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 Brink (3/29/2019)
Our New President (1/31/2019)
Putin’s Witnesses (seen at 2019 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2019)
The Trial (seen at 2019 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2019)
Donbass (seen at 2019 First Look Festival at Museum of the Moving Image) (1/31/2019)
The Chore (short) (preview at 2018 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (10/13/2018)
Angkar (brief review at 2018 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/3/2018)
The Silence of Others (brief review at 2018 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/3/2018)
The River of the Kukamas (The El Rio de los Kukamas) (short) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/17/2018)
Cosmic Debris (short) (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/14/2018)
It’s A Hard Truth Ain’t It (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (5/14/2018)
When Lambs Become Lions (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2018)
Tanzania Transit (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2018)
O.G. (preview at 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) (4/30/2018)
Leaning Into The Wind – Andy Goldsworthy (3/9/2019)
Not included in the documentary is a permanent Goldsworthy exhibition in New York City - “Garden of Stones” (2003) is growing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Now I’ll have to intentionally view it!
Zama (previewed at 2017 New York Film Festival of Film Society of Lincoln Center) (11/6/2017)
Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/30/2017)
The Good Postman (Hyvä postimies) (previewed at 2017 Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center) (7/30/2017)
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)
(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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.