Phil Spector Leaving Alamar (Weekly Links)

Father and son in Eden: Alamar

Movies I reviewed for the Herald this week.

Alamar. “If this isn’t Eden, it certainly looks like a dead ringer for it.”

The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Phil Spector was famous for his huge-scaled musical productions and his bizarre, reclusive behavior. He surely never thought he’d end his days notorious for a killing.

But in 2003, a 40-year-old actress named Lana Clarkson died in the entryway of Spector’s Los Angeles mansion, from a wound caused by one of Spector’s many guns. He was arrested and charged with murder, a drawn-out process that led to his conviction in April 2009.

A documentary profile, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” is almost as unusual as the man’s life. Filmmaker Vikram Jayanti managed to score a long interview with Spector during a lull in the trial procedure, and this is the backbone of the movie. Jayanti also includes video excerpts from the trial, although these are deployed in an eccentric way. More spectacularly, he includes many of Spector’s most celebrated music tracks, most of them played in their entirety (along with onscreen notes from critic Mick Brown).

The songs include Spector’s Wall-of-Sound classics such as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” and the Righteous Brothers’ melodramatic epic, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” These give Spector a chance to ventilate on the subject of his producing prowess, of which he has a very high regard. They also provide a soundtrack, in a strange way, to the trial proceedings—as though clues to his behavior can be found in the music.

Biographical linkages between Spector’s songs and his life grow shakier when we get to his collaborations with the Beatles (he famously spruced up their abandoned “Let It Be” project, and he produced George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” and a few John Lennon albums). Spector’s early-1960s tunes were clearly an expression of his vision; but trying to piggyback Spector’s life onto the uniquely personal world of Lennon’s “Imagine” or “Mother” is a bit of a stretch.

Still, there’s this interview. And it’s sort of amazing. There he sits, a weak-chinned man in his sixties, with a tremor in his hands and a blond wig that makes him look like a kid from a community-theater production of “The Sound of Music,” reminding us of the scale of his musical genius.

Banish all thoughts of Spector as a reclusive introvert. The man is highly articulate, very smart, and even funny. But his grandiose sense of self and his bitterness about other people’s success is wildly exaggerated. He doesn’t miss a chance to compare himself to Galileo, Leonardo Da Vinci, or Irving Berlin—tinged with resentment that others don’t sufficiently see the parallels.

The spectacle of this movie is vaguely unhealthy (and I would like to declare a moratorium on using crime-scene photographs in documentary films). It plays like an experiment at times, floundering around in search of itself. But if you love pop-music history or case studies in human psychology, it is a compulsively watchable experience. Correspondent

The Portuguese Nun. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

When hearing adjectives such as stilted, stiff and self-conscious about a film, the likely opinion is probably going to be negative. That does not sound like a fun night at the movies.

And maybe “The Portuguese Nun” is not a fun night at the movies, exactly, but it has a strange kind of charm—even if all those adjectives apply.

The filmmaker is Eugene Green, who is American-born but has worked in French theater and film since his youth. His curious style takes some getting used to, yet it builds to something memorable here.

We have come to Lisbon along with a Parisian actress, Julie (Leonor Baldaque), for a few days of location shooting for her film. She is to play a Portuguese nun in an adaptation of a celebrated 17th-century book. Julie wanders the beautiful city, meets a footloose young boy, and is approached by an interesting, tragic man. These little threads develop into much more than we might have expected from their first glimmerings, and in fact these few days in Lisbon will be a life-changing experience for this lonely woman.

The experience culminates in Julie’s conversation with an actual nun, whom she has seen praying at night in a chapel. Like most of the conversations in the movie, this one is staged as a series of shots of each speaker facing the camera, looking straight at the audience. It’s like watching someone recite memorized text, but intentionally so; Green isn’t going for realism, obviously. He certainly forces you to hear and consider every line of dialogue, whether you’d like to keep moving or not.

Thus, the actors are regulated within this style, and Leonor Baldaque, who carries the movie, comes across as both severe and soulful. Director Green himself plays the director of the project about the nun, and his own slightly impish presence provides a boost–he comes across as a rumpled professor (complete with Gene Shalit mustache) ready for anything.

The artificial style keeps the sentimental aspects of the story at bay, so that when large emotional situations are introduced—deep parental feeling, suicidal tendencies, a night of sex—they stay at something of a distance. We’re pondering these things like something held at arm’s length.

And yet there’s a force to it, by the time you get to the end. Sneaky movie, this one. It’s almost an experimental film, yet it arrives somewhere powerful–if you’re willing to go along with its curious way of getting there.

Leaving. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

A gunshot rings out in the opening sequence in “Leaving,” a sound that will hang in the air for the next 80 minutes or so of flashback. We will go back six months to discover how the passions of three people led to the shooting.

The situation is a very trim, unadorned triangle. Suzanne, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, lives with her husband and two teenage children in Nimes, in southern France. Her well-to-do husband Samuel (Yvan Attal) has been supporting her for years, but she’s about to go back to work as a physical therapist. This should all be perfect, except Suzanne falls madly in love with the handyman helping build her office. This is Ivan (Sergi Lopez), a burly Spaniard who’s recently been in jail for an unspecified infraction.

The contrast between husband and lover couldn’t be greater; Samuel exudes a frosty demeanor and values his wife for her skills as an exemplary domestic manager; Ivan is warm, beefy, and desires Suzanne on a much more earthbound level.

Writer-director Catherine Corsini’s film could have gone in a number of different directions, but it narrows its focus to the economic. Samuel, in his cold fury, cuts off Suzanne’s money, of which she has none of her own. The subject of the cost of passion is an intriguing one—after the hot-blooded grappling is over, how do you pay when your credit card is rejected at the gas station? And what does that do to the dream of a grand romance? The bills always come due.

That’s a promising line, but somehow this intense focus narrows the movie. And even if you give the film some leeway to paint itself into a necessary corner (remember, the gunshot is coming), it still offers too many moments when if the characters had simply been shrewder or thought of a few alternate plans, a great deal of tragedy might have been sidestepped.

But hey, people don’t go to see movies where everybody finds a tidy solution to everything—not in a romantic triangle, anyway. But it makes “Leaving” a somewhat frustrating experience.

However, give credit, as usual, to Kristin Scott Thomas, a blazingly smart actress who so rarely makes a wrong step. She gets just the right amount of desperate craziness in the role, as well as the suggestion that Suzanne’s mad love is not so much about sex as liberation.

Tibet in Song. “For someone who was held in captivity under beastly conditions, Choephel maintains a clear, steady hold on his argument.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday” I talked with Steve Scher and a trio of Slate writers – Dana Stevens, Julia Turner, and Stephen Metcalf – about a range of pop-culture topics, including Burlesque and the etiquette of seeing someone famous on the street. Archived here.

And I conclude my first week of a new website, What a Feeling!, having added new reviews the last few days. If you haven’t checked since Monday on this ever-growing collection of 1980s-vintage reviews, you’ll encounter Valley Girl, Repo Man, They Live, and Teen Wolf Too. What a dinner party, right? Go now.

Movie Diary 11/29/2010

Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, 2009). A boy visits his father, a fisherman at a remote Mexico seashore, and for 70 minutes or so we watch the Edenic cycle of catching fish, cleaning them, and eating – a cycle through which a certain mode of living is passed on. Beautiful film. (full review 12/3)

Burlesque (Steve Antin, 2010). It lands in an unsatisfactory zone: not bad enough to be risible camp, not good enough for anything. However processed she looks, Cher retains a sense of humor about the whole deal, and the movie allows her a roof-raising anthem; Christina Aguilera appears computer-generated.

The Portuguese Nun (Eugène Green, 2009). Behaviorally stylized, and a bold you’re-gonna-love-my-movie-or-hate-it approach. Really has some moments, though, and Leonor Baldaque comes across as a poor man’s Sandrine Kiberlain. (full review 12/3)

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010). Well, this is something odd – Santa Claus dug up out of the Finland ice, ready to renew his rampaging violence against the world’s children – all measured out with Finnish humor the color of coffee grounds. It also seems to be parodying the kind of movie it wants to be. (full review 12/10)

The Ugly American (George Englund, 1963). A curious study of U.S. bumblings in Southeast Asia, with Marlon Brando looking at sea and an ingenious final sequence – which leaves you understanding why it didn’t connect with the public. The director was married to Cloris Leachman for many years.