Saturday, May 21, 2016

Copying Beethoven

Year 8, Day 142 - 5/21/16 - Movie #2,341

BEFORE: No movie yesterday, I gave myself the night off because I spent the better part of Thursday moving furniture around, since one of my bosses is moving her animation studio.  This will be the 6th time I've moved (or helped move) an animation studio, and I'm not as young as I used to be (who is?) so this sort of thing now takes a lot out of me.  I figured that if I started a movie and relaxed, I'd fall asleep right away and that would be a pointless exercise, so in that case it's better for me to skip a day and pick up fresh the next night.  I fall behind in the annual count this way, but once I get back on track this will force a war movie to line up with Memorial Day, so I'm fine with that.   

Ed Harris carries over from "Enemy at the Gates".

THE PLOT:  A fictionalized account of the last year of Beethoven's life.

AFTER: It makes sense that if "Amadeus" won Best Picture years ago for its portrayal of the life of Mozart that someone would take the same tack with "Lovely Ludwig Van" (as they called him in "A Clockwork Orange").  The difference is, I don't remember hearing about this won winning any similar awards, or even being nominated for one.  

Clearly, it's a tougher row to hoe.  If you believe the movies, Mozart was wild, spirited, fun-loving, brilliant, talented, a bit egotistical, while Beethoven?  He was German.  And by that I mean he was dour, ill-tempered, fanatically religious, probably OCD, way WAY egotistical, insensitive to other people's feelings, and probably an intense genius as well.  Maybe it's a bit of a circular argument to point to his music like his 9th Symphony as proof of genius, but what else have we got?  Oh, yeah, just 8 other symphonies, about 50 sonatas, some concerti, one opera, and a metric ton of chamber music.  

But considering his personality and temperament (musical pun intended), how do you explain someone like this writing something called "Ode to Joy"?  Was that meant to be ironic?  Or did Beethoven name the piece because of an unending search for something that eludes most Germans, namely joy?  (BTW, I'm free to make fun of Germans because I'm of mostly German descent, was raised by two German grandmothers and I know quite a few Germans now, so to me all the stereotypes are true.  But don't you try this at home...)

Also, why was there no 10th Symphony, and come on, Ludwig, don't go using death as an excuse, where's that German work ethic?  Ten is such a nice round number, compared to 9, it's the first two-digit number AND the basis for our entire counting system.  (Although, nine is a perfect square, I can get behind that.  Leave 'em wanting more, right?)  The film suggests here that after writing the Ninth, Beethoven struggled for a while but couldn't come up with something else on that level.  Well, of course, after that if he played someone a melody or a motif people would naturally say, "Hmm, it's OKAY, but it's clearly not as good as the Ninth, now, is it?"  

We also learn that Beethoven must have HATED chorus singers - why else would he make them stand there, all during the Ninth symphony, for nearly two hours, waiting for their cue?  Seriously, you stand for too long on those risers, and if your legs lock you can cut off the blood supply to your brain - I've seen chorus singers faint on more than one occasion because of that.  

But mainly people want to know about Ludwig's hearing - how did he compose the Ninth Symphony when he was almost completely deaf?  The suggestion here is a female "copyist", meaning someone who transcribes music, making proper notations and breaking apart the symphony to make sheet music for the various instruments - and it's impossible now to see a scene with one without thinking of Mozart dictating music to Salieri in that other film.  But let's focus - Anna Holtz, his copyist, also functioned as sort of a human metronome, if this film is to believed, when Beethoven conducted his Ninth, which he himself could not hear.  I debate whether such a thing is possible, not because she was a woman but because she had not trained as a conductor, and that's much different from being a copyist.  So we're led to believe that she was either innately talented at it, or she picked it up on the fly, but either way the overall effect is that her movements were controlling his, evoking the way that Remy the rat controlled the chef in the animated film "Ratatouille".  

I'm sure many music fans would cry foul at this portrayal, but then, what's the accepted reasoning behind Beethoven's ability to conduct while deaf?  Are we just going to assume that he could feel the vibrations from the orchestra and translate them into pitched sounds, or that he faked his way through?  Certainly a topic for discussion, and this may require some investigation.  But I can't help but see repeats of the themes from "Whiplash" in the relationship between Ludwig and Anna - the abusive conductor, sure, but also the submissive, the person who keeps coming back for more abuse, more or less of their own free will.  

Which brings me back to animation, and my twenty-plus year relationship with a man also generally regarded as a genius in his field, but also someone who's often impractical and occasionally high-strung.  And yet I keep coming back, suffering the occasional putdown or admission of my own failures, just to continue the opportunity to be twenty feet from stardom.  I believe that I'm good at my job, but to keep it I need to know what to say and when not to say it, because any disagreement with the boss can sometimes be taken as a sign of personal betrayal.   And thus has developed an often uneasy alliance, two people living in a form of symbiosis, moving forward together but still in different directions.  But within the alliance, a form of trust, where he can hand me a sheet paper with a nearly illegible blog entry and say, "You know, if you see a way to make it better, go ahead..."  

But that trust has its limits, if I notice a small mistake in an animated film that's one thing, but a large mistake, with regards to plot or structure, it's taken as if I'm saying "This is a bad film," so I've learned to not do that, it's overreaching. And if it IS a bad film, well, I certainly can't say that either.  Depending on what stage the production is at, and how costly a mistake would be to fix, I've heard responses that range from "That's not a mistake," to "Nobody's going to notice that," (Umm, I noticed...) to "You know, I kind of like that mistake."  Never, EVER has the response been, "Wow, thanks for catching that, I'll fix it right away. Hey, you saved the film!"  

Wait, what were we talking about?  Oh, yeah, Beethoven.  You might ask why people chose to even be near him when he was such a dick, especially his neighbors who got their soup ruined every time he poured a chamber pot of water over his head to wake himself up.  But if they moved, well then they wouldn't be the first people to hear the new Beethoven masterpiece, now, would they?  Any why would his assistant stay with him, when she had to do such burdensome tasks as bathing the maestro, and that's not a euphemism.  Well, that's the real question, isn't it?

Also starring Diane Kruger (last seen in "Joyeux Noel"), Matthew Goode (last seen in "The Imitation Game"), Phyllida Law (last seen in "Emma"), Joe Anderson (last seen in "Amelia"), Ralph Riach, Nicholas Jones. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 ear horns

Friday, May 20, 2016

Enemy at the Gates

Year 8, Day 140 - 5/19/16 - Movie #2,340

BEFORE: Quite a few World War II films in the past month, like "Fury" and "The Great Raid", and after tonight I've still got more of them planned, to coincide with Memorial Day and July 4.  It's been 75 years since the start of WW2 (the American part of it, anyway), and it's still a hot topic for cinema.  At one of my jobs I'm currently doing publicity for a mockumentary about Hitler, so I'm right in line with the trend.  Jude Law carries over from "Alfie", and I'm done with him for now, moving on to the next links in the chain.

THE PLOT: A Russian and a German sniper play a game of cat-and-mouse during the Battle of Stalingrad.

AFTER: The film starts with one of those traditional animated maps, with the Nazi forces represented by the color black, spreading over Europe and into Russia, looking something like an infection or a cancer taking over a living thing.  Obviously Hitler was the most evil man in history, and I'd never support the Nazis in any way, but choosing black as the color symbolizing Germany, advancing into the healthy red-colored Russia, well, it's a stylistic choice that amounts to propaganda in its own way.  Plus I don't think that an army taking territory should necessary look the same as ink spilled on to a piece of paper.  Geez, you gotta figure that Hitler was a guy you didn't want to play against in a game of "Risk", right?  Or any board game, really - if you played "Monopoly" against Hitler he'd probably annex the "Free Parking" space and rename it Germany.  

But this is a film about Russian soldiers standing up to Nazis in Stalingrad, and it's a form of propaganda in its own way - someone had an agenda here.  I was raised in the Cold-War 1970's and 80's, and during that time the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, they could have bombed us at any point, and the U.S. sent weapons to Afghanistan just because the Afghanis were fighting the Russians - and there was no way that decision would ever come back to bite us in the ass.  Plus the Russians had the nerve to boycott the Olympics in L.A., just because we boycotted the games in Moscow.  Jeez, what a bunch of sore losers and copycats.  When we boycotted it was a political statement, when they did it, it was just sour grapes, am I right?  

But anyway, I'm not falling for the portrayal of Russians here - they didn't even get any Russian actors to play Russians, or any actors that could do a believable Russian accent!  OK, maybe the best was Bob Hoskins playing Nikita Khrushchev, but the others weren't even trying.  And it's not subtle at all, they cast a bunch of British actors to play Russians, and an American actor in the lead Nazi role - that's it, right there, the Russians are "good" with their refined, elegant accents, and the Nazis are "bad" with their coarse, boorish American accents.  Again, I'm not saying Nazis weren't bad, because most of them probably were, it's just an oversimplification for the purposes of cinema.  

See, the Russian sniper is a folk hero, a man defending his city, taking pride in blowing the heads off of the evil invaders, but the Nazi sniper is a cold, callous evil bastard, who won't even play by the general rules of war, like changing his position once in a while.  Yet the two men are doing the exact same job - so how is one a hero and the other a villain?  It's somewhat automatic just because of the whole Nazi thing, I guess, and the fact that the enemy of my enemy is allegedly my friend - so, sure, let's root for the Russians because as a people they've NEVER done anything wrong, like mistreating the masses or invading other countries.  

Yeah, right....

Also starring Ed Harris (last seen in "Snowpiercer"), Rachel Weisz (last seen in "About a Boy"), Joseph Fiennes (last seen in "The Great Raid"), Ron Perlman (last seen in "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters"), Bob Hoskins (last seen in "Maid in Manhattan"), Eva Mattes, Gabriel Thomson, Matthias Habich.

RATING: 5 out of 10 leaflets

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Alfie (2004)

Year 8, Day 139 - 5/18/16 - Movie #2,339

BEFORE: I did manage to see "Captain America: Civil War" last night, but I'm not posting the review because I have no way to link to it.  Marisa Tomei is in it, and she's also in tonight's film, but that only gets me halfway there - I've got no out-tro link back to my current chain.

Jude Law carries over from "Gattaca" - didn't I just do a Jude Law chain last year?  Nope, it only feels like it, since he was in three non-consecutive films last year ("Sleuth", "Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") and that might seem like a big deal, except that he's on track for at least SIX appearances this year, counting tonight and tomorrow.  

I can tell you right now that six films isn't enough to be my top star of 2016 - for that matter, Samuel L. Jackson's been in nine of this year's films, and he probably won't win either, since I've got no less than 13 Burt Reynolds films coming up - I've been stockpiling them.

THE PLOT: A cockney womanizer learns the hard way about the dangers of his actions.

AFTER: This is a remake of a 1960's film starring Michael Caine (5 appearances last year, on track for 4 in 2016) - and last year I watched "Sleuth" (2007) with both actors who played Alfie in it, which itself was a remake of an earlier Michael Caine film where he played the younger of two men, and in the remake he played the older one.  

And how about this for a coincidence - last night's film featured a real-life couple (Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) and so does this one (Jude Law and Sienna Miller).  Of course, neither couple is still together, that's Hollywood, but in both cases I think they were all co-stars first, then couples, then had fairly public break-ups.  

"Alfie" presents me with a weird choice for a hero - I can understand the "Swinging Single" lifestyle of a main character in 1966, when the original film was released, but in 2004?  It doesn't make as much sense to me.  I became an adult in the 1980's, in the age of AIDS and other STD's, and for a while there in the 1990's it wasn't just uncool to have multiple partners, it was downright dangerous. The party people had to be extra careful, or if not, then there was certainly a motivation to change one's lifestyle and settle down with someone.  Does this mean that while I wasn't paying attention, the pendulum swang back the other way?  

Of course, a lot has happened since the 1980's - but there was a new wave of conservatism, girls wearing promise rings at father-daughter dances, but also gay rights, domestic partnerships, transgender issues - Alfie is just a straight guy who can't commit, and as such he almost seems out of place in the modern world.  Perhaps I'll get a better understanding when I watch the 1966 version of the film later on, but as it stands, I don't really get the 2004 version.  

Of course, it all goes back to the original womanizer, the libertine Don Juan - the basic story is about a wealthy man devoted to a life of seducing women from all walks of life, believing that he's got plenty of time to repent (this story was from the 1600's, people in Spain were all Catholics, who believed that as long as you repented before you died, you could still enter heaven, no matter what your sins were.) but in many versions of the story, Don Juan is killed before he could offer confession, so his luck ran out. 

But the main takeaway is that our actions have consequences, which Don Juan learns too late, and Alfie learns at the end of the film.  And while Alfie doesn't wind up in hell, he sort of does live in a hell of his own making, when all of his female lovers have turned their backs on him, and he's got no steady relationship or constructive future.  He's got his freedom, but he doesn't have peace of mind, and is no closer than before to learning "What's it all about?"  Maybe if Alfie didn't push away any woman who gets too close, he might learn a few things about what it means to be in a relationship.

But hey, this is coming from me, a serial monogamist.  A long-term relationship can be a lot of work, but there are definitely benefits, like always having someone to spend holidays and vacations with.  So I don't understand why we're asking someone like Alfie what it's all about in the first place.        

Also starring Jane Krakowski, Marisa Tomei (last seen in "Trainwreck"), Susan Sarandon (last seen in "Tammy"), Sienna Miller (last seen in "Foxcatcher"), Omar Epps (last seen in "Against the Ropes"), Nia Long, Gedde Watanabe (last seen in "Gremlins 2: The New Batch"), Renée Taylor, Graydon Carter, Jefferson Mays (last seen in "Inherent Vice"), Sondra James, Paul Brooke, Jeff Harding, Kevin Rahm, Tara Summers, Dick Latessa, Max Morris.

RATING: 4 out of 10