Monday, January 2, 2012

It Was the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

For the past few years, I've had a job where there are a bunch of
month-end/quarter-end/year-end activities. As you can imagine, late December is a busy period for me. That's ok for me though. Since my mother passed, Xmas hasn't been as important to me so I visit my father over the New Year's week. One of the upsides is that work is much easier. A lot of people are out of the office for vacation and I can get my work done quicker because of less interruptions. That allows me to go to the gym and go to the movies. Not only is that better for my health but I usually feel better and more alert after working out so I can concentrate better on the films. I think they call that the endorphin rush.

So it was that for seven consecutive days from December 23 to 29, I saw nine films which may be the longest streak of thoroughly enjoyable films I have ever seen.

The Artist starring Jean Dujardin & Bérénice Bejo; directed by Michel Hazanavicius; silent with intertitles; (2011) - Official Website
Shame starring Michael Fassbender & Carey Mulligan; directed by Steve McQueen; (2011) - Official Website
Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness; documentary; directed by Joseph Dorman; narrated by Alan Rosenberg; (2011) - Official Website
The Descendants starring George Clooney & Shailene Woodley; directed by Alexander Payne; (2011) - Official Website
Silent Souls; directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko; Russian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Site (Russian)
The Gold Rush starring Charlie Chaplin & Georgia Hale; silent with intertitles (1925)
On the Town starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen & Ann Miller; directed by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen; (1949)
Singin' in the Rain starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds & Jean Hagen; with Cyd Charisse & Rita Moreno; directed by Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen; (1952)
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg starring Catherine Deneuve & Nino Castelnuovo; with Anne Vernon & Marc Michel; directed by Jacques Demy; French with subtitles; (1964)


The Artist is one of the most talked about films of the season. The film trailer set to the tune of "Sing, Sing, Sing" is one of the best I've seen. I won't quibble that "Sing, Sing, Sing" came out after the semi-fictitious events depicted in the film.

I was familiar with star Jean Dujardin & director Michel Hazanavicius from their James Bond spoof OSS-117: Lost in Rio. Deliciously insensitive in the role, Dujardin's turn as the anachronistic Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Agent 117) gave no indication that he could carry a silent film as the debonair, silent film star George Valentin in The Artist.

I won't bother to rehash the plot of The Artist. It borrows somewhat from A Star is Born and Singin' in the Rain but tells the entire story without dialog (except for the final shot). It tells the story in a extremely effective manner which makes me wonder how silent films would have evolved if they hadn't been supplanted by talkies or allowed to coexist. Like Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), Hazanavicius utilizes sound effects and a soundtrack to supreme effect.

I may be getting sentimental as get older, but my eyes were moist as I watched the once proud Valentin reduced to ruins while the beautiful and kind-hearted Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) attempts to help him. The film features strong supporting performances from Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin's shrewish wife, John Goodman as the movie studio chief, James Cromwell as Valentin's loyal manservant and Missi Pyle as Valentin costar in one scene where she seems to be channeling Jean Hagen from Singin' in the Rain. Uggie, a Jack Russell Terrier, was a little unctuous for my tastes but nonetheless gets a lot of screen time as Valentin's second banana.

The Artist is a tremendous film which left me impressed with its technical mimicry of silent era films and the emotional punch it packed. Count me as one of The Artist's biggest fans.


I saw The Artist at the Landmark Theater Embarcadero Center Cinema on Friday, December 23. I returned there the next day to see Shame.

I was not too familiar with the plot for Shame. I knew that Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict & Carey Mulligan (whom I most recently saw in Drive) plays his sister. I knew it was going to be a depressing film but I wasn't sure how the plot was going unfold.

That didn't quite prepare me for Shame. The film is about Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) and his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). They must have had one hell of a childhood although it is never explicitly explained. Sullivan copes with his problem through sex addiction and viewing pornography; Sissy is a codependent and reformed cutter with scars all along her forearms. Sullivan is a functional addict but the appearance of his sister stirs up deep-seated emotions. An ill advised one-stand between Sullivan's boss and his sister creates more stress. Finally, a failed romantic encounter with an attractive coworker lays bare Sullivan's dysfunction and addiction. This leads to the dénouement which involves a beating, anonymous gay sex, a ménage à trois and attempted suicide.

The film keeps getting darker and darker as we see Sullivan lose control of his addiction. In addition to anonymous sex, use of prostitutes and on-line porn, Sullivan masturbates like fiend. It's as if each ejaculation provides relief from his demons within. It's difficult to watch. Sissy delivers a line which sums up the plight of these characters when she says "We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Shame is a powerful film which left me numb at the end.

Fassbender's performance has been lauded with a Golden Globe nomination. Two performances stand out for me - James Badge Dale as Sullivan's jerk boss and Nicole Beharie as his co-worker whom he has eyes for. Mulligan didn't have a lot to do in the film and her torch song version of "New York, New York" unintentionally made me laugh.

While watching the credits, I noticed the two women who were part of Sullivan's ménage à trois were credited as Calamity Chang and DeeDee Luxe...what great names. It turns out both are burlesque performers in New York and have cult followings.


On Xmas, I made a day of it in the South Bay. My first cinematic stop was at the Camera 3 in San Jose. I caught Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, a documentary about the writer who created the character of Tevye the Dairyman, the protagonist of Fiddler on the Roof.

Sholem Aleichem was the pen name of Solomon Rabinovich, a Hasidic Jew born in 1859 in the Ukraine. Sholem Aleichem means "peace be upon you." The filmmakers posit that Sholem Aleichem essentially defined Jewish humor and that his perspective on life was heavily influenced by his childhood, marriage, Jewish pogroms and the Yiddish language of the region. Using talking head experts on Jewish culture, the film meanders while following Sholem Aleichem's success and failures...much like one of his stories.

Buoyed by the mellifluous but vaguely Jewish sounding narration of Alan Rosenberg and some superb comedic readings by Saturday Night Live alumni Rachel Dratch, Sholem Aleichem kept me interested in a man I had never heard of before and time & culture I had never given much thought to before. At 93 minutes, the film was a 10 to 15 minutes too long for me but otherwise it was a solid documentary.


After Sholem Aleichem, I had a bite to eat and I stopped by the Landmark Aquarius in Palo Alto to see The Descendants.

Since this film has a Golden Globe nomination and on the short list for an Oscar, I see no reason to recount the plot since there must be hundreds of reviews on-line.

I've never been a big fan of George Clooney but he pleasant enough in his roles. He seems to have a limited range as an actor - the quizzical look for comedic effect and he drops his voice to barely audible with clipped speech for dramatic effect. I will credit Clooney for not being a selfish actor. He lets other play off his relatively impassive demeanor. Although Clooney has the central role in The Descendants, it is 20 year old Shailene Woodley as his oldest daughter who does much of the heavy lifting in the film. Her character hints at some of the issues she may have had with her parents before her mother's injury and reflects a genuine love of her father. Her character is 17 years old but has been through rehab, knew her mother was cuckolding her father, learns her mother is dying and helps to confront her mother's lover...she has a lot on her plate and when you consider this, Woodley's performance is very complex.

In addition, Robert Forster shows up as Clooney's dyspeptic father-in-law and Beau Bridges has a memorable scene as Clooney's cousin. Clooney pretty much clears out and lets both actor emote and do their thing while berating Clooney's character.

Beyond Clooney's translucent performance and the strong supporting actors, The Descendants mixes tragedy and comedy in a way which becoming associated with director Alexander Payne. He has covered some of the same ground in Sideways and About Schmidt but in The Descendants it looks more natural. The scenes in Sideways and About Schmidt looked contrived and the characters too self-aware but The Descendants moves at pace that better reflect life or at least my perspective of life.

I wasn't deeply moved by The Descendants nor did laugh uncontrollably but when the film ended, I felt as though I had seen an expertly crafted film.


On Monday, December 26, I intended to see the 6:30 PM screening of The Gold Rush at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. However, I caught heavy traffic on Park Presidio Blvd. on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge so, in mid-trip, I changed my mind and decided to see Silent Souls at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema at the Viz.

Of all the regions of the world, Eastern Europe is an area whose cinema holds little appeal to me. It seems like Eastern Europe cinema is a constant stream of depressing stories with the ever present spectre of totalitarian government suppression which results in beaten down and depressed old men bundled up against the bitter cold with a dank, grey backdrop of utilitarian buildings and polluted skies. While the consensus opinion of some these films is that they masterpieces, I'm left scratching my head.

Silent Souls has some of these characteristics. Set in a drab town that I can't recall but assume is in the Russian Steppes, the film follows the peculiar customs of the Merjan, an extinct culture of Finnish origin who was swallowed up by the Slavs. Despite this, in these small towns, their customs are still observed.

Silent Souls follows two Merjan men as they bury one man's wife. I don't know about the veracity of the depicted Merjan customs but we learn among other tidbits that Merjan women tie stings around their pubic hair on their wedding day, that Merjan men "smoke" about their dead wives which means they tell explicit sexual stories and that all Merjan have an affinity for the water and desire to have their remains be consecrated in the waters near their birthplace.

Silent Souls is set apart from my stereotyped view of Eastern European films by a sense mysticism and spirituality which infuses every scene. These two Merjan men are doing something deeply personal and haunting as they accompany the corpse back to her origins. The extended scene where they methodically & ritually cleanse the woman's body is mesmerizing as are a few other scenes.

The net effect is that I felt like I was watching something profound. Perhaps it was more abstruse or abstract than profound but the film never lost my interest. Like a noir film, the story is told in flashback as the narrator refers to everything in past tense and pre-shadows certain events. This adds an elegiac layer to the film. I had to dust of some 25 cent words to describe the film so it must insightful.

Silent Souls is playing at the Roxie this week.


On Tuesday, December 27, I gave myself extra time to get across the Golden Gate Bridge although I didn't need it. Traffic was not as heavy on Tuesday as the day before.

Sadly, there were only six people in the audience for the 6:30 PM screening of The Gold Rush. The 35mm version screened at the Smith Rafael Film Center was a restored version. The prologue mentioned the version screening that night incorporated footage from the 1925 silent release and music from the 1942 re-release which Chaplin oversaw. However, the 1942 version was shorter than the 1925 version. The print that screened that night tried to marry all the frames from the silent film with the soundtrack from the 1942 version.

The Gold Rush is basically The Little Tramp in the Yukon. There are a few classic gags including the dancing dinner rolls, eating a boot and the shack on the ledge which teeters and totters depending on what side of the room the men are on. Like all Chaplin silent films, The Gold Rush had some inspired moments.

There was one plot point I found strange - the Little Tramp got the money and the girl in The Gold Rush. Also, the girl (Georgia Hale) had a capricious streak which left the ending ambiguous. Although they share a romantic kiss as the film fades out, I wondered if the girl loved him, wanted his money or was trying to atone for having previously toyed with his affections.

Apparently Chaplin felt the same. In the 1942 reissue, he ended the film before the final kiss. The Little Tramp never gets the girl, right? Chaplin also changed a scene were the girl's love note to another man is delivered to him. In the 1942 version, the girl sends the Little Tramp the love note to make clear her affection is not a byproduct of his newfound wealth.


On 28th, I went to the Castro to see a Gene Kelly double bill - On the Town and Singin' in the Rain. Both these films are classics but Singin' in the Rain is considered by some the greatest musical ever made. Being contrarian, I preferred On the Town. I think saw On the Town on television when I was a kid. I've never Singin' in the Rain except for select musical numbers. Going in, I didn't even know it was set during the silent film era.

On the Town is iconic in its own right. When I see see a trio of sailors in their crackerjacks, I think of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and...the other guy. Given 24 hour shore leave in New York, the three try to paint the town red. In quick order, two of three find girls but poor Gene Kelly is stuck on Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen) who moonlights as a Coney Island cooch dancer and coincidentally comes from the same small town as Kelly's character (wouldn't they know each other or each other's family?). Like most musicals, the plot isn't important.

On the Town has a few musical numbers that I greatly enjoyed. Among my favorites were the opening number when the sailors come on shore and sing

"New York, New York, a helluva town.
The Bronx is up, but the Battery's down.
The people ride in a hole in the groun'.
New York, New York, a helluva town!!"

I also liked "Prehistoric Man" which set at the Museum of Natural History when sexy Ann Miller hooks up with the third sailor (Jule Munshin).

My favorite number from either On the Town and Singin' in the Rain is "Miss Turnstiles" where Vera-Ellen gets to dance, show off her athleticism and wear some short skorts which highlight her shapely legs.

I can't add much to what has already been written about Singin' in the Rain. Between Singin' in the Rain, The Artist and Once in a Lifetime at ACT, the 4th quarter of 2011 was all about the transition from silent films to talkies.

Having only seen the musical numbers from Singin' in the Rain, Jean Hagen's performance as nasal voiced, Brooklyn accented Lina Lamont was quite a pleasant surprise. Ms. Hagen won an Supporting Actress Oscar for the performance.

Cyd Charisse shows up for an extended dance number. Although Rita Moreno is listed fairly high in the credit, her role is so small that I cannot recall her speaking any dialog. Kelly shows a flair for comedy when he's not singing or dancing in the film.

On the Town and Singin' in the Rain are great musicals. I can't help but smile, laugh and feel better about life after watching them.


The week ended when I returned to the Castro on December 29 to see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Umbrellas is a musical but definitely a horse of a different color. French language, continuous recitative "songs" and closer to sad than bittersweet.

The film is closer to a three act opera than a Hollywood musical. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are Geneviève Emery & Guy Foucher, two young people in love for the first time. Guy is drafted into the French Army and sent to Algeria during the war. On their last night together, Geneviève & Guy procreate, leaving Geneviève in a socially and financially awkward situation. Unrelated, Geneviève's mother is having financial difficulties of her own. Looking to pawn the family jewels, the women encounter Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), a wealthy, single, jewelry merchant.

The 30something Cassard shows romantic interest in the 17 year old Geneviève. Rather than be alarmed by the older man's intention, Madame Emery tacitly encourages her daughter to choose the older, wealthier man. Especially when Cassard agrees to the union after discovering Geneviève's delicate condition.

Meanwhile, Guy is wounded in Algeria and his letters to Geneviève go unanswered. Upon his discharge from the Army, he returns to Cherbourg to discover Geneviève has married and moved away and Madame Emery has closed her umbrella shop and similarly moved away. Guy has one more tragedy to overcome. His beloved aunt passes away soon afterwards which sends Guy on a downward spiral. His salvation comes in the person of Madeleine (Ellen Farner), his aunt's live-in caregiver. In a classic rebound relationship, Guy and Madeline eventually marry.

The coda comes a few years later when Guy & Madeline run a gas station (Guy's dream). Around Christmastime, a fancy Mercedes pulls up for gas. Who other than Geneviève should be driving? Older, more sophisticated, clearly weatlhy, Geneviève and her daughter (Guy's child) are driving through Cherbourg. Making small talk but sharing meaningful glances, Guy declines to meet his daughter and Geneviève's drives off. Guy doesn't mention the encounter to Madeline and their son.

The vibrant colors of the sets and costumes made up for the dirge-like songs. Being a guy, I was slightly alienated by Geneviève. However, the film showed both young lovers in difficult circumstances trying to cope as best they can. Far from melodramatic, I thought Umbrellas was an exceptionally well made film. The circumstances were difficult and life itself. I suspect the story could have been told more powerfully without the musical constraints but director Jacques Demy accomplished more than I initially thought he could have within those confines.

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