Robert's Picks: Highly Recommended Films Viewed in 2000
The Contender, dir. Rod Lurie (USA). I enjoyed this film, but I was disappointed that it was not a better film. I learned that Rod Lurie is a better screenwriter than he is a director. The greatest joy in this film was in the sharpness and wit of the dialogue. Lurie brought to life the characters of the President, his Chief of Staff, and the senator, played by Joan Allen. I believed these characters. But the pacing of the film, and the interaction of the characters was disappointing. Part of my lack of involvement is also related to structural issues relating to the screenplay. For instance, the recreation of the congressional hearings, where the senator is brought in to be examined by the members of a select House committee, was disappointing to me because it seemed as if there were only two characters in play: Joan Allen's senator and her antagonist, played by Gary Oldman (head of the committee). By focusing only on the interchanges between these two characters, I was left with the feeling that Oldman's character was perfectly vile, a snake waiting to gobble up his prey. Here is where the screenplay needed to be fine-tuned so that simplistic notions of good and evil were refined. Oldman was all-powerful and Nazi-esque; that characterization limits my response to the dynamics of interaction because it reduces the palette of colors to only one shade of black and one shade of white. Likewise, when the Allen character (the Vice-Presidential nominee) finally prevails, the speech she gives is laced with liberalisms that would make Ralph Nader blush. I turned to my wife and whispered, "And this episode of The West Wing has been brought to you by . . . ." Making the denouement a victory for liberalism over conservative evil renders the whole film a moot point--an exercise in fantasy triumphant. But this is not to say I did not enjoy the film as I watched it. I love the work of Joan Allen, and she was triumphant in this film. I loved the fact that her character refused to tell her sordid story (which did not turn out to be sordid after all). Her tête-à-tête with the President at the end of the film was perfect. Another gripe: Jeff Bridges did a wonderful job as the President, but the screenwriter forced the motif of the President's love for food and scents too far. In other words, he pushed that button too many times, and then the character became a robot for the humor. Bridges deserved better than that. Gary Oldman's turn as a version of Senator McCarthy was equally deserving of special recognition. Perhaps the actors saved this film; I would give them a lot of credit for my positive response. (October)
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, dir. Luis Bunuel (France, 1972). I have heard of this film for a long time, but I did not see until this recent showing at an art house in Minneapolis. In this classic film viewers are moved in and out of the waking world and the dream world in a seamless revelation of fear, greed, desire, jealousy, loss, and oppression. The film often makes sardonic and biting references to the tyranny of the ruling class. Certainly this is a film of the 1970s; and it is appropriate to review it in our comfortable and spoiled lives at the beginning of a new century. The film is in all respects plotless. Half a dozen upper-class people try repeatedly throughout the film to complete a tea, or lunch, or dinner-but to no avail. Something always interrupts their leisure and forced companionship. This is not meant to represent realistic characters and realistic interpersonal conflicts; the film is more like an exercise in filmmaking-Bunuel seems to be saying, "Let me show you how I can trick you into perceiving a context as reality vs. a dream state. Perhaps then you will begin to confuse the two realities and wonder at that confusion." There are scenes in this film that are film-school perfect: For example, there is the young man's story about his mother's ghost who warns him that the man he thought to be his father murdered his real father. Like Hamlet, the young man is impelled to exact revenge. Later, we see him tell the story of a dream in which he met his mother again and embraced her for a moment, and then lost her again just as quickly-a nightmare. Then there is the scene where the small circle of friends appears at the dining room table as invited guests only to find the curtain raise to the side. Now they are on a stage, and the audience shouts catcalls because they do not know their lines. Dream by dream the film unfolds but never promises resolution. This is a film to experience, to linger over, to discuss with fellow members of the audience (September).
Dr. T. and the Women, dir. Robert Altman (USA). This was a thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful, and well-structured film. The scenes moved fluidly one to the next, and always there was a sense that Altman was in command of the work. Gere's persona is the man who always gets the woman in the last scene-a persona well-honed by films like Pretty Woman (1990) and several films since then where he has been the woman-magnet-leading-man. But this image of the actor is turned upside-down in Altman's film. Gere is a popular gynecologist who has figured out how to keep his stable of rich (as in Dallas-Texas-rich) clients happy. His secret: he pumps up their self-esteem, something they are starved for in their upper-crust and country-club-set lifestyle. Part of his persona in this film seems a bit suspicious, especially when we hear him wax eloquent that every woman has something special in her if it can only be recognized. He remembers to comment on a new hairstyle or a new article of clothing-something many of the women's husbands have neglected for too long. So he is a bit of a fraud, but a sincere one at that. He is good at his job, he is well-loved by his clients, and he has a beautiful wife. The only problem: his wife has an emotional breakdown early in the film and dances naked in the fountain at a popular Dallas mall. The best part about this film is that her illness is not played for comedy, not taken lightly, and yet not taken too seriously either. For this film is the stuff of satire. The choice of satirizing the nouveaux riche in Dallas is no mistake. Altman is right on target. I was delighted to see another American film that embodies a critique of our society. (See Pay It Forward for a critique of the Las Vegas mystique.) Altman sets his sights on the fluffy airheads that seek solace from their Dr. T., and he also takes aim at the negligent husbands who practice male bonding out in the woods with their perfect sandwiches prepared by perfect wives. But best of all, he punctures the sincere but terribly naïve persona of Dr. T. (Dr. Sully Travis). Eventually Gere's character finds his world coming down on his head because of his wife's institutionalization for mental illness, her request for a divorce, and peculiarly difficult problems with his daughter's ambivalence about getting married to a proper young man. Altman's skill as a filmmaker is evident in the way he prepares for Dr. T.'s downfall and then executes it in a scene where the waiting room is jammed with howling demanding clients, one of Dr. T.'s daughters is sharing a secret with him, and a young woman he is having an affair with has stopped by because he forgot about their lunch date. In short, all hell breaks loose in this scene. It was funny, it was truthful, and it was painful to watch. Here is a doctor, someone who is used to CONTROLLING every situation. And he sits in his office chair and is stunned into immobility. When he finally comes to (after the plot explodes further), his solution is to run to the young woman he has been sleeping with and declare his undying love for her. After all, isn't that what Richard Gere is expected to do in every movie? Where is Julia Roberts when you need her? Instead of Julia, he gets a woman who knows as much about CONTROLLING as he does. In other words, he meets his match. Altman pulls off a real coup here. He turns the expected on its head, and then he pulls off a metaphorical stormy ending that is absolutely preposterous but perfectly in tune with everything that has come before it. This is, finally, a film about the education of a doctor-but more precisely, the educaton of a modern man. I loved it. (October)
East is East, dir. Damien O'Donnell (UK). This film reminded me of a quality soap-opera-situation-comedy with a twist. In other words, it was melodrama, comedy, and a little hard times thrown in to remind us that sometimes family life can be a living hell. As this melodramatic stew is mixed, viewers come to realize that this family has the inner resources to prevail and even overcome a father's unwarranted brutality. The plot turns on the reaction of a middle-aged Pakistani immigrant (Om Puri), living in Manchester in 1971 with his wife and family. He has four sons and a daughter. He still holds onto the Islamic ways he learned in Pakistan. He attends mosque regularly (and forces his children to do likewise) and lives for the day when his oldest son will marry the daughter of a Pakistani immigrant. The first scene in the film is a Roman Catholic religious procession, and his children are marching as a part of the procession and carrying the Virgin Mary statue. When they realize their father is home from work, they take evasive action so that they won't be caught taking part in a heathen ceremony. With this setup, the film moves toward a dramatic scene where the oldest son awaits the consummation of his marriage vows in an Islamic ceremony. At the last minute the sun dashes out of the mosque and escapes his father's clutches. So goes the rest of the film. Everyone in the family lives to escape the clutches of his or her father. Only the mother, a native of Manchester, stands by her man throughout these ups and downs of immigrant family life. After the father disowns his oldest son (who has fled to London), he hatches a plot to marry off his two younger sons through an arranged marriage. We all know this won't work, but the father does not acknowledge the errors of his ways. Instead, he brays, intimidates, and finally launches a brutal physical attack against one of the sons and his wife, leaving them both bruised and overwhelmed by his rage. His spousal abuse shocked me. Now he was no longer a Pakistani immigrant version of Homer Simpson. He was a vulnerable, fallible human being who had stepped across a line. Now the mother held the key to the rest of the film. And for her, this abuse could be overcome. I have mixed feelings about the introduction of physical abuse at the climax of the film. But I accept it only because of how it sheds light on the complexities of family dynamics. What irony in this plot. A Pakistani immigrant--who has married an English woman--refuses to allow his children a similar option. There were many moments in this film where the truth about race, immigrant families, religious intolerance all rang true and gave me pause to think hard about how families survive through these generations of cultural adaptation. Although I am emphasizing the delicateness of the spousal abuse, I cannot neglect the abundant and inventive humor that undergirds this film. To consider a few examples: the overweight girl friend of the blonde neighbor who is in love with one of the sons; the youngest child, a boy, who always wears a parka with the hood up; the mother's neighbor and friend, a woman who is sensitive and caring and faithful; and the artist son whose long-awaited completion of his art work upsets more than an applecart in this family dynamic. There was much to enjoy in this film. (May)
Hideous Kinky, dir. Gilles
MacKinnon (UK, 1999). I saw this film on a VCR, and I was impressed with
the power of this story about a young mother in the 1970s who lived as an expatriate
in Morocco and sought to find herself in this exotic clime. Unfortunately, she
had two small girls with her, and she lost sight of their need to be nurtured,
given an education, and challenged to learn and grow into young adults as part
of a community. Kate Winslett is wonderful as a self-centered young English
woman whose husband is a well-known poet and philanderer extraordinaire. So
they have made an accommodation. She can live abroad with the daughters, and
he will provide financial support. Of course, his support is minimal, and most
of the film shows the effects of dire poverty on expatriates like this young
family. MacKinnon's brother Billy wrote the screenplay. What saves this film
is the presence of the two daughters. Without them the audience would soon tire
of the self-absorbed and spoiled mother. The elder daughter, who is only 10
or 11, has an extraordinary role as the mature member of the family who constantly
holds her mother's meandering at bay and finally persuades her to grow up-and
act the role of mother she had set aside. I was reminded of the mother-daughter
relationship in Anywhere but Here with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman.
In that film the teenaged daughter was more mature than her mother; in
L'Humanité, dir. Bruno Dumont (France, 1999). This is a long film, 2 1/2 hours, and it is a slow-moving film by American audience standards. In fact, I do not think most American audiences could handle this film, not only because of its length, but because of its graphic depiction of sexuality. But as a viewer I was absorbed by Dumont's art and I appreciated the challenge he provided in his patient and intricate depiction of a character whose psyche has practically come to a standstill. The main character, Pharaon de Winter (played by Emmanuel Schotté), in his 30s, is a police superintendent who works for a small-town in the north of France. He has an extraordinary cinematic face, wide and deep-set eyes, a large hook nose, and thin lips. Several times in the film we see him dressed casually in the heat, his t-shirt off. His chin is weak and retreats from his jaw. His cheeks and neck are stubbled with black hairs in a permanent 5:00 shadow. His black hair is thick and sets atop his head like a cheap hairpiece worn by men in their 60s. His upper body is small and flabby, and there is little muscle development of his upper arms. His stomach is not prominent; but every predictor would suggest it is moving toward a pot belly in a few years. I spend this much time describing the character's physical attributes because most of this film consists of images of this character in static positions. Most often, the character is observing his world, and sometimes eyeing it with great intensity. He often looks out at a field beyond a small public shared garden he cultivates, or out of windows from his bedroom on the second-story of his house, or out of windows in other locations he frequents throughout the film. What is he looking at or for? All I know is that we spend 2 1/2 hours looking at him and trying to figure him out. And I don't think we have any significant answers at the end of this film.
This film is enigmatic and sometimes impenetrable. Still, I was moved by its sensitive portrayal of that one man. I wished for clues that would have helped me understand his motivations better. But none were forthcoming. We do learn that a few years ago his wife and child died. But we never learn what happened. Was it an accident? Were they murdered? In the film You Can Count on Me (written an directed by Kenneth Lonergan) the main characters, siblings, have survived the loss of their parents in a car accident when they were children. That plot point becomes a defining characteristic of their behaviors and motivations. But nothing like that can be claimed for this film. Another problem is that our main character is a police investigator, and yet he seems entirely inappropriate for the position. He almost never does any police work; he almost never questions a suspect. The first image of him in the film is an extreme long shot of him running across the rural countryside. Then he slips and falls in a cultivated field and lands face down on the soil. Why was he running? One of the next images we see is de Winter arriving at his police car and answering a call. Then we see an image of a naked girl, left dead in a ditch after being raped. Is that what he was reacting to? He refers later to the horror of this crime, the depravity of the killer. What is it about THIS crime that has so shocked him and paralyzed him psychologically? Then there is his relationship with Domino (played by Séverine Caneele). She is his neighbor (on a street of row-houses) and has a lover called Joseph. Séverine, Joseph, and de Winter often hang out on the weekend. But they never really talk to each other about anything. Most of their interaction is simply their movement from one place to the other, or looks between them as they interact, or inconsequential greetings and farewells in colloquial French.
Early in the film de Winter stands at the door to Séverine's bedroom and watches her have sex with Joseph. Later, after speaking harshly to him about spying on Joseph and her, Séverine apologizes to de Winter for her criticism. After she walks away, de Winter raises his clenched fists in a private gesture of celebration--as if to suggest, "I have a chance after all! Maybe she will love me!" But if that were the case, as the film progresses he never really acts on his feelings for her in any significant way. Does he love her? Does it really matter to him at this point in his life? This man is one of the most passive characters I have ever seen in American cinema. I am reminded of Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a soft-spoken observer of the world who coexists with the depravity he so harshly judges. In that film audiences kept waiting for Bickle to snap--and snap he did. In this film, I kept waiting for de Winter to snap. And he did not.
A word about the cinematography in this film. American audiences are not used to the shocking images that are depicted in this film. The first time we see the dead body of the raped and murdered girl, her body is photographed with the same kind of clinical and detached approach one would take in photographing a side of beef hanging in a locker at a butcher's market. The angle of the first shot is slightly high angle, focused directly between her legs on the girl's bloody vagina. Later in the film, Séverine's body is photographed similarly. That part of her body is shown in a medium shot. We cannot see her face because of foreshortening. As the image proceeds, focused on her vagina and the mound of pubic hair above it, we can hear her crying. Why this juxtaposition of images? I don't know the answer to that question. So much about the film remains impenetrable to me. The most frustrating moment occurs at the climax of the film, when the identity of the killer is finally revealed. When de Winter enters the room and sees the man accused of raping and murdering the girl, I knew who that character would be. But that knowledge gave me little pleasure because it resolved none of the questions I was puzzling over regarding the fate of the main character. And then de Winter's actions during this meeting were the most startling of all in the film. He did not attack the killer; he did not enter into a conversation with the killer; he did not break down and cry; he did not gloat over this turn of events. I cannot say what he did; I can only suggest that his actions in the scene only confused me more than I was confused before. Having said all of this, I still recommend the film--but only for those who are serious film aficionados and who are not afraid of being challenged by a director in ways that most American film directors never challenge us (December).
The Interview, dir. Craig Monahan (Australia, 1998). Shades of The Trial! A rather plain, ordinary fellow is picked up early in the morning in his apartment by police and taken to a police station for interrogation. For hours he is not informed of the charges that may be placed against him. He proclaims his innocence, he decries the meanness and hostility shown him by the two police officers, and he asks repeatedly for food--to no avail--after hours in captivity. For the first 30 minutes of the film the Kafkaesque formula prevails. In many respects the film is like canned theater. The focus is on the three characters--the police officers and the suspect. The locale is the confined space of the interrogation room. I kept thinking to myself, "This would be great to see on the stage!" Even when the film became extraordinary and compelling, I still was dogged by the thought that this kind of plot-bending drama is best revealed on the stage. After the first 30-40 minutes of the film I began to shift my weight restlessly and began to grow tired of watching the police butt their heads against the suspect's brick wall defenses. But then the film takes one of two distinct turns that turn the audience upside down and inside out and make this film a worthwhile viewing experience. Certainly there are scenes that move laboriously, and sometimes the acting is not up to par. But when the twists in the plot are applied, we become mesmerized by the possibilities of human interaction--particularly the human penchant for duplicity, vanity, and betrayal.
Halfway through the film the suspect--DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU WANT ONE OF THE TWO PLOT TWISTS TO BE REVEALED--As I was saying, halfway through the film the suspect confesses to the murder that is the basis of the investigation. He tells a sordid story of murder and emphasizes that killing the man was no big deal. It was something he decided upon in a moment, and because it was easy, he completed the act. He excoriates the police for their naiveté and their foolish belief that a murderer requires a motive for such an ultimate act. His performance is compelling and horrific at the same time. I had the feeling that Edgar Allan Poe could have written this character at this point in the film. When he is finished telling his grisly tale, the key scene in the film occurs--the officer in charge is shown vomiting in the sink in the bathroom. He washes his face, dries it with a towel, and looks into the mirror. The face he shows the mirror is that of a broken man who had just had the poison of human evil poured into his ears by the suspect. What a scene! And then--but this time I won't give away the next plot twist. After viewing this film I was wrung out emotionally, drained, and beaten down. (August)
The Last September, dir. Deborah Warner (UK, 1999). The cinematography in this film was the core of its brilliance. I was overwhelmed by one of the first shots in the film, shot through a window of an Irish estate, and showing two characters waltzing, but portrayed upside-down in a convex mirror on the window sill. Next to the mirror is a beautiful vase of flowers, and as the shot continues, one of the flower petals drops onto the sill. There's the metaphor for the film. A world will be turned upside down, and that world is also coming to its natural end. No more will life continue on bravely and fearlessly as it has done in the past. Those who do not adapt to the new ways will be broken. This was a film that brought ideas to the foreground. Timing is everything, and the fact that it took place just after the end of World War II, and only a few years after the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, contributed to the variety of tensions. It was also a film about the coming of age of a beautiful young woman, skillful played by newcomer Keeley Hawes. Within 15 minutes I realized that the film depended upon our response to this young woman's character. She was artless, naive, filled with unspent passions, curious, rebellious, undefined. For the film to work, I think viewers had to believe her character, empathize with her plight (since she was a kind of captive), and further empathize with her when she made the most improbable and most hurtful choices possible. To me, she realized that character nearly to perfection. I was disappointed that the film did not probe beyond her imminent disintegration. So she is broken by life. What then? Another joy in the film was the interactions of Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon as the old couple who do not realize that times are changing and that their world is coming to an end. I was absolutely mesmerized by their performance. The film's ending scene is an example of cinematography run amok, perhaps--as expressionistic filming techniques are used to create the climactic action. But I understood the intent of the cinematography, and that technical set piece did not ruin the film for me. Keeley Hawes gave a riveting performance, and I look forward to her future roles. (May)
Keeping the Faith, dir. Edward Norton (USA). I wish my wife could have written this review, because she understood, and appreciated, the film more than I did. After listening to her, I would have to agree that it was well done and worth watching. It comes at a time when the romantic comedy seems to be the primary type of film offered to audiences. What I appreciated most was the way the film was true to its subject matter. If there were a rabbi and a priest who were childhood friends and who still were good friends after they began working with their congregations, then the screenplay has to resolve (honestly and reasonably) their interpersonal conflict if both men are smitten by the same woman. By that I mean the film has to appreciate the depth of their faith journeys as well as the level of their commitment to their congregations. They both live in private worlds of faith as well as public worlds of faith. That's why the second half of the film, and particularly the last 45 minutes, were the best part of the film. In that segment the men were shown dealing with their faith crises in convincing ways. The only drawback, for me, was the casting of Jenna Elfmann as the beautiful woman, a grade school girl friend, as the woman with magical qualities of energy, passion, and beauty who brings the two men to their knees. Although she performed admirably in the role, she is not the one for that role. In the part of the film I enjoyed the most she was significantly absent. In some respects this romantic comedy had to deliver its goods; that is, one of the two men has to choose her if she wishes to be chosen by that man. That's where the cards are stacked. If the priest chooses her, then the film will have more explaining to do. She can marry the rabbi; she can't marry the priest. Now if the rabbi is upset because he believes his congregation will reject him (for marrying a gentile), then let's get after that point and set it up so that we can accept the resolution of his conflict. My wife asked simply, "I can accept that she loves the rabbi. What I don't understand is, why does he love her?" I don't think the film delivered on that score either. But if I look at it as an example of romantic comedy, and I know how it has to end, I can accept these gaps in plot. Keeping the Faith was a fun film, with lots of over-the-top comedy and warmth of character. Edward Norton was absolutely wonderful to watch. His acting is perfect. His directing was a big surprise. He handled it deftly and consistently. It had just enough zaniness to keep me involved and interested in what would happen next. (April 19).
Malena, dir. Giuseppi Tornatore (Italy). First a confession. I absolutely adore Tornatore's classic story of childhood, adolescence, and first love lost--Cinema Paradiso (1989). I have used that film in my introductory film classes for several years now, and it's always a hit with the students. But I began to feel disheartened that Tornatore had lost his way after the next films he completed in the 1990s did not live up to the standards of Cinema Paradiso. Now I think he has finally found a vehicle for the Fellini-esque style of filmmaking (think Nights of Cabiria) that he is most suited for. Malena is the name of a lovely young woman, daughter of a new headmaster at the local school in a small town in Sicily in 1940 on the eve of Italy's involvement in World War II (on the side of the Germans). The small town is a darker version of Giancaldo, the small town of Cinema Paradiso. Tornatore frequents his towns with a number of grotesques (eccentric characters who are one-dimensional and often humorous in context). As in his earlier classic, he focuses our attention on one character--this time a young 12-year-old on the cusp of puberty. Renato is interesting because he evades the mind-numbing conformity of a group of older adolescents and strikes out on his own to figure out the meaning of his world.
Two early scenes stand out. The first is a scene of the older adolescents wasting their time by torturing an ant with a spyglass--thus concentrating the sun's rays and slowly but surely roasting the ant alive. I did not realize until the end of the film how this scene functions as a primary metaphor for what the community does to the beautiful Malena. Early on the townspeople, men and women alike, decide that Malena must be sacrificed. She is too beautiful, too sexual, too dangerous to their narrow routines, and too defiant of their community standards to flourish. So they decide, as if by a community vote, to ruin her. The scene that follows is equally important. In that scene Renato joins his fellow males for the first time (since he is at that time desperate to be accepted by his peer group) as they participate in a strange, ritualistic viewing of the new young woman in town--Malena. They gather outside of her seaside cottage and stare at her as she walks down the street. In this scene, young Renato experiences an erection (camera in!) as he watches the older woman. She is in her late 20s, married to a soldier who is at the Front, and as she glides by the boys Renato's life changes. Tornatore captures perfectly that moment in a young man's life when he realizes the central role that sexuality will play in his life. In a later scene, all of the older boys measure each other's penises as another ritualistic competition. Of course, Renato has the shortest penis of the group. (By the way, kudos to a film that is so observant and insightful about the way boys view their penises!) It is no wonder that after this scene he gives up his membership in the group. The other boys have decided that sexuality is about power. Renata contemplates sexuality as an emotional force in one's life, a force that drives one away from power, competition, and violence and toward intimacy and sensitivity and caring. That's why he becomes an interesting character: he endorses the power of love--not the power of sex.
Now Tornatore uses the simplest and most essential components of film technique here: the coupling of the point of view and reaction shot. We see what Renato sees, and then we see Renato's reaction to what he sees. Tornatore uses that technique over and over again. But its use never dulls or becomes repetitive. We follow this young man's sexual awakening and wrestling with the significance of sexuality and intimacy in his life. Soon Renato becomes Malena's fantasy lover. He imagines himself as the star of movies. In one scene he calls out in the jungle, "Me Tarzan! You Malena!" He is the hero, the protector, and the lover of the most beautiful Malena. The insights are perfect here; and the comedy is on target. But a little lower layer is breached eventually, because Renato is a vulnerable teenager. He knows more about the truth of Malena than anyone else in town (because of his tendency to spy upon her), but he cannot protect her from the wrath of this community. Eventually, Malena becomes exactly what the community wants her to become. And then at her low point, they humiliate her and expel her from the community. This film takes a turn toward harsh realism as Malena's fate is sealed. But the turns in plot make the film more meaningful than it otherwise would have been. For the first hour I thought of this film as a nostalgic tour of adolescence. But in the last hour the film the relationship between Renata and Malena became much more complex and unforgiving.
Tornatore worked from a story by Luciano Vincenzoni, author of several spaghetti westerns from the 1960s and many other films. Having Vincenzoni's story as a core made this a better film I think. The overall drama incorporates the depth and significance of a Shakespearean drama. In the first act the boy encounters the beautiful maiden. In Act Two he becomes her devoted servant and protector. In Act Three the boy realizes he cannot protect her against the malevolent community. In Act Four Malena is destroyed. In Act Five . . . well, that's a surprise that awaits you if you see this film. I appreciated that fifth act because it raised this film to a higher level than it otherwise would have attained. Malena becomes a real woman, not a fantasy character that lights up a young boy's imagination (January, 2001).
Me, Myself, I. dir. Philippa Karmel (Australia, 1999). Rachel Griffiths is a delight to watch. She is an actor's actor, someone who creates a character from the ground up and is always convincing and easy to watch. Her movements, her facial expressions, her vocal inflections all deliver significant components of characterization. The opening section of the film, meant to establish the hectic and unsatisfying lifestyle of the main character, was a bit predictable. But then this character is struck by a car when crossing a road. She is not hurt seriously, although she does bang her head. She looks up to see someone standing above her and reaching out a hand. Reverse angle shot: she is looking at herself! Then we see the two women in the same car, and we realize a kind of time warp has been opened. The first character (single woman) is seeing herself as another character (married woman). To add to the tension, the second version of her character married the high school sweetheart and has two children--the perfect family the single woman always wanted to have. Cut to the two women sitting across from one another in the married woman's kitchen. They begin to converse. But then the children come home from school, and the married woman vanishes. Now the single woman is faced with stepping into her altar ego's shoes and living that woman's life--a married woman with two children. The film focuses on the single woman's adaptation to married life and to a relationship with someone who was--at one time in her life--the man of her dreams. Part of the joy of the film is that she changes the man and improves upon his character while she is doing the same for herself. The more I watched the film the more satisfied I felt with her strength of heart and character. This film reminds me of Kieslowski's The Double Life of Veronique (when the two characters face each other--one on the street, the other on the bus) or the film Sliding Doors (1998) with Gwenyth Paltrow--which was also based on the premise of what would happen if your path diverged and you lived a different life. I found this film the more satisfying than those earlier ones, because the two characters meet, interact, and then separate. When they are reunited we realize each has learned something about herself and her values she would not have known otherwise. We don't realize until the end of the film that the married version of the character has also experienced the single version's life and learned to regret that choice. The married woman's son also plays an interesting bridge character, because he comes to realize the single woman is not his mother, even though she looks exactly like his mother and has played the role quite effectively. In a key scene at the end of the film the little boy waves good-bye to the single mother as his real mother returns to her role. As I reflect on this film it strikes me as a species of romantic comedy. That is, all's well that ends well. The married woman returns to a happier marriage; the single woman returns to new prospects for romance. (May 3)
Pay it Forward, dir. Mimi Leder (USA). Kevin Spacey, as an actor, is a national treasure for our country. Every moment he is on screen the audience's attention is riveted to every nuance of his expressive face, movement and gestures of his body, and the fine-tuned nuances of his voice. He seems more restrained in this role--playing an elementary-school teacher in Las Vegas. The moment I was captured by this film occurred when the teacher's star pupil, played by Haley Joel Osment, is riding his bicycle on the edge of what appears to be a wasteland, a junkyard, a place where homeless people hang out. Suddenly the camera rises on a boom shot, and we can see the monuments to greed that are the buildings of the new Las Vegas. I couldn't believe it! Here we had a social and cultural critique of greed laid out before us via a visual metaphor. That one image made me respect this film. Another example. Helen Hunt plays the boy's mother. She ekes out a living by working the lounges of the casinos. She is not a prostitute, but her work often requires her to deal with some tough cookies. She is herself a tough cookie. One shot tells all. We see her sitting at the table in the morning; the camera is on her, and she looks like death warmed over. That one image made me respect this film. Now the problem is that the film plays with a tried and true formula: we have characters who need to be transformed. They are crooked; they need to be made straight. The teacher has buried the emotional pains of an abusive childhood deep inside of himself. He is a teacher, a giver; but he does not know how to receive--especially when it comes to affection. The mother is a burned-out alcoholic loser of a single-mother. How will these two people be transformed? You've got it--the kid. Having the kid be the reconciling force that will bring the mother and teacher together (so that they will fall in love) is contrived and formulaic. Unfortunately, certain things have to happen. For instance, the teacher has to date the boy's mother while the boy is still in his class--a clear violation of ethics as well as a generally-accepted bad idea. Second, the mother has to resolve her alcoholism with great expediency. I am always suspicious when alcoholics are depicted as suddenly taking their last drink and that solves the problem (through the force of their own will). But this is a movie. Lighten up, Robert. So these problems are too easily resolved. The film still works because it maintains a consistent point of view about the real world. (Well, there is one other exception--the sudden appearance of the evil and abusive father--and then his sudden retreat after one confrontation with the mother. But let's set that aside, too). In short, this film has its heart in the right place, and it portrays the grittiness of reality with sufficient honesty and consistency to make the effort worthwhile. I appreciated the consistency of fate as it relates to these characters. The secret of the teacher's past is finally revealed. (He shows signs of having been a burn victim--but the cause of the burns is a secret.) The boy's attempt to change the world, to make it a better place (his "pay it forward" idea) fails miserably--he thinks--but actually turns out to be a success if one considers the climactic event from the right perspective. What actions people take are never really wasted. I always tell my students this idea. This film puts that idea into action. The young boy does do good. The last scene in the film is an incredibly fulfilling (and heart-wrenching) moment of communion among a crowd of strangers. The image was almost a duplicate of the one that closes Field of Dreams (1989). If you have not seen Pay it Forward yet, don't think too hard about that last statement. Just let it ride and sit back and enjoy the film. After the climactic action occurs, you may be one of those who are upset that life sometimes works out the way that disappoints you or frustrates you. But if you see the climax as having been consistent with the plot points that came before, you will realize that, as in this case, sometimes faith, hope, and love can come out of tragedy. (October)
Shower, dir. Yang Zhang (China). I am always surprised at simplicity, the essence of filmmaking (as well as storytelling). In this case let's begin with a simple, straightforward plot: a grown son returns home when he receives a message which erroneously suggests his father has died. He is the prodigal son, the one who left the old ways behind, moved to a new city with his wife, and prospered. His father, who runs a traditional bathhouse (his clientele are mostly old men), is well and happy walking the well-worn ruts of this humble life. But then a complication: the prosperous brother has a severely retarded older brother who is an unofficial mascot of the bathhouse. When these two points of plot collide (shades of Rain Man), the film quickly is transformed into a compelling story of family conflicts about loyalty, community, caregiving, and redemption. Strange how much energy is triggered by the simplest of plots. But add to that structure a clear delineation of the main characters--the father, the prodigal son, the retarded son. Each is given sufficient scenes to develop his character. Further, minor characters complement the main characters, and one of them, a hapless husband who is embarrassed by his impotency, is so compelling that we want to know more about what forces have brought him to this point of crisis. Add to the mix talented actors--especially the old man who plays the father--and it easy to understand the emotional punch this film supplies. The actor who plays the prodigal son is particularly effective because he uses so much restraint in his performance (credit the director, too, for that approach). This character enters a world that has become foreign to him. Imagine a cell phone in a traditional Chinese bathhouse! He is the reactor to all that surrounds him. His father and his retarded brother have an established routine. The two can read each other's minds. But the prodigal son is, to a great extent, our own eyes and ears as we enter this strange world. We take in the film through his consciousness. As that son begins to adapt and accept his new environment, we become more encouraged and hopeful that resolutions for this family's problems may be found. But then the film is true to the essentials of plot. Resolutions will occur; but happiness is a different story. The Chinese have a saying that happiness is the following: Grandfather die, Father die, Son die. In other words, life requires a great deal from these characters. The prodigal son responds courageously to the demands imposed upon him. Like Raymond and Charlie in Rain Man, the brothers find a way into each other's hearts, even though the future remains uncertain. The film's major weakness, I think, is that too many secondary plot threads are neatly tied up. The resolution of the story of the shy young man who loves to sing Italian arias at the top of his lungs in the bathhouse is too cute and overtly sentimental in the context of the other more complex and satisfying elements of plot. (August)
Two Family House, dir. Raymond De Felitta (USA). This is what independent films are all about. No big-name actors. No major marketing ploys. No tie-ins to McDonald's or Burger King. No promos on Entertainment Tonight. Just quality work in every way. First the story's bittersweet quality. The film is based on stories the writer's family told about an uncle of his who built a bar on the first floor of a two-story house in the Bronx. The film accurately captures the repressed sexuality and the narrow-minded and bigoted values that were in place in the 1950s. This is a role that Ernest Borgnine, who played the good-hearted butcher in Marty (1955), would have played to perfection. Michael Rispoli does a good job in the role. He is an ordinary fellow, just one of the guys, and nothing he has ever experienced has ever led him to question what values he lives by. He is married (no children), and his wife is a domineering and wretched woman who loves to pour out her whining to her girl friends, who of course are all married and have their gripes about their husbands, too. She labels her husband a loser, and when he buys the two-story house and plans to build a bar on the first floor, she reluctantly goes along with his latest project. But one thing is clear: she does not believe in her husband's dreams. Of course, she is the loser. This is an old formula. Our main character is part of the group, and he needs to experience a transformation and walk out on his cohorts and establish a new identity. Come to think of it, that's what happened in Marty, too. I was also reminded of The Diner, an early Barry Levinson film. Something about all those scenes of people sitting around and talking for hours at bars and diners. But this film worked for me. I appreciated the gradual change of heart in the main character. He found someone who believed in him, he began to believe in himself, and in the end he had to lose all of his former connections to community in order to make a fresh start as part of a new community. As I said, this was a bittersweet film. His falling in love with the young Irish woman was beautifully rendered. She listened to him. She cared about his ideas. She gave him a focus for his nurturing and good-hearted qualities of character. I appreciated the way her falling in love with him was made evident in a scene where she stood with her back to the window and asked him to leave. Then she turned toward the camera; and there were tears in her eyes. She was hooked. There was a lyrical quality to this film, through the unfolding of the gentle interactions between the two main characters, the use of romantic songs from the 1950s (and lovely supporting music by the sound designer), and then a real gamble-an extensive voice-over narration by one of the major players in the film. The identity of that voice-over has to remain a secret. As soon as the identity was revealed in the film, I felt a sense of satisfaction, or a sense of narrative balance-how appropriate to give this character the voice-over. That voice-over contributed to the sense of healing that under girded the narration. Despite all that the man lost in the sundering of his ties to his peer group, a simple fact remains-he walked away with the right woman and was a family man for the first time. (November)
The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola (USA). Yes, she is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola. Sofia Coppola also wrote the screenplay. Now that we have that out of the way, let's move on to the review. Watching this film was like watching a 70s film. It takes place in 1975 in Grosse Pointe, MI. I enjoyed her homage to the films of the 70s (especially the luxuriant close-ups of the girls and the double exposure photography), I laughed heartily at the masterful production and art designs, and I appreciated the monotoned voice-over by Giovanni Ribisi. The audience I was with loved the film. Several members of the audience (me, too!) laughed heartily when they recognized various icons of the 70s. The film worked best as an exploration of adolescent males trying to understand the complexities of young womanhood. In that respect Ribisi's voice-over was a perfect complement to the scenes of the boys interacting with the girls. I can appreciate the boys' feelings of sexual attraction, uncertainty, vulnerability, and their sympathy for the plight of the girls. But the boys were on the outside. But there is another story the film does not probe--the story that takes place on the inside--from the girls' point of view. In some respects the film kept us at arm's length from what was really happening in the world of these four sisters. I was most disappointed when the girls were revealed to be just like every other teenaged girl--wanting only to be accepted and loved and have a prom date.We see dreamboat Trip Fontaine 25 years later, but we don't see any of the four boys 25 years later. But now I'm complaining about the film that was NOT made. The film that WAS made worked best when the girls were a mystery; it worked least effectively when the girls became "normal" and the mother became the monster. The style and look of the film won me over, and the homage to the films of the 70s worked well for this reviewer, who was still growing up in the 70s. James Woods, as the father, gave a masterful performance. But as in other cases in this film, his character was only written "so far"--and when he reached that point no more information or personal development was forthcoming. But again: the screenplay was not the primary strength of this film. Instead, its cinematography, direction, acting, and music were the main appeal. (May 18)
Wonder Boys, dir. Curtis Hanson (USA). The first 45 minutes of this film was gangbusters. I loved every scene. I loved the dialogue, Michael Douglas' acting, the James Lear character (and Tobey Maguire's acting). I loved the setting of Pittsburgh, the mood set by the heavy rains, the main character's bathrobe, the Chancellor's party. The screenplay, the director's style, the acting all flowed as one. The transitions between scenes were seamless. I was overjoyed. This will be in my top ten list for the year 2000, a little voice whispered in my ear. I was watching a character who was all set for the Fall. And then the little voice stopped whispering in my ear. Instead, I watched the film unravel before me. Scene by scene the mood of mystery was wiped away. Suddenly James Lear was no longer a mystery. Suddenly the Michael Douglas character found courage to change. I had been set up for the Fall--but to my surprise he did not fall. He teetered on the edge, all right; but then melodrama set in, redemption was forced, resolution was required, and all secrets were removed. The roller-coaster ride was over halfway through this film, and it was frustrating to watch the decline. On this one I have to blame the screenplay for undercutting every positive dynamic that had been set up earlier in the film. (Feb)
Wonderland, dir. Michael Winterbottom (UK). I was looking forward to seeing this film because I had been impressed with Winterbottom's work on Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), a powerful film about the incredible ethnic hostilities in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. That film was based on a true story of a British journalist who took a stand and adopted one of the many war orphans in Sarajevo. Now Winterbottom has made a film about life in the East End of London and created a cast of convincing characters, three sisters, each of whom is facing great personal difficulties in relationships with men. One of the sisters is married and pregnant with her first child; but her husband greets his impending fatherhood with a bizarre emotional crisis. The second daughter is divorced, and her husband (Ian Hart) is a chronic loser whose presence in her life only spells trouble. The third daughter is the heart and soul of this family. She still sees their parents regularly; she is looking for an emotional relationship (using the Personals); she sees her sisters and often confides in them; she has an energy and sensitivity that draws in the audience and makes us want her to be happy. These are working-class people. The parents live in a high-rise apartment building, and the mother is a miserable and unhappy wretch. The father is a bumbler, a plugger, someone who has a warm heart but is momentarily lost in late middle age. The more I watched this film the more I appreciated the power of its characterizations, the reality of its setting, the loneliness at the heart of a great city (London). The ending is a bit forced in its resolutions; but I did not mind because by that time I had come to care for and understand the characters. Winterbottom uses an unusual stop-action photography several times in the film that speeds up the movement and conveys something of the frenetic pace that moves in and around the emotionally lonely core of these characters Michael Nyman's haunting and repetitive sound track perfectly complements the themes in this film. (September).
The Yards, dir. James Gray (USA). As I watched this film, I was reminded of films from the 1970s. The film was about the interaction of character and place, about family values, and about continuity. Not surprising that some critics have seen a connection to The Godfather (1972). James Caan plays Mark Wahlberg's uncle in the film, and Caan (who was in The Godfather) looks like, acts like, and has some of the similar qualities of character that made Brando's Godfather a classic role. Caan has the moustache, the head-of-the-family role, the sensitivity, and yet the remoteness of Brando's character. Several times the overt theme of commitment to family and the values of loyalty and continuity are espoused by Caan and other characters. The irony of that belief system, of course, is that when the core of the family is actually rotten (riddled with evil), then all of the talk about family values is for naught. Caan is a tragic figure in the film because he wants to hold onto the myth that the family is whole, loyal, and emotionally stable. The love interest in the film is between his step-daughter (Charlize Theron) and Mark Wahlberg, who is recently out of prison (having taken the rap for his buddies). His main buddy is played by Joaquin Phoenix, in a role that reminds us of his growth and potential as an actor. Everything in the film depends upon atmosphere (the recreation of a specific time and context through cinematography), reaction shots (especially of Wahlberg and Phoenix), a well-crafted screenplay (that makes us believe in these characters and their flaws), and a depth of acting that brings the characterizations alive. Ellen Burstyn is Wahlberg's mother. Although her role is limited, she is absolutely convincing as the frail single-mother who has an extraordinarily close bond--emotionally and psychologically-with her son.
The film's title refers to the subway carriage yards, where cars are repaired. The context of the film is the corruption of corporations that build, service, and repair these cars. James Caan's company gains most of the contracts for these jobs because of kickbacks and fraud and a carefully orchestrated campaign of sabotage against his main competitor. Willie (Joaquin Phoenix) is the head of Caan's enforcers (aka henchmen). The film breaks into two main parts. The first part of the film is all about creating a vise that slowly tightens on Leo (Mark Wahlberg), the ex-con. As I watched this segment, I began to feel that constriction of the plot until I thought, "There is no way he is going to survive this." Everything conspires to restrict the freedom of this character. This first section leads to a climactic scene, a botched job by some of Caan's henchmen, led by Willie. In the scene Leo is confronted by a police officer, and in their struggle, Leo pushes him down and then clubs him when he is down. Meanwhile, Willie knifes (and kills) a yardmaster who has decided to start taking bribes from Caan's competitor. Now it is clear that Leo is trapped. Willie lies and implicates Leo in the killing of the yardmaster. The police officer is near death in the hospital. If he recovers, and if he identifies Leo, then Leo is a goner. Then the second part of the structure unfolds--aftermath. At this point in the film I could not see how Leo could escape the trap he was in. But scene by scene circumstances change. First, he makes a key decision-not to assassinate the police officer in the hospital. Slowly but surely the house of cards that Caan has built begins to topple. By the end of the film I was satisfied that the plot turns were believable. For example, early in this section Leo is dispatched to the hospital to murder the critically ill police officer. Remember Brando's hospitalization in The Godfather and the assassination attempt? Remember also that plot depends upon choice. The question is not, "What did he do?" but "Why did he do it?" As the drama unfolds, the balance shifts between the myth of family values (Caan's view) and the real closeness between Leo and his mother that motivates the young man to survive and regain his sense of honor. The ending of the film was anticlimactic, downbeat, and yet believable. The good guys win, but we are left with a bitter taste in our mouths. Reminds me of those 1970s again. (November)