Archive for Bob Balaban

I see France

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2021 by dcairns

I thought I was going to miss THE FRENCH DISPATCH out of sluggishness but had a morning class at the Art College, filling in for someone else, so I dropped in on a matinee at the Cameo, where I hadn’t been since before Covid I guess.

This might not be a very interesting piece — the movie is a mixed bag, like everyone says. The short bits are OK, short enough not to be a problem, though when the movie attempts to do gags I found it unfunny in a way that hurt it — Owen Wilson crashing his moped was never amusing, always mistimed, and too CGI-fake to have slapstick appeal. When the movie is merely quirky it’s funny enough.

The three main chunks are: Benicio Del Toro as a criminally insane artist, in which Del Toro is droll, Lea Seydoux has the same daunting self-assurance I sensed when I met her at Telluride, and Adrien Brody is very, very good. Bonus Bob Balaban and Henry Winkler, Tilda Swinton (well-observed caricature, easier to take than her SNOWPIERCER grotesque); student riots with Timothee Chalomet and Frances McDormand, the long pointless episode everyone complains about; Jeffrey Wright as Wesworld’s answer to James Baldwin, profiling gourmand detective Mathieu Amalric and his chef, Steve Park — prime Wes Anderson, if you like Wes Anderson.

Anderson, asked about political content in his films, has said it might be nice to do politics the way DUNE does politics — imaginary politics. His films are hermetically sealed miniatures but increasingly detailed exercises in worldbuilding, so this makes a kind of sense — allowing the worlds to expand into the political sphere, but not letting in the oxygen of reality, which he perhaps would fade everything away like the fresh air corroding the unsealed frescos of Fellini’s ROMA. The problem with this is that DUNE has no real politics, it’s just a choice of dictators, benign or malign. Factions, not politics. The first stab at this in Anderson’s oeuvre, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, actually worked and was even moving, because the substitution of a Chaplinesque equivalent for Nazism was quite fitting — REAL fascism WOULD corrode a Wes joint, would be too toxic and acid, the paper-thin pretence of the ZZ initial instead of swastikas allows just enough distance from pain and tragedy for the comic-opera tone to take root.

But in THE FRENCH DISPATCH the denatured student riots are rendered silly, trivial and meaningless, and so is the episode. And, frankly, the behaviour of the French police has been fascistic enough during the historical period covered, that they might need a fictional alibi too. They work better in the third episode, where what holds it together is the amusing crime story, the really excellent perfs, the genuine emotion. Wright proves a transfiguring addition to the Wesverse — he doesn’t do a straight impersonation of Baldwin, which might be rather insulting, but works with a different timbre altogether, maybe a touch of Orson Welles? Just really pleasurable to watch. But Baldwin, as I understand his work, was concerned with the world, and making him a food critic in a dollhouse world is definitely robbing him of a lot. Maybe the experiment is to see how much that’s powerful is left when you do that. The “disputed passage” which Wright’s character cuts from his piece and Bill Murray’s editor reinstates, a beautiful scene played with Park (and it’s very encouraging to see that both actors are to return in Anderson’s next film), becomes, as Murray says, “the reason for writing it.” That kind of reason has sometimes seemed absent in W.A.’s precious productions. He’s wary of emotion (the French Dispatch’s office bears a No Crying sign), commitment, commentary — which makes the subject of journalism maybe an oddball, unpromising choice for him.

While the nested narratives of BUDAPEST worked well for his style, the discrete boxes of DISPATCH seem to overemphasise the airlessness and anxiety about meaning. And Anderson is perhaps not quite a brilliant enough writer to pastiche the varied literary styles he’s looking at: the narrators mostly sound the same. His nods to Tati and Tardi don’t quite get there either — Hulot’s house from MON ONCLE is reconstructed practically brick by brick, and just feels like plagiarism, and the animated section is fun but the artists can’t ink with Tardi’s wondrous fluidity — everything is clenched. (Just read that the actual inspiration was Tintin and Blake & Mortimer — the latter explains the stiffness.)

But the good bits are great. And, while Anderson repeats himself — he did better Tati pastiche in his little ad films — we get another cutaway diagram of a vessel, as in THE LIFE AQUATIC — he’s still adding to his toybox. I counted the following new elements: the varied aspect ratios of BUDAPEST are enhanced by b&w sections; tableaux vivants (which the classic Anderson shot is always verging towards anyway); theatrical lighting changes; the aforementioned animation insert, supposed to evoke a bandes dessinées version of the true events; more non-white faces than previous Andersons.

If I sound picky, it’s because Anderson’s work is very irresistible, except when it’s irresistible (as in, for me, for instance, MOONRISE KINGDOM, ISLE OF DOGS). This one didn’t wholly overcome my defences.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH stars Dr. Gonzo; Wladyslaw Szpilman; The Ancient One; Sabine Moreau; Marge Gunderson; Paul Atreides; Constance Bonacieux; Felix Leiter; Serge X.; Peter Venkman; Coy Harlingen; Orr; Principal Arthur Himbry; Partita Dupea; Zero; Dr. Astrov; Dr. King Schultz; Chéri; Cotton Weary; Max Schreck; Sheldon Mopes / Smoochy the Rhino; Lady Bird McPherson; Kitty Tyler / Dahlia; Gag Halfrunt (uncredited); Rock Bork; Jack Goodman; and the voice of Morticia Addams.

Dog Zero: Unleashed

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2018 by dcairns

I think ISLE OF DOGS is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while, on the big screen. Half an hour in, Fiona whispered to me, “I like this better than FANTASTIC MR. FOX.” Don’t worry, nobody was sitting nearby to be disturbed. I remember we loved FANTASTIC MR. FOX so I would have to see that one again to compare more freshly. But this one is pretty great, and may show advances in the Wes Anderson emotional lexicon. (In brief: there are a lot of crying dogs and people in this one, and not all of the emotion is smothered under a thick layer of irony. This may mean Anderson is about to become a rank sentimentalist, but for now it means he’s opened up a little, the possibilities have become wider. It’s a process we’ve seen hints of for some time.)

I’d like to dispose of the whole cultural appropriation question quickly. I think this is a pretty clear example of the GOOD kind of cultural appropriation. It’s obviously born of a deep love of Japanese culture; it displays, and shares, relatively nuanced knowledge of that culture; I find it preferable to the bored tourist’s eye view of LOST IN TRANSLATION. I see lots of American indie films in my work as submissions viewer for Edinburgh International Film Festival, and one thing there isn’t enough of in American cinema is interest in other parts of the world. Sure, this is set in futuristic comedy Japan, but little kids aren’t going to be seeing Ozu just yet. Fiona wondered if the film was too strange and too dark for little kids. I don’t care: it’ll be SOME strange, dark little kid’s favourite movie.

If there are clear (but shifting) limits on the extent to which Anderson’s films engage with other cultures (Colourful Backdrop in THE DARJEELING LIMITED; Ruritanian Allegory in GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL), it’s still impressive here how much of the film plays as anti-Trump. I mean, the orange blob has only been squatting in office a year, and how long does it take to make an animated feature? The movie is obviously more broadly anti-dictator though, and I guess they’re all somewhat alike (Trump’s incoherent Twitter bellowing is down to the fact that he’s an aspiring dictator whose found himself in charge of a democracy, and doesn’t understand why he can’t make things happen just by shouting). But the executive order signing seems like a specific jab.

There’s a conspiracy plot — power-grab using manufactured plague — which dates back to AIDS conspiracy theories (the truth about Reagan-administration indifference to the “gay plague” is horrifying enough without need for germ warfare elaborations) and which is a repeat of a story point from an earlier agit-prop fantasy: the Wachowski-scripted V FOR VENDETTA, which went after G.W. Bush with very internet-era Hitler comparisons. (I liked that film a fair bit despite some egregious flaws. Here’s the nonsensical timeline: government builds concentration camps and experiments on prisoners, creating virus it uses to decimate populace and seize power. Wait, seize power? Aren’t they already IN POWER, powerful enough to set up concentration camps? It’s not just a tangled web, it’s a moebius strip… or a script by people who aren’t as smart as they think they are.)

Tilda as “Oracle”

Brief summary of what I liked in this film: resonant Bryan Cranston voice (his first great movie role); Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Harvey Keitel and Tilda Swinton are the Anderson regulars who work best as voice artists (some of the others maybe aren’t distinctive enough*); the beautiful imagery you’d expect; Alexandre Desplat’s score, snagging quotes from THE SEVEN SAMURAI and Prokofiev’s Troika, and reminding me of AKIRA and YOJIMBO in places; deaths of sympathetic characters; no deaths for unsympathetic characters; everything seen on TV screens is animated in 2D, anime-style; I laughed; I cried; it has lots of dogs in it.

Fiona didn’t like that the bad guys are cat lovers: but she liked the fact that jailed evil people got to keep their cats in prison.

*Voice acting for cartoons is strange. In the anaemic ANTZ, Sylvester Stallone’s distinctive mush-mouthed delivery makes him far more effective that Gene Hackman, who just sounds like some dude, despite being self-evidently the superior actor.

I Like Ike

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on December 22, 2011 by dcairns

Going into the peculiar TAKE A CHANCE I was already a big Lillian Roth fan. Coming out of it, I’m a big Ukulele Ike fan. He’d somehow passed me by until this moment, apart from his work as Jiminy Cricket. Of course, Ike (AKA Cliff Edwards) was uncredited in that, along with the rest of the voice cast (such strange, distant days those were — now, voice actors are cast not for their voices but precisely for name recognition).

But I read the name in Bob Balaban’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, since Spielberg had previewed his big UFO movie with the song at the end, to horrible reactions from the audience. Columbia stock dropped so fast they had to stop trading. The power of song…

Of course, Ike’s rendition, which is beautiful in its own right and works like a charm in the Disney, would have been fatal in Spielberg’s wide-eyed conspiracy thriller, unbalancing the thing and undoing all the credit it gets for having edgy seventies actors and cinematography, turning it into the big load of baloney it secretly wants to be but is ashamed of owning up to. Balanced on that knife-edge, it never quite becomes total kitsch, and is something I’m really quite impressed by, despite my cynicism about it.

(The live radio version heard 3.50 into the above clip is much preferable, I think, to the soupily orchestrated movie version — when vocals are as emotively quavery as these, you don’t need syrupy strings.)

Anyhow, for my reactions to TAKE A CHANCE, and for two Lillian Roth numbers and one Ukulele Ike, skip over to The Daily Notebook for the penultimate Forgotten Pre-Code.