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Catherine Breillat’s Wandering Beauty

By Alice Gregory
Friday, July 15th, 2011

Carla Besnainou and Kerian Mayan in “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Catherine Breillat’s kinky retelling of Sleeping Beauty, like her version of Bluebeard from 2009, is art directed with the specificity of a bad LSD trip. A list of visual details almost constitutes a movie summary in itself: Yew trees, Iodine bottles, toggle coats, Joy Division graffiti, torn lace, bee keeping, lank hair, gold teeth, patrician dwarves, lesbian sex.

The plot of The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) is only tenuously tied to the original Charles Perrault story: A witch does indeed cast a spell on a young princess who falls asleep for 100 years. In this version though, the princess — Anastasia — doesn’t remain asleep under glass, she dreams and wanders during her slumber. And here the curse is not cast out of jealousy; we never do learn the cause of the hex. That detail proves inconsequential, but it’s the first of many emotionally unmotivated plot points.

After ditching a ballet recital in fin-de-siècle France, Anastasia wanders though a dungeon guarded by a bubonic oaf and into a wooded countryside. A poor widow and her adolescent son, Peter, spot Anastasia capering down some train tracks, still in her toe shoes. They invite her in for dinner, and soon enough she’s part of the family. Anastasia’s new mother dresses her in Peter’s outgrown clothes, bathes her in pails, feeds her strawberry jam, and puts her to bed with hot water bottles. Peter vows his eternal protection, and a subtly incestuous intimacy is established between them. One evening, apropos of not much, an Ice Queen seizes Peter’s soul. Overnight, he becomes snappy and despondent — then he vanishes (a belabored metaphor for puberty). The rest of the film follows Anastasia as she searches the world over for Peter, convinced that he’s her Prince Charming. When she finally does wake up a century later, it’s not to Peter’s kiss, but to the fascinated gaze of his great-grandson, Johan. It’s now modern times, and the characters Anastasia met in her ramble have aged according to some inscrutable metaphysical law (Peter is long dead, hence the great-grandson, but another friend appears only ten years older.) Anastasia’s adventures are now retroactively rewritten as elaborate sexual fantasy.

In certain ways, the film shares a sensibility with Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson — our American auteurs of tasteful whimsy. And like some of the films of Coppola and Anderson, Breillat’s should have been edited down, if not to a music video, then to a short film that promotes some new line of scion-designed jewelry. Like a novelist wolfishly devoted to her own descriptive sentences, Breillat could have benefitted from an editor with an unforgiving eye for word count.

This is not to say that The Sleeping Beauty isn’t visually stunning or completely subsuming for the first hour. Carla Besnaïou, the elfin actress who plays young Anastasia, is great: full of moxie, never too fey. The sheer strangeness of the lands she visits is enough to place Breillat in an aesthetic league of her own. There is a golden room full of albino children who eat rainbow meringues for breakfast, a gypsy lair ruled by a sadistic child princess who tames pigeons, an aurora borealis-lit Lapland tundra that Anastasia traverses on doe-back.

The Sleeping Beauty is just so structurally flawed though — and in commonplace ways. It’s too long, there’s little character development, and the intentionally elliptical ending is mostly just confusing. Breillat overcompensates for the deficit of story with a surplus of set design. Sometimes this is enough to dazzle and distract, but it’s hard not to resent the strategy or feel insulted by the assumption that we might not notice it.

The night before Peter disappears — the night before Anastasia’s subsequent real adventures begin — he savagely confronts her: “You just marvel at everything, as if that added up to happiness.” It’s a strangely brutal thing to tell a child, and it doesn’t even make moral sense, but Anastasia is wounded, of course, and it’s what inspires her quixotic journey. Breillat herself could take some advice from the hormone-ravaged Peter though: Marveling at everything, as if that added up to happiness is a sin comparable to decorating everything, as if that added up to narrative.

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In Terri, the Ache of Our Former Selves

By Alice Gregory
Friday, July 8th, 2011

Jacob Wysocki and John C. Reilly in "Terri."

It’s not often that we’re genuinely forced to remember the worst time in our life. In most movies that depict the daily horror of high school, we’re meant to relate to the characters’ distress and feel sorry for them — not for our former selves. These movies may evoke rusty aches and pains, but seldom do they make us vicariously relive the entire experience.

Azazel Jacobs’ new film Terri is different though. In it we remember just how miserable it was to only-almost be a person — and one we didn’t even like at that. Jacob Wysocki plays the title role; he’s a neckless teenager, friendless at first, who pads around in pajamas and enjoys killing mice. He lives with his dying Uncle James (played — unrecognizably — by Creed Bratton of The Office) and is a general vision of unalloyed pity. Kids make fun of him at school in that doubly cruel way of inflicting pain for nothing more than their own entertainment — woofing, pounding his shoulders, and calling him names as though cheering for a sports team. His teachers seem oblivious to the dynamic (in one particularly wretched scene, the bell rings, and Terri walks out of class, momentarily turning to his homeroom teacher for at least a glance of recognition, and she doesn’t even look up).

John. C. Reilly plays Mr. Fitzgerald, the assistant principal and ad-hoc guidance counselor for the school’s most monstrous students. After spotting Terri in the hall one day and assuming the obvious — no friends, little ambition — he calls him in to his office and schedules weekly Monday meetings: “We’ll check in with each other, see how we’re faring against the world.” The first-person plural sounds patronizing — to us and to Terri — but soon it becomes obvious that Mr. Fitzgerald means it literally. We don’t usually expect vulnerability from authority figures. Teachers don’t often disclose their own after-school suffering to their students, and so many of us never see our parents cry.  But emotional transparency is best cultivated mutually between two people, in a back-and-forth dance of confidence and candor. It’s Mr. Fitzgerald’s disclosures and desperation that make him a figure of possible trust, and soon Terri considers him his close and only friend.

But Terri is horrified to learn who else at school has weekly meetings with Mr. Fitzgerald — a boy in a wheel chair and another with Downs Syndrome among them — and feels betrayed when he hears from Chad, a reedy trichotillomanic, that Mr. Fitzgerald’s shares secrets with all his students. It takes Mr. Fitzgerald’s genuine regret to bring Terri back. “Life’s a mess, dude,” Fitzgerald sighs regretfully, “but we’re all just doing the best we can.”

Terri is inadvertently responsible for the ruining — and subsequent saving — of Heather, the most popular girl in school (are all Heathers pretty?). An unexpected figure of public shaming, Heather is suddenly on a rung of the social ladder closer to Terri’s, and they forge a friendship. We see Terri change, though slowly and minutely. His transformation (no more mice-killing, finally has companionship) is rendered brilliantly. It’s incremental and almost invisible. Terri’s gait switches only subtly, and from a distance — even to us at times — he looks the same. But Wysocki convinces us that what might appear as pale improvement, is, in fact, a major physic shift. The immense dissonance of overwhelming emotions and their almost unnoticeable manifestation is impossible to portray without first-person monologues, but in Terri there are none. It’s hard to tell whether this is a testament to Wysocki’s acting or Jacob’s directing. It’s probably a bit of both.

Though the film is mostly just a portrait of a good guy as a young man, it ventures to speak grim truths about high school, which older viewers — especially female ones — hopefully only half-remember. That Heather could be so quickly and completely destroyed is an indicator of the still-terrible state of adolescent girlhood and our hypocritical attitude towards teenage sexuality. So precipitous a social decline could never happen to a boy. Heather ends up as untouchable as Terri, and though undoubtedly their shared caste benefits them both in the end (the friendship is pure and good), their powerlessness as fellow suffers still seems symptomatic of something really devastating.

Terri is listed as a comedy, and there are funny parts (John C. Reilly giving a pep talk could never be anything else), but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing it and not leaving the theater with a deep sigh and a profound sense of relief.  If Terri is a comedy, it’s only in the more technical sense of the term. It doesn’t conclude in marriage or anything, but the bad memories it conjures do make adulthood look fantastic by comparison.  There’s no happy ending — there isn’t much of an ending at all — but there is an assurance of one, and in the biography of any viewer over 18, its promise is fulfilled. It really does get better!

Terri is playing at the Angelika Film Center, at the corner of  Mercer and Houston.

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Defending the Times, David Carr Saves Page One

By Alice Gregory
Friday, June 24th, 2011

New York Times media reporter David Carr in "Page One"

It’s surprising that some media geek hasn’t already uploaded all the sequences of Page One that feature David Carr into a single, streaming video. Surely, it’s coming. For all its flaws, Andrew Rossi’s much-discussed, all-access documentary about the New York Times is worth seeing if only for those parts. Carr, the former coke-addict-turned-ace-media-reporter is the film’s star, and he shines so bright as to all but blind us from the narrative sloppiness that surrounds him. Carr’s personality is so big that merely putting him in front of the camera is enough to transform him into a sort of character. He describes his own past as “textured,” but he’s also the paper’s foremost defender, something that comes across most vividly in a ruthless interview with the publishers of Vice and a conference takedown of Newser founder Michael Wolff.

If you wanted to divert a teenage boy from fruitless hobbies, you could expose him to a few minutes of Carr and instantly change the course of his life. Carr types, tweets, chain smokes, and wears promotional polar fleece. Mountain Dew bottles litter his desk, and he takes notes on whatever flat surface seems to be in front of him. He swears. He interrupts interviews to rip his subjects new ones. Carr’s famously shredded voice sounds like one of those dogs with their vocal cords removed. It almost hurts to listen to him. But seeing him interrogate Tribune Company execs over the phone is better than a boxing match. Carr elevates media reporting from the realm of gossip, where it often lives.  (For more explanation and less idolatry, read Tom McGeveran’s long and excellent profile of Carr in Capital New York.)

But the Page One scenes without Carr in them sink into chaos and mild tedium. The other members of the media desk come off comparatively charmless, and we don’t really get a definite sense of what they’re doing throughout the day.

The film opens with shots of the paper’s printing presses reeling and spinning. Gears grind and sheets fold. It’s a false set-up, though, one that primes us for more industry cross-sections than the film really delivers. That the New York Times gets written and edited and printed and distributed every single day is honestly just incredible, but Page One doesn’t pay due credit to the product. When we sit back into after those opening shots, we expect a literal and chronological account of just how the hell this thing happens 365-day-a-year without fail. But the most common complaint about the doc — that it’s a structural mess — is hard to dispute: Instead we get a lot of disjointed narratives and a sycophantic ending.

Either Rossi got extremely lucky in the making of the Page One or a lot of less-compelling months are edited out of it. The Iraq War “ends” on Rossi’s watch, and its Wikileaks cables make the front page for nine days running. These events and how they are handled by top editors are supposedly the meat of the film — the historical examples through which we are to see how the paper works: how pitches are received, assignments given, space allotted, layout decided upon. In a ferocious review in the New York Times itself, Michael Kinsey complains that after having the film he didn’t “know much more than [he] did before.”  This is true: we see a few 10:30 pitch meetings, a lot of scurrying around about lunch time, and then a few 4:30 meetings in which Executive Editor Bill Keller decides what goes on A01, which, when muttered amidst the frantic concerns of the day sounds more like a military command than a page number. But walking out of Page One not knowing much more than you did before might actually be the film’s main conceptual asset, even if incidental.

It’s doubtful that a tedious rehashing of any single day in the newsroom would tell us anything very revealing about how things work over at 620 8th Avenue. When people pick up their copy of the paper in the morning — any paper, but especially the New York Times — they’re reading something that is more than the sum of its bylines. It would seem that to explain the daily mechanics of the paper might require more minutae than we could endure. That, apart from Carr, we don’t hear the sort of salty phone calls we want from the bullpen (“Listen, no, no, give this to me straight….”) is no surprise; certainly, many of the daily exchanges that make up a work day are conducted through email now, a medium far less conducive to filming. And in truth, Times staffers probably go home every single day amazed and relieved that everything came together as it did —  that their article is in the morning’s paper, that there’s full section at all.

A bit of b-roll of the Gawker offices after an interview with its founder Nick Denton is a subtle but effective reminder of just what a different beast reporting is from commentary and aggregation. During the course of the film, business media reporter Tim Arango is sent to Iraq (his appointment as Baghdad Bureau Chief is written in the epilogue), and that sub-narrative alone should chasten any viewer still skeptical of the new Times paywall. The takeaway is clear: Of course we pay for this. There are people here working all night and risking their lives – if only for that, we pay.

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Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

By Alice Gregory
Friday, June 3rd, 2011

Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams in "Midnight in Paris."

Woody Allen’s newest film, Midnight in Paris, is like one of his Without Feathers-era short stories: part-silly, part-profound, and totally reliant on premise. To enjoy the movie, you have to be receptive to its transparently mawkish set-up. But Midnight in Paris shouldn’t exist as a movie; it would be better as a series of SNL sketches. The best vignettes come between bites of bland exposition, which makes the 100-minute film feel like a delicious but perversely protracted prix-fixe dinner.

Owen Wilson (who here, as always, looks like a surfer hit over the head with a frying pan) plays Gil, a successful Hollywood hack who’s intent on getting back to real literature with a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop.  Rachel McAdams, glowing gold in every scene, plays Inez, his snooty finance. Together, they’re on vacation in Paris with her parents, but Gil is hinting at his desire to relocate there permanently. Inez just wants to go back to Malibu.

One night, Gil demurs an invitation to go dancing with some friends they know from the States. Inez continues on without him, leaving Gil to stumble drunkenly through the winding rues of the Left Bank. Finally, admitting defeat, he resigns himself to some steps. When an out-of-frame clock strikes midnight, a vintage Peugeot pulls up, and the party-goers inside drag Gil along for a ride. They arrive at what turns out to be a party for Jean Cocteau, where Gil meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who later take him to a bar where Ernest Hemingway sits in a corner, speaking of mortality and violence in concise sentences. Hemingway won’t read Gil’s novel, advising him to never ask other writers’ for advice on his work since they’ll be either disdainful or jealous. As consolation though, he promises to pass the manuscript along to Gertrude Stein (played by a salty Kathy Bates). Dazzled and bewildered, Gil returns back to his hotel, inspired to edit his novel.

Each night, Gil returns to the same steps at midnight and is transported back to the Paris of 1920s. He meets and falls in love with Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a waif just as obsessed with the past as he is.  Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, Man Ray, Alice B. Toklas, T.S. Eliot — they’re all there. It’s the Surrealists, led by a perfect Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí, to whom Gil finally explains his impossible origin. He couldn’t have picked better confidantes — they take his situation as a complete matter of course. Their brief meeting is one of the most successful scenes: The Surrealists actually interact with the storyline (their perspective makes them sympathetic to time travel) rather serving as an excuse for the successful-but-slight jokes allowed for by the rest of the characters.

While Gil has always mythologized Paris of 1920s as a sort of Golden Age, Adriana is more partial to the Belle Epoque. The moment we learn this about her, warning bells go off. And lo!  Our fearful premonitions of yet another nested reality are proven correct. One night, again because of some ignorable cosmic loophole, they’re transported to the Moulin Rouge. Adriana is thrilled. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Edgar Degas join their table, and she decides to stay there forever, whereupon Gil has an epiphany — “a minor one” — that sends him finally forward to the present.

To be preoccupied with the mechanics of fictional time travel is a bit doltish, especially for fare like this. That Allen doesn’t bother to tease out the intricacies of the plot — we know how Gil goes back in time (something about the clock) but not how he ever returns to the present; the historical characters never seem to notice Gil’s anachronistic costumes and language — is a relief.  Allen is empathizing with his audience — something he can’t always be relied on to do — skipping what we won’t want.

But still, Midnight in Paris adheres to some narrative conventions it doesn’t need. The real pleasure of the film is witnessing all of these artistic geniuses talk in ways that mimic their own work and the biographies we know of them (Hemingway’s morbidity, Picasso’s womanizing). Allen obviously had a blast writing the dialogue (much of it is reminiscent his 1974 New Yorker short story “The Whore of Mensa”), but the packaging he uses is disposable. The past portrayed is glittery and fun, and the present is dry and tedious — problematic, considering Gil’s ultimate decision to return to it and his eventual admission that glorifying history is only ever naïve.

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Geeks, Balloons, and Beautiful Objects: Five Books for the Big Screen

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Last August, Deadline broke the news that Scott Rudin had bought the rights to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Almost a decade earlier, he bought the rights to The Corrections, which has yet to be filmed. (In both cases, the deal was sealed before the books’ official publication dates.) A month later, Lane Brown did some investigating for New York‘s Vulture and compiled a list of titles on Rudin’s “bookshelf.” It’s a pretty impressive roster, but here are five books the mogul’s missing:

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
In an effort to save their failing carnival, an enterprising couple of circus freaks ingests radioactive drug cocktails and breeds a menagerie of grotesqueries — amphibious hybrids, an albino dwarf, Siamese twins. There was a play in 2004, but some carefully deployed CGI might really up the ante here. In a pair of opposing perfect worlds, either Werner Herzog or John Waters would spearhead this. But even the worst-case scenario isn’t so bad: a more mainstream Francis Lawrence looking for a Water for Elephants corrective. It would be best if the leads were unknown but surrounded by a cast of peripheral Creepy-Eyed Actors (Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, Justin Bartha, Rory Culkin, Keegan Allen).

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
That this hasn’t yet been optioned is just bizarre, considering both the creator and the content. It’s easy to imagine a pitch meeting just humming with buzzwords. “The Devil Wears Prada”! Price fixing! Felony! The narrator is a classic cipher, mostly voiceover, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt could make a nice, fawning nonentity. You’d want a female lead with just enough — but not too much — spunk; Lacey Yaeger is striving but also a little smarmy. She’s smart and subtle. Someone with darting eyes… Kristen Bell, perhaps?

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton
The nastily-named Undine Spragg — a perennially unsatisfied siren of “almost crude” beauty — is totally compelling despite her ceaseless pining, secret cheating, heartless spawning, and hasty divorcing. The very definition of “piss poor morally,” Undine’s shallow, wicked impulses make her a subject fit more for Cary Fukungana than Merchant Ivory. Scarlett Johansson could do the overripe role justice. Undine’s male conquests serve mostly to provoke her ire and greed, but the important one to nail down is Elmer Moffat, the repellant man from her past; let’s get Evan Handler in here.

The Conclave by Michael Bracewell
Martin and Marilyn aspire obsessively towards the best that a gilded 1980s London has to offer — filagreed china, bespoke suits, olives. But the urban aesthetes lead a predictably empty life, whose ups and downs correlate exactly to those of the stock market. There are healthy doses of conspicuous consumption, indulgent melancholy, and unbridled narcissism. It’s an allegory that could go real dark, real fast on screen. Do not allow Sofia Coppola to get her hands on this one; hire Todd Haynes instead. Ideally, this would be poorly acted.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
Big View Pictures already owns the film rights, but the project seems to have been in the only-early stages of development for quite a while now. William Waterman Sherman, a retired school teacher sets off to circumnavigate the globe in a giant hot air balloon but wrecks on Krakatoa. He discovers that the island is populated by twenty international families who are excavating a secret diamond mine. The society is whimsically utopian: Their calendar is based on a Byzantine dining schedule and the houses are furnished with all manner of fantastic amusement. When the island’s famous volcano inevitably erupts, everyone escapes by balloon… naturally. Where is Wes Anderson on this?  Fingers crossed for Jim Belushi as Professor Sherman.

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Jeff Bewkes and Joe Roth Talk Business with Charlie Rose

By Alice Gregory
Friday, April 29th, 2011

Jeff Bewkes

On Wednesday afternoon, with humidity pushing 90%, men in damp blazers and women with wilted blowouts lined up outside of the SVA theater in Chelsea for “The Business of Entertainment,” one of the panels in the Tribeca Talks Industry series at the Tribeca Film fest. There were fewer tote bags and more briefcases. Blackberries — not iPhones — buzzed. The auditorium filled up quickly with buttoned-up professionals taking the afternoon off to hear interviews with Jeff Bewkes, the CEO of Time Warner and Joe Roth, the legendary Hollywood producer, director, and studio head. I sat next to a JFK, Jr. look-alike, who would have impressed me more if it weren’t for the eclipsing charisma of the afternoon’s moderator, an especially twinkly Charlie Rose.

Rose and Bewkes had an easy rapport, which the two jokingly chalked up to their shared but brief history on Wall Street. “I’m sixty. I’m actually sixty-one, but I spent a year in banking,” Bewkes cracked, quoting Tennessee Williams. As CEO of Time Warner, Bewkes is also in charge of Warner Bros., Turner Broadcasting, HBO, and Time Inc. Fellow luminary Brian Grazer has referred him as “the last mogul.” But each of these industries — film production, television programming, print journalism — as Bewkes explained, is linked now by questions about (and hopefully answers to) digital distribution. Their conversation was predicable, but vibrant. It was obvious that Rose was consciously protracting certain parts of the discussion for the sake of the audience; clearly he already knew the answers to most of his questions — as he should, considering how intertwined their lines of work are. They talked about how hard it is to support niche content with advertising, how piracy could be prevented if only there wasn’t a four-month interim between the theater release of a movie and its in-store and online distribution, and the wise decision to produce exclusive content for Netflix, a company whose surprising success Bewkes compared to a small Albanian army. Later, he would describe the internet as “a bunch of hamsters wearing ties.”

Joe Roth

After a few swigs from a sweaty bottle of Smartwater, Rose introduced Joe Roth, whose credits include Home Alone, The Sixth Sense, and Alice in Wonderland. Roth smiled, sat down, slumped a little, and almost immediately kicked off his right shoe. He explained what, as a producer, he looks for in a script (a blend of uniqueness and familiarity) and gave a quick recap of his own personal history in the business, which really took off when Rupert Murdoch anointed him chairman of Fox at 38-years-old, after only one short meeting. “I could have been an axe murderer,” he laughed and recalled how Murdoch’s house had a fireplace bigger than any apartment Roth had ever been in.

Alluding to Bewkes’ optimism, Roth confirmed that as a director, “you can ask for almost anything right now.” The winners, he continued, talking now about producers, “are the guys who [can] see it.” According to both panelists, the future of film and television is bright. Roth’s quips were pegged to his own experiences: the flimsiness of most sequels, the sick dread he feels while driving to the first screening of a movie about which he knows he’s made too many compromises. Roth’s real bone to pick with the industry though was with the concept of “middlemen,” which apparently take all shapes and prevent production studios from profiting as much as they otherwise would. “Producers should buy theaters,” Roth said in voice a bit louder than before. “95% of a movie’s gross is achieved in the first 30 days.” Exasperated, he listed a few suggestions: that theaters could be dressed up, that ticket prices could fluctuate depending upon the success of the movie, and that merchandise could be sold right in front of the box office.

In what was likely an effort to mitigate some of Bewkes’ zealotry, Rose began ribbing the CEO gently, encouraging Bewkes to facetiously confirm that he also wrote all the movies he produced. We all giggled. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only member of the audience caught on Roth’s other ‘zany’ idea: imagining those 7-Elevens turned into Kwik-E-Marts for the release of The Simpsons Movie. And then the New York equivalent: The Lower East Side dressed up as its circa-1988 self for the inevitable Grand Theft Auto-Liberty City movie.

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Le Quattro Volte’s Wordless Thrill

By Alice Gregory
Friday, April 22nd, 2011

I was instructed not to read anything about Le Quattro Volte before seeing it. This was clearly strategy on the part of my companion to get me to go at all. The film had come highly recommended to him by a trusted source, but any descriptive detail he could have relayed would have deterred me: no dialogue, lots of animals. But director Michelangelo Frammartino’s close visual attention to — and quiet dramatization of — Calabrian village life is actually thrilling.

The title, which translates to “The Four Times,” chronicles the final days of an ancient goatherd; the birth and first weeks of a fleecy kid; the sacrifice of a tree in a mysterious, local ceremony; and the involved and quite artful process of making charcoal. The elliptical structure (what we see first and last are hazy plumes of smoke emitted from a mound of burning wood) is even more effective for its focus on the carbon-rich, literally organic, sooty lumps — life, concentrated.

In keeping with the elemental culture it dramatizes, Le Quattro Volte subscribes to a kind of realist ideal that says that anyone can be a hero, if you only pay careful enough attention. Focusing on small gestures and granting authority to the oft-ignored isn’t a radical project, but Frammartino practices it with particularly elegant proportion. The goatherd’s hacking cough elicits irritation and sympathy in equal measure, as does the kid’s relentless bleating when he’s stuck in an excruciatingly shallow ravine. We watch the nonplussed faces of both man and animal as a fly quivers across them, undisturbed for minutes. Everything takes on a life worth observing. The goats in the barn develop unique personalities and are genuinely funny in their seemingly unmotivated behavior: balancing for no good reason on teetering cinderblocks and splitting off from the herd in severe right angles. Even a hacked-down tree and a charred pile of dirt, if given enough time in front of the camera, can be animated. Our threshold for theatrics adjusts surprisingly quickly.

Though the film makes no obvious attempt to obscure the time in which it’s set, the blue jeans that the townspeople wear, their motorcycles, their electrically lit homes — these all feel like anachronisms in an otherwise primeval world. When a procession of men dressed in traditional Roman costumes emerges from a winding lane, it takes a moment to reestablish that, yes, this is still contemporary Italy.

We timed it so that we could take the C straight to Penn Station after the film was over — we had to catch a train. But we were working within a slim margin, so we agreed to sneak out early if it got too close. It’s a testament to Frammartino’s pacing that this seemed like a terribly tragic recourse. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a film so thoroughly in spite of myself. Le Quattro Volte forgoes what I most value — humans communicating through language — and indulges what I would do just about anything to avoid: anthropomorphized animals. The film’s 88 minutes are wordless and lacking in any real climax or resolve. Still, leaving early would’ve meant missing some profound flicker or primal occurrence. We stayed through to the end and then rushed to grab a cab uptown. We made our train, and everyone on it looked like a goat, but in the very best way. They kind of have ever since, actually.

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The Misplaced Focus of Queen to Play

By Alice Gregory
Friday, April 15th, 2011

If there’s one thing directors love, it’s a fondled chess piece. There might not be a single film in which one is handled in an even remotely normal way. They’re twirled, gently thumbed, and zoomed in on—never picked up and just moved around like a chunk of plastic. Helene, the repressed Corsican chambermaid at the center of French director Caroline Bottaro’s first feature film, Queen to Play, indeed instills even pawns with an exaggerated sensuality.

With her deep-set eyes and steely reserve, Helene (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) resembles one of Bergman’s lovers — a middle aged Liv Ullman or a Cries and Whispers-era Harriet Andersson. In her poplin dresses and perfect little espadrilles, she just might be the chicest cleaning lady around, more like the object of art house fetish than an underpaid, overworked laborer. One morning while doing up a hotel room, Helene notices some guests playing chess out on the balcony. Through the billowing gauze of the curtain, she observes their moves and meditation: The women’s silk slip falls off her shoulder and the man’s voice — “Checkmate!” — sounds surreally loud.

From then on, Helene teaches herself chess alone each night with an electronic set. She grows increasingly obsessed — practicing moves with bottles of lotion in the bathroom, forming pieces out of bread at the dinner table, hopping around on the hotel’s checkered balcony as if she herself is a knight. Aside from cleaning the rooms at the hotel, she also works for Dr. Kroger, a sick, black-clad widower played by Kevin Kline (in his first role completely in French.) She notices a chess set in his office one afternoon and timidly asks him to play with her. Kroger is taken aback by the proposition, but eventually agrees. Soon enough, a secret, mostly silent friendship is forged. She’s a quick study, and each week he tutors her, often late into the night and to the rage of her previously unresponsive husband. Helene’s hairdresser warns her that “people are talking” and neighbors are calling her “The Chess Case,” which feels a little eye-rolly — this isn’t medieval Europe after all, and chess is hardly an eccentric hobby.

Helene’s meetings with Dr. Kroger seem almost like therapy sessions, complete with transference, and their games are charged with a quiet eroticism. Predictably, as her game improves, Helene gains confidence: She’s sooner to smile and her face softens a bit. Their intuitive plays and met gazes is meant to imply a noble rapport — that chess makes their minds mutually transparent to each other. But the relationship isn’t granted enough dialogue and feels only outlined, as does Helene’s infatuation with the game itself. When Dr. Kroger asks her, in a moment of candor, why chess is so important to her, she tells him that she doesn’t know. It’s fine for the viewer to understand more about a film’s protagonist than the protagonist does about herself, but such imbalance demands a little more scaffolding from secondary characters, which Queen to Play decidedly lacks. And when Helene enters and wins a local amateur tournament, though the final round is protracted and scored with dramatic music, it doesn’t feel as though her victory is the conclusion of a realistically plotted trajectory or a correctly weighted process of self-discovery.

It’s Helene’s relationship with Dr. Kroger that’s supposed to be the central dynamic of the film, but Bonnarie’s performance is really only particularly perceptive in the domestic scenes, which are actually remarkably acute. On the evening of her husband’s birthday, for instance, Helene changes into the stolen slip and scampers into bed, adjusting its ripples with embarrassed haste as if to disguise her unusual sexiness. It’s a fraught feeling that all women experience — wanting to seduce by arrangement while looking unaware — that’s usually only depicted in film by way of cartoonishly tousled hair or a theatrical squaring of the shoulders. Helene’s husband himself is rendered in mostly broad strokes (neglectful, drinks too much), but when he finally begins to notice Helene’s newfound self-assurance, his attention is a realistic mixture of attraction and resentment. After getting home late one night from a game with Dr. Kroger, Helene finds her husband wrestling with a burnt chicken at the kitchen sink. He turns to her — sad but sexually charged — and embraces her awkwardly with his forearms. We only see her back and his hands, frozen in the air, away from her blouse so as not to dirty it with poultry char. We wait for him to abandon his consideration in the heat of the moment, to grab her lustfully or grease back her hair, but he doesn’t.

It’s these small moment’s that are the film’s best, but they are too few and far between. Before the tournament, Dr. Kroger tells Helene that it’s “better to play a lousy plan logically than no plan at all,” which is, unfortunately, exactly what Bottaro’s done here; she plays consistently, if obviously, through to the end, but it’s not the right game. Framed like a sports movie —  hard work, minor setbacks, eventual victory — Queen to Play is perfectly pleasant to watch, but its attention is focused on the wrong places: on the entire board rather than the individual players.

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A Vidal Sassoon Doc Slides on the Surface

By Alice Gregory
Friday, February 25th, 2011

Vidal Sassoon's dramatic bob was a hallmark of the '60s.

There are compelling reasons to make a documentary about Vidal Sassoon. His asymmetrical “5-point” hairdo, created in 1963, with its emphasis on natural, product-free body, liberated women from the tyranny of salon culture. The amount of time women once spent each week getting coiffed, suffering the chemicals and the heat — not to mention the boredom — is unthinkable today. His dramatic bob, cut on the bias and to the personal geometry of each client’s face, is one of the hallmark images of the 1960s. He was the original celebrity hairdresser and the first to market his own line of products. If Vidal Sassoon warrants close examination, it’s for the surprisingly disproportionate impact his mere haircut had on feminism. But despite its good intentions, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie isn’t that doc; it seems to misidentify its motivation. Director Craig Teper spends too much time lionizing the man behind the shears and not enough time inspecting the women beneath them.

Born in 1928 to Jewish immigrant parents in London’s East End, Sassoon endured a tumultuous childhood of orphanages and bombings. He worked as a glove cutter, a bike messenger, and finally as a hairdresser’s apprentice, where he learned the fundamentals of his craft as well as the necessary neuroses of perfectionism. He remembers, for instance, being required to have clean nails and pressed trousers, even in wartime. Sassoon made the 5-Point hairdo, which supposedly took twelve years to perfect, famous when he cut four feet of hair from actress Nancy Kwan’s head. The photos were printed in Vogue, and Sassoon became an overnight sensation. His business expanded; he opened an art gallery-like salon with windows overlooking Madison Avenue. The city was made visible to the clients, and the clients were made visible to the city. Roman Polanski filmed part of Repulsion there, and in exchange, Sassoon was commissioned to give Mia Farrow her iconic pixie cut for Rosemary’s Baby. But things go downhill for Sassoon — and us — when he moves to Los Angeles. He divorces his wife, which we’re led to believe, clouds his judgment; and he misguidedly sells his product line, depriving him from subsequent decades of profit. We witness his overzealous enthusiasm for yoga and health food; we see him grinning, drinking fruit juice, and teaching Regis Philbin how to do a proper sit-up.

It’s hard to imagine now the sort of causal effects we ascribe to people like Vidal Sassoon and his friend, Mary Quant, the inventor of the mini skirt, who is also featured in the film. It’s even harder to conceive of innovations in fashion that could materially change social norms today. Teper was remiss not to spend more time contrasting the structure of women’s daily lives then and now. Instead, we get an oddly proportioned documentary, which like Vidal Sassoon himself, is obviously branded. A certain amount of commercial footage is appropriate here considering the degree to which Vidal Sassoon marketed himself. It’s fun to see such dated shampoo commercials and hear now-obsolete mottos (“If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”), but the tone begins to feel increasingly promotional, and the film’s accompanying book, which we see getting laid out in certain scenes, seems like yet another product added to the line.

From there, it gets more bizarre: Vidal Sassoon is hyperbolically compared to Einstein and Muhammad Ali; his team is at one point referred to as “The Beatles of hairdressing,” and the 5-point haircut itself is “the iPod of its day.” Relevant figures testify: Bumble and Bumble founder Michael Gordon talks about how Vidal Sassoon paved the way for innovative hairstylists and Vogue creative director Grace Coddington remembers her first haircut by Sassoon himself. Then there are endorsements from Guido and Christaan (no last names), who are each given the mysteriously Warholian tags of “Editorial Superstar.” The vast range in reputability of the talking heads is disorienting; the film feels less like a documentary than a late-night infomerical.

It wouldn’t have been hard to insert some archival b-roll footage of permed ladies reading under bonnet -style hairdryers. There are probably unfathomable statistics about how much less time we spend grooming ourselves today than we did half-a-century ago. Even just a tiny bit more historical context might have served to ward off the suspicion that Teper has been seduced by Sassoon’s charm. It would be understandable; Sassoon is telegenic and animated, with fashionable eyewear and a nice suntan. But throughout, you still think, again and again, he’s just a hairdresser. It was Teper’s responsibility to banish these thoughts before they even materialized, and the film falls short.

There’s no reason to dismiss cultural events for their ostensible triviality. There are affecting and revealing junctions between some of the most disparate-seeming things: the bikini was made fashionable, in part, because of the rationing of fabric in World War II; there were surely fewer fainting spells thanks to Coco Chanel’s replacement of corseted silhouettes with drop waist dresses. It’s even more fun, though, to trace the inverse type of relationship back to its historical roots; how, say, a haircut changed the world. By making popular a haircut that didn’t require constant care, Vidal Sassoon reprogrammed the modern woman’s week. We don’t walk away floored by this fact, as we should. Instead, a caricatured image remains: Sassoon beaming at the camera, with a canister of brewer’s yeast in his hand and an albino cockatoo perched on his shoulder.

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The Scorched Souls of Biutiful

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Javiar Bardem plays a manager of black market immigrant workers in "Biutful."

Even the most spice-tolerant gourmand will tell you that excess heat can obliterate subtle seasoning. And like a too-generous sprinkle of chili powder, overabundant pathos can be dulling. All the sadness starts to taste the same. In Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature film since Babel, the emotional intensity is cranked maybe a bit too high. Two-and-a-half hours is a long time to heave, and by the end you’re scorched to the point of numbness.

Javiar Bardem plays Uxbal, a struggling manager of black market immigrant workers — Chinese laborers who sleep on factory floors and the African street vendors who peddle their purses. He’s dying of prostate-turned-bone-tuned-liver cancer, which makes him pee blood and fall to his knees in pain. His ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is a bipolar “masseuse,” who carries on with his brother, drinks too much wine, and hits the children. Young Ana and Mateo — both grade school-age — are constantly caught up in their parents’ battles.

Bardem’s presence, as always, is imposing and just soft enough. He walks the dusky alleys in a crumpled leather jacket: head down, hands in pockets. He has a ponytail, which is unfortunate, because Bardem, it turns out, is one of those men on whom a ponytail looks inevitable. It will be hard to imagine him without one from now on. Scene in and scene out, Uxbal appears as an animated Moai, the streetlights illuminating his monolithic profile. His impending death adds delicacy to all his gestures; his hands, for instance, look spidery, and he hugs his daughter tenderly.

Uxbal’s Barcelona is mostly underground or cramped — in the apartments of the poor. His is a city far from the lapping beaches; it has nothing to do with fancy tapas bars or Gaudí’s surrealist skyline. In the Barcelona Uxbal knows, the police are paid off, and the karaoke bars remain empty; the cereal is soggy, and the ceilings leak. The plaster walls might be vividly colored, but they’re stained. People live too close together. Contracting disease, being tainted with corruption — these things seem unavoidable.

In a way, it’s commendable that we’re never given a reprieve from the dirt and despondency. In literature and film, death and dying are often presented as concepts irreconcilable with daily life, too immense and abstract to fully fathom. Cancer, in particular, is commonly conceived of as foreign, some invasion of the body from without. But here, cancer feels totally destined. The nastiness is native.

But MRIs and morphine injections aside, Uxbal still has business to attend to. He must sell his long-dead father’s cemetery niche and ensure that the Chinese factory workers aren’t abused, though a certain amount of ill-treatment seems par for the course. When his African vendors face deportation, it’s Uxbal who negotiates their terms, and it’s he who is responsible for their wives when they are indeed sent back home to Senegal. Uxbal tries to do right by his disadvantaged workers, but he still needs a cut, and it’s this desperation that finally leads to unintentional, mass tragedy — a poorly handled, gruesome disaster that turns into national news.

By observing so many low levels of social strata, we’re meant not ask who is exploiting whom (though it’s a valid question) so much as understand the plausibility of liability and innocence in equal measure. Everyone’s at fault, which paradoxically, means no one is.

Biutiful is framed with an oneiric — and frankly, pat — circular narrative structure. It’s too easy to anticipate, even while it makes little sense. The meat of the movie is stunningly sad, literally though — it stuns you into an uncomplicated woe. Toward the end, Uxbal, Mateo, and Ige (the wife of a deported African vendor), gather around the kitchen table to celebrate Ana’s tenth birthday. She’s presented with a flickering cake. “Make a wish, Sweetie,” Uxbal urges her, smiling. And here we’re bludgeoned yet again, because no wish — short of an entirely different life — could possibly be worth hoping for.

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