PICKS OF THE WEEK
Synecdoche, New York (A-)
U.S.; Charlie Kaufman, 2008, Sony
Synecdoche (def.): A figure of speech where the whole is used for the part or the part for the whole. I.e.: steel for sword, or thief for pickpocket.
On screen, Philip Seymour Hoffman can project so much sparkling intelligence on the one hand and so much dysfunctional eccentricity on the other that he's something of a synecdoche himself: humanity for the actor, or the actor for humanity.
He's a natural for the crazy artist role in ace screenwriter Charlie (Adaptation) Kaufman's brilliantly oddball writer-directorial debut Synecdoche, New York.
Hoffman, neuroses firmly on tap and ego and id somersaulting, plays Caden Cotard, a small-time playwright/theater director in Schenectady (rhymes with Synecdoche), N.Y., who lives with a faithless stunt-canvas painter named Adele Lack, cheats with a sexy theater worker named Hazel (Samantha Morton) and who has become a tormented, self-obsessed man crumbling into physical decay and madness, when he suddenly gets a big-time MacArthur genius grant and plunges into an insanely complex, semi-autobiographical stage project in a Manhattan warehouse.
This endless theater piece involves so much Pirandellian sleight-of-hand-and-mind -- characters playing characters playing other characters, life turned into a shell game, reality twisted into a moebius strip -- that deciphering the plot is something like tumbling into one of Orson Welles' Lady from Shanghai halls of mirrors while reading BlackBerry texts by Barthes, Borges and Sigmund Freud. The themes are life, art and various interpenetrations, and the ending has a wistful-poetic sadness that suggests it's all a dream, it's all madness -- or is it?
Kaufman's script is first rate -- ambitious and playful, funny and sad, brilliant and barmy. It was really cheated out of an original screenplay prize last Oscar-time, possibly because too many voters agreed with the shallow critical dismissals of Synecdoche as "pretentious." Hah! We should have more movie pretensions as rich, audacious and imaginative as this.
As for Kaufman's direction, it's solid. He knows and picks excellent actors -- like Tom Noonan as the actor playing Caden, Emily Watson as the actress playing Hazel, Michelle Williams as the actress playing Adele, Hope Davis as the celebrity shrink, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Teutonic menace. He has a good visual imagination, and, most important, he doesn't mess up his script. I'm sure we're going to see some terrific stuff from him, as long as he doesn't worry about being pretentious.
After all, as that great, long-necked philosopher Gerard du Giraffe, is fond of saying: Life is a dream. A dream is life. And vice versa.
Germany; F. W. Murnau, 1926, Kino
Johann Wolfgang Goethe's theatrical masterpiece Faust has been modernized and updated so many times on screen, that we may forget the power of the original story and settings: Goethe's tragic tale of a medieval scholar who strikes a deal with the devil for eternal youth, during a time of mobs, injustice and plague -- and who damns himself and causes suffering and death for the woman he most loves, the angelically lovely Marguerite/Gretchen.
F.W. Murnau's spectacular 1926 version -- one of the production pinnacles of the German silent era -- brings back that play with uncommon visual splendor, a faithful text (the titles are by playwright Gerhardt Hauptmann) and a remarkable cast. Gosta Ekman is Faust, the old scholar driven to despair by the plague pursuing youth and love, and finding destruction, with the aid of a fantastically lecherous, capering Mephistopheles (Jannings, at his ripest and hammiest). Camilla Horn is a lovely Gretchen, Yvette Gilbert a bawdy Marthe (Gretchen's lewd, love potion-peddling aunt) and Valentin, Gretchen's hot-headed brother, is played by future Hollywood film director William Dieterle (The Story of Emile Zola, Portrait of Jenny).
Faust, though never as popular worldwide as Murnau's The Last Laugh, marked an artistic high point for both Murnau and the German cinema. His love for both the great painters and great theater find here a perfect synthesis. Silent, with two musical scores, the original hand-painted German intertitles and optional English subtitles. (Extras: screen-test footage of Lubitsch's abandoned 1923 film Marguerite and Faust; photo and set design galleries; essay by Jan Christopher Horak.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (A)
Japan; Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933-41, Criterion Eclipse
Criterion's Eclipse series has been peerless at providing showcases for more obscure works by great, famous directors (like Bergman, Kurosawa, Lubitsch, Ozu, Mizoguchi and Rossellini) and the great works of more obscure directors (like Raymond Bernard and Larisa Shepitko). Here they take the latter course, box-setting four '30s gems by a filmmaker few of us have seen or (in some cases) even heard of: Hiroshi Shimizu. Shimizu, a touching and deeply human Japanese comedian/realist who is expert at creating the illusion and distilling the poetry of everyday life, and a master at directing fine ensemble casts.
Shimizu was a friend and mutual admirer of Ozu's, and they share the same warm, generous, compassionate worldview, though their methods are very different. Ozu's great works, like Late Spring and Tokyo Story, were carefully scripted and precisely staged and shot. Shimizu frequently worked without scripts or with only rough sketches. Sometimes, he made up scenes on the spot -- like his American counterparts Gregory La Cava and Leo McCarey.
I love these movies, especially the poignant, funny and picaresque 1936 bus-ride saga, Mr. Thank You. In this unscripted delight, handsome young Ken Uehara plays an unfailingly kind bus driver, whose salutation "Thank you! Thank you!" greets all the pilgrims that he passes on the mountain roads from rural Izu to Tokyo, and partly back again. The 1941 Ornamental Hairpin is also a gem. Taken together, Shimizu's films, despite seemingly soap operatic subjects, are not at all false, sappy or saccharine. They're radiant, wise and very warm-hearted, and it's a pity we don't have more American equivalents. Like sake and fine music, they gladden the heart and soothe the soul. (All the Shimizu films are Japanese, and all, except the silent Japanese Girls at the Harbor is in Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Japanese Girls at the Harbor (A)
Two young girl friends are driven apart by a man, another rival and a scandalous shooting. This melodramatic subject is handled with great delicacy and feeling, and shot on beautiful Yokohama seaside landscapes. With Michiko Oikawa and Yukiko Inoue. Silent, with musical score, Japanese intertitles and English subtitles.
Mr. Thank You (A)
The best in the set. A good-hearted bus driver, nicknamed "Mr. Thank You" (Uehara) is a shining example among his diverse group of passengers, and to the pedestrians who also know and love him -- and rarely fail to ask for favors. In a way, the mood here suggests the great bus ride sequence of It Happened One Night, translated to the more discreet Japanese sensibility and extended to feature length. The cast is top-rate, the mountainscapes poetic. Bravo, Shimizu!
The Masseurs and a Woman (A-) 1938
Blind masseurs and beautiful or customers at a bucolic mountain resort. Another warm but savvy Shimizu ensemble piece.
Ornamental Hairpin (A)
Two great actors -- Mizoguchi's favorite leading lady, Kinuyo Tanaka, and Ozu's favorite leading man, Chishu Ryu -- emerge from this famous Shimizu ensemble comedy-drama about a beguiling cross-section of vacationers at another mountain resort, all of whom become involved in the shy romance of a kept Tokyo woman (Tanaka) and a solider whose foot was injured, in a spa pool, on her hairpin.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.; Catherine Hardwicke, 2009, Summit Entertainment
I haven't read Stephanie Meyer's bestselling teen vampire novels, but this would-be ultra-romantic movie -- made by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), a director I've admired in the past -- didn't awaken any insatiable hungers.
The movie is about an ordinary high school girl from a broken home, Bella (Kristen Stewart) who enters a new school in her police chief dad's (Billy Burke) Northwest small town and finds herself befriended by local cuties and also the impassioned desire-object of the disturbingly handsome Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who looks like a Ralph Lauren ad and acts like an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Despite warnings from everybody, including Edward, Bella falls in love. And the trouble begins -- not from Edward's friendly vampire family (dad Peter Facinelli and his teenage kids), but from a trio of renegade bloodsuckers that shows up. It takes about half the movie for things to really get going -- and then the thrills are fairly typical big-studio heartstoppers: aerial love scenes, Hong Kong-style flying fights and a super-baseball game, interspersed with family arguments and high school antics intended to ground the fancifully grisly stuff in some kind of shopping mall reality.
When Hardwicke and Twilight cast member Nikki Reed (along with Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter) made Thirteen, they hooked us by their honesty. The movie depicted teenagers with a fierce candor, and when it delved into the wild side, it didn't sensationalize. Hardwicke tries to bring that kind of veracity to Twilight to counterbalance the vampire stuff. But it doesn't work. The story is a romanticized teen masturbation fantasy, a bit better written and acted than usual.
U.S.: Byron Howard, Chris Williams, 2008, Walt Disney Animation
Can the archetypal, moving story of Lassie Come Home -- about the incredible collie who goes cross-country to rejoin a beloved master -- meld amicably with cartoon show-biz satire and backstage movie pyrotechnics, in an all-out 3D funny-animals cartoon feature? It does in Bolt, which is a better, and funnier, movie than you might think. Directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams and writers Williams and Dan Fogleman imagine intrepid doggie Bolt (voiced by John Travolta) and his loving mistress Penny (Miley Cyrus), who are the stars of an unlikely TV series where Bolt is a superdog, and Penny his on and off-screen mistress, and where Bolt has been conned into believing that all his fantasy heroics are actually happening.
That's not such a hot premise. But once Bolt and Penny are separated and Bolt starts to fight his way back through the fly-over zone from New York to L. A., the show becomes amusing -- thanks to some stellar 3D effects and character animation and engaging voice characterizations by Travolta, Susie Essman (a wow as the feline cynic Mittens) and Mark Walton as the irrepressible hero-worshiping hamster Rhino. The result is a kind of hopped-up cartoon Incredible Journey. The songs, including one co-written and sung by Cyrus (with Travolta), are pretty good, the jokes are mostly funny, and the technique is spectacular, like a Looney Tune cubed. As for Travolta, he hasn't been this appealingly doggish since Pulp Fiction.
U.S.; Isabel Coixet, 2008, Lakeshore Entertainment
Adapted from a Philip Roth novel, Elegy is an intense May-November romance about the affair of a novelist and his young admirer (the admirable pair of Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz), that one suspects might have sprung from a Roth experience or two. Dennis Hopper steals his scenes as the writer's crony.
Quo Vadis (A-)
U.S.; Mervyn LeRoy, 1951, Warner, Blu-Ray
A terrifically entertaining biblical saga, Quo Vadis is based on the best-selling classic novel about Nero's mad reign, by Polish Catholic novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. The blockbuster movie, which MGM thought might top Gone With the Wind, relishes both Nero's antics, as performed unforgettably by Peter Ustinov, and the impassioned assault by a cocky Roman commander (Robert Taylor) on a beauteous adopted Christian (Deborah Kerr) -- and his inevitable conquest by her body and soul. Unusually well-cast and directed with a flair for sumptuous spectacle and outrageous melodrama by LeRoy, it's more fun than Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments put together, and as exciting as either. (Yes, I'm including the Red Sea parting in Commandments and the chariot race in Ben-Hur).
The most amazing human element in Quo Vadis is the incredible High Roman comedy team of Ustinov as the insanely effete and self-infatuated Nero and Leo Genn as his sardonic straight man Petronius. These two, both nominated for Oscars for Quo Vadis, may have you in stitches every time Nero rolls out a new orgy, plots a new intrigue, tries to instigate coliseum bloodbaths with his effete thumb or -- most horrible of all -- pulls out his lyre and warbles one of his own songs. Ustinov manages to create the most memorable, credible and hilarious Roman historical monster until John Hurt's Caligula came along in I, Claudius.
Fascinatingly, this epic Christian movie saga was brought most congenially to the screen by a Jewish director (LeRoy), three Jewish or part-Jewish screenwriters (John Lee Mahin, Sonya Levien and S.N. Behrman) and a Jewish studio head (Louis B. Mayer). The Polish cinema has produced much more faithful movie epics adapted from Sienkiewicz, like Aleksander Ford's Knights of the Black Cross, but none more enjoyable. (Extras include an excellent commentary by my old L.A. Weekly pal F.X. Feeney, a featurette, trailer, and the original road show and exit music.)
The Robe (C-)
U.S.; Henry Koster, 1953, 20th Century Fox, Blu-Ray
Minister-turned-novelist Lloyd C. Douglas wrote the book behind one of the nuttiest of all movie domestic dramas (soaps to you), Douglas Sirk's Magnificent Obsession. Here, he supplied the plot for one of the nuttiest, if oddly moving, biblical epics. The Robe is the bizarre spiritual adventure story of brooding Roman centurion Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who goes bonkers and then becomes inspired when he touches the robe Christ wore on crucifixion day. Also starring are: Jean Simmons, as the beauty who spurns an emperor's dubious bed for love of Marcellus; Victor Mature, as the rebellious and hunky slave gladiator Demetrius; Michael Rennie, making the Earth Stand Still again as the Apostle; and Jay Robinson, as the campiest Caligula until Hurt.
More Jewish off-screen talent was involved in this first Cinemascope movie, including director Koster and black-listed ghost Albert Maltz, who co-wrote the script with Philip Dunne. But the results in this first movie in Cinemascope, are less engaging, if not daffier. It makes you wonder what Lloyd Douglas' sermons were like.