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Herewith cerebral things: films, novels, and musical entertainments
[Just a placeholder: last night we watched The Prestige on DVD. Are we really supposed to believe that Dr Tesla's contraption produced duplicate humans? Or are we supposed to believe that the American found an unlimited supply of doubles?]
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Just a quick note to remind ourselves that on Tuesday we rather spontaneously went to see Eagle vs Shark at the Phoenix, along with workmate Jess. The learned Dr Bean was rather fond of it, and its fairly low-budget lightness. The characters are fairly caricatural, Jarrod more so than Lily, and that could cause some problems if you reflect on it too long: Lily is quite a sympathetic character, and apparently quite a sensitive one, so it's hard to work out why she puts up with Jarrod long enough to find herself travelling to a distant part of New Zealand for his appointed fight with his childhood nemesis. It could also be quite snobbish / disdainful / patronising of people who work in burger bars and video (or videogame) rental shops, but there's never any other class represented, so we have to sympathise with this one; when the action moves to Jarrod's hometown, we meet his sister and brother in law who are wearing the remains of their unsuccessful attempt to break into the leisurewear (i.e., shellsuit) market. It's tragi-comic rather than sneering.

3 beans out of 5? The Revd Dr Bean.
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Just a note to ourselves that last night half of us watched A Cock and Bull Story, an amusing and engaging tour round Steve Coogan's ego, an adaptation of the spirit but not the substance of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It was probably at its best and most coherent in the first third or so, where it looked most like a costume-drama adaptation, albeit with wild chronological lurches. Once they'd wrapped up the first day's filming, it became less coherent; or rather, you had to realize that the real narrative was the one that had been suggested in the opening make-up room scene, the narrative to do with the relative importance of Coogan and Brydon. It was fun mostly for Rob Brydon's amazing ability to mimic Coogan.

Sad to see the late lamented Tony Wilson, apparently lightly pastiching Melvyn Bragg.

The Most Reverend Dr Bean.
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As if Edith Piaf hadn't suffered enough, La Vie en Rose takes her life, smashes it into small fragments and makes an interesting mosaic of them. One the whole I liked the structure of the film, but there were times where it presupposed knowledge of her life, or the mythology of her life, and there were others in our party who were less than certain about it. And it has to be said, in spite of all the chronological juggling and interesting juxtapositions it produced, there was a deadly predictability about "Je ne regrette rien" coming as the conclusion. What I think the structure managed to do was to interweave the triumphs and the disasters and to make the triumphs appear all the more fragile, and to show that they drew their sustenance from the poisonous soil of the disasters. Of course, that's just the usual romantic suffering artist myth, but it made the film more dense and claustrophobic. The devastating scene for me was the one where Edith learns of the death of her lover the boxer--there was a frightening uncanny quality to it, but I won't say too much for fear of spoiling it for others.

Much of my reaction isn't to do with the film per se, more with Piaf as presented in it. It looked as if being abandoned by both parents and being left to be brought up in a brothel might have been one of the better things to have happened to her. Given that, as seen in the film, she appeared to be well on the way to alcoholism by her early 1920s, and given the extremely hard circumstances she lived in, it was astonishing she achieved anything at all. The actress's looks and hunched back made her look as if she'd not been dealt the best cards in terms of diet and health; and there was a lost, needy look about her throughout that was troubling. Actually, the narrative had elements of the naturalist school of fiction about it; in this regard, it wasn't the individualist myth of someone breaking out of a confining environment through sheer force of character; rather, she seemed to carry a small part of the environment with her wherever she went. With a voice like hers, you could never call her 'fragile', but the repeated scenes of her collapsing on stage and being held together only by repeated shots of something or another left no doubt that alongside her strength there was a repeated malfunction.

Are tricksters and scapegoats related in the anthropological and deconstructive literature? She would surely have had to be a wily trickster to escape her environment; and everytime she collapsed it looked as if she was functioning as scapegoat.

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There being nothing much on at the cinema that we fancied, Dr Bean and RWR settled down on Sunday to watch a DVD of Little Miss Sunshine. The austere and learned Dr Bean had been reluctant during its cinema release, naturally distrusting America films about families, even disfunctional families with a coke-snorting porn-addicted grandad. But it's a likeable film, and it steers just on the right side of the line where thematic echoes and continuities could sink the film under the weight of a "message." The opening minutes suggest that it might be overburdened with thematic interest in success in modern America: the father with his "nine steps to success" plan and his ludicrous division of the world into successes and failures; the son with his Niezsche poster; the gay uncle who believes that he is the preeminent Proust scholar in America, but who has been outshone in love and in popular scholarship by a rival; and the little girl Olive whose dream is to win a girl's beauty pageant. Thus summarized, the film might sound like it's trying too hard, but no-one gets any cheesy keynote speeches, and the appeal of the film rests on its depiction of claustrophobia: a divergent family crammed into a small house and then into an even smaller VW camper van. It's a comical quest narrative or road movie, with the family having to overcome various mechanical and personal obstacles to get Olive to the pageant on time. I don't think we're supposed to anticipate that the pageant will ever be anything less than grotesque, and the film doesn't have to do much to signal it; so that even though Olive is an immensely sympathetic character, and very well acted, you've no sympathy with the content of her dream, even if the broad outline (having a dream) is something you connect with.

4 beans out of 5.

Dr Bean.
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Interesting, but not entirely convincing, Notes on a Scandal is probably best enjoyed for the performances rather than the storyline. I've not, I should say, read the book, though I gather that the narratorial point-of-view transforms it. Cate Blanchett is luminous, and Judi Dench reptilian. (Granted, in the case of Blanchett I may be fantasising about how much better art classes might have been with her than with the bearded, beer-bellied, real-ale drinking men we had at secondary school.) Bill Nighy hams it up somewhat, especially in the main scene of the crisis, and I was slightly reminded of Basil Fawlty. I was unconvinced that the schoolteacher really would begin a relationship with the 15-year old pupil: he didn't demonstrate any particularly mature wit or intelligence, and the glimpse we're given of his drawings was unconvincing. (Might it have been better for the viewer never to see the drawings? Never try to represent other works of art within one, except through hints: they either upstage or underwhelm.) I suppose we were meant to feel that the stress of bringing up her Down's Syndrome son was a motivation, but if that was plausible on paper, it never really came across in the film.

3 beans / 5.

Dr B.
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This is a film for anyone who grew up making stuff from old cardboard boxes and toilet rolls, and who grew up imagining intensely. It's a film for anyone who grew up watching old stop-motion animated cartoons on the TV. It's a film for anyone whose daydreams are as real as their waking lives. It's a film for anyone who likes, at least a little, those states of being half-awake and half-asleep.

The scene is Paris, and a flat that looks alarmingly like my sister and brother-in-law's. A young man returns home from Mexico after many years abroad: his parents had separated, and he had travelled out with his father. His French is imperfect, and one of the brilliant, hilarious, dream-like aspects of the film is the way it slips in and out of English, French, and someone's idea of Spanish; I'm not an authority, but the subtitler probably deserves an award for trying to convey the eel-like qualities of the language. His mother finds him a job with a firm making calendars; not the artistic, creative job he had expected, but dull drudgery. (It's also a film for anyone who fears the life of office drudgery, whether you grew up watching Reggie Perrin or The Office).

But the scene is not Paris: the scene is the young man's imagination; the scene is his day's residues as they coalesce into dreams. The scene is always fraying at the edges and becoming another scene. Before he has been too long in his mother's flat, in his childhood bed, his next-door neighbour, played by a woman who looks like she's the daughter of the ugliest man in French music and the most beautiful woman in England (Je t'aime? Moi aussi) -- which is half true* -- drills a hole through his bedroom wall, thus initiating a beautiful and hilarious relationship, strangely innocent and unerotic, focused more on their shared imaginative grasp of things and love of crudely stitched woollen horses.

It's a film that's constantly inventive and improvisatory: if you liked Being John Malkovich then you'll probably like it; if you thought that film was too knowingly intellectual, then you'll be charmed by this one and wonder why I ever made that comparison. The director, Michel Gondry, has made pop videos (as we called them in the 80s), and it shows, mostly to good effect, though about two-thirds of the way through it possibly becomes too self-indulgent.

5 beans / 5, and extra chive sauce to go. 'Tis my film of the year so far, and no mistaking.

Dr Hieronymous Garbanzo Bean III.

*Serge Gainsbourg--undisputably not a looker; Jane Birkin--neither here nor there.
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Not really my sort of film, this. Quite good in a number of ways: musically entertaining, some good performances from Jamie Foxx (are there two 'x's?), Eddie Murphy, and the women, but much too long, and too much caterwauling from the fat woman who was in American idol (Jennifer Hudson?? - her performance was good, but I just didn't enjoy the extensive wailing bits).

A key problem seemed to be the musical nature of the film, and the way in which song was used instead of speech. This only seemed to occur well into the film; it felt inconsistent, and came as a frankly unpleasant jolt to the system. Good though.

2 beans out of five.

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Last night, accompanied by a human-bean (let's call her 'Rebecca'), the Garbazobeings went to see Venus, starring Peter O'Toole and Leslie Philips. It's a slow-paced, sad but good-humoured reflection on ageing, and on how to make a good final bow, as it were: the two main male characters are actors, still finding some work, but mostly 'resting'. There's some predictable and easy humour in the comic banter between O'Toole and Philips, both camping it up. Much more moving is O'Toole's relationship with his wife, whom he deserted many years earlier, played by Vanessa Redgrave. The whole was beautifully but unostentatiously photographed: the tones are mostly muted, with the old men's faces shot in chiaroscuro. Into this world arrives Jessie, first seen in bright pink shell-suit, a brash northern girl, employed as Philips's resident home-help, but culturally so far removed from him that that he can't stand her, and she can't do most of the things he had expected. The story might be tracked in terms of her costume colours: in a final scene she still has a pink sports bag, as if to remind us of how far she, or at least her relationships with the men, have come. O'Toole strikes up a relationship with her, with some good intentions on his side, but a note of exploitation in both cases as well. There's a sort of failed Pygmalion narrative going on: both the Philips and the O'Toole characters want to educate the girl in various cultural matters, but any education she receives is not the one they seek to impose. The film traces the relationship through to -- unsurprisingly -- the O'Toole character's death.

We all felt it to be slightly creepy, the females in the audience more so than Dr B., and Rebecca, for this and other reasons, felt it to be scarcely worth a bean. Why Venus / Jessie would allow shambling old man to kiss her on the neck remained a mystery. She certainly sets her limits, and sets them very emphatically, but she allowed more lecherous behaviour from him than seemed credible. Apart from her account of an ex-boyfriend, we learned very little of her and her life in the north: it's a film in which the world is largely viewed from the point of view of the men. But unlike some of Woody Allen's later films, in which an ageing and puny little man dates implausibly young and attractive women, and in which no-one within the world of the film finds this unusual, least of all the women, Venus as a film is conscious of what's going on; the age-gap is the theme; and the film's partial consciousness of the creepiness of the scenario redeems it in that regard. It's likeable for the pace of the acting and, as I say, its subdued visual look: too many British films lack any sense of design and visual style; they look too drap, too grey, too made-for-TV. What's interesting about Venus is how it comes close to that, especially in some of the exterior shots, for the world of these characters is necessarily sombre: but it's coherent enough to reassure us that it was designed, and the visuals serve the performances rather than overwhelming them, which is always a risk in visually stunning art-house productions. It went astray initially with Jessie: as some other reviewer said, the pink shellsuit and Pot Noodle make her too much of a parody of feckless working-class youth, too close to Little Britain's Vicky Pollard; did the film not trust its viewers to understand that a semi-retired Shakespearian actor in his 80s might not get on with a northern working-class girl in her late teens?

An unexpected delight was O'Toole's recitation of Shakespeare sonnet 18 ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day'): it risked being superfluous to the narrative, too much of an 'actorly' moment, but he read it with such understanding of every word in every element of intonation and pace that I could forgive them.

Are we allowed half beans? 3.5 beans out of 5. Perhaps 4.

Dr B.
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Not much to say about this one: a very tedious film. Some would say heart-warming, but I would say limited, static, and dull. Perhaps if I'd liked the music more, or the appallingly bad jokes (very low humour), then it may have been more than barely tolerable. As it was, part of the film left me wondering whether it would be more entertaining to go and have a wee. Not a good sign.

One bean, out of five.

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