“Deliberately paced, lacking narrative momentum” reads a positive review. I found it very strange (even having seen some of Oliveira’s other films) in an exciting way. It would be easy to write an accurate plot description for netflix, something like “a respected old actor (Michel Piccoli) becomes the guardian of his grandson after losing the rest of his family in an accident, and begins to redefine his life’s priorities.” But that wouldn’t begin to convey the film itself. For instance, Oliveira opens on Piccoli starring onstage in Exit The King alongside Catherine Deneuve and Leonor Silveira. Piccoli plays this scene facing almost entirely away from camera. We see the men backstage who’ve come to deliver the news about his wife and daughter’s fatal car accident, but the men speak to nobody and the scene keeps playing out, watching the back of Piccoli’s head, for about the first fifth of the movie’s runtime. So it’s clear that “narrative momentum” is not what Oliveira was going for.

A while later, Piccoli’s actor has kept working since the accident, a nanny caring for his grandson most of the time. Then he’s (badly) cast in a film of Ulysses directed by John Malkovich. After fumbling a few passes at the English dialogue, he speaks the title and ditches the movie.

R.I.P.

Finally I got a hold of the director’s cut, which I’ve been looking for since reading about this movie somewhere five years ago. In the meantime I’ve discovered that I love most of Ruiz’s movies, but I don’t get much out of painter bio-pics, even artsy ones – so this was destined to be a mixed bag.

I’m not sure what happened, or who was supposed to be whom. I know John Malkovich plays the artist Klimt, and an appealingly manic Nikolai (son of Klaus) Kinski plays Egon Schiele. I know Klimt is visited by an embassy “secretary” (Stephen Dillane, Kidman/Woolf’s husband in The Hours) whom no one else can see. The rest becomes a blur of people and places, but an appealing blur, since Ruiz can’t make a boring film, not even with a prestige artist bio-pic in English (quite good English, translated by the writer of The Dreamers). The very fluid moving camera and framing device of a dying man in bed (Klimt, of syphillis towards the end of WWI) bring to mind Mysteries of Lisbon.

Egon Kinski:

Klimt seems to enjoy refractions and mirrors as much as Ruiz does. Klimt meets Georges Méliès around the turn of the century, sees him a couple times more, also meets the man who portrayed Klimt in a film – is intrigued with the girl named Lea who he “meets” in the film (Saffron Burrows of fellow painter-bio-pic Frida) and her own actress-double.

Either Lea or her double:

Appearing as characters I didn’t figure out: Joachim Bissmeier (Zimmermann in Joyeux Noel), Ernst Stotzner of Underground, and Annemarie Duringer of Veronika Voss and Berlin Alexanderplatz. It also didn’t help that there’s a woman named Midi and another named Mizzi.

B. Berning:

With Ruiz directing, philosophical inquiry is a not an end in itself, but a springboard for the imagination, and for humor. In one scene, there is a street brawl between men wearing top hats and men wearing bowler hats. By the next scene we see that the bowler hats have won, for there isn’t a top hat in sight. The upper class elitists have surrendered their influence, and the symbol of modern egalitarianism, the bowler hat, has taken over. It’s a clever visual riddle that in a way recalls the writer Lewis Carroll. Carroll was also a great imaginative thinker who preferred to clothe his intellect in stories that would amuse a young girl. Ruiz’s audience is decidedly adult, but he aims to entertain nonetheless.

The word I used most in my notes is “unusual.”

full title:
Animated, Machinery-Themed, John Turturro-starring Sequel Double Feature at the Drive-In

Cars 2 (2011, John Lasseter)

In the first movie, Turturro plays a hotshot open-wheel race car named Bumblebee, I think. Larry the Cable Guy gets mixed up in a Man Who Knew Too Little super-spy plot with Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer, while Owen Wilson is off having a biggest-dick contest with Turturro. The guy who developed the so-called green alternative fuel turns out to be the bad guy, because green fuels are fake and ultimately cause more environmental harm than fossil fuels. As Ruppert says in Collapse: corn! don’t make me laugh. Katy and I loved the Barbie & Ken short. This sequel was more exciting than the predictable first movie.

Transformers 3 (2011, Michael Bay)

Then Turturro, having learned humility and the value of friendship in the first movie, uses his money and influence to help Shia The Beouf fight Megatron and Shockwave and revive Roddimus Prime, whose ship crash-landed on the moon (Katy says there is no “dark side” since the moon rotates, and that the man in the moon is a myth). Frances McDormand was an army guy, I think, and John Malkovich was his usual Malkovichy self. Patrick O’Dreamy from Katy’s shows played the evil human who’d stop at nothing to defeat Turturro’s and The Beouf’s schemes because the Decapitrons have promised that he’ll be king of the humans after they win using some Fifth Element columns to bring an entire planet into Earth’s orbit, or something along those lines. More comprehensible than part one, with the masturbation/embarrassment jokes easier to take since I saw them coming this time. Oh, and the Spanish teacher from Community.

I watch all of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies and I always feel they are High Quality Films, but that’s not always my thing. They are oscar-friendly, but not really affecting (exception: Million Dollar Baby) and don’t have anything fascinating to contribute in content (exception: Flags of Our Fathers) or form. But I definitely like ’em enough to keep watching (possible exception: Gran Torino).

We’ve got a true-story historical drama here, with awesome period street scenes of 1928 L.A., nice cinematography, great music (by Eastwood himself!) and very good acting. In her first good movie role since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, A. Jolie plays Christine Collins, a mom whose kid disappears. She reports him missing among mass public distrust in the L.A.P.D., a mistrust led by crusading radio preacher John Malkovich, using his staccato vocal delivery to good effect. Police find kid, but it’s the wrong kid, then when Jolie reports it they intimidate and finally imprison her in a sanitarium to keep people from finding out the truth. Malkie helps get her out, and meanwhile a kid escapes from a rural psycho-killer and reports the murder of twenty kids. Jolie and Malkie lead court fight against the cops, simultaneously kid-killer is prosecuted, she wins, cops go down, killer is found guilty, two years later she watches him hang still unsure whether her own kid was killed or not. In postscript scene, mother of another kidnapped kid finds her son returning home after seven years away, but Jolie still never gets her closure. Saaaad movie.

Manipulative cops include Colm Feore of Titus and TV’s Jeffrey Donovan. Oscar-nom Amy Ryan, who I often see but never recognize, is a prostitute imprisoned with Christine in the sanitarium. Writer J. Michael Straczynski kept me entertained in the 80’s with episodes of He-Man and The Real Ghostbusters, and moved up from there to sci-fi channel to showtime to oscar-nominated films. Good going there, guy.

If you go by the IMDB date of original release, nearly all the 2008 movies I’ve seen have sucked. Good stuff like My Blueberry Nights, Paranoid Park and The Edge of Heaven count as last year’s movies. Why is there always a year delay on quality movies, while crap is available immediately? And why do I ask questions on a blog nobody reads?

I never intended for the new Coens comedy to be lumped in with the 2008 crap, but there you have it. This would probably be below Intolerable Cruelty in their pile of late-career misfires, but I’m not about to rewatch that one to find out for sure. Katy “detested” this movie. I thought it was pretty okay, watchable for a few good performances and favorite actors but certainly not for story or humor. I heard this was supposed to be a comedy, so where was the funny?

Plot rundown so I don’t forget everything and feel compelled to watch this again soon: Bearded G. Clooney has seemingly good relationship with wife, but he’s also a huge sex addict, sleeping with Tilda Swinton and Frances McDormand, so his wife has hired private investigators to catch him (which is not too hard). John Malkovich is a gov’t flunky who is getting demoted at work and divorced by wife Tilda Swinton and locked out of his house and bank accounts. Frances McD works at a gym with Brad Pitt and wants surgery to look younger. An energetic Pitt accidentally gets a disk of Malkie’s private files and tries to blackmail him with Frances in tow. When blackmail fails, Pitt breaks into Malkie’s house to get more files to sell to the Russians, and is memorably killed by Clooney. Pitt/Frances’ nice boss visits the house trying to help and gets killed by Malkie. Then some bunch of mid-rank government fellas puzzle over what has happened, and tell us about some stuff we did not see, then end the movie with a big godlike zoom-out mirroring the zoom-in at the start, either to show us how far above this story the filmmakers consider themselves, or to point out that nothing of significance actually happened.

Music, recognizably, by Carter Burwell. Good cinematography by Coen newbie Emmanuel Lubezki, who just finished shooting two of the most amazing films of the decade, The New World and Children of Men. Lubezki keeps the film looking alive even when it’s set in a series of depressing buildings (a gym, McDormand’s apartment, government offices), and adds touches of comic terror to the scenes of Malkovich obsessing on his boat or Clooney getting paranoid in the park. He does all he can, I guess. Everyone did all they could… it’s a high-quality production with good acting, but to serve an empty story. The Coens think it’s hilarious to create an amoral world populated by a couple likeable people, then have the rest of the cast bloodily murder those likeable people. I’m aware that they’ve done this plenty of times before, but when the story is tight (Miller’s Crossing, Man Who Wasn’t There) or the humor is funny (Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona) I give their sociopathic tendencies a pass. Not here, bros. Better luck next time.

So I’ve shown Katy two post-9/11 movies with downer endings in a row, and now I realize that I was about to show her a third. Unintentional, but can’t be a coincidence. Current theory is that 9/11 hit in the middle of my exploding cinephilia and I was angry that nobody wanted to talk about it in film, so the few films that dared to discuss it stuck in my mind… and it’s been about five years since I’ve seen ’em, the perfect amount of time to watch them again? Does that make sense?

Malkovich is still deliciously distracting as the captain. I’d forgotten how BUNUELIAN the whole thing seems. From one ancient landmark to another, having slightly unreal meetings and conversations with people along the way, then a huge narrative jump and we’re at dinner with the captain and his famous friends, then another dinner conversation, this time with the mother and child, Malkovich standing the whole time, a song in Greek, then terrorist attack!

A very unusual movie. I kinda love it, but never quite knew what to make of it. I remember this M. Dargis piece:

As the two stop at ports from France to Turkey, the film takes the shape of a genial history lesson, one that grows progressively darker when you realize the message Mr. Oliveira has been delivering alongside all the seemingly benign tourist shots. The film begins, rather prophetically, with the image of people waving goodbye. … As they stand in the shadow of the Acropolis, Maria Joana wonders, “What did people do here?” Her mother replies, “They worshipped their gods.” In a sense, who those gods were and what they meant is at the center of “A Talking Picture,” which takes the measure of Western civilization for good and for ill. Although the mother-and-daughter exchanges purposely recall the discourses that once echoed throughout the Acropolis, their sightseeing also has the flavor of everyday life. … The metaphor of privileged tourists blithely afloat on a luxury ship – and embarked on a circle tour of that crime scene known as Europe and its colonial-era environs, no less – is at once blunt and brilliant. In both its intellectual reach and the elegant simplicity of its form, “A Talking Picture” bears resemblance to Andrei Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.” … this is the only film I can think of that, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, has so directly addressed the war on liberal democracies. Maybe it takes an angry old man who can cede the sins of the West without also sacrificing its ideals.

N. Vera:

On one hand it’s a young girl’s education on the world and its ways; on the other it’s a meditation by three godlike women (godlike for their high status in the film and higher status in world cinema), representing at least two of the most prominent cultures in Europe, holding forth on their views of love, life, and human history.

France and Italy are, if not the most prominent, easily the most graceful of European powers (odd–or maybe not–that Germany, Britain, and Spain are not mentioned); both countries owe much of what they are to Greece, a fact Helena points out, lamenting at the same time the subsequent loss of status of her country (French, Italian and especially English are spoken everywhere; Greek is spoken mostly in Greece, and at most as borrowed words in other languages). America, the single biggest Western power in the 20th and 21st centuries, is represented by a fawning buffoon of a captain (played with selfless enthusiasm by Malkovich)–who is, it must be noted, Polish (all Americans except the natives are, of course, immigrants). Portugal as represented by mother and child is invited to the table, but the invitation is politely refused (the mother capitulates on the second offer, which included a gift of a lovely little Muslim doll to the child). France, Italy, Greece together at a table with the party hosted by America, and Portugal a reluctant but desired guest.

What’s missing from the table and from much of the picture, of course, is the true (truer, anyway) cradle of humanity, basis of much of even Greek civilization, the Middle East. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt among others are not represented, and while Egypt’s monuments are shown and discussed, they’re discussed not by an Egyptian but by a Portugese. The silence is overwhelming; we hear secondhand about Muslim civilizations, usually as it relates to and clashes with Western civilizations (the Hagia Sophia, Napoleon visiting the pyramids, the Arabs burning the library at Alexandria (a historically disputed event)). Suddenly the Middle East speaks out (or at least we assume it’s from the Mid-East–Oliveira leaves even this ambiguous), in the form of a ship’s officer with an urgent message, and the entire ship is forced to react to a neglected culture’s startling response.

In an article by Z. Campbell, he says the film “is often if not exclusively interpreted as a conservative lament,” but he praises Oliveira’s other works and says “This is an artist concerned with, among other things, the representation of unrepresentable experiences the source of which exists in some unspoken spaces of social structure (hospitality, companionship, family ties, tradition).”

The mother, Leonor Silveira, has appeared in just about every Oliveira film I’ve heard of. Captain Malkovich will be in the next movies by the Coens and Clint Eastwood and also a thriller about vampire mutants. French entrepreneur Catherine Deneuve was in a few Raoul Ruiz movies I’ve gotta see. Greek singer/actress Irene Papas starred in Costa-Gavras’ Z and previously The Guns of Navarone. Italian model Stefania Sandrelli was in a bunch of Bertolucci movies including a starring role in The Conformist.

The box art takes the one looking-into-camera close-up of Leonor Silveira and nests it inside the one shot where she is dwarfed by the monuments she visits. A nice idea, but then of course it’s cluttered up with titles and floating heads of the other stars.