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.