erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2009 posts

Tuesday November 10, 2009

Review: “An Education” (2009)

WARNING: COMING-OF-AGE SPOILERS

You could say Nic Benns’ brilliant title graphics are at odds with this story.

“An Education” is about a smart girl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), raised by careful, working-class parents in post-World-War-II England, who, when she’s 16 going on 17, and Oxford is in sight, gets involved with an older, wealthier man and almost chucks it all because his life is so much more interesting than her life of Latin, math and cello-playing. “My choice is to do something hard and boring for the rest of my life or go to Paris and have fun!” she says.

Then there are the title graphics. Backed by the bouncy, piano-heavy, early rock n’ roll beat of Floyd Cramer’s “On the Rebound,” animated drawings of books shift into diagrams of microscopes, and these change into cells dividing and DNA patterns and music notes, and on and on, subject by subject. Hard and boring? Education never looked so fun.

It’s 1961 and Jenny’s a girl on the cusp. She’s cute, with deep dimples on fresh cheeks, and she’s filled with over 10 years of education that she doesn’t quite know what to do with yet. She’s more mature than her classmates, savvier than parents and teachers. She’s interested and interesting but with an air of What’s it all about, Alfie?

Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), who pulls up in his Bristol car while she and her cello are waiting for the bus in the rain. First he disarms her with forthrightness (he knows she’s not supposed to accept rides from strange men...), then misdirection (...but he’s a music lover and he’s worried about her cello) and finally charm. The boys in her school are tongue-tied around her, but this man—this man—makes her laugh.

He sends flowers. They meet again and he proposes a Friday-night Ravel concert with dinner afterwards. She says there’s no way her parents, particularly her no-nonsense father, Jack (Alfred Molina), will allow it. But David shows up anyway and charms them, too. “I didn’t know you had a sister, Jenny,” David says, as he kisses her mother's hand. Check out Jenny’s reaction. Did he just say that? Did her parents just buy that? Can you really get away with that?

Much of the movie is learning just how much one can get away with. At the concert they meet David’s friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), and attend dinners and nightclubs and auctions. They make weekend trips to Oxford and Paris. In her first encounter with Helen, a tall blonde, tres chic, done up almost like Deneuve before Deneuve, they’re waiting to check their coats and Jenny drops a few lines of French, just as I’ve done, something about trop cher. Helen stares at her placidly:

“What’s that you said?”
“I said it was too expensive.”
“But those weren’t the words you used.”
“I was speaking French.”
“Oh.”

At first I thought Helen was mocking Jenny’s schoolgirl pretensions, her need to trot out her French; but it turns out Helen is as dumb as a stump. At the same time, she’s not mean. She’s rather sweet.

Even as Jenny's caught up in the whirlwind of David’s playboy lifestyle, she gets clues about him. Some seem positive: He has Negro friends, or at least clients, in 1961. Some seem icky: the odd talk he instigates before sex. Some reveal the chasm between them: At Oxford, David says to the group, “I spent three years here,”  to which Danny responds, “Oh God.” The institution she’s spent her life trying to get into is, to these folks, simply a dreadfully dull place.

Is that why they need her around? Because life is all so dreadfully dull and they need fresh eyes with which to view it? She has a gas bidding for a pre-Raphaelite painting, and so do they, because she has such a gas. “That’s why you’re here,” David tells her later. “To save us from ourselves.”

Other shoes drop. On the way back from Oxford the two men go to an open house and steal a beautiful, framed map. “Liberating it,” they call it. She finds out David’s real job: He moves Negro families into neighborhoods, gets the scared old ladies to sell to him cheap, then moves the Negroes out and reinflates the price. It’s a brilliant scheme, playing on the prejudices of the era (and probably this era), but it's awful. He's a con man; charming, yes, but a con man. But this shoe doesn’t drop hard enough. Now Jenny knows he cons old ladies, and he cons her parents, but somehow she thinks she's immune.

Amidst this whirlwind, her studies falter, Oxford dims, and her dowdy coats and hair are replaced by things sophisticated, swept-up, elegant. In subtle ways, she becomes dismissive of teachers and parents, who aren’t in on the con. You can get away with so much in life. She leaves school altogether—with her father’s blessing—when David proposes marriage, but this turns out to be the biggest con of all. His name isn’t David Stewart but David Goldstein, and he’s married with children. When Jenny arranges to surreptitiously meet the wife (Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky”), the wife immediately figures out who and what she is. “You’re not in a family way, are you?” she asks. “Because that’s happened before.”

But now what? There’s a heart-breaking scene where her father talks to her outside her bedroom door. He had a very regimented life set up for her, to get her into Oxford, but he succumbed, perhaps even more than her, to David’s charms, dazzled by the possibilities of her life away from all this: from the penny saved: from the bit-by-bit; from the pinched existence. The earlier Oxford trip had been greased by a promised meeting with C.S. Lewis—“Clive,” as David had pretended to call him—and in a bar we see David signing Jenny’s copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as “Clive,” with everyone, including Jenny, amused. Now outside the bedroom door, the father talks about listening to a radio program the previous week, which mentioned how C.S. Lewis left Oxford in 1950, and how he thought, “Well, they’ve got that wrong. My Jenny...” The thought trails. He believed his daughter over the radio. His lack of bitterness at being conned, his solicitude for her in her heartbreak, makes the scene extra poignant. “All my life I've been scared,” he admits. “And I didn't want you to be scared.” He leaves her tea and biscuits.

“An Education” is based upon the memoir by Lynn Barber, which was adapted by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”; “About a Boy”) and directed by Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”; “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”). It’s an impeccable film, beautifully acted, wonderfully written, hilarious at times and sad at times. Everything feels exactly right within the confines of its story, but it doesn't resonate much beyond that. Most of us already know the lessons Jenny needs to learn. Plus the movie leaves unanswered its most fundamental questions. During her engagement, Jenny tells her school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson, in a killer cameo), “It’s not enough to educate us any more, Miss Walters, you’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” It’s a good question, but Miss Walters never really answers it—nor does the movie. Instead, after Jenny’s been derailed, she spends the rest of the movie struggling to get back on the rails. To what end? Because that's what we do? As people? In this society? If she really feels that way about education why is she doing it? What's it all about, Jenny?

Ultimately, I guess I just don't buy the film's separation of education and fun. Education can be as fun as a Floyd Cramer rock n' roll number; “fun” can be as dull as a weekend with Peter Sarsgaard.

The last line of the movie does resonate. We see Jenny, finally at Oxford, biking with a classmate, and we hear her in voiceover: “One of the boys I dated—and they were boys—suggested we go to Paris, and I said I'd always wanted to see Paris. As if I'd never been.” It suggests so much. A pretense to innocence that's no longer hers. A time before she was conned. A kind of con of her own.

Posted at 07:42 AM on Nov 10, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Saturday November 07, 2009

Review: “The Damned United” (2009)

WARNING: BRI-ISH SPOILERS

“The Damned United” is the third time in the last three years that Michael Sheen has starred in a movie written by Peter Morgan, and it goes something like this. His job is to play a fairly decent, somewhat intellectual and usually vainglorious man on the rise (Tony Blair in “The Queen,” David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” and Brian Clough here) who butts heads with established power (Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, Don Revie/Leeds United) and winds up bruised. The confident eyes become lost, the telegenic smile turns frozen and embarrassed, and he loses his way. Basically he starts out American and becomes British. But only by becoming British (that is, embarrassed) can he overcome what he needs to overcome (the American part) to be successful.

I thought of this at the end of “The Damned United.” Clough struggles throughout the movie but before the credits we’re told he went on to manage Nottingham Forest, where they won unprecedented back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980; now he’s considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, manager in football history. Immediate thought: Why didn’t we watch that? Immediate guess: Because there would be less drama? Secondary guess: Or because it would be less British?

This movie is totally British. It starts out in 1974 when Don Revie (Colm Meany) leaves the all-powerful Leeds United professional football team to manage...England? In some European-y thing? We don’t have anything like that in American sports. The closest is the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic, which are off-season, irregular gigs, not permanent gigs like this one.

Clough is tapped to replace him. Apparently he had success elsewhere. Apparently he doesn’t think much of Revie or Revie’s style of play, which is brutal and suspect, and he says so on the telly. “Football is a beautiful game,” he says, “and it needs to be played beautifully.” He battles with the players—who loved Revie and his dirty style of play—and he battles with the board, who want him to shut up already. A key moment comes early. Clough, in a conference room with the board, points at Revie’s photo on the wall and says his goal is to make Leeds United so all-powerful that it’ll wipe away the years of success Revie had with the club. He wants to make Revie look like a piker. He wants to make him irrelevant.

I kept translating it all into American. OK, so Revie’s like John Madden and Leeds is like the Oakland Raiders, except more successful than those bastards ever were. Maybe like the ‘70s Yankees? The Bronx Zoo? But who’s Clough then? Billy Martin? A little. But Clough feels less working class, and certainly less crazy and combative, than Martin. Clough takes shit from his players. They physically hurt him.

At the same time there’s an advantage to watching this as an American. Since it’s all new, you have no idea how it will turn out. The disadvantage is you don’t know how it began. Why does Clough hate Revie so?

Then the movie tells us. We go back to 1967 when Clough and his assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), managed Derby (pronounced “Darby”), a team at the bottom of the second division. (Leeds was at the top of the first division.)

Through some kind of lottery system, Leeds winds up playing a match with Derby, in Derby, and Clough preps the stadium as much as his team. He makes sure the crew repaints this and that, and cleans here and there. He scrubs the hallway floor himself. He places oranges on the towels for the players, and breaks out a good bottle of wine and two wine glasses in anticipation of sharing it with Revie. Then Leeds rolls into town, rolls over Derby, and leaves. No wine is shared. Revie doesn’t even shake hands with Clough after the match. A fire is lit. He’s like a spurned lover. Now he wants to win.

With Taylor as his source for talent, and going over the head of his board of directors, he assembles a good football team and they rise in the rankings and make the jump to first division. They lose again to Leeds, but he buys even better players and they rise further and beat Leeds, both in a match and in the division. They come out on top! Which means what? Are there playoffs?

The more successful he gets, though, the mouthier he gets, and the more trouble he has with the board. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country,” he says, “but I am among the top one.” Muhammad Ali, via footage, warns him to shut up, that only he is the greatest and mouthiest. Such scenes are interspersed with the present (1974), where Leeds plays far from beautifully and keeps losing. Clough is without Taylor, his source and his brain, and we intimate something disastrous happened between them. Eventually, after only six weeks, with Leeds near the bottom of Division I, their worst start in 15 years, Clough is fired. Afterwards he goes on a British TV show expecting kid gloves, but is seated next to Revie and they have it out. He comes off as the sad, spurned lover, and Revie gets in the last harsh word. Except Clough warns him fortunes may change. “Let’s see where we are in a year’s time,” he says. “Let’s see where we are in five years’ time.” It feels hollow, a desperate lunge, but it turns out to be amazingly prescient, since, in five years’ time, Clough will have won the European Cup with Nottingham while Revie, having left England to manage, of all teams, United Arab Emirates, will be banned from the sport.

In this way, Clough’s prescient warning to Revie is reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s prescient warning to Tony Blair: “You saw all those [negative] headlines and you thought: ‘One day that might happen to me.’” the Queen says. “And it will, Mr. Blair. Quite suddenly and without warning.” As it did. But that scene worked. It works less well here. Maybe because it worked so well there? Put another way: Peter Morgan needs to stop predicting the future from the past.

No, that’s not it. It worked well there because the Queen wasn’t so much predicting the future as presenting the universal. Even the best leaders misstep, and when they do the press will be on them. That’s the way of leaders and the way of the media. But where you and I will be in five years? That’s unknowable.

“The Damned United” does a lot of things right—from Colm Meany’s hair (a masterpiece of 1974 coiffure) to its startling efficient method of detailing some of the lesser matches (the sound of cheers, a giant moan, and then flashing the final, sad score). The colors often look washed out, as in photos of the era, and the walls of every other room are half-covered in wood-paneling.

I particularly love one shot. It’s the big fight between Clough and Taylor in ’73, after they’ve left Derby amid controversy and signed on with Brighton. Then comes the offer from Leeds. It starts out amusing. “What do we care about Brighton?” Clough says. “Bloody southerners. Looks where we are. We’re almost in France!” Indeed, they’re on a dock at the beach. But as they continue to argue, things get nasty. Taylor accuses Clough of too much ambition, Clough accuses Taylor of too little. He disrespects Taylor’s role in his own rise. He says he’s nothing. Nothing. He calls him history’s fucking afterthought. The camera then cuts to a long shot of the two men on the dock, seen at the bottom of the screen, and they’re both on the left side. Taylor storms off, exiting stage right, with Clough following to get in his last, nasty words. Then he retreats back to the left. Then you see him beginning to regret what he’d said and tries to call Taylor back, but it’s too late. He’s just a lone man on the left side of a long dock.

Here’s what the movie does wrong: I don’t get what makes Brian Clough a good coach. He buys better players from other teams, and he works them hard, but if there’s more to it we don’t see it here. I also don’t believe that his monumental drive to succeed was borne of Revie’s refusal to shake his hand. It feels prissy and belittling.

Still, “The Damned United” is a fun movie, better than those forgettable American sports movies released every January: about the underdog, misfit team that no one thought... but with the can-do coach... and the montage... and the rise... and the last-minute shot. I’m no soccer fan, but standing up during the credits I realized its 97 minutes went by like that. There was never a moment when I wasn't interested. I just wish it meant more. Brian Clough learns his lesson about hubris but the lesson should’ve gone deeper. He was actually right what he said to Taylor, but he should’ve included himself, not to mention you and me, in the charge. We’re all history’s fucking afterthought.

Posted at 07:36 AM on Nov 07, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009
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Monday November 02, 2009

Review: “This Is It” (2009)

WARNING: INCOMPLETE SPOILERS

“This Is It” was going to be the title of Michael Jackson’s fourth and final world concert tour and instead it became the title of a documentary featuring rehearsal footage from that fourth and final concert tour, but the folks at Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle didn’t even bother with it. On the tickets, on the internal marquees, they stuck to the essential. They called it “Michael.”

The doc starts out reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” with back-up dancers telling us their brief histories and what Michael means to them. They often get teary; they can’t believe their good luck. “I’m from Australia,” one dancer says, and that’s enough to break him down. Another begins, “Life’s hard, right?,” then he talks about how he’s looking for something to shake him up and—cue title—“This is it.” We even get the classic “Chorus Line” shot of a stage full of dancers being whittled down to a handful. Then the announcement: “And the Michael Jackson principle dancers are...” Silence. No names. If the point of “A Chorus Line” was to draw out all the nameless people in the chorus line, the point here is to keep them nameless. Only one name matters.

Michael, 50, more painfully thin that ever, with a face more wrecked than ever, doesn’t always sing or dance his heart out here. He can still do it—we see and hear him do it—but he’s obviously pacing himself. “I’m trying to warm up my voice,” he says at one point, apologetically. He’s the anti-Elvis: way too thin rather than way too fat; too much the perfectionist rather than the doped-up Vegas performer stumbling over his lyrics. We watch him coach his musicians, dancers, producers. “You gotta let it simmer,” he says of the music for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” When there’s not enough funk in one song, Michael has this back-and-forth with the keyboardist:

Michael: It’s not there.
Keyboardist: It’s getting there.
Michael: Well, get there.

He says it kindly enough, in his usual falsetto, but there’s a bit of steel in his voice, too, that’s surprising and welcome. He wants it how he wants it.

All of this footage was meant for Michael’s private library, which raises two questions: 1) Why does someone need hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage for their own private viewing?; and 2) What would he think of his private footage becoming this very public documentary? Wasn’t Michael too much of a perfectionist to let the process of perfecting the product become the product? AEG Live and Sony sure didn’t let this one simmer, did they? There was money to be made and they’re making it—over $100 million worldwide opening weekend. But even as you’re feeling badly that Michael no longer has a say in which of his products gets used, you watch, on the screen, the making of a short film that would’ve accompanied the “Smooth Criminal” number, in which Michael, all gangstered-up 1940s style, interacts with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. The dead, particularly the famous dead, never have a say.

The outpouring of affection when Michael died on June 25, 2009, was immediate and, to me, a little sickening. We’re such necrophiliacs. We appreciate nothing until it’s gone, even though things are always going, and so there’s always the opportunity to pause and appreciate the things that are still here—while we’re still here. Only the wisest do this and I’m hardly among the wisest, but I do have an aversion to the pile-on. Part of why I never wrote about Michael until now.

He was always part of my landscape. Me and my brother, Chris, watched him and his brothers, Jackie, Jermaine, Tito and Marlon, every Saturday morning on their early '70s cartoon show. We watched the Jacksons pitch Alpha Bits cereal during the commercials. I even bought a box of Alpha Bits because there was a Jackson 5 single on the back. Unschooled in patience, I poured all the cereal into a big bowl, cut the record out and tried to play it on our small, kiddie turntable. But it was made of thin cardboard, with only a veneer of vinyl, and it played warped: slow and deep. The cereal got stale. An early lesson in waste.

I doubt we saw the famous “Ed Sullivan” performance, but we certainly saw the brothers on “The Flip Wilson Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and performing lame skits on “The Rich Little Show.” I remember those. I remember the thrill of watching Michael dance, so slippery it was like liquid, and trying to move like him, and imagining I was coming close. He brought the funk to a south Minneapolis basement. In a way I wanted to be like him, but in another way, a sadder way, he wanted to be like me. An argument can be made that Michael was the most representative American figure in the second half of the 20th century. In a country finally dealing with its racism, and its history of white performers stealing from black performers, a black singer finally emerged as the most popular singer in the world. Then he slowly turned white. If you made this shit up no one would believe it.

I missed “Off the Wall” when it first came around, but like everyone I was there for “Billie Jean.” And, yes, I watched “Motown 25” when it first aired. I was 20 and still thrilled by his slippery, seemingly effortless movements. “Beat It” and “Thriller,” and their accompanying videos, broke him wider, and got him on the cover of Time magazine (a big deal back then, kids), but they didn’t do much for me. I didn’t care for the whole Broadway-style dance number; I wanted Michael dancing alone. By himself he was electric. Others, I felt, hemmed him in.

Curious: Did he ever dance the way Fred Astaire danced, with a partner, where the point was give-and-take, push-and-pull, male and female? Instead he went solo or—with his brothers or back-up dancers—fronted multiple echoes of his own movements. Somehow that feels significant.

People think it’s sad that he left us at 50 but I think it’s sad he left us at 30. Sure, he seemed bizarre in the mid-‘80s—one white glove and the epaulets and the huge sunglasses—but no more bizarre, sartorially, than Prince or Bowie or Elton John. But around “Bad” you really began to wonder what he was doing to his face. Fans can talk all they want about the vitiligo and the lupus but they can’t argue past the plastic surgery: the disappearing nose and lips; the widening and painted eyes; the long, straight, scraggly hair. By the time of “Black and White,” I winced looking at him. By the mid-‘90s I had to turn away. And not just because of the child molestation charges.

His persona in videos became the way he combated the rumors. Too weak? He played gang- or gangster-tough in “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” Too asexual? He kept grabbing his crotch near a pretty girl in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It all felt hollow. He kept trying to be what he wasn’t—“Bad” and “Dangerous”—while his anger felt real but misdirected. He shouted at the world to no or amused effect. Why was he angry? What did he want? World peace? Get in line. The pretty baby with the high heels on? Then kiss her already! You’re Michael Jackson! His marriages in the ‘90s seemed shams. As a child he sang of a “baby” and a “darling” (“Oh, baby, give me one more chance”/”Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go”), but as an adult did he ever have a baby or a darling? One hopes. In the doc, he talks a lot about love but without much heat or light. It’s a word people use.

“This Is It” is supposed to be a celebration but to me it’s just sad sad sad. How did so much talent go so horribly awry? It’s also inevitably incomplete. In these types of docs, rehearsals lead to final shows, and the absence of a final show here is deafening.

Michael spoke of the tour as his final curtain call, so one assumes he meant the double meaning in the title. “This is it” can be used to revel in the now—what we’re living through here is what we’ve waited for: this is it—and to anticipate departure. No more. That’s all. This is it.

The documentary makes lies of both of these meanings. It doesn’t revel in the now but in a past in which Michael lives; and as long as anything connected with Michael makes money, we know this won’t be it. They’ll keep it coming.

Posted at 08:36 AM on Nov 02, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Music, Movies - Documentaries
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Monday October 26, 2009

Review: “Coco Before Chanel” (2009)

WARNING: SIMPLE, ELEGANT SPOILERS

A story has a dramatic arc, a life doesn’t. That’s always been the problem with biopics. So you understand why filmmakers such Anne Fontaine, who directed and co-wrote “Coco Avant Chanel,” decide to dramatize a portion of the life rather than the whole, long, messy thing. You also understand why Fontaine chose this portion of Chanel’s life: the portion—for those whose French is worse than mine—before she became a fashion icon. People like watching people rise. Audiences are made up of folks with unfulfilled dreams who enjoy sitting in the dark watching someone with whom they can identify fulfill theirs.

So why doesn’t the movie work? Does the title character remain too unknowable? Is her love affair with Arthur “Boy” Capel too uninteresting? Are the clues to how she will eventually transform the fashion world, and thus the world—having women dress for women, and for comfort, rather than in the confining corsets and plumy hats and long heavy dresses of the period—too facile? Does the movie not care enough about why she matters (fashion and proto-feminism) in favor of why she doesn’t (love love love)?

Is it all of the above?

The movie begins when Gabrielle Chanel, age 10, all big dark eyes, is deposited at a Catholic orphanage and casts a final, bewildered glance at the carriage driver, seen in quarter-view, who, one assumes, and assumes correctly, is her father. Historically, this orphanage was where Gabrielle learned to be a seamstress, and where, one suspects, the austerity and simplicity of the nuns’ habits made an impression on her fashion sense, but we only get glimpses of this. We mostly take away a sense of powerlessness and loneliness in echoing hallways.

Cut to: A music hall during the belle époque, where Gabrielle (now Audrey Tautou) and her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain), perform the song “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco,” before rowdy crowds, then mingle with the guests, mostly upper-crust military officers and barons. Gabrielle, quickly dubbed “Coco” after the song, is a lousy mingler, but she pares (and pairs) nicely with Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde), who is rich, cynical, out for a good time, and amused by Coco’s bluntness. Coco’s sister becomes the mistress, possible wife, of one Baron, but Balsan leaves for his estate in Compiegne, near Paris, without proffering an invitation to Coco. So she simply shows up.

The belle époque was la belle époque (the beautiful time) for aristocrats like Balsan, not poorhouse candidates like Coco, and she bristles under the strictures of their unequal relationship. So do we. It’s pretty icky. At first he keeps her hidden. When she comes out anyway, he wants her to perform. She disapproves of the waste and frivolity of the upper classes, and wants work, but wonders what she can do. Sing and dance? Become an actress like Balsan’s frequent guest, and former lover, Emilienne d'Alençon (Emmanuelle Devos)? All the while Coco becomes known for her simple, more freeing, more boyish fashion sense. Emilienne keeps asking about her hats. Can you make me one? Here’s my rich friend. Can you make her one?

The story is obviously moving in this direction but the title character doesn’t seem to realize it. Is this good? An example of life happening while you’re busy making other plans? Or is it bad: The filmmaker’s assumption (film-in-general’s assumption) that audiences are only interested in what Gore Vidal famously called love love love?

Yes, Coco falls in love, with British coal magnate “Boy” Capel, and off they go for a weekend by the sea, where she gets the inspiration for the striped sailor’s shirt and the little black dress. Nice weekend! There’s a good scene in the tailor shop where she lays out her black-dress specifications, resisting, all the while, the tailor’s polite push toward the conventional. Him: It should be peach tones. It should have a corset. It should have a belt. Her: Non, non, non. Her stubborn insistence reminds me of many women I’ve known. They like it how they like it. Of course most women I’ve known aren’t inventing the little black dress.

Coco’s happy with Capel but he’s got a secret—he’s marrying British money—and Balsan spills the beans, partly from jealousy, partly because he cares about Coco and doesn’t want her hurt. Balsan’s role throughout is reminiscent of the role of Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) in “Out of Africa”: the disreputable man the heroine is stuck with but uninterested in, even though he’s the most interesting character onscreen. Neither man is particularly attractive, either, but both have a laissez faire bluntness that’s fun to be around and vaguely sexy. Balsan even proposes to her.

Instead she starts a hat shop in Paris. Finally! one thinks. Ten seconds later, a woman says, “Look, a gentleman.” Oh no! one thinks. Yeah, it's “Boy” Capel. More love-making. More promise-making. They’ll have two months by the sea. Then he dies in a car accident. She sees the wreck. She cries. Then she makes dresses, puts on a fashion show, and everyone applauds. FIN.

Really? That’s it? I know the title is the title, but... The movie is based on a book by a woman, written and directed by a woman, yet it almost feels sexist in how much it ignores why Chanel’s relevant.

Maybe fans already know too much about her career and wanted the gossip. Maybe people always want the gossip. Me, I knew little about her going in so it was all news, but the movie left me wondering to what extent she was part of a trend and to what extent she was way ahead of the trend. Did she single-handedly put women in pants? In this fact alone you see the redefinition of beauty in the 20th century. Voluptuous women tend to look better in dresses, thinner women in pants. Thus, with women in pants, western society’s definition of beauty shifted from the voluptuousness of the belle époque toward the straighter lines of Twiggy and Kate Moss. Coco was not considered beautiful, then helped redefine beauty closer to how she looked. Not bad! This shift also led to anorexia. There are corsets in the mind no fashion designer can remove.

In the end, “Coco Avant Chanel” has some of the realism of French films (she prostituted herself to get ahead) but more often the glossy, hazy, dishonest feel of Hollywood films. Coco apres Chanel once said, “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” This one isn’t, and it's disposable.

Posted at 07:15 AM on Oct 26, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Foreign
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Friday October 23, 2009

Review: “More Than a Game” (2008)

WARNING: DRAINING 3-POINT SPOILERS FROM THE LINE

“More Than a Game,” Kristopher Belman’s documentary about five friends, including a hanger-on named LeBron James, who become high school basketball stars at St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio in the early 2000s, should appeal to fans not only of basketbal and LeBron, and not only to coaches everywhere, but to anyone who has to create a Superman story. The dramatic problem with Superman has always been his invincibility. Who can possibly stop him? The dramatic problem halfway through this documentary, as St. V’s Fightin' Irish regularly demolish teams by 40 or 50 points, is the same. Who can possibly stop them?

This question is answered twice. The first answer is indicative of human nature. The second answer is indicative of a sadder, tawdrier aspect of American culture.

They were the “Fab Four” of Akron basketball—LeBron, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Dru James III—who first came to national attention in 1997 when, in junior high, they played at the AAU “Shooting Stars” Boys Basketball Tournament in Florida. “We were a team from Akron nobody’d ever heard of,” LeBron remembers. They wound up in the finals but lost, 68-66, to the previous year’s champs from southern California, when LeBron’s half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. He’s interviewed about it in the doc. He still looks pissed.

By this time LeBron was already distinguishing himself from the others, and everyone assumed he would play for John R. Buchtel High School, a mostly black public school with a powerhouse basketball program; but he didn’t even decide. Dru did. Entering ninth grade, Dru was still under five feet tall and Buchtel wouldn’t have him so he wouldn’t have them, and his friends, loyal to a fault, followed him to St. Vincent, a mostly white, Catholic school without much of a basketball program. With the help of Coach Keith Dambrot and assistant coach Dru James, Little Dru’s father, who had coached the boys in “Shooting Stars,” they gave it one.

That’s what this doc is about, really: loyalty; teamwork. One may rise above, he may even get on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, but he can’t win a team sport without a team.

It’s also about disloyalty, or perceived disloyalty. After the “fab four“—and, with the addition of Romeo Travis, the “fab five”—win state titles in their freshman and sophomore years, going 23-1 and 27-0 respectively, Coach Dambrot, forgetting promises made to the boys, puts his career or family first, and takes a job with the University of Akron. “I never even talked to him again,” LeBron says. Coach Dru became their head coach.

The doc, too, is no one-man show. It draws out the others. Willie is the quiet, mature one; Sian the funny, fat one. Romeo doesn’t really fit in at first. He’s selfish and angry, but I like his admission that, “I never thought basketball would be my future. I just wanted to play because it’d get you girls.” My guy, no surprise, is Little Dru, all 4’ 11” freshman year, but determined to overcome what he couldn’t control, sinking threes the way other guys sink layups. His dad was also the coach, and tougher on him for that reason, which led to issues of its own—despite the fact that the dad only became coach for the son. Coach Dru was actually a football guy. He had to learn basketball.

So halfway through the doc, St. V becomes a Divsion II school, and Coach Dru puts the boys on a national traveling schedule. Keep in mind: These are five guys from the same neighborhood competing against high school powerhouses that draw talent from all over the nation. And they’re winning games 100-50. One reporter calls them the greatest team in high school history.

So what can possibly stop them? Hubris. That’s our first answer. They don’t practice as hard. (Why should they? They're not going to lose.) They don’t listen to Coach Dru as much. (What does he know that they don't?) Their games are so popular they have to play at the local university arena, and the games are still sold out, and tickets are scalped. They’re like a rock band: Groupies follow them and parties anticipate them. And in the finals of the state championship their junior year, they lose, stunningly, 66-63. Everyone blames the first-year coach, who couldn’t win a state championship with juniors who won it as freshman. It’s unfair but in a way he agrees. “I got caught up in the winning and losing,” Coach Dru says. “My job wasn’t about basketball. It was about helping them become men.”

The next year he does. Plus LeBron, who can’t stand losing, is now more determined than ever. Can you imagine? A team that routinely wins 100-50 is now more determined? The amazing thing, truly, given the media attention, the girls and the talent, isn’t that hubris stopped them once; it’s that it didn’t keep stopping them. It’s that they, and particularly LeBron, didn’t let their good fortune lead to bad. He kept a level head. The doc makes it clear that this happened, in part, because of his early bad fortune. He was born to a teenage mom and never knew his dad. “We probably moved 12 times,” he says. “The hardest thing for me was meeting new friends, [and] I wanted to have some brothers I could be loyal to.” He found them. He kept his friends close and his enemies at bay.

Of course enemies always gather. We build up to tear down in this country—buildings and people—and after the build-up of LeBron came the tear-down. Wait, why was this high school kid driving around in an $80K Hummer? Turns out his mom bought it for him via bank loan based upon her son’s future earnings. That’s icky but legal. But wait! LeBron accepted two retro jerseys (Wes Unseld and Gale Sayers) for appearing on the wall of a sporting goods store? We can’t have that. And with only a handful of games left in the season, and the team climbing the national rankings—from 23 to 19 to 16 to 11 to 9—the Ohio High School Athletic Assocation stripped LeBron of his eligibility.

That’s the second answer to what can stop them. File it under the smallness of people. At the same time the doc needed this dilemma to give its story drama. Every hero needs a villain, and sometimes the villains don’t show until the hero does. Wasn’t that what “The Dark Knight” was all about?

St. Vincent did play one game without LeBron. They still won, 63-62. Then LeBron went to court (the other kind) and the judge reinstated him. And that’s the last thing that stopped them.

Comparisons will inevitably be made to “Hoop Dreams,” the 1994 documentary about two inner-city high school basketball players, William Gates and Arthur Agee, and how injuries and circumstances kept them from their dreams; but the two docs couldn't be more different. Should I trot out Roger Kahn again? You may glory in a team triumphant (“More Than a Game”) but you fall in love with a team in defeat (“Hoop Dreams”). What stopped William Gates in “Hoop Dreams”—injuries—isn’t even an issue in “More Than a Game“—any more than a knee injury would be an issue to Superman. We glory in LeBron but he came from another planet. We also know how he ends (well), so we watch knowing the ultimate end, as we watch most Hollywood blockbusters knowing the ultimate end. “Hoop Dreams,” in comparison, is a small, indy character study. Gates and Agee? We don’t even know if they live.

”More Than a Game" skirts issues that might have proven interesting—including questions of race and religion at St. Vincent. Were any of the “fab four” Catholic in ninth grade? Were any in 12th grade? It also tries to exalt Coach Dru, who seems like a decent man, but whose halftime pep talks are hardly out of “Knute Rockne: All American.”

But it’s fun and it ends right. For 90 minutes we’ve watched these kids grow from not-bad “shooting stars” to incredibly talented, between-the-leg-dunking, on-the-verge-of-the-NBA superstars. At the very end, though, we see Dru coaching a new batch of kids. Sixth graders? Younger? They’re doing lay-up drills, and missing, and they’re small and clumsy, and that basketball is so big in their hands. And it begins again.

Posted at 08:09 AM on Oct 23, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009, Movies - Documentaries
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