Amores Perros, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico, 2000). This film is strongly reminiscent of Quentin Tarintino's Pulp Fiction (1994) in the way it organizes the stories of four characters (and sets of characters) whose lives often intersect randomly and in the backgrounds of each other's lives. I was impressed with the camera set-ups, the cinematography, and the detailed characterizations. Most of these people were losers; but in their self-failures they revealed something of their dreams, their ideals, and their desperation. A common theme among the three stories was the bonds (or lack of bonds) between brothers. In one story a young man becomes his brother's rival for his brother's wife. He works hard to pry her loose from his brother; but she stays put with her husband, despite his abuse, his illegal lifestyle (he robs stores and banks), and his inattentiveness toward their baby. She tells him repeatedly, "You just don't get it," a statement that could be taken ironically if she could look at her life in the right sort of mirror. Another story focuses on a brother who hires a hit man to kill his brother and business partner. (This story was the weakest of the lot.) These Cain and Abel stories are set against the main story in the film--that of a middle-aged man who dropped out of middle-class life when his little girl was two and became a revolutionary. Now he is a homeless man who walks the streets with a cart, followed by his three dogs, and makes money on the side as a hit man. When he learns that his wife died, he begins to shadow his daughter, now an adult, and try to work up the courage to contact her. But all he can manage is a pathetic phone message (to her answering machine) at the end of the film. The fourth story is about a wealthy man who leaves his wife for a younger woman--a famous model. Their lives are changed when the woman is struck while driving her car in city traffic and eventually loses her leg because of the injuries caused by the wreck. Who is the driving the car that strikes her car? The brother mentioned above, the one who sought the love of his sister-in-law.
The director wisely entwines these four stories by shifting the chronology of the events. The film begins with a car chase; eventually that chase leads to an accident (noted above). The rest of the film provides a context for this accident. The film peels away the layers of characters deliberately, without sentimentality. The brother who feels a rival of his brother is revealed as a flawed character; he thinks he can win his sister-in-law's heart by bringing home thousands of dollars of illegal earnings he gleans from dog fights, set up by an entrepreneur who provides venues for the fighters and takes a cut from the dog handlers. Eventually his scheme backfires. His sister-in-law holds onto the image of the perfect marriage when all evidence is otherwise. Her husband lives an illusion of power and control through his robberies; eventually his lifestyle backfires as well. The rich man wins the heart of the beautiful model; but when she is injured in the car accident, her services are no longer needed by the agency. Now her husband is tempted to take on new lovers until a crisis in their relationship brings him up short. The story of this couple was one of the most intriguing sections of the film; but it seemed to end abruptly. One other way the film's structure worked: every one of the main characters had a dog or dogs--and their love for their animals became an essential determiner of how they responded to life crises. One dog was trained to fight other dogs; another dog was a typical spoiled lap dog who finally brought a couple together; the old man's three dogs were his greatest comfort in his lonely existence. The Spanish amores perros means "love is a bitch." That phrase is meant ironically in the context of this film, of course. What you love drives you mad. But another play on word is the reference to a female dog as a "bitch." The love of a dog (or dogs) also makes individuals do wild and crazy things. This film dealt with such truths brutally and forthrightly. After watching it, I was amazed to realize that "no animals were harmed in the making of this movie." (January, 2002)
Angels of the Universe, dir. Fridrik Thor Fridrikkson (Iceland, 2000). Fridrikkson is quite simply one of the great directors working today. His earlier films Children of Nature and Cold Fever were riveting stories that used the unique landscape of Iceland as a dominant backdrop to all of the action. In his most recent film he tells the unflinching story of one young man's degeneration into schizophrenia. This is not a film for the faint of heart. Paul lives at home, is in love with a beautiful young woman, and is an artist. He is glib, lively and full on energy. He entertains his younger siblings like any older brother should. But the first time I saw his artwork in his bedroom I suspected something was wrong. His art works included images of beings trapped in womb-like surroundings. There were monsters in his art; and as he deteriorated, those monsters came to the foreground and demanded to be heard. But his parents, for one, missed all of these signals. The precipitating factor in his breakdown is his breaking off of the relationship with his girlfriend, who is from a higher class. Initially he tries to win her back; but she is not willing to go against her parents' wishes, and she is unafraid of the level of commitment Paul asks for. Now every symptom of his mental illness begins to play itself out: the pacing, the sleepless nights, headaches, bizarre themes in his art, short-tempered outbursts against his parents, excessive drinking, playing his drums loudly, hallucinations, walking the streets. His parents are angry because of his outbursts. They fail to grasp the onset of the disease. Finally, he is brought to a mental hospital at the edge of the sea.
The early scenes of the film moved with a rapid, even frenetic pace, as his breakdown progressed. Now in the mental hospital all is silence and stillness and calm. In fact, boredom is probably a better word to characterize his life in the hospital. There he meets several patients and befriends some of the them. His parents visit, but their interactions with him are ineffectual. A friend visits. He had given him advice on his love life earlier. Now we see him a successful businessman. But his friend comments that life on the inside and life on the outside are the same. Both are mental hospitals. We wonder why this comment from a person who seems to have it all. The rest of the film focuses on the world of these patients (with Paul as our main character). Two scenes stand out. In one, a patient insists on visiting the President of Iceland. This patient believes he should be the president. Although the patient receives a chilly reception from the secretary at the door, the President welcomes him in and the two have a drink in the President's office. What a conversation. What tact on the part of the old man (the President), who handles his unwelcome visitor with sensitivity and humanity. The second scene is even better. Late in the film Paul and three of his friends are allowed to go to a funeral of another patient. The head of the hospital allows them to leave without being accompanied by a warder. He wants to trust them and to help them feel responsible and worthy of that trust. Unfortunately, one of the four leads them to a four-star hotel where they enjoy a magnificent dinner. The scene is one of tranquility, security, normalcy. Again the humanity of these patients comes to the fore.
So how does a film like this end? There is always a formula-and in this case the formula requires that the best friend, the successful businessman, has to die in order to precipitate a crisis of confidence for our main character. The sane man, the one in the outside-world mental hospital cracks first. What will Paul do now? Eventually, he is released from the hospital and moved to a residential facility, where he occupies a cramped cinder-block apartment on the top floor. The last scene of this film is perfectly rendered by the director. Seeing how the scene is done makes one have faith in the power of cinema to reveal what is most distressing, painful, and yet necessary in the human condition (April).
Apocalypse, Now Redux, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (1979, expanded 2001). Within the first 10 minutes of watching this expanded version of the 1979 classic, Apocalypse, Now, I said to myself, "I'm glad I came." I looked around me and saw the auditorium of the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis about half-filled mostly with men in their 40s, 50s (me), and 60s. For many it was a reunion. For some it was a revisiting of a film classic. For everyone it was a compelling filmic experience. In several scenes I was overwhelmed with a kind of cognitive overload. So many things were happening at once within the scene that I almost wanted to laugh or cry or press the rewind button. The more than three hours sped by as if in a dream. The only scene that dragged was part of the French plantation scene near the end of the film.
This film follows the most time-honored narrative tradition in American literature: the journey theme. Like Huck Finn and Jim in Huckleberry Finn the patrol boat carries our characters up the river into Cambodia. Along the way they make stops on the shore and have one sort of experience after another. We know from Eleanor Coppola's book and the documentary based on it (Hearts of Darkness, 1991), that the narrative strategy is to move from the present time into the past with each stop along the way. Finally, we arrive at a kind of pre-historical or pre-conscious time. I was reminded of one of the tenets of Taoism when Kurtz criticized judgment (or discrimination) as the root of all evil in one of his harangues. This film is photographed brilliantly by Vittorio Storaro, who also photographed The Last Emperor (1987) and Tango (1998). This is the best film I have seen all year. I was also reminded of the way that cinematic history has taken us to a place where we can review a film from our teens, or 20s, or 30s perhaps 20 or 25 or 30 years later--and in doing so we see a different film because we are different people. So many critics have said the additional footage in this film was interesting but not as compelling as the 1979 version. But to me the additional footage was warranted. I appreciated especially the expansion of scenes that added women characters and developed further perspectives on the main characters (all of whom were men). One last note: I was reminded of what David Lean told Omar Sharif when he filmed Dr. Zhivago (1965). He told Sharif that everything depended upon his reaction shots because the audience would see the world through Zhivago's reactions to its madness and ambiguity. Likewise, Captain Willard's role is similar to Zhivago's: for most of the film we make sense of the world around him through constant checking of his reactions. Only later in the film does Willard become the actor that Zhivago never became in the Lean film. (September).
Black Hawk Down, dir. Ridley Scott (USA). I went to this film with feelings of trepidation after the Gladiator and Hannibal fiascos. What had happened to the originality and freshness of vision of the Ridley Scott of Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Thelma and Louise (1991)? The opening montage helped quiet my concerns: it showed the effects of starvation and neglect on the Somali people. However, the grittiness of this opening--and other brutally realistic moments in the film--were constantly undermined by a knee-jerk sentimentalism and Chauvinism that distressed me. For example, after the General plots the raid to abduct a Somali warlord, the scene changes to show the troops preparing to move out. The scene is rife with sentimentalized touches that reminded me of sickening-sweet promos for American athletes participating in the Olympic Games. In the meantime, the screenwriters (one of whom--Steve Zaillian, has some great credentials), makes a smart tactical move and creates a main character, the sergeant played by Josh Hartnett, who becomes the audience's guide and helps us enter this Brave New World. I was reminded of David Lean's use of Omar Sharif as the title character in Dr. Zhivago (1965). Lean used Sharif as an observer and reactor to the events of the Russian Revolution. Likewise, Hartnett became "our guy," the one with whom we watched the world disintegrate around us. He was the one soldier who spoke non-stereotypically about the "skinnies"; he was the one who says, "I just want to do it right today"; he is the one who discovers his heroic potential in battle. All of our emotional responses are funneled through this character--and that's a credit to the writing as well as a credit to how the director used that principle to render the story visually.
There is a lot of action throughout the film, and there is a lot of killing in the film. But the one scene we don't see is the one television coverage made most vivid--the scene of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogidishu. Why didn't we see that in this film? Too much for American audiences to stand? As soon as the first helicopter is shot down, the film does settle into a knock-down drag-out fight between the Americans and the Somalis. Over a thousand Somalis were killed by the Americans, and I think we saw 3/4 of those killed in the various scenes. Sometimes I was uncomfortable with the prolonged scenes of American soldiers (almost all of whom were white) shooting down the black-skinned Africans. Ghosts of slavery and racism seemed to hover over those scenes. Several times I felt as if the American soldiers, on the edge of death, would utter, "Oh, the horror! The black horror!" Those feelings were distressing and I suppose unavoidable in the context of our history. Many of the actors playing Somalis were very dark-skinned and muscular; they looked more like American actors playing a riot scene in Los Angeles or New York rather than the smaller and thinner Somalis we have seen on television news coverage.
As soon as the action scenes became pure and unadulterated with sentimentality, suddenly the scene would switch to one that oozed with sentimentality. By the end of the film, I could only conclude one thing: War is the only time men can truly be happy. Then they truly can love other men. Homophobia disappears. The only object to life is to sacrifice one's life for another man. These were the glory and honor scenes. These were the recruiting films for new cannon fodder. But in the context of the film, when scenes of overt sentimentality were laid on the audience, the progress of the film actually stopped. The film worked better when it stayed within the reactions of the main character, someone who was consistent, loving, and accepting. He seldom oozed sentimentality, and his counterpart was the Delta Force leader who was the prime soldier of soldiers in this group of men. Their quiet conversation near the end of the film was affirming and peaceful. When that soldier admits, "I'm better on my own," I thought to myself--"Now there's an honest, unsentimental response." I would have loved to have heard more of that in this film. The last visual is one of the best--we see the plane loaded with coffins from the inside of the plane, from the guts of the beast, rather than from the public viewing area outside of the plane (at, for example, Dover Air Force base). That image is one of the most difficult to contemplate in this film. What it means is hard to encapsulate. Ten million died in WWI, fifty million died in WWII--the dead bodies just keep coming. (January, 2002).
Divided We Fall, dir. Jan Hrebejk (Czech Republic, 2000). I saw this film earlier in the summer, and I was dazzled by its integrity as it relates to characterization and plot. It is NOT another holocaust film; instead, it is a careful character study of the way people adapt to the difficult choices they are forced to make. The film opens with a young Jewish man trying to find someone to help him hide from the Nazis in WW II. The first man he encounters refuses to help him; in fact, he calls out to the authorities so that he will not be punished by the Nazis as a collaborator. Everyone knows that death is the consequence of collaboration. Eventually this young man finds a place to hide. He stays with a couple that hides him in a closet. So what will happen? The young man will fall in love with the wife? Either the man or the wife will be captured by the Nazis and executed for collaborating with the Jews? None of this simple stuff. Instead, we watch their relationships unfold. In the midst of these interactions is the presence of a Nazi collaborator, an amazing character actor, who is in love with the wife and tries to ingratiate himself by plying the husband and wife with gifts. So there are two levels of collaborators here: one against the Nazis and one with the Nazis. And how is one ever to forgive those who collaborate with the Nazis? This is quite simply a beautiful, engaging film, and one where the plot twists make sense and take the narrative to new levels. After viewing a film like this, it is easy to have faith in the persistence of the human spirit to survive and forgive and do good. (September).
Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, dir. George Butler (USA, 2000). You can thank Caroline Alexander for this film. She is the author of a first-rate narrative of the failed 1914 Shackleton expedition (an attempt to cross the Antarctic continent). And for cat lovers, she is the author of Mrs. Chippy's Last Adventure, a wonderfully creative story of the expedition from the cat's point of view. But George Butler has done what Alexander could not do-through a variety of documentary film techniques he has brought the photographs in Alexander's books to life. In her books Alexander used many photographs taken by Frank Hurley. Butler re-used some of these photographs, but he also incorporated much of the film motion-picture footage shot by Hurley on the expedition. Then he added recent film footage of polar ice floes, icebergs, and images of some of the key locales relevant to the story. Into the mix he added the standard interview footage of relatives of some of the principals, and his best informant is an English professor who has a wonderful gift of storytelling. Butler copies the Ken Burns touch of using actors to give voice to the characters' words. He also includes some audio interviews with the principals later in their lives. He keeps reenactment footage to a minimum (thank goodness!), and he uses uninflected images of polar scenes, shots of ice floes breaking up, shots of the polar sky and the endless horizon.
That word, storytelling, is the key to this film. We as viewers are spellbound because it is a compelling story told in compelling ways. Liam Neeson's narration adds the perfect touch because his voice does not get in the way of the story. And what a story! The Endurance is trapped in pack ice for months and moved inexorably toward the north (away from the pole). Then, before the ship is crushed by huge chunks of ice, the men abandon the ship and camp on the ice floes. They continue to drift north. Before the floes break up, Shackleton orders to the men to abandon their encampment and take the boats north to find land. They reach Elephant Island, a tiny speck of land north of the northern tip of Antarctica. In a few weeks Shackleton and several men set off in one of the lifeboats, strengthened to withstand an open ocean voyage, and head 800 miles to the northeast to find South Georgia Island. But Shackleton and two of the men are faced with crossing that rocky snow-covered island-across uncharted terrain-in order to find a whaling station and the hope of rescue. This barest of plots is developed fully in the film. The men his film impacted me personally because I had read Alexander's two books and always been interested in the stories of the great South Pole explorers, like Robert Falcon Scott and Raoul Amundson. This film introduces us to a Twentieth-Century hero, Ernest Shackleton, who was heroic in the midst of a monumentally failed adventure. The film gets at the secrets of leadership, community as it is experienced by men, and the raw lust for adventure that drives so many men. This was one of the most enjoyable film-viewing experiences I had all year. (December).
Ghost World, dir. Terry Zwigoff (USA). It helps to know that Terry Zwigoff directed Crumb (1994), a documentary film about an eccentric comic-book artist, Robert Crumb, whose crude sexually explicit drawings have made him a cult favorite. Crumb is an original, often distasteful character-but in Zwigoff's documentary he is realized as a complex artist who is well acquainted with the depths of his unconscious self. In Ghost World Zwigoff has made a breakthrough film with the punch of American Beauty (1999). He utilizes the talents of Thora Burch, the same young actor who played the teenaged daughter in American Beauty. The film begins with a high school graduation for the ages and two cynical seniors, Enid (Thora Burch) and Rebecca (Stephanie Johannson), high school pals, who are equal parts cynical and vulnerable. The balance of those two terms is essential to the truth and the beauty of this film. I believed their cynicism, and I was convinced of their vulnerability. Case in point: why does the main character always badger and berate the young man who clerks at the grocery store? Because she has a crush on him. See what I mean? Case in point: the logic of their cynicism often drips with irony. At one point one of the two girlfriends says, "He's so clueless a dork he's cool." In other words, people in this world are lousy when it comes to dealing with feelings. More on the vulnerability angle. Enid's character has not been sufficiently loved and nurtured as a child. Her mother died when she was young, and her father is a wimp. She can't stand her future stepmother, and she has created a bedroom that is a shrine to arrested childhood development. But the key here is that we love this character and we want this character to find happiness. Not an easy task in this crazy mixed-up world.
Her girlfriend Rebecca plays the straight woman to the main character's wild streak. She gets a job; she wants to move into an apartment together. She is beginning, slowly but surely, to move into that wacky world of maturity-one step at a time. But Enid is in a funk. She resists getting a job. She spoils for a fight with the Fates or with any of the forces of normalcy in this world. She has ideas about a better way to live. She has principles. She has attitude. Then she meets the dorkiest of dorks, a man in his 40s who is extremely introverted-to the extent that he has no social life, lives with an overweight friend, and has no prospects for changing the tedium of his life. But Seymour is interesting. He loves jazz, he collects records, and he collects all sorts of other Americana. He has a good job-but he works to live and not the other way around. Steve Buscemi plays the character to absolute perfection. He reminded me of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. He was his own man. He realized his imperfections and his obsessions. And yet a part of him wanted more out of life.
This film started slow but soon left me caught up in the dynamic of the relationship between Enid and Seymour. When they were in scenes together the film came alive. Zwigoff adds depth to their performances (and their characters' lives) by crowding the screen with a circus-tent full of eccentrics-including a skinny guy with the worst cinema sunburn of the year. Everywhere you look in the various scenes the screen reveals the originality, vulgarity, idiosyncrasies, and reality of characters that are either on the fringe, or characters that are losers, or characters that are detached from life's little instruction book. These characters are not meant to be endearing in a sentimental way. They are part of the fabric of our lives; look around and you will see them. The last film that showed this depth of layering of background characters was Thelma and Louise (1991).
The more Enid hangs out with Seymour (who is old enough to be her uncle) the more the film begins to explore some dangerous territory. Remember American Beauty? Well, Seymour is no Kevin Spacey and Seymour is no Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita. He is a sensitive middle-aged man who never crosses the line toward sexual abuse. He appreciates Enid's interest in jazz, and he listens to her concerns about the world. They become good friends. But Enid crosses the line when Seymour seems ready to move on to another level of relationship with an adult woman. After I watched this film, I concluded that Enid had met the perfect man for her; but he needed to be about 15-20 years younger than Seymour to make it work. What do you when you have met Mr. Right but the timing is wrong? Again, Zwigoff does not stoop to sentimentality. He deals in some hard truths about human interaction and human vulnerability. The only way out here is for Enid to take stock of her life and not make irretrievable errors. We want her to find a way to become whole and maintain her new identity. One of the best scenes in the film was the scene of Enid crying herself to sleep when she had reached her emotional low point. What a relief it was to have her humanity reaffirmed at that point. Au revoir, cynicism! Welcome, vulnerability. This film stayed with me for days afterwards. I look forward to seeing it again and finding new insights in repeated viewings. (August).
Gosford Park, dir. Robert Altman (UK). Altman's directorial work in the past few years has been a study of maturity of vision. He knows what he wants to accomplish, and he knows how to go about doing so. Here he brings together an ensemble cast and brings alive the English country estate in the early 1930s. The film revisits the Upstairs, Downstairs metaphor-a strict division of the classes is enforced, and everyone knows his or her place in life. The downstairs maids and valets are referred by their masters' last names, as in Mr. Stockbridge (after Lord Stockbridge) and Miss Trentham (after Lady Trentham). The filmworks on three levels. First, the interior of the country estate is realized as a place that allows for specific functions of the landed gentry. Guests are entertained, enjoy sumptious dining, have space for relaxing and chatting and drinking, and are given well-appointed chambers for sleeping. Below stairs the servant's quarters serve the function of food preparation, laundry, sewing, and other tasks of the servants. On the upper floor the servants' quarters are a rabbit warren of narrow stairways and humble lodgings appropriate for the severest of monks. Second, the collection of an all-star cast of actors gives the film an even greater depth of reality. Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northem, Clive Owen, TWO WOMEN and Alan Bates ease into their roles comfortably and professionally. They bring the characters to life-and they are a joy to watch. Third, these actors are given a screenplay worthy of their talents, and that screenplay incorporates plot twists that reflect the unfinished business of characters' pasts. The intersection of their lives is like the coming-together of a picture puzzle. Each piece relates somehow to its adjacent piece. Altman suggests something of the moral decay of the upper class and hints at the durability and survivorship of the lower class. Upon a second viewing I was even more impressed with how the film uncoiled in its climactic moments and made the tragedies of ordinary lives almost unbearable to endure. (January, 2002).
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (dir. Chris Columbus, UK). The key to my experience of this film was the presence of a nine-year-old girl who was sitting to the right of my wife. About halfway through the film I thought about turning around to check out the response of the children and adults in the packed cinema. I noticed her sitting upright and looking wide-eyed at the screen. Her mouth was opened slightly, and she did not blink. She looked like someone who was mesmerized by the actions on that screen. During the last 15 minutes of the film I enjoyed watching her reaction more than the film itself. That young girl did not blink! When Harry's house at Hogwarts wins the annual cup, she sighed happily, aware of the well-earned justice that Harry and his house received. Afterwards, I asked the young girl if she had read all four of the Harry Potter books. Of course, the answer was, "Yes." She loved the books, she liked the film, and now all is well in the world.
What about the film? It does what it is supposed to do. It creates a parallel universe that is user-friendly to children. It respects education and adult authority; but at the same time children are given lots of leeway to explore, to challenge, to act on their curiosity. This world has consequences, but for the most part children are safe. One of the most important lines in the film was when the bad guy tells Harry, "There is no good and there is no evil. There is only power." Right there you have the main attraction for the books and the film: children want the world to be either good or evil. They are perfect little absolutists, and they are supposed to be. The bad guy's negative take on relativism gives relativism a bad name. At least in this world the bad guy is a bad guy--no exceptions to that rule. Another key point is that Harry is an orphan, and we identify with and empathize with his plight. He is marked as much by his orphanhood as he is by the lightning scar on his forehead. Harry is also special; and all children need to feel they are special. No one child is better than another--but each child needs to be affirmed in his or her personhood as having special qualities. Another point is that the three main characters, Harry and his two housemates, are a kind of triumvirate of identity. That is, each represents one aspect of the average special child, the Harry Potter in each of us. There is the inventive, intuitive Harry (but a bit slow on the uptake). There is the girl, bright as a button and yet lacking in some areas. There is the slowest of the three, the boy who is teased because he comes from an average family of wizards. But in the chess game climax, Harry is the slowest of the three, and his male friend shines. So the film is about friendship, loyalty, and caring. But the film is even more about the components of childhood identity, and how those characteristics need to be nurtured and affirmed.
I would never say this is a great film; but it was a refreshing film, and it was faithful to the characters in the original book. Even the greatest films seldom are greater than the books upon which they are based. The weakest part of the film, to me, was the Quidditch match. There the digital effects overwhelmed the human actors. The digital version of the Quidditch stadium was poorly executed. I felt I was looking into the monitor of a video game. Likewise, the poor three-headed dogs were a paltry digital effect. They should have been made from three-dimensional materials, like the shark in Jaws or the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. But other digital effects were satisfactory and in many respects engaging. Seeing this film was a movie event, something that has been too often lacking in American cinema. Having an excellent cast for the adult roles was also a delight. (November)
In the Bedroom, dir. Todd Fields (USA). Watching this film was like attending a funeral and then staying with the characters to attend to their grieving. At the heart of the film there was a loss, the senseless murder of a young man. There was a brief funeral scene, but most of the action takes place after that early plot development. We follow the young man's mother and father as they grieve separately and apart. We see glimpses of the older woman who was his lover and witness the profound depths of her loss. What makes a film like this special? Meaning resides in the cut, and when the cut comes in, viewers attach meaning to that image, often of a human face, reacting to his or her surroundings. This is a remarkably quiet and subtle film. Perhaps it is too quiet and too subtle; I'm sure it will be for the tastes of many viewers. But it works in its own way. The director takes time to create images that have a lasting impression. There is the iconic image of the town's cannery, a reminder of the power of the richest family in town, and a reminder that the evil young man in the film is the son of that cannery owner. There is the image of the metal swing bridge that is turned (to allow boats to entrance and egress to the harbor) by a man who inserts a metal rod into a bushing and then walks round and round turning the gears. Round and round he goes. Then there are the images of the human face, and especially of the three people who are grieving in this film. Sissy Spacek is perfect in the role of the controlling mother. Tom Wilkinson is astounding as the husband, a man who wants to resolve this crisis somehow and realizes how powerless he really is in the face of the subtleties of the legal system. Marissa Tomei is solid as the older woman whose summer love affair with their son leads to tragedy. There's the word for this film-tragedy-because it is all about choices, and the absence of choices, action and the absence of action, and finally an amazing moment when two people strip away the veneer of isolating grief and tell it like is to each other.
Afterwards my wife and I began to debrief our responses to the film. Each of us shared what worked and did not work. Each of us provided insights the other had missed. That's one of the hallmarks of a great film-people need to talk about and share their thoughts. And then there is the ending of this film, one of those "don't you dare give it away endings!" And it worked for me. It resolved something in me and yet I began to see the sacrifice of it on the faces of the principals. (December)
Lantana, dir. Ray Lawrence (Australia). This film took my breath away. I am drawn to films that reveal the complexities of human interaction in the context of intimate relationships: husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, parents and children, young and old. There is nothing like a good story; and there is nothing like being shaken to one's emotional foundations by the vicissitudes of the human drama. In this case, imagine a husband having drifted into a sexual affair because he is losing his grip on emotional stability. Imagine his wife's failed attempts to draw him out. Imagine what their stress does to their two young sons. What if the wife were seeing a psychiatrist on the side, and imagine that this psychiatrist herself was coexisting in a guarded relationship with her own husband based on how each has responded in different ways to the brutal murder of their only child, a young girl, eighteen months earlier. Imagine the fate of those two couples being inextricably bound together because of circumstances. Then widen the net, and bring in the husband of the woman the first man is having an affair with. What if that man, and the man who was having with an affair with his wife, would meet one day in a pub and strike up a conversation. These details only hint at the enormous emotional consequences experienced by these and other characters. This film, based on a play, is an excellent example of how the cinematic experience can complement the theatrical context. Anthony LaPaglia, almost always a secondary character, finally gets a chance at top billing. And he makes this role his own. Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey play the second couple, and each realizes his or her character with great precision, restraint, and credibility. I ached for that couple and the pain they were experiencing. Who is Ray Lawrence, the director? The only film he did before was the 1985 film, Bliss, based on the Peter Carey novel. I remember that film with great fondness. I am astonished that he brings an identically deft touch to this film. Everything about his direction was solid, consistent, and well integrated with the characters and plot. I kept thinking, "What do we reveal about ourselves to the people we love? And what do we keep secret from the people we love?" In both cases there can be awful consequences to a relationship. In fact, relationships can be broken upon the wheel of sharing or not sharing. Is it a matter of trusting or not trusting? Is it a matter of our need for space, or for individuation, even in the face of heartfelt intimacy? A film like this gets at the core of relationships and exposes some uncomfortable truths. (January, 2002).
Best films of 2001 M-Z