Mandel Maven's Nest Flicks for the Middle-Aged at Heart: Hurrah for Grown-ups!



Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.


The Lovers (briefly reviewed at 2017 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/5/2017)

Helmut Berger, Actor (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

A Short Family Film (Kratki obiteljski film) (short) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

A Model Family in a Model Home (short) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

Balloonfest (short) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

Sincerely (Atentamente) (seen in 2017 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/4/2017)

The Salesman (Forushande) (2/2/2017)

Fences (12/26/2016)

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer) - long review; review in series - Enemy Territory – Fritz Bauer & Postwar Germany in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image and at the Goethe Institut) (updated 8/19/2016)

Cafard (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/4/2016)

Home Care (Domácí péce) (seen in 2016 Panorama Europe at Museum of the Moving Image) (6/4/2016)

The Visit (La Visite) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (2/8/2016)

João Bénard da Costa—Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved (João Bénard da Costa: Outros amarão as coisas que eu amei) (seen in 2016 First Look at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2016)

Taxi (Note: The woman featured in the photo still and trailer is the only passenger who may be real – his human rights lawyer appealing his case.) (12/19/2015)

Beltracchi: The Art Of Forgery (8/20/2015)

We Come as Friends (previewed at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (8/14/2015)

How To Smell A Rose: A Visit With Ricky Leacock In Normandy (8/12/2015)

Stray Dog (previewed at 2014 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/12/2014/ 7/3/2015)

Cartel Land (briefly reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Violence & Vigilantes at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (Thanks to one of my oldest friends Rhoda Portugal the librarian for her research assistance.)/See with Western (previewed at 2015 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (6/18/2015/ 7/3/2015)

The Yes Men Are Revolting (reviewed at Human Rights Watch Film Fest ’15: Nonviolence & Revolt at Film Society of Lincoln Center) Commentary on the Jewish women) (previewed at 2014 DOC NYC Festival) (6/18/2015)

In My Father’s House (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (My notes on dental care.) (4/29/2015)

A Nazi Legacy: What Our Fathers Did (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/29/2015)

Democrats (previewed at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/16/2015)

Woman In Gold (My additional notes on the Jewish women) (4/9/2015)

Watchers of the Sky (previewed at the 2014 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (12/2/2014)

Diplomacy (Diplomatie) (Schlöndorff interview at Director Talk) (10/25/2014)

My Old Lady (Note: Previewing the Film Forum’s Carax Retrospective the same week, starting with Boy Meets Girl, demonstrated the difference when those signature walks along the Seine are filmed truly cinematically.) (9/1/2014)

Silenced (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (My additional Notes.) (8/3/2014)

1971 (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (8/3/2014)

Ne Me Quitte Pas (previewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (8/3/2014)

Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger (7/3/2014)

The Last Sentence (Dom Över Död Man) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (6/29/2014)

A Will For The Woods (reviewed at 2013 “Birds Of A Feather” Flock To DOC NYC) (6/9/2014)

Citizen Koch and briefly reviewed Politics at DOC NYC: A Look Back (previewed at 2013 DOC NYC) (updated 6/6/2014)

Town Hall (reviewed at 2013 Politics at DOC NYC: A Look Back) (6/3/2014)

Devils Knot (5/30/2014)

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (5/15/2014) (Note: Seeing “S.A.C.R.E.D.” in the Brooklyn Museum lobby was different than the impression while seeing the piece’s creation in the film. As six large blocks, the interior of his “cells” can only been viewed by stepping up to peak through window slots, perhaps as his jailers watched him – sleeping, in the bathroom, pacing, and during interrogations.)

Art and Craft (briefly reviewed at 2014 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/24/2014)

Quod Erat Demonstrandum (previewed at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (4/5/2014)

The Japanese Dog (Câinele Japonez) (previewed at 2014 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (4/5/2014)

The Unknown Known (previewed at 2013 DOC NYC Festival) (Note: He also served in the Nixon White House, where he claims to have chafed under gatekeepers H.R. Haldemann and John Erlichman but he doesn’t sound it on tapes.) (My additional note.) (4/2/2014)

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? (briefly reviewed at 2013 DOC NYC Round-up Part 1: Bio Docs) Other Israel Film Festival) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (1/13/2014)

At Berkeley (previewed at 2013 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (11/8/2013)

Aftermath (Pokłosie) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (11/2/2013)

After Tiller (Note: I’ve similarly heard from distraught friends who have gone through difficult decision-making with medically-challenged fetuses.) (10/24/2013)

Still Mine (7/18/2013)

More Than Honey (Notes: I interviewed Andrew Cote, a regular presence at NYC’s Farmers’ Markets, about the documentary, who had participated on panels with the director, at Hunter College and NYU’s Deutsches Haus. He felt the film was unclear on several points, especially about the difference between European and American parasites and treatment, and that it offered only vague, futuristic solutions to CCD. (I’m politely interpreting his earthy hand motions that expressed his disgust.) He is proud that his “Andrew’s Honey” collected from rooftops, balconies, and community gardens in NYC is not subject to pesticides, and, therefore, does not suffer from CCD. As an alternative, he recommended an upcoming, appropriately named documentary The Beekeeper that features him and his ilk. (updated 6/19/2013)

Herblock: The Black And The White (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: After awkward reenactments of his youth in Chicago, actor Alan Mandell eerily and conversationally impersonates Herblock, based on his writings and speeches, somewhat similar to how Michael Stevens directed Laurence Fishburne in Thurgood. Many times the camera watches as interviewees examine an individual cartoon or a book collection when it should have looked over their shoulders instead.) (6/9/2013)

Michael H. Profession: Director (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/9/2013)

The Genius Of Marian (briefly reviewed in 2013 Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (6/9/2013)

The Shine Of The Day (Der Glanz des Tages) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (Note: It is a bit too stacked that the neighbor’s two young children are irresistibly cute and they’re, um, in Dutch, because his wife risked her legal refugee status to go to back home for her mother’s funeral. The circus performer’s skills were seen in directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimme’s La Pivellina I previewed at 2010 ND/NF.) (3/25/2013)

Mold (Küf) (briefly reviewed at 2013 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/25/2013)

Saving Lincoln (Notes: The fidelity to recreating 19th century photographs includes the necessity to hold a pose for over a minute due to the exposure requirements. Despite some wooden acting and dialogue, I mostly liked this better for up to the assassination than the TV docu-drama Killing Lincoln, which used similar photographic recreations for how Gardner documented the captured conspirators.) (2/25/2013)

The Cutoff Man (Menatek Ha-maim) (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (2/19/2013)

Yorzeit (briefly in Reviewed: New York Jewish Film Festival 2013 of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (2/19/2013) The Gatekeepers (Shom'ray Ha'saf) (previewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Check out Judy Gelman Myers’s interview with the director.) (2/1/2013)

Barbara (previewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (1/13/2013)

56 Up (Notes: For the record, the opening proverb isn’t technically a Jesuit maxim, and is now more associated with this series. I was surprised that the economic downturn seems to have affected the participants less than the resulting government austerity. The upper/middle-class Suzy and Neil have turned around touching on-camera confessions of the causes and consequences of dropping out of college into considered appreciations of how they worked hard to change, in very different ways. The promotional interviews, such as with Tony, continue to reveal more about the project and the participants than is visible on screen.) (1/13/2013)

The Law In These Parts (Shilton Ha Chok) (Notes: As the IDF orders scroll by on the screen behind the lawyers, the director notes they were only posted in this Hebrew to an Arabic-speaking population. There were now requirements for identification cards, and on and on for new procedures for every kind of day-to-day administration of absolute control by the IDF.
Even at this phase in their reminiscences, Alexandrowicz’s continuing questions elicit revealing tone and body language from the lawyers as they describe the burgeoning system they were assigned to create, from smugness to bemusement, and some sheepishness.
The lawyers present not only how Palestinian plaintiffs won a pyrrhic victory in the Supreme Court, but how they got the court to define such takings as only “temporary” and therefore legal under international law. Jonathan Livny, who was a military judge for over two decades, is one of the few interviewees who is uncomfortable that the time span of “temporary” has strained the meaning the word. Alexandrowicz implicitly refers to his 2002 documentary The Inner Tour that showed visiting Palestinians from temporary refugee camps seeing how their pre-1948 land is now permanently part of Israel, including a boy whose 2004 imprisonment inspired him to follow up with this documentary.
To illustrate the changes with the Intifadas, footage of crowded prisons and packed courtrooms are projected behind them, while a couple of the lawyers somewhat guiltily describe being part of an inexorable system where the best they could do for the defendants was not to consider guilt or innocence, but to release them with time served. Alexandrowicz is so outraged by what he sees as their blind justice that he claims his rights as a non-objective director to make a comparable manipulation for the audience through a montage of images (including photographs of prisoners’ scars) and editing the lawyers’ statements to reinforce his points about what he sees as their challenged ethics in what is by any token a very difficult situation. He uses great restraint in not making comparisons to Nazi jurists, who were later brought up on charges at Nuremberg, but the intrusion of his personal POV may be what got this documentary less attention than the similar The Gatekeepers about the Shin Bet’s role. (11/23/2012)

Shepard and Dark (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (11/4/2012)

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (11/4/2012)

The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology (briefly reviewed at 2012 DOC NYC Festival) (11/4/2012)

Celluloid Man (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: The many, many luminary former students remember the early morning, noon, and late night screenings he let them sit in on, including the clips sent from the censors he had to re-edit back into films.) (10/3/2012)

Liv and Ingmar (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (Note: The intensely examined relationships in his films are seen to draw from their connection.) (10/3/2012)

Saviors In The Night (Unter Bauern) (on p. 16) (also briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (Thanks to Judy Gelman Myers for background on the director.) (10/1/2012)

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (previewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (4/26/2012)

Brother Number One (briefly reviewed at 2012 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/16/2012) (Another excellent documentary on the same topic is Adrian Maben’s 2011 Comrade Duch: The Bookkeeper of Death.)

Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story (briefly reviewed in Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: Part of what still makes this a dynamic history lesson is the contrast between the whites’ condescending praise for a smiling waiter who sing-songs their menu in a segregated restaurant vs. his description of their behavior while he’s safely in his own (still vacant) restaurant on the black side of town and his hopes for a different future for his children. Each time Booker’s few minutes are re-shown, the expanding context adds more poignant understanding, though there’s too much wallowing in a confusing conspiracy theory of retaliation.) (5/9/2012)

The Revisionaries (briefly reviewed at Award-Winning Docs at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (My additional note.) (5/9/2012)

Payback (5/7/2012)

Broke (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at Tribeca Film Festival) (Note: ESPN Films’ continuing 30 for 30 series has helped expand the audience for documentaries and sponsorship for documentarians, so I’m looking forward to 9 for IX.) (5/3/2012)

Downeast (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/3/2012)

Burn (briefly reviewed in Documentaries in Tribeca Film Festival) (5/3/2012)

Wavumba (briefly reviewed in Documentaries at 2012 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/3/2012)

The Hunter (Note: That’s Frances O’Connor’s native accent. The tough loggers hanging around the local bar suspicious of the hunter’s vague academic research cover story include Sullivan Stapleton, who was one of the scarily criminal Cody brothers in Animal Kingdom and a CIA super-agent in Strike Back.) (4/20/2012)

The Island President (previewed at 2011 DOC NYC Festival) (Note: This is the expanded story behind what were a couple of Al Gore’s slides in An Inconvenient Truth PowerPoint. One of the former political activists interviewed about protests and prison is his wife, and somehow they’ve managed to have kids and a family life. As of the film’s release, the country’s elections, and political future, are still unresolved.) (3/28/2012)

Omar Killed Me (Omar m’a tuer) (briefly reviewed at 2012 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/23/2012)

Footnote (Hearat Shulayim) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (3/16/2012)

Incessant Visions: Letters From An Architect (briefly reviewed at 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (1/15/2012)

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu'da) (1/4/2012) (Note: This reminded me of the best episodes of Homicide when Andre Braugher’s detective would ruminate and debate moral and spiritual issues with suspects and colleagues before deciding how to solve the murder.)

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin) (previewed at 2011 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (1/3/2012)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (briefly reviewed in best of year- scroll down) (12/23/2011)

Under Fire: Journalists In Combat (12/2/2011)

Tyrannosaur (previewed at 2011 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (11/19/2011)

Chasing Madoff (8/26/2011)

Lost Angels (briefly reviewed at 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, dedicated in memory to my activist dad) (6/20/2011) (Note: The poignant confessions are undercut by being intercut with too much specialized jargon about technical solutions from mission workers and planners about how to get mentally ill addicts off the sidewalks and away from harassing police sweeps.)

The First Grader (5/16/2011)

Hey, Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird (5/13/2011)

Semper Fi: Always Faithful (briefly reviewed in Final Roundup of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/13/2011)

Gnarr (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (My additional notes.) (4/22/2011)

Grandma, A Thousand Times (Teta, Alf Marra) (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011)

Revenge of the Electric Car (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011)

The Good Life (Det gode liv) (briefly reviewed at 2011 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/22/2011)

The Human Resources Manager (Shlichuto Shel Hamemune Al Mashabei Enosh) (also briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (Note: The manager amusingly proffers the bakery's products to broker the peace in difficult situations.) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (3/4/2011)

Convoys of Shame (Les Convois de la honte) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum (1/17/2011)

36 Righteous Ones (Los 36 Justos) (briefly reviewed at 2011 New York Jewish Film Festival of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (1/17/2011)

Casino Jack (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman.) (12/17/2010)

Robert Jay Lifton: Nazi Doctors (Wenn Ärzte Töten - Über Wahn Und Ethik In Der Medizin) (10/6/2010)

Lovely, Still (9/10/2010)

A Film Unfinished (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (8/18/2010)

Neshoba: The Price Of Freedom (Note: There are a couple of Phil Ochs' songs, and others by Kim & Reggie Harris, but maybe it was funding reasons that kept the use of civil rights songs to bare minimum.) (8/13/2010)

Enemies Of The People (7/30/2010) (also briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (6/15/2010)

Mugabe and the White African (7/23/2010) (previewed at 2009 DocuWeeks)

The Balibo Conspiracy (briefly reviewed at 2010 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (6/15/2010)

Casino Jack and The United States Of Money (Note: In the biographical background, Gibney says Abramoff was raised secular but chose to become "the Orthodox end of Conservative" -- I didn't get the exact phrase. But then through the rest of the film he's referred to as Orthodox – though he wears no kepah, does not keep kosher or Shabbat. I think the reason Gibney makes much of his religion is because of the ethical contradiction and Abramoff's alliance with the Christian right, as well as the clip of the Mariana Islands' official giving an anti-Israel/Zionist speech.) (Big Love borrowed its stranger-than-fiction story arc.) (5/7/2010)

Feathered Cocaine (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010) (Note: Their turbaned informant converted to be a Sikh because one of the most revered gurus was a falconer.)

Into Eternity (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries at 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)

Earth Made of Glass (briefly reviewed in Recommended Documentaries of 2010 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/7/2010)

The Man Next Door (El hombre de al lado) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/30/2010)

Saint John Of Las Vegas (1/29/2010)

Gevald! (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.) (1/25/2010)

Gruber's Journey (Calatoria lui Gruber) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (1/16/2010) (Also seen at the Festival was With a Little Patience (Türelem), a beautiful, award-winning Hungarian short directed Laszlo Nemes, that dealt simply with a comparable theme by following in a single take a young typist as she casually looks outside her office window.)

Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (1/16/2010) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women.)

Human Failure (Menschliches Versagen) (briefly reviewed at 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (The print shown annoyingly ran German translations and then inadequate English subtitles over those speaking in English.) (1/16/2010)

Loot (12/4/09)

Before Tomorrow (Le Jour Avant Le Lendemain) and The Necessities Of Life (Ce Qu'il Faut Pour Vivre/Inuujjutiksaq) (12/2/09)

William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe (11/13/2009) (Note: Emily Hubley, another daughter of a famous father, provides charming animations to illustrate Kunstler's inspiration image of Michelangelo’s David just before deciding to take action and link it to the title's quote from T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.) (So, nu: my commentary on if there's Jewish women.)

Four Seasons Lodge (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (11/11/2009)

Killing Kasztner: The Jew Who Dealt With Nazis (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (10/23/2009)

The Art of the Steal (briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center, with Herb and Dorothy) (9/26/2009)

Rage by Pasolini (La Rabbia di Pasolini ) (briefly reviewed at 47th New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (9/26/2009)

Crude and Sweet Crude (seen at DocuWeeks) (9/10/2009)

Still Walking (Aruitemo Aruitemo) (8/30/2009) (also briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations (4/26/2009) at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and in best of year - scroll down) (1/5/2010)

Cloud 9 (Wolke Neun) (8/14/2009)

My Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (Mein Führer - Die Wirklich Wahrste Wahrheit Über Adolf Hitler) (8/14/2009)

My Neighbor, My Killer (reviewed at 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (6/12/2009)

The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (reviewed at 2009 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival) (6/12/2009)

Giovanna’s Father (Il papà di Giovanna) (briefly reviewed at 2009 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (6/5/2009)

O’Horten (5/22/2009)

Pandora’s Box (Pandoranin Kutusu) (briefly reviewed in Part 3 Family Ties Around The World at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/9/2009)

Three Monkeys (Üç Maymun) (5/1/2009)

Departures (Okuribito) (briefly reviewed in Part 1 Recommendations at 2009 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/26/2009)

Empty Nest (El nido vacío) (also briefly reviewed at 2009 New York Jewish Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center/The Jewish Museum) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (4/24/2009)

Lemon Tree (Etz Limon) (4/17/2009) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman)

Barking Water (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

The Cove (7/31/2009) (also briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

Parque via (briefly reviewed at 2009 New Directors/New Films of Film Society of Lincoln Center/MoMA) (3/27/2009)

The Tiger's Tail (reviewed at 2009 Film Comments Selects of Film Society of Lincoln Center (2/20/2009)

Good (12/31/2008)

Defiance ) (So, nu: commentary on the Jewish women) (12/31/2008) (For more context see Forgotten Transports to Belarus (Zapomenuté transporty: Do Belarus): Men Who Fought)

One Day You’ll Understand (Plus Tard, Tu Comprendras) (emendations coming after 4/31/2008) (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish women) (10/31/2008)

Elsa And Fred (Elsa Y Fred) (6/27/2008)

Love Comes Lately (So, nu: my commentary on the Jewish woman) (6/13/2008)

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (10/27/2007) (Note: In addition to covering Rosalynn Carter’s separate and accompanying public service activities, Demme also interviews Carter critic Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, who promotes his own book, as well as TV viewers and fans waiting on line at book store signings, including Palestinians and a former hostage of the Iranians. The long stretches with Carter in his home town of Plains, Georgia and his reading and interpreting the Bible provide context to his heartfelt empathy for farm land held by the same family for generations and his calling the Middle East the Holy Land. Dan Bern’s titular Woody Guthrie-esque song is heard on the soundtrack, as is the hip hop of Brother Ali.

I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life And Legacy Of Simon Wiesenthal (emendations coming after 12/23/2007)

Fay Grim (emendations coming after 11/18/2007)

’Six Days’ June 1967: The War That Changed The Middle East (emendations coming after 11/18/2007)

Paris, Je T'aime (5/1/2007) (see the doc Forever for another view of the Père-Lachaise cemetery) (emendations coming after 11/1/2007)

Jindabyne (including comments on the DVD extras) (4/27/2007) (emendations coming after 10/27/2007)

After The Wedding (Efter Brylluppet) (emendations coming after 10/1/2007)

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Him (2 oder 3 Dinge, die ich von ihm weiß) (1/24/2007) (The Unknown Soldier (Der Unbekannte Soldat) is a good, more general take on a related topic.)

Verdict On Auschwitz: The Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial 1963-1965 (first English-subtitled release ) (1/11/2007)

A Heart in Winter (Un Coeur en Hiver) (DVD Review 11/8/2006) (emendations coming after 4/8/2007)

Old Joy (9/27/2006) (emendations coming here after 3/27/2007)

Boynton Beach Club (8/4/2006) (My additional commentary at Lilith Watch: Critical Guide to Jewish Women in the Movies)

Changing Times (Les Temps qui Changent) (scroll down for DVD review – (10/3/2006) (emendations coming here after 4/3/2007)

On a Clear Day is another of a familiar genre of the plucky bloke who is retired (like The World's Fastest Indian) and/or unemployed (like The Full Monty) and/or grieving (like the Rocket Man mini-series shown in the U.S. on BBC America) and finds self-esteem by achieving an impossible-seeming, galvanizing goal.
Alex Rose's debut script tries hard in an over-long effort to find conflict, personal growth and resolution as inspired by a true story of a laid-off dock worker who decides to swim the English Channel, but it is ultimately not as moving as the best of these can be (David Lynch's atypical The Straight Story).
The film does find a fresh angle in an exploration of masculinity, as Peter Mullan's typical working class guy, who of course takes an opportunity to tell off his boss, is contrasted with his son the house husband (nice to see ruggedly handsome, earnest Sean McGinley who I mostly know from TV series) with a too bland wife but with adorable twin sons. While it was also amusing that this is the second movie I've seen this year where a Scotsman is inexplicably held up as an example of the New Man, as in Take My Eyes (Te doy mis ojos), their estrangement seems trumped up over a not very big secret and too drawn out, as is everything in the film, and could just as well be about the difficulties of male-to-male communication, as it finally resolves in a lesson learned for both. There is a lovely small scene with Mullan watching a class of handicapped kids at a swim lesson, but unfortunately that's used for inspiration and not second career options.
The impacts his efforts have on his wife and the usual assortment of eccentric friends to be inspired to take parallel steps toward conquering their very personal fears are a heartwarming, if very predictable, side story, and I would have welcomed more of their lives and half-hour less of Mullan's comic training travails (though the funniest lines were already in the trailer). Brenda Blethyn in particular is wonderful as a mature, independently determined wife with a dream to become a bus driver, the opposite of her fluttery "Mrs. Bennett" in Pride & Prejudice.
The cinematography makes great use of the Glasgow street scenes in sharp visual contrast with the white cliffs of Dover and the bluest Channel water I've ever seen in a British film. (6/13/2006)

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu) acidly crosses Frederick Wiseman's documentary Hospital with TV's melodramatic E.R. for a brutally realistic yet blackly comic indictment of the intersection of bureaucracy and human nature at its most vulnerable.
Health care in post-Communist Romania is only the location of director/co-writer Cristi Puis's lacerating satire that cuts so close to the bone with Andrei Butica's hand-held camera it looks and feels like a docudrama of an actual 12+ hours. Ironically, we don't actually see the title expiration; rather, through a 360 degree familiarity with the titular, evocatively named, irascible, cantankerous, stubborn, elderly, lonely, cat-owning and yes ill "Dante Remus Lazarescu" we see step-by-step, hour by hour how his whole life led up to this final treatment by society, as he is uncompromisingly played by Ion Fiscuteanu.
A lengthy half-hour or so prologue sets the pacing as the cranky "Mr. Lazarescu" first starts to feel his symptoms, even as we see his isolated living habits and rude interaction with his estranged family and annoyed, patronizing, ineffectual neighbors who only very reluctantly get involved in this problem. Despite being surrounded by intellectual books (and being quite knowledgeable about medical issues around his ulcer), his communication is cryptic even before his condition makes explanations of his health situation more and more difficult to his neighbors and to the medic (Luminita Gheorghiu as a maturely cynical heroine) on the slow to arrive ambulance. A key narrative technique for the film's odyssey is to have her play a more and more important role in his life and in the film, and ultimately with the circles of hell that are several hospitals' hierarchy.
A prime recurring theme is how each person he comes into contact with demands to know if anyone is with him. Being alone is clearly the worst sin if you're old because then you lack an advocate and there is even a limit what a heroic medic can do outside her proscribed role up against issues of gender, class, age, personal relationships and professional gatekeepers (let alone miscommunication that's like an unfortunate game of telephone with no considerations of his body as a whole or in the context of his life). Well into the film is a wonderfully natural conversation between the medic and the driver about parenting that confirms her as a responsible adult compared to how the doctors have been treating her, but in general all the conversations sound natural.
Another intriguing theme is the system's blame the patient mentality if the real or perceived ailments are considered to be self-inflicted. And he doesn't even have, say, AIDS. This is a stark, abject lesson in how attitudes and assumptions affect how a patient is treated (I have a personal experience in how this affected the doctor's intended treatment for a family member if I hadn't insisted on correcting a false impression). It is fascinating to see how over the course of the night he gradually loses his individuality and just becomes a problem.
While the British TV series Bodies and Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital focused on incompetence and power among medical professionals exacerbated by budget limits, Bringing Out the Dead focused on burn out, and E.R. has only a couple of times given us the patients' point of view before they are heroically saved, let alone the cynicism of House, M.D. that the patient is always at fault for lying (not that anyone is doing much of an expensive differential diagnosis here), this film is particularly droll at poking fun at the kind of romantic and other staff interactions that we usually find so entertaining in shows like Grey's Anatomy but are not so amusing when they interfere with patient care. This is the best examination I've seen of how Kafka-esque bureaucracy is built up of the actions of individuals one-by-one since George Lucas's first sci fi film THX 1138.
Though the subtitles are always legible, some of the translations are confusing so it is sometimes hard to tell what is a malapropism in the translation or errors by the characters, or perhaps Romanians use different medical terms than we're used to hearing on E.R. The credits are not translated into English but there's a long list of doctors as advisers.
This film should be required viewing for anyone in the medical professions.
This is the first Romanian film I've seen and I was surprised how much the language sounded like Italian. (5/30/2006)

When the Sea Rises (Quand la mer monte...) is like a French intellectual Almost Famous about grown-ups, with a frisson of the Italian Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani) about a middle-aged woman's self-discovery.
When Hollywood realizes that an American adaptation can be made by touring small towns, I'm sure the lead will not look like Yolande Moreau's "Irene" 45-year-old Roseanne Barr-look alike comic performance artist touring a satirical one-person show that's translated as "Nasty Business: Sex and Violence." The American will be a thin, pretty chick singer and the never-seen husband at home will be a lot less sympathetic (probably just a fiancé) and there will not be a child there to make her feel that much more guilty.
Doubtless the U.S. version will play up the contrast between romantic lyrics and her life, while this very unusually finds the feeling behind feminist humor about romance. There's funny lines that can be taken verbatim, as she mulls over "sugar waffles or romance". Yes, just her coming out on stage in a shapeless shift with a gargoyle-type mask seeking a lover she declares her "chicken" is funny, let alone that the red powder we see her cover herself in is ostensibly the blood of her last lover. The film sweetly illustrates that old stand by of why a woman chooses a guy: "He made me laugh."
The work a day world of touring the provinces that we don't usually get to see in French films is marvelously portrayed and is based on the co-writer/director/star's own experiences on the road, as we see many different performances of her actual show and how audience participation changes it. There's very amusing vignettes of the trials and tribulations of performing in county fairs, nursing homes, primary schools and cultural centers of no interest to most in the community to a high-brow comedy festival (with its too heavy-handed, very French philosophical discussion about what is comedy and can women be funny). We can get the class differences of beer vs. wine drinkers without this kind of talk.
The groupie mechanic she attracts is more problematical and his attitude and actions constantly keep us off kilter. Is he a stalker? Does he have a screw loose? (The American version would make much more of the background TV news stories about a serial killer con man on the loose to raise our and her suspicions.) Can he tell fantasy from reality as he follows her around and ingratiates himself into her show every night as he seems to react to her brazen stage persona so different from her off-stage life, like Leslie Caron with the marionettes in Lili or like the hypnotized Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria). Does he separate her on and off stage or is she changing? Her discomfort at being seen as "silly" becomes her ultimate put down of him.
His side avocation of providing the giant puppets for floats (in a poorly translated explanation) for colorful parades seems too symbolic, but is a lot of fun to see, especially as he morphs into her fantasies, such as imagining him as Don Quixote. It almost seemed a satire of all those chick flicks where the up tight woman finds romance in a little village that just happens to have a festival, as in Under the Tuscan Sun and A Walk in the Clouds, as this guy and his cohorts bring their own parade with them. One scene where they chase live chickens on the road is way too obvious.
The road trip is presented through lovely cinematography, particularly as they take side trips off the beaten path at beautiful settings and surroundings.
The poor subtitles significantly blunt the film for English viewers, and not just for what seems to be poorly translated jokes. Not only is there a confusing scene where English subtitles are put directly over French ones as the character is speaking in another language (Flemish I've been told) so that they are illegible, but the opera lyrics aren't translated. This turns out to be crucial for those who are made to feel embarrassingly uneducated, amidst feeling charmed by the film, as I didn't realize that was La Traviata playing over and over and that the libretto had some resonance to the story. Similarly, it was only by staying through the last credit that I discovered that the movie's title referred to a song that was evidently also not translated so I missed that meaning.
The credits very nicely thank all the towns and audiences where the show was performed.
An American version would also have a different ending. (2/13/2006)

The White Countess feels like the American/Russian third leg of a trilogy with the first half of the British point of view of Shanghai in Empire of the Sun and of the Chinese in Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie). If there is anything in the film that's not completely old-fashioned, the theme seems to be focusing on that point in history when the expatriate becomes the refugee.
Kazuo Ishiguro's script tries mightily to make a case that this point of view matters through disillusioned ex-diplomat now mercantile figurehead Ralph Fiennes (with a strained American accent) as we are heavy-handedly told at least three times by people of different nationalities that they are impressed he was present at the signing of Treaty of Versailles, which ironically ended the War to End All Wars but only stirred up the next one. There's unnecessarily explicit dialog with a Japanese near the end to emphasize that his goal in creating the titular nightclub was to unrealistically have some sort of oasis from civil war (with confusing flashbacks on how somebody's violence has affected him personally). But it just seems like a ridiculous Rick's Cafe in a half-hearted Casablanca whose habitués really aren't worth a hill of beans. At least some effort is made to have characters speak their native language.
I was surprised that the mélange of acts in the café were meticulously researched as period artifacts as they just seemed to be an odd variety from Russian opera to Chinese playing American jazz, but then Martha Graham used to perform as part of vaudeville shows. The score very nicely incorporates different nationalities and traditional instrumentation.
The three Redgrave relatives are marvelous at recreating White Russians as straight out of a James Hilton novel. Having just seen such types being interviewed in the documentary Ballet Russes, I admired how they got the accents and mien just right. Fiennes' character nicely describes it as a cross between tragedy and erotica. The conversations between the sisters Redgrave arguing about antique rules of etiquette while darning in their garret communicates much more than most of the rest of the script, which otherwise makes every point at least twice. Vanessa recreating her Old World in a hat and accidentally meeting up with a crucial contact who remembers her past amidst a humiliating waiting room is very touching.
As if Japanese imperialism and the Chinese civil war aren't heavy enough, it was gratuitous to throw in the travails of an angelic Jewish tailor amidst a very long story.
Hiroyuki Sanada gets to play a nonstereotyped Japanese with unusual dignity and savoir faire. The child actress is charming.
The production design is wonderful at recreating Shanghai, though Christopher Doyle's dramatic cinematography only gets to shine towards the end with the closing crowd scenes and the skyline under attack. The visual drama overshadows the closing story line that does not pack as much punch as it should.
The costumes are lovely. (1/22/2006)

Mrs. Henderson Presents is a nostalgic puff piece vehicle for Dame Judi Dench.
She, of course, makes the most of any potential sprightliness in what could have otherwise been maudlin dialog to add considerable spunk and flavor, especially in her repartee with Bob Hoskins with an oddly posh accent as theater manager "Vivian Van Damm." Director Stephen Frears manages to not completely wallow in the sentimentality of Martin Sherman's script, which according to the credits, was based on several memoirs and interviews with participants and family members.
While we get some sense of "Mrs. Henderson's broadened background from her worldly travels and having lived with her husband in India, the context for her actions is left for a final poignant revelation. Line by line, she seems to be specifically taking the starch out of the kind of grande dame that she played to satirical perfection in Pride & Prejudice. Her opening analysis of widowhood sets an amusingly caustic tone that isn't quite matched throughout the film.
Oddly, the musical numbers, which take up considerable screen time, aren't faithful recreations, as many of the songs are by score composer George Fenton. They are much more in the British music hall tradition than Broadway musicals, including in terms of the just adequate talents of the singers and dancers. It is of course problematical in the age of pole dancing to try and reproduce the frisson of naughtiness that the Windmill Theatre's nude tableaus briefly seen through scrims can create, though we do see the audience changing from high society to rowdy soldiers. Even as "Mrs. Henderson" implies that she'd like to do a local version of the Folies Bergères, these displays don't even have close to the risqueness of Josephine Baker. The fan dancing performances in The Right Stuff were much more effective in recreating a similar milieu.
The opening credits are quite cute, first animated in period design then changing to period photos. Newsreel images are frequently edited into the story line, particularly through the hoary technique of war headlines. Piccadilly Square is recreated almost as lovingly as Time Square is in the much bigger budget King Kong. It is too heavy-handed to add in the issue of "Van Dam's Jewishness for seriousness. It is sweet that one of the last tributes in the credits of Hoskins as producer is to his father (as well as to the original "Millerites" dancers).
Christopher Guest is way too stereotyped as the censorious Lord Chamberlain.
Sandy Powell's costume designs, both for on and off stage, are marvelous, particularly for "Mrs. Henderson's clothes.
The cinematography is lovely throughout, particularly sweet scenes of the romantic English countryside to the skyline of the Blitz.
While I was about the only one in the crowded matinee without a cane, even not all who had liked similar fare as Ladies in Lavender were entranced. (1/22/2006)

Munich is the first time that Steven Spielberg has combined all his story telling talents to serve a literate script.
Schindler's List told a singular story through volcanic acting and images. Amistad stopped to talk and talk, while at the other end Minority Report just dumped Philip Dick's ideas for a Tom Cruise actioner. Where in Empire of the Sun Allen Daviau's photography was just used as set piece tableaus, here the tight editing of Janusz Kaminski's beautiful and varied cinematography (dark Graham Greene-murky Europe vs. the blinding light of Mediterranean machine guns-and-bikinis Israel) is a continuing subtext in service to what is being said.
It certainly seems as if Eric Roth's early draft outlined the basic adaptation of the somewhat discredited book Vengeance by George Jonas that was already matter of factly produced for TV as Sword of Gideon. Surely it was Tony Kushner, in his first for-hire screenplay, who added in the extensive Yiddishkeit, Talmudic discussions and moral angst. The dialog also refers to the meaning of "home" and the Middle East, as he did in his recent play Homebody/Kabul (let alone, of course, E.T.). The film follows virtually the same themes and emotional trajectory as the recent Israeli completely fictional Walk on Water, which was not an action film, and both refer to the alternative way Israel handled Adolf Eichmann. In both films, the sins and merits of the parents are passed on as responsibilities to the next generation that we know will lead to the nihilism of suicide bombers. (The credits also listed reference to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence but I missed where that fleeted by.)
The opening montages of the playing out of the 1972 Olympic hijacking smoothly edits together real broadcasts with recreated perspectives from around the world as sportscasters were drawn into horrific breaking news. The hair, clothes and production design, and particularly the evocative pop music including multilingual covers of American hits, seamlessly consistently maintain the period. These images are a continuing almost dream-like leit motif throughout the film as the story plays out, so that all sides know why they fight yet literally starts blurring their moral differences. Ironically, these images reinforce why terrorism is successful at drawing the world's attention while generating its own continuing cycle of revenge.
With different characters schematically representing different points of view and philosophies, and each getting to have their say, the motley-accented international cast creates mostly individual people, from the Israeli government apparatchiks to the gathering of the diverse Jewish team of incongruous action heroes to glimpses of other terrorists, and they spend a lot of time having midrashic debates over home-cooked meals.
The film is anchored by a brilliant Eric Bana as "Avner" who wrenchingly goes, Jack Ryan-like, from an intelligence analyst to active field agent, but then more -- to personal revenger to anguished post-traumatic-stress syndromed paranoid with haunted eyes. (It is a shame that he's not getting remembered at award time, but it has been a great year for lead actors.) I enjoyed the irony of his character posing as a German, particularly to gain access to ideologues who help the Baader-Meinhof Gang, with Germany serving as a locus for international terrorist planning, whether Basques' E.T.A. or I.R.A. etc., then as it did with the 9/11 plotters (and portended further at the end with the view of the pre-9/11 NYC skyline).
The formation of the team is freighted with other ironies as well - Daniel Craig with his accent, body language and voice creates another unique character in his career as a steely, unreflective South African who is solidly single-minded in his goal: "Don't fuck with the Jews!" and can just as easily pretend to be an ANC supporter. Mathieu Kassovitz is marvelously nervous as a toy maker turned bomb maker, and Hanns Zischler is very old world fastidious as an art dealer turned documents forger and team accountant regularly toting up the cost of each kill. Ciarán Hinds disappears into his ruthlessly efficient, gray Mossad bureaucrat, recalling Alec Guinness as George Smiley in another intelligence service in a Cold War with questions (and there's also close-up shot of an umbrella in London that recalls an infamous assassination from that period).
A lot of the film's tension is caught up with their efforts to avoid collateral damage, which, symbolically, gets harder and harder for them to do. It is a bit heavy-handed but very effective for the emotional core of the film that those who feel guilty become the most vulnerable.
Too much in service to the themes and less to credibility are the mercenary information merchants. Ironically, Mathieu Amalric is usually cast in French films as a Woody Allen type, such as in Kings and Queen (Rois et reine), while Michael Lonsdale, a la his role in Ronin, as the patriarch of this amoral family business perfectly embodies the European intellectual sang-froid of anarchists with principles available to the highest bidder of the moment, like the information equivalent of Nicolas Cage's gun seller in Lord of War, that is the detritus of colonialism. But it's as if they are the sole confidential informant in a cop movie, let alone ones who rent the same safe house to opposing terrorists at the same time, for an interlude that simplistically allows for presentation of the PLO's unambiguous position. There's lots of amusing references to hiding behind American dollars, but at that time there would have been plenty of Arab petrodollars available for similar nefarious ends. There's also a Mata Hari side story that goes a bit over the top visually, James Bond-style. This is definitely a hard-R film.
Very unusual for a Spielberg film are the strong, physically dynamic women and "Avner"s emotional ties to them, from a baby to the tiny grandmotherly Iron Lady Golda Meir. Noted Israeli actresses play "Avner"s mother and wife: Gila Almagor both provides the inevitable Holocaust resonance and sounds like a Biblical Hannah in telling of her prayers for a son, and Ayelet Zorer, who was also so moving in Nina's Tragedies (Ha-Asonot Shel Nina) is not the usual wifely appendage but an essential, beautifully sensuous grounding for her tormented husband in mature scenes that are unlike any previous Spielberg film (finally contradicting the Dawson's Creek critique that there's no sex or romance in his films). But it's an unnecessary production design repetitive element to have the mother's apartment oddly filled with menorahs.
These nuclear family relationships link Munich to A History of Violence as a reflective, geo-political counterpart.
John Williams' score is uncharacteristically subdued and is in service to the tension in each scene. 1/10/2006)

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is a sweet addition to the "young person learns that senior citizens are people too" genre, more charming and satisfying than Ladies in Lavender.
Joan Plowright commands the screen, of course, as the title senior citizen who in trying to establish independence from her family finds herself in a residential hotel in London where she is a bit above the other elderly residents in some ways, particularly in dignity and refinement, probably education and possibly health, though it's not clear in income.
It seems intentionally old-fashioned to list her hunky, dimpled co-star as "Introducing Rupert Friend" in the credits, even if this was made before he was "Wickham" in Pride & Prejudice. (And when his shirt does finally come off it's not even gratuitous.)
The screenplay (there's a credit that director Dan Ireland added dialog to Ruth Sacks's debut adaptation of Elizabeth Taylor's novel) has some too cute pop culture references (yet another movie where seniors watch reruns of Sex and the City to stay au courant on mores but the Harold and Maude disclaimer is actually reassuring). While there are mutual motivations for their blossoming and continuing friendship (even when he starts to neglect her like her grandson), the literature references, particularly to a Terence Rattigan play setting, at first seem too arch, but joint admiration for Wordsworth and Blake is an effective a cross-generational communication vehicle. There's also a winsome tribute to the importance of historic preservation as being able to pass an experience on from one generation to the next.
The best parts of the film are when each character crosses over into the other's sphere, the scruffy writer awkwardly straightening up for a formal dinner, or the grande dame encountering first his bitter ex-girl friend in the park, then his mother (a terrifically drawn cameo by Clare Higgins) in what I presume the Brits would call an estate building. Friend changes his whole demeanor in "Ludovic"s own environs, while Plowright plays along with the flustered old lady routine amusingly. I was a bit surprised that he would know a less familiar Rosemary Clooney song, but I guess as a busker he got to know the odd request, and the scene where he sings it to her is so touching that the reality doesn't really matter (and the many seniors in the audience were humming along). At least it was realistic that he had never seen Brief Encounter.
The directing is very slow-paced, with too much of a tendency for the camera to move back on a frozen tableau. The soundtrack is mostly lovely, though Stephen Barton's score is occasionally intrusive.
Anna Massey is marvelous as a tart-tongued hotel resident who befriends "Mrs. Palfrey." It is amusing when "Mrs. Palfrey" momentarily gets confused and calls (the late) Robert Lang "the Major" as that was probably what he has been called in so many of his movies (there's a tribute line to him in the credits, as this was his last film).
The film reminded me of the many satisfying cross-generational friendships I've struck up and continued in my volunteer work. The extensive acknowledgments in the credits include tributes to the strong women in the creators' lives, with a concluding dedication to their mothers and grandmothers that infuses the sensibility of the whole film.(12/29/2005)
Turns out this is one of those rare cases where the movie is much better than the book. While the film is very faithful plot-wise to Taylor's 1971 novel (the first of hers I've read), the background on the young man, particularly his relationship with the other women in his life, is considerably fleshed out in the film, for the better and with less cynicism so while the outline is the same, somehow it doesn't seem as depressing. (2/9/2006)

In Syriana, writer/director Stephen Gaghan uses the busy style of Crash and Amores Perros to illustrate the complex geopolitics behind oil. Each sector--regulators, "intelligence", lobbyists, grease-the-wheel-ers and cogs-in-the-wheel-ers, in the network of greed, idealism, self-interest, sophistication and naiveté, is represented by a different character followed through the movie to bring them together, directly or indirectly, into the climax.
This technique to coordinate a huge ensemble of captivating character actors woven tightly together in a complex story is helped enormously by Robert Elswit's ever-moving camera shots as visually and sound edited by Tim Squyres, who had some experience with overlapping dialog and movement in a more literal upstairs/downstairs on Robert Altman's Gosford Park. Alexandre Desplat's music adds to the tense mood.
The variegation that Gaghan presents is almost staggering, even more ethically complicated than a Graham Greene Cold War noir. This is the first film I've seen that illustrates the diversity of clashing Islamic cultures and interests, despite that I couldn't keep their interests or motives all quite straight. Though the English subtitles (which are commendably outlined in black for unusual legibility) wipe out some of the distinctions, we can infer that Iranians are speaking Farsi, Pakistanis' Urdu and others speaking Arabic, all with varying fluency and mutual cultural comprehension, let alone manipulators who can speak anything besides their native tongues. We've seen immigrants and guest workers in films critical of Western countries, but not the resentment-brewing conditions of badly treated non-citizens in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states, like the fictional one here which looks a lot like Dubai or Brunei, where clusters of modern skyscrapers contrast with Bedouin goat herders. It does help for background on the fascinating side plot of the radicalized young Arabs to see Paradise Now about Palestinian terrorists to explain particular details of their training.
While each character is specifically set within a believable home and family setting, some are painted with too easy and broad strokes. While Alexander Siddig seems to have the monopoly on naively idealistic Arabs, as his similar character in Kingdom of Heaven against another Crusades, history is littered with the interim, modernizing liberal tragically caught between powerful forces. (Though the proliferation of Western-educated Arab intellectuals in movies is beginning to sound like all those Japanese generals in World War II movies who went to USC or whatever; at least he went to Oxford and not Harvard.)
Matt Damon's un-Bourne-like energy analyst just sounds simplistic even when he's truth-telling, but we also see that he's already slid down the slippery slope of ethics in the crossing of his personal and professional lives. That so many of the oil and gas executives have Texas accents (superb Chris Cooper, Tim Blake Nelson, Robert Foxworth) does seem to say that the decades of business and political corruption there, as documented in Robert Caro's biography of LBJ, have simply been extended to a global scale.
The film is also unusual in focusing on the role of lawyers negotiating the deals between companies and governments. While Christopher Plummer's Ivy League senior partner type has been seen as a shadowy force in countless paranoid thrillers, Jeffrey Wright is completely unpredictable and tightly wound, though the point of his relationship with his cynical alcoholic father isn't exactly clear except maybe as his conscience. We see before our eyes he goes from, as his mentor says, "a sheep into a lion." Most films have prosecutors like David Clennon's U.S. attorney as a hero against corruption, instead of being chillingly dismissed as "trust fund lawyers." But the script is so full of such epigrams, like "In this town, you're only innocent until you're investigated," that one character calls another on issuing them too brightly.
While from the beginning I couldn't quite follow all the machinations around George Clooney's character, he is wonderful at transforming from his usual Cary Grant suave to harried, dedicated, mid-level bureaucrat who literally won't toe the Company line in a dangerous hierarchy that's shown to be a bit more competent than in real life, that reminded me both in the gut and guts of Russell Crowe's Wigand in the tobacco wars in The Insider. It recalls how benign corrupt spooks looked in their personal lives, as there's much conversation here about houses, cars and college tuition. Indirectly, the film implicitly shows the dangers to Valerie Plame from her outing as a CIA operative, as families and personal connections are constantly used as threats and bargaining chips.
Significantly, there is not a single mention amidst all these Mideast chicaneries, plots and plans of the Zionist entity, proving that pro or anti-Israel policies are smoke screens around the main draw -- oil.
Movie-wise, these characters seem a lot like the gangsters and their conseglieres in The Godfather carving up Cuba and drug rights, let alone Gordon Gekko extolling "Greed is good" as the ultimate ideology, and fits right in with this year's other geo-political thrillers The Constant Gardener and Lord of War, and those weren't even about natural resources. It works better than the re-make of The Manchurian Candidate because even though the focal point is a fictional country the issues are real, not science fiction.
So does this make you ready to get out of your car and onto the train? Because until then, we'll still need lots of that oil from the Middle East.
After you watch the film, here's a synopsis that explains the details of each character, plot point and setting. (12/10/2005)
From our friend Phil Chassler, who teaches at U Mass- Boston: "One theme I picked up in the film, fathers and sons: the Emir and his princes, Jeffrey Wright and his stoop sitting, beer-drinking dad, the suicide bomber in training--that lay-off scene and subsequent events a powerful commentary on globalized capital and labor--and his dad (who dreams of returning to the snows of Pakistan). And in a stretch, Clooney and his son, and Damon and his sons, dead, and living. Generational versions of the ruinations and corruptions of fate." (3/4/2006)

Capote opens up as a ghostly recreation. Trepidation and dread haunt the screen from the glimpses of the crime scene, deep in the heartland (Manitoba beautifully standing in for Kansas) where we gradually become aware of violence frozen in isolation, recalling that this crime helped set up the template for portrayals of horror.
The sudden shift to Truman Capote's milieu in New York City is a jarring juxtaposition but is equally spooky because with Philip Seymour Hoffman's brilliantly uncanny portrayal we are literally seeing an apparition. While it is a bit frustrating at first as we get almost no insight into what attracted Capote to the story, especially as we see the details of him getting organized, embarking on a long train ride into his heart of darkness and being initially brushed off by the locals, but the pay off eventually comes, if very slowly.
There's initial jokes on the puffed-up dandy in anti-wonderland who owes a great debt to his old Southern friend the soon to be noted novelist Harper Lee (a no nonsense Catherine Keener) for regularly puncturing his pretenses and briskly bridging the cultural gap so he can begin worming his way into the community's trust (and getting condescended to in return about her book and the movie adaptation and drily dismissed by his lover as more "manly" than he is). I didn't start to take seriously that the point of the film was In Cold Blood's effect on him until we see him sneak into the funeral home and start to psychologically absorb the murders and challenge folks to take him seriously despite his way of talking and affected mannerisms.
A key transitional scene is almost bizarre when Capote's fame does help him here, as the wife of Chris Cooper's solid, clear-eyed, suspicious sheriff, Amy Ryan in a very atypical for her '50's housewife role, gushes over the writer in their midst (even though his books had been banned from the local library) and brokers credibility to get him crucial, exclusive contact with the still not charmed investigators and, suddenly, with one of the murderers. Amidst perfect recreations of the late '50's, we see Capote learn to manipulate his fame to get him further access, that is a harbinger of celebrity journalists to come.
The film then shifts to an extended Dead Man Walking chapter, as Capote enters into a symbiotic relationship with Perry Smith, seductively and captivatingly played by Clifton Collins Jr, particularly in the build up to trying to understand the actual crime. We see Capote begin to develop a new kind of journalism even before he writes a word as he gets personally involved in the physical, mental and legal health of the murderers -- all for the benefit of his book. Key actions of his recall the cynical reporter in Billy Wilder's acerbic Ace in the Hole (The Big Carnival), first released eight years before these events, as we see Capote intentionally lie, manipulatively get involved and selectively let out bits and pieces of his own past to get others to trust and confide in him. His life itself becomes a nonfiction novel.
But the last chapter of the film goes into unique territory, as we see the two worlds Capote has been experiencing collide in his head and take a toll on his relationships, productivity and health. The completion of the book has a relentless parallel with the cycles of justice and legal revenge with no spiritual release, just a book release, and self-aggrandizement, even as he invents a new form of personal reportage to great acclaim. The film searingly emphasizes the internal haunting Capote experiences, with his photographic recall, by leaving out that he did continue the public appearance of his wild ways, as 1966 was also the year of his notorious black and white masquerade ball (documented in Party of the Century by Deborah Davis.
The atmospheric music heightens the spooky feeling that there's more happening below the surface and helps keep us thinking.
The cinematography is exquisite throughout. (10/31/2005)

Good Night, and Good Luck is a powerful docudrama that is a parallel to All the President's Men in vividly demonstrating the importance of the fourth estate. Like The Crucible used an earlier period to contemporaneously criticize the 1950's, co-writer/director George Clooney uses the 1950's to criticize politics and journalism today.
The irony is emphasized through the structure of the film. With less opening background crawl than Star Wars, the film opens at a dinner in 1958 honoring Edward R. Murrow where broadcasters are congratulating themselves for his role and he delivers a portentous challenge to television news, that we of course know has rarely been fulfilled.
Then flashing back to 1953 by utilizing lengthy excerpts of kinescopes of Joseph McCarthy, "the junior senator from Michigan" as he's frequently called, including a marvelous throw down of Shakespeare quotations, and hearings he held, as well as recreations of Murrow's serious and celebrity interview broadcasts, the editing and spacing adds commentary. In a riveting performance, David Strathairn doesn't just copy Murrow in look and sound but adds subtleties like a raised eyebrow and hand motion that add volumes of meaning.
The film makes clear that journalists are relevant to their reporting and that the times forced them to be, as everyone has secrets and standing to protect that can get compromised or can compromise a story -- from a new mortgage, to school tuition, to an ex-wife, to actual memberships -- as Strathairn's Murrow intones "The fear is in this room." While the film only glancingly notes that the Communist hunt hysteria had already been going on for at least six years before Murrow's pieces, including the coverage in newspapers that are the team's source of information, it does establish right away that he had already personally signed a loyalty oath, to indicate that he had tolerated quite a bit before deciding enough was enough.
The hypocritical context of primitive 1950's television is established particularly well. In additional to the casually sexist language, we see all the participants chain smoking away, we see a Kent cigarettes commercial, reminding us how the government and corporations were lying to us about the affects of cigarette smoking (which would kill Murrow a decade later through lung cancer). It is followed immediately by an interview with Liberace that is such a cover-up of his homosexuality that even though Murrow has agreed to conduct these celebrity interviews "to pay the bills" for his investigative journalism, he can't bring himself to completely play along with the farce. The chapter breaks of songs by Dianne Reeves also represent how CBS was otherwise going on with entertainment programming (as well as a tribute to the director's Aunt Rosemary), emphasized by a line that Milton Berle was then the most trusted name in television.
But all these references and cultural touchstone may well go over the heads of anyone under 50, and there were none in my audience of a fairly crowded suburban multiplex with defective projection quality. Will they even know that Murrow was a patriotic icon for his war time radio broadcasts from the London Blitz, or what were the Wobblies that McCarthy accused him of being a member of, or who was Roy Cohn, or even the flashes of RFK as a staffer on the HUAC committee, PM Magazine, the Red Channels newsletter editor who confronts one of the reporters, or the senators who discovered their backbones after Murrow showed that the emperor had no clothes. This will doubtless be the first they hear names such as Bill Paley and Frank Stanton. Unusually for this kind of film there is no concluding scroll that reminds viewers of the distinguished careers of the participants, such as Don Hewitt, producer of 60 Minutes. The dialog does have an ironic exchange about what happens to McCarthy.
The connections to today's issues of the Patriot Act and the means justifies the ends in anti-terrorism, particularly now that television is used far more slickly than by McCarthy, are emphasized by Strathairn's Murrow several times stating that it is the methodology of the accusations he is concerned with, as he stresses process, procedure and the rule of law overcoming innuendo, implication, smears and out and out distortion and lack of facts.
Clooney's Fred Friendly creates an easy partnership with Strathairn's Murrow, as he's just barely off the TV screen as they create the famous broadcasts together, even as Friendly jokes about Murrow risking the most as the most visible.
In addition to a beautiful black and white texture that smoothly integrates the original footage, Clooney's gliding directing helps to build the tension. Several scenes of silent waiting for count downs and a phone to ring are as tense as Apollo 13.(10/24/2005)

Separate Lies is a veddy English take on Unfaithful and Crash crossed with a Ruth Rendell mystery about guilt and responsibility.
The setting is very smoothly established of a high-powered solicitor who works in the City, has a country house and an in town apartment and has everything ordered beautifully and under control, including his wife. The surroundings completely capture the mood. A sense of portent and uneasiness is only introduced with fast flashbacks to a car accident until Emily Watson as the wife starts showing some out of place hairs and breath.
The coincidences are a bit claustrophobically theatrical so that it almost feels like a stage play. For the first half the suspense and revelations keep our attention, but then the film just ducks it all and deteriorates into relationships that are so civilized as to be devoid of emotion or reason. I haven’t read the book so don’t know if director/adapter Julian Fellowes changed it.
This is the best Tom Wilkinson performance since In the Bedroom. He holds the film together. He’s used so often in films to fulfill the stereotype of a self-satisfied suburban or aristocratic executive that one forgets it can be done with subtlety and verve. This may be the first film that he gets to use so many four letter words with his own accent.
Rupert Everett is so distant and even repellent to every one that it’s hard to see his appeal that is critical to the plot. I kept thinking who else could have been cast for at least some magnetism. While it is amusing to see him as a Milord in casual jeans, explained disdainfully that he’s been living in America so long that he's practically become an American (a line I've heard in a couple of other Brit movies lately).
While we get a frisson of background on relationships that is supposed to help, it's not enough. All the background and relationships are revealed off screen through talky explication. We certainly can’t tell in terms of how people relate. We have to take revelations for their word for it. The injection of old-fashioned Movie Star’s Disease makes the characters' interactions get even phonier. And then suddenly there’s narration that’s unnecessary and jarring. While there’s flashes of some action and emotion, this is drawing room drama. That stiff upper lip just gets plain annoying.
There was probably some symbolic significance to a Paris interlude that included a rendezvous by the Guy de Maupassant statue but if so it was a long time coming for a not worth it punch line.
There's an amusing inside joke of a character watching Monarch of the Glen on the TV, as Fellowes was featured in that series. (10/7/2005)

A History of Violence is a fascinating and sophisticated examination of human nature (men and women), families, society and of how the movies have treated them. But the film is first and foremost a riveting story of full-bodied characters inhabited by enthralling actors enveloped by the sure hand of a sly director.
The gliding camera is an ironic voyeur from the opening shots as director David Cronenberg gradually reveals his hand by widening our point of view, as the characters always know more than we do. So our emotional reactions will not just be to what we finally do see, but to how they have already reacted. Early on in the film when parents Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello assure their awakened young daughter that there are no monsters in the light, we already know there are and they can even attack little girls. There are before and after twinned scenes throughout the film to show the impact of violence on their lives.
It is also clear that this is much more than hidden The Bourne Identity glib entertainment situation as we see the explicit consequence of violence, but the trademark Cronenberg gore- oozing and splattered blood and sticky brain matter on faces, hands and clothes -- is in service to the story. (Several teen age boys in the audience were disappointed that there wasn't more though the grueling climax seemed to satisfy their blood lust.) Washing it off is a recurring re-purification.
All these characters live in a very particular All-American context where violence lurks in our consciousness and a shotgun is in the closet. When the teen son tries to talk down bullies at high school (a bit too Seth Cohen-ish from The O.C.) we are already thinking of the roots of Columbine when two parallel sets of bullies briefly collide. A frequent admonishment about using barbed wire as a weapon has many contextual resonances.
Appearances matter and role-playing is treated seductively at first in the parents' passionate relationship. He gratefully recalls how she's looked at him and ironically teases "Who are you and what have you done with my wife?" when she recreates high school. But it's shortly her turn to query her husband "Who are you?"
Key to the film's believability is Mortensen's richly and complexly masculine performance. He had kept us guessing, but in a key scene he converts right on the screen, with his eyes changing from kindly to piercing, to his increasingly confident, lanky body language, then he breathes a recall of being born again in the desert, like John the Baptist. though only temporarily into a "Tom Stall" because that's what was available. He looked so at home in rural Indiana, but as he heads to a confrontation in the cradle of liberty, Philadelphia, where the second amendment protecting the right to bear arms was drafted, he suddenly looks like an out-of-place farmer and we realize this struggle is as primal as Cain vs. Abel, even as the banter references the ambitions of the American Dream. This is mythic stuff, but still unpredictable. (I haven't read the graphic novel that the film is based on to know if anything has been changed.)
When his inner emotions explode, almost like Jet Li in Unleashed, he reaches for his wife's Achilles heel and brings her down in a chilling take on the romantic scene from the coming-of-age Risky Business to leave open issues of links between sex and violence. When the family is torn by confusion, the son is perplexed about expectations that draw on gangster movies as a vocabulary.
Mario Bello tries to downplay her beauty and is very intense as she literally has to bare all. Her character is no June Cleaver stereotype but a tough lawyer. An indication of how good Cronenberg is with the actors is Kyle Schmid who has a tiny role as the high school bully but is very effective here compared to how he had nothing to work with in the recent dreadful teen TV soap Beautiful People.
Like other films based on graphic novels, such as Road to Perdition and Sin City, the nemeses and the production design are very strong. Ed Harris and William Hurt clearly enjoy chewing the scenery as villains that are atypical for them.
The conclusion seems like a Voltarian coda of cultivating one's garden in the primacy of defense of the family unit but they will surely have to live with the consequences of what they have learned about themselves. While this has some feel in common with a Twilight Zone episode, it trumps Lars von Trier's didactic screeds against America and Gus van Sant's dreamy meditations on death by achieving its revelations through the power of cathartic storytelling. I look forward to seeing it again. (10/2/2005)

The Constant Gardener is an intelligent thriller that demonstrates that stylish can also mean smart.
The key is that it's not only a good story with a sharp political point (I haven't read the John Le Carré novel that is its basis-- and the lengthy credits include a disclaimer from him that it is not inspired by a specific case but by corporate behavior in general), but it is also a visual feast with emotional resonance.
The surprising choice of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, of the gritty City of God (Cidade de Deus), may have been partly intended to give a third world imprimatur to prevent the usual mainstream Africa movie curse of condescendingly focusing on white heroes, and we do get a more realistic exposé of the naiveté of the main characters than most such ennobling ventures. But we also are swept into a maelstrom of feelings structurally, with warm flashbacks as an almost stream of consciousness memories, and through the colorful cinematography, with intense images of Africa as a crowded palette of brightly colored clothes, dark skin, parched land, bleached horizons contrasted with the lush British backyard gardens (an international symbol of imperial-era colonialism so the title is particularly layered). The constantly moving camera pulls back in almost every scene so we see the context and repeated scenes take on different interpretations as Ralph Fiennes' character learns more and more about his wife's activities, and we are challenged to suspect her motives, though the sharp editing is a bit manipulative in sidetracking us to make visual assumptions, but is effective at capturing his insecurity and paranoia.
The plot may not make 100% sense, particularly about one crucial confusing character, but that is doubtless due to the necessity of script compaction from a novel. While it is amusing that the teen nephew leads Feinnes through his wife's quite sophisticated computer and videophone files and it does seem as if the crucial information is readily available unmysteriously online, the graphics are very good at communicating complex information quickly, balancing explication with keeping the story flowing, helped by the propulsive music (though surprisingly not that much African music).
Rachel Weisz's character does seem an obsessive gadfly activist, including sacrificing the health of her unborn child to her politics, but the film is honest about crediting organizations who do work day in and day out with serious issues of health, particularly TB and AIDS, and aid in Africa, both in the story and in the credits. Certainly the pernicious persistence of local corruption is plainly shown as equal part of the problems along with capitalist greed. I particularly admired that the film does not let the characters - or the audience-- take the usual Western out of feeling good about helping individual adorable kids but keeps its eye on the wider, endemic issues.
Fiennes' character demonstrably matures from an older, mild-mannered bureaucrat to topsy turvy by falling head over heels in love with a younger woman and then very gradually taking on her legacy. His emotional awakening keeps us off-center because it could just as well be Body Heat of a sexy charismatic vixen wrapping a guy around her anatomy that's going on as the political machinations of The Manchurian Candidate. Notably, he does not become a super hero, but is an ordinary guy searching for the truth, no matter where it leads as he tries to fulfill why she chose to be with him.
Posters on the IMDb Message Board identified the closing song that is not the soundtrack: Says joyce_okoth "from Kenya and the song is in my native tongue of Luo. Its by Ayub Ogada. He sings 'Ouma [luo boy's name] can't your the rain is coming, bring the cows into the homestead.' There are many versions of the song, both uptempo and slow but I like this slow one better." Another poster albricat notes "It's called "Kothbiro", and can be found on the album En Mana Kuoyo by Ayub Ogada." (9/19/2005)

Asylum is a beautifully produced, well-acted erotic psycho-drama that doesn't make a lot of sense.
The setting, production design, make-up and costumes perfectly capture the repressive late 1950's era British Isles that was also conveyed in Vera Drake and The Magdalene Sisters, where women's sexuality was equated with instability.
When we are introduced to Natasha Richardson's "Stella Raphael" there are already hints of unrespectable incidents from her past and we see her on her way to bored alcoholism. Marton Csokas's "Edgar" immediately floods testosterone onto the screen, like Daniel Craig in The Mother, so their mounting attraction is visceral (as well as his appeal to the closeted gays around him).
But then the film stops making sense as one addiction replaces another of hers. The film seems to be critical of the old mental illness warehouse hospitals and, like the abandoned one so evocatively used in Session 9, was here filmed at one that closed in 2003 (and all the people ever associated with the hospital are thanked in the credits). Ian McKellen's ambitious, manipulative, flagrantly unethical and confusingly self-deluded shrink spouts old-fashioned mumbo jumbo about the dangers of passion. But "Edgar", we are told almost immediately, is a murderer, a stereotyped mad artist, whose ever changing mental and emotional issues over the course of the film don't seem to fit into either 1950's pathologies or today's psychological profiles.
Even lust for lifers need money to support an odd ménage a trois and I was wondering where the money was coming from to support la vie boheme, among many plot questions. I haven't yet read the novel the film is based on so I don't know whether the book was more logical or made more sense in distinguishing among love, lust and obsession.
Richardson is marvelous as she undergoes changes of situation and emotion that would flatten a Dickens heroine and bares a lot more than her soul. She is particularly effective at movingly conveying depression, which movies usually visually equate just with catatonia. For example, a scene of her performing rote tics is sadly sympathetic.
I could buy that anyone in love is a kind of crazy that could fill mental hospitals, but I'm not sure that's these lovers' condition and the film waffles if they are battling the times they live in or their own demons. (8/24/2005)
I read the novel by Patrick McGrath and it makes even less sense than the movie, as it's first person through an unreliable, unethical narrator with an ax to grind. Even though McGrath's father worked at such an asylum and he lived on the grounds, the book is the same hodge-podge confusion about artists, abused women, and depression, but it only sees love as madness. At least the movie left out some of the most quizzical elements of the plot, but we do learn a few more practical details here and there. (9/25/2005)

Broken Flowers is a contemporary, existential take on It's A Wonderful Life as a successful guy stuck in ennui gets to see how people bounced off of him. The opening montage of a letter traveling through the postal system also recalls 1940's movies, even as our eyes follow the oversized pink envelope.
Bill Murray is watching an old movie, The Private Life of Don Juan, when we first see him, the first of too many such references, including his character's name, "Don Johnston" (with joking confusion about the similarly-named TV actor), though at least he wasn't later listening to Don Giovanni.
His American odyssey as a computer magnate searching for a typewriter like his Rosebud is kicked off from the roots of Africa, as we see the contrast between the wonderful Jeffrey Wright's hard-working Ethiopian immigrant "Winston" and his large family with "Don"s alienated isolation of wealthy retirement where yet another girlfriend has walked out. We are reminded of him throughout with his CD music mix that he hands over with maps and car and motel reservations.
Writer/director Jim Jarmusch takes a fresh approach to the kid-I-didn't-know-I-had genre by making the film more about "Don"s search for understanding than identifying either the possible mother or the son. I have seen several films that follow a similar story line of a person re-visiting old loves, and Jarmusch avoids the usual jokes in this genre -- none of the women are gay or transsexuals, only one jumps into bed with him but it's not for laughs or sexiness.
This is a picaresque journey through the heart of America from airports to highways and byways, almost with an European eye. Like About Schmidt looked at highway kitsch, this looks at changing suburbia and exurbia (none of his ex-amours live in cities or even small towns), as each woman, in her effort to put her past with "Don" behind her, has successfully chosen different environments and very contemporary, and slightly ridiculous, professions. While as a local I recognized Newark airport and various NJ and upstate NY settings, the environs were well used to represent different parts of the country, as was done in Kinsey.
Each actress in her small time on the screen adds more than is written to her role, considerably fleshing out the women through their body language and speech patterns. Each woman is also surrounded by excellent production design within each house to differentiate them. Each woman has changed, probably as much as he has. None of them are as alone as he is and each is anxious to keep the past behind. At least three of the four emphasize that it was someone else who had the big effect on their lives. The running visual gag of pink herrings is an amusing symbol of women; no matter how tough or independent they were, each had something--old, new, borrowed or someone else's idea-- that was pink.
It is also a journey through today's generation gap, emphasizing him as an aging roué who can no longer be in the game, though the music selections don't jarringly emphasize those differences. We see and very much hear teen boys and girls with energy and movement who openly view him as an old guy, compared to him and his exes, and sometimes through them we can see how the older folks used to act. I was relieved that we didn't get a Lost in Translation age gap relationship because I just wouldn't have seen the attraction and it was enough that his latest, Julie Delpy, is 20 years younger than he.
The ambiguous, non-cathartic ending can be interpreted differently by each person who sees the film, not only in terms of figuring out if he has found the son and mother or if he has learned anything from the experience that would now enable him to sustain relationships. But his conclusion sounds like Murray's "Polonius" in Hamlet (2000) without the hope for the future feelings that having children engenders. We at least know "Don"ll be looking at young men of a certain age with curiosity as they go by. (8/13/2005) Just to confuse perceptions, "the kid in the car" at the end is one of Murray's real sons is why he vaguely looks like him.

5x2 is not the first film to explore a relationship by going backwards from its end to its beginning (Pinter's Betrayal comes to mind let alone the mystery in Memento).
But writer/director François Ozon, aided by superb acting, uses the structure for a thoughtful and intriguing commentary on love and marriage.
The first scene sets up our curiosity as while a lawyer dryly reads the divorce agreement, letting us know the cold facts of the marriage, there is palpable electricity between the about to be ex-wife and husband such that we are not surprised when they immediately head to a hotel, as it turns out their relationship started in a hotel.
We are introduced to the complexities between this couple as their layers are played out through a sexual encounter that is open to "he said, she said" interpretations that will continue as we flashback to key points in their relationship. The other four incidents show them as parents, at the birth of their child, at their wedding and at their meeting, all played out in relation to her parents' long-time conflicted marriage and his brother's homosexual arrangements, amid other encounters.
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is so luminous as "Marion" that I'm not sure if it's her beautiful acting, as she is in turn up-tight, conflicted, sensual, fragile or aggressive, or her character who changes or that François Ozon is such a sensitive director of women, as he showed in Swimming Pool and Under the Sand (Sous le sable), that I favored her character, even if we gradually learn that she may or may not be as much of a victim as it seems and she is as much influenced by physical imperatives as he is.
Stéphane Freiss plays virtually the opposite of his caring husband in Le Grand Rôle, even if it becomes less and less clear he's the S.O.B. he at first could appear to be, or if his character experiences any changes or learns anything through serial somewhat monogamy, especially because some details in their past are just left mysterious.
The film is certainly not optimistic about love being an effective basis for a man and a woman to sustain a long term relationship and it leaves open-ended for a gendered discussion about whether that applies to the particulars of these individuals, or to them as French or as Europeans, vs. universals, as Americans would probably interpret their interactions differently than other audiences.
Certainly, in a frankly sexually mature film it's nice to see non-Hollywood bodies, of a zaftig woman and a guy without a personal trainer credit listed.
The frequent use of Paolo Conte songs on the soundtrack add to the ironic feeling surrounding the film, even if the lyrics aren't translated in the many white-on-white subtitles.
Going off into the sunset, and the cinematography and production design, from dark to light, throughout are lovely, hasn't had such an ironic conclusion since the original Planet of the Apes. (7/11/2005)

Ladies in Lavender is like Whales in August crossed with Swept from the Sea.
Regardless of the slight period story, which peters out three-quarters through, it is a joy watching Judi Dench and Maggie Smith interact on screen together. Dench gets to expand her portrayal of a childlike, somewhat mentally handicapped woman from a different direction than in Iris. Her subtlety shows up all those actors who play such characters over the top, as we are never sure exactly how much this sister understands about the people and situations around her, protected as she is in a small, familiar town, because she just seems a bit off-kilter here and there, particularly in her emotional reactions. Dench makes her exploration of unfamiliar feelings touching, as the elderly spinster becomes ever more fascinated by the handsome stranger who washes up by the house she shares with her sister (Smith) who had a bit more exposure to the world before she retreated after the first world war to care for her.
Daniel Brühl only has brief flashes of how adorable he was in Goodbye, Lenin!, coming across marginally less stiff than the object of the attention of an older woman in Being Julia. Even playing a violin he does manage to inject some testosterone into the proceedings.
Natascha McElhone is also a bit bland, especially as her relationship with the violinist doesn't go the direction we're assuming it will, but then Joshua Bell's mesmerizing playing on the soundtrack probably trumps Brühl's appeal here.
The Cornwall scenery is lovely, and the movie is equally only lovely views.
This is the kind of movie that makes one wonder how the British managed to populate an empire without procreation.(6/8/2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is an excellent introduction for the general public to the scandal for someone who didn't hear first-hand the warnings about the New Economy that sneered at the responsibilities of a public company or read the articles in Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, or Business Week while it was all building up, then came tumbling down.
While the film leaves out some of the technicalities, it does an entertaining job of combining talking heads, lively graphics, news clips, incendiary dramatizations (such as of busy, noisy shredders) and re-enactments (such as of a suicide of a high level executive), company documents and whistleblower-obtained stunningly damning audiotapes, web broadcasts and video tapes to document how a major company could grow out of smoke and mirrors to become the largest bankruptcy of its time, bringing down countless victims with it.
Establishing an arresting time line that serves like a ticking clock, the film is excellent at visually demonstrating how other corporations, particularly lenders and brokerages, profited from not revealing the truth.
The filmmakers particularly gleefully accent the company's political connections, going beyond the popular "Kenny Boy" friendship of CEO Ken Lay with George W. to extend to the Bush clan and inner circle, including the Federal Reserve's Alan Greenspan, to hone in on how it fomented self-serving deregulatory policies, with a special emphasis on California and its frighteningly manipulated energy, and resulting political, crisis.
The filmmakers do make some of the talking heads seem objective when they actually have their own profitable axes to grind, such as shareholder attorney William Lerarch, and let the Johnny-come-lately legislators look a little too good as they puff up at the Congressional hearings.
A bit too much is made of the executives as former nerds, as these guys weren't computer geeks; rather there were class issues at work that are hinted at in the brief biographies in the culture of traders who were entrepreneurially lifting their incomes by gambling. At the same time, whistleblower Sherron Watkins's actions and motivations are not emphasized as particularly heroic in going against the company's macho culture (the many Deep Throats cited in the credits as anonymous sources are amusing).
A delightful range of popular music is also used to emphasize points, from Tom Waits to "God Bless the Child," as well as popular culture references from The Simpsons to "Gordon Gekko"'s defining quote from Wall Street also keep the film from just being like a dry episode of PBS's Frontline investigative reports series. I presume the title itself is meant to recall the classic laying bare of the men who got the U.S. mired in the Viet Nam War, David Halberstam's The Best and The Brightest.
The film does slight the clear-eyed folks who were warning about the declining ethics in the accounting profession and the lack of fundamentals in the bubble investments as Enron and its ilk were on the way up -- and who were vilified in the business community for their Cassandra pronouncements.
The film does make the Enron situation seem too unique. While personalizing the stories around the head people at the company --especially as they transformed from insiders to power brokers --makes the story easier to follow in a movie, it makes their corporate culture seem unusual. It also lets off the management consultants, let alone the business schools' emphasis on stock price analysis over fundamentals, who were cheerleaders for these techniques; McKinsey and Harvard spawned at least one of the colorful figures profiled here.
There was a theory at one point that this kind of egotistical "I'm top of the world, Ma" attitude in business could only come in cities far from sophisticated business watchers, i.e. the Rigas at Adelphia in Pennsylvania, Bernie Ebbers at WorldCom in Mississippi, and Richard Scrushy at HealthSouth in Birmingham, Alabama, but the just dethroned Hank Greenberg at AIG scandal in the heart of Wall Street, shows that enough chutzpah and money can deflect anyone, anywhere, using the same techniques -- a ruthless, macho corporate culture that forces out anyone who disagrees, browbeating regulators, hiding secret accounts and spreading around manipulative corporate philanthropy.
At a panel at the New York Financial Writers' Association as the Enron story was breaking, they did an introspection that unfortunately is not provided by the film, on why they didn't report earlier that the emperor had no clothes (as one of the sub-chapters in the film puts it). The consensus was that the journalists realized they mistrusted the motives of the warners more than they doubted the motives of the corporate executives who were issuing the bravado reports and deflecting timid questions, even though the journalists too late realized that the executives had way more to gain than the Chicken Littles and they were intimidated by their own lack of accounting expertise to recognize the sliding slope of accounting ethics (though the film does very briefly touch on how the CPAs early on accommodated the bubble by too easily officially approving the now notorious "mark to marketing" accounting procedure that permitted the booking of goods not yet obtained, though there's no mention of casually lax acceptance of external auditing firms simultaneously doing internal auditing and profitable consulting.)
Bethany McLean, a co-writer of the film whose book is the premise for most of the film, did supplement the film in an interview on Charlie Rose that should be included on the DVD by naming the "shorter" (an investor who gains if prices go down) who first had tipped her off, though she didn't there mention the local Houston business reporter she cited at the panel who was the very first one to report suspicion of Enron's numbers. She also clarified on the show that while her article in Business Week is now seen as the beginning of Enron's end, her actual findings were very mildly stated, particularly compared to the full truth as it came out, and only aroused suspicions by the ferocity of the company's denials.
Even as the film concludes with an it could happen again warning, with no analysis if Sarbanes-Oxley will help, it places too much emphasis on the uniqueness of Enron. It would have been helped by some historical perspective, like the Holland bulb hysteria of the 17th century as a precursor (as documented in Schama, Simon, An Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, U of California Press, 1988). (6/2/2005)

Brothers (Brødre) is a Danish Coming Home crossed with Deer Hunter and the novels of Tim O'Brien with the added frisson of Cain vs. Abel, as updated to the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.
While I can understand how this is a new experience for Danes, it could have more impact for someone who has never seen a post-Viet Nam War movie. Otherwise it's like a fairly predictable cable TV movie about post traumatic stress syndrome on a channel that allows four letter words, including as has been done in British television films about returning peacekeepers from the Balkans.
The excellent acting rose above the stereotypes to make it very moving anyway, including very natural child actors who were very un-Dakota Fanning-like. Nikolaj Lie Kaas is particularly charismatic on screen, even more than he was in Reconstruction, and should now be in the international pantheon of rugged male stars who play "bad boys" really well, emphasized by portraying brunettes in the land of the blonds.
So I give director/co-writer Susanne Bier extra credit for not fulfilling the most obvious direction of the plot, but instead letting tension hang in the air, which is more powerful. Connie Nielsen, using her native language, has warm and charged chemistry with both her co-stars, but is pretty much just the beautiful wife/mother.
Unfortunately, the distributors didn't spring for American English subtitles so you have to interpret Brit slang as if you're watching BBC America. (I did learn in one instance that the F word sounds pretty much the same in Danish as in English but the subtitles didn't match that sound again so I was wondering what other curse words were being replaced with the fundamental English one.) Some times the translation is just plain confusing; for example, the word "assaulted" seems to have a different connotation than something in the Danish dialogue, as a plot point gets confused for a subtitle reader. The translation is particularly a problem during a critical scene where the older girl has an outburst, as it's quizzical how scatological her terms were in Danish as opposed to the English choices to understand how incendiary the scene really is.
The Afghans are uniformly shown with the same level of subtlety as North Vietnamese, let alone Nazis, in prisoner-of-war movies.
It is ironically interesting that English is now the lingua franca between freedom fighters everywhere.
The cinematography is beautifully color saturated, but is grainy; perhaps it's blown up from video. (5/31/2005)

Lost Embrace (El Abrazo partido) is like a modern Sholom Aleichem story set in a Yiddishkeit neighborhood of Buenos Aires that feels very much like NYC's Lower East Side.
Here, the village full of multi-generational eccentric characters is a small mall in the middle of the city where each of a variety of Jews and other immigrants is long familiar with and tolerant of the other's idiosyncrasies and mysteries.
As played by Daniel Hendler, "Ariel" is an adorable slacker who thinks the solution to his ennui is to become European but ends up searching this community for his full identity and heritage -- as a Jew, as a grandson of Polish immigrants, as a mother's son, as a son of a father in Israel, as a lover, a brother, friend and Argentinean. His loving relationship with his brightly henna-haired mother as he helps out at her lingerie shop is both unusually sweet and mature and a nice counter-point to how Jewish mothers are usually portrayed.
Co-writer/director Daniel Burman uses the midrashic technique of having each question asked by the central character answered by a story, with titles appearing on screen as chapter headings. Each story is open to Talmudic-like interpretation by the participants and leads to unexpected revelations. For example, the joke from Fiddler in the Roof of traders arguing about whether it was a mule or a donkey is here an ongoing feud about whether it was in pesos or dollars.
While his quest greatly impacts the others he questions as each makes important changes in habits (and rediscovers music of their heritage, including Israeli folk songs or Yiddish ballads), it is a bit confusing that the more "Ariel" gradually learns about his history and just how entwined he is in his community, the less he is able to assimilate it into his image of himself. He does seem to learn forgiveness or maybe at least tolerance and empathy, but the sum totaling of all the charming anecdotes is that he can accept eating a certain symbolic sandwich.
Ah, life goes on in this easy-going tale. (2/25/2005)

My Mother's Smile (L'Ora di religione: Il sorriso di mia madre) is a rollicking take on Catholicism that's very like how I Heart Huckabees treated existentialism, but with even more Tom Robbins-like absurdist humor.
Almost Kafka-like, with a touch of Woody Allen, the central character is the straight man in the joke, particularly with Sergio Castellitto's hang dog look (he was the Italian lover in Mostly Martha) as he wakes up one morning to discover that his mother is about to be declared a saint. We see the impact of this hypocritical quest on his ex-wife, brothers, old friends, aunts, priests and other people he has to come in contact with over two days, as everyone has selfish reasons for promoting sainthood.
The potential canonization also becomes a vehicle to examine violence, sin, madness, ambition, love, parent/child relationships, philosophy and art, as the central figure is an artist and the titular expression is captured in a Mona Lisa-like portrait.
The satire goes a bit overboard, though, when the son is challenged to a duel at dawn, though I think there was some point about the pointlessness of archaic societal rules.
Small characters are weighted with too many meanings, like a crazy architect seeking to blow up a national monument that figures in a souvenir photograph, a witness whose name is a pseudonym from Dante, a mysterious, beautiful religion teacher, and more symbolism that went by, particularly as this is one of those typical Italian movies where the subtitles seem abridgements of the conversations.
In a lovely twist on the pieta, the most moving scenes are the paternal ones between father and son.
The soundtrack includes beautiful contemporary classical religious music including Adams and Tavener. (2/25/2005)

Million Dollar Baby is a spare, minimalist and gripping character study.
Even the elements that now and then seem a bit extraneous, particularly about religious faith, turn out in the last few minutes to be vital.
Director/star/scorer Clint Eastwood confidently pares the film and his performance down to its simplest elements. Tom Stern's cinematography is even more breathtaking than their collaboration on Mystic River, especially in its use of darkness, and should have been recognized for an Oscar nomination.
Paul Haggis's (an icon for me for his creation of the groundbreaking, cancelled E Z Streets) script, where the dialogue is more for character development and revelations than for plot.
Particularly wonderful are the interchanges between Eastwood and Morgan Freeman that are lovely evocations of long-time male camaraderie. A key element of the film is its exploration of paternal aspects of masculinity we rarely see on film without a sexual context - friendship, mentoring and responsibility.
The film, however, is almost too bare in its treatment of Hilary Swank's character, with none of the personal context that Girl Fight stressed, particularly in the lack of any romantic hints at all -- is it to avoid any issues about the tomboy's sexuality? But this keeps the spotlight on the central, quasi father-daughter relationship with its emotionally draining conclusion that packs a tremendous wallop. One of the few jarring notes is the stereotyped portrayal of her grasping hillbilly relatives, including an inconsistency or two about them.
Freeman's continuing narration simply got on my nerves, even if it is rationalized in the last frame, especially when it re-emphasized something we were seeing visually. I felt it was recalling his essential commentary in The Shawshank Redemption, which is explicitly referenced in an amusing epithet.
The glaring product placement for Everlast and the gratuitous reference to a Warner Brothers product were unnecessary and cheapened a moving story. (1/29/2005)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is an affectionate send-up of Jacques Cousteau done like a drawing room comedy on the high seas.
Co-writer/director Wes Anderson has the marvelous insight that Cousteau's emotionally deadpan but colorful TV documentaries and specials were precursors to The Real World and subsequent camera-in-your-face-all-the-time pseudo-reality shows like Survivor.
The tone and shabby look of time having passed them by is very similar to how Clint Eastwood did a similarly affectionate but oddball tribute to wild west shows in Bronco Billy. The satirical barbs, particularly of types of characters, fly fast and furious, ranging from laugh out loud funny to sweetly amusing.
The cast is marvelous at keeping the tone of the movie consistent. Bill Murray has practically patented this tone, but Angelica Huston, as "the brains behind Zissou," is a marvelous anchor (and I love her dramatic jewelry.) Owen Wilson reins in his smugness. While I presume that Cate Blanchett's real-life pregnancy was written into the script, I'm not sure if her odd accent was a left-over of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator or in preparation, as she sounds like Kate repeating that line about the calla lilies. Noah Taylor's tekkie assistant is a cute take-off of his role in the Lara Croft movies. Willem Dafoe carries off a running joke as a sensitive German.
The primary color cinematography is charming and the animation is delightful.
Stay through the credits to get to see the lovely recessional and hear the last acoustic Portuguese cover of David Bowie songs, as the closing number is not on the soundtrack. (1/4/2005)

There's much right with Spanglish, but one is left too much with the impression of a modern male fantasy flick.
It's a cri de coeur from a guy -- hey, you wanted us to be sensitive, a good provider, successful but not obsessively so, organize our career to spend more time with the family, encourage you to have time to stay in shape and you're still not satisfied? And, of course, throw in a sexy Latina who shares his values as temptation to test his vows.
As Téa Leoni says from practically the start, she's set up as "the bad guy" to Adam Sandler's "good guy" who is just about perfect and beloved by all. Sandler's character is so self-effacingly nice that when he hears a four-star review of his restaurant he focuses on praising how his daughter read it aloud, let alone self-sacrificing in his romances. I know I was supposed to be more sympathetic to him when his wife's exuberant congratulatory lovemaking pleasures only her and doesn't complete him, but after gazillion movies with the reverse I thought it was actually about cinematic time.
There's only passing explanations as to why the wife is so competitive and virtually a monster to her daughter, husband and housekeeper -- she got laid off from her job, her self-centered, unmaternal, live-in mother is an alcoholic-- let alone only a throwaway comment that they were high school sweethearts as to why they are even couple at all. The mother/daughter insensitivity here is on the par with conflicts in Thirteen or Tumbleweeds in being almost as vicious as the male/female fights in Closer.
Dropped into this volatile mix is Paz Vega as a housekeeper who is not only a perfect mother but so beautiful, as Sandler's character says "You should be a separate gender." The voice-over by her daughter gets annoying and frequently says the obvious, but the cross-cultural class conflicts bring out the most interesting dialogues in the film as characters struggle to honestly explain themselves within communication barriers, particularly about parenting. These luminous speeches are undercut by awkward pacing as the audience is jostled from physical comedy to pathos.
There is wonderful poignancy and laughter where the daughter is translating serious and passionate adult conversations and Shelbie Bruce is both funny and moving as the daughter in these scenes.
There is unusually frank honesty about privacy, financial and family issues for employer/employee in the intimacy of a household.
There are a few confusing timeline issues as the school year and vacation calendar isn't completely consistent.
The production design is excellent, though the physical surroundings that can be bought by a successful chef are visually staggering.
The current musical song selections are excellent and unobtrusive, though there's not much to reinforce that Cloris Leachman's grandmother is a former chanteuse. The effusive score emphasizes the treacly elements. (1/4/2005)

Closer seems more about guys and sex than about relationships.
It is less a contemporary (including very blunt Internet chat) London take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, though there is a similar running theme of truth, lies and mutual fantasies, than a journey into Neil LaBute's scabrous territory where trust can't survive and male careers have a parallel with their possession of females. At least the women are in stronger positions than they were in at the time of Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge.
This film does make one wonder if the traditional practice of arranged marriages might not be as least as effective as love in serving as a basis for long-term relationships.
As a four-hander, it is weakened that Natalie Portman's and Clive Owen’s performances blow Julia Roberts and Jude Law away. Owen's character is the showier male, with his hang-ups of rough sex fantasies and obsession with women as whores, while Law's character has some sort of mild mother complex. Similarly, Portman's character is the more intriguingly independent female, recognizing the strengths and limitations of her sexual power over men she does and doesn't love, including passersby in the very naturally ironic closing shots. She is finally the most sympathetic character who we comparatively care about the most.
While Roberts almost manages to keep up, Law may be ill-served by the script. His character is practically two different people, one with one woman where he unsuccessfully tries to disappear from his physical beauty, another with the other where he uses it. He enacts them differently with different body language and props, but no motivation is obvious for his changes.
Nichols’ directing is very involving, effectively opening up a play by opening up spaces, settings and locations. I don't know if the adaptation from the original had to account for the cast, but the script nicely incorporated explanations for having American women in London, as well as Natalie’s youthfulness.
What didn't work was inconsistent changes in make-up and hair that did not support dialogue claims of a passage of time, as much as even three or four years between scenes, but nothing much changes in how they look, except occasionally for Portman's hair styles. While it's a bit tiresomely arch having Law's character be a wannabe writer, Roberts' character as a photographer works very well for visualization, though her character's motivations are as inscrutable as her portraits.
Having a superstar cast as a Hollywood movie adaptation distributed in multiplexes causes audience problems as they were made very uncomfortable by the extremely blunt language, which wouldn’t have caused as much of a ruffle in an art house audience, but audiences are just not used to watching these folks talk like this; Oprah's audience on a recent promotion for the film was so nonplussed that Roberts' joked that she had to learn these words for the film. I think independent films have been rated NC-17 for similar language. The language is so lacerating we think we are seeing more explicitness than we are.
The music selections are very effective, from the opening use of Damien Rice's "The Blower's Daughter" (which made my Best Albums of 2003 with its repeating chorus of "I can't take my eyes off of you/I can't take my mind off of you"). But the repeating use of opera for inspiration and dates didn't really make sense for the characters and seemed more to indicate either an avoidance of time passage or that Nichols is out of touch with contemporary culture. At least the strip joint played appropriate music.
During Natalie’s strip tease (and the fact that she's a stripper is a giveaway that this is a guy movie) I kept thinking of Oprah asking her what her dad would think of that scene and she wryly responding that he’s a gynecologist. (12/11/2004)

Just as the focus of Kinsey thought he was being objective about a topic that had only been treated subjectively, the film is not an objective bio-pic.
For the first half of the movie, the exquisite production design, costumes and make-up effectively recreate middle America before World War II, as Kinsey's rigid upbringing and equally rigid scientific life as a zoologist are established. Laura Linney as first his student then his wife adds an earthy and warm element and her excellent acting adds womanliness beyond the script to the movie that is missing otherwise. Their gradual move into teaching and studying sexuality is shown convincingly in contrast to the prigs around them, with, ironically surely, Tim Curry playing his puritanical academic rival.
Accurate details include showing and reading from a popular marriage manual, Theodoor H. van de Velde's Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique; when I ran a used book sale at my local synagogue we would get many unread copies donated from now elderly couples who had received it as part of pre-marital rabbinical counseling and it was hilarious how sexist and inaccurate it was.
But writer/director Bill Condon takes considerable interpretive leaps as he moves on to "the inner circle," as T. Coraghessan Boyle terms it in his fictionalized interpretation, when Kinsey hires, trains, works and lives closely with male assistants for his first research project on men.
Peter Sarsgaard is the stand out in the trio, as outstanding as his role in Shattered Glass and as all holds barred as in The Center of the World. But his characterization leans toward a cavalier attitude towards women that is emblematic of this film until literally the last minute. I don't see why his character would be jealous to the point of fisticuffs of the attentions Timothy Hutton's flirtatious assistant would be paying to his wife when he seemed to condescend to marriage only for appearance's sake anyway.
The film dwells on gay men and skips through the research done to produce the second tome on women, pointing out mostly Kinsey's corrective biological information, therefore gliding over how it was the revelations about women that shocked the nation and led to difficult political and other consequences, though Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman had promulgated similar information about women decades earlier (and had been hounded out of the country for their efforts). The Kinsey Institute's FAQ point out the active partnership of female research assistants for this work, who simply don't exist in the film. (And the Congressional investigations of foundations in the 1950's didn't just focus on the Rockefeller Foundation's funding of Kinsey, but they haven't yet posted their correctives on their Web site; ironically Linney's step-mother is a former top official at the Foundation, though most Web sites spell her name wrong.)
Similarly, as Kinsey is shown taking the leap from taxonomy to adviser as an avatar of the coming sexual revolution, the psychological component of relationships, let alone sex, only comes up once such that Liam Neeson's characterization ultimately seems naive. But Condon is more interested in the political component, as he clearly sees a similar tide of conservative criticism rising across the land again.
One also gets the feeling that someone either read the script or saw a working print of the film and had to gently point out to Condon that women simply get short shrift, so suddenly an extremely poignant coda is added, with Lynn Redgrave as a very moving interviewee on how Kinsey's work affected her life directly.
The aging make-up and cinematography are beautiful in indicating the passage of time, matching seasonal passings and making early discussions seem to have been documented in period black and white.
The casting of the many research subjects is wonderfully varied and the New York metropolitan area locations, recognizable only to the cognoscenti, stand in very well for varied cities, academic and sylvan locales. The closing credits are surrounded by fun period songs and zoological interactions. (12/4/2004) (added to 12/11/2004) PBS's American Experience bio episode added useful factual insights, such as how he was fired up to over-sample homosexuals after interviewing those in prison for sodomy. The program also explains the Rockefeller Foundation's methodological concerns, as he chose to do 100% of informant groups rather than random probability samples. Interesting how the actors portraying the research assistants really seemed to capture their real-life counterparts. (1/23/2005)

In Sideways Alexander Payne expands upon the All-American road trip that was a distinctive but incidental part of About Schmidt in demonstrating what characters are, what they are going through and how they are changing.
The distinctive details of wine tasting in the Napa Valley of California (and it's wonderful to see the tourist mecca of Little Denmark's Solvang on the screen, with its Windmill motels and Pitchfork restaurants) are fondly presented as also the basis for actual jobs in the service industry by real, struggling people, as opposed to the Hollywood version in A Walk in the Clouds.
Payne's unvarnished but affectionate look at distinctively American environments, particularly unique kitsch and obsessions that can't be recreated by a production designer, surround four unvarnished actors who get to create complete and maturing characters, particularly through body language, intonation and facial expressions. Payne so well paints the complicated characters in their natural habitats of garden apartments, highway motels and micro vintners, that we laugh instantly when we see them plopped into alternative locales, from one's childhood manse to a nouveau riche McMansion to a commercial winery.
This tone of switching from amusement to sympathy to poignancy is maintained throughout, as each of the main characters continue to surprise us. Of course, just about nobody does depressed better than Paul Giamatti, as he goes beyond the quirks of his bio-pic character in American Splendor to inhabit someone we only gradually come to understand by the last unresolved frame that defies Hollywood satisfaction as much as the character's novel defies literary conventions, perhaps signified by the discussion of A Separate Peace.
Virginia Madsen is not only her usual beautiful self, but approachably plays a character who has believable, achievable goals; she positively blossoms over the course of the film, especially in a simply beautiful monologue. I'm a long time fan of Sandra Oh, so it's no surprise to me that she can be sexy and funny. Thomas Haden Church manages to make an annoying character charming.
The film is full of humor, from witty dialogue to slapstick sight gags (including full frontal male nudity used for comic effect) so I'm perplexed at the number of people I heard coming out of the theater complaining that they didn't find it funny. As this sample happened to be elderly, perhaps they couldn't clearly hear the dialogue. How can one not now pour a glass of wine, peer into it and smile?
The background songs, which are not included in the soundtrack of the score, are subtle, but delightfully cool, including by the band Luna. (11/29/2004)

Reconstruction is a clever, European take on Unfaithful where an older husband uses literary intellect instead of violence to attempt "The Revenge of the Cuckold."
But we have no idea how much is real or imagined or roman a clef or the character of the author is identifying too much with his alter ego, as we are told from the outset that what we will be seeing is the magic of the storyteller or puppeteer, watching as he manipulates his characters, trying out different situations in different drafts of a novel, erasing and playing out different scenarios of chance and choice, where art replaces the memory science of Code 46.
I don't think I was the only audience member, however, who was rooting instead for the tall, dark, handsome young man as Nikolaj Lie Kaas has captivating chemistry with Maria Bonnevie (and I feel really foolish that I couldn't tell from either the film or the Danish credits until I looked at the IMDb listing that she plays both the jilted girlfriend and the adulterous wife).
The author makes some lame justifications about women needing love and men accidentally falling into it, or some such, that doesn't quite make sense and the film is supposed to be illustrating the point that a man has to learn about hurt as a price to be able to love. The author's self-understanding I suppose is illustrated by him reading his book's dedication to his wife in a desperate plea for her to forgive him all his inattention, etc. as he needs her for his art, so she shouldn't look for passion elsewhere.
But we're left more with the very powerful visuals of the different versions of how he imagined her possible affair could have started (a la Brief Encounter) and its ramifications or concluded, and the feeling that the older guy was a smug deus ex machina.
In the things one can learn from the movies department: we also get a nice tour of Copenhagen; people can smoke anywhere, even on the subway, and do, constantly; restaurant bathrooms have real terry cloth towels; the Hilton is really luxurious; Danes and Swedes don't seem to exchange cell phone numbers; and, like in Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere), Danes seem to think of Italy as the place to go for romance. (9/15/2004)

We Don't Live Here Anymore is a sophisticated examination of the complexities of the difficult relationship that is contemporary marriage and family.
As it takes us awhile in the beginning to figure out who is attached in what couple, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern, Peter Krause and Naomi Watts superbly act a matched quartet of grown-up friends whose restlessness and frustrations with their personal and professional lives are gradually torn to shreds by propinquity and alcohol (and perhaps by community college teachers having too flexible schedules and temptations).
The suspense comes in the revelation of the layers that get peeled off each and we wonder just how far each will go. Each actor finds a unique response to their character's emotional situation and the production design well illustrates their individuality (though once again in a film I got fooled that I was supposed to think ill of a character like Dern's whose comfortable house is evidently a mess when it looks like mine, while I thought Watts' house was really cold in its spotlessness while gradually I realized I was supposed to think she was more together, but heck she had one less kid).
While I haven't read yet the two Andre Dubos short stories that Larry Gross adapted for the screenplay, Ruffalo's voice-over is used inconsistently as an occasional crutch to reveal inner thoughts probably to help bolster the denouement; otherwise the camera angles try to convey their thoughts, but that manipulates the audience a bit as to whom to root for.
Maryse Alberti's cinematography richly conveys summer passing in a beautiful yet claustrophobic college town.
The song selections are not particularly revelatory, but the music is effective at mood-setting. (9/6/2004)

Intimate Strangers (Confidences trop intimes), like Patrice Leconte's previous film Man on the Train (L'Homme du Train), is about the impact two opposite people who meet accidentally can have on each other through extensive conversations. Here it's Eric Rohmer meets Woody Allen, as psychotherapy provides the excuse, if not the actualities, for a relationship between people who really just need to talk with someone to make a connection, whether it's romantic or platonic.
Subtle shifts in context change theirs and our expectations of each encounter, as we learn about the other people who may be in their lives. The sterile blasé commentary by the shrink provides an amusingly ironic counterpart as the two main characters move each other beyond a more stereotypically professional relationship.
While American English is used awkwardly in the subtitles, it probably has the best use of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" in a French film, a la a grown-up Risky Business.
This is the second movie of the summer (after Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan)) where change in an off-kilter romance is indicated by the use of an ashtray, though cutesier here.
Like Garden State, an emotional woman influences an uptight guy, but as befits this older twosome, much more subtly. (9/3/2004)

The Door in the Floor is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf set in the sunny summer Hamptons with real children and a real family tragedy used as pawns in a psychologically destructive marriage.
It is extremely unsettling to so rawly see a family in the thralls of grief from losing children even years after the event, but it well reflects families I know for the physical and emotional shrines that are created.
Jeff Bridges's "entertainer of children" author is a charming alcoholic, but by the end of the film his serial seductiveness is scarily repulsive. We start out more sympathetic to him as he takes on paternal responsibilities for his precocious little daughter (Dakota Fanning's sister has her charisma) in replacement for his clearly extremely depressed wife, Kim Basinger, who looks even more beautiful and fragile than in L.A. Confidential. But we very gradually and very subtly see that racket ball is only one of the games he plays well and very competitively.
I haven't yet read John Irving's novel A Widow for One Year that I've heard this adapts the first third of, so I don't know how much has been changed, but the central plot point is distantingly distasteful with more than a whiff of male fantasy as it crosses confused Oedipal boundaries.
That boundary is reinforced with the casting of very young Jon Foster who actually looks his character's gangly adolescent age, rather than Hollywood's usual fiction of casting 20somethings or older as baits for Mrs. Robinson-types (but does lead to Donna Murphy's amusing reaction in her second effective cameo of the summer after Spider-Man 2). I'm reminded of Joseph Conrad's term: "the fascination for the abomination."(7/30/2004)

The Inheritance (Arven) is the best look since The Godfather at the corrosive impact of family business where there's no boundaries between family and business.
The starting premise is strikingly similar to another Scandinavian drama, the Icelandic The Storm (Hafið), as in both we start off with a prodigal son happily and romantically involved abroad but forced back to deal with the patriarch's dramatic decision that has ever widening ramifications. But whereas the first went off in psycho-sexual directions from a fishery, this Danish film stays realistically in the board room of a steel plant as much as the bed room.
Here, his wife is a Shakespearean actress and the Shakespearean references I caught are played up beyond King Lear, as the matriarch, a scarily formidable Ghita Nørby, whose role could be taken by Judi Dench or Glenn Close in an American remake, is a Lady MacBeth, and he's baited by a CFO with a pronounced Iago modus operandi, while the wife, the very moving Lisa Werlinder, is left to plead like Portia in Julius Caeser.
Un-Hamlet-like, Ulrich Thomsen's manipulatable "Christoffer" plunges into decisions that succeed at high psychological prices for him and those around him, reminding me of the classic closing line of the adaptation of Henry James, The Heiress: "I've learned from masters." (7/21/2004)

Facing Windows (La Finestra di fronte) is like a very European and more sophisticated take on The Notebook, as it shifts between romantic and culinary past and present through the in-and-out consciousness of an elderly man.
The Rear Window eroticism is just one element that accidentally brings together tangled, stymied lives swirling around lovely, exhausted, frustrated chef, wife and mother Giovanna Mezzogiorno, where each child, man, woman, friend and neighbor has separate priorities and fantasies that annoying real life interferes with, from the practical to the political.
Each character and their ties are both delightfully and surprisingly complex and the actors are so comfortable bringing each to complete life that you think you too should be able to come out of the theater speaking Italian so naturally.
But this is a frank, gritty, contemporary, urban Italy we don't usually get to see, with multi-racial immigrants, underemployment and a Fascist past.
The sentimentalism of the live with no regrets lesson is mostly leavened by the seriousness of the final revelations and the compromises that each character still makes.
The music selections nicely fit each character. (7/15/2004)

The Clearing is a taut, suspenseful kidnapping story. But the tension is primarily ratcheted up not by action, but what we learn what stuff each of the characters is made of, particularly as to how superbly Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe surround Robert Redford.
Ironically, Mirren's husband Taylor Hackford directed a more muddled take on a very similar story line in Proof of Life, which couldn't decide if it was an action movie or a drama. Here first-time writer Justin Haythe and director Pieter Jan Brugge are more focused, even while playing a few tricks on the viewer with time-shifting Rashomon rewinds, though there are a couple of questionable holes in the story as it takes surprising directions.
It's a relief to finally see Redford in a role fitting his age, with an age-appropriate spouse and adult children, including Alessandro Nivola not playing his usual sensual snake.
It's nice to see Mirren get to play an attractive, rich matron who can carry off nice clothes and hair styles as she usually hides herself in her roles. (7/16/2004)

The Mother is a raw unpeeling of relationships between older parents and adult children in a very contemporary take on the British "kitchen sink drama".
Every character is baldly selfish to the point of startling brutality. Each one responds to attempted openings of lines of communication with "But what about me?"
The naturalism is palpably realistic, such that when Hanif Kureish's script crosses a line to go a bit over the top it's upsetting and jarring. Director Roger Michell is particularly good at capturing the domestic mise en scène of sounds -- from simultaneous conversations to children's chatter -- and sights, such as lingering over meaningful visuals from a pair of old slippers to a casually bare torso.
Anne Reid gives the gutsiest older woman performance since Kathy Bates in About Schmidt and Helen Mirren in a Calendar Girls, but those were mostly played for laughs and didn't reveal the painful de-layering of inhibitions. Her character's continued low self-esteem to the point of accepting abuse is difficult to watch.
Except for a very atypical appearance in the first Lara Croft, Daniel Craig has avoided depending on his magnetic hunkiness on screen. Here, as in Sylvia, his manliness is a protean catalyst for the plot. In a complex triangle of relationships, his carpenter obliges the other characters' obsessions to project their fantasies and needs on to him.
While the grandmother finds some independence and self-respect, I'm not optimistic about the grandchildren in this dysfunctional family. (6/28/2004)

Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei) is a domestic drama and romance set in a very specific historical and cultural setting amidst civil strife, recalling Cold Mountain.
As in much of the cross-fertilization of samurai movies and Westerns such that one can easily imagine a Westernized version, the opening situation recalls Unforgiven, where a retired gunfighter just wants to be left alone to farm and raise his children and tries to resist pressures to stop putting his fighting skills under a literal grubby basket.
Hiroyuki Sanada gives a superbly nuanced performance as a rebel against the expectations of being the lowest of a high class in a rigidly caste society by embracing the sarcastic titular sobriquet. He is painfully reluctant that he is ever so circuitously revealed to be much more. World weary yet still proud, he gropes for words to explain to his shocked patriarch why he, as an indebted widower, prefers to come home straight from work to see his daughters grow up day by day than follow the family's dictates and anguishes to his best friend about his marriage prospects.
Gradually, surprising people around him are revealed to be as equally complex and frustrated with the roles their society insistently demands even as small step by suffocating step political and social webs inexorably ensnare them tighter and tighter. The flashes of their assertions of their individuality in unexpected moments make for quiet, gripping moments of tension and relief. As his returning childhood friend, Rie Miyazawa has a beautiful, spirited feminity that makes Sanada seem even more of a macho hunk in contrast.
A kind of Jane Austen action flick, it is the kind of movie where antagonists' stares make you hold your breath in suspense and the touch of a hand brings forth your tears.
The translator made a policy decision of just transliterating many traditional Japanese terms, from sensei to various styles of sword-fighting, etc. rather than try to find English equivalents. While their meaning can be pretty much inferred from context, it did help that post Kill Bill I've been making up for a benighted education that lacked samurai movies and Japanese history.
The voice-over narration by the younger daughter is a bit schmaltzy and unnecessary. The closing song seemed jarringly period-inappropriate; if it wasn't a Japanese cover of Bob Dylan's "To Make You Feel My Love" then it was a real close imitation with the only clue in English that it was used with permission of EMI.
This is the first of novel adaptor/director Yoji Yamada's 77 films that I've seen and I certainly now want to see more. (6/4/2004)

Strayed (Les Égarés) can't quite decide if it's a grittily realistic World War II drama or one of those let's-set-up-a-plausibly-extreme-situation-and-see-how-humans-react games.
The believable set-up of a widow and two children amidst frightened refugees fleeing Paris in 1940 is reinforced with intercuts of black-and-white newsreel-type footage.
The second act in an isolated farmhouse with a helpful teenage boy suspiciously strains credulity, but the acting, particularly by Emmanuelle Béart, convinces us to accept the exploration of humanity.
But the arrival of retreating soldiers just confuses the bifurcation as it overlays both genres such that we just don't understand the characters' motivations in the climax, whether as realism or metaphor.
As in writer/director André Téchiné's Alice and Martin, there's a final coda that adds new information on a character to change your perceptions. The novel this is based on does not appear to be available in English to see what he changed from the source material. It is also possible Téchiné is making points about French political history, of which I was only able to pick up a few of the references as I know little about Vichy France, such as the house they are squatting in belongs to a Jewish musician who clearly will not be returning and the son's example of cultured singing is a German lieder.
The cinematography by Agnès Godard is beautiful.(5/30/2004)

Bereft is a cathartic take on WASPs dealing with grief, standing to the equal between Ordinary People and In the Bedroom.
Peter Ferland's debut script eschews the former film's talky therapy shortcuts and debut co-directors Tim Daly and J. Clark Mathis allow the story to unfold visually. While not as violent as the latter film, it suspensefully reveals disturbing character and situations gradually, though I would recommend a title change to further the mystery -- and also because those on line at the Tribeca Film Festival will probably not be unique in mispronouncing it, saying BARE-fit instead of the correct be-REFT, even though it dovetailed with the Festival's genesis.
With more than a hint of One-Hour Photo in spookily borrowing happy families, the bucolic Vermont mise en scene and eccentric small town humor are increasingly jarring as we with rising alarm watch "Molly" (a very movingly imploding Vinessa Shaw) turn from "the good girl" (as Ferland described her in the post-screening Q & A) photographing pretty corny landscapes to staging edgy Cindy Sherman-esque ghost-catching reality and provoking scary opportunities to express her feelings. "Molly" as an observant, lone walker in contrast to passing and stopping cars was effective both in furthering the plot and as a continually reinforcing visual theme (but then I've given up my car to walk most places so I could relate).
Edward Herrmann plays a more avuncular version of his New England patriarch in Gilmore Girls, while Tim Blake Nelson and Daly add contrasting tension as the, respectively, sweet and sour poor white trash in the neighborhood. Daly's swaggering macho threat is reinforced with his character's unsettling leit motif in the music (uncredited on the IMDb and I forget the composer). Ari Graynor terrifically caught the natural aggrieved tone of the living-in-today kid sister and Marsha Mason the clueless, conflict-avoiding mother.
The directors explained they had only four days of prep, so that probably explains the lack of coordination in the actors' accents, with no hint of Down East Vermont.
Shot in video, edited on a Mac, according to Mathis, who also served as director of photography, and screened in HD at the Festival, the cinematography and quiet use of special effects beautifully set the changing moods.
As the film was financed by Showtime (brought in just under the $1 million budget according to proud co-producer Daly), I presume it will be debuting on cable. It was nice of the Vermont Film Commission to hand out Ben & Jerry's coupons after the screening! (5/11/2004)

House of Sand and Fog is an audaciously masterful debut by director/co-adaptor/producer Vadim Perelman.
It is not just the breathtaking work of cinematographer supreme Roger Deakins's enveloping fog and ocean views that makes visual a tangled story of complicated people caught in a snafu'd real estate transaction and shows every character's context matrix. Very parallel to Mystic River in making a cinematic interpretation of a novel, it too vividly shows damaged grown-ups who tragically bring their past experiences to every current encounter.
The casting is superb. Jennifer Connelly demonstrates as she did in Requiem for a Dream that her perfect beauty will not keep her from fragile roles of women hitting a rock-bottom of their own creation; the script is a bit vague and self-serving about how her character got there, so I wasn't sure if she was being naive or manipulative with Ron Eldard as her adulterous lover.
It's easy to take Ben Kingsley's performance for granted at his usual high level, but he stunningly draws out the contradictory sides of an exile from a discredited regime struggling to keep social and financial face in America.
But the captivating surprise here is Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo as his wife; maybe now her performance in 2000's well-reviewed Maryam will at least show up more conveniently on video/DVD or cable, as it didn't then in theaters. Caught between the changes in her Old Country and unsuccessfully adapting to the changes in her new one, particularly in her family, she alone finally forgoes status to struggle for her humanity.
The original novel by Andre Dubos III, who has a cameo, was published in 1999 so I assume that Perelman added the post-9/11 paranoia any Middle Eastern immigrant would have in this country that adds significantly to the tensions and misinterpretations on all sides. Like the adaptation of Dubos's father's work, In the Bedroom, the conclusion is shockingly violent and horrifically moving.
James Horner's music only incorporates Iranian music situationally and could have been used more to undergird the cultural conflict, but at least is non-didactically unobtrusive.
This showdown over a house may not be what Fannie Mae has in mind when they promote homeownership as the ultimate American Dream. (1/2/2004)(revised 4/20/2004)

The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions barbares) is friends and relatives dealing with an upcoming death in a way that's an updated, Continental cross between The Big Chill and My Dinner With Andre.
The rueful boomer nostalgic elements were weakened for me as I haven't seen writer/director Denys Arcand's 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire (Le Déclin de l'empire américain) that was an earlier take on many of the same characters. There seemed to be a lot of in-joke references to the earlier film, even though Arcand does not take advantage of The Limey-type visual flashbacks. I did appreciate their Gallic shrug of frank acceptance at how their lives had turned out.
More interesting was how the younger generation turned out from this group and how they interact with the people in their orbit. While Stéphane Rousseau looks so distractingly like David Duchovny that I kept being surprised he was speaking French, his very contemporary, very practical wheeler dealer manipulator is delightfully contrasted with his witty but ultimately blowhard intellectual professor father in dealing with the most fundamental leveller, death. Money certainly does talk. But I couldn't tell if he was changed by the experience, other than reconciling with his father.
His sister tearfully admits to what she has taken from their distant father, but does all he inherit is a propensity to infidelity? Another daughter is profoundly changed by her involvement in the palliative care of the dying man, but what was the point of the camera lovingly panning her inheritance of the father's Great Books of Western Civilization collection?
The criticisms of the Canadian health care system were unusual for an American to see -- do they not have hospices?
Nice to see Roy Dupuis, Montreal's most recognizable actor, from La Femme Nikita, though virtually in a cameo as a cynical narcotics cop.(12/20/2003)

Bad Santa is a one-joke short story stretched out too long at 93 minutes.
I expected more from Terry Zwigoff, the director of Ghost World, than just a scabrous Scrooge who reluctantly reforms. Even the teenage boys in the audience got tired of the endless proving just how misanthropic Billy Bob Thornton's Santa was. And his humanism only cynically comes out because everyone else around him is even more selfish and unethical.
Lauren Graham seems to enjoy being surrounded by the continuous stream of profanity that she never gets to spout on Gilmore Girls.
I guess the conventional Christmas songs on the soundtrack are supposed to be ironic, but I thought musical commentary opportunity was missed.(12/20/2003)

21 Grams takes place at the ironic intersection of death, guilt, religion, love and sex.
While similar in structure to director Alejandro González Iñárritu's and writer Guillermo Arriaga's previous thrilling collaboration Amores Perros and similarly using a car accident as an exploration of fate, here the fractured time and viewpoint story-telling is less a revelation gimmick and more a reflection of stream-of-consciousness memory recall.
It could be seen as a 21st century cynical, tangled remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan or a serious look at the issues raised in the light-hearted romance Return to Me. But this film demands far more concentration on the part of the viewer than most films, and I'm not sure if the plot points that confused me are just what I missed or what the creators didn't tie up, though it's masterful in how most of what's unclear does make sense by the end. I also wasn't sure the title is explained within the film, though it is in the ads. The acting is simply superb.
I was no particular fan of Mulholland Drive so didn't get the brouhaha about Naomi Watts until I fell in love with her in my favorite romantic Western The Outsider as some indicator of her capabilities, which are demonstrated even more complexly here.
Sean Penn puts in an astounding second great performance of the year, even if I didn't quite believe he was a mathematician, so that the class issues are unintentionally muted.
How terrific to once again have Melissa Leo of early seasons of Homicide get to show what a forthright actress she is, in excellent tandem with Benicio Del Toro.
The music credits listings were terrific but I didn't really notice the selections during the film. (12/1/2003)

Mystic River is a very American take on genres more usually evoked by Europeans, a sophisticated cross between the kitchen sink working class British films and the spare, family-style murder mysteries of Claude Chabrol and François Ozon, and that has only otherwise been achieved in the U.S. through whole seasons of The Sopranos.
The clues to the mystery are subtly given to us within the first ten minutes when we meet the very individual yet deeply connected characters embedded within a powerful sense of place, isolated from downtown and change by the titular geography, with the looming bridge a constant visual landmark, only a notorious traffic bottleneck to most Bostonians. My friend in Cambridge, Phil Chassler, Ph.D., explains the geographical symbolism: "A friend of mine once observed, the Mystic River is Boston's "other river"--unlike the picturesque Charles, the Mystic is the working river lined with power plants, factories etc,---the neighborhood is supposed to be Charlestown--traditionally isolated, working class, old school so to speak,(and yes, much of Boston remains unpleasantly insular) that has been "yuppified" over the last twenty-five years, especially since the mid-eighties when the Orange Line elevated train came down. The Tobin Bridge that you see connects Charlestown, part of the City of Boston with Chelsea to the east, a separate municipality. The Mystic and Chelsea Rivers flow together into Boston Harbor--the working docks are in Charlestown, Chelsea, and East Boston across the Harbor from the North End and from Charlestown. In point of fact, some of the scenes were filmed in East Boston, as well as the Fenway and Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain."
The accents aren't completely accurate, but at least some regionalism is attempted. Overlooking it from the bridge, one of the key trio early on calls it "the old neighborhood," as he's somewhat left it, as in parallel his wife has somewhat left him, but both keep feeling silent tugs to come back.
Memory and time catches up to the audience too in seeing two of our finest actors as gray-haired fathers (very natural make-up and hair style work), but Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are masterful as damaged men and even more damaged parents haunted by their mutually touched yet separately karoomed past and present. They are living demonstrations of Faulkner's dictum "The past is never dead. It's never even past," with horrific consequences for all.
The strong theme of the sins of the fathers keeps the men up front, but their wives are crucial fulcrums for loyalty and motivation, as they are in The Sopranos, and Laura Linney's and Marcia Gay Hayden's characterizations chillingly match the men one-on-one at the climax and conclusion.
The constant sense of brooding unease is promulgated enormously by director Clint Eastwood's masterful music which floats up like a body in the river and keeps up the tensions in even quotidian-seeming scenes. Sound in general bubbles up for atmosphere, from Red Sox games to telephone rings.
The cinematography is lusciously saturated (Tom Stern doing his first lead, up from lighting) for gray skies that ironically clear up to blinding sunshine at the uneasy end, for a neighborhood parade that celebrates Patriot's Day while most of Boston is doubtless cheering on the marathoners. (10/31/2003)

The Secret Lives of Dentists is a wonderful evocation of fatherhood and the power of paternal feelings, even while it's showing a marriage in crisis.
Campbell Scott is the antithesis of his ego-centric child-man in Roger Dodger to present a loving, if repressed, father and husband who is shook to the very core of his being by suspicions of his wife's infidelity.
Playwright Craig Lucas adapts Jane Smiley's novella (I read Age of Grief but only remember it as a brittle slice of realism about marriage and family) by using a similar technique as in A Beautiful Mind in having conversations with hyper Denis Leary to let us inside the panic in the husband's mind. Especially well shown, with beautiful editing, cinematography, and music, are his stream-of-consciousness memories of his meeting, courting, and living with his wife.
Hope Davis doesn't get to do much more than Meryl Streep did in Kramer vs. Kramer, but she adds significantly to her actual lines with luminous acting, especially when we see how happy she is when she's away from her ball-and-chain, though we get very little other explanation for her behavior or choices.
This movie has absolutely the most vivid depiction of what it's like to be stuck at home with sick kids; the very young child actors are the most natural and delightful I've ever seen in the movies. The spreading fever becomes a wonderful metaphor for the state of the marriage and a way to release Dad's fantasy life even more, as well as a realistic family crisis.
Friends of my parents served as dental consultants; their names are spelled wrong, but those aren't the only misspellings in the credits.(9/6/2003)

American Splendor is a delightful, original look at an American original that turns the Hollywood take on the bio-pic on its ear with all its accusations of fictionalizing and telescoping.
There is more than a tip of the hat to Terry Zwigoff's films, both the music and the characters from the graphic-novel inspired Ghost World and his documentary Crumb, as R.C. Crumb figures prominently in this creative look at the life of cartoonist Harvey Pekar. Pekar's chronic misanthropy (though the Younger says he's a pessimist, not a misanthropist) and haplessness recalls the Larry David persona in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but his art about the nothing in every day life didn't even allow him to quit his day job as a file clerk.
The movie's style is key to bringing the story of an intellectual shlemiel in Cleveland to life, incorporating Pekar's cartoons directly, in animation, in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style human/animation interaction, and having the real people narrate and comment on their lives, the movie, and the making of the movie about them, sometimes with the actors observing, as well as the seamless integration of real video, including re-plays from The David Letterman Show.
While Paul Giamatti re-creates Pekar's voice and body language with only his consummate skills, in what is clearly his role of a lifetime, Hope Davis's wig gets in the way, perhaps to hide her beauty for this quirky casting as Pekar's wife.
But loneliness and the strengths of companionship and love have rarely been brought to the screen so movingly, complete with crankily happy ending. And I thought this even before I found out our cousin plays "PA #1." (8/31/2003) (addendum added 10/18/2003)

Wasn't this supposed to be the summer of only dumb sequels for teenagers? So what a surprise that we have a virtual trilogy of intelligent foreign films about women of a certain age with strong, sexy imaginations and time on their hands to meet up with unexpected strangers, in Swimming Pool then Friday Night (Vendredi Soir) and now Lucia, Lucia (La Hija del canibal).
Lucia is unexpectedly the funniest of the three, a delightfully wry black comedy with twists on expectations that the storyteller turns on herself constantly as she bonds in an odd three-some with her neighbors, an elderly ex-revolutionary and a young hunk.
While based on a novel, it seems like a gender/generational response to the Mexican teen-age road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien, in the classic tradition of women's response songs to hits (as in "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"), complete with a country line dance scene as a relaxing break from political intrigue and marital secrets exposed while Lucia searches for her kidnapped husband -- and herself.
One of the running jokes is how the older generations can still surprise the young 'uns.(8/9/2003)

Housekeeper (Une femme de ménage) is a wry commentary on mid-life relationships that teeters on being male fantasy wish fulfillment.
Writer/director Claude Berri uses visual and musical metaphors to show differences between characters, building on the central character's work as a sound engineer recording classical music and jazz.
Jean-Pierre Bacri recalls the mid-life crisis role he wrote for himself in The Taste of Others (Le Goût des autres). We are very slowly introduced to his stuck in the mud life and the cause for it, and then slowly see him come back to life to deal with his feelings.
Amusing touch that the titular nubile nymphet eschews modern conveniences in cleaning while listening to pounding hip-hop dance music. Her taste in music and manipulative need for a rent-free apartment is about all that's realistic about her.
Would a Hollywood version let everybody finally act their ages? (8/2/2003)

Jet Lag (Décalage horaire) is a shamelessly delightful cross between the plot of Hollywood's Forces of Nature and the ever more serious compatriot Friday Night (Vendredi Soir).
Writer/director Danièle Thompson, who did the lovely wry sister reunion holiday film La Buche, stakes her territory from the onset when Juliette Binoche's "Rose" bemoans that her life is not a Hollywood film, so we know for sure it is about to become one.
The Gallic touches are the older leads -- immaculately coiffed Binoche is matched with disheveled movie tough guy Jean Reno as "Felix" and there's yet another public employees' strike or two.
The Hollywood touches are straight out of It Happened One Night (with a nice use of cell phones for continual "meet cute" moments), as each character loosens the other from their complicated significant others and repressed feelings.
There's a fun reference to The Sopranos that fits Felix's stressed executive's panic attacks.
Remember when the beautiful actress would play a dowdy Plain Jane behind glasses? Here, Binoche is hidden behind mounds of cheap make-up. Even though we know what she really is, we respond viscerally at her beauty when she suddenly appears sans cosmetics from the shower so that the audience cheers at the distinctly non-European-feeling ending that is simply enjoyable.
The French evidently now see airport layovers as romantic as transit strikes.
Stay for the credits to get the recipe of a key dish. (6/28/2003)

Could Friday Night (Vendredi soir) be Claire Denis's effort to make a satire of what American audiences conventionally think French movies are stereotypically like?
As the sun S-L-O-W-L-Y sets over the rooftops of Paris and the evening S-L-O-W-L-Y unfolds, there is almost no dialogue and virtually no interacting conversation as smoke gets in their eyes, characters look away from each other, stare into space, go off into rooms and think, and there are no epiphanies or changes in their lives.
High school French can help, as the subtitles don't translate all the on-screen written information.
Very un-Hollywood sexy, the leads are well-lived in -- Valérie Lemercier's "Laure" is a voluptuous tangle of curls and Vincent Lindon's "Jean" is quizzically rumpled.
The script certainly could have been written by Erica Jong as it's basically an illustration of her idealized "zipless fuck," (albeit with surprising tenderness).
There are elements of magic realism, especially when the lovely cinematography gets fuzzy, so I wasn't sure what scenes (or if some or all of the encounter) are fantasy.
It could certainly make one look forward to a transit strike and traffic jams! (6/29/2003)

Man on the Train (L'Homme du train) is a small story of cumulative details done exceedingly well that could simply not be done by Hollywood.
The excellent leads, each charismatic in his own way, talky Jean Rochefort and taciturn Johnny Hallyday (who brings none of his pop star baggage to an American audience), are past middle age.
There is a lot of Rohmer-like sitting around talking over a bottle of wine. The emphasis is on very gradual, internal realizations by each character that are revealed by a subtle accretion of surprising little decisions, such as wearing slippers or getting a new haircut, culminating in an unpredictable, yet beautifully satisfying conclusion.
Photographed in a shades of gray palette that is almost in black-and-white, a small town and its interconnections and personalities are beautifully evoked.
The women in their lives are ancillary, which is just as well, as they are not completely believable. The poetry teacher is too sophisticated to quote John Greenleaf Whittier, but I will, on the theme: "Of all the words of tongue or pen/the saddest are these/It might have been."(5/27/2003)

Director Philip Noyce avoids telling the viewer that The Quiet American is based on a Graham Greene novel called The Ugly American, but he's not subtle about much else, including pointing a finger at Western European colonials' complicity in Viet Nam as well that we have only seen up to now in the restored scenes in Apocalypse Now Redux.
But to his credit he tells the allegory of how we got stuck in the Big Muddy mostly visually and from the point of view of a cynical, ethically-challenged Brit journalist, played brilliantly, almost sympathetically by Michael Caine, to whom the personal is the political.
Refreshingly, it is the American who is the ideologue, played winningly by Brendan Fraser as he presents himself in turn as a naive medical missionary and manipulative cop of the world.
Actually filming in Ho Chi Minh City adds immeasurably to the beautiful mise en scene, where the flimsy ships bobbing in the harbor are a continuous visual motif, from sunrises to sunsets.
Both the weakness and the strength, though, are the plot points of the Inscrutable Orientals who cross their paths. On the one hand, I sure wish we knew more about the Viet Namese characters as individuals and human beings because they do seem like emotionless stick figures. On the other hand, by being ciphers they represent that we never really knew the Viet Namese anyway, because it was their country and neither the French nor the Americans had any business being there.
Australian Noyce is not overly heavy-handed in communicating all this through a triangle of relationships in the 1950's, but is very effective at showing this through a look, a tear and the wiping away of blood on the cuff of a pair of pants.(2/15/2003)

About Schmidt continues director/co-writer Alexander Payne's exploration of the people of his home town of Omaha, Nebraska, that he demonstrated such a humorous but non-condescending or cruel feel for in Election.
Payne's going from high school graduation to retirement, but revisits the steps along the way, in what seems to be a response to Straight Story, in effect saying that way too glorified the plains people and made a regular life story too romantic and heroic.
Neither the static nor the picaresque parts of Schmidt's life involves the climax or catharsis of that film, even with the one suspenseful existential act that we think the film is building towards with Schmidt's daughter.
Kudos to the production designers, location managers, and the Midwest casting director, who gets a separate credit in the film, for finding the most natural representation of a region outside a documentary, supplemented with excellent character actors, who surround Jack Nicholson with authenticity. Much about the characters is revealed visually through their environments -- from a wall full of awards and trophies only for attendance and participation to the Americana roadside tourist attractions Schmidt enjoys.
Is Nicholson's performance so impressive on its own, as a Middle American Everyman who is not in charge of his fate, or because it's Jack so different from his showy roles and Hollywood life (reflected in the credits with a screen-full list of assistants)? It's been a long time since we've seen him matched on-screen with age-appropriate women. Kathy Bates is a wonderfully earthy foil to Nicholson's actuary, but there's only gentle jabs at all.
For example, the soundtrack is full of treacly classic rock that is part of the Muzak soundtrack of our lives. And that's all that it is, the story of an American life. Will this movie be comprehensible to foreign markets? (2/9/2003)
While the movie is adapted from a book, Payne invented an introspective avenue for Schmidt through letters to a charity case, shown with much less cynicism than this article deservedly describes, according to Star Power Recharges Children's Charity: Nicholson Film Boosts Interest in International Sponsorship Program by Jacqueline L. Salmon, Washington Post, February 6, 2003.

Max is a fictionalized imagining of a significant "what if" moment in German history -- "what if" art student Adolf Hitler had taken a different career path? It reminded me of a classic Outer Limits episode where well-meaning aliens travel back in time on Earth to find the exact moment when they can prevent the birth of a megalomaniac who leads the universe into a disastrous war; they couldn't prevent it and neither could art dealer Max Rothman.
In his debut, writer/director Menno Meyjes gives us two WWI veterans who shared the war in common but experience its after-effects across a vast socio-economic chasm, rich, adulterous arm-amputee Jewish Max (John Cusack, continuing his cold Nelson Rockefeller commercial aesthete from Cradle Will Rock) and poor, healthy, passionate loner, pre-famous Corporal Hitler (a really obsessed Noah Taylor who is actually a contemporary of Australian films with Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman but outrageously enough doesn't seem to work a fraction as often as they do).
Meyjes presents both as failed visual artists who experiment with "kitsch" performance art as their new medium. But Hitler takes his visions out of the gallery and into the streets with a frightening impact on the real world that Max disastrously misunderstands that we already know is coming.
While the mélange of accents are confusing enough to place people, I couldn't figure out from Cusack's performance (or maybe it was the script) if Max by the end was genuinely reconciled with his children, parents and wife, let alone his heritage, or was he just being dutiful, as we know less about the real Max than we do about the real Hitler.
Other characters are also left vaguely defined -- from Leelee Sobieski's mistress to Molly Parker's ballet dancing wife; Peter Capaldi's part must have ended up on the cutting room floor. (1/24/2003)

Adaptation is not the first film to document how a screenwriter is a cog in the wheel of the Hollywood maw (State and Main included that in its corrosive satire and further back of course the victim of Sunset Boulevard was an erstwhile screenwriter, as well as Barton Fink) but it may be the first to exclusively, obsessively, and hysterically focus on the writer.
The title turns out to be a multi-layered pun on writing a screenplay from a book and of surviving natural selection of evolution for life in general, and a movie-making ecology of metaphorical sharks, real alligators, phonies, manipulators, etc.
The roman a clef touches from writer Charles Kaufman's past success with Being John Malkovich with alleged scenes from the shooting of that film, as this reunites the same team, and studios' and agents' references to it ground the film in some kind of reality (and will confuse anyone who hasn't seen that film) before veering back-and-forth into fantasies, dreams, leaps of imaginings, and back to some semblance of reality.
The fantasy is continued through the credits, from the co-write with "Donald Kaufman" to the post-credit memoriam quote that you should stay for.
Meryl Streep is marvelous as she gradually becomes a-typical and I don't think Chris Cooper has ever been less than wonderful anyway and is always on the brink of recognition for his enormous talents. Most of the audience I was with did not get the jokes, but I laughed heartily. (1/12/2003)At the BAFTA awards, the Brit equivalent of the Oscars, which allows people to accept for others, Meryl Streep read a fax from adapted screenplay author winners the brothers Kaufman for Adaptation. It was hysterical! She claimed she hadn't seen it in advance so was reading it for the first time, that it was just handed to her. Kaufman wrote it in the style of the screenplay. About how he was struggling to figure out how to write a thanks. That he was so intimidated that Meryl would be reading it. That she's such a great actress and he hates to put her through this. That he felt pressure to write a good joke and was afraid that he would make Meryl feel bad if the joke didn't work, etc. etc. I haven't looked to see if it's transcribed online but it was far and away the BEST acceptance speech I've ever heard. And whether Meryl was acting as planned or being spontaneous in her reactions, complete with a very funny spoonerism on the director's name, to what she was reading, she was brilliant too. (3/1/2003)

Evelyn is a well-done, star-cast, heart-tugging movie-of-the-week, Irish division.
Pierce Brosnan produced, as he has some other small movies like the charming The Match, and this one has some personal autobiographical resonance for him.
For folks who only know him from Remington Steele (sigh) or the Bond flicks, Brosnan has done a fair share of dramatic indies, including a previous colonial Brit film with the same director Bruce Beresford, Mister Johnson, though his singing here is game but just adequate.
Just about everyone but a dour Stephen Rea twinkles in this film -- Julianna Margulies with a fair Irish brogue, Aidan Quinn and Alan Bates.
I would think it's impossible to resist the movie's teary charms, and the audience not only cried but applauded at the end.
It is certainly nice to see a strong movie about paternal affection and responsibilities, especially an Irish one with a minimum of drinking stereotypes.
The closing Van Morrison song is minor Van, but that's still better than most over-the-credit schmaltz.(1/4/2003)

I went to see Antwone Fisher as an accident of multi-plex sold-out theaters and was girded for schmaltz, but was curious to see Denzel Washington's directorial debut. Whoa, the whole audience--including me-- burst out into tears at the same time, with many also bursting out into applause at a later moment. But could anyone have ruined such strong material as this autobiographical story by the screenwriter? Washington's prim, prudish fingers are all over the structure-- I read that it was his decisions to tone down the abuse Fisher actually suffered, and to add in more of his character's, the shrink, role with his (yet another light-skinned, straight-haired) wife because he thought the audience needed a break from Fisher, and I disagree with both choices. Where Washington is especially effective - and the scenes that prompted the tears and the applause-- is in showing African-American families so naturally, with a diversity of personalities, reactions, motivations, and interactions, comparable to Barry Levinson's Jewish family sagas. He's more pedestrian in the macho military environment, unlike, say, how comfortably in-your-face Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile is with guys together. This is very much like a black Three Faces of Eve showing the solution to psychological problems as remembering, talking about, and reconciling with the past. The scenes with Fisher and his too-nice girlfriend are charming. But we don't really get an answer to the question, as to how it is that Fisher, who even at the beginning of the movie is not hardened but is basically a sweet, nice guy who just happens to throw punches a lot, ended up all right when everyone else in his milieu ended up in jail or worse.(12/29/2002)

Another perspective at: Another Dad Flick, and Guys Are Crying by Linda Lee in The New York Times, December 29, 2002.

Far From Heaven is meaningless without reference to the lush, 1950's melodramas that it corrosively satirizes.
From recreations of the graphics of the credits, to the exaggerated fashions, the stilted, formal parent/child interchanges, the technicolor cinematography, to surrounding us with Elmer Bernstein's swelling music instead of the usual period soundtrack songs, writer/director Todd Haynes acidly shows us what those Douglas Kirk directed, Rock Hudson-starring suburban tales of the quiet lives of gray flannel desperation never did. This is all about conformity to surfaces and hypocrisy, and Haynes's sweeping camera picks up the third-dimension around all these flat, pretty lives.
The actors are not just additional decoration on the elaborately furnished period sets. Dennis Quaid quite effectively takes his Everybody's All American into the territory that even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof could only hint at in its time, such that his breaking down into tears becomes a major, shocking moment for both his family and us; too bad that the frank ramifications of the reel/real Rock Hudson story-line peters out too soon in favor of focusing frostily on inter-racial issues.
Wearing her elaborate make-up and exaggerated hair style like armor, Julianne Moore's growing real life pregnancy, hidden in folds and folds of stiff fabric, actually is an advantage here because it makes her look more like a 1950's matron than the typically impossibly thin actresses of today.
Playing pretty much the same purpose and role he did in Love Field, Dennis Haysbert (the president on 24) gets to do more than Sidney Poitier did in such roles, by actually having some believable back-story and an opportunity to interact with other African-Americans in the story line.
When I used to watch these kinds of movies on black-and-white TV I'd be reduced to tears; here, I just appreciated the intellectual point it was making so coldly, despite the warm colors. The senior citizens in the audience who oohed and aahed at the period recreations seemed to enjoy the movie the most.(December 4, 2002)

Sunshine State is like an American take on Gosford Park with a similar talky ensemble in a plot that's less important than the revelations of social strata.
Two actresses dominate this, too-- Angela Bassett and Edie Falco, with Falco, like Maggie Smith, simply stealing the show with the best lines and force of personality, like Mary McDonnell's solo in Sayles's Passion Fish.
The large cast is uniformly excellent (including several TV actors getting a fine chance to shine), if the characters are a bit more self-knowing types than one usually finds off a theater stage. The characters are not trendily connected through circular coincidence, or even as intimately as in Sayles's Lone Star, but rather illustrate the formality of relationships and separateness of small town class and race.
The real estate negotiations over development of a still segregated island off Florida that allow us to see in relief all the complex social and familial relationships are believable, though Alan King's Greek chorus golfer is a bit heavy-handed.
Sayles's tour of the Americas through his films is usually noteworthy for his use of regional music, but here the music is barely heard until the end, and then only for ironic emphasis, and it wasn't clear to me if the best of the few songs are on the CD. (7/13/2002)

I didn't see the first cut of Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo cinema Paradiso) because everyone said it was a schmaltzy nostalgia tribute to growing up watching old movies in a small town that happened to be in Italy.
This original director's cut changes such a description; it's now a full autobiographical take on an artist and what drove him from and back to Sicily. This cut restores 51 minutes that the distributor chopped off the end of the movie -- that's more than a third of the film. It now has more in common with Last Picture Show.
We now see the full sweep of post-war development in Sicily, as the town piazza slowly goes from a wide expanse with the occasional horse-drawn funeral cortège, to a car park. While what captivated audiences originally is still entertaining -- the precocious child actor who plays the artist as a smart-aleck small boy-- now we also see him as a love-struck teenager, soldier, young man with only existential choices and a grey-haired adult coming to terms with the people in his past.
This original cut is essential because it provides clear-eyed re-interpretations of people we saw him with as a child; now we learn the truth about them through adult eyes. The director says he always intended it to be a love story, not just about the movies.
Why did it take so long for this cut to appear? How could the director have tolerated such a massacre without screaming to the press? Contractual obligations?
I saw the movie with a friend who has been exploring her Sicilian heritage; in 1995 she visited the town where the movie was shot and says it still looked like that then, and felt it was truthful to the people of the area. (7/6/2002)

Late Marriage (Hatuna Meuheret) makes Monsoon Wedding seem like a commercial Hollywood flick in comparison in dealing with a similar theme -- families imposing traditional marriage on an adult son in today's world.
This film is an intense and heartbreaking examination of a Georgian Russian immigrant family pushing tradition on an older son in very modern Israel. Through a very gradual unveiling as we learn more and more about each member of the family and relationships, every character is strongly individually wrought, flaws and all, complex sympathies and all.
The blunt scenes demonstrating traditional relationships are paralleled with extremely frank contemporary ones.
I thought at first that the lack of a soundtrack virtually up until the closing scene was due to writer/director Dover Koshashvili's obvious minuscule budget. Instead the closing band music punctuates a bittersweet, ironic tension-builder as the audience waits anxiously to see how the central figure of Zaza/Dooby resolved his unresolvable philosophical, familial and romantic dilemmas amidst very competitive, strong-willed women.
The sub-titles are sub-par; it's awkward, for example, to translate "Shalom" as peace be with you as it's really more just colloquial hello.(5/24/2002)

World Traveler could be a video for Springsteen's "Hungry Heart" - "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back/ Like a river that don't know where it's flowing/ I took a wrong turn and I just kept going. . ./Everybody needs a place to rest/ Everybody wants to have a home/ Don't make no difference what nobody says/ Ain't nobody like to be alone."
Instead, writer/director Bart Freundlich uses that ultimate road warrior Willie Nelson and his songs, particularly some recent duets, as the expressive soundtrack, concluding with "Across the Borderline": "When you reach the broken promise land,/ Every dream slips through your hand,/ You'll know it's too late to change your mind./ 'Cause you paid the price to come to far,/ Just to wind up where you are,/ And you're still just across the borderline./. . . Hope remains when pride is gone,/ And it keeps you moving on,/ Calling you across the borderline./ And you're still just across the borderline."
I'd follow Billy Crudup just about anywhere in the movies, so I gave this picaresque, existential introspection space, especially admiring Terry Stacey's cinematography. He has a European's appreciation for going across the U.S. Utilizing Crudup's chiseled visage to critical effect in the script as if it were written specifically for him, his character's alcoholic break-down is mostly visual, through akimbo body language and his dreams, as he knock-hockeys off a series of even more seeking or troubled characters until his meeting up with his past and what could be his future seem to straighten him out.
The opening and closing NYC setting shots of the World Trade Center of course tell us what day this was filmed before.(5/4/2002)

Son of the Bride (El Hijo de la Novia) is an Argentinean It's A Wonderful Life for baby boomers.
Because nowadays even George Bailey would be overworked, with sandwich generation responsibilities, and probably an ex-wife. Instead of an angel, here, it's a heart attack, the sudden appearance of a childhood friend, and his aged father who wants to give his mother the church wedding she wanted for the past 40 years, at least before her mind was lost to Alzheimer's.
What makes the movie enjoyable and not schmaltzy, as written and directed by TV director Juan Jose Campanella, is the charm of lead actor Ricardo Darin, the comfortably realistic dialog (with only a couple of missteps in the subtitles) and situations, and the very funny bits that shine through (which Hollywood will smooth out when it re-makes it in English), including boomer pop culture debates (but who is Dick Watson?).
Each of the characters has at least some individuality, even the male fantasy young girlfriend and the loving daughter.
I loved the penultimate line: that his father makes a loving long marriage "look like Fred Astaire." (updated 9/2/2002)

Last Orders is a buddy movie with the unusual angle of it being old buddies played by a rogue's gallery of Brit character actors --Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, and David Hemming, with Helen Mirren as a woman connecting with several of them and Ray Winstone holding his own as the younger generation.
I respect producer/book adapter/director Fred Schepisi's effort to tell the story through sentimental and knowing flashbacks as the old friends think back on their relationship with the friend whose ashes they are carrying based on his last wishes. But I did keep getting confused as to who was whom in the young vs. old (a woman next to me got so fed up she was talking to herself trying to figure them out). Hemming's younger self is his son, but I don't think he was on screen very much.
I also kept waiting for some explosive secret, but either I missed it (which was possible as I did lose the thread), or the secrets seemed revelatory but not shocking.
Still, it's a sweet and moving movie about dealing with aging, the past, death and going on. (3/11/2002)

Iris is too short.
I wanted more about Iris Murdoch before she descends into Alzheimer's disease (stunningly portrayed by Judi Dench), other than a few lectures, and more explanation on why the young Iris fixed on her husband.
I haven't read the memoirs by the husband; it's possible that because the books and thence the movie are from his view point that we can't get inside Iris's head young, old, or befuddled.
The Young Iris segments mostly point up again that Kate Winslet has a beautiful naked body (was this before or after her baby?) and I didn't see how she did enough otherwise to justify the award nominations.
The Young Husband looks amazingly like the old Broadbent, so that the flashbacks are completely seamless, and both are terrific.
It's nice to see on screen a house as much of a mess as mine, filled with reading material, but I think we were supposed to react negatively at the sight and scream doesn't the British health services provide home health aides?
Altogether a very moving movie, helped by James Horner's music, especially sympathetic to what a caregiver goes through.(3/3/2002)

Italian for Beginners (Italiensk for begyndere) is yet another of the 2001 movies for grown-ups about adults dealing with death. It shows how death in the family leads to loneliness, though not as light-hearted as indicated by the preview trailer.
It is a poignant slice-of-life of a Danish town of misfits, in the earthy, gritty manner of The Full Monty or Billy Elliott.
Proudly flashing its minimalist Dogme 95 certificate (hence the lack of illustrative soundtrack songs), it has a warm-hearted understanding of the spectrum of human foibles.
Here the woe-be-gone come together, improbably enough, at an Italian class in a local community center, with all that learning a romance language implies. At least that's what I could get out of it despite the older ladies behind me out for a matinee who decided that a sub-titled movie entitled them to talk loudly throughout, as well as kick my seat.(2/24/2002)

Monster's Ball is the fourth of the 2001 movies for grown-ups about adults dealing with death. Here the main characters find redemption through personal relationships and provide hope.
Director Marc Forster finds a way to visually communicate the difference between sex and intimacy. While some in the audience complained it was too slow, the original script by Milo Addica and Will Rokos feels like an expansion of a short story, as the outlines of the plot are fairly simple and not all the back-story is explained, and riddled with coincidences barely made feasible by taking place in a small town.
But the actors fill the spaces of inarticulate characters with complex performances, not just award-winning Halle Berry (a long way from X Men). Billy Bob Thornton starts out slightly less laconic than in The Man Who Wasn't There but very gradually finds the ability and a reason to smile.
Less attention has been paid to the excellence in smaller roles by Heath Ledger (yes hunky Heath) and Peter Boyle.
Country music is used in the background only when the radio is on; it's a nice local station they got there that plays Jimmie Dale Gilmore.(2/17/2002)

If Miramax had been distributing Lantana, you'd have heard as much about this movie as In the Bedroom.
Anthony LaPaglia matches Tom Wilkinson for a low-burning but implosive performance. New to US audiences, Kerry Armstrong is captivating.
While it's absolutely fascinating to see how screenwriter Andrew Bovell opened up his play Speaking in Tongues, though both stand on their own, particularly for their frank look at the issue of the frailty of trust and betrayal, between husbands and wives, lovers, families and friends.
The movie makes much better thematic use of a cinematic technique of visual coincidences that other films have used as a gimmick (Happenstance used them for comic effect; Winter Sleepers used them to draw out the plot; Amores Perros used them as a commentary on chance and fate).
Here the coincidences provide crucial, ever more difficult tests, leading to either sins of omission or sins of commission as those without trust, jump to conclusions or hold on to their love and faith in their partner.
The music is by Paul Kelly and is superbly atmospheric, creating a noir atmosphere and building up the tension with a continuing theme that alternates with sexy salsa music. In particular, a leit motif plays ominously whenever the titular, tropical plant fills the screen.
The crowded audience interpreted ironic comments as high comedy, which was annoying, but perhaps helped to break the tension. There was a lot of audience talking as the story was half-told visually --a particularly neat change from the original play--and the coincidences would be revealed to the audience.
This is a sophisticated film for grown-ups that absolutely respects the intelligence of its viewers. (1/21/2002)

It's not just because I have seen virtually every Merchant-Ivory/A & E/BBC/PBS costume drama and period mystery and spent a summer in junior high reading every Agatha Christie mystery that I think Gosford Park is terrific.
Robert Altman commissioned Juilian Fellowes ("Lord Angus" for Monarch of the Glen fans so of course he could also advise on etiquette during filming) for a script with very specific guidelines to work within the bounds of a genre satire. (We are spared one of the usual easy target pickings, the Fascist sympathies of the aristocracy, by fixing the shooting party weekend as taking place very specifically in 1932.)
The ensemble character acting and camera movement are simply masterful -- with Altman's mandate that we only see scenes that the "downstairs" folk pass through or are in, equating them with the spying camera, and us, too, of course. If these names weren't already a Who's Who of British (and two American) actors, each of their key scenes would be one of those "star making" break-outs. In an interview Altman noted that he intentionally made most of the biggest stars "downstairs," though our guide through the very confusing relationships "upstairs" and "downstairs" is a newcomer, Mary Macdonald (interestingly the first actress cast for the film), representing the audience. Roger Ebert pointed out how key the performance is of another relative newcomer, Claudie Blakley as a put-upon parvenu, in putting the relationships into relief, particular the changes the weekend has wrought on the participants.
While Maggie Smith seems to stand out because her character is noisier, a fellow actress protested in an interview that Smith did not in fact get the best lines -- she just did more with them -- like what she does to the phrase "day-old marmalade."
Spotlighting particular performances could be endless -- though of course I got a kick out of two of my faves, Clive Owen, who fairly radiates sexuality here, and Ryan Phillippe, playing for both teams, plus Richard Grant's smirks are priceless. Helen Mirren is startlingly different than so many of her other roles.
The class differences even amusingly extend to the investigating policemen. The inclusion of Bob Balaban as a Hollywood producer (and co-producer of this movie) also opens up the film to Hollywood and American jokes.
The movie is really laugh out loud funny, and the full house I saw it with really got into it, particularly the visual jokes and overheard lines. It quickly spins serious as the camera restlessly glides throughout the house -- the actors had to stay in character throughout all the scenes, adding chitchat to the script, as they had no idea where the camera would be.
Until the credits, I had no idea that Ivor Novello was a real songwriter, sung and played here charmingly by Jeremy Northam, and the characters' various reactions to his typical pop music of the day are a key element to the film.
Three cheers to a 76-year-old director! Experience can count.(1/20/2002)

In the Bedroom should be on a double bill with The Deep End, or maybe even a triple with Ordinary People, and that's travelling in good company, even while putting unique twists on the similarities.
The opening is Hitchcockian -- a summer idyll of a romantic couple, but the younger guy/older woman is vaguely unsettling. This then becomes more a long, gradually revealing character study than story, as the guy's parents unravel individually and together under stress -- the kind of intellectual couple who never watch "Women in Jeopardy" movies on Lifetime TV so haven't learned how to overcome these situations.
Both Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are economically breathtaking, though it's too bad that Spacek is getting more end-of-year award notice than Wilkinson as their pairing is part of the tension.
Young Nick Stahl and Marisa Tomei make an intriguing couple whose very differences effectively set off the plot tensions.
It's inspiring that this was a first-time writer/director, Todd Field, a character actor recently seen as the partner on Once and Again, who devoted five years of his (and his family's) life and finances to make this from an Andre Dubos short story and the personal commitment shows in every scene.
The mise en scene of a Stephen King-ish small seacoast Maine town is evoked beautifully, and the actors mostly even get the Down East accent down.
It's the kind of movie for grown-ups that attract older folks who don't go to the movies much, so talk all through it. Such as the couple in back of me who when seeing the opening "Welcome to Camden" sign have to say "I didn't know this takes place in Camden NJ." "I don't think it's NJ; I think it's Maine." and on and on, errr.
But be sure to avoid all ads and reviews of the film as spoilers are slipping out!(12/31/2001)

Intimacy is a very contemporary take on the Brit classic Brief Encounter, told mostly forward chronologically but backwards (with some confusion as to what's a flashback) in how the characters are revealed and relate to each other from grunting physical sex, like Erica Jong's "zipless f*cks," to surprising feelings.
By a French director with the naturalistic improv feel of a Mike Leigh film (including a regular actor from that repertory), inspired by a notorious semi-autobiographical short story by the author of My Beautiful Laundrette, it certainly feels more French than British --and I wouldn't have minded some sub-titles for when the working class mates get together.
This movie is very full frontal frank, to the point that it caused quite a brouhaha in the British press over a scene where the lead actress (Kerry Fox) performs a blow job on the lead actor (Mark Rylance). As it happens, her significant other, and father of her baby, is a writer with The Prospect who wrote up his reactions, prompting a film critic's response on reel vs. real love-making. I was surprised in advance that the American reviewers barely noticed the scene -- until I realized that the U.S. version, even unrated, is one minute shorter than the European version -- and I saw that it's absolutely obvious what minute is missing.
Here, unlike the usual frisky sexual encounter movies about twenty-somethings what makes this movie so powerful rather than voyeuristic is the mature theater actors playing experienced grown-ups with individual histories. The actress makes a point to go to interviews about the film accompanied by her nursing infant and babysitting mother and the images in the movie of trusting children are effective counterpoints to their parents' actions.
Significantly, the emotional climax for the characters comes when they are both bundled up in coats. The point of the friends' roles are a bit unclear, especially the young, handsome gay confidante who mostly seems to be pitying breeders, but it's nice to see Marianne Faithfull as rooted in reality.
The soundtrack pounds out the electronica regrets of the central male character's former life as a musician, but his existential actions and self-realization are straight out of Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart."(11/22/2001)

Va Savoir (Who knows?) is for Eric Rohmer fans, though it's even slower and with less humor than Rohmer's intellectually romantic talkfests.
Director Pierre Rivette is a contemporary of Rohmer's whose penchant for long, slow films has hampered his success in the U.S. And I guess this is his most accessible film, as the last half-hour suddenly becomes sweeter and filled with coincidences so the interplays of three couples become intertwined almost in a drawing-room comedy.
But first are all kinds of references that went way over my head as I hadn't realized until late in the movie that the play that we keep seeing long chunks being performed in Italian by one of the couples is a Pirandello piece, with the gimmick here that we sort of see it backwards, mostly from the last scene to the start, so I missed some points.
The well-acted characters do get more and more interesting as we slowly learn surprises about them such that we start rooting for different combinations than we started out understanding.
It doesn't help that the subtitles are stiffly translated by a non-native English speaker, such that "kimono" is translated as "kimono" instead of as "bathrobe" or "l'aggression' as "aggression" instead of "a fight." (10/21/2001)

Diamond Men is a wonderful slice of Americana.
Arthur Miller's indelible use of a salesman as a symbol of much that's wrong with American capitalism and families so influenced cinematic imagery that it was continued corrosively by David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross and imitatively by Roger Rueff in The Big Kahuna. (Yet, somewhat diabolically, salesmen are now more and more being used as role models for fund raising for nonprofit organizations.)
First time auteur, and diamond business scion, Daniel Cohen, has taken a similar situation of an aging road warrior (brilliantly subtle Robert Forster) and his apprentice (Donnie Wahlberg, with his brother's smiling charm and with NKOTB far behind) and the women they love and leave, and brought forth the shining humanity.
The small towns of Western Pennsylvania and their storeowners, waitresses, and schemers provide an authentic background (well, maybe except for the brothel -- though I did get a kick out of the touch that had the madam scoring very high on the corporation's "customer service" exam) and the dialog, particularly about jewelry stores and diamonds, sounds completely genuine.
Even if the finale is a bit Hollywood, it feels redemptive, unlike other salesmen movies.(10/6/2001)

Innocence has a startling premise -- that senior citizens have feelings, even romantic and sexual feelings.
The cinematography is luscious, as the golden memories of youth overtake current reality in a triangle transposed to a later time of life.
But the premise of a re-blossoming of first love and look of this Australian movie (shot partly in Belgium) is better than its execution. The dialog is a bit clunky and stagey -- I got so tired of the woman saying to the man: "You haven't changed in 40 years." Do people really not change based on life experiences? Sure seemed to me she was projecting the past on to him, or maybe it was a weakness in the acting.
I wanted to know more about their lives over that time that made them who they are now; there was a disconnect directly to their adolescent memories.
But none of the characters are stereotypes, and all are intelligent, including the adult children. The ending is nicely bittersweet.(9/29/2001)

Together (Tillsammans) proves that Dogma 95 filmmakers can actually have a sense of humor, even an uproarious one.
An urban commune in 1975 Sweden is never the same once the real world really intrudes in the form of the sister of a participant with her kids fleeing her abusive, alcoholic husband.
The complex ensemble has very distinct characters, in a very frank, contemporary update of a French drawing room comedy circle of relationships.
Anyone who shared a house with many roommates in the 1970's will particularly relate. Looking as if it's at least partly improvised or Real World documentation, each character's motivations and actions are completely and hysterically believable, from the little kids taking turns playing "Pinochet torture" to the political uproar caused when the brother brings first an old TV set then meat into the house for the kids, to the various bed-hopping and nosy neighbors. The reactions and actions by the husband are a poignant counterpoint to the goings-on at the commune and really grounds the movie.
Music is distinctively used to reflect each individual, from the pre-teen daughter fleeing her quite reasonable conviction that "All adults are idiots" with Abba on the headphones, to the PC lesbian trying to seduce the sister with a Tori Amos-sound alike record but getting trumped by the sister's heartfelt playing of a pop version of "Love Hurts" (which we see later why it has much personal meaning for her). Which made it very frustrating that none of the credits are translated into English so I could not make out a single song listing, though I assumed the music was largely Swedish. I'm tired of foreign filmmakers griping about lack of distribution and audience for their films in the U.S. when the producers won't take the courtesy to translate the credits into English. The subtitles here were also particularly annoying -- both parts of a dialog were put on the screen all at once so one read the punch line before the set-up was out of the first character's mouth. While the dialog is fast and furious, there's no excuse for this kind of killjoy subtitling. For goodness' sake, we can read fast enough to keep up. (9/4/2001)

Aberdeen is a road trip of a father-daughter relationship. But with raw, uninhibited performances by Stellan Skarsgard (as an alcoholic Norwegian oil rigger) and Lena Headey (with a thick Scotch brogue).
Charlotte Rampling is a very effective deus ex machina mother bringing them together with a goal and a deadline, while Ian Hart is memorable as the nice, normal guy thrown into their war, helping to restore their sanity. One of the most romantic scenes I've seen in the movies in years is him simply wiping her brow, while the dad looks on uncomfortably.
The route and fine details of this picaresque film are unpredictable, as they find Aberdeen and themselves.(8/31/2001)

"There's nothing new Under the Sun (Under solen)" is the titular closing line for this lovely Swedish farm romance.
And yeah it does draw on familiar territory -- the mail-order bride type Westerns like Rachel and the Stranger, the woman with a secret who appears in beautiful rural scenery in Days of Heaven, combined with the threatening, non-stop talking intruder as in Smooth Talk (who the entire audience would have gladly murdered as we laughed uproariously when his ironic fate was sealed).
Set in 1955 with some more sexual frankness than those after all non-Swedish earlier movies, Under the Sun is grounded in the realism of the lead characters, as a man and woman in their '30's who understand life, people, and most of all themselves.
But my friend and I found we kept thinking the exact same things: why the heck did those horses need to be taken all the way to that scenic water hole all day? Couldn't they just drink water from a trough? And is it really summer in Sweden all the time? (8/25/2001)

Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani) is a delightful movie for grown-ups.
Even though I missed the first minute of the opening due to subway delays (as I stumbled through a packed theater of hard-of-hearing senior citizens who go to foreign movies to read the subtitles and re-tell the plot turns loudly to each other) I could sure relate to it: middle-aged mom on vacation with Grouchy Dad and sarcastic teen boys, having to carry around all the emergency supplies and tourist tchotchkas, getting ignored by one and all.
From there it turns into a wonderful screwball laugh out loud comedy of quirky characters and unexpected life stories, some revealed suddenly, some unpeeled slowly, as chance encounters lead to surprising changes, though I couldn't move to clear my view so big heads made me miss key parts of some complicated explanations.
While the Earth Mother is captivating, the unfair flaw is the unsympathetic husband to justify the fantasy ending, though I think his character may reflect some conventions of Italian comedy that don't quite translate well here.
At the long line in the ladies room afterwards, a fluent Italian speaker praised the subtitle translations and pointed out that the family's hometown is very much not a tourist destination, so is rarely seen in films, contrasted nicely with the scenes in Venice.(7/28/2001)

Under The Sand (Sous le sable) is a cross between Bergman/Ullman's Faithless (Trolösa), for its humorless look at a middle-aged, comfortable marriage, and Truly, Madly, Deeply for how not to deal with an unplanned break-up.
Charlotte Rampling's face and body language are wonderfully expressive, as she alternates between facing reality and basking in fantasy, and in French and English.
While it's always interesting to be a movie tourist inside middle-class Parisian apartments, we don't really get much insight into individuals or relationships.
It's just sad.(5/20/2001)

The Dish is one of those amusing, charming Ozzie movies about idiosyncratic small towns down under (like Muriel's Wedding, The Coca Cola Kid, etc. with no dark undertones).
This one pads out a bit the story of how an incongruous radio satellite in a sheep paddock played a crucial link for the Apollo moon landing TV telecast. Only a couple of things really happened to make any suspense, so eccentric characters are thrown in. Their irreverence and down-to-earth attitude, especially about politicians, keeps it from being schmaltzy.
"Puddy" from Seinfeld does the NASA guy quite nicely.
It's odd for an American to see a movie about the Apollo mission with only a brief shot of Walter Cronkite as he's so synonymous with watching all the space flights on TV.(4/14/2001)

When Hollywood re-makes The Taste of Others (Le Gout des Autres) it will just manage to change everything in this delightful Woody Allen meets Eric Rohmer ensemble piece that it will be awful.
Here you have chaos theory at work as tiny coincidences of gradually revealed links between people whose lives wouldn't usually intersect (from an ex-cop to artists to a business executive) set off dramatic changes (or consideration of changes) in their lives. Such that something one contact says to another is then taken out of context to cause communication problems when it's passed on to another.
A lot of the triumph has to do with director/co-writer Agnes Jaoui's penchant for long shots and her trust in the actors (but then she and her husband--who also co-wrote the script--are also co-stars, though not an on-screen couple). For example, two casual lovers meet up in a restaurant, and the guy introduces her to his co-worker. That sparks fly between the new pair is communicated without close-up leers or touching and with bare conversation. The woe-be-gone boss drags two employees to a strip joint for distraction, and that each guy is at a different stage in his romantic travails is reflected in each's face and body language-- and we never even see the strippers, something Hollywood can never resist showing.
We root for the unexpected couples as well as their self-understanding, and they make unexpected yet believable choices. The naturalness of their interactions is laugh-out-loud funny in a knowing way, and breath-catchingly poignant.
Those of you intellectuals who are already familiar with Hedda Gabler won't be sandbagged by one scene as I was.
It deservedly won a slew of French Cesars.(3/3/2001)

In The Mood For Love (Fa yeung nin wa) shows that there's still something new filmmakers can bring to a very old subject, the impact of adultery. Here we only see the cuckolded spouses.
Situated in the specifics of crowded Hong Kong in the early 1960's to intensify the proximities, the spouses become next door neighbors, v-e-r-y gradually (yeah, there was some snoring in the theater) realize their connection, then try and understand the emotions and the morality of their unseen cheating mates by reenacting critical decision points they assume must have occurred.
The fantasy vs. the reality gets a bit confusing to us and overwhelms the characters with guilt just by the power of their feelings. The camera's intensity in communicating longing is a double-edged sword for Western audiences of playing on some visual "Oriental" stereotypes.
For a woman living in a one-room apartment, the wife has more "Suzi Wong" type, very tight dresses than a department store, with a different one on in every blink of the lens, and wow does she look fabulous in them as the camera lingers on her fully-clothed body parts (the audience commented afterwards that even the PG rating seemed too restrictive). The man gets only a couple of visual leers.
The finale in Angor Watt seems a bit unnecessary with its heavy symbolism.
It's frustrating that the songs on the soundtrack are clearly commenting on the emotions but they are mostly Nat King Cole singing in Italian or Spanish, with one Chinese pop number thrown in, so that nuance is lost to English-speakers.(2/17/2001)

Yi yi is a Taiwanese cross between PBS's Loud Family of An American Family and Barry Levinson's Avalon.
Edward Yang's quite leisurely, still camera feels documentarian, particularly when the characters have more silences between them than dialog, but they are very pregnant moments.
But the sudden plot turns remind you this is fiction as it traces a family through a wedding, birth celebration and funeral and in-between. Each person in the very large, extended family and their orbit is seeking answers -- through spiritual quests, through gambling, through nostalgic retracing of past relationships, through work or school or romantic success, and each ends up the opposite of what you expected when they started: the stable ones get shook up, the hysterical ones calm down, the dissatisfied ones reconcile, etc.. So it's about life.
My mind did wander sometimes in the middle as I got a bit confused about the ensemble of people, but the last half I was really involved, and judging by the sudden intakes of breath and appropriate laughter so was the rest of the audience.
The kid is absolutely the most adorable, natural child actor ever-- especially when you find out what kind of photos he's been taking all through the movie, as a stand-in for the writer/director, and for all of us people watchers.
I felt like I was still watching the movie when the couple next to me on the subway was arguing about whom to invite to their wedding and the guy kept touching her and wheedling until he got her to agree to invite all his obnoxious friends. And then they had an argument about whether they wanted their first kid to have brown eyes or not, evincing a wincibly bad knowledge of genetics. Well, there's research that shows that a long marriage of arguing keeps both participants alive longer.(2/12/2001)

Faithless (Trolösa) starts out claiming that it's about the corrosive effects of divorce, but it seemed to be equally about the writer's creative process, how the characters' emanate with little control and take over the artist's life.
With a provenance that feels uncomfortably autobiographical, as it's written by Ingmar Bergman, who lives alone on an island like the man who calls forth characters in the movie, and directed by Liv Ullman, Bergman's one-time muse, lover and mother of their child (and the child here becomes a painful pawn).
The lead triangle is all in the arts, as actress, director, conductor. Many of Bergman's later works have originated on Swedish TV and I wonder if this did too, as it's mostly tight close-ups or claustrophic two-person interplays.
Lena Endre's face is so captivating that I kept forgetting to read the subtitles, so I missed some dialog here and there.
The audience was a bit exasperated at the end, in trying to figure out what was imaginary and what was real and what happened to whom at the end, but I think that's what happens to writers as they leave their work.(2/11/2001)

The Pledge is pretty much Prime Suspect with Jack Nicholson in the Helen Mirren role.
Ironically, Mirren is also in this cast, reminding me of the classic scene that jump started Ralph Fiennes film career by being interviewed by Mirren as the shocked boyfriend of a victim who is her suspect). There is a stream of top-notch character actors interviewed in the process of a criminal investigation who responded to Sean Penn's siren call of "How would you like to do a scene with Jack Nicholson?" Robin Wright Penn had to be dirtied up a bit and the camera not linger on one of the most beautiful actresses in order to have her fit into the atmosphere. Nicholson really tones down his usual mannerisms and tics to thoroughly inhabit this old and obsessed cop.
The story unfolds v-e-r-y slowly so that my mind did wander quite a bit in the first third so I think I missed some clues. But gradually it becomes clear that the whodunit is far less important than the character study. This is the kind of intense mystery the Brits do so well, particularly for television. While Penn favors relentless close-ups, the camera does sweep back to encompass the varied Nevada scenery and very naturalistic environments, from a retirement party in a bar to a flea market to a patriotic small town parade.
Nice closer of a David Baerwald song, but there's not a lot of music, though the Hans Zimmer score is effective without being as bombastic as he usually does. (1/21/2001)

Cast Away opens with a relentless commercial for Fed Ex, even with the crash, "When it absolutely, positively has to be there the next morning" and how that claim creates a certain work ethic around the world.
Cut off the beginning and ending and it's an absolutely terrific modern Robinson Crusoe minus Friday movie.
The waves were far more effective and realistic (and terrifying) than the touted ones in Perfect Storm. Too bad the special effects won't get noticed precisely because they are so believable rather than fantastical. The camera work on the water is excellent.
Hanks is quite the Everyman as the whole audience wonders if they would be as inventive as he in surviving with an unusual set of resources. The silence and Hanks's performance on the island are completely involving.
The entire audience questioned a closing gimmick that I think is simply a concluding Fed Ex commercial.(1/7/2001)

You Can Count On Me is a sweet little family movie about grown-ups.
Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo do a very natural, very believable two-hander as brother and sister. I did enjoy every time Linney told off Matthew Broderick (who went to high school with the writer/director, Ken Lonergan) as her annoying boss, representing what we'd all like to do. The youngest Culkin actor is not as annoying as some child actors, but sure looks like his brother.
It did drag a bit about three-quarters through, such that my mind wandered and I got bit confused as the climax neared. So the responsible one is not so responsible and the irresponsible one is in fact caring and responsible? Was that the point?
At least there's not a predictable, sappy ending. More like a slice of real life as we all just keep muddling through, making mistakes in our daily lives. These characters deal with depression by facing their mistakes and living with them.
It well uses the small-town upstate New York town feel. (11/26/2000)

Left Luggage is an interesting effort to deal with children of Holocaust survivors, not a common subject in films.
Instead of Maus there's a vibrant, secular college student in 1970's Antwerp dealing with her haunted parents and her new employers, a Hassidic family.
It's an international co-production--Isabella Rossellini is actually creditable as the Hassidic mother and Maximillan Schell who has had a huge career playing Nazis is quite good as the unreligious Jewish father. It pushes too many, way too many schmaltzy buttons (yeah yeah, I cried about the adorable sort-of developmentally disabled kid that the young woman is the nanny for, but come on, and comparing reactions to the Nazis to standing up to a crazy, anti-Semitic elevator operator is a bit much).
The changes that the woman goes through relate mostly to her dealings with her parents and they with her, though the changes she puts the Hassidic family through are more moving.
There's an indication of an impact on her own sense of Jewish identity when she finally declares herself Jewish to her gentile best friend and some impact on her romantic life when she kicks her leechy Marxist blonde, blue-eyed boyfriend out of her bed, but that's more to do with her independent streak.(10/22/2000)

Noted misanthrope Neil LaBute has made the best tribute to Billy Wilder in Nurse Betty.
Probably because he directed and didn't write the script, Betty actually loves and appreciates most of its nutty characters (except of course Aaron Eckhart who also played bastards in LaBute's stomach-turning nasty In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors).
Wilder combined both mordant wit (as generated by, my Dad never fails to remind me, his Boys High Schoolclassmate Izzy Diamond, the I.A. who was Wilder's script writer for most of their career) and pathos.
Nurse Betty definitely reminded me of aspects of The Apartment and Double Indemnity, from very funny to very violent, with characters who have warmth, delusions and ulterior motives through parallel dimensions that meet at dangerous and skewed angles.
Morgan Freeman has a field day with his best deep character since The Shawshank Redemption.(9/24/2000)

Alice and Martin (Alice et Martin) is the anti-Hollywood relationship movie of the summer. (It's French so you have to say it like you went to National Lampoon's famous School of ze French Akzent: "a-LEES ay mar-TAHN").
Act 1 gives you background on Martin growing up, yeah you think as you get restless, the usual dysfunctional family, the usual fights with dad, so he ends up in the big city.
Act 2 is the usual couple in the Big City (in this case, of course Paris) and quite a few people in the audience yawned quite loudly. There's a few sophisticated touches -- she's pals with gay guys, he falls into being a fashion model for the easy money (and the metaphor for his blankness) so there's arguments about commercialism.
This is my first Andre Techine film so I don't know if the crucial Act 3 is unusual, even though the central plot development was not a complete surprise. So many Hollywood "meet cute, fall into bed, fight then realize they're made for each other" movies have the couple existing in a bubble, separate from family or the sources of how they got to be like they are. Here coming to terms with their souls means coming to terms with their family and seeing through all the implications. So there's a bit of a gimmick in cutting back and forth with flashbacks to reveal background to us, but it's done sort of like an amnesia victim gradually remembering.
Juliette Binoche really rises to the Act 3; I wasn't all that impressed with her in The English Patient but she's gut-wrenching here, going through very complex emotions--and nice non-Hollywood touch that she's the older of the pair.
If Hollywood were to remake this movie, they'd cut to the last 10 minutes, and turn it into a courtroom drama where the heroic defense lawyer goes around interviewing everyone to get to "the truth," but coming to peace with yourself is not something that litigation can solve, and Binoche's face shows that.
Nice repeat use of Jeff Buckley song. (9/3/2000)

All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre) goes beyond a story of transvestites or transsexuals or nuns or Pedro Almodóvar's pseudo-feminism, but this gender-bender goes far beyond any issues.
Through recurrent explorations of Tennessee Williams and the images of men and women in Streetcar Named Desire, he takes a tour through prostitution, marriage, parenting/being a child and AIDS through fantastical characters.
As usual for Almodóvar, the production design is in bold colors.(1/15/2000)

I was the only one in the full audience of senior citizens who loved Magnolia. Every one else was sighing, snoring, talking back to the screen, complaining to their companion, loudly eating and quite quickly ran to the bathroom as soon as it was over (well, 3 hours is long).
I was enthralled for virtually every minute (all right, there were a few draggy scenes at the over 2 1/2 point and why do some points have to be made with two characters going through similar catharses?).
I thought the Urban Legend introduction was over the top until the apocalyptic ending put it in context.
Tom Cruise was mesmerizing, quite different from his usual persona, but the whole ensemble was excellent. Each of these actors has been in other movies this year but these are their best roles. The writing, editing, visual look were very personal.
Not only are the terrific Aimee Mann songs used as a Greek chorus and intimately with the characters but the score propulsively carries the action forward, helping create suspense and linkages between scenes, frequently covering over the dialog as you see that the words don't really matter sometimes. (Director Paul Thomas Anderson's girlfriend Fiona Apple is thanked at least four times in the credits and seems to have had something to do with the musical score. I hope he also gave her something to eat.)
I particularly liked that the characters went through something and they all learn something about themselves and change because of it -- which I was taught in school is the essence of drama but so few movies do that these days.(1/16/2000)

There's very little reason for anyone younger than a boomer to see Liberty Heights (except for those doing historical research on what it was like to grow up in the '50's). The audience coming in after me was all senior citizens.
The best part is how music is used to indicate different demographics (though not strictly accurate -- Tom Waits for burlesque? James Brown in 1954 -- shouldn't that have been Little Richard or Jackie Wilson?)
While I'm a bit younger than the time portrayed, I grew up near Newark and it seems to have some similarities with Baltimore. I had similar experiences first discovering R & B on the NYC's old WWRL other than, as one character puts it in the film "regular radio," and in general had similar experiences with ethnic and racial de facto segregation (it was my Irish Catholic neighbor from parochial school who introduced me to racy Redd Fox and Moms Mabley records in her basement).
Yes, I got carried away because the movie evokes nostalgia rather than cinematic reviews, cause that's all it is --- a nostalgia bath.
More coming-of-age Jewish princes lusting after schicksas and we do not get the Jewish woman's view point AT ALL. Don't we get enough of that from Woody Allen movies? At least the Jewish Mom is less stereotypical, being Bebe Neuwirth, getting to play a non-Lilith (as in Frasier) Jewish mother, so she's sexy. Like with A Walk on the Moon last year the Yiddishe grandma is very similar to mine, so more nostalgia.
It's well done for what it is.(12/19/1999)

Anyone else but David Lynch would have made The Straight Story a dripping, sentimental road movie/ modern picaresque, but instead he makes it a visually beautiful, leisurely character study through the fly-over states with an unsentimental ending.
Richard Farnsworth as The Grey Fox is marvelous in the central role, particularly in his moving monologues as he reflects on his life.
The production design is outstanding; every detail of every character and town and building is evocative to a T.
The camera lingers over the amber waving grain in a way that recalls a Woody Guthrie song.
Angelo Badalamenti manages to find some Americanesque melodies to wrap the soundtrack in; though it's beautiful, I might have preferred a more conventional Americana approach.
Sure it's rated G but no kid will sit through it.(10/30/1999)

American Beauty is an astounding movie debut for writer Alan Ball and director Sam Mendes.
They seem influenced by the Coen Brothers stable for their warped, humorous, satirical take on American Life.
The cast is absolutely perfect.
Kevin Spacey is as good as he was in Usual Suspects, which is really saying something. Chris Cooper once again shows his protean side, compared to the good old boys he's been playing lately.
I can't recall Annette Bening ever being so brittle before. Though she is playing the Ultimate Suburban Wife she does get a couple of sympathetic moments.
The teens are completely believable and captivating, often with very little dialog, though I nearly gagged on the Lolita element, as I have strong feelings about that boundary.
The cinematography is beautiful, moving seamlessly from suburban idyll to dream sequences to video watching (with lots of symbolism about watching vs. participating).
The parents' music was chosen very well and is integral to the story line, though I don't think the kids' got to be represented audio-wise to contrast with the classic rock that symbolized living in the past.(9/26/1999)

We laughed uproariously throughout Dick.
As the youngest ones in the audience, I later heard the women in the Ladies Room afterwards complain that it was not respectful to a president -I said "Have you ever heard of satire?".
As it is, I wonder if younger folks who don't know the details of the Watergate scandal would get all the jokes? My son had to answer a homework question the other day on Watergate and just used Encarta as a source - and says that's it, he knows everything about it. It does help to know about Rosemary and the 18 minute tape gap (though Arlo Guthrie's alternative explanation is equally funny.) One also does have to get references to Gordon Liddy and the Plumbers, Checkers, Nixon and his youth outreach, Kissinger's ego, John Dean's crisis of conscience, etc. It also helps to have seen All the President's Men because this movie skewers that one hilariously, taking Woodward and Bernstein effectively off their pedestals.
It probably could be funny without that foreknowledge --but not nearly as much.
Dan Hedaya seems born to play Nixon, much better than Rich Little. Saul Rubinek is terrific as Kissinger. Dave Foley is not great as the fearsome Haldeman.
I'm not sure all the music was actually year accurate, but regardless the numbers (I only spotted one cover version over the credits, with the rest the original songs) were chosen wonderfully well for very funny commentary. The clothes were also accurate, though I was bothered by the opening paean to Bobby Sherman - I thought I remember him being on Shindig circa 1965 such that Teen Beat magazine or whatever wouldn't have been featuring him in 1972, wouldn't a Partridge or some such have been more appropriate? (8/8/1999)

One spends a lovely two hours in the French wine country led me with Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale (Conte d'automne), though this is probably a niche movie for women over 35 - a guy in the back snored through it.
This is a delightfully fun movie of character actors with interesting faces having mature conversations about relationships. I've been a Rohmer fan since at least Claire's Knee and at age 79 Rohmer uses his camera much more fluidly, though the conversations are no longer like My Dinner with Andre.
All these full-bodied characters have lives and things to do and can't just sit around sipping wine, though they do that too. We are first introduced to the middle-aged characters through their grown kids' disdainful opinions. We get a nice range of relationships, old and young, for comparisons.
The climax of the movie is two introductory conversations between two couples and we actually hold our breaths at the outcomes, with one strained by the guy's roving eye and the other a natural coming together of mutual interests.(7/25/1999)

Limbo continues John Sayles travels around the continent to find distinctive regionalisms and he portrays small town Alaska with a real authentic feel .
The audio and video were out of synch for the first 15 minutes so I missed some of a key scene where the singer breaks up with her boyfriend through a song, which was too bad as the cover songs are terrific, from Tom Waits to Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day."
The acting was excellent, particularly, Vanessa Martinez as a very believable teenager. David Strathairn was both restrained and passionate. I just wasn't completely convinced that Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's character had gone through changes to be at peace with herself. Kris Kristofferson again does a bad guy scarily convincingly.
But the surprise "limbo" conclusion ruined the film for me and virtually everyone else in the audience also groaned.(7/12/1999)

After seeing An Ideal Husband I read the original Wilde play to be sure this wasn't just Primary Colors in costumes, but the original had even more politically pointed comments apropos the Clintons and Wilde is a much better writer than Joe Klein (all right I haven't actually read Primary but I've read his columns).
The cast is wonderful. Rupert Everett of course is a terrific Oscar Wilde stand in, carrying the film from the serious to the farcical to make a very cynical point -- that we all have feet of clay and life is compromise. One can suspend belief that he would be attracted to Minnie Driver. Julianne Moore is a delicious villain. Jeremy Northram makes a nice politician. Cate Blanchett is a sweet idealist (OK not exactly Hilary - but she's on the road to becoming Hilary at the end).
The only problem is director Oliver Parker who shifts too suddenly from serious drama to French bedroom farce complete with choreographed doors opening and closing and people hiding in various rooms and goes for some silly laughs like that then shifts to serious discussion.
The movie is wonderful at making the point that the more things change the more they stay the same! Reading the play, the edits were interesting -- the women were taken off their pedestals and made less Madonna vs. whore to be more real, while some political speeches were cut that I thought could have been retained to make the contemporary comparisons resonate even more.(7/18/1999)

Without knowing much in advance about After Life (Wandâfuru raifu ), I loved it.

It's like a Wim Wenders angel movie, with similar pacing, meets Frederick Wiseman documentary style meets Francois Truffaut's Day for Night paean to movie-making as watching movies is in fact what heaven is all about.
This is a week in the life of a bunch of caseworkers, only the bureaucrats happen to be purgatory processors helping the dead select the key moment in their life to relive for eternity, as then recreated on film stock by these helpful crews. It turns out, like we might have suspected, life is a movie, kept on video in giant warehouses for handy reference.
As in all movies about social workers, much of the movie is about the impact of the clients on the workers, as we gradually learn not only more about them but about the process of making movies, um, life, um death, as well. After all, that's what film artists try to do, just make us forget everything else but what we're watching.
Written, directed and edited by documentarian Hirokazu Koreeda, it is a completely fresh, original and magical movie.
As the credits were barely translated I have absolutely no idea if the participants were "real" or reel, much felt improvised with non-actors making a documentary feel for so much of the memories. (6/27/1999)

Cookie's Fortune has Robert Altman's patented esprit de corps with ensembles, here representing the intimacy of small town eccentrics, here representing the intimacy of small town eccentrics, with somewhat amusing intricacies of lies and misunderstandings.
The young folks' parts are underwritten so Chris O'Donnell simply doesn't have a lot to do, though Liv Tyler breathes life into her role.
Rufus Thomas has an entertaining bit part. Lyle Lovett's role is a charming bit, less lines but more character substance than O'Donnell's.
There is wonderful original blues music throughout, with guitar work by The Edge of U2.(5/9/1999)

Shall We Dansu? is a very non-Hollywood take, but it does fit in with it's predecessors - Roseland (which spotlighted my college roommate's mother for 4 whole minutes as a Roseland devotee), Queen of the Stardust Ballroom and Strictly Ballroom. In more conventional movies the klutzy dance learners are really Broadway dancers who miraculously learn and become dazzling. Here I think even the "instructors" were actors and there's no dazzle.
Odder, the music sounds like it's out of a karaoke machine, like Japanese re-interpretations of Western pop music, which I think is the theme of the Japanese taking on this Western hobby as well. A bit is lost in our ignorance of Japanese culture and mores though the narrator fills us in a bit. (There's a great line where a contestant in the dance competition is disqualified after he interrupts another's routine. "Ungentlemanly behavior - this is a British sport after all.")
It's such a relief when the soundtrack suddenly breaks out in "Save the Last Dance For Me" before it goes back to the slightly off-rhythm, slightly off in some way music. The dancers weren't dancing to the music either - they rehearse without music.
Regardless, it's a wonderful movie and only music fans would complain . I cried at several scenes. It's quite unpredictable in its comedy and touching in very unexpected ways. The audience clapped at the end.
It's very annoying that the credits aren't translated except for a few leads. Stay thru the credits, though, as the dancing continues.(7/23/1997)

I tried to get the kids to rent T2 last night but they picked As Good As It Gets instead as they wanted a comedy. I'd also resisted that - who wanted to see Jack Nicholson play himself? And be paired with a much younger woman? Or Helen Hunt do her Mad About You thing on the big screen? And Greg Kinnear wasn't great in the not great Sabrina. Wow - it was great and everybody deserved the Oscar noms and awards they got. And they even actually filmed the Brooklyn scenes in Brooklyn. Literate writing and distinctive quirky characters. Avi immediately picked up that the final song was from Monty Python.

Metroland should appeal to boomers, particularly ones who now find themselves in the suburbs and/or with families. (It did not appeal to the two senior citizen couples next to and in back of me who did not shut up throughout the whole movie as they didn't seem to grasp the concepts of flashbacks or fantasy images)
I'm sure there's other movies that have a friend and/or sibling interfering in a stable relationship and shaking the tree (my friend thought of Hilary and Jackie-- but maybe because both have Emily Watson, here bundled up in sweaters to try and make her less ravishing) but I couldn't think of one that deals with our time period of post-'60's measurements of personal happiness and fulfillment. We could relate to the English and Parisian experiences with parallel ones here from the same time periods of '68 vs. '78 (nicely accurate hair styles, make-up and clothes).
While there are no shortage of shots of gorgeous naked women, there's ironic visual comment regardless the lead character's lovemaking techniques don't improve over the decade of experience. One sees plenty of Christian Bale, such that I think it would, I imagine, appeal to gay men as well.
Nice use of punk music (freaking out the senior next to me!), otherwise the score was quite lovely by Mark Knopfler, with a closing song original to the movie, with apropos lyrics.(4/17/1999)

Affliction only has three reasons to see it, unless you like to watch snow fall.
Nick Nolte's performance is terrific as a man struggling against, and losing, to give in to his violent heritage. Coburn is fairly one-note but it's good to see him back.
It is worth seeing if you're a fan of Paul Schrader, who adapted the screenplay and directed, as so many of his movies are about violence and this seems to be his effort to understand where it comes from and what effort it takes to resist that.
Too much of the plot is explicated in a voice-over narration of things that should have been visualized and in some cases are quite fine.
Otherwise, it's a really dreary movie and they mumble a lot. (3/14/99)

It is nice to see Michael Douglas act his age Wonder Boys.
This reminded me of the Paul Newman movie Nobody's Fool, a sweet little movie about reconciling to getting older. This too uses location shooting for good effect, here Pittsburgh.
The new Dylan song is used at least twice, for nice commentary, and the classic rock songs are well-chosen as well.
Frances McDormand doesn't get to do much. Katie Holmes gets to be her usual young luscious self, barely above a cameo. Tobey Maguire is again quirkily fun.
I suppose this would be considered a contemporary screw ball comedy, it's sweet and amusing. You can wait to see it on video or commercial-free cable with no loss.(2/27/2000)

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