These are capsule reviews of the remainder of the films that I received in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Part one is here. If they are now available in DVD rental, I will so indicate.
Best of the pack (in order of preference):
1. Savages, reviewed here.
2. Live-in Maid, reviewed here.
3. Unknown Woman (La Sconosciuta)
This film has the impact that David Cronenberg was trying to make with “Eastern Promises.” A poor Russian woman named Irina is lured into becoming a prostitute in Italy by gangsters. Eventually she becomes pregnant during an affair with a working class Italian, but the gangsters kill her lover and give the child up for adoption to a wealthy Italian couple. She then stabs her pimp, steals his money and goes on a quest to regain custody of her daughter. This involves taking a job as a maid with the couple and developing a close relationship with the 6 year old. Irina is played by Kseniya Rappoport, a Ukrainian Jew. She is just terrific. “Unknown Woman” is directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, whose best known film was “Cinema Paradiso”. Apparently he has a work-in-progress titled “Leningrad” that is described on IMDB as follows: “The historical epic depicts the siege of Leningrad by the German army during World War II. The Russians suffered terrible losses but the Communists would not give up the birthplace of the Russian revolution.”
The quintessential date movie–just the sort of thing I tend to avoid–won me over immediately. Made on a shoestring ($150,000), it is basically a two character story with rock musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the lead roles. Hansard has been a long-time member of an Irish group called “The Frames” that has a generous selection of their songs at http://www.theframes.ie/. More recently Hansard has been recording with Irglová, a Czech singer-songwriter who moved to Dublin not too long ago.
They are in a personal as well as a musical relationship currently, which gives the film a kind of emotional resonance that compensates for their acting inexperience. Hansard plays Guy, a singer-guitarist working the streets of Dublin. One day “the girl”, played by Irglová, approaches him and tries to strike up a friendly conversation since she is a musician herself and admires his work. Burnt by a recent relationship that went sour, Guy is distrustful. He only warms up to her after hearing her perform one of her songs on a piano. Despite their attraction to each other, she hesitates because the father of her child is in Czechoslovakia and she is still committed to their marriage. The movie is directed by John Carney, a one-time member of The Frames. The movie is sustained by the couple’s performances, which are both heart-felt and true to the movie’s theme: the joy and frustrations of love. “Once” is now available in DVD.
5. The 11th Hour
A documentary on the ecological crisis narrated and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio with all the strengths and weaknesses of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”. Using footage of melting glaciers, rivers ruined by fertilizer run-off, etc., DiCaprio relies on commentary from David Suzuki, Paul Hawken, Steven Hawking and others to make the case that the planet is in the “11th hour”. Unless radical measures are taken to eliminate corporate pollution, the world is doomed. Unfortunately, the radical measures considered in this film stop short of eliminating private property, which is responsible for the ecological crisis–not “greed” or any other human foible. Despite my general distaste for brat pack celebrities, I have to commend DiCaprio for his involvement with environmentalist issues, which in the final analysis challenge the capitalist system whatever the ideology of particular activists.
6. Crazy Love
A documentary that begins with a Lacan quotation: “To be an obsessional means to find oneself caught in a mechanism, in a trap increasingly demanding and endless.” “Crazy love” refers to the bizarre relationship between Burt Pugach and Linda Riss that began in the Bronx in 1959. Pugach, a successful but sleazy lawyer, spotted the good-looking and younger woman on the street one day and started dating her, even though he was married at the time. After he refuses to leave his wife, she begins dating another man. Driven into insane bouts of jealousy, Pugach hires some Black street criminals to throw lye in her face, which leaves her blind.
After beginning a long stretch at Attica, where he becomes a jailhouse lawyer and caught up in the uprising, Pugach sends love letters to Riss, which she ignores for obvious reasons. After getting out, his obsession running at full fever, he continues to pursue her. After realizing that she needs companionship, even at the hands of the man who robbed her of sight, she breaks down and marries him. They have been together for over the past 32 years. Despite the Lacan quotation, the movie is just one step up from tabloid TV and just as entertaining if your taste runs to the sensational, as mine does. “Crazy Love” is now available in DVD.
* * * * *
Middle of the Pack (These are films that I managed to watch until their conclusion. Each one has something to offer, even if only marginally so.)
1. In the Valley of Elah
I was all set to hate this film since it is directed by the dreadful Paul Haggis. Fortunately, it is redeemed by a rather good script based on a Playboy article written by Mark Boal that can be read here. Boal’s article details the effort of Lanny Davis, a former military cop, to discover the real reason for his son’s murder near an army base in New Mexico. This involves looking at post-traumatic stress that affected both his son and the other Iraq war returnees who were out drinking with him one night. As Lanny Davis, Tommy Lee Jones is very effective. The film has a somber, understated quality made even more effective by the cinematography, which really captures the cheap, sordid look of those small towns surrounding army bases. What undercuts the movie is Haggis’s insistence on superimposing a rather unnecessary “whodunit” on top of the more interesting story about a father’s loss of faith in the military system. This is typical Hollywood pandering to an audience that exists only in its imagination. “In the Valley of Elah” is now available in DVD.
2. The Rocket
A biopic about Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, a Montreal Canadiens hockey great who is a kind of combination of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. He was the first to score 50 goals in a season, an achievement roughly equivalent to hitting 60 home runs. He was also the first to speak out against anti-Francophone racism, which manifested itself in the 1940s, when his career began, as a ban on hockey players speaking their native language on the bench. Maurice Richard was a machinist in a factory when his career began and always came across to his fans as “one of them”. In 1955, Richard punched out a referee who was holding his arms while a Boston Bruins player attacked him. This led to the longest suspension in hockey history, which led in turn to a massive riot in Montreal.
On March 9, 1955, the NY Times reported that “French-Canadians regard the fiery right wing of the Canadiens as more than a man. He is a symbol of their race. The fact that he is as good as any ice hockey player who ever lived serves merely to burnish that symbol with a golden brightness.” The main drawback to “The Rocket” is its rather plodding style, which is far outweighed by its content. “The Rocket” is now available in DVD.
3. Music Within
Another plodding biopic that is redeemed by its content. The subject is Richard Pimentel, a man who lost his hearing in a mortar attack in Vietnam. After returning to civilian life and going to school at Portland State University, he became involved with disability rights after a fellow student and good friend with cerebral palsy was refused service at a pancake restaurant. Pimentel is played by Ron Livingston, who “Sex and the City” fans will remember as one of Carrie Bradshaw’s many lovers, in this case the motorcycle-driving novelist whose books didn’t sell very well. He is quite good in this film directed by first-timer Steven Sawalich, who was friends with Pimentel. I suspect that the film overstates Pimentel’s role in the disabilities rights movement, but that does not distract from its worthiness. “Music Within” is now available in DVD.
4. Operation Homecoming
A documentary about the essays and short stories written by GI’s serving in Iraq and a first cousin to “The War Tapes”, a far superior product that resulted from GI’s using donated video cameras to record their experience in the occupation. Both films end up as anti-war statements, but “Operation Homecoming” suffers from the tendency of new writers to embellish their work with “literary” effects as well as what seems like sheer embellishment in a couple of cases. The film also interviews writers who served in previous wars from Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien to WWII veteran Paul Fussell. The GI’s work has been anthologized in a Random House book of the same title. If you go to the book’s website, you discover that “Operation Homecoming is made possible by the Boeing Corporation”, just of course as the war itself was. “Operation Homecoming” is now available on DVD.
5. The Golden Compass
A movie based on Philip Pullman’s young adult novel that is in the same vein as “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “Fellowship of the Ring” and “Harry Potter”. Young girl makes an alliance with a CGI polar bear, old west cowboy-aviator and assorted other good guys in a parallel universe against an evil gang led by one Marisa Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman. Coulter seeks to amputate the “anima,” pet animals that speak English basically, that follow children around. I wasn’t quite clear on why this would be so horrible since I would hate to have a gabby chipmunk following me around all day, including the toilet.
Now it would have been more interesting if the bad guys were led by Ann Coulter. Apparently, Hollywood decided to cut out the implicitly anti-organized religion kernel of Pullman’s novel so as not to offend potential ticket buyers. Unlike Alan Moore, who denounced the Hollywoodization of “V for Vendetta,” Pullman blandly assures his readers that “In the case of an expensive film, the people who put up the money obviously deserve to have their concerns taken into consideration.” He also considers Soviet Communism to be the worst theocracy in the 20th century.
You can read the interview here. Frankly, “The Golden Compass” reminded me a lot of the misbegotten David Lynch movie “Dune” based on the Frank Herbert cult novel that an old girl-friend was obsessed with. Both movies are replete with Victorian-looking dress, architecture and machinery with too-long and tedious exposition speeches that try to jam the plot details down the audience’s throat. I only sat through to the conclusion because Nicole Kidman has this strange appeal for me. “The Golden Compass” is now available in DVD.
6. The Terror’s Advocate
A documentary on French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who is that country’s version of Ramsey Clark but even more defiant in his willingness to stand up to the warmongering pieties of people like Bernard Kouchner. Vergès, a WWII veteran, was born to a French father who was serving as a diplomat on Réunion island and a Vietnamese mother. He became a lawyer after the war and defended Djamila Bouhired, the woman who was depicted blowing up the Algiers café in Pontecorvo’s movie. They later married and had two children. Vergès, no exemplary as a human being, abandoned his family and returned to Paris, where he began practicing law after a 7 year “disappearance” and on the same basis as years past. He agreed to defend some of the imperialist world’s most hated enemies, from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein.
He even decided to defend Klaus Barbie, but on a completely unexpected basis. Rather than trying to prove his innocence, he turned the tables on the prosecution, pointing out that Barbie did nothing different in France than they did in Algeria. One of director Barbet Schroeder’s main goals is to prove that Vergès is some kind of crypto-Nazi. Not only is the defense of Barbie held against him, there is an amalgam made with Francois Genoud, a Nazi sympathizer who financed Barbie’s defense as well as donating money to Palestinian resistance groups that Vergès was defending in court. Basically, Schroeder has made a film that is consistent with the “Islamofascism” narrative spun out by Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens and others.
What redeems this film is Vergès ample opportunity to make his own case, which is far more convincing than his detractors. In an interview with Schroeder that can be read on the film’s website, the director states that he initially saw the world like Vergès but eventually had a change of heart: “I felt very close to the Algerian cause, but shortly after independence, Ben Bella made a speech saying that, now, they were going to take care of Israel and I was shocked. At that time, I knew a lot about the Holocaust, and nothing about the Palestinian cause, and for me it was a crushing disappointment, seeing this great struggle ending up in one country’s waging war against another.” I would say that Schroeder still knows nothing about the Palestinian cause. “The Terror’s Advocate” is now available in DVD.
* * * * *
Bottom of the barrel (films that I gave up on after 10 or 15 minutes.)
1. Great World of Sound
I had heard comparisons made with the Maysles’ great documentary “Salesman” since this fictional work depicts a couple of salesmen trying to con unsuspecting Southerners and aspiring musicians in the “American Idol” mode into paying $3000 to have their first CD recorded in their boss’s studio. This is just one step above selling them bibles, as Maysles’ salesmen do. In either case, you end up with pie in the sky. The problem with “Great World of Sound” is that you really don’t care about the salesmen or their hapless victims. The entire film, or at least what I saw of it, reminded me of one of those misanthropic SNL sketches in which a superior-feeling audience is supposed to guffaw at poor people, especially those from rural or Southern areas–not my favorite kind of humor.
A comedy about a knocked-up teenager that has been compared to the wretched Jude Apatow movie “Knocked Up” but that critics regard as not as funny. I agree–it is not as funny. But this is like comparing Barry Manilow to Elton John. Who cares. You can have them both.
3. The Lookout
A crime melodrama about a college athlete who has brain damage from a stupid car accident that was his fault and now is working as a janitor at a bank. He is conned by thieves into participating in an inside job. I felt brain damaged after 10 minutes of this totally idiotic movie.
* * * * *
The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
Even though I could only watch about 10 minutes of Julian Schabel’s movie, I really can’t say that it was a question of its quality that forced me to stop watching. As most of you probably know, it is based on a memoir written (or dictated) by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43 year old editor of Elle, who suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed except for his left eyelid. Using a code system worked out with his nurses and therapists, he composed the book that the movie was based on. I found it excruciatingly painful to watch since I have seen stroke victims at my mother’s nursing home, including my high school geometry teacher who could not move a muscle (he died last year.) Being a little too close to the situation and a bit anxious over my own slightly elevated blood pressure, this is the last movie I wanted to spend 2 hours watching.
I received this note from Richard Greener, an old friend and novelist who after receiving a new heart underwent an extended period of paralysis. Fortunately, he is okay now.
I haven’t seen it and probably won’t, for the same reasons you suggested, but your brief description reminded me of my own difficulties editing my second novel while paralyzed in the hospital.
I could only move my head. Maria [his wife] had a system installed whereby I could push a feather-weight, flat metal plate with the right side of my head and activate a tape recorder. If someone turned the pages of my manuscript for me, I could then dictate indicating line number, paragraph and word to spot changes I wanted to make or to answer question my editor had asked.
All communication was between my editor and my wife. Maureen, my editor, would send her comments/questions via email and Maria would then relate them with page, paragraph, etc. After dictating my changes or explanations, Maria would take the tape and translate it to email form to send on to Maureen. Toward the very end of this process I was able to sit in a wheelchair and the index finger on my right hand was responding well enough to turn the recorder on and off. But I needed the recorder to be affixed to my right hand otherwise it would slip away an inch or two and that was too far for me to retrieve it.
I remember thinking that I would try to write another novel using this process and actually looking forward to it. I had no hope of recovery at the time. I thought I would spend the rest of my life hospitalized and paralyzed, tube fed and diapered. I owe everything to Maria who always said, even in the darkest days, that this was all temporary. I’m so lucky.