Monday, May 15, 2006

Blackballed and Black Orpheus at the Brattle

Huh, Black Orpheus isn't in the HBS database. Go figure. Must write Scott.

That's the end of the last Brattle schedule, which wasn't bad at all. I'm a little less psyched about the current one; we're about to hit Gene Kelly & Fred Astaire and then Ken Russell, which will be fun, although not really must-sees for me.

The July/August schedule will be the vertical one, which scares/reassures me a little - it means I likely won't miss a whole great series while off at Fantasia for a week and a half. But it'll probably mean missing a chunk of a couple good series.

Planning for that is kind of crazy. You now need a passport as opposed to just a birth certificate and an ID to cross the border into Canada now, so there's that paperwork to fill out. Of course, I appear to have lost the copy of my birth certificate while moving earlier this year, so I had to order one from Worcester, which is disturbingly easy on one hand but needlessly difficult on the other, since the city's website choked on Firefox while collecting a little data and eleven dollars. I should be able to get everything in line before July. I'm looking forward to it; it was the highlight of my moviegoing year last year, and hope to make it an annual thing.

So, anyway, these two movies ran consecuitve weeks at the Brattle and both have "black" in their title. Otherwise, they're night and day: One's a colorful, lush drama shot in Brazil by a French director; the other is a washed-out mockumentary that couldn't have cost more than a few bucks to make. I prefer the first, not there are many situations where anybody will face an either/or decision between Blackballed and Black Orpheus. Still, Black Orpheus does several things well enough that every moment has some worth, where Blackballed just sort of flails when any of the jokes falls flat.

Black Orpheus (Orfeu Negro, aka Orfeu do Carnival)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 April 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Special Engagement)

The idea of a setting being an integral part of a story, to the point where it's called a character in the movie, is particularly apt where Black Orpheus is concerned. The Orpheus myth, like so many, can be removed form its setting and be relevant to anyone; that's what myths are for. It can be related in a few seconds, so by transplanting it to Rio de Janeiro, and portraying Rio so vividly, filmmaker Marcel Camus is not just retelling a classic, but using it as a pretext to explore.

After all, everybody knows the story of Orpheus, here Orfeo, a streetcar conductor with a passion for the guitar played by soccer star Breno Mello. When he applies for a marriage license, the clerk says "this must be Eurydice, because everyone knows that Orpheus loves Eurydice". The thing is, Orfeo was with Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira), who is a bit on the jealous side. Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) has just arrived to visit her cousin Serafina (Lea Garcia). Serafina lives in Orfeo's neighborhood, and it's not long before they're formally introduced. But Mira isn't the only obstacle between them; Eurydice is fleeing a death-masked stalker.

The story takes place in the days leading up to Carnival, which gives the characters an excellent opportunity to participate in intrigues involving disguise: As much fun as they are in classical theater and literature, masked balls are far from common these days. Carnival, with its elaborate costumes, throngs of people, and masks which cover the whole face, offers a chance to use this plot device in a modern setting without it seeming odd. It also makes the film as stunning as Carnival itself, as every square inch of the big screen fills with a riot of colorful clothing, dancers parade in awesome syncopation, and joyous calypso plays on the soundtrack. It would be a complete showstopper, if it weren't half the reason to have the show in the first place.

It's not just by showing Carnival that Camus immerses us in Rio. The entire film is shot on location, and not always in the clean, touristy areas. Ofeo and Serafina live in a hillside shantytown with stray animals wandering in and out. There's trash strewn everywhere, with it becoming a natural part of the landscape. The two kids who follow Orfeo around wear the same ripped clothes throughout the entire film. We don't dwell on poverty, though, since we're given nothing to place them in another context; the characters get by, what they want is generally within reach, they're planning an elaborate celebration, and even wealthy Mira seems familiar with pawn shops. It's not just the vibrant, beautiful parts of Rio we see, though - the bureaucratic offices, morgue, and spooky spirituals that represent the underworld in the last act are chillingly atmospheric.

Much as the film is shot on real locations, it also features a cast of non-professional locals - or at least, people who started acting with this movie. Mello gives Orfeo a roguish charm; the man has obviously been free with his attentions to the fair sex, and he's pretty quick to shift his attention from the woman he allegedly wishes to marry, often finding her a nuisance. But he remains likeable; it's like he's been able to coast and now he's figuring out how to be serious. Miss Dawn is perfectly sweet as Eurydice; we initially see her amazed at the big city and we're as charmed as we were by Mello; it makes them a good pair. Lourdes de Oliveira drips sex as Mira, and not entirely because of her skintight outfits; she's primal, direct and not someone you'd want to cross. Lea Garcia is arguably the glue that holds the film together; her Serafina is the common point of reference for all the other characters and she not only has to have all the mechanics of plot bounce off her, but gets her own comic story with a soldier boyfriend just in town for the weekend. None of them give perfect, polished performances - we occasionally see the effort to recite memorized lines, let alone create the illusion that they arise naturally - but we get the feeling, and have a handle on the characters.

The story is mythic, both in source material and in execution. Orfeo doesn't have a literal underworld to search, but characters are aware of the myth being re-enacted. Indeed, toward the end, there's references to this being a cyclic process, with Orfeo not being the first Orpheus and an implication that others will follow him. That Camus was able to make that point while also handling what must have been a tremendously difficult shoot, with amateur actors and huge crowd scenes, is no small accomplishment.

Black Orpheus may not be the best-ever retelling of the Orpheus myth, but it's as beautiful and charming as any. As it stands, it's worth seeing just as a travel movie; it's a delightful capsule time capsue of Rio in the late 1950s and the joyful madness of Carnival. That there's a fine narrative to go along with it is almost a bonus.

Blackballed: The Bobby Dukes Story

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 May 2006 at the Brattle Theater (First-run)

The film festival circuit is kind of like awards season: Both generally tends to recognize and spotlight good films, but from a skewed sample. One area where both tend to fall down is comedies; awards shows either separate them from the "important" movies or maybe recognize supporting players, and lately it seems that the only way a comedy can crack a festival line-up is by being a "mockumentary". So movies like Blackballed play festivals and maybe even win awards despite not really being that funny.

Oh, Blackballed has its moments, and more than a few come about as a result of using the documentary format. It also has a lot of moments where the format is an obvious crutch, leaning hard on "hey, isn't this conversation awkward and weird and thus real?" The format also calls attention to the scale of the movie: Do people make "real" documentaries about local legends? Well, of course, but there's usually some acknowledgment that this is a guy that you probably wouldn't have heard of if you haven't been within fifty miles of the setting in that case. Blackballed seems to avoid putting that bit in, so we're never really sure of the level of fame/infamy Bobby Dukes (Rob Corddry) achieved before his fall from grace. Was he a guy with national renown among paintballers now trying to work his way back to that, or is he trying to regain the respect of this small town because he's nothing outside it? The film kind of plays coy, almost as if it wants to imply the first case even though the second is all they can really afford to present.

Read the rest at HBS.

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