Julie & Julia is that movie about Julia Child and another real person that isn’t as famous. I could repeat the usual analysis of it in which people point out the story line with Julia Child (brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep; poor girl, she actually has to go to the Oscars again) is great, but the part with Amy Adams, a good actress stuck with a dull, uninteresting character, isn’t so much so (it’s even hard to understand, based on the excerpts read aloud in the movie, why anybody even read her blog). Instead I’ll focus on an odd through line that I found somewhat disturbing. For a movie that has two women as central characters, the movie as a whole doesn’t have much positive to say about women as a whole. In the screenplay by director Nora Ephron, there are two kinds of women. There are the friends of Julie, high powered businesswomen played at the height of soullessness in their best Faye Dunaway/Diane Christiansen manner by an assortment of actors. They’re the bane of Julie’s existence and ridiculed mercilessly by Ephron. The other kind of women, the ones that Ephron seems to approve of, are nonthreatening, never even considering doing a man’s job. For Julia, it’s to take a cooking class without the goal of becoming of chef and then writing a cook book; for Julie, it’s writing a blog about cooking and then writing books. Nice, safe womanly things to do (even in Julia’s world, the male chefs are accepting and encouraging, it’s the female who runs the cooking school herself who is the gorgon). Though on the outside this movie would seem to be an antidote to the misogynistic turn of romantic comedies like The Proposal and The Ugly Truth, once the surface is scraped away, it’s not really that much different.
At the climactic revelation scene in Tetro I was so hoping for a tribute to Chinatown where the character of Bennie, played here by Alden Ehrenreich (in a good performance only hampered perhaps by his somewhat uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio), would slap his older brother Tetro (played by Vincent Gallo) and Tetro would say “I’m your father, I’m your brother, I’m your father, I’m your brother and your father”. But alas, it didn’t happen. Tetro is written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and is supposed to be his return to his filmmaking roots, i.e., actually making a film he wants and making it his way. And it’s great to have him back. Unfortunately, it’s with a film that doesn’t work as well as one would like. It’s certainly a beautiful movie to look at with film nourish black and white cinematography by Mihai Malanimare, Jr. The basis to the story (a brother looks up his estranged older brother in Buenos Aires and finds out the family secret, though he finds it out about fifteen or twenty minutes after the audience figures it out) is solid. But it never really connects the way it should for two reasons. The first is Vincent Gallo, who is, to say the least, not that strong in this part and tends to drag the film down with him (there are some scenes where he seems to be improvising, weakening the whole emotional impact of what is going on). The second reason is that when all is said and done, Coppola so wants the big secret to have potentially tragic consequences; and it doesn’t. Bennie finds out Tetro’s really his father and decides to kill himself because of it. The reaction is not that believable and a tad over the top. The movie then tends to get muddled plot wise as Coppola doesn’t quite seem to know where to go from there. There are some other oddities, especially scenes from two plays that don’t resemble plays in the least and the appearance by Carmen Maura, one of my favorite actresses, in a role that doesn’t seem fully explored or thought out. There’s no indication that Coppola has fully lost his touch; this one just comes across as a film by someone who made a couple of boo boos while making it. Hopefully, the next film will work better.
Departures, a movie about a man who loses his job, is that movie that got a bad rap before it was even released because it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film when other films like Gomorrah didn’t even get nominated. The nomination, and win, seemed to come as a surprise to everyone except, obviously, the branch of the Academy that voted for it. It also got a bad rap because it was released after the release of Tokyo Story, also a film about a man who loses his job. This latter bad rap was a bit more justified because Tokyo Story, perhaps the best film of the year, is a better movie than Departures, but Departures is still a haunting, often beautiful film about living in the midst of dying. In Departures, a cello player, played with appropriate moroseness by Masahiro Motoki, loses his job with a symphony and returns home where he drifts into a job preparing bodies for burial, under the watchful eye of the not to be said no to Tsutomu Yamazaki (an excellent performance). It’s a terrifyingly lovely ritual, carefully and lovingly explained by the characters. Our hero learns to undress, dress, wash, etc. a body with the grace of Fred Astaire dancing. One might not think that playing a musical instrument would prepare one for the funeral business, but here the cross over skills are obvious. The screenplay, by Kundo Koyama, is strong with vibrant characters and engaging plot. It only falters toward the end when the story becomes a bit too formulaic in a twist that could be seen coming an hour earlier.
A Woman in Berlin is hardly what the previews prepare one for. The coming attractions suggest a hard hitting expose, ripped from the headlines type movie about a sordid bit of WWII history, a story that has been more or less ignored in histories of the time: the rapacious use of women when the Russians marched into Berlin at the end of the war. It’s not that it’s not about that, but in reality, this awful situation is really more the backbone of the story rather than the gist of it. For when all is said and done, this is really an old fashioned 1930’s star crossed romance. I may get in trouble for saying something as outrageously inhumane as this (of course, no one really reads this blog, so who’s going to know), but it’s the type of movie that once upon a time would have starred Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich with Adolphe Menjou, at his oily best, as the man she gives herself to in order to survive; her husband would have been played by an nonthreatening leading man like Herbert Marshall. It’s one of these new movies (like Blackbook and Flame and Citron) which is suppose to be a revisionist look at the morality of WWII where we are asked to reconsider the idea of bad guys and good guys. This is a perfectly acceptable idea, but the revisionism is a bit hunt and peck in this movie as written by the director Max Farberbock and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann. Though a couple of atrocities committed against the Russians are mentioned in passing, one would never know that six million Jews died at the hands of the German (one wants to muddy the waters, but not muddy them too much it seems). In spite of all this, there is much worth seeing here. The subject matter is important and the leading lady is German actress of the moment, Nina (Yella, Jericho) Hoss. And the fate of the star crossed lovers at the heart of it does leave one with a tear in the eye.
There is a fascinating article in the Sunday L.A. Times on LACMA closing its film series and how it spotlights other similar venues in L.A. It’s a great summary of LACMA’s competition, but there is something kind of humorous about it in its passive aggressiveness. It’s saying, Go ahead, LACMA, leave us, please don’t leave, see if we care, there are plenty of other fish in the sea, please don’t leave, I hate you for your finickiness, I love you, don’t leave.
I love LACMA, it has a slightly different approach to film programming that some other places (the LA Times article is correct when he calls the American Cinemateque in Hollywood, which I attend all the time and am a member, as appealing to movie geeks). My problem with LACMA is that I don’t have a car and coming home at night is a tricky proposition. Otherwise, I’d be there far more often.
Via e-mail I received an interview with Robert McKee. The whole interview should also be found at The Writer’s Store, though when I went to the website, I couldn’t find it. But I was especially struck by the following question and answer. I thought this was perhaps the most insightful analysis of the difference, often exaggerated, of films made in the U.S. (and other English speaking countries) and Europe and other non-English speaking countries, especially the conclusion that one is no better than the other, just different.
Q: Quentin Tarantino once said, “The thing that distinguishes an American artist is his capacity to tell a good story.” Would you agree?
Robert McKee: I generally would agree with Tarantino, but only in a limited way. First of all, it isn’t just Americans; it’s the whole English language tradition. Anywhere that English is the dominant language, from America to Britain, Australia to India, the English language has a grand tradition of storytelling that is very rich, and a world view, as a result of this tradition, that inspires stories that we consider are well told. On the other hand, I would argue that the most impressive and creative film culture in the world right now is in Asia, and they are telling stories out of their great traditions and cultures that are just as compelling, comic and/or tragic, as anything coming out of the English-speaking world. But Quentin Tarantino is overstating it, because every great language tradition, certainly the Spanish language, has magnificent storytellers, but there is a tendency outside of the English language, especially in the romance languages, the cultures rooted in the romance languages, to put more emphasis on mood than emotion. Or they put more emphasis on static moments of life rather than dynamic moments of life, and consequently the storytelling on the continent of Europe is often more open, more moody, more contemplative, more intellectual perhaps, than the stories that are told in the Anglo-American tradition. But those are broad generalities, and one could argue that many writers outside of the English language tradition are trying to use story to explore aspects of life that the English language tradition tends to ignore, and those aspects of life are more static and more contemplative, more mood than emotion. But no matter what, the tradition of every great culture in the world produces master works. So Tarantino’s statement tends to imply that stories told in the English-language tradition are better than stories told outside of that tradition, and that’s simply not true. They’re just different, not necessarily better.
I spent more than two hours with John Dillinger in Public Enemies and after all was said and done, I still felt like I didn’t know a damn thing about him. According to what everybody says (including the screenwriters Ronan Bennett, Michael Mann—who also directed—and Ann Biderman), he was popular with the people, though it was never clear why (his bank robberies, carried out in beautiful cathedral like buildings, were horrendously brutal and he would take terrified hostages with him, scaring the living bejesus out of them; maybe things were different in the 1930’s, but in today’s society, it’s doubtful this Dillinger would have been voted most popular in high school). Dillinger tells his girlfriend Billie (played well enough by French flavor of the month Marion Cotillard) that he believes in living for now, which is great, except that you never really see him living at all. Johnny Depp is perfectly fine as Dillinger, though he doesn’t have much of a character to play. Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis has absolutely no character to play and proceeds not to play it (the titles at the end inform the audience that he killed himself as if that meant something, though it’s unclear what). There are some fine performances in supporting roles like Stephen Graham who is pure loony tunes as Baby Face Nelson and Patrick Zielinski in a blink or you’ll miss him scene as a doctor. But perhaps the best performance is Billy Cruddup who is absolute brilliance as a tense and wound up J. Edgar Hoover, full of repressed fury. Unfortunately, one of my favorite character actors, Lily Taylor, is on hand in a misogynistic joke about women sheriffs (what do these screenwriters have against women). The set and art direction is quite impressive. But after it was all over, I still wasn’t quite sure why anybody wanted to make this movie.