Sunday, August 29, 2010

COCO After Chanel

First of all, they sure smoked a lot of cigarettes back then. It was kind of distracting; I kept waiting for someone to get accidentally singed as cigarettes were dangerously hanging loose out of mouths or carelessly dangling between fingers.

Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky was a gorgeous film set in the nineteen twenties, after Coco became an established and sought after fashion designer/brand and while Igor Stravinsky was in exile from Russia and not yet appreciated for his striking music compositions.

Based on a rumor, the story begins on an opening night of the Russian Ballet in Paris choreographed no less by Vaslav Nijinsky, to music by Stravinsky. The theatre is aghast at this commanding and aggressive performance in both music and dance. It is a disaster, but Coco sees a kindred spirit for the outre in Stravinsky that attracts her.

Played by Anna Mouglalis, Coco is not classically beautiful, but handsome and elegant. She manages to capture the cool confidence of a woman ahead of her time: powerful and controlling. In fact, very masculine traits dressed up chicly with no care for convention. Her costumes are magnificent.

She sees parallels between herself and Igor (played by Mads Mikkelsen), both radical in their ideas, and some years later invites him with his whole family to come live at her summer villa outside Paris so he can compose. And what a property; as an interior designer, I found myself wishing to have her decorator (there’s a particular duvet cover in one lovemaking scene that I’d die for!) At the height of the Art Deco period, the entire house is glamorously bedecked, one room more luxurious than the next, but it’s hardly a family home. Every room is a variation in black and white with silver or gold accents. When asked by Igor’s wife Katerina, “don’t you like color, Mademoiselle?,” Coco replies, “As long as it is black.”

Who could have thought this was a good idea? Katerina is obviously uneasy with the arrangement, but won’t deny her husband’s chance at patronage. It was inevitable that Coco and Igor would become lovers, two strong creative personalities flirting with this possibility. When she decides that the time is right (because she will control everything), she seduces him with not so much as a first kiss before they strip naked and make love on a thin dhurrie rug in the study he uses as his composing room. Although he may kid himself that he is the man in this relationship, Coco has the upper hand and Igor is ultimately rendered impotent because he is at her whim. She needs such control that she bankrolls the ballet’s season anonymously, insuring that he will have work composing to support his family. You can see the turning point when after enduring their brazen affair, his family leaves and Igor realizes he has lost them for a woman he will never really have.

And what does Coco truly want out of this? She doesn’t need him to leave his wife for her; she can have him right under her nose in the same house. It’s as if she didn’t think it all the way through, toying with the lives of others for selfish pleasure, and she would never be satisfied anyway with a man she could “buy.”

So again, inevitably, they must break up. One could argue that all the passion and drama led to some of Stravinsky’s best compositions, and they are both shown in a collage of future and flashback scenes (great aging makeup) that seems to imply that they never got over each other, but we know that they were both very successful in the end.


I loved the book. I carried it around and bought copies for my girlfriends. And as with most stories, the book is better than the movie.

I wanted to love the movie, and for the most part, I did. But I don’t remember so much whining, so much angst about what seems like a pretty good life.

Julia Roberts is wonderfully expressive. Perhaps it was the dialogue, but much of her questioning of her life and its meaning fell flat and vapid. I found myself wondering “What does she have to complain about?” She keeps looking for meaning through others, but when they move to be that, she shies away.

The movie seems like four movies: the initial questioning of her life and marriage, the ITALY section, the INDIA section, and the BALI section. Even though a good amount of time was spent on each part, I never felt like the movie was dragging or too long at 133 minutes. I felt like she wasted the India section (very unappealing to me, especially after Italy’s orgy of tastes, language, scenery and lovable new-found friends). One of the story's central characters, "Richard from Texas" (played by Richard Jenkins) was so annoying that I wanted to get away from him myself. When at last he reveals his history, his platitudes and Buddhism instructions feel contrived and show him to be as human and flawed as everyone, and he is still searching after years. Is this to be her fate also?

Javier Bardem is perfectly cast as Felipe, a Brazilian importer living in Bali. He's sweetly lovable, and at the same time manifestly male. He's the kind of man that makes you yearn for a second chance. But again, somehow, Liz manages to get cold feet when he gets too close.

I went back to the book when I got home and found the inconsistencies in the adaptation from book to movie that contributed to my disappointment: in the book, Liz does not reject Felipe’s declaration of love and suggestion of an unorthodox committed relationship, she embraces it. I guess the screenwriters felt we needed a little extra “drama” and conflict to resolve. It felt clich├ęd, and because Liz was played by Julia Roberts, I was reminded of her character in Runaway Bride. It’s never good when you recognize the actress instead of the character.

Oh well, I still want to go to Italy and have spontaneous travelling experiences. I just won't have the cushion of a book advance to allow me to ditch everything and say que sera....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

3D Despicable

Yesterday I wanted to see “Despicable Me.” I went to the theater and as I was about to buy the ticket, I saw that it was in 3D. I wanted to see the regular movie, but the cashier explained that even though it was listed in the newspaper, they were now only showing the 3D version.

That’s despicable! Why are so many movies (especially animated ones) presented in 3D only? For one, they can charge more. But the more insidious reason is the disappointing reality that just like “supersizing,” “over-stimulating” and “more technological advances” are our cultural gluttony. Sadly More is More is our motto.

I go to the movies every week.

That’s right, EVERY week.

When I miss it for scheduling reasons, I watch movies I’ve taped on my DVR. I LOVE movies, but especially seeing movies in a theater. The big screen, the hushed darkness, the surround sound, all make the experience one that has thrilled me since I first went to see “Fantastic Voyage” at the Palace Theater when I was eleven years old.

But 3D is just not for me. It’s distracting, it’s dingy looking (it’s darker than the “normal” movie version), and those glasses, PLEASE!

I was so disappointed that I was going to have to pay extra to see a version that I didn’t want that I left and raced across town to a different theater to see it there, even though I missed the first five minutes.

Even Roger Ebert agrees with me:

“The sad thing, I am forced to report, is that the 3-D process produces a picture more dim than it should be. “Despicable Me” is technically competent and nowhere near the visual disaster that is “The Last Airbender,” but take my word for it: Try to find it in 2-D. Or, if you see it in 3-D, check out the trailers online to see how bright and cheery it would look in 2-D. How can people deceive themselves that 3-D is worth paying extra for?”

And now on to the movie: it was charming, visually exciting, imaginative and had a message: it’s never too late to try and fix your mistakes, especially in relationships. It was a familiar story of orphans and manipulative adults, much like Annie. But the twist is that the villain is actually the hero.

I enjoyed the way the main character, Gru, who is voiced by Steve Carell, is illustrated to resemble him. Even though he’s thrown on a quasi Russian accent (Boris and Natasha anyone?), his expressions and distinctive phrasing come through.

The outlandish world of Gru and his nemesis, Vector, intersect seamlessly with normal people, their odd homes smack dab in the middle of beautiful suburban streets. Gru’s transporation contraptions look like giant mutant submarines as they roar through neighborhoods and don’t turn anyone’s eye. When the humongous rocket lifts off from behind Gru’s Addams Family style mansion, it does rate a gaping stare from a neighbor washing his car.

I enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would; at first it was a lot of blowing up disasters and artillery seemingly inspired by James Bond-like gadgetry. But as it went on, I really became invested in these characters with all of their flaws and charms, and the ending was very satisfying.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Joan's Still Got It

I was thrilled when I saw that Joan Armatrading would be performing at the Egg in Albany, NY. I hadn’t thought about her music in years, but she was always a favorite in my early music choices and influences as a singer and songwriter.

She jumped right in with a romping rendition of “Show Some Emotion,” and the night was off to great start.

The Kitty Carlisle Hart Theater at the Egg is an intimate theater that seats 982, and it was about two thirds full. The sound is fantastic for a small electrified combo like her with bass, drums and keyboards. Even her acoustic 12-string and Ovation 6 string guitars rang out crisply. Her vocal mix was just right, always dominant over the instrumentation, her distinctive alto layered harmonically over the rest.

I never realized how percussive her phrasing style is, and her lyrics are very conversational. The opening glissandos across the neck of her big 12-string heralding “Love and Affection” had people up out of their seats. I didn’t want it to end, and she received a standing ovation in the middle of her set for this song.

Spritely and full of fun, she seemed to skip across the stage as she joked in a lilting British accent. It put me in mind of the lyrics to her song, “Join the Boys:"

We’ll be dancing in the floodlights
Second to none
Not even on a bad night

Nearing 60, her new music reflects a life well-lived and the same acceptance of where we are that most of us baby-boomers have journeyed to: an appreciation of life, serenity, relationships.

Songs from (and including title cut) “This Charming Life,” her newest release, were sprinkled throughout several gems from her nearly four decade career. She represented her several albums and musical directions well, and chose fan-favorite “Willow” as her encore.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Girl Who Read the Books (And Couldn't Put Them Down)

I just finished the last book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” and “The Girl Who kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

After seeing the movie version of the first book, and hearing about the sensation that this series has created all over the world, I eagerly devoured the second book. I then saw the movie based on it, “The Girl Who Played With Fire.” Although usually I feel like the book is better, in this case I’m glad I was exposed initially to these characters in the first movie. Noomi Rapace is the perfect Lisbeth Salander: slight, butch, intense and capable of both vacant stares and ferocious Kung Fu fighting.

Salander is one of the most compelling characters ever introduced in a story, an emotionally wounded genius researcher/computer hacker who will survive at all costs. A little off-kilter and woefully clueless with relationships, she distrusts everyone because her experience has taught her to depend on no one; ultimately everyone else will let her down.

I like her imperfection, and even her more brutal actions have logical reasons; she does not lash out maliciously, but in defense or for vengeance. It is interesting to view her confusion when she has to decide to let a handful of people try to help her expose the life-long injustice she was the unwitting pawn of by some shadowy government espionage types.

People in authority are portrayed here in a variety of ways, most as mindless or selfish bureaucrats and worse, manipulators of the law and system toward their own ends. It’s no surprise as both Larsson and Blomkvist are anti-government watchdogs with a nose for corruption and social inequity.

But there are few good men (and women) on the police forces, well-drawn characters who go against protocol and orders to uphold a citizen’s rights. In fact, the Swedish view of democracy, social responsibility and civil rights is a very important theme throughout the series.

The writing is at times like a reporter’s account, terse, factual and to the point, which is appropriate because Mikael Blomkvist’s character is a thorough investigative journalist (which is why I’m fact-checking the spelling of these names!) Parts of the story are presented so matter-of-factly that you have to read them twice to make sure to absorb their emotional or visceral content, particularly the violent scenes.

I didn’t want to finish the last book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” because even though I was dying to find out how things resolved, it was bittersweet: the author passed away shortly after delivering the three book series to his publisher and so there will be no sequels.

Or will there?

Apparently Larsson left about three quarters of a fourth novel on a notebook computer in his companion’s possession. Synopses or manuscripts of the fifth and sixth in the series, which was intended to contain an eventual total of ten books, may also exist. I for one hope there is a way to enjoy more of Salander’s life story.