Sunday
May182014

Film/Television Review

Why Burn Notice Was a Successful Television Series.

By Warren Bull

 

Now that the television series Burn Notice has concluded after seven seasons, some stations are replaying the entire series, episode by episode. Watching the second time around I’m able to focus on the how and why the series succeeded. My observations apply to writing a series of books as much as they apply to a television series.

 Matt Nix created the series. He was the writer and the show’s executive producer. One of the strengths of the program was Nix’s strong premise. An experienced government spy is “burned,” i.e. disowned when he is suspected of being a double agent. The spy wants to find out who “burned” him, of what he was accused and why, so he can disprove whatever was said against him and resume his career. No longer having access to government resources, he has to recruit and use people from his past to help. 

Played by Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Weston, the protagonist has a wide range of skills that include expertise with hand-to-hand combat, explosives, weapons and wiretapping. He has the skill set needed to sustain a protagonist in a series.

The show is very well acted with Gabrielle Anwar playing Fiona Glenanne, mistress of explosives and weaponry. Her supposedly Irish accent kept slipping in the earliest episodes, but she did a wonderful job of conveying intimidation despite her relatively small frame. Fionna was a participant in “the troubles” in Ireland, which is a credible reason for her to have deadly abilities. Bruce Campbell, veteran of B grade horror and action movies, as Sam Axe provides a great foil for Fionna. Sam is a retired military officer with a taste for women and booze and a history of combat. He, too, can believably shoot and blow things up. Sharon Gless, an experienced actress, portrays Michael’s mother, Madeline. Starting in the fourth season, Coby Bell joined the ensemble as a spy whom Michael “burns” in an effort to clear his own reputation. Bell is a skilled actor who adds another set of relationships to the cast. He also has a physique that suggests athletic abilities.

Michael has a complicated history with each of the other characters. Examining the complicated and changing relationships within the comedic and action storylines gives Burn Notice a depth and complexity that kept the audience interested beyond what an average comedic action series could achieve. The characters grow, regress and develop over time. That sequence keeps the series fresh and possibilities open for the actors and the writer.

Over seven seasons, Michael’s search for the truth leads him through encounters with dangerous members of his own and other intelligence agencies. He tries to help people who are threatened by spies or criminals whom he meets along the way. He is a sometimes reluctant hero who has to pursue his personal crusade but also has to interrupt his efforts in order to save innocent people. The skills that helped him as a spy—isolation from others, lying and keeping an emotional distance from everyone—hinder him in his relationships with friends and family. Villains from his past appear and re-appear. From time to time he is offered work,  using his spy skills for illegal purposes. If he refuses, his family and friends may be threatened in order to force his cooperation. Throughout the seasons,  Michael is under pressure in each episode.

As a writer, I would love to use a technique limited to visual presentation. When a character is first introduced, the camera freezes on the actor’s face and a brief description of the character appears in letters underneath. For example, a person might be described as, “Michael’s Client,” “Psychopathic Killer” or “Scumbag Drug Dealer” so the audience is immediately aware of who the character is.

 

The end of the series was carefully considered and well written. It was logical and satisfying, but, even though I had seen many episodes, I was not able to predict the outcome. It fulfilled the old burlesque adage: Leave them wanting more. 

 

Thursday
Jan302014

Film/TV Review

Why “The Closer” is a Classic Television Series.

By Warren Bull

 

One reason I believe The Closer is already a classic is the strong introduction. Paraphrasing the leading actress, Kyra Sedgwick, the opening episode was nearly perfect.  The lead character, Brenda (AKA as “The Closer” for her ability to get confessions that close murder investigations) appeared a fully developed character with an interesting backstory presented in brief bits of dialog that did not interrupt the flow of the story.

 

Over the course of seven years the actors and writers have developed their continuing characters until each person has become unique with strengths and shortcomings.  Each character has also changed and developed over the years but always in ways consistent with their underlying personalities.  The ensemble has made each member a better actor.

 

The acting has been excellent.  The photography has been outstanding. The music underscored what was being shown.  A television show, like a movie, is the product of many talented individuals, most of whom operate out of sight of the audience.

 

Brenda’s character, who started with roughly the self-awareness of a fire hydrant, has been forced to confront some of her personal demons. From the beginning, Brenda has been an admirable character, even lovable but not likeable. She has often skirted and sometimes boldly marched across ethical and legal boundaries in her efforts to solve murders and elicit confessions to close cases.

 

The episodes include unpredictable elements, humor and moving moments.  I was rarely able to guess how an episode would end.  There were many victories and a few losses. Watching Brenda deal with women as driven and oblivious as she was has provided some memorable material.

 

Brenda’s willingness to break rules and offend important people has earned her respect and enemies within and outside of the police department.  Anyone who has to deal with bureaucracies can identify with her defiance and her creative rule breaking. 

 

While each episode was a complete story within itself, there were themes and ideas that continued in story arcs over time.  Episodes that showed Brenda breaking the spirit of the law to get a confession were followed by shows that demonstrated the consequences of her decisions.  Her relationship with Fritz showed Brenda’s willingness of ignore the needs of others in pursuit of her job goals and her personal growth by learning to care for others. 

 

I appreciate that the end of the series was planned and believable. Some series fade away from the lack of an audience.  The Closer adheres to an old piece of acting advice.  “Leave them wanting more.”

 

Thursday
Oct172013

Film Review

 

Blue Jasmine

Reviewed by Old School Critic

 

Just saw the new Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. It had some big names: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Saarsgaard and was written and directed by Allen. Some of the scenes were hilarious, but the film as a whole was depressing. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. The hilarity came from the caricatures who made up the characters and the parodies of behavior and dialogue in which they engaged. But they were stereotypes. Very well-acted stereotypes.

 

The story tells the tale of a woman (Jasmine—played by Blanchett) who has lost everything because her super-rich husband (Baldwin) turned out to be a financial crook who bilked hundreds of people, including her sister, out of their money in fictitious schemes and led an apparently charmed, Bernie Madoff-type life on the East Coast until he was caught. He went to jail and committed suicide while his wife and son became not only destitute but emotionally shattered.

 

Jasmine moved in with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and in the movie, attempts to rebuilt her life. The son (Alden Ehrenreich) fled both parents and after a rocky adjustment, finds some tentative peace working in a music store.

 

Cate Blanchett was remarkably poignant in her role and I couldn’t help but identify with her (she made the same mistakes and fell for the same things a lot of us do) and feel sorry for her at the same time. Her shifting back and forth between elegant competence and pitiable  disintegration was masterful  in terms of acting. It also showed us how fragile each of our constructed lives and public personas are.

 

I think this was a morality film. The Blanchett character, Jasmine, appeared to be a victim. But we were shown over and over that there were warnings of her husband’s dishonesty, which she ignored. Warnings that she should not sign documents, which she signed. And with all the evidence that her husband was a crook, she continued to spend his money, mollifying her qualms by sedating them with jewelry, clothes, parties and alcohol. That she really knew what was going on (and therefore was not a victim, but was instead, complicit in her husband’s dishonesty) was shown when it was finally revealed that she called the FBI to report what he was doing when she found out that he was having an affair and wanted to leave her. She only remained ignorant of her husband’s misdeeds so long as she profited from them.

 

In some ways the film is a swipe at Bernie Madoff and his wife and family, the latter of whom claimed total ignorance of Madoff’s dishonesty.  Madoff’s wife Ruth actually moved in with her sister, just as did Jasmine in the film.

 

But this isn’t just a small-minded vilification of Bernie Madoff or any of his family. There is a larger message.

 

Each of us hides our head in the sand on numerous occasions when we witness dishonesty or unethical behavior but we either profit from it (the merchant who accepts cash from us and gives us a discount because he won’t have to report his sale to the tax board), or we might be injured if we say something about it (our bosses  are the ones who are being unethical or dishonest and we could lose our jobs or our prospect of a promotion if we say something). Blue Jasmine shows us that there is a price to pay. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine pays the price both from the public repercussions from her and her husband’s behavior and from her inner conflicts about it. Most of us will only pay because of our inner conflicts…our guilt. But we ought to pay. Turning our backs on the dishonesty in which we are asked to participate, either explicitly or tacitly, carries a penalty. We are altered for the worse each time we do it.

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday
Oct172013

Film Review

Blue Jasmine

Reviewed by Old School Critic

 

Just saw the new Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. It had some big names: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Saarsgaard and was written and directed by Allen. Some of the scenes were hilarious, but the film as a whole was depressing. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. The hilarity came from the caricatures who made up the characters and the parodies of behavior and dialogue in which they engaged. But they were stereotypes. Very well-acted stereotypes.

 

The story tells the tale of a woman (Jasmine—played by Blanchett) who has lost everything because her super-rich husband (Baldwin) turned out to be a financial crook who bilked hundreds of people, including her sister, out of their money in fictitious schemes and led an apparently charmed, Bernie Madoff-type life on the East Coast until he was caught. He went to jail and committed suicide while his wife and son became not only destitute but emotionally shattered.

 

Jasmine moved in with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and in the movie, attempts to rebuilt her life. The son (Alden Ehrenreich) fled both parents and after a rocky adjustment, finds some tentative peace working in a music store.

 

Cate Blanchett was remarkably poignant in her role and I couldn’t help but identify with her (she made the same mistakes and fell for the same things a lot of us do) and feel sorry for her at the same time. Her shifting back and forth between elegant competence and pitiable  disintegration was masterful  in terms of acting. It also showed us how fragile each of our constructed lives and public personas are.

 

I think this was a morality film. The Blanchett character, Jasmine, appeared to be a victim. But we were shown over and over that there were warnings of her husband’s dishonesty, which she ignored. Warnings that she should not sign documents, which she signed. And with all the evidence that her husband was a crook, she continued to spend his money, mollifying her qualms by sedating them with jewelry, clothes, parties and alcohol. That she really knew what was going on (and therefore was not a victim, but was instead, complicit in her husband’s dishonesty) was shown when it was finally revealed that she called the FBI to report what he was doing when she found out that he was having an affair and wanted to leave her. She only remained ignorant of her husband’s misdeeds so long as she profited from them.

 

In some ways the film is a swipe at Bernie Madoff and his wife and family, the latter of whom claimed total ignorance of Madoff’s dishonesty.  Madoff’s wife Ruth actually moved in with her sister, just as did Jasmine in the film.

 

But this isn’t just a small-minded vilification of Bernie Madoff or any of his family. There is a larger message.

 

Each of us hides our head in the sand on numerous occasions when we witness dishonesty or unethical behavior but we either profit from it (the merchant who accepts cash from us and gives us a discount because he won’t have to report his sale to the tax board), or we might be injured if we say something about it (our bosses  are the ones who are being unethical or dishonest and we could lose our jobs or our prospect of a promotion if we say something). Blue Jasmine shows us that there is a price to pay. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine pays the price both from the public repercussions from her and her husband’s behavior and from her inner conflicts about it. Most of us will only pay because of our inner conflicts…our guilt. But we ought to pay. Turning our backs on the dishonesty in which we are asked to participate, either explicitly or tacitly, carries a penalty. We are altered for the worse each time we do it.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday
May312013

Film Review: Mud

It’s a Treat …

Mud

Reviewed by Old School Critic

 

Mud :Directed by Jeff Nichols. With Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard

In a season of special effects laden blockbusters like Star Trek, Iron Man 3, Oblivion, and whatever sequel Fast and Furious is up to, it was  time for me to watch a plot and character driven Indy film, if only to give my senses a break. That said, I have to admit that I went to see Mud partly because it features two actors who are always fun to look at: Reese Witherspoon and Mathew McConaughey. But a chipped-toothed, unshaven, mud-covered McConaughey and a tired, bedraggled, lost Witherspoon were both so removed from their glamorous personas of other films that they were hardly recognizable.

Now ordinarily I’m not a fan of movies about uneducated, backwoods southerners and their uncouth, albeit sometimes curious ways. I was more intrigued by the preview of  Joss Whedon’s upcoming Much Ado About Nothing, which I watched while waiting for the feature, than I was by my anticipation of another southern trailer-trash slice of life, which is what I expected Mud to be.

Mud had all the grit that its title suggested it might have. There were southern kingpins and bullies, played by Joe Don Baker and Paul Sparks, respectively.  But it wasn’t a picture of the prosaic, dingy side of life that sometimes emerges from caricatures of the south. In fact, other than the bad guys, nobody was a caricature. And Mathew McConaughey was a total surprise. McConaughey’s southern drawl was still there and it fit his character like a pair of kid gloves. McConaughey’s character, Mud, as he is named, is a competent innocent, living in hiding on an island in the Mississippi River, trying to refloat a boat which has been stranded in the treetops  by a previous flood, while waiting to reunite with Witherspoon, his true love since he was 13 years old. He is also wanted for murder and is being sought by a band of bounty hunters in the pay of the father (Joe Don Baker) of the man he killed because that man had abused Witherspoon.

Competent innocence also describes Ellis, the 14 year old main character in the film, played by Tye Sheridan. Ellis’ parents are getting divorced and he will lose not only his family, but his life on the river where he helps his father with his fishing business. Ellis is determined to fight for true, unending love,  which he sees slipping away from his parents. He defends and professes love for May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), the older high school girl of his dreams. And he falls hook, line and sinker for Mud’s tale of a life of faithful love to Juniper, the Reese Witherspoon character.  Ellis’ sidekick, Neckbone, played by Jacob Lofland, is less carried away by Mud’s romanticism and maintains a cynical wise-cracking skepticism, that only gradually breaks down as the movie progresses and meanwhile adds a touch of humor to the dialogue.

The film is really about the vagaries of love and the difficulty of retaining a belief in its sacredness and purity in the face of all of the evidence to the contrary. Mud’s entire life, devoted to the constant pursuit of the peripatetic Juniper, who uses his devotion to her to manipulate him while wistfully wishing that his knight on shining armor approach to her, which has led to repeated episodes of rescuing her from abusive relationships, had more substance. But Mud, although he seems to be good at solving almost any kind of problem, is a hopeless romantic dreamer who has never put together a coherent life. Ellis desperately wants to believe in the love between Mud and Juniper. He also wants to believe that he and May Pearl are in love, despite blatant evidence that she is only mildly interested in him and mostly because he, with his romantic notions and his own heroic defense of her with an abusive older boy, is an oddity. Underneath all of his wishing, he knows his parents are moving apart.

Although none of the relationships survives, love does triumph in Mud. May Pearl deserts Ellis but Mud risks his life to save the boy. Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a retired army sharpshooter (or CIA assassin, we are never sure which), who raised Mud, gives up his settled retired life to rescue Mud and join him in his escape. And, despite the dissolution of their marriage, both of Ellis’ parents come together to express their love for him and his strong relationship with his inarticulate fisherman father ( played beautifully by Ray McKinnon) persists with both Ellis and his father professing their  love for one another.

Mud is a riveting film that kept me engaged at every turn. There is romance and violence in it, but no spectacular special effects and no overt sex. Instead, it is riveting because of the performances, particularly those of Sheridan and McConaughey, which give their characters more genuineness than we are used to in movies. It is a wonderful film.

 

Old School Critic is an anonymous reviewer who describes him or herself as an avid reader of Lost Coast Review and an equally avid moviegoer, who occasionally provides a film review when the editor approaches him for one in desperation.

 

Wednesday
Feb132013

Film Review: Gangsters and Politicians

Gangsters and Politicians

By Casey Dorman

 

Gangster Squad: Directed by Ruben Fleischer, written by Will Beall, starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Broken City: Directed by Allen Hughes, written by Brian Tucker, starring Mark Wahlberg, Russell Crowe and Catherine Zeta-Jones

The best hardboiled crime stories take place in southern California—the classic novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, or modern writers such as James Elroy. In film, the standouts are  LA Confidential, which captures the noir genre and fifties Los Angeles, not to mention being based upon an Elroy story, and such other classics as The Big SleepMulholland Falls, China Town,  of course, and the 1975 version of  Farewell My Lovely, starring Robert Mitchum.

I had been waiting breathlessly for the new fifties LA crime film, Gangster Squad, to open.  I knew the story’s background, my sources of knowledge being Elroy’s novels and Wikipedia (What? I wasn’t planning to write a term paper). I was looking for period clothing and cars, snappy, tough-guy dialogue, constant smoking and plenty of guns and bare knuckles. I wasn’t disappointed by the costumes or the cars or even the cigarette smoking. It was all there, plus some nifty Hollywood nightclub sets that brought back the era as I imagined it. It wasn’t noir—there was just too much color and not enough shadow—but it had style.  Josh Brolin fit into  the hardboiled cop role like he was slipping into a pair of well-worn  gloves, although his character seemed to be a nonsensical mix of tender husband and merciless avenger.  Emma Stone could have been hanging on the arm of Mitchum or Bogart or even, instead of Sean Penn, James Cagney   (whom Penn seems to be imitating), although it was never clear why she was on Penn’s arm or why she was immediately attracted to Gosling (“across a crowded room” – OK women, only a man would ask why she was attracted to Gosling).  Ryan Gosling was more Jack Nicholson than Bogart, but he added depth in a movie that most of the time looked more like The Untouchables than the genre film I was expecting. There were just too many guns, too much shooting, too many special effects and even too much stretching of the truth.  I mean, if a film is based on true events (the LAPD squad that was out to disrupt Mickey Cohen’s crime operation was real), then it shouldn’t depart too much from actual history.  Mickey Cohen wasn’t sent to prison for murder, as the film shows, but for income tax evasion, years after the events of the film. And he really was a prize fighter, so how could Brolin, an ex-GI and cop, no matter how hardboiled he was, beat him up at the end of the movie? Most of all, the film was predictable, pretty much devoid of suspense (except for wondering when Cohen was going to catch his girl friend going out with the Gosling character—right under his nose, by the way), and as much over the top with gratuitous violence and gunfire as Scarface.

Broken City was another matter. In some sense it had all the things that Gangster Squad lacked but missed the assets of the other movie.  Modern New York isn’t fifties Hollywood, but the settings of Broken City were so ordinary that I had to keep reminding myself where this was all happening. And Russell Crowe, although he does a masterful job of being a ruthless politician, just doesn’t look like the mayor of New York, especially when we know who the mayor of New York is. Better to have let the setting remain unnamed.

I’ve read a few other reviews of  Broken City and most of them are severely critical of the screen writing. Admittedly there are parts of the plot that either don’t seem to fit or else go nowhere (what happened to the relationship between the Mark Wahlberg character and his girlfriend, so much a part of the first half of the movie, for instance?). But at least there is a plot, there is little shooting beyond the opening scene, and there is genuine suspense concerning what is being covered up by whom as well as real surprises, such as that the man we thought was having an affair with the mayor’s wife is not having an affair but doing something else entirely (something we find out only indirectly, just as does the detective played by Wahlberg).  There are plot twists that don’t make sense: why was the mayor’s wife trying to find dirt on him and why would the man who found it give it to her instead of to his boss, the other candidate? But still, as a member of the audience, you try to follow the story line. Because, unlike most current Hollywood movies, there is one.  I found a plot-driven film such as this, with fine acting by Crowe and Wahlberg a real relief.

Broken City would have been the perfect noir film. The Mark Wahlberg character is a well-intentioned, simmering-with- anger, alcoholic, forced to become a private eye because he was drummed off the police force. The city government run by Russell Crowe is rotten and there are behind the scenes activities taking place between the mayor’s wife and someone else—either a politician or a cop. It’s a James Elroy world that reeks of fifties LA but isn’t.  There are even the requisite snappy lines, spoken by the lead characters (although they are not confined to the hero, as they would be in a true detective story). The plot maybe would have made more sense if it had taken place sometime in the past and not in modern New York. And a few Sunset Boulevard or Beverly Hills scenes would have given it style—the one thing that was sorely lacking in this film. Still, I enjoyed it much more than Gangster Squad, just because it made me think.

 

Casey Dorman is Editor-in-Chief of Lost Coast Review and the author of several novels.

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Sep112012

Film Reviews: Italian Cinema, Old Folks and Bayou Beasties

1970: Italian Cinema Revisits World War II

 

By Noel Mawer

 

Vittorio DeSica, the great chronicler of the aftermath of World War II, turned in the 1970’s to the origins, the causes, and ultimately the effects of war. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) is a logical culmination of the explorations of DeSica’s earlier films. Two other Italian films of the period invite comparison with Garden. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 The Conformist deals with the relationship between fascism and the bourgeoisie: “Fascism was invented by the petit bourgeois,” Bertolucci has said. Luchino Visconti’s 1969 The Damned, on the other hand, depicts the relationship of affluent Germans to World War II. (Visconti, like DeSica, was in the forefront of neo-realist Italian filmmaking in the 1940’s.)

 

Bertolucci’s conformist, Marcello (Jean-Paul Trintignant) is a son of the Italian aristocracy, but he chooses to turn his back on that class and all it represents to him and to align himself with the fascist middle class. His reasons for doing so are made quite clear and suggest the relationship between aristocrat and bourgeois depicted in The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Marcello is in flight from his past. The aristocracy is stereotypically decadent: Father is insane; Mother is a drug addict who sleeps with her chauffeur. Most pertinent, as a child Marcello was approached by another chauffeur, this one gay, whom the thirteen-year-old boy shot and left for dead. Now, on the eve of war, Marcello is marrying into the bourgeoisie, working for the fascists, and telling his priest that what he desires is normality--here meaning exclusion, exclusion of all class, race, and sexual deviations. As Marcello’s fascist friend Manganiello puts it, when the adult Marcello is unable to fire a gun, “Cowards are like Jews and pederasts, all should be exterminated.”

 

This exclusion, this embracing of one set of values at the expense of all others, is what these Italian films find at the center of the fascist ideology. In The Conformist, normality is what one says it is. The fascist Marcello must prove his normality by his hatred of those who deviate: aristocrats, Jews, and homosexuals. The anti-fascist Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) can on the other hand accept her lesbianism and thereby find it unnecessary to exclude. Though she, too, as a member of the bourgeoisie, is finally (in the director’s words) “not saved,” she is still on the side of right and never descends to Marcello’s level.

 

But Marcello finds himself at last one of the excluded. All of the normality he has embraced becomes abnormality, and Marcello can only cling desperately to the behavior patterns he has adopted. He turns on his fascist mentor, branding him a murderer, and then comes his collapse: When all values fail, there is no longer any need for repression. If “normality” no longer serves effectively as a reward for repression, repression ends. Marcello is left at the close in a situation which suggests that he will succumb to his homosexual desires, desires which he had apparently always possessed but denied.

 

Unlike The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis does not spell things out and take them to their logical conclusions. DeSica, as always, is most concerned with giving us a portrait of people as they live. Conclusions--psychological, social--are ours to reach as we may. Garden deals with the same two classes, aristocrat and bourgeois, and sees the same forces at work within them. It sees, too, the sense of family that Visconti saw in the past (La Terra Trema, 1948)) and dwells on at length in The Damned.

 

Near the end of The Conformist, when the war is ending, Marcello’s wife (Stefania Sandrelli) asks Marcello for the first time about his part in the murder of Anna Quadri and her husband. She never asked before, she says, because she knew that whatever he did was important to his career and therefore justified. Career and family are precisely the obsessions that destroy all conscience, all morality, in The Damned. With Hitler imploding, the Von Essenbecks are concerned only with control of the family fortune.

 

But Visconti is even less concerned than Bertolucci with such subtleties as DeSica’s. He is content to use aristocratic decadence and sexual deviance as signs of moral corruption. For Bertolucci, these behaviors are corrupt only if one insists on viewing them as such. For Visconti, they are absolutely so. One is reminded of the moral simplism of Roberto Rossellini in two films from the 1940’s: Open City and Germania Anno Zero, in which homosexuality equals fascism, or the more recent Night Porter (1974), in which Liliana Cavani equally simplistically identifies fascism with sexual decadence.

 

DeSica employs the same phenomena, and his way of using them is deceptively like that of the stereotypic patterns against which he is working. Race, nationality, class, family, political party, even sexual orientation are used as labels in Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

 

The film follows two Italian Jewish families, one aristocratic and one bourgeois, from the imposition of the first racial laws in 1938 through the shipping off to the death camps in 1943. The

bourgeois family is pious, hard-working, and racist. The aristocrats are cloistered, idle, and conventionally decadent: the son is homosexual.

 

The central plot mechanism is the love of the bourgeois son, Georgio (Lino Capolicchio), for the aristocratic daughter, Micol (Dominique Sanda). On the periphery are Micol’s brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) and the dark “Aryan,” Malnate--lover of Micol, friend of Giorgio, beloved of Alberto. It sounds terribly tawdry when summarized, but it’s not. One must try to think not of what Visconti would do with these elements but rather of Umberto D. DeSica has said of that film that he “thought again of that category of people who find themselves, at a certain moment, excluded from a world which they nevertheless helped to build; a tragedy which is most often hidden by resignation and silence but which sometimes explodes in resounding manifestations, driving men to horrifying premeditated suicide.” The Garden of the Finzi-Continis deals with this situation and possible responses to it, silent or resounding.

 

DeSica has always dealt with the marginal--the poor, the very young, the old--and in Garden he works endless variations on the theme of acceptance and rejection.

 

The desire for normality that culminates in the need to exclude others is manifest in Giorgio’s father, patriarch of the bourgeois family. He is forever reminding Giorgio that his love for Micol, his friendship with the Finzi-Continis is doomed. When the first racial laws are enacted, the Finzi-Continis are accused of welcoming them: they have never wanted to be Italians; they prefer to maintain their own ghetto. The Finzi-Continis are too aristocratic for Giorgio. They are not Jewish enough. The Finzi-Continis are “different.” Giorgio’s father is ardent in his pursuit of identity with the Italian bourgeoisie. He is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and of the Fascist party. When the first exclusions come, they are shattering to Georgio’s family: much is made of the proscription of “Aryan” servants and of Giorgio’s expulsion from the tennis club.

 

Paralleled with Giorgio’s family are the aristocratic Finzi-Continis. If one feels that the bourgeoisie are, however inadvertently, at least partially responsible for the fate that is overcoming them, one does not know how to feel about the Finzi-Continis. There seems to be no relationship whatsoever between their lives and the fate that befalls them. They go on as they have done, reading poetry, putting clay on the tennis court, making rueful jokes about Micol’s Nazi professor. Do they take their exclusion seriously? Micol shakes her head over her father’s foolish care of the tennis court. Alberto predicts that the war will end in the triumph of the good--but only after a great deal of suffering.

 

For the Finzi-Continis there seems to be no surprise in anything that happens. Giorgio’s family is shocked, appalled at what is happening to them. For the Finzi-Continis it seems inevitable. They seem not to value identity with Jews or Italians. They are not Fascists. They are not concerned over their servants or their schools or their clubs. When Giorgio is expelled from the public library, he discovers that the institutions which once seemed a refuge from the world can also be the agents of exclusion; that one responsibility can cancel out another. The library director would like to help Giorgio, but he has a family. “All Italy has a family,” is Giorgio’s response. But when he tells this story to Professor Finzi-Contini, Micol’s father, the old man is merely understanding.

 

For the Finzi-Continis are war’s victims, seen after the post-war Italian film experience. The Finzi-Continis are prey to the ennui, the emotional debilitation of Antonioni’s characters. If they are insulated by their position, their past, from much of the initial impact of the exclusionary laws, they are equally isolated from the future. Alberto tells Malnate that he has nothing to give him a reason for living. And Alberto dies not of the war, but of a fever resulting from a rainstorm. The Finzi-Continis have little will to live, and the war offers no hope, whoever may win. As the protagonist of Visconti’s Senso (1954) says, “What does it matter to me that my compatriots have won a battle today in a place called Custoza … when I know that they’ll lose the war … and not only the war. And Austria within a few years will be finished. And a whole world will disappear. The world to which you and I belong. And the new world which your cousin speaks about has no interest for me. It’s better not to be involved in these matters and take one’s own pleasure where one finds it.”

 

And so the Finzi-Continis follow Alberto’s hearse through an air raid to the Jewish cemetery, ignoring the public struggle for the private death. The public struggle holds no hope for them; the private death is a token, a sign of their faith.

 

The doomed Finzi-Continis are the necessary comment on the doomed aspirations of Giorgio’s father, who worries endlessly about Jewishness and Italianess. As in The Conformist, the label is ultimately arbitrary, merely a product of the mentality that craves normality and acceptance. DeSica’s aristocratic Jews are blond and blue-eyed, seldom attend the synagogue, and are reminded only from the outside of their identity.: “Malraux says Jews are never boring,” says the crude Malnate. The Finzi-Continis are not even really decadent. The father is a scholar, and Micol is finishing a degree in English. The uncles are hard-working. Alberto’s homosexuality merely intensifies his melancholia: DeSica does not even hint that aristocratic idleness or sexual deviation are to be taken as symbols of inner corruption.

 

The Finzi-Continis are relics. Micol dwells endlessly on her attachment to the past: the books, songs, people of her childhood--even the trees she lives among. Such attachments dominate the life of the Finzi-Continis, leaving little room for the frantic adjustments to changing circumstances of Giorgio’s family. The bourgeoisie are of the future; they make the future and have a stake in it. Giorgio’s father sees the present as a tool for use in the future. Giorgio’s unhappy experience with Micol will help him, his father assures him, in days to come.

 

But the days do not come. The past has no uses after the death camps. Giorgio’s father and Micol come together at the last as they wait to be shipped away. She is concerned for Giorgio; he hopes that those from Ferrara will not be separated: he clings to his illusory exclusiveness to the end. But the tide of exclusion as turned against him. The total negation of the camps makes all difference irrelevant.

 

 

 

Outsourcing the Old Folks: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

 

By Noel Mawer

 

Old age is not for the faint of heart, or so we hear. I’m here to witness: it’s true. Physical and sometimes mental impairment (short-term memory loss for almost everybody); loneliness and loss of family and friends (everyone I know is dead); idleness and the feeling of uselessness, of one’s inconsequentiality; crises of faith or lack of faith (what was it all about, my life, and what will come next?); and so on. Moments of puzzled, sometimes despairing contemplation, the knowledge that one is experiencing the universal inevitability: death.

 

One of these milestones is the death of one’s parents. Now, as a friend of mine puts it, “You’re it.” You’re the matriarch, the oldest guy in the room. My mother died just last year at the age of ninety-five, and then I was “it,” the oldest and, presumably, the next to go. At my fiftieth high school reunion--class of 1958--it was reported that one fourth of us were dead. How do you think about this? At least, they won’t have to suffer the indignity of growing older and older. At least, they were spared the fate of the Cumean Sybil, whose wish for immortality was granted by the gods. But she had neglected to ask for eternal youth--and was left for eternity to wish for death. In the myth, the Sybil instead of dying simply grows smaller and smaller, at last becoming a grasshopper. And in T.S. Eliot’s version, she’s left forever stranded in the Wasteland.

 

But all is not lost. We can all go to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to be reborn, as much as is possible, or else, if that’s what one came for, to die. The director of this film, John Madden, has aged since Shakespeare in Love, as have his characters. Most are English retirees looking for a place they can afford on their limited retirement incomes. All of them have been seduced by the brochure describing an Indian paradise--luxurious, comfortable, free of all care (“south Florida with elephants”). Of course, what they get is a run-down relic mismanaged by a tirelessly optimistic young Indian who hopes to make the reality match the propaganda.

 

Let the old-age and ethnic jokes begin!

 

Given the cast, it would be hard to make this film boring. It’s pretty high on platitudes about love, inevitability, love, death, decay, and love. Everybody’s a good guy here, or becomes one in the course of the film. Les Dames Judy Dench and Maggie Smith lead the cast, the latter as a crotchety, bigoted retired servant, the former as a mourning widow who inevitably finds … love. Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton, among others, get in on the fun, and it is a lot of fun. None of the characters seem to suffer from memory loss, and most exhibit no greater infirmity than occasional fatigue. This is a happily-ever-after kind of story, not forgetting that ever-after has become brief. So--carpe diem!

 

And they do, as do the hotelier and his family.

 

Join the fun! See this movie! Seize the day!

 

 

 Bourne Again vs. Bayou Beasties

 

 

By Randall Mawer

 

Two movies released in August illustrate just what money can buy … and what it can’t. The Bourne Legacy, which drove the latest Batman from #1 at the box office, had better do well if it’s to pay for the all-star cast (Stacy Keach, Scott Glenn, Edward Norton [especially good], Rachel Weisz, David Straythern, Joan Allen, Albert Finney,  Jeremy Renner, etc., etc.--everybody but Matt Damon, who wisely turned down the project--not to mention multiple, globe-spanning locations and computer-driven special effects and crowd scenes and mountains and seascapes and several kitchen sinks). Beasts of the Southern Wild, in contrast, has not one name actor and was shot in a couple of swampy Louisiana. parishes--the “found” settings are memorable--but takes place really in the imagination of Hushpuppy, its six-year-old heroine, an imagination so vivid as to make pigs masquerading as aurochses almost believable.

 

(Sidebar: I don’t remember a note of Bourne’s score--it must have had one--but Beast’s music is wonderful and stirring.)

 

Is it all a matter of taste whether you want to watch the longest motorbike chase ever filmed or the cleaning, battering, and frying of a gator’s tail? Bourne’s chase seemed to me every bit as long as it was; the bubbling lard browning up Hushpuppy’s lunch in Beasts seemed to spatter my bare arms.

 

No, it’s not all gustibus. Originality matters too. Bourne’s roaring scooters (climbing stairs?--been there), its running and leaping across rooftops (done that), its heroine in non-stop peril (Weisz is fine, physically convincing, even chipper, but a cliché is a cliché, not a rose) are all yesterday’s chestnuts. The entire U.S. intelligence apparatus is involved in a conspiracy here. (I listen to talk radio, which does it much better.) Rocket-firing drones and a mass-murder spree are ripped from today’s--yesterday’s?--headlines, heroes with superpowers from Marvel Comics, mad scientists from … but you get the idea.

 

Now consider the more original beauties of Beasts. Did your grade-school teacher have tattoos of prehistoric beasts on her arm? And if you were so lucky, did those beasts come to life and threaten your neighborhood? Was your mother so sexy that when she entered the kitchen the propane burners came on automatically? When you were six, was your daddy, for all his faults, kind enough to build you a house all your very own? Are your past, present, and future all one, your memory, fantasy, dream, and desire? Can you face down the aurochs and lead forth an army of black and white, young and old, united only by poverty, persecution, and belief in you? See Beasts of the Southern Wild so that you can say you really have been there and done that, if only by proxy.

 

Bourne’s producers--and never was a movie more “produced” than this one--spent more on explosions than Beasts’ creators did on their whole movie. Never mind the stunt doubles, the wolf wranglers, the Asian extras, and the lovely old Maryland mansion they built just to burn down. There are fires in Beasts, too, but they burn a lot more brightly, fanned by a fresher breeze.

 

Thursday
May312012

Films: Luis Bunuel by Noel Mawer, Bullitt by Andrew Holt, Men in Black III by Randall Mawer

Luis Bunuel (1900-1977)

Noel Mawer

 

If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you might remember the Woody-surrogate character’s greeting film director Luis Bunuel and surrealist painter Salvador Dali and then suggesting a movie plot to the director. The suggestion was for a movie in which a group of people are trapped in a room for days, while all kinds of bizarre behavior emerges. The joke here is that Bunuel actually did make the film, Exterminating Angel, in 1962, during one of his stays in Mexico. Does it sound a little like Sartre’s No Exit, where hell is being locked in a room with people you don’t like? It’s not that. Sartre is tame compared to Bunuel, and even hopeful: the Existentialist’s world is less bizarre than it is tedious, and Existentialism offers a sense of freedom if one can reconcile oneself to the meaninglessness of things.

 

Bunuel’s world is not simply meaningless, it’s positively malignant, and no one ever seems to sense the truth, much less find a way to create her own meaning in order to live with that world. Bunuel’s characters, we might say, don’t have a clue--and Bunuel is merciless toward them. His favorite targets are the bourgeois morality and sentimentality, as well as the hypocritical piety, of his native Spain, though he is willing to spread his net anywhere, most often to his neighboring France, where many of his best films were made.

 

Bunuel’s career began, after a Catholic education, in Spain, where he made his first film, the 1929 silent Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), in which there is no dog and no mention is made of Andalusia, unless “Andalusian Dog” is a breed, like Rhodesian Ridgeback or German Shepherd. Even if it is, there’s still no dog in the thing. The co-creator of this film was Salvador Dali, and the film is conventionally described as a “surrealist masterpiece.” Surrealism will be an element in Bunuel’s work throughout his career, though never as pronounced as it is here.

 

Bunuel and Dali stated that their purpose was simply to create a work in which no narrative, no meaning was intended or could be attributed. Given the human mind’s need to see pattern and meaning everywhere, that’s a lofty goal. And Bunuel and Dali seem to have achieved it, though no doubt somebody somewhere has puzzled out (or attributed) some kind of connection or theme or something to attach to it.

 

The film begins, most notoriously, with the slitting of an eyeball with a straight razor--staged as if the eye is a woman’s while in reality it’s a sheep’s (dead, I hope.) The horrors pile up. A man falls from a bicycle. Then his hand appears, severed from its arm (severed limbs are big in Bunuel’s movies, as are dogs--even the non-existent ones). A man and woman are in an apartment; the woman is arranging men’s ties on the bed; the man’s hand is teeming with ants, which are crawling from a hole in his palm (insects, preferably the creepy kind, will also become a Bunuel favorite). The setting shifts to a park, then to a beach. The man and woman occasionally reappear, as the film is punctuated with meaningless titles (“7 Hours Later,” etc.). A second man shoots another. A woman (the first one, I think) puts the aforesaid ties in a box. Some of this may be out of sequence, which would gratify the film-makers. There is no sequence. These are not symbols, either (though some of Bunuel’s later use of such motifs as dogs and severed appendages could be interpreted as symbols). They’re realistic objects portrayed in a way that is above or beyond reality, which may or may not be a definition of surrealism.

 

Anyway, it only lasts seventeen minutes, and it’s available in DVD, which many of Bunuel’s films apparently are not, in case you want to try your hand at interpretation--after all, there’s a purpose to everything and everything has a purpose, according to the Christians, and Bunuel knows how to deal with them. Bunuel’s next film, 1930’s L’Age d’ Or (The Golden Age) is, I am told, an exercise in irony where nothing depicted is at all golden. (In 1939, Henry Miller called it cinema’s last art film.) But the film had one important effect: it drove Bunuel out of Spain, and Italy, and France, where the authorities closed the theater after one showing. It didn’t even make it to the screen in Spain, and the Italians tried to arrest Bunuel.

 

Bunuel hung around Spain long enough to make his sole documentary, Land Without Bread, in 1932. This depiction of a rural Dogpatch where everyone is sick and starving prefigures one of Bunuel’s great themes: when driven to desperation, human beings will do anything, including stealing bread from their own children. Amid the desperation stands, of course, a lavish church. Bunuel makes no comment, but the meaning is clear: the church feeds off, rather than tends, its sheep.

 

Bunuel’s long exile in North America produced a whole lot of Mexican films which seem not to have made it to DVD. His next notable work would be made in France, and the title of one film suggests the theme: Nazarin (1958); additionally in 1965 Bunuel would return to Spain to make Simon of the Desert (about St. Simeon Stylites, who lived on top of a pillar for more than thirty years). Pauline Kael describes the latter film as the work of a “disenchanted idealist” (rather than of a “naughty Christian child,” as she labels Fellini). Kael observes that one problem audiences have with Bunuel is uncertainty about how we should feel about his characters. This, of course, is deliberate (and probably shared by Bunuel himself). At the heart of the bourgeois morality Bunuel despises is sentimentality, the superficial emotion that causes people to cry at weddings and grow tearful as the flag passes by. The Catholic church is the other recipient of Bunuel’s animus, but not necessarily all the believers. The most ambiguous class of characters in his films are the innocents--those who are exploited not only by the bourgeois and the church, but also by the victims of society whom they try to help.

 

Simon on his column is one such innocent. He exposes himself to the elements and to ridicule to bring the word of God to his people. Simon performs miracles for the pilgrims who come to see and hear him. These spectators, recipients of blessings as well as miracles, argue among themselves over the value of each miracle: is it fair, poor, excellent? The local priests slander him, and his “miracles” go awry: when a thief’s severed hands are reattached, the thief’s first act is to slap his child. Is this “innocent” just a naïve fool? But these are recognizable human types, not circus clowns like Fellini’s characters or Todd Browning’s Freaks. Without the sentimentality the picture is indeed a shock, and it’s the shock of recognition. Bunuel is showing what life is really like. Jimmy Stewart will never save his townsfolk from economic catastrophe; no God will part the waters. Really, we all will lose everything, or drown, or steal our children’s bread to survive.

 

Beginning in 1961, Bunuel would make a series of films, mostly in France and starring Fernando Rey and either Catherine Deneuve or Sylvia Pinal. These films, though not devoid of surreal elements, rather are more direct, uncompromising attacks on the bourgeoisie and their morality. Sylvia Pinal is Viridiana (1961), an innocent convent girl “adopted” by her lecherous uncle (Rey), whose frustration leads him to suicide. The two best known scenes in this film are the rescuing of a mistreated dog by a kindly young man--and the immediate appearance of another equally desperate dog, and another, and another … In a sea of misery, does it help to rescue one victim? No answer here. Finally, after the innocent Viridiana invites the local beggars and other unfortunates to share a feast with her, the beneficiaries enact a riotous, drunken parody of the Last Supper.

 

Viridiana sealed Bunuel’s fate: his blasphemy enraged the Spanish authorities, and he went back to Mexico to make the 1962 Exterminating Angel, the film described in Midnight in Paris. That most quintessential rite of the bourgeoisie, the dinner party, here becomes the scene of horror when the dining room door refuses to open and the diners are trapped for days, descending into the unspeakable behavior that Bunuel perceives as just below the surface of all of us.

 

In 1967’s Belle du Jour, the innocent, here portrayed by Catherine Deneuve, is in reality a lady of the day, one who varies her tedious bourgeois routine by turning tricks. In 1970’s Tristana, Deneuve will play the innocent convent girl to Rey’s lecherous old man--again a “kindly uncle” whose whole life is a sham: he is broke, selling off his possessions to survive. Both dogs and severed limbs appear again. A rabid dog is shot in the street. After humiliating and then abandoning her uncle, Tristana runs off with a handsome painter, only to return soon enough minus a leg. The stage is set for a lifetime of mutual humiliation.

 

1972’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie features an all-star French cast, as well as the necessary Fernando Rey: Stephane Audran, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogire, Jean Pierre Cassell, Michel Piccoli. The action takes place in the haut-bourgeois world of endless dinner parties. But this time the guests are not trapped at a single party but driven by various events to more and more bizarre and abruptly terminated gatherings. They never do manage to eat. The discreet and charming men, led by Rey portraying the ambassador from the imaginary South American country of Miranda, are involved in massive drug trafficking, and Rey is not only a drug courier but allied to the fascist dictator of his country and complicit in the atrocities committed by that ruler. This latter fact becomes a touchstone for bourgeois morality: is it rude and in bad taste to mention someone’s crimes against humanity? Bunuel’s starving peasants may be amoral, but give them wealth and power, and they’ll turn into something worse. If hardship seems to bring out the worst in people, so do privilege and good fortune.

The first time the guests arrive for dinner, the host informs them that they’ve come on the wrong night. They go on to a restaurant, which is closed: the manager has just died and is lying on the floor. Various dinners at people’s homes and in other restaurants are interrupted by soldiers arriving to billet themselves at one home and by the selling out just before their arrival of everything on a restaurant’s menu, and so on. Crime and infidelity are committed, but it’s bad form to dwell on them, so the festivities continue. Interruptions grow incredibly bizarre and then become dreams that various characters experience. At the point of catastrophe, the dreamer awakes.

 

Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound features a dream sequence created by Bunuel’s early collaborator, Salvador Dali, and it may or may not be relevant that Hitchcock was a great admirer of Bunuel, in 1972 calling him “the best director in the world.” As far as I can tell, Hitchcock’s admiration never led to any kind of imitation of the Spanish director beyond that one surreal dream. Hitchcock and Bunuel shared, however, what Pauline Kael called “carelessness” in cinematic technique. Bunuel didn’t seem to care if his actors were proficient, while Hitchcock used flagrantly artificial sets, most noticeably the apartment façade and its backdrop in Rear Window. Neither director made character-driven movies: the story, or the imagery, was the thing.

 

Bunuel’s final movie, That Obscure Object of Desire, was released in 1977, the year of his death. In his two last films Bunuel’s bitterness and rage seem to have been transformed into a rueful amusement at the spectacle of human folly. Once again, in this last film, Fernando Rey plays the lecherous old man. The poor old guy can’t consummate his affair with the young object of desire. Reprising a theme from earlier films, Bunuel portrays the innocent as a controller, a manipulator, outfoxing the old fox. Pauline Kael calls Bunuel’s final films “buoyant,” without the outrageous atrocities of the earlier films. The bourgeoisie hasn’t changed much, but the world has: this final film is punctuated by various acts of violence, but none seem to affect the characters.

 

It is a truism that Shakespeare’s last plays are almost gentle, emphasizing reconciliation and perhaps resignation. Parents and children, lost, find one another. There is much loss, but something remains. Whereas in earlier films Bunuel often seemed to be riding the Ferris wheel with Harry Lime in The Third Man, seeing the people below as insignificant insects, here, finally, the Rey character is not unhappy. Neither, it seems, is Bunuel, at last.

 

 

Bullitt

Reviewed by Andrew Holt

 

Wow, did I do myself a favor. I popped a bowl of popcorn, plopped down on the couch, and took in the 1968 classic “Bullitt”, starring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and a 24-year-old Jacqueline Bisset. If you are fed up with over edited, over complicated detective thrillers that clutter the movie theaters today, then a viewing of “Bullitt” might just do you some good.

 

The movie is full of suspense but it is a slow burn, the viewer receives clues; but only so much as to get you to the next scene. And the beauty of the scenes lies in that they are fully fleshed out. Director Peter Yates is not ashamed of the movie making process; he’s not afraid to hold a shot for 25 seconds; he wants to give you the full picture . . . but only through the eyes of detective Bullitt (McQueen).  You’re solving the crime with him – there are no shots of the bad guys that give away the plot – present day screenwriters take note. Lieutenant Frank Bullitt is a top notch San Francisco lawman whose team is given the assignment of guarding a mafia whistle blower for forty-eight hours before shepherding him to a Senate subcommittee hearing on organized crime.

 

But the rather routine operation goes awry when gunmen easily get access to the hiding place and shoot down the witness, with one of Bullitt’s men suffering major damage. From that point on, the grizzled detective is obsessed with solving the puzzle, born from an apparent setup, while trying to ward off meddling  and seemingly evil Senator Chalmers (Vaughn) who tries every power play in the book to somehow remedy his political fortunes after his star witness is put on life support.

 

The beauty of “Bullitt” is that it takes its time. The plot is enthralling yet is not delivered as if everyone’s hopped up on cocaine. Instead, the well-paced narrative allows the viewer to develop an attachment for the characters: the brooding but ethical Bullitt,  his supportive but conflicted girlfriend (Bisset),  and even his partner, a real journeyman cop named Delgetti (Don Gordon).  The characters are developed naturally within the movement of the film and the narrative is never shrouded – not even in the ground- breaking car chase.

 

Lordy, Lordy, Lordy - present day directors should be required to watch the car chase that started them all. Director Yates (who shamefully did not receive an Oscar nomination for this film) delivers one of the most cutting edge car chase scenes ever created – and it has a narrative.  Wide panoramic shots of freeway bends, swale ridden streets and steep hills, cameras just off the driver’s shoulders peering through the windshield,  and sparing but tactical shots of the drivers revealing the  emotional stages of the chase, make it a thing of beauty. During the nearly fifteen minute scene, the viewer is never at a loss as to what is happening, or what car is in front, or who is gaining, or what obstacle lies just ahead. It is a masterpiece.

 

The car chase scene is one of only many terrific visual feats in the movie. The pursuit at the airport is also gripping and, again, the narrative is allowed to breath.

 

After the long and arduous pursuit of the crime trail, “Bullitt” comes to an abrupt end. The meaning of it is clear and concise.  Again, it fits right into the narrative and you cannot miss it.

 

At the end of “Bullitt”, you feel as though you’ve been fulfilled intellectually, artistically, and emotionally.  I give “Bullitt” a solid A-.

 

Andrew Holt Graduated from UCLA with a degree in English Literature. He spent over 18 years in small to medium market radio broadcasting as a News/Sports Director and interview host. He hosts his own blog, “The Holt Story” at www.theholtstory.com . He is the Film Review Editor for Lost Coast Review.

 

Black Humor: Men in Black III

Reviewed by Randall Mawer

 

Men in Black III is a delight, far more satisfying than the average sequel and in some ways better than its prototype. (I didn’t see II.)

 

The key to its success is the willingness of director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Lowell Cunningham to venture away from the core theme of the original (there are aliens among us, and they’re funny-looking). Some of this we must have, of course, and it’s amusing enough.

 

But when the film takes on time travel--a chestnut in its own right, of course, but cleverly managed here--and especially when it looses Josh Brolin’s agonizingly dead-on impression of a young Tommy Lee Jones (time travel, remember?), it strikes the purest gold.

 

Amidst the juvenile earnestness of the season’s bloated sci-fi offerings, this one reminds us that adult wit--and an adult script--count for lots more than the most special of “effects.”

 

Randall R. Mawer is Poetry Editor of Lost Coast Review.  His Sycamore and Other Poems was published in 2000 by Writer’s Club Press.

Tuesday
Feb282012

Film Review : Shame

Reviewed by Lawrence Howard

In British director Steve McQueen’s second film we see a startling talent.  His first film (2008) also has a one-word title: Hunger.    Now in the Criterion collection, Hunger focuses on Bobby Sands, the first Provo IRA-man to starve himself to death in the British Maze prison.  Michael Fassbender plays Bobby Sands.  The parallels between these two films suggest a great filmmaker

 

In my estimate Shame is the best movie of the year 2012 so far; it’s a contender on my list for 2011 but it was only released in December of that year.  Full-frontal male and female nudity removed it from consideration for an Oscar or Golden Globe.  How lucky we are to have our decency so sheltered.

 

 Shame is about Brandon, a handsome corporate type who “nails” presentations without a tie. No one mentions his last name.  He lives in a carefully un-cluttered upscale apartment on 31st Street with a fabulous view of the river.  The order of his home contrasts with the disorder of his inner life.  He flips the top of a beer bottle to the floor as a dissonant harbinger as he settles down to play with his online playmate.  Counterpoint from Bach’s Goldberg Variations completes the scene.

 

 We soon learn that Brandon is someone we might call a sex addict.  He hires expensive prostitutes whom he bids to undress slowly, he has on-line playmates, he masturbates at work, he has parking-lot sex with beautiful strangers, and his computer at work is filled with pornography.   He ends up in acts of humiliation and getting badly beaten.  While sex is shown, it is loveless, driven, and ultimately painful.  The scenes are not prurient.

 

McQueen selects Michael Fassbender again to portray Brandon.                                                              

 

We meet three women who affect Brandon.  His finely ordered life is disturbed when he perceives a prowler in his house.  It is his sister Sissy whom he confronts in the shower.   He had somehow forgotten that he had given her a key. Played with exquisite power by Carey Mulligan  (Drive, An Education), Sissy is messy, histrionic, passionate and needy.  She flips the top of her beer onto the floor. She pleads on the phone with an unseen boyfriend to take her back.  She has marks on her wrist from suicide attempts. She seeks comfort and cuddles from Brandon. She has sex with Brandon’s boss.  But unlike Brandon, Sissy experiences sex as joyous.  She knows of Brandon’s sexual obsessions.  The question of incest is always present but never answered; they know each other very well. “We are not bad people; we just come from a bad place.”  

 

Mulligan has two award-worthy scenes: one in which she sings a club standard (New York, New York with an amazing piano accompaniment) with full-face openness that makes her nude shower scene seem Victorian.  It literally brings on tears. This scene is worth the price of admission. 

 

Her second killer scene is a behind-the-couch shot of the back of Brandon’s head with an out-of-focus 1930s cartoon playing un-watched on the big-screen television.  He is recovering from an impotent seduction.  Sissy comes home, sits next to him then asks him to hold her.  She turns to face him. Both profiles are backlit.  She comments on his anger; she pleads that she cares for him, they are brother and sister and are to look after each other.  He lashes out against her untidiness, her always being sorry, and her neediness.  She is a weight on him.  This dialogue is the backbone of the film.

                                                                                                                                                       This scene harkens back to the centerpiece of Hunger.  Bobby Sands has a dialogue with a priest (Liam Cunningham) in which both profiles are backlit.   Sands reveals the plan for Maze prisoners sequentially to begin fasts to demand recognition from the crown as political prisoners.  Father Delaney tries to dissuade Sands that the gesture will be futile and ultimately suicidal.  He suggests this will be condemnable.  Sands demonstrate his resolve by telling a tale from his youth.   This 22-minute shot is an unedited single take.

 

A second woman in Shame is Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie (American Violet).  A beautiful black office-mate, Brandon invites her to a dinner (Brandon, conflicted, shows up late), to conversation and attempted seduction.  She is Bronx native; she likes being who she is and where she is.  She dates Brandon because she is interested in forming a relationship; as it becomes painfully evident, this is something Brandon cannot do.  Real women terrify him.  He would be somebody else. I cannot recall when a dinner conversation in film has felt so real.

 

The third woman has no name and speaks no lines (Lucy Walker). We sit opposite her on the subway, and watch as the wordless dance grows between her and Brandon, all underscored by the unforgettable score of Harry Escott.  The dance recurs again as the final scene of the film without resolution.   Will he do as he has?  Or is change possible?    

 

Steve McQueen is a wonderful director. His two films have explored the inner lives of men living at the edge. He does not moralize or cast polemics.  We have only the slightest history: as Sands is dying he recalls a seminal event of his youth.  For the rest McQueen wants us here in the vivid and darkly beautiful present.  We stare at hands of a guard washing the blood from his torn knuckles in a sink.  We stare down the hall separating cells as a guard grows in size as he push-brooms the fluids waste poured form the cells toward us. We do not know what Bobby Sands did or the particulars for which he was sentenced.  We are asked to watch.  We cannot but feel.

 

Similarly, we know next to nothing of Brandon’s prior life that left him in the jaws of his obsession.  Instead we are given the present in carefully crafted scenes:  Brandon ritually cleaning a toilet in a men room stall so he can masturbate or turning his head to watch a woman’s rear in well-fitted jeans.   McQueen is interested in taking us to an edge we might well experience.   Do we turn our head to look at shapely women?  I do.  Do I care enough for a principal that I’m willing to undergo the torture of starvation to death?  For 60-odd days?   I do not know.

 

These two characters are remarkable opposites.  Brandon is experiencing hedonistic adaptation: he fails to find fulfillment in endless pleasurable sensation.  Bobby forgoes all physical pleasure for the steely resolve of principal.

 

Shame has wonderful music.  Harry Escott’s minimalist and mesmerizing score plays like another character, a looming foreboding.  The solo of Carey Mulligan telling New York City that “it’s up to you” is edited only to show the effect that she has on Brandon.  Mulligan has a singing career if she gives up on film.  A CD of the soundtrack is available.

 

Have I told you why you must see this film?   Currently playing at the Regent Westpark in Irvine, CA.

 

Lawrence Howard is a graduate of the University of California,  Irvine, from which he received a Ph.D. and where he has taught cognitive science and lectured on politics and society. He is the author of Terrorism: Roots, Impacts, Responses (Praeger, 1992). 

Sunday
Feb262012

Film Reviews

Shame

 

Reviewed by Lawrence Howard

 

In British director Steve McQueen’s second film we see a startling talent.  His first film, in 2008, also had a one-word title: Hunger.  Now in the Criterion collection, Hunger focuses on Bobby Sands, the first Provo IRA-man to starve himself to death in the British Maze prison.  Michael Fassbender plays Bobby Sands.  The parallels between these two films suggest a great filmmaker

 

In my estimate Shame is the best movie of the year 2012 so far; it’s a contender on my list for 2011 but it was only released in December of that year.  Full-frontal male and female nudity removed it from consideration for an Oscar or Golden Globe.  How lucky we are to have our decency so sheltered.

 

 Shame is about Brandon, a handsome corporate type who “nails” presentations without a tie. No one mentions his last name.  He lives in a carefully un-cluttered upscale apartment on 31st Street with a fabulous view of the river.  The order of his home contrasts with the disorder of his inner life.  He flips the top of a beer bottle to the floor as a dissonant harbinger as he settles down to play with his online playmate.  Counterpoint from Bach’s Goldberg Variations completes the scene.

 

 We soon learn that Brandon is someone we might call a sex addict.  He hires expensive prostitutes whom he bids to undress slowly, he has on-line playmates, he masturbates at work, he has parking-lot sex with beautiful strangers, and his computer at work is filled with pornography.   He ends up in acts of humiliation and getting badly beaten.  While sex is shown, it is loveless, driven, and ultimately painful.  The scenes are not prurient.

 

McQueen selects Michael Fassbender again to portray Brandon.                                                               

 

We meet three women who affect Brandon.  His finely ordered life is disturbed when he perceives a prowler in his house.  It is his sister Sissy whom he confronts in the shower.   He had somehow forgotten that he had given her a key. Played with exquisite power by Carey Mulligan  (Drive, An Education), Sissy is messy, histrionic, passionate and needy.  She flips the top of her beer onto the floor. She pleads on the phone with an unseen boyfriend to take her back.  She has marks on her wrist from suicide attempts. She seeks comfort and cuddles from Brandon. She has sex with Brandon’s boss.  But unlike Brandon, Sissy experiences sex as joyous.  She knows of Brandon’s sexual obsessions.  The question of incest is always present but never answered; they know each other very well. “We are not bad people; we just come from a bad place.”  

 

Mulligan has two award-worthy scenes: one in which she sings a club standard (New York, New York with an amazing piano accompaniment) with full-face openness that makes her nude shower scene seem Victorian.  It literally brings on tears. This scene is worth the price of admission. 

 

Her second killer scene is a behind-the-couch shot of the back of Brandon’s head with an out-of-focus 1930s cartoon playing un-watched on the big-screen television.  He is recovering from an impotent seduction.  Sissy comes home, sits next to him then asks him to hold her.  She turns to face him. Both profiles are backlit.  She comments on his anger; she pleads that she cares for him, they are brother and sister and are to look after each other.  He lashes out against her untidiness, her always being sorry, and her neediness.  She is a weight on him.  This dialogue is the backbone of the film.

                                                                                                                                                       This scene harkens back to the centerpiece of Hunger.  Bobby Sands has a dialogue with a priest (Liam Cunningham) in which both profiles are backlit.   Sands reveals the plan for Maze prisoners sequentially to begin fasts to demand recognition from the crown as political prisoners.  Father Delaney tries to dissuade Sands that the gesture will be futile and ultimately suicidal.  He suggests this will be condemnable.  Sands demonstrate his resolve by telling a tale from his youth.   This 22-minute shot is an unedited single take.

 

A second woman in Shame is Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie (American Violet).  A beautiful black office-mate, Brandon invites her to a dinner (Brandon, conflicted, shows up late), to conversation and attempted seduction.  She is Bronx native; she likes being who she is and where she is.  She dates Brandon because she is interested in forming a relationship; as it becomes painfully evident, this is something Brandon cannot do.  Real women terrify him.  He would be somebody else. I cannot recall when a dinner conversation in film has felt so real.

 

The third woman has no name and speaks no lines (Lucy Walker). We sit opposite her on the subway, and watch as the wordless dance grows between her and Brandon, all underscored by the unforgettable score of Harry Escott.  The dance recurs again as the final scene of the film without resolution.   Will he do as he has?  Or is change possible?    

 

Steve McQueen is a wonderful director. His two films have explored the inner lives of men living at the edge. He does not moralize or cast polemics.  We have only the slightest history: as Sands is dying he recalls a seminal event of his youth.  For the rest McQueen wants us here in the vivid and darkly beautiful present.  We stare at hands of a guard washing the blood from his torn knuckles in a sink.  We stare down the hall separating cells as a guard grows in size as he push-brooms the fluids waste poured form the cells toward us. We do not know what Bobby Sands did or the particulars for which he was sentenced.  We are asked to watch.  We cannot but feel.

 

Similarly, we know next to nothing of Brandon’s prior life that left him in the jaws of his obsession.  Instead we are given the present in carefully crafted scenes:  Brandon ritually cleaning a toilet in a men room stall so he can masturbate or turning his head to watch a woman’s rear in well-fitted jeans.   McQueen is interested in taking us to an edge we might well experience.   Do we turn our head to look at shapely women?  I do.  Do I care enough for a principal that I’m willing to undergo the torture of starvation to death?  For 60-odd days?   I do not know.

 

Shame has wonderful music.  Harry Escott’s minimalist and mesmerizing score plays like another character, a looming foreboding.  The solo of Carey Mulligan telling New York City that “it’s up to you” is edited only to show the effect that she has on Brandon.  Mulligan has a singing career if she gives up on film.  A CD of the soundtrack is available.

 

Have I told you why you must see this film?   Currently playing at the Regent Westpark in Irvine, CA.

 

Lawrence Howard lives in Irvine, CA and is a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, from which he received a Ph.D. and where he has taught cognitive science and lectured on politics and society. He is the author of Terrorism: Roots, Impacts, Responses (Praeger, 1992).

 

Friday
Oct142011

Film Reviews: Mozart's Sister and Moneyball

Mozart’s Sister

Written and directed by Réne Féret.  Starring Marie Féret, Marc Barbé. Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau. Music Box Films, in French, with English subtitles.

The child prodigy Wolfgang Mozart was paraded through the European courts in the late 18th century by an ambitious father, Leopold Mozart.  “Wolfe’s” older sister  Marie-Anne, nicknamed “Nannerl,” accompanied his performance by voice and keyboard.  She is the subject of this captivating film, played by the director’s daughter, the beautiful Marie Féret. 

Nannerl had a musical talent that may have matched or exceeded her younger brother.  However, her father forbade her performing the violin or learning even the elements of composition as unsuitable or beyond the capacity of women.   Unbeknownst to Leopold, she is privately commissioned by the future Louis XVI, the Dauphin, to compose a sonata for him.  The Dauphin reports mastering his formal education, but is mystified by the ways of men.  He is also disgusted by his debauched father and frightened by his own feelings of sexuality.  These feelings are evoked by the talented but innocent Nannerl.   Both are prisoners of their fates, but there is no cruelty in Nannerl.   The resulting tragedy leads to one of the saddest scenes in my personal film history as we watch the enchanting young woman age before our eyes. 

 Broke my bloody heart.

This is a film not to be missed, if only for the music, the powdered wigs, the novelty of indoor plumbing and five fabulous harpsichords. The interior shots are illuminated by candlelight.  The original Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart, was released in 2010. 

 

Lawrence Howard

Lawrence Howard is a graduate of the University of California,  Irvine, from which he received a Ph.D. and where he has taught cognitive science and lectured on politics and society. He is the author of Terrorism: Roots, Impacts, Responses (Praeger, 1992).

 

 

Moneyball

Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Brad Pitt, Robin Wright, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sony Pictures.

Moneyball is a riveting, true life drama for more than just baseball fans

Moneyball not only chronicles a major innovation in Major League Baseball, but as a film, it also breaks a few barriers  itself, at least regarding baseball films produced by Hollywood. Unlike almost all of its predecessors, Moneyball does not use the grand old game as a backdrop for humor, a boy-meets-girl love story – or boy-rediscovers-girl love story – or the chronicling of personal redemption or the massive underdog slaying the gigantic favorite. Rather, Moneyball is a movie about baseball and the way a general manager, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), is forced to reinvent the game when faced with the impervious obstacle of working for a financially strapped team.

Director, Bennett Miller, does a masterful job of taking the viewer through Beane’s complete paradigm shift, allowing even the most casual sports fan to understand the enormous risk Beane and his side-kick, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), are taking, and the severe break they are making from baseball’s beloved ideologies. Although no one would dare compare Beane to Howard Hughes, like the “Aviator” this is a movie about a visionary and the story could involve any industry; it just so happens that this intriguing occurrence happened in professional baseball with the 2002 Oakland Athletics.

Miller, along with screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, craft a compelling story that tastefully weaves in Beane’s personal battle with striking out in the big leagues after being the number one pick of the New York Mets at the precocious age of 18. Not only is this event historically accurate, but it adds a human element to the movie that Miller skillfully does not allow to ruin the bigger story – the development of Moneyball and its direct slap in the face of long held, never challenged maxims of baseball.

The movie opens with the Oakland Athletics, for whom Beane is the GM, losing the deciding game of a postseason series against baseball’s citadel, the New York Yankees. Immediately after the season ends, large market teams raid Oakland’s line-up, whisking away the team’s three biggest stars with large free agent contract offers. Beane is staggered; for the cash strapped A’s cannot even muster competitive counter offers, and he is left with a gutted team. A despondent Beane travels personally to Cleveland to meet with the Indian’s front office, trying to find a diamond in the rough to replace his erstwhile star reliever.

Beane gets his first sniff of Moneyball at this meeting when the Cleveland GM pulls back his offer of a relief pitcher based on the whispering advice of a callow, bespectacled, tie and coat adorned chubby kid (Brand). After the failed meeting, Beane hunts down Brand in his cubicle and queries the bookish Brand as to why he convinced Cleveland’s top brass not to give up a pedestrian reliever. Brand offers merely, “because I believe he is valuable.” A parking garage conversation ensues, wherein Brand espouses his theory on baseball and how “baseball people” gauge players on the wrong characteristics. A Yale graduate with a degree in economics, Brand (in real life Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate who actually played college baseball) explains how statistics prove that scouts and management “undervalue” players who actually can help teams win, just as much as can highly paid, glamour superstars.

Brand’s mantras when rating a player favorably are “He gets on base” and “He scores runs.”

The desperate Beane is sold on the idea and buys Brand from the Indians, instantly making him his Assistant General Manager. The two spend the off-season evaluating talent based on Brand’s theories, but it is Beane’s decision to “buy in” that puts the wheels in motion. The scene in which Beane and Brand meet with the scouting staff to go over the possible roster for the next season is classic. And the showdown between Beane and head scout, Grady Fuson, is entertaining as well as riveting.

Fuson proves to be only the first major “in house” challenger to this new way of approaching baseball. Manager Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) staunchly opposes Beane, even when the Moneyball theory begins to work. Howe refuses to play Scott Hatteburg at first base.  Hatteburg serves as the poster child for Moneyball – a disabled catcher with nerve damage in his arm whom the A’s want to start at first base. When Beane visits the disconsolate Hatteburg (who’s been out of baseball for a season) at his home and makes the offer, Hatteburg replies skeptically “But I have never played first.” Beane explains to him that the A’s want him not for his field but because he “gets on base.”

Hatteburg becomes the pawn in Howe’s and Beane’s battle, with Howe repeatedly rebuffing Beane’s direct orders to play Hatteburg, instead opting to start the team’s highly heralded rookie, Carlos Pena. Since the film’s release, Art Howe has claimed the movie unfairly portrays him as contentious. Indeed it does. Only Beane and others within the A’s organization know if the screenplay took some liberties with Howe’s character. It should be noted, though, that Howe did oppose Moneyball all the way to the end. Even after the A’s reached historic heights in 2002 with Howe at the helm, he left the team as soon as possible to manage the New York Mets (a big market team) with old school values where he foundered and was fired after 2 seasons.

If the film’s portrayal of Howe’s demeanor is mostly accurate, its characterization of his appearance is not. Seymour Hoffman’s Howe character is a baseball movie cliché – the doughy and laconic figure who waddles from place to place. This is maybe the movies weakest element, for in real life, Howe, as a player and as a manager, was always thin and in shape. The fact that the producers decided to go with a well-worn caricature does the viewer a disservice.

Although playing Beane may not be Pitt’s most challenging role, he brings his likeable style to the character, fully using his repertoire of gifts for sarcasm, emoting and justified cockiness. The casting crew hit a home run with Hill. Although he, too, does not physically resemble DePodesta, his bloated face with the coke rim glasses and his nerdy smartness coupled with his meekness and naiveté, provide a terrific dramatic contrast to the macho, tobacco chewing, crotch grabbing environment of professional baseball.

Seymour Hoffman’s performance is disappointing only in that he is asked to do too little. He does a serviceable job of being droll, which could be ascribed to Howe also, but outside of that, he’s pretty much a cliché. Not his fault – it’s just you usually see Seymour Hoffman dazzling you with incredible characters, leaving you to believe the movie could have done more dynamic things with his role.

Moneyball is a must see for any baseball fan and for those who are intrigued by compelling stories of hallmark moments in real life, brought about by people who took enormous personal risk in following their accurate convictions. There have been criticisms about the film from those who claim it possesses too many inaccuracies for the sake of drama. But as a huge baseball fan who remembers the 2002 Oakland Athletics, I’d say Moneyball gets it right. The value of Moneyball is in the guts of the story – how Beane and his side-kick revolutionized a game that bristles against even the slightest change.

Moneyball receives an A-. Worth paying to see in the theater.

Andrew Holt

 

Andrew Holt Graduated from UCLA with a degree in English Literature. He spent over 18 years in small to medium market radio broadcasting as a News/Sports Director and interview host. He hosts his own blog, “The Holt Story” at www.theholtstory.com . He is the Film Review Editor for Lost Coast Review.

Thursday
Jun302011

The Tree of Life reviewed by Casey Dorman

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is a confusing and, for most viewers, either a disappointing or exhilirating picture. Alternating between a prosaic story of one Texas family growing up in the 1950’s and an image-dominated history of the planet and its life,  and flashbacks and dream sequences from one character’s present, the movie alternates between a compelling story and seemingly endless, although beautiful imagery, which continues relentlessly for minutes on end. Brad Pitt gives a strong performance as the paradigmatic American father, determined to get ahead on his own will power, intelligence and industry and equally determined to instill the same ethic in his three sons. To his sons, Pitt is an unpredictable tyrant, often demanding, while occasionally, if remotely, affectionate. Of the two oldest sons, one is pliant but weak while the other, Jack, is stronger, but angry and rebellious. In the midst of this family is the soft mother, whom the strong child experiences as seductive yet too weak to stand up to her husband.  

Between episodes of the family’s history we experience the birth of the earth and the evolution of life as told in music and images, which are striking, often poetic and always breathtaking, but ultimately distracting and, because of the time they occupy on the screen, boring. Several of the audience left during these scenes. We also are presented with the strong child grown up, played by Sean Penn, remembering all of the family scenes as he ponders the meaning of the death of his younger brother and questions God. In the end, Jack and his family, including the dead brother, are reunited in his memory on a beach.  

Tree of Life will receive a mixed reaction from the audience as well as reviewers. This reviewer had a mixed reaction within himself. The story was prototypical enough to dredge up similar memories from someone like me, who grew up around the same time as that portrayed in the movie. The emotions experienced by the characters in the story seemed real and I would guess that most viewers experienced an aching wish that both father and sons could break out of their stoicism and anger to reach out to each other more often. The history-of-the-world images were beautiful enough to be engaging, even if they went on too long. But in my mind, they interfered with the story. The focus on the son, Jack as an adult, enduring dream-like sequences as he mused about the meaning of his life, his history, and God’s purpose, was confusing (what Jack was feeling seemed obscure to me.)

Perhaps each reader should see the movie and judge for him or her self.

Casey Dorman

Wednesday
Jan262011

True Grit reviewed by Andrew Holt

The remake of “True Grit”, directed and written by the Coen Brothers, is . . . well . . . grittier than the original. Although many deem the 1969 romp featuring John Wayne as a classic, the 2010 version takes itself much more seriously and is a more believable film than the original, which undermined itself with celebrity casting: pop star Glenn Campbell playing Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. Needless to say, Matt Damon reprises the role with just a touch more skill.

Love the old Duke or not, Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, the loose triggered, whisky loving U.S Marshal, is spectacular as he produces a character possessing humor, rancor, complexity and sympathy. Although it is unlikely that Bridges will receive a second consecutive Oscar for a leading role, he certainly deserves the nomination bestowed upon him this morning. From the minute the camera slowly pans towards him in his initial scene, the viewer is drawn to this full character who is so vividly real, if not, disturbing.

The “grit” in this “True Grit” is also incorporated in the remolding of the other central character, Mattie Ross. Although the Kim Darby character in the 1969 version had her charm, little Mattie in the Coen’s version is not only charming in her dogged determination to not only keep up with her older male counterparts, but also, she outsmarts them.

Mattie, played by 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld (Oscar nominated), is doggedly determined to find the man who unjustly killed her father and have him hanged. Sensing the indifference from the local authorities, Mattie employs the services of the dubious Cogburn after hearing that he is the most trigger happy of the available bounty hunters.

Yes, my friends. This film does not end with a still shot of Rooster jumping over a fence on his horse, an all-American smile plastered on the face of John Wayne as the credits role. This is a western. And although the plot is simple – chase the killer and then kill the killer – it is infused with all the quirky and despicable characters that make a Coen Brothers movie worth the ticket price. And even though it does not rank near the top of the Coen Brothers’ goriest projects, there’s still plenty of rotted out dead bodies and graphic violence to make it a legitimate Coen Brothers experience.

Matt Damon acquits himself nicely as the “By-the-Book” Mr. LaBoeuf as his character provides a nice dramatic tension to his blustery antithesis, Cogburn. The two are forced to team up as they are both after the same man, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin); Chaney is also wanted for killing a Texas legislator. LeBoeuf must bring Chaney back alive in order to collect his reward and thus, not only do his and Cogburn’s personalities collide but also their motives. You get the feeling that Cogburn would rather see Chaney blown into 55 pieces than formally hung.

The bantering and macho dueling between the two provides humor, along with Damon doing a nice job drolly delivering his pretentious Latin references. For the most part, LeBoeuf provides comic relief and contrast. It is Bridges portrayal of Cogburn that brings the film its real depth.

Bridges’ performance could have been a cliché: drunken, outlaw marshal, turns soft for the gutty little girl and reinvents himself by the end of the movie. But pleasantly, Bridges and the Coens bring a much more believable character to the screen.

Cogburn, indeed, does develop some attachment for Mattie, but not outside the parameters of his rugged character. The viewer only perceives Cogburn’s sentiment in his actions which are never embellished by unnecessary sappy lines. Cogburn is whom he is: a rough and heartless bounty hunter who, also, surprisingly, has his own sense of integrity to which he is very true. It’s hard to figure him out and yet, by the end of the movie, the viewer realizes that this apparent drunk, trigger happy, impetuous loner, actually lives by a set of rules . . . and “they aint half bad.”

Sadly, as with many Coen Brothers films, I can’t give it a full-fledged “A” because of the usual reason: they don’t know how to end their movies. This one, they butchered at the very end . . . I’m talking about after the conclusion of the main narrative, which makes it all the more painful.

The last five minutes are confusing and completely unnecessary. The scenes involving Mattie 50 years after the chase are not needed and they present her as the stereotypical, hard old maid – somehow this is the natural evolution of a spunky, independent girl. The movie should have been wrapped up with a nice voice over and nothing more. Instead we’re watching a series of short scenes and wondering “Why?”

Thus, “True Grit” gets and A-: great acting, solid gritty western, abundant humor and drama, but chop off the last 5 minutes, please!

 



Monday
Jul122010

A Serious Man

 

Reviewed by Andrew Holt

Andrew gives this film a B

 

The Coen Brothers could have scored another masterpiece with “A Serious Man”, an offbeat comedy about a traditional Jewish family living in a Midwest town in the late 60’s. For some reason, though, the duo tinkered with the basic structure of the screenplay which leaves the viewer confused, not only about the possible meaning of the movie, but even how it should be perceived. Aside from this major blunder, the movie does provide entertainment and spiritual intrigue.

Like all Coen Brothers movies – this one they not only wrote and produced, but also directed – it is rife with wonderful characters, comedic absurdity, and phenomenal writing.

The main character, Larry Gopnick, an untenured professor at a small local college in a small unnamed city, has his life fall completely apart within the first 20 minutes of the movie. Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is abruptly told by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she’s having an affair with Larry’s colleague Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and she wants a divorce. This coincides with Larry being bribed by a failing Korean student, his department head implying that he might not get tenured and discovering that his son is a pothead. Also hovering over Larry’s life is his dysfunctional brother, Arthur, who spends most of his time in the bathroom draining a cist on the back of his neck and the family bank account.

Although Larry has his shortcomings, we care for him as he gets knocked around by life and receives no meaningful support from his Jewish community. Larry tries all avenues that a good Jew in his situation should utilize, especially seeing the Rabbi.

The Coens masterfully present two scenes where Larry visits with Rabbi’s, the first a Junior Rabbi who is sitting in for the senior rabbi.The awkwardness of the conversation between this sad sap Rabbi and an earnest but confused Larry evokes many laughs.

When Larry finally gets the chance to see the Senior Rabbi, all he gets for his troubles is a senseless story about a Jewish dentist who saw Hebrew letters on the teeth of a Goy he treated. A Goy mind you, says the Rabbi.

Larry becomes more confused as Sy, a well-respected member of “the community” is taking his wife right from under him all the while spinning him with this phony pop psychology and constantly hugging Larry and reassuring him that “this is all for the best.”

One other amusing element of the movie is the juxtaposition of this established Jewish community with a rural Midwest town. The humorous tension between Larry and his red neck neighbor, Mr. Brandt, brings only more worries to Larry. In one scene, Larry dreams that Brandt guns down Arthur in the country side; Brandt in his hunting fatigues with his son, after putting the bullet through Arthur, turns to Larry and says to his son, “There’s another Jew. Go ahead and shoot” – classic Coen dark humor.

One could continue on listing the humorous elements of the movie, such as the stark contrast between the religious ideals and that of the lives the flock is actually living – but it is not necessary. Suffice to say, this is a very funny and insightful movie. So, if the Larry Copnick story was the movie unto itself, I think we would have a gem.

Unfortunately, the Coens decided to open the film with a scene circa mid 1800’s in some far off Jewish settlement in Europe. The scene is fable-like involving Larry’s direct descendents. In the scene the wife puts a curse on the family by stabbing a helpful stranger whom she is convinced is a ghostly spirit.

Then we fast-forward to Larry Gopnick and his disastrous year of 1967. Just before the movie ends, the screenplay links back to the opening scene.

Larry receives a phone call from his Doctor stating that the x-rays performed in the opening scene of the movie have come back with problems, this is followed by a tornado coming right through the middle of the town, giving the viewer the impression that everything is going to get blown to hell.

So, even though in the Bar mitzvah scene prior to these final two, we are led to believe that somehow, Larry has navigated through all of this confusion and has found some meaning in his troubles, forget it. He’s doomed. The family is doomed.

Essentially the Coen’s have reduced their movie to an amusing tale about a family that is cursed. Everything in-between conjures up chuckles but is just part of the curse, and lacks any meaning about life as Jewish American in the 1960’s.

Thus, “A Serious Man”, which could have been so much more, with less, is merely entertaining but doesn’t transcend being a quirky comedy.

Ironically, when I watched the special features, the Coen brothers stated that the opening scene really had no meaning. They just thought it would be “cool” to begin the movie with a cartoon-like (their words) scene. Could they really be that sloppy with their creation?

 

Andrew Holt was born and raised in Manhattan Beach, California. He has 18 years in the radio broadcasting business and is currently in tourism marketing and public relations. He has a weekly blog, at www.theholtstory.com  His favorite movies are The Illusionist, Dead Again, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Sixth Sense. His favorite authors are, J.D. Salinger, Tom Wolfe, Bernard Malamud and John Steinbeck. 

Saturday
Mar132010

Departures

Departures

(2008)

Director: Yojiro Takita

Cast: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki

I can think of two films which have had a profound effect on my thinking about , or at least my appreciation of death. Both are Japanese. The first is Akira Kurosawa’s Ikuru (1952), the beautifully told tale of, Kanji Watanabe,  an aging bureaucrat played by  Takashi Shimura, who learns that he has cancer and must take some action to make his life meaningful. Being an aging bureaucrat myself, I have to agree with Roger Ebert that, “… the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us."  The second film is Yojiro Takita’s Departures (2008), a stylistic portrayal of the Japanese practice of “encoffining”  the deceased’s body in his or her house in front of the family.

Departures is a visual treat, in the sense of watching the ceremonial pace of the encoffining procedure, which becomes mesmerizing, and almost profound, especially as the family’s emotions, which are aroused during the ceremony, move from anger, fear and grief to acceptance and inevitably, to appreciation and thanks directed toward the person they have lost.

The story told within the movie is of a young couple, the male of which loses his job as a cellist in a symphony orchestra because the orchestra dissolves, and he and his young wife move back to his town of origin in the house of his deceased mother.  The young man, Daigo, played by Masahiro Motoki, accepts a job “assisting departures,” for an “NK agency,” which he and his wife assume might be a travel agency, but is, in fact a service that performs enconffining.  Daigo is hired by the older man who runs the agency but is unable to tell his wife, Mika, played by Ryoko Hirosue, what he does, and instead says he works on "ceremonial occasions,” which she assumes means weddings.

The couple settles into their life in the small town, with Daigo renewing his old acquaintances and thinking about his mother and the father who left him when he was a small child and toward whom he harbors a great deal of anger.  As we follow him learning his new job, we see him move from being horrified at the presence of the dead people he must encoffin, which consists of ritually cleaning and dressing the body and then placing it in the coffin, to feeling reverence for both the deceased and the ritual itself. He learns that the old man who is his teacher, only took up the profession when his own wife died and he saw the profound effect the care for the dead person  had upon him.

Daigo’s wife, Mika finally discovers what he does for a living and demands he quit and get a “decent job.” But Daigo is hooked on the worth and dignity of what he does and refuses to quit. His wife leaves. Soon after, his closest friend, the son of a woman who has known  Daigo all of his life and runs a local bathhouse, severs his relationship with Daigo because of his refual to get a “proper job.”

Mika finds she is pregnant and returns to Daigo, but she is still against his profession. When the old woman who runs the bathhouse dies and Daigo is the one who carries out the encoffining, his wife and his best friend attend and both are swayed by the beauty and dignity of what Daigo does and change their minds and accept it.

Daigo receives a message that his father, whom he has not seen since he was a very small child, has died. Daigo wants nothing to do with his father, but Mika and Daigo’s boss convince him to travel to where the body is and see his father one last time and perform the encoffining. Daigo and Mika go together and  he carries out the ritual, awakening memories of his father when he does so and culminating in him finding , clasped in his father’s hand, a small stone, which was a “stone letter” he gave his father when he was a child.

Departures is less personally relevant for someone such as myself than Ikuru, but more visually appealing and the movie’s pace and its repetition of the encoffining ritual over and over produces almost a spiritual, pariticipatory feeling in anyone who watches it.

The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 and several international Best Actor awards for Masahiro Motoki, as well as many Japanese Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, etc. awards.

 Reviewed by Casey Dorman

Sunday
Oct042009

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime 

Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008) French

(I've Loved You So Long)

Directed by Philippe Claudel

Written by Philippe Claudel

 

Starring:

Kristin Scott Thomas, Elsa Zylberstein, Serge Hazanavicius, Laurent Grévill , Frédéric Pierrot

 

This film, which won the 2009 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards, Best Film Not in the English Language award, with nominations for Kristin Scott Thomas as Best Actress, the London Critics Circle Film Awards and European Film Awards Best Actress awards for Kristin Scott Thomas, a Cesar Award Best First Film for Philippe Claudel and Best Supporting Actress for Elsa Zylberstein, as well as Golden Globe nominations for Best Film and Best Actress Performance in a Drama for Kristin Scott Thomas, is unforgettable. Watching the film at home, with admittedly no prior knowledge of its content or its quality, I was immediately struck by the similarity to The Reader, not so much in terms of its plot, though there are some distant thematic resemblances, but in terms of its tone. The performance by Kristin Scott Thomas is without doubt as powerful as that of Kate Winslet and no one in The Reader equals the supporting effort of Elsa Zylberstein, who plays Thomas’ sister.

 

Thomas’ character, Juliette, has just returned from 15 years in prison to live, temporarily, with her younger sister. While Thomas’ crime is not immediately revealed to us, we are made aware that it is serious, that she is damaged, either by the crime or by her stay in prison, or both, and that her younger sister is unconditionally committed to loving and helping her, despite the objections of her husband. The crime for which Thomas was imprisoned was so horrible that her husband divorced her and her parents disowned her and refused to allow her sister to communicate with her, for which the younger sister, Lea, feels guilt.

 

Juliette is stoic, sometimes angry, often sad, and feels little need to explain herself to anyone. We learn that her crime was the murder of her own son. From the moment the audience realizes this, we are anxious about the safety of Juliette’s sister’s two adopted children, the oldest of which has a tendency to pry into her aunt’s life.

 

With tension in the background, we watch Juliette try to reassemble a life. We learn she was a doctor, but can no longer practice. She is befriended by one of her sister’s colleagues, who is romantically interested in her and by her own parole officer, who has his own difficulties, who attempts to reach out to her, and who eventually takes his own life, to her shock and dismay. Juliette's and Lea’s mother has Alzheimer’s disease and has forgotten the incident that led to her disowning Juliette, but barely recognizes either of her daughters.

 

The moments of adjustment and readjustment for Juliette are painful to watch and, for her part, Juliette is so overwhelmed with chronic and profound depression that she is, to this audience member’s relief, less affected by the cruelty that sometimes is shown her, than we are. But gradually, through the mechanism of time and the efforts of truly loving and giving friends and relatives, especially Lea and her children, Juliette struggles back to life. On top of this, there is a surprise revelation, which changes every attitude both the characters and the audience have developed, but this cannot be revealed in a review such as this.

 

This is a marvelous, powerful film with brilliant performances and I recommend it to everyone.

 

Casey Dorman

 
Saturday
Jun272009

STRAY DOG (Nora inu)

(1949)

Director: Akira Kurosawa.

Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Awaji

Fans of Akira Kurosawa are most familiar with his historical dramas, including The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Red Beard and Ran but may also know of Ikuru and Drunken Angel. Stray Dog is an early (1949) film of Kurosawa’s which, had it been set in the West, would have surely been included with the greatest film noir classics of the 1940’s and ‘50’s (it didn’t even make IMDb’s list of 50 greatest noir titles!). The plot is straightforward – a policeman’s gun is stolen while he is riding home on a bus and while he is tracking it down, it is used in two crimes, including a murder. What gives the film its grit, is the seamy side of Tokyo shown in the movie as the young policeman (Toshiro Mifune) moves through the world of illegal gun sales and criminality and the signature emphasis upon weather, which is a Kurosawa trademark. In this case, it is a sweltering heat wave, marked by continual brow-wiping by Mifune and his older partner, played by Takashi Shimura and, in what I thought was the film’s most visually stunning moment, a scene in which a bevy of beautiful female dancers collapses on the floor between their stage appearances, beads of sweat dotting their drawn, tired, but still strikingly pretty faces. The Mifune and Shimura characters zero in on one of the dancers, played by the delicate beauty, Keiko Awaji, and question her relentlessly until she gives up the location of her suitor, played by Isao Kimura, who is in possession of Mifune’s gun.

Despite its action and its atmosphere, Stray Dog is a psychological film. The rookie cop played by Mifune is tortured by the loss of his gun and his fear of the harm that will be done with it. Despite a surprising degree of sympathy and understanding from the older members of the Tokyo police force, who become increasingly impatient with Mifune’s self-castigation over his mistake. Mifune, himself, becomes more and more desperate and despondent as he learns that the gun has been used first in an armed robbery and then in a murder. Kurosawa illustrates the tenacious nature of the Mifune character’s search for his gun by using scenes that go on interminably, one in which his unyielding following of the woman who originally took his gun finally gets her to give him information and another in which he wanders the streets of Tokyo in disguise in hopes someone will provide him information on how guns are sold amidst the city’s down and out population. As his own desperation escalates, his questioning becomes more vicious, particularly when he nearly drives the young dancer, played by Awaji, insane with his incessant pursuit of the subject of the gun. Just as psychologically interesting is Mifune’s empathy with the man who has come into possession of the gun. He cannot help musing about the similarity between himself and the criminal he is pursuing, sometimes to the point of expressing sympathy for the thief and murderer. His partner, the older and wiser, Shimura, counsels him that he will lose such sympathetic feelings the longer he is on the job and interacts with the criminal world.

Stray Dog is a compelling film. Like the American film noir classics, it has the black and white, stark features found in many movies of that genre and that era. The good guys (in this case the police, played by Mifune and Shimura) and the bad guys (the woman who stole the gun, the dancer and the murderer who finally possesses the gun) share many characteristics, providing a realistic edge to the film not found in more mainstream thrillers with their faultless heroes.

Stray Dog is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

Saturday
Apr252009

Doubt

Directed By: John Patrick Shanley MPAA Rating: PG-13

Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

I am fortunate to have seen both the New York stage production of Doubt with Cherry Jones , Brían F. O'Byrne , Heather Goldenhersh and Adriane Lenox as well as the film. I can't say which I liked best, except, of course, the play was brand new to me and the film wasn't, because of my already having seen the play. As with many plays, especially when there are few cast members and the audience is addressed more or less directly in the soliloquies, the stage production is more thought provoking for a viewer. With both the film and the play, the essential element of Doubt is the controversy stirred in the viewer's mind. The surface question around which the play revolves is whether Father Flynn is guilty of child molestation - a conclusion I, for some reason, came away more convinced of in the film than in the play, but that may have been due to a trick of memory, since I just saw the film and I attended the play a few years ago. Beneath this simple question are the more complex ones. Is Father Flynn a bad man? Can his sexual abuse of young Donald be justified? Is Sister Aloysius' certainty regarding his guilt justified? Where should Sister James' loyalties lie? Is Donald's mother justified in allowing the sexual abuse at school to go on? Amid these personal questions, which torture both the characters and the audience, is the overarching question of the Church's guilt in ignoring evidence of a priest's sexual abuse of his young parishioners.

If you haven't figured it out already, or seen the film yourself, the plot is about how a pair of nun's, one a school principal and one a teacher, deal with their suspicion that the priest at their church is abusing one of their male pupils who is also an altar boy in the church. The principal, Sister Aloysius, is convinced of the priest's guilt, although her certainty appears to hinge on both her suspicious nature and her prejudice against the priest's warm and casual manner, which grates against her strait-laced approach to both running her school and interacting with the children and most of the other people around her. In the midst of the conflict between these two, is a young teacher-nun, who admires Father Flynn, but also finds herself under the tutelage of Sister Aloysius and, in the latter role, supplies some of the circumstantial evidence against the priest. The other main character in the film is the boy's mother, who appears to recognize that her son is gay and that he needs the protection of Father Flynn in the cruel world of students who are prone to picking on him.

Much like in the recent Oscar-winning film, Crash, the characters of the main players in this film become less one-dimensional and more complex as the story proceeds. Sister Aloysius, while seeming almost arbitrarily mean-spirited in her dealings with both Sister James and, even more so, her students, becomes gradually more human, wiser in her approach to children, sympathetic to the frailties of those around her, and, in the end, uncertain and vulnerable. Father Flynn, while remaining warm and sympathetic to both the children and to Sister James, is also concerned about his own safety within the structure of the Church and his position, as well as, perhaps, his need to preserve his access to vulnerable children such as Donald. Sister James develops backbone, learning some of Sister Aloysius' tricks in dealing with troublesome children, yet preserves her own judgement about Father Flynn in the end and manages to be sympathetic to Sister Aloysius at the same time. Donald's mother has only one scene in which to portray her position and she has chosen a complex solution to an impossibly difficult dilemma.

For me, the most tantalizing question raised by this film has to do with whether Sister Aloysius is justified in carrying forth her campaign against Father Flynn, when the only real evidence she has against him is her own certainty of his guilt. As the film proceeds, the sister's strength of character becomes more obvious, we are more convinced that her years of experience may have given her a special insight that neither Sister James nor the viewing audience has access to, and we see that she has a human side to her. All of these factors lend increasing weight to her opinion, yet, until she confronts Donald's mother, there is hardly a shred of evidence against the priest, other than Sister Aloysius' certainty. Even after the mother's revelation about her son, the evidence against the priest is hardly convincing. But Sister Aloysius persists. She finally obtains, not an admission of guilt from Father Flynn, but a capitulation, in that he consents to leave that Parish and move on to another, rather than have the principal pursue the matter any further. He does so based upon a lie told by Sister Aloysius about checking into his past with a nun from his previous parish. Was Sister Aloysius justified in doing what she did - in driving Father Flynn from her parish? If either she or Father Flynn were portrayed more one dimensionally, as either prejudice and rigidity against openness and warmth, or as truth and responsibility against evil and abnormality, we wouldn't be in any quandary about the rightness or wrongness of what Sister Aloysius did. But what makes Doubt a mesmerizing film and not a simple-minded Hollywood treatment of child abuse, is that no simple answers are offered.

Just a note about the acting in the film. All of it was superb and particularly, I thought that Meryl Streep's portrayal of Sister Aloysius was the best performance of any in the films I have seen from the 2008 season. She was able to present a truly complex character, which I hated at one minute and sympathized with the next. In this movie, the portrayal of each of the characters in this multi-dimensional way was the core of the presentation of the dilemmas each of them confronted and we as an audience were forced to confront as we viewed the film. All of the actors carried this off amazingly well.

Casey Dorman

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