Picks: Recommended Films
Amazing Grace. Dir. Michael Apted. ( UK). Everywhere in this film the director found visual means of conveying the message that human slavery is an abhorrent thing—and that’s the primary reason this film works. For instance, the first scene of the films shows our hero, the MP William Wilberforce, stopping a man from whipping his horse. Just think of all the African slaves that were whipped by their masters on the British plantations and the American plantations. It is a simple and elegant way to express the message of abhorrence. Stop the whipping. Stop slavery. The film uses a frame technique—beginning when Wilberforce is old and sick, and then coming back to that present time at the end of the film. It’s an old convention, and I think it is played mostly for sentiment here. But then again, think about how this film portrays sentiment—and there is a lot of sentiment (FEELINGS) to be had on the topic of human slavery. The nice thing is that the film was more about sentiment than it was about sentimentality (an excess of sentiment). And oddly enough, the subject it has feelings about is a subject fraught with brutality (the absence of sentiment). The second great scene showing the way Wilberforce’s ideas about human slavery were changed takes place at a gambling table. Wilberforce is set to win the hand, but his opponent, short of ready cash, has someone send for his valet, an African man, a slave, and the opponent offers the slave in lieu of the cash. Trafficking in human slavery, you see? The screenwriter—in his scene construction in this film—knows what he is doing. By the way, that screenwriter, Steven Knight, did another fine job with the film Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Now let me make clear that both scenes alluded to above are high drama but rather conventional in many ways—but their point is to get at the emotional truth of slavery, the revulsion we feel when we think about the brutality of owning other human beings. A third example of scene construction occurs when Wilberforce sings the song “Amazing Grace,” or when he listens to his dinner guests (all abolitionists) tell stories of human misery associated with slavery. Another scene shows Wilberforce being given a tour of a slave ship; and as he moves about below decks we get a strong sense of what it must have been like to have been chained to a bulkhead throughout the course of the Atlantic crossing. And if you died, then you were unchained and thrown overboard. The list goes on—so many scenes hit us with the visceral truth of the matter. We cannot hope but feel something on this subject. Part of the film is also the story of Wilberforce’s single-minded passion to persuade the British Parliament to overturn slavery. Another convention used in the film is that of the long conversation between two people being punctuated by many flashbacks to make the storytelling vivid. Each time we come back to the present, we see that the conversation is between Wilberforce and a beautiful woman who has come to visit him. Of course, they are destined to be together—and her ability to engage him in conversation is her means of regenerating him as a fierce opponent of slavery—just at the time when he had given up any hope that his campaign would succeed. And at the climax of the film the emotion just keeps pouring out until there is not a dry eye in the house. This is old-fashioned filmmaking, where big ideas and big people are united and the winner is justice and mercy.
Avenue Montaigne. Dir. Danièle Thompson. ( France, 2006). Sometimes a film works because the producer casts a young woman whose face is quite simply by the camera. In this case, the actor is Cécile de France, a Belgian woman, who has appeared in numerous films since the turn of the century. She has a natural appeal, a freshness in her appearance, that is hard to define. But she carries the film, playing a naïve young woman whose compassion is her calling card. To everyone she meets, life is a glass half empty. But to Jessica, the young woman, life is a glass half full. At first she gets work in a Paris café on Avenue Montaigne, only because the owner knows that this is a busy time and he needs extra help. But this young woman soon meets a famous actress, a great pianist, and an old man selling his art collection. This film takes a while to wind itself up. I worried, at one point, if the individual components (the young woman and the three principals) would ever amount to anything. But the first glimpse of quality was a magnificent scene of the pianist playing in a courtyard of a hospital for children, all of whom were cancer patients. We learn later that the pianist is having second thoughts about the rigors of a career as a grand pianist. He can relax in front of the children, but he fears stage fright on a major stage. I also noted that the film is organized much like a theatrical performance. Although some of the scenes are opened up, showing exteriors, most of the action takes place within interior sets and moves along much like in the acts of a play. There is a major exception to this approach, however, at the climactic scenes at the end of the film. In those scenes parallel editing is used effectively to compare actions from one scene to the other. The stages set for the climax are the auction house, the stage for the pianist, and theatrical stage where the older actress is set to perform. In each case (or I could say, “On each stage”), there is a major surprise in store for the audience—and the surprises and/or revelations—are based upon internal character change. People are not predictable. Under duress sometimes they do the craziest, nuttiest, most beautiful, loving, and unselfish things. They become human, even more human than they were when they stepped upon stage. And they do the right things that move people in strange mysterious ways. Although in each case Jessica is not the main character on any of these main stages, Jessica still lingers in the wings, and in the last scene there is a sense of hope that even Jessica will be able to take her bows—in her own idiosyncratic way.
Becoming Jane. Dir. Julian Jarrold. Yes, Anne Hathaway was not right for the role of Jane Austen. When I think of Jane Austen, I do not think of external beauty—I think of internal beauty, that of her wit, her intelligence, her compassion, and her doggedness. I don’t think I ever got over Anne Hathaway’s casting in the role of Jane Austen, but I did come to an appreciation of the dramatic arc of this film, which in its own way replicated the novelistic structure of a good Jane Austen book. I appreciated the quiet montage of uninflected shots that began the film—setting the context for the early 19 th century setting. The story is simple: Jane Austen falls in love with Tom Lefroy, a gentleman whose mother married for love (and remained poor). But he has prospects, and is studying law in London. As the film began to work its magic on me, I accepted the story amended this way: a Jane-Austen-type heroine falls in love with a Tom Lefroy, a gentleman who is studying law in London. The film reveals nothing about Jane Austen, or about her love life, or about how she came up with the idea of writing Pride and Prejudice. There are two worlds in conflict here: the world of the real Jane Austen, and the fictional Jane Austen portrayed in this film. In other words, the film makes use of what we think we know about Jane Austen as a starting point for a romantic story (in the Jane Austen style) of how marriage in early 19 th-Century England depended upon compromises based upon wealth and class. There are thus too many errors to recount of how this portrayal of a Jane Austen heroine does not match the portrayals in the Jane Austen canon. For instance, young women would never watch young men bathing naked; young women would never battle young men on the cricket field; young men would never kiss young women the way Lefroy kisses Jane. Society had rules about this, you know. Young men never said things like, “Jane, I’m yours!’ So much of the early part of the film seemed remarkably out of character with a good Jane Austen novel. A few of the scenes, showing intimate conversations between Jane and her mother, and then Jane and her father, were much truer to the spirit of Jane Austen. Only when the two finally run away together did the film begin to make sense to me. In one respect, I think the Jane Austen character was much more so a younger sister of Jane Austen, as in the novel Pride and Prejudice. We saw here an impulsive decision on the part of a young woman, a breaking of societal rules. The real Jane Austen would never have done so, I can promise, but young women did break the rules. And yet that same character comes to her senses, and she acts more like the true Jane Austen when she faces the dark night of her soul’s young life. She makes the right decision. She is a strong woman. If Jane Austen—but wait, you can’t complete that statement, because the fabric of the film is only supposition. If Jane Austen had run away with a man, this is how she would have resolved it all! That you can say—in this film, and only in this film. Then comes the ending arc of the film, and it was most satisfying to me because it extended the story in just the way it would have been extended in a good Jane Austen novel. Ah, the compromises we make in this life of ours—and yet we make them, and we live with them.
Black Snake Moan. Dir. Craig Brewer. I’ll give Brewer, the writer and director, credit here. In this film he gives Samuel L. Jackson a second chance of playing a righteous man (last seen in Pulp Fiction). And Jackson plays it to the hilt. His booming voice resounds here and there and everywhere—and his voice makes his words come alive. This is also the film where Justin Timberlake does not make a complete *** out of himself and survives, I suspect, to act again. (Just don’t ask him to ratchet up the emotions too much—because he doesn’t have the means for it yet. And this is another film that shows the depth of acting talent in Christina Ricci. But it’s not a film for young people or for the faint of heart. It’s a film about how one reclaims his or her life, how one needs to be transformed—through suffering—and arise a new creature. It’s a film about redemption and honor and—even more important, a film about friendship and trust. It’s a film where the name of the main character, Lazarus ( Jackson), is a metaphor for what the film is about: being born again, coming to life a second time, and making that resurrection worthwhile. Early on in the film the two stories of Lazarus and Rae (Ricci) are compared. Both lives are on the downturn. She is a nymphomaniac, and he has turned to drinking after his wife leaves him. But this is also a film that honors human wisdom. And one of the best characters in the film, a preacher and friend of Lazarus, eventually joins forces with Lazarus to help heal Rae. There is one false note to the film in the creation of a character who become the obvious love interest for Lazarus; but I can forgive him for that lapse. Otherwise, much of the film is raw, truthful, and redemptive. Yes, Lazarus ties the woman with a chain to keep her from leaving the house. But that image of bondage is never manipulative. The chain is a practical solution to an improbable conflict—what to do with a woman that is afflicted with the blake snake moan—which I take to be a kind of blues idea about her nymphomania. Now that Lazarus has this broken woman in tow, he becomes energized. He begins to play his guitar again. He comes alive. He listens to jazz. “God seen fit to put you in my path, and I’m gonna cure you.” And then: “I’m going to suffer you!” And when she screams and pulls the chain: “I ain’t gonna be moved on this.” That’s what I mean about Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. Give him some lines and give him the right role, and he can make your hair on the back of your neck stand on its end. He has the righteous voice! There are some other neat touches, such as the flashbacks from Rae’s point of view that are at first indistinct and hard to analyze. I think she is remembering the horrible sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of one of her mother’s boyfriends. In that sense, Lazarus becomes a surrogate father figure to her. By not using her sexually, he provides the fatherly role she was deprived of. Her suffering abuse precipitated her nymphomania. If she is only good as a vessel for sexuality, then why not offer it to everyone—because that’s how she will be affirmed. These flashback scenes become increasingly tense and emotional as the film moves on. Eventually, Lazarus comes back to life (playing in a club and ready to move on with the conventional good woman in the wings), and Rae moves on when her husband is discharged early from the Army (because he suffers anxiety attacks). She becomes her own healing force, just as Lazarus was, and there is some poetic justice in that plot twist. This film, like so many other independent films, gets right the essentials of the human condition, even if it slips up every now and then with clichéd characters and confrontations. On the whole, it is the genuine article.
Death at a Funeral. Dir. Frank Oz. ( UK). I liked this film from the start—with the credits showing an animated casket finding its way around pretzel-shaped roads to the churchyard. And then the first punch line: it’s the wrong guy in the casket. This film looks like it may become a farce—but it’s not really sufficiently fast-paced to qualify for that genre. It’s close to a farce, however, and like a farce the film focuses on the foibles and the follies of unenlightened men and women who are busy pursuing numerous and tangled agendas—all of which come unentangled by the end of the film. And Peter Dinklage (as Peter) practically steals the show as the mystery man at the funeral with a dark secret from the dead man’s past. Dinklage has an expressive face and he uses his facial expressions effectively to reveal his character. After all, his character is not a bad person; instead, he sees himself as a wronged person. Although the film’s pace was slow at the beginning, I think it picks up when the reason for Peter’s appearance is introduced, and then the pace of the film really picks up when it appears that Peter has accidentally died. Throw in some LSD always taken by the wrong people and throw in those human agendas I referred to above and you have a fun film. The ex-Muppeteer director, Frank Oz, also made some great comedies in the 1990s—What About Bob? (1991) and Bowfinger (1999).
Enchanted. Dir. Kevin Lima. I enjoyed this film because it was true to its roots. The film begins with a routine animated sequence—in the style of classic Disney animated films—about a typical Disney princess. Then that princess falls through a worm-hole of sorts (an animated wishing well) and lands in Times Square in Manhattan. Amy Adams is at once ravishing, innocent, perky, naïve, trusting, full of energy, and full of life as the princess. I loved every minute of her performance—and everything she did was true to her character as a fairy princess. The sudden bursting out into song, the way she interacts with the birds and the other animals, and her always-trusting response to people and her environment—well, it all was heartwarming and downright charming. I thought Patrick Dempsey was spot-on as the modern prince, the New Yorker who rescues her and welcomes her to his apartment, and James Marsden, as another animated character, the prince, was wonderful as her paramour. The film did not challenge the audience very much, but then I don’t think it was intended to make us think about life in a serious way. It was an entertaining, consistent, and humorous story well acted and well told. A minor quibble would be that the film’s traditional fairy-tale ending was undermined by a long scene where the evil Queen, played by Susan Sarandon, tries to destroy her rival by conjuring up an immense dragon. That CGI dragon was a waste of time—but I can see that it was required in order to push the good characters to their limits. All’s well that ends well, and this film ends well.
For the Bible Tells Me So. Dir. Daniel G. Karslake. This documentary was a simple and straightforward look at the way the Religious Right has fomented a negative portrayal of gays and lesbians in American culture. What worked best for me was the way we were introduced to specific families who had accepted a gay or lesbian son or daughter and thus affirmed their children’s sexuality and personhood. When you see them portrayed this way, they all seem to be so normal. But that’s the point. Everyone is normal. Straight or gay—we are normal. The documentary helps us understand why gays and lesbians struggle to be straight—in order to fit into the prescribed behaviors of the dominant culture. So they marry straight people; now they will fit in. Now their lives will work out. Now they are part of the dominant culture. But eventually they can’t keep performing the role they have tried to play. The documentary adds some insights from research in terms of the role of genetics or sibling placement, etc., and all that is fine. The weakest part of the film is the all-out assault on the Religious Right. Although the Biblical interpretations in the film seemed appropriate and accurate, trying to make that kind of argument is futile in the face of absolutist religious thinking. So the film will not convince anyone from the Religious Right to change his or her mind. But I think letting families with gay and lesbian children tell their stories of healing has the advantage of any storytelling—the narrative is a way to impart truths to all of us. So perhaps I am complaining that the film tried to do too much in the context of one documentary. When we see people as whole people, rather than as other, then it becomes easier to broaden our points of view. Rather than hiding behind the Bible so much, I would prefer to see Religious Conservatives listen to the stories other people have to tell—and perhaps they will gain some insight and understanding into the power of difference in our culture. We are all the same; but yet we are all different and individual. We need to find that balance in order to respect each other.
The Hunting Party. Dir. Richard Shepard. Any film with Richard Gere in it can’t be all bad. As usual, he does his best Richard Gere imitation, and I loved it. (But he was much better in The Hoax.) “And then Simon snapped.” That line is dropped into the film via voice-over by the second main character, played by Terence Howard. There were so many interesting elements in this film: Sarajevo as a character—a fascinating backdrop to the action, the cynical and world-weary journalists that Gere and Howard played, and even the Road Movie structure that is as old as the hills. What did not work for me often was the dialogue. It often sounded pompous and fakey. And then there is the major plot point that drives the entire action: we learn why Simon snapped. But in learning that horrible truth, all I could think of was, “Having that happen to a journalist would so demoralize him that he would be broken by it. He would not simply drop out of sight and then suddenly reunite with his old cameraman, Howard, and persuade him to go after the brutal Serbian murderer known as the Fox. Another problem here is plain and simple: we know that these two guys are going to survive. Gere’s character is not going to be murdered at the climax of the film. So what is there to keep up my suspension of disbelief? I needed to see in the screenplay some way out of this dilemma. But when the screenplay finally delivers the climax, it is more deus ex machine than plot arising from character. In other words, the whole process of the road movie part of the film is to ratchet up the tension, scene by scene, until we reach the point where our road characters are being tortured by the Serbs and about ready to be butchered—and then? And that then was something outside of our characters, and that meant that all of the tension-building was undermined, for me, and I lost touch with the film. So it was about dialogue that often did not work. It was about characterizations that were little more than one-dimensional. Still, when Gere was at his best, he conveyed an anxiety and then a courage that played off of his basic vulnerability as a human being. He showed the same acting skill in An Officer and a Gentleman, in The Hoax, and in this film it is part of the signature of his performance. I think he delivers as an actor. His performance was compelling; although I don’t think Terence Howard was given his best role as supporting actor to Gere. And part of the problem for me also was the third major character, a young guy played by Jesse Eisenberg. I felt I was watching Woody Allen from Annie Hall walking through a Serbian war drama. There was one great line in the film: “Putting your life in danger is totally living. The rest is TV.” But that line works better in Welcome to Sarajevo than in this film. Even worse is the coda to the film, another segment that is more about the fantasy of justice once denied now realized. That segment did not work because it was not true to the characters we had followed up to this point. War for journalists is very much like war for the soldiers: you think you are there to figure things out, but at the end you are left scratching your head. What the h--- was that all about?
Juno. Dir: Jason Reitman. There’s a bandwagon out there, and people are getting on it in droves. That bandwagon is the Juno Bandwagon and the people all say that this is one of the year’s best films, etc. I am not getting on that bandwagon. I am one of the critics who complain about the cute and wise-cracking dialogue of the main character. Everything she says is perfectly cynical and original and imaginative and I got tired of it pretty quickly. Now some have said they know young people that talk like that, and I’m sure they do, and I’m sure I don’t. To me, she was 16 going on 35. We all have to account for our truths in this world, and as for me, the dialogue was imposed upon the character rather than arising from the character’s experience. To give it some credit, I would say that the smart-aleck dialogue was meant to mask a deep-seated feeling of alienation and disaffection with the ways of the world. I saw a young woman who felt trapped, and so she employed dialogue as a weapon to keep the world at bay. She was a control freak of sorts, and I can see why she constructed her character that way. A key moment for me is when in voice-over she talked about being abandoned by her mother; and if I got the meaning right, then she has not gotten over that abandonment, and she has turned it into a lens through which she views the world. To her, relationships do not last forever. That’s why she is so cold and calculating around her boyfriend (the one who got her pregnant) and that’s why she falls for the veneer of the American-Dream-love-story-big-house-in-the-suburbs-myth-of-the-perfect-couple she meets who want to adopt her daughter. I thought the film broke into two parts. Part one was the set-up and her exploration of options and her decision to give up her child to the perfect couple. In Part one she uses her pregnancy like a baseball bat and clubs people over the head with it. Part two was the aftermath of what breaks her heart in a special way. And it was part two that meant something to me. That last half of the film makes me want to recommend this film. When she was in control, I was bored by her. When she lost control, she became vulnerable and thus interesting because she looked like and acted like a human being then. Now as to Ellen Page’s acting? She was spot-on and commanded the screen. Her boyfriend, played by Michael Cera, was as good as he was in Superbad (in fact, he was the best thing in that film). I’m not sure why she could not see—right in front of her—what her father and her stepmother had emotionally. They were a pair; they were bonded. It seemed contrived to me that she was so hostile toward her stepmother. The real wise-cracker was Juno’s father. I could understand why he had that facility. Look at his experience. Consider that he has made peace with his place in the universe. His dialogue was not cynical—it was worldly-wise. I also had trouble with a key turning point between Juno and the perfect husband from that perfect couple. I did not believe that turning-point scene for a moment. I think I got the point that Juno’s controlling of Paulie (her boyfriend) was supposed by analogous to the perfect wife’s controlling of the perfect husband. That construct made more sense than the developing relationship between Juno and the older man.