Wednesday, February 21, 2007

THE SLIFR-TLRHB OSCAR CLUB: Volver, Judi Dench and the Belligerent Return of Bebe Rebozo

Just because I can...

Sunday, February 18 9:25 p.m.

Well, I’m here at a screening of Volver, and since I've got a half hour to wait before the show starts, I thought I'd start scratching out some thoughts the old school, pen-and-paper way in response to your latest post. Unfortunately, there seems to be a strange situation brewing just over my left shoulder and back about three rows. When I walked into the auditorium, there was a man, mid 50s, sitting near the back and carrying on a fairly loud one-sided conversation in Spanish. Another one of these folks with the fancy cell-phone earpiece who just can't be separated from his connection to the outside world for even a few minutes, I thought. That's the problem with hidden or hands-free digital phone technology-- you're never quite sure if the guy talking animatedly to himself is arguing with his girlfriend, closing some business deal, or trying to settle a cosmic dispute with Pazuzu, Lord of the Underworld. I've been listening to him for about 10 minutes now, and not only is the distinct aroma of grain alcohol in the air, but as a non-Spanish-speaking person even I'm picking up on the occasional word-- bits like puta, pinche, cabron, chinga this, chinga that, and again cabron. It's becoming pretty clear that getting drunk on Penelope Cruz has a couple of different meanings for this particular audience.

Just now I accidentally made eye contact with this soused cinemagoer. He was pointing directly at me, addressing me alternately as "bro" and (here it is again) "cabron," and acting as if he was going to get up and come on over so he could be sure I knew he was talking to me. I ignored him and sat back down, and right now he's still yammering, although I think he's moved on to someone else. Not sure how this situation is going to play out...

Whoops, maybe I am. The management, in the personage of a tall, slender Laemmle Theatres employee, has decided to intervene. It took the underpaid employee about five minutes to get the man to agree to leave, with the help of a young man near the front who spoke to the inebriated fella in Spanish and assured him, as seemed to be his concern, that his rights were not being violated. The young guy, myself and a couple of hipsters sitting in front of me were watching the scene, glancing at each other occasionally, the unspoken message being that we were ready to step in and help the employee if the drunken Almodovar fan suddenly got violent or otherwise overly resistant. It took the guy three false starts, followed by quick turns to continue addressing the auditorium with slurred invective, before he finally stepped into the hallway leading to the snack bar. But that was not all, folks! He made one final lunge back into the theater, started shouting in a much more emphatic manner-- I picked up something that sounded like "su liberal!"-- before he paused for a split second, then held both arms up high above his head, hands formed into peace signs, and grinned wildly, like Nixon catching that last helicopter ride to San Clemente. As he turned and made his actual exit, the last thing I heard was the employee asking him, not without good humor, "Sir, how exactly did you get here?" And then, as mysteriously as he arrived, he was gone. Could we have just witnessed the strange and belligerent return of Bebe Rebozo?

I've spent my fair share of time watching movies in grindhouses and worn-out multiplexes, so I’m not unfamiliar with the occasional audience outburst. One late night triple bill of Mad Max, The Warriors and Death Wish II at the old Aztec in downtown San Diego felt particularly like a war zone-- just replace Colonel Kilgore's ode to napalm with one for muscatel, and you'll know what it smelled like at 3:00 in the morning after this show finished. But this is the Pasadena Playhouse on a Sunday night, for hell’s sake, for a screening of perhaps the most genteel movie Almodovar has ever directed. What's going on here? It must be the crackle of Oscar in the air. Maybe some of us just can't handle it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007, back in my office… safe and sound...

Penelope Cruz was as smashing and exciting to watch as I’d hoped she would be, and though the movie could be considered a trifle up against Almodovar’s own standard, Volver has a lovely spirit of strength and respect for even the lowliest bastard on screen that is startling. The director goes a bit too far in actually showcasing a clip on TV of Anna Magnani in Visconti’s Bellissima-- yes, we get it, Pedro, and I’m willing to concede that, in your hands, Cruz can hold her own in the shadow of that kind of iconography. But what’s loveliest about that clip is that it is being watched by the fascinating Carmen Maura, as Cruz’s mother, who may or may not be an apparition risen up from the past. (“Volver” translates as “coming back.”) Maura’s presence adds weight and an overwhelming swell of emotion to the movie’s resistance of its own melodramatic tendencies. And Cruz perfectly embodies Almodovar’s ideal woman—flighty, persistent, tough, sometimes bullying, tenderhearted, and oddly gorgeous. I’ve never noticed until this movie that she has an imperfection between the top of her nose and her left eye, a slight bump or swelling that looks as if she were bearing a perpetual tear, always ready to fall. Which is perfect, for in Volver those eyes are almost always brimming with the real thing, and so were mine. If Cruz is Almodovar’s new muse, I think that can only be a blessing.

She has no chance in the Oscar race, however. Nor does Meryl Streep, who has essentially been nominated for a supporting role—Anne Hathaway was the lead in The Devil Wears Prada. (I would make the same distinction about The Last King of Scotland-- Forest Whitaker is undeniably grand as Idi Amin, but his is not the lead role, only the most galvanizing and magnetic. The movie, disappointingly, is another one of those "Africa as seen through the eyes of an innocent/gullible/naïve white man" pictures, a young-- fictionalized-- doctor played by James McAvoy, the film’s real lead, and the atrocities that were an insistent reality for Ugandans under Amin don’t come into focus at all, don’t really matter a whit until they are meant to matter for this character.) The only actress who stands a chance against Helen Mirren is Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal, one of the most fearsome and fearless pieces of acting I’ve ever seen this actress undertake. Her lonely, bitter schoolteacher becomes fixated on Cate Blanchett, a young teacher who Dench discovers is mired in an affair with a 15-year-old student. It’s fascinating and agonizing to watch Dench play out, for what doesn’t appear to be the first time, a suffocating scenario of friendship that gets tangled up in emotional blackmail, sexual longing and, finally, outright hostility, as she attempts to fool herself, and then Blanchett, that their friendship is a romantic ideal rather than the twisted dance of manipulation it really is. Dench is brilliant. But her movie steps back from the melodramatic finish it seems to be building toward in order to end on a more ambivalent note, one which we are left to decide is hopeful for Dench’s character, or just the start of the spinning of another web. And the character may be just a tad too creepy for endorsement by the little gold man.

I’ll save my thoughts on Peter O’Toole for next time-- his role in Venus was an interesting parallel to Dench in Notes on a Scandal. (I saw both movies back to back.) But before I let this post go on as long as the others, let’s talk about Cars. I have a feeling you thought my question last time was meant as facetious bait, but it actually wasn’t. I can remember reading several reviews when Cars premiered last June that seemed to be docking points from the movie, which was conceived and produced over the course of several years, for having the bad luck to be released during the summer when Americans faced the most outrageous hikes in gas prices in the country’s history.

My own review addressed the timing, but not as if to say that John Lasseter should be knocked for celebrating an aspect of American culture that had suddenly become almost prohibitively expensive for his own core audience. As I think more about it, that timing might actually work in favor of Cars as a celebration of the bygone pleasures of the open road. At least for this driver (part of a family of four), in 2007 it’s not only the meandering highways that have gone missing in my life—the very act of driving as a means of anything but getting to and from work and the grocery store has all but disappeared, thanks to the those gas prices. And that has made the nostalgia of Cars an even more bittersweet element. I fully understand your endorsement of it as an exceptional family film featuring lessons worth imparting to young viewers—I said the same thing in that original review. And I absolutely understand your love for it as being forever entwined with what it has meant for your own daughter.

For me, Cars is playful and wonderful, but a notch below the rich delight of The Incredibles or Monsters, Inc., which was the movie my first daughter and I bonded over. To my eye, Cars offers nothing so sublime as the final shot of Monsters, Inc., the look of joy washing over Sulley’s face as he (but not we) sees Boo safe and asleep in her bed once again. And though I wouldn’t vote for it for Best Animated Film, I’m not going to be at all upset when it wins. (It’s shaping to be one of those years for me, TLRHB!)

But you confess a beef with Hollywood because movies like Monster House aren’t necessarily made for kids. (I would say “just for kids,” but that’s me.) And my most cogent and serious reply to your concern would be, so what? Animation shouldn’t necessarily imply an exclusively juvenile or kid-oriented realm, should it? And even if it did, I’d wager I loved Curious George and Charlotte’s Web just as much as you did. But on the other end of the scale, I don’t have a problem with a movie that approaches scaring the shit out of young kids in the way that Monster House does. If I’d seen that movie when I was six, you bet it would have scared me (as it did my daughters), and I would have loved every minute of it (as did my daughters). I would have also appreciated the way it appealed to my imagination, offered me funny and witty vocal performances (and visual translations of those performances) to enjoy, and left me feeling like its creators weren’t just looking to appeal to my short-attention span and toss out random jolts to keep me awake. I’m aware of your distaste for horror movies, so maybe that has something to do with your resistance to what Monster House has to offer, besides the reasons you already stated. And maybe not. I just happen to prefer the flight of imagination it took me on over the friendlier environs of Cars.

(Since we’re on the subject of inappropriate behavior in children’s entertainment—sort of—might I take this opportunity, if you have not already come to this conclusion yourself, to encourage you to make every effort to steer your daughter away from this particularly sickening, and very popular, phenomenon? Here’s something that ought to strike equal measures of fear and disgust into the hearts of any parent of a young daughter.)

True, one has to be aware that for every Monster House or Happy Feet, there’s a crapfest like Open Season or Happily Never After waiting to nab the unsuspecting or uninformed parent’s hard-earned dollar. But when has that ever not been the case? The exciting thing about this new crop of animated films (and I would include all three nominees in this group, as well as Flushed Away, Over the Hedge, Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit and the Hayao Miyazaki movies) is that they’re providing kids with a fairly rich range of entertainment which offers all kinds of opportunities to be enthralled and perhaps inspired by the filmmaking and the storytelling itself. They are movies for kids (and adults) that don’t condescend or pander to their audience, that don’t become instantly dated the way junk like Shrek 2 and A Shark’s Tale do, that actually stand a chance of becoming meaningful movies for them as they build up their own history with the medium.

Rats! I’ve allowed myself to prattle on far too long yet again. And I haven’t even gotten around to Ennio Morricone. Well, it doesn’t look like we’ll have any trouble finding things to talk about this week, does it? And I’m not sure I have a lot to add to your excellent assessment of the master composer’s career anyway, but I’ll try to come up with an observation or two to add. (There are a couple of scores of his I’d like to mention that don’t get too much play.) Let me know if you get your ears on that Celine Dion song. I’d like to be as girded as possible going into Sunday night.

Rolling the red carpet back at ya!


jim emerson said...

Bless you, Dennis, for remembering Bebe Rebozo -- and even what he looked like! He's nine years dead, but fresh in my mind, as I revisited Altman's "Secret Honor" last weekend, and he's one of the heads mounted on Nixon's wall...

At least it wasn't Robert Vesco who was stalking you. That could have been even scarier.

In the Bahamas we can let our stress go,
We’ll walk along the beach and dine al fresco,
I’ll take a power lunch with Robert Vesco -
We’re talking Quality Time...

-- "Quality Time" by Dave Frishberg
(favorite version by the late Susannah McCorkle)

That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

About three-five years ago, I heard Frishberg sing that song in concert. Thanks for the reminder!

Mr. Middlebrow said...

And the movie industry wonders why they have trouble getting backsides in seats... glad to hear that, in this case, it was as at least entertaining--and resolved before the previews rolled.

I'm thoroughly enjoying y'all's back and forth here. I have to confess I haven't seen MONSTER HOUSE, but I'm rooting for CARS, if only to redress the slight of SHREK stealing the Oscar from MONSTERS, INC.

Although, really, should there even be a category for best animated feature? Isn't it sort of cinematic affirmative action? I know: live-action comedies have trouble being taken seriously as Oscar-worth fare; feature animation doesn't have a prayer. Especially given the animation = kid's movie stigma that's been around since, well, forever, Chuck Jones or no Chuck Jones.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Robert Vesco! Yeah, that would've been much scarier! Who's next? Donald Segretti?

Anonymous said...

Since I asked the question in an earlier comment section, I thought I'd answer that question here: there are two films to win the Best Picture Oscar and nothing else - Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty. Grand Hotel was nominated only for Best Picture. Mutiny on the Bounty was nominated for 8 (including three best actor nominations!).

Of course, that begs the question - does it really matter how many awards a film wins? I suppose not. It hasn't hurt The Godfather's stature that it won "only" three awards. And it doesn't make a movie like Gigi loom any larger because it swept all nine categories in which it was nominated.

Would it mean anything about the movies - or the year in movies - or the Best Picture nominees - if a movie like Babel, or Letters from Iwo Jima were to win only the one award?

jim emerson said...

But at least Segretti was played by Robert Walden, that relatively unthreatening guy from "Lou Grant."