Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Recent Screenings

I've been away for a while, traveling through the wilds of West Texas. Now I'm trying to catch up on all the films I've seen in the last two months. I'm not sure why I wound up writing about these particular movies and not others, several of which were better. But what are you going to do?

The Science of Sleep
(2006) - Written and Directed by Michel Gondry. Starring Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

I have to admit, I wasn't overly impressed with French director Michel Gondry's previous film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a highly regarded favorite among younger cinephiles. I appreciated some of the imagination involved but found it overly clever, emotionally thin, and a bit too Hollywood for my tastes. So I had mixed feelings going into The Science of Sleep. His new work, however, is a very different creature indeed. Gondry lets loose his obviously fertile creativity and delivers one of the most visually stunning and poetic movies I've seen in a long time. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal (Babel, Motorcycle Diaries) plays Stéphane, a struggling cartoonist with a wild imagination who is part French and part Spanish (for once, a Mexican playing a Spaniard!). He returns to the Parisian home of his childhood because his widowed mother has promised him a job as the art director at a calendar company. He comes prepared with the mock-ups of a hilarious and disturbing calendar showing disasters for each month of the year. The job, however, is not what he expected.

Meanwhile, a pair of young French women move in across the hall, one of them an artist named Stéphanie, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Stéphane and Stéphanie are both somewhat shy, and they begin an interesting friendship based on their mutual creative imaginations. The most touching and enjoyable parts of the film are the scenes in which the two simply hang out together and come up with wild and poetic ideas that Gondry beautifully brings to life on the screen. Stéphanie fashions clouds out of simple material, and Stéphane makes them hang suspended in the air by playing certain notes on the piano. Cellophane water comes out of her kitchen sink.

Gondry goes even further with his amazing visuals in the ongoing and surreal episodes of "Stéphane-TV," in which the young artist hosts a hilarious TV show of his own mental life. Some of the funniest bits in the movie come out during these scenes. There are also several dream sequences, one of which features Stéphane flying over the various neighborhoods of Paris, presented as a series of marvelous pop-up buildings. It's a breathtaking sequence, and, like all of the effects in the film, was done without any computer-generated images. The DVD contains several "making of" extras that detail the extraordinary lengths Gondry went to in order to create his vusals, and they are worth watching, particularly an interview with the woman who designed several doll-like items for the story. Listening to her, and watching the film, one gets the sense that Gondry used the moeny he made from his Hollywood success to allow himself and his creative friends to make the kind of artistic and poetic film most people dream of making one day. Creatively speaking, it's a very inspiring project.

Unfortunately, the emotional and dramatic aspects of the film don't reach nearly the same heights. After a while, Stéphane's emotional immaturity seems more annoying than endearing. And though the film explores his relationships with Stéphanie, his mother, and others, it all feels a bit tacked on, with much less inventiveness or creativity in the writing than in the visuals. Gondry's background was as a director of music videos by Bjork, Massive Attack, and the Chemical Brothers. While this served him well in many ways, I'm not sure it was fertile ground for the emotional development of the people who populate his highly imaginative world. One hopes he can grow in this area and move towards the kind of combined visual and emotional power of Cocteau, whose films The Science of Sleep can vaguely echo at times.

The acting is good throughout, even if the characters all feel a little cartoonish. García Bernal does everything he can with Stéphane, infusing him with real life. And I do enjoy Charlotte Gainsbourg on screen, though I can't really tell you why. Daughter of the lovely English actress-singer Jane Birkin (Blow Up) and the ugliest sexy man in history, the famous French singer (and actor) Serge Gainsbourg, Charlotte isn't beautiful or intense, and certainly can't be called a dynamic presence, yet she offers something very unique and appealing. La Reina said afterwards that Charlotte Gainsbourg always feels like a real person up on the screen, and perhaps that's her secret. She seems like someone you could easily know from everyday life, an interesting, intelligent and friendly young woman. That's actually a rare and valuable commodity in the world of film, and it will be interesting to see what she does in her career, especially being able to move in and out of English and French-language productions.

[NOTE: The day after I wrote this, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who's 36, suffered a brain hemorrhage and had to have emergency surgery. She had been having severe headaches for several weeks after a water skiing accident in the U.S. She's currently recovering in Paris.]

The Science of Sleep is a delightful and promising film. See it on a big screen if at all possible. RECOMMENDED.

Blood Diamond
(2006) - Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly.

An intelligent and interesting action-thriller set in Sierra Leone during the civil war of the 1990s and involving various aspects of the diamond industry, from the multi-national corporations at the top to the poor Africans at the bottom who basically work as slaves to find the precious stones. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a South African smuggler-adventurer who's a harder, edgier, 21st century version of Bogart's "I'm only concerned about myself" figure in Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. Djimon Hounsou, in a wonderful piece of acting, plays Solomon Vandy, one of the Africans caught up in the Civil War and forced into slave labor, who happens to come across an amazing and rare blood diamond and buries it away deep in the jungle. Jennifer Connelly plays Maddy, an American investigative journalist who's trying to bring to light many of the nefarious aspects of the diamond industry and its links to the brutal civil war. Blood Diamond reminded me of The Constant Gardener in the way it analyzes the increasingly blurring roles of governments, corporations, media, relief agencies and others in a mostly EuroAmerican industry exploiting people in Africa. Only Blood Diamond is more of an action film than the other, which was fine with me. It goes on a little too long, perhaps, and feels a little overly earnest at times, but I appreciated the complex story and the development of the relationship between the white South African played by DiCaprio and the black African played by Hounsou. DiCaprio delivers an excellent performance, and I've pretty much completely reversed my initial bad impression of him as an actor. I was genuinely moved by his performance at the end of the film. Exciting action and socio-political themes. Wish that would become a popular genre. RECOMMENDED.

Hot Fuzz
(2007) - This is a fairly intelligent stupid film. A hardcore, overachieving London cop named Nicholas Angel is transferred to a sleepy English village because he's making his superiors look bad. He gets paired with PC Danny Butterman, a lazy dullard who spends most of his time watching cop films like Bad Boys II and Point Break. Life is so dull that Angel is reduced to busting underage teens at the pub (nearly half the clientele) and tracking down an escaped swan. But all is not what it seems in this perfect little village as a series of "accidents" begins to arouse his suspicion. Hot Fuzz spoofs and pays high homage to the buddy cop films that Butterman loves so much. The film gets fairly silly and the ending is outrageously over the top, but bored and alone on a Friday night, I found it pretty enjoyable.

Alvarez Kelly
(1966) - Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Starring William Holden and Richard Widmark.

William Holden owned the 1950s. Between Sunset Blvd. in 1949 and Bridge on the River Kwai in 1958, he had an incredible run of big hits and movies that are now considered classics. In 1956, he passed longtime box-office champ John Wayne to become the top-earning star in the world. (Wayne sent him a telegram on the occasion that said: "Sneak!") Then, in the 1960s, Holden lost his Hollywood mojo. His films weren't making much money and several of them were panned by the critics. It wasn't until The Wild Bunch in 1969 that he starred in another well-received film. The funny thing is, a lot of the movies from that lost era - The 7th Dawn, Paris When It Sizzles, The Key, The Horse Soldiers, and The World of Suzie Wong - have held up well over time, mostly because Holden had a knack for picking interesting, solidly-written scripts, even if the projects didn't go over well in their own day. Indeed, The Counterfeit Traitor, from 1962, is one of the most emotionally compelling spy films ever made, and one of Holden's greatest roles, period.

Alas, Alvarez Kelly isn't really one of those unheralded gems. Why? Because the script wasn't up to the same level. And Holden knew it. When he first met with director Edward Dmytryk, long before production ever began, Holden expressed concern over the script, and Dmytryk agreed with him. Despite several rewrites, it never quite worked. At one point during the filming, Holden, who was hungover and struggling with an unruly horse, tried to shove his script up the horse's ass, yelling, "That's where it belongs!" In retrospect, the screenplay isn't all bad. More than anything, it's too convoluted for its own good. Holden plays Alvarez Kelly, an Irish-Mexican rancher (there really were such things, as many Irishmen left the States to fight on the Mexican side of the Mexican-American War in 1848) who drives a large herd of cattle up into the U.S. to sell to the Union army. Towards the end of the Civil War, food has become increasingly precious to both sides. Richard Widmark, wearing a patch over one eye, plays the leader of a kind of Confederate Special Forces group called the Commanches. The South in particular was struggling to feed its troops, and Widmark kidnaps Holden and tries to force him to help the Commanches steal the large herd. Holden refuses, and the running battle of wills between the two men serves as the main undercurrent of the film. Frustrated, Widmark shoots off one of Holden's fingers and says he will shoot off the rest if he doesn't help. Finally Holden agrees, but he seeks revenge in part by becoming friendly with Widmark's lover, who is exhausted by the war and believes that Widmark will never marry her.

Holden and Widmark play roles we've seen them in before, but they have a good chemistry, and the tension between the two strong-willed men is developed well. The two actors actually became good friends during the filming, and it shows on the screen. Some of the subplots are unnecessary; others, such as the relationship between Holden and Widmark's lover, could've been developed more. The writers simply tried to do too much, I think, and could never really pull it all together. Still, I tend to like large, complex plots, and the idea of food being so crucial in the Civil War is an interesting one. There are some moderately good action sequences, especially towards the end. The title music at the beginning may rank as some of the worst in film history, but if you can get beyond the opening credits, it's not a bad film. Just not as good as some of the others Holden made at the time. His other Civil War film from that period, The Horse Soldiers, is superior, with he and John Wayne in their one appearance together, directed by John Ford. And don't miss The Counterfeit Traitor.

One Touch of Venus
(1948) - Directed by William A. Seiter. Starring Ava Gardner, Robert Walker, Eve Arden and Dick Haymes.

My God, Ava Gardner was beautiful. And what an amazing screen presence. Sexy, intelligent, and fun, she managed to seem both down-to-earth and sophisticated at the same time. Oh, yeah, and she could act. I already knew all of this in theory, but watching this silly comedy made me realize what a real star she was. Without her, this film would've been unwatchable. The movie seemed promising at first glance, with a Kurt Weill score, lyrics by S.J. Perelman (who wrote some of the early Marx Brothers films) and the humorous poet Ogden Nash, and a screenplay by Frank Tashlin, who has a strong cult-following among some cinephiles, though I've yet to figure out why. But Lubitsch this ain't. The script rarely rises beyond a fairly low level of intelligence and Hollywood sap. The story isn't bad: An ancient and mysterious statue of Venus comes to life after being kissed by a clerk in a large department store, causing all kinds of trouble. Robert Walker, who was so great in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, overacts in this comic role and becomes increasingly annoying as the movie goes on. Most of the secondary actors are dull and/or stuck with dull dialog. The only other good part of the film is Eve Arden, playing the cynical and sharp-witted secretary to the owner of the department store. She gets the only intelligent lines in the movie and delivers them with zest. Luckily, the movie is short and moves along at a pretty good pace. Too bad. In other hands, this could've a charming little film. As it stands, it's only worth it for marveling at Ava Gardner, who, granted, was well-chosen to play Venus, the Goddess of Love. Skip this and watch Mogambo instead, with her and Clark Gable sparring in the jungle (with Grace Kelly thrown in for good measure) under John Ford's direction. Ava was nominated for an Academy Award for that one.

Lemming (2005) - Written and Directed by Dominick Moll. Starring Laurent Lucas, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Charlotte Rampling.

Billed as a kind of Hitchcockian French film, Lemming also moves towards David Lynch country, though played straight. Laurent Lucas and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as Alain and Bénédicte Getty, a perfect young yuppie couple in some vague French suburb that looks American. Alain works at a high-tech engineering firm. One evening his boss comes to dinner with his erratic and mysterious wife Alice, played by Charlotte Rampling. The dinner does not go well, to say the least. Alice is way out there. She begins showing up at the office late at night when Alain is there alone, or at the house during the day when Bénédicte is by herself. Meanwhile, the perfect young couple discover a rodent in their kitchen plumbing - a lemming, which only lives in Sweden. How did it get there? What does it mean? There is a startling suicide. There is an accident that leaves Alain with a concussion and experiencing what seem to be disturbing and realistic hallucinations. Bénédicte starts having an affair with Alain's boss. One character seems possessed by the spirit of the suicide victim. Or is it all just Alain hallucinating? The director never makes it clear, and by the time the film was over, I really didn't care enough to try and figure it all out. There are a couple of freaky and suspenseful moments, and Lynch fans may enjoy watching a European flail at the Lynchian universe. I enjoyed watching Charlotte Gainsbourg. Then I yawned and went to bed.


crystal said...

I've only see one, or part of one, of these movies, so it was good to find out about the others. I saw about 1/3 of Blood Diamond before I lost interest. Didn't even get to the part with Leonardo. I read a novel once about Cecil Rhodes and diamond mines ... pretty interesting.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Another fine set of reviews, I haven't seen any of them yet, although the plot of Alvarez Kelly sounds very familiar. I might have seen that one on TV when I was a kid.

Ava Gardner was really something, wasn't she, although I understand she was a bit out of control. Not quite in the Vivien Leigh category, but maybe in the same league with Liz Taylor. Who was the bullfighter she used to run with, the one that made Frank Sinatra so crazy jealous? Domiguin?

Blood Diamond is absolutely on my list to see. I haven't seen many movies lately, but I did make it out to see The Bourne Ultimatum recently. It was pretty good. Faster paced than the first movie (didn't see the second). Very entertaining.

cowboyangel said...


Interesting that you found it boring. I don't remember the beginning that well now, but I don't remember it being so slow. These things happen.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the comment. Yeah, Ava was something else. Sad life, though. I just finished her biography, and after a while her life just seemed so empty. She and Dominguin, who was the greatest matador of his generation, were lovers, but it was another matador, Mario Cabre - the first matador she dated - who drove Frank crazy jealous. Then again, he was crazy jealous about anyone when it came to Ava. She really got to him. He wound up slitting his wrists at one point. They definitely had a fiery relationship - though they stayed close even after their divorce.

So you liked Bourne Ultimatum? We've been hesitant to see it. We liked the first one very much, but the second one just seemed like excessive action without any real story or characters, and I see #3 is the same director as #2. We'll probably catch it on video. Let me know what you think of Blood Diamond if you see it.

crystal said...

I read all the Bourne books by Ludlum and liked them a lot. I've seen the first two movies but not the third yet. I'm underimpressed by Matt Damon. There was an old made for tv movie of the first Bourne book that starred Richard Chamberlain .... kind of campy but still a nice travelogue.

cowboyangel said...

I'm not a big Damon fan, but I thought he did okay in the first Bourne movie. Still, "underimpressed" is a good way to put it.

What I find so amusing about the Bourne books and movies is that they have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, besides the titles and the name of the main character. I don't remember ever seeing such a huge discrepancy between a movie and the book it was based on.

crystal said...

Yes, in the books, Bourne wasn't quite as nice as in the Daimon movie. The TV movie was closer to the book. How about the movie I, Robot ..... aside from the fact that there were robots, it was really different from the book.

Jeff said...

Funny... I like Matt Damon, and I hate Robert Ludlum's books.

I like the job Damon does as Jason Bourne, although Paul Greengrass isn't my favorite director. He uses too many quick-cut edits, which is a trend in action movies these days which is driving me up the wall. It's action on the cheap. It's cheating. It's no substitute for good choreography, but maybe good choreography and stunt planning just costs too much these days. Another big offender, sad to say, is Ridley Scott. His Gladiator, with all of those sub-second cuts, was almost unwatchable for my old eyes. Give me Spartacus vs. Tiberius with Kirk Douglas anyday.

cowboyangel said...

>Funny... I like Matt Damon

Actually, that's not funny at all , Jeff. I'd say it's very serious, and you should probably see someone about it.


You like Damon because he's your homeboy! You Boston guys . . .

He's alright - even pretty good in the right role. But we've already covered this ground. It's going to take more effort on his part to convince me that he's not bland rather than "understated" in too many films. But it can happen. I now respect Leonardo DiCaprio, and I didn't think that would ever be possible. And I like Damon a lot more than I did Leo.

The only Ludlum books I've read are the first two Bourne books. I thought he had some good ideas in those, but he's a mediocre writer. His language is terribly dull.

Greengrass... I just looked him up on IMDB. I've only seen the Bourne Supremacy. Did you see United 93? I thought that was supposed to be good, and have thought about watching it, but now that I know he's the director...

Oh, no - I see he's the director of a film version of Imperial Life in the Emerald City! First of all, I'm shocked they're making a moive of that. Secondly, that was such a great book that doesn't have anything to do with action movies. It's all description and character and tone. Oh man . . .

"Action on the cheap." That's a great way to put it, Jeff. I'm going to steal that line for one of my reviews. I agree with you - I don't like the trend at all. It's a huge philosophical difference from letting action develop naturally on the screen. It's related to Fred Astaire - believe or not. Before Fred, dance scenes were totally edited and shot from unnatural angles. He fought for and won creative control, demanding that his dances were shot in one take (of very few) and from a camera point of view that was closer to the way people watch dance in real life. That's one of the reasons his dances have so much integrity and beauty and power. I think it's similar with action. Quick-edits are a part of the trend towards making violence more and more unreal and cartoon-like. So it actually takes away the power and visceral aspect of it. It's dehumanizing, in my foggy-brained opinion. Plus, as with the heavily-edited dance sequences in the late 20s and early 30s, you don't actually have to have much talent as an actor. They do it for you in the editing room.

Jeff said...


Well, maybe that's true. maybe I do like him because he's a homeboy. I will concede this, not to be cruel, but he doesn't seem to be aging too gracefully. He's porking out a little bit, I don't know if he's been passing up too many leftovers lately.

Very interesting about Astaire and the dance-editing sequences. I was not aware of that.

Yes, I did see United 93. Last year I did a review and a 9/11 restrospective here.