Monday, March 23, 2009

Barthelona, With Vicky And Crithtina

Late, or medium late Allen (Woody-type) is turning out to be a particularly sophisticated phase in the director's career. With 'Match Point' being a pretty potent version of 'Crime and Punishment' themes (I saw it in a small town in Sweden, and the audience was just as respectful as they would be for Bergman or Troell), 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona', powered by its three starring muses, is a wonderful contribution to the cinema of the personal-level short story, told in layers.

Perhaps this picture stands out as particularly admirable because of its comparative rarity: character development is equal with story-telling. Even the scenery is secondary, though it is a welcome ornament. Many filmmakers today deliberately avoid getting too 'scenic' in location-shot films, as if they are too cool to stoop to mere situational grounding, as that would give too much clarity and suppress cleverness. 'Slumdog Millionaire' which is a remarkable film, nevertheless missed the boat as far as capturing Bombay is concerned, as most of its scenes could have been shot in any large Indian city.

But Barcelona is just too tempting to resist, and Woody provides just the right doses of locale to support his characters and story. And the characters! Predictably (and happily) you can depend on Woody's characters to be attractive - at least physically. Three of the most fetching women in pictures today are in it, and Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, and Penélope Cruz have never looked better. Plus, their craft ain't bad, either. But there's a flaw: not enough Cruz! Her role, Oscar-winner that it is, is comparatively brief. Almódovar knows how to use her (e.g. 'Volver'), and now, so does Woody, but more, baby, MORE!

As the sole and pivotal male in this ménage à quatres of sorts, Javier Bardem holds his own with Cruz, Hall and Johansson, and indeed, he might be considered the star of the picture.

More than ever, Allen is a true auteur - one of the few active in film today. As contemporary audiences have basically lost their way in appreciating auteur-authored films, Allen's audiences and box office and production deals have shrunk, but into a size that in no way inhibits his creativity, while in fact it is enhanced. He also wisely chose to go overseas for locations, into more inviting and sympathetic surroundings. (He's doing more London-based films.)

'VCB' need not be pigeonholed as 'a Woody Allen film'. It is an original work, and it leaves you with unique thoughts.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Jones-ing Over Carmen

Fig.1 Turn this poster on its side, and you almost have the CinemaScope aspect ratio; Saul Bass' design always works, whether vertically or horizontally

Two of the best things about director Otto Preminger are: 1. He knows how to handle a camera, and 2. His fearlessness. John Huston said, 'Time and again (Otto) has demonstrated his courage, his morality and his fearlessness.' He was also famous for shrieking at people on set, but that needn't concern us here.

Preminger's 'Carmen Jones' (1954) has guts, integrity and high quality in its every aspect. Based on Bizet's opera (with new lyrics by consummate Broadway man Oscar Hammerstein II), the settings are WWII North Carolina and Chicago, and what's more, the whole thing works.

All-black cast musicals were nothing new, but 'Carmen Jones' is an entirely different kind of vehicle: mature, nuanced, and generally non-stereotypical, because its drama transcends race. If it is a novelty it is because its drama possesses equalizing forces, yet the talent who realize them happen, in this case, to be African-American. Otto facilitates, but the work is transformed by the ensemble cast.

That said, the film itself is exceptional. Every performance is excellent. Harry Belafonte is somewhat restrained, due to Otto's choices to keep him relatively static, but on the other hand, nothing gets in the way of Dorothy Dandridge's completely dynamic Carmen. She is wholly engaging in the most intimate and invitational ways, and though we may be intimidated by her initially, her humanity becomes embraceable and ultimately moving.

In a later era, Dandridge would have been allowed to become a great star, but we should feel fortunate to have what we have of her.

The immediately recognizable Brock Peters kicks off his illustrious career with a supporting role of consequence, and Olga James, in a gem of solid performance, creates a strong presence as an alternative to the fiery Carmen.

Sam Leavett's camerawork, guided by Otto's fluid style, is particularly elegant and logical and displays some of the most exciting use of the wide screen, even when seen fifty-some years later. CinemaScope was at its widest (2.55:1 - before it was squared off to 2.35:1), and instead of balking about it, Otto takes advantage of its real estate with quasi-expressionistic narrative purpose.

The musical direction by Herschel Burke Gilbert, ably assisted by Jester Hairston and even Dimitri Tiomkin, is Hollywood professional musicianship at its best. Bizet is well served, with all dramatic flames lighted full blast, all the way through.

One thing about Preminger as a director: he delivers the goods, and with 'Carmen Jones' the delivery is high-powered, and as a consequence, becomes cinematic time well spent.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Wonder Of Werner

Guess what? I'm doing a mini-Herzog festival!

The liberating concept of acquiring used DVDs of esoteric classics is something hard to resist. First up: 'Fitzcarraldo'.

What a deep joy this picture is! So rich, so giving, so much to grab on to! I saw it when it first came out, but I swear, the DVD viewing was better and more meaningful for me. Perhaps because I am mature enough for it now. Plus, back in '82, cinema was populated with much more exciting product, so 'Fitz', which was derided for being indulgent, didn't stand out so boldly, despite its utterly bold premise.

I'm so glad Kinski got the part. Jason Robards, in the first version, is an institution, but nothing can match Kinski's grandeur and facial expressions and enlightened optimism, so perfectly wedded with edgy sweat in an out of muddy reality.

And what could be a happier screen relationship than Claudia Cardinale's and Kinski's ecstatic approach to life? Every moment they share is zestful, passionate and mutually understanding and supportive. What a refreshing concept!

Even the one fakey bit - the quite reasonable decision to capture the boat's passage down the rapids in miniature, has a compelling sweetness to it. The giant water drops look like protective nectar that will see the ship through, in spite of all threats.

(Spoiler follows:)

And what a triumphant ending - not an anticlimax at all, as Fitzcarraldo does indeed bring opera to the city in the jungle, as he promised.

Next: 'Nosferatu'!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Inadequate Hearting And Minding

Hearing Gwen Thompkins' and S.S. Nelson's reports this morn from E. Africa and the Afghan-Pak border respectively, I couldn't help but detect some classic American earnestness in action. In all their torrent of words (Ms Gwen seemed to use ProTools to morph her voice to squeeze into its allotted slot) I learned much less than a more mature and concise reporter such as Ofebia Quist-Arcton or Philip Reeves would give (both of whom I've praised in the past, and who are 99% BBC and 1% NPR in their journo genetics). It sounds strange to say, but I find that American reporters (not just uNPR-oids) in these and other locales just don't 'get it'. I'd need a thesis to explain, but hell, I've learned more about the Sudan from the film 'Khartoum' and Robert Young Pelton's 'The World's Most Dangerous Places' (various editions - I'd recommend it for any on the ground research of trouble spots), and of the Afghan Pak frontier from Kipling and Olaf Caroe's seminal 'The Pathans', not to mention old National Geographics - than I've ever gotten from US NPR-niks. (Plus, bumbling around Peshawar as a tourist - way before today's troubles - was pretty cool; I've never heard anyone on NPR really capture what an incredible city Peshawar is - or the region, for that matter...)

In my opinion, Americans make pretty poor hearts-and-minds imperialists, while they obviously excel in the military/industrial version (at least ostensibly - recent evidence shows 'Fiasco'-level flops there, too.)

In WWII, my recently late dad fought for a Marshall Plan-innovating, UN-assisting, peacemaking USA. I still foster that ideal.