Amélie, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (UK). Also known by the French title, Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, this is a five-star film with one major flaw. The first 15 minutes of the film are purely magical, breathtaking, fast-paced, humorous, energetic, imaginative, and even bordering on the fluidity of animation in terms of the speed of delivery of the images. I sat up straight, put down my notebook, and simply watched the film. It was captivating and had an instinctive grasp of narrative movement. What a wonderful way to begin a film. We are introduced to the character from her birth, her tortured parents and their effect on her, and finally to her young adulthood where she is set free to become a server in a Paris bistro. There are so many positive things to say about this film. The hook is set when we learn that Amélie discovers what she considers to be a hidden talent for bringing happiness to people. What a dangerous destiny to discover! Now she sets about finding others who NEED her help and her seemingly magical powers. What a great idea for a plot trigger.
But before I go any further, I must remind you that I said this was a flawed effort. So where was the flaw? Jeunet does not settle for just one plot device; he insists on adding into the mix a conventional Sleepless in Seattle type of love story so that Amélie will find happiness, too. As soon as this plot device is triggered, the film runs out of steam. Now it must serve two masters: Amélie's desire to fulfill other people's lives, and our desire to see Amélie's life fulfilled. But the former is an unconventional plot device, and one that has infinite possibilities. I was disappointed that we did not see more of her interventions--and enjoy seeing more of her interventions backfiring. Now it is human nature that the more we see her try to work her magic, the more we want her to experience some of that magic herself. So why not set up the fulfillment of our Amélie without further ado at some later point in the overall drama? But no, Jeunet extends the love story plot until it twists awkwardly in the wind and drags down the narrative movement of the overall film. My criticism here is really one of a flaw in the screenplay. There is an incredible climactic moment buried 3/4 of the way through the film (as it relates not to Amélie's story, but to her lover's story). I would have brought that climax together with the denouement of the love story; but Jeunet insists on playing out a whole set of scenes that show the consummation of the lovers being delayed again and again. So after a fast start the film drags in its center and then draws out the climactic reunion of the lovers and expands their clinching and kissing ad nauseum. Seeing Amélie reduced to a character whose fulfillment is based upon romantic love seems to undercut the character we became devoted to earlier in the film.
I was reminded of Sherwood Anderson's characterization, in his introduction to his book of short stories, Winesburg, Ohio, of "The Book of the Grotesque." To Anderson, grotesques were characters that had taken on a particular truth and made it the central fabric of their lives. Their truths were like the hobbyhorses of Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the one-trick-ponies we become when we allow those truths to make us one-dimensional beings. All of the characters in this film were grotesques--even Amélie--and it would have been a better film if it had focused on that grotesqueness and its impact on personal development and social relationships. (November)
Bad Company (Mauvaises Fréquentations), dir. Jean-Pierre Améris (France, 1999). This film was remarkably effective at illustrating the power of adolescent peer pressure to manipulate and control behaviors. Delphine is an attractive, but shy teenager, whose life is revitalized when she is noticed by a new girl in the class. Then her new friend introduces Delphine to Laurent, a cute and self-centered boy who knows a good thing when he spots it. Before long Laurent persuades Delphine that she should prostitute herself for him in order to curry his favor. His needs are greater than her needs, after all: so her action becomes a sacrifice of love. The outcome is a set of unforgettable scenes of the girl waiting in the bathroom stall to perform "blow jobs" on the boy's friends, performing the work she is required to perform, and then washing out her mouth afterwards. What saves these scenes from being pornographic is the restraint with which they are filmed and the sense that the audience feels compassion for Delphine and only wants her to find happiness. One can't help but ask, Why does she go along with Laurent, the boy who becomes her pimp? How can teenaged girls have such low self-esteem? How can she survive this emotional trauma?
Bread and Roses, dir. Ken Loach (Italy, UK, 2000). Loach is one of the best English directors of the past 20 years. His documentary-style features are gripping and memorable. Two films from the 90s stand out: Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) and My Name is Joe (1998). These films used a strong direct cinema style-simulating handheld cameras and uncontrolled scenes-and told the stories of rough-spoken working-class folks. Land and Freedom (1995) tells the story of an American who comes of age during the Spanish Civil War. Bread and Roses is a close relative of the latter film because it has its roots in Socialism and workers rights. It tells a contemporary story of a janitor's strike in Los Angeles. It begins with a documentary-realism scene of Mexicans crossing the border and being dropped off in Los Angeles so that they can find blue-collar jobs. The escape scene was terrifying and realistic. A second escape scene, when a woman flees from a man who expects to get sex from her, is equally terrifying. The woman who crosses the border, and then escapes from the clutches of the gringo, is Maya, the main character of the film. Her political coming of age is the basis of the film's narrative. Her sister Rosa, who has lived in Los Angeles for several years, is an angry and cynical character who works hard and yet holds a grudge. She is married to a gringo, and her husband-a diabetic-needs an operation. Enter a high-energy union organizer from New York City. The destiny of the two main characters, Maya and the organizer, is a bit obvious. The weakest sections of the film were those that focused on the budding romance between them.
What may be missed is that Maya works as a janitor for four years before she rises to the organizer's bait. Maya is the classic working-class heroine. Once she becomes politicized, there is no stopping her. She is a cousin of the famous Sally Field character, Norma Rae, (Dir. Martin Ritt, 1974), who also worked to establish a union in a southern mill with the help of a Jewish union organizer from New York City. What makes this film stand out is that the main characters are Latinos. Many of the janitors are illegal immigrants from Mexico; some of them are African American. The film portrays them with great sensitivity and realism-a rarity in modern cinema. One of the secondary characters is a young Latino man who has an opportunity to attend the University on a scholarship. He is attracted to Maya, but she is not interested in him beyond friendship. Their relationship does not seem to be developed in all of its potential complexity and ambiguity. Another weakness of characterization is the portrayal of the head of the janitors, who is also Latino. His one-dimensional rage against the workers is too obvious and unmotivated. Understanding this character's deep resentment against his own roots would have helped viewers comprehend his vicious reactions against the organizing effort.
The film moves along, with its obligatory acts of abuse against the workers and the failed protests and the strains between the organizer and union management. But then something happens that snaps this film out of the "above average" category into the "highly recommended" category. Maya confronts her sister Rosa about the latter's lack of commitment to their cause. For Rosa, "Life is now." But Maya cannot understand why she does not support the efforts of the other janitors for better wages. In this scene Rosa suddenly lays the truth before Maya and the rest of us-and Maya is dumbstruck by the compelling testimony Rosa gives and the insights into her character that testimony provides. In that one scene every member of the audience loses his or her innocence once and for all in matters related to the political and social reality of immigrants looking for a better life in America. That one scene is a set-piece of our coming to a political consciousness for those of us who stand by on the sidelines and watch others walk the picket line and suffer innumerable injustices in their daily lives. The closest Norma Rae came to having this powerful a scene was when Norma Rae got home from jail late at night, got her kids out of bed, and told them they were going to hear their mother was a "jailbird." But that scene from Norma Rae pales in comparison to the scene between Maya and her sister in this film. By the way, the title, Bread and Roses, is a socialist metaphor for equality among all workers. We all need bread to live; but we buy roses because we have the extra money and want something beautiful in our lives. (June)
Chopper, dir. Andrew Dominik (Australia, 2000). Shades of Taxi Driver in an explosive hard-bitten male lead, the notorious Australian thug known as Chopper, who seems unfit to live among human beings. He is another version of Travis Bickle, a mild-mannered fellow who just happens--every once in a while--to explode with a fury that can be attributed only to the rage that has burrowed into his unconscious and like a monster in a cave surfaces when the right circumstances occur. He is another version of Sexy Beast, the character Ben Kingsley so perfectly delineated. At the end of that film, we see the REAL Sexy Beast, an absolute furry monster, a maniac Abominable Snowman, let loose upon the world. At times in this film Chopper Read, the main character, is that furry beast. An early scene, of the young Chopper in prison, shows him confronting an ex-con. I can't recall if it were this scene or another scene, but one of the cons sticks a knife in his side, and Chopper barely flinches. He looks down at the knife sticking in him and shrugs it off, as if a mosquito was sucking his blood Then he attacks the man brutally and mercilessly. The scene, and many others in the film, suggests this is a man to reckon with and a man to stay away from. The saddest scene of all is at the end of the film, when Chopper is in prison, and he is watching a television documentary about his exploits. He wants to assure the guards that this report about him is an impressive piece of journalism. He is only interested in his reputation for violence and notoriety. He examines the report as if he were watching something he had created and is not quite sure what to make of it. As the guards linger in his cell, it becomes evident they are frightened out of their minds because they think that any minute he might explode. But he is in his non-violent mode for this scene.
The Deep End, dir. Scott McGehee & David Siegel (III) (USA). This film works because it offers more than the formula of the mystery genre. The opening scene (lit in an underwater aqua blue) takes place at the Deep End, a Reno, Nevada, gay nightclub. Margaret, played with admirable restraint by Tilda Swinton, shows up to confront a bad man who she believes has taken advantage of her 18-year-old son Beau. A dark-lit flashback plays in the woman's mind-a late-night accident scene (her son was driving) and a mother comforting her groggy, disoriented son. Mother and son are not communicating; their dialogue is edgy and uncooperative. The next night the same bad man shows up at their beautiful Lake Tahoe home and tries to seduce the son again. A struggle ensues, the bad man walks away, and then the bad man falls off of the dock. We presume he may have drowned. The son, assuming the man has left, returns to the house. The next morning the mother finds the man's dead body.
At this moment in the film the right thing happens: Margaret sets to work to dispose of the body in an out-of-the-spot on Lake Tahoe. These scenes are perfectly filmed using innovative shot selection and camera angles. I was drawn into the woman's story. As I watched the main character's actions, I kept wondering, "Who is this woman? What makes her react the way she does-disposing of the body-and struggling to cover what she perceives was a crime. (After all, she believes her son murdered his lover.) What does she think about her son's homosexuality? We learn later that her son is about ready to enter a good college. She does not want his life ruined. Is she acting to protect her son? Is her son's name, Beau, a symbol of a beauty that she does not admit exists in her own consciousness? After all, we always see her dressed plainly and wearing no make-up. If she loses her Beau, then does she lose her own inner beauty? Later we learn her husband is an officer in the Navy and a commander of a boat. That explains the beautiful home on Lake Tahoe, and that explains the long periods of time she lives alone. Obviously, she has practically raised her son and daughter But when she tries to reach her husband, he never seems to call-when she most needs him to call. What is the basis of their relationship? What is going on with this woman? These are only a few of the questions that plagued me as I watched the early scenes. I wanted to know more about this woman. I wanted her to resolve her pain in some way.
Then of course comes the blackmail plot-but with a twist. And that twist makes this film memorable. And when all is said and done, a film like this one comes down to the reaction shots of the main characters-the mother and the blackmailer, who is played with a quiet intensity by Goran Visnjic. But the mother's reaction shots are the ones that stay in the viewer's head afterwards. How much acting is there in a reaction shot? Doesn't the director set it up, the lighting director light it, and the camera operator film it? Bogart used to talk about reaction shots as if he were a longshoreman and not an artist. He said the director asked you to hit the mark and you did it. The actor's face is his or her stock in trade. We loved to watch Bogart's rough chiseled features and his mournful eyes, and in this film we love to watch the sallow, angular cheeks of Tilda Swinton and her piercing eyes. The reaction shots carry us into the heart of the mystery of these characters and the psychological changes that are transforming them. Everything became clear to me when I saw the beautiful red coat.
And everything became emotionally charged when the actors were called upon to act within the frame in a climactic scene where their faces almost touch and their eyes and lips and voices combine to break our hearts. Finally, there is the scene of emotional breakdown and the return to the child's thumb sucking position on the bed and the complete withdrawal from the world of deeply felt grief. Then there is crying and more crying. Then an embrace, and a simple affirming statement of the bond between two people and then the nicely framed crane shot as the camera retreats away from the window of an upstairs bedroom. By the end of this film I was an emotional wreck myself. This film took the right direction when it chose to anchor the plot in the development of character. Character is plot, by God-and don't you forget it. (August).
Enemy at the Gates, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud (UK). This film reminds me of an old-fashioned epic adventure from the 1960s, like Dr. Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia. The canvas is big (the Siege of Leningrad in WW II), the main characters are larger-than-life (two famous snipers and a future Premier of the Soviet Union), and the romance is as old-fashioned as Casablanca. Annaud directs with a sure hand and knows how to frame shots. The best parts of this film are the one-on-one duels between the Russian sniper and hero of the Soviet Union (Vasilli, played by Jude Law), and the German sniper who comes to kill him (Koenig, played by Ed Harris). Each of those confrontations was tense and dramatic. Too often the scenes focusing on the second main theme in the film-the obligatory romantic triangle-dragged on a bit and detracted from the essence of the war-story theme. But more on that later. The opening scene of the film is one of those typical openers from the epic films I mentioned earlier. We see a boy training his rifle on a wolf, as the animal hesitates before attacking a horse (tied down as bait). We are in the Urals; it is winter. The boy has a mentor. The photography is stunning. I was reminded of Annaud's earlier film, The Bear, and its masterful cinematography. Then we are dropped into WW II and see everything from the point of view of a young soldier, Vassili (obviously the boy become a man), as he is herded into a cattle car on a train and sent off to Leningrad to be sacrificed with thousands of his countrymen for Mother Russia. A note here: 20 million Russians died in WW II; there were 6 million Allied deaths in contrast. The fact that Russia stopped the Germans at Stalingrad made a difference to the outcome of WW II. We have no idea of the sacrifices made by the Russian people in that war.
Back to the film. The battle scenes that follow and which comprise the opening sequence of the film were reminiscent of the opening 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. We were in these scenes and saw everything from young Vassili's point of view. Russian soldiers, often with no weapons, were compelled to advance upon the Germans (and be slaughtered); and if they retreated, their own sergeants, who called them cowards for not advancing, shot them. I don't think anyone has seen combat scenes that so realistically show utter helplessness and confusion of young soldiers. Again, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line come to mind as comparable in intensity and accuracy. Amazing and memorable filmic material. Then a brief scene follows that establishes Vassili as a skilled sniper of uncanny skills and perfection. So far the film has established a sense of place, of history, and of character. But when Vassili meets Danilov, a political (propaganda) officer in the last scene above, the film tilts toward that kind of epic film I saw when I was in my teens. In those stories characters always rose above history and became the focus of our attention because of their courage, force of will, and capacity for love. So here comes the romantic triangle. What are the ingredients? Danilov is a Russian Jew. He falls in love with Tanya, another Jew, whose parents were murdered after being deported by the Nazis. She very much wants to kill Germans instead of working in the propaganda office. But Tanya falls in love with Vassili, the Orthodox boy who becomes a lionized heroic figure (as a consequence of the propaganda Danilov spills out in scores of leaflets and tracts. So who gets the woman? This question is older than Casablanca, although it has never been told as beautifully as it was in that film.
So I am faced with a film that moves between the dramatic confrontations between the snipers (Vassili vs. Koenig), the ongoing political problems faced by Nikita Khrushchev, who is called in to rally the troops in Stalingrad, the invention of a hero by the writer Danilov (and you know he is going to lose control of his creation-that has to happen!), and the tender love story between members of our triangle (Danilov, Tanya, Vassili). Who gets the woman? That's the question. On most counts I think the film handles the various strands of the theme. I was surprised by how the film ended. I kept expecting . . . well, you know how it is. I can't tell you everything. But the ending pleased me because in some respects I didn't see it coming. And it was understandable. People are magnificent liars and sacrificers and do-gooders, always when you least expect it. Of course, the duels between Vassili and Koening have to be resolved; and they are. And that resolution is poignant and believable. By the way, Ed Harris' Koenig was magnificent because he made the character a master of restraint. He never raised his voice; he moved quietly, effortlessly. He was like a statue, or a machine. And he had personal reasons for being here just as Tanya had personal reasons for wanting to fight just as Vassili had personal reasons for wanting to be an expert marksman. Audiences love characters that take things personally; we empathize with the personal because there is so much of it that is unresolved in our own lives. The characters act out our unfulfilled fantasies and desires for revenge. By the way, the last two shots of the film were lovely--and again, restrained--showing the power of the extreme long shot when used in interiors.
Perhaps the film as a whole tries to be too much of a 1960s epic. For what it was worth, it was intense and entertaining and uplifting. And that, sometimes, is enough. A postscript: James Horner's music was as over-the-top and orchestral as Maurice Jarre's scores for the Sir David Leans epics of the 1960s. But the main theme he used was disconcertingly similar to-and even derivative from--the main theme of Schindler's List. It begins with a 16-note harmony that is nearly identical to John Williams' theme from the Spielberg film. I heard it so much in the film that I could not help thinking of the earlier score. That bothered me; but perhaps others won't notice it as much as I did. Another postscript: When I was in my teens and saw the great epic films by Sir David Lean, like Dr. Zhivago, I never thought it unusual that the English and American actors spoke English instead of Russian (or whatever other language would have been their native tongue). But in my middle age it strikes me as odd sometimes that audiences have accepted this convention. I thought to myself, "Would I not watch a Russian production of this film and be even more mesmerized by it because I would be listening to Russian and German speakers (and reading all in subtitles?)." Sometimes we forget how much American cinema dominates world cinema and thus expropriates culture and language without so much as a blink of an eye (April).
The Golden Bowl, dir. James Ivory. (USA, 2000). I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this Merhcant and Ivory Production. Early reviews had suggested that this adaptation of the Henry James novel was only another example of the story of a poor young woman who could not marry the man she loved because of class differences. One version of that story was told in another adaptation of a Henry James novel, The Wings of the Dove (1997, dir. Iain Softley). In that film two lovers plot to be together after the man marries a very ill rich heiress. Guess what? The plot backfires. Another version of the story was Washington Square (1997, dir. Agnieszka Holland), a better film based on the Henry James novel of the same name about a doctor's daughter who wants to marry a poor man but rises above her loss to claim a life of her own eventually. The Golden Bowl was a different story altogether. It tells of four lives entwined. Two of the four are very much in love-but it is not the love between a man and a woman that makes the difference in this film. The complexities of desire, intimacy, loyalty, and trust are exposed in all of the inner workings of these four relationships. Adam Verver is one of the richest men in the world. (He seems to be based on J. Paul Getty, the oil billionaire, whose obsession is to build a huge art museum in "American City"--make that Santa Monica, California). His true love is his daughter. When she marries an Italian prince, the marriage is blessed by her father and accepted by all of his friends of the same class. Unfortunately, the prince comes attached on the sly to a beautiful young woman, a friend of Verver's daughter, who was his lover before he married Verver's daughter. But the prince would not marry her because she is poor, and thus not of her class. The foursome is finished off with Verver's marriage of that very same woman. Why does she marry Verver? So that she can spend time with her lover.
Now this plot sounds like a version of The Wings of the Dove. But here's the difference: Adam Verver is a man of distinction who knows how to get what he wants. He ends up getting his art museum, and he ends up keeping his daughter. Meanwhile, the prince warms to the world of parties and excursions and family life and land and beautiful homes and . . . by now you may have guessed where this is heading. In this case three is company, but four is a crowd. In one of the most excruciatingly painful scenes in the film, Adam Verver compels his beautiful young wife to become his resident curator and lecturer on his art collection. He makes her into his trained monkey, as it were-and he knows what he is doing.
Now this review has been heavy on context and plot and light on technique. But do not be fooled. Merchant and Ivory regain their almost mythic grasp of costume drama in this film. In this case characters and place seem unified, and I give credit to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the screenwriter who has worked with Merchant and Ivory for many years, for creating well-crafted dialogue and many examples of symbolic action. She creates characters that are both freed and constrained in the context of the mansions they occupy. One of the best shots of the film occurs late in the action, after Verver has regained his ascendancy in his relationship with his unfaithful wife. He finds the lovers alone in the mansion one night. He avoids a confrontation and simply walks away from them after a civil interchange. Then he goes outside to walk in the moonlight. The shot shows him walking in a close shot past the camera. Behind him is the immense mansion, the foundation and symbol of his identity and power. What an image! Jhabvala's screenplay reveals again the way character and plot are complementary engines. Why does the illicit love affair fail? Because characters and their desires change. Why does Verver regain ascendancy in his relationship? Because he never loses touch with the true north of his emotional compass-which always points to his art and to his daughter. Of course, the acting in this film is of an even pitch of quality and contributes to the overall effect. Nick Nolte and Uma Therman stand out as the billionaire and his trophy wife. Kate Beckinsale, as Verver's daughter, and Jeremy Northam, as her husband, are not as compelling. I was put off by Northam's Italian accent. (June)
Le Gôut des Autres (The Taste of Others), dir. Agnès Jaoui (France). This film snuck up on me. The screenwriters (Jaoui and Jeanne-Paul Bacri-husband and wife?) collaborated in Un Air de Famille, a fabulous 1996 film directed by Cedric Klapisch. Jaoui directed this film, and the upshot is an entertaining comedy of manners about people from different classes, educational backgrounds, and tastes. The cultural clash is witty and insightful. The theme seems to be one step beyond, "Don't judge a book by its cover." The film suggests that an individual has the will to change and grow like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.
The star of the show is the actor Jeanne-Paul Bacri, who wears a thick mustache early in the film and is a perfect subject for the camera. Bacri plays Castella, an owner of a trucking company in Rouen. Every stereotype about this plain man would suggest he is boring, uncreative, and mediocre. What else can you expect from a man who runs a trucking company? His wife is an extremist when it comes to taste: she loves frou-frous and pastels and needs to control her environment. When a business deal compels Castella to hire an English tutor, who also happens to be a middle-aged actress, Castella is smitten. He has found his soul mate. But the tutor (Clara) is not interested in him. The barriers of class and culture are too much. Castella begins to insert himself into her cultural context. In one great scene, everyone at the table makes fun of Castella-who is so naïve he does not catch on to the taunting. Every time Bacri was on screen, I was involved in the action. His performance was delightful. A subplot involving a confidante of Clara, a younger woman, and the latter's love interest, was less compelling. (July)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, dir. John Cameron Mitchell (USA). The film starts fast with hard-rock energy by the transsexual rocker Hedwig (also played by the director). Mitchell transforms his off-Broadway hit into high-energy concert numbers combined with an ingenious editing strategy that compares childhood scenes (in East Berlin) with the present. Those childhood scenes were inventive and revelatory about the specific pains of this character's childhood. In one scene the camera slowly revolves 360 degrees in a birds-eye-point of view of the child Hedwig with his head in the oven. Scenes like that made us feel something for this character and empathize with her pain. The high-energy level of this film through its fourth musical number enthralled me. That number included a sing-a-long (follow the bouncing ball); and I can tell you most of the audience sang along for the fun of it. This film was cruising! SPACE Then the main idea came out: poor Hedwig has never gotten over Tommy Gnosis (the famous rock star) stealing many of her songs. Such a simple pain and burden for a human being to carry. But that became a problem for me, because then the film began to review the entire arc of the Hedwig-Tommy relationship. She discovers him; she grooms him; and then he betrays Hedwig when he discovers that Hedwig's sex-change operation was botched and . . . . Here the film began to drag. (Absolutely no pun intended!) I could not care less about poor Tommy; and the rejection scene was predictable and derivative. Too much sentiment poured into this scenes. Poor Hedwig: she is doomed to loneliness. But there is a glimmer of hope in the last big hard-rock number where Hedwig seems to acknowledge a special relationship with the girlish-faced member of the band whose beard always seemed on the fakey side. The closing number suggested closure and healing and also a recognition of a lasting bond for Hedwig's future. Here is a case where too much music is not a good thing. Most of the numbers began with a slow lilting melody that segued to a brutal hard-rock pulsating rhythm. Perhaps too much of a good thing? Still, this film introduces us to an original, unforgettable character and she stays in your head for months afterwards (August).
The Heist, dir. David Mamet (USA). I saw the latest Tony Scott fiasco, Spy Game, three nights before I saw this film. What a breath of fresh air compared to the Robert Redford-Brad Pitt star vehicle. In this film there was only one big star, and that was Gene Hackman. As usual, Hackman can create a character. He is one of the masters of American acting, and when he interacts with others on the screen he is absolutely riveting and convincing. He was helped with a tight and creative script (with characters speaking a foreign language--Mamatese), Mamet's usual gang of suspects (his ensemble cast--including his wife Rebecca Pigeon), and a complex plot about interesting people who have chosen to lead their lives as big-time thieves (jewelry and gold, for instance). None of this small-time stuff for these folks. Delroy Lindo is an excellent supporting member of the cast. His tough and wiry frame are perfect for an aging thief who in another life would have been a fine and upstanding character. There is a kind of formula at work in this film, similar to The Score, which came out earlier this year. And I like the major ingredient of this formula: that older people are smarter than younger people. There's nothing like watching a hotshot young guy get shot down time after time for doing stupid things. I think The Score was better at it than this film. But I still enjoyed the ride in both films. The only frustrating part of this film was Rebecca Pigeon playing the Sharon Stone-pin-up-girl role. I did not understand that character's motivation as much as I did that of other characters. I understood why she acted in certain scenes, and often those motivations were subtle and nuanced. But who really was this character? What was her story? That I did not figure out and felt frustrated by it. She seemed to take away from the smoothness of the logic of the rest of the film. Her big decision, at the end of the film, seemed to fall flat instead of providing a nice counterpunch to the rest of the action. But oh that ending was smooth and sweet and it honored the wisdom of middle age. (November)
In the Mood for Love, dir. Kar-Wai Wong (Hong Kong). The typical Hollywood formula for two people to fall in love? They meet, you know they are perfect for each other, and yet the plot is required to throw at least fifteen barriers between them until the last scene of the film when--finally--the two acknowledge what we have known for a long time: they are destined for each other. So in this film we have two people who meet, they seem to acknowledge that they are perfect for each other, and yet they never consummate their love. Even thornier is the point that both are married and that both of their spouses are having affairs and both of them know they are having affairs. Thus, the simple question is: "If they are having affairs, why don't we have an affair?" But they don't. This film is fresh, original, creative, and ultimately satisfying. Everyone in the audience knows they are two good people who in many respects deserve each other. We want them to be "in the mood for love." Instead, we get a study in the intricacies of intimacy and shared suffering and isolation and separation. The cinematography and the framing of shots is precise and emotionally revealing. The film is a good example of the way cinematography and character complement each other. Interior spaces dominated, and the way the two characters moved through that claustrophobic environment was a metaphor for how close they were toward each other and at the same time worlds apart. When one is in the mood for love, the other is not ready to take that step toward adultery. Watching relationships is like watching partners in a dance with complex, even tortuous steps. At the end of the film the male lead goes on a spiritual pilgrimage and tries to find emotional release in sharing his secret with the gods. In the last scene he returns to the apartment where it all began. What happens there is a perfect coda for the main action of the film.
The Legend of Rita, dir. Volker Schlondorff (Germany, 2000). The film begins with a gritty scene, a bank robbery pulled off by Red Army revolutionaries in West Germany in the late 1970s. The film's chronology runs through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and into the early 1990s. The second scene of the film shows one of the members of the group, a young woman, detained by East German authorities when they try to enter East Berlin. They confiscate the bullets to her gun, but they let her through-and open the way for negotiations with East German authorities that will gladly allow her to move back and forth from East to West. Why? In doing so they can prove that the ideals of the capitalistic bourgeois West are inferior to the democratic East. Of course, there is one hitch-and that is that East German does not want it known publicly that they support and encourage terrorists. The next step in Rita's journey occurs when the terrorists stage a daring daylight raid to free one of the members of the gang. The jailbreak does not go as planned; it becomes a bit messy, and at least one of the guards is killed. So it's back to East Germany for a barbecue. In short, now it's time to talk politics; that is, to talk about what the East Germans can do for the terrorists and what the terrorists can do for the East Germans. But even here Rita shows a distaste for the game playing of East-West politics. She is in love with the terrorist freed from jail, and she begins to separate herself from the rest of the group. But Rita's East German masters are inflexible and unresponsive when it comes to meeting her emotional needs. Even in this early scene the director helps us focus on Rita as a human being. Although me may not agree with her political bent, and the way she acts on her politics, she has an emotional as well as a psychological existence. She is already feeling trapped by her dual allegiances, and the camera tracks every one of her moods. Bibiana Beglau's performance is riveting. She has a calloused look about her in many scenes; and yet in others she reveals a vulnerable dimension to her personality. Once the East Germans have laid out their cards, the terrorists return to West Germany and try to resume their lives. But then the gang begins to nitpick and argue among themselves about their next move. Rita and another woman set off and are stopped by a motorcycle policeman because they were not wearing helmets. This minor altercation suddenly escalates, a chase scene ensues, and Rita ends up shooting and killing the policeman when she is cornered in a parking garage. The moment is perfectly realized; her face shows fear, anxiety, and disbelief. One shot, the man falls, and he is dead.
So it's back to East Germany again. This time the terrorists are given a harsh sentence: they will be given asylum in East Germany, but they may never have contact with anyone else in the group. The East Germans do not want it known they are sponsoring and supporting terrorism against the West German state. So each terrorist is given a legend-a new name and identity-and now the film focuses on Rita as the main character. Throughout the rest of the film the camera is used to reveal-like an x-ray machine-the depth of this character's emotional and psychological journey. She takes on a simple blue-collar job in a textile factory and attaches herself to a young woman, Tatiana, whose performance is equal to Beglau's. Eventually a coworker recognizes her, and she has to visit her East German bosses to ask for advice. She is given another legend, another identity, and she has to say good-bye to Tatiana, who has come to love her deeply and passionately. At every turn Rita's emotional needs are left unmet and her potential for personal growth thwarted. She is forced to betray Tatiana, she is denied permission to marry a man who wants to move to Russia, and then the Berlin Wall comes down and her East German bosses have to fend for themselves and are no longer of any use to Rita. But Rita is true to her values-as a revolutionary-to the very end. The ending scene is as stark and as gritty as the opening scene. Rita dies alone on a windswept road, shot down by members of the border patrol. I was impressed most with the force of this woman's character and the ability of the director to realize her innermost emotions with the camera (April).
L.I.E. dir. Michael Cuesta (USA). The title refers to the Long Island Expressway. The film is about a boy's coming of age set against a complex set of circumstances. His mother died in an accident on the LIE, and the boy's father is trying to recapture what he lost by having a sexual relationship with a younger woman. At the same time, the father's illegal activities as a contractor catch up with him, and he is arrested. This film is also about the way life changes when you choose friends wrongly. That's the case for Howie, 15, who is drawn to Gary, a tough kid who heads a gang of teens engaged in break-ins of houses. Gary is gay, and he knows Big Jake (played magnificently by Brian Cox), one of the most upstanding local citizens. Everyone knows Big Jake. Everyone loves Big Jake. And Big Jake leads a secret life as a pedophile. Howie's evolving relationship with Big Jake was the linchpin of this film. It was subtle, ambivalent, and ambiguous. We know what Big Jake wanted from Howie; but we were unsure as to why he did not act on his impulses more directly and more seductively. The film begins with an eerie scene of a boy balancing cautiously on the railing of an overpass of the LIE. Is he contemplating suicide? Will he jump? That image returns toward the end of the film, and it becomes a signifier of the ambiguity at the heart of this film. There were some uneven aspects of the film; for example, the weak characterization of Howie's father and the clichéd ending. The film seemed to be headed for a crisis that would reveal something more about these characters, and I was disappointed that such a catharsis did not occur.
Highly Recommended Films M-Z