Picks: Highly Recommended Films
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardbrobe. Dir. Andrew Adamson. I just finished reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardbrobe. I confess that I missed reading this children’s classic when I was a child. My childhood was spent reading comic books; my parents were poorly educated, and they did not know the importance of reading to their children or of encouraging children to become avid readers. I forgive them for that, because they had so many other strengths as parents. Seeing this film was a delightful experience. The film began slowly, and I was not overly impressed with the four young actors playing the children sent from
Good Night and Good Luck. Dir. George Clooney. I enjoyed this film—but what moved me the most were scenes of David Strathairn, playing Edward R. Murrow, recreating televised newscasts where the great newsman spoke his truths into the camera. This film is about a time when the men and women of CBS News tried to do the right thing. They were journalists, not entertainers (even though Murrow was pushed into doing the celebrity interview shows many of us remember from our childhoods). This is by no means a great film. We observe the huge cast of characters from a distance. They never are given a chance to develop into anything resembling three-dimensional characters. Then there is Murrow; and he dominates in every scene he is in. Clooney plays his producer, Fred Friendly, and two are a perfect team. Friendly helps Murrow find the story and bring it to the air—but Murrow excels at writing the story and delivering it to the television audience. The film focuses on Murrow and Friendly’s decision to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose leadership of a House Committee investigating Un-American activities brought him fame and terrorized the objects of his wrath. There are several back stories in the film—one about a newsroom couple who are married (a no-no in those days) and one about a producer who is so terrified of being called to testify at the McCarthy hearings that he takes his own life. But the film works best when it focuses on scenes of Murrow. And when we watch him, we remember—and I think we are awestruck by this realization—that he is was an amazingly articulated and gifted speaker. His writing sounds more like Shakespeare or Winston Churchill than it does a Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather. How could it be that we have lost such a respect for such poetic prose? David Strathairn deserves an Academy Award for his performance in this film—he brings Murrow to life. One of his greatest moments in the film is after we see him conducting one of many meaningless celebrity interviews. At the end of the broadcast, we cut to his reaction shot, and he slumps in his chair as if defeated by the gibberish of celebrity television.
Clooney hit a home run when he decided not to hire an actor to “do” McCarthy. Instead, McCarthy appears only on archival footage. And he is repulsive and revolting and even disgusting. How did such a venal and mean-spirited man ever get so much power? The historic broadcast, when Murrow spent an hour letting McCarthy damn himself in “his own words,” was the heart of this film. Clooney also frames the film with Murrow receiving an honor in 1958, and then returning to the speech he gave accepting that award at the end of the film. The film is in black and white—a perfect way to realize the 1950s television era. I can still remember my parents’ first television set, a Hallicrafter, black and white and with a tiny screen, perhaps 15 inches. As a child of 6 I was hooked and I have been hooked ever since.
It is no accident that the film works in 2005 because the Red Scare and loyalty oaths of the 1950s are practically upon us as we labor under an Administration that would like nothing more than to bring us back to the 1950s when life for white Americans was simpler and much less confusing than it is now. A new car in every suburban garage! The wife at home, taking care of the kids, and having dinner ready when Father returns home from the office. “June! I’m home!” We are suckers for nostalgia, Virginia, but there never was such a time, and if it could be realized it would not be truthful to the social and cultural context we find ourselves in now. In this film I watched Murrow courageously take on Senator Joseph McCarthy, and all I could think of was Tom Delay, Bill Frist, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney,, and other members of the cabal of conservative Republican absolutists that put loyalty above integrity. It is certain that terrorists are a danger to the American way of life; but when self-styled patriots undermine the freedom of Americans, then they become terrorists of the first rank—and a danger to our Constitution and our security. We live in a country where freedom is the highest value. We must respect the freedom of others in order to have our own freedom respected. When a film like this one comes along, we are reminded of the values that do make our country great.
The Interpreter. Dir. Sydney Pollack.
The secret to this film is the series of scenes that represent confrontations
between the characters played by Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. They are the
backbone of the emotional intensity sustained throughout the film. Here
we have two great movie stars and they are playing real people. The plot
is simple. Kidman's character, an interpreter at the UN, overhears what
sounds like a plot to assassinate an African dictator. In their first confrontation,
Penn, a Secret Service Agent whose mission is to protect foreign leaders,
reminds her that he is not there to protect her, but to investigate her.
He is right to be suspicious of this intelligent, but mysterious woman.
As new evidence surfaces, Penn confronts her again, and this time the reaction
shots of these actors signal their mutual distrust of each other. Only when
a stalker appears outside of her apartment window does Penn's character
begin to take her story seriously. In fact, when he visits her in her apartment,
and she tells him a story about her brother, who is missing back in Africa,
Penn stops at the door and tells her that his wife died in a car accident
about two weeks ago. So that explains the darkness and moodiness of his
character in earlier scenes. In that accident, his wife's latest lover was
also killed. Their next encounter occurs after she escapes police surveillance
to meet with a photographer we saw in the first scene of the film (that
took place back in Africa). When she returns to her apartment, Penn is there,
and he is boiling over. Their fifth encounter takes place in a creative
scene where he is watching her from a building across an alley (a stakeout)
and she calls his cell number and the two have a long phone conversation-and
then she spots him at the window across from the alley.
The Interpreter. Dir. Sydney Pollack. The secret to this film is the series of scenes that represent confrontations between the characters played by Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. They are the backbone of the emotional intensity sustained throughout the film. Here we have two great movie stars and they are playing real people. The plot is simple. Kidman's character, an interpreter at the UN, overhears what sounds like a plot to assassinate an African dictator. In their first confrontation, Penn, a Secret Service Agent whose mission is to protect foreign leaders, reminds her that he is not there to protect her, but to investigate her. He is right to be suspicious of this intelligent, but mysterious woman. As new evidence surfaces, Penn confronts her again, and this time the reaction shots of these actors signal their mutual distrust of each other. Only when a stalker appears outside of her apartment window does Penn's character begin to take her story seriously. In fact, when he visits her in her apartment, and she tells him a story about her brother, who is missing back in Africa, Penn stops at the door and tells her that his wife died in a car accident about two weeks ago. So that explains the darkness and moodiness of his character in earlier scenes. In that accident, his wife's latest lover was also killed. Their next encounter occurs after she escapes police surveillance to meet with a photographer we saw in the first scene of the film (that took place back in Africa). When she returns to her apartment, Penn is there, and he is boiling over. Their fifth encounter takes place in a creative scene where he is watching her from a building across an alley (a stakeout) and she calls his cell number and the two have a long phone conversation-and then she spots him at the window across from the alley.
All right, let's face it now. This all sounds like an increasing intimacy is involved with these encounters. After all, that scene is one intimate phone conversation-two characters looking across the alley from their windows, their cell phones at their ear, and talking in hushed tones. What do you think you should expect next? When are we going to see the panning shot of the shoes, slacks, shirts, and underwear and then the two lovers in bed? How many times have we seen that cliché worked out in Hollywood films. Will it happen here, too? But the next scene takes care of that question. Several of the principal characters in the film end up getting on the same bus in Brooklyn, and as amazing as it sounds, you believe every minute of the scene and its increasing tension. What is going on here? In one part of that scene, Sean Penn, speaking on his cell phone with an undercover cop on the bus, says, "We have a situation here!" And the undercover cop responds, "Well, boss, we really have a situation here!" And in the context of that scene, you know what that dialogue means!
Eventually, the plot leads to another scene between Penn and Kidman, and they end up in her apartment again, and what we have here are two heavyweights, two great actors, going at each other like two boxers in a ring. Finally Sean Penn blows only like Sean Penn can blow. I was reminded of the wonderful interactions between Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain (2003). This is what you buy with that ticket when you go to that cinema-to see the miracle that occurs when two great actors go toe-to-toe and pull out all the stops-and you believe it all! And at the end of the scene we get the payoff of the increasing intimacy set up throughout this film-and it is an individualized response, based upon these two characters, and we believe it! There is only one encounter left to talk about-and it is the one encounter that is most forced by the plot, and least plausible when it comes to the measure of the real world. And yet it has to happen in the film, and we have to accept it, because now we are talking about film conventions, just the same way we talk about dramatic conventions. Sometimes we accept the scene because it has to happen to resolve the drama. So we get it and it is wonderful to behold the performances of these two actors. They are greater then the sum of the film's parts. The plot of the film pales before the prominence and the reality of their characters. And at the end there is one more encounter left for us, and for a long time I will remember Sean Penn sitting on top of a fence, his legs supported by a lower rung of the fence, just balanced there comfortably as he talks to the other character. Behind him, and across the river, is the skyline of Manhattan. Only the movies takes us to places like this. Everything in that scene is about texture and about mood and about characters coming to a resolution. Before we get there we have a perfect montage of images of the interior of the UN set against lovely theme music and the voice of Nicole Kidman reading names-and in that montage there too is closure. There are lots of good things to remember and talk about in this film. In the midst of all the wild plot swings a thriller can provide, sometimes it's enough for one character to give solace to another character. That's what's known as the human condition.
Jarhead. Dir. Sam Mendes. I was often moved by the cinematic style of the film; but I never felt engaged in the main character’s story. The film is based on Anthony Swofford’s memoir of his time in the Marines during the first Gulf War, but by the end of the film all I felt was the absolute emptiness of these soldier’s lives. They have bought into something that is gross and morally degenerative; but they have been hoodwinked into thinking that life in the suck (their term for war) is the greatest time in their lives. Mendes shows the Marine training as a combination of all forms of extreme training that empty the heads of every recruit and pour back in their heads only what the Marines want them to think and feel. Thus the term Jarhead. Apparently there is no escaping the Marine identity. At the end of the film I was reminded of the last scene in Goodfellas, when the ex-Mafia killer played by Ray Liotta, now in the witness protection program, steps outside one morning to pick up his newspaper from the front stoop, and when he looks outside, suddenly he has a vision of one of his buddies pumping lead into someone. He has never lost his identity as a Mafioso. Likewise, at the end of this film the civilian, returned from the war, stands in a funeral parlor looking at a former Marine buddy of his (who committed suicide when he was released by the Marines), and suddenly the shot changes to show an image of a squad of marines in the desert as the voice-over intones, “We are still in the suck!”
What I felt at that moment was the ultimate emptiness of that form of thinking. If this is where Swofford was at the end of his ordeal, then what hope would there be for any kind of transformation? Would he, like the others, suddenly respond violently (via post-traumatic shock) to an ordinary event in the daily life of a civilian? How could the brutality—the sum of all of his training—ever be rooted out by his participation in a kindler, gentler civilian life. Part of me felt hopeless at the end of this film, especially when the voice-over intones, “Every war is different, every war is the same.” John Huston, the great American director, once said, “Every good war film is an anti-war film.” I agree, and in this case, this film about life in the military was an anti-military film—I think. I’m not exactly sure about the director’s tone here. Does he want us to see the futility of the kind of thinking that creates mindsets like the ones we see in the film? I have to believe he does, although sometimes he veers close to glorifying the machismo that is displayed in the various scenes.
At the beginning of the film, I thought I had walked into a remake of Full Metal Jacket—focusing on the brutality of the Drill Instructor. Brutality, the absence of feeling, is everywhere in this film. The second instructor, Sgt. Sykes, played by Jamie Foxx, is likewise an abusive career Marine. When we see him leading the squad of snipers in
Early in the film the Marines watch the Flight of the Valkyries scene from Apocaplypse, Now, and they all cheer madly and stand and embrace each other like school kids just getting the word that they are all going to
The cinematography by veteran Roger Deakins (with 20 years of good work behind him) was astounding at times. I think I remember most the great shot where Swofford and his buddy Troy are hiding in a bunker, and suddenly we see a shot of two or three jets swooping low over the desert—and then the camera pans right and suddenly we see Swofford through the glass of the bunker and at the same time see the reflection of the jets and the fires from the exploding bombs striking their target. This one image sums up the theme of the film. Here are several Marines trained to be perfect killers (as snipers), and one has to stand by while he watches the flyboys get all of the killing from thousands of feet in the air. The process of the film is to show the gradual increasing deployment of American troops in
I guess I expected the film to be about Swofford’s transformation. Somehow or the other he would eventually come to grips with the fact that everything he had been taught by the Marines was a lie. I think I’ve seen that film before. But that’s not exactly where the film took us. Sinc Swofford had a best buddy, the law of film requires that the buddy die in order to stimulate the expected transformation. Well, the buddy dies, but again I don’t think the transformation was the expected one. For instance, in one key scene Swofford breaks down and almost murders one of the members of his squad. At one point he actually forces the man to hold that gun on Swofford and begs the other Marine to shoot him (Swofford). That was a fine piece of acting, a real set—piece of acting that reminded me of the confrontation between the Al Pacino character in Scent of a Woman and the Chris O’Donnell character. Then there is the climactic scene, where Swofford and Boyd are given an assignment to kill two Iraqi officers. When that moment of killing is ruined by the call for the bombing run,
Kung Fu Hustle. Dir. Stephen Chow. (China, Hong Kong, 2004). High energy fun, without a doubt. I laughed at many of the crazy antics in the film and I appreciated the kung-fu-with-gusto attitude of the filmmaker. The first scene threw me off a bit because it seemed a blending of film noir and kung fu that appeared, at first glance, to be setting up a complicated structure of characters and plot that would be hard to keep up with. In that first scene someone is killed in a fight between rival gangs. I was afraid this would turn into more scenes of gang against gang mayhem, but I was wrong. Suddenly the film regained balance, straightened out, and then went right over the top. After we are introduced to the Axe Gang, the folks that kill the first bad introduced in the first scene, we are taken straight to Pig Sty Alley, a monster set (reminiscent of Scorsese’s set in Gangs of New York (2002). Beginning with this scene the film took off for me. We are introduced to the landlady and the landlord, comic characters right out of television situation comedy. Everyone loves the landlord; everybody hates the landlady. And when those two fight, look out! At the climax of their fist long-drawn-out fight, the landlady sends the landlord out the window and he lands-splat—face down on the ground. Dead? Of course not. He’s a cartoon character of sorts, and that means the laws of gravity and all other laws that have to do with “splat” are cancelled. And we can sit back and enjoy this crazy film. Enter Sing (Stephen Chow) and Donut, his best friend. Sing is an aspiring kung fu master, and yet in everything he attempts, he is a master of incompetence! Thank goodness, for that—because it is the source of great fun and laughter. You have to ask yourself, “Why does this young man want to be one of ‘bad guys’?” The answer is given to us in a flashback—where Sing as a kid, after reading a bogus manual on the Buddhist Palm method of Kung Fu, tries to defend a young girl against several bullies—who stole her lollipop. When he stands up to the bullies, they knock him about like a piñata. So what does he decide to do? He may as well go over to the dark side of the force, because now he realizes good guys never win! The scene where Donut and he try to attack the landlady at Pig Sty Alley was one of the best scenes in the film. This scene leads to a great chase scene between the two. They run out of town and into the country at breakneck speed, like the Road Runner being chased by Wiley Coyote. And just when it looks like she is going to catch him, she smashes (splat!) into a billboard, and just like in the Warner Brothers cartoon, she slides down the billboard like a blueberry pie sliding down a wall. I loved it! Now don’t forget that there is scene after scene of choreographed kung fu fighting in the film as the Axe Gang fights a number of average guys from Pig Sty Alley. And there are delightful surprises in the outcomes, and even more delightful surprises later (remember that landlady and that landlord?). And then the best surprise is saved for the last when we find out a secret about another character. And it works—it just plain works, and is a lot of fun in the watching. What works throughout the film is that it is anchored in sentiment. The characters are passionate, loving, caring, and committed to high ideals. The bad guys are just that—bad guys. The good guys have heart. When I left the film, it occurred to me that perhaps the only character to be killed in all of this action was that bad guy in the first scene. The film is not about killing, and it’s not even about the kung fu battles as battles. It’s about finding out about one’s true identity and putting yourself in touch with the consequences of that identity. Love wins out—because no kung fu ever invented can destroy love.
March of the
Penguins. Dir. Luc Jacquet. (
Millions. Dir. Danny Boyle (
The film wastes little time getting to the big plot point. One day a bag of money, tossed out of a passing train, bounces along the ground and drops unannounced on top of Damien’s cardboard home—while Damien is inside. When he crawls up to investigate this phenomenon, he spies a large duffel bag crammed with Pounds Sterling. Of course, she shares the haul with his older brother, who immediately responds with an older brother’s zeal for egomania. The older brother becomes Big Man on Campus (easing his transition to the new school) and Damien loses control of his big find. To Damien, the money was a miracle, dropped into his lap from God. Like the saints he imagines come to life, he wants to help the poor. Before long—you guessed it—one of the bad guys (one of the robbers who stole numerous bags of cash) shows up to reclaim their one lost bag. The perfect touch here is an audio cue—a kind of “aaaaassshhhh!” sound—a guttural, evil, snake-like hissing sound, that announces the presence of the bad man. This sound cue is a page right out of children’s stories! There is one other note about sound that deserves mention. I thought the sound design, done by Patrick Murphy, was one of the high points of the movie. Murphy has worked with Boyle on an earlier film as well as two films with Guy Ritchie. He created a 6-beat melody (repeated four times) that was high-energy and fast-paced and just right to convey Damien’s emotional level and upbeat attitude toward life. That melody line was repeated throughout the film and always complemented the visuals.
There are a few slow points in the film—mostly the father’s wooing of a woman that visits the school to make an appeal to help poor children, a sidebar about the neighbors that have moved into the new housing development (and some cheap shots at members of the Mormon Church), a long section where the family tries to convert the Poudns Sterling to Euros before the deadline, and an overly long Nativity Play at the end of the film. But I waded through this material because sooner or late the film returned to the boy’s story, from his point of view (including a one-to-one encounter with the bad guy), and a great scene where the boy follows his own Star of Bethlehem to make pilgrimage to an important place in his past. That section of the film was magical and pure. When the boy was alone on the screen, or when the boy was the center of the scene, the film was perfect. When the camera is on the boy, he lights up the screen. [Watch out—I’m going to reveal more than I should about something that happens at the end of the film. Read on at your own risk.] At the end of the film, Damien meets St. Maureen face to face in an amazing scene of closure for his grief. His mother, sitting by the side of the railroad tracks, tells him, “You are not to worry about me. Your older brother is going to need you. You know how complilcated the money was? People are even more complicated.” What advice from this vision of his dead mother! And then comes the zinger. He asks her, “Are you really a saint? What was your miracle?” She tells him, “Don’t you know? It was you.” I defy anyone’s heart not to melt at that point in this film. This boy’s grief comes full circle. He enfolds his older brother’s experience into his own settling of his heart’s pain, and then comes an ending scene that is pure because it again is a child’s point of view, a fantasy of saintliness that simplifies all that is complicated in the world—as only a child could. As the boy says, “This is my story, and I’m going to end it the way I want to.” Well, it worked for me.
Highly Recommended Films N-Z