Friday, May 28, 2010

It's a shame about Tati...

Recently I wrote a piece celebrating the release of what I had hoped would be French filmmaker Jacques Tati's swan song.  Now, my initial elation for the release of "The Illusionist", Sylvain Chomet's adaptation of Tati's original screenplay, has been clouded by confusion and disappointment.  To explain...

It appears as though Tati's grandson, Richard Tatischeff Schiel McDonald, has written a letter to Roger Ebert stating that "The Illusionist" "greatly undermines both the artistry of my grandfather's original script whilst shamefully ignoring the deeply troubled personal story that lies at its heart.".  The personal story McDonald speaks of is Tati's abandonment of his illegitimate first born daughter. 

I am an unabashed fan of Tati's work.  His films make me smile like few can.  I am also of a mind that art and the artist can exist in their own context.  All of this leaves me with an interesting conundrum:  What do I do with this information?  Should I simply ignore it?  Can I? 

It appears as though the heart of McDonald's argument is that Tati had written the film's script as a open letter to Helga Marie-Jeanne, the daughter he had abandoned.  He says it stands as Tati's only acknowledgement of her.  His claims that Sylvain Chomet and Pathe films deliberately eschewed this information for a more sentimental, decidedly pro-Tati approach is disheartening for a myriad of reasons.  Not the least of which being that that's exactly what I had hoped the film would be.

I wanted sentimental.  I wanted closure, of sorts.  But it appears as though closure is exactly what this film is denying Tati's family.  And so I am torn.  Do I view "The Illusionist" as a fan watching one of his idols walk off into the sunset?  Or as a disillusioned film critic, watching a man's legacy dissolve before me?

I believe I will have to let the film speak for itself.  After all, I cannot force myself to view it one way or another.  I must admit that there is a large part of me that wishes I had never learned anything about Tati's shame.  But perhaps I can still seperate art and the artist and simply view the film as the closure of a fine career, if not the atonement he had intended it to be.


BIG FAN - Review

Directed by Robert Siegel, Starring Patton Oswald

Attendant Paul Aufiero (Oswald) furiously scribbles notes in a lonely parking structure toll booth.  He is scripting a call he will later make to a sports radio show defending his beloved New York Giants.  His words (largely chicken scratch) are pressed deep into the paper.  Paul means business.

This scenario says all one really needs to know about "Big Fan", which was written and directed by Robert Siegel, who wrote last years Oscar Cinderella "The Wrestler".  Many thought that film was a bit too saccharine (I was not one of them).  "Big Fan" is not.  It does not pull any punches.  It does not glamorize its lead.  Paul is a damaged, obsessive individual in the beginning and, by the end of the film little has changed.  So what, then, is the point?

Well, plot-wise there isn't much going on here.  The story is simple.  Paul and his best (and potentially only) friend happen across their favorite player at a local gas station.  They misguidedly decide to tail him, which results in Paul getting severely beaten by his idol at a strip club.  This forces Paul to examine himself and his obsession.  So near as I can tell, Paul is the point. 

The film hinges on his character, both in writing and performance.  For my money half of that battle is won by Patton Oswald, who shows a depth I had no idea he was capable of.  His social dysfunctions are many, and his only friend's ability to catch every call-in he makes to that aforementioned radio show implies that he tends to be free on most nights as well.  It does not appear as though Paul has a lot going for him.

Still, Patton Oswald lends a vulnerability to Paul that keeps you invested.  You hope for the best even though you are as skeptical as anyone else in the film.  His mother, for example, is not so subtly disappointed.  She is baffled by his contentment to be a single, football loving parking attendant.  His brother, after all, is a married lawyer.  Sorry mom, they can't all be winners.

"Big Fan" is an honest, realistic and occasionally interesting character study.  I say occasionally because even though the film runs at a meager 86mins, it feels substantially longer.  There just isn't enough meat on the bone, but an admirable performance from Oswald and a few stand out scenes make this one worth checking out.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

One last trick up his sleeve...

French film maker Jacques Tati passed away on November 5th, 1982, but it would not be until 2010 that his swan song would be played.  It would come in the form of an animated film by the wonderfully talented Sylvain Chomet, who wrote and directed the equally wonderful "The Triplets of Belleville", and be written by Tati himself.  It will be called "The Illusionist", and from what I have read and seen it should be the lovely send off Tati's career deserves.

Jacques Tati was born in Les Peco, Yvelines, France on October 9th, 1907.  He was not prolific, having only made six feature films and several shorts in his career. Never the less, he left an indelible mark on cinema with his clever, whimsical comedies and his immortal character, Monsieur Hulot.

For any fan of the silent film, Monsieur Hulot should be placed alongside Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp as an icon of the genre.  This is, of course, regardless of the fact that none of Tati's Hulot films were actually silent.  Though the characters around him spoke quite frequently, Monsieur Hulot could not be bothered.  He spoke through his body, letting his lanky frame and polite gesturing do the work for him.

Now, twenty eight years after his death, Tati's final film is being released.  It revolves around a magician dealing with his obscolescence.  The film's lead looks and moves just like Tati himself.  The animation looks amazing.  My hope for "The Illusionist" is that it does what "A Prairie Home Companion" did for one of my other favorite directors, Robert Altman:  Creates a poignant eulogy and a fine bookend for a brilliant career.


Jacques Tati's Filmography:
Jour de Fete (1949)
Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953)
Mon Oncle (1958)
Playtime (1967)
Trafic (1971)
Parade (1974)

The Trailer for "The Illusionist":

Monday, May 17, 2010


Directed by Spike Jonze, Starring Max Records, James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker & Catherine Keener

We often look back on our childhoods with great fondness.  In hindsight they feel like simpler times.  In their present, however, they can often be a relentless confusion of new emotions.  

Such is the case for young Max, who is at that age where a little attention is worth its weight in gold.  How unfortunate for him that his sister is a teenager and his single mother has a new boyfriend.  We are told little to nothing about the missing father, but can infer from Max's behavior and his mothers worried looks that things went about as smoothly as they ever can in that situation. 

One evening, Max pushes himself and his mother to their respective limits.  The incident sends Max running out into the night and off to a fantasy world inhabited by the wild things, who are exactly the kind of handful their name implies.  Upon meeting Max they have a lengthy debate about whether or not they should eat him or make him king.  Lucky for Max they decide to go with the latter, although not by a wide margin.

Maurice Sendek's book is a classic.  It stands as a shining example of the power of simplicity, its illustrations giving weight to its mere ten sentences.  But how does one make a film based on a book like this?  Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers have chosen the only path I believe possible; they followed it in spirit.  And while all of the wild things will certainly be familiar to fans of the book, this is hardly a children's story. 

Truth be told, it is a pretty melancholy film.  These wild things are all id, and soon Max finds himself stretched pretty thin while trying to maintain their delicate temperaments.  Most notably, there is Carol (James Gandolfini), who is a bundle of unchecked aggression and neediness.  Not surprisingly, Max immediately gravitates towards him.  And here is where I must mention Max Records performance.

This kid has got something figured out.  Here is a role that requires a difficult balance of subtlety and child-like energy, and Max Records hits the mark all the way.  Take for example the aforementioned blow out between Max and his mother.  There is a nice moment between the two of them before he storms off to his fantasy world.  It is that moment when both mother and child realize they have gone too far.  Catherine Keener (who plays his mother) is always reliable, but the look on Max's face is what really drives that moment home.

People are most certainly going to have trouble with this one.  Thematically, it is about as literal a translation as one could hope for.  Still, some will not be satisfied.  The book manages its heavy theme in a relatively light hearted manner, but this is largely due to its length, and as previously stated this is a pretty melancholy film.  Perhaps it could have been a bit more playful and a little less morose?  Yes, I suppose that would have been nice.  Would that have made for a more honest film?  I don't think so.  At least not by a wide margin.