A Christmas Tale

I think I liked this
movie
as much as I did because it’s so much like a large
family-saga novel. You can get a review about how good the
acting, directing, costumes, and set decoration are lots
of places.

I’m going to tell you a story about the soundtrack, because I
think it illustrates how a good movie can be both better and
worse than a good novel.

One thing mentioned in the movie, which probably would be
expanded on at more length in a novel, is how musical the family
is, and how they all play instruments. The playing is only demonstrated
occasionally in the movie, but there is a lot of listening to a wide variety of
recorded music.

In one scene, there’s a background that sounds like Christmas
carols in English. When I watched the credits, it turned out to be English
Village Carols
, recorded live in the pubs around Sheffield,
England, where there’s an active tradition going back several
hundred years of singing carols in the pubs.

A friend of mine owns that CD, and he tells the story that he
was listening to it when a friend came over. The friend said,
“That sounds like a bunch of drunks singing Christmas carols.”

And then she looked at the liner notes, and exclaimed, “It
is a bunch of drunks singing Christmas carols!”

My point is that a novel would have a lot more explanation of
how some member of this elegant French family happened to be
interested in this off-the-beaten-track genre of music, and it
might well be part of the description of the various kinds of
tension between the various family members. But you wouldn’t
have anything like as much idea of what the music actually
sounded like.

I’d say this is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It
isn’t a typical Christmas movie, but it isn’t as depressing at
the one-sentence plot summary (A mother dying of liver cancer
(played by Catherine DeNeuve) celebrates Christmas with her family) would imply, either, so you might
enjoy it for Christmas viewing.

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Outrageous

I was really blown away by this movie
when I saw it at the Orson Welles Theater in the late ’70’s.

It doesn’t hold up quite as well as I was hoping it would when
I put it in my Netflix queue. The schizophrenia story seems to
have been done many times, and although the acting is good, Liza’s
movie-star good looks aren’t really credible based on what I
know about schizophrenics in drug treatment.

But the female impersonator turns are still really fun to
watch. The scene where Craig Russell as Robin Turner impersonates Marilyn Monroe imitating numerous other
stars of the era auditioning to sing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best
Friend
is worth watching even if you don’t feel like the
drama about a gay hairdresser and his schizophrenic female
roommate.

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Shakespeare’s Kings

An
Age of Kings

was originally live broadcasts on the BBC in the
early 60’s of the sequence of Shakespeare’s history plays from
Richard II (which I’d never seen before) through Henry IV, Henry
V, Henry VI (which I’d also never seen) and Richard III. They’re
now being sold as 5 DVD’s.

They were using the then upcoming young actors, so it’s fun to
see a very young Judi Dench play Katherine flirting with Henry
IV, and a young Sean Connery conspiring against Henry IV.

Another good thing about the series is that characters who
reappear in several plays are played by the same actor in each,
which wouldn’t normally happen on stage, since someone of the
stature to play Richard III in the play of that name, wouldn’t
be asked to do the bit part of Gloucester in Henry VI.

The actor who plays Prince Hal and later Henry V is Robert
Hardy
. Every time I see him, (most recently as a hanger on of
Mr. Merdle’s in Little Dorrit) I realize that I know him well, but
can’t quite remember where from. He has quite a long list of
credits, many of which you’ve seen. His Henry V is a very youthful,
athletic, endearing performance.

Another standout performance is by Paul Daneman as
Richard III. He also has a long list of credits, but I mostly
haven’t seen them, but I may look some of them out now. I still
haven’t seen a production of Richard III that really reconciles
the opening monologue, which seems to me to clearly say “I’m
going to get the world because I’m so ugly that no woman will
ever love me”, with the seduction of Lady Anne, where Richard always
seems to be played as a matinée idol who assumes that of
course a grieving widow will just fall into bed with the man who
murdered her husband, her father, and her brother. But Daneman
rolling around on the floor laughing (“Was ever woman in such
humor wooed; was ever woman in such humor won?”) after the
seduction scene is really fascinating.

Finishing watching the plays leaves me wanting to read some of
the history — surely there was gunpowder and not just swordplay
at Bosworth Field? And did the battles really resolve themselves
by the major characters killing each other? None of them ever
got killed by a minor character?

In general, the productions are good for what they were. The
music is what seems most old-fashioned to me, but luckily there
isn’t much of it. Richard III, the last of the plays, seems
more truncated than the others, so one wonders if maybe they ran
out of money.

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Whatever Works

This
movie
is a pleasant Woody Allen romp through New York.

If you don’t know Woody Allen, this isn’t where to start. If
you find him irritating, this isn’t going to convince you
that he isn’t. But if you usually enjoy his movies, you will
probably enjoy this one.

The plot is ridiculous, but it is fun to see a family come from
backwoods Mississipi and find fulfillment in academic/artistic/gay
New York.

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Fados

I once went to a live Fados concert, because a Portuguese
friend assured me that I would like it. I did enjoy the music,
but it was vocal music, and I understood very little of the
words. This concert was in New Bedford, where a majority of the
residents probably speak more Portuguese than I do, and I’m sure
it was a vast majority in this audience. The rest of the
audience seemed very enthusiastic, so I’m sure the performers
made the right decision to not bother with trying to put the
words across to non-Portuguese speakers, but I would have
enjoyed it more if I’d known what they were singing about.

This
movie
is what I was looking for. The performers are making
no concessions to explaining their performances, but there are
subtitles. The movie just moves from one performance to the
next, often beautiful productions with scenery and dance and
fluid costumes.

There are titles on the performances, but it’s not always clear
whether they’re the location, the name of the song, the name of
the group, or the name of a style. But it really doesn’t
matter.

The director, Carlos Saura, has produced other movies like
this. I’ve seen Flamenco,
which I enjoyed but wasn’t as interested in as I was in Fados.
But Tango
might be worth checking out.

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Repulsion

I think this
movie
was Roman
Polanski’s
first movie in English. I’d say it’s a good one to
start with if you like arty European movies and don’t want to
bother with subtitles. And if you don’t mind movies about mental illness.

The most artful aspect of the movie is the urban sounds. The
beginning of the movie is largely the interaction of Carol, the
main character, played by Catherine deNeuve, who is going mad, and her sister and a
coworker, who have their problems but are dealing with them. The
sister is clearly irritated by the trolley bell which is very loud
in the apartment she and Carol share, but after it passes, she
forgets about it. Carol tenses when it stops, and remains tense,
and then tenses more when the next irritation comes.

Another aspect that’s well done is the way the apartment
looks. One of Carol’s hallucinations is that giant cracks are
opening up in the walls. Of course, there are cracks that should
be fixed; there are ornate plaster ceiling medallions that might well come
down…

Another very well done piece of acting is the smells. Of
course, even people like me who’ve just installed the latest in
home theater equipment don’t have smell-o-vision yet, but one of
the things that happens in this movie is that after her sister
leaves, Carol isn’t coping with anything at all. So she takes a
rabbit out of the refrigerator, and puts it down to answer the
phone, and never gets the ability to put it away. So of course it
attracts flies, which adds to the jangle of annoying sounds. But
after a while, everyone who comes into the apartment wrinkles
their nose in increasing horror, so you really do know how it smells.

If you don’t think too hard about the plot, this is a
remarkably good movie. Of course, someone who can’t put the
rabbit back in the refrigerator couldn’t really murder two
ordinarily fit men on the first try. So of course one of the
things to wonder about is whether that really happened, but if
not, why did the sister scream like that when she got home?

What version to watch

I put this on my Netflix list when the New York Times reviewed
the recent release of the Criterion edition. I have linked to the
blu-ray version, because that’s the one I watched, but I doubt
that this is a movie that particularly needs blu-ray. The extra
dots were probably good for watching plaster cracking, but the
sound (apparently originally in mono), was only mixed to stereo. So if you
don’t bother with director’s commentary (I didn’t), you may well be just as
well off with the $10
older transfer.

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How I like the surround sound

I promised to stop talking about the setup, so I won’t tell you
about the set of cables I just ordered from monoprice.com. Except to
mention that the solution to not having enough TOSLink sockets
is to get a TOSLink
switch.
And that I’m still insecure on round 4 of ordering
cables whether I have enough of the right kind.

But I have had a chance to listen to a fair number of different
programs in surround sound, so I’ll tell you about what I’m
getting for the several hundred dollars I spent.

For just music recorded in stereo, it doesn’t really get you
much. The music still comes out of the stereo speakers, which
are still in the same place and the same quality.

For programs like movies and TV shows, it really does
make a difference, though, because the dialog is coming out of
the center channel, and the background music is coming out of
the other speakers, so it really does come through as
background, and doesn’t make the dialog hard to understand.

The FM radio is by default pushed through all the speakers, and
that’s a bit of a disadvantage for the way I use the radio,
because I have the volume down in the living room because of 5
speakers instead of two, but then when I go into the kitchen it
isn’t loud enough to hear.

And the sports programs really are a bit more exciting when you
feel surrounded by the crowd noise. I thought that was a bit
hokey when I first heard it, but now I miss it if I hit a
program like that which isn’t in surround.

I still haven’t listened to a real music DVD that’s been mixed
for surround sound. I moved the Werner Herzog Lohengrin up on
my Netflix queue, so I’ll let you know how that worked out.
There’s also a blu-ray Lohengrin, but I want to see what Herzog
does with it. I’ll tell you some time about the live production I saw
once — it’s an opera that needs a stage director.

Roman Polanski

I know every other blogger weighed in on this a few weeks ago,
but I had Wanted
and Desired
, the documentary about the original trial, in my
Netflix watch now queue, and I wanted to see it before I
pontificated. I got around to watching it last night.

I was pretty sure the current difficulties Polanski is in
aren’t an example of the creeping police state mentality that
the cases of Gates
and my
neighbor
seem to be, since this involves someone who has
actually been convicted of something. But I couldn’t tell from
the news reports what the actual story about plea bargains and
time served was.

If you’re interested, you should watch the documentary. But
the short version is that he was indited on a series of
charges, and the one he was willing to plead to was “unlawful
intercourse”. This is less serious than rape, but can still
lead to a 20 year sentence in state prison.

The sentencing problem the judge faced was that there were
enough issues with the conduct of the trial that he didn’t want to give a sentence that would
be appealed. But he thought Polanski should serve some time in
jail. The only sentence that couldn’t be appealed was the 90 day
“evaluation”, which in Polanski’s case took only 42 days.

The judge was outraged that he had achieved only 42 days in
jail and was trying to bargain for more time in jail when
Polanski decided he didn’t trust these bargains and left.

The documentary focuses on the views of the two principal
lawyers in the case, the prosecutor, who looks a lot like Robert
Redford, and the defense attorney, who looks something like Sam
Waterstone. Of course, what you really want is the point of
view of the victim and of Roman Polanski, both of whom are
interviewed, but understandably don’t want to talk about the
more painful aspects of the issue.

My gut opinion is that this is not the way to protect 13 year
old girls from being exploited by older men. This isn’t an
example of random police power, but certainly does indicate that
the intersection of the courts with the media and the political
system can lead to undesirable results for both victims and
criminals.

So if Polanski manages to not come back, I won’t be outraged by
any miscarriage of justice. If he does end up coming back, I hope
any additional sentence can be mostly time served in the Swiss
jail, which I would guess is a lot more civilized than the
California State Prison. (I’m not the only person who thinks
that — the reason the 90 day evaluation got done in 42 days was
that the prison officials were concerned that they wouldn’t be
able to protect him.)

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Hobson’s Choice

I watched this
movie
last night, and enjoyed it a lot. It’s about a
woman who does all the work for a family with a mostly absent
father and two lazy sisters.

Not that I believe the fairy tale about getting capital for
your business from the first person you ask and paying it off
before it’s due. But the fairy tale about a woman deciding what
she wants and going and getting it is a lot of fun to watch.
And she gets to be the fairy godmother to the bootmaker in the
basement who hasn’t ever thought of getting a better job or a
better place to live.

The key sentence of the plot goes, “This business runs on the shoes you
make which sell themselves and the boots everyone else makes,
which I sell.” So obviously they should go into business for
themselves, and ditch the parasites.

Which they do. Unfortunately, the “happy” ending has them
coming back to the original shop and taking care of the
alcoholic father, but at least the lazy sisters are out of the
picture. The Cinderella ending I always imagined after “and
they lived happily ever after” was better, but the one in
Rossini actually leaves her still dealing with the father and
the stepsisters, so probabably I’m just being too escapist about
my fantasy life.

The cinematography of the alcoholic delirium is a bit dated,
but Charles Laughton’s acting of a man who’s drunk himself into
oblivion and incapacity is really good.

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Mayerling

I put this
movie
on my Netflix queue because of this
review,
which says:

This is a very sophisticated tearjerker. You can weep
over it without feeling either your intelligence or dignity has
been insulted.

I didn’t weep, but I did enjoy the sophistication.

The review also says:

Litvak lingers too long on ballets and balls and on one really hideous oompah beer garden number.

I enjoyed the oompah beer garden number (which happens twice), but the music I was
really glad the movie lingered on was the gypsy dance band,
centered by a hammered dulcimer.

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