Δευτέρα, 20 Μαΐου 2013

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Cannes

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Cannes is so many things at once it all but creates a dimension of its own. Simultaneously an art festival and a jumbo-sized machine for cranking out media buzz, it’s a red-carpeted stage for movie buffs, business folks and assorted wackos alike. Half-naked cuties traverse the beach, hardcore fans organize parties to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Troma studios (I just said hi to a Toxic Avenger), and tuxedoed civilians stand for hours hoping to get a ticket from a benevolent insider. It’s a frenzy, and it’s fun — but boy, do I need to get some sleep.

When you’re a journalist, Cannes is all about hierarchies. The press pass is free and quite easy to get. However, if you happen to be a rookie (as I was last year), you end up with the weakest badge of all: the dreaded yellow pass, which makes it hard to get into the most-awaited screenings. It also forces you to sit at the very top of the balcony, making the screen below so tiny you could practically hold it at the end of a toothpick. The more coverage you do, the more regularly you come and the bigger your publication, the better badge you get. Going up the ladder of importance, there’s blue, pink, pink one with a yellow dot and then the all-powerful white pass that reportedly helped Moses part the Red Sea.

No matter what your pass looks like, though, lines are always huge. This year, it doesn’t help that it’s been raining cats and dogs at Cannes for the past couple of days. Last night, I spent an hour and fifty minutes queuing up before the new Coen brothers movie, which was actually shorter than the time I stood in the rain, sheltered only partially by my raggedy old umbrella. The crowd was so tight, drips from adjoining umbrellas formed little waterfalls, one of which found its way straight under my jacket’s collar. It’s a good thing my film critic buddies were there to keep me company — at one point, we turned our shared predicament into a sing-a-long, starting out with selected verses of Billy Joel’s “Goodnight, Saigon” (“Yes we would all go down… together…”) and ending with a Sondheim marathon (“I’m Still Here” kicked off entire series).

Standing in lines forms bonds and enables new friendships. One of the great things about Cannes is that you can safely assume everyone around is at least as movie crazy as yourself, so it’s safe to open a conversation in a way that would normally earn you a slap in the face or a weird look at the very least (“Say, what do you make of the new Kiarostami?” is a terrible pick-up line anywhere except Cannes). And even if you have something less than seduction on your mind, you’re sure to leave the festival with more friendships you came here with. Most of the folks you won’t see until next year, but it doesn’t matter. Next time you’re here, you will bump into each other in front of Grand Théâtre Lumière and say: “Isn’t this just crazy? I almost didn’t make it to the new Jia Zhang-Ke!”

The ultimate goal for many is to make themselves visible at Cannes. To stand out is to earn a badge of honor that trumps all official colors. Costumed fan boys and girls aside, there’s a tribe of beautiful people looking their best and roaming the fest turf in the hope of being spotted by a big-time producer and play out “A Star is Born” in their real lives. Then, there are the hipsters and the fashionistas, as well as mutations of both. Just the other day I saw a gorgeous girl wearing stilettos at 11am, lining up for a screening and totally immersed in her copy of “On the Road,” the movie version of which played in last year’s competition. Talk about new cool.

After each screening, it’s time for a Twitter-palooza. Hundreds of minds share their first-time impressions, giving the movies their very first critical spin, which will stick for better or worse (unless there’s a backlash in opinions). Reviews are written in matter of minutes, opinions abound, and all this in the press office packed so tightly even the floor serves as a desk. It’s the closest thing to working in an old-fashioned news room and waiting for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell to show up and trade verbal blows, before they yell "Stop the presses!"

As tiring as it is, it’s also a kind of heaven. Its denizens pride themselves on their exhaustion, but they all end up here the next year, and the next — possibly hoping for their pass to get bumped up to a flashier color. How can you not love a place in which reports of a stolen necklace are making news just like in the good old days of “To Catch a Thief”? Only yesterday a bitter letter from a Jerry Lewis-supporter and fan got leaked, and it felt like a real-life version of Martin Scorsese's “The King of Comedy.” As naughty, gaudy, bawdy and sporty as 42nd street used to be before the reign of Simba, Cannes is truly something else and it doesn’t give a damn if you love it or hate it, as long as you talk about it and keep the buzz going.

Cannes Classics: Tip of “Fedora” to You

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Cannes is all about the thrill of the new: What makes hundreds of scribes schlep every morning to yet another 8:30am screening is the knowledge that they are the first audience for a slew of the year’s key films. And yet, cinema’s past is very much present on la Croisette. Aside from the outdoor screenings held every night on the beach (“Jaws” was a particularly inspired choice), there’s an entire section designed to honoring the gems of the past: Cannes Classics.

Consisting entirely of new restorations of films widely known or deserving rediscovery, Cannes Classics is a cinephile’s delight. This year, the titles range from “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” to Satyajit Ray’s “Charulata,” with a fiftieth anniversary screening of Joe Mankiewicz’s ill-fated “Cleopatra” (1963) still to come. Yesterday afternoon, marking 35 years that have passed since its Cannes premiere in 1978, a freshly restored version of Billy Wilder’s “Fedora” was shown for the first time. Long available only in faded prints, scratched so severely the image was on the verge of bleeding, the movie can finally get its due as an important late work of a great director (DVD and Blu-ray releases are rumored to follow soon).

The screening was preceded with an appearance by actors Marthe Keller and Mario Adorf, who fondly recalled working with Wilder on the movie that failed upon release, but has now a chance of starting a new life on the festival circuit. “It was old-fashioned then, but seems contemporary now,” said Keller, pointing out the film’s old-Hollywood style, complete with sweeping Miklos Rozsa score. An excerpt from “Swan Song,” an upcoming documentary on the film, was played and featured Michael York reflecting on the extremely hard time Wilder had making “Fedora,” with studios no longer backing him up and money being scarce for the no longer bankable master.

Made more than a decade before “Death Becomes Her,” “Fedora” is a bold allegory of the fear of aging that underlies movie stardom as such. William Holden plays a Hollywood producer down on his luck, who goes to Corfu in the hope of coaxing the eponymous recluse legend to star in an adaptation of “Anna Karenina.” Apparently as youthful as ever, guarded by a sinister Polish countess, Fedora acts as is she was a prisoner of her own villa, and begs Holden to take her away. From then on, the plot thickens, with many a flashback and a framing device that makes it clear Fedora committed suicide. Or did she…?

The movie is filled with objects designed to obstruct the view of the human body — shades, gloves, veils, bandages, wide-brimmed hats (the title, cough) and head scarfs. Fedora is never on full display: partly to facilitate an important plot-twist, partly because her life is an act and everything she wears is basically a costume. Wilder’s movies were often about functioning in disguise: Dressing up as someone else allowed his characters to violate the boundaries of gender (“Some Like It Hot”), class (“Kiss Me, Stupid”), nationality (“Five Graves to Cairo”) and — in the case of both “The Major and the Minor” and “Fedora” — age.

Gerry Fisher’s cinematography is purely functional and doesn’t draw attention to itself, but nevertheless includes some atmospheric touches, especially in the vaguely sepulchral interiors of Fedora’s villa. Most of the film is drenched in sunshine that makes the film look like Wilder’s earlier “Avanti!” It’s great to see the new print doing full justice both to the opulent flower arrangements of Fedora’s funeral and to the summer setting of Corfu, with Mario Adorf hamming it up as a penny-pinching local hotel owner that’s the most openly comedic of all the characters.

The comparison with Wilder’s own “Sunset Blvd.” is inevitable, given William Holden’s presence and the basic plot of a Hollywood hack invading former star’s secluded domicile. Unlike that masterpiece, however, “Fedora” lacks a central performance great enough to anchor its Gothic touches and turn it into a masterpiece. In other words, it lacks Gloria Swanson. Wilder’s original intention was to cast Faye Dunaway as Fedora, and one can only envision what levels of dedication and intensity she would have brought to the role — especially given her deranged antics as Joan Crawford in the 1981 “Mommie Dearest” debacle.

As it is, “Fedora” is a strange, often captivating movie in which Wilder reflects upon the end of the era of studio filmmaking. Some things won’t be helped by any restoration — the terrible dubbing of both Marthe Keller and Hildegard Knef by Inga Bunsch still damages the picture beyond repair. Still, there’s a hypnotic element to "Fedora", which makes it feel at times almost like a séance, complete with whirring tables and flickering lights. Wilder summons up the ghosts of old Hollywood and pays a tribute to, as one character has it, “cheap backdrops and glycerin tears.” He did that in "Sunset Blvd.", too, but here he includes himself as part of the past he summons. As veiled self-portraits go in cinema, this is one of the most moving ones.

Cannes reviews: Politics and troubled family lives in "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," "Blue Ruin," and "Tip Top"

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CANNES, FRANCE — While the red-carpet crowd at Cannes has been toasting the Coen brothers' tuneful "Inside Llewyn Davis" — you can read Barbara Scharres's take here — the parallel programs have also turned a spotlight on American movies. David Lowery's Sundance hit "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" showed Saturday and Sunday as a special presentation at Critics' Week, a separate festival that focuses on up-and-coming filmmakers.

The event's main location, the Miramar, is a far cry from the glitz one encounters when viewing the main slate. With creaky entrance doors and a screen that's not quite matted properly, the theater gives off the sense of a makeshift location — creating cognitive dissonance when stars like Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck take the stage.

In France, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" is being called "Les Amants du Texas" — an elemental title well-suited to the film's wisp of a plot. Mara and Affleck play lovers on the wrong side of the law who are apprehended in a shootout. He's sent to prison; pregnant with their daughter, she raises the child alone. When he busts out four years later, going on the run, the movie ticks down the clock to their inevitable doomed reunion. Meanwhile, sympathetic lawman Ben Foster struggles to articulate his feelings for Mara's lonely mom.

Padded with shots of sunsets and country roads, the movie relies heavily on a woozy, lyrical style that increasingly plays like an affectation. Mara is a forceful screen presence who seems out of place in the '70s setting, while Affleck's character is little more than a moving target. Lowery, who served as an editor on this year's "Upstream Color," has a good eye, but his Malick-lite approach isn't a great fit. This plot calls for the energy of peak Sam Peckinpah.

Even so, the movie's outlaw portrait bounced pleasingly off of one of yesterday's Fortnight movies, "Blue Ruin," directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Shortly after we meet him, an unshaven vagrant (Macon Blair) knives a just-released convict in a men's room. Over the course of his spectacularly inept getaway, a back story comes into focus. Suffice it to say this is another movie that imagines contemporary America as a new Wild West — or at least the potential setting for a modern Hatfields–McCoys feud. Laced with dark humor (the protagonist struggles to attend to his gushing wounds without visiting a hospital), this mildly glib thriller also has a hot-button point to make. It's quite clear the body count would be lower if these characters had fewer guns.

Mordant comedy and social commentary also make for strange mix in the French comedy "Tip Top," directed by Serge Bozon, a practicing film critic here in Gaul. Art house aficionados may recall his "La France" (2007), an unclassifiable World War I fable that features Sylvie Testud in drag, spontaneous Beatles-like sing-alongs, and the kind of oblique editing one associates with Robert Bresson.

"Tip Top," showing in the Fortnight, is even wackier. Isabelle Huppert plays an internal-affairs detective assigned to uncover which of her fellow police officers ratted out a murdered Algerian informant. The mystery segues into buddy comedy with Huppert's dowdy new partner (Sandrine Kiberlain) and tangents involving their kinky personal lives. While Huppert's bad-cop routine is a hoot, broad jokes involving voyeurism and giant bruises acquired during rough sex coexist uneasily with the movie's ostensibly serious commentary on Algerian life in France.

At the Q&A, Bozon said through a translator that he never wanted the audience to feel too comfortable with the movie's actors or its tone. Still, he said, "My first impulse is not to disconcert the audience. It's to please them." Mission intermittently accomplished.

Cannes reviews: Alejandro Jodorowsky returns with "The Dance of Reality" and "Jodorowsky's Dune"

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CANNES, FRANCE — In one of the biggest surprises of the festival so far, the new film from Alejandro Jodorowsky can be watched and enjoyed without the influence of recreational drugs.

That may seem odd considering the source, the Chilean-born director of such hallucinatory cult classics as "El Topo" and "The Holy Mountain." But the filmmaker's first feature in 23 years — an autobiographical fantasia based on his own memories and books — plays less like his midnight staples than an unhinged variation on Fellini's "Amarcord," down the big-breasted women and son Adan Jodorowsky's jaunty score.

Set in the author's hometown of Tocopilla, Chile, the movie follows both the androgynous, initially golden-locked young Alejandro (Jeremias Herskovits) and his Communist father (played by another of El Maestro's sons, his now-grown "El Topo" costar, Brontis Jodorowsky). Jews of Russian extraction in a remote community, the family stands out. The older man dresses like Stalin and obsesses over toughening up his son, even urging his kid to undergo dental surgery without anesthetic. ("You are a Jodorowsky!" he crows when the boy succeeds.)

It's the kind of film in which men who've lost limbs in the mines populate the periphery to provide comic relief and the filmmaker intermittently turns up in an ice-cream suit to serve as an onscreen guide. Jordorowky's mother (Pamela Flores) sings every line, and at one point urinates on her convulsing husband in order to heal him. (Between this and last year's "The Paperboy," the restorative piss is becoming an annual Cannes motif.) The father wanders off on a half-baked quest to assassinate the wealthy Chilean president, eventually discovering that he identifies more with tyrants than with the common man.

Despite a sometimes slapdash look — the low-fi seagull effects are just this side of "Birdemic" — it's hard not to find this sort of controlled chaos endearing, certainly not when it's peppered with as much affection and warmth as it is here. At the Q&A, one fan actually asked to kiss the director, ascending the stage to embrace him. For his part, the 84-year-old filmmaker, speaking in French, seemed less mad than modest. "I did not create it," he said of his new film. "I received it."

***

The Directors' Fotnight screened "The Dance of Reality" back-to-back with "Jodorowsky's Dune," a documentary directed by Frank Pavitch on Jodorowsky's legendary (and legendarily unsuccessful) 1975 attempt to bring Frank Herbert's sci-fi tome to the screen. Among other tidbits, it's surprising — given the auteur's famously stoned audiences — that he wanted the movies themselves to provide all the altered state that was necessary. "I did not want LSD to be taken," he explains. "I wanted to fabricate the drug's effects."

The "Dune" of Jodorowsky's imagination would have been epic, with music by Pink Floyd, designs by Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and acting collaborations with Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger — several of whom the director claims to have encountered simply by chance. The movie features ample explication of his designs, including an opening shot designed to top Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil" and a spectacular Harkonnen fortress that, artist H.R. Giger admits, wasn't actually in the novel. Director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive"), invited by Jodorowsky to sift through the storyboards, wonders what the film landscape would have looked like had "Dune" made it into theaters before "Star Wars."

This is the type of quixotic project that no longer exists, conceived in an era when money for artistic ambition was considered no object (although, ultimately, it was — Hollywood's reluctance to foot the remainder of the bill is what finally prevented the movie from being shot). And although we'll never get to see the results — Jodorowsky confesses to feeling relief when David Lynch's 1984 version turned out to be bad — the documentary suggests the collaborations and creative ferment Jodorowsky fostered leave a legacy that lasts to this day.

Τρίτη, 14 Μαΐου 2013

In the House

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In “The Kugelmass Episode,” a 1977 short story by Woody Allen published in the New Yorker,  an unhappily twice-married humanities professor at New York’s City College enters Flaubert’s best-known novel, has an affair with Emma Bovary, and winds up in a “Remedial Spanish” textbook pursued by “a large and hairy irregular verb.” In François Ozon’s playful comedic suspense thriller “In the House,” a 16-year-old student at Lycée Gustave Flaubert writes himself into a serialized class paper that ensnares its subjects and its readers.

The movie begins at the beginning: with the start of a new school year and the announcement of a new policy mandating school uniforms for students, or “learners,” in the progressive administration’s preferred term. Lit teacher Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini), whose double name evokes both Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and his dual roles as character and reader in the story-within-the-story, assigns his students a simple “How I Spent Last Weekend” essay, and the insipid work they turn in is distressingly poor.

Except for one effort by Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), who submits a tantalizing fragment about worming his way into the house of a classmate, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), whom he describes in an adjective exercise as “ordinary” and “affable.” Claude offers to help the struggling student with his math homework. An only child living with his disabled father, Claude has spent the summer watching and fantasizing about the Artole house, where sweet, naïve Rapha lives with his loving middle-class parents, Rapha père (Denis Ménochet) and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). As many of us have done when we’ve glimpsed little domestic movies playing out in lighted window frames, he’s taken to imagining the lives going on inside the house and wants to discover more.

Claude’s assignment is hand-written on two sides of a single sheet of lined notebook paper and ends with an enticing parenthetical “to be continued …” Germain reads the piece out loud to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), and in no time, both of them are hooked — not just by the story but by the young writer. How much of the story is nonfiction and how much is imagined? How reliable is the narrator? What narrative devices are at work — in Claude’s continuing tale, and in “In the House”? Who are these characters really, and what do they want? Who’s manipulating whom, and why? Is Claude sexually attracted to Rapha’s father (whom he imagines soaping up in the shower), his mother (whom he watches making love with her husband) and/or Rapha, who seems to be developing a crush on him? Is something sinister going on? What happens next? 

Before long, Germain is tutoring Claude just as Claude is tutoring Rapha. As a frustrated writer, he attempts to help Claude develop his skills and talents by analyzing, criticizing and guiding the story as the boy produces new chapters. But Jeanne wonders if, perhaps, he has developed a sexual fixation on his protégé. After one of Claude’s erotic installments, Germain takes him to task: “The latent desires of the perfect family? The father, the mother, the son — is this Pasolini?” (I love a good “Teorema” joke.) 

Meanwhile, Jeanne curates a struggling gallery called the Minotaur’s Maze, after the mythological dual-natured man-beast. Her increasingly desperate attempts to procure popular work raises issues of what is art and what is simply commercial manipulation — questions Germain also raises about Claude’s work. Is the goal of his writing to create literature or to compete with Barbara Cartland? 

And then Germain starts to appear in the story, commenting on it and suggesting revisions while it is in progress. The voyeuristic aspect of Claude’s story is essential to its appeal, and one of the illicit pleasures of storytelling and moviemaking in general, but voyeurs are inevitably implicated in what they see. Eventually, Germain becomes an active participant in the story, so involved in its creation and cultivation that he conspires with the writer not only to change events in the story but to take questionable actions in his life outside the story to help it continue …  which then become new wrinkles in the story.  

“In the House” might well be called “In the Story” because that’s where it plays out: the house in the story and the story in the house. Ozon has great fun finding cinematic ways to toy with narrative devices, so that the house also becomes a metaphor for the story, with its various levels, compartments, pillars, stairways, partially open doors, mirrors and that Claude can use to observe what’s happening. (We can see him watching and listening — but can they?) It’s telling, then, that Madame Artole is preoccupied with remodeling her house, which is perhaps the same as wanting to rewrite her own story. By the end, “In the House” becomes a remodeled “Rear Window.”

Yes, but is it art? In certain respects, the viewer of “In the House” is put in some of the same positions as the characters. To me, the film seems pretty slight and maybe a bit too literal (it’s based on a play by Spanish writer Juan Mayorga). After a while, it seems to run out of places to go, but for most of its running time, it’s a wickedly clever divertissement.

Peeples

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This week brings two films about rich people partying on Lawn Gyland. Both feature eccentrics, have surnames in the title, and mention polarizing directors in the commercials. The one that's not in 3-D, and has the better tan, is called "Peeples." Like its titular family, "Drumline" scribe Tina Gordon Chism's directorial debut lives in the shadow of its benefactor. 

The commercials and subway posters feature producer Tyler Perry's name so prominently that, until two days ago, I thought the film was called "Tyler Perry Presents: Peeples." I don't mean to imply that Perry is some kind of Black Voldemort, but his name as a marketing device seems a disservice here. It immediately signals to much of the filmgoing public that "This film is NOT for YOU." "Peeples" shares Perry's penchant for gathering a great cast and mocking the "bougie," but that's where the similarities end. This is more "Meet the Parents" than "Madea Goes To Jail."

"Peeples" uses Jay Roach's Ben Stiller comedy as a jumping-off point. Wade (Craig Robinson) wants to marry Grace Peeples (Kerry Washington), but first he has to win over her impossible-to-impress daddy Virgil (David Alan Grier). Daddy works in the government (he's a federal judge) and thinks no suitor is good enough for his little girl. Wade's attempts to earn approval go spectacularly awry while Daddy scowls with intimidation. We are invited to laugh at poor Wade the way audiences laughed at poor Ben Stiller.

Where "Peeples" deviates from "Parents" is in its characterization of the clan Wade is trying to join. Rather than focus and toss scorn on Wade's mistakes, Chism widens the net to incriminate most of her cast. "Peeples" shares a similar "crazy relatives" comic vibe with the recent remake of "Death at a Funeral." With their myriad of secrets and idiosyncrasies, these Peeples turn out to be some messed up Little Fockers.

Egged on by his brother, Chris (Malcolm Barrett), who gasses him up with false confidence, Wade travels to Sag Harbor to crash the Peeples party Grace is attending. Grace's departure from NYC interferes with Wade's plans to propose, so he aims to kill two birds with one ring-mounted stone. He'll ask Grace's famous dad for his blessing and Grace for her hand. This will occur on "Moby Dick Day," which is as symbolic as "Peeples" gets. Familial approval is Wade's white whale, and like Captain Ahab, it literally drags him into the sea.

Wade is too good-hearted to harbor the suspicions he should have when Grace refuses to introduce him to her family. He is a musician and children's "counselor with a K" who sings "songs about urine to minors." That song opens "Peeples" and is genuinely funny. "Speak it, don't leak it," sings Wade in a gospel-infused paean to pee and honesty. It could serve as the Peeples clan's theme song; every one of them has serious skeletons in their closet. Wade's woman has enough skeletons to populate "Jason and the Argonauts." They start falling out as soon as Wade leaves the boat that takes him to the Peeples estate. Seems nobody in the family knows who he is.

Grace begrudgingly introduces Wade as "my friend … and we're in a relationship." The Peeples and Wade know equally little about each other, even though he and Grace have been seeing each other for a year. This causes Wade to bring inappropriate gifts and say inappropriate things. Adding insult to injury, Wade is mounted AND robbed by the family dog, leading to a financial mishap that colors Virgil's opinion of him. "I see Grace's men as her going through phases," Virgil later tells Wade. "You're her loser phase."

Wade's first sign of relief is the immediate bond he forms with Grace's younger brother, Simon (Tyler Williams from "Everybody Hates Chris"). Simon sees Wade's middle-class existence as a truer Blackness, though Simon turns that notion into Wade's biggest problem. Simon fancies himself a bling-infused thug rapper, but he's actually a brainiac nerd. Like Wade, he too has written a song that could serve as a theme for at least two of the other Peeples family members. It's called "Drawers on the Floor."

Wade also hits it off with Grace's CNN reporter sister, Gloria (Kali Hawk), holder of the worst-kept secret on Sag Harbor. Gloria's been showing up for the past nine years with her "best friend" and camerawoman, Meg (Kimrie Lewis-Davis). Meg and Wade share a kinship for honoring the truth over secrets and lies, but neither can get their respective mates to own up to anything that might dishonor Daddy Virgil.

Of course, Virgil's righteous demeanor hides his own huge secrets (see Simon's song title for a hint), which have driven his wife Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) to grow some suspicious "alternative medicine" mushrooms and herbs. These figure in the climactic "Moby Dick Day" scene in "Peeples," which is where Chism's screenplay fails her. Until this sequence, "Peeples" maintains a playful comic rhythm that eases us over its occasional bumps in the road. As a set piece, "Moby Dick Day" is protracted, forced, and features one scene of humiliation too many for Wade.

Chism's cast is game for her shenanigans, and the biggest pleasure of "Peeples" is watching them cut loose under her direction. This movie has one hell of a cast. Veterans Melvin van Peebles and Diahann Carroll play Grace's grandpa and nana, with van Peebles doing wonders with quiet body language alone. As Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Kid, Grier brings comic menace to Virgil. He inherits his fatherly toughness; a scene of both Grandpa and Virgil merely staring at Wade made me want more scenes of them together. For the Peeples, unrealistic expectation is an heirloom.

Robinson is a memorably charming comedic actor. It's nice to see him vacate his Apatow movie Sidekick Negro characters in favor of a lead role, which he handles successfully. Robinson wins us over with Wade's goofy, sweet outlook and demeanor. His musical numbers are high points, especially when he joins an effervescent, spectacular Merkerson on the nasty '70s-era one-hit wonder Daphne sang in her days as a former music star. Known more for her dramatic chops, Merkerson walks off with "Peeples." She mines her character's serious problems and emerges with comic gold.

Kerry Washington has the hardest role to play in "Peeples," and while her performance is fine, I found myself disliking Grace intensely. Grace's refusal to defend Wade, even in the face of a character-destroying theft charge, got under my skin. I kept thinking Wade could do better, though after seeing Washington in a prep-school girl outfit, I understand why he'd stay by her side after the hell her family puts him through. Chism's decision to make Grace this flawed is bold, but it throws the film slightly off-kilter.

The sign of a good comedy is whether you laugh. Coupled with my enjoyment of the performances, I laughed enough to give "Peeples" three stars. I suspect enough of my peoples will come out to this "Gatsby" counter-programmer to spawn a few sequels. I'm putting my bid in for the titles "Peeples Who Need Peeples" and "Yarbrough and Peeples." If you know who "Yarbrough and Peoples" is, this is probably a movie for you.

His eyes are on the tiger

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Again this week, I'm double-posting a major review to permit your comments, which my main site can't accept--although they'll be added to our redesign, soon to be unveiled.



Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery. Inspired by a worldwide best-seller that many readers must have assumed was unfilmable, it is a triumph over its difficulties. It is also a moving spiritual achievement, a movie whose title could have been shortened to "life."


The story involves the 227 days that its teenage hero spends drifting across the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. They find themselves in the same boat after an amusing and colorful prologue, which in itself could have been enlarged into an exciting family film. Then it expands into a parable of survival, acceptance and adaptation. I imagine even Yann Martel, the novel's French-Canadian author, must be delighted to see how the usual kind of Hollywood manhandling has been sidestepped by Lee's poetic idealism.



The story begins in a small family zoo in Pondichery, India, where the boy christened Piscine is raised. Piscine translates from French to English as "swimming pool," but in an India where many more speak English than French, his playmates of course nickname him "pee." Determined to put an end to this, he adopts the name 'Pi,' demonstrating an uncanny ability to write down that mathematical constant that begins with 3.14 and never ends. If Pi is a limitless number, that is the perfect name for a boy who seems to accept no limitations.


The zoo goes broke, and Pi's father puts his family and a few valuable animals on a ship bound for Canada. In a bruising series of falls, a zebra, an orangutan and the lion tumble into the boat with the boy, and are swept away by high seas. His family is never seen again, and the last we see of the ship is its lights disappearing into the deep -- a haunting shot that reminds me of the sinking train in Bill Forsyth's "Housekeeping" (1987).


This is a hazardous situation for the boy (Suraj Sharma), because the film steadfastly refuses to sentimentalize the tiger (fancifully named "Richard Parker"). A crucial early scene at the zoo shows that wild animals are indeed wild and indeed animals, and it serves as a caution for children in the audience, who must not make the mistake of thinking this is a Disney tiger.


The heart of the film focuses on the sea journey, during which the human demonstrates that he can think with great ingenuity and the tiger shows that it can learn. I won't spoil for you how those things happen. The possibilities are surprising.


What astonishes me is how much I love the use of 3-D in "Life of Pi." I've never seen the medium better employed, not even in "Avatar," and although I continue to have doubts about it in general, Lee never uses it for surprises or sensations, but only to deepen the film's sense of places and events.


Let me try to describe one point of view. The camera is placed in the sea, looking up at the lifeboat and beyond it. The surface of the sea is like the enchanted membrane upon which it floats. There is nothing in particular to define it; it is just ... there. This is not a shot of a boat floating in the ocean. It is a shot of ocean, boat and sky as one glorious place.


Still trying not to spoil: Pi and the tiger Richard Parker share the same possible places in and near the boat. Although this point is not specifically made, Pi's ability to expand the use of space in the boat and nearby helps reinforce the tiger's respect for him. The tiger is accustomed to believing it can rule all space near him, and the human requires the animal to rethink that assumption.


Most of the footage of the tiger is of course CGI, although I learn that four real tigers are seen in some shots. The young actor Suraj Sharma contributes a remarkable performance, shot largely in sequence as his skin color deepens, his weight falls and deepness and wisdom grow in his eyes.


The writer W.G. Sebald once wrote, "Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension." This is the case here, but during the course of 227 days, they come to a form of recognition. The tiger, in particular, becomes aware that he sees the boy not merely as victim or prey, or even as master, but as another being.


The movie quietly combines various religious traditions to enfold its story in the wonder of life. How remarkable that these two mammals, and the fish beneath them and birds above them, are all here. And when they come to a floating island populated by countless meerkats, what an incredible sequence Lee creates there.


The island raises another question: Is it real? Is this whole story real? I refuse to ask that question. "Life of Pi" is all real, second by second and minute by minute, and what it finally amounts to is left for every viewer to decide. I have decided it is one of the best films of the year.

Click here to read my Interview with Ang Lee.