Monday, January 24, 2011

Two Sad Tales

"Another Year" and "Blue Valentine" are not bad films. Both are intelligent, well made and have some great acting in them. But they are terminally depressing.

Mike Leigh, the director of "Another Year", doesn't write scripts for his films but rather lets the script emerge through improvisation with his actors in extensive rehearsals. This time what emerged from their process is a kind of cinematic Calvinism. There are happy people and miserable people, the elect and the damned and that's it. Happy people stay basically happy and the miserable, miserable. You can't change your state. All the wonderful British actors (Jim Broadbent, Leslie Manville, Ruth Sheen, David Bradley) can't make this into anymore then an exercise in predestination.

If "Another Year" is downbeat, "Blue Valentine" is the picture of a marriage as the Bataan Death March. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling, the married couple, are exceptionally good. They deserve all the critical praise they've been receiving but there isn't a single happy person in the whole movie. The closest to happy is the couple's little girl and her dog runs away at the start of the movie. The film skillfully intercuts the hopeful beginning of their relationship with its painful end but the main characters seem fairly screwed up all the way through. They didn't suffer a fall from a previously blissful state.

I realize that this post has turned into a plaintive cry of "where's the happiness?" I have to admit that scenes from these two films have stuck with me much longer than those from more pleasant films but then the picture from the last Raiders press conference  of Al Davis looking dead and skinned has stuck with me too and that's not a good thing.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Amy Adams and The Fighter

Madame Le Chef and I had little interest in seeing "The Fighter" because several critics had described it as a story about an aspiring boxer, "Irish" Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a good guy, talented and hard working, whose career was badly mismanaged by his crackhead half brother, Dickie Eklund  (Christian Bale) and his narcissistic mother, Alice Ward (Melissa Leo), who dotes on Dickie. It's based on real people and sounded like something that would be painful to watch. Then we read an interview with Amy Adams who plays Micky's girlfriend, Charlene Fleming, a tough, hard drinking, foul mouthed bartender who at one point gets in a fist fight, on a front porch, with several of Micky's pack of sisters.

Amy Adams, who played the sweet, naive sister-in-law in "Junebug" and the Disney princess in "Enchanted" in a punch-up! That sounded worth seeing. Plus clearly the film was not one sided. Micky had someone looking out for him and, as it turns out, more than one, and he was eventually successful.

We saw it and we're glad we did. It's an excellent movie, full of energy and dark humor, with astounding acting. Christian Bale, an actor the bureau chief has not liked in the past, gives an amazing, very physical performance as Dickie, a failed boxer whose powers of self delusion are epic but who does manage to evolve a little. Amy Adams is completely believable as someone who would take on seven sisters and Melissa Leo is horribly fascinating. Mark Wahlberg does a good job of playing a character who is quiet and non-assertive except when he's in the ring. The rest of the cast is also very good. The sisters function as a De facto Greek chorus (composed of Gorgons).

It's a vision of working class life in Lowell Massachusetts, once a 19th century industrial center, now not doing so well. Director David O. Russell shows the Ward/Ekland family and their neighborhood with all the warts. It's natural to wonder what they thought of the film when they finally saw it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The King's Speech

It's Oscar season and, in a break with past methods, I'm posting short reviews of films I've seen recently.

The bureau chief has a tolerance for British period dramas that some faithful readers may not share. Let me say that regardless of your like or dislike of that genre, "The King's Speech" is simply a good film. It's a family drama, except that the family are the Windsors, a very non-cuddly bunch of royals. It's also a drama about therapy (that must be a separate genre in itself by now). Prince Albert, "Bertie", (Colin Firth) is the best of the Windsors but suffers from a stutter, an artifact of his horrendous childhood, which makes public speaking torture. This becomes a problem with national implications when he ascends the English throne as George VI after the abdication of his amazingly narcissistic older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), in 1936.

While Albert was still a prince, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) hired speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) after a series of quacks with lofty credentials failed to help him. The heart of the film is the relationship between the two men. The pleasures of this film are great acting (Firth, Rush, Bonham Carter), a rooting interest in the success of the therapy, and a port hole into the alien and bizarre life of these strange survivors from previous centuries, the Windsors.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption

The bureau chief has no truck with the (conflicting) beliefs of the various religions, however I have a great interest in religious architecture. On our trips to France, Madame Le Chef and I have visited many churches in Paris and the Loire valley. My favorite is the Basilica of St. Denis, which has the remains of a thousand years of French kings and queens in the crypt. It's also the first Gothic church.

The United States has plenty of churches but most lack both the patina of history and decent design. When St. Mary's Cathedral was completed in San Francisco in 1971 (probably one of the last "Modernist" structures built in the city) the local columnist Herb Caen was one of the first to point out its resemblance to a washing machine agitator. Since the Bureau of Odd Shaped Objects established itself in its present location, St. Mary's has been part of the view out the back window. Here's St. Mary's at dawn. (You can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.)

I had seen it in the distance and driven by it for 33 years but had never thought of visiting it until a week ago when Mme Le Chef and I were on the way back from the Japan Center (fantastic ramen at Sopporo-Ya). There was a parking place in front of the cathedral and she suggested we take a look. We did and were impressed by the power of the interior.

The most salient aspect of St. Mary's is that, unlike traditional churches, it has floor to ceiling windows that open on to various vistas of San Francisco.

If we can see them from the bureau, then they can see us. Here is the bureau's home, Bernal Heights, with that clump of trees on top, as seen from St. Mary's.

The high roof of the "agitator" allows for a towering ceiling inside.

The pipe organ.

The window over the main doors.

This is the other side of the window which faces the street.

Straight on the cathedral looks less like an appliance and more like a samurai's helmet.

It's worth a look if you're in the city.