Picks: Recommended Films
No End in Sight. Dir. Charles Ferguson. I appreciated the broad historical sweep of this documentary on our administration’s journey down the rabbit hole into the quagmire of Iraq. At the same time, I was saddened by the miscues at every turn and felt a certain level of desperation by the end of the film—as I contemplated what it will take for this country to admit all of the mistakes made in the invasion and occupation of Iraq and then affirm our need to leave Iraq with dispatch. Ferguson’s film moved me for the first time when he reviewed the mistakes that were made upon the quick and successful invasion of Iraq in 2003. What a debacle! So there were 167 members of ORHA who were to run this occupied country. And yet Marshall Law was never established (to prevent the onset of looting), troop levels were never adequate (General Shinsheki’s arguments were in vain), and the list goes on—suffice it to say that Garner’s insights were replaced by Bremer’s arrogance and bumbling. One picture told a thousand words for me: a picture of Bremer sitting in his office at the palace in Baghdad and wearing a suit and yet wearing construction boots. What an image! The two parts of the image never added up to me. He was wearing those boots to protect his delicate feet from any impurities in the muck of Baghdad. Later, he would slip off the boots and put on his cushy Italian-leather shoes and be at one with himself. Our administration’s embrace of Chalabi, the dissolution of the Army—which dropped ½ million men into unemployment, the looting of weapons depots and caches—as said before, the list goes on. Ferguson introduces us to heroes (like Garner and Barbara Bodine and Colonel Hughes) and villains (especially General Slocum). And the same old plot lines play out—the ones that have dogged the current administration for years: you are out on your ear if you don’t tow the party line. Loyalty is the highest value, and thus the greatest source of error. The saddest note is struck when the UN Envoy (from Brazil) arrives, does good work, and then is killed in a bombing of the UN Compound.
No Reservations. Dir. Scott Hicks. The secret to this film was the music! I was delighted with Philip Glass’ compositions. He used two main themes, one an upbeat romantic theme and the other a more restrained theme about loneliness and separation. Both themes were variations on one theme, and in both cases the themes were simple, elegant, easy to respond to. Only in a few cases did Glass utilize the kind of repetitive and convoluted musical structures I am most familiar with in his previous films. At the same time, the film utilized numerous montages—not surprising in this type of romantic comedy—and yet the choice of non-Glass music for those montages was superb. I could imagine buying the soundtrack to this film in order to savor the musical choices that were made. Now you ask, “But isn’t there more to a movie than the music?” Yes, Virginia. You’re right. But I can think of several romantic comedies that lacked the musical pizzazz this one possessed, and that lack contributed to the failure of the film. So what about the three main characters, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Aaron Eckhart, and Abigail Breslin? I thought Eckhart was perfect as the good-natured and caring male figure in the film, and ZZ was perfect as the doey-eyed kid who suffers a terrible grief and yet has the inner resources to come back to life. Certainly Zeta-Jones was capable in the lead role, but her acting really did not move me the way I was moved by the others. In some respects, I didn’t think she was the right actor for the role. In fact, much of her early work in the film was actually technically based, with the director choosing shots carefully to feature her reactions to her personal crisis. The director matched her point of view shots with reaction shots to help us feel empathy for her plight. I loved the high angle shot of her in the hospital room with the girl lying in bed: this shot showed both of them trapped, vulnerable, and yet together. And that’s the way it would be throughout most of the film. Then you have great supporting roles, played by Bob Balaban and Patricia Clarkson—and so you have the acting covered nicely in the film. Now this is by no means a great film—and the plot is more than conventional. The film is based upon Mostly Martha (2001), a German film. I remember rating that film as Bette than Average Fare and complaining about the sticky and sentimental plot. Well—it’s the same plot, and many of the scenes from Mostly Martha are repeated in No Reservations. Keep in mind that this film is a romantic comedy. It requires suspension of disbelief. Relax. Try to enjoy it—and I think it will work its magic on you. The structure is simple: the characters experience one crisis after the other, and each time they surmount that crisis—and it’s on to the next. That’s how life is in the movies! The male courting shown in this film is practically speaking a fantasy—and yet I certainly didn’t mind it. At least the male in this film is sensitive, patient, understanding, tolerant, and perceptive. And there’s even some good advice from her therapist: “The recipes you create yourself are the best.” The ending is perfect fantasy and at the same time perfectly delightful.
The Page Turner. Dir. Denis Dercourt. ( France, 2006). This film has an air of horror about it—as if the main character would suddenly go off her tracks and brutalize another character. The first scene of the film sets up that uneasy feeling by showing a parallel editing track between a young girl practicing the piano and her father, a butcher, at work carving up sides of meat. Early in the film something strange occurs: the young pianist performs at a competition, and one of the judges is a famous pianist, who—in a moment of celebrity, signs an autograph while the girl is performing. But the pianist notices this quiet moment and for some reason cannot play as well. She mechanically completes her composition, and she loses the competition because of that loss of concentration. But why? Why does the girl fail over something that minor? In a film like this one, you never really find out what motivates the main character, who—several years later—becomes the page turner for the same classical pianist who was a judge of her in that earlier competition. And as soon as you see how the young woman insinuates herself into the older woman’s family life and routine, you know bad things are going to happen. In a film like this, every scene is fraught with ambiguity. So the film is all about innuendoes and insinuations and a fearful geography of inarticulate hate and revenge—all packaged in the lovely young woman who slowly but surely brings down this family. But there is something in a film like this that holds me back. I enjoy the suspense that carries me along through the scenes, but I also notice that the young woman, the main character, wears a strange mask throughout the film—never giving herself away to anyone else. She is alone in the world, even though we see her calling home several times during the film. Revenge is a bitter plate to consume, for sure, and those who seek revenge dine alone. I kept watching innocent people being attacked and undermined by the innocent-appearing main character. Watching a film is often a process of examining the human face. The classical pianist, played by the middle-aged Catherine Frot, had a face that expressed such sadness—especially in her eyes and the lines around her eyes and mouth. The art of her face was in marked contrast to the clear complexion and youthful lines of Deborah François’ face—in effect, in contrast to the blank slate of the young woman’s face.
Reign Over Me. Dir. Mike Binder. In this film Adam Sandler channels Bob Dylan. (I thought to myself, “Why not cast him as the young Bob Dylan in a biography, The Boy from Hibbing?”) I think what won me over in this film was the solid characterizations of the two former college roommates, the quality of acting in Don Cheadle’s performance, and the basic raw emotions that were exposed throughout the film. Not that the film is without problems. I never believed the character of the depressed woman that insinuates her way into Cheadle’s life and makes an immodest proposal. I saw this character as more film convention that character. And at the end of the film, her turn around was a bit too plot-centric, as if the film needed her to change in the way she changed—because then it would reflect on the future projects of the main character, Charlie Fineman. Now there’s a last name. Everything was not fine for this man. I don’t mind creating a character whose family was wiped out when their plane crashed into the one of the World Trade Center towers in 2001. What bothered me throughout the film was that the arc of his grief was out of whack with the real world. If the film had taken place in 2002 or 2003, then I would have better accepted the arc of his grief. I don’t understand why he would be acting the way he acted a good 5-6 years after the fact. In fact, Charlie is, practically speaking, psychotic. It was obvious that he needed specialized therapy. Simply being with a friend was never going to “heal” him. That’s why it makes more sense to me that the film should have taken place earlier, because then the friend (Cheadle) would have encountered Charlie at a point when he was moving in a necessarily downward trend toward psychosis. Charlie Even though that time-frame was a barrier to me, I still got a great deal out of the friendship between these two men. And don’t forget the conventions of film: the important thing is that Cheadle’s character (Johnson) tries to reconnect with his old roommate and eventually strives to help this man find a measure of healing. Nothing wrong with that idea, if you ask me. Early in the film Charlie is a zombie, numb to emotions, and it is apparent early on that Johnson is on dangerous ground when he befriends Charlie. For instance, he notices on one visit that Charlie has renovated the kitchen in his apartment. That must mean that the renovation is a kind of therapy—evidence of healing, right? But the landlord reminds Johnson that Charlie goes through these renovations cyclically. In other words, Charlie got all kinds of money from the fund for 9/11 survivors, but he can’t find a way to spend the money toward mental health and the release of grief’s grip upon his soul. Charlie is stuck, and the more Johnson interacts with him the more it becomes clear that Johnson can’t work a miracle here. In fact, it appears that Charlie is having a more positive effect on Johnson that Johnson on Charlie. At one point, I wrote in my notes, “I don’t really buy this whole idea. It’s someone’s imagination of what one’s response to the tragedy of 9/11 might be.” In some respects, the film takes advantage of 9/11 as a metaphor for grief (an individual’s grief and now it relates to a nation’s grief). Yet I admit that I was engaged repeatedly by this story—even though I got tired of the one-note that was played over and over again—and that was the note of helplessness and the horror of a man trapped in his own grief and unable to extricate himself from it. Finally, Charlie goes to see a therapist, and even though his progress is glacial, there is hope in his decision to engage with someone other than Johnson. Then we discover that the song he plays over and over on the I-Pod is “Love Reign Over Me,” and now we have a key to unravel this film—right? It’s all about the power of love in our lives. When we lose love, what do we do? We seek it again and again? The love of a brother for another brother (old roommates reunite), and then the love of a man for a woman and a new life begins. If that’s the key to the film, then the key is simplistic to say the least. But there it is. What is left, then? A great scene where Charlie asks for “cop suicide,” Johnson discloses that he is not happy with the work he does as a dentist (I think he has disdain for focusing only on capping teeth of upper-class white people—a great money-maker, but not necessarily a satisfying task in the wider scope of “helping the world be a better place through dentistry”), and then Johnson wakes up and smells the roses—to Charlie’s delight, and then Charlie continues to make progress on his recovery from grief (even meeting with his former in-laws), and it looks like love will continue to reign over Johnson and Charlie. Perhaps a little weak on the ending, but still a satisfying film emotionally because of the depth of the commitment of friendship between two men.
Shoot ‘em Up. Dir. Michael Davis. Certainly you can file this film as a guilty pleasure—but with a nod to the creation of a heroic anti-hero as a major ingredient to its success. “You know what I really hate?” snarls Clive Owen—and that’s all you need to know about this film. It is, pure and simple, a Clive Owen vehicle. He is James Bond to the 10 th degree. He is the anti-hero, the cynical man, the last true romantic, the commander you would follow as he runs up the hill into the heart of a machine gun nest. He is the man, and we pay attention to his every nuance. His face is enough to hold our gaze. He is riveting. I can only think of a few actors with that kind of charisma (George Clooney is one of them). This film is Sin-City-like, but it is better than Sin City because it has a heart and it has a hero—and it doesn’t lose its way in vile misogyny. And despite all the shoot-‘em-up fast-paced scenes, I picked up a distinct anti-gun message in the storyline. Let’s go back to that trademark line: “You know what I really hate?” That line also works because so many viewers can relate to it. How many times have we used that line? How many times have we imagined bloody fantasies where we are the Clive-Owen hero and we kick ass for once? How many times have we imagined an all-out assault on hypocrisy and greed and mean-spiritedness and intolerance? This film taps into something we all know and feel in the gut. Sin City was one man’s tortured and violent fantasy; Shoot ‘em Up is all of our tortured and violent fantasies rolled into one. In other words, our hero has all the right values. He should be running for President. He would clean up the streets. He would take care of the bad guys. In the meantime, seeing the film will have to make do: and despite some slow stretches here and there, the film will remind us of the power of the cathartic event to purge ourselves of all those hates we keep pent up in our hearts.
Sicko. Dir. Michael Moore. I recall enjoying this film immensely as I watched it. I laughed and laughed, and yet Moore was preaching to the choir in my case. He begins with horror stories told by real people who have been betrayed by our country’s health-care system. Now I have had a sense for a long time that our health care system is broken. I used to have a one-to-one relationship with my general practitioner, but that ended when my employer began to switch coverage every year—forcing me to make a choice of one of x-number of plans. Eventually, when the university dropped Blue Cross, I had to find a new doctor, and thereafter I went from one new doctor to another over the years. I’m amazed that I have had the same general practitioner the past several years. I have benefited from having the same employer for 31 years, and thus despite these shifts in healthcare coverage, I have been able to maintain adequate coverage. But I recall the time a new doctor ordered a stress-test for me because of a family history of heart problems—but his request was denied by the HMO because they considered me too young to undergo such a test. So as I watched the first sections of the film I was reminded of what I already knew—and I certainly agreed with his portrayal of the harsh reality for people who have not been as fortunate as me. But later in the film, when he played an interview of an HMO medical director testifying to Congress that she was responsible for letting people die when coverage was denied them (and Moore played Barber’s Adagio with Strings to great effect), I think he moved the film to a higher level. And then he followed that section with a great insight into the history of the HMO movement, which all began in the Nixon White House in 1971. His history of health care from 1971-2003 was not far from the mark, as far as I can tell. President Reagan’s stance was clear from the outset. He realized the dream of Goldwater, to bring Conservative principles to bear on our government, and thus thwarted any chances of a revolution in health care. Clinton’s desire to achieve Universal Health Care was doomed as soon as Hillary became his point woman—and although the Congress welcomed her intelligence and her diligence initially, when the details came out they resisted her with all guns firing. And then we ended up with George W. Bush, and his 2003 Medicare donut hole was a shocking revelation of how the new drug coverage under Medicare was undermined by arbitrary limits. Then Moore did what he did so well in Bowling for Columbine: he embarks upon a Magical Mystery tour of other countries that have—in this case—superior health care plans. First he is off to Canada, and then to England, and finally to France. He puts an interesting spin on the legacy of 9/11 by showing us the difficult times in England after WWII. For them to embark upon the National Health Service in 1948 showed remarkable foresight. He rides along with a French doctor who makes house calls. In all of these touring scenes, Michael Moore always looks out of place—his trademark approach as a documentarian. He is the average Joe, he’s the longshoreman who happens to be standing next to the CEO and having a quiet chat. His persona is priceless. Then he asks some simple questions, the same kind of questions Garrison Keillor asks in his memoir Homegrown Democrat—“Who are we? What have we become?” The final trick up his bag is to call upon the nation’s positive response to the first responders in New York City on 9/11 and introduce us to some of them who have not received adequate health care since 2001. So what does he come up with? Take them to the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the country has provided more than adequately for all of the non-combatant prisoners taken in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. If those terrorists can receive such great health care, shouldn’t a few 9/11 first responders receive the same level of care. Let’s face it: what you have here verges on a polemic, and the weakness of a polemic is that the writer—or in this case, the filmmaker—exposes too much anger or rage in trying to make his point. That was my problem with Garrison Keillor’s book, and that is the problem with this film. But then there is the other side to consider: I never really disagreed with Keillor’s observations on the way the Republicans have damaged our country’s institutions as well as our image in the world—and I never really disagreed with Moore’s conclusions about the brokenness of our national health care system.
Stardust. Dir. Matthew Vaughn. ( UK). This film was a rip-roaring adventure story for teenagers. It introduced viewers to a new world, a parallel universe—and it worked because there were rules, too, in that universe. In that parallel world the casting of spells had consequences for the individual witch. Magic charms protected the individual—as long as that person held onto the lucky charm. In that respect, the screenplay created an appropriate mythology that undergirded all of the activities in that special world. But most important, there was one area of existence that was the same in both worlds—and that was the rules of love. So in the final view, this film was an old-fashioned love story and an old-fashioned adventure tale of a boy growing up and becoming a man. Such a simple premise that begins in all. In the town of Wall, England, there is a stone wall that no one crosses. There is even a gap in the wall, but an old man, perfectly played by David Kelly (remember his nude motorcycle scene in Waking Ned Devine, 1998?), guards that gap in the gate. But then one night a handsome young man . . .. And you know the rest. But if you cross a gap in the gate, you must abide by the consequences of that trespass (or even worse—that rupture in the cosmic rules). Eventually, we move toward a multi-generational story of a father without a wife and a naïve and bumbling son with a big heart and a wrong obsession with the most beautiful, and spoiled, young woman in the village. And you know the story. . . . because our hero has to enter the dark world and do battle with dragons of sorts in order to figure out what truths lie right in front of his face. And that’s what happens in this fast-paced tale. Now to move the film along, it is imperative that the screenplay play off several plot strands through one parallel editing track after another—and here they are: three ugly witch sisters, headed by the beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer; two of the seven sons of a king (Peter O’Toole) who dies giving his blessings to the future head of the kingdom, as long as that heir shows up with a mysterious ruby stone to validate his right to reign; the ghosts of the other five dead brothers—each murdered either by the father or by their rival brothers; a beautiful young woman (Claire Danes) who lands mysteriously in a large crater and admits to our hero that she is definitely a fallen star; our hero himself as he moves along in his journey to selfhood; and eventually a strange flying ship captained by a flamboyant Anglophile played by Robert De Niro. These plot strands continually are played off, one against the other, to climactic effect. That’s how you make a film like this. The fuel for the engine of the plot is the character played by Claire Danes. She has what the witches want, and she has what the king-to-be wants. We only find out later that she has what our hero wants. One of the joys of the film was in the repartee between the hero and the star-woman when they first meet. They are constantly at each other’s throats—one of the requirements of screwball comedy, by the way. And it works. You find out early on that they are meant for each other. But when are they going to find that out? Then throw into the mix that fact that the young hero has never known his mother—and you begin asking the question, “When will he ever meet his mother?” (Viewers know early on who the mother is, and it is clear why she cannot of her own will separate herself from an old witch of a woman and find her son. Another delight of the film is that the plot lines come together more than once—each time with greater energy. As I watched the film, I kept thinking that it worked because it was a British film—it was true to its mythology, its characters were consistent, the pay-off even for the De Niro character was believable—if a bit overwrought, and at the end of the film there was a special and unpredictable plot twist that made perfect sense and resolved all aspects of the plot and reinforced the message that “Love is unconditional—you can’t buy love.” There were lovely moments of growing intimacy between the young hero and the star-woman, and then the film ended with an old-fashioned multiple-editing track rip-snorting climax. This film knows what it is and holds to that level of reality. Viewers will believe in the parallel world created in the film and root for good to overcome evil. The film reminded me at times of The Princess Bride (1987), another rollicking adventure story about a world that is not all that different from our own.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Dir. Ken Loach. ( UK). I have a lot of respect for Ken Loach. I discovered his work in the mid 1990s, with Ladybird, Ladybird (1994), My Name is Joe (1998), and lately Sweet Sixteen (2002). But those films focused tightly and narrowly on specific human dramas. In his latest film I think Loach tries to balance the finite human drama of these films in the context of the wider and almost epic scope of a chapter in human history— the resistance to British control in Ireland just after the turn of the century. The human drama is the story of two brothers who eventually choose opposite sides of the larger political drama; and although the glory is in the details of this human drama, the larger tapestry of the social and political drama requires screen time and—in my opinion—undermines the details of the story. By the way, I could not help but see parallels between the occupying English Army in this film and the occupying United States Army in contemporary Iraq. Every time an English soldier broke down a door, I cringed, thinking of the iconic image in media coverage of the occupation in Iraq, with American soldiers doing the same thing. Although there are those kinds of resonances, still the film is a straightforward telling of the troubles and the effects of the English occupation on the daily lives of the Irish. Early in the film there are graphic images of violence against the Irish—and then one of the young men is murdered by the English and we see a scene of the wake, and we hear the singer mournfully intoning, “the wind that shakes the golden barley.” Such sadness and such grief. The first plot twist is an obvious one: a younger brother, Damien, destined to study abroad and become a doctor, instead joins the Irish Republican Army and becomes a leader. And what happens next? War against an occupying power. Acts of terrorism on both sides. But then a new wrinkle: what does the IRA do when one of their own cracks and gives away secrets to the British? In the most moving scene in the film we find out—and I saw in that scene an originality and profound sadness. I believed what I was seeing, and I understood how human beings can become trapped in unyielding loyalties. But the most important piece of dialogue, relevant to that scene, is reported by Damien, when he told an old woman that her son had been killed, and the woman told him, at the end of a long journey (during which she had not spoken to him), “I don’t ever want to see you again in this life.” And then Damien admits, “I can’t feel anything.” Sounds like the effects of war, doesn’t it? There is also the subplot about Damien and his girlfriend, their tenderness toward each other, their falling in love, her suffering for the cause, and eventually his suffering for the cause. There is little hope in this film, and certainly there is no resolution. If the British were not perfect, then so the IRA was not perfect. At the end of the film we hear again someone say to another character, “I don’t ever want to see you again in this life.” Then there is that other line repeated in the film: “Better write your letters.” And it is in the speaking of those lines of dialogue that you know for sure that the fruits of war are hopelessness and the numbing pain of hate.