Little Fish review

February 24, 2006

Somber but beautifully played, Little Fish handles drug addiction in a manner unthinkable in mainstream films. Honest and uncompromising, it examines in close detail the lives of the walking wounded in the blue-collar suburbs of Sydney. A stunning performance by Cate Blanchett elevates what could have been just a collection of character sketches to something more worthwhile.

Blanchett plays Tracy Heart, manager of a hole-in-the-wall video store in the outer boros of Sydney. She lives with her hard-working mother Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst) and brother Ray (Martin Henderson), whose leg was amputated after a car accident. Once a heroin addict, Tracy has been clean for four years. She wants to expand her store into an online gaming salon, but because of her record can’t get a bank loan.

Everyone in Little Fish is weighed down by the past. Tracy’s friend Lionel (Hugo Weaving), for example, a former football star who sustains his drug habit by selling off mementoes of his career. Or Brad (Sam Neill), a bisexual dealer who is handing over his clients to Steve (Joel Tobeck) prior to retiring. Even Ray, who has started dealing himself, is haunted by events four years ago.

As Tracy’s dreams falter, she meets up with Jonny (Dustin Nguyen), once her boyfriend and the man who caused Ray’s accident. When he offers to help finance her shop, Tracy faces choices that will affect the rest of her life: her loyalty to Lionel, her feelings for Jonny, and the lure of drugs.
The acting in Little Fish is so immediate and accomplished that it feels invisible. The cast, which includes the biggest stars in Australia, doesn’t play against type as much as play against expectations. Hugo Weaving has an uncanny grasp of an addict’s ploys, but is compassionate about his character’s flaws. Noni Hazlehurst is impeccable as a mother whose suspicions mask her love for her children.

Director Rowan Woods adopts a druggy style of diffused lighting, handheld cameras, soft focus, and droning music, evoking a mood of emptiness and longing that’s hard to shake. Jacquelin Perske developed Little Fish at a screenwriting workshop, and like most workshop scripts it is longer on characterization than on plotting. The real tension in the film arises from worrying whether Tracy will succumb to drugs again, not from the unconvincing thriller moves that end the story.

For Tracy, anything can be a temptation. Wind chimes, light falling across a pillow, a song on the radio–one spark could provoke a relapse. Cate Blanchett is simply magnetic in the role. I don’t think there is another actress in film who could inhabit the character so fully without judging her. And by showing how easy it is for someone that smart and appealing to falter, Little Fish says more about addiction than dozens of well-meaning message dramas.

Cast and credits

Cast: Cate Blanchett, Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving, Martin Henderson, Noni Hazlehurst, Dustin Nguyen, Joel Tobeck, Lisa McCune, Susie Porter, Nina Liu, Linda Cropper, Daniela Farinacci, Ferdinand Hoang, Anh Do, Jason Chong, Anthony Wong.

Credits: Directed by Rowan Woods. Written by Jacquelin Perske. Produced by Vincent Sheehan, Liz Watts, Richard Keddie. Executive producers: Robert Mullis, Barrie M. Osborne, Kirk D’Amico, Marion Pilowsky. Director of photography: Danny Ruhlmann. Editors: Alexandre de Franceschi, John Scott. Producer designer: Luigi Pittorino. Music by Nathan Larson. Sound design: Sam Petty. Costume designer: Melinda Doring. A Film Finance Corporation Australia presentation of a Porchlight Films production, in association with Mullis Capital Independent, The New South Wales Film and Television Office, Myriad Pictures, and Dirty Films.


Tony Danza hates 16 Blocks

February 24, 2006

Setting: the Warner Bros. screening room on West 53rd Street, where a standing-room-only crowd is waiting for the start of 16 Blocks, the new Bruce Willis film.  Actually, we’re waiting for the arrival of Tony Danza and his entourage, who arrive late and occupy coveted last row seats.

The lights lower and the film begins.  Despite glares from those around him, Danza proceeds to mock, curse, and laugh throughout the screening.  I’ve sat through my share of Bruce Willis losers, Richard Donner too, but in 16 Blocks they both seem trying to make a movie instead of posturing.  Danza doesn’t have to like 16 Blocks, or even comprehend that it is different from the average Willis vehicle, but he might show some courtesy to people who are actually trying to watch and judge the film.  Maybe being boorish is part of his shtick.

It used to be part of mine–I was fired from MGM after showing up drunk for a screening of Yes, Giorgio, which I proceeded to laugh at through its entirety.  In a rare example of justice, everyone else connected with Yes, Giorgio eventually got fired as well.  I wonder how Danza would respond if people behaved similarly at one of his song-and-dance shows.

Peckinpah vs. Beckett

February 16, 2006

Ordinarily I try to ignore film reviewers who will just irritate me. Armand White at The New York Press, for example. Ken Tucker when he was writing for New York magazine. (Since I ignore Entertainment Weekly entirely, I never have to encounter his TV reviews there.) Increasingly, David Denby at The New Yorker. Charles Taylor used to write for The New York Sun (where I occasionally place pieces) and He is also sometimes the author of the Mr. DVD column in the New York Observer. His piece in the January 30th issue was on the Sam Peckinpah box set recently released by Warner Bros. This is the second sentence of the article:

So rather than add to the heap of writing that already exists about Peckinpah’s balletic violence, or about the stunted career and mangled movies caused by his own intransigence as well as the stupidity of studio execs, I simply want to convey the flavor of the four films contained in the new Warner Bros. DVD boxed set Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection (for once a title doesn’t lie), by cutting small windows into each picture as a view into the director’s preoccupations, and as a way of listening in on the echoes that occur from film to film.

Taylor proceeds to summarize Ride the High Country (using its worst scenes to conclude that the film is about “the unadorned glory that’s possible in Puritan forbearance”), The Wild Bunch, the justly maligned Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (lauding a scene lifted from Only Angels Have Wings thirty years earlier), and The Ballad of Cable Hogue.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue was a pleasant but hardly memorable tall tale about a prospector and a prostitute finding a measure of peace in the western desert. Taylor is entitled to his opinions, of course, and if he finds this “Among [Jason] Robards’ finest moments on screen,” he’s welcome to say so. But to quote long stretches of Robards’ excruciatingly cutesy monologue (“Ain’t had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin’ a little thirsty…”) only points out how hamfisted and overwrought a Peckinpah movie could be.

Still, “This is the closest the Western ever came to Beckett. There are some of us who think it was Beckett improved by the acquaintance.”

Who doesn’t reach for the Beckett tag when confronted by a director with a bleak vision? But what does it mean to compare Peckinpah, a self-destructive alcoholic with a thick sentimental streak, with Beckett? Doesn’t that just reduce Beckett to the level of a director for hire who managed to get himself fired from almost every project he took on?

How come Budd Boetticher isn’t Becket? Or Sergio Leone? Or any of the cynical, jaded directors of B-westerns who found themselves grinding out the same story week after week in isolated desert locations with false-front sets and washed-up vaudevillians for actors?

Born in 1906, Beckett was well aware of movies, although his cultural influences seem more aligned with music halls and vaudeville. He even wrote his own Film, and it was awful, full of empty symbols and images stolen from Buñuel. And that despite the presence of Buster Keaton, whose own film universe, with its unfeeling gods, inexplicable twists and reversals, and implacable Nature, comes closer to Beckett than anything Peckinpah ever imagined.

The real Beckett film (and one he might have actually seen) is The Happy Hottentots, a 1930 Vitaphone short starring Joe Frisco. Two vaudeville performers who bill themselves The Reese Brothers (Frisco and his partner Bob Callahan) take a job in a deserted theater. They seem to be the only act on the bill, they only know one song, and they have to sing it over and over in front of a non-existent audience. Directed by Bryan Foy, the son of the once-famous singer Eddie Foy, it is the funniest and starkest depiction of an actor’s hell that can be found in American film.

Four reviews

February 16, 2006


The South African locations are the most interesting aspect of Tsotsi, an otherwise uninspired crime melodrama based on a novel by playwright Athol Fugard. With their corrugated metal walls and dirt floors, the shanties that make up the slums of Soweto stand in stark contrast with the highrises and gated communities of the wealthier sections of Johannesburg. The two worlds meet in this story, but with consequences that aren’t as unexpected as the filmmakers might have wished.

A runaway after his mother died of AIDS, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is as anonymous as his name, which is slang for thug or hood. He heads a gang of four, including the vicious Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), amiable Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano), an alcoholic dropout. Boston’s scruples provoke a fight after Butcher stabs a pickpocket victim in the subway. His tactics and motives questioned, Tsotsi beats Boston mercilessly in a Soweto shebeen.

Running away in a blind rage, Tsotsi finds himself in a wealthy suburb. When Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana) has trouble opening the gate to her garage, Tsotsi shoots her and steals her car. Only later does he discover Pumla’s baby in the back seat. Abandoning the car by a highway, Tsotsi brings the baby back to his shanty. Unable to care for the infant, he forces Miriam, a widowed seamstress, to nurse it.

His protective instincts awakened, Tsotsi breaks off with Butcher and reconciles with Boston. When news of the kidnapping spreads through the media, Tsotsi could be betrayed by any of the many he has crossed in Soweto. He must decide whether to sacrifice himself by returning the baby to his parents.

The film presents a vivid picture of life in Soweto, and makes good use of a pounding soundtrack filled with “kwaito” music. But its plot, updated from Fugard’s 1950s settings, reduces moral issues to pointlessly simplistic levels. Using a baby to redeem a criminal is neither realistic nor honest, especially as it’s enacted here.

With a slight figure and soft eyes, Presley Chweneyagae has too pleasant a demeanor to project the menace his part requires. Nor is he an accomplished enough actor to finesse the script’s contrivances. As the widow who helps humanize him, Terry Pheto is improbably kind and beautiful. The strongest performances are in small parts, in particular Kenneth Nkosi as a chubby but still dangerous hood, and Thembi Nyandeni as an untrustworthy bartender. When they’re on screen, Tsotsi shows an energy that’s otherwise absent.

Cast and credits
Cast: Presley Chweneyagae, Terry Pheto, Kenneth Nkosi, Mothusi Magano, Zenzo Ngqobe, Zola, Rapulana Seiphemo, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Nonthuthu Sibisi, Nthuthuko Sibisi, Jerry Mofokeng, Ian Roberts, Percy Matsemela, Thembi Nyandeni, Owen Sejake.

Credits: Written and directed by Gavin Hood. Based on the novel by Athol Fugard. Produced by Peter Fudakowski. Executive producers: Sam Bhembe, Robbie Little, Doug Mankoff, Basil Ford, Joseph D’Morais, Alan Howden, Rupert Lywood. Director of photography: Lance Gewer. Production designer: Emelia Weavind. Costume designers: Nadia Kruger, Pierre Vienings. Edited by Megan Gill. Original score: Mark Kilian, Paul Hepker. Co-producer: Paul Raleigh. Associate producers: Janine Eser, Henrietta Fudakaowski. A UK Film & TV Production Company, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, and National Film & Video Foundation of South Africa presentation, in association with Moviworld. In Afrikaans and Tsotsi-Taal with English subtitles.

When a Stranger Calls
Based on a considerably bloodier 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls is a tepid, drawn-out thriller whose few jolts will work only if you’ve never seen a scary movie before. The original was a “high concept” slasher film built around one good twist that was inexplicably revealed in its trailer. This version commits the same mistake in its own trailer, while also toning down the violence and gore that experienced genre fans expect. The result is a sort of training film for pre-teens who aren’t sure if they’re ready for R-rated horror yet.

A prologue set in small-town California uses a silhouette on a window shade to depict a murder so gruesome that grown men fall ill at the crime scene. Cut to small-town Colorado, where high-schooler Jill Johnson (Camilla Belle) has been grounded for going over her cell-phone limit. Grounding in Jill’s case means missing the school bonfire, a mini-Burning Man festival in the foothills of the Rockies. She is, however, allowed to babysit two toddlers in a mansion so remote it could be in another time zone.

The mansion, which belongs to a doctor and his wife, is worthy of Architectural Digest, with an indoor combination koi pond and bird house, motion-sensitive lighting, a Sub-Zero fridge, a guest house, and an apparently unlimited supply of entrances and exits. Jill is barely settled in when she starts receiving crank calls. She’s also startled by a visit from Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), a classmate who has been trying to steal her boyfriend Bobby (Brian Geraghty).

The calls escalate in intensity until Jill phones the police for help. That’s when she receives the bad news that everyone in the audience already knows: someone is after her. Jill responds by making almost every bad move possible in a thriller plot as James Dooley’s score gurgles and moans ominously in the background.

Camilla Belle is photogenic as Jill, but she lacks the range to earn much sympathy from viewers. To his credit, director Simon West tries to elicit scares from everyday objects like pet fish, popsicles, and lamps rather than satanic cults and buckets of blood. Unfortunately, Jake Wade Wall’s script has exactly one good idea, and it’s surrounded by blind alleys and red herrings. One way to watch When a Stranger Calls is to spot all the clues Jill misses and then wait for them to come into play. Some are never used, like the clothes dryer that shouldn’t be running but is. Others take so long to develop that you’re left to wonder why Jill’s multimillionaire clients couldn’t afford a live-in au pair.

Cast and credits
Cast: Camilla Belle, Brian Geraghty, Katie Cassidy, David Denman, Derek de Lint, Kate Jennings Grant, Tessa Thompson, Madeline Carroll, Arthur Young, Clark Gregg, Tommy Flanagan, Lance Henriksen.

Credits: Directed by Simon West. Screenplay by Jake Wade Wall. Based on the film written by Steve Feke and Fred Walton. Produced by John Davis, Wyck Godfrey, Ken Lemberger. Executive producer: Paddy Cullen. Director of photography: Peter Menzies, Jr. Production designer: Jon Gary Steele. Edited by Jeff Betancourt. Costume designer: Marie Sylvie Deveau. Music by James Dooley. A Screen Gems presentation of a Davis Entertainment production.

Plushly mounted, and with just enough topical references to seem relevant, Firewall adds one more film title to Harrison Ford’s enviable resume. An immensely appealing performer, he’s spent the last decade in vehicles that could rarely be described as challenging. Here he plays another variation on Hollywood’s favorite role for older actors, a harried husband who’s forced into action when his family is threatened.

The setting is Seattle, although any large city would do. Ford is Jack Stanfield, a computer expert happily married to an architect, Beth (Virginia Madsen), and the father of two children, the sullen teen Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and Andy (Jimmy Bennett), a young boy with serious allergies. Jack works at a small bank that’s merging with a larger one, and his skill with computers is shown in one or two brief scenes dense with silly jargon.

Jack has an after-work drink with Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), ostensibly a software designer but actually the mastermind of a scheme to steal $100,000,000 from the bank. The first step involves taking Jack’s family hostage, which is easily accomplished by Cox’s minions. The next is to wire Jack with mikes and cameras and force him to use his computer expertise to perform the crime from his bank office.

One of Firewall‘s few legitimate pleasures is watching Jack try to outwit Cox while under surveillance. Muttering to himself, scurrying away from acquaintances, he’s the image of someone on the verge of a breakdown. Jack receives invaluable help from his secretary Janet (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and other bank workers, then runs into trouble with executives (chiefly played by Robert Forster, Robert Patrick, and Alan Arkin). But Firewall ultimately isn’t about identity theft or computer fraud or iPod product placements. It isn’t even about Jack’s wife and kids, who are sketched in so carelessly that they may as well be pictures on a wall. It’s about whether Jack can beat up the bad guy.

Getting to that point requires several more shots of computer screens than any film should contain, as well as some remarkably pointless plot twists. Should Jack have to climb over the top of a rainswept apartment building to find out that his friend isn’t home? Given so many opportunities, couldn’t he leave one note alerting the police? Director Richard Loncraine shows no affinity for the nuts and bolts of constructing thrillers, playing out the script’s empty threats and chases at a lethargic pace. As the villain, Paul Bettany (who worked with Loncraine in Wimbledon) lacks the menace his part requires. As always, Ford performs capably, but it’s time he tried a serious movie again.

Cast and credits
Cast: Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Virginia Madsen, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Robert Patrick, Robert Forster, Alan Arkin, Carly Schroeder, Jimmy Bennett, Vincent Gale, Kett Turton, Nikolaj Coster Waldau, Vince Vieluf.

Credits: Directed by Richard Loncraine. Written by Joe Forte. Produced by Armyan Bernstein, Jonathan Shestack, Basil Iwanyk. Executive producers: Brent O’Connor, Charlie Lyons, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman. Director of photography: Marco Pontecorvo. Production designer: Brian Morris. Edited by Jim Page. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Costumes designed by Shuna Harwood. Co-producer: Tobin Armbrust. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Beacon Pictures, Jon Shestack, and Thunder Road production.

Good-looking but glib, Annapolis manages to paint an idealized picture of the Naval Academy while sending out a surprising number of mixed messages about actually going to school there. Hawks will take to the film’s testosterone-heavy swagger, but doves will feel that the whole project is too close to a recruiting brochure. Neither will find much that’s new in the tired script.

The film opens with a concussion, as blue-collar shipyard worker Jake Huard (James Franco) recovers from a knockdown blow at an amateur boxing match. Admiring his pluck, Lt. Cmdr. Burton (Donnie Wahlberg) offers Jake a position at Annapolis. Jake is far behind in his studies, but too proud to accept help from his plebe roommates Loo (Roger Fan), Estrada (Wilmer Calderon), and Twins Nance (Vicellous Shannon). As a result, he earns the enmity of his strait-laced company commander Cole (Tyrese Gibson).

Failing in his studies, Jake considers dropping out. But pretty midshipman Ali Hathaway (Jordana Brewster) offers to help him train for the famous Brigade Championship, an annual boxing tournament. It may be Jake’s only chance to get back at Cole. Nance, who’s also on the verge of being “separated” from the class, gives Jake tips about studying. In return, Jake tries to help Nance meet the school’s tough physical requirements.

The plot is just an excuse for the boxing scenes, which occur so frequently and are filmed with such care that they overshadow everything else in the story, including a suicide attempt, a tepid father-son conflict, and more sexual fraternizing than the Navy would care to own up to. That may be why Philadelphia’s Girard College stands in for the Annapolis campus, and why the school seems to consist of one obstacle course, one classroom lab, and a world-class boxing arena.

James Franco has a square jaw, looks good in a uniform, and can take a punch, but is at a loss as to how to play Jake. The plebe is supposed to have a chip on his shoulder, but for most of the film Franco’s guarded expression is too hard to read. Maybe he’s trying to downplay the fact that his character ends up in a grudge match with male model Tyrese Gibson. As an impossibly dewy classmate, senior officer, and love interest, Jordana Brewster will inspire more enlistments than an other element in the film. Why director Justin Lin chose to follow up his small-scale, gritty Better Luck Tomorrow with a corporate enterprise like Annapolis is just as bewildering as the film’s final line, “Come join me in the Marines.”

Cast and credits
Cast: James Franco, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Donnie Wahlberg, Chi McBride, Vicellous Shannon, Charles Napier, Roger Fan, McCaleb Burnett, Wilmer Calderon, Jim Parrack, Brian Goodman.

Credits: Directed by Justin Lin. Written by Dave Collard. Produced by Damien Saccani, Mark Vahradian. Executive producer: Steve Nicolaides. Director of photography: Phil Abraham. Production designer: Patti Podesta. Film editor: Fred Raskin. Costume designer: Gloria Gresham. Music by Brian Tyler. Co-producer: Gym Hinderer. A Touchstone Pictures presentation.

Eddie Cantor at MoMA

February 14, 2006

One of the forgotten heroes of vaudeville stars in two relatively rare movies screening at the Museum of Modern Art on Saturday, February 18. Both titles try to solve the same problem: how to adapt a hit Broadway play to film. The first showcases Eddie Cantor in what was for 1923 a cutting-edge sound process. The second, a feature-length version of Kid Boots, shows exactly what a big-budget, mainstream comedy film looked like, circa 1926.

Born in 1892, Eddie Cantor, nee Israel Iskowitz, grew up on the Lower East Side. At one point a singing waiter on Coney Island (backed for a time by Jimmy Durante on piano), Cantor worked his way up to vaudeville by 1907. Within a few years he developed a blackface character, and blackface routines would become a staple of his act. But Cantor was predominantly an ethnic comedian who geared his jokes towards New York audiences.

Cantor progressed from vaudeville to Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic, and then to the actual Ziegfeld Follies, where he co-starred with Bert Williams, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, and many others. His first Broadway vehicle was Kid Boots in 1923. After the success of Whoopee! in 1928, he starred in a string of film comedies, including Palmy Days, The Kid from Spain, and Roman Scandals. He also introduced such landmark pop songs as “Makin’ Whoopee,” “If You Knew Susie,” and “There’s Nothing Too Good for My Baby.” With hit records, a top-rated radio show, and several best-selling books, Cantor was one of the most recognizable celebrities of the Depression era, so well known that he was a fixture in cartoon parodies.

Cantor came of age professionally before the invention of electric microphones, and had to develop a singing style that didn’t rely on amplification. In other words, shouting, a technique that worked best with story songs and the blues. Cantor would basically recite lyrics, interpreting them by raising or lowering his volume. He performed love songs sticky with sentimentality, or blues laden with innuendo, in the same declamatory style. He played to the audience, rarely to his fellow performers, in fact often alone on the stage.

Cantor’s persona as an actor mirrored his singing: limited range, lots of volume. Like most silent film comedians, he was short in stature and had large, expressive eyes (in fact, one of his nicknames was “Banjo Eyes”). Avoiding the “baggy pants comic” cliché, Cantor used tight, ill-fitting clothes a size or two too small for him. They make his character even more constrained, the basis of much of his humor.

Many cultural historians mistakenly date the use of sound in movies to The Jazz Singer, a 1927 melodrama that starred Cantor’s friend Al Jolson. But merging film and sound was a goal of many early filmmakers, starting with the Edison studio, which filmed a sound experiment in 1895. The Vitaphone process used by the Warner Brothers for The Jazz Singer was a Rube Goldberg contraption that linked projectors to sixteen-inch shellac platters played on turntables. It was an arrangement prone to disaster. Better was the sound-on-film process developed in part by Lee de Forest. It placed sound within a thin strip on the side of the film, and it remained in use in films until the 1970s, when a stereo process using magnetic strips took over.

A Few Moments With Eddie Cantor, Star of “Kid Boots” was shot on a barren stage with one stationary camera. It’s a seven-minute extract from the play, with Cantor delivering a monologue laced with Jewish humor, singing “The Dumber They Come, the Better I Like ‘Em,” and performing his signature loping dance, in which he accompanied himself with emphatic handclaps. The combination of flat lighting and slow film stock makes the image blurry enough so that it’s hard to make out Cantor’s expressions, and he seems to be playing to his left rather than to the camera. He pauses after punchlines, waiting for laughs that never arrive. Still, it’s impossible to deny his manic energy, and the jokes that do click are as pleasing today as they were eighty years ago.

The feature version of Kid Boots was shot in California for Paramount, under journeyman director Frank Tuttle and with what was for 1926 a pretty strong cast. The idea of performing a Broadway comedy in mime may seem peculiar today, but silent filmmakers tackled everything from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, even managing to make a hit out of a silent Merry Widow. The trick was to find visual ways to advance the plot, and to develop characters through sight gags. Cantor was a sight gag to begin with, with his protruding eyes, slicked down hair, slight build, and herky-jerky movements. Joke-filled titles (written by Tom Gibson) introduced the other characters and pointed out major plot twists.

Tuttle had little compunction about discarding whole stretches of the plot, just as directors do today. Which is why Kid Boots ranges from scaled-down bits of stage business in tailor shops and boudoirs to wide-open chases with horses, cliffs, and mountain lions. The plot focuses on Samuel (Kid) Boots, a clerk in a tailor shop who loses his job after infuriating a customer. He latches on to Tom Sterling, a stalwart millionaire who is trying to divorce his golddigging wife in order to marry a hotelier’s daughter. Kid Boots will be Sterling’s witness in divorce proceedings.

The film is as much of a narrative shambles as the play must have been, only without Cantor periodically breaking into song or donning blackface. He does a golf bit, hides in closets, acts a weird skit involving an electric chair, and flirts with two of the film’s three female leads. (Top-billed Billie Dove is reserved for Lawrence Gray, the male romantic lead.) Natalie Kingston vamps it up as the golddigger, but the real attraction in the cast is Clara Bow, who at this point was on the verge of stardom. It takes the filmmakers about five minutes to get her into a bathing suit, and surprisingly she’s called upon to do most of the heavy acting.

Cantor’s greatest successes were still to come. Whoopee!, a smash on stage and as a Technicolor film; Roman Scandals, with Lucille Ball as a naked slave; and The Kid From Spain, directed by Leo McCarey. He even turned losing a fortune in the 1929 stock market crash into a best-selling book. But by the mid-thirties, film audiences had lost their appetite for Cantor’s shrill shtick. Some critics feel that efforts to “de-Semitize” Cantor backfired by alienating his core fans. Like Jolson, he endured a long decline in public. He appeared in increasingly small film roles and returned to Broadway occasionally, but never regained his foothold on the public.

Cantor’s appeal may be hard to understand today. But picture him appearing unamplified on an empty vaudeville stage, a cog in a long bill of magicians, animal acts, and novelty singers. As he noted, “A [performer] in vaudeville is like a salesman who only has fifteen minutes in which to make a sale. You go on the stage knowing that every minute counts. You’ve got to get your audience the instant you appear.”

Prix Jean Vigo Films at MoMA

February 6, 2006

Forget Truffaut or Godard or even Renoir: Jean Vigo is the true patron saint of French cinema. He never made a bad movie; you can see all his work in one sitting; and his politics will always be reliably left of center. Since 1951, the Prix Jean Vigo Committee has awarded annual prizes in his name to a “French director notable for his independence of spirit and originality of style.” Starting February 10th and extending through December, the Museum of Modern Art is showing over forty winners, both features and shorts.

The Prix Jean Vigo is as much a political award as an artistic one. As in most cultural contests, winners are rewarded for their connections and networking skills as well as their talent.. The imprimatur of approval that accompanies the Prix Jean Vigo can buoy a winner’s subsequent film career, at least for a time. Unlike the US, many French directors break into the industry through reviews and criticism, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Olivier Assayas, for example. Godard shows up here for A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) screening on February 11 and 12. The movie passed from revolutionary to classic in a remarkably short period, its methods now appropriated by every director of sneaker ads or shampoo commercials who’s aiming for an “edgy” look. Without Breathless there would be no Nixon or Traffic, surely not what Godard intended.

The series includes two Assayas films, both scheduled in April. Paris S’eveille (Paris Wakes Up, 1991) captures his preoccupation with sex, drugs, and rock and roll in nascent form. Along with dialogue delivered at a blistering pace, you will find the director’s trademark digressions on motor scooter and Metro, and the inevitable humiliation of his pretty but unaware heroine.

His other film, co-directed with Luc Barnier, was originally projected behind a concert by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. Assayas recorded one of their performances and used it as the score for this half-hour short, which tries to find a visual approximation for Sonic Youth’s druggy drone with hazy jungle landscapes that dissolve into blurry shots of flying jets. After the relatively austere Clean, which will be opening theatrically around the same time, “Concert Film” is either strikingly attuned to the music or annoyingly obscure.

Other films include worthy if predictable chestnuts and equally predictable “provocative” films that have struggled to find audiences both here and in France. Missing entirely are the bread-and-butter hits of French cinema, the comedies and romances and thrillers that support the prize-winners. No Luc Besson, for example, and certainly no Three Men and a Baby. On the other hand, Bruno Dumant, who won in 1997 for La Vie de Jésus (screening in October), is currently teaching film on various New York campuses following the economic and artistic debacle of his 29 Palms.

The winner in 1995 was Xavier Beauvois for his N’oublie pas que tu vas mourir (Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die), which opens the series on February 10. Beauvois also stars as an art school slacker who turns to drug dealing when he is diagnosed as HIV-positive. While stealing from his friends, mooching off druggies, and picking up naive girls for unprotected sex, Beauvois’ character shows moviegoers how to prepare and smoke crack without leaving incriminating evidence. Be prepared for plenty of long, slow pans across classical art works, proof enough for the jury of Beauvois’ independent spirit and original vision.

Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Die Too, 1953) directed by Nouvelle Vague fixtures Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, defines better than most shorts in the series the political underpinnings of the award. Ostensibly an examination of African art, the film is really an excuse to lambaste the United States and other, unspecified “racist” countries for stealing and then entombing African culture. Through stills and stock footage (most risibly of the Harlem Globetrotters), the directors first set out a case for the beauty and importance of African art before it was corrupted by colonials, then for the racism that pervades Western culture. Watching it, you can see how Marker would go on to manipulate still images in the masterful La Jetee (screening with Statues Die Too on May 4 and 6), and how Resnais would end up superimposing pictures of jellyfish on his characters’ heads in the ridiculous On connait la chanson (Same Old Song, 1997). You’ll also see politics as wrongheaded and childish as in any Lars van Trier film. The directors pay no attention to the technique or context of the art discussed, dismissing such issues with lines like “The botany of death is what we call culture.” Of course the directors would never admit that the methods they chose to shoot and edit the art–the backgrounds, angles, lighting, etc.–determine how viewers will respond to it. Their conclusions mix the condescending (“The black can be proud of his ancient civilization”) with the dunderheaded (“Racist countries allow their blacks to win Olympic medals”).

The light, effervescent La Passion selon Flormand (1970, scheduled for November) captures the actual spirit of a Vigo film like Zero de Conduite or A Propos de Nice. It follows elderly retirees who roller-skate on the plazas surrounding the Eiffel Tower, using marches and ballads played on a portable phonograph for a score. Filmed on 16mm with only two lenses and wild sound, La Passion… is as harmless and carefree as a balloon, and utterly devoid of politics–unless you want to speculate what the skaters were doing during World War II.