Marie Antoinette

As you can see, I couldn’t stomach the idea of Black Christmas, which must come as no surprise to my dozen or so loyal readers. So it was a blast from the past today, in more ways than one, as I went to the second run theatre to check out this film. On the plus side, with only six other people in the theatre, I have absolutely nothing to complain about there. On the other hand, the movie has been out for some time. Instead of a very late theatre review, though, how about we call this a very early DVD review? Okay, I can’t really discuss the extras, but the word is that there’ll be deleted scenes, a making of documentary, and something called “Cribs with Louis XVI”. Sounds opulent.
I try to avoid reading too much hype before a film, especially a historically based one like this. I like history a lot, so I generally have a good idea of what’s going to happen anyway. In this case, I even read the book the film was based on (Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser), not to mention several others on the ill-fated queen as well. So I thought I knew what I was in for.
Then the credits started — hot pink credits on a black background, showed to the strains of “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four– and I realized that I was in fact watching A Knight’s Tale: 400 Years Later. The title itself was in a banner style that would have looked more at home on the cover of a 1930′s pulp crime novel. During a scene featuring extravagant clothes, cakes and dainties, “I Want Candy” was played. Just as I was starting to be relieved that at least no one was dancing to the anachronistic music like in A Knight’s Tale, there was a ballroom scene with Marie spinning around giddily to the strains of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
And yet the movie was, strangely, more accurate than not. Events were skipped over and smoothed out for the sake of drama, as always happens in historical films, but for the most part, everything was there. (The only anachronisms that kept bothering me were the constant appearance of boom mikes at the top of the screen.) Granted, had they showed a little less of Marie frolicking in her country retreat and playing at being a peasant, they could have fit in more actual history, but whatever. It was only a two hour movie, but during the frolicking, I started thinking I must have misread the length and it was actually three hours. Not a good sign.

marie.jpg
Marie Antoinette after eating one too many of those suspiciously pink bonbons.

Don’t get me wrong, Kirsten Dunst was great in the part. I think had it been anyone else, I might have gotten extremely annoyed with the character at times. But historically, poor Marie really was in completely over her head (sorry), and Kirsten did a good job portraying that. She got the same look on her face that I get whenever anyone starts discussing politics. And, sadly, she was allowed to ignore all the problems until they were completely out of hand.
Jason Schwartzman (Max Fischer from Rushmore, though he looks much better here) showed King Louis XVI as being equally out of his depth; a quiet, well-meaning, but ultimately helpless sort of man. He was pretty helpless in the marriage bed, too, which caused even more problems all around — he was sort of an eighteenth century nerd, I guess. It wasn’t too surprising, though; the scrutiny undergone by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt today pales in comparison to the observation Marie and Louis went through. After a ten-second wedding and a rather longer bedding ceremony, he was expected to perform with a complete stranger, and the poor guy was just too shy for that.
The opulence and formality of the court was wonderfully portrayed; all the rituals were incredibly detailed and complicated — and completely ridiculous, as Marie herself pointed out. The rooms dripped with gold trim, and Marie and her ladies filled them with rich fabrics, wigs, and some of the most ridiculous shoes you can imagine. Speaking of wigs, there were, unsurprisingly, a great many people listed as hair stylists and wig makers. There was even one person listed as a “hair driver”, which is the most fascinating job description I’ve seen for a while. I can’t find anything on the net about it, though. I’ll just have to picture someone ferrying wigs around in a little wooden cart.
By the end of the film, I was starting to think that maybe Versailles really had been like that — full of overbright colors and impossible looking food, maybe even the sounds of the eighteenth century equivalent of Bow Wow Wow and The Cure. I guess what I mean to say is that whatever its historical flaws might have been, it gave an excellent sense of the feel of that place and time. Marie became a friend of yours, struggling to fit in, and Louis was the boy next door, playing very seriously at being King. I give this one three idols, though that’s mainly for Kirsten and Jason’s acting, and those wonderfully rich sets — totally over the top, but glittering and gorgeous. Overall, the pacing was uneven, and the flash overwhelmed the substance so much, it was like eating one of those infamous cakes: sweet, delicious, but ultimately a lot of empty calories.

What does “wide release” mean, anyway?: A Rant

So I really want to see Children of Men. It was listed online as going into wide release this weekend, and I almost squealed. It’s got Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, a nice, dark future storyline, and it’s based on a book by P.D. James — in other words, it showed every sign of being an excellent, intelligent sort of film. I immediately started making plans to go see it.
Except I can’t.
“Wide release” generally means that a movie is playing within five miles of my house. A week ago, I would have said always instead of generally, but now my optimism has been cruelly dashed. I don’t live in a major metropolitan area, but I don’t live in Upper Nowheresville, either.
I started doing more research. In a few places, it was still listed as being in limited release, but most agreed that it was, in fact, in wide release. So why wasn’t it playing any nearer than Chicago? Chicago is at least a three and a half hour drive under optimum conditions, and conditions are never optimum. I vaguely started calculating gas costs, but that was just too depressing.
Then I looked up the definition of wide release.

A nice still picture from Children of Men to look at longingly
childrenofmen.jpg

Wikipedia (very cool site, go try it if you haven’t already) informed me that “wide release” meant only that a film was showing on at least 600 screens nationwide. Another source claimed 650 was a better number, while others implied that 1000 was the minimum for a true wide release. Apparently even the movie industry itself isn’t quite sure of its terms.
But that still didn’t seem right. Even at the minimum six hundred screens, that was twelve screens per state. Obviously California and New York are going to be greedy and claim more than that for themselves, but places like New Mexico and Montana wouldn’t use up all twelve of theirs, would they? Or am I just being unfair to New Mexico and Montana?
Finally I looked at imdb.com, wondering its opinion on wide release. I couldn’t find that, but I did find a handy, if undetailed, map of all the cities where Children of Men is currently playing in the U.S. as of 29 December 2006. All eleven of them.
Wait, eleven?
There’s one somewhere in Washington state, two in San Francisco, and two in L.A. One is the listing I found for Chicago, one is somewhere in Texas (Dallas?), and one looks to be in Atlanta. The other three are scattered along the eastern seaboard at regular intervals — maybe Washington, DC, Boston, and New York City?
Suddenly I feel very fortunate to have to drive only three and a half hours. But if this is wide release, than each of those eleven cities is, at a minimum, showing the film on fifty-four and a half screens. I’m pretty sure even L.A. isn’t that greedy.
This is where I give up. Something’s wrong somewhere, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ll just start working up the courage to check again next Friday. In the meantime, I’ll go see Perfume, even though I suspect that one isn’t nearly as good.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
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*contemplates Black Christmas*
*sobs*

The Weasel

This piece came out of a piano sketch I did a few days ago, but really took flight during the orchestral arrangement. The very low English horn line brings a lot of character to the piece. It is supported by bassoons, and later, a bass clarinet.
Unlike last week’s Bach Sinfonia, this piece has a lot of potential for film. Animators out there, you listening to this?
Behold! The Scheming Weasel! (available in 2 tempos!)

The Good Shepherd

Okay, I have to say this first: Matt Damon is absolutely wonderful. I rarely get all girly, but something about Matt just makes me want to sigh and bat my eyelashes. Ah, if only I was a real movie critic — I could have seen this movie days ago in a lovely private screening. Instead, this time, a middle-aged couple reeking of onions sat down at the end of my row just as the film started, and the male half of the couple apparently wasn’t used to paying attention, because the whole last half of the movie was peppered with questions like, “What does that mean?” and “Is he a spy, too?” I may have to stop mentioning the annoyances of the theatre; it’s nice to vent, but it eats up valuable review space.
The wonderful Matt Damon plays super-spy Edward Wilson, a character very loosely based on real-life CIA founder James Jesus Angleton. The film traces decades of real-life history, beginning in 1961 with the Bay of Pigs invasion and flashing back often to Edward’s early career, like his indoctrination into the Skull and Bones Society. I thought that this was made-up, actually. The initiation rites shown here are so bizarre that I was sure it had to be fiction, but apparently it’s real, and Junior (or W, or President Bush, or whatever you want to call him) was a member, as were many other powerful men. Personally, I’m not sure it’s such a good thing that any men in power once thought it was a good idea to strip naked and mud wrestle each other while being urinated on from above.
As a member of an upper-crust family, Edward always associates with the movers and shakers of Washington, and he slowly becomes enmeshed in the growing intelligence network. Always tight-lipped, he becomes more and more contained and controlled as he rises through the ranks, and his cool stares are almost frightening at times. But, because he’s Matt Damon, women still throw themselves at him. Angelina Jolie throws herself at him (and she’s pretty scary herself in that scene, though in the opposite way) and he ends up having to marry her, because that’s just what you did in the forties when the girl got pregnant.
Now, Angelina is a good actress. She holds her own with Matt (did I mention he’s wonderful?), and that’s especially impressive because I have to say that I didn’t think her part was developed as it should have been. But there’s something about her that keeps me from forgetting that she’s Angelina, no matter how well she acts. I had the same problem watching a movie called The Grey Zone, which is based on the true story of a group of Hungarian Jews in Auschwitz, being forced to assist in gassing fellow Jews. It’s a horribly bleak chapter in history, excellently portrayed, but every time Steve Buscemi was on-screen, I kept thinking, “Okay, there’s Steve,” and completely forgetting the fact that he was supposed to be a Hungarian Jew. Again, it was fine acting, but I just couldn’t forget he was acting. It’s the same here with Angelina. Maybe it’s the lips.
Anyway, Angelina has a little boy, who I decided was a demon child from the first moment he appeared on screen. He was nearly as distant as Edward in some ways, but somehow, much scarier. I kept imagining what the neighbors would say about him after they heard he went on a shooting spree. Edward’s father committed suicide when Edward was six, and Edward Jr. grows up almost equally fatherless. In later years, as so often seems to happen in such cases, he grows to idolize his father, and tries his best to be like him. Edward Jr. finally ends up being much more open, though, so you know he’s pretty much doomed in any sort of spying-related profession.
There are plenty of places in the movie where, if you’re paying attention (or perhaps listening to the middle-aged woman down the way explain things to her husband), you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a catastrophic car crash happening in slow motion, and you’re just aching to try and stop it, even though you know you can’t. A couple of carefully chosen words (as nearly all the words in this movie are), a certain look, and you know someone’s about to die or be betrayed. Both happen a lot in the movie, unsurprisingly.
Things do sometimes get a little confusing as the plot jumps around choronologically, though probably those who lived through the fifties and sixties, or at least studied them (unlike me, who gets lost quickly after the end of WWII) will do better. Even aside from the helpful captions giving the dates, though, Matt himself was a good way to tell what year it was. He has a youthful enough face that he never really looked as old as the character should have looked, but if you were to string all the scenes together in pure chronological order, you’d see him getting more and more careworn. His eyes grow old, even if the rest of him doesn’t.
I’m giving this one three and three-quarter idols. For myself (for Matt’s sake), I’d give it more like four and a half, but I’m trying very hard to be impartial. Though the machinations and twists are fascinating, and the acting first-rate overall, the film does get heavy at times, even ponderous under the weight of its explorations of morality. I tend to like that sort of thing, but it can get a little complicated, and even a little dull. If you think you’ll need someone to explain it all to you, though, please make sure that you both talk very, very quietly. I’m begging you.

The Pursuit of Happyness

When I first saw the ads for this movie, my first thought was that an entire generation of school children were going to grow up misspelling “happiness”. To my relief, one of the first scenes deals with that very issue, so after that, I was ready to settle back and enjoy the movie. (Well, at least as much as I could with the two annoying teenage girls sitting a few seats down who liked to echo bits of the dialogue. As they jostled and tripped their way out of the theatre, though, one of them dropped and broke her cell phone, in what I like to think was a nice bit of karma. Anyway.)
Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman trying to figure out a way to better support his family. He apparently got roped into the worst sales job ever — he spent his life savings on the purchase of a small roomful of bone density machines, which he now must sell to recoup his investment. Meanwhile, the manufacturer has long since scampered away, laughing while counting poor Will’s hard-earned cash.
Will is a good salesman (come on, tell me you wouldn’t want to buy something from Will Smith) but the machines are considered luxuries by most doctors, so he has an uphill battle ahead of him (literally in some cases, since the film is set in San Francisco, and he loses his car early on). His wife Linda must work double shifts as a waitress to try and keep them afloat, but you can see from the beginning that she’s near her breaking point. She’s played by an almost-unrecognizable Thandie Newton — granted, I haven’t seen her in anything since Mission Impossible II (aka The Bland Remake of Notorious), but she was so painfully thin here I just wanted to buy her some lunch.
Their little boy, also Christopher, is played by Will Smith’s real-life son, Jaden, and acting seems to run in the family. It must be easier when the actor playing your father really is your father, but there’s still a lovely, tender quality to so many of their scenes, where it’s truly just the two of them against the world, and you know they’re sticking together no matter what.
Will soon finds himself a single parent, juggling day care, bus schedules, Rubik’s cubes, and bone density machines. In fact, he spends a good chunk of the movie chasing bone density machines that have ended up in the wrong hands through various bizarre circumstances. Since each one is worth $250 to him, he runs pretty fast, and once even gets hit by a car because he’s so focused on his prize.
Soon, though, Will realizes what he really should be chasing: happiness. He finagles his way into a prestigious (though unpaid) internship program at Dean Witter, still selling bone density machines on the weekends so he and his son can eat.
Now, I don’t know if Dean Witter still runs things the same way, but I have to say that this was a pretty sweet deal for them. Every six months, they take on twenty interns, who then fall all over themselves trying to earn the most commissions so they can be the one person who actually starts getting paid. According to the voiceover, the nineteen who fail can’t even use their knowledge elsewhere — I’m guessing because of some sort of nondisclosure clause. So Dean Witter gets twenty full time workers for nothing. Untrained workers at first, of course, but driven, and Dean Witter just gets to sit back and rake in whatever money they make. I guess that’s how you build a multi-billion dollar company.
As Will fights his way through the program, the fates seem to conspire against him. Every time he seems to be getting back on solid financial ground, something happens to send them falling back into poverty. It’s really pretty amazing sometimes, just how often things go abruptly wrong. There’s a striking scene where the two of them end up sleeping on the floor of a men’s room in a train station, a desperate, exhausted Will cradling his son’s head in his lap, and the hopelessness of it all just soaks into you.
Through it all, Will keeps up a sort of determined optimism — much of it put on for his son’s sake, I’m sure, but it also seems like a way to keep himself going. He doesn’t have much help, since his apparent “best friend” won’t even pay back the fourteen dollars he borrowed. Though his bosses are generally good sorts, Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer, as well as many other Simpsons characters) as Alan Frakesh, the primary trainer for the interns, treats Will rather like his personal servant, constantly singling him out for coffee runs and various other menial tasks. I’m not sure I could have tolerated all that as well as Will did, and I’m pretty easygoing.
This one gets three and three-quarter idols. I’m usually not one for the “feel good” movies, and this one certainly doesn’t take any risks, but Will Smith really does shine in his role. There’s a little too much reliance on coincidence — anyone would think that San Francisco was a town of only a thousand people, given how often the characters’ paths cross. And whatever the real Chris Gardner’s faults might be, you won’t discover them here. But the film hangs together well, and in the end, you don’t really mind its weaknesses, since the Smith family makes them so palatable.

The Challenge

On December 1st, Brian Lemin paid me a compliment by saying that every piece of my music was “good for something”. A challenge was born. Could I make a piece of music which was literally without use? It is quite a challenge. A random cacophony of noises are useful in some situations, so it had to be structured. I think I may have the answer: a fusion of Bach’s Sinfonia No. 3 with a contemporary beat. Surely, there is no use for this music!
Also new today are a couple of ragtime pieces, as I see the Silent Film Score music is pretty popular these days: Mister Exposition, Matter of Facts.
Other pieces new today are:


Looks like eight new ones today. Enjoy!

Work People and Film Folks

By special request, there is not a month-on-a-page calendar that only shows Monday through Friday (or whatever Monday and Friday are called in those other languages…)
http://www.incompetech.com/beta/cal-weekday/
Nifty, huh?
Also by request of a friend of mine, the Storyboard maker has a dealie where you can enter the name of your production, and it’ll print it as a header to make your storyboard seem more official, despite your unintelligible scrawlings.
If you’re a director who works only during the week, well – this is an embarrassment of an update for you.

Blood Diamond

When the movie has “blood” right in the title, you know you’ll be seeing a lot of the stuff. Trust me, the film doesn’t disappoint in that respect. Conversely, you don’t actually see a lot of diamonds, though they’re the driving force behind everything.
I’d heard that the diamond industry was upset about the film, claiming it might slow their sales for the holiday season, though I thought they were overreacting. It would take an awful lot to stop the Conspicuous Consumers of America from buying their flashy jewelry, after all. Now, though, I see what they were talking about. By movie’s end, the sight of a glittering jewelry store display featuring a large yellow diamond necklace kinda turned my stomach. Fortunately for the gem industry, I’m not really in their target market, but I have to admit they weren’t overreacting. Still, they have done a lot to try and prevent the sale of conflict diamonds in recent years (the film is set back in 1999), so would-be diamond buyers can go ahead, cautiously — as the movie’s end message says, it’s up to the consumer to insist on conflict-free diamonds.
I was a little leery of seeing this movie at first, mainly because of Leonardo DiCaprio. Frankly, I’m still annoyed with him for the whopping two hours and fifty minutes of my life that I wasted on The Aviator. (No, I don’t care how many awards it won, it’s still an agonizingly slow and largely pointless film.) However, since I do like Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou, I decided to take the chance. And I actually didn’t mind Leo here; perhaps because his character wasn’t meant to be especially likeable.
Djimon is fisherman Solomon Vandy, whose village in Sierra Leone is destroyed by rebels in the most disturbing opening sequence I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. Torn from his family, he’s made to work at diamond prospecting so the rebels can finance more guns for their revolution. (It looked to me like they had more than enough guns and ammunition, since no one ever ran out of either, but then, I’m no rebel leader.) He finds a large pink diamond and manages to hide it from his captors, and that’s where everything starts to get even more violent.
Enter Leo, as diamond smuggler Danny Archer, who ends up joining forces with Solomon and Jennifer (reporter Maddy Bowen) to try to get the diamond. For Leo, it’s the score he needs to square him with his boss, Colonel Coetzee, (played by Arnold Vosloo of The Mummy fame) and get himself out of Africa. Jennifer’s trying to get the facts she needs to uncover the infamous conflict diamond network that finances so much of Africa’s fighting. And Solomon just wants the diamond as leverage to get his family back. Throw in the feuding government and rebel forces of the area, plus Coetzee’s troops, who look as well-funded and supplied as any U.S. battalion, and you’ve got all the blood you need to live up to the title.
A little net searching tells me that loose certified pink diamonds of one carat start at around $75,000 dollars. One particularly fine specimen, cut to 6.11 carats, was listed at $600,000. The diamond in the movie was supposedly somewhere around 100 carats, so you can get an idea of what all the excitement was about. (I’ve never understood why more diamond cutters don’t go violently insane under the pressure.)
It’s obviously an intense film. It isn’t for the faint of heart by any means — there are shots of men losing hands to machetes, and I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the images of boys as young as eight or nine casually firing machine guns into crowds of helpless villagers. Kagiso Kuypers, playing Solomon’s son Dia, does an excellent job portraying the brainwashing he suffers as the rebels who have captured him try to make him into a killing machine; and such child soldiers are still found in Africa. So it’s no surprise that I left the theatre reeling a little under the weight of it all.
The film has its flaws, but they’re mostly not too visible to the naked eye. There aren’t any real surprises, but for the most part, you’re just glad to enjoy the ride. Leo keeps up his accent beautifully (unlike in Gangs of New York), and manages to avoid the usual sappiness of the self-centered cad suddenly seeing the light at movie’s end. Jennifer does a lot with a somewhat limited role, and is in many ways the character who grounds the film and keeps it in the real world. And Djimon’s struggle to keep his own morality and humanity while fighting to reclaim his family is both moving and terrifying. The nature of the film doesn’t allow too much chance for deeper insight into the people and forces behind the blood diamonds, but overall, its message is both powerful and much more real than most care to admit.
I give this movie four and a quarter idols out of five. Just remember that when they say “rated R for strong violence and language”, they really, really mean it.