Sunday, October 31, 2010

please give

For New Yorkers, there is a lot to relate to in Nicole Holofcener's (Friends with Money, Lovely & Amazing, Walking and Talking) excellent Please Give. There are plenty of rude, wickedly sardonic people, awkward elevator conversations, dog walkers with shit bags, facial spas, and thrift furniture shops where everything is mod, uncomfortable and priced in quadruple digits. Holofcener has Woody Allen's gift for soft satire and also a keen eye for contemporary, uncomfortably human moments (her film opens with close-ups of breasts readying for mammograms). As evident in her other works, and in this film in particular, arguably her best and most moving, she also knows how to direct a cast. Catherine Keener, skinny, long-haired, clad in black, Debra Winger-raspy-voiced, plays the owner of an overly priced 10th avenue furniture store. Her character is almost terrifyingly real. Anyone who has browsed one of these kinds of shops may be familiar with this type of person: sitting behind a Mac, asking, without much interest, if you need any help. Her jokey, rather lame husband (Oliver Platt) may be familiar too. He has a wandering eye and an affectation for Howard Stern. Sometimes people like this, with their seemingly endless stream of money and morally askew ways of making it (here, they nab items from dead people's places and overcharge it exorbitantly) are ingratiating company. Yet, Holofcener is quite adept at showing the frailties of these people. While the couple plots to annex the apartment of the 91-year old woman (a very funny Ann Morgan Guilbert) next door, Keener's Kate, is slowly sanded down by the guilt of her occupation. She attempts to remedy this, much to the disdain of her awkward 15-year old daughter (Sarah Steele), by volunteer work and giving five and twenty dollar bills to the homeless, but she is only capable of pity.

The grandaughter of Kate's neighbor, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, in another remarkably real performance) is, in a way, Kate's opposite. Her job, as a radiology technician, is noble. Her romantic life is the pits. And without much help from her relentlessly insecure sister (Amanda Peet, subtly brilliant), she has been selflessly "giving" by taking care of her cantankerous grandmother for years. As the film builds, layer by layer, Kate and Rebecca form a bond in one of the film's surprisingly deeply moving moments. Holofcener doesn't make this bond sentimental nor easy. Perhaps the film's only flawed moments are within the love affair that develops between Platt and Peet. Yet the cast is just so good and Holofcener is so generous and wry with these characters (both could have been easily one-dimensional in a lesser-film) and their everyday frustrations, that even the few weak spots have something interesting to offer. The film is constructed like a great short story or a poignantly funny personal essay (Sarah Vowell appears in an amusing cameo), and it may frustrate viewers by not offering much in terms of resolution (I questioned it at first). There are some quiet moments of growth and transformation but like some other great films of the year (The Social Network, Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right), the film's authenticity derives from how we all value different things and how characters sometimes never change the way we may expect or want them to. ****

-Jeffery Berg

I agree with a lot with what Joe Morgenstern articulates in his glowing WSJ review.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

back to the bates motel

A windy October night screening at Film Forum of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho revived my feelings about the movie. Even if they have never seen the film most people are aware of Norman Bates, the “shower scene,” or the reputation of the Bates Motel. Sometimes a movie can become so famous it can lose its original power. Yet watching this wonderful print on the big screen made me respect and treasure Psycho more than ever.

Janet Leigh is perfectly cast—those eyes, her raspy voice, and her steely ways in which she expresses guilt and fear. We follow her through the fascinating first half, as her Marion Crane thieves $40,000 from work and leaves town. A novice, she is a terrible thief, interacting awkwardly with a police officer, and car salesman. The film emphasizes material possessions: her car, her money. It makes the fate of Leigh's Crane all the more shocking once she turns into Bates Motel and meets its tortured owner Norman (Anthony Perkins).

Leigh and Perkins play characters who are different yet similar in many ways: stuck in a rut, haunted by wrongdoing, lonely. Perkins' performance is akin to fire: a fidgety mess with intense flickers of menace. He was typecast forever for this role, and he’s so good and memorable, it’s hard to shake Norman off from his other works. It’s not a typical performance of the times, nor of a Hitchcock picture. Perkins interrupts and his dialogue sometimes runs over other people’s lines. His scene with the prodding detective Arborgast (Martin Baslam) is one of the great pieces of acting. Bates feels human, entirely authentic, and Hitchcock enriches him even further by giving the audience glimpses of his material surroundings and biography via other characters. In the haunting ending, Perkins, wrapped in a blanket, gives a great, unsettling performance of reaction (a recall of Leigh’s driving scenes).

On this viewing, having recently watched some other Hitchcock films, I was struck just how stark Psycho is compared to his other works. I feel Psycho is one of the most economical and claustrophobic of his films (we are constantly in confined spaces). Shot on a low-budget and featuring a female protagonist who is killed off quickly, Psycho, one of Hitch’s defining pictures, is still one of his most unusual. The grimness of it, its rich black and white photography and bleak subject matter make it a departure from the glossy color films he was making during the 1950s (North By Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window).

Psycho also has that incredible, unrelenting score by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann shed the sweeping orchestral pomp of other scores of that era and relied solely on strings. The music makes a tremendous impact in a movie theater. His cue “The Murder,” remains chilling today. I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been in 1960.

On this viewing, the infamous and dated “psychiatrist scene” played better than it ever has. Not only is it a perfect transition into the closer, but it’s another farce of higher societal figures who try to explain and reason out impossible things. In Psycho, the people of authority in the picture are uncaring and worthless: the creepy, robotic cop following Crane, the doddering town sheriff. This is a common cinematic trope but the fact that we can laugh at the psychiatrist is a testament to Hitchcock and the power of Perkins’ performance. The film has the ability to manipulate us to have some empathy for Bates, even if he’s a deplorable murderer.

Anthony Perkins on Norman Bates: "I do have affection for Norman as a person. He does the best he can out of the diminished circumstances with which his personality stranded him, and Norman's childhood was difficult and traumatic. Norman is, at heart, a benevolent soul, with a dark side, but Norman's conscious mind is always on the positive things in life."

Psycho is playing at Film Forum until November 4th.

Friday, October 29, 2010


So I'm dressed as Lurch for work party Halloween. Are y'all dressing up this year?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the paradine case

All this month, I've been watching Hitchcock films that I've never seen in preparation for Lamb's Directors Chair series. Some have been very good (Saboteur) others flawed (Topaz and Torn Curtain). Yet even the flawed ones have something grand to offer, especially in today's context, and in viewing Hitchcock's overall oeuvre.

1947's The Paradine Case is another one of Hitchcock's lesser-regarded features. A mostly static courtroom drama, the picture lacks the electricity and urgency of his masterpieces (Psycho, Notorious, or North By Northwest). Yet, in retrospect, the film seems to be a victim of the code, re-shoots and producer David O. Selznick's cutting (it was pared down from 132 minutes). Gregory Peck, in a precursor role to his noble Atticus Finch, plays Anthony Keane, a barrister defending murderess Mrs. Paradine (a ravishing Alida Valli). Paradine is on trial for poisoining her blind war hero husband (introduced, memorably, by painted portrait). After becoming quite smitten with her, Keane decides to shift suspicion to Paradine's shadowy servant Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan). Meanwhile the case begins to strain the relationship between Keane and his loving wife Gay (Ann Todd, a dead ringer for columnist Peggy Noonan!).

The story is somewhat thin and predictable, it's also become quite familiar (on TV drama and in B-courtroom movies like Body of Evidence). However it should be noted that Hitchcock's visualizations of the courtroom scenes were revolutionary at the time with his use of four different cameras. This would become commonplace with television shows. As in any Hitchcock film, the camera carries psychological weight (Paradine's and Latour's point of view shots)--an emotional understanding of the "villains" which still remains unusual for most filmmakers. To show their caged-in psychological states, characters are often depicted behind bars. Rumored to be nearly expensive as Gone With the Wind, a ludicrous notion considering how contained and stodgy this story is, The Paradine Case boasts huge, elaborately detailed sets (vaulted ceilings in the courtroom and grandiose Keane household). Unless filmed in extreme closeup (for emotional effect), the sets shrink our characters as much as their scheming and duplicitous acts do. It definitely has the handsome, elegant look and feel of a Selznick / Hitchcock collaboration (this would be their last), but no sweep. Thanks to Selznick, there is a terrific supporting cast (Charles Laughton as the somewhat sadistic judge, Leo G. Carroll as the prosecutor, Ethel Barrymore as the judge's wife: Oscar-nominated for a short but piercing scene in which she defends herself, and what feels like, many post-War women of that time period). Had the tension between Keane and Paradine had been developed more, Valli could have emerged as very memorable femme fatale. There is some promise of this in the her riveting final act where she is undone and defenseless. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

torn curtain

In Torn Curtain, Paul Newman plays Michael Armstrong, an American physicist who pretends to defect, travelling to East Berlin in order to obtain a mathematical formula. He is pursued by his fiancée Sarah (Julie Andrews), a fellow scientist, who is concerned about him. In East Berlin, Newman meets up with a mysterious ringleader Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) and a Professor Karl Manfred (Günter Strack). Once "the Gamma Five" discovers that Michael killed Gromek, him and Sarah risk their lives attempting to escape.

It's now well-known that Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were not Alfred Hitchcock's main choices for his thriller Torn Curtain and one can see why. Newman, ruggedly handsome and taciturn, known for his outstanding performances in Hud and Tennessee Williams-helmed productions like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, was too thespian for Hitchcock's prop-like handling of his actors. During the filming, friction arose between Newman and Hitchcock as Newman questioned character motivation and flaws within the script. Julie Andrews, at the peak of her career with two legendary roles as the sweet Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, seems too soft-hearted for her role. One wonders if Hitch had cast one of his icy blondes, how much edgier the film, and the tension between Newman and her character would have been. For movie buffs, it's still enjoyable to see the unlikely pairing of these two stars, miscast as they may be.

Torn Curtain also marks the unfortunate fallout between Bernard Herrmann and Hitchcock. Herrmann's treatment, still available on the DVD edition of the film, is dark, swirling, adventurous, akin to North By Northwest. The studio and Hitch wanted a lighter, bubblier score so they hired John Addison, fresh off of his Academy Award for Tom Jones. The score is largely uneven, dated in a way that Herrmann's scores aren't. Its highlight is during the rousing bus chase, otherwise it's pretty intrusive, especially in the beginning. Hitchcock, who has admitted he has no ear for music, tried to restrain the use of music often in this film, such as the quiet farm murder scene. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Despite its flaws, Torn Curtain is a slick, stylish and enjoyable ride with many memorable and exciting moments.

Here are a few:

The harrowing farm murder scene which Hitchcock intended to show just how difficult it is to kill a man.

The bus chase.

The climatic "crowded theatre ballet sequence." The production design was by Hein Heckworth who worked on The Red Shoes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

o my darlin

It's was really exciting to edit the latest edition of Clementine (an online journal of poetry and photography) with Becca. I love and admire all of the poets represented.

The issue features five previously unpublished poems by Tim Dlugos, whose collected poems, A Fast Life (edited by David Trinidad) is due from Nightboat Books in 2011. There are also three previously unpublished poems by Karl Tierney. A poet whose work I discovered in the excellent anthology Persistent Voices: An Anthology of Poets Lost to AIDS.

As always, we tried to represent many different voices. There are two great poems inspired by Curtis Mayfield by Rio Cortez. A Showgirls sestina by Jeffery Conway. Persona poems concerning Amy Winehouse by Kerri French. The subjects of the poems range from Vladmir Putin to video games.

I am crazy about the Barbie photos of Russ Pedro and Brian Brown's evocative shots of rural Georgia.

Clementine is interested primarily in the idea of the persona, but we are rather loose with what we consider a "persona poem." Some in the issue are more literal about this than others. Becca and I are proud of what we put together and so happy to share the work of these artists.