Picks: Recommended Films
Napoleon Dynamite. Dir. Jared Hess. This film about teenaged angst gets it right. The nerd is truly nerdy, and nothing magically happens to make him cool. Nerds attract nerds, just as the cool kids attract cool kids. Napoleon is a tall, gangly, unattractive, and unappealing kid. His favorite "happy" word is sweet! He whines and swears and is the butt of jokes and physical taunting. But he never attacks the kids that attack him. Of course, this is an independent film, one that lacks the big budget for better lighting and better actors. But I give the director credit for the truths he makes evident: rural poverty and the impact of the absence of parents, the tyranny of relatives who take advantage of family circumstances, the tyranny of older brothers, the loneliness of nerdy life, the sadness of adults who are still dreaming futile dreams, the sadness of the schemes they hatch to realize their dreams, the disability of gaps in social skills, the meanness of teenagers toward other teens, the closet-full of T-shirts-all of which communicate bold and optimistic images no one can live up to, and the shallowness of cool kids. The craftsmanship of the director is evident in his shot selection, especially in the way he sets the shot and then lets the action unfold within it. He uses long shots effectively in such cases. There are some weak links, such as the clichéd portrait of the vain uncle, the plot about finding a date for the big dance, and the dorky older brother's sudden realization of happiness at the end of the film. What lasts, I think, is the climactic scene where Napoleon dances alone on the stage in front of the high school assembly and wins everyone over by his single-minded focus on the fusion of sound and movement. The film was true, and it has a great closing scene between Napoleon and the girl that is a carbon copy of his shyness and low self-esteem. The scene results when Napoleon asks her, "Wanna play me?" and we realize that he intends absolutely no double meaning about it.
Saved. Dir. Brian Dannelly. I enjoyed this film because it portrayed its characters with consistency and with accuracy. The Christian girls took everything literally. Their world was finished. No more questions needed. All answers were in and all answers were vetted by authority figures. Their absolutism was in stark contrast to the intriguing relativism of the young man in the wheelchair, a new high school student (Jewish girl), and one of the Christian girls that begins to have second thoughts about the perfect world she has imagined living in. This young woman, May, tries hard to be accepted by the favored cute Christian girls in school. She wants to join their clique. But early in the film May, trying to be a good Christian, reacts to her boyfriend’s news that he is gay by having sex with him—to prove that he is straight. Of course, she gets pregnant. What happens to the boy? He is sent to a “hospital”—make that a rehabilitation clinic aimed at straightening out his gayness. Pastor Skip is introduced: he is the typical charismatic Christian, a cheerleader for Christ, simplistic and filled with certitude. Meanwhile, May’s mother struggles emotionally to find happiness in her own life—and she finds herself embroiled in a romantic relationship with the married Pastor Skip. Now all of these plot strands could have been focused in ways that would have heightened the ironies and deepened the tragic elements in such narrow-minded attitudes. But the film pulls back from that precipice and chooses the satiric rather than tragic slant on these stories. May is a refreshing character. She faces real-world problems with determination. Meanwhile, the popular Christian clique of girls, led by their leader Hillary (pompous, self-righteous, naïve, and dangerous) tries to act on their beliefs and resolve May’s problems. Satire ensues. In the mayhem (no pun intended) Hilary has an emotional meltdown, Pastor Skip is trapped in his Jesus guilt, May’s Mom grows up, the disabled young man finds live with the young Jewish woman, and everything is settled at the prom. The problem here is that Hilary is more a spoiled girl (Valley Girl) than a programmed, mean-spirited conservative Christian. The satire touches on, but does not focus on the perils of absolutism and fundamentalism. Still, the prom scene prompts some great lines: “It’s all a gray area,” says one character. But Pastor Skip responds, “The Bible is black and white. There is no moral ambiguity about this.” May says, “No one fits in 100% of the time.” At least the film trafficked with ideas. I give it credit for holding my interest and giving me young characters I could believe.
Secret Window. Dir. David Koepp. Another scary story from Stephen King. This is a good-looking film with a magnificent performance by Johnny Depp. This man not only creates a character; he inhabits the character. His presence in the film raises my rating from average fare to recommended—with reservations. In films like this one viewers are completely at sea; they have no idea of what is really happening to the main character. We are given some unusual plot points. Early in the film a mysterious strangers shows up and accuses a writer of stealing one of his stories. John Turturro does his typically able work as a schizoid character. Then things begin to go wrong. Someone kills the writer’s dog. Someone burns down his wife’s home. The writer finds help—even bringing in a private detective he worked with once years ago when an obsessed fan showed up and made his life difficult. But the more the writer, Mort Rainey, tries to control his life, the more his life begins to unravel. I give King credit for the characterization of a writer that is losing his way. But sooner or later the basic plot questions have to be resolved, and when they are they are strangely unsatisfying. Everything makes sense, of course, especially when madness is the subject. In the climactic scene there is a curious homage to “REDRUM” from King’s earlier novel The Shining. When the dust settles, and the macabre has been portrayed, all I remember is that mesmerizing performance by Johnny Depp—with his nervous tics and curious gestures all contributing to his fierce reality. I will also remember that threadbare bathrobe he wore, and I will remember the intriguing tracking shot by the director during the credits, with the camera swooping through the secret upstairs window, past the writer’s desk, over the second-floor railing, and then tracking in for a close-up of Depp’s character, curled in the fetal position on a sofa.
The Story of the Weeping Camel. Dir. Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni. (Germany Mongolia, 2003). The elemental and authentic nature of this film dominates. We observe the dynamics of Mongolian family life, see what life is like inside a yurt (round dwelling), witness the difficult birth of a camel, notice how a child is tied with a leash in order to be safe while her mother is occupied doing chores, watch a family eat a simple meal of soup, notice the active elders (part of the family), the way children are kept busy with chores and games or are otherwise quiet and well-behaved, compare the roles of gender in this society, and anticipate (with dread) the impending social and cultural changes that will occur in this society by the onrush of the outside world (dominated by urban life, motorcycles (mobility), and satellite television—kids hooked on cartoons). The plot point that drives the story reminded me of a Disney film. When a new camel is born, the mother abandons her. The baby wants to nurse, but the mother walks away when the baby closes in on her. What is the family to do? When all else fails, one sends for a violinist from the city to come and perform the weeping camel ceremony. The film celebrates the authenticity and significance of time-honored rituals; and yet we feel as if we are watching that cultural value becoming an artifact that will only be remembered in the stories told by old people years from now. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the film. It was told simply and intelligently, and when the climax came I was moved by the simple harmony of the moment. The film works for adults as well as children. I could imagine families watching the film and then talking about their responses to the various characters—the parents, the children, and—of course, the camels.
Twilight Samurai. Dir. Yoji Yamada. (Japan, 2002). Any preconceptions I had of what the life of a samurai would be were exploded after watching this film. Instead of a life of daring deeds, the life of this samurai, Seibei, was boring. The film emphasizes the family life of a widowed samurai with two children. He is devoted to them, but his robes are threadbare and there are holes in his socks. His demented mother lives with them, and it is obvious that he is barely able to make ends meet. In one scene he is humiliated when a high-ranking official comes to examine the supplies provided to these “warriors,” and notices Seibei’s torn sleeve. He is looked down upon by his peers and by his supervisor; he just is not one of the “boys.” One of the joys of the film was the acting of the two daughters. They reminded me of the children in In America. Then comes the major plot point. Seibei’s friend’s sister Tomoe is married to a brute. Soon she becomes available because of a divorce arranged by her family. Of course, she is his future love—a candidate for a second wife. When she visits his family, she brings life to this stale dwelling. As I watched the film I thought of Clint Eastwood’s characters in old age—old and grizzled, but still tough. This older man is a gentle warrior, competent and yet humble. He is more sensitive than aggressive. He has been changed by his widowhood and softened by his lovely children. Then why not marry Tomoe? Issues of class surface. We learn that Seibei married beneath himself the first time—and his wife never was reconciled to this difference in class. If he married Tomoe, now he would be marrying “up” in class. He cannot conceive of that happening. So we have characters trapped by social rules and expectations. When Seibei refuse to consider marrying Tomoe, she stops coming to his house and the light and gaiety goes out in that household. Now comes another plot point: Seibei is ordered by his clan leader to kill a man who has refused to commit suicide honorably. Earlier in the film we saw him engage in a fight—which lasted seconds rather than minutes. We know he is a brilliant samurai warrior; and yet he has no interest in carrying out this order. But he is trapped. He will make more money if he fulfills this order. Thus, he will be better able to care for the children. If he does not go, then he will be killed. His response, finally, is “I obey.” You know that Tomoe will have to come into his life again, and when she does there will be such restrained intimacy that it will be painful to watch. Will he reveal his true feelings to her? Will she reciprocate? Or will their love be stymied again because of the choices they are compelled to make, based upon the strict codes of behavior they are required to obey? I can promise you a swordfight that is better than anything in Tarantino’s Kill Bill—because it will be a fight whose action emanates from three-dimensional characters we come to know first hand. I was disappointed with the ending scene, because it told rather than showed the truths of characters’ lives. Still, I remember the film fondly because it showed me a particular character in a specific time and place and made me believe in that character’s values and desires—even as his hopes were crushed by the mean-spirited rules of his world.