Robert’s Picks: Top Films viewed in 2007
Robert E. Yahnke (March 2008)
1. After the Wedding. (Denmark, 2006). After the Wedding begins with a simple premise: Jacob Petersen, a young Danish man, working in an Indian orphanage, learns that a rich Dane will give a fortune to support his orphanage—and all he has to do is visit the man in Copenhagen to seal the deal. At the office in Copenhagen, Jacob learns the details of Jørgen’s deal: the rich man will donate $4 million a year for four years to the orphanage—but with conditions: one of which is that Jacob will not return to the orphanage in India. (By the way, there are more conditions!) While Jacob thinks about this offer, the rich man invites him to attend the wedding of Jørgen’s future son-in-law. But at the wedding, Jacob meets Jørgen’s wife, and he is stunned. Why? Because the two of them once were married, and even had a daughter. And where is the daughter, you may ask? She is marrying the future son-in-law. Of course, the new bride does not yet know that her real father is attending the wedding. The director, Susanne Bier, has a golden touch when it comes to filming the moral crises that individuals may face. Everything depends upon how all of the characters react to these disclosures. And there will be more disclosures. I spent the first hour of the film hating Jørgen’s guts and wishing him evil—and eventually I discovered that he was one of the most loving and insightful of human beings, and I grew to love him as well. Bier is interested in the ways that human beings work through trauma and loss and find a way to regenerate themselves. She is interested in the human capacity for adaptation and re-tooling and especially the capacity for forgiveness and eventual healing. Everything that happens, happens for a reason: but the reasons are human reasons, human explanations that make meaning out of chaos. She understands the way humanity prevails against great odds, and she makes viewers believers in the mysteries as well as the strengths of the human heart.
2. Michael Clayton. The film captured me in an early scene: Michael Clayton, the janitor (cleaner-upper of ethical-legal messes) for his law firm, has just visited a client on Long Island and has explained the facts of life to this self-centered upper-class fellow. On the way back he drives off the main road and onto a country road. And there, in the distance, is a hillside. He stops, he gets out of the car, and he walks to the top of the hill and stops in front of three beautiful horses. Then something happened. George Clooney gave an Acting 101 seminar, and the combination of acting, directing, cinematography, and music all combined to dazzle my imagination. I was hooked. Something was going on here—but what? Without that scene, the film lacks a core meaning. With that scene, and with Michael Clayton’s precocious young son, and with a senior partner of Clayton’s law firm who really listens to the inspiration of a little boy’s imagination—with all of that, my dear reader, you have the art of film at its best. Throw in to the mix an early shot of Tilda Swinton, playing a lawyer (and playing a role Jodi Foster used to play), and sitting in the bathroom and obviously suffering from emotional distress, and then checking her armpits and seeing that they are soaked from perspiration (another non sequiter based upon the information at hand)—and you have not only awe and wonder but the mystery of the human heart. Why do people do the things they do? How can they forgive themselves for their actions? I was reminded several times of The Verdict, an excellent Sydney Lumet film, because Clooney’s face and his demeanor reminded me of Paul Newman’s—a man on the verge of emotional and psychological collapse. The key thing here is that Michael Clayton is an unhappy man. You want to know why a man that beautiful, and apparently that successful, is so unhappy. You think to yourself, “Unhappy people are capable of doing desperate things. Watch out.” And then there is that last shot in the film, a tour de force, of shot selection and continuity of film time. That shot ranks with the equally originally close-up of Jack Nicholson sitting in front of an open window near the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—remember that scene? Why don’t you leave, man? The window’s open? Get the heck out of there! That’s what you always wanted! But in the case of Clooney’s shot, we wait for a revelation—from his face—and understand that he has escaped, too.
3. No Country for Old Men. The Coen brothers strike again in Fargo II: Southwest Texas. Every scene in this film is well-crafted, the violence is as it should be—random, unexpected, furious, and inscrutable—and the characters are archetypal. The first time I viewed this film I missed an essential ingredient of its greatness: its placement in time. The film takes place in 1980, and even then, the metaphor of “this is no country for old men,” holds. It is a complicated time. Ronald Reagan is not yet the President and Commander in Chief. Vietnam is still fresh in the memories and experiences of middle-aged Americans. The Mexican border in this film is watched by sleepy guards, and it is not yet the complicated metaphor of fearfulness that right wingers now attach to it. There are three main characters in the film: the first is a young hunter, played by Josh Brolin, and we see him first prowling around the scene of a drug transaction gone bad. On the one hand he had no empathy whatsoever for any of the people involved in this action. When a dying Mexican called for “agua,” he replied, “I ain’t got no fucking water.” He acted like a hunter throughout the scene, checking out the field of action and surmising that the last man standing is somewhere out there—to be hunted down by him, I imagine. He seemed to have absolute contempt for humankind here. And yet the plot springs to life when he later returns to this scene with a jug of water. People are more than they appear. They make choices. Just think: life is about people making choices. The second main character is the villain, Anton Chighur, an original character—and played brilliantly by Javier Bardeem. Most other characters in the film thought of him as insane, and perhaps he was. I think the saddest thing about Chiguhr is that he believed that the universe possessed a kind of cosmic order of a certain magnitude that he was a part of. He translated this cosmic order to the tossing of coins (which to him must have meaning) or to the confluence of events (all roads of destiny have led us to this place, where we meet, and where there must then be no other choices to be made). Chighur wouldn’t have admitted it, but he had chosen to become an angel of death character. His problem was that he couldn’t see the choice part. But we know that everything that some people call fate or destiny doesn’t become fate or destiny until people make choices. Yes, there is randomness in the universe, and there are accidents that happen. But the human element remains my primary concern. So what do I do with Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the sheriff in this small town? He has been the sheriff since he was 25, and thus he has seen many strange things and survived to tell the tale. Late in the film, our sheriff, who has been mentally agile and adept in his crime-solving throughout the film—and always just a few steps behind the bad guy, does something stupid for the first time. That is, he violates one of the rules of his life—he does something stupid. He does something dangerous. He steps right into that mad world that he has been afraid of for so long. One night he sneaks into a hotel room, a crime scene, because he has a hunch that the killer may have revisited the scene of his crime. So he goes into the room, with his gun drawn, and suddenly we see a quick reaction shot of Chighur hiding in the corner of the room, his gun at the ready, and for the first time in the film—a look of fear on his face! Now nothing happens, the sheriff goes away (he’s equally afraid of this scary situation) and the killer goes away to kill again. If I saw that right, then I can only conclude that for a moment the OLD MAN messed with the head of the Master of Doom. In a sense, the bad guy met his match, just for a few minutes. But after that flirtation with the horrorific Anton Chighur, the old sheriff decides to retire. This film has some deep ideas in it, let me tell you, and there is a strong meditation on mortality beneath all of the action. The film ends with the sheriff relating a dream about his father, dead 20 years now, and in his dream his father has gone ahead of him (meaning: he died first) and he has lit a fire in the darkness (he has brought light—meaning—to a dark and random world?). And then the last line of the film: “I knew he would be there when I woke up”? (His father’s dying, just as his grandfather’s dying before him, is part of the order of the world—and now the new old man can live without fearing his mortality.
4. Eastern Promises. Like so many great films, Eastern Promises brings together two disparate characters at just the right time. Their lives connect initially only through obscure meetings on the periphery of the main action. The first time they meet she is leaving a location after an important meeting with someone else. The art of the screenplay: in that scene the woman, Anna, sees a perfect grandfatherly old man who seems to have a compassionate heart. But there is something suspicious about the old man. He is no more and no less than a Godfather figure (and may as well have been Marlon Brando made up to be an old man and greeting his guests with deceptive acts of kindness). The Viggo Mortensen character, Nikolai, is called the undertaker. He disposes of bodies for the mafia boss and makes sure there are no forensic traces left for the police to track them down. Meanwhile, Anna, who herself suffered a miscarriage once (character development helps, you know), has found a diary of a woman whose baby died, and because it is written in Russian, she needs someone to translate it. So she brings the diary to the nice old man—which is akin to bringing little Red Riding Hood to the Wolf (dressed in Grandma’s clothing). Now that diary becomes the object of desire—that everyone in the film wants to possess and control. Meanwhile, the lives of Anna and Nikolai intersect again and again—and each time POV and reaction shots are used to provide tension in this relationship. There are many secrets in this film, other secrets to reveal—and before they are revealed, each time Nikolai and Anna meet there is something more revealed (and yet held back) about their identities and values. I kept wondering, where is this relationship headed? Wherever it is headed, it must not a trite or conventional resolution to that relationship. And it wasn’t simplistic—it was complex and perfectly believable. There is so much more to talk about in this film—including major plot twist that are shocking and perfect (and reminiscent of some of the great films of the 1970s), and then those two ending scenes, parallel cut, comparing the lives of the two main characters after everything else has been resolved.
5. There Will be Blood. I was moved by Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance because he inhabited that character, let the character come forth upon the screen, and made us realize the extent to which his character has lost so much in having acquired so much. Afterwards, I thought of Citizen Kane because like that film, There Will Be Blood is about a great American character who realized his dreams and then was left feeling alienated and alone in the symbol of his success—a great American home. Charles Foster Kane, meet Daniel Plainview. Just remember that what you see (what you view) is not what you get (not a plain truth). The great American character—like Gatsby or Kane—is never a simplistic character. He is a complex, three-dimensional, contradictory, illusory, and defiant character. He wants—but he does not have. I was also moved by the dramatic arc of this film—beginning in 1898 with a scene showing Plainview working alone in a gold mine in California and ending in 1927—just before the Stock Market Crash. Let’s begin with the genius of how this film opens. For 15 or 20 minutes there is no dialogue in the film. We do have sound, but all we hear are the natural sounds of miners (prospectors) at work and the music on the sound track. We watch Daniel Day-Lewis create his character in a kind of Silent-Movie-modality. No dialogue: just action. Eventually, we make it to a scene between Plainview and an orphan baby on a train—and you watch him capture the attention of the child, who reaches up toward his face from his bassinet—and then you hear that sonorous voice of Daniel Day-Lewis continuing to create his character (via voice-over) until Anderson cuts to a close shot of his main character pontificating before a crowd of dirt farmers and ranchers. He is selling his version of the American Dream. He has positioned his orphan boy, whom he claims as his son, just behind him—as if to signify that there will be future generations of this good man Daniel Plainview helping future generations of Americans to their portion of that grand Dream of success and wealth and good favor from God Almighty. This man is slick. This man is a preacher of sorts. This man is a politician. He has the power of the Word. He is a force, a true force (blackened with all sorts of lies, of course). As I watched the film, I thought about words we use to describe oil: slick, oozing, oily, slippery, slimy, dark—this man, Daniel Plainview, is the personification of oil. He comes to love it and almost worship it. In the dramatic scene where he hits his first big well on a new property, and the oil gushes up a hundred feet into the air, and then a spark ignites the natural gas that flows out afterwards, Plainview stands mesmerized before the fiery derrick—the light of the flames are reflected in his eyes. At the same time his orphan boy has been injured seriously during the initial gusher, and rests in a small shed on the property. But Daniel Plainview sits outside and watches the fiery gusher all night, as if kneeling before the altar of his God of oil. In all of this film, he has never been happier. Now he is somebody. Now he will have power. And there is another character in the film who is equal to the fraudulence of a Daniel Plainview; that character is Eli Sunday (reminiscent of Billy Sunday, the early 20 th-Century evangelist preacher?). Deception is at the heart of the main characters. Daniel Plainview always lies if that lying furthers his objectives. His first interaction with the Sunday family is also based upon deception—but it is not until later in the film that we realize that the deception worked in both directions. How does a film like this have to end: does it help if I tell you that the last words out of Daniel Plainview’s mouth are, “It’s finished”?
6. La Vie en Rose. (Belgium). Abandoned by her mother, raised in a brothel, bonded with one of the prostitutes, then torn apart from her adopted home by her callous father, forced to work in the circus with her father—well, you get the idea. The life of the famous French singer, Edith Piaf, resonates with melodrama. Out of such abandonment and confinement and loss comes an unearthly talent: all embodied in this woman’s voice. Edith is the little sparrow, the piaf, and she summed up the resistance of the French to German oppression when she sang, Je Regrette Rien. The story is told using the tried and true screenplay structure of present tense (in the first scene the adult Edith collapses at a concert) and goes back to her childhood and then back to the present, and so on. What worked most for me were the shifts from the past to the present—in several cases seeing the balding sick old woman in 1963 was a revelation: so much had been lost to her in her life. She was shrunken, sad, and lonely. In her youth she was forced to forge her own family connections, first with the women in a brothel (and in particular one prostitute named Tatine), later with a young woman (another street singer and best friend), and then she is discovered by an impresario, a manager that sees in her golden voice the ca-ching of cash registers. He is played deliciously by Gerard Depardieu. Later she meets Marguerite, a composer, who will become one of her best and most faithful friends. There are no real surprises here. She is a magnificent talent; even in her first performance, where she shows zero stage presence, her voice is thrilling and unique and a true force of beauty. But there can be no real happy endings with a story like this: of a woman manipulated for her talent, introduced to heroin as a means of easing her pain, and betrayed—throughout her life—by love. So much of her story is about the class differences: she was from the gutter, and in a way she never lost her faith in that part of her identity; and yet the man who made her famous, Raymond Asso, needed to form her into a high-class act in order to make the fortune he made with her voice. So always there was a conflict in her between the inner self (the sparrow) and the outer self (the great singer). I wrote in my notes: “You can take the singer off of the streets, but you can’t take the street out of the singer.” So it’s an old story, and yet as told here, a great and enduring story of great possibilities undermined by tragic flaws.
7. Lars and the Real Girl. The craft of this film is first in its screenplay, carefully unfolding, and in its acting, especially by Ryan Gosling in the main role as Lars. Throughout the film the audience had to be asking themselves, “Why is this guy acting this way? What is wrong with him? What is he trying to accomplish?” But the audience never gets a specific answer for these questions. They have to figure out for themselves. Now that’s what makes for a great screenplay. As for the acting, it was uniformly excellent—right down to the minor players. This story requires that it take place in a village or a small town; it requires that it take place in the far North, where winters are long and cruel and people take to sitting in their kitchens over a cup of coffee and a slice of banana bread and wondering why they go on splitting wood for the stove every other day and even why they go on living at all. This film could have been a monologue by Garrison Keillor in his weekly radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. This kind of thing happens—but it happens in an environment where everyone knows everyone else, and where the good and compassionate and empathic people drive out the worrisome and bigoted and crotchety lot in town. In a story like this the good people have to carry the load. A lot of human behaviors look like insanity; but only a few really are. The rest are due to overwork, lack of sleep, lack of attention when a child, unrealistic expectations, unrequited love, jealousy, betrayal, and a host of other mental complaints. In this case, I won’t tell you exactly what Lars is suffering from; but I can tell you that everything he does—beginning with his decision to order a life-sized, anatomically correct, female doll—makes perfect sense as long as you are able to realize that although he can’t explain why he is doing what he is doing, the doing of it is coming from a place inside of himself that knows what it is doing. What will people think? And the complaints of his older brother: What will people think of me, or say about me behind my back? What if my brother always acts like this, or is like this the rest of his life? Now let’s get back to the acting of Ryan Gosling. He portrayed a young man terrified of social contact as well as physical contact. But he went to work every morning, he completed all required tasks, he dressed himself, and he maintained an adequate diet. So a sympathetic doctor in the small town realizes that he is not mentally ill; after all, he is functioning in society. She prescribes a long period of treatment for the real girl, Bianca (the sex-doll), and the doctor also sneaks in some informal one-on-one sessions with Lars. I believed Gosling’s portrayal of this broken young man. I believed the small town’s empathic response to his need, and I understood the therapy Lars had embarked upon out of desperation. I thought Lars and the Real Girl was a special film, one that will remind people of Rain Man . Like Dustin Hoffman in that latter film, Ryan Gosling played beyond the stereotype in this film. I saw him portray a man in great emotional and psychological distress. Lars was functioning in the world and living in the community and would eventually thrive within the community. And thus his pain was even more poignant because it had to be expressed in front of the members of his community. In this film, everyone—including Lars—passed the test.
8. Things We Lost in the Fire. Early in the film, we have the first meeting of two unlikely characters, a young and beautiful widow and a man (a longtime heroin addict) that her husband sponsored (for Al-Anon) and befriended as well. “I hated you for so many years,” she says. “I would have given up on you. But he didn’t.” With that dialogue, we have the nut of this film. Why do some people give up on others? Why do some people never give up on others? How can one person’s broken life ever be redeemed? Why do some who are broken survive and others who are broken perish? How do you put yourself back together as a human being after you have been broken by life? The director, Susanne Bier, is fascinated with imperfect characters. In some respects, the character closest to perfection in the film is the husband, Brian, who is a successful businessman (has a great house with a perfect wife and two perfect kids). And yet he gives of himself to others, spending time as a mentor for Jerry (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unable and unwilling to fight against his heroin addiction. What makes Brian keep doing what he does? Where is Brian’s imperfection? The film is studded with three-dimensional characters. Brian’s wife, Audrey (Halle Berry), is a complicated character, angry that Brian has had to drag imperfection into her world, and yet setting out on an emotional journey that will change her life forever. I loved the way the film was told—in brief scenes moving back and forth from present to past and giving glimpses of key moments in time—Jerry attending the funeral in an ill-fitting suit, Audrey in the shower, acting out her grief, Jerry in the seedy flophouse when Brian visits him, Audrey’s brother Neal (a brilliant performance by Omar Benson Miller) coming to fetch Jerry so that he can attend the funeral, a neighbor helping out and thus reflecting Brian’s inclination to help others, and that neighbor stopping by one day to invite Jerry for a run (because Brian was his running partner). Bier is adept at these small moments in life, moments when details are all. Before you know it, Bier has placed the two main characters in proximity: the woman who lost her husband and the man she blames, in some way, for his death. As she tells him, “It should have been you.” Everything that follows is believable and everything that happens between these two people shows that everyone is capable of redemption. Bier always accents the positive—but she does so only after showing how much pain people have to go through in order to survive the ordeal of being human.
9. Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I think Tim Burton did Stephen Sondheim proud. The acting! The music! The set design! The lighting! The film techniques! I was bowled over by the quality of this film. It begins with graphic-comics-like credits, with an emphasis on the reddest of reds (not a bloody red—but a bright crimson that over-saturates and inspires. Then the song: “There’s no place like London…” and we’re off. And I mean we’re off to the races. Now I’m a novice when it comes to Stephen Sondheim. I have never seen the musical, and for me it was all one big surprise after the other. I really did not mind, after a while, that Johnny Depp did not have a great singing voice, or that Helen Bonham-Carter had an even worse singing voice. I was fascinated by the way the film reminded me of opera, with its grand passions, and then reminded me of Shakespeare, with its flawed characters that put themselves through the wringer and hold nothing back—exposing their passions, their shortcomings, and their relentless desires (as in this case—for revenge). A great film is one where momentum builds and builds until you know nothing can stop the characters from going too far in their search for resolution to their pain. This is a timeless story of a broken family and a yearning for reclaiming what was lost to them. “He will have his revenge!” What an old and yet never tireless story. Ah, Hamlet. Oh, Ahab! The story is almost Biblical in its purity of passion and rage. I was fascinated when Sweeny sings an anthem to his razors “(“My friend, my faithful friend!”). I knew there would be no holding this character back. Once set upon the great wheel of life, one must give way to the wheel, which is greater than any man. And it will turn and turn and our hero’s heart will burn and burn. I loved the great shave-off between the two barbers, and yet I wasn’t prepared for the ultimate shave-off between them—which results in the first murder in the film. That murder was brutal; the blood was graphic; and yet lurking just below the surface was something other than brutality. Burton always maintained for his hero a core of sentiment—his love for his wife and for his daughter (the daughter he wants to rescue now)—and so brutality and sentiment do a horrible dance throughout this film. But therein lies the rub. The subtitle of the story should be The Tragedy of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. When brutality trumps sentiment, then we have tragedy. Just think about that climactic moment at the end of the film, the one killing we least expected would be of any consequence—and you realize, then, that it was our hero’s brutality working overtime. One more killing? He couldn’t care less. But then—oh my dear boy, Hamlet! I remember you well! Eventually, however, as our hero lost himself in his revenge, the killings became almost operatic in scale, metaphoric of meaning, motions akin to a graceful and yet wretched dance that he was dancing with his victims. There was something about that choreography of slitting their throats, tilting the special chair back, opening the trap door with his feet, and then dumping them under the floor—out of sight, too neat, too clever, perfectly amoral. Not until the climactic scenes at the end does the world beneath the floor become real to us—and then it becomes gruesome as our hero becomes gruesome in his nature. Oh, there are some great moments here. For instance, when the villainous Judge Turpin actually sits in Sweeny Todd’s chair—and we know that at any moment our hero will slit his throat—and yet the two men sing a duet! “Pretty woman!” they sing (and not the Roy Orbison version, of course). And then to repeat that scene later in the film—what a triumph. Let’s face it. The Stephen Sondheim musical is a triumph, and Burton has brought it alive upon the screen. There is that moment, too, after he fails to kill the arch villain of his dreams, when he goes over the top, over the metaphoric cliff, and descends into the maelstrom—and you believe every moment of it. You understand why this character chooses what he chooses. I was moved by the utter simplicity of motives: one of unremitting revenge and another of undying love. Both are drawn along by hope—but each has such different outcomes. At the end of this film I felt wrung out, satisfied with all the plot twists that had been revealed, and thinking hard about the consequences of broken hearts and deadened spirits.
10. Forever. (Netherlands, 2006). This is why I go to the cinema. I go to find a new world, or to see a world I thought I knew, and then realized that I knew nothing at all about it. I go to meet human beings and learn from their thoughts and values and passions. This documentary begins with conventional direct cinema techniques—great cinematography, great insert close-ups of the gravestones in Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris—and then the director (always off camera) begins to talk to a visitor to the grave of Frederic Chopin. The visitor is a young Chinese woman, and soon we learn that she is herself a concert pianist. As the film moves on, the director combines direct cinema techniques (showing people engaged in their activities within the cemetery) with indirect interview techniques and then with scenes of the young Chinese pianist playing Chopin at home. But the secret to this film is the director’s ability as an interviewer. She exacts deep-seated feelings and truths from her subjects. She gives them room to speak and to speak eloquently about their connection to that dead person, whether it is a family member of a famous artist or writer or musician. Time and again I was drawn in by her ability to draw out from the interviewee incredible personal revelations. Take the young Chinese pianist, for example. She stands at Chopin’s grave and speaks eloquently about the power of his music and the way it has moved and shaped her own life. Or the three old women seated on a park bench in the shade: one is a Spaniard who escaped Franco’s repression, and she provides testimony to the power of the human spirit to seek freedom as the basis for one’s existence. Even more touching was the middle-aged Persian man who has visited four times in his life the grave of a famous 20 th century Iranian writer, Sadeq Hadayat, the author of The Blind Owl and The Stray Dog. The Persian man says he read Hadayat first when he was 11 or 12. The director gently probes him, asking one question and then another, and we find out that he is taxi driver now—and yet he finds his real bliss by singing classical Persian music. Finally, she does what I thought she would not do: she asks him to sing. He makes one excuse after another for not singing, and then out of the blue asks, “What would you like me to sing?” And when he sings, heaven opens up around us, and we know what beauty is. The director also follows an old woman who comes into the cemetery to tend a variety of graves—of the writer Proust, or the writer Apollinaire, or the artist Modigliani. The old woman is chatty, heavy-set, and dedicated to her work. Another woman visits her father’s grave. He was Armenian, and she is proud of the Armenian cross carved on his headstone. She talks to her father at each visit, and she says, “It’s wonderful to surround yourself with beauty.” What stories the dead would have to tell. One of the underlying themes in this film is that our lives are shaped by our response to the arts. Thus, the graves of artists have special meaning in our lives—because the arts have special meaning in our lives. There are more lovely and moving scenes—and fascinating characters—to come in this film. And there is also a spot of humor in the director’s continual hinting that sooner or later we will see the one grave so many people come to see in this cemetery—the grave of rock star Jim Morrison, from the Doors. I began to wonder, at one point, if we would ever see the grave. And then at the end of the film, and near the end of the credits, she cuts to a black stone that has the chalked words “The End” written large across the face of the stone. I thought that was a light and perfect touch of the artist in this director.
11. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. ( Belgium). Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an editor of a French fashion magazine, this film succeeds at getting viewers inside the mind of the main character and then making us understand what emotional and psychological pain he suffers. The director, Julian Schnabel, comes up with an effective way to portray his hero visually—because his hero is a man who has suffered something akin to a stroke and has become aphasic and a quadriplegic. The film begins with point of view shots—from Bauby’s POV—but no reaction shots. We are trapped in the world of point of view, trapped inside the mind of a man who is likewise trapped in the larger world. For instance, he speaks, but no one hears him. He reacts, but no one knows that he is reacting. So we see people looking in—at him—but not knowing that he is responsive to their actions. We see a parade of doctors and nurses and therapists. Two of the women therapists are shown in close-ups and extreme close-ups (depending upon their distance from Bauby’s face), and they are beautiful and we (along with Bauby) look down their dresses at their cleavage and the trapped man is smitten by them. Eventually, one of the therapists realizes that he can blink his left eyelid, and she suggests that he blink once for yes and twice for no. It works. Later, a doctor enters and sews up his other eye, to prevent the eye from excessive drying, and we are forced to watch his eye (as if it were our eye) begin sewn shut. What horror it is to be trapped thus and be powerless in the face of that disability. In some scenes there are brief flashbacks to his pre-disability days, but early in the film, for the most part, we stay within his limited point of view. There is one other scene that is often intercut with the present-tense. That scene is an imagined one, a scene of our hero within the confines of a deep-sea diving suit, his head covered with the great helmet that allows him to see out into the darkening sea. That image is a metaphor of how he feels as a man deprived of movement and communication. He lies at the bottom of the sea, like a plastic diver at the bottom of an aquarium (shades of The Graduate), and he barely exists. But the therapist brings him back. She takes him outside and he sits in his huge chair on the verandah of the rehabilitation clinic. He sees his reflection in a mirror and is horrified by it. Eventually, we begin to see shots of him as others see him. Now he is more than just a generator of point of view. And eventually he decides to give up self-pity. He tells his therapist (by blinking his eye) “I can imagine anything.” He can be the butterfly. Later the therapist comes up with an intriguing way for him to communicate. Rather than focusing only on yes/no questions, which would limit communication, she rattles off a list of letters (the most commonly used to the least commonly used), and he blinks when he hears her say the correct letter. Then, letter by letter, he can communicate—and even write. And his writing is elegant and moving. At this point in the film he has become a three-dimensional character, not the invisible character that could only see the world through one eye and not interact with that world. He becomes a whole character when he can communicate. But the image of this man’s face: his eyes bugged out, his mouth turned down at a severe angle, almost like one of the watches in a Salvador Dali painting. There is no expression in that face—and yet, when the director cuts back to his face in the right context, we seem to grasp what he is thinking, how he is reacting. Then there are scenes of his past, his father, his wife, his mistress, and there are numerous sexual fantasies—all generated by his imaginative mind. Memory, fantasy, reality—they are a rich blending of the power of the mind. His wife remains devoted to him, even though they have long split up. His beautiful mistress cannot visit him because she cannot accept what this once-vital man has become. In a late scene in the film we actually see Bauby out driving with his son in a convertible, driving through Paris, and then out into the countryside, and suffering the stroke as he pulls the car over on the side of the road. Before our eyes he is transformed into the disabled man. And throughout the last segment of the film the therapist continues to work with him so that he can write the book he needs to write—and of course he finishes that book, which is s testament to his courage and his affirmation of life.
12. Gone Baby Gone. I credit Ben Affleck’s ability as a director in this film—for the verisimilitude he creates in his portrayal of a South Boston neighborhood populated by believable, three-dimensional characters and for his narrative skills in making the film suspenseful and credible. He understands the role of place as character. I remember feeling the same way when I saw Stir of Echoes (1999)—starring Kevin Bacon—with its vivid creation of a Chicago neighborhood. You don’t choose your family and you don’t choose the places you are raised in—and these places mold your character in subtle ways. This film is about middle-class people. And in that respect the film is about strength of character as well as vulnerabilities of character—because of lack of education, poverty, and bigotry. The plot trigger is the standard-issue missing child story. We see the mother, who has little to recommend her. We see the police work, and a second plot point is introduced—stolen money from drugs. The main character is a local private detective played by the director’s brother, Casey Affleck. Although I think this young man has able qualities as an actor, the one reservation I have about this film is that I don’t think he was the right man for this role. I would have liked to have seen someone with a little more seasoning, someone who has been around the block, and yet someone still youthful, somewhat inexperienced, and considered an outsider by the authorities. And in some of his scenes with Ed Harris, I thought that Affleck could barely hold his own. Harris’ work was in another league. Everything comes down to what happened at a swap arranged by the police—a swap of drug money for the missing child, that takes place at an abandoned quarry outside of town. Remember one of the rules of magic: it all depends on you not seeing something that determines the outcome. Now you have to add to the mix two other characters in the film. One is the young wife of Casey Affleck, played by Michelle Monaghan. She becomes emotionally involved with the plot because she identifies with the loss of a child. The other is the head of the police department. Morgan Freeman plays this head cop. He and his wife and he know firsthand what it means to lose a child. Many years ago their 12-year-old daughter was abducted and never found. In many respects, the film is accurate at showing the ways in which individuals cannot let go of the past and invent ways to reclaim the past; and it also reveals the strengths and weaknesses of individuals when they face a moral crisis, where they have to decide the fate of others, and where their judgments will have a lasting impact on human lives. In fact, this film’s ending is one of the most remarkable endings I have seen in a long time. When the film ended, I was screaming (internally) at one of the characters: “How could you have done that? How could you have decided that? What right do you have to apply absolutist principles to human endeavors that are rife with ambiguity and complexity?” Before that ending, however, I was impressed with the way Affleck, the actor, was portrayed as a dogged private detective, relentless, not giving up, following every lead. What threw me off here was that I was impressed with his doggedness; but I misjudged it. I thought he was strong because he had the capacity for understanding complexity. But he was strong because he didn’t. He was one-dimensional with respect to his moral qualities. And at the end of the film, the director Affleck provides a shot that sums it all up—our young hero sitting on a sofa with someone on the other side of the sofa—our young hero getting what he deserved, based upon his moral make-up. That was a remarkable way to end a film.
13. The Namesake (India, USA). Early in the film I followed the story of a young man and a young woman having an arranged marriage in India before they move to New York City so that he can continue his graduate study. Two scenes stand out: the first is when she arrives for the meeting of the families. Outside the room she spots his shoes among the other shoes—and when she looks at them more closely, she sees, “Made in the USA” stamped on the leather insole. She steps into the shoes and walks a step or two in them. At that moment I loved that character, and I understood that character. She had the courage to step into a new world and never look back. She was my kind of person. The second scene was after their marriage. She confronts an alien world—a wintry New York City scene. She is an Indian woman alone in a cold house in a foreign country. My response was simple: I wanted to see their movie. But this film was going to be about the next generation (their son, the fellow named after Nikolai Gogol, the Russian author). But right at that moment I wanted to watch a film about those two characters because I had never seen that exact film before—and I wish someone would make it. But that was not the film Mira Nair came to make. And it took until late in the film before I realized that in a way she did give me part of what I was asking for. This film has a great third act. Just when you think it’s done, it’s not done. And for good reason. That great third act brought me back to the cyclical nature of human life as it is reflected in this film. For a second time we see someone step into someone else’s shoes—and it’s a powerful moment. For a second time we see the woman joining a singing group in an exterior scene and singing beautifully, as she had the first time we saw her (within minutes of the opening of the film). In the real world we have journeys that take us from our beginnings to an ending and then back to another beginning. We arrive at the place where we had started—and we know it for the first time (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot). This film understands the effect of time and return in our lives. It understands how a son can reject a father and then gain some insight into that father and then become that father at a later time. Do we all become our mothers and our fathers? This film understands the power of one moment in a child’s life, when he glimpses through a doorway his grieving mother (distraught at the loss of her father) and his father comforting his mother. Seeing a parent out of control represents chaos to a child. And in this film Gogol never forgets that moment, and eventually he comes back to it at the right time and in the right place to bring closure to it. (By the way, the introduction of this scene, when the boy is 6, represents the shift in point of view from the parents’ story to the boy’s story.) This film understands the simple stories of our lives: marriage, love, childbirth, death of a parent, falling out of love, going home again, reunions, rituals, finding your way. You know how it is. Something has to happen and we have to see the way people respond to that BIG CHANGE. We want to know how people are affected by changes in circumstances, roles, and relationships. These points in our lives are MARKERS: we are one person on one side of the marker, and we become another person on the other side of the marker. Now the second act of the film focuses on the regeneration of Nikolai, who begins to embrace his true identity and reconnect with his cultural roots. Then there is an extraordinary scene where one character, attending a memorial service, wears the traditional black of the West: but everyone else is wearing the traditional mourning color of white (from the East). And in that one scene we know something will change in Gogol’s life—and change for the better. Then comes the third act of the film: and just when you think Gogol’s life is figured out, is resolved, you are in for a surprise! When a character says, “For the first time in my life I feel free,” you know that the third act has paid off, and you know the great circle of life is more than just a metaphor.
14. Paris J 'Taime ( France, et al.). Here is a visual smorgasbord of the finest desserts—brief films, running times about five minutes, that address one of the simplest, and most complex, aspects of the human condition: love. And what a setting for love: Paris! Each short film is named after one of the neighborhoods of the spreading city, and each film is from a different director. Only a few of the films really disappointed. The first three films address that moment when a switch is turned on in our brains and we are in love. But each of the three has a different feel to it: the first is the story of a lonely man and his being in the right place at the right time. The second is about the exuberance of youth and their daring to embrace diversity. The third (by Gus Van Sant) is an enchanting story of a young man who thinks he has met his soul mate—and he even tell him so. The Brazilian director Walter Salles shows a slice-of-life of a Central or South American maid in another perfect 16-shot film—with jump cuts galore and one metaphoric shot of the woman inside her employer’s apartment that should be in all of the film books under Art of the Shot. Isabel Coixet directed Bastille, another perfect film about a middle-aged couple meeting for lunch—he to tell her the marriage is over, as far as he is concerned, and she to break down in sobs in front of him. This film was painfully beautiful, and it contained an unforgettable line: “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.” Unforgettable! The next film, by a Japanese filmmaker, was equally unforgettable. Juliette Binoche is riveting as a character turned to stone by grief after the death of one of her two children. Her boy believed in cowboys and had his room decorated with posters and photographs and other Western memorabilia. In the night she hears him calling out to her, and she runs out into the streets to find him, to be reunited with him. After all, she can hear his voice clearly. And what happens next? She runs into a cowboy on a horse, and the cowboy (Willem Defoe) asks, “Do you want to see your son?” She nods her head, delirious with hope. Then he asks a devastating question, “Do you really have the courage to follow me?” What a film! The film Place de Fetes is about a Nigerian janitor in a parking garage who one day runs into a beautiful Nigerian woman. It’s that perfect meeting-of-destiny that we have seen realized in some of the earlier films. But this one takes a different direction—and it is a memorable film. Wes Craven’s film, Pere Lachaise, is about a young engaged couple having an argument in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. And just when you need him, it’s Oscar Wilde to the rescue! Tom Tykwer adds another great short film with Fauberg Saint Denis, about a young couple who meet by chance one day when she is rehearsing for a role in a film and does not realize she is going to be late for the rehearsal. Shades of Run Lola Run, the way Tykwer plays with the concept of time, and the repetition and circularity of events. What did she say on the phone? She said their relationship was over! And that triggers an entire life review within the mind of the young man. This film took my breath away. The last film goes to Alexander Payne, with 14 th Arrondissement, which I would call About Schmidt with a woman instead of a man. Late middle age arrives in Paris, alone, and yet determined to see the sights. She seems to be sending an audio postcard to a friend back home, and she speaks in terrible French, and yet her earnestness, that hallmark of the American middle class, comes through eventually, and you admit to yourself that she has accomplished something by coming to Paris. She puts it succinctly, and in her own way, at the end of this perfect short film. Some of these films are first scenes, some are last scenes, some are key scenes that would appear in feature-length films. But a few are self-contained films, whole and complete, just right the way they are.
15. Red Road ( UK, Denmark, 2006). This film is for adult viewers—and when I say that, I mean it. This film is subtle, and when it deals with sexual issues it devastates, Often it is not easy to watch, and yet the bottom line is that a film like this one reminds us of how much we need to heal when confronted with grief and unending rage. The problems, as usual, are in our eye. A film like this one works so well because of its straightforward use of reaction and point of view shots. The main character, Jackie, works for the police in Glasgow, and she spends her days watching closed-circuit television monitors in order to deter crime. So we get her reaction shots, and the images of the monitors are her point of view shots. And that extra layering of technology—people looking at images rather than looking directly at a scene—raises all kinds of issues about the lack of face-to-face interaction in our world as well as the alienation and loneliness of the voyeur, the watcher. Why the title? Red Road refers to a street address covered by some of the police cameras. But the title also refers to the way rage eats at us—when we choose a road of rage, or blood, or revenge. The plot is triggered when she spots someone she recognizes on one of the monitors. And she freezes. Why? She makes a reference to his being “out” (of jail?) and she refers to a 10-year sentence. Why is she so interested in this person? Apparently he served 6 years of his 10-year sentence. Does she consider him a danger to society? What’s going on here? The urban landscape is a major character in the film. The city of Glasgow is a city of poverty, dashed hopes, excessive drinking, alienation of men from women, and a generalized bleakness. (The importance of place as character!) So this film becomes tense and tautly wired as soon as she begins watching this man. And then she begins to insinuate herself into this man’s life. What is going on here? She meets him in a bar. His name is Clyde. She seems interested in him, and she appears to be drawing him into her web of interest. But she begins to seem obsessed. She seems to be leading him on. Then she becomes suspicious when she spies Clyde meeting a young woman at another location. They seem to have words (after all, we are only able to see them on the monitor—through Jackie’s eyes—and we see Clyde give her jars of fingernail polish. No drugs? What is going on here? Then Jackie goes to see Alfred, an old man. Why are they estranged? She finally brings two urns of ashes with her when she visits him. Whose ashes? What does this old man want from her? Everything in this film conspires to enfold us into Jackie’s world. After all, her point of view shots are our point of view shots. We want to empathize with her and figure out the source of her pain. When all is finally revealed, there are a powerful and rewarding set of revelations. As you might expect, what you think you know, you don’t know. If you think you know the secrets of the human heart, then you haven’t scratched the surface of self-knowledge—let alone knowledge of other people. This is a brutally frank and honest film, and often it is not easy to watch. I repeat: it is an adult film and it should be viewed only by adults. It will take its toll on you. Brutality always does. And yet it will redeem that brutality with sentiment. Eventually these characters unpeel the onion and get to the heart of the matter. And it is worth waiting for.
16. Jindabyne. (Australia, 2006). I found this to be a gripping drama, akin to watching an excellent theatrical performance. And I couldn’t help but think of the classic film Deliverance (1972), about four white guys who plan a canoe trip down the river before a dam downstream becomes operational. Remember that image at the end of Deliverance, when one of the four men has a nightmare about the body they buried resurfacing. That image of the dead man’s arm rising above the water level was frightening, and it reminded us that even though three of the men came back, their lives will never be the same. They share a secret, and they will have to live with what happened to them on that river and in those woods. Jindabyne is a close cousin to Deliverance, because something happens to a group of four white Australians on a great fishing adventure on a wild river. One of them finds a dead body of a young woman floating against the shore line, and then all four men make a decision to keep fishing rather than abort their trip and contact the police. But the dead woman is an aboriginal woman; and this slight wrinkle in the plot opens up the topic of racism in a most uncomfortable and inconvenient way. The key to the plot of this film is that human beings keep secrets—from others and from themselves—which determine their fate. And they also repress feelings and opinions which fester deep within them and affect their behavior one way or the other. Sooner or later, that festering pain will out! Four couples are at the heart of the story. The main characters are Stewart and Claire (played by Gabirel Byrne and Laura Linney). The second couple is Carl and Jude. They are raising their daughter’s child, Caylin, and they have something in their past neither one of them has recovered from. Their daughter died (we never find out the circumstances), and it appears that she was married to an aboriginal man, based upon Caylin’s physical make-up. In fact, in one scene Jude notes that her daughter was once engaged to Rocco, one of Stewart and Carl’s friends. And Rocco, a big lunker of a guy, is now dating an aboriginal woman, Carmel (Tom’s teacher). Jude, especially, holds her rage deep inside. Things could have turned out differently. Now they, as grandparents, have to be responsible for their granddaughter. Perhaps they should send her back to the orphanage? The fourth couple is Billy, a mechanic at Stewart’s garage, and his girl friend. They are devoted to each other. This director likes to use dissolves, and that psychological editing technique works in the film because it keeps reminding us that there is more to a person than what we see on the surface. Below the surface there are multiple levels of meanings. Another way this metaphor is expressed is through the inclusion of a short educational video made when the old town of Jindabyne was flooded under a new dam. In an early scene Stewart tells his son that there are old men sitting in rocking chairs down there, far under the water. Oh, there are secrets beneath the surface, all right. When Stewart discovers the body on the first morning of fishing, he is traumatized by that discovery. When evening falls, they are still trying to figure out what to do. They know they can’t use cell phones because of their remote location. The only way to contact the police would be to abort the trip and walk back up to the road. So they tie the woman’s leg to the shore with fishing line so that it won’t float away. And the next morning, Stewart gets up early and fishes alone, and when the other men wake up he is standing over them smiling ear to ear and holding up a 15-inch trout. And the men are boys again. Of course, when they return to civilization, their failure to report the dead body immediately is seized upon by the media, and soon they are the town’s laughing stock. But the film excels here because of the way it exposes the family dynamics, particularly between Stewart and Claire. The latter is outraged by what she perceives as her husband’s insensitivity. She wants to do something, to change things, to be of assistance in some way. She even tries to talk to the dead woman’s family. But nothing she tries seems to work. And the dynamic of every other couple is also developed. So how do you resolve all of these plot strands? There is a movement in contemporary film away from conventional resolution of plot and toward a resolution that is based upon the recognition that what people need is not answers—but healing. And healing is all about process. It’s something you engage in. It’s about a personal journey. In essence, Caylin’s journey, as noted earlier, was a precursor of the journeys needed by all of the other characters. So how do you resolve these family and personal dynamics? Consider this: the aboriginal family members, and the rest of the aboriginal community, were angry at the white men because their decision to leave the body in the water for a few days—while they finished their fishing trip—delayed the soul’s departure. That departure depended upon completion of a specific aboriginal ritual, at which family members join with others in their community in order to conduct specific required ceremonies. I think you can see where this leads—it’s all about healing.
17. In the Valley of Elah. Director Paul Haggis uses the simple technique of POV/reaction shots to tell the entire story here. First we see the world through Jones’ character, Hank (point of view shots), and then we see Hank react to that world. And Jones pulls this off with an extraordinary repertoire of reaction shots—one of the best, near the end of the film, when one of the soldiers he interviews concludes about Iraq: “It was fucked up!” Hank has heard this before, but this time he stares at the boy as if he has just seen a ghost. Something clicks inside his mind, as if he knows a dreadful secret for the first time. A film like this is patient. It takes its time to wind up, to set up the spring and then uncoil it. The film is about one man’s journey to discover the truth behind what happened to his son, AWOL from his company (a serious offense), and then a murder victim. The film is set during the 2004 Presidential race (an eerie backdrop because we already know how that one turned out!). Hank and his wife (played by Susan Sarandon) have a three-dimensional relationship. Both are guarded about certain feelings; and yet at the core of their relationship is a deep trust. The more you find out about their story, the more you say to yourself, “No wonder this retired Military Policeman does what he does.” Part of what he is doing is working off a burden that he has carried on his shoulders for a long time. Early on in the film Hank visits the barracks and sees his son’s bunk. Everything in the scene is too neat and tidy. The soldiers, back from Iraq, are too kind and humble and deferring to authority. Something is up: but what? Then Hank neatly swipes his son’s cell phone, left in a drawer, in order to set up a structural unit in the film: the gradual revelation of cell phone videos stored on the phone. Each time the young tech wizard hired by Hank sends him an e-mail of the brief video footage captured on the cell phone, the audience ponders what is being revealed to us. Even the first footage suggests something is awry: it appears that the Humvee the men are riding in has run over something or someone on the road. As soon as that footage is shared, the film takes a turn: now the Military Police on the base show up at a remote crime scene and take over the investigation begun by the local police. Why? That crime scene is on base property (property recently purchased by the military). And then the next shoe drops: the murder victim, who was chopped up like a steer after he was killed, is Hank’s son. Before long Hank and a Detective Sanders (Charlize Theron) are working together to figure out the crime, and we have a movie. I think Hank learns an important lesson: that the soldiers of today are not the same as the soldiers of the Vietnam War era. Things have changed. Stress is relieved in different ways today than in the old days. As Hank works to solve the crime, another pattern develops: at different times we see Hank suddenly hearing his son’s voice calling out to him. At one point his son appears to say something like, “It’s bad here, Dad!” But at that moment we see Hank in a reaction shot, perhaps just as he wakes up, or just as he responds to what he heard. Is he hearing things? Is it all in his imagination? The resolution of that riddle is satisfying because it is all so well written, and when the revelation is given us, it is all so well acted. Haggis understands how to invent and then utilize such motifs, and it is in the details that great films are made. Of course, at the end of the film all is revealed and we see more than we expected to see. That’s what I mean about the leisurely pace of the film: setting up the spring and then uncoiling it horrifically at the end of the film. Early in the film Hank is driving by a school and spots a flag being flown upside down—an international distress signal. He finds the man responsible for raising the flag—a new immigrant from South America—and he shows him how to fly the flag with respect. Simple scene, right? Then think about how you would use that scene to set up a companion scene that comments ironically about the truth that Hank has learned about his son’s life, his son’s death, and our country’s role in the Iraqi occupation. Writing a screenplay, like writing a good short story or a memorable novel, is about creating appropriate symbolic scenes and playing them off against each other in order to get the emotions right and to convey meanings that last.
18. The Hoax. I enjoyed this film because of its fast pace, because of its credible portrayal of an alpha male taking advantage of his friendship with another man, and because of Richard Gere’s portrayal of a narcissistic, driven man who never gives up deceiving others as well as himself. I was reminded of the fast pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas—especially towards the end of the film. What struck me early in the film was the extent of the main character’s weakness. He spends his advance for his next novel before he receives the check (and he is shocked to learn the book deal has been cancelled), and he sleeps with another woman as if the moral issues involved mean nothing to him. And they don’t. All this time the backdrop of the film is the Vietnam era, and suddenly the mythic Howard Hughes imposes himself upon our hero’s life. He gets an idea—an idea for a blockbuster book, the authorized biography of the reclusive billionaire. Another strength of this film was the fast-paced set of montages—the first of which shows Clifford Irving and his friend Dick poking about and conducting illegal research in order to fabricate their storyline—that Howard Hughes wrote Irving (in longhand) and asked him to be his biographer. The choices of 70s music throughout the film were deliciously ironic and meaningful. Another key to this film’s success is the beautiful portrayal of the friendship between Irving and Dick Susskind. The latter is an honorable man; but out of loyalty for Clifford, Dick joins him in his attempt to pull off this hoax. Perhaps he is attracted to the subversiveness of the idea—after all, it would be something he would never try to pull off himself. He relies upon Clifford to be the brains behind the operation, and he goes along—out of loyalty—and you know what that means: all paths lead downward. This hoax will be ruinous to the lives of everyone that matters to Clifford Irving. But he just doesn’t get it. But here’s the truth of the film in a nutshell: “People will believe what they wish to believe, because that is the more comfortable alternative.” Or to be more faithful to my source, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “People do not err because the truth is difficult to see. It is visible at a glance. People err because that is more comfortable.” So the hoax is believed because it will make money for his publisher and it will bring fame to the publishing house and to his editor. And Clifford Irving will come out smelling like roses, too. At the same time, the constant backdrop of the failure of the Vietnam War campaign is meant to suggest, I think, the same theme: people wanted to believe that the campaign of pacification was going to work. We were going to win in Vietnam and come out looking like the good guys. Well, we didn’t, and there are many resonances in this film of what is happening today in Iraq. Another strength of this film is that Howard Hughes becomes a real character in the film. We even see him once—in an imagined scene spun extemporaneously out of the minds of our two hoax perpetrators. And it is a hilarious scene of a wizened old man sitting up in bed and extending his arm outward beyond the mosquito netting on the bed. That scene visualizes Hughes for us. He enters the world of the film. He is that madman version of Hughes, thin long hair over his face, the body all skin and bones—an iconic image of the lost billionaire. But the best example of Hughes as character is the scene where Clifford is feted for his publishing plum in a large convocation hall, and directly above and behind him is a huge photograph of the young Howard Hughes—and that image seems to be beaming down benignly on his young protogée, Clifford Irving, as if God were affirming, “Yes, this is the young man I have chosen to tell my story.” It’s a beautiful moment, because it reveals the extent to which everyone has complicity in this hoax—everyone, at some level, participates in the lie. Then there is another brilliant component to the film: the parallel stories of the hoax (the subtext being Clifford Iriving is headed for the fall) and Richard Nixon’s inevitable fall from grace after the Watergate fiasco and his inevitable resignation. And to make this parallel storyline work, we see Clifford Irving beginning to degenerate psychologically, to such an extent that at one point he begins to channel Howard Hughes and then maintains to Dick that “I’m not Clifford Irving. I’m Howard Hughes!” His degeneration is similar to Oliver Stone’s portrayal of Nixon’s psychological decline in Nixon (1995).
19. Zodiac. David Fincher provides a sober and often somber look at the fruits of obsession as they affect three men involved in the Zodiac serial murder case from the 1960s. I believed in these characters: the editorial cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the alcoholic reporter Avery (deliciously played by Robert Downey, Jr.), and the detective Toschi (well played by Mark Ruffalo). The best part of this film was the scenes showing interaction between any two of these three characters. When these actors sparred with each other, sparks flew. They were brilliant, and they had great dialogue to play with. Quite honestly, I never understood the Zodiac’s thinking process. He talked about The Most Dangerous Game, the film about a man hunting other people—as if human beings were the most dangerous game to hunt. But the Zodiac never really hunted people. He picked them off, easy targets. They never stood a chance. But then again, the serial killer was seriously ill, a psycho—and who can plumb the secrets of the human heart? Like so many other famous killers in America, the Zodiac killer was essentially a terrorist. His brutal acts terrorized a generation of people (remember the Washington sniper?). As the film moves along (after 13 reported murders by the Zodiac), the chaos of his terroristic activity takes precedence. People become irrational; other psychos come out of the woodwork and say they know who the killer is. The police are helpless. In fact, everyone is helpless. We are helpless—and that is a point that Americans don’t like to hear about themselves. Only the main character, Graysmith, begins to dig in and become obsessed with the case. Then we get to one of the best scenes in the film: Graysmith joins the police detective and another cop as they interview a prime suspect. He’s the man! You feel it as you watch the scene. They are sitting across a table from the serial killer! Arrest him! Bring him in! But they don’t have sufficient evidence. He lords it over them, making a snide remark at the end that sounds patriotic and supportive of the police—but could be construed to be an in-your-face taunting of their vulnerability. Then years pass. The Scorpio Killer appears in a Dirty Harry movie—a story based on the Zodiac killings. The reporter Avery drops deeper into an alcoholic and coke-induced stupor. A second man—the cop working with Toschi—quits the case. So a second man has been broken by it. That leaves Toschi and Graysmith in the game. We have a great encounter between Graysmith and Avery, and then another great scene between Graysmith and Toschi. And then a film-within-a-film takes off—and that is the solitary quest of Graysmith to find out the identity of the Zodiac killer. And although his marriage is crumbling, he tells her, “I need to look him in the eye!” This last section of the film is exciting because Graysmith has never been more alive than now. He keeps finding enticing clues to the Zodiac’s identity, and finally, in a climactic scene, he does stand before the man he believes to be the Zodiac—and he looks him in the eye. This scene is so satisfying because it offers a version of a resolution that otherwise has been denied throughout the film; in fact, in the real world of this crime, no one ever was charged with the murders. The Zodiac killer got away, leaving all threads unresolved.
20. The Lookout. This film worked for me because it was well-written. The dialogue was crisp and original, and I believed those words came from those characters’ thinking processes. Jeff Daniels practically steals the film as a blind man, matched with another gimp (in his words), a brain-damaged young man (the main character, Chris Pratt, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). One of the joys of the film is the way the narration, by Chris, reveals so much about this young man’s character. The film begins with the obligatory scene in a film like this one: we have to see the life-changing EVENT that precipitated the plot. Nothing like putting four teenagers into a car and letting the driver, the rich kid, the hockey star, roar down the road with the lights out. So it goes. Then it cuts to four years later, and in a marvelous set-piece of writing, we realize the extent to which this young man has suffered extensive brain damage. He has severe short-term memory loss. He has to make lists on a small memo pad in order to make it through the day. He suffers from violent verbal outbursts that he cannot contain—another symptom of the underlying physical condition. His life is very small, self-contained, limited, and profoundly sad. Now let’s take a detour to the film Memento (2000)—the story of a man with short-term memory loss who is taken advantage of by several people and never finds a way out of the abyss he has been dropped into. Why do I bring up Memento? As I watched this film, I realized I needed to see Chris come out on top at the end of the film. I was not interested in another Memento manipulation-of-the-hero plot. Perhaps having the main character provide a voice-over early on in the film predicts that he will survive at the end of the film and surmount his difficulties. Whatever the case, think of these two films as complementary opposites of each other. Now the first thing to say about the relationship between Chris and his roommate, the older man Lewis (Jeff Daniels), is that the relationship is not sentimental. Focus on that concept, because in this film you will meet plenty of people that are brutal. The lack of sentimentality in Lewis is at the heart of the success of this film. He is a real person. That’s the way a blind person acts. He does not feel sorry for himself. He still lusts after women and sometimes flirts with women. And he is still desirable as a man. Now add to the brilliant characterization of Lewis another simple fact that is also the heart of this film: the two men come to care for each other. The two men make a home for another, and that home is what home is supposed to be—a safe haven for the individual. Then there is the wonderful relationship between the sheriff of a small Nebraska town and Chris, who works as a janitor in the local bank. The sheriff is not terribly bright or articulate, but he has some surprises in store for us—and when we learn the real reason he stops by to check up on Chris, it reminds us that the core of life is the strength of your relationships. If people care for you, and if you care for people—then you are ready to engage life. Another little detail reveals so much. The woman assigned to take care of Chris (for the bad guys) reminds Chris of the time he checked another player on the last game of the season after the game was already put away. The point of her story was that Chris was an egotistical player who didn’t mind hurting another player just to make the point that he was number one. That little detail reminded me that the Chris Pratt who now existed, that brain-damaged man of 22, was a good man, a man of pure heart, a true innocent, a rare individual. It all comes down to one thing: and that is the power of family and the power of home. Chris has found a new family, with Lewis, and the two have made a home for each other. When we find out how much Chris means to Lewis, we also realize how much Lewis means to Chris. That simple emotion drives the climax of the film—which occurs after the bank robbery is botched, in a scene right out of a Coen Brothers film. At the end of the film Chris proves Lewis’ point, from an earlier conversation, when Lewis urged him to “Start with the ending” and then work backwards in order to improve your memory. He starts with the end because he has learned how much that “end” means to him, how much he values what that “end” represents. So there is that—and there is also the key of how a person needs to forgive himself first, and find a way to move on and embrace life. Others may not be able to forgive you yet, but if you don’t forgive yourself, then you are trapped.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead . I was reminded of an Arthur Miller play, All My Sons, as I watched this film. Whatever else happened in the film—the inane plot to rob their parents’ jewelry store, the botched robbery, the calamitous aftermath—it is the family dynamic that is constantly at the forefront. The meaning of the film lies in the ruin of this family, broken because a father did not know how to father, an elder brother resented a younger brother’s attention, and a younger brother never escaped the domination of that jealous elder. A climactic scene in the film, a botched robbery, is the second scene in the film. But we keep coming back to that central fractured moment in time either before the robbery—showing the lives of both brothers that leads up to the decision to rob their parent’s jewelry store, to the aftermath of the robbery—showing the lives of both brothers descending toward chaos. You know before long there is no way out for the brothers.
The Bourne Ultimatum. This film was a fast-paced and satisfying thriller because the director created tension through the scene constructions and quickly established the means by which we would identify with the main character, Jason Bourne. For example, early in the film the director utilized many point-of-view shots (from our hero’s POV) in order to get viewers inside his head and help us see what he sees. The POV/reaction shot technique was simple but elegant. It worked. And the best thing about the film was that the scene construction was all about building suspense rather than focusing on fight scenes. When there were fight scenes, usually they were over quickly—obviously because of Bourne’s talent at hand-to-hand combat. The one exception was a long-running struggle between Bourne and a hand-picked assassin, and it worked because it was predicated on a principle Hitchcock once talked about—the idea that it requires a great deal of effort to kill a man. Another simple technique was to contrast the stillness of some of the tensest scenes with the rapid movements of the hero in other scenes. That tension between stasis and movement is one of the basic underpinnings of creating meaning in film. This is the third film in the Bourne trilogy, and by now it is obvious why it works. We love to identity with the wronged man, the patsy, the man who was tricked to sign on the wrong dotted line, the man betrayed, the good man, the man with integrity in a world of deceit and corruption, the lone and lonely man, the mysterious man, the man without a country, the alienated man—all of these characteristics are deeply embedded in the American psyche, and they can be traced back to the alienated heroes and loners played by Humphrey Bogart right up through the loners of 1950s films and the alienated men of the 1960s and 1970s films.
Broken English. I will remember most Parker Posey’s performance in this film. She gave an intense, physical, emotionally wrenching performance as a 30-something Nora, who has lost touch with her emotional core. She no longer trusts her emotional senses. She has lost touch with her ability to discern whether what she is feeling is genuine or not. Thus, she often looks at life cynically, safely, as a retreat from vulnerability. Early in the film Nora says, “I feel so closed off.” Posey is a tall, dark, striking woman who in this film is not afraid of revealing herself in front of the camera. She is, quite simply, a physical presence, and her physicality is a central part of her characterization. And beyond that she has the rare quality of an actor who possesses multiple looks or multiple faces depending upon the character’s particular context. Drinking and more drinking is the norm, as if to dull one’s emotions. In other words, if you can’t be genuine, at least you can drink yourself into a stupor. And then she meets Julien, a Frenchman who goes in for the kill the first time he meets her at a party. “Your approach is really intense,” she says, and yet nothing deters this smooth-talking young man with a straw version of a pork pie hat. This guy is cute, and he is smooth. But can we trust him? He makes all the right moves. He plays her—like a guitar. How does she respond to this romantic entanglement? “What is this? What are we doing here? Is this supposed to mean anything?” Yes, that’s what she says to him, and you have to wonder if she is so benumbed by 30-something cynicism that she can’t see what is right in front of her eyes!
The Host ( South Korea). The best part of this film was the rich characterizations of the family whose lives are changed forever when a horrific monster suddenly surfaces in the noxious river waters in Seoul. Begin with the main character, the hapless and clumsy young single father, who works in his father’s grocery stand and deli on the edge of the river. He has a 10-year-old daughter, who is obviously precious to him. He seems simple-minded, inarticulate, and minimally functional. The old man is a good father to him and a doting grandfather to his granddaughter. This family has a star: the main character’s sister is an Olympic archer. Then there is another brother, somewhat of a ne’er-do-well and slacker. The key to the film is that these characters are capable of change. They are not types. They are typical—of families, in terms of their family dynamics—but they are capable of plumbing the depths of their characters and discovering qualities they never thought they would possess. So the film begins with the first three members of the family, the three generations, on a typical summer day along the river. Everyone is out and about, eating takeout lunches, and enjoying the beautiful day. Remember that Hitchcock taught us that the most horrible of horror scenes will take place in the daytime—when we least expect it. And true to form, the introduction of the monster is a classic moment, as hundreds of people watch it hang for hours from the bottom of the bridge deck, and then finally drop into the river and swim away. For a time people throw all sorts of things—sandwiches, plastic bottles—at the monster as it swims near the shore. In this group of people is our main character, Park. Then the unexpected happens: suddenly the monster is shown running along the edge of the river walkway and gobbling up people as he moves along. The rest of the film is predicated upon the monster’s picking up (but not eating) Park’s little girl. The rest of the film moves back and forth between the creature’s lair (where the girl hides), and the rest of her family trying to find her and rescue her. One of the secrets of the film was its use of elemental scenes of grief: the family writhing on the floor in grief in an early scene, and later scenes of grief that even surpass the first in terms of emotional power. The last scene of grief is balanced by an unexpected solace that restores the main character’s life, to some degree, and gives the audience the feeling that now life can go on for him.
Into the Wild. I never really saw the heroic in Chris, renamed Alexander Supertramp. He seems to have had the wrong reading list, too. Everything he read pointed his compass toward issues of autonomy, independence, freedom, learning from your own experience, establishing a new identity, fighting the power (especially the power of fathers), starting over, self-reliance, and the heroic quest. He never read anything about community, interdependence, learning from others’ experiences, sharing, nurturing, charity, love, settling down, and living for the long view of things. As I watched the film, I knew that there were things to love about this character. Look how many times he improved the lives of the people he encountered on the road. He had giving qualities; he was a helper; he was a listener; and he was an integrater and a synthesizer. But I think his failings so overwhelmed his positive characteristics that I lacked empathy for him on his long journey into the self. Because of that lack of empathy, I sat and watched his downward spiral like watching a beautiful young man with waxen wings floating earthward because he had flown too close to the sun. I kept thinking to myself, “Just imagine how many lives he could have affected positively if he had had a helping career over 40 years of a professional life." There was tragedy in his story, that’s for sure—but it wasn’t as if he had one well-defined tragic flaw. He was riddled with tragic flaws. Chris is a kind of self-made Christ figure: he liked to spend time among the people, spread his gospel, and then take off for the hills so that he could have another wilderness experience. Technically, Sean Penn threw in just about every tool from his director’s tool chest: great montages, freeze frames, and split screens. I think he handled his young actor playing Chris effectively; but Emile Hirsch is not an A-list actor yet. If the young Sean Penn could have played this role, I think he would have infused it with greatness. Still, Penn made this young man a better actor through his direction. And Penn as writer was smart to tell the story in parallel sections, comparing Chris’ time in Alaska with his long journeys that preceded his Holy Grail experience—his great Alaska adventure. I also liked the chapter-like units of the film with titles like my own birth. I appreciated the casting choices—using veteran actors like Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Hol Holbrook. These veterans helped Emile Hirsch look good when he was paired with them. And Penn got some good work out of Vince Vaughan, allowing Vaughan’s expansiveness to step into a character that could accommodate it. This film was easy to watch, even at more than 2 hours long, and it flowed like a river to its eventual destination—the end of Chris’ life. The other problem for poor Chris is that everyone he meets has already found, in their own way, the secret of life. The people he meets live in the present—about as well as anyone can expect to live in the present. But because he set the bar so high, so impossibly high, he was not able to see what was right in front of his eyes. We are all blinds as bats, aren’t we? But still, there is something about participating in life, about engaging life, about yielding to life, that did not register on Chris’s radar. He saw a benign world in nature and a malevolent world in human society. I see it another way: both can be benign, and both can be malevolent. I wanted to say, “Look Chris! Don’t read the late Tolstoy, with his emphasis on fables and simple answers to human pain. Read the early Tolstoy, like War and Peace or the story The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Read the stories of Chekhov. Read Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon.” In a way, the film ends with a conventional moral. In effect, Chris’ sin was pride: he had so much emotional investment in his motto—“the core of a man’s spirit comes from new experiences”—that his over-reliance on self-reliance became his undoing. His own god betrayed him. I wanted to shake him sometimes and say, “Don’t you get it, kid? Life is not like it is in nature documentaries! Life is much harder!” And then, finally, at the very end, Chris gets it—and the ending is eloquent and elegiac and memorable.
Meet the Robinsons. Every great animated film has its heart in the right place—a universal place that all of us can identify with. In this case, we identify with a kid’s desire to know his mother, to be there when she makes a fateful decision (to give him up for adoption), and to try to understand why she did what she did. The search for mother! The search for father! Being part of a family! Essential, universal, easy to relate to! And all of this in the first (and amplified in the last) scene! The hero, Will Robinson, is a pre-pubescent boy who lives in an orphanage, but every time a couple shows up to interview him for possible adoption, somehow poor Will ruins it and is left behind, unadopted. His roommate, nicknamed Goober, is a perfect comic creation. Everything about him is slow motion and pathos. Before long the film kicks into high gear, with Will at a science fair (working on his time machine), and a strange-looking gangly-legged man in a bowler hat (looking suspiciously like John Cleese—and yet acting more like Snidely Whiplash (with his long and thin mustache)—enters the premises with his mini-bowler-hat-flying-saucer-assistant zooming about in full sabotage mode. Before long the despondent Will encounters another young kid, and suddenly we are off into the future and an imaginative romp in a real flying saucer and a fully-realized future world. I loved the image of people flying here and there within large bubbles. Such a gentle and consoling image that kids could relate to. Here is an orphan who sets out to find his mother—and instead, he finds an entire family! The dialogue was over-caffeinated, a la Howard Hawks screwball-comedy-dialogue from the 1930s. Dinner at the Robinsons: more endearing pratfalls and silliness. Then the interaction with the family: when Will fails at his peanut butter and jelly invention, the family members praise him for trying! That’s a new experience for him. Later, someone yells at one of the bad guys, “You messed with the wrong family!” and another character says, “You want to be a Robinson?” The key to these twists is that every one of them is believable, and every one of them was set up by earlier plot points. Every central character in the film is accounted for in the denouement, and the Robinson family motto, keep moving forward, resonates throughout the climactic scenes, and then pops up in an innovative way in a graphic at the end of the film. Some great quotes: “They are your family, after all . . . . I already have a family. . . . I never thought my Dad would be my best friend.” Things happen fast throughout this film. I was never bored, and I appreciated the quality and credibility of the plot as the climax unfolded.
Once. I can’t recall the critic who said it (perhaps it was A. O. Scott), but this film is a modern version, with a younger cast, of the classic film Brief Encounter (1946) . That last scene in the film will bring it home to you if you know the David Lean film. The best part of this film was the believable dialogue between the two main characters, the busker on the streets of Dublin and the young Czech immigrant he meets one day. I loved every scene where they were making their way in uncharted territory—establishing a relationship, getting a feel for the values of the other person, the sense of humor of the other person, the individuality of that other person. The film is filled with music, and every song is played all the way through. To this older man’s ear, the music all seemed to be of one type: the Cri de Coeur. Every song began slowly and in a low level, and then worked its way to a crescendo—where the young man sang his guts out at the high point. What pain there is in breaking up from someone you have been in love with—and probably are still in love with. But it seemed that all of the music that the young man wrote was about his attempts to make sense of his pain. Still, a key scene was one where he was writing music as he watched video footage of his former lover on his laptop. She was his muse, and that insight helped me accept the ending of this film. The best scene of music was the impromptu duet they play in a music store early in the film. The more I watched that scene the more I could visualize the metaphor of the musical duet as sexuality. It was a light, tender, and moving scene. When she invites him into her tiny apartment, he enters a new world, something he had not expected, and something that left him stunned. They are both musicians, and another of the film’s best scenes shows her walking in her pajamas (and animal slippers) through the streets and singing the lyrics of the song he has been writing. Through music, they become one. But she is married, and he has just broken up. They spend more time together, before he leaves for London, and eventually they even work a weekend in studio recording a demo CD of his music.
A Mighty Heart. There is nothing like that feeling of looking forward to the next Michael Winterbottom film. His Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) and Wonderland (1999) were impressive films, and last year’s Tristram Shandy was a sleeper hit. And I was not disappointed with his version of the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder in Iraq. Of course, there are two stories here: one the story of his sudden disappearance while working on a story for the Wall Street Journal, and the other the story of Mariane Pearl’s dedication to finding her husband. A film like this works when the core of the two stories is exposed to viewers. We have to understand what this woman is going through. She is surrounded by a variety of authority figures, and yet the authority figures seem to be as powerless and vulnerable as she is. She is surrounded by helpers, but she receives no help. And yet she has her memories of Daniel, and they are powerfully evoked by the filmmaker. We come to understand this woman. She is one tough cookie, and her qualities of hardihood and steadfastness are revealed layer by layer through the scene construction. This is a woman’s film: and all the women in the film are strong figures. But it is men that rule the world, and thus women’s strength of heart is constantly undermined by these power brokers. Just think of some of the moments in this film: Mariane’s receipt of pictures sent by the kidnappers, for example. Just imagine what seeing those pictures must have meant to her. Notice how she analyzed the photographs and realized that he was okay—at least temporarily—because he was smiling. But sooner or later the fact that the world is run by men comes back to haunt viewers. At the end of the film the women in the compound are left behind when the men receive word that something has happened. Then we see the scene of the men, and the men only, reacting to what they see in a videotape supplied by the kidnappers. They are watching Daniel Pearl being beheaded. But the women? They are left out of the loop. The film is also about a process—that is, how figures in authority interact in order to try to solve the problem of the missing man. Can they rescue him before he is murdered by his captors? What tricks can they employ to undermine the kidnappers? Eventually, Mariane is called upon to take an increasing role in the drama. She has to be front and center at a press conference, and when she is asked the Journalism 101 question, “What would you say to him if you could speak to him,” her heartfelt “I love you” cuts through all the ambiguities and complexities of the crisis and hits home. What a woman! That sense of credibility and believability of character also comes from the strong acting performance of Angelina Jolie. In this role she disappears into her character. She exists a million miles away from the demeaning and ego-aggrandizing red carpet of Hollywood. Her accent in the role, and her concentration in the scenes was a thing of beauty. You watch her at work, and you realize that the people around Mariane Pearl had no idea what this woman was going through. When the men return to the compound, near the end of the film, and one of them says, “Daniel didn’t make it,” Jolie’s performance is extraordinary. She goes away into her bedroom and she screams, and she curls up and screams and screams. We see her shown in profile. The men are helpless. They can do nothing for her. They have such power and such prestige. But they can do nothing. But when Mariane returns to the room where the men are, she is composed and ready to move on. They have no idea how strong this woman is. They have no idea how mighty is her heart. Those ending scenes, after the revelation of Daniel’s death, are a perfect coda to the film. There is another scene where we hear her screaming—and at first we think for a moment that she has relapsed into grief—but then we learn otherwise. These kinds of moments are what the best films can provide—a glimpse into the individual trials that make a person more human and more courageous. As she tells someone, “I am not terrorized—you can’t be terrorized.”
Ratatouille. It was endearing, it was fast-paced in innovative ways, and it had a great moral—the push-and-pull of trying to maintain ties to filial piety against the desire to strike out on one’s own and define one’s own character and identity. The ties to family are brilliant, and they revolve around the father-and-son dynamic as well as the best-friend dynamic. What matters most, though, is that the will to become one’s own person wins out—but not at the cost of undermining family values. When those two sets of values—clashing earlier in the film—are resolved, we have a wonderful and heartfelt climax that quite simply works. What hooked me early in the film was such a simple technique: point of view and reaction shots, from Remy, the blue rat’s point of view. Just like that I could identify with this little vermin and wanted him to be happy. And another thing: this rat had decided that he needed to walk on two feet rather than four feet because it was more sanitary—and when he worked in the kitchen, he always washed his paws first! Now who can not relate to that desire for cleanliness, which is the farthest thing from our conventional notion of ratiness. Furthermore, one of the funniest moments in the film is when Remy sanitizes a whole pack of rats by running them through the industrial dishwasher in the restaurant. I understand the need for fast-paced action sequences to recapture the short attention spans of kids; but better than those sequences was one showing Remy crawling through the wall cavities and checking out the world through the cracks in the wall (and neatly avoiding the obvious bait of cheese in a rat trap). At the end of that sequence he scampers up the roof of a gable and stands atop the building and looks out on a world that he could never have imagined to participate in. That moment was perfect—because it was based on a character’s values as well as his passions. Another joy was the use of a holographic-type characterization of a ghost who pops up every now and then to encourage Remy. At one point, the ghost refers to himself as “a figment of your imagination.” That’s the thing about a film like this: it radiates with the creativity of the human imagination. I read that Brad Bird commented, during the pre-production process, that he solved the riddles of the plot when he came back to Monsieur Ego, the nasty food critic (voiced magnificently and mellifluously by Peter O’Toole), at the end of the film. When you see the film, I think you will agree the ending was practically perfect, resonant with all that came before. And the most surprising, and most emotional moment in the film is when that inimitable food critic has a “Madeline moment” (as in Proust)—all I can tell you is that that moment is cued with a perfect high-note from the violin which is held just long enough to prepare you for the visual effect that launches that unforgettable sensual memory that changes everything in the flash of a taste bud. One last note: the character Remy spoke in only two situations: one, when he was communicating with the other rats in his family, and two, when he spoke voice-over narration. But he never spoke to the kid he befriended, and that was another stroke of genius.
The Savages. As a student of films about aging, I was intrigued by the premise of this film—the sudden realization, on the part of two middle-aged siblings, that now they are responsible for the caregiving of their estranged father. Lenny Savage is an angry old man, angry at his increasing helplessness—his anger complicated by the onset of dementia. Most of the film is about the older brother-younger sister dynamic played out between and Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy Savage (Laura Linney). A requirement for these sorts of sibling relationships is that both siblings have to be in dead-end emotional territory. For the sister, that dead-end is a stifling sexual relationship with a neighbor in her apartment (a married man). For the brother, that dead-end is his inability to make a commitment to a lover after a three-year romance. I admit there is something conventional about this set-up, and yet as it plays out, I felt something original emerge in that dynamic between Jon and Wendy as well as in their relationship to the old man.. The old man needs a placement in a Medicaid-approved nursing home. Even as that is accomplished, there are moments of brilliance in the old man’s bathroom crisis on the plane with Wendy and the looks on the siblings’ faces when they are reunited at the airport in Buffalo, where Dad will be living in the nursing home. We also get an insight into Wendy in these early scenes. Caregiving is a new territory to her, and yet she shows an inclination toward being a helper (even if she makes mistakes doing so). Their exhaustion in the face of this nursing-home-placement crisis is palpable. Anyone who has done any caregiving for a parent or grandparent will recognize themselves in these scenes. Now think about these siblings. There is something about birth order. Jon as oldest tends to look down upon Wendy’s caregiving skills. He knows better. And in some respects is in better emotional and psychological shape than Wendy. He has a good job (as a professor) and he seems more low-key and adaptable than Wendy. He finds the nursing home, and he doesn’t seem to be in crisis mode as much as Wendy is. When Wendy moves in with him temporarily, I think the film begins to find its stride. One variable worthy of note is that both siblings feel they have been cheated by life—literally abandoned by their mother when they were children and emotionally abandoned by a father. As Jon says, after they have him in the nursing home, “We’re taking better care of him than he ever did for us.” There is much that could be said, too, about the old man’s way of relating to his fate. In one great scene at a diner, he complains about the kind of hotel they put him in. But when Jon says, “It’s a nursing home,” Lenny seems to grasp what he means, and his response is: “Pull the plug. Bury me!” The sibling rivalry and self-deceptions continue, of course, because this is a film about the siblings, not about the father’s life in the nursing home. And yet there are flashes where we see the father reacting to the sibling’s crises. In some cases dementia stops him from trying to address their crises; in one scene, during a lucid moment, the old man actually unplugs his hearing aid so that he can tune out their bickering. You know what has to happen. You know that a film like this is about redemption of self or healing. And that’s what it should be about. Wendy has to move on. She has to practice truth-telling rather than self-deception. Jon has to commit to that relationship. The two siblings have to go through something important together. The only thing they had in common at the beginning of the film was their common bond as caregivers. At the end of the film they have another kind of bond, a deeper one, and two deeply wounded people will begin to put themselves back together again.
This is England. ( UK). The film takes place in 1983 and focuses on the story of a twelve-year-old boy whose father was killed in the Falklands War in 1982. The Falklands War bolstered Margaret Thatcher’s standing as Prime Minister and contributed to her sweeping mandate in the 1983 elections in England. But the first few years of Thatcher’s rule were filled with discontent based upon rising inflation and millions added to the unemployment roles. The film draws upon that context in its depiction of Shaun’s story. Lonely, still grieving his father’ death, and bullied by kids at school, Shaun is ripe for manipulation. It appears that he has landed in the wrong crowd when a group of skinhead kids befriend him. But soon it is easy to see that Shaun has landed among the right crowd: this group of young kids, led by Woody, a twenty-something skinhead who has the heart of a big brother. What could be better for a kid like Shaun than to be adopted by a family of rowdy but non-bullying skinheads? He even shares the uniform of the group: red suspenders, Doc Martens shoes, a Ben Sherman shirt, and—of course—the shaved head. The first time he joins the group for an activity the group basically dresses up like community theater players and runs around screaming and having a fun time. In one scene they all go for a swim at a pool. Their most dangerous activity is when the group enters an abandoned housing development and trashes a couple of the houses. So they “break things,” and that’s the worst of it. The boy has a family, and in Woody he seems to have a big-brother-figure. But while he enjoys this new family, any discerning viewer realizes that such happiness cannot last. And that’s exactly what happens when Combo, a former member and leader of the group, returns from three years in prison. Now this guy is really a Skinhead par excellence! He hates immigrants, he thinks the Falklands War was a disaster, he hates Margaret Thatcher, and he lusts for violence. Even worse, he becomes a father-figure to Shaun, and suddenly the film shifts downward and becomes emotionally tense and morally darker. This new leader of the group is frightening. For the rest of the film the overarching emotion is, “Something bad is going to happen!” The fun and games are over. The film’s title comes from one of the leaders’ rants, when he characterizes the heroic and imperialistic version of their country as the real Englandthat Skinheads want to return it to. “This is England!” he screams—a country that would ship all the immigrants back to where they came from. And throughout this section of the film the leader manipulates Shaun for all he is worth. “I’m telling you the truth, boy. Maggie lied to us. You’ve got the pride of your Dad.” All this because he sees in Shaun a miniature version of himself. Now Shaun is in a real gang, and in this gang bullying is raised to a new level. But the key is that Shaun is not being bullied: now he is doing the bullying. And that sense of power is like an aphrodisiac to the boy. This writer-director understands his characters. Combo is as vivid a character as Travis Bickle (from Taxi Driver, 1976). His reaction to his failure to get the girl he wants is at once heartbreaking and horrific. He can’t get his way—and his realization that his will alone is insufficient to move other people’s hearts is a determiner of his fate as well as the fate of everyone around him. You know that sooner or later he is going to explode, or implode. And when he does, Shaun will be there. This is an old-fashioned film, one that winds itself up and becomes a kind of inexorable force—leading only in one direction, downward, where the soul has become deadened. This film has an opening montage that perfectly characterizes the collective life of England in 1983, and it ends with another montage that harks back to the end of the Falklands War and the return of the troops. Then the writer-director does another smart thing: he brings us back to Shaun’s aloneness one more time, and in his aloneness Shaun is shown working out his emotions in a positive way, and then the young actor stares briefly into the camera in close-up and that’s it.
Copyright 2008, Robert E. Yahnke.
Copyright 2008, Robert E. Yahnke.