Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 2, 2010

2009 Movies wrap-up, part three

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:53 pm

All of these will get a “rotten” from me on RottenTomatoes.com as well as the next batch that I will comment on tomorrow or the next day.

Police, Adjective

After having my expectations raised by “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and ” 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days”, this new film also from Romania that opened in New York last Friday left me cold. I strongly suspect that its minimalism is geared to international tastes. It is the story of Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a young cop who is tracking a high school student who likes to smoke hashish with friends, including a boy his age who is ratting him out to the cops.  Most of the movie consists of Cristi staking out locations where the suspect is expected to buy or sell hashish or get high. Think of these scenes as analogous to Gene Hackman eating hot dogs on the street in “The French Connection” but without the car chase or other memorable scenes. One imagines that director Corneliu Porumboiu was trying to avoid cheap thrills, but overdid it. The title of the film refers to an extended scene at the end of the movie where Cristi refuses to take part in a sting operation against the student since it will land him in prison. He tells his superior officer that his conscience prevents him from victimizing the youth, especially in light of the fact that drug laws in Romania will soon be changed to be consistent with a more lenient and civilized approach in Western Europe. In the most patronizing fashion, his boss instructs him to read the definition of “conscience” and of “police” in a dictionary in order to understand his duties. One of the definitions of police that Cristi reads out loud is as an adjective, as in “police state”. This is the obviously the epiphany that Porumbolu expects audiences to achieve through the scene, namely that Romania remains a police state despite the end of Communism. I applaud the director’s integrity, but only wish he had made a more compelling film.

Bright Star;

The Young Victoria

These two come from the same studio and represent the PBS Masterpiece Theater aesthetic raised to highest levels of boredom. “Bright Star” is a love story about the poet John Keats and a perfectly ordinary woman named Fanny Brawne who wrote about their affair when she was in her old age. Keats died of TB when he was only 26 years old but produced some of the 19th century’s greatest poems, including the one from which this listless movie derives its title. Directed and written by Jane Campion, who is best known for “The Piano”, it is lovely to look at but totally lacking in drama. It consists mainly of Keats and Brawne in dalliance with each other, like scenes from a Jane Austen novel but without the biting irony. Keats had little to speak of in his life other than his genius with verse, but it is simply impossible for a movie to convey the internal drama that allowed that genius to grow into full flower. So all we end up with is strolls through the garden until a cold rain and a light jacket puts Keats on his deathbed.

The director of “The Young Victoria” must have assumed that the audience would be entertained sufficiently by the opulence of Windsor Castle and similar environs and did not take the trouble to secure a decent script before filming. Unlike “The Queen”, the splendid dismantling of Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair, this is an attempt to bolster the image of Queen Victoria, who is represented as a kind of proto-feminist whose marriage to Prince Albert supposedly ushered in a period of social reform that left the working class of Britain as adoring subjects. We are led to believe that Victoria and Albert were locked in battle with powerful Tory politicians who would not be happy until every drop of surplus value was extracted from the workers. Missing from the film is any consideration of Queen Victoria’s role in empire-building, a project that had the effect of robbing Asian and Africans in order to allow the British rich to build their castles and manor houses, while offering some crumbs from the table to the men and women of the British Isles. Julian Fellowes, a life-long Tory and son of a diplomat who has written toothless satires on the aristocracy, wrote the vapid screenplay. The only mystery is why Martin Scorsese helped to produce this valentine to the aristocracy. Perhaps Fellowes caught him in a compromising situation, like a scene out of one of his Mafia movies.

Julia & Julie

A perfectly dreadful movie about the famous French chef (and CIA agent) and a New York woman who wrote a blog on Salon.com describing her attempts to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s landmark cookbook. She turned her blog into a bestselling book, which forms the basis for this stupid film. Meryl Streep’s performance is as broad as Danny Ackroyd’s on Saturday Night Live but played only partially for laughs. As blogger Julie Powell, Amy Adams is not so nearly as annoying as the woman she is portraying. We learn from Powell’s follow-up book, a memoir titled “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession” about working as a butcher in upstate New York, that she was cheating on her husband during the period covered in the film. This amazon.com comment on that book might give you some sense for the sort of person who occupies half of the film’s scenes:

Throughout the book, Powell is consistently despicable. I know that’s harsh, but it’s true. Julie Powell cheats on her husband: first in college before they’re married, then again, and again, and again during their marriage. She returns to her husband, promising fidelity, only after her situation forces her to return – and she has no intention of honoring her promise of fidelity. She only stops seeing her boyfriend when HE breaks it off, and even then she (by her own admission) stalks him for several months. I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to marriage, and I respect and appreciate that different people are in different situations that may not always involve monogamously living happily ever after. But Powell wants it both ways. She wants a traditional marriage. But she also wants her husband AND boyfriend to both dote on her lovingly and exclusively, with no jealousy or repercussions.

I was inspired to add a comment on Julie Powell’s blog after seeing “Julia & Julie”

I loved “Juliet and July”. Greatest movie since “The Hangover”. Even greater than “Saw VI”. Hope that they make a movie out of “Cleaver”. Maybe James Cameron can make a 3D production? Can’t you see the cleaver hurdling toward your forehead? Wowee!

Me and Orson Welles

Very close in spirit to “Julia & Julie”, this is a movie that is more about the insignificant “me” in the title than the more famous main character. In place of the cheating blogger, we have a fictional character named Richard Samuels (played by Walt Disney Films boy toy Zach Efron) who we are supposed to identify with–a high school student who wrangles a bit part in Welles’s Mercury Theater production of “Julius Caesar”. Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Kaplow, it is not really that much about Welles but more of a coming of age tale about Samuels, who is explicitly Jewish in the novel. Like the ineffable Julie Powell who lives to see her name in print in the NY Times, Samuels dreams only of “making it” in the theater in order to impress girls in his school. So here we have one of the most powerful talents of the 1930s and 40s, a genius with a strong identification with the left, playing second fiddle to what amounts to a character in a Philip Roth short story. While Tim Robbins’s “The Cradle Will Rock” was a flawed attempt to recapture Orson Welles’s unique personality and talents, it at least made a serious attempt to engage with an unforgettable time and place. By comparison, “Me and Orson Welles” perfectly captures the underachieving epoch we find ourselves unlucky to live in.

1 Comment »

  1. 1. Have you seen “Tales from the Golden Age”, a darkly comic anthology of communist jokes, fables, urban legends, etc. set in Ceaucescu’s Romania? It’s seriously hilarious, and had the same (unintended) effect on me as reading (the almost absurdly unfunny–has anyone ever been more humorless than Solzhenitsyn?) “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”–namely (re)assuring me that life in Ceaucescu’s Romania as in Stalin’s gulag really wasn’t so bad after all, not nearly as bad as the bourgeois propagandists would have us believe.

    2.(a) Why not a film about Rimbaud instead of Keats?

    (b) And here I thought Queen Victoria adored Disraeli and disliked Gladstone.

    In any case, why do these films about famous people (be they poets or monarchs) so often have to be (conventional) love stories?

    3. The wannabe celebrity whose desire far exceeds her abilities (and/or luck) finds a measure of success by parasitically attaching herself to celebrities by working as an entertainment reporter, as the wannabe professional athlete whose desire far exceeds his abilities finds a measure of success by parasitically attaching himself to professional athletes by working as a sports reporter, etc. etc. Call them all culture industry middle-managers. And yes, they all deserve to serve some serious time in the gulag, or at least working in the country alongside farm laborers.

    Comment by Alex — January 4, 2010 @ 4:36 am

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