Seducing Charlie Barker

B+ Sex Comedy

  • Written by Theresa Rebeck
  • Directed by Amy Glazer

Charlie Barker (Stephen Barker Turner) is not a happy man, and wild sex with a young, gorgeous, horny, yet stupid sociopath will not improve anything. Seducing Charlie Barker starts as a comedy and grows serious, a trick few films successfully pull off. It helps here that, even in the early scenes, it’s a pretty serious comedy.

An unemployed actor with talent but little sense of how to manage a career, Charlie depends financially on his wife Stella (Daphne Zuniga), who hates her high-pay, high-pressure behind-the-scenes job on a TV talk show. The two are planning to adopt a Chinese orphan, and Stella wants Charlie to kiss the asses needed to revive his career. I have no idea if this film is at all autobiographical, but if it is, I suspect that Stella is a stand-in for screenwriter Theresa Rebeck.

Then Charlie meets Clea (newcomer Heather Gordon, in a performance that would seducingcharliemake her a star if the movie gets decent exposure). Before you can say “My place or yours,” they’re banging away like hopefuls auditioning for the sexual Olympics.

Clea is obviously bad news from the start. Stunningly beautiful in an artificial, Hollywood way, she’s a motormouth with very serious entitlement issues. She’s the type of person who brags that she doesn’t drink, asks for a vodka, then acts offended when people don’t take her sobriety seriously.

I’m not giving anything away by telling you that Charlie pays for his adultery to the point of homelessness. You’re told as much at the very beginning of the movie.

Director Amy Glazer handles the actors well and keeps the film well-paced, although at times the movie feels like a stage play (Rebeck first wrote it as one, called The Scene). This is a writer’s and actors’ movie, and Glazer wisely avoids fancy flashes of auteurism.

A ruthless but beautiful woman can make a man do anything except break bad habits. Clea lacks the brains necessary for a film noir femme fatale; she’s not going to lead Charlie into a murder. But we can still enjoy watching her mess up his life.

I saw Seducing Charlie Barker on a screener DVD before it screened at the 2010 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Thoughts on Hugo

I sometimes wonder whether Singin’ in the Rain really is the greatest movie musical ever made. I think it is, but I may be prejudiced because Singin’ is, after all, a movie about film history–something I care very much about. Other critics and historians may have a similar prejudice.

And so we come to Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s family-friendly fantasy adventure that turns into an entertaining lesson on the importance of film preservation. Could this be a movie that appeals more to critics and cinephiles than do the general public? I suspect it is.

I called Hugo a fantasy after some consideration. Most people define a movie (or novel) as fantasy if it violates the laws of physics. Hugo merely violates the laws of probability. But its general magical tone makes it feel like a fantasy to me.

Fourteen-year-old Asa Butterfield plays the title character, an orphan living by his wits in a large Paris train station circa 1930. He keeps the clocks running, steals food, andhugo tries to stay unnoticed. Typical of young protagonists in Hollywood family fare, Hugo must contend with a comically inept authority figure (Sacha Baron Cohen as the station master) and a grumpy old man whose heart will inevitably melt (Ben Kingsley as a toy seller). And he is helped by a girl of approximately his age (Chloë Grace Moretz).

In other words, this Scorsese film bears little resemblance to Taxi Driver or Good Fellas. But then, neither does The Last Waltz, The Aviator, or The Last Temptation of Christ. People associate Scorsese with violent contemporary urban dramas–probably because those dominate his best work. But he’s made plenty of other types of films, as well.

Nevertheless, Hugo is his first family film, and his first in 3D. He uses the technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. Train tracks disappearing into the distance, labyrinth hallways and staircases, and individual snowflakes floating through the sky put you into the environment in a way that a flat movie could not.

And what an environment Scorsese creates and brings to life with his signature moving camera shots. The giant train station, with its cafes and stores and musicians, is a world onto itself. The people who work there form a community, and some even fall in love. It doesn’t seem like a bad place to live and work –even for an orphan stealing croissants and milk.

But Hugo is not a great Scorsese film, or a great children’s movie. It’s slow at times, and often predictable. The humor and the sentimentality sometimes conflict–especially when Cohen’s evil station master falls in love. I give it a B.

But Scorsese has a message for the children and parents coming to see Hugo. He wants to can teach them about the importance of film restoration and preservation.

The rest of this post contains some mild spoilers. I do not believe that reading them will hurt your enjoyment of the film, but you really hate even the mildest of spoilers, stop reading now.

Kingsley’s grumpy old man, who owns a small toy stall in the station, turns out to be an actual historical figure–Georges Méliès, the magician-turned-filmmaker who invented special effects and, arguably, narrative cinema. By the time we meet him in the movie, long after his studio died, he is forgotten and bitter–and won’t even allow his goddaughter to go to the movies.

Of course Hugo will make Méliès happy again, and help bring about a resurgence of interest in his work. Late the movie, Méliès tells the boy that "Happy endings only happen in the movies." Of course, this is a movie, and Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan provide everyone (even the station agent) with a very happy ending.

As is shown in the movie, the real Méliès was awarded a government honor in 1931. But I doubt the details were as joyful as they are here.

I enjoyed Hugo. I’d like to believe that children coming out of the theater will ask to see Méliès’ work and other silent films, and will learn the value of film restoration.

But I doubt it.

What’s Screening: November 25–December 1

Want to read something really amazing? There are no film festivals in the Bay Area this week. At least, none that I know of.

But there are some good movies.

A Steamboat Bill Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With two short comedies, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A Double Indemnity, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday.. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the nose from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect thriller. Not that she has any trouble leading him (this is not the wholesome MacMurray we remember from My Three Sons).  Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir. On a double bill with The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which I’ve never seen but also stars Stanwyck.

B Ninotchka, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But it’s not quite as good as you might expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder. On a double bill with another Garbo vehicle, Camille, which I have never seen.

C Sing-Along Sound of Music, Castro, Friday through next week’s Sunday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein were running out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies. I’ve never experienced a Sing-Along Sound of Music presentation, however. This might be something entirely different.

What’s Screening: November 18 – 24

The flood of festivals is slowing down. New Italian Cinema and the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival both end Sunday. And amazingly enough, nothing else is on the immediate horizon.

A Harry Potter Marathon, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. Here’s your chance to see all eight Harry Potter movies, over two days, on the Castro’s giant screen. With a few exceptions (the two first filmes), the filmmakers did a surprisingly good job sticking to the spirit of J. K. Rowling’s wonderful books, even allowing these “family” films to go to PG-13 as the stories got darker. All eight films will be projected digitally off hard drives; the last film in 3D.

B- Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, Opera Plaza, Aquarius, through the week. Steve Jobs was a stevejobsbrilliant, charismatic figure who drastically changed the world we live in. But does that mean you’ll enjoy a 16-year-old, 70-minute, videotaped interview consisting of a single close-up? Surprisingly, the answer is Yes—up to a point. That charisma, combined with the simple fact that Jobs had some interesting things to say in 1995, make this a reasonably entertaining and informative document. But there’s no filmmaking craftsmanship whatsoever here, and there’s a limit to how much time you can watch a single close-up. Thus, the Lost Interview begins to wear out its welcome well before it’s through. Read my full review for more.

A Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The theme this month appears to be Hal Roach, which is fine, since his studio made some of the best short comedies of the 1920s. I haven’t seen the Snub Pollard short, “Courtship of Miles Sandwich,” but I can vouch for the other three. “Movie Night” is prime Charley Chase, and “Do Detectives Think?” is one of Laurel and Hardy’s best early efforts. But the real winner will probably be “Pass the Gravy.” I don’t want to give away too much about this Max Davidson two-reeler—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film.

A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s stupid. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness today, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to your throat. And it’s just plain entertaining. On a double bill with the first film in that trilogy, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which I haven’t seen in decades and therefore won’t discuss.

B+ The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Ray Harryhausen enjoys a unique place in the pantheon of noted filmmakers. This special effects “technician” neither wrote, produced, nor directed his films, yet he was their auteur, creating them from his own imagination.Seventh Voyage is the first and best of Harryhausen’s three Sinbad movies. In fact, of all his movies, only Jason and the Argonauts is better. The stop-motion animation is splendid, and the story, while trivial, is fun (although one continuity error makes audiences laugh and groan). Not a must-see like Jason, but still an entertaining escape into a fantasy past. Special effects wizard Phil Tippett will be on hand to introduce the film.

C Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Castro, Wednesday. Woody Allen’s Spanish-set comedy/drama suffers from way too much vickycristinabarcelonanarration. An experienced and arguably great filmmaker like Allen should know that when you show an actor’s face, you don’t need an all-knowing third-person voice telling you what they’re thinking. The result gives you the drawbacks of cinema and the novel, without the advantages of either. On the other hand, you’ve got Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and beautiful Spanish scenery, so at least there’s plenty of eye candy. This time around, Rebecca Hall does the Woody Allen imitation. Read my original review. As part of the Castro’s Woody Wednesdays series, they’ve double billed Vicky Cristina Barcelona with 1980’s Stardust Memories; I haven’t seen that one since it was new, and I didn’t care for it then.

Blu-ray Review: 12 Angry Men

The 1950s–the decade when movies went wide and advertised casts of thousands–also saw three great films that took place at a single location and shot on a single set. Alfred Hitchcock did it brilliantly in Rear Window, Kurosawa pulled it off in The Lower Depths, and Sidney Lumet, for his very first film, triumphed in 12 Angry Men.

The 12 men of the title comprise the jury in a just-completed first-degree murder trial. 12angrymen1With the exception of a brief prologue and an even briefer epilogue, the entire story plays out in the jury room in real time. The jurors hold the life of the 18-year-old defendant in their hands; if they deliver a guilty verdict, he will be executed. It’s an awesome responsibility.

Except they don’t all see it that way. From the outset, 11 of the 12 just want to declare him guilty and get on with their lives. But one juror (Henry Fonda–the characters have no names) votes not guilty. He doesn’t actually believe the boy is innocent; he just feels that they should talk about the case before sending the kid to his death. Over the course of the film’s 96-minute running time, the characters argue, bring up points of evidence, change their minds, reveal their deep-seated prejudices, and nearly come to blows.

Prejudice plays an important role here. All 12 jurors are white men (although one is an immigrant from an unnamed European country), and casual references to "those people" remind us that the defendant is not Caucasian. We already know that, because we see the defendant briefly in the prologue; his skin is brown, but otherwise his race isn’t clear.

In many ways, this is basic 1950′s liberalism. The system is rigged against the downtrodden (much is also made of the defendant’s slum upbringing), but a few good and determined citizens can right society’s wrongs.

Reginald Rose originally wrote 12 Angry Men as a television drama, which was broadcast live in 1955. For the movie, which Rose co-produced with Fonda, he nearly doubled the runtime, fleshing out the characters of the jurors and allowing us to know them better. Then he hired Lumet–a television director he had worked with in the past–to direct it. (Franklin Schaffner, also destined to be a major film director, helmed the TV version.)

Working closely with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, Lumet turned this theatrical conceit into a truly cinematic drama. Careful staging, extreme close-ups, and an editing style that picks up the pace as the film nears its climax all keep the story moving and the audience involved. You never forget that you, like the characters, are confined to one room. But it feels like a pressure cooker, not a limitation.

First Impression

Criterion has packaged 12 Angry Men like a typical, single-disc Blu-ray package. 12angrymenboxOutside of the one disc, the only contents of note is a booklet with a reasonably interesting essay on the film.

How It Looks

12 Angry Men is a low-budget, black-and-white film shot in 1957. This is not something you’re going to show to your friends to impress them with your great HDTV. The images are, for the most part, very grainy.

But it’s film grain, and Criterion was wise not to try and gloss it over. That would only have made it look worse. This is probably as good as the picture looked in its original release (if not better). And it’s absolutely the right look for 12 Angry Men.

The aspect ratio is 1.66×1–an unusual one for an American film. The very slight pillarboxing will disappear on sets on overscan issues.

One little oddity: United Artists originally released this independently-produced film, which means that it’s now property of MGM/UA. This transfer opens with the MGM lion, in full color. That’s wasn’t part of the original movie.

How It Sounds

I suspect that the majority of mono titles available on Blu-ray today are Criterion releases. Luckily, this one company that knows how a mono film should sound.

Following Criterion policy, 12 Angry Men comes with the original mono soundtrack, in uncompressed PCM. It sounded clean and clear. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

12 Angry Men lacks a commentary track, but contains many other excellent supplements–even by Criterion standards.

First, it includes the original television version. Running only about 50 minutes, it comes off in retrospect as the seed from which a great movie grew. Technically, it’s vastly inferior, but that’s to be expected–movies were a 50-year-old art form when this was made, while television was in its infancy. Live television had its problems; at a key dramatic moment, an important prop fails and the actor has to struggle with it.

But I preferred Robert Cummings performance as the nominal hero over Henry Fonda in the film version. Fonda plays it as a movie star would–he’s strong, determined, and nearly fearless. Cummings plays it as a normal guy who finds himself doing the right thing almost against his better judgment. The first time he raises his hand to vote Not Guilty–a act that he knows will angry the other eleven–he then rubs his nose with the raised hand, as if pretending that he didn’t really cast a vote.

Other extras:

· Introduction by Ron Simon to the television version.

· 12 Angry Men: From Television to the Big Screen: A 25-minute making-of documentary.

· Lumet on Lumet: Here’s a unique approach that works better than it should. Criterion assembled clips from various interviews with Lumet, creating a single, unified video autobiography. It runs 23 minutes, and only covers his life through 12 Angry Men.

· Reflections on Sidney: 9 minutes. Writer Walter Bernstein, who worked with Lumet on a number of projects, talks about him. He also talks a lot about the blacklist (Bernstein was blacklisted, Lumet was not).

· On Reginald Rose: 15 minutes on the author of 12 Angry Men. Ron simon narrates, again. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Rose, a major figure in the golden era of live television drama, went on to produce the ground-breaking TV series The Defenders.

· Tragedy in a Temporary Town: Another live television drama written by Rose. This one was directed by Lumet. 55 minutes (they had less commercials on those days.)

· On Boris Kaufman: Cinematographer John Bailey talks about the man who lensed 12 Angry Men. Big surprise: He was the kid brother of experimental Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose work is currently screening at the PFA. 38 minutes.

· Trailer: Of course they include the trailer, but this one is especially worth watching. In fact, it’s unintentionally hilarious. You can feel the United Artists PR folks desperately to fool people into thinking this serious drama is actually a thriller. "It explodes like 12 sticks of dynamite!" "Twelve men, with the smell of violent death in their nostrils!"

The trailer misleads, but the film, and Critierion’s disc, are right on target. Once again, they’ve taken a great cinematic work and done it justice.

The 12 Angry Men Blu-ray goes on sale Tuesday, November 22. You can pre-order it now.

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview

B- Documentary

· Written and Presented by Robert X. Cringely

· Directed by Paul Sen

Even an Apple cynic like myself must admit that Steve Jobs drastically changed the world we live in, and mostly for the better. I’m writing this on a Windows computer, I have a Creative Zen music player, and my smartphone is powered by Android. Yet I doubt that any of these would be in existence today without innovations for which Jobs played a significant role.

He was also a charismatic leader and public figure, who held people in thrall with his product announcements and presentations.

But does that mean you would enjoy watching a 16-year-old, 70-minute, videotaped interview, visually consisting of one continuous close-up of his face?

Surprisingly, the answer is Yes. That charisma, combined with the simple fact that Jobs had some interesting things to say back in 1995, make this a reasonably interesting and informative film. But it could have been much better.

In those long-ago days of the first Clinton administration, technology journalist Robert X. Cringely interviewed Jobs for the PBS series Triumph of the Nerds. Aside from a small portion used in the final cut, the interview was believed lost. Then someone found a VHS copy, and the rest is, if not history, than at least movie distribution.

There’s no filmmaking craftsmanship whatsoever in The Lost Interview. After a brief, stevejobsnew introduction by Cringely, the camera stays on Jobs as he talks. Occasionally an unseen Cringely asks a question. Every so often, the image freezes and Cringely (the 2011 version) provides a little narration to help bring us over to the next part of the interview. Since the image was transferred from VHS, it looks horrible.

But 1995 was a great moment to capture Jobs in amber (or at least videotape). He had been fired from Apple a decade earlier, soon after his triumph with the Mac. Apple was on the skids, and Jobs’ second startup, NeXT, had failed to set the world on fire. The following year, Apple would buy NeXT, and Jobs would triumphantly return to the company he’d co-founded, leading it to greater successes.

Jobs talks about how he first became interested in technology, about the Apple I computers that he and Steve Wozniak built by hand, and the astonishing success that followed the release of the Apple II. He remembers first seeing a graphic user interface at Xerox PARC and realizing that that will be the future of computing. His only complaint about Microsoft (the truly big giant in the industry in 1995) “is that they just have no taste." He predicts, accurately, that the Web will change everything, but assumes that Apple’s days as an important company are over.

He’s at his best early on, when he describes how he and Wozniak–then teenage buddies–slowly and almost accidentally turned their hobby into one of the most important and successful businesses in history. He also does well when he discusses how companies (including Apple) go wrong. Companies, especially successful ones, become driven by marketing, or by process (which he doesn’t really explain that well). Either way, they forget about improving their content, which is–after all–what it’s all about. Not surprisingly, he has nothing nice to say about John Sculley, the PepsiCo Vice President who became president of Apple and fired Jobs ("I hired the wrong person").

I’ve never been a Jobs fan–or an Apple fan. I don’t trust charisma (except in performing artists, where you don’t have to trust it). And I don’t like Apple’s "walled garden" approach to technology, where the company that makes the box gets to decide what you can do with it. That’s limiting and it leads to vertical monopolies. Nevertheless, I found the interview interesting and informative, at least most of the time.

But there’s a limit to how much time you can watch a single close-up, and the Lost Interview begins to where out its welcome well before it’s through. With a little extra work–perhaps inserting illustrative photos over the course of the interview–Cringely and his team could have made an invaluable documentary, capturing an important figure at a career low point that would soon end. Instead, they merely give us a record of in interesting conversation.

Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview will play for two days—this coming Wednesday and Thursday—in selected theaters around the country. Locally, it will be play at the Opera Plaza (San Francisco), the Shattuck (Berkeley), and the Aquarius (Palo Alto). The Aquarius will host the film’s only seven-day run.

Note: This post has been altered since I originally wrote it. I removed an unnecessary paragraph that contained an inaccuracy.

What’s Screening: November 11 – 17

Both the Animation Festival and 3rd i South Asian Film Festival continue through Sunday. And on that very Sunday, New Italian Cinema opens. The Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival keeps on going.

C California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown, Film Society/New People Cinema, Thursday. Do you know who shouldn’t make a documentary about an historically important politician? That politician’s grandchild. Director and narrator govbrownsSascha Rice is the granddaughter of former California Governor Pat Brown, the niece of former and current Governor Jerry Brown, and the daughter of one-time candidate-for-governor Kathleen Brown. She’s too close to the subject, and seems reluctant to say much that might be negative about grandpa (although, to her credit, she occasionally does —very briefly). She paints his first term as heroic triumph of late New Dealism, and his second as heroic tragedy in the face of rising conservatism. Every so often, she’ll fast forward to more recent Brown victories and defeats. There’s some interesting history here, but she never looks at things deeply enough to be insightful. With one exception, every Democratic governor we’ve had in this state in the last 70 years has been a Brown (the exception was a Gray); I would have enjoyed some discussion of why.

B Ninotchka, Castro, Thursday. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But it’s not quite as good as you might expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder? On a double bill with Grand Hotel, which I haven’t seen since college and have no desire to see again.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it. I’m guessing that they’ll be screening the new digital presentation.

A Alien, Camera 3, Thursday (and the following Saturday). In the wake of Jaws’ and Star Wars’ phenomenal success, someone had to make a big-budget movie about a large predator on a spaceship. But the obvious marketing value doesn’t explain how good this film actually is, and on so many levels. First you’ve got the extraordinary art direction, giving us a spaceship that feels like a strange and unsettling high-tech haunted house, yet is absolutely believable. Then there’s the working-class astronauts complaining about the food and pay–easily the most realistic people Hollywood has ever shot into space. Don’t forget the star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver, or the overriding sense of loneliness, corporate exploitation, and–dare I say it–alienation. It’s also one hell of a fun, scary ride.

Winchester ’73, Stanford, Friday. In the 1950s, director winchester73Anthony Mann and star James Stewart made three westerns that stand out as gritty and dramatic masterpieces of the genre. These films also helped Stewart find a new, rougher persona which he carried into his work with Alfred Hitchcock. I haven’t seen the first of these films, Winchester ’73, in a very long time and therefore won’t grade it. But I remember a powerful tale of a man driven by revenge. On a double bill with a noir I’ve never seen called Call Northside 777.

Blu-ray Review: Fanny and Alexander

It was meant to be Ingmar Berman’s last film (although he ended up making another), his final statement about life, the theater, and the place of humanity in a possibly Godless universe. It’s unquestionably his most magical, one of his least grim, and in my opinion, one of his best.

He also made two versions of Fanny and Alexander. Originally intended as a miniseries for Swedish television, he reluctantly cut the four part/five-hours-and-20-minues version down to a three-hour-and-eight-minute feature film.

The new Criterion boxed set includes both, on separate discs, plus a third disc of extras. Although the long version occupies Disc 1, I’m starting with Disc 2 and the theatrical film. It’s the version I know and love.

Disk 2: The Feature Film

Fanny and Alexander starts with a boy–the Alexander of the title–staring into a small puppet theater. This is a film about make-believe, about childhood, and about illusion. It’s set in a world where love abounds and people care about each other, and where ghosts interact with the living but never frighten them. But it’s a fragile world, and one parental mistake could have it tumbling around the children’s ears.

fannyalexander1

I find the title odd because Fanny barely registers as a character. But her big brother, Alexander, becomes our eyes into this world and the story’s center. Alexander has a strong imagination; he sees things that aren’t there (or perhaps others simply don’t see them), tells stories, and in one scene entertains other children with a magic lantern. In his family environment, his imagination is cherished. But when his world changes, it will cause disaster.

Alexander is clearly a stand-in for Bergman, even if the film is set ten years before the writer/director’s birth. It’s not a literal autobiography, even if it dramatizes a conflict that likely tormented the young Ingmar’s soul.

The story begins on Christmas Eve, 1907. Fanny and Alexander’s family is a large one, and they come together to celebrate the holiday with great love and boisterous joy. They’re a theatrical family, and the energy and openness that comes with that profession. The family matriarch is a financially secure, retired actress. Her oldest son, Fanny and Alexander’s father, runs the local theater. There are two other sons, daughters-in-law, additional grandchildren, and servants, and Bergman spends considerable time introducing them and letting us enjoy their company.

It isn’t all happiness, of course. There are adulteries, and one brother struggling with finances, a collapsing marriage, and his own self-loathing. Not surprisingly, he’s the only one not in the theater business. Yet he is also the one who entertains the children with his remarkable ability to fart on cue.

But the real tragedy comes after Christmas, and more than an hour into the picture, when Fanny and Alexander’s father takes sick during a rehearsal and dies soon afterwards. Foreboding, indeed. The play being rehearsed was Hamlet, and the father was to play the ghost.

And like Hamlet, Alexander watches helplessly while his widowed mother remarriesfannyalexander2 too soon, and makes a very poor choice of mate. The local bishop is an austere and serious man with strict Calvinist leanings. He lives with his mother and sister in a hard and cold house–both physically and emotionally. For Fanny and even more for the imaginative Alexander, life becomes a living hell.

It’s best if you discover the rest of the story by yourself.

Criterion did their usual beautiful job on the transfer. The film is presented with very slight pillarboxing to retain the original 1.66×1 aspect ratio; the black bars disappear entirely if your TV has even a slight overscan problem. The 1080p transfer looks sumptuous, bringing out the details of the family’s rich, creative, and happy home, as well as the coldness of the bishop’s residence.

The audio is uncompressed PCM mono. This is as good as the picture could sound and still be the soundtrack that Bergman signed off on.

There’s also an English-dubbed version in case you love Ingmar Bergman but can’t read.

This disc has one extra, a commentary track by film scholar Peter Cowie. So far, I’ve gotten about half-way through it, and look forward to the other half. Fortunately, like most Criterion titles, it supports bookmarking, so I can easily return to where I left off.

Disk 1: The Television Series

I have a confession: As I write this, trying to post this review before the disc goes on sale Tuesday morning, I have only seen about half of this version.

So far, the long version offers little additional story and considerable more atmosphere and character. In one amazing scene, Fanny and Alexander’s father entertains the children by picking up a battered chair and improvising a royal and fantastic history of its original owners. In one stunningly entertaining sequence, Bergman shows us where Alexander acquired the imagination that will get him into trouble with his future stepfather.

In the big Christmas dinner scene, this version emphasizes something that an inattentive person might not recognize in the theatrical cut. The household servants sit and socialize with their employers, a once-a-year event that nevertheless emphasizes the love that all of these people have for each other.

The mother’s decision to fannyalexander3remarry after the death of her beloved husband isn’t quite as sudden, here. We’re told that more than a year has gone by. Bergman makes the bishop’s early attraction to this beautiful blonde actress clear in this version, and we know that she’s grown tired of the theater and is looking for something different.

Somehow, Criterion managed to fit more than five hours of HD video onto this one single-sided Blu-ray disc. I don’t think it looks as good as the theatrical version, but I don’t have the equipment necessary to truly compare them. I may be prejudiced because I have a hard time believing that you could put so much video on one disc and not sacrifice quality.

On the other hand, this cut was made for standard definition TV. Putting it in HD on a Blu-ray makes it look better than anything Berman imagined when he cut it.

The audio is again uncompressed PCM mono, and I can’t complain.

There are no extras on this disk.

Disc 3: The Extras

Disc 3′s centerpiece is The Making of “Fanny and Alexander,” a feature-length documentary edited by Bergman himself. Comprised of 16mm footage of the production, its only narration is occasional silent-film-like intertitles, some of themfannyalexanderbox mocking the director himself. It’s at times self-indulgent, but at other times fascinating. In its best moments, the camera follows Bergman and his cast and crew as they carefully block out a technically difficult scene. Then we see the finished shot, allowing us to associate the challenges in creating the shot with the emotional impact we experienced when we first saw the shot in context.

The disc also contains a couple of other documentaries, both made for Swedish television, plus assorted stills and the theatrical trailer.

A short book included in the box contains three essays on the film.

Ingmar Bergman was thinking about retirement when he made Fanny and Alexander (or at least semi-retirement–he continued to write screenplays and direct stage plays). Yet he made a masterpiece about youth. Criterion has done it justice.

The Wire

A few nights ago, I finished what may be one of the best motion pictures of the last decade. I say "finished" because I watched the 60+ hour film piece by piece over the course of several months.

Yes, I’m talking about a television series. The Wire ran for five seasons from 2002 through 2008 on HBO. There were 60 episodes in all, but it’s easy to think of The Wire as a single story, Dickensian in its sprawling complexity.

The Wire looks at ghetto dwellers earning a living and sometimes getting rich the only way available to them–by selling heroin. It’s also about a handful of dedicated police detectives trying to bring down the drug dealers while struggling within a bureaucracy that couldn’t care less.

That’s the main thread of the show, but others come up along the way. In the second season, we meet longshoremen and a corrupt union–corrupt because there is no thewirecrookshonest way to earn the money needed to buy political muscle. The third season brings in the obvious solution that no one will consider (legalizing drugs), and also studies city politics and a whole new level of corruption. In the fourth, we enter a public school system where the teachers and administrators have all but given up on actual teaching, and the students understand that they will have to choose between two life paths: gangster and addict. In the fifth season, the press enters the picture as the city editor of a struggling newspaper tries to do honest and meaningful work. His bosses, like those in the police department, are not interested.

In other words, it’s about urban decay, in American cities in general and Baltimore in particular. The show’s creator and (if I may use the term) auteur, David Simon, worked the Baltimore crime beat as a reporter for more than a decade before becoming a producer. He knows what he was writing about, and he knows Baltimore–The Wire’s main character.

The human characters are almost as compelling. You’ve got an idealistic and determined detective who is also an alcoholic womanizer, a gang leader’s second-in-command who happens to be a brilliant businessman, a union leader who tries to stay honest while dipping into crime for what he believes is the good of the union, a gay, swashbuckling thug who preys upon the drug lords, a cop who effectively legalizes drugs in his precinct, and a teenage boy pressured by his parents to start a life of crime. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

One rule that’s seldom spoken but which they all understand: Whether or not you can thewirecopsget away with murder depends largely on who you kill. Race is an obvious factor; even in a predominantly black city, the political pressure is greater to solve the murder of someone white. But that’s not the only rule. Black or white, you can’t kill someone with political power, and you can never kill a cop. But you’d have to drop an awful lot of black guys in the ‘hood to even get noticed…and even then you won’t be noticed long.

Simon and his collaborators aren’t interested in telling reassuring tales. Good deeds are often punished, and bad deeds rewarded. People you care about die in The Wire, sometimes suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.

At the end of the fifth season, The Wire comes to a satisfying ending. For some characters, the ending is happy; for others, it’s tragic. For most, things will go on as they have before. The names and faces will change, but the same power structures guarantee that, for Baltimore as a whole, victories will be minor or temporary.

If you haven’t seen The Wire, I suggest you start renting the DVDs now.

Jeanne Moreau & Louis Malle: A Night at the Pacific Film Archive

Every great movie star is unique, but few achieve the respect, at least among serious cinephiles, that Jeanne Moreau enjoys. Like all great stars, she’s blessed with beauty, talent, and charisma, has worked hard at her craft, and was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. In her case, the place and time were France at the birth of the New Wave.

Last night I visited the Pacific Film Archive for a double bill of Jeanne Moreau films directed by Louis Malle. Although Moreau’s performances were the reason for the screenings–they’re part of the series Jeanne Moreau: Enduring Allure–I attended because of Malle. How could I resist a chance to see his first two narrative features? After all, I’d never seen a Malle film that wasn’t at least near-great. At least I didn’t until last night.

Elevator to the Gallows

Malle’s first feature falls into that near-great category. This Hitchcockian crime thriller lacks one important element of the genre: a protagonist we can root for. I know that makes me sound like a cheerleader for Hollywood commercialism, but bear with me. Without a character we can care about, a film can have no real suspense, and without suspense, a thriller lacks thrills.

In lieu of suspense, Malle gives us dark humor and ironic detachment. Oddly enough, that’s sufficient. We watch a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, and we enjoy his suffering. We watch two young lovers steal the murderer’s car and go off to commit additional crimes. The female half of this couple (Yori Bertin) comes closest to being a sympathetic character, if only because she’s motivated by young love–something we’ve all experienced. And we get Jeanne Moreau as the murderer’s lover, wandering the streets wondering where he has gone.

Oddly, considering that this picture made Moreau a star, her scenes are the weakest in the film. She just wanders the streets of Paris, horribly love-sick, asking people if they’ve seen her man. But in the last third we find out her identity, and with that her character and her performance becomes much more interesting.

Malle’s wisely hired Miles Davis to score Elevator to the Gallows. The jazz is hot, brilliant, and gives the film a forward-pushing excitement that goes beyond anything that Bernard Herrmann ever gave Hitchcock (and coming from me, that’s almost sacrilege). Jazz is an extremely American art form, yet it took the French New Wave to bring out its cinematic promise.

The Lovers

Malle’s second narrative feature, his second collaboration with Moreau, and the second film the PFA screened last night, doesn’t even approach near-great. The best thing I can say for it is that it finally comes together in the third act.

Moreau plays the bored wife of a successful newspaper publisher. They live in an isolated country home, but she escapes to Paris as often as she can, allegedly to visit her best friend there. With the friend’s help, she’s really going to spend quality time with her lover.

Malle and screenwriter Louise de Vilmorin (working from a novel by Dominique Vivant) weigh the story heavily against her husband. He’s remote, unaffectionate, and boring. On the other hand, so is her lover–judging from what little we see of him. For that matter, Moreau’s character isn’t all that exciting, either.

Things pick up about halfway through the picture, when she happens upon another man (Jean-Marc Bory) in a "meet cute" sequence that would do any Hollywood hack proud. But de Vilmorin and Malle handle their slow falling in love with a realistic flair. The film climaxes (pun unintentional, but appropriate) in a very romantic sex scene that was shockingly graphic for 1958–even for France.

The Lovers occasionally uses an omnipotent, third-person narrator to explain the back story and tell us what’s going through the characters’ minds. I hated this technique in Little Children and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and I didn’t like it here, either. If I want fiction to tell me what the character is thinking, I’ll read a novel. I want film to show me what the character is thinking. In Malle’s defense, he uses narration, if not sparingly, than at least not constantly.

One other complaint, which really isn’t Malle’s fault: The subtitles were awful. They were printed in very large letters, but in an odd font that made them hard to read, anyway. They also weren’t bright enough to stand out against light backgrounds. And whole sentences went unsubtitled.

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