Picks: Best Films
The Ninth Day. Dir. Volker Schlondorf. (Germany, Luxembourg, 2004) I was hooked by this film when I realized what the title meant. At first, the film looked like so many other Holocaust films. We are dropped into Dachau concentration camp and watch a cellblock of priests, from various European countries, performing hard labor and trying to maintain their religious faith in the context of the madness of the death camp. The climax of these scenes is a cruel crucifixion of sorts performed by the Nazis on one of the priests. The others watch, transfixed, from the windows of their cellblock. Then one of the priests, Rev. Kremer, a Roman Catholic priest from Luxembourg City, is released—given an eight-day leave, and sent home to his family. At the appearance of the first graphic, which read, “The First Day,” I was captured by this film. I knew that the Nazis wanted something from this priest, and I knew that on the ninth day all would be revealed. The film was staged much like a theatrical performance. Conversations between Kremer and his antagonist, the Nazi Gebhardt, dominated. Even on the first day we know that although his reunion with his family is warm and loving, Kremer will have to suffer for it. And the first suffering comes when he learns that his beloved mother died while he was in Dachau.
The relationship between Kremer and Gebhardt is complex and fascinating. Each of these men has an extraordinary secret, and each learns the other’s secret before the film ends. Gebhardt has also been in a concentration in the East, in Poland, I presume. Soon we learn that each of the men is trapped, and for each of the men there will be no way out of their entrapment. Gebhardt wants something from Kremer. He wants him to persuade the Bishop of Luxembourg to write a letter affirming the Nazis as partners of the Holy Catholic Church and the Vatican—an impossible task, of course. But we know that if Gebhardt fails in his mission, he will be relegated to a low-level administrator in a concentration camp in the East, and that will be a thankless task, a kind of exile.
Then there are tender moments between Kremer and his sister. In one scene she washes his swollen and bloody feet (reminiscent of the woman washing Jesus’ feet in the New Testament). Kremer visits the cemetery on the second day to see his mother’s grave. We see Kremer alone in several scenes—and we understand the depth of his sense of ministry. This film is about the fallibility of all men and women; but it is also about the promise of redemption. Of course, there are threats to Kremer. If he leaves the country, the Nazis will kill every one of the priests at Dachau, and they will certainly murder the rest of his family in Luxembourg. But if he capitulates, then he will be lost in the wilderness of his spirit. The conversations between Kremer and Gebhardt are the core of the meaning in this film. We get insights into how the Nazis corrupted otherwise straightforward and meaningful moral concepts. Gebhardt cannot see that he has compromised his religious values (he, too, is Roman Catholic) in order to serve the Third Reich. The best example of Gebhardt’s self-delusion is that he considers Judas was more pious than Jesus. “Without Judas there is no Christianity,” he offers. On the third day Kremer’s secret is revealed—via a flashback—and on the fifth day he writes down the story of his secret, and on the sixth day his sister reads it, and they talk about what that secret means. On that sixth day Gebhardt explodes at Kremer because Kremer has not delivered what the Nazis want from him. So Gebhardt orders Kremer to write a personal attack on the Bishop so that the Nazis can use that in their campaign. On that sixth day Gebhardt shares his secret with Kremer—and yet the stand-off remains. On the seventh day Kremer sees the Bishop at last. He tells him, “Where I come from (Dachau), there is no God.” On the eighth day, Kremer folds a piece of paper and inserts it into an envelope—and you know that by the end of that day he will deliver the paper to Gebhardt and the climax will be reached. And on the ninth day, you will not be surprised to find out where Kremer ends up. And in that ending there will be a new beginning; and despite his fallibility as a human being, you will see redemption at the end of the ninth day. By the way, the graphic at the end of the film adds a powerful coda to the film.
Nobody Knows. Dir. Kore-eda Hirokazu. I discovered the genius of this director with his epic After Life (1998), which I have used in some of my introductory film classes. This film has a narrower framework—the story of one Japanese family and the tragedy that occurs in their lives. The first scene begins with a mother and her 12-year-old son standing on the doorway of an apartment building. They and introduce themselves to the landlord. The mother says that the father is working overseas. They move in, and they make sure that the movers do not lift two of the larger suitcases. They carry the suitcases upstairs, and two small children, a boy and a girl (Yuki) clamber out of them. Later, the family heads downtown, and there they find the fourth child, 10-year-old Kyoko, waiting for them. There you have the family of four. And because the mother appears with only one child—probably to qualify for the apartment—she must not reveal that she has another three children. That means that only she and her older son can leave the apartment. The other children are forced to stay in the apartment and while their time away reading or playing. They have to keep out of sight. The mother is actually the fifth child. She almost always gets down on the floor with the children, and she always brings presents when she returns. That’s the problem for this family. Her returns are preceded by her departures. Twice in the film she leaves and returns. Bu the third time she leaves and does not return. There’s the tragedy of this film. The mother is a dysfunctional adult, and she has never matured beyond an egocentric teenager’s point of view. In one scene, she tells her son and confidante, Akira, “Am I not allowed to be happy?” Strange thing to say when she has forfeited her role as mother by being irresponsible and seeking only self-gratification. Akira is the main character of the film, and he is shown in the first scene of the film, wearing a dirty T-shirt, and sitting on a train. He looks numb and defeated. The corner of a large pink suitcase can be seen on the edge of the frame. Film critic’s rule of thumb: If you can’t figure out what the first scene means—and it appears out of order in the chronology of the narrative—then assume you will see that scene again at the end of the film.
Akira is compelled to become an adult at the age of 12. He shops, cooks, keeps the finances, and generally is the head of the family. But asking a 12-year-old to take on those roles is the definition of abuse. But somehow he figures out how to keep the family afloat. He even visits his father and a former boyfriend of his mother’s, probably the father of Yuki. Eventually, after the mother’s third departure, the lives of the children begin to spiral downward. Money becomes tight, and when Christmas comes, and Mother does not return, Akira does the best he can to play the role of Santa. In a later scene, on Yuki’s birthday, Akira does the unthinkable: he takes his sister out of the apartment and he takes her for a tour of the city. They have a lovely time, and she is mesmerized by the elevated train that winds above them. He tells her that the train goes to the airport; someday he will take her for a ride on that train. Afterwards, the pressure of Akira’s role increases, and suddenly he finds two or three boys to play with. They spend the day together, doing normal boy things, having a great time, and Akira even invites them to visit his apartment. But it obvious they do not really care for him; and later they dump him. They complain about the odor in the apartment. As time goes on more and more garbage accumulates in the apartment. Akira makes two personal contacts during this period of abandonment. He befriends a store clerk, an older girl who saves him from a shoplifting charge earlier in the film. She is kind to him, and yet when she suggests he contact child welfare, he refuses to do so because of an earlier bad experience (was there a suggestion to separate some of the children?). He also befriends a secretive young girl, about his age; both seem to understand the desperation in the life of the other.
Despite the ongoing feeling of desperation and impending doom, there are happy moments in the film. Akira begins to sneak the children out of the apartment during the day. When their water and electricity is turned off, they fetch water from a park, and they even do their laundry there. No one bothers them. They find a plant growing out of a crack in the concrete (a metaphor for this family?) and they pluck the seeds and plant them and have a garden on their tiny balcony. Akira begins to get leftover food from restaurants. At Christmas, Akira announced that he would have loved to get a baseball glove. Late in the film, he is shown hanging around the school ground (wishing he could go to school?), and a baseball coach spots him and calls him over because he needs a ninth player. Suddenly Akira is playing in the outfield and he is wearing a baseball glove and he has never been a happier boy. He is a boy now, and he plays hard and love the game and excels. You know what happens next. We know that the world cannot bear too much happiness. At the
Off the Map. Dir. Campbell Scott. (2003). Here’s the thing. It’s not the content of the story that’s primary. It’s all in the telling of the story. So what you have here is a film told through the eyes of a girl. Her parents live off the map—that is, they live in a valley in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, somewhere back in the Nixon era. They are latter-day hippies, if you will. Mom likes to garden au naturel. And you get the impression that Dad is a wonderful resourceful man that can handle living apart from the daily rush of life. But there’s only one problem. He is suffering from major depression, and he has been that way for several months. In an early scene the girl, Bo, has a brief flashback of a time when Dad was that resourceful and vital and loving and humorous father that taught her the values of life. But that man has been snuffed out by depression. So there you have it. Now add a first scene that begins with adult Bo going through some of her childhood treasures—and then you know the rest of the film is from her point of view and may or may not end with the frame technique rounding it off. That’s enough for a story, right? But then you add one element to the story that makes all the difference. You add a mild-mannered accountant-type, a fellow that works for the local IRS office, who is sent out to this middle of nowhere to audit the tax returns of this unconventional family. Then you really have a story. Usually if the story is told from one person’s point of view let’s say the little girl in To Kill a Mockingbird, then that one person’s transformation (in this case—growing up) is enough to make your point. But in Off the Map we get a bonus—two people are transformed. And that—again—makes all the difference. Before the young man arrives everyone in the family, including a best friend (whose friendship seems based more on entropy than anything else) all focus on the major depression the father suffers. We need to see these scenes, as slow-moving as they are, because the person suffering depression is akin to the alcoholic family member. He is the 500-pound gorilla, and everyone in the family is watching carefully to get out of his way. In other words, this family is stuck, and they are making no headway against the father’s disease. The father is dead set against taking any medications, and he certainly won’t tell his problems to a doctor. Then the young man appears, like a deus ex machine, and the young girl is relieved, even delighted. Now the family can turn outward rather than inward—and there is hope. So the young man arrives, he is struck with a virus and disabled for several days, and when he awakens, he begins the process of being changed by the aura of the New Mexico landscape and the aura of Bo’s mother, played beautifully by Joan Allen. In The Upside of Anger she was miscast as a ditzy suburban mother character with three young girls. But Joan Allen is best when cast as an outsider character, someone that does not fit into a conventional mileu (as she was in The Ice Storm). Her beauty is inward rather than merely physical. She exudes self-confidence in every word and action. The only thing that seems to be defeating her is her husband’s depression. So the story unfolds with the young accountant-type, naturally, falling head over hills in love with this strange exotic woman. And stranger than fiction, the young man begins to paint with a set of paints brought to the house by the old friend—as a way of helping the father out of his depression. And the young man paints, and paints, and paints. And he settles in for almost a year with this family. And then a mirage appears in the desert—you see it on the trailers for the film. A yacht suddenly appears one day, and it appears to be sailing on the desert rather than on the sea—as it is pulled on its trailer by a large truck. But what you don’t see in the trailers is the follow-through of this bizarre and mysterious image. The mirage is more than a miracle; it is a gift of love—even though the source of that giving is naïve and unaware of the consequences of such a purchase. And it breaks the father’s gloom, and before long he breaks free of his depression and becomes the same old father that Bo loved to play with for most of her life. And there is one shot in this film that I will never forget as a film viewer. A man stands before the magical, transformative New Mexico landscape one afternoon, and gazes outward at the hills, that roll on in deepening shades of blue and purple, like roiling waves of the sea all the way to the horizon. And he stands there, in one dissolve after another, until we see he has been rooted to the spot for hours, until the sun sets, and all of the colors of the foothills and mountains deepen to richer shades, and then after sunset the colors darken beyond the purples to various shades of gray. And still he stands there, as if he were a statue planted on the valley floor. I will never forget the impact of that shot—and the way it reveals how a filmmaker’s mind works. He knows he has to show you something using visual means. He really got this one right. There’s more to write about, more to say, but you should see the film yourself and have the pleasure of those ending scenes and understand the fullness of both transformations.
Paradise Now. Dir. Hany Abu-Assad. ( France). This film tells the story of two Palestinian friends who are working as mechanics and decide to become suicide bombers. The film does not waste much time getting to the drama. In an early scene one of the bombers makes his prepared statement on video. Said listens as Khaled makes his statement. We can see in his reaction shots that he is uncertain about his decision. We did have an early scene showing Said with a potential love interest. Oddly enough, the videographer tells Khaled he has to read his statement again. The camera was not working right. So here we go again. We wonder what it means that Khaled has to read the statement twice—what does that reveal about his commitment to the cause? Later, we realize that perhaps he lacked the commitment he was hiding with his bravado. Then comes the ritual cleansings, the communion dinner. Then the political leader shows up and says all the right things. A concern creeps in. Are these alienated young men simply pawns in the hands of the political operatives who are waging war against Israel? Note well: the young men’s belts holding the explosives cannot be removed by the young men; any tampering will lead to an explosion. In effect, they become Kamikaze pilots—heading for a one-way mission. The instructions never seem to end. The idea planted in their minds: you are in control. The reality: the political operatives are in control. When in doubt, “Just leave it to God.” Said asks his friend, “Are we doing the right thing?” Well, they set off to the border and the mission goes bad. They are almost captured by the Israelis. Khaled returns, but Said does not return. In not returning, he is declared a threat to the insurgency. Perhaps he will tell the Israelis of the operation. Whatever the case, he is expendable. He does not really matter. He is lost ordnance. Now what are some of the keys of a great film? You have to see the main character in scenes where he is alone. You need to understand a character by watching him at his most authentic—when he is by himself—and thus not acting in a way to please someone else or acting in a way to deceive someone else. And Said gets the scenes where he is alone. Khaled did not get them. So Said is our main character. Another tidbit we learn is that collaborator videos sell for the same as martyr videos in the markets. In other words, the missions of the suicide bombers have no more value in the market than the stories about Palestinians who collaborated with the Israelis. Then what is the value of the suicide bomber? Then we learn that Said’s father was a collaborator. He was shot by the Palestinians, and his family was shunned. All this when Said was ten. And add to this that Said’s love interest is a woman whose father was a famous martyr—someone who died at the hands of the Israelis fighting for the Palestinian cause. Oh, yes—blood is thicker than water. And as much as we would like to see Said’s love for this woman resolve his situation, we have to yield to a larger reality. Now let me ask again, what makes a great film? One answer is that what you were set up to expect, as you evaluated characters, will be reversed by the end of the film. What will precipitate this reversal? You have to figure out what really motivates a human being? Will a young man blow himself up because he believes in the honor and justice of the Palestinian cause? Or will there be a deeper reason that motivates him—uniquely motivates him to commit that action? And then you watch for the scene of a character alone—and this time you say to yourself, now I see that character in a different light, and I know that character has changed. Add to all of this a great scene where a slow tracking shot is used to draw us into the intensity of a character’s dialogue, and then add to that a great ending scene where you watch a character in the act of deciding something so frightful, so unimaginable, that you hold your breath as the audience holds its collective breath—and then the screen goes white, and you are left with the question ringing in your ears that only you can answer for yourself. That’s what makes a great film.
Saraband. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. ( Sweden, 2003). In many respects, a film by a master like Ingmar Bergman is in a different league when compared to the work of contemporary filmmakers. How to rank it among the other films I have seen this year? The simple answer, for me, is to relate to my emotional response to the film as I watched it. For me, watching the film was a simple pleasure. Bergman’s work reminded me that less is more. The simple touches resonate more than typical special effects, a pounding musical score, and an over-reliance on violence and mayhem. Bergman’s work has always been about the interior mayhem we suffer through human relationships. As I watched this film, I realized how much emotional and psychological pain lies within characters. It is their burden, the crosses they bear. And yet for some there is little realization, on their part, of how much pain they inflict upon others. In other words, no matter what the outward manifestations may be, human beings live their lives privately and interiorly. In some respects we cannot know what people are made of, what people really are, because they cannot reveal their essence to us—either in person, or in the case of Bergman’s cinema, on camera. So he begins his film with Marrianne (Liv Ullman), the woman who divorced Johan many years ago (the subject of Bergman’s 1973 film, Scenes from a Marriage—and in that film both Ullman and Josephson starred as husband and wife), sitting at a table of photographs and talking directly to the camera about her decision to suddenly visit Johan in his remote cabin in the mountains. She is not sure herself why she is making that visit—or is it a pilgrimage of sorts. After all, not far from the cabin is a smaller cabin where Karin and Johan made love many times when they visited that area. Suddenly she is at the door of his cabin. She walks through the house, and then she comes out to the back porch, where Johan sleeps. At that moment I realized I was watching a film about old people—the man’s hand shakes; he finds it difficult to stand up from a seated position; these two people had a life together, once, and now they are at this last stage of life. Finally, he stands, and they embrace, and it is evident that she loves it. She is 63. He is in his 80s. Does she think this visit will spark a new romance? Why would she think that? We have little to go on when it comes to her motives. Answers lie in her face, as revealed in countless reaction shots through the film. They hold hands; and she makes a point of it. His response—he withdraws his hand and the visit is over. What do we learn here? How do we feel about this man so far? Now I confess that I did not see Scenes from a Marriage, but I think that may have been to my advantage—coming into this cold. Viewers form opinions about characters. We either like them or we don’t. As the film progressed, what became clearest to me is that I did not like Johan. The first reason is that he has a lot of money (from another marriage). He uses that money like a weapon. He dislikes intensely his son Henrik, who lives in the small cabin nearby. Henrik is not the tough-minded son he would have liked. So he abuses his son emotionally, and takes pleasure in that abuse. Now Henrik’s wife died from cancer two years ago, and Henrik is far from getting over the grief of that loss. The picture of Henrik’s wife becomes an icon in this film. Eventually, we learn that this woman meant as much to Johan as she did to Henrik. But what we learn is that Johan truly loved this woman, perhaps unlike his affection for any other woman in his life (certainly including Karin). He has never gotten over the death of this woman. Let me put my feelings this way: this old man is a reprobate, he is incapable of rehabilitation, and he is an inveterate conniver and manipulator of others.
The major plot line in the film is really the relationship between Henrik and his talented and beautiful daughter Karin. Henrik, writing a critique of Bach’s cello suites, has been his daughter’s teacher for some time now, and they live together in the small cabin. Early in the film Karin comes by her grandfather’s house and finds Marianne there, preparing some food. The young woman pours her heart out and complains that her father does not understand her. In a flashback, we see the outcome of their argument—a horrible physical struggle (which we learn later is really an analogue to their “at least metaphorically” incestuous relationship. And I mean this physical struggle is intense. Afterwards, Karin runs through the woods like a frightened animal. Alone in the woods, the girl screams what has to be a primal scream. She is trapped and she knows she is trapped. As the young girl tells her story, the reaction shots of Marianne’s face speak volumes. Is she remembering her own failed relationship with Johan? She recounts that she was married 16 years to Johan, and then he fell in love with another woman. She remarried, but her second husband left her. So she moved back in with Johan again for a few years. But he could not stop being unfaithful to her. Karin hears all of this as if hearing stories about another person—a stranger—certainly not her grandfather. Oh, how the young think nothing has ever happened of consequence to the old. But how could they know, when their forming egos require all of their personal attention. In a conversation like this one, I am reminded of how much intimacy can flow back and forth between two human beings. How much these two women, from different generations, share with each other. I am impressed at once with Bergman’s writing, as well as with his subtle filmmaking. Examples: When do you decide to track in on a character, thus changing the shot from wide to close? When do you decide to move the camera in a panning shot, from left to right, or from up to down? Camera movement is meant to reveal metaphoric truths. Bergman shows a sure hand with technique. Simple, but eloquent.
In the next scene Bergman uses what I call The Graduate shot. In Mike Nichols’ 1967 film Ann Bancroft lies on one side of the bed, and is turned to face the camera. Behind her, facing in the same direction, is Ben, her neighbor’s son. The point of this shot is that the character behind can never see the face of the character in front. But viewers can. Bergman uses this shot in an extraordinary scene of Henrik and his daughter lying in bed together. Now I imagine that this is the only bedroom in this small cabin. But I was shocked to see the parent in bed with the daughter because of the incest theme it provokes. And Henrik, lying behind his daughter, is the one who is metaphorically in the dark. The camera reveals her face’s expression as her father talks about his wife, Anna, and the life they had together. Again, there is so much intimacy in this scene that all of the viewers in the audience strained to focus their attention on this father-daughter interaction. (I cannot recall, by the way, when I have been in the presence of a quieter audience.) The things he says to her in this scene. In effect, he is relating to her exactly in the way he once related to his wife. I can appreciate how much this sharing of intimacy meant to the father, but I still felt awkward and uncomfortable about his fixation upon his wife—and his transference of that fixation upon his daughter.
Bergman divides the film according to a series of acts, each of which begins with a graphic giving the title of the next section. In the next scene intimacy is replaced by hostility (or is there really much difference between the two), when Henrik visits Johan to ask him for money to purchase a better cello for Karin as well as money for future lessons. Henrik’s dream is for Karin to play cello in a famous orchestra. In effect, Johan dismisses Henrik’s existence. He cares nothing for his son. It may appear that all he cares about is Karin. But we learn later that is not exactly the truth either. In the next section Marianne visits a nearby chapel, and she hears Henrik rehearsing a piece by Bach. He speaks to her about his love for his wife Anna. Now he admits, “I’ve become disabled. Karin is all that gives life meaning.” A note about the music in the film. All of the music is performed on a cello, and later in the film I realized that all of the cello music is a reference to a particular section of one of Bach’s solo cello suites—and in one of the great moments of the film that is exactly the music that Karin performs for her father after a climactic scene. I was reminded of the effective use of cello music in Mike Leigh’s films, especially in Secrets & Lies (1996). In the next scene Karin visits her grandfather, and he makes her an offer he thinks she cannot refuse. He has arranged (or should I say manipulated) to have the conductor of the St. Petersburg orchestra become her tutor. But she will have to leave home to study abroad. He will even throw in a new cello. Now what will Karin do?
In the next segment, Karin visits Marianne, who has stayed on much longer than she had expected to. Karin found a letter her mother wrote to Henrik a week before she died. Her mother pleaded with Henrik to let Karin go. But what will Karin do? “If I abandon Henrik, he’ll die,” she admits. Marianne’s insight into this plot is simple. “This letter is what love is.” She realizes that Anna saw, she understood. She knew that Henrik had to let go of his obsession. How is Karin going to get out of her entrapment. In the next scene her father asks her to play a duet. She will have to play the most difficult part of the Bach passage. She is afraid she is not capable of doing so. But they play together, and it is beautiful. And then her father leans over and kisses her right on the mouth, just as he would have kissed his wife. Karin pulls away, just as if she had been bitten by a snake. Have they been having sex? Has the incest moved from metaphor to reality? Whatever the case, Karin now makes her decision—and it is a climactic moment we have seen in other films, where the character caught in the middle between two powerful forces (in this case, father and grandfather) strikes out for a third way—her own way—to resolve her entrapment. Although this is a conventional resolution, still it is powerful dramatically. Then her father makes one more request. Would she play Bach’s fifth Saraband in the cello solo? She plays, and he listens, and it is a mesmerizing moment. The camera tracks in on Henrik. We wonder, “Will he survive when his daughter leaves him?”
Later, Marianne receives a call from Karin, who tells her that her father did try to commit suicide. When she tells Johan this information, his response is disgusting. “It’s incomprehensible that Henrik was given the chance of loving Anna.” The only way I can understand this is to think that Johan would have preferred the chance to love Anna himself. It must have been the great disappointment of his life that he could not conquer her—or, that if he had a sexual relationship with him, that she would not give up Henrik for him. As he talks, the camera is on Marianne, and I felt that her face was communicating—finally—that she had given up now on any hope of ever regenerating her love with Johan. It was over. In a last scene in the narrative, Johan suffers an extraordinary emotional crisis. He comes to Marianne’s room in the middle of the night. He asks to lie down with her. He takes off his night shirt, and we see a naked 80-year-old man standing in the doorway of her room. She gets out of bed and takes off her nightgown, but her body is shown in silhouette only. They lie together in the bed. He asks her why she came. She tells him she is leaving in October. Then the last scene: Marrianne sits at the table littered with photographs. She holds up the photograph of Anna. She looks directly into the camera and says, “Anna’s love.” Then she tells a story about a connection she made to her mentally disabled daughter—a last story of hopefulness and connection and perhaps grace. And we are done.
Syriana. Dir. Stephen Gaghan. George Clooney is becoming an American treasure. He acts, he directs, and whatever he does he does well. The early climactic scene of this film, where Clooney, playing the CIA agent, has a close call in Beirut after selling two stinger missiles, was tense and riveting, and it reminded me of some of the qualities of Traffic (2000), which had a similar ensemble cast. I was impressed with this film, but after I watched it I realized that there are two kinds of films I am impressed by—and one is the ensemble-type of approach (with many story lines—and no way to develop a character fully) and the character-driven film (like Brokeback Mountain or Million Dollar Baby), where you follow the story of a few characters and really get a sense of insight and perspective on the inner workings of the human mind. I confess that I appreciate the latter more than the former. But as an example of the former, Syriana stands out. George Clooney constructs an amazing character here. His CIA agent is a throwback to the characters of the 1970s—a man of honor mixed-up with a man of ego. He is out of league, just as he is out of favor with the powers that be. He is close to being a has-been, someone who is washed up after failing to curry favor as he needed to do in his many operations. He is a bit of a rogue—that is, someone who follows his nose and takes an unflinching stand on right vs. wrong. Now he is expendable.
There are numerous plot lines here: the young American financial analyst who is overwhelmed by his sudden access to power; the U.S. attorney who wants to do the right thing but finds out that he is merely a pawn in a larger and more complicated system of justice; the two sons of an ailing Emir—one a vicious killer and opportunist, and the other a man of high ideals and political savvy who is doomed by his sense of justice and fairness; the young Pakistani who is easy prey for the mullahs bent on grooming him as another terrorist; the shadowy power broker (played magnificently by Christopher Plummer) who controls politicians and oil men; the CIA agents tired of listening to George Clooney’s simplistic calls for justice. I could not help but think of the classic film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton playing the George Clooney role. In both films good men are betrayed by governments that have their own agendas. And if an individual gets in the way of that agenda, then that individual is expendable. I will never forget the moment when Burton’s character, having climbed atop a wall between East and West Germany, is suddenly caught between his desire to escape and his loyalty to the CIA. What a filmic moment! Like a deer caught in the headlights, he can’t move—and then he acts. But in Syriana the moment is when George Clooney is standing only feet from the SUV holding one of the two princes—and their eyes lock on each other, and the prince remembers seeing him in an elevator in a Middle Eastern skyscraper. And that moment is one that is burned indelibly in my mind as I recall this film. Good men, trying to fulfill their duties, trapped by their own governments.
Let’s face it. Without George Clooney this film would not work. He has hero written all over him. He brings an honesty, integrity, and a somber mood to his scenes. One of the stones in his heart is that he is divorced, and yet he works hard to forge a relationship with his college-aged son. His attempts at bonding are heart-breaking, but his difficulties with an emotional relationship with his son are reflected in several other father-son tribulations in the film. It seems that a sub-theme of this film is that the world is screwed up because fathers and son relationships are screwed up. For instance, the Middle Eastern Emir chooses poorly when he selects his unscrupulous son to succeed him. He casts aside the son that would have made a better choice, and his error is almost Biblical in proportion. The U. S. attorney, played by Jeffrey Wright, is burdened with an alcoholic father who shows up and then disappears like a phantom. The Pakistani terrorist has a loving father who is clueless about his son’s awful transformation. The young financial analyst (Matt Damon) loses his son when the boy drowns in a swimming pool, killed in a freak accident caused by shoddy workmanship. I kept wondering, “What do all of these unstable and unhappy father-son relationships mean in this film?”
One of the most dramatic scenes in the film is when Clooney is tortured in Beirut by his primary contact there. Somehow he gets caught up between political factions—and he is saved from death only when one of the mullahs interrupts his torturer and puts a stop to it. That scene was riveting. Again, I am reminded of the emotional reality of 1970s films. In those days, the good guys were the little guys like Serpico (1973) or the Gene Hackman character in The Conversation (1974). When they realized they were pawns in the hands of forces much larger and more powerful than them, that revelation stayed with the audience. We could understand how difficult it was to right such awful wrongs. I had that same kind of feeling in this film. Big oil is going to win—that’s obvious. The good U. S. Attorney’s values are compromised. The financial analyst learns a terrible lesson about greed. He returns home, his tail between his legs, and yet he does the right thing. Better to carve out a small corner of the world, and find your Eden there, than to tilt at windmills. And as for the George Clooney character—what hope would there be for him? “You’re the Canadian,” says the good prince. And then one of the two competing parallel editing tracks comes in and it’s “poof!” That leaves the bad guys standing—and that ending makes us think about where we are headed as a country in this world. I thought in a democracy we were supposed to listen to the little guys with good ideas.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Dir. Tommy Lee Jones. I loved this film—it was just about as perfect as a film could be. Why? It created believable characters, knew where it was headed, and it shot straight through to the end as if there were an inexorable force directing all the actions and events. Plot and character; character and plot. What you do is who you are. And in this case we have an aging cowboy Pete, played by Jones, who befriends an illegal immigrant, the title character, a gentle and seemingly naïve fellow who is good with horses. What a rogue’s gallery of characters. Jones has a perfect actor’s face. The lines, the wizened eyes, the leathery look of his cheeks and jowls, the penetrating stare, the set of his jaw—everything about that face is expressive and rich in stories and experiences and sacrifices and losses. A book could be written about this character. The old man is a fixture in
Compare that character to the young border agent, Norton, new in the area, who has lots of unhappy and unfulfilled sex with his young wife from
Then the story, of course, returns to a time before Mel’s death. In one tender scene Pete takes Mel along with him to initiate him into the New World of Women for Hire! Pete takes up with a 50-ish woman from the local café (not for the first time), and he turns Mel over to a new call girl—the wife of the border patrol agent! The sex between these two is certainly more romantic than the sex with her husband.
When the waitress/call girl from the café tells Pete who killed Mel, the film really takes off. Pete becomes a force of nature. Something springs forth from his unconscious, and he simply acts. Now the film’s narrative runs straight-arrow, one scene following the other. Pete takes Norton hostage, and then he makes Norton dig up Melquiades Estrada—who was hastily buried after his body was discovered. Then he sets out on a journey to
What a film! This narrative was as ruthless, in its way, as the Danish film Brothers, also about an amazing journey into the unconscious. But in this case, we have an aging cowboy, an old man really, who is setting off on possibly his last great journey of his life. And along the way, almost as if by accident, he teaches his hostage about respect and about self-respect. The rest of the film is a quintessential road movie—in the picaresque tradition—and it works because each encounter along the way furthers the story and complicates the relationship between Pete and Norton. Each night they
But the journey is really the emotional core of this film. Everything that preceded it established context for the transformations that would occur because of this journey. Meanwhile, back in town in the
Tsotsi. Dir. Gavin Hood. (
The look of rage in this actor’s eyes was his calling card, and early in the film—when one of his formerly tight-knit gang members wants out—Tsotsi explodes in rage at him and beats him severely. This victim,
Now what to do with the child? He breaks into a young woman’s house because that young woman is nursing her child. And he wants her to nurse the baby, too, because he does know how to take care of it. Soon we begin to realize that he wants the child because he needs the child. “He’s mine,” he says. As he watches the mother care for this baby, suddenly Tsotsi is transported back to his own mother’s smile as she looked at him when he was a child. Soon we learn that his mother died from AIDS. His father was an abusive drunk, and Tsotsi ran away at the age of 9 or 10. This film just keeps getting better and better. He takes the baby to the stack of culverts—still home to the homeless. The children there at first are afraid of what he may do—but then they realize he simply wants to show the baby where he used to live himself. Images of home can be so influential in a film like this. Here is a runaway boy, homeless, in search of a new family (finding it by becoming a thug), and now starting over his search for family.
Under the baby’s influence, and the influence of the young mother, Tsotsi begins to change, and he even asks
Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Dir. Nick Park ( UK). I laughed and laughed and laughed while watching this film. Seeing it was, quite simply, a joyous experience. As in the case of all great animated films, this one is for adults—but we let children see them, too. These claymation folks who delighted us with Chicken Run (2000) are back and working at the top of their craft. Wallace, the self-absorbed Yorkshireman and lover of Wensleydale cheese, is paired with his faithful dog Gromit—a self-assured, inventive, resourceful, and daring companion and leader. Without Gromit, Wallace would be boring. And yet without Wallace, Gromit would be unfulfilled. These two characters were featured in three short films— A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), and A Close Shave (1995). The opening scene (credits) uses a camera panning across the wall at a variety of family pictures. The idea of Wallace and Gromit is that we believe this dog and this man live together, that Wallace is always inventing gadgets, and that Gromit is always rescuing Wallace when the gadgets go awry. These companions have a real home life—including a bizarre and mechanical ritual for getting dressed and having breakfast.
In an early scene the two heroes track down and capture a number of nuisance rabbits that have been digging up neighbors’ gardens and devouring the vegetables. This film works because the animators utilize clever camera angles, nifty tracking shots, realistic point of view and reaction editing, fast-paced montages—and the list goes on. In other words, the film has the look and feel of live-action cinema. But these characters just happen to be formed from clay. Add to the mix the voice talents of Helena Bonham-Carter playing an over-the-top high-society dame, Lady Tottington, and Ralph Fiennes, playing an over-the-top stuffy gentleman, Victor Quartermaine, and you have great characters to play off one against the other. But then again, almost everyone in real life becomes a caricature of himself/herself. For instance, even the mighty Gromit has a special relationship with a perfect watermelon he has raised by hand. Certainly it will win the award for best vegetable at the annual fair. But perhaps he is a bit too close to this vegetable, or has too much of his ego invested in its gorgeous proportions and color. In short, he is obsessed—and that means he will have to let it go! Lady Tottington has her own obsessions with vegetables (growing in a special greenhouse at her estate), and certainly Victor will suffer because of his obsessive desire to destroy rabbits with his ever-ready shotgun. We laugh because we can see ourselves, and our own foibles, in these characters. But Nick Parks also tempers our laughter with ever present emotions of loyalty, devotion, love, steadfastness, and romance.
These characters work also because they have their antecedents in the film genre of gothic horror stories—in this case, the stories of human beings who are changed into monsters under the full moon. I’m talking about were-wolves here! One of the stock characters in these kinds of movies (especially in the late 1940s and early 1950s) is the clergyman, who tries to calm the townspeople while at the same time becoming increasing panicked about the fate of everyone at the hands of these mysterious monsters. In this film the clergyman is an original character, and yet clearly based upon other men of the cloth in live-action were-wolf movies. And who is the were-rabbit? The obvious suspect is a tiny bunny, one of the hundreds of former marauding bunnies that Wallace and Gromit have rescued and kept in pens in their basement. Inevitably, our heroes go out at night and try to trap the evil beast—and of course, this attempt backfires. I was surprised to find out the identity of the were-rabbit! We follow Gromit as he explores the house the next morning. The director makes great use of point of view and reaction shots of the crafty animal as he sniffs along one passageway after another. Where does the trail lead? Oh, no! Shocking revelation it is, no doubt. That leads to another hilarious scene where Gromit is attacked by the evil Victor in the middle of the forest on another moonlit night. Victor has always been shadowed by a tough pit-bull terrier with a thick spiked collar: but when the were-rabbit appears, even the tough dog whimpers and pleads with Gromit to let him in the car (Gromit can drive, by the way). Creative scenes like this one provoked outright, sustained laughter on everyone’s part.
And as you might expect, the climactic scene would pour all sorts of energy into the mix—including a great chase scene between the evil dog (Victor’s companion) and our faithful Gromit. In essence, they become engaged in a dogfight, a là World War I biplanes, a là Snoopy vs. the Red Baron! And who will survive the chase? You know the answer to that one—and just getting there is more than half the fun. And then the funny lines: for example, “You can hop, but you can’t hide,” or “Run, rabbit! Run!” or “The bounce has gone from his bungee.” This film had great comedic characters, perfect comic timing, a screenplay that was well-paced and often ingenious, and a satisfying climax where the good characters are saved and the bad characters are humiliated. And more important, this film has its heart in the right place: all of us walk away thanking our lucky stars that Nick Park invented Wallace and Gromit—perfect partners in comedy.