Excuse the recent error

I am still using this blog! The recent, short post was meant for another blog.

Intense Empathy: My review of Two Days, One Night

A- Drama

  • Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Roger Ebert once described cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Few films show off that important capability better than the Dardenne brother’s latest achievement, Two Days, One Night. I can’t imagine anyone watching this film without worrying about, rooting for, and identifying with the main character. But the Dardennes also make you care about almost every person you meet in the picture, including those ruining the protagonist’s life.

Right from the start, Sandra (the almost always remarkable Marion Cotillard) discovers that she’s lost her job at a small solar power company. The owner gave the other 16 employees a choice: Either Sandra could keep her job, or everyone else would receive a €1,000 bonus. Overwhelmingly, they chose the bonus.

image

But there’s hope. She and a co-worker complain to their boss, who agrees to allow another vote. Now Sandra has two days to visit each of her co-workers and try to convince them to forfeit a significant chunk of cash to keep her employed.

This couldn’t have come at a worse time. Sandra is recovering from severe depression. She reacts to the setback by trying to withdraw into herself and taking pills. Her patient and loving husband (Fabrizio Rongione) worries that she’s becoming an addict. What’s more, if she loses the job, they lose their home. They have two kids.

Most of the co-workers she visits feel guilty over what they did to her. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll vote differently this time. Many of them need that extra €1,000 (these are all working-class folk, most with families to support). And Sandra feels like a beggar, going from one home to another hoping they’ll pity her.

The film manages to avoid most of the deadly repetition inherent in the story. Yes, she goes to one person after another, begs them to give up a lot of money so she can remain gainfully employed, and listens to her reasons why they can’t. But each of these co-workers is a unique individual, and they all react to the predicament in different ways. The Dardennes don’t entirely escape the repetition problem (which is why I’m giving it an A- instead of a straight A), but they get very close.

Another problem: There’s also a hospital scene that struck me as very unrealistic.

Despite these minor flaws, Two Days, One Night gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. We all know what that’s like. We’ve all worked at a company that had layoffs, experienced that moment of relief when you discover that your job is safe, and then felt guilty because someone else wasn’t so lucky.

And yet, this picture never feels like a political tract. It feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise.

Much of the realism comes from the Dardennes’ technique. The picture is shot with a handheld camera, and the only music you hear is music that the characters hear–most of it through a car radio. Even the closing credits come with no sound except street noise.

As I watched Two Days, One Night, I began to wonder how they could satisfactorily end it. If she wins the election, it’s Hollywood. If she loses it, the whole thing would be pointless. If the film ended before the vote is counted, the audience would feel cheated. I won’t tell you how it ends, but I will say that the ending is absolutely perfect.

Despite a couple of flaws, this is an excellent film. If you work for a living, you need to see it.

Error correction: I failed to note that this film, which I saw at a press screening months ago, was opening this week. Had I caught it, I would have posted this review last Wednesday, and mentioned it in this week’s newsletter.

The Interview at the New Parkway (Spoiler: The theater didn’t blow up)

I haven’t written anything yet about The Interview and its assorted release problems. Why should I? Everyone else has already written about it. Besides, I was on vacation.

Now I’m back. Sunday night, my wife and I saw Kim Jong Un’s least favorite movie at the New Parkway. Perhaps it was a case of lowered expectations, but I enjoyed the movie–for the most part.

Of course I didn’t go because I thought it was the best film currently in theaters. I went to support free speech and free cinema. I went because if someone tries to stop a film from running in theaters, there’s a moral obligation to support that movie.

Because of the threats, The Interview became one of the rare big Hollywood features to open simultaneously in theaters and on pay-per-view streaming. This day-and-date release, as it’s called, just may be the future of the movie business, but for the present is only common with low-budget or foreign films not likely to make much money in the US. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Magnolia released Pioneer day-and-date. Since it’s subtitled, contains no superheroes, and–at least in my opinion–is a mediocre picture, its commercial prospects weren’t promising.

But we chose to spend the extra money to see The Interview theatrically. After all, the hackers didn’t threaten to blow up homes where the movie was showing. Besides, comedies are always better with the crowd.

I’ve been to the New Parkway several times, but this was my first experience in Theater 1. The layout was very different from Theater 2, which I described in 2013. It’s smaller, and the room doesn’t dwarf the screen. Instead of living room furniture, it has tables and chairs, and feels like a coffeehouse.

And what about The Interview?

image

It starts out hilariously, as James Franco’s brainless, party animal of a TV host interviews Eminem. This is the last person you want as your partner on a CIA mission to assassinate North Korea’s dictator. The unfortunate man who has him as a partner is his far more intelligent producer, played by Seth Rogen (who also co-directed). Despite the wonderful setup, and a number of great bits along the way (Randall Park plays the evil Kim wonderfully as another party animal), the movie sags. In the last act, it becomes an action film, with great splashes of blood, multiple severed fingers, and good guy bullets proving far more fatal than bad guy bullets. It still manages some good jokes along with the way, but they’re overshadowed by the mayhem. I would have preferred a clever ending to the big action extravaganza we get.

I give it a B.

Oh, and by the way, despite the previous threats, no one bombed the theater.

Harold and Maude–Still funny and inspiring after all these years

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans were embracing non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably.

image

I revisited the movie Friday night on Blu-ray. I can’t say I love it as much as I used to, but it’s still touching and very funny. And its message is still a good one. But the ending bothers me considerably now much closer to Maude’s age than Harold’s. I give it an A-.

I first saw Harold and Maude a year or so after its original release, and fell in love with it immediately. I saw it countless times in revival movie theaters over the next decade. In the last 30 years, I’ve seen it only twice. The first time was on Laserdisc in 1996 or ’97, when I showed it to my son–who was really not ready for it. The second time was last Friday night.

As the story begins, Harold (Bud Cort) lives in a huge mansion with his very proper and aristocratic mother (a very funny Vivian Pickles). He appears to be about 20, with no responsibilities; he doesn’t work or go to school. But he has hobbies. He drives a hearse. He attends funerals. And he tortures his mother by staging fake suicides. Many of the movie’s biggest laughs come from Pickle’s mildly annoyed reactions to his ghastly fake deaths; she’s clearly used to them.

Then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), another fan of funerals. She’s almost 80. She loves life–her own and others. While Harold is quiet and introverted, she’s loud and open to anything. She talks about her past political activism. She jokes, flirts, dabbles in the arts, and steals cars so that people won’t get too attached to material objects.

And of course she’s exactly what Harold needs. She opens him up and allows him to see that there is more to life than death. Within the space of a few days, they become close friends, then lovers.

The story could easily become sappy, but writer Colin Higgins and director Hal Ashby avoid the trap with broad and effective humor. Harold’s shrink, priest, and war-monger uncle are almost as funny as his mother (the priest has a short but pricelessly hilarious monolog near the end). Two encounters with a frustrated cop bring additional laughs. And a running gag where Harold continually sabotages his mother’s attempts at finding him a bride are priceless.

image

Even watching it alone–not the best way to see any comedy–I was laughing out loud much of the time.

But there are dark sides to the story, and not just in the funeral and suicide gags. Maude lets on briefly that her life has included some serious suffering. And one shot, so short you might miss it, tells you just how horrible her past had been.

Ashby handles the sexual part of their relationship carefully. There’s only one chaste kiss. The only time you see them in bed, they’re on opposite sides and not touching. The film is rated PG.

I can’t discuss Harold and Maude without mentioning the songs by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. At his artistic height, he was a brilliant singer and songwriter (if a bit didactic), and his songs fit this film perfectly, both musically and thematically. It seems impossible that the man who wrote "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" would become a fundamentalist who would embrace the call to murder a novelist. But we have to face the fact that it happened.

Now I would like to discuss the ending. So if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want your first screening spoiled, you should stop reading this now.

image

Okay. Is everyone here ready to read about the ending?

Maude commits suicide on her 80th birthday, just before Harold was to propose. It’s not entirely a surprise. Some casual comments she makes beforehand suggest her plan. "I’ll be eighty next week. A good time to move on, don’t you think?"

Now, if she was decrepit, miserable, and facing a horrible and fatal illness, I could understand her action. But she’s a very young 80, living life to the fullest. She’s just acquired a lover a quarter of her age. She has a lot to live for.

The filmmakers could have found a better ending. She might have rejected Harold’s marriage proposal, and sent him on his way, explaining that she doesn’t want to be tied down. She could be facing a horrible and fatal illness, and wanted to go before the symptoms took over her life.

Either of those could still have motivated Harold to do what he does in the movie’s wonderful last few seconds, when he drives his car over a cliff, then walks away strumming a banjo.

Fantasy for the family that thinks together: Time Bandits on Criterion Blu-ray

At his creative height in the 1980s, Terry Gilliam wrote and directed some of the dizziest, imaginative fantasies ever projected. He would mash up well-known myths, social satire, amazing (but cheap) special effects, the surreal comedy of Monty Python (he was, after all, their token Yank), and a busily baroque visual style all his own. His more recent works, such as The Zero Theorem, are a pale reflection of what he once could do.

Time Bandits, briefly the top-grossing independent film ever, was his breakout hit. It came out as a bolt of merry lightning in 1981, reminding everyone who saw it that there was more to fantasy adventure than an endless stream of Star Wars and Conan rip-offs. Here was an irreverent tale of Robin Hood, Napoleon, Agamemnon, the Titanic, and the ultimate battle between God and Satan.

image

Actually, in this movie they’re called the Supreme Being and Evil. The Supreme Being is played by Ralph Richardson as a fussy bureaucrat in a business suit. I doubt anyone else could have properly delivered a line like "I am the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim."

David Warner, one of the great villains of the last half century, plays Evil with appropriate relish, in a costume and makeup that must have been great fun to design. He has henchmen, of course, obsequious yes men whom he blows up on a whim.

image

But let’s get to the story:

Young Kevin (Craig Warnock), a wise boy with idiotic parents, accidentally finds himself travelling through time with six motley and generally inept robbers. They started their criminal careers by stealing a map from the Supreme Being that shows holes in the fabric of time and space. With this map in their hands, they can rob Napoleon (Ian Holm) and escape into Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. "Mr." Hood, by the way, is played by John Cleese as an insufferable and idiotic nobleman proud to be slumming with "the poor."

image

The robbers, played by little people–including David Rappaport as their leader and Kenny Baker (AKA R2D2)–start off greedy and self-centered, and constantly arguing with each other. But as Evil (who wants to get his hands on that map) comes after them, they have to learn to care for each other, and for Kevin.

Time Bandits is a family movie, in the sense that children and adults can all enjoy it. But it’s too scary for very young children. I would say it’s fine for kid seven and up. But it’s not appropriate for parents who don’t want their children laughing at God.

First Impression

imageThe disc comes in a thickish plastic case. The outer slipcover has a lenticular illustration that creates a 3D effect if you look at it straight on.

Remove the slipcover and open the case, and you’ll find the disc and, instead of Criterion’s usual book, a fold-out copy of the map so important to the plot. On the other side you’ll find an essay by David Sterritt and credits for both the film and disc.

The essay is alright, but there’s too much plot description and too much celebration, with too little real analysis.

When you insert the disc, it displays the aforementioned map, with standard Criterion menu on the left.

Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, it has a timeline. You can bookmark any point in the movie. When you insert the disc for the second or third time, you’ll be asked if you want to go back to where you left off.

How It Looks

Gilliam, with the help of Art Director Norman Garwood and cinematographer Peter Biziou, filled the frame with little details to delight the eye and create a sense of wonder. That’s part of Gilliam’s signature style. The better the resolution, the more you get to enjoy.

Criterion’s 2K transfer, supervised by Gilliam, does justice to this busy image (yes, it probably would have looked even better in 4K). Details are sharp, and the film grain is visible but not distracting. In a couple of shots, the skin tones looked a little over-saturated, but I’m not sure that wasn’t intentional.

How It Sounds

Like most commercial features of the 80s, Time Bandits was released theatrically in the 35mm version of Dolby Stereo. To recreate that type of mix in home media, all you need is two-track stereo media, a surround audio system, and enough knowledge to press the Surround or Surround Decode button on your receiver’s remote control. (You don’t need to press that button for a more modern 5.1 mix.)

Criterion offers the original Dolby Stereo mix as an uncompressed, PCM, 24-bit, two-track stereo mix. The only thing missing: They don’t tell you that this is a Dolby Surround mix. I don’t know why. So you have to know, on your own, to turn on the Surround or Surround Decode feature on your receiver.

By the way, it sounds great.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Terry Gilliam and cast members: The various people who speak on this track, prepared in 1997 for the Criterion Laserdisc release, were recorded separately. You don’t get to hear them talking to each other. Gilliam does the lion’s share of the talking, while Craig Warnock (a young adult by 1997) adds quite a bit. So does Michael Palin, who in addition to acting co-wrote the screenplay with Gilliam. John Cleese and David Warner talk a bit about their small parts. Interesting and fun.
  • Creating the Worlds of the Bandits: 23 minutes. HD. New. This documentary covers production and costume design, and tells the story of how the movie was shot, from the point of view of the designers.
  • Terry Gilliam and (film scholar) Peter Von Bagh: 80 minutes. A conversation recorded in 1998 at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, just before a screening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Gilliam recounts his life and career, with very little about Time Bandits.
  • Shelley Duvall: 9 minutes. Excerpt from a 1981 episode of TV show Tomorrow, where Duvall is interviewed by Tom Snyder. Kind or ironic since she has such a small role.
  • Still Gallery: Lots of behind the scenes photos. Didn’t go through all of it.
  • Trailer: Very funny in a meta way.

The Criterion Time Bandits Blu-ray disc goes on sale today.

Wild: Hiking, Health, and Heroin

A drama

  • Written by Nick Hornby, from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed
  • Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life, until she walked into the real wild and got herself together. I don’t know or care whether the film is accurate to Strayed’s memoirs or experience. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s a powerful story of loss, love, fear, and personal courage.

Cheryl’s three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail makes up the film’s spine. (I’m calling the real person Strayed, and the character in the movie Cheryl.) As played by Reese Witherspoon (who also Executive Produced), Cheryl starts the journey woefully unprepared. She’s packed too much to carry. She bought the wrong stove fuel. Her shoes don’t fit properly.

Of course she learns along the way. Other hikers she meets give her help and advice. She becomes physically stronger. She learns through practice. She occasionally dips back into civilization, and especially enjoys a stop in Ashland, OR.

But the hike is largely pictured as difficult and dangerous. She runs out of water. She gets lost in the snow. More than once, she faces the very real possibility of rape.

The film never fully explains why she went on this arduous journey. But the flashbacks, which take up a good portion of the film’s running time, give us a clue. Unlike the main journey, the flashbacks are not told chronologically.

Many of the flashbacks involve her mother (Laura Dern), a woman who embraces life despite the many nasty turns it has given her. Poor and single, she loves her children deeply, and finds great joy in their company and in life itself. Her death by cancer at much too young an age clearly left a deep mark on Cheryl.

And then there’s the matter of her marriage, which Cheryl destroyed with her drug abuse–including a period of heroin addiction–and her habitual promiscuity. Her ex-husband is still her confidant and best friend. This is very much a young woman who needs to make a big change in her life.

One minor technical complaint: Wild was shot with the Arri Alexa XT, one of the best digital cameras around. For most movies, it’s all you need. But for capturing the beauty of the great outdoors, 35mm film still surpasses the best digital camera–even if the image is screened digitally.

And yet, I can understand the choice to use the Alexa. Much of Wild was shot in difficult locations, and carrying multiple thousand-foot-rolls of 35mm film would have made a difficult shoot much more difficult.

Besides, this film really isn’t about the beauty of the great outdoors. Only once does Cheryl stop to admire the view–and that time, the view includes full frontal male nudity.

Wild concentrates on something more basic than visual beauty. It’s really about the difficulties and dangers of those wild outdoors, and how a challenge can change a person for the better.

Watching Interstellar in 70mm

On director Christopher Nolan’s orders, Paramount released Interstellar on film as well as digitally. I believe this is the first new movie released in over a year.

And not just 35mm. it’s also being released in conventional 70mm and 70mm Imax, along with various digital formats.

I’ve already posted my review of the film. This article is about how it’s projected.

Imax–the original, 70mm version–is probably the right way to see Interstellar. It offers the biggest frame and the biggest screen. At least that’s the theory. More on Interstellar in Imax below.

I chose instead to see it in conventional 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. It’s closer to my home, and much less expensive (matinee: $5). Besides, it’s the Grand Lake.

Unfortunately, I waited too long to catch it in their downstairs auditorium, with its spectacular design and huge screen.

Interstellar had by then moved upstairs, to the former balcony. The upstairs screen is still quite large, so it can still provide a good, immersive experience, especially when projecting 70mm film.

In one sense, it’s more immersive than the downstairs auditorium; the front row is much closer to the screen. So close, in fact, that even I chose the second row. Unfortunately, this auditorium has a center aisle; wherever you sit, it’s always going to be just a bit off center. When you sit near the front in a movie theater, you want to be dead center.

I hadn’t been in that theater in decades. The last time I saw a 70mm film on that screen was probably Poltergeist in 1982.

Before the movie started, I walked to the back of the auditorium to peer into the projection booth. On the left I saw a 2K digital projector. On the right, a 35/70mm film projector.

The show began with trailers, digitally projected. Actually, I was surprised that the second trailer, for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, wasn’t on 70mm film. Tarantino–like Nolan a major proselytizer for physical film–plans to release this western in 70mm. (The first trailer was for The Imitation Machine.)

But when the third trailer started, a slight vibration on the screen and a few flecks of dirt told me we were back to celluloid. The trailer was for Inherent Vice, a comedy by another cinematic luddite, Paul Thomas Anderson. And yes, the trailer was in 70mm.

And so was the movie I came to see–Interstellar.

There’s no question about it; 70mm provides a beautiful image, and Interstellar makes great use of it. The picture was bright, colorful, immersive, and detailed. Although I was disappointed by the movie, I loved the presentation.

image

But I can’t honestly say that it looked better this way than it would have looked with 4K digital projection. Watching a film on film provides a nostalgic effect for me now–I’ve been watching movies that way all of my life. The big advantages of 70mm, when compared to 35mm, is that there’s less vibration and a brighter image. Digital provides an even brighter image and has no vibration at all..

I understand that Nolan wants people to see Interstellar on film, preferably in a large format, and I respect his preference. But I doubt that what I saw looked better than a first-rate digital presentation.

Would it have been better in Imax? Gary Meyer attended an Imax press screening of Interstellar, and it was ruined by technical problems. It’s worth reading his report at Eat Drink Films.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers