Friday, December 19, 2008

Let the Right One In (revisited briefly)

Although the San Francisco Film Critics Circle is hardly a name to conjure with, I was happy to see that they voted “Let the Right One In” the best foreign film of 2008. It means something that the film critics for most of the media in the Bay Area voted for this excellent little film. Apparently, Oskar and Eli come to DVD in March.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Let the Right One In

“Twilight” is in lots of theaters right now. According to the reviews it’s the film version of the first of a series of Romance novels with a vampire theme, aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls. Apparently some of the vampires are reformed and get by on animal blood. And they make really cute and soulful boyfriends. It’s sold a lot of tickets.

The Swedish film, “Let the Right One In”, which is in exactly one theater in San Francisco, isn’t like that. It is the story of a romance between the blond, angelic looking Oskar and the dark haired, pale Eli. He’s twelve and so is she, but as she says, she’s been twelve for a long time. She also mentions eventually that she’s not really a girl. In this film a vampire drinks human blood and getting the blood out of the human can be a messy business.

It takes place in a working class suburb of Stockholm. Oskar is ping-ponged between his divorced parents’ places and is bullied at school by a particularly odious classmate and his two henchmen. He’s full of rage and frustration but doesn’t act on it. He’s lonely. Eli moves into the apartment next to Oskar’s at night. She lives with a middle aged man who seems to be her guardian. Oskar meets Eli at night by a snow covered jungle gym. She doesn’t feel the cold.

I felt the cold. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the film because I liked Oskar and Eli and didn’t know what was going to happen to them in this seeming unconventional vampire film. And then I realized that the filmmakers were going to honor the conventions of the classic vampire story in a brilliant way.

I don’t want to give anything else away but this is a very good film, creepy and darkly funny, and I urge my stalwart readers who haven’t seen it, to see it. And for those Bram Stoker fans among you I’ll give a little more away by saying that the film could have been subtitled “The New Renfield”.

Friday, November 7, 2008

La Nuit des morts vivants

When I started The Bureau, it was my intention to only write about things that I had enjoyed. I didn’t see the point of bringing something up just to beat on it. I rented “Lola Montez” thinking I would be writing about a masterpiece but ended up writing about the film I had actually seen.

I watched about 20 minutes of Robert Bresson’s “Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne” some months ago before turning it off in boredom. I wondered if I should give it another chance, since I had watched it after a big meal with wine, but the DVD sat around and I finally sent it back to Netflix.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had my pocket picked on the Paris Metro this past summer. I’ve told the tale to all who would listen since I at least got a story for my lost Euros and inconvenience. One of the people who heard the story mentioned that Bresson had a film about a Paris pickpocket. Voilà, I could give the famous filmmaker one more chance.

I started watching Bresson's "Pickpocket" in the late afternoon, fully alert. Initially I was interested, but I rapidly noted that everyone in it was wooden, dour and, when called upon to portray any emotion, incredibly inept. It was like watching a zombie film without any gore or humor. I turned it off after 45 minutes, mystified.

I looked Bresson up on the invaluable Wikipedia and it all became clear. Here’s the description of his method with actors:

“With his 'actor-model' technique, Bresson's actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of 'performance' were stripped away, leaving a stark effect that registers as both subtle and raw, and one that can only be found in the cinema.”

And further:

“Some feel that Bresson's Catholic upbringing and Jansenist belief-system lie behind the thematic structure of most of his films.”

I felt like a complete bozo. Over the years I’d read critics who mentioned his asceticism or his nonprofessional actors or his stylized acting methods but no one just came out and said that he was making Catholic zombie pageants! If that’s your taste, fine, but I got my degree from a Jesuit university in the last year of the Johnson administration and turned my back on that stuff forever.

On the plus side I can take M. Bresson off the list of directors whose films I really ought to take a look at.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bad Beer

Proust had his madeleine and I have the bad beer of my youth. In his case it was the taste of a fragment of buttery madeleine soaked in tea that evoked a forgotten memory. Luckily I didn’t have to taste any of the aforesaid bad beers since they mostly disappeared several decades ago. It was an article (you may have to endure an ad) in that triggered my memories.

It turns out that with the sale of Anheuser-Busch to the Belgians, Pabst is the largest American owned brewing conglomerate. According to the article they’ve also acquired many of the national and regional cheap beers and, if they don’t retire them, they keep the label and fill the bottles with something made by Pabst.

The only Western New York label they mentioned in the article was Genesee Cream Ale but it got me thinking about driving up a two lane highway, maybe an hour outside of Buffalo, heading to graduate school in that city in 1968, and seeing a weathered sign for Topper Beer, with the silhouette of a dapper gent in a top hat. I’d never heard of it but it seemed to announce that I was in new territory now. I really had left the Washington D.C. area where I had spent my life so far.

America at one time had hundreds of brands of beer but by the late 1960s they had mostly disappeared, victims of their inability to compete with the big national brands. Of course they really didn’t have much of a basis for competing since all American beer tasted pretty much the same, except for some that tasted particularly bad. American beer was a universal anodyne lager and the national brands had more money for advertising to push their imaginary unique qualities.

When I got to Buffalo I found that Topper was not generally available (it was actually a Rochester beer) except on tap at a particularly low dive on Allen St. that was briefly popular with grad students from the English Department I was part of. I’ve forgotten the name of the bar and the beer tasted like all the others. Iroquois Beer was local but wasn’t very good and the label featured a painting of a Native American wearing the war bonnet of the Plains Indians, which had nothing to do with the Iroquois.

A friend and I took up Stroh’s. It was made in Detroit and, in an effort to get it into the Buffalo market, was selling for 99 cents a six-pack. Plus it was “fire brewed”, although if that process added anything extra to the taste of the beer, I could not detect it. We did discover a great selling point with a select audience, but societal prejudice would have kept the brewery from advertising it. After taking acid that was far too powerful, out in the wonderfully named Zoar Valley, the same friend and I made a hallucinatory and dangerous trip back to Buffalo and, lacking Thorazine©, drank a ridiculous amount of Stroh’s. It smoothed out the rough edges and brought us back to “normal” reality.

Even back then I really liked the idea of regional beer, beer rooted in the history of a place. Maybe at one time the various beers of America did taste very different from region to region but refrigeration and industrial methods had robbed them of any uniqueness. A decade later I made it to San Francisco and tasted Anchor Steam. It didn’t taste like anything else. Within a few years it was joined by other beers from small regional breweries.

Today we have battalions of artisanal beer and, although they probably represent a tiny fraction of the beer sales in this country which is still dominated by the horsemen of the “Lite” brewing apocalypse, many are delicious and they don’t taste like each other. Bravo!

The logo below doesn’t really equal my vision on that country road but I thank this web site for it.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Lola Montez

When I watched Max Ophuls’ “Lola Montez” (1955), I was delighted to find a shout-out from the 1950s to my adopted city of San Francisco. There’s a scene where the ringmaster of an American circus (Peter Ustinov) offers Lola Montez (Martine Carol) a job as the main attraction---a sort of freak/fetish object whose scandalous life story will titillate the audience. In listing his own résumé the ringmaster mentions that he found the three headed woman for Barnum, booked the only elephant that could play the piano and, in New York, filled the house for four weeks with the anarchists who killed the Sultan of Turkey. In San Francisco the run was five and a half weeks. Bravo! We’ve had our reputation for a long time.

Speaking of reputation, the film has a good one with many critics and I was primed to like it, but ended up enjoying it more as an introduction to the historical Lola Montez than as a work of art. The central conceit of the film is that Lola has finally taken the job with the circus and we cut between the big top show that tells the story of her life and the actual scenes of it. This framing device is interesting initially but increasingly serves to distance the viewer from the material. It doesn’t help that Martine Carol is not a good actress. I wanted to be moved by the material but was just occasionally amused.

The film is an odd mixture of the modern and the old fashioned. Ophuls’ cynicism about human beings oozes out of every frame, resonating strongly in these degenerate times. He also shows a feminist understanding of how Lola’s beauty and fearless pursuit of sexual affairs fascinates society at the same time that it causes it to want to destroy her. In the final scene of the film Lola kneels in a decorated cage with her hands through the bars, so that two lines of men can file by and kiss them, having paid a dollar for the privilege.

On the other hand, the story telling in the vignettes that make up the tale seems a bit musty. It has a whiff of Ruritania or “The Student Prince” about it. Of course a supporter could argue that this is completely appropriate given her affaire with Ludwig I, King of Bavaria.

The film is finally more fun to think about afterwards than it was to watch but does make me want to see some other of Ophuls’ works. As I said before, it also got me interested in the real woman. I can recommend the Wikipedia article on her. Did you know the only house she ever owned was in Grass Valley, CA?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Decalogue 5

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” is a remarkable collection of odd shaped objects. Madame Le Chef and I have watched the first six commandments and they are not a walk in the park, unless it’s a park that’s dark, rundown, confusing, sad, but also very beautiful.

I choose to talk about Decalogue 5 (Thou shall not kill) because it concerns a murder and the execution of the murderer and seems the most straightforward of the episodes. It’s clearly against capital punishment---it’s hardly happenstance that both the murder and the execution are initially botched strangulations. But we wouldn’t expect Kieslowski to make a tidy polemic and, of course, he doesn’t. Yes it’s crime and then punishment but what about the communion picture of the little girl, the mean cab driver, the dog, the sandwich, the other half of the sandwich? He leads us all over the place between beginning and ending with the young defense attorney.

I’ve mentioned before that I have nothing against beautiful messes but this episode is not really a mess. Instead it’s a crafty puzzle that never answers all your questions. The cinematography is beautiful. It tends towards sepia but also has an overexposed look in some exteriors that is reminiscent of Carl Dreyer’s “Vampyr”. The acting is excellent as usual with Kieslowski. The more of his stuff I see, the sadder I am that he died at 54.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lust, Caution

When I was an undergraduate in Washington D.C., during the Johnson Administration, the Circle Theater had an Ingmar Bergman Festival that ran for several days. I remember cutting classes to go to double and triple features of that great director’s films in hopes of seeing Harriet Andersson naked or Bibi Andersson naked or any other actress, named Andersson or not, naked. Such delights were still a few years away in mainstream American movies. Amazingly enough, I absorbed bits of Bergman’s cinematic vision along with visions of the glorious Anderssons, and my interest in foreign films began.

Sex in non-pornographic movies is problematic. You risk taking the viewer out of the narrative and into contemplating an actor or actress’s normally covered bits. Ang Lee manages not to do this in “Lust, Caution”. The actors are naked and the sex is realistic enough that it got an “NC-17” rating from the MPAA (they’re particularly down on thrusting and there’s lots of that) but the sex is not arousing and it absolutely furthers the plot in a way that is rarely seen.

The film is set before and during WWII and is about a young woman (played by Wei Tang), an idealistic student supporter of the Chinese Nationalist Government, who takes on the task of becoming the mistress of an official (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in the Chinese Collaborationist Government, a torturer and executioner, so that she can set up his assassination. She succeeds eventually in becoming his mistress but through watching their sex together and other aspects of their relationship we see the complications developing. No spoilers!

People who don’t like the film complain that it takes too long getting to the sex but I think the pace is necessary to build the tension. The rest of the cast is as good as the principal actors and the film is beautifully shot. I find it a minor masterpiece and wish that it had been seen by more people last year.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The San Francisco MOMA – August 7, 2008

We went down to see the Frida Kahlo show. She’s like Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, very popular but also very good. It was crowded but we are museum members and could walk in.

Over the years Madame Le Chef and I have seen several shows of her work, and her paintings reproduce well, so there were few revelations, although there was great pleasure, in seeing the actual pieces.

What was a revelation were some unfamiliar photos of her and Diego Rivera and a delightful home movie of them. There is a long tradition in Western Art of a court painter doing a portrait of some misshapen royal and making him or her look godlike. Frida Kahlo did the exact opposite thing to herself. In the photos and the home movie you see just what a beautiful woman she was but when she painted herself, she was unmerciful to every defect.

There were major revelations to be had on the same floor as her show. We had forgotten that there was a show of contemporary Chinese Art at the museum that was all from the Logan Collection. In this case it was very important to see the actual pieces, most of which are large.

There is a wonderful piece by Sui Jianguo that consists of a collection of several thousand brightly painted toy dinosaurs with a life-sized Chairman Mao asleep on top of them. It’s called “The Sleep of Reason” (shout-out to Goya). The same artist also has a large piece called “Made in China” out on the 4th Floor terrace, which is the only piece one can photograph and we did.

There are also a lot of very interesting paintings. Not everything is as Pop as the two pieces I’ve mentioned but there is very dark humor manifested in a lot of them.

I definitely recommend the show to any of my Bay Area readers.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I Am The Odd Shaped Object

The morning of July 3rd was cold and gray in Paris. I tucked in my canvas overshirt for warmth and put on my straw hat. We took the Metro to the Concorde station to change to the Number One line. As we walked through the connecting tunnel it occurred to me that the crowds were getting thicker and that I should move my wallet from the back pocket of my jeans to the front. I didn’t.

A train was pulling in as we arrived at the platform. Madame Le Chef was trailing slightly behind me in the crowd. I stepped onto the train. A short girl with black hair and a pink top suddenly stopped in front of me, blocking my way. I assumed she was unsure if she was on the right train. I had the impression she was a young teenager. I never saw her face.

She was violating the unspoken rule that one moves rapidly on and off the Metro. The trains do not normally linger in the station. I was trying to figure out how to get around her without pushing when she turned and left the car, just as the doors closed. I turned and found Madame Le Chef who immediately asked me if I had my wallet. I put my hand back. It was gone.

I felt sick as the train accelerated. It was a fait accompli. We got off at the next station, thought briefly of notifying the police and rejected that idea. We headed back to the apartment where I got on the phone and canceled my Credit and Debit cards. We were out over 120 Euro and my driver’s license, which meant that Madame Le Chef would be the chauffeur when we rented a car.

Since she was behind me, Madame Le Chef saw much more of the robbery although she did not realize at the time that that’s what it was. While the first girl blocked me, her identically sized confederate came up behind me. Madame saw her put one hand on my back but did not see her other hand pick my pocket. I never felt anything. The teenage Artful Dodgers exited the train with military precision.

Everyone I told the story to said, “Oh, Gypsies”. Apparently Les Gitanes have the franchise for petty thievery or, at least, are widely perceived as having it.

I realized in retrospect that the pintsized felons probably first noticed me because of my straw hat and then registered the wallet shape in my back pocket. Maybe I even sensed them watching me and that caused my inkling that I should move my wallet. As an American, everything has to be a learning experience, so the moral of this tale is: if you have an inkling, act on it. (Unless it’s an inkling telling you to take off all your clothes and start screaming about Earth’s imminent collision with an asteroid.)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Myth of the Super-Pigeon

You may ask, who was promulgating this myth? I have to admit that it was me, le chef de bureau. The apartment in Montmartre that Madame Le Chef and I had rented in years past was not available and so we rented an apartment on one of Paris’s other (barely perceptible) hills, Montparnasse.

The apartment was in an architecturally dismal but actually comfortable 60s high-rise on the totally un-photogenic rue de Vaugirard (the longest street in Paris). The apartment was in the rear of the building and its small balcony overlooked a green courtyard that was enclosed by some other high-rises and by the tall brick wall of the Institut Pasteur. We could see the roofs of the 19th Century institute buildings above the wall.

A flock of pigeons occupied the top of the wall, the roofs of the institute and the vegetation of the courtyard. These were not your raggle-taggle everyday city pigeons, subsisting on a diet of used chewing gum and Snickers wrappers. No! These were huge, sleek, robust pigeons with white markings on their necks and wings. Their deep calls echoed between the buildings in the early morning and they apparently let none of their lesser pigeon brethren in their territory.

I didn’t know what they were but enjoyed speculating that they were a new evolutionary branch thrown up by Paris’s enormous pigeon population or, even more fun to speculate about, an experiment from the institute next door. The truth was simpler but still interesting.

At the end of our Paris visit we took a train to Tours, rented a car there and headed off for Chinon. As soon as we got out into the country, we began to see the “Super Pigeons” everywhere. It turns out that they are the Wood Pigeon (Columba Palumbus) and are a very numerous inhabitant of rural woods and fields in a large part of Europe. Of course the question remains as to why that flock in Paris abandoned their usual habitat and colonized that particular courtyard. I’m still entertaining the Institut Pasteur experiment theory.

Back In Town

For any readers who have checked into the Bureau during the last month looking for new reviews of worthy films, I apologize. Madame Le Chef and I have been on summer vacation in Ireland, France and the East Coast of les Etats-Unis. I don’t carry along a computer when I travel. Actually I am glad to be rid of it since it fills me with the endless desire to log on and check the latest news which is usually dismal or epically unimportant.

We honed our French by trying to follow the news in Le Monde and on television. I’m happy to report that there was zero French coverage of the American presidential campaign in the first part of July since really nothing was happening except media manufactured non-events. On the other hand Ingrid Betancourt’s rescue was on 24/7. Jeez, you’d think she was Milely Cyrus or something.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Old Virginny

Part 1

As chef de bureau I’m always searching for interesting odd shaped objects, even while in Virginia for my dear mom’s 90th birthday. In Richmond, VA I was hugely gratified to come across an actual odd shaped object that was both interesting and delicious. At one point in the several days of festivities, my sister (hostess extraordinaire) brought home some crispy legs and thighs from Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken. I had never heard of it. The crust was so thick that a thigh was not recognizable by its shape but my suspicions died when I tasted it. It was greaseless and wonderfully tasty.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for over 30 years and decades go by without my eating any fried chicken since I’m not aware of any good emporia of that delight. If Lee’s was located here, instead of 2438 miles away, I’d be eating fried chicken a lot more often. (You can get fried livers and gizzards too but we abstained).

Part 2

I grew up in Virginia but in the northern part, the suburbs of Washington D.C. That is the most populous region of the state but is often considered by Virginians further south as not really Virginia.

Some friends in Richmond recently moved out to a house on the Chickahominey River. No one is going to say that’s not Virginia. The river ran with the blood of Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War and is an example of the Tidewater region, although the salt water is blocked from their part of the river by a dam.

I’ve always had a 19th century vision of swamps as miasmal cesspools so I was amazed at how pleasant the swampy banks of the river were. It wasn’t even buggy since the flies and mosquitoes were kept down by the abundant fish, birds and bright green dragonflies.

Our friends’ house is on dry land but has a long boardwalk that goes through the swamp and out to the river. There’s a wide part in the boardwalk, under some trees, where there’s a table and chairs. We sat there and watched the natural world go by. I include a few photos, which is a first for The Bureau of OSO.

Monday, June 9, 2008

La Double vie de Véronique

As chef de bureau my filmic purview has so far consisted of genre films with the exception of “The Namesake”, a drama, although one with seemingly modest aims, a chamber piece. Now, however, we’re turning the bureaucratic gaze on a film that comes stamped “Art”.

This 1991 film is by Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski. Its motto could be Hippocrates aphorism, “Ars longa, vita brevis.”

The first section of “Véronique” is suffused with beauty: the beauty of the autumn light in Poland; the beauty of Zybigniew Preisner’s music; The luminous beauty of Irène Jacob as Weronica, a young classical singer.

Weronica has a wonderful voice and is full of youthful exuberance. She also has a sense that she has a double somewhere and then knows that she does when she glimpses Véronique (also Irène Jacob) on a tourist bus. But the existence of her double is not the central focus of this section.

Weronica has a chance to make her concert debut and is determined to put all other things aside for it. She has already left her lover behind in another town but now she starts to experience cardiac chest pains. She ignores them and goes ahead with her performance. If this were a thriller, I’d worry about spoilers, but this isn’t that kind of film. Weronica collapses and dies while singing.

We see a shot looking up from her casket, presumably through a glass panel, as her family, lover and friends drop handfuls of dirt that cover the frame until it’s black. We cut to Véronique who is in bed with a young man who she has no intention of seeing again. She feels Weronika’s death and, in the next scene, quits her music lessons as if she somehow knows that her double sacrificed her life for art. She’s not going to do that. We see scenes of her with EKG printouts so we know she has heart disease also.

From this point the film wanders and becomes a bit of a beautiful mess. As chef I have nothing against messes. I regard Jean Renoir as the greatest director of all and his films are often grand messes and transcendent works of art at the same time (“la Règle de jeu”). However, my sense of plot demands more than a catalogue of the various elements in Véronique’s life. A large amount of screen time is dedicated to Véronique following clues to a puppeteer who she probably could have found in the phonebook. The film has an ambiguous ending that one could interpret as meaning that Véronique also dies, although she turned away from art.

This ending was not acceptable to Harvey “The Butcher” Weinstein who bought the American rights and demanded an unambiguous happy ending. Kieslowski complied but only for the US.

Kieslowski was an artist and had heart disease. He died on the table during open heart surgery in 1996. His “Trois coleurs” trilogy is magnificent. “La Double Vie de Véronique” is a very beautiful odd shaped object. I recommend seeing it dispite the problems I have with the second part.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Pépé le Moko

I know what thoughts my imaginary readers are having.

“Sweet Jesus, not another foreign film! Does it at least have Angelina Jolie in it?”

Unfortunately La Jolie’s appearance in this film would violate the laws of physics since Her Birth was in 1975 and this film was released in 1937. However, even lacking Her Presence, this film is a Triple-Bonus-Pak!

First, it is an excellent French gangster film by Julien Duvivier which is set in the Casbah of Algiers and shot both in the studio and on location in Algeria. Secondly, it has a very interesting cameo by the French music hall singer Fréhel. Lastly, it’s a vehicle for Jean Gabin, one of the great stars of world cinema and an actor who should be watched as often as possible.

The central plot device of “Pépé” is good enough that Hollywood bought the American rights and, instead of releasing it, immediately remade it as “Algiers” with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. The Americans suppressed the original film and, as far as I know, “Pépé Le Moko” never had a theatrical run in this country.

The plot device that the producers bought is simple but clever. A bank robber (Gabin) pulls off a huge robbery in Marseille and flees to Algiers where he hides in the Casbah, the Arab quarter of town. The Casbah is a medieval warren of narrow, twisting streets where the French police go only in force. The people protect Pépé because he’s generous and charismatic and the cops can never catch him. But he can’t leave the Casbah or they will. He’s there with some gang members and his gypsy girlfriend but he is terribly homesick for Paris. So when he meets a glamorous Parisienne….

The emigrant’s yearning for home can also be a yearning for one’s lost youth and this is where Fréhel comes in. She’s a very interesting figure . She was a pretty teenage performer back before The Great War but by the 30s, decades of alcoholism had bloated and distorted her looks. In her scene with Gabin he’s depressed and she tells him how she deals with her sorrows.

There’s an actual photo of Fréhel as a radiant Belle Époque jeune fille on the wall. She says she looks at it and pretends it’s a mirror. Then she puts on one of her records, “Où est-il, donc?” (Where is it, then?). It’s a lament by a French immigrant in New York, who is missing Paris. She listens to a verse and then sings along with the next one, crying. It’s a strange and interesting scene if you don’t know who she is and even more interesting if you do.

Gabin is at the top of his form, charming, vigorous and occasionally scary. Duvivier put together a great supporting cast and, in an interesting move for the 30s, has an Arab police inspector (Lucas Gridoux) who, although slightly creepy, is always the smartest guy in the room and the only one with a chance to catch Pépé.

Once again thanks to the Criterion Collection. They have more influence on the dissemination of great films than any film archive.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Namesake

Many believe that in order to perform the duties of chef du bureau I have to be a cynical bastard with a dark vision, who runs from any object with a whiff of the heartwarming like a cat from a bath. This is largely true but I have a witness who sat next to me while I wiped away a tear during the Korean horror film, “The Host”, which, in addition to being a film about a mutant, vicious 50 ft. long tadpole that comes out of the Han river and eats people, is a film about a completely wacko loser family that rises to the occasion when the beloved 12 year old daughter of the family is taken by the monster. Le chef loves everyday people except when he hates them for voting for George Bush.

Mira Nair has gotten to me twice, once with “Monsoon Wedding” and now with “The Namesake”. The latter film is much more visually subdued than the former (although beautifully shot) since it takes place mostly in the North Eastern U.S. and often in winter. It’s about an immigrant Indian family and is from a novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri that Madame Le Chef informs me is excellent.

I believe that if you set out with the aim of making something heartwarming, you are descending into the debased realm of advertising and propaganda. However, if you make a work of art that produces a strong emotional reaction from the audience, without tricking them or condescending to them, then you’ve done a good day’s work.

“The Namesake” does not have a particularly complicated plot but just when you think it’s going to make a move you saw coming, it goes somewhere else. The three main actors, Irfan Khan as the dad, Tabu as the mom, and an apparently unbaked Kal Penn (of “Harold and Kumar” fame) as the son, are excellent. And, as an added bonus, Tabu is just really beautiful.

In all I’ve seen four Mira Nair films and thought the other two just okay; however, it’s clearly hard to make even one good film and she’s made two. Brava.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bekmambetov Watch Part 2

(I respectfully suggest you read Part 1 before this.)

Night Watch (NW) and Day Watch (DW) are part of a tetralogy that will include Twilight Watch and Final Watch. The films are based on novels by Sergei Lukyanenko who, according to Wikipedia, is the most popular Sci-Fi writer in Russia.

A thousand years ago, the armies of Light and Darkness were engaged in an epic battle. The leader of the forces of Light, Geser, realized that they would fight till they destroyed the world and stopped the battle. He made a truce with Zavulon, the leader of the forces of Darkness. The forces of Light formed the Night Watch to police Darkness and the forces of Darkness formed the Day Watch to police Light. If anyone violates the truce, the mysterious Inquisition appears and punishes the violator.

Light and Darkness are like two halves of a huge dysfunctional family. They have spent the last thousand years maneuvering for advantage; tricking, betraying and occasionally killing each other. It’s a mélange of “The Godfather” and “Lord of the Rings”. And that’s what I like about it. They live in Moscow. They’re part of society. They have family complications. They might live in an apartment across the hall from someone from the other side. Our hero Anton, who’s a member of the Night Watch, lives across from a Vampire father and son.

It’s also a great pleasure to see Russia in all its strangeness. After a historical prologue, NW starts with a flashback from 2004 to the early 90s where Anton sports a goofy bowl haircut and lives in the rundown milieu of Soviet times. Even in 2004 things are not that spiffy but by DW in 2006, the petrodollars seem to have had a gentrifying effect on the general ambiance and we see blocks of old apartments being torn down for new development. Of course this doesn’t just reflect history but also the fact that NW was a big success in Russia and the producers decided to put a lot more money into DW for a shinier look and more elaborate effects.

In NW Anton is trying to find some Vampires (not his neighbors) and must drink a tall glass of animal blood in order to see them. It makes him sick and he’s already drunk and sets off on a nightmare journey through the Moscow subways. I find this scene much more interesting than the gravity defying sports car in DW which seems more like the CGI for CGI’s sake that infects American films in these degenerate days.

Considering that these are effects films I still get the most enjoyment from the incredibly complicated story, the characters, the casting, the faces of the unfamiliar excellent actors, the writing, the dark humor and the vision of Timur Bekmambetov. Both Bekmambetov and Lukyanenko are from Kazakhstan. Apparently there’s more to it then Borat.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Bekmambetov Watch

Timur Bekmambetov has made a movie for Universal starring world religious figure, Angelina Jolie. I call her that because all over the planet, legions of men, and perhaps some women, meditate on her image while having sex. But this posting is not about Her, holy be Her Name.

Bekmambetov’s movie, “Wanted”, will come out this summer and has an excellent chance of not being very good. I say that with no inside information and no pleasure and with the hope that I will be proven wrong. Hollywood has a history of hiring foreign directors because they made a good film with a quirky and interesting approach and then feeding their American film through the corporate stamping plant that makes all the aptly named product the mediocre same.

Bekmambetov got on Hollywood’s radar by making “Night Watch”, an action fantasy film with great looking effects, for under 5 million bucks. I’ve seen both “Night Watch” (NW) and its sequel “Day Watch”(DW) twice. I liked them better on the second viewing, which interests me. The Russian effects are well done and clever. In NW the dark vortex is made up of black birds and wind. In DW the 2nd. Level of the Gloom consists of a dim blurred human world and lots of buzzing mosquitoes. A car drives impossibly across the glass curtain wall of a high rise hotel. What looks like a toy ball starts to destroy Moscow.

This is all good stuff but what really interests me are other things.

(More coming)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Oakley Hall 1920-2008

Oakley Hall's "Warlock" (1958) is a great Western novel and a great novel period. It reimagines Tombstone as the town of Warlock and gives new names and details to the participants in the famous shootout at the OK Corral. It does a brilliant job of combining all the stock figures of the American West with something approaching the real history of that epoch in all its gun fighting, gambling, whoring, rustling, strike breaking, Indian killing, land stealing "glory". I'm sure (but don't have the surveillance video) that David Milch mined this book massively for "Deadwood". Ave Oakley Hall. He had a great life and wrote a masterpiece.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Further on Olivier Dahan

In my post on “Le Petit Poucet”, I identified Olivier Dahan as the director of “La Vie en Rose” because that movie was released here and received two Oscars. I should clarify that I don’t think it’s a particularly good film although Marion Clotillard gave an astounding performance as Piaf. She deserved an Oscar, although so did Julie Christie for “Away from Her”.

Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald also deserved the Makeup Oscar. Too bad they didn’t do the Ogre’s makeup since, when Edith Piaf dies at 47 looking 107, she has become a monster.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Le Petit Poucet

As part of my duties as chef de bureau, I’m studying French and am currently in a great intermediate level class at San Francisco State. In addition to adding to my limited skills the class exposed me to some French films I’d never heard of. One of them is “Le Petit Poucet”. It’s from 2001 and was directed by Olivier Dahan who also directed last year’s “La Môme” (called “La Vie en Rose” in the States). It’s the film version of a 17th century fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the writer of many of the tales we read or were told as children.

This film was never released here, either theatrically or on DVD, so the class looked at a French DVD that a classmate bought in that country. No subtitles, so I understood maybe 30 percent of the dialogue. That didn’t matter. The story is made of the primal stuff.

The title means something like “The Little Thumb" (masculine diminutive form) but basically it’s Tom Thumb. Unlike the English Tom Thumb, our hero is a full sized boy who is the youngest and smallest of five brothers. He’s also the smartest and bravest. They’re peasants living with their parents on a subsistence farm at the edge of a vast forest.

This movie would scare the half digested Lucky Charms out of little kids so its audience is maybe older kids but definitely movie loving adults.

It’s a beautiful movie. Dahan made a virtue of his apparently limited budget by using mostly old movie technology and not trying to hide it. Instead of being CG, the backgrounds are clearly matte paintings and it was shot on sets. The production design is bold. The first half of the movie is predominantly blue but when they get to the Ogre’s house, it becomes blue and orange-red. That could look cheesy but actually, it works. A lot of the creepiness of the forest is conjured up by sound effects of animals we don’t see but are all around. Eventually we do see the animals.

There are also some Japanese elements. The Ogre’s house evokes Lord Washizu’s castle in “Throne of Blood” and the aftermath of a battle also seems to be a visual homage to Kurosawa. A Japanese composer, Joe Hisaishi, did the music and it works well.

The cast is great. The famous Norma Desmond line, “We had faces”, definitely applies to the French, but in the present tense. Romane Bohringer (the mother of the boys), Élodie Bouchez (the wife of the Ogre) and young Hanna Berthaut (the stepdaughter of the Ogre) all look completely appropriate plopped down in the middle of a fairy tale. Nils Hugon as Poucet and all his brothers are fine and Catherine Deneuve plays the Queen. The Ogre is the only disappointment but finally works well enough. Lacking the budget (I assume) for a big deal Hollywood monster makeup, they gave him a steel mask which occasionally made me think of hockey goalies but that’s nitpicking.

I won’t go through the plot except to say that it’s got starving peasants, endless war, cruel bandits, heartless tax collectors, an ogre, ogresses, wolves and magic boots. Everything you want in a fairy tale. Hopefully someday, someone (Criterion?) will put this out on DVD here. In the meantime, I thank public education.