in Angel that slide into pure melodrama, and Lubitsch lets the ending get away from him a bit. Also, I'm not a big fan of Melvyn Douglas. Herbert Marshall, on the hand, I discovered through earlier Lubitsch films and have come to respect quite a bit. He was highly popular in the 1930s, and his screen presence is wonderful, a charming, debonair personality with real warmth. And Marlene Dietrich? If you want to know why she is one of the all-time Hollywood luminaries, you don't have to go any farther than this film. She is glamour personified. During the film, La Reina kept commenting on her beauty, her incredible dresses, the amazing close-ups of her luminous face. What I love about Lubitsch is that he made films about adults for adults. When you compare the intelligence, grace and sophistication of his films with most current Hollywood offerings, you begin to wonder how we lost so much along the way. I'm not sure I would recommend Angel (which shouldn't be confused with Marlene's most famous film, The Blue Angel), but I definitely recommend seeing something by Lubitsch. Trouble in Paradise may the best place to start.

V for Vendetta (2005) Directed by James McTeigue. Written by the Wachowski Brothers. Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt.

What a disappointment. The Matrix is one of my 100 favorite films, and I was looking forward to this Wachowski Brothers project based on Allan Moore's graphic novel from the 1980s. Written during the Thatcher era, the story concerns the masked "V," and his revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on your point of view) activities against a totalitarian regime that's taken over England. While I can see why someone would want to resurrect this project for our own George W. Bush era, the Wachowski Brothers have dispensed with any subtlety that may have been contained in the original and delivered a preachy, heavy-handed film that doesn't even seem to know (or care?) what it's really talking about. The plot could have been interesting, involving secret government research projects gone wrong, the mysterious V, and a young woman named Evy who gets caught up in his activities. She's pursued by the secret police on one hand and uncertain if V is mad or not on the other. As V, Hugo Weaving does as well as anyone could being hidden the entire film behind a Guy Fawkes mask and struggling with such a one-note character. Portman does okay as Evy, but seems defeated in the end by the terrible script. Fry, Rea and Hurt are all excellent actors terribly wasted. Like Pan's Labyrinth, I suppose this is another "adult fairy-tale," a comic book/fantasy film that tries to take on a serious subject. But I'm beginning to think that comic book movies trying to be serious are sort of like rock bands trying to be serious. Too often you wind up with something like Yes. One of the reasons The Matrix worked so well was that it had a good sense of humor about itself. (At least the first film did. The two sequels lacked this essential component.) In the end, V for Vendetta also takes itself too seriously. Like many people, the Wachowski Brothers harbor fantasies of striking back at the Bush-like bad guys; they just happen to have $54 million to make their fantasy come alive on screen. Too bad it had to be so plodding, confused and adolescent.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Muse of Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Juliette Gréco: Il n’y a plus d’après

"Juliette Gréco's career was played out against a backdrop of Bohemianism and existentialism in the glittering café society of the post-war years. In the heyday of Paris's buzzing Left Bank, when Sartre and Camus used to sit and discuss philosophy in the Café de Flore, and young French teenagers hung out all night in the wild jazz clubs and cabarets of la rue Dauphine, Gréco rose to fame as the face of France's New Bohemianism."
From her biography at

She sang songs written by French poets and writers such as Robert Desnos, Raymond Queneau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Prévert.

Was imprisoned by the Gestapo.

Starred in Jean Cocteau's classic film, Orphée (1950), as well as in films by Jean Renoir, Jean-Pierre Melvile and John Huston.

The song "Il n’y a plus d’après" was written by French singer and poet Guy Béart, father of the actress Emmanuelle Béart.

Juliette fell in love with and almost married Miles Davis when he came to Paris in 1949. She reminisced about their relationship in a Guardian article last year.

"In spite of her international star status, Juliette Gréco would remain true to the political ideals of her early days. Indeed, the singer would seize every opportunity to speak out against oppression and use her fame to defend human rights' causes. One of the most famous instances of Gréco's political outspokenness was when the French star performed a concert in Chili while the country was still under the military dictatorship of General Pinochet. Taking to the stage in Santiago to confront an audience made up of soldiers and top-ranking generals, Gréco would launch into a repertoire of openly anti-military songs. The performance proved to be a complete fiasco and Gréco was practically booed off stage - but the singer was immensely proud of her personal act of resistance."

One of my friends saw Juliette in concert in Rome. Perhaps he will recount the tale.

Her voice encompasses millions of poems.
Jean-Paul Sartre

Juliette Gréco & Miles Davis – Paris, 1949

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Miltos Sachtouris: The Gifts

The Gifts

Today I wore a
warm red blood
Today people loved me
A woman smiled at me

A girl gave me a sea shell
A boy gave me a hammer

Today I kneel on the sidewalk
and nail the naked white feet of the passerby
to the pavement tiles
they are all in tears
but no one is frightened
all remain in the places to which I had come in time

they are all in tears
but they gaze at the celestial advertisements
at a beggar who sells hot cross buns
in the sky

Two men whisper
what is he doing is he nailing our hearts?

Yes he is nailing our hearts

Well then he is a poet

Translated by Kimon Friar

Miltos Sachtouris was a Greek surrealist poet who has been fairly unknown in the United States. I first came across his work in a beat-up old paperback anthology of European poets when I was living in Santa Fe, but I've always had a hard time finding any of his books.

Archipelago Press, however, recently published Poems, a collection of his work from 1945-1971, so maybe he'll receive a little more attention now.

My good friend and fellow poet, Les Lopes, gave me a copy for Christmas. What a surprise to finally have the work of this long obscure poet in my hands. And what a good friend who remembered me briefly mentioning Sachtouris a couple of years ago and was attentive and thoughtful enough to choose the book as a gift. Thanks, Les.

If you're interested in reading more of Sachtouris' work, there's a large pdf file from Harvard that contains an earlier anthology of his work in Greek, with some translations into English.

There are also a few poems at Poetry International Web, along with an introduction to his work and another essay.

Sunday Morning

Sunday morning in deep winter . . . a cup of coffee, some French toast, the New York Times scattered about the living room . . . and some drowsy, golden-era jazz to add a little warmth . . .

The Music:

Barney Bigard & His Orchestra [Duke Ellington small group]: A Lull at Dawn
Barney Bigard & His Orchestra [Duke Ellington small group]: Lament for Javanette
Benny Goodman Sextet Featuring Charlie Christian: I Surrender, Dear
Benny Goodman Sextet Featuring Charlie Christian: Stardust
Bessie Smith: Downhearted Blues
Bessie Smith: Empty Bed Blues
Bessie Smith: Nobody Knows When You're Down And Out
Billie Holiday: I Can't Give You Anything But Love
Billie Holiday: The Very Thought Of You
Billie Holiday: You Let Me Down
Bix Beiderbecke: In a Mist
Bix Beiderbecke: Singin' the Blues
Charles Trenet: Verlaine
Charlie Christian: Rose Room
Coleman Hawkins & His Orchestra: Body And Soul
Coleman Hawkins w/ Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra: One Sweet Letter From You
Coleman Hawkins & the Mound City Blue Blowers: If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight
Count Basie: How Long Blues
Count Basie & His Orchestra: I Want A Little Girl
Count Basie & His Orchestra: Good Morning Blues
Django Reinhardt: Beyond The Sea (La Mer)
Django Reinhardt: Nuages
Django Reinhardt: Time On My Hands
Duke Ellington: Dear Old Southland
Duke Ellington: Solitude
Fats Waller: Honeysuckle Rose
Fats Waller: I Ain't Got Nobody
Fats Waller: Numb Fumblin'
Fats Waller: Rockin' Chair
Fats Waller and His Rhythm: I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter
Fats Waller and His Rhythm: You're Not the Only Oyster In the Stew
Jack Teagarden: Basin Street Blues
Jack Teagarden: Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
Jack Teagarden: The Blues
Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra [Duke Ellington small group]: Day Dream
Hoagy Carmichael: Washboard Blues
Hoagy Carmichael: Lazybones
Hoagy Carmichael: Lazy River
Lester Young: Four O'Clock Drag
Lester Young [Count Basie small group]: I Want A Little Girl
Lester Young [Count Basie small group]: Pagin' The Devil
Louis Armstrong: I Surrender Dear
Louis Armstrong: Just a Gigolo
Louis Armstrong: When It’s Sleepytime Down South
Mildred Bailey: Rockin' Chair
Rex Stewart and His Orchestra [Duke Ellington small group]: My Sunday Gal
Sidney Bechet: I Want You Tonight
Sidney Bechet: Indian Summer
Sidney Bechet: Really the Blues

Warning: those of you who like to make playlists - you can get lost on for hours at a time!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Recent Screenings

Laberinto del Fauno, El [Pan's Labyrinth] (2006) - Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, and Ivana Baquero.

It's the 1940s, just after the Spanish Civil War, and a young girl in an isolated area of Franco's Spain spends much of the time in her own imagination, encounters monstrous creatures, and comes into contact with remnants of the Republican anti-fascists who are now being hunted down.

While that could be a summary of Pan's Labyrinth, I'm actually talking about Victor Erice's beautiful and haunting classic, El éspiritu de la colmena [The Spirit of the Beehive]. The poetry, subtlety and humanity of Erice's 1973 film have been replaced in Pan's Labyrinth with a comic-book sensibility and an aesthetic partly lifted from the Harry Potter films, principally the darker hues of The Prisoner of Azkaban, although the mandrake from The Chamber of Secrets makes an appearance as well. (I hope the mandrake is at least getting scale for his work.) Obviously, Guillermo Del Toro was trying to make a very different film, but part of the story has been done before.

How you feel about Pan's Labyrinth probably depends on how much you like fantasy and comic-book movies. I've enjoyed some of them, especially the Spider Man and Harry Potter films, but I've grown a bit weary of the genre as a whole. Moral complexity isn't exactly a hallmark of the George W. Bush era, and I suppose it makes sense that simplistic fables with easily identifiable good guys and bad guys would be popular. Ambiguity of experience has been replaced by intensity, heightened by special effects. Adulthood and its attendant difficulty of sorting through the murky, grey areas of life is rejected for a never-ending adolescence in which expression has a limited emotional range.

Pan's Labyrinth is supposed to be different, an "adult" fairy-tale that blends fantasy with reality. But beyond some brutal violence and an R-rating, I don't see much adult here. It's the same old comic book version of good and evil. It's hard to imagine a more villainous bad guy than Sergi López's Fascist "Capitán Vidal." On the other side, you have an amorphous bunch of heroic "rebels" up in the hills. There's no hint at all of the political complexities among the real anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War that led them to fight each other almost as much as they did Franco. While the fantasy segments work well enough, the "reality" part of the film suffers terribly from its heavily clichéd narrative. An excellent Spanish cast is sadly wasted on boring, simplistic characters who conjure up little genuine emotion. Only Ivana Baquero, as the young Ofelia, makes much of a mark. The visual aspect of the film has been highly praised, and it's quite good at times, but I don't see anything new in that regard either. In fact, I walked out of the cinema feeling like I had already seen this movie over the course of a dozen different films.

At least one reviewer has mentioned Pan's Labyrinth in the same breath as Cocteau and Buñuel, but we're a long way here from Orphée or The Exterminating Angel, two works that I would consider "adult fairy tales." What's the difference? Poetry, I think. Cocteau and Buñuel were poets working in film. Erice's El éspiritu de la colmena is a poetic work. Poetry, like life, is full of ambiguity. It can be difficult to understand. You have to work at it sometimes, wrestle with it like Jacob did with the angel. You have to take your time and allow for some meditation - and allow for some unanswerable questions. Is it any surprise that a culture that has a hard time dealing with poetry would find the adolescent, comic-book worldview of George W. Bush appealing?

Pan's Labyrinth is a moderately interesting film, worth watching if you like the fantasy/comic book genre. It's vivid, if nothing else, and some of the scenes have remained with me for a while. I respect that in a film. But it still feels like a teenager telling the tale . . . a teenager who's watched a lot of other fantasy and gore flicks, and read about the Spanish Civil War on Wikipedia. If you want to encounter the world with a little more emotional and intellectual depth, I suggest you look elsewhere.

And do check out Erice's Spirit of the Beehive. It's a quiet, beautiful and haunting film that's sadly unknown in the United States.

De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté [The Beat That My Heart Skipped] (2005) - Written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, directed by Jacques Audiard, starring Romain Duris, Linh Dan Pham, Niels Arestrup and Emmuanuelle Devos.

Thomas Seyr is an intense young man involved in shady real estate scams that sometimes require roughing up others. He's learned the trade from his father and basically grew up in this milieu of second-rate, borderline mafia types. After about ten minutes of watching this film, I thought, "Oh boy, this is going to be one of those really intense films that just leaves you feeling brutalized." Then, a strange thing happened, the movie totally switched gears. By chance, Thomas runs into an older man who used to be the manager for Thomas' mother, who, we suddenly discover, had been a concert pianist. The man asks if Thomas still plays the piano, and if so, to come by sometime for an audition.

The rest of the film deals with the growing tension between the two seemingly disparate parts of Thomas' life - his love of and talent for music, and his background as a small-time thug. He employs a young Vietnamese pianist, a recent arrival to France, to help him get ready for his audition. She can't speak French, and the two are left to try and communicate through music. It's tough going for Thomas. He's an edgy, almost ADD-type who has little patience for anything. His energy and violence make it difficult for him to capture the subtlety and grace required by the music he has to perform. He knows this may be his only chance to change his life, yet he slowly becomes aware that his background and temperament are at cross-purposes with his artistic desires. His desperation grows palpable. Meanwhile, his real estate scam buddies are trying to close a big deal, and his father has crossed paths with a real member of the Russian mafia, who Thomas knows is way out of their league and very dangerous.

As the film progresses, you also get bits and pieces of the story of Thomas' mother and what happened to his parents. You watch as he struggles with conflicted feelings towards his father, who has been his mentor and teacher on one hand but has also raised him in a violent and thuggish environment and is becoming more and more dependent on Thomas as he gets older. It's a fascinating relationship, and Niels Arestrup won a César (the French film award) for Best Supporting Actor as the father.

The film won eight Césars in total at the 2006 ceremony, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Music, Best Cinematography and another acting award for Linh Dan Pham as the Vietnamese pianist. Roman Duris was nominated for Best Actor and gives a riveting performance as Thomas. His energy and intensity drive the film, yet he also shows great sensitivity and a wonderful ability to portray the growing conflicts within himself as he navigates between the world of art and the world of hoodlums.

The director, Jacques Audiard, does a magnificent job developing the many layers of the story as we watch Thomas' transformation throughout the film. Unlike the stylized, cartoon violence of Tarantino and most Hollywood productions (and Pan's Labyrinth), Audiard shows us both the disturbing realities of violence and its impact on people, and the very human temptation of resorting to violence to gain power. His use of violence actually works towards an artistic purpose, as a way of developing character.

The Beat that My Heart Skipped is an intense film that moves at times with the breathless pace of an action flick. Yet Audiard gives the viewer a chance to breath now and then as we watch Thomas working on his music, and he and the young Vietnamese woman develop their unusual relationship.
With deep currents of emotion and fascinating questions about art, violence, power and family ties, it also offers a number of surprises, plot twists and dark humor that keep it from being too heavy or pretentious. It's a marvelous piece of movie-making. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) - Written and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Louis Jouvet, Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair and Simone Renant.

Henri-Georges Clouzot directed two of the greatest thrillers of all-time, Le Salaire de la peur [Wages of Fear] (1953) and Les Diabolique (1955). He's often referred to as the French Hitchcock, and the two actually had a bidding war over Les Diabolique, but the comparison seems too reductive, as he also directed a famous documentary about Pablo Picasso, Le Mystère Picasso (1956), which included time-lapse footage of Picasso at work and was chosen as a French National Treasure in 1984. He also directed this delightful noirish piece.

Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is an ambitious music hall singer married to a somewhat dull but jealous pianist named Maurice (Bertrand Blier.) Their friend Dora (Simone Renant) runs a photography studio, where Jenny meets and flirts with an older, well-connected man who turns out to be a creep into pornography. This drives Maurice mad. Jenny goes to the wealthy man's house to meet with him against Maurice's wishes. Maurice follows her. Dora follows both of them. There is a murder and we're never really sure who killed who, or if the victim was killed at all.

Thus enters Inspector Antoine, played wonderfully by the great Louis Jouvert. He's a beat-up old cop who spent time in Africa and came back with only a young black boy and malaria to show for it. He also happens to be an excellent detective, though he comes off like a rumpled failure to other people. About halfway through the film, I suddenly realized that Peter Falk's Columbo had to have been patterned after Inspector Antoine. They share several characteristics, as well as a ratty old raincoat, a propensity to lose the raincoat, and the same way of starting to walk out the door and then asking, "One last thing . . ." Who knew Columbo came from a 1947 French film?

What makes this film so delightful are all of the little details and sub-plots. Dora, played terrifically by the beautiful Simone Renant, seems awfully friendly with Maurice while Jenny's away, but then she seems awfully friendly with Jenny while Maurice is a away. The element of lesbianism is done tastefully, with humor and humanity. In fact, the film seems way ahead of its time in several areas. Jouvert's relationship with the young African boy is somewhat mysterious and touching. Is he his son? We're never really sure. The film has a great sense of humor, mixed with a wonderfully human side to most of its characters. Antoine encounters a photographer who murdered his entire family and they have a fascinating conversation about art. Jouvert's Inspector Antoine is a marvel, and you enjoying spending time with him while he's on screen.

While Quai de Orfèvres may not be as powerful as Wages of Fear or Diabolique, it's an excellent film and easier to watch than the other two, which are classics and should be viewed but are not "light" films. This one is marvelously written and beautifully photographed, with great acting all around. The setting among Paris music halls is a lot of fun and features some wonderful 1940s French music. Definitely RECOMMENDED.

Little Miss Sunshine
(2006) - Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin.

While quite funny at times, this was a darker, more serious film than I expected. It's a simple story - a dysfunctional family travels from New Mexico to California so their young daughter can perform at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. A suicidal brother-in-law (Steve Carrell) and a foul-mouthed, drug-using grandfather (Alan Arkin) go along for the ride. It's a good film, with strong ensemble acting. Carrell particularly shines. Both Arkin and Abigail Breslin, who plays the little girl, were nominated for acting Oscars. The film may be a little too clever and earnest in the end. I enjoyed it but came away feeling like it wasn't as good or as deep as it thought it was. Perhaps this is what happens to "independent" films after Hollywood totally co-opts the movement.

Thank You for Smoking (2005) - Written and directed by Jason Reitman, starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, William Macy, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott.

A pleasantly nasty and politcally incorrect film. This dark comedy, based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name, concerns a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, played by Aaron Eckhart. What the film does really well is show up hypocrisy across the board - among tobacco lobbyists, other lobbyists, politicians, the media, and - surprisingly for a Hollywood film - even among ourselves, the public. Maybe because I wasn't expecting much, I really enjoyed this. It's well written, with an edgy sense lacking from so many Hollywood productions these days. The casting is excellent, with several actors turning in great performances in smaller roles, particularly Sam Elliott as a former Marlboro Man dying of cancer and Rob Lowe (someone I don't care for) as a Zen-Hollywood super agent. And, amazingly, the film actually gets you thinking - if only for a moment.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) - Directed by David Frankel, starring Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt.

There's not a lot to this film, and certainly nothing new, but it's a decent comedy, with some good lines now and then, almost all of them delivered by Stanley Tucci as an effeminate (surprise!) fashion designer. Anne Hathaway (Hollywood's answer to Charlotte Gainsbourg?) plays a young woman just out of college who wants to be a serious journalist and kind of falls into her job as assistant to the all-important editor of a major fashion magazine. We follow her transformation from a somewhat frumpy but earnest Midwestern girl to a chic, 20-something New Yorker attending gala balls and meeting famous people. Of course, she's slowly losing her soul, which causes conflict with her drip of a boyfriend and her "aspiring artist" girlfriend. This bunch may be the most pathetically drawn "poor but cool" young New Yorkers ever put down on film. She and the Drip manage to live in a perfect "Bohemian-style" Manhattan apartment that they could never afford in real-life, just to add a little more Hollywood in-authenticity to this Fairy Tale of the Big Apple. I have no earthly idea why Meryl Streep received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I guess the Academy feels bad that she's only been nominated 13 times (and won twice). She does fine in the role, but where's the challenge? A good Friday-night flick you can forget about without any guilt by the time you wake up Saturday morning.